“Free land?” one of the men asked. “Are you sure?”
“I am,” the soldier sent as the Emperor’s Messenger replied. “You can read Emperor Lucian’s words yourself, if you like. Join him for this campaign, and after the northerners are defeated, their lands will be divided among the volunteers.”
“What sort of land?” another voice asked. “I’ve heard it’s poor for grain, north of the Wall.”
The messenger shrugged. “They grow enough barley and oats to feed themselves, don’t they? And you’ve sheep here, up on the hillfields. Not so different, I’d say. Who’s interested?”
Already many of the younger men crowded around him. I glanced around, seeing wrinkled brows and thinned lips on most of the women, and a few of the men, too. It wasn’t such a bad idea; there wasn’t enough land here for the young people. But now? Harvest was not many weeks away, and we needed the hands. Especially with the other half of the message the soldier had brought.
“Messenger!” I called. “You would take our young men from us, with the barley ripening?” I stepped forward. “Be clear. You expect these men to accompany you now?”
“Council-leader.” At least he remembered who I was. I had given him food and drink earlier, and found him a bed for the night. “Tomorrow, or the day after, no later. I have my instructions.”
“At the same time the Emperor has increased the amount of grain he expects as taxes?” I snapped. “If you take our young men, who is to harvest the crop? If it rots in the fields because we have no one to reap it, what then?”
“I am sure you will manage,” he said. I seethed at his tone.
“People of Tirvan!” I raised my voice. “We must meet to discuss this request. Landholders, the hall, this evening.” The fishing boats were still out, but with the tide just at the turn they would return in time, even with the catch to unload and get onto the drying racks. “Soldier, you are not to attend,” I added, to be clear.
I hear muttering among the young men – and some of the older ones, too. I understood, partly: this was a chance that might not come again. But I had to think beyond the individual to what was best for our village.
The other two council leaders met me at my house. With my husband dead these three years, and my children grown, we were assured of privacy here.
“What are your thoughts, Cenwyn?’ my sister Sæthe asked.
“Why is Lucian asking for men now?” I said. “Surely the time for raids was earlier in the summer.”
“That’s exactly why,” Alwar said, from where she sat across from me at the table. “He hopes to take the northerners by surprise. A fast raid to take the land. Then the army can hold it – oh, maybe some of the young men will decide to join them, but not most – and the rest will be back in time for the harvest.”
“We need more land,” Sæthe said. “Not just this village; the whole Empire. I say we counsel agreement.”
“As do I.” Alwar confirmed. I put down my mug of tea with a bang, splashing liquid onto the tabletop. The sharp smell of mint rose.
“And I do not,” I said.
Saethe sighed. “A long night tonight, I fear.”
A long night, indeed. The moon rode high in the dark sky by the time we left the hall. The vote had passed, just: the white pebbles in the voting box outnumbering the black by fewer than a dozen.
In some houses, the men would be filling saddlebags even now, those that had a horse to take. Others would make packs for their own backs. The smithy would be busy, come the morning, with blades to be repaired or sharpened.
I closed the door of the meeting hall behind me. I’d told Saethe and Alwar to leave; I’d clean up, what little there was to do. Straightening benches calmed me, mindless physical work. They would take the results of the vote to the soldier. Not that they needed to, I thought; the excited voices of the men would have told him the outcome.
How had the vote gone in other villages? Much like here in Tirvan, I guessed. Slow anger rose. How dare the men leave us now, with the harvest only a few weeks away? Yes, we could do it without them, if we must, but then they – or at least the older ones– would return, some injured beyond hope; some crippled beyond work. We’d have to take care of them, and still do the work they should have stayed to do. If they preferred fighting to farming, I fumed, then that’s what they should do. Go and fight, and leave the farming to us. But don’t come back, wounded and weakened.
I stood on the porch, looking up at the stars and the waxing moon. Frost, when next it was full. Behind the hall, the waterfall splashed down the cliff. What would Lucian ask next? There was always some reason he wanted the men. This wouldn’t be a fast raid, I thought. There’d be resistance, and he’d need the men; another border – because there had to be a border, didn’t there, somewhere? – would need patrols. If my husband had still been alive, he’d have heard my ultimatum: if you go, don’t come back.
Go and fight, and leave the farming to us. Why not?
to be continued….