Author Reading from The Scarab and the Cross

Published by my company, Energion Publications, this book provides a broad, dramatic sweep of history driven by imagination and spiritual commitment. The YouTube video below is a video reading by the author.

You can also read his next novel, The Gathering of the Eternal Five, which we are serializing on the Nurturing Creativity blog. Just look for the tag Gathering of the Eternal Five.

Neither – Nor

There is, says Paul …

Neither Jew nor Greek
yet they have different histories
different ways of life
different languages
different cultures

Neither slave nor free
yet they still have different backgrounds
different economic status
different concerns
different ways of living.

Neither male nor female
yet we have different physiologies
different psychologies
different interests
different ways of relating.

And now, perhaps …

Neither black nor white

Neither rich nor poor

Neither gay nor straight

Neither left nor right

Neither north nor south

For we are all one in Christ Jesus
in all our diversity
in all our debates
in all our differences
in all our wrongness
in all our rightness
in all our strengths
in all our weaknesses.

For it is not of works
no works of greatness
no works of charity
no works of worship
no works of knowledge
no works of belief
no works of knowing
no works of understanding
no works of writing
no works of speaking
no works of silence
no works of anything at all.

It is the gift of God.

By grace.

Because Jesus is faithful.

— Galatians 3:28, Ephesians 2:9

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A Failure

The meeting was over. The contracts were signed. His business was sold. In fact, he had just sold it for considerably less than he had expected to.

What had gone wrong?

The younger man across the table from him wondered for a moment why the seller hadn’t gotten up and left. He, the newcomer, now owned the place, after all.

“What went wrong?” The voice was tired, old, faded.

“I suppose you expected to sell more quickly and at a higher price.” Matter of fact. Calm. In control.

“Yes. It should have worked. All my life it has worked.”

“What? What worked?”

“My negotiations. I’ve bought and sold any number of companies. I have years of experience on you.”

“The resume doesn’t impress me. The data, the facts on the ground, the bottom line. Those impress me.”

“The bottom line was somewhat better than what you based your offer on.”

“Do you actually believe that?”

“Of course I believe it! I know this company. I know what it’s worth.” The vigor was back.

“And dozens of men and women, business leaders, have believed you when you made such claims.”

“Because I’m successful. I’m important. Just my name has value!”

“I suppose you have to believe that. But I don’t.”

Several varieties of anger made their way across the older man’s face. He wanted to call the younger man inexperienced, to promise him failure. To negatively compare the younger man’s status with his own. But he was sitting in this room that now belonged to the younger man. “You have no respect for your elders.”

“At what point have I shown disrespect?” The question was curious. Not surprised, angry, ashamed. Just mildly curious.

“By calling all my claims lies.”

“The claims were false.”

“But thousands, maybe even millions believe my perspective, my judgement.”

“That doesn’t make you right. It may make you popular, but it doesn’t make you right.”

“You see! Disrespect!”

“So pointing out facts is disrespect.” The younger man was wavering on the point of cutting the conversation off, but he was still curious.

“I’m a great businessman! A young pup like you has no business challenging me!”

“You know, you’ve made a career of that kind of statement. You challenge people to tell you you’re wrong. You bluster. And it worked. It worked right up until there was nobody left who hadn’t been burned by your ideas, and the one man with the money to buy you out wasn’t buying your ‘perspective.'”

The older man jumped up. “You insolent young pup! Nobody! Nothing!” And he stormed out of the room. He looked behind him. How many people had followed him out of a room when he stormed out? But nobody followed him this time.

There comes a time, thought the younger man, when the balloon deflates. Too bad so many people lose their shirts in the meantime.

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Tlisli and Village Politics

Tlisli took a moment to thoroughly survey the people. She didn’t see any further weapons, but was extremely conscious of the fact that she had missed the fact that the man she had just defeated was carrying a knife. At the moment, she couldn’t recall whether she had seen the knife, and not categorized it as a weapon, or whether she had simply not seen it. She could hear Azzesh castigating her for either mistake!

This is a work of fiction. All characters, places, and events are totally products of the author’s imagination (as should be obvious).
Copyright © 2017,
Henry E. Neufeld

She looked sternly at the villagers. “What happened here? Where is Isteriss, your headman?”

One of the men started to approach here, but jerked back as she gestured at him with her sword. Then he knelt on the ground where he was and started to speak in a whining tone. “Please, agent of the great merchant Aterin, do not blame us for what has happened. We were set upon by this man and his guards. They killed Isteriss and there was nothing we could do about it.” He nodded toward the man on the ground as he identified him.

Tlisli was fairly certain that much was being left out, yet she wasn’t sure how she was to sort all this out. “Who is in charge of the village now?” she asked.

The men started to look at one another. It seemed nobody wanted to claim to be in charge.

“Speak up! Surely someone is in charge in your village when the headman dies.”

“Yes, great mistress,” said the spokesman, as Tlisli tried hard not to laugh, “the Shaman leads a ceremony and the new leader is selected when he reads the entrails of a goat that has been sacrificed.”

“And who is in charge in the meantime?”

“I am,” said the Shaman, getting up from tending the wounded man.

Tlisli sent the one guard who was on the pier to check that the man was still thoroughly bound. It appeared that he was.

“So can you take the mail and exchange some of the other goods that we have?” asked Tlisli.

“I can,” said the Shaman. He was easily the oldest person there.

Tlisli watched him and his two companions closely. She kept expecting someone else to challenge her, but nobody seemed willing to take any action.

Following the instructions she had learned from Tlorin, she delivered the mail and bargained for the supplies that she had. Despite having gone over the instructions thoroughly on the trip up there, she had never expected to be called upon to do the actual bargaining.

When she was finished, she prepared to leave. She was interrupted by the Shaman’s voice.

“Please great lady,” he said. Again, Tlisli had to fight the urge to laugh. Her? A great lady? But perhaps it seemed so in a village of a few dozen people at most.

“Yes?” she asked.

“You can’t just leave us. What will we do for protection?”

“For protection? What have you done up to now?”

“Nobody was trying very hard to kill us then. Perhaps a thief or two, a couple of bandits, but nobody organized.”

“So tell me what happened?”

“The man there,” he gestured toward the wounded man, “came with his guards, killed Isteriss and claimed he was the new headman.”

“Why did nobody challenge him? There are many more of you.”

“But they were armed with warriors’ spears. They are professional guards. We have only our bows and arrows and fishing spears.”

Tlisli could understand the problem. Their bows and arrows were suitable for hunting small game and birds, and their spears were good for reasonable size fish, but they were not the weapons of warriors.

“Did they say where they came from?”

“From out that way,” said the man, gesturing generally toward the west.

Tlisli would have suspected the Grand Empire of the Sun, which was in that direction, though she knew that the nearest likely outpost was hundreds of kilometers away at the closest. She also knew the grand emperor’s soldiers would have been better equipped.

“Did they way what they were doing?”

“They said that we were to trade with them, inland, rather than down the river to the sea people.” Tlisli assumed he meant Tevelin and the Inraline.

“And why do you think there will be more?”

“Because he said so!”

“And you have found him trustworthy and truthful?”

“Why should I doubt him?”

“Perhaps because he killed your headman and held all of you as hostages!”

The man just looked at her. It didn’t seem that he could imagine why the killer would lie.

She nodded to her guard who was with her on the shore. “Get him in the boat,” she said.

The two guards moved him without much ceremony.

“I’ll tell you what,” Tlisli said to the Shaman. “I’ll take word to the great merchant Aterin that you are having this trouble. He will decided whether to send you any help. In the meantime, I’d grab the spears and the knife that the men have left behind and I’d do my best to learn how to use them.”

There as a sullen silence on the shore as Tlisli left.

Once there were in the center of the creek and headed downstream, Tlisli addressed the man she had wounded.

“I’m interested in what you were doing in the village,” she said casually.

“I’m sure you are.” Before this encounter, Tlisli would have sworn one couldn’t croak and sneer at the same time, but she thought the man had succeeded.

“So tell me,” she said.

The man laughed. “I’ll tell you nothing!”

Tlisli watched him for a couple of minutes, as though she hadn’t figured out quite what to do with the man’s statement.

When the silence became too long the man continued, “Well?”

“Well what?” asked Tlisli.

“Well, what are you going to do about that?” Tlisli was fairly certain he thought the answer was “nothing.”

“I was just thinking that if I get no information from you, all my efforts to keep you alive were for nothing, and right now you’re weighting down this boat and making me keep my eye on you.”

He eyed her, not quite sure he followed. He still really couldn’t fathom a girl as a warrior, and certainly not as someone who would treat a captured man poorly.

“As I meditate on all those facts,” continued Tlisli, “it becomes continually more clear that I’m wasting my time. I’m thinking that it might be better if you die of your injuries and we throw out the body.”

She drew her sword and began to poke very gently at the bandages. “Perhaps it was a mistake to leave you alive. Perhaps I need practice. Come to think of it, who knows what that Shaman might have actually done to you.”

The wounded man stared into her eyes, and what he saw there frightened him. He didn’t see the girl who had run from her home. He saw the girl who had survived near death and traveled for weeks through the jungle. That girl was dangerous.

“I work for the headman of a village about a day’s journey toward the setting sun, he said.” And he spun for her a lovely tale.

Was it the truth? Tlisli wasn’t certain she’d ever get to find out. But it would doubtless interest Aterin.

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A Path Goes By

A path goes by
Along a gas line bare.
Short grass grows or dies.
Garbage gathers.
The pole stands alone.

Does the pole dream
of rows of poles
carrying telegrams
then phone calls
or perhaps electricity?

Does the pole wonder
why gas flows below
why a person walks by
why a truck dumps trash
why trees grow and die?

It’s just a pole.
It doesn’t care.
I walk on by
and wonder.
And probably forget.

It Was Only One Little Thing

“I’ve heard there was a time when this village was a nice, quiet, and safe place to live.” The man’s voice was distant, as though he was trying to remember something.

The group of villagers in the small pub all looked his way. Though he had spoken quite softly, everyone heard. It was that quiet in the room.

The silence returned for a few moments. Then it was interrupted by a cackling laugh.

Everyone looked at the old woman in the corner. Everybody knew her so well that actually nobody knew her at all. She was just there, as she had been as long as anyone could remember. They were pretty sure she was a widow, though nobody could remember a time when she had a husband. Now she seemed to be chuckling. In appearance, she could have illustrated the word “crone” in the dictionary.

“You’ve heard there was a time,” said the old woman. “Indeed, there was a time.” She paused for a moment, and spat on the ground. “Most of you were alive then. You just don’t remember.”

The folks in the room looked back at her. Nobody asked her anything and she didn’t volunteer anything more. Finally, the first man broke the silence. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“If you tried,” she said, “you could remember that time yourself. But you don’t want to. All of you, and many of your parents, were responsible for bringing it to an end.”

“Tell us about it,” said the man.

“Well,” said the old woman after a few moments, “I doubt it will do you any good, but I’ll tell you. It sure didn’t do you any good the first time.”

“You see, back even longer ago, there was a horrible time in this village. Our baron was a cruel man who would order people killed for any reason or no reason at all. He taxed all our crops at a rate of better than 50%. He charged incredible tariffs on goods brought into town. Nobody other than a few of his cronies lived in even moderate comfort.”

“So what’s different?” muttered someone. Nobody was sure who.

“Well, nothing’s different now. But for a short period of time, things were completely different. Amazingly different.

“A traveling soldier/adventurer came into town one day. The baron decided that he wanted all that the soldier owned for his own. Unfortunately for the baron, however, the soldier was not that easy of a target and he refused to be robbed. In fact, he refused to pay the taxes the baron demanded. He sat right here in this pub, and he told the baron’s tax collector to go get stuffed.

“When the baron’s guards attacked him, he disarmed them. He left them bruised but otherwise undamaged. The baron decided that his best option was to simply ignore the soldier until he chose to move on. It certainly wouldn’t do to have his guards cleverly disarmed. Better if they were killed! As it was people were laughing.” The old woman laughed again, this time until she started choking. Then she got control of herself again.

“The problem with ignoring the soldier,” she continued, “was that people started to wonder if there wasn’t a way that they could live as free of the baron’s interference as the soldier did. So they asked him.

“The soldier told them that it was quite simple. ‘Unity,’ he said. ‘Unity is what you need.’ So the people asked him what he meant by that. He explained that the baron wasn’t really personally all that powerful of a man. His guards weren’t that good. Yes, they were armed, unlike the other villagers, but they really weren’t better.

“‘The baron isn’t better either, just because he was born a baron. So there’s not reason he actually has to get his way,’ the soldier said. This made sense to everyone. There was lots of argument, but the soldier explained to them that unity was the one requirement. If the villagers would act in unity to keep their freedom, nothing else would matter. If they allowed themselves to be divided, they’d lose again.

“It all made so much sense when the soldier said it, so the villagers decided to go along. He explained that as long as the villagers required that the baron get their agreement to everything, and they were reasonable about it, they could live in freedom and they could prosper.

“So the villagers began to require that they agree to anyone who was to be punished. Wrongdoers were brought into the village square and the entire town had to agree to their punishment. Taxes were divided evenly according to people’s ability to pay and were agreed on by everyone. Tariffs were set as everyone desired, so generally goods that were needed were allowed in at reasonable rates. There was a certain amount of protecting local craftsmen, but the protections were applied evenly.

“All this lasted for a few years. Every time anyone complained or tried to lead us off track, we’d shut them down. Unity was the one key, the only thing that would keep us free. If we gave that up, we’d quickly lose everything else as well.

“Then came the day when one farmer was more prosperous than others. His farm was producing better and he was making more money. So a couple of his neighbors made an agreement with the baron. They charged him with an infraction. They came before the whole town. They explained that he had been caught robbing his neighbors red-handed, and there was no need for proof as was normally required.

“That established a new principle. The baron could now punish an wrongdoer who was caught in the act. Everybody thought it was a minor concession and quite reasonable. Like you folks, they had forgotten the past. They thought they could give up a little bit and keep what they wanted. Besides, the prosperous farmer had awakened envy in everyone.

“Thus unity died. It seemed a minor thing. Nobody admitted to themselves that they didn’t really know if the farmer was guilty of all the acts he was accused of. They didn’t want to know. It didn’t seem important.

“When another villager was taken by the baron’s men without a trial before the village, everyone hesitated. Was this a proper exception to the rule or not? Was it not possible that the charges were made up? The second person accused was more popular than the first, but still stood enough apart from the rest that people hesitated. And while they hesitated, the baron took action. Once the baron had acted, it required organization to take action, and it was hard to get people organized.

“Before long there was no more unity in the village.”

“But after all,” said the man, “it was just one person. Surely the death of one person couldn’t end the prosperity of the entire village.”

“Ah, but it did,” said the old woman. “I remember it clearly. Once the unity was broken, there was no going back. But the temptation was so strong, that people fell for it.” She paused, while everyone fell silent again.

“I remember it so clearly, the day the village betrayed my husband.”

(Featured image credit: This story is a work of fiction. Copyright © 2017, Henry E. Neufeld.)

Have You Tried Going Around?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you entered the city from the north.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Duke looked doubtful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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