Sunday, 29 May 2016

Watcher of the West, an Original Story by Rob Hebblethwaite



Westwarden Castle was enormous, and anyone who so much as half-knew the layout of the huge fortification knew at least a dozen hiding-places. On this occasion, they had been useful for a time, and the young boy had hidden from the utterly mesmerising sheen of the day. That was until his mother found him and made him take part. For hours, his life had whizzed by in an endless blur of shimmering steel and vibrant dyes: capes, banners, drapery, tapestries. The men wore fine doublets, slashed silk sleeves and pristine white undershirts. For the ladies there were tall hats of vivid pinks and greens, sapphire blues and ruby reds to match their dresses and jewels.  Gifts had changed hands, and sweet words had left tongues. A million things had been said, but the boy had heard none of them, though they were all here because of him.
            ‘Nervous?’
            He looked up, startled. The boy had barely realised, but for almost half an hour he had been alone, standing by the keep walls and staring at one of the great table of fine fruits, meats and cakes that had been set out against one of the walls of Westwarden Castle for the hundreds of guests.
            ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people here,’ he said quietly to the tall, fine man that stood over him with his neat red hair and a handsome, pale, well-chiselled face. He wore a set of fine, blackened steel armour trimmed with golden paint and emblazoned with the phoenix crest on its wide chestplate. A heavy sword hung across the tall man’s back, safe in its fine, dark leather scabbard. It was too large to be a longsword, yet not large enough to be a broadsword. Bastard blade, the boy thought. He despised the name of the thing. The boy raised his own eyes to meet the genuine, deep blue gaze that reached out to him from the pale face of the tall man beside him. ‘When will it be done, Captain Aethlar?’
            Aethlar, the tall, ginger captain of the guard at Westwarden Castle, crossed his arms and scratched his chin with his gauntleted hand, where a few reddish bristles grew about his face. ‘Your father wants to wait for his brother,’ he said with a shrug of one of his broad shoulders, the heavy black pauldrons that rested there clanked as he did so. ‘You know as well as I that your uncle, Lord Aesinger, likes to make an entrance. I shan’t imagine he’ll want to be too much longer, though.’
            The boy swallowed and rubbed his hands together, glancing around the great courtyard in which he stood. The light of the bright summer’s day shone down upon the nobles below, who formed a great mass of vibrant rainbow of colours. In the warm air, the words of the assembled folk and the songs of the minstrels playing near the eastern wall danced in a constant bubbling crescendo. The day was fine, and since that morning, Detmoald, Westwarden Castle’s very own Priest of the Divine Empress, had been singing the praises of the Divine Empress for sending such a good omen on such an important day. ‘T’is a sign!’ he had cried at the perfect golden sunrise that morning, as he raised his hands to the sun. The tears on his cheeks sparkled like tiny diamonds in the glimmer of the dawn light as he sang. ‘T’is a sign of the great day we approach! She is watching us, my friends! Praise be She who, with her great fiery eye, watches over us! Praises be to the Divine Empress, the First and Only, the Great Vidoria, who leads us all with her most holy light!’
Hours had passed since, and the afternoon was drawing to its apex as the boy stood beside Captain Aethlar and tried to stop his hands shaking. He had counted some three-hundred different figures in the courtyard: noblemen and women, their sons and daughters, their knights, servants, household retinues, and soldiers of the Vidorian Empire. Amongst them all seamlessly wove the men and women of the Fortescue household; the knights offered handshakes and words of greeting, the serving staff carried glasses and great pitchers of fine reddened wine imported from Eagle Island, far to the west. They are all here for me, he thought to himself with an uneasy shudder. They all expect me to be like my father, they all want me to be a great man like he is, they all want-…
            ‘Here.’ Suddenly Captain Aethlar was standing in front of him, one of his gauntlets pulled off. ‘You’ve a stray bit of dirt on your doublet,’ he said with a frown. Reaching down with his now uncovered hand, Captain Aethlar quickly brushed a spot on the shoulder of the pristine white doublet that the young boy wore. ‘Your mother spent a fortune on this ceremonial thing, let’s see that it isn’t completely filthy before the ceremony. You look rather strapping in all this white, and those black boots suit you brilliantly.’
            The young boy looked over his clothing. Part of him had hoped it would be uncomfortable or that it would not fit. That way, he would have had an excuse to ask to wear his regular battered old dark grey leather tunic and trousers. The white formalwear he had been forced into late that morning was infuriatingly comfortable, and shone like a lit beacon in the bright light of the summer’s day, which made him stand out like fresh-fallen snow on the rolling dark green hills that surrounded Westwarden Castle.
            As he pondered just how much he stuck out from absolutely everyone else present, fear suddenly gripped the boy, ‘Captain Aethlar, I don’t know if I-…’
            The tall ginger soldier laughed and stood straight again, his pale face wide in a grin. ‘Can’t what, my boy? You are Hugh Fortescue, son of the one and only Earl Jacob Fortescue and Lady Isabella Beshing – two of the finest and best-loved noblefolk in the Imperial Heartlands, nay, the whole of the Vidorian Empire!’
            ‘Exactly!’ the young Hugh cried. ‘How am I ever to live up to my father? All these people have already decided their opinions of me, I’m a-…’
            ‘Hush,’ Captain Aethlar said gently, his grin softening to a comforting smile. ‘No-one cares anymore about that archaic old law. So what if you wear a bastard’s name? So what if you were born a few weeks before your mother and father could be married? Most of the nobles here look at the happiness your mother and father have and find their hearts melting with joy for them; take Baron Rosmir and his wife, Lady Lian, there,’ Captain Aethlar said, dropping his voice to a whisper and pointing to a young man with fine dark brown locks of hair and with a thin and thoroughly miserable-looking young woman on his arm. They stood apart from everyone, doing everything they could not to look at one-another, whilst the great whirling storm of nobility and servitude continued its strange dance of society before them. ‘They’ve been married for two years and detest one-another.’
            ‘Really?’ Hugh said in a whisper. ‘Why?’
            Captain Aethlar shrugged his shoulders, the heavy metal plates he wore upon them clanking and rattling again as he did. ‘They don’t like each other,’ he said. ‘He’s a bit of a lustful ne’er-do-well, and she’s devoted to the service of the Divine Empress, praises be to Her name. They cannot stand one another, yet are married because their parents wanted political leverage against another house – such is forbidden in the Empire, as well. It detracts from our unity, our working as the sword and shield of Vidoria upon the face of The World.’
            ‘Oh,’ the young Hugh said. He peered at the young couple for a few moments. ‘Do they have any bastard-children?’
            Captain Aethlar sighed and rolled his blue eyes. ‘No,’ he said. ‘But that’s not the point, my boy,’ he said. ‘The point is, people can see that your mother and father are strong and happy together in marriage. Most of them look past the circumstances of your birth. Your parents would have wedded sooner if you father had not been required to campaign for a year.’
            Hugh rolled his eyes. ‘So I keep being told,’ he said.
            With another sigh, Captain Aethlar gently tousled Hugh’s short, jet black hair. ‘I have to go and check on the walls. Try not to look so sad, my lad,’ he said with a wink, taking a few steps away from Hugh. ‘Besides, I’m sure you’ll get to spar with some of the other boys after the ceremony. You can show them how good you are with that sword of yours; I’m sure wiping the smirk off your cousin Darry’s face is something you can look forward to.’
            Hugh watched Captain Aethlar walk away, his heavy plate armour dully shining in the summer sun. He was unable to stop a small smile from creasing his gaunt, pale face at the comment about his cousin. At eleven years old, Darry Fortescue, the son of Hugh’s uncle, Lord Aesinger, was only a year older than Hugh. Hugh, however, had been thrice the swordsman last time they met, and had relished beating his rude and unkind cousin with a wooden training-sword. He had been told that his ability with his blade was well beyond his years, and he had once almost beaten his father, Earl Jacob, in a duel – almost.
            Father will be cross if he hears that I’ve not made any effort to talk to anyone, Hugh thought with an uneasy chew of his thin lips. He had no desire to speak to anyone, though, and the hordes of men and women around him who he neither knew nor recognised made him feel uneasy. Look for their house arms, just like Detmoald says, Hugh told himself. In truth, he was unsure if he could trust his tongue with anyone he did not already know, for he was petrified about what he was expected to do that day.
            But then he had no choice but to use it. ‘Young Hugh!’ a colossal voice rocked the walls of the castle. Hugh started and spun around. His gaze, having left the food table he had squatted beside for a moment, had allowed for a large, heftily-proportioned gentleman in blue and yellow finery and wearing a large floppy black cap with a feather in to slip by him unnoticed. The skeletal wife on his arm, her chestnut brown hair greying at the temples, looked miniscule beside her hulking husband.
            ‘Good day, Duke Berehad,’Hugh said dutifully. At least I know this man.
            Berehad looked over his round stomach, straining the small golden buttons on his doublet, and into Hugh’s grey eyes with his own dark brown gaze. He scratched his wrinkling, ruddy cheeks with his dirty fingers and grinned. ‘Today’s a big day, my boy!’ he said aloud, picking up a huge lump of cheese from the table and taking a bite out of it.
            ‘It is, indeed,’ Hugh said nervously, ‘but, with all due respect, Duke Berehad, that cheese is for cutting-…’
            Oblivious to Hugh’s words, the duke continued speaking over the young man. ‘How is your father? We in the Southern Heartlands have heard little from him recently and I’ve yet to catch him today. I suppose he’s still basking in the glory showered upon him during his time crushing those Maedarians to the west five years ago. That was a marvellous campaign, was it not, my dear?’
            The small women on the duke’s arm opened her mouth to speak, but she did not find any words quick enough. ‘Where is Lord Hordun?’ Duke Berehad continued. Hugh was unsure if the duke was addressing him, his wife, or just about anyone else in the courtyard given the booming echo the duke’s voice sent reverberating off the walls. ‘I heard the old sod had his leg wounded in a skirmish with some insurgents whilst out gallivanting around that new territory of his in Maedar – territory he won thanks to your father, Hugh, no doubt! Well, where is he? I wish to laugh at him.’
            ‘I believe he’s-…’ Hugh began.
            Before Hugh could finish, though, Duke Berehad let out a cry: ‘Ah! More wine!’ he said loudly and tottered off back into the crowd, his poor wife dragging behind him on his broad, strong arm. Shaking his head, Hugh watched the two disappear before he left the table of food by which he had been cowering, hoping to avoid attention.
            He skirted around the nobles and servants filling Westwarden Castle’s huge courtyard and quickly made his way towards the high stone walls. Swiftly, he dodged around the small ornamental gardens that peppered the courtyard’s wide space: carefully curated pockets of green grass and small trees installed by Earl Jacob to bring some life to the courtyard and the request of his wife, Lady Isabella.
            As Hugh turned and nimbly dodged through one such garden, trying to avoid one of the serving staff carrying a silver tray laden with many goblets, he suddenly found his way blocked by a young man he did not recognise. Both looked at each other for a few moments, startled, as Hugh tried to find something on the young man’s completely black finery to place him. There was no insignia though, and his pale, drawn face and callous, empty eyes quickly changed their expression from surprise to disgust. In a display of much-strained formality, the young man joined his hands behind his back and allowed his thin cheeks to be stretched in an utterly tired, fake smile.
            ‘Excuse me,’ Hugh quickly said in a nervous stutter, ‘I did not see you there.’
            ‘Indeed,’ the young man said in a tone that contained barely hidden annoyance. ‘I am terribly sorry. Allow me to move aside.’
            ‘Thank-you, sir,’ Hugh said with an uneasy smile. There was something about the young man he did not like. He neither knew him nor trusted the cold demeanour with which he carried himself. It was a little too self-assured for the young Hugh’s liking. ‘I don’t believe I know your name,’ he said quickly.
            ‘You don’t,’ the young man said, laboriously stepping to the side to allow Hugh to pass. ‘I am Sir Hubert Visidor. We have never met. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go and speak to Duke Adalus of the Eastern Heartlands before he drinks himself into a coma,’ the young knight said and swept away from Hugh as soon as he was past. ‘I see that I am too late to speak to that fat fool, Berehad,’ Hugh heard the young knight mutter to himself as he marched away through the crowd of nobles.
            With no further interruptions, young Hugh managed to creep away from the oppressive horde of partying nobles and to the bottom of the wide, tall walls that ran around Westwarden Castle. Quickly, hoping not to be noticed in his blazing white finery, he ascended the steps to the battlements as fast as he could. The black-armoured soldier he passed on his way nodded and smiled at him, though said nothing. A little peace, Hugh thought. Just a little peace away from all these old politicians.
            The sound of the revelry below seemed to dull upon the walls. It was a faint, far-off rumble of good-humoured conversation, interspaced with the strum of a harp or thud of a drum from atop the high ramparts of the castle. Hugh quickly looked around, making sure that none of the armed and armoured men marching up and down the wall were Captain Aethlar. All soldiers of the Vidorian Empire wore a simple suit of black-steel armour or mail, but only officers of rank had theirs trimmed with gold. To his vision, Hugh could see no flash of red hair in the afternoon sun, nor the glitter of light upon a golden trim, so he turned to lean on the battlements and gaze out over the countryside.
            Westwarden Castle was a glittering spire of grey-white stone, standing tall and proud like an artisan-crafted statue amongst the western hills of the Imperial Heartlands. The landscape was beautiful in high summer: the rich green hills rolled away in every direction like an emerald sea, peppered with a spray of white daisies here and there. Far away to the north, the hills slowly rose until they became tall, sharp mountains topped with untrodden snow. About as far to the south, the rolling green gently began to level and lower, eventually coming to the high, dark cliffs that overlooked the endless South Seas. Hugh knew, nestled in those cliffs, lay the port town of Dorestadt. His father had taken him there once to show him the many ships and boats that poured into the Imperial Heartland’s only port. Hugh remembered being overawed by the hundreds of bright sails and snapping flags, by the burly men carrying great boxes of silverware and spices, by the sound of the screaming gulls that wheeled above him.
            Everything in the Western Heartlands was tranquil, though. For a few moments, as he leaned on the closest merlon, Hugh forgot about the whirling dervish of politics taking place below him, and he lost himself in the golden light of the beautiful day. He stared westwards, imagining the sun dancing on the crystal-clear waters of the River Sayn, the natural border between the Imperial Heartlands and the province of Westmoor. He remembered the tales his father had told him, of how he would ride out to the river when he was Hugh’s age, and would try and fish for the salmon leaping in the fast-flowing waters. Hugh wished he could do that himself. I don’t want to do today, he thought nervously, drumming his fingers on the stone of the merlon beside him. I don’t want to be here. I wish I could just run away.
            No-one would stop him. He was, after all, the son of the earl of the Western Heartlands. He could walk to the stables, take a horse, and be gone before anyone even noticed. He could lose himself in the hills and the streams, the quiet places away from the hubbub of the court that had invaded his home. He need not worry for bandits either, for the Vidorian Empire was at its apex. Governor Lysandrus, who had led the rebellion in Maedar five years ago, was long dead and buried. His replacement, Governor Aelfurd, was a just and strong man, who admirably kept the peace of the province. Westmoor, the province that lay between Maedar and the Imperial Heartlands, was still under the rule of a collection of generals and councillors, but there were no problems there to Hugh’s knowledge. The Heartlands were bereft of banditry, and there had been neither plague nor pestilence in the region for decades.
            ‘We’ll need you soon.’
            Hugh jumped backwards, startled by the voice that suddenly sounded beside him. He spun about and found himself face-to-face with a man of middling height yet impressive stature. His chest was broad and swollen with dignity and honour, and his lined, weathered face was studded with two glinting green eyes. Tousled black curls fell to his shoulders, and he had a jaw that could have been sculpted by an artist. He wore a deep blue doublet with golden trim, and a matching cape over his shoulder on which was printed a white stag’s head wreathed with holly leaves.
            ‘Sorry, father,’ Hugh said quietly, his eyes falling to the floor. ‘I just wanted to-…’ he cut himself off and swallowed.
            Earl Jacob Fortescue smiled at his son and leaned upon the battlements beside him. ‘It’s fine,’ he said in a deep, gentle voice. ‘Your mother was wondering where you were, that was all. You glitter like a star up here in that ridiculous finery.’
            Hugh blushed a deep red. ‘I hate it.’
            ‘So do I, but it’s a tradition.’
            ‘Just because something has been done for a few years doesn’t mean it’s not a bad idea,’ Hugh muttered. ‘Why does it have to be white?’
            Earl Jacob took a long, slow intake of breath. ‘The practice is hardly a few years old, son of mine,’ the earl said with a small chuckle. ‘It is said that Vidoria wore white on the day that she acclaimed herself empress. Now, it is a formality that when men of noble houses are uplifted to knightly status, that they too wear white.’
Hugh scowled. ‘I still don’t like it,’ he said.
‘You’re ten years of age now, Hugh,’ his father said. ‘You’re a man. You’ve many more years ahead of you which, I can assure you, will be filled full of things that you don’t want to do, yet must.’ The earl glanced down at his son and quirked a brow. ‘Especially so if you one day end up taking my place as the earl of the Western Imperial Heartlands. You do want that, don’t you?’
Hugh gasped. ‘Of course I do!’ he exclaimed. ‘I’ve always wanted to do good by your name!’
Earl Jacob shrugged and curled a lip. ‘I don’t know. Darry is a year older than you, after all. I could always pass the office to him, should the emperor allow it. If my brother is still alive, I could give it to him as well.’
Hugh’s mouth fell open. ‘You wouldn’t!’ he cried. ‘It’s our home! You can’t! You-…’
Earl Jacob broke into a gentle laugh. ‘I never would,’ he said, stepping away from the battlements and standing close to his son peering down his nose at him with his brow raised. ‘But if you ever wish to become Earl, you must first become a knight. And in order to become a knight, you must first be knighted. If you keep on hiding up here, that will never happen, will it?’ he finished, dropping his voice to a near-disciplinary whisper.
‘Sorry,’ Hugh said quietly, looking at the black boots covering his toes and feeling stupid. ‘You don’t think I’m a coward for running away from the nobles, do you?’
Earl Jacob placed a hand on his son’s shoulder. ‘Of course not,’ he said with a grin. ‘I was quite glad to see you had slipped away. It gave me a few moments reprieve from these painted and pompous pansies in their silly hats and cloaks.’ The earl lowered his face until his and Hugh’s were only a few inches apart. ‘Doesn’t Duke Berehad look like he would make a fine jester in his floppy hat and all that blue and yellow?’
Hugh could not fight the laugh that shot from his mouth. As he did, the sound of a horn split the summer afternoon air. A single, long, deep note from the gatehouse drew Earl Jacob and Hugh’s eyes back over the wall. There, to the south, a large party mounted on horseback and accompanied with an entourage of carts, were making their way up the dusty road that ran between the hills to the gates of Westwarden Castle. There must have been some hundred or so men in the retinue, many of whom were armed and armoured as soldiers of the Vidorian Empire.
‘Lord Aesinger is here!’ a voice cried from the battlements.
‘Open the gates!’ Earl Jacob roared in reply before turning to Hugh. ‘Come on, son,’ he said gently. ‘Now your uncle is here, we can get on with the ceremony.’ Earl Jacob placed a hand on his son’s shoulder and led him away from the walls, back towards the steps down to the courtyards. ‘For the record,’ he said quietly, one he was well out of earshot of the guards, ‘I would never give the earldom to your uncle, nor to that weevil of a cousin of yours.’
Hugh raised his eyes to meet the gaze of his father. The earl smiled at him and clapped him on the back. ‘You can do this,’ he said. ‘I believe in you.’

*

Hugh’s cheeks hurt. He had been standing outside the doors to Westwarden Castle’s great hall and smiling for near-on another half an hour, whilst the assembled nobility, with painstaking slowness, filed in. It seemed as if each person wanted to stop to talk to everyone else, and that as soon as they had done commenting on one-another’s choice of hat, doublet, or cloak, they would turn to him and begin gushing.
            Keep smiling, he told himself. Just a little longer. He rocked on his toes and quickly looked about himself to stretch his neck. To his left and his right, the long corridor in which he stood stretched from the castle’s entrance to the great hall. On either side of the long hallway, two long lines of black-armoured imperial soldiers, all with a small white Fortescue stag painted on the temple of their helmets, stood still and silent. Their swords were at their waists, and their shields, emblazoned with the Vidorian phoenix, remained at their sides. Whilst Hugh stood by the wide open oak doors that led to the great hall, feeling stupid in his white clothing, the passage before him was choked with nobles. Still, he kept smiling and nodding his head, then smiling again and laughing when he thought someone was telling a joke.
            Slowly, the tide of nobles began to thin. When the last was inside and seated, the two long lines of imperial soldiers turned about and marched into the great hall, closing shut the great doors behind them. For a few moments, Hugh was alone. The smile dropped from his face and his hands began to tremble. He rubbed his palms together and found them slick with sweat. I could still run, he thought. I can’t stand in front of all those people. They will judge me, I can hear the word upon their lips already…
            ‘Bastard.’
            And there it was. Hugh’s shoulders fell and he felt what little mood he had leave him like rats from a sinking vessel. He did not even need to turn to know who it was who addressed him, for every time his family came together in any capacity, this voice followed him like a niggling itch that only got worse when scratched. ‘Go away, Darry,’ he said quietly.
            Sir Darry to you,’ the voice of his cousin slid up the corridor, accompanied by a single pair of footsteps. Hugh did not turn to look at him, and made no move to greet his older cousin.
            He slid into his gaze. He was a tall, thin boy with shadowy eyes and a jutting ledge of frown and jaw. His hair, dark black like Hugh’s, was greasy and lank and fell down across his eyes. There was something in his pale, grey visage that betrayed the sickness he fought so hard to conceal. Since birth, Darry had been weak and frail. Though, as he grew, he got stronger and stronger. Darry’s path to recovery had made him spiteful and bitter of everyone – particularly the able-bodied Hugh who, for a long time, could do all the things Darry could not. Now, as he stood before him, Hugh could see in his much-hated cousin’s face that the dregs of illness still clung to him, forming dark rings about his eyes and stripping the colour from his cheeks.
The son of Lord Aesinger wore a dark grey doublet and carried a sword on his hip – a short but nasty-looking blade with a round silver pommel, held in a black leather sheath decorated with a stag’s head wreathed in holly. There was a bundle under his arms as well, which he kept covered with his hands. ‘Father says I have to give this to you,’ Darry said spitefully, taking a dark blue folded garment out from underneath his arm, ‘but I’d much rather keep it for myself. He says that’s not allowed though, so take it.’ He thrust the folded cloth into Hugh’s hands and stepped back, folding his arms. His narrow face was twisted into a bitter leer, as if he had just tasted something sour.
            Hugh unfolded it and gasped. Cascades of dark, sea-blue satin and velvet gushed over his hands, slipping between his fingers and fluttering in the light summer breeze that sighed through the corridor. Upon the face of the gorgeous single-shoulder cape was a stag’s head wreathed in holly, embroidered in a shining white thread. ‘This is incredible,’ Hugh whispered.
            ‘And you don’t deserve it,’ Darry spat. ‘I’ll fight you for it.’
            Hugh frowned and looked at his pale, greasy, ill cousin. ‘You’ll what?’
            ‘We’ll duel for it. Practice-swords only.’
            Hugh frowned for a few moments. From beyond the sealed doors of the great hall, Hugh could hear someone talking. A hard but well-spoken tone: Captain Aelfurd. He will be upon the dais, giving a quick speech before welcoming in my father.
            ‘Well?’ Darry’s voice interrupted his thoughts.
            Hugh looked his thin, gangly cousin up and down. ‘Fine, if you insist,’ he said with a shrug. ‘Now will you please-…’
            Footsteps suddenly filled the hallway. Hugh turned, just in time to see three figures approaching from the end of the hallway. ‘Darry!’ one of them cried in a voice that clapped like thunder. ‘Leave the blasted boy alone and get your sorry backside here! I’ll not wait for you to heave your wheezing carcass to my side for another minute!’
            Without another word, Darry scuttled away down the corridor, shooting one final, snivelling glance back at Hugh. Quickly, Hugh tried to fasten the cloak about his shoulders, so the garment hung to his left and revealed the fabulous stag’s head embroidery, but his still trembling hands fumbled at the clasps and it fell to the floor. Hugh fell to his knees to try and pick it up before anyone noticed.
            ‘Is that any way to treat my gift to you?’ the same voice thundered about him. Hugh scrambled to his feet, the garment in his hands. Four figures stood in front of him. One was his father, tall and proud. On his arm was a beautiful woman with chestnut brown hair that fell in a great bunch of curls down to the small of her back. She wore a full, red smile on her face and her eyes brimmed with adoration for her son. She wore a fine dress of crimson edged here and there with golden embroidery, and a magnificent golden torque around her neck that shone like the beauty she radiated. This woman turned and glared at the third figure, a man with long, black hair that fell to his shoulders and a scrub of dark stubble upon his cheeks. ‘It was an accident, Lord Aesinger,’ she said curtly, but not unduly so. Her sing-song voice sounded like the harps of a hundred musicians, played in perfect harmony together.
The third figure glared down his large, round nose at Hugh. ‘I should damn-well hope so!’ he rumbled. ‘I had that thing specially made, though Darry tells me you’ve pledged it to him in a wager?’ He scoffed. ‘The ruddy cheek of it!’ Lord Aesinger Fortescue was both taller and broader than Earl Jacob, and his posture was a thousand times more powerful. He wore a dark blue doublet on the chest of which was sewn both the Fortescue stag and phoenix, both in gold. Lingering behind him like a bad smell, and skulking in his shadow, was a sneering Darry.
Earl Jacob waved a hand at his brother. ‘Don’t be so harsh,’ he said. ‘Let the boys have their fun. Besides, if it ends up back in your care, I’m sure the garment will see plenty more use.’
Lord Aesinger said nothing. Instead, he sniffed his round nose and scowled.
‘Here,’ Lady Isabella left her husband’s arm and took the cloak from Hugh. With long, slender, and expert fingers she fastened the silver straps and buckles that held the cloak in place, before carefully smoothing it out over her son’s arm. ‘You look dashing, my sweet boy,’ she said. ‘Now, chin up. That’s it! You look every inch an imperial nobleman!’
Suddenly, the sound of the main doors to the great hall swinging open and the wail of blaring trumpets filled the corridor. Earl Jacob, Lady Isabella, Lord Aesinger and Darry all turned and walked towards the hallway. ‘You’re up next,’ Earl Jacob said, winking at his son. As he, his wife, his brother, and his nephew stepped into the doorway, the Great Hall erupted in applause. The great doors swung shut again, muffling the cacophony of clapping to a storm-like rumble. Again, Hugh was alone.
The young knight-to-be began to pace up and down, clenching and unclenching his fists, his mind racing. ‘Why does Darry have to be here,’ he muttered to himself. ‘He’s a slimy little worm and he has no place with us. And his damned father! Why! This isn’t their day, it’s mine!’ Again, the urge to simply turn-tail and run down the corridor, out into the courtyard, and away over the hills gripped young Hugh. I can do it, he thought. I don’t want to stand in front of these people, I don’t-…
The doors crashed open. Trumpets once again blared. Hugh’s whole world went numb. Slowly, he turned to face the high, arched doorway that led into the great hall and began to walk towards it. You were too slow, he thought. Now you have to stand in front of all of these people. What if they all heckle me? What if they hate me? What if they call me ‘bastard’?
He stepped into the great hall. Few halls deserved to be called ‘great’, and many that were did not warrant the title. The great hall at Westwarden Castle, however, was every bit magnificent. Taller than most multi-storey townhouses, the long, wide space stretched upwards into high, timber rafters from which were hung many heavy flags and hangings that trailed on the hard, smooth stone floor below. The long tables and benches that usually lined the hall had been removed, and instead they had been replaced with a long, red carpet that stretched from the arched doorway and its heavy oaken doors, all the way to the raised dais where the high table usually sat. Instead, on this special day, it had been removed. In its place stood four people: Earl Jacob with Lord Aesinger at his side – Hugh was glad to see Darry had been made to stand with the rest of the nobles.
Opposite them stood his mother, Lady Isabella, whose proud eyes and wide smile never left him as he made his way down the red carpet towards the dais. Beside her, in a simple black habit with a golden phoenix sewn onto its front, stood a man some forty or fifty years in age. He had a balding head and a sullen, wrinkled face, but sharp eyes, and upon a red satin cushion in his hands rested a glittering silver sword. Hugh recognised him immediately as Detmoald, the castle’s priest. Behind them fell a huge, dark blue banner on which the white Fortescue stag was sewn, glaring out over the assembled nobility with fierce, warning eyes. Behind its white face rose a large, golden phoenix, symbolising the unity of the Fortescue family and the Vidorian Empire.
Hugh stepped onto the red carpet, whilst either side of him the assembled nobility exploded into a great eruption of applause. The long red vein of fabric was flanked either side by a row of the black armoured imperial soldiers with their swords at their hips and their shields at their sides. Behind them, the nobility surged. A great sea of fine fabric and shimmering dyes, of fluttering capes and rippling cloaks, they beat their hands together and cheered Hugh’s name. For a few moments, Hugh heard nothing but the hammering of the blood in his ears, before it all exploded into life.
Quickly he marched towards the dais and up the steps whilst the roar of applause behind him persisted. Soon, he stood atop the dais in the middle of the four people around him, but the roar of applause did not stop. Please be quiet, he thought. Please look away from me. Reluctantly, he turned and looked out over the hundreds of figures that were stifling the great hall with their painted and perfumed presences. Hugh managed to force one last smile and raise a hand in an uneasy wave, which also, much to his relief, hushed the applauding nobles into a tentative silence.
‘Hugh Fortescue,’ a voice rang out, high and clear, across the whole hall. As he had been told to, Hugh turned to face Detmoald, ‘son of Earl Jacob Fortescue, earl of the Western Imperial Heartlands, and Lady Isabella Beshing, take to one knee now before the light of the Divine Empress, if you so wish to be knighted into her service.’
As he knelt, Hugh made the mistake of glancing over his shoulder at the assembled nobility behind him. Of course, he had to look straight into the pale, grey face of Sir Darry, who was lingering at the front of one of the crowds of nobles. ‘Bastard,’ he silently mouthed before creasing his face into a horrid sneer. Hugh felt what little confidence he had dashed like a ship in a storm, and cast his sad eyes to the ground as he knelt before the priest.
‘I present to you, Earl Jacob Fortescue, this blade,’ the priest continued, ‘with which you may place the accolade of knight-service upon this man, Hugh Fortescue.’  Hugh glanced up into the face of his father as he stepped forwards and gently lifted the fine, silver blade from the cushion on which Detmoald held it, whilst behind him the whole hall held its breath. His father looked down at him, smiled warmly and winked. ‘You can do this,’ he seemed to say with his eyes.
I can, Hugh said, feeling his heart soar. I am the son of Earl Jacob Fortescue, the finest nobleman in the Vidorian Empire. I can do this, and I shall! That will show Darry! Proudly, he puffed his chest out and lifted his gaze to meet his father’s eyes. He straightened his back as best as he could and placed his hands upon his raised knee to stop them from shaking. I can do this, he said to himself, feeling the hundreds of pairs of eyes that were in the room upon this. I can do this, and then I shall truly be a man. Then I can be like my father.
‘Rise, Sir Hugh Fortescue, my son, as a knight of the Vidorian Empire.’
It was done. He had barely felt the blade gently touch each of his shoulders, and now Detmoald and his father were ushering for him to stand. His father was grinning at him, and by his side his mother had a tear in her eye. Slowly, he rose to his feet and turned to face the assembled nobility, who once again exploded into applause. Hugh felt a smile crease his face as he looked out upon the smiling, clapping throng. Briefly, he locked eyes with Darry again, who was scowling at him from the front of the crowd and making no effort to applaud. ‘Bastard,’ he mouthed again.
Hoping that Darry’s father had seen, Hugh looked sideways at Lord Aesinger. He hoped for the man to go storming down to his son and discipline him there and then in front of near-enough every single noble in the Heartlands. But instead, he was greeted with another pair of cold, unsupportive eyes and a much scarier, darker glare. There was a chilling glint in Lord Aesinger’s eyes, one which the cruel little twinge that dances in Darry’s could never hope to outshine. Quickly, scared, Hugh looked away.

*

‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ his mother said to him as she folded the smart white clothes she had brought her son to wear that day. She placed them on his bed and turned to look at him. ‘It’s not as if anyone is staying around to see this little duel the two of you are having. You’ve nothing to prove, either. Everybody knows you’re the better swordsman of the two of you.’
            The newly accolated knight of the Vidorian Empire scowled in the mirror that was propped in the corner of his surprisingly modest chambers. ‘Of course I am,’ he snapped. He turned and looked at Lady Isabella. The bed which inhabited the middle of the room, on which she now sat, though large enough for two fully-grown people, was not as lavish as the beds of most noblefolk. There were only a few modest furs covering it, and only two well-stuffed, fluffy pillows at its head. There was a single window set into the hard stone walls behind the bed over which a dark blue curtain was draped – night had long since fallen, and most of the nobles had begun their journeys home hours before. Most of the light in the chamber came from the wide, squat fireplace set to one side, or from one of the many candles that glowed warmly from where they nestled in wrought iron sconces around the chamber.
            Lady Isabella sighed and shrugged. ‘Very well,’ she said, folding the small, blue cape that was the centre of the whole matter and passing it to Hugh. ‘Try not to hurt your cousin.’
            Earl Hugh took the fine garment and smoothed the smart but simple leather doublet he wore before scratching his thigh through the loose black trousers that covered his legs. He made one last check of the brass buckles on his mid-calf, black-leather boots and marched out of his room. ‘Darry wanted this duel, mother,’ he called over his shoulder. ‘I would’ve rather just kept the cloak and seen to it that he had left with all the other nobles hours ago.’
            ‘Very well,’ his mother said again with a sigh, rising to her feet and following him from the room. ‘I’ve already sent for Detmoald to referee this little battle of yours. He should meet you in the practice yard.’
            ‘Detmoald?’ Hugh said with a sigh as he marched his way down through the many high, airy corridors of Westwarden Castle. ‘What does Detmoald know about swordplay?’
            Lady Isabella shrugged a shoulder. ‘He may surprise you, you know,’ she said in a telling, sing-song voice. ‘If you listened to what he told you during your lessons, instead of fantasising about killing dragons and saving damsels, you might have picked up on the fact that he was once a soldier before he became a priest.’
            Hugh scowled. ‘I’m a knight now, mother,’ he said quietly, though he did not feel like one. ‘Darry has insulted us and our family by challenging me, I have to-…’
            A hand yanked him around. His mother held him firmly by his upper arm and glared hard into his face. ‘This is nothing to do with family,’ she said sternly. ‘We may have houses, yes. We may have our own coats of arms, but each and every house is united under the light and guidance of the Divine Empress. We serve Emperor Lyshir III, who has so far led this empire to nothing but prosperity. If you wish to play at “houses”, then I suggest you march your backside to Maedar and wait for the next lunatic rebel to declare himself a king.’
            Hugh swallowed, but could say nothing in response. He glared at his mother for a moment before pulling his arms away and marching off through the castle. It was not long until he found himself outside, skirting through the wide courtyard that ran all the way around the keep in a big ring. Above him, the night was darkening. The last of the summer sun had slipped away over the western horizon, and the night was clear and crisp. The stars shone above, twinkling daintily. This is a good sign, Hugh thought to himself with a smile. The stars are Vidoria’s eyes, and she has come out to watch her newest knight defeat his foe!
 The serving staff were doing what they could to tidy as much of the mess left behind by the visiting nobles as they could. The last few dozen members of the nobility – and their scores of household followers – amassed in the courtyard directly in front of the castle, close to the gates, ready to depart. There were even a few of the merchants who had provided food and various decorations for the ceremony and modest soirĂ©e hanging around, laughing and joking with the last of the nobles. Father would say that they were doing so to try and build trade-ties, Hugh thought. They want to be able to supply for more events like this; that way they can get more money in future. Quickly, glad now to be in his usual garb and less likely to be noticed, Hugh skirted around the castle’s wall and headed to the north side of the great structure, where the smithy and the practice yard were located.
            He passed a great number of soldiers as he did so, many of which he recognised, many more that he did not. All had the Fortescue stag on their helmets, though, so Hugh assumed that Lord Aesinger had simply brought a number of his own men to accompany him. It would not be surprising, Hugh thought as he caught the eye of two particularly surly looking men he did not recognise, who glared at him from under their helmets. My uncle does have a long way to travel from his small estate on the eastern border with Altmeria.
            Soon enough, Hugh could see the practice yard. The wide strip of much-trampled dirt which Hugh approached was surrounded by a low, simple wooden fence. He could see three figures in the yard already: Detmoald, in his dark habit and wearing his usual sombre expression; Darry was there, as was one of the largest men Hugh had ever seen.
            Darry’s wooden practice-sword was dancing with the large fake blade of the huge, steel-clad knight Hugh did not recognise. The man was at least seven times the height of his own large foot, and had shoulders that looked as if they could hold up the sky. He was dressed in a fine set of steel plate armour and his head and face were completely covered by a greathelm the shape of a stag’s head. Hugh marvelled at the craftsmanship of the item as he approached, for the huge man was obviously sworn to the house of Fortescue. One day I shall be a knight like this man, and my father shall glow with pride, he thought as he looked at the big man.
            Detmoald cleared his throat as Hugh hopped the fence and entered the practice yard. Darry and the unknown stag-knight immediately ceased their duel and stepped apart. The big knight said nothing and made no movement to approach Hugh, whilst Darry simply sneered at him. ‘I see you have it,’ he said.
            Hugh held up the cape. ‘Here it is,’ he said coldly. The thing caught in the gentle night wind and fluttered a little in his hands, unfolding slightly. As it did so, the cold white face of the stag wreathed in holly revealed itself from between two folds. It glared at Hugh accusingly, before catching in the breeze and becoming a ripple of white upon the garment, gently tossed around and caressed in the sweet, cold wind.
Detmoald quickly glided between the two boys and took the shimmering blue article from Hugh. ‘I shall hold on to this for now,’ he said coldly. ‘You both shame Vidoria with this silly little quarrel of yours. You are both knights, and you should both know better.’
Darry snorted. ‘That’s not what Sir Byron says,’ Darry said and gestured to the huge knight. ‘He says that this is good, as it will allow for us to work out who will be the better swordsman, and who would therefore be the better heir to our family’s lands. Besides, he is a real knight, not some imposter who threw away his sword for books like you did, Detmoald.’
The priest glared at Darry and curled his lip disapprovingly. On the other side of the practice ground, Sir Byron made no attempt to move nor speak. The fact he had not removed his helmet made Hugh nervous. It was as if he as a suit of armour given life by some strange spirit, some terrible guardian of Darry. What if he hurts me for beating Darry?
‘Curb you lip boy,’ Detmoald said, ‘or may Vidoria’s light burn your tongue. Now, let us get on with this excuse to play chivalry. One round. Whoever wins gets this misbegotten rag.’
Hugh quickly crossed to one of the few racks of wooden practice weapons that were dotted around the enclosure. He grabbed the first sword he saw and turned to face Darry. He looked so weak and ill, so grey, like a man on the edge of death hauling himself along upon weakened feet. ‘Let us begin then,’ he said and stepped forwards, clasping the wooden sword in his hands.
Darry charged. Hugh was caught completely off-guard by the sudden show of ferocity and quickly raised his own wooden weapon to catch the surprisingly fierce blow aimed at his head by his older cousin. He had barely deflected the strike when a second whizzed past his face. He found himself backstepping as fast as he could, his wooden sword whipping back and forth to catch all of Darry’s blows. His cousin’s grey face had twisted into a death-like, sadistic leer, revealing his creamy-yellow teeth and greyish gums.
What is this! Hugh thought desperately as he tried to block as many of Darry’s lightning-fast strikes as he could. He’s supposed to be sick and ill! He’s supposed to be weak! He’s supposed-…One of Darry’s blows scraped along his cheek, and Hugh felt his flesh graze. He let out a yelp and, suddenly furious, swung his wooden sword in a wide, strong arc. It broke Darry’s defence and cracked him hard in the jaw. His cousin cried out and stumbled sideways. He is still weak, Hugh thought triumphantly, but he is accursedly fast.
Hugh leapt into his cousin and kicked him in the side as hard as he could. Darry stumbled again, but whipped his wooden sword around in a vicious jab into Hugh’s stomach that left him winded and gasping for breath. Hugh tried to grab the wooden blade with his hand, but Darry whipped it away too fast and Hugh felt a splinter slide into his palm. With a hiss of anger, he charged at Darry, sword raised and ready to strike.
Darry sidestepped when Hugh was little more than a few inches away from him, and kicked him hard in the back. Hugh went sprawling into the dirt and felt Darry’s blade rap across his spine. Quickly, he rolled away and raised his wooden sword to block a second slash, this one aimed at his face. He kicked out at Darry’s ankle and knocked him back long enough to scramble to his feet, but before he could consider mounting an offensive against his cousin, the older boy was upon him again, slashing this way and that with his wooden weapon. Hugh felt blows clip against his fingers, arms, shoulders, neck and his head. He felt his skin graze and tear in places, and felt angry red welts rise upon his arms, but he refused to lose. Not to you! Never to you!
He leapt into Darry’s next swing, catching the older boy off guard and battering him in his stomach with his fist. Whilst winded, Hugh raised his sword and cracked him hard over the back and shoulders with it once, twice, thrice, until Darry was forced to one knee. Suddenly, the older boy’s hand shot out in submission, and Hugh looked to Detmoald. Their combat had whirled away from him, and the priest stood close to the centre of the training ground, his eyes watching carefully.
‘He’s surrendered-…’ he began, but suddenly agony shot through his groin and he cried out. His sword fell from his hands and he keeled sideways. More blows rained on his head and back as he fought desperately to cover himself with his hands, but, with laughing coming from between his teeth, Darry continued to kick and strike him.
‘Enough!’ Hugh heard Detmoald cry, but Darry kept hitting him.
‘I said enough, you self-entitled little brat!’ There was a crack that spilt the night like a clap of thunder and the blows suddenly stopped. Hugh heard a cry, followed by the scuffle of feet. Hands were upon him, old hands, weathered by wind and war, and suddenly he was upon his feet.
Sir Darry was sprawled on the floor, glaring at the priest with eyes that brimmed with malice. ‘How dare you strike me!’ he squealed. There was blood upon his lip and running from his nose, for, despite his appearance, it seemed as if Detmoald had quite the strength in his arms. ‘I’ll show you, you miserable priest, I’ll-…’
‘There!’ Detmoald hurled the cape at Darry. ‘May you stuff it down your windpipe and choke on it, you disgraceful little weevil. Your lack of chivalry has shamed Vidoria this day, and utterly shamed this whole family! Come, Hugh,’ the priest said, dragging Hugh away, ‘let us see if we can’t get you cleaned up a little.’
‘He cheated!’ Hugh cried as Detmoald dragged him from the training ring. ‘He cheated! He held a hand out in submission! Then he hit me in the… in the-…’
‘I did not see it,’ Detmoald said quickly. ‘I simply saw him beating you once you were on the floor.’
He cheated!’ Hugh cried. ‘I swear it, Detmoald, he cheated!’
The priest’s wrinkling face drew tight as he dragged Hugh from the training area. ‘At the very least, you proved this night you are a chivalric and just knight,’ he said coldly. ‘The priest in me wants to tell you these are traits that the Divine Empress shall smile upon you for possessing. The soldier I once was warns you that these are characteristics that lesser, evil creatures who lack honour – like your spiteful little worm of a cousin – will take advantage of and use against you. Now come on,’ he said and yanked on Hugh’s arm.
The young knight glanced over his shoulder once last time and back at the training ground. Darry was already in his cape, grinning like a corpse. Behind him, the behemoth that was Sir Byron stood, hidden within his great set of glittering steel armour. He said nothing and made no move, though Hugh could feel the cold, horrible eyes beneath his helmet fixed on his face.

*

An hour later, Hugh sat on his bed in his chambers, scowling at the door. His mother had come by with a small glass of mead which he had not touched. She had kissed him on his head, comforted him with some sweet words, and left once she saw Hugh continue to scowl.
His father, however, had not come by. I’ve shamed him, Hugh thought miserably. I’ve shamed him and now he hates me. He’ll feel as if he has to sign over all his inheritance to Darry, and he’ll never speak to me again. He call me his bastard, and he’ll have another son, a proper son, a legitimate son. One who doesn’t have to have a bastard’s name. One who isn’t an inconvenience.
            Hugh felt tears on his cheeks and fought the urge to sob. Detmoald had mopped up what cuts and bruises he had. He had been good and kind, if stern, before mounting his pony and riding off into the night to restock some of the herbs he had run out of from the nearby village of Hedby. ‘Don’t be foolish,’ the priest had said firmly, though Hugh had not listened. ‘You father loves you dearly and would never hate you.’ If father could see me now, though, he would be even more ashamed, Hugh thought sadly.
            For a few minutes he sat on his bed in silence. His head ached and his knuckles hurt. His groin was still tender, and now the phantom stomach-ache that followed the blow was still lingering in his belly. What was worse, his mother had told him that his father had allowed his uncle and Darry to spend the night at the castle and head home in the morning. It meant he would be expected to wave Darry off come the morrow.
            As he dwelled in his sorrowful thoughts, wallowing in misery and self-loathing, a knock came from his door. It was hard and sharp, brusque and purposeful. Hugh quickly wiped his face and got to his feet. ‘It’s open,’ he called out in a meek voice.
            Two imperial soldiers stood in the doorway, stern-faced and heavy-browed. They wore their black, lobstered plate armour of the Vidorian Legion and each had the faint white stag of the Fortescue household painted on the temple of his helmet. Their shields were on their arms and their swords at their waists, though there was a look of haste about them. ‘Come with us,’ the first, a middle-aged man with a thick stubble on his jaw said. ‘Your mother has had an accident and is gravely hurt.’
            Hugh’s eyes widened. ‘What?’ he stammered. ‘How can this be? She was fine but only a few moments ago!’
            ‘She fell walking down the stairs after seeing you, then,’ the second guard, an older man with bags under his eyes and a broken nose said in a voice like gravel. ‘She is seriously injured. Your priest fears for her life.’
            Hugh nodded his head and quickly followed the men from his room. As he made his way through the corridors of Westwarden Castle, something suddenly struck him as off. ‘Where are you taking me?’ he said. ‘My mother’s chambers are not this way.’
            The two men shared a glance. ‘She’s in the kitchens,’ the second, older man said. ‘The priest needed a surface on which he could work so she was taken there.’
            The boy’s eyes narrowed. ‘Which priest, exactly?’ he said slowly, slowing to a halt and looking at the two men.
            ‘Your priest,’ the younger guard said. ‘What’s his name? Fetchmold?’
            ‘Detmoald left for Hedeby hours ago,’ Hugh said, suddenly afraid. ‘He’s not here.’
            The two soldiers shared a glance. ‘Your father sent out word and he was fetched back,’ the older guard said.
            Hugh shook his head and took a step backwards. ‘Something isn’t right,’ he said. ‘You’re not telling the truth. Even if word had been sent out as soon as he had left, it would have been an hour or so before the messenger would have caught up with Detmoald, and my mother was in my room but mere moments ago! You aren’t telling the truth! I don’t recognise you as father’s men – who are you? What’s going on?’
            The two soldiers looked at each other for a moment. The older one quirked a brow at his younger companion and shrugged a shoulder. ‘Grab him.’
            They flew Hugh before the boy even had a chance to think. With a cry, he raised his fists and tried to hit the older man in the face again and again. Despite his fighting vigour, he was grabbed by the two soldiers. ‘Get off me!’ he yelled as each soldier grabbed him by one of his arms and dragged him off the floor. ‘Let me go! Traitors! Cowards! Help!’ he cried. ‘Help me! Help!’
            Hugh was hurled to the floor and for the second time that night the air was sent rushing from his lungs. The whole world blurred and span about him, and he hacked and wheezed desperately for a few moments. He swung his fists, hoping to catch one of his attackers as they came at him again whilst he writhed on the floor, but it was to no avail. The younger of the two men grabbed his arms and covered his mouth with a heavy, gauntleted fist. ‘Shut up, you little maggot!’ he snarled.
Hugh struggled and fought, but it was no good. The older of the two soldiers fought with something tucked into his sword-belt, fumbling to find whatever it was through the leather fingers of his metal-covered hand-armour. After a few moments of struggling, he finally produced a long length of cloth, square and with a crude stag’s head stamped upon it in bloody red ink. It had barely dried before being moved, and the ghastly animal head looked as if it hand long, dripping tendrils of blood falling from its hideous face and crimson antlers. The soldier rolled it into a knot and stuffed it in Hugh’s mouth, tying it behind his head. With stifled cries, Hugh kicked and fought against the two men, but it was no good. He was too young, and not yet strong enough.
‘What if you need that?’ the soldier who had been covering Hugh’s mouth said. ‘You were supposed to cover your shield with it, that way the others will know who we stand with should this all go south.’
‘The others will know it’s me,’ the older man said in a grumble as he dragged Hugh to his feet. ‘If not, you’ll just have to vouch.’
Hugh kicked and fought as he was dragged away down the hallway. Twice he wriggled free of one of his two captives and was almost able to make a break for it, but the other man always grabbed hold of whichever arm he had freed and cuffed him across the face. After a few minutes, Hugh gave up and began to cry.
Just as he had lost hope, the two men stopped. They were in one of the longest corridors in the east wing of the castle. On the right were a few chambers intended for guests, all empty this night. The wall on the left was lined with tapestries and covered torches, which lit the long passageway with eerie yellow light.
‘Where are we?’ the younger guard said quietly.
‘Be damned if I know,’ the older grumbled. ‘I’m just glad they managed to deal with Earl Jacob’s soldiers – we haven’t seen a single of the poor sods yet.’
The second man had barely finished speaking when a great black figure lurched from the shadows. With an awful cry, it hurled itself upon the younger of the two guards, in its hand was a fine sword which flashed in the yellow light. There was a horrible noise – one Hugh had not heard before; the sound of living flesh being opened, of the gush of blood splattering upon stone. Throat cut wide open and head nearly severed from his shoulders, the youngest of Hugh’s captors keeled sideways, stone dead.
Hugh’s eyes widened in horror and through the rag that covered his mouth he screamed. I’m going to die, he thought. His eyes stuck themselves to the terrible corpse beside him. The youngish man, whose head was hanging onto his neck by a few sinews of flesh and muscle, stared at him with horrible, vacant eyes. Blood spurted from his severed arteries and oozed from his fast-paling lips. The smell of gore filled Hugh’s nose. I’m going to die. I’m going to die. I’m going to die.
He was brought screaming back to reality when the sound of steel on steel rang throughout the corridor. Recoiling backwards, Hugh scrabbled with the rag about his head and tore it off, tossing it aside. Before him, the older of his two captors was locked in a vicious duel with the tall, well-armoured Captain Aethlar. His pale face was savage in the half-light, and his red hair glowed like fire. He thrusted and parried with his fine sword, his blade opening a long cut across the face of his assailant. Hugh stood still and silent as the two men continued to fight, petrified with sheer terror.
They whirled up and down the corridor for a few moments, Captain Aethlar’s face a grim portrait of fury. His teeth were barred and he snarled like an angry dog, whilst his assailant remained grim-faced and quiet. Then, just as it seemed as if he had the upper hard, the second of Hugh’s captors slid his sword into the underarm of captain Aethlar’s armour: between the arm-hole of the breastplate and the top of the man’s pauldrons that covered his sword-arm. Hugh cried out in horror as the man’s sword came away slick with blood, but Aethlar fought on. He swung his sword in a high arc and smote his foe across the face a second time, near-on cutting his head clean in two. Blood splattered across the stone, a few droplets splashing onto Hugh’s face, and the man fell to the floor with a heavy crash.
Aethlar clamped his free hand over his under arms and let out a groan of pain. For a few moments, he looked as if he were about to keel over. Then he turned to Hugh, stern-faced, and spoke. ‘We must get you out of here,’ he said in a voice that brooked no argument.
‘My parents!’ Hugh cried. ‘Where are my mother and father?’
Captain Aethlar jerked his head for Hugh to follow him and set off down the corridor as fast as he could. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. Though his voice was calm in tone, there was a tremble of fear and excitement in his speech. ‘I also don’t know how much time we have. What I do know, however, is that both of them would want me to get you to safety before I went looking for them. Come on now, let us try and get out of here.’
Hugh followed Captain Aethlar down a flight of narrow, spiral steps then down another dark corridor, lit by similar covered torches and candles. The flickering light cast terrible, grotesque shadows upon the walls that flickered in a mocking dance upon the stonework, as if celebrating the terrible events taking place within the walls upon which they frolicked. ‘Where are the other guards?’ he asked frantically. ‘Why have they all gone? Who were those men?’
Captain Aethlar ground his teeth together. ‘All the guards within the keep have been told what you were – that your mother is hurt. They’ve all been sent out to scour the nearby lands for doctors, whilst all the servants have been confined to their quarters for the rest of the night until the crisis is solved. I was told last of the events, no doubt deliberately so I could not order my men to ignore the command. That foul coward, Aesinger, that worm-…’
‘Aesinger?’ Hugh said in a breath. ‘My uncle did this?’
Captain Aethlar nodded his head once. ‘I don’t know why, before you ask,’ he said. He looked pale, much more so than usual, and Hugh could see that his side was wet with blood. His sword-arm hung loosely and his fingers could barely keep hold of the bastard sword that dangled from his hand.
Suddenly, the yell of frantic voices came from an adjacent corridor, followed by the footfalls of many men. ‘They’re coming!’ Captain Aethlar cried. He broke into a run and Hugh followed him, his own heart hammering in his chest. Gripped with fear, Hugh ran as fast as he could, trying to keep up with Captain Aethlar. Despite his wound and his heavy armour, the captain of the guard moved as if he was in the prime of health.
They twisted and turned down many of Westwarden Castle’s corridors until suddenly they were in the great hall. It was empty of servants and the red carpet down which Hugh had walked that afternoon was gone. The many tapestries and hangings still cascaded down from the shadowy rafters, which were lost in such darkness that it was as if the roof of Westwarden Castle’s great hall stretched up into the night sky itself.
The footsteps were closer than even, and were now coming from multiple directions. There was a banging on the great oak doors that led into the great hall, and more footsteps were echoing down the corridors that led from the west wing of the castle.
‘Oh no,’ Hugh said in a whisper, ‘we’re trapped.’
‘Quickly!’ Captain Aethlar cried, pointing to the huge stag’s head banner at the back of the hall. ‘Climb that! Hide in the rafters!’
Without a second thought, Hugh ran to the back of the hall, quickly ascending the stone steps up onto the dais on which the high table usually sat. He could hear Captain Aethlar behind him, though his feet were dragging and he was struggling to stand. The boy reached out to grab the heavy cloth of the great banner, but as he did he felt Captain Aethlar’s hand on his arm. He turned to look at the pale man, whose face was now drenched in cold sweat.
‘Take this,’ he said, unbuckling the large sword-belt which he wore about his body and sliding his blade into the leather scabbard. ‘Keep it and look after it. One day, you will plunge it into your traitorous uncle’s cold heart.’
Hugh faltered, but before he could refuse, Captain Aethlar was fastening the belt tightly around Hugh’s torso. The weapon was lighter than he expected, but he had no idea if he would ever be strong enough to use it effectively. Its weight was oppressive, stifling, and felt like his grief weighing down upon him – reminding him that everything was falling apart.
 As soon as the captain was done fastening the thing about him, Aethlar stumbled backwards, away from the young boy. ‘They’re almost inside,’ he said in a croaking voice. ‘Go, climb. Whatever happens whilst you’re in the rafters, you must not make a sound. Go on now, quickly. And don’t be afraid, and trust no one!’
Fighting back more tears, Hugh began to climb, hand over hand, upwards and upwards. Nearly half a dozen times he fell, and each time a great crash came from the huge doors to the great hall he found himself crying out in fear. The damn sword, he thought, it’s getting in the way! Damn bastard-thing, why does it have to be a bastard-blade? Why couldn’t it have been something else?
Without daring to look down, he continued to heave himself upwards, hand over hand, until he was lost amongst the darkest shadows that swathed the dark beams of the very top of the ceiling. He hauled himself up onto one of the wide, heavy beams to which the giant Fortescue banner was affixed, and lay on it, breathing heavily and fighting back tears. As soon as he had the strength, he dragged himself to his feet and stood on the great crossbeam beneath him. He wrapped his arms around the great, column-like pillar of wooden beam that was beside him, which stretched out of the length on which he stood, and into the roof’s apex.
Then Hugh heard noise from below – awful shouts and terrible voices. Heart still hammering in his chest, Hugh peered down through the criss-crossing mesh of fat, sturdy beams and into the dimly-lit great hall below. He could see Captain Aethlar, clutching his armpit, staggering forwards down the steps of the dais. Then, from nowhere, a huge man in a great suit of glittering steel armour with a stag’s head helmet covering his face loomed into view. Without a moment’s hesitation, he swung his blade in a great arc and hacked clean through Captain Aethlar’s chestplate. Blood flew across the dais and the red-headed captain of the guard span, as if on a pivot, then crashed hard into the stone floor. He lay face-down, and slowly a pool of blood began to form around him. Hugh screwed his eyes shut and bit his tongue, trying not to make a sound, though tears still welled out of his eyelids and fell across his cheeks.
There were more people in the great hall now. Some twenty soldiers stood below Hugh, each had large squares of cloth with a bloody red stag’s head emblazoned on it tied about his shield. They stood around quietly, eyeing the huge, steel-clad knight who slowly paced up and down. Captain Aethlar’s prone corpse continued to twitch by their feet.
Suddenly, there was more noise. ‘You won’t get away with this!’ Hugh heard a voice he wished he did not recognise cry out. ‘The emperor shall hear of your treachery, and what then? Your little scheme shall come undone!’
Earl Jacob was hurled down before the dais, next to Captain Aethlar’s body. His hands were bound and he cried out as he fell hard onto the stone steps. Then, the sound of stifled weeping filled the air and a woman in a red dress was hurled down beside him. Her hands were bound, like Earl Jacob’s, and a huge, dirty rag was stuffed into her mouth. Mother…
‘And how, pray, will he hear of this?’ another voice said, low and rumbling. With hate boiling in his heart, Hugh watched from the high-up rafters as Lord Aesinger, his uncle, swaggered into view. His hands were on his hips, pulling back the heavy cloak he wore to reveal the sword at his waist. ‘All your serving staff have been confined to their chambers under the pretence that dear Lady Isabella’s life is in danger. So loved is she by they that they were keen to do exactly as I told them to for fear of upsetting her! Your priest, Detmoald, seems to have ridden off into the night on some ill-conceived quest for plants or some nonsense. Your captain of the guard is dead, and your loyal men from the castle have all charged off into the night to look for doctors – doctors, whom I might add, will not be found. On my way here, I had my men round up every last herbalist and surgeon we came across and offer them well-paid official jobs back in my provinces to the east.’ Aesinger shrugged his shoulders. ‘I’ve no doubt they will find one eventually, but by then it will be too late for you.’
Hugh saw his father leer at the man who was his brother. ‘And what of my son?’ he said in a hiss. ‘Where is Hugh?’
‘Your bastard is probably already dead,’ Aesinger said with a shrug.
‘Don’t you dare call him that,’ Earl Jacob snarled. ‘He is my only son, and he is ten times the man you will ever be and he’s hardly a third your age!’
Lord Aesinger sighed and rolled his eyes. ‘Look, brother,’ he said, ‘I really don’t have time for this. At some point, as I’ve said, one of your men is bound to return and I’d really rather not be found here with you like this when he does.’
Whilst his wife sobbed and struggled beside him, Lord Jacob slowly shook his head. ‘Why?’ he said in the whisper of a sigh. ‘Why have you done this?’
Lord Aesinger ground his teeth. ‘You know damn well why, you fool,’ he said. ‘How is it fair that you get to reach such lofty and important heights whilst I sit in my estates to the east, ignored by everyone who is anyone? I cannot progress in this world, Jacob. I cannot become more because of where I am. If, however, you and your family were to suddenly disappear, I would be the natural choice for the earldom that you would leave vacant, and the emperor would have no reason not to pass on your powers to me. I could shower my family with your riches, I could uplift my name into the annals of history, and all it takes is for you, your idiot wife and your bastard son to die.’
Earl Jacob shook his head sadly. ‘You’re a coward and a traitor,’ he said simply, ‘and I see you have not grown out of being the jealous little boy you were when we were children.’
With a roar, Lord Aesinger Fortescue whipped his sword from its sheath and lunged forwards. He slashed his blade with all his might at Earl Jacob’s neck, hacking straight though flesh and bone. In the echo of Lord Aesinger’s yell, the horrid, guttural rasp of sob that escaped Hugh’s lips was lost. He watched helplessly as, below him, his screaming mother attempted to writhe away from Lord Aesinger’s sword, but she could not. Hugh watched, his eyes red and cheeks wet with tears and his hand clamped over his mouth, and Aesinger savagely hacked the head off his mother. When the lord stood, his face and doublet were sodden with blood.
‘Wrap these in something. Get them in the cart and burn them somewhere far away,’ Lord Aesinger said, wiping his face on the inside of his cloak and pulling it tightly about himself to hide the gore drenching his doublet. ‘You,’ he said, pointing at one of his men, ‘you’re to play the part of the bereaved Earl Jacob. Don a cloak and get my son – he’s the closest thing we have to Hugh. Get onto a horse, make sure no-one can see your face. Make some terrible weeping noises and ride as far south as you possibly can. Then, ditch the horse and hide in the village of Andolt. We will meet you there in a few days’ time. If anyone asks, you’re my son’s uncle and you’re looking after him whilst his father is out at sea.’ Lord Aesinger said before turning on his heel. He swept out of the great hall with half of his men. The others began to clean, watched by the gigantic Sir Byron who said nothing, simply standing behind them and glaring at them as they worked.
For a few moments, Hugh fought his terrible, nauseating grief. He thought about simply hurling himself from the rafters and hoping that the fall would be far enough for his body to shatter upon the stone of the great hall, but he could not bring himself to let go of the great column of wood onto which he clung, let alone jump from the beam on which he stood.
You have to run, he thought to himself. You have to escape, like Captain Aethlar told you to. You have to tell someone what’s happened, you’re the only one who knows. You must. He looked around for some means of escape when he suddenly remembered the servant’s passage at the back of the hallway, hidden behind the huge stag banner which he had climbed up to reach the rafters. He looked over his shoulder and there, below, nestled in the shadows, he could see the flimsy wooden door through which the serving staff brought wine and food for those seated at the high table during feasts and banquets.
Slowly, the young Hugh eased himself down into a crouching position and shuffled along the beam on which he had been standing. As soon as he was close to the edge, he carefully swung about and lowered himself off the great wooden strut. He descended on the back of the great banner, so that those of Aesinger’s men who were still in the great hall would not see him. He could hear them at work on their grisly task of collecting the corpses and cleaning the stone, chuckling and muttering to one-another.
Clasping hold of the dark material of the banner as tightly as he could, fighting back tears all the while, Hugh began to carefully scramble down the back of the banner. His hands, trembling with grief and paralytic terror, were slow to respond and he found himself not trusting his fingers. Each time he lowered himself down the dark fabric he was certain he would slip and plunge to the far-off floor. If he did not die from the impact, he would no doubt be caught by one of Aesinger’s men – or worse, Sir Byron.
It felt as if it took forever, but finally, with arms screaming with ache and hands raw from climbing, Hugh felt the hard stone through his boots. He let go of the banner and without a second thought, turned and ran straight for the servant’s corridor. He pulled the door open and dashed inside, hurtling down the near pitch-black passageway towards the small blot of light he could see at the end. I have to get outside, he thought to himself. I have to get out, he thought. Captain Aethlar said that Aesinger had only managed to get rid of the guards inside the castle, so there must be more of my father’ men outside. I have to get out of this place, and then I need to tell one of my father’s soldiers what has happened!
He ran out of the servants’ passage and into the light of another corridor. He knew where he was – the great doors to the castle were only just around the corner! As quickly and as quietly as he could, Hugh charged down the corridor. He spun around the corner and there, before him, he could see the cold, starry darkness of the summer night through the final corridor that led to the wide doors of the castle.
But there, standing with his back to him, and his helmet off, was Sir Byron. The great stag-head helm was tucked under his arm and he stood at a jaunty angle, relaxed and certain of his lord’s victory. I’ll kill you, Hugh thought, sadness and hatred bubbling in his veins. Slowly, he pulled Captain Aethlar’s blade from its scabbard upon his back and crept up behind Sir Byron. The blade was heavy in his hands, but not unduly so. Hugh grasped the hilt in both his fists, for, although it was not intended to be used as a broadsword, Hugh was too small to wield it as anything else. He had held his father’s sword once or twice before, which he had always thought to be so light it felt flimsy. This sword was well-balanced though, and holding it in his hand felt so right – reassuring. I’ll do it. I can do it. I’m going to do it. Sir Byron’s bald head glowed in the faint light, his shiny scalp glittering. Hugh longed to sink his sword into it, and with every step closer to the man he hated him more and more.
Then Sir Byron flexed his neck and Hugh caught a glimpse of his face. The fiery anger in his heart was chilled, and all conviction left the young boy. He had a stub of nose and a heavy brow to match his wedge of hard jaw. There was no hair on his face, as there was none on his head, and Hugh only caught a glimpse of it, but it was enough. He has a face, he thought. He’s a real person. I can’t do this. I can’t kill a person. I can’t…
Hugh was now only a pace away from Sir Byron. He held Captain Aethlar’s sword above his head, poised and ready to strike. He gripped the hilt with all his strength and felt the muscles tense and contract in his sword-arm. Holding his breath, Hugh tried to convince himself to strike. It will only be a second. Once clean cut and he’ll be dead. He’s all that stands between you and freedom. You can do this, he told himself. But then the face of the man flashed into his mind: a stub nose, a heavy brow, a wedge of jaw.  I can’t do this, he thought. I can’t kill him. He has a face. He’s real. Hugh felt his arm begin to slacken.
But then Sir Byron made to turn. He sniffed and shuffled his feet to turn about and face Hugh. In panic, Hugh lashed out, not as hard as he had wanted. He struck Sir Byron over his head with the sharp blade of the sword. The knight let out a muffled cry of agony and tried to stagger away, but Hugh raised the sword once more. Again he chopped down, he could feel the blade shudder in his hand as he struck the man’s skull. He chopped frantically again, and again, and again, and again.
Soon, Sir Byron lay still, the back and side of his head a bloody ruin. Entrails of grey brain slipped out of the cavernous wounds Hugh had inflicted on him, and his eyes had rolled back in their sockets until only the whites were visible. Feeling as if he were either going to choke to death on his own vomit, or cry until he was blinded by his own tears, Hugh made a dash for the front of the castle. I can do this, he thought. I can do this, I can-…
He burst into the shadowy courtyard, sword in hand. He looked around, trying to get his bearings, trying to identify a soldier he recognised, but it was no good. Each and every man’s black armour and shadowy helmet hid his face and features. Aware he was standing in the open, Hugh looked around for someone to hide for the time being. To his left, a single cart piled high with barrels and crates remained, attached up to a large brown and white shire pony. Hugh dashed to the cart and hurled himself in amongst all the boxes and barrels, watch and waiting for a man he recognised to pass him.
The walls were thick with soldiers, as were the gates. Any of his father’s men would be rubbing shoulders with Lord Aesinger’s, Hugh could tell. There was unease hanging over the castle, though. The men were all glancing south, watching and waiting, as if for someone’s return.
‘So will tha’ be all?’ a low, gruff voice came from somewhere beside him. Quickly, Hugh ducked down beneath the boxes and barrels upon the back on the cart on which he squatted. ‘I’ve a long way t’ be ‘eaded. There’s a market in Dorestadt in two days’ time an’ I’d really rather no’ miss it.’
Hugh heard footsteps and carefully peered out from where he hid, making sure to keep himself concealed. Between two hefty sacks, he could make out a short, walnut-brown haired figure with heavy shoulders, thick arms and a protruding belly talking to two imperial soldiers – men Hugh did not recognise. He cursed.
            ‘You’re free to leave whenever, Master Shattershield,’ one of the soldiers said with a shrug.
            ‘Eh,’ the short, stocky figure grunted, clambering onto the front of the cart in which Hugh cowered. Now Hugh could better see him, it was clear the figure was in fact one of the Dwarf-folk. ‘There’s a wee matter tha’ hasn’t yet been attended to,’ he said, turning to his right where he sat, revealing the huge, ornately plaited and beaded beard he wore upon his rotund face.
            The two soldiers glanced at one-another. ‘And what’s that?’
            The dwarf gestured with his hands as if the words he was about to speak pained him. ‘I’m a  simple Dwarf,’ he said. ‘There was a wee bit o’ money tha’ Earl Jacob owed me fer a particularly fine cut o’ salted pork tha’-…’
            ‘Have you not heard?’ one of the soldiers said suddenly, a heavy frown on his face. ‘The Lady Isabella has died! She was gripped with a sudden fever and has slipped away just this very evening! Lord Jacob has taken young Sir Hugh and ridden out hard southwards. Did you not see him go? Lord Aesinger fears me means to hurl himself and his son into the South Seas! His captain of the guard rode out after him, but Lord Aesinger fears it may be too late.’
            The merchant gasped in horror. ‘By Vidoria! How terrible!’ He clapped himself on the forehead in shock with a giant, ham-like hand. ‘Is tha’ wha’ all tha’ commotion was earlier at the gates? By the Stone! I had no idea! You are right, I should leave now. Can I send a bird to Lord Aesinger about my payment?’
            ‘I would imagine so,’ the second shadowy soldier said in a gruff cough of voice. ‘He’ll probably pay you extra for leaving when you did and for not causing any trouble.’
            ‘Then I shall be off immediately!’ the merchant said. There was a loud crack as he flicked his reins over the shoulders of his horse and Hugh felt the cart surge forwards. He rocked, falling onto his side. Captain Aethlar’s sword slipped from his hands and it clattered against the wood of the cart, though the merchant either did not hear or paid the sound no heed. ‘Thank-ye, gentlemen!’ the dwarf called and raised a huge hand in a wave. ‘Fare ye well an’ all tha’!’
            Once again, Hugh found himself frozen with fear. I must leap from this cart! he thought to himself as the wagon bumped and rolled over the cobbles of Westwarden Castle’s courtyard. If I wait much longer, I’ll be outside the gates and I’ll never get back inside again! Hugh grabbed Captain Aethlar’s sword and readied himself to leap from the wooden wagon. As he was about to push himself to his feet, the terrible realisation dawned on him that, no matter what he did in the castle, he would probably end up face-to-face with Lord Aesinger. He saw the castle descending into chaos in his mind’s eye, as his father’s men and Lord Aesinger’s slaughtered each other for supremacy. His father’s soldiers would lose, he could tell that; they were fewer in number, and by the time the others returned from hunting for doctors, Aesinger would have the gates closed to them and they would be shot with arrows and bolts form the walls. Hugh thought of revealing himself to the merchant, but as he looked at the stocky shoulders of the Dwarf, who remained completely oblivious to the young boy’s presence, Captain Aethlar’s final words rang in his ears. Don’t be afraid, and trust no one!
            With new tears in his eyes, Hugh resigned himself to his fate. He nestled himself as flat and as comfortably as he could in amongst the barrels, boxes, sacks and crates loaded high atop the back of the Dwarf’s cart, and gazed back at Westwarden Castle. Soon, they passed under the gates. The great, wide walls loomed into view and partially blocked his line of sight to the castle’s keep. As the young Hugh peered as best as he could between the many things in the cart, desperately trying to catch a glimpse of the castle, the gates were closed and the heavy iron portcullis slammed shut.
            Sir Hugh Fortescue watched with tears in his eyes and a grief like nothing he had ever known weighing heavily upon his heart, as the only home he had ever known faded into the dark of the chilly summer night. He clasped the bastard blade in his hand and dropped his eyes to the pommel. There, etched into the master steelwork, was the holly-wreathed head of a stag, its cold gaze glaring up at him.
            Bastard.

*

Sharing this with you all over the last few weeks has been a really great experience. Thanks to this piece of work, I've had new readers from the United Kingdom, the States, Russia, Australia, China, Spain, France, Ireland - something I never thought would happen so early on in the life of this little project. I really can't say thank-you enough to everyone who keeps reading this, and I know there are a dedicated people who have kept up with every single thing that I've posted, recommended on Google+, and shared with their friends and families - to these people, I bow.

As it stands, I have another short story more-or-less ready to go, and I am working on a very special piece with the help of a close friend which I can't wait to share, but more details on both of those soon! If you've enjoyed Watcher of the West, I ask you to share this on your Facebook feeds, Twitter accounts, Google+ profiles, and with your friends, families, colleagues, and so-forth in the real world - every single read of my work is a blessing, and words cannot describe how great it is knowing people have enjoyed these writings.

From the bottom of my heart, thank-you all,

Rob Hebblethwaite

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