FICTION / FANTASY /GODS
Now, the gods are gone, the Swords are scattered, the great Mindsword reenters the world of men. Long lost from human sight, the Sword of Glory brings mindless devotion to him who wields it. It is Crown Prince Murat of Culm who finds it.
Murat, basically a decent man, intends to give Mindsword to Princess Kristin of Tasavalta. Taken with the beautiful princess when he first met her years ago, Murat resolves to keep Mindsword sheathed until he lays it at her feet. But suddenly, faced with a band of Brigands, concerned for the safety of his son, Prince Carlo, Murat draws the sword.
Now the brigands -- and his own son -- give him the adulation usually reserved for gods. It is not a comfortable state of affairs. And there is worse to come.
The Princess herself falls under Mindsword's spell. Not at all what Murat wanted: slavish devotion is no substitute for freely given love.
Or is it? Murat finds that Kristin's adulation is not without its attractions . . .
Meanwhile, the great dark King, thought dead for a dozen years, senses the rediscovery of the Mindsword even in his madness, and forges an alliance with Akbal, a most untrustworthy demon, to regain the weapon.
And Prince Mark of Tasavalta, returning with Ben of Purkinje from a journey on behalf of the Emperor, finds that he must do battle for his beloved wife, for the kingdom, and perhaps for the soul of the world.
---Told with all Fred saberhagen's nimble style, quicksilver invention and tremendous narrative gifts, MINDSWORD'S STORY will delight its readers.
In addition to the best selling Books of Swords and Books of Lost Swords, Fred Saberhagen is the author of BERSERKER'S PLANET and the other enormously popular Berserker ® books, and the chilling adventures, including A MATTER OF TASTE, of the gentleman known as Dracula.
Fred Saberhagen lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
--From paper edition cover blurb.
Between two lofty jagged mountain spines the rocky land declined in frozen swirls that bottomed in a deep depression, forming at its lowest point a narrow and almost circular hollow shielded from human observation by tall crags on every side. Around noon on a summer day a man alone was climbing toward this hidden place. He had begun climbing far below, and he was headed directly for the unseen hollow with fierce determination, as if he knew that it was there.
The climber was a strong and active man, though without any particular skill or experience in the art of ascending mountains; more than once today he had come near falling to his death when a handhold or foothold betrayed him. Dogged resolution had so far sustained him in his effort, though several times in the past two hours he had come near despairing of his survival.
The one fighting his way upward with such dedication was tall, dark of hair and beard, handsome in his own dark careless way. His age was approaching forty, and at the moment, breathing hard in the thin mountain air, he was keenly aware of every year.
The man's lean body had been worn leaner by much recent travel and other difficulties. He was dressed in the clothes of a soldier or a hunter; his jacket, much faded but still faintly blue and orange, might have been part of a uniform when it was new. He wore a small pack on his back; at the left side of his belt swung an empty sheath of a size to hold a long sword, balanced on the right side by a long practical knife. Despite the difficulties of the ascent, the climber evidently considered none of these items dispensable.
At the altitude where he had begun his long climb this was a summer's day, but up here on the high slopes, somewhere around timberline, the afternoon was beginning with a light, cold drizzle, spiced with an occasional stinging pellet of snow or hailstone. Gusts of wind dragged rolling mists across the mountain's face, more often than not obscuring the climber's view of what lay ahead of him and above. Nevertheless he pressed on.
Already at many points in his ascent the climber had paused to rest. Now he did so once more, clinging in a brief truce to the nearly vertical rock. While catching his breath he examined his surroundings carefully, as if he expected to see something out of the ordinary. Also he seemed to be listening intently, in hopes of picking up the sound of something more meaningful than wind.
Soon he advanced again, with unflagging determination.
His hopes, whatever, their foundation, were soon justified, for presently he was granted evidence that his goal was near. As the climber's line of sight topped the next stony barrier he became able to see, no more than thirty meters above him and ahead, the notched entrance to a circular pit, which he knew must be the bottom of the hidden depression between crests.
At this sight the man paused, nodding to himself. Because of certain clues he had been given before he began to climb, he felt certain of what he was going to discover in that desolate place. And if any confirmation were needed that he was very near his goal, he had it now. Because now he was beginning to hear the voices.
The voices, which sounded more in his mind than in his ears, were strange to him, not just unfamiliar but extremely odd. In truth, as the explorer knew, they were not really vocal sounds. But he could not help but hear them and think of them as voices, these songs and cries that were so much more than the noise of the wet wind. There surged around him an utterance as of a multitude at worship, singing a polyphonic paean above the gusts.
The climber moved forward another step, and now a new sign appeared to assure him that he was on the right track, and had not far to go. The rocks ahead of him remained properly dead and motionless whenever he gazed straight at them. But all the landscape near the corners of his vision had now begun to move. The effect was such that the entire mountainside around him appeared to be on the verge of swirling away in an ecstatic dance.
Rendered momentarily dizzy by the illusion of dancing rocks, the seeker paused again, closing his eyes. The mountainside beneath his hands and feet felt stable, and with his intellect he knew it was. He understood perfectly well that the dance and the ecstasy were in his mind; but that rendered them no less rhythmic or ecstatic.
Having moved a little closer to his goal, the man who climbed was able now to hear the magic voices more clearly, though still the words were indistinguishable. Some of the voices sounded human and some did not, but all of them were shrieking together in a great chorus of triumph and rapture.
The one who sought opened his eyes and studied the way ahead.
Although much of the mountainside was obscured by blowing mist, he knew that physically, the worst of the climb was over. From where he stood, the surface he had still to negotiate went angling more and more back toward the horizontal. Within the space of a few breaths the tall dark man, standing erect now and moving up on legs alone, was almost on the threshold of the notched entrance to the hollow in the rocks.
As he drew steadily nearer to that point the fanciful--or perhaps not so fanciful--idea crossed the climber's mind that perhaps no other human being had set eyes upon these cracked and moss-grown stones since the old mountains had thrust upward from the earth.
Once more he felt himself rendered a touch unsteady by the superhuman power of magic that loomed ahead. Once more he paused to close his eyes, trying to regain an inner balance. Standing there with eyes closed and arms outstretched, the man thought that now he could feel the mountain dancing. It was as if the whole earth around him were acting out the joy of certain victory, of success extended to eternity . . . though what victory, or what success was being celebrated, was more than any mere mortal in his place could tell.
Opening his eyes, the adventurer found himself still groping like a blind man. Trying to make his mind a blank, he forced himself to forge on, one shuffling step after another.
And now at last he had reached the very threshold of the entrance to the secret place, a point from which he could see directly into the hollow before him.
Ahead, through swirling mist and wind, he beheld a broad cup of dark rock, irregular in shape, some forty meters across here at the sculpted bottom. The whole bottom of the cup was deeply littered by an age-old detritus of stones and rough soil eroded from the surrounding cliffs. Tough grass and other small plants, only enough of them to emphasize the barrenness, grew very sparsely in that soil.
In almost the precise middle of this desolate hollow, surmounting a natural cairn of tumbled stones, an upright Sword was poised.
The cruciform dull black hilt stood uppermost, over a long blade. The metal of that blade, straight as a ray of sun, and as naked as the surrounding rock, appeared unnaturally bright in the dull, cloud-filtered daylight. It flashed intermittently, sending forth momentary gleams as brilliant as the sun that hid itself above the wind-rushed clouds.
Considering the Sword's position, the discoverer surmised that it must at some time have fallen--or been cast--from somewhere high on one of the surrounding cliffs. The weapon had landed point first atop the rockpile, wedging itself indestructibly in some fine crevice, or perhaps cracking open its own niche with the force of its falling weight behind that unbreakable point.
But it was very hard to think, or plan. In the visitor's ears and through his mind, the voices that were not voices roared and sang unceasingly.
For a moment the tall man tilted back his head, the wind whipping his dark hair and beard, his eyes squinting up into the rolling, rushing clouds as if he hoped to be able to gather from them some sign, some trace, concerning the one who had discarded or accidentally dropped this god-forged weapon here.
How long might the Sword of Glory have been here, waiting to be claimed? The visitor could not be sure, but it might well have been for years. He could picture how in winter that bright Blade would stand here meters deep in drifted snow, and how in spring and summer it must be washed in floods of snowmelt and of rain. But not the smallest spot of rust showed on that steel; and the man who stood before it now would have been willing to wager his existence that this weapon had not lost the faintest increment of keenness from either of its long finely tapered edges.
Possibly, he thought, the Blade had worn a sheath when it fell--or was hurled--into its present position. That it stood entirely naked now was easily explained--over a period of months or years, any covering of cloth or leather could have been nibbled away by the sharp teeth of scavengers, small mindless creatures unaffected by the magic they uncovered.
The absence of a covering, however, created certain problems for an approaching human being.
Hesitantly, advancing step by step with many pauses, the climber continued his progress toward the matchless treasure. As much as possible he kept his eyes averted from that gleaming Blade, and he tried without success to close his mind against the glare, the influence, that poured so boundlessly, like some effortless reflection of a melting sun, from the thing atop the mound of rock, the artifact which had been wrought at a god's forge from magic and meteoric metal.
The discoverer knew--but the knowledge was of little help--that the glare afflicting him was not really in his eyes. He reminded himself as he advanced--though the suggestion did him little good--that the roaring voices, those of beings forever balancing upon the brink of some orgasmic triumph, were not really in his ears.
Useless efforts to protect himself, useless. The finder knew an almost overpowering urge to fall on his knees and worship--not the Sword itself, no, but someone, something, he knew not who or what, except that the object must be transcendent, and the Sword called him to it.
By now the man, gasping and trembling more in his excitement than from physical effort, was almost near enough to reach out and touch that dull black hilt. But some basic instinct of survival, justified or not, warned him that he must not do so yet.
When he dared to peer more closely at the hilt, he saw the small white symbol that he had known must be there, the device of a waving banner.
"It is the Mindsword, then," the trembling explorer whispered to himself. "It can be nothing else."
--as if there could have been any doubt. But the mere sound of his own voice, which he could still manage to hold steady, his own words which he could still contain within the bounds of rationality, helped him to master his excitement and his nameless fear.
He knew that many people, standing this close to this uncovered Blade, would have turned and fled in helpless terror. Many others would have fallen down in mindless worship of they knew not what. The discoverer, being a proud, able, and determined man, did neither. With tremendous stubborness he had forced his way here, risking his life, to take possession of this prize. And he was not going to be deprived of it now.
But at the same time he feared that he might be unable to collect his treasure without help.
Yet again the adventurer squeezed shut his eyes, trying to establish some measure of composure. Closed lids shut out the sight of the Sword, but could not banish its majestic, insisting presence. In the depths of his mind and soul he could feel how the universe swirled around him. Half-born emotions only partially his own, fledgling hopes, stillborn ambitions, washed over him in a bewildering torrent. The man's brain echoed with the redoubled roar of a vast multitude of voices, some human and some not. All of them were praying, praising, worshipping--who? Or what?
He thought that it would prove impossible for him, strong man that he was, to remain for an hour within a hundred meters of this naked Blade when he did not control it. He had to possess his prize quickly, before it drove him mad or forced him into flight. And before he could touch it directly he had to cover it with something, muzzle its powers, put a sheath on it somehow.
The difficulty was not entirely unexpected; it was no accident that an empty sheath of the required size hung at the discoverer's belt. Still he could not slip a sheath on the weapon in its present position, and he still dared not perform the simple act of reaching out to pluck the Mindsword from the rocks.
Surges of unidentifiable longing swept through the adventurer as he hesitated. He felt stabbed by pangs of deathly devotion to some overwhelmingly great but tantalizingly unspecific cause. Bright barbs that might have been sun-twinkles from the metal came dashing against his sanity like crests of poisoned foam.
Moving a half-step closer, he stretched out a hand toward the naked Sword--and then at the last moment still dared not touch it.
Groaning, snatching back his trembling arm, the man fell back a step. And then another step, and yet another.
But this man was not going to give up. There might be another way. With unsteady fingers he began to unfasten the empty sheath from his Swordbelt.
With the detached sheath clutched in his left hand, the man gave a sound like a despairing giggle, and bent to pick up some small rocks. These he tossed, one after another, in the direction of the black hilt, trying to knock it over. At last one of his small missiles struck the Sword, which tilted but did not topple under the impact.
Laughing madly now, the man threw bigger stones, pitching them harder and harder, knowing that no rock he could ever throw, nothing he could ever do, could crack even the thinnest extremity of those sharpened edges.
At last he lobbed a larger stone that hit the Sword directly. The treasure fell, anti-climactically, making a slight noise. Obligingly its blade had now assumed a tilted position on the rockpile, the bright point uppermost, angled some degrees above the horizontal. And now the Sword's capturer could approach, sheath in hand, and--without needing to touch his prize directly--could begin to bind and tame his quarry, to hood it like a falcon with the mundane empty leather.
Slowly and carefully he got the point started into the sheath, then worked the sheath along the blade. In its new position the Mindsword rocked, slowly and precariously, with every indirect pressure from his hand.
The madness in the air, and in the rock, began to weaken.
The man could not have said how long the task occupied him, but eventually it was done. The simple covering was effective. The world was stable again, the many voices muted into--almost--perfect silence.
Now the latest possessor of the Mindsword could freely grasp the hard black pommel, feeling in it no more than the subtle power that any thing of great magic might be expected to possess, the sense of tremendous forces bound and coiled and waiting. Now he could pick up his great prize and buckle it on tightly at his belt. And now the world around him was perfectly worldly once again, consisting of little more than rocks and wind and rain. Somewhere birds were crying in the moving mist. He had not noticed until now that there were birds nesting and flying and hunting amid these lofty rocks.
For a quarter of an hour after the Sword was sheathed the newly armed adventurer sat on a small ledge, resting with his treasure at his side, experiencing a weakness of reaction.
Then he was on his feet again, and briskly on his way. The hardest part of the long descent, down to where he'd left his riding-beast, must be completed before nightfall. Early in the morning he'd ride on, in the direction of Sarykam. He had a great gift now to give. A truly worthy gift, to place in the lovely hands of the Princess Kristin.