The Prince Will Come

“The prince is coming here,” said the traveling merchant.

“How do you know this?” asked someone from the crowd.

“I saw him in a town far to the south, and members of his entourage told me he was heading this way. He plans to come all the way to the coast, and that will surely be right here.”

“How long will it be before he gets here?” asked another.

“It’s hard to tell, but it will be at least a year, maybe as much as two years.”

The crowd soon broke up into smaller groups. Many thought the arrival of the prince was so far in the future that they needn’t worry. But there were others that thought it was time to begin preparations.

It had been several centuries since any member of the royal family had been in that particular town. In fact, it had been nearly that long since any member of the royal family had been within a thousand miles. The town was run down. Commerce was poor. There was still some trade by sea, but the trade routes to the interior were risky and unreliable.

So the town council got together and began to discuss how they might prepare for the arrival of the prince. There were many things that needed to be repaired. Certainly the roads within the jurisdiction of the town council should be repaired. The walls needed considerable work. The port facilities needed improvements.

So workers were hired to work on the roads, the walls, and the port. More guards were recruited to protect those workers from bandits. The workers, in turn, needed to be fed, so merchants began to go inland to buy fruit and vegetables, and to villages north and south to buy fish.

Some of the engineers noticed that they could get some very fine wood if they just followed the paths that were being reopened by the merchants, and so they sent work crews to cut trees and to carry them back to the city.

Within a few months, merchant ships that stopped in the city found more customers than usual and were able to buy more goods to ship elsewhere. Word spread, and so commerce by sea increased.

Occasionally there were rumors about the prince traveling in areas to the south and west, but never any firm word on where the prince actually was and when he would arrive. There were plenty of people who claimed to have seen the prince. There were even some who thought they knew when the prince would arrive in the town, but as time went on, they all proved wrong.

Two years passed, and there came a time when the town council met again. They’d been spending money to get ready for the visit of the prince, but they were now past the latest time that anyone had projected for the prince’s arrival. Not only had the prince not arrived, but they didn’t have any word from any of the towns nearby where people might give a reliable estimate.

There were three parties in the council. The first maintained that the prince would arrive eventually. They were confident in the many words that they had heard about the arrival of the prince. Sometime, they were certain, one of the predictions would turn out to be right, and they would see the prince and his party come over the hill and up to the gate of the town.

The second party maintained that it was likely that the rumors about the prince were false, or at best there was no knowing when the prince would return, but they suggested everyone look around the town. “Who can possibly suggest,” they said, “that the town is not much better off. This idea that the prince is coming has made this town a much better place. If we keep preparing for him, it won’t matter whether he shows up or not.”

The third party said that the whole thing was silly. The prince wasn’t going to show up, and he never had been planning to show up. They felt that the townspeople had wasted a couple of years of hard work. Why bother when there was no prince on the way?

There was quite an argument in the council. Those in the first group obviously wanted to keep the town in good shape for the expected arrival of the prince. Though they agreed with the second group on how to proceed in general, they felt they were faithless. It wasn’t really enough, they said, to keep the town in good shape. One needed to keep it in shape for the prince.

The third group thought the new way of doing business in the town was simply too much work. Why not relax more. Perhaps things hadn’t been as good and people hadn’t had as much before folks started expecting the prince, but life had been more relaxed. They even passed around stories about how comfortable things had been in the good old days.

It’s only fair to point out that both the first and second groups thought that the third group had forgotten many of the less pleasant aspects of the good old days, especially lack of food and high unemployment.

So it came time to vote . . .

What should the town do and why?

(This post has been submitted to the One Word at a Time Blog Carnival – Come.)

The New Judge

[Note: This is one of my attempts to tell either a different part of a Bible story, to tell the story from a different perspective, or to get a similar point across in a different way. I will quote the related scripture passage at the end. Besides the general fun of setting myself the assignment and trying to write it, I hope these stories will help someone think about the scriptural passage in new and creative ways. This is a work of fiction. All places, characters, and things are products of my imagination and any resemblance to anyone or anything real is purely accidental.]

Carl, now Sir Carl, made a bit of a stir when he arrived in the tiny village of Felidol. He rode his horse right across the small bridge across the creek (or river, as the locals would have it) and through the gate in the wooden palisade that surrounded the town. Farmers in their fields looked up and then continued to stare as he went by on his white horse. He did indeed cut quite a figure with shining armor, a quite long sword at his side, and fine cloak over it all, and expensive boots on his feet.

The villagers stared, but they were less impressed by his fine figure and equipment than they were frightened to see anyone like that here. The citizens of Felidol and the surrounding countryside didn’t like important people all that much. Important people wanted to get things done, and it always seemed that what they needed in order to get things done was the farmer’s money, food, and sometimes even their property.

Carl was completely oblivious to all this. He waved at the villagers in a friendly way as he rode past. He didn’t want to seem aloof or unsociable. He didn’t seem to realize that with the way he was dressed and equipped, the villagers had a hard time seeing him as anything but aloof. They hoped he would be aloof, and thus wouldn’t get them involved in anything.

On the other hand, he knew something they didn’t. In spite of his young age, and his knightly appearance, he was actually the new circuit judge, to be based in their village. Carl knew very well that he had gotten the appointment only because his father was one of the richest merchants in the city. He was fairly sure that his father had bought him this appointment for his 20th birthday, along with a knighthood. But that was alright with him, because he knew enough about the law to do the job, and he intended to do right by these people.


Carl’s first day in the courthouse was a disappointment. There were a couple of weddings to formalize, something that went without ceremonies in these parts. The feasting and celebration would take place elsewhere. There were some documents to formalize, ones that required the seal of a king’s officer. Carl was the only king’s officer in many, many miles. But nobody came to petition him for anything. He couldn’t imagine that none of the small farmers in this area had any complaints against the more important landowners. He imagined that the townsfolk had complaints against farmers, and farmers against townsfolk. That was how he had heard things always were.

Continue reading “The New Judge”

Caravan Stop

[Note: This story gives some idea of the imaginary Jevlir Caravansary, after which this blog was named.]

The Jevlir Caravansary is just across the river from the small, but well-fortified town of Jevlir. Immediately to the west, the great east-west caravan route enters the pass of the mountains, variously known as the East Enzar range, Malkuthim range, or God’s Backbone. The ancient road once led from sea to sea, and theoretically still does, though nobody can recall anyone making such a journey.

Theoretically also, Jevlir’s mayor and town council owe their allegiance to the baron (who has more variants to his title than the mountains have names), who in turn theoretically owes his allegiance to the Duke, resident in Aagerinar, far to the east. At the time of our story, the baron is only marginally aware of the name of the duke (Alexander II), and rather than giving allegiance to any hereditary noble, the various members of the town council are owned by different merchant houses, and it is rumored that some are owned by bandit chiefs. It is also rumored that some town council members are owned by more than one person.

Caravans come to the caravansary and generally spend just one night. If they are headed east, to Aagerinar, they will leave their extra guards here, and proceed with only reasonable security. Unreasonably tense security is the rule in the mountains. If they are headed west, they will hire some of the guards that others have released. There are guards who spend their entire careers guarding caravans along this route. The pay is good for any who survive. Occasionally someone even survives long enough to retire, and the Caravan Guards Guild pays a handsome pension to any who make it, though the total pension payments form only a small part of the guild’s budget.

Next to the caravansary, between it and the entry to the pass, there is the ruin of an Enzar temple. In this area that means the building is at least 3,000 years old, though from the outside it looks nearly whole. Those who claim to have seen the inside–a very small number–say that it is completely gutted, and it looks like the stone itself has been burned away in places. Very few bother to investigate Enzar temples unless extremely large treasure is to be expected, and none of the folks who claim to have seen the inside appear to be rich. Thus the temple is avoided by all.

Just now, Jared, Lieutenant in the Ducal army of Alexander II, is standing outside the temple on the western side, looking at the body of his captain. The cause of his death was altogether mundane and obvious, apparently having nothing to do with taboos about the temple. A heavy crossbow bolt was stuck in his neck. All of this took less time to see than it does to describe, and Jared, along with the four soldiers who were with him dropped to the ground, presenting less of a target. It looked, however, as though the captain had been dead for at least a couple of hours. It was unlikely anyone was about to shoot them now.

Jared got to his knees and scanned the cliffs to the west. The entrance to the mountain pass was quite rugged, and there were many places to hide–too many to allow certainty about where the shooter must have been. Sending one guard north and one south, Jared called on his sergeant and the remaining guard to look around for anything obvious. All of the captain’s equipment was still present. He had not been robbed. They found nothing else to indicate what had happened.

“Why was he in this location?” asked the sergeant quietly. It was a logical question. There seemed to be no good reason to expose oneself in what was probably the best position in the Jevlir area to make oneself a target for a crossbow bolt. With that thought they picked up the captain’s body between them and moved him around to the northern side of the temple. It was not precisely a safe position, but at least it was a position where nobody had yet been shot today. The two guards followed.

When they got there, Jared looked at his sergeant. “I’ll take two of the men and head downstream, staying on the northern side of the river. We’ll cross back at Peorlar and go to the camp. You go back to the village and tell Lt. Qerelir to make a show of moving out of town and heading east. And remember, I don’t want anyone who doesn’t already know to suspect the captain’s death.”

“One change, Lieutenant.” The sergeants voice was respectful, but also determined. “You go back to town and get the company out. I will take the captain’s body.”

Jared was silent for a moment. Was it time to assert his authority? The sergeant was right. He was the best man to go back into town, while the sergeant could easily get the body to the required place. People would hardly believe the company was leaving on routine business if the sergeant came back and then they hurried off.

“Very well, sergeant, but be careful. Leave the crossbow bolt where it is. I want Qerelir to look at it.”

In town Jared had to break the news to Qerelir, who was Kelaru, and thus regarded automatically as a much better woodsman. She was also older than he was and more experienced, but he still outranked her by days as a Lieutenant.

He needn’t have worried about her reaction. As soon as he told her his plan, she went into action. The innkeeper was informed that folks who were occupying his courtyard were about to leave, that the captain had already headed out of town and the troops were obliged to follow. Soldiers started discussing what they would do when they got back to the big city. Jared was pretty certain none of them believed they were actually on their way home, but they put on a good show. He remembered this same group less than six months ago as they left on this mission, each quite skilled as warriors, but lacking teamwork. The captain had taught them to read one another and cooperate. Now it was paying off.

In less than an hour they were on the road. Once they were out of site of Jevlir, Jared signaled Qerelir to join him. “The captain is dead,” he explained.

She showed now sign of shock. “I was certain of it, and I’ll bet half the troops know it too. But obviously you wanted to leave without people realizing that.”

“Yes. I need you to look at the body. We found it between the temple and the mountains with a crossbow bolt through the neck. I need some idea of how he died.”

“Did you say ‘through the neck’ as in the point sticking out?”


“That’s odd. When you said he was north of the temple I immediately assumed sniper. A good heavy crossbow could just do it from the cliffs, but I doubt it would go all the way through. In fact, such a shot would risk failing to kill instantly, and the captain carried an excellent healing amulet, courtesy of the pretty priestess.”

“Well, my initial question was why he was back there. But how could anyone get near enough with a cocked crossbow? There’s no cover.”

“Are you sure he was actually shot there?”

“We found nothing at all, but the ground is hard. There’s no way to tell.”

“Probably not.” Was Jared just imagining that she was thinking she would have been able to tell?

“Do you know where the captain was going?”

“I think he was meeting his source at the caravansary. I have no idea whether he got there or not.”

“When we get back, I’m going to have to go there and do it alone.”

Qerelir looked at him for a few moments. He was afraid she was going to argue and suggest that he needed to take additional people along. It was essential that he do this all without getting noticed. But after staring at him a bit she just said, “OK.”

As expected, there was no difficulty meeting with the sergeant and his men, and then the troops prepared to return to Jevlir, this time on the southern side of the river. A little ways east of the town they settled into a hidden campsite. It was hard to be certain nobody would come across them, but they were fairly safe.

Yaran was not the sort of person you really wanted to know. For one thing, he smelled bad. His clothes were dirty, he was generally drunk, and his speech was slurred and not terribly interesting. When anyone could manage to understand him, he was generally asking for money to buy more beer.

Yaran lived at the Caravansary. He did not live in it, but sort of at it and around it. He regularly moved from place to place, sometimes because he was ordered to get out, and sometimes just because he didn’t want to stay in one place long enough to be noticed.

In the Caravansary Inn, designed to provide a bed, showers, and decent food for those merchants who could afford it, four men gathered around a table by the window. One of them looked out the window and saw Yaran there on the ground just outside.

“It’s OK,” he said to the others. “It’s just the old drunk.”

“Here’s the deal,” said the second man. “We have 6,000 silver valors to add to the pot if you will take care of him tonight. Remember, this is as important to you guys as it is to us. We just need the timing changed.”

“What about the commandos?” asked the third.

“Don’t worry about them,” said the second, “I’ve arranged for them to be otherwise occupied. In fact, I believe they’ve all left town, which will make even that unnecessary. Just in case, however, I haven’t canceled my little diversion. They won’t fail to go to the aid of the pretty priestess.” He chuckled.

“OK, go with it. He’ll be coming into town tonight to meet with the young militia officers. You can do it after he leaves town on the way home.”

“I prefer it during the dinner,” said the second man.

“Do it however you want,” said the first. “We can’t allow him to continue cooperating with Aagerinar. None of us can. If the Duke’s troops set up here permanently it will be bad for business.”

Jared set out for the caravansary. He was not a foolhardy man, and he was not happy to be following the course that had probably led to his captain’s death, but he needed the information that had gotten his captain killed. At least he expected that if the captain was contacting a source and then got killed, there was probably a connection.

It was after dark that he entered the caravansary grounds. It was impossible to approach the caravansary quietly and subtly, because one had to cross a long bridge across the river, and the bridge afforded no cover at all. Jared removed all insignia prior to crossing, and his normal clothing and armor did not distinguish him from the many caravan guards who were a common sight. Unless someone recognized him personally, he would be fine.

He handed his horse’s reins to one of the stable boys, and headed for the bar. He uttered the appropriate insult as he passed the form of the source, and knew that once he had taken time for a drink he would find the man in the stables. He needed that drink just now.

After a few minutes spent with some quite decent beer, Jared wandered slowly outside and sauntered over to the stable. He was still carrying his beer mug and looking rather casual. He stopped and checked on his own horse. Seeing that the fine animal was well cared for he continued down the line, finally finding an empty stall, and in the back, Yaran the drunk. Unknown to the regulars at the inn, this man was also Yaran the security agent, whose specialty was collecting information where others would be noticed. As he sniffed, Jared thought the agent played his part a bit too thoroughly

“What news?” he asked.

“You’re not Porivinar,” replied Yaran.

“Indeed I’m not. He was shot earlier today. That makes anything you know doubly important.”

“It’s a good thing I know you. If I didn’t I wouldn’t care how many passwords you claimed to have.” He ignored the fact that no password had been offered, nor were any used in this area. Personal recognition was the standard. Yaran was just trying to put him off balance, an almost instinctive activity for him.

“Your news?” insisted Jared.

“Who shot the captain?”

“We don’t know. Did you see him today?”

“No, and I was expecting to.”

“What did you have for him.”

“There is a plan tonight to assassinate the baron’s heir, Jerard. The folks I heard didn’t give a name, but he’s coming into town tonight, and they think he cannot be permitted to keep cooperating with Aagerinar. That eliminates the old baron himself, who doesn’t cooperate with anyone. So they’re going to kill Jerard. They’re planning a diversion at the Ecumenical Temple to distract you.”

“That makes sense. But why kill the captain?”

“You said he was west of the temple, toward the mountains?”


“Did the crossbow bolt penetrate very far?”

“No. Qerelir already noted that. She thinks he was killed elsewhere, by somebody close.”

“Porivinar would have seen anyone that close, and would have defended himself—probably successfully.”

“Unless he met someone he knew and trusted.”

“Trusted? Hardly. Knew, possibly. Someone had only to offer him information and he’d make the meeting. On the other hand, he might have been surprised.”

“Surprised? That would be a trick with Porivinar.”

“But it could be done.” Jared looked thoughtful for a moment. “I can think of at least one thing that would work.” After another pause he said, “Keep listening, Yaran. I have some things to check out.”

As he left, Jared was thinking about Porivinar’s movements before his death. He couldn’t figure out why Porivinar would be carried behind the temple if that was not where he was killed. He thought back through the process that had led him behind the temple. A stable boy had told him he saw the captain headed that way, so there were a limited number of places he could have been killed. From the caravansary west and north there was nothing, not even farms.

He had immediately gone around the temple, but he had never thought to look inside. It was universally assumed that you didn’t go into old Enzar temples unless you had a specific reason to do so and a particular plan in mind. Despite the many stories of people getting killed in such places, it really wasn’t all that likely that a temple that had been sitting by the main road for 3,000 years was going to have active traps in it. It was just that the phrase “old Enzar temple” had come to be synonymous with “you’re going to die.”

So would Porivinar have checked inside? Jared was certain that he would have done so, and that he must have done so. Without thinking to go get some help, he set out for the temple.

There were few gaps in the wall, but one could enter from the east side in a couple of places. He kept low as he approached and carefully peeked around the corner. Inside he was shocked to see the light of a number of torches and numerous armed figures. It looked like a small army was camped inside.

So this was why the captain had died! He had obviously heard or seen something that made him suspect that there were enemies hiding there, and he had gone to check. Unfortunately, he’d done it in daylight and someone had been waiting for him. He didn’t stop to ask why someone who had a body quite well concealed in a building nobody wanted to enter would take it outside and leave it lying around to be found.

He heard something fly past his head, and suddenly he remembered how completely vulnerable he was. Not only could he be surprised in the darkness, he could be overwhelmed by numbers. He would die so quickly nobody at the caravansary would be likely to notice. He started to run and didn’t stop until he was almost inside the caravansary compound. Then he stopped and tried to compose himself so that he wouldn’t be so noticeable as he crossed it. He retrieved his horse and rode quickly back to the hidden encampment.

A company of Aagerinar elite scouts was a fluid organization, usually consisting of one or two platoons of 20 or so persons each and several teams that could be any size smaller than a platoon. Jared’s company had two platoons, his own and Qerelir’s, and five 5-man security teams.

He gathered Qerelir and the team leaders quickly and didn’t ask for discussion—he just gave out orders. Three teams were sent to add security to Jerald’s meeting, two to warn and help protect the Ecumenical Temple. If needed, they were to support the baronial heir’s security. The temple was important, being headed by a priestess loyal to the Duke, but it was not as critical as having a baron here who would truly acknowledge his duties to his lord.

Qerelir had questions, but she came from a long tradition of Kelaru scouts, and they knew how to take orders. They were full of advice when asked, but when ordered, they obeyed. Jared might have feared she would regard herself as his superior. In fact, his few days of seniority meant everything to her. She wished she was senior, but she wasn’t, and that settled it as far as she was concerned.

Jared elected to stay with the teams in town. Qerelir was an excellent tactician. If she couldn’t win the battle around the temple, he knew he probably wouldn’t make any difference.

Qerelir put one platoon in a loose line designed to cover as much ground as possible and kept the second ready to respond quickly wherever an attack might come. Jared had ordered her not to try to attack the force in the temple. The scouts had the superior firepower in the open. Inside the building they could be easily trapped and destroyed. She was happy to obey those orders. But there was something that bothered her about this situation, and after a few minutes of waiting she started to mentally list her concerns.

  1. Why hide troops in the temple? Besides superstition, which would make it hard to get most troops to stay inside, there were caravan guards all over the town and caravansary. Nobody worried about another few armed men running around Jevlir.
  2. How would they get to town without being spotted and stopped? Jared wanted her to meet them before they got to the caravansary so as to keep from involving the civilians there, but there was no way to get to town except over the bridge, and one person could notice them there and report them. Qerelir agreed that they did not want the fight to be at the caravansary itself.
  3. Why had they made it so obvious? It was almost as though they wanted someone to find the captain’s body.

With that thought she became certain. She could not abandon the watch here just because she was certain that she was guarding the town against nothing. She called her sergeant over and told him to take command. Then she slipped forward into the night and approached the temple herself. It was the work of a few minutes to get a look through the same break in the wall that Jared had used. Inside she saw the torches, but with more time to check she looked carefully at what was casting the shadows. She couldn’t get a very clear look. She took out a magical lens, a gift from her father, also a scout. It allowed her to look for the magical lines of force.

And there it was—the magical manipulation of the light, producing shadows on the walls and the appearance of torches set around the walls. Jared had no such device, and had had little time to look, but she was now certain.

She backed away from the wall and immediately whistled a command to her troops. They mounted quickly, and her sergeant brought her horse to her. Then they galloped for Jevlir. Qerelir hoped she wasn’t too late.

In the meantime Jared was thinking very similar thoughts. He could feel an attack coming. The hair on the back of his neck was standing up. It was not outside near the temple, but here in town that the attack would come. His security teams were inside the building could take care of anyone there. He was watching the street.

The team leader of the one team he’d kept outside approached him and asked him if he had noticed several armed men heading toward the Ecumenical Temple. He had. But he had to keep the teams here. The two teams at the temple would have to take care of themselves.

He wondered if he should send a messenger and call Qerelir back, but it seemed likely that if she hadn’t figured things out by the time a messenger got there, she’d be too late, so he kept all his men with him.

At the Ecumenical Temple dozens of followers had come to join in the defense of the temple. The gate was barred, and people were being admitted only on personal recognition. Alina, known as “the pretty priestess,” knew very well that a determined attack by as few as a couple dozen people could overrun her temple. She only had three truly trained guards along with her own magic. Her followers were brave and determined, but they had received less than two weeks of training in their spare time.

She and the security teams were quite certain they could see people moving into position, but they could not do anything until there was an attack. It was important to the temple and to the Duke’s forces as well that they be seen as totally obedient to the law.

It started with bottles of heating oil and flaming arrows. The temple building was quickly on fire, and there were patches of burning oil around the compound. The security teams were able to take an occasional shot, but it was hard to tell what was happening. It would not be long before they would have to abandon the compound. Clearly that was their attackers’ intent.

Alina wondered why they were making the attack so obvious when they could have won quietly without attracting attention. But however much she might question their approach, it was definitely working. Then she heard a cavalry horn giving a signal she didn’t recognize and she saw horsemen coming up all the approach streets from every direction.

The fight was remarkably quick, but the the cavalry didn’t stop to help them fight the fire. That turned out to be something that her local followers were good at.

As Qerelir and her troops arrived at the Ecumenical Temple the attack started at the dinner where Jerald, baronial heir, was the guest of honor. The outside security team spotted people approaching from the outside. The main attack, however, came from the audience. Every young officer in the city militia and the baronial guard was there with their weapons.

It was a quick draw of a sword, but one of the security team was watching closely and threw a dagger directly into the man’s sword arm. The delay and confusion allowed Jerald himself to draw his sword and step back from the table. Soon everyone was armed and had displayed their chosen sides. The attackers waited for the help that they thought would come from outside. This was to be a massacre, not just an assassination. The security teams didn’t want to kill the attackers. They wanted to question them and find out who had hired them.

Minutes went by with everyone looking for someone else to make a false move. It almost looked like the room was frozen in time. Then Jared stepped into the door and addressed the room.

“I don’t know if you’re aware of it,” he said, “But under Aagerinar law if you can prove that you were hired by someone for a job, such as the assassination of a nobleman, then you are not held guilty. The penalty for attempting such an assassination is death, and I have control of the area outside of this building. I’m wondering who would like to be hung tomorrow morning, and who would like to prove to me that you were hired for the job.”

There was a clatter of swords on the ground. “How do we prove we were hired?” asked one man.

“Well, you could have a certified hiring document.” Jared noticed their blank looks. “Or if you don’t have one of those, you could just identify the person who hired you.”

They couldn’t wait to give him names.

It was a sunny day two weeks later when Jared and Qerelir were both present as the flag of Aagerinar was raised over city hall in Jevlir. Also present was General Ezbah of the Aagerinar Elite Scouts. Several officers had come with her, and both Qerelir and Jared were wondering just who their new commanding officer would be.

In her own informal way Ezbah walked over to the two of them after the ceremony and tossed them new insignia of rank. Both were now captains—equal in rank.

“You’re probably wondering what your assignments are,” Ezbah said.

“You could say that,” said Qerelir smiling.

“We’re forming a new company to work the border here. Jared, you get the current one. Qerelir the new one. You’ll be working the northern side of the river,” she said, looking at Qerelir.

Then she looked at Jared. “You’re thinking I either didn’t read or ignored your report. You’re thinking you don’t deserve promotion, and your sense of fairness doesn’t let you feel happy about it if you don’t deserve it. Well, let me tell you something. I like officers who can learn. I like officers who can evaluate a situation, including their own weaknesses. I couldn’t have evaluated your actions any more cogently, nor could I have recommended any better corrective action.”

She started to leave, then looked over her shoulder. “Just make damn sure to take the corrective action you recommended!”

Guarding Books

“Books!” muttered Bryan. “I’m hanging from this rope to get books.”

Bryan was a professional caravan guard, used to crossing these mountains with expensive cargoes. Generally, he expected substantial bonuses for ensuring the safe passage of his employer’s goods. The bonuses were guaranteed by the sale of the expensive cargo.

But times were hard, and fewer and fewer caravans crossed the mountains, and bonuses were smaller and smaller. If it weren’t for that, he would never have taken employment with a woman. She’d said her cargo was valuable, and she’d offered good rates—exceptionally good in these poor economic times. As a result, Bryan was leading a team of half a dozen guards guarding a train of mules loaded with bags and boxes.

Then in the worst part of the pass a mule’s load had slipped, and one of the bags came loose. It was incompetent cargo handling, or perhaps even an attempt to sabotage the train and allow a robbery. But he couldn’t convince Lady Ilra of the danger. He couldn’t convince her that her life and the rest of her possessions were more valuable than a single sack of goods.

He had even asked her what she would have done if the bag had fallen all the way into the canyon. “Use a longer rope,” had been her quick answer.

So here he was, most of a rope length down the cliff, desperately trying to manage the rope and grab the sack that was lying on the ledge. Then through the partially loose mouth of the sack he identified the contents. Books! Each carefully wrapped in what looked like water resistant, oiled paper.

His first impulse was to shove the sack off the cliff and let it fall the rest of the way. But then he looked up to the point where his rope ended on the path, and she was looking down at him. She was a small woman, easy for him to defeat, he assumed, but she was up there, and he was down here, and she was holding a dagger. The message was clear. Send the sack up on the second rope, or I’ll cut the one you’re hanging from. He could only hope she meant that he’d be forced to take an additional length of rope and recover the books from the canyon floor.

So he carefully arranged himself so that he could hang from the rope and secure the sack, then tied it to the second rope. To add insult, she pulled the sack of books all the way up first, and only then allowed his men to bring him to the top of the cliff. It was humiliating to do this at a woman’s command, but it was insufferable to do it for books.

As they reloaded the mule, watching the cargo-master secure the load correctly, two of his men whispered in his ear.

“We’ve figured out that we are guarding books,” they said. “We’re agreed that we shouldn’t have to risk our lives for that.”

“We need the money,” he pointed out.

“Well, we can kill her, dump the books, and keep the money she has already paid. We only have her word that there is any more money awaiting us at the end of this journey.”
“Very well, I’ll demand double our pay, and when she refuses, we’ll dump her. That will provide a good story for any future caravan.”

Ilra had watched the men very carefully, but subtly, and she fully expected what was about to happen.

“The men are not happy to be guarding books,” said Bryan.

:”What difference does it make to you, so long as you are paid?”

“That’s just it. How do we know we will be paid? We assumed you had a valuable cargo, and that would assure our payment when sold at the end of the journey.”

“I have the money ready for you at journey’s end.”

“That’s not enough.”

“Oh? You demand double your pay, and half of the extra now.”

Bryan tried to hide his surprise at her accurate guess. Why hadn’t he thought of demanding half of the extra pay now?

“For double the pay, we’ll guard your books, humiliating as it is.”

She didn’t so much stand, as spring into a standing position, with a rapier in her hand. “You really should have thought of asking for half your extra pay immediately,” she said. “You really aren’t very bright.”

He reached for his sword, stung by the insult, angered at the way she intimidated him. How stupid could she be thinking that a woman 5′ 2” with a rapier could fight someone 6′ 1” and more than double her weight—all of his muscle!

There was movement, so quick he wasn’t certain what had happened. His hand stung, and in surprise he lost hold of his sword. It clattered to the ground and came to a stop, precariously perched on the edge of the path. He was disarmed. By the time he realized that, her rapier was at his throat.

The men behind maneuvered for position, but it was simply not possible to edge by the two leaders in order to join the fight. It was between Bryan and Ilra.

“For what I paid you,” said Ilra, “you will guard my books across the mountains. For your stupidity, you forfeit the second half of your pay, but I may, just may restore it if you do an exceptional job the rest of the way.”

“But lady, why take all thjs risk for books?”

“You think my books are useless, do you?”

“You can’t eat them, you can’t sell them. I’m a practical man. I like things that work.”

“Interesting, then, that you are standing there unarmed, while I, a woman and a bookworm have you at my mercy. One might almost think I was the more practical person!”

“Let’s see,” she continued. “I knew what you were going to propose because I know how to read lips, a technique I learned from a book. It’s loaded on the left hand side of the fourth mule. I know where it is by a memory technique I learned in another book, this one on the right hand side of the fifth mule.”

“You are disarmed using a technique I learned from another useless book, designed to teach people who are smaller than average techniques that give them the advantage over large boneheads such as yourself. You believe that I will be unable to sell any of my books, and most of them I don’t actually want to sell, but some of them I do. I know who will pay for them, and how much, because of information I found in another one of those useless books. One of those bags of books toward the rear is worth about 5,000 silver crowns at our destination.”

“But I also have an arrangement with a banker there so that I have much more at my disposal than the miserable pittance I’m paying you for this passage even without selling any books.”

“Most importantly to you right now, however, is the fact that another book back there teaches one techniques with the rapier. I could, of course, simply drive the rapier into your throat and you would fall dead. You think your men would then kill me, but because I’ve spent my time reading stupid, worthless books, I know better. Instead, I could do this—she removed a button from his shirt right over his heart with a flick of the rapier—and with a slight modification you would be bleeding to death. That weapon belt, which bears the throwing daggers you’re hoping to reach for is easily dealt with as well.” With a another flick the belt was cut through and fell to the ground.”

“My question is this,” she said. “Would you rather die here and now, or would you rather guard this train the rest of its way to its destination and recover your pay?”

Fighting fury and terror in equal measures Bryan grated out, “I’ll see to it that you make it.”

“I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking you’ll catch me asleep and kill me later. But another book back there has taught me about traps and alarms—deadly traps. Do you know that I know how to make at least 15 different poisons with materials we have with us, each of which could kill you and all your men?” It was her first lie, but it was a necessary one.

“We’ll serve you well, lady,” said a defeated Bryan.

And the caravan of useless books moved on through the mountains.

Copyright © 2007 Henry E. Neufeld

Birth of a Religion

Marat, priestess of Utu, adjusted her position until she had a clear shot both at the priest of Velanac, and at the drummers who stood to either side. To her left, she could see Amrar, priest of Ra, also prepared with a short bow, not all that different from hers. She stifled a laugh. It’s probably a minute or so before midnight out in the real world above, though I can’t tell in this cave, she thought. I can barely move, my magical strength is expended, all my healing items, herbs, and other mixtures are empty. I’m bandaged around the chest, on one leg, and both arms. Pulling this bow is going to be painful. It’s a fitting end to my career.

Somewhere to her left, she knew that her colleague, no, associate Natisha was sneaking around the edge of the cavern. Just out of sight of the entrance stood the Lord Kaltros, leader of this little expedition, along with the three remaining hired guards. A few meters behind them would be Lord Mayor Zirdan, mayor of Sidroc, who was the expedition’s patron. He was lying on a stretcher after being hit by several crossbow bolts in their last encounter. It was miraculous that, without any remaining priestly healing ability in the party, he was still alive.

With everyone injured in some way, it seemed likely that this would be the end. The only surprise was the absence of guards to stop them from getting into position to attack the high priest, but she wasn’t going to complain about that. Perhaps they could at least interrupt whatever ritual he was performing before they all died in the inevitable counterattack.

Continue reading “Birth of a Religion”

Simple Risk

Jerin, legal advocate, could not quite believe the young woman facing him across the table. They were in the Aagerinar city jail, and he had been asked to take her on as a client.

“Marita, heir to the Earl Northmarch, and also third in line for the Duchy of Aagerinar,” he said, reciting the known data. “How old are you, anyhow?”

“Rumor has it I’m 15.” Her expression didn’t change. She was relaxed, even serene. There was no sign of the tension he would expect of a young woman under arrest.

“Rumor has it? Don’t you know?”

“My adoptive mother guessed I was eight when she adopted me. That was seven years ago. In actuality, nobody knows for sure.” Very slight amusement showed. He suspected that if this girl did know, she wouldn’t be telling. “But none of this is important right now. I need you to do some work for me.” Not “represent me” or “defend me.”

“If I’m to represent you,” he said, “You’ll need to follow my instructions exactly and trust yourself completely to my care. You are charged with a serious crime, and it’s under the city jurisdiction, not the ducal, so you it won’t be easy.”

“On the contrary,” said Marita, “You’ll do exactly as I say, speak when I tell you to, and be quiet when I want you to. You will merely be a voice.” It was amazing how, when you started from the original serenity, slight changes could convey a great deal of meaning. Now there was a hardness in her expression that would permit no argument.

“Someone your age can’t do that!” he said. “The legal system can be complicated, and you can’t count on your birth to save you from this one. City judges aren’t chosen by the Duke, and aren’t susceptible to the kind of influence you’re used to using.”

“I can get someone else. Or you can sit beside me, win this case, and get the fame that results. It’s your choice. But remember, I don’t deal well with disloyalty. You’ll agree to do things exactly as I say.” Still that hardness around the lips.

Jerin considered for a few moments. He could end up looking like a fool, but on the other hand, Marita had the reputation for living a charmed life, she was close friends with the Ducal heir, her mother was the High Priestess and founder of the Ecumencial Temples of the Sun, and her father was the Earl Northmarch. The odds she was going to end up swinging by the neck from the end of a rope were probably small.

Continue reading “Simple Risk”

Convenient Timing

The new arrival joined the crowd in the bar of The Featherless Parrot, one of Shalem’s business inns. What was meant by a “business inn” was simply a place where it was more likely that the patrons were making deals than that they were being entertained. It suited the visitor to be in such a place.

Those who watched him—and there were many—saw a youngish man with a slightly effeminate look. It was so obvious that he didn’t really belong in this place, that most assumed that he really did. Nobody could be as weak and inattentive as he looked, and yet alive, unless he was very competent indeed.

It was some time before anyone decided to contact the visitor. Making contact with a stranger in a business bar could be dangerous, though this one didn’t look like he was waiting for anyone in particular. He seemed to be just enjoying a drink and some dinner, as unlikely as that might be. It was possible he was looking to hire, and was waiting for someone to contact him.

“Welcome to Shalem.” The tone was not welcoming, but the visitor looked up into the face of a middle aged man.

“Really?” he said, with a slight twinkle in his eyes. “I kind of doubt it.”

“Well, as welcome as anyone is here. Why are you here?” It was abrupt, but one approach was as good as another.

“I’m just looking around,” said the visitor. “I’m in from Malethia via Aagerinar, security consultant to the East Coast Commercial Guild.”

Continue reading “Convenient Timing”

Who Will Protect Us?

Our frenzied packing was interrupted by the arrival of the royal messenger.

“Good news!” he said. “There’s a cease fire. You don’t have to leave.”

We all stood around watching him, foolishly holding precious possessions in our arms, and looking at the wagons, mules and donkeys that were partially loaded.

“What happened?” I asked.

“A cease fire,” he repeated helpfully, spurring his horse. Then he stopped and wheeled around. “Oh,” he added, “it wouldn’t have done you any good to run. The giants are already northeast of here, and were moving around your village to cut off the impies to the south.” He nodded as though thoroughly satisfied with this speech, then spurred his horse again and was gone.

I had noted the Eselena Royal uniform, but many of the villagers had not. “Impies?” they asked. “Should he call them impies?”

“We always did in the Guard,” I tell them. The Eselena Royal Guard had a proud tradition. Proud, that is, other than having been conquered by the Ardenean Empire several centuries back. We had always thought ourselves more disciplined than the imperial troops. Man for man we were more than a match for them. Too bad they had about 100 men for each of ours! But independence was so long lost as to be a legend, and the Eselena Royal Guard had fought for the empire alongside those impies proudly and well.

I watched uncertainly as villagers began to unpack and return wagons, donkeys and mules to their usual places. It was only three days since we’d first realized a war had started. A young royal had ridden into the village, tired, dirty and wounded.

“Giants pouring across the border,” he’d gasped.

“Why?” was the question on everyone’s lips.

“Because they don’t like us!” he said.

I was called upon to tend his wounds. People assumed that someone retired from the royals (the army, they called it) would know how to tend wounds. I didn’t mind. It gave me a chance to question him.

“I’m to take a message to our headquarters, get reinforcements,” he told me.

“Is it true it was unprovoked?” I asked. It had been many years since the giants had attacked, and normally the wars were started by our people, not by them. Every so often someone on the imperial staff would decide the giants of Kachadhaz were a threat which should be dealt with proactively and off would go an army to attack. And back would come a bedraggled army much smaller than when it had left. But the giants never pursued them very far before they tired of the chase and went home.

“Well, no, not exactly,” he replied.

“How ‘not exactly’?” I asked. “One either provokes or one doesn’t, it would seem!”

“Well, you know about the invasion of Sinedan, don’t you?” he asked.

I didn’t. I had an idea that Sinedan was off to the east.

“We decided to take back Sinedan. Most of the reserves were sent in that direction for the invasion. I’m going to ask for reserves, but I know that they aren’t there. What we have left is 200 kilometers behind the front lines. But as for provocation, Kachadhaz reacted badly to the invasion. They sent forces into Arden to attack our flank. Some idiot of a general or another ordered an attack on the border by the impy border guards, reinforced, he assumed, by mobile reserve units, the ones 200 kilometers from here. You can guess what happened then!”

“And the giants are pursuing?” I asked. It was doctrine that the giants couldn’t keep their concentration long enough to take much territory.

“I don’t know how far, but they’re organized,” he replied. “They didn’t break under charge or heavy crossbow fire. They held their line and rained arrows on us. With their bows, if they do that, we’re nearly helpless. Our casualties were staggering. I barely escaped with my messages.”

I didn’t feel the need to interrogate him further, but I had gone immediately to the village headman and told him to warn people to be ready to move. In my day it had been doctrine that the giants wouldn’t pursue for long, that they hadn’t the patience to sustain a barrage of giant longbow fire, and that a determined cavalry charge would either spook them, or provoke them into a loose charge. Their firepower, combined with organization was too frightening to contemplate.

Just as ordering border guards to attack them was too stupid to contemplate.

But the young soldier’s eyes spoke truth.

Then had come the ragged bands of troops running ahead of the giants. That was two days later. The retreat was pretty much at the forced march pace. The fleeing troops didn’t say much, except to demand supplies and then continue to run. What could we do about it? We had no weapons. By the time the stragglers had all vanished to the north, we had few supplies left. Fortunately they had not found everything.

So we were happy not to run, but surprised at the cease-fire. Another doctrine had always been: “You can’t negotiate with Kachadhaz.” But apparently one could!

That night several horsemen rode into town. They rode in from the north, looking fresh and well kept. They obviously hadn’t been in the fighting. There were about 80 of them, looking fine in decorated uniforms. I wondered if they had ever seen combat!

Their captain called our headman out of his house. No respect to his rank, age or position. He demanded housing and food. “We’re here to protect you,” he said as though that were an intolerable imposition on his time. “It’s only right that you take proper care of us.”

So we offered them such shelter as we had. What else could we do? We offered them such food as we had left, and little enough there was of it.

They weren’t satisfied. They said they must be properly fed to defend us. They announced that we were likely treasonous traitors (their redundancy) and that they would have the food out of us. Then they organized a search of the village. When it was done, they had what was left of our food.

They returned to the village square where they were holding the headman. Faster than anyone could respond, they threw a noose around his neck and the rope over a tree branch and hoisted him slowly off the ground, not so his neck would be broken but so that he would strangle.

The captain announced: “That is what happens to traitors who try to hide needed supplies from the troops in time of war.”

Technically, he was correct. Concealing needed supplies was a crime and could be considered treason. Likely, I thought, he can get by with this. Who are we here in this village? Who in the imperial government will care about us? A little shading of the facts and we were all collaborators.

The captain announced that he was in charge and the village was under martial law. “Anyone else who tries to hinder us in our duties will meet the same fate.” The headman was not dead yet. He was going to die slowly.

It was not until evening that the screaming started. I don’t know in which house. But I realized what was happening and stepped out to look around. The troops were lounging around the village. Apparently they were not concerned about legality. You could hang traitors, but you couldn’t rape the women or kill just anyone. I could see the body of our headman still hanging in the tree. In the door of one house, I recognized our blacksmith fallen across his own threshold. He looked dead. The exits from the village were guarded.

To the northeast I could see a fire. It looked like a large one. The enemy camp? Very likely.

I huddled in my hut, feeling the shame. I, the sole warrior of the village, too old and slow to do anything about what was happening. Would they kill all the witnesses? Would we all die?

There was a scraping at my back window. I went and pulled aside the board that blocked it. Outside was the blacksmith’s wife.

“You must do something,” she whispered. Then she held her finger to her mouth. “They’re not letting us move around any more,” she continued.

“What can I do?” I asked. “I’m old. I couldn’t fight you, much less those soldiers out there.”

“You can go to the camp,” she replied.

“What camp?” Then it dawned on me. “You mean the giants’ camp?” I was stunned. One didn’t ask the giants of Kachadhaz for anything. If one asked, one didn’t get it. Or perhaps one got killed for one’s pains. It just wasn’t done.

“The giants’ camp,” she confirmed.

“They won’t help us. You’d better put your hope in the arrival of higher ranking officers or a unit that respects the law.”

“There won’t be any,” she said with conviction. “The captain told me we were at his mercy for several months. He seemed pretty happy with the situation.”

I thought about it. The giants were pursuing. The giants were negotiating. But still, I couldn’t go ask the giants for help!

“They raped my Mona; they killed my husband when he tried to protect her,” she said. “Anything would be better than this!”

I couldn’t argue with her on that. The giants weren’t known for casual killing or for raping human women. Actually, they’d rarely had the chance.

“What do the other people think?” I stalled.

“How am I supposed to find out?” she asked.

There was a bellow from the direction of her house. I could see her back yard from my hut. A soldier was in the yard looking around. She broke and ran toward him. He knocked her to the ground and then dragged her back toward the house by her collar. I knew what would happen.

“Can an old soldier still do anything?” I asked myself. Certainly I couldn’t fight, but could I sneak past the guards. Were the giants a better option for the village than what we had? I saw the headman hanging in the tree. I saw the body of the blacksmith, guilty only of protecting his daughter, lying dead on his own doorstep. I saw again the arrogant look in the eyes of the young captain. Somehow I knew that nothing could be worse than months of living in a village where he was the law.

I grabbed my knife and checked myself over for any obvious effort I could make at concealment. The years out of the royals had loosened some of my careful grooming. I was dusty and dirty enough to move around in the dark. Things were as good as they were going to get.

I climbed out the back window, and started sneaking toward the edge of town. Slowly I made my way from cover to cover. We didn’t have a wall, only a palisade of poles. I knew where I could slip out, provided there was no guard there. As I approached the wall, I heard an exclamation. One of the impies!

“Did you hear something?” I heard him say.

“No,” said another voice.

“I think I did,” he said.

I huddled even deeper into the cover I’d found, wishing myself smaller and invisible.

He nearly stepped on me. He was drunk. I could smell his breath even from my hiding place on the ground with him standing. Finally, he turned and left me. He and his companion walked back further into the village.

I made my move. Slowly, up to the fence, then quickly through the hole I knew was there, then out onto the plain.

It was painful to crawl. My old joints didn’t appreciate crawling close to the ground, but there was no cover. I had to get hundreds of meters away from the village before I would feel safe to stand and walk normally. At one point I thought I heard a crossbow bolt fired from the town, but I couldn’t be sure. I just kept on moving.

I went toward the supposed giant camp. Now it occurred to me that I didn’t really know it was a giant camp. I just assumed it was. But as I approached I soon knew for certain. I decided that there was no point in sneaking. I’d just walk up to the camp and let them spot me. I’d see what they did.

I wasn’t far from the camp when I heard a whistle. Further up the path a giant jumped up at the whistle and looked my way. It took him some time to spot me. Then he came toward me, looked me over carefully and said, “What have we here?”

I said, “I am Karano, from the village of Buyul. I have come to ask your aid.”

“Our aid?” he said doubtfully. But he didn’t laugh.

“Yes, we need help. The imperial troops have come and killed our headman and they are raping our women.” I paused and watched his face. His expression didn’t change.

“So?” he shrugged slightly. His face slowly changed into what I took to be a puzzled look.

“I have nowhere else to turn!” I told him.

“But that is imperial territory. We agreed not to take it. You want us to invade the empire again.” He said all this very slowly, almost as though he wasn’t sure what it meant. Though he obviously was sure.

He paused, shook his head, and stared at me some more.

“I think you need to see the commander,” he said. “Come!”

I followed him. The commander was just about the largest giant I had ever seen, with a fine suit of armor, a giant longbow nearby, a very expensive looking giant sword, and a barrel (from my perspective) of ale held in both hands. Casually sprawled on the ground near him was a human girl, in her late teens I guessed. Her only weapon was a dagger, but she looked more vigorous and efficient than decorative.

Several more giants were either sprawled around the area or standing watch around the camp. A couple of Ertzlu, dressed in Greenhaven style clothing which I still recognized, were sitting on a log, also near the commander giant. I knew this group of giants could take care of the force in our village easily, if they wanted to.

I repeated my tale.

“You’re asking me to invade some more, eh?” he asked.

He looked faintly amused.

The girl said something in a foreign language. We’d been speaking imperial standard. I didn’t even recognize the language. He gave a bark of laughter and then said something more in the same language. She made a gesture at him that, from the look on her face, I took to be obscene. Another bark of laughter.

He turned back to me. “Because this most beautiful of human females (obscene gesture from the girl) wishes me to save your helpless human females, and because I generally dislike all things imperial, I will save your village.”

He hollered an order. Giants dropped barrels of ale, grabbed weapons and went on alert. A few more curt gestures and commands and they all took off running in different directions. A more confused scene I would have trouble imagining! Some time during all this, the two Ertzlu disappeared.

The girl startled me by touching my shoulder. “Come along grandpa,” she said in faintly accented imperial standard. “Let’s go watch the fun, or at least as much of it as won’t be over before we can get there.”

She had thrown a leather shirt on, and grabbed a staff. I saw that besides her dagger, she had a small hand crossbow. She must be a priestess of some sort, but damned if I could remember more than a few of all those foreign gods.

We walked slowly, at my pace. I wondered that the giants, seeing as they had a priestess, were willing to go into battle without her.

By the time we got to the village it was all over. In the town square, the imperial troops were standing in a group in the square. Several of them were dead in the streets. The captain was being held immobile.

The young priestess ordered us all to go to bed and stay out of the streets.

The next morning, we were all called to the square. The giant was sitting on a large, improvised chair. Before him stood the captain of the imperial company. The priestess brought several witnesses from the town and led them through testimony about what the troops had done. At the end, she asked the captain if he had anything he wanted to say. He started in with a speech about this being imperial territory, him being the law, and the giants being invaders.

The giant held up his hand. “I’m a successful invader and you’re scum,” he said. He flicked his fingers at the captain and three giants grabbed him and started to beat him up and kick him through the street. While this performance was going on, the next imperial soldier was brought forward. As the blacksmith’s wife got up to accuse him of murder and rape he fell on his face and began to plead for mercy. A flick of the giant’s fingers and he joined his captain in the street. I imagined that the captain could no longer be alive, but the giants were still playing with his body.

I’m afraid it horrified me more than what the imperial troops had done at the time. Afterward, when I wasn’t watching, I started to feel a sense of justice in it. Most of the village had not even been disgusted when the giants were kicking the miscreants through the streets. They cheered! I understood how they felt, even through my revulsion.

All those who had personally participated in any of the atrocities of rape or murder were executed in the same manner. Some who had only played a peripheral role were beaten less severely. All were disarmed and sent from the village. The giant commander took over. To us, he was a friend.

It was two days later that a lieutenant in royal uniform with a small cavalry patrol approached the town. He signaled a parley. All he wanted to do, however, was read a royal decree.

Eselena declared itself independent of the Ardenean Empire, it said. Eselena had officially requested the protection of Kachadhaz from the depredations of imperial troops. The Kachadhaz government having granted this request, all royal Kachadhaz and allied forces were permitted to operate freely in our territory, and all officials of the Eselena government and its subordinate chartered entities should cooperate in every way with duly constituted Kachadhaz authority.

Then he and the giant shook hands. And he and the priestess. A while later he found me. “Grandpa,” he said, “you saved this village.”

“I suppose I did,” I replied.

“Everything will be OK now,” he said.

“You’re sure?” I asked. “What will these giants do with what they’ve taken?”

“I don’t know,” he said, “but it sure can’t be worse than what the imperials did to us.”

I thought I’d heard that somewhere before.

A Killer of Kings

Note: I wrote this in 1986 when thinking about how the time of the judges in Israel would have looked from a Canaanite perspective. I have woven into it a critical understanding of the authorship of Psalm 29.

“The voice of the Lord is loud . .
Psalm 29 (Author’s Translation)

“The Canaani are not welcome here,” admonished Miryam’s mother, “go carefully, and avoid meeting any strangers.”
“Yes, Imi.” Miryam shouldered the water jug with ease born of long practice, and walked away from the tents and the animals, up toward the stream Just across the rise. It was typical of her father that he did not want to set up camp next to the stream. “The walk is good for you, daughter,” he had said. The few servants her family claimed were caring for the sheep and goats, helping to keep track of them as they consumed the sparse vegetation which grew amongst the rocks.

The walk across the hill was invigorating, the stream beautiful, its limited flow seeming a torrent in the barren land. “It is too near the land of the Reuveni,” she heard the echo of her mother’s voice, then her father: “They are no longer so strong. They will not bother us. Besides, the territory is open, north of their land.” She hurried her steps. She could almost sense the presence of enemy, not enemies, Just the feeling of hatred, undirected and uncontrolled. Where she drew the water, the stream fell in steps over a small cliff, dropping a total of about 30 feet in all, in easily climbed steps.

Miryam paused, examining the floor of the small valley below. Surrounding the brook were the ruins of a small town, the tilled area around it still apparent, but covered by some years of growth. The stream bed had changed, leaving a path amongst the fields, and this new path stretched through the ruins, carrying away the stones, laboriously brought there by men. Miryam felt a stab of sympathy, feeling the weight of the water-filled jug on her shoulder. Then she noticed the statue.
It was not clear what it was, the distance was too great, but where the stream had carried away several buildings, there was one which had left walls on both sides, and a piece of floor, forming an island in the middle of the stream. On that island was a column, short, randomly placed where no column belonged, but standing straight. Its pose sent a shiver through the girl on the hill, as she stiffened with the jug on her shoulder, imagining herself standing alone, surrounded by water, a sentinel against the ravages of time and weather.

She saw the valley filled with life, the men coming home from the fields, the king sitting in the gate, greeting his people by name as they returned, the children playing joyfully in the streets. She felt surrounded, as men in armor, spears at the ready, crept down the staircase upon which she stood, silently approaching the village. The elders were gathering, people were beginning to feast-not a celebration, just an evening meal. From the brush around the town rushed the men, now vanished from the watery staircase.

She saw a spear enter the king’s chest. He did not die quickly. His lips moved. “Give me revenge,” said the king.
The scene faded, and a wayward breeze fluttered amongst the ruined stonework, shaking the leaves of grasses and shrubs that were violating the works of men. Yet the statue stood sentinel over the valley, its platform splitting the destructive stream, its pose indicative of life and direction.

With wordless fascination Miryam set down the jug, warnings forgotten, the image of a king and a rock etched in her mind, the sight of a village in flames; men, women, and children dying on the edge of blades; shrines desecrated. She walked down to the village, and threaded her way through the ruins of the houses to the place where the statue stood. It had once been shaped, she could tell, but it had been defaced. It stood on the piece of floor in the middle of the stream, not attached, but simply fallen there, remaining as a sentinel over the dead. Miryam removed her sandals and stepped into the water and across. She knelt before the statue, in examination or worship, she did not know. Besides, who could tell what god was represented there? She thought it was Baal, lord over the water, but she could not tell with the face removed.

How long she knelt, she did not know, but she was brought back to consciousness by the sound of horses’ hooves. In this part of the country, that could only mean Reuveni; rich Reuveni. She looked around, wondering which way to go, feeling disoriented and confused. She picked the shoreline nearest, only a few feet away, and the welcome rocks of the ruins. She could hide amongst them. She was small and agile. But she continued to see the village double, triple, never properly.

She splashed to the shore where her sandals were, and took one step inward to find a hiding place and stumbled directly into the arms of a man who grasped her by both shoulders. She looked up, not into the face of the man who was holding her, but into the eyes of the one on the chariot, the one drawn by two horses, the one she had somehow missed while walking ashore. Had it come around the corner? She couldn’t move her eyes from his, because she was sure she had seen them before, recently.

“Look what we’ve found here!” said the man in the chariot to his slave on the ground. His accent was the rough southern sound of the Reuveni and their allies, his voice and tone smooth and anticipative. “Even the daughters of the Canaani can be beautiful, is that not true, Huz?” he continued, indicating the man who was holding her, “a fit treasure to find on the scene of my father’s victory.” The man reached to fondle her, one questioning eye on his master, indicating with wordless sounds his appreciation. Miryam kicked him in the shins. In a flash, the charioteer’s spear butt swung around, striking her in the belly, and forcing her to the ground, doubled up and choking. She had never felt such pain. The man who had been holding her let go, and threw a kick, laying her out flat on her face on the ground.

He then grabbed and lifted her dress, expressing delight as he did so at the smooth thighs and the promising curves. As he reached his hand in to feel what he had found, it sank into her that the unthinkable was about to happen. With more determination than hope, she jumped to her feet, leaving the slave leaning forward foolishly above bare ground, the quarry gone. She ran across the stream, and threw herself at the base of the statue, hugging it around its ankles, above its missing feet, and turning her eyes back to watch the approach of the inevitable.

The charioteer whipped his horses, sending them into the water. At that moment his right wheel gave way, dropping him from his chariot to the ground. His curses were louder than the whinnies of the horses, or the sound of their hooves, and the echo of the crack of wood as the axle dug into the ground.

“That damned Egyptian horse merchant,” he yelled. “I’ll kill him for a liar next time he comes through.” He turned to Huz. “So get my chariot,” he ordered, “I’ll attend to the girl.” He looked once after the slave, running hopelessly after his horses, then at the broken chariot. Even the loss of his conveyance, symbol of high status, could not deter him from his purpose.

Miryam lost sight of the ruins. The fields again were verdant. She was no longer in the middle of the stream. The king sat at the gate, greeting his people, asking about their health, passing wise judgment in the tradition of the kings of the Canaani. She did not notice the man grabbing her, forcing her face to his mouth, letting his desire for her body fill him, commanding her to let him in. He wondered why she did not notice him, why she looked beyond as though he was not there, until he heard the clash of arms, and the sound of a village alive, not ruined.

The king looked up from his talk with the elders. “The Reuveni are upon us,” he shouted, grabbing for his weapons. When the spear thrust came, he was ready, parrying the blow deftly with the skill required of a king. The charioteer watched in disbelief as troops who had stormed the town 20 years before, men he knew as elders and teachers, fell before his eyes in an unruined town. His father had made his fortune in this part of the world in that sack. The chief had granted him this land because he had slain the king. His father’s body now lay bleeding on the ground, his eyes were forced to it in fascination, but his body was immobilized by unbelief.

The warriors of the town came back, and stepped in front of the shrine to Baal, where his statue stood, keeping watch over the town. They saw there a Reuveni young man, his hand on the arm of a Canaani maiden, her clothes suggestively disarranged.
Miryam’s attacker screamed, trying to fend off their weapons, never understanding why they never missed, as though they knew how he would avoid, yet he lived on. In terror and agony, the pain of many blows, he fell fainting to the ground.

Miryam watched the body from above and below, mumbling alternately “Hail rider of the clouds,” then “hail lord of the shades.” She could not tell whether she was disoriented or better oriented than ever before, able to see the scene as a whole.
The charioteer fell on his face in the water, and never lifted it, only coughing a couple of times as he drowned in inches of water. The statue looked normal again, missing feet, hands and all features of the face. But one of the last evening rays of the sun fell on it, casting a clutching shadow over the son of the killer of kings.

“The Lord sits above the flood-waters,
Yes, Baal sits as king forever.”
— Reconstructed Canaanite Hymn
— (also Psalm 29:10)

Copyright © 1986, Henry E. Neufeld