FICTION / FANTASY /GODS
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Now, the gods are gone, the Swords are scattered. Some are helb by those of good heart, others by those whose purposes are evil. And one -- Coinspinner -- is held only as long as Coinspinner chooses. The Sword is subject to no rules but its own, and exactly what those rules are no one knows.
At the moment Coinspinner is in the hands of Crown prince Murat of Culm, who is visiting Tasavalta to beg Princess Kristin for permission to take Woundhealer, the sword of Healing, on a mission of mercy to Culm. The princess's refusal sparks a theft: Woundhealer is removed from the White Temple.
Withdrawing the Sword Stonebreaker from the Tasavaltan armory, the doughty General Rostov sets off in pursuit of Prince Murat -- only to find that Woundhealer is not with the prince, and that one of the Culmians has absconded with Coinspinner. But Coinspinner will not stay with its new possessor for long . . .
Meanwhile, far from Tasavalta, a young Prince Adrian, whose magical gifts are immense, is approaching the extremely unreliable City of Wizards, where nothing -- not even the sun -- is what it seems. He and his beautiful companion Trilby, will face unexpected peril there.
Elsewhere, Wood, the evil Macrowizard who has slipped the bonds of time, is polishing his plans to abduct Adrian, hated spawn of his old enemy Prince Mark.
But first Wood wants Coinspinner.
Coinspinner, however, has its own agenda. Bestowing gigantic luck on he who holds it, the Sword moves where it wants, and when it wants, changing all circumstances in a twinkling.
It's not surprising that Wood wants it. EVERYONE wants Coinspinner.
---Told with Fred Saberhagen's huge gusto and narrative skill. THE FIFTH BOOK OF LOST SWORDS: COINSPINNER'S STORY will delight the reader.
In addition to the bestselling Books of Swords and Books of Lost Swords, Fred Saberhagen is the author of the enormously popular Berserker tales. He lives in Albuquerque, NM.
--From paper edition cover blurb.
"I swear to you, most royal and excellent lady," declared the handsome and distinguished visitor, "I solemnly pledge, most lovely and farseeing princess, that if you can save the life of my queen's consort and end his suffering, her royal gratitude and his--not to mention my own--will know no bounds."
Princess Kristin sighed. Over the course of the past two days, she had already heard the same statement a score of times from the same man, sometimes in very nearly the same words, sometimes in speech less flowery. Now once more she forced herself to attend with courtesy and patience to the representative of Culm.
As soon as the distinguished and handsome visitor had concluded this latest version of his plea she turned half away from him, trying to frame her answer. Over the past two days she had endeavored to give the same reply in different ways. This time the princess began her response in silence, with a gesture indicating the view beneath the balcony on which they stood.
Below the palace, sloping away toward the sea, rank on rank of the neatly tiled, multicolored roofs of Sarykam gleamed in the bright sun of summer afternoon. Halfway between the palace and the harbor, the mass of crowded buildings was interrupted by a tree-lined square of generous size, which held at its center the chief White Temple of the city. This structure, a pyramid of stark design and chalky whiteness, contained among other things two shrines, those of the gods Ardneh and Draffut.
Of greater practical importance to most people was the fact that the pyramid also contained, within a special coffer, the Sword called Woundhealer.
Today, as on almost every day, a line of people seeking the Sword's help had begun to form before dawn in the Temple square. Now in the middle of the afternoon that line, easily visible from the palace balcony, was still threading its way into the eastern entrance on the harbor side of the white pyramid. The line was still long, and new arrivals kept it at an almost constant length. The people who made up the line were suffering from disease or injury of one kind or another. They were the ill, the crippled, the blind or mad or wounded, many of them needing the help of nurses or close companions simply to be here and join the line. Some of the sufferers had come from a great distance to seek Woundhealer's aid.
Even as the princess gestured in the direction of the white pyramid, a pair of stretcher-bearers, lugging between them an ominously inert human form, were being ushered by white-robed priests toward the front of that distant queue. The priests of Ardneh who served this particular Temple were accustomed to making such decisions about priorities, thus assuming momentarily the role of gods. At the distance of the watchers on the balcony there was no telling whether the body on the stretcher was that of a man, woman, or child. The princess thought that no more than a minimum of protest would be heard from those whose turns were being thus preempted; she could see that today's line was, as usual, moving briskly, and no one in it should have to wait for very long.
Meanwhile, the most recent beneficiaries of the power of the Sword of Healing, many of them accompanied by their relieved nurses and companions, were emerging in a steady trickle from the Temple's western door. People who only moments ago had been severely injured or seriously ill, some even at the point of death, were walking out healthy and whole. From experience Kristin knew that their bandages and splints would have been left in the temple, or were now being removed and thrown away. Stretchers and crutches, indispensible a few minutes earlier, were now being cast aside by vigorous hands. Only a few of those who had just been healed still needed help in walking, and to them strength would return in time.
For the Sword of Mercy to fail to heal was practically unheard of. As a rule every supplicant who limped or staggered or was carried into the eastern entrance of this White Temple soon came walking out, with a firm step, from the western exit. Today as usual some of the cured were waving their arms and shouting prayers of gratitude audible even to the two watchers on the distant balcony.
The Crown Prince Murat, tall emissary from the land of Culm, having gazed dutifully upon the distant scene as he was bidden, chose to ignore whatever implications the princess had meant him to draw from the sight. Instead he promptly resumed his arguments. "If, dear princess, it is a matter of some necessary payment--"
"It is not that," said Princess Kristin quickly, turning back to face her visitor fully. Kristin was about the same age as the crown prince, in her early thirties and the mother of two half-grown sons. But she looked a few years younger, with her fair hair, blue-green eyes, and fine features.
She said to her eminent guest: "When you paid your own formal visit to the White Temple yesterday, Prince Murat, no doubt you noted that most of those who benefit from Woundhealer's power do make some payment in the form of offerings. These funds are used to maintain the Temple and to pay its priests and guards. Others who benefit from the Sword are unable to pay; and a very few refuse to do so. But none are denied treatment on that account. If your queen's unfortunate consort can travel here to Tasavalta, the powers of the Sword of Healing will be made available to him under the same conditions."
"Regrettably that is not possible, Princess." In the course of his brief visit Murat had already offered this explanation at least a hundred times, or so it seemed to both of them, and now it was his turn to repeat a statement slowly and patiently. "A condition of nearly total paralysis afflicts the royal consort, combined with the most fearful arthritic pain, so that even the movement required to go from one bed or one room to another is a severe ordeal for him. An overland journey of more than a thousand kilometers, only half of it on roads, is, as you can appreciate, quite out of the question."
"Then I am truly sorry for him. And sorry for your queen, and for all her realm." And it seemed that the princess was speaking her true feelings. "But I am afraid that the Sword stays here, in Tasavalta. That is my final word."
A silence fell, broken only by the occasional noise, a rumbling cart or a raised voice, rising from the thronged city below. Kristin half expected her visitor to raise yet again the point that sometimes the Sword was taken out of the city of Sarykam, and carried on tour in a heavily guarded caravan that visited the outlying portions of the realm, bringing healing to those unable to reach the capital. If he did choose to raise that point again, she had her previous answer ready: Woundhealer was never allowed to go outside the borders of the realm. Her patience held; she could sympathize with Murat, though she would not yield to him.
But the persistence of the crown prince, not yet exhausted, this time took a different tack. He said: "Still, the journey to Culm and back with the borrowed Sword could be quickly accomplished by my troop--accompanied, of course, by any number of representatives you might choose to send with us. Our mounts are very swift, and we are now familiar with the way. My master's healing once accomplished, the Sword could be on its way back here the very same day. Within the hour. I would be willing to pledge my honor to you on that."
The soft urgency of his voice was unexpectedly hard to resist. But Kristin still said what she had to say. "I understand your arguments, Prince. I am willing to believe you that mean your pledge, and I respect it. But once your realm found itself in possession of such a treasure as Woundhealer, convincing arguments would soon be found as to why the Sword should stay there, as a policy of national health insurance."
"No, princess, I must--"
"No, Crown Prince Murat, your request is quite impossible to meet. The Sword of Love stays here."
Before the crown prince could devise yet another argument, the conversation was interrupted. The door leading to the balcony, that had been standing ajar, burst open violently, and a small form came running out.
Startled and angry, the princess turned to find herself confronting the younger of her two sons, who at ten was certainly old enough to know better than to behave in such a way.
"Well, Stephen? I hope you have some just cause for this interruption?"
The boy, as sturdy as his father had been at the same age, though somewhat darker, was flushed and scowling, evidently even angrier than his mother. But now he drew himself up, making a great effort at self-control. "Mother, you once said that I should tell you at once if I knew of anyone practicing intrigue within the palace."
"And I suppose you have just now discovered something of the kind?" It was easy to see that the princess was not inclined to accept the alarming implication at face value.
Stephen drew a deep breath. His anger was cooling, and now he seemed reluctant to go on.
Another deep breath. "It's my tutor, mother. I believe he is about to come to you with false stories concerning my behavior."
And indeed the princess, raising her gaze slightly, discovered that very gentleman now hovering inside the balcony door, irresolute as to whether he should match his pupil's daring and interrupt what looked like a state conference, simply to defend himself.
Sternly Kristin ordered her younger son to go to his room and wait there for her. The command was delivered in an incisive tone that allowed no immediate argument; it was obeyed reluctantly, in gloomy silence.
Then the Princess silently waved the tutor away, and turned to apologize to the ambassador for the interruption.
The tall man smiled faintly. "I have two children of my own at home. Youth needs no apology. And a fiery spirit may be an advantage to one who is born to rule. Indeed I suppose it must be considered a necessity."
"As are self-control, and courtesy; and those virtues my son has yet to learn."
"I'm sure he will acquire them."
"You are kind and diplomatic, Murat." The princess sighed again, quite openly this time, and spoke for once unguardedly. "I wish his father were here."
There was a pause. It was common knowledge that Prince Mark had spent no more ten days at home during the last half year, and that the timing and duration of his next visit home were problematical.
Murat bowed slightly. "I too wish that. I had looked forward to meeting Prince Mark. His name is known and respected even in our far corner of the world."
"Not that my husband would give you any different answer than I have given, on the subject of loaning out the Sword of Healing."
The visitor bowed again. "I must still be allowed to hope that the answer will change."
"It will not change." After a pause, the princess added: "If you are wondering about my husband's absence, know that he is in the service of the Emperor; he is the Emperor's son, you know." In the minds of many, the Emperor was a half-mythological figure; and that a prince should believe he owed this legend service was an idea sometimes hard for outsiders to grasp.
And sometimes even the princess, who had never seen her mysterious father-in-law, found the situation hard to understand as well.
The crown prince said: "I was aware of Prince Mark's parentage."
Suddenly Kristin heard herself blurting out a question. "You don't--I don't suppose that any news has come to you recently regarding his whereabouts?" A month had now gone by in which no winged messenger had brought her news of her husband. Unhappily, this was not the first time such a period had elapsed, but repetition made the stress no easier to bear.
"I regret, princess, that I have heard nothing." Murat paused, then made an evident effort to turn the conversation to some less difficult subject. "Young Prince Stephen has an older brother, I understand."
"Yes. Prince Adrian is twelve. He's currently away from home, attending school."
Again there came interruption, this time more sedately, and welcome to both parties. It took the form of a servant, announcing the arrival of the other members of the Culm delegation. These folk had been sight-seeing in the streets of Sarykam this afternoon, and some of them had visited the White Temple down the hill.
And now good manners required that the princess and her companion come in from the balcony, to join the other Culmian visitors and other folk inside the palace.
One of the junior members of the Culmian delegation was Lieutenant Kebbi. This was Murat's cousin, a red-headed, bold-looking and yet unfailingly courteous youth, who now showed his disappointment more openly than the others, when he heard that the princess was standing fast in her refusal to loan out the Sword.
Lieutenant Kebbi looked as if he might want to raise an argument of his own on behalf of the Culmian cause. But Kristin turned away, not wanting to give him the impetuous youth a chance. None of the arguments that she had heard so far, and none that she could imagine, were going to sway her, sympathetic as she was.
Others still importuned her. At last, beginning to show her impatience with her guests' pleading, Kristin demanded of them: "How many of my own people would die, while the Sword was absent from us?"
For that there was no answer. Even the eyes of the bold young lieutenant fell in confusion before the princess's gaze when she turned back to him.
Once more she faced the delegation's leader. "Come, good Murat, can you number them, or tell me their names?"
The tall man only bowed in silence.
One of the several diplomats on hand quickly managed to change the subject, and talk went on until eventually the delegation from Culm withdrew to their assigned quarters. In there, servants reported, they were conversing seriously and guardedly among themselves.
In the evening, when the sun had set behind the inland mountains, the visitors from afar were once more entertained with Tasavaltan hospitality. There was music, acrobats, and dancers. To Kristin's relief the subject of the Sword had been laid to rest. This was now the third day of the Culmians' stay, and they expressed a unanimous desire to depart early in the morning.
During the evening, more than one Tasavaltan remarked to the princess that the guests from Culm seemed to be taking their refusal as well as could be expected. Certainly they had now said and done everything they honorably could to persuade Princess Kristin to change her mind.
With some of the guests pleading weariness, and with the necessity for an early start hanging over them all, the party broke up relatively early. Before midnight the silence of the night had claimed the entire palace, as well as most of the surrounding city.
At about dawn on the following morning--and, through a strange combination of unlucky chances, not before then--Kristin was awakened, to be informed by an ashen-faced aide that the Sword of Healing had been stolen from its place in the White Temple at some time during the night.
The princess sat up swiftly, pulling a robe around her shoulders. "Stolen! By whom?" Though it seemed to her that the answer was already plain in her mind.
Awkwardly the messenger framed her own version of an answer. "No thief has been arrested, ma'am. The delegation from Culm reportedly departed about two hours ago. And there are witnesses who accuse them of the theft."
By this time Kristin was out of bed, fastening her robe, her arms in its sleeves. "Has Rostov been aroused? Have any steps been taken to organize a pursuit?"
"The general is being notified now, my lady, and I am sure we may rely on him to waste no time."
"Let us hope that very little time has been wasted already. If Rostov or one of his officers comes looking for me, tell them I have gone to the White Temple to see for myself whatever there may be to see."
Only a very few minutes later she was striding into the Temple, entering a scene swarming with soldiers and priests, and aglow with torches. With slight relief she saw that her chief wizard, Karel, who was also her mother's brother, was already on hand and had taken charge for the moment.
Karel was very old--exactly how old was difficult to determine, as was often the case with wizards of great power, though in this case the figure could hardly run into centuries. He was also fat, spoke in a rich, soft voice, and puffed whenever he had to move more than a few steps consecutively. This last characteristic, thought Kristin, had to be more the result of habit--or of sheer laziness, perhaps--than of disease. For Karel, like the more mundane citizens of the realm, had had the benefits of Woundhealer available to him for the past several years.
Observing that his princess had arrived, Karel reported succinctly and with deference. After a few words with her chief wizard, the princess was in possession of the basic, frightening facts. Last night, as usual, the Temple had been closed for a few hours, beginning at about midnight. Ordinarily a priest or two remained in the building while it was closed, ready to produce the Sword should some emergency require its healing powers; but last night, through a series of misunderstandings, none of the white-robes had been on duty.
An hour or so past midnight, the chance passage of a brief summer rainstorm had kept off the streets most of the relatively few citizens who might normally have been abroad at such a time. And so, incredible as it seemed to Kristin, apparently no one outside the Temple had witnessed the assault, or raid.
Kristin at first had real difficulty in believing this. There was always someone in that square. "And what of the guards inside the Temple?" she demanded. "Where were they? Where are they now?"
The old man sighed, and gave such explanation as he could. Inasmuch as White Temple people were notoriously poor at guarding such material treasures as came into their hands from time to time, the rulers of Tasavalta had never trusted the white-robed priests to guard the Sword. Instead, a detail of men from an elite army regiment protected Woundhealer.
At least two of these soldiers were always on duty inside the Temple's supposedly secure walls and doors. But last night, at the crucial hour, one guard of the minimal pair, though a young man, had collapsed without warning, clutching his chest in pain, and died almost at once. A few moments later the victim's partner, reaching into a dark niche to grasp the bellrope that would summon help, had been bitten on the hand by a poisonous snake, and paralyzed almost instantly. The soldier's life was still in danger. The snake was of a species not native to these parts, and so far no one had been able to explain its presence in the Temple.
Scarcely had Kristin finished listening to this most unlikely story, when more news came, a fresh discovery almost as difficult to believe. A lock on one of the Temple's doors had accidentally jammed last night when the door was closed, effectively preventing the door from being secured in the usual way. The defect was a peculiar one--highly improbable, as the locksmith kept insisting--and it must have seemed to the woman who had turned the key at the hour of sunset that the door was securely locked as usual.
Karel gave a slight shrug of his heavy shoulders. "The theft was accomplished by means of magic, princess," he said in his soft voice. "There's no doubt of that."
"And a very powerful magic it must have been." After a momentary hesitation, she asked: "A Sword?" Already she thought she knew the answer; and it would not be hard, she thought, to guess which Sword had been employed.
"Very likely a Sword." The old man nodded grimly. "I feel sure that Coinspinner has been used against us."
Once more their talk was interrupted. Now at last a witness had been discovered, one besides the poisoned guard who could give direct testimony. A shabby figure was hustled before the princess. One of Sarykam's rare beggars, who had spent most of the night huddled in a doorway on the far side of the square, and who now swore that at the height of the rainstorm he had seen a man wearing the blue and orange uniform of Culm carrying a bright Sword--it had certainly been no ordinary blade--carrying it drawn and raised, into the White Temple. Meanwhile, the beggar related, others in the same livery had stood by outside with weapons drawn.
"This man you saw was carrying a Sword into the temple, and not out of it? Are you quite sure?"
"Oh, oh, yes, I'm quite sure, princess. If I'd seen a foreigner taking something out, I would've raised an alarm. Thought of doing so anyway, but--you see--I'd had a bit too much--my legs weren't working all that well--"
"Never mind that. Did you see him come out of the Temple again?"
"Yes, ma'am, I did. And then he had two Swords. I tried to raise an alarm, ma'am, like I said, but somehow--somehow--" The ragged man began to blubber.
After hearing this testimony of the sole witness, Kristin made her way into the inner sanctuary, and carried out her own belated inspection of the actual scene of the crime. There, on the very altar of Ardneh, she beheld the crystal repository in which the Sword of Healing had been kept, a fragile vault now standing broken and empty under the blank-eyed marble images of Draffut--dog-like, but standing tall on his hind legs--and Ardneh, an incomprehensible jumble of sharp-edged, machine-like shapes.
The actual breaking of the crystal vault and carrying away of the Sword would have been simple, and staring at this minor wreckage told her nothing.
Leaving the Temple now, the princess went to survey the status of the Swords still kept in the royal armory, beside the palace and only a short walk distant.
If the princess and her people were able to speak of Coinspinner with a certain familiarity, it was because the Sword of Chance had reposed for some time within the stone walls of the armory's heavily guarded rooms. But about seven years ago that Sword had vanished from the deepest and best-watched vault, vanished suddenly and without explanation. Under the circumstances of that disappearance there had been no need to look for thieves. One of the known attributes of the Sword of Chance was its penchant for taking itself spontaneously and unpredictably from one place to another. Forged by the great god Vulcan, like all its fellow Swords, Coinspinner scorned all obstacles that ordinary human beings might place in opposition to its powers. Coinspinner was subject to no confinement, and to no rules but its own, and exactly what those rules were no one knew. By what progression, during the last seven years, the Sword of Chance had passed from the Tasavaltan armory to somewhere in Culm would probably be impossible to determine, and almost certainly irrelevant to the current problem.
Deep in the vaults Kristin encountered the senior general of her armed forces. Rostov was a tall and powerful man in his late fifties, whose curly hair had now turned almost completely from black to gray. The black curve of his right cheek was scarred by an old sword-cut, which his perpetual steel-gray stubble did little to conceal.
Rostov was taking the theft personally; he was here in the armory looking for weapons of particular power to take with him in his pursuit of the thieves, who had several hours' start. A number of people could testify to that. Everyone in Sarykam had been expecting the delegation from Culm to leave this morning anyway, so no one had thought much of their moving up their departure time by a few hours. It had seemed only natural that after their unsuccessful pleading they would want to avoid anything in the nature of a protracted farewell.
Now, as Kristin ascertained with a few quick questions, three squadrons of cavalry were being made ready to take up the pursuit, which Rostov intended to lead in person. As far as she could tell, her military people were moving with methodical swiftness.
The princess informed her general that Karel the wizard planned to accompany him; the old man had told her as much when she spoke to him in the Temple.
"Very well. If the old man is swift enough to keep up. If his wheezings as we ride do not alert the enemy." Rostov was staring at the three other Swords kept in the royal armory, and his expression showed a definite relief that these at least were still in place. Dragonslicer would probably be useless in the kind of pursuit he was about to undertake, but he now asked permission of the princess to bring Stonecutter, and thought he would probably want Sightblinder as well.
Kristin, after granting the general her blessing to take whatever he wanted, and leaving him to his preparations, returned to the palace. There she gave orders for several flying messengers to be dispatched from the high eyries atop the towers. The winged, half-intelligent creatures would be sent to seek out the absent Prince Mark and bear him the grim news of Woundhealer's vanishment.
By the time she had returned to the palace, he sun was well up, but veiled in clouds. She could wish that the day were brighter. Then it would have been possible to signal ahead by heliograph, and there might have been a good chance of intercepting the fleeing Culmians at the border. But the clouds that had brought rain last night persisted, and if Coinspinner was arrayed against the realm of Tasavalta, today was not the day to expect good luck in any form.
At about this time, staring at the gray and mottled sky, Kristin began to be tormented by a truly disturbing thought: Was it possible that Murat's whole story regarding a the crippled consort had been a ruse, and that Sword was really now bound for the hands of some of Mark's deadly enemies?
The princess's only comfort was that no evidence existed to support this theory. The fact that no attempt had been made to steal Dragonslicer, Stonecutter and Sightblinder, or do any other damage to the realm, argued against it. Apparently the Culmian marauders had been truly interested only in obtaining the Healer.
The rain was still falling when the pursuit was launched, a swift but unhurried movement of well-trained cavalry, flowing out through the main gate of the city, every man saluting his princess as he passed. A Beast Master with his little train of loadbeasts, carrying roosts and cages for winged fighters and messengers, brought up the rear of the procession. General Rostov and the wizard Karel rode together at its head.