FICTION / FANTASY /GODS
THE FOURTH BOOK OF LOST SWORDS
Available from Kindle, Nook and iBook
In the hills that wild and stormy night, the hermit Gelimer finds a stranded traveler -- Cosmo, bearing Farslayer. Cosmo dies mysteriously, and Gelimer hides Farslayer -- just before Prince Zoltan and the Lady Yambu turn up at this hermitage, victims of a shipwreck that has altered their continuing pilgrimage. And not long after their departure, another, more sinister visitor arrives: one Chilperic, sworn servant of the evil macro-wizard Wood, who will stop at nothing to obtain the Sword. Chilperic is attended by the demon Rabisu, placed under Chiperic's command by Wood.
Zoltan encountered the mermaid Black Pearl three years ago, and he has never forgotten the beautiful creature. In love with her, he has no idea that her heart is already given to the wretched Cosmo . . . Zoltan swears to help her regain human form.
With the arrival of Prince Mark and Ben of Purkinje the plot thickens further. Mark wants Farslayer (of course), knowing full well the havoc it can wreak in hands bent on revenge.
And then Tamsin, an enigmatic, sensuous healer, arrives on her griffin.
This is a rousing tale of action, magic and bittersweet love, told with all the gusto that characterizes Fred Saberhagen's enormous narrative gift.
--From paper edition cover blurb.
Heavy wind filled the bleak and rugged gorge of the Tungri, dragging heavy clouds through dark night. The short winter of this land was not yet over, and the freezing rain that had been falling at sundown had turned to snow some hours ago. The hermit Gelimer was snug under blankets and skins in his lonely bed, and when the half-intelligent watchbeast came to wake him he turned over with a faint groan and tried to pull the furs up over his head. Even before the hermit was fully awake, he knew what an awakening at this hour of such a night implied.
But of course Gelimer's conscience would not have allowed him to go back to sleep when he was needed on such a night, even had the anxious beast allowed it. Three breaths after he had tried to pull the covers up, the man was sitting on the edge of his simple cot, groping for the boots that ought to be just under the foot end.
He had both of his eyes open now. "All right, what is it, Geelong?"
The speechless animal, with melting sleet dripping from its fur, moved on four feet toward the single door of the one-room house, and back again. Its movement and the whole shape of its body suggested something between a large dog and a miniature bear. Geelong's front paws, capable of clumsy gripping, came up in the air as the beast sat back on its haunches, and spread their digits as much as possible in the sign that the watchbeast usually employed to mean "man."
"All right, all right. I'm coming. So be it. I'm on my way."
The animal whined as if to urge the man to greater speed.
As soon as his boots were on, Gelimer rose from his cot, a strongly-built man of middle size and middle age. Only a fringe of once-luxuriant dark hair remained around a pate of shiny baldness. His bearded face in the fading firelight of his hut was shedding the last traces of sleep, putting on a look of innocent determination. "Ardneh willing, I'm on my way." Now the hermit was groping his way into his outer garments, and then his heavy coat.
He hooked a stubby battle-hatchet to his belt--there were dangerous beasts to be encountered on the mountainside sometimes--and grabbed up the backpack, kept always in readiness, filled with items likely to be useful in the rescuing of stranded travelers.
Then, before Gelimer went out the door, he paused momentarily to build up the fire. Warmth and light were both likely to be needed when he got back.
The small house from which Gelimer presently emerged, with torch in hand, had been carved out of the interior of the stump of an enormous tree, easily five meters in diameter at head height above ground level. From just in front of the house, the tremendous fallen trunk was still partially in view, lying with what had been its crown downslope. So that log had lain since it was felled decades ago by a great storm, and so it would probably lie, the splintered remnants of its upper branches sticking out over the gorge of the Tungri itself, until another windstorm came strong enough to send it crashing the rest of the way down.
What he had last seen as freezing rain, a few hours ago, was now definitely snow, and had already produced a heavy accumulation. Gelimer grimaced under the hood of his anorak, and turned to a small lean-to shed built against the outer surface of the huge stump. From this shelter he pulled out a sled about the size of a bathtub. After lighting ready torches that were affixed one on each side of this vehicle, he harnessed Geelong to it. All this was quickly accomplished despite the wind and snow. A moment later the powerful watchbeast sprang away, and the hermit clinging to the rear of the sled by its handgrips had to run to keep up.
The beast ignored the thin path by which the rare intentional visitor ordinarily reached the dwelling of the hermit. Instead it struck off climbing across the rock-strewn slope above the house. Here and there along the slope grew more big trees, dimly visible now through swirling snow, rooted in pockets of soil on one broad ledge or another. Some of these trees were of the same species as that which formed the hermit's house, though none of these still-living specimens had attained to the same size.
The vigorous watchbeast, anxious to do the duty it had been trained for, lumbered on, snow flying from its splayed paws.
In this direction, very nearly directly south of the hermitage, one seldom-used trail came over the mountains. It was on this slope that travelers were most likely to encounter difficulties, particularly when the weather and visibility were poor.
A few hundred meters above the hermit's dwelling, the path from the south split into two routes, one going east and the other descending in a treacherous fashion to the west. The eastern path rejoined the riverside one a few kilometers east of and above the gorge, the two paths uniting at that point to form a better-defined way that could almost be called a road. Meanwhile the western fork came down eventually to a village on the shore of Lake Abzu, where the Tungri calmed itself after the turmoil of the gorge.
The reality of the trails was much more complex than their simple goals would indicate, for in conformity with the rugged mountainside they all wound back and forth, up small slopes and down, around many boulders and the occasional tree or grove. And all of the trails were poorly marked, if marked at all, steep and treacherous at best. At night, and in a snowstorm--
The hermit's feet, accustomed better than anyone else's to these particular rocks, slipped out from under him, and he would have fallen painfully but for his tight grip on the handles of the sled. Muttering a prayer to Ardneh to grant him speed, he pressed on, crossing a small stream upon a newly-formed bridge of ice and snow.
Without the aid of his beast, Gelimer could never have found the fallen man, nor, perhaps, would he have had much chance of saving him when found. But with Geelong to show the way the search, at least, was soon successful.
The body lay motionless under a new coat of snow, in moonless, starless darkness. Gelimer turned it over with a mittened hand. The fallen stranger was of slight build, his handsome face smooth-shaven, pale in the night. His forehead was marked by a little dried--if not absolutely frozen--blood. Even in the wind the hermit could hear that the man was still breathing, but he was not conscious at the moment. His fine coat, trimmed in light fur, and his well-made boots indicated that he was no peasant. Whoever he was, having fallen on a night like tonight, he was lucky to be still alive.
Another and larger mound of snow, a little way downslope, stirred when the light of the sled's torches fell upon it. That illumination, faint at the distance, now revealed the head and upraised neck of a fallen riding-beast, and a faint whinny came through the wind. Most likely a slip on ice, thought Gelimer, and a broken leg. Well, it was too bad, but beasts were only beasts, whereas men were men, and freezing to death would doubtless be as kind a death for a beast as having its throat slit in mercy. The hermit was going to have all he could handle trying to save one human life tonight.
The fallen man lay surrounded by sizable rocks, and it was impossible to maneuver the sled any closer to him than three or four meters. When Gelimer lifted the hurt one, he woke up. He was still too weak to stand unaided, or even to talk to any purpose. His mouth seemed to be forming stray syllables, but the wind whipped them away, whether there was any sense in them or not.
The man's eyes were open, and as soon as he realized that he was in a stranger's grip they widened briefly as if in terror. As if, thought the hermit, he had more fear of being caught than expectation of being rescued. But now, of course, was not the time to worry about that.
Weak and confused as the fellow was, still he was able to cling with a terrible strength to a strange pack or bundle, long as a man's leg, that he must have been carrying with him when he fell. It came up out of the snow with him, clamped in the crook of his right arm, and when Gelimer would have put the bundle aside, if only for a moment, to get the man into the sled, the object of his charity snarled weakly and gripped his treasure all the harder.
"All right, all right, we'll bring it along." And Gelimer somehow bundled the package along with its owner into the sled, and pulled up furs around them both. "Any other treasures that are worth your life to save? Evidently not. Geelong, take us home!"
In a moment the sled was moving again, first back to what with normal footing would have been a trail, and then taking a generally downhill direction, switchbacking through the altered and darkened landscape toward the hermit's house. On the return trip Geelong moved less frantically, testing with his forefeet for treacherous drifts, nosing out the limits of the trail.
Once during the ride back to the house, the man who was bundled into the sled began to thrash about. He moved his arms wildly until he again managed to locate his package, which had somehow slipped momentarily from his grip.
"Poor fellow! That bang on the head may have made you crazy. But take it easy now, you're in good hands." It was doubtful at best that the man would be able to hear him in the wind, but Gelimer talked to him anyway. He hated to miss a chance to talk when one presented itself. "We'll see you through. You're going to make it now."
Even with Geelong guiding the sled and pulling it, regaining the house was a tough struggle into the wind. The firelight within offered some guidance to the seeker, shining out in feeble chinks around the edges of the single shuttered and curtained window.
Hardly a routine night's work for Gelimer, but not an unheard-of adventure either. This was far from being the first time he had taken in a fallen or stranded traveler, and a good many of those he'd tried to save had lived to bless him for his aid.
When they reached the hut, Geelong remained outside at first--the watchbeast was capable of unharnessing himself from the sled. Gelimer hoisted and wrestled his client, and of course the omnipresent package, out of the sled and through the small entry hall, doored and curtained at both ends for winter, that pierced the thickness of his house's circular wooden wall. Once safely inside, Gelimer let his new patient down upon the single bed, and moved quickly to build up the fire again. Indeed, both light and heat were wanted now.
Apart from the headwound, which did not look likely to be fatal, and some bruised and probably cracked ribs, there were no wounds to be discovered upon the patient's body, which was lean but still looked well-nourished. The rings on his fingers suggested that he might be a magician, or at least had aspirations along that line. That crack upon the head, and exposure, would seem to be the problems here, and Gelimer thought them well within his range of competence. Despite his white robe he was no physician, but the experience of years had taught him something of the art.
Once the stranger had been undressed, examined, and tucked into a warm bed, the next step was to try him on swallowing a little water, and this was soon managed successfully. When he was laid flat again, the blank eyes of the patient stared up at the rough-hewn wooden ceiling of the tree-stump hut, and his limbs shivered. Then suddenly he started up convulsively, and would not lie back again until Gelimer had brought him his long package and let him hold it.
In intervals between other necessary chores, Gelimer started the soup kettle heating. Presently the patient was swallowing soup as the hermit spooned it out to him.
After he had taken nourishment, the fellow slid into what looked like a normal sleep, still without having uttered a coherent word in the hermit's hearing.
Gelimer, looking at his patient carefully, decided it was now certain that he was going to live.
By this time the hermit was more than ready to go to back to sleep himself, but before doing so he wished to satisfy his curiosity about something.
"Well now, and just what is this treasure of yours, that you are so reluctant to give it up? And will it perhaps provide me with some clue as to just who you are and whence you come?"
The shabby package, a bundle of coarse fabric, appeared to have been hastily made, then tied shut with tough twine. The knots in the twine were somewhere between wet and frozen, and when one of them stubbornly resisted the hermit's fingernails he went for one of his kitchen knives. The wet twine yielded to a keen edge.
When Gelimer had the package lying open on his largest table, he took one look at the leather scabbard and the black hilt he had uncovered, and turned his head to glance at his mysterious visitor once again. It was a different kind of glance this time, and he who delivered it breathed two words: "No wonder."
What had been revealed was a sword, and something about it strongly suggested that it was no ordinary weapon. The hermit, intermittently sensitive to such things, caught the unmistakable aura of strong magic in the air.
When the hermit--who had less experience than Black Pearl had had with this particular magic--had drawn the blade from the plain sheath, he turned his head again for yet another look, this one of wordless wonder, at the man who had been carrying it. The blade was a full meter long, and had been formed with supernal skill from the finest steel that Gelimer had ever seen. The polished surface of the steel was finely mottled in a way that suggested impossible depths within.
Even the plain black hilt was somehow very rich; and the hermit, turning the weapon over in his hands, noticed now that the hilt bore a small white marking, two rings concentric on a dot, making a symbolic target.
Now, for a few moments, Gelimer reveled in the sheer beauty of the thing he had discovered. But within the space of a few more heartbeats he had begun to frown again. He had a vague, only a very vague, idea of what he was holding in his hands.
In the next instant, he was re-wrapping the Sword in its old covering, and wishing heartily that he could immediately put it out of his house and away from himself completely. But suppose the stranger should awaken, and find his treasure gone from his side?
He left the wrapped Sword on the table.
"I must sleep while I can," said Gelimer then to Geelong, who had come in by now and was curled on his own blanket on the far side of the room. Presently the hermit too was dozing off, a blanket over him, his body nested among extra pillows, his back against the wooden wall where it was quite warm near the tiled fireplace.
An hour passed, an hour of near silence in the house, while the storm still howled with fading energy outside. Then a piece of wood, eroded by slow fire, broke and tumbled suddenly on the hearth, making a small, abrupt noise. Gelimer, frowning, slept on. The watchbeast, sleeping, moved his ears but not his eyelids. But the eyes of the man in the bed opened suddenly, and he sat up and looked about him with something of the expression of a trapped animal, not knowing where he found himself. He looked with relief--or was it resignation?--at the package beside him, then at the other human occupant of the room, and then at the dozing animal.
Then he swung his feet out of the bed, and paused, raising his hands to his face as a surge of pain swept through his skull.
The animal opened one eye, gazed at the houseguest quizzically.
Another moment and the visitor was standing, moving swiftly and stealthily, hastily pulling on such of his garments as lay within easy reach, including his damp boots that someone had left to dry at a prudent distance from the fire.
The animal had both eyes open now, but still it only looked at the stranger dumbly. To get up and dress was something that humans did all the time.
The hermit, still sleeping in exhaustion, was lying now at full length on the warm wooden floor, with his head fallen back between a pillow and a piece of firewood. The firelight gleamed on Gelimer's bald head, and he snored vigorously.
The visitor unwrapped his package, not noticing, or perhaps not caring, that the ties had earlier been cut. Then he pulled the Sword from its sheath, and shot another glance in the direction of the sleeping hermit.
The hindquarters of the watchbeast moved in a swift surge, straightening its body in a line aimed at the stranger. The animal crouched, very low growl issuing from its throat.
But the stranger failed even to notice. His dazed mind was elsewhere, and he had no designs on his rescuer's life. Instead, he was already making for the door, the drawn blade still in his hand. With his free hand he lifted the latch silently.
Geelong subsided on his sleeping pad made of old blankets. Humans went out of doors all the time, in all kinds of weather. It was a permissible activity.
The inner door was pulled shut, very softly, behind the stranger. The small tunnel penetrating the thickness of what had been a great tree's bark was long enough to muffle the entering cold wind, muffle it enough so that Gelimer in his warm place by the fire was not awakened.
Now all was silent again inside the house except for the furtive small noises of the fire itself. A stable warmth re-established itself in the atmosphere. Faintly, as if at a great distance, the wind howled across the upper end of the carven passage of charred wood that served as chimney.
Only a short time passed before cold air moved in again, faintly, under the inner door; and then that door opened once more. It had been left unlatched. The watchbeast raised his head again, alertly.
The stranger entered, empty-handed. His face had a newly drained and empty look, paler even than before. Mechanically, unthinkingly, he latched the door behind him. Then he moved, very wearily but still quickly, to stand over the wrappings that had once held the Sword but now lay empty and discarded on the bed.
He moved his hands over the emptiness before him, in what might have been either an abortive attempt at magic, or only a gesture of futility. His lips murmured a word, a word that might have been a name. Then he raised his eyes from the bed, and stood, swaying slightly on his feet, staring hopelessly at the curve of wooden wall little more than arm's length in front of him.
Again his lips moved, silently, as if he might be seeking the help of some divinity in prayer.
Except for that he appeared to be simply waiting.
The sound that at last awakened Gelimer impressed the hermit as enormous, and yet he could not really have said that it was loud. It was as if the human ear, sleeping or waking, could catch only the delayed afterrush of that vast howling as it faded. As if mere human sense was inevitably a heartbeat too late in its perception to receive the full screaming intensity of the thing itself.
The hermit woke up, to find himself lying in a strained position by the fire, with the strange remnants of that unearthly sound still hanging in the air. Upon the hearth the weakening fire still snapped and hissed. Across the room his watchbeast was standing up and whining softly, looking toward the bed.
Even before he looked, Gelimer knew that whatever event had awakened him was already over.
Sitting up, he turned his eyes toward the bed. And then he sprang to his feet.
His visitor, once more fully clothed or very nearly so, was now sprawled facedown and diagonally crosswise upon the narrow bed, with the toes of his wet boots still resting on the floor. Above the stranger's inert back protruded half a meter and more of beautiful steel blade, broad and mottled and glinting faintly in the firelight, beneath that black hilt with its god-chosen symbol. The blade was as motionless as the shaft of a monument; the body it had struck down was no longer breathing.
A great disconsolate whine came from the crouching watchbeast, and Gelimer without thinking could interpret the outcry: This was bad, this was very bad indeed, but there had been no way for the animal to prevent this bad thing happening.
There would have been no way for a human being to stop it either, perhaps. Gelimer glanced toward the door, and saw that it was securely latched.
The wet boots, still delicately puddling the wooden floor, would seem to mean that the man had got up, had gone outside for whatever purpose, and had come back in before he met his death.
The hermit approached the bed. There was no doubt at all that his late patient was now certainly dead. Still the hermit turned him partway over, and saw a handsbreadth or more of pointed Swordblade protruding through what must be a neatly split breastbone. Death, of course, must have been instantaneous; there was only a very moderate amount of blood, staining the cloth that had wrapped this deadly weapon and was now lying crumpled beneath the body.
With the door latched on the inside, it seemed an impossible situation.
Not knowing what else to do, and moving in something of a state of shock, Gelimer wrenched the Sword out of the stranger's body--that task wasn't easy, for the blade seemed to be held in a vise of bone--and stood for a few moments with that black hilt in hand, looking about him suspiciously, ready to meet some further attack, an attack that never came.
"Geelong, I don't suppose that you--? But of course not. You don't have any real hands, to grip a hilt, and . . . and of course you wouldn't, anyway."
The watchbeast looked at its master, trying to understand.
And certainly no man would ever be able to stab himself in such a way.
Eventually the hermit wiped the blade on the coarse cloth that had been its wrapping--the steel came clean with magical ease--and put it back into the sheath that he found lying discarded on the floor in the middle of the room. Then he went to arrange the body more neatly and decently on the bed, wadding the cloth Sword-wrapping underneath in an effort to save his own blankets. There was not going to be that much more bleeding now.
Then he decided that the only practical thing to do was to go back to sleep again, after satisfying himself that his door and his window were indeed closed tightly, and latched as securely as he could latch them. Geelong continued his whimpering, until Gelimer spoke sharply to the beast, enjoining silence.
A few moments after that the hermit was asleep by the fireside as before. The silent presence of the occupant of the bed did not disturb his slumbers. All his life Gelimer had known that it was the living against whom one must always be wary.
In the morning, before the sun was really up, the hermit went out to dig a grave, and to see to one or two other related matters. The snow had stopped an hour ago, and by now the sky was clear. He left the sled in its shed, but he took Geelong with him.
The fallen riding-beast, as Gelimer had expected, was dead by now, already stiffened. The saddle it bore was well made, and the beast itself had been well fed, he thought, before it had started out on its last journey. There were no saddlebags; most likely the journey had been short.
With considerable effort, and with the aid of his dumb companion, Gelimer tugged the dead animal to the edge of the next cliff down, and put it over the drop, and looked after it to see where it had landed. Not all the way into the river, unfortunately; that would certainly have been best. Instead the carcass was now wedged in a crevice between rocks on the lip of the next precipice. Good enough, thought Gelimer, quite good enough. In that place, the hermit thought, the carcass should be well exposed to flying scavengers, and at the same time out of sight and smell of any human travelers who might be taking the usual trails.
Having disposed of the dead beast, the hermit now went to dig a grave for the dead man.
He dug it in the stand of trees nearest his house, where many centuries of organic growth and deposit had built up a deep soil, supported by one of the largest ledges on this side of the mountain. As soon as the sun was well up, in a brilliant sky, last night's snow began melting rapidly, and thus caused very little interference with his digging. Here the air never remained cold enough for long enough to freeze the ground solidly or to any considerable depth. Black dirt piled up swiftly atop melting snow as Gelimer plied his shovel.
When the grave had grown to be something more than a meter deep, Gelimer called it deep enough, and hiked back to his dwelling to evict its patient tenant. He noted hopefully as he walked that there was still enough snow on the ground in most places to allow him to use the sled for transport.
The trip back to the grave, with mournful Geelong pulling the burdened sled, was uneventful. Into the earth after the stranger went the blood-stained cloth that had once wrapped the Sword.
Gelimer said a devout prayer to Ardneh over the new grave just as soon as he had finished filling it in. When he opened his eyes after praying he could see, at no great distance among the massive trunks, a place where some years ago he had laid another unlucky traveler to rest. And if he turned his head he could see, just over there, another. That grave, representing the saddest failure of all, held a young woman with her newborn babe.
After the passage of a few years these modest mounds had become all but indistinguishable from the surrounding floor of the grove, covered with dead leaves and fallen twigs under the melting snow. In a few years this new grave too would totally disappear. That is, if it was allowed to do so. That was something Gelimer was going to have to think about intensively. He still had no real clue to the identity of the man he had just buried.
Frowning, the hermit put his shovel into the sled and urged Geelong back to the hut. The Sword that awaited him there, he was beginning to think, might well pose a more difficult problem than any mere dead or dying traveler.
Now even in the shade the snow was melting rapidly, and in another hour or so all tracks made in it would be gone. That was all to the good.
Secure inside his dwelling-place once more, the hermit drew the Sword out of its sheath, and looked at it even more carefully than he had before. Perhaps he should have put this treasure into the grave too, and tried his best to forget about it; he had come very near to doing just that. He foresaw that no good was likely to come of this acquisition. Yet there was no doubt that the thing was immensely valuable, and he supposed it must be the rightful property of someone. He had no right to lose the wealth of someone else.
Gelimer was still haunted by the face of the Sword's last possessor--handsome, haunted, but now finally at peace.