Good morning everyone and thanks for stopping by to read Chapter Forty-Seven of The Cursed King. I am currently recovering from my COVID booster, which has basically got me moving at about 75% of what I’m usually at. Everything just feels a little bit more difficult at the moment. Despite that, and despite the fact I may have had one drink too many last night, I am here and I am posting. Writing has been a challenge lately, but I think that it is natural to become a little more complacent with only one chapter and the epilogue left to write. Not only that, Christmas is next week and so I might have to prioritise pigs in blankets over Microsoft Word. That being said, it is exciting to be on the cusp of finishing my very first book, and I am looking forward to taking a rest and writing something else for a little bit as a bit of a palate cleanser.
In this Chapter, with the Angarian army at the gates of Hartlake, Lord Steel needs to move fast to protect his family. With Robert still as his prisoner, the Lord of Steelmont recruits Robert to be one of his family’s protectors. Robert negotiates whether or not he should simply save himself and search for Thair Spicer, or protect the family of the man who imprisoned him. Thanks for reading and Chapter Forty-Eight will be posted on January 1st.
After a while, the pain became irrelevant to Robert. As his head was dunked into the bucket of water, he did what he had begun to do hours earlier. At first, he struggled and panicked and yelled as soon as he was pulled back out from the water. Then, after some time, he became so exhausted that he simply allowed it to happen. He did not struggle. He did not flail. Instead, he counted. Starting at one hundred in his mind, and all the way down to zero, and by the time they reached zero, he would be pulled back up and asked the same questions again. Tell us about the army, he heard the garbled voices through the rushing water. As his head was dunked in and out of the water, Robert simply started the count again. He soon realised that the more he relaxed into the water, the quicker he was pulled out. Clearly, the men inflicting this upon him were instructed to punish him, not to kill him.
Eventually, they gave up on that technique and instead began taking turns in beating him. Robert, one of the youngest of seven brothers, found this punishment almost laughable. It was as if they did not know him at all. If they really knew him, they would have put him to sleep and allowed his own mind to torture him. They would have saved their energy and increased his pain. The thought of these men expending all of this energy to harm him, when their physical violence did nothing, made his lips curl up into a smile. With each additional punch to his face, his smile became broader until he was laughing directly at them.
As Robert looked up at the man who was about to throw another fist into his head, he saw Lord Steel standing over them. The Lord of Steelmont held his palm over the man’s fist and told the men that they had done enough and dismissed them. Robert was handed a cup of water, but the knight could scarcely see out of his left eye and so almost dropped it as soon as it was handed to him.
“Is this why you allowed us to catch you?” Lord Steel asked him. “Because you knew they were coming?”
“All of that torture did not get me to speak. What makes you think this will?” Robert raised the cup and sipped from it through his split lips.
“I knew you would not speak. I told them to do it because I wanted them to hit you, not because I thought we would get anything out of it.”
Sir Robert could not help but chuckle at that. “You are not known to resort to violence, Lord Steel.”
“A man who cannot control his anger is looked upon unfavourably by his peers. A smart lord knows to get others to do his violence for him…just like you will do for me.” Robert was in a haze. He looked at Lord Steel quizzically as if to check that he had heard him correctly. He did not even need to respond and Lord Steel moved closer to him. “This entire castle is surrounded by your father-in-law’s army. They are not Hartlanders – we have them all pushed back into their towns and castles – these are Angarians. Our men were not prepared, and I cannot stay here. At nightfall, I plan to escape with my family and my best men. I want you to be there, armed and armoured, to protect my family and I.”
Once again, Robert found himself being cleaned up and armoured by Lord Steel’s squires. From his oriel, he could see the army camped outside the gates. There were siege weapons being built from the felled forests, and canoes and rafts were being fashioned to navigate the lakes. It was quite the sight in truth, and it was strange to Robert knowing that his father-in-law was leading it. Thair Spicer had always been sly and secretive, it was a large part of how he made his fortune, but he had never considered that his connections and riches would land him an army. Sir Robert did consider beating the squires and escaping to join Spicer, but it was the thought of Lord Steel’s children than stopped him. Robert knew that the entire Steel clan would be casualties if they were caught by the Angarians. The ultra-religious cultists slay without mercy to achieve what they considered was their destiny. If they believed that their King was born to rule The New World, and that by serving this king, they would be ushered into paradise, then they would bring the entirety of the Earth to ruin to succeed. It did not bother Robert so much; he had heard of men fighting for worse reasons.
The Angarians ruled the Antinna region of The Old World, the oldest and largest part of the great continent where all life on earth originated. according to scripture. To the north of The Old World was Natonia, who had fought many violent wars with Antinna for centuries. Natonians followed Natos as their prophet, whilst the Angarians claimed Angar. Each, however, also laid claim to The Old World as a whole. Robert sometimes wondered what the world would be like if land was not so fiercely fought over, if people were just happy with what they had, and did not seek to rule over every man, woman and child in the world. The thought almost made him laugh.
Once Robert had been armed and armoured, he was brought to the Great Hall, and there, was Lord Steel and his remaining men. Though there were not many of Lord Steel’s men at Hartlake, as a rudimentary force was left to hold the castle after it had been secured from The Hartlands, there were enough to be seen and caught by scouting forces even in the dead of night. Lord Steel addressed them and informed them that they would split into small groups at different times during the night, and would follow a path laid out by the first party in order to ensure that they remained as hidden as possible, close to the trees, but not too close to the swampy marshes where they could trip, fall, and cause a commotion.
Robert had no doubt that his route, with Lord Steel and his family, would be the most secure, and that the other groups around them would effectively be used to protect or to distract any night watchmen. It was a valid strategy and one that Sir Robert had no reason to protest. Looking down to the left beside him, he saw Sorcha. She did look at him, nor did she speak to him, she just stood with him watching her father speak. Oscar stood beside his father, charged as the heir to Lord Steel’s house and his lands, but incapable of managing either of them and looking as terrified and lost as any ordinary seventeen-year-old boy who had an army standing outside of his home.
Lord Steel’s address was short and to the point, and with the sun beginning to descend over the horizon, there was a buzz of nervous excitement flittering through the halls. Despite the treachery of their escape, Robert admired the organisation of the soldiers. There was a clear hierarchy, there was order and there was a sense of duty that overwhelmed any sense of fear or trepidation. Even Robert, who was there against his will, could not help but fall in line and await his orders from Lord Steel. It was difficult not to slip into the regime when everything around him was so precise. There were men tasked with manning the walls until the final moments, to ensure that there were not any suspicions of an escape. The siege equipment was being prepared as usual, and there were none outside of Lord Steel’s circle who knew about the plans. As far as the Hartlanders within the castle were concerned, it was business as usual.
“You look terrible,” Sorcha said to him as she marvelled at his bruised and bloodied face. She stated it so jovially that Robert could not help but laugh.
“I imagine that I do,” he replied. “Are you not afraid?”
“No, I’ve seen people look worse than you.”
“I meant about the siege…about the escape.”
“I know you did. I was taking the edge off the question by making light of it.”
“So, you are afraid.”
“Are you not?”
“I have no more to be afraid of out there than I do in here.”
“My father-in-law is leading the army outside the gates.”
“Does the average man know you are his son in law…and do they know what you look like?”
“Well, no, but-”
“Sounds like you should be afraid too then.”
“Perhaps I should.”
“You’re very easily swayed.”
“I’m not. I just gave you an empty platitude so that you’d stop talking.”
“Oh…well that didn’t work very well, did it?”
“No, it did not.”
Sorcha was interrupted by Lord Steel who approached with Oscar and Rhiannon beside him on either side. Though the Lord of Steelmont always looked calm and measured, Robert noticed an urgency in him which was likely intertwined with a cautious distrust. Robert knew that he did not know a thing about the Angarian army, let alone why on earth his father-in-law was leading it, but Lord Steel did not know that. Robert almost found enjoyment in it, but he had no desire to watch a family killed before his eyes, and so if it came down to it, he knew he would do his best to protect them.
“Are you ready?” Lord Steel asked him.
“I am,” Robert replied.
“If you get my family to safety, Sir Robert. You will be greatly rewarded.”
Robert smiled, but could not help but think to himself, it looks like I will be rewarded in any event.
As soon as night fell upon the home of House Hartlin, the Western gate was packed with men, women and children in darkened clothes, awaiting their signal to move. The majority of the army was close to the main gate, but the threat of siege weapons that had been built pushed them back towards the forest. Unwilling to move too close to the castle grounds, and with the lake surrounding the castle on the east side, it meant that the Angarian army were split between the south and the north, with an approach from the west difficult due to the direct route to the next castle, which was also in the hands of The Blacklands army. This meant there was a straight, if not treacherous, path to Wheaton Castle. The idea was to use the Angarian caution to their advantage.
As soon as the scouts returned, they brought news of only sporadic groups patrolling the path, only lightly armed and with small camps dotted along the path to Wheaton. There was only one road that navigated in and out of the wet, swampy patches. In summer, the path was easy to navigate and mostly dry, but in all other seasons where rainfall was heavy, it was easier to swim to the next castle. Encouraged by the news, Lord Steel did not waste any time in sending the first group. Each group contained a maximum of seven, with at least two soldiers to protect them. Robert’s group was Lord Steel, Sorcha, Oscar, Rhiannon and himself.
The first two groups were sent out ahead. These groups contained close allies of Lord Steel and their families. It was strange to Robert that there were so many who brought their wives and children to what was, effectively, a battlefield. He wondered how badly this war must have been managed by The Hartlands that the Blacklands armies believed that the ancestral home of King Aron and Prince Asher was a safe and secure place to bring their families during a war. It also spoke volumes to Robert about how long they were expecting to stay. Robert continued to wonder about his father-in-law, about Mallory, he wondered if she was still in Silver City, or if she had gone back to her father. He wondered how much she truly knew, how much her silence was just for him, whether Thair Spicer led the Angarians for The Hartlands or against them too.
All of these thoughts were pushed to one side when he received his signal to move forward. Within a moment, the safety of the city gates was behind them, and they ventured along the narrow road that would take them to Wheaton Castle. It was not a long road, only ten miles separated one from the other, but it was a long walk in the darkness and with the threat of an army behind them.
“Stay close,” Robert whispered to them. They were not in any danger of moving away from him, but Robert felt that it was important to set the precedent early in case they drifted away. It was not unusual for people to become separated in the darkness when they were right beside you only moments before.
They walked in silence besides from a few whispered instructions every half mile or so. After a while, they formed into a mini formation. Lord Steel led the line with Sorcha and Oscar side by side holding hands with Rhiannon and Robert behind them. They kept as compact as possible without tripping each other over, but after a while Oscar took an extra step too quickly and fell into his father’s back. Lord Steel took the impact and barely stumbled, but it was enough to alarm a goose who squawked its displeasure, which caused a flock to join it as they fluttered away.
“I’m sorry!” Oscar panicked, unable to control his voice.
“Ssh!” The rest of the group hushed him, and continued forward, hurrying quicker along the path than they might have done previously. It was only a small commotion, but it was enough to alert suspicion from any nearby scouts. Then, as if Robert thought it into existence, he heard the distant clattering of hooves upon earth that became louder and louder.
“We need to get off the road,” Robert whispered as loudly as he could.
He navigated the family to the right of the road until they felt the land become wet and soft beneath their feet and eventually reached a hedge. Robert tucked himself beneath it and encouraged the Steel family to do the same. They looked out from the hedge, and after a few moments, two knights carrying lanterns sped past them on their horses, but immediately pulled up.
“Hold on a minute!” One of the knights shouted.
Riding back towards the stopped knight, the man replied, “What is it?”
“Footprints in the grass.”
As quietly as he could, Robert edged out from under the hedge. “Do not move a muscle,” he whispered. Robert did not know what he would do, but he knew that he could not lay dormant awaiting for a sword to be thrust into him. Instead, he creeped to his feet and took a wide loop up behind the scouts.
“What was that?” The knight span around and flicked his lantern, the tip of the light glanced across Robert’s face.
“Someone there! Show yourself!”
“I’m right here!” Lord Steel’s voice carried from the opposite side of Sir Robert, and the knights panicked, back-to-back, unsure of where to look. “What is the matter? Have you never fought in the dark before?”
“There is a first time for everything,” Robert replied.
Then, the sound of drawn steel, a groan born from a lunge and then a clatter of swords. The knight had dropped the lantern to the floor, which provided just enough light for Robert to see the vague outline of his enemy angling awkwardly towards him. The flicker of light off the sword of his opponent was no more than a distraction, it was the man’s arms and legs that told him where the sword would be, and Robert did as he did in the light, he dodged and skipped out of the way of the sword’s edge. It was a dance he had danced a thousand times before. When Robert was close enough, he kicked the lantern, which extinguished its flame before disarming his opponent and finding his way behind him to put his arm around his throat. Sir Robert sheafed his sword and pulled a dagger from his cloak.
“Before you die…I want to know your name,” Robert said.
“I am Angar, son of Angar. We are all children of Angar. Even you.”
“Well, then I am sorry to have to kill you, brother.” Robert dragged the blade across the man’s throat and let him drop to the floor. Robert turned around in search of Lord Steel, but could no longer see or hear any fighting. “Lord Steel, is everything okay?” A startled shout filled the air and Robert felt his legs carry him towards the hedge out of instinct. The scream was from Rhiannon who Robert found frantically scrambling around in the darkness. “What is it?”
“It is Sorcha. I cannot find her.”
Robert did not know where to start. All around him was darkness, as he moved back towards the road, he tripped over the lantern that the knight had dropped. The inside was wet from landing in the dewy grass and so he discarded it. There was no way of knowing which way Sorcha could have gone, and he could not call after her for fear of being found.
“We have to keep moving,” Robert told Rhiannon and Oscar, with Lord Steel nowhere to be seen.
“I cannot leave my husband or my daughter. We must look for them.”
“If they have been taken anywhere, it will be along this road. If we keep moving, we have a better chance of finding them, if we stay here and search, then we are sitting ducks.”
“Then you go, Sir Robert. You go along the road and we will stay here and look for them.”
“I was charged to protect you.”
“Consider yourself discharged of your duty, Sir Robert. Do what you must, but we will stay and find our family.”
Robert looked around him. He was certain that there would be nowhere for Sorcha and Lord Steel to go than along the road, and he knew that his best chance of finding them was to continue along the path. He pulled the bloody dagger from its sheaf and gave it to Rhiannon.
“Be careful,” he said and then turned and started along the road.
Robert gazed at his feet as he walked, occasionally glancing to either side of the road and searched for any signs of people. He looked for footsteps, but none appeared. The further he walked, the more he wondered if he should go back, the more he wondered if he should seek out his father-in-law and abandon the search altogether, but something kept him looking. He thought of his own children, the children that he lost, and thought of all of the things he would have done to keep them from harm. Robert thought about that as he continued walking, continued searching. All around him was swampy forests. Only the road beneath his feet was solid ground, raised above the pooled deposits of water that soaked the marshes.
After some time walking in the darkness, Robert spotted something ahead. It was faint. No more than a candle in the distance, but the night was so dark that it was enough to gain his attention. It was then that Robert realised that this spark of light was on the other side of the marsh. The ground was soggy, and in many parts, bogged, but it was firm enough to walk on. Carefully, and still shrouded in darkness, Robert worked his way towards the light. It became clear to him that the light was a lantern inside a crude hut where the marsh met the swampy river. On the river, Robert spotted the shape of a canoe, and inside the hut, he saw shadows move across the light. When Robert reached the hut, he crouched down beside it and immediately heard two men in a heated discussion, though the exact words were not quite clear. He crouched beneath the windowsill and pushed his ear against the wet, peeling wood.
“Her family are still out there. If we keep them alive, we can ransom her.”
“She will be brought to King Angar like the rest.”
“Are you mad? This is Lord Steel’s daughter! If we ransom her, we’ll be rich!”
“We are not here to line our coffers. We are here to serve King Angar.”
“You don’t buy into this shit, do you?”
“I would not expect you to understand. You joined this army through fear and debt. I have followed King Angar since birth. We will do as I say and we will take her to King Angar.”
“You are a fool! We could take her to Lord Steel and be rich!”
“Lord Steel is dead. Bardred and I found the family halfway between Hartlake and Wheaton. The Knight slayed Bardred, but I killed the lord and took his head to Wheaton.”
It was then that Robert heard Sorcha scream. The sound pierced through him. Robert could remember the anguish he felt in his heart every time that someone close to him had died, and he had many memories to draw upon. All of that anguish returned to him and he shared in Sorcha’s pain. Whilst the men were distracted, Robert rose to his feet and kicked in the door of the hut, brandishing his sword. He lunged at them both, which meant they had to quickly dive out of the way and change their position, allowing him to put himself between their own swords and Sorcha who was now behind him.
“The Knight will slay you too if you do not leave here immediately and do not come back,” Robert said, holding his sword out horizontally at chest height.
The Angarian who killed Lord Steel stepped forward. In the light, Robert saw that he had a blonde beard, a round chin and a chubby face, his cheeks were tomato red and his eyes were almost turquoise. The man could have been no older than twenty, but carried himself with the assurance of a much older man. “You must be a strong fighter. Baldred was an excellent swordsman, and yet you stand here instead of him.”
“I have stood before many men and still stand here now. If you do not wish to join them in paradise, you need only leave this place.”
The young man held his hands up innocently. “I already exist in paradise, but equally, I mean you and the girl no harm. My goal here is simple. I wish to take this girl to King Angar.”
“My King’s wants are his wants. I do not question them.”
“He told you to capture Lord Steel’s family?”
“King Angar’s wishes are clear. All noble men, women and children must report to him. That is all.”
“And me? Am I to report to King Angar too?”
“I do not like to make judgements of people, but if you are a nobleman, then yes, you shall.”
“You do not hold your sword…what stops me from slaying you right here?”
The man smiled. “Indeed…what stops you?” After a moment of tense silence, the other man tugged on the younger man’s tunic and whispered in his ear. “Perhaps this is not the day that I will die, after all.” They stepped away from the door and allowed them both clear passage to the doorway. “Take the girl and go…but rest assured, Sir Robert Talford. We will meet again.”
It was almost dawn by the time Sorcha and Robert reached Wheaton Castle. The castle itself was almost a perfect square with a tower at each point that was surrounded by a moat. Strangely, the castle had no keep, instead its chambers were built into the outer defensive walls. Each defensive tower was topped with crenelations and vines grew up the side of the stone from the base of the castle to the top. The drawbridge was lowered and the gates were open with guards standing around looking relaxed, as if they had no clue that there was an army at the gates of Hartlake.
“What is going on?” Sorcha asked, her voice flecked with worry.
“I do not know…follow my lead.”
They crossed the bridge cautiously, slowly approaching the guards who began to eye them curiously, one of the guards even placed his hand on the hilt of his sword, but Robert raised his hands as he approached them to alleviate their fears. As the guard noticed that it was just a man and a girl, he visibly relaxed and approached them.
“That is far enough,” the guard said. Robert knew immediately from the man’s accent that he was not from The Twin Kingdoms. The guard had olive skin, a crop of thick black hair atop his head and almond eyes. From his surcoat to his boots, the man was covered in a deep crimson colour, as were the other guards around them. It was then that Robert realised that they had just walked into the arms of the Angarian army. “Who are you?”
Sorcha began to speak, but Robert put his hand over her mouth and pulled her towards him. “My name is Jonathan, and this is my daughter Josephine. We are refugees from The Hartlands and we are seeking shelter.”
The guard looked him up and down. “You are finely dressed for a refugee, and well-equipped,” he said gesturing towards his sword and armour.
“We have been on the road a long time. I took these from a dead soldier I found in the road…I needed to be able to protect my daughter,” Robert said gravely and then released Sorcha from his grip.
“Shite job he’s been doing of it too,” she spoke up. “We were nearly axed down by scouts not two leagues from here,” Sorcha said in an accent totally different from her own.
The guard considered them for a moment. “I do not believe you,” the man said, but smiled kindly. “If you had come to disrupt or attack, there would be more of you. You would not look so damned desperate either. If you do not care for which cause you fight, then we are always looking for able soldiers. Find your way through the gate, and join the queue to your left. You will be met by a fat man with a grey beard and he will give you food and a place to sleep. Then, you will report for duty tomorrow morning.”
Robert nodded eagerly. “Of course…thank you,” he said and scurried past the guard.
“Hold it,” the guard said. “You don’t think I’m going to let you into the castle armed, do you? Surrender your weapons, you will get them back when we know who you really are.”
Not wanting to push his luck any further, Robert dropped his sword to his feet and pulled his dagger from his boot and lay it on the floor beside it. Then, he slowly took off his armour piece by piece “Look after those,” he said. “They’re worth more than this castle.”
Once they were inside, Sorcha drove her knuckles into Robert’s thigh. “Ow! Why did you do that?”
“Your hand smells like cow pat and you held it over my face!”
“I had to make sure you didn’t reveal who we were.”
“You think I can’t tell Blackland soldiers from foreigners? I grew up in Steelmont, you fool. I was going to say the exact same thing you were.”
Robert felt ashamed for underestimating Sorcha’s intelligence, when she had never given him a reason to. “I am sorry.”
“It’s okay. You did save my life…do you think my father is okay? I know that man said he killed him, but I just can’t believe it. It’s my father. Lord Steel. He’s one of the most feared Lords in all of The New World, and he promised to keep us safe.”
Robert nodded in agreement. “I am sure that…” then he stopped in his tracks. As Robert faced the parapets, he noticed that there were soldiers impaling heads on pikes atop the city walls. Before he could pull himself back, Sorcha had noticed what they were doing too, and within moments her eyes were filled with tears and she was uncontrollably sobbing. Before Robert could think, he wrapped his arms around her and forced her face into his shoulder. She resisted and kicked and punched and pinched at him, shouting into his chest to let her go, but Robert refused. He could not let her go, he could not let her see, but more importantly, he could not let them be caught. Robert turned Sorcha away from the walls and so he was now facing them directly, looking up at Rhiannon, Lord Steel and Oscar, who’s broad, open eyes stared back at him from the pikes.