Guarding Books

“Books!” muttered Bryan. “I’m hanging from this rope to get books.”

Bryan was a professional caravan guard, used to crossing these mountains with expensive cargoes. Generally, he expected substantial bonuses for ensuring the safe passage of his employer’s goods. The bonuses were guaranteed by the sale of the expensive cargo.

But times were hard, and fewer and fewer caravans crossed the mountains, and bonuses were smaller and smaller. If it weren’t for that, he would never have taken employment with a woman. She’d said her cargo was valuable, and she’d offered good rates—exceptionally good in these poor economic times. As a result, Bryan was leading a team of half a dozen guards guarding a train of mules loaded with bags and boxes.

Then in the worst part of the pass a mule’s load had slipped, and one of the bags came loose. It was incompetent cargo handling, or perhaps even an attempt to sabotage the train and allow a robbery. But he couldn’t convince Lady Ilra of the danger. He couldn’t convince her that her life and the rest of her possessions were more valuable than a single sack of goods.

He had even asked her what she would have done if the bag had fallen all the way into the canyon. “Use a longer rope,” had been her quick answer.

So here he was, most of a rope length down the cliff, desperately trying to manage the rope and grab the sack that was lying on the ledge. Then through the partially loose mouth of the sack he identified the contents. Books! Each carefully wrapped in what looked like water resistant, oiled paper.

His first impulse was to shove the sack off the cliff and let it fall the rest of the way. But then he looked up to the point where his rope ended on the path, and she was looking down at him. She was a small woman, easy for him to defeat, he assumed, but she was up there, and he was down here, and she was holding a dagger. The message was clear. Send the sack up on the second rope, or I’ll cut the one you’re hanging from. He could only hope she meant that he’d be forced to take an additional length of rope and recover the books from the canyon floor.

So he carefully arranged himself so that he could hang from the rope and secure the sack, then tied it to the second rope. To add insult, she pulled the sack of books all the way up first, and only then allowed his men to bring him to the top of the cliff. It was humiliating to do this at a woman’s command, but it was insufferable to do it for books.

As they reloaded the mule, watching the cargo-master secure the load correctly, two of his men whispered in his ear.

“We’ve figured out that we are guarding books,” they said. “We’re agreed that we shouldn’t have to risk our lives for that.”

“We need the money,” he pointed out.

“Well, we can kill her, dump the books, and keep the money she has already paid. We only have her word that there is any more money awaiting us at the end of this journey.”
“Very well, I’ll demand double our pay, and when she refuses, we’ll dump her. That will provide a good story for any future caravan.”

Ilra had watched the men very carefully, but subtly, and she fully expected what was about to happen.

“The men are not happy to be guarding books,” said Bryan.

:”What difference does it make to you, so long as you are paid?”

“That’s just it. How do we know we will be paid? We assumed you had a valuable cargo, and that would assure our payment when sold at the end of the journey.”

“I have the money ready for you at journey’s end.”

“That’s not enough.”

“Oh? You demand double your pay, and half of the extra now.”

Bryan tried to hide his surprise at her accurate guess. Why hadn’t he thought of demanding half of the extra pay now?

“For double the pay, we’ll guard your books, humiliating as it is.”

She didn’t so much stand, as spring into a standing position, with a rapier in her hand. “You really should have thought of asking for half your extra pay immediately,” she said. “You really aren’t very bright.”

He reached for his sword, stung by the insult, angered at the way she intimidated him. How stupid could she be thinking that a woman 5′ 2” with a rapier could fight someone 6′ 1” and more than double her weight—all of his muscle!

There was movement, so quick he wasn’t certain what had happened. His hand stung, and in surprise he lost hold of his sword. It clattered to the ground and came to a stop, precariously perched on the edge of the path. He was disarmed. By the time he realized that, her rapier was at his throat.

The men behind maneuvered for position, but it was simply not possible to edge by the two leaders in order to join the fight. It was between Bryan and Ilra.

“For what I paid you,” said Ilra, “you will guard my books across the mountains. For your stupidity, you forfeit the second half of your pay, but I may, just may restore it if you do an exceptional job the rest of the way.”

“But lady, why take all thjs risk for books?”

“You think my books are useless, do you?”

“You can’t eat them, you can’t sell them. I’m a practical man. I like things that work.”

“Interesting, then, that you are standing there unarmed, while I, a woman and a bookworm have you at my mercy. One might almost think I was the more practical person!”

“Let’s see,” she continued. “I knew what you were going to propose because I know how to read lips, a technique I learned from a book. It’s loaded on the left hand side of the fourth mule. I know where it is by a memory technique I learned in another book, this one on the right hand side of the fifth mule.”

“You are disarmed using a technique I learned from another useless book, designed to teach people who are smaller than average techniques that give them the advantage over large boneheads such as yourself. You believe that I will be unable to sell any of my books, and most of them I don’t actually want to sell, but some of them I do. I know who will pay for them, and how much, because of information I found in another one of those useless books. One of those bags of books toward the rear is worth about 5,000 silver crowns at our destination.”

“But I also have an arrangement with a banker there so that I have much more at my disposal than the miserable pittance I’m paying you for this passage even without selling any books.”

“Most importantly to you right now, however, is the fact that another book back there teaches one techniques with the rapier. I could, of course, simply drive the rapier into your throat and you would fall dead. You think your men would then kill me, but because I’ve spent my time reading stupid, worthless books, I know better. Instead, I could do this—she removed a button from his shirt right over his heart with a flick of the rapier—and with a slight modification you would be bleeding to death. That weapon belt, which bears the throwing daggers you’re hoping to reach for is easily dealt with as well.” With a another flick the belt was cut through and fell to the ground.”

“My question is this,” she said. “Would you rather die here and now, or would you rather guard this train the rest of its way to its destination and recover your pay?”

Fighting fury and terror in equal measures Bryan grated out, “I’ll see to it that you make it.”

“I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking you’ll catch me asleep and kill me later. But another book back there has taught me about traps and alarms—deadly traps. Do you know that I know how to make at least 15 different poisons with materials we have with us, each of which could kill you and all your men?” It was her first lie, but it was a necessary one.

“We’ll serve you well, lady,” said a defeated Bryan.

And the caravan of useless books moved on through the mountains.

Copyright © 2007 Henry E. Neufeld

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