The Swordbearer - By Glen Cook Page 0,1

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 champions more handicapped than he. By Heaven, he thought, Cashion was blind.

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."

"What, then?"

"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.