Good morning all and thanks for stopping by to read Chapter Forty-Five of The Cursed King. It’s mid-way through November and I’m already starting to feel festive. I walked through York last night with orange leaves littering the ground and Christmas lights hanging along the buildings and could not help but get into the spirit. Last year was an outlier – going into a second lockdown and thrown into uncertainty wavered any festive cheer I could muster, and so (for now) it is nice to know that Christmas is just around the corner.
In today’s Chapter, Riechard storms Silver City with his army, but soon realises that glory does not always follow victory. With his grandfather’s triumphant return to the army, the focus shifts and Riechard’s achievements are swept aside by the might of King Aedvard’s power. Thanks for reading and Chapter Forty-Six will be posted on December 4th.
Riechard had never known anything like it. The aggression ripped through his veins like a shark through a sea of blood. The Lord of Duncath could feel every bead of sweat of the enemies that flew at him, desperately trying to cut him down. It was as though every sense had been heightened, every skill he had honed in those draining years in the courtyard had fallen together in a beautiful cacophonic orchestra. He could feel lightening in his pectorals that led to his shoulder that led to his bicep and his forearm until his wrist flicked elegantly to swipe his short sword in a glorious side slash that drew the blood from his enemy’s throat. It was a feeling he had never had before. He had been drunk before, he had even smoked some of the peasant plants that were forbidden by Lord Steel, but this was a high like no other. It was euphoric.
As Riechard stood encircled by his defenders, he realised that he felt none of the fear that was present at Dawnmount. None of the apprehension that fuelled his adrenaline was present this time. He felt only power. Dawnmount was tiny compared to this. That felt necessary, that felt like a single step along a great journey. This felt like he was being catapulted to the end in a trebuchet, his landing spot cushioned and ready for him. He could already feel the adulation and the praise, the crowds singing his name as he delivered to his people the lands that had always fought them. This felt colossal. All he could think of as his steel met flesh, whilst his own was protected by layers of plate, was how he would be received in both The Blacklands and Ismann. His marriage bridging a nation, his skill as a warrior carved into legend, carved into bronze, and his face carved into gold coins. He even wondered if Karlon died in battle, whether his legend would allow him to marry Hilde and Aesthala, and then his mind drifted into lurid fantasies whilst he continued to cut down his unarmoured enemies.
Eventually, his mind settled as the bodies became fewer and further between. His army were no longer being pushed back and caught in tight spaces, instead they were free to walk and then even to run as they chased back the retreating soldiers towards Harthelm. All of sudden, Riechard’s adrenaline settled and he realised that he was extremely tired, that his arms were sore and he was panting for breath. Regardless, he kept moving. There was no chance his body would allow him to rest now, not when glory was so close to his grasp. Finally, Riechard reconvened with Prince Charles, Hilde and Karlon as they rallied their warriors outside of the gates of Harthelm, which still had soldiers and smallfolk alike scrambling to get inside for refuge.
Riechard beamed at Hilde who did not share his grin, but instead kept her steely gaze focused over his head, as if he was not there. The teenage lord wondered what he would need to do to win his betrothed’s favour if capturing Silver City did not. He took a deep breath and felt a slap on his back and turned to see his father covered in dirt and smiling from ear to ear. “Not in history has a Blacklands army been so close to Harthelm. We’re so close, Riechard. Look around at what you have done. You have made history today!” Prince Charles turned to the army that stood behind them. The majority were waiting for orders, this group were mainly made up of Ismann warriors, but there were many Blacklanders tearing through buildings, plundering and causing chaos around them. Riechard did not care much for the destruction or the pillaging, his aims were far grander, but he had been taught from a young age that those who had survived battle were entranced and impossible to control. Prince Charles instructed his unit leaders to control those who took things too far and would punish those who could not control their own units. Riechard elected to do the same, but Karlon and Hilde did not need to. The Ismann looked around them as though the Blacklanders were mad. They did not plunder or pillage, they did not rape, steal or destroy. They waited. They were trained to fight, not to steal all they could carry.
All of a sudden, there was a huge commotion in the crowd and the Ismann warriors began to grumble as they were pushed to the side to allow a walkway. A stream of Blacklanders broke through the middle of the army as they walked with purpose towards Harthelm. More and more people joined the precession, there were shouts and roars and cheers, and that was when Riechard saw his grandfather atop a black horse trotting through the crowd that lauded him with their praise. He looked every bit a King, but without a crown. It was a miracle. He had clearly been dressed in the cleanest, finest attire that could be found for him which was a mismatch of colours and styles. Riechard watched several minor lords and knights surrounding the King without their plate and one was without his surcoat, which he had clearly given to King Aedvard. Prince Charles stood perfectly still and Riechard followed suit. Eventually, King Aedvard dismounted his horse and all of the Blacklanders knelt before their King. Karlon and Hilde remained standing, a blank, unyielding expression across both their faces.
“Stand,” King Aedvard’s voice seemed to travel miles without him ever needing to raise his voice.
Prince Charles approached his father, smiling from ear to ear and shaking his hand respectfully. “Father…thank the Gods you are here. It is a miracle.”
“It is a necessity,” Aedvard replied, curtly. “We have overspent ourselves I can see. Such a large army for what? What will this cost us? Look at how these Hartlanders fought and fled. This is overkill to the highest degree. We could have taken this city without the savages and with far more subtlety.” King Aedvard was out of earshot of Karlon and Hilde, but Riechard guessed that the King would not have cared if he wasn’t. After a few moments, Prince Charles gestured to Riechard to step forward. As he did, Aedvard raised his hand to stop him in his tracks. “You have already stepped too far in this Kingdom, boy. You took one step too many the moment you left Duncath. Do not think yourself a hero for what you have done. You left us completely exposed, and it was only the utter incompetence of your Uncle Aron that saved you. If you had tried such a thing against King Eldrian, he would have trapped you in the snow until you and your army froze to death.”
Riechard tried desperately to hide the pain on his face as he listened to his grandfather’s tirade. There was not a single part of him that felt as though he had made the wrong choice, and his body was still full of battle adrenaline. After he had digested the words that sunk deep into his pride, Riechard simply said, “I’m sorry to disappoint you, King Aedvard.”
Without acknowledging the apology, Aedvard took a few steps forward and surveyed his surroundings. “Secure the city. Stop the looters and set up somewhere safe for a meeting,” he told his son. “This Kingdom is ours, and I’ll be damned if I let it slip now.”
“We will lay siege to the inner castle. They have nothing left. No resources left to call upon, no siege weapons. It is only a matter of time before we starve them out,” Charles told Aedvard whilst the leaders of the army sat around a table in a tent that sat in the city square.
Charles took his seat and Aedvard stood. King Aedvard had a policy of respect and democracy. Everyone around the table would have their chance to speak and none of them would be interrupted. They would be heard fully. “Starving them out will take months. We need to find a way into the grounds of Harthelm like we did with Silver City. The cityfolk continue to retreat through hidden tunnels. We can get our soldiers through hidden as smallfolk. It has worked already; it will work again.” Karlon twitched at that, ready to move, but soon bit his tongue, remembering the rules. Aedvard noticed this and ceded his time. “Karlon, perhaps you would like the floor.”
Karlon stood awkwardly, but soon his broad frame drowned out any hint of vulnerability that he may have otherwise exhibited. “We brought our army here under the orders of Warlord Dusoner. As General of his army, I was instructed to serve alongside Prince Riechard until his father was retrieved from Harthelm. Now that you are in this room, it appears that our duty has been fulfilled and that this army’s part in this war is over.” Karlon sat back down.
Aedvard sent a piercing glare towards Riechard and stood up. “Whilst I will admit I am not privy to the agreement that you have made with my grandson, I will grant you and your people leave on the condition that you leave a retinue of a third of your force to help us through the gates of Harthelm. If you were all to leave now, it might inspire a fightback from the Hartlanders. Should that happen and they manage to fight through us, it might encourage them to chase you down on your way back to Ismann. I think, for both our sakes, we should finish what we have started.”
Karlon stood and stayed standing. “You can have a quarter. The old and the young, and myself and Hilde will lead the rest back to Ismann.”
“I will agree to this. On the condition that my grandson goes with you.”
“What?” Riechard interrupted.
“You will wait your turn to speak,” Aedvard chastised him. “My grandson has made a commitment to marry General Hilde. He is a man grown now, and upon my return to Duncath, I will have no use for him in there. As it appears my future great grandchildren will be Ismann, I believe this an excellent opportunity for Riechard to learn and understand your culture, and to build a relationship with yourself and Warlord Dudsoner. The Gods willing, this could be a fruitful partnership.”
“These conditions are acceptable,” Karlon spoke plainly, but Riechard sat dumbfounded, furious that his fate had been decided for him.
“Hold on one moment,” Riechard interrupted again.
“I said wait your turn!” Aedvard boomed.
“I have waited long enough! If it was not for me, if it was not for the army that I assembled, then we would have already been rounded upon by the northern Earldoms, we would have been cut short at Hazelfield. Lord Garrison of Hunter’s Valley remained at his post. Why? Because he knew he would lose his army. He knew that The Hartlands could not win as soon as my force joined with father’s. I broke into this castle. I destroyed the siege equipment; I sacked this blasted city. Now you want to turn me away because you think I am too big for my boots? I will not have it!” Riechard was shaking, his whole body was fire as he spat those words at his King.
Riechard’s father did not say a word, but instead looked expectantly at his own father, a worrisome fear in his eyes that the young lord had never seen before. Instead of retaliating, however, Aedvard let the words wash over him for a moment. He seemed thoughtful and patient, and then, in a voice just an octave above a whisper, said, “Riechard, your men that brought you here, your stragglers and your peasants, they would not tell you the truth for fear that I would harm them if they did. These Ismann would not speak against you as their end of the bargain was simply to get you here alive. Your father will not tell you the truth because he loves you, and he has a weakness in him that indulges your idiocy. I, on the other hand, do not fear you, I am not duty bound to serve you, nor, frankly, do I love you, and so I will be truthful. What brought you this far was luck, and no more. I planned on being captured so that I can be closer to the spies I have in Harthelm. I was the one who organised having soldiers disguise themselves as refugees to live in the city until it was time to sack it. As soon as I set off from Duncath, it had all been organised. Do you want to know the real reason Lord Garrison did not engage us? Lord Garrison has allied himself with the Angarians, as have half of The Hartlands, as have half of The Blacklands. That is the truth of it. They did not engage because they do not need to, they do not care if it is I or King Aron who rules this Kingdom because they will be part of the invasion force that seeks to place Angar on the throne as the leader of The New World. I told you to stay in Duncath. I told you to stay there because I needed you out of the way, and protected. You are my only grandson, and I need you alive. What you did was not courageous, it did not demonstrate military prestige, it was reckless and stupid. I hope this teaches you to shut up and do what you are told, because I certainly won’t be teaching you anything further. Now, get out of my sight and go back north. Tell Dudsoner that we will speak soon.”
Riechard almost belted the squire who helped him remove his plate in his tent. The fury that still raged inside him from his grandfather’s tirade was at boiling point. He felt like at any moment, he would swing his fist at anyone who stood in front of him. Just as he’d suspected, as soon as the nervous young squire fumbled his sabatons into the chest, Riechard turned on him and screamed.
“Get out! Go be a hindrance elsewhere; I can undress myself!” The squire was only a year or so younger than Riechard, but the boy fled all the same and did not argue. As the boy scurried away from the tent, the front remained open as a muscular arm held it. “I want to be alone.” Riechard called out, but it was Hilde who entered. For a few moments, he watched her in contemplative silence, awaiting some words of comfort. He had learned not to expect tenderness from his wife to be, but even he wondered at what point their relationship would develop beyond the transactional nature of their betrothal. “I’m sorry, Hilde. Please, come in.” He finally said.
As she always did, Hilde went straight towards the wine. Riechard had begun to notice that Hilde would always have a drink before having a conversation, and yet she never saw her drunk or even have any more than one goblet per day. Yet, no matter what the situation, she would always have one in her hand when talking to him if it was available. “The Ismann army will leave at dawn. I wondered if you would ride alongside me.”
Riechard was taken aback. At first, he thought that Hilde was going to tell him that Aedvard had been convinced, and that he would be able to stay in Silver City to help finish what he had started. Then, once the realisation had set in that this wasn’t to be, he turned away from Hilde and shook his head in disbelief. “I’d be happy to,” Riechard said blankly.
“Good,” Hilde said and sipped at the wine she had poured for herself. “If you are to come back to Ismann, then I think we should talk about what is to happen once we are married.”
“I am all ears,” Riechard said, with the full intention to ignore everything she said.
“Once we are married, you will be bound to me and I to you. My father will, out of respect for the union, make you a General of his army. You will have the same rank as Karlon and I. Though, I must warn you. To earn this distinction, you will need to complete the Tasks of Leadership. Only then can you be General, and only then, can we live in the same quarters.”
“What are the Tasks of Leadership?” Riechard asked.
“It is different for everyone. I was just fourteen when I did them. I climbed a mountain, fought and killed polar bears, almost froze to death in an ice-cold lake. For you, as you are older now than I was, I’d imagine it will be harder, but you will be trained. If it okay with you, I would like to be the one to train you.”
“Why would you want to do that?” Riechard asked.
Hilde drank again. “Because I want to make a deal with you. Ismann is a cold place, it will take a long time for the people to accept you as one of their own. I can help with that. I can make you a warrior, I can teach you all I know about our culture. I only ask for one thing in return.”
Riechard turned around to face Hilde. “And what is that?”
“Our marriage…it is a political one…and, to tell you the truth of it, that is all I ever want it to be. My father does not know this, and I do not want him to know, but I do not desire like other people do. I do not think that I ever will, and well, I need you to know that. Before we are married and your own desire overcomes you. I must tell you that I do not want that. You can do what you wish with whom you wish to do it with, but it will not be with me.”
Riechard felt a wave of hurt come over him. It felt like everyone was rejecting him. Aedvard had expelled him from the army, and now Hilde had expelled him from their marriage. All Riechard could wonder was what was wrong with him. It seemed that no matter what he did or how he tried to be, it did not matter. No one wanted him. It took Riechard a few moments to digest what Hilde was saying. He knew that there were men that desired men, and women that desired women and some people who desired both, but he had never heard of someone having no desire at all. He wondered what on earth they were living for. The older he got, the more he seemed to think about it, and the more he could not imagine life without it. Then, he realised that it must be him. Perhaps Hilde wanted someone else, maybe Karlon, but that she did not want to say that. The thoughts consumed him until the point where his blood boiled in anger.
“Get out,” he said softly.
Hilde held his gaze for a moment before silently leaving the tent. After waiting a few moments, Riechard kicked over the chest full of his armour and ripped the embroidered patch from his surcoat. He stared at the orange and red flame and discarded it into a corner, leaving the ripped flap of fabric to hang from his coat. Riechard sat on his bed with his head in his hands, and he cried. He feared that at any moment someone would come in and catch him, but he also could no longer control it. All of a sudden, his life flashed before his eyes. He would have to spend the rest of his days in a frozen wasteland surrounded by savages with a wife who did not want him. Is this all I am destined for? He wondered, digging his fingernails into his palms. Is this it?
After a few minutes, Riechard composed himself and looked up to find himself alone still. He was thankful. He did not want anyone to see him with his face red and his eyes puffy. The only thing that he had left was his pride and the prowess he had demonstrated in battle. If he had one thing, it was the respect of his soldiers, of his army. Riechard got to his feet and wiped the tears from his eyes before sipping at the wine that Hilde left in the goblet of the table. For a long time, Riechard did not understand why people drank it. He did not like the vinegary taste or the thick texture, but drinking it now, he understood. It was warm and it was comforting. He took a glug and finished what was in the goblet before picking up the carafe and pouring himself more. Perhaps if I drink enough tonight, I won’t need to wake up tomorrow, he thought.
Riechard did wake up, but he awoke with his head feeling as though it has been filled with a hundred tonnes of lead. He felt a splash of cold water upon his face, but barely flinched. He even welcomed it, as it made him feel ever so slightly better. Through his blurry eyes, he saw a figure standing over his bed, the man’s head scraped the top of the tent.
“It is time to go,” the gruff voice said. After a few seconds, the man picked something up from the floor and chuckled slightly. “Lightweight,” he scoffed. Riechard lay over the edge of his bed and eventually found enough energy to push himself until he rolled onto the ground, he opened his eyes fully and realised that it was not yet even light outside, and the light in the room came from the lantern that had been placed in the corner. “I am not joking. It is time to go,” the voice repeated as he felt a hard kick in his ribs. “Do not make me carry you like a baby.”
Enough time had past and enough words had been spoken that Riechard realised that the figure bothering him was General Karlon. All of the shame and embarrassment that would surely come when Riechard did not feel like he had just been peeled off the bottom of a swamp was shrouded by the pounding in his head and the sickness in the back of his throat. “It is not yet dawn,” he croaked.
“We have a long way to go. I want to be back in Ismann within a week,” Karlon said whilst folding Riechard’s clothes.
“What are you doing?”
“I am doing what you should have done yesterday and packing your things.”
“I have servants to do that.”
“Not for long you don’t.”
“What do you mean?”
“In Ismann, only a Warlord is permitted to have servants. You are no Warlord, Riechard. You are not even a warrior yet.”
It seemed to Riechard that his nightmare was not over, and he realised very quickly that it had not even yet begun. “Why didn’t you kill me when you had the chance?” Riechard groaned.
“You did not seem like you wanted to die then. You seemed very much alive.”
“I had something to fight for then.”
“And you do not now?”
“My grandfather wants nothing to do with me, my achievements to him are meaningless. What do I have for me in Ismann?”
Karlon thought for a moment. “Opportunity.”
Riechard laughed and finally managed to pull himself off the floor and propped himself up against his bed. He watched as Karlon packed away his things. “Opportunity to do what? You said yourself, I am not a warlord. I am not even a warrior.”
“Boys always think their lives are over before they have even begun. Men realise that there are many changes in life. You are not a warrior, but you were not always a soldier and you became one. You are not yet a husband, but you will be one. You are not yet King of your lands, but one day…” Karlon shrugged. “Maybe different.”
Riechard coughed loudly to clear his throat. “Please…stop folding my things. I will do it…I will do it now and be with you before first light.”
“Good. You need to understand, Riechard, that there is no space in Ismann for spoiled children. Spoiled children die in the cold. They do not survive the harsh winters. You have an opportunity to learn…to become a warrior, a truly great fighter. That is what Ismann can offer you, if nothing else.”
Riechard’s head was still pounding as he stood before his father at the gates of Silver City. He looked around him and took in the aftermath of the chaos. The streets were stained with blood and there were charred buildings all the way up to Harthelm in the distance. King Aedvard did not offer any pleasantries. A list of instructions for Dudsoner and a curt goodbye were all his grandfather could muster. Prince Charles, however, walked with him to the entrance. Hilde and Karlon had already began marching their army, whilst Riechard promised to take the rear guard with Sir William and Sir Gavon, whom King Aedvard had permitted him to keep in his retinue whilst he was in Ismann. A solemnity fell over Riechard, knowing that he would not participating in the final push, the final attack that would secure victory. That was what the bards would write songs about, that is what grandfathers would tell their grandchildren about, and he would be halfway to Ismann when it happened. He wondered who would care more about the boy who broke through the gates than the man who sat the throne.
“He has never been proud of me either,” Prince Charles said candidly. “I have always disappointed him.”
“Has he ever been proud of anyone?” Riechard asked.
His father smiled. “No, but yet, he does not even recognise his own accomplishments. My grandfather, Credence, took the crown from The Blacklands. A crown that was held by House Black for almost half a millenia. That was the standard that was set for your grandfather. Aedvard’s life has been about this – taking The Hartlands.”
“What about the peace? What about his friendship with King Eldrian?”
“People talk…they talk as though King Aedvard and King Eldrian were brothers. They detested each other. Each of them were ruthless and merciless Kings, fuelled only by their desire to rule over all. The peace was a necessity, no more. Their ‘friendship’ was a forced civility. They reluctantly accepted that they would never best the other, and so they realised their best bet was insurance. Insurance through marriage. As soon as King Eldrian died, I knew this would come one day. All my father needed was a reason. Lorne’s death gave him that, and here we are.”
Riechard could not hide his sadness. “I never said I was sorry for what happened to Lorne.”
“We had little time to mourn. I must admit I cannot wait until this is all over, so I can finally grieve for my sister. Now, be safe and be careful. And write me for the Gods’ sakes, won’t you?” Charles gripped Riechard by the shoulders and hugged him tight.
“I will,” Riechard said, as his father released him from his grasp and then could not help but smile. “I do wonder…if grandfather needs to become ruler of The Twin Kingdoms to have pride in himself. What on earth do I have to do?”
Riechard’s father shared in the smile and could not help but laugh. “Rule the New World.”