Happy New Year everyone! Thanks for stopping by to read Chapter Forty-Eight of The Cursed King. I am currently waking up off the back of a wonderful NYE, and I cannot wait to spend all day watching football and the new season of Cobra Kai – if you haven’t watched it then do yourself a favour and binge-watch it now! I also started writing the Epilogue earlier this week, and so I am very nearly finished with the book. With that, I would like to thank everyone who Likes, Comments, Follows or reaches out to me about the book. The whole purpose of posting these Chapters was to give me the motivation I needed to finish it, and now that I am almost across the finish line, I can honestly say that without the kind words and familiar faces popping up in my notifications for these chapters, I would not be anywhere near as close to finishing it as I am, so thank you all!
In today’s Chapter, Nebu brings his army to the gates of Cesara whilst Leona gives birth to her and Nebu’s child inside the city. This is the first chapter where we see the world from two perspectives, and I felt this was a useful device in order to tell the story of this chapter the way I wanted to. Thank you so much for reading, and I will post Chapter Forty-Nine on January 15th.
Nebu I / Leona X
Nebu wanted to be the first man through the trees. The Emperor ordered his men to stay back and await his orders for them to form behind him. His father had once told him that true leaders stood at the head of their armies and fought from the front, and although Nebu retained some knowledge from his father, he was confident that he had already far surpassed his abilities. A true tactician knew that you do not expend the most valuable piece first. In a game of chess, the Queen cannot even move until the first Pawn ventures forward. Nebu loved chess, he loved the way that every move was important. You could go over a game of chess a hundred times and think of a hundred-thousand ways to improve. It was a never-ending game. It was how he viewed warfare.
As he emerged from the trees, he took a deep breath and basked in the starlight, the Great Galla was full and bright against the clear black sky, and he looked up at it longingly. Throughout his life, Nebu had yearned to be among the stars. He had often heard people describe homesickness, and he felt the same thing for the skies whenever he gazed up at the millions of lights that shone down upon him. After a moment, Nebu turned his focus back to Ilturbia. Even though it was a fair distance away, he could see the siege engines peeking over the high city walls. That is why the Queen does not move first, he thought.
As he took in the scene, he heard the footsteps behind him. He did not turn around until he heard a voice. It was not for him to pre-empt an approach; it was for those who approached him to encourage him to turn around. “Your Eminence,” a voice came from behind him, and Nebu turned around. Standing there, against the great redwood trees, was Sultan Ahsifu. The Sultan of Nihei was not a tall man, but he carried a stern face with a looming brow, a mane of thick hair, and a worn face that had known many wars. Even though he was dressed in a shimmering purple robe made of the finest silk, he had the look and demeanour of a common man, which made him one of the most popular Sultans in all of Amenti.
“What is it, Sultan?”
“The siege machines are ready, lord. The men are at their posts. All they await is your command.”
“Sultan Ahsihu, you are a man of history. Tell me, what is the largest army that has ever arrived in Cesara?”
“The Amentian force of Emperor Yafshal, two-hundred years ago.”
“And how many men were in that army?”
“Fifty-thousand, your eminence.”
“How is it that an army of fifty thousand not take this city?”
“Reinforcements from The Hartlands by ship, and the fact that Emperor Yafshal was as incompetent a battle commander as ever there was one…or so the historians tell it.”
Nebu nodded. “The Hartlands cannot save them now. Tell me, how many men do we estimate in this army.”
“Officially…one-hundred thousand men. Actually, the number is closer to seventy-five thousand.”
Nebu nodded again. “What is the population of Ilturbia?”
“Around eighty-thousand, lord.”
Nebu shook his head. “How on earth has this country held out against us for half a millennium, when we can bring an entire city of warriors to their gates?”
“This is the first time that the future Emperor was imprisoned within its walls.”
“That is right, Sultan. And so, we cannot fail. You have my command. It is time to bring my son home.”
Sultan Ahisfu turned away into the darkness of the trees. Nebu took in a deep inhalation of breath. The air was warm and thick even at night, and it occurred to him that they were now well within Spring, bordering on Summer. All Nebu could think of was warm days in Aljan with his son and his family, an Empire under his feet and a continent ready to be conquered under his watchful eye. Since his earliest days, Nebu had known his destiny. It was as though someone had written a map in his mind, as clear and as vivid as though he carried it in his hands. The map had never changed, nor were the directions ever unclear. Every step he took led to the next in perfect symmetry. This, he knew, was just another step along his path.
Then, as he stared at stars, the sound of a horn, and almost immediately following it, like the sound of thunder carried over upon a hurricane, the clattering of footsteps and the war cries of tens of thousands of Amentian warriors swept past him through the trees and towards the city. Then he heard the scraping of wood against steel as the trebuchets were pushed through the forest and into the field, and the frenetic activity around it to load the mechanical beast. And then it begun. The flaming arrows from the parapets of Ilturbia’s city walls lit up the night sky for just a split second before it went dark again, and the ground rumbled as bodies struck the hard dirt.
Nebu’s horse was brought to him by his young cousin, Murabi. The Emperor did not take his eyes off the army as they sprinted at full speed towards the walls. Men fell, but there were more and more of them coming up behind them. Murabi helped Nebu up upon his horse and then handed him his helmet. Like all of Nadir’s armour, it was steel coated in golden paint. There were many around him who warned him against this. It is like riding into battle with a target on your back, he was told, but he did not care. Nebu was protected by his destiny. There was not a man alive who could kill him, and he was certain of it.
As the final few hundred men emerged from the forest in their attack, the horn blew, and the second wave began their preparations. Nebu could see from a far that there were already men positioning the ladders against the walls. The second wave was the cavalry, where Nebu would be with his sultans, protected by foot soldiers to storm the city when their first wave found their way over the walls. Then, the third wave would finalise the assault and secure the city.
Ahsifu rode his horse up alongside Nebu. The Emperor turned to him. “There will be guards at the palace doors. No man but I may enter the palace. Is that clear? Even if we have to defend it from our own soldiers.”
“It will be a difficult task, your eminence. The palace looms large over the city. The looters will be aiming for it.”
“It is your duty to stop them. The palace will be protected. My wife and my child will be in there. Their home must be protected.”
Ahsifu nodded. “Of course, lord.”
Then, the horn blew again and Nebu kicked his horse to a start and he was flying beneath the stars, the coastline to his right curved out of his view, and the columns of bodies against the walls became closer and closer. There were now fights breaking out on the parapets, barrels of scalding oil were dumped on those below, and the men were protecting their heads with their shields. Some were not so lucky, and he saw more than a few falling from the tops of the walls and back onto the earth. At the gates were soldiers with their shields held high above their heads with one hand, with the wooden handle of a battering ram in the other. They heaved and then ran as fast as they could into the gate. The gates of Ilturbia had never been truly tested like this, and he wondered how long they would hold. How long would they have to suffer arrow fire?
It was not long before Nebu found out. Even though there was fierce fighting upon the parapets, there were still arrows being fired at them. A foot soldier beside him took an arrow to the chest, but the one that found Nebu bounced off his plate and deflected harmlessly into the dirt. His horse was moving so quickly, that the dead footsoldier was out of his peripheral vision within moments.
As the men fell around him, Nebu felt little for them. Their purpose has been served, he thought. This was their destiny. He thought about them as free. Free from their purpose, free from the shackles of their fate. Now, they could enter into Paradise. For his purpose was the only destiny. All roads in life led to Nebu. He did not know why or how, but they did. By the time his retinue had reached the walls, the battering ram was still being thrown at the gates, but to no avail. It seemed to have made no difference whatsoever. Ahsifu pulled his horse up alongside him. “Your eminence, we must turn back and circle until the gate has been brought down. It is too dangerous.”
Nebu looked around him to see arrows flying through the air. Nebu knew that he was protected. That there was not an exposed inch upon his body that could be struck by an arrow whilst he rode his horse, but not all his men were plated as he was, and he needed them to keep him from harm. Then, Nebu looked to the side to see his soldiers scurrying up the ladders, their swords drawn, some of them hanging off the rungs to fight those above them. “We will scale the walls,” Nebu told him.
“Lord, scaling the walls is incredibly dangerous. The risk of falling is…”
“None. There is no risk. Whatever is to happen is destiny, Ahsifu. I will not fall.”
“I really do not think that is the smart move. I must insist that-”
“Enough, Ahsifu. We will scale the walls.”
Nebu turned his horse and galloped towards the walls, a path was cleared and his retinue followed him. Nebu heard the clinks of arrows bounce off his armour, then he felt the splattering of oil hit the plate, but none of it could pierce him or seep through. The armour was heavy. It was not intended for him to climb, but Nebu felt strong. He felt powerful, more so than he had ever felt in his entire life. There was not a single part of him that doubted what he was to do. Every single move he made felt like he was choosing the correct path in a multitude of crossroads.
Nebu stepped down from his horse and began to climb. Over the sounds of battle and the cries of agony and death, he heard Sultan Ahsifu call after him, but soon they were below him. Nebu looked only up, watching as the men above him heaved themselves over the walls, whilst some of them dropped over his head and down to the earth. It was only near the top, when his eyes were stinging with sweat and his arms ached, did he realise how much effort his body had exerted to get him there. It was only when he could see the palace through the blur of bodies, did he realise that he had made it, and that there was nothing that could stop him now.
Leona had not slept for two days. Jadya stood over her and replaced the wet cloth upon her head. She was replacing it more and more often as she was sweating so much that it became warm within minutes. The sharp, gripping pain on her insides had not dulled since the process of her birth began, in fact it became worse with every moment. As though a wave of agony flowed through her and crashed at the bottom of her belly. Jadya pushed a goblet of water to her lips and Leona drank eagerly, and relished the cooling sensation of the water as it ran through her.
“You do not have long to go now, Leona. Just keep breathing regularly, – long, deep breaths,” Jadya demonstrated the breathing as if Leona had never performed such an act before.
Leona felt her brow furrow. The lack of sleep and intense pain had made her fiercely angry, but even in such agony, she could not bring herself to be cruel to Jadya. Instead, she nodded and tried to focus on breathing in and out. Through all this, the distant thunder of footsteps, the occasional scream, yelp and battle cry found its way through the oriel and into her chamber.
“Have you looked outside?” Leona asked Jadya through pained breaths.
Jadya turned her eyebrows up at Leona like a mother looked at her child when they said something mischievous. “I have not, and you should not be focusing on that. You just focus on yourself and breathing.”
“I am breathing fine. I want to know what is happening.”
“Leona, just because I speak in soft tones, it does not mean I am prepared to be kind about this. What happens outside is none of your concern.”
“My father is out there…”
“I know he is, Leona. Many people’s fathers are out there. Their husbands, brothers, their sons, their uncles and nephews. There are mothers, grandmothers, grandfathers, sisters, nieces, wives, cousins, all in that city. Your father, at the very least, is heavily armed, armoured and surrounded by loyal men.”
Leona did not think she would be made to feel guilty whilst pushing a person out of her body, but her ferocity did not make her feel any level of sympathy. “Just tell me what is happening!”
Jadya shook her head and stormed over to the oriel. “There are men fighting, Leona. Everywhere that I can see. On the parapets, in the city, beyond the walls. There are trebuchets on both sides, and they are launching projectiles. We are too far away to be struck, but there are houses on fire, there are people stranded and homeless. Is this what you want to know, Leona?”
Leona could not help the tears that formed in her eyes as she continued to try to breath slowly and consistently. “I am sorry,” she said. “I’m just scared.”
“I know, Leona. I am too. I am sorry, let me get you some more pillows,” Jadya said, hastily making for the chamber door.
“No…please. Will you stay?”
Jadya smiled. “Of course, my love.”
Nebu parried and parred the swords that flew towards him, but he only caught the edges of the blades. He was surrounded by shields, and most of the slashes were aimed at the guards who protected him. The Cesaran warriors had always been small in number, but individually strong in battle. His father had once told him that Cesarans could kill twice the men of a normal army with half the number. Though Nebu did not quite believe that, he found himself being unduly impressed by the skill of these men, and understood why his father would look to seek them out as allies.
Despite their skill and their passion, the number of Amentian fighters swarmed around the Cesarans. They were outnumbered almost fifty to one, and though only a fraction had managed to get over the walls and into the city, it was still more than enough to outnumber the Cesaran army. Nebu marvelled at the destruction around him. The sacking of the city had already begun, because there was nowhere near enough men to stop them. Fires burned in houses, people were dragged into the street and murdered, and trebuchets fired at each other from hundreds of yards away. Then, Nebu looked up and saw the palace in the distance, and he instinctively knew in that moment it was the right time to go there. He knew that inside would be his wife and child, and he knew that once he took the palace, then that would be it.
Nebu pushed through his guards and began to swing his sword unrelentingly towards any man that came close to him. His opponent’s swords did not even reach his plate. Though his guards tried to keep tight to him, Nebu continued to move, swatting away anything that came near him. He wondered how he must have looked. A gold machine flicking moonlit steel against the night sky, his helmet awash with the blood of those who would oppose him and the tide of the ocean filling up the rivers to greet him. All Nebu could feel was his sense of purpose, his sense of urgency, his sense of destiny.
As if he had drifted into a dream and awakened again suddenly, Nebu realised that he was standing outside the palace. It was glorious in the night, and he remembered it fondly. It was here that he became Emperor. In the Great Hall, surrounded by his men, watched by his wife, he brought himself the glory of which he had always dreamed. Now, he stood before the same place again, ready to take the next step into his legacy. Standing in front of the palace behind a large steel gate was a row of heavily-armoured men. At the spearhead of them, was Marius Pascis. The Commander of Cesara stood there, without his helmet, fury burning in his eyes and his fist gripped tightly around the handle of his sword.
“Marius Pascis. It is over. The city is ours. The country is ours. Now, I wish to greet my wife and child in peace. There need be no more bloodshed, and I do not wish to harm my wife’s family. Give me your surrender. Give me your fealty, and I will end this now and we can approach your dawn as friends, under the banner of Amenti.”
“You know exactly what you can do with your friendship. It will bring me no joy to slay my friend’s son, but if you should appear on the other side of this gate, I will not hesitate either.”
“Perhaps you should open the gate and let us through, then. If it is truly the will of the Gods, then you will defeat me in single combat.”
“You will get through eventually, of that I have no doubt, but do not think I will make it easy for you.”
“Where is my wife? My child?”
“You do not know? I thought they were under your care?”
“You are a funny man. I hope your humour brings you some comfort when I murder you and burn your city to the ground. It has already begun. It is already over.”
Marius Pascis stepped forward and placed his helmet on his head. “Let us see,” he said.
Then, a horn blew. This horn was not one of the Amenti. This sound was deep and guttural as though he felt his insides vibrate. All of a sudden, the gate swung open, and Nebu’s men sprinted towards it. Nebu called out, but it was too late. Around the corner from the front of the palace, the Cesaran cavalry galloped towards them at full speed, Marius and his men split either side and the cavalry trampled over the onrushing guards. Through instinct, Nebu dived to the side and into an alleyway. He ran towards the other end of it. Suddenly, his destiny seemed skewed, his sense of certainty ripped away from him. As he reached the end of the alley, he turned around and saw Marius Pascis standing at the other end.
“You wanted me in single combat, Nebu. Now you have me. Let us end this here. We can let the Gods decide.”
Nebu spat on the floor. “The Gods have already decided.”
Nebu turned the corner of the alleyway. He felt his armour weighing him down and so he tore off his gauntlets and his helmet and ran towards the palace through another alleyway. He could hear Marius chasing him, but soon found himself facing the palace. He turned around to see the brawl between his men and the Cesaran cavalry, but more and more Amentian men were coming through towards the palace to take the fight. Nebu smiled, but felt shame that he questioned his destiny for even a moment. He started walking up the steps of the palace.
“Do not move a muscle,” a voice came from behind him.
As Nebu turned, he was faced with Marius and his guard. The guard he knew as Hezekiah, Leona’s personal guard who helped her escape Amenti according to his scouts. “Look at your city. Look at your country. It is over. Accept it and let me see my wife.”
“You are not going near Leona, or her baby. You will have to kill us both.”
Nebu drew his sword. “If that is your will, then it will be.”
In Marius’ eyes, Nebu saw violence and anger. The Commander drew his sword and lunged towards him, but Nebu parried. At first, he was caught slightly off guard. He had expected Marius to be strong and powerful, but he did not expect him to be quite so agile. Marius nimbly twisted his hips to avoid Nebu response, and feinted left before moving right and launching his own counter-attack. After dancing like this for a few moments, Nebu was forced to take a large leap backwards to reset his stance, but Marius did not relent. Nebu had never seen such focus. When he’d fought his father, the old man was drunk and sluggish, but Marius was sober, and with an iron will as strong as Nebu’s own. The swipes kept coming, the blade was moving at such speed, that Nebu’s responses became instinctive rather than thoughtful. He could no longer think several moves ahead, he could only focus on when the next blow was coming, all he could do was defend. Nebu knew that he could not keep that up, he knew that eventually, he would tire and make a mistake and all of this would be over in a flash of pain and darkness.
There was little else he could do; Marius was relentless and he had no answer for the questions the Commander posed. As Nebu ducked one final swipe from Marius sword, he felt a fist against his cheek, and he was knocked to the floor. As soon as Nebu realised that he had dropped his sword, it was already too late, Marius was upon him, straddling his chest as laid punches into his face, one after the other. Before long, Nebu no longer felt the pain, he just heard the thudding, as though this was happening to someone else. He could hear no more than the distant sound of drums. Boom. Boom. Boom. Until he fell asleep.
Leona screamed and screamed. She had never felt such agonising pain in all of her life. In the worst moment, she thought that she would prefer to be dead, and felt no guilt for it. Jadya’s soothing words were no more than background noise to her shouts of pain, the fighting outside the oriel was in a distant world. Everything that mattered was happening in what felt like the smallest part of her body.
“Get it out!” She managed to scream through the pain.
“It is coming, Leona. Your child is being born!” Jadya said so excitedly that Leona felt as though she would punch her as soon as the baby had been evacuated from her stomach.
And then, when her pain was at its peak, it was over as soon as it had begun. All she felt was an intense rush of relief as she fell back onto her pillow, her chest pumping in front of her face and the cries of her child taking over from her own. Leona did not have the strength to lift herself up, and so all she could see was the tip of her baby’s head covered in blood as Jadya wrapped it in a towel and cradled it, shushing it softly. After a few moments, Jadya appeared at her side and sat down with the child in her lap.
“It is a boy, Leona. A beautiful baby boy.”
Leona found the strength in her arms to push herself into a seated position and Jadya manoeuvred the child into her cradled arms. As soon as her baby’s skin touched hers, she felt a wave of warmth, a wave of love and care and an innate desire to protect this child from all harm. Then she looked up and Jadya and rested her head in her lap.
“Thank you, Jadya.”
Leona’s chamber door burst open and, startled, the child almost fell from her arms. In a moment of terror, Leona feared that the army were bursting through the doors, but instead, standing at the door with his helmet off and a beaming smile across his face, Marius stood over them and tears filled his eyes as he watched Leona cradle the baby. “My iliona,” he whispered and limped towards the bed.
“Father…-I,” she began, but then a shadow appeared across her father’s face. There was a darkness in the door way that crept up behind Marius, and before Leona could even scream, the knife had flashed across his throat and Leona felt a splatter of blood spray across her body. Jadya screamed, but Leona could not. She could not even fathom what had happened, though she understood perfectly, it was as though it had all happened to someone else. She looked into her father’s eyes as he fell to his knees, but his smile did not turn. He smiled at her all the way to the ground, until he fell onto his stomach at the end of her bed. Nebu took the child without a fight. Leona just sat there in silence, staring at her father’s body. She had never felt so completely still. Nebu held the baby up in front of his eyes. Eyes that were manic. Eyes that reflected the fire of her city as it burned to the ground.