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

Denis stepped back from the door. The House of

Courtenay generally contained some stock of the

goods in which its owners dealt, including the fancy

weapons that were the specialty of the house. Also

there was usually a considerable supply of coin on

hand. The place was a natural target for thieves,

and for any member of the household to open any

exterior door to anyone, particularly at night, was

no trivial matter. The only thing for Denis to do

now was to rouse the household steward, Tarim,

and get his orders as to what to do next.

Crossing the workshop, Denis approached the

door to the ascending stair that led to the next

highest level of the house; Tarim slept up there,

along with most of the rest of the resident staff.

Denis opened the door-and stopped in his tracks.

Looking down at him from the top of the first

flight, holding a candle in her small, pale hand, was

one of the characters from his recent waking

dream, the Lady Sophie herself, mistress of this

house. Denis’s surprise was at seeing the lady there

at all. Family quarters were located on the upper

levels of the house, well above the noise and smoke

and smell of the shop when it was busy, and of the

daytime streets. Her tiny but shapely body was

wrapped in a thick white robe, contrasting sharply

with her straight black hair. It was hard to believe

that any faint sound at the back door could have

roused the lady from her bed.

The mistress called down: “Denis? What is it?”

He thought she sounded nervous.

Denis stood there hugging his bare chest.

“There’s someone at the back door, Mistress. I

could see only one man. Looked like he was hurt,

but I didn’t open.”

“Hurt, you say?”

It looked and sounded to Denis almost as if the

lady had been expecting someone to arrive tonight,

had been waiting around in readiness to receive

them. Denis had heard nothing in particular in the

way of business news to make him expect such a

visitor, but such a nocturnal arrival in itself would

not be very surprising. As the headquarters of a

company of traders, the house was accustomed to

the comings and goings of odd people at odd hours.

Denis answered, “Yes, Ma’am, hurt. And it looked

like he only had one arm. I was just going to arouse

Tarim . . .”

“No.” The mistress was immediately decisive.

“Just stand by there for a moment, while I go get

the master.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” It was of course the only answer

Denis could give, but still it was delayed, delivered

only to the lady’s already retreating back. Denis

was puzzled, and a moment later his puzzlement

increased, for here, already fully awake and active

too, came Master Courtenay himself. Courtenay

was a moving mountain of a man, his great bulk

wrapped now in a night robe of a rich blue fabric.

With a lightness and quickness remarkable for his

size, the master came almost skipping down the

stairs, his lady just behind him.

Arriving on the ground floor, the master of the

house faced Denis directly. The two were almost of a

height, near average, though Courtenay weighed easily

twice as much as his lean employee, and was possibly

three times as massive as his small wife: Courtenay

was not yet thirty, as nearly as Denis could judge, and

very little of his bulk was fat, though in his robe he

looked that way. Nor could he be described as stupid,

as Denis had realized on his own first day here,

despite what a first glance at Courtenay’s face

suggested-of course he could hardly be unintelligent

and have prospered as he evidently had.

The master brushed back his almost colorless hair

from his uninviting face, a gesture that seemed more

one of worry than of sleepiness. In his usual mild

voice he said, “We’ll let the rest of the household go

on sleeping, Denis.” Behind the master, his lady was

already closing the door to the ascending stair. “The

three of us will manage,” Courtenay went on. “The

man’s hurt, you say?”

“Looks like it, sir.”

“Still, we’ll take no chances more than necessary.

Help yourself to a weapon, and stand by.”

“Yes sir.” In the year and a half that. he had been

at the House of Courtenay, Denis had learned that

there were stretches of time in which life here began

to seem dull. But so far those stretches had never

extended for any unbearable length of time.

Over on the far side of the shop, the mistress was

lighting a couple of oil lamps. And when she brought

her hands down from the lamp shelf and faced around

again, Denis thought that he saw something trailing

from her right hand. He caught only a glimpse of the

object before it vanished

between folds of her full robe. But, had he not been

convinced that Mistress Sophie was only a delicate

little thing who loved her luxury, he would have

thought that she was holding the leather thongs of a

hunter’s or a warrior’s sling.

The more recent years of Denis’s young life had

been generally peaceful, first as an acolyte of Ardneh

in the White Temple, then here in the House of

Courtenay as apprentice trader and general assistant.

But he had spent the longer, earlier portion of his

existence serving a different kind of apprenticeship.

That had been in the slum streets of Tashigang, and it

had left him indelibly familiar with the more

unpeaceful side of life. So now he was reasonably

calm as he moved to the display of decorative

weapons that occupied a good part of one side of the

large room. There he selected an ornate battle-

hatchet, a weapon of antique design but sharp-edged

and of a pleasantly balanced weight. With this in hand,

Denis nodded that he was ready.

Master Courtenay, already standing by the back

door, returned the nod. Then he turned to the door and

made use of the peephole and the Old World light. In

the next moment Courtenay had unbarred the door

and yanked it open. The crumpled body that had been

sitting against it on the outside came toppling softly


Denis sprang forward, quickly closed the door and

barred it up again. Meanwhile the master of the house

had stretched the unconscious man out full length on

the floor, and was examining him with the aid of the

Old World light.

The mistress, one of the more conventional lamps in

her hand, had come forward to look too. Quickly

she turned to Denis. “He’s bleeding badly. You were a

servant of Ardneh, see what you can do for him.”

Denis was not usually pleased to be asked to

administer medical treatment; he knew too well his

own great limitations in the art. But his urge to please

his mistress would not let him hesitate. And he knew

that his years in Ardneh’s service had left him almost

certainly better qualified than either of his employers.

He nodded and moved forward.

The man stretched out on the floor was not young;

his unconscious face was weatherbeaten over its

bloodless pallor, and the hair that fanned out in a wild

spread on the flat stones was gray. Standing, he would

have been tall, with a well-knit, sturdy body marred by

the old amputation.

“His right arm is gone.” That was the mistress,

speaking thoughtfully, as if she were only musing to


Denis heard her only absently; the man’s fresh

wounds were going to demand a healer’s full attention.

A lot of blood was visible, darker wetness on the

rainsoaked clothing.

Quickly Denis began to peel back clothes. He cut

them away, when that was easier, with a keen knife

that the master handed him. He also tossed aside a

mean-looking cudgel that he found tucked into the

victim’s belt.

“I’ll need water, and bandages,” he announced over

his shoulder. There were two wounds, and both

looked bad. “And whatever medicines we have to stop

bleeding.” He paused to mumble a minor spell for that

purpose, learned in his days as Ardneh’s servitor. It

was about the best that Denis

could do in the way of magic, and it was very little.

Perhaps it brought some benefit, but it was not going

to be enough.

“I’ll bring you what I can find,” replied the mistress

of the house, and turned away with quick efficiency.

Again Denis was surprised. He had long ago fixed

her image in his mind as someone who existed to be

pampered . . . could that really have been a sling he’d

seen her holding?

But now the present task demanded his full

attention. “We ought to put him on my bed,” said

Denis. And Courtenay, strong as a loadbeast and

disdaining help, scooped up the limp heavy form as if

it had been that of a small child, and held it patiently

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred