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

think that she recognized you as a brother?”

“She did. Yes.” Now even weak anger was

ebbing swiftly, could not be called anger any

longer. Now it had departed. Leaving . . . what?

Again the Emperor was smiling at him faintly,

proudly. “You are a fit husband, Mark, for any

Queen on Earth–or any Princess either. I think you

are too good for most of them-but then I may be

prejudiced. Fathers tend to be.” The man in gray

stood holding on to Mark’s stirrup now, and squint-

ing up at him. “There’s something else, isn’t there?

What else are you trying to ask me?”

Mark blurted out a jumble of words, more or less

connected with the memorized version of Princess

Kristin’s formal request for an alliance.

“Yes, that’s what she sent you after me to do,

isn’t it? Well, I have a reputation as a prankster, but

I can be serious. Tell the Princess, when you see her,

that she has an alliance with me as long as she

wants it.”

There had been another alliance that Mark had

meant to ask for. But it was too late now. “Sir

Andrew has just been killed.”

“I know that.”

The calmness in the Emperor’s voice seemed

inhuman. Suddenly Mark’s anger was not dead

after all. “He died not half a kilometer from here. If

you would be our ally, why aren’t you fighting

harder on our side? Doing more?”

His father-it was suddenly possible now to think

of this man also in those terms-was not surprised

by the reproach, or perturbed either. He let go the

stirrup, and stroked the riding beast’s injured neck.

Mark thought he saw, though afterward he was not

sure, one of the small wounds there wiped away as

if it had been no more than a dead leaf fallen on the

skin. Mark’s newly acceptable father said, “When

you are as old as I am, my son, and able to under-

stand as much, then you can intelligently criticize

the way I am behaving now.”

The Emperor stretched himself, a weary move-

ment, then moved back a step and looked around.

“I think this present skirmish at least is yours. One

day you and I will have a long time to talk. But not

just now. Now that you have completed your mis-

sion for the Princess, I would advise you to get your

remaining people to Tashigang, and quickly inside

the walls. And warn the people in the city, if they do

not already realize it, that an attack is imminent.”

“I will.” Mark heard himself accepting orders

from this man, the same man he had sought for

days, meaning to confront in accusation. But this

change was riot like that brought about by the

Mindsword’s hideous warping pressure. This

inward change, this decision, was his own, for all

that it surprised him.

His revitalized mount was already carrying him

away. His father waved after him and called: “And

you can give them this encouraging news as well-

Rostov is bringing the Tasavaltan army to their



The little column of refugees was composed for the

most part of cumbersome carts and loadbeasts, and

for several days it had been moving with a nightmarish

slowness over the appalling roads. Now and again it

left the roads, where a bridge had been destroyed or

the only roads ran in the wrong directions, to go

trundling off across someone’s neglected fields. In this

manner the train of carts and wagons had made its

way toward Tashigang. The people in the train, all of

them villagers or peasants who had been poor even

before the war started, were fearful of the Dark

King’s cavalry, and with good reason. Behind them

the land was death and ruin, under a leaden sky hazed

at the horizon with the smoke of burning villages. The

wooden-wheeled carts groaned with their increasing

burden of people who could walk no more, and of the

poor belongings that the people were still stubbornly

trying to keep. The loadbeasts, in need

of food and most of all of rest, uttered their own

sounds of-protest.

Riding in the second wagon were four people, a

man named Birch and his wife Micheline, along with

their two small children. The man was driving at the

moment, urging on their one loadbeast that pulled the

wagon. In general he kept up a running stream of

encouraging comments, directed at the animal and at

his family indiscriminately. He was not getting too

much in the way of answers. His wife had said very

little for several days now, and the children were too

tired to speak.

Just now the train of wagons was coming to a place

where the poor road dipped between hills that had

once been wooded, to ford a small, muddy stream.

Most of the trees on the hills looked as if they might

have been individually hacked at by a hundred axes,

then pulled apart by a thousand arms, of people

needing firewood or wood for other uses; quite likely

someone’s army had camped near here not long ago.

The little train of half a dozen wagons and carts

now stopped at the ford. All of the travelers wanted

to let their animals drink, and the people who were not

carrying fresher water with them in their vehicles

drank from the stream too. Birch and his family did

not get out of their cart. At this point they were not so

much thirsty as simply dazed and exhausted.

While the company of refugees was halted thus, a

patrol of the Dark King’s cavalry did indeed come into

sight. Those who were sitting in their wagons or

standing beside them held their breath, watching

fatalistically. But the patrol was some distance

off, and showed little interest in their poor company.

They were greatly relieved. But hardly had the

cavalry ridden out of the way when one of the

women stood up in her wagon screaming, and pointed

in a different direction.

Over one of the nearby hills, studded with its

broken trees like stubble on a tough chin, the head and

shoulders of a god had just appeared. There was

more nearby smoke in the air in that direction, from

some farm building on the other side of the hill burning

perhaps, or it might have been a haystack or a

woodpile smoldering; ,and the effect of seeing the

god’s figure through this haziness was somehow to

suggest a truly gigantic figure kilometers away,

moving about, at the distance of an ordinary horizon.

Birch, the man in the second cart, froze in his

position on the driver’s seat. His wife, Micheline, who

was sitting beside him had clamped a painful grip

upon his arm, but he could not have moved in any

case. Behind them, peering out from where they had

been tucked away amid furniture in the large two-

wheeled cart, their two small children were frozen


Birch could tell at first glance that the mountainous-

looking god coming over the hill was Mars. He could

make the identification at once by the great spear and

helm and shield of the approaching being’s equippage,

even though the man had never before seen any deity

and had not expected to see one now.

Mars was almost directly ahead of the people in

their wagons, advancing toward them from almost the

same direction that the train was headed. And

the Wargod had certainly taken notice of them

already; Birch thought for a moment that those

distant eyes were looking directly into his own. Now

Mars, marching forward out of the smoke, appeared

as no more than three times taller than a man. Now

he was lowering his armored helm as if in preparation

for battle; and still he tramped thunderously nearer, a

moving mountain of a being, kicking stumps and

boulders out of his way.

He was descending the near side of the nearest hill

now, taller than the treetops of the ruined grove as he

moved among them. Before Birch could think of any

way he might possibly react, Mars had reached the

muddy little ford.

Once there, he raised his arms. Looking

preoccupied, as if his divine thoughts were elsewhere,

and without preamble or warning, he spitted the man

who had been driving the first wagon neatly on his

spear, which was as long as a tall tree itself, and only

a little thinner. That man’s wife and children came

spilling around him from their cart, and rolling on the

ground as if they could feel the same spear in their

own guts.

Mars moved quickly, and came so close that he was

hard to see, like a mountain when you were standing

on it. Birch felt his own wagon go over next. If that

great spear had thrust for him too, it had somehow

missed. All Birch could feel was a fall that left him

half stunned, and then a growing pain in his leg and

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred