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

The thickness of the creature’s enormous, snaky body was

approximately equal to Amintor’s height. He gained a small advantage from stepping on a handy stone on the near side, stepped once more upon a roughly projecting scale-the beast took no more notice of his weight than would a castle wall-and vaulted to the top and over, dropping down nimbly enough on the other side.

“Up here, Amintor.”

On a ledge of rock beside the next small cataract-a shelf of stone overgrown with vegetation and several meters above the worm-a figure waited. It was that of one who could only be the wizard Burslem.

Amintor had never seen the magician before, but one who gave orders here could hardly be anyone else. The Baron chose a route and clambered up to where the other man sat regally awaiting his arrival. The other arose from the fine chair he had been sitting in, as if belatedly deciding to offer that much courtesy; and the two men stood in the moonlight sizing each other up.

Burslem was quite a young man in appearance, though Amintor did not allow himself to be deceived by that. Indeed, the magician had the look of a somewhat bookish youth, wearing a soft robe that like his chair would have looked more appropriate in a library than on this desolate hillside surrounded by splintered rocks, grotesquely growing trees, and rushing water.

But the strangest things in the immediate environment were not those, perhaps not even the great worm. Amintor could sense living things whirring and rustling in the dusky air above the wizard’s head, but they were almost impossible to see, and Burslem never looked up at them at all. The limb of a tall, dead tree projected through that space, and above the tree, a higher ledge. And, perched on that ledge, where the shadows of several taller trees congealed together, was a solid form, that of something that might have been a

reptile-unless it was some kind of creature even less savory. Something in the Baron recoiled from that presence. He did not know what it was, and quickly decided that he did not want to know.

The wizard’s youthful face was solemn as it regarded him. Had someone been watching at this moment who had also known the evil emperor John Ominor, of thousands of years in the past, the observer would have been struck by a certain resemblance between the two.

There was, perhaps, also a likeness to that ancient ruler in the brusque way that this man talked.

“What is the purpose of this meeting, Amintor? I am a busy man.” The voice was nondescript.

“Indeed, we are both busy men.” Calmly the Baron refused to be rushed or rattled by the impressive reception the other had provided for him. “So I will come at once to the point. My thought is that each of us has certain skills- powers-that the other lacks. Therefore we might do very well to form a partnership.”

The other, hands clasped behind his back, looked at him in silence for what seemed to Amintor a very long time. It was as if the magician were reassessing an earlier impression.

“Your recent acquisition of Shieldbreaker,” Burslem admitted at last, “has increased your status in my eyes, to a considerable extent. I should like to hear the story of how that was accomplished.”


And the Baron retold the story, in its broad outline, as succinctly and truthfully as he could, not omitting his own mistakes along the way. He then returned, without pause, to his theme. “Separately we are both of us strong, but together we will be stronger still. I am a dependable military leader and have a knack for finding the right way to talk people into doing things-not a skill to be sneered at in matters of

diplomacy and war. The fact is that I see no practical limits to what we might be able to accomplish in a partnership.”

Burslem at least did not immediately refuse the proposal, or laugh it to scorn. Instead he gestured with his left hand, and what had been a rock became-or seemed to become- another comfortable chair beside his own. There on the small ledge above the little waterfall the two men sat and talked well into the night, with the great worm coiled-or at least looped-below them, right athwart the space that any other physical being would have had to cross in order to approach them from below.

Only the gods and demons, thought Amintor-and my friend here-know what may be blocking the way into this canyon from above. He also found himself wondering, in the occasional pauses of the conversation, how fast the creature below him might be able to move if and when it decided there was a need for speed. He could not imagine anything that a great worm would feel the need to run away from, but it must require enough food for an army, and catching that might well require some quickness sometimes. And, how long had it taken to travel here, from whatever strange place it had been summoned?

“A most formidable guardian,” he remarked at one point, indicating the limbless dragon with a gesture.

“I have lost,” Burslem muttered, “some of my faith in demons.” It was as if the wizard were speaking more to himself than anyone else.

The Baron was not sure that he saw any relevant connection between demons and dragons, but he did not choose to pursue the matter. The magician turned slightly in his chair to face him. “Let

us speak plainly.” “By all means.”

“You invite me into a partnership. Between partners, there is always one senior to the other.”

Amintor spread both hands, a gesture that caused the Swords at his sides, in their metal-bound sheaths, to chink faintly against rock. The wizard had totally ignored the priceless weapons so far, and continued to do so now.

The Baron said: “I would certainly not claim seniority over one who was the chief of security and intelligence for King Vilkata.”

Burslem grunted. “If he had listened to me, he would be alive today. Not only alive. He would have won the war.”

In those days Amintor himself, of course, had been at the right hand of the Silver Queen. But he made no claim now to having given advice that, if taken, would have altered the outcome of the war. Instead the Baron said only: “When one of these Swords finds itself in a ruler’s hand, there is a tendency for it to dominate his thinking.” Vilkata had held the Mindsword, then. “Or her thinking, as the case may be.”

Burslem laughed. It was a hissing sound, unpleasant and somewhat labored, quite out of keeping with his ordinary appearance. Amintor found himself thinking he would not be surprised if a serpent stuck its head up out of the man’s throat. The great worm had long since lowered its head again, become a silent wall that curved through deepening night. But the eyes of the other thing on the ledge above, whatever it might be, were still there watching.

“Well,” the wizard said, “we may hope that the Sword of Love now dominates the thinking of Prince Mark. Maybe it will lead him into trying to do good unto his enemies.”

“May it be so indeed,” agreed the Baron heartily. “He has done a fair amount of troublesome things to me, though in the end I had what I wanted from him.”

“Is it possible that you will want more from him in the future?”

“I should say it is quite possible. By the way, Burslem, I have here a small flask of wine of a certain rare vintage. Would you share a drink with me? A toast, to the future prosperity of both of us?” The Baron stopped short of proposing that they drink to a partnership that had not yet been finally agreed upon.

“Why not?” Burslem reached over with a well-kept, ordinary-looking hand to take the flask. At that moment Amintor was conscious of the faintest throb of power inside the length of Shieldbreaker as it lay along his thigh. Weapons of magic arrayed in opposition meant no more to the Sword of Force than did those of steel. None stands to Shieldbreaker. But the Sword’s reaction was nothing serious as yet; a preliminary stirring, he supposed, a response to some magical precaution activated by his host when Burslem took the drink into his hand.

Now the wizard was holding up the small flask of wine in both hands and gazing at it, as if he were somehow able to study the fluid inside the leather skin. Amintor, expecting to be able to perceive something of testing at this moment, could just detect, with his mind more than with his senses, the passage of something in the air immediately over his own head. He looked up. He had a sense that it had been of considerably more than human size, but already it was gone. The small green eyes that he had seen, of something perched upon the higher ledge, were now gone too.

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