Good morning all, and thanks for stopping by to read Chapter Forty-Nine of The Cursed King. It’s been a slower week this week, and a week of not doing much writing at all. The Epilogue is about half-way done now, and so by the time the next Chapter is posted, I think the book will be finished. This is a crazy thought. I’ve been working on this now on and off for about 7 years in total – so more than half of my adult life. I am excited about the idea of taking a rest, before going back through and editing, world-building, and maybe even writing something new.
Today’s chapter follows Riechard as he returns to Ismann following his successful conquest of Silver City. Though as they pass a small fishing town in The Hartlands, a worrying sight causes him to take pause. Caught between his newly conquered lands and his new home, Riechard’s injured pride reaches breaking point and the die is cast on his future. Thanks for reading and Chapter Fifty will be posted on January 29th!
No words had crossed Riechard’s ears since he’d departed from Silver City. The army had almost reached Malgrave, a dank dock-town of the North-Eastern Hartlands. King Aedvard had arranged a fleet of ships to take them all to Snowden so that they could avoid any potential angry rebellions on the ground that could potentially cause them trouble. Riechard wondered whether this was his grandfather’s way of a kind gesture, but soon he realised that it was exceptionally pragmatic. The Hartlands were now secured under Blacklands occupation, and now King Aedvard could do what he did best – act with extreme caution. No unnecessary risk would be taken. No stone unchecked.
Of course, Riechard was looking forward to working his way back through the Steurholm mountains. Now that they were so close to summer, he could picture the icy droplets of water falling gently from the lightly dusted pine trees. The stars would twinkle in the sky at night, and he would be able to experience the beauty of the landscape, without carrying the fear and worry of war upon his shoulders. Instead, Riechard had to deal with the grim industry of the docklands. The stinking fish and the gruff dockers. The stony shores and the constant overcast skies. No stars because of the constant smoke bellowing from the blacksmiths’ chimneys, and no trees, because they were all hacked down to build their ships and their docks. All flat, grassless land, dirt tracks and rats. Riechard had never been to Malgrave before, but he knew what awaited him there.
The Blacklands had similar towns too. The one he knew and had spent time in was Irondon. A harsh town of iron mines where the emblem of House Quarry featured two crossed hammers on a field of claret. It was one of the few Houses in the New World who were not officially Lords or Knights. House Quarry was made up of the workers of the town and their families. No singular Lord, but instead a council of ironworkers. For over two-hundred years the Quarrymen had worked the iron mines of the North-Western Blacklands, and not a single King in that time thought the need to instil a Lord. The taxes were never late, they never caused any problems, and never brought anything to the King. They did not revolt. They did not ever cause a fuss. It was one of the few places in The Twin Kingdoms that could boast such a thing, and yet, they did not do that either. Despite its prosperity though, it had scarcely expanded in all that time. No one wanted to move there, but those who were born there never wanted to leave. Riechard could not see why anyone who was born there would want to stay, and the closer he got to Malgrave, he wondered how anyone spent so long in a place that seemed to be devoid of a soul.
Riechard soon realised that he had ridden so far ahead that he could no longer see his army beside him. As he turned back around, he saw two figures approaching on horseback in the distance. Sir William and Sir Gavon approached side by side as they always did. Neither of them looked in the mood to chatter and carried stern looks upon their faces.
“What is it?” Riechard asked.
“A fleet of ships, lord,” Sir Gavon said.
“My grandfather’s fleet?”
Sir William shook his head. “We do not recognise the emblem, lord, but they are not of The Blacklands. I do not even think they are of The Hartlands.”
“Have they docked? Perhaps they are raiders.”
“There are close to fifty ships. All of them large, well-kept. These are not the ships of pirates, and it all seemed awfully quiet. If it was raids, we would have heard something…but it’s like any other day down there. Fishing boats are out on the bay, we’ve seen workers walking around unphased. It is strange.”
“What else did you see?”
“That was all. We wanted to find you as soon as we saw the fleet. What should we do? Wait for Karlon and Hilde?”
For what? Riechard thought. So they could divert the army back through Steurholm and avoid the fight? Riechard was not done fighting. His purpose had been stripped from him, and his glory ripped away. “No,” he said. “Take me to Malgrave and show me what you saw.”
Sir William and Sir Gavon had not exaggerated. As Riechard looked over the town from the cliff, he realised the immensity of the force that waited at the docks. Each ram was painted in the likeness of a different animal. Riechard spotted a lion and an eagle and, curiously, a frog, but the largest ship by far was at the centre of the dock and the ram at the head was not painted like any animal, but instead curved upwards and from it protruded the bust of a man. Riechard recognised this figure as Angar the Angel, a religious icon from The Book of Life and Death. When he was young, his mother read to him the stories from the book, and he always wanted to see the pictures that had been drawn upon the pages. Angar was an easy figure to remember as he was always portrayed with a crown made of bones atop his head, and this was no different. It soon dawned on Riechard something else he had learned when he was young. In the New World, almost everyone followed the teachings of Natos and Jivana. It was only those in the Old World, those from Antinna in particular, that followed the scriptures of the Angarians.
“These are not from the New World. This is a foreign fleet.”
“What business does a foreign fleet have in Malgrave? It is hardly a hub of activity,” Sir Gavon pointed out.
“Perhaps we should find out,” Riechard said, dismounting his horse.
As he turned around though, he was faced with Karlon and Hilde who had finally caught up to him. “What is happening?” Hilde asked.
“A foreign fleet is here.”
“These are not your father’s ships?”
Riechard shook his head. “I believe they are Angarians.” Realising that Hilde and Karlon would have no idea what Angarians are, he began to explain, but was immediately cut off by Karlon.
“Pah! Angarians are shit fighters.”
“You know of the Angarians?” Riechard asked, shocked.
“Ismann are mercenaries, young Lord. You think you are the only one who can hire an army? The Angarians hired us about a decade ago to subdue some city states in the Middle South of the Old World. It was horrible. Unbearably hot and soldiers everywhere. They had tens of thousands of soldiers, but most of them were peasants. Untrained. Some of them unarmed, but they could swarm a city and there would be no stopping them. They don’t build big walls like you do here.”
“If they stormed cities so easily anyway, then why did they hire an army from Ismann?” Sir William asked.
“We were there for training. They were wasting resources and wasting men. They paid us to train and to lead and to organise and advise. We taught them how to wage war. We taught them how to win in battle.”
“And now they are here,” Riechard pondered. “There are fifty ships on the bay, but the town is quiet. If each ship holds a hundred men minimum, then that is five-thousand men.”
“If you say so,” Karlon replied. “So what?”
“So where are they all?”
“It is not our problem, but we should not stick around to find out. We can re-divert and travel the rest of the way by foot. We were going to do that anyway, it was only at your grandfather’s suggestion that we come this way instead, but if these are not his boats, then that is no matter. We will go back and up through Steurholm.”
“What?” Riechard said, incredulous. “There are foreign ships at the docks of our newly conquered Kingdom, and you think this is not our problem?”
“Let me rephrase,” Karlon said sternly. “It is not our problem.” Karlon span his finger in a circle to indicate the Ismann. “Our duty to you, to our Warlord, was to capture the city and free your grandfather. That has been accomplished. Now, we go home.”
“There could be tens of thousands of men by the mountains. This fleet could be a diversion to push us towards Steurholm. Do you not think we should at least investigate the possibility that this could affect us?”
“If they engage us, then of course, we will fight. But no one has engaged us. Even the stupidest leader of an army would not waste men in an open field battle against passers-by. It would be pointless.”
Riechard was determined not to let this go. He turned to Hilde and begged her with his eyes. “We will put it to a vote. Best of three. We vote to stay and secure the town and demand the fleet leave our shores, or we vote to go back to Ismann.”
“My vote has been cast…as has yours, Riechard. Hilde…it is down to you.”
Hilde held Riechard’s gaze. Despite Riechard’s hope that he could sway and influence his betrothed, he knew that he had little pull there, almost as little as he had upon her heart. Hilde’s face was stone – always deep in thought and consideration. She finally broke his eye contact to address the rest of the group. “We will divert through Steurholm. There are eight-thousand warriors in this army, and only one of us is affected by this fleet. Not a soul would dare move on Ismann. Not even in the height of summer. We will not engage.”
Karlon nodded and Hilde turned to walk away. It was the way of these Ismann Generals, Riechard had learned. When there was no more that needed to be said, it wasn’t. There was no need for apology or platitude, no desire for forgiveness or urge to explain a position. It just was, and that was that. Riechard, on the other hand, was brimmed full of emotion. It was a combustible blend of anger, disappointment, betrayal and hopelessness. Riechard felt as though he might be brought to tears, such was his dismay. He could not understand his own feelings. King Aedvard sent him away to live out a loveless marriage in the desolate North without any commendation for his efforts, by all rights, he should have been happy to walk away from Malgrave with his head held high. And yet, once again, his pride had been punctured by another vote. He shared his power with those who did not share his interests. All of it was too much to bear.
“You go then. I will stay,” Riechard stood firm, expecting some sort of reaction from Karlon and Hilde that never came.
“No one is stopping you,” Karlon called back as he walked to collect his horse.
Hilde did pause, she turned back to Riechard and walked up to him before placing her hands upon his shoulders. “You do what you must. For your family, for your pride. But you should know that in Ismann, we do not have a word for brave, but we do have a word for stupid. When stories of your heroes are translated, the word for brave is always translated as stupid. You will not gain any respect from the Ismann by being stupid, Riechard. It seems your home is in the North now, when you get back to Mount Lakgard, it will help you to remember that.”
Hilde turned away. Riechard, still reeling and holding back his emotions as much as he could, shouted back at her. “If your people do not value bravery, then what do you value?”
“When you come home, you will see for yourself,” Hilde replied and walked away until she was out of view.
Sir William and Sir Gavon remained with Riechard, ever-loyal, Riechard had felt closer to them than he ever had before. “What shall we do?” Sir William asked.
Riechard looked over at the fleet on the shore. Almost as if they were following the army, the fleet began to disband, one by one they sailed south, but Riechard was not convinced. “We will walk into Malgrave, and we will seek council with Lord Gareth Clifden. I believe I met him once when I was young. He would be quite old now, and so I imagine his son, Connelly, would be in charge of most of the affairs in the town. We will find out what has happened, and if they are still standing, then we will find out why.”
By the time they arrived in the town, most of the fleet had gone, save for the ship depicting Angar. Having walked around the town twice-over, Riechard could not see any problems. There was no sign of violence or pillage, no fires or cries of anguish. All seemed very normal. The taverns were busy, the dock-workers did not seem to pay any notice to the fleet that had descended on their town, in fact it was Riechard and his knight companions that seemed to draw most of the whispers. By the time that Riechard arrived at the Lord’s manor, it was Connelly Clifden who greeted him personally at the guarded gate. “Lord Riechard,” Connelly greeted him with a hearty handshake. Lord Connelly was a handsome man with jet black hair that swept across his forehead, his face was clean-shaven and his green eyes gleamed with a confident joy. Lord Connelly was about thirty and wore the colours of House Clifden upon his surcoat. The left of the coat was grey – representative of the rocky shores and the cloudy skies that brought heavy rainfall, and the right of the coat was green – depicting the grassy hills and the seaweed-littered beaches. The crest was halved in this way too, split vertically was the grey and green background with the white cliffs depicted atop it.
“Lord Connelly,” Riechard shook his hand firmly. “How did you know I was coming?”
“Come now, Riechard. You cannot march an army of eight-thousand men past this town and expect us not to notice. No doubt you noticed the fleet too. When one has such numbers at their disposal, they lose all notions of a surprise.” Before Riechard could seek explanation for the fleet, Connelly raised a dismissive hand and ushered Riechard and the knights through the gate. “I know you have questions. I promise you; all will be explained before you leave here today.”
Riechard sat down with a goblet of wine in front of him. Beside him were Sir Gavon and Sir William, and on the opposite side of the table was Lord Connelly and Lord Gareth. Riechard had not been wrong about Gareth. The Lord of Clifden looked as though he was being held up only by the chair that he was sat upon, and did not even seem to notice anyone else. He just stared vacantly ahead, unsure as to why he had been wheeled out in front of them. Lord Connelly ensured that his father was sat upright and gave his father a respectful kiss on the cheek before taking his own seat.
“Please excuse my father. He has lost his sight, much of his hearing, and can speak only in a whisper, but he is very much lucid and is still Lord of Clifden. Whatever we say to each other and discuss today, my father will bear witness.”
“Of course, I understand,” Riechard said, trying to gauge how much of that was true.
“I presume you are here with orders from King Aedvard. I hear he now rules these lands, and so that would mean that we owe some sort of fealty to him now instead of King Aron. I did receive a letter that you would be here and a fleet would meet you to take you to Dawnmount, but the fleet never arrived. I assumed the fleet that did arrive blocked it or engaged it in some way, but I could not be sure. The truth of it is that we do not rightly care who rules these lands, as long as our taxes do not rise and our people remain unmolested, then frankly we will continue to stay quiet and carry on as usual.”
“The fleet that arrived…what did they do here?” Riechard asked.
“Very little. We were cautious at first, but as soon as we realised that they did not mean any harm, nor even any intimidation, we met with their representative who offered us gold and grain in exchange for a stop to rest in. Not a single man who stepped foot on the shore put a hair out of place in this town. I have never seen anything like it. Before long, they had rested and left, and sure enough, they had left us with everything that we agreed upon, not a coin more, not a grain less.”
“An army of that size…surely they could have just plundered you, threatened you…and yet, they paid you?”
Lord Connelly nodded. “Bizarre, I know, but it is the truth of it.”
“You must forgive me for being sceptical, but I cannot help the feeling that there is more to it than that.”
“You are forgiven,” Connelly smiled wryly.
“This army…they are Angarians from the Old World. Word is that half of the Houses of the Twin Kingdoms have turned coat to ally themselves with them. Now, I travel up the coast and I see fifty of their ships resting at your docks having given you payment. You can speak frankly here, Connelly. If you have allied with the Angarians, then speak the truth of it.”
Connelly maintained his confident air. “As I said, Lord Riechard. As long as we remain undisturbed, then we do not care who rules these lands. You may not have noticed as your army cut its way through this Kingdom, but we did not raise any arms for or against you in this war. We have carried on as we always have. My people live simple lives, most are fishermen or traders. If another army decides it wants to cut through you this time, well then, that is up to them. I will not stand with them, but I will not stand against them either.”
“Neutrality is cowardice,” Riechard spat, his irritability getting the better of him.
Connelly rolled his eyes. “If all it took was the toothless words of a teenage boy to injure my pride, then this town would be in ruin. As it stands, we will continue as we are, and I suggest that you do the same. Your family are likely to be mighty busy over the coming months and years. If I were you, I would start preparing. Now, do you need to be escorted out of my manor, or can you find your own way?”
Riechard stood, embarrassed, but had no point of recourse. “The leader of the Angarians. He is still here?”
“I do not know. You know where the docks are, go and see for yourself if you want to speak with him. I’m sure you’ll be seeing them soon regardless.”
Riechard stormed out of the manor with Sir Gavon and Sir William in tow. He could still see the Angarian ship with Angar on the hull anchored at the docks. Gusts of wind blew viciously into his face as he rode his horse down the hill, all the while stewing at yet another encounter where he felt he had been insulted and his power undermined, and this time by no more than a small-town heir who owned less land than Sir Gavon. The shame that cut through him was as sharp as the salty sea air, and it seemed to him that there was nothing else he could do but confront the Angarians personally. It seemed there was nowhere he could go where he would not be disrespected, belittled or undermined, and so he galloped as fast as he could, wondering whether he would try and kill the Angarian leader in single combat. Karlon had said that they were shit fighters, and he hoped that it was not the case. Riechard was in the mood for battle. If I cannot win with my words, then I will win with my sword, he thought.
When they arrived at the docks, Riechard was greeted by two guards fully clad in plate armour with their faces covered by steel helms. The helms had an angled nose that protruded from the rest of the cylinder, which Riechard could only imagine served to make them appear more fearful. These guards were both well over six and a half feet tall, however, and so Riechard wondered why they even felt the need to bother. Reluctant to show his hesitance, Riechard stepped forward and looked up at them. “I am here to see the leader of the Angarians.”
“The leader is not here,” a deep voice echoed within the helm of the guard to his right.
“Then who resides in this ship?”
“Olon,” the other guard replied.
Olon, Riechard thought. He remembered the rumours he heard of Olon’s demise all those months ago, and how he was humiliated at his council meeting having not realised that the rumours were false. It seemed strange to Riechard that a pirate famed for being a Free Man had allied himself with a man who sought to rule the New World as a King. Even more so, why would a King ally himself with a pirate? Either way, Riechard needed to find out.
“Tell him that Lord Riechard Byrne is here to see him.”
The Guard on the right turned dutifully, boarded the ship and walked up the steps to the cabin. The door swung open and after a moment, the Guard gestured to his counterpart to usher Riechard to the cabin. Riechard turned back to his own retinue. “Stand guard here until I return,” he instructed and Sir William and Sir Gavon nodded. As Riechard made his way to the cabin, he thought of Neville, his naval commander, and the constant news he had received of their successful trade route, of the fact that their trade ships had been unobstructed. All the while Riechard thought that this was his success, but it seemed more and more as though it was lucky. If the Free Men had been occupied, then of course their ships would have been free to travel and trade at will. Riechard could not help but think that all of the success he had attained was through no more than dumb luck. Perhaps this is why my grandfather does not respect my accomplishments, he wondered.
Olon was staring out of the window of his cabin when Riechard entered. “Close the door behind you,” the pirate said and Riechard obliged. “I saw you from the cabin with my guards. They are very tall, and yet, when they announced who you were, I did not expect to see that you had grown so much since the last time I saw you. You are practically a man grown.”
Riechard furrowed his brow. “We have met?” He asked incredulously.
“Many times, before, Riechard,” Olon turned around, and though it took Riechard a moment to analyse his face, he realised that this was not Olon the Vile that stood before him, but Lord Black of Oldport. Riechard could not hide the shock upon his face, but he tried to regain his composure.
“Lord Black,” Riechard whispered.
“Aye, Riechard. It is good to see you,” Lord Black said with genuine sincerity.
“This is where you have been all this time? Masquerading as a pirate with an army of cultists?”
Lord Black chuckled. “I suppose that is one way of putting it. In the same way I could say that you were playing soldier with a band of savages. Though, I would suggest neither description was quite accurate.”
“You are a traitor,” Riechard spat. “You betrayed your King, gave up your lands and your wealth, for this,” he gestured around him.
“You make it seem like it is a strange decision. And yet, half of the Twin Kingdoms has done the same. I made my move early, and aggressively, and for that there must be sacrifices. Yet now, I am second in command to the next King of the Twin Kingdoms, and soon the New World. To go from the runt of the litter in your grandfather’s Kingdom to a High Lord in King Angar’s, well that is a gamble worth taking in my opinion.”
“You will not succeed in your venture. This invasion is a folly. Even if what you say is true, we have the Ismann. The Amenti will never stand for a foreign invasion either. You can never conquer an entire continent.”
“Not all at once, no. It will take time, but time is what we have. The Ismann are large, but they are fragmented into factions. You may have married into one clan, but there are hundreds more we can buy. The Amenti are in the throes of a blood feud with Cesara, and the Twin Kingdoms are more fractured now than they have ever been before. The way we see it, there is no better time to strike.”
“It is foolish!”
“Perhaps…but knowing King Aedvard, he would have also thought your escapade through The Hartlands was foolish too, correct? No doubt he would have said as much to you. It is not in his nature to act with brute force. He has always favoured the pen to the sword. Yet you, you saw that your grandfather was in trouble and you acted with strength, with conviction, and no doubt you know that your grandfather would not have taken the crown without your intervention. Look at what you did for your family, Riechard. You married into a foreign land, you tore through a Kingdom, won battles and lay a successful siege to a capital city when just a year ago, you had not yet even needed to sharpen your sword. I do not know about Aedvard, but I have heard stories from all over the Kingdom of your valour and your leadership. You of all people must respect a show of strength when he sees it.”
Riechard remained cautious of the flattery, but inside, he was wrapped up in the praise of an experienced Lord. “Loyalty is strength, treason is weakness,” he replied.
“I am right, aren’t I? Aedvard did not appreciate it. I am sure he called you foolish, I am sure he called you stupid for interfering. The truth is, Aedvard made a mistake. He perhaps would have succeeded in his plan anyway, but he shrugged at the threat of a foreign invasion. For decades your grandfather has been so wrapped up in this continent that he saw no reason to strengthen relations with Kingdoms in the Old World. He ignored the strength and size of the Angarian army for years, and ignored his people’s pleas for peace. They vowed loyalty so long as war would be avoided. They were all sick of it. Then, last year when your aunt and cousin were killed, we received letters from all across the Twin Kingdoms telling us that they would not resist as long as they could keep their lands and titles. We made them those assurances, and now Aedvard’s strength in war is immaterial. We will begin a time of peace, and in that realm, your grandfather is useless. I fear that you will go the same way, Riechard. I fear that under his tutelage you will never gain the knowledge you need to be an effective Lord during peacetime. The Angarians can teach you how, I can make sure that you are on the winning side in this.”
“You think that I would betray my own family to join you and your cultists? You think me that weak?”
“No, Riechard. I think that you are strong, that you are smart, and that, with the right guidance, you could be great, truly great. Of course, you must show your anger. You must react as though I have just spat in your face. I understand that. But I wanted you to know what you could be, and I wanted you to know that the option was there for you. Things can change quickly, Riechard. Now, you can storm out and threaten me as I assume you will. Just remember, that there is always a place for you in our ranks should you want it.”
Riechard stood still for a moment, staring at Lord Black’s easy smile, watching his eyes, and his fingers for any flicker of movement, any notion of anxiousness, but there was none. Without saying another word, Riechard turned and stormed from the cabin and onto the docks. Sir Gavon and Sir William followed him closely and they mounted their horses.
“What happened?” Sir William enquired as he threw his legs over his horse. “Where are we going?”
“Back to Ismann,” Riechard said, “to build an army.”