An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

The Loyal Guardsman Avendor

Colyn Lanarton came at his Captain with his blade raised, ready to strike. It was a predictable, regimented attack and Avendor quickly brought his own sword to bear, using its edge to deflect the incoming blow with a single twist of his wrist. He took two quick steps backwards, setting his feet before launching into an assault of his own. When he thrust forward, Colyn danced to the left. When he followed with a backhanded slash, Colyn met it with a seemingly effortless parry. Each of the guardman’s quick, lithe movements was executed with practiced precession. He knew all the forms—probably better than Avendor himself—and could clearly react accordingly.

But can he improvise?

Avendor stepped back again, as though in retreat. He allowed himself to stumble in mid-stride, falling to one knee and giving the impression of having lost his footing on the loose dirt. Colyn was upon him in a moment, closing in for the finishing blow. He committed too far. Avendor arched backward as the sword cut through the now-empty space his chest had occupied only a moment before. As expected, Colyn’s own momentum caused him to crash into the Captain’s side. Avendor pivoted on his knee, tearing the edge of his blade across the back of his opponent’s exposed legs.

It was an attack that would have cut through each of Colyn’s hamstrings—if they had not been using dulled practice blades.

“Ashes and embers!” cursed the guardsman. Avendor smiled. His blade’s edge might not be sharp, but that did not mean it would not leave a welt.

“Point!” shouted Havner, the fieldmaster.

“That wasn’t a death blow!” protested Colyn.

“No,” acknowledge the tall, reedy man. The thick, ugly scar on his left cheek always made his grin appear strangely crooked. “But it was more than enough to finish the bout. If this were a real fight, you’d be lying on the ground, unable to move. The good Captain here would be able to run you through and be done with it.”

“It wasn’t fair. He didn’t follow the rules of swordsmanship.”

“We’re not training you to win a duel,” said Avendor. “We are the Winged Guard, sworn to protect the Queen at all costs. If we’re ever called upon to fulfill that duty, you can’t expect the enemy to fight like a gentleman.”

“Yes captain,” replied the guardsman, somewhat sullenly. His tone indicated that he wanted to say more, but he wisely kept his mouth shut. There may be hope for the boy yet. “May I ask what I did wrong, sir?” Avendor nodded, looking to Havner.

“You struck too hard, and too fast,” said the fieldmaster. “You saw what you thought was a mistake and tried to take advantage. While that’s admirable, you went too far and left yourself open to a counter attack. Always be aware of the enemy’s movements and never let down your defences. Bah! Don’t look so glum boy!” Havner placed one hand on Colyn’s shoulder. “You’ve got some talent with that blade. We’ve all taken a licking from time to time. The important thing is to not make the same mistake twice. Understood?”

“Yes, sir,” responded Colyn.

“Very good. Alright, boys!” cried the fieldmaster with a thundering clap of his hands. “Whose next?”

As two more experienced guardsmen took up their places on the field, Avendor led Colyn away. “Are you alright?” he asked.

“A bit sore, but I’ll survive. If I may be so bold, Captain, where did you learn a move like that?”

“I just made it up,” replied Avendor with a shrug.

Colyn stopped mid stride. “I don’t understand. My father was a Silver Sword. He died in the same campaign that stole Prince Torshen from us. I’ve studied swordplay all my life and it’s always been the same. The same forms. The same drills. How does one simply make up their own movements?”

“I didn’t learn swordplay on the practice field,” Avendor replied. “I had a few lessons here and there, but I more or less figured it out as I went. And I have the scars to prove it. I suppose some of that stuck with me.”

“It sounds terribly unorthodox,” said Colyn flatly.

“I think you’ll find that suits me just fine. Are you hungry?”

“Excuse me sir?”

“Have you eaten?”

“Only what they served at noon hour.”

“Follow me, then.” Without another word, Avendor turned and led began walking away from the old, stone barracks that was home to the Winged Guard and out into the Upper City. As they went, he found himself studying Colyn. He was discreet about it, of course—a casual glance here or and offhand comment there—and everything he saw only served to solidify his previous impressions of the young man.

While he had not yet seen his twentieth summer, he stood only a hair shorter than his Captain. Yet, where Avendor had always been common and unremarkable in his apperance, Colyn’s curly, chestnut hair, high cheek bones and strong, square jaw all worked together to compose a regal countenance. It suited him well. The Lanartons were an important military family after all, with long-standing ties with House Rayderon. Colyn was not the first of his kin to have served with the Winged Guard, and from everything that Avendor had heard and read, they were all the same. Stiff, conservative and so fiercely loyal that they would suffer no slight or insult to the royal family.

Which was precisely why the Captain was intent on sending Colyn to Ronnex with the blind old sage. The Queen was not well loved in every province of the Realm, and the last thing Avendor needed was to find the over zealous guardsman defending her honour against some Lord’s courtier who had been either too stupid or too drunk to hold his tongue. The Nine knew there would be enough fools wandering through the Upper City. If the young guardsman were to remain in Relen’ayar, it would only be a matter of time before disaster struck. Despite the day’s embarrassment, Colyn was a skilled swordsman. Anyone who crossed blades with him would be unlikely to come away unscathed.

And so, the Captain led his young guardsman through the mostly-empty streets, picking their every step with measured care. Most of the Lords had not yet arrived, and those that had were busy settling into their villas. Still, experience had taught him the value of discretion. Seeking to avoid any potentially conflict, he made for the western edge of the Upper City—where a number of public terraces overlooked the lower portions of the city as they stretched out towards the banks of the Kharnine. Open, expansive and paved with intricately patterned setts mined from the great quarries of Veeridge, the terraces would become increasingly busy over the coming days. For the moment, however, they appeared mercifully quiet. He needed to talk with Colyn, and the openness of the terraces were well suited to the task.

“In a few days, there will be people everywhere,” said Avendor as they arrived at his intended destination. “The Upper City is never quite so alive as when during the Queen’s Council. Still, sometimes it’s a wonder that there is even a council to be had at all.”

“I’m not sure I follow, sir.”

“I’m just thinking of everything that’s happened. The exile of Prince Carvesh. The fallout that led to the execution of King Merek.” Avendor allowed the words to linger in the awkward silence, fixing his gaze on the horizon, as though lost in some distant thought. He waited until he was certain that Colyn’s discomfort would be approaching its breaking point before he spoke again. “I suppose you would have been just a boy when those things happened, but it’s amazing that the Queen managed to hold the Realm together through it all.”

“She’s a strong woman,” replied Colyn. Predictably defensive. He truly is the perfect loyalist. But is it a loyalty the woman who sits upon the throne, or the black stallion that flies above it? While the distinction was subtle, it was important enough that Avendor decided to push a little harder.

“She is that,” he replied. He continue to gaze into the distance—though he was not looking at anything in particular—scratching absently at his short-cropped beard. “And she’s managed to do so much of it without Prince Jayslen.” He could almost feel Colyn bristling beside him. “With their constant fighting and his prolonged absences, he’s hardly had any involvement with the Realm at all.”

“If I may be so bold, I’m not sure that’s entirely fair, sir.”

“Oh?”

“The Prince has had much to deal with over the years. Not only did he lose his brother and his father, as you mentioned, but also his uncle and his wife as well. It must have been difficult for him.”

“Yes,” replied the Captain, approaching the ornate, iron rail that ran along the edge of the terrace. As if it was easy for the Queen. “I suppose it must. Still, is it enough to excuse the blatant disregard for his own duties? People expect more from their Prince than the image of a vagabond who spends his time drinking and wenching.” Avendor returned his eyes to his companion. Colyn’s expression had hardened. His eyes had narrowed. His feet drifted apart, into a noticably more defensive position. Even his hand was creeping slowly toward the hilt of how sword.

“Be careful,” warned Avendor. “There’s nothing to be gained by attacking your commanding officer.”

“I… I would never do anything of the sort, sir.”

“You might claim as much with your words, but your face says different. Unless I miss my guess, you were already thinking about how to best me with your blade just now, weren’t you? More specifically, you were likely thinking about how to avoid the same mistake you made on the practice grounds. Am I right?”

“You shame me, sir. But how could you…”

“Your eyes, for one. Your posture, for another. They give too much away, Colyn. A perceptive enemy can use that against you. Now, relax. I’m not interested in besmirching the Prince’s name. I’m simply making a point. And so, before you say anything else, answer this one question for me. How do you think the Prince’s reputation reflects on the Stallion of House Rayderon? Not his actual behaviours, mind you—whatever you think those might be. I mean the way people see him. Surely you’ve heard the things that he is known for.”

Avendor raised his hand, cutting Colyn off before he could respond with some carefully rehearsed phrase. “No. I want you to really think, and answer me not as a member of the Winged Guard, nor even as a loyal subject of the throne. I simply want you to answer as a man offering his honest assessment of a situation.”

“Honestly…” mumbled Colyn. He looked down, shifting his weight back and forth as he struggled to push the words from his throat. “Not well,” he managed at last. “Not well at all. But that doesn’t matter. He is our Prince, and heir to the Winged Throne. That alone should be enough to command our respect.”

“Perhaps,” conceded Avendor, “though I suspect there would be only a precious few who would share your sentiment, honourable as it may be. Nevertheless, you have shown yourself true and loyal.”

Colyn’s brow furrowed. “This was a test?”

“Everything is a test, in its own way. Remember that. I can only assume that you have already received your orders from Sherryl?”

“About accompanying the blind sage? Yes, I have received them.” His voice sounded flat and disinterested.

“You are unhappy?”

“My happiness is of no consequence. I have my orders. I will follow them.”

“Indulge me,” said Avendor. “Are you unhappy with the charge?”

“Is this another test, sir?”

“Call it an inexperienced Captain trying to learn something more about his men. I may be new to my station, but I’ve been around long enough to know that commanding is about more than just giving orders. It’s about giving the right orders to the right people. So tell me, are you unhappy?”

“It would not have been my first choice for an assignment, Captain.”

“And why not?” Colyn actually winced at the question. This is probably the most he’s been forced to think for himself in years, thought Avendor. Ungracious though it was, he wondered if it was actually proving painful for the young guardsman.

“I should think it will prove dreadfully tedious. Sir.”

“I can see how you might think that. Tiberius can be a tedious sort of fellow. His aide even more so. Still, there is more to this matter than simply accompanying a pair of scholars on some stuffy, academic errand.” Reaching into his tunic, Avendor withdrew a single sheet of paper, folded upon itself and sealed with blue wax and the seal of the Winged Guard. “Read this. It will explain everything.”

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