Whether one cheats on taxes and gets away with it, or nicks the neighbor's tomatoes in the dead of night when no one sees, the deeds are still wrong, just like the big stuff of robbing and plundering and getting away with it because no one is willing to stop you.
I'd got just enough time to lay in a good supply of herbs and stuff before the sore throat and fever season arrived, so I was out picking elderberries to make into a potion, and some raspberry leaves for Sore Throat Tea before they'd fall off the spiny canes. The elderberries grow well along the little dirt roads that cut through the woods, and as I methodically harvested the dusty little blue fruits, I came around a corner of the track and there lay Svartheim, one of the three dwarves that run the village inn, his forehead swelling in a big old goose-egg bruise.
I put my buckets-and-yoke down, and knelt down beside him. His pulse was strong and he seemed to be breathing all right, but with a knock on the head like that he probably had a concussion. I rolled him onto his side and poured a little water down the back of his neck.
Svartheim groaned and blinked, and tried to sit up. I pulled him around so that he was facing into the light. "Look at me," I said, and grasped one of his eyelids to keep it open. The pupils contracted, and I made a shade with my hand. In the shadow, his eyes adjusted properly again. Maybe his head was harder than I thought.
He pushed at my hands and rolled around in order to climb to his stocky little legs. "Freeze those dirty little goat-boffers to the ninth level of Hell!" he grated, and staggered about picking up stones and dirt clods and throwing them down the road past the bend in a frenzy of anger. The last one he threw hard, bouncing it off a tree trunk, startling a horned owl, who swooped toward his head, causing Svartheim to fall down again. "Asshole," the owl told him and silently glided into the forest.
"They took it all," Svartheim said. "Those monkey-yanking thieves stole my cart, my pony, and my trade goods."
"Did you see who they were?" I offered him a sip of my water.
"Twas a bunch of goose-prodding Thrips!" he shouted, and poured most of the water over his face to cool the purple-blue knob on his head.
Thrips, just wonderful, I thought. You'd think we lived far enough away from the big cities to be able to avoid the dwarf-gangs and their drug culture and interminable feuds. "Svartheim, what'd they take in the cart?"
"Horse-honking, cowmandering sons of --"
"Svartheim! What did they steal from you?" I roared.
"You may have been hit on the head, but you know what I'm asking," I said, grasping his collar to help him support himself in a responsible manner.
"Quit choking me! It was supplies for a business venture," he muttered, and coughed when I shook him again. "The Fart sisters and me were going to open a resort. They were gonna supply the liquor, and I was going to make one of those big swimming lakes."
"Svartheim, if you don't tell me what was in the cart, I'm going to start telling your customers about the dead rat in your cooler last summer. And all its little visitors!"
He mumbled something that could have been "diamonds" or "firelight" but was actually ...
"Dynamite?? You were hauling dynamite? Just totin' a load of dynamite along a secluded road in an unguarded pony cart? For what? How much, you idiot, how many sticks were there?"
"How the hell was I supposed to know I'd get robbed? No one uses this road much! We were just going to use it to make a nice little lake off the creek. You know how it makes a crater when it blows. It woulda been perfect." He backed out of my reach and sat down in the shade of the wild grape vines that encroached on the little road. "Those goat-gropers ...! Hey, can I have some more of that water?"
When he reached for the waterskin, I grabbed his arm. "How many sticks of dynamite, 'Heim?"
"Six," he admitted with a sigh.
"Do you know how much damage those bastards are going to cause with six sticks of dynamite?" I asked him. "They could level a village. They could level our village." Why hadn't the little dork just paid for armored courier?
"Cases," he added, bringing his hands up to ward off any incoming kicks.
I sat down on the track, my knees weak and stomach shriveled. With that kind of armament, the Thrips could take over most of this valley and hold it against any army. Use the dynamite for threats to get more money, use the money to get more dynamite, until they were entrenched little no-brain overlords.
Unless of course, the noblemen of the surrounding lands wanted to get together and just do a bare earth number on the province with their own weapons of mass destruction.
"We've got to tell someone about this," I said. "Soon. Maybe Lord Stonewall."
"Huhh! That pipe-sniffer! He'll probably leave the country."
"We've got to start somewhere. I'll go back to the village and get my staff. Maybe I can get a crow to take a message to a wizard I know." I hoisted my yoke with the two nearly full buckets of elderberries and headed back the way I'd come.
Damn flippin' gangs. They invade an area like roaches, and because they live among other populations, they're difficult to find and confront. Even if you can confront them, they'll say, "What did we do? Prove it. My brother Thrip (or Fudd) says I was at his house all day." Accuse them without the power to arrest or detain, and you'll find your house on fire the next week.
They rejoice in their invulnerability, and strut their cruel and extortionist ways -- because they cannot be "caught."
You've seen the seeds of this mentality in every walk of life. Is it wrong to spit on the sidewalk? Yeah, but if no one sees you do it, what's the big deal? Take the cart full of refuse into the mountains and dump it down an arroyo. No one complains, no problem. Get a corrupt accountant to figure your taxes to lower them below what you really owe, why, as long as you're not audited, you're fine. Sleep with the neighbor's daughter, and unless her father catches on, who cares?
So is it okay to sell drugs for your daily revenue, unless you're "caught"? Okay to break the legs of a rival gang member, since no one will put you in irons for doing so? Just fine to frighten old ladies if they're too scared to report you to the town magistrate?
When does it stop? Pinching fruit at the marketplace as long as no one sees you? Cheat on your spouse as long as they never find out? Are unsolved murders acceptable because no one was brought to trial? Will coercive bombings become part of our culture when no culprit can be formally charged?
I'd just started to feel the edge of panic thinking about the exposed position of the reservoirs of the city of Great Well, and the beautiful gardens of Shaddir when I heard noise ahead of me on the road. Thumping and rattling of an even sort that screamed "Militants!" to me. I threw myself down on the verge and sat still, and Svartheim plunked down close beside me.
A band of lizardmen rapidly trotted into view, their feet hitting the ground in unison. No tavern-sitters, these: they were well armed and their swords were unsheathed and they were mean-looking. They stopped all at once, and the leader said, "You seen any Thrips come through here? Those dragon-snacks stole our mead."
Before I could clap a hand over Svartheim's mouth he yapped, "They went down the road that way. The dirty ox-larding sons of -- Woof!" he said as my elbow struck him. "They stole my -- Woof!!" he continued until the elbow managed to find his throat.
"His cargo," I explained. "But you don't want to hunt them down, they're far from here by now. Perhaps you'd be interested in this worthy dwarf's inn for a drink on the house?"
"Nahh, we'll find those little leftover insect legs and drink our own mead," the lizardman said.
"You really don't want to do this," I said to him, "It's not worth the booze to get involved in this one. Don't take your troops into this fight."
His forked tongue flicked out and back. "What's the deal here? You in league with them?"
"No!" both Svartheim and I shouted. I continued, in the voice of authority, "I'm a shaman, Lizard Warrior. I foresee the destruction of your brethren if you challenge those Thrips. Do not choose to empty your spirits from the Well of the World."
The leader blinked the inner sets of his eyelids a couple of times. Then he scoffed, "If you're a shaman, where's your stick?" His scaly comrades burst into laughter as though he had told the funniest joke in the world. "Hey," he said, "Whatcha got in the buckets? Dustberries? We'll carry them for you, Stickless! We just ain't going in the same direction. Hahahahahaha!" They snatched up my buckets.
"Stop!" I commanded them, and they did, for a moment. "Be careful, the Thrips have a weapon that will turn any fire or spark against you! Go quietly if you have to go, and use no fire!"
The lizardman nearest me drew his sword with a ringing sound and stuck the point right under my chin. "One more word and you'll be calling this 'No Head Bend'."
I shut up, felt the little trickle of blood down my neck.
As soon as they were out of sight, I jumped to my feet and headed towards the village. Svartheim padded after me. "Now what?" he said.
"Same thing. I contact my wizard buddy, and then I set off for Lord Stonewall's castle to see what we can do."
"What about my investment?" the dwarf had the gall to ask.
"See your insurance agent," I suggested.
"I didn't insure the load."
"No shit, Svartheim. That's because no one would take the risk of transporting that much blowpower with no security."
"Well, who knew?" he shrugged, peeved.
"I knew. Everybody else in Midgard knew." I said helpfully. But just then the trees 'whished' in a peculiar breeze and a raucous 'Boom' stunned our ears. A massive column of smoke was presently seen above the trees, looking like a giant smoky mushroom. We stopped and watched it rise in the sky.
"Serves 'em all right," said Svartheim.
"No, it doesn't." I replied, disgusted. "They were all doing what they've been taught to do. How many deaths or destructions does it take before people figure out they have to be responsible for all their actions?"
"I don't know. How many? Is this like a lightbulb joke?"