The First Swords: The Book of Swords Volumes 1, 2, and 3by Fred Saberhagen
Fred Saberhagen's Book of Swords novels have captivated fantasy readers for more than a decade. Here, now available in one volume, are the three books that started it all.
For a game the gods have given the world twelve Swords of Power so that they might be amused as the nations battle for their possession. But Vulcan the Smith has had his own little joke&/i>… See more details below
Fred Saberhagen's Book of Swords novels have captivated fantasy readers for more than a decade. Here, now available in one volume, are the three books that started it all.
For a game the gods have given the world twelve Swords of Power so that they might be amused as the nations battle for their possession. But Vulcan the Smith has had his own little joke: the Swords can kill the gods themselves. What started out as Divine Jest has become all too serious as the gods fight to recover the Swords, and mortals discover that the mantle of power is more delicious and more terrible than anything they could have imagined.
Read an Excerpt
One day in the middle of his thirteenth summer, Mark came home from a morning's rabbit-hunting with his older brother Kenn to discover that visitors were in their village. To judge from their mounts, the visitors were unlike any that Mark had ever seen before.
Kenn, five years the older of the two, stopped so suddenly in the narrow riverside path that Mark, following lost in thought, almost ran into him. This was just at the place where the path came out of the wild growth on the steep riverbank, and turned into the beginning of the village's single street. From this point it was possible to see the four strange riding-beasts, two of them armored in chainmail like cavalry steeds, the other two caparisoned in rich cloth. All four were hitched to the community rack that stood in front of the house of the chief elder of the village. That hitching-rack was still an arrowshot away; the street of Arin-on-Aldan was longer than streets usually were in small villages, because here the town was strung out narrowly along one bank of a river.
"Look," said Mark, unnecessarily.
"I wonder who they are," said Kenn, and caught his lower lip between his teeth. That was a thing he did when he was nervous. Today had not been a good day for Kenn, so far. There were no arrows left in the quiver on his back, and only one middle-sized rabbit in the gamebag at his side. And now, this discovery of highborn visitors. The last time the brothers had come home from hunting to find the mount of an important personage tied up at the elder's rack, it had been Sir Sharfa who was visiting. The knight had come down from the manor to investigate a report that Kenn and Mark had been seen poaching, or trying to poach, in his game preserves. There were treasures living in there, hybrid beasts, meant perhaps as someday presents for the Duke, exotic creatures whose death could well mean death for any commoner who'd killed them. In the end, Sir Sharfa hadn't believed the false, anonymous charges, but it had been a scare.
Mark at twelve was somewhat taller than the average for his age, though as yet he'd attained nothing like Kenn's gangling height. If Mark bore no striking resemblance to Jord, the man he called his father, still there wasto his mother's secret and intense reliefno notable dissimilarity either. Mark's face was still child-round, his body form still childishly indeterminate. His eyes were bluish gray, his hair straight and fair, though it had begun a gradual darkening, into what promised to be dark brown by the time that he was fully grown.
"Not anyone from the manor this time," said Kenn, looking more carefully at the accoutrements of the four animals. Somewhat reassured, he moved forward into the open village street, taking an increasing interest interest in the novelty.
"Sir Sharfa's elsewhere anyway," put in Mark, tagging along. "They say he's traveling on some business for the Duke." The villagers might not see their manor-lord Sir Sharfa more than once or twice a year, or the Duke in a lifetime. But still for the most part they kept up with current events, at least those in which their lives and fortunes were likely to be put at risk.
The first house in the village, here at the western end of the street, was that of Falkener the leather-worker. Falkener had no liking for Jord the miller or any of his familysome old dispute had turned almost into a feudand Mark suspected him of being the one who'd gone to Sir Sharfa with a false charge of poaching. Falkener was now at work inside his half-open front door, and glanced up as the two boys passed; if he had yet learned anything of what the visitors' presence meant, his expression offered no information on the subject. Mark looked away.
As the boys slowly approached the hitching rack, they came into full view of the Elder Kyril's house. Flanking its front like a pair of sentries stood two armed men, strangers to the village. The guards, looking back at the young rabbit-hunters, wore wooden expressions, tinged faintly with disdain. They were hard, tough-looking men, both mustached, and with their hair tied up in an alien style. Both wore shirts of light chain mail, and emblems of the Duke's colors of blue and white. The two were very similar, though one was tall and the other short, the skin of one almost tar black and that of the other fair.
As Mark and Kenn were still approaching, the Elder's door opened, and three more men came out, engaged in quiet but urgent talk among themselves. One of the men was Kyril. The two with him were expensively and exotically dressed, and they radiated an importance the like of which Mark in his young life had never seen before.
"Ibn Gauthier." Kenn whispered the name very softly. The two brothers were walking very slowly now, their soft-booted feet dragging in the summer dust as they passed the Elder's house at a distance of some twenty meters. "The Duke's cousin. He's seneschal of the castle, too."
Seneschal was a new word to Markhe'd never heard it come up in the village current-events gossipbut if Kenn was impressed by it, he was impressed also.
The third man in the little group, a graybeard like the Elder, wore blue robes. "And a wizard," added Kenn, his whisper falling almost to inaudibility.
A real wizard? thought Mark. He wasn't at all sure that Kenn would know a real wizard if he saw one…but what actually impressed Mark at the moment was the behavior of the Elder Kyril. The Elder was actually being obsequious to his visitors, acting the same way some poor landless serf might when brought in to stand before the Elder. Mark had never seen the old man behave in such a way before. Even during Sir Sharfa's periodic visits, the knight, who was actually the master, always spoke to the old man with respect, and listened to him carefully whenever village affairs were under discussion. Today's visitors were listening carefully tooMark could see that though he couldn't hear what was being saidbut gave no evidence that they regarded the Elder with respect.
The Elder's eye now happened to fall upon the two boys who were gaping their slow way past his house. He frowned abruptly, and called to Kenn by name, at the same time beckoning him with a brisk little wave; it was a more agitated motion than Mark could remember ever seeing the Elder make before.
When Kenn stood close before him, gaping in wonder, Kyril ordered: "Go, and take down that sword that hangs always on your father's wall, and bring it directly here." When Kenn, still goggling, hesitated momentarily, the old man snapped: "Go! Our visitors are waiting."
To such a command, there could be only one possible response from any village youth. Kenn at once went pelting away down the long village street toward the millhouse at its far end. His legs, long and fast if lacking grace, were a blur of awkward angularity. Mark, poised to run after him, held back, knowing from experience that he wouldn't be able to keep up. And Mark also wanted to stay here, watching, to see what was going to happen next; and, now that he thought about it, he didn't want to have any part in simply taking down the sword, without his father's permission, from where it had always hung…
The three men of importance waited, gazing after Kenn, ignoring Mark who still stood twenty meters off and watched them. The bluerobed wizardif wizardif wizard he truly wasfigeted, glanced once toward Mark with a slight frown, and then away.
Kyril said, in a voice a little louder than before: "It will be quicker this way, Your Honor, than if we were all to go to the mill-house." And he made a humble, nervous little bow to the one Kenn had whispered was the Duke's cousin. It was a stiff motion, one to which the Elder's joints could hardly have been accustomed.
Now Mark began to notice that a few other villagers, Falkener among them, had started coming out of their houses here and there. There was a converging movement, very slight as yet, toward the Elder's house. They all wanted to know what was going on, but still were not quite willing to establish their presence in the street.
The man addressed by Kyril, whoever he might really be, ignored them as he might have sparrows. He stood posing in a way that suggested he was willing to wait a little, willing to be shown that the Elder's way was really the quickest and most satisfactory. He asked Kyril: "You say that this man who has the sword now came here thirteen years ago. Where did he come from?"
"Oh yes, that's right, Your Honor. Thirteen years. It was then that he bought the mill. I'm sure he had permission, all in order, for the move. He brought children with him, and a new bride, and he came from a village up toward the mountains." Kyril pointed to the east. "Yes sir, from up there."
The seneschal, who was about to ask another question, paused. For Kenn was coming back already. He was carrying the sword in its usual corded wrapping, in which it usually hung on the wall of the main living room inside the house. Kenn was walking now, not running. And he was not coming back alone. Jord, his solid frame taller still than that of his slim-bodied elder son, strode with him. Jord's legs kept up in a firm pace with the youth's nervous half-trot.
Jord's work clothes were dusty, as they so often were from his usual routine of maintenance on the huge wooden gears and shafts that formed the central machinery of the mill. He glanced once at MarkMark could read no particular message in the lookand then concentrated his attention on the important visitors. Jord seemed reluctant to approach them, but still he came on with determination. At the last moment he put his big hand on Kenn's shoulder and thrust the youth gently into the background, stepping forward to face the important men himself.
Jord bowed to the visitors, as courtesy required. But still it was to Kyril the Elder that he first spoke. "Where's Sir Sharfa? It's to him that we in the village must answer, for whatever we do when other high-born folk come here and"
He who had been called the seneschal interrupted, effectively though with perfect calm. "Sir Sharfa's not available just now, fellow. Your loyalty to your manor-lord is commendable, but in this case misplaced. Sir Sharfa is vassal, as you ought to know, to my cousin the Duke. And it's Duke Fraktin who wants to see the sword that you've kept hanging on the wall."
Jord did not appear tremendously surprised to hear of the Duke's interest. "I have been told, Your Honor, to keep that sword with me. Until the time comes for it to be passed on to my eldest son."
"Oh? Told? And who told you that?"
"Vulcan, Your Honor." The words were plainly and boldly spoken. Jord's calm assurance matched that of the man who was interrogating him.
The seneschal paused; whatever words he'd been intending to fire off next were never said. Still he was not going to let himself appear to be impressed by any answer that a mere miller could return to him. Now Ibn Gauthier extended one arm, hand open, rich sleeve hanging deeply, toward Kenn. The youth was still standing in the background where his father had steered him, and was still holding the wrapped blade.
The seneschal said to him: "We'll see it now."
Kenn glanced nervously toward his father. Jord must have signalled him to obey, for the lad tugged at the wrapping of the sworda neatly woven but undistinguished blanketas if he intended to display the treasure to the visitors from a safe distance.
The covering of the sword fell free.
The seneschal stared for a moment, then snapped his fingers. "Give it here!"
What happened in the next moment would recur in Mark's dreams throughout the remainder of his life. And each time the dream came he would experience again this last moment of his childhood, a moment in which he thought: Strange, whatever can be making a sound in the air like flying arrows?
The Elder Kyril went down at once, with the feathered end of a long shaft protruding from his chest. At the same time one of the armed guards fell, arrows in his back and ribs, his sword only a glint of steel half-drawn from its scabbard. The second guard was hit in the thigh; he got his spear raised but could do no more. The wizard went down an instant later, with his blue robes collapsing around him like an unstrung tent. The seneschal, uninjured, whirled around, drawing his own short sword and getting his back against a wall. His face had gone a pasty white.
The volley of arrows had come from Mark's right, the direction where trees and bush grew close and thick along the near bank of the Aldan. The ambushers, whoever they were, had been able to get within easy bowshot without being detected. But they were charging out of cover now, running between and around the houses closest to the riverbank. A half-dozen howling, weapon-waving men were rushing hard toward the Elder's front yard, where the victims of their volley had just fallen. Two large warbeasts sprang out of concealment just after the attacking men, but bounded easily ahead of them. One beast was orangefurred and one brindled, and both of their bodies, like those of fighting men, were partially clothed in mail. They were nearly as graceful as the cats from which half their ancestry derived.
Mark had never seen real warbeasts before, but he recognized them at once, from the descriptions in a hundred stories. He saw his father knocked down by the orange beast in its terrible passage, before Jord had had time to do more than turn toward his elder son as if to cry an order or a warning.
The seneschal was the beasts' real target, and they leaped at him, though not to kill; they must have been well trained for this action. They forced the Duke's cousin back against the front of fallen Kyril's house, not touching but confronting him, snarling and sparring just outside the tentative arc of his swordarm. When he would have run to reach his tethered riding-beast, they forced him back again. Now all four of the tethered animals at the rack were kicking and bucking, screaming their fear and excitement in their near-human voices.
Kenn, in the first instant of the attack, had turned to run. Then he had seen his father fall, and had turned back. White-faced, he stood over his father now, clumsily holding the unwrapped sword, with the blade above the fallen man as if it could be made into a shield.
Mark, who had run two steps toward home, looked back at his father and his brother and stopped. Now with shaking fingers Mark was pulling the next-to-last small hunting arrow from the quiver on his back. His rabbit-hunting bow was in his left hand. His mind felt totally blank. He comprehended without emotion that a man, the soldier who'd fallen with an arrow in his leg, was being stabbed to death before his eyes. Now the charging men, bandits or whatever they were, had joined their war-beasts in a semicircle round the beleaguered seneschal, and were calling on him to throw down his sword and surrender.
But one of the attackers' number had turned aside from this important business, and was about to deal with the yokel who still stood holding a sword. The bandit grinned, probably at the inept way in which Kenn's hands gripped the weapon; still grinning, he stepped forward with his short spear ready for a thrust.
At that point Mark's shaking fingers fumbled away the arrow that he had just nocked. He knelt, in an uncontrolled movement that was almost a collapse, and with his right hand groped in the dust of the road for the arrow. He was unable to take his eyes from what was about to happen to his brother
A moaning had for some moments been growing in the air, the sound of some voice that was not human, perhaps not even alive. The sound rose, quickly, into a querulous, unbreathing shriek.
It issued, Mark realized, from the sword held in his brother's hands. And a visual phenomenon had grown in the air around the sword. It was not exactly as if the blade were smoking, but rather as if the air around it had begun to burn, and the steel was drawing threads of smoke out of the air into itself.
The spearthrust came. The sound in the air abruptly swelled as the spear entered the swifter blur made by the sideways parry of the sword. Mark saw the spear-head spinning in midair, along with a handsbreadth of cleanly severed shaft. And before the spearhead fell, Townsaver's backhanded passage from the parry had torn loose the chainmail from the spearman's chest, bursting fine steel links into the air like a handful of summer flowers' fluff. The same sweep of the sword-point caught the small shield strapped to the man's left arm, and with a bonebreak snap dragged him crying into the air behind its arc. His body was dropped rolling in the dust.
Now Mark's groping fingers found his dropped arrow, and he rose with it in his hand. He could feel his own body moving with what seemed to him terrible slowness.
Townsaver had come smoothly back to guard position, the sound that issued from it subsiding to a mere purring drone. Kenn's face was anguished, his eyes were fixed in astonishment on the blade that grew out of his hands, as if it were something that he had never seen before. There was a vibration in his arms, as if he were holding something that he could not control, but could not or dared not drop.
One of the invaders, who must have been the warbeasts' master, aimed a gesture toward Kenn. Obediently the orange-furred beast turned and sprang. At that moment Mark loosed his arrow. Mark had not yet learned to reckon with the animals' speed, and the streaking furry form was out of the arrow's path before the small missile arrived. As if guided by some profound curse, Mark's arrow flew straight on between two bandits' backs, to strike the embattled seneschal squarely in the throat. Without even a cry, the Duke's cousin let go of his sword and fell.
The sword in Kenn's hands screamed, almost the way a fast-geared millsaw screamed sometimes when biting a tough log. Again it drew its smoking arc, to meet the leaping animal. One orange-furred paw leapt severed in midair, with a fine spray of blood. The same stroke caught the beast's armored torso, heavier than a man's. It went down, as Mark had seen a rabbit fall when hit in mid-leap by a slinger's stone. Mark was fumbling for his last arrow as the furred body rolled on its back with legs in the air, claws in reflex convulsions taloning the air above its belly.
Now three men had Kenn surrounded. Mark, with his last arrow nocked, was at the last moment afraid to shoot at any of them for fear of hitting his brother in their midst. He saw blades flash toward his brother, but Kenn did not fall. Kenn's eyes were still wide with bewilderment, his face a study of fear and horror. Townsaver sang vicious circles in the air around him, smashing aside brandished weapons right and left. The sword seemed to twist Kenn's body after it, so that he had to leap, turning in midair, coming down with feet planted in the reverse direction. The sword pulled him forward, dragging him in wide-stanced, stiff-legged strides to the attack.
The sound of its screaming went up and up.
The swordplay was much too fast for Mark to follow. He saw another of the attacking men go staggering backward from the fight, the man's feet moving in a reflex effort to regain balance until his back struck a house wall and he pitched forward and lay still. Mark heard yet another man cry out, a gurgling yell for help and mercy. Mark did not see the brindled warbeast leap at Kenn, but saw the beast go running back toward the riverbank, in a limping but still terribly fast flight. It howled the agony of its wounds, even above the fretful millsaw shrieking of the sword. And now two of the invading men, weaponless, were also running away, leaving the village on divergent paths. Mark got a close look at the face of one of them, and saw wide eyes, wide mouth, an expression intent on flight as on a problem.
The other invaders were all lying in the street. Four, fiveit seemed impossible to count exactly.
Mark looked up and down the street, to west and east. Only himself and his brother were still standing.
A little summer dust hung in the air, played by a quiet breeze. For a long moment, nothing else moved. Then Kenn's quivering arms began to droop, lowering the sword. The machine-whine that still proceeded from the red blade trailed slowly down into silence. And now the atmosphere around the sword no longer smoked.
The swordpoint sagged to the ground. A moment later, the whole weapon fell inertly from Kenn's relaxing fingers. Another moment, and Kenn sat down in the dust. Mark could see, now, how his brother's blood was soaking out into his homespun shirt.
Mechanically replacing his last arrow, unused, in his quiver, Mark hurried forward to his brother. Beyond Kenn, Jord still lay in gory stillness; his head looked badly ruined by the passing blow from a warbeast's paw; Mark did not want to comprehend just what he was seeing there.
Farther in the background, the blue-robed wizard was raising himself, apparently unhurt. In each hand the wizard held a small object, things of magic doubtless. His hands moved round his body, wiping at the air.
Mark crouched beside his brother and held him, not knowing what else to do. He watched helplessly as the blood welled out from under Kenn's slashed clothing. The attackers' swords had reached him after all, and more than once. Kenn's hunting shirt was ghastly now.
"Mark." Kenn's voice was lost, soft, frightened, and frightening too. "I'm hurt."
"Father!" Mark cried, calling for help. It seemed to him impossible that his father would not react, leap up, give him aid, tell him what to do. Maybe he, Mark, should run home, get help from his mother and his sister. But he couldn't just let go of Kenn, whose hand was trying to grip Mark's arm.
In front of Kenn, almost within touching distance, a dead bandit crouched as if in obeisance to his superior foe. Townsaver had taken a part of the bandit's face away, and his hands and his weapons were piled together before him like an offering. It did no good to look away. There was something very similar to be seen in every direction.
The sword itself lay in the street, looking no more dangerous now than a pruning hook, with dust blandly blotting the wet redness all along the blade.
Mark let out an inarticulate cry for help, from anyone, anywhere. He could feel Kenn's life departing, running out almost like water between his fingers.
Women were crying, somewhere in the distance.
Someone, walking slowly, came into Mark's view a little way ahead of him. It was Falkener. "You shot the seneschal," the leather-worker said. "I saw you."
"What?" For a moment Mark could not understand what the man was saying. And now the wizard, who had been bending over the body of Ibn Gauthier, came doddering, as if in fear or weakness (though gray-beard, he did not look particularly old) to where Mark was. The small objects he had been handling, whatever they were, had now been put away. With what appeared to Mark to be unnatural calm, he rested a hand on Jord's bloody head and muttered something, then reached to do the same for Elder Kyril and for Kenn. His manner was quite impersonal.
The women's crying voices were now speeding closer, with the sound of their running feet. Mark had not known that his mother could still run so fast. Mala and Marian, both of them dusty with mill-work, threw themselves upon him, hovered over their fallen men, began to examine the terrible damage.
"You shot the seneschal," said Falkener to Mark again.
This time, the hovering wizard took note of the accusation. With an oath, he grabbed the last arrow from Mark's quiver and strode away, to compare it with the shaft that still protruded from the throat of the Duke's cousin.
Other villagers were now appearing in the street, to gather around the fallen. They came out of their houses singly at first, then in twos and threes. Some, with field implements in hand, must have come running in from work nearby. The Elder was dead, the village leaderless. An uproar grew, confusion mounted. There was talk of dashing off to the manor with word of the attack, but no one actually went yet. There was more talk of organizing a militia pursuit of the attackers, whoever they had been, wherever they had gone. Wild talk of war, of raids, of uprisings, flew back and forth.
"Yes, they were trying to kidnap the seneschal. I saw them. I heard them."
"Who? Kidnap who?"
"Kyril's dead too. And Jord."
"But it was the boy's arrow that struck him down."
"Who, his own father? Nonsense!"
"…all wrong, havoc like this, must have been cavalry…"
"…no doubt that it's his arrow, I've found them on my land, near my woolbeasts…"
Mala and Marian had by now stripped off Kenn's shirt and were trying to bind up his wounds. It looked a hopeless task. Kenn's eyes were almost closed, only white slits of eyeball showing. Mala went to Jord's inert form, and with tears streaming from her eyes tried to get her husband to react, to wake up to what was happening around him. "Husband, your oldest son is dying. Husband, wake up…Jord…ah, Ardneh! Not you too?"
A neighbor woman hovered over Mala, trying to help. Together they put a rolled blanket under Jord's head, as if that might be of benefit.
Mark turned from them, and sat staring at the sword. Something less terrible to look at. It was as if thoughts were coming and going in his head continually, but he could not grasp any of them. Only look at the sword. Only look
He became aware that his mother was gripping his arm fiercely, shaking him out of his state of shock. In a voice that was low but had a terrible power she was urging him: "Son, listen to me. You must run away. Run fast and far, and don't tell me, don't tell anyone, where you're going. Stay out of sight, tell no one your name, and listen for word of what's happening here in Arin. Don't think about coming home until you know it's safe. That's your arrow in the Duke's cousin's throat, however it got there. If the Duke should get his hands on you, he could have your eyes put out, or worse."
"But…" Mark's mind wanted to protest, to scream that none of this could be happening, that the world was not this mad. His body, perhaps, knew better, for he was already standing. His mother's dark eyes probed him. His sister Marian looked up at him from where she still crouched with Kenn's lifeless head cradled in her lap, her blue horrified eyes framed in her loose fair hair. All around, villagers were arguing, quarreling, in greater confusion than ever. Falkener's hoarse voice came and went, and the wizard's unfamiliar one.
Impelled by a sudden sense of urgency, Mark moved swiftly. As if he were watching his own movements from outside his body, he saw himself bend and gather up the sword's wrapping from where Kenn had thrown it down. He threw the blanket over the sword and gathered the blade up into it.
Of all the people in the street, only his mother and his sister seemed to be aware of what he was doing. Mala, weeping, nodded her approval. Marian whispered to him: "Walk as far as our house, then run. Go, we'll be all right!"
Mark muttered something to them both, he never could remember what, and started walking. He knew, everyone in the village knew, what Duke Fraktin had done in the past to men who'd been so unlucky as to injure any of his kinfolk, even by accident. Mark continued to move pace after pace along the once-familiar village street, the street that now could never be the same again, carrying what he hoped was an inconspicuous bundle. He walked without looking back. For whatever reason, there was no outcry after him.
When he reached the millhouse, instead of starting to run he turned inside. The practical thought had occurred to him that if he ran away for very long he was going to need some food. In the pantry he picked up a little dried meat, dried fruit, and a small loaf, unconsciously emptying his game bag of the morning's kill of rabbits in exchange. From near his bed he grabbed up also the few spare arrows that were his. Somehow, he'd remembered, out in the street, to sling his bow across his back again.
A few moments after he had entered the millhouse, Mark was leaving it again, this time by the back door. This was on the eastern, upstream side of the building, and now the mill was between him and the village street. From this point a path climbed the artificial bank beside the mill-wheel, which was now standing idle, and then followed the wooded riverbank out of town. Mark met no one on the first few meters of this path. If earlier there had been people fishing here, or village children playing along the stream, the excitement in the street had already drawn them away.
Now Mark did begin to run. But as soon as he started running, he could feel fear growing in him, an imagined certainty of pursuit, and to conquer it he had to slow down to a walk again. When he walked, listening carefully, he could hear no sounds of pursuit, no outcry coming after him.
He had followed the familiar path upstream for half a kilometer when he came upon the dead body of the brindled warbeast. It had plainly been trying to crawl into a thicket when it died, caught and held by the ragged fringes of its hacked chainmail snagged on twigs. Mark paused, staring blankly. The animal was a female…or had been, before the fight. Now…how had the creature managed to get this far? It looked like an example of the vengeance of a god.
This book is an omnibus edition consisting of The First Book of Swords, copyright © 1983 by Fred Saberhagen.