One day in a time and place not far from here, a man named Oben went to market to buy bread for his family. He left his wife and nearly grown son behind and walked the few miles between his tiny farm and the nearby village, Burada. It was a clear, crisp, early fall day, and the man took note of the bright sunshine, the cool breeze, the delightful chirping of the birds and the leaves just starting to turn from their summer green to yellow and gold. The man smiled as he walked.
Reaching the outskirts of the village, he heard a commotion, voices sounding harsh and shrill. As he entered the village square, he saw a crowd standing near the well, surrounding a man who stood on the rim of the fountain, talking loudly and angrily, waving his arms and brandishing his fists as he spoke. Oben could still not make out the words, but it was obvious the man was agitating the crowd, for they growled and yelled as the man would finish a sentence and raise his fist. Some of the crowd raised their fists as well and growled even more loudly and angrily than others. Oben could tell that the people in the crowd were not angry with the man. They were angry because of him.
Oben reached the edge of the crowd and nudged his friend Acima. “What’s all this?” he asked, pointing at the angry man.
“He says we’re being cheated,” Acima answered.
“Cheated? Who’s being cheated?”
“All of us!”
“Cheated out of what?”
Oben eyed his friend and grinned. “Even you don’t start drinking this early in the day, brother.”
“I’m not drunk. This guy is talking sense! We’re all getting cheated out of everything!”
“Who’s cheating us out of everything?”
Acima waved toward the west. “Them!”
Oben glanced where Acima pointed. “Those people over there? By the bakery? They look angry too, like they are also being cheated.”
Acima frowned at Oben. “No, not them!” Again, he pointed westward, “Them! The Tamans!”
Oben glanced again toward the west, this time over the heads of the crowd, over the rooftops around the square. Two miles west stood the village of Tam. Oben had visited there a few times in his life, but it did not strike him as a particularly special village. In fact, it was very much like Burada, and Burada and Tam were very much like all the other villages in the land. People farmed, or baked, or made furniture, or plied whatever craft they could to make a living for themselves and their families. They worked and played and danced and sang and occasionally fought, but the life of a person from Burada or Tam, or even as far away as Luntanu, was not much different from anyone else’s life.
As Oben had these thoughts, he vaguely heard the angry man yelling about Tam and the people there, saying the most awful things about them. The man said Tamans were barely human, that they were parasites and predators. Oben couldn’t understand how people could be anything other than people, let alone be two contradictory things at once.
“That guy’s crazy,” Oben said to his friend. “I know people from Tam. They’re not like that.”
“You might think you know them, but you don’t, not really!” Acima’s eyes flashed with anger and he grimaced as he spoke, his eyes still on the angry man yelling from the fountain. “I thought they were good people, too, but it turns out they are all liars and cheats and thieves!”
As Oban was about to chide his friend for his angry words, the crowd yelled out, as one voice, “Yes!” Oban gasped, startled by the sudden and furious sound, and began listening again to the angry man.
“Are you mad?” the speaker yelled.
“Yes!” came the response, a cannon shot echoing from the walls of the square.
“Are you mad at the Tamans?”
“Are you sick and tired of being cheated, robbed, and mocked by the Tamans?”
“Mocked?”, thought Oben, “who cares about being mocked?”
“Yes!” growled the crowd.
“Are you ready to do something about it?”
The response did not sound to Oben like human voices. He was reminded of thunder, signal of a coming storm. He noticed that his friend was adding the anger in his heart to the ominous roar.
“Then let us join together to defeat those animals, those disgusting, thieving Tamans!”
Again, an explosion of outrage echoed through the square.
“Everyone,” shouted the angry man, “go get a weapon! Whatever you can find, even just a stick! And tie a green cloth to your arm and come back here! We will fight as one under the green banner of Burada and wipe out the pestilence that is Tam!”
With another thunderous shout, the crowd ran off. Acima turned to go, his eyes burning, and Oben caught him by the arm.
“What are you doing, Acima? This is madness! The Tamans have done nothing! This man is crazy!”
“You don’t know!” Acima screamed in his friend’s face, “you weren’t there!”
“Last night, when the Tamans crept into the village, and stole everything!”
“That man saw it all and told us about it today! He’s a hero! He’s going to save Burada!”
And with those words, his face alight with a frightening grin, Oben’s friend ran off in search of a weapon.
Oben ran in the other direction, towards Tam.
When he reached the outskirts of Tam, Oben heard the same ominous roar he’d heard in Burada. A crowd, angry as a nest of hornets, screamed in unison over and over, “Yes!”
And just as in Burada, in the village square, a man stood above the crowd at the fountain, screaming angry words and raising his fist in the air.
“Are you mad?” the speaker yelled.
“Yes!” came the response, a thunderclap echoing from the walls of the square.
“Are you mad at the Buradans?”
“Are you sick and tired of being cheated, robbed, and mocked by the Buradans?”
Oben stopped before he reached the throng and listened to the same words from this man as were said by the one in Burada. He watched as the same mad drama unfolded before him. The man whipped the crowd to a frenzy, screamed at them to gather weapons, ordered them to tie yellow cloth to their arms.
And then, “We will fight as one under the yellow banner of Tam and wipe out the pestilence that is Burada!”
The crowd howled as they ran off to gather sticks and bricks and knives and whatever they could find that could bludgeon or cut or stab. Oben stood frozen as some of the Tamans returned to the square, yellow bands around their arms, clubs and cleavers and stones in their hands. Thinking he could forestall the battle, he ran back toward Burada, his chest aflame with fear, hoping he could convince the people to turn away from certain disaster.
When Oben reached the crossroads between Burada and Tam, the crowd from Burada approached, each with a green cloth on their arm, growling like rabid dogs and waving their weapons in the air. He stopped before them and raised his arms.
“Please! Please stop!” he yelled, “This is all a terrible mistake! This is all wrong! Go home! The people from Tam are coming to fight, just as you have! “
The crowd stopped and listed to Oben, but when he said the Tamans were coming, they cheered.
“Good!” shouted one man, “let them come! We’ll kill every last one, right here at the crossroads!”
“Yes!” shrieked the people.
Those murderous Tamans!” yelled another, “They’d kills us all in our beds, given the chance! Every one of us, down to babies in their cribs!”
“They surely would!” came the answer from a dozen grimacing faces.
“No!” screamed Oben, “they have been told the same lies about you! They think you are the villains! They’ll surely fight to the death unless we stop it!”
“Then to the death it is!” yelled a large, muscular man with a long knife in one hand, club in the other.
“To the death!” echoed the people.
As this challenge faded into the air, the Buradans all quieted and stared as the crowd from Tam approached, each with a yellow cloth on his arm, growling like rabid dogs and waving their weapons in the air. Oben ran to the space between the two armies and waved his arms again.
“Please! Please stop!” he yelled, “This is all a terrible mistake! This is all wrong! Go home! The people from Burada have come to fight, just as you have! “
The crowd stopped and listed to Oben, but when they saw the Buradans behind him, they let out a throaty cheer.
“So, there they are!” shouted one man, “those disgusting snakes from Burada! We’ll kill every last one, right here at the crossroads!”
“Yes!” shrieked the Tamans.
“Those murderous Buradans!” yelled another, “They’d kills us all in our beds, given the chance! Every one of us, down to babies in their cribs!”
“They surely would!” came the answer from the yellow-bedecked mob.
“There they are!” shouted the muscular Buradan. “those ugly pigs from Tam!”
“Kill them!” shrieked the green horde.
As trumpets are used in war to signal the attack, a scream burst from every throat, green and yellow partisans all, and the two armies ran to battle in the middle ground between them.
Oban ran out of the way, then watched as the people swarmed together, swinging sticks and fists, kicking, grappling, punching, and slashing. Some fell, from either side, and were overcome by groups of two and three, their faces smashed under boots, their bellies ripped open by blades, their blood spilling and mixing with the crossroads soil, forming a dark red paste.
Shocked into stillness as he watched, Oben did not see a Taman running toward him, club raised, murder in his eyes. In the instant he saw the attacker, Acima fell on the Taman, wrestled him to the ground, and slit his throat.
Breathless from battle, Acima rose and smiled at Oben. “You see?” he said, panting, “these Tamans are scum! Snakes only for killing, before they kill us!”
Oben tried to speak to his friend, but no words made way through his lips. He only shook his head.
“Come on!” Acima yelled, turning back toward the mayhem. “Come fight for Burada! Victory is ours!”
Oben watched as his friend disappeared into the struggling swarm. Then he ran for home.
Passing through Burada, Oben saw men, strangers, running through the village carrying great, heavy-looking sacks. Some pushed carts laden with goods — furniture, bread, sacks of grain — anything and everything the people of Burada had in their stores was being carried off. The men with sacks emptied them onto the carts, then ran into homes and shops to fill their sacks again and again.
Oben stopped in the village square, by the fountain, and watched.
Behind Oben, a man’s voice, quiet and confident, said “Like what you see?”
It was the angry man from the fountain. He was no longer angry. He was smiling.
“Who are you?” Oben asked the man. “Who are they? What’s going on here?”
“My name is Sios. They are my men. We are making ourselves rich.”
“You lied to the Buradans. You told them the Tamans were cheating them, stealing from them. But it was you!”
“Yes, yes, and yes” Sios answered.
“And now, they and the Tamans are at the crossroads, killing each other!”
“Again yes.” Sios smiled as he spoke.
“And the man at the fountain in Tam?”
“So, this,” Oben said, sweeping his arm at the men raiding the town, “this is happening in Tam right now, isn’t it?”
“You are quick to catch on,” Sios said, grinning brighter. “I like smart men. they can be useful to me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I asked you, do you like what you see?”
“Do I like what I see?” Oben glanced around at the men, still carrying sacks of goods to the wagons. “Do I like seeing my friends and neighbors lied too, fooled, fighting, and killing each other while their homes and shops are emptied by thieves?”
“My question was not rhetorical,” Sios said, losing some of his smile. “Some might think it a brilliant plan, executed well, resulting in the enrichment of those who pulled it off. Some might appreciate the beauty of it.”
“The… the beauty?”
“Think on it. A brute will hit you over the head and take your purse. A fool will try some elaborate scheme to embezzle from you. Both can be revealed, caught, punished. But to steal from people and blame others?” Sios smiled wide and tapped his temple with his finger. “That takes cunning, and skill, and it leaves your victim believing their neighbor, or the people in the next town, the next county, the next kingdom, are the culprits. They will fight each other while they are robbed blind. One can manage things so the fools can be plucked like ripe fruit again and again, and never suspect the truth.”
“That…” Oben said, his eyes burning, “that is…”
“That,” Sios said, holding up a hand, “is the way of the world. There are men like me, who understand this, and men like the dupes killing each other at the crossroads, who do not. Which sort of man are you?”
Oben clenched his teeth, his hands formed into fists at his sides, as he answered, “I am neither. I am the one who will expose you for what you are! I will tell the Buradans and the Tamans what evil you have done today, and they will band together and tear you apart, you and all your men!”
“Ah, yes,” Sios said, his smile fading, “there is a third kind of man, and you are one of them. You are a special kind of fool, thinking people care about the truth.”
“Everyone cares about truth!”
“Pity,” Sios said, ignoring Oben’s anger. “I could have used a smart, capable man like you. You’re not simple, like the others. But you have this blind spot that makes you useless to me. Ah well, in any case, I don’t need to fear you. You could be a rival, but your flaw keeps you from that. You’re not one of them, and you’re not one of us. But luckily for me, you can’t do me any harm.”
“I’ll do you harm! I’ll go now and tell them what you and your men are doing. The Tamans will go back to Tam, and the Buradans will come back here, and they will take back all their possessions, and you’ll be lucky if they don’t kill you all!”
Sios sighed and shrugged. “Go, if you must. But mark my words, you think you’re on everyone’s side, the Buradans and the Tamans both. But you are on nobody’s side. You are alone.”
Oben cursed the man under his breath as he ran toward the crossroads. Men kept loading the wagons with Buradan goods and as Oben left the square he heard laughter.
At the crossroads, the men of Burada and Tam still fought. Some lay dead or dying, and the ones still fighting were weary and breathless, barely able to swing their fists or their clubs. When Oben appeared, yelling for them to stop, they were glad to do as he ordered. Some kneeled or sat in the bloody mud. Others leaned on their clubs and panted, their faces pained.
“You’ve been fooled!” Oben yelled. “The man at the well in Burada told me! He and the man in Tam are partners, conspirators! They told lies about the Buradans to the Tamans, and about the Tamans to the Buradans! They set you up for this fight, and now they are looting both your villages while you fight and kill each other!”
“It’s no lie about the Tamans!” a Buradan man answered. “They’re animals! One just killed my brother, right before my eyes! Slit his throat! I smashed his brains out, and I’ll do the same to every dirty Taman I see!”
“You prove your own evil, Buradan scum!” yelled a man from Tam. “First you steal from us in the night, and now you kill our men! Next, you’ll rape our women! But we’ll kill every last one of you first!”
“No, no! Please listen,” Oben begged. “It’s all a pack of lies! A great ruse! You’ve been led to believe the other villagers are the enemy, but they’re not! The men who told these lies, they are your enemies, not each other!”
Oben walked among the fighters as he spoke, imploring each bloody, mud-caked face, touching each man’s shoulder. “The men who came to us out of nowhere, they are loyal to neither Tam nor Burada, and not to any of you! The lies they told made you angry at the others, but it is the liars who deserve your anger and your wrath! You’ve been fooled! Terribly fooled!”
“You calling us fools?” a man asked, pushing Oben by his shoulder.
“No, I mean…” Oben stammered.
Another man pushed Oben from behind, hard enough to make him stumble. “You’re the fool,” the man said, “thinking the Buradans are good people, they’re treacherous bastards, and nobody can tell me different!”
“It’s not the Buradans,” Oben pleaded, “or the Tamans! All of you are good men! You’ve just been duped, you’ve been used!”
A man cuffed Oben’s jaw, making him fall to his knees. The man stood over Oben and growled, “You must be on the side of the Tamans, talking like that! I’ve seen what they do, and they don’t deserve to live! But now you’re here telling us we’re stupid? That we can’t tell an evil man when we see them with our own eyes as they beat and kill our friends and brothers?”
“Please,” Oben begged, holding his bruised face, “please! you must listen to me, it’s all a terrible mistake!”
“You’ve made the mistake, you halfwit!” shouted another man as he approached Oben. “No one calls me a dupe and a fool and gets away with it!”
With those words, the man lifted a heavy club and smashed it down on Oben’s head. Oben fell into the mud. The other men nearby let out a chilling shout and set upon Oben with sticks and stones and knives. In moments, Oben’s body was still, his clothes tattered and bloody, his head crushed.
The break in the fighting gave the men rest, and the attack on Oben rekindled their blood-lust, so they turned on each other again, fighting with renewed vigor, their grunts and shouts and screams of pain the only sound in the bright afternoon sun at the crossroads.
Watching from a distance, Sios shook his head and sighed. “Pity,” he said to the treetops, then turned and started back for Burada, where his men were nearly finished loading the carts.
The next day, word reached Oben’s wife and son of his death. A messenger from the Buradan village elders presented them with a letter. It reported that Oben had fought on the side of Burada and was killed by Tamans defending his neighbors and friends. The elders had declared war on Tam, and the elders of Tam had returned the gesture. A call had gone out far and wide for anyone of sound body to come join the Buradan army.
One day in a time and place not far from here, a boy named Avall, son of Oben, went to join the fight against the people of Tam. He left his mother behind and walked the few miles between his father’s tiny farm and the nearby village, Burada. It was a clear, crisp, early fall day, but the boy did not notice the bright sunshine, the cool breeze, the delightful chirping of the birds and the leaves just starting to turn from their summer green to yellow and gold. The boy grimaced as he walked.
In his hands, he carried an axe.
© Craig Allen Heath 2020