Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 07

The bodyguard was undoubtedly one of the finest fighters in all Illyria. Guiliano Lozza was still easily his master, especially since the bodyguard plainly wasn’t expecting such a command.

While the distraction occurred, Benito stepped up to Iskander and touched his shoulder. “Reached you,” he said. “But I think I will leave you alive, because you are more trouble to Byzantium and to King Emeric than I’d realized you would be.”

Iskander Beg smiled. “The blood feud you’d cause by killing your own kinsman and chieftain would hardly be worth it.”

He stood up, planted his hands on his hips, and watched the panting band straggling up to the hut. “Well? Do you still think the Venetians are soft? And that we should raid now while Kerkeira is war-weary and weak?”

The remark provoked a fair storm of laughter. Knives were sheathed. Benito found himself surrounded by the group that had tried catch him, grinning and backslapping. Iskander joined them. “Come. Now we will talk. And drink slivovitz, kinsman.”

Sitting and drinking the clear plum liquor at dawn was not something that Benito wanted to do every day, but today it seemed fitting. “I rule at least in part by guile,” explained Iskander, sitting a little apart and talking to him. “The tribes are fiercely independent. But they will follow a clever leader who has won their respect. This story will go around. It will grow in the telling. People will say how cunning the Lord of Mountains was… and that this Venetian was a match for him. Like a fox, but with honor. That is important here. There were some that said it would be the right time now to attack Kerkeira. In spite of the magic.”

“It’s not something I would attack. That magic destroyed Emeric,” said Benito, keen to reinforce the idea, as little as he approved of the Goddess and her cult.

Iskander Beg shrugged. “The Illyrians drove the Pelasgian mother-worshippers from this land to Kerkeiria. They have long memories in these mountains. They remember the land moving and the sea coming and killing their ancestors. They remember that magic, and saw that it was still active. Now my people have two reasons to keep away — magic and a leader they can respect. So: Tell me now what you plan for the Via Egnatia. It would not be good for the trade of Kerkeira for it to operate again.”

“I think it can be made good for Corfu,” said Benito, “for Venice, and also Illyria. Ships, especially round ships carry more cargo. But… if I am right, the Byzantines will seek to bar us from the Bosphorus. From the Black Sea trade. Trade is like the muscles of your hand. If you don’t keep using it the hand grows weak. It loses its cunning. It’s what happened to Via Egnata. Once a little part of every caravan that passed along it stayed here in Illyria. Most of the bulk went on to be sold, but enough remained here — paid by travelers, to be a goodly amount of wealth. Still, it was a small part of every rich load. Some chieftains saw profit in robbing travelers, taking the entire load rather than just a little. So less travelers risked the road. So it became less friendly — and now no-one uses the old trail. I want to open it up again. If we can reach some agreement with the Bulgars or the Golden Horde, Venice could still move cargoes of silk and spices from the East through Trebizond, even if Constantinople is closed to Venetian shipping. Raiding is fun, but the real profit lies in trading.”

“Spoken like a Venetian,” said Iskander.

“Yes. It has the advantage of being true, too,” said Benito dryly. “Look. We have this night put the final veto on to any Illyrian ideas of war with Venice. You did not want it anyway. Why not use the situation to our mutual advantage as well?”

Iskander Beg was silent for a while and then answered. “Because the chieftains of the Illyrian tribes from here to the edges of Macedonia obey me out of choice. Fractiously. I really have little power over them. And raiding is a way of life here. But I will think about it.”

Benito rubbed his chin, thoughtfully. It was something that had bothered him once… to be his father or his grandfather’s offspring, and not to be himself. But since then… now on this hillside, even, he’d proved himself. And a weapon was a weapon. You used it when you needed it, before worrying about where it came from. “You may have heard of my grandfather, Duke Enrico Della Este of Ferrara.”

“The Old Fox,” said Iskander. “I have done my best to study his tactics. Just because I live in the mountains of Illyria does not mean that I am ignorant, Benito Valdosta.”

Benito was sure by now that wherever this man had lived — and he’d bet it wasn’t just in the mountains of Illyria — that he was anything but ignorant. “We talked about the Swiss mercenaries once. He said the greatest warriors came from places where nature shaped and honed the men from birth, and frequent combat had tempered them. Harsh places. He also said that the people of such places win battles, but lose long wars.”

Iskander raised his eyebrows. “While I accept the first part of his statement — my people have to be as hard as the rock of our mountains or they would die, and they spend what spare time they have in feuding — I do not intend to lose my wars. All our wars here are long. So why does the Old Fox say that we will lose?”

Benito knew then that he had been right to bring his grandfather into it. Enrico Della Este would be taken seriously on this subject, by such a man. Benito Valdosta would not be… not yet.

“Two things. Firstly, numbers. The warrior of the harsh lands can kill five times as many soft lowlander soldiers — but there are fifty men from the fat fertile lowlands to one from the harsh mountains. And the other factor is money. It is hard enough to scrape a living off these bare hills, let alone buy good weapons or keep a large standing army. The second sons of the mountains, and cold northlands too, go off raiding or as mercenaries because there is not enough food or land.”

Iskander grunted irritably. “I accept that the Old Fox is right on this. But I have a people and a land to hold, and, yes, to reclaim that which was taken from us. We shape our fighting around harvests and fieldwork. Short sharp raids are our way.”

“And you need the grain and cattle and sheep of the lowlands to keep your people alive in winter. But you cannot press your advantage, because the food needs to get home. So, you win each battle… and lose the fertile valley lands, because you cannot hold them. Or if the tribe moves to soft lands, they too become soft and lose their battles.”

Iskander raised his chin, and stared down at Benito, eyes narrow. “So, Benito. The Old Fox’s grandson does not lead me down this path only to tell me that I cannot win. How do we avoid this trap?”

Benito smiled. “I told you. You sit astride a trade route. In the long term, trade will bring your people far more than the loot from one raid, or even from one trade caravan. You can keep the second and even third sons home, as warriors. There will be fighting on the borders.”

“More when there is a rich prize like a trade route to be seized, or competition to be blocked,” said Iskander.

Benito drank some of the plum liquor. “Nothing is for nothing,” he said with a grin.

Iskander nodded. “You speak very persuasively. What does Venice gain from this?”

“A route around Alexius. More traffic. And someone who will lose much trade if they go to war with us,” said Benito.

“Clever, ” said Iskander.

“It’s this stuff we are drinking. Enough of it and anything sounds clever.” Benito swayed to his feet. “I just hope Taki really does sail better when he’s drunk or we may end up in Vinland instead of Corfu.”