The Baron of Montmer
A solitary figure trotted along the road that slithered through the small barony of Montmer. Approaching from the north, he reached the small castle town first, as the actual fortress lay further south. Curiously, he had one sword by his waist and another slung over his shoulder. His clothes had dirt and dust, signalling a long journey, and neither his hair nor his beard had seen comb or knife in a long time.
The town had no walls, and the traveller simply strode through. Reaching the modest square in the centre, he stopped at the well to draw water and refresh himself. He glanced around and saw a temple, built in stone unlike the wooden houses of the town. By the engravings, one could deduce the shrine was dedicated to Hamaring, though there was no sign of any whiterobes.
“You, child,” the traveller said, as a girl of about fourteen years approached to draw water.
“I’m not a child,” she protested, throwing the bucket into the well.
“I could not care less,” he continued. “Who is the priest at the temple these days?”
“Brother Pierre,” she replied, pulling the bucket up. “Who are you?”
“You will find out soon enough,” Damien mumbled. “Is he at the castle?”
“I guess so. He lives there when he’s not at the temple. What’s it to you?”
“That is my business. Is he a decent fellow, or does he only care about squeezing tribute?”
The girl looked at the stranger with suspicion and stopped drawing water. “I won’t answer unless you answer me.”
He returned her glare. “Fine. Answer me, and I will give you an answer in return.”
“He’s not a bad sort,” she declared. “He teaches us our letters and numbers. People like him. Is he a friend of yours?”
“I never met the man. What of the steward at the castle?”
“I don’t know,” the girl shrugged hauling the bucket over the wall of the well. “He doesn’t come to the town. Why do you care about him?”
“I want to know if he is going to cheat me. Have your taxes increased since your lord died?”
“You’ll have to ask my pa,” the girl admitted, “but I don’t think so. Are you going to trade with him?”
“Girl, hurry with that water,” a brusque voice interjected. A man appeared in the doorway to one of the small houses, staring at the traveller with his two swords. The girl did as told, leaving the well with her bounty of water. Stretching his neck, Damien continued onwards to the castle.
A few miles from the small town, the keep at Montmer rose. It was about as small as it could be while still being considered a fortress, but the walls were in good repair, and towers rose to protect the gatehouse and various angles. The same could not necessarily be said for the sentinels; approaching, Damien spied only a few spears on the walls, and a single one guarded the entrance itself. As the traveller stepped into the gatehouse itself, at last the watcher became animated.
“State your business,” the guard declared while giving Damien a disdainful look.
“Fetch the steward of the castle. Tell him his master has arrived.” When his words spurred no action, Damien’s expression turned hard. “If you delay one more moment, I will have your head as my first act. Now go!”
Looking confused, and almost stumbling, the guard hurried away. Watching with contempt as he left, Damien walked inside the small courtyard. He looked around at the other people in the enclosure. Servants and workers ambled about, tending to various tasks with little vigour. A kitchen girl fed the chickens while an old man unloaded fruit from the back of a donkey. A guard leaned against the doors that led to the inner keep; his spear had the same restful pose.
After a while, an elderly man came with hurried steps through those same doors. His clothing and hectic expression indicated his important position compared to the common servants. He approached Damien, and after inspecting the ragged nobleman for a moment, he gave a bow. “I am Henri, milord, steward of the castle. You are the baron, I take it.”
“I am. So far, you seem to be the only man aware,” Damien declared brusquely.
“Forgive the others, milord, they did not know your description.”
“How did you?”
“The marshal of Ealond sent a letter to expect a warrior with two swords, along with a few other – remarks to describe you,” Henri explained. “Given how few travellers we receive, his lordship could not be any other man.”
“Fine. Have water for a bath brought to my chambers.”
“Of course, milord. Allow me to take you,” Henri said.
“I remember the way. I was born here.”
“Very well, milord.” A servant appeared, bearing a goblet of wine to offer the baron.
“No!” Damien made a dismissive gesture. “I will have nothing but water.”
The steward and servant exchanged confused looks. “As you say, milord,” Henri spoke slowly.
“In fact, sell all the wine in the castle.”
“Sell it, milord?”
“Every barrel and bottle. I will not have a single drop within the walls.” Damien stalked off, leaving his confounded servants behind.
An hour later, with his master’s immediate needs and demands seen to, the steward trotted through the castle to enter another chamber. It did not have the few luxuries afforded the lord of even a small keep, nor was it small and shared with others like the servants in their quarters. It was a modest room but with a busy desk full of parchments and books, while tools of different kinds lay scattered about.
The white-robed inhabitant sat on the chair, whittling a stick. He looked up as Henri entered. “Well, this bear has turned into a ferret,” the priest declared with brief dismay, throwing the half-carved stick away. He placed his knife on the desk and looked up at his guest. “What has you in a fright?”
“He’s arrived,” the steward explained. “The baron’s here.”
“That’s good, isn’t it?” Brother Pierre suggested. “If the lands had been without lord much longer, our noble neighbours would have sent more than greedy eyes our way.”
“Sure, sure,” Henri conceded, “a bad ruler is better than none at all.”
The whiterobe raised an eyebrow, still looking up from his seat. “You think ill of him?”
“No, no, I meant in general.” Even so, the steward’s expression was distraught. “Given the description I received, I knew to expect… a rough exterior. Whether his behaviour is equal to that, I cannot say yet. But….”
“He told me to get rid of all the wine. All of it.”
“Better that he dislikes drink than he is too fond of it,” the priest declared. “Besides, I’m happy to help get rid of it,” he added laughing. “Really, Henri, that hardly seems a reason for concern.”
“I suppose,” the steward said, though he did not seem reassured.
The next morning, the steward knocked on the door to his master’s bedroom. “Milord, may I enter?” Some manner of grunt issued from inside, and Henri cautiously opened the door. He found the baron sprawled across the bed, wearing barely any garments. “Forgive me, milord, it is a few hours past sunrise, and I have matters to discuss with you.”
The baron rolled over to blink at his steward. “What is amiss?”
“Nothing as such, milord, but I thought I should explain the state of affairs to his lordship.”
“Fine.” Damien scratched himself on the back and filled a cup with water. “How are the coffers?”
“Empty, milord, I am sad to say. Your noble father, blessed be his memory, spent the last outfitting his soldiers for the king’s army.”
“A waste that turned out to be,” Damien muttered, emptying his cup.
“Fortunately, taxes will soon come in, and we will not lack for provisions.”
The baron rose and began to get dressed. “Good. Speaking of which, have half a day’s provisions packed for me, and have the best horse saddled.”
“I need to get out from these walls,” he mumbled. “I intend to see my lands,” he continued with a louder voice. “Do not expect my return anytime soon. I will go hunting as well. I assume a bow can be found, or is the armoury as empty as the treasury?”
“No, milord,” stammered Henri, “but I thought we would go through the books today. There are many matters that could use your attention. Decisions must be made about your serfs and the fields they are meant to till –”
“That is what I have you for, is it not? You have handled matters in my absence so far.”
“Yes, milord, but I have delayed decisions in anticipation of your return,” Henri explained.
“That was pointless,” Damien remarked, pulling his boots on. “Look, Harry, what is the point of paying you if I have to do all the work still?”
“I haven’t been paid in a year,” the steward mumbled quietly, quickly continuing. “But milord, do you not intend to do anything?”
“I intend to go hunting.” Damien grabbed his cloak from the back of a chair and began beating the dust from it.
“Very well, milord,” Henri conceded, coughing as a cloud of dust filled the room. “I shall make the arrangements and have two guards ready to escort you.”
“Are you mad? What would that accomplish?” The baron stared at his steward with disdain.
“To protect his lordship,” Henri stuttered. “And a nobleman of your rank is expected to be accompanied –”
“I have seen the guards at this castle,” Damien sneered. “The only protection they could offer would be to delay my would-be assailants for a few moments. And how much game do you imagine I will be able to hunt with two louts traipsing after me through the forest?” He flung his cloak around his shoulders. “Now get that horse ready!”
Three days later, the baron entered the gate of his castle again. This time, he rode rather than walked, and the guard hurried to stand upright with an anxious expression. Damien rode straight past him without even a glance, dismounted in the courtyard, and began removing the saddle. An aged man hurried out of the stables, almost stumbling on his old legs. Reaching both master and horse, the former threw the saddle into his arms. Struggling to stay upright, the old servant staggered back to the stable while the baron continued to groom his horse. He was nearly done by the time that the steward showed up, entering the courtyard with frantic movements.
“Milord, you have stable hands – that is, one stable hand – for such tasks,” Henri declared with a pained expression.
“A good knight takes care of his horse himself,” Damien replied brusquely. “You cannot ride to war without knowing your mount is in good health.”
“Of course, milord,” the steward assented. He shifted his weight from leg to leg. “And – how was his lordship’s hunt?”
“Miserable. I got a few birds, that was all.”
“If his lordship leaves them with me, I will make sure the kitchen prepares them,” Henri suggested.
“I already ate them. If you want birds, Harold, you will have to hunt them yourself.”
“I could not, milord. The forest and all its game belong to his lordship.”
Damien sent his steward a withering look. “It was a jest.”
“Most amusing, milord. Now, I am glad to see his lordship returned –”
“I am sure. Where is your vaunted stable hand? This lady is ready to rest,” Damien said, patting the horse affectionately.
The steward gestured wildly at the old man, beckoning for him to approach. “As I said, your return is fortunate, milord, as there are matters only his lordship may attend to. Matters above my station.”
“Well, the lands have been without a lord for about a year, milord, leaving none to grant the serfs their requests,” Henri explained.
“What in Hel’s name would they request?”
“After the war, several villages have empty holdings that serfs from your other villages would like to take charge of, for instance.”
“Fine, let them. As long as they work the land, I could not care less about where they do it.”
“I understand, milord, but there are many other supplicants. Several of your people seek to marry, for instance –”
“They ask your permission to marry, milord.” Receiving a look of disbelief, Henri continued with cautious voice. “Was his lordship not aware of this custom?”
“I have spent most of my years outside of Ealond,” Damien mumbled in defence. “Starting now, all that nonsense is over. Consider that law abolished.”
“I beg your pardon, milord?”
“Are you deaf? In fact, any such ridiculous law that leaves me beleaguered by peasants is hereby abolished,” Damien proclaimed. “Let the serfs do as they wish, as long as they work and pay their taxes. There, done.” He strode into the castle, leaving a crestfallen steward behind.
The following morning, though not too early, the baron assembled his guards in the courtyard. This was swiftly done, as they numbered less than thirty. Although few, the group of soldiers seemed to contain an example of every type of man. Some were young, others old; some had beards, others were bald, some both or neither. One looked starved while another seemed well-fed; several had red noses, whereas a few looked unnaturally pale. Their expressions were as varied as their appearances, ranging from curious to cynical, naïve to world-weary.
Their lord spent a good while berating them about their posture, how they held their weapons, the state in which they kept said weapons and their armour, everything else related to their occupation as watchmen, and he also added a few choice remarks on their personal cleanliness.
With this out of the way, Damien commanded the guards to exercise around the yard before sparring against each other, much the same way he had been trained as a page. He only allowed breaks for water, keeping the men sweating as noon approached.
As all the guards were busy inside the yard, none stood by the gate. A farmer drove his cart into the yard, glancing around with a confused look. Noticing the newcomer, Damien barked a few instructions to his men and approached the farmer. “What do you want?” he asked brusquely.
“I am bringing taxes from my village, good master,” the man explained. “As I do every year, but usually someone hails me at the gate.”
“Address me according to title, villain,” Damien commanded in the same tone of voice as before. “What do you bring?”
“Asparagus, milord,” the farmer replied, hesitating as he spoke the title. “You are his lordship?”
“Of course I am. Who else has a title in this forsaken spit of land?” The baron’s face became twisted. “I never liked asparagus.”
“They are very good, milord, I promise. My wife makes the best soup in the village with these.”
“I can’t imagine competition is stiff,” Damien snorted.
Another cart rumbled into the courtyard, whose driver also seemed uncertain about the situation. “So that’s where the guards are,” he remarked, letting his cart come to a halt near the other one. “Never seen them do so much work before!”
“You may keep your remarks to yourself,” Damien said sharply. “If you disparage my men again, I will throw you from the walls.”
The farmer’s eyes widened, and he bowed his head. “Of course, milord, begging your pardon many times.”
“What are you here for? Why is my keep under invasion from all these peasants?”
“I’m delivering your share of the early harvest, milord. Beets.” The second arrival pointed at the back of his cart, loaded with beets.
“Let me guess, your wife makes excellent soup from these poor excuses for a vegetable,” Damien remarked.
The driver looked from the baron to the other farmer. “Does – does his lordship want my wife to make soup? At the castle?”
Before Damien could confirm or deny, Henri came running from inside the keep. “Forgive me, milord, I will deal with this matter at once,” the steward said, gasping for breath.
“Good!” Damien exclaimed. “I have old drunkards and young knaves that I must whip into shape, and these distractions do not help! Not to mention, these carts are getting in the way for the men’s next run around the yard.” Several groans could be heard from the soldiers.
“Of course, milord, we shall have them emptied at once.” Henri gestured for the servants that had followed him into the yard. Brother Pierre also appeared, bearing parchment, ink, and quill. While the workers began unloading the carts, the whiterobe marked the amounts being hauled.
“Should I expect more wagons to overrun my courtyard?”
“Only a few more, milord, but don’t worry,” the steward quickly spoke. “It is only the spring vegetables. Come harvest time, when all the grain is brought in, we’ll have many cartloads!” He coughed and added a few words quietly. “I hope.”
The baron scowled and reached one hand into the nearest cart, pulling out a beet. “With vegetables? Grain? What am I to do with this?”
“Milord, we eat it,” the steward stammered.
“Why are the peasants not taxed in silver?”
“We have always taxed their crops, milord. They rarely have coin, and it’s simpler to simply take a part of the harvest.”
“So instead, I will have farmers and carts and Hel-spawned asparagus loitering around my castle,” Damien sneered. “I need silver, not carrots!”
“I understand, milord,” Henri mumbled.
“Come harvest, I will not have this spectacle,” Damien declared while gesturing at the carts. “Find out how much to tax them in silver.”
“But milord, what will we eat if we don’t get any crops from the farmers?”
“Buy it!” Damien roared. “Pay the fools in coin, and they’ll have silver to tax!” He stormed away. The steward turned around as well, and all the servants suddenly hurried to continue their work.
In the evening, Henri barged into the whiterobe’s room. “Did you hear? What his lordship told me to do?”
“I was there,” Pierre reminded him, looking up from his parchments.
“He’s mad,” the steward muttered. “How am I to figure out taxes for all the crops in the entire fief? By harvest time? It cannot be done,” he moaned, pacing around the room.
“Be calm, Henri,” the priest told him. “I’ll help you. Such matters of knowledge and arithmetic are our domain. I’ll write my brothers in Fontaine. You would not be the first holding raising taxes in coins rather than crops.”
Henri ceased his frantic movements. “Thanks. That will be a help.”
“You know, it might not be a bad idea either.”
The priest placed the tip of his quill over the inkwell, careful to avoid any spill. “Paying the peasants in coin and taxing them in coin, it might help to increase commerce.”
“Trade between goods is limiting,” Pierre explained. “But when everyone has coin to buy and sell, none are limited to only selling their goods to those desiring those particular goods.”
The steward stared at him. “What are you on about?”
“Look,” the priest said with the same patient voice he used when teaching the children of the castle village. “Suppose a farmer grows a field of carrots and he needs wool. Many may wish to buy his carrots, but they can only pay him in other goods he has no need for. His only option is to find a shepherd with wool to sell, who wants carrots. It makes trade much more difficult.”
“But,” the steward interjected with a smug expression, “any farmer will have a sheep of his own, even the serfs! He won’t have any need to trade for wool.”
“Fine, say he needs lumber to build a fence. Since the forest belongs to the baron, our farmer can only buy from him. And if the baron has no interest in vegetables? The farmer has no way to pay his lordship or buy the lumber he needs.”
“He does seem to dislike vegetables,” Henri admitted.
“But if everyone buys and sells with coin, there is no issue. The farmer can sell his carrots to any man and use the silver to buy timber from the baron.”
An expression of distaste ran across the steward’s face. “You tricked me into listening to one of your whiterobe lectures.” He turned around and walked out of the room.
“Stagnation is death,” Pierre called out after him, reciting a tenet of his order. “The only path to improvement is change!”
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Bio: Indie writer with various projects, though The Chronicles of Adalmearc is the one dearest to me. Because of this, I have decided to make it free to reach as many readers as possible. If you enjoy it, I would ask you to consider joining my Patreon; certain tiers from $5 and above will earn towards receiving the full series as hardcovers. Advance chapters are available from $2 and upwards. See also my website for more information on my work and world.