Only these two thoughts passed again and again through Stedt’s mind as he lay on the simple bed that had once held both him and his young bride.
With the first, he reminded himself that his ten acres of oats, or what was left of them anyway, were ready for harvest, and that there was no one to do the job but him. In less than a week, all would be ruined. Then when the Lord’s tax collectors came down from the Keep, Stedt would have nothing with which to pay them. Eventually, he’d be evicted. But somehow it didn’t matter much anymore.
At this, Stedt repeated his second thought: my fault. ‘If I had only paid the marauders,’ he glowered, rolling onto his side, ‘if only Melisande were still alive.’ Then, ‘No. Then I’d be as the rest of them. No self-respect.’
The morning of that day not too long ago had been beautiful. The sun shone through the leafy maples and oaks near Stedt’s cottage. The brightness sharpened and defined everything growing. Even with the cloudless blue sky, a cool westerly breeze from the mountains would keep the day comfortable.
Stedt’s fields, across the dirt track that ran in front of the cottage, were waving with a ripening harvest of oats that promised to be one of his biggest ever.
Nearby, in the six other cottages that clustered near his own, Stedt could see the other farmers preparing for their day’s work. Their field were also near harvest-time, but since his were closest, all would help him first. Then, Stedt would help each of them in turn. Eventually, one-tenth would go to the Lord, and one-twentieth was to be the Church-tithe, and the remainder would be for Stedt and his wife to live on for the rest of the year.
Lost in his thoughts and anticipations, Stedt almost missed the rumble of hoof-beats down the road. Looking to the north, he saw the cloud of dust rising in the sunlight.
Without transition, Stedt found himself surrounded by a half a score of riders. All were unkempt and unshaven, but their expensive doublets and riding leathers revealed their true place in society. Several fought their mounts, sawing on the reins, trying to keep them steady. All were young and Stedt recognized most of them; the leader of the gang was a man named Malnock, barely into adulthood, who also happened to be his Lord’s son. He stood out from the others, both by virtue of his more expensive clothes-his gaudy, studded leather breeches and gold embroidered tunic-and by the wild, feral light in his dark eyes. The rest also wore expensive clothing and untamed expressions, but none could match him in his extremity.
Some were younger sons of Lords from the surrounding lands, not yet into their inheritance. The others were just “friends” as far as Stedt knew.
Malnock spoke, “Hail, my good peasant! Ready for a day in the fields, eh? Well, please hold for but a moment and fetch your neighbors. I’d like to have a word with them.”
The words were polite, but his tone dripped with hate and mockery. Regardless, the riders parted the circle for Stedt to pass, using force more than skill to move their horses. Stedt carefully walked by, but not quickly enough to avoid being spat upon by one of the bolder horsemen. He tried to ignore the slimy feeling on the back of his neck as he gathered up his neighbors, and refused to give the riders the satisfaction of seeing him wipe it off. Besides, the women were watching from the windows.
Stedt shot a glance at his wife, Melisande. He hated for her to see him like this. Her long brown tresses, not yet tied up, hung about a fair and pale face that plainly showed fear for her husband.
When all the farmers had arrived, the horsemen closed their circle once again around the seven men, and the great contrast between the groups became evident. The horsemen continued to struggle and curse, but the peasants maintained a cool resolve. Malnock answered their silence by saying in the same mocking tone he’d used before, “I want twenty-one gold Crowns or their equivalent on the ground right here,” he spat to mark the spot and leered at the men, “in ten minutes. That’s three Crowns from each.”
The farmers looked at each other fearfully. “Three Crowns!” one muttered, “That’s nearly a season’s harvest. And a good one at that.”
“Hold your tongue, swine, and remember to whom it is you speak.”
“My Lord,” Stedt managed to force past his constricted throat, “Most here have never seen three Crowns, let alone ever possessed them.”
“Well then, peasant,” Malnock grated, “the rest of you will have to make up for those who cannot pay.”
Malnock signaled across the circle and once again it opened, the horses dancing about under uncertain hands. The men ambled forth toward their homes.
They were familiar with this treatment by Malnock and his friends, for it had been a common occurrence to see one or more come riding up the path to cry out, “Peasant, bring me food!” or “See to my horse. It has lost a shoe.” Or, “Give me a bed for the night.”
But now they were dismayed by this new demand for money, a lot of it. And they had no choice.
To Stedt, that one word felt like a shout but in reality was only a hoarse whisper. Then, loud enough for all to hear, “No!”
He had stopped in the dirt track, his fists clenched to his sides. The other men now froze, afraid to even turn around. Malnock, who had been drinking deeply from a wineskin, stopped also, almost gagging on a mouthful, “What? Speak peasant! Let us hear what you have to say.”
Stedt turned about to face him, “I said, ‘No!’ We will not pay this ransom.”
Malnock glared at him, an unnoticed trail of red wine dripping from the corner of his mouth. He said in a low, dangerous voice, “You have much to learn about the respect due your superiors.”
“I respect my superiors. You’re just not one of them,” Stedt replied coldly.
Malnock’s friends seemed to find this funny, but their laughter didn’t help his mood at all. He longed to give a biting retort, but couldn’t come up with one. Finally, in a fit of agitation, he howled with frustration and spurred his horse into motion, drawing his broadsword. He meant to cut the insolent man down right where he stood.
But Stedt was quicker. Stepping to the side, he placed a well aimed kick at the horse’s left fetlock, and catching the reins in his right hand, yanked the horse to the ground. Malnock screamed as he fell, and as he hit the sun-baked dirt, something made a loud crack. He rolled to his feet slowly, holding his left wrist; his sword lay on the ground, broken in two. “You bastard!” he yelled.
His friends became serious. They looked at each other, some worried, some ready to fight. Still, none dared intrude on Malnock’s right to do whatever he would with the peasant.
Malnock was indignant, “I’ll get you, peasant! You’ll pay for what you’ve done! That sword cost nearly fifty Crowns.”
“No,” said Stedt firmly, “Get on your horse and go from here. Just get out of here!”
Malnock appeared uncertain. He’d never had to face anyone unhorsed, unarmed, and injured. And the simple farmer appeared capable of violence at the moment. Slowly, his resolve waned. With a snort of derision, he mounted his horse, a grimace betraying the pain of his sprained wrist.
Finally looking down at Stedt, he said stiffly, “You’ll pay!”
With that, he yanked his horse around and spurred it down the track. The poor beast limped a little. The other members of Malnock’s band soon made up their minds and followed. Most weren’t sure what to think.
Stedt slowly turned around. One of the farmers was shaking his head, “You shouldn’t have done that, Stedt. Now they’ll be back for sure.”
The others agreed with murmured assent. Another spoke in a shaking voice, “We’ve had it.”
Stedt was furious, “And if we had paid? Then what?”
They fell silent, most looking at their feet and shuffling in the dirt.
“I’ll tell you what. They’d be back again. And again. Demanding more every time. Now its our life savings. Later…well then, Kesrick?” he said, looking at the tall, thin man near the dusty road, who lived two cottages down from him, “Your daughter, Helena, is very beautiful, is she not?”
Kesrick looked up in utter dismay at the import of Stedt’s statement hit him, “No! Not Helena! They would never-” he stopped as he realized that they would. Eventually.
But the others continued to shake their heads. One of them, a stout man named Onus, said in a low rumble, “I don’t know. One thing’s for sure. You got yourself in a lot of trouble. And us, too.”
With that he turned away, muttering implications to himself. The rest followed his lead and walked away, leaving Stedt alone in the middle of the dirt track. He could hardly believe what he was seeing. “My God!” he cried.
Realizing he would get no further help from his neighbors, Stedt walked out into his fields in disgust, ignoring the questioning gaze of his wife. He continued to walk, carefully avoiding the grain, until he noticed that he had come to the outer boundary of his plot. There, he sat down roughly, brooding over the incident. Mostly, he tried to comprehend how the people he lived with could offer him so little support. Probably, he thought, he’d have to appear before the Lord. That didn’t frighten him very much.
Stedt lay down, imagining his Lord in his great Mantle of Office, listening to Stedt’s account, and then turning around to punish Malnock. “You are not to leave the Castle grounds for a month…”
Stedt smiled at this, as the swaying of the oats, his oats, in the breeze and the warm rays of the sun lulled him to sleep. There he dreamed of Malnock shoveling out stables.
The sudden black smell of foul smoke and a bright orange flicker broke the spell. Stedt snapped awake and looked to his home. He couldn’t see it then however, because the field between them burned; oil had been spread over a huge area and lit. Stedt ran toward the flames, fear bitter in his throat, angling to the left to out-flank the blaze. But as more of the ripe, dry oats caught fire, he was forced to veer further and further from his home. A sense of panic began to grip him. ‘If they touched Melisande…’
Stedt eventually rounded the fire and found the dirt track, but was nearly a quarter of a mile from his goal. He ran down the road, the dust, heat, and smoke tearing at his lungs, as images of Melisande filled his mind. The first shy encounter, the ensuing friendship, and the culminating marriage came forth in an instant. He saw her as she had been on their wedding night.
The weeks that had followed only continued to increase her gentle beauty to him. A vision of her silky brown hair surrounding her soft, round face and deep green eyes stood before him. Soon, smoke wasn’t the only thing that blurred Stedt’s vision. “Melisande, no!” he gasped.
Almost stumbling into the clearing, the very first thing he saw was what looked like a pile of rags on the ground. Getting closer, he could make out a form under the torn clothes; it hardly looked human, but it had once been Melisande. By the way her dress had been ripped, and from the bloodstains, it was evident that she’d been raped, brutally and repeatedly. Then, they had bound her hands and feet.
Finally, they trampled her to death under their horses. The utter malice, depravity and cowardice of the act took away Stedt’s ability to react, to do anything, in a single instant.
He stood there dumbly until Kesrick came out of hiding and touched him on the shoulder, “When I saw them doing what they did-” his voice broke. Then, continuing, “-I remembered what you said about Helena. I tried to stop them but—”
He held up a bandaged arm in testimony to his inadequacy.
When Stedt made no move or reaction, Kesrick began to pull him toward his cottage. “Come on,” he said sympathetically, “You can lie down at my house. We’ll bury Melisande.”
Stedt allowed himself to be led to Kesrick’s home. Once there, he tumbled into a cot near the wall, completely numb.
A few hours after Kesrick and his family came back, Stedt mustered enough resolve to get up and shamble back to his own cottage, where he immediately fell back into his own bed.
There he had been for several days, getting up only to relieve himself and to eat a few tasteless, empty meals.
The others harvested their fields in the days that followed. What little remained of Stedt’s crop was left to rot. Hence the two thoughts that ran circles around his mind like a dog chasing its own tail.
The oats are rotting.
Occasionally, Kesrick and his wife would come, but he never noticed them. Nor did he notice their whispered conversations, even when they talked about him. The days passed without number for him as the trees outside began to get the slight tinge of color that signaled the end of summer.
Then, one day, a new idea, borne of darkness and hatred, entered Stedt’s mind. Why not? I’ve got nothing left. Why shouldn’t I seek justice?
For the first time in a very long while, something resembling life came into Stedt’s actions. He rose from the cot and went outside into the bright afternoon sun. Still feeling very numb, he stood blinking for a moment until he could make out Kesrick’s cottage. Then walking over, he heard the sound of threshing coming from behind the simple house, and so continued around to the back. Kesrick stopped in mid-motion, most of the screen of grain falling to the ground. At one time, Stedt might have smiled at the look of total astonishment on his face. “You’re finally up?” he asked unnecessarily.
Stedt replied with a stiff nod, and then said, “I’ve decided it’s time we did something.”
Kesrick shook his head, “No, Stedt. We can’t. We already paid for your mistake. So did you. Just leave it be and we’ll help you get through the winter. And this is your payment to the Lord,” he kicked at the pile of grain at his feet.
“Well, at least be my witness before the Lord.”
“I’m afraid that isn’t possible either. Malnock and his friends are too close. If we move to do anything at all, they’ll come down on us hard.”
“Where are they?” Stedt demanded.
Kesrick glanced down at his feet uncomfortably, “They made a camp a short distance from here to keep an eye on us.”
“In the middle of your fields,” he finally blurted, looking up again, “Look Stedt, don’t do anything stupid. Be glad you still have a home and a field.”
“No,” said Stedt grimly, “What I have is an empty house and a ruined piece of land that isn’t even mine anymore. I’m tired of being a victim.”
With that, he stalked back to his cottage. Kesrick could be heard muttering to himself. At the black, pitch-covered door, Stedt looked out over the track, and although he couldn’t see anything, he could just barely hear the sounds of rough laughter and the faint snorts of horses. He slammed the door behind him.
Then, purposefully, he moved the large oak dining table that dominated the single room of his cottage to one side. After that, he began to pry up several of the floorboards to find a small, deep hole in the bare dirt under them.
Eventually, from the hole beneath the cottage, he withdrew a large burlap-covered bundle, and in the fading twilight, unwrapped a long leather scabbard. It contained the gleaming short sword once owned by Stedt’s great-great-grandfather, long before peasants were prohibited to own weapons. Yet, this one had been hidden, carefully coated with grease to protect it from rust.
Stedt didn’t know much else about the weapon or where it came from, other than the fact that it had been given to him just before his father died of cholera. It’s history seemed as empty and formless as his life. It gave him a cold sense of comfort, and thus was a fitting weapon for him.
Drawing the sword, he tried a few cuts and thrusts, but it felt clumsy and unwieldy in his hand. Giving that up, Stedt wiped off the grease with an old rag and began to polish the blade.
That is, until he realized that the rag was one of the remnants of the dress Melisande had worn.
The dried brown bloodstains were nearly obliterated by the grease. Stedt continued to buff and polish, a gleam of hate growing in his eyes. He saw nothing but the sharp blade, designed solely for killing and hurting. It looked good. Unknown to him, he was muttering under his breath as he passed the rag over the cold metal again and again.
And so it went. The litany repeated endlessly with the strokes of the tattered rag on the steel.
Finally, it was time. Stedt dropped the rag to the floor, immediately forgetting it ever existed. Replacing the sword in the scabbard, he buckled on the belt and started from his house, into the darkness. The moon and the stars were obscured by the low, ominous clouds that hung like a pall over the entire countryside.
Finding his way across the track and into his fields by memory, he soon could make out the orange glow of a campfire just over the next rise. Raucous laughter and crude jests rose up from the depression. Laboring up to the crest, he placed himself in plain view and called out in a loud voice, “Malnock!”
The heads below looked up. One said, mockingly, “Look everyone! It’s the peasant, out to do battle!”
The others laughed loudly, some jeering now. Malnock stood up, “I am here, peasant. What do you want?”
“I come here to challenge you,” he said, those below laughing still louder, “Will you defend yourself like a man or must I kill you in cold blood just as you did my wife?”
The men fell silent as Malnock’s face began to color. “Yea, peasant. I’ll see you. It’s time I tried my new sword on some worthless meat.”
At that, he drew forth a shining broadsword with his recently healed left hand. Stedt drew his weapon also. Both gleamed equally cold in the firelight. Malnock shouted as if the distance between them were very great, “Come down here where neither has an unfair advantage as you do at the top of that hill.”
Stedt slowly advanced down the hillside, crushing the few oats that remained. Then, standing before Malnock, he waited patiently, as if for a judgment. Malnock’s men all watched intently, but didn’t move from their positions around the fire.
Malnock bowed slightly. But as Stedt began to do the same, he took the advantage and attacked; the broadsword came around in a stiff arc, aimed to remove Stedt’s head.
Stedt brought up his blade and managed to deflect the blow while stepping back to avoid being nicked. The next swing came immediately afterward: a lunge at his abdomen that turned into a feint as Malnock swung up and to the left, catching Stedt’s blade and twisting it around.
Before he could react, Malnock pushed his sword, and with a final wrench, sliced a gash across Stedt’s knuckles. The steel bit deep into his hand, searing him with it’s cold edge. Malnock immediately pressed his new advantage and knocked the short sword out of Stedt’s injured hand.
The silvery blade flashed as it spun out into the night.
Malnock laughed gleefully, “Peasant, it appears that this time it is you who are unarmed. No matter, I will supply you with a weapon much more befitting a man of your stature.”
He then walked over to where the horses were tied up, and in a second, a spade flew by to land at Stedt’s feet. It had been used to shovel manure. Stedt picked it up grimly, the blood from his hand soon making the handle hot and slippery. He tried to grip it more in his left hand.
Malnock attacked yet again, slashing to the left. Stedt held up the inadequate shovel in a futile attempt to block the shot. He hoped to catch the blade in the wooden handle, but at the last second, Malnock twisted again and slid the edge down forcefully. Stedt would not cry out as the broadsword completely severed the first two fingers on his already injured right hand.
Blood seeped from the remaining stumps as Stedt shifted his failing hold completely to his left hand.
Malnock laughed again, a cruel murderous sound. Suddenly, he swung again as if to slash from the left, but changed once more, this time to a thrust that struck home, deep into Stedt’s side under the warding shovel. Stedt felt the bite of the steel more in surprise than anything else. The blade quickly withdrew, taking his blood and entrails with it. Stedt crumpled to the ground, the flaring pain blocking out nearly everything else. However, he could still hear Malnock chuckling to himself. And in a few moments, he felt a blade draw itself across his tunic, wiping off the taint of his blood. He could also still smell the dark, earthy scent of the manure on the shovel that lay by his head.
In the long time that followed, the sounds of feet tramping about and then horses being ridden away made their impression on him. Eventually, the yammering pain began to fade. But everything else was fading, too.
The beginning gleams of dawn were only a grey smudge to Stedt’s cloudy eyes. Unbidden, the litany came to mind once more.
He couldn’t seem to figure out why.
Later that morning, long after the sun had risen, Kesrick found Stedt in the ruined field. The neighbors all helped bury him, under a mound at the bottom of the hill, with his sword by his side.
© Rebecca Morn, all rights reserved
Return to top