Saberhagen, Fred – Lost Swords 05 – Coinspinners Story

The howling that had engaged his attention still persisted at irregular intervals. The Prince was growing more inclined to classify it as one of the ordinary background noises of the jungle, even though it still seemed, when he took careful note of it, to be coming closer.

As the boat drifted, he repeated his efforts to establish by means of magic some contact with his parents, or, failing that, with some of his friends and other allies or potential allies-Trimbak Rao and Trilby were of course included in these attempts. But to Adrian’s disgust he discovered that, for the time being at least, he still could not even sense the direction in which any of these important people might be found.

Whenever he looked behind him, upstream, the gradually receding City still burned in its unceasing glow of complex enchantment. To a vision as sharp as Adrian’s the City continued to cast its garish radiance across the sky, dazzling and dimming the capabilities of his special senses.

Still, keeping track of the location of the Sword of Chance, now moving somewhere ahead of him, was no trouble at all. Once he had found it, like a fiery brand Coinspinner had seared its image and its presence into his perception. The only difficulty Adrian experienced was to keep the brightness of that Sword from interfering with other psychic perceptions. Yes, he felt absolutely sure that Coinspinner was there ahead of him somewhere, a good many kilometers distant but not moving very quickly; and if it stayed approximately where it was now, and if the river maintained its present direction, he was sure to be carried closer to the Sword.

And Coinspinner was being borne now in innocent hands. Perhaps, he thought again, that would increase his chances of being able to get his own hands on it.

Perhaps. Well, he would try. At the moment he could establish no other reasonable goal. He was traveling in a generally westerly direction-but where was he going? He could not even guess intelligently which way he ought to go to get home.

As the day wore on, and Adrian’s slow progress downstream continued, some truly giant trees came into his sight on the northern bank of the river. These towered scores of meters above the ground, standing much taller than the highest buildings of the City.

Catching his first glimpse of this soaring grove, the boy at first interpreted it as a high hill, set back somewhat from the bank. Only on coming closer had he realized that the appearance of a steep hill was produced by the grove of trees, much taller than the other species of the forest, but growing on approximately the same level of ground.

Adrian had heard of such trees, but had never seen them before. Their appearance now suggested to him that he might be entering the country of the wood-dwelling and wood-crafting Treen people, who lived in close relationship with those giant trees.

Tying up his boat for the night at a snag near midstream, and making another psychic effort, Adrian began for the first time to get a better look at the distant presence of his chief enemy. It was Wood, undoubtedly; and he was awesomely stronger than even Adrian had expected.

It was impossible for the Prince to tell exactly where Wood was; but at least Adrian could confirm that it was not his enemy who now held the Sword of Chance.

As a well-informed heir, the Prince knew perfectly well that this deadly dangerous man could be expected to be carrying Shieldbreaker.

In light of the fact that Wood was somewhere else, the Sword of Chance now began to appear to Adrian with ever-increasing probability as an objective that he might be able to reach and take.

There was of course the chance that Coinspinner would have moved itself again, to some considerable distance, before he was able to come up with it. Whether the Sword was going to remain in the hands of its present owner for another hour, another day, another year, or many years, was beyond the power of anyone to predict, by magic or other means. Well, he could only try.

Tying up for the night at a small island, Adrian managed some magic on a sizable fish, hypnotizing and lulling his prey into the shallows until he was able to hurl it out of the water with a fierce grab. Then, after painstakingly gathering some firewood, and a successful effort at pyrokinesis, he cooked his catch whole and attacked it with a sharp stick and his teeth. By now his hunger had reached the point where the results actually tasted good.

The night passed for Adrian without incident, and his solitary journey downriver continued in the same way for most of the succeeding day. No more of the gigantic trees appeared. The unbroken walls of jungle had followed the river for so long that he had almost begun to wonder whether they were the result of some enchantment-when unexpectedly there came a change.

The first sign of human presence occurred late in the afternoon of that second day. It came in the form of a long-deceased and almost-fleshless head, dried by means of smoke or magic, and erected on a pole stuck in the mud bank just above the high-water mark. The thing was hardly more than a painted human skull, equipped with eyes of clay and shell.

If this sign was meant as a warning to intruders, one traveler at least was ready to take it to heart. Adrian put in to the opposite shore at once, and did what mental scouting he could manage of the terrain and the river just ahead. This time his extra faculties availed him little; but when he sniffed repeatedly and carefully he could detect a faint tang of wood smoke in the damp air.

Pulling his canoe well up on the shore, he did his best to conceal the craft with some loose brush and some minor magic. Then he settled down to wait for dusk.

As soon as daylight had dimmed enough to offer good concealment, he put out and drifted once again. The small village, consisting of only a few huts, was just around the next bend.

Adrian, warned and with time to make preparations, was able to steer silently to the far side of the stream, and to use magic to keep himself from being noticed. True total invisibility would be very difficult to achieve, but in the circumstances it was not hard to make people think for a few moments that his canoe was only a drifting log.

As he passed the village, some six or eight of its inhabitants were visible around a central fire. The men and women, light bronze of skin, with straight brown hair, were wearing only loincloths, while their children ran among them naked. These head-collectors were a wiry, active, and handsome people. Adrian and his canoe went drifting by in utter silence; even had he employed no magic, it was quite likely that no one on shore would have been able to see him in the gathering night.

He was not mistaken in thinking that these were the people who had put up the warning. More prepared heads were on display within the village, mounted over doorways and on decorated poles. These effectively discouraged any faint hopes the passing traveler might have entertained of being able to land here after all.

Having thus begun traveling by night, the Prince decided that it had definite advantages. Besides, he wished to put as much distance as was feasible between himself and the skull-collectors’ village. Darkness diminished physical vision, but had no effect upon Adrian’s magical perceptions. He continued drifting and paddling until almost dawn, by which time he judged he might be safely out of the territory of the people who put up shriveled heads.

Hungrily prowling the deserted banks of the river for food at dawn, he found some turtle eggs and cracked and ate them raw. At this time he decided also that in future he would build fires only by day, and that he would do his best to keep them from smoking.

Having disposed of the eggs, the Prince recognized a couple of species of plants, and, using another stick, dug up an edible root or two. These, brought along in the boat, would keep him going for some time if he could also make an occasional find of fruit.

Starvation could be kept at bay indefinitely by such makeshift means as these, but still Adrian’s craving was growing steadily for something like a normal diet. He considered trying to magic some food for himself out of whatever raw material he could find available, but again he decided that for the time being he had better conserve his energies for possible emergencies.

Gradually the recurrent howling had grown closer, and it was now near enough to become worrisome again; it sounded, after all, as if something were genuinely following him. But at the same time the sound had now been with him long enough to become familiar, and thus in a way it was no longer so alarming.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred