Saberhagen, Fred – Lost Swords 01 – Woundhealer’s Story

enough for an agile human to clamber down, using both hands and feet, but the hoofed animal would never have made it.

Beside the next little space of flat land there was no solemn pool, but a continuous sinewed rush of water. Zoltan stood beside it listening, watching, holding his breath as if even that faint sound might interfere with his catching the clue had to have. She, being an enchantress after all, might be able to hear his breath above the rush of water. He thought it very likely now that he would be able to hear hers.

If only he had been able to tell old Karel about her. Karel could have helped him in this search … but no, that wouldn’t have been right. Because no one else was meant to find her, only he, Zoltan. A deeper understanding of that point was slowly growing in him. And he was going to find her, now. She couldn’t be that far ahead of him.

Zoltan went on. Always forward, always beside the rushing, babbling stream, and down.

Presently he came to a place where the stream was behaving queerly. First, without any apparent cause, there were wide swirls across its surface. And then came a much more serious departure from the normal. The whole baby river meandered for several meters sideways across a slope, a steep place where it should have plunged straight down. Staring at this phenomenon, Zoltan pulled out his dagger and looked about him suspiciously. But then he felt foolish and put the useless knife back into its sheath. Probably one of Karel’s elemental had really taken shape two days ago and still existed in the form of this disturbance.

Ordinarily Zoltan would have been fascinated and somewhat frightened on encountering this phenomenon. Now it made little impression, except that thinking of the elemental recalled Karel once again to Zoltan’s thoughts. But there was some reason, some important reason, why he should not even think of Karel now….

Anyway, it was more enjoyable by far to think about the girl. To speculate on why she had signaled to him so enticingly, and what secrets-and perhaps other things-she might have to share with him when he had won this game by catching up with her. Zoltan no longer supposed that she might be a prisoner of the bandits, or really in need of rescue. She was just being playful with him, that was it.

There were things about that explanation that puzzled him- but somehow it would be inappropriate for him to think of puzzling things just now. Now was a time for action.

He had followed the stream yet a little farther-just how far was not important-when he actually caught a glimpse of the girl again, her head and arms and part of her upper body. This time she was trying to hide from him among the intertwined branches of two fallen trees, right at the water’s edge, and holding herself so still that for a long moment or two he could not be sure that he was really seeing her at all. And when, without shifting his gaze away for even so long as a heartbeat, Zoltan had come right up to the place, still by some enchantress’s cunning she had managed to slip away, so cleverly that Zoltan had never seen her go. All he could think of was that she must have let herself slide into the water and drift away, gliding downstream beneath the surface.

And then he found one of her garments. The girl must have discarded it when she plunged into the water. But, when Zoltan came up to it and took hold of the fabric, it turned into brown moss in his fingers. Moss, grown long and tinged with gray, as if it had been growing here upon this log and rock for years. But though the cloth was no more than moss when he touched it, and seemed to be fastened in place, Zoltan could not be fooled.

The trouble, he decided, was that he simply wasn’t moving fast enough to catch her.

Having reached this conclusion, he began to leap and run.

All went well for a little while. Then halfway through a steep descent he slipped, stepping on a slippery, angled rock, and fell, striking his chest on another flat rock with a thud that sent a shock of pain all through his rib cage. The breath was knocked clean out of him before he splashed into the next pool down. If the pool had been much larger he might have drowned. As it was, the rushing water deposited him like driftwood upon a narrow fringe of beach.

It seemed like a long time to Zoltan, lying in the grit and mud, before he could be sure that the pain in his ribs was going to let him breathe again.

Now something really strange was happening. Where was all the light?

Then he realized that the sun was going down. In fact it had gone down already. What light there was came from the full moon rising over the highlands, from which he had spent all day traveling.

Some animal off in the distance howled. It was an unfamiliar sound, as if Zoltan might already have reached some part of the world that was completely strange to him.

Groaning, he dragged himself up into a sitting position and decided that, after all, he was probably going to be able to go on breathing. Even though pain shot through his chest every time he drew in air.

It was, of course, impossible for him to get lost here-all he had to do was to follow the stream back up into the hills. Not that he was ready yet to turn back. He would rest here for a little while, and then he would go on. She couldn’t be far away.

Something made Zoltan turn his head. There, illuminated by the last sunlight of the western sky and the rising moon high in the east, he saw the top of the girl’s head, no more than ten meters away. Her gray eyes, fixed on Zoltan steadily, were looking over the top of a pile of brushwood.

Another white spot, at a little distance, might be the top of one of her shoulders. He was much closer to her now than she had ever allowed him to get before.

The last light of day was dying quickly, and for the first time Zoltan began to be afraid.

He thought the gray eyes laughed and beckoned, but still the girl moved away from him, going somewhere farther beyond the brush pile, and disappeared.

He had to go after her. It was simply that he had no choice. Zoltan managed to stand up and follow her. Not only his ribs but his leg hurt, as he discovered when he tried to walk. He went on, with great effort and some pain.

After only a little distance, on an easy slope, he came to a larger pool than any he had encountered yet.

On a flat rock just at the side of the pool he saw her eyes again, and the black hair. But that object ought not to be her body. The shape of it was wrong, completely wrong. It altered further as he looked at it, the bones and skin alike becoming something different. And then Zoltan saw her scaly length, her flicking tail, go writhing across the rock, plunging down into the riverbank slime beyond.

But there were still eyes-other eyes-looking at Zoltan, from another direction.

He turned, raising his own gaze to meet them.

The dark, winged shape, almost man-sized, perched amid shadows on a high ledge of rock. It looked as much like an illusion as the girl had looked like reality. But the eyes that looked down at him from the winged shape did not change. Gradually, heartbeat by heartbeat, he came to believe that they were very real.


THE full moon that Zoltan saw above the hills had waned to dark and waxed to full again when a column of about twenty riders approached within a few kilometers of the White Temple of Sibi.

At midday, a mounted scout, the first member of the advancing party to actually come within sight of the Temple and its compound, hurriedly surveyed the scene from a slight elevation nearby, then wheeled his riding-beast and sped away to make his report.

Less than an hour had passed before the scout was back, and the column with him. Halting atop a small hill that gave them a slightly better vantage point than that of the first reconnaissance, they looked over the situation more thoroughly.

At the head of the force as it arrived there rode a bulky, middle-aged man at whose belt hung a Sword, the symbol on the black hilt turned inward toward his body so that it could not be easily seen. Besides the Sword itself, appearances suggested nothing very remarkable about its owner. He was outfitted more like a bandit chieftain than an officer of cavalry, and indeed the clothing worn by his followers was very far from uniform. The men in the group-and the few women who were among them-made up an ill-assorted but well-armed gang, with no sign of any livery or colors, though pieces of the uniforms of several different armies could be distinguished among their garments.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred