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Chapter XI

“You’ll have to hand over your cargo,” the farmer said nervously, standing on the other side of a log studded with wooden stakes that had been drawn across the road. “We won’t let you go any farther, and we could use whatever’s in those wagons.”

It seemed the farmer was trying to be polite. He looked nervous, and he was holding a rusty spear in one hand. He was dressed a motley assortment of old leather armor and some bits of plate that looked as if it had last seen service in the War of the Three Kings against Leale, eighty-odd years ago.

Allen wondered who’d set up this scam on the road that had held up his caravan. No noble or townsman had the right to block the king’s road or impede the movement of the Legions, and he’d never heard of an attempt like this one before. If he didn’t get out of the way, the fellow was going to get a rude awakening into why you didn’t impede the Guard.

But something didn’t feel right about this. So instead of ordering his men to clear the road, he sat there trying to figure it out.

Allen gestured to the spiked log drawn across the road. “Drag that out of the way, burn it, and go home. Don’t come back and try this again.”

The peasant glanced to the side nervously. “I can’t do that,” he replied, his voice coming out steadier than he looked. “You’ll have to hand over your inventory and step away from the wagons. I’ve got a hundred men behind me here, all of them armed to the teeth and good fighters too.”

Allen glanced at the rag-tag line of badly equipped peasants standing behind the man. Most of them looked like been harried out of the fields for the purpose. Perhaps twenty of them had something resembling respectable weapons. None of them was wearing anything more than a boiled leather jerkin and a few pieces of old plate. He shook his head, wondering at what madness had driven them to these lengths.

He couldn’t let the challenge pass, and he couldn’t let them keep impeding the traffic on the king’s road, but he decided that he was loath to cut through a band of farmers who didn’t know what they were up against and who didn’t seem to know the law they were breaking. These were the people it was his job to protect, and beyond the moral obligation that laid on him, how would it look if the king’s Legions suddenly turned on their own people. Who had put them up to this, he wondered, and why were they doing it? There had to be someone behind it, and they had to know that the king would take this sort of thing badly. Farmers didn’t tend to just leave off their work to stand guard over a road. They had more important things to do.

He rubbed his hand along his saddle bow from where he sat looking down at the farmer. Maybe a noble had gotten it into his head to stir up the peasantry in order to produce just the sort of blood-bath and political uproar that Allen wanted to avoid. If that were the case, attacking these fellows would be playing right into their hands, in a far more delicate game than he was used to.

“Whose idea was this,” he asked the farmer, gesturing over the band of gathered peasants. The rattle-clap armor made them look worse off than they actually were, he decided. They all looked healthy and sun-darkened from the fields. It wouldn’t be hard to take them down, but it would mean the fields in this area would be half-functional for years, at best. “And what is your name?”

“Jerim, sir,” said the farmer, politely. “And the priest is the one who told us this’d be the best way. He explained how the king isn’t looking out for us any longer and how we’d have to do it ourselves. So he suggested we block off the roads like this.” He seemed eager to talk. Perhaps he was aware of the two hundred Guardsmen waiting around the caravan and thought talking was better than fighting. Forty of them were standing in formation behind Allen while the others kept an eye out for ambushes and were scattered back down the line.

“A priest?” Allen asked in disbelief. Since when had a priest made it his job to stir up the citizenry. They were supposed to take care of the people, not give them ideas that would get them killed. “A priest of what god?” He glanced over his shoulder towards the Ghostwood. Maybe there was a connection.

“Our priest follows Kaisa, the Goddess of Luck,” the man replied. “He’s brought luck to our fields for years. We trust him to know what’s right.”

Blood and shadow, Allen thought. How was he supposed to convince a man so obviously used to doing what his priest said and not thinking about it. “You realize that my men and I can clear you off this road with every justification, for impeding traffic on the king’s roads and brigandry? You’ll be hung as thieves.”

The farmer Jerim shifted his weight nervously. “You’ll have a fight on your hands if you try to take us,” he replied. “And I wouldn’t be so confident that you’ll win that one.” He glanced back over his shoulder. “I’d give my lads fair odds against yours any day of the week.”

There was confidence and then there was just blind foolishness, Allen decided. Jerim had both in abundance. He just couldn’t see what was in front of his face. Who was this priest that had put them up to this?

“Why don’t you go and bring your priest out here to talk to me,” he suggested. “Otherwise, I’m going to have to remove you from this road. And don’t ask for the cargo again. It’s going to the northern forts.”

Jerim looked back to his men, but all he got was a few shrugs in response. Apparently they knew when to keep quiet and wait for a higher authority to settle things. If only Jerim had been so obliging as to recognize Allen as that authority and move off the road. He sighed as he glanced up to check the position of the sun. This was taking too long. He’d wanted to be closer to Parm before sunset.

The farmer pointed out a couple of his men, “Jike, Nael, go ask Priest Retsin if he’ll come out here. Tell him there’s a big caravan that wants through.”

The two men nodded at Jerim, and set off at a sort of lazy amble towards town. At the rate they were going, it’d take an hour before they were back.

“Run, don’t walk!” Allen barked after them in his best parade ground voice. It seemed to jolt them into a faster pace for a moment, but then they settled back into a half-jog. He shook his head. At least it was faster than they were moving at first. They’d probably start walking again as soon as they were out of sight.

If he didn’t settle this conflict with the peasants here, they’d just bother the next trader or caravan to come along. And he couldn’t very well leave a group of brigands behind him on the road, however well-mannered they seemed to be. The next Guard officer to come by might not be as good-willed as he was, and there’d be a slaughter here.

He turned back to his men and called out, “Hasir, make sure the men drink something and that the horses are watered while we wait. Pass the word. We’re not making camp here.”

Hasir saluted, and a moment later one of his men was running back towards the caravan with a gratifying turn of speed. At least his men knew how to take a message somewhere.

“Jerim,” he said, looking back at the farmer. “I’m sure you think this is a fine idea, but have you really thought it through? What can you possibly gain from this?”

He gave the farmer a minute to think it through, and then added, “Even I did for some reason let you have the caravan, which I can’t do, some other Guard force would simply come through here and wipe you away without even asking a question, if you waved that spear in its face.”

The farmer started to looked nervous again, shifting his weight from side to side.

“Do you know how many Legions there are in Aciel?” Allen asked, determined to try and explain to the man exactly what he was doing wrong. “How many men that is?”

The farmer shook his head.

“There are over twenty Legions in the kingdom,” Allen replied, his voice hard, and he felt it rising as he spoke. “With five thousand men in each.”

He nodded towards the farmer’s retinue. “The Legions hold back the full might of Karn, defend the border from the northmen’s raids, keep the western border with Leale secure and peaceful, and protect the sea ports from pirates. How can you think that the king will stand for this? How do you expect to stand against the Legions?”

The farmer was looking decidely ill at ease, and glanced back towards his men again.

“You’re committing robbery and treason standing here, and you must know it,” Allen said. The foolhardy boldness of this farmer was not making for a good day. And the blindness of the man. “Do you believe that you are stronger than the armies of Karn, or more vicious than the pirates of the Feral Sea? More dedicated than the northmen, who would raid us to steal our goods and people to sell into slavery?”

He was practically shouting at the farmer now, and the farmer was edging back towards his men, gripping his spear tightly as he glanced around.

“Do you?” he roared at Jerim. His voice rose to a full stentorian bellow. “Tell me! Because that is what you are saying when you threaten the Legions with this nonsense! When you block the king’s highways and try to confiscate his cargo!”

The group of farmers looked a lot less sure of themselves than they had a moment before.

“There are two hundred of the King’s Guard in this supply train!” Allen roared at Jerim. “Even if your men were good enough to stand to toe-to-toe against us, we have twice your numbers! What sort of a blind fool cannot see this? Move out of the way! Go home!”

At about that time, a smooth voice interrupted him. “They cannot do that, I’m afraid.” It sounded educated, and it had a slight burr from the south. Allen left his shouts to hang in the air and turned to look at the source of the interruption.

A middle-aged priest was standing there, dressed in the red robes of Kaisa’s followers. A pendant with a gold flame hung from around his neck, and he had a walking staff in one hand. His face was lean and spare. He was standing near the path that led away from the road towards the town and the two men who’d been sent to fetch him were no where to be seen. He’d probably left them behind to get there faster.

“You’re the priest who put them up to this nonsense?” Allen asked him pointedly, his voice subsiding to a more regular level except for a slight roughness left from the shouting. He’d been hoping the men would scatter, but with this interruption they’d probably got their confidence back. The source of it was standing in front of him.

And as much as he didn’t like interfering with priests and their business, he’d have to try and take it away from them again. He couldn’t have them blocking the road. If nothing else, it was going to get them killed one of these days.

“Your people are obstructing the king’s highway, impeding the movement of his legions, and attempting to rob a supply caravan,” he told the priest. “And they say you put them up to it. You mind explaining why, before I arrest you and take to Parm?”

The farmers rustled about a bit at that, but they didn’t make any threatening moves. Perhaps his speech had cowed them after all.

“All that, in such a short time,” the priest replied. “Well, by all means, arrest me if you think it will do any good.”

Allen studied him for a moment. This was a little too easy. He’d expected some zealot spouting sedition, not someone polite who practically volunteered to be arrested.

Then he shrugged, and gestured to two of his men to come over. “Arrest him,” he said. He’d let the magistrates and the priesthood in Parm deal with the fellow. He didn’t know what to make of him.

The two guards came over and each took the priest by an arm.

“Tell your people to go home if you don’t want them to get hurt,” he told the priest.

The priest nodded to the farmers. “It’s all right,” he said. “I’ll be fine. Go on back to farming, and don’t bother the caravans any more.” It sounded like there was an odd echo in his voice when he spoke, and Allen shook his head to get the buzzing sound of it out of his ears.

Jerim and the rest of the farmers listened to him for a moment, and then started moving, picking up their gear and stepping off the road. A dozen of them started dragging the log off the road like he’d asked before.

Allen shook his head again, entirely confused now. Something was wrong here. He’d thought the point of all of this was to cause a political fiasco when the Guard cut its way through the farmers. Now it seemed there was something else going on. Why was the priest giving up so easily? Had he staged the entire thing?

The farmers were already starting to disperse, taking off down the path towards town. They hadn’t even asked the priest why he’d let himself be arrested.

He asked him. “I’d expected you to resist and make this difficult. What’s going on? Did you stage this entire thing just so I’d have a reason to arrest you?”

The priest smiled enigmatically as his hands were tied together by one of the Guards. “I couldn’t very well allow you to hurt the townspeople, could I?” He held up his bound hands, and his voice changed slightly. “Perhaps you’d be so kind as to let me out of these ropes?” It felt like there was a pressure on his ears, and very unpleasantly.

The guards started to unwind the rope again, taking it off the priest’s hands. Why had they been tying him up again? There wasn’t any need for it. All this back and forth with the peasants had given Allen a splitting headache, too.

“Let’s go back to the caravan,” the priest suggested aimably. “I’m starved. There’s a place to make camp a couple of miles from here, if we keep going past the town.”

Dinner did sound good, now that Allen thought about it. He gave orders for the caravan to continue on its way.

Later that evening, he was sitting outside his tent when the priest stopped by. He’d wrapped up the inventory with Jaret earlier, and the young man had gone to bed. Nalia was also out of sight, which was a rarity for her.

The headache hadn’t gone away, and it had been getting steadily worse all evening as they made camp. The lack of company was probably a good thing; he didn’t know how conversational he was going to be in this state. He sat there rubbing some oil into his armor as the priest sat down beside him.

The fellow was fairly pleasant he supposed. Why had they picked him up on the road again? This headache was causing him all sorts of difficulty in concentrating. Or had the priest joined them back in Cilis and just needed transport to Parm? He couldn’t recall. It had been a long day without any stops.

“Lieutenant Delais, is it?” the priest asked as he sat down. His name was Retsin or something. Allen ignored him for a minute, but then decided it was better to be polite.

“Evening, priest,” he said, shortly. He couldn’t explain it, but he didn’t like the priest much. Maybe it was something like with the way he wasn’t interested in Nalia. No, that wasn’t quite right. He had the feeling it was something else.

“I suppose I should explain,” the priest said, picking up a small stone from the ground and rubbing it between his hands. “Not that you’ll remember anything I say, but I feel talkative.”

He bounced the stone in his hand a few times before continuing, “I’d wondered if my gift would work on someone with a mark like yours, but it was too late to change plans by the time I saw you. I’m glad to see it hasn’t posed a problem.” He flicked the stone into the grass and folded his hands together. Allen listened to him with half his mind as he worked on his armor with the other. The finer points of Kaisa’s theological dogma weren’t that interesting to him, and he couldn’t say he was paying the best of attention.

“The peasants were just a distraction, to give my gift time to work. I needed you angry, your passions raised.” The priest paused for a moment and then added, “It’s necessary. I can’t persuade anyone who’s calm. I need a hook into their heart.

“You probably wonder why I’m telling you this, but I needed to tell someone. And I thought you might understand with that mark you have. It’s a new gift you see. I only discovered it a few weeks ago. I was preaching to the village about the proper expression of the passions when suddenly they were all listening to me. That had never happened before. And then I found that they would do almost anything I asked them to. So for a while there, I had them repairing a few things that needed to be repaired around the church, donating a little more than they’d used to, things like that. I even did some good. I convinced one man to stop beating his wife, and I had a talk with a few youngsters who were causing some trouble.

“Within a week, everyone in the town was much more satisfied with their lives than they’d been before, and I thought I’d found the reason for the goddess’s gift. But then I found that the effect didn’t last. I had to keep reminding people every few days if I wanted them to do the right thing.

“It was at that point that I thought it was time I took this gift somewhere it could be a little more effective. Somewhere I could reach more people, and people who were more passionate. It seems the deeper the passion you feel, the longer the effect of the persuasion lasts.” The priest tilted his back and watched the stars. “I realized I didn’t even need to say anything to sway people. I could just sort of reach out and touch the passion in them.” He set his hand on Allen’s shoulder. “I could stir it up and direct it. Especially after I’d seen it when it was raised in anger.”

Allen twitched and knocked the hand off his shoulder. He didn’t like the priest touching him, though he couldn’t say why. There was a streak of the talkative zealot in this priest, he decided. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could listen to this theological lecture before he’d willingly trade it for having Nalia following him around. Were all the priests of Kaisa like this? He’d thought they spent their time leading passion-infused rites with their followers and blessing coins to bring people luck.

“What are you going to do in Parm when we get there?” he asked, trying to change the subject. “There’s a temple to Kaisa there, and they might welcome you.” Whenever he could get rid of this priest, it wouldn’t be too soon for him. The man just got under his skin.

“Oh, I have great plans for that temple,” Retsin replied, smiling as he looked up into the stars. “Great plans.”

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This entry was posted on Thursday, May 27th, 2010 at 10:01 am and is filed under A Northern Heart. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

5 Responses to “Chapter XI”

  1. Clare K. R. Miller Says:

    Chad, you’re trying to spoil us with all these new chapters! XD I haven’t read this one yet, I just wanted to offer my appreciation…

  2. Chad-Writtenfire Says:

    Haha, that, of course, and I’m just writing them because I can. Besides, I want people to start dropping by again and leaving comments, and what better way to entice them?

  3. Clare K. R. Miller Says:

    And now for a real comment 😉 Ooh, the plot thickens. I wonder if that god dude (Celias?) gave the priest this “gift”…

  4. Gudy Says:

    Cerias is as good a suspect as any, I’d say, although the question does indeed remain why that Huntsman didn’t just kill Allen when he had him so conveniently throttled already…

  5. Chad-Writtenfire Says:

    That’s a question I asked too. The answer will be entertaining.

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