- Author: E. E. Smith
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Time is the strangest of all mysteries. Relatively unimportant events, almost unnoticed as they occur, may, in hundreds of years, result in Ultimate Catastrophe. On Time Track Number One, that was the immutable result. But on Time Track Number Two there was one little event that could be used to avert it—the presence of a naked woman in public. So, Skandos One removed the clothing from the Lady Rhoann and after one look, Lord Tedric did the rest!
Skandos One (The Skandos of Time Track Number One, numbered for reasons which will become clear) showed, by means of the chronoviagraph, that civilization would destroy itself in one hundred eighty-seven years. To prevent this catastrophe he went back to the key point in time and sought out the key figure—one Tedric, a Lomarrian ironmaster who had lived and died a commoner; unable, ever, to do anything about his fanatical detestation of human sacrifice.
Skandos One taught Tedric how to make one batch of super-steel; watched him forge armor and arms from that highly anachronistic alloy. He watched him do things that Tedric of Time Track One had never done.
Time, then, did fork. Time Track One was probably no longer in existence. He must have been saved by his "traction" on the reality of Time Track Two. He'd snap back up to his own time and see what the situation was. If he found his assistant Furmin alone in the laboratory, the extremists would have been proved wrong. If not....
Furmin was not alone. Instead, Skandos Two and Furmin Two were at work on a tri-di of Tedric's life: so like, and yet so wildly unlike, the one upon which Skandos One and Furmin One had labored so long!
Shaken and undecided, Skandos One held his machine at the very verge of invisibility and watched and listened.
"But it's so maddeningly incomplete!" Skandos Two snorted. "When it goes into such fine detail on almost everything else, why can't we get how he stumbled onto one lot, and never any other, of high-alloy steel—chrome-nickel-vanadium-molybdenum-tungsten steel—Mortensen's super-steel, to be specific—which wasn't rediscovered for thousands of years?"
"Why, it was revealed to him by his personal god Llosir—don't you remember?" Furmin snickered.
"To us, yes; but not to them. Hence, no detail, and you know why we can't go back and check."
"Of course. We simply don't know enough about time ... but I would so like to study this Lord of the Marches at first hand! Nowhere else in all reachable time does any other one entity occupy such a uniquely key position!"
"So would I, chief. If we knew just a little more I'd say go. In the meantime, let's run that tri-di again, to see if we've overlooked any little thing!"
In the three-dimensional, full-color projection Armsmaster Lord Tedric destroyed the principal images of the monstrous god Sarpedion and killed Sarpedion's priests. He rescued Lady Rhoann, King Phagon's eldest daughter, from the sacrificial altar. The king made him Lord of the Marches, the Highest of the High.
"This part I like." Furmin pressed a stud; the projector stopped. A blood-smeared armored giant and a blood-smeared naked woman stood, arms around each other, beside a blood-smeared altar of green stone. "Talk about being STACKED! If I hadn't checked the data myself I'd swear you went overboard there, chief."
"Exact likenesses—life size," Skandos Two grunted. "Tedric: six-four, two-thirty, muscled just like that. Rhoann: six feet and half an inch, one-ninety. The only time she ever appeared in the raw in public, I guess, but she didn't turn a hair."
"What a couple!" Furmin stared enviously. "We don't have people like that any more."
"Fortunately, no. He could split a full-armored man in two with a sword; she could strangle a tiger bare-handed. So what? All the brains of the whole damned tribe, boiled down into one, wouldn't equip a half-wit."
"Oh, I wouldn't say that," Furmin objected. "Phagon was a smooth, shrewd operator."
"In a way—sometimes—but committing suicide by wearing gold armor instead of high-alloy steel doesn't show much brain-power."
"I'm not sure I'll buy that, either. There were terrific pressures ... but say Phagon had worn steel, that day at Middlemarch Castle, and lived ten or fifteen years longer? My guess is that Tedric would have changed the map of the world. He wasn't stupid, you know; just bull-headed, and Phagon could handle him. He would have pounded a lot of sense into his skull, if he had lived."
"However, he didn't live," Skandos returned dryly, "and so every decision Tedric ever made was wrong. But to get back to the point, did you see anything new?"
"Not a thing."
"Neither did I. So go and see how eight twelve is doing."
For Time Test Number Eight Hundred Eleven had failed; and there was little ground for hope that Number Eight Hundred Twelve would be any more productive.
And the lurking Skandos One who had been studying intensively every aspect of the situation, began to act. It was crystal clear that Time Track Two could hold only one Skandos. One of them would have to vanish—completely, immediately, and permanently. Although in no sense a killer, by instinct or training, only one course of action was possible if his own life—and, as a matter of fact, all civilization—were to be conserved. Wherefore he synchronized, and shot his unsuspecting double neatly through the head. The living Skandos changed places with the dead. A timer buzzed briefly. The time-machine disappeared; completely out of synchronization with any continuum that a world's keenest brain and an ultra-fast calculator could compute.
This would of course make another fork in time, but that fact did not bother Skandos One at all—now. As for Tedric; since the big, dumb lug couldn't be made to believe that he, Skandos One, was other than a god, he'd be a god—in spades!
He'd build an image of flesh-like plastic exactly like the copper statue Tedric had made, and go back and announce himself publicly as the god Llosir. He'd come back—along Time-Track Three, of course—and do away with Skandos Three. There might have to be another interference, too, to get Tedric started along the right time-track. He could tell better after seeing what Time-Track Three looked like. If so, it would necessitate the displacement of Skandos Four.
So what? He had never had any qualms; and, now that he had done it once, he had no doubt whatever as to his ability to do it twice more.
Of the three standing beside Sarpedion's grisly altar, King Phagon was the first to become conscious of the fact that something should be done about his daughter's nudity.
"Flasnir, your cloak!" he ordered sharply; and the Lady Rhoann, unclamping her arms from around Tedric's armored neck and disengaging his steel-clad arm from around her waist, covered herself with the proffered garment. Partially covered, that is; for, since the cloak had come only to mid-thigh on the courtier and since she was a good seven inches taller than he, the coverage might have seemed, to a prudish eye, something less than adequate.
"Chamberlain Schillan—Captain Sciro," the king went on briskly. "Haul me this carrion to the river and dump it in—put men to cleaning this place—'tis not seemly so."
The designated officers began to bawl orders, and Tedric turned to the girl, who was still just about as close to him as she could get; awe, wonder, and relieved shock still plain on her expressive face.
"One thing, Lady Rhoann, I understand not. You seem to know me; act as though I were an old, tried friend. 'Tis vast honor, but how? You of course I know; have known and honored since you were a child; but me, a commoner, you know not. Nor, if you did, couldst know who it was neath all this iron?"
"Art wrong, Lord Tedric—nay, not 'Lord' Tedric; henceforth you and I are Tedric and Rhoann merely—I have known you long and well; would recognize you anywhere. The few of the old, true blood stand out head and shoulders above the throng, and you stand out, even among them. Who else could it have been? Who else hath the strength of arm and soul, the inner and the outer courage? No coward I, Tedric, nor ever called so, but on that altar my very bones turned jelly. I could not have swung weapon against Sarpedion. I tremble yet at the bare thought of what you did; I know not how you could have done it."
"You feared the god, Lady Rhoann, as do so many. I hated him."
"'Tis not enough of explanation. And 'Rhoann' merely, Tedric, remember?"
"Rhoann ... Thanks, my lady. 'Tis an honor more real than your father's patent of nobility ... but 'tis not fitting. I feel as much a commoner...."
"Commoner? Bah! I ignored that word once, Tedric, but not twice. You are, and deservedly, the Highest of the High. My father the king has known for long what you are; he should have ennobled you long since. Thank Sarp ... thank all the gods he had the wit to put it off no longer! 'Tis blood that tells, not empty titles. The Throne can make and unmake nobility at will, but no power whatever can make true-bloods out of mongrels, nor create real manhood where none exists!"
Tedric did not know what to say in answer to that passionate outburst, so he changed the subject; effectively, if not deftly. "In speaking of the Marches to your father the king, you mentioned the Sages. What said they?"
"At another time, perhaps." Lady Rhoann was fast recovering her wonted cool poise. "'Tis far too long to go into while I stand here half naked, filthy, and stinking. Let us on with the business in hand; which, for me, is a hot bath and clean clothing."
Rhoann strolled away as unconcernedly as though she were wearing full court regalia, and Tedric turned to the king.
"Thinkst the Lady Trycie is nearby, sire?"
"If I know the jade at all, she is," Phagon snorted. "And not only near. She's seen everything and heard everything; knows more about everything than either of us, or both of us together. Why? Thinkst she'd make a good priestess?"
"The best. Much more so, methinks, than the Lady Rhoann. Younger. More ... umm ... more priestess-like, say?"
"Perhaps." Phagon was very evidently skeptical, but looked around the temple, anyway. "Trycie!" he yelled.
"Yes, father?" a soft voice answered—right behind them!
The king's second daughter was very like his first in size and shape, but her eyes were a cerulean blue and her hair, as long and as thick as Rhoann's own, had the color of ripe wheat.
"Aye, daughter. Wouldst like to be Priestess of Llosir?"
"Oh, yes!" she squealed; but sobered quickly. "On second thought ... perhaps not ... no. If sobeit sacrifice is done I intend to marry, some day, and have six or eight children. But ... perhaps ... could I take it now, and resign later, think you?"
"'Twould not be necessary, sire and Lady Trycie," Tedric put in, while Phagon was still thinking the matter over. "Llosir is not at all like Sarpedion. Llosir wants abundance and fertility and happiness, not poverty and sterility and misery. Llosir's priestess marries as she pleases and has as many children as she wants."
"Your priestess I, then, sirs! I go to have cloth-of-gold robes made at once!" The last words came floating back over her shoulder as Trycie raced away.
"Lord Tedric, sir." Unobserved, Sciro had been waiting for a chance to speak to his superior officer.
"'Tis the men ... the cleaning ... They ... We, I mean ..." Sciro of Old Lomarr would not pass the buck. "The bodies—the priests, you know, and so on—were easy enough; and we did manage to handle most of the pieces of the god. But the ... the heart, and so on, you know ... we know not where you want them taken ... and besides, we fear ... wilt stand by and ward, Lord Tedric, while I pick them up?"
"'Tis my business, Captain Sciro; mine alone. I crave pardon for not attending to it sooner. Hast a bag?"
"Yea." The highly relieved officer held out a duffle-bag of fine, soft leather.
Tedric took it, strode across to the place where Sarpedion's image had stood, and—not without a few qualms of his own, now that the frenzy of battle had evaporated—picked up Sarpedion's heart, liver, and brain and deposited them, neither too carefully nor too carelessly, in the sack. Then, swinging the burden up over his shoulder—
"I go to fetch the others," he explained to his king. "Then we hold sacrifice to end all human sacrifice."
"Hold, Tedric!" Phagon ordered. "One thing—or two or three, methinks. 'Tis not seemly to conduct a