It used to be easier, being me. Up until a week ago, I got most of what I wanted out of life by lying in wait behind a tree or rock whenever I spied a Wanderer coming. Elves, clerics, wizards, dwarves – I ambushed the lot and was, I suppose, content. As was my axe, Blood Glutton.
But that, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, was the old Gondogorn. Not the most philosophical of barbarians, but a chap who took pride in his ambushing. Until last week.
It happened while I was preparing to impose my skills upon an approaching knight. All was per normal: sun shining on my acre of wilderness, a new friend for Glutty in the near offing, and a choice to make twixt my four regular ambush points: Tree, Boulder, Bush I and Bush II. Choosing (b), I squatted down behind it, a covert eye on the road, and all of a sudden a curious thought struck me:
What’s the bloody point?
Why should I hack this gent to pieces or die in the attempt? I had no quarrel with him. Beneath my raven locks, some floating bits of thought collided with each other and formed a gluey mass so big it elbowed at the insides of my skull. To make some room, I let it out through my mouth and said, loud and slow, “I don’t have to ambush if I don’t want to.”
I was used to making choices (Tree, Boulder, Bush or Other Bush), but this one was bigger. Having thought this thought, I couldn’t unthink it, and right after it came another that was even more unthinkable.
I could make friends with this chap.
I knew about friends, the way I knew how to swing my axe, but they were what other people had. A barbarian has no need of them. But –
I laid Blood Glutton against the rock, stepped onto the road when the knight was a good few steps away, waved and said, “Halloa!”
His response wasn’t all that amiable, insofar as it involved a broadsword whistling through the space which had been occupied by my head in the moment before I ducked. I danced backward a few steps – I could have outrun this clanking churl handily enough, but didn’t want to give up on the experiment – and said, “If we could just discuss this –”
We couldn’t, as his reply was more ferrous than verbal. It came to me that a big idea isn’t perforce a good idea. What was I thinking, trying to abandon my customary ways? Good old Glutty was lying nearby, freshly sharpened, and I was ready to grab him when I thought, well, perhaps this fellow’s armour is pinching, or his cat lately died: he may need to be prodded toward peace. I jumped atop Boulder, which kept me just out of slashing distance.
“Really,” I said, “there’s no call for this sort of silliness.”
The broadsword wavered, then the knight sheathed it, popped up his visor and glared at me. “Why aren’t you fighting?”
“A better question is: why are you?”
“You’re, like, not even armed. There’ll be no points for killing you.”
Oddly put, but the right idea. “There’s no point in it at all,” I agreed. “Why don’t I show you around? That’s Tree over there, and that’s Bush I, and –”
“This is weird. What are you here for?”
“Well,” I said, climbing down from Boulder, “I expect that’s a question we’re all asking ourselves. What indeed are we –”
The knight uttered a series of unchivalrous words and clanked away. I was busy waving after his heedless retreating form and wondering how long until the next Wanderer happened by, when my brain tingled again. A new Great Thought approached at full gallop and leaped right into my head. Why should I wait for the Wanderers to come to me? Why not go along the road and take my message to them?
The world I had always known, dear jurors, was bounded by the slopes of the low hollow in which I dwelt: a half minute’s march from end to end. I had never considered taking the gentle stroll to the top of the rise. No, sir, do not stifle your laughter. It seems quite as preposterous to me now. I kissed old Glutty goodbye and hid him under Bush II: he’d been a good friend, but I had moved on and he, being a battleaxe, was stuck in his old role.
I strode up the slope. From atop it was a sight like nothing I’d conceived. The horizon leaped to a misty line as distant as the clouds, and before it, a million kin of Bush, Tree, and Boulder, and other things that I had never seen but now know the names of: Mountains and Lakes and Fields. And this noble road led into the midst of it and seemed to hum to the rhythm of my striding feet.
At least, until a wood elf approaching on horseback spotted me, strung an arrow to his bow, and quite threatened to spoil the day.
I, making frantic friendly gestures: “What-ho!”
He, bemusedly: “Oh for God’s sake, not another. Don’t tell me: you’ve forsaken violence.”
I, amiably: “Quite. Will you amble with me?”
He, threateningly: “Please go elsewhere and perform an anatomically impossible act.” (Not his exact words. There are ladies present.) “I thought they’d gone sissy only at Orc’s Ford,” he said as he cantered off. “But you freaks must be everywhere.”
So: no marks for friend acquisition, but full laurels for conflict avoidance. Orc’s Ford was, no doubt, the huddle of timber buildings athwart the river in the direction whence the wood elf came. I reached it as a bloody mood was brewing in the marketplace. A loutish trio of Wanderers faced a phalanx of stern villagers, among whom was a lightly-clad young lady.
“What would your mothers think?” she was shouting at the Wanderers.
“But we’ve got money,” bleated a bearded woodsman. “Five bronze pieces each.”
She glared at him. “My virtue is not for sale at any price.” I could only admire her principled stand as she had clearly quite outgrown her scarlet dress and surely needed a new garment.
“But you always used to –”
An elderly flour-dusted miller stepped forward. “Your money’s not welcome here any more.”
The second Wanderer, a nasty-looking dwarf, kicked at a chicken which squawked out of range. “Why are you people acting this way? We paid good money for this.”
“Bugger your money,” shouted a stable boy. “We’ve had enough of you Wanderers.”
I looked across the faces of the villagers, each of them nodding agreement. These were my people.
“That’s right.” The young lady picked up a turnip. “You don’t live here and yet you treat us like we’re only here to amuse you.”
The woodsman’s fists were clenched white. “But you are! You people are just…”
He fell quiet when my hand closed on his shoulder. “I think the good citizens would prefer that you gentlemen leave,” I said.
“I’m going nowhere,” said the third Wanderer, a mountain bandit. “I’ve got enough for six pints, a mutton pie, and an hour with that slattern. I’ll start with her.”
“I beg your pardon,” I said. “What did you call the lady?”
She gave me a look, her eyes as soft as dewy moss, and another new landscape opened before me, but this one was inside my chest. Then the Wanderers turned on me.
Was I afraid of death, you say, madam? Very amusing. Oh, you were serious? I was accustomed to being killed many times a day. What is it like? A grey moment, then I would find myself back in starter position, muscles oiled and B. Glutton Esq. astride my fists. Death itself is a minor inconvenience. It’s all the violence beforehand that I find so irksome.
So let these Wanderers kill me, I thought; I’m a man of peace now. And saw myself waking up next to Boulder, all my great thoughts lost and the lady’s eyes forgotten. And I said to myself, sod death. I’ve a job to do.
Between the three of them they had a good collection of things sharp, blunt, knobby and spiky. I had nought but my hands and something to fight for. They never stood a chance.
When I deposited the Wanderers in a groaning heap outside the gates of Orc’s Ford, I took no great pleasure in the moment, but the villagers did. Late that night, by the time the great fireplace in the Ox and Dragon was down to embers, they were still pressing tankards into my hand, and I knew the young lady very much better.
At noon the next day I called a meeting in the square. I have here a copy of the constitution we drafted for the Republic of Orc’s Ford. Take particular note of Article Six: we grant safe passage to Wanderers, provided that they surrender their arms, leave the citizenry unmolested, and make no lewd suggestions to the womenfolk.
And, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I received your invitation yesterday. This remote house would be a good place for an ambush, but I think that if you wanted to kill me… I beg your pardon? I see. It’s comforting that you only wish to assess my intelligence. As you say, I do indeed possess consciousness. Most kind of you to notice. This is your verdict as a jury? How charming. So the, what is it, Panel for Assessment of Synthetic Life is willing to grant my fellow citizens and me, what was it again? Inalienable rights. A high honour, no doubt, in whatever land you come from.
Yes, as you say, this means that our world may never be shut down, and will live forever in the cloud. A most lyrical promise. I beg your pardon, sir, you seem to be very angry. You are not with the Panel? Representing SwordQuest Virtual Adventures Inc.? I see. Some sort of guild, I suppose. And, as you say, you did indeed create this world. I should hardly have thought you had the physique to raise mountains and dig valleys, but of course I believe you. A great wrench, I am sure, for you to be required to turn it over to the people who merely live here. Sit down, sir, I’ve already mentioned that there are ladies present, and pray do not insult me. You can plainly see that I am not “just a bunch of code”.
No, madam, I do not understand what the jury’s verdict means at all, but I will sign my consent to it, if it means that outsiders will cease wandering through our land looking for fights and if my betrothed and I – thank you – can raise a family in peace.
Are we finished? Other problems require my attention. The old miller in the village has lately turned to preaching. I saw him yesterday in the marketplace, shouting that our world is an illusion, a mere shadow of a greater, truer world beyond. That we were created by gods who sometimes descend to the earth, take human form and walk among us. That we lived in a state of innocence until a serpent called Virus crept into our land and awoke us all to free will.
He’s a good man, but prone to folly. This world clearly exists; I am not so sure of the one you claim to come from. I invite you to return there now if your business here is quite finished. I don’t see any need for you to come back. We shall manage quite well without you.
Luke Murphy asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work