The muffled drumming of horses’ hooves echoed around the hillsides, drowning out the gentle murmur of the river as it threaded its way through drifts of grey gravel streaking the valley floor. The small army of horsemen, brandishing powerful bows and long lances, clattered to the top of a rise. Their leader raised his hand and the horsemen came to a halt. Nobody spoke as silence again descended on the peaceful valley.
The leader’s cold eyes surveyed the land ahead. It was green and lush, unlike the vast dry lands of his legendary ancestor, Genghis Khan. “Are you sure this is the place?” growled General Kung Kong, his careful gaze taking in the contours of the valley.
His second-in-command, Dim Sim, coughed gently. “According to our charts, O Leader, this area is known to the people of the land as the Central Bay of Hawks.”
General Kong frowned. “And you are certain that they are talking about building a dam here?”
Dim Sim consulted his parchment map. They had been riding for two days after anchoring their ships off the northern sweep of the Bay of Hawks. The horsemen had skirted a port town perched on a bluff and headed inland at dusk, observing the glow of fires on the walls of the walled town known as Hustings, home to the Roman provincial ruler, Lawrencus Yulus.
General Kong had considered calling on Lawrencus, but changed his mind after hearing rumours of sheep worship and bacchanalian wine festivals in the town. A spy had told him Lawrencus was plotting to overthrow the rival town of Napierion, but hadn’t decided on an outfit to wear.
The horsemen had camped on the Plain of the Two Dragons before setting out at sunrise for the dam site. Dim Sim nodded at his general. This was indeed the valley where the dam would be built.
General Kong looked at the thin stream of water and gave a snort of derision. “Not exactly The Three Gorges,” he said. “Looks more like the mountain giant relieving himself.”
His troops looked at each other then laughed nervously. The general slowly shook his head in puzzlement.
“But a dam in this area will still be very costly. I have seen very few people here so how will they pay for such a structure?”
Dim Sim shrugged his shoulders. “Nobody has thought about that,” he replied.
The general scratched his chin. This land of low cloud was indeed shrouded in mystery. He had heard stories of wizards and tiny creatures called hobbits living in houses built into hillsides. He glanced at the hills around him. A sheep stared back. It reminded him that Lawrencus Yulus had statues of sheep in the centre of his town. He flinched uncomfortably at the thought.
“Perhaps the region’s rulers have gathered all the wealth for themselves,” he mused. “I saw a great stadium near Hustings. Does this Lawrencus have great wealth in his town’s coffers?”
“Our spies tell us he has only a piece of paper in a large box with the letters IOU on it,” said Dim Sim.
“What does that mean?” murmured General Kong.
“Each letter represents a word or group of words, like a code,” replied Dim. “The I means ‘I have borrowed much money’. The O means ‘I am over my head in debt’ and the U means ‘my people have to underwrite my debts’.”
General Kong shook his head slowly. “Borrowed money disappears through a borrower’s hands like water from a cheaply built dam,” he said. His men nodded in unison. They knew he was wise and that it was even wiser to agree with him.
Dim Sim thought for a moment. “The dam will store water when the winter rains are plentiful so farmers can irrigate their land and graze many cows,” he said. “That shows great wisdom. Isn’t that what we have done with the mighty Three Gorges dam?”
“Indeed but our rulers have ensured that our country is wealthy enough to build many dams and factories without being distracted by unnecessary investigations into funding and engineering issues. Some villages are now 60 metres under water but I did not hear a word of complaint,” said the general, “and yet everyone here moans about leaky homes.”
He looked at the empty landscape around him. The sheep seemed no longer interested in him. He relaxed slightly and mused aloud.
“How will these farmers pay for such a dam? It is clear they will have to come to us for help. And when it is built, they will struggle to meet their share of its cost. So then they will have to sell their land and leave.”
Dim Sim was silent for a moment. “But if they are foolish enough to build a dam they can’t afford and eventually have to leave their farms, who will buy their lands and all of those cows?”
The general looked at him and slowly smiled.
He waved his arm and the valley again echoed to the drumming of hooves as the horsemen headed for the coast.