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

its volume the whole mass of human voices.

Now, across the whole vast reach of the parade

ground, humans and trained beasts alike were

demonstrating spontaneously at the sight of the

Blade that waved above Vilkata’s head. The cry of

his name went up again and again, each time

louder than the last. A thousand weapons were

being brandished in salute.

Now the Dark King had reached the reviewing

stand, and now he mounted quickly. His closer fol-

lowers, Mark still with them, swarmed up onto the

platform too. Immediately the stand was over-

crowded, and people near the edges were jostled

off. A small clear space-more magic?-remained

around the person of the King. All around the base

of the platform and across its surface where they

had room, grand military potentates and dreaded

wizards were prancing and gesturing like

demented children. The aged and dignified abased

themselves like dogs at one moment, and in the

next leaped howling for the sky. And the very sky

was streaked by demons, speeding, whirling in a

pyrotechnic ecstasy of worship.

Grimly Mark held on to the small margin of self-

awareness and self-control that he had regained in

the pavilion. He thought that he would not be able

to hold onto it for very long-but perhaps for long

enough. He remembered now who he was, and

what goal he had determined to accomplish. He

still held Sightblinder’s hilt in his right hand. But

. . . to strike at Vilkata, possessor of the Mindsword

. . . how could anyone do that? Or even plan to do


To strike at one who held the Mindsword might

well be more than any mere human will could man-

age. If once Mark summoned up the will to try, and

failed, he was sure that he could never try again.

Even to work his way through the press of fren-

zied bodies on the platform, to get himself close

enough to the Dark King to strike at him, was going

to be difficult. Get close to the Dark King, he

ordered himself, forget for the moment why you are

trying to get close. He almost forgotten his bow,

still slung in its accustomed place across his back.

And there were two arrows left . . . he groped with a

trembling hand, and found that there were none.

Spilled somehow in the jostling? Or had some

enthusiast’s hand snatched them away?

He was going to have to strike with Sightblinder,

then. Even had his mind been clear, entirely his

own, it would not have been easy. Most of the people

on the platform were also struggling to get closer to

the Dark King, to touch him if possible; the ring of

those who were closest, constrained to do all they

could to protect the Mindsword’s master, were

striving to hold the others back. Their task was

perhaps made easier by the fact that Vilkata was

swinging the Sword more wildly now, inspiring fear as

well as ecstasy in those near enough to stand in some

danger from the Blade. There was still a cleared

space of several meters directly around the king.

Mark elbowed room enough to let him draw

Sightblinder-no one, he thought, was able to see that

he was holding it, no magical guardians struck at him


The small crowd atop the reviewing stand surged

again, chatocially, as more people kept trying to climb

on. Inevitably at one edge, more people were pushed


Mark forced himself a little closer to Vilkata, but

then was stopped, pushed back again. This is impossible,

he thought. l cannot fail simply because 1 can’t get through a

crowd. Still he dared not use the Sword to hack bodies

out of his path; surely if he did that the magical

defenses of the King would be triggered, and he

would have no chance to strike the blow that really


He had to get closer without killing. He gritted his

teeth and closed his eyes, and blindly bulled his way

ahead. His Sword, invisible to the people in his way,

he held raised awkwardly above the jostling bodies

that would otherwise have carved themselves on it.

But even as Mark scraped up new determination

and tried again, the crowd surged against him, and its

hundred legs effortlessly bore him even a little farther

away. The cause of this last surge was one of

Vilkata’s sweeps with the Mindsword. Mark exerted

one more great effort, and forced his way through, or

almost through, but was deflected in the process to a

place precariously near the platform’s edge.

Now, one more effort . . . but the Blade in the Dark

King’s hand came swinging heedlessly past, and

grazed Mark’s forehead. The Dark King was laughing

thunderously now, to see his courtiers duck and dodge

in terror, and at the same time come pressing

helplessly forward all the same.

Those next to Mark in the crush violently shoved

back. Tangled with others, he fell over the edge of the

platform, others falling with him. The distance to the

ground was no more than a man’s height, and the

ground below was soft. Mark landed with a shock, but

without further injury. By some miracle none of those

falling with him had impaled themselves on

Sightblinder, which lay on the soft earth under his


He had failed, not heroically, but as by some

demonic joke. He grabbed up his Sword and got to his

feet again. Then he understood that he was hurt more

than he had thought at first by Vikata’s accidental

stroke. He could see blood, feel it and taste it, his own

blood running down from his gashed forehead into his

left eye. A centimeter or two closer to the

Mindsword’s swing and it would have killed him.

The fall had taken him out of reach of the Dark

King; but at least it had also broken his direct eye

contact with that flashing, hypnotic Blade. Now,

with freedom roaring louder than the Mindsword in his

mind, Mark looked up to catch a glimpse of Vilkata’s

back on the high platform. The monarch was turned

away from Mark at the moment, facing out over the

excited masses of the crowd at its front edge.

He must be struck down, Mark repeated grimly to

himself, And I must do it, do it now, no matter what, and

get his Sword.

He tore himself free of a fresh tangle of frenzied

bodies on the ground. Shoving people out of his way

with one hand, holding Sightblinder uplifted in the

other, he ran along his side of the reviewing stand and

then along its front. The pain in his wounded forehead

savaged him, made him yearn to strike out at those

villainous legs of officers and sorcerers that danced

and pushed for advantage on the platform before him

at eye level. But he held back his blow, grimly certain

that he would be able to strike no more than once.

Blood bothering his eyes, pain nailing his head,

Mark looked up trying to locate Vilkata again. It

seemed hopeless. The sun was dazzling. The

Mindsword flashed in it, and flashed again. Only in

surrender to it was there hope. Mark had to look

away, bend down his neck to get away from it. He

could not let his eyes and soul be caught by it again

As he turned his gaze away from the platform,

there came into his vision the vast expanse of the

parade ground and its howling mob of people.

Sightblinder made two details stand out in rapid

succession, each so strongly that they were able to

distract him even now.

The first, astonishingly for Mark, was the prison

cage with its lone occupant, even though he could

glimpse it only intermittently now through the swirl of

ecstatic bodies. He had encountered the sentry demon

beside that cage, and he remembered, or almost

remembered, something else, something that one of

the magicians had said inside about the prisoner

And then the second distracting detail captured

Mark’s attention even from the first. He saw a small

gray cloud, rolling in a very uncloudlike way down the

steep flank of a distant mountain. Inside that cloud

Mark’s sharpened perception could pick out half a

dozen living beings, all apparently of human shape.

Already, as he watched, the cloud reached the

comparatively level land at the mountain’s foot. Now

it rolled closer rapidly, directly approaching the

encampment, moving independently of any wind. It

was traveling with deceptive speed, outracing wind,

traversing kilometers in mere moments.

Some of the people on the platform above Mark had

now become aware of the cloud as well. The uproar

immediately surrounding the Dark King had abated

somewhat. Mark cast a quick look toward Vilkata,

and saw that the King was lowering his own Sword,

giving the approaching cloud his full attention.

A shrieking in the air passed rapidly overhead. A

flight of the airborne demons, acting either on their

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