The True Word is Withdrawn

He couldn’t be more than four or five years old, thought the headman. He really should know, as this was the son of the resident priest at the little shrine on the north edge of town. But he really couldn’t remember.

This is a work of fiction. All person’s, places, and events are products of the authors imagination.
Copyright © 2012
Henry E. Neufeld

He’d wandered into the headman’s office and said he had a message from the gods. It was impossible to believe that the boy could think of the words he used. He’d condemned the headman for having one of the villagers executed on false evidence, and for stealing the property of others. The child had called the man, the elder, a liar, a thief, and a murderer. He said the gods were going to punish him.

It was intolerable. The child had said the message was from the gods, but he knew it had to be from the child’s father. How the father had known the headman’s secrets, the headman had no idea. But there was only one answer. The priest had to go. And the child would have to go as well.

“You lie,” said the headman. “Your father put you up to that message.”

“No, it is from the gods,” said the body.

“Liar,” shouted the headman. But the boy didn’t show the expected fear.

“The true word is withdrawn,” he said. “The gods will no longer speak.”

The headman laughed. “The gods will no longer speak,” he muttered. As if their speaking ever did any good. The priest brought regular messages, but they were either just general congratulations or they were so muddled nobody could figure out what they meant in any case. Who cared if the gods didn’t speak any more?

A few days later the priest and his wife were arrested. Everyone suspected the charge of theft of public money was trumped up, but they weren’t sure, and besides, nobody went against the headman. As was the tradition, the boy was given his father’s place. Of course, he had to be cared for by someone, and the headman generously offered to give him a home until he was old enough to go live alone in the shrine.

The years passed. As expected, the little boy grew up and became the priest of the shrine. And as was expected of him, he began to produce oracles from the gods. They were suitably difficult to interpret. Nobody could tell whether they were true or not, because nobody could be sure what they meant.

Yet the headman’s luck seemed to have taken a turn for the worse. From time to time as he was lying in bed unable to sleep he’d start to believe it had started on the day that the little boy had told him the gods were going to punish him. Then he’d push it from his mind. It really had just been a trick pulled by the boy’s father. Good thing he hadn’t fallen for it.

The boy, so far as the headman knew, didn’t even remember the incident. After all, the child had been very young.

Then came the day when the baron called for the headman to bring troops. There was to be a great battle. The headman didn’t want to go. What he needed was an excuse to stay away and send someone else. In fact, he wanted to keep all of his cronies and supporters from having to go to war and send some of the others.

The best way to do this was to have an oracle that told him (or could be construed to tell him) what he wanted to hear. That would justify him before the villagers, and reported (with suitable adjustments) in a letter to the baron, it would justify his sending someone else in response to the request—really an order—for support.

He didn’t bother to say anything to the priest, who would doubtless produce something suitably incomprehensible which could be interpreted however he needed it to be.

All the warriors gathered in the town square to hear the oracle before the chose those who would go to fight for the baron and those who would stay and defend the village.

“Those who go will face great trials, but will return crowned with glory and honor. Those who stay will be surprised and will suffer dishonor.”

It was suitably obscure, but how could he interpret it as direction from the gods that he should stay at home? He should have coached the priest as to what to say. Clearly the young man hadn’t realized his sponsor wanted to stay and had made the oracle too precise.

So the headman led the small group of warriors off to support the baron. As would be expected, those who were his closest supporters chose to go with him. Who could resist returning crowned with glory and honor? Who could explain such a decision?

It was unfortunate that the town elder left in charge was not a close associate of the headman. After all, the closest associates had headed off to war. He suspected the headman was stealing from the town. He suspected he had had innocent people imprisoned and killed. But he didn’t care.

The elder began to talk to others in the town, and they decided they really didn’t need the headman. They decided they would kill the headman and any warriors who chose to support him when they returned. They thought the number of returning warriors would be diminished, and they would be surprised.

It was an unsavory business. The rumors in the town were intense. Some said the interim headman was in bed with the real headman’s wife. Some said that it was the headman’s younger daughter. Everyone was talking about how the supposed caretaker was taking things for himself.

Then one day the watchman shouted out the word. The warriors were returning.

The men gathered near the gate, planning still to arrest the headman. What else could they do? Despite the chaos, there was no way they would survive if they let the headman take back power.

But it was a sad procession that entered the town. The headman was lying on a wagon. His weapons around him. He had been presented with a wreath as a crown by the baron for his valor in battle. Though the wreath has withered, he was, indeed crowned with honor. He was also quite dead. And embalmed. It really was quite a surprise.

But before everyone realized this a battle broke out between the warriors who had been left behind and the small number who had returned. Despite their small numbers, the returning soldiers did well, and killed most of their attackers. There was only one of the warriors who had stayed in the village left alive and unmaimed when the battle was over.

He went to the temple and asked the priest how everything could go so wrong for everyone.

“The true word was withdrawn,” said the priest who had been the boy. “What did you expect?”

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