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

earth was going to dare attack it. Mark considered

gloomily that the assumption was probably cor-


As he and his escort rode nearer to the camp, he

realized that it probably contained not only more

human troops than he had ever seen in one place

before, but a greater variety of them as well, housed

in a wild assortment of tents and other temporary

shelters. The outer pickets of the camp, men and

women patrolling with leashed warbeasts, made no

attempt to challenge Mark and his escort as they

approached. And Mark observed that when the

human sentries were close enough to get a good

look at him, they, like his escort originally, shrank

back perceptibly.

He had to wonder again: Who, or what, did they

see? And who or what would Vilkata see when Mark

entered his presence, if Mark succeeded in pushing

matters that far? It was hard for Mark to imagine

that there could be anyone the Dark King either

feared or loved.

Only now, at last, did Mark clearly consider that

he might be headed for a personal encounter with

the Dark King. He had first approached the patrol

with no more than a vague idea of eavesdropping

on the enemy’s secret councils, just as Draffut said

he had moved unrecognized among the gods. Now

for the first time Mark saw that it might be his duty

to accomplish something more than that. The

thought was vastly intriguing and at the same time

deeply frightening, and he did not try now to think

it through to any definite conclusion.

He rode on, still surrounded by his escort, until

they were somewhere deep inside the vast encamp-

ment. There the patrol halted, and its members

began an animated discussion among themselves,

in some dialect that Mark could not really follow.

Judging that the debate might be on how to sepa-

rate themselves from him as safely and properly as

possible, he took the matter into his own hands by

dismounting, and then dismissing both his steed

and his escort with what he hoped looked like an

arrogantly confident wave of his hand.

Turning his back on the patrol then, Mark stalked

away on foot, heading for a tall flagpole that was

visible above the nearby tents. The pole supported

a long banner of black and gold, hanging limp now

in the windless air. Mark hoped and expected that

this flag marked the location of some central head-

quarters. As he walked toward it he saw the heads

of soldiers and camp-followers turn, their attention

following him as he passed; and he saw too that

some people either speeded up or slowed their own

progress, in order not to cross his path too closely.

Now he had to detour around some warbeasts’

pens, the smell and the mewing of the great catlike

creatures coming out of them in waves. Now he was

in sight of one corner of the vast parade ground.

From the farther reaches of its expanse, somewhere

out of Mark’s sight, there sounded the chant and

drumbeat of some hapless infantry unit condemned

to drilling in the heat. Looking across the nearest

corner of the field, he could now see the tall flagpole

at full length. There was a wooden reviewing stand

beside the flagpole, and behind the stand a magnifi-

cent pavilion. This was a tent larger than most

houses, of black and gold cloth.

Mark stalked directly toward the great pavilion,

considering that it had to be the Dark King’s head-

quarters. His right hand, riding on the hilt of

sheathed Sightblinder, could feel a new hum of

power in the Sword; perhaps there were guardian

spells here that had to be overcome.

The front of the reviewing stand displayed

another copy of Vilkata’s flag, this one stretched

out to reveal the design, a skull of gold upon a

field of black. The eyesockets of the skull stared

forth sightlessly, twin windows into night.

Again Mark had to make a small detour, round

more low cages that he at first thought held more

warbeasts. But the wood-slatted cages looked too

small for that. All but one of them were empty, and

that one held . . . the naked body confined inside

was human.

Abruptly something shimmered in the air above

Mark’s head, broadcasting torment. As Mark

moved instinctively to step aside, this presence

moved with him. Only at this moment did he real-

ize that it was sentient.

And only a moment after that did he realize that

he was being confronted by a demon.

And the demon was addressing him, demanding

something of him, though not in human speech.

Whether its communication was meant for his ears

or to enter his mind directly he could not tell. Nor

could he grasp more than fragments of the mean-

ing. It was basically a challenge: Why was he here?

Why was he here now, when he ought to be some-

where else? Why was he as he was?

He realized with a shock that he was going to

have to answer it, to offer something analogous to a

password before it would allow him to pass this

point, or even release him. What image it saw when

it looked at him evidently did not matter. Here,

approaching the pavilion, everyone must be

stopped. And he doubted there was anything, or

anyone, that this demon feared or loved.

Mark could no more answer the demonic voice

intelligently, in its own terms, than he could have

held converse with a bee. He knew fear, exploding

into terror. He ought to have foreseen that here

there might be such formidable guardians, here at

the heart of Vilkata’s power and control; the Dark

King himself was most likely in that huge tent

ahead. Here, perhaps, they had even been able to

plan defenses against the Sword of Stealth. Here its

powers were not going to be enough-

Only moments had passed since the demon had

first challenged him, but already Mark could sense

the creature’s growing suspicion. Now it sent an

even more urgent interrogation crashing against

Mark’s mind. Now it was probing him, searching

for evidence of the signs and keys of magic that he

did not possess. In a moment it would be certain

that he was some imposter, not a wizard after all.

In his desperation Mark grasped at a certain

memory, four years old but still vivid. It was the

recollection of his only previous close encounter

with a demon, in the depths of the buried treasure-

vaults of the Blue Temple. Now, in desperate imita-

tion of what another had done then, Mark gasped

out a command into the shimmering air:

“In the Emperor’s name, depart and let me


There was a momentary howling in the air.

Simultaneously there came a tornado-blast of

wind, lasting only for an instant. Mark caught a last

shred of communication from the thing that chal-

lenged him-it was outraged, it had definitely

identified him as an imposter. But that did not mat-

ter. The demon could do nothing about it, for in the

next instant it was gone, gone instantaneously, as if

yanked away on invisible steel cables that extended

to infinity.

Now the air above Mark was quiet and clear, but

moments passed before his senses, jarred by the

encounter, returned to normal. He realized that he

had stumbled and almost fallen, and that his body

was bent over, hands halfway outstretched in front

of him, as if to avoid searing heat or ward off dread-

ful danger. It had been a very near thing indeed.

Hastily he drew himself erect, looking around

carefully. Wherever the demon had gone, there was

no sign it was coming back. A few people were

standing, idly or in conversation, near the front of

the pavilion, and he supposed that at least some of

them must have noticed something of the challenge

and his response. But all of them, as far as Mark

could tell, were going on about their business as if

nothing at all out of the ordinary had taken place.

Maybe, he thought, that was the necessary attitude

here, in what must be a constant center of intrigue.

Mark walked on. Having now passed the prison

cages and the reviewing stand, he was within a few

paces of the huge pavilion, by all indications the

tent of Vilkata himself. Having come this far, Mark

swore that he was going forward. Two human sen-

tries flanked the central doorway of the huge tent,

but to his relief these only offered him deep bows as

he approached. Without responding he passed

between them, and into a shaded entry.

Cool perfumed lair, doubtless provided by some

means of magic, wafted about him. Mark paused,

letting his eyes adjust to the relative gloom, and he

had a moment in which to wonder: How could any

spell as simple as the one he had just used, recited

by a mundane non-magician like himself, repel

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred