Parts I, II, & III are below this post.
I had been marked. The Queen’s tattoo was barely visible but it was there for any who knew where to look and what to look for. I suspect that in some way it served the purpose of worrying those who knew of it or saw it, and it also made me a target. I think to the Queen the latter reason is as important as the former. There was no point cutting it off or otherwise disfiguring it. It would just be reprinted elsewhere; maybe on my face.
The Tales of Our Fathers speaks often about those who come into the strong orbits of powerful people. Sometimes their lives are improved, at least for a time, but few manage to break free of the orbit unscathed. I disliked the marking and all it stood for, but I was wise enough to know not to fight it. My family and their lands now had their freedom and lives resting on my shoulders, and Cymria was lost to me forever.
I felt a pang of sorrow for the Prince’s Own who had been slaughtered on their return. For the first time I wondered how many of them had been pressed into that service, and I wondered now if our victory over them was so complete simply because those soldiers had resolved to die in their own land rather than in the service of their Monarch. With Royalty and Politics, nothing is ever certain except that they will win.
Some of those I considered friends quietly let slip the ties of affection. I noticed it in their absences and not in their words or demeanour. Others I knew less well either kept their distance or made subtle attempts to befriend me, but we had not the glue to make a friendship stick. Six months after my marking, I had become quietly concerned that there was no one I could trust. Surely, the Queen would know of this, having had previous experiences to draw on. This is the thanks Royalty gives, I thought, and then I wondered if it was perhaps a subtle punishment for giving her a displeasing answer.
My days floated along as ever they did, and yet the wind had spilled from my emotional sails. Loneliness feels at its worst when you are surrounded by others. In a fight, would they back me, or would they let harm find its way to me? I would have my answer when next the fight was brought to us.
“Pssst! Guardian!” a voice whispered to me. I looked about, seeing no one. “Guardian!” it came again, and with instinct borne of a thousand practice sessions my elbow nudged open the loop that held my sword in its scabbard. “Who goes?” I said back in an even voice. “We are with you always, Brother,” the disembodied voice said. I was alone after that, and disconcerted. In that part of the Inner Keep there was nowhere for a person to hide. Isolation can create paranoia, but it can also create tests by those who isolate you. I reported the strange goings on to my Captain. He looked at me steadily before turning and walking away without a word.
Nine days later I was detailed to ride out with a small detachment of Guard. Most of us were not told where we were going or what our mission was. There was nothing unusual in that. What made this unusual to me was the selection of Guard I accompanied. Usually on small missions such as this Guard were chosen for similar skills. That is, if the work was quiet they would choose the stealthy; if it was a siege they would choose those who excelled in it. In this group, there was something for everyone.
Guard Ned was our leader and he was also a medic. An educated man, having been taught to read he did so voraciously and with a deep and innate comprehension. Having been badly wounded two decades earlier, he was billeted with Scribe and then Philosopher and finally with Medic, and he had become something of a legend among our ranks. Guard Ned was the only Queen’s Guard in history to have mastered every subject a Guard was exposed to. He was a fighting man who became a writer, a writer who became a philosopher, and a philosopher who became a medic.
Sitting astride his horse obviously pained him, for all those years ago his back had been broken by an enemy broadsword. He lived, of course, and by inventing a series of intricate pulleys he exercised from his bed, keeping his lower limbs in constant movement. In time and after draining the medical and philosophical libraries of knowledge, he walked again. His detailed notes of his regimen, with what worked and what was superfluous, became the textbook for these kinds of injuries. His ‘Mechanica Physica’ tome was a tour de force in fluid dynamics, biological engineering, herbalism, exercise, state of mind, and doggedness.
In the Art of War, he was a warrior among warriors. His use of bow and arrow was as legendary as he himself, having replaced the long sword because of the limitations of his own free movement. Just looking at him, I decided there was a Guard I hoped never to come into conflict with. Even had I uncloaked all my skills, he had won in the mind; I felt I could not best him.
Guard Aiden was with us, a young man with a way with animals that was uncanny. Hailing from Scotia, he brought with him the ruddy complexion of those who live in the cold but whose skin resents it. If there was a bird in a tree he could make it an ally, and if there was a wolf untamed it would share its kill with him. As we went about our task, we almost ran into trouble from a band of brigands who had been quietly slipping into the Realm from Germania. They were powerful men all, and wily, and it was in my quiet opinion Guard Aiden who saved us from ambush.
He stopped his horse dead and tilted his head. “Do you hear that, Guard Dylan?” he said. I heard nothing, and said so. “Indeed,” he replied, drawing his sword. We all came on guard. “Dismount,” he hissed, silently leaping from his horse and leading it off the trail and deeper into the woods, where he tethered it. Looking past me, he made a motioning signal, pointing upward. As I dismounted I caught a glimpse of Guard Bronwyn leaping from her horse’s back and landing high on the trunk of a tree. Her agility in climbing it was an incredible sight; she looked weightless as she silently sprang from branch to high branch. Turning, I looked for Guard Aiden, but he was also gone up into the canopy.
“Are you going up, too?” I signalled to Guard Vanessa. I knew the answer; I was just cutting the tension. Her middle finger gave me the answer I expected. Guard Ned stood quietly by his horse, its bridle loose in his hand.
“They’re coming this way … fast … and in panic,” Guard Vanessa said, readying her bow and freeing the catches on her sword and dagger for rapid release. I hadn’t heard a thing, and I still didn’t. Guard Vanessa’s eyes looked glazed, as if she was concentrating on a thing. Her eyes flashed and then I heard screams of terror and crashing among the underbrush two hundred paces to our left. I heard more screams and shouts and then deathly silence. “Oh, no you don’t!” Guard Vanessa whispered, and a lone voice pitched a scream that seemed to race up the register before suddenly quieting.
The first thing I noticed was the return of birdsong and chirping, and then the usual sounds of the forest returned. The silence had been eerily total, which made the return of sound seem cacophonous. I readied for a fight that never came. As silently as they’d gone, Guard Aiden and Bronwyn had returned.
“There is a story here I’ll cherish the hearing of,” I said, completely dumbfounded by what had occurred and what had not. We had no need to fan out; the sounds of the Germanians crashing through the forest had well alerted us to their location. Still on guard, I made my way forward until I came across the first of the bodies. He was a large man, scruffily bearded and smelling to high heaven, such was the state of his unwashed body. There was not a mark on him, nor on the next two of his kind, but the four others who had made up their band had been pierced with arrows and three had deep sword gashes across their chests.
“Something is not right with this,” I said, looking over my shoulder to Aiden and Bronwyn. They said nothing, so I looked to Ned and Vanessa. “I seem to be the only one not to be in the knowing of this thing,” I said. They remained silent and still. “My hearing and sight are unaffected, and yet I saw and heard nothing. Most odd.” I felt as if I was in a strange land, talking to people who knew nothing of my language. “Most odd,” I said again, before checking the bodies for anything worth knowing.
A Guard may keep what he finds if it has no value to the Crown, and yet I never availed myself of the opportunity. Taking from a dead man or woman has no attraction for me. I found nothing to inform me of the band’s intention nor why they had travelled so far from their home. They were not heading in the direction of the Palace, and even had they been, they would never have reached it, dressed as they were and smelling as foully as they did.
We remounted and rode on, but I threw back over my shoulder: “There is a thing here to be spoken of, and I will know the truth of it.” We rode in silence until an hour before darkness, making camp underneath an overhang that afforded good protection from the dampness of night and any marauding animals or others. Our fire was so well hidden that no light emanated from our camp. We ate, and I knew the others were waiting for me to ask my questions. In The Tales of Our Fathers there are sayings that deal with patience and timing, and often I recall them to myself.
Sometimes, the difference between winning and losing, living and dying, is not in the superiority of your forces or energies, but in the timing of executing your strategy. Patience is the virtue of the brave; it takes more courage to wait until the appropriate time than it does to hurry into a situation you do not have sufficient awareness of.
I kept my own counsel, falling into a sleep populated by people and situations I almost knew. I felt a kinship with them, although I only sensed rather than saw them. As the false dawn came I awoke, refreshed, and still determined to hold my tongue and let the others feel what pressure they may about what had happened. I knew of old that when someone tries to conceal a thing, their mind races to that very thing and they often give away their position to relieve the anxiety they put themselves through. They would tell me, or they would not. For me, it was enough that we were here, unscathed, and ready for the day’s journey.
We travelled all that day, long miles that were tiring in the saddle. My normal self returned, and I acted as if yesterday’s adventure had been like any other one. I did not shy from the topic, and yet I did not inquire about it, either. By late afternoon I caught glimpses of Aiden and Vanessa glancing in the direction of Ned. So he knew, too. Bronwyn rode ahead, remaining in sight while acting as a lookout, but as the miles progressed she slackened her horse’s pace so that slowly we caught up with her. I sensed that she wanted to fall into line with me, perhaps to measure my mood and interest in the unspoken topic. I frustrated her ambitions, falling back into the group and then to the off-side of it at the rear. As she fell further back I increased my speed very marginally, coming up the other side.
“We’ll stop here,” said Ned. It made no sense. We were corralled by trees and thick shrubbery on either side and blinded in both directions by switchbacks in the trail. Ned dismounted, and then the others, but I stayed on my horse. “Dismount, Guardian. There is a thing to be done,” he said. I did as was asked of me, noting that I had dismounted into an encircled position. That was odd.
A disturbing sensation came over me and I saw this for what it was. I spiked my horse with the sharp studs on the forearm plate of my armour, making him jump and buck. That split-second distraction gave me a chance to spin around and view everyone’s position. No weapons were drawn, and so I need not draw my own, but still I used the horse’s movement to open up my position and move to the side of the trail, my back to the bushes.
“Apologies, all. Trail weariness, I suppose,” I said, smiling a little as I looked briefly at each of them. “Will you not ask why we stopped here?” Bronwyn questioned. “I was just about to, but a skittish horse seemed the more immediate threat … unless I have it wrong,” I said. “Ahead is a garrison. I smelled their cooking fires and dropped back to report, but you seemed … elusive,” she said. “They are out of position, and known to pay homage to Bertrand, whose loyalty the Queen has of late questioned. Why are they out of position, I wonder?” she said. “They, or more accurately, Bertrand, are our mission,” Ned cut in. “What thought you of all this?” he asked, indicating the others. “I thought it odd that I should be encircled,” I said. There, it was out in the open.
Although I had known Bronwyn longer, it was Aiden I knew best, although that was scant. “The first part of our mission was to get you here safely,” he said. “The Queen Herself specified that. The next part was to keep you safe from Bertrand’s followers, and encircling you did that. There is naught in the trees or tree line; we have scanned both,” he said. They way he said ‘scanned’ and the gravity he said it with gave it a specialness I would have to investigate later. There was still something amiss in all this. “And the third part of this mission?” I asked. “That is the first part of yours. Kill Bertrand,” said Ned.
So, I was to earn my second blue dot this day. “Is there a thing I should know?” I asked. “Yes,” Vanessa cut in, “Bertrand had the Germanians in his employ. Perhaps he has more.”
At my behest, we sank into the deeper woods. Two thousand paces in, I had Aiden and Bronwyn walk the horses a further five hundred paces. “In case they make noise, they will lead any listener away from us,” I said. “Please open your provision packs,” I said. They quietly complied, Vanessa and Ned opening the packs of the now absent others. I found everything I was looking for, a few things I had hoped for, and a couple of things I was surprised by. “Wait one full day. If I am not back before then, ride like the wind, for surely Bertrand and his garrison will be coming for you,” I said. Gathering up my supplies, I nodded once and melted into the bushes.
Fortune continued to smile upon me. Bloodied, delirious, and unrecognisable I tumbled from the back of the scared farmer’s wagon, right in front of the Great Gate. My colleagues on duty there failed to recognise me, calling on me to clear the way. Clear the way? One eye was welded shut with crusted blood and the other had clouded so badly with poison I could barely see anything. I couldn’t even see the way, let alone clear it. I began to sink to the ground, a slow and awkward fall. It was my regimental sword, or what was left of it, that alerted the Guard to my station among them. “Protect All!” he shouted, and the secondary Guard came at a hare’s pace. One of their own was down, and their swords were out and at the ready.
Although there were few in the Great Square at that time, and none near me, the Guard fanned out and formed a defensive semi-circle in front of me, shielding me from the gawking eyes in the Square. With little tenderness but at full speed, two of the Guard broke ranks and gathered me up, my limp body bouncing between them as they rushed me back into the Outer Keep. It had been eight days since I began my mission, and seven since my colleagues had ridden away as instructed. I had been sliced to the bone in several areas, bruised and beaten in others, and infection had set in.
Cleaned and attended by the Queen’s Physician herself, I heard some of the conversation but could not react to any of it. I’d lost a few fingers on my off hand, that much I was certain of. Regaining the sight of my poisoned eyes was less certain. It seemed the pus had built up so much pressure one of my eyes had actually popped its socket. Stitches pulled as my flesh became proud, and the smell was vile. I had, however, succeeded in my mission. The rotting head of Bertrand had been located – how could it not, given the stench? – in the inner lining of my coat.
My mission was a successful failure, in that I had killed my target but I had drawn attention to it by having his head found. I think the only thing that saved me, and the Guard who had found the head, was that we were the Queen’s Guard. Only two of us knew of Bertrand’s fate, and neither of us would ever mention it. Especially me; I would probably not survive long anyway.
It was a full month of agony. My fever broke, only to return and shoot higher. Then it broke again and the chill of blood loss grabbed onto my bones and would not let go. I spent ten days in delirium, alone in case I mumbled something compromising. And then I began to heal. It had been twenty-five days since I vanished into the trees. It was another six before I was capable of lifting my head to receive the pap I was being fed on.
“Am I fit to be seen?” I asked the Physician. My nose was so full of the stench of rot I expected her to say no, but it seemed the smell was caught in my mind and nowhere else. “You are not yet as pretty as you were, and not as strong as you will become again, but you might sit on the balcony for a time if you ask for assistance in getting there,” she said. “The Queen. I must report to her,” I said. I saw the Physician raise one brow. “I am sure the Queen is aware of your discomfort. Rest your bones and your mind. Time is the healer,” she said.
The next afternoon attendants arrived and did what they could for me, to make me presentable. It seemed the Physician had reported our conversation and the Queen had done the rest. I was moved to a bigger and more ornate room, its air fresh with the scent of jonquil and its chairs deeply cushioned and comforting. The Queen arrived with a man I knew, and she bid me stay seated even as I rose very unsteadily, my head spinning.
She sat by me, holding my hand while her man did his work. Finished, he left, and still she held my hand. “Are you strong enough?” she asked. I nodded. “Majesty,” I said. She squeezed my hand, looking at me with more compassion than I believe anyone has ever seen on the face of a Royal, and she simply said: “Tell me.” I told her in outline, saying I would return to specifics once the lines had been drawn, but in completing the brief she bid me rest and said we would meet again on another day. She left, and I sat there alone, regarding my wrist and counting twice the fifty-eight small blue dots that had been added by her man, the tattoo artist.
I had killed the entire garrison as well as Bertrand. Poison did much of the work for me, administered into the cooking pots. I fumbled it, of course. In my sweep of their perimeter I thought I had silenced all the outliers but I had not. Four of them had been far out, hunting away from the noise for provisioning meat. They came upon me as I was killing those who were still somehow alive. It sounds vicious, I know, to slay a man or woman who can no longer get back into the fight but believe me, I was doing them a mercy. They had eaten little. Enough to violently sicken, but not sufficient to bring them a mercifully swift death. Had I not killed compassionately, they might have taken days to die, and in the most ugly fashion.
The arrow that pierced my back knocked me off my feet, and they were upon me. Undisciplined, they lunged like Berserkers, swinging wildly and only getting their licks in by sheer volume of strikes. I took a beating, as I’ve described by what damage I took, but I prevailed.
I know little of poisons, what man of honour does? The concoction I prepared was makeshift, tossed together from other things with other uses. In truth, I expected the garrison to sicken and weaken so that I might rout Bertrand with minimal resistance; their deaths plague my conscience still. Much of my own sickness was caused, I was told, by my proximity to the head of Bertrand. The nauseating stench emanating from his severed head was largely caused by the toxins I had administered, and not by rot as I’d suspected.
Bertrand was dead when I found him. There was nothing heroic to be said about my service to the Queen and his lack of it. I had planned to take his rings and amulets as sufficient evidence of his demise, but he had stripped down for the field and he was wearing none. Already sickening and growing weak, I took his head, breaking my sword in the clumsy doing of it. All other memories come to me in snippets. I must have had help but I cannot recall anyone other than the terrified farmer. Enough was left of my uniform that he knew me for a Queen’s Guard, and I think that and perhaps a threat or two I made convinced him to assist.
The popular theory, put about by my returned colleagues, was that I had disappeared into the thick brush to relieve myself and I had not returned. They had searched for me and had come across the bodies of the Gemanians, but of me there was no sight. The only chink in the armour of their story was that they returned without me or my body. No one asked the question, but all wondered why that had happened, and searchers were sent out. The third spoke in the Wheel of Justice had been broken: “Protect All!” had not been seen through.
That one misstep had the power to undermine the confidence of the Guard, and it needed rectifying. I asked the Queen for her counsel on my proposition, and she gave it. I broke a cardinal tenet of the Guard and I lied to them. Damaged and fevered, I said, I dragged myself away from the sounds of rescue, believing them to be more Germanians and knowing myself too weak to fight. I let them search in vain and persist in it until the still of night, when I falsely attacked them to confuse them and drive them off. I wanted to die alone, remembered well, and not brought back slumped over a horse or delirious with madness. I had let personal pride rise above the needs of the many, and I had confessed to the Queen. Had not the farmer found me, wandering near his fields, my story would never have surfaced.
In the scheme of things, my selfishness could be forgiven because it equalled my selflessness in single-handedly killing the Germanians. They, in turn, were held accountable for the death of Bertrand’s garrison, and were thought to be a splinter group separated from a much larger contingent, for no Germanians were found dead at the scene of the massacre. In time, all would be forgiven and forgotten.