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

At dinner-a good dinner, evoking marvelous

memories-Mark heard from his mother and sister

how his surviving family had come to Tasavalta

years ago, after more years spent in homeless wan-

dering, following the destruction of their old vil-


In the nine years or so since then, much had hap-

pened to them all, and they had much to talk about.

Marian was married now, her husband off some-

where with Rostov’s army. Her two small children

gaped through dinner at this newly discovered

uncle, and warmed up to him gradually.

It was almost midnight, and Mark was having to

struggle at every moment to stay awake, before he

said goodnight. His “modest quarters” in the pal-

ace had no attraction, and he was about to go to

sleep on cushions on the floor in the room where

they had dined and talked.

Marian had already said goodnight, and had

taken the children upstairs to bed.

But Mark’s mother lingered. There was a sup-

pressed urgency in her manner. “Walk me home. I

stay nearby, here in town, while Jord is gone. It’s

only a little way.”

“Of course.”

Once they were outside, Mala clung to her son’s

arm as if she needed his support to walk, though she

was not yet forty and all evening had seemed full of

energy, rejoicing in their reunion. But now her

mood became suddenly tinged with sadness.

“You’ve just come back to us,” she said. “And

before we can begin to know you, you must go off


“I must, Mother.”

“I know, I know.” Mark had yet to encounter

anyone at all, in either town or castle, who did not

know of his relationship with Kristin, and the

potential problems that it raised.

Mother and son walked, slowly. He was very

tired. He thought that his mother seemed now to be

on the brink of telling him something. She kept ask-

ing him, “You’ll come back to Tasavalta, though?”

“I’ll be here a couple of days yet. I’ll see you

again, and Marian, before I go.”

“Yes, of course. Unless the plan for your depar-

ture is changed. In these matters of secrecy, plans

can change very quickly, I’ve learned that. But after

this mission, you’ll come back?”

“To report on my mission, I suppose, yes, I’ll

have to. And be sent off again. I can’t stay here. The

Princess’s commoner lover, and a foreigner to boot.

If my father had been the Grand Duke Basil, or

Prince Something-or-other, things would probably

be different.”

They were at her door now. It was a modest place,

but looked comfortable; probably the government

here provided quarters for its secret agents’ fami-


Mala, her voice quivering as if she were doing

something difficult, said: “Mark, come in, there’s

something I must tell you, while I have the chance.

The gods know if I’ll ever have the chance again.”

It was about an hour later when he emerged from

the humble apartment where his parents lived. He

stood in the narrow street for a little while, looking

up at the stars. They looked the same as always.

Beyond tiredness now, Mark remained standing

there in the street for what felt to him like a long

time. And then he went to his modest quarters in

the palace, knowing that he had to get some rest.

Two mornings later, well fed, well dressed, and

reasonably rested, armed with the Sword Coin-

spinner at his side . . . and Woundhealer left safely

in Karel’s care . . . Mark left the Palace. His depar-

ture was quiet, without fanfare official or other-

wise. Mounted on a fine riding beast and at the

head of a small escort similarly well equipped, he

was on his way to seek the Emperor.

Mark looked back only once. He saw a figure that

he was sure was Kristin, watching his departure

from a distant upper window. But he made no sign

that he had seen her.


Over the long decades since his human eyes had

gone in sacrifice, and demonic senses had been

engrafted magically upon his own, the Dark King

had come to be unsure sometimes whether he was

awake or dreaming. He saw the Mindsword the

same way in either case, as a pillar of billowing

flame long as a spear, with his own face glowing

amid the perfect whiteness of the flame. He could

tell that the eyes on his own face of flame were open

and seeing. Whether he was dreaming or awake,

that fiery stare for some reason always reminded

him that he had never seen with his own natural

eyes any of those who were now his closest associ-

ates and chief subordinates. The demon showed

him his human wizards and warlocks as strange,

hunched, wizened figures, and his generals as little

more than animated suits of armor; but all of them

appeared with exaggerated caricature-faces, that

amplified all of their subtleties of expression, so

that the Dark King might better try to read them.

Whereas demons, in the demonic vision, appeared

with noble, lusty, youthful bodies, usually naked

and always intensely human, except in their very

perfection, their large size, and in the bird-like

wings they often sprouted. The Dark King knew of

course that they had no real bodies, or wings either,

and he did not believe at all in their faces as they

were presented to him, shining with kindliness and


Now that the King was in the field with his army,

on the march almost daily, the demons sometimes

appeared to him on a smaller scale, fluttering in the

air inside his tent like monkbirds. Vilkata dwelt

now in a tent much smaller than his grand pavilion,

because speed was of importance. And he thought

that speed was vital now, because of the reports

that had recently come in, first announcing and

then confirming that Sir Andrew’s troops were at

last out of the swamp. The army in orange and

black was moving in the direction of Sir Andrew’s

old lands, as if the Kind Knight for some reason

thought the time might be ripe to reclaim them.

This news of course made Vilkata wonder what

his erstwhile ally, the Silver Queen, might now be

planning. As far as he knew she still controlled

those lands.

The report of Sir Andrew’s movement had also

confirmed Vilkata’s recent decision that his own

strategy had best be altered. Now, he determined to

destroy Sir Andrew first, before turning his atten-

tion to his other surviving enemies and rivals.

Vilkata had arrived at this decision to change his

plans largely out of the feeling that his enemies

must now know too much about them as they stood.

First of all, the Dark King was now convinced

that he had entertained a spurious Burslem, some

damned spy, at that memorable council meeting at the

main camp, the one where the King had first displayed

his Mindsword, and which the gods had so gratifyingly

attended later. The real wizard Burslem, Vilkata’s

head of Security and Defensive Intelligence, had at

last returned, and had been positively identified, this

time, by careful questioning. How- the spy had

managed to resist the Mindsword’s influence, as he or

she evidently had, was something else for the King to

worry and wonder about. The Sword Sightblinder was

so far the only really convincing explanation to be

suggested, and the presence of that in one of his

enemies’ hands was far from reassuring.

Today, as Vilkata moved about his small field tent in

his routine of morning preparations, the small demon

that served him as sensory aid presented him as usual

with a vision of the tent’s interior. Certain things, in

accordance with his own long-standing orders, were

edited out of the scene as he perceived it. For

example, the body of last night’s concubine, curled

now at the foot of the.bed in sleep or a good imitation

thereof, was most clearly visible by its shapely torso,

the breasts and buttocks particularly emphasized. The

irrelevances of hands and feet, and especially the face-

who would care about trying to read the innermost

thoughts of such a woman?-blurred away into a semi-

transparent obscurity. In the case of a bedpartner,

better a blur than a face, no matter how well-formed

and schooled in smiling. Even such smiles could

sometimes be disquieting.

And the Dark King had recently ordered that,

when the next battle came, the dead should be

edited away too, out of his perception. He had

observed frequently, on other battlefields and in other

areas where much killing was required, that the dead

were a notable distraction. Obstacles when removed

ought to disappear, resources once used «p were only

waste materials. The dead tended to stink, and were

in general esthetically unpleasing. He had finally

decided to order them filtered out. Someone else

could count them up when necessary.

He had decided, too, that many of the wounded,

most of them in fact, should also be expunged from

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred