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Black Iron

Ammianus Marcellinus was the last great Latin historian and in fact the only great Latin historian to follow Tacitus, his predecessor by some three hundred years. (There were major historians of the second and third centuries AD—and after—but they wrote in Greek.) He had an enormous impact on me, and one small aspect of his influence is "Black Iron."

Ammianus was an officer in the imperial bodyguard during the middle of the fourth century AD, the period covered by the surviving books of his history. Emperors used their bodyguards as couriers and for other special missions. Ammianus was not only in a position to talk to virtually anyone in the empire, he was personally present at some of the most important events of his time. Though Ammianus isn't as good a writer as Tacitus (who's one of the finest prose stylists in Latin or any other language), he paints a vivid picture of his world.

That world was sliding into blood and chaos. It would not emerge from darkness for centuries.

The timing may be important here. I read Ammianus while I was in Vietnamese language school and during interrogation training afterwards. The future I saw before me was one of blood, chaos, and darkness, so I could identify—indeed had to identify—with the ancient soldier and historian as I read his work.

I come back to the World, reentered law school, and resumed writing fiction. "Black Iron" is the first story I wrote after my return. It's also the first story I wrote after getting to know two Chapel Hill fantasy writers, Manly Wade Wellman and Karl Edward Wagner.

Karl had just dropped out of UNC medical school to write full time (he later completed his schooling and got his MD). Manly was a giant of SF and fantasy; he'd been making virtually his whole living from freelance writing since the late '30s. Neither Karl nor I was ever a student of Manly's, but we were his junior colleagues and friends. We got together regularly for family meals and to read to one another the fiction we were working on.

This was the first thing I read to Manly and Karl. There would be many other stories over the years.

Ammianus was in Amida when the Persians besieged and captured that city. It wasn't a critically important event in the millennia-long struggle between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean Basin, but Ammianus produced a bleak, brilliant piece of first-hand reporting. When I visited Turkey many years later, I stood on the enormous walls of Amida (modern Diyarbakir) and thought of Ammianus.

One further thing about "Black Iron" is worth mentioning. I sent the story to Mr. Derleth, who'd bought three previous stories from me. He wrote me a letter of acceptance in June 1971, and followed it with an Arkham House check dated July 3.

The next morning Mr. Derleth died of a heart attack. This was not only the last story I was to sell him, it was the last story he bought from anyone.


Vettius' markers were of green tourmaline that glinted cruelly in the lamplight. The pieces had been carven by a Persian. Though as smoothly finished as anything Dama had seen in the West, the heads had a rudeness, a fierceness of line that he disliked. Living near the frontier had shaken him, he thought with a sigh.

The soldier moved, taking one of Dama's pieces. The slim Cappadocian countered with a neat double capture.

"God rot your eyes!"Vettius exploded, banging his big hand down on the game board."I should know better than to play robbers with a merchant. By the Bull's blood, you're all thieves anyway. Doris, bring us some cups!"

The little slave pattered in with a pair of chalices. As she left the room Vettius slapped her on the flank and said, "Don't come back till you're called for."

The girl smiled without turning around.

"Little slut," the soldier said affectionately. Then, to Dama, "How do you want your wine?"

"One to three, as always," the blond merchant replied.

"I thought maybe your balls had come down since I saw you last," Vettius said, shaking his head. "Well, here's your wine; water it yourself."

He filled his own cup with the resin-thickened wine and slurped half of it. "You know," he said reflectively, "when I was on Naxos three years ago I made a special trip to a vineyard to get a drink of this before they added the pitch to preserve it in transport."

Vettius paused. "Well," Dama pressed him, "how was it?"

"Thin," the soldier admitted. "I'd rather drink Egyptian beer."

He began to laugh and Dama joined him halfheartedly. At last Vettius wiped the tears from his eyes and gulped the rest of his wine. When he had refilled his cup he rocked back on his stool and gazed shrewdly at his friend. "You brought a bolt of cloth with you tonight," he said.

"That's right," Dama agreed with a thin smile. "It's a piece of silk brocade, much heavier than what we usually see here."

Vettius smiled back at him, showing his teeth like a bear snarling."So I'm a silk fancier now?" he asked."Come on, nobody will come until I call them. What do you have under the silk that you didn't want my servants to see?"

Dama unrolled the silk without answering. The lustrous cloth had been wound around a sword whose hilt gleamed richly above a pair of laths bound over the blade. He tugged at the hilt and the laths fell away to reveal a slim blade, longer than that of a military sword. The gray steel was marked like wind-rippled water.

"Do you believe that metal can be enchanted?" Dama asked.

"Stick to your silk, merchant," the soldier replied with a chuckle, and took the sword from Dama. He whipped the blade twice through the air.

"Oh, yes," he went on, "it's been a long time since I saw one of these."

Setting the point against the wall, the big soldier leaned his weight against it. The blade bowed almost double. The point shifted very slightly and the steel sprang straight, skidding along the stone. The sword blurred, humming a low note that made both men's bowels quiver.

"Thought the way it bends was magical, hey?"

Dama nodded. "I thought it might be."

"Well, that's reasonable," Vettius said."It doesn't act much like a piece of steel, does it? Just the way it's tempered, though. You know about that?"

"I think I know how this blade was tempered," the merchant answered.

"Yeah, run it through a plump slave's butt a few times to quench it," Vettius said off-handedly. His fierce smile returned. "Not very . . . civilized, shall we say? But not magic."

"Not magic?" Dama repeated with an odd inflexion."Then let me tell you the rest of the story."

Vettius raised his cup in silent consent.

"I was in Amida . . . " the merchant began, and his mind drifted back to the fear and mud-brick houses overlooking the Tigris.

"We knew that Shapur was coming, of course; that spring, next spring—soon at least. He'd made peace with the Chionitae and they'd joined him as allies against Rome. Still, I had a caravan due any day and I didn't trust anyone else to bring it home to Antioch. It was a gamble and at the time it seemed worth it."

Dama snorted to himself, "Well, I guess it could have been worse.

"Aside from waiting to see whether my people would arrive before the Persians did, there was nothing to do in Amida but bake in the dust. It had never been a big place and now, with the shanties outside the wall abandoned and the whole countryside squeezed in on top of the garrison, there wasn't room to spit."

The merchant took a deep draught of his wine as he remembered. Vettius poured him more straight from the jar. "Mithra! There were two regiments of Gaulish foot there, half-dead with the heat and crazy from being cooped up. That was later, though, after the gates were shut.

"Wealth has its advantages and I'd gotten a whole house for my crew. I put animals on the ground floor and the men on the second; that left me the roof to myself. There was a breeze up there sometimes.

"The place next door was owned by a smith named Khusraw and I could see over his wall into the courtyard where his forge was set up. He claimed to be Armenian but there was talk of him really being a Persian himself. It didn't matter, not while he was turning weapons out and we needed them so bad."

"He made this?"Vettius asked, tapping the sword with his fingernail. The steel moaned softly.

Dama nodded absently, his eyes fixed on a scene in the past. "I watched him while he worked at night; the hammer ringing would have kept me awake anyway. At night he sang. He'd stand there singing with the hearth glaring off him, tall and stringy and as old as the world. He had a little slave to help him, pumping on the bellows. You've seen a charcoal hearth glow under a bellows?"

Vettius nodded. "Like a drop of sun."

Dama raised his eyebrows."Perhaps," he said, sipping at his thick wine, "but I don't find it a clean light. It made everything look so strange, so flat, that it was hours before I realized that the plate Khusraw was forging must have weighed as much as I did."

"Siege armor?" the soldier suggested.

"Not siege armor," Dama replied."There were other plates too, some of them that he welded into tubes, singing all the time."

The blond Cappadocian paused to finish his wine. He held out the cup to his host with a wan smile. "You may as well fill it again. I'm sweating it out faster than I drink it."

He wiped his brow with a napkin and continued. "It was a funny household in other ways. Khusraw, his wife, and his son—a boy about eight or ten. You can't really say with Persians. Those three and one slave boy I never heard to speak. No other servants in the house even though the woman looked like she was about to drop quints.

"I saw her close one day, trying to buy a sword for my foreman, seeing the way things were tending. Her belly looked wrong. It didn't shift like it ought to when she moved and she didn't seem to be carrying as much weight as if she were really pregnant. Padded or not, there was something strange about her.

"As for my own problem, that was decided the morning the Persians appeared. Oh, I know, you've fought them; but Lucius, you can't imagine what they looked like stretched all across the horizon with the sun dazzling on their spearpoints and armor. Mithra! Even so, it didn't seem too bad at first. The walls were strong and we were sure we could hold out until Ursicinius relieved us."

Vettius made a guttural sound and stared at the table. Dama laid his hand on the big soldier's forearm and said, "Lucius, you know I meant nothing against you or the army."

Vettius looked up with a ghost of his old smile, "Yeah, I know you didn't. No reason for me to be sensitive, anyhow. I didn't give the orders.

"Or refuse to give them," he added bitterly after a moment's reflection. "Have some more wine and go on with your story."

Dama drank and set his cup down empty. "Until things got really serious I spent most nights on my roof. Khusraw was working on a sword, now, and I forgot about the other stuff he had been forging. But everytime he had the metal beaten out into a flat blade he folded it back in on itself and started over."

The soldier nodded in understanding, running his finger along the watermarked blade. The merchant shrugged.

"Very late one night I awakened. Khusraw stood beside the forge and that evil white light flared over the courtyard every time the bellows pulsed. Tied to the anvil was a half-filled grain sack. The only noise, though, was the thump of the bellows and perhaps a whisper of the words Khusraw was chanting, and I couldn't figure out what had awakened me. Then another moan came from the house. That sound I knew—Khusraw's wife was in labor and I thought I'd been wrong about her belly being padded.

"Out in the courtyard the smith laid one hand on the grain sack. With the other, all wrapped in hides, he took the blade out of the hearth. The slave let the bellows stop and for an instant I could see both pairs of eyes reflecting the orange steel of the sword. Then Khusraw stabbed it through the sack. There was a terrible scream—"

"I'll bet there was!" Vettius interjected, his eyes glittering like citrines.

"—and inside the house the woman screamed too. Khusraw drew the blade out, half-quenched and barely visible, then plunged it back in. There was no scream but his wife's, this time. The slave had fallen to his knees and was making gabbling noises. When the smith drove the sword into the sack a third time, the woman bawled in the last agony of birthing and there was a crash of metal so loud I thought a Persian catapult had hit Khusraw's house. He ran inside shouting, 'My son! My son!' leaving the sword to lie crossways through that sack."

Dama paused. Vettius tossed him a fresh napkin and poured out more wine. "His own son," the soldier mused."Strange. Maybe Romulus really did sacrifice his brother to make his city great the way the old legends say."

The merchant gave him a strange smile and continued."That was the last night I spent in the house. Our garrison was too worn down to hold out any longer and every able man in the city had to help on the walls.

"Seventy-three days," Dama said, shaking his head."It doesn't sound like much to hold out, does it? Not in so strong a city. But there were so many Persians . . .

"No matter. The end came when a section of wall collapsed. The Persians didn't bring it down, we did ourselves—built it too high and it toppled. We tried to mass in the breach as the Persians poured through."

Dama paused with a wry grin. "Oh, you would have liked that, Lucius; the dust was sticky with blood. The armory had been buried when the wall fell and because the Persians were pushing us back, whenever a man lost his weapon he was out of the fight. I dodged out of the melee when my sword shattered on a shield boss. Then, when I had caught my breath I ran to Khusraw's shop, thinking he might still have some weapons I could carry back to the fighting.

"The front of the shop was empty, so I burst into the back. The smith was alone, holding a slender box open on his lap. When he saw me he slammed the lid shut, but I'd already caught the glint of steel inside. 'Give me the sword!' I said. 'No!' he cried, 'it's for my son to carry to King Shapur.' I grabbed the box, then, and knocked him down with my free hand. There was no time to talk and gods! but I was afraid.

"I tore the box open and drew this sword while Khusraw shouted something I didn't understand. Something clanged in the inner room. I turned to see the door swing open, and then I knew what the smith had made of his forgings.

"It was about a man's height, but from the way the ground shook there must have been twenty manloads of iron in it. I took a step back and the thing followed me. Even with the weight I might have thought it was a man in armor, but the eyes! They were little balls of cloudy orange. No one could have seen out through them, but they swiveled as I moved.

"I cut at the head of the . . . the iron man. The sword bounced off.

As sharp as the blade was, it only scratched the thing. Khusraw was backed against the wall to my left. He began to cackle, but I couldn't take my eyes off his creation long enough to deal with him.

"I thrust at the thing's throat. The point caught where the neck joined that black iron skull, but I didn't have enough strength to ram it home. Before I could recover, the iron man closed its hand over the blade. I yanked back and the sword shrieked out of its grip, slicing the metal fingers as neatly as it would have flesh."

Dama laughed grimly and tossed down his wine."I've mentioned how Khusraw was giggling at me? Well, he stopped then. He shouted, 'Son!' and jumped at me, just as his toy tried to smash me with its fist. I ducked and the steel hand caught Khusraw on the temple and slammed him into the wall. I tried to dodge through the door then, but my boot slipped in the blood. I scrambled clear of the thing's foot, but it had me backed against the wall.

"I thrust again, at the face this time. The tip skidded into an eye socket without penetrating, and the weight of the iron drove the hilt against the wall behind me. The blade bent but the very weight on it held the hilt firm. Then, as the thing reached for my head, the swordpoint shifted and the blade sprang straight, driving itself through the skull. The remaining eye went black and the thing crashed to the floor.

"There wasn't time to think then. I tugged the sword free and ran into the street to find the Persians had . . . well, the rest doesn't matter, I suppose. I was one of the lucky ones who slipped out of the city that night."

The soldier sighted down the length of the blade."So your smith put his own son's soul in the sword and it wrecked his machine for him," he said at last.

The slender merchant ran a hand through his blond hair, the tension gone from him now that he had finished his story. "No, I don't think so," he said quietly. "You're forgetting Khusraw's wife."

"Her pregnancy?" the soldier asked in bewilderment.

"She wasn't pregnant," Dama explained, "she was just a vehicle. The smith had his materials, a soul and a body. Somehow his wife's pretence of labor allowed him to join them. The thing was alive, an automaton."

Vettius shook his head."What you're calling an automaton—there must have been a dwarf inside with some very clever machinery."

Dama smiled gently. "There was no man inside. Lucius, when I pulled that sword free it was as clean as you see it now; no blood, no brains sticking to it."

The soldier looked from his friend to the sword. The blade had a faint green cast to it now as it caught the reflection of the gaming pieces so finely carven by some Persian craftsman.

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