Coming of Age

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of the characters, places, or events to anything in the real world is strictly coincidental.
Copyright © 2014
Henry E. Neufeld

“We can’t let Sam turn 16 without the proper ceremony,” said Elsa. “A young man’s 16th birthday is a very important event. It must be done right.”

“We can’t afford much,” said Zeb.

“There are certain things that must be done, no matter what the cost!”

That silenced Zeb. “Things that must be done” were beyond argument. So he started to work on the list.

And the day of a young man’s 16th birthday was very important in their town. It was a coming of age. People would judge the young man by the quality of the ceremony. If the day passed unnoticed, so would the young man. Or at least that’s what Elsa thought. No, “thought” was not a strong enough word. Elsa knew this. It was engraved in her mind and her heart. She felt it in her bones. She must put on the proper ceremony for Sam. Anything else was unthinkable.

So the tension in the household grew. Elsa was unable to conceive that Zeb might consider something other than the full ceremony she planned for her first born son’s 16th birthday. Zeb simply looked at the diminishing size of his purse and wondered how they were to pay for food for the rest of the year. His reserves were gone. The slightest reverse in his business and he’d be gone. He tried to tell Elsa that there was no more money.

She took the money he had provided for food for the coming month and threw it at him. “Even if we don’t eat for the rest of the year, my son will have a proper ceremony for coming of age.”

The husband and wife looked at one another across their small living room, neither capable of understanding what the other was saying.

Into this brittle silence walked Sam.

He looked from one parent to the other. He saw that something was wrong, but he wasn’t sure what it was. He had paid little attention to the coming of age party. Yes, it was an important step, but he hadn’t thought about costs. He had been busy …

“Mom, Dad,” he said, “I’m leaving tonight. I have an apprenticeship with a blacksmith who lives across the mountains.”

… coming of age.

Tlisli Argues Strategy

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of any character, place, or event to anything in the real world is purely coincidental, not to mention ridiculous. This is part of the Tlisli Series.
Copyright © Henry E. Neufeld, 2013

The Inraline had a relaxed way of dealing with authority when in small groups, but became more formal as the group got larger and the rank of the official got higher. The fort commander, Orlin by name, stood in silence at the door while nobody moved or spoke. The idea of the commander walking in on the court was so shocking that many in the room scarcely breathed. Either someone was in serious trouble or there was an extreme emergency.

“Adjourn your court, Super,” said the commander. Then he listed several names, including Azzesh and Tlisli, and ordered them to his bridge.
Tlisli had no idea what the various ranks were or what a “bridge” might be. Later she would learn that the Inraline built their entire military around naval traditions. “Super” referred to their intermediate ranks, sort of like petty officers. Those in the regular ranks were called simply sailors, though they would be clled oldiers when on duty based on land. Commanders came in junior, senior, and full rank, and served as officers junior to a captain. Then there was the rank of Captain-Commander, which was equivalent to a ship’s captain when not commanding a seagoing ship. Orlin was a Commander-Captain,but tradition denied him the title as his command included no seagoing ships. Riverboats did not count in Inraline minds.

To Tlisli, however, it simply seemed that she was surrounded by people who had titles of rank and knew where they were going, while she did not.
The reason a command center was called a bridge, even in a fort like this, was that Inraline officers tried to feel like they were on a ship. Orlin’s bridge was in the outer tower of his fort, overlooking the river. Azzesh thought the commander very foolish. The odds that an attack would come directly down the river were poor. Any reasonably competfent foe would realize that the Inraline troops were much more prepared to defend from the water side. Indeed, those despised riverboats would be considered decent small ships by many navies. On the other hand, fighting in the jungle was not an Inraline strength. She had saidas much to Orlin, but he didn’t quite get her point. Any real attack would come down the river, would it not? Thus obviously the best defenses must face the river.

So as they sat down in the room called the bridge they could look out windows over the river and see the confluence. One couldn’t look far to the west, because the bulk of the fort was in that direction. Azzesh and Tlisli couldn’t see the palisade that formed the jungle side wall. That palisade was largely designed to keep the animal life out, and not as a major defensive barrier. Across the river one could see the towers on the eastern shore of the river, as well as the one on the tip of land  between the rivers. Again, Azzesh thought these were fairly foolish ideas. It was probably worthwhile to have forts there to watch river traffic, but these towers were not well equipped to defend themselves from land, and could easily be isolated.

On the positive side, there were regular towers or high points around the area, and the Inraline maintained a good signaling system, using mirrors in sunlight, flags in appropriate conditions, and lanterns at night.

Despite the seriousness of the way Orlin had summoned them all, when doubtless a messenger would have done, he seemed in no hurry to get them settled down and tell them what they were all here for. Azzesh was ready to resent being called in this fashion, unless Orlin got to the point quickly and offered her money or other advantages in exchange for her involvement. She didn’t work for him. Tlisli, on the other hand, was just bemused at being called. She had no idea what she was doing here. The very idea of being in a room filled with officials frightened her in a way nearly dying in the jungle had not. But Azzesh was busy greeting various people and generally ignoring Tlisli, as was everyone else.

Finally Orlin called the meeting to order. “We got news yesterday courtesy of Azzesh that there was a patrol of the God-Emperor’s troops with a boat up the eastern branch. Now this morning we get word that Sun-troops are actually holding a village to the north. One young man escaped and brought word. We need to decide what to do about this. I have already dispatched messengers to Tevelin to inform my superiors of this threat. We had previously known that there were occasional GES agents in the jungle around here, which was not surprising considering their ambition. But to have them around the area with boats is a new variety of threat entirely.”

Azzesh seemed rather taken aback by this speech, Tlisli thought. She was trying to understand the issue with the boats. If there were Grand Empire of the Sun troops around in the jungle, why would one be particularly concerned if they had boats. In fact, from what she could see, about the stupidest thing the GES troops could do would be to try to use boats to assault this outpost. On the other hand, from what she’d seen of the western side of the town, there was very little to prevent the GES troops from invading from that direction.

The room had devolved in chaos, as various people argued about recalling patrol boats, reinforcing the waterfront, and making certain that nobody could approach unseen via the river. She would certainly not attack this city (as she thought of it) from the river. But it would take less troops than her home town had had available (before the GES came) to isolate this fortress. And with the fortress isolated, commerce would come to a halt. Using the cover provided by the fortress itself, it would be possible to besiege, and eventually to take the fortress unless it was resupplied by river very early.

Azzesh looked at Tlisli, watching the girl’s expression change as the debate went on. Azzesh was of the opinion that these debates on his bridge provided the best explanation for why Orlin had been assigned to command this fortress. He simply was not at all decisive, and in his view, the river was the world. It wasn’t an ocean, to his great disappointment, but it was water, and water was the key.

“So you think they are thinking poorly,” she said quietly to Tlisli.

“I would not attack this town from the river.”

“I thought your brains were more functional than you ever allowed me to see. Tell me how you would attack this town.”

“I’d bring troops in from the western side, overrun the town quickly, and then besiege the fortress. A few simple siege engines could then take this fortress with relatively little problem.”

“Don’t underestimate the fighting capability of the Inraline soldiers.”

“No, I think they seem very skilled as fighters, but if the GES is nearby in any numbers, they’ll be outnumbered by as much as ten to one, and if there is any one thing that the GES is good at, it’s disciplined, coordinated attacks.”

“So you listened as your father and brothers discussed the military situation around your town.”

“Yes.”

“And now things start coming together for you.”

“I suppose.”

They didn’t notice that things were getting quieter and quieter in the room.

“Lady Azzesh,” said Commander Orlin suddenly. Azzesh grimaced. When Orlin, or any of the other Inraline she knew, called her “Lady Azzesh” it usually meant that they were trying to get her officially involved in something.

“Yes?” she said.

“Did you and Tlisli have something to share with us?”

“Well, no, we were just discussing how we would conquer your outpost if we had the job of doing so.”

“And how would that be?”

Azzesh looked at Tlisli. “Tell him, why don’t you?”

Tlisli paused to gather he thoughts. The idea of a mere girl getting involved in such a council bothered her, and that feeling made her realize how much of her upbringing was still with her. At the same time, she was losing some of her exaggerated respect for people with official positions.

“Well, if I were your enemy, which I’m not, and I had anything more than a few hundred troops with me, I would simply attack your town from the west. It wouldn’t take any great master strategy. I think you’d be overrun in a matter of minutes. This fort would hold out, but with the town out of action, it’s days would be numbered. Even if the troops then withdrew, the basis of your commerce would be destroyed.”

“But we’d still have the docks and the forts themselves!” said Orlin.

I’m in it now, thought Tlisli. Aloud she said, “But the docks aren’t the basis of your commerce. I’m new here, but I’m guessing the reason people trade with you is that they have confidence in these fortresses and in your power to protect them. If you lose that sense of power and confidence–and the destruction of the town would accomplish that–then the basis of your commerce is gone.”

“But where else will people sell their goods?” asked someone.

“The GES will kill people who try to trade with you. They will then quit selling their goods to you because they are afraid. All this happened around my home city before they took over.”

Azzesh was nodding agreement. She was delighted to hear Tlisli using some of her knowledge. The girl had been so passive. Of course, she would never let Tlisli know that she felt that way!

An argument broke out again all over the room. It went on for another half an hour. When it was over, nothing new had been decided. It appeared that the staff of the fort and its commander couldn’t imagine anything except defending the fortress itself. They disagreed with Tlisli that the GES troops would attack from the land and continued to expect any substantial attack to come by river.

As the meeting broke Tlisli turned to Azzesh. “So why did they invite us?” she asked.

“Oh, that’s simple,” said Azzesh. “They want to make sure that friends of mine in the city know that I was at the meeting. Then if something goes wrong they can point out that I was at the meeting and hope nobody notices that I didn’t really approve of their plans.”

As she said this, Azzesh was leading Tlisli out of the room. She briefly acknowledged Orlin, who tried to act cordial. He was clearly hoping that Azzesh’s contacts in the city would not get a bad report. He did not believe that there was any real threat to the fort, or any long term or significant threat to their commerce.

[Previous episode]

 

We Have Always Failed

“It’s very simple. We need to ask for surrender terms,” said the deputy commander of the city militia of Qenixtlan. His words fell clearly on the silence in the conference room. “The reason is also simple. The fact is that the Grand Empire’s army always succeeds. They win every battle. But we always fail. We have never won a single battle.

Copyright © 2013 Henry E. Neufeld
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person, place, thing, or event in the real world is purely coincidental.

The commander looked around the room. He saw the failure on every face. Nobody believed that there was any reason to fight. No matter how horrible the stories were of how the Grand Empire of the Sun treated conquered peoples, there was not one person who was willing to take the risk resistance. However badly they might be treated if they surrendered, it would be much worse if they resisted and lost. And in their minds, they had already failed.

And he knew that they were right, at least about the history of failure. Their city had been conquered four times in the previous century. Their militia had proven quite capable of arresting thieves and rounding up juvenile delinquents. Every time they met a foreign army in battle, however, they lost. The only reason they were independent right now was that their last conqueror had simply collapsed about a decade ago.

He looked around the room, and he knew he couldn’t fight it. Not today, in any case. “Very well, then,” he said. “You are dismissed. The militia is disbanded.” He stood up and walked out the door without meeting anyone’s eyes.

It took a several minutes for the shocked men to leave the room. They were stunned. Everyone would complain. It was expected. Nobody actually believed they would succeed. Why should they? It was true that they had never won a single battle against a foreign invader. They had a truly unbroken record of failure. But there was a tradition to uphold. The commander was supposed to lecture them. He was supposed to exhort them. He was supposed to raise their morale by telling them they could succeed. They wouldn’t believe it. Likely he wouldn’t believe it either, but they would all pretend. Then when the enemy attacked, they would stand for a few minutes for form’s sake before they dropped their weapons and raised their arms over their head.

The word spread through the city. Some people started collecting a few possessions and loading them into carts so they could escape the city before the enemy arrived. The king wanted to call the commander in to ask him what he thought he was doing. What negotiating platform would he have if he didn’t even have a militia? There would be no reason for the invader to offer the city any kind of favorable treatment when they could simply march in. But the commander could not be found.

The next morning people were shocked to see recruiting posters all over town. They were signed by the commander and they read: “All those who are willing to resist the invader should report to a point one kilometer north of the city at the old fortress at noon today. Only those prepared to fight should report. We will form the Regional Defense Militia.”

It was signed by the missing commander.

Men looked at one another. Everyone was hoping that his neighbor wasn’t going to go meet north of the city. Then some of the younger men grabbed whatever weapons they had and headed north. Soon some of the older men, shamed by the action of the younger men, headed north as well. By noon, there was quite a crowd at the fort. Almost all of the same men who had been in that comfortable conference room were there. Even the deputy commander had showed up.

Somehow those who were used to being leaders found themselves inside the courtyard. It wasn’t comfortable like the conference room downtown. It wasn’t in all that good of repair. Since the fort was only intended to help resist invaders, nobody paid much attention to it. After all, nobody had successfully resisted an invader in living memory.

The commander raised his hand. Amazingly, silence fell in the room, though there was still quite a bit of noise coming from outside where the crowd had gathered.

“We are the Regional Defense Militia,” he said. “We just came into existence. We will send messengers to all the towns, villages, and farms within a week’s travel and invite them to join us in fighting the enemy. And fight we will. We will stand. We will not surrender. We are the Regional Defense Militia of Qenixtlan, and we will win, because we have never failed.”

The entire group broke into cheers. They didn’t know why, but they even believed it.

But the commander knew. He knew these men knew how to fight. He knew they were willing to die, if necessary. But they had known—not believed, but known—they were going to fail.

And that is why the southern border of the Grand Empire of the Sun is located just to the north of Qenixtlan. Three times they have sent their armies to take the city, and three times they have lost.

The commander will tell you this is because for the first time, they have encountered an army that has never failed, never lost a single battle.

(See Ephesians 6:13, or perhaps 6:10-20.)

(This story was written for and submitted to the One Word at a Time Blog Carnival – Failures.)

What Honor Demands

When 16-year-old Winifred determined that she was pregnant, she knew she had to take action immediately. It would not be long until her mother would start asking questions. Her mother, in turn, would doubtless tell either Winifred’s father, or her maternal grandfather, depending on how angry she was. If she was really angry, she’d tell both. In any of these cases, the consequences did not bear contemplation.

So Winifred packed a small bag and exited the house through her own bedroom window. Her mother was not the sort of person who could imagine exiting any building through a window, so Winifred was relatively certain this was safe.

She made her way to the home of the Keretian commercial representative.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of characters, places, and events to those in the real world is coincidental.
Copyright © 2013
Henry E. Neufeld

To understand her decision, one must have some understanding of her home town, the small seaport of Aroqra. Despite having a relatively good seaport near several major shipping lanes, Aroqra was a poor town. It was multicultural, not in the sense of having developed a diverse mix of thriving cultures, but in the sense of having collected the remnants of many cultures. Specifically, those who were unable to leave for some reason.

Aroqra could, by the very optimistic, be called a city-state. At the moment it was ruled by someone who styled himself the sultan, though less than a decade earlier, it had been ruled by a king, and before that by a mayor. Few remembered any further back than that. It mattered very little to the inhabitants. The same man had been chief of police through all those changes of government, and he and his people enforced a sort of consensus law as best they could. The mayor, king, or sultan could decree, but the police enforced, and they enforced what they thought they could get by with enforcing. What they couldn’t manage to solve in this way, they let people solve for themselves.

The Keretians were primarily a seagoing people, with widespread commercial interests. They preferred to establish commercial representatives, who served as their ambassadors, wherever they could. In general, they expected these to be treated as embassies, unless they could manage to arrange extraterritorial rights for their citizens. In the case of Aroqra, they had simply stacked silver coins in front of the sultan until he guaranteed them their extraterritorial rights.

But to get back to the world as Winifred knew it, the Keretian ambassador had a son, also 16 years old, who had become quite popular in the community. His name was Malkish, and it was to him, not the building, that Winifred ran.

Malkish hid Winifred in one of the unused rooms of his father’s rather large home. It should be noted that this home was also his father’s place of business, and that it was surrounded by a substantial wall and guarded by armed guards. None of these guards paid any attention to the activities of the teenagers, however.

However long it might have taken Winifred’s mother, Marga, to discover that her daughter was pregnant had the girl stayed home, it took practically no time at all for her to come to that conclusion when she discovered the girl had run away. It took very little time after that for her to discover where Winifred had gone. Winifred was sneaky enough to climb out the window, but not sneaky enough to avoid the many witnesses who had seen her walk from her home to Malkish’s home.

And thus began the trouble …

“Our daughter is pregnant,” Marga said to her husband.

“Pregnant?!” he yelled. “Impossible!”

“Nonetheless it is so.”

“You have failed in your duty as a mother! You should have prevented this.” He would have struck his wife, but he restrained himself. After all, she could enter any room while he slept and she cooked his food.

“It is you,” she said, “who permits her to roam the town. What did you think would happen?” He was unhappy to be reminded of this, but it was true that he was very indulgent of his daughter.

Winifred’s father thought throughout the afternoon. Finally he decided that he would have to take a little trip into the countryside to the west, a trip from which Winifred would not return.

“Honor demands that this stain be erased,” he told his wife.

She had expected precisely this result.

“Bring her to me!” he demanded.

When he found out that Winifred was not available, he was furious. He went out and told his relatives who told their relatives. By the next morning, there was a crowd gathered in front of the Keretian commercial representative’s building.

Yarub, the representative, could not understand what the problem was. The crowd was demanding that he bring out a girl he’d never heard of. He asked his staff, but nobody knew. He asked his guards, and finally someone said that Malkish had brought a young woman into the compound the day before, but that wasn’t particularly unusual, was it?

So Yarub called for Malkish, who admitted that he had hidden the girl in the compound.

“She has sought refuge here,” said Malkish. “Doesn’t honor demand that we protect her?”

Yarub couldn’t see any reason why honor would demand that he protect a random girl, but then he thought of one circumstance in which it would. If Malkish was the father of this pregnant girl’s child, then honor would demand that he protect them both. Keretians were very protective of their offspring, even if they had not been conceived after the wedding.

Yarub allowed Winifred’s father to come into the compound to talk.

“Honor demands that my daughter be given to me, so she can pay for the disgrace she has brought on our family,” said the angry father. He didn’t specify just how the girl would pay.

“But she is carrying my son’s child,” said Yarub. “Honor demands that I protect her and my grandchild!”

One of the guards whispered to Yarub. “What?” he asked. “This man would kill his daughter!”

“I didn’t say that,” muttered Winifred’s father.

“But you didn’t deny it either. That’s what you mean, ‘pay’. You mean to kill her, and my grandchild at the same time! I will not allow her to leave this compound! You will leave immediately!”

“You are a dishonorable man! Who are you to stand between me and my daughter!”

But the guards threw the angry father out of the gate. The crowd continued to yell and occasionally throw rocks, but there was little they could do other than block the entrance.

Marga also told her father what had happened, and explained how her husband was going to kill her daughter if he could, because honor demanded it.

But Marga’s clan did not have the same custom’s as her husband’s.

“Honor demands that we kill the man who has defiled my grandaughter,” said Marga’s father.

Soon there were two competing crowds in front of the Keretian commercial building, one demanding that Winifred be sent out to them, and the other than Malkish be sent out. From time to time, men from the competing groups would get into fights.

Jeloran was a captain in the city police. In fact, his task was criminal investigation. And despite the fact that he had no tools or training, and was paid very little, he took his job seriously.

For some time he observed the groups gathered in from of the Keretian commercial building. He heard the crowds yelling at each other about honor and what it demanded. Perhaps, he thought, honor demands that someone find out exactly what has happened here!

So he started asking around. Very quickly he discovered that Winifred was not known to be regularly in Malkish’s company. Like most of the young people of the town, she hung around the group that hung around him. He was rich, he was flamboyant, he was exotic, and the young people did that. But Winifred was not especially closely connected to him.

He kept asking, and finally he discovered that there was a young man, from the wrong side of town (there were lots of wrong sides in Aroqra). He contrived to corner the young man out of sight of any of the contenders. This was easy to do, as the contenders were all gathered at the gate to the Keretian compound.

“Pregnant?” said the young man. “How could she be pregnant?”

“The usual way,” snapped Jeloran. Surely the young man knew how babies were made.

“We played around,” said the boy, “but we didn’t go all the way. I swear it! But if she is in trouble, she can come home with me.”

Jeloran thought about that for a moment. It would never do! The people who were now outside the Keretians’ gate would burn this poor kid’s house down around him in a moment.

“Don’t tell anybody what I’ve said. I’ll see to it she’s alright. But things will go very badly if you say anything. Understand?”

The kid understood.

Jeloran went and found a healer, and they both went back to the Keretian compound. They made it through the crowd because Jeloran listed so sympathetically to the demands of both sides that he bring Winifred and/or Malkish out with him. Instead, Jeloran went to Yarub’s office.

“I would like to see Malkish and Winifred,” he said.

“I am not going to let any of you barbarians kill my grandchild!” said Yarub. “Honor demands that I protect both the child and its mother!”

“Are you sure there is a grandchild?” asked Jeloran.

“What do you mean?”

“Are you sure the girl Winifred is pregnant?”

“My son said she was. Why would he say that if it wasn’t true?”

“What if he just took her word for it? What if he even knew he couldn’t be the father?”

Yarub sat there silently. “He always did have a soft heart,” he said finally. Then he called both of the young people to his office.

When Winifred saw the healer she tried to run. The healer just said, “What do you think I’m going to do to you, girl?”

“I don’t know!” said Winifred.

“Are you actually pregnant?”

“No. I thought I was. I was late. I now know I’m not.”

“Could you have been the father?” Yarub asked Malkish.

“No, father, but honor demanded …”

“Yes, I know. Honor. Everyone is talking about honor.” He turned to Jeloran. “What can we do? Everyone wants to kill someone.”

“Oh, I think this can all be solved, if you’re willing to spend what will be, for you, a small sum of money. The healer here will confirm that the girl is not pregnant. There’s no way he can really be sure at this early stage, but the people out there believe he can. He’ll want his bill paid, by the way. Then your son will swear that he did not have sex with the girl at any time. If the two men, the girls father and her maternal grandfather are satisfied, then the crowds will disperse. Then you offer her a job that requires that she go elsewhere for training.”

“In my experience, men around here are not anxious for their daughters to get jobs,” said Yarub.

“That is quite true, but in this case, they are going to have problems marrying this girl off to anyone after this. There will always be a taint. Her father will accept that she’s innocent, because he never really wanted to kill her in the first place. But everyone else will have doubts. But you’ll need to offer a bit of money to keep the father happy.”

“It seems I’m paying a lot for a girl who is not my son’s girlfriend,” he said, looking pointedly at Malkish.

“But,” said Jeloran before the boy could speak, “you’ll end the disturbance at your gates, and you’ll have several people in your debt.”

“True,” said Yarub.

And so it happened that Winifred was recruited for a job in a distant land, and her father gave her permission to accept.

After all the negotiations were complete, Jeloran had one more task to complete. He called Yarub aside.

“There’s a young man,” he said, “who is actually Winifred’s boyfriend. I’m wondering if you could do something for him.”

“And why would I do that?”

“Might I suggest that my honor demands that I do something for him, to reward him for honestly answering the question that led me to the solution to all of this.”

“That’s your honor, not mine.”

“But would it not, perhaps, be helpful for you to have the chief investigator of the city police in your debt as well, a debt of honor? I take my honor very seriously.”

“Oh, I see,” said Yarub. And he did.

(This post was written for and submitted to the One Word at a Time Blog Carnival – Honor.)

 

Due Honor to Those to Whom It Is Due When It Is Due

“You have to pay your dues,” said the professor. “You must give due honor to the people to whom it is due when it is due. Honor comes only after due time spent in study as a leaner, and a duly humble one at that. Just as the dew falls on the ground, this is what the student must do.”

The professor thought himself a rather clever man with words. In fact, he was a professor of military science, and wasn’t nearly as clever as he thought. But he was still the professor, and today he was lecturing a student, though one he expected to soon be an ex-student. Ex-student, he would point out, as though his students would miss it, is very different from graduate. An ex-student is just someone who pretended to learn, but failed to do so. A graduate is due honor and respect. Less honor and respect than his teacher, but nonetheless honor and respect.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of characters, places, and events to those in the real world is coincidental.
Copyright © 2012
Henry E. Neufeld

“Now you, Schultweiss, you are not a good student. The only thing due you is a dismissal from this university. You will never amount to anything. You will never be a great tactician or strategist. You will never be cited by other scholars when they research military history or other topics.” To the professor, honor was measured in how often one’s works were cited by other scholars.

Armand Schultweiss only half listened to this lecture. He’d tried to argue earlier when the professor told him that his ideas about maneuverability were really quite wrong, but the professor cut him off. Nobody had ever operated in that way before. It wouldn’t work. Where were his citations? He wrote entire pages of his thesis without any footnotes at all! Did he think one of his youth and lack of credentials was capable of having his own thoughts, thoughts not rooted in and nurtured by the authorities?

And then, after making his final clever speech, he dismissed Armand. Four years of hard study wasted. No degree meant no recommendations. No recommendations meant nobody was going to hire him for their guard. He could try to enlist in the army, but his career potential as a commoner would be limited.

***** 25 years later *****

General Armand Schultweiss watched as his opposite number and staff marched stiffly into his command tent. It was a reversal of historic proportions. He had come into this battle outnumbered  two to one, with troops that were considered less well-trained. (It should be noted that Schultweiss disagreed with this assessment of his troops.) He commanded the forces of the tiny new Republic of Zeeland, formerly the province of Zeeland, against the forces of the Ardenean Empire, at least those available in the local area.

But then Schultweiss noticed one man in the opposing delegation. It was the professor, serving as an adviser to his opponent. The professor showed no sign of recognizing Schultweiss. In fact, he showed no sign throughout the surrender ceremony.

But before closing the ceremony, he turned and asked, “Professor, what are you doing here?”

The professor was startled. He was not surprised that he had been recognized as a professor. Every well-educated military officer should know his name and should have read his books and papers. What surprised him was the question. If his services were available, why would he not be employed on a general’s staff? He was the foremost expert!

“Why would I not be here?” asked the professor.

“After you expelled me from the university, I checked your record. You have never before served on a military staff, nor were you ever a soldier or an officer. Isn’t this the first time you’ve served on any officer’s staff?”

“Well, yes. It seemed to me that since I’ve retired from teaching it was due time that I put some of my knowledge into practice.”

“And would you say that your advice was appreciated?”

“Oh yes! The general relied heavily on my knowledge, especially of military history.”

“So you would say that the battle plan used by the imperial forces was yours?”

“You could say that.” The professor seemed oblivious to the situation. He was proud of his plan and the fact that it had been adopted.

“A long time ago you said to me: ‘You have to pay your dues. You must give due honor to the people to whom it is due when it is due.’ That was right before you expelled me. Do you remember that?”

“I said that to many upstart students, students who failed to give their professor and their betters the respect they were due.”

“I’m just wondering, professor, how much honor is due a battle plan, or the person who crafted it, when that battle plan fails as miserably as your plan has today.”

The professor looked stunned. It was at least a full minute before he spoke. “I can see why I expelled you. You have no respect for your betters. My battle plan was perfection itself. It took into account all the established principles of strategy. It took account of all the historical factors.”

“But you lost,” said the general.

The look on the professor’s face was genuinely puzzled. “I’ll tell you what I think,” said General Schultweiss. When he saw that the professor was about to speak, he continued quickly. “I think that very little respect is due to a battle plan that fails. I think little honor is due to a professor whose first experience of battle came after he retired, in a battle which he lost. But I’m thankful to you, professor. If so many of the empire’s officers had not been trained under you, I would probably have lost this battle.”

Then General Schultweiss laughed. The delegation that had just surrendered were first astonished, then furious at this treatment. Even a surrendering general and his staff were due respect. “Actually, professor,” the general concluded, “the Republic of Zeeland thanks you for its independence!”

And he turned and left.

(This story was written for and submitted to the One Word at a Time Blog Carnival – Due.)

The New Ornate Cathedral

“I want an ornate cathedral, one suitable to my rank,” said the Duke.

Pierre Otzmann tried to keep his eyes from wandering around the room, surely a sign of disrespect since he should be listening to his duke, but the walls were covered with paintings of cathedrals, including the great cathedral from the imperial capital. They weren’t very good paintings. Rather, they were the sort of cheap art that one could buy from a tourist stand in the street. They weren’t displayed properly either. They were just sort of slapped up on the wall.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of persons, places, or events to anything in the real world is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2012
Henry Neufeld

Otzmann was an architect. He liked order.

The duke cleared his throat ominously.

“Yes, your grace. I understand.”

“You’ll have 30,000 universals to accomplish this. You are the best architect in my duchy. You will not fail me in this commission.” Otzmann’s heart sank. A universal was a small silver coin, the standard for imperial exchange. Just the semi-skilled laborers for the project would cost him around 6,000, and that was if he could get the project done efficiently. With only 24,000 for the artists, materials, and skilled labor? Not a chance!

Again the duke cleared his throat.

“Yes, your grace,” said Otzmann. “I will prepare plans for your approval.” What else could he say?

“You will not,” said the duke. This brought a look of surprise to Otzmann’s face. Very briefly. “What you will do is block off the site of the new cathedral with a high wall. Then you will build this cathedral within that wall. I will not see it until it is completed.” This was a long speech for the duke.

After a long pause, he continued. “I cannot decide what my cathedral should look like. I have seen all the major cathedrals of the realm. I know they are all better than mine. Their appearance brings respect to the rulers who commissioned them. Mine brings me snickers. You will create for me a cathedral of which I can be proud, one that will bring me honor and glory. You are the most talented man I know. You will do this for me. Fail at your peril!” The duke’s look matched his final words.

Otzmann went home to his workshop. He tinkered with paper and drafting tools. He looked at the ceiling and thought. Nothing came to him.

He commissioned the wooden wall that would be high enough to keep the duke from seeing the cathedral as it was being built. He wondered how he would keep the workers from talking, but he decided there would be time enough to worry about that later. Right now they could only talk about an empty city block!

About a week after he had received the commission, Otzmann decided to visit the town’s current cathedral, the one the duke thought was such a disgrace. He had intended to pray, but nothing came to mind, so he just sat in a pew. As he watched a woman came into the sanctuary. He couldn’t tell her age, but she was clearly poor. He knew it was not polite, but he kept watching her. She didn’t seem to notice. She dropped some coins in the offering box. She lit a candle. She knelt down on an old, worn kneeling rail to pray. He had to move a bit to see her face, but as she knelt, her face lit up and it looked like years fell off her. Finally, she got up and left, showing no sign that she had ever noticed Otzmann.

“I don’t know about honor,” thought Otzmann, “but there’s glory for you. That woman’s face shows the real glory of a cathedral. Now if I can just catch that in stone …”

It was still a couple of weeks before Otzmann went to the building site. He threatened all the workers with hanging if they told anyone what was going on. He did so on the authority of the duke. He was certain the duke would back him up. If he asked for another 100 universals, he would doubtless be denied. The neck of one of the workers? No problem!

The workers believed him.

The duke was happy to see work going on. He wondered why there was some work in the new cathedral when he went on one of his rare visits, but he didn’t argue. He had, after all, ordered his most creative subject to accomplish a mission, and people accomplished those missions given them by their duke. Well, or bad things happened to them, that is.

The big day came. The new cathedral was finished. The duke was to be given a tour of the new building before the church took it over and consecrated it.

Otzmann led the duke into the enclosure. The duke had been able to see the a couple of towers toward the front of the cathedral over the wall. They looked pretty plain to him, but he supposed that they would look ornate when connected with the remainder of the building.

The duke had never suffered such a shock in his life as the one he felt when he saw his new, ornate cathedral. It was drab. It was ordinary. It looked like pieces of other buildings around his duchy. He walked into the nave. He looked around the inside. There was stained glass in the windows, yes, but the designs were simple, almost childish. The pews were made of local wood. They were well built, but very ordinary looking. The altar was carved and decorated, yes, but again it was very simple work.

The kneeling rails looked like they must have come from the old cathedral. They were old, smooth, worn.

The duke was coming out of his shock, and becoming enraged. Otzmann thought to himself how much easier it was to think that if he was going to disappoint the duke, he might as well do it thoroughly, when there was no disappointed duke right there working up a good rage.

Then the duke appeared to physically take control of his temper. He turned to Otzmann. “You’re the best architect in my duchy,” he said. “Tell me. Is this the best my duchy can produce?”

“May I have a few moments to tell you about this cathedral first?” asked Otzmann.

Reluctantly the duke nodded.

“You wanted a cathedral to bring you honor and glory, one you could be proud of. You had pictures of the great cathedrals of the empire, and I knew you wanted something like them. So if your anger falls on me once I have explained myself and this building, you know that I did understand.” It was a bold statement. The duke appreciated boldness. In measure. Rarely.

So I asked myself what a cathedral is for, and how it might best be made truly ornate. I got my answer when a woman prayed in the old cathedral.”

“Nonsense!” exclaimed the Duke. “Women pray every day in every cathedral and misbegotten chapel of my duchy. There’s nothing special in that!”

“Perhaps, your grace, you need to look with the eyes of an artist. If I might show you …”

Otzmann led the duke to the outside wall of the church. Do you see these stones? Every one, you can see, has a name inscribed on it.”

“More like ‘scratched’ you mean.”

“Well, some are better at inscribing than others. Each stone comes from a cathedral or a chapel somewhere in your duchy. The stones were chosen by the people and sent here. Each piece of glass was made by a separate glassblower. Well, there weren’t enough for each piece, but every known glassblower in your realm is represented here.

“The designs were each made by the children of a different school in your realm. No artist outside of your duchy contributed anything. The altar was built here in the capital, but then travelled around the country as various people I chose added something to the carvings. The altar cloths and vestments were sewn in some of your smaller villages.”

“How did you keep all this secret?” asked the duke.

Otzmann refrained from noting that the duke could easily miss an earthquake provided it happened more than a block or so from his castle. “I threatened them with death, but in the end, I don’t think that mattered. I think they just wanted to surprise you.”

The duke looked almost thoughtful, a look that nobody could recall  him having before.

“Each piece was prayed over and consecrated in the town or village it came from. I just fitted them into the resulting church.”

“And for this you spent my 30,000 universals?” asked the Duke.

“No,” said Otzmann. “Nobody would accept payment. I haven’t touched your fund. Your people have given you your cathedral.” He wanted to add, “And God gave you such people,” but he didn’t think that would be as well received.

“I don’t know what to think,” said the duke, in a rare moment of sincerity. “I think I will not have you hung. How could I? But I have no idea how to explain this cathedral to my peers.”

I’d tell them they should be fortunate enough to have such an ornate cathedral, thought Otzmann. But he didn’t say it.

((This story was written for and submitted to the one day at a time blog carnival – ornate.)

Find the True Source

In the southeastern portion of the Enzar continent there is a great river, known in Enzar as the Ygulanor, but to local people as the Ig, or perhaps the great Ig. It flows south, and it’s mouth is a major port. For around 4,000 kilometers from its mouth it is navigable. It has its source somewhere in the huge mountain range that splits this portion of the continent. That somewhere is not generally known. Wherein lies our tale.

There was a very wise man who lived along the lower reaches of the Ig. We’ll use the shorter name. Those Enzar are so boring with their long, multi-syllable, unpronounceable names. One day three young men came to the wise man and asked him what they thought was a rather simple question. They all met with him at once, because the very wise man, being wise, only met with people at certain times. Otherwise he would have done nothing but answer questions, which would be no fun. Even wise men have to have fun.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of persons, places, or events to anything in the real world is strictly coincidental.
Copyright © 2012
Henry E. Neufeld

So the three young men found themselves together, and found that they had one question. Surely there would be one answer.

They asked the wise man this: “How should one go about acquiring wisdom?”

The wise man looked at the three young men, and realized they were very different. He didn’t think the answer to the question would be the same for all three. In fact, he was pretty sure the one on his right was never going to attain wisdom at all, and the one in the center was at best a coin toss. But they were unlikely to accept that wisdom might be attained in different ways, and might even take to fighting over different answers.

So after some thought he said, “He who would attain wisdom must first seek the true source of the Ig.” Then he fell silent. He refused to comment further. He made shooing motions with his hands to indicate they were to leave.

The three young men did so.

The first young man, who had been on the wise man’s right, went to the library in the great cosmopolitan city that graced the mouth of the Ig. He found there a book detailing the geography of the river, as far as it was known. In the book it said simply that it was rumored that one explorer had tracked the Ig to its source in the mountains to a point where water spurted out of a large whole in a cliff. This first young man looked at that statement, and decided that the person who wrote the book was very smart, and had written the book many years before, and thus doubtless was correct, or at least correct enough. He put down the book and went on his way. He didn’t feel much wiser, though he did congratulate himself on his wisdom in going no further, and thus saving himself much time, money, and effort.

The second young man, who had been in the center, read the same book, but he wondered if the rumor was true. He wanted to be wise, and so he decided to pursue this question a bit further. He hired a boat, some guards, and a river guide and began to follow the river. Soon he passed the navigable portions but he was determined, and his expedition continued on foot. They had to fight bandits and tribesmen. But after many months of travel and of making what he hoped was the proper choice of various tributaries (and having been wrong a couple of times), he arrived at the great cliff. There was a veritable river of water flowing out of the cliff in what was clearly the source of the Ig.

He was a bit disappointed that he had merely confirmed what he had found in the book, but he also realized that he had learned many skills, including fighting and how to lead people in hard circumstances. He had also found a number of ways in which he could make money from his knowledge of these regions. So he headed back to the big city to put his plans into action. He wasn’t sure he was wiser, but he most certainly was richer. He was fairly sure he was richer than he might ever have managed to become simply by doing business in the city, so he was satisfied.

The third young man read the same book. Having read the book, he also wanted to know whether what the book said was true. So he followed the second young man up the river. He had taken a bit more time on his research, so he actually met the second young man when he was returning from the source.

“You don’t need to go further,” said the second young man to the third. “The source is indeed water flowing from a cliff just as the book said.”

“Thank you!” said the third young man. Then he and his guards and porters made camp for the night, along with the second young man and his guides and porters.

During the night, he kept considering the situation. He couldn’t quite get comfortable.

In the morning he told the second young man, “I think I’ll still go and look at this water coming from a cliff. The wise man said, ‘the true source of the Ig.'”

“Suit yourself,” said the second young man. He had plenty of things to pursue during his own lifetime, however long he managed to live.

So the third young man continued the trek. When he got to the cliff he saw the water coming out of the rock, and he asked himself, “Where does the water come from that is coming out of the cliff?”

He set about climbing the cliff, which was close to 1000 meters high. He nearly fell to his death twice, and two of the guards who were brave enough to go with him actually did fall, at which point two more guards abandoned him as well.

But finally he was at the top of the cliff. Above the cliff there was a dry plateau. Now he truly wondered where the water came from. He travelled for many days across the plateau. He was nearly out of water when he came to the foot of some mountains that were even higher. He found there a tiny stream that came out of the mountain. From it he refilled his water jugs. He tried to follow the stream, but it disappeared into the ground, but that was not nearly enough water to provide the source of the Ig. So he continued to travel along the base of these new mountains. Stream after stream came down to the plain and then disappeared underground.

He followed some of the streams backwards into the mountains, but he soon realized they did not meet there either. Each of the streams had its source in a spring, flowed through the mountains, often having small tributaries of its own, and then the streams disappeared under the dry plateau. Then suddenly it struck him.

There was no true source of the Ig. It was like an explosion of enlightenment in his mind.

Of the three young men, only this third one ever returned to thank the very wise man. There came a day when the very wise man tired of answering questions, and he invited this third young man to take his place.

“I want to be replaced by someone who knows the true source of the Ig,” he said.

Condemned by the Gracious Governor

The storyteller, as usual, seemed to start in the middle of the tale …


When Perd fell on his face in front of the governor, he had little hope. It was his second time to appear in this position, and what hope did he have of getting clemency? He had promised to reform, to learn a skill, and to get a job, but he had done none of those things. It had seemed much easier to steal. What’s more, he thought he had learned a lesson the last time. No, not the lesson he was supposed to learn. He thought he knew how not to get caught.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance between persons, places, things, or events and those in the real world is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2012
Henry E. Neufeld

Now he found himself sentenced to death for a large robbery in which he had seriously injured a man with his knife. And here he was again, on his face, in front of the governor.

The governor was known as a gracious man. In fact, he was not required to see every person who was sentenced to death before allowing the sentence to be carried out. He could just sign the death warrants, or even allow a secretary to do it for him. But he disliked seeing people beheaded, and he sought every way to prevent it, especially for people who had been sentenced for something other than murder. The law might allow the sentence for someone who had merely threatened the life of another, or done injury that might have led to death, but the governor didn’t like it.

The governor remembered Perd.

“Your honor commuted a previous sentence of death against this man,” droned the pardons secretary. He continued with the particulars.

When the pardons secretary had finished, the prosecutor spoke. “The defendant Perd has despised your honor’s grace given to him before. He has proven himself unworthy of your mercy. He is a threat to the province which you govern by the king’s leave.” The prosecutor mentioned the king, because he hoped that the governor would be afraid. The prosecutor was known to have connections in the distant capital. It would be impolitic to mention those connections directly, but they crept out through the pauses in the prosecutor’s speech.

The governor motioned to the pardons secretary who turned to Perd and asked in a low tone of voice, “Do you have anything to say for yourself?” He used a low tone of voice because he couldn’t see any reason why anyone should listen to someone with Perd’s record.

From his position with his face on the paving stones, Perd just said, “Mercy, your honor, mercy!” Then he was silent.

The prosecutor smiled. The pardons secretary didn’t smile (he didn’t really know how), but he managed to look satisfied. No sad story to touch the gracious governor’s heart and produce a pardon or even a commutation.

“You beg for mercy,” said the governor, “and mercy you shall have.” Shock swept through the audience chamber. The prosecutor opened his mouth to protest, but then he saw the determined look on the governor’s face.  Connections in the capital were all well and good, but the capital was two weeks journey to the south, and the governor was right here. The prosecutor decided it would be better to be silent. He could include a note in his next letter to friends and family, perhaps starting a rumor that would weaken the governor’s position with his superiors.

“I place before you a choice,” the governor continued, allowing this idea to sink in. “Out in the courtyard there is a headsman, with his axe sharpened. He is quite a good headsman, and will doubtless remove your head efficiently and with minimum pain. Considering that you could be executed by less pleasant methods, you should consider this a good option. On the other hand, I have a friend who is travelling north into the wilderness to search for gold and precious stones. He will probably be travelling for two or more years. He is a skilled man, and I doubt you will escape him. If you should think of escape, or of doing him harm, you should be aware that I give him my blanket permission to kill you, with no questions asked. If you are more of a burden on him than a help, then he can kill you just for that. Should you return from this trip alive, you will be granted my pardon and your freedom.”

The prosecutor had lost his smile when the governor first mentioned mercy, but now he had it back. The look on the pardons secretary’s face had gone from a carefully practiced strict neutrality to one of satisfaction. Perd did not look like the sort of person who could survive one of those trips to the north. The governor was clearly being extraordinarily cruel by providing this choice between two deaths.

The governor looked at Perd, who was too frightened to look up. The mountains immediately to the north were known to be a good source of many precious things, but they were also known to be a place of incredible danger. The explorers and miners who travelled in that area were known to be the toughest and nastiest people anywhere. He could very easily endure months or even years of agony, and still be killed, or die accidentally, before he could return home. A clean beheading almost sounded attractive!

Almost! But not quite. The alternative sentence did keep him alive, and offered some hope, however little. Perd thought, was better than none.

“Your honor, I will go with your friend,” said Perd. He almost thanked the governor for his mercy, but under the circumstances he thought that wouldn’t sound sincere. Nobody could expect him to be thankful for a slow death instead of a fast one.

He was taken in chains to the explorer, name Ka’at. He was left in chains in an unfurnished room overnight. The next morning Ka’at dragged him out into the courtyard where he saw two fully packed mules. Ka’at was in his travelling gear as well. He wondered if he would make the entire journey in chains. Before they went out of the city gates, however, Ka’at took him to a blacksmith’s shop, where the chains were removed, but replaced by a set that would handicap his movement less, but nonetheless make him much slower than Ka’at. The latter looked very fit and quick as well.

So Perd began his march into the mountains still in chains, albeit lighter ones. He was still expected to work and carry a pack. He wanted to be angry because of the pack, but as he started to open his mouth to complain, he realized that the pack Ka’at was carrying himself was substantially larger than his, and heavier even if one considered the weight of the chains. So he thought better of that complaint.

He knew that those who mined gemstones up in these mountains, and often searched for treasure from ancient times, were considered dangerous and uncouth. Ka’at, on the other hand, hardly said a word during the day. In the evening, he would make comments on what Perd had done during the day, and what he should do. He’d always end his comments by saying something like, “You’ve been more of a help than a burden today,” or “You’ve been more of a burden than a help, but I’ll let it pass,” or sometimes “You’ve been about as much trouble as help.”

Since he thought his life depended on it, Perd paid attention, and tried to do the things that made him more of a help than a burden. These things involved habits he had never learned before, such as learning how to cook a meal rather than expecting someone else to do so for him, how to mend and sew, how to care for the mules, and eventually how to hunt. By the time Ka’at gave him a hunting bow, he was so far into the mountains and so uncertain of how one would get home, that the thought of killing his master never occurred to him.

Then came the day when Ka’at removed the chains. He didn’t lecture about it. He just called Perd over, and with a few quick strokes of hammer and chisel, removed the chains. Again, partly because he had no idea where to go, and partly because he was now in the habit of doing the day to day chores, Perd didn’t think seriously of running. When he thought about his situation, he was amazed that he didn’t hate Ka’at. He’d assumed he would hate someone who had the power of life and death over him. Despite his pleas for mercy, deep inside himself he had hated the governor as well. Who was he to have Perd’s life in his hands?

But Ka’at worked hard than Perd could ever manage, even though Perd was finding himself stronger and stronger. He was doing work that only weeks before he had no idea how to do. Now it came easily. And they were finding gems as well. It took a lot of digging, but as the bags on the mules became lighter and lighter as they used up their supplies, they were being filled again with valuable items. Looking at a Ruby that he and Ka’at had just dug up, Perd suddenly realized why such stones commanded such high prices. He knew there was nowhere inside his homeland where one could find them. The trip would pay well, but there were few people who could survive this. He knew that without Ka’at’s knowledge, particularly of the wild animals, they would both have been dead.

Then it happened. It could happen to anyone, no matter how skilled. It had happened to Perd earlier in the trip, and Ka’at had been there to save him. But this time, it was Ka’at who stepped on the wrong stone, which broke off, and in turn loosened others, resulting in a fall. Ka’at ended up hanging over a gorge from a single small tree. He was in Perd’s power.

Instantly, the thought came to Perd’s mind. If he just let Ka’at go, he would be free. He need never return home to where he was known. He could find another place to live. But he rejected the thought instantly. It wasn’t until Ka’at was back on the trail that Perd realized that it hadn’t been his need of a guide to get home that stopped him from just letting Ka’at die. No, he’d suddenly realized that he liked the older man and didn’t want to see him fall. Yes, he’d realized how his sentence could end with Ka’at’s death, but he’d rejected it. It was an odd feeling. He couldn’t recall doing anything for anyone before just because he liked them.

Ka’at, as usual, was quiet. He just nodded his thanks. That evening he said simply, “You were a great help to me today.” Was that a twinkle in his eyes? With Ka’at, who could tell?

The day came when Ka’at and Perd rode back into town. They looked much the worse for wear. To Perd’s surprise, Ka’at led them straight to the palace. To Perd’s even greater surprise, they were admitted to the governor’s private audience chamber. Ka’at walked up to the governor’s desk and spread out the rubies they had found. They had a few other things, but that was more than 90% of the value of what they had brought out of the mountains.

“They’re all there,” said Ka’at, spreading the rubies out on the desk. He divided them up, two thirds in one pile and another third in another.

He looked at Perd and pointed to the smaller pile. “Take them,” he said. Perd knew from their discussions in the mountains that an assistant such as himself, always supposing the man was free and not condemned to work for nothing, would normally get five or ten percent of the take they had helped find. This was a junior partner’s share.

Perd just looked at the stones.

“Take them,” said the governor. “You’ve fulfilled the terms I set.”

 


“Now tell me,” said the storyteller, “Did the governor act graciously? If so, in what way? Which of his actions were actions of grace, and which not? Should he have been known as the gracious governor?”

 

When the Orange Sky Gleamed

“I’m going to tell you a story about the time when the orange sky gleamed,” said the old man.

The children gathered around the fire moved closer. Some of them leaned forward so that they could hear the story. One of the older children wasn’t quite as interested.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance between persons, places, and events and those in the real world are purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2012
Henry E. Neufeld

“The sky is blue in the day, and black at night. There are clouds. Sometimes they turn orange in the evening, at sunset. But the sky is never orange and it doesn’t gleam.” He was just into his teens and pretty smart. He wasn’t going to be awed by eerie sounding opening lines to old men’s stories.”On this day, it was orange, and it gleamed,” said the old man. Before the confident kid could interrupt him again, he continued. “We got up in the morning and there was just a bit of orange in the southern sky. It was a bad omen.” The confident kid rolled his eyes.

“The shaman said it was a bad day. ‘When there’s orange in the south, stay under your roof,’ he told us. But the chief wouldn’t listen. He needed to get a caravan going to pick up gold, gems, and various items of bronze, iron, and even steel from the south. The shaman told him again not to go.

“‘How long should I wait?’ asked the chief. ‘Until the orange sky no longer gleams,” said the shaman. But the chief wouldn’t listen, especially when the shaman wouldn’t tell him how long the gleaming would take to go away. So he sent out the caravan anyhow. In fact, he went with it. I begged to go. I was about your age.” He pointed to the confident kid. “I was just as stupid too. But they wouldn’t let me go.

“Days went by. Almost the entire sky to the south turned orange, and it gleamed, sometimes with white, sometimes with various colors, but always with an orange tint. To the north, over the sea, the sky was pretty much clear. It was windy, but the whether was not too bad. Nobody had an explanation for the time when the orange sky gleamed.” The confident kid rolled his eyes again. He wasn’t going to be taken in by the repetition of the eerie phrase.

Other children weren’t so jaded. “What happened?” they asked eagerly, leaning forward to hear the old man’s answer.

“A week went by, and the orange started to fade from the southern sky. But the caravan didn’t come back.” The old man paused for a moment and pretended to be falling asleep. The children started to ask what happened next. They were acquainted with waiting for a caravan to return. It was how their town made its money. But they couldn’t remember a time when a caravan just didn’t return.

“Another week went by and the sky was completely back to normal. But the caravan still didn’t return. The shaman didn’t say ‘I told you so,’ but one could see it on his face. It was really quite obscene to be so happy about a disaster. The chief’s son, who was in charge in his absence still thought the caravan might have been delayed. Maybe the load hadn’t been ready. But after three weeks it was hard to pretend that there wasn’t something terribly wrong.

“So the chief’s son sent out a patrol to look for the caravan. They rode horses, so they moved faster than a caravan. They couldn’t find any sign of the caravan. They did find that the sand dunes looked somewhat different. The men were used to the sands moving about some with the winds, but this was like they were traveling through a different country. Finally they arrived at the foot of the southern mountains where the town was where they usually picked up their loads.”

He paused again and pretended to be falling asleep.

“What did he find there?” asked an eager voice.

“Oh what?” The old man pretended to wake up suddenly.

“What did he find? Did he find the caravan? Did they get back home?”

“So many questions!” said the old man. “Well, no, they didn’t find the caravan. In fact, they didn’t find anything at all.”

“You mean, except the town,” said the confident kid, not sounding quite as confident as he had before.

“No, there was no town there. They could see the mountains rising up from the sand. They had all the landmarks. But where they were there was nothing but sand.”

The confident kid made a dismissive motion with his hand, got up, and walked away. The other kids were horrified. They demanded another story, claiming they couldn’t possibly go to sleep now.

The confident kid grew up, and he never forgot the story. He became a caravan merchant himself. New towns had grown up at the northern edge of the mountains. They bought things from the miners in the mountains as they always had. Caravans from the northern coastal towns came and carried them across the strip of desert land between the mountains and the coast and then sold them to trading ships. The winds rearranged the sand a bit, but not so much that one couldn’t find one’s way.

Then one day the confident kid sat down around another campfire and heard another story. It was an old man from the mountains. He also told about the time when the orange sky gleamed. His story was a bit different. The gleaming started to the east and built quickly. He described a bit of fire in the sky to the south as well

“What did everyone do?” asked the young man who had once been the confident kid.

“Oh, nothing in particular. We just stayed inside for a few days mostly,” said the old man. Then he paused, expectantly. But the confident young man wasn’t going to ask. Finally he couldn’t resist. He had to finish his story. “After the sky cleared we took our next load north to the town at the base of the mountains, but the town was gone.”

The confident young man was startled. He thought it had been an old man’s tale, but here was another tale to match. He wasn’t sure it was the same town even, but the stories matched so closely.

It took him some weeks to find someone who knew where that town at the base of the mountains had been. The current town was in an oasis which had a spring. It was entirely a new town. The elder who finally admitted to remembering where the old town had been could only tell him it was no more than a mile or so off to the east of the new one.

“But the town is lost, young man,” he said. “There’s no reason to worry about it. It’s buried in the sand.”

That was precisely what the young man thought. “Who owns that land?” he asked the elder.

“Owns a piece of the desert?” said the old man slowly. “Well, nobody.”

“So the confident young man went back to the coast to hire some men. Nobody was very interested in his plan, but he was able to find enough people who needed the work. He took them back to the place where the village had disappeared, and set them to digging. It required a month of digging.

The townspeople were delighted with all the money they were paid for food and water for the men digging in the desert. It never occurred to them to question the motives of the crazy man from the coast. But after a month he found what he wanted. There was the town, and there was the bodies of people, hidden in houses and covered in sand. He found even more than he expected. Though there was no way he could identify the people involved, he could tell there had been a caravan in town, and their cargo was well preserved under the sand.

The confident kid who had grown up into the confident young man became quite a rich man. But he never told the townspeople what he had found. His workers were more than happy to share the wealth and head for home.

Every few months after he returned home he would go to the great campfire in the town square and tell children a story. It was often the story of when the orange sky gleamed. And then he’d tell them the moral of the story. “Pay attention to the stories your elders tell. They might just have something important in them to help you grow up and become rich.”

(This story was written for and submitted to the one word at a time blog carnival – orange.)

There was a new town by the stream near the base of the mountain

Silly Who

Karl’s Story

Karl was pleased that his daughter Ellen spent so much time out in the woods. That way he wouldn’t have to be embarrassed by the silly things she did. He knew he should watch her more carefully, but he had never been able to bring himself to actually do it. If he tried to control her, things just got crazy.

Ellen couldn’t speak and many thought she couldn’t hear either. She just made incomprehensible sounds. The reason some people thought she really could hear was that she had an uncanny ability to notice what was going on around her. Those who depended on the fact that she couldn’t hear and tried to play tricks on her generally were unpleasantly surprised. Her practical jokes were usually embarrassing and sometimes painful, but never fatal.

This is a work of fiction. All persons, places, and events are products of my imagination.
Copyright © 2012
Henry E. Neufeld

Still, she behaved so strangely when she was in town. She’d spend time down at the shrine just looking at the inscriptions on the walls. She’d sit for hours just watching people on the street. She was nosy. She showed up at places she didn’t belong. She never did any chores. In fact, Karl thought, she was completely useless as a person and he quite frankly admitted to himself and to his neighbors that he resented the cost of feeding her. But he was much too responsible, and though he’d deny it, gentle of a man to actually do her real harm, and so he just let her run wild.

But he was delighted that she mostly ran wild far out in the woods. There were plenty of dangers out there, but at least he could pretend they weren’t his problem.

This arrangement worked well until one day Ellen came into town and went straight to the village headman. She got his attention and then began drawing in the dirt with a stick. Her father, who had followed her to try to keep her out of trouble—well, let’s be honest, to keep himself out of trouble by keeping her from bothering people—thought that what she was drawing looked hauntingly familiar, but he wasn’t sure why. The village headman had no idea, however, and he roughly pushed Ellen to the ground, told Karl to “control his daughter” and stalked off.

Karl tried to grab Ellen. The last thing he needed was to get in trouble with the headman. But Ellen was too fast and she disappeared into the woods. Karl chose the path of least resistance. He could always hope she would disappear again into the woods. He forgot entirely about the hauntingly familiar figures Ellen had drawn in the dirt.

Karl couldn’t read. Neither could the headman. In fact, nobody in the village could read. To them the figures on the walls of the village shrine were just strange religious symbols. They knew the shrine was very old, but nobody really cared. One just went there to offer sacrifices to the gods, though nobody knew why. They were sure the figures had sacred power, but they had no idea what they were, or what they were supposed to depict.

In the woods around there were ruins of other buildings, but nobody knew much about them either. They were just part of the landscape. Ellen had once led her father to one of those ruined buildings outside the village. She tried to point out things on the wall to him. He’d told her she was very silly, and that there was no point wasting his time.

In fact, Karl thought whoever had built the stone buildings must have been pretty silly themselves. Why go to that much work for shelter when a few tree branches and some woven grass would do just as well. It was probably right that his silly daughter spent her time in all those silly piles of rock. He had left her there and returned to the village, never noticing her look of disappointment.

For several days nobody saw Ellen at all. Karl was so pleased not to have to deal with her that he didn’t really get that worried about what might have happened to her. Surely she’d reappear in time.

Ellen’s Story

Ellen ran quickly through the woods to one of her caches of supplies. She had a hunting bow and a knife there, really all she needed to survive. She didn’t understand the problem. Did they imagine she would like about a thing like that? She was sure she had the symbols right. Why hadn’t they gotten her message. Over the 20 years of her life she had tried many things, including trying to move her lips the way other people did, but she’d always thought that when she drew the symbols people would understand her. But they didn’t.

Silly villagers, she thought. And silly me. Why didn’t I realize they never used the symbols themselves?

She ran through the woods for hours. Through the river gorge to the north ran a major trade route. At this point it didn’t belong to any country, king, or noble. It was considered wilderness. The caravans traveled with guards. Ellen had observed them many times before. She knew there were scraggly and poor caravans whose guards were dangerous themselves. She had barely escaped from contact with some of them before. But there were others whose clothes were rich. She had practiced writing the symbols she saw on the walls. It was with a caravan guard that she had finally made the connection between the symbols, the pictures, and events in her life.

So now she went looking for a caravan and the guards. She’d have to pick one carefully, because she didn’t want to be captured and enslaved. But with the right caravan, she might get the guards to come and help her deal with what she had found in the woods. It would be good for them too.

It was a full days travel on foot to the cliffs above the caravan road. Horses could make it much faster. When she arrived at the place where she usually climbed down the cliffs she found that the path was held. She should have thought of this. The people she had found near her own village would be planning to raid caravans, and this was the one place one could get down to the road easily. It would be impossible to sneak down the cliff where she had planned to.

There were other places to climb, but she had never done so. She moved perhaps a mile further along the road, going downstream. She knew from the guards that they were near where the canyon came to an end and the road moved into territory owned by a king and patrolled by his troops. She felt her first true fear as she faced the cliff. She hadn’t been afraid when she found the bandits. She hadn’t been afraid when her father had tried to catch her. She hadn’t even been afraid when she saw the path blocked. She had never climbed down a cliff like this.

She very nearly didn’t make it. Several times she came close to falling, and there wouldn’t be any second chances. She was so tired when she reached the bottom of the cliff that she couldn’t do anything but just lie there and try to recover. And then she fell asleep.

She was wakened by a man in armor. He was poking her with a stick. She jumped up and tried to reach her weapons, but he knocked her to the ground. It was the first time she had been caught asleep by an enemy, and this guard clearly proved to be an enemy.

It was lucky for her that the caravan was moving. These were the sort of merchants and guards who would not treat a girl in their midst well at all. But since they were moving they didn’t have time to do anything except throw her into a cage. She was not the only person in there. Apparently this caravan included slaves in its cargo.

The other women in the cage tried to talk to her, but she couldn’t hear them, and she could get nothing from the movement of their lips. She tried drawing symbols on the floor of the cage, but they just thought she was crazy and moved to the other end of the cage. Ellen thought if they got together they could break out of the cage. Prepared, she was sure she could break away from these guards. But the silly women weren’t cooperating.

Finally she scratched symbols for “ambush ahead” into the floor of the cage as carefully as she could. One of the guards looked at the symbols, but the silly man either couldn’t read or didn’t care what some girl had to say.

So the caravan was completely surprised by the ambush. The other women huddled at the back end of their cage, but Ellen watched carefully for any opportunity. The opportunity came when one of the guards was hit by an arrow and fell against the bars of the cage. Ellen was able to grab his dagger and cut the ropes that held the door. In a moment she was outside and grabbing a bow. It was heavier than her hunting bow, but she was able to pull it, and she started to shoot, while carefully and frequently checking behind her.

She moved slowly toward the cliff and she used her arrows against the attackers since it was clear that they had the advantage. She found these warriors much easier to hit than the game she had hunted in the forest, and most of them were not that well armored. If she had given her full effort, she might well have made the difference for them between victory and defeat. As it was, she killed the last of the attackers just after he had killed the last of the caravan guards.

What was left was a small number of the merchants and their servants, none of them armed. They huddled together and waited to see what this apparition from the forest would do to them. Silly people! Some of them didn’t even realize she was the girl who had been captured just an hour or so earlier.

She tried to release the women from the cage, but they were afraid to move as well. Silly women! They didn’t know who to trust even though she hadn’t given them any reason to fear her that she could see.

She tried to get the caravan folks to understand that they could go ahead and get moving, but they didn’t get the idea. So she sat on a ledge just above the road and watched them. She hoped another caravan would come along. She still wanted to talk to some real guards, and she knew that there were more bandits than had been involved in the attack.

It was past noon before anyone more showed up and it was a small patrol of guards. She had no idea where from. The lady who led the guards tried to motion her to come down off her ledge, but she kept her bow in hand and motioned for the guard to come to her.

When the lady came up to the ledge she tried to talk, but of course Ellen couldn’t understand her. Ellen motioned as though she wanted to write, and the lady produced a pencil and some paper. It was nice to deal with someone who didn’t just think she was silly! She slowly wrote down the basics about the ambush and then she drew a map showing where the bandits had their large camp.

After that things were easy. The guards hunted the bandits, and they were very skilled. They also released the women and promised to escort them back to town. They arrested the caravan merchants because they had taken the women from their town.

When it was all done, they returned to Ellen’s village. Ellen wrote a question for everyone. “Why is everyone so silly?” she asked. “The villagers ignore me, the caravan guards ignore my warning, the women think I’m dangerous. I think I hate these villagers.”

“Things look silly when you don’t understand them,” said the lady. “What’s really silly is when you won’t learn.”

(This story was written for and submitted to the One Word at a Time Blog Carnival – Silly.)