Have You Tried Going Around?

It wasn’t the merchant’s fault that he approached the city from the north and entered the northern gate. Geological processes had decreed that the city was largely surrounded by mountains. These mountains were higher to the north and northwest, though there was a pass, open perhaps 5 or 6 months out of the year, that led north-northwest from the city. There was another pass, generally open all year, that led to the southeast. The merchant approached from west-southwest. And that created the problem.

When he emerged from the southwestern pass with his train of mules and two wagons, he noted that the area ahead of him and to the right looked pretty much deserted. There wasn’t even that much agricultural land. The city was a bit to his left, meaning a bit north of east, and it looked like things got more civilized that way. To the merchant, that meant a place to sell his goods. He was, after all, exploring a potential trade route.

So he turned to his left, and then as he came parallel with the city, he veered to his right a bit, and met the road that headed north-northwest from the city into the mountains. It was summer, and so there was occasional traffic, though not the sort of traffic the merchant expected from a road leading into a city. If his geography didn’t fail him—and he was pretty much a geographical genius—there were some quite populous places to the north and he would have expected more trade, assuming there was a road. As it was, there was no alternative to heading into the city to check things out, and this he did.

Northern good were prized in the city, and here came a merchant, claiming to be from the north, driving two wagons and a bunch of mules down the northern road (one tended to ignore the westward lean), headed into the city to the marketplace.

Perhaps I should explain. The reason this was so remarkable was that the northern route was well-known to be impassable to wagons. Mule trains yes. Wagons no. It. Could. Not. Be. Done. It was so remarkable that word of the merchant’s arrival got to the Duke. As a result, the Duke invited the merchant to bring his wares to the castle and discuss the situation.

“How did you get your wagons to our city?” asked the Duke.

The merchant assumed that the Duke wanted to know, so he said, “I came through the pass to the west-southwest.”

“But you entered the city from the north.”

“Well, there is no road coming from the southwest, so I circled the city until I came to a road.”

“So you are not, in fact, from the north, are you?”

“Actually I am. I traveled south through the western foothills of this range and then blazed a trail through the pass to your city. I offer you trade in abundance!”

For years the Duke and his duchy had been quite isolated from the empire. As long as his tax trains made it to the southeast, nobody bothered this area. It had become quite well established that the only way through the mountains was the northern pass. This made for a scarcity of northern goods, which were well known to be superior to those from the south.

“The northern pass is the only way through the mountains to the north,” said the Duke.

“But why haven’t you gone around?” asked the merchant.

It was the wrong question. The Duke dismissed the merchant from his presence and ordered his goods held while he considered the situation.

After some discussion among his advisors, one of them offered a solution. The merchant, he explained, was actually from the south, but he wanted to sell his goods as northern goods. He was thus deceiving and defrauding the people of the city.

The Duke looked doubtful.

“In that case,” pointed out another advisor, “his goods should be seized and become your grace’s property.”

The Duke found that a convincing argument. So he declared that indeed the northern road was the sole way through the mountains to the north and the west, that the merchant was a scam artist here to defraud the city. He threw the merchant into his dungeon and seized his goods.

The Duke believed in the rule of law. Most particularly, he believed that when he ruled, it was law. In fact, since the duchy was so isolated, he had come largely to believe that what he ruled was reality as well.

Since nobody could actually tell whether goods were from the north or the south, except by observing how they had arrived, the seized good were quite valuable and made a quite comforting addition to the ducal treasury. Oh, I don’t think I mentioned that the main reason northern goods were valued was that they were more rare. This had become, in some peoples’ minds, an indication of quality. Well, actually pretty much everyone accepted that. So the goods were laundered, so to speak, and became northern again, which they actually were.

It would likely have been better for the merchant had he been executed rather than thrown in the dungeon. The idea of release from the Duke’s dungeons was so distant a memory that it had become a matter of legend. In fact, it had progressed beyond that to provide one of the reasons one could not believe any stories of the past. Why if someone could get the idea that someone had been released from the dungeons in the distant past, then one might believe anything! So ignore all those people who teach history. They don’t really know, after all!

It took months for anyone to check for the merchant, but eventually the consortium of merchants who had sent him to blaze the trail began to wonder what had happened, so they sent an investigator to check. In due course the investigator and his guards arrived at the eastern end of the same pass through which the merchant had arrived. It had required no major effort to follow the merchant. He had, after all, been marking the path for future use.

The investigator, really as part of his job description, was a suspicious sort. When he realized that he had arrived at the city without so much as encountering a bear or a mountain lion, and without seeing any evidence of battle or ambush, he decided the problem must lie in the city ahead. He was pretty sure the merchant had made it that far, based on the evidence of the trail marker on which he as resting his right hand.

So he chose to enter the city from the southeast. He wasn’t entirely sure of the merchant’s path, considering the amount of time that had passed, but he guessed the merchant’s logic with some accuracy. So he used a different route.

In the city, he began to ask questions. As he listened to the answers he began to be very suspicious. When the Duke sent some armed guards to “invite” him to the castle, he was quite convinced. He was well acquainted with the sort of rule of law and view of reality held by the Duke, based on the answers he had gotten.

So being sneakier and tougher than anyone in the city imagined, he knocked out the Duke’s guards (an impossible task, according to the Duke), bound them, gagged them, and hid them where they might, if lucky, be found alive. Then he fled.

The Duke considered the possibility that the investigator had come from the north, but he dismissed it. There simply was no passage in that direction, not to the north in any case.

Why hadn’t they gone around? Because it was impossible. That was why.


(This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of any of the places, characters, or events to anyone in real life is strictly coincidental. Copyright © 2017, Henry E. Neufeld.)

(Featured image credit: Openclipart.org.)