Kids’ Book of the Month: An Exclusive Out Take from Defender of the Realm

Kids’ Book of the Month: An Exclusive Out Take from Defender of the Realm

The Hall of Kings

They called it the “Hall of Kings”. It had stood there for nearly a thousand years, its walls ringing over the ages to the sound of royal wedding banquets and treason trials. But today Westminster Hall was heavy with silence and lit only by tall candles clutched in ornate holders. The air was thick with the smell of lilies, overpowering, like they were covering up something else, something dank and dark. Something that Alfie didn’t want to think about.

Alfie shuddered and returned his gaze to his father’s coffin. Elevated on a dais at the centre of the vast hall, it was draped with King Henry’s royal standard of rich blues and yellows. He tried to focus his thoughts. But it just didn’t seem real, any of it.

My dad’s inside that box. Trapped. Forever.

At each corner of the coffin stood a perfectly still soldier holding a spear, head bowed in respectful silence. They were dressed in smart, dark green uniforms and each had a feather in his cocked-hat. Someone had told him they were called the Royal Company of Bowman, no wait, the Royal Company of Archers and they had come down from Scotland to mount the vigil over their king. Soon, other soldiers would take their place in a ritual as ancient as the cold marble beneath his feet.

More symbols. More ceremonies. More stuff I don’t know about. Oh my God, I’m the king now! Trapped. Forever. Just like Dad.

The darkness of the hall pressed in on Alfie as he wiggled his numb toes again to wake them up. At least his brother and sister were back home now. He needed them today – especially Richard. Alfie had sat at his father’s old desk and broken the bad news to his twin brother on the phone. Richard had taken it in his typical, level-headed way, before springing into immediate action like a good army officer. “Okay, understood. I’m on my way,” he’d said. “And Alf? Hang in there alright, you’ll be fine.” Alfie smiled to himself, how could two brothers born less than a minute apart be so different?

Charlotte on the other hand… poor Charlotte. It had been the worst phone call of Alfie’s life. Since their parents’ divorce, his little sister had been so protective of her dad. She’d flipped out, yelling that it was all their mother’s fault. “She destroyed our family and now she’s destroyed him!”

Alfie had tried to say it was nobody’s fault – a freak heart attack – but he couldn’t get a word in edgeways as Charlotte cried herself out. I’ll need to be strong for her, thought Alfie.

Alfie peered anxiously behind him. He could have sworn someone else had just entered the hall, but there was no one there. Still, he felt eyes on him. The presence of someone or something at his shoulder – the same feeling he’d had on the long drive back from school the other night.

Relax… relax. You just need some rest.

It was true. Alfie hadn’t been sleeping very well. Ever since his father died he’d been having intense dreams; jagged snatches from the midst of a battle at sea, sailors yelling at the top of their lungs as cannonballs smashed through the air and shredded sails and wood, his feet on the deck, washed in blood and sea water foam; then suddenly he was running through the muddy streets of old London, the wooden buildings ablaze, something monstrous in the writhing black smoke ahead of him, something that wanted to kill him; a heartbeat later and he would be falling through the sky above a bombed out city in the last war, right next to the rattling, riveted metal of a Nazi rocket as it screamed towards the unsuspecting people below.

But the frightening thing was they didn’t feel like dreams. They felt more like memories.

A sudden wind gusted through the hall, extinguishing the candles one by one.

“Alfie?”

Alfie turned his head back to the dais and the blood drained from his face like water disappearing down a plughole.

His father was sitting up in the coffin, his standard wrapped around him like a shroud. The dead king’s skin was sickly grey and his eyes were closed. “Dad?” Alfie managed to stammer, and dropped to his knees in shock, his breath coming in tight little gasps. Suddenly he didn’t want his father to open his eyes but he couldn’t look away. “No, Dad-”

King Henry’s eyes snapped open and bored into him. Alfie was wracked with the same pain in his chest again, an overwhelming, nerve-rending agony like he’d been stabbed by cold steel. Alfie watched as his father – his dead father – turned his head stiffly and nodded at one of the bodyguards on vigil. Obeying some silent order, the soldier unsheathed his sword and strode towards Alfie.

He’s going to kill me!

Alfie tried to scramble backwards across the floor, but the dead-eyed archer was on him. He gripped Alfie’s wrist and drew the blade across his palm. Alfie yelped at the sharp, thin pain but the archer was apparently finished with him and returned to his place by the coffin as if nothing had happened.

Alfie looked at the cut. It wasn’t deep but it was bleeding. Bleeding blue blood. It was pooling in his hand, a rich, dark, blue. Alfie gasped.

A black leather glove dropped onto Alfie’s shoulder and he screamed. But it was a different, friendly face that looked down at him, full of concern. Alfie gasped with relief – it was his brother Richard, handsome in his full dress uniform for the funeral. Charlotte was there too, wearing a simple black dress, half shielding herself behind Richard’s legs. Alfie could see she’d been crying.

“Come on Alf, up you get.”

Richard eased Alfie to his feet and looked deep into his eyes.

“You okay?”

Alfie looked around, everything was back to normal. His father’s coffin was closed and draped in the king’s standard, the candles were burning once more, the Royal Company of Archers standing vigil. Bewildered, Alfie looked down at his open palm – the cut on his hand had disappeared. He span around, eyes wild with confusion.

“It was dad… he was just here-”

Richard nodded. “And now he’s gone. It’s hard to get your head around, I know.”