In the Halls of Power

By Greg Guerin


In a time many millennia after the first bloom of humankind had burst forth from bud, a man named Halgard stood examining the wilting forbs and browning tufts of grass that dotted the cracked and parched soil of his drought-stricken land. His only herd animal, mainly goat but with partial ancestry of cow and dear, was suffering and its milk had dried up. The stores were getting low and the time left for the main winter crop to be sown and to mature before the frosts came grew short. Halgard lived with his aged father, his good wife and two sons in the farm house, but they had left it to him to solve their current situation. It was as if they expected him to be able to command the very heavens.

While he lacked the powers of a deity, he did have a solution in mind, though he had delayed in shame putting it to practice. Feeling the gritty soil that had found its way between his feet and the leather of his sandals, he walked across his small plot towards the fence that bounded it. His neighbours had received no more rain than he, yet their land was so expansive that it contained depressed meadows that remained fertile and green all year round as well as drier highlands. They were insurance against drought.

Halgard spotted the crook-backed frame of Jacob, the owner of this vast farm, halfway across the paddock and whistled to him. The old man raised his head and took a moment to discover from where the noise had originated. Then he hobbled across the uneven ground, a stick lending him support on his weak side. Once at the fence he glared at Halgard with an intense look.

" Greetings, Jacob," Halgard said loud enough for the man to hear him well. " I have come to ask of you a small favour."

The man stared at him as though stunned, then motioned for him to continue.

" As you know we are suffering at the hands of this terrible drought. The time is passing for seeds to be sown. Soon it will be too late. I ask that you lend us an acre of your land that we might reap enough to feed ourselves and appease the tax man."

Jacob looked amused under his stiffly wrinkled face that appeared incapable of free expression. " Do you joke, neighbour?" he asked. " A man's land is a man's land."

" I would not joke about such a thing. While we have little land and no savings, your lands are vast and rich. Your flocks graze but a fraction of the grass that remains green on the flats, the rest is left to the wilds. You have great machines that work the land without your labour and free of cost. It would do your family no harm to allow us this small pity."

Jacob stood for a moment in thought, then announced, " The decision is not mine. It falls rightly to my son, Rastteed, who runs the farm, for he shall one day inherit all my lands. I will soon be fed to the crops myself and cannot make such a decision."

Halgard knew that this was not entirely true. He knew that Jacob's entire family had been bred with the genes of long lived animal species and that Jacob's father before him had lived to twice the age that Jacob now was. However, he accepted Jacob's judgment.

" We have no fear of charity," Jacob continued, " but there are rules to be followed. Bring me a crate of your produce in good faith and I will pass the matter on to Rastteed."

Halgard left the old man and went to his garden to fetch what he had asked for. He filled a broken wooden box with the last of the carrots, then went to the shed to unload a jar of preserved olives. Lastly he went to the coop and slaughtered the best of his roosters for the table of his neighbors. When his wife saw what he was doing she scolded him harshly and asked him what he thought he was doing slaughtering their best fowl, one that had been hand fed on the best of their grain. He grunted and explained that it was an offering to the Gods. She had shaken her head and gone back to her chores as he left to deposit the goods at his neighbors' doorstep.

The drought continued for several weeks with no sign of significant cloud, let alone precipitation. The land seemed shrunken in glory. Even the parrots had given up stealing his meagre crop of nuts and olives in favour of better lands elsewhere. There was an unnatural quiet about the place. One day Halgard was walking the rocky hills at the back of his land when he saw the solid and tall frame of Jacob's son Rastteed in the sky. With their riches they had acquired a small flier that he used sometimes to examine the land from above. He landed in the small chair not far from the fence and so Halgard ran across to speak with him.

This time Halgard crossed the fence and arrived before the younger man in a state of exhaustion. The man looked up at him, appearing disconcerted to see Halgard on his property but saying nothing other than, "Halgard, taken up exercise late in life?"

Halgard ignored the jest; Rastteed, he knew, was full of them. " Did your father mention my request to you?"

" Request?" He paused in thought. " What was that then?"

" My family has little food stored and our land is dry. I only requested that you lend me an acre of your lowland for our crop, as a matter of pity."

" Pity?" bellowed Rastteed joyfully. " They never taught us such words at business school. How on Earth did you come to such an idea?"

" You have so much land, most of it idle while your white flocks roam the far corners. It would cost you nothing."

Rastteed grew suddenly serious, his lips pouting between the coarse tufts of his beards and moustache. "I shall have to decline to answer you in this. My father is too old for such disturbances, but my son, Moseph, is bright of mind. I shall defer the matter to him for he will some day inherit this place in all its glory and will soon be running the farm and all its affairs for I am getting old and my joints are weak."

Halgard knew this to be at least in part a lie. Rastteed seemed a fit and strong character, but even so, he did little by way of manual work on the place, what with his machines and money to hire labour when it was needed. He also knew that Rastteed had undergone the changes of the city people when he had gone away to school as a lad- his joints were most likely made of indestructible synthetic prosthetics. Still, he accepted the man's decision.

" Bring us whatever you have in gift as a small token of your good faith and I will pass the matter on to my son. Good day."

Halgard returned home, feeling hopeful that this time he would get what he had asked for. He greeted his wife and asked his two teenage sons to leave the wood they were chopping and fetch him a basket of their best fresh produce. When the younger of the pair protested, he dealt him a slap around the ears and sent them off to do as he had asked. His wife looked at him disapprovingly so he hugged her and told her not to worry.

" Why not?" she teased him. " Are the Gods on our side?"

When his sons returned with a basket of olives, pumpkin and berries, he ordered them to go to the coop and fetch him the best two of their hens to be prepared for the table. This time they did as he asked without complaint, and he took a moment to wander the garden that survived on the last of their tank water and enjoy the blustery autumn breeze that carried with it the last warmth of the summer from the interior.

Weeks passed by as fleetingly as the shadows of the Golden Starlings that flitted between woods in their search for fruit to raid and the winds turned colder, yet still carried not a drop of water. Halgard felt despair growing and his mood became foul and isolated. The others continued on in their chores without complaint but he knew they were beginning to avoid him and his brooding.

Finally, he decided that the wait had been well long enough. He would put aside his politeness and go straight next door to gain his answer. Without warning his wife, he trudged across the now almost bare earth of his land one early morning, before the cocks had ceased their crying. All farmers are worm-takers and he knew even his neighbors would be up at this time.

He strode dutifully down the gravel-lain driveway towards the stone homestead. Yet once he was near the house his usual fear of upsetting his neighbors leapt to the surface and he momentarily considering turning back. But again he thought about his family and knew he had no choice. He reached the door and knocked loudly.

The door was quickly answered by Jacob's grandson, Moseph, a young angular bodied lad with short-cut ashen hair. The few hairs that had begun to sprout on his lean face had been left to grow and curl. He opened the door only enough to see out of it. Recognising Halgard he said, " What is it that you want at this time of the morning? I have many jobs of far greater importance waiting my hand this day."

Halgard ignored this rude manner as he had come to expect it from previous dealings. " Moseph," he said, " I have come for your answer."

" Answer?" spat the boy. " Please, I of all people have no time or inclination for solving riddles. Answer to what?"

This made Halgard angry, for he knew then that Moseph's family cared not that there was a drought inflicting hardship upon the lesser-off in the district. He raised his voice. " Moseph, I have asked both your father and your grandfather, yet neither have been kind enough to answer. I have shown my good faith and been patient, but I can wait no longer. I want your decision on my request to lend a mere acre of your fine land, of which you have much, on which to grow our crops for our land is dry whilst your lowland meadows are as fertile and green as ever. If not, I fear my family will go hungry before long."

" I assume you mean lease rather than lend?"

Halgard shook his head and held out his empty hands. " No, I cannot lease an acre of your land because we have no savings with which to pay for it. Have you no pity?"

The boys' features looked harsh in the shadow of the doorway. " Neighbour," he said, " since you asked my grandfather for this gift, you have provided our family with food for two feasts. Your produce is succulent and healthy, the olives plump, your fowls strong. If that was what you are able to give away freely then what you have for yourself must be plentiful and doubly ripe. It seems clear to me that you are in no need of pity or charity and that you are simply trying to swindle us. Now clear out of here quickly before I really get angry."

Burning hot in the face, Halgard did as the boy had demanded and left the property immediately. He knew that there would be no further value in debate. There was little morality or sense to be found in those that insisted upon a policy of delivering the worst of their produce as gifts.

Once home he gathered his family and told them what had occurred. Then he told them that he intended to make to journey to the great capital city of Inhal-med. There, surely, he would be admitted to court to hear his case and find just men of power who would decree that he was entitled to use some of Jacob's land as it was only fair. His old father had no reaction to this news and to Halgard it seemed that he hadn't even heard it. His wife cried and hugged him tightly whilst his boys murmured phrases of well wishing.

For Halgard there had been enough waiting and so he went immediately and packed the single bag that he would take with him.


It is said in the villages of the great land of Inhal-lama that a person who lives with hope is one that looks to the future and not the past. And so it was with Halgard as he walked the first leg of his trek, looking ever forward and never back to where it was that he had come from. But he did this only because he felt that if he were to look back to the familiarity of home he would be overwhelmed by the urge to return and be with his family. He knew he had a bigger task to complete for their benefit that he could not shy away from.

The countryside was hilly but Halgard's incessant wandering of his own hills had lent him wiry legs and a healthy stamina. The mid-morning Sun was pleasantly warm on his back. He let his worries slip a notch and whistled an old song happily if somewhat out of tune. The land was nearly everywhere the straw-brown of dried grass. Those that could afford it had bought loads of fodder for their herds, those that couldn't had either sold their skinny meat for nothing or had left them to fend for themselves as best they could.

Halgard passed a large herd of a giant cattle breed. It was a type he hadn't seen in some years in these parts. Only the largest of farms could accommodate them for they stood twice the height of a man's shoulder and as long at least as two cows. They were one of the breeds that had resulted from creating hybrid genomes in the laboratory from a number of species. This one appeared to have the outline of rhino with the black and white colouration of dairy cattle.

Halgard marched all that day without pause and in the evening twilight as the subtle pink of the setting Sun was fading altogether from the sky, he reaching the tiny settlement of Braith, a village of few numbers and little to stay for. He reached the corner building on the dusty street where the hotel and general store stood blaring out just about the only source of artificial light. He stepped into the thick atmosphere of smoke, ale and a dozen competing conversations. The ban on long distance travel in personal vehicles for all but the highest in society, placed by the government of Inhal-lama in order to control the movement of people and the infiltration of enemies, meant that such small places had many customers moving through on journeys to all manner of places.

Halgard allowed a moment for his eyes to adjust to the harsh light then approached the counter.

" In search of a bed, friend?" the tubby, bald-headed man asked from behind the counter.

" The Earth herself may be my mattress tonight," Halgard replied, using the traditional phrase, " but I seek employment. I am on my way to Inhal-med but have no currency to offer any but my labour. Do you have any chores need doing?"

" The capital, you say? Quite a distance that. Mmmm. You are in luck my fellow. It just so happens that I have a delivery for my brother in the village of Echdad, which is closer at least to Inhal-med then here, and I haven't yet had opportunity to deliver it myself. Deliver it for me and in return I shall give you a softer place to sleep tonight and when you leave as the darkness of night leaves us I will add some weight to your pocket. How does that sound?"

Halgard thanked the man then asked to be shown straight to his room for he was exhausted. The next morning, the hotel owner woke Halgard well before sunrise and after providing a generous cooked breakfast, took him outside. He showed him the items he was to deliver to the man's brother. A sack full of fine baked buns and cakes, a flask of home-brewed wine and a hand pulled cart filled with earth bricks. He also took something shiny out of his coat pocket and held it back from Halgard as though it was something too precious to just hand over.

" Now," he intoned quite seriously, " this here is a delicate instrument, not to be played with, but it is the most important item you are to carry. When activated, this device will carry the holder instantly to another place. It has but one charge left on it and it is for my brother to return here should our mother, who is very sick, die."

Halgard knew that such a device, which he had never himself seen before, was as illegal as a mota-bike or other automobile, but he didn't think it would hurt and was keen to complete the job.

The man continued soberly, " Now, take this safely to my brother in Echdad, you will know him for he looks just like me only older and fatter. Do not open the wine for it will spoil its unique flavour, do not molest those cakes, for they have been counted especially and make sure every brick reaches him for he needs every last one to repair his wall. Go now and you will make good time."

He handed Halgard a substantial mound of money and went back inside. Halgard found the cart heavy with the bricks but managed to get started and move along at a reasonable pace, although his back began to ache almost immediately.

He walked so all that day and the next, surviving on sips of water and air alone for although his employer had fed him breakfast, he had allowed him no extra provisions for the trip at all. Halgard felt he had no right to complain. The man had given him no less than he had promised and he in his inexperience had failed to bargain his wage or conditions.

But on the third day on the narrow road, he reached a point of exhaustion. Hard times he had been through before but never had he gone hungry like this. His limbs felt sapped of their strength and his mind was difficult to focus. He parked himself and his load under the meagre shade of a small but ancient tree that grew twisted and dwarfed by the side of the rocky road. After resting for some time he realised that he could not go on without food. He decided, or rather, his stomach decided for him, that he would eat some of the cakes and compensate the brother out of his pay when he arrived. That seemed like a fair compromise. Yet when he took the first bite he found the taste of the cake so delicious that he found himself scoffing them down quickly, unable to satiate himself at all. He made short work of the food and soon emptied the entire bag. Cursing himself even as he finished off the last mouthful for his idiocy, he rose and readied himself to continue.

The food he had eaten kept him going well and he made good time for the rest of that day and the first half of the next. However, he came over a crest and found the down side of the road smooth and steep. Suddenly the cart was slipping away from his hands as it picked up speed. Before he knew it he was chasing the wretched thing from several paces behind. At some point the cart turned and tipped over, losing its load and stopping dead. Halgard was relieved until he began picking up the mess and saw that one of the wheels had been bent completely out of shape in the incident. Upon testing, he discovered that it was next to useless; even without the load and he had no tools with which to repair the thing.

Defeated, he slumped down next to the broken cart and waited, hoping someone would come along to help him. Yet he had seen almost no one since leaving the hotel and no one now came by. Apparently the village where the man's brother resided was small and unpopular with travellers. Perhaps it was a dead-end and useless for Halgard to get to Inhal-med. Had he been fooled?

At some length, he noticed that his shadow had moved considerably and that it was getting late. He had eaten the precious cakes and now ruined the cart and so had no way of delivering the earth bricks. What was he to do? He was ruined. On impulse he reached into the pouch and retrieved the flask of wine and pulled the cork with a pop, taking a deep swig of it with grim satisfaction. The wine was not anywhere near as good as the man's boast had claimed; in fact it was a considerably poorer effort than what Halgard had himself achieved with various fruits from home. That thought sent his thought racing to his family and he feared for their safety and well being. He longed to be back at the farm tending the garden and wandering the hills. If only it had rained!

In a matter of a few short minutes, the flask was dry to the last drop, and Halgard was numbed by its soothing effect. If weak of flavour, the drink had been strong of spirit and he was unused to it. Feeling like an old fool lying around drunk in the middle of nowhere, he retrieved the most important item he had been given to deliver; the small transportation device.

He rolled it over between his fingers and examined it in the evening light. It seemed free of structure apart from a small clasp on one side. This he moved with a nonchalant flick of a finger and it fell away, allowing the device to open. Suddenly it came to life, a soft glow emanating from it. It was a curious thing but it was as if the thing had somehow entered his very thoughts. He could feel it physically enter him and search for something in his mind, a most disconcerting sensation for one so out of touch with the technologies of the times as he. How to shut it off? The device would not close when he pushed it back together. Was he wasting its charge? This was all the fault of that stupid hotel owner. What a task he had assigned, impossible by any standards, and worth double what he had been paid. When he returned home he would visit Braith and have a word or two to the man. He pictured himself grabbing the much larger fellow by his shirt and shaking him in front of his customers...

That thought triggered an indescribable action in the device. Halgard felt its energy pulse through him against his will. With a blinding flash of light followed by a brief feeling of blankness, he found himself standing back in the hotel by the bar. It took him a minute to get over his initial astonishment and start to breath again. Was he dreaming? He suspected not when the breath of the hotel owner accosted him from close range and his stubbled features pressed close to his.

" You'd better have a magical explanation for why you just appeared like that sir," he warned through clenched teeth.

Halgard sighed and dropped his shoulders. " I do apologize," Halgard explained, thinking of a suitable excuse " but I was starving so I ate the buns, then the cart broke so I used the device to return and tell you."

" And you scoffed the wine too by the look and the smell of you," retorted the man. " Here's what I'm going to do. I'm a kind man so I'll not harm you. But I'll take back your pay," he paused to rummage rudely through Halgard's pocket and fish out the money, checking it carefully as he continued, "and I'll fine you for the lost goods." Apparently satisfied that the money was all there, he grabbed Halgard's own bag from him and tip the contents onto the floor. By this stage there was a growing crowd of hotel patrons gathering around to enjoy the entertainment.

The bag had contained only an old map, a blanket and a water flask, but the man scooped these up and placed them on the counter. " I'll take this lot, not that its worth much," he announced, then, looking Halgard up and down, " and you can take those sandals off. I reckon they'll just about fit my youngest son."

Halgard was loathe to give up his only footwear, but he cold see that the man he had wronged was serious and that he had the support of a number of rough looking types paying close attention. Reluctantly he untied the straps and slipped them off.

Outside in the near-dark street of Braith, Halgard decided he wasn't going to let this setback, as harsh as it was, prevent him from continuing on to the city, although he had lost precious days. Now was the time for bolder plans. Rather than take to safe but indirect route of the roads that wandered among the villages, he would take the direct route, cross country through the mountain country to the east. He would have to live off the land but he had done this before on expeditions as a youth and he would at least be spared from scoundrels such as the one that had just robbed him of his possessions.

Choosing his direction, Halgard began to walk again, the weariness in his legs his only familiar friend.


In the days and weeks that followed, Halgard became as a wild animal to the forests of the mountain ranges. His bare feet trod the earth now without discomfort and his eyes were keen in their continual search for predators or chances to eat. The autumn nights had become cold as true winter approached and he took to making temporary huts out of vegetable matter every night. He had even managed to get the odd fire going although dry kindling was sparse in the moist gullies. However, he feared to do this as the light and smoke seemed to attract any number of strange beasts in the night whose reflected eyes and bizarre calls were all he ever knew of them. Never in this time did he lose focus of what he was doing and why. His family was never far from his mind as he, he hoped, was never long out of theirs.

He travelled in such a manner until one fine morning he set out into the chilled air and noticed a sharp change in the country. The open lands gave way to a tangle of vines and prickly shrubbery as he mounted a high peak. Resting exhausted at the top, he could not make sense of where he was for his view was almost totally blocked by the unpleasant vegetation. Already he longed for the lightly wooded rolling knolls of his home country.

Passing the crest he began the steep descent down into a valley. As he reached the lower parts he noticed that the undergrowth was thinning out and amongst it giant trees had begun to poke their long necks many a height into the sky, their grey crowns almost lost in the haze. The trees grew larger in stature as he descended, until their boles became so swollen that had he found one that had been hollowed out it would have been large enough to house himself and his entire family. However it was clear that this majestically sheltered valley had not seen the black hand of flame for many centuries.

At the valley floor, Halgard marched peacefully amongst the pleasant smells of the forest floor and the delightful singing of a variety of small perching birds that flitted in and out of the shrubs around him. Everywhere lay the cold presence of large granite boulders, exfoliated and rounded by the aeons of weathering, standing as silent sentinels to his passing. Many had become so worn that they had taken on odd warped shapes, some remaining only as thin shells. There was something bone-chilling about them that Halgard could not quite put his finger on. Soon he found a small foot track and followed it, hoping it would lead him out of the valley and onwards towards the capital of Inhal-med. The path soon joined the chattering channel of a spring fed creek and Halgard amused himself by imagining that the murmurings of the water were the sounds of the forest conveying secret messages in hushed whisperers about the intruder that had arrived among them. His father, before becoming confined in the house in silence and solitude, had taught him that such places of nature as these had their own languages and currencies of communication that were far beyond what the human mind was capable of understanding.

At a small rock-fall in the stream, Halgard stopped short in surprise, for before him not far down the path sat the hunched form of an elderly lady who was sitting on a flat rock, apparently observing the foaming water at the head of the lower pool. Taking a few cautious steps towards the lady he saw that she was dressed in no more than rags and that her skin had not felt the action of water or soap for some time. Then he saw her deeply lined face and knew that her eyes, as white as marble, no longer befriended light. How she survived in this wild place he could not guess. Yet he had no wish to either disturb or be held up by the frail woman for he had lost enough time as it was and he had to make to the capital as soon as possible. He had taken this route in the first place so as to avoid the crowds.

Thankful now for his bare feet he walked as quietly as possible along the path and as he reached the woman the sound of the water dropping in to the pool helped to mask the sound of his footsteps. He gave her a glance as he came level with the rock but she hadn't moved. He continued past her, ignoring as best he could a sudden irritating urge to sneeze.

Several steps later, he was stopped by the weak voice of the woman saying, " You."

For the glimmer of a moment Halgard considered pretending that he had not heard the voice and continuing unmolested down the track. However he was a man of honour and knew that he could not walk away from the blind woman. Sighing, he turned and stood by the woman.

Without turning her head, the lady said, " You will find no exit down that path, this much I tell you for nothing."

" And just who might you be?" he inquired.

" Edwina I was once known as, though none have uttered that name for many a year."

Halgard nodded and introduced himself, telling her that he was headed for Inhal-med to see the court. " How did you hear me, Edwina," he then asked, " you must have heightened senses."

There was a hint of humour in her voice as she replied instantly, " No, I am nearly as deaf as I am blind. But I can smell you."

Astonished, he looked down at himself and wondered how long it had been since he had a bath.

" Inhal-med you say you are headed for," she said. " You'll find no exit down that path," she repeated.

" But I entered this gully at its head back there," he pointed futilely." The path ahead can be the only way out." As he said this he looked above him to the sides of the gully that were visible as intimidating vertical to overhanging crags of quartzite.

" We all must find our own path."

A blind and perhaps insane woman alone in the forest. He would find no sensible help from her and she clearly did not require his charity. He gave a brief word of farewell and continued the way he had been headed. The path was long and unchanging. Sweating profusely in the humid forest air, he paused by a pool in the stream to cup the cool water to his dry lips. The water was clean and soothing.

Later, as the Sun headed for the edges of the Earth and the gully was cast into shadow, Halgard heard the sound of gushing water ahead of him. Still he had seen no sign of an end to the gorge which seemed interminably long. He approached the sound of the waterfall thinking about where he might chose a place to settle down for the night.

He gasped in surprise as he saw Edwina ahead of him perched on the very same rock as before; he had walked in a full circle and returned to his starting point, an impossibility beyond his comprehension. As calmly as he could he came to again stand by the lady. Remembering the water he asked, " Is the stream here poisoned? Have I been drugged?"

At that Edwina twisted around to face him as though wishing to gain a better view. Her mouth was curved in a half-smile. " You are by no means the first to have come to this problem, yet you are the first to have offered so wild an explanation for it."

" But how can it be that I have travelled in a circle when I began at the head of the gorge and have walked without noticing significant curve in the path?"

" I will tell you this. There are forces at work in these parts that cannot be easily explained. But their ways can be understood."

Halgard considered this and decided this could not be altogether the case since he had heard there existed great thinkers in the cities who could solve any question of natural phenomena. To them there were no forces at work that could not be fully explained. Yet he knew that to simple folk like himself and this lady, many things seemed impossible.

Edwina added, " I have stayed here long enough to respect its power."

" Then where is the path I should follow to find the end of this place which you so respect?"

Edwina held out a thin, bony finger in Halgard's general direction. " At no expense to yourself, I will tell you that there are two paths one such as yourself may follow. But neither is as easy as they look."

" My path so far has not been easy either. What are the two ways?"

" The first path is long and dangerous. It will require great strength and fitness and fearlessness."

" Where does this path lie?"

Edwina didn't hesitate to point up to the side of the gorge above them. " This path winds among the outcrops of the cliffs above you," she explained. " In parts it is so steep that you would be forced to climb sheer surfaces. It is a long track that will take days to mount and will leave you perched atop the most difficult mountain which you will spend many days labouring to leave behind."

" I would be better served to return the way I entered and choose another route."

" That way is no longer open to you."

As hard as this was to believe, Halgard remembered that he had seen no sign of the original track joining onto this one as he made the circuit. " And the second way?"

" The second way is extremely short and will take you straight to where you are wanting to go. It does not require scaling the sharp sides of this mighty gorge, but it relies on heavy use of the mind."

" And where will I find the entrance to this path?"

" You'll know the exit when you see it. It will be neither large nor small but quite obvious when you find it. But be warned; the harder you seek this path, the further you will be from it. Remember this and believe in it and you may succeed, but you must always know where you are going."

A little confused by Edwina's mysterious words, Halgard announced, " Then my choice is easy. I have no time to take the steep track out of this gorge, nor the spirit to face danger. I will take the shorter of the two paths you have described."

" Good will goes to you then," Edwina said, somewhat sadly. " Perhaps your attempt will exceed that of others."

Ignoring these cryptic remarks, Halgard made camp and rested for the night. He woke and set off before the Sun's first rays had pierced the sky, navigating in the dim moonlight. Soon his feathered hosts sang that the Sun had returned and he walked quite merrily to their calls. His task seemed more than simple. All he had to do was stroll along until he noticed this obvious path that he would know when he saw it. Edwina's words were strange but they made it clear that his task was simple. Heeding her words, he let his thoughts wander and made sure he didn't look too hard into the forest for his path. Yet the day wore on and still he had not noticed it. Indeed he had gone this way once already without seeing this obvious exit. Had he been tricked? The old lady seemed sincere enough and what she had said on their first encounter had turned out to be true. Was he trying too hard or had he already walked by it whilst day-dreaming?

That night he made camp by the shelter of the gorge wall as the winds stirred up the leaf litter on the forest floor and chilled his skin. Fed up but exhausted, he fell into deep sleep. The next day he was angry enough to seek out Edwina and demand that she tell him the correct way out of the valley. He found her in exactly the same place as before. She replied that she had already informed him of the correct routes out.

" But I have searched around and have found no exit," he told her.

" Then you have not listened to what I told you. The harder you seek it, the further you will be from it."

" What does that mean? There is no short cut out of here at all is there?"

" Have you forgotten that you must believe? This is crucial."

It was not Halgard's normal way to raise his deep voice to elderly women, but her trickery and confusing instructions were frustrating him. " I believe that there is something you are not telling me," he spat.

Edwina gave a drawn-out sigh before answering while Halgard stood fuming. Finally she said softly, so that he had to take a step closer to hear properly, " You are right. There is something which, for your own good, I have sought not to tell you. But since you badger me, you will know, although it will do nothing to help you.

" There have been many others that have tried to find the path you seek, but only a few have managed it. These have been the most honourable and self-controlled of the lot, wise beyond all others. Of those that have failed, some gave in and attempted the longer path, but most simply remained until the curse overtook their mind and they became part of the landscape."

Halgard prodded her for an explanation.

Edwina shrugged morosely. " Each of the great boulders you have seen in this valley is what remains of those who have stayed for too long."

Halgard burst into a spurt of bitter laughter. " Are you telling me they turned to granite? You are truly insane then." His laughter stopped short when he registered the extreme seriousness and clarity of her expression.

" Perhaps you will find this out one day for yourself," she muttered. And with that she crumpled herself into a tight ball and closed her eyes.

Halgard stamped off into the bush and headed for the side of the valley. Prickle-bushes three times his height barred his way but he fought his way through them with determination and rounded the granite boulders that got in his way. Eventually he reached the rocky face of the cliff, bleeding from a profusion of minor cuts and scrapes. He skirted it some way until he came to what he knew had to be the long path Edwina had described. His heart dropped for it rose only a short height as a walkable track before becoming so steep as to seem impossible for someone of his physical ability to climb. Further up the hill he could make out other sections of the track in the bright sunlight. Shaking his head he knew that he could never make it. He had to assume Edwina's short path existed and search for it.

At first he spent several days just wandering around the forest hoping to come across it, then he fell into a forced state of panic where he spent weeks frantically searching every millimetre of ground, even hunting the trees for an answer; none came. He was exhausted. He decided to rest and spend a few days recuperating. He made himself a more permanent shelter from the bark and leaves of trees and collected wood for fires. Then he sharpened a stick and went out to hunt. His hunger and lack of energy failed him at first, but soon he learnt the ways of the land and his hunting days as a youth returned to him skills he had forgotten. Soon he was making do on a diet of roots, berries and occasional animal flesh, roasted directly on top of a wood fire.

The days shortened and the grew unbearably cold as the season changed. Despite the fine weather that continued, the Sun's rays lacked penetration and Halgard took to spending more and more time simply sitting in front of the fire. Never in this time did he find any sign of an exit to the valley. He was lonely and missed his farm and family. This was a delay he could not afford. He began to curse himself for choosing this route through the wilds instead of taking the roads as he had originally planned, but was thankful that he had enough food to nourish him and a warm fire to sit by. At times he took pity on Edwina and thought to invite her to share these small comforts with him. But then he would blame her for his predicament and wish to stay away from her. Most of the time he believed she was some kind of sorceress who had entrapped him here. Whenever he passed that rock she was sitting there. Clearly she had some powers he did not know of if she managed to survive in this way without help.

When enough time had passed for Halgard's beard to grow long, he lifted it and saw that it was turning grey, as presumably was his head. If he had not been such a strong and resolute man, he might have lost a tear at the passing of his youth and the stagnation of his mission to help his family.

Winter reached its peak with painful glory as the clear skies, empty of cloud, allowed the Sun's meagre heat to dissipate altogether at night. The frosts were atrocious. Halgard made a thick cloak out of the better of the animal skins he had taken from his prey and this made it better, but still he felt a chilling bleakness growing within him.

As the nights once again grew shorter, Halgard became angry at his plight and wished to give Edwina the full force of his anger. Eventually, he reached a state where he cared little for retaining his morality, desperate as he was to get out of this mess. He left camp without breakfast which he knew he would soon be unable to stomach and went to the rock were he knew he would find Edwina.

There she sat, facing the water, now reduced to a trickle. Standing near her he bellowed, " I have had enough of this agony. You have tricked me and held me here far too long, and the time has come to end this miserable episode."

Edwina didn't move. " I will tell you that I am sorry it has turned out this way, but it is none of my doing. I have done my best to allow you a hope."

" Rot!" barked Halgard furiously. " It is you, witch, that have enchanted me with a spell so that I cannot find my way out of this horrid place. I have no powers with which to break such a spell, save one, my human strength."

With building fury he strode towards her and grabbed her bony frame, meaning to pick her up and throw her into the pool below the rock. He felt sure that one so frail would not be able to swim and climb the slippery sides. Drowned, her bewitching would be at an end as would his undesevered imprisonment. But he could not budge Edwina from the rock, no matter how much force he applied. Amazed at her strength, he looked to see how she had so resisted him, only to discover the reason by which he had always found her in the same spot. The lower parts of Edwina's body, now revealed as the struggle had moved her clothes, was engulfed inside the very rock she sat. She was slowly becoming part of that rock and was unable to move.

" Now you know," she said simply.

" But how can this happen? Are you alive?"

" I have been here many a year. Slowly I am taken. The very Earth now nourishes me with its spirit. One day I will be nothing but rock. So far it has taken my legs and most of my senses. One day you will undergo this slow torture like me. For I never did find the exit when I had the chance either. For that I lacked the necessary strength of mind."

" Then how do you know anything about it?"

" The word is passed through time by those like me who remain here. It is the only clue ever given, yet some are able to use it to escape."

Upset with this knowledge and with himself for having been prepared to murder Edwina in rage, Halgard left her and ran down the path along the creek for some distance. He stopped and sat on a fallen log and thought hard about what he could do. Edwina had mentioned that those with strong minds and wisdom had escaped. So it came down to problem solving. Their was no path to be found by looking, only a riddle to be understood.

The strange clues now seemed to jump out at him as if before they had been masked. Looking was useless, you had to believe, and know where you were going. The path was neither large nor small. How obvious! If only he had sat down and thought it through like this months ago! Their had to be a device here that acted just like the one that had taken him back to the village of Braith from the road when he had pictured himself there. That was it. Halgard knew he could not imagine himself in the city of Inhal-med as he had never seen it. But he could imagine himself walking out of the valley, really believe it was happening. He focussed on that thought with absolute clarity and knew it was right.

Almost instantaneously, he was transported and found himself falling to the ground on the shallow slope of a dry hillside. Filling with elation, he jumped up and dusted his knees. Judging by how the position of the Sun had changed he calculated that he had been sent east some distance. Feeling empowered, he now set off in that direction under the canopy of ancient wild olives that dotted the hill, surrounded by the first opening wild-flowers of the emerging spring. Soon he came to a ridge and looking out across a vast vista, he recognized what could only be the city of Inhal-med, perhaps only a two day hike from where he was on the plains below.


The entire immense form of the great city of Inhal-med, capital of Inhal-lama, rested suspended fully from contact with the Earth. In this manner it resided above that land that it ruled both figuratively and in actuality. It was said among the villages of Inhal-lama that when a person witnesses the site of Inhal-med with its opalescent towers of purple hanging in mid air for the first time that they are experiencing the shock of their lives. And so it was for Halgard, who although having found some oddities on the road had never felt so astonished. He had heard that the city was a magical place but the actual site of it far exceeded the size of his own imagination. The land below it, should it have been left to nature and not blackened by the permanent dark of the city's shadow, would have made a grand farm encompassing a thousand of his own and a hundred of his neighbors'. But the city's size alone was perhaps its least impressive feature, for it was a masterpiece of the most innovative yet delicate architecture imaginable with its holistic expression of elegant spires, arches and platforms decorated with subtle artworks splashed in light across carefully selected areas, all built to a the grandiose scale of a giant. So perfect was it in its appearance that it occurred to Halgard that it seemed more an artificially projected image than a real place where anybody might live. Of course no less would do for the ruling class of the great country.

Less subtle, however, in the design of the city, Halgard noticed on that day as he approached it, where the remarkably obvious defense structures. A battery of guns could be spotted in and amongst the buildings of the city, put in place to guard against the possible threat of attack from neighbouring enemies and as a symbol of Inhal-lama's military superiority.

Two days of easy hiking later, Halgard had reached the shadow of the city and stood craning his neck to stare up at it. The underside was an impregnable blackness that consumed all detail. There was no-one around him and nothing to guide him but the bare dirt of the Earth itself. But taking a single step into the shadow, a great wind blew around him and he was sucked up into the air towards the city at speed. Apart from his long hair whipping around and hitting his face and the coldness of the air, he felt in safe hands and the experience was not only moderately comfortable but enjoyable. The air stream deposited him through a portal and he landed quite safely on a platform with a reverberating clang of metal.

His surroundings were no more than drab and disappointing. He had thought the entrance to such a grand place would equally impressive as its external appearance, but of course the way he had arrived was restricted to unimportant paupers like himself; the true higher class would enter only by air or instant transportation. The low roofed space he had entered was supported by grease-blackened concrete pillars. A few empty car carriages sat idle, perhaps out of order, in the nearby parking bay. There was a smell of tobacco and hot smoke that was strong in nostrils accustomed to the fresh air of the countryside.

Since he could not read or understand any of the signs, he headed for a through-way which appeared to leave the immediate area and head elsewhere. As he walked past a flickering light he noticed shadows ahead of him. It turned out that they were the silhouettes of two figures. Halgard had once heard that both the richest and poorest of the land found their way to Inhal-med, and truly these two were of the lowest calibre. Their unclean stench reached him even before he was close enough to see the putrid state of their clothing and unclipped hair.

He felt a hand grab at him as a gravelly, wheezing voice asked, " Hey, trooper, got a smoke for an old fella?"

Halgard stared in disgust at the broken toothed face that held his glance. His first instinct was to walk away. He had no respect for beggars that owned no property and hadn't worked hard in life to fend for themselves. Their appearance alone was enough to prove this. But he remembered that he didn't look much better than they did with his animal skins still wrapped around his torso and his lengthening beard and hair. For a moment he had pity on them. " I do not smoke," he replied honestly, " but if I did I would not honour your greed by feeding it."

" Fair enough, trooper."

Then the other beggar was pushing before him. The second one was a short woman with a balding head and sagging skin. " Hang on a minute then," she said.

" I said I have no..."

" Alright, alright. Since you have nothing to give us, as I can plainly see, how's about you do us the favour of settling a little dispute of ours, eh?"

" And what might that be?" Halgard asked, wishing he was elsewhere.

" This morning I found a rock cake, a big lump. Anyway, I was about to eat it for me breakfast when this loaf," she indicated her companion with an elbow to his ribs, forcing an involuntary wince out of him, " comes along and says... what was it you says Ralph?"

" I says Brenda, give me that bleeding cake you got there. I fed you yesterday and you owe me. That cake belongs to me."

" That's right. Terrible memory I have. You see I found the thing but he reckons it's his. So I've held onto it for safe keeping until we can decide who gets it. You look like a man of wisdom. Can you help us?"

Halgard considered this for a minute then realized that it was true, he was indeed wise when it came to seeing what was fair in such a situation. He asked, " Will you accept whatever decision I make?"

The beggars looked at each other then nodded in unison.

" In that case, it is simple. The cake belongs to Ralph because he is owed. It would be rude to eat and let him go hungry whilst a debt goes unpaid. However, you Ralph must give back at least a crumb to Brenda out of pity. A woman should not be allowed to go hungry when there is food available, at least, not where I come from."

" Fair enough, trooper," Ralph said with a half-smile, " that's what I'll do."

With that Halgard nodded and left the pair to their stale cake and marched on.

Gradually more people appeared as he made his way into the occupied areas of the outer city. Each of them seemed bizarre to Halgard in their unique way. Almost all were dressed in manners he had not before witnessed, many rather unashamedly revealing. But there was in the crowds a significant fraction that appeared only barely human. There were the types that had been bred with the genes of animals, just like his neighbours back at home, only they chose to express their ancestry in the most obvious ways ranging from tails and fur in the tamest, to grotesque animal heads and bodies in the least tasteful. Some of these were mere cosmetic but in most the deviations from human form were so convincing as to have certainly come from the individuals genes themselves. Then there was the youthful element that had integrated their bodies to any degree with machines. Again, these ranged from the tame android bodies to ridiculous extremes of fusion with mechanical entities. Whenever these types passed near him, Halgard could not help but cringe and move deliberately out of their paths.

In the lower levels it was rare to come out in the open sunlight, but eventually he came upon an uncovered mall filled with markets where many people shopped and haggled in a noisy throng. He had been to markets in the country before but he found the atmosphere stifling. Feeling mild panic setting in, he shot down a narrow side alley where there seemed to be less going on. His attention was immediately drawn to an earnest argument between two men in a doorway not far down the street. He walked down the paved road and stopped near the two men. They looked extremely like each other with large bellies and long moustaches, except one was mostly bald while the other had a healthy top of curly hair.

The two men ceased their argument and stared at him.

" What is it we can do for you, Mister?" the bald man asked, folding his burly arms in front of his chest.

" I noticed that you were in argument," Halgard observed calmly, " and thought I'd see if I could solve the matter objectively for you; I find myself to be quite good at that sort of thing."

" Oh, do you now?" said the curly-haired man, taking a blatant look at him up and down. " And what sort of man are you exactly?"

" I am a farmer from Braith. I have travelled for many weeks through the wilds to reach the city." Looking down at himself he added, " The road was long and treacherous."

This instantly changed the reaction of the two men. Apparently there was a sense of awe felt by city-dwellers about rarely seen farmers. " I accept that," decided the bald man. " And we are in need of a solution, and quickly."

" Perhaps you could tell me all about it then."

The two men invited him into their shop and sat him down at a table with a mug of stout and began talking. The men were brothers, the bald man, Paiya, the elder of the other, Gillian. They ran a successful business together trading whatever they found at low price. It turned out that their father had just passed away at an old age, leaving the sons with a large inheritance but no will. Gillian, the younger brother, argued that they should split the inheritance equally between their two families as a matter of fairness, whilst Paiya insisted that he, as oldest son, should inherit all of his fathers possessions as was the tradition in the society of Inhal-lama. The brothers had to decide immediately in agreement on the matter because the deadline was nearly up before the state would claim the inheritance for its tax box. But neither would give in to the demands of the other.

Halgard listened carefully to both sides of the story in relative silence then sat thinking for several minutes. Finally he said, " And will both of you accept my objective judgment on this matter should I come to a decision?"

The two brothers glared at each other intensely then smiled and said, almost at the same time, " Yes."

And so Halgard put his mind to a solution that would be just and when he had made up his mind he told them that strictly the entire inheritance should go to Paiya as eldest sibling and that indeed it would go to him. But as a matter of pity and to keep the peace between them so that they could continue to run the business together, Paiya must give his younger brother a fraction of the wealth for the well being of his family.

" Such a small fraction will do nothing to hurt your finances," he told Paiya sternly," but will be a decent bonus to your brother's family. Should you die, your family will pay fifty percent of what they have in keeping to Gillian. Do you accept this judgment?"

Paiya was smiling and Gillian had a look of grim resignation. The older brother replied, " Yes. We said we would accept your judgment, whatever it was, and that we do. But tell us. How can we repay you for helping us?"

" Perhaps you could show me the way to the Court of Fair Dealings?"

" The court? By God I'll show you, the sitting hall is not far from here, but you cannot present yourself looking like that. Come over here quickly and let us fit you with a fine cloak as payment. I have many friends, and perhaps I can set you up with further employment as a mediator on such issues. You have shown a great skill and deserve to be paid."

And so Halgard left the shop not only dressed as a well off cityman but also with a small bonus jingling in his newly acquired pockets. In the days to come, he booked himself a session with the court to put forward his request and whilst waiting for the day of his hearing, heard many arguments himself as mediator. These he easily solved in fairness and he soon found his services to be in great demand and fetching higher and higher prices. Gradually the level of his clients in society grew as did the seriousness of the cases he judged until he found himself settling old debts and debates amongst the likes of bankers and lower level state officials.


At last the day of Halgard's own hearing arrived and he dressed himself in the best clothing he could buy and presented himself neatly. The court turned out to be only a small, fairly unadorned hall where he sat before a lone judge surrounded by a small staff of officials dressed in formal black gowns.

Halgard caught a good look at the judge as he rose with the others to begin the new proceedings. He was a short, dark-skinned man with a rim of grey-white hair around the edges of his otherwise bald scalp. His small eyes. lost amongst the folds of soft skin, were contrasted by his swollen lips. When he spoke, it was clear that he took himself very seriously.

With minimal fuss, the formalities were dealt with and the judge sat back down in his chair, almost disappearing in its dwarfing back and arms, behind a mahogany desk.

" Now, what exactly is it that you wish to request?" he asked. The only other sound in the hall was the soft peeping of a sparrow that had found its way in and was perched somewhere near the the high roof.


Halgard had been stood before the judge. He explained, " My family is very poor and we have little land on our farm at Braith. As you know the skies have been unkind to us so far this season and have inflicted us with a dreaded drought. Hence I am unable to sow important crops."


The judge interjected with a look of dry humour on his face. " I'm sorry but I fail to see how I can do anything about this."


Halgard thought to himself that this was possibly not entirely true since he had heard that there was a council in the city that made decisions regarding the weather patterns that would be instated in various regions, within the bounds of possibility given by the current meteorological technology, but he didn't make the point.  " I have asked my neighbours to lend me a small portion of their land, a mere acre, to sow crops in. They have flatly refused my request despite the fact that their land is large and mostly left to the wilds. They have large lowland areas that remain moist and fertile and could support a crop. As a matter of pity I have travelled here to the city to plea for a court ruling that my request must be granted."


The judge looked quite astonished. He even looked at some of his officials as if ascertaining whether or not he had heard the plea correctly. Then he said, " I'm sorry, but do you have any legal claim on this fraction of land you seek to use for your own profit?"


" Not as far as I understand the laws of this great country, not in strict terms. But I know that the wise leaders of this city, such as yourself, are honourable and able to judge well on matters of fairness. It would force no loss upon my neighbour and would save my family from future suffering."


" I'm afraid whether suffering is involved or not, the law can only be interpreted as written. And I assure you that there is no provision in our property laws for such propositions. Do you have any further evidence to forward your case?"


Halgard shook his head. " I had hoped that the morality of the situation would be enough to convince you, judge."


" Well then, I must inform you that you have failed in your attempt to gain forceful access to your neighbor’s rightful land. You may leave this court."


Halgard stood firm. " But you must listen, I..."


" This court has heard and ruled. Please vacate..."


" But sir," Halgard interjected, " surely my long trip here has been for more than this short hearing?"


The judge glared at him with his penetrating dark eyes. " Rudeness is not accepted here. You are lucky I am a lenient man and will not charge you so long as you speak not another word. You may appeal my decision if you wish but you will get no result, no matter who the judge, and appeals are put last on the prioritised roster of hearings."


With that Halgard was led away by the subtle gestures of two court guards and he re-entered the busy throng of Inhal-med feeling dejected and cheated. Already by that very moment he had decided that he could not return home empty handed; he would appeal the decision any way he could.




In the time following the disastrous hearing, Halgard remained in Inhal-med, taking in its scenic and cultural wonders as often as he could between continuing his job as a mediator and informal judge. This he did with interest but little heart as his thoughts were always on the continuing drought and his family who were no doubt suffering without the help of his hands on the farm. His work he took a newfound pride in and he continued to be employed by higher and higher echelons of society. Some decisions were indeed so grave that he had to defer the matter for several days whilst he made his final decision. But always he stuck not to the strict letter of the law, but to his own judgement of what was a fair dealing. His own belief in what was right, he felt, was only strengthened by his sense of justice and passion for those in a lesser position and his decisions showed this. In their fairness; they came to earn him a name as someone that could solve problems better than the judges and law-makers themselves.


This went on for so long and earned him so much wealth that the issue of his request to borrow land was no longer financially important; it was too late to plant a crop, it was nearly harvesting time already, and besides, he had so much money that he could support his family without undertaking any back-breaking physical work. But since he was not needed immediately at the farm, he chose to continue on in the city for a time longer, until his appeal date arrived. He would go to the judge and use the skills of argument he had acquired by studying his more mentally agile clients and win his case, not only for his family's sake but as a precedent for other such cases where the law allowed the rich to live unmolested beside a poor suffering neighbour. Indeed, his theory of pity applied to many other situations across society. He intended to see that a major change had begun in such dealings before he got back home to tell his family of their new riches.


Yet he could have had no way to plan for or avoid what was to happen. One day he was approached at his hostel where he was residing by formally suited officials and told that he was wanted at the Council of Higher Decisions, the highest ruling council in Inhal-med and therefore Inhal-lama, second in authority only to the High Ruler of Inhal-lama, a coy figure-head that retained great but rarely used powers. This quite shocked Halgard. He immediately feared he would be either roped into endless problems or executed for his troubles, either way preventing him from getting home to inform his family of what he had done for them.


He was transported in the back seat of a small flier that rose directly off the ground and sped over the city at frighteningly low altitude. The destination became obvious as they approached it. The architecture far outshone that of the surrounding areas and was more intricate and elaborate than Halgard would have thought possible. The ornamentation must have taken years to design, let alone build. They flew low over a series of formal ponds and fountains set into a repeating pattern and surrounded by carefully colour coordinated flower beds. Then the first series of buildings lifted from the ground with many tall spires which could only have served ornamental value, so tall and thin were they. Finally the flier came to rest smoothly on a circular landing platform that adjoined the largest building at the centre of the complex. He alighted and was escorted towards double doors three times his height. On either side of these doors, robed guards stood armed with elaborately decorated body armour and ludicrously tall symbolic spears. They were tall and had their faces covered by masks that revealed only the nose and eyes.


The building they stepped into was filled with an immense chamber that made Halgard feel small. Its walls were lined with giant portraits of ancient looking men and women wearing similar looking smocks and looking very serious. Great chandeliers hung from ropes in the ceiling and glittered profusely in the bright light. At the centre of the room were leather chairs arranged in a series of concentric circles around a central stand that held a gold staff in a glass case. This was no other than the sitting place of the Council of Higher Decisions, the people that made the law that governed the major issues in Inhal-lama, the rulers of the high class. He was truly in the halls of power.


Yet the council was not in session and the room was quiet and empty apart from one lean, white-haired man that sat sloppily on the back of one of the chairs, arms folded. He had a cheerful enough smile as he greeted Halgard and shook his sweating hand. The first thing he noticed as he took the man's hand were the many rings that adorned his thick-knuckled hands with a dozen different kinds of precious stones. Then as he lifted his eyes to meet the man's, he saw that his eyes were not as they should have been but were instead bionic devices that made a soft sound as the dark lenses adjusted their position.


Once they had sat down, the man said, " Good afternoon, my name is Councillor Huefson. I am the Leader of the Higher Council."


Halgard was too nervous to reply, so he simply nodded.


" Word of your work has reached us here in the hall," Huefson continued amicably. " You are certainly different in your thinking."


" Have I been arrested?" Halgard asked, suddenly finding his voice. " Because I would just as soon stop my work and return to my family who will have had no news of me since I left. I am only here to await the appeal of my hearing."


Huefson giggled childishly. " No, no. But believe me, the matters of state far outweigh any consideration of either your family or petty court hearing, wouldn't you say? I have not brought you here for retribution, but I do have a use for you- as my personal adviser."


" Adviser? But I couldn't possibly..."


" Oh, rubbish my friend. Do not insult me by doubting my good judgement. You are the right mind for the job. All the one's I've had lately have disappointed me. I need some innovative thinking like you have been doing."


" But I must get back to my family..."


" This is not a request," Huefson said, any hint of humour now vanquished. " You will be required to reside in my rooms secretly until I relieve you of this duty."


There was nothing Halgard could now say to get out of this virtual imprisonment that he was to face. He'd found no trouble in resolving the problems he had mediated so far, but to make decisions that would affect the lives of millions of people? Who was he to mingle with the rulers that walked these halls?


" You will soon adjust to your role, I assure you. You will not be lacking in luxury as long as you work here," Huefson added, somewhat more softly, yet with a sense of absolute surety in what he was doing. " There will be a gathering of the council before the next cycle of the Moon and I'll need to discuss several matters with you before the sitting. Get yourself settled as quickly as possible."




Life in the halls was not uncomfortable, indeed no expense was spared for the small things in life and Halgard at least had the freedom to wander his assigned area and appreciate the stunning views afforded by the halls' position. But although he had once been a solitary man, the aloneness he felt there with only the blank stares of the silent guards as company was daunting. He was not a great man and never deserved to be treated as one. He waited the coming of each day with dread.


His first errand came within the first week. Huefson had again summoned him for a private exchange, this time in one of his private offices. There he was presented with a problem involving the distribution of tax burdens across the community. Should the wealthy provide more for the system in relative terms than the poor? This debate had never been satisfactorily resolved and representatives for either side were lobbying intensely. The answer seemed obvious to Halgard and he applied the same principle as he had always used in these matters. It was the right of the rich to earn large sums of money whilst in many cases the poor had let themselves down by not working hard enough towards higher returns. The rich should pay a lower percent than the poor, since this would still constitute a larger sum, yet as a matter of pity they should be forced to pay a small fee directly to the pockets of the poorer.


Huefson seemed to accept this decision and others like it over the proceeding days although Halgard suspected that in many cases his boss was simply testing him out on philosophical issues to get any idea of the type of response he was likely to give. He never debated or disagreed openly with anything Halgard ever said, but he knew not whether any of them would be put to law; alone in the halls he had no route of communication to the outside world other than Huefson himself.


Finally, the message arrived that the sitting of the council was due and to Halgard's amazement, he himself was honoured with a guest invitation. It seemed odd but he supposed that many of the councillors had their aides and advisers present at these meetings.


There he sat in the back row as the proceedings wore on into the night, many of the discussions far beyond his level of technical understanding. At one point he was ashamed when he realised he had nodded off for a short time before an official gave him a gentle nudge. Each of the councillors stood as they spoke in turn in formal tones, confidently ignoring the consistent haggling of opposing councillors.


Suddenly, it seemed, a hush descended as the next item was introduced for discussion. Huefson stood and addressed the gathering and all members listened attentively. His red and black leader's cape flowed around his body as he paced to and fro before the front bench in dramatic fashion, although Halgard had seen enough of the man to recognise nervous jitters.


" Ladies and gentlemen of the council," he said, " we now come to an issue that has dogged us for many decades. As you know our neighbouring country of Trent has been a needle in our side but now poses a bigger threat. Their constant incursions of our territory and suicidal attacks on our civilians grow worse and now they have mounted a display of forces on the border.


" Their leaders continue to lobby us as they have before. Their small country is brimming with people in their thousands and they no longer have the resources to support themselves. This is the result of nothing less than bad planning. They demand that they be allowed to enter our land freely and make settlements, grazing pastures and mining mountains which they claim we have left to the wilds."


At this there was a great roar of complaint from the members which was quickly silenced by a gesture from Huefson.


" Can we allow this to go on indefinitely? Can we risk the stability of our society with these threats and acts of war? Tonight we must decide on a course of action that will quell this unrest for good. Do we have any speakers?"


Without pause a stout woman rose from the front bench and called out, " We have been peaceful long enough. Let us break their spirits with our bombs."


Another councillor retorted, " Ridiculous. Trent has many powerful allies further afield that we know little about. We must be patient."


This brief debate erupted into a mesh of voices across the hall, becoming louder as they competed for hearing space.


Eventually Huefson blasted, " Enough, silence now!"


This time it took a few moments for the arguments to die down to a dull murmur. Clearly this was an issue of some importance.


" Ladies and gentlemen, I have invited here tonight my senior adviser." He gestured towards Halgard and many of the councillors turned and stared at him as if registering his presence for the first time. " I have tested his mind on a great many matters and I believe he is ready to tackle this one. I suggest we pause and hear what he has to say on this."


Halgard rose almost involuntarily, heat flushing to his face as the attention of the entire gathering focussed in on him. He was called forward to the front to face the crowd, seeing only a blur of faces, unable to pick any one out.


" Well Halgard," Huefson said, " you have heard the problem. What is your solution?"


Stuttering, he said, " But I have no knowledge on which to base an answer. I cannot say..."


" Nonsense. You are able to solve problems far more complex than this. Humour us."


For a second Halgard took the comfort of closing his eyes and picturing the safety and comfort of home and his family. He took pride in how he had brought up his sons and knew they'd be taking care of things as best they could. He opened his eyes again and forced them to see his surrounding calmly as they actually were. These councillors were no Gods but ordinary men with extraordinary jobs. He faced them and began to tell them what he already knew instinctively was the answer to the current dilemma, although he'd had no chance to think it through.


" Ladies and gentlemen, I am not worthy of voicing my opinion here, but since you ask it of me, it is this. The people of Trent are reacting violently towards us because they are suffering. Their land is unable to support them yet they see that here free, fertile lands abound.


" We cannot allow them to threaten us, nor would we wish to set a precedent by allowing them free access to land that is rightfully and lawfully ours; this would only encourage every vagabond on the continent to seek out our charity.


" But we will not respond as they have with the might of our military forces; that would surely ruin their nation. Instead we will respond by refusing their request but supplying them with overwhelming amounts of aid and support. We are a wealthy nation and can afford to help our poorer neighbours in this way with technology, planning expertise as well as food and minerals. In other words, we will befriend them."


The crowd sat stunned around him, absorbing his words. This was the most out-of-nowhere policy that had been announced before them. Then as one snigger snuck out, the entire congregation erupted into a frenzy of laughter and jest. Halgard was so bewildered by the response that he felt no particular embarrassment.


" Where did you pick this one up from then Huefson?" he heard one of the back-benchers cry out.


" Go join the beggars if you like handouts," another added.


Shortly the matter was put to a vote, a complex procedure involving the secret passing of ballots. A threesome of officials oversaw this and then counted the slips of paper one by one before conferring. Finally, at some length, they passed a slip to Huefson who remained standing before the council.


He read the slip than looked straight back to the members. Gravely he stated, " Ladies and gentlemen of the council, you have voted, almost unanimously, for action. We are now at war with the country of Trent." With that he bowed once and paced swiftly out of the halls, followed closely by several minders. The meeting broke up and Halgard left amongst the quick chattering of the after-meeting congregation, angry with how he had handled the situation.




And so it was that war was waged against the territory of Trent. The campaign began immediately with large troop movements near the border accompanied by the long-distance ejection of missiles from the guns of Inhal-med, which Halgard himself witnessed as they flared through the night sky, far ahead of their rumbling sound. The council spared no expense in making a decisive move, hoping thus to avoid a drawn out battle on the ground. Whilst clinging on to its meagre defences, Trent sent out continuous propaganda extolling the belief that Inhal-lama would pay for its action against them. These threats were of course ignored and the destruction continued unabated.


Whenever Halgard heard reports of the effectiveness of the attacks in Trent, he was devastated by what he saw as an unnecessary waste of life. Yet he felt that the council knew far better than he how to handle these situations. After all, underneath his new polished exterior, he was a simple farmer. He was powerless to halt the instinctive territorial behaviour that was built in to the very fabric of humankind. This sort of group warfare was a logical continuation of what had evolved many aeons ago on the plains of Africa. It was no different in structure, if in scale and consequence, to the rituals that many other animals went through in drawing out and maintaining territories to defend the resources and space they needed to raise children. As far as he was concerned, man's claim of ownership over the land was no greater than that of any other species with which it was shared. Surely humankind had come far enough to leave this animal behaviour behind and reach a state of cooperation? As he thought it he knew that no individual would relinquish the right to the ownership of property and the exclusive use of land. And those very individuals were as powerless to alter this as he was to alter the structure of society.


The campaign continued through the summer months and Halgard was kept from returning home. The skies remained cloudless and daytime temperatures soared. It was the hottest summer for nearly a decade. When the cooler winds of autumn first arrived, they brought no rain on their backs and great clouds of dust were gathered up and bellowed across the city of Inhal-med, coating everything and tarnishing its well kept polish. The city grew quiet as the people hid indoors from the foul weather and there seemed even to Halgard who remained confined to the council halls to be a hush of dreaded anticipation about the state of the conflict on the border. The conflict had lasted too long, despite regular reports of success from the military leaders.


Then a day came in mid-autumn that changed everything. Two things happened that Halgard couldn't have expected.  Firstly, the morning saw a great cover of grey cloud wrap around the sky and as the gusty winds fled, it let loose its precious load in a healthy continuous drizzle that soon turned to a down-pour. The rain washed away the layer of dust from the walls of the city's buildings and then ran muddied down the gutters and down pipes. Many people went out into it to see the spectacle which had seemed a distant memory, drenching themselves in the process. It was in this way that the people, and Halgard, who stood out on the balcony where he had first arrived at the council complex, saw the dramatic arrival of the ships. Within minutes they appeared from nothing in the sky and hung in close formation directly above the city, their shadows blacking out large areas. They were clearly gunships, poised for action.


In response, the great guns of the city turned and fired their deadly conglomerations of chaotic energy at the invaders, but their weapons made no mark upon the hulls of the immense ships, no matter how many times they struck. Soon their fire was returned, but the invaders' ships employed no traditional armaments, instead simply flashing with light all over as large pieces of the city simply vanished instantly. It seemed that so complete was this destruction that it created a vacuum into which the surrounding air was swiftly sucked, taking loose objects, including pedestrians, with it. Minutes later, Halgard was called to urgently see Huefson.


Never before had the strain of leadership so heavily weighed on his features as he sat in thought.


" What is happening?" Halgard asked. " Were you aware that Trent had such capabilities?"


Now Huefson looked up to meet his eyes. " No friend. This is no threat from Earth that we are facing. The threat that they had powerful friends turns out to have been real. These ships above us, taking apart the city, are from a star system some fifty light years away known as Fular. It must have taken them these last few months to receive the call for help and get here. The Fularians possess technologies beyond anything we here on Earth could imagine. I dare say that they are playing with us at the moment like a cat that has caught the mouse. If they wished us to be destroyed, we would not even be here to have this conversation."


" What will you do?"


" Me? I have already failed in my duties. I should have made the council listen to you before we travelled down this dark road."


" But you must do something."


" No. I can do no more. But in times of crisis I am able to appoint a proxy leader without putting the matter to a vote. I choose you."


" Pardon?"


" I choose you. Now you must lead us and do your best to save Inhal-med and its peoples."


Halgard felt a wave of dark energy wash through him. He fought to control the sudden shaking of his hands. Him, leader of the Council of Higher Decisions? How could this be possible? What could he do? By the sounds of winds shunting around outside, he knew that the destruction of Inhal-med continued and that he would have to act fast. He swivelled in his seat and engaged one of the aides that stood patiently next to the wall of the office. " You," he said shakily, " open a line of communication with these ships. Let them know that if they stop their bombardment the new leader of Inhal-med will come to join them in conference so that a resolution can be made."




The undersurface of the ship blotted out the Sun as the small transporter lifted Halgard closer to it. The scarred outer surface had clearly seen many battles and had come out with no more than cosmetic scratches. He was awed by the power of the forces he was to negotiate with. Yet he knew there was a greater power in humans than that of their mighty weapons, and that was the power of reason and compassion.


 The interior of the mother ship was surprisingly dark as he was led by grim-faced Fularians through a series of connecting passageways and into the heart of the ship. The man he was brought to was dressed in military apparel, his sunless white scalp contrasted the deep black of the soft seat he relaxed in. He had one leg crossed lazily over the other and a glass filled with a bubbly, brown drink was held softly in one hand. Halgard was shown a much more utilitarian chair before the man and the two where allowed to talk in the somewhat intimidating presence of a line of armed guards.


"So you think you can wiggle your way out of this now, even though you've been bombing our allies the last few months without pause?" the man said merrily, one foot jiggling inside a loose fitting knee high boot.


“No. I have only just been appointed and do not agree with the former policies of the council on this issue, sir."


"You may call me Commander Zolf, that is my formal title. And yourself?"


"I am H...," he began, thinking to give his name before changing tack. " You may refer to me as the Leader of the Higher Council"


Commander Zolf smiled and nodded sarcastically at this and said," A high title indeed. So what is your viewpoint on the matter, Mister Leader."


" It is my view that the laws of land ownership should be melted and that they should be replaced by a system of sharing. This would extend to allowing the people of Trent the land they legitimately require for their prosperity. In return they would open up trade with us in goods and knowledge."


" You are hardly in position to bargain with us."


" Yes, obviously, but that is not to say a sensible future directive can not be suggested. Why not sow the seeds from this terrible conflict for a peaceful and cooperative future?"


" Aren't you forgetting that you have already sown the seeds of hatred by waging war against our friends?"


" Not at all, in fact it was the incessant violence conducted by your friends that brought this vehement response from Inhal-lama. But I understand the motives for this use of force and can forgive it."


" Forgive us? Again, you seem to be forgetting that we are poised over your capital and can destroy it at the flick of a switch. That would allow all of Inhal-lama to be opened for settlement by the people of Trent."


" There is enough space for all."


" Mmm indeed," muttered the Commander. " In the Fularian system we have employed a similar system of free and cooperative land use, but I fear its success lies in the fact that the entire system is open for a relative handful of citizens- there is no chance of argument and people effectively claim their own spaces although they have no legal claim to ownership. How do you propose for this to work here, amongst the muck scrapers of the planet Earth?"


" There will have to be strict regulations to prevent the greedy dominating the system," Halgard replied quite seriously.


Yet this remark brought laughter to Commander Zolf's face. Halgard was not about to stand for being laughed at again, and so he stood and yelled, " You think your weapons are a better answer?"


This caused an immediate rush of guards to safeguard the Commander, who sent them back with a simple wave of the hand. He continued to giggle as he explained, " Relax Leader of the Higher Council. I am amused only by your gall to suggest such a thing to me. I haven't the stomach to annihilate an entire city any way, not these days. I will accept your suggestion as long as it is spelt out formally and on the condition that you yourself remain in power."


Halgard's spirit dropped even further, but he knew he had a duty by the people of Inhal-lama to accept the generous offer. His first task would be to dissolve all of the courts in Inhal-med, starting with the Council of Fair Dealings. His appeal would be deleted from the records as the right for any individual to own a particular piece of land was removed.




On returning to his transporter, Halgard was informed that he would not be taken back down to ground level because the High Ruler of Inhal-lama herself had requested his presence. The transporter rose high into the sky towards where the palace of the High Ruler was to be found in geosynchronous orbit above Inhal-med. Halgard had been through so much that the experience of leaving the safety of the atmosphere added little further to his state of anxiety, as did the prospect of meeting the absolute highest ruler of the land. Soon the blue of the atmosphere grew hazy and was replaced by the deep emptiness of black space. He deliberately looked away from the window then and waited for the transporter to land safely within the walls of the palace. However he couldn't help but take a quick peep as they made the final approach and he was not disappointed by the beauty of the satellite with its intricate web-like structure.


Here things were noticeably less formal than they had seemed at the council halls. The guides that took him in wore fairly simple suits and the internal decor was impressive without being gaudy. This all worked, perhaps quite deliberately, in contrast with the high ruler herself. She entered the meeting chamber wearing full pale coloured make-up and a frilly, well fitted costume that was adorned with a number of bright jewels. Her long dark hair had been braided and rolled into a series of decorated balls at the back of her head. Again, Halgard was pushed forth into the presence of one much greater than he.


" Welcome, Leader Halgard," she said in a soft, gentle voice backed by a hint of authority.


" Thank you, but I am only Leader in proxy. I believe Huefson lost himself momentarily and order will soon be replaced in the council."


The lady grew serious. " Nonsense. The council is obsolete and I have dissolved it. It has now proven that it cannot make the correct decisions when they are most needed. And word has arrived ahead of you that Commander Zolf has requested that you stay on as Leader as part of the deal. You must learn to not be so humble. In fact I have had my eye on you as a potential leader ever since you made a name for yourself in Inhal-med."


Oh how he wished he had never set out on his journey to the city in the first place. He realised now that it had been folly that such a task could be completed without fuss. Hiding his feelings, he replied, " You are most kind."


" But now that we have reached the current situation," she continued, " I see that there is more to be done. In the absence of a council it will be the High Ruler that makes many of the important decisions. Yet I have been a symbolic figure-head for far too long and am too tired to go back to the reality of law-making. For this reason I request that you take over my position immediately and put in place the plans which you have so bravely arrived at in your mind."


" But ma'am, they were only words used to solve a crisis."


" You really are far too modest. You have succeeded where the entire council have failed. But the choice is yours. This is not a post that can be filled unwillingly as it will require every inch of your effort."


" I need time to think after all that has happened. I must return to my family at Braith and ensure that they are well looked after. It has only ever been my wish to return to them. Never have I campaigned to be raised to the heights I have."


" This I understand," said the lady sincerely. " Return then and do as you must but return your decision to me as soon as possible. This crisis is far from over yet."




And so it was that Halgard was relieved of his immediate duty in the halls of power and returned that very day via instantaneous transportation to his farm. With the arrival of wet weather, his paddocks had returned to the green that they were meant to be. With a great happiness in his heart, he inserted himself past the gate and trod up the stony path to the house. Surprisingly, the garden was overgrown and the coop empty of fowls. He reached the house and entered by the front door, welcomed by the sweet and familiar smells of drying herbs and cooking. There in the largest room sat his wife on a wooden chair, busy knitting together a piece of fabric by hand. She looked up at him and recoiled at first as if not recognising him, then returned to her chore.


" My wife, do you not recognise your own husband? It is me, Halgard, returned from my journey to the city."


" I can see that," she replied, altogether bluntly.


" Where is my father?" Halgard inquired, realising that he was not in his usual place by the fire.


" He grew ill in the cold of last winter and passed away before the first flowers of spring opened. We buried him next to Grandad."


This brief account was delivered with staggering coldness. Still she concentrated on her hands, knitting the stitches at an ever increasing speed.


" And where are my sons?"


" They are next door where they have worked for some time to pay for us to eat."


" They what?"


" The drought left us without enough food and money so the boys took good jobs tending the fields of Moseph."


" Then they have betrayed our family."


The knitting suddenly forgotten, Halgard's wife told him, " It is you that have betrayed us. All those months when we needed you and times were at their worst, you were nowhere to be seen, off on some fools' idea of a quest to bend the law in your own favour. I see that you have returned without a written demand from the court to our neighbors."


Halgard had indeed arrived as he was, empty-handed. " That is no longer relevant," he argued. " There have been great changes. I have unwillingly achieved great change in our society."


" Nothing's changed around here, if you haven't noticed. The olives still need picking before the birds get every last one, people are still people. I feared going to the city would ruin you. We can do without your kind around here."


Halgard had never heard his wife speak to him like that before, but he knew her thoughts could not be softened. " Then there is nothing for me here," he said, half to himself. " Tell the boys I wish them well."


" They are men, now."


Halgard nodded silently and his knuckles whitened as he clenched his fists. Feeling powerless, he turned and left the little house for the last time and took a minute to walk back down the path and take in his surroundings before going back to Inhal-med. It was to be his last moment of peace and solitude, but it was tainted by a bodily feeling of absolute failure and darkness.




The End



© 2002 by Greg Guerin.  Greg Guerin is a born-again drummer from Adelaide (remember the Grand

Prix?). He is a PhD student in evolutionary biology and writes in his spare time when he isn't bushwalking or going to the local footy.