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

length. The master of the House of Courtenay had

said only one thing on the subject.

“Denis, if it does come down to your having to fight

someone on the way, I’d recommend you get

Doomgiver out and use it, if you have the chance.

Don’t try to fight with Woundhealer, though. Not if

your idea is to carve up someone instead of making

him feel good.”

But so far there had not been the remotest danger

of a fight. So far the journey’s only physical

excitement had been provided by occasional

thunderstorms, threatening the traveler with lightning

and drenching white robes that had not been


On Denis’s fifth day out he passed through calm

farm country, in lovely weather. That night he again

made camp on a small island.

And dreamed, as he often did, of women. Kuanyin,

the governess he had embraced in real life, and

thought of marrying, beckoned to him. And tonight he

dreamed also of the mistress of the House of

Courtenay, who in real life had never touched him

except to bind his wounded arm. Denis dreamed that

she who he had known as the Lady Sophie had come

to visit him in his room beside the workshop. She sat

on his cot there and smiled, and held his hand, and

thanked him for something he had done, or was

perhaps about to do. Her white robe was in disarray,

hanging open, but incredibly she seemed not to notice.

The dream was just approaching its moment of

greatest tension, when Denis awoke. He lay in warm

moonlight, with the sense that the world to

which he had awakened was only a perfected dream.

There was a scent in the air–0f riverside flowers?-

incredibly sweet and beautiful, too subtle to be called


And there was in the air also-something else. A

fearless excitement. Denis’s blood throbbed with

oneiric anticipation, of he knew not what. Yet he

knew that he was wide awake.

He looked along the river, his gaze caught by the

path of reflected moonlight. He saw a shadow, as of

some drifting boat, enter upon that path. It was some

kind of craft-a barge, he thought-speckled with its

own small lights, and moving in perfect silence.

Almost perfect. A moment more, and Denis could

hear the gentle splash and drip of oars.

As the barge drew closer, he could see that it was

larger than he had thought at first, so large that he

wondered how it managed to navigate the narrower

places in this small river. The lights along its low sides

were softly glowing amber lamps, as steady as the

Old World light that Denis was familiar with, but

vastly subtler.

Denis was on his feet now. He still had no doubts

that he was awake, and he was conscious of

beingmore or less-his ordinary self. Whatever was

happening to him now was real, but he had no sense

of danger, only of thrilling promise. He moved a step

closer to the bank, the water murmuring like lovers’

laughter at his feet. He stood there leaning on the

upended bottom of the canoe that he had prudently

pulled out of the river before retiring.

As the barge drew closer still, Denis could see that

it bore amidships a small house or pavilion, covered by

an awning of some fine cloth. Just forward of this

there was a throne-like chair or lounge,

all centered between two rows of strangely silent and

briefly costumed young women rowers.

A woman was reclining upon the lounge, in the

middle of. a mass of pillows. With only the Moon

behind her, and the dim lamps on her boat, Denis

could see her at first only by hints and outlines. At

first his heated imagination assured him that she was

wearing nothing at all. But presently his eyes were

forced to admit the fact of a garment, more

shimmering mist and starlight, it seemed, than any kind

of cloth. Most of the woman’s body was enclosed by

this veil, though scarcely any of it was concealed.

Denis’s heart lurched within him, and he

understood. A name sprang into his mind, and he

might have spoken it aloud, but just at that moment he

lacked the breath to say anything at all. He had never

seen a god or goddess in his life before, and had

never really expected to see one before he died.

In response to some command unseen and unheard

by Denis, the inhumanly silent rowers stopped, in

unison. He was vaguely aware, even without looking

directly at them for a moment, of how comely they all

were, and how provocatively dressed. With the

Goddess of Love herself before his eyes, he could not

have looked at any of them if he had tried.

The barge, under a control that had to be more than

natural, came drifting very slowly and precisely

toward Denis on the island. From inside the cabin-he

thought-there came a strain of music, lovely as the

perfume, to waft across the small width of water that

remained. Every note was framed in perfect silence

now that the silvery trickle from the oars had stopped.

With an undulating movement Aphrodite rose

from her couch, to stand in a pose of unstrained


“Young man?” she called to Denis softly. The

voice of the goddess was everything that her

appearance had suggested it might be. “I must

speak with you.”

Denis started toward her and stumbled. He dis-

covered that it was necessary to make his way

around some large and unfamiliar object-oh yes,

it was his canoe-that somehow happened to be

right in his path.

“Lady,” he choked out, “I am yours to com-

mand. What would you have of me?” At this point

he became aware that he had just fallen on his

knees with a loud squelching sound, right in the riv-

erside mud. This would not have mattered in the

least, except that it might tend to make the goddess

think that he was clumsy; and when he got up, she

was sure to see how muddy his white robes had got,

and he feared that she might laugh.

So far, thank all the gods and goddesses, she was

not laughing at him.

“Young man,” said Aphrodite, “I know that you

are carrying two Swords with you. I understand

that one of them is the one that heals. And the other

. . . well, I forget at the moment what they told me

about the other. But that doesn’t matter just now. I

want you to hand both of them over to me at once. If

you are quick enough about it I will perhaps allow

you to kiss me.” The goddess paused for just a

moment, and gave Denis a tiny smile. “Who knows

what I might allow, on such a romantic night as


“Kiss me,” Denis echoed vacantly. Then, giving a

mad bound, he was up out of the mud and on his

feet, stumbling and splashing about. He had to find

the two Swords she was talking about-where were

they, anyway?-and give them to her. What else

was he going to do with them, anyway?

They were in the canoe . . . where was the canoe?

He tripped over it and almost tumbled himself

back into the mud before he really saw it. Then he

broke a fingernail getting the craft turned rightside


Aphrodite encouraged him in a friendly way.

“That’s it. They’re hidden right in the bottom of

your little boat or whatever it is there-but then I

suppose you know that.” The goddess sounded

mildly impatient with his clumsiness-how could

she not be? But she did not yet sound angry; Denis

silently offered thanks.

He thought he was going to lose another finger-

nail getting the trick board pried up. Then he real-

ized that he would do a lot better prying with a

knife instead.

Aphrodite slowly approached the near side rail of

her luxurious barge. Gracefully she knelt there

upon a small mound of silken cushions, between

two of her inhumanly beautiful rowers. They paid

her no attention.

“Be quick, young man! I need what you are going

to give me.” The goddess beckoned with one hand,

and her voice, melded with her laughter, stretched

out in silken double meaning. Her laughter, Denis

desperately assured himself, was not really meant

to be unkind. Yet still it somehow wounded him.

He pried with his knife, and the small nails hold-

ing the board came squeaking out. The hidden com-

partment lay open, its contents exposed to moonlight.

Aphrodite, to get a better look, gave a pert little

kneeling jump, a movement of impossible grace that

made the softer portions of her body bounce. What

color was her hair? Denis asked himself desperately.

And what about her skin? In the moonlight he could

not tell, and anyway it did not matter in the least. And

was she really tall or short, voluptuous or thin? From

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred