January 7th, 774
A hill near Coruna, in the Kingdom of Asturias
It was, of course, raining; a hard drizzle blown in from the Western Sea by a chill wind, unobstructed from here to the world’s edge. Even in his heavy woolens, lined with down, Oliver felt the chill. The prisoners had been stripped of their clothes – damaged goods and cheap, most of it, but why waste anything on condemned men? – and were shivering, which gave their efforts to stand defiant and look death in the eye a slightly pathetic air. Just leaving them out for the night would perhaps suffice, saving the need for executions – but no; best have it over with. Oliver looked at them without favour; after he’d shattered their ragtag army at Santiago there had been no purpose in their keeping together, and every sheep they’d lifted in their fighting retreat had been pure waste. If they’d had the good sense to scatter, as most of their comrades had done, or even to take the Crescent and go across the border to serve out their lives as soldiers of the infidel, he could have celebrated Christmas at home, rather than spend the winter months chasing across these western hills.
“They’ll be useless if they freeze to death,” Johan complained, and Oliver glanced at him in surprise.
The King’s marshal, and representative in the field. Not a bright man, but very well suited to charging straight through a shield wall.
“Do you think so? I suppose it’s more merciful than impaling them, but I hardly think the `mercy’ of freezing to death will inspire anyone else to rebellion.”
Now it was Johan who looked confused, not that it was very difficult to confuse the King’s marshal; give him a charge to lead and he was a splendid fellow to have at your side, but for anything more complex than getting swords into enemy guts, you might be better off with his horse. Fleetingly Oliver wished that the King himself had come; but men of over sixty did not fare well in winter campaigns. That was why marshals, and vassals-in-chief, existed.
“Slaves, man! They can’t work our fields if they’re all dead, can they?”
“Rebels, man!” Oliver returned the marshal’s tone exactly. “You can’t enslave rebels; the Code calls for death. And they’ve already risen in revolt once; are you going to keep an eye on them every hour of the day?”
“They won’t run with their hamstrings cut. Are your lands so well peopled that you can afford to turn down a hundred strong men?”
Oliver winced; the man had a point. He was one of the wealthiest men in Asturias, but a hundred healthy young slaves would be a significant addition to his capital; with such a labour force he could clear half the out-march for the plow, repair the aqueduct, add a stylish tower to the church and make God remember his name favourably on Judgement Day… but the law was clear. And besides:
“If men can revolt and not die for it, what’ll prevent others from doing the same? It takes a fearsome threat to keep freeborn Visigoth men to their station.” He paused, seeing the point enter Johan’s thick skull and rattle around in search of the brain; to drive it home he gestured to the nearest rebel, a tall man with a mop of blonde hair that Oliver rather envied. If he had hair like that he would wear it to his shoulders, as the men who’d conquered Iberia were said to have done to proclaim their freeborn status. “You man! Why did you revolt?”
Some random peasant.
“Why should I tell you?” the rebel returned. Something in his eyes made Oliver’s hand go to his sword; it was a famous blade, “the sharpest in all the world” if you believed the bards – but some men were dangerous naked and with their bare hands for weapon.
“If you don’t,” he began, but paused; the rebel was already condemned, and didn’t seem like the sort of man to be intimidated by losing a few hours of life. “If you do,” he started over, “I’ll take you over to our campfires and give you a last meal.”
The rebel shrugged. “Eh, why not? I may as well die with a full belly. I rebelled because there’s no justice in the courts. A neighbour brought suit against me, saying my sheep were his because they’d broken a fence and grazed on his lands; it wasn’t true, but he bought six witnesses and the judge. Count Luitfredo wouldn’t hear my appeal. What should I have done, sold myself into slavery?”
Oliver winced, wishing he hadn’t asked; but at least it was clear ammunition for his argument with Johan.
“There, you see? Men enrich themselves against the law, and what do you get but revolts? I won’t say I’ve no use for a hundred slaves; but I value peace in my lands even more. The infidel isn’t so far from here, you know, and would like nothing better than for Christians to quarrel ourselves into weakness. If we don’t have castle-peace among ourselves, the Saracens will make peace; the peace of submission. It’s injustice begets rebellion, nothing else; and what’s injustice, but men becoming rich by breaking the law?”
“We should all be fools to pray for justice,” Johan quoted sullenly; Oliver rolled his eyes.
“Yes, yes, God may certainly grant these men mercy, by all means let it be so! But I don’t intend to pray for justice, I intend to deal justice; and justice is death, for these men.”
Johan looked as though he’s still like to protest, but the rebel, quicker witted, got there first: “Well said! And do you also propose to do justice in Santiago, and enforce the law on the corrupt magistrates there?”
Oliver gritted his teeth, wishing again that he hadn’t asked for the man’s reasons; he’d been much happier not knowing. “Santiago’s not my fief,” he muttered, knowing it for a feeble excuse even before the rebel’s eyes flashed contempt. “And I’ve only your word for the matter, anyway!”
“My word,” the rebel agreed, “and the word of a thousand men who were willing to risk death for my cause. Do you think men take arms against the king because they’ve had too much beer?”
Oliver looked down. “No,” he said, conscious that a baseborn rebel had somehow gotten the moral high ground on him, a Visigoth lord and the son of a paladin. He raised his gaze, meeting the man’s eyes with an effort. “It might take me a while.”
The rebel sneered. “Longer than my life, anyway. Promises to dead men are cheap, eh?”
Oliver shrugged. “Not if the right man gives them.” Something in his tone must have gotten through, for the rebel nodded, no longer sneering.
Oliver at eighteen. Young men are sometimes impetuous; he may not entirely have thought this through.
“That’s true,” he said. “I’ll hold you to it, then. And if you should chance to come across Hespanisco’s widow, you’ll give her the twenty sheep I’m owed?”
Oliver’s mouth twisted. “I think you’ve had that back, twice over, with your banditry; on men no richer than yourself. Be satisfied if a corrupt magistrate hangs.”
“It was worth a try.” Hespanisco shrugged. “What about that last meal, then?”
Oliver gestured towards the campfires, and the rebel stepped across the invisible line that separated free men from condemned. Oliver looked at Johan, still struggling to come up with some new argument, and realised he would never convince the man; but then, why was he even trying? He had, after all, the power of high and low justice… and also two-thirds of the fighting men who had broken and harried the rebel host. What was Johan going to do about it? He turned instead to Piarres, his chief liutenant.
“Kill them all,” he said. “And may God have mercy on their souls.”