Friday, April 22, 2016

On Steel

On Steel
Bobby Derie

A good bookseller judges a customer only by their taste, and not by their interests. Little old women might show a keen interest in anthropodermic bibliopergy, or a clergyman certain manuals of the 15th century which no honest exorcist would need truck with, but provided they show a deep and abiding knowledge and interest in their subject, a calculated respect for the books, and paid on time, there was nothing wrong with all that.

It also comes, of times, that being surrounded by books all day, and reading widely perhaps more than deeply, booksellers come to a knowledge of many things that they would not otherwise be thought to know, and to call on obscure seams of lore when it comes time to helping out a particular customer.

Such a customer now browsed the shelves of the Mended Page. The young man with spectacles who manned the counter kept a quiet eye on him, using at times the carefully placed mirrors that allowed him, from his desk, to see virtually the whole of the shop - and they, in turn, to feel his eyes on him, in certain moments when they looked up suddenly and then hurriedly replaced a volume back on the shelf. In her chair, the shop girl was lazing about and smiled like a cat when she caught him at it, and snoozing in the chair was the old bearded shop owner.

The customer wore a long shirt of a vaguely Middle Eastern design, although with Chinese collars and cuffs of green silk dressed with clouds, and beneath that crept out skinny legs in black denim, ending finally in a pair of almost slippers. His beard was not too long, the curls going only three inches past the chin, and were dyed dark with henna and oiled, though the young man with spectacles thought perhaps he was not so old as to need such an affection, but did it anyway to conceal his true age. His head was shaved, and covered with a flat dark cap.

The bearded man made his rounds from New Age and the Occult to History, then with falling face dragged himself to the Sciences section, and blinked somewhat bewilderingly at technical manuals, rooting around volumes of metallurgy before going back to History again, to survey another set of volumes. He made this circuit three times, as the young man with spectacles noted, before shaking his head, and moving empty-handed toward the front door. As the potential customer came level with the desk, the young man caught his eye:

"Find everything?"

The bearded ringlets shook. "No. I wonder..." He looked hesitant, then carried on. "Do you have a book on magic swords?"

The young man with spectacles paused himself. "I may," and at that, the shop girl looked up in curiosity. "Although it depends quite on what you're looking for. If you could be more specific?"

The potential customer, as the young man with spectacles quietly dragged the story out of him, was a magician. A practicing one, albeit for commercial purposes. His customers were men and women that had a desire for authenticity, and an interest in the occult, but too much wealth and business to engage in the fasting and meditation, the celibacy and rituals that were required by the old grimoires. So he made his living copying old texts on virgin parchment and vellum, using hand-made inks and paints, striving for artistry as much as spiritual purity. The cost of his productions was, of course, commensurate with the labor.

"What they want is a magic sword - and I do not know how to give it to them. I have made any number of tools of art, according to the recipes and directions in the old grimoires, but none of them quite include the spells and rituals that go in to making an actual magical sword."

The bearded man shook his hands, and the young man looked behind him at the leather-clad books and manuscripts kept locked away in their glass case and bars, eyes scanning the titles.

"Tell me, young magister," the store owner said - no longer snoozing, but awake, and grasping the arms of his overstuffed chair like a throne - "are you familiar with the history of magic swords?"

He said he did not.

"Then sit down, and I shall tell you the history of a magic sword." One bony fingered indicated the chair opposite his own, and when the occultist saw the ring on that finger, with its flat black gem and gold sigil, he quickly doffed his cap and sat, perched on the edge of the seat.

"Magic swords are a more complex subject than most might imagine. The first blend of sorcery and technology - for of course the smiths in their work had their crafts, guilds, and secret, just as much as a magician might, and with less overlap between the two than you might think. Many things that a magician thinks might be good for crafting a magic sword are completely rotten from a technical point of view - imperfections that corrupt the metal, carved spells that bite too deep into the blade, decorations that ruin the balance - and those are only the most obvious elements; there is also the design of the sword - for most smiths are truly conservative - and the artistry and craft that goes into spells and steel together. So as you might imagine, the first magic swords were quite crude, and not very good as magic or as weapons. Boy!"

The young man with spectacles came forward, and at his direction fetched down from a top shelf a large old book with a tattered paper cover that had been encased in mylar. Laying it on the table between them, the old man opened it up to a series of black-and-white drawings and flat color photographs of old bronze blades and implements.

"The British Isles were a stronghold of the Bronze Age; they had tin, and often too they had copper, or could trade for it, and the people learned to mine and smelt and forge. Copper, you know, can be work-hardened, and with tin or arsenic you can make an array of bronzes of different qualities. Those were a few of the Seven Metals that people knew of back then, and they got quite good at it." He turned a page, showing a leaf-shaped blade with a faded design etched into it. "And the Druids, for their part, got decent at applying their sorceries to it. Then came the Vikings,"

Old hands turned several pages. "Well, I should say, then came the Romans, and the Iron Age. Iron vs. Bronze, you understand? They coexisted for a time, but iron was stronger, kept an edge longer - well, steel did anyway, the kind of steel they could make. Very impure stuff, but they worked it and worked it, evening out the impurities - pattern welding, they called it - and by and large it won out, and the Druids started to wane as Christianity came in. Then the Angles and Saxons came, after the Romans left, and some time after them were Vikings."

Another page turned. Words blazed out from the page: "The Viking Sword." The photograph below showed a long, straight, two-edged blade with a stiff T-shaped hilt. Faint letters were still visible on the corroded metal.

"+VLFBERHT+" The old man traced out the letters. "No one quite remembers what it means; the name of the smith, perhaps, or a spell. It and variations have appeared on many blades, some on very superior steel - superior for the period, anyway. High status. That was part of the thing with steel, back then. It was precious. Oh, a man might afford a cheap, rusty weapon without too much trouble, but good steel was still hard to come by. The best ores were out of the north, certain deposits up there were very pure - and wootz, of course, came from India, and you didn't see much of that, though some, for the Vikings were great traders. And some of it, of course, was recycled from other swords."

More pages turned. A reproduction woodcut, a lame man at the forge, another working the bellows. Behind them, a pile of broken swords, tools.

"In the legend of the Nibelungs, you know, a broken sword is reforged into another, named Garm, to slay the dragon - and it did." Swords get old. Scabbards crack and are discarded, hilts wear out, being only horn or wood. Blades tend to last longer, they can be sharpened, sometimes mended, but even they get notched, old...even magic swords."

The owner barked another order, and the young man unlocked the case behind the desk with his key, and brought forth a small folder, encased in which were several pages covered with old, faded handwriting, designs, and drawings, including a crescent-sickle and dagger.

"You see here, the purpose of magic in a sword is not to make the metal stronger or sharper. By the Seven Hells, every smith would want that spell on their chisels and punches! No, the magic in swords gives a kind of potency to those who wield it. The details differ, but not every fool can go out and kill a dragon with a yard of steel, or cause the devil to limp, or draw seven drops of blood from a god. No, for magic in swords was to even the playing field between mortal and immortal, for some things could not be met unless they were matched in potency. Even your tools are all about that. But I was speaking about Garm."

"I won't say the Vikings brought the blade to Ireland, for that didn't happen 'till quite a few centuries after the Romans had left. But after the Romans left, Garm was there - maybe a Saxon had carried it west, or a Roman legionnaire had taken it as spoils of battle from Germania. It was old by that time, but still very potent - I would imagine the smith that hard worked it had been as much a sorcerer as a craftsman, and there was a power still in the blade, with its inscription, even though it might be notched and touched by rust - and whatever it looked like, it wasn't a Viking sword, I just showed you that to give you the idea of it, though it was long and straight and double-edged, like an Iron Age German sword. The Romans were gone by then, and the Irish were making a kingdom in Wales, and one of their princes carried that sword, mounted on a new bronze hilt - and the bronze, I must say, probably came from some Druid-blessed blade, recycled."

"The problem was, of course, they ran afoul of the Anglo-Saxons. This prince in particular got into a pretty tough spot, and while he had his sword, with all the double potency it offered, the style of the blade was still very old fashioned, and it was probably nicked and a bit warped. You don't often think of how the style of blade affects the way you fight, but it does...reach, for one thing, and weight, for another. In any event, the prince was mortally wounded in the battle, and his blade fell into the mud of a small pond."

Another page turned, revealing an astonishingly intact blade, though the hilt was little more than a brown stain.

"An anaerobic environment, they call it. Not a lot of dissolved oxygen, you see? And oxygen is the main thing you need, chemically speaking, to react with iron. Keep the metal away from air, and it can last for a long time...even centuries. They've dug blades up out of the mud, the wood and leather hilts and scabbards long rotted away, but the blades relatively intact. In past centuries it would have been little more than a curiosity, but then came along the discipline of archaeology...well, I don't have to tell you, eventually some well-meaning vicar cleared out the pond, and came up with that sword, the blade still sharp, even if the rest of it was corroded all to hell. And he wrote a paper on it, and then gave it as a gift to a local squire...and that's when the war was on."

The old man snapped his fingers, as his audience stared at him blankly.

"The Great War, that was. And this blade, that had once been Garm, and might have gone in history as another name, was now a good length of steel. It might have been smelted again, made into nails or cannon or anything else. But instead it was reshaped. The squire had it ground down, into a different shape."

A word to the young man with spectacles fetched forth another book, and the old man flipped through pictures of swords of the First World War.

"In the early contemporary period - about 1890 through World War I - the sword had almost completely gone from infantry, and had for over a century; the primary weapon for soldiers was the rifle and bayonet, the combination of which made a more-or-less effective spear or pike - for infantry, swords weren’t even used as sidearms except in exceptional cases, like sword bayonets - and the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, who were armed with 'trench swords' based on an old design - the Welsh cledd and so this squire, who was in the Fusiliers, he had his sword ground down to look like the rest, and mounted on a new handle, and he went off to war...after, of course, he had it blessed by his cleric friend, and hung a rosary from the pommel, and anointed it with holy oil."

The old man sat back. "And there, in the trenches, it disappeared again. Young man, fetch me the book on the top shelf."

The young man with the spectacles, limber as a gazelle, went up the ladder the top of the glass cabinet, fetching out a small volume.

"What I have told you is, of course, only a highly condensed history of this particular sword - I have mentioned it because it demonstrates, in the way it was formed and reformed, enchanted and re-enchanted, many of the basic processes which you appear to be looking for - and, of course, because we have a detailed study that was made of the blade, by that selfsame cleric, tracing back its history and the means of its making and unmaking. Now," and the old man smiled at the henna-bearded customer. "how much would that be worth to you, sir?"


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