The monks taught that wind was the voice of the Almighty. The storms were His fury—a tempest to remind of His omnipotent will. The gentle breezes were His love—a calm reminder that He was watching, and that He cared for those below.
From his haze of near-wakefulness, Merin could feel the wind blowing across his face. Despite the slight pounding in his head, he lay peacefully, letting the wind soothe him. Wherever he had gone in life, the wind had been his companion. It had blown over his back as he worked the fields back in Alethkar. It had ruffled his cloak as he had marched across lonely stormlands in Prallah. It had been behind his spear as he fought in the King’s Army. At times, Merin thought he could feel the presence of the Almighty, that he could hear a wind before it arrived. Then he knew that he was not alone. Someone was watching over him.
He took a deep breath, then opened his eyes. The tent ceiling overhead was unexpected. He groaned slightly, propping himself up. He lay on a comfortable mat in a large, open-sided tent. He recognized it—he had helped put it up on several occasions. It was the healers’ tent—but he was on the wrong side. He wasn’t lying with the regular soldiers, but instead on a special pallet over in the . . .
“Merin!” a voice exclaimed.
Merin turned as a couple of figures approached, smiling. Ren, Sanas, and Vezin were spearmen from his squad—spearmen, like himself, who had been trained from small Tenth Villages in rural Alethkar. As they approached, Merin sensed a hesitance in their faces.
“Uh, are you feeling better, my lord?” Sanas asked as the men paused beside Merin’s pallet, just inside the tent.
Merin frowned. “Lord? Who are you . . . ?” Then he saw it. Sitting at the end of his cot, lying across the top of a cloth-wrapped package.
It came back to him. He had been on the battlefield, in his formation. Orders had come from the generals to divide the enemy troops, splitting them along the fissure created by the king’s honor guard. Merin’s squad had fought on the eastern internal flank, pushing the enemy back, making way for their towers to roll forward.
Then he had come. The martial force that every spearman feared, yet every spearman dreamed of defeating. A Shardbearer.
Riding a massive war stallion, his armor unadorned, the man had cut through the Aleth ranks with ease, slaughtering footmen, batting away spears. That blade had cut the tip from Merin’s own weapon as it passed, leaving him with a useless stub. The soldier standing beside him had died with an almost casual swipe of the Shardbearer’s weapon.
Merin had watched the king’s horse die from a single blow. He had seen his squad scattering in fear before the deadly blade. And . . . he had run. Dropping his broken spear, he had dashed forward, and . . .
“By the winds,” Merin mumbled. “That has to be the stupidest thing I’ve ever done!”
“It worked, though,” Ren said quietly, looking toward the end of the mat.
Merin paused. He can’t be saying what I think he’s saying. It can’t be. . . .
Merin slowly pulled the blanket off his legs and knelt before the sword, ignoring the pain in his head. He reached forward tentatively, running his fingers along the blade. It was enormous, almost as long as a footman’s spear. The weapon glistened silvery, but the design of the metal made it seem as if it were crafted from thousands of small quartz gemstones. Four intricate glyphs were etched into the blade, subtly created by the orientation of the quartz pattern.
“It’s . . .” Merin trailed off. It was his. He grabbed the handle with suddenly eager fingers, hefting the Blade.
“Wow,” he mumbled. “It’s a lot heavier than I thought it would be. The stories always say Shardblades are light!”
Of course, it was a lot lighter than a weapon its size would normally have been. Even with two years of spearman’s training, Merin probably wouldn’t have been strong enough to lift such a massive weapon if it had been constructed of normal steel. The Shardblade was heavy, but no heavier than a regular sword.
“Here,” he said, turning to the others. “Try it.”
The three spearmen didn’t move.
“What?” Merin asked.
“You’re not supposed to let anyone else hold your Blade, um, my lord,” Sanas said. “They told us to wait here until you awakened, to make sure nothing happened to the Blade. Now that you’re up, we’re supposed to go back to the squad camp. . . .”
Merin moved to stand. “I’ll go with you. It would be good to see everyone.”
The three exchanged awkward glances. “Um, if you want to, my lord. . . .” Sanas said.
Merin paused. Even the normally enthusiastic Ren seemed reserved. They were obviously happy to see him awake, but they were still . . . uncomfortable.
“Maybe I’ll just wait here,” Merin said.
The three smiled. “You’re a lord now, Merin,” Sanas explained. “A Fifth Lord. You don’t belong with spearmen. But, well . . . you give us hope. It’s good to know someone made it, after all the talk and stories.”
“Everyone in the army heard about you,” Ren said eagerly. “You saved the king’s life! Old Captain Tunac wasn’t very happy when you got the Blade instead of him, but what’s he going to do about it? Eh, uh, my lord?” The short man chuckled.
The three stood awkwardly for a moment. Then they bowed and left. Merin watched them go, fingers still resting on the hilt of the Shardblade. You’re a lord now. It was unfathomable.
Outside, he could see signs of the camp breaking down. No wonder his friends needed to return—deconstructing camp was an enormous task, and every hand was needed. Merin turned, motioning toward a healer. The aging man looked up, then quickly rushed over to Merin’s mat.
“Yes, my lord?” he asked. His sleeves and clothing were speckled with blood, and his posture was tired.
“Um, yes,” Merin said. How exactly did one speak like a lord, anyway? “Why are we breaking down camp?”
“The Traitor is dead, my lord,” the healer explained, eager to help despite his obvious weariness. “As is the Pralir king. The war is ours—Lord Elhokar plans to march on the capital of Orinjah before the day is out.”
Over. They had known it would end this day, one way or another. Captain Tunac had said this would probably be Pralir’s last stand.
“Are you feeling better, my lord?” the healer asked. “You took a strong blow to the head, and slept all through the night. You woke a few times, but you were dazed and incoherent.”
“I don’t remember that,” Merin confessed. “My head hurts a little bit, but I think I’m all right.”
“Might I recommend a little more rest, my lord?” the man asked.
Merin glanced toward the camp. Everyone had something to do. It felt wrong to sleep when everyone was so busy. “Am I allowed to leave?” Merin asked.
“Of course, my lord. Just don’t do anything too strenuous, and check back with the healers at the end of the day.”
Merin nodded, and the healer withdrew. As the man left, however, Merin realized something. “Healer,” he called.
The elderly healer turned, eyebrow raised. “Yes, my lord?”
“What is it I’m supposed to do? As a lord, I mean?”
“I’m not sure, my lord,” the man said with amusement. “Perhaps that would be a question best asked of another lord.”
“Good idea,” Merin said, climbing out of his bed. He was a bit dizzy as he stood, but the wave passed quickly. He reached over and picked up the Shardblade, then regarded the package underneath.
“Your Shardplate, my lord,” the healer explained helpfully. “I can send some packmen for it, if you wish.”
“Yes, that would be wonderful,” Merin said. He stepped outside the tent, standing in the morning light, and stopped.
He thought for a moment, then glanced down at his Shardblade. There was one thing he’d always wondered. He walked over to a large boulder, then raised the Blade and thrust it into the stone.
The ballads had exaggerated a bit. The Shardblade didn’t ‘cut through stone like the breezes cut the air.’ There was a resistance to his pushing, but with a small amount of effort, he was able to slide the blade into the boulder up to its hilt.
Merin pulled the blade free, looking down at it with wonder. He backed up, hefting the Blade up over his shoulder, and swung with a mighty two-handed blow. The Blade sheared through the middle of the boulder—as if the momentum somehow increased the weapon’s sharpness—and whipped out the other side to slice clean through one of the healing tent’s support poles.
The tent lurched slightly, one side drooping. Healers and patients alike looked out at a sheepish Merin, who lowered his Shardblade. “Uh, sorry!” he called before blushing and hurrying away.
Still, the exhilaration of the moment did not pass. He finally let himself believe what had happened. He was a Shardbearer—he outranked a good three-quarters of the noble population. Only the lords of independent cities and their heirs were of a higher stature than Shardbearers. To capture a Blade on the field of battle . . . it was the dream of every lowly footman. It was the possibility that spawned stories, the hope that gave normal men the courage to face a Shardbearer, despite their bleak chances of success. But it had happened to Merin.
Enthusiasm dulled slightly, however, as he reached the camp’s main thoroughfare. To his right, in the distance, he could see the white-and-blue banner marking Zircon Tensquad, his home of the last three years. A home to which he could not return.
He looked down at the Blade. It was awkward to carry with its incredible length and super-sharp blade. It glistened in the sunlight, its quartzlike patterns shimmering. Apparently, they would fade over time. The markings were a manifestation of the bond the sword had had with its master—a man who was now dead.
He couldn’t return to Zircon Tensquad, but that was only a manifestation of a larger issue. What of home? What of Stonemount, with its fields and simple farmers? No Shardbearers lived in small tribute villages—the ballads said they were needed to be at the sides of their lords, to go to war or to duel for honor. He would never be able to return to Stonemount. But he had no lordly family to honor and protect. He no longer had a place—not really a citizen, but not really a lord either.
Not really a lord at all. Merin knew all the songs, from “The Chronicle of the First Return” to “The Storms of Summer.” He wasn’t a man like the stories, he was a boy who had acted without thought. His rescuing of the king had been done out of reflex and luck, not out of heroism. He hadn’t even really killed the enemy Shardbearer, only distracted him.
This shouldn’t be mine, Merin thought. Surely someone will realize that.
He looked up, turning from Zircon Tensquad’s tents and looking to the northern side of the camp—toward the tents of the noblemen. He would find his answers there.
He began walking through the camp. Men bustled around him, collapsing tents, carrying supplies, packing equipment. Once he would have been befuddled by the enormous number of people. Stonemount was a Tenth City, a village of less than five hundred people. The tens of thousands that comprised the King’s Army had amazed him. Over time, however, the amazing had become mundane.
He passed massive chulls rested within their pens, the sound of crunching rockbuds echoing from within their boulderlike shells. Dark-eyed Kaven tribesmen watched him as he passed, speaking to each other in their rumbling language. Soldiers yelled and barked, giving and receiving orders, preparing for the movement of a beast larger, even, than the chulls—the beast that was the army itself. It was a mass of swarming men, every one of whom seemed to have a purpose.
Every one but Merin.
The nobleman’s section wound around several hills which provided seclusion from both regular soldiers and highstorms. The lords each camped with their own entourage, depending on their rank and power. Here, the tents became more colorful, and the banners bore sculpted—sometimes unrecognizable—glyphs instead of just simple colored stripes.
Merin paused. The glyphs represented houses, like the Shelh glyph that the one noble family in Stonemount had used, but these were unfamiliar to Merin. Who should he ask for help?
The tents were being collapsed, falling flat like squashed winter mushrooms. The workers were mostly soldiers. Nearby, he could see a small group of noblemen—distinguished by their dyed cloaks and seasilk clothing—watching the proceedings. Merin approached them uncertainly. He was a nobleman now, so he probably shouldn’t bow. What, then? Call out a greeting?
The lords noticed him before he made up his mind, their conversation falling silent. Beneath their disapproving stares, Merin was suddenly aware of his own clothing—simple tan trousers and shirt, stained from several years of use beneath his armor.
“Is that a . . . Shardblade you hold, boy?” one of the lords asked. He was a tall man, with long dark hair and a haughty, peaked face.
“It is. . . .” Merin said.
“Who did you take it from, boy?” the lord asked, stepping forward with a curious eye.
Merin took a step backward, grip tightening on the hilt of his sword. “I was given it by order of the king,” he informed. “On the battlefield, yesterday.”
The nobleman frowned, pausing. He studied Merin more closely. “Ah, yes. I recognize you now.” Then, he simply snorted, and turned back to his companions. The four men continued their discussion, as if Merin weren’t even there.
“Excuse me?” Merin asked, breaking into their conversation.
The lead nobleman turned again, eyebrow raised. “What do you want, boy?”
Merin flushed. “I’m just not certain what I should do,” he said. “Everybody’s preparing to leave. What’s my place?”
“You can go help pack my tent, if you wish,” the nobleman said, waving indifferently toward a group of working soldiers a short distance away.
Merin flushed again. Conditioning told him he should simply take the insult, but it seemed wrong to say nothing. “I don’t think you should speak to me like that,” Merin said slowly. “Doesn’t this Blade make me a lord, like you?”
The nobleman raised an eyebrow. “A lord? Well, technically, I suppose. Like me? I think not. There are lords, boy, and there are lords.”
“I’d be careful, Meridas,” a new voice said, coming from behind Merin. “That young man is a Shardbearer. Another insult or two, and I’d say he had legal grounds to challenge you to a lethal duel.”
Merin froze. Meridas? He had heard that name before. Meridas was the king’s counselor—a very important man.
Merin turned to glance behind. The newcomer was a much younger nobleman, perhaps five or six years Merin’s senior. The man stood leaning against a pile of packing crates a short distance away. His hair was light, his body lean and tall, and his seasilk shirt light blue against a darker blue cloak.
“Why, if it isn’t Lord Aredor,” the nobleman, Meridas, said with an indifferent raise of the eyebrows.
Lord Aredor—heir to Kholinar, son of Parshen Dalenar and cousin to the king. Merin realized with discomfort that this was the closest he’d ever stood to such noble blood.
And he was about to get much closer. Aredor strolled over, placing a familial hand on Merin’s shoulder. “Really, Meridas. Show some respect. We owe a great debt to Lord Merin. He saved the king’s life, after all. Where were you when His Majesty was in danger, Meridas? Oh, wait, that’s right. You aren’t a Shardbearer. You were hiding back on the tower.”
Lord Meridas did not rise to the insult. His face remained calm, his head nodded slightly, as if to concede Aredor the point. His three companions—all younger men—were far more excited. Oddly, they didn’t seem angered by the newcomer’s insults, but instead seemed eager to speak with him.
“Oh, we’ve heard of Lord Merin,” one of them said quickly. “We didn’t recognize the lad, that is all. Lord Merin! Why, they’re telling stories about him already.”
“Indeed!” another said. “And, if I might say, my Lord Aredor, they’re also speaking of your own bravery. Is it true you bested yet another Shardbearer on the battlefield?”
Meridas glanced at his companions with dissatisfaction. The three, however, seemed too excited by the prospect of earning Aredor’s favor to notice the disappointment.
Aredor just smiled. “Afraid I don’t have time to talk about my ‘bravery’ at the moment, Lord Valnah. Lord Merin is desperately needed at the royal complex. Good day, Meridas.”
Aredor turned, steering Merin by the shoulder and walking away from the group of noblemen, chuckling to himself.
“Lord Aredor—” Merin said, glancing over his shoulder.
“Please,” Aredor cut in, “no ‘lords.’ We’re both practically the same rank—which, by he way, is a far step above dear Meridas back there, despite the king’s fondness for him. With all his wealth, he’s only a Seventeenth Lord, which puts you twelve ranks above him.”
“He didn’t seem to see it that way,” Merin noted.
Aredor rolled his eyes. “Meridas is about as snobbish a lord you’ll ever find, but don’t be bothered by him. In court, you’ll have to get used to people looking across the breeze at you. Eventually you’ll realize that they’re the only truly harmless ones. I’m more interested in hearing how you managed to get all the way up here. Last we heard, you were resting in the healers’ tent.”
“I was,” Merin explained, still a little uncomfortable. Aredor was cousin to the king—even amongst noblemen, he was a very important person. “They told me I could leave, as long as I checked back with them.”
“Well, that’s good, then,” Aredor said. “Because I really am supposed to take you to the royal tents.”
Merin paled. “The king wants to see me?”
Aredor snorted. “I doubt Elhokar knows your name or even remembers you were given a Shardblade. No, you’re going to meet with someone far more impressive.”
More impressive than the king? “Who?” Merin asked.
Lord Dalenar Kholin had once been described to Merin as ‘the noblest man in all of Alethkar.’ Standing before the Parshen, Merin could finally understand what those words had meant. Dalenar was large and muscular despite his age, with arms like stone and a chest broad as a boulder. Yet, there was nothing oafish in his air. He stood with an innate majesty, his eyes wise, his voice calm and stately. He wore his armor, even though there was no danger of battle, and over the glistening silver he wore a regal cloak of the deepest blue with the symbol of his house on the back. It was a large Kolh glyph—the symbol that meant power—but it had been designed with flowing lines and broad wings, as if blown upon the winds themselves. It was subtly different from the king’s own house glyph, though the two were similar enough to indicate the familial relationship.
Dalenar spoke with a small group of older men in militaristic cloaks. They were greying and reflective; Merin thought he recognized several of them by description—generals in Lord Elhokar’s army. Lord Dalenar’s tent had already been disassembled, and his possessions sat in neat piles ready for the packmen.
The Parshen noticed Merin almost immediately. “Excuse me, my lords,” he said. “There is a matter to which I must attend.”
The generals nodded, walking off to their separate duties as Dalenar approached Merin. Aredor patted him on the shoulder, then withdrew, leaving him to speak with the parshen alone.
“I see you have recovered from the knock to your head, Lord Merin,” Dalenar noted.
“Yes, my lord,” Merin said uncomfortably. “Thank you.”
“I believe I have reason to give you thanks, lad,” Dalenar said. “You did your kingdom a true service on the battlefield yesterday.”
Merin flushed. “My lord, you show me too much honor. I don’t deserve this. I . . . I wanted to ask someone about that. I think there’s been a mistake. Someone else should have this Shardblade, not me.”
Dalenar shook his head, a bit of the formality leaving his face. “No, I think it well placed. During this war I have seen a number of Shardbearers fall. Most were killed in duels with other Shardbearers. Several were killed by archers, and a couple of others were slain by teams of Shardless noblemen. Only one was killed by a spearman.”
Dalenar paused, leaning forward, laying a hand on Merin’s shoulder. “I stood helpless as my king was about to die,” Dalenar said quietly. “You saved him. Citizen or lord, Shardbearer or common duelist, I have rarely seen such bravery in all my years.”
“I . . .” Merin trailed off, uncertain how to respond. “Thank you, my lord.”
Dalenar clapped him on the shoulder. “Traditionally, a citizen made into a lord is assigned a house by the king. This is His Majesty’s decision, but he has given it over to me. I would be proud if you would join my house and serve me in Kholinar.”
“Your house, my lord?” Merin asked, stunned.
“Yes,” Dalenar explained. “House Kholin is a proud and majestic line, Merin—the royal line. You would become Merin Kholin, a ward in my house, expected to follow my leadership and rise to my call when war is unavoidable. As compensation, you will receive the standard stipend of an attendant Shardbearer, and will become a member of my court.”
Merin looked up—for the first time since awaking, he felt like he knew exactly what to do. “I would be honored, my lord.”
Dalenar smiled. “I take that as an oath, Merin Kholin. You must honor it as you would honor your own life. More so, even, for your oath as a Shardbearer is your oath to the kingdom itself.” He paused. “Sometimes, it may force you to do things that are . . . difficult.”
“I understand, my lord,” Merin said.
“Good,” Dalenar said, standing up straight. He reached up and undid the clasp to his cloak, then pulled off the luxurious, deep blue garment and held it out to Merin. “It is traditional to present a newly sworn Shardbearer with a gift. This cloak bears the glyph of my house, which is now your house. Wear it with pride, and let it remind you of your duty.”
Merin balked at first, but he looked into Dalenar’s sincere eyes and knew this was a gift not to be rejected. He reached out, taking the garment in his hand. It was soft and smooth, yet heavy in its thickness, and had the slight reflective sheen of seasilk. Perhaps it was the moment, but Merin thought that he had never seen a color quite so beautiful or brilliant as its warm sapphire.
Merin looked up from the cloak. “My lord. I . . . I’m not sure that the others will accept me as a noblemen. The men of my squad seemed uncertain how to treat me, and the noblemen I spoke with don’t seem to consider me worthy of my title.”
Dalenar nodded. “And they probably won’t ever consider you worthy of it. You’ve entered a harsh world, lad. It shouldn’t be so, but there are many who will dislike you. Some will even hate you.”
“Don’t let it bother you too much, lad,” Dalenar said. “That is just the way it is. You won’t be able to make everyone like you. But if you keep your oaths, you might be able to make them respect you.
“Do what is right. Be honorable, even to your enemies. Study The Way of Kings. Have the monks read it to you often, until you have it memorized. Remember what Lord Bajerden wrote: ‘Nobility is service. Rank is a privilege, not a right.’ Do these things, Merin, and even the jealous ones will admire you.”
“Yes, my lord.”
Dalenar smiled, clasping him on the shoulder. “Don’t be so nervous, lad. My sons will watch out for you. Go report back to Aredor. He will see you cared for and trained in the ways of your new station.”