Saberhagen, Fred 02 – Sightblinder’s Story

Mist still flowed in from the lake and purled around the fighters, in billows sometimes so thick that one pair of them could not see the other. The man who had thrown the rock now sought to win against the staff by dancing in and out, waving his battle-hatchet. But he could make no headway against the tough wood of that long shaft, and the arm that held it. A few hard-breathing moments later, the staff came crashing against his skull, ending plans and trickery for good, driving out all thoughts and fears alike.

Ben quickly turned again. The third opponent, seeing the fight going against his side, risked all on a deceptive thrust. Young Zoltan, well-taught, sidestepped as was necessary, and the enemy impaled himself on Zoltan’s blade. He staggered back, uttered a strange sound, and fell. The fight was over.

But yet, once more, feet scrambled in the gravel. The man Ben had knocked down at the beginning of the skirmish had now got his brain working and his legs under him again, and was rapidly vanishing inland amid the mist and dripping trees.

“After him!” Ben roared. “We need to find out-” He saved his breath for running. Young Zoltan was well ahead of him, already sprinting in pursuit.

Running uphill as best they could, the two allies separated slightly, chasing the sound of their quarry’s receding footsteps inland. Trees grew thickly on these slopes, and their branches of soggy needles slapped, as if with a malignant will, at every rushing movement. Having been through a run and a fight already, Ben’s lungs were laboring. Whenever he paused to listen, his own blood and his own breath were all that he could hear. The mist rolled round him, blinding him effectively. The chill sun seemed to make no headway in the sky.

Then there came Zoltan’s voice, calling him from somewhere ahead. Ben ran again, stopped to listen once more, and once more resumed the chase, or tried to.

When he had labored onward forty meters or so he paused again and choked out breathless curses. The sounds of running feet were fainter now, and they were all behind him. The surviving enemy must have doubled back toward the lake.

Panting more heavily than ever, Ben caught up with young Zoltan at last, though only on the very shoreline. Side by side they stood, their sandaled feet in the small waves, watching as a small boat, its single occupant furiously working the oars, vanished into the mist, heading directly out from shore.

“What do we do now?” Zoltan gasped at last. “The Prince is gone. Whoever they are, they have the Prince -and Shieldbreaker with him. What do we do?”

Ben leaned against a tree. “Seek help,” he got out at last, and paused for a wheezing breath. “And pray”-he drew another desperate breath-“we find it.”


THE mirror was made of real glass, smooth and A relatively unblemished, so clear that it almost certainly had a silver backing. Even the wood carving of the frame fastened so carefully to the wall was not entirely inept. All in all, it was a finer thing than you would expect to find out here in the hinterlands, in the only inn of a small town that was very little more than a fishing village. Certainly it was the best mirror that the lady who now occupied the little room had seen in a long time. And during the tedious days of waiting for the boat that was to carry her on down the Tungri, she had been taking full advantage of the opportunity offered by the glass for a new self-appraisal.

The face that the mirror showed her had never been ethereally beautiful-it had too much of a nose for that. But a dozen years ago-no, say only ten-it had possessed considerable attraction. Or at least a number of men had found the lady who wore this face desirable as recently as that. Even now it was still a good face, its owner thought, comely in its own earthy way. Or it would be a comely face, and even relatively youthful, if you thought of it as belonging to a woman of sixty.

The trouble with that qualification was that she was scarcely more than forty, even now.

The woman who had been waiting for days in the small, cheap, temporary room, she who had once been Queen Yambu, dropped her grayish gown-it was almost a pilgrim’s garment-from her shoulders, and stood before the mirror unclothed in the light of midday. She was still trying to give herself a more complete and objective appraisal.

Her silvery hair went well with the gray eyes, but stood in discordance with her full breasts and her upright bearing. Her body looked much younger than her face, and now the overall effect was nearer her true age.

Women-and men too-who had the skills of magic, or the resources to hire those skills, frequently turned to magic to fight back advancing age, or at least its visible effects. But Lady Yambu had no great aptitude of her own for working spells, and as for buying the appearance of youth, she had never seriously considered that course of action, and did not do so now.

Had she been truly dissatisfied with her appearance, a first step, simpler than magic and less risky, would have been to dye her hair back to its own youthful raven black. That might have made her look younger-would certainly have done so until the beholder looked upon her face.

Yes, the problem, if it was a problem, was in her face.

She had one of the Swords to thank for that.

“Hold Soulcutter in your hands throughout a battle,” she had once said to a man she knew almost as well as she knew anyone, “and see what you look like at the end of it.”

The good mirror on the rough wall was giving her a harsh truth, but truth was what she wanted, now more than ever, and she did not find it devastating. Really, the glass only confirmed what she had been telling herself of late: that youth no longer really mattered to her, just as for a long time now neither power nor the thrill of competition had been subjects of concern. More and more, with time’s accelerating passage, the only thing that she found of any importance at all was truth.

Pulling on her gown again, the lady turned from the mirror and took the three steps necessary to approach the open window of her second-floor room, through which a chill breeze entered.

Like the mirror, the single window presented a vision that seemed worthy of a finer setting than this poor room in a rude settlement. The sun, now approaching noon, had long since burned away the morning’s mystery of mists from the glassy surface of Lake Alk-maar. Much of the twisting, irregular length of that body of water was visible from the lady’s window.

Fifteen or twenty kilometers from where she stood, beyond the distant eastern end of the lake, rose the high scarp of land walling off the eastern tip of the continent. Above and beyond those cliffs lay Yambu’s former life, her former kingdom, the other lands she had once fought to conquer-and much else.

But the truth she wanted did not lie there. Not her truth, the truth that still mattered to her. Not any longer. Where it was she did not know exactly, but certain clues had pointed her downriver, far to the south and west.

Halfway between her window and the far end of the long, comparatively narrow lake, a couple of dozen small islands were clustered irregularly near the center of the kilometers of water. Even at this distance, in the clear sunshine, Yambu could descry the gray bulk of a castle upon the largest of those bits of land.

If she had ever suspected that any portion of the truth she sought might lie out there upon those islands, the events of the last few days and the stories spreading among the townsfolk and the travelers at the inn had effectively changed her mind. The good wizard Honan-Fu had been conquered, overthrown. That was not his castle any longer.

She raised her eyes yet once more to that even more remote scarp of land, blue with distance, that represented her past. Then she turned from the window. She was not going to retrace the steps of the journey she had begun. There was nothing for her back there now.

Approaching the most shadowy corner of her little room, the lady was greeted by a peculiar noise, a kind of heavy chirp. It came from her toy dragon, which was perching with great patience upon her washstand. This dragon was a peculiar, winged beast, no bigger than a barnyard fowl but of a quite different shape-the joint product of the breeder’s and the magician’s art.

Going to stand beside the creature, whispering into its gray curling ear with soft strange words, Lady Yambu fed it the living morsel of a mouse, which she took with firm fingers from a cage beside the stand. Delicacies were almost gone now, for the lady and her pet alike. She still had a substantial sum of money left, and a few jewels, but she meant to save her modest wealth against some future need; her journey downriver might be very long. Tonight, she thought, the dragon might have to be released from the window of this room to forage for itself. She hoped that the creature would come back to her from such a foray, and she thought it would; she trusted the one who had given her the pet almost as much as she had ever trusted anyone.

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