Chapter Fifth Triangular Number
Scene Five: Refugees“It galled me to stay away all winter,” said Hermann. “It wasn't the back-breaking farm work, although that's something I won't miss. Never done a lot of it before. Mostly, I just felt defeated. It was hard to get up in the morning, hard to eat. With my lands gone and my girls gone, I've got nothing. There's no reason to live.”
At one point in their journey, the road to to South Ackerland narrowed from an expanse large enough for caravans to pass one another down to a trail barely wide enough for a single cart. Since then it had widened again to a caravan-sized strip of dirt, pebbles, and grass. Denario marched shoulder to shoulder with Hermann. He could stand far enough apart that he didn't have to hurt his neck to look up at the man.
“That's how you feel?” Denario asked, afraid to hear much more. He carefully avoided looking over his shoulder. Valentina had allowed the men to lead the way but he worried that she was listening. Of course, she might already know her husband's views.
“Yes. I fought for my inheritance, you see. It was hard won. It was hard to leave.”
“Your ... inheritance?” According to the barons, these peasants owned nothing, technically.
“Of course, fighting for inheritance is illegal in these towns where the knights hold sway ... they seem to think they should decide ... but it's a tradition we've kept up from the times when our families lived on the other side of the mountains, in the valleys.”
“And you had to fight to inherit? Really?” Denario had no idea how such a system could be organized. It sounded like a recipe for chaos. It would be a fancy recipe, too; if it were a cake, it would have lots of small, spectacular battles swirling in an icing of persistent hostility.
“Tanistry,” said Hermann. “It's called tanistry. That's our traditional Mundredi process of handing down lands. Lots of times, when a man dies he states in his will that his farm should go to the most fitting of his sons. Then they'll fight to the death for it. That's the most primitive sort of tanistry, of course. It's just as likely that a father will divide his cleared land into plots. The sons and sometimes the daughters, too, fight for the plots. The best fighter gets the best land, see. That's the smart way to do it. The losers have to clear their own lands, perhaps, but nothing worse.”
“It's the way your father did it, I suppose.”
“I got the second best land out of seven. Our land was so good, it was like the best land anywhere else.”
“You said that the knights don't like their peasants fighting. So has your baron forbidden tanistry? I'd think he would.”
Hermann shrugged. “Who knows? It's not really the baron's business. We never see him. I suppose the West Ogglian nobles generally aren't in favor but I don't understand why. Maybe it's because tanistry has been around longer than them. It's said that Prince Robberti himself tried to ban the practice. But on his death, it resumed.”
“I've heard about how the battles over his kingdom ended. So Robberti was proven right. It doesn't do a government much good to let property fights go on. It makes the people angry, divided and weak. The best sons may die in the act of inheritance. The daughters, too.” These Mundredi were crazy. Where else would women fight for their dowries? Well, Denario hadn't traveled outside of West Ogglia before. Maybe it happened everywhere. But he hadn't read about it in any accounting histories and he was sure that he would have.
“Divided? Maybe. Robberti thought so. I heard that from Vir. The royal bloodlines in the Mundredi, such as they are, practice inheritance by nephews in deference to the prince's wishes.”
“Ah, nephews.” Yes, Vir had told Denario about that, too. But succession through nephews didn't seem like the best of systems either. Denario wondered what system was best. In theory, there had to be an optimal one. As he marched, he started trying to imagine a formula to solve the problem. Something like (Candidate Fitness)(Charisma)/(Amount of Fighting over Succession) = Maximum Strength Inherited.
“In the other valleys,” Hermann said after a long pause, “I hear they practice inheritance by oldest sons like the Ogglis and Waldis. Still others seem to go by 'most respected.'”
“Most respected,” Denario repeated. That had to be force or personality plus a sense of ethics. But respect implied physical force, too, or at least persuasive force. “That's a sort of contest again.”
“It's a different tanistry.” Hermann held up a finger as if he'd proved his point. In his mind, Denario ran the inheritance calculation. He found that the formula still worked. Leaving the definitions of 'fitness' and 'strength inherited' a bit fuzzy helped.
The accountant hung his head down as he concentrated, a habit he'd acquired in the city and hadn't managed to fix in the wilderness. It was a habit that had probably led him to being shot so many times – and it was the reason why Hermann was the first to see silhouettes on the trail ahead of them. Denario was absent-mindedly kicking a clod of dirt when the larger man grabbed him by the arm.
“Off the road!” he hissed. “Come on.”
He dragged Denario to the right, the western side of the road. Valentina caught up with them in a few long strides. Together, she and Hermann practically lifted Denario to a spot behind some juniper bushes.
“Do you think they saw us?” Valentina huffed. She had apparently found the accountant difficult to move in his layers of armor.
“Hard to say.” Hermann drew his sword. The difference between his blade and the short baselard seemed like the difference between a surveyor's chain and a thread. Denario touched the pommel of his weapon but he didn't bother to take it out. It wouldn't be useful. “They were a long ways off.”
“How many?” Valentina's dagger was already in her right hand.
“I saw two. There could be more.”
They peered around the edge of the juniper. After a while, Denario got curious and ventured a glance between their dark-haired heads. He caught a distant glimpse of a man with a white shirt and dark breeches. The fellow carried a hunting bow in his left hand. He seemed to be approaching from beside the road rather than on it, meaning that he intended not to be seen by other travelers. That was suspicious. Denario couldn't make out any more about the man, though, so he retreated behind the bush rather than contribute to being spotted.
After considering for a moment, he set down the spear he was using as a walking stick. He removed his packs, too, and finally his bow. The effort to string the bow made him grunt. It was such a small noise he could barely hear it himself but it made Valentina whirl around.
She had been about to shush him, finger to her lips, but when she saw what he was doing she stopped. With a nod, she sheathed her knife.
"Still only two," Hermann murmured.
It took more than ten minutes before the travelers came close and, in that time, Denario and Valentina armed themselves with arrows notched and pointed in the right direction. The accountant was dismayed to find that he couldn't hold his bow drawn for very long without his arms trembling. He kept raising and lowering his weapon. Once, he felt so unsteady that he realized he was about to let go and shoot Hermann in the back. He re-aimed toward the ground.
“They're just boys!” Hermann said suddenly. He stood and waved to the approaching figures.
Boys or not, they jerked with surprise at Hermann's sudden appearance. The Mundredi man strode a step or two onto the road. The rearmost boy shot an arrow at him that sailed ten feet over his head.
“Hey, now!” he called.
The boys dropped everything they were holding except their walking sticks. Those, they swung wildly. One of them, wearing what looked like half a shirt, edged forward as if preparing to do battle with Hermann. The adult Mundredi held a sword, after all. But a stick and no armor wouldn't prove much good against Herman Ansel. As if to prove the point, the larger boy, closer to Hermann, retreated as he swung. He wanted to escape. In only a few steps, the boys drew beside each other. They kept whirling their sticks. The sticks met. The smaller boy lost his weapon. It went flying end over end into the scrub beside the trail.
“Look,” said Hermann. He noticed the sword in his hand and sheathed it. “I can see by your tattoos that you're not the knight's men. And I can see by your lack of beards that you're not really men. So don't act like you want to fight or my friends will shoot you.”
At that moment, Denario's grip gave way.
He hadn't realized that he was aiming at the younger boy, the one who'd previously held a bow. In the excitement of the moment, Denario had locked into a battle position and tracked the boys with the head of his arrow. It was a deadly, barbed tip. Luckily, Denario was a miserable archer. The arrow sunk into the ground between the two boys.
“That was a warning shot,” said Hermann, recovering instantly. “Now hold still.”
The boys froze. Until the appearance of the arrow, they hadn't realized that there were other folks to contend with. Now their eyes scanned the bushes on other side of the road. They didn't dare to move their heads but Denario could see them counting the possible hiding places for foes. If you were a scared child, there might seem to be a lot.