Midst Toil And Tribulation – Snippet 45


The Fence,

Western Crown Desmene,

Kingdom of Chisholm,

Empire of Charis.

“At least it’s a nice day for it,” Ruhsyl Thairis said dryly.

The Duke of Eastshare stood on the parapet of one of the interval forts of the fortified line known as The Fence. The population of Raven’s Land was tiny by the standards of any major Safeholdian realm. In fact, all the Raven Lords and their clansmen together would not have equaled the population of his own duchy. Unfortunately, they were a fractious lot and among the finest — if not simply the finest — horsethieves, dragonthieves, and sheep-stealers in the entire world. That was why The Fence had been built in the first place. The line of observation posts, with interval forts every twenty miles, ran almost a hundred and fifty miles east to west across the single neck of land connecting the Western Crown Demesne and Raven’s Land. The observation posts were placed on high ground where sentries could keep an eye on the countryside between the interval forts. They also ran patrols, during anything resembling survivable weather, and the forts’ relatively small garrisons were big enough to deal with any typical Raven Lord incursion the observation posts reported. They didn’t catch all of them, by any means, but any raid large enough to carry back significant amounts of booty was generally large enough for the observation posts to spot, and the forts’ garrisons consisted primarily of cavalry and dragoons, who tended to be a bit speedier than clansmen driving recalcitrant sheep into captivity.

They could still send skin boats and fishing boats across the Chisholm Bight (or cross the ice in mid-winter), but neither of those avenues were likely to accomplish much beyond irritating the local landlords. And what with the Navy’s light units in summer and the tendency of ice rifts to appear in . . . inconvenient spots, crossing the Bight was always a risky proposition. Risky enough that even the hardiest of wing warriors (the title awarded to blooded Raven Lord warriors) preferred to take their chances with The Fence, instead.

And if we don’t catch them all when they do try The Fence, it’s still good training . . . for both sides, he reflected wryly. Besides, we’ve been doing it for so long now that I think we’d all be disappointed if the tradition came to an end.

At the moment, however, the small party of horsemen making its way through the steady rattle of sleet towards the fort on whose parapet he stood, wasn’t trying to be particularly unobtrusive.

“I wonder what the Council’s decided?” he asked out loud.

“Oh, I imagine they’ve agreed, Your Grace.” Kynt Clareyk smiled tartly. “I doubt any of the Raven Lords can really picture just how large a force like the one you’re talking about marching through their territory actually is, but I’m pretty sure they can at least figure out they can’t actually stop it, whatever they might try to do. Doesn’t mean they couldn’t make us thoroughly miserable, though, so unless I miss my guess, the real sticking point for them was calculating how much we’d be prepared to pay to avoid the nuisance value of their harassment.”

“That’s such a Charisian attitude,” Eastshare complained with a twinkle.

“Marks make the world move, Your Grace. I will acknowledge that wind, weather, and tide can also generate movement, but when it comes to human activity, well –”

Green Valley shrugged, and Eastshare chuckled. Not, he reflected, that the baron didn’t have a valid point.

“Then I suppose it’s a good thing the Empire has more marks than almost anyone else at this particular time,” he said. “Of course, there’s the small matter of how many of them I can obligate to the Raven Lords without Their Majesties’ approval or knowledge.”

“I don’t know Her Majesty as well as you do, Your Grace, but I’ve worked with both of Their Majesties quite a bit over the last few years. I’m reasonably certain they’ll stand by any agreement you might make with Shairncross and the rest of the Council.”

“And if they don’t, they can always take it out of our pay.”

“I suppose. Although, to be perfectly frank, Your Grace, given the disparity in our pay levels, I believe it would only be fair for you to pay the slash lizard’s share”

“I thought you seemed remarkably complacent about the possibility.”

Eastshare gazed at the oncoming horsemen for another several seconds, then shrugged.

“There’s no point our standing out in this crappy weather until they get here. For that matter, we’re going to have the opportunity to march in weather a lot worse than this soon enough, assuming this brilliant inspiration comes to fruition. So what say you and I make sure the tea and chocolate are both hot before our guests arrive?”

“An excellent notion, Your Grace.” Green Valley smiled approvingly. “And, of course, the only way we can be positively certain they’re hot enough is by personally sampling them to assure ourselves of their quality.”

“Exactly what I was thinking,” Eastshare agreed, one gloved hand brushing at the layer of sleet gathered on the shoulders of his thick coat. The other hand waved at the heavy wooden door behind them. “After you, General Green Valley. After you.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Flahn Tobys wrapped his hands gratefully around the outsized mug of hot, steaming tea. Any Raven Lord wing warrior was a tough, skilled fighting man, inured to the worst of weather, trained by his high northern homeland’s bitter winters to laugh at snows which would seem like the end of the world to any effete Lowlander.

Of course we are. He inhaled the steam appreciatively, then took a satisfying sip of the almost-scalding liquid. And when we’re especially young and stupid, we actually think that way. Fortunately, I’m no longer young. I suppose the verdict’s still out on the other quality.

“Thank you, Your Grace,” he said in the slow, harsh accent of a Raven’s Land Highlander as he lowered the cup and gazed across it at the Duke of Eastshare. “It’s a rare nasty day out there, to be sure.”

“Yes, it is,” Eastshare agreed, leaning back in his own chair on the other side of the hearth as he considered his guest.

Tobys was a weathered-looking man, with dark hair and eyes and perhaps forty-five years old. Some people might have allowed his backwoods appearance to deceive them into missing the intelligence in those dark eyes, but Eastshare knew his Raven Lords better than that. He recognized the gold rings and the red tip of the single raven’s feather in Tobys’ warrior’s braid. They indicated he’d won his wing warrior status on more than one field of battle, and he was the senior wing — and close kinsman — of Phylyp Zhaksyn, Lord Tairwald, who’d been chosen by the Council of Clan Lords to speak for them in any discussions with Chisholm. The fact that Tairwald had sent Tobys was proof the Council had reached a decision.

Tobys looked back, studying the duke with equal care. He’d heard lots of stories about Eastshare, and no one who’d ever tangled with the Royal Charisian Army was likely to take its commander lightly. Still, he liked what he saw in the duke’s level regard. There was no sign of the scorn he’d seen in other Lowlanders’ expressions, at any rate, and he allowed himself a mental nod of satisfaction before he turned his attention back to his surroundings, waiting for the duke to finish his own appraisals and get to the matter in hand.

The interval fort housed its garrison in relative comfort, but it was plainly furnished, without frills or anything smacking of luxury. The massive wooden beams overhead were darkened by decades of wood and peat fires, and as the wind drove thickening curtains of sleet and snow across the chimney tops, an occasional tendril of fresh smoke crept from the fire currently radiating heat into the fort commander’s commandeered office to add its mite to that patina. The northern daylight had already faded, the heavy overcast turning the evening into something more akin to midnight than late afternoon, and the whiskey bottles and glasses on a small side table gleamed in the lamplight, throwing back stronger flickers of light every so often as the fire on the hearth crackled higher. Tobys was acutely aware of those bottles, but Raven Lord etiquette required whiskey not be offered until the serious business was discharged.

After all, the wing reflected, wouldn’t do for us to get all liquored up and give away the keys to the clan lord’s castle, now would it? And, clansmen being clansmen, wouldn’t we just?

His fellow Raven Lords, alas, took their drinking seriously.

“Speaking of the weather,” the duke continued after several seconds, crossing his booted ankles as he stretched his legs out before him, “I’m sure my men are going to spend quite a lot of time over the next several five-days cursing my name. Assuming, of course, that the Council of Clan Lords has seen fit to agree with my . . . suggestion.”

To the point, Tobys thought. More like a Raven Lord than a Lowlander, in fact. Man knows us better than most, or else — the clansman’s eyes considered the tall, dark-haired young general sitting to Eastshare’s left — he’s had good advisors.

“Well, as to that, Your Grace, and bearing in mind the quality of good Chisholmian whiskey, I’d sooner not beat about the bush myself. And it’s no fancy ‘diplomat’ I am, either. So, to get right to the heart of it, Lord Tairwald’s told me to be telling you Lord Shairncross and the Council are minded to agree to let your army pass. Of course, while it’s well known the Royal Army’s better disciplined than most, there’s no way in the world that many men could be passing through without doing at least a wee bit of damage. With the best of goodwill, you just can’t send that many men down our roads — the most of which pass right through the hearts of our towns and villages, you know — without the odd bit of breakage. And it’s well-known that sometimes small possessions stray from where you thought you’d left them into the pockets and knapsacks of visiting soldiers.”

“Yes, I’ve observed that myself, here in the Crown Demesne, when armies — or warriors, at least — come calling.” Eastshare’s smile held genuine humor, Tobys observed. “Should I, ah, assume the Councilors were able to determine a sum which they felt would . . . indemnify their clansmen against any such completely unintentional harm?”

“Well, in fact they have,” Tobys admitted. “It was in the Council’s mind to set a number based on the number of troops you’re thinking of passing through. Say, ten Charisian marks for an infantryman and fifteen for a cavalry trooper — those horses eat a sight of fodder every day, you know, and we’ve the thatched roofs to be thinking of. Not to mention the haystacks. And they were thinking perhaps, say, seven marks five for each wagon. But they’d be passing your artillery through free and clear.”

“That seems a bit high, Wing Tobys.” Eastshare sipped his tea thoughtfully and glanced at the younger officer at his side. “We quite understand the clan lords’ concerns, of course. But still.”

“It’s just that we’ve had bad experiences in the past, Your Grace.” Tobys shrugged apologetically. “With armies passing through, I mean.”

“While I’d never want to be tactless or bring up past unpleasantnesses, Wing Tobys,” the other officer — Green Valley, his name was — put in an accent which definitely wasn’t Chisholmian, “unless I’m mistaken, those other armies passing through Raven’s Land were, for want of a better word, invading your land, weren’t they”

“We prefer to think of it as responding to someone else’s provocations, My Lord,” Eastshare chided. “‘Invade’ has so many unpleasant connotations.”

“Oh, I see, Your Grace.” Green Valley nodded.

“Nonetheless, the Baron does have a certain point, Wing Tobys,” Eastshare said, turning back to the Raven Lord envoy. “Not that anyone is implying that this particular proposed journey would have anything in common with an invasion, of course. But troops who are there for the specific purpose of . . . delivering a message do tend to do far more damage than ones just marching past, smiling at the pretty girls as it goes.”

“True, Your Grace. Very true.” Tobys sipped more tea, his expression thoughtful, then shrugged. “Can I take it, then, you’ve another set of numbers in mind?”

“Well, actually, it seems to me — speaking off-the-cuff, you understand — that something closer to two Charisian marks per infantryman and five per cavalry trooper would be far more reasonable. And perhaps three marks five, rather than seven and a half, per wagon. Trust me,” Eastshare’s eyes hardened ever so slightly, “given the number of men I’m planning on taking with me, that will still come to a very tidy sum.”

Tobys raised his teacup again. Clansmen were a hardy lot, less impressed by birth and more by ability than the folk of many another land, and Lord Tairwald and the Council of Clan Lords had chosen him as their envoy because they trusted both his wit and his judgment. He actually had more authority to adjust prices than might have been expected in someone of his outwardly lowly rank, and he’d known before he set out that Eastshare would never accept the Council’s initial offer. The Raven Lords’ current estimate was that he’d be moving at least forty thousand men, perhaps a quarter of them cavalry, through their territory. Leaving aside the freight wagons which would certainly have to accompany them, however much of their total supplies might be carried by water along the coast, that would have come to three hundred thousand marks, enough to buy one of the new Charisian-style war galleons with all the trimmings. It would also have been more cold, hard cash than the Council normally saw in an entire year. Eastshare’s counter offer, however, would drop it to only a hundred and twenty thousand marks. Still, as Duke Eastshare had just pointed out, a tidy sum, but . . . .

“I think we need a number somewhere out in the middle of that, Your Grace,” he said now. “Suppose I were to suggest four marks per infantryman and horseman alike and accept your three-and-five for each wagon? And, of course, the artillery would still be passing through free of charge?”

“That might be acceptable,” Eastshare said after a moment. “Assuming, of course, that my quartermasters don’t find themselves being exorbitantly charged for landing supplies at any of your ports along the way.”

“The Council thought you might be a wee bit bothered by that possibility.” Tobys smiled slightly. He’d never liked Lord Theralt, anyway. “So, after debating it a bit, they thought it best to assure you you’ll not be charged a tenth-mark more than the normal port fees per ton of cargo landed. And” — his eyes gleamed for a second — “the Council’s also made it clear that the ‘normal port fees’ are the ones as were in force before ever the thought of your little jaunt along the coast was first suggested.”

“I see.”

Eastshare’s lips twitched. He was quite well informed on the relations between Barjwail Suwail and the rest of the Council, and he didn’t doubt for a moment that Lord Shairncross had taken a certain pleasure in ramming that proviso through. Not that Theralt and the other small harbors and fishing ports along Raven’s Land’s southern coast weren’t going to receive an ample landfall, even at existing rates. And not that Eastshare had any objection to improving the local economies as he passed through, either. And, for that matter, he rather suspected the Raven Lords didn’t realize how many troops he’d been able to concentrate in Ahlysberg. He’d be taking the next best thing to eighty thousand men through their territory, which would mean a greater profit than they’d probably anticipated, even at the lower rate Tobys was suggesting now.

And, frankly, it’s as good as you’ve got any realistic prospect of getting out of them — especially with the Council sitting on Theralt and the others. Theralt, for one, would cheerfully double or triple his fees when we arrived . . . without ever mentioning ahead of time he was going to do it.

“Well,” he said after a moment, setting his teacup aside and nodding to Green Valley. “Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I think it’s time we opened one or two of those bottles, My Lord.”