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The Gilded Chain


The grim school of Ironhall takes in unwanted, rebellious boys and five years later sends forth the finest swordsmen in the world, the King of Chivial‘s Blades. Bound to absolute loyalty by a magical sword-stroke through their hearts, they stand ready to defend the King or whomever else he designates against all perils, whether human or sorcerous. Each book in this trilogy stands alone, but together they make a larger story. The Gilded Chain tells of the greatest swordsman Ironhall has produced in its long history, Sir Durendal. When King Ambrose needs a Blade to accompany his agent on a dangerous mission to the far ends of the Earth, he naturally chooses young Durendal. Alas, even the plans of kings can go sadly awry . .


" Duncan, never one to tell a simple tale when a more complex one would be even better, has put together a truly great story. . . Buy this book, you won't regret it." - SFSite

" Duncan's people are marvelously believable, his landscapes deliciously exotic, his swordplay breathtaking... [A] handsomely crafted commentary on honor and betrayal." - Publisher's Weekly (Starred review)

" Dave Duncan has outdone himself with this incredible tale which begins a new series starring the King's Blades. The world he creates is exotic and familiar, yet totally unique, especially in the magical elements. The characters are complex and well-developed and the storyline is heart-poundingly exciting. There is an offbeat element of humor to the book that adds to the fascination of the story . . . An outstanding book. Highly Recommended." - Writers Write

" The Gilded Chain represents a departure for Dave Duncan into swashbuckling fantasy adventure that heralds an auspicious new direction sure to please his many fans. At the outset of his career, Duncan produced this kind of fantasy, but The Gilded Chain creates full blown a world so full of peril and heroism as to intrigue the imagination. . . . Duncan has succeeded brilliantly with this story of courtly intrigue, grim secrets of immortality, monsters and treachery. " - Library Booknotes (Included in Best Books of 1998)

" Swashbuckling adventure doesn't get much better than this: intrigue, honor, and high heroics." - Locus (included in 1998 Recommended Reading List)

" Duncan's stuff is as offbeat and intelligent as usual. He handles his protagonist's development from street rat to knight well, ditto for the other characterizations, and the world he builds is quite original, especially in the magic department." - Booklist

" A yarn that has the characteristic Duncan style--good characters; fine plotting; a lean, supple narrative." - Kirkus Reviews

" Sharp humor and swashbuckling action add charm and vigor . . . . This fast-paced fantasy belongs in most libraries." - Library Journal

Sample Chapter

"Treason," Kromman whispered. He repeated the word, mouthing it as if he found the taste pleasing: "Treason! Your treachery is uncovered at last. Evidence has been laid before the King." He smiled and licked his wizened lips.

Human woodlouse!.

Roland considered drawing his sword and sliding it into Kromman until the blade would go no farther, then taking it out again--by another route, for variety. That would be an act of public service he should have performed a lifetime ago, but it would create a serious scandal. Word would flash across all Eurania that the King of Chivial‘s private secretary had been murdered by his lord chancellor, sending courtiers of a dozen capitals into fits of hysterical giggles. Lord Roland must behave himself. It was a pleasing fantasy, though..

Meanwhile, the winter night was falling. He still had work piled up like snowdrifts, a dozen petitioners waiting to see him, and no time to waste on this black-robed human fungus.

Patience! "As you well know, Master Secretary, such rumors go around every couple of years--rumors about me, about you, about many of the King‘s ministers." Ambrose probably started most of the stories himself, but if his chancellor said so to Kromman, Kromman would tattle back to him. "His Majesty has more sense than to listen to slander. Now, have you brought some business for me?"

"No, Lord Chancellor. No more business for you." Kromman was not hiding his enjoyment; he was up to something. Even in his youth, as a Dark Chamber inquisitor, he had been repugnant--spying and snooping, prying and plotting, maligning anyone he could not destroy. Now, with age-yellowed eyes and hair trailing like cobwebs out from under his black biretta, he had all the appeal of a corpse washed up on a beach. Even the King, who had few scruples, referred to him in private as rat poison. Some days he looked even worse, though. What secret joy was he savoring at the moment?

Roland stood up. He had always been taller and trimmer than this grubby ink-slinger, and the years had not changed that. "I won‘t send for the Watch. I‘ll throw you out myself. I have no time for games."

"Nor I. The games are over at last." Kromman slithered a letter onto the desk with all the glee of a small boy waiting for his mother to open a gift he has wrapped for her. Definitely up to something!

Over by the door, Quarrel looked up from his book with a puzzled expression. No voices had been raised yet, but his Blade instincts were detecting trouble.

Roland‘s face had given away nothing to anyone for thirty years and would not start doing so now. Impassively he took up the packet, noting that it was addressed personally to Earl Roland of Waterby, Companion of the White Star, Knight of the Loyal and Ancient Order of the King‘s Blades, et cetera, and closed with the privy seal, yet it bore no mention of his high office. That odd combination warned him what he was going to find even before he lifted the wax with a deft twist of his knife and crackled the parchment open. The ornately lettered message was brief enough to read at a glance, terse to the point of brutality: . . . is therefore commanded to divest. . . . will absent himself from business of our Privy Council. . . . will hold himself available to answer certain grave matters . . .


His first reaction was sweet relief that he could now throw down all his worries and go home to Ivywalls and the wife whom he had never been allowed time enough to love as she deserved. His second thought was that Kromman, here designated his successor, was an unthinkable choice, totally incapable of handling the work.

He looked up blandly, while his mind raced ever faster through this deadly jungle that had suddenly sprung up around him. He should not be surprised, of course. Ambrose IV tired of ministers just as he tired of mistresses or favorite courtiers. The King grew weary and sought new beginnings. He would hope to shed some of his current unpopularity by blaming his own mistakes on the man who had faithfully carried out his policies. Loyalty was better to receive than to give.

With the silent grace of an archer drawing a longbow, Quarrel rose to his feet. For most of the last two days, the poor kid had been slouched on the couch by the door, leafing through a book of romantic verse, bored out of his mind. He would have registered that the latest visitor was unarmed when he entered and then lost interest in him. Now he had sensed something amiss.

"Your treason is uncovered!" Kromman said again, gloating.

Roland shrugged. "No treason. Whatever forgeries you have concocted, Master Kromman, they will not withstand proper examination."

"We shall see."

They stared at each other for a moment, lifelong foes harnessed too long together in service to a single master. Roland could never consider himself guilty of treason under any reasonable definition of the word, but treason was a slippery concept, a mire he had seen trap many others--Bluefield, Centham, Montpurse. Especially Montpurse. He had organized Montpurse‘s destruction himself. To be dragged down by the odious Kromman would be excessive irony, though. That would hurt more than the headsman‘s ax.

Again he found himself contemplating murder, and this time he was not altogether joking with himself; this might be his last chance to slay the vermin. Alas, the revenge he should have taken years ago would now be seen as an admission of guilt, so he would die also and leave Kromman as posthumous winner of their long feud. Better to stay alive and fight, face down the deceit and hope to win, however unlikely that might be--Kromman was very sure of himself.

Meanwhile, the dusty files on the desk and the garrulous petitioners in the waiting room could equally be forgotten. Lord Roland could walk away from them all with a clear conscience and head home a day earlier than he had planned. Tomorrow would be soon enough to start worrying about treason and a trial and the almost inevitable death sentence. He had always known he was mortal, so personal danger had never worried him very much.

"Long live the King," he said calmly. He walked around the desk, lifting the weighty chain from his shoulders. "This is not gold, by the way, only gilt. Chancery knows that, so don‘t try accusing me of embezzlement."

With a leer of triumph, Kromman bent his head to receive the chain. It rattled around his feet like a golden snake as Roland released it.

"Put it around your neck yourself, Master Kromman, or have the King do it. The writ does not require me to bestow it."

"Oh, we shall teach you humbler ways soon!"

"I doubt it." Then Roland recalled the wording of the warrant and the authority it granted to his successor. "Or are you contemplating immediate action against my person?"

The new Chancellor‘s amber-toothed smile was answer in itself. "Indeed, I shall now have the pleasure of completing a task I was prevented from completing many years ago." Meaning he had a squad of men-at-arms waiting in the anteroom to escort the prisoner to a dungeon in the Bastion, probably in chains. What sweet triumph that would be for him!

But he was still unaware that there was a third person present. He had come scurrying in with his mincing, pigeon-toed walk and gone right by the witness beside the door, too impatient to snare his victim to notice the victim‘s guardian. As quiet as mist, Quarrel had crossed the room to stand at the inquisitor‘s back--tall and supple and deadly as a spanned crossbow. He could be Lord Roland‘s twin brother, born forty years too late.

For the first time Roland looked directly at him. "Have you met Master Kromman, the King‘s Secretary?"

"I have not had that honor, my lord."

Kromman twisted round with a gasp.

"It is no honor. He plans to have me arrested. What say you to that?"

Quarrel smiled at this sudden improvement to his day. "I say not so, my lord." One hand rested on his sword. He could draw faster than a whip-crack.

"I thought you might. This is Sir Quarrel, Chancellor. I deeply regret that I shall be unable to accept your gracious invitation voluntarily. I hope you brought adequate forces?"

Kromman‘s jaw hung open. Quarrel‘s hose and doublet had been outrageously expensive, his jerkin and plumed hat even more so, but they could be matched on a score of young dandies around the court. It was not his athlete‘s grace or his darkly sinister good looks that proclaimed him unmistakably as a Blade, nor yet his sword, for his hand concealed the distinctive pommel. Perhaps it was just his bearing, but there could be no doubt. Even if he were one against an army, he would litter the floor with bodies before he let anyone lay a hand on his ward.

Kromman had a problem he had not anticipated.

"Where did you get him?" he squeaked.

"On Starkmoor, of course." Roland should have guessed that something unexpected would happen right after he went back to Ironhall. Every visit he had ever made to that gloomy keep had marked a turning point in his life.