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ABOUT AN HOUR BEFORE DAWN SOME IDIOT BLEW a deafening blast on a bugle right under the dormitory window. Nine boys lurched up out of deep sleep with yells of alarm, then registered the clattering of iron-clad hooves on the cobbles of the courtyard. Nine blankets flew off, eighteen bare feet hit the boards at almost the same instant, nine bodies dived for the window.
Stalwart prided himself on being the fastest man in the senior class, but he was also the smallest. He did reach the window first, only to be hurled aside by a flying wedge of superior muscle. No matter! It was still too dark outside to see much, and he could guess what was happening—the King had come to Ironhall. Judging by the racket, he was being escorted by the entire Royal Guard, a hundred strong.
"When did the King ever travel by night before?" someone cried, probably Rufus.
"Never!" That was Orvil, who was Prime, meaning he had been in Ironhall longer than anyone. "And he used to bring a dozen Blades with him, no more."
Eighteen eyes shone wide in the gloom as the senior class thought about King Ambrose skulking around by night and needing so many bodyguards. Nine naked or near-naked youngsters shivered in the predawn chill. The unheralded royal visit was a chilling reminder of the Monster War. For the last eight months or so—starting with the terrible Night of Dogs—unknown sorcerers had repeatedly tried to kill the King of Chivial, killing many of the Blades in his Guard in the process. The only reason he ever came to Ironhall was to enlist new Blades, who would be chosen from the senior class—the very nine present in that dormitory. How many would he take this time? Tonight at midnight he would strike a sword through their hearts in a magical ritual to bind them to absolute loyalty, companions in the Loyal and Ancient Order of the King's Blades.
How many of them?
"Well, don't all stand there with your tongues hanging out!" yelled Panther. "Get dressed! Your King wants you!"
Eight seniors sprang into motion, quickly followed by Panther himself as he realized he wasn't wearing anything either. Someone struck a flint. Spark on tinder, flame on candle, many candle flames ... With nervy haste the nine seniors rummaged in hampers to find their best and cleanest—breeches, hose, shirts, doublets, jerkins. Cloaks and boots and hats. Comb hair. Those who needed to shave began doing so—painfully, because no one dared run and fetch hot water lest he be absent when the summons came. There was some angry jostling around the candles and tiny mirrors.
Shaving was not yet one of Stalwart's problems. He sat on the edge of his bed and hugged himself, miserably uncertain whether the knot in his innards was wild excitement or just terror. He wanted to be chosen this time! Of course he wanted to be chosen! Why else had he spent the last four years working his heart out here in Ironhall if not to become a Blade? True, he was the youngest of the seniors, but he ranked fifth in seniority, and candidates always left Ironhall in the order in which they had come. He was worthy! Day in and day out he was the best on the fencing ground. And yet ... Until the Night of Dogs a career in the Royal Guard had been a sinecure, easy pickings, ten years of lounging around the court charming beautiful ladies. Now it was as dangerous as lion wrestling. Two dozen members of the Order had died in the last half year. Ironhall was rushing boys through training faster than it had in centuries. None of the current seniors, even Prime, had been in the school for the standard five years.
"There's no great hurry," Orvil said squeakily, although he had been moving as fast as anyone. "First the King talks with Grand Master and tells him how many of us he wants. Then Grand Master sends the Brat to fetch us." Everyone knew this, because he had told them at least a dozen times. He had been present the last time, two months ago. "They always send for one more than they are going to bind, so he can—"
The door flew open. Two shavers cut themselves and screamed in fury. In walked Sir Dreadnought, Deputy Commander of the Guard.
"How many?" everyone yelled in unison.
Dreadnought closed the door and folded his arms. He surveyed the room in the dim light, smiling grimly. "As many of you as Grand Master can bear to part with. I just came to make sure none of you goes sneaking down to the kitchens. A whole day's fasting before a binding, remember."
The discomfort inside Stalwart, which had been worry, instantly became ravening hunger instead. Out in the corridor a mob of chattering, jabbering juniors headed for the stairs—so-pranos and beansprouts. The seniors clustered closer around Dreadnought, most of them still soaped for shaving.
"Have there been more attacks on the King?" Orvil asked.
"State secret. I'm not allowed to tell you that until you're bound." Dreadnought was a good man, a superb swordsman. He had won the King's Cup for the second time that summer, which meant he was probably the finest fencer in the entire world at the moment. On his jerkin he sported a four-pointed diamond-studded badge to show he was a member of the White Star, the highest order of chivalry in the country. Very few Blades had ever been admitted to the Star, but he had turned up wearing this wonderful thing two months ago. He'd conceded only that he had won it "killing something," but the other men in the Guard had added blood-curdling details of a shambling half-human monstrosity that had gone after the King when he was out hunting. Its fangs and talons had disposed of two other Blades and a horse before Dreadnought slew it. An excellent man!
A bit lacking in humor, maybe. You could tell a lot about a Blade by the name he gave his sword, and his was called Honor. Dull!
"And you still don't know who's doing this?" Orvil persisted.
"If the Guard knew that, sonny, blood would be shed and balefires lit. No matter how good their sorcery is."
Stalwart asked, "How many swords have you brought back this time?"
Dreadnought gave him a long, thoughtful look. Then he said softly, "Keep it to yourselves—eight."
The seniors exchanged shocked glances. When a Blade died his sword was returned to Ironhall to hang for evermore among the thousands of others in the great sky of swords. Elderly, retired Blades—the knights in the Order—died off all the time, but not at that rate, not eight in only two months!
"Well?" Dreadnought said mockingly. "Anyone want to chicken out? If you're going to turn yellow, you'd better do it now, while the going is good—run for the hills!"
"No cowards here!" Orvil said proudly.CHAPTER 2
AS THE SUN ROSE OVER THE BARREN HILLS OF Starkmoor, Grand Master sent for the five most senior candidates. That meant only four would be bound, which was what Stalwart had dreaded.
The Flea Room was a small, bleak chamber that most boys saw only twice in all their years in Ironhall. Each newcomer met Grand Master there, and usually had to listen while whoever had brought him explained what a useless and ungrateful brat he was, and how nobody could do anything with him. Grand Master would hear the story, then talk with the boy in private and test his agility by throwing coins for him to catch. In most cases, he sent the boy and his guardian away and that was the end of it.
But if the boy had spirit and was nimble, Grand Master would accept him as a candidate. He was encouraged to take a new name and make a new person of himself. Whatever he had done in the past was forgotten. He would not see the Flea Room again unless he were set to clean it as a punishment. That was far from the worst that could happen to him, for Ironhall discipline was hard.
Time changed boys into young men. Ironhall's expert training plus a dash or two of magic turned the unwanted rebel into one of the finest swordsmen in the world. After five years or so, when the transformation was complete, the King would either accept him into the Royal Guard or assign him as bodyguard to someone else. It was back in the Flea Room that he learned his fate and met his future ward.
A companion in the Order was addressed as "Sir," although that was only a politeness, so tomorrow Sir Orvil, Sir Panther, Sir Dragon, Sir Rufus, but still only Candidate Stalwart ... sigh!
At the door, Dreadnought took away their swords, because only a bound Blade could go armed into the King's presence. He sent them in by seniority: Orvil striding ahead, Panther close on his heels. Dragon and Rufus followed eagerly, like puppies wanting to romp. The reject trailed along behind, keeping his face blank to hide his disappointment.
There was no shame in being young, but why did it have to go on so long?
An icy wind blew off the moor, in one unglazed window and out the other. The five lined up facing Grand Master, who stood hunched in front of the inner door, clutching his cloak around him against the chill. With nine persons present, the room was crowded. The one staying out of sight at their backs would be Commander Bandit. The huge man in the corner was King Ambrose, but they must pretend not to notice him until they were instructed otherwise. He had set his hands on his hips and was grinning like a stuffed shark. His fingers glittered with jewels.
Orvil spoke the traditional words: "You sent for us, Grand Master?" He said them very loudly, so perhaps he was less calm than he was managing to appear.
"I did summon you, Prime. His Majesty has need of a Blade. Are you ready to serve?" Grand Master's beady eyes were set in a craggy, gloomy face. His name, although nobody used it, was Saxon. He was a distant, coldhearted man, inclined to lose his temper and lash out with harsh punishments, even expelling boys without fair warning. Since expulsion meant the culprit walked away over the moors with nothing but the clothes on his back—and usually no home or family to go to—it might easily be a death sentence. Even some of the elderly knights who dawdled away their final years at Ironhall would shake their heads at times and mutter that the Order had known better Grand Masters than Sir Saxon.
"I am ready, Grand Master," Orvil said quickly.
Grand Master turned and bowed. "Your Majesty, I have the honor of presenting Prime Candidate Orvil."
Now everyone could take notice of the King. Speed being more important than brawn to a swordsman, Master of Rituals used sorcery to prevent any boy growing too big. That rule did not apply to kings, though, and Ambrose IV, King of Chivial, was tall, wide, and portly. Between the calves bulging in his silk hose and the ostrich plume in his floppy hat, everything he wore seemed to be pleated and padded as if intended to make him appear even larger—knee breeches, doublet, jerkin, and fur-trimmed cloak. He loomed like a cheerful storm cloud and his voice thundered in the little room.
"Welcome to our Guard, Prime! Grand Master speaks highly of your skills."
Then Grand Master was lying. Stalwart could beat Orvil every time with rapiers and usually with sabers. Orvil would always win at broad-swords, of course, because a broadsword needed more muscle than Stalwart's body had yet gotten around to providing.
Orvil bowed low, then went forward to kneel before the King and kiss his hand. As he rose to return to his place in line, Grand Master turned to Panther.
"Second, His Majesty has need of a Blade. Are you ready to serve?"
And so on. Panther was a decent man and good with steel. After him it was Dragon's turn. Dragon was only a month older than Stalwart, but looked at least eighteen. What hurt was that he fenced like a crippled cow. Master of Sabers had told him in public that he needed two more years' tuition. Deputy Master of Rapiers muttered under his breath that he ought to chop wood for a living. Yet he was going to be bound and Stalwart wasn't. No justice ...!
"Candidate Rufus ..."
Rufus was all right. His fencing was competent, although he was horribly predictable. Being predictable would not matter in a real fight against opponents who did not know his quirks. Besides, Rufus was nineteen and sported a beard like a gorse bush. Rufus would look convincing in Guard livery. Even Dragon would. But Stalwart ... sigh! That was the trouble—not age, not competence, just looks.
Tonight at midnight there would be sorcery in the Forge. Spirits of all eight elements would be conjured. Each of the four candidates would swear his oath and—unless the magic went wrong, which it almost never did—the sword wound would heal instantly, no harm done. Then he would be a Blade.
Not only would Stalwart have to share the day-long fast and the cold baths that began the ritual, he would also have to assist in the ceremony. That was adding insult to injury. When it was over and the lucky four rode off to court, he would remain behind as Prime, and that was adding injury to injury. Prime's job was to mother all the other boys and keep them from pestering the masters. Being Prime was always described as an honor, but it was an honor nobody ever wanted, communal nose drying and butt wiping.
"Finally, sire," Grand Master bleated, "I have the honor of presenting Candidate Stalwart, who will henceforth serve Your Majesty as Prime, here in Ironhall."
He had been told not to approach; he bowed where he stood.
"Stalwart the musician," the King said.
Feeling his face flame scarlet, Stalwart stared in dismay at the royal grin. King Ambrose was known to have very strong likes and dislikes. Did he disapprove of swordsmen playing lutes?
"I do play the lute a little, Your Majesty...."
"So do I," Ambrose said heartily. "Nothing wrong with lute playing. Maybe next time we can make music together." Chuckling, he swung around in a swirl of velvet and brocade and fur. "Carry on, Grand Master."
Grand Master hastily opened the inner door and stepped aside as the King swept by him, ignoring all the bows directed at his back. Dreadnought crossed the room to follow him. Orvil led the candidates back the way they had come, although his stupid grin was so broad that it seemed unlikely to pass through the doorway.
Maybe next time, the King had said. That might be a hint that he intended to foist Stalwart off as a private Blade guarding some minister or lord. Bindings were permanent. A man had only one chance at the Guard.
"Stalwart!" said Grand Master. "Wait. I want a word with you."
Excerpted from The Monster War by Dave Duncan. Copyright © 1999 Dave Duncan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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