I really enjoy watching a very basic idea take on a life of its own. It’s the greatest pleasure I get from writing; having new ideas pop up and take the story in directions I would never have planned if I concerned myself with story arcs, scenes, and all the technical correctness required if you write for money or the hope of money.
This story kept surprising me, and I can’t count the number of times I smiled as I finished one sentence only to have a new idea emerge that made the next sentence even more fun to write. I like this story.
The motivation initially came from two sources. Addy is writing a mythical world-building story that I really enjoy, and in recent news the Queen’s Guard in England had yet another run-in with an incredibly ignorant tourist.
I took the basic ideas of both of the above, in that this story is set in an alternative reality and involves the Queen’s Guard. As it progressed, the story became something else entirely, so I let it be what it wanted to be. Readers of some of my other stuff know that I like to hurt my heroes. A lot. In this story, there are several heroes and I hurt them all catastrophically.
My apologies in advance to my friends, who are characters in this story. I belted the shit out of all of you. This one’s for you.
Gigoid: (as Ned)
Addy: (as Aiden)
Warjna: (as Vanessa)
SouldierGirl: (as Souldier/Kirsten)
Thumbup: (as Vickilin)
Special Guest Appearance by Bob the Wordless: (as Guard Robert).
For ninety-seven generations our kind have protected the reigning monarch and his or her castles. It was in response to the rise of Arlen The Devious that we were created. The Traitor, as he came to be called by all who knew him or studied his life, was a man of low integrity who, in his core, lacked the capacity to be concerned with anyone other than himself. A hypnotic orator, he came from origins uncertain and rose to a dubious place of prominence among the disaffected and the vicious.
Arlen had the skill of making the insane sound not only plausible but correct, appealing to those who felt, by their very existence, that they should be elevated somehow so that they should be free of the effort it takes to feed and clothe themselves.
Conflation Theory asserts that two ideas which may have certain characteristics in common lose their original meaning and intention when joined. Arlen conflated the arguments of the right to existence with the right to profit without labouring, both of which are spurious in and of themselves. Neither is an inherent ‘right’. We exist, not because we have a ‘right’ to, but because biology determines the creation and destruction of each and all of us, and it cannot be bargained with.
And so The Traitor rose, fanning the flames of discontent among the dim and the falsely entitled. Those who had benefitted from education and natural intelligence saw him for what he was. Their mistake was to dismiss him too lightly. It’s a matter of ancient history that he led The Rising that nearly toppled the Throne. It was bloody, but at least it was over quickly. Arlen’s Legion were indistinguishable from other commoners, and that allowed them to congregate and hide in plain sight. At the Changing of the Guards signal, the Legion stopped their aimless milling around the castle entrances and, as one, overran all but a remnant of the Guard and very nearly overran the castle. It was the other commoners, those not involved in the Rising, who saved the Palace. It had fallen to the remnant Guards to save the King.
When it was all over, more than a thousand had died and twice that number were injured, many seriously. Arlen had escaped, having kept himself at the outer fringes of the fight in case it was lost. The last sixteen Guards tracked him down and very literally dragged him back to the castle, often behind their horses. Arlen pleaded for his life, and it was recorded word-for-word and whimper-for-whimper by the Court Scribes. It was then read out in every town and village in the Realm, so that all might know exactly the kind of coward Arlen really was.
Death by a thousand cuts is an ugly business, but the Royal Physicians worked miracles. They kept Arlen alive through all of the pain and blood loss he suffered, restarting his heart on several occasions. His cuts were packed with clay, so that he wouldn’t bleed to death. That came later, when he was hung by the feet, inverted, from the castle tower. The final indignity came when no town, village, farm, or free holding would permit his body to be buried in it. His body was transported to the edge of the Realm and cast into the sea, along with the carriage that had held his body.
The sixteen Guards who had tracked down and returned Arlen were all that was left of the Keep Guards, once a force two hundred strong. For services to the Realm they were elevated, becoming the Queen’s Guard, a force created in their honour, and from that day to this no Queen’s Guard need ever give the Loyal Toast, because their loyalty is unquestioned.
It may seem odd that having saved the life of the King the Guards should be called the Queen’s, but it was a long-held custom and belief that the King was protected by the Almighty, and so all else was only necessary for the protection of the Queen.
Our training had been refined over the generations as new weapons and ways of war were developed. In the original and closely subsequent Guard generations it was loyalty that was the true test of a potential Guard; it had to be beyond question. However, as is the way of Kings and Queens, adventures into foreign lands and assaults in our lands meant that skills became equally as important. For those reasons our training lengthened and took in much that would surprise a commoner.
Skill At Arms had developed along the Great Circle philosophy, of lines behind lines, where attack or defence began at the outer perimeter against the biggest foe and worked its way back to the centre, protecting it to the last man or woman standing. Many potential Guards died in some line of the Circle, and of those who made it through fully half were so catastrophically injured they were rendered unfit for service. Those survivors became the Scribes, Philosophers, and Trainers of those who followed.
Each generation was steeped in the written history of those who had gone before it, and so you might imagine that by the time nearly a hundred generations of Guard had lived and died there was much to know and be tested on. What had begun as thirty weeks of intensive training all those centuries ago had now become over three years of immersive training, and by the end of it those who had successfully survived it were a force apart. Indeed, that was our sigillum, our sign.
On a steed rampant, sword aloft, the three red roses borne by Greatness and tempered by steel shield the Mighty and bow to naught but the Almighty.
Under the sigil of the rearing horse and the Guard, sword held high, and three red roses on his shoulder plate, are the words: A Force Apart. The meaning of the roses is straightforward.
For the Almighty, for the Mighty, for All.
That is, for God, for King and Queen, and for the Guard themselves. Many have mistakenly believed that the ‘All’ referred to are the people of the Kingdom, but this is not so. Our role is not to protect them, but to protect their Royals firstly and ourselves secondly.
As a Kingdom grows, so does the unfortunate need for politicians. A Kingdom is made of Ten Thousand Things, and so the Family Royal must over time delegate to those in the Court, who then over time delegate to others, and thus are the political class born. Time and history has exposed them for what they are: mealy-mouthed double dealers who talk ‘for King and Country’ when what they mean is ‘for me and mine’.
We have had, in the history of our Guard, no less than twenty-seven uprisings and eleven assassination attempts sponsored by politicians. Only once was a King stolen from us, and we got him back dead but we got him back. His Queen, Margareth, was the greatest Ruler the Kingdom ever produced. The politicians who harmed the King were rounded up and summarily executed, their lands and titles having been stripped from them and all of their bloodline put under the knife. Such is the way of Royal retribution.
I put the heavy book down and rubbed furiously at my tired and red eyes. The skin between my eyes and on my cheeks was dry and flaky from the stuffy heat in the room and the lack of fluids I should have drunk but didn’t. So much to know; so much to compare and contrast. I stood, stamping my feet to get my circulation going again. Pulling a rough blanket tightly around me, I hobbled a few steps on legs full of pins and needles. The fire had died long ago, and what food was left on the tray in the corner looked unappetising. I had eaten all the sweet things first, and then the solitary roasted potato, and then the fruit whose skin was loose from over-ripeness and the dry heat of my lodgings.
The hour was late, or early, depending on your point of view. The sun would be rising in an hour and with it, the expectations of the day would rise to meet me. I felt that a quick nap would be counter-productive at this point. It had taken me some years to truly understand my body. If the candles guttered before I slept I knew I had less than four hours before I had to get up. It used to mildly panic me; a stuffy head from lack of sleep could slow my mind and reflexes by just enough of a second as to invite failure in a test or injury on the training field.
“War is inconvenient. Not winning it, even more so.”
It was one of the sayings of my people, and long before I became steeped in this life I was steeped in that one. When I first came to realise I had a fear of lack of sleep, I spent hours poring over The Tales of Our Fathers, trying to find a reference that would help me. Instead, I found the story of Tylwyth Teg, the mythical being who had united the Realms of Myth and Magick, and who had averted disaster with his never-ending sacrifices.
“Be ever prepared to throw yourself into the fray, so that those you love and those things you cherish may not have to.”
The Teg spoke to me in ways I can’t adequately describe, and he gave me strength. I became resilient. After reading Teg’s words I schooled myself to sleep for a mere hour every day, and to be aware of my faculties and how deprivation altered them. I took kicks and cuts on the field and cuffs and admonitions in the study hall, but slowly, slowly, I came to know my tired self and to overcome his failings. So as not to needlessly exhaust myself, I staggered my sleeplessness. A month here, then two nights of long sleep, then another three weeks of sleeplessness followed by four days of no sleep at all. Always shifting, always changing the pattern. Always growing stronger and smarter and faster and more adaptable.
Training for the Queen’s Guard is not a solitary occupation. You cannot simply lock yourself away, study for examinations, beat a few others on the field, and then become a Guard. You must know the person next to you, and he or she must know you. It’s not the social element that’s important; it’s having a sense of certainty and predictability about those around you.
My self-imposed sleep regimen gave me additional hours in the day and I used them as wisely as I could. I trained in battle and tactics for three extra hours each day, even and especially when I’d been injured, because no one would have expected anyone to do that.
“The battlefield has only one expectation: that the unprepared will die on it.”
I undertook my extra training alone, with only my mind for company, and it set me horrific tasks and targets. For over a year I died daily in my mind until I became strong enough to win and win and win.
I have never put on muscle like many others. The Physicians say I have ‘long muscle’, so they never bunch up and protrude. Instead, I become as lean as a whipcord and as strong as steel. The Tales say that a person should be strong like leather. Smash a rock against a rock and one or both will eventually split. Smash a rock against leather and the leather will remain supple. I am as tough as leather, and even more resilient.
For an extra hour every day I socialised and helped others as ever I could with problems they had that I might know the answers to. That held me in good stead with my classmates and the Trainers. Some of my classmates were from Cymria, just as I, but there are as many personalities as there are leaves on the trees, and apart from a general kinship I felt no special affection for my countrymen and women. Well, except for one, Bronwyn, but if she knew I was alive it was in the way of knowing that a tree is alive; pleasant enough but impersonal.
In the hours that remained to me I studied everything, and often. History, not only of the regiment but of the country and culture and the dynamic forces that had shaped it. I studied tactics from large scale conflict to close quarters battle, and although it remained unknown to others I studied the human body and medicine, for at some point in everyone’s life they will need assistance.
In the final hour before I allowed myself to sleep, I studied the Presence. At first I was reluctant, thinking it more a collection of old superstitions made to keep children true and to frighten or comfort the old, but the more I studied it the more it made sense to me. I kept that to myself. The Almighty of the Mighty, the God of the King, was a jealous God and was not given to sharing space with the Cymrian Presence that inhabits and animates all things.
Vanity, arrogance, and confidence are curious things. They all largely depend on the opinion of the observer, and not the observed. Of course, taken to extremes they become obvious, and yet to many there is no waiting for the extreme. If they approve of you, you’re confident; if they disapprove, you’re vain or arrogant. They will then go about collecting even the most tenuous, innocuous, capricious, and untruthful ‘evidence’ to support their claims because, of course, they themselves couldn’t possibly be wrong. They do not see vanity and arrogance in their own unsupported beliefs.
It’s yet another strange quirk of the mind that almost everyone feels the need, not to be special, but to be thought of as special. In the classroom, on the field, in the common areas, there are always subtle plays occurring, like jockeys moving their horses around in the race, trying to improve their position, but there isn’t any obvious race. You would think we’d be smart enough to know that appearing to be exceptional brings with it an avalanche of unwanted attention and expectation, but still most will strive to be ‘seen’.
I realised at an early age that being Number One rarely had the pay-off the person expected. People want fame, until they have it, and then they want anonymity. The poor don’t complain about high taxes or upkeep on massive and massively unnecessary homes. There is such a list of complaints from those at the top, the poor put-upon dears, and yet few of them reach down to help another up.
Never once did I wish to be Number One although, in my heart I know, I could have topped every class. Those extra hours I put in grew to thousands of extra hours over the years of my training, and that made a difference. I always made enough deliberate mistakes so that I was placed somewhere around the middle of the class; neither close to failure nor ‘success’. It’s a good place to be; the balancing point feels the least pressure. By finding the balancing point I freed myself from the taunts of arrogance and vanity.
There was only one time when I slipped up, and it was so instructive that it was worth it. Any form of militia will attract at least some who are vicious. When that is spent against the foe, it can be valuable. When it’s spent against the friend, it’s thuggery. And when it’s spent against the innocent, it’s unforgivable.
In our practice areas there are different obstacles and terrains, but after a while they become familiar, and so it’s worthwhile to travel out to regions where the unexpected should be expected. Its part of how we gain experience and expertise.
Gerard was muscled, fast, and sly, which all adds up to ‘dangerous’. He would have you think he was a lumbering oaf, reliant on height, reach, and strength, and having imbued you with a false sense of him he’d then surprise you with speed and cunning. Gerard was, however, mean. To him, all that existed and mattered was, in order of importance, himself, his immediate Trainers (who could throw him out if they chose), and the Royals, for they could elevate him to his ‘rightful’ place.
Thinking himself something of the comedian, he rose early one morning and scrawled ‘TP’ on the helmet and breastplate of all he was due to practice with that day. ‘TP’ stood for ‘Target Practice’, and he thought it was worth the punishment he received for the laugh he got from trying to unnerve his opponents.
As part of his punishment he missed that day’s training, which soured his mood as he had planned to show off, and instead he was sent on an errand to source wood and water from the locals in the hamlet we were stationed near. It ended badly, when he nearly drowned a woman who had refused to carry his water back to camp for him. How many times had it been drummed into us that while we had no responsibility toward the population, they were the King’s Own People and to be treated respectfully.
Word reached our camp minutes before Gerard returned, and he did not anticipate the kind of reception he’d receive. I thought him an idiot, but not a bad man as such. Just thoughtless and somewhat too in love with his own perception of himself. The Trainer, however, saw him in a lesser light and he was furious. Without a word, as Gerard entered the muddy compound the Trainer marched up and smashed a heavy chain-mail gauntlet into Gerard’s face. Without thinking, Gerard reacted, pulling on his sword and releasing its hilt a mere inch from the scabbard before sense and training overtook and he re-sheathed. To draw sword on a Trainer is an instantly dismissible offence. Gerard was out of the Corp, his potential career as a Guard of any stripe now over, even to the third generation of his family.
I thought it a case of the right result being fashioned in the wrong way. We are schooled daily to react quickly, and Gerard did that. It took less than two seconds for him to process the threat, react, and stand down. His sword never left its scabbard, and so the Trainer was invoking a technical extreme by banishing Gerard. It should have happened, but for the reason of assaulting a civilian, and not for the reason of reacting to an assault by a Trainer.
To fully comprehend what came next it’s crucial to somewhat understand our system. “Protect the Keep!” is a call to arms, signalling all Guards to general armed assembly. “Protect the Queen!” is an altogether different order. It calls us to rally around the nearest Royal and protect them from imminent attack. It has a fall-back position. If, say, a younger and older Prince were under attack, as was the Queen, our role calls for us to abandon the younger, and then the older, if it meant the Queen would be saved. The Queen might have another Prince or Princess, but those lesser Royals cannot give birth to a Queen. Such is the way of it.
Gerard did not take his dismissal lightly or well. He tried to explain, to reason, to beg, and then, stupidly, to threaten. The Trainer, in my opinion, vastly overreacted again, calling on us to Protect the Keep. Without question, we all came on Guard, swords drawn, and ranged in a semi-circle in front of Gerard. His only way out of this was to leave the way he had come in. His eyes scanned us all, fifty strong, and he saw his time here was over. Something went out of him then. His shoulders slumped and he turned on his heel and began walking out.
Gerard then made another stupid mistake. Over his should he threw a parting shot: “God rot all Royals,” he said, barely above a whisper. We all knew what it was; a final and very mild act of defiance; a way to save some face in a humiliation that would last until his great-grandchildren might be permitted to join the Guard and salvage their family name. The Trainer took one step forward, his face flushed with fury, and he shouted: “Protect the Queen!”
There was a split second of stunned inaction. The Queen was not in residence here and She was not under threat. Technically, the order was at best incompetent and at worst, impossible to carry out. To move was to obey an order that might not be legal or loyal, but to not move might be grounds for later charges of treason to be laid. In that space of inactivity I assessed the situation faster than the others and I acted upon it. Crouched low, I ran wordlessly at Gerard and he caught sight of me in his peripheral vision. He turned, his sword drawn with lightning speed, and he brought it up to my eye level.
I took him and everyone else by surprise, sliding under his sword and knocking his feet out from under him. As he clattered to the ground I grabbed and released the dagger at his hip, slicing the wrist of his sword arm before spinning around and embedding the dagger in his shoulder. He was disarmed and immobilised, but he was alive. It was a successful defence but a technical failure, because he lived. I withdrew the dagger and walking away, I picked up his sword.
There were tense seconds when no one knew if the Trainer was going to order me or someone else to kill Gerard. Truthfully, I don’t think the Trainer knew, either. I walked to him, twisting sword and dagger, and held out their handles to him. “He lives,” the Trainer said quietly. “And so does the Queen,” I replied just as quietly. The Trainer took his seconds, assessing the situation; assessing me and the mood of the Corps. He took the swords, hefted them in each hand once, and walked away without another word.
Gerard had, by this time, made it to his knees. His wounds were streaming but would not be fatal unless left unattended. To help him might have been an act of treason, so all stood where they were, waiting for this hand to play itself out. I began walking away; there was no pride or rightness in any of this day’s undertakings. “Dylan!” Gerard roared at me. I turned to face him, thirty paces separating us. I knew in an instant that if he thanked me for sparing him I’d have to kill him, and if he challenged me I’d have to kill him. I drew my sword at lightning speed and roared at the top of my lungs: “Never come back!” They were the three words that saved his life, that saved both our lives.
Of course, I was thrust into the limelight. Friends and colleagues were intrigued by my attack, which none had ever seen before. It was fluid, graceful, and highly effective, and they wanted to know where I’d learned it. I broke the Honour Code by lying to them, saying inexperience in Close Quarters Battle had led me to over-stride and slip in the first instance, and to wildly lash out in the second. Everyone looked at me for a time as if I was a risen saviour, and I was closely questioned by several Trainers other than the one who had been involved, but after a few days it all died down, helped along by the additional hours I very visibly spent in conventional footwork and tactics in CQB.
The truth was, I had always read very widely and in some of the arcane manuscripts of Tylwyth Teg there were long references to what he described as Oriental Arts. I had often played with them and practiced them as a boy and young man before the Queen’s Men came to our farms and deposited a coin, the King’s Crown, in my father’s hand and told him I had been paid for by the King.