The Komneniad: The Law West of Yenisei

This should have been posted last week, as it comes before the bayonet charge. (I have no idea why I apparently published it back in 2012; anyway, here it is again.) As is my custom in Victoria, which has a timespan short enough that a man’s life will covert most of it and long enough that the man can do a lot of different things, I start off by following the career of someone born in 1836, and aging with the game. The system does tend to break down around 1910, when my subject is over seventy and no longer plausibly very active. But here, with Lysandros 19 years old and riding the Circuit as the Cursus Honorum proscribes, it works very well.

August 24th, 1855
Alukhai tribal lands
Evening

“So why don’t you use the Slavgorod railhead?”, Lysandros asked curiously. “That would cut three days off the drive.”

“It would, but at Slavgorod we don’t get five percent of the gross profits of the company,” Timer explained. “I worked it out. Three extra days means some weight loss in the cattle, but we still come out ahead by about a thousand drachma.”

“That’s not much for three days’ work for ten men,” Lysandros observed.

“Sure, but so what? If the boys weren’t in the saddle driving the herd, they’d be sitting in camp getting drunk. Besides” – the chief grinned – “driving cattle is fun.”

Lysandros shifted uncomfortably in the saddle; he’d thought he was a good rider, but six dawn-to-dusk days in the saddle had taught him otherwise – at least by the standards of tribesmen who had spent a good part of every day, since birth, riding. Still, the chief was right: It was fun, and he grinned back.

Timer, however, had turned away and was sniffing the air intently. Lysandros couldn’t smell anything but horses, sweat, and a thousand head of cattle; but he kept quiet. It wasn’t he who had lived on this steppe for forty years, after all; and the Envoy of Rome did not ride out on a cattle drive purely for recreation.

Seeing his inquiring look, Timer nodded. “Cossacks,” he half whispered, half snarled. “I can smell the filthy bastards.” He whistled piercingly. The next rider, a hundred meters over, took it up, and it travelled rapidly around the herd. The cowboys reacted quickly; guns came out of holsters, and the horses began to converge on where Timur and Lysandros stood.

The Cossacks were faster. They had already been in one group, waiting behind a hillock for the cattle drive to come by; they had no need to gather their forces. They came galloping down the hill, whooping and firing their guns in the air. Behind Lysandros the cattle began to bellow at the unfamiliar noise. He kicked his horse into motion towards the raiders, pulling his revolver from its holster. He had fired the big six-shooter a thousand times, at targets, at animals, but never at men. He was pleased to find his hands steady as he brought it up, smoothly, left hand supporting the right at the wrist. Squeeze the trigger, don’t jerk.

The revolver was a product of a New Byzantium gunsmith who made weapons for the wealthy among the Komnenoi; the stock was smooth walnut inlaid with ebony, and there was silver filigree running decoratively along the barrel, but for all that the mechanism worked as smoothly as on any gun in existence, and the sight was true. A saga hero out of legend, a scion of a European warrior dynasty, might have wrought great execution with such a weapon; knocked half a dozen raiders from their saddles, and coolly reloaded at speed while the remainder gaped at their dead comrades.

Alas, the Komnenoi had better things to do with their childhoods than spend it learning small arms; and the revolver was only a smoothbore. Firing from a moving horse at other moving targets, Lysandros’s shots went as wild as the Cossacks’ had. They had been shooting in the air to frighten the cattle and for general exuberance, though; Lysandros had been shooting to kill. For a long moment sheer embarrassment kept him from realising his predicament. Then it struck him that charging alone against ten armed-to-the-teeth Cossacks, himself with nothing but a pistol that, clearly, he could not use for shit, might not have been his smartest move ever.

He had little time for reflection. One of the Cossacks had got out a lance and was charging straight at him, the gap closing rapidly. The sheer unfairness of it struck him, and he had to struggle from breaking into hysterical laughter: In an age of railroads, balloons, and rifled guns, he was about to be killed by a piece of edged metal on a wooden stick. He dug in his heel, struggling desperately to reload; his horse curved to the right, where there were no Cossacks, but the man with the lance followed. He fumbled the cartridge. Pick another from the belt, it was hopeless now but what else was he going to do? The lancehead came closer with terrible speed. The man wielding it, no, he was just a boy, probably younger than Lysandros himself. He was going to be killed by a kid with a weapon from the Dark Ages and his clumsy fingers refused to do anything about it. No-no-no his mind gibbered, frantically looking for a way out.

At the last moment the lance swung aside, then back in, fetching Lysandros a mighty whack on the head with the wooden shaft. He reeled in the saddle, seeing stars. The Cossack rode onwards, whooping “Coup! Coup!” He hadn’t intended to kill, Lysandros realised dazedly; the raiding across the border was a game the young Cossacks played, a test of manhood, not war.

He had dropped the cartridge again, but there was no great hurry now. He got his horse to a halt, then very carefully reloaded all six chambers. This time he would not go charging in like, like what? Like some bloody Cossack, all balls and no brains, he thought darkly. He would wait for the last second to shoot; and he didn’t intend to be satisfied with counting coup.

He brought the horse around, cantering towards where cowboys and Cossacks were exchanging shots; already the raiders had cut off perhaps a dozen head of the cattle and were driving them away in a panic, spurred along by the gunshots and a few touches with lances. The chaos was amazing. Some of the cowboys who had been furthest from the ambush were still struggling to reach the fighting, with panicked cows getting in their way; the nice organised herd they had been driving was splitting apart into several amorphous tendrils of frightened cattle, prevented from becoming a stampede only by the fact that the cows hadn’t had time to settle on a single direction yet.

By the time Lysandros reached the place where Timer was still firing after the retreating Cossacks, the action had sorted itself out slightly. The Cossacks were in galloping retreat with their handful of cattle; the cowboys had formed up around Timer and were firing carbines, to no effect at this range.

“All right! Stop shooting!” Timer yelled. “Get these damn cattle under control before they stampede!”

Lysandros ground his teeth, but he saw the necessity. Killing Cossacks might be satisfying, but if they lost the herd the tribe would have a hungry winter, or at any rate one without the luxuries that made it bearable. He obediently rode off to the right as Timer directed, cutting off a tendril of cattle that looked like it might become a full stampede for the herd; they recoiled from his shouts and gunshots.

It took an hour of such work before the herd was under control, if still so restive that there would be no further driving it today. Lysandros rode wearily into the place where the others were gathering. Even though the Cossack raid had succeeded, he felt a building satisfaction: His first action! A genuine border skirmish with the Russians, just like the stories! True, the enemy had accomplished their objective, and his own tactics had been stupid to the point of suicide; but he had survived. He was a veteran now!

His mood was broken by the grim looks on the faces of the other cowboys. They stood in a circle of eight around one of their number – no, he realised; that was a Cossack. A prisoner? But if there was one prisoner, and he himself made the ninth cowboy – then he saw the body on the ground. Galim. Timer’s nephew.

“Envoy,” Timer greeted him formally; and “Chief,” he replied.

“I wish to lay a charge of murder before the justice of Rome.”

Lysandros considered. Timer’s eyes glittered with rage and unshed tears; why hadn’t he just killed the Cossack himself? It was a test, of some sort. He flogged his tired brain, trying to think what kind of politics Timer might play at this moment. He decided to temporise.

“Rome hears. But is it not a matter for tribal law? The killing was done on tribal lands, and not by a citizen; nor is the victim a citizen.”

Timer inclined his head. “But the accused is not a subject of Rome; and so it becomes a matter of international law. The Czar is rarely pleased when we kill his subjects. So it is a proper question for the Envoy of Rome.”

“I see.” So it wasn’t that he wanted to have tribal law-rights confirmed. He looked again at the prisoner, and recognised him with a shock. It was the boy who’d shown him mercy, counting coup instead of killing him.

“Did anyone see the accused kill Galim?” he asked.

“What does that matter?” Timer demanded. “We all saw him come onto our land and steal our cattle! Shall he escape because nobody saw the killing?”

“No, Chief. But there is a difference in the law of Rome, between murder and accessory to murder.”

“Is there?” Timer blinked. “What is the difference, then?”

“For a foreign subject taken in acts of banditry on Roman soil, it makes the difference between crucifixion and hanging.”

“Oh.” Timer was silent for a moment. He was calming down, Lysandros saw; perhaps the mention of crucifixion had unsettled him. There was perhaps no more painful way to die. Timer might find it hard to inflict such a fate in cold blood, even on a boy he would cheerfully have shot. The Cossack couldn’t be more than sixteen, three years younger than Lysandros. Two years younger than Galim had been. His leg was broken from the fall that had caused him to be captured, and the right side of his face was one big bruise; his eyes moved frantically, seeking escape or mercy.

“Well, we have no wood; we can’t crucify him. But anyway I did not see him shoot Galim, no,” Timer said. The other cowboys nodded confirmingly.

Lysandros looked again at the Cossack, meeting his eyes. The boy had shown him mercy, when he could easily have killed. But – he had come onto Roman land for a lark, to rustle cattle and have a nice little fight. He had to have known that someone might get killed; that would happen when guns went off. And what if he’d been a half second slower with the lance? It wasn’t as though the Cossacks were starving; they had their own herds, which they didn’t ship west because the Czar had built no railroads that made it economic to do so. They stole Roman cows for the hell of it, for bragging rights and feasting on stolen meat.

“Accessory to murder, then,” Lysandros said heavily. “Also rustling cattle, which merits a flogging; but the greater crime takes precedence.” When he had left New Byzantium to take up the job of Envoy, he had joked about being the Law West of Yenisei, just like the penny dreadfuls. It hadn’t occurred to him that it would be literally true, and that the law sometimes called for death. His throat was dry. “Do you have anything to say in your defense, Cossack?”

The boy spat. Apparently he had decided to die brave. “Yob,” he said distinctly and slowly, “tvoyu mat.”

“Nothing pertinent. All right. Hang him, then.” He was aware that there was some legal formula that he had failed to recall; that death should be pronounced formally and after deliberation. But what else could he say? He was the law west of Yenisei; and there was only one penalty, in Roman law, for murder. That law had lasted two thousand years, longer than the Empire itself. He would not break it for a Russian cattle thief, even a young one who had shown him mercy; even one whose bravery was breaking down, so that lip-biting failed to keep tears at bay.

“There’s, um, a slight problem there,” Timer pointed out. Lysandros looked at him hopefully, as did the Cossack; was there some hope of mercy, then?

“We’ve got rope, but what would we hang him from?” Timer gestured at the treeless steppe.

It was a good question. “I suppose,” Lysandros said slowly, “we could tie his feet to one horse, and the noose to another, and whip them both into a gallop. That ought to snap his neck. Or strangle him at a pinch.” No mercy, then; just practicality.

“Please, no,” the Cossack whispered. Even Timer, whose flat Tatar face looked as though it might be carved from iron, looked dubious. “That’s… not very dignified,” he said. “And the horses might not like it.”

The horses had nothing to do with it, Lysandros realised; Timer just didn’t like the mechanics of the hanging-by-horse. Neither did Lysandros, come to that. He supposed it ought not to make a difference, whether a man fell or was pulled into the noose; but somehow it did. And anyway the same law that prescribed hangings, said how they should be done, giving the dimensions of the gallows – thirteen steps to the platform, thirteen loops in the noose – and the procedure for “hanging by the neck until dead”; horses did not come into it.

“No,” Lysandros said at length. “Well then. Here is a bandit, taken in arms against subjects of Rome going about their lawful business. His crime properly merits hanging. But in view both of his youth, and of the practical difficulties, I hereby commute his sentence. We’ll just shoot him.”

His hands were still steady as he brought up the revolver.

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