A TALE OF THE KING'S BLADES
Sir Stalwart—still unbound—was brewing in the Snakepit when Sir Snake himself burst through the door.
Of course, when Snake moved anywhere, he never really burst; he slithered, having chosen the perfect name for himself so many years before at Ironhall. Like all Blades, he was whipcord thin and athletically built, even past his days in the Royal Guard. These days, Sir Snake was the chief of the Old Blades, officially the Commissioner of His Royal Majesty King Ambrose's Court of Conjury, but in his youth he'd once been the Deputy Commander of the Guard, bound to the King in the very same way poor Stalwart wished to be.
Several weeks ago, the King was going to bind him, but through no fault of Stalwart's own, that had all fallen apart. A rebellion had sparked in the east, which was nothing new—King Ambrose had dealt with more than one rebellion during his reign, and one additional one didn't seem to be much more significant. But the new rebellion had quickly become different when the King's illegitimate son, Lord Granville, became involved. Add renegade conjurers to that, and Stalwart's promised binding had become less important, and the Old Blades more so.
And now he was stuck again, until Snake strode in with considerably less stealth and grace than he usually possessed. He slammed the door to Stalwart's tiny room open with force, and never even turned to look at the smaller man. In fact, Snake's usually calm face was twisted in fury.
"Get up, Wart!" he snarled. The older man's anger, more than his words, brought Stalwart leaping to his feet, but the ill begotten nickname almost worked as fast. Snake only called him Wart when he was unhappy—every other time, he was Stalwart or simply "brother." He'd begun as Wart, but after earning the Old Blades' respect, he hadn't been called that. This has to be bad. "We have places to be!"
A scuffle downstairs told Stalwart that the entire house was in motion. The Snakepit was the unofficial headquarters of the Old Blades, and there were always at least a dozen of them present at any given time. What in the world could need a dozen knights in the Loyal and Ancient Order of the King's Blades?
"What's going on?" But Stalwart didn't get an answer before Snake swept out the door again, and the smaller man had to rush to keep up with him. Snake was taking the steps two at a time on the way down, never a good sign. Stalwart leapt down the last four to land beside him. "Brother?"
A storm was brewing on the mustached face, but Snake no longer looked like the dandied fop he often portrayed. Sir Felix stepped forward to jostle his elbow.
"Brother?" Sir Terror also approached. Both knights were each more than a decade older than Stalwart, and had known Snake back when they were all in the Guard together. But his stormy expression hardly wavered. "What's going on?"
"Is it a raid?" Stalwart asked, his mind racing. Things had been so quiet lately; in the three weeks since Granville had allied with the rogue conjury orders, it had seemed like everyone else was waiting to see which way the ball dropped. There hadn't even been any ongoing investigations…
"And why do you need all fifteen of us?" Felix asked again. "I've never heard of conjurers so—"
"We're forming a search party." Snake's voice was wooden. "Some peddlers found two dead Blades outside the city…"
"What?" fourteen voices cried. Stalwart's heart thudded in his chest. Dead Blades meant—
"…And three swords," Snake finished.
The leader of the Old Blades nodded, and he suddenly looked very old. His voice was heavy. "Justice."
Stalwart went cold. That had been Orvil's sword's name, and Orvil had once been only four ahead of him at Ironhall. They hadn't ever been able to get to know one another afterwards, but he still could remember his friend—
Disturbed whispers circulated amongst the old Blades. Two Royal Guardsmen, the King's Blades, both dead on the south road out of Grandon…it boded poorly for someone, and those who paid for the death of two Blades would pay dearly. Stalwart gulped. Dancer had been Raven's. Raven had been Prime when Stalwart was the brat—
"Harvest!" Fourteen voices shouted the word, but it might as well have been a tidal wave. Snake looked sick, and Stalwart immediately felt the same. Harvest was the one sword that every Blade knew, that every Blade admired.
The flies and the smell were the first thing that Stalwart noticed. He'd been around dead bodies before, had even killed men, but he'd never intentionally visited corpses. Snake hadn't mentioned the three dead horses earlier, or the fact that arrows were crossed in both dead Blades' chests. Multiple arrows—before turning away from Orvil, Stalwart counted four.
Raven's body lay half underneath his fallen horse. The poor beast had caught two arrows in his own chest, and the lifeless Blade had been struck by five more before he had even hit the ground. Both lay in a puddle of blood that had mostly sank into the dirt beneath them, but not quite; Stalwart's boots made a suspicious squishing sound as he landed on the ground. His horse shied away, but the young Blade wasn't paying attention. His eyes were on his dead friend. Orvil, not far away, had managed to dismount before dying, but his horse was dead, too, seemingly the victim of a rushed sword stroke that had left blood everywhere. That puddle certainly hadn't even begun to evaporate, either, and Stalwart sidestepped it silently. The third horse lay diagonally across the road, having only been struck by one arrow—but that was a precision shot, and had gone directly into the equine's heart. Odd.
There were three dead bodies within five feet of the horse; one was headless, now, and Stalwart caught a glimpse of Sir Felix rummaging through the nearby bush to find the missing appendage. The other two were equally dead, though they'd been struck down without as much fanfare; the one closest to Stalwart had died from a cut throat, and the further had been slain by a very precise thrust through his heart. Not a dozen feet away lay two more dead bodies, one of which had been felled by another very accurate thrust.
The other, however, was still standing.
He was dead, of course—in fact, he couldn't be deader, what with an antique swordbreaker sticking out of his throat. The famous gold swordbreaker was the reason why the fifth dead man was still on his feet; only the jeweled hilt was visible from where the swordbreaker dug through the corpse's neck and into the giant oak tree behind him. It took a very strong arm to throw a heavy swordbreaker that distance and propel it straight into a tree, but none of the Old Blades doubted who that strong arm belonged to. King Ambrose had, after all, only ever presented one of its kind.
Its owner had been one of their own, and he'd accounted for himself well. There was a sixth body to Stalwart's left, and if he had been impressed by the strength evident in the swordbreaker's use, the young Blade was now amazed. Like his decapitated colleague, this corpse had been the victim of a very strong two handed blow—the cut started in his right shoulder and went down to his waist diagonally. He hadn't been cut in half—quite—but it was the closest Stalwart had ever seen a human being come to doing so to an opponent.
And Harvest wasn't even a broadsword.
The seventh body was approximately two strides away—two steps towards the attackers, Stalwart realized as he mimicked the bloody footprints he'd found starting by the sixth corpse. He'd died with a thrust through the heart, which created a surprisingly little amount of blood…nothing even approaching the amount that was on the ground at his feet. There was another arrow in the dirt to Stalwart's right, and the footsteps stopped.
The eight body had probably missed being nailed to a tree only because there wasn't a tree nearby. Judging from the size of the hole in the corpse's chest, Harvest had landed there with a considerable amount of force behind her. The peddlers had probably had a hell of a time pulling the sword free, but Stalwart felt very little pity for them at the moment.
It was obvious that he was standing where Sir Durendal had fallen.
There was a long moment of silence in which none of the Old Blades spoke. Unlike Stalwart, many of them had served with the great Durendal—but like him, they idolized the famous blade. "The King is 'sire' to his face and 'Fat Man' when he's not around. Bandit is 'Leader'," Snake had told him on that very first day. "And Durendal. Him we honor because he's still the greatest of us all. No one else."
There were no more footsteps, but there were ruts in the ground. They were not deep ruts like those caused by a pair of spurs being dragged over hard-packed dirt—but Durendal, a superlative horseman like all Blades, never wore spurs. Stalwart swallowed. Those had definitely been Durendal's heels dragged over the squishy and bloody ground, and the trail of blood that went with the ruts undoubtedly had come from the great Blade as well. How had they taken him down? It hardly mattered, but Stalwart still wanted to know.
"Why did he throw Harvest?" he asked instead, glancing at Snake, who had somehow wound up standing beside him.
"Because he knew it was lost," the other answered after a long moment, then gestured at the ground. Harvest was still in Snake's hands. He seemed afraid to let her go. "Look at the blood, brother."
And there was a lot of blood. A bound Blade could take an incalculable amount of abuse before falling, but Durendal hadn't been a bound Blade for almost a year. He'd been the Lord Chancellor of Chivial, instead, the top Minister in the land. He was phenomenally popular and extraordinarily successful, which went a long distance towards proving that Blades were more than just swordsmen…even though the carnage surrounding Stalwart also reminded them all that while old Blades might rust, they never rotted. Sir Durendal was more than just any old knight, too; he was the Blade of Blades, in addition to being King Ambrose's right hand. A few hardy souls usually went far enough to point out that Lord Chancellor Roland was often His Majesty's left hand, as well.
Either way, this was not going to be good.
Royal temper tantrums rarely were, either. With the Baelmark treaty signed and Princess Malinda's matrimonial fate decided, the number of royal outbursts per day had supposedly decreased—or so the Guard insisted, though Stalwart himself wouldn't know. But King Ambrose himself had an exceedingly royal temper when angered, and if the death of two of his Blades and the disappearance of his Chancellor couldn't set him off, nothing could.
As it was, he took the deaths of Orvil and Raven remarkably well. The King sent Deputy Commander Dreadnaught back to Ironhall with their swords and a note for Grand Master; such was tradition. It was Durendal's disappearance that sent him rolling. Stalwart could hear him through the door.
"I want him found, Commander!" the royal person bellowed. "And the same goes for you, Snake! I want the traitors found and burned and dead!"
"Your Majesty, it may be easier said than done—"
No one had ever accused Bandit of not having backbone, but Ambrose droned him out easily. "I don't want difficulties, Commander, I want results!" he thundered. "And we want our chancellor back!"
Coming from any other man, those last words would have distinctively resembled a two-year-old's whining. Coming from the King, however, they were a command. Especially from this King.
Stalwart frowned, leaning against the wall. He was wearing Guard livery now, even though he wasn't really bound—and if things kept going this way, he was never going to get bound. But in light of the current situation, Stalwart's problems were really very minor. The first minister of Chivial was missing, and though he'd done a bloody good accounting before they'd gotten him, that fact was still going to turn the Blades inside out. This wasn't any Chancellor. This was Durendal.
This was not going to be fun.