Sunday, 22 May 2016

Watcher of the West - Part 3 of 3

In the final part of Watcher of the West, everything falls apart. The newly knighted Sir Hugh finds himself caught in a hurricane of events which he cannot hope to control. As everything begins to crumble around him, Hugh finds himself the only one capable of saving his family from a sinister plot unfolding in Westwarden Castle's halls. Blood flows, and the young boy's life changes forever.

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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.

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