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• 1 •
"Treason," Kromman whispered. He repeated the word, mouthing it as if he found the taste pleasing: "Treason! Your treachery is uncovered at last. Evidence has been laid before the King." He smiled and licked his wizened lips.
Roland considered drawing his sword and sliding it into Kromman until the blade would go no farther, then taking it out again--by another route, for variety. That would be an act of public service he should have performed a lifetime ago, but it would create a serious scandal. Word would flash across all Eurania that the King of Chivial's private secretary had been murdered by his lord chancellor, sending courtiers of a dozen capitals into fits of hysterical giggles. Lord Roland must behave himself. It was a pleasing fantasy, though.
Meanwhile, the winter night was falling. He still had work piled up like snowdrifts, a dozen petitioners waiting to see him, and no time to waste on this black-robed human fungus.
Patience! "As you well know, Master Secretary, such rumors go around every couple of years--rumors about me, about you, about many of the King's ministers." Ambrose probably started most of the stories himself, but if his chancellor said so to Kromman, Kromman would tattle back to him. "His Majesty has more sense than to listen to slander. Now, have you brought some business for me?"
"No, Lord Chancellor. No more business for you." Kromman was not hiding his enjoyment; he was up to something. Even in his youth, as a Dark Chamber inquisitor, he had been repugnant--spying and snooping, prying and plotting, maligning anyone he could not destroy. Now, with age-yellowed eyes and hair trailing like cobwebs from under his black biretta, he had all the appeal of a corpse washed up on a beach. Some days he looked even worse. Even the King, who had few scruples, referred to him in private as rat poison. What secret joy was he savoring now?
Roland stood up. He had always been taller and trimmer than this grubby ink slinger, and the years had not changed that. "I won't send for the Watch. I'll throw you out myself. I have no time for games."
"Nor I. The games are over at last." Kromman slithered a letter onto the desk with all the glee of a small boy waiting for his mother to open a gift he has wrapped for her. Definitely up to something!
Over by the door, Quarrel looked up from his book with a puzzled expression. No voices had been raised yet, but his Blade instincts were detecting trouble.
Roland's face had given away nothing for thirty years and would not start doing so now. Impassively he took up the packet, noting that it was addressed personally to Earl Roland of Waterby, Companion of the White Star, Knight of the Loyal and Ancient Order of the King's Blades, et cetera, and closed with the privy seal, yet it bore no mention of his high office. That odd combination warned him what he was going to find even before he lifted the wax with a deft twist of his knife and crackled the parchment open. The ornately lettered message was terse to the point of brutality:
is therefore commanded to divest ... will absent himself from business
of our Privy Council ... will hold himself available to answer
certain grave matters....
His first reaction was sweet relief that he could now throw down all his worries and go home to Ivywalls and the wife whom he had never been allowed time enough to love as she deserved. His second thought was that Kromman, here designated his successor, was an unthinkable choice, totally incapable of handling the work.
He looked up blandly, while his mind raced through this deadly jungle that had suddenly sprung up around him. He should not be surprised, of course. Ambrose IV tired of ministers just as he tired of mistresses or favorite courtiers. The King grew weary and sought new beginnings. He would hope to shed some of his current unpopularity by blaming his own mistakes on the man who had faithfully carried out his policies. Loyalty was better to receive than to give.
With the silent grace of an archer drawing a longbow, Quarrel rose to his feet. For most of the last two days, the poor kid had been slouched on the couch by the door, leafing through a book of romantic verse, bored out of his mind. He would have registered that the latest visitor was unarmed when he entered and then lost interest in him. Now he had sensed something amiss.
"Your treason is uncovered!" Kromman said again, gloating.
Roland shrugged. "No treason. Whatever forgeries you have concocted, Master Kromman, they will not withstand proper examination."
"We shall see."
They stared at each other for a moment, lifelong foes harnessed too long together in service to the same master. Roland could never consider himself guilty of treason under any reasonable definition of the word; but treason was a slippery concept, a mire he had seen trap many others--Bluefield, Centham, Montpurse. Especially Montpurse. He had organized Montpurse's destruction himself. To be dragged down by the odious Kromman would be excessive irony, though. That would hurt more than the headsman's ax.
Again he found himself contemplating murder and this time he was not altogether joking with himself; this might be his last chance to slay the vermin. Alas, the revenge he should have taken years ago would now be seen as an admission of guilt, so he would die also and leave Kromman as posthumous winner of their long feud. Better to stay alive and fight, face down the deceit and hope to win, however unlikely that might be--Kromman was very sure of himself.
Meanwhile, the dusty files on the desk and the garrulous petitioners in the waiting room could equally be forgotten. Lord Roland could walk away from them all with a clear conscience and head home a day earlier than he had planned. Tomorrow would be soon enough to start worrying about treason and a trial and the almost inevitable death sentence.
"Long live the King," he said calmly. He walked around the desk, lifting the weighty chain from his shoulders. "This is not gold, by the way, only gilt. Chancery knows that, so don't try accusing me of embezzlement."
With a leer of triumph, Kromman bent his head to receive the chain. It rattled around his feet like a golden snake as Roland released it.
"Put it around your neck yourself, Master Kromman, or have the King do it. The writ does not require me to bestow it."
"Oh, we shall teach you humbler ways soon!"
"I doubt it." Then Roland recalled the wording of the warrant and the authority it granted to his successor. "Or are you contemplating immediate action against my person?"
The new chancellor's amber-toothed smile was answer in itself. "Indeed, I shall now have the pleasure of completing a task I was prevented from completing many years ago." Meaning he had a squad of men-at-arms waiting in the anteroom to escort the prisoner to a dungeon in the Bastion, probably in chains. What sweet triumph that would be for him!
But he was still unaware that there was a third person present. He had come scurrying in with his mincing, pigeon-toed walk and gone right by the witness beside the door, too impatient to notice his victim's guardian. As quiet as mist, Quarrel had crossed the room to stand at the inquisitor's back--tall and supple and deadly as a spanned crossbow. He could be Lord Roland's twin brother, born forty years too late.
For the first time Roland looked directly at him. "Have you met Master Kromman, the King's secretary?"
"I have not had that honor, my lord."
Kromman twisted around with a gasp.
"It is no honor. He plans to have me arrested. What say you to that?"
Quarrel smiled at this sudden improvement to his day. "I say not so, my lord." One hand rested on his sword. He could draw faster than a whip crack.
"I thought you might. This is Sir Quarrel, Chancellor. I deeply regret that I shall be unable to accept your gracious invitation voluntarily. I hope you brought adequate forces?"
Kromman's jaw hung open. Quarrel's hose and doublet had been outrageously expensive, his jerkin and plumed hat even more so, but they could be matched on a score of young dandies around the court. It was not his athlete's grace or his darkly sinister good looks that proclaimed him unmistakably as a Blade, nor yet his sword, for his hand concealed the distinctive pommel. Perhaps it was his bearing. There could be no doubt that even if he were one against an army, he would litter the floor with bodies before he let anyone lay a hand on his ward.
Kromman had a problem he had not anticipated.
"Where did you get him ?" he squeaked.
"On Starkmoor, of course." Roland should have guessed that something unexpected would happen right after he went back to Ironhall. Every visit he had ever made to that gloomy keep had marked a turning point in his life.
• 2 •
As Durendal raised his wineglass to his lips, loud booing broke out at the far end of the hall, which could only mean that the Brat had come in. An immediate cheer announced that he had been tripped up already. The kid scrambled to his feet in a shower of crusts and chop bones, and was promptly tripped again. He had a long way to go, because he was not past the sopranos' table yet and must still run the gauntlet of the beansprouts, the beardless, and the fuzzies before he reached the seniors. Undoubtedly Grand Master had sent him to summon Prime and Second to a binding, and it was his misfortune that they happened to be at dinner.
It was a rough game, but some of the games were even worse; and everyone started out as the Brat. Durendal had endured that ordeal longer than most, beginning right after the supremely joyous moment when he had been able to tell his grandfather to go back to Dimpleshire and stay there. Spirits! Had that been five years ago? It was hard to believe that he was Second now and the Brat was heading for him. Most-wondrous!
He glanced at the high table to confirm that Grand Master's throne remained unoccupied. Master of Horse and Master of Rapiers caught his eye and smiled knowingly. Nothing but a binding would be keeping the old man away on Ironhall's most important night of the year, the Feast of Durendal, the legendary founder whose name Second himself had assumed in a mad act of defiance. Tonight the seniors were allowed wine. Soon the Litany of Heroes would be read out and speeches made. For Grand Master to be absent required something epic afoot. Possibly the King himself had arrived.
Durendal had been Second for less than a week. He had not expected to make the leap to Prime just yet. He glanced at Harvest beside him, but Harvest was arguing so intently with Everman that he had not even noticed the disturbance.
Five years, and soon it would be over--possibly as soon as tomorrow night, if the King wanted more than one Blade. Manhood in place of adolescence; farewell to Ironhall. Feeling his mind strangely concentrated by this sudden nostalgia--and possibly also by the wine, he realized--he scanned the great hall, as if to fix it more tightly in his memory.
Servants hastened back and forth from the kitchens, striving unsuccessfully to keep platters heaped against the onslaught of voracious young appetites. Candlelight flickered on scores of fresh faces at the long tables and reflected on the famous sky of swords overhead--a hundred chains slung from wall to wall, with a sword dangling from almost every link, more than five thousand blades. Visitors and newcomers notoriously lost their appetites when offered their first meal in the hall, especially when it was accompanied by vivid descriptions of what would happen if just one of those ancient chains should break. Residents soon learned to ignore the threat. The oldest of those swords had been up there for centuries and would probably remain there for a long time yet. The oldest of them all hung alone in a place of honor on the wall behind Grand Master's throne, and that was Nightfall, the sword of the first Durendal, which had been found so inexplicably broken after his death.
Soup sprayed over the Brat as he passed the beansprouts' table.
There were seventy-three candidates in Ironhall at the moment. Second was responsible for keeping them all in line, so he had that number branded on his heart. There ought to be a hundred or so, but there was a new King on the throne. In his first year Ambrose had replaced more than a score of his father's aging Blades. He had slowed the pace a little since then, but lately he had been gifting Blades to his favorites. The candidates considered that Ambrose IV was being profligate with his precious swordsmen, although they were hardly unbiased observers. How many did he want tonight? Harvest was Prime, and candidates invariably left Ironhall in the same order they had entered.
The Brat arrived at last, panting and well spattered with gravy and fragments of salad. He stared in dismay at Harvest's back, hesitant to interrupt the awesomely exalted Prime while he was talking; but all the seniors except Durendal were still arguing at the tops of their voices, blissfully unaware of the drama. The hall hushed as the audience realized what was happening and waited in amused suspense. The distant sopranos had climbed up on their benches to watch.
Young Byless was in full throat. "And I say that we're the most deadly collection of swordsmen in all Eurania!" He apparently meant the seniors, including himself. This was certainly the first time in his life he had ever tasted wine, and it showed. "We'd be a match for a whole regiment of the King of Isilondts Household Sabreurs. We ought to send them a challenge."
"Shinbones!" said Harvest. "We'd be massacred!"
Byless turned an unsteady gaze on him. "What if we were? We'd have created a legend."
"Besides," said Felix, "I think they're a lot more deadly." He gestured over his shoulder at the tables behind him.
He was making better sense. That was where the masters and other knights sat, those Blades who had played out their game and retired to teach another generation. There were bald heads and liver spots and missing teeth there. Some were truly ancient, but not one of them was fat, senile, or even stooped; and by and large they were all still functional. Blades might rust, but they did not rot. Among them were some unfamiliar faces, visitors enjoying the nostalgia of a Durendal Night. Knights who had completed their stint in the Royal Guard might be anything from doorkeepers for rich merchants to senior ministers of the Crown. The only one Durendal recognized there tonight was Grand Wizard, head of the Royal College of Conjurers. They were all having as much trouble as the juniors in suppressing their laughter.
Red-faced, Byless drained his glass and went on the offensive with a loud burp. " Urk! Them? They're old! There isn't one of them under thirty."
Durendal decided it was time to stop his friends making fools of themselves. He scowled at the Brat, who was a smartish nipper and had been Brat long enough to know that the current Second was no danger to him.
"Miserable lowlife!" he shouted. "Bottom-feeding, snot-nosed, festering slug, you dare to creep in here and mar the merriment of your betters?"
The Brat shot him a wary glance. Harvest looked around, gaped in horror for a moment, and then made a fast recovery. "Scum! Bedwetting troglodyte!" He swung a blow at the Brat's head, but it was well signaled and failed to make contact.
The Brat sprawled realistically to the floor and groveled appropriately. When he had been Brat, Durendal had found groveling the hardest duty required of him. He had learned, of course--oh yes, he had learned! The hall whooped in approval. They had all been there once, every one of them, down on the floor, butt of all Ironhall.
"Honored and glorious Prime!" the kid squeaked. "Most noble, most illustrious Second, Grand Master sent me to summon you!"
"Liar!" Harvest boomed, tipping his wineglass over the lad. "Get out of here, you human pestilence. Go and tell Grand Master to eat horse dung."
The Brat sprang to his feet and fled, running the gauntlet of flying food and extended feet again. The knights joined in the laughter as if they had not witnessed such scenes a thousand times before.
Tumult died away to an excited murmur.
"That was good," Durendal said. " `Bed-wetting troglodyte' was good!"
Prime tried to hide his apprehension and failed miserably. "You suppose there might be something in what he said?"
"It's your blood, brother," Durendal declared confidently.
It would not be his blood, not tonight. Only Prime was going to be bound, or Grand Master would have summoned more than two. They rose together, bowed to high table together, and headed side by side to the door. An ominous hush settled over the hall.
• 3 •
Durendal closed the heavy door silently and went to stand beside Prime, carefully not looking at the other chair.
"You sent for us, Grand Master?" Harvest's voice warbled slightly, although he was rigid as a pike, staring straight at the bookshelves.
"I did, Prime. His Majesty has need of a Blade. Are you ready to serve?"
Candles flickered. Durendal had not been in this chamber since the day he caught the coins, five years ago, yet he could see no change. The grate had never been touched by flame, the same stuffing was still trying to escape from the chairs, and even the wine on the table was the same deep red. Of course Grand Master's eyebrows were thicker and whiter, his neck more scraggly, but Durendal had watched those changes coming day by day. He himself had changed far more. He was as tall now as Grand Master.
He remembered how, that epic first day, he had gone to report to this same Harvest and seen his face light up with ecstasy. Three months later, Durendal himself had reacted the same way when his own replacement had appeared. Three months of hell--and yet those three months had been nothing compared to what had followed right after, when the ex-Brat had insisted on taking the sacred name of Durendal. Master of Archives had warned him what would happen if he defied a tradition hallowed by three hundred years' observance. Well, they hadn't broken him. He had survived, struggled to be worthy of the great name, won the grudging respect of the masters and his peers. And he was worthy--the best of them all. By tomorrow night he would be Prime and Byless Second. Byless wouldn't be able to handle the juniors.
Not Durendal's problem.
What was his problem was Harvest's appalling silence. He must have been expecting the question, because he had been Second when Pendering was called. What choice did he have? Did any man ever refuse? Presumably he still had the choice all candidates had, the dismal election of walking out of the gate forever; but to contemplate surrender after so many years of effort--it was unthinkable, surely?
The only sound in the room was a faint crackling as Grand Master crumpled a sheet of parchment in his massive fist. The wax of the royal signet broke off in fragments. After five years of learning to read Grand Master's moods, Durendal knew that now they were proclaiming hurricane ! Enforced absence from the feast might explain some storminess, but not so much.
Harvest spoke at last, almost inaudibly. "I am ready, Grand Master."
Soon Durendal would be saying those words. And who would be sitting in the second chair?
Who was there now? He had not looked. The edge of his eye hinted it was seeing a youngish man, too young to be the King himself.
"My lord," Grand Master said, "I have the honor to present Prime Candidate Harvest, who will serve you as your Blade."
As the two young men turned to him, the anonymous noble drawled, "The other one looks much more impressive. Do I have a choice?"
"You do not!" barked Grand Master, color pouring into his craggy face. "The King himself takes whoever is Prime."
"Oh, so sorry! Didn't mean to twist your dewlaps, Grand Master." He smiled vacuously. He was a weedy, soft-faced man in his early twenties, a courtier to the core, resplendent in crimson and vermilion silks trimmed with fur and gold chain. If the white cloak was truly ermine, it must be worth a fortune. His fairish beard came to a needle point and his mustache was a work of art. A fop. Who?
"Prime, this is the Marquis of Nutting, your future ward."
"Ward?" The Marquis sniggered. "You make me sound like a debutante, Grand Master. Ward indeed!"
Harvest bowed, his face ashen as he contemplated a lifetime guarding ... whom? Not the King himself, not his heir, not a prince of the blood, not an ambassador traveling in exotic lands, not an important landowner out on the marches, not a senior minister, nor even--at worst--the head of one of the great conjuring orders. Here was no ward worth dying for, just a court dandy, a parasite. Trash.
Seniors spent more time studying politics than anything else except fencing. Wasn't the Marquis of Nutting the brother of the Countess Mornicade, the King's latest mistress? If so, then six months ago he had been the Honorable Tab Nillway, a younger son of a penniless baronet, and his only claim to importance was that he had been expelled from the same womb as one of the greatest beauties of the age. No report reaching Ironhall had ever hinted that he might have talent or ability.
"I am deeply honored to be assigned to your lordship," Harvest said hoarsely, but the spirits did not strike him dead for perjury.
Grand Master's displeasure was now explained. One of his precious charges was being thrown away to no purpose. Nutting was not important enough to have enemies, even at court. No man of honor would lower his standards enough to call out an upstart pimp--certainly not one who had a Blade prepared to die for him. But Grand Master had no choice. The King's will was paramount.
"We shall hold the binding tomorrow midnight, Prime," the old man snapped. "Make the arrangements, Second."
"Yes, Grand Master."
"Tomorrow?" protested the Marquis querulously. "There's a ball at court tomorrow. Can't we just run through the rigmarole quickly now and be done with it?"
Grand Master's face was already dangerously inflamed, and that remark made the veins swell even more. "Not unless you wish to kill a man, my lord. You have to learn your part in the ritual. Both you and Prime must be purified by ritual and fasting."
Nutting curled his lip. "Fasting? How barbaric!"
"Binding is a major conjuration. You will be in some danger yourself."
If the plan was to frighten the court parasite into withdrawing, it failed miserably. He merely muttered, "Oh, I'm sure you exaggerate."
Grand Master gave the two candidates a curt nod of dismissal. They bowed in unison and left.
• 4 •
Harvest clattered quickly down the stairs and strode off along a corridor that led to nowhere except the library. Durendal, with his longer legs, had no trouble keeping up with him. If the man wanted to be alone, he could say so; but if he needed support, then who else should offer it but Second?
The glow of a lamp appeared ahead as someone approached the corner. Harvest muttered an oath and moved into a window embrasure. Leaning on the stone sill, he thrust his face against the bars, as if trying to fill his lungs with fresh air.
"You go back to the hall, Second. Take--" His voice cracked. "Sit in my chair. So they'll know."
Durendal thumped a hand on his shoulder. "You forget that I have to fast also. Look on the bright side, warrior!" You can always cut your throat, which is what I would do. "You might have been gifted to some tinpot princeling in the Northern Isles. As it is, you'll live at court, romancing all the beautiful maidens. What a sinecure--wenching, dancing, hunting, and not a worry!"
"A long, quiet life is better than a short--"
"No, it isn't. Never! Five years I've slaved here, and I'm being wasted. Utterly wasted!"
This was so obviously true that Durendal found himself at a loss. He turned hopefully to the lamp approaching and saw that it was being carried by Sir Aragon, who was even older than Grand Master. He contributed nothing to Ironhall these days except a glorious reputation, for he had been Blade to the great Shoulrack who had pacified Nythia for Ambrose III. He was reputed to have been the general's brains as well as his personal sword and shield.
"Leave me," Harvest howled to the sky. "For spirits' sake, Second, leave me, go away, and let me weep like a crazy woman. Like that dissolute, useless namby who is going to own my soul."
Durendal stepped back. Aragon came shuffling closer with his lamp in one hand, a cane in the other, and a thick book under his arm. He was frail, but he had not lost his wits. He took in the situation at a glance.
"Bad news, lad?"
When Harvest did not answer, Durendal said, "Prime is a little shocked, sir. He has been assigned to the Marquis of Nutting."
"Who, by the eight, is he?"
"The brother of the King's current mistress."
The old man pulled a hideous face, all wrinkles and yellow stumps of teeth. "I trust you are not implying that a private Blade is in some way inferior to a member of the Royal Guard, Candidate?"
Huddled in his cloak of misery, Harvest mumbled, "No, sir."
"It is a rare honor. There are a hundred Blades in the Royal Guard all going mad with boredom, but a private Blade has his work cut out for him, a lifetime of devotion and service. I congratulate you, my boy." Propping his cane against the wall, he held out a gnarled claw that would never again draw the sword hanging at his side.
"Congratulate?" Harvest shouted, swinging around but ignoring the proffered hand. Two red lines framing his face showed where he had been leaning on the bars. "Nutting is a nothing, a bag of dung! What need has he for a Blade?"
"The King must think he has need, Candidate! Do you presume to overrule your King? Do you know things that he doesn't?"
Nice try, Durendal thought, but it wouldn't console him, were he in poor Harvest's half-boots.
Prime shuddered and made an effort to control himself, although he was obviously close to tears now. "The King knows what he is doing! Grand Master's told him I'm not good enough for the Royal Guard, so he's palming me off on a worthless buffoon, a panderer. He isn't even a genuine noble."
Aragon's shock seemed genuine enough. "You are raving, Prime, and you know it! Neither Grand Master nor anyone else ever passes judgment on the candidates like that. Anyone who fails to measure up is thrown out long before he becomes a senior--you know that, too. I am well aware that you can't fence like Durendal here. Who can? That does not mean that all the rest of us are useless! The reason the King always takes the first in line is because even a below-average Blade is fields ahead of any other swordsman anywhere. It doesn't matter how you rank in Ironhall, you're first-class by the world's standards. Now stop making a fool of yourself." The rheumy eyes glanced briefly at Durendal. "If Grand Master were to hear of this exhibition, he might indeed change the assignment--but he would do it by striking you off the roll completely!"
Then Durendal would have to take his place, but he was more concerned for his friend than he was for himself--or hoped he was. Harvest's trouble was that he wasn't quite ripe. He did not have his emotions under adult control yet. He needed to do some more growing up.
He had twenty-four hours to do it.
Durendal said, "You're an Ironhall Blade, the deadliest human weapon ever devised--loyal, fearless, and incorruptible. How long since anyone died in a binding, Sir Aragon?"
"Before my time. Sixty years ago, at least."
"There you are. You're not afraid, are you?"
Harvest flinched. "Curse you, no! I'm not a coward!"
"It's beginning to look like it."
"Well, that's all right, then." Durendal laid a friendly but powerful arm around Prime's shoulders and propelled him bodily along the corridor.
Aragon stared after them wisfully.
Copyright © 1998 Dave Duncan. All rights reserved.