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 your- selves--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.