Saberhagen, Fred 02 – Sightblinder’s Story

Or, perhaps, more than enough to get the whole village into trouble. Even in Lunghai people had heard of the Twelve Swords, magical weapons forged by the gods themselves more than thirty years ago. If Arnfinn and his people hadn’t known of the good wizards on their island, he wouldn’t have any idea of where to go to try to sell this marvelous blade. But Honan-Fu the wizard was known to be a good man, kindly to the poor, and trustworthy in all his dealings; not that Arnfinn himself had ever met him, but all the common folk who had met him said so. The good wizard would advise Arnfinn on what to do, and not cheat him out of the village treasure that had been entrusted to him.

The next village that Arnfinn came to was totally new territory to him. He had never in his life before traveled so far in this direction. And this village saw the end of the lightheartedness with which he had begun his journey.

The road passed directly through the small village square, a plot of brown grass and a few trees. A woman who was seated on a bench at one side of the square stared at Arnfinn as he approached. Her face grew pale, very pale. And then, jumping to her feet and giving a cry suitable for a death or a birth, she appeared to go mad.

Arnfinn, already alarmed, panicked now and kicked his load beast to make it go faster. But the woman overtook the trotting animal and then ran beside it, clinging to Arnfinn’s knee, entreating him to stop. She kept calling him over and over by some name he could not understand, one that he had never heard before. The woman’s cries resounded, bringing people out of the little houses around the square. She was not young. Her graying hair fell in disheveled curls beside her weathered cheeks. Her eyes, enormous with emotion, never left Arnfinn’s face.

Arnfinn, in his embarrassment and growing fright, was unable to imagine what might happen if he did stop and try to talk to this screaming madwoman. How could he explain? That would mean giving up the treasure of the Sword, if only for a moment, trying to demonstrate its magic. And to give it up was something that he dared not do.

Obviously the woman thought that he was someone she had deeply loved, someone she had not seen for many years-perhaps someone who was dead. Unable to remain silent in the face of her clamoring entreaties, he made abortive attempts to reassure her, to explain, to somehow shut her up. But despite his stumbling efforts, all she could see and hear was her loved one, inexplicably riding on, refusing to stop for her. Some of the other people of the village, this woman’s neighbors and perhaps her relatives, were looking on aghast, though they made no move to interfere. Eventually, Arnfinn thought, even as he struggled to get away, they will be able to help her. Because each of them will have seen me as a different person, and sooner or later they will all realize that what has ridden through their village was an enchantment. Then soon they will all get over this.

And how could Arnfinn stop? What could he have said to her, what could he have done for her if he did stop?

At last he clamped his own lips shut and kicked the load beast into a run. This too, at first, only seemed to make matters worse. The woman’s grip on the load-beast’s saddle was brutally broken when the animal began to run. But she still tottered down the road after Arnfinn. For a long time she kept up the hopeless pursuit, begging him to come back to her. It seemed to him that he had to ride for an hour, sweating in the chill air, trying to shut his ears, before the sound of her cries had faded entirely away.

When night came he slept in the open. And for a day or two after that incident he avoided villages altogether, making a long detour whenever a settlement of any kind came into sight ahead.

He could not avoid encountering other travelers now and then. Inevitably they displayed either one of two basic reactions, and Arnfinn wasn’t sure which one was worse: the fear or the strange, puzzled love. Puzzled, he supposed, because the loved one was behaving so strangely, offering no recognition.

But Arnfinn no longer found anything enjoyable in either reaction. And so he ceased to wear the Sword. Taking off the belt and scabbard, he wrapped them in his only spare shirt, making an undistinguished-looking bundle, and then contrived to tie the bundle onto the load beast’s rump along with the rest of his meager baggage.

On the following day he was traversing a particularly lonely stretch of road when two men suddenly appeared out of the scrubby forest no more than an arrow’s flight ahead of him.

More to reassure himself that his treasure was safe than to seek its protection, Arnfinn reached behind him and felt inside the bundle for the hard hilt of the Sword And the moment he touched it, his perception of the two men changed.

In Lunghai, robbers were very rare indeed. But stories about them were common enough, and many of the village men were reluctant to undertake even necessary journeys on these roads, except in groups. Arnfinn, listening to the stories, had mentally allied himself with the braver village men, and had tended to dismiss such fears as a sign of timidity. Now, however, matters suddenly wore a somewhat different aspect.

There was no obvious reason to assume that these two men were robbers. But Arnfinn, from the moment he touched Sightblinder, was certain that they were. When they looked toward him, and then started in his direction, he stopped his mount, then turned it off the road at an angle, urging it to its greatest speed. It was a young animal, and healthy enough, but the healthiest load beast was not a riding-beast, and certainly not a racer.

Behind him now the men’s voices were hailing him, in friendly tones, but Arnfinn ignored the call. He steered his animal among trees, and forced it through a thicket, trying to get himself well out of their sight.

Halfway into the thicket his mount rebelled against this strange procedure, and came to a stubborn halt. He saw, through a thin screen of dead leaves, the two men on their swift riding-beasts go cantering by on the road he had just left. They were a savage-looking pair now in their anger, muttering curses as they rode, and Arnfinn noted with a feeling of faintness that they both had drawn long knives from somewhere. Robbers, no doubt about it. Murderers. He twisted in his saddle as soon as they had passed, and with shaking hands he started to undo the bundle that held the Sword.

His fumbling fingers let the burden go, and with a noisy crash it fell from the animal’s rump into the dry twigs of the thicket. At once one of the robbers’ voices sounded, startlingly near; they must have already turned, they were already coming back to kill him.

Jumping, almost falling, from his saddle after the Sword, Arnfinn, praying to all the gods whose names he had ever heard, scrambled after Sightblinder on the ground. At last he reached it. Unable to get the bundle open quickly, he thrust his right hand inside and grasped the Sword’s hilt, and felt the full power of it flow into his hand. That flow was not of warmth, nor cold, it was of something he could not have described, but it passed through the skin as cold or heat would pass.

He was still in that same position, crouched awkwardly on all fours almost underneath his puzzled animal, when the two men on riding-beasts came crashing into the thicket after him.

As soon as they saw Arnfinn both of them reined in their mounts so suddenly that one of the riding-beasts tripped and almost fell; and the alteration in the two men’s faces was immediate and remarkable. Arnfinn was reminded of the first two farmers he had encountered on the road.

One of the bandits looked down at his own drawn blade as if he were surprised beyond measure to find it in his hand; then, favoring Arnfinn with a sheepish effort at a smile, he sheathed the weapon and turned, and rode away even more quickly than he had approached. His companion meanwhile had been trying to find words, words that sounded like a terrified effort at an apology. Then he too put his knife away-he had to thrust with it three times before he found the opening in the unobtrusive sheath-and turned and fled.

Slowly Arnfinn regained his feet. He stood there beside his load beast, listening to the crashing sounds of the enemy’s retreat. It sounded to him as if they were afraid he might be coming after them. Soon the hoof-beats sounded more solidly on the road, and soon after that they dwindled into silence.

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