In the great square of the western plaza in the mountain city of Shaddir, a story-teller gives a history lesson that may or may not be largely hearsay. So what does a crowd want, the McNeil-Lehrer Report?
"Kaladang," the story-teller told the young folk sitting nearest the fire, "they say came sailing up from the southern oceans on a trading ship, passing by these very lands. He made his way to the fertile plateau in the mountains, and obtained a position in a castle where he knifed his way up the chain of command of a lesser lord. There he became the general of the lord's armies."
"He was one hell of a tactician -- even his worst enemies admit that," said an older man aloud.
The story-teller nodded and continued. "After a short time of undermining the lord's authority, he earned his name by removing the head of his lord after a banquet in the lord's own hall, and in a matter of hours, those of the lord's remaining outspoken supporters. Everyone else shut up, understandably, at the prospect of facing Kaladang and his two-bladed axe.
"In the beginning of his power only the castle-dwellers fell silent in cowardly agreement. But soon resistance to Kaladang's plans melted away before his ever-greater forays across the land. Anyone who spoke out against him was likely to be found in pieces, adorning stakes outside a village along with anyone who had agreed to revolt. No leader springing from the people had enough time to organize an effort against him, for Kaladang had found a great weapon to subdue the high plateau lands: cheap horses.
"Since the days of discovery of the horse as a weapon of war, and discovery of armor as a preventative of death by warfare, the two were ever more designed to match one another. Think of all the castles we know -- they have an armored cavalry; the riders are armored to withstand just about any long-distance weapon, and the mounts are bred to carry knights in the heaviest armor. Those horses are big, with natural slowly measured paces so as not to unbalance the rider in his metal jumpsuit, and that allows the rider ample time to move his full metal jacket into position for engagement with the enemy."
The story-teller paused to let the audience ponder the evolution of weaponry and transportation, taking a long drink from a jug of water tinged with vinegar to keep his voice clear. His voice quickened.
"Kaladang took a different approach. He bought up horses (raided farms for more than a few of them, too) and mounted his entire army on the nondescript nags. Then he taught his men how to ride -- fast, no armor, able to deploy bows or swords quickly and in close quarters. Since the horses he used were of little value, his riders would take their steeds full upon the spike defenses of an enemy, leave the injured animals behind, and open a gate or wall for the rest of Kaladang's army to flow through. Suddenly the armor of knights was useless, as the mounted swordsmen of Kaladang would sweep upon the heavily burdened warhorses like swift wolves, cutting the knight's mount to pieces beneath him.
"His horse cavalry moved quickly, and there were so many of them they were impossible to guard against. Even against castle defenses, his soldiers just rode out of reach of catapults and arrows, and surrounded the place until it was starved out. If it took years, why then, Kaladang's troops foraged easily, and let their horses breed to produce animals for food." The story-teller looked at a group of adolescents who were still trying to figure out if the adults were telling a history or a tall tale. Sternly, he intoned, "They used them for weapons and burdens, they trained them and fed them, and they ate them and wore their hides."
"Yuck," said one of the kids. "The horses we have are more like partners. They help us till the fields, and so we care for them."
Another offered, "Then Kaladang saw the horse sort of like we see cattle and goats and chickens?"
A child of ten, sitting just out of reach of the older children, scoffed, "Do you use cattle and goats and chickens as weapons? It's not the same."
"You're right, it's not the same," said a young woman nearby. "A swordsman doesn't use his weapon to scrape the mud from his boots or to cut kindling."
"Are you saying that if something is used as a weapon, it can't be part of every day life?" asked a man loudly.
I hate these interactive performances, thought the story-teller. You need a whip and a roll of duct tape to keep the story on track.
"They used the creatures for death, and yet used them for life as well. Death for others, life for themselves. Is that right? Is that just?"
"No, but it's kind of creepy," said one of the kids. "Like those dudes who wear the skulls of their enemies for hats."
The story-teller sighed wearily to himself and decided just to forge on with his tale. "At that time, Kaladang was content. He had more than enough pasture and grain for his horses, no real security issues (all of his adversaries were dead), and his work force and merchant class all knew their places. Their places were right on the margin of livable, with tribute to Kaladang leaving them hurting but not mortally wounded, sustenance-wise. Villages policed their own people, keeping them in line, for if one hothead took it in mind to stand against Kaladang, in reprisal the Axe would order the entire village executed man, woman, and child.
"Most of the time, all the soldiers of Kaladang's cavalry had to do was practice riding while slicing and dicing. The horses had plenty of good food (the southern lands had been cleared of trees and people and planted in oat fields) and the riders had plenty of food, and the only people who weren't happy were everybody else.
"But then something interesting happened. An itinerant wizard passed by, and seeing the plight of the people, put a curse of the lands of Kaladang. Every time a soldier would mount a horse, horseflies would appear to bite the horse.
"Now for those of you who have never seen one, a horsefly is an insect about the size of the last joint of your thumb, and when it bites, it takes a chunk of flesh like the hook on a cat-o'nine-tails. Even the most agreeable horse will flinch and move if bitten, and if the horse is bitten by numerous horseflies each time a rider tries to get in the saddle, what does the horse learn? Exactly, son. Riding equals pain.
"The horses began to buck and kick and bite and stampede when the soldiers would approach them. They broke down fences and escaped into the fields and countryside. The innovative weapon of light cavalry was broken.
"What was more, the wizard's curse mobilized all the insects to attack the army, each and every soldier. At first they tried wearing clothing like beekeepers wear, with hat and netting and gloves and shoes and garments tied together to keep the ants and mosquitoes and bees and stinkbugs away, but then they noticed that non-combatants weren't bothered at all, and through even the thickest heads the thought was born that being in Kaladang's employ was not worth the constant attraction of bedbugs and cockroaches. The soldiers began to desert, stealing booty where they could, and by mid-summer, Kaladang's capital was nearly empty. The populace, seeing the army unmanned, began drifting away, and there was no one who could bring them back.
"The horses found the vast expanses of grain-fields, and by next spring will have grown fat and fit and will have so many foals that the wild-horse herds will sound like thunder when they gallop."
For many, this was news, and the audience mumbled together for a while, digesting the prospect of a Kaladangless world.
"At first Kaladang sought revenge, but every time he hired someone to try and find out the wizard who cursed him, insects would appear from beneath the floorboards or the grass and immediately try to make a dining and dancing date on the recruit's person.
"Seeing the donkeys unaffected by the horseflies, Kaladang packed up on jacks and jennies what remained of his looted treasury and left his erstwhile country, allegedly heading north to the Elvish lands called Saseskatchewannis, which means 'Land of Itchy Vines.' There he disappeared from sight, but never from the history of Midgard."
The story-teller bowed, and set his hat on the ground. He turned away (it not being polite to look to see what tip one is getting) and began greeting people in the audience.