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´╗┐Title: The Temple of Earth
Author: Anderson, Poul
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.


*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "The Temple of Earth" ***


                          THE TEMPLE OF EARTH

                           BY POUL ANDERSON

                         ILLUSTRATED BY ORBAN

         All his life, Rikard had defied the warlords of Coper
       City, but even the stoutest outlaw could be outnumbered.
              Now Rayth offered him freedom for the death
         of the Chief Engineer. It seemed simple enough--until
              Rikard began to learn the History of Earth!

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
                      Rocket Stories, July 1953.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


"Here they come!"

Leda's voice vibrated in the ears of the four men with her. They stood
with their helmets touching so they could talk, eyes looking down the
rugged sweep of Copernicus to the force which came running upward
against them. At their backs, the brutal heights of rock climbed for
the stars, but they stood in a recess between looming crags, as good a
defensive position as they could hope for.

"Eight, nine--" Rikard strained his eyes through the queer tricky light
and shadow--the brilliant rushing blue of Earth nearly in full phase,
the utter dark of knife-edged umbras, a sprawling savage confusion of
spires and cliffs tumbling down toward the far ghostly shimmer of the
plain. "Ten at least, I make it, probably more. It'll be a rough fight."

The tiny metal-glinting specks bounded closer, twenty-foot leaps from
height to height, and now they could see the sheen of Earthglow on
spears and axes. Rikard said slowly: "It will most likely be death if
we make a stand. Let anyone who wishes go down to them now, and I
will not think the less of him."

"Down to execution or enslavement? You should know us better than
that," said Huw. He hefted his own ax, and shadows crept over the folds
of his flexicord suit. "Heh, they'll have to come at us only a few at a
time. We'll mince 'em as they do."

A mutter of assent rumbled from Jonak and Chungti. Leda remained
silent, but one gauntletted hand closed on Rikard's arm.

The outlaw chief's gaunt dark face flashed in a brief grin. "Thank
you," he said. "We'll at least show the damned Copers that Nyrac can
still fight."

He moved away from the group and strung his bow. It was a big one,
suitable for the giant who wielded it, and had been in his family for
a long time. Plastic bow, wire string, steel arrows that leaped out
with a hundred pounds of force behind them--such a weapon could pierce
a spacesuit and come out the other side in a rush of air. Wood and
cord were of little use on the surface; they dried and cracked in the
sucking vacuum, sizzled by day and froze by night. But with this weapon
he had sent more men than he remembered to Earth.

Standing in the abysmal shadow of a crag, he nocked an arrow and took
aim. The bow thrummed in his hand and a bright shaft sprang forth. One
of the attacking band suddenly leaped up, fell, and rolled down the
long slope with the moisture-laden air gushing out like his fleeing
soul.

"There's one less!" cried Leda savagely, and raised her pike. None
heard her speak in the looming silence, but they saw her lips laughing
behind the plastic helmet. Rikard turned for a glimpse of her, the
strong fair face, the heavy yellow hair--turned blue and green now by
the pouring Earthlight, but not the less good to look on.

He had stolen her three years before, in a raid on Moonburg, and
she had fought him bitterly for awhile. But later there had been
understanding between them, and when the Copers overran Nyrac and he
and a few men fled into rebellious exile, she was the only one of his
wives who had come with him. They smiled briefly at each other and then
he faced back toward the enemy.

His bow throbbed again, and he cursed as the shaft whipped past a
nearing figure. The man hurled a spear; it bounced off the crag and Huw
stepped forth to seize and throw it back. Rikard fired once more, and
another warrior tumbled to the stony ground, to freeze in death.

Now they were close, terribly close, a good dozen of them rushing in
on him. He sent a final snapped shot against them, dropped the bow,
and grabbed up his ax. Swiftly the outlaws fell into a defending line:
Rikard, Huw, and Jonak, the heaviest, standing shoulder to shoulder
between the two great pillars; Leda and Chungti just behind them with
pikes at the ready.

The first of the Copers hit Rikard with the furious velocity of a
broad jump, ax swinging down against the chief's helmet. Rikard caught
the blow on his own weapon's handle, twisted it down, and kicked the
attacker in the belly. He bounced away, wide open for assault, but it
wouldn't do to leave the line. The next was almost instantly on the
outlaw, blade cleaving vacuum. Rikard's ax blurred down and crashed
into the space helmet. The shock of the blow rammed home in his own
muscles, but it had burst open the tough plastic. Air whirled out,
white with frost, red with the blood that suddenly foamed from mouth
and nose.

The enemy's own ax had dropped from his fingers as Rikard's blade
smashed home, and clanged off the chief's helmet. Rikard smote at the
warrior beyond, hit a metal shoulder plate, and dodged a counterblow.
Leda thrust between him and Jonak, driving the pike home with a
terrible force that split the Coper's suit at the belly. He lurched
back, clutching futile hands against the streaming air, his face
distorted with unheard screams.

Two of them were on Rikard now, ax and spear, blows clattering off
his helmet and shoulder plates as he dodged and parried and hewed. He
whirled his weapon over his head, brought it crashing down to break
another helmet and the skull beneath, and his own yelling rang in his
ears.

From the corner of one eye he saw Jonak fall. Snarling, he swung on
the killer, his blow parried by the other axhead. "Go to Mars, you
bastard!" he growled, and hailed blow after blow against the enemy's
guard, a leaping dancing fury of steel that drove the fellow back until
he was against a cliff. Rikard sprang in and slew him.

Panting, he whirled around to see that the Copers had broken his line,
that they raged three or four about each of the survivors, thrusting
and smiting, a flicker of light and hard metal against the monstrous
blacknesses of shadow. Even as he watched, Chungti went down with a
spear in him. Huw and Leda stood back to back, beating off the pack
that snarled around them, and Rikard launched himself across the space
between to fall on the Copers. He clove one helmet from behind, pitched
another man aside, parried a thrust and kicked the thruster back, and
joined his comrades.

A cloudiness of freezing moisture fogged his helmet, and Huw toppled
against him. He stood over the body and struck home. Leda swept her
pike in a wide arc, got it between a man's legs and tripped him, and
stabbed him before he could rise. Then a Coper got between her and
Rikard, threw his arms around her from behind and dragged her to the
ground.

They closed in on Rikard, hemming him in a solid wall of armored
bodies, bearing him down and holding him fast with four men on each
arm. When they brought forth wire and began lashing his hands together
he kicked out, rose to his feet and knocked them away as they came on
him, until someone else tackled him and he went down once more.

Captured! By the living Earth, no clean death in battle, but captured!

He lay gasping the hot foul air of his suit, looking up to the crystal
dark of heaven, a million needle-sharp stars and the ghostly glory
of the Milky Way, up to Earth's huge blue disc, and the world, the
Moon-world of witchlight and shadow and cruel fanged stone, reeled
about him with his dismay. Captured!

A tall man, apparently the chief of the band, counted the survivors
and then put his helmet against Rikard's. His face was sharply carved,
dark-eyed, with the pointed beard of a Coper noble and the hollow
cheeks corpse-blue in the light. He said slowly: "Yes, you are the
rebel leader. I'm glad we took you alive."

Rikard looked sullenly back at him.

"Behave yourself," advised the other. "Remember we hold the woman too."

       *       *       *       *       *

They scaled the heights of Copernicus and descended to the plain which
the crater ringed in. Not far off was an armored dome with sentries
before it, one of the airlocks leading to a tunnel. They entered
this and came to the long tube-lit bareness underground. A few Coper
soldiers were posted here, taking turns at guard duty on the outside.

Like all their city freemen they wore more clothes than the outlying
barbarians, who rarely donned more than a pocketed kilt if that
much--these had tunics as well, and flat steel helmets, and carried
the swords that were useful underground though ineffective against a
spacesuit; nor did they have the war-paint of barbarian fighters. They
did not mock the prisoners--the name of Rikard of Nyrac had been too
frightening for the past year--but they leered at Leda.

Even the outlaws were glad to shed their spacesuits. Sweat and the
needs of nature made it uncomfortable to be outside more than a few
hours at a time. They were stripped, their hands bound behind them, and
marched between an alert guard down the tunnel toward Coper City. It
went rapidly, the long bounding pace of men in home territory who had
no ambush to fear.

Rikard's mind whirled over the catastrophes of the past hours. He and
his men--some fifty in all--had been living mostly on the outside since
the fall of Nyrac a year ago. They had had seal-tents which they moved
from place to place, and had descended into the tunnels and cities
often through old unguarded airlocks to raid for food, water, air, and
the killing of Coper men. While they fought, they had been a symbol of
resistance to the free people within and beyond the expanding Coper
empire, they had checked its advance a little, they had been a rallying
force and many young men had come to join them. There had been hope.

Then--Rikard and his four companions returned from a scouting trip to
find their camp in the hands of the enemy. They had fought clear, had
been pursued, and finally this squad had hunted them down and captured
the two rebel leaders--and that was all there was to it. That was the
end--the end of the fight, the end of hope, the end most likely of life.

His bitter dark eyes turned on the leader of the squad. That one had
donned a tunic of brilliant colors, the dress of a mighty noble, and
the sword at his waist was jeweled. "Who are you?" he asked coldly.

The lean face smiled. "I am Rayth, prince of Coper City," he answered.
"It was--fortunate for both of us--that I should have happened to lead
the group that found you. Others would have had you killed out of hand,
but I can find better uses for you." He nodded at Leda. "Yes indeed."

Her head lifted haughtily, shining raw gold of hair spilling over broad
shoulders to her supple waist. Rikard snarled and wrenched at his
bonds. They dug harshly into his wrists, and a guard pricked him with a
spear.

Rayth held Rikard's bow between his hands, "This is an unusually fine
weapon," he said. "I hadn't thought the barbarians had anything so
good. You may get it back, but you'll have to earn it."

       *       *       *       *       *

The tunnel opened into a great cavern, a reaching vastness whose
farther walls could not be seen. It was farmland, peasants going
between the long rows of tanks and tending a riotous greenery of food
plants, an occasional hard-faced overseer pausing in his rounds to
salute the prince. They went by a stockyard, cattle, pigs, sheep, and
poultry in their pens, slaves cleaning and feeding. Not far off was a
slaughterhouse, and Rayth's aristocratic nose crinkled.

A winding ramp led up through other levels. They passed the drab,
huddled compartments of the lower classes, gray-clad peasants crowded
with their families into doorless rooms. Above that was a factory
level, where acolyte engineers labored over weapons and tools, over
ore-smelting and refining, and other workmen turned out clothes and
cord and the remaining necessities of life. The party stopped here
to deliver the battle-torn spacesuits for repair. Flexicord would be
mended, plastic melted together again; nobody cared about the stripped
bodies withering on the outside.

Rikard could not forbear to ask: "Where is your air factory?"

"That is farther up, in the Temple and in direct charge of the Chief
Engineer," said Rayth politely. "It is, after all, among the most vital
jobs." He raised his eyebrows. "You didn't have an air plant at Nyrac,
did you?"

"No. We bought or took it from elsewhere as needed."

"Ah, I thought so. Most of the barbarians do. Now, Rikard, you are a
man of intelligence, and I ask you to think a bit. We must have extra
air, to replace that which is lost one way or another, but it takes
skill and some equipment to get it from the minerals in which it is
locked. Rather than war on us, one of the few places where they can
produce it, would it not have been wiser to accept us in friendship and
receive from us a steady and dependable supply?"

"We were freemen. Now we are slaves, and must grovel to your overlords
and give them all we make in exchange for a miserly ration. That is
reason enough to fight you."

"I don't think," said Rayth sardonically, "that your own slaves notice
any change."

Rikard clamped his lips tight.

Above the factory level was a park. It was known that the life of the
air, and hence of man, depended on green plants, so even the smallest
village had its farms and even the outlaws' crowded seal-tents had
contained some pots of vegetation. But Rikard and Leda had never seen
anything like this riot of blooms and rearing trees, had never felt
grass soft and cool beneath their bare feet, and the girl drew a gasp
of wonder and buried her face in a huge sweet cluster of roses.

Rayth drew his sword and cut the flowers and handed them to her with a
bow. "No fairer than you," he smiled.

She cursed and threw them at his feet.

There were folk of noble class around, warriors, administrators,
ranking Engineers, and their children and colorfully gowned women. They
gathered about, laughing, shouting, cheering, and Rayth nodded affably
but led the way onward.

Above the park were the levels of the spacious upper-class apartments,
where others of gentle birth went about in litters and slaves scurried
humbly on their errands. Rikard noticed the guardsmen standing rigidly
here and there, and decided that the power of the overlords was not so
secure as it might look.

On and on, until at last they stood before a high wall ornamented with
murals of ancient triumphs and festivals. Four sentries stood in front
of the door, bringing their spears to rigid salute as Rayth approached.
A footman opened the door and they were ushered into the prince's home.

It was richly furnished, with hangings and vases and furniture of
priceless ancient work--older than the Fall, it must be--as well as
the clumsier recent articles of carved wood and hammered metal. Rayth
led the way to a spacious chamber whose outer window looked on the
sky. Automatically, Rikard stepped over there to make a survey. This
place must be high in the dome which rose over the city's underground
levels. He could look down the great sweep of metal and concrete to the
rugged plain beneath, and out toward the sharply curving horizon and
the mighty ringwall which shouldered above it. The stars thronged and
blazed in a cold glory of sky.

"Unbind them," said Rayth.

Rikard stretched mightily, rubbing cramped arms. Leda stepped over
beside him and her hand stole into his. The guards marched out, except
for two who stood alertly against the wall.

"And now what?" asked the barbarian.

"Why, I suppose you will want to clean yourselves. There is a bathroom
over that way. Afterward we will eat, and then we can talk."

       *       *       *       *       *

There were garments for the prisoners, of a soft colorfulness such as
they had not known since the last time Nyrac captured a trading caravan
in the tunnels, and there was a feast of skillfully prepared meat and
bread, fresh fruit, wine and delicacies for which they had no name.
They sat around the table and gorged.

Rayth exerted himself to be pleasant. He brought in slave girls to
dance and play, he kept the wine glasses full, and the words that
flowed from his smiling lips had nothing to do with immediate reality.
Despite himself, Rikard had to listen with interest and reply where he
could, and Leda sat enchanted.

The prince got onto ancient history, which seemed to be a pet subject
of his. He discoursed of a thousand years of war, politics, conquest
and liberation, dynasties and gods and people, and after the vague
heroic songs of the barbarians it was a new experience to listen to his
crisp cynical prose. They could still read and write in Coper City,
though only a few nobles besides the Engineers took the trouble to
learn, and so they remembered with precision.

"But the Fall?" whispered Leda. "What was that?"

"The Fall from Earth?" Rayth smiled and arched his brows. "Well, my
fair one, suppose you tell me what you think."

"Why--I never thought much about it," she said, her broad clear
forehead wrinkling above the steady blue eyes. "They say that man came
from Earth originally, and sinned, and was condemned to dwell in the
world here until the sin is redeemed. The souls of the dead return to
Earth--"

"Or to Mars, if they are criminals or Copers," grunted Rikard.

Leda threw him a little frown and spread her hands helplessly. "That is
all I know."

"Hm--well, it's the general story. Our Engineers tell it to our own
commons, since it helps keep them in check. But what would you say if I
told you Earth is another world like our own?"

"It couldn't be," said Leda. "The story is that on Earth you can walk
on the outside without a spacesuit. And there is green everywhere, and
great pools of water, and everyone has enough to eat."

"Oh, yes, beyond doubt Earth is not quite the same as Luna. After all,
man and his animals are so ill suited to life here that I think it only
reasonable to suppose they came from Earth--not in any mystic Fall,
but by ordinary physical means."

"They jumped?" asked Rikard scornfully.

"No, they--well--I'll come to that later. They had ways. Such few books
as have survived tell something about what happened. Men came here from
Earth to look for minerals which they needed. Cities were built here
and there over the face of Luna, and tunnels cut to connect them and to
get at the ores. They were wise, those ancients. They built not only
the things we now have and use in a blind fashion, by rote, without
much understanding--smelters, sun-power accumulators, spacesuits, and
all the rest--but they had other things as well. Weapons more deadly
than bow or ax, machines which carried them over the surface and hauled
their loads and did the work we must do by hand--but those things have
long worn out or been destroyed, and their remnants have been wrecked
for the metal in them. We have a few relics in our Temple here, that is
all." Rayth's eyes gleamed briefly.

He went on in a moment. "The sin and the Fall were something different
from what the Engineers have said in their sermons. I don't know
exactly what happened, except that even those wise ancients were not
united, they were divided into--cities, I suppose--and the separate
colonies here were owned by these various cities. A war broke out, not
a war as we know war but something with doom in it, all the power of
the machines turned loose to blast and burn. It must have destroyed
civilization on Earth; at least there have been no visitors from there
in a thousand years or more. Here on Luna the colonies also fought,
but in a more limited way since they had not the greatest engines of
destruction. But it was enough to wipe out many cities--you must have
seen some of the ruins--and to destroy most of the equipment. Such wise
men as survived had not the tools to work with to rebuild all they must
have, and the turbulent new generations paid little heed to teachings
which had no relation to their own experience. The remaining machines
wore out, the wise men died, the cities fought with swords and spears
for the necessities of life, and finally the long night of ignorance
fell on us. And that is the true story of the Fall."

"How do you know?" challenged Rikard.

"Oh, I have read the remaining old books and fragments of books, and
used my own head to piece together what little was known. Coper City
has kept more knowledge than the others anyway. Those went back to
naked barbarism, retaining barely enough tradition to survive; but we,
living in what had been the most important of the old colonies, kept
somewhat more than that. There have always been a few in Coper City who
knew the truth, though they lacked means to do anything about it."

Rikard leaned back in his chair and surveyed the prince with arrogant
eyes. "All right," he said. "I'll accept it. What's the difference
anyway? What do you have us here for and why are you telling us this?"

"Oh--I wanted you to realize that our frank goal of conquering the
world is not the unmitigated evil you insist. It will bring knowledge
to the barbarians, give them back their heritage, and end their stupid
squabbling in a unity of all mankind."

"At the price of making them slaves and paupers!"

"Well, I didn't say we were doing this for our health," said Rayth
mildly. "The outlier raids have been more than a little costly and
annoying to us, and of course we can always use more workers. However,
please don't tell me you are some kind of martyr whose heart bleeds
only for your poor oppressed people. You are angry because your
wealth and power were stripped from you. If you could get those back
threefold--"

       *       *       *       *       *

His keen features jutted over the table as he leaned forward. "We
will impose the social pattern of Coper City everywhere, yes, because
it is our own. But we'll have to take the most able and trustworthy
barbarians into our own noble ranks as full citizens. How would you
like to trade the circumscribed darkness of Nyrac for a dwelling like
this, a score of slaves, a personal guard, a city for your private
estate? How would you like a hand in shaping the future?"

"Hm." Rikard scowled and ran a hand through his stiff black hair. "You
won't give me that for nothing."

"No, no. But you'll need a strong patron, my friend. Everyone else will
assume as a matter of course that you'll be executed or sent to the
mines. It will take all my influence to get you pardoned. In exchange,
you can do me a few services." His teeth flashed white in his beard.
"The first of which can begin now!"

"_Hm?_"

"I want you to kill a man for me."

"Well--" Rikard sat thinking a moment, "Who is he?"

"I'll come to that. It's nobody you know or care about. If you fullfil
that mission, there will be others, and your rise can be swift."

"You turn me loose with a sword," said the barbarian slowly, "and
expect me to do just what you want?"

"Naturally," said Rayth, "I will keep your charming lady as a hostage."
He smiled on Leda and a slow hot flush crept up her cheeks and stained
her breast. "I shall see that she is not bored."

       *       *       *       *       *

With a shave and a haircut, a decent tunic and a sword at his waist
and a feather-cap tilted rakishly over one ear, Rikard could pass for
anyone but the hunted rebel of Nyrac--a young guardsman off duty,
perhaps, recruited from some recently conquered province and swaggering
into the civilization which had swallowed his people. He drew no
special attention as he pushed through the crowded hubbub of the city,
except from an occasional bold-eyed maiden.

Toward the north side of the dome, roughly at ground level, was the
area of those who were more than simple freemen without being quite
nobles--merchants, shopkeepers, independent artisans of all kinds.
Moving through that district, Rikard was struck by the bearing of the
folk, neither servile nor haughty, neither uncouth nor overly mannered,
a more civilized version of the barbarians' egalitarianism. It occurred
to him that this class was an element which had entered into no one's
calculations.

But he had a mission, and the farther he went the more desperate it
began to seem.

_There's little choice_, he thought grayly. _If I'd refused, he'd have
had me slain then and there. But that I, who was chief over the freemen
of Nyrac, should sink to be Rayth's assassin--!_

Kill the Chief Engineer of Coper City.

Rayth had shown him the layout, warned him that the Temple had its own
guards, and said that several of his men had attempted the job before
and failed bloodily. On the other hand, could he but accomplish his
task and fight his way out of the Temple, there'd be a gang of the
prince's bully boys waiting to escort him home. Rikard had pulled off
more daring stunts than this.

As to why the old man should be murdered, Rayth had said little except
that he stood in the way of certain plans, and Rikard, who had small
tenderness for any Copers, didn't inquire further.

He cast a glance behind him now and again as he thrust through
the crowds which swarmed and eddied around bazaars, taverns, and
playhouses, and once or twice thought he glimpsed a couple of the
prince's hard-faced personal guards lounging inconspicuously after
him--but he wasn't sure, the mob was too much a blend of every element
in Luna. A richly dressed, pot-bellied merchant borne in a litter by
four slaves; a pair of gay young warriors staggering out of a tavern
compartment; a hawker shrieking his wares where two corridors ran
together; a wondering leather-clad barbarian; a fantastically painted
strolling player, thrumming his harp and grinning at the girls as they
went by; a humble gray worker; a serious-faced young Engineer, his long
red robes swirling about him--it was a gay and noisy throng, a whirl of
life and color, and Rikard could not altogether suppress an answering
smile. There was nothing like this in the poor little outlier towns.

He came from the passageway to a broad, grassy plaza, and felt a sudden
tightening of his muscles and a rising throb in his breast. Beyond it,
there was a great wall reaching the height of many levels, porticoed
and velvet-hung, with the sign of holy Earth inlaid above the door. The
Temple.

It was past time for services, and few people were in sight before the
wall--mostly acolytes hurrying on their various tasks, and six Temple
guardsmen standing rock-stiff in gilt breast-plates and plumed helmets
before the looming gate. Rikard stood for a moment studying them, the
long pikes and the swords at their hips, and wondered how many more
there were inside the sacred precincts. He drew a deep breath, filling
his nostrils with the cool rich scent of grass and flowering shrubs for
perhaps the final time.

Well--Leda was still Rayth's hostage. He shook himself, straightened
his back, and walked boldly up to the gate.

Two pikes slanted across his path. "Hold! What do you wish?"

"I have to see the Chief Engineer."

"This is not the time for audiences. Come back after the sunrise
ceremonies."

"It won't keep. I bear special news from the Lands-that-see-not-Earth."

The guards captain's face lit with a flicker of interest. "What is it?"

"It's for the ears of his Wisdom alone."

"Then wait your turn."

"Look here," said Rikard, "you can send him a message that it concerns
certain newly found ores of power. If his Wisdom isn't interested,
I'll go my way. But if you don't do this much, I'd hate to be in your
skin when he learns what you've kept from him."

"Hmmm--well--" The captain rubbed his chin. There was a superstitious
awe deep within his eyes, and the other sentries gaped. "Well, all
right." He peered narrowly at the barbarian, "You're not of the city.
Where are you from?"

"Moonburg, if you must know. But my message!"

The captain blew a whistle, and an acolyte came forth from within to
receive the word and run back with it. Rikard stood waiting, trying not
to shiver with the gathering tautness of the moment. Rayth had told
him to give this message, and it seemed to work. The prince had added
that the Temple was seeking to recover the lost secret of the legendary
Tommic's Power, so immensely more potent than the sunlight batteries,
but had not gone far for lack of the necessary metals. To Rikard,
Tommic had merely been a local god worshipped by some towns, though in
other stories he was the devil responsible for the Fall.

"Your sword," said the captain.

Rikard shrugged. It was understandable that no visitor should bear
weapons within the Temple, especially after Rayth's last few attempts.
He unslung his glaive and handed it over, and permitted them to search
him for concealed knives. It did not seem to occur to them, in spite of
his hard-thewed size, that hands and shod feet have killed men.

The acolyte returned, a full Engineer with him. The latter spoke
hurriedly. "Who are you, stranger, and what is this word you bear?"

"I am Atli Athur's son of Moonburg, your Knowledge," said Rikard,
bowing as low as his stiff-necked soul permitted him. "If it please
you, this word I have should not be discussed out in public."

"No--no--certainly not. I'll take you to his Wisdom. Follow me."

Rikard went after the swirling red robe, his narrowed eyes taking
careful note of everything they passed. Down a long muraled corridor,
opening into rooms which seemed oddly little like religious
centers--they glittered with metal and glass and plastic, and Engineers
in drab, stained smocks labored with a bewildering variety of
instruments, past a couple of guardsmen--

The thing to do, he thought grimly, was to break the old fellow's
neck, grab a sword from the nearest armed man, and try to cut his way
out. None of Rayth's men were allowed inside the Temple, but if they
were waiting just beyond the gates he might have some chance.

The corridor ended in a tall doorway where four sentries in gold and
scarlet stood by rigidly held pikes. Beyond was the great audience
chamber.

It was lavishly furnished, gold and jewels and velvet and the lovely
ancient works. The far side was a great sheet of plastic opening on
the raw splendor of landscape and an Earth at the full, its eerie blue
radiance streaming in to blend with the soft glow of fluorotubes.
Rikard had little time for esthetics; his gaze roved in search of
enemies.

No soldiers in this room, and the Engineer who guided him was closing
the massive door on the sentries--praise the gods, it gave him a chance
to kill the Chief and burst out and surprise those men! About a dozen
Engineers stood around the Throne of Wisdom--high-ranking to judge from
their robes, most of them young and burly, not a one of them bearing
sword or dagger.

Rikard knelt before the Throne until a voice that was almost a whisper
said: "Rise, my son, and say your message."

"Thank you, your Wisdom." The rebel got up and moved closer to the old
man who sat before him. A very old man, he saw, thin and stooped and
frail, with a halo of white hair about the gaunt face and the luminous
eyes and the wonderful dome of a forehead. For an instant, Rikard
despised himself.

But Leda, Leda of the fair tresses and the low sweet laughter and the
undaunted gallantry, Leda was hostage to Rayth.

"You brought word of ores of power found on the far side of Luna," said
the Chief Engineer. He pursed his lips and tapped his knee with the
jeweled slide rule of his office. "But how would the heathen there know
what to look for?"

"They weren't looking for anything, your Wisdom," replied Rikard.
He stood some five feet away--one easy jump. "It was a certain
Engineer-educated trader from this city, Borsu by name, who several
years ago was captured by Moonburg men attacking a caravan of his. I
had him for slave, but he was so bold and wise a man that soon we were
more friends than master and servant, and it was he who organized an
expedition to the heathen lands. He thought their ores, which we on
Earthside have little exploited, could be obtained for our manufactured
goods at a fine profit and sold here in Coper City. It was he who
saw those deposits and had them mined. On our return, we found that
Moonburg had been brought under your city's rule, but nevertheless--"

They were relaxing their wariness, intent on his account.

"--we thought that we could still do business, especially with the
Temple. As Borsu was ill, I left him in Moonburg and came myself to--"

       *       *       *       *       *

He hit the Chief Engineer with a smack of bodies and his hands closed
around the thin neck.

Thunder and stars exploded in his skull. He reeled aside, falling to
the ground, and the Engineer rushed on him with the club he had pulled
from his long sleeve.

Rikard kicked out, and the Coper flew backward, grunting. The barbarian
snarled and lurched to his feet. Swords and daggers gleamed as the
others yanked them from concealment.

Trapped. They weren't stupid, these Engineers, and now he was trapped!

Rikard hurled himself forward in a flying tackle, hit the nearest man
and rolled over on the floor with him. Wrenching the fellow's dagger
loose, he bounded back to his feet and rushed another Engineer.

"Alive!" screamed the old man. "Take him alive!"

For the torture cells--no! Rikard closed with the Engineer, stabbing
him in the shoulder before he could slash with his sword. He pulled the
glaive loose and backed toward the wall, growling, sword in one hand
and dagger in the other. The men formed a defensive line around their
Chief and brandished their blades.

The wounded Engineer rose suddenly and sprinted for the door. Rikard
threw the knife after him, missed, and groaned as the door was swung
wide and the four guardsmen entered.

"Ha, Nyrac!" he yelled and threw himself upon them. His sword whistled,
clanged off the metal shaft of the nearest pike, and raked the cuirass
beyond. Another guard hit him with the butt of his pike and he
staggered. Now the blows rained on him, smashing thunder of violence
and lightning-shot darkness. The sword fell from his hand and he
toppled, still cursing. Someone kicked him as he fell.

He lay there, half conscious, mumbling through a mask of blood while
they bound him. When the reeling and the blurring ended, and only the
thumping pain and the slow drip of red were left, he sat up and glared
at them where they stood around him.

"I thought Rayth was wiser than that," muttered an Engineer.

"It wasn't a bad trick." The old man fingered his throat with a wry
smile. "He almost made it. But who are you, so bold as to go alone and
unarmed in war against the Temple?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Rikard shook his ringing head. The sickness in him was as much from
stupefied dismay as from his hurts. That he should have failed--that he
should have been captured and bound like a pig for slaughter the second
time!

"Hm--now let me think." The Chief Engineer stroked his chin. "Obviously
Rayth would only have tried this with an assassin so bold and strong
that there would be some chance of success, and at the same time one
over whom he had enough of a hold to drive him to this desperate
mission. Now it is only ten or fifteen hours since we heard that the
mighty Rikard of Nyrac had been captured by this same Rayth."

"Rikard of Nyrac--aye, your Wisdom, they said he was big and dark, it
must be he. Right?" A foot kicked the prisoner.

"Gently, Wanno, gently. There is no cause to maltreat him when he is
helpless. Nobody was killed in this little affair." The Chief Engineer
stooped over Rikard and smiled. "See here, my friend, I have no ill
will for you. I've chuckled for a long time over your impudent bearding
of the Coper lords, and I wouldn't mind doing you a good turn if you'd
let me."

"But first I have to do something for you, eh?" Rikard grinned without
humor. "It seems to be a city custom."

"Be reasonable, man. You've failed your mission; Rayth will have no
further use for you, and only here is there protection. I daresay
you've no love for Rayth, and he is our greatest enemy as well."

Rikard was silent.

"Now what reason did you have to do his foul work for him? I cannot
quite imagine Rikard of Nyrac turning assassin for hire."

"They say a woman was captured with him, your Wisdom," said one of the
Engineers thoughtfully.

"Ah, so. And Rayth holds her. Hm." The Chief Engineer paced back and
forth, the robes swirling around his thin stooped form. Suddenly he
said: "Bring this man a bowl of wine."

It was a fire coursing in his veins, the leaden haze lifted from his
mind and he looked at his captors with cleared eyes. The Chief Engineer
said to him:

"Rikard, this is the situation in Coper City. The old bold dynasty
of the Mayors has faded till the last of them sits bibbing in his
apartments with little interest in anything save a new wench. Meanwhile
the struggle for the real power over this growing empire lies between
the great nobles, of whom Rayth is chief, and the Temple, which
recruits from all ranks and is thus closer to the people and more alive
to their wants. The world has come down far since the Fall. What was a
wise and glorious and adventurous civilization has been destroyed, and
this, its successor, is stagnant and cruel and ignorant; it has done
little which was new or decent in a thousand years. I do not say that
the Temple is blameless; the early Chief Engineers found it convenient
to monopolize what true knowledge was left and to ally themselves with
the nobles in crushing the commons. But in the past generation we have
tried to make some amends, we have spoken against human slavery and
unjust laws, and we would like to teach all men enough to make them
more than walking bellies. Temple and nobles agree that man must be
united--"

Rikard snarled at him.

"--but it is rather for us to learn freedom from the barbarians, in
exchange for our order and culture, than for them to be enslaved by
us; and there is a sharp split between the parties. Furthermore, we
have tried to regain the ancient knowledge by the methods with which
it was won in the first place--that is, by trying our ideas to see if
they work, rather than by blind acceptance of ancient authority. You
must have noticed our laboratories as you entered. But this leads to
heretical questioning of everything, and the nobles do not like it.

"Thus Rayth has several times sought to have me assassinated. There is
little I can do save guard against it--I would get no satisfaction in
the courts. If he should succeed, he could use his influence and very
likely get one of his own hand-picked Engineers named to my office. For
we--scientists--are a small party in the Temple, and only the more or
less accidental fact that I was converted to such views shortly after
assuming the slide rule has given us our success. If we could somehow
overcome him, there would be a chance to make some improvement in human
life, perhaps even to reach Earth eventually. If we fail, as seems all
too probable, the long night will descend completely."

He stopped, and there was a moment's silence in the great chamber.
Then Rikard said: "I suppose you're telling me more or less the truth.
I don't really care, one way or the other. But why? What do you want of
me?"

"I don't know," said the Chief Engineer frankly. "I really don't know
whether it wouldn't be safer all around just to return your head to
Rayth. But--Rikard, the Temple has been at one grave disadvantage. Its
younger men are often doughty fighters, as you have seen, but they
are still mostly technicians, intellectuals, people without practical
experience in warfare. You, on the other hand, have fought all your
life. If you have any suggestions, they will be carefully considered."

"And what do I get from this?"

"Your life, of course, and your freedom. Likewise your woman's, if
we can save her. We can talk later of other rewards. You may find it
worthwhile to work with us."

Rikard leaned back against the wall, letting his mind slide over the
facts and the chances. Presently he nodded his blood-matted head and
began to talk.

       *       *       *       *       *

The Temple gate burst open and the big man shot out in a flying leap
that carried him over the heads of the sentries to land on the plaza
grass. A spear flew after him. He grabbed it and whirled about and
threw it back.

"Stop him!" roared an Engineer. "Kill him! He killed the Chief!"

The guards sprang at Rikard, yelling, and others boiled out of the
Temple in their wake. He was already fleeing toward the corridor
beyond. A shrieking laborer sought to bring him down--he kicked the man
in the teeth, beat another aside with the flat of his sword, and pushed
a way into the suddenly milling throng.

Half a dozen armed men were around him, blades flashing out. One
grinned savagely in his beard. "We thought you were dead," he gasped.
"You were in there so long--"

"We'll all be dead if we don't get out of here," snapped Rikard.

The raging Temple warriors were crowding through the press of humanity
toward them. And from the swirling mob there seemed to rise one great
groan.

"_The Chief is dead.... The Chief is dead.... They killed him, the
dirty murdering nobles_--"

The old fellow's claim to be beloved of the people was not a lie,
thought Rikard tautly, and crammed a fist into the mouth of the nearest
man who rushed, weeping and cursing at him.

Swords and pikes clattered together as the guards hit the tight circle
of Rayth's warriors. Rikard led the retreat, his sword whistling and
thumping--he did not cut, but he hammered a way through the mob, and it
fell back before his great bloody shape.

"The ramp--over there--"

They braced themselves and leaped, ten feet straight up, arcing forward
to land on the upward-curving surface. Then they ran!

A hurled spear flashed, and one of Rayth's men toppled. Two more had
been pulled down by the bare hands of the commons, and another had
fallen in the retreat. The crowd, half angry, half frightened, moved
slowly after them.

They dashed into a corridor on the noble level, and the two city
guardsmen posted there clanged the gate shut in the face of pursuit.
Panting, they stopped and looked at each other.

"There'll be Mars to pay down there," said the leader hoarsely.
"Riots--"

"Take me to his Excellency," said Rikard.

"Aye--at once--and good work, barbarian! You did a job that we've tried
to do for the past five years."

They went swiftly down the long passageways, up ramps and stairs, past
the sumptuous apartments of the rich where men and women, children and
servants and slaves cowered at sight of drawn weapons and at the faint,
rising noise of the lower levels. When they came to Rayth's door, they
entered without ceremony.

The prince leaped to his feet, spilling his wine-glass, and the lean
bearded face blazed at Rikard. "Is it done?" he yelled. "Did you really
do it?"

"Aye--aye--" The rebel leaned wearily on his sword and let his eyes
rove the chamber. There were seven or eight other men seated around the
table, mostly older and fatter than Rayth but all with the rich dress
and the inbred hauteur of the rulers. There was also a high-ranking
Engineer, a sly-faced elderly man whose heavy-lidded eyes barely
flicked over the newcomers before retreating back to their own dreams.
But it was to Leda that Rikard's gaze went first, Leda who had been
sprawling sullen and splendid on a couch and who now started up and ran
to him and clung wordlessly to his bleeding form.

"Aye, he's dead," nodded the barbarian.

"It took you several hours," said Rayth. "I was sure you had failed."

"They made me wait a long time while the Chief finished an--an
experiment, they called it. But I got at him, broke his neck, and
grabbed a sword and chopped my way out." Rikard strode boldly over to
the table and grabbed up a glass and drained it.

"Do you hear that?" Rayth turned on the others and his voice rose to a
shout. "Do you hear that?" His laughter was loud and wild. "He's dead!
His Wisdom Laon XIII, Chief Engineer of Coper City, is dead! Are you
ready to assume the post, Jastur?" he cried to the Engineer, "Would you
like to take the name of Laon XIV?"

"It might be a good idea to wait for some confirmation," said the other
imperturbably.

Rayth paced the chamber, restlessly, eyes smoldering, and the guests
muttered to each other. Rikard and Leda paid no attention; they were
holding close, and his hands and lips caressed her with a new and
desperate tenderness.

Someone else entered, a strong young acolyte who saluted and said
between gasps for air: "He's dead, sirs, he's been killed, and it's
Mars down there! The commons are running wild!" There was a knife-slash
across his face; blood dripped slowly to the red of his gown.

"What did you see?" snapped Rayth. He sprang over and grabbed the
acolyte by the shoulders and shook him, "What did you see?"

"I--I heard a great uproar in the audience chamber, through the closed
doors. That must have been something else, though, for his Wis--old
Laon came out and went into a laboratory. Then some hours later he
returned to the chamber, and--and presently there was another noise,
louder and lasting longer--then I saw this man here burst out, knock
down a guard in his way, and go down the hall, I looked in--they were
lying heaped in blood, and an Engineer came in and lifted the old man
and shrieked that he was dead. Then there was panic, everyone running,
guards fighting to get out after the killer--I slipped away and came
here as you told me, sir--"

       *       *       *       *       *

"Dead!" Rayth's shout echoed between the walls. "Dead, d'you hear?
After five years I've killed the old swine, and Temple and commons
alike are rioting--What more excuse do we need?"

"Excuse?" whispered a noble.

"Certainly!" Rayth grinned. "As a public-spirited gesture, we assemble
our personal guards and march them down there to restore order. With
the Temple occupied by us, your election to the slide rule becomes a
certainty, Jastur."

"There'll be fighting," said the Engineer nervously. "The young
Engineers are--were--almost all on his side, you know; they won't
receive you kindly--and then there are the commons--"

"Bah! Engineers and mobs against trained blades? Certainly there'll be
bloodletting, but it won't be our blood--at least, if we can get down
there before they have time to organize."

Rayth lifted his voice to a shout, and a guards officer stepped in and
saluted. There was something like terror under his hard-held mask.
Rayth snapped swift orders and he ran off.

"We'll unite all our personal forces," said the prince, biting the
words out as he paced from wall to wall. "The Mayor's men and the
regular city guards aren't to be relied on; I wouldn't be surprised if
half of them swung to the Temple's side if they get a chance. Most of
the regular army is out of the city, on garrison or combat duty, and
it wouldn't be too safe either. But between us we've got three hundred
trained bold men ready to follow us down there."

"_Us?_" squeaked a noble.

"Oh, stay if you want. I'm going down!" Rayth turned to clap Rikard's
shoulder, "You too, my friend. You've done well, oh, excellently well,
and you'll have a rich reward!"

The Nyracan shrugged. Inwardly, he was filled with a sudden wonder as
to whether he had done the right thing or not. He didn't much care,
really, who won; they were all Copers to him--but the prince's payment
was more certain and tangible than the Temple's, and--

Too late now.

He went into the bathroom, where Leda washed and bandaged his hurts and
whispered to him: "There is more behind this than you say, my dearest,
I know you too well."

"Aye, there is, but I can't tell you now. Stay close by me and don't be
too surprised at anything I may do."

Leda went back to Rayth and said: "Give me a blade too."

"You--a woman?" he asked.

"I've sent more men to Earth than you ever did," she snapped. "From
here on, Rikard and I fight together."

"Well--I hate to risk such beauty being hacked up--but far be it
from me to oppose that beauty's lightest wish," laughed the Coper.
"Remember, though--you'll be among my own troops, and they don't take
kindly to traitors."

She smiled at him. "How could anyone betray you?" she whispered.

"The oldest trick in the world," sighed Rayth, "and it still works.
Very well, take what you wish from the armor chest over there."

She and Rikard equipped themselves with weapons--a sword for her, an ax
for him--cuirasses, and helmets. By that time they could hear the sound
of marching feet. Rayth buckled on his own armor, lifted his sword in a
mocking salute to his timorous comrades, and walked out into the hall.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was a strong and well-trained force, filling the corridor with hard
bodies and edged steel, pikes and axes aloft, raising a shout that
roared and boomed down the hall as Rayth appeared. He put himself in
the van, with the barbarians in the second rank behind his, and the
troop started off to battle.

Clang of booted feet slammed echoing on the metal floor, rattle and
clash of armor, grim jests tossed from lip to bearded lip. These were
the killers, the professionals without fear of man or Earth, the
trained elite which formed an army within an army and the fulcrum of
the noble power. Watching them, marching with them, Rikard felt a
sudden sick doubt within him. Untrained barbarians had toppled before
this iron weapon--

They came to the closed gate, and Rayth unlocked it and led the way
down the ramp beyond. Level after level dropped past them, deserted
now, silent and empty, but the broken roaring from below had grown,
screaming its outrage, screaming for blood.

When they emerged on a landing at the ceiling of the Temple level and
looked down twenty feet, it was to a boiling pool of humankind, gray
workers, naked slaves, velvet merchants, leather artisans, women and
children, howling and trampling until the din shook the walls and
rattled the teeth in a man's skull. The surge of white, hating faces
reached beyond vision, mouths agape, eyes red and running, animal
voices barking and clamoring. Rikard had never seen a true mob before,
and the elemental violence of it shook even his calloused soul. It did
not occur to him to regret the fact that many of these people must die.

Rayth stood for an instant stroking his beard, thinking, and then he
lifted his sword and sprang over the rail. The lines followed him,
jumping one by one, a dozen men simultaneously floating down with pikes
reaching beneath them.

They landed among the mob, hewing a clear way even as they fell, and
struck out. The crowd surged back, leaving red remnants underfoot, and
the troopers continued to leap--forward ranks pressing toward the
Temple, while the rearward lines were still jumping. Rayth's blade
whistled and butchered; his face was alight with a dark glee. Rikard
and Leda, sandwiched between others, could do nothing but add the
weight of their bodies to the mass of the troop. The pack howled and
bayed and cursed around them.

Missiles began to fly, hammers, ore-lumps, crowbars, wrenches, anvils
hurled by brawny arms. A guardsman staggered and fell, his face cracked
open. Another was seized by the cloak, dragged into a group of women,
and carved with butcher knives. A third had his pike snatched from him,
and a big smith jabbed it into the throat of a fourth before he was
killed. The crowd gave way before the ruthlessly advancing soldiers,
but it closed behind them and filled the air with noise and flying
death.

"_They killed the Chief!_"

Leda's eyes were wide and her breast rose and fell behind the binding
corselet. Her voice came dimly to Rikard under the boom and howl of raw
voices. "They hate us!"

"So they do." He smiled bleakly.

Now the Temple was before them, its high wall looming over the trample
and clamor, a thin line of its own guards holding back the rioters.
Rayth's red blade lifted anew, and his bugler wound a single harsh
note. The troop moved forward on the double.

Vaguely, Rikard heard the prince calling to the guards, "Let us
through--Mayor's order--protect you--"

"No one goes in--you bloody swine!"

The bugle screamed again and the soldiers locked ranks and charged.

Swords and pikes clanged at the gate; the sudden recoil hurled the rear
lines backward. Rikard grabbed Leda's flowing hair and pulled her ear
close to his lips and muttered swiftly, "Listen, we're with the Temple.
First chance you get, break free and go over to them--once we're
inside!"

She clasped his hand, briefly, and then the sentries were down and the
troop rushed inside.

Beyond was a long narrow darkness of corridor. Nothing stirred, nothing
spoke; they hastened through a fumbling gloom with only their footfalls
and hoarse breathing and clash of metal for company. Rikard heard
Rayth's voice, puzzled. "Where are the others? The Temple has plenty
of its own guardsmen, where are they? Has everyone fled?" Then, he
laughed. "If so, why, it makes our task all the easier. Forward!"

They burst into the great audience chamber, and it was lighted and the
Temple was waiting for them.

The young Engineers were reinforced by commoners, weapons in hand and
armored in spacesuits.

The invaders let out one roar and the forward ranks hurled spears that
bounced off metal and plastic and tough cord. From the Engineers,
arrows suddenly darkened the air, the whistling death flamed among the
soldiers and the lines sagged amidst their toppling members.

There was a press from the rear, men driven forward, and in the
instant's bawling panic only Rikard knew what it was--the Temple
guardsmen, aided perhaps by armed commoners themselves, throwing their
power out of the rooms and side passages where it had lurked, blocking
the troop's retreat and falling on it from the rear!

The line eddied and swirled about him, spears flying, arrows and hurled
throwing-axes, the ranks of Rayth buckling under pressure from both
ends. Time to get out of here, before anyone suspected that he, Rikard
of Nyrac, had led them into the trap.

He turned on the man beside him and his ax hewed low, shearing through
flesh and bone of a leg. As the screaming warrior fell, he brought
his weapon up, a backhanded blow crashing into the face beyond. The
man behind him thrust from the side; he took the spear on his cuirass
and kneed viciously. Stooping over, he undercut another of his late
companions, and Leda reached over his back to slash down the soldier
beyond.

Rikard bent his knees and leaped, soaring over the fallen, a dozen
pikes stabbing up after him. He hardly noticed the sharp bright pain
where one raked his thigh; he was through their line and Leda was with
him. They drifted down among the Engineers.

       *       *       *       *       *

A big red-faced young man snarled behind his space helmet and lifted
an ax as Rikard descended. Someone else grabbed his arm. The helmets
were left propped open, and his voice could reach. "No, Shan, those are
friends!"

"Oh, sorry--I forgot." Shan swung about and spattered the brains of the
nearest trooper.

The fight was now pressed into the audience chamber; men jammed
together, slashing and hacking at arm's range--there'd soon be more
room, thought Rikard grimly, and took his place in the Engineer line.
The Temple, though, had order and plans of a sort, however relatively
untrained its fighters were, while the invaders were broken up into
knots and fragments where their discipline could not exist. The
important thing was to hit them, and keep hitting them, so they didn't
get a chance to reform.

His ax smote, clanging off metal, raking the face and the arm behind.
A blade hacked at him; he caught it on his helve and turned the blow
and hewed back. Leda was beside him, her clear war-cry raising as she
stabbed and struck; Shan the Engineer was chopping and roaring pious
mottoes on his other flank: the Temple men pushed against the roiling
soldiers, took their blows on their heavier armor, and gave them back
with murder behind. The clamor of men and metal was a roar as of
sundering worlds.

Rayth was fighting like a demon, his blade whirling and shrieking,
his voice lifted in a rallying-cry that drew his scattered followers
together. He had courage, thought Rikard above the snarl of
combat--perhaps he was a fitter chief after all. But too late now!

Ha, there went another, tumbling with his head half off his
shoulders--so, a helmet crumpled, and the skull beneath it.

Back and forth the battle raged, breaking and tearing, ruining the
chamber and the lives of men, and over it lifted the great calm disc
of Earth and the million scornful stars. Back and forth, trampling,
sundering, killing and laming, and Rikard was painted with blood and
his arms grew weary from swinging the ax.

The chamber began to clear as men fell; it was floored with corpses and
one had room to cast a spear or take a flying leap down on the head
of an enemy. The soldiers had suffered hideously, but there were many
Temple dead, ordinary guardsmen, scantily armored commoners, Engineers
with their spacesuits pierced or their helmets cloven. The fight was
breaking into knots and clusters, small whirlpools of murder swaying
back and forth over the great blood-wet space, men springing through
the air at each other. It seemed to Rikard, as he raised blurred eyes
toward holy Earth, that the disc had grown noticeably gibbous--had they
fought that long?

"Over here! Stand and fight, men of Coper!"

It was Rayth, backed into a corner above a high heap of fallen Temple
men, foremost in a grim and haggard line of troopers hurling back wave
after wave. Rikard shook his head, a sudden dark sense of destiny on
him, and moved across the floor with lifted ax.

"You," said Rayth, very softly. "You--the triple turncoat--" Suddenly
he threw back his head and laughter pulsed in his throat. "Oh, it was
lovely, man, lovely, I never thought you had that kind of brains! Shall
we play the game out?"

He stepped from his line, tossing his sword and catching it again,
kissed his hand to Leda, and fell into an alert position before Rikard.
The barbarian growled, squared off, and fell on him.

Rayth danced aside from the shrieking ax, and his blade whipped in
against Rikard's throat. The rebel rolled, barely ducking the thrust,
and Rayth grinned without much malice and sprang at him. His sword
clattered and yelled, biting the Nyracan's arms, bouncing off the
hard-held guard to sing around his opponent's ears. Rikard fell back,
grunting in surprise, and Rayth pursued him, lightfooted, leaping,
playing with him.

Scream and clangor of steel, hoarse gasps for breath, bounding human
forms in a strange and terrible grace of murder, clash and bite and
two faces staring into each other's eyes across the web of flying
metal. Rikard hewed out again and again, cleaving empty air; his
phantom enemy was somewhere else to rake him until he staggered and
splashed his blood on the floor.

Leda yelled and sprang on Rayth from behind. His sword whirled around,
caught in the guard of hers and sent it spinning free, and slewed
back to meet Rikard's charge. He retreated before the rebel's rush,
laughing, parrying blow after clumsy blow, waiting for the end.

       *       *       *       *       *

It came swiftly. Rikard's bull charge forced Rayth back into a corner
where he braced himself and smiled. As the ax whirred down toward his
skull, he lifted his blade to parry it as he had done before--and the
steel broke across.

Rikard stood gasping, reeling on his feet, looking down at the body
of his foe with a numbness stealing over him. He hardly noticed the
sobbing girl who flung herself into his arms; he stood mute for a long
while and when he spoke at last it was dully.

"That wasn't right. I didn't kill him--a flaw in his blade did--it
isn't right, somehow."

The Chief Engineer came to Rikard where he stood watching the first
harsh glare of sunrise creep over the heights of Copernicus. The
barbarian leaned heavily on his woman. He had taken many hurts.

       *       *       *       *       *

Laon's old face was drawn with weariness; there was no great triumph in
him. "It's over," he said. "It was a bloody, horrible business, but we
hold the entire city now, all levels; the nobles are our prisoners and
the Mayor is our puppet and the Temple is victorious. Thanks to you, my
friend."

"There is more to do," said Rikard. "The armies will hear about this,
out in the conquered provinces, and many of them, at least, won't like
it. There'll be hard fighting to hold what we have."

"Oh, yes. Though I think with some diplomacy, and with the provinces
restless at their backs, they may decide--well, we must see. And
afterward there is much more to do, generations of work--Are you with
us, Rikard?"

"I suppose so. I'll have to think about it. Nyrac should not be a mere
province, but--well--I'll think about it."

"At least," said Laon, "we can rest a little while now."

"It's over, darling, darling," whispered Leda. "The fight is over."

Rikard held her close, but he was thinking of the armies beyond the
city, and the restlessness of the conquered towns and the ruthless
will of those still free; of the long task of raising men turned into
brutes by centuries of injustice and oppression, of making them free
and fit to use their freedom, and of all the evil elements which would
be seeking to thwart that goal; of the still greater war to be fought
by quiet men. In the Temple, the war to regain the lost wisdom of the
ancients, the battle which would hammer out the long road back to Earth.

"No, Leda," he said, very softly, "it's just beginning."



*** End of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "The Temple of Earth" ***

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