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.)

Tlisli – An Inraline Court

Tlisli had never felt so low in her life. Even when she was running from home and facing the forbidden ground or looking for the first time into the face of Azzesh the Tlazil who, she was sure, was going to eat her, she had not felt this low. But her only experience of the law was in her home town where being arrested was pretty much the same as being convicted. But what was worse was that she now knew that the two men she had fought had been town guards. She had protested that they had attacked her and hadn’t told her they were guards, but the soldiers just told her to save that for the hearing in the morning.

When she heard about the “hearing” in the morning, she assumed that would be her trial. She’d never make it to meet Azzesh, and the Tlazil would abandon her, she was sure. Why go look for a girl who couldn’t keep a simple appointment? She slept very little. At least she was alone in her cell. She certainly didn’t want company, especially the sort that might be spending the night in jail. Of course, she was doing that too!

But Tlisli was wrong about Azzesh. When Tlisli didn’t show up at the dock, Azzesh went to look for her. It really required no effort to track her to the hostelry, and from there to the main castle of the Inraline Army for the outpost, the same building, in fact, where they had met with the commander the previous afternoon. The soldiers had gone to the hostelry to pick up Tlisli’s possessions, and so everyone knew where the girl was.

Azzesh asked the duty lieutenant what was going on with Tlisli, the foreign girl who had been arrested the night before. As with many folks around Tevelin, he knew of Azzesh the Tlazil, and was impressed that she should be taking an interest into the girl they had arrested the night before.

Now Inraline court procedures require just a little explanation. Azzesh understood them quite well, but Tlisli had no idea whatever. In her home town (a city state), the police had the power to arrest and punish. Any trials were conducted by those police courts. Though people didn’t realize this, it was a procedure that went back to the Tlazil empire five centuries before when the humans had been slaves. In throwing off the Tlazil Empire’s authority, the humans had changed the players, but had kept the procedures alive. So Tlisli’s view that arrest was much the same as conviction was quite correct–back home.

Inraline courts, however, derived their practice from naval procedures, even their civilian courts. The general practice when there was a fight was to arrest everyone involved, unless there was a very clear explanation and guilty party or parties. Then there would be a preliminary hearing which was military in style, though all participants might well be civilians. They would determine if there was to be a trial. If there was a trial, the decision would be made by a panel of three or five judges, led by one professional, with the remainder being chosen from among qualified people in the community.

In this outpost, Tlisli would be taken before a panel of military officers who would determine what had happened and would vote whether or not to charge any participants with a crime. Rather than arrest being equivalent to conviction, quite frequently everyone would be released. There was even a provision for compensating someone for the inconvenience of arrest if it appeared they were completely innocent. “Completely innocent” in Inraline law meant that the person had contributed nothing to any crime being committed, i.e. had done everything possible to keep the peace, even if those efforts failed in the end.

So when Azzesh heard the story of what had happened, even though she found out that one of the two attackers was now dead, she was not concerned. There was little chance that Tlisli would actually be charged with anything. She doubted she would be compensated for her night in jail, because one could argue that she behaved in a belligerent fashion and might reasonably have been expected to resolve the situation without anyone ending up dead.

Unfortunately, Azzesh never thought that Tlisli might not realize that this was going to come out OK.

It was mid-morning by the time Tlisli was led into the hearing room. Her first shock was seeing that one of the men who attacked her was also being led in. She had assumed, once she knew the men were police officers, that they would not be under arrest. It appeared she had been wrong. The second shock was when she saw Azzesh in the audience. The Tlazil hadn’t left her. Perhaps there was hope after all.

Three officers entered the room, everyone was told to stand, and then told to be seated. It happened so fast that not everyone even made it to their feet. There were two cases that came up before Tlisli’s, and both were charged with various crimes and scheduled for trial. The officers seemed bored. Then Tlisli was called and also the guard at the same time. One of the soldiers who had conducted the arrest got up and told the story of what they had seen and done. The chief of the panel then asked the guard for his story.

“My friend and I were off duty, just walking down the street. We tried to talk to this woman, just friendly-like, and before we knew what was happening she pulled her sword. She killed officer Abil before either of us had a chance to draw our weapons. If the soldiers hadn’t come along just in time, we’d both be dead and she’d be gone.” He was clearly trying to look sincere, but he kept looking around the room, and sweat was breaking out on his forehead.

“Had you ever met this woman before?” asked one the the judges.

“No, sir. We were in the bar earlier, and there were lots of people there, so she might have been there. But we didn’t meet.”

“OK,” said the lead judge. “Tlisli? What is your story?”

“Both of the men bought me drinks at the bar. They offered to buy more, but I didn’t want to get that drunk. They clearly wanted me to do more, but I wanted to get some sleep. I was supposed to leave for Tevelin by the river boat this morning with Azzesh.”

“By Azzesh, you mean the Tlazil?” he waved toward Azzesh.

“Yes, sir. That’s her.”

“So what happened in the street?”

“This man,” she said, pointing to the guard who survived, “tried to grab me in the street. The other one, the one I stabbed, came out of the alley.” Tlisli wished she had a convincing way to claim she hadn’t killed the guy, but she couldn’t figure out what story these judges would like to hear, so she stuck with the truth.

“Right after I stabbed him,” she continued, “the soldiers came and arrested us.”

“Has anyone checked what happened in the bar?”

“Yes,” said one of the soldiers. “Tlisli was definitely in the bar, and this man was seen approaching her.”

“So he’s been lying to us?”

“Yes,” said the soldier.

“Well,” said the chief judge, looking to either side, “I don’t see anything we need to take care of here. Tlisli is ordered released with no charges, and we recommend this police officer be fired.”

There was no gavel. He just waved them away.

Tlisli didn’t know what to do. She just stood there for half a minute. Then she felt Azzesh’s clawed hand on her arm as she was led away. As they approached the door, however, the entire room was called to attention. The outpost commander was standing in the door. The relaxed atmosphere disappeared.

(To be continued …)

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Tlisli – The Edge of Civilization

(Continued from Tlisli – Ambushed part of the Tlisli Series)

Azzesh made an almost instant decision to use the boat left by the God-Emperor’s troops. It would be faster, and now that she was certain these were scouts for the Grand Empire of the Sun, she felt it was urgent to get word to the authorities in Tevelin that scouts of the Grand empire were this close.

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

Tlisli was too small to be much use in rowing the boat, so Azzesh chose simply to drift with the current while guiding the boat from the rear. It was a rather well made boat in the style of the human tribes in the area. That meant a solid frame of wood with animal skins stretched over it, sealed with pitch taken from one of several species of trees. It was waterproof, easy to guide (if you knew how), and unlikely to break up, as some human boats were.

Following the river, it was less than a day before they were approaching the confluence, as it was known. Two rather substantial rivers, both flowing northward, joined into one. What was extraordinary about it was how close to the coast this took place. Another day of drifting downstream and they would be in Tevelin itself. But Azzesh knew the commander of the Inralin garrison at the fort and trading post here, known uncreatively as Fort Confluence, though it sounded much better in the Inraline language: Vorenvir, “fort joining two flowing waters.”

To be fair, one should consider that Azzesh had never told Tlisli that they would first arrive at an outpost of the city. It had never occurred to her to mention this because it was so obvious that there would be such. What would be more natural than to stop here and spend the night? There was both an excellent inn and a trader’s hostelry that provided more ordinary accommodations and a reasonable price. So perhaps her reaction can be justified.

“Wow!” said Tlisli. “Look at those wharves! I had never imagined that Tevelin would be so large!”

In fact, Tevelin was slightly smaller in population than Tlisli’s home town, but it was larger both in area and in the number of buildings to be found. In particular, few of the buildings in Tlisli’s home town were made of stone. A temple and the palace, yes, but even the guards lived in simpler buildings. The sight of stone piers extending into the river, capable of handling sea-going ships, of stone fortifications surrounding the outpost, and dozens of stone buildings suggested to Tlisli a city much larger than any she had known.

“Don’t be stupid!” said Azzesh. “This is merely an outpost. Yes, it is the largest outpost of Tevelin, but an outpost nonetheless. Tevelin itself is many times this size.”

At that Tlisli fell silent. She was strangely afraid, though she didn’t know what of. They tied up at the pier. Tlisli was silent and followed Azzesh. Even when one of the dock workers tried to talk to her, she just gestured. She wasn’t sure what to say. She knew she was dressed strangely, but that didn’t worry her so much. She was also surprised that all these humans–how long had it been since she’d seen another human other than the Grand Empire soldiers?–seemed to know and respect Azzesh.

She continued to follow Azzesh when she was led to the garrison commander’s office. Inside the stone buildings was even more of a shock to her than seeing so many of them from the outside. They were clean and really quite beautiful, with works of art scattered about. Tlisli couldn’t imagine how a garrison commander could be rich enough to own so many works of art. She expected to wait while Azzesh conducted her business. She also expected that both of them would have some time to clean up before they were taken in to see such an important official. If that happened what would she wear? But both she and Azzesh were directed into the commnder’s quarters, and when Tlisli hesitated to enter, Azzesh pushed her forward so hard she almost fell.

“Well if it isn’t the great Azzesh as I live and breathe!” said the commander, a human who looked like he might be just short of middle age. He was taller than any man Ttlisli had ever seen, and resembled the description of the gods. Tlisli thought she had never seen anyone so handsome.

“I see that nothing has diminished your firm grasp of the obvious,” said Azzesh. Tlisli cringed at both the familiarity and the disrespect. She also noticed a shift in Azzesh’s speech. She seemed to be speaking more formally. Her grammar was, perhaps more educated. Tlisli wasn’t sure.

“Indeed it hasn’t. I see you have acquired an assistant.” The way he said “assistant” seemed to imply something else, but Tlisli wasn’t sure what. There was just an edge of humor and perhaps contempt in the commander’s tone.

“Partner, commander, partner.”

“So you’re going to give her a full share of the proceeds?”

“Junior partner,” said Azzesh.

“Very well. That is, of course, up to you and her.”

“Indeed it is. Up to me. Not to her.”

Very junior partner,” the commander drawled.

“Very senior parner,” replied Azzesh, tapping her own chest with a claw, which produced a audible click.

“I stand corrected.” The commander snickered. “And what brings you to my office before you’ve even had time to clean up from the journey?”

“Clean up?” asked Azzesh. “Who needs to clean up?” She paused. “I arrived here in a boat.”

“That is surprising, considering your contempt for that mode of transportation, but hardly requires that I be informed.”

Tlisli heard the words, which were light, but she also noticed that there was increased tension in the commander’s voice. He heard more in the term “boat” than his words suggested.

“Indeed I have contempt for that mode of transportation. It prevents one from seeing and benefiting from large tracts of countryside. On the other hand, it is fast. This particular boat handles well in the river, though it rides high and requires attention to keep it headed in the right direction. Skins cover a framework of wood.”

Tlislli noted the increase in tension with each step in the description. “And you found this abandoned?” asked the commander.

“No, not precisely. It’s former owners ceased to have need of it. There were nine of them, and they wore symbols of their office and their emperor.”

“Nine? You killed nine Grand Empire scouts?”

“No, Tlisli here accounted for three, or perhaps four.”

The commander looked at Tlisli with new respect. “And this occurred where?”

“About a day’s drift up the eastern branch,” said Azzesh. “The boat is at the dock. I have no need of it. But if there should be a purchaser after you have examined it, a junior’s share, 2 of 5, should go to Tlisli here.”

“Very well,” said the commander, “We will examine the boat and its contents. I trust you have removed anything that is yours.”

“I have.”

“I’ll be in touch if I need anything more.”

“No doubt you will.”

Azzesh started to leave, and as she saw Tlisli still rooted to the spot, she grabbed her arm and got her moving. They left the commander’s office, then the building, and headed to the market.

In the market Azzesh sold a portion of the materials she had collected. When Tlisli asked her why she sold some, but not all, she laughed. “Think, small human,” she said. “What makes prices high?”

“When things are rare,” said Tlisli.

“So where will I get the best price for anything I carry?”

“Where it is rare.”

“Indeed. You have come a long way from the time I first considered cooking you for lunch, though you are still almost unimaginably stupid.”

Tlisli chose not to respond.

As they left the market, Azzesh handed Tlisli a small bag of coins. This is your share of what I have sold thus far. For the things collected after you joined me, you shall receive a share of the profits. For some, you must wait until I arrive in the city.”

“Thank you,” said Tlisli.

“Some ferocious warrior you are,” said Azzesh. But there was no sting in it this time.

Tlisli agreed to meet Azzesh at the docks in the morning where there was a commercial riverboat they could take to the city. Azzesh seemed to think that Tlisli could take care of herself in town. It was just in the wilderness that she needed a keeper.

Tlisli found that she really did have little trouble making her way around the outpost. Prices were somewhat higher than she was used to, at least measured by the weight of metal in the coins she used. She actually had a couple of gold coins. Gold was never used in ordinary commerce in her home town. She included a scabbard for her sword in her purchases and also bought a small knife.

Evening found her cleaned up and clothed in something reasonably civilized, or so she thought. She’d found it hard to get clothes that would be regarded as modest by her home town standards, but she simply couldn’t make herself wear the rather more revealing garments that seemed to be favored here. There were two distinct groups of people. Local folks who spoke a dialect closely related to her own, and the Inraline who were lighter skinned, generally taller, and seemed to be in charge. She was informed that Tevelin was a trading colony and seaport of the Inraline. Their colony was just the city of Tevelin itself, which was, people thought, perhaps 20 or 30 times the size of this outpost.

Tlisli was having a hard time comprehending that. With the money she had, she found that she could stay in the more comfortable inn, and its facilities were better than those at her father’s home. He had been one of the richest folks in town! But then she wondered how much it would cost to live for a period of time, so she found a place at the trader’s hostelry. She was surprised to find that nobody even questioned the idea of a woman traveling alone. The hostelry’s manager also told her, when she asked, that there was no restriction on carrying personal weapons within the outpost.

The feeling of having money gave her the courage to head to the bar in the evening–the one at the larger, more expensive inn. And that was where the trouble started. At one time Tlisli had considered herself an extremely beautiful and sexy young woman. Weeks of travel through the jungle and of measuring herself against Azzesh’s standard of usefulness had made her forget that. It turned out, however, that other than the odd scratch on her face, arms, and hands that hadn’t healed yet–and her more modest than average clothing covered most of those–her experience in the wilderness had not decreased her charm. She wasn’t yet ready for male company, however, and so other than accepting a couple of free drinks and talking she pushed away the various men who approached her.

It was no later than around 10 pm that she headed out to walk the few blocks to the hostelry. As she passed an alley just two blocks from the inn a man stepped out in front of her.

“Just where do you think you’re going little girl?” he asked.

“I’m going to the hostelry. Get out of my way,” she answered and tried to step forward.

He reached out to grab her arm. Almost without thinking she dodged. At the same time she noticed another man in the entrance to the alleyway. He was coming at her with fists. Neither was paying much attention to the sword at her side. She leaned back, forcing the second man to miss, while the first barely kept his balance. It was too bad, she thought, that she hadn’t gotten him off balance the other way, so that he’d walk into his companion’s fist. Still, they were both off balance for a moment, and she drew her sword.

One of the men apparently didn’t believe she knew how to use the sword, and stepped forward again, well into her reach. He seemed to be reaching for her sword arm. What he got for his pains was a nasty gash almost the length of his forearm. She recovered before he did and stabbed him squarely in the belly with her sword.

As she drew out the sword there was the sound of a whistle and a voice shouting “freeze.” Then they were all surrounded by soldiers. These were the Inraline troops, not locals. Tlisli could still calculate her odds, and they didn’t look good. In fact, it looked like she had no odds again. Only hours after again finding herself in a civilized town, she found herself under arrest.

(To be continued … for those who note that this episode was written two years after the previous one, let me note that the next episode, Tlisli – An Inraline Court, is already written and will appear on November 12, 2012.)

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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.

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.)


Farmer Jack’s Arsenal

“Old Jack has quite an arsenal,” said one villager knowingly to another.

The stranger sitting in front of the village pub perked up. This was the sort of thing he wanted to know.

“Who,” he asked, “is Jack?”

“Farmer Jack,” said one of the villagers.

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

“Yes,” said the other. “We call him Old Jack or Farmer Jack.”

“What do you mean that he has quite an arsenal?” asked the stranger. It was a risky question. People often reacted badly to someone who was too curious about their stock of weapons.

But the two villagers just laughed. “You’d really have to see it,” said one. The other just snickered.

So the stranger set about discovering just what kind of an arsenal it was that this Farmer Jack had. If his boss was to gain control of this village and the surrounding farms, he would certainly have to get rid of any arsenals that might be in the area.

That evening he asked a few of the people in the pub about Farmer Jack’s arsenal. He wanted to do it subtly, but it was rather difficult. “I heard there’s a Farmer Jack around here who has quite an arsenal, ha ha, do you know anything about it?” That sounded rather silly, but the reactions he got just weren’t normal. Some people looked at him as though he was crazy. Others laughed. A couple of them finally explained that in the mountains behind Farmer Jack’s farm there was a cave which was filled with weapons. What weapons? Oh, swords, crossbows, crossbow bolts, maybe even a ballista or two. One never knew what Farmer Jack might collect.

He thought he noticed a number of people trying to conceal their faces. He thought it might be that they were laughing, but he set that aside. What could be funny about a cache of weapons? That was one of the things his boss would want to know. He’d want to grab the arsenal first.

Over the next few days he tried to watch people as they went about their business, especially as they went to surrounding towns. But he never saw what he was looking for. He wanted to see some town militia or maybe even one or two people going and getting weapons or putting them back there in the arsenal in the hills behind Farmer Jack’s farm.

So he sent in a report to the boss and the boss sent a couple more scouts to the town. It was important to locate this arsenal before he made his move. His men would be spread thin, and even one well-equipped militia might be able to bring down his entire plan to control the area.

The new men actually scouted the area behind Farmer Brown’s farm. They looked through the hills, but they didn’t find any weapons, nor did they find anywhere that weapons might have been stored, nor did they see a single person carrying weapons one way or another. Well, except for one hunter who was using his hunting bow to hunt deer. They thought the hunter hadn’t seen them. It was important that nobody realized they were looking for the arsenal. That would just make people start to believe they were planning something, and that would be dangerous.

Finally the boss decided to make his move. In order to make certain that everything was safe, they decided to send the majority of their troops to secure Farmer Jack and to close off the path to the arsenal. It wouldn’t do, after all, to let people go get weapons from there.

They swept across the farm, surrounded the house, and grabbed Farmer Jack. The captain in charge of the operation congratulated himself on his success. There wasn’t so much as an injury, provided one didn’t count Private Smythe, who had turned his ankle in a post hole in one of the fields.

Farmer Jack was an old man. The captain thought he might be 80 or 90 years old. “Where’s your arsenal?” he asked. “We want your arsenal!”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Farmer Jack.

The captain slapped him a couple of times, but one of his lieutenants pointed out that with such an old man, a slap might even be fatal. So they just told Farmer Jack that he might as well tell them, because they’d be there until they figured out where the arsenal was. They’d find it eventually, so why not make things easy?

But Farmer Jack seemed uninclined to make things easy. He just sat in his big living room chair and thought. In the meantime, the captain’s men made a thorough search of the area for the arsenal or for any path that might lead the the arsenal. They didn’t find anything that wasn’t part of the ordinary farm equipment.

But at least, thought the captain, nobody else could find it either.

Just after dark they heard the sound of horse’s hooves on the path leading to the house. Such men as weren’t still searching for the arsenal prepared to stop the approaching horses. But what met them was a knight on his horse and with him several men-at-arms. If they’d all been there, they might have stood up to him, but as it was, they had no chance. The men surrendered quickly, and it was only minutes before the knight was in the house with Farmer Jack.

Now the captain was sure there was an arsenal, cleverly hidden. What else would make an obviously well-off and well-equipped knight show up at one very old man’s farm?

“Your plan, and your boss’s plan is finished,” said the knight. “I and my brothers in arms have seen to that.”

There was a long pause. Finally the captain couldn’t stand it. “I have to know,” he said. “Where is the arsenal?”

“The arsenal?” said the knight.

“Yes. Our spies reported that Farmer Jack had quite an arsenal.”

The knight stood staring at the captain for a long time. Then he started to laugh. He laughed long and hard. Finally he got control of himself. “You think there’s an arsenal around here?” he asked.

The captain nodded.

“Well, I suppose there is,” He reached out to shake the captain’s hand. Meet Farmer Jack’s arsenal,” he said. “Well, part of it, at least.”

The captain looked blank.

“Yes, I suppose I’ll have to explain.” He paused a moment. “You see, Farmer Jack has been living here for a long time. None of us are quite sure how old he is. Twenty years ago his wife died, and since then he’s lived on his own. Well, except for one thing. Any child or young person could find a meal in Farmer Jack’s house. They could find a job on the farm. And if they’d hang around long enough, Farmer Jack would teach them to read and write and the basics of handling farm tools, and yes, weapons. He was once a sergeant in the king’s army. He had so many of them that people took to calling them Farmer Jack’s arsenal.”

The knight turned to Farmer Jack. “I take it the current crop is safe,” he said.

“They’re out in the hills,” said Farmer Jack. “That’s where I keep my arsenal when there’s trouble.”

The knight looked back at the captain who still looked confused. “Don’t you get it, man?” he asked. “Half the government officials from here to the king’s court once found shelter here at this farm. We don’t talk about it, because Farmer Jack doesn’t like us to. He’s says it’s just what someone who has something ought to do. And yes, I said ‘we’, because I too learned which end of a sword was which right out there in that yard.”

“People took to calling us Farmer Jack’s arsenal, not because we might help him, but because there were so many of us. But you heard me say he–and his good wife–taught us to read and write. Not one in ten people up in these hills can read and write. Not one in twenty know even the basics of using a sword. So when we left here most of us made good. We had the skills.”

“So we really didn’t need to go after this farm at all,” said the captain.

“Oh, it didn’t really matter,” said the knight. “Farmer Jack sent word to several of us a couple of weeks ago. The kids noticed your spies searching the hills and got suspicious.”

“They said nobody had noticed them.”

“Doubtless they never noticed the kids. Nobody ever does. But they were the arsenal, in more ways than one.”

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