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

moment to moment all those things seemed to change,

with only the essence of her sex remaining constant.

Now she was standing at the rail of her craft. The

barge continued to drift minutely in toward shore,

ignoring the current even though the oars were raised

and idle.

“Be quick, young man, be quick.” There was a hint

of impatience in her voice.

Denis, groping almost sightlessly for his treasure to

hand it over, felt his hand fall first upon Woundhealer.

Somehow he could identify the Sword from its first

touch. Humbly he brought it out, sheathed as it was,

and with a kind of genuflection handed it over, hilt-

first, to the goddess. She accepted it, with a sprightly

one-handed gesture that showed how strong her

smooth young-looking arm could be.

She held the Sword of Mercy sheathed, and said:

“The other one now. And then I believe thatperhaps-

you will have earned a kiss.”

He fumbled in the bottom of the canoe again, and

brought out Doomgiver.

This Sword he held with one hand supporting its

sheathed blade, and the other holding the hilt, and

through the hilt he felt a flow of strange and unfa

miliar power. It gave him a sense of steady certitude.

The sheath seemed to fall free of itself, the Sword

was drawn.

Denis straightened up, intending to present this

Sword as well to the goddess. But when his eyes fell

on her he was shocked to see that she was changed.

Or was the change in him-and not in her?

Aphrodite let fall her arm that had been extended to

receive the second Sword. She stepped back, her

other hand still holding the sheathed Sword of Mercy.

Again Denis pondered: What does she really look

like? But still the moonlight (he thought it was the

moonlight) made it quite impossible to tell.

Certainly more lovely than any mortal woman could

ever be. Yet now, since he had drawn the second

Sword, he thought she was in some way inferior to

even the least of human mortals. In some way she


He realized that he did not want her now.

Power was still flowing from the Swordhilt into his

hand. In sudden curiosity he looked at what his

fingers gripped. He saw in moonlight, without

understanding, the simple hollow white circle that

marked the black.

Wonder of wonders, the goddess appeared to be

fighting some inner struggle with herself.

“Give me-“she began to say, in a voice that still

fought to be commanding. But after those first two

words her voice faltered and her speech broke off.

She sagged back from the railing of her barge

(Denis was shocked to see how graceless the

movement was), and stopped half-kneeling on her

silken pillows once more. The cloud of her moonlit

hair concealed her face.

“No,” she contradicted herself, speaking now in

yet another voice, much softer. “No, do not give it

to me now. I am a goddess, and I could take it from

you. But I will not.”

Denis’s arm that held the Sword of Justice fal-

tered, and the blade sank down slowly at his side. It

hung in his hand like a dead weight, though still its

power flowed. He felt an overwhelming-pity-for

the goddess, mixed with a slight disgust.

“Do not give it to me,” repeated Aphrodite, in her

soft and newly thoughtful voice. “That would cause

harm to you.” After a pause she went on, marveling

to herself. “So, this is love. I have always wondered,

and never known what it was like. I see it can be ter-


She raised her head until her wide-spaced eyes

were visible under the cloud of moonlit hair. “I see

. . . that your name is Denis, my beloved. And you

have known a score of women before now, and

dreamed of a thousand more. Yet you have never

really known any of them. Nor will you, can you,

ever really know a goddess, I suppose.” And Aphro-

dite gave a sigh, her bosom heaving.

Denis could only stand there uncomfortably. He

felt more pity for this lovely woman than he could

bear, and he wished that she would go away. At the

same time he wanted to let go of the Sword in his

right hand; he wanted to throw it in the river. It

seemed to him that his life had been much more

intense and glorious just a few moments ago, before

he had drawn Doomgiver. But the Sword would not

let him throw it away just now, any more than it

would allow the goddess to take it from him.

“I love you, Denis,” the goddess Aphrodite said.

He made an incoherent noise of embarrassment,

low down in his throat. As speech, he thought, it

was inadequate, clumsy, mundane, and mean, like

everything else he did. He did not love her, or even

want her. He could not, and he wished that she

would leave.

She said to him softly, “And the blade that you

hold there, my love, is truly called Doomgiver, for I

see now that it truly giveth me my doom.”

“No!” Denis protested, feeling so sorry for her

already, not knowing just what it was he feared.

“Ah yes. I, who have for ages amused myself with

the love of men, must now feel what they have felt.

And, as I love you now, I cannot take Doomgiver

from you. To rob you of the Sword of Justice now,

my little mortal darling, would do you much harm.

As a goddess I can foresee that. But Wound-

healer-it will be better if I take that with me


Denis wanted to tell her that he was sorry. The

words stuck in his throat.

“How sweet it would be if you could tell me

that you loved me too. But do not lie.” And here

the goddess extended her arm that still held the

Sword of Love, across the narrow strip of water

that still separated her from the island, and with

the sheathed tip of Woundhealer touched Denis

over his heart. “I could . . . but I will not. My full

embrace would not be good for you-not now, not

yet. Someday, perhaps. I love you, Denis, and for

your sake I must now say farewell.”

And the goddess leaned forward suddenly, and

kissed him on the cheek.

“No . . . no.” He stumbled forward, into mud.

Was it only pity that he felt now?

But the marvelous barge was already shimmer-

ing away into the moonlight.


The two riding beasts must have been well rested

when Mark seized them, for they bore their riders

willingly and swiftly on the first long stage of the

flight from Vilkata’s encampment. The young

woman stayed in her saddle firmly, like an experi-

enced rider, but instinctively, passively, and with

no apparent understanding of what was happening

to her now. Her blue-green eyes stared steadily out

at horror, some horror that was no longer visible to

Mark. Her body was thin, almost emaciated. Her

face was pale under its mask of grime; her hair, col-

orless with filth, hung long and matted over the

captured cloak that she clutched about her with

one hand. Since Mark had pulled her from the cage

she had not spoken a single word.

The two of them rode for a long time, side by side,

over roadless and gradually rising ground, before

Mark stopped the animals for a rest. He had at last

been able to convince himself that there was no

pursuit. Phantom echoes of Vilkata’s demonic cele-

bration had persisted in his exhausted mind and

senses long after the real sounds had faded.

He was living now with ceaseless pain, and with

the taste and sight and smell of his own blood, for

the oozing from his forehead wound would not

diminish. And Mark could not shake the feeling that

there was something wrong now with his own

blood, with the way it smelled and tasted, as if the

Mindsword had left a shard of poisoned sunlight

embedded in his brain.

Mark dismounted the first time he stopped the

animals. He spoke gently to the young woman, but

she only continued to sit her mount in silence, star-

ing straight ahead, not responding to him at all. He

decided not to press the matter of communication,

as long as she remained docile. The all-important

thing was to get farther from Vilkata.

Presently they were under way again. Now their

course, aimed directly away from Vilkata’s- camp,

took them into a range of low hills. Now the

encampment, which had still been intermittently

visible in the distance, dropped permanently from

sight. Here in the hills the land still showed devas-

tation wrought by the. Dark King’s foragers. Soon

the fugitives came to a stream, and a thicket that

offered shelter of a kind. Mark stopped again.

This time he employed gentle force to pry the

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred