The Last King of Windrock Castle
Robert Windrock sat on his throne as he had countless times before, taking in the great hall of Windrock Castle. The last torches on the walls were beginning to lose their flame, and soon the only thing keeping the great hall lit would be the pale moonlight seeping in through the stained-glass windows. The sound of crows cackling on the roof invaded the hall, as if they knew what was to come. You’ll be picking my eyes out soon enough I suppose. A sombre smile crossed his lips as he turned his eyes to the window.
The hall felt like a foreign place in the dark, and even more so when empty. The only times he’d seen it like this before was when he used to sneak around the castle at night as a child to sit on the throne and imagine he was the king. Only then he’d been young and filled with a sense of wonder and excitement, but now he was old, only feeling empty and alone. A tear escaped his eye as he imagined holding one last feast here. Robert yearned to see his brothers, his wife, his sons, the people of the valley. I’d walk through all the hells and back again just to see your smiles one more time. He forced himself up from his throne and slowly made his way down the stone steps toward the tables. Every joint and bone in his body ached but he dragged himself along all the same. He wanted one last walk around his castle, his home, before he died. Fighting through pain, he grabbed one of the torches from the wall and began toward the door.
He ran his hand along one of the tables, collecting dust as he went. He felt the watching eyes of empty chairs and chalices as he crossed the room. He thought back to all the times there had been people in those chairs and wine in those chalices. The shouting, the singing, the laughter, the embraces. Sometimes people from all over the land had come to the famous feasts of Windrock. Kings and commoners alike could come to eat and drink with one another here. On occasion feuding families had even come to discuss peace terms and then drank into the night together, singing, and sloshing ale all over the floor after peace had been made and new allegiances forged. Robert had often overseen them himself. The meeting between the Ronells of Brackenhill and the Alleys of Shurn Stronghold had sent all sorts of rumours up and down the land. Robert let out a chuckle remembering how Olf Ronell and Jonathon Alley had almost come to blows.
“Why should I make peace with you bloody savages?” Alley had shouted. Ronell had lunged at him then, and Robert thought he would have killed him if he hadn’t jumped in himself. He steered them toward peace and by the end of the night the two leaders were singing the tales of the common folk and exchanging local legends.
Robert caught a glimpse of his reflection in one of the windows and another pang of sorrow hit him like a thousand swords. His once full black hair was now gone, replaced with a meagre showing of grey that was barely clinging to his head. The fierce beard he used to bear was now long and white. The frail bony hand that grasped the torch could no longer even hold the family sword. The King of Windrock. This is the fate of all men. We are all brothers in the soil. Robert didn’t know how long he regarded himself, but he eventually carried on walking. When he reached the end of the hall, he turned around to get one last look. Every torch had gone out except for the one in his hand. As he watched the moon light the hall, thousands of faces flashed through his mind. Every baby born in the valley, every hand he’d held on deathbeds, every farmer he’d visited to wish good fortune, every soldier he’d trained with, every lord he’d met with. The Windrock legacy will not die with me. My life ends today but my blood lives on. A proud smile crossed Robert’s face as he left the hall.
A rider from the east coast had delivered the message. The east had been invaded. Coastal towns and villages burned to the ground; people put to the sword. They meant to conquer the whole world, and they were starting from the east. The fishermen were not prepared for such an invasion and suffered greatly for it. When an army did meet the invaders in the field, Robert learned that they were also cut down.
“Commander Solgen sent me here. Told me to get here as fast as I could to warn you, to warn everyone. They’ll be here within the week.” The lad was frantically breathing and covered in blood when he reached Windrock. His horse seemed nearly on the verge of death itself. Robert thought he could not have been older than fifteen. He had taken nearly half an hour to get his story out. His people had been butchered and he was the only survivor. Robert heard the anger in his words, hidden by the tears on his face. “Rest up lad” Robert told him. “you did the right thing coming here. Now you must rest”.
“Father, we must rally our forces and prepare for the coming fight.” Robert was sitting on his throne while his son James paced around the room. The hall was full to the brim with the people of Windrock valley and a chorus of murmurs and mumbles stopped Robert from thinking at all. “we can smash them in the field if we’re prepared.” Robert noticed a fire in his eyes that he’d only seen a few times before. He did not share his father’s thick black hair; it was tied back but still fell past his shoulders. He was stroking his muddy brown beard as he was pacing. Robert watched James turn to the people of the hall. “People of Windrock! Gather your swords and-”
“No” Robert interrupted sternly. Every sound in the hall stopped and every eye in the room met his. James turned to face his father, a look of confusion across his face.
“Father? We have enough men and-”
“Edward Solgen and his army were cut down in the field! If he could not stop them, what hope do we have?” Robert’s voice wavered a little as he realised what had to be done.
“Then what?” James asked “Father, what are we to do?” Robert looked his son in the eye.
“What are you to do?”
Robert felt the cold seep into his bones as he walked along the corridor that led from the hall. He couldn’t even hear the crows anymore over the wind roaring around him. The cold was numbing him, and every step he took became less painful. The moon cast a shadow of his cloak billowing in the wind behind him. The more he walked, the more he began to remember. He’d spent his whole life in these walls but things he’d lost to the years were starting to creep back into his head.
Being the king of Windrock had taken its toll on him, but walking the halls again unburdened by his responsibilities felt liberating to him, and all of a sudden he was a teenager rushing off from the hall through this very walkway with his betrothed Alanya. He could almost feel her fingers laced in his, could almost see the way her long yellow hair had flowed halfway down her back, could almost hear the way she used to laugh. Her soft blue eyes flashed across his mind for an instant, and then he was remembering her nose, her ears, her smile. The face was that of the woman he’d married at nineteen years old, and not the woman she’d been on her deathbed. It had been ten years since she had passed, and memories Robert had of her had begun to fade. The memories they made together had begun to fade. Robert felt immense guilt overtake him. How could I ever forget you? My fallen star, my perfect angel. My Alanya.
Robert remembered how beautiful she had looked on their wedding day. He remembered the singers playing, he remembered his parents, he remembered his brothers, he remembered the words they had spoken, and he felt as though she was here with him now. It was like she was walking by his side, and suddenly he did not feel as alone anymore. He felt like running the rest of the way, but the moment he started to quicken his pace, the pain in his bones returned and he was the nineteen-year-old heir to Windrock no longer. He turned to his left to see that she was no longer there, and once again, Robert Windrock was walking the castle alone. I’ll be with you soon enough my love. All that matters is that our children and our people are safe. It felt good to remember her. It was like the weight of being responsible for all of these people was gone. Our son will be a noble ruler, he’s got my brothers to guide him.
His eyes were more adjusted to the dark by the time he was walking the ramparts. It felt strange walking them and not seeing it manned with archers. Many had wanted to stay behind and defend Windrock, but Robert had made them go, as he’d made all of them go. He often walked the ramparts and jested with them about who was the best archer on the wall. Darry, a man of forty claimed it was him, but the boys had often jumped at the chance to prove themselves. Different lads challenged Darry to an archery contest. Sometimes it was Rakk, a skinny young lad of fourteen, other times Sattien, a rather stocky man of twenty. Most of the time however, the man to the challenge was Gendell. Tall and lean, Gendell stood six feet tall, towering over the rest of the lads. Robert had never seen anyone fire a bow and arrow as well as him and wanted him to lead the archers when Darry grew too old.
Robert had never understood the need for the archers at Windrock, it had never been attacked since it was built. He’d often asked his father why they needed archers if Windrock was never attacked.
“Archers have defended the walls of Windrock for thousands of years, and they will defend it for thousands more.” Robert’s father had told him.
“Defend them from what?” Robert had asked.
“Windrock is a haven for the continent Robert. It needs to appear well protected so the common folk will feel safe to come here if they ever need to. I know none of the other kings will ever march on Windrock, but the people of the land need to know that a safe place still exists for them.” Robert thought on his father’s words for a while as he stared over the walls out into the valley. None of the other kings will ever march on Windrock, but these aren’t our kings. Foreign invaders don’t care about our customs. They will tear Windrock to the ground.
James had suggested preparing for a siege.
“Fifty men can hold Windrock against a thousand. You told me that yourself!” James had said. It was true, Windrock could hold off the invaders until help arrived.
“What about the people of the valley?” Robert asked him. “We cannot fit every man, woman and child in the halls of this castle, so what do you suggest we do? Leave them out there to perish?” James did not reply. “There is no other way my child. You must leave with our people. We have an alliance with the northern isles for a reason.” James looked up at Robert then.
“Me? Father, what about you?” James asked.
“I’m staying here.” Robert said bluntly
“You can’t!” James shouted
“I was born here, I’ve lived my whole life here, and I’m going to die here. I’m too old to be off sailing. It’s too bloody cold up north. Do you really think I’d survive all that time at sea? No. I'm an old man, look at me.” Robert let out a chuckle. Tears were beginning to form in James’s eyes.
“Father, I’m not ready to rule.” James's voice wavered as he spoke. He turned away to wipe his eyes.
“Look at me.” Robert said, and suddenly he was a father comforting his son after he’d woken from a nightmare again. “You must be strong. Your people need you. You are my son. You were born to lead. The people will love you as they love me, and my father and his father before him. You have your uncles, your brothers, your councillors. You may feel alone but I promise you, you are not.” Robert wiped the tears from his son’s eyes and hugged him tight.
It had taken them a couple of days to gather all the people of the valley and prepare them to sail away. Windrock was built on a river that flowed to the sea. Everyone in the valley had sailed away that morning. Everyone except for Robert. Snow began to fall on the ramparts as Robert questioned if he had done the right thing. A part of him wanted nothing more than to go with them, but he could not leave his castle.
He reached the stairs from down to the castle courtyard. Every step brought with it aching pains in his knees. It will be over soon. Snow was starting to build up on the ground, as it was melting on his face, in his hair, and wetting his clothes. It felt odd coming into the courtyard and not hearing the chorus of metal on metal. His father had him and his brothers practice with sword, spear, and shield. They had practiced every morning, and so his sons had practiced too. But now every sword, every spear, every shield was gone. The people would need every weapon they could get their hands on, and what use have I for them?
Memories of him and his brothers sparring in the yard flooded back to him. He remembered the feel of the ground on the back of his head, and the hand that helped him up afterward. He could almost hear his brother laughing again. Over and over, every day he had been bested. It had only been a few times that Robert had beaten his little brother Garth at swordplay, and even those victories had been short lived. After an illness took their father, Robert no longer had time to train with the sword anymore, but his brothers carried on. Robert was only six years older than Garth, but whereas Robert could barely lift a sword anymore, Garth could still knock the best fighters the country had to offer on their arses as well.
Garth had taken charge of training when he was 21, and at 26 he was widely regarded as the best swordsman at Windrock. Whenever Robert had a free hour or two he would come down and watch his sons training with Garth. He remembered the way they would look at Garth, the way they laughed when he tussled their hair. His sons always looked like they were enjoying themselves. More than I ever did. He remembered the shame of jealousy when he watched them. When the boys noticed him watching, he saw the look in their eyes. It was the same look that crossed his face when he looked at his own father. Were they scared of me as we feared our father? Brother, you raised my children while I sat on my stupid bloody throne. And what was it all for? I’ll never see them again, and gods know what the future holds for them. Leading Windrock had been a bigger strain on his life than he’d ever anticipated. There was always something that needed doing, someone that needed seeing, and after their mother had died it only got worse. Robert had wanted nothing more than to talk to them, to be there for them when they needed him most, but that had fallen to Garth as well.
When everyone had left, Robert had gone down to the river to say his final farewells. He barely made it back to the castle and knew he should not walk to the dock again. Though memories of Alanya had faded from his mind, he would never forget all that happened down by that river. Her tears of joy when Robert announced his intention to wed her, trying to hold back his own tears of joy when she told Robert that she was with their first child, the hours Robert had sat there after she died, not sure how he was ever to go on with his life. He longed to walk the dock with her again. Feel her fingers laced in his, hear the creek of the old wood under his weight, watch the fish leap from the waves, see the moon reflect off the water. When everyone left, he stayed on the wooden dock for gods know how long, taking in the wind as it roared around him, watching the ships sail off to sea, holding back his tears as all he held dear in the world slowly left him for an uncertain fate.
Robert wanted to stay a while longer, but he knew his legs were going to give out on him soon. His clothes were getting heavier, they were soaking. Dirt was dotted about the ground as the snow got heavier, it would not be long until the whole courtyard would be knee deep in snow with no one left to clear it away. He decided to go back to the hall. I lived my life on that bloody throne. I may as well die on it.
He passed through the portrait room on his way back through the castle. Every king of Windrock that had ever lived had a portrait in here. Hundreds of them lined the walls of the room. As a child Robert was made to learn of all his relatives that had once ruled the great castle. Once, if someone had asked him he would be able to recite all the past kings in order, but now he could only recall a couple at best. He looked up at the giant portrait of Garthemon the great, who his brother had been named after. You named your second son after the founder of Windrock? Why was I born first?
Garth resembled the past kings of the rock more than he ever had. You always did take after your mother. He could almost hear the cold disdain in his father’s voice. He turned to his father’s portrait. Some of the kings in the hall stood out. Some bore blonde hair, some red, some a bright silver, but not Algor Windrock. Robert’s father had the traditional muddy brown. The same colour as Garthemon, the same colour as his brother, the same colour as his sons. Robert had sometimes wondered why they had been blessed with the famous brown hair of the family where he had not, but he never dwelled on the thought for very long. Robert did not even bother to look at his own portrait before he carried on his way back to the great hall.
He reached the hall once again and saw his throne staring back at him. He could almost hear it mocking him, as if it knew what was to come. The sun was coming up again, and light was starting to bleed through the windows. As he made his way through the hall, Robert felt the rest of the room join in the mocking. The empty tables, the empty chairs, the torches lining the walls, the sunlight flowing into the hall. Everything he saw served to remind him that he was alone, and he was going to die. Despite all this Robert carried on walking, and eventually made it. Walking the castle had been a great effort at his age, and all he could do now was sit and wait for death. His whole body felt heavy as he felt his eyelids slowly begin to close, and for the first time in his life, Robert Windrock fell asleep in his throne.
Robert awoke to the muffled sound of blaring horns. AWOOO. AWOOO. The sun was once again setting on the valley of Windrock. How long was I asleep? He didn’t know, he didn’t care. Death was fast approaching but he felt strangely calm about it. The horns grew louder as the sound of shouts invaded the hall. Robert heard someone shout something that he could not make out. He wondered what they would look like. He could not seem to put a face to any of the voices he could hear but it did not matter, he would see them soon enough.
It would not take them long to figure out no one was defending the walls, and once they did, they would be up in the castle in an instant. He wondered if they had tried to raid the surrounding villages of the valley. All they would find were sheep, cows, chickens, and pigs. That was all that was left after Robert had the people flee. They had taken everything with them. Clothes, weapons, gold. All that remained was the houses and the farms. They did not have time to butcher the remaining animals, so all the food they took with them was the meat they already had. They would have to rely on fish if things got too bad.
They were up in the castle quicker than Robert had expected. The footsteps were growing louder and louder. The horns had stopped, but Robert felt a wave of shouts and jeers growing closer. Robert could hear gruff voices talking but could not make out any words. He jumped in his chair as the door to the great hall swung open violently, nearly coming off its hinges. A band of grubby looking men swarmed into the great hall, quickly filling it out. Behind them came a towering giant of a man, taller than anyone he’d ever seen before. His long blonde hair flew past his shoulders as he strode through the hall toward the throne. Through his bushy yellow beard came words in a tongue that Robert did not understand. The sword he brandished seemed to tower over his men. Robert wondered if even his brother would be able to wield it. The man seemed calm as his eyes scanned the great hall. Robert knew what he was looking for, and he knew he would not find it.
“Where… People?” The man managed to get out. He put his sword down, never taking his eyes from Robert.
“Gone.” Robert said, feeling defiant. He couldn’t help a grin crossing his lips. The man turned red in the face. He picked his sword up again and brought it crashing down on one of the tables, letting out a furious scream as he did. The table broke in two and the men who came in with him went scurrying off like a pack of scared dogs. At once, Robert was secure in his decision to send his people away. This man intended to kill them, and now they were gone.
Robert’s defiance was short-lived. The man picked his great sword up again and was at the throne in an instant. This foreign invader felt like a giant to the old, frail Robert. The man raised his sword, and all Robert could do was sit and wait. He felt the cold steel go through his heart and come out his back again. Robert let out a grunt of pain as the man twisted the sword, fury on his face. He could already feel the blood beginning to trickle down his chest and chin. The two leaders locked eyes, and the man’s fury could be felt all about the hall. Robert wailed in agony when he yanked it out forcefully, and blood began pouring from his stomach. He let his sword go and Robert heard it clatter to the ground as he clutched the gaping hole that had just been made in his chest. The man grabbed Robert by the throat and tossed him from the throne. It had only taken him one hand, as if Robert was merely a feather.
Robert felt the cold stone come up to meet his cheek. He was shouting something at his minions, and they all fled the hall at once. He could no longer feel the pain in his bones over the pain in his chest, as his blood seeped through his clothes and spread out onto the cold stone. He turned onto his back and his mouth began to fill with blood. It trickled slowly down the sides of his cheeks as he coughed. I’m on my way my love. She was all he could think of now. He had done all he could for his sons, for his brothers, for his people. Now it was time for him to rest. He closed his eyes as the blood kept pouring from his chest, and before long Robert Windrock was nothing more than a lifeless body spread out on the floor...