We Have Always Failed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was signed by the missing commander.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Honor Demands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And thus began the trouble …

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

“Pregnant?!” he yelled. “Impossible!”

“Nonetheless it is so.”

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

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

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

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

She had expected precisely this result.

“Bring her to me!” he demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The kid understood.

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

“Are you sure the girl Winifred is pregnant?”

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know!” said Winifred.

“Are you actually pregnant?”

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

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

“No, father, but honor demanded …”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“True,” said Yarub.

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

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

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

“And why would I do that?”

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

“That’s your honor, not mine.”

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

“Oh, I see,” said Yarub. And he did.

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


Of Special Units of Measure

Seeing the word “dab” for the One Day at a Time blog carnival brought back memories of my mother’s cooking. Yes, this is another non-fiction entry. I just can’t resist.

My mother is a pretty good cook, at least if you like food for the health-conscious. If you’re into extremely sweet or very low fiber, perhaps not so much. But amongst our friends when I was younger, her food brought many compliments.

My parents believed in hospitality, and would frequently invite visitors home for lunch after church. If there was a pot-luck meal, we’d always be there with the appropriate dish prepared.

With the compliments would come the inevitable request for the recipe. But my mother doesn’t really cook with precise recipes. Rather than things measured in cups, teaspoons, drops, or any such precise quantities, we would take “some” water, add a “dump” of flour, perhaps a pinch or two of salt, a splash of oil, and so forth. Then one might put a “dab” or two of oil in the bread pan before using it for cooking. Of course I’ve skipped ingredients and much processing, but you get the idea.

I never really could get the idea, and neither could most other people. A “dump” doesn’t remain the same size. Four loaves of bread take a larger dump of flour, not to mention that “some” water changes in quantity. Mom could always get it in proportions, but it was very difficult to provide a recipe to those who requested one. She’d sometimes write one out, trying to figure out the proportions in “real” measures as best she could.

To this day I can’t cook that way, even though I had to learn how to cook a number of different dishes, not to mention learning how to bake bread when I was younger. I need a detailed recipe. If the recipe happens to skip a step, no matter how obvious, it doesn’t happen.

I was comparing this to giving instructions regarding how to do some process on a computer, something I find easy. My wife is less “loose” about her cooking than my mom is, but she still has a tendency to cook something until it’s done, rather than for 11 1/2 minutes. I set the timer to the second. She was telling me that I should know how to cook pasta by now and be able to tell when it’s finished. I asked her how long it had been on the stove. Then I pointed out that she likes her computer instructions to be very precise, probably for the same reason as I like my cooking directions detailed. Neither of us is comfortable in the other one’s natural space.

So perhaps the special unit of measure we all need is several dabs of understanding. When you know what you’re doing and you’re comfortable with the equipment and the process, less precise units work just fine. But when you don’t really understand the process, the only option is to get—and follow—precise directions.

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

Not Trusting New Cars

Every since I first found the One Word at a Time Blog Carnival it has been my habit to write a short story based on the chosen word. Last week I wrote about an experience I had, and today I’m writing a few reflections based on family history rather than a work of fiction. Of course, if these stories were passed around at a family reunion, I’m sure we’d find enough versions to make one think they were fiction. The word for this carnival is “new.”

Both my dad and my Uncle Don (Neufeld) had a suspicion of new cars. I recall a couple of times when we had a new or nearly new car, but generally we got something that was substantially used. I’ve inherited enough of that suspicion that my preference is to buy a car that has 20,000 miles or so on it. I lose the new car high price, and still have a reasonably recent vehicle for maintenance purposes.

That wasn’t the way my dad looked at it. For him, a car was not so much a means of transportation as an occasional hobby. He could take it apart and work on it. Whenever anyone wanted to go somewhere, he could complain about the various problems the car was having, thus providing an excellent reason not to drive the car at all. There were many times we thought we might go somewhere when my dad would say that the car needed work, and so it sat in the carport or garage as the case may be.

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When we were in Guyana, South America, a number of folks at the hospital where he worked were quite unhappy with his choice of vehicle. (He was a doctor and medical director of Davis Memorial Hospital in Georgetown, Guyana.) A number of people in the administration thought his car didn’t look respectable for a doctor, especially a hospital’s medical director. But he stuck with his purchase of a Morris Minor. I don’t know the year, but it looked a great deal like the 1960 model shown at the left. It was about that old as well—this was 1971.

It did run from time to time. I recall a few trips across country and it ran fairly well. There was a joke amongst our friends about needing to feed the hamsters well, but that was an exaggeration.

Nonetheless, people thought the car just didn’t look like a doctor’s car.

My dad didn’t care. He spent many hours tinkering with that car. I don’t know whether he was keeping it running or making sure it stayed up on the jacks.

He wasn’t always unwilling to use his cars. When we lived in Chiapas, Mexico, we drove a Mercury station wagon. I could tell a few stories about that little vehicle. It went any number of places it was not designed to go. For one thing, it’s 14 inch wheels made it pretty low, and we lived close to 90 miles from the nearest paved road.

One of the forms of mulch we used for gardening at the little mission station we had there was coffee hulls. We’d haul these in by the van load. One day the folks who had driven their van to get the coffee hulls hiked back in. The van had broken down. They were going to take the four wheel drive vehicle we normally had available and tow the van in, but it wasn’t working. Dad had purchased a new tow cable on his last trip to the U. S. and had never used it. This was his opportunity.

Everybody said the Mercury station wagon wouldn’t tow the van, especially with a full load of coffee hulls. But he was undeterred. I was only 8 or 9 years old, but I got to go along to see how this would work.

We drove out to where the van was stranded, hooked up the cable, and eased that little station wagon off and believe it or not, that van came right along. We managed to tow it all the way back to the top of the hill where it could just coast on in to home.

My first year in college I lived near my Uncle Don, and I discovered that he was no fan of new cars either. He had an old Chevy station wagon that had more than 200,000 miles on it. It ran quite well. He had a newer station wagon as well. My aunt Maxine told me that he bought the new station wagon just before making a trip across the continent. He chose to make the trip in the old vehicle because he didn’t trust the new one yet.

She also told another story about that older car. My uncle was fairly high up in his church organization. Once he was the main speaker for a camp meeting. He was turned away from the pastor’s parking lot because they didn’t think his car looked like a pastor’s car.

I conclude that perhaps there’s a reason to have fun with older cars!

The Old Chapel near Matlock Bath

St. John the Baptist Chapel
Chapel of St John the Baptist, Masson hillside

Private chapel, built just before 1900 by the Arts and Crafts inspired architect Sir Guy Dawber. It was never consecrated and is now maintained by the Friends of Friendless Churches and sadly is only open on Heritage open days.

© Copyright Phil Berry and licensed for reuse under this

In October of 1999 I was engaged to be married. At 42 years of age I was acquiring a ready-made family all in one move. Over the years, that family has grown to include nine grandchildren. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

The wedding was planned for November 28, Thanksgiving weekend, but in October I was headed to Europe. For the most part I was going to be traveling with a group of speakers offering revival services to various Methodist churches in England. I was kind of the junior member of the team, but in many ways that made it more fun. Friends told Jody, my wife to be, that I was getting cold feet. Otherwise why would I run off to Europe for three weeks that close to the wedding?

My story isn’t about the portion of the trip that was in England. In the middle of the trip, I was to leave the group, fly to Germany, and speak at a conference there. Then I’d return and join my group. I separated from the group in the town of Matlock, and was left with a day on my own before taking the bus back to London where I would fly out to Frankfurt.

I spent that day walking and looking for spiritual encouragement for the days ahead. I’m not a good traveler. I’m not that good at encountering new situations. I was quite comfortable being the junior member of a substantial team and wasn’t all that happy to be heading off for several days on my own.

I had been told by someone that there was a chapel near Matlock Bath, which is just south of Matlock, and so I walked that way. I was in much better shape in those days! Just looking at the map as I prepared to write this story made me tired. I asked about the chapel a couple of times and nobody seemed to know.

One of the things an American needs to learn about Europe is that “old” doesn’t precisely mean the same thing there. A century or so old is “old” here. I attend the oldest Methodist church in Florida, founded in 1822, in a building constructed in 1908-1910. This is a decently old building around here, but it’s a thing of yesterday by European standards. (I studied a good deal of ancient near eastern history, so I was acquainted with “really old,” but the intermediate level in Europe hadn’t really hit me.)

Finally, as I was following my map back from Matlock Bath toward Matlock, I came across a chapel. In preparing to write this post I looked it up on the map and found a picture. I don’t always trust my memory, but both the location and the appearance of St. John the Baptist’s Chapel in Johns Road match my memory of the place. I’m glad to see that since that time it has been designated a Listed Building.

At the time I couldn’t get in, and it was not in great repair. Again, it appears that some work has been done on it, which is noted in the Wikipedia article linked above. Below the chapel on the road there was some water leaking and running under (I believe) Johns road. The view in the picture with the Wikipedia article is precisely the direction from which I approached. Seeing the water coming from below the closed chapel, I suddenly felt God’s presence. You can call me crazy, but I knelt down and splashed the water on my head and felt incredibly refreshed. In that most unlikely place I had found the encouragement I needed.

For me the chapel was as old as the hills and as new as tomorrow. It may be a thing of yesterday by English standards, but it was worth the walk to me. I don’t suppose it will become a major tourist attraction. But the importance of a place and experience is, in most ways, a matter of perspective.

(This was written for and submitted to the one word at a time blog carnival – old. Unlike what I usually write for the carnival, this story is true, as best as I recall.)


The New Ornate Cathedral

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

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

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

Otzmann was an architect. He liked order.

The duke cleared his throat ominously.

“Yes, your grace. I understand.”

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

Again the duke cleared his throat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The workers believed him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reluctantly the duke nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

“More like ‘scratched’ you mean.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her Sincere Belief

“This morning, as I was praying and asking God to show me his will for me today, I heard his voice.” Mrs. Olenco’s* voice had a penetrating quality even though it wasn’t really very loud. It was a determined kind of sound. Those who liked the lady said she radiated sincerity. Others had less complimentary terms.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of anything in this story to anything in the real world is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2012
Henry E. Neufeld

The church board fell silent. The issue was the building of a new recreation center at the church. The finance chair had already reported that they didn’t think the church was in a position to pay for the project or to borrow money and keep up the payments. Several program coordinators had discussed how much the project might benefit the church. The young pastor had asked whether this was the best way in which they could use the church’s resources. Were there other places they could accomplish the same things? Were there other needs that were greater?

But now they faced the problem. How did one respond to Mrs. Olenco? She never left any room to maneuver. What she heard from the Lord was unambiguous and final. So it was with great misgivings that the chair asked her the question.

“What did the Lord tell you?”

He didn’t like the question. He wanted to say something like, “What do you believe you heard from the Lord?” But that would lead to arguments and recriminations. You see, Mrs. Olenco didn’t think she heard from the Lord. She heard from the Lord. She would say so with complete and utter sincerity. When anyone questioned her she was hurt.

“The Lord said unto me, ‘Ye shall build me an house, a place where my children can play and be joyful. A place that will glorify me. A place where the children of my family can learn and grow. Ye shall build it. I shall supply!’ saith the Lord Almighty.”

It was mercifully short for once, but then the message was fairly simple.

“I am sure the Lord can and will supply,” said the pastor. Mrs. Olenco smiled and nodded. The young man was coming along nicely. “But,” he contined, “I still wonder if this is the right way to build this church. We have many other needs, and diminishing funds.” The young man was uncertain and the look on his face and the tone of his voice showed it.

“All these years I’ve served this church! All the times I’ve heard these messages from the Lord telling us how to build his kingdom here in this community! But I know I must endure questioning. All God’s prophets have endured questioning. A simple messenger such as myself cannot expect to escape if the holy prophets didn’t. But it’s hard, very hard, young man. I can only imagine that some of the doubters of the church have influenced you. ‘Heed not the words of the faithless, the doubters, those swayed by merely human knowledge,’ saith the Lord.”

Silence reigned in the room again. Nobody wanted to face her tremendous sincerity. And she was sincere. She truly meant every word. Anyone listening could tell that was the case.

It was a voice vote. Not one person raised their voice to say “no.” The church would proceed to build the new center.


Six months later the church board met again. This time they were to listen to a report of the finance and the building committee. There was a simple problem. The building they hoped to build would cost nearly one and a half times what had been planned originally. The bank was unwilling to loan the funds to the church.

“While I was praying this morning, the Lord spoke to me. He said, ‘There are those who do not believe in my provision. They shall be exposed when they stand in the way of my work.'” As she said it she looked directly at the chair of the finance committee and at the pastor. Everybody knew what she was saying. Everybody wondered how to respond.

The finance committee chair looked abashed. He was indeed an opponent of the project. Further he knew that he would have denied the loan had he been in the position of the loan officer of their bank. But he didn’t know what to do in the face of Mrs. Olenco’s clearly sincere belief that God had spoken to her. It was a choice between impossibilities: facing to that incredibly deep and sincere spirituality and finding some way to make this project move forward. He couldn’t see a way to do anything.

Finally the young pastor spoke. “There is sincerity,” he said, “and there is manipulation.” The room fell into a silence that could be felt. Not even Mrs. Olenco was making a sound. “I too prayed this morning, but I didn’t hear a voice. I simply was filled with a calm conviction that this project was the wrong thing at this time and that it was my duty to make that clear.”

His voice wasn’t penetrating. It was even weak. The people in the room could feel his reluctance to say what he was saying.

“I’d rather not have to say this, but I have to do it. I will not support continuation of this project. I do not believe it’s God’s will. Mrs. Olenco,” he said, turning to face her. “I would rather have said this somewhere else, but I had hoped that with the failure of your previous plans you would let wisdom prevail. I believe you are sincere, but I also believe you are sincerely wrong. That shouldn’t be such a major issue. All of us have been wrong many times and will be wrong many times in the future. Despite your obvious deep faith and sincerity, this is one of your times to be wrong.”

This time there were no tears from Mrs. Olenco. She was angry. “If you won’t accept God’s message, then I will have to leave you to your own devices. I shake the dust off my shoes.” She reached toward her shoes but came nowhere near. “I’m leaving,” she said.

She hesitated, clearly expecting someone to tell her to stop. But for the first time in 20 years the church board was unwilling to listen. Nobody moved to stop her.

Then they took a new vote on the recreation center project.


* I want to emphasize that my use of a woman as the manipulative speaker in this story has nothing to do with gender. I have experience in real life of both men and women who manipulate church politics through claiming God’s authority for their ideas. I also do not deny the possibility of hearing the voice of God, but everybody must exercise discernment. I discuss this in my post The Advantages of Stoning False Prophets.)

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

Silly Who

Karl’s Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen’s Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Farmer Jack’s Arsenal

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

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

“Who,” he asked, “is Jack?”

“Farmer Jack,” said one of the villagers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The arsenal?” said the knight.

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

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

The captain nodded.

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

The captain looked blank.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They said nobody had noticed them.”

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

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

I Am Justice

“But I am Justice!”

“I think you misunderstood. I came to this town looking for justice. A rich man in my village robbed me, and I came here for justice.” The woman looked bewildered. Justice—for that was indeed his name—just looked stubborn.

“I’m Justice. People hear you wantin’ Justice, they call me. I’m Justice. What you want I do?”

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

“I want Justice!” she yelled. Then before Justice could frame his reply (he had been about to say “I am Justice” again) she got back on her donkey and started to ride toward home. She was nearly out of money. She couldn’t go any further. What’s more she was so disgusted with this joke that the townspeople had played on her, doubtless taking her for a rustic stranger, that she didn’t want to go further.

Justice wasn’t used to being left behind. Ever since he had started to grow into the muscular young man he was, he had been called to help with various problems. His mind wasn’t quick, though he wasn’t as stupid as he sometimes looked and acted. People joked about him. As the strongest man in town he was often in demand. “You want justice?” people would ask. “Just call him!”

So when this very troubled woman headed off down the road into the hills, Justice decided that he couldn’t leave things as they were. When people called him he was always able to help. It was like a law of nature in his mind. It never occurred to him that the reason he could always help was that people always called him to do things that required strength, like moving their furniture.

Nobody even noticed when Justice grabbed a bag, filled it with clothes, a few tools, and a little bit of food, and headed off down the road. They assumed he would be back sooner or later. He was a fact of life.

Five days later, Justice showed up in the tiny village of Marani. He settled himself in at the local inn and ordered ale. It was hard to miss Justice. In a room full of people he stood out. People were afraid of him. Not that he looked angry or made any threatening moves. It was just that he looked like he might carry off some of the furniture without noticing he’d done it, sort of like other people might pick up a coin.

It wasn’t long until someone asked him who he was and what he was doing there. “I’m Justice,” he said, “I here to help da lady.”

“What lady?” they asked. But Justice just kept his silence. The people thought he was being enigmatic, but the problem was that he didn’t know the lady’s name, nor did he know who it was who had robbed her.

By the next day the lady heard that Justice was in town. She didn’t go to see for herself. She didn’t want the Lord Mayor, as he styled himself, to realize she had asked for someone to come to town. Especially since she hadn’t.

By evening, however, the Lord Mayor got word that Justice had arrived in town. Justice, said his agents, was very large and muscular, and could doubtless carry away the inn on his shoulders should he choose to do so.

“Perhaps his presence here is just a coincidence,” said the steward.

“But he says he’s here to help the lady,” said one of the agents.

“It could be some other lady,” said the steward.

The Lord Mayor just looked at the steward, but his eyes said, “You idiot!” That was what he was thinking, because there really wasn’t any other lady that Justice could be here to help.

“If he wasn’t named Justice,” said another agent, “it might look different.”

“Yes, but he is,” said the Lord Mayor.

The next afternoon the Lord Mayor stopped in to see Justice. Justice seemed uninterested in the problems of ladies at the time, and just wondered if the Lord Mayor needed anything moved. The Lord Mayor concluded that Justice was very enigmatic, and was playing with him. The fact was that Justice was smart enough to realize he would need money if he was going to stay in the inn, and had already made quite a bit by moving large things for various people.

Next the Lord Mayor went to the lady and asked her, quite belligerently, whether she had asked Justice to come to town. She told him the truth, that the people in the town had sent her Justice when she asked for justice, and now that the young man had followed her here. The Lord Mayor laughed and laughed.

But when he got home he heard about Manny the pickpocket, and how Justice had broken his arm when he found it in someone else’s pocket. People were starting to say that justice had been done. By Justice.

Justice had no such plan. He just didn’t like to see people robbed or hurt. He hadn’t actually intended to break the man’s arm, but Manny had struggled so hard while failing to let go of the stolen purse, and Justice being as strong as he was, he accidentally broke Manny’s arm.

Perhaps there was more to this than he supposed, thought the Lord Mayor. So he told one of his agents to kill Justice. Maybe he was just a strong young man, but maybe not. Might as well be safe.

The agent spent all that evening looking for a chance to slip a knife into Justice, but he never really got a chance. Every time he got close enough he was somehow blocked. He was perfectly willing to do the deed in public. The Lord Mayor (as he styled himself, of course) would protect him. But he could never quite get into position. Justice was always turning to face him at just the wrong moment.

Now the Lord Mayor was really concerned. Could it be that this was an expert agent of the Baron, or perhaps even the Duke or the King? He needed to think of some way to do something about it, but what could he do? If the King, heaven forbid, was aware of his activities way out here in the wilderness, what else might he know?

He tried twice more to have Justice stabbed in the back. The second guy actually managed to swing his knife at Justice’s back, and cut him, but he just threw the attacker against the wall (a couple of broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder), and went about his business.

By this time the Lord Mayor was so worked up, he was convinced that an agent of the King was playing with him, and that it was only a matter of time until he was arrested, taken to the capital (so far away he wasn’t sure where it was), and doubtless beheaded.

After another quite day or two (ominously quiet, thought the Lord Mayor), he decided that his only option was to flee the town before he was taken. So he loaded most of his riches on a mule, and got on his best horse, and headed out of town early in the morning. What he didn’t realize was that Justice also went out for walks in the hills early in the morning. So as the Lord Mayor left town, there was Justice standing at the edge of the road, looking out over a valley.

Justice was just enjoying the view, but the Lord Mayor was certain that Justice was there waiting for him. He had one chance, he thought, and that was to push Justice over the endge of the cliff. The drop off wasn’t very high, but it would be high enough. He spurred his horse forward, intending to turn just as he hit Justice, and thus be rid of his problem.

But hearing a horse behind him, Justice stepped aside. The horse managed to stop right at the edge, but the Lord Mayor flew out into the air and with a scream fell to his death below.

Justice verified that the Lord Mayor was dead, then took his body, his horse, and the mule containing most of his riches back into town. The townspeople gathered around, and called the lady. She took the horse and the mule, and its load, and claimed the Lord Mayor’s house. It had all been stolen from her in the first place.

She made sure to reward Justice as well. “When they sent you to me, I thought they were playing a joke. But now I see they were right. You are justice.”

Yes, I am Justice,” said Justice. But he looked puzzled. He still had no idea what the lady wanted him to do.

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