What Honor Demands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And thus began the trouble …

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

“Pregnant?!” he yelled. “Impossible!”

“Nonetheless it is so.”

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

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

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

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

She had expected precisely this result.

“Bring her to me!” he demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The kid understood.

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

“Are you sure the girl Winifred is pregnant?”

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know!” said Winifred.

“Are you actually pregnant?”

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

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

“No, father, but honor demanded …”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“True,” said Yarub.

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

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

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

“And why would I do that?”

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

“That’s your honor, not mine.”

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

“Oh, I see,” said Yarub. And he did.

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

 

We Should Have Learned to …

“We’re not going to bother with any of that marching crap,” said Jeffords to his troops. They were his because he was the only one in town with experience in combat, little as that was.

The villagers were lined up, sort of, in front of him. The idea was that he would prepare them to fight in the great war should their baron call for them. He had hated all the details of military life, the drill, the order, uniforms, and theory. What was important was for people to learn to fight.

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

His troops had spears and crossbows. The crossbows weren’t very good, but they were the preferred hunting weapons in the area. Jeffords suspected any real hunters had hidden those crossbows they actually used to hunt, and these were the remnants.

So Jeffords set about teaching the villagers to use those crossbows. Marksmanship was the order of the day, with a little bit of work with the spears (just in case the enemy got that close) on the side.

Then word came that enemy troops were approaching their own town. The baron had called for them. It was time to go to war.


“There’s no point trying to learn to use crossbows effectively,” said Karl. Karl, much like Jeffords, was the only person with military experience in his town. He was convinced that the peasants could not learn to fight properly, and the only possible way they could be used in battle was if you made them into a coherent unit.

“What we need to learn to do,” he told them, “is to learn to point those spears forward together, hold our shields locked together, and march forward together until those spears are sticking inside our enemies.” He did his best imitation of his drill instructor’s voice.

So Karl’s troops drilled constantly until they could make a solid wall of their shields and a nice hedge of their spears.

Then the word came that they must go to war for their baron.


It so happened that Jeffords’ groops and Karl’s troops faced one another when the day of battle came. Karl couldn’t quite suppress his worry as he saw all those troops carrying crossbows. If they were accurate enough for long enough, things could be very tough for his people.

Across the field, Jeffords had his own worries. If those troops across the field could hold that nice wall of shields and move forward with all those spears pointed straight forward, things could get pretty tough for his men. He was remembering how rarely his folks hit their targets, and it looked like this might start at longer range than they’d trained for.

Then the orderly line of troops started to march forward with their shields in a wall. On the other side crossbows began to fire. It was ragged—they’d never really learned to fire in a volley. Most of the bolts ended up in that wall of shields, though an occasional yell indicated a hit.

Jeffords realized the only possibility was for his troops to get behind. He began to yell the order. Unfortunately, nobody had practiced this particular maneuver. In fact, they had barely practiced any maneuvers.

So some chose to run around the right flank, others tried for the left flank, some thought it must be a retreat and started to run away, and there were a few who seemed to thing they should run forward with their spears.

Unfortunately (this time for the other side), some of Jeffords’ troops did make it around and it turned out that they did know a bit more about fighting than Karl’s troops did.

When the battle came to a close, or more accurately wound down due to the dwindling number of participants, there were quite a large number of bodies on the ground. Some of them were pretending, but who could tell?

Jeffords pulled himself up off the ground. His leg was cut wide open and he knew he wasn’t going to be walking soon. He looked at the mess.

“Maybe we should have learned how to march,” he muttered.

Across the field Karl looked around. He was in better shape than Jeffords, but he didn’t have much fight left in him.

“Maybe we should have learned how to fight,” he said.

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

Resolutions

It all started with the resolution passed by the town council.

No, perhaps not. That might be giving it too much weight. It really started when Tomas got stinking drunk that evening. But since the council resolution comes into it, we’ll just have to start there.

It was passed unanimously, and was short and to the point.

Resolved, that some person or persons of courage, skill, and resolution should form an expedition to deal with the depradations of William the Marauder, bringing peace and prosperity to the town and region of Olimur.

Agreed to and signed this 321st day of the 37th year of Arnon the Mayor, by the Council of Elders of the town of Olimur.

Copyright © Henry E. Neufeld, 2011. This is a work of fiction. All events and characters are products of my imagination. Any resemblance to real persons, places, or events is purely coincidental.

“Typical piece of lilly-livered, yellow-bellied swill from our honorable town council,” said Tomas. He had already had too much to drink. One didn’t speak of the elders in that way. Lilly-livered and yellow-bellied they might be, and would likely even admit it privately, but they were the richest men in the town, and they could always hire someone to deal with critics. Critics, yes, but bandits? Not so much!

The bartender only grunted.

“They don’t even have the courage to tell somebody specific to do something specific,” continued Tomas.

“Why should they assume someone would follow orders once they were out the gate?”

Nobody had an answer to that one, so the bar fell silent for a few minutes. Olimur was an isolated town, living off agricultural products from surrounding farms and from good bought from the rare trading caravans that made it there from the mountains to the west or from the coastal areas to the east.

There was a castle just to the south which was known as the Baron’s castle, but there hadn’t been a baron there in as long as anyone could remember, and the idea that there might be a king was the subject of myth. Nobody in town had ever even seen the sea, except for one — Tomas. He had a certain fame here because in his late teens he had signed on with a caravan as a guard, and had actually returned to Olimur.

The silence was broken suddenly by a man at the end of the bar.

“So why don’t you do something about it, hero!”

Nobody could remember his name, but he did some sort of work for the council.

“You need an expedition, not just one man to deal with this,” said Tomas.

“Not if it was a man of resolution, as the proclamation says. You’re a man of resolution, aren’t you?”

Tomas just stared at him.

“I bet you never have been to the sea, or to the mountains. You just went out and hid in the woods like a rabbit, then came back with all those tall tales.”

“I have too . . .” started Tomas.

“Someone who had actually done those things would be able to think of a resolution for this little problem. Someone who actually had seen the mountains and the sea, and who wasn’t himself a lilly-livered, yellow-bellied coward, and a liar to boot!”

If Tomas hadn’t been so drunk, and if he hadn’t felt that his trip to the sea and the mountains was his only real claim to any respect, he might not have done it. If he had even thought he could get by with challenging a minion of the town council to a duel, he might have done that.

“OK, I’ll do it!” shouted Tomas.

“Is that your firm resolution?” The man rolled the word off his tongue and made it sound sort of oily. “Are you truly resolved to do it? Or is this another of your tall tales?”

“I am resolved to do it,” said Tomas a bit more soberly. It seemed that agreeing to deal with William the Marauder was sobering even to one barely able to stand due to drink.

It turned out to be impossible to get anyone to join him on his expedition. Nobody thought he had any chance, and they all preferred that the walls of the town be between them and William. As a marauder, William was a practical man. He could have raided the town any time he wanted to, but then what would he raid next? By being there, the town brought a small trickle of commerce, and supported surrounding farms, and he took his share of everything.

Various villagers were willing to provide Tomas with supplies, and even the council, normally as tight-fisted as any group of people, provided him with a horse. He was fairly well equipped when he left town.

Every so often he wondered why he was going. But then he’d remember the jeering tone of the man in the bar, and the knowing looks of all his friends who, to a man, thought he’d wimp out before the end, and he’d decide he didn’t have any choice. He wouldn’t be able to live in town if he didn’t go. He had to go.

He headed toward the mountains. What he didn’t realize was that William the Marauder had eyes and ears in town and had been planning for him almost from the moment he decided to mount his one-man expedition. So just as he arrived in the foothills, he found himself surrounded by bandits, and herded forward until he was face to face with William the Marauder. He’d drawn his sword, and the bandits hadn’t taken it away from him. He tried challenging William to single combat, but William just drew his own sword jumped forward, and within three seconds at most, Tomas was disarmed.

He thought he was dead, but the bandits didn’t take him that seriously. They beat him up a bit, stripped him to his loin cloth, took all his equipment and his horse. They kept him in camp overnight, and before they left in the morning they tied him to a post they had planted right in the middle of a small stream. His feet were in ice cold water. He wondered how long it would take to die

There’s nothing like the prospect of death to change one’s outlook on a problem. As he resolved the problem into its component parts he began to curse himself for a fool. The council had, of course, never intended anyone to carry out their resolution. It was just something to point to when people complained. They had also carelessly failed to specify how the problem should be resolved.

Here was how it broke down. The real problem wasn’t William the Marauder. It was the council, which did nothing about it. If there wasn’t William, there would be someone else. There was enough fighting power in the town, if it was properly organized, to protect the neighboring farms, and probably make it possible for caravans to come and go much more safely. The question was, where could he find someone who could shift the council from their position and organize opposition to the bandits?

By this time he couldn’t feel his feet any more, and he wondered why he kept trying to figure out a new resolution to the problem when he wasn’t likely to have an opportunity to carry it out. It was then that he realized just how strong his own resolution was. So he started to try to free himself from the post.

He wasn’t sure how long he’d worked on freeing himself, when he realized he had an audience. A flock of sheep and goats was coming down from the hills and coming to drink from the stream. They were accompanied by a shepherd girl.

“I would guess you’ve fallen afoul of William the Marauder and his fine associates,” said the girl.

“Could you please untie me,” he asked.

“I wonder if that would be safe,” she said, sort of meditatively.

“I promise I won’t hurt you. I just don’t want to die here.”

“OK,” said the girl. And while the sheep and goats drank, she went and untied him.

“I think you should probably get out of the area,” said the girl. “I think I can find you sandals, a robe, and perhaps a walking stick, but that’s it.”

“I’m surprised to get even that,” said Tomas. “And very grateful!”

Tomas changed his route. He headed northeast. Nobody went northeast from Olimur. That took him toward the sea, but in a direction where there might be new things. He had also come to realize that the council had not put any time limits on the fulfillment of their resolution. He would take his time, and he would resolve it.

He had seen many towns and castles and had always been disappointed. In every case, he had found that people’s vision was limited to their own little area, and they were satisfied to see things continue as they had now for decades, perhaps centuries, though nobody could be sure of that.

He was coming across a line of hills and looking down into another valley when he saw what looked like a town larger than any he had seen before in his travels. He was not much better equipped. He was riding a mule in place of his horse, and his sword was old, but it was reasonably sharp, and he had made himself a hunting bow as well. As he rode down the trail, the town resolved itself into two walled areas, one on either side of the stream. The farms around looked uncommonly well tended. The road became better as he approached, and he could see that where it left the valley to the northeast it looked better than anything he had seen thus far.

The question, of course, would be whether the sort of person he was looking for would be willing to leave such a fine place to go with him to what would seem to be a poor village beside this town.

But his resolution held, and he entered the town.

That night he listened carefully in the bar. He was interested in the way the town worked, in the individual personalities, and who might be interested in some adventure of a particular type.

Surprisingly, he found plenty of people interested in adventure. It seemed there were more people with swords, bows, and excess time on their hands than he had ever imagined. But they quickly lost interest in conversations with him when they found he didn’t know where any buried treasure was located (or didn’t seem to). They wanted adventure with quick profit. That would solve nothing.

Finally, on his third night, he was joined by a girl. At least that was what he called her. In fact, she was probably in her twenties, and didn’t seem to have suffered the ravages of early marriage and continuous childbearing that characterized women back in Olimur.

“I hear you’re looking for someone to solve a problem for you,” she said.

“Why do you say that?” he asked, surprised.

“Well, you may think you’re very subtle, but the questions you’ve been asking other people, when considered together, resolve themselves into a pretty clear picture.”

“Oh,” said Tomas.

“Is that the best you can do?”

“No.” But he didn’t really know what to say. “Do you have any ideas?” he asked finally.

“Yes. Me.”

“You? What could you do?”

“I can do this,” she said. Then she waved her hand in front of his face, and there was a flash of light that blinded him. “That’s just a sample,” she said, when he had recovered.

Tomas had heard of wizards. He’d even been told they were around when he was working as a caravan guard. But he was pretty sure he had never met one. He certainly had no way to judge one and determine whether she could do what needed to be done.

But he was dazzled, almost as much by her as by her sample spell. She was beautiful. She seemed smart. What was more, she was very sure of herself. No question but that once she had made a resolution, she would carry it through! He was missing her greatest asset, but who could blame him?

It was less than a week later that Tomas found himself traveling southwest toward Olimur with the wizard, half a dozen men-at-arms, a couple of apprentices, and more bright and shining equipment than he had ever seen before.

He remembered one of his employers when he was a caravan guard who told him that there were two types of men in armor. Those who were there for show, who normally reflected the light of the sun and looked very good, and those who were there for action, whose armor usually was dented and much less shiny. The caravan guard hadn’t cared for the former.

He approached the wizard about it, suggesting that perhaps they needed more capable, but less showy guards.

“You’ll see,” she said. “What people see depends on who they are and what they expect.”

They arrived at the gate of Olimur, and as he was instructed, Tomas approached the gate ahead of the rest. “Tomas and the wizard Adrina, here according to the resolution of the town council with the ultimate and best resolution for their problem.”

Then he kept riding. The guards were uncertain what they should do, but they didn’t feel qualified to challenge a wizard (they might have thought differently had they known she was just a girl), and so they allowed the travelers to pass unmolested.

When the council saw that Adrina was just a girl, they were careful to have her followers disarmed before they came before the council but they didn’t bother taking anything away from Adrina herself. They assumed she was some kind of impostor, and they were angry with Tomas, but they weren’t afraid.

“Why have you brought this girl to us?” they said. “We authorized you to deal with William the Marauder, not to bring some other people to the town.”

“Silence!” said Adrina, and instantly the one councilor fell silent. His lips still moved, but nothing was heard.

Another councilor yelled for guards, but suddenly the door slammed, and somehow the guards were unable to open it.

The council and the guards weren’t very sophisticated, and by the standards of the larger world, neither were they very rich. It wasn’t long before they agreed to go along with her plans.

Even though she was just a girl, everyone expected the great wizard Adrina to go out and challenge William the Marauder, thus resolving all problems in one move. But instead she set up guards and patrol routes involving the various farms. Then she sent Tomas as her emissary. William agreed to plunder elsewhere and to leave Olimur and caravans going to and from it alone in exchange for his life. By this time Tomas was so convinced of  Adrina’s power, that he presented this with the proper confidence, and William saw wisdom and went along.

Back in the town, various of the town elders began to retire or disappear. This usually happened right after they had tried to some scheme over on the wizard Adrina.

It was heard that they complained to Tomas. They thought he had played fast and loose with their resolution.

“You should be very careful what you resolve,” said Tomas. “Someone might actually carry it out.”

And that became a proverb around Olimur, long after everyone had forgotten Tomas, and the council’s resolution.

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

The Swing over the River

“And then I let go when I’m at the farthest point out, drop into the river and swim to the far shore. The current will be helping me.”

“And if you can’t make it?”

“I’ll come up against that rock.”

“What rock? I can barely see anything.”

“There’s a rock in the water just where the river turns. If I can’t make it to shore, I will almost certainly end up at that rock.”

“And if you miss?”

They could both hear the roar of the rapids below.

“If I miss, I’ll die, and you’ll think of another plan.”

“I don’t think there is another plan.”

“Let’s get going, then. The bandits can’t be far behind.”

This is a work of fiction.
Copyright © 2011
Henry E. Neufeld

Sheldon looked around. The ragged group of refugees had pretty much fallen where they stopped. In the darkness with just a waning moon, he couldn’t see their faces, but he knew there would be no hope. They’d been forced further and further south, and everyone knew one couldn’t ford the river here. Soon they would all be killed.But this kid thought he could swing out over the river, and get near enough to the other bank to avoid the rocks. He maintained that the current at that point would push him in the right direction. Not only that, but he’d have to do it with a rope tied around his waist. Once that rope was tied at both ends, they’d run another one, and let the people cross on the one rope while holding the other.

It would be the end of the road for their mule, who was carrying the supplies. It was the kid again who had inclued that much rope in their load. He seemed to think there were few things that couldn’t be solved with the proper length of rope. Whether the refugees could cross the river in that manner remained to be seen. Sheldon doubted they’d all make it.

The kid looked at the rope hanging from the tree. The memories were strong. The little river near his home, not too swift, but very muddy, and considered somewhat dangerous, especially for the very young. He’d only been five years old the first time he tried to swing out over the river, much too young. Nothing had ever stopped him. No amount of orders, no punishments, no matter how severe, could keep him away from the rope swing. And he was good.

As he looked at the river below in the moonlight, he realized how fragile were his plans. There was no room for error. If he was any less skilled than he had said, he would land either amongst the rocks on this side or in the middle of the stream, where he would have no chance to reach the other bank before being swept around the turn and caught in the rapids.

Then he heard his father’s voice. “It’s dangerous. It’s a waste of time. You need to learn to do useful things.” His father was very fond of useful, practical things. The swing over the river wasn’t useful. Fun, yes, but not useful. His father hadn’t understood fun.

He positioned himself as far back as he could, to get the most momentum. “What do you think now, Dad?” he muttered, and launched himself over the river.

He didn’t have time to think. He just reacted. One moment he was hanging from the rope, and the next he was dropping toward the water. He had time for just one thought: This is the biggest thrill I’ve ever experienced. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Sheldon felt somewhat different. He only caught glimpses of the kid in the river. He thought he wasn’t close enough to the far bank. Then he saw him crawling out on the rock. He had come up against the rock–barely.

At that moment all the kid could think was: Too bad I can’t tell my dad. Some useless activity!

(This story has been submitted to the One Word at a Time Blog Carnival: Swings, though I think it’s mildly off track for that!)

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?”

“Yes.”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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!”

Book: Eragon

Well, eventually the day comes when I get around to reading even really popular literature and so it arrived for this book. A friend loaned it to me and it took some time for it to rise to the top of my reading list. I’m a bit slow to grab things that have a immediate, huge public following–just one of my personality quirks.

Having gotten the covers open, I found an interesting, but not riveting story. That is to say, I didn’t read it all at one session or have difficulty putting it down. I do like light reading, and it fit that category quite nicely. There are no really odd monsters or characters. The politics is pretty simple, and the scenes of individual combat and the battles are described in a very general fashion. Many readers will like that, though I tend to prefer the more blow by blow descriptions (David Weber comes to mind).

Eragon, the lead character, stumbles into his heroic mission, then takes it up reluctantly but quite effectively. There are several story lines left for later books, and reviews indicate the second volume is better than the first. It’s pretty difficult to write something that good for young readers and at the same time keeps the attention of adult readers, so this is not a bad job at all, and the author was 17 when it was published in 2003.

I haven’t seen the movie; who knows when I’ll get to that.

Rating: 3.7 (1 – 5)

On Harry Potter

I’m not a reader of the Harry Potter series, but I really like this note from Laura of Pursuing Holiness. (I worked together with Laura in forming the Philophronos Blogroll which can be seen on my threads blog. This is my “fun” blog.)

To a large extent I think the difference in people’s reactions to books like these is one of perspective. There’s an old saying: Two men looked out from prison bars, one saw mud, the other saw stars. Similarly with literature you can either see the wonderful themes of the Lord of the Rings, or you can get hung up on the fact that wizards and magic are involved in the story.

There are types of literature and entertainment that we should avoid as Christians. Often, however, we avoid things out of hysteria and ignorance rather than because of considered judgment.

Book: Beyond the Gap

I actually thought I was reading a book by an author I’d never read before, and I still can’t remember what book I read by Harry Turtledove before, but I have a feeling that I have.

Beyond the Gap is what I call good fantasy writing. It’s not action packed from start to finish. It has some characters that are larger than life, but they’re not ridiculous. It has magic, but the magic doesn’t take the story over. There are individuals involved in adventures, but those adventures relate to cultures and politics.

For those who like constant action, as I noted above, this will not be a favorite, but for those who enjoy strong characters with a good helping of action, this should fit. Particularly interesting is the clash of cultures with the Bizogot Jarl Trasamund vs the civilized Count Hamnet Thyssen.

There’s a gap in the great glacier. Who wants to go through it?

Rating: 4

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