Disclaimer: The King's Blades is the creation and property of Dave Duncan; all characters and a number of the ideas used in this fanfic belong to him. This work was written out of appreciation for his creations and is not meant for commercial gain.

A/N: Much thanks to Telepwen, my beta-reader, and to all the people who kept bugging me to put this up.

Rust and Ruins

Nobody quite knows where the idea of the Blades first came from. Ironhall has a fair library, open to the boys in the course of their studies, for recreation to the very few who want it, but this tidbit is not in the library and is not taught in lessons.

The Masters are not holding anything back; they try not to do that if they can help it. This is one of the many little things that were caught in gusts of time and hurricanes of war, swept into the nooks and crannies of the world and left there to decay. They do not know. They rather wish they did. Every boy at Starkmoor asks this question, some of them hundreds of times. And the boys deserve to know their legacy. All of it, not only the tidbits the Masters worked so hard to gather. They won't learn any more as men, and some of them will die for it. There's no way of knowing which ones.

And Grand Master is responsible for all of them.

On the lonely moors, autumn is frigid and windy. The harvest came two weeks ago, yet frost already lines the corners of the windows. It is the two month bridge between summer and winter, when vibrant greens lie at the edge of memory, and a parched landscape warns of death that lines the days ahead, that is the hardest time of year for an old man. And on the brink, a week ago, a flash of understanding touched Grand Master's head. He will not live much longer, and there are things he must do while he lives.

On most nights, now, he hunts about the library for one lost fragment of paper, one overlooked scroll. Grand Master takes the candle from his study to guide him back when he is done; the drafts blow it out every once in awhile. On nights like these, he grows tired of Starkmoor. On nights like these, he feels abused and worn.

There is no success. He's won too many battles; now he must grow used to failure. Chance favored him for years and pulled him through when Death joined in the chase. There has never been something that he could not turn to his advantage, or, at least, that he could not strike down. For years he has been patient; he got his way by leading people with a quiet word, and if King Ambrose or his advisors wouldn't listen, he waited to try again another day. He doesn't have the time for that, now. First his binding kept him young; then his energy and status kept him going. Now he has a grim determination not to give up in what might well be his final fight. He needs sleep; he should not spend all this time reading, but he does it anyway.

By daylight he fosters his Blades, and hopes he can give them what they still need. Prime is a quiet chap, but just ready for harvesting. One fuzzy, beyond talented, can already best half the Royal Guard. The smallest beansprout is not a born swordsman; Grand Master spends hours training Tiger, drilling him, and applauds when the boy thrusts his sword properly for the first time. The Brat is stubborn, more daring than most, and has not had any respite in three months. He clenches his teeth against the onslaught of taunting for what seems like an eternity, but finally, he breaks, and demands that Grand Master tell him why.

The rest are the usual subjects, great fencers but average in other senses, unique in the way all boys are but always like the ones he's seen before. They are as close to ordinary as a growing Blade can manage. They'll all turn out all right, and he'll be proud of them.

And at twilight, after supper and the Litany of Heroes, he searches. Once, he slips on a discarded cloak, and almost sets the whole place afire. He has harsh words for Harrow, the exceptional fuzzy, in the morning.

He ends the search in midwinter. The boys need him. They are more important than an obscure bit of history, and he can give them more supporting them than he could in any other way. Training continues indoors, in open halls that, if not warm, at least have stone roofs. Windowpanes freeze over; several shatter. Two sopranos sneak out onto the moors on a dare, as usual. This pair has the sense to come back before they are completely lost. There are no letters, no missives, no frozen visitors, and no new boys. Ironhall is as full as ever, secure with all the people it could ever need, but Grand Master can feel it shrinking, slipping away from him. Nonsense, of course, and he knows it. The boys are growing under him, and they will be needed when the chill passes. But it is not enough, somehow.

Spring comes. King Athelgar--intelligent but foolish and unsuited to ruling--grows tired of the farce and the insults constantly sent his way. In March, he settles plans to abdicate. But he first calls Grand Master (now Lord Roland) to Grandon, four days of hard riding for an eighty-year-old man. He, three Privy Council members, and the current Lord Chancellor must decide on a successor, and Athelgar does not want to be bothered.

It is an oddity that there is anything to discuss. The laws of succession have always been bound by the books of genealogy, and for all that they're complicated enough to give Master of Rituals a headache, it's always been clear precisely who has the greatest claim to the throne. But Athelgar is a foreigner, with no direct relations who might take the throne. Royal relatives can only claim some tie to Queen Matilda, and none of those are powerful, or very closely linked, or, indeed, at all eager to show off their connections to the king. Perhaps they figure his low popularity would reflect on them, and they'll have better chances if they sit and watch until he dies. They would probably be right. But if the council makes a good choice now, a new king could keep tempers down throughout the country long enough to keep conditions stable. That's the hope, at least. And there's a better chance of it if Athelgar isn't going to intervene.

After three hours of chatter and a polite lack of arguments, the younger men fidget in silence and defer to him. Strange--Athelgar hates him; he does not know why he is there at all--but then again, they aren't getting anywhere anyway. The Lord Chancellor clears his throat. "And what do you think, sir?" he asks.

Lord Roland bows his head in reply. "It would be prudent to examine the candidates further. If we are trying to avert civil war, then we ought to make sure it is averted. And," he adds, "whoever we choose should bind a Blade before he is put on the throne."

Some squabbling, but his plan is adopted completely. They spend one long week rifling through histories and pedigrees. The other men know much more than he does, but at the same time are more ignorant than a herd of cows. We have decayed again, he thinks, and grimaces. He tried, oh, he tried, and it hasn't come to anything. We were always like this, but I didn't mind it, or tried not to mind. And when I could not… I pressed over them, and I came out stronger. Even with old Nutting. Even with old Kromman.

The problem is, he cannot press them any longer, and they have not changed. They will not be lost without him--he is not quite that arrogant--but Chivial will decline, and spirits know what will happen then.

He has never felt so morose, or so helpless. He had not realized how much he hates old age.

Their final pick is a distant cousin through Queen Malinda who has a good head on his shoulders and has never been involved in any scandal of any kind. He is a little young, but has enough tact to make up for it, and most importantly, Lord Airen of Fairfield will be good enough to save the country from disaster.

When Athelgar sees the choice, he glares, nods once, and sends them out.

Lord Roland grants a hurried visit to his son at Ivywalls, where he becomes Father again, though only for a night. A nameless withered Blade then rushes back to Starkmoor, where he becomes Grand Master, and joins the throws again. It is stressful, but he prefers it to politics; the boys have all behaved themselves, and they are glad to have him back. Master of Rituals shows him a large crack in a minor forge; he estimates the sum needed to repair it. At least five boys are now ready for harvesting. This is good; Lord Airen is due in two weeks, and he ought to have at least three.

On some evenings, now, Grand Master reads through his own books, old things, perhaps boring, but worth a good shuffle through. Most nights he calls the seniors for discussions, on their lessons and on politics, as he ever has, but also on their hopes and private lives. Prime asks about his old life, and he obliges. Then he asks the fuzzies, and the beardless, the sopranos, the beansprouts, all down to the Brat. And he will speak to the Brat, too, before he goes.

Two days before Lord Airen's arrival, Grand Master finds a charred bit of parchment wedged between the pages of A Brief History of Chivial. The parchment is dry, cracked and dusty; the ink has bled teardrop patterns, turning clear penmanship to a dizzy scribble.

A third of the words are missing, and what is left is only on the edge of legibility, but he struggles through it. As he reads it, he shivers, but not from cold or nerves. A kind of liqueur runs through his veins, potent and strange, that makes him feel like himself again–like he was when he was Durendal, and truly had a claim to that name.

On the day he picked his name, the day he made himself what he wanted to be… he is older, and he has seen too much, and he has lost the careless impudence he held as a child, but he is still proud, and self-assured, and competent in every field. He stands and leaves his brooding thoughts behind him, tucked back into the compartment where they have always belonged.

The piece of paper is in his pocket when he greets Lord Airen, and is in his hand during the man's binding.

And this is what he read, or would have read if he had possessed the whole paper:

The days when Chivial was a tiny nation, holding only open fields and a little town in Grandon, were the days of constant warfare and disaster. There was no king and no army and no real philosophy, only farmers who wanted to be left alone. In one nameless campaign, a Sephraim army came to terrorize the countryside, a move tactically easy and strategically useless. Farmers wielded pitchforks and old knives against the army, and fell in a stampede of blood and fire. Burning, rape, useless death, loathing for new master--this is what terrorization brings. Their captain took especial joy in murdering the children. In mid-battle, the man thrust his sword through the heart of a twelve-year-old, who had been screaming incantations to protect his family. Instead of dying, as one would expect, he rose again and stood in silence at his captain's side, blank-eyed and slack-limbed. When the captain bolted in terror, the boy took a horse--as though he was stealing it, though it was his own--and rode after him. Neither was seen again.

The boy's brother, at sixteen, had been fighting against the invaders, and could not stop when he saw his brother fall. Nor could he see the aftermath from where he was; he cut down two men on either side of him, and dove into the brush to watch his in silence. When the troops, leaderless, scattered, the young man sought out his father, and begged that the same be done to him, so that he could save his brother, and help avenge him if nothing else. The boy, called Durran, left home to test his fortune, spent years studying to improve the enchantment. At twenty, he performed it on himself, and, surviving, changed his name to Durendal.

We were not born as heroes, but as guardians–not of the king, but the ideal he stands for. That is the chain that binds the Sky of Swords.