"A lone mouse, even with the mythic Black Axe was poor odds against a single fox in its own lair" - Celanawe.
Time to return to artist and writer David Peterson's tale of the titular Guard, a fantasy story in which mice have formed a protective organisation made up of fierce little furry dudes who, armed with swords and suchlike protect the common mice from all the dangers life can throw at them. The first two tales were set in Autumn and Winter of 1152, and the correct guard were aided by a grizzled old veteran called Celanawe, who also was known as "The Black Axe" after the mythological weapon he wielded it. He came out of retirement to help them and died after mentoring a replacement for him in the form of the "redfur" Lieam. This story is a prequel to that already covered, set in 1115 it tells the story of how Celanawe came to discover The Black Axe and wrote his story into legend. As well as the main miniseries, this collection includes the Free Comicbook Day prologue, epilogue and maps, guides and cutaways, all of which help with the world building of the series. So without further ado, we shall begin.
It starts with said prologue set in Spring 1153. The Matriarch of Lockhaven is writing her diary over images of the mice gathering food and so on. She reflects on the fact that young Lieam has gone missing, he left armed with the Black Axe after Celanawe was killed in the Winter 1152 story. She knows Kenzie and Saxon are worried about him but cannot spend the resources to look. Celanawe's death has shaken her, "I did not know the myth was truly protecting us, and when we found out that he was, we lost him forever". She ruminates that she hopes one day soon the Guard and the common mice can soon once again "have a new hero in which to believe."
He readied himself for the three day journey when a female mouse arrived flying in on the back of a crow, while he watched her hidden in the long grass. He did not fear her or the bird, but he detected larger beasts nearby and we see a pack of armed ferrets. He calls her into the safety of the grass while she asks if he is indeed Celanawe. She tells him they are kin, but he cuts her off saying they need to move "for we are hunted."
The crow starts cawing and the ferrets appear and attack, ripping it apart while the female mouse sheds a tear but it gets her to understand the danger they are in and they make their way deeper into the wood. The ferrets have their scent and pursue them, but the two mice hide in a tree and the ferrets move on and catch and kill a squirrel, wanting to make use of the bones for "adornment".
However the ferrets are still a threat and Celanawe realises their only chance is escape via the water. He starts to ready a boat when one of the weasels spots him. But the female mouse makes a duck sound and brings a duck to then. Just in time they leap aboard it leaving the ferrets floundering in their wake. Celanawe asks if she can take them to a settlement where he can alert the Guard.
She tells him her name is "Em" and she has a letter from the Guard's matriarch saying he must do whatever Em wants.
Letter from Bronwyn: "Celanawe. Em, has greater need of you than the Guard can offer. Treat her words like that of a Matriarch, her commands as mine. With all my love, Bronwyn".
Celanawe agrees, she says they are related and both have a "bloodline oath to fulfill". It's across the sea, the duck can't take them that far, so Celanawe says they will go to "Fort Sumac" which has ship builders. He asks the quest and she says simply, "The Black Axe".
|The only way to travel.|
They go to a seedy bar where everything has its price, although Celanawe has very little cash to work with. A fight is on the verge of breaking out, and Celanawe is told the Guard has no rule there when he tries to intervene. Celeanawe fixes on a grizzled old mouse called Roarke he can play one mouse off against another - "To gain Conrad's service without payment, I needed to make Roarke believe my goals were in his best interest."
Celanawe tells Conrad he can take him and Em across the Northern Sea and if he does he will be braver than the deeds of any Captain's Captain. Roarke laughs and says if Conrad makes it there and back with "things my eye has never seen, he won't just be on the Council of Captains. I'll make him Captain of it". So Conrad agrees and he cuts his paw to form a blood agreement with Roarke.
|Conrad seals the deal.|
Celanawe: "I questioned my own judgement that day. I was blindly following Em off the edge of the world for a mythological axe that no mouse had seen in twenty seasons. Was I no better than Conrad? Manipulated into this quest?"
He makes sure a note is sent to Matriarch Bronwyn letting her know what's going on. And then they set sail. The first few days are uneventful, once they hit the North Sea he loses track of where they are, though Conrad says he has little time for maps.
They are hit by full on summer sun then at night it pours, on the sevententh day they lose sight of the birds. Celanawe tightens the rations and tries to pry more information out of Em but that proves fruitless. Until the night of the thirty-second day while Conrad sleeps, Em recounts the history of The Black Axe.
|An difficult journey.|
According to her research the axe had been forged in 915. Then handed down over two-hundred years until 1086 when it went missing. She used every tool at her disposal to look for it and her beasts revealed an older brother called Benn who was the last mouse to lay a paw on the weapon. And he was last seen on the shore across "Storvind Sea". Which is now known as the "North Sea". She believed he had perished, just leaving her and Celenawe.
Conrad then wakes up and slurs "what are you two whispering about over that book?" Celanawe says he is just looking at her drawings of the constellations. After that night, Conrad didn't get drunk and stayed awake most of the time, they have a few close calls with attacks by octopi and squid. After fifty-six days their larder was empty, but they collect rainwater and catch fish to eat, even getting a free tow by a large one.
Celanawe is uncomfortable eating fish as he had never consume flesh before, "it would take near starvation before I would do it again". Then they are caught in a dreadful storm and the boat is broken apart. He scrambles to find some wood to hold onto but is sucked under and his vision goes black as he begins to choke on the salty water.
|Celanawe washes up on shore.|
The crows tell her that twenty seasons ago a mouse came to the shores with an axe and "marched to the Hall on the Hill". So Celanawe and Em trudge uphill to a large dwelling, made for something bigger than a mouse. They push the door open together and inside they find a ferret sitting on a throne, wearing a crown. He taunts them and asks if Celanawe is here to slay him?
Celanawe says he is just here to reclaim what is his. The Ferret King says there are no more mice on the land and sneers that Em looks too old to repopulate the place. Celanawe tells him to watch his tongue, Em is kin to him. The King says if he gives the word they'll be slain. Celanawe retorts that he'll feel his blade if he does so. The King says his name is "Luthebon" and he takes only what he needs and two mice are no sport to him.
|Luthebon, Ferret King.|
He wanted to murder them all but they laughed at him because he was only one mouse and no threat to them. The king cleaved him in two and swallowed both parts whole. Confused Em asks if the mouse had a title and Luthebon says he was called "Merek" and the weapon he raised against him was The Black Axe.
Celanawe politely asks for the return of the axe as it is mouse property. Luthbon says no. He has it hanging from his belt as a reminder to all of what will come to those who threaten him. Celanawe offers his service in return, but Luthebon says there is nothing he can do for him his own kind cannot.
Then a wounded ferret is brought in, and lain at the King's feet. He is Luthebon's son and he is dead and Luthebon mourns the loss. He was killed by "the Red Beast". Celanawe offers to kill the fox for them in return for the axe. Luthebon tells him he "cannot wander into the lair of that wretch and just will him dead because you boast it."
|Luthebon cradles his dead son.|
Luthebon says it's a deal and hands over the axe. But Celanawe has to do it in two sundowns, or Em will be a tasty morsel for him and they'll hunt Celanawe down as well. So he marches off into the dark, feeling the weight of the axe in his paws. He walks into the briar patch with trepidation.
Celanawe: "After that storm I had thought I'd awoken on the shores of a glorious afterlife... and now I walked into the thorny bowels of the horror it must be like to die, only to find there is no afterlife at all."
He careful makes his way through thorns reflecting that his oath to the Guard's Matriarch leaves him no option but to slay the fox. He's hungry, tired and finally lost.
He tries to put himself in the place of the hunter, not the hunted. He remembers seeing a mink bury itself to snag a bird for its meal, so he digs a hole and waits. Come the morning it's misty and his vision is almost zero. He climbs a branch and suddenly the fox walks past him and he freezes. The fox slips away as fear grips Celanawe and he loses sight of it.
|A misty reunion.|
Conrad says teaming up with Celanawe and taking down the fox will surely make him the Captain's Captain. Celanawe is encourage by his optimism. Not long after, the fox finds them and battle commences. The fox bites down at them and they dodge, Celanawe slices it's nose. Conrad leaps on it's face and digs his harpoon in its lips. As Conrad hangs on Celanawe jumps down onto the fox's head, but it jerks back and he slashes Conrad instead taking off a foot.
They hide and Celanawe apologises profusely, putting a tourniquet onto the wound. The angered fox comes gnashing down on them but in its rage it tangles itself up in the briars and Celanawe is able to climb onto it's head and bury the axe in it and thus it dies. Celanawe collects evidence of its death, but then two fox cubs appear. Conrad says they will be easier to bring down but Celanawe tells him, "I have no lust for their blood." They won't pose a threat for many seasons yet.
|The fox is dealt with.|
Celanawe is furious, but the King says he did not hurt her, "I did not kill her, brave mouse" he tells him. A subject of his, the healer, was greedy for a live mouse to study and picked her up accidentally mortally wounding her. Luthebon killed him for it saying "my word and my honour are worth more to me than the life of one of my own".
He goes on to say they tried to save her but to no avail and she passed quickly. Celanawe thinks how the Axe's history continued its tradition of being "steeped in the loss of loved ones as surely as it had with its forger". They bury her at sea, Luthebon and several subjects attend the funeral scattering petals as she floats away and as Celanawe recites a eulogy.
Conrad agrees, he wants to be Captain's Captain, and Celanawe is still a Guard with Bronwyn as his secret love. So with they help of the ferrets, they build a small sturdy boat. Luthebon gives them some sea and star charts and they set sail, following bird migrations to land on small islands to stock up on food. He and Conrad bond over stories of their fathers. Conrad's taught him all about the sea and sail. Celanawe says his father cared for him but his sister was his favourite. When she died young his father never showed warmth again.
Conrad has taken the loss of his leg in his stride (sorry). He becomes obssessed with what will happen when he gets back to Fort Sumac. Conrad also quizzes Celanawe about the Guard, its operations and symbolism. He also asks about The Black Axe, Celanawe dodges the questions and peppers his responses with "answers that came from vague legend". They make their way slowly via the islands and even craft songs about the trip. Finally they make it back to the lands of mice.
|The parting of the ways.|
He looks for her and to his horror finds a "Decree of Death", while he was away she had died two days before he reached land. He searches his office to see all trace of him had been removed from the records. He reads the letter she had Em give him again and realises she never thought he'd come back.
Celanawe: "Alone in that memorial of Matriarchs past, I clung to the axe. It was all I had left. Ny kin, my love even my status as a Guard were all the cost of the weapon. I held it as I would have held Bronwyn, and I wept."
Three days later he arrives at the gates of Shorestone, a place known for its craftsmice, especially stonemasons. He asks where he can find the Haven Guild. But no one seems to know what that is. A craftmouse takes him to their archivist to see if he can help. The archivist tells Celanawe he is speaking aloud of what they keep secret. He takes Celanawe into a secret room so they can speak more openly.
|The Black Axe secret keepers.|
He asks if he has the next wielder chosen and Celanawe says it will be of his bloodline, "my burden". The archivist says that bloodline isn't for the wielder but for the person they choose to wield it. The axe is passed on to worthy mice by the Farrier's bloodline then returned to them on the death of the wielder to be passed on anew. Benn passed it onto Merek and over the years eight mice have been granted use of the axe by Celanawe's bloodline.
Celanawe says he didn't know that, thinking for what it cost him he had no plan for the axe to leave his paw for anothers. The archivist tells him that whoever takes on the axe must "shed their name, duties, life." They become an immortal legend, leading a solitary life not placing the need of one mouse or town above any other. Celanawe says it might take some time to find a worthy mouse. The archivist says he should come and tell them when he decides they'll need to document them.
He departs Shorestone, he walks and thinks about who might be worthy amongst the mice he's trained. Then he thinks Conrad would be the ideal mouse, "he was brave, up to the challenge and his missing leg didn't even seem an impediment. A mouse in need of some subtle forging... I owed a visit to my friend in Port Sumac".
He arrives there, stowing the axe so no one will know and returns to the shady bar where he finds Conrad drunk off his face. Conrad moans that no one believes his story of what they did, even if Luthebon himself was there Roarke wouldn't honour his agreement. Celanawe tells him he's better than this, that he should sober up and make something of his life.
Conrad yells at him saying he cost him his leg and his father's ship, "my life's worse for knowing you". Even Em died because of the Axe. He then attacks Celanawe tearfully, Celanawe backs away and hides under the cliff faking a fall off it, deciding he'll hang onto the Axe for now and that Conrad will think him dead.
|Conrad attacks and Celanawe fakes a long fall.|
There is a two page epilogue, which flashes back to Benn begging Merek not to confront the ferrets, but was then murdered by Merek who saw him as an obstacle for getting revenge for the death of his kin. A crow is telling Lieam this now.
Crow: "The Axe of Black grants you the method to shape the world. But not the knowledge or right to do so at your whim".
Lieam reflects that even if history is nothing more than a dream, "I do not believe its moral to be any less true."
|Dream crow has all the answers.|