by Everett B. Cole
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* * * * *

The great market square at Orieano was crowded. Colorful tents hid most of the cobblestones, and the rest of the pavement was obscured from view by the droves of people. Merchants and their assistants hovered about, each endeavoring to outdo the rest in enticing the swarming crowd into his tent. Jugglers and mountebanks competed for attention, outdoing even themselves in their efforts to gain the ears, the eyes, and the coins of the mob of bargain hunters.

At one side of the square, the cattle mart was drawing many, who listened to the noise of the beasts and the shouts of the vendors. Some paused to bargain. Others simply strode about, still looking for the things they had come to seek out. Here and there, a cutpurse slunk through the crowd, seeking his own type of bargain—an unwary victim.

The Duke of Dwerostel rode into the market, conscious of a buzz which rose to a loud hum. The bellowing of beasts, the cries of vendors, the scuffling of many feet, all blended into one great sound—the voice of the fair.

The Duke listened contentedly. Here, he thought, was activity. Here, his chamberlain would find the things he had been ordered to get that the comfort of the castle might be furthered. And here was a certainty of tolls and taxes, which would enrich the duchy.

He continued at the head of his retinue, through the center of the square. Time enough to take close note of the market later. Now, he wished to get to the castle of Orieano, where he would take refreshment after his trip.

He looked up at the heights above the town. Pennants were flying from the stone battlements. And he could see the tiny figures of the guard. His presence in the town had certainly been noted. He rode to the other side of the square, and led his company up the steep, winding road to the castle's town gate.

The sentries grounded their pikes and stood rigidly as the ducal escort rode through the gate, the pennons on their lances flying with the breeze of their passage. The ducal party swept through the outer ward, through the inner wall, and came to a halt before the keep.

The Baron of Orieano waited before his keep. He came forward, bowing low before his liege, then steadied a stirrup as the Duke dismounted. He waved toward the dinning hall.

"Your Excellency will grace us with his presence at meat?"

The Duke gestured to a page, who took the charger's reins to guide the beast away.

"It would be pleasing to us," he said.

He nodded graciously and followed his vassal into the hall. He nodded in approval at the long tables, waited until the clanging of the welcoming salute subsided, and went to the elevated table set for his use and that of his Baron.

He sat down, looking over the company. A glint of gold caught his eye, and he looked curiously at two men who sat a little way down the table.

These two were elegantly turned out, their long cloaks thrown back to expose richly embroidered cloth. The Duke examined them closely. Obviously, here was one of the great western nobles, with an almost equally noble companion. The golden circlet proclaimed the identity of one, and the proud bearing and rich dress of both confirmed their station. Somehow, the Duke thought, these two presented a far more imposing appearance than his vassal, the Baron Bel Menstal, despite that Baron's overwhelming personality.

He thought of his hard fighting border protector. Of course, he had far to come, and the way through the mountains could be difficult. But it was a little strange he was not yet here.

The Duke remembered some of the resentful gazes he had noted during his passage through the fair. He must have words, he decided, with Bel Menstal. Possibly the man was a little too eager to collect his road and river taxes. Possibly this hard man of his was too hard, too grasping. Of course, he held a valuable bastion against the tribes of the Ajerical, but——

He shrugged away his thoughts and devoted his attention to the dishes before him.

* * * * *

As the Duke took up his food, the waiting company commenced reaching for dishes. Konar turned toward Meinora with a slight smile.

"Got 'em well trained, hasn't he?"

"That he has. Another note for our cultural information."

"When do you want me to talk to him?"

"After he's finished his main courses and got a few cups of wine in him. Our boy'll be delayed for a while, you know. We've plenty of time to let Orieano fill the Duke in before Bel Menstal arrives."

Klion Meinora turned his attention to the trencher before him for a moment, then looked toward his companion again.

"Notice the girl sitting by the Baron?"

"You mean Orieano's daughter?"

"Precisely. Don't give her any cause for fear. Don't even make a sudden move in her presence."

"You mean——?"

"I do. She could become Lady Death, if she got frightened."

Konar looked toward the elevated table. The girl looked harmless enough. She was slender, attractive, even delicate looking. But he remembered a horror-distorted face, a mind-shattering scream, and a blinding flash of light. He shuddered a little and turned his attention to his food.

* * * * *

Florel Bel Menstal strode into the hall, looking toward the table head. The Duke, he noted, was still at table, though he had finished his meal. Now, he was engaged in earnest conversation with Orieano.

This, Bel Menstal thought, must be checked. Haughtily ignoring the rest of the company, he paced to the head of the table, where he made perfunctory obeisance.

"Your Excellency," he greeted. He straightened. "I offer my apologies for my late appearance. My men had to clear a slide from the way." He turned toward Orieano.

"You would do well to instruct your serfs in the art of road building. Their work seems slack."

He faced the Duke again. The overlord set his cup down.

"Bel Menstal," he said gravely, "two nobles of your former land have come to me to present serious accusations." He rose. "You will accompany me to the chambers."

Bel Menstal hesitated. His men were outside the castle, of course. It was against etiquette to bring them inside, especially when the Duke was present. But there were plenty of them. Possibly he should fight his way out of here now. Once in his hilltop castle, he would be impregnable. And his raiding parties could keep the barony in supplies. Or possibly it would be better to——

He forced his panic down. After all, what could these two do? There could be little evidence they could offer. Well over twenty years had passed. He had adopted the ways of the land. Now, he was one of the Duke's powerful arms. And what could they give to offset that?

Here was no cause for fear. He could bluff his way out of this accusation, discredit the searchers, and make his position permanently secure. Possibly it was even better this way. He looked scornfully at the two men who moved toward him.

They were dressed in the ornate court dress of the Western Empire, he saw. Unquestionably, these were genuine men of the west. But he was now of the east. And here, he had established himself, and would soon establish himself more firmly, while they were mere foreigners. When it came to it, the Duke would hardly dare be too critical of him. Confidently, he pushed his way past the nearer of the two westerners, to follow the Duke to the audience chamber.

As the Duke faced about, one of the newcomers stepped forward.

"There is the man, Excellency," he said positively. "Here is no man of noble birth. This man is a serf—a mere scullery boy-who murdered his noble master to steal his insignia. We have searched for many years, for his crime was so monstrous that no effort could be too great to bring him to justice." He faced Bel Menstal.

"Flor, serf of Budorn," he said sternly, "your time of reckoning has come. Hand over the stolen insignia."

The Duke intervened.

"Aren't we going a little fast?" he asked mildly. "He claims to be a younger son of the Earl of Konewar. Let him speak in his defense."

The stranger nodded. "That we learned, Excellency," he admitted. "And that is what led us to him, for it is one of the great holes in his story. We know of Konewar. True, he had two sons, but the younger was killed several years ago." He paused.

"There is a further bit of evidence I might offer," he added. "And I feel sure that some study by your chamberlain will bear me out." He pointed at the coronet worn by Florel.

"That insignia of rank which this man profanes is never given to other than the rightful heir to a great estate. And then, not until he succeeds to his title. No younger member of any of our noble families has ever been allowed the coronet or the belt. Even many large landholders, such as I, do not have them. Those are reserved for the heads of the great houses, and there are few of them in existence. Certainly, no western Earl would desert his holdings to journey to far lands and to take service with another, not even one so highly placed as yourself."

The Duke looked sharply at him, then turned his gaze on his vassal. "These words have the ring of truth," he said. "Can you answer them? Have you perchance traded upon our unfamiliarity with your home country to misrepresent your station?"

Flor looked around the room. Possibly there was still time to——Or possibly he could still face these men down. Only one of them wore a coronet. He drew himself up arrogantly.

"These are cunning deceivers," he stated positively. "When I left Konewar, my father himself——"

Meinora raised a hand threateningly. "Your father was never in Konewar, Serf," he said sternly. "Your father still tends his master's fields in the hills of Budoris."

Flor snatched his sword from its sheath. This was the unprotected one. He could be struck with the sword, and perhaps in the confusion, an escape would be possible.

"That is the last insult," he snarled. "I challenge you to combat, to test whether you can support your lies."

"Nobles," was the reply, "do not fight with serfs. You should know that. The great ones, like him," Meinora pointed at Konar, who stood close to the Duke, "have no contact with such as you. But I am here. And when a serf becomes insolent, we have ways of punishing him."

Konar smiled a little, pointing a small object as Meinora slipped his own sword out.

Flor lunged furiously, and Meinora stepped aside. The man had determination and fierce courage. But he had never bothered to really learn the use of his weapon. No need, of course. He had never been compelled to put up a defense. Not till now. The hand weapon held by Konar would destroy his invulnerability.

Meinora struck suddenly at Flor's hand with the flat of his blade, then engaged the man's sword with his own, and twisted. The weapon clattered to the floor and Flor stooped to recover it.

The team chief laughed shortly, bringing the flat of his blade down in a resounding smack and Flor straightened, involuntarily bringing a hand to his outraged rear. Again, the blade descended, bringing a spurt of dust from his clothing. Flor twisted, trying to escape, but his assailant followed, swinging blow after full armed blow with the flat of his sword. He worked with cool skill.

It seemed to Flor that the punishing steel came from all directions, to strike him at will. Blows fell on his back, his legs, even his face, and he cringed away, trying desperately to escape the stinging pain. Under the smarting blows, he remembered previous whippings, administered by a strong-armed kitchen master, and he seemed to smell the stench of the scullery once more. Suddenly, he sank to his knees in surrender.

"Please, Master. No more, please." He raised his hands, palms together, and looked up pleadingly.

The Duke looked down in horrified disgust.

"And this, I accepted. This, I made a Baron of my realm." He transferred his gaze to Konar. Suddenly, he looked feeble and humbly supplicant.

Flor sniffled audibly.

"I know you have come a long way," the Duke said, "but I would ask of you a favor. I would deal with this miscreant. Your injury is old. It has been partially healed by time, and it does not involve honor so deeply as does my own." He shook his head.

"I have abandoned the dignity of my station, and the injury is fresh and must continue unless I act to repair it."

Konar nodded graciously. "Your Excellency's request is just," he said. "We but came to reclaim the lost insignia of Budorn." He stepped forward, taking the circlet from Flor's head. Two guards seized the prisoner, and Konar tore the belt from the man's waist.

"This insigne must be remounted," he said. "The belt has been dishonored for too long." He broke the fastenings holding the body shield to the leather, and threw the heavy strap back at Flor.

"We are deeply indebted to you, Excellency," he added, turning to the Duke. "If it is your will, we shall remain only for the execution, then return to our own land."

The Duke sighed. "It is well." He nodded at the guards. "Remove him," he ordered. "An execution will be held at daybreak."

* * * * *

"Very good, Konar. You handled that beautifully."

"Thanks, Chief. What's next?"

"Just keep the Duke busy with bright conversation. Buck up his spirits a bit. The old boy's had a nasty shock, and unfortunately, he's due for another one. Too bad, but it's for the best. I'll take it from here."

* * * * *

Diners looked up curiously as the two guards led Flor through the hall to the outer door. A few rose and followed as the three men went past the sentries at the portal, and came out into the sunshine of the inner ward. Across the cobblestones was the narrow entrance to the dungeon.

Flor looked around despairingly. His charger stood, waiting for the rider, who would never again—Or would he?

He remembered that he was still carrying the heavy belt that had been so contemptuously flung at him. When the strap had been thrown, he had flung a hand up to protect his already aching face. He had caught and held the belt, and no one had thought to take it from him.

He suddenly swerved his thick shoulders, swinging the heavy strap at the eyes of one of his guards. With a cry of pain, the man covered his face, and Flor spun, to swing the strap at the other guard. Before the two men could recover, he dashed to the side of his mount, swung into the saddle, and urged the beast into motion.

The wall was low on this side, but Flor remembered it towered high above the dry moat. And across that moat were the woods, where his men waited. He urged the beast to full speed, forcing the animal to the top of the wall and over.

For an almost endless instant, time seemed to stop. The barren moat and green weeds floated beneath him, and the only reminder of his rapid drop was the air, which whistled past his ears. Suddenly, motion was restored again, and they lit with a jarring crash, just at the lip of the moat.

With a cry of agony, the charger pitched forward, pawing at the stones that had smashed his chest, and throwing his rider over his head. Flor managed to land uninjured. He picked himself up and ran to the edge of the forest before he stopped to look back.

Heads were appearing atop the wall. At the edge of the moat, the charger struggled vainly, then dropped from sight. Flor waved defiantly at the growing crowd which stared from the high wall.

"The Duke hangs nobody," he shouted, "unless he can catch and hold him." He turned, to make his way through the trees.

"In fact," he added to himself, "I may yet return to hang the Duke."

He went to the meadow where his escort was encamped.

"We have been betrayed," he shouted. "The Duke plots with the merchants to destroy Bel Menstal and hang his men. Break camp! We must gather the forces of the barony."

* * * * *

Baron Bel Orieano looked worried.

"The Duke has sent couriers," he said, "to gather the fighting men of the duchy. But it will be a long, hard struggle. The serf has gained the hills of Menstal. He has raised his men, and has dared to attack. Some say he has enlisted those very hill tribes, from whose depredations he swore to defend the duchy, and even has them serving under his banner." He looked at Meinora and Konar.

"The roads of the duchy are no longer safe. Raiding parties appear at every wooded stretch. Nor can we even be certain that the couriers have gotten through to Dweros." He shook his head.

"I, of course, am loyal to the Duke. But my forces are few. My barony has been a peaceful community, having little need for arms."

Meinora smiled encouragingly. "Yet there are fighters here," he said, "and in plenty."

The Baron looked at him curiously. "Where? I have no knowledge of such."

Konar leaned forward. "If you can help us get the Duke's approval, we can raise an army which ten Bel Menstals would fail to withstand."

"The Duke's approval?"

"Certainly." Konar waved his hand. "Look over your walls, Excellency. You have burghers. There are armorers, merchants, with their caravan guards, artisans, even peasants. Here, today, are gathered more able-bodied men than Bel Menstal could raise, were he to search out and impress all the hill tribes."

"But, to arm these Commoners? And would they fight?"

"To be sure. Given reason, they will fight like madmen."

Meinora leaned forward, speaking rapidly. "For long years, they have suffered from the road and river taxes of Bel Menstal, as well as from the insults and blows of his officers. Many of them have been imprisoned, and held for ruinous ransom. Others have been tortured and killed. Under the serf, they would suffer additional taxes, until they were driven from the land, or themselves reduced to serfdom and even slavery." He waved at the town.

"Caravans would be halted and stripped of both goods and coin. All this, he has done before, but on no such scale as he would were restraining hands removed." Meinora spread his hands.

"The Duke has only to promise, under his solemn oath, to rid the land of robbers, to allow the merchants and artisans to police the land, and to form those guilds and associations which they have long petitioned for their own protection. For these things, they will fight."

The Baron leaned back in his chair. He had heard some of these arguments before, but had ignored them, thinking that they were mere special pleading from interested merchants. Now, they were being presented by men of his own station.

And the situation was urgent. Drastic measures were necessary. Under the gaze of the two, he felt a change of thought. The whole thing was possible, of course, and it might be that trade, uninterrupted by robber depredation, would provide greater taxes than before.

Finally, he rose to his feet. "Come," he said, "we will seek audience with the Duke and put this matter before him."

* * * * *

"Well, that's part of the job." Klion Meinora twisted in his seat and craned his neck to look at the green fields spread out beneath the flier.

"It worked out almost exactly as you explained it, Chief." Konar looked curiously at his instructor. "But I missed a couple of steps somewhere."

"It followed from the culture pattern." Meinora raised an eyebrow. "You saw the reaction of the Duke when he realized that Flor was actually a serf?"

"Sure. He was so horrified, he was sick."

"But did you think of the reaction of the townsmen and peasants?"

"You mean they'd feel the same way?"

"Sure. Most of them did. These people have been ingrained with a firm belief in their mode of living. They regard it as right and proper. And the murder and robbery of a noble by a serf is just as serious in the eyes of serfs and freemen as it is to the nobles. No serf in his right mind would even think of raising a hand against a noble, not even in self-defense. Catch?"

Konar leaned back. "Oh, brother," he murmured. "I can just see what happened when Flor's real status finally penetrated the minds of his own men."

"You're probably right, too. And with no body shield to supplement his rather awkward swordsmanship, Flor was fresh meat for the first real fighting man that stood up to him." Meinora shook his head.

"His was a hopelessly twisted mentality, and there was no possibility of salvage."

"I know. They have a few of his type in the wards at Aldebaran." Konar shrugged hopelessly. "Therapists just fold their hands when they see 'em."

"They do that. People like Flor are just pure ferocity. Oh, sometimes, they're cunning, even talented. But there's no higher mentality to develop—not a trace of empathy. And you can't work with something that's completely missing. Good thing they are quite rare."

"I should say so," agreed Konar. "A very good thing." He looked out over the fields. "His influence lasted for a while, too."

"It did. He'd conditioned his people to a certain extent. Just as I expected, it took some time to persuade that gang to stop their depredations, and it had to be done the hard way. But the merchants were willing, and that's what it took." Meinora brushed a hand over his hair. He knew how the rest of this story went——

"It'll take 'em some time to get used to their new charters, but the roots of the guilds are formed. And they did some fighting and learned their powers. It'll take a lot to make 'em go back to the old routine. The Duke'll never try it, and his successors won't be able to. Anyone who tries to conquer that bunch of wild-cats'll have a tough job, and he'll get really hurt. It'll spread, too. Merchants and artisans in the next duchy'll get the idea. And then the next, and the next. Freedom's a contagious thing."

Klion Meinora studied the terrain, then turned back.

"It's going to be a tough planet for a long time," he said thoughtfully. "A tough, brawling planet. They'll fight for everything they get, and sometimes for just the love of fighting. The people who come from here will be something to deal with. But they'll knock their own rough edges off. No, they won't be savages."


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