Castles

Good morning everyone and thanks for stopping by to read Chapter Forty-Three of The Cursed King. Now, I originally posted that I would post this on October 22nd, but that was an absolute typo and we are back to our regular programming of Saturday mornings fortnightly. I’ve had a very relaxing two weeks off having spent a week in Ireland with my girlfriend and her family for her birthday, which was absolutely perfect. No doubt you’ll be seeing some of those pictures used as chapter icons in future. The second week of my holiday has just involved me lazing around, waking up late and playing the latest installment of Football Manager, which I have no doubt will control my life for the forseeable. It also allowed me time to finish Chapter Forty-Nine, and I will be starting on Chapter Fifty next week. It’s absolutely crazy that I’m so close to finishing this considering how long I’ve been working on it and can well and truly see the light at the end of the tunnel.

In today’s chapter, The Blacklands army is storming through Silver City. Jerimeh, feeling helpless, enlists assistance from his allies to help the people on the ground. Whilst Aron’s grip on his Kingdom loosens and his courage wanes, those around him refuse to be defeated so easily, and band together to put up a defiant defence. Thanks for reading, and Chapter Forty-Four will be posted on November 6th.

Castles

Jerimeh IX

            From King Aron’s council chamber, Jerimeh watched over the city as the armies of The Blacklands and The Hartlands fought in the streets between houses and along alleyways. Harthelm itself was behind another layer of inner-city walls, but Jerimeh knew that the gate would not hold for long, and if their army did not fight off Prince Charles’, then they would be imprisoned or killed. Jerimeh already knew his fate. Even if he wasn’t killed now, he would be dead by the next Vitamara – the end of year festival that celebrates Natos and Jivana. It was the 22nd of Spring, with only ten weeks remaining until Vitamara, he was certain that he would draw his last breath before he saw it.

            Jerimeh fiddled with the bloody handkerchief in his pocket and could not help but feel some sense of relief that his life would soon be over. All of the horror that was occurring from his view, all of the men, women and children who would be brutalised and killed, all happening whilst he was held up in the castle. He thought of Jimmy the Blacksmith and his young daughter, he thought of Prior Swann and the rest of the citizens. There were efforts being made to bring as many people into Harthelm as possible, but the city was home to tens of thousands of people, and there was only so much space, and only a certain amount of trust that King Aron could afford to spare.

            Even though it was Spring, pregnant clouds gathered over the city ready to burst. It was scarcely past noon but looked like it was past dusk. Occasionally, Jerimeh thought he heard thunder, but soon realised it was another building or siege engine being pulled to the ground. There was a general background noise that showed no signs of ending, but every now and again a yelp of pain or a horrified scream would reach high above the noise of the general fighting and rip through his heart.

            “I do not know how you can stand there and watch this,” Effei said, sat at the table with his head in his hands.

            “If I am to be protected in his tower, the least I can do is watch over our city as it crumbles.”

            “You are the Arkgodson of The Hartlands…not a soldier. There is no place for you down there. It is not a place for either of us.”

            It was then that King Aron stormed into the room, flanked by Prince Asher and Lord Grosvenor. “He’s gone!” Aron roared. “Someone has set him free!”

            Jerimeh was startled. “Who?” He asked, stupidly, already knowing the answer.

            “King Aedvard. They’ve taken him…they’ve taken our only…” King Aron stopped speaking to stop his voice from cracking as he anguished over the words that fell from his lips.

            Luckily for the King, his brother stepped in to address the room. “We have men searching the grounds, but yes, it appears he is gone.”

            “It is over,” Aron said, almost as if he was in a trance. “The war is over.”

            “Your grace, whilst we are still standing, we must fight for this city, we must fight for this Kingdom!” Lord Grosvenor stood.

            “We should be down there…we should be standing side by side with our men,” Asher growled. “Not held up here in our castle.”

            “To what end?” Aron roared back. “The city has been taken…soon they will take Harthelm too. Whatever is to happen has already been written.”

            To that, Asher rose to his feet and moved close to his brother’s face. “I have stood beside you through all of this. Through all of your madness and all of your half-laced plans, all of the times you have made our Kingdom weak, and all of the idiocy that has encumbered your reign. I will not do this anymore. I will not bow to this coward King. I would rather die with my dignity.”

            Asher spat on the floor at Aron’s feet and stormed out from the room. “Where do you think you are going?” Aron shouted.

            Asher’s voice echoed back from the stairwell, though the Prince did not break his stride to respond. “To fight for this City.”

            No one dare say a word. King Aron sat at the head of his table, staring straight ahead and did not move a muscle. After a few moments, Jerimeh went to open his mouth, he did not know what he was going to say, but he felt as if something was needed. As soon as the words began to form, Jerimeh heard small, hurried footsteps against the stone before Nadir burst through into the room with urgency. “Your grace, your worship…I need to tell you something!”

            “Not now,” Jerimeh hissed under his breath, shocked that Nadir would break into a meeting like this so uncourteously.

            “I know how King Aedvard escaped…I can show you!”

            All of a sudden, King Aron had been brought back to life. He stood tall over Nadir and his shadow completely smothered the boy. “And how would you know that?”

            Nadir took a deep breath. “I helped him escape…I have been helping him for months. I am sorry.” Nadir then turned to Jerimeh. “Please forgive me, Jerimeh. I thought he was helping me find my mother, but he was just using me as a way of escaping the castle. He tried to kill me in the tunnels that lead to the cove.”

            “What tunnels, Nadir? What are you talking about?” Jerimeh quizzed him. In all of his time in Harthelm, Jerimeh did not know of any secret tunnels by the cove.

            “I will show you! I will show you everything. There is a network of tunnels throughout the city…Aedvard knew about them, but no one else. I also helped Thair Spicer escape through them.”

            “You treasonous little bastard! Is there no one who has not been sucked in by this man’s lies? Seize the boy and prepare him for hanging!”

            Jerimeh’s heart lurched in his chest. “No! What good does that do you now, your grace? There is an army at our gates, and we may have just found a way to provide refuge for the people of our city, a way to allow our armies retreat that our enemy does not know about.”

            “He is a liar!” Aron roared. “He will lead us into a trap and to our deaths!”

            Jerimeh knelt down to Nadir’s level, it took all the Arkgodson had to not show the pain that the one simple movement caused him, it felt like his knees were going to explode. “Nadir…I want nothing more than to be able to protect you, but I must tell you the truth. Something that I have not done enough since we have met. No matter what you do here, no matter what happens, you will be hanged. You have committed high treason, and there is nothing that I can do to protect you from that. Though what I can promise you is that now is the last chance that you will have to do the right thing. To protect people just like you. All of those innocent people in that city, they did not ask for this war, and they are dying because of it. We now have the chance to ensure that mothers stay with their children, to keep them safe from those who would harm them. Is that what you want? Would you like to help me?”

            “Yes!” Nadir said without hesitation. “I’m sorry…I just want to help…please.”

            “Then you will take Effei and I to these tunnels, and you will help us escort the city folk into Harthelm.”

            “No, you will not!” Aron boomed. “I will not have any more treachery, I will not have soldiers sneaking into these tunnels to butcher my court too. This is folly!”

            “I’m afraid I must agree with King Aron, Jerimeh. I did not want to take in the refugees into the city…there were too many. In trying to protect them we have damaged ourself, and look where it has got us,” Effei said.

Then, Lord Grosvenor threw a goblet against the wall. “Listen to yourselves! Your father would be sickened by this. The fact that the protection of our people is up for debate would have him turning in his grave. Your father protected this city and this Kingdom his entire life, and now as it crumbles into ruin, you stand here and seek to do nothing but protect yourselves. Jerimeh is right. The only thing we can do now is to help those who need us, to give our armies a way to retreat. I will go with you.”

            “You will do nothing! That is an order from your King!”

Grosvenor’s face turned to stone. The room was silenced, and the Earl of Greenfields looked at King Aron in disgust.

“You are King of nothing.”

**

            Jerimeh was absolutely flabbergasted by the network of tunnels that existed throughout Harthelm at the city, and could not understand how no one had ever discovered them before, let alone how King Aedvard seemed to have a deep knowledge of them. The stone that was used to make them seemed ancient, but strong. He wondered if Stillius knew of these tunnels, and then began to wonder whether this was one of the many ways that The Order of Ravens navigated the great city. It turned out that Nadir wasn’t leading them into a trap, and had instead led them to a forest by the river. Hidden by trees, shadows and a patch of turf, Jerimeh soon realised how this entrance had never been found, and wondered how many more there were throughout the city.

            Grosvenor had joined them, but Effei had stayed behind with King Aron. It hurt Jerimeh to abandon his King, but he had no choice. It was the only thing that he could think to do that might redeem him before he died. Grosvenor had also brought along his son, Sir Danayal, though most everyone else was fighting in the streets with The Blacklands army. Before long, they reached the end of the tunnel and Nadir led them out.

            “Wait,” Sir Danayal said. “It will be dangerous out there. I will go first.”

            “We must all go,” Jerimeh said. “We must alert as many of the city folk as possible to use these tunnels as we can without alerting the army.”

            “You will stay,” Lord Grosvenor said. “This city is a battlefield now. It is no place for an old man and a boy, meaning no offence. We will need to be careful, which means we will need to aim for the most impoverished areas, the areas furthest away from the plunder. Danayal, you head for the North gate, and I will take the West. We will work our way to the gates and back before heading back here, try and recruit some men on your way to help us.”

            “Yes, father.”

            Sir Danayal went, and his father followed. Grosvenor turned back to Nadir and Jerimeh. “You were brave…to stand up to King Aron as you both did. You have done this city a great kindness.”

            Almost as soon as they’d left, Jerimeh could feel the tension rise between him and Nadir. He could not bring himself to feel anger towards him, but he also could not help feeling betrayed. It was as though their bond had been broken, and yet, Jerimeh could not escape the feeling that their bond was false to begin with. Jerimeh did try to apply resources to find Nadir’s mother, but he did exaggerate the possibilities of finding her. He had underestimated him, and what he was capable of. He almost laughed to himself. What I did to find my son, what I did to find those who took him from me, and yet I could not fathom what Nadir would do to find his kin. 

            “I am sorry,” Jerimeh said finally as he pressed his sore back against the cold stone.

            “Why are you sorry?” Nadir asked. “I have done so much evil here. Look what I have done…I have released King Aedvard…I have betrayed you and Effei and Stillius…and I murdered Sir Eiruc.” Jerimeh had to swallow his anger when Nadir said that, but the boy started crying before he could release any of it. “I did not mean…I don’t know why I did it. Something happened to me. It was though I was not in control of my own body. I saw him and I just felt this heat throughout my body. It was as though my blood was boiling in my skin, like my head was on fire. And then as soon as I killed him. As soon as I put the blade through his skin, it was like being awash with cold water. I am sorry, but if I am to die, I will die with you having heard my confession.”

            Jerimeh found it hard to show his anger to Nadir. Although he felt it, he also understood what it was like to face death. For Nadir to do so whilst still so young, was beyond even Jerimeh’s comprehension. Childhood felt like another life altogether for Jerimeh. “What will happen, will happen, Nadir. Consider your confession heard. We will meet our fates soon.”

            “What will happen to us when we die, your worship? Truly? You must know.”

            Jerimeh had a thousand answers for that question. He had learned throughout his years how to answer such questions from his flock, and yet now, faced with this child, he realised that he did not truly know. What was beyond life? He had some idea, some musings and some learning, but nobody could ever know. Nobody knew until they were on the other side. “I do not, Nadir. Sadly, I cannot truly tell you. I would hope it’s some place with more beauty than we could ever imagine, and at worst, somewhere where we do not feel the pain that we do on earth.”

            “I think we are reborn,” Nadir said.

            Jerimeh could not help but smile. “You do?”

            Nadir nodded. “Yes. I believe all the trees in the forest are people who have once lived, all of the animals in the fields, all of the stars in the sky. They are all of the eyes of all of those who have ever walked the earth, and they look out for us.”

            Jerimeh pondered that for a while as they sat in silence. All of the eyes of the world on them, and what would they say if they could speak? What would those millions of dead say to them whilst they tore their cities apart and put people to the sword? It was when he was wondering that, that the crate lifted and Lord Grosvenor and Danayal dropped in.

            “Move move move!” Danayal roared and Jerimeh leapt to his feet, ignoring all of the agony that ripped through his body.

            People rained down into the tunnels, scared people, men, women and children, their faces covered in dirt, blood and fear. Their hair dusty and with tear streaks through their ash-covered faces. “Lead them back to the castle!” Grosvenor ordered, and Nadir sprang to the front.

            “I will lead,” the boy said. “This way!” Nadir shouted over the commotion and ran ahead, whilst the confused refugees followed him. Jerimeh stayed where he was, ensuring that those who made it down kept moving and did not stop. There were some who demanded to stay until a family member had reached them, but Sir Danayal, impatient of everything standing in that tunnel, held his sword to them and forced them along the precession. Before long, the tunnels were packed full of people, and there was no room left for anyone else. Lord Grosvenor and Jerimeh pushed their way to the front whilst Sir Danayal stayed by the crate. As they reached the cell room, they saw Nadir standing by the door.

            “What’s going on?” Lord Grosvenor asked.

            “It’s locked! I cannot open it!” Nadir called back.

            Lord Grosvenor pushed his way to the front and twisted the key in the lock to no avail. “The lock has been changed!” Lord Grosvenor banged on the door with his fists as more city folk pushed their way through. “We have to find a way to break this door down, or we’ll be sitting ducks if any of the soldiers find out what we’re doing. Nadir, grab the biggest men you can find and we’ll throw our weight against it.”

            Nadir nodded and rushed into the tunnels. Then, Jerimeh thought for a moment and tapped one of the city folks on the shoulder. “Pass a message back. Ask the person behind you if they are a locksmith, and whoever is, should come to the front.” The woman nodded and passed the message back.

After a few minutes, there were three rotund men and a young woman standing by the door awaiting instruction. “Who are you?” Grosvenor queried the young lady.

“My name is Claire Smith, my lord.”

“And what are you doing here? We need to break the door down.”

“I was told you needed a locksmith, my lord.”

“Well, yes, that would certainly help if we had one and they had their tools! You don’t happen to know where we can find one, do you?”

“I don’t have my tools, lord, no, but I can certainly help get that door down if that’s what you need!”

Grosvenor almost smiled through his irritation. “Young lady, we need a locksmith! I don’t care what your family name is, we need the lock off that door.”

Claire’s brow furrowed and she stepped forward towards the large men and looked the door up and down for a few moments, checking the hinges, the lock, and the gap between the door and the frame before turning back to Lord Grosvenor. “It’s a single-bolt mechanism. The hinges are rusted and the door opens outwards, not inwards. These men won’t be able to do a thing, because, and I don’t mean this disrespectfully, they won’t be able to get the power in their legs to kick through the door – throwing them at it won’t do a thing because the wood is solid. We can’t break through the door, but we can break through the lock. What we need is someone who is good on a horse, someone with strong legs to kick right about here,” Claire said pointing to where the foot should meet the lock. It might take a few tries, but if the person is strong enough then it will snap the bolt and the door will open.”

            Jerimeh smiled. “You cannot argue with her logic,” he said. “There are far worse horsemen than you, Lord Grosvenor.”

            Grosvenor looked happy enough to be humbled by Claire the Locksmith, and seemed pleased with the compliment. It was not exaggerated either, Lord Grosvenor was constantly competing and winning in tournies and jousts and was as experienced a military man as anyone in the city. “Right here?” Lord Grosvenor asked Claire, pointing at the same spot and the locksmith nodded in agreement. Grosvenor took a test kick, which caused a thud, but did not move the door.  Not to be defeated, Grosvenor tried again, with more force this time, and although it caused a bang, it did not break through. Before Claire could even voice the first word of advice as she went to speak again, Grosvenor grunted indignantly and put his foot straight through the lock. The wooden door flung open and a cheer went up. “Through here!” Sir Grosvenor called, smiling. “Your worship, guide the people to the God’s Hall, the King’s Hall, wherever will hold them, I will go back with my son to find more.”

            “You are a good man, Lord Grosvenor. Thank you for doing this,” Jerimeh said and grasped his hands firmly before allowing the Earl to find his son.        

            Jerimeh and Nadir lead the crowd of city folk through the tower and down to the courtyard. As soon as they stepped out of the tower, there was a row of guards and King Aron stood before them. The guards were all armoured from head to toe, draped in the purple capes and surcoats of House Hartlin. Sir Trevon Blacksquire stood at the head, despite the fact that he was Prince Asher’s personal guardsman.

            “What is this?” Jerimeh asked, unable to keep the disgust from his voice.

            “The boy has committed high treason, your worship. He will be jailed until he undergoes trial,” King Aron said blankly.

            “There is a battle going on in your city! Your brother, your Earls, your army are fighting for it, and here you are, arresting a child. Your brother was right…you are a coward!” Jerimeh roared.

            “Seize them both,” Aron growled. “Take them to the dungeons.”

            “You will do no such thing!” A voice came from the crowd of people behind Jerimeh. The man forced his way to the front, and covered in mud, blood and soot was Prince Asher, flanked by Sir Danayal and Lord Grosvenor. “You will let them go, and you will lead these people to the God’s Hall.”

            King Aron’s face flushed red with rage. “You have always wanted to be King! Always! You have always tried to undermine me, talk behind my back, conspire against me. You wish to see me lose my Kingdom because you could not have it!”

            “You have lost your Kingdom,” Lord Grosvenor called out. “Your brother is trying to protect it. To protect its people. Out city is flooded with the enemy – thousands have died – and yet here you stand, without a spec of dirt upon you, ignoring the horror that exists beyond this castle.”

            “The army does not fight for you, Aron. It never has. I have never conspired against you. Despite all that I hear every day, that I should be King, that I should rule this Kingdom. I have ignored all of it, and have given you all of my loyalty…and yet they still do not want to fight for you. They fight for me…they fight for Lord Grosvenor. I will not lose this castle; I will not lose this war. I will fight to the death for this city and for this Kingdom. You are King in name only,” Asher roared to cheers from the city folk and the other members of the army who had also retreated through the tunnels. “Stand down, brother or stand with us and fight for your Kingdom.”

            King Aron looked around him, the Royal Guard seemingly his only allies left, but even the young, brash King understood that he was outnumbered, that he could not arrest an entire army. After a moment, the King stood tall and stepped forward. “I will not have my Kingdom led by another other man but its true King. I will fight for this Kingdom and this city, because my hatred for King Aedvard outweighs my disdain for your treachery, but the boy conspired against this Kingdom and he will be punished. “Sir Trevon, arrest the boy. The rest of you, allow as many people as possible to retreat into the castle, and then die with honour, with the blood of our neighbours stained upon your swords.”

**

            By the time Jerimeh was able to catch up with Sir Trevon in the dungeons, Nadir had already been locked in his cell. It was the same cell where both Thair Spicer and Queen Lorne had been kept. It was quiet in the cells, where usually there were jeers and shouts, there was a solemnity to the air as those within the cells worried about their families and friends outside it. Rumour travelled fast in these places, and there was little worse for anyone than the feeling of being helpless whilst their family suffered. Sir Trevon had almost reached the steps by the time Jerimeh descended them, and the Knight smiled grimly.

            “What is it you fight for, Sir Trevon? What is it you stay alive for?”

            Sir Trevon grunted, almost as if he was trying to laugh. “A warm bed and a warm drink. He who is content with least is the richest of all, your worship.”

            The Knight strolled past him, breathing heavily as he climbed the stairs. Jerimeh could not help but feel defeated as he walked towards the end of the corridor of cells where Nadir sat with his back against the wall. Once Jerimeh reached him, Nadir smiled at him, which instantly made the old man feel better. “I am sorry, Nadir. I know I have said it many times now, but I mean it. You trusted me, and I did not come through for you.”

            “You tried,” Nadir told him. “That is all you can do. I accept my fate.”

            “This should not be your fate. Less than a year ago you were working the fields. You were not brought here by fate, you were brought here by violence, by politics. No boy should be separated from his mother so young…no boy should have to see what you’ve seen, and no boy should suffer the punishment of death for the meddling of grown men,” Jerimeh felt his blood boil. For so long, he had become so resigned to his fate, but seeing Nadir so strong in his defeat, so humble and mature facing his impending sentence of death, that he could not help but allow his outrage to seep out.

            “It is okay, your worship.” Nadir said as Jerimeh’s eyes filled with tears.

            “No…it is not…it is not okay.”

            “No…Jerimeh…it is okay,” Nadir was beaming as he begun to remove the bricks from within his cell. With each brick that Nadir removed, Jerimeh’s mouth gaped wider until there was a gap in the wall big enough for Nadir to move through.

            “By the Gods, Nadir…how many more of these are there?”

            “I have no idea, but this one has to be the most convenient.”

            It was then that Jerimeh remembered where he had seen these tunnels before. All of those years ago when Stillius took him and Jonah away. All of those many years had washed away the details from that day, and all that remained was his pain. Now though, he knew. All of it made sense. How did Stillius reach him in his own castle? How do the Ravens move throughout the Kingdom without being seen? How do they gather their information? Jerimeh was convinced. Nadir had discovered the secret networks of The Order of Ravens. This must be how they navigate the Kingdoms, how they spy and how they meddle. Perhaps then, Jerimeh thought, they could lead us to The Order.

            “Nadir. I am going to turn my back now. I will be in the crypts of the God’s Hall praying. Perhaps you could join me.”

            Nadir smiled. “I would like that, Jerimeh. I would like that a lot.”

Crypts

Good evening everyone and thanks for stopping by to read Chapter Forty-Two of The Cursed King. I’m off to Ireland tomorrow morning for my girlfriend’s birthday, and so you’re getting this chapter a day early as we’ll be on a train very early tomorrow. I’ve got two weeks off work now so I’m going to make the most of it and spend my time enjoying a country I have never been to, despite the fact that it is on my doorstep. Writing may even take a back-seat this week, but next week I will be aiming to have Chapter Forty-Nine finished.

In today’s chapter, Robert finally discovers the nature of his terrors and the dark history that led him to this point in his life. When he finally awakes, a shocking revelation is brought to him by Lord Steel. Thanks for reading and Chapter Forty-Three will be posted on October 22nd.

Crypts

Robert XI

            It was the first time since Robert could remember that he awakened to the sound of the birds singing. They were perched atop the branches of the great oak trees that stood beyond the oriel of his tower. Hillhold in Spring had always been beautiful. The rolling hills that turned into dense, lush forests and the mountains of Steurholm, that stretched long into the distance of the snowy lands of Ismann, gave the land a sense of eternity. As if nothing about it had ever changed, and never would. It was easy for Robert to feel such ease and comfort whilst his wife snored gently with her hair draped across his chest, and his son nuzzled into his ribs in just as deep a sleep as his mother.

            Perhaps at the very back of his mind, Robert knew that he had lived this before, and that this was no more than a dream, but he could see and hear enough, and feel enough, for him to push those thoughts deep down inside him. Robert dared not move, dared not speak a word or fall back to sleep, for fear that it might wake him from this moment, and he may never find his way back. It was Isabelle who broke the uninterrupted birdsong with a satisfied hmm and a kiss on his cheek as she lay a protective hand over her child and put her thumb in his small hands so that he could squeeze it. This gesture of affection woke Harold too, and before long, they were sat up in bed talking.

            “We should stay for a while,” Isabelle told him.

            Robert was not opposed to the thought. They had been travelling for well over a year, and Robert had made enough coin from tournies and jousts that he could even purchase a small piece of land for them if they’d been so inclined. The constant fighting and training had taken its toll on Robert, and he was physically exhausted. He felt his back twinge when he awoke, and he constantly worried about the health of Avairghon.

            “I think my mother would like that…my father on the other hand,” Robert pondered.

            “Your father is like mine…he would sooner strike you than tell you he loved you, but it’s all a show. They were raised by men who taught them that love is weakness.”

            “Love is weakness…look at me…completely weak when it comes to you both.”

            Isabelle gripped his cheeks with one hand and kissed him. “Love is strength,” she whispered.

            Robert smiled. “I should go…before everyone wakes up. It is the only chance I will have.”

            Isabelle frowned. Whilst at first, Robert feared that the look in his wife’s eyes was envy, it became worse when he realised that it was pity. “I understand,” she said and squeezed his hand tight.

            As soon as Robert stepped outside, he felt the sharp crispness of the air as the shadow of the tower loomed over him, but as he stepped into the sunlight, it instantly warmed his skin. With a deep breathe, he took his first strides towards the crypts. He passed the kennel master and the stablemaster and greeted them both warmly, their faces already red and sweaty from their work. Robert had no doubt that they had already been up for hours. Usually, Robert would stop by to visit Avairghon, but his thoughts were elsewhere today, and he wanted to pay his respects before he was due to meet his family in the hall to break their fast.

            When Robert arrived by the stairs of the crypt, Carmon, one of Hillhold’s groundsmen was there to greet him. The old man was grizzled and tired, but unfailingly kind and gentle, and Robert had known him since he was a boy. Carmon handed him the key to the faded oak door, and Robert thanked him. He stepped over the puddle of water that had gathered beneath the final step after days of rain had finally ended, and unlocked the door to the crypt. Inside was dank and cold, shielded from the sun, and the light, and all of the good things that life had to offer. In these depths there was nothing but death and darkness, ice and bone. Robert had never been afraid of the dead. The only thing he feared when he was young was his brothers, and they were made of flesh and blood, of which none remained on those that resided here.

In order to be buried in the crypts of Hillhold, one need be a Talford or have married into the Talford family. Robert had scarcely been married to Aramana, and he remembered their time together fondly, despite the fact that they had not truly loved each other, but she asked him to promise that she would be buried with her son before she died in his arms. Prince Julier was not best pleased with the arrangement, but after the Filosi rebellion was quashed by The Twin Kingdoms, the Prince had very little negotiating ground. Robert lit the lantern that was hanging on the wall and navigated his way through the graves.

Each grave was engraved with the name of whom it carried. The ones nearest the door were the oldest and most faded. The horizontal statues no longer contained their facial features and their faces had become smooth stone oblongs, whilst the once raised-lettering was now almost unrecognisable. There were many Johns, and Roberts, and Harolds – traditional names of Talford men. There was also a Myriam, and one or two Annes. Finally, Robert reached his brothers. Reuben and Sibley, Harold and Clarence. Then there was Brodric. Robert stayed slightly longer by Brodric’s side.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I should have joined you.”

“No, you shouldn’t,” a voice came from behind him.

Robert jerked upright and pushed his lantern towards the noise. “Who goes there?”

“The Earl of Hillhold, now get that flame out of my face,” John Talford said, agitated.

“Father? What are you doing down here so early?”

“The same thing as you…paying my respects to my sons.”

Robert felt his heart slow, and brought the lantern slowly to his side and took a deep breath. “How often do you come down here?”

John Talford shrugged. “Now and then,” he said nonchalantly, almost emotionless as if he was answering to what he had for dinner.

It had never been in the nature of Robert’s father to show emotion at the best of times, not least to Robert, and in such a private moment between them. What might have been an opportunity to share their grief, to talk of their mutual losses and their commonalities, was beyond the both of them. The ground they would have to cover, the years of anger, resentment and tragedy they would need to overcome to endure such a moment, and to even find catharsis within it, was far too great. Though they stood not a yard apart in that dreary, morose pit, there was an ocean of distrust between them. Too great a distance of years and personalities to let one’s guard down. Neither man would dare even dip their toe in that great sea, and so Robert tread safely on the shore and did not say another word of it.

He took his lantern and stepped past his father to where his wife and child lay. The stone had been etched masterfully, and was still almost pristine. Stone did not age like man, and preserved youth greater than any cream or ointment. Aramana was a truly beautiful woman in all the ways that men were told a woman should be beautiful, but beyond that, there was a soulfulness to her eyes. A deep and stunning care of all things, and most closely her family. Sir Robert never thought that he could achieve the level of love that Aramana had for her flesh and blood. Though he had often wondered what life would have been for him had his first wife and child survived. He would certainly never have met Isabelle. It was his grief that caused him to begin his travels, had he never taken those steps out of Hillhold, he would have never even known of Isabelle’s existence.

“Should I have brought flowers?” Robert asked when he saw his father watching him from the corner of his eye.

“Flowers are wasted on the dead. They cannot smell them, and it is just placing more death atop of them. Best to leave them be.”

Robert grazed his thumb across Aramana’s cheek. Her statue had been sculpted with the baby at her breast, only half of the baby’s face could be seen. Robert thought that perhaps he should have named him, even though he had died, but it made it easier in a way. Calling him baby almost made it easier to accept. Naming the poor child would only have made it harder to bury him. Robert touched the baby’s stone face with the back of his hand and let out a sigh.

“Your mother had eight of you…eight…only on the last one did she fail to deliver me a healthy child. That would have made it nine. I still have no idea how she did it. Each one of you were large babies, even Myriam. It’s in the Talford genes. The pain that she endured to bring you all into the world…it was minute compared to the pain she felt when these boys left it.”

“How do you do it?” Robert asked.

“Do what?” His father shrugged.

“Grieve,” Robert said bluntly.

A smile almost crept onto his father’s face before he seemed to remember he was speaking to his least liked son. “Like most things in this castle, I left that to your mother. Most men are blessed with just one or two sons…that if they are lucky. I was given far more. Clearly, someone somewhere thought I was not worthy of them, or that they were not worthy for this world. Perhaps the God of Death thought their souls would be better suited to other vessels. Regardless, I still have Jonathan…” John paused… “and you, of course.” Sir Robert shared a brief glance with his father before the old man turned away. “Don’t spend too long down here. It will send you mad.”

Robert did not spend long in the crypt. All of the time building up to it he spent wondering how long was appropriate to spend with a dead wife and child. It turns out that Robert did not have an awful lot to say to her. They really had not known each other long, and it had all felt so long since it had happened. The only thing he truly felt was guilt. Guilt that he was spending his mornings kissed by the sun with his wife and child in his arms. Guilt that the vessels of a Filosi Princess and her noble son were left to rot in such a cold and dreary place. Guilt that he had survived when almost all of his brothers had died, and only the worst of them remained. Free to walk the earth.

That afternoon, Robert, Isabelle and Harold walked the fields where Robert played as a child. He watched as baby Harold sat in the grass and pulled out the dandelions and blew the pappus into the air and giggled as it floated away. Robert smiled and took in Isabelle standing in front of him watching the river flow through the hills. She turned around to him and smiled back, and then peered over his shoulder. A strange look took her face, a bemusement that made Robert turn around to face it. They stood there, looking up at the hills, on which a cabin sat atop one of them. Robert recognised the cabin, but could not remember where from. He searched his mind and did not recall ever seeing it as a child, and what was more, all of this land belonged to John Talford. If people had built upon it, they had done so illegally.

“Do you remember seeing that on the way here? I would have thought we’d have noticed something like that,” Isabelle said.

Robert shook his head. “This is all my father’s land. No one can build on it except for him, and my father has never been much of an outdoorsman.”

“Perhaps we should go up there, and see?” Isabelle suggested.

“I will go…you stay here and enjoy the sun. I won’t be long.

Robert hiked up the lush grassy hills with each blade reaching as high as his shins. He took in a deep breath and savoured the fresh, clean air, far away from the stench of people, dogs and horses crammed into one space. He had nothing but good memories here, nothing but happiness. And yet with each step he took, with each stride that he dragged himself closer to this hut on the hill, he felt his stomach lurch. It was as if the wind had changed direction sharply and had become icy cold, and the first puffs of cloud had begun to appear over the horizon.

Just before he reached the hut, he stood before a Hawthorn bush, its stout trunk was covered grandiosely with white petal flowers as the branches hung low and touched the ground. There was nothing else like it all around. It was isolated, away from any of the other flora which was mostly oak trees and small wildflowers that spread sparsely around the great meadowy hills. Robert waited at the Hawthorn for longer than felt comfortable. There was something he didn’t like about it. The way its branches shifted in the wind, the crispness of the white petals and the deepness of the brown trunk. The more he noticed it, the more he realised that the colours were otherworldly, impossibly bold, so much so that his eyes began to blur as he squinted to focus. Suddenly, his legs felt heavy and his head leaned forward as he found his hands deep in the grass. And he was sinking, sinking into the hills, sinking beneath the Hawthorn.

**

Robert found himself completely still, as though his soul had been removed from its vessel. He looked straight ahead, with his eyes open, but all he saw was darkness. He wondered if he had died. If he had accidentally taken some fatal poison that slowly killed him. Perhaps there was a berry on the Hawthorn bush that he shouldn’t have eaten. There was no worry within him though. It was as though all of his earthly concerns had evaporated. He thought about his wife and child, but he could only think of good things. Of their smiles and their joy. Nothing else outside of that seemed to exist. Robert tried to move, but it was as if he had nothing that could move. He was outside of his body, so, of course he could not move in a way that he was used to. The knight began to wonder if he could move in another way. He urged himself forward by visualising a movement, but nothing happened, he kept trying, he even thought about himself moving in his human body, but even that did not help him. Robert then tried to speak, but he realised again that, without a body, he was unable to. All he could do was think and wait.

After some time, Robert felt a presence around him. It was as though the other being knew he was there, and seemed far surer of what it was, than Robert did. After another moment, Robert could see again, and he could hear again. It was as if he had been placed back into his body. Quickly, painfully, as if he had never been separated from it at all. In front of him was a cloaked figure. He could not tell if the figure was tall, as they were surrounded completely by what looked to Robert like mounds of dirt. There were roots sticking out of the earth walls, and when he looked above him, he saw the sunlight beaming through the canopy of what he thought must have been the Hawthorn bush. It was enough to provide light to illuminate the figure’s purple cloak.

“Hello Robert, it is good to see you again,” the voice echoed impossibly. There was nothing for it to echo against, and yet it sounded almost ghostly.

            “Hello…” Robert said, and realised how calm he was. Why am I so calm? He wondered, yet he felt no fear.

            “You would not remember me, but we have met many times before.”

            The figure was shrouded completely in the purple cloak that hung loosely over what must have been an exceptionally skinny frame. “Who are you?” Robert asked. “Why am I here?”

            “You have nothing to fear, Robert. Nothing at all. We have done this before, and you have never been stressed. You will do this many times again, and you will not be stressed then either.”

            “What is this place?”

            “Somewhere familiar. The place where we met all those years ago. I always bring you back here when it is time.”

            “When it is time for what?”

            “To go around again, of course.”

            Robert began to worry. “What are you talking about? I demand you tell me.”

            The purple cloak did not speak immediately. “I never thought I would find one such as you, Robert. One so capable of repressing their darkest thoughts, their most painful feelings and memories, their most…brutal decisions. You really do not remember a thing? You really do not know what this is?”

            “Stop with your riddles! Why am I here?”

            “Six brothers, Robert. Six. Such a burden…such a tough time being a young boy. Scared and afraid, bullied and chased and alone. What a horrid thing. No one could blame you for what you did. You were just a young boy. Vengeful, angry and overzealous. And I…well I must admit, I do not take pride in taking advantage of the mind of one so young. You remember the day, I believe. I mean, if you really think then you will remember. It was a day much like today. The sun was just as hot, and the beauty of these fields were alive with greens and yellows and browns. Yet you did not see any of that. As you ran from them – Jonathan, Sibley, Reuben, Brodric and Clarence. Such violent boys, so eager to show you who was boss. All you could think to do was run and hide. You fell in front of the Hawthorn bush. Do you remember now?”

            Robert bit the inside of his bottom lip. “I got right back up and run to the cabin.”

            “Very good. Of course, I could not have you remember our little talk back then. You cannot erase memories, but you can bury them. Deep, deep down. Most people never want to access the memories that cause them pain and guilt and grief. You were never one to dig too deep into yourself. Even now…you are deep within your dreams. Even this is a memory. Layers upon layers of repression finally erupting. I would not want to be there when you awaken, but you know that I won’t be. You know that they won’t be either.”

            Robert’s wrists began to twitch and found that he could not move freely. “Stop your talking. I have heard enough. Get me out of this place.”

            “I offered you a deal, Robert. I offered you something that no one else on this Earth could offer you. How could you refuse? All of your problems…gone. One by one. All I asked for was something in return. Do you remember now?”

            Robert ran towards the figure, but it evaded him and Robert found himself face down in the dirt. “What do you want from me?” Robert screamed.

            “It’s time for you to remember, Robert.”

            “I don’t want to!”

            “Perhaps you already have then…what did you say to me, Robert? When I told you that I could make all of your problems go away. When I told you that I could end your suffering by making sure those who tortured you die. What did you say to me?”

            “I didn’t know! I didn’t know what any of it meant! I was a boy!”

            “A life costs a life, Robert. Nothing is for free. Every hated brother you wanted dead cost the life of one you loved. For your brother Clarence, I took your brother Harold, for your brother Sibley, I took your first wife, and for Reuben I took your son. Brodric and Jonathan, now they cost you Isabelle and little Harold. The debt would have been repaid…had we not met again when you were a teenager.”

            “Stop it! I said stop it!”

            “You killed them all, Robert. I may have orchestrated their deaths, but you instructed them. You gave me your word. I told you the rules when you were young. I told you that for each one of your brothers I killed, another would have to die too.”

            “You did not tell me it would be people I loved!”

            “Hate costs love, Robert. It has always been that way. Hate destroys love, just as death destroys life. But both are necessary for balance. We must have balance. This is balance.”

            “Let me out. I don’t want to listen to you. Let me out!” Robert cried.

“Not until you understand, Robert. Not until you accept it. You will remember everything now. Your father, Robert. Remember when we met then? You added to the list. You wanted him gone too. You immediately took it back, but you promised me a life, and once you make a promise like that, it cannot be taken back.”

“You took everyone from me! There is no one left! Just leave them all alone.”

“Oh, there are some left, aren’t there? You don’t think I cannot see inside your very soul. Myriam and Mallory…oh how you love both of them. So much so, that I could not possibly choose between them…and so you will.”

            Robert awoke shaking so violently, but could not move his hands or legs. A flash of light pulled his eyes open and he felt a wave of cold water splash his face. He took a deep breath and felt a hard slap across his cheeks. He panted heavily until his breath slowed and a dry cloth was wiped over his face. When his eyes settled to the light, he lifted his head to see Lord Steel standing over him with a strained looked upon his face.

            “You’re finally awake.”

            “What happened? What happened to me?”

            “You’ve been screaming all night. You were so loud that you woke the guards. They came into your room to find you screaming and wailing. I have heard your terrors before, but this…well this was something entirely different. We had to restrain you to stop you lashing out at us all.”

            “I don’t remember anything. I just remember falling asleep.”

            “I’m not surprised. When you flailed, you smashed your head against the wall and knocked yourself out.”

            “I need to get home. I need to get back to Silver City.”

            Lord Steel laughed gravely. “I don’t think any of us will be going anywhere, Sir Robert.”

            “What are you talking about?”

            “There is an army at our gates. Although, I assume you already knew that.”

            “How on earth would I know that?”

            “Because your father-in-law is leading it.”

Sacked

Good morning everyone and thanks for stopping by to read Chapter Forty-One of The Cursed King. I seem to be posting these earlier and earlier on Saturday mornings because I keep waking up earlier. I’m not sure if it is an age thing or because I’m now used to waking up between 6 – 7 on weekdays, but I don’t mind it. I feel awake and ready to go, which is the main thing. I’m currently looking forward to two weeks off work in the middle of October to go to Ireland with my girlfriend, and so I’m hoping I’ll have plenty of opportunity to sleep in then.

Book-wise, I have almost finished writing Chapter Forty-Eight. I am slowing down with my writing, mainly because I need to spend more time piecing the last few chapters together, but also because there’s no huge necessity to stay well-ahead of this blog now. I should finish Chapter Forty-Eight this week, which means I have four left to write – one of which being the Epilogue – and so I’m able to take my time a little bit more, knowing that this blog won’t catch up to me. Largely, this blog was created to do exactly that – hold me accountable to finish this project. And at that, it has been very successful. It’s just a nice bonus knowing that people are enjoying reading it too.

In today’s chapter, Nadir faces a city in chaos, figures of power in turmoil, and the frantic world of battle and warfare. With one choice left to make, Nadir must finally decide to whom he owes his loyalty and will discover exactly what he is capable of. Thanks for reading and Chapter Forty-Two will be posted on Friday 8th October (you’re getting it a day early because I’m off on holiday on the 9th :D).

Sacked

Nadir IX

            Nadir did not awaken until the sun was at its zenith. Usually, he would be awakened before first light by Effei or Jerimeh with a cup of water and a list of instructions for the day. In a panic, Nadir leaped from his bed, worried that his insolence may bring upon him punishment. Even now, when he was desperate to show Jerimeh the extent of his apathy, he could not fight the feeling that he was not in control. As Nadir hurriedly pulled on his hosen and his tunic, he was stirred by the cacophony of voices outside his window. The courtyard of Harthelm was full of activity and, what sounded like, excited voices. Though within a few moments, he realised that this was not the buzz of excitement, but the strained and rushed voices of worry and fear.

            When Nadir opened the door of his chamber, he heard even more voices and tiptoed down the steps that led into the God’s Hall office. The room was empty of people, but Nadir could still hear the voices. He creaked open the door to the God’s Hall and saw that it was full. Lords, Ladies and their children spoke frantically with each other whilst Jerimeh and Effei stood at the chancel with Lord Grosvenor, who’s eyes were red and puffy, his son, Sir Danayal, and Sir Trevon Blacksquire. Nadir did not like many of the knights, but Sir Trevon was by far the worst. He had a horrible smell and was always drunk and lurid.

            Instead of joining them on the chancel, Nadir decided that whatever commotion was happening in the city, he did not want to be part of it. As he was about to sneak around the side of the God’s Hall, Effei spotted him and rushed over to him eagerly. Nadir faked a smile and greeted him politely.

            “Nadir, I must apologise that I did not wake you this morning. A terrible thing has happened. It has taken all of our energy.”

            “What is it?” Nadir asked.

            “The city walls were breached last night and much of the city’s defences were burned. Moreover, and it pains me to say it, Lord Elden Hardwick was murdered by the intruders and some turncoat City Guards.”

            Nadir did not know how to react. Dead, he thought. Nadir could not process all of the information that he had just been given, but he soon realised what it meant. “The army are at our walls?”

            Effei nodded gravely. “Yes, we are at our final lines of defence in this war, Nadir.”

            Nadir felt sick. He soon realised that this would be the time King Aedvard would expect him to act. There was no other moment than this. He knew that he had to find the King and to make good on his escape from Harthelm. He wondered how he would get to Aedvard, how he would escape this situation, where surely, he would be asked to do a thousand and one tasks for Effei and Jerimeh.

            “Nadir, I have been so caught up in all of this that many tasks have gone undone. I need you to tend to the prisoners and bring them their meals from the kitchen. Can you do that?”

            Nadir stood stunned. “Yes, Effei. I can do that.”

**

            “It sounds like it is time,” Aedvard whispered, his pupils widening. Nadir did not respond. He had learned that it was always best to wait for Aedvard to ask a question rather than to try and contribute to the conversation. There seemed to be an unspoken rule among those with power that their voices were worth less than the one who ranked above them. It was a concept that irked him, but one that he had no choice but to endure. “You understand that we are not out yet? I am still locked in this cell, and the majority of our armies still have a wall between them and the city. Now is the time for your final task for me, Nadir. Should you wish for this to be your final task, that is.”

            “I just want to leave the city. I want to leave the city and find my mother.”

            Aedvard smiled from one side of his mouth only. “Then so be it. You have upheld your end of the bargain, Nadir, and so I will do as I promised. We will make good on our escape from the city together. I, of course, will need to lead my army. What you do from that point onwards is up to you. You may stay and take revenge on those who have wronged you, or you may run as fast as your legs will take you from this place.”

            Nadir nodded. “Thank you, my King.”

            “I have been informed that the key to this cell is not kept on the gaoler’s person. It is not kept on the ring of keys along with the others. It is loose. I believe this is kept in the gaoler’s cupboard. You will need to gain access to this cupboard and retrieve the key.”

            “Who has the key to the gaoler’s cupboard?”

            Aedvard sighed. “I do not know. This is our difficulty. As you know, I have men in my employ throughout this city, but not a single one of them has ever taken possession of this key. It will be a guard. One that is trusted totally and completely by King Aron.”

            “How do I know who that is?”

            “That is up to you to find out, Nadir. You will not be able to do this by asking questions, only by watching and observing. Take advantage of the chaos. Hide in plain sight, but by the time the sun sets tonight, you must have that key in your hands.”

            Nadir did not know where to start. He wandered around the busy courtyard looking for anyone that he knew that guarded King Aedvard’s cell. He had only ever known the cell to be opened by King Aron himself, and from what Nadir knew of The King of the Hartlands, he trusted no one. The thought troubled Nadir. How will I ever get close enough to the King to search through his pockets? What if he did not even keep the key on his person? Nadir wrestled with the task in his mind over and over again. The only way out of the city was through the tunnels, and he needed King Aedvard to get him out of the city safely.

            The courtyard was still full of people as he walked across the cobbled stone paving that cut through the finely trimmed grass of the courtyard gardens. Nadir had only ever seen such a commotion at weddings and the arrival of King Aedvard at Harthelm all those months ago. Though this time the air of excitement and anticipation had been sapped from the atmosphere and replaced with the dense atmosphere of anxiety and fear. It seemed to Nadir that people always tried to seem busier in times of crisis, as if their one small action would contribute to a greater achievement, and yet all Nadir had seen since he had arrived were nobles and Kings making grand decisions with the swish of a quill that no grand idea of any mere man could do anything to stop.

            All of the running around, frantically preparing for the inevitability that stood outside the gates made Nadir realise the significance of what he knew. The knowledge that he held in his grasp that, if he revealed, could save the lives of an entire city. Yet he needed to keep his knowledge tight to himself to save his own life and protect him long beyond what, he hoped, would only be a brief nightmare in the length of his existence. As Nadir drowned out the noise of the chaos that surrounded him, he found that the bodies around him slowed down, their movements were smoother and more observable. He watched their faces twitch and grimace, but mingled within those expressions were the maintained courtesies of their interactions, the smiles of agreement and the laughs in-between strained faces, somewhere between exasperation and fear. Those moments twisted in Nadir’s heart and made his stomach tighten.

            All of a sudden, a familiar face was before him. Jerimeh had his hands around his shoulders and had knelt down in front of him. Nadir stood still and watched Jerimeh as the corners of his eyes twitched, perhaps masking the pain that kneeling down to meet his height caused him. What pain does this man endure for my benefit? Nadir wondered as the old man’s words flew past him.

            “Can you do this for me?” Jerimeh’s words hit him as Nadir was shaken from his trance.

            “Of course,” Nadir said, knowing that even when his superiors asked him a question, it was just a friendly way of delivering their command in the hope that he would not despise them.

            “This is an emergency meeting. I will expect everyone will be on edge, so when you are pouring for King Aron, you must make sure to pour for his grace first before anyone, but you must particularly ensure that you do not pour for Prince Asher before him.”

            “Understood,” Nadir said, not quite sure what he was doing, though it seemed he had been asked to cupbear for King Aron and Prince Asher at an emergency meeting. Nadir could not quite believe his luck. For all his wondering about how he would get close to King Aron, he did not ever expect to be thrust into a situation where he could sneak a slight hand into the King’s pockets whilst the King was frantically beating his fist on a desk spitting his commands at his vassals.

            Nadir was hurried into the chamber by Jerimeh as the Arkgodson took his place by the desk. King Aron had his face pushed into his hands and Prince Asher looked as though he would rather be anywhere else. Jerimeh coughed into a handkerchief and Lord Grosvenor stared at the doorway blankly. Nadir poured the wine into the goblet and surveyed the room cautiously. He noticed King Aron’s surcoat hanging over the back of his chair around the oval desk that took up the centre of the room. As soon as the goblet was placed at Aron’s side, the King picked it up and glugged it like a drunk in a tavern, and slammed it into the table.

            “Keep them coming, lad,” King Aron told him.

            “Now is not the time to drink,” Asher growled. “We have a city to defend.”

            “And nothing to defend it with. The fucking villain has puppets inside and outside of this city, he has rats running around for him to do his bidding. He has been doing it all along. This is why he allowed himself to be imprisoned. He could have been out as soon as he was in if he wanted to. The war is over. We have lost.”

            “It is not over. There is still a wall between us and them. Our father kept this city safe his entire life. Not a single King in history has allowed an army through those gates no matter who knocked upon them. We cannot go down in the histories as The Hartlanders who lost The Hartlands. Lord Garrison is sending a force. We just need to keep them out until they arrive.”

            “A force, he says, what kind of force? They have over eight-thousand men…will Lord Garrison send his force to be crushed outside our walls? What for? It is easier to negotiate with a large army at your disposal.”

            “Lord Garrison has always been loyal to our father and to us.”

            “Because it was worth his while, brother. What use is loyalty when there is a sword at your throat? He will do what serves his interests. There is no one coming to save us, so allow me to drink until they carve their way through our city and take this castle.”

            “You cannot mean that…you cannot mean to disgrace our father!”

            “Our father is dead…with the Gods in Paradise or reborn as the son or daughter of one of these cunts at our gate. Perhaps his soul is even in a vessel of a Blacklander…perhaps he is outside these walls right now…wouldn’t that be a grand joke of the Gods.”

            “King Aron, please,” Jerimeh pleaded.

            “Enough!” Lord Grosvenor rose from his seat. “You are supposed to be King. You have had men question your ability to lead all your life. Now, when the time comes to show that you can be the leader they need, you drink and cry and quit. Prince Asher is right, you do disgrace your father, and you disgrace all of us who have remained loyal to you throughout this blasted war. You should have accepted Lady Isabel as a wife. You should never have executed your Queen. You have failed, your grace. Failed. A great man died last night. A loyal man who would have laid down his life in battle for you. Instead, he was gutted by men who thought were his own. If you want the respect of the people in this room, if you want to die with some fucking dignity, then you will take your sword, armour up and lead your men to defend the people of this city. If you do not, then even if you somehow survive this siege, I will not follow you.”

            “Out! Everybody out!” King Aron roared.

            Asher sprung from his chair and stormed from the room alongside Lord Grosvenor. Nadir looked at Jerimeh for approval and the Arkgodson nodded to approve his leave. Whilst Nadir was frustrated that he could not get his hands close to the King’s pockets, he was also relived that he no longer needed to. To be caught would mean joining Aedvard in a jail cell, and he began to wonder if he could find another way to escape the city without King Aedvard’s help. As he walked down the staircase, Grosvenor and Asher were talking in whispers in the oriel that overlooked the city. Nadir made sure not to make eye contact with either of them as he walked past them, and managed to get by without them noticing him.

            When he reached the bottom of the stairs, Nadir bumped into someone and fell backwards onto the step. He heard a man chuckle to himself, and when he looked up, he saw the grizzled face of Sir Trevon hovering over him. Nadir sprung to his feet and stood defiantly before the Knight. “You should be more careful, lad,” the drunkard slurred. Sir Trevon always stunk of alcohol, but today the stench was so strong that Nadir could feel it in the back of his throat. Without saying a word, Nadir side stepped him and exited the tower. “Oi! I was talking to you, come back here!” Sir Trevon yelled after him. Nadir stopped in his tracks and the Knight caught up to him.

            “What is it?” Nadir growled impatiently, eager to figure out his next move without the lecherous drunk bothering him and making him feel uncomfortable.

            “You talk to me like that? A landed Knight and member of the Royal Guard. You lowborn welp, you should know your place…you think because you spent time with these Godsons that it makes you better than me? I could cut you where you stand, boy.”

            Sir Trevon stumbled forward. Nadir decided to walk away, he had never known the Knight to be sober, but this was by far the drunkest he had ever seen him. The Knight followed him into the side alley between the tower and the King’s Hall, but soon after Nadir heard a thud on the ground. He turned around to see that Sir Trevon had fallen to the floor. Nadir approached the Knight cautiously and nudged him with the tip of his shoe. The Knight snored loudly, fast asleep. It was then that Nadir looked at the Knight’s surcoat and saw a bulge in one of the pockets. He knelt down and carefully rummaged in the pockets. He pulled out a set of keys that looked like the ones on the gaoler’s ring…then as he dug into the parallel pocket, he pulled out a larger key, on its own and much shinier, as though it had only been used sparingly. With a start, Nadir looked around him and quickly tucked the key away safely into his hosen.

            Whilst sprinting to the dungeon, where Nadir would take the tunnels back towards Aedvard, he realised just how weak his legs had become. He never had the chance to run in Harthelm, never had the opportunity to chase anything faster than he was. He felt sluggish and tired far quicker than he did before, but the focus of his mind kept him going. I could be out of this city by tonight, he realised. When he reached the dungeons, he quickly endured the jeering and the begging that came from the cells on either side of him, whilst it was easy to ignore the comments, it was harder to ignore the hands that grabbed for him and to stay out of reach of both sides required walking a very narrow tightrope through the centre of the walkway. When he reached the cell that once held both Queen Lorne and Thair Spicer, he let himself in and then locked it again behind him. He removed the bricks in the correct order than formed a gap just large enough to crawl through, and revelled in the silence that came after he replaced the last brick and blocked the rest of the light out.

            Nadir could navigate these tunnels blind for the time he had spent scuttling through them in absolute darkness, and before he entered the room that kept King Aedvard, Nadir pressed his ear to the wall to ensure there was no noise. He gave the signal to Aedvard by knocking three times, each a second apart on the brick. Aedvard coughed loudly, which was Nadir’s signal to enter safely. Once he did, he held up the ring of keys triumphantly and smiled. Aedvard’s usually stoic demeanour was briefly interrupted by a wry smile of his own. “You are a clever, clever young man,” the King told him.

            “Lucky,” Nadir corrected him. “Extremely lucky.”

            “It does not matter; you have the keys to your freedom in your hands. Do you know which one is for the gaoler’s cupboard?”

            “I don’t think we’ll need it,” Nadir said, holding up the shiny key.

            Aedvard’s eyes became wide and his pupils dilated. “By the Gods, lad. Well, what are you waiting for? Open the door and let’s get out of here!”

            As soon as Nadir turned the key in the lock and heard the click, King Aedvard immediately pushed through the door, almost knocking Nadir to the floor. His eyes darted towards the wall. “You know your way by heart?”

            “Yes, my King,” Nadir replied.

            “You can take me to the beach? We need to go to the beach,” Aedvard said, excitedly.

            “I know the way. Just be careful at the end of the tunnel, there is a steep drop off onto the rocks below. Do you think you can climb?”

            Aedvard smiled. “I can manage.” Nadir nodded and turned towards the wall. “Nadir,” Aedvard said and the boy turned around. “You have done a great thing today. I will not forget it. Thank you.”

            Nadir was shocked at how easy it had been to break Aedvard free from his cell. It had occurred to him that the guarding of the King had grown increasingly lax in the recent months, but Nadir did not have time to think about that. For all he knew, this was all a trap of which he was going to be caught in the middle. Aedvard navigated the tunnels far better than Thair Spicer did. He also complained less than the merchant. Aedvard did not say much at first, but as the first etchings of natural light began to shine through from the crack in the cliffs before them, the King was retrospective.

            “You are an incredible young man, Nadir. I truly mean it. To do such things, such brave, brave things. It shows the courage that you possess. It shows the love and the loyalty you have for your mother.”

            “We are almost there,” Nadir told him, leading ahead. “Just be careful when we get to the edge.”

            “Such care and consideration for others. My word, is there no end to your virtues, lad?”

            “I’d say there’s about fifty yards ahead of us until the cliffs. It will get slippery. When the tide is in, the waves reach all the way up and crash against the rocks. Then moss grows which makes the rocks dangerous.”

            “And so smart…who taught you that…Jerimeh, I presume?”

            “My mother taught me that. She used to live on the coast. She knows a lot about beaches and the ocean.”

            “I suspect it will not be long before you are with her. Not long at all.”

            “I hope so.”

            “You do not need to hope…I will make sure of it.”

They had reached the edge of the tunnels that looked over at the jagged rocks below them. The tide was out and the rocks were bone dry from the hot sun, yet they still twinkled in the light, each pointed tip of stone twinkling like the edge of the sharpest dagger. It was then that Nadir was aware of the dagger that he had strapped to his leg. The dagger that was a gift from Thair Spicer that he kept with him at all times. Just in case. King Aedvard stood over Nadir, even with the months spent locked in a cell with little to eat and drink and no form of exercise, he was an imposing figure. Tall and broad and with the roughness only men of a certain age could exude. A callousness of the hands and of the mind, a deep understanding of the world and the way it works. All of this oozed from the King of the Blacklands as his brow furrowed and his mouth tightened. “I want you to know, lad. That you would have been a fine man, but…you are no more to me than a loose end.”

            Nadir had nowhere to move. Behind him were the jagged rocks, which he thought he could easily climb faster than the King, but beyond them was his army, waiting to sack the city with their battering rams pressed up against the city gates. In front of him, was the King of the Blacklands, twice his size and strength and experience. In that moment, Nadir lost all of his resolve. Faced with his own mortality, he felt his eyes begin to well up. He was crying, and he was humiliated that he had allowed himself to cry in the face of death. After all that had happened, after all he had endured, how dare he cry now? How dare his body betray him? Then, he felt himself kneel down. Am I going to beg for my life? He thought.

            “For the love of the Gods, have some dignity,” Aedvard growled. Nadir sniffled and bawled, and all of this came so naturally to him, to the point where his wails echoed through the halls. Nadir had no control over any of this anymore. His body acted on its own accord as a fire shot through him. “Shut up! Shut up!” Aedvard went to grip him by the scruff of the neck, but Nadir slipped between his legs, and his hosen rode up enough for him to pull out the dagger from its holder. Without a moment’s hesitation, Nadir swiped the blade across Aedvard’s calf muscle. The blade was so sharp that it did not take more than a moment before the blood began to flow down the back of his ankle. The King let out a roar, like a wounded lion, louder than any of Nadir’s wailing cries. The King had dropped to his knee and nursed the wound as much as he could. It was not fatal, Nadir knew that much, but now he had the chance to kill the King that intended to kill him.

            But as he stood over the wounded King, his blood on his hand and his dagger, he did not. Nadir turned away. The King yelled after him, demanding his help, but Nadir blocked him out, and soon he was through the tunnels, sprinting as fast as his legs would carry him. He breezed past Aedvard’s empty cell and kept going and going all the way to the end. When he finally reached the ladder that would lift him up and out into the city, Nadir paused for a breath and then screamed as loudly as he could, not caring who might hear him. After a few moments of catching his breath and wiping away his tears, he looked down at his hands and looked at the bloody dagger coated in the King’s blood. Nadir felt sick, but knew that he did not have long. He pulled himself up the ladder and removed the thin steel covering by pushing it up out of its slot.

            When Nadir peered over the edge, he was back in Bankwater the night that it was raided by Sir Eiruc Garrison. All around the trees was chaos, there were horses rushing past like shadows, the orange glow of fire all around the city, bodies falling into the river. Nadir did not need to move a step farther to know that the army had broken through into the city. Eight thousand men thirsty for blood and plunder, ready to cut down anyone they saw. And I have just given them back their King, Nadir thought. Each scream pierced his mind like the deafening screech of the banshee. The thud of hooves across the ground pulling at his insides and making him wretch. And then he heard the words that made him crawl back into the hole. The tortured cries of a child as it screamed for his mother. “Mama!” the boy screamed. “Mama!” And then another thunderous clattering of hooves stampeded across the dirt, and the sound was gone. Darkness had taken the city, the stars blocked out by the billowing smoke of naked flames licking at buildings and trees and people.

            Nadir sat with his arms around his knees and rocked back and forth, crying into his habit, not realising that he was still wearing the clothes of the Godsons, the clothes that had been given to him by Jerimeh, by the city that he had sold to a man that had tried to murder him. Then, as it so often did, Nadir’s terror and sadness turned into anger. He looked down at the bloodied blade again and gripped it tight in his hands, his tears cooling on his cheeks. Nadir swallowed and squeezed the handle until he felt his own blood drip from his skin. All of the worry within him, all of the horror, all of the pain turned to fire in his blood. He could not escape. He could not leave the city. All he could do was go back to Harthelm. Go back, and face his fate.

Harthelm

Good morning everyone, and thanks for stopping by to read Chapter Forty of The Cursed King. It’s been a bit of a draining week, in truth, and I am, as usual, feeling the tiredness. However, the writing continues and this week I finished writing Chapter Forty-Seven. This means that there are just five chapters left to write, and the light at the tunnel is beginning to get a little bit brighter. That’s not to say that I haven’t enjoyed writing this story, it’s just that it has been such a big project and has taken so long, that I am glad to have a big chunk of text to finally sit down and edit.

In today’s chapter, Riechard is reunited with his father as their armies descend upon Silver City. With the tides of war in their favour, they plan their final assault on a city that no one has ever managed to successfully siege. Thank you for reading, and Chapter Forty-One will be posted on 25th September.

Harthelm

Riechard VIII

            “He didn’t respect you until he beat you senseless?” Prince Charles asked whilst holding Riechard’s scarred face between his forefinger and his thumb.

            “I still don’t think he really respects me all that much,” Riechard joked.

            “Enough to get you and your army all the way here,” Charles replied, removing his hand. “Nothing wrong with a face with some character, lad.”

            “I’d exchange that for a few extra teeth.”

            “It just means the cooks will have to cook your meat extra tender.”

            Riechard and Charles led their joint force of almost seven-thousand men through Hazelfield towards Silver City. It had been such a long time since he’d had a conversation with his father, particularly one that had lasted so long. Side by side their horses moved over the sodden ground as winter finally moved into spring and the rays of the sun warmed them. The plains of Hazelfield began to beam with life once again, and despite the fact that they were tired and war-torn, there was a joyousness and a calm surrounding them. Their stocks had been replenished and the war had almost been won. Riechard had never felt as challenged or as tired, but he also thought that the war would have tested him more than it had. It seemed more and more like everything was opening up in front of him where he was expecting to have to break down doors. Though Ismann and Dawnmount both tested his ability to lead, he could not help but wonder if he had been able to do it had he not greatly outnumbered his opponents. He had sold his marital bed for victory, and whilst he had not known Hilde long, he could not help but think that he had been given a very fair deal.

            “How did you get to Hazelfield? We have heard little of your progression.”

            Charles looked up to the sky as if he was wondering the same thing himself. “It was as if there was no one in either Hillhold or Hunter’s Valley at all. We simply progressed through. Of course, we took the towns, and we kept the castle under siege, but in truth, there was no need to take them. Their armies hid behind their walls, and stayed there. I am sure they have stores for months, after the harvest The Twin Kingdoms had last year, but my word, I expected something, and yet…they just seemed to let us through.”

            “Is that not strange?”

            “Terrifically so…I have never known anything quite like it – so much so I left more men back than I perhaps should have, but I could not shake the feeling that it was some kind of trap. Though I do not expect Prince Asher and King Aron to be so light-handed. We should expect a fierce battle even if we do manage to break through their walls…and that is a big if. There is not an army in history that has ever successfully besieged Silver City, let alone Harthelm itself.”

            Before long they reached the precipice of the hills that overlooked Silver City to the south. Sir Gavon had scouted ahead and greeted them gravely. “My Prince…my Lord,” he greeted the father and son.

            “What is it?” Prince Charles responded, quickly picking up the tone.

            “The forests my lord…they have been burned to the ground,” Sir William told him.

            Charles pushed past them towards the summit of the hill and overlooked the horizon and Riechard followed. All around them was greenery, the growing blossoms of Spring and dewy wet grass. Silver City was surrounded by large walls, which were not easy to scale, moreover it had a highly-defended river that ran through the city itself. Their main hope of attack had been besieging the South Gate, which was close by a large woodland, but was now nothing but brown grass and ash. Riechard could not help but question whether or not all he had heard about King Aron was true. He had heard that his uncle was quick to react and a poor strategist, and yet he had just removed his army’s best mode of siege by cutting off their source. Now if they wanted to build siege weapons, they would need to venture back into the hills where the closest woodland would be, and then carry that lumber all the way back. It would be foolish to wait outside the walls without siege equipment and even more foolish to attempt the back-breaking labour that would be required to make the constant trips. By burning down his own forests, King Aron had made The Blacklands army impotent.

            “What do we do?” Sir Gavon asked hopefully to Riechard.

            “We will need time to think.” Charles answered before Riechard could move his lips. “Tell the men to set up camp here for now. We will strategize this evening and make our arrangements for tomorrow.”

            Sir Gavon and Sir William descended the hill, leaving Riechard alone with his father. Riechard was pressing his mind, trying to find a solution to their predicament, unsure of how they would threaten the city without siege weaponry. “We could try to lure them out. Face them on an open field…with our numbers-”

            Charles scoffed. “With our numbers they would never dare such a stupid move. You are as bad as your grandfather for underestimating people. King Aron may be a hothead, but he learned Kingship from one of the greatest men to ever do it. He would not risk such a move. He does not need to. His Kingdom has already been taken. The capital city is all that he holds. He will not let that go. Moreover, they have siege equipment. We cannot get near that city without it, it would be suicide.”

            “Then what do we do?”

            “We wait,” Charles said flatly.

            “Wait for what?”

            “We wait until we think of a way to get into that city.”

            Riechard found himself becoming agitated. He knew of all of the ins and outs of Steelmont, and had learned many passageways in Duncath. There must be thousands of ways into the city. “Why do we not destroy their siege equipment? They want a stalemate, let’s give them one. If they do not have siege engines, then we do not have to fear waiting outside their city. We can cut off their supplies and choke them out until they surrender.”

            “Break into the city? And who would do that? They will have men shoulder to shoulder on those walls. Anyone we send in there would not last a moment before having their throat cut. Their siege machines will be protected night and day too. We could not get so close.”

            “I can get in. Just myself and a few more. Once we know the points of entry we could-”

            “Enough. I will not hear such nonsense, and I will not give up my only son for such folly. Do you understand me?”

            “You gave me up for a decade, father.”

            Charles eyes burned right through him. Riechard had been away for his father for most of his life, and for much of that time, all he had heard of his father were placid words of favour that scarcely drowned out the overheard whispers of his detractors. Riechard knew the man as a painter and a writer, not as a warrior or a Prince. Now though, as he looked into his father’s grey eyes, he saw an anger in him that he had never seen before. With his greying hair now cut short and his jawline visible from his military diet, he looked every bit as authoritative as a King. Riechard prepared himself for a bollocking, but instead, Charles turned away from him and took in a deep breath before turning back towards his son.

            “You are right,” Charles said, to Riechard’s surprise. “I should never have let you go. I should have protested your grandfather’s decision to send you away. He was insistent. He…did not want you to be raised by me, truth be told. I suppose that I had been such a disappointment that he did not want you to follow my path.”

            “I didn’t…I’ve never painted anything in my life.”

            Charles laughed. “That puts you ahead of m in the pecking order then.”

            Riechard laughed too, but only for a moment. “I am sorry. I spoke to mother before I left…she misses you.”

            Charles smiled. “I miss her too. She is a wonderful woman, your mother. Which is why, no matter what happens, we cannot hurt her family…Asher and Aron. Defeated or no, they cannot come to our swords.”

            “If Grandfather wants them dead…” Riechard began.

            “Then we must be the ones to change his mind.”

            At the meeting, Karlon was still eating a leftover lamb leg from dinner. He held it up like a lantern and occasionally tore at the meat with his sharp teeth. Hilde seemed completely oblivious to the fact that this was not respectful behaviour in front of a Prince, and herself sniffed at her hairy armpits and winced before taking a swig of wine. Riechard knew, however, that neither of them was oblivious and were completely aware that Charles looked at them as savages. Riechard knew this because he heard them laughing about it beforehand. He was constantly listening to them laughing and joking with each other, and he often felt that he was the butt of their jokes. Charles looked at Riechard and cringed, to which Riechard responded with a forced smile, knowing that Charles was really the one being mocked.

            Hilde lifted her goblet and eyed it thoughtfully. “This wine is delicious,” she said, mocking Charles’ dialect.

            “Mighty fine meat too, but nothing beats the taste of human flesh,” Karlon echoed with a growling tone.

            Riechard was worried that this attempt at intimidation would dominate his father, but Charles just sat patiently. He did not try to talk or interrupt them, but he did not respond to them either. After a few moments, Charles stood up, cleared the table piece by piece, including sweeping some crumbs onto Karlon’s lap and rolled out a piece of parchment upon the deck. He held out his hand and looked at Hilde, then glanced at her goblet. He filled it up with wine and placed it on one of the corners. Once the parchment was laid out, Riechard saw that it was a map of Silver City and the surrounding area.

            “This is Silver City,” the Prince began. “In over five-hundred years, there has not been a single army who has gotten inside it by force alone. Not with siege weapons, not by luring them into the field, not by starving them out. Not in half a millennium has anyone achieved it. But if we want to win this war definitively. If we want to end the bloodshed and go back to our homes with our King and a peaceful rule, we have to do what no one has ever been able to. Now, you can sit here and play your games like infants or you can help me plan a way to take the city. Riechard tells me you are both capable leaders. He tells me that you were invaluable in the capture of Dawnmount. Do you wish to contribute your thoughts?”

            Karlon looked at Charles thoughtfully for a moment and then scoffed. “I have nothing to prove to a man like you,” the General picked the fat out of his teeth and spat it on the floor. “But I do like a challenge.” Karlon rose to his feet and towered over his father as he did most people. He had not truly appreciated the size of the man until he had felt his fist in his mouth. Each punch felt like a giant was using a tree trunk as a battering ram against his face. Riechard ran his tongue across his broken teeth and shuddered again. Thank the Gods he is on our side, he thought.

            Hilde followed suit. Riechard had noticed that Hilde and Karlon seemed to have a signal to the other. If one agreed, the other would follow. It was rare that they did not share a united front, which made Riechard think that they were under strict instruction to do so, even if they did not feel the same. “We could sneak in. I have never seen a city so big, they could not possibly have every section guarded. There must be a weak point.”

            “The walls stetch almost three miles from coast to coast,” Charles explained.

            “What about the cove?” Riechard asked. “There must be a way into the city from there.”

            “Perhaps, but if there are more than a few men on the beach, then someone will soon raise alarm. Besides, without knowing the entrance whoever we send could easily be trapped.”

            “My Prince?” A voice came from outside of their tent.

            “What is it?” Charles asked.

            It was Sir Gavon, who held in his hands a piece of parchment. He hurried over to the table. “Sorry to interrupt, your highness, a message…from Harthlem.”

            “Harthelm?” Charles asked incredulously. Riechard father opened the parchment and gazed at it before breaking into a disbelieving smile. “I do not believe it…I knew the old man had men in the castle, but this is remarkable.”

            “What is it?” Riechard asked.

            “Son…I think we have our way into the city.”

**

            “I should be the one to go,” Riechard told Sir William as their small retinue of twenty rode their horses down the hills towards Silver City. Riechard and Sir William had ridden off ahead, with Riechard keen to vent his frustrations to his friend. Sir Gavon scouted a league ahead of them and would soon arrive on the outskirts of Silver City, still far enough away from arrow fire. Prince Charles hung back with Karlon and Hilde, with the two Ismann warlords showing an interest in Charles that Riechard had not expected. There seemed to be some common ground between them which Riechard did not understand. The rest of the men followed closely behind them.

            “I agree. You are the least important. If it is a trap, then we would not miss you,” Sir William laughed.

            “This is serious. My father does not trust me with this.”

            “Did he say that?”

            “He did not have to. I immediately asked to do it, and he told me that he would assess the situation, which means that he does not intend to let me…do you really think this could be a trap?”

            Sir William shook his head sincerely. “Not really. Your grandfather has been getting messages out without interception for months. Besides, King Aron would have to be smart enough to set this trap, which he is not.”

            “He managed to trap my grandfather in his castle.”

            Sir William smiled wryly. “Only because King Aedvard allowed him to. Make no mistake, if King Aedvard did not want to be captured, then he would not have allowed it.”

            “Why on earth would he want to be caught?”

            “Men let their guard down when they believe they are safe. It is also easier to tear something down from the inside than the outside.”

            As they rode through what used to be the forest towards the coast, they passed the stumpy trunks of the felled trees and Riechard could smell the salty air of the sea. Once they arrived at the cliff, they waited with Sir William and Sir Gavon until the rest of their entourage arrived. Prince Charles descended his horse and surveyed the surrounding area. They were a league west of Silver City and the chosen man would make their way to the cove described by King Aedvard through the sand with the two knights. Riechard looked to his father expectantly.

            “General Karlon. You will travel three miles east until you reach the cove. It should be between five-hundred and a thousand yards of the river mouth. Stay close to the cliff edge so that you are not spotted, and leave Sir Gavon and Sir William at each mile marker so that they can reach you if anyone happens to be passing. We will meet back here at mid-morning,” Charles commanded.

            Karlon nodded and took the note from Charles’ hand. All three men walked to the beach without word or question. Riechard stepped forward, but Sir William grabbed his wrist and pulled him back. “Not now,” he whispered.

            “I brought an army of over four thousand men to this point. Why should I not meet the contact?” Riechard growled at Sir William.

            “Your father does not mean to slight you. He means to protect you.”

            “Do I look like I need protecting?” Riechard bared his splintered teeth at Sir William. “I made it this far without protection. I can make it to the other end of a beach.” Riechard stepped forward towards his father. “Father…I would like to accompany General Karlon to meet the contact.”

            Charles took a moment to consider him. “Lord Riechard,” he said pandering, “you are too valuable to be sent on such an errand. I need you here with Hilde to lead your army. If it were up to me, you would still be at home in Duncath.”

            “I am not in Duncath, and it is not my home. I have spent more time in the Hartlands as a man than I have ever spent in Duncath,” Riechard spat.

            “You have not spent a day anywhere as a man,” Charles said sternly with a lowered voice so that only Riechard could hear him. Riechard was affronted, but did not have a word to say back to his father. Charles leaned in close. “You have proven yourself. More so than you ever needed to in my eyes, and let me be the one to tell you, it will never be enough for your grandfather whatever you do…believe me on that. When we go back to the camp, then we will plan ahead.”

            Riechard felt his nerves calm, which agitated him even more, but he had nothing left to say. To continue to argue would seem petulant, and his annoyance was beginning to be noticed by his betrothed. “Okay,” Riechard said. As they waited for Sir Gavon and Karlon to return, Riechard stared out over the ocean. He watched as a fleet of ships passed the horizon. He wondered where they were going, where they were from, and if Neville was aware of them. Hilde sat beside him in silence, sharpening her sword on her whetstone and whittling some arrow heads. Charles did not take his eyes off of the walls of Silver City, as if at any moment he expected them to fall.

            When Karlon returned, it was with a piece of parchment. The General handed it to the Prince. Charles looked at it strangely. “This is the seal of the Arkgodson,” he said.

            “The contact assures me the note has been written by King Aedvard himself,” Karlon replied.

            Charles opened it and read the note aloud. “We will find our strength inside,” Charles said. “This is it? This is the note my father sends us? Words of hope and inspiration? This is not like him.”

            “No…” Riechard said, “it is not like him at all.”

**

            In his tent, Riechard lay on his bed whilst Hilde sat on the end of it as she ran the sharpened blade of her dagger across the top of her head to trim her hair. Riechard watched as the veins twitched in her biceps as she focussed and made the entire process look easy. At the same time, Riechard ran his fingers through his own long, oily hair and the straggly hairs that now adorned his chin and wondered if he might be better off doing the same thing as his betrothed. He had heard that King Aron kept his hair long too, but he had also heard of his uncle’s great beard and shining locks. According to his mother, he had always looked every bit the King, but on the inside, he could not be further from what one should be.

            “What do you think it means?” Riechard asked Hilde as he stared at the roof of his tent. “We will find our strength inside.

            “Southerners think they are poets. It is no more than encouragement. Like when mothers tell their children they can do something even when they cannot,” Hilde replied, still focused on trimming her hair evenly.

            “You do not know my grandfather…and apparently neither does my father. He does not write poetry. He writes instructions. Clear and concise.”

            “There is nothing clear about his message.”

            “Perhaps not…but perhaps he also considered the message may be intercepted or that the messenger might betray him.”

            “It means nothing anyway. Even if we worked out what he was saying, we cannot get our army near the castle without siege equipment. We will be ripe for the picking.”

            Riechard thought for a moment and suddenly the idea struck him like a lightning bolt. “Our strength is inside,” Riechard repeated. The city’s strength is inside the city walls, all of their siege equipment. What if we can destroy it from the inside? What if the meeting place was our entry way to the city, so that we could sneak in and destroy their war machines?” Riechard sat bolt upright.

            “You got all of that instruction from four words?”

            “Think about it. In the dead of night when the walls are less protected, when the men are drunker and more tired. That is the best time. Under the cover of darkness. We do not even need to destroy all their equipment, just enough on the north side of the city where we can gather our army and begin running in supplies for building our own siege. With any luck, any fires we start will spread and we’ll cause bedlam. We might even draw them into a fight, which would play to our advantage.”

            “If it means gaining an advantage and doing some action, I will join, I am becoming incredibly bored waiting. My blade has not known blood in weeks. Will your father allow this? He is a cautious man of what I have learned.”

            Riechard felt a sting as Hilde spoke of his father. I led this army here with Karlon and Hilde, not my father. Riechard stood on his feet and put on his scabbard and his cloak. “He does not need to know. By the time we have finished, he will not even know we were gone.”

            “You mean to do this now?”

            “Why not? It is the dead of night. We’ll need ten men. Sir William and Sir Gavon are loyal to me and will join me. Can you find another six?”

            Hilde nodded. “With ease.”

            “Then let’s go.”

**

            The Great Galla lit their path down the hills and back towards the city. Riechard tried to squint to see how many men manned the city walls, but the light of the half moon was not enough to bring the City Guard into vision. Their group moved silently across the sand of the beach, covered in black cloaks and sticking close to the cliffs. Riechard had not ever spent much time on the sand, but he did not care for it. When the sand was soft and dry, his ankles sunk in as if it was snow, but was much more difficult to remove. Once they had walked the several miles to the cove, his calves and ankles ached.

            The cove was little more than an angled crack in the cliffs where a small stream of water broke through, the stream was connected to the river that ran through the city. If they would follow the stream, it would bring them directly into the city centre. “We will go in twos,” Riechard told them. “Karlon and Sir William, Sir Gavon and Arnuld, Hilde and I, the rest of you pair up. One Ismann. One Blacklander.”

            “Why are we split like this? My cousin Arnuld and I would be most effective together,” Karlon protested.

            “Our dialects. A Hartlander knows a Blacklander when he hears them. You should not be speaking at all, but at least if you are caught. The Ismann can do the talking. They are far less likely to become suspicious of an Ismann. Stay in your pairs. Walk to the North Gate as quickly as you can, but do not run. Stay in the shadows and do not allow yourself to become pulled into trouble. Once there, kill the guards quietly and use their gas lanterns to set flame to their siege. Make sure you put the lanterns by the hinge mechanisms. That is all we need to destroy.”

            When the group nodded their agreement, Riechard and Hilde set off first through the cave. It was dank and damp, and smelled as though the Hartlands army had already died in there. They made their way through the wet sand until they reached hard, jagged rocks. They climbed them cautiously and helped each other up through the darkness. After a few slips and scrapes, they eventually reached a tunnel. Riechard gazed into it and held their lantern up close. “This is man-made,” Riechard pondered. “It could lead us straight to Harthelm. Perhaps this is what my grandfather meant…perhaps he wants us to rescue him from Harthelm. Our strength is inside, what if he meant him? What if he is our strength?”

            “We cannot change our plan now. Besides, he is locked in a cell and will be highly guarded. If we are caught then the war will be as good as lost, when it is so close to being won,” Hilde argued. “Come, Riechard. We must continue. Let us do what we set out to do.”

            It was not long before Hilde and Riechard reached the end of the tunnel. They had taken pains to remain as silent as possible as they walked through it, and eventually came within fifty yards of a lantern. They approached cautiously, but soon realised that the entrance to the tunnel was unguarded. The tunnel ended with a ladder, and after looking upwards, Riechard could see the Great Galla again. Carefully, Riechard climbed the ladder and poked the top of his head out from the hole. He looked around him, and could not see a single soul. Before signalling to Hilde, Riechard pulled himself from the hole and noticed that they were beside the river, tucked between the trees that grew along the riverbank.

            “It is clear,” Riechard whispered into the hole and heard his voice echo lightly.

            Hilde soon climbed up behind him and performed the same surveyance as Riechard had done. “This is strange,” she whispered. “Why is this not guarded?”

            “I don’t know, but let’s not hang around and ask why. We need to find our way to the North Gate.”

            Riechard walked ahead, but was immediately knocked to the floor. He scrambled back on his hands and looked up. Hilde gasped at the figure hanging in front of them. She held up the lantern to the figure and saw that it was a person, hanging by the neck from the tree. Once Riechard’s heart had settled, he gently took the lantern from Hilde and inspected the body. There was a purple heart on the man’s surcoat, the emblem of House Hartlin. On the man’s shoulders were symbols that had been embroidered, not too dissimilar from the ones on Duncath’s own City Guard uniforms.

            “Why does it feel like our path has already been cleared?” Riechard asked.

            “Either that or we picked an extremely fortunate night to break into the city,” Hilde replied.

            Hilde and Riechard continued into the city. They were cloaked in black from head to toe, and made sure to stick to the darkest allies as they followed the towering walls. When they got close to the walls, Riechard noticed some of the siege equipment peaking over houses and buildings. The walls were heavily manned, and the streets were busy with drunks, beggars and whores. Towards the end of the last alley, Riechard and Hilde found themselves a dozen yards from the main gate. Hidden in the darkness, they spotted a guard on each side of the gate. The walls had steps leading up to the parapets, but between the wall and the buildings was a wide walkway which contained the siege equipment. There must have been eight trebuchets on this stretch of wall alone, and other catapult type machinery. Alongside the walls were lanterns and torches, perfectly capable of setting light to the wooden siege engines that would be their army’s end should the Hartlanders find a way to use them.

            “How are we going to get to them?” Hilde asked.

            “We cannot sneak towards them…there are too many of them. We must avoid all suspicion.” Riechard did think about taking the hanging guard’s uniform, but the thought of robbing a corpse of its clothing turned Riechard’s stomach. “We will need City Guard uniforms…or at the very least the surcoats.”

            Before Riechard could even consider the option, two cloaked figures appeared behind the men at the gate and quickly cut their throats. It happened so fast, that Riechard almost yelled out in terror. The lanterns were extinguished and the murderers dragged the bodies across the way towards the alley where Hilde and Riechard stood. When they were safely hidden in the darkness, the figures took off their hoods. It was Sir Gavon and Sir William with triumphant smirks on their faces.

            “Are you insane?” Hilde growled. “What if you were caught?”

            “Not much chance of that,” Sir Gavon said. “Did you not hear the commotion?”

            “Sounds like some sort of riot. There’s fires burning all around the walls,” Sir William advised.

            The group stepped out of the alley and saw the flames climbing up the walls. There were men and women frantically rushing in and out of houses throwing buckets of water over the flames. “This is not our doing…” Riechard said. “Karlon and the rest of the group are not even here yet.”

            “Then we’ve either got fucking lucky or King Aedvard had this planned,” Sir William speculated.

            Then Riechard thought again about the note. We will find our strength inside. Riechard felt stupid for breaking into the city, for going to all this trouble, when his grandfather had already arranged for the damage to be done from the inside of the city itself. He had never felt so stupid. “We have to find our way out.”

            “What?” Hilde challenged. “We have just arrived. We will never have a better opportunity to hurt them. Let us finish the job. Let us destroy all we can whilst they fight the fire. We can burn this city to the ground.”

            “We want to rule the city, not destroy it!” Riechard argued.

            “Then let us finish what has already begun. This is just one gate, let’s go to the others and spread the flames across the walls.”

            The group walked across the parapets completely un-harassed. Almost all of the City Guard had raced towards the fire in an attempt to put it out, but every time their group of infiltrators found a lantern, they dropped it in a pile of hay or, when they found one, beneath a siege engine. By the time they reached the West Gate, there was a trail of flames behind them like beacons.  The siege machines were ablaze and the night sky above Silver City was shrouded in thick, black smoke. The West Gate was near-abandoned, but when the group descended from the parapets, they were met with a group of surly-looking City Guardsmen with their swords drawn.

            “Do not dare move a muscle,” one of them said. This man was pot-bellied with thick eyebrows and straggly hair that hung over his shoulders. He stepped forward cautiously and put his sword beneath Riechard’s chin. “Who are you? I want to know the name of the man I am about to kill.”

            The group held their hands up in surrender. They had nowhere to go but either into the steel of their enemies or into the fire they started. In that moment, Riechard accepted his fate, removed his cloak and spoke clearly. “My name is Lord Riechard of House Byrne.” Then, as if Riechard had willed it to the Gods themselves, the City Guardsmen laughed between themselves. The only one who didn’t was the pot-bellied man who held the sword to Riechard’s throat. In a moment of confusion and distraction, the man turned to his men and his eyes burst wide out of his skull as the blade poked through the man’s fat stomach. The group all simultaneously stepped back from the scene. Pulling the sword from the man’s stomach, the one who killed him looked directly into Riechard’s eyes.

            “I think it’s time for you to go, my Lord. Don’t worry…we can take it from here.”

Freemen

Good morning all and thanks for stopping by to read Chapter Thirty-Nine of The Cursed King. I am nearing the end of writing Chapter Forty-Seven, and so once this is done, I’ll have about five chapters left to write, which is crazy. I have been writing this for so long now, that I have mixed feelings being this close to finish it. One of those feelings is relief, to be totally honest, to finally have a finished draft of this story that’s been rocking around in my head since about 2015. It’s been a labour of love, but a project that has brought me a lot of joy, and one that I hope is bringing you joy too.

In today’s Chapter, Leona continues to travel with the pirates of The Free Islands and becomes privy to a shocking discovery about their Captain. Thank you for reading, and Chapter Forty will be posted on September 11th!

Freemen

Leona VIII

The baby kicked at Leona’s stomach as though it was ready to come out. She often wondered what her actions had done to her child over the past few months. The guilt overwhelmed her sometimes, and she wondered if she should have stayed in Aljan, where at least the baby, if not her, would be safe. There were many times that she thought it would be easier to go back, but as she saw the coastline of Ilturbia, she felt relief wash over her body. She lay back and felt the warm air on her face as The New World moved into Spring, and wanted nothing more than to lay beneath the cool water of the sea. Even the sweaty stink of the ship and the gruesome men who inhabited it could not dampen her hope as they approached the city.

Leona watched over the side of the boat for almost an hour, but the boat drifted farther and farther away from the city until she could only see the forest. Frantically, Leona shook Mavina awake from her sleep. “Mavina…Mavina, we have gone past Ilturbia…they are taking the ship north.”

Mavina snapped out of her slumber, her great brown eyes brought to life in a moment. “Where is Hezekiah?”

Hezekiah had not been a step away from Mavina and Leona since Beirus’ carcass had been unceremoniously tossed from the ship, but now, he was nowhere to be seen. Before they could begin panicking, however, Hezekiah appeared from Olon’s cabin and stormed down the steps towards Mavina and Leona.

“My Princess, My Queen…I am sorry to startle you, I wanted to have this resolved before you both woke up.”

“What’s going on?” Leona asked. “Why have we gone past Ilturbia?”

“Olon and his men need supplies…and there is only one way the Freemen get them. I have spent the past few hours telling horror stories of what happens to pirates in Ilturbia, and he has finally relented. In truth, I think he was bluffing, the city is far too strong to succumb to such a small force.”

“Then why are we going north?” Mavina asked.

“There is a town between Ilturbia and just south of Arubel beside the Northern Forest. It is technically in The Hartlands, and so Olon is taking us there instead.”

“Those people are Cesarans!” Leona protested.

“Look around us, Leona. I do not like it, but these men will do what they will. There is nothing we can do but wait until they are done. I am sorry that it will take longer to get you home.”

“I do not care about that! What about the people of this town? We must protect them from these beasts.”

“Hezekiah is right, Leona. There is little we can do.”

“We will see,” Leona stormed across the boat and up the stairs, and banged her fist on the door of Olon’s cabin. “Open the door!”

Olon’s smile was as broad as she had ever seen it when the door swung open, which only made her angrier. “Why, Leona, to what do I owe the pleasure?”

“You take me home right now! I will not be part of your savagery.”

“Not even for a little while?” The pirate smirked.

“These people are Cesarans. They are my people and you will not harm them.”

Your people? You know these men and women? You have spoken to them? Heard their stories and their grief? They are your people because they just so happen to occupy the same republic as you. You nobles and royals are of the same breed. It is all about ownership, property. You are not mad because my men want to fuel our bellies and satisfy our lusts, you are mad because you feel as though we are damaging your belongings. How far north of Arubel do we need to go, Leona? How far north before the people’s lives no longer matter to you?”

“That is not what I meant. You are twisting my words.”

“And you are wearing my patience thin, princess. You do not have any power here, and I will not hesitate to toss you overboard should you cause me enough problems.”

“You would not dare.”

Olon’s tone changed. He pulled Leona into his cabin and gripped her by the wrist and leaned in close to her face. “Do not test me. I can still ransom you back to Nebu if I wanted to. Remember that. Now get out of my cabin,” the pirate growled and Leona was shoved from the cabin and the door slammed in her face. She turned around and Hezekiah was already half way up the stairs. “Leona…” he spoke softly. “Are you okay?”

“Fine,” Leona said, staring at the door as though she was trying to kick it down with her mind.

**

Hezekiah, Leona and Mavina all stayed on the boat as the Freemen vaulted onto the docks from their ship. She had once seen a mischief of rats swarm around the carcass of a dead animal. The creature had been torn to bits, so much so that all that remained were bones and sinew. It was so shredded that Leona could not tell what it was when it had lived. These men reminded her of those rats. Their long, unwashed hair reminded her of their straggly tales and their matted beards of their grey, mould-coloured fur. Their gargled roars reminded her of their high-pitched squeals and their blades of the buck teeth. She turned away to face the ocean, helpless to do anything to stop the violence. Hezekiah turned her shoulders back.

“What are you doing?” She asked.

“We must face them, and they must know we are watching.”

“Why?” Leona protested.

“To show that we can. To show that we do not approve. Even if there is nothing, we can do to stop it, we must at least honour the dead so that at least someone has witnessed their pain. That way, maybe one day there can be justice for them.”

They watched the men scurry into the town. In truth, there was not much that they could see from the boat, but it was the screams and the horrified yelps and cries of those that the freemen slaughtered that made her skin crawl and her body shudder. Soon after, Olon descended from his cabin. She thought that he would be in the town, slaughtering the townsfolk with his men. Instead, he sat beside them and let out a deep sigh. Leona did not say a word, and Hezekiah hovered beside them cautiously.

“I am not a bad man, Leona Pascis,” Olon said. Leona did not respond, even though she felt her fingers itch to strangle the arrogant bastard. “The Freemen have been raiding towns since before even I was born. It is just the way they are. Living outside of the law, living without taxation or lords, it does not make a man rich.”

“They chose this life. You are all criminals.”

“Did they? Most of these men are second and third generation Freemen. They were born on The Free Islands. Piracy is all they know. Those who first made the choice to leave their lands and holdings are now either buried below the earth or about to be. I wonder, what would Leona Pascis have chosen had she not been born the daughter of Cesara’s great commander. What would milkmaid Leona have done if she was born on the Free Islands to a pirate? She may have married one. She may have prayed for a good raid so that she could feed her children. How different our lives could have been if the Gods had played their hands differently.”

“Everyone has a choice, Olon the Vile. We do not choose who we are or where we are born, but we choose what we do. These men have chosen slaughter and violence today and for that, I blame their leader.”

Olon nodded. The screams had stopped. They could no longer hear the clashing of swords or the gurgled chokes of death. Instead, they heard murmurs and mutters. Olon stood. “It appears the violence has ended. Leona, come with me to the town.”

“I will not join this.”

“It was a command, Leona. Lest you wish to truly know how I got my moniker; I would suggest you be heedful of it.”

The group walked behind Olon as he surveyed the wreckage of his crew. There were very few bodies in plain sight. This town was surrounded by forests and trees were abundant. As Spring began earlier in the south, there were already blooming canopies that offered shade from the piercing sun. This also meant that those who had been killed were camouflaged behind bark and leaves. It was not until they entered through the wooden gates of the town that Leona saw a circle of Freemen by the church. Kneeling before them with knives to their throats were Godsons and Goddaughters facing forward defiantly, not whimpering or cowering, but staring silently into the distance.

Standing at the steps of the church was the Abbott. He was a young man with a full beard and long hair, dark skin and a stunning green robe that had been blemished with a splatter of blood on his sleeve. He held that same spot with his opposing hand, as he too stared straight at them defiantly. “Freemen of The Free Islands, oarsmen of The Warrior’s Son. Tell me of the supplies you have found,” Olon addressed the town.

A man stepped forward. This man had a scar where his left eye had assumedly once been, and greying hair. His clothes were fine, but ragged, as though a King had been pulled into the mouth of a lion and this is what it spat out. “Enough to keep us until mid-Spring.”

Olon’s face changed. “Then why do we hold these people with knives against their throats?”

The ragged man stared at him incredulously. “The church will have gold! We have not seen a church as fine in months. It could sustain us deep into Autumn.”

Olon suddenly looked deeply uncomfortable. “What say you, Abbot? If I walk in there and tear this church down stone by stone, will I find any gold?”

Leona grabbed Hezekiah’s fingers and squeezed them tight. Her guard locked his fingers with hers and squeezed back. The Abbot stepped forward. He was a diminutive man, but despite his height, he carried a defiance and a presence that made him seem taller and more powerful than any of the knife-wielding pirates that surrounded him. “You will find nothing.”

Olon stepped forwards to face him. The pirate towered over the Abbott, his broad shoulders almost blocking him from Leona’s view. “Then prove it to me.”

The Abbott took Olon into the church and after some time, they re-appeared. They had taken so long, that the hostages had now been left tied up, their cheeks pressed against the ground whilst the oarsmen waited, occasionally staring across to Leona and Mavina who waited eagerly. Hezekiah stood in front of both of them, not for a moment taking his hand from his hilt. Olon did not even look at the hostages as he walked with purpose back towards the docks. “We are done here, carry what you can back to the ship.”

The oarsmen looked confused and started muttering between them. The ragged man stepped forward, scratching his cheek with the end of his knife. “What about the gold?”

“There is none,” Olon replied, not breaking stride.

“Then we kill them!” The man roared.

“No,” Olon stopped in his tracks and turned to the ragged man. “We leave now and take what we already have. We have what we need, we will leave them the rest.”

The ragged man was incredulous. “This is not the way!”

“This is my way. You will leave these people in peace and that is a command!”

Suddenly, the entire atmosphere shifted with that one word. The oarsmen now looked guarded and ready for a fight. The ragged man stepped forwards. “Command? You do not command us! We are men of The Free Islands, we have no leaders, we have no laws, we have no demands made of us!”

“If you want the gold that I promised you, you will do precisely as I command, Anders.”

“You mean the gold that’s on your ship? I’ll bet that there’s more gold in that church than whatever you could promise all of us.” Anders turned to the rest of the oarsmen. “I’ll bet that this pious prick has seen it, but he fears for what his Gods might do to him if he takes it. Our ancestors left the mainland for this very reason. To escape the control of Lords, Kings and Gods. Now, this imposter thinks he has bought our loyalty? You will never be one of us, Lord Black!”

“Enough!” Olon roared. “You dare use that name here! You are a fool. You would give up the gold that I have offered you for the gold that does not exist in that church?”

“It is not like that. Not like that at all. I plan to take both.” Anders dropped his hostage to the floor and drew his blade.

Olon surveyed the oarsmen. Most of them looked unsure as to where to look. “Look around you, Anders. You have no support. No man here is foolish enough to take a blade to their captain. None except for you. Drop the knife, Anders, drop the knife or use it wisely.”

Anders stepped forward in trepidation. He looked around at his fellow oarsmen, almost all of them avoided his gaze. “You are afraid of him? We are Freemen! We do not follow orders, we have no Lords, we have no Kings. Captains are chosen, and I no longer choose this imposter! Surely some of you are with me?”

Still no response came. Olon stood in silent triumph as Anders floundered. He stepped back and hanged his head. Olon approached him and placed his hand on his shoulder, the knife still hanging loosely in Anders’ fingers. “Nothing has changed. There is not a single aspect of the lives of the Freemen I wish to change. When you agreed to help the cause of the Angarians, you did so under the promise that your lands would be protected and your way of life preserved. I promised you all of the gold you could ever dream of and I promised you protection from those who would cease your raids. What I will not have is violence for the sake of violence. It must always have a purpose. There would be no purpose in killing this Abbot when we have what we came for. There is no gold here in this church, and even if there was, ask yourselves if your rejection of The New World means that you also reject your Gods?  If that is the way you wish to live – Godless and hopeless – then by all means, tear this church down brick by brick and learn the truth.” Olon grabbed Anders hands and pulled the knife to his heart and then pushed himself into the blade slightly. Anders looked Olon in the eyes for a moment, and then pulled away, dropping the knife to the floor. Olon turned his back and walked towards Leona. “Take the spoils back to the boat. We will travel to Ilturbia as soon as it is loaded.”

Olon approached Leona and briefly made eye contact with Hezekiah and Mavina. “I was hoping to have time to explain to you privately who I am, in the presence of your father.”

“Why did that man say that you are Lord Black? Why are you masquerading as a Lord of The Blacklands?” Leona quizzed him.

“I am afraid it is the other way around, Leona Pascis. I am Lord Black, masquerading as a pirate.”

“I do not believe you. Why would a Lord give up his life for this?” Leona gestured to the debris of the town around her. “Why would you want people to think you were a disgraceful pirate who kills, rapes and pillages innocent towns?”

Lord Black laughed. “You make Lords sound almost noble, my Queen. Perhaps we should all discuss this once we are on the boat. I must explain myself.”

**

“I should have known it was you,” Hezekiah said as he sat on the edge of Lord Black’s desk in the cabin. “We met once at Oldport. You have met him too, Leona. You were very young. I doubt you would remember.”

“I do not recall ever travelling to Oldport,” Leona said.

“You did not,” Lord Black began. “I met Hezekiah at the tourney in honour of my thirtieth birthday. We fought in a melee and got drunk together into the evening. I remember my father was furious. He had prepared an enormous feast and killed the boar himself, and instead of enjoying meat and wine, I spent my night getting drunk with the other fighters,” Lord Black smiled. “You, Leona, I met you when you were just a babe in Ilturbia. I met your mother and father too. A fine couple they were.”

“What were you doing in Cesara?”

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Lord Byrne paraded us like teenage girls at a court ball to our would-be allies. House Black, reduced to honorary ambassadors for the Kingdom that bears its name. I did not truly understand the humiliation of it all until my father died. He was far too eager to accept his lot as Lord. I am not so easily won.”

“This is why you abandoned Oldport? But why live with the Freemen?” Mavina asked.

“Necessity…for what is to come. There is a storm coming across this sea. A new order waiting to rebuild the debris of war. Since Hartlanders and Blacklanders stepped into The New World, they have been at war with each other. My family were at the heart of that for over four hundred of those years, whilst the Byrne’s have had just over eighty years of blood on their hands. There must come a point where it ends, and that day is soon. The Angarians of Antinna have assembled an army in the hundreds of thousands to sweep across these shores. I, and many men like me, noblemen who are tired of war, who are sick to the teeth of imposters, boy kings and pomp, who want to see peace have joined them. But only revolution can bring peace. The army cannot cross The Settler’s Sea without alliances. We have paid the Freemen off and have provided them weapons and towns to raid in order to protect the fleet from distractions and delays.”

“If this is true…then why are you telling us all of this?” Hezekiah questioned.

“The news will already have reached Cesara by the time we get there. The fleet would have already landed in Jivanos.”

“Jivanos? Why not take Silver City?”

“Oh, they will, but first…the King of the Angarians must greet the city whence he was born.”

“The King of the Angarians is from The Hartlands?”

“He was, but the King is a Hartlander by birth only. His heart belongs to the Gods, and he will bring the Gods and Angels back to earth to bring peace and restore the balance between life and death. For too long, death has ruled these lands, the Angarians believe The God of Life and Jivana herself will begin a new era where life rules this world.”

“There was gold in that church, wasn’t there?” Mavina questioned.

Lord Black looked regretful. “It is not the Angarians way to attack the Gods. Those who follow the Angarian King vow to protect our shrines to those who hold our fate in their hands. It is bad enough that we must cause death in the short-term to preserve life in the long-term, but we will have our way…and we want Cesara and Amenti to help bring us that way. Mavina, Princess of Amenti and Leona, Queen of Amenti and the Lady of Cesara, your beauty and your radiance is known across the world. The King himself knows of your value to his cause. It is not the friendship or the alliance of Emperor Nebu or Commander Marius Pascis that we desire, it is the power you both wield over your people, the love that you garner, that we wish for you to use to help us rule these lands in peace.”

Leona and Mavina looked at each other startled. “Sultan Untonnay…” Leona started.

“Is one of us…as many noblemen across The New World have become. They too are sick of war, and believe in a better world.”

“How many do you have?” Hezekiah asked.

“Enough,” Lord Black smiled. “We have noble men and women across The New World putting their pieces in place, waiting for their moment to strike and tear down this old regime. There was only one place in all of the New World where we could not find a single person who would turn their back on their ruler…only one republic whose leader is held in such reverence, that only his consent would be enough to submit to the Angarian King. Your father truly is a remarkable man, Leona.”

**

Travelling back to Ilturbia was solemn. Leona spent the entire journey holding onto Mavina’s hand, knowing that she may very well never see her again. An ache stabbed through her chest as she held back her tears. It was as if she was being pulled away from the sun and would be thrust back into darkness without her. They watched as the waves licked at the rocks of the coast, the boat sticking close to land to avoid the Angarian fleet that Lord Black promised would storm The New World.

“Everything will be okay, Leona. You are worried that we will not meet again, but we will.”

“You cannot know that.”

“There are forces in this world beyond our control. Our souls will meet again, whether or not they are in these vessels matters not. Remember this.”

As the ship approached the dock, there was already a group of guards awaiting their arrival. Hezekiah was beaming, as he had already spotted his great friend, Alastair Barolo leading the guard. Leona smiled at Hezekiah’s reaction. It had been so long since she had seen him smile, and could not be more grateful for his protection. Lord Black approached them and led them off the boat. Mavina stayed back and stared in wonder at the palace of Ilturbia in the distant hill. “It is a beautiful city.”

It had been so long since Leona had been home, that she was just relieved to feel the wooden dock underneath her toes. All of the smells of the city came back to her. She watched the dockers load their crates and the seagulls flock around the fishermen that dangled their legs off the planks, their rods twitching in the cold water. Then beyond the line of guards, she saw the most familiar sight. Leona burst into a sprint and threw herself into her father’s arms before she could even check that it was really him. Marius Pascis squeezed her tight around the shoulders and then immediately pulled her away and marvelled at her swollen belly.

“My iliona…and my illinho,” Marius sighed and could not hold back his laughter. “You came back to me…I thought I had lost you.”

Leona felt the tears in her eyes as she held onto her father’s cloak and would not let go until she was once again safe in her home. “I missed you so much,” she cried into her father’s shoulder and sobbed like a child. “Where is Elena? Is she safe?”

“With the cooks making smallcakes, having a wonderful day,” Marius told her. Leona’s relief washed over her as she turned back to face Mavina, Hezekiah and Lord Black.

Hezekiah walked forward and bowed slightly. “Commander. I bring you Leona Pascis as instructed.”

Marius Pascis bowed deeply. “My word, Hezekiah. That you did. I am forever indebted to you, my most loyal of men. Thank you for what you have done for this family…for this republic. You will be rewarded.”

It was then that Lord Black stepped forward and held out his hand respectfully, awaiting Marius to shake it. Marius looked at him curiously, but took his hand courteously and briefly gripped it in his own. “Lord Black…welcome back to Cesara.”

“It has not changed in the slightest. Still a true wonder of the world.”

“Indeed, and one that I would hope stays free of raiders. I trust your oarsmen know their way back to whence they came from? I want them off my dock by nightfall.”

Lord Black nodded. “They will not be staying long. They are due to take Mavina back to Maladh.”

“Mavina of Aljan?” Marius said, astounded and then turned towards Leona.

“She helped me through the desert, father. She helped me escape Nebu,” Leona explained.

“Then why on earth is she going back to Maladh? It would be suicide.”

Leona leaned in close to her father. “Sultan Untonay intends to marry her.”

Marius nodded and then shook his head. “I see…and this is perhaps why you ended up in the hands of pirates I imagine? That conniving little shit.”

“He spoke highly of you, father…” Leona said.

“I’m sure he did,” Marius rolled his eyes. “Come, let us get back to the palace. We clearly have much to discuss.”

Marius turned away, but Leona stayed for a moment. She looked back towards the boat, and suddenly her feet were rushing towards it as fast as they could take her. As soon as she was back on the deck, she saw Mavina and pulled her by her wrist. “My Queen, what is going-.” Leona heard the words, but she was already halfway down the steps to the hull of the ship. In what seemed like less than a moment, Leona was face to face with Mavina beneath the ship, closing the door behind them. “My Queen, is everything okay? What is wrong?”

Leona’s heart was racing, pounding between her chest, and now, at the worst possible moment she felt her child kicking excitedly in her belly. “I do not know why I did that. I…I just wanted us to be alone. For one moment, away from the eyes of my father, from Lord Black, from those atrocious Freemen. I just wanted to look you in the eyes and tell you how much I will miss you and…” Leona stopped talking and closed her eyes. Before she knew it, her lips were touching Mavina’s. There was a moment of heart-wrenching fear that Mavina was pushing her away, but she instead felt her soft hands around her neck as she kissed her back. Then all of the fear was gone, all of the worry and the pain that she had endured since she had last stepped foot in Cesara had evaporated for the briefest of moments. Leona had never felt such euphoria in her life, as if she had been ushered into paradise itself, as if all of the terrible things had been eradicated from the world.

After a few moments, Mavina pulled away gently and grabbed Leona’s cheeks. “I need you to promise me that you will keep yourself alive. You are safe here, but you will not be so for long. You must not seek me out. You must not try to find me. I will find you again, Leona. Of that, you can be certain. That is not a vague, unknowing promise. This is prophecy. We are destined to find each other, Leona Pascis. Trust me.”

Siege

Good morning everyone and thanks for stopping by to read Chapter Thirty-Eight of The Cursed King. I don’t know if it’s the feeling that our summer has already ended or the fact that I am just generally knackered, but I am knackered at the moment. Despite this, I’m still managing to get my words in. Chapter Forty-Six – which I discussed last time – is finished. After I scribbled the last 1100 words last night, I can comfortably say that I am happy with it. Though I have been writing it in my head for years, I am glad to finally have a draft down on paper. And I need to remember that this is just a draft, even though I am posting it here for your enjoyment and for my encouragement, there is still plenty of work to be done on all of these chapters, so thank you for coming with me on the journey.

In today’s chapter, we are back with Jerimeh as he is recognised for his actions over the past few chapters (no spoilers). Despite the moment of occasion and joy, however, the constant threat of The Blacklands army looms large over the city. Jerimeh thus decides to make some decisions and put the pieces in place for whatever future The Hartlands will have. Thank you for reading, and Chapter Thirty-Nine will be posted on August 28th!

Siege

Jerimeh VIII

The double doors opened to the King’s Hall and Jerimeh walked through them with his head held high. Applause echoed throughout the halls. It was as joyous as it was solemn, but Jerimeh could not help but enjoy it all the same. It had been a long time since he had been recognised in such a way. Not since his own Arkgodson ceremony had he walked through these halls with all eyes on him as the people of the court recognised him. Standing in front of his throne was King Aron, with Prince Asher to his right and Godson Effei to his left. In King Aron’s hands was a cushion, and sat atop it, was a jewelled medallion. It was the King’s Recognition. A symbol of exceptional service to the Kingdom. These awards were rare, and often brought loud celebrations and congratulations, but the atmosphere was heavy. The court had been informed that morning of the approaching army. There was little more that they could do but wait and try to withstand the siege of Prince Charles and his son, Riechard. It was obvious that this played on the mind of the court as Jerimeh walked down the aisle.

Usually, the recipient of the award would kneel down on a cushion whilst the King placed the medallion around the receiver’s neck, but Jerimeh had asked King Aron if he could stand a step or two below the King instead. Aron was not so stuck to tradition that he would not respect an elderly man’s aching joints. Jerimeh turned to face the crowd and Aron placed the cushion in Effei’s hands before lifting the medallion and fastening it around the Arkgodson’s neck. “Thank you, your worship,” Aron whispered to him. It was the most genuine thing that Jerimeh had heard the young King say in months, and could not help but smile at his applause. Jerimeh looked around the Hall and took it all in. It was as if he was in a dream. Even in the situation that the Kingdom and the city were in, even amongst all the horror that might befall them, this was a moment of enjoyment, of relief, of peace.

In King Aron’s chamber after the ceremony, Prince Asher poured a goblet of wine for each of them. This was a meeting so private that not even cupbearers or servants were privy to attend. This too, was a rigid atmosphere, though Prince Asher looked more relaxed than he had in months. He knew his family were safe in Hunter’s Valley with Lord Garrison. It was the only part of the Kingdom left that wasn’t about to be swarmed with Blacklands soldiers, and had largely stood up to the loose battalions that had been sent to try and siege it. Hunter’s Valley was one of the most fiercely protected lands in the Kingdom, with one of the most ruthless Earls in The New World. It would remain safe as long as Lord Garrison was alive.

“You did a fine thing for our family, Jerimeh,” King Aron told him. “As usual, you have proven yourself as loyal as a man can be. Our father is smiling at you with Jivana from paradise, of that, I am sure.”

“Thank you, your worship. For keeping my family safe. Truly, thank you.”

“My only regret is Sir Robert…” Jerimeh said.

“A necessary exchange,” Aron waved his hand dismissively. “A knight for three members of the Royal Family. I would call that a success.”

“Sir Robert is a good man.” Asher interjected. “Loyal to his Kingdom. We will make the necessary arrangements to bring him back to Silver City in due time. Now that my family are safe, we can focus on repelling this impending siege.”

“Your worship, I believe we should hold a sermon for the city at Sir Eiruc’s funeral. A rallying cry before the siege begins. Something uplifting to raise the spirits of the people and to give them hope,” King Aron said. Kings often had a way of phrasing their commands as suggestions.

Jerimeh had thought he might be instructed to speak at the murdered knight’s funeral. He had little hesitation. It saddened him that a man so young had lost his life, and even more so, that he was not convinced that it was not Nadir that did it. Of course, if he was truthful with himself, even if the boy had done it, he was not entirely sure that he would not keep that secret. To lose one young life is tragic, to lose two would be needless. He had never felt more inclined to not involve himself in these politics, and he had reached a point in his life, when even justice did not matter to him. This gave Jerimeh the courage to say what he needed to say to King Aron.

“Your grace, of course I will speak to the people, but I must tell you now that I plan for this to be my final service. It has become undeniable that I am struggling more and more each day to perform my duties. Moreover, I feel I am tired and finding myself uninspired in reaching for the words that once came so naturally to me. This is to say, that I watch Godson Effei with the passion and the energy that I remember once having, though that was many, many years ago, and I think that it might be his time. He has effectively been doing my duties for the past year whilst I have been doing my duty by you, my King, and you, my Prince. Now, with this award you have so graciously given me, I feel as though I have reached the summit of my achievements.”

King Aron smiled regretfully, as if he already knew what was coming. “Say what you mean to say, your worship. Ask me your request, and I will grant it.”

“I wish to retire, your grace. I wish to step down as Arkgodson with dignity and be there to usher in a new era for the church.”

“And your wish is for Godson Effei to replace you?”

“He would be my choice, but I would not think to make a King’s decision for him.”

“Your King agrees. Godson Effei would make a fine Arkgodson, and you have earned your rest. I will find you a suitable chamber in Harthelm, one that befits a man of your rank and service, where you can rest and be on hand in case Effei needs guidance.”

Jerimeh sighed. “Your grace, that is very kind, but…I wish to leave Silver City altogether. My intention is to spend my remaining days on the coast, where I can stand in the water and bathe in the sun.”

Prince Asher could not help but chuckle. “That is a nice dream…that really does sound like paradise, does it not? Perhaps, your grace, if anyone deserves a living paradise, it is our Arkgodson.”

King Aron’s face turned from stone to a smile in a moment. “We do not agree on much, brother, but on this…yes…I very much concur.”

“Thank you, your grace.”

“I appreciate your honesty and your service, Jerimeh. I will be sad to lose you. In the spirit of honesty, I must tell you that I cannot allow you to leave the city again until the siege is over. I need your guidance now more than ever. I have tried to fight this war, and at every turn I have been outthought and outfought by King Aedvard. It hurts me to deeply to say that. The truth is that we have no hope of winning this war now…the best we can do is not lose it. I plan to offer King Aedvard’s freedom in exchange for Prince Charles to end the siege. Lord Steel can keep four of the Six Castles, returning Harthelm at the least. I also expect to lose the Northern Earldoms to Ismann. This is the position we are in in this war.”

Jerimeh nodded solemnly. He wondered how King Eldrian would have handled this situation, and then duly realised that this would never have been a situation King Aron’s father would have found himself in. The Kingdom that Eldrian left thriving was now in ruin, and even Jerimeh at that moment wondered if it would have been different had Prince Asher emerged from the womb first. “If that is your decision, your grace. I believe that even King Aedvard would accept terms of that nature. Whatever you believe him to be, I have known him to be a fair and cautious man who is not a glutton for victory. I believe he will accept these terms. However, what if my judgement is wrong? What if he does not accept?”

Aron’s face changed from an expression of humility and regret to one of deep consideration. “Then if this city is to fall, it will fall with King Aedvard’s severed head watching over it.”

**

As Jerimeh walked through the grounds of Harthelm towards the God’s Hall, he looked over the city below the high-reaching hill of the castle and took in a deep breath. It had never occurred to Jerimeh in his entire life that he may one day see the fall of Silver City. King Eldrian ruled so well for so long that it seemed an impossibility that any army could break even the borders of The Hartlands, let alone make it all the way to their Capital. The river that flowed through the city seemed almost still and the air was dense and thick with worry. As soon as he entered the God’s Hall, he felt a wave of calm, as if the Gods were opening their arms to him. It was usually Natos’ presence he felt the most – the Angel of Death – always lurking over him and waiting for him in the afterlife. It seemed to him that he had not felt Jivana’s light in years, and yet it was she who he was drawn to this time. It had been many years since he had truly studied her face – her long hair and focused eyes, the haunted look of an Angel tasked with fighting the inevitability of death. A fight that always ended in defeat.

            Godson Effei was not in the God’s Hall. The hall itself and the office were empty. What Jerimeh found was a perfectly organised space, free of the litter of parchment, books and spilled ink that Jerimeh had become accustomed to in his years as Arkgodson. Now, the books were aligned neatly on their shelves, parchment was piled together and the ink remained securely in its pot. Even the quills were arranged in order of length and thickness of tip. It felt as though he’d been gone for years. Even as he wandered through the empty rooms, he dragged his finger across the surfaces of chairs and desks and podiums, and there was not a speck of dust on anything. It looks how a God’s Hall should look, he thought. When he walked over to the statue of Jivana, he realised that the metal had been polished to a gleaming shine. Perhaps this was why she drew his attention now, perhaps he had spent so long thinking about the Angel of Death, that he had neglected the Angel of Life.

            “Hello, your worship,” a voice echoed around the hall. Jerimeh looked around, but did not see anyone, until he turned to the entrance to the crypt and watched as Nadir hoisted himself up the ladder.

            “Nadir…what were you doing down there?” Jerimeh had tried to hide the accusatory nature of his tone, but he had failed. Jerimeh was wary of the boy, but worried for him more than he was afraid of him. All Jerimeh could think of was his ghostly dreams and his mother who gripped him by the throat and screamed at him to find her. The boy would have access to the same magic if he had the means to learn it. It may not have made him fear the boy, but it unsettled him at the very least.

            “Cleaning the graves. King Aron comes here at least once a week to see his son. He complained once to Effei that the crypts were ghastly and dusty, so I clean them before he is due to come in.”

            “King Aron comes here once a week? For how long?”

            “Since I arrived,” Nadir shrugged.

            “It is strange…I have never seen him.”

            “You’re never here.”

            Jerimeh was once perturbed by such insolence. There was something inside him that still twinged when someone of lower birth affronted him, and he always felt guilty for it. What hurt him the most was that the boy was completely right. He had neglected his church and his position.

            “Take a seat, Nadir. I think it is time we spoke.” Nadir did what he was told, dusted off his hands and sat on one of the benches facing the chancel. Jerimeh sat as close as he dared to and left a gap of at least a yard between them. “I think it is time for you to leave Harthelm.”

            Nadir’s eyes brightened. “You are letting me go?”

            “Yes, with conditions. It would be irresponsible for me to let you go out into the world, especially during a war. Particularly with you knowing the intricate details of this castle better than most. Yet, if you stay, I worry that I will not be able to protect you. I want you to stay with The Order of the Ravens and learn from Stillius for a while.”

            “So, I am not free to leave? I just have to go somewhere else as a prisoner?”

            “You are not a prisoner, Nadir, but you soon might be. Elden Hardwick is convinced that you killed Sir Eiruc. I, myself, am not sure on you either, but I do care for you…and in truth…I cannot truthfully say that I want you to stay here. You want one thing in this world, Nadir. To find your mother. It is apparent that I cannot help you with that, but perhaps if I put you under the protection of someone who can, then that will bring us all some peace.”

            Nadir nodded. “If that is what will be.”

            Jerimeh looked at the boy’s eyes. They were away from there. Away from him. Nadir had once been present, even if he was itching to get away. Now, he was already gone. He could not help but blame himself for that. He had neglected Nadir as much as he had neglected anyone during the past year. “I am sorry, Nadir. Truly. I promised you something and I failed you. I did not find your mother for you. Alas, I did not do near enough. Even with the war, I should have done my duty by you…by Stillius. I hope you can forgive me one day, but I understand if that is not today.”

            Nadir looked at him blankly. “I will go with Stillius as soon as he is here. Is there anything else you wanted to say, your worship, or am I free to leave?”

            Jerimeh could not help the sigh that escaped his mouth. “No, Nadir. That was all.”

**

            Upon the steps of the King’s Hall, Jerimeh stood beside his King draped in a black sash over his white robes. King Aron stood behind him with Prince Asher. As Jerimeh looked over the court, he could see the people lining the streets at the bottom of the hill, looking up at the castle and trying to see the service. The first speech was outside. It was coming towards the end of winter, and though it was cold, the sky was clear and the sun was beaming down upon them. King Aron had decided to hold the first service outside for both the Gods and for the city. The private service would continue in the God’s Hall, where Eiruc’s coffin would be lowered into the crypt. It would not stay there of course. Only members of the Royal Family were permitted to be buried in the crypt, but out of respect for Eiruc’s birth and due to the fact that nothing could come in or out of the city, Aron arranged for him to stay beneath the God’s Hall until it was possible to move him back to Hunter’s Valley. Lord Garrison was not even at the service, and not a word had been heard from him since his son’s death.

            At one point in his life, Jerimeh ached at the thought of death. Particularly those who had died young like Sir Eiruc, but the more he lived, the more he realised that death was more pain for the living than for the dead. The dead began their new lives or were ushered into paradise. The living did not have that new hope. All the living had was the memories of their own suffering and their own failures. Jerimeh could not help but be mournful in such a situation, and wondered how on earth he would inspire hope in the people who waited on his soothing words, when in truth, he hadn’t a clue what he would say to them to ease their pain.

            “I will not tell you lies. I will not hide from you the reality that lay beyond the walls of this city. I will not tell you that the Gods are on our side, and I will not tell you what I am sure you all want to hear…that we have a plan to repel the invaders and reclaim our lost land. We are not standing here today for these reasons. We are standing out here in the winter sun to honour Sir Eiruc Garrison. A member of the Brothership, a Knight of the Realm whilst still in his teenage years, and one of the finest warriors The Hartlands has ever produced. I did not spend much time with Sir Eiruc. He was not a man who spent much time in our God’s Hall, far too busy men at his age are on the battlefield or in taverns, at tournies and courting young women. I do not fault him that one bit. Sometimes it is not a terrible thing for a man not to enter the God’s Hall. Those who do are usually searching for something, either within themselves or outside of their experience. That I did not know Sir Eiruc as well as I may have liked, is not necessarily a bad thing. I prefer to think of him as a man who knew himself, and who had his own relationship with the Gods that did not require guidance from myself. There is always tragedy when a young man dies, not least a man who had earned such distinction at such a young age. Yet there is always hope. The same is true for all people. Sir Eiruc is either about to walk with Natos into paradise, his soul free from his vessel, or he will be born again, a child of this world, somewhere where Jivana is guiding him through his life as best she can. Today, then, we will celebrate Sir Eiruc. We will celebrate his life whilst we mourn his loss. We will raise glasses to his honour and we will support each other in our grief. Today, we will forget about what lay beyond these walls and focus on supporting those within them. We will band together as we have always done. Hartlanders united in their strength and their hope and their love.”

            After the service, Jerimeh shook the hands and kissed the heads of the Lords and Ladies of the court. When the crowd had begun to disperse as food was served to the guests, Elden Hardwick and Lord Grosvenor approached him. The two men were almost always side by side. It seemed to Jerimeh that they spent more time with each other than their own wives. Hardwick was still as stone-faced as he was when he last saw him. The man was clearly angry with Jerimeh for protecting Nadir, but even if Jerimeh did suspect the boy, he had no real evidence that he had anything to do with it. Nadir had a motive, but he had even more of a motive not to get caught and hanged in the city square. Grosvenor was much more cordial, as he always was. No matter what situation happened around him, the Earl was always the most pleasant man in the room and utterly flawless in his interaction.

            “Your worship, thank you for your wonderful speech. I have not spoken to a man or woman in this hall who has not raved about it. How lucky we are to have an Arkgodson of your poise in these trying times,” Grosvenor told him.

            Grosvenor’s Earldom of Greenfields had also scarcely been touched by the war. Laying in the central Hartlands between Hillhold to the north west, Silver City to the north east, Hunter’s Valley in the south west and Battlestorm in the south east, Greenfields was protected and had always been. Laying on some of the most arable land outside of the Earldom of Agria, the Earldom was the richest in the Kingdom. It was so well protected that most of Grosvenor’s army spent almost all their time at one of the four surrounding castles, including Lord Grosvenor himself. Danayal Grosvenor was also in attendance, though he was already occupying the wine table and talking the ears off anyone who tried to get themselves a goblet.

            “Agreed,” Hardwick followed-up curtly. “A fine speech.” Hardwick looked around him and leaned in close to Jerimeh. “A word, your worship?” It did not take Jerimeh more than a moment to gauge the severity of Hardwick’s tone and he led them towards the chancel and into his office. Jerimeh shut the door behind him as soon as the three men were alone there.

            “No one can hear us here, we are alone,” Jerimeh told them.

            “There have been rumours,” Grosvenor started, his voice was now stern and grave. “A foreign invasion across The Settler’s Sea.”

            “An invasion from The Old World?”

            “Angarians so we hear. A fleet of around two-hundred ships are lined up at ports along Antinna.”

            “How did you hear about this?”

            Hardwick lowered his head and drank. “They tried to recruit us.”

            “They what?”

            “The Hartlands is on the brink of destruction. They offered us a way out…to bring them the Kingdom, and in exchange we would keep our Earldoms,” Grosvenor explained.

            “Who tried to recruit you? What on earth is this?”

            “Thair Spicer, your worship. Thair Spicer has been funding their army for years, weeding himself through their organisation. There is not a man, woman or child among the Angarians who does not owe that slimy merchant a great debt. He thought he had us too, but we turned him down.”

            “Why are you telling me this? We must take this straight to King Aron.”

            Hardwick and Grosvenor glanced at each other, concerned. “King Aron is…rash and hot-headed at the best of times, your worship. Meaning no disrespect, he is still reeling from so many betrayals. If he knows that we have been approached, he will soon suspect everyone at court.”

            “As he should!” Jerimeh interjected.

            “Aye…perhaps. But we will find a lot more out if we keep this to ourselves. Besides, it would be a distraction if he knew. Within days the city will be under siege. We need to plan our defence of this city. Perhaps a foreign invasion might even end this petty war. I cannot imagine The Blacklands will want their shores invaded by these Angarians.”

            “Why tell me this? Why tell me this if you did not intend to tell our King? Now you ask me to keep this secret from him.”

            “Because he trusts you. You must guide him through this time, but someone close to him who wishes only to protect the Kingdom must know. I am sorry, Jerimeh, but the only man for that job is you,” Grosvenor told him.

**

            Jerimeh sat alone in his chamber long into the evening that night. He looked across the city and towards the shore where he half expected a hoard of ships to be approaching in the distance. There was something oddly peaceful about a city before a siege or a town before a battle. The night air was soft and crisp, a dreamy silence seemed to engulf the atmosphere as if the entire city had been evacuated. Jerimeh had known many nights like this, but in none of those nights had he felt so relaxed. It was as if he was finally letting go – of what – he did not know, but of something. Perhaps it is hope, he thought as he ran his wrinkled fingertips across the coarse stone of the window ledge. The fire breathed heavily in the corner of his chamber, and brought a great amount of light to the darkness outside. Clouds had converged in the sky to block the beauty of the Great Galla from shining upon them. It was almost as if the Gods had shut themselves off from the city, not wanting to see what was to happen to it before long.

            After some moments of contemplation, Jerimeh allowed his mind to wander so deep into his soul that he found his wife and his children. A life that was so long ago, it felt like it belonged to somebody else, as if they were another man’s memories that he was encroaching on. Then he thought of the Angarians. The ultra-religious cultists who kidnapped his son and had likely raised him as one of their own. Jerimeh had no knowledge of what became of his son. Most of him did not want to know. It would have upset him equally if he had been made King and was leading the invasion of The Twin Kingdom as much as if he would have become destitute and hopeless. Either way, he would not know him. Would not know how to help him. He would be a man grown now. Grown without the influence of his father. Grown with the memories of his childhood drained from his head. There was nothing that Jerimeh could do now. It was too late. Everything now, for Jerimeh, was too late. He did not even have time to save his King, or his city, or the people within it. He only had time to do one more piece of good in his world.

            Effei came to his chamber first thing in the morning. Jerimeh had not slept, but had instead spent the night watching the light slowly return to the world for the dawn. By the time Effei had arrived, there was already a cup of tea waiting for him, and Jerimeh was fully dressed and immaculate, as if he’d had the most restful night’s sleep of his life. Despite that, Jerimeh’s cough had resumed. There was a fire filled with discarded handkerchiefs. It was as if he felt that the fire would destroy his affliction, and at the very least, banish the thoughts from his mind for a time. He could feel Natos’ hand on his shoulder, and whilst that brought him some degree of comfort, it also caused him the greatest terror he had ever known. It was as though he was standing on the edge of a cliff waiting to be pushed. Though he knew that he would be dead long before he realised, it was the thought of tipping over that caused his fear.

            When Effei arrived, Jerimeh felt the same indignation he had felt from the Godson for the past few months. The tension between them had continued to grow, and the air was thicker between them than it had ever been. Effei was not great at civility. He took things personally. He took perceived slights deep into his heart and soul, and only his astute professionalism stopped him from speaking his mind to his superior. Jerimeh poured Effei’s cup first and the two sat opposite each other in silence for a few moments.

            “Thank you for coming.”

            “You are the Arkgodson of The Hartlands. It would be remiss for me to refuse your invitation.”

            “Speak to me as a friend, please Effei. Not as a rank.”

            “It has been hard for me, you know? I have had to make decisions beyond my rank. Without the moniker of Arkgodson, there is a limit to the influence I can exert. I have needed you. In this past year, we have needed you more than we ever have, and you were not there. I understand of course, even if Nadir does not, but understanding does not make us whole.”

            Jerimeh could not help but smile. He too would have felt the same as Effei had the roles been reversed, and he was old enough to not deny it. “You are right, it does not, but perhaps I can make this right. Effei, my word what a man you have become. What a fantastic servant you have been to this realm, to the church, to our Gods…to me. In truth, I should have called you to my chamber over a year ago to do this, before all this madness began.”

            “What are you talking about?”

            “I wanted to tell you in person that I have decided to step down from the role of Arkgodson, and I have recommended you, Godson Effei, to King Aron as my replacement.”

            All of the anger flushed from Effei’s face in one moment. All of the repressed rage and anger, frustration and stress were replaced with elation and a swelling under the Godson’s eyes. “You will make me Arkgodson?” Effei mumbled.

            “King Aron holds the final choice, but I cannot see any reason why he would not select you. You are the only man for this role. You will be in charge of selecting a Godson to assist you, and you will need to find a replacement for Nadir too, of course, but these decisions will be your own.”

            “I do not know what to say.”

            “You have been doing my duties for close to a year without the title. This will just make it official.”

            Godson Effei dropped to his knees, held Jerimeh’s hands in his own and kissed his knuckles. “Thank you, your worship. Truly…thank you.”

            “It is okay…now on your feet. It should not be for an Arkgodson to be thanking a man as privileged as I. You should do as I have not done throughout these years. You should be washing the feet of the poorest in our city, not kissing the rings of the richest. That was my mistake, Effei. I urge you not to repeat it.”

            Effei nodded. “What will you do now?”

            “After the war, you will have your ceremony and I will go back to Jivanos. I will work in the priory there and spend whatever time I have left helping those who need me.”

            “You will live for another ten years,” Effei smiled. “I know it.”

            Effei suddenly lost his focus and was staring out of the oriel and across the horizon. He leaned out of the window and gawked stupidly. Jerimeh looked over his shoulder and the silence between the two resumed. The tension returned. This, however, was a wholly new tension. A long line of tiny figures approached through the trees in the distance and towards the main gates of Silver City. A horn blew, signalling the approach of The Blacklands army. The commotion began. Though the city had been prepared, now was the time for action. Jerimeh turned Effei around, put his hands on his shoulders and looked him in the eye. “We must be at the God’s Hall. You, and I, and Nadir. All of us. We must pray for this city and must offer comfort to all those who seek it.”

            “It is a shame, isn’t it? That this is all we can do for our people now.”

            “Perhaps, but do it we must.”

Steel

Good morning all and thanks for stopping by to read Chapter Thirty-Seven of The Cursed King. It’s been a much-needed, much quieter couple of weeks. Allowing me to focus on my true passions – Fantasy Football and Football Manager, BUT ALSO, this book. Chapter Forty-Five is now officially finished, which means that I am just beginning to write the Chapter that inspired me to follow through and write this whole book – Chapter Forty-Six. I won’t spoil anything, but this one is a big one. By my count, you have about 20 or so weeks to wait for that one, so watch this space.

In today’s Chapter, we are back with Robert as he struggles with his imprisonment in Hartlake under the stern eye of Lord Steel. Robert’s night terrors are becoming even more potent and vivid, but the deeper he sinks into his memories, the closer he comes to unravelling the reasons behind his inner turmoil. Thank you for reading, and Chapter Thirty-Eight will be posted on August 14th.

Steel

Robert VIII

            “You don’t remember this, do you?” Isabelle whispered to Robert as Harold slept in her arms.

            Robert did not remember it. He was laying on a beach in the Arubel, the Cesaran city occupied by The Hartlands. The sand was soft and white and trickled through his fingers whilst the gentle rumble of the surf echoed around them. Robert turned on his side and leant the weight of his upper body on his forearm, with his free hand he pushed Isabelle’s hair from her face and marvelled at her emerald eyes. “This never happened…did it?”

            Isabelle shook her head and then pulled his chin towards her and kissed his lips. “No…it didn’t, but it is happening now.”

            “Will it be like this? When I die? Will it be like this forever?”

            “I hope so,” Isabelle said. “We have been here a lot lately, you know? Every time you forget.”

            “I’m sorry. It is becoming harder to separate.”

            “I know. It’s okay.”

            “I don’t even think Arubel is like this anymore. It used to be when it still belonged to Cesara. I visited when I was a child, and the beach was always full of people. Children played and swam in the waves. I think I am remembering it from then.”

            “You felt safe here. It wasn’t home. It was away from Jonathan and the boys. We always end up here when you are suffering. It is strange that despite your night terrors, you always seem to find a place of peace when you are truly under threat.” Robert smiled at her and sighed. “What’s wrong?”

            “I never told you about my trip to Arubel…you would never have known about it.”

            “I’m sorry…”

            “Don’t be silly…I would be a fool to really believe that any of this was real. Sometimes these are preferable to my memories. They are far less painful.”

            “They are essential, Robert. You must face them. Brodric. The cabin. The Hawthorn. All of it. You must learn to accept them. If you cannot move on from them, then…well…you might never move on from what happened to us.”

            “Don’t…please…don’t. This place…this scene…you and Harold sleeping. It is all so perfect. Please don’t make me go to that place…please.”

            “Robert…this is why you never remember this one. This place. Whenever you come back here, we have this conversation, and you go to that place. You will always come back here until you finally accept that we’re gone.”

            “No, no no, please, please…don’t make me go there.”

            “It’s okay,” Isabelle said softly. “We will be here with you.”

            Robert pleaded and pleaded, but suddenly the clear skies swiftly turned to rain, the waves began frantically crashing against the rocks. He was no longer on the beach, but sat atop a jagged rock that was being slapped with continuous thrashing waves. The cold rain splatted against his skin, and he was soaking wet. Robert screamed into the air. “No! Wake me up! Wake me up!”

            Then, the waves pulled away, the rain was sucked back up into the sky and the jagged rock became a desert. There were bones beneath his feet, a woman with a half-melted face gripped his throat. “Find me! Find me!” She screamed as she choked him. Suddenly, all he could see was Eiruc’s face in place of hers, blood falling from his mouth. Then, a horse galloped through the woman and she vanished into the dust. It was Avairghon. He chased after his horse and eventually caught up to him, but soon found why he had stopped. He had his hoof embedded in a man, a knight, his brother, Jonathan. Robert tried to pull him free, but it would not budge, and he soon panicked and cantered away with Jonathan’s body hanging lifelessly from him.

            “Let me out! Let me out!” Robert screamed and pushed his hands against his ears and closed his eyes.

            Suddenly, Robert felt the ground erupt around him and felt himself lifted into the air. Robert looked down and saw skeletons, charcoaled and burned, prodding their fingers into his skin and marching. Hundreds of thousands of them marched him through the desert as he balanced on their sharp fingertips. Apart from the clatter of their bones, there was silence all around them until finally the bones shattered and fell to the ground. Robert landed with a thud on top of them. When he got to his knees, he found himself facing a Hawthorn bush covered in snow.

            Robert looked around. All of the bones had disappeared and had been replaced by layers of snow. The Hawthorn bush reminded him of the ones near Hillhold, but he knew that he was not there. He was further north – somewhere on the border between The Blacklands, The Hartlands, and Ismann. in the Steurholm Mountains. The thin brown twigs poked out of the heavy snow with their blood-red berries glittering in the light. It was freezing cold, but Robert found himself knee deep in the slush in front of the Hawthorn, staring at it, as if he was waiting for it to speak to him, but no voice came. He waited there. Waited for the next horrible thing to happen to him, for his next torturous memory to engulf him, but he waited and waited…and nothing came.

            Slowly, Robert found himself awake. He felt the cold floor on his face and pushed himself up from the ground. He clutched as his ribs, suddenly aware of the bruising down the side of his body. Sat against the wall, Robert picked up his tin cup to find that it was devoid of water. He tapped it against the stone wall of his prison and rolled it towards the cell door. After a moment, the gaoler appeared and peered into his cage. Robert gestured towards the cup and the gaoler scowled. The gaoler picked the tin cup up in his hands and pondered it before pulling out his cock and filling the cup with hot, yellow piss. Then he placed it back where he found it, smiled sweetly and walked away.

            Robert sighed. It was far from the worst treatment that he had received since he’d arrived, and he no longer really cared what happened to him. Whether or not Thair rescued him or his father got his way and had him killed, neither would be any worse than being in his cell night after night screaming in his sleep so loudly that he would wake up with a sore throat and bloodshot eyes. There were two gaolers. One worked the day and one worked through the night. Robert had become quite friendly with the man who worked the day. That gaoler did not hear him scream in the night and Robert always woke up so tired that he had very little to say to the day gaoler. The night gaoler on the other hand had to put him with his terrors all night. I’d have pissed in the cup too, he thought.

            It was the day gaoler who told Robert to face the wall and put his hands behind his back. He was an elderly man with a thick grey beard that reached his chest, a bald head and no teeth, so that it always looked like he was chewing his jaw. The old man spoke in a low growl, but Robert had gone some way in understanding the mumbled words that came out of his mouth. “t’lor’wuntstaseeya,” the gaoler told him as he gently tied a thin rope around his wrists. Robert knew that he could have easily overpowered the man to try to escape, but he also knew that he would likely not get out of the dungeon without being bludgeoned with a sword handle and thrown back in his cell. Robert instead allowed the gentle old man to tie him. In truth, he was eager to take a walk. The worst part of his imprisonment had been the confinement. His legs ached and he felt weaker and weaker by the day – he worried that he would struggle to hold a sword by the time he was released.

            “I assume he has received a letter then.”

            “Iduntno.”

            The gaoler led Robert to the Lord’s council office. Lord Steel was alone. Robert’s father used to march political prisoners to his dining hall at dinner in front of the family. John Talford would starve them and then sit them in the corner to watch him feast, throw food to the dogs and then plate up what the dogs spat out for the prisoner to eat for their dinner. Robert remembered feeling awkward about it whenever it happened, but it never stopped him eating and he never said a word in protest. He wondered why he never protested it. He knew it was wrong, and he thought back to it often and wondered if all lords did that. Lord Steel did not. Not a single man saw Robert in his jail cell. Not a single taunt was levied. When he was beaten, those who beat him were punished and an apology was given by Lord Steel himself. It was not in Lord Steel’s nature to be brutal or violent without cause. It did not bring him pleasure to cause pain. All Lord Steel cared for was the progression of his Kingdom, and his duty to King Aedvard. In a way, it made him more dangerous than any Lord in The Twin Kingdoms. He was a man truly without ego.”

            “You look tired,” Lord Steel told him. The Lord of Steelmont offered Robert a seat, which Robert refused.

            “I’d prefer to stand if it please you…I have been sitting and lying for days.”

            “Suit yourself. Thair Spicer has agreed to pay your ransom.”

            “You have heard from him?”

            “Aye.”

            “And my father?”

            Lord Steel shook his head. “Not a word. Believe me, I sent two letters. No response.”

            “He is aware Thair Spicer has agreed to pay?”

            Lord Steel nodded. “Perhaps your father exaggerated his hatred for his only living son.”

            “Or perhaps he is broke and cannot match Thair Spicer’s amount.”

            “There is that. Of course, I cannot let you go right away, but I have agreed that you will be moved from your cell and into a chamber befitting a man of your rank.”

            “If he has agreed to pay, why can’t I go?”

            “Sir Robert, The Blacklands are on the cusp of doing something that has never been done before. We have almost conquered The Hartlands. To let you go would be gross negligence on my part. No…when the war is over you will be released, but not a moment before.”

            “And until then?”

            “Until then, you will be moved to my tower. You will be under guard from sunrise to sunrise. And you will help train my son in swordplay.”

            “I’ll do what?”

            “As you have already seen, my son Oscar is a moron. He is seventeen years old and as dim as dungeon darkness. You teach him something and it is about as useful as telling the sword to wield itself. I would send him to the church, but he cannot read. I would send him to be fostered, but he is too old. I would send him into the sea, but alas, he is my son. Perhaps I should blame myself for his idiocy. I spent so much time ensuring Lord Riechard was raised right, and now look at him…leading an army with his father to the very gates of Silver City. My daughter, Sorcha, on the other hand, is a mastermind, and, between you and me, perfectly adequate with both bow and sword. I have half a mind to name her my heir. The one thing that Oscar isn’t terrible at is fighting. He is a brawler, but he can get the job done. My Master-at-Arms, Sir Lief stayed in Steelmont and so I need someone to keep his training up. I need that boy to fight like its second nature to him. I cannot have him think about anything lest he be slaughtered while he does.”

            “You make it sound like such an appealing task.”

            “Well, that is the one luxury you have when you do not have a choice in the matter. You will train my son until the war is over. Then you will return to Hillhold, as Earl.”

**

            Oscar really was a moron. The most difficult task Robert had was explaining to Oscar why punching his opponent whilst they struck him with a blunted sword would not be so effective in battle.

            “It works fine now!” The boy protested.

            “Yes, but the sword won’t be blunted in battle! You’ll be dead before you can land a second punch!”

            Oscar just looked at him, bemused. Robert set up another swordfight. This time, fists were banned, and he could only use his sword. Despite the ban, the boy still punched and kicked until the poor lad he was fighting was on the ground.

            “You lost!” Robert told him. “I told you that you could only use your sword!”

            “I didn’t lose!” Oscar shouted. “He’s the one on the ground, not me!”

            Robert was almost at a loss of how to teach the boy until he saw the elderly gaoler walk past with another prisoner. He saw how the man’s hands were tied behind his back and immediately grabbed a small amount of rope and tied Oscar’s left hand behind his back.

            “There!” Robert said.

            The boys got back in their positions. Oscar exchanged a few parries with his opponent, but his sword was knock out of his hand. Oscar exchanged a brief glance with the lad and punched him square in the nose. The poor boy once again fell to the floor. Fearful that Oscar might beat the boy to a pulp, Robert pulled Oscar to the side, untied him and sat him down.

            “Do you understand what we are trying to do here?”

            “Aye Lord. You’re teaching me to fight, though I must say your methods are odd.”

            “I’m not teaching you to fight, Oscar. Clearly you already know how to do that. You must understand that in battle, you cannot get by with your fists. The swords in training are blunt. You can take hit after hit and not feel a thing. If a sharpened blade strikes you in battle. You are dead. Mortally wounded. Do you understand? The reason I am training you to use a sword correctly is so that you can stay alive in battle. What are you going to do when you come up against a knight in full plate? You’ll break your knuckles on his helmet if you try to hit him. You have to be smart. Do you understand any of this?”

            The boy stared at him with a blank look on his face. “Oscar!” A girl called from over his shoulder. Standing there was a round-faced girl with long black hair and happy eyes. She walked over purposefully into the courtyard and grabbed Oscar by the wrist. “Bet you can’t fight with just the sword.”

            “Shut up! Of course, I can!”

            All of a sudden Oscar was sparring with his opponent, one hand behind his back, dancing around him and slashing away.

            Robert turned to the girl and smiled. “You must be Lady Sorcha.”

            “You must be the prisoner that my father has lumped with this unhappy task. Sir Robert Talford, I presume?”

            “Nice to meet you. How did you do that?”

            “Years of practice. Oscar seems to function purely on pride. I have never known anything like it. Tell him to do something or try to teach him something, it goes in one ear and out the other, injure his pride and watch him swim across The Settler’s Sea with his hands and feet tied together.”

            “Amazing,” Robert said. “Your father speaks very highly of you.”

            “Aye, he ought to. I am his only hope of managing our House when he is gone.”

            “How old are you?” Robert laughed.

            “I’ll be thirteen next birthday.”

            Robert shook his head. “Do you have any other tips for training your brother?”

            “I would say don’t, but it doesn’t appear you have much choice. That’s your lot, I’m afraid.”

            Sorcha ambled away. Robert turned back to the fight to see Oscar standing over his opponent with his blunted sword poking into his chest. “Ha! You lost Sorcha! I told you I could do it!”

**

            Robert was invited to dine with Lord Steel. He was brought a much more substantial meal than he had eaten since he’d been imprisoned, and ate as finely as he had ever done at Hillhold. As he ate, Robert was imbued with a memory of his grandfather. Lord Lachlan Talford was on his deathbed by the time that Robert was five years old, but no matter how ill the man was, he always possessed an insatiable appetite and scoffed down food as if he was a fat teenager. Lord Steel did the same. He did not eat with the decorum that was thrust upon Robert as he grew up. In fact, it was the one thing Lord Steel did without an unerring sense of calm. The stern Lord ate as if he would never eat again. Robert did not see Lord Steel as a slovenly or gluttonous man. He was thick-limbed, but taut of torso, broad of brow and seemingly immovable. Yet watching this man as he ate made him seem almost vulnerable. As if the opaqueness of his exterior was just a thin sheet of dark fabric. Difficult to see through, but easy to tear away.

            The knight had been studying the Lord for so long that it was soon noticed by Sorcha who was sat opposite Sir Robert. The Lord’s daughter smiled at him as if to say ‘he always eats like that’. Lord Steel sat at the head of the table, flanked by his son and his wife, Rhiannon Steel, nee Grosvenor. Lord Steel had married the Earl of Grosvenor’s sister as part of the peace agreement. This was the same agreement that saw Aron Harltin marry Lorne Byrne, Charles Byrne to marry Amelie Hartlin, and Asher Hartlin to marry Natalie Black. Of course, the last marriage was of necessity rather than alliance. Asher Hartlin had already impregnated the girl after Lord Black’s visit to Harthelm. It would have been a scandal if they hadn’t been married. It was rumoured that King Eldrian had Isabel Byrne in mind for Asher’s wife once she came of age, but it was not to be.

            Robert looked down at his venison rump and panned his eyes to look up at the fine tunic that Lord Steel had provided for him. He took another piece of the rump and delicately placed it in his mouth and it melted away like butter.

            “Are you enjoying your meal, Sir Robert?” Lady Rhiannon asked him.

            “Very much so, my lady. It is a feast far too grand for a prisoner.”

            “Not too grand for an Earl of The Hartlands,” Lord Steel interjected. Robert could not help but frown whenever he heard that, and it did not go unnoticed by the company he kept. “What is that look for?”

            “What look, my lord?”

            “The look of guilt that flashes across your face whenever I tell you that you will be Earl of Hillhold. Your father wanted you dead need I remind you.”

            “He did not return your letter…”

            “Probably never got it. The one thing your Kingdom has got is plenty of archers knocking ravens out of the sky to read my messages.”

            “I did not wish to hold my father’s seat. I have never wished that.”

            “Well, all of your rivals for that seat are dead.”

            “Vincent Talford, my nephew, is the rightful heir to Hillhold.”

            “And he can’t be an Earl as an infant. You will need to guide him. There are many benefits to being a puppet Earl. One of them is you don’t actually need to do anything but act like you’re doing something. Hillhold will be so full of Blacklanders, you’ll start thinking of Hillhold as The Blacklands soon enough.”

            “I never had you down as arrogant, Lord Steel. The war is not over yet.”

            “I never had you down as naïve, Sir Robert.”

            After dinner, Lord Steel invited Robert to drink with him in his chambers. Lord Steel had taken Prince Asher’s chamber as his own. The tower looked out over the lake and far in the distance, Robert spotted the small chapel through the trees where he had helped Natalie and her children escape back to Silver City. Robert could not help but think that at the time that they were completely hidden, but now he saw how precarious they were. Even in the pale moonlight and under the indigo sky, Robert could make out the small stone building in amongst the trees and surrounding swampland. It was a miracle that they were not seen sooner.

            Lord Steel brought Robert a glass of brown liquid, which he sniffed and immediately knew that this was not whiskey or any other dark spirit he had smelled. This was bunbo, the favourite alcoholic beverage of sailors and freemen who would drink themselves to death on their boats. It was not flavoursome, in fact it was deeply sour, but incredibly addictive.

            “If you want to kill me there are quicker ways.”

            Lord Steel didn’t laugh. It took more than that to amuse a man of his stoic demeanour. “It was sent to me by our Naval Commander, Lord Neville, in Duncath. Along with it was a letter saying that it was confiscated from a pirate ship that tried and failed to interrupt our trade. My foster son, Riechard, put him in charge whilst the three Byrne men were away at war. It looks as though he has made some excellent decisions in hindsight, but he has been extremely lucky.”

            “Sometimes competence looks a lot like luck.”

            “It’s only competence if you’re consistently lucky. I am proud of him though. I sometimes wish they would have taken Oscar and left Riechard with me. The boy could be great, you know? Really, great.”

            Lord Steel raised his glass to Robert and took a sip of the bunbo. Robert did the same. “I am sure my father feels the same about me. I am sure he would trade me for any of his other sons.”

            “You won’t have to worry about him for much longer. Once you are Earl you can have done with him what you will.”

            “You are not the first man to want to make me Earl of Hillhold. For the life of me, I cannot understand what the obsession is. Until twenty years ago, Hillhold was a nowhere border town. The smallest and most insignificant of the Earldoms. Now, it seems as though you and the entirety of the Twin Kingdoms is trying to oust my father and put me in the seat. What is going on?”

            “Perhaps men think highly of you.”

            “You are good at many things, my lord, but bullshitting is not one of them. Tell me the truth. You. Grosvenor. Hardwick. Prince Asher. Almost any man of rank in this Kingdom and your own seems to want me in Hillhold.”

Lord Steel drank again. “It is your father-in-law, Sir Robert.”

“Spicer? I don’t understand.”

“There is not a man in the Twin Kingdom who is not in some way indebted to your father-in-law. He is unfathomably wealthy, to an extent that I don’t even think you truly comprehend. The man could buy an army and sweep through The New World like a tsunami and crown himself King of the sludge that remained. He is that rich. Thair Spicer also does not hold loyalty to a Kingdom. Born in The Hartlands, yes, but low-born without rank or honours or family connections. This makes him dangerous. I’d imagine that Asher and the rest have had their eyes on you since you agreed to marry Mallory Spicer. Who was it who offered you the role in the City Guard?”

“Lord Hardwick,” Robert said beneath his breathe.

“Aye, and when did he offer you this role? Out of the blue, was it?” Robert nodded. “You are being groomed; don’t you see? What happens if Thair Spicer were to die? Where would his money go? How better to keep a rich man on side than to treat him favourably before he became unfathomably rich? Who does that man remember to help?”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“I respect you. War or not, we have met many times and I have always enjoyed fighting you – even when I lost. Thair Spicer’s financial support will be vital to keeping the borderlands protected and protecting the occupied land. In return, I aim to convince King Aedvard to give Spicer what he has always wanted himself…”

“A Lordship…”

“Nothing too grand…just enough to keep him satisfied and loyal. But it is more than the Hartlin boys would ever do for him.”

“And what do I get out of this? A Lordship that I have stated multiple times to multiple men that I do not want? To spend my days in a place that offers me nothing but pain?”

“Sir Robert…where am I, right now?”

“My lord?”

“Look outside. Where am I?”

“Hartlake.”

Hartlake. I am Lord of Steelmont, and whilst I spend most of my time there now, that is by choice. If I wanted, I could travel to Launton Vale, to Roots Hall, to Natonia in the Old World or Antinna. I could sail over to the volcanic Molten Isles. I could spend time with Ismann Warlords or get drunk with the freemen on the Free Islands. I am Lord, Sir Robert. I travel where I want for reasons that are my own, and I answer only to my King. If you were Earl of Hillhold you would not need to mind your castle day and night. You could travel the Kingdoms, fight in tournies, jousts, swim in rivers and marry another woman for all I care. Earldoms run themselves.”

Robert did not answer him. All he could think of was his time with Isabelle and Harold travelling The New World. Even the hard times, the times where they did not have a lot of coin, the times where Robert had taken a serious beating, or when his son was sick, even those times were better than the life he’d known before or since. The thought of travelling again filled him with the first glint of hope he’d dared allow to wash over him since Isabelle had died. It seemed that his entire life since that brief period where he’d been happy was cursed. Many times, Robert wondered why he continued to fight, and why he didn’t just stand in the water and allow the sea to take him away or fall on his sword in battle. Something kept him going beyond his will, and perhaps now, this was it. The opportunity to live the rest of his days with Mallory how he lived them with Isabelle.

“You want me to betray my Prince? My King?”

Lord Steel smiled. “That is interesting.”

“What is?”

“You professed your loyalty to your Prince and then corrected yourself. I have met many men in The Hartlands who do the same. I do wonder how many this affliction affects.”

“I will not be a puppet for The Blacklands.”

“Yes, you will. It is easy to sit here across from me and drink my bunbo, knowing that no matter what that you will be fine. I am offering you the same thing as Prince Asher. Either way you will be Earl, and you know you will take it. No matter how much you deny that you won’t. You would be stupid not to, and you are not a stupid man. You can profess your loyalty to your Royals, so that if they somehow miraculously turn this war around, then you can claim with honesty that you never thought of committing treason, but we both know that what I am offering you goes far beyond what you could ever wish. Enjoy it, Sir Robert. I would enjoy it too. Just know, that when this war is over. Hillhold, Silver City…all of The Hartlands, will be ours.”

**

            As soon as Robert’s head hit the pillow, he was almost asleep. After weeks spent sleeping on a cell floor, being on a feather bed and underneath furs was like laying on a cloud. In his last waking thoughts before he drifted into his dreams, Robert always thought of Mallory. No matter what happened between sleeping and waking, he thought of his wife in Silver City. He had no way to contact her, and worried for her safety alone in the city. And yet he realised that she was in an estate, surrounded by a City Guard who were loyal to Robert with an Arkgodson and a Prince looking after her. Robert was a political prisoner, under the eye of one of the sternest Lords in The Blacklands who would have been more than happy to sell his corpse back to his vengeful father. Robert soon realised that his worry was unnecessary, which allowed him to fall into a soothing sleep.

Then he was stuck.

Looking all around him, Robert had his feet stuck in the swamp beyond Hartlake. He found himself looking up at the castle. He tried to move his feet, but he was paralysed. There was nowhere for him to go and the rain poured down on him from the black sky. There was a blood moon hanging over the swamplands and he soon noticed that the raindrops were arrow tips falling around him, just barely missing him each time. A figure approached him from the trees. The figure’s face and body were covered in a purple cloak. It was the only colour that surrounded him. Everything else around him was different shades of grey, white and black. When the figure approached him, it was calm and gentle, and it took his hands. It had gloves on, but removed one of the gloves to reveal skeletal fingers that had been sharpened at the ends. Robert felt an icy chill, and he knew exactly what was happening. He was going to the darkest place within his soul. The place that caused all of his terrors. He was going to see Isabelle and Harold for the last time.

Truth

Good morning everyone and thanks for stopping by to read Chapter Thirty-Six of The Cursed King. I have had a busy couple of weeks – mainly because I turned 30 just after posting my last chapter and I have a wonderful group of friends and family who kept me very busy. It is times like this when I am glad I am ahead with the book, because it means that in weeks where I don’t have the time to write as much, I can still post when I say I’m going to. I’m currently writing Chapter Forty-Five, and so I am still about ten chapters ahead of you guys and around seven-ish chapters from the end of the book. It’s exciting times, but writing the crescendo – the most intense and action-packed part of the book, takes a lot of energy.

In today’s chapter, we are back with Nadir as he navigates the cold winter of Silver City after his encounter with Sir Eiruc in Betrayal. Nadir does not know who to trust, but an unexpected saviour seeks him out to offer him refuge, which leads to Nadir finally deciding who he can trust in this world of chancers and opportunists. Thanks for reading, and I will post Chapter Thirty-Seven on July 31st.

Truth

Nadir VIII

            Nadir’s heartbeat slowed as the noisy streets quietened beneath him. He pulled his pocket out only to find crumbs, and so he lay on his back and stared up at the stars. It was the height of winter, and the sky was clear of clouds which allowed him to look up at the stars shine as the Great Galla began to form in the sky. A knuckle tapped Ellen’s window gently and she opened it as cautiously as she could. In her hands, the Blacksmith’s daughter held an apple and she handed it to Nadir. He had never been greedy, but the energy that his body used up from shaking made him exceptionally hungry. As soon as she bared her palm, he snatched the apple from her hand and began to devour it.

            “You cannot stay out here, Nadir. The chill is not so bad at the moment, but you will freeze out here one of these nights.”

            “I know,” he said through a mouthful of apple.

            “Is there no way they will take you back to the castle?”

            “I cannot go back there. I have told you. I need to leave and search for my mother. No one here is going to help me. The city is blockaded. I cannot get out of any gates. I need to try and sneak out when I am able.”

            “It is awfully dangerous out there.”

            It is dangerous everywhere, Nadir thought. “You are right, but I have no choice.”

            “If you really need to go,” Ellen said, “would night time not be the best time?”

            “Perhaps so,” Nadir said.

            Nadir could tell from Ellen’s persistence that she was worried about him sleeping just outside her window. Nadir was small and quiet, but one wrong move and he could be caught easily. Once all of the torches and candles around the city had started to fade, Nadir decided to make his way to the gate to see if there was a way he could get out. The streets were deafly quiet. It had struck Nadir that there had been no commotion around the missing guard. It was all he could do not to think of the Garrison Guard that he had murdered, and even more not to think of what happened after. He pushed it from his mind and slinked in and out of alleyways, stepping over drunks and quickly tiptoeing beyond the gaze of guards and prostitutes. He did not want to be seen by anyone.

            Before long, Nadir was at the Western Gate of the city. It was manned, albeit lightly, but the walls were thick, difficult to scale and with very few week points. Nadir had started to think that his quickest way out of the city would be by boat, but that would cost coin, something that he did not have. In the forest, Nadir had to be sneaky, but animals were largely predictable and there were very few people to get in his way. In the city, there was always someone, always a person lurking in the shadows ready to grab him.

            “Hello again,” a voice came from behind him. Nadir yelped, but a wrinkly hand blocked the sound from coming out of his mouth. He was spun around by the figure who shone a candle up to their chin. It was Joan. The lady whom he’d bathed in the priory. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you, kid.”

            “Joan,” Nadir sighed, relieved. “What are you doing here?”

            “I’ve got myself held up in an abandoned house just down the way. I was watching the people go by and saw you darting in and out of streets like a lost puppy. Thought I’d better check on you.” Joan looked up at the gate. “Planning your escape, I see.”

            “What? No…I’m…how did you…”

            Joan giggled quietly. “I am just joshing with you, lad. Come on, let’s get you inside. I can’t imagine you’re out here all alone by choice. I bet you could murder a cup of tea.”

**

            Nadir peered out of the window at the flames in the lanterns that danced in the breeze. Joan’s home was dark, which suited Nadir. The less attention, the better, he thought. After some time, a group of guards walked past her home, which was not far from the brothels and the taverns. The guards spoke loudly, but they were not laughing and bawdy like they were usually. Their tone was serious, almost furious. Nadir was frozen still until they passed Joan’s house and their voices faded.

            “They have been keeping a tight watch around here. Between you and I, a Knight was found murdered on the other side of the square a week or so ago,” Joan told him, sipping at her tea.

            “Oh, really?” Nadir said with his cup to his lips.

            “Mmhm. You should be more careful. Wandering the streets at night. Lots of dangerous people around in this city. They think there are enemies hanging around.”

            “Enemies?”

            Joan nodded. “Enemies of the crown. I hear that King Aron believes that men from The Blacklands have snuck into his city posing as refugees. He thinks they are being delivered shipments of weapons and poisons to take the city from the inside.”

            “Where did you hear that?”

            “Oh, the usual places. The taverns, the markets, the docks. I like talking to people around the city. You find out a lot of interesting things.”

            “Do you think that it’s true?”

            “Well, I am a refugee I suppose, but I am not here to fight. I am just surviving. I was lucky enough to find this home abandoned.”

            “Who would leave their home abandoned when there are people sleeping on the streets?”

            “Who knows? Perhaps there are ghosts here.”

            Nadir did not know if there were ghosts in the house or if Joan was just teasing him, but he knew that he would rather be inside with the ghosts than outside with the guards. He was frightened and alone, and worse – he was low-born and unimportant, which would make him easy to hang if they were convinced that he did kill Eiruc. Nadir felt a strange ache behind his eyes, He was not sure if it was stress or guilt. He tried not to think of it. If he thought of it, then that would lead him to what happened after Eiruc died. The flash of light. The terrifying woman who gripped him by the throat. All of it came flooding back. He gulped his burning hot tea to distract him from the thoughts.

            Suddenly, there was a bang on the door. Nadir immediately sprinted towards the fireplace and away from the window. Joan took a step forward and instinctively put her hand across Nadir. “Hide in there,” Joan told Nadir, pointing to a small cupboard. “Hurry, go on.” Nadir did not waste another moment and hurried into the cupboard which had a few cobwebs among some pots and pans. Nadir heard the door to the house open. He peeked out of the gap and watched as a guard stood before Joan. Nadir had seen him before, but he could not remember where from.

            “Who are you?” The man asked bluntly.

            “My name is Joan,” the old lady replied equally as blunt.

            “Does anyone else live here?”

            “Oh no…just me. Alone.”

            “How long have you lived here?”

            “All my life, my dear. Why do you ask?” Joan replied in a voice as sweet as honey, but with a croakiness that made her seem frailer than she was.

            “There has been a murder on the other side of the square.”

            “There are always murders here,” Joan lamented and shook her head.

            “This man was a guard, a high-ranking Knight of the realm. He was stabbed through the heart. You’ve lived her a long time…have you seen any new faces recently? Anyone you do not recognise.”

            “More and more everyday dear. It’s not like it was when I grew up. Why don’t you come in and I’ll tell you about all of the people that I’ve seen around town? I’d be glad for the company. It’s been so long since I’ve had a friend to talk to, I think I could talk for hours!”

            Nadir froze. Why was she inviting him in? He thought, but the Guard looked around him and smiled politely. “I…erm…it would be my pleasure, but I am afraid we are very busy. Perhaps another time. You be careful now…there’s a killer on the loose.”

            “Oh, I will, my love. I hope you find him soon.” The guard walked away and Joan closed the door behind her and scoffed. Once he was out of sight, Joan opened the cupboard door. “Nothing more terrifying for a youngster than to sit and listen to an old woman talk for hours on end.”

            Nadir smiled, and appreciated Joan’s cunning. It made him think of Enid from Bankwater. He had not thought about her for months. His mother had occupied all his thoughts in that time. It was harder to remember his village now. The simple days, the simple work, and the fun that he had with Anton and the villagers. All of them separated, most of them dead, and his mother…well…that remained to be seen. “You were brilliant,” Nadir told Joan. “Thank you.”

            Then, without warning, the door to the house was kicked down. The guard was standing there, and then Nadir realised where he had seen the man before. It was the tall bandit who Nadir left to the wolves in the woods. He remembered his eyes; they were bloodshot and cold and his hair was dark and straggly. The guard stood over them and looked directly at Nadir. He put his hand on his sword. “Now why on earth would you lie about being here alone?” The man said. “I remember you, lad. You left my friend and I to die. Left us to the wolves. Did you kill someone else, eh? One of your monk buddies do it? You’re coming with me. I’m taking you to Lord Hardwick.”

            Joan turned to him. “Looks like you better run,” she flicked her head towards the open door and then threw herself onto the guard. Nadir ran towards the door and escaped, but realised he could not leave Joan there. He turned back and looked through the door, but it was too late. Joan had been arrested by the guard. “Run child! Jivana be with you,” she said. Nadir did not waste another moment inside the house, he ran into the street. He had not needed to run since he fled from his burning village, not like this, not for his life. It was not long until he heard pursuers. He heard a stampede of footsteps behind him.

            Nadir saw the alleys as trees and so he darted in and out of them. He turned left, and right at random, hoping to lose his pursuers. He was quick, but his strides were shorter, and these guards were determined to close him down. Nadir found himself running towards the river, and so he kept going and going. Finally, he managed slide down the side of the riverbank and found solid ground beneath his feet. He heard his captors run across the bridge above him as he sat underneath it, his knees tucked up underneath his chin. Nadir sat in the mud, his fingers and toes freezing in the icy air. He allowed his body to shiver as it was the only thing that kept him warm. He did not dare move though, he was not sure if his hunters were still looking for him, and even if he did move, he had nowhere to go. Before long though, Nadir realised that he needed to keep moving. It would soon be first light, and he would need to find somewhere else to shelter that would allow him to remain concealed. He would not be able to get out of the city until nightfall.

            As Nadir pushed himself up from the ground, a shadow loomed over him. The man stood there in a hooded cloak, his face covered in shadow, darker than the night’s sky. Nadir stepped back, but the figure removed its hood to reveal a familiar face. “Stillius,” Nadir whispered.

            “Hello Nadir,” Stillius replied, and pulled off a scarf that was wrapped securely around him. “You are going to freeze to death out here. Put this on.” Nadir wanted to refuse, but he was so cold that the thought did not cross his mind for more than a moment. He took the scarf and wrapped it around his neck, it was so long that he was also able to wrap each end around his hands. “We have to go. They will find you here eventually. It is not safe.”

            “It is not safe anywhere…how did you know someone was looking for me?”

            Stillius smiled. “There is much I know. Come with me, they will be looking for a boy on his own.”

            Nadir did not want to trust Stillius, but he knew that the old man was right. Once they walked into the lantern light of the city, Nadir looked up at Stillius and noticed that he looked a lot leaner than he had done in the weeks before. His face was flushed with colour, as if he had never been more alive. “Where are we going?” Nadir asked him.

            “Nowhere!” A voice came from behind them.

            Nadir and Stillius spun around to see Elden Hardwick of the City Guard standing before them. He was alone, but he held his sword out menacingly. “Let the boy free.”

            Stillius shot Hardwick a face of bemusement. “The boy is not my hostage. He walks with me willingly.”

            “This boy belongs to the Church…to the Arkgodson Jerimeh. He is an oblate to Harthelm and you will release him.”

            The words stuck in his mind. Oblate. Belong. Nadir had been property since the day he was born. Owned by a lord to owned by an Arkgodson. All of the talk of freedom. Aedvard. Jerimeh. Stillius. None of them wanted him to be free. He knew he needed to be rid of the city. The only way he was ever going to be free would be with his mother.

            “It was my understanding that the boy belongs to Lord Tigos of Bankwater. As far as I am aware, Lord Tigos is alive and well. If that is the case, then it seems that this boy is stolen property.” Stillius turned away and knelt down in front of Nadir and whispered. “You cannot stay here. You must come with me, else be trapped in a sieged city. The Blacklands armies are on their way. It is only a matter of time before they take the city. We can keep you safe, get you out of here and search for your mother.”

            Nadir watched the fear in Stillius’ eyes. It only made Nadir more suspicious of him. The desperation that the man had to take him away made him angry. “If it is so unsafe, then perhaps you should speak to your uncle and get him to safety. I am going to search for my mother, and I am going to get out of here, but I am not going with you.”

            Nadir walked past Stillius and over to Hardwick. “I was kidnapped, Lord Hardwick, but not by this man. He was going to take me back to Harthelm anyway. I am ready to go back.”

            “Let us get you somewhere warm, lad. There is a killer on the loose out here.”

**

            “You’ve had Effei worried, you know?” Hardwick told Nadir as he held his cup of water and lay in bed. He struggled to keep his eyes open.

            “And Jerimeh?” He asked with his eyes now firmly shut.

            “He has not long been back in Silver City; I doubt he would have even known that you were missing…get some sleep. We will talk more tomorrow.”

            Nadir slept until after noon the next day. He woke up with the sun beaming in through the window. As he sat up, the son was blocked out by a figure sitting at the end of his bed. He rubbed his eyes and saw the old Arkgodson sat with a slight smile on his face.

            “Good morning, Nadir,” Jerimeh said.

            Nadir took a moment to take him in. It was the healthiest Jerimeh had looked since Nadir had met him. The Arkgodson was finely dressed in a blue silk gown over the top of his tunic and hosen, and his eyes were bright in the light of the sun. “Your worship,” Nadir said blankly.

            “I am glad you are safe and well. Hardwick told me that you were kidnapped. What can you tell me about when you were taken? Was it someone within Harthelm?”

            “No…I can’t remember,” he lied.

            “Hardwick tells me he found you with a man, but that you said the man did not kidnap you?”

“I was with Stillius.”

            “Stillius?” Jerimeh said, shocked.

            “Aye…Stillius. Your nephew.”

            In all of the time that Nadir had known Jerimeh, he had never seen the look that flashed across the Arkgodson’s face. It was at once anger, shock and terror. Jerimeh moved uncomfortably at the end of the bed, but soon remembered his look of empathy and placed a hand on Nadir’s shoulder.

            “Who on earth told you that?”

            “It doesn’t matter. I know. I know about the Ravens and I know about your connection to them through Stillius. There is something going on. Something you know about that you are not telling me. I don’t care what it is. I don’t care about the stupid games that adults play with each other. I just want to go home. I want to leave and find my mother. No one is helping me. No one cares. I just want to go,” Nadir growled.

            “If I tell you the truth when you ask me a question…will you do me the same courtesy when I ask you?” Nadir sighed, but nodded, exhausted from his anger. “Go ahead.”

            “Is Sir Bethan really looking for my mother?”

            Jerimeh nodded, but winced. “He was…he still is technically, but King Aron has pulled all of his men back into the Royal Army. What I should say is no, right now, he is not searching and he will not be able to resume until the war is over.”

            Nadir was angry, but he understood why Jerimeh was worried to tell him that. “I would have understood…but you promised.”

            “I did, and I am sorry that I broke a promise to you. Now…my turn. Were you kidnapped from Harthlem?”

            “No,” Nadir told him, “I left to try and escape the city, but I couldn’t because the guards aren’t letting anyone in or out, and I knew I would not be let back into Harthelm and did not want anyone to ask where I’d been if they had to call for you or Effei. My turn,” Nadir began before waiting for Jerimeh’s response. “What is your connection to the Ravens?”

            Jerimeh smiled slightly at Nadir’s line of questioning. “Stillius and I are very close. Something happened a long time ago…something terrible. The long and short of it is that Stillius is the only family that I have left. Stillius helps me with information, and I do what I can for him. We look out for one another, but as far as my connection with the Ravens goes, I do not know about their business, nor do they mine. It is safer that way. Now my question…my last question. Nadir, I need you to tell me truthfully. Did you murder Sir Eiruc Garrison?”

Nadir could not help his face flushing white. He could only imagine how terrified he looked. All Nadir could think of was that eight months ago he was sat setting rabbit traps in the forest, and now he was being questioned about a murder he’d committed by the Arkgodson of The Hartlands. “I…I…don’t know who that is,” Nadir told him. “Why would you think that I murdered him?”

“Because Eiruc Garrison was one of the knights who attacked and burned down the village of Bankwater. He took your friends and your mother, and he sold them as slaves.”

Nadir had heard from Eiruc’s own mouth that he had let them go. Nadir did not know what to trust less, Jerimeh or a dying man’s last confession. “The man who took my family was in the city…and you did not tell me?” Nadir said, trying to change the subject.

“I do not often speak to Lord Hardwick. It turns out that we have a lot of information to share after all. You know Sir Robert Talford. You travelled with him to Harthelm. I believe you have spent some time with him and his wife, Mallory. Well, Sir Robert told Lord Hardwick about what Eiruc had done. He said that the man drunkenly confessed to seeing your mother in his dreams. That she haunted him. The boy kept drinking and drinking. It looks as though someone found him drunk in an alley and stabbed him before putting the knife through his heart.”

            “Do you think I killed him?” Nadir asked.

            “I hope that you did not.”

            “Well, I didn’t,” Nadir lied again. This lie felt necessary. Nadir’s only focus was on leaving the city. They have no proof that I killed him, Nadir thought. “I have been trying to leave the city every single night. I want to go and find my mother. I did not even know this man’s name, let alone that he was in the city. If he did burn down my village, then I am glad he’s dead. He can answer to Natos for what he has done. But I did not murder anyone,” Nadir said, defiant. 

            “I believe you,” Jerimeh sighed. “I just wanted you to know…even if you did, that I understand. I understand that hate that must consume your heart, that ache for vengeance to appease your suffering. I am glad it was not you, Nadir. It would be such an awful thing to carry with you for the rest of your days. The guilt would eat away at you for eternity. You would never truly forgive yourself. To take someone’s life, to rob them of their opportunity for paradise is a grievous sin. This is why we punish murderers so totally, the only payment for it is death itself.”

            “Unless you kill an enemy,” Nadir said. “Then it is just politics.”

            Jerimeh was about to respond, but then paused for a moment. “You are smart, you know? Do not let people know that. It is better to be underestimated.”

            “I do not want anyone to know anything about me. Jerimeh, I want to leave. I am tired of this place. Everyone here is just using me as a pawn in their games. I just want to go and find my mother. If I have to do that on my own then I will.”

            “No one is coming in or out of the city, Nadir. King Aron has ordered it directly. Not even I could persuade him to let you out.”

            Nadir sighed. “And so, I am a prisoner here. For a long time, I did not think I was…but I was taken from my home, taken here, and now I will die for serving the enemy of my King.”

            “Whatever happens, Nadir. You will be protected. Whatever it takes, I will make sure that you are safe.”

            “You cannot promise me that, Jerimeh. You have promised me many things, and you have not succeeded in a single one, but none of those are important. There was only one I cared about, and at that one, you have failed.”

**

            Hardwick and Jerimeh looked stern as Nadir finally emerged from the chamber that had been set up for him. They sat at a table in the City Guard leader’s kitchen. Hardwick’s thick eyebrows twitched as he eyed Nadir suspiciously. Hardwick ran his fingers through his greasy, long hair whilst Jerimeh sipped at a cup of tea. When Jerimeh saw him, he told him to sit and pulled out a chair for him. Nadir did as he was told, more than aware that he was no more now than their prisoner, and it would not serve him to try and defy them. He was allowed to sleep for as long as he wanted, and Nadir had not felt so refreshed in months. The bed in the chamber was clearly made for someone much more high-born than him. The mattress was not straw, but full of feathers, as was his pillow. He had never been quite so comfortable. Despite the comfiness of the bed though, he still dreamed of the woman who would grip him by the throat and scream at him to find her. At first, he thought it might be his mother, but the face was too distorted, the voice too angry. His mother was kind and soft-spoken, even when she was angry with Nadir, she could not sound so violent.

            “Do you dream, Nadir?” Jerimeh asked, almost as if he read his mind.

            “Sometimes,” Nadir confessed cautiously. “Why?”

            “Before he died, Eiruc confessed to me that he had been having visions. Sir Robert Talford confided in me that Eiruc had been having troubling dreams, and so I spoke to him about it. He told me that…he told me that he had dreamed of your mother. He told me that she gripped him around the throat and told him to find her. He was always in the same place. It was always the same dream, so he told it. Deep in a desert, surrounded by sand, a wailing woman screaming at him. He recognised the woman as a woman he had taken from Bankwater. We believe it was your mother.”

            Nadir was startled. Had he seen Eiruc’s dreams when the flash of light shot up from the knight’s mouth? Had they infected his own dreams? Was his mother somehow trying to contact him? There were too many questions swirling around his head. Nadir tried not to seem shocked by the revelation, and did not want to reveal to either of them the nature of his own troubling dreams. “So? He was clearly guilty about what he had done. I am glad he had nightmares about it before he died. Why are you telling me this?”

            “Because he is not the only one,” Jerimeh told him. “I have also had these dreams. I dare say that this spreads farther than just myself and Eiruc. I bet there are many more. I think you are having these dreams too. You see, Nadir. There are people of this world who can…communicate over large distances. You see all life on earth is connected by what we call a string. It is a string of light that connects all of our souls. Our bodies, as you know, are just vessels for the soul. There are some people who are in tune with their souls more than the average person. There are those who can channel that energy and use that string to send messages into the consciousness. Most of us can only receive the message…it takes years and years of practice even with this gift to be able to send a message out. Even those who can, do so crudely, and cannot make their messages take shape in the way that they want them to. They are often distorted and broken, and so most keep them short…keep them simple. One or two words, a phrase…something like “find me,” Jerimeh told him.

            “You’re saying my mother is sending a message out to the world? This is why Eiruc dreamed of her? And now you’re dreaming of her too? Why didn’t you tell me before?”

            “My dreams only started recently, whilst I was away. The thing is, Nadir. I only know of one other person who has the gift of contacting souls in this way. That man is Stillius. I believe Stillius can help you find your mother. I think he is trying to contact her, but it can take some time, and some practice to contact an individual in this way.”

            “How did my mother learn this gift? She is a serf like me.”

            “Of that I could not tell you. Perhaps Stillius could, but your mother has had a long life. I do not know her like you do, but we are certain that this is your mother.”

            “So what now? I go with Stillius to find my mother?”

            “No…Nadir. I want to offer you a deal. I want you to confess to Eiruc’s murder. I want you to tell us…and only us…that you did it. We just need closure on this. I have agreed with Hardwick that no ill shall come to you. You will not even stand trial. We just need to know. You will have to leave of course, but we will make sure that you are well looked after with Stillius who will help you find your mother. When the war is over, you will be free to go.”

            Nadir considered them with a look of innocence, but behind his eyes, he was furious. How dare they ask me that? How dare they think that I am so stupid that I would not know their game? Still, now, they think that I will fall for this charade. But before Nadir could respond, before he let his anger and his fear spit out a lie that would withhold his secret, there was a knock at the door. Jerimeh and Nadir sat still, but Hardwick went to open it. Standing at the door was a member of the City Guard, a young man whose face was pale and solemn.

            “What is it?” Hardwick asked.

            “My Lord…we have found Sir Eiruc’s murderer.”

            Hardwick’s eyes darted back to Nadir briefly before returning to the guard. “And? Who did it?”

            “A refugee, my lord. A woman by the name of Joan. She was arrested last night and she confessed almost immediately. We hanged her in the square this morning!”

            Nadir had to hold himself back from shouting. He held back his shouts and his tears. The kind woman had been hanged for his crime. An innocent bystander punished for his vengeance. The thought made him sick, but he held Jerimeh’s gaze.

            “Well, at least that it is put to bed. We will get to work with Lord Garrison on a funeral. War or no war, this lad will have a send-off befitting his rank.”

            “Yes, Lord,” the guard said before turning away. Hardwick closed the door behind him.

            Nadir turned his gaze to Hardwick, a look of anger and spite gripping the muscles around his mouth. Hardwick’s face soon turned to a scowl himself. “Do not look at me like that you lowborn whelp. Do not think that I won’t have you hanged beside her. You are lucky to even be in our presence right now, do you hear me? You could have been sold off to a slaver or to many men who do far worse to boys like you than anyone in this city. Do not look at me like we have done you wrong when you sit in fine silks and sleep-in beds that high born men would envy. You are a liar. I do not believe a word of it. I believe that you are involved in this. I believe that you killed a fine young warrior to avenge your mother. Let me tell you something…you are nothing more than property. Nothing more than a pair of hands that’s only use is to lift carts and carry shit and work. That is your purpose. Eiruc’s purpose was to lead armies and win battles and bring glory to our Kingdom. I would kill your mother in front of you a thousand times to keep him alive for another day. Rest-assured, boy. You are nothing. Worthless. If I catch you outside of Harthelm, outside the view of Jerimeh or Effei or anyone else who maintains guardianship of you, then I will find your mother myself and slay her where she stands to end this nonsense. Jerimeh, I want Sir Bethan back and I want this boy put in his place or thrown into the ocean, whichever will get him out of my sight sooner.”

            Hardwick stormed into another room. Jerimeh rose to his feet. Nadir did not say a word. He accepted the tirade without changing his expression, but he was no longer angry. It is what he needed to hear. Though he already knew it in his heart, it was Lord Hardwick who had just confirmed it for him. There was acceptance now. He understood what people like Joan and him meant to people like Lord Hardwick and Jerimeh. They were nothing to them. Expendable. In a way, it was all he needed to know, and Nadir had finally decided what he needed to do. If he was to be locked away in Harthelm, then that is where he would stay, and where he would wait, until it was time for him to act.

Justice

Good afternoon everyone and thanks for stopping by to read Chapter Thirty-Five of The Cursed King. It’s my birthday this weekend, which is why you’re getting this one a day earlier than usual as I will be sans computer until next week. Whilst this means no writing, it also means no Football Manager, which is equally as devastating. Book-wise though, the writing is continuing smoothly as I write the crescendious (this is not a real word) finale to my tale.

In today’s chapter, after the successful battle for Dawnmount, Riechard takes his army south, and whilst he encounters a familiar face, these familiarities require him to make tough decisions as the horrors of war and the stark realities of leading an army are revealed to the teenage lord. Thank you for reading, and Chapter Thirty-Six will be posted on July 17th.

Justice

Riechard VII

            Dawnmount had completely encapsulated Riechard for the last few weeks. There was an eeriness to the place. An intermittent fog that seemed to shroud the castle and its surrounding community at dusk and dawn both fascinated and agitated him. Riechard had received ravens from his father, from Lord Steel and even from his grandfather who was imprisoned in Harthelm. From his father, he received congratulations. From his foster father, he received instruction. From his grandfather, he had received a tirade. Riechard was so angry when he received his grandfather’s letter that he screwed up the parchment in his fist and threw it into the fire. Despite his attempt to destroy it, the words were etched into his mind. Foolish boy. Abandoned castle. Fraught alliance. Riechard’s grandfather was as cutting with a quill as he was with a sword. His words hurt him deeply. Knowing that he had disappointed his grandfather despite winning a battle was as great a pain as having his skull smashed in by Karlon.

            Riechard had no choice but to keep driving forward and to lay siege to Silver City at all costs. It was the only way that he would be able to redeem himself in his grandfather’s eyes. A knock on the door pulled Riechard away from staring into the mystifying fog that surrounded the castle. The chambers that he occupied were smaller than he had become used to in his short time at Duncath, and reminded him far more of Steelmont. Though he had expected more gold and decoration in a castle in this part of the New World, he also remembered that Dawnmount was as much Ismann as it was The Hartlands. Whilst there were some minor comforts, there was a coldness and a minimalism to everything. All that adorned the walls were rusty weapons and faded paintings of long dead men.

It was Salman who greeted Riechard at the door, he two had developed a far easier friendship since they had travelled from Duncath. It was far easier to trust a man who had stood in the way of a giant for him. Not only that, their destinies had been tied together in their march.

            “There is wine on the table,” Riechard told him, and Salman darted towards it and poured them both a cup.

            “The townsfolk are settled. It has taken some time, and in truth our men did not help when we stormed the castle, but I believe they are more at ease with the new regime than they were when we arrived.”

            “What of Lord Esak?”

            “Still nowhere to be found. He has gone, along with half a hundred knights from all around the Northern Earldoms, we have discovered. They must have fled as soon as they knew that we were on the march.”

            “It is strange. We are sure that they did not go south?”

            “We had scouts follow a path toward Hazelfield. They did not go south; they would not dare go north or west…and so they must have gone east.”

            “There is nothing East of here…perhaps they fled to The Old World?”

            “Your guess is as good as any, my lord.”

            Riechard picked up his cup of wine and took a sip. “How do you like the room?” Riechard asked.

            Salman looked around and shrugged. “Worthy of a minor lord…perhaps not quite worthy of an Earl.”

            “It should suit you just fine then.”

            “My lord?”

            “I need someone I can rely on to keep the Northern Earldoms in check, and to keep communication with Dudsoner whilst we march. You will stay in Dawnmount and act as Castellan.”

            “Lord Riechard…I am honoured you would choose me, but who will advise you? I feel as though I have served well and have earned the right to fight alongside you.”

            “Aye, I agree. I would not have got this far without you. I think I would have died in the snow had you not been with me.”

            “Yes. You would have.”

            “But I need someone I can trust here, and in truth, if you are to marry Isabel, you need to be alive to do so. King Aron and Prince Asher will not surrender Silver City lightly. There will be      blood.”

            “I do not need protection, my lord.”

“I do not mean to humiliate you. I know you still see me as a child, but I am not. I am looking out for what is the best strategic decision. The best decision I can make right now is to place someone I trust in control of the Northern Earldoms. If it were you advising me…, what would you tell me to do?”

Salman stared into his wine. Riechard could see the disappointment. There was a sense of resignation, that he would not be able to complete what he helped begin. “I will do it.”

“Thank you, Salman. We will meet again soon, I promise you. As soon as the city is ours, this will all be over.”

**

Flanked by Sir Gavon and Sir William, Riechard mounted his horse. They aimed for the Central Road which would take his army towards Hazelfield. Hilde and Karlon were having a heated discussion at the gates, which none of them could understand. It became so aggressive that Hilde swung at Karlon. Riechard instinctively dismounted his horse and ran towards them, eager to protect his betrothed but swiftly realising that Hilde would have a greater chance of defeating Karlon in single combat than he would. Karlon avoided the blow, and seemed to have enough sense not to try and strike her back.

“Enough!” Riechard interrupted them. “What is the issue?”

“Not your concern,” Karlon waved his hand dismissively.

“This army is my concern. As part of this army, a fight between two of its leaders is my concern. What is the issue?”

Hilde turned to Riechard sharply. “Karlon sent ten of my warriors back to Ismann.”

Riechard turned to Karlon. “What was your reason?”

“This is the problem. He will not tell me!”

“General, we need all the men at our disposal. Why on earth are you sending men home?”

“My business is my own.”

“Your business is our business.”

“Do you want another beating, boy?”

Sir Gavon and Sir William suddenly appeared beside him, with their hands on their hilts. “You can try,” Sir William said, beginning to draw his sword.

It was Hilde who stepped between them. “Karlon. We can accept that you have sent men home, but we need to know why. Tell us.”

Karlon stepped forward and looked Riechard in the eyes. “Would you trust Hilde that I made the correct decision if I told only her?”

Riechard was taken aback. “Well…I…I suppose so.”

Karlon pulled Hilde to one side and whispered in her ear. Riechard studied her face. Initially it was shock, then a brief flash of horror passed across her, before she composed herself and nodded slightly. “Okay,” she said. “Karlon’s reasons are fair. We will march now, yes?” Before anyone could respond, Hilde strode so quickly forward it was as though she was escaping the conversation, and mounted her horse to take the lead. Riechard looked at Karlon, but all he returned was a stone-cold stare.

It took Riechard half a league to catch up with Hilde, who he found staring straight ahead of her down the road. The road was wet with melted snow. He had become used to the snow and the bitter winds of the far north and even the cold rain felt warm to him now. Wrapped up in his polar bear furs, he was half-tempted to remove his coat as he rode. Hilde was dressed equally as wrapped up, covered in furs and a pristine surcoat with her long blade at her side. Her hair was in a constant braid, her face stern and unyielding. Everything about her announced strength and resolve. Hilde was one of many women in their army. It had taken his own army some time to get used to the concept of a female warrior, but in Ismann it was commonplace. Everyone must fight. Everyone must be able to war there. It is part of what made their country so strong.

“I do not want to speak of it,” Hilde said without turning around to look at Riechard.

“I was not going to ask you to,” Riechard lied.

“Then why ride with me?”

“We are to be married are we not?” Hilde did not say anything. “Perhaps we should learn more of one another.”

“Perhaps we should survive this war…and then we can speak of what comes after.”

Riechard could not help but be offended by that comment. “You do not think that I will survive. Is that why you agreed to this marriage? The odds that I might not get out of this war?”

Hilde scoffed. “You southern men are so insecure. It seems as though you are just describing your own fears.”

“I am not afraid.”

“Of course, you are. Why would you not be? You are barely sixteen years old and you are marching an army through the heart of your enemy’s kingdom. You should be terrified.”

Riechard and Hilde rode alongside each other in silence for several leagues. They rode past hamlets and small towns all staring at them from the fields. Some stared in horror, others with intrigue, some even greeted them with a smile. The army marched along slowly. Children ran towards them, but were soon pulled back by their parents who kept them close. The sight of the Ismann who favoured longer hair and strangely shaped weapons must have been a terrifying sight for the smallfolk.

Riechard and Hilde rode ahead into the forest. The Great Forest expanded throughout The Blacklands and The Hartlands. Many communities lived entirely in the forests, though they were sporadic, they were much like the Northern Earldoms. It is hard to fight battles for land in forests, and so the forest had always been considered neutral down due to its depth and density. The Central Road cut directly through the forest and for several leagues the trees were cut to arch over the road and meet in the middle. On a summer’s day it would have made the floor sparkle with sunlight, but in the winter the sky was overcast and grey, and the trees were bare of leaves, skinny and black. Every now and then, Sir Gavon and Sir William caught up to him to provide him with updates of the army’s progress, but by the time they reached the heart of the forest, the sun had begun to set, and so they set up camp between the trees.

Riechard had not even unpacked his horse when he heard a grunt and felt a thud beside his feet. He looked down to see two young men not much older than himself tied up on the ground, groaning and swearing. It was Karlon who was standing over them. Sir Gavon was standing beside him, both of them looking as though they wanted to beat both of the young men into the ground.

“What is it?” Riechard asked.

“We caught them raiding a hamlet,” Sir Gavon explained.

“Who are they?”

“Little more than farm boys,” Sir William said.

“My father is Lord Tigos of Bankwater,” an irritable voice came from the mud.

“No more than a bastard,” Sir Gavon said. “His mother was a low-born wench. You’d think it would give the boy some sympathy for the common folk.”

“And who is beside to him?”

“That…is Marcus Steel. Lord Steel’s second cousin.”

**

“In Ismann we would drown them in the ocean,” Karlon said as he jabbed his knife into a slab of meat.

“It is not that simple…these young men are powerfully connected,” Riechard pondered.

“A bastard and the fifth son of a man who is a Steel in name only?” Sir William questioned.

“It is not that simple. I have met Lord Steel’s family; I have grown up around them. I recognise Marcus. We spent time together as children. I did not even know he was in the army. I was so caught up in getting it here.”

“It is the job of a leader to make tough decisions. You must send a message to the other men that this behaviour will not be tolerated.” Hilde said.

“What would King Aedvard do?” Riechard asked Sir William and Sir Gavon.

“If I knew that,” Sir William replied, “then I would be King of The Blacklands.”

Jordan Tigos and Marcus Steel were tied to separate trees on opposite ends of the camp. It was Jordan who Riechard approached first. The boy was spirited, even when he was bound, but at the very least had become fatigued trying to wriggle out of the rope. Jordan had a plain face with dark, curly hair atop his head. He gnashed his teeth in mockery whenever someone approached him. It was his energy that struck Riechard. As if his soul wanted nothing more than to be free of its body. Now though, he had calmed enough that Riechard was comfortable talking to him.

Whenever Riechard had been punished as a child, he remembered that Lord Steel would always sit him down and listen to his story before deciding on the punishment. Context was important for his foster father. If Riechard had hit another boy unprovoked, then the punishment would be a lot tougher than if he had suffered weeks of torment. It allowed Riechard to accept his punishment, safe in the knowledge that his actions were treated justly in every situation. He thought he must provide the same courtesy to Jordan and Marcus. Even though they were the same age as him, he was still the leader of the army, and he must allow them the chance to share their stories.

Jordan looked almost excited to see Riechard. It was the same movement a puppy made when its master returned. If Jordan Tigos had a tail, then it would be wagging constantly. “My lord, what a pleasure it is to see you. These gruff men of yours…why, I can see why you keep them by their side, but I admit I would have much rather have been reprimanded at your royal hand.”

“And what were you reprimanded doing. Master Tigos?”

“It is Jordan Umbar-Tigos. Do you know why a bastard takes their father’s full name as a surname? It is to shame the father. I carry his shame around with me. Isn’t that strange? I did not ask to be born, and yet I must carry the punishment of my father for all my life.”

“What were you reprimanded doing, Jordan Umbar-Tigos?”

“Your foster cousin and I…Lord Riechard…we’ve been away so long. All we wanted to do was to find some common girls in the hamlet to spend some time with. You must know…or maybe you don’t. See, we were not causing any harm, not raiding or the like. But one of the girls see, her father caught us. Held a pitchfork to my throat. Marcus was just protecting me. He didn’t mean to kill him. I swear he didn’t. He just meant to give him a scratch, get him to back off, but the farmer lunged at him with the pitchfork. Marcus just defended himself. See, if the man had just been reasonable then we would have just gone. But he threatened us, you see? Threatened soldiers of your army…men of noble blood.”

Riechard did not say anything in reply. He simply nodded and got to his feet before walking to the other side of the camp. “It’s the truth!” Jordan yelled after him, but had already heard what he needed to hear.

Marcus Steel was not quite as fiery and energetic as Jordan Umbar-Tigos, but then, he never had been. Riechard had not seen Marcus in years. The last time he spent any time with him, he was ten years old at the wedding of Marcus’ eldest sister, Penelope, to Lord Coor of Roots Hall. They had spoken briefly, but only about their favourite knights and who would win in a fight between one and the other. Even those conversations were short-lived. Riechard did not know about the knights that Marcus spoke of, they were all from books. Myths and legends about slaying sea squids and dragons. Riechard was far more interested in real knights. Knights that he spent time with and who he had watched fight in tournies. Marcus spent his time in the library whilst Riechard spent his time on the courtyard.

“Hello cousin,” Marcus said pleasantly. Riechard had stopped caring so much when people did not call him Lord. At first, he would pull them up on it, but now, it happened so often being around Ismann that he no longer had the energy for it. In this case, he did not even consider it insulting from someone so close to his foster family.

“If I had known you were travelling with the army, I would have greeted you far sooner,” Riechard said. “Why did you not seek me out?”

Marcus bowed his head. “I did not want Lord Steel to know I was here. My father sent me to serve you.”

“Why did he not inform me of this? Why did your father not send you to join Lord Steel?”

“He thought it would be an insult to Lord Steel.”

Riechard laughed. “Aye…it was a hastily assembled army. Hardly the best of what The Blacklands had to offer. I would have thought you would be on your way to becoming a Godson by now.”

“I am, Lord. I have been serving as a page since I was eleven to Godson Michaels. I am due to become a Godson soon, should I survive the war.”

“Then why on earth were you sent here to fight?”

“I wasn’t…my father wanted me to perform Godson duties for the army. To a large extent I am. I am offering prayer, helping the sick and injured. I have done more of this than actual fighting.”

“Except for farmers of course…Jordan told me that you killed the farmer.”

“He did what?” The shock on Marcus’ face was something that Riechard had prepared for. “I…I did no such thing. It was…oh I suppose it does not matter.”

“I am here to listen to your side, Marcus.”

“Whilst what Jordan has said is not true, it would do me no good to tell the truth either. I have betrayed my duty as a servant of the Gods to this army. I was weak and I have failed you and the church.”

“I do not need to hear your wallowing, cousin. Just tell me the truth.”

“I went with Jordan to the hamlet. He told me that he wanted to visit a small tavern for an hour or so. I decided it would be safer to go with him, especially as I could stop him from drinking too much. The problem was, we both decided to drink. We were there for hours. As we were stumbling back, we found some common girls. Most of them would not give us the time of day for our drunkenness, but one stayed. Whilst Jordan went off to chase the girls, I spent some time in the barn with this girl. We were caught by her father in the act and he tried to attack me. He was stronger than I and punched me a few times. Luckily, the man showed me mercy and told me to leave. I picked up my things and escaped. I looked for Jordan, but I could not find him. I went all around the hamlet until I saw him at the farmer’s barn. That was when I saw him. Jordan had killed the man with his sword. It was not in any defence of me. He was drunk and violent, and then he went to approach the girl. I managed to pull him away from the barn. It was then that we were discovered by Sir Gavon and Hilde.”

“You do realise that Jordan has given a totally different version of events? Implicating you as the murderer.”

Marcus hanged his head. “I did suspect as much as soon as you split us up. You walked over here with such purpose, as if you already knew what had happened.”

“So, who is telling the truth?”

            “My father once told me something. There are two sides to every story, and the truth will be somewhere in the middle.”

            “You admit that you have embellished your side?”

            “No more than Jordan would have done.”

            It was not until the following day that Riechard had made his decision. The sky was so white with cloud that it was almost blinding. There had been no rain overnight, but the grass was glossy with dew and the ground was soft beneath his feet. Sir Gavon greeted him with a cut of bread and a slide of blue cheese to break his fast.

            “How far away is the hamlet where you found Marcus and Jordan?” Riechard asked.

            “Two leagues from here.”

            “Do we have time to visit?”

            “Aye…we can make it. Have you decided what to do with the boys?”

            “It depends. One’s only crime is messing around with a farmer’s daughter. The other’s is murder. I need to find out which one is which.”

            When they arrived at the hamlet, Riechard immediately saw the barn. It was the largest building by far aside from a few huts scattered around. There could not have been more than thirty people who lived here. None who lived there showed themselves, it seemed there was no one outside at all.

            “They saw us coming,” Riechard reflected.

            “I do not blame them for being on the lookout.”

            They moved forwards towards the barn and soon realised that there was a woman standing at the entrance. Beside the barn was a small hut, where the family lived and in the barn were several oxen. The woman standing in front of the barn was of a similar age to Sir Gavon, in her thirties though her hair had already started to grey beneath her bonnet. She was a large woman with small facial features, close-set eyes and red cheeks. It was clear that she had been crying. It was not until Riechard had dismounted that they noticed a mound of dirt in front of the house that had been recently unearthed. There was the sign of the pentagon, the Symmetry of the Earth, made of wood that had been lodged in the soil.

            “We do not want any trouble,” the woman pleaded.

            Riechard raised his hands to the sky. “I am not here to cause any,” he told her as calmly as he could manage. “I am here to discover the truth. My name is Lord Riechard Byrne of Duncath, I am the leader of the army that passed by here yesterday.”

            “What do you want from us?”

            “Only the truth. I understand that two of my men were here yesterday. I do not doubt that one of them was responsible for your tears and for that pile of earth over there. I understand you are upset, and I want you to know that the man responsible will be duly punished to the full extent of my justice. I just need to know who did this.”

The woman turned away from him and cried. “My husband is dead…” she wailed into the air. After a moment, a young girl came running out of the hut. She could not have been older than ten with bright blue eyes and her arms held open. Her mother picked her up and continued to cry into her shoulder.

Riechard turned to Sir Gavon, who had turned whiter than the snow in Ismann. After a few seconds, the colour flashed back to his face in the form of a deep, crimson red. “Is this your daughter, madam?”

The woman nodded.

 “Your only daughter?” He continued.

“Yes…my only daughter.”

Sir Gavon spat on the floor beside him, hurried to his horse and pulled out a coin purse. He then gestured to Riechard. “Give me your coin purse.”

Riechard pulled out his purse. “What for?”

“Did you not listen to her? Give me your purse.” Sir Gavon had never spoken to Riechard like this. Once the words had sunk in, Riechard handed over his purse. He stood still and cold and watched Sir Gavon hand over his gold to the woman. The woman was shocked at what she held in her hands, but the knight had already turned away and hoisted himself atop horse. “We need to go now.”

Riechard did not argue. He followed suit and the two rode away with their purses emptied. After a few moments, Riechard pulled up alongside Sir Gavon. “When we get back to the camp, have a Godson draft a letter to Lord Steel. Let him know that his son has been hanged for his crimes.”

**

As soon as the crimes were announced to the camp, the hangings drew no objection. Riechard felt no emotion as his cousin dropped from the tree branch and his legs twitched frantically until he died. He looked them both in the eyes until it was over. The boys protested until the rope was cut, but their cries and their pleas fell on deaf ears. As soon as it was done, Riechard instructed the men that they would move on Hazelfield the next day at dawn. Dusk was creeping up upon them, and there was little point in trying to make it to Hazelfield before sundown.

Before the bodies were taken down, Riechard took to the top of a hill and looked out over his army. “I want it to be known for all of those that need to hear it. This will not happen again. There will be no harassing smallfolk, there will be no rape, there will be no murder. You will conduct yourselves as though you will one day live amongst these people. This army is on the cusp of greatness, The Blacklands are about to achieve what neither Kingdom has achieved since they were founded by Luther Black and Ivar Hart. I will show no mercy to those who behave like these two traitors did. And yes, they are traitors. Any man or woman who dishonours us, who dishonours themselves or those around them damage our campaign, and all those who do so are traitors to our cause. We will march to Hazelfield at dawn. We will meet with my father’s army, and we will storm the gates of Silver City. Eat well and sleep long, for a new era begins tomorrow.”

After the crowd dispersed, only Riechard and Karlon remained to watch as Marcus and Jordan were removed from the trees. Riechard still felt awkward being alone in the General’s presence. The ache in his mouth still persisted, even though the pain had receded, he relived the memory every time he ran his tongue across his teeth. Despite the tension that remained between them, Riechard did not fear Karlon and it seemed that Karlon had little issue with Riechard as the leader since their successful capture of Dawnmount. There was an air between them now that was respectful if not friendly.

“You were right to hang them.” Karlon said blankly.

Riechard nodded. “Aye…I know.”

“Do you want to know why I sent my men home?” Karlon asked. “They spoke ill of you to my face. If I had caught them talking on their own…then perhaps I would not have reacted so rashly, but they called you weak to my face. They laughed as if I would laugh too. They joked about how I beat you. I must admit…it made me very uncomfortable. To talk to their superior like that about the leader of an army…a future King. I do not know. It did not sit right.”

“You beat me to a pulp, General.”

“And we stand at each other’s sides, not always in agreement, but in unity. Your job is to take this Kingdom, to free your King from his cell. My job is to win this war. I cannot win this war with men I cannot trust. I cannot trust men who do not respect those whom I respect. You cannot win this war with distractions like these boys caused.”

“I did not hang them for causing distraction, I did not hang them because they disgraced us. I hanged them because there is a man dead and a child scarred because of their actions. Would you have hanged them?” Riechard felt relaxed enough to ask.

Karlon scratched his bald head. “No…I wouldn’t have hanged them. I wouldn’t have let them off that easy.”

**

When they arrived at Hazelfield, Riechard felt as relaxed as he had been since he had decided to march to Ismann. He reflected on the past few months without regret, but wondered how he had got there in one piece. He had survived a pummelling at the hands of the man who now rode by his side, he had won his first battle and had hanged one of his foster father’s kin. Now that they approached Prince Charles’ camp, Riechard wanted nothing more than to rest. Even for a day, before he marched upon Silver City. It was as if all of a sudden, his adrenaline had faded and the wave of weariness caught up and pulled him down. He had left Duncath with an army of five-hundred, and arrived in Hazelfield with four-thousand more.

Prince Charles was at the edge of the camp to greet him. Riechard had never dismounted a horse faster. As soon as he saw his father, he forgot all of his pride and threw himself into Prince Charles’ arms. They squeezed each other tight and Riechard felt several slaps on his back in between them. He heard his father laugh and Riechard did too. He had not expected the tears to well up so easily in his eyes, and was glad that his army could not see them.

“It’s okay…it’s okay,” his father told him. “Your grandfather will not be happy with you, but you did it. You’re here…you’re safe now.”

Pirate

Good morning everyone and thanks for stopping by to read Chapter Thirty-Four of The Cursed King. It has been a busy two weeks, which is why it feels like ages since I’ve posted. And busy is very good! Busy because the sun is out, and lockdown rules are easing meaning more chance for socialising, more chance to get out onto the patio and pot some plants, and of course, the fact that the Euros are now in full swing. Whenever I am not writing, I am listening to podcasts, watching the games and agonising over my fantasy team. On book news, I am now writing Chapter Forty-Four, and I am deep into the crescendo of the action, so I can’t wait to share these new chapters with you all.

In today’s chapter, Leona leaves Maladh for home, but bumps into some trouble along the way. Some old characters who you might remember from early on in the books might make an appearance too. I won’t give too much away, but I hope you enjoy this chapter, and I will post Chapter Thirty-Five on July 3rd. Thanks for reading!

Pirate

Leona VII

            Leona eyed the ship that she was about to board. She’d had an awful night’s sleep as her baby kicked at her insides every time she moved. The child was restless in her belly, and Leona could not escape the thought that she was surrounded by Nebu. Her husband was hunting her, his sister was helping her, and his child seemingly could not wait to escape from her. Now, she stood before a vessel that was little more than a fishing boat. It was filthy, and the deck was stained with blood and fish guts as entrails hung lazily out of the net that dangled above them.

            “It is not much…but it will get you where you’re going,” Untonay smiled.

            “It will get us killed if we were caught in a storm. This boat is to carry the Queen of Amenti, not a drunken sailor,” Mavina growled.

            “My Princess, I have many a lavish ship I could have given you, but that would be irresponsible. Queen Leona, you are being hunted, Nebu’s men will be looking for a ship fit for a queen…not this pile of sticks. Besides, if they were to find you and realise that you were travelling on one of my boats…it would be both our heads.”

            “It is fine,” Hezekiah said. “Untonay is right. This is as inconspicuous a boat as we will find.”

            Leona was still looking intently at the boat as she felt her baby kick again. Then she felt a pair of hands upon her shoulders. She flinched away and turned sharply on Untonay. Hezekiah also stepped forward, but Leona quickly raised her hand to stop him from chastising the Sultan. “I am sorry, my Queen. I did not mean to startle you. I wanted a word if you’d please? In private.” Leona turned to Hezekiah and nodded, and her Guard left them. “You have thought about what I said to you?”

            Leona nodded. “At great length.”

            “And?”

            “I do not trust you, Sultan. But…you are right. I need friends in the Empire. Especially friends as close to Nebu as you are. I have no desire for this great desert. If you are to rule Amenti one day then so be it. All I want is a guarantee that my child’s life will be protected, and that when he comes of age there will be no attempt on his life because of his claim. If Maladh will join with Cesara, then perhaps other regions will join us. That will be for you to organise. My father will not need convincing. He is out for blood after what Nebu has done to me and to Daut.”

            “That is all that I could have hoped for. Safe travels, my Queen. Until we meet again,” Untonay held his hand out and Leona shook it quickly before pulling away and walking onto the ship.

            Leona thought that her nerves would calm as soon as the ship set sail, but her baby’s relentless kicking and the rough waves that rocked the boat from side to side meant that she sat with her head hanging over the side of the boat until her stomach was void of all its contents. Mavina sat beside her, rubbing her back gently, whilst Hezekiah stood guard over them. Hezekiah too did not seem to relax. He was always cautious, but now he was as alert as ever she had seen him. She felt guilty for being so short with him as she wiped away the spittle from the corner of her mouth. He had travelled across the desert and back again, prepared to fight off all who would harm her whilst he did it, and now they were on their way home, Hezekiah’s promise to her father was almost complete.

            I will thank him, she thought. I will tell my father all that he has done for me to show my gratitude. Leona could not help but be thankful for Mavina too. If it was not for Nebu’s sister, she would not have stayed alive, let alone sane, throughout their trip. Leona did not want Mavina to go, she wanted her to stay with her in Ilturbia, but they had not spoken about Mavina’s plans, they had not had the time.

            “Thank you both,” Leona finally said, lifting her head from her lap. “Thank you for looking after me…I would not be here if it were not for you.”

            “Ssh…rest Leona, you will be home soon,” Mavina said as she continued to rub her back.

            “Will you stay, Mavina? In Ilturbia?”

            Mavina smiled. “I would not leave you, my Queen. Of course, if it is permitted, I will stay.”

            Leona felt a wave of relief wash over her, and all of a sudden, her sickness was not so acute. Even in the height of winter, the sun shone down and warmed her skin in those few moments. She allowed it to soak in as she took in a deep breath and sat up, gazing at Hezekiah who stood watchfully over her, smiling.

            And then a shadow moved over the sun, as if a cloud had blocked out its light. Leona looked up towards it, angered at it for ruining such a perfect moment. Then the cloud began to flutter. The cloud was thin and black, with the symbol of a grey shield and a white sword. Leona soon realised that this was not a cloud, but a flag, that got closer and closer to the boat. Their ship was filled with fisherman who had barely noticed it. Ships went by them all of the time, but there was something about the flag that irked Leona. The emblem she had seen before, but she could not recall where were from. As the ship got closer, Leona felt her heart lurch. It was too close to be passing, and travelling too fast to be asking for direction.

            “Leona, get down!” Hezekiah hollered as the large ship swerved out of the way of the fishing boat at the last moment, which caused a huge wave beneath the boat to heave up on one side. Before Leona could grab onto anything, she felt her face hit the water, and was suddenly frantically flailing her arms and legs beneath it.  Leona kicked as hard as she could and soon felt herself reach the surface. Floating atop the water was some flax rope. She followed it with her eyes and saw that it was being held by a group of men laughing on the ship that had knocked them over. She continued to tread water and looked over to the fishing boat, which was upright, but devoid of people on board.

            In one swoop, Hezekiah and Mavina appeared from under the water together. The Princess had her hands around Hezekiah’s neck as he kept both of them above the water with his kicking. Hezekiah’s looked of relief that they had ascended was soon displaced as he looked up at the men who had done this to them.

            “What do you think are you doing?” Hezekiah shouted.

            “Grab onto the rope…and we’ll talk about it,” a man shouted from the deck. The man had long, dark hair that fell onto his shoulders and a thick moustache that covered his top lip.

            “We have our own boat,” Hezekiah replied defiantly.

            The men laughed again, but the man with the moustache laughed the loudest. “Did you hear that, fellers? They have their own boat. You mean this canoe?”

            “It will get us where we want to go.”

            “I don’t think so.”

            The men stepped aside and a row of oarsmen appeared behind them wielding bronze tubes that they aimed at the fishing boat. Leona could not fathom what on earth these men were doing, but they placed the tubes within inlets on the side of the boat. They immediately ran out of their sight. Leona was bemused. What on earth are they doing? She thought to herself. Then, after a few moments, a whirring began, and then a sound she could only describe as thunder erupted from the pipes. Leona shielded her face instinctively, and so then she felt an immense wave of heat gust past her as Hezekiah let out a blood-curdling shout. Leona span around and watched as the fishing boat was doused in blue flames. She thought at first that it had been struck by lightning, but soon realised that the fire was coming from the pipes on the boat.

            It was like nothing that Leona had ever seen. Leona had heard of mages, but she had never seen them. She realised that this must be who they are. She knew of no other being that could wield the elements quite like this. Then, Leona saw something even more terrifying. The water did not extinguish the fire. The blue flames danced upon the water, flailing violently and fiercely. More than that, the flames began to creep closer to Leona, Mavina and Hezekiah.

            “Grab the rope!” Leona shouted to Hezekiah who did not hesitate. “Pull us up or call off your fire!”

            The men burst into laughter at Leona’s cries. “Oh so now our ship is good enough for you?”

            “Pull the fucking rope!” Leona boomed.

            The men only laughed harder, but the man with the moustache pulled them away from the burning water. Eventually, they were dragged to a rope ladder, which they climbed up one after the other, until they fell, exhausted, onto the deck. Leona wiped the water out of her eyes and felt a hand pull her to her feet. Her immediate reaction was to throw her hand as hard as she could towards the man’s face, but her slap was blocked and the man gripped her wrist tightly.

            “Is that any way to thank the man who just saved your life?”

            “You could have killed us!”

            “Aye…I could’ve. Yet I didn’t.”

            “Who are you?” Leona snapped.

            “You can call me Olon.”

            “What do you want with us? We are just…”

            “…escaping the Emperor of Amenti so I hear, and with good reason too. When you see what a man can do to his own father, you dread to think what he might also do to his wife sister…” Olon put his hand on Leona’s round stomach… “or even his child for that matter.” Leona slapped his hand away.

            Leona could not hide the fear on her face. How on earth does this man know? She thought. And then she realised.

            “Sultan Untonay,” she whispered bitterly.

            “Never trust an Amentian unless you have gold to give him. Even then, only give him half before he holds up his end of the bargain. No offence intended of course,” Olon said to Mavina.
            “What do you want with us, Olon the Vile?” Mavina questioned.

            Olon smiled. “So you are familiar with my work?”

            “The Freemen are a scourge on the seas around The New World. Your infamy should be no source of pride to you.”

            “And yet it is,” Olon laughed. “You are all so tense. You can relax. Sultan Untonay sold your travel plans to me for gold, but only so that I could ransom you.”

            “Ransom us? To my father?”

            “To your father…yes…and to your husband. I have one raven flying to Aljan, and I have one flying to Ilturbia. They will soon know that you are with me on this fine sea, and they will soon know that I have sent a raven to the other. Whoever sends me back a better offer for each of you will be the one to claim you. All that is left for you to do is wait for the exciting news.”

**

            The ship remained anchored in the middle of the sea for days whilst Olon awaited a response from Leona’s father and Nebu. She was terrified of what would happen to her. She knew that Nebu was far richer than her father, and was able to offer influence over a vast empire rather than just a small piece of land, and a piece of land that was under serious threat of conquer from Nebu at that. It seemed that there was no way that her father would be able to compete with what Nebu offered Olon. The only comfort that was afforded to her, was knowing that she had Mavina and Hezekiah by her side. They made her feel stronger and more protected.

            Hezekiah kept her spirits up by telling her stories of times that he had been captured by her father after the failed invasion that led him to becoming Marius Pascis’ most trusted man. She had heard it all before, but it took on special significance now. It gave her the belief she needed that her father would rescue all of them from the ship, no matter what it took to do it. My father will not allow me to fall back into Nebu’s hands, she promised herself. She felt her baby kick again and she rubbed her belly to soothe it as much as it was to soothe herself.

            Olon entered the brig followed by the large, scowling man that always accompanied him. Hezekiah had told her that his name was Beirus, and was a pirate feared almost as much as Olon himself. He was a powerful and exceptionally violent man without the slightest suggestion of remorse or mercy. Hezekiah had shielded her from details, but Leona was cautious not to look the man in the eyes. Leona could tell by looking at them from a far that they were icy cold, as if nothing existed beyond them. Leona instead focused on Olon, who did not look like that at all. Despite what he was doing, and despite his reputation, the man looked weathered and brow-beaten beyond his eyes. There was a steely determination in them, and a confidence that she could not help but admire.

            “I wish to dine with the Queen of Amenti,” Olon stated. “Beirus, would you unchain her eminence and escort her to my cabin?”

            Beirus seemed aggrieved. “I will delegate to one of my men.”

            “Forgive me, Beirus. I mean for you to escort the lady. I would not trust such a fine young woman with these brutish savages. You are the only brutish savage I trust. If you do this for me, perhaps if neither man decides to ransom these young women, then you can have one for yourself…”

            All of the admiration that Leona had felt for Olon had washed away in that one moment and she felt her stomach turn. She met Beirus’ eyes who returned a sickening grin as he hastily went to remove her chains and hoisted her up to her feet. His grip around her wrist was painfully tight, and she realised that her entire arm was immobilised by it. She decided not to resist and so walked willingly with Beirus behind Olon who made his way to the cabin. She was brought onto the deck and looked around at the filthy, bearded men who gawked at her and smiled their toothless grins. Slamming their fists against barrels and licking their lips like hungry dogs as she stumbled inelegantly besides Beirus. She faced forward, ignoring the revolting words that entered her ears from the mouths of the oarsmen. Leona was relieved to enter the cabin. Beirus ungripped her forcefully, as his fingers twisted away from her wrist and left a burn. She did not wince, but pulled her arm away defiantly as he continued to stare through her.

            “Thank you, Beirus. Now, please, if you wouldn’t mind?” Beirus left the cabin. Olon sat behind a table and gestured for Leona to sit opposite him. On the table were two plates covered in a chafing dish. Olon lifted the dish off the plate and Leona was hit with a wave of delicious-smelling fish that smelled as if it had been caught that very day. Beside it were potatoes and asparagus that smelled equally divine. Leona still felt sick from the boat, but the smell of the food was so enticing that it went away almost instantly. “You must be hungry…eating for two must be tiresome.”

            “It has its moments,” Leona replied.

            Olon laughed. “I suppose it does. Please forgive my behaviour in the brig. You have to put on a show for these beasts or else you’ll never get them to do anything for you. The only thing they respond to is violence and threats. The only incentive you can give them is more violence. It is truly a plague, but one that should not be inflicted on a Queen. I am sorry.”

            “My father has dealt with many a brute. I have seen it first-hand. He never had to make a promise of rape to control them,” Leona said, eyeing her fish and picking at it with her fork as the flakes pulled away from the bones with minimal effort.

            “Yes, your father. The great Marius Pascis. Peaceful ruler of Cesara, friend of Emperor Daut and brave warrior. I suppose it would be mightily bad for his reputation should he be seen to be making promises like that. No doubt he wouldn’t make it public if he did.”

            “He would never.”

            Olon smiled. “I have a daughter too, you know? Back home, I mean. Not even seven years old, and she would not have a clue what I spent my time doing around the world. As far as she’s aware, I’m the nice daddy who sails the seas and brings her back shiny trinkets. What good would it do her to know that her rings were pried off the fingers of a poor family hanging from a tree branch? Fathers have ways of protecting their children.”

            Leona would not bite onto the hook like the fish that she consumed. “Why did you bring me here to dine? To insult me and my family?”

            “For the story. I want to be able to tell the world that I dined with the Queen of Amenti. I want to tell them of your beauty, and your aura. This is the privilege of being a man like me. I can sample the world, without ever laying my head to rest in one place. All of the burdens that stillness entails do not interest me. Land, riches, rule…what on earth is it all for? It is all stress for the sake of ego, boredom for the sake of safety. Do you never feel that itch? The itch to wander?”

            Leona was cautious not to bare her thoughts and feelings to such a man as Olon the Vile. She had never considered the thought of spending her time travelling the world. She had travelled to places with her father. Palaces and castles across the New World, but none of them appealed to her more than the lure of her own home. “All I want to do is go home,” she finally said.

            Olon grinned. “Well, that is good. I received two ravens just this morning.”

            Leona could not hide the fear that flushed across her face. “And?” She whispered as she dropped her fork to the plate.

            “Well, your father told me to name my price for you, and your husband told me that if I did not return you to Aljan then he would send his army for me and hang me from the city walls by my fingernails. It looks like you are going home, Leona.”

            Leona hid her relief under a regal stillness. “That is good.”

            “Are you not going to thank me?”

            “For kidnapping me? Holding me hostage and extorting my family?”

            “Yes.”

            “You are an odd man,” Leona pondered.

            Olon laughed heartily. “Here’s to being odd then,” he raised his goblet and Leona reluctantly pushed her wine cup towards his.

            Suddenly, in Leona’s relief, a thought hit her. “What about Mavina? Hezekiah?”

            “At this point, Hezekiah is only still alive because I enjoy your company and if I killed him then you’d not be half as delightful to dine with. I do not deal in small ransoms for guards. I’d much prefer to keep him aboard my ship, but Freemen do not take kindly to forced labour. Hezekiah will be free to go, I have no use for him and there would be little financial gain from ransoming him separately from you.”

            Leona nodded. “And Mavina…” she repeated.

            “Nebu does not know she is here in as much as I did not tell him. I have already made arrangements for Mavina. I believe you already know what they are.”

            “Sultan Untonay…” Leona growled.

            “It makes sense. The man seeks to overthrow the Emperor. He will need royal blood to strengthen his claim”

            “Why didn’t he just ransom me to my father himself and keep Mavina as his bridal prisoner whilst we were in Maladh?”

            “Too much noise. It was very dangerous for you to go to Maladh in the first place. You were lucky not to be caught on the way, let alone whilst you dined in the Sultan’s home. He made a deal whilst I was at his port. I would get your ransom, and he would get a Princess for a wife without getting his hands dirty. Cautious men make for fantastic allies. You’d do well to remember that.”

            “There must be another way…you cannot sell her to him!”

            “Forgive me, Leona Pascis, but have you spoken to Mavina at all about this arrangement? Have you asked her what she thinks about it?”

            “Well, I would imagine that…”

            “You imagine? So you have not heard her feelings on the matter?”

            “I know Mavina. Why on earth would she want to be sold into marriage with a man who would have her kidnapped?”

            “Perhaps you should ask her. These words between us, Leona. They are not secrets. You are free to tell Mavina all that I have told you here.”

            “I will!” Leona said, standing from her seat. “I hope you enjoy telling your story, Olon, but I would rather be in the brig than spend another moment in your company.”

            Olon only laughed. “Of that, Leona. I do not blame you. Let us return you to your friends.”

**

            “I am not happy with his way of proposal, but it does make sense,” Mavina told her with a sense of pragmatism that shocked even Leona.

            “I don’t understand…what do you mean it makes sense?”

            “This is an important time for Nebu. He needs to establish his power in Amenti. This is the reason he wants to take Cesara. He must do what no Emperor before him has been able to. If he succeeds, he will have the support of the Empire, if he fails, then his reign his ripe for rebellion. Whilst you have Nebu’s heir, you have power and influence. If I marry a Sultan, then I have power and influence. If Maladh and Cesara ally, then other regions will rally behind us if they believe Nebu to be weak. Sultan Untonay is a respected Sultan, and exceptionally rich with a strong military at his disposal. It may not be what I truly want, but it is a smart way of deposing Nebu…it might be our only way.”

            “Can’t we do this from Cesara? Can’t you come to Ilturbia with me? My father…he will ransom you too if he knew…if he knew how important you are to me. I know that he would. You will be safer in Cesara, we will be stronger together.”

            Leona did not realise how much she did not want to be separated from Mavina until she felt the tears falling down her face. The thought of losing her friend felt like Olon was reaching into her chest and pulling her heart out. She had no cause for these tears. She knew that it was unlikely that Mavina would return to Ilturbia with her, but she could not hold them back, they flowed from her eyes so easily as the fact grew stronger. Mavina could not wrap her arms around her, owing to her hands being tied, but she did lean her head on her shoulder and Leona cried into the Princess’ hair whilst Hezekiah wrapped his fingers around hers.

            “It will be okay, Leona. This is just something I have to do. It will all make sense one day. I promise you.”

            “None of this makes sense,” Leona whispered.

            All of a sudden, the door to the brig burst open, and standing there blocking the sunlight was Beirus. The gargantuan man stumbled into the brig with an almost empty bottle of bunbo clutched in his grasp. Olon and two of the ragged oarsmen followed him in, snickering behind the giant’s back.

            “Get him up,” Beirus slurred. “I’ll show all of you.”

            “What’s going on?” Leona questioned, aiming her stare at Olon.

            “Shut your mouth, whore,” Beirus interrupted as the oarsmen rushed over to their huddled group and roughly pulled Hezekiah away from them.

            “Someone bet Beirus that he could not beat the Natonian in a fight to the death,” Olon said casually. “So naturally, we’re going to find out so that Beirus can keep his pride.”

            Leona felt her heart lurch. “You cannot do this! You cannot force Hezekiah to fight for your entertainment!”

            “Believe me, Leona. This is not for my entertainment. I would much prefer a nice book, but this is just what Freemen are like. Am I to deny them a good fight just because I don’t care for blood sport?”

            Leona leapt to her feet and threw her bound hands at Olon’s face. “You stop this! You stop this right now!”

            “Enough!” Hezekiah said. “Cut me free.”

            “What are you doing? You cannot mean to fight him?”

            “Leona, my child. The only thing these men know is violence. They use their freedom as an excuse to fight because they never developed their minds beyond using their fists. The fight will happen, whether I choose to take part in it or not.” Hezekiah turned his attention to Beirus and met the man’s eyes. “We will do this on the deck. If you are to kill me, then you will kill me fairly in front of your own men. If I am to kill you, then I will do so under the eyes of the Gods.”

            “Bring him to the deck!” Beirus roared and led the way. Hezekiah immediately shrugged off the oarsmen’s arms as he strode behind Beirus and through the door of the brig. Leona gave Olon a death stare and walked with Mavina through the door. Olon did not try to stop them as he followed them out. A commotion had already started as the ship rocked gently from side to side. A circle of men had formed as Beirus and Hezekiah pushed their way through the crowd to the open space that had been left for them to fight in.

            When Beirus was through the crowd he threw the bottle of bunbo to the deck, and it smashed into a thousand shards. Hezekiah walked through the glass that crunched under his heavy boots. Hezekiah had been cut free. Leona had always seen him as strong and powerful; his torso and arms were sculpted like a statue of a warrior. But Hezekiah had aged as his grey hair stood out against his dark skin. Standing beside Beirus, he looked as small as she had ever seen him. As if to counter Hezekiah’s statuesque figure, Beirus ripped off his shirt to reveal his bulky chest and shoulders that were bordered by two tree-trunk arms. Even the man’s round gut did not take anything away from his physical prowess.

            Hezekiah stood his ground. Beirus, by contrast, walked a semi-circle in front of him, clearly inebriated, circling his arms around to cheers from the oarsmen. “Throw your hands up!” Beirus demanded of Hezekiah, but the guard just stood still, holding his fists in front of his legs in a composed stance. Beirus went to approach him with his fists held beneath his chin and threw some warning jabs towards Hezekiah’s face with a huge grin. When Hezekiah did not flinch, Beirus feigned to turn away and in a flash returned with a swinging hook that was met with nothing but the ocean air. Hezekiah had bent his body out of the way of the punch and pivoted his body so that he was behind Beirus.

It was the perfect time for Hezekiah to strike, but he didn’t. Hezekiah simply returned to his stance, standing opposite of where he had done the moment before. Beirus span around stunned, but did not allow his humiliation to overcome him. The big man took a step back and laughed, throwing his arms up for the men, but once again, Hezekiah did not move. Beirus threw a test punch, which was blocked easily by Hezekiah. This was quickly followed up with two more sharp jabs, which caused Hezekiah to move faster than he previously had to. More blows rained down, but Hezekiah blocked and dodged and manoeuvred out of the way as elegantly as a dancer. Throughout all of this, Hezekiah did not once try to throw a punch or a kick of his own. “Fight me you coward!” Beirus roared as the crowd began to jeer at the lack of action.

Hezekiah did not say a word. For every action, Hezekiah had a counter. Every time Beirus threw an arm, a leg, or even his forehead at Hezekiah, Leona’s guard was not there to take the blow. Leona smiled to herself through her nerves, she had never seen Hezekiah fight before. Not like this. It was magical, as if he was nothing more than the wind and Beirus was suffering insanity trying to pull the clouds from the sky. It was not long before the crowd of oarsmen began to laugh. It was just tittering at first, and then chuckles, and eventually there were men, including Olon, who were rolling on the floor guffawing as Hezekiah effortlessly dodged Beirus’ violence. Leona thought that she could see the hint of a smile on the Guard’s face as Beirus stumbled into the crowd. Beirus was bent over, his hands on his knees, breathing heavily as Hezekiah stayed in the same stance that he was in when they started. Hezekiah had turned the fight into a dance. He had turned the brute into a jester, and all he had to do was move out of the way of the pirate.

“Enough!” Olon bellowed over the noise of the crowd. “Beirus…make your peace with the man. You must hold your hands up when a man has bested you. This fight is over.”

“It is not over until I say that it is over!” Beirus replied.

“It is over,” Olon repeated.

In a moment, Beirus’ attention shifted to Olon. “Are you my Captain, now? Is that an order?”

Olon did not move a muscle. “It is a warning…and I advise you to heed it.”

“I am a free man, Olon. You would do well to remember that we are all free men here. We are not bound by laws, and we do not take kindly to orders.”

“You do not have to remind me….”

“Do I not?” Beirus flashed with white hot rage. “I am a Captain because men made me a Captain. I have that rank not by birth right, but for as long as they allow me to have it. Who made you a Captain? You have no birth right here!”

“Silence!” Olon warned.

“You cannot silence me. You have no say here. It was a mistake to trust you. You are no free man. You are nothing more than a filthy goldmongering-”

There was no last word from Beirus’ mouth. All that he could muster was a choke, which was quickly followed by an expulsion of blood. Beirus was looking over Olon’s shoulder and into the distance as Olon held the man close to him. When Olon stepped back, he pulled the blade from Beirus’ chest. Beirus was even stronger than Leona had thought. He still stood on both feet, unbuckled, though it seemed to take him a moment to realise what had happened to him. None of the men laughed now. Only the waves that lapped at the boat dared to make a sound. When Beirus finally succumbed to his knees, Olon took a step forward, lifted Beirus’ head back and slit his throat, causing a gush of crimson blood to spray across the deck.

Olon wiped the blade on his coat and re-holstered it. Without making eye contact with a single man, he walked away back to his cabin, not even acknowledging Hezekiah or Leona or anyone else aboard the ship.  Leona did not know what she felt. There was a man lying dead before her feet. A man who had just promised to fight her friend to the death. She should have been relieved. She should have felt something, but then she felt her baby kick, and she thought of Nebu. She remembered how casually her husband had murdered his father, and the look in his eyes. It was that same look that Olon had in his, and she worried. She worried for the future of her land, for the future of the New World. These were the eyes of men who held no mercy in their hearts. These were the men from whom she needed to protect her child.

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