Fred Saberhagen

The First Book of Swords


In what felt to him like the first cold morning of the world, he groped for fire.

It was a high place where he searched, a lifeless, wind-scoured place, a rough, forbidding shelf of black and splintered rock. Snow, driven by squalls of frigid air, streamed across the black rock in white powder, making shifting veils of white over layers of gray ancient ice that was almost as hard as the rock itself. Dawn was in the sky, but still hundreds of kilometers away, as distant as the tiny sawteeth of the horizon to the northwest. The snowfields and icefields along that far edge of the world were beginning to glow with a reflected pink.

Ignoring cold and wind, and mumbling to himself, the searcher paced in widening circles on his high rugged shelf of land. One of his powerful legs was deformed, enough to make him limp. He was searching for warmth, and for the smell of sulphur in the air, for anything that might lead him to the fire he needed. But his sandalled feet were too leathery and unfeeling to feel warmth directly through the rocks, and the wind whipped away the occasional traces of volcanic fumes.

Presently the searcher concentrated his attention on the places where rock protruded through the rough skin of ice. When he found a notable bare spot, he kicked; stamped with his hard heels, at the ice around its rim, watching critically as the ice shattered. Yes, here was a place where the frost was a trifle less hard, the grip of cold just a little weaker. Somewhere down below was warmth. And warmth meant, ultimately, fire.

Looking for a way down to the mountains heart, the searcher moved in a swift limp around one of its shoulders. He had guessed right; before him now loomed a great crevice, exhaling a faintly sulphurous atmosphere, descending between guardian rocks. He went straight to that hard-lipped mouth, but just as he entered it he paused, looking up at the sky and once more muttering something to himself. The sky, brightening with the impending dawn, was almost entirely clear, flecked in the distance with scattered clouds. At the moment it conveyed no messages.

The searcher plunged down into the crevice, which quickly narrowed to a few meters wide. Grunting, making up new words to groan with as he squeezed through, he steadily descended. He was sure now that the fire he needed was down here, not very far away. When he had gone down only a little way he could already begin to hear the dragon-roar of its voice, as it came scorching up through some natural chimney nearby to ultimately emerge he knew not where. So he continued to work his way toward the sound, moving among a tumble of house-sized boulders that had been thrown here like children's blocks an age ago when some upper cornice of the mountain had collapsed.

At last the searcher found the roaring chimney, and squeezed himself close enough to reach in a hand and sample the feeling of the fire when it came up in its next surge. It was good stuff this flame, with its origin even deeper in the earth than he had hoped. A better fire than he could reasonably have expected to find, even for such fine work as he had now to do.

Having found his fire, he climbed back to the windblasted surface and the dawn. At the rear of the high shelf of rock, right against the face of the next ascending cliff, was a place somewhat sheltered from the wind. Here he now decided to put the forge. The chosen site was a recess, almost a cave, a natural grotto set into the cliff that towered tremendously higher yet: Out of this cave and around it, more fissure chimneys were splintered into the black basalt of the face, chimneys through which nothing now rose but the cold howling wind, drifting a little snow. The searcher's next task was to bring the earthfire here somehow, in a form both physically and magically workable; the work he had to do with the fire meant going deeply into both those aspects of the world. He could see now that he would have to transport and rebuild the fire in earthgrown wood-that would mean another delay, here on the treeless roof of the world. But minor delays were unimportant, compared with the requirement of doing the job right.

From the corner of his eye, as he stood contemplating his selected forge-site, he caught sight of powers that raced airborne across a far corner of the dawn. He turned his head, to see in the distant sky a flickering of colors, lights that were by turns foul and gentle. Probably, he thought to himself, they are only at some sport that has nothing at all to do with me or my work. Yet he remained standing motionless, watching those skycolors and muttering to himself, until the flying powers were gone, and he was once again utterly and absolutely alone.

Then he clambered down the surface of the barren mountainside, moving methodically, moving swiftly and nimbly despite one twisted leg. He continued going down for almost a thousand meters, to the level where the highest real trees began to grow. Having reached that level he paused briefly, regarding the sky once more, scanning it in search of messages that did not come. Wind, trapped and funneled here between the peaks, blasted his hair and beard that were as thick and wild as fur, whipped at his scorched garments of fur and leather, rattled the dragonscales he wore as ornaments.

And now, suddenly, names began to come and go in his awareness. It was as if he saw them flickering like those magical powers that flew across the sky. He thought: I am called Vulcan. I am the Smith. And he realized that descending even this moderate distance from the upper heights had caused him to start thinking in human language.

To get the size and quantity of logs he wanted for his fire, he had to go a little farther down the slope. Still the highest human settlements were considerably below him. The maplike spread of farms and villages, the sight of a distant castle on a hill, all registered in his perception, but only as background scenery with no immediate significance. His mind was on the task of gathering logs. Here, where the true forest started, finding logs was not difficult, but they tended to be from twisted trees, awkwardly shaped. It occurred to the Smith that an ax, some kind of chopping tool, would be a handy thing to have for this part of the job: but the only physical tools he had, besides his hands, were those of his true art, and they were all back at the site he'd chosen for his forge. His hands were all he really needed, though, clumsy though they could sometimes be with wood. If a log was too awkward, he simply broke it until it wasn't. At last, with a huge bundle that even his arms could scarcely clasp, he started back up the mountainside. His limp was a little more noticeable now.

During his absence the anvil and all his other ancient metalworking tools had arrived at the forge-site, and were dumped there in glorious disorder. Vulcan put down his firewood, and arranged everything in an orderly array around the exact place where he had decided that the fire should be. When he had finished, the sun was disappearing behind the east face of the mountain that towered above his head.

Pausing briefly to survey what he had done so far, he puffed his breath a little, as if he might be in need of rest. Now, to go down into the earth and bring up fire. He was beginning to wish he had some slaves on hand, helpers to handle some of these time-consuming details. The hour was approaching when he himself would have to concentrate almost entirely upon his real work. He longed to see the metal glowing in the forge, and feel a hammer in his hand.

Instead, gripping one five-meter log under his arm like a long spear, he descended for the second time into the maze of crevices that ran beneath the upper mountain. Through this maze he worked his way back toward the place where fire and thunder rose sporadically through convoluted chimneys. This time he approached the place by a slightly different route, and could see the reflected red glow of earthfire shining from ahead to meet him. That glow when it encountered daylight seemed to wink, as if in astonishment at having found this place of air so different from the lower hell in which it had been born.

At one neck in this crevice the rocks on either side pinched in too much to let pass the Smith and his log together. He set down the log, and laid hands on the rocks and raged at them. This was another kind of work in which his hands were clumsy. Their enormous hairless fingers, like his sandalled feet, were splayed and leathery. His skin was everywhere gray, the color of old smoke from a million forge-fires. Now, with his effort against the rocks, the sandals on his huge feet pressed down on other rocks, dug into pockets of old drifted snow, crunched and shattered ancient ice. Presently the rocks that had narrowed the crevice gave way to the pressure of his hands, splitting and booming and showering fragments.

With a satisfied grunt, Vulcan the Smith took up his log again. One final time he paused, looking up at what

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