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

his present trouble as well and fittingly as he wore

his clothes. He was a tall and broad-shouldered

young man, with blue-gray eyes, and a light, short

beard that until a few days ago had been neatly

trimmed. The longbow slung across his back looked

eminently functional, but at the moment there

were only three arrows left in the quiver that rode

beside it.

The young man had fallen into a kind of pattern

in his movement. This took the form of a trot, a

pause to look back over one shoulder, another

scramble, a quick walk, and then a look back over

the other shoulder without pausing.

According to the best calculation he could make,

which he knew might very easily be wrong, he still

had one more active enemy behind him than he had

arrows. Of course the only way to make absolutely

sure of the enemy’s numbers would be to let them

catch him. They might very well do that anyway.

They were still mounted, and would easily have

overtaken him long ago, except that his own

ambushes set over the past twenty kilometers had

instilled some degree of caution in the survivors.

These high plains made a good place for ambush,

deceptively open-looking but cut by ravines and

studded with windcarved hills and giant boulders

that looked as if some god had scattered them play-

fully about.

By this time, having had twenty kilometers in

which to think it over, the young man had no real

doubt as to who his pursuers were. They had to be

agents of the Blue Temple. Any merely military

skirmish, he thought, would have been broken off

long before this. Any ordinary patrol from the Dark

King’s army would have been content to return to

camp and report a victory, or else proceed with

whatever other business they were supposed to be

about. They would not have continued to risk their

skins in the pursuit of one survivor, not one as

demonstrably dangerous as himself, and not

through this dangerous terrain.

No, they knew who they were after. They knew

what he had done, four years ago. And undoubtedly

they were under contract to the Blue Temple to

bring back his head.

The young man was finding time in his spare

moments, such as they were, to wonder if they were

also closing in on Ben, his friend and his companion

of four years ago. Or if perhaps they had already

found him. But he was not in a position right now to

do anything for Ben.

The youth’s flight had brought him to the edge of

yet another ravine, this one cutting directly across

his path. To the left of where the young man halted

on the brink, the groove in the earth deepened rap-

idly, turning into a real canyon that wound its way

off to the east, there presumably to join at some

point a larger canyon that he had already caught

sight of from time to time. In the other direction, to

the young man’s right, the ravine grew progres-

sively shallower; if he intended to cross it, he

should head that way.

From where he was standing now, the country on

the other side of the ravine looked if anything flat-

ter than the plain he had been crossing, which of

course ought to give a greater advantage to the

mounted men. If he did not cross, he would go down

into the ravine and follow it along. He could see

that as it deepened some shelter appeared along its

bottom, provided by rough free-standing rock for-

mations and by the winding walls themselves. If he

went that way he would be going downhill, and for

that reason might be able to go faster.

It was the need for water that made his choice a

certainty. The big canyon ought to be no more than

a few kilometers away at most, and very probably it

had water at its bottom.

He was down in the bottom of the ravine, making

good time along its deepening trench, before one of

his over-the-shoulder looks afforded him another

glimpse of the men who were coming after him.

Three heads were gazing down over the rocky rim,

some distance to his rear. It looked as if they had

been expecting him to cross the ravine, not follow

it, and had therefore angled their own course a little

toward its shallower end. He had therefore gained a

little distance on them. The question now was, how

would they pursue from here? They might all fol-

low him down into the ravine. Or one of them might

follow him along the rim, ready to roll down rocks

on him when a good chance came. Or, one man

might cross completely, so they could follow him

along both walls and down the middle too.

He had doubts that they were going to divide

their small remaining force.

Time would tell. He was now committed, any-

way, to following the ravine. Much depended on

what sort of concealment he could find.

So far, things were looking as good as could be

expected. What had been a fairly simple trench at

the point where he entered it was rapidly widening

and deepening into a complex, steep-sided canyon.

Presently, coming to a place where the canyon bent

sharply, the young man decided to set up another

ambush, behind a convenient outcropping of rock,

Lying motionless on stovelike rock, watching small

lizards watch him through the vibrating air, he had

to fight down the all-too-rational fear that this time

his enemies had outguessed him, and a couple of

them were really following him along on the high

rims. At any moment now, the head of one of them

ought to appear in his field of vision, just about

there. From which vantage point it would of course

be no trick at all to roll down a deadly barrage of

rocks. If they were lucky his head would still be rec-

ognizable when they came down to collect it.

Enough of that.

It was a definite relief when the three men came

into sight again, all trailing him directly along the

bottom of the canyon. They were walking their

mounts now, having to watch their footing care-

fully on the uneven rock. As their quarry had hoped,

at this spot they had no more than half their visual

attention to spare in looking out for ambush.

The young man waiting for them already had an

arrow nocked. And now he started to draw it,

slowly taking up the bowstring’s tension. He real-

ized that at the last instant, he’d have to raise him-

self up into full view to get the shot off properly.

The moment came and he lifted his upper body.

The bow twanged in his hands, as if the arrow had

made its own decision. The shot was good, but the

man who was its target, as if warned by some subtle

magic, begun to turn his body away just as the shot

was made. The arrow missed. The enemy, alarmed,

were all ducking for cover.

The marksman did not delay to see what they

might be going to do next. Already he was on his

feet and running, scrambling, on down the canyon.

Only two arrows left in his quiver now, and still he

was not absolutely sure that there were no more

than three men in pursuit.

He hurdled a small boulder, and kept on running.

At least he’d slowed his pursuers down again, made

them move more cautiously. And that ought to let

him gain a little distance.

And now, suddenly, unexpectedly, he had good

luck in sight. As he rounded a new curve of the can-

yon there sprang into view ahead of him a view into

the bigger cross-canyon that this one joined. Ahead

he saw a narrow slice of swift gray water, with a

luxuriant border of foliage, startlingly green, all

framed in stark gray rock.

A little farther, and he would have not only water

and concealment, but a choice of ways to turn,

upstream or down. The young man urged his tired

body into a faster run.

In his imagination he was already tasting the

cold water. Then the tree-tall dragon emerged from

the fringe of house-high ferns and other growth that

marked the entrance to the bigger canyon. As the

young man stumbled to a halt the beast was looking

directly at him. Its massive jaw was working, but

only lightly, tentatively, as if in this heat it might be

reluctant to summon up the energy for a hard bite

or even a full roar.

The young man was already so close to the

dragon when he saw it that he could do nothing but

freeze in his tracks. He knew that any attempt at a

quick retreat would be virtually certain to bring on

a full charge, and he would have no hope of

outrunning that.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred