Saberhagen, Fred 02 – Sightblinder’s Story

Meanwhile, the troops of Honan-Fu were adding to the griffin’s difficulties by firing arrows and slinging rocks at it from below.

When Wood leaped off his griffin to the roof, Arnfinn saw facing him the hideous image of a reptilian warrior. The youth recognized the Sword of Force in the hand of this enemy, and heard the deadly thudding he had heard before through the high windows of Ninazu’s bedchamber.

Ninazu, who had never seen Wood in his reptilian guise before, looked on this terrible arrival with profound loathing, and a fear that made her shrink closer to Arnfinn.

The half-human warrior ignored her. He looked Arnfinn over as if he could see him perfectly well, with growing, amazed contempt. Then the enemy strode toward him with easy confidence, raising Shieldbreaker casually, as if to strike against some unresisting target.

Arnfinn, with Sightblinder in hand, looked into the inward nature of this enemy, as he had scanned the two thieves on the road so many days ago, and had scrutinized the Prince, and Ninazu herself, a short time past. What he saw now revolted him.

Arnfinn dropped his own weapon as the Prince had told him. Now Sightblinder lay inert upon the stone paving of the roof, and its imitation of the other Sword immediately ceased.

Lady Ninazu had drawn her breath in sharply when Arnfinn cast Sightblinder down. But when Arnfinn turned to her in an agony of concern, he saw to his amazement that she was gazing at him as lovingly as ever, and nodding her approval. In a flash he understood. It was as if she were saying yet again: “A clever trick, my lord. This time you have made this hideous enemy see you as only a gawking peasant. I am sure it is all part of your invincible plan.”

But now Wood, finding that he faced an unarmed opponent, retreated a step or two and cast down Shield-breaker. He dropped the weapon close behind him on the rooftop, safe for the moment from any hands but his. He had heard too many warnings, and he knew better than to try to fight any unarmed man, even this woeful-looking peasant, with the Sword of Force in hand. The Sword would never harm an empty-handed foe, and, by drawing virtually all of Wood’s physical strength into itself, would leave him helpless.

As soon as Wood threw down Shieldbreaker, Arnfinn grabbed up the Sword of Stealth again.

Now it was Wood, caught Swordless and unprotected, who for the first time experienced the full effects of Sightblinder’s power. He saw the other man, who moved toward him, first as a roiling cloud of thicker demon-smoke than any Akbar or his surviving cohort were likely to produce. From this sight the wizard recoiled, sure for the moment that he once again confronted his ancient foe, the ultimate arch-demon Orcus. Wood stumbled back, and farther back, around the sharp curve made by the encircling parapet. Even as he shrank involuntarily from that image, it altered, the cloud turning pale and becoming laced with inner lightning. And now it seemed to Wood that he was confronted by an avatar of Ardneh himself.

And yet again the advancing image altered. It was that of a mere man now, deceptively ordinary in appearance, who walked on two legs and smiled at Wood and seemed about to give him orders, as he had commanded him of old, orders that the great wizard would be incapable of refusing. It was the image of John Ominor, an emperor of evil memory even to such as Wood.

“I tell you,” the image of John Ominor commanded him, “to leave us alone.”

Almost, Wood obeyed. Almost. But the sheer ferocity of his inner purpose saved him, kept him from yielding to that command through mindless terror. He stumbled backward.

Then he turned aside to regain Shieldbreaker, which was still lying where he had cast it down. The peasant, seeing this, disarmed himself by hurling Sight-blinder at him from behind; the bright steel missed Wood, bounced on the hard roof before him, and skittered away to lie available for the taking. With a lunge Wood darted forward and grabbed up the Sword of Stealth. Magic aside, this one would be a tool with which even awkward hands could kill an unarmed man.

Ninazu, in the background, was calling out encouragement of some kind to her hero-but neither man was really aware of what the lady was now saying.

Then suddenly she had their attention. Now that Wood had Sightblinder in hand, she saw him as her brother Kunderu, and screamed, a scream that distracted both men for a moment.

Arnfinn now saw two Ninazu’s. One of them was standing in place and screaming, while the other smiled at him encouragingly as she approached, holding out her arms as if she wanted to give him comfort. Her small white hands were empty. Both Ninazu’s had the same smudges on face and gown, and the dress of each was torn in precisely the same way. The Sword of Stealth, meanwhile, had completely disappeared, as had Arnfinn’s opponent.

The youth realized barely in time what this combination of appearances implied. Ninazu with her soft arms outstretched had almost reached him. He threw himself aside barely in time to dodge the invisible blow of Sightblinder, a blow that lodged the blade firmly in one of the wooden supports of the lookout’s shelter.

And then Arnfinn’s eye alighted on a Sword, another Sword, that was lying naked on the paving just across the roof’s diameter. Running across the roof to grab up Shieldbreaker, Arnfinn looked back over his shoulder and saw his own father standing with his back to Arnfinn, wrenching at something connected with the shelter post, some object that was concealed behind him as he strove with all his might to tear it free-

Arnfinn grabbed up Shieldbreaker, and felt the gently thudding, remorseless power of it flow into his right hand. Now he could see with perfect clarity that it was his reptilian enemy who was struggling to pull loose a Sword, and who now turned to face Arnfinn with Sightblinder in hand.

Wood saw what Arnfinn had picked up, and hastily threw Sightblinder down, disarming himself again almost as soon as he had managed to get the weapon free.

And Arnfinn promptly cast down Shieldbreaker. He felt sure now that was the proper move to make, because he had seen his crafty enemy do it when their positions were reversed.

“I will help you, my love!” cried out Lady Ninazu suddenly, in a strong voice. And, before anyone could move to reach Shieldbreaker again, she had darted near the enemy and grabbed up Sightblinder.

There was an outburst of sound from somewhere below the tower, men’s voices cheering, followed by calls for the Ancient One himself to surrender.

But no one on the roof heard that. For the moment it seemed that none of the three people there were capable of moving. Arnfinn was frozen, looking at an image of his own father, who stared back at him in utter horror. Then he saw Ninazu as Wood in duplicate. And then Arnfinn saw her briefly as herself, and he could not understand why that should be, while she still held the Sword.

Her gaze swung round to Wood, who was now hesitating as to whether he dared try to make a rush for Shieldbreaker or not. The griffin, crying fiercely, was circling the tower swiftly, coming closer now in rapid orbit.

“You,” the multiple, flickering image that was Ninazu said to the wizard. “Gods and demons, I see you clearly now. Clearly at last. How could I ever have-you make me want to puke!”

And then her gaze turned back to Arnfinn. Aided by Sightblinder’s second and more subtle power, she was seeing him now, for the first time, for what he really was.

The changing image that was Ninazu shook its head. “Ahhh,” was the sound that came from her throat, in a voice that was made up of many voices, and even if there were no words the tones of that sound spoke with great eloquence of utter denial and refusal.

She backed up farther, away from Arnfinn even as he took a step toward her, and farther still, even if it meant climbing up on the parapet behind her.

The Sword slipped from her grasp, and for a moment he saw her clearly. Her long dress tangled her feet and she started to go over.

Arnfinn was halfway across the roof toward the spot where she had disappeared when the claws of the griffin struck him down.


THE sun had moved well past noon before the last mopping-up operations had been concluded in the castle. But organized resistance had effectively collapsed much earlier when Wood was seen making good his own escape aboard his griffin, with Shieldbreaker in his hand. Besides the Ancient One himself, probably none of the intruders in red and gray had been able to get away.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred