Her Majesty’s Warlord 15

22 Nov

Chapter Fifteen

I hadn’t planned it that way.

I’d known some degree of land reform was pretty much inevitable, if I wanted to turn the lands I’d been granted into a money-making fiefdom, but I hadn’t intended to go so far.  I’d hoped, when I’d had time to think about it, that I could start a more gradual progress towards reform, yet … when I’d realised how bad things had become, I’d seen no choice but to get the ball rolling as quickly as possible.  I hadn’t even considered, until the moment I looked at the accounts, putting Wilhelm in charge.  I hadn’t even had time to get to know him as more than a promising young officer, a man who might – one day – make a good commander.  It was quite possible I’d fucked up beyond repair.

The thought haunted me as I spent the next two weeks travelling my lands and seeing, for the first time, the reality behind the carefully-edited reports I – and my predecessor – had been sent.  The estates were small, by the standards of the country, yet vast compared to many others.  It was hard to believe, even after seeing Iraq and Afghanistan, just how little knowledge the peasants had of the outside world.  Their universe was little more than a cluster of villages, the lands over the nearest hill as strange and distant – to them – as Zangaria or Alluvia, thousands of miles away.  There were places so poor they made the dustbowl farmers of flyover country look rich, broken by a handful of farms that were actually a little more prosperous than the rest.  I swiftly leant, not remotely to my surprise, that those farmers either owned their lands outright or were buddy-buddy with Rizal and his cronies.  It forced me to move faster than ever before, when it sank in that Rizal wasn’t as alone as I’d hoped.  The last thing I needed was someone trying to kill me before the reforms were anything more than ink of paper.

There was nothing for it.  Fallon and I visited village after village, sorting out who worked what patch of land and working out new and improved land titles.  It wasn’t easy.  The farms were tiny patchworks, so far from the rolling fields of Kansas that it was hard to believe they were the same thing.  There were entire families, living off patches of land; there were communes and strange organisations that, at least on paper, looked decidedly fascistic, the peasants mimicking the hierarchy of the aristocracy.  I went through it all, making sure the land titles were carefully worded to make life difficult for any village headman who wanted to throw his weight around.  I’d seen too many bullies push villages around during my military service.  Here, with the lands in private ownership, it should be a great deal harder.

It wasn’t the only thing I did, of course.  I worked to set up local councils, who could handle minor issues that didn’t need intervention from Rizal, Wilhelm or me.  It wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped – the peasants were stanchly opposed, at least at first, to letting women and dependent children have the vote – but it was a start, a spark that might turn into a fire that would reshape the world.  Given time, it would flourish … if someone didn’t quench it first.  I kept going, setting up local cooperatives and making arrangements for them to purchase and share farming tools that no peasant could afford alone.  By the time I was done, I hoped, it would be hard for anyone to roll back my reforms.

There was a lot of grumbling, of course.  The peasants were about as hierarchical as the average military formation and a great deal more conservative.  The older men – and some of the women – were reluctant to risk anything, arguing that what was good enough for their great-grandfathers was good enough for them.  I understood, all too well.  They were permanently on the edge of disaster, to the point that one single bad harvest would send them plunging into starvation.  It didn’t help that the village headmen, some chosen by Rizal and others more or less pushing themselves into the post through force of fists, saw the reforms as a threat to their power.  But the younger ones thought it was worth trying, particularly as the papers I’d handed out would be hard to revoke.  A couple of good harvests, produced by farmers who got to keep most of their crops, would silence the doubters once and for all. 

I did my best, too, to dispense justice.  I had no idea who could be trusted and who was lying through his teeth – a problem I’d had back in Afghanistan – but I had an ace up my sleeve.  Fallon could, and did, cast truth spells, allowing me to determine who was trying to lie to me.  It was rarely as cut and dried as I’d hoped – most of the cases that were brought before me, during my progress, were ones the locals couldn’t handle for themselves – but it was a start.  I managed to sort out a complicated inheritance dispute – over what might as well have been cents – and granted a pair of women divorces from abusive husbands.  There was more grumbling about that, but I saw no choice.  I wasn’t going to leave them in households where the husband got drunk so often his death from alcohol poisoning was just a matter of time.

We rode through the fields and hills, silently carrying out a land survey and logging the resources on the ground, waiting to be used.  I wished, not for the first time, that I had more experience in such matters.  A civil war soldier would have found it easier to make an impact, turning the land into productive factories capable of churning out everything from railroad engines to guns.  It would be a very long term project for me, one powered by labour freed up from working the fields.  Or so I hoped.  It was going to take so long I feared the project might never get off the ground.  But I had no choice.  The factories I was establishing near the city were far too vulnerable to hostile politics.  What I did on my own land, I’d been told, was nobody’s business but mine.

As long as I hold the lands, I reminded myself.  What the monarchy gives, the monarchy can take away.

We were passing through a small village, really little more than a hamlet, when we heard of the bandits.  A local headman grumbled about them, living in the king’s forest and stealing the crops.  I suspected, reading between the lines, that the bandits were really peasants who’d fled the fields and gone into hiding, after their landlords had pushed them a little too far.  The forests were so vast an entire army could hide within the trees, lurking in the shadows and biding its time.  The thought interested me.  I made enquiries about where the bandits might have come from, locating their original families, then asked for a meeting.  I wasn’t remotely surprised to discover there were links between the peasants and the bandits, even though it was forbidden.  They were, after all, family.

The bandit leader, or at least his representative, met us at the edge of the forest.  I was perversely disappointed.  I’d expected, at least partly, someone who looked like Robin Hood, clad in green and carrying a bow.  He was a grubby man, wearing ragged clothes; I suspected, looking at him, that he was suffering from malnutrition.  One hand held a stick that a deniable weapon, a wise precaution in a world peasants were not allowed to touch – on pain of death – anything that might cripple or kill an aristocrat.  Personally, I thought that was silly.  Almost anything could be a weapon, in the right – or rather the wrong – pair of hands.

“My Lord,” the leader said.  I caught a glimpse of his teeth and tried not to wince.  They looked as if he’d endured weeks upon weeks of dental torture.  He might well have.  I’d seen the local interrogators at work.  “What do you want?”

I studied him for a long moment.  He wouldn’t have come at all, I suspected, if he hadn’t heard about the land reforms.  Technically, I was supposed to arrest and hang him and his fellows for trespassing in the royal forest … I was mildly surprised he’d come at all, even though I’d passed the message through his relatives in the hamlet.  He was taking one hell of a risk … I eyed the forest, wondering how many unseen eyes were watching the meeting.  If it went to hell, would the rest of the bandits try to save their leader or merely vacate their homes and flee deeper into the trees?

“I have an offer for you,” I said, bluntly.  “I need to recruit soldiers.  Armsmen.  I can, and I do, pay well, with other benefits and bonuses for good service.  Interested?”

He stared at me.  I don’t know what he’d expected – a demand he and his men present themselves for execution, or orders to vacate my lands before they were hunted down like dogs – but an offer of actual employment had probably not been on the list.  The aristocracy were expected to raise troops, for themselves as well as the monarch, yet … there were odd limits on who could be recruited.  I didn’t know why recruiting peasants was forbidden, even though it would probably have provided a safety valve for a society that desperately needed some way to skim off the intelligent and resourceful before they started plotting trouble.  It was probably something to do with frequent peasant revolts.  Could you trust a man to crack down on his own family?  I wouldn’t care to stake my life on it.

His eyes flickered to Fallon and then back to me.  I could practically see the wheels turning inside his head.  He and his followers were slowly dying, unable to find safe harbour or even go back to the fields.  The local aristocracy might even start hunting the most dangerous game … it had happened, I’d been told.  And yet, could they trust me?  I was a stranger … I hoped that actually worked in my favour.  They’d certainly spent a lot of time avoiding aristocrats they knew all too well. 

And even if you don’t come yourself, some of your followers will be tempted, I thought, as I waited.  There was no point in pushing him to make a snap decision.  You know it too.

He met my eyes, an odd gesture from a common-born peasant turned bandit.  “What are you offering?”

“Good pay,” I said, naming a sum.  “A place to rest your head.  Good training.  Good weapons.  Hopefully, a chance to win glory and even land on the battlefield.  And you’d be sworn to my service, rather than living in the wildlands.”

I grimaced as I let my words sink in.  I’d known people who talked about living off the grid, and it was a hell of a lot more practical here, but it was never easy.  Laura Ingalls Wilder had sanitised a lot, when she’d turned her memoirs into semi-fictional works of literature.  It wasn’t just the contemporary attitudes, most of which were reasonable in the context of their time, but the sheer grimness of their life on the prairie.  I dreaded to think what it must be like, playing outlaw in the real world.  The bandits weren’t anything more than a minor nuisance, at best.  The only reason they hadn’t been hunted down and slaughtered, yet, was that they couldn’t do any real harm.  What did the aristocracy care if a few peasants were robbed?  As long as their interests were untouched, they wouldn’t do anything about it. 

We haggled back and forth for a long time, before he finally agreed to take word back to his men and see who wanted to swear to me.  I hoped they’d listen, as we turned and made our way back to the horses.  Things were going to change and the bandits were going to find themselves isolated, as if they weren’t already.  The local population would become a hell of a lot less sympathetic when they, rather than absent landlords, owned the land.

“Sir,” Wilhelm said, a week later.  “Sir … is this wise?”

I shrugged as I surveyed the new recruits.  Either I’d underestimated how many bandits lived in the forest – which wasn’t impossible, given it was larger than the maps had suggested – or word had spread much further than I’d assumed.  There were over five hundred men gathered in the courtyard, all looking as if they’d stepped out of the dung ages.  A number would be rejected at once, by any sane military, but the remainder looked about as healthy as any other local recruits.  Some good food and proper exercise would get them the rest of the way, I told myself.  And then they’d be ready to move.

“It has to be done,” I said.  I knew what he really meant.  Sure, the aristocracy had the right to raise and arm soldiers, but the monarchy and the warlords would not be amused if – when – they found out what I was doing.  There were limits on how many cavalry could be raised in a hurry – horses weren’t rare, but they were expensive – and pre-gunpowder infantry were rarely worth their wages.  The musket and riflemen I intended to raise, on the other hand, would be a very real threat to the balance of power.  “Are you ready?”

Wilhelm nodded, curtly.  I’d spent the last two days testing him, forcing him to work his way through a number of training exercises.  He might be a bastard, something that I could hardly hold against him, but he was still of noble blood.  I’d cautioned him to treat the new recruits as people, rather than particularly dumb animals.  I hoped he knew better than that – he’d been treated poorly himself, just for being a bastard – but it was never easy to overcome society’s prejudices.  It was astonishing, and tragic, how many people fell back on ingrained habits when they felt unsure of themselves.  I told myself I’d be watching for a few days, before I made my way back to the city.  If Wilhelm developed any problems, I’d have time to correct them before it was too late.

“I can’t give him a chat parchment,” Fallon said, that night.  “I still haven’t been able to figure out how.”

I nodded, feeling a twinge of guilt.  I’d torn her away from her studies to bring her with me, even though she could have said no.  Did she know she could have said no?  I wasn’t sure how to ask.  On one hand, she was a magician who was – slowly but surely – developing her powers; on the other, she was a young woman in my service, a young woman who’d grown up a second-class citizen from birth.  If she said no, and I kicked her out, where would she go?  She couldn’t go home again.

“I’m sorry I haven’t had more time with you,” I said, sincerely.  “How are your studies coming along?”

“I can turn people into frogs now.”  Fallon smiled, just for a second, before it faded away.  “I can’t hold the spell against even the slightest resistance, and they never last very long, but …”

I shivered, despite myself.  Nearly a year in a strange alien world and I still wasn’t used to magic.  I understood fists and guns and power plays by haughty noblemen, but magic?  It was dangerously unpredictable.  The slight girl facing me could reduce me to an animal or turn me into a slave or … or … who knew?  It was so alien to my experience that the mere thought was enough to unman me.  And yet, here it was just a fact of life.

“I’m sure that’s a useful skill to have,” I managed, resisting the urge to touch the protective amulet around my neck.  A thought struck me and I smiled.  “If a princess kissed a man-turned frog, would he turn back?”

“… Sometimes.”  Fallon snorted, her lips twisting in disdain.  “Apparently, there are stories of princes turned to frogs.  Their fathers took their armies to the nearest kingdom and told the princesses to kill the transformed princes or else.  I think later spells got a lot more complicated.”

I had to smile, even though it wasn’t really funny.  “The simple solution,” I said.  “Unless you needed true love, as part of the mix.”

“I don’t think it would work,” Fallon said, after a moment.  “You can make people lust, with magic, but not love.  The spell couldn’t read true love.”

“Only in fairy stories,” I said.  “Charming.”

Fallon smiled.  I encouraged her to talk, learning what I could about her studies.  Magic was an unknown factor, but … that would change.  The more I knew about it, the more I could handle it.  Fallon was doing well, according to her, yet … I hoped her tutor wasn’t a fraud – or even just someone burnishing his credentials rather more than they deserved .  It was hard to be sure.  You didn’t have to be as foolish as Gilderoy Lockhart to mislead someone who didn’t know what you were talking about.  God knew, I’d done it myself on occasion.

I told myself to relax as the evening slowly turned to night.  I’d done what I could, laying the groundwork for land reform, industrial development and even the growth of a private army that would give the warlords an unpleasant surprise.  I could funnel more men and supplies out here, given time.  I should have long enough, I calculated, to get things ready to go before someone realised what I was doing.  It should all work out perfectly.  I didn’t see any problems threatening to overshadow my work.

In hindsight, that was truly – absurdly – optimistic.

6 Responses to “Her Majesty’s Warlord 15”

  1. George Warner November 22, 2021 at 12:26 pm #

    > I’d known people who talked about living off the grid, and it was a hell of a lot more practical here,

    I’d think with modern technology it would be more practical there?

    > all looking as if they’d stepped out of the dung ages.

    Did you mean “dark ages”?

    > and told the princesses to kill the transformed princes or else

    Kill or kiss?

  2. Matthew W Quinn November 22, 2021 at 1:01 pm #

    Uh oh. I’m pretty sure something is going to go to crap real soon based on some of the comments in the chapter.

  3. Clark November 22, 2021 at 4:15 pm #

    I normally skip a lot of the SIM-related posts. This was no exception… until something, I can’t say what, caught my eye and I read a little bit more. Then went back to the first post in September… and now I’m going to order STUCK IN MAGIC. I hope you’re happy now… 😉

  4. George Phillies November 22, 2021 at 6:34 pm #

    Good progress. There seems to be a chapter break near ‘is this wise’?

  5. filipboa0637 November 23, 2021 at 12:28 am #

    Nice! Private Armies. Cooperatives. Land Reform. Local Democracy.

  6. George Phillies November 23, 2021 at 5:01 am #

    If he is asked “Why are you raising so many men?” “There seem to be a lot of bandits. Not to mention corrupt land-reeves. They spend part-time learning trades, so perhaps my peasants will share a plow. More money for me. More taxes for his majesty.”

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