The prince of Tasavalta was not surprised and did not stir. “Hail, messenger,” he murmured in greeting.
“Greetings to the prince of Tasavalta.” The words were clearly only a memorized formula, and the thin, small voice in which they were spoken was far from human. Still, the words were clear enough.
“Do you bring me word from my father? From the Emperor?”
“Message for Prince Mark: No news from home. All goes well at home. I stand ready to bear a message back.”
No news in this case was good news. The prince had been away from Tasavalta for several months now, and he tended to worry about matters at home.
True, Mark had left the affairs of Tasavalta as well as the care of his second son, Stephen, now eight years old in the very capable hands of his wife, Princess Kristin. But still he inevitably worried.
“Any news from the Princess Kristin? Or greetings from either of my sons?”
“No news from home. All goes well at home. I stand ready to bear a message back.”
Mark sighed, and began to say the words he wanted the creature to memorize.
ON the morning after that on which the prince conversed with a winged messenger, the hermit Gelimer was sitting on a block of wood in his dooryard, gazing in the direction of his woodpile, which had been much depleted by winter. But at the moment the hermit was hardly conscious of the wood, or anything else in the yard around him. Gelimer was enjoying the promise of an early spring sun, and thinking back over his life. He found much material there for thought, especially in the days of his youth, before he had become a hermit.
He had become an anchorite long years ago, chiefly out of a sense of the need to withdraw from evil. But from time to time it was borne in upon him that evil, along with much else from his old life, was not to be so easily avoided.
Gelimer possessed, as did many folk who were not magicians, the ability to sense the presence of magical powers. And he could sense that there was a demon in the valley now.
He thought he knew why the foul thing had come. It was the Sword, of course, like any other great material treasure a lodestone drawing all the wickedness of the world about itself. When the hermit thought of demons, and of the men and women who consorted with such creatures and tried to use them, he was tempted to reclaim the Sword from where he had hidden it, and employ it to rid the world of at least some of those evildoers. But so far he had managed to put the intrinsically repulsive thought of violence away from him.
Another aspect of the Sword’s presence was inescapable. As long as he, Gelimer, knew where it was, had it virtually in his possession, he could no longer distance himself from the local political and military situation. Ordinarily he ignored the inhabitants of the valley, those of high station as well as low, and neither knew nor cared about the latest developments in the bitter feud between the clans. But now that was no longer an option; Farslayer had brought him an unwanted burden of power and responsibility.
When Gelimer had hidden the Sword, he had thought vaguely that with good luck the terrible weapon might remain where he had put it for years, for generations even, until no one any longer sought it in the valley. But already that had come to seem a foolish hope.
Very well. If he was now inescapably involved, then he must try to be involved as intelligently as possible.
By now Gelimer had logically reconstructed, at least to his own satisfaction, what must have happened in his house on the night of the storm. His visitor, Cosmo Biondo if that had really been the man’s name must have awakened, perhaps delirious with his head injury, in the middle of the night, while Gelimer himself still slept. Then the visitor, whoever he was and whether delirious or sane, had taken the terrible Sword in hand and carried it outside. What had happened immediately after that was still uncertain, except that the Sword must have passed from the hands of the man Cosmo into the possession of someone else. Possibly, even probably, Cosmo had decided to invoke Farslayer’s awful magic against someone at a distance, and had gone outside where he had room to swing the Sword, and privacy to chant whatever words he thought were necessary.
However he had rid himself of Farslayer, Cosmo had had time, before the Sword came back to him, to reenter Gelimer’s house. Time to latch the door after himself, and to go to stand beside the bed as if, having used that Sword, he might be ready to go back to sleep.
As indeed, in a sense, he had done.
Whether the violent death of Cosmo had been merited or not, Gelimer reflected that it had probably done no one any good, and settled nothing. Evil moved on through the world as before, and was now gathering in the vicinity of that hidden grave.
Even if Gelimer had been minded to take up the Sword himself and strike at that evil, he would not know where best to aim the blow. At the demon? Such creatures were notoriously difficult to kill. Gelimer had no idea whether even a Sword would be effective in such an effort, or to what physical location the Sword might go if he tried to slay a demon with it, or into whose hands the Sword of Vengeance would fall next. He knew that demons’ lives, their only vulnerability, were apt to be hidden in strange places.
No, he would not try to kill the demon now roaming invisibly through the valley at least not yet. For decades now everything or almost everything in the hermit’s nature had shrunk from the deliberate taking of any human life. I have put all that behind me, he thought. I am not a god, to judge and punish humans for their crimes. Even the gods did a very poor job of that when they were still around. Not you, of course, Ardneh, he added in his thoughts. You know I don’t mean you. And you know which gods I do mean the ones who created these damnable, almost indestructible Swords, thirty years ago, for the purposes of their Game. The ones who thought that the entirety of human life was no more than a game carried on for their amusement.
Well, the game of human life had swallowed up what had turned out to be the lesser reality of those gods and goddesses. What those divinities had deemed a mere amusement had destroyed them. And perhaps the limit of what human life was going to accomplish in the universe was not yet in sight.
Sitting by his woodpile now, Gelimer closed his eyes, wincing as if he felt an inner pain. He could tell that the demon had just passed, in some dimension, near him. But at the moment he stood in no immediate peril, for the thing was already gone again.
Even a nonviolent man could hardly scruple to kill a demon, by any means possible. In fact it might be thought a crime against humanity to fail to kill one if you had the power.
Despite its violence, the idea was developing a powerful attraction: To cleanse the earth of such afoul blot why should I not for once be willing to use the clean steel of a god-forged blade?
But he must be very careful. He must be sure of what he was doing before he moved.
Who had the ordering of demons, who employed such difficult and deadly dangerous tools? It was certainly not likely to be any of these local fools, even though one or two of them dared to call themselves wizards. No, it would be some vastly greater power, from outside the valley. And what would bring such a power here? Certainly the Sword Farslayer, as a prize to be won, might do so.
Gelimer’s thoughts kept coming back to the same conclusions, but those conclusions never brought him any nearer to knowing what to do.
Meanwhile, Chilperic on that same morning had no clear idea of where his demon was at the moment or what it was doing filthy creature, he would like to forget that it existed, if that were only possible. Today Chilperic himself was back on the south side of the river, and in fact he was within a few hundred meters of the hermit’s house. He was coming back to question the hermit again, but had decided that it would be wise to look around in the vicinity a little first.
Chilperic did not think the hermit had lied to him. But during his second night at the Senones manor, it had gradually come to him that neither Cosmo Malolo nor the Sword he had carried might ever have left these high crags. There had been a great deal of killing on that night, and there was really no reason to think that Cosmo had survived it.