They say the bond between brothers is forged by blood and iron. And every link of that bond is a testament to the triumphs they have won, to the suffering they have endured and to the family oaths that bind them. In truth I had no real brothers. I was born an only son to a king and given a promise to a crown, but there was one comrade that stood beside me always. He was more than a brother, until that cursed crown was finally placed upon my head. I didn’t know back then that its weight would be so unbearable.
‘Your Grace!’ shouted a messenger who rode through the ranks of my rearguard, sweat beading down his forehead.
‘What news have you, soldier?’ I asked.
‘It’s like the reports s-say, Your Grace,’ he stuttered. ‘Their banners march in the h-hundreds!’
‘It is pleasing to hear the scouts were not wrong then,’ I grinned solemnly. ‘I have never won a battle where the odds weren’t against me.’
I turned forward to the rest of the formation, nodding to the captain of the rear. A blast of trumpets shattered the silence over the plains and the vanguard began their advance with the center behind them. The rear followed and my destrier moved forward into a canter. As we began our march, I thought back to the days of my youth, back to when everything was different.
As a boy I was frail, skinny and clumsy. My father had left my training to the master-at-arms. He was a stern old man with a mean face and meaner sword-arm. In every lesson he battered me bloody with his wooden blade.
‘Get up!’ he would spit. ‘Your father the king would be disgraced to see his only son wail like a maiden.’ My father the king he would always say, like I was too touched in the head to recall who my own father was. Maybe he said it more for his own good, now that I think back on it, to try and grasp that such a weakling was the king’s heir.
Every hit stung and split the skin, leaving it red and bruised. Each time I fell to the dirt I contemplated not getting back up, but feared the man would hit me harder all the same. So I rose, aching and clutching my heavy wooden sword in hand, praying the next blow would send me to my dreams and away from the torment.
I didn’t notice the other boy until he stood in front of me to block the man’s downward swing. Their practice swords clapped when they met. The master-at-arms grunted and snarled before stepping to strike the boy from his path. A second clap echoed across the training yard, and again the man found himself foiled by his much younger opponent. His face grew hot with rage, taking hold of the wooden hilt with two hands and bringing it down in an attempt to break the boy’s skull, only to hit empty air. The nimble figure had dashed to the taller man’s right side, smacking wood against the back of the man’s leg, and sent the heavy master-at-arms crashing to one knee with a groan. Before he could even think to rise, the boy had the weapon pulled tight against his throat, choking him.
He leaned down to the man’s ear and spoke loud for me to hear his words. ‘How is he going to learn anything from a big brute like you, who swings his sword around as if it’s a club?’
‘I’ll have your head for this, boy!’ the man cursed between gasps.
The boy was unmoved. ‘More like the king will have yours, after he learns his son was beaten raw by some fool that was named master-at-arms because all the good men were with His Grace campaigning.’ The boy released him, allowing the man to heave in some air before smashing the wooden blade into the side of his skull and sending him to sleep in the dirt.
The boy then turned to me and bowed his head. ‘Pardon me, Your Royal Highness.’
I could not help myself but laugh. ‘You did me a wanted service, there is nothing to pardon. Lift your head and tell me your name, so that I can thank you properly.’
‘My name is William, if it pleases Your Royal Highness.’
‘Thank you, William.’ It was then that I saw the heraldic crest on his doublet; a raven and a sword. ‘Are you the same William that is son to my father’s captain of the vanguard?’
‘I am, Your Royal Highness.’
My eyes looked to the fallen master-at-arms and back to the boy who was but a few years older than I. ‘Can you teach me how to use a sword?’
He smirked. ‘I can, Your Royal Highness.’
‘Well if you stop calling me by that bloody title, I’ll think we’ll become best of friends.’ He did. And we were.
Our fathers never came back from the campaign. My uncle seized the crown for himself before I could even be coroneted, convincing my father’s pledged men that I was not fit to rule. He was right, as it seems, but we weren’t to know that back then. William stood by my side as we led five-thousand men against nearly twice that. I don’t know how, but we won and the crown was mine for what good it meant. I was not a righteous king like my father. Sitting on a high throne does something to you; no man should ever be seated in a golden chair while his people are starving and plagued. Rebellions came next, a lot of them. When one was stamped out another would rise quicker than the last. William fought with me through them all, his loyalty unwavering, but then I ruined that as well.
‘You cannot kill them!’ he raged at me that dark night inside the cold stones of the keep.
‘I am king. I can do what I bloody well please!’ I snapped back.
‘They are children.’
‘They are traitors sworn to usurpers!’
‘Barely older than babes,’ his face grimaced. ‘You cannot execute them. If you do, what pledged men left to you will think you a butcher.’
‘That is what they will think of me, is it?’ I took a heavy swig of wine from my goblet, trying to warm my frozen bones. ‘What of you, William? What will you think of me?’
A silence fell over the room.
‘I will think of you as a good friend, a good man… and a poor king.’
A sickening crunch echoed off the walls when the wine exploded over his face and the goblet crashed to the floor. He stumbled back but did not fall, standing in silence as the blood dripped freely from his broken nose.
‘Death to the traitors,’ I commanded with a tone that brooked no further argument.
‘So be it, Your Grace.’ He bowed, turned and walked out of the castle with half my court. It was after that I realised it was William who had truly been ruling the kingdom for me all those years, while I sat on my high throne with my pretty crown. It was not William that lost me my people – I could only blame one person for that – me.
Now here we were, standing at the eve of battle. Heavy black clouds roared with thunder, serpents made of light writhed through the sky; harbingers come to bear witness to the slaughter. When the trumpets stopped the vanguard halted, standing before a horizon of pikemen, men-at-arms, mounted knights on armoured warhorses and a hundred different banners snapping in the wind. There they all were, my vassals on the wrong side of the field.
A rattling noise had been in my ear the whole time we stood waiting in the wind. I turned and gazed across at the messenger shaking in his armour. My eyes paused for a moment, noticing for the first time the crest embedded on the front of his cuirass: a raven and a sword.
‘Lad,’ I cried over to him.
He flinched and looked. ‘Y-yes, Your Grace?’
‘That heraldic on your armour; I think you’re on the wrong side.’
His eyes went wide. ‘N-no, Your Grace, I am loyal to the crown, Your Grace.’
‘Bugger the crown. Go, live.’
‘But… Your Grace-’
‘I will have the heavens know I’ve finally done something right as king by seeing that you live. Mayhap they won’t send me to the lowest level of Hell. Go!’ And he did.
I took a moment to draw in my surroundings; the iron sky, the vast plain and the icy breeze. Crisp air filled my chest with every shallow breath. This is what it had all wrought to, right down to this single moment. I raised my hand and signalled for the final battle to begin.
The vanguard lowered their pikes and the men-at-arms cried out with fierce bellows under the sound of trumpets, waiting for the enemy advance. And then it came to crash upon us like a monster wave, with both formations colliding into a storm of steel. Horses ran into a wall of pikemen, tearing flesh against spear. Men clashed swords and shouts turned to wails. Arrows sang through the air and met plate and shield alike. The battlefield turned red, ripe with the smell of blood.
‘Your Grace!’ the captain shouted through the riot, pointing his sword towards the centre. But my eyes were already wide at the sight.
The van had been scattered and ran into retreat after the enemy’s first push, leaving the centre exposed to their cavalry. Ironclad warhorses broke into the ranks, tearing a path towards the rear. If I had been no king before, I would prove to be one now. I unsheathed my longsword and lowered my helm, crying out to the heavens before riding into the chaos with three-hundred other horsemen. What happened next I could not say. How a coat of crimson came to drip from my blade I could not remember. A haze had taken my mind while my sword slashed and struck down to bite into armour, flesh and bone, and then I saw him.
There he was, amidst all the screams and carnage, a phantom bearing a raven and a sword on a great surcoat that flowed over plates of steel. William wore no helm, finding its protection a hindrance to his sight and hearing, two things he valued most in battle. Sure enough his eyes cut towards me like a bird of prey, turning his horse to charge.
I kicked my destrier, gripping the reins as the steed pressed into a hard gallop. Ominous clouds followed overhead, clapping with thunder and threatening to drench all those below with coming rain. William drew close, I kept my sight focused, peering through the slit of my visor with my sword held ready for the strike. We crossed and steel flashed all in a moment before the ground came up to meet me with a bloody crash.
They say the bond between brothers is forged by blood and iron. And every link of that bond is a testament to the triumphs they have won, to the suffering they have endured. But then how is the bond between friends made?
When I opened my eyes all I could see was darkness flashing with streaks of lightning – the harbingers. The clinking of armoured boots grew close. A shadow stood over my broken body, the gleam of a sword unmistakable. The first drops of rain started to pat against my helm, dripping through my visor. The taste of salt entered my mouth, mixing with the metallic flavour of blood that now stained my teeth. Tears. Our bond was forged by blood… and tears. The sword shrieked as it fell, the flare of silver passing before-
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The Australian Literature Review