He hadn’t been able to sleep much. Lying in his bed upstairs he could see, through the window, the stars and the moon high above the treetops. He had lain awake for most of the night, staring outside and trying to decide what to do about the surviving robbers. To no avail. At the crack of dawn he was still lying awake. He decided to rise and prepare to start his journey early.
As he strolled over to the barn to take care of his horse, he felt his gran’s eyes on his back. He looked over his shoulders, just in time to see a slit in the curtains close.
When he returned she had opened the curtains and breakfast was waiting for him. Lee-Lonia had also prepared food to take on his journey.
“You’re starting early,” she said.
“I couldn’t sleep. Too much to mull over. You’re up early too.”
“You woke me.”
“Sorry. I tried to make as little noise as I could.”
“Don’t worry. Old people don’t need that much sleep. Not in one stretch anyway. I’ll take a nap this afternoon.”
Lee-Lack nodded silently.
In the afternoon he reached the county of Mirkadesh. Just over the border was a crossroads, dominated by a huge, old oak tree with a stone underneath it. Lee-Lack thought it had once represented a sitting figure, but now it was worn down by the elements. It might be older than the oak, although the tree looked as if it had been there forever.
Some hundred yards down the road that led to the village of Mirkadesh stood a tavern, called unsurprisingly the Stone under the Oak Tree. The regular patrons simply called it the Stone.
The weather was sunny and warm with just enough of a light breeze. Lee-Lack handed the reins of his horse to a stable boy, and, with his saddlebags over his shoulder, he walked lazily to one of the tables in the garden behind the tavern. He ordered a pitcher of the tangy white wine for which the tavern was famous. He intended to sit there until the sun went down, then have a light meal and make it an early night. Meanwhile he would listen to the other guests. They were mainly traveling merchants and a talkative lot.
He had just taken a sip from his cup, and found the wine to be pleasantly chilled and not too diluted, when four men in their early thirties took seats at a table within hearing distance.
“So, now that the Plains Robbers are gone, we’re paying protection money to that blond boy, if I understand correctly,” one of them said.
“Only, he calls it taxes,” another one quipped. “And he has the support of the merchant princes of Dermolhea.”
“Rightly so,” a third one said. “After all he saved the Dermolhea Forty a fortune by defeating the Mukthars.”
“You seem to forget he saved the whole population, and particularly those who are too poor to have fled to safer grounds, Melldo,” the first one said with a wry smile. “I seem to remember that twelve years ago the rich bastards fled the city and gave the Mukthars a free hand to plunder it to their heart’s content.”
“Don’t forget they put Dermolhea to the torch, Harnon,” the fourth merchant said.
“Yes. They killed a lot of people too, Wermy,” Harnon agreed.
“Those they didn’t kill, they raped,” Melldo added. “You know what I always found strange? Mirkadesh remained unharmed twelve years ago.”
“Maybe because there wasn’t anything worth stealing,” Harnon replied.
“But nothing had changed in that respect,” the one who had spoken second said. “This time Mirkadesh wasn’t as lucky as twelve years ago.”
“Good point, Bentec. I wonder why. Did they provoke the barbarians, or was it just a coincidence?”
The four merchants fell silent.
“Neither,” Lee-Lack fumed silently. It grated, but he had to admit that Sanduvar Blacktooth, his predecessor as leader of the Robbers, had been more successful in negotiating with the Mukthar leadership than he himself had been.
In fact, he had been so impressed by the fact Mirkadesh had escaped unscathed, he had become Sanduvar’s lover. He had been one of the youngest of the group, barely fifteen. He had no interest in the old robber as such, but he did covet, young as he was, his position. He had realized he had to wait until he was older before there was even the remotest chance the men would accept him as their leader. Meanwhile he had to endure, and feign to like, Sanduvar’s attentions. His grandmother, the only one he confided in, had urged him to keep the sham love affair going. It was she who had advised him to gradually age himself by adopting disguises. A wig, a fake beard, until his own grew strong enough, and a padded coat were among the main accessories, but there were a lot of smaller ones.
At first, Sanduvar had been amused. It had even excited the chief to undress Lee-Lack until from under all the disguises the young boy emerged again. Luckily for him, Lee-Lack’s gran had given him a salve that dulled the pain of being brutally penetrated by an uncaring, selfish lover.
“Nothing worthwhile comes easy,” Lee-Lonia had told him. “As long as it doesn’t kill you, you should grin and bear it.”
Easy for her to say, he had thought at the time, but all things considered she was right. When Lee-Lack had asked Sanduvar to let him become one of his lieutenants, the old robber chief had thought it a splendid joke, and he had agreed. It had taken some time but his proximity to the chief and his own, inborn leadership had pulled him through all challenges to his authority. Finally he had felt confident enough to ditch Sanduvar. Some five years ago — by then he had been the chief’s first lieutenant — Lee-Lack had pushed him into a ravine, not far from the secret exit of the robber’s lair in the Teagriam Mountains. Only Sanduvar and Lee-Lack knew about it so it was unlikely anyone would ever discover his remains. They lay far too deep in the cleft. He had taken a look after he had heard Sanduvar’s anguished cries stop abruptly. There were several skeletons on the bottom and soon Sanduvar would be one of them. He had known of the place because he had seen Sanduvar push in another one of his lieutenants. Lee-Lack had understood it was only a matter of time before Sanduvar would tire of having his young first lieutenant in his bed. He would be nothing else but dangerous competition. As it turned out, Lee-Lack had been quicker to act.
There had been only two robbers who had challenged his authority. They lay in a shallow grave somewhere on the Plains now. Lee-Lack would be hard put to say exactly where, although he had killed them personally.
“Another strange thing happened,” Bentec said. “Some time after the Mukthars raided Mirkadesh a group of horsemen appeared and started fighting them. It is rumored they were Renuvian Plains Robbers, and that most of them fell in battle. Only a few escaped. Don’t you think that’s strange? Robbers coming to the defense of the population?”
“Maybe it was a coincidence and the robbers wanted to plunder Mirkadesh but were beaten to it by the barbarians,” Melldo proffered.
“Too much of a coincidence for my taste,” Harnon replied. “I’ve heard it said that the Renuvian Plains Robbers were each one of them inhabitants of Mirkadesh, and that the whole county knew it and was complicit, if only by remaining silent.”
“Good riddance, I say.” Wermy made a derogatory gesture. “I’d rather pay taxes to the lawful authorities than protection money to a bunch of low life robbers.”
“Funny you say that.” Harnon gave him a parsimonious smile. “I bet if you ask the nobility they wouldn’t call the young prince and his friends the lawful authorities.”
“Even his own father, the high king, might disagree. It seems the son is more and more acting as an independent ruler than as governor for his father,” Bentec added. “Dissension in the Royal House of Tanahkos. Who would have thought?” He gave out a loud belly laugh.
“As long as he prevents those robbers from roaming the Plains and keeps the Highlands safe, he can pretty much do as he likes, as far as I am concerned,” Harnon said.
“Fools,” the former robber chief raged silently. “We only asked for a small contribution and in return we kept the Plains safe for your caravans. Can’t you see what the little warlord is doing? He’ll levy taxes whether you’re traveling through the Plains or not. He’ll raise the taxes, year after year. Before long you’ll be his slaves.”
What he heard next almost made his heart stop.
“I don’t know if it’s true,” Wermy said, “but some of my sources say Prince Anaxantis wants to colonize the Plains.”
“Your sources? Don’t you mean your brother?” Harnon asked, raising one eyebrow.
“Well, he lives in Lorseth, after all. You hear things there.”
“This side of the River Mirax, I suppose,” Melldo said, although it was more a question.
“No, both sides. Something to do with making sure troops can reach the passes quickly and safely. There’s even talk of extending the Northern Highway,” Wermy replied. “And he wants people to settle there. New villages, and over time new towns that might grow into cities.”
Although they weren’t paying him any attention, Lee-Lack turned away from the traveling merchants. He didn’t want them to see his face. The Plains had been a desolate place as long as people could remember. Sure, there were some small communities eking out a hidden, meager existence in whatever way they could, but for all practical purposes they were deserted. And now the prince was going to put an end to that by trying to populate the whole region.
Even if Lee-Lack could reconstitute a nucleus of the Renuvian Plains Robbers, they would become more vulnerable year after year. There would be troop movements to and from both passes. Maybe the prince would create hereditary demesnes, and in that case the new lords would defend their lands, sword in hand. Places where they could hide would become scarcer over time.
The robbers had allowed or banned whomever they wanted from traveling on the Plains. Their word had been law, their authority unchallenged. They had roamed the Plains as kings on horseback, coming and going as they pleased.
And Lee-Lack had been their high king.
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