[This was the start of a short story I wrote in 2002. It is not a complete story, but I am going to post it to compel myself and others to help develop the story. I make no claims to this being a good story. Certainly 15 years ago, I was into odd geographical names]
The gray skies of winter shrouded the town of Erni on the Jawf river. To the south, when not obscured by mist and rain, rose the Tula Mountains, and beyond that the iron fisted northern kingdom of Chari.
Ten years previous, Barre, Procounsul of the Outland Colonies of the Kethic Empire came to aid the local colonists that suffered under the rule of the elven prince of Aman, and two years prior had returned to liberate them from their fellow human Chari invaders. Now, Barre sat on a white stallion before his army to quell another enemy. One more sinister than he had ever faced: his own countrymen …
“Oh my god, I hate this!” Robard screamed as he crumpled up the paper he had just written.
“Hate what?” said the soldier who just entered his tent, unfastening one of the thirty buttons on this tunic.
“This!” Robard pointed at the bunches of crumpled pages on the dirt beneath him. “and this and this and this! All of it! I have no idea what the hell I am doing here. I can’t write anything.”
The soldier hung his tunic on a nail that had been driven into the center tent pole and bent upwards into a hook. “Then it was a poor choice of careers you chose, Mr. Tongue. I mean, writing is sort of the cornerstone of the newspaper business, isn’t it?”
“Sarcasm will not help me, Samuel.” Robard sighed as he pinched his fingers around the bridge of his nose. He felt the pains of anxiety pounding from the inside of his head. “It is not like I have something simple to do all day like march and eating.”
“Aren’t you in a bit of a snit today, Mr. Tongue.” Sam spit out. “You have been here three months and you still don’t know the first thing about soldiering.”
“I know enough that I do not intend to volunteer my services as a war correspondent again.” Robard said. “I thought I was going to be on some grand adventure saving the world for Queen and country. All I got so far is a bunch of pissy farmers who don’t like to pay taxes. It is stupid. General Barre will crush their little heads in, and if I write that then people will pity them. If I write how valiantly they stood against the greater opponent they look like heroes. I know that I am supposed to be impartial, but if I make Barre look like the villain, I will not be treated kindly for the rest of my time with the army. Not that it would matter because I would be sent home directly.”
“Well,” Sam said with a linger reluctance to continue, “Mr. Russell has already written his story and sent it to be dispatched back to his paper. I got a peek at it as he asked me to deliver it to the pony riders before he had added his wax seal. I must admit that he is as gifted with words as my sister is with a baker’s oven.”
Robard Tongues face turned red as wine. “First. Your sister’s baking isn’t good enough for the bricks used to build a begger’s hovel. Second, I warned you Sam! I warned you NEVER to use his name in here. This tent is my sanctuary from Mr. Wilkes Russell. I don’t ever want to hear that name in here.
And what do you know of story telling, Lieutenant Sam Belgae? You are a quartermaster. The closest you have ever come to a quill is by issuing the shoes from your supply tent.”
“I know,” said Sam reaching into his pants pocket smiling. “but this quartermaster is the man who makes all things possible. Everything works based on supply and demand: even wars. When there is a demand, hook or by crook, I supply. You, my friend, need something to loosen the constipation of your mind. I haven’t put ‘his story’ in the couriers pouch yet, so I thought maybe you could read it and get some ideas of your own.”
Pulled out from underneath his jacket was a piece of paper folded and sealed with wax. The address was very clearly printed: Keth Times c/o foreign desk. It was Wilkes Russell’s article.
“I use this,” Robard insisted. “That is plagiarism. Worse than plagiarism because it would be a theft not only of his words but a betrayal of my talent.”
“Plagiarism is just a word.” Sam said pressing the paper into Robard’s hand. “You don’t need to copy his work, just get some ideas.”
A cold rush washed over him before his face flushed. He could feel a pair of hidden eyes watching him as his paranoid fingers ran across the seal marked clearly “WR.” Wilkes Russell.
“How long have you been on the road with this army?” Sam asked.
“Seven weeks,” Robard replied.
“How many articles have you written?” Sam asked.
“None,” Robard replied. “But I have spent five weeks getting here.”
“Mr. Russell has written four articles since we have made camp here on the Jawf River.” Sam said. “I sent them myself. Tonight, I was in the officer’s mess, and there he was: his fingers racing across the page with his pen. He finished it so fast that he didn’t even bother to reread it. He just pushed it into my hand and told me to send it.”
“Then he entrusted you,” Robard said.
Sam smiled, “That is his mistake. Anyone could tell you that you never trust a quartermaster. It is my livelihood to scrounge, borrow or steal what we need to make this army run. His mistake is your fortune, Robbie. You have been my friend since we were ten years old. I am going to look after you one more time by offering you this gift. By the time the articles get published and copies of the papers get back to us, weeks will have passed and no one will remember who wrote what. Go ahead and look at it. Look at it.”
Without thinking or looking, Robard’s fingers ran underneath the seal and pushed until he heard the wax crack. Without the wax fastening, the paged opened on their own and Robard’s eyes instinctively leveled down on the page.
It was brilliant.
It was so well written that to alter any word, to change any punctuation, would have been blasphemous. So effortlessly, Wilkes Russell had painted the world with his words onto page. A little quip summarized the struggle of the Army and the unreasonableness of the farmers. It was the struggle of the compassionate general to find a solution amongst the choice of no good answers.
It was all rubbish of course. The General was a truly heartless and horrible man. The farmers were ruthlessly treated and taken advantage of by the army. The crops were either taken or trampled so there would be little profit to help the farmers through the winter. The life of a war correspondent was to remain employed, and that has less to do with writing the facts as much as selling the fiction.
“I need a drink,” Robard spat, dropping the article on the table. “Lets go to town.”
They walked out of the camp and into town to the “Black and Tan” the liveliest of the respectable pubs in Enri.
Even some of the locals that had not welcomed the coming of the imperial army crowed in with anticipation with the news that Wilkes “Wilkie” Russell had reported to the Outlands. Whichever side of the dispute, everyone was sure that Russell would triumph their cause.
Russell was a fine descriptive reporter, but made no claims of being a deep thinker. In fact, what had made him famous was his ability to simplify the world until anyone could understand it through plain descriptive accounts. He was also a master at being at the right place at the right time.
Wilkes Russell didn’t chase after news. The news chased after him. Generals would hold off battles for days until Russell arrived to cover it. Companies had prospered or folded by what was printed with his byline. People loved him and trusted what he said. His words were the very standards of understandable truths.
There were a few people who objected to Russell’s work. Not everyone agreed that the world could be described in the simplest of terms. But their protests just fuelled the flames of his fame.
“The world IS black and white,” he was quoted during a visit with the queen. “I know, because those are the only two colors I see on the page.”
Wilkes was a generously proportioned and pleasant looking fellow with so many chins even his beard and snowy white cravats couldn’t hide them all. Beneath his massive throat, he wore a miracle of embroidered silk both in workmanship and quantity.
A small glass was gently cupped in his hand which was constantly refilled by the bartender and a crowd that seemed to hover around him like moths to flame. Cheers and roars were so common an event from this crowd that it was almost impossible to ever hear Mr. Russell speak.
It was among this ruckus of clanging tankards and glasses, cheers and cattle calls that drew everyone’s attention. So it was not amazing to Robard Tongue that he had waited almost an hour to get his pint of ale.
It was also not remarkable that Robard Tongue was not among the worshippers of Mr. Russell. It sickened him. It shouldn’t have. Russell was a good writer. But no one was ever that good. Or were they?