Here it is. The last part and the conclusion. Parts I to VI are posted below. There’ve been quite a few readers and so, to the silent not-quite-masses, i hope you enjoyed.
At the birth of the day after next, the war began. I have no notion of how the information was distributed or how so many thousands had been rallied so quickly, but the Palace came under direct attack. The perimeter Guard were soon overwhelmed, and it saddened me that some good men and women I had known were dead, but they acted with honour and dignity in the defence of their beliefs and the allegiance that grew out of them.
The Outer Keep was breached, but not before word had been sent that the Palace was in distress. The masses simply overran the fortifications, and they came prepared with grappling hooks, and ladders constructed under the walls of the Keep. Boiling oil stopped many of them achieving their aims, and from the ramparts multi-shot crossbows assaulted even more. Fires had started, and through the smoke and turmoil and wailing of the wounded and the dying the crowd pressed on. Victory or death.
While fighting continued in the Outer Keep, we knew it had also reached the Inner Keep when the Royal flags fell and were then hoisted upside-down. That was the conventional symbol of a House Lost. I saw Ned fall under an onslaught of House Guard that no one could have withstood. I saw Aiden and Bronwyn going to his aid, and then they were lost to my sight. The Guard, their loyalty unquestioned, were pushing back and making inroads. The intruders were thinning out.
At the base of the Grand Stairway, Guard Robert called to me. “Protect the Queen!” he yelled above the din. “I am,” I said, and I saw his eyes look past me to Souldier. They went wide in astonishment and in that micro-second I knew he was lost to us. He was fast, but I was faster, and my sword lacerated his heart. My God, what have I become? I knew him well. I knew well enough, too, that this day’s business was far from over, and the secret part of me that was shared with no one hoped that I would not survive to live with what I had undertaken.
Long before images and writing there was the solemn word of a man or woman. If you intend not to keep every part of your word, you had best not give it at all. Nothing is more destructive to the soul than to be the one who recants, not from necessity, but from proclivity.
The Tales of Our Fathers is not a hard taskmaster; it is a beacon of light. Those who run from it dwell under the rocks they have placed in their own hearts and minds. In that timeless space that is the out-breath of life, a look passed between Souldier and I. This was right, no matter how painful and no matter the cost. “Because I said I would.” It spoke worlds. We got back into the fight.
“Real Queen’s Guard! To me!” Souldier shouted above the din. We saw the battle shift as those brave men and women who believed as we did began making their way to us. “Up!” I shouted, as our numbers grew and we forged a path up the stairway. We made the landing and I glanced back, just in time to see Ned speared through and lifted off his feet by the longest sword I had ever seen, thrice the length of a man and wielded by a giant of a House Guard. The pain must have been excruciating, and yet Ned had the presence to smash his sword down in a violent strike that shattered the steel of both swords. He crumpled to the ground and the House Guard advanced, drawing a conventional sword. Ned leapt up, grabbing the sword’s blade and jamming its progress, as he plunged his own ruined remnant through the throat of the Guard. They both fell and I lost sight of them.
I looked out on the carnage, willing and praying for it to stop. I hoped all that was to come would be worth what we were asking these brave men and women – on both sides – to pay for it. There was no hatred in my heart for our opponents. In their world, theirs was the just cause.
Fires began popping up, fed by the long hangings and curtains that towered from three stories above. I saw Aiden, covered in blood and ragged in exhaustion as he fended off more opponents than a single combatant should be asked to face. Vanessa moved like wine swirled in a glass, cutting down attackers in ways that she had developed far beyond the simple Oriental movements I had taught her. I sensed Vickilin appearing and disappearing in the melee, and bodies dropping where she had been. Of Bronwyn, I had lost sight. I hoped her alive, but prepared myself for the alternative.
“Guardian!” Souldier called to me, and as I turned four arrows loosed from a multi-shot crossbow entered my gut. I looked down at them, confused, and then I fell. My war ended there.
Souldier had the sense of mind and moment to lead on, and the attack was pressed, bloodily and at cost to all, but it was pressed. Her Guard rallied, forming a classic Protective Circle; rings within rings, swords pointed outward. Unless a ten-to-one majority chose to throw themselves onto swords, the Circle could not be overcome. The sounds and smells of war were everywhere, penetrating everything. Inch by inch, body by body, they made their way to the Queen’s Quarters, alerted to her location by Vickilin.
The Great Doors, as thick as a man’s thigh, held and then bulged and then broke under the relentless onslaught from those outside who then spilled through and brought the war to the Personal Guard. That Guard had been bolstered considerably; their Queen willing to sacrifice the brave men and women outside who were busily fighting and laying down their lives for her. The Personal Guard were outnumbered and outmatched, and no one could have asked more of them than they gave. Tears streamed down their faces as they saw their Brothers- and Sisters-In-Arms perish, until not a one of them was left alive. They held their Oath, because they said they would. Men and Women of Honour, all.
The Circle opened up, and Souldier stepped out of its centre. The cowering ‘Queen’ had lost control of her Empire, and soon her life would follow. “Please,” she whimpered. Souldier looked at her, directly into her eyes, and said: “You know why.” Souldier raised her sword, its tip never diverging from its target. In the second before she struck, I staggered through, one hand holding my punctured stomach and the other, an arrow I had plucked from it. I rammed the arrow into the False Queen’s throat and her eyes went wide with shock before they dulled with death. The thing was done.
On one knee, as much from weakness and pain as in acknowledgement of the new Saxian Monarch, I looked up at Souldier. “There should be no Blood Royal on your hands,” I said. “There is on yours,” she murmured, with such a look of pity on her face I wanted to cry. “A Cymrian has no Royals,” I said.
Ned survived his injuries. He was, and is, the toughest man I have ever had the good grace to know. His no-nonsense approach to life has been rewarded with a Peerage, and he sits on Souldier’s High Council. For his unwavering loyalty in the Time of Need, Ned was awarded the Free Celtic Cross with Lion Rampant, the Saxian Cross with Three Swords, and he was Invested as Supreme Commander of the Queen’s Guard.
Vanessa lost most of one arm in the fight and she held on, in the place between life and death, for several weeks before her heartbeat strengthened. Retirement was unbecoming of her and she returned to her position as Weapons Master, where her style of one-armed fighting has yet to be bested by any new recruit or seasoned man-at-arms. She also holds the position of Black Rod, the Keeper of the House of Parliament. None shall enter, save by her leave. For her services to the Crown, Vanessa was awarded the Saxian Cross with Three Swords, the House Souldier Shield with Dragon Rampant, and she was Invested as Supreme Commander of Armed Services.
Aiden, good Aiden, was left a wreck of a man and he was given soft passage to his home in Scotia, where he rallied. He married soon after his return to a girl who had loved him since childhood, and his wife produced a daughter. Aiden’s injuries were devastating and he succumbed to them before his daughter’s second birthday. For his valour in the face of overwhelming danger, he was awarded the Scotia Cross with Five Thistles, the highest Military Honour that can be bestowed. His name was elevated to the Hall of the Greats, a step below Sainthood, and by Royal Decree his lineage was honoured. House Douglas was created, and with it a Special Tartan emblazoned with Purple Thistle overlaid on colours White-for-Spirit, and Blue-for-Freedom.
Vickilin came out of hiding, except when she didn’t want to be found. Her contribution to the end of subtle tyranny was made known, as was the truth of her torture at the hands of the Dead Queen. Books were written of her time in hiding, the most famous of which is ‘If These Walls Could Speak’. The Hidden Tomes are no longer hidden, and Vickilin in the Queen’s Curator. Under Vickilin’s direction education, once the province of the wealthy, is now available to all. For services to Saxia she was awarded The Queen’s Cross with Five Red Roses, the highest Civilian Honour that can be bestowed. She was elevated to the Hall of the Greats, and then made Patron Saint of Education.
There is now just a little more to tell.
Souldier became Queen Kirsten of Saxia and in her interim position she dissolved Saxian claim over Cymria for all time. I had been born in an Occupied country, but I would die in a free one. She offered me Saxian Titles but to be consistent I had to refuse; the Cymrian have no Royalty. I left for my homeland the way I had come; quietly and with little in the way of possessions.
Souldier’s Reign was meant to be brief, and in the event the transition took only a few years to achieve, which gave me time to mend as much as I was going to. Yes, I survived, but I am never hale and hearty. The damage to my organs was great and will limit my years on earth, but I take great comfort knowing I will be buried in the Land of Our Fathers, a free man in a country that had not known freedom for centuries.
And Bronwyn? Now, there’s a memory that can still bring me heartache. Like me, she was Cymrian, but she had allowed bitterness to enter her heart and infect it. Her driving ambition was a free Cymria, as was secretly mine, and yet the ways we went about it were diametrically opposed.
Bronwyn had been in the fight, and she had fought like a Berserker, slashing left and right, and no distinction between friend or foe. When I killed the queen, Bronwyn pushed through and attempted to kill Souldier. In her heart and mind, replacing one Queen with another was no replacement at all. The momentary commotion caused by her pushing through alerted us, and she was in the wrong company to give away that advantage. In a heartbeat, Ned, Vanessa, Aiden, Souldier, and I had our swords ready and they pierced her body. She fell to her knees, dead and held there as if in prayer until we withdrew. She toppled forward, missing the chance to see our country free. Try as I might, I cannot bring myself to find any hard places against her in my heart. I miss her. I think I loved her.
Dark clouds gathered in Saxia at the Hand Over. Shrewd politicians are like corrupt and fake Royals; they weep tears of love for ‘The People’ and yet set in place laws to enslave them. They cry freedom for all, and yet featherbed their own positions at the expense of the governed. Freedom isn’t free when the self-selected ‘elite’ fuel their lust for power and position with the blood and sweat of the everyman.
Souldier had her hands full, and several plots to oust her were uncovered and dealt with. I put my head in my hands and sighed. Freedom and democracy are wonderful ideas, but will we ever be human enough to enact them?
The self-important Parliamentary speeches and opposing howls of protest were drowned out by a thrumming which became a drumming, raising in volume until the very walls of Parliament House shook. The speeches faltered and the howls died down, and what began with looks of consternation soon became quivers of fear. Vanessa, in ceremonial garb of Black Rod, entered the Chamber. All doors slammed shut. Looking about with a baleful eye, she stamped her rod and yelled: “None shall leave!”
From the Queen’s Entrance a lone figure emerged, bent and hobbling, leaning heavily on a hardwood staff. It ambled up onto the Queen’s Podium, bowed to her, and threw back its hood. It was me, or what was left of me. I bowed to Souldier and she stood, bowing back in a most un-Royal fashion. Vanessa stamped her rod again, and Ned appeared on the Upper Circle. “A call to arms!” he shouted, and the doors burst open, admitting one hundred of the Queen’s Guard of old.
I turned a little, my side to the politicians, and from under my cape I withdrew my sword, as battle scarred, dented, and chipped as I myself was. I raised it to shoulder height, pointing it at the politicians from down the line of my body. With real menace in my voice I said: “You are a disgrace. From a thousand years of treachery and tyranny comes a single chance at freedom, and you would legislate for a thousand years more of misery … with yourselves jockeying for position to inflict it. Vote now. Will it be death, or will it be banishment forever?”
Nervous murmurs followed, and a few voices cried out in protest, which were quickly extinguished at the heads of arrows. That clarified the politician’s thinking, and by show of hands they unanimously voted for banishment. None of them left that place alive.
The people, those who were governed, were given voice and they used it. Queen Kirsten was dethroned, and in her place Souldier was elected as Protector of Saxia in perpetuity. It is as close to being immortal as a human can be.
And so I am home again. I am, of course, no longer a Queen’s Guard, not only because Saxia no longer has a Queen but because, in hindsight, while I held the title I was never a queen’s Man.