The Swordbearer - Glen Cook, page 1
A young man's dreams of warfare and glory turn into a bitter nightmare when an invading army, led by the Dark Champion Nevenka Nieroda and his twelve Dead Captains, the Toal, besieges his father's feudal fortress. Nieroda and the Toal demand the surrender of an ancient artifact long-believed to be a myth. With the walls breached and his family slaughtered—or worse—Gathrid flees into the wilderness beyond his familiar castle walls.
Lost and alone in the woods, hounded by the Dead Captains, Gathrid takes refuge in a vast cavern. There he discovers an ancient sword—Daubendiek, the Great Sword of Suchara, the fabled weapon once wielded by the legendary tragic hero of an ancient age, Tureck Aarant. Daubendiek, a restless and thirsty blade, promises Gathrid the ability to claim his vengeance. But as he begins to take that vengeance, Gathrid starts to understand the terrible price that the sword will exact of him. Enemies soon become allies and strange bedfellows abound as the prophesies of an age swirl into chaos.
Published by Timescape / Pocket Books
The Swordbearer © 1982 by Glen Cook
Cover Art by Keith Berdak
All rights reserved
First Edition April 1982
This ePub edition v1.0 by Dead^Man Jan, 2011
Printed in USA
Table of Contents
Chapter One KACALIEF
Chapter Two ULTIMATUM
Chapter Three THE SAVARD
Chapter Four CAVERNS
Chapter Five ROUND KATICH
Chapter Six THE ALLIES
Chapter Seven GUDERMUTH
Chapter Eight VENTIMIGLIA
Chapter Nine ROUND DEDERA
Chapter Ten ANSORGE
Chapter Eleven SENTURIA
Chapter Twelve COVINGONT
Chapter Thirteen GUDERMUTH AGAIN
Chapter Fourteen TORUN
Chapter Fifteen SARTAIN
Chapter Sixteen THE MAURATH
Chapter Seventeen THE RAFTERY
Chapter Eighteen IMPERIAL PALACE
Chapter Nineteen ENDGAME
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Summer desiccated the earth and made the horizons waver behind air heavy with dust and pollen. There was no breeze to gentle the gnawing heat.
Hooves thundered across hard earth. A war cry slapped the morning’s face. A crack hit the still air as a rider’s blade bit an oaken post standing in the center of a field where only the most determined grasses survived. A woodchip arced away.
The rider’s sword flew from his hand. It spun across the powdery earth.
A fifteen-year-old sat watching his brothers rehearse the skills of war. He had his behind nestled in a grassy hummock. His arms were around his shins. His chin rested on his knees. His face was grim. He smiled only weakly when Belthar gave his brother hell.
Fabric rustled behind him. He did not turn. His sister came round his shade bush and settled beside him. She was a year older, blonde and striking. She would become a beautiful woman.
Anger flashed in her pale gray eyes. “Gathrid?”
“I heard you had another argument with Father.”
“Uh-huh. Same old fight. He won’t let me train with Mitar and Haghen. Don’t let the poor cripple get hurt.... “
“He’ll never let you, either. Not if you keep pushing him. You’ve got to get around sideways and make him think it’s his idea. I don’t have any trouble.”
“I’m not a girl, Anyeck. I can’t do all that bounce and soft eyes and ‘Oh, please, Daddy.’”
Anyeck laughed. “You make me sound like a courtesan.”
“Sometimes you act like one.”
“You’re looking for lumps from everybody, aren’t you?”
A horrendous thump interrupted them. They sprang up. Their brother Haghen had fallen off his horse. Belthar and his men rushed him. Belthar started cursing.
“He’s all right,” Anyeck said. “Belthar wouldn’t yell if he wasn’t. That’s really what you want to go through, huh?”
Haghen rose and beat dust off himself. Gathrid did not reply.
Anyeck continued, “There was a messenger from the Dolvin. Father has to go to Hartog. I’m going to get him to let me go, too. He said he’ll leave as soon as Symen gets back from Rigdon.”
Gathrid became worried. His father was just an unimportant knight in one small corner of Gudermuth. His liege, the Dolvin, was responsible for Gudermuth’s entire frontier with the kingdom of Grevening. “You think it’s because Father hanged those raiders?”
“Franaker Huthsing sent them over, but even he wouldn’t have the gall to complain if they got caught and hanged. I don’t know what it is. He just said he has to go.”
Gathrid’s family and its retainers lived in a small fortress called Kacalief. Their father was Safire, or knight protector. The Dolvin’s Savard March, guarding the kingdom of Gudermuth’s easternmost frontier, had been in dispute between the Kings of Gudermuth and Grevening for decades. The Sheriff of Rigdon, a town on the Grevening side of the border, had a habit of sending small bands of bravos over to cause trouble. The latest bunch had gotten out of hand and killed some sheep. The Safire had hanged them. He had sent his oldest son to return the bodies.
“Maybe Huthsing won’t be so pushy now,” Gathrid said. He watched his brother Mitar gallop around. Mitar was clumsier than Haghen.
“Maybe.” Anyeck seemed unconvinced. Or just not interested. “Really, why do you want to go out there and get yourself knocked around? What do you want to prove, anyway?”
Gathrid scowled at her, turned his attention to the field. He didn’t have to answer that.
He had had a brief bout with polio. It had affected one arm and one leg. The corner of one eye drooped. The disease hadn’t crippled him, but his father considered his slight handicap sufficient to prevent his ever becoming a knight.
“They’re turning me into a jester, Anyeck. All they let me do is study. I’m bored stiff with Plauen’s lectures about the Golden Age and Anderle. I’m up to here with learning numbers and languages.”
“Somebody has to do those things, Gathrid.”
“Somebody who gets paid. I don’t see you going into ecstasy over Plauen’s lessons. It’s not manly, scribbling in books, playing with numbers, studying old stories about the Immortal Twins and Tureck Aarant. Who cares about them anymore, anyway? They’ve been dead for a thousand years.”
Anyeck laid a gentle hand on his arm. “Don’t get upset. Maybe while Father and I are gone... “
“You’re kidding. Can you see Belthar doing anything without Father’s okay?”
“No. I guess not. Maybe I’ll talk to him.”
They sat there a while, watching their brothers build themselves cases of sore muscles and bruises. The shadow of the bush began to dwindle. Gathrid drifted off on a reverie. In daydreams he could be the most dreaded warrior ever to have lived. Men would pale at the naming of his name. No weakness hampered him in daydreams.
Anyeck nudged him. “Symen is coming.”
Gathrid opened his eyes. Symen and his men-at-arms were approaching at a canter. Something about them portended bad news. The men on the practice field racked their weapons and dismounted. They formed a clump and waited. They reacted like herd animals sensing danger.
Gathrid stood, helped Anyeck rise. Hand in hand, they went to join the others. They were close. She was the only one who understood him. He was her only confidant.
Gathrid limped slightly. It was barely noticeable. There had been
It was an old, old world. Its inhabitants were a worn and weary people fallen into long rhythms of empire and dark age. Its unremitting feudalism remained eternally static.
Symen stopped his animal and swung down. He handed his reins to a soldier. His homely face was drawn and pale. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Haghen observed.
Symen shuddered. “No. But I did see the shape of tomorrow.”
Gathrid glanced at his sister and frowned. “What happened?” Anyeck asked. “Did Huthsing?... “
“It wasn’t Franaker Huthsing. He’s a toy devil compared to this.”
“Ventimiglia invaded Grevening. From the Tower in Rigdon you can see the smoke of the burning villages. The whole eastern horizon looks like there’s a big bank of fog coming in.” Symen’s eyes seemed haunted as he exchanged glances with each of his siblings.
Every year the eastern darkness had crept a little closer. Now it was devouring Grevening. There would be no more buffers. There would be no more illusions about Ventimiglia being satisfied with what it had taken. The Grevening border was so close Kacalief’s people would be looking tomorrow in the eye.
The world’s last great empire, Anderle, had torn itself apart ages ago. Only now, after centuries, had the cycle turned. The Mindak Ahlert of Ventimiglia, with his wizardries and exhumations of ancient sorceries, was riding a rising wave.
Gathrid shuddered. How long before that wave crashed upon tiny Gudermuth? This summer? Or would Ahlert wait a year? “I think I know why the Dolvin wants Father,” he said.
Anyeck nodded, squeezed his hand. Her fingers were cool and moist. She didn’t say anything.
She was seldom at a loss for words. Usually she was full of chatter and scatterbrained plans for fleeing Kacalief to make herself a great lady. She wanted to take back what her mother had given up by becoming Safirina.
In a soft, frightened voice, Symen said, “They say the stories aren’t exaggerated. They say Nieroda and the Toal are killing everybody.”
“They’re real?” Mitar asked. “Did you see them?”
“No. I didn’t want to. Seeing some of their victims was enough.”
The Toal, often called the Dead Captains, and their commander, Nevenka Nieroda, were the most terrible horrors the eastern sorcery had dredged from the past. They commanded a merciless sorcery uniquely their own. They could not be killed, for they had died already, in battles ages past.
“I have to tell Father.” There was no relish in Symen’s voice, just a sad resignation.
He thinks we’re living on borrowed time, Gathrid thought.
His vision of himself as a great champion dispersed before this dread new wind. It seemed silly. The Dead Captains. Who could stand against them? Maybe a Magister of the Brotherhood. Not a gimp boy from Kacalief. You’re a fool, Gathrid, he told himself.
The whole crowd walked slowly up to the castle. They remained very quiet. Anyeck murmured, “I don’t think I want to go to Hartog now. It would be too depressing.”
“Uhm.” Depression had arrived already. Symen’s news was a thunderclap declaring the end of an era. Borrowed time, Gathrid thought again. He glanced toward the border.
The day seemed normal enough. No evidence of war rode Grevening’s western winds.
The Safire met them at the gate. He was an almost laughably tall, lean, craggy man. He proclaimed himself the ugliest man alive. With the exception of Symen, his children took their looks from their mother. In her youth the Safirina had been one of the great beauties of the royal court at Katich. Twenty-five years after the fact, Gudermuth’s nobility remained bemused because the Safire had wooed and wed the woman.
The Safire was a dour and quiet man. The occasions of his smiles were historical reference points. Today he appeared more gloomy than ever. “Huthsing get a little too melodramatic, Symen?”
“Didn’t say a word about them, Father. He had other things on his mind,” and he explained.
“That explains why the Dolvin summoned me. We’ll be next. I suppose there’s no time to waste. Though Heaven knows what rush there is when you face the invincible.”
Gudermuth had no realistic hope should the Mindak choose to take her. She was another of dozens of tiny, feeble states filling the continental hinterland. Ventimiglia was, reputedly, already as vast as the Anderlean Imperium at its greatest extent. Ahlert would swat Gudermuth down like a rude puppy. His weapons would be Nevenka Nieroda, the Toal and his sorcerer-generals. And an army so vast no one could count the number of men in it.
The world was old. Its histories were layered and deep. There were living sorceries, and memories and shadows and ghosts of sorceries, dense upon every land. A man of power could stand anywhere and touch some echoed wizardry of the past. He need but have the confidence and strength to reach out and seize it.
The Mindak of Ventimiglia had the confidence, strength and will. He was hammering out an empire built of the bones of little kingdoms like Grevening and Gudermuth.
“Is it really all so hopeless?” Mitar asked. “They’re men the same as us.”
“It’s probably worse,” the Safire grumbled. “What are you doing here? Take them back to the practice field, Belthar. Gathrid. Anyeck. Why aren’t you at your studies? Mhirken. Saddle me a horse.”
Fifteen minutes later the Safire and his esquire departed, bound for the Dolvin’s castle. Gathrid and Anyeck watched them go. “What’re you going to do?” the youth asked.
“Do?” His sister seemed puzzled.
“Sure. You always figure an angle.” In his sourer moments Gathrid thought Anyeck a greedy, ill-tempered, conniving little witch. Totally self-centered. And half-crazy with her silly schemes for getting their father to send her to Gudermuth’s capital, Katich. Or to one of the great cities in Malmberget or Bilgoraj, the bellwether kingdoms of the west. Or, better still, to Sartain, the vast island city constituting the heart of today’s diminuated Imperium.
She was determined to profit from an outstanding marriage.
“Don’t be so bitter. Yes. Maybe there is an angle in this. Maybe he’ll listen now. For my safety.” She became thoughtful. After a while she began unrolling an implausible plot.
He loved her anyway. They were best friends. She listened to his dreams, too. And she did not laugh.
“We’d better find Plauen. Father will check.” The Safire was a methodical man.
“Wow. I’m overwhelmed.” She was no more excited about education than he.
Their instructor, Mikas Plauen, was doing his Brotherhood Novitiate. The Safire had contracted his services with his Order, the Yellow.
The Brotherhood was an anomaly of the times, a non-sectarian organization which, nevertheless, displayed characteristics of a religious mystery cult. Its avowed purpose was to preserve, conserve and transmit knowledge. The lower ranks everywhere appeared as court scribes, secretaries and, as here, as instructors of the nobly-born.
At its highest levels, though, the Brotherhood formed the aristocracy of wizardry. All the great western sorcerers belonged, and at the very top stood several men possibly the equal of the Mindak of Ventimiglia.
There were two major Orders, the Red and the Blue, and three minor, the White, the Yellow and the Green. The minor Orders remained devoted to the Brotherhood’s founding purpose.
The Red and Blue, though, had become worldly, political and contentious, always striving for control of the Brotherhood and the temporal power that mastery represented. Many an intrigue had been played between the two. The Blue Order was dominant at the moment, but the Red was making a comeback under a cunning, vicious, unscrupulous Magister named Gerdes Mulenex. Rumor said this Mulenex was a western would-be Mindak.
Gathrid did not care. He couldn’t untangle the political and philosophical differences between the Orders. He saw only naked power lust. For him it was enough to know that the Orders existed and that, thoug
The lesson of the day was another of Plauen’s dull monologs on the Fall of Anderle. Plauen was not a skilled teacher. He could make anything boring.
“Why are we studying this stuff about the Tempter and the Twins?” Gathrid asked. “They’ve been dead a thousand years.”
“I notice you don’t complain when we study Tureck Aarant, Chrismer or one of those.”
“They were heroes.”
“You’re interested in them. That’s all. Except for Aarant, they don’t have many lessons for us. The Immortal Twins, and Grellner and Aarant, and to a secondary extent, Theis Rogala, are the ones who left a significant legacy. They made the mistakes from which we should learn.”
Gathrid shook his head. Same old thing. Over and over and over again. Learn from the mistakes of the past. That was stupid. Only fools lived in the past. His father had said so.
“Pay attention, Gathrid. It’s important that you two learn. Nudge Anyeck, please. She’s sleeping with her eyes open. Heavens! What am I going to do? They’re cretins, and I’m supposed to have them ready in time for... “
A chill crept down Gathrid’s spine. There was something grim about Plauen’s muttering. “In time for what, Brother?” he demanded.
“Nothing. Adulthood, I suppose. I’m sorry. You’re exasperating me. I’ve never dealt with such stubborn students.”
Gathrid became mildly embarrassed. That surprised him. Plauen’s tactics usually irritated him. Maybe it was the implication of deliberate ignorance colliding with his knowledge that he had been sabotaging the sessions.
“We don’t know what Aarant, Grellner and their contemporaries were really like,” Plauen said, resuming his lesson. “The stories we have now were shaped by a thousand retellings, and it’s in those retellings that they’ve acquired their significance for us today. The characters we associate with the Brothers’ War have become archetypes. Grellner brought Temptation into the Paradise of Anderle. The Immortal Twins lost Innocence.... “
Gathrid had heard the line of reasoning before. He knew it by heart. Yet Plauen kept returning, as if there were a point he and Anyeck kept missing.