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Chapter 6 - The Black Guard

by Adrian Sweeney - Approx 5311 words

The following day rumours had flown like wildfire around the Palace. When it was seen that the Lady Malderia was always escorted everywhere with two guards, the tale had grown that she had attacked the Queen, killed the Lord Chamberlain and was under arrest. Though they never questioned the fact that she walked around with a sword on her hip.

It wasn’t until the evening that the story had been set straight. That Mal had, in fact, saved the Queen from two assassins. Then all the looks thrown her way had become warm and friendly, and people were again calling for the Bards to sing the Ballad of the Ogre Slayer.

The Queen had laughed it off as just the palace gossips with nothing better to do. That evening Mal had been invited to dine at the top table beside the Queen.

Mal no longer wore the dresses during the day but rather the elven clothes and a few outfits that gave her the freedom of movement that she required. Convincing Mistress Tang, the seamstress had taken a lot of fast-talking to eventually win her over.

When Mal had first spoken of the need to move freely, the seamstresses had baulked at the idea. Being more conservative in nature, she was against it. It was the Apprentice Claudia that had suggested getting some designs from the Leather armour maker.

Which had nearly put Mistress Tang into convulsions. Claudia had years of experience working with Mistress Tang and carefully explained that, of course, they would not be making the clothes out of leather but out of suitable fabric. The Leather Master would only be used to get rough designs.

After Mistress Tang had eventually given her consent. Claudia had spoken with the Leather Master, which is why Mal found herself standing on a stool in front of the Leather Master and two of his apprentices. Mistress Tang was not pleased in the slightest and made sure that he knew in no uncertain terms.

“So, My Lady, I’m assuming that the Ogre Slayer will be going into battle.” He asked bluntly, to which Mal nodded in return.

“Of course she isn’t off to war? Listen to yourself, Master Jones, why would any Lady! want to go to WAR?” Hissed Mistress Tang.

Finally feeling that she needed to step into the situation between these two before it went too far. “Mistress Tang, I will be going to war, and I will be liberating my home. I can kill with a bow better than most, and apparently, I’m quite handy with a sword as well.”

Noticing Claudia wincing, Mal softened her tone. “Mistress Tang, I understand that here in the Palace, Ladies will hunt with Hawks but not take part in combat. Where I grew up, we were all taught to defend ourselves, whether male or female. At the age of twelve, I went on my first hunt, spending three nights alone in the mountains foraging and hunting before coming home. We might not have had much metal, but we had a Master Carpenter to make Forgewood weapons. I don’t say this to rebuke you but to explain that my people are hunters and warriors. Please accept my apologies if I have hurt your feelings; it was not my intention.”

Seeing the tightening around Mistress Tangs, eyes soften. Master Jones handed her a sketch.

“She can’t wear that!” exclaimed Mistress Tang.

“Mistress Tang, that is almost exactly what she is wearing at the minute,” pointed out Master Jones.

“These panels here allow the twisting motion that archers typically do when getting ready to shoot their first arrow.”

“Also, we have some Heronbone Leather that I will have supplied to you; it’s rigid and strong. If she’s going to be attacked while not wearing armour, then I want what she is wearing to have some of the effects of armour.”

“Are you mad I’m not looking to build a suit of armour for her!” snapped Mistress Tang.

“You misunderstand me, Madam,” interjected Master Jones, “If you would stop flying off the handle at every suggestion and wait for an explanation, maybe just maybe we would get something accomplished.” Master Jones obviously didn’t care about putting Mistress Tang’s nose out of joint. Both Mal and Claudia winced at his response.

“Lady Malderia the Leather would be cut into strips and could be stitched into the material it would probably block a slashing attack but not a piercing one. Once the leather is cut, we will apply a special lacquer to it that will make it almost as strong as steel.”

“I see, you have my thanks, Master Jones,” said Mal.

When he and his apprentices had left. Mal turned to Mistress Tang and Claudia. “That could have gone a lot better.”

“Mistress Tang, if you don’t mind me asking, there was a lot of hostility between you two from the moment he walked into the room. Is it just down to the designing of these new clothes?” asked Mal.

“No, rest assured it’s not down to the clothes you’ve asked for but a personal matter between the two of us. I will try not to let Master Jones bait me again.”

“Since it’s a personal matter, we’ll just drop it then. Now, how about a cup of tea to recover ourselves,” asked Mal.

“No, thank you, Lady Malderia; with your leave, we have a lot of work to do. We will come back tomorrow with design ideas,” responded Mistress Tang. “Claudia, gather your sketches and let us leave the good Lady to her tea.”

Curtsying Mistress Tang swept out of the room, leaving Mal standing there not knowing if she had caused an issue with Mistress Tang.

The following day when Mal had gone to the archery range to escape. The archery range was the one place where she could relax, and she had made friends with Master Howard and a few of the boys; she was glad to see that Henry had started to make friends. She waved a greeting as Master Howard had approached.

“Mal, good to see you. I have a gift for you. I was cleaning out one of the stores last night, and I found an old bracer I thought it was similar to the one you wear,” he said, pointing to the bracelet that was on Mal’s left arm.

“Anyway, I thought you might like it. It’s yours if you want it, and if you don’t, there will be no offence taken,” finished Master Howard.

Seeing Mal’s smile, he continued as he led her over to his workshop, where they made the bows and arrows. “Let me get it for you; I put it just over here so that I could give it to you the next time I saw you.”

Lifting a piece of cloth from the top shelf of his workspace, he set it in front of Mal. The material was a bit of old velvet, a deep red colour that once spoke of an expensive piece of fabric. The type of material that you would keep and hand down due to the expense of the original purchase.

Gingerly Mal unwrapped the velvet to expose the Bracer that Master Howard had found for her. A slight catch in her breath was the only sign she gave for a moment as far as she could see this was an exact copy of the bracelet or, as Master Howard called it, a bracer. The only difference was that this one was for a right arm; all of the patterns mirror the bracer she wore on her left arm.

“It’s perfect, but this looks like it’s worth a bit; I couldn’t possibly take it.”

“Nonsense Mal, you saved my Prince and my Queen on not one but two occasions. It has been in that storage shed for nearly thirty years, as far as I can tell. The only reason we went in was to clear it out so that we could store all of the new bows, quivers and arrows we are making for the war, and besides the moment I saw it, I thought of you wearing it. I’ve been trying to find something that I could give you for saving the Prince, and while all I’ve been able to grant you so far is free rein on the archer range.”

Looking around, Mal noticed that the number of bows that were nearly finished was an impressive amount.

“Howard, thank you for this gift; it is much appreciated. How many bows and arrows are you making?” asked Mal nodding towards the busy apprentices and Journeymen in the workshop.

“The king has ordered ten thousand bows and a hundred and fifty-thousand arrows,” said Howard gesturing to the workspaces that were filled with bows.

“Let me offer my assistance, and I’ll see if Dareon is free to help as well. Dareon makes good bows while I’ve always been better at making arrows than bows.”

“Mal, you are more than welcome to help. I have ten men here making bows, and we have been teaching the youngsters to make arrows; if you could supervise and help those, it would free up one of my men to get back to making the bows. Orders have been sent to the leaders of all the cities and keeps in Calpo to start producing weapons. Some will be sent here for distribution while others will head to other staging cities like Bearon.”

Strapping on the bracer, Mal once again felt just a bit more complete. Armour and weapons suited her, not those dresses the ladies of the court wore. She didn’t like the clothes; she knew this was the correct type of clothes for her.

“Thank you, my friend,” said Mal with a huge smile. “I Love it.”

Mal sent one of the Guards to tell Dareon that she would be helping to make arrows and to ask if he could spare some time to help.

“I’m all yours; where do you want me to help?” asked Mal.

“With the younger ones, we are training them to make arrows with varying degrees of success.” Said Howard leading Mal through the workshop to the back where a group of children were making.

As Mal walked in, the children, ten boys and two girls, stood and bowed and curtsied. A murmur of “My Lady” echoed around the room, and a huge smile spread across Henry’s face.

“None of that now; while we are in this room working on making arrows, just call me Mal,” said Mal with a reassuring smile for the children.

“So let’s see how you are getting on. Please sit. I’ll come round, and you can tell me your names, and we will see how your arrows are coming on.”

“Looks like you have everything in hand here Mal, I’ll leave you to it,” said Howard as he turned and went back to his workspace.

Mal spent the rest of the morning going from one child to the next, learning their names and critiquing their arrow making. By the time she had left each child, they were smiling and busily making arrows.

One girl called Sophie was having a hard time keeping the feathers steady on her arrows. Choking back a sob for being the only one seeming to have problems, Mal spent the most time with her.

“Sophie, there is an old trick that we use with people that have difficulty getting the feathers tied on. Set that arrow to the side and take a piece of the thread you will use to tie the feathers on. That’s it only a bit longer,” said Mal

When she added a few more inches to the length of the thread, Mal nodded.

“Perfect, Sophie, Okay now tie a small knot on the end of the thread and now make a small loop,” since Sophie was doing what she was told, Mal continued, “Now pass the other end of the thread through the loop. Now let’s use that to secure the feathers. Remember, it’s not speed that makes a good arrow but making sure everything is in the right position. Good now, pull the thread and start winding it around the length of the feathers.”

Seeing Sophie carefully place the thin thread through the fine hairs on the feather and secure the arrow’s feathers correctly. Mal smiled and patted her on the shoulder.

“See, Sophie, you can do it.”

By the end of the day, the children had made good progress in producing arrows and needed no help from Mal. Mal got up to stretch her legs and saw Dareon shaping staves for longbows. He waved as she walked over.

“It’s a lot easier to make a bow with some proper tools.” Handing her a stave that he had made earlier. I’m glad you let me know about this; those lessons Lord Turok was given me were mind-numbingly dull.”

“This has a good weight to it Dareon, What do you think, Master Howard?” Said Mal showing the stave to Master Howard.

“Excellent work, and a very passable bow.”

The next few weeks fell into a pattern in the morning, Mal had lessons with Lady Swan, and in the afternoon, she could be found in the workshop with Dareon happily making bows and arrows. She told Lady Swan that it felt like she was doing something worthwhile, which ended the objections that Lady Swan had.

Mistress Tang and Claudia had made three outfits for Mal over the last few weeks; they were snug and gave Mal the freedom she required. They had surpassed themselves, putting the Heronbone strips into the front and back of the outfit that hid the fact that she was actually wearing at least some armour.

One morning when she woke, the Palace was a stir with anticipation. A strange buzz was about the Palace, and everyone could feel it. When Cari arrived with food for Mal to break her fast and the morning gossip was that the royal galleon that Prince Salistar had left on was spotted heading to the harbour. There had been some talk about a flag it was flying, but Cari hadn’t understood what they had been talking about.

It had been several weeks since anyone had mentioned his name around Mal, and she felt her heart skip a beat at the mention of his name and quietly cursed herself for still having the feelings.

“Oh, that would be nice, it will be nice to see my friends again. Dareon is great and all, but I miss Darr and Tomi; never mind Grego and Eir, it will be nice to see them.”

“If you don’t mind me asking mam, where are Grego and Eir? You’ve never spoken of them, so I assumed they died.”

“Eir was badly injured and stayed in Bearon to heal. Grego was seriously hurt saving Prince Salistar and stayed back in the Elven City to recover; I thought we had lost him to the dark elves. He fell in the river and was washed downstream; one of the elven sentries found him and brought him to the city healers.”

Prince Salistar paced around his cabin on the Royal Fox in frustration. The storm had hit the evening that they had left the island and lasted for three days; after the storm had passed, they had made good time, the wind that had accompanied the storm had driven them homeward bound.

They were about a week away from home when the wind suddenly dropped to a light breeze. While the Admiral had full sails trying to catch as much air as possible, it was slow going. The happiness that the Prince had felt when the ship had been making a reasonable distance each day. Crashed into disappointment as the boat slowly worked its way through the gently rolling waves.

Eventually, the Prince sighed a sigh of relief when the coast came into view. They sailed along the coast for almost a full day before the winds picked up again, and they started to make headway home. Two days later, the city of Caplo was on the horizon, and they sailed into the harbour. Prince Salistar was cursing the weather on the return journey to Tomi. Almost two full months had passed since they had left. He didn’t know if the assassins had been caught in the storm or had arrived a week ago, and that meant that he had no idea if Mal had been attacked or not.

Prince Salistar and Admiral Klason had agreed to use Tomi’s ruse again to lull the assassins. Admiral Klason had ordered the ships Black Pennant to be flown from the mast rather than the Prince’s standard.

The Black Pennant was a symbol of a death of a senior member of the ship’s company, and while hardly ever flown, it was something that would alert the rest of the navy.

When they docked in the harbour, and the Harbourmaster came on board. Admiral Klason had informed him the Prince had been killed. That he was to send a message to the Palace immediately for a detachment of palace guard. To bring his body to the Palace also they were to clear the harbour road so that the guard could take the Prince to his family.

As the Harbour Master hurried off to do the Admirals bidding, the Admiral returned to the cabin to inform Prince Salistar that the plan was on schedule. Thirty agonising minutes later, a platoon of palace guards led by the Captain of the Palace Guard arrived at the Dockside.

Taking his helmet off, as he approached the ship’s gangplank, the ship’s sailors were all dressed in their best uniforms and wearing swords on hips.

“Permission to come on board?” asked the Captain.

“Granted, Captain, the Admiral, is in his cabin and wishes to speak with you.” said the first mate.

Walking on to the ship, the first mate led the Captain to the Admiral.

“Ah good, I was hoping my father would send you Captian,” said the Prince standing and striding over the shocked Captain.

“My Prince, you live; the message we were sent was that you had died?”

“Sorry about that, but we needed a way of getting a lot of the guard here. Assassins tried to kill me in Seldar, and we learnt that several others were sent here to kill Mal. We don’t know when they arrived, but they departed two days before us. Unfortunately, we hit a huge storm, and it delayed us getting back. We know the tavern that they will be using for their base of operations, and I need your men to take it, hence the presence of my death.”

“My Prince, two assassins attempted to kill the Lord Chamberlain and the Queen three weeks ago. Lady Malderia killed them in the process. “Seeing the look on the Prince’s face. “They both survived; the Queen was only bruised while the Lord Chamberlain took a more serious wound to this shoulder. If the Lady Malderia hadn’t been near, they would both have died.”

Visibly relaxing at the news, the Prince stood and paced in the small cabin again, though still not happy.

“How many men have you brought? Captain” asked the Prince.

“Ten, your highness,” replied the Captain.

“That will have to be enough. Now listen, here is the plan. You’ll line up your men to carry a stretcher which we will load with some old sacks and place the cloth over and my royal cape. Next, we will be taking everyone in the Red Parrot into custody. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, but they used the same tavern name in Seldar. It might be a code that allows people to find and hire them in cities around the world. Also, they seem to have a red neckerchief that identifies them; we also have a prisoner in the hold who has agreed to identify the assassins. Do you know where the Tavern Red Parrot is?”

“Yes, your highness, the Red Parrot is over in the Merchant harbour near to the harbour.” Said the Captain.

“Dam, the ruse won’t work in that case. So an all-out attack will be needed. Admiral, your men will have the sewers again. I want to catch them all. Captain, line up your men and gather any men that are guarding the harbour. Admiral any royal ship here strip them of men.”

Fifteen minutes later, a hundred men were standing on the docks.

“Move out!” ordered the Prince.

Surrounded by a hundred men, the Prince stormed through the Merchant harbour’s gate from the Royal Harbour. Twenty men moved through the streets to block any exits from the harbour, gathering any guards in the merchant harbour to help.

The other eighty split into two groups the main one stormed into the tavern the rest searched for entrances into the sewers. Less than ten minutes later, all over twenty patrons of the Red Parrot were either dead or captured. The basement had been raided, and two assassins killed. When Faini was brought forward, he couldn’t identify any of the patrons as being the men that had been sent to kill Mal. He was able to identify two of the men as men that used to visit the Red Parrot in Seldar.

Once the shirts were stripped off the back of the prisoners, six had red neckerchiefs. The Prince had them taken away for questioning.

“Captain get the Harbour Master,” ordered Prince Salistar.

Shortly after, the Dock Master was brought before the Prince.

“Ah, good, when did the Golden Falcon arrive from the island of Seldar?” asked the Prince.

“The Golden Falcon hasn’t arrived yet?” Your highness said the dockmaster, slightly intimidated by the Prince and his dour mood.

“Mmm, it set off two days before us, and we were delayed in getting here by that storm. Admiral, do you think that they were caught in the storm?”

“If they were and took heavy damage, they could be limping their way here, your highness. Or they could put men ashore anywhere along the coast.”

“We have to find that ship. Admiral, get the fleet out to sea and find me some information about that ship. If you find it, then escort the ship here. I must go to the Palace and make sure my parent know that I’m alive.”

As the Prince headed to the Palace with Tomi, Darr and the rest of the guards. Bringing up the rear was a guard escorting Faini to the Palace. Even though the boy was under arrest, he couldn’t stop looking around in wonder at all the sights.

As they entered the courtyard of the Palace, the Queen came rushing to the Prince and threw her arms around him. “We received a message that you had died. That’s twice that I’ve had to hear that news. I never want that news to be delivered again, understand.”

“Sorry, Mother, I had needed to get the guards to me as quickly as possible without letting the assassins know I was alive. I caught a nest of them in the harbour and wanted none of them to get away. Admiral Klason is taking the fleet to scowler the coast to find a ship called the Golden Falcon. It has a group of assassins on board. I want to make sure that they don’t make it to land.”

“It had to be done, son,” said the King, nodding his agreement for his sons’ actions, “Did you find what you were looking for in Seldar?”

“Yes, though I was attacked in the Library. We killed the assassin and found a single word Dar-seh-olt, that looks like a dwarven name; if it is, then it should be pronounced Darseholt,” said the Prince.

“That word sound familiar,” said the King. “I wonder why?”

“Anyway, the Lord Abbot of the Monsertry used his priestly magic to summon the shade of the assassin. We were able to learn of a den of them in Seldar and stamp them out. We also learnt that they sent several assassins to kill Malderia; Father, I think she is the key to saving all of us; I think I’m secondary to everything. We must keep her alive at all costs.”

“Don’t sell yourself, short son; I think you are both equally important. I just think they fear her more; she’s a natural warrior from what your mother says; she took on two assassins single handily shattering a chair and using two lumps of wood instinctively against a trained assassin.”

Hearing the door to the Palace open, the Prince looked up the steps to see Malderia step out into the sunshine. The sight of Malderia in her new clothes had a powerful effect on the Prince, and only his mother’s voice hissing in his ear pulled him up short from running up the steps and hugging her.

Mal stepped out of the door, and the bright sun stung her eyes which is why she didn’t see the look on the Prince’s face. By the time that her eyes had adjusted, she looked at the Prince and caught her breath. Berating herself for her feelings, she slowly walked down to the King, Queen and the Prince that still had a grip on her heart.

Dropping a curtsy to them, she said, “Your highness, I’m glad that you are still alive. That way, I don’t have to have a chat with Tomi and Darr.” She finished looking directly at her two friends that had the decency to look away.

“Lady Malderia, I hear that you’ve had a bit of an adventure yourself?” responded the Prince.

“A little,” she replied, “So did you find the information you were hunting for?”

“We think so. I think that we need to find Darseholt; we think it’s a Dwarven name, but whether it’s a place, a person or an item, we don’t know.”

“Let us go inside, and we can discuss this in better surroundings,” said the King as he signalled the rest of the princes’ party to dismiss.

Prince Salistar walked beside Mal as they followed the King and Queen back into the Palace. Instead of heading to the private chambers of the King and Queen, they entered another chamber that was typically used for formal meetings.

Looking at Mal, the Prince gave a questioning look to which Mal could only shrug in response.

The room had a single table with a map of the country, including the Spine of mountains that traversed the centre of the country where Mal’s home village was from. Again Mal noticed the different shapes on the map and studied them intently. It looked like a lot of blocks were moving towards the mountains from both sides of the Spine.

Noticing Mal studying the map, the King spoke up, “As you can see, preparations are well underway; the largest army ever amassed will be ready in a few more months. Then we will push these monsters back into the hell that they deserve.”

“A few months?” asked Mal.

“An army doesn’t move very fast, and the larger it gets, the slower it moves. Just wait until you see it in person,” replied the King, “Which brings me to your protection, both of you, that is.”

“Protection?” Asked both the Prince and Mal at the same time.

“Yes, there have been too many attacks directed at you both for either my liking or the Queens. So today I have decided to form a new group, and I am making both of you equally in charge of that group. Firstly, you will have fifty men at arms assigned to the group. “he said, turning to Quentin the page and Mal maid Cari that had approached.

“Secondly, I have had some special armour commissioned especially for you both. Please follow Cari and Quentin here, and we will see you soon.”

They left the room and followed Cari and Quentin, who led each of them to a private side room.

As Mal entered the room, she looked upon a suit of leather armour similar to the clothes she was wearing. The armour was pitch black with silver patterns identical to the designs on the bracers that she wore. Running her hands over the material, she could feel both the flexibility and rigid nature of the armour.

“Master Jones has outdone himself making this suit of armour.”

“He showed me how to get you into this. It’s been designed so that you would be able to get in and out of it yourself when you are part of the army, as you might not have a maid near you.”

Helping Mal into her armour was surprisingly easy. Cari remembered all of the instructions that Master Jones, the Leather Master, gave her and repeated them to Mal.

Standing in front of a tall glass mirror, Mal was surprised by the change in her demeanour.

Bringing Mal back to the room, Cari coughed, “This way, my Lady the King and Queen are waiting.”

“Yes, of course, let us go,” replied Mal, following Cari out of the room and back to the room where the King and Queen were seated having a glass of wine.

“Wonderful, a warrior goddess, you will inspire the troops when you walk among them dressed like that.” Said the King.

“I must agree, Mal, you are both stunning and intimidating dressed like that,” said the Queen handing Mal a glass of wine. “Here, have a glass of Abilon read while we wait for my son.”

Ten minutes later, the Prince walked in wearing black polished full plate armour with the same silver detail across the metal.

Mal looked dangerous in her leather armour, but Prince Salistar looked like a one-man Army in his intimating armour.

“Splendid, the Master blacksmiths and Master Leather-smiths have outdone themselves,” said the King handing his son a glass of the red wine.

After a few more minutes, a page arrived and walked up and stood behind the King. When the King eventually turned his head slightly to see the page. The page leaned forward and whispered in his ear.

“Ah, excellent part three is ready, please follow me, “said the King, taking the Queen’s arm and leading them from the room.

Mal looked at Prince Salistar with a questioning look, to which he could only shrug in response and follow his parents. The King and Queen led them back to the courtyard, where sixty men lined up at arms. Twenty heavy knights in full black plate armour with the same designs as Prince Salistar’s and Mal’s armour. Twenty light cavalry wearing black leather and sabres and twenty mounted archers wearing armour similar to Mal’s.

“Today, you men are now part of the Black Guard. Let me introduce your commanders; Prince Salistar and Lady Malderia obey them as you would me. An evil has infested our lands, and today we say no more. You are the first to join the blackguard, and it is you who will define the honour of the blackguard; let none besmirch the name of the guard. Your job is to hunt out evil and extinguish it from our lands while protecting the innocent. Lord Commander Salistar and Lord Commander Malderia, I present you the Black Guard,” said the King to the roar of the men lined up below.

As Mal and Prince Salistar descended the steps to the courtyard, the men and the crowd that had gathered to watch roared their approval. When Prince Salistar and Mal reached the bottom of the steps, all of the men knelt on one knee and shouted, “We pledge our lives to the blackguard and to you, our commanders. We pledge to protect the innocent and uphold the laws of the land.”

When the noise had died down, Prince Salistar raised a hand, and the courtyard quietened so that all could hear his words. “I, Prince Salistar, accept your oaths. I vow to protect you, my brothers.”

The men roared their approval as Prince Salistar stepped aside. Mal waited for the noise to settle before raising her hand like the Prince had. “I, Lady Malderia, accept your oaths. I vow to protect you, my brothers.”

After she had finished the oath, the roar that went up was like thunder rolling across the sky. Chants of Orge Slayer and the Black Guard rang across the courtyard as it died down; the deep booming of a bell deep in the city rang out a warning.

Looking at Prince Salistar, Mal noticed worry on her face; the bell was from the Monastery of Hasder and wasn’t rung often, only on holy days, and there were no holy days for several weeks.

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