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

burning treetrunks at the least.

Momentarily a near-hush spread across the bat-

tlefield, as most of the people on it became aware of

that sight in the distance; and in that moment of

half-silence, the singing voices of the distant gods

were audible. What words they sang were hard to

catch, discordant as those far voices were, and

whipped about by wind; but enough could be heard

to be sure that they sang praise to Vilkata.

And the earth below the moving firebrands, and

the sky above them, were no longer fully dark; the

greater fire of dawn was on its way.

It was enough, it was more than enough, to turn

the retreat into a mere scramble for survival. Even

if the gods did not come soon to the Dark King’s

aid, daylight would; daylight would end the confu-

sion in Vilkata’s camp, let his people see how few

they really fought against. Whether the scramble

for escape was ordered or not, it was already under


Many of the city’s defenders were able to get back

into the tunnel before the tunnel was discovered by

Vilkata’s people, and a concerted effort made by

them to block its entrance. Ben was just a bit too

late to be able to use the tunnel, and Mark was later


By chance, perhaps, the two things on which the

Dark King’s hopes depended came back to him

almost simultaneously, even as they had been

taken: the Mindsword, and his demonic powers of

sight. As the first shouts were going up from some of

his people near his tent proclaiming victory over

the raiders, his hand fell at last on the black hilt.

The Sword was still lying where he had left it,

undisturbed and unseen, while fighting raged

around it. And at the same time the demon, able

now to return to duty, brought back Vilkata’s sight.

His first view was of the Sword in front of him, the

column of fire that was his usual vision of the blade

now muffled and enfolded within the leather


The Sword once more in his hand, the Dark King

ordered his vision expanded. He got a good look at

the partial ruin and still widespread confusion that

prevailed around him in his camp. His chief human

subordinates were just discovering that he was

missing. They were unsure whether he was still

alive, and many of them, Vilkata was convinced,

were hoping that he was not.

That would change drastically, as soon as he

showed them the Blade again. He got to his feet.

Now that he could see, it was easy to disentangle

himself from fallen fabric. If he had believed in

thanking gods, he would have thanked them now.

The Dark King’s sense of triumphant survival, of

being indestructible, was short lived. Haggard in

the early daylight, knowing that he must look

weakened and distraught, afraid of trying to seek

sleep again, afraid as well of appearing tired or

uncertain in front of his subordinates, Vilkata used

his private powers of magic to chastise his return-

ing demons. Where they had been, they could not or

would not say.

It was different when he demanded to know from

them what power had been able to drive them so

completely and easily away. Then they responded

sullenly that it was the name of the Emperor that

had been used against them.

“The Emperor! Are you joking?” But even as he

said the words, Vilkata realized that they were not.

In his own long study of magic and the world, he

had from time to time encountered hints of genuine

Imperial power; hints and suggestions and too, of a

connection between the present Emperor and the

being called Ardneh, the Dead God of two thousand

years ago, still worshipped by the ignorant masses.

Those hints and suggestions Vilkata had long cho-

sen to ignore.

The Dark King punished his demons, and con-

strained them as best he could to serve him faith-

fully from now on. Then he went, exhausted as he

was, to confer again with his human wizards, who

after the night just passed were quite exhausted


The magicians pulled long faces when their lord

mentioned the Emperor’s name to them. But they

had to admit that there might be some truth to the

claim of driving demons away by such a means.

Vilkata demanded, “Then why cannot we use it


“We are none of us the Emperor’s children,


“His children? I should hope not. Are you mad?”

The term “Emperor’s child” was commonly used

in a proverbial way, to describe the poor, the

orphaned, the unfortunate.

Before the subject could be pursued any farther,

there arrived a distraction. It was welcomed heart-

ily, at least at first, by the magicians; and it came in

the form of the morning’s first flying messenger,

bearing news that the Master of the Beasts thought

too important to be delayed. It told Vilkata that the

Silver Queen’s host had now actually been sighted,

marching against his rear. This time, Vilkata was

assured, the report was genuine.

The observed strength of the army of the Silver

Queen was not enough in itself to give the Dark

King much real concern. But there was the dread

Sword that he knew she carried; and, perhaps

equally disquieting, the thought that her timely

presence here might well mean that his enemies

had worked out some effective plan of co-operation

against him.

This last suspicion was strengthened when the

Tasavaltan army was also reported to be now on

the march, and also approaching Tashigang.

Rostov would make a formidable opponent. But it

would be a day or two yet, according to report,

before his army would be on the scene.

And there was Vulcan-Vulcan was now almost

at hand. It struck Vilkata more forcefully now than

ever before, that the gods were often stupid, or at

least behaved as if they were, which in practice of

course came to the same thing.

Holding the Mindsword drawn and ready in his

hand, the Dark King rode out to confront this deity

who said that he had come to do him honor.

Riding a little ahead of a little group of trembling

human aides, his vision provided by a demon now

equally tremulous with fear, Vilkata flashed the

Mindsword over his head. At the same time he cried

out in a loud voice, demanding the Smith’s obedience.

Vulcan’s first answer was a knowing grin,

shattering in its implications. Then the god laughed at

the human he had once been forced to worship.

With a wicked gleam in his huge eyes, Vulcan

brandished the smoldering tree-trunk that once had

been a torch, and announced that he meant to have

revenge for that earlier humiliation.

“Did your scouts and spies, little man, take seriously

what I shouted to them about my coming here to do

you honor? Good! For as soon as I have time, I mean

to do you honor in an unprecedented way. Ah, yes.

“I am a god, little man. Remember? And

Shieldbreaker is now in my hand! Can you understand

what that means? I, who forged it, know. It means I

am immune to all other weapons, including your

Mindsword. There is no power on earth that can

oppose me now.”

The Dark King, as usual at his bravest when things

seemed most desperate, glared right back at the god,

and nursed a silent hope that Doomgiver in some

human hand might still bring this proud being down. Or

Farslayer . . . then he saw another’ sheath at Vulcan’s

belt, another black hilt, and he knew a sinking moment

of despair.

Vulcan, taking his time, had yet a little more to say.

He was going to have his revenge on Vilkata, but not

just yet. “First of all, little man, there are

more Swords that I must gather. Just to be sure . . .

therefore I claim this city and all its contents for my

own. And all. its people. They will wish that Mars still

lived, when my rule begins among them.”

And the god turned his back on the King, and

marched off to claim his city. However many

companions the Smith had had when he came over

the horizon, he was now down to just one, a four-

armed male god that Vilkata was unable to identify

offhand. Not, he supposed, that it much mattered.

As long as Vilkata was actually in Vulcan’s

presence, he had been able to confront the Smith

bravely enough. But when the confrontation was over,

the man was left physically shaking. Still, in a way he

was almost glad that Vulcan was now openly his

enemy. Always, in the past, it had taken a supreme

challenge of some kind to rouse Vilkata to his greatest

efforts and achievements. When he knew a crisis was

approaching, fear gnawed at him maddeningly, and

sometimes came near to disabling him. But when the

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred