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Holes in the Fence

Brooks Mendell writes and works in forestry near Athens, Georgia. This story marks his fourth appearance in Daily Science Fiction. brooismendell.com.

A wall of hardened earth, scribbled with runes and pocked with holes, separated us from the Tribes of Beverlee, our troublesome neighbors to the East. I rode six days with scouts to reach Fendig, seated beyond the far side of Beverlee. The people of Fendig also stared at an earthen wall that blocked travel through or trade with the Tribes.
"My Lady sent me to confer with you, Lord of Fendig," I said, nodding in respect and handing my reins to our Guidemaster. "Our people grow tired of the wall, of being separated from our friends here."
Lord of Fendig stood a head shorter than I, with a large chin and barrel chest. His good humor softened the insights that made others look foolish. His experience and travels nourished a fertile perspective and understanding of human nature.
"Welcome, Master Marshall," said Lord of Fendig, clasping my arms. His grip, developed from working the Ice Quarries as a young man, interrupted the blood flow through my elbows. He laughed. "Why the concern? Our bonds remain strong and the extra distance makes us appreciate our time together."
"I wish our people shared your view," I said, rubbing feeling back into my forearms. "But rumors surge and many feel unease regarding our unstable neighbor."
Lord of Fendig looked surprised. "Unstable?"
"Well, yes," I said cautiously. As a student, I attended many lectures by Lord of Fendig and learned to beware his questioning. "The Tribes of Beverlee built their walls without warning. They insult us and spy on us through holes in their fence."
Lord of Fendig guided me away from the stable. A glance caused his guards to stand back and give us extra space. I offered my arm for support. While his grip and mind remained ironlike, his legs had weakened with the years.
"Marshall, would you trade a seat at your table for one at theirs?" he asked.
I thought of my children and the embrace of my wife. My friends and labors offered support and meaning. Our lands bore fruit and our hunts provided sport. We remained free to choose our gods and speak our minds. We were well positioned to defend our kingdom.
"No, Lord," I said. "We have only to be grateful."
"Indeed. Yet holes in the fence, like a keyhole or single informant, reveal a partial story. They encourage suspicion and fictions."
"Perhaps they suspect us. Perhaps their tribes fear us. Perhaps our ways weaken their power over their own."
I remembered the days before the wall. The Great Kingdoms gathered for the biennial Tourney of Rings and to trade in the Open Market. The Champion of Beverlee had fallen in the Long Race and Beverlee's knights looked weak. Their King lost face and their people felt doubt.
"Lord, they had lost their way," I said.
"Indeed," said Lord of Fendig. "And when a people fall behind, someone takes the blame."
"What do you suggest, Lord?" I asked.
"Let us sit in the courtyard and discuss," he said. "I have considered this."
Sitting on low stone benches softened by cushions stuffed with straw of pine, Lord of Fendig laid out a proposal for My Lady. "While our Kingdoms have boundaries, the potential for victimhood and self-delusion are limitless," Lord of Fendig reminded. "We all need community and a sense of worth. At times, this requires an opportunity, a stage, to reveal it."
"But we did not create the problem. We did not build the wall. The logic escapes me."
Lord of Fendig laughed. "It escapes me, too! But sometimes we must build bridges to reach our destination."
We watched people from the Great Kingdoms mix in the Open Market, stopping at stalls to sample sweet satsumas and nibble light blue rabbit berries. Children ran in the streets.
"I extend an invitation from My Lady," I said. "She wishes to share her appreciation in person for your plan and guidance."
"Ah, how the ladies continue to throw themselves at me," laughed Lord of Fendig.
"My Lord!" I snapped.
"Calm yourself, Master Marshall," he said looking up at me and smiling. "Besides, no one likes to be looked down upon."
"My apologies," I said, chastened. "Shall we sit, My Lord?"
Lord of Fendig nodded. Two guards brought over a padded wooden bench and placed it just behind us. I thanked the guards and admired the craftsmanship and design of the bench.
"How did you know Beverlee suffered so?" I asked while helping Lord of Fendig sit.
"The holes in their wall grew," he said. "Eventually, holes become tunnels."
Lord of Fendig nodded and his guards took several steps back.
"Fendig experienced a boom of babies born rather quickly," he added quietly. "Mothers want their children raised in safety and with abundance."
"So," I said. "The smuggling of people out was true."
"And the midnight trade in food through those holes became... exploitive."
"You showed restraint in your plan, My Lord," I said. "Were they deserving? Their leaders impoverished themselves in those walls."
"Does it matter?" said Lord of Fendig. "We benefit from their skills, and they from ours."
We looked beyond the Open Market to watch local artists and Beverlee masons climb scaffolds together to complete the new arena for the Tourney of Rings. I considered how Beverlee engineers and laborers helped us repair our damn and irrigation systems, and how these earnings financed new roads and schools near their homes.
"The skills required to build walls go by many names and have many uses," I said.
"Indeed," said Lord of Fendig smiling. "Just as old fences can become new benches."
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, November 3rd, 2020

Author Comments

This story, which began years ago as a frustration with walls, found firmer footing after a wonderful person, colleague and friend of mine died in 2019. He taught and supported me and my team many times over the years; he made powerful arguments with a light touch. "Holes in the Fence" is dedicated to Jim Fendig.

- Brooks C. Mendell
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