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

own or at some direct command from their human

masters, had melded themselves into a tight formation

and were flying directly at the approaching cloud,

intent on investigation and perhaps attack. But just

before they reached the cloud their formation recoiled

and burst, its members scattering. Mark

had the impression that they had been brushed

aside like so many insects, by some invisible power.

In a flash understanding came. The gods were

coming to take charge. Through his pain and blood

and fear Mark gasped out a sob of deep relief.

Humanity had hope of being saved, by the beings

who had made the Swords, from powers that were

too much for it to manage. He had seen gods handle

savage and rebellious men before. Vilkata,

shrunken to the stature of a noxious insect in their

presence, might be crushed before his horror could

reach over the whole human world. Mark’s own

Sword might be taken from him too, but on the

scale of these events that would make little differ-


The cloud, no longer serving any purpose of con-

cealment, was being allowed to dissipate, and it

vanished quickly. The handful of beings who had

ridden it were walking now, already entering the

parade ground at its far side, and approaching

quickly. The sea of humans occupying the open

space parted at the deities’ approach. Four gods

and one goddess, each tall as Draffut, came striding

forward without pause, and Mark got the impres-

sion that they would have stepped on people with-

out noticing had any remained in their way.

Towering taller and taller as they drew near, the

five advanced, marching straight for the reviewing

stand. Mark thought that now he could recognize

some of them individually. Four were attired with

divine elegance, wearing crowns, tunics, robes

ablaze with color, gold, and gems. But one, who

limped as he strode forward, was clad in simple


Again Mark glanced back quickly at the platform.

Vilkata was out of striking range, and still closely

surrounded by his people and his magical attend-


The Dark King had sheathed the Mindsword

now, and was issuing terse orders to certain of his

wizards. In the next instant one of these magicians

gave a convulsive leap that carried him clear off the

platform. He fell more heavily than Mark had

fallen, and lay writhing helplessly on the ground.

Mark could guess that some protective spell of this

man’s had somehow impeded the divine progress;

and that when the spell was snapped, like some

ship’s hawser in the docks, he who had been hold-

ing it was flattened by the recoil.

Whatever magic had been in their path, spells

perhaps triggered automatically by their intrusion,

the gods had broken their way through it; they were

irritated, Mark thought, looking at them, like

adults bothered by some maze of string set up by


At last the four gods and one goddess halted their

advance. They stood on the parade ground only a

score of meters from the platform, their heads still

easily overtopping that of the Dark King who faced

them from his elevation. Everyone else on the plat-

form was kneeling, Mark realized, or had thrown

themselves face down in abject panic, and everyone

near him on the ground also. He and the Dark King

were the only two humans within a hundred meters

still on their feet. How curious, Mark wondered dis-

tantly. The only other time in his life when he had

seen deities as close as this, why that time too he

had been able to remain standing, while around

him other humans knelt or huddled in collapse ….

The limping god was moving forward. In the

silence that lay over the whole camp, his ornaments

of dragon-scale could be heard clinking as he

lurched to within one great stride of the platform.

That is Vulcan the Smith, thought Mark, staring up

at the fur-garbed titan-he who took off my father’s

arm. Vulcan paid no attention to Mark, but was

looking at Vilkata. As far as Mark could tell, Vilkata

did not flinch, though when the god halted he was

close enough to the platform to have reached forth

one of his long arms and plucked Vilkata from it.

Wind came keening across the camp, blowing out

of the bare, devastated lands surrounding it. Other-

wise there was silence.

A silence abruptly broken, by the voice of Vulcan

that boomed forth at a volume appropriate for a

god. “What madness is this that you fools of

humans are about? Do you. not realize that the

Swordgame is over?”

Vilkata summoned up his best royal voice to

answer. “I am the Dark King-” It was no surprise

at all to Mark that the King’s voice should quaver

and falter and quit on him before the sentence

ended. The only wonder was that the man could

stand and speak at all in such a confrontation.

Vulcan was neither impressed nor pleased.

“King, Queen, or whatever, what do I care for all

that? You are a human and no more. Hand over

that tool of power that you are wearing at your


Vilkata did not obey at once; instead he dared to

answer once more in words. Mark did not hear the

words exactly, for his attention had once more been

distracted by something in the distance. This was

another cloud, and it looked as unusual as the first.

This cloud was not rolling down a mountainside,

only drifting through the air, but its path was at a

right angle to those of other clouds and the wind.

Now the strange cloud was hovering, hesitating in

its slow passage. It appeared to be maintaining a

certain cautious distance from the scene on the

parade ground. With Sightblinder still in hand,

Mark could perceive in this second cloud also the

presence of figures of human shape but divine

dimensions. There was one, a perfect essence of the

female, that he thought could be only Aphrodite. He

could see none of the others so clearly as individu-

als, though all of their faces seemed to be turned his


The distraction had been only momentary. Now

Vulcan, made impatient by even a moment’s

temporizing on the part of this mere human king,

thundered out some oath, and stretched forth his

arm toward Vilkata. With a swift motion the Dark

King drew the Mindsword from its sheath-but not

to hand it over in surrender. Instead he brandished

it aloft.

Vulcan cried out once, a strange, hoarse tone, like

masses of metal and rock colliding. The lame god

threw up a forearm across his eyes. He reeled back-

ward, and fell to one knee. Mark could feel in the

ground under his own feet the impact of that fall.

Just behind the Smith, the four other deities who

had come out of the cloud with him were kneeling


Once again a long moment of silence held

throughout the camp. The distant airborne cloud

was moving faster now, departing at accelerated

speed. Mark gazed after it numbly for a moment.

The gods had failed. The thousands of human

beings massed around him were cheering once again.

Now Vilkata was speaking again. After Vulcan’s

thunder the King’s voice sounded puny, but it was

triumphant and confident once again as he shouted an

order to the kneeling gods, their heads still higher than

his own. “Follow me! Obey!”

“We hear.” The ragged chorus rolled forth. The

wooden stand, the earth, vibrated with it. “We follow,

and obey.”

The huge wardrum boomed to life again, and from

the crowd went up the loudest roar yet. The mad

celebration resumed, twice madder than before.

The gods on the parade ground were climbing

ponderously back to their feet. “Surely this is Father

Zeus!” Vulcan cried out, pointing with a tree-sized

arm at the Dark King. “He who has been playing that

role among us must be an impostor!”

The Smith’s divine companions roared approval of

this statement, and launched themselves

spontaneously into a dance, that looked at once

ponderous and uncontrolled. The ground shook; Mark

could see the tall flagpole swaying in front of the

King’s pavilion. The crowd of humans in the vicinity

of the reviewing stand began to thin, with everyone

who was anywhere near the dancing gods being

eager to move back. Yet they remained under the

Mindsword’s spell, and many joined the dance.

Mark stood drained, exhausted, leaning on his own

Sword. With pain stabbing at his forehead, and blood

still trickling into his eye, he watched the maddened

gods and had the feeling that he was going mad

himself. But surely he ought to have expected

something like this. If one of the Swords

could kill a god-and with his own eyes Mark had seen

Hermes lying dead, the wound made by Farslayer

gaping in the middle of the Messenger’s back-then

why should not another Sword have power to make

slaves of other gods?

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred