Only one part more after this.
“He’s neither stupid nor slow,” said Ned, “and you underestimate him at your peril.” That seemed to be the consensus but the discussion, as wide and free-ranging as it was, had led them down some paths that were at best, questionable, and at worst, counter-productive. “If he is to be a part of this we must take a chance and tell him. If he says no, we must measure that response before we act, but we must be prepared to act,” Vanessa said, ever the Weapons Master. “Does not your book hark to this?” she continued, looking to Bronwyn.
Fate can bind us not only by blood but also by affection. Either may be the winning ingredient, but when joined they release power untold.
“It’s The Tales of Our Fathers you’re referring to, somewhat out of context,” Bronwyn replied. “Our fates are not sealed in this matter, for we neither share blood nor real affection. We are here to do a thing or to die trying in the doing of it.”
Aiden was the quiet one; contemplative and a listener. “Measure his response, you say? Before we act? What think you, that if he fails to satisfy each in turn and together, that he will just sit passively as we end him?” The others looked at him, annoyed at what he had said and that it was the truth. “He would be a difficult one to bring down,” said Souldier, “but it would not be impossible.” Bronwyn gave out a scathing hiss of breath at that. “Here we are, uncertain of his affection, and already we assume to place him in a grave. Allow me to add certainty. If any attempt to harm him, he will not stand alone in it, for I will be there watching his back as I spill your guts.”
The room, already tense, rose in atmosphere. “He’s a shape shifter,” said Vickilin. No one had heard her enter because she did not; she simply appeared. “He is yet weak in it, having only now discovered it, but he is strong. Stronger than me. In or out, time is not a luxury we possess. That said, I am in accord with Bronwyn. If he is lost to us, we run. Be assured that any blood spilled against that will be your own, for I will kill you all before I would see him harmed again.”
The meeting broke, each participant disappearing in the direction of their room. Bronwyn closed her door, clicking the small latches that held her torso plate close. With a sigh, she dropped the plate onto a large and overstuffed chair. Her sword and dagger came next, and she placed them with care in a long, thick box by her bed. Attack in the Palace itself had not occurred for over a hundred years, but her hidden arsenal, secreted around the room and all within hands’ reach no matter her location, were ready and available should trouble strike.
“They will do nothing to harm him,” Vickilin said, appearing from out of a small corner shadow. “They talk because the time is approaching when this becomes more than discussion, and they are nervous. I am nervous. But they will not harm him.” Bronwyn looked suspicious of that assessment. “Did you know that Vanessa has undertaken training in his Oriental style? Why would that be? Out of interest, or so that she might know how to neutralise his defence?” Bronwyn said. “You judge them harshly and wrongly,” said Vickilin. “I have seen them in their private moments, as I have you, and I can say with certainty that you are wrong in your suspicions.”
I had been assessed by Physician and Souldier as being fit to return to service. It was a joy, and also a source of some nervousness. My shoulder had not healed as cleanly or as fully as I would have liked, and a fine tremor ran through me at times when I was tired or stressed. In battle, these are not good signs; I could not rely upon myself to move and act as I had previously done. Readied now, I nodded to myself, bringing my attention fully into the moment. When I walked out of my door I would be walking back into the only life I had known as an adult.
“The Queen requests your company,” a young Scribe said as I left my room. He was a willowy little thing, probably no more than twelve summers, and pasty in the way that only those who have ever lived indoors are. I thanked him and strode off, taking no time at all to note that he was following me. “Here, lad, are you called to accompany me?” I asked, to which a nervous nod was his sole reply. “Then best you stand by me,” I said, bidding him join me. He looked as if his heart might give out, either with fright or pride.
“Your name is?” I asked. “Myrrdin,” he replied. My eyes lit up at that. “You are Cymrian, then? You bear the name of our greatest Druid,” I said. “Indeed, Your Grace … Highness … Grace …” he stuttered. I laughed aloud. “I am but a humble Guard, Myrrdin, and of the wrong race to be Royal.” He did not relax. “And where are your people?” I asked as I laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. “In the west of Cymria, your Gra … Guard Dylan. My father was paid the King’s Crown for me when I was but a babe and the Royals were recruiting the next generation,” he said.
It was a story often told. Babes, children, and youngsters like me purchased in bulk for the future service of the Crown. I had a strong pang then, of missing my family and my life before all this. Myrrdin probably had no recollection of his family and their hearth, and I didn’t know if that was a great tragedy or a blessing. “Well, Myrrdin, we are Cymrians together, you and I, and in the service of Royalty. Not a bad days’ work, I should think, for two country boys.” He smiled, but there was a sadness behind them that spoke to the real me, the one torn from his home and with no choice in the matter.
“Do you like Scribing?” I asked in an attempt to lighten the sombreness of our walk. “Well enough … Guardian,” he said, looking at me sheepishly as he used my common call. “I like art better, and fighting most of all,” he admitted quietly. I stopped and appraised him, running my hands over his head, shoulders, and arms. “Not yet the stature for a Guard, but fine muscles and hands for an artist. What would you draw?” I asked. “I would draw the Red Dragon over your heart,” he said earnestly. The Red Dragon; the symbol of my people.
We arrived at Chambers, and I bid Myrrdin a good day, saying I would see him again. It’s an oddity I’ve often noticed. Upon meeting someone once invisible, having met them they can no longer be invisible; they are everywhere. My mood was bright and lifted considerably as I entered the Queen’s Chambers. Our formal greetings satisfied, the Queen said: “You seem bright and cheerful, Guardian. Has the rest agreed so much with you?” She was teasing me, and she took delight in my recitation of the walk with Myrrdin. “Have the Dragon, if you wish,” she said. Permanent body art requires Royal Consent, and I was surprised she gave it. I was, however, completely shocked that she had consented to the Red Dragon. It was more than a symbol of my people. It was a symbol of defiance. A man could lose his life if that art were seen in the wrong quarters. I thanked her, thinking I would not have it drawn on me but having the good grace not to say so to her.
“Would you like to return to your Unit?” she asked. “By your leave, Majesty,” I replied. In the service of Royalty, there is no ‘would you like’. The question was leading elsewhere. “Guard Vanessa speaks highly of you,” she said, reaching for an orange. “She speaks of your Oriental Way, and I am most intrigued. Teach it to me,” she said bluntly, laying the orange down and impaling it with a small knife.
This was unexpected. “Of course, Majesty. There is little to learn, but what there is can be rigorous,” I said. “You think me lazy or incompetent?” she asked, an almost imperceptible edge in her voice. “Neither, Ma’am,” I replied. “Then you think me wrong, is that the way of it?” she asked. “When would you begin, Ma’am?” I asked, ducking the questions and the direction they were leading in. “When I’m ready, unless I must ask your leave,” she snapped. “Here is the first move, Ma’am,” I said, drawing my dagger, wrapping her hand around it, and placing its sharpened tip over my heart. Her eyes went wide as I firmly forced her hand to push the blade into me. “Enough!” she yelled, and her Personal Guards came running, swords drawn and ready to kill me. “Stop!” she yelled at them, her free hand raised.
She pulled back on the blade and I allowed it, blood seeping out of the new wound and running freely down my tunic. “You would let me kill you to make a point?” she asked breathlessly. “A Queen’s Guard’s loyalty is unquestioned,” I said, invoking the age-old maxim. I raised the cup provided for me, the one placed there for the sake of propriety, because I wasn’t expected to drink in the Queen’s presence, and I said: “God Save The Queen!” before downing the cup’s contents.
For the first time in centuries a Queen’s Guard had given the Loyal Toast. The Queen and her Personal Guards had wide eyes and were speechless. I retrieved my dagger, it having clattered to the floor, and I put it under my heel before wrenching the handle up, snapping the blade at its mid point. A broken blade is ceremonially entombed with its owner when that owner has been branded a traitor. I stood, arms open wide, staring at the Personal Guard and waiting for them to run me through.
I felt the Queen’s hand on my arm, lowering it. I let my arms fall. “Sometimes I forget myself,” she said, by way of Royal apology. I was dismissed from her presence. If word of this seeped out it would be because the Queen desired it.
A month went by in which I resumed my normal duties and spent time teaching Bronwyn and Vanessa the moves and thinking I had myself learned from a book. They were apt and willing students, and I think I detected a slight thawing in the winter chill of Bronwyn. I had sought out Myrrdin and I had him sit with me when our meal times collided, which brought Aiden and Ned to join us at table. We talked freely, but our lives as Guard meant that our lives were small and there was little to discuss beyond those daily facts and snippets everyone knew. We spoke for company and not for enlightenment.
Six months passed in the same blur of time that the six before it had. For me, everything remained the same and yet everything had changed. I had been called upon to do the Queen’s Work twice in that time, and both went as smoothly and uneventfully as a sanctioned killing could. I knew not the reason I was taking those lives; I just knew that a reason must exist.
A secret is only safe inside the mind of the one who knows it.
How true The Tales are. In the time since my recovery I had amassed several secrets, most of them shared, and one of them not. Vickilin had revealed herself to me in detail, and we spent hours in the still of night talking. She had been a Queen’s Plaything, a small girl of the same age who had been a companion to the Queen through her growing years. She knew the Queen well.
A Plaything has, I think, a terrible existence. As a child they are treated as something akin to a living, breathing doll. They are dressed, feted, and treated just below the rank of Royal. They are also defenceless against any and all spite their Royal might visit upon them. Upon their first bleed, if they are female, or their first nighttime ejaculation if they are male, they are removed and quietly put to death.
In the service of her future Queen, Vickilin had been deliberately deafened. It was alleged, most wrongly, that she had overheard her then Princess telling a secret, and the Princess had had her punished for it. Indeed, the princess herself had inflicted the punishment. Gripped by remorse, the Princess had apologised. It seemed the secret she had told one of her cloth dolls was not of great import, after all.
Vickilin had nightmares after that, and her trundle bed was removed from the Princess Royal’s Bedroom. Just as well, it seemed, for soon after she began spontaneously shape shifting. This prolonged her life, as her first bleed went unnoticed for several months. When it finally became known, it was Ned who was called upon to ‘remove’ her. With a heavy heart he led her to the site of her proposed demise. Instead of executing her, he spread blood about and told her to disappear. She did, into the walls of the Palace and then into the unused and long-forgotten chambers above and below.
Vickilin showed me things that horrified me. Old tomes that had been hidden by Decree. Ghastly renderings of times past when Royals had done unspeakable things in the grasping evil of attaining and keeping power. The biggest shock, though, and what filled me with intractable hatred, was that Vanessa was Vickilin’s mother and poor Vanessa had not only lost her child twice to the vagaries of Royalty, but that she had also been cast aside after giving birth. Vanessa had come from a long line of wet nurses who had for centuries suckled the Royal children and were rewarded with elegant if empty lives thereafter.
Our illustrious Queen, still a Princess at the time, had such pangs of regret over her treatment of Vickilin that she had sought and succeeded in having Vanessa removed. It was only through the good works of Ned that Vanessa had not starved, and it was again through his tireless and selfless works that she had been permitted to join the Guard, first as a Weapons Assistant and then, through decades of hard work and dedication, she had risen to her current post.
Vickilin had a soft spot for Aiden, and I thought perhaps romance might have blossomed between them, but that was not the case. Aiden was the son of Ned’s sister, and he was a Guard because of Ned, but not in the way one might think. It’s traditional that a first-born or oldest surviving son may be called upon to join the military. If that child is in any way ‘defective’ – such a horrid and inhuman term – that family is free of obligation to the Crown. It’s deemed that they’ve suffered enough.
Aiden’s older brother was fit and hale, and Ned was such a good soldier that more of his kin would be welcomed. In a break with tradition the Queen’s Men bypassed Ben, the eldest, and handed over half a crown for Aiden. Ben unwisely objected, and he was killed for it. Aiden was taken and the half crown withheld for an assault against the Queen. The debt remained to the family, but not the coin. This was the Queen’s Retribution for Ned thwarting her will all those years ago. She had learned, Our Queen, that suffering is a fate worse than death.
There were two questions left to me. All those months ago, were we Guard banded together in the hope we would be ambushed and killed? And who was Souldier in all of this? The first answer genuinely shocked me. The Germanians I had thought were adventurers or perhaps in the employ of Bertrand were, in fact, in the employ of the Queen. How weak she must have thought us that she sent so few. For her, there was no way to lose. If we were killed, it solved some issues for her. If Bertrand were killed, it solved other issues. If all of us died, well, the more the merrier. Vickilin told me then that Bertrand was a Loyalist, and that he had been raising foment in Parliament to restore the rightful lineage to the Throne.
This was all too much for me. The rightful lineage? As far as I knew and had read, these Royals were the only lineage. Vickilin pointed me to shelves of books, thought to have been destroyed, that spoke of another Noble Line. And that’s where Souldier came in. She was the last of that line, a fact even the Queen herself was unaware of. “Does she want the Crown for herself?” I asked suspiciously. “She does not want it at all,” Vickilin replied.
My head spun with all this knowledge. For weeks I avoided all contact with these people, trying to make sense of this nonsense. Some nights I felt Vickilin’s presence as I slept, but my watchful eyes never found her. I sent a note to Souldier, asking if I might meet her to discuss the dreams I was still having. We met, and I sensed she knew that I knew her secret. “What do you want?” I asked her bluntly. She looked at me cautiously but said nothing. “In all of this, what do you want for yourself?” She put a finger to her lips, enjoining me to quietness. On a thin sheet of paper fashioned from beaten rice she wrote “Vickilin”, before showing it to me and then swallowing the paper.
It was a few days before I spoke with Vickilin again, and in that time I noticed a few odd looks from those who had been involved in all this. None of us said anything, and I did my best to ignore the whole thing. “I’m assuming you spoke with Souldier,” I said when Vickilin finally appeared. She told me to come with her, and I breathed myself into the Silence and followed her to the lower rooms where the old tomes were. She had all the right books at the ready, and I sat to read them. What these people were about was madness; glorious madness.
They wanted the Queen dead, that’s the pure and simple reality of it. They had forces waiting to rally to a call that might never come. I sensed the urgency of their words while wondering why their actions were almost non-existent. What they wanted after the Queen’s death was to install Souldier as an interim Queen until the Parliament could pass the Acts that would turn the Kingdom into a democracy, governed by duly elected politicians put there by popular support and one-person-one-vote. So, what they were about was sedition, insurrection if necessary, and regicide.
How had my life come to this? Day by day, little seems to change and then one day you wake up and a decade has passed, and nothing is like what it was. “Foretold,” said Vickilin, bringing me back from my reverie. “What?” I said, somewhat sharply. “You’re plotting the downfall of a monarchy and you’re referencing psychic phenomena to do it? Are you all mad?” I asked, my voice rising.
Many will rise. One will stand.
In The Tales of Our Fathers there is a story of the Tylwyth Teg, a mythical being who rises against seemingly insurmountable odds and saves his world from destruction. By pointing out that passage Vickilin seemed to be suggesting that I was the modern version of Teg, which was nonsense. With a firm look on her face she pointed me to the reports of the Physician and to the historical accounts of the Pharmacopeia, the Book of Pharmacy.
I read the accounts once, then twice, and then again, not believing what was right in front of me. The toxins I had ingested in proximity to Bertrand should have killed me within hours. That was the first indisputable fact. The second fact was the writing of the Queen herself, ordering that toxic mix to be made in such purity and quantity before switching it with other items in the packs that ‘not even a Guard may survive it’. The reference was clear. She intended me to be dead along with Bertrand. A perfectly closed loop if her first planned attack using the Germanians failed.
It all made sense then. The time off after my return. She hoped the poisons would work their way through my system and kill me. The visits to the Physician and the Scribe, so that she may, at third hand, keep herself abreast of what was happening. Even the proximity to the others, carefully orchestrated, so that if luck finally settled on her side they too might be poisoned. What, then, had saved me? “Shape shifting,” Vickilin said. “Stepping out of your body so that it’s energies can restore it, instead of being spent powering your soul.” I was not ready to believe in the Mystery, not like that.
I decided I would lay low for a time and assess my position. In doing so, I gave up any protection that might have been afforded me had I called the hand on the traitors. That would not buy me my life, but it would buy me some time. It was not long, however, before events overtook me. Myrrdin was found dead, torn to pieces in what was obviously a savage attack. I felt the ring closing in on me when I heard his inking quills had been rammed into his eyes. He would not see any more art, on canvas or on a body after that, for surely it had been done to him while he was still alive. His torturer wanted him talking. I wondered what he had said. “Nothing,” Vickilin answered, jolting me in fright as she appeared out of nowhere. “The ring is closing. The Queen fidgets, believing something is afoot even if she doesn’t know what.”
That night, with Vickilin’s help, I attended the meeting of the dispossessed. They were all there: Bronwyn, Ned, Vanessa, Aiden, Souldier, and of course Vickilin. They did not seems surprised; I think they knew that I would inevitably make a decision, and tonight was the night I made it. I walked the room, collecting their weapons. It speaks of their courage that they let me do so without contest. All lives and histories intersected at this point.
Taking out my dagger, I heard a few in-drawn breaths. Turning it on myself, I sliced open my tunic and tore down on it, exposing the area of my heart. There they saw the Red Dragon, tattooed rampant, its tongue the red scar that had been inflicted by my hand over the Queen’s. Myrrdin had died for that tattoo, as surely as he had died for his closeness to me. “I am the Queen’s Guard,” I said, dropping to one knee and bowing to Souldier. They all rose, and I stood, just as the prophesy had described.