The cold equationstom Godwin

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Part 4When spring came Steve Schroeder was leader, as Lake had wanted. It was a duty and a responsibility that would be under circumstances different from those of any of the leaders before him. The grim fight was over for a while. They were adapted and increasing in number; going into Big Summer and into a renascence that would last for fifty years. They would have half a century in which to develop their environment to its fullest extent. Then Big Fall would come, to destroy all they had accomplished, and the Gerns would come, to destroy them.It was his job to make certain that by then they would be stronger than either.* * *He went north with nine men as soon as the weather permitted. It was hard to retrace the route of the summer before, without compasses, among the hills which looked all the same as far as their binoculars could reach, and it was summer when they saw the hill with the monument. They found Lake's bones a few miles south of it, scattered by the scavengers as were the little bones of his mocker. They buried them together, man and mocker, and went silently on toward the hill.They had brought a little hand-cranked diamond drill with them to bore holes in the hard granite and black powder for blasting. They mined the vein, sorting out the ore from the waste and saving every particle.The vein was narrow at the surface and pinched very rapidly. At a depth of six feet it was a knife-blade seam; at ten feet it was only a red discoloration in the bottom of their shaft."That seems to be all of it," he said to the others. "We'll send men up here next year to go deeper and farther along its course but I have an idea we've just mined all of the only iron vein on Ragnarok. It will be enough for our purpose."They sewed the ore in strong rawhide sacks and then prospected, without success, until it was time for the last unicorn band to pass by on its way south. They trapped ten unicorns and hobbled their legs, with other ropes reaching from horn to hind leg on each side to prevent them from swinging back their heads or even lifting them high.They had expected the capture and hobbling of the unicorns to be a difficult and dangerous job and it was. But when they were finished the unicorns were helpless. They could move awkwardly about to graze but they could not charge. They could only stand with lowered heads and fume and rumble.The ore sacks were tied on one frosty morning and the men mounted. The horn-leg ropes were loosened so the unicorns could travel, and the unicorns went into a frenzy of bucking and rearing, squealing with rage as they tried to impale their riders.The short spears, stabbing at the sensitive spot behind the jawbones of the unicorns, thwarted the backward flung heads and the unicorns were slowly forced into submission. The last one conceded temporary defeat and the long journey to the south started, the unicorns going in the run that they could maintain hour after hour.Each day they pushed the unicorns until they were too weary to fight at night. Each morning, rested, the unicorns resumed the battle. It became an expected routine for both unicorns and men.The unicorns were released when the ore was unloaded at the foot of the hill before the caves and Schroeder went to the new waterwheel, where the new generator was already in place. There George Craig told him of the unexpected obstacle that had appeared."We're stuck," George said. "The aluminum ore isn't what we thought it would be. It's scarce and very low grade, of such a complex nature that we can't refine it to the oxide with what we have to work with on Ragnarok.""Have you produced any aluminum oxide at all?""A little. We might have enough for the wire in a hundred years if we kept at it hard enough.""What else do you need—was there enough cryolite?" he asked."Not much of it, but enough. We have the generator set up, the smelting box built and the carbon lining and rods ready. We have everything we need to smelt aluminum ore—except the aluminum ore.""Go ahead and finish up the details, such as installing the lining," he said. "We didn't get this far to be stopped now."But the prospecting parties, making full use of the time left them before winter closed down, returned late that fall to report no sign of the ore they needed.Spring came and he was determined they would be smelting aluminum before the summer was over even though he had no idea where the ore would be found. They needed aluminum ore of a grade high enough that they could extract the pure aluminum oxide. Specifically, they needed aluminum oxide . . . Then he saw the answer to their problem, so obvious that all of them had overlooked it.He passed by four children playing a game in front of the caves that day; some kind of a checker-like game in which differently colored rocks represented the different children. One boy was using red stones; some of the rubies that had been brought back as curios from the chasm. Rubies were of no use or value on Ragnarok; only pretty rocks for children to play with . . . Only pretty rock?—rubies and sapphires were corundum, were pure aluminum oxide! He went to tell George and to arrange for a party of men to go into the chasm after all the rubies and sapphires they could find. The last obstacle had been surmounted.The summer sun was hot the day the generator hummed into life. The carbon-lined smelting box was ready and the current flowed between the heavy carbon rods suspended in the cryolite and the lining, transforming the cryolite into a liquid. The crushed rubies and sapphires were fed into the box, glowing and glittering in blood-red and sky-blue scintillations of light, to be deprived by the current of their life and fire and be changed into something entirely different.When the time came to draw off some of the metal they opened the orifice in the lower corner of the box. Molten aluminum flowed out into the ingot mold in a little stream; more beautiful to them than any gems could ever be, bright and gleaming in its promise that more than six generations of imprisonment would soon be ended.* * *The aluminum smelting continued until the supply of rubies and sapphires in the chasm had been exhausted but for small and scattered fragments. It was enough, with some aluminum above the amount needed for the wire.It was the year one hundred and fifty-two when they smelted the aluminum. In eight more years they would reach the middle of Big Summer; the suns would start their long drift southward, not to return for one hundred and fifty years. Time was passing swiftly by for them and there was none of it to waste . . . The making of ceramics was developed to an art, as was the making of different types of glass. Looms were built to spin thread and cloth from woods goat wool, and vegetables dyes were discovered. Exploration parties crossed the continent to the eastern and western seas; salty and lifeless seas that were bordered by immense deserts. No trees of any kind grew along their shores and ships could not be built to cross them.Efforts were continued to develop an inorganic field of chemistry, with discouraging results, but in one hundred and fifty-nine the orange corn was successfully adapted to the elevation and climate of the caves.There was enough that year to feed the mockers all winter, supply next year's seeds, and leave enough that it could be ground and baked into bread for all to taste.It tasted strange, but good. It was, Schroeder thought, symbolic of a great forward step. It was the first time in generations that any of them had known any food but meat. The corn would make them less dependent upon hunting and, of paramount importance, it was the type of food to which they would have to become accustomed in the future—they could not carry herds of woods goats and unicorns with them on Gern battle cruisers.The lack of metals hindered them wherever they turned in their efforts to build even the simplest machines or weapons. Despite its dubious prospects, however, they made a rifle-like gun.The barrel of it was thick, of the hardest, toughest ceramic material they could produce. It was a cumbersome, heavy thing, firing with a flintlock action, and it could not be loaded with much powder lest the charge burst the barrel.The flintlock ignition was not instantaneous, the light-weight porcelain bullet had far less penetrating power than an arrow, and the thing boomed and belched out a cloud of smoke that would have shown the Gerns exactly where the shooter was located.It was an interesting curio and the firing of it was something spectacular to behold but it was a weapon apt to be much more dangerous to the man behind it than to the Gern it was aimed at. Automatic crossbows were far better.Woods goats had been trapped and housed during the summers in shelters where sprays of water maintained a temperature cool enough for them to survive. Only the young were kept when fall came, to be sheltered through the winter in one of the caves. Each new generation was subjected to more heat in the summer and more cold in the winter than the generation before it and by the year one hundred and sixty the woods goats were well on their way toward adaptation.The next year they trapped two unicorns, to begin the job of adapting and taming future generations of them. If they succeeded they would have utilized the resources of Ragnarok to the limit—except for what should be their most valuable ally with which to fight the Gerns: the prowlers.For twenty years prowlers had observed a truce wherein they would not go hunting for men if men would stay away from their routes of travel. But it was a truce only and there was no indication that it could ever evolve into friendship.Three times in the past, half-grown prowlers had been captured and caged in the hope of taming them. Each time they had paced their cages, looking longingly into the distance, refusing to eat and defiant until they died.To prowlers, as to some men, freedom was more precious than life. And each time a prowler had been captured the free ones had retaliated with a resurgence of savage attacks.There seemed no way that men and prowlers could ever meet on common ground. They were alien to one another, separated by the gulf of an origin on worlds two hundred and fifty light-years apart. Their only common heritage was the will of each to battle.But in the spring of one hundred and sixty-one, for a little while one day, the gulf was bridged.* * *Schroeder was returning from a trip he had taken alone to the east, coming down the long canyon that led from the high face of the plateau to the country near the caves. He hurried, glancing back at the black clouds that had gathered so quickly on the mountain behind him. Thunder rumbled from within them, an almost continuous roll of it as the clouds poured down their deluge of water.A cloudburst was coming and the sheer-walled canyon down which he hurried had suddenly become a death trap, its sunlit quiet soon to be transformed into roaring destruction. There was only one place along its nine-mile length where he might climb out and the time was already short in which to reach it.He had increased his pace to a trot when he came to it, a talus of broken rock that sloped up steeply for thirty feet to a shelf. A ledge eleven feet high stood over the shelf and other, lower, ledges set back from it like climbing steps.At the foot of the talus he stopped to listen, wondering how close behind him the water might be. He heard it coming, a sound like the roaring of a high wind up the canyon, and he scrambled up the talus of loose rock to the shelf at its top. The shelf was not high enough above the canyon's floor—he would be killed there—and he followed it fifty feet around a sharp bend. There it narrowed abruptly, to merge into the sheer wall of the canyon. Blind alley . . . He ran back to the top of the talus where the edge of the ledge, ragged with projections of rock, was unreachably far above him. As he did so the roaring was suddenly a crashing, booming thunder and he saw the water coming.It swept around the bend at perhaps a hundred miles an hour, stretching from wall to wall of the canyon, the crest of it seething and slashing and towering forty sheer feet above the canyon's floor.A prowler was running in front of it, running for its life and losing.There was no time to watch. He leaped upward, as high as possible, his crossbow in his hand. He caught the end of the bow over one of the sharp projections of rock on the ledge's rim and began to pull himself up, afraid to hurry lest the rock cut the bowstring in two and drop him back.It held and he stood on the ledge, safe, as the prowler flashed up the talus below.It darted around the blind-alley shelf and was back a moment later. It saw that its only chance would be to leap up on the ledge where he stood and it tried, handicapped by the steep, loose slope it had to jump from.It failed and fell back. It tried again, hurling itself upward with all its strength, and its claws caught fleetingly on the rough rock a foot below the rim. It began to slide back, with no time left it for a third try.It looked up at the rim of safety that it had not quite reached and then on up at him, its eyes bright and cold with the knowledge that it was going to die and its enemy would watch it.Schroeder dropped flat on his stomach and reached down, past the massive black head, to seize the prowler by the back of the neck. He pulled up with all his strength and the claws of the prowler tore at the rocks as it climbed.When it was coming up over the ledge, safe, he rolled back from it and came to his feet in one swift, wary motion, his eyes on it and his knife already in his hand. As he did so the water went past below them with a thunder that deafened. Logs and trees shot past, boulders crashed together, and things could be seen surging in the brown depths; shapeless things that had once been woods goats and the battered gray bulk of a unicorn. He saw it all with a sideward glance, his attention on the prowler.It stepped back from the rim of the ledge and looked at him; warily, as he looked at it. With the wariness was something like question, and almost disbelief.The ledge they stood on was narrow but it led out of the canyon and to the open land beyond. He motioned to the prowler to precede him and, hesitating a moment, it did so.They climbed out of the canyon and out onto the grassy slope of the mountainside. The roar of the water was a distant rumble there and he stopped. The prowler did the same and they watched each other again, each of them trying to understand what the thoughts of the other might be. It was something they could not know—they were too alien to each other and had been enemies too long.Then a gust of wind swept across them, bending and rippling the tall grass, and the prowler swung away to go with it and leave him standing alone.His route was such that it diverged gradually from that taken by the prowler. He went through a grove of trees and emerged into an open glade on the other side. Up on the ridge to his right he saw something black for a moment, already far away.He was thirty feet from the next grove of trees when he saw the gray shadow waiting silently for his coming within them.Unicorn! His crossbow rattled as he jerked back the pistol grip. The unicorn charged, the underbrush crackling as it tore through it and a vine whipping like a rope from its lowered horn.His first arrow went into its chest. It lurched, fatally wounded but still coming, and he jerked back on the pistol grip for the quick shot that would stop it.The rock-frayed bow string broke with a singing sound and the bow end snapped harmlessly forward.He had counted on the bow and its failure came a fraction of a second too late for him to dodge far enough. His sideward leap was short, and the horn caught him in midair, ripping across his ribs and breaking them, shattering the bone of his left arm and tearing the flesh. He was hurled fifteen feet and he struck the ground with a stunning impact, pain washing over him in a blinding wave.Through it, dimly, he saw the unicorn fall and heard its dying trumpet blast as it called to another. He heard an answering call somewhere in the distance and then the faraway drumming of hooves.He fought back the blindness and used his good arm to lift himself up. His bow was useless, his spear lay broken under the unicorn, and his knife was gone. His left arm swung helplessly and he could not climb the limbless lower trunk of a lance tree with only one arm.He went forward, limping, trying to hurry to find his knife while the drumming of hooves raced toward him. It would be a battle already lost that he would make with the short knife but he would have blood for his going . . . The grass grew tall and thick, hiding the knife until he could hear the unicorn crashing through the trees. He saw it ten feet ahead of him as the unicorn tore out from the edge of the woods thirty feet away.It squealed, shrill with triumph, and the horn swept up to impale him. There was no time left to reach the knife, no time left for anything but the last fleeting sight of sunshine and glade and arching blue sky—Something from behind him shot past and up at the unicorn's throat, a thing that was snarling black savagery with yellow eyes blazing and white fangs slashing—the prowler!It ripped at the unicorn's throat, swerving its charge, and the unicorn plunged past him. The unicorn swung back, all the triumph gone from its squeal, and the prowler struck again. They became a swirling blur, the horn of the unicorn swinging and stabbing and the attacks of the prowler like the swift, relentless thrusting of a rapier.He went to his knife and when he turned back with it in his hand the battle was already over.The unicorn fell and the prowler turned away from it. One foreleg was bathed in blood and its chest was heaving with a panting so fast that it could not have been caused by the fight with the unicorn.It must have been watching me, he thought, with a strange feeling of wonder. It was watching from the ridge and it ran all the way. Its yellow eyes flickered to the knife in his hand. He dropped the knife in the grass and walked forward, unarmed, wanting the prowler to know that he understood; that for them in that moment the gulf of two hundred and fifty light-years did not exist.He stopped near it and squatted in the grass to begin binding up his broken arm so the bones would not grate together. It watched him, then it began to lick at its bloody shoulder; standing so close to him that he could have reached out and touched it.Again he felt the sense of wonder. They were alone together in the glade, he and a prowler, each caring for his hurts. There was a bond between them that for a little while made them like brothers. There was a bridge for a little while across the gulf that had never been bridged before . . . When he had finished with his arm and the prowler had lessened the bleeding of its shoulder it took a step back toward the ridge. He stood up, knowing it was going to leave."I suppose the score is even now," he said to it, "and we'll never see each other again. So good hunting—and thanks."It made a sound in its throat; a queer sound that was neither bark nor growl, and he had the feeling it was trying to tell him something. Then it turned and was gone like a black shadow across the grass and he was alone again.He picked up his knife and bow and began the long, painful journey back to the caves, looking again and again at the ridge behind him and thinking: They have a code of ethics. They fight for their survival—but they pay their debts. Ragnarok was big enough for both men and prowlers. They could live together in friendship as men and dogs of Earth lived together. It might take a long time to win the trust of the prowlers but surely it could be done.He came to the rocky trail that led to the caves and there he took a last look at the ridge behind him; feeling a poignant sense of loss and wondering if he would ever see the prowler again or ever again know the strange, wild companionship he had known that day.Perhaps he never would . . . but the time would come on Ragnarok when children would play in the grass with prowler pups and the time would come when men and prowlers, side by side, would face the Gerns.* * *In the year that followed there were two incidents when a prowler had the opportunity to kill a hunter on prowler territory and did not do so. There was no way of knowing if the prowler in each case had been the one he had saved from the cloudburst or if the prowlers, as a whole, were respecting what a human had done for one of them.Schroeder thought of again trying to capture prowler pups—very young ones—and decided it would be a stupid plan. Such an act would destroy all that had been done toward winning the trust of the prowlers. It would be better to wait, even though time was growing short, and find some other way.The fall of one hundred and sixty-three came and the suns were noticeably moving south. That was the fall that his third child, a girl, was born. She was named Julia, after the Julia of long ago, and she was of the last generation that would be born in the caves.Plans were already under way to build a town in the valley a mile from the caves. The unicorn-proof stockade wall that would enclose it was already under construction, being made of stone blocks. The houses would be of diamond-sawed stone, thick-walled, with dead-air spaces between the double walls to insulate against heat and cold. Tall, wide canopies of lance tree poles and the palm-like medusabush leaves would be built over all the houses to supply additional shade.The woods goats were fully adapted that year and domesticated to such an extent that they had no desire to migrate with the wild goats. There was a small herd of them then, enough to supply a limited amount of milk, cheese and wool.The adaptation of the unicorns proceeded in the following years, but not their domestication. It was their nature to be ill-tempered and treacherous and only the threat of the spears in the hands of their drivers forced them to work; work that they could have done easily had they not diverted so much effort each day to trying to turn on their masters and kill them. Each night they were put in a massive-walled corral, for they were almost as dangerous as wild unicorns.The slow, painstaking work on the transmitter continued while the suns moved farther south each year. The move from the caves to the new town was made in one hundred and seventy-nine, the year that Schroeder's wife died.His two sons were grown and married and Julia, at sixteen, was a woman by Ragnarok standards; blue-eyed and black-haired as her mother, a Craig, had been, and strikingly pretty in a wild, reckless way. She married Will Humbolt that spring, leaving her father alone in the new house in the new town.Four months later she came to him to announce with pride and excitement:"I'm going to have a baby in only six months! If it's a boy he'll be the right age to be leader when the Gerns come and we're going to name him John, after the John who was the first leader we ever had on Ragnarok."Her words brought to his mind a question and he thought of what old Dale Craig, the leader who had preceded Lake, had written:We have survived, the generations that the Gerns thought would never be born. But we must never forget the characteristics that insured that survival: an unswerving loyalty of every individual to all the others and the courage to fight, and die if necessary. In any year, now, the Gerns will come. There will be no one to help us. Those on Athena are slaves and it is probable that Earth has been enslaved by now. We will stand or fall alone. But if we of today could know that the ones who meet the Gerns will still have the courage and loyalty that made our survival possible, then we would know that the Gerns are already defeated . . .  The era of danger and violence was over for a little while. The younger generation had grown up during a time of peaceful development of their environment. It was a peace that the coming of the Gerns would shatter—but had it softened the courage and loyalty of the younger generation?A week later he was given his answer.He was climbing up the hill that morning, high above the town below, when he saw the blue of Julia's wool blouse in the distance. She was sitting up on a hillside, an open book in her lap and her short spear lying beside her.He frowned at the sight. The main southward migration of unicorns was over but there were often lone stragglers who might appear at any time. He had warned her that someday a unicorn would kill her—but she was reckless by nature and given to restless moods in which she could not stand the confinement of the town.She jerked up her head as he watched, as though at a faint sound, and he saw the first movement within the trees behind her—a unicorn.It lunged forward, its stealth abandoned as she heard it, and she came to her feet in a swift, smooth movement; the spear in her hand and the book spilling to the ground.The unicorn's squeal rang out and she whirled to face it, with two seconds to live. He reached for his bow, knowing his help would come too late.She did the only thing possible that might enable her to survive: she shifted her balance to take advantage of the fact that a human could jump to one side a little more quickly than a four-footed beast in headlong charge. As she did so she brought up the spear for the thrust into the vulnerable area just behind the jawbone.It seemed the needle point of the black horn was no more than an arm's length from her stomach when she jumped aside with the lithe quickness of a prowler, swinging as she jumped and thrusting the spear with all her strength into the unicorn's neck.The thrust was true and the spear went deep. She released it and flung herself backward to dodge the flying hooves. The force of the unicorn's charge took it past her but its legs collapsed under it and it crashed to the ground, sliding a little way before it stopped. It kicked once and lay still.She went to it, to retrieve her spear, and even from the distance there was an air of pride about her as she walked past her bulky victim.Then she saw the book, knocked to one side by the unicorn's hooves. Tatters of its pages were blowing in the wind and she stiffened, her face growing pale. She ran to it to pick it up, the unicorn forgotten.She was trying to smooth the torn leaves when he reached her. It had been one of the old textbooks, printed on real paper, and it was fragile with age. She had been trusted by the librarian to take good care of it. Now, page after page was torn and unreadable . . . She looked up at him, shame and misery on her face."Father," she said. "The book—I—"He saw that the unicorn was a bull considerably larger than the average. Men had in the past killed unicorns with spears but never, before, had a sixteen-year-old girl done so . . . He looked back at her, keeping his face emotionless, and asked sternly, "You what?""I guess—I guess I didn't have any right to take the book out of town. I wish I hadn't . . .""You promised to take good care of it," he told her coldly. "Your promise was believed and you were trusted to keep it.""But—but I didn't mean to damage it—I didn't mean to!" She was suddenly very near to tears. "I'm not a—a bemmon!""Go back to town," he ordered. "Tonight bring the book to the town hall and tell the council what happened to it."She swallowed and said in a faint voice, "Yes, father."She turned and started slowly back down the hill, not seeing the unicorn as she passed it, the bloody spear trailing disconsolately behind her and her head hanging in shame.He watched her go and it was safe for him to smile. When night came and she stood before the council, ashamed to lift her eyes to look at them, he would have to be grim and stern as he told her how she had been trusted and how she had betrayed that trust. But now, as he watched her go down the hill, he could smile with his pride in her and know that his question was answered; that the younger generation had lost neither courage nor loyalty.* * *Julia saved a child's life that spring and almost lost her own. The child was playing under a half-completed canopy when a sudden, violent wind struck it and transformed it into a death-trap of cracking, falling timbers. She reached him in time to fling him to safety but the collapsing roof caught her before she could make her own escape.Her chest and throat were torn by the jagged ends of the broken poles and for a day and a night her life was a feebly flickering spark. She began to rally on the second night and on the third morning she was able to speak for the first time, her eyes dark and tortured with her fear:"My baby—what did it do to him?"She convalesced slowly, haunted by the fear. Her son was born five weeks later and her fears proved to have been groundless. He was perfectly normal and healthy.And hungry—and her slowly healing breasts would be dry for weeks to come.By a coincidence that had never happened before and could never happen again there was not a single feeding-time foster-mother available for the baby. There were many expectant mothers but only three women had young babies—and each of them had twins to feed.But there was a small supply of frozen goat milk in the ice house, enough to see young Johnny through until it was time for the goat herd to give milk. He would have to live on short rations until then but it could not be helped.* * *Johnny was a month old when the opportunity came for the men of Ragnarok to have their ultimate ally.The last of the unicorns were going north and the prowlers had long since gone. The blue star was lighting the night like a small sun when the breeze coming through Schroeder's window brought the distant squealing of unicorns.He listened, wondering. It was a sound that did not belong. Everyone was safely in the town, most of them in bed, and there should be nothing outside the stockade for the unicorns to fight.He armed himself with spear and crossbow and went outside. He let himself out through the east gate and went toward the sounds of battle. They grew louder as he approached, more furious, as though the battle was reaching its climax.He crossed the creek and went through the trees beyond. There, in a small clearing no more than half a mile from the town, he came upon the scene.A lone prowler was making a stand against two unicorns. Two other unicorns lay on the ground, dead, and behind the prowler was the dark shape of its mate lying lifelessly in the grass. There was blood on the prowler, purple in the blue starlight, and gloating rang in the squeals of the unicorns as they lunged at it. The leaps of the prowler were faltering as it fought them, the last desperate defiance of an animal already dying.He brought up the bow and sent a volley of arrows into the unicorns. Their gloating squeals died and they fell. The prowler staggered and fell beside them.It was breathing its last when he reached it but in the way it looked up at him he had the feeling that it wanted to tell him something, that it was trying hard to live long enough to do so. It died with the strange appeal in its eyes and not until then did he see the scar on its shoulder; a scar such as might have been made long ago by the rip of a unicorn's horn.It was the prowler he had known nineteen years before.The ground was trampled all around by the unicorns, showing that the prowlers had been besieged all day. He went to the other prowler and saw it was a female. Her breasts showed that she had had pups recently but she had been dead at least two days. Her hind legs had been broken sometime that spring and they were still only half healed, twisted and almost useless.Then, that was why the two of them were so far behind the other prowlers. Prowlers, like the wolves, coyotes and foxes of Earth, mated for life and the male helped take care of the young. She had been injured somewhere to the south, perhaps in a fight with unicorns, and her mate had stayed with her as she hobbled her slow way along and killed game for her. The pups had been born and they had had to stop. Then the unicorns had found them and the female had been too crippled to fight . . . He looked for the pups, expecting to find them trampled and dead. But they were alive, hidden under the roots of a small tree near their mother.Prowler pups—alive!They were very young, small and blind and helpless. He picked them up and his elation drained away as he looked at them. They made little sounds of hunger, almost inaudible, and they moved feebly, trying to find their mother's breasts and already so weak that they could not lift their heads.Small chunks of fresh meat had been left beside the pups and he thought of what the prowler's emotions must have been as his mate lay dead on the ground and he carried meat to their young, knowing they were too small to eat it but helpless to do anything else for them.And he knew why there had been the appeal in the eyes of the prowler as it died and what it had tried to tell him: Save them . . . as you once saved me.He carried the pups back past the prowler and looked down at it in passing. "I'll do my best," he said.When he reached his house he laid the pups on his bed and built a fire. There was no milk to give them—the goats would not have young for at least another two weeks—but perhaps they could eat a soup of some kind. He put water on to boil and began shredding meat to make them a rich broth.One of them was a male, the other a female, and if he could save them they would fight beside the men of Ragnarok when the Gerns came. He thought of what he would name them as he worked. He would name the female Sigyn, after Loki's faithful wife who went with him when the gods condemned him to Hel, the Teutonic underworld. And he would name the male Fenrir, after the monster wolf who would fight beside Loki when Loki led the forces of Hel in the final battle on the day of Ragnarok.But when the broth was prepared, and cooled enough, the pups could not eat it. He tried making it weaker, tried it mixed with corn and herb soup, tried corn and herb soups alone. They could eat nothing he prepared for them.When gray daylight entered the room he had tried everything possible and had failed. He sat wearily in his chair and watched them, defeated. They were no longer crying in their hunger and when he touched them they did not move as they had done before.They would be dead before the day was over and the only chance men had ever had to have prowlers as their friends and allies would be gone.The first rays of sunrise were coming into the room, revealing fully the frail thinness of the pups, when there was a step outside and Julia's voice:"Father?""Come in, Julia," he said, not moving.She entered, still a pale shadow of the reckless girl who had fought a unicorn, even though she was slowly regaining her normal health. She carried young Johnny in one arm, in her other hand his little bottle of milk. Johnny was hungry—there was never quite enough milk for him—but he was not crying. Ragnarok children did not cry . . . She saw the pups and her eyes went wide."Prowlers—baby prowlers! Where did you get them?"He told her and she went to them, to look down at them and say, "If you and their father hadn't helped each other that day they wouldn't be here, nor you, nor I, nor Johnny—none of us in this room.""They won't live out the day," he said. "They have to have milk—and there isn't any."She reached down to touch them and they seemed to sense that she was something different. They stirred, making tiny whimpering sounds and trying to move their heads to nuzzle at her fingers.Compassion came to her face, like a soft light."They're so young," she said. "So terribly young to have to die . . ."She looked at Johnny and at the little bottle that held his too-small morning ration of milk."Johnny—Johnny—" Her words were almost a whisper. "You're hungry—but we can't let them die. And someday, for this, they will fight for your life."She sat on the bed and placed the pups in her lap beside Johnny. She lifted a little black head with gentle fingers and a little pink mouth ceased whimpering as it found the nipple of Johnny's bottle.Johnny's gray eyes darkened with the storm of approaching protest. Then the other pup touched his hand, crying in its hunger, and the protest faded as surprise and something like sudden understanding came into his eyes.Julia withdrew the bottle from the first pup and transferred it to the second one. Its crying ceased and Johnny leaned forward to touch it again, and the one beside it.He made his decision with an approving sound and leaned back against his mother's shoulder, patiently awaiting his own turn and their presence accepted as though they had been born his brother and sister.* * *The golden light of the new day shone on them, on his daughter and grandson and the prowler pups, and in it he saw the bright omen for the future.His own role was nearing its end but he had seen the people of Ragnarok conquer their environment in so far as Big Winter would ever let it be conquered. The last generation was being born, the generation that would meet the Gerns, and now they would have their final ally. Perhaps it would be Johnny who led them on that day, as the omen seemed to prophesy.He was the son of a line of leaders, born to a mother who had fought and killed a unicorn. He had gone hungry to share what little he had with the young of Ragnarok's most proud and savage species and Fenrir and Sigyn would fight beside him on the day he led the forces of the hell-world in the battle with the Gerns who thought they were gods.Could the Gerns hope to have a leader to match? 

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