Saberhagen, Fred – The Swords 03 – The Third Book Of Swords

Somebody released the chain for him, and he began to

pull the light craft forward, working hand over hand

against the rough wall of the narrow subterranean

passage. He was propelling himself against the

current, and away from the

light. Darkness deepened to totality as the floor-

stone was lowered crunching back into place.

Denis pulled on. Presently a ghost of watery light

reached his eyes from somewhere ahead. He man-

aged to see a low stone lintel athwart his course,

and to bend his head and body almost completely

down under the gunwales to get himself beneath

the barrier.

His craft had now emerged into a larger cham-

ber, and one not quite as completely dark. There

was room enough for Denis to sit up straight. In a

moment he realized that there were timbers about

him, rising out of the water in a broad framework,

and supporting a flat wooden surface a meter of so

above his head. Denis realized that he was now

directly underneath a riverside dock.

There were gaps between pilings large enough for

the canoe to pass, and leading to the lesser darkness

of the open, foggy night. Emerging cautiously from

underneath the dock, using his paddle freely now,

Denis found himself afloat upon a familiar channel

of the river. Right there was the house he had just

left, all windows darkened as if everyone inside

were fast asleep. If there was other traffic on the

river tonight, he could not see or hear it in the fog.

At this hour, he doubted that there was.

Denis turned the prow of his canoe upstream, and

paddled steadily. The first gleams of daylight were

already becoming visible in the eastern sky, and he

wanted to reach the gate in the city walls at dawn,

when it routinely opened for the day. There would

probably be a little incoming traffic, produce

barges and such, waiting outside; the watch ought

to pass him out promptly, and most likely without

paying much attention to him.

This channel of the river took him past familiar

sights of the great city. Most people Denis had met

said that it was the greatest in the world, but who

knew the truth of that? Here on the right bank were

the cloth-dyers, as usual starting their work early,

already staining the water as they rinsed out the

long banners of their product. And on the other

bank, one of the fish-markets was opening.

Now through thinning fog there came into

Denis’s sight the city walls themselves, taller than

all but a very few of the buildings they protected,

and thick as houses for most of their height. They

were build of almost indestructible stone, hard-

ened, the stories had it, by the Old World magic

called technology. They were supported at close

intervals by formidable towers of the same mate-

rial. Tested over five hundred years by scores of

sieges (so it was said), threatened again and again

by ingenious engines of attack, and various

attempts at undermining, they still stood guard

over a city that since they were built had never

fallen to military attack. Kings and Queens and

mighty generals had raged impotently outside

those walls, and would-be conquerors had died

there at the hands of their own rebellious troops.

Siege, starvation, massacre, all had been threat-

ened against Tashigang, but all in vain. The Corgo

flowed year-round, and was always bountiful with

fish. The prudent burghers and Lords Mayor of the

city had a tradition of keeping good supplies of

other food on hand, and-perhaps most important

of all-of choosing their outside enemies and allies

with the greatest care.

Now the gate that closed the waterway was going

up, opening this channel of the river for passage.

The river-gate was a portcullis built on a titanic

scale, wrought by the same engineering genius as

the city walls. Its movement was assisted by great

counterweights that rode on iron chains, supported

by pulleys built into the guard-towers of the wall.

The raising made a familiar city-morning noise,

and took some little time.

There was another huge iron chain spanning the

channel underwater, as extra proof against the

passage of any sizeable hostile vessel. But Denis did

not have to wait for that to be lowered into the bot-

tom mud. With a wave of his hand that was casu-

ally answered by the watch, he headed out, plying

his paddle energetically.

He went on up the river, now and again looking

back. With the morning mist still mounting, the

very towers of Tashigang seemed to be melting into

it, like some fabric of enchantment.


In Mark’s ears was the endless sound of hard,

hooflike footpads beating the earth, of moving ani-

mals and men. Day after day in the sun and dust,

night after night by firelight, there was not much in

the way of human speech. He and the patrol of the

Dark King’s troops escorting him entered and trav-

ersed lands heavily scarred by war and occupation,

a region of burned-out villages and wasted fields.

With each succeeding day the devastation appeared

more recent, and Mark decided that the army that

had caused it could no longer be far away. The only

human inhabitants of this region clearly visible

were the dead, those who had been impaled or

hanged for acts of resistance perhaps, or perhaps

only on a whim, for a conqueror’s sport.

At first Mark had known faint doubts about

where he was being taken. These now disappeared.

It was his experience that all armies on the march

caused destruction, but only the Dark King’s forces

moved with this kind of relentless savagery. A few

of the human victims on display wore clothing that

had once been white; evidently not even Ardneh’s

people were being spared by Vilkata now.

Even animal life was scarce, except for the omni-

present scavenger birds and reptiles. As the patrol

passed, these sometimes rose, hooting or cawing,

from some hideous feast near roadside. Once a live

and healthy-looking goat inspected the men

through a gap in a hedge as they went cantering by.

Mark’s escort had never questioned his right to

give them orders, and they got on briskly with the

business of obeying the one real order he had so far

issued. Familiar as he was with armies and with

war, he considered these to be well-disciplined and

incredibly tough-looking troops. They spoke the

common language with an accent that Mark found

unfamiliar, and they wore Vilkata’s black and gold

only in the form of small tokens pinned to their hats

or vests of curly fur.

One more thing about these men was soon just as

apparent as their discipline and toughness: they

were for some reason mightily afraid of Mark. In

what form they perceived him he could only guess,

but whatever it was induced in them quiet terror

and scrupulous obedience.

In Mark’s immediate presence the men rarely

spoke at all, even to each other, but when they were

at some distance he saw them talking and gesturing

freely among themselves. Occasionally when they

thought he was not watching one of them would

make a sign in his direction, that Mark interpreted

as some kind of charm to ward off danger. Gradu-

ally he decided that they must see him as some

powerful and dangerous wizard they knew to be in

Vilkata’s service.

Upon recovering from their first surprise at his

approach, they had been quick to offer him food

and drink, and his pick of their riding beasts for his

own use-they had been traveling with a couple of

spare mounts. Each night when they halted, Mark

built his own small fire, a little apart from theirs,.

He had soon decided that they would feel some-

what easier that way, and in truth he felt easier


The country grew higher, and the nights, under a

Moon waxing toward full, grew chill. Using the

blanket that had been rolled up behind the saddle

of his borrowed mount, Mark slept in reasonable

comfort. He slept with one hand always on the hilt

of Sightblinder, though he felt confident that the

mere presence of the Sword in his possession would

be enough to maintain his magical disguise. He was

vaguely reassured to see that the patrol always

posted sentries at night, in a professional manner.

The journey proceeded swiftly. On the afternoon

of the fourth day after Mark had joined them, the

patrol rode into sight of Vilkata’s main encamp-


As the riders topped a small, barren rise of land,

the huge bivouac came into view a kilometer ahead,

on slightly lower ground. The sprawling camp was

constructed around what looked to Mark like a

large parade ground of scraped and flattened earth.

The camp appeared to be laid out in good order, but

it was not surrounded by a palisade or any other

defensive works. Rather it sprawled arrogantly

exposed, as if on the assumption that no power on

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred