The Founding of the Guards of Virtue

    'tis not known who claimed to write this tale, but they claim to be a mouse. As mice
clearly have no letters, this is obviously impossible... Appended to the end of the
document is a verse some claim to be a prophecy.

    "'Tis time to press harder, Blackthorn."

    The man who spoke stood over a heavy oaken table, one thin lock of golden hair
braided hanging long over his shoulder, losing itself in the heavy gold braid on his
surcoat. His hands were planted flat on the table, fingers splayed over a map, and his
strong arms framed the twisting silver serpent embroidered on his chest. As he spoke his
eyes traced over the faded brown ink on the map, engaging in a mental journey across the
fields and then the mountains of the Serpent's Spine. I could not see the map clearly
from where I sat, but I did note his eyes dwelled overlong on a particular pass in the

    "I fear this is a mistake, my lord," Lord Blackthorn said, shaking his head sadly.
"Surely the problem cannot be as bad as thou describest it."

    "But it is!" Lord British said forcefully, pushing away from the table, and turning
around to look out the casement at the gently drifting snowfall. As Blackthorn bowed his
head in acquiescence, the ruler continued in a lower voice, "The dead this year,
Blackthorn. All those people whose families live without joy this winter. The food that
shall not be brought to table, the shops that shall not open. This children without parents
and the parents without children. Think of the dead, and think of the funeral processions
we have seen. Look you!"

    Blackthorn came to stand beside his liege at the window, squinting out past the white
snowflakes, over the moat, to the small blacksmithy on the northern side of Britain. Just
as every day of late, a funeral procession wended its dark way across the cobblestones,
figures hunched against the cold and the vagaries of fate. He rested a hand on his
friend's shoulder.

    "This will not bring back their dead, my lord," he said softly.

    Lord British slammed a fist against the wall. "No, it will not. But perhaps it can bring
the killers to justice!"

    Blackthorn turned away. "Justice, what is justice? Thou dost propose to cover murder
with a veneer of law. Already one hears reports of pickpockets lynched in the streets, so
scared is the populace. Now thou choosest to sanction their doings."

    "But only against the murderers, Blackthorn!" British turned back to the table. "Look ye
at this document I have drawn up defining the new law. Read it close and tell me that it
will not serve."

    With a sigh, Blackthorn pulled a chair to the table and began to read over the crabbed
writing, while British strode vigorously to the great hearth and held his hands out to be
warmed by the huge fire blazing therein. "'Tis unseasonably early for snow, is it not?" he
said. "A harvest moon and snowfall every day for days now, yet the temperatures are not
low enough for it to accumulate." And indeed it had been cold of late, for I shivered
even when in my cozy home.

    Blackthorn agreed distractedly. "Some say that it is a omen, actually," he said, finishing
the draft of the new law. "This..." he said, tapping the parchment.

    "Yes?" Lord British said, looking eagerly and expectantly at his friend.

    Blackthorn sighed. "I am reluctant to admit it, but it will serve thy purpose."

    "Excellent, then we shall proclaim it as law: that citizens of Britannia may hunt down
those who have murdered too many, and may claim a bounty confiscated from the killer's

    "But," Blackthorn said.

    Lord British arched one golden brow, and a smile quirked his lips.

    Blackthorn stood. "This business of a new order of guards... I mislike it indeed."

    "Bah," Lord British said, dismissing the concern with a wave of his hand. "'Tis merely a
new order of knights."

    "Dismiss me not," Lord Blackthorn warned, his voice growing tight with anger. "Didst
thou think to slip yet another law enforcing thy 'virtues'? Thou knowest how I, and many
of the populace, feel about this issue!"

    British grew angry, striding over to the table. "The Virtue Guards will be drawn from
the best of those we have, and they will serve as examples to the rest of the people."

    "By peeking into windows to see who is humble? And by killing those they feel are
unjust? What sort of guard is this? Thou dost propose to tell the people how to think, and
how to behave!"

    British gripped the back of the chair before him so tightly his knuckles were as white
as the snow whirling outside. "Is that not the role of government, Blackthorn? To teach
the people how to behave?"

    Blackthorn pushed away from the table, and stood. The figure he cut was dramatically
different from that of Lord British. His hair was dark and closely cropped, and his beard
dark as well; in his robes he stood like a shadow against the whiteness of the casement
behind him. Behind Lord British there roared a blazing fire, and behind Blackthorn a
winter storm. "Thou art not the parent of every person in Britannia, milord," he said
coldly. "If thou dost persist in mothering everyone, they will simply rebel."

    There they stood, gold against black, until Lord British said softly, "Has it come to this,
my friend?"

    Blackthorn's eyes widened, then narrowed again. "Do not presume on our friendship, my
liege. We discuss a matter of state."

    Lord British ducked his head as if something pained him. "Do we? So be it. Tomorrow I
shall proclaim that any who have the required character may apply to join the Virtue
Guards. They shall be given a shield with mine own emblem, the silver serpent, so that
they may stand for what is good and honorable in this world. Any who shame the emblem
shall have it stripped on the spot. And I shall also proclaim the law on bounty hunting."

    Blackthorn stormed away from the table. At the heavy door he stopped, and turned
back. Lord British did not even raise his head.

    "Tomorrow then shall I announce that those same folk whom thou mightest take for thy
new guard may choose instead to wear my emblem, and server as guards of the virtue of

    British looked up at him, eyes afire. "Be careful where thou treadest, Blackthorn. A
private army..."

    "Nay, my lord," Blackthorn said unctuously. "Merely so they may serve as an example of
my beliefs, and of the beliefs of those who feel grown up enough to make their own
decisions about right and wrong. Those who are sick of overzealous guards who slaughter
the petty criminal at the slightest provocation, and sick of the paternalism in thy

    Lord British glared at him, and there they stood, caught between free will and
civilization. I huddled where I sat, perched on the mantel, and prayed neither saw me in
their anger, for a mouse has little strength and there was no easy route of escape.

    "Rumors fly," Lord British said suddenly. "Some say that we think too far apart, and
that balance is needed. Some speak of a city founded for that purpose, a city of Balance,
hidden deep in the mountains, where the wind blows."

    Blackthorn inclined his head. "I have heard the rumors."

    "Nystul told me it is no rumor, for he hath received a letter."

    "Indeed," Blackthorn said neutrally, not giving an inch.

    "And there are the strange prophecies that are muttered by madmen, and scribed upon
graves and columns of stone," Britannia's ruler continued doggedly. "These are troubled
times, Blackthorn."

    "They are," Blackthorn said, still standing at the door.

    Lord British waited for his friend to give an inch; but the dark-clad mage did not.

    "So be it," British said grimly. "I toss thee a bone, Blackthorn. Make thy own virtue
guard to guard thy virtue of Chaos. Let them wear thy emblem, and we shall earnestly
hope they are indeed good and honest men. And let me proclaim with the law tomorrow
that thy guards and mine may co-exist, but none may join both; and they may quarrel
freely, and yes, even shed blood. And perhaps then shall we see whose virtues stand in a
trial of combat."

    Blackthorn's eyes narrowed. "Now thou dost indeed speak of raising armies, my liege.
Art thou moving the chess game to a different field? This bodes not well for the safety
of the land..."

    "Do not presume on our friendship!" Lord British said, throwing Lord Blackthorn's
words back at him. "I have said."

    Blackthorn nodded once curtly, then slammed the door behind him. Only then did Lord
British sag into his chair, to trace his hands across the parchment of the map. His fingers
lingered lovingly over the browned ink, until they came across the desert left by his
warring with Lord Robere, the desert where brothers shed each other's blood and
nothing now can grow. The desert whence sprang the seed of Britannia. And there they
rested, and the man who would rule a troubled land sat quiet whilst the winter storm
raged without, and processions wended their way to cold graveyards.

    He did not see, but I did; the figure dark and glowering, fangs sharp and eyes catlike
and metallic that glinted from without the casement, floating 'round the stony walls: a
daemon that had listened at the window for its own reasons. It flapped away on mighty
wings, concealed by the storm, carrying its knowledge of a rift at the highest levels of
the Court away into the darkness of the now-gathering night.

    A scribe came knocking tentatively at the door, and British bade him enter. "Take this
down to the Council," the lord instructed, handing him the new laws after making a few
notations upon the scroll. The lad ran off, and soon there came from the open door the
first shouts of argument from the Council chambers as men chose camps and argued
across a trestle table. "'Tis war!" some shouted. "Nay, 'tis peace!" said others, and as I
sat upon the mantel and shivered by candlelight and the reddish glow of the harvest
moon, I realized that a poor and lonely mouse such as I could not discern the difference.

Upon a day when snow doth fall
A gathering will form of noblemen
Among them some who quarrel still
Between free will and the civil man
Whilst watched by mice and monsters both
A challenge shall be made
That breaketh lances and severs growth
And stains fair grass with hate
Someday perhaps shall reconcile
Two men whose hearts were once the same
Till then the world shall tremble dire
And none shall fix the blame