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

Yet it was happy, despite continued difficulties

and periods of fear. And as they left the last fringes

of the area already devastated by Vilkata’s army,

their own foraging became correspondingly easier.

Farms and houses were even fewer now; this was a

region sparsely inhabited in the best of times.

Mark tried to count up the days of their journey.

Watching the phases of the Moon, he decided it was

now almost a month since he-had approached and

entered Vilkata’s camp.

At last there came the day when they rode into

sight of a banner of blue and green, raised on a tall

rustic pole. The Tasavaltan flagpole stood atop a

crag that overlooked the road, just where the road

entered the first pass of mountain foothills. Kristin

shed tears at sight of the flag; Mark had to look at

her closely to be sure that they were tears of joy.

She assured Mark that what he had been told of

Tasavalta was correct, that although it was not a

huge land it was certainly spectacular. In any event

he could now begin to see that for himself. Kristin

explained the topography in a general way: there

were two main mountain ranges, one right along

the coastline to the east, the other a few kilometers

inland, just inside the first long line of sheltered

valleys. Both these ranges were really southern

extensions of the Ludus Mountains, now many

kilometers to the north.

“I grew up in sight of the Ludus,” Mark said.

“We could see them on a clear day, anyway, from


Despite the southern latitude they had now

reached, here in late summer there were still traces

of ice and snow visible upon the highest Tasavaltan

peaks ahead. The coast was deeply cut with fjords

here, and cold ocean currents kept this almost

tropic land in a state of perpetual spring.

Mark and Kristin pushed on, urging their tired

riding beasts past that first frontier marking. Mark

kept glancing at his companion. She was more

often silent now, and looked more worried the far-

ther they went.

He asked Kristin suddenly, “Still worried about

what your teacher in the white arts is going to


“That’s not it. Or not altogether.”

Still the secrecy, and it annoyed him. “What,


But she would not give him what he considered a

straight answer, and his annoyance grew. Some-

thing about her family, he supposed. What they

were going to say when she brought home an

almost penniless foreign soldier as a prospective

husband. Mark was sure by now that Kristin’s fam-

ily were no peasants. Well, the two of them had

been traveling alone together for a month. If her

people were like most of the well-to-do families that

Mark had known, that would be a powerful induce-

ment for them to give their consent. In any case he

was going to marry her, he would entertain no

doubt of that, and he kept reassuring himself that

she showed no hesitation on that point either.

She might, he sometimes thought, be with-

holding information about some complication or

obstacle. If she feared he might be influenced by

anything like that-well, she didn’t yet know him

as well as she was going to.

Once they had passed that first flagpole marking

the frontier, the road immediately improved. It also

began a steeper climb, sometimes requiring long

winding switchbacks. For the first time on this

journey Mark could glimpse the sea, chewing at the

feet of the coastal mountains. It was deep blue in

the distance, then the color of Kristin’s eyes, then as

it met land frothed into white. Now, on either side

of the road, there were meadows, presently being

harvested of hay by industrious-looking peasants

who were not shy about exchanging waves at a dis-

tance with shabbily dressed wayfaring strangers.

The lifesaving cloak of Vilkata’s colors had long

since been rolled up into a tight black bundle and

lodged behind Mark’s saddle.

Now Kristin pointed ahead, to where the sun-

spark of a heliograph could be seen winking inter-

mittently from the top of a small mountain. “That

may be some message about us. In times like these,

the lookouts tend to take notice of every traveler.”

“Do you know the code?”

“Yes-but that’s not aimed in our direction. I

can’t see enough of it to read.”

Now-oddly as it appeared to Mark-Kristin’s

worry had been replaced by a kind of gaiety. As if

whatever had been worrying her had happened

now, and all that mattered after that was to make

the best of life, moment by moment. Now she was

able to relax and enjoy her homecoming, like any

other rescued prisoner.

He took what he saw as an opportunity to try to

talk seriously to her again. “You’re going to marry

me, and right away, no matter what you family or

anyone else says about it.” He stated it as firmly as

he could.

“Yes, oh darling, yes. I certainly am.” And

Kristin was every bit as positive as he was about it.

But he could see now that her sadness, though it

had been conquered, was not entirely gone.

Things of very great importance to her-what-

ever all the implications might be exactly-had

been set aside, because it was more important to

Kristin that she marry him. Mark made, not for the

first time on this journey, a silent vow to see that

she never regretted that decision.

He was cheered to see that happiness increas-

ingly dominated her mood as they went on. She was

coming home, she was going to see a family and

friends who must at the very least be badly worried

about her now, who might very possibly have given

her up for dead.

The road, now well paved, rounded a shoulder of

the same small mountain upon whose peak they

had seen the heliograph. Then it promptly turned

into a cobblestone street, as the travelers found

themselves entering the first village of Tasavalta. It

was, Mark decided, really a small town. He won-

dered what it was called. Not far ahead on the right

was a small, clean-looking inn, and he suggested

that they stop. He had a little money with him still,

carried in an inner pocket. “If they will let us in; we

do look somewhat ragged.” Their scavenging

through deserted houses had added to their ward-

robe, but only doubtfully improved its quality.

“All right. We can stop anywhere. It makes little

difference now.” Kristin looked him squarely in the

eye, and added warmly: “I love you.”

It was something they said to each other, in end-

less variations, a hundred times a day. Why should

the effect, this time, be almost chilling, as if she

were telling him goodbye

“And I love you,’,’ he answered softly.

She turned her head away from him, to look

toward the inn, and something in her aspect froze.

Mark followed her gaze. Now they were close

enough to the inn for him to see the white ribbon of

mourning that was stretched above the door. And

there was another white ribbon, now that he looked

for it, wrapped round the arch of the gate leading

into the inn’s courtyard from the street.

He said to Kristin: “Someone in the innkeeper’s

family. . .”

She had turned in her saddle again, and was look-

ing wordlessly up and down the street. Now that

they were closer to the other doors and gateways

they could see the white bands plainly, everywhere.

In this town the badge of mourning appeared to be


“What is it, then?” The words burst from

Kristin in a scream, a sound that Mark had never

heard from her before. He stared at her. They had

stopped, just outside the open gateway of the

courtyard of the inn.

In response to the outcry an old woman in an

apron, the innkeeper’s wife by the look of her,

appeared just inside the yard. In a cracked voice she

admonished, “Where’ve you been, young woman,

that you don’t know-”

At that point the old woman halted suddenly. Her

face paled as she stared at Kristin, and she seemed

to stumble, almost going down on one knee. But

Kristin, who had already dismounted, caught her

by the arms and held her up.

And shook her, fiercely. “Tell me, old one, tell me,

who is the mourning for?”

The eyes of the innkeeper’s wife were pale and

hopeless. “My lady, it’s for the Princess. . . Princess

Rimac . . . has been killed.”

Again Kristin let out a scream, this one short and

wordless. Mark had heard another woman scream

just that way as she fell in battle. Kristin swayed

but she did not fall.

He jumped off his own mount and went to her

and held her. “What is it?”

She clung to him as if an ocean wave were tug-

ging at her, sweeping her away: For just a moment

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred