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Authors: Craig Alanson

Ascendant

BOOK: Ascendant
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ASCENDANT

By Craig Alanson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Text Copyright
©
2016 Craig Alanson

All Rights Reserved

 

CHAPTER
ONE

 

"Oh, this
can be nothing but trouble," Bodric declared with a grimace. "Koren,
best you stay in the barn."

Bodric had
heard it first, while he was standing on the floor of the barn, and his son
Koren was above in the hayloft, wrestling a bale of hay down for the cows to
eat. It was a familiar though infrequent sound; the slow clopping of horse
hooves, and the creaking, banging noise of wagons, slowly making their way up
the narrow, rutted dirt road that led to the Bladewell's door. And only to the Bladewell's
door, for their farm was at the end of the road, beyond which lay only the
uninhabited forest that was the Duke's hunting reserve. One wagon, unexpected,
was unusual enough at their isolated farmstead. More than one wagon? Such a
thing had not happened in all the years Bodric had lived there. He told Koren
to hold the hay bale a moment, and stuck his head outside the barn to see who
was approaching.

Since there
was no good reason for a caravan of wagons to come all the way up the hill from
the village, on the lonely, axle-breaking, wheel-splintering dead-end road to
nowhere, it must be for a bad reason. A reason he could guess.

"Pa?
What's trouble? What is it?" Koren did not want to hear of any trouble on
this of all days, his thirteenth birthday. The one day of the year when he was
allowed to sleep late, so late that the sun had peaked over the low hills to
the east and sent the golden rays of morning into his bedroom window, before he
had swung his feet onto the floor. So late that the chickens, sheep and cows in
the barnyard, even the deer lingering at the edge of the wheat field, and the
crows strutting around the cornfield, wondered why Koren was not yet out of
bed. So late, that Koren had been sore from laying in bed that long, so late
that by the time he had finally rolled out of bed when his mother called, he
was more tired than if he'd gotten up in the pre-dawn darkness like he did
every other day of the year. This day there would not be the usual oatmeal or
eggs for breakfast, his mother was making batter for hotcakes, and soon he
would be sitting down to enjoy a giant stack of light, fluffy hotcakes, layered
with fresh butter, and swimming in a lake of maple syrup the family had made
from their trees that very spring-

"Koren?"
His father interrupted Koren's hungry day dream. "You listening to me?
Stay here. Right here." Bodric stuck his head out the barn door, and spat
on the ground in disgust. It was the county sheriff on a horse, leading several
other horses, and at least a half dozen wagons that Bodric could see, strung
out along the road, all headed toward the Bodric's front door. This could not
be good. For his neighbors to leave their own farms early in the morning, and
ride all the way up the rough road from the village center, must be something
serious. Not every farmer in the poor village of Crebbs Ford could afford to
own a horse, so many had crowded into their neighbor's wagons for the
uncomfortable trip, and they all seemed to be staring and pointing at Bodric,
as he stood outside the barn. He didn't wave to his neighbors. Arriving
unannounced, in large numbers, and led by the sheriff, was not neighborly
behavior.

"Pa!"
Koren called from the hayloft, having crawled on hands and knees to lean out
the loft door. "It's the sheriff! Are they calling up the
militia?"  He asked excitedly. There were rumors that the royal army
had suffered yet another defeat, and if the orcs were bold enough, raiding
parties could sweep down from their mountain lairs to the north. At thirteen,
Koren was almost old enough to join the annual militia training that was held
in the village square every winter, and he was looking forward to practicing
with the militia, even if it was only with wooden swords and pikes. Sometimes,
the militia practiced archery, since only a handful of farmers had ever held a
real sword, but everyone hunted. And Koren never missed with an arrow, he
couldn't wait to show the village boys, and perhaps some girls, his skill with
a bow.

"I see
it's the sheriff, and if they were calling up the militia, they would have
sounded the big horn at the Golden Trout. You finish feeding the animals, then
clean out the stalls, and, and you fix that fencepost. Don't come to the house
until I call you."

"But,
Pa," Koren protested, having heard the wagons, and burning to know what
was going on outside the barn, "what-"

"Never
you mind what's going on, boy, get your chores done." Bodric said gruffly,
troubled by what he thought the sheriff's visit meant.

And then he
recognized the miller, perched on the seat of his wagon with his two boys, and
he knew exactly what it meant, and his heart fell in his chest.

And Koren saw
the miller at the same time. "Pa," his voice sounded strangled,
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to-"

"You
didn't do anything, son, and you don't listen to any foolish talk, either. Mind
your chores." He said in a tone that invited no reply.

 

Bodric strode
across the field, fists clenched at his sides, until he was no more than a few
feet from the sheriff, who had gotten off his horse and was standing with his
own hands up in a peaceful gesture. Peaceful or not, the sheriff had a sword
strapped to his waist, and a dagger tucked into his belt.

"You had
to do this on my boy's birthday?" Bodric snapped angrily to the sheriff.

"Bodric,
let's you and me talk inside-"

Ignoring the
sheriff, Bodric strode toward the miller's wagon, shaking his fist. "I'm
not paying a single coin to fix your mill, you thief! If you'd put any money
toward keeping your equipment in proper order, it wouldn't have-"

The miller
shouted louder, drowning out the farmer, his face beet red, standing up in the
wagon. "There was nothing wrong with my mill! Your son is a-"

"Enough!"
The sheriff stepped in front of Bodric, blocking the way, rocking back
awkwardly on his heels to keep the bigger man from moving forward.
"Bodric, we need to talk about this
in-side
. And you," the
sheriff pointed sternly at the miller, "sit down and keep you mouth shut.
Uh!" He rested one hand on the grip of sword for emphasis. "Not one
word from you."

-"jinx!"
The miller finished, but he sat down sulkily, and said no more.

Bodric opened
his mouth to speak, when the sheriff leaned close and said in a low voice.
"Do you really want to do this out here, good sir?" The sheriff
glanced back at the villagers, who were all standing up in their wagons, or
sitting tall in the saddle, anxious to see what the sheriff would do. "I'm
here to
protect
you from these idiots."

Bodric closed
his mouth, grinding his teeth while he considered whether to let pride, or good
sense, win out. The crowd suddenly began muttering under their breath, some
fearfully making hex signs with their fingers, toward the barn. Bodric turned
his head to see Koren standing outside the barn door, hands clasped in front of
him, his lower lip quivering as if he were about to burst into tears. With a
gesture, Bodric shooed his son back into the barn and, his shoulders slumped,
stepped back. "Sheriff, come inside my house, we can talk there."

 

In the
Bladewell's cozy kitchen, which was more than warm because the stove was fired
on a warm spring morning, the sheriff of Crickdon county was wishing he hadn't
worn his official uniform, which included a leather jacket. A leather jacket
which trapped heat and made sweat trickle down his back, sticking his shirt to
his back. He also wished the villagers hadn't insisted on riding to the Bladewell's
farm quite so early in the morning, for he had skipped breakfast and was
hungry, and seeing a bowl of hotcake batter, with crocks of syrup, fresh butter
and jam, was making his stomach growl.

He also felt
rather ridiculous, sitting in the kitchen of the Bladewells, a family he knew
fairly well, while wearing his official uniform, including a sword. The sheriff
regretted bringing the sword inside this peaceful house, but as he had brought
the sword with him, he couldn't simply leave it leaning outside the front door.
He knew the Bladewells fairly well, having dealt with them occasionally on
business for the Baron, and always on good terms. Knew them, and respected
them, for Bodric and Amalie Bladewell had turned the stony, weed-choked soil of
the poor-yielding farm they had bought into the finest piece of farmland in the
county. Their fields grew more grain, their cows gave more milk, their pigs
grew faster, their chickens laid more and larger eggs. Compared to other
farmers in Crebb's Ford, the Bladewells were prosperous, and the sheriff knew
that caused resentment in some people. Despite his admiration for the
hard-working family, the sheriff ignored his growling stomach and his personal
feelings on the subject, and did the job his distant cousin the Baron paid him
for.

"My
apologies, Mistress Bladewell," the sheriff said as he unstrapped his
sword and set it down on the table beside the door, "for bringing a weapon
into your home."

Amalie stood
stiffly in her kitchen, torn between the obligations of a good host to a guest,
and the obvious fact that the sheriff was not in her kitchen as a guest. She
had been about to crack eggs to make Koren's birthday cake when, glancing out
the window, she had seen the sheriff leading a line of people up the drive to
her door. The eggs sat, untouched, on the table by the stove, and her apron was
draped over a chair. Amalie did not want to appear before the sheriff, on his
official business, while wearing an old apron with flour and hotcake batter on
it. Every year, the Bladewells gave a plump smoked ham to the sheriff, and he
accepted the gift gratefully. "We know you, Tom Mallow, you've sat at our
table and enjoyed your fill of my cooking. There is no need for apologies,
unless you've come here to do us harm." She squeezed her husband's hand,
and he nodded to her.


I came here to-


We know why you

re here, sheriff.

Bodric interrupted.

And I told you, we

re not paying a single
coin to fix that mill.


I didn

t-

Bodric
continued as if the sheriff hadn

t
spoken.

Our
boy wasn

t
even inside the mill that day, did he tell you that? Wasn

t near the miller

s broken-down old gears.


Bodric, I

m not here to collect
money.

The
sheriff managed to say while Bodric caught his breath.

Husband and
wife shared a surprised look. Amalie felt a chill down her spine. The family
could not afford to fix the water mill

s
equipment, and despite whatever lies the miller had told, Koren hadn't done
anything. A demand for money was at least understandable. And if not to demand
money, why had the sheriff, and what looked to be half the village, come to the
Bladewell

s
farm?

He

s not asking for money to
fix the mill?

The sheriff
shook his head.

The
Baron has advanced funds to repair the mill, and is bringing in a skilled work
crew from Norville to get the job done by the end of summer, before the
harvest.


That sounds expensive.

Bodric observed warily.


The Baron knows that
without the mill, people in this village can

t pay their taxes, and the Baron will still
owe his taxes to the Duke, so
…”

Bodric nodded.
Sheriff Tom Mallow had been friendly, having grown up in Crebbs Ford before his
distant cousin the Baron appointed Tom as county sheriff, but that friendliness
was based on the Bladewell

s
paying their taxes in full, and on time. Other families in Crebbs Ford, and
throughout Crickdon county, did not find the sheriff friendly at all. Not when
he was taking away the grain they needed to survive the winter, or taking cows,
pigs or chickens the family needed. Or even bringing in men of the Baron

s guard, to help the
sheriff force a poor family off their land, when the family had been unable to
pay their taxes. Bodric and Amalie

s
had bought their farm land at auction, after the previous owners had lost their
property to the Baron for failing to pay taxes. Amalie still vividly remembered
the look the unfortunate family had given her, as they rode their wagon down
the road, away from the land that had failed them.

If you

re not here for money,
then why?

Amalie asked, pointing vaguely out the window toward the people lined up along
their road.


To protect you, for one.

The sheriff answered
unhappily.

BOOK: Ascendant
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