“_The critical point in time of mankind’s whole existence is there--RIGHT THERE!” Prime Physicist Skandos slashed his red pencil across the black trace of the chronoviagram. “WHY must man be so stupid? Anyone with three brain cells working should know that for the strength of an individual he should be fed; not bled; that for the strength of a race its virgins should be bred, not sacrificed to propitiate figmental deities. And it would be so easy to straighten things out--nowhere in all reachable time does any other one man occupy such a tremendously--such a uniquely--key-stone position!_”
“Easy, yes,” his assistant Furmin agreed. “It is _a shame to let Tedric die with not one of his tremendous potentialities realized. It would be easy and simple to have him discover carburization and the necessary techniques of heat-treating. That freak meteorite need not lie there unsmelted for another seventy years. However, simple carburization was not actually discovered until two generations later, by another smith in another nation; and you know, Skandos, that there can be no such thing as a minor interference with the physical events of the past. Any such, however small-seeming, is bound to be catastrophically major.”_
_”I know that.” Skandos scowled blackly. “We don’t know enough about time. We don’t know what would happen. We have known how to do it for a hundred years, but have been afraid to act because in all that time no progress whatever has been made on the theory.”_
_He paused, then went on savagely: “But which is better, to have our entire time-track snapped painlessly out of existence--if the extremists are right--or to sit helplessly on our fat rumps wringing our hands while we watch civilization build up to its own total destruction by lithium-tritiide bombs? Look at the slope of that curve--ultimate catastrophe is only one hundred eighty seven years away!”_
“But the Council would not permit it. Nor would the School.“
“_I know that, too. That is why I am not going to ask them. Instead, I am asking you. We two know more of time than any others. Over the years I have found your judgment good. With your approval I will act now. Without it, we will continue our futile testing--number eight hundred eleven is running now, I believe?--and our aimless drifting._”
“You are throwing the entire weight of such a decision on me?”
“_In one sense, yes. In another, only half, since I have already decided._”
“So be it.“
The Lomarrian ironmaster woke up; not gradually and partially, like one of our soft modern urbanites, but instantaneously and completely, as does the mountain wild-cat. At one instant he lay, completely relaxed, sound asleep; at the next he had sprung out of bed, seized his sword and leaped half-way across the room. Head thrown back, hard blue eyes keenly alert, sword-arm rock-steady he stood there, poised and ready. Beautifully poised, upon the balls of both feet; supremely ready to throw into action every inch of his six-feet-four, every pound of his two-hundred-plus of hard meat, gristle, and bone. So standing, the smith stared motionlessly at the shimmering, almost invisible thing hanging motionless in the air of his room, and at its equally tenuous occupant.
“I approve of you, Tedric.” The thing--apparition--whatever it was--did not speak, and the Lomarrian did not hear; the words formed themselves in the innermost depths of his brain. “While you perhaps are a little frightened, you are and have been completely in control. Any other man of your nation--yes, of your world--would have been scared out of what few wits he has.”
“You are not one of ours, Lord.” Tedric went to one knee. He knew, of course, that gods and devils existed; and, while this was the first time that a god had sought him out personally, he had heard of such happenings all his life. Since the god hadn’t killed him instantly, he probably didn’t intend to--right away, at least. Hence: “No god of Lomarr approves of me. Also, our gods are solid and heavy. What do you want of me, strange god?”
“I’m not a god. If you could get through this grill, you could cut off my head with your sword and I would die.”
“Of course. So would Sar...” Tedric broke off in the middle of the word.
“I see. It is dangerous to talk?”
“Very. Even though a man is alone, the gods and hence the priests who serve them have power to hear. Then the man lies on the green rock and loses his brain, liver, and heart.”
“You will not be overheard. I have power enough to see to that.”
Tedric remained silent.
“I understand your doubt. Think, then; that will do just as well. What is it that you are trying to do?”
“I wonder how I can hear when there is no sound, but men cannot understand the powers of gods. I am trying to find or make a metal that is very hard, but not brittle. Copper is no good, I cannot harden it enough. My soft irons are too soft, my hard irons are too brittle; my in-betweens and the melts to which I added various flavorings have all been either too soft or too brittle, or both.”
“I gathered that such was your problem. Your wrought iron is beautiful stuff; so is your white cast iron; and you would not, ordinarily, in your lifetime, come to know anything of either carburization or high-alloy steel, to say nothing of both. I know exactly what you want, and I can show you exactly how to make it.”
“You can, Lord?” The smith’s eyes flamed. “And you will?”
“That is why I have come to you, but whether or not I will teach you depends on certain matters which I have not been able entirely to clarify. What do you want it for--that is, what, basically, is your aim?”
“Our greatest god, Sarpedion, is wrong and I intend to kill him.” Tedric’s eyes flamed more savagely, his terrifically muscled body tensed.
“Wrong? In what way?”
“In every way!” In the intensity of his emotion the smith spoke aloud. “What good is a god who only kills and injures? What a nation needs, Lord, is people--people working together and not afraid. How can we of Lomarr ever attain comfort and happiness if more die each year than are born? We are too few. All of us--except the priests, of course--must work unendingly to obtain only the necessities of life.”
“This bears out my findings. If you make high-alloy steel, exactly what will you do with it?”
“If you give me the god-metal, Lord, I will make of it a sword and armor--a sword sharp enough and strong enough to cut through copper or iron without damage; armor strong enough so that swords of copper or iron cannot cut through it. They must be so because I will have to cut my way alone through a throng of armed and armored mercenaries and priests.”
“Because I cannot call in help; cannot let anyone know my goal. Any such would lie on the green stone very soon. They suspect me; perhaps they know. I am, however, the best smith in all Lomarr, hence they have slain me not. Nor will they, until I have found what I seek. Nor then, if by the favor of the gods--or by your favor, Lord--the metal be good enough.”
“It will be, but there’s a lot more to fighting a platoon of soldiers than armor and a sword, my optimistic young savage.”
“That the metal be of proof is all I ask, Lord,” the smith insisted, stubbornly. “The rest of it lies in my care.”
“So be it. And then?”
“Sarpedion’s image, as you must already know, is made of stone, wood, copper, and gold--besides the jewels, of course. I take his brain, liver, and heart; flood them with oil, and sacrifice them...”
“Just a minute! Sarpedion is not alive and never has been; does not, as a matter of fact, exist. You just said, yourself, that his image was made of stone and copper and...”
“Don’t be silly, Lord. Or art testing me? Gods are spirits; bound to their images, and in a weaker way to their priests, by linkages of spirit force. Life force, it could be called. When those links are broken, by fire and sacrifice, the god may not exactly die, but he can do no more of harm until his priests have made a new image and spent much time and effort in building up new linkages. One point now settled was bothering me; what god to sacrifice him to. I’ll make an image for you to inhabit, Lord, and sacrifice him to you, my strange new god. You will be my only god as long as I live. What is your name, Lord? I can’t keep on calling you ‘strange god’ forever.”
“My name is Skandos.”
“S ... Sek ... That word rides ill on the tongue. With your permission, Lord, I will call you Llosir.”
“Call me anything you like, except a god. I am not a god.”
“You are being ridiculous, Lord Llosir,” Tedric chided. “What a man sees with his eyes, hears with his ears--especially what a man hears without ears, as I hear now--he knows with certain knowledge to be the truth. No mere man could possibly do what you have done, to say naught of what you are about to do.”
“Perhaps not an ordinary man of your...” Skandos almost said “time,” but caught himself “ ... of your culture, but I am ordinary enough and mortal enough in my own.”
“Well, that could be said of all gods, everywhere.” The smith’s mien was quiet and unperturbed; his thought was loaded to saturation with unshakable conviction.
Skandos gave up. He could argue for a week, he knew, without making any impression whatever upon what the stubborn, hard-headed Tedric knew so unalterably to be the truth.
“But just one thing, Lord,” Tedric went on with scarcely a break. “Have I made it clear that I intend to stop human sacrifice? That there is to be no more of it, even to you? We will offer you anything else--anything else--but not even your refusal to give me the god-metal will change my stand on that.”
“Good! See to it that nothing ever does change it. As to offerings or sacrifices, there are to be none, of any kind. I do not need, I do not want, I will not have any such. That is final. Act accordingly.”
“Yes, Lord. Sarpedion is a great and powerful god, but art sure that his sacrifice alone will establish linkages strong enough to last for all time?”
Skandos almost started to argue again, but checked himself. After all, the proposed sacrifice was necessary for Tedric and his race, and it would do no harm.
“Sarpedion will be enough. And as for the image, that isn’t necessary, either.”
“Art wrong, Lord. Without image and temple, everyone would think you a small, weak god, which thought can never be. Besides, the image might make it easier for me to call on you in time of need.”
“You can’t call me. Even if I could receive your call, which is very doubtful, I wouldn’t answer it. If you ever see me or hear from me again, it will be because I wish it, not you.” Skandos intended this for a clincher, but it didn’t turn out that way.
“Wonderful!” Tedric exclaimed. “All gods act that way, in spite of what they--through their priests--say. I am overwhelmingly glad that you are being honest with me. Hast found me worthy of the god-metal, Lord Llosir?”
“Yes, so let’s get at it. Take that biggest chunk of ‘metal-which-fell-from-the-sky’--you’ll find it’s about twice your weight...”
“But I have never been able to work that particular piece of metal, Lord.”
“I’m not surprised. Ordinary meteorites are nickel-iron, but this one carries two additional and highly unusual elements, tungsten and vanadium, which are necessary for our purpose. To melt it you’ll have to run your fires a lot hotter. You’ll also have to have a carburizing pot and willow charcoal and metallurgical coke and several other things. We’ll go into details later. That green stone from which altars are made--you can secure some of it?”
“Any amount of it.”
“Of it take your full weight. And of the black ore of which you have occasionally used a little, one-fourth of your weight...”
The instructions went on, from ore to finished product in complete detail, and at its end:
“If you follow these directions carefully you will have a high-alloy-steel--chrome-nickel-vanadium-molybdenum-tungsten steel, to be exact--case-hardened and heat-treated; exactly what you need. Can you remember them all?”
“I can, Lord. Never have I dared write anything down, so my memory is good. Every quantity you have given me, every temperature and step and process and item; they are all completely in mind.”
“I go, then. Good-bye.”
“I thank you, Lord Llosir. Good-bye.” The Lomarrian bowed his head, and when he straightened up his incomprehensible visitor was gone.
Tedric went back to bed; and, strangely enough, was almost instantly asleep. And in the morning, after his customary huge breakfast of meat and bread and milk, he went to his sprawling establishment, which has no counterpart in modern industry, and called his foreman and his men together before they began the day’s work.
“A strange god named Llosir came to me in the night and showed me how to make better iron,” he told them in perfectly matter-of-fact fashion, “so stop whatever you’re doing and tear the whole top off of the big furnace. I’ll tell you exactly how to rebuild it.”
The program as outlined by Skandos went along without a hitch until the heat from the rebuilt furnace began to come blisteringly through the crude shields. Then even the foreman, faithful as he was, protested against such unheard-of temperatures and techniques.
“It must be that way!” Tedric insisted. “Run more rods across, from there to there, to hold more hides and blankets. You four men fetch water. Throw it over the hides and blankets and him who turns the blower. Take shorter tricks in the hot places--here, I’ll man the blower myself until the heat wanes somewhat.”
He bent his mighty back to the crank, but even in that raging inferno of heat he kept on talking.
“Knowst my iron sword, the one I wear, with rubies in the hilt?” he asked the foreman. That worthy did, with longing; to buy it would take six months of a foreman’s pay. “This furnace must stay this hot all day and all of tonight, and there are other things as bad. But ‘twill not take long. Ten days should see the end of it”--actually seven days was the schedule, but Tedric did not want the priests to know that--”but for those ten days matters must go exactly as I say. Work with me until this iron is made and I give you that sword. And of all the others who shirk not, each will be given an iron sword--this in addition to your regular pay. Dost like the bargain?”
They liked it.
Then, during the hours of lull, in which there was nothing much to do except keep the furious fires fed, Tedric worked upon the image of his god. While the Lomarrian was neither a Phidias nor a Praxiteles, he was one of the finest craftsmen of his age. He had not, however, had a really good look at Skandos’ face. Thus the head of the image, although it was a remarkably good piece of sculpture, looked more like that of Tedric’s foreman than like that of the real Skandos. And with the head, any resemblance at all to Skandos ceased. The rest of the real Skandos was altogether too small and too pitifully weak to be acceptable as representative of any Lomarrian’s god; hence the torso and limbs of the gleaming copper statue were wider, thicker, longer, bigger, and even more fantastically muscled than were Tedric’s own. Also, the figure was hollow; filled with sand throughout except for an intricately-carved gray sandstone brain and red-painted hardwood liver and heart.
“They come, master, to the number of eleven,” his lookout boy came running with news at mid-afternoon of the seventh day. “One priest in copper, ten Tarkians in iron, a five each of bowmen and spearmen.”
Tedric did not have to tell the boy where to go or what to do or to hurry about it; as both ran for the ironmaster’s armor the youngster was two steps in the lead. It was evident, too, that he had served as squire before, and frequently; for in seconds the erstwhile half-naked blacksmith was fully clothed in iron.
Thus it was an armored knight, leaning negligently upon a fifteen-pound forging hammer, who waited outside the shop’s door and watched his eleven visitors approach.
The banner was that of a priest of the third rank. Good--they weren’t worried enough about him yet, then, to send a big one. And only ten mercenaries--small, short, bandy-legged men of Tark--good enough fighters for their weight, but they didn’t weigh much. This wouldn’t be too bad.
The group came up to within a few paces and stopped.
“Art in armor, smith?” the discomfited priest demanded. “Why?”
“Why not? ‘Tis my habit to greet guests in apparel of their own choosing.”
There was a brief silence, then:
“To what do I owe the honor of this visit, priest?” he asked, only half sarcastically. “I paid, as I have always paid, the fraction due.”
“True. ‘Tis not about a fraction I come. It is noised that a strange god appeared to you, spoke to you, instructed you in your art; that you are making an image of him.”
“I made no secret of any of these things. I hide nothing from the great god or his minions, nor ever have. I have nothing to hide.”
“Perhaps. Such conduct is very unseemly--decidedly ungodlike. He should not have appeared to you, but to one of us, and in the temple.”
“It is un-Sarpedionlike, certainly--all that Sarpedion has ever done for me is let me alone, and I have paid heavily for that.”
“What bargain did you make with this Llosir? What was the price?”
“No bargain was made. I thought it strange, but who am I, an ordinary man, to try to understand the actions or the reasonings of a god? There will be a price, I suppose. Whatever it is, I will pay it gladly.”
“You will pay, rest assured; not to this Llosir, but to great Sarpedion. I command you to destroy that image forthwith.”
“You do? Why? Since when has it been against the law to have a personal god? Most families of Lomarr have them.”
“Not like yours. Sarpedion does not permit your Llosir to exist.”
“Sarpedion has nothing to say about it. Llosir already exists. Is the great god so weak, so afraid, so unable to defend himself against a one-man stranger that he...”
“Take care, smith--silence! That is rankest blasphemy!”
“Perhaps; but I have blasphemed before and Sarpedion hasn’t killed me yet. Nor will he, methinks; at least until his priests have collected his fraction of the finest iron ever forged and which I only can make.”
“Oh, yes, the new iron. Tell me exactly how it is made.”
“You know better than to ask that question, priest. That secret will be known only to me and my god.”
“We have equipment and tools designed specifically for getting information out of such as you. Seize him, men, and smash that image!”
“HOLD!” Tedric roared, in such a voice that not a man moved. “If anybody takes one forward step, priest, or makes one move toward spear or arrow, your brains will spatter the walls across the street. Can your copper helmet stop this hammer? Can your girl-muscled, fat-bellied priest’s body move fast enough to dodge my blow? And most or all of those runty little slavelings behind you,” waving his left arm contemptuously at the group, “will also die before they cut me down. And if I die now, of what worth is Sarpedion’s fraction of a metal that will never be made? Think well, priest!”
Sarpedion’s agent studied the truculent, glaring ironmaster for a long two minutes. Then, deciding that the proposed victim could not be taken alive, he led his crew back the way they had come, trailing fiery threats. And Tedric, going back into his shop, was thoroughly aware that those threats were not idle. So far, he hadn’t taken too much risk, but the next visit would be different--very different. He was exceedingly glad that none of his men knew that the pots they were firing so fiercely were in fact filled only with coke and willow charcoal; that armor and sword and shield and axe and hammer were at that moment getting their final heat treatment in a bath of oil, but little hotter than boiling water, in the sanctum to which he retired, always alone, to perform the incantations which his men--and hence the priests of Sarpedion--believed as necessary as any other part of the metallurgical process.
That evening he selected a smooth, fine-grained stone and whetted the already almost perfect cutting edge of his new sword; an edge which in cross-section was rather more like an extremely sharp cold-chisel than a hollow-ground razor. He fitted the two-hand grip meticulously with worked and tempered rawhide, thrilling again and again as each touch of an educated and talented finger-tip told him over and over that here was some thing brand new in metal--a real god-metal.
A piece of flat wrought iron, about three-sixteenths by five inches and about a foot long, already lay on a smooth and heavy hardwood block. He tapped it sharply with the sword’s edge. The blade rang like a bell; the iron showed a bright new scar; that was all. Then a moderately heavy two-handed blow, about as hard as he had ever dared swing an iron sword. Still no damage. Then, heart in mouth, he gave the god-metal its final test; struck with everything he had, from heels and toes to finger-tips. He had never struck such a blow before, except possibly with a war-axe or a sledge. There was a ringing clang, two sundered slabs of iron flew to opposite ends of the room, the atrocious blade went on, half an inch deep into solid oak. He wrenched the weapon free and stared at the unmarred edge. UNMARRED! For an instant Tedric felt as though he were about to collapse; but sheerest joy does not disable.
There was nothing left to do except make the links, hinge-pins, and so on for his armor, which did not take long. Hence, when the minions of Sarpedion next appeared, armored this time in the heaviest and best iron they had and all set to overwhelm him by sheer weight of numbers, he was completely ready. Nor was there palaver or parley. The attackers opened the door, saw the smith, and rushed.
But Tedric, although in plain sight, had chosen the battleground with care. He was in a corner. At his back a solid-walled stairway ran up to the second floor. On his right the wall was solid for twenty feet. On his left, beyond the stairwell, the wall was equally solid for twice as far. They would have to come after him, and as he retreated, they would be fighting their way up, and not more than two at a time.
This first swing, horizontal and neck-high, was fully as fierce-driven as the one that had cloven the test-piece and almost ruined his testing-block. The god-metal blade scarcely slowed as it went through armor and flesh and bone. In fact, the helmet and the head within it remained in place upon the shoulders for what seemed like seconds before the body toppled and the arteries spurted crimson jets.
He didn’t have to hit so hard, then. Good. Nobody could last very long, the way he had started out. Wherefore the next blow, a vertical chop, merely split a man to the chin instead of to the navel: and the third, a back-hand return, didn’t quite cut the victim’s head clear off.
And the blows his steel was taking, aimed at head or neck or shoulder, were doing no harm at all. In fact, except for the noise, they scarcely bothered him. He had been designing and building armor for five years, and this was his masterpiece. The helmet was heavily padded: the shoulders twice as much so. He had sacrificed some mobility--he could not turn his head very far in either direction--but the jointing was such that the force of any blow on the helmet, from whatever direction coming, was taken by his tremendously capable shoulders.