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

of markings in the snow, tracks that the mundane

wind was rapidly effacing.

There could be no doubt about those markings.

They were a line of departing footprints, heading

straight down the mountainside, disappearing behind

snow-buried rocks before they had gone more than a

few meters. Though they marked strides too long and

impressions too broad and deep to have been made by

any human being, there was no doubt that they had

been left by mortal feet.


The one-armed man came stumbling along through

midnight rain, following a twisted cobblestone alley

into the lightless heart of the great city of Tashigang.

He was suffering with fresh wounds now-one knife-

gash bleeding in his side and another one in his knee-

besides the old maiming loss of his right arm. Still he

was better off than the man who had just attacked

him. That blunderer was some meters back along the

twisted alley, face down in a puddle.

Now, just when the one-armed man was about on

the point of going down himself, he steered toward a

wall and leaned against it. Standing with his broad

back in its homespun shirt pressed to the stone wall of

somebody’s house, he squeezed himself in as far as

possible under the thin overhang of roof, until the

eaves blocked at least some of the steady rain from

hitting him in the face. The man felt frightened by

what had happened to his knee.

From the way the injured leg felt now when he tried

to put his weight on it, he wasn’t going to be able to

walk much farther.

He hadn’t had a chance yet to start worrying

about what might have happened when the knife

went into his side.

The one-armed man was tall, and strongly built.

Still, by definition, he was a cripple, and therefore

the robber-if that was all he had been-might

have taken it for granted that he’d be easy game.

Even had the attacker guessed that his intended

victim carried a good oaken cudgel tucked into his

belt under his loose shirt, he could hardly have pre-

dicted how quickly his quarry would be able to

draw that club and with what authority he’d use it.

Now, leaning against the building for support, he

had tucked his cudgel away in his belt again, and

was pressing his fingers to his side under his shirt.

He could feel the blood coming out, a frighteningly

fast trickle.

Except for the rain, the city around him was

silent. And all the windows he could see through the

rain were dark, and most of them were shuttered.

No one else in the huge city appeared to have taken

the least notice of the brief clash he had just sur-


Or had he survived it, air all? Real walking, he

had to admit, was no longer possible on his dam-

aged knee. For the present, at least, he could still

stand upright. He thought he must be near his des-

tination now, and it was essential that he reach it.

Pushing himself along the wall that he was leaning

on, and then the next wall, one stone surface after

another, he stumbled on, hobbled on.

He remembered the directions he had been given,

and he made progress of a sort. Every time his

weight came on the knee at all he had to bite back

an outcry of pain. And now dizziness, lightheaded-

ness, came welling up inside his skull. He clenched

his will like a fist, gripping the treasure of con-

sciousness, knowing that if that slipped from him

now, life itself was likely to drain quickly after it.

His memorized directions told him that at this

point he had to cross the alley. Momentarily

forsaking the support of walls, divorcing his mind

from pain, he somehow managed it.

Leaning on another wall, he rested, and rebuilt

his courage. He’d crawl the rest of the way to get

there if he had to, or do what crawling he could on

one hand and one knee. But once he went down to

try crawling he didn’t know he’d ever get back up

on his feet again.

At last the building that had been described to

him as his goal, the House of Courtenay, came into

sight, limned by distant lightning. The description

had been accurate: four stories tall, flat-roofed,

half-timbered construction on the upper levels,

stone below. The house occupied its own small

block, with streets or alleys on every side. The seek-

er’s first view was of the front of the building, but

the back was where he was supposed to go in order

to get in. Gritting his teeth, not letting his imagina-

tion try to count up how many steps there might be

yet to take, he made the necessary detour. He

splashed through puddles, out of one alley and into

an even narrower one. From that he passed to one

so narrow it was a mere paved path, running beside

the softly gurgling, stone-channeled Corgo. The sur-

face of the river, innocent now of boats, hissed in

the heavier bursts of rain.

The man had almost reached the building he

wanted when his hurt knee gave way completely.

He broke his fall as best he could with his one

arm. Then, painfully, dizzily, he dragged himself

along on his one arm and his one functioning leg.

He could imagine the trail of blood he must be

leaving. No matter, the rain would wash it all


Presently his slow progress brought him in out of

the rain, under the roof of a short, narrow passage

that connected directly with the door he wanted.

He crawled on and reached the narrow door. It

was of course locked shut. He propped himself up

in a sitting position against it, and began to

pound on the door with the flat of his large hand.

The pounding of his calloused hand seemed to the

man to be making no noise at all. At first it felt

like he was beating uselessly, noiselessly, on some

thick solid treetrunk . . . and then it felt like noth-

ing at all. There was no longer any feeling in his


Maybe no one would hear him. Because he was no

longer able to hear anything himself. Not even the

rain beating on the flat passage roof. Nor could he

see anything through the gathering grayness. Not

even his hand before his face ….

At a little after midnight Denis the Quick was

lying awake, listening to the rain. That usually

made him sleepy, as long as he knew that he was

securely warm and dry indoors. But tonight he was

having trouble sleeping. The images of two attract-

ive women were coming and going like provocative

dancers in his imagination. If he tried to concen-

trate on one, then the other intruded as if jealous.

He knew both women in real life, but his real-life

problem was not that he had to choose between

them. No, he was not so fortunate, he told himself,

as to have problems of just that kind.

Denis was well accusomed to the normal night

sounds of the house. The sound he began to hear

now, distracting him from the pleasant torment of

waking dreams, was certainly not one of them.

Denis got up quickly, pulled on a pair of trousers,

and went out of his small bedchamber to investi-


His room on the ground floor of the house gave

almost directly on the main workshop, which was a

large chamber now illumined faintly by a sullen

smoldering of coals banked in the central forge.

Faint ghost-gleams of firelight touched tools

around the forge and weapons racked on the walls.

Most of the work down here was on some form of


Denis paused for a moment beside the fire,

intending to light a taper from its coals. But then

he changed his mind, and instead reached up to

the high wall niche where the Old World light was


The back door leading into the shop from outside

ground level was fitted with a special peephole.

This was a smooth little bulge of glass, cleverly

shaped so that anyone looking through it from

inside saw out at a wide angle. Another lens, set

into the door near its very top, was there to let the

precious flameless torch shine out. Denis now lifted

the antique instrument into position there and

turned it on; immediately the narrow passage just

outside the door was flooded with clear, brilliant

light. And even as Denis did this, the sound that had

caught his attention came again, a faint thumping

on the door itself. Now through the fish-eye lens he

could see the one who made the sound, as a

slumped figure somewhat blurred by the imperfect

lens. The shape of the fallen figure suggested the

absence of an arm.

With the flameless light still glowing in his hand,

Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57

Categories: Saberhagen, Fred