Relieved that she no longer had to rush to intercept Carnotine at the main guard post, but concerned by the subdued bearing she had observed from her study window, Lazarn headed to the front door.
Carnotine was resplendent in the uniform he would normally only wear on the settlement’s most important ceremonial occasions, but he did not lift his gaze to make eye contact as his chieftain opened the door.
“Good morning, Ma’am.” Despite his demeanour, his greeting was still firm and clear, a sign of the respect in which he held his leader. But he was unable to look her in the eye. He appeared to Monkeybreath like a broken man.
“Captain,” she used his rank, “I assume this is not a social call. Please come in.”
“Thank you, Ma’am,” he bowed slightly, before stepping through the impressive hand-carved doorway.
As she closed the door, he waited for her to lead the way through to the lounge.
She ushered him to a seat. “Can I offer you some refreshment, Captain?”
“No, thank you, Ma’am. I won’t keep you long.”
“As you wish. Please proceed, Captain.”
“I have come to offer my resignation as Captain of the Mighty Pine Guard,” Carnotine said. “I have failed you, Ma’am, and I am ashamed to have to admit it.”
Monkeybreath gasped in shock. “Heavens, Captain, I am sure whatever it is you have done does not warrant such a drastic step.”
“I believe it does, Ma’am. I have fallen short of the high standards I set myself, which I learned from my father and my grandfather before me. I have shamed them, and the next place I go after I leave here will be my father’s house, to apologise to him.
“I hope it will not be too difficult for him to hear, as he has not been in the best of health.”
“Before I even consider whether or not to accept your resignation, Carnotine,” Monkeybreath said, “I need you to explain yourself to me. As you infer, this would be a difficult thing for Rastovine to hear, and I will take some convincing that such a step is necessary.”
He looked up at the use of his given name. It felt like an attempt on Monkeybreath’s part to remind him of the affection she had built up for him over his several years as a loyal and trusted Captain of the Guard. He felt similar regard for a leader who had always treated him with great favour, but the embarrassment he was now suffering pushed that to the back of his mind.
“Very well, Ma’am,” he began. “I believe I have let you down in regard to the arrival of the wandering tree elf, brought here by Rupertonix yesterday afternoon. I was less vigilant than I needed to be, and I believe I have put the community in potential danger as a result.”
“Do you believe we are currently in danger, Captain?”
“Not from the report I have received from the guards you posted to watch Batefimba’s house last night. I spoke to them when they returned to the guard post after being relieved of duty this morning.
“However that is pure luck. I was not sufficiently cautious when the elf arrived and I left the settlement open to possible danger as a result.”
“How so?” Lazarn demanded, her challenging tone indicating she was still a long way from convinced.
“When Rupertonix arrived at the main gate yesterday afternoon, I was attending to a situation involving a travelling merchant, which one of my guards had called me to assist with.
“This merchant had arrived carrying goods he wished to try to sell to the residents. However, my young guard, Haxavine, believed the merchandise to have been stolen, an accusation the merchant was greatly upset by. He was making his displeasure known loudly.
“I had been called to intervene and was face to face with this irate traveller, who I had moved away from the gate, so as not to cause too much disturbance to the residents, when Rupertonix walked up.
“He called out a greeting to me and said he was carrying a precious cargo, indicating the young elf riding on the back of his neck. ‘I think she may need hospital treatment’, he told me.
“I did not recognise his passenger at all.
“I should have asked Rupertonix to wait, while I dealt with the merchant, or summoned my deputy to address the situation while I spoke to the furriensis, but I was distracted, and I asked him to inform the guards at the gate of the situation. I have to admit that my trust in Rupertonix not to endanger the settlement played a role in my lax assessment of the situation.
“It took a threat to arrest the merchant for trying to sell stolen goods to finally get him to leave, but he did not go quickly or quietly and by the time I returned to the guard post, there was no sign of Rupertonix or the elf.
“When I spoke to my deputy, Dervarine, he said he had despatched two junior guards to the hospital with the new arrival. I told him that seemed slightly risky, but he said he had seen the elf and there was nothing suspicious about her. As a result, neither of us were too concerned.
“It was not until I was leaving the guardroom for the night and came across two of the council members, who asked me about the visitor, that I discovered you had sent the elf to Batefimba’s house with her grandson, and instructed the two guards to watch it overnight.”
“I must admit I was surprised to be informed there was a new arrival under Mighty Pine only when she had already been allowed access to the village,” Monkeybreath interjected. “In fact, I was planning to find you to talk about that this morning. You saved me a journey.”
“So you have already recognised my failure in this matter, Ma’am. That should make accepting my resignation easier for you,” Carnotine said dispiritedly.
“Not so fast, Captain. I want to hear your whole story before making any sort of decision. I understand your pride and the difficulty you are having in accepting that you have fallen short of your own high standards, but I need to hear exactly what happened.”
“Very well, Ma’am, though I must emphasise that I take full responsibility for any lapses by my guards.”
“Understood. I would expect nothing less from you, Carnotine,” she responded, using his given name again.
“Very well, Ma’am. After I heard what had happened to the elf, I realised there was not much I would be able to do last night. But I believed something highly irregular must have happened, and I spent the whole evening troubled.
“This morning, after a restless night, I rose early and prepared to go down to the guard post to ensure another two guards were sent to take over from those you posted overnight, and to meet and question the latter on their return.
“I wore my dress uniform, to enable me to strongly impress upon all the members of the Guard, especially at this time, that weekend duty was to be taken just as seriously as duty during the week, but particularly because I already felt strongly that the step I have come here to take would be necessary.
“When the guards, Maxuvine and Jethatine, returned, and entered the guardhouse, I could see they were decidedly nervous about my presence. They are both recent recruits, only just through their training and with a mere few weeks of guard duty under their belts.
“Maxuvine, who was marginally the less nervous of the pair, told me hesitantly that they had been despatched by Dervarine to take the elf to the hospital. They had not felt incapable of carrying out this duty, which seemed routine to them.
“However, the school had just come out and, with it being the start of the weekend, a lot of youngsters and teenagers were milling about excitedly and the sight of the visitor intrigued them. Maxuvine said although they tried to ignore the attention and proceed, they were soon surrounded by fascinated teenagers who began talking to the elf, as a result of which their progress halted, and as the elf began interacting with them, the group grew.
“In a nutshell, my guards were unsure of how to proceed without causing an incident. They were discussing their options when they saw you appear, with a following of teenage villagers, some of whom they understood had gone to find you.
“Of course, you know what happened from there. In the circumstances, my guards were relieved to be asked to follow Mazimba and the visitor, and watch Batefimba’s home.
“I spoke somewhat sternly to them about having the confidence to take charge in a situation like that, but I did not want them to feel they were solely at fault in the situation. I encouraged them to see it as a learning experience.”
“A wise course of action,” Lazarn observed.
“Thank you, Ma’am, but it reinforced to me that there had been a string of failures, not just by my guards, but before that by Dervarine, who should have sent at least one guard with more experience to accompany the elf …”
“Fevan, I believe that is her name,” Monkeybreath interjected.
“Fevan, thank you, Ma’am,” Carnotine continued. “The conclusion I had come to last night, and reaffirmed as I walked to the guard post this morning, is that ultimately the responsibility lies with me. The community would not have been exposed to potential danger if I had been more vigilant to start with. That is why I must offer my resignation.”
“Captain, I refuse to accept it. I appreciate you taking ultimate responsibility, as a good leader should, but it seems like a small lapse to me. And anyway, you’ve told me you thought Dervarine was somewhat at fault too. So where would I find a new Captain of the Guard at such short notice?”
“I’m not sure, Ma’am,” Carnotine replied, looking up at her.
“Being a leader does not make one infallible, Carnotine. Mistakes are good teachers, if we will listen to them, as you told your guards this morning.
“And as far as we know, the community is not in imminent danger. You have guards on duty now for our protection, more experienced ones, I assume?”
“Indeed, Ma’am,” Carnotine nodded.
“Have you ever heard the story of what happened to your grandfather, Petovine, just a couple of years before he was due to retire as Captain of the Guard? You would have been a mere pup at the time.”
“I’ve only heard snippets of the account, Ma’am, mainly from my father, who was a young guard then. My grandfather was always reluctant to talk about it.”
“Then I will tell you. He should not have felt so …”
Monkeybreath looked up, alarmed, at a sudden commotion outside, but even as she crossed to the window she recognised the voices, and as she reached it, she turned to Carnotine, who had followed her.
“I think we can safely say there’s no imminent danger, Captain.”
Climbing the stairs to her front door, a look of urgency on their faces, were Mazimba, Fevan and Batefimba.
(Copyright, Grant Shimmin, 2020)