Small towns are easy for governments to oppress. Populated mostly by the elderly and under-educated, the small village of Hopsteadt was prime. Their taxes were raised 10, 20, 30 percent. Farming quotas were doubled, then tripled, on land that was worn from hundreds of years of over-cultivation. Children who did show any sign of promise and intelligence were shipped off to boarding school and never returned. When food rations for the village were cut, that seemed to be the last straw. People complained loudly. Yet, they were unable to organize themselves enough to mount a serious protest.
Hopsteadt had never been a very big or very important town. While it could trace its origin all the way back to the seventh century A.D.E., its primary purpose for most that time was to house the servants working in Hopsteadt castle, a huge, imposing stone structure sitting on a crag of rock on the North side of town. The castle was the primary place of employment for the town’s citizens for centuries. Fortunes and well-being came and went with the compassion and generosity of the castle’s current inhabitants. Even today, the Hopsteadt family still owned the majority of land in town. Only a few owned their homes outright. Instead, they payed rent to an unseen and unresponsive trust.
The last known heir of the Hopsteadt family, Lord Richard Astor Hopsteadt, left the castle and removed all its belongings in 1878, creating for the village economic disaster. For many years the castle sat empty . In the 1920s, an encampment of nudists made the castle their summer home, but they moved quickly when winters harsh winds set in and there were not enough forests nearby to supply the large fireplaces. During World War II, both Allied and German forces occupied the castle for a while, but there really was no strategic advantage to its location, no real resources or easy supply routes, so both moved on after a while. In the 60s, wanderers, thieves and drug addicts would find occasional shelter inside the castle walls, but eventually, they too moved on. There was nothing about Hopsteadt that gave anyone a reason to stay.
No one was really surprised the day they each received formal letters announcing that the government was taking control of Hopsteadt. The burden of living there had become so great most were way behind on their rent. No one had paid their annual taxes in a couple of years. There was no community revenue. Government control could have been a relief for the small village. Instead, with the letter came an order for everyone to vacate the town. There would be no relocation assistance. Anyone left would be imprisoned. Of the 225 residents, only two owned vehicles, and one of those was an early model Smart car, maximum occupancy two very small people. The residents of Hopsteadt were stuck.
At first, no one noticed lights burning in the castle. The old edifice was so neglected, no one in town even bothered looking at it any more. When villagers did notice what appeared to be candle light, they paid little attention. So some vagrant had moved into the castle. Let them have it, was the common view. After all, the government would be along soon enough to drive them out as well.
A small group of soldiers arrived in trucks on a day marked by cold rain. Streets were muddy and there was a stench of raw sewage in the air. The soldiers had orders to vacate the town through whatever means necessary. Any residents still existing were to be trucked to Rielsburg, 80 kilometers to the South, and dropped off on a random street corner. Any resisting were to be arrested. The soldiers were not heavily armed. Their rifles weren’t even loaded. No one in Hopsteadt was in any position to resist. For the military, this was more of a nuisance mission.
With three trucks parked at the East end of town, an officer approached the first shack of a house and was about to knock on the door when a loud, piercing shriek stopped him in his tracks. The soldiers looked around for the source, but could see nothing that would have elicited such a high decibel noise.
Noticing his squad had stopped in their tracks, the commanding officer berated them. “What, you let the scream of a little girl stop you? You’re a bunch of pansies! Get these people out of here!”
Again, the officer stepped toward the door, and again the ground vibrated with the energy of an inhuman scream that continued until the soldiers were on their knees, trying to stop their ears. When the noise finally abated, they all quickly loaded live rounds into their rifles and began looking desperate for the source. They found nothing.
The commander realized that, outside this piercing noise, the town was quiet. There was no sound of people shuffling about inside the houses. There was no sign of anyone moving. He shoved open the door to the small house and found it empty. The next house was the same, as was the one after that. The commander began to feel uneasy. There was no one here.
“Seems they’ve already gone without us,” he said to his troops. “Fan out and make sure there are no stragglers. Take anything of value. The bulldozers will be here to level the remains first thing in the morning.”
Soldiers began moving uneasily between the houses. Something didn’t feel right and they had all been trained to trust their instincts in situations like this. If something didn’t feel right, there was probably a damn good reason. After several minutes of searching and finding no one, the soldiers began to relax. They lit cigarettes and began talking about how to divide the looting.
“It’s not like there’s really anything of value here,” said one young soldier. “These were all old people with old things. Its not like you’re going to find a laptop or big screen TV.”
“I wouldn’t even bother with the dishes from a dump like this,” said another. “We could check for jewelry, though. This is a pretty old town.”
By the time they had divided up the town, the soldiers were relaxed again and laughing. They slung their rifles on their backs and began spreading across the small town. This time, however, they were met with a wind that blew them away from the houses and into the streets.
The surprised soldiers sat on the ground, stunned. “How is that even possible?” the commander bellowed. “Wind can’t come from two different directions at the same time!”
They stood up and started again toward the houses. This time, mud flew into their faces, blinding them and setting them back.
The commander screamed. “What the fuck is going on in this stupid town? Get in those houses, get what you’re getting, and let’s get out of here!”
Again, a heavy wind buffeted the soldiers, forcing them togethert.
“I think you just need to get out of here and leave the houses alone,” an unfamiliar voice ordered.
There she stood at the West end of the village, dressed in black, her auburn hair swept back, her hands on her hips, a sense of ferociousness about her.
“Ma’am, I am Lieutenant Karl …” the commander started.
“I know damn well who you are, lieutenant,” she interrupted. “And your orders have been officially rescinded. You and your men need to get back on those trucks and leave. Immediately.”
Angered, the lieutenant started toward the woman, but was met instantly with a wall of mud knocking him on his back.
“Perhaps you had difficulty hearing me the first time,” she said. “You and your men need to leave.” Her voice did not have the tone of one shouting, yet thundered through the village with a force that rattled windows in their panes.
The lieutenant stood and wiped the mud from his face. He was glad his troops could not see the visible signs of his embarrassment. He reached for his rifle and flipped off the safety. Behind him, he could hear the others do the same. “Ma’am, I need to know on whose authority…”
“I am the authority here!” she bellowed. “You will do as I say or you will pay the consequences! Now, get back on those trucks!”
The ground shook beneath the soldiers’ feet. Behind her, dark storm clouds began to billow. Thunder echoed ominously in the distance. The troops huddled together, their backs to each other as though surrounded. Each could feel the fear of the other.
Still, the lieutenant would not back down. “I don’t even know who you are,” he said, trying to muster his own sense of authority. “I’ll need to see some identification and authorization.”
She held out her hand as though beckoning him to her. He took a step forward, then found himself flying through the air until he crashed through the windshield of the nearest truck. The troops shouldered their rifles and took aim.
“You really don’t want to do that, boys,” she growled, and with the slightest motion of her wrist, the rifles were yanked from their hands and tossed into the mud.
She walked up to the nearest soldier who was shaking with fear to the point of soiling his uniform. “Take this message back to your lousy excuse for a government: The Lady Hopsteadt has returned to the castle and I’m pissed. This land is now and will forever remain mine. I will protect the people of this village and bring them prosperity. Anyone attempting to interfere will be eliminated. Understand?”
The soldier nodded his head and gave the order for the others to return to their trucks and leave. They removed the lieutenant’s body from the windshield and quickly sped away.
In the grand hall of the castle, Lady Hopsteadt addressed the villagers, whom she had brought to the castle for safety. “I’m sorry to see you have suffered so,” she said. “My grandfather told me stories of this place, but he had never been here, nor had his father or grandfather before him, so I thought they were nothing more than stories, and I think he did, too. Had we known you were in such need, we would have come to your rescue sooner.”
“But what will we do now?” asked one. “Certainly the soldiers will only return in greater force!”
Lady Hopsteadt smiled. “You may stay here in the castle as long as you wish, if you feel the village unsafe. But my being here touches nerves deep within the government. My family’s history is not all forgotten. If they are wise, they will leave us alone.”
The villagers murmured for a moment, not quite sure whether to believe this sudden miracle that had come so surprisingly to their rescue. At last, an elderly woman, hunched with age, her grey hair matted around her wrinkled face, stepped forward to ask, “Does this mean we will all, again, have jobs in the castle?”
The tall heroine knelt down and took the old woman’s hands in hers. “Dear one, have you not had enough of trouble in your life? Yes, those able to work may do so, and will be finely compensated for their efforts. But for you, all of you, whose bones grow brittle and your bodies worn, you will have peace and comfort the rest of your days. You have suffered enough.”
Lady Hopsteadt stood, her imposing figure seeming to tower over the villagers. “Word has now reached Berlin of my return,” she said. “I think they will leave us well enough alone. You will not be left unguarded again. And we will all live in peace.”