Elf Boy's Friends - II

by George Gauthier

Chapter 20

The Despotate of Dzungaria

Colonel Ifans provided Drew and the twins with mounts taken from dead mercenaries for the trip across the border and into the Despotate. The twins noticed that riders in these lands still used old-fashioned pronged saddles. The modern saddle used in the Commonwealth had stirrups which afforded a rider a secure seat. A mounted soldier with his feet braced in stirrups was more effective whether with brandished sword or couched lance.

Their party of nine rode in a column of twos with the twins in front of Drew and Finn behind. Finn lead their pony with their packs and gear.

"Lost in thought?" Drew asked Finn who hadn't had much to say since they set out.

"Mmm. I was just thinking that today was the first time I killed a man. Oh that baron was an evil sort and he needed killing. He brought it upon himself, didn't he, attacking us like that? Still, when all is said and done, he was a man. Killing centaurs was different."

"You are right about that Finn. I don't have any regrets about the centaurs I killed either. I never considered them to be people -- not just because of their alien shape but because they were one of the sentients races that has no magic, centaurs, trolls, and orcs."

"Still I am glad that I did not have to take a man's life today. And I don't feel that I was any less a part of the fight either."

"You are correct, Young Altair" the colonel remarked. "Each of you took on the foes he was best suited to deal with. In your case Drew Altair it was those hunting dogs. And yes, killing animals and creatures like centaurs is one thing. Killing men or elves or dwarfs or giants is something else entirely."

"When you kill a man you take from him all that he is or ever will be. You take all he has or ever will have. He loses not only his life, family, friends, and possessions, he loses his future. And whatever the provocation, a man is not just the worst thing he has ever done. Even a bad man may change for the better, given the chance."

"You are quite the philosopher, Colonel." Drew said.

"Hardly. My family were paupers, and I had little schooling beyond my letters and figuring. I educated myself through books in which men wiser than I am had set down their thoughts for the instruction of the generations to come after them. You should know the value of books. You yourself are an accomplished author, twice winner of the annual Writer's Prize in the Commonwealth. I've read your books; they were good reads."

"Yes, the first won the award for journalism and the second for history."

"I hate to interrupt this mutual admiration society," Jemsen interjected, "but I have to ask how are we supposed to cross the river that lies just ahead?"

"By ferry. The landing is upriver a ways," the colonel said pointing to where the road turned to the right to follow the river upstream.

"The River Conwy marks our southern border. For security reasons, we haven't allowed a bridge to be built here. A foe might use it to invade our lands."

"Do you really expect attack? The Alliance formed against you is defensive in nature. Besides, the member states are so divided and have so many problems at home that they are unlikely to embark on such a chancy venture."

"You make a good point, Jemsen. Yet we know that some members of the Alliance originally hoped the Commonwealth would destroy the Despotate in a straight-forward military campaign."

"But the Commonwealth would never agree to something like that." Jemsen objected.

"No they wouldn't. We of the Despotate realize that now. But perhaps I have said too much. Hold your questions till you meet the First Despot. He is preeminent among the nine leaders who direct our affairs."

On the way to the ferry crossing they passed a spot where half-a-dozen thin naked boys were jumping and diving into the river. A tree on the far side leaned out over the river and provided a fine jumping-off point.

After the boys splashed into the water they allowed the current to carry them down to the meander in the river where they fetched up in the shallows. From there they clambered out of the water only to run along the riverbank back to the tree and jump off again. The boys shouted back and forth and joked and laughed and carried on as boys will, clearly having a grand time. And why not? What boy does not like to jump and run and climb and swim in the company of his friends?

"Those lads seem happy and healthy enough though still skinny from their growth spurt." Jemsen observed.

"They are. Now." the colonel smiled, showing genuine warmth for the first time. "They would not have been like that in the old days only a few years ago." the colonel added.

The ferry was large enough to carry their whole party across at once. Two mules pulled ropes wound around a capstan that reeled in the line attached to the bow of the barge drawing it to the landing on the far bank. A thick guide cable strung through steel rings along the gunwale on the upstream side kept the barge from being pushed downstream by the current pressing against its starboard side. The cable could be let out and sunk to the bottom to let boats pass up or downstream.

Meandering generally east to west in that stretch, thirty yards wide, with brush-choked ground rising on the far side, and with a muddy bottom ten feet below the surface, the River Conwy all by itself formed a substantial military barrier to northward movement.

The guardhouse and a squad of troops stationed on the other side showed how seriously the Despotate took its security. With the colonel to vouch for them, the travelers skipped the formalities and continued along the road which soon rejoined the river as its course bent northward. A while later they found themselves passing through a valley wide enough for only a narrow belt of farms in the bottomland besides the road and the river itself. Watchtowers and a fort at the northern end guarded this entry to the lands the revolutionaries had taken as their own.

"You would think that the alluvial soils in bottomlands like these would provide good yields but they don't," the colonel observed. "The marginal productivity of these lands is why the landowners used to squeeze their peasants and serfs so hard. To pay for their luxuries, they extracted too much of the agricultural surplus from those who worked the land. In bad years, that did not leave enough for the peasants to eat. Many starved or succumbed to illness from weakened constitutions."

"In the last century alone, the nobles put down five major peasant rebellions in areas that are now part of the Despotate. Drowned the uprisings in blood, they did. That reduced pressure for a while because so many were killed, and the nobles eased their rapaciousness for a while, but soon the vicious cycle reasserted itself. Our revolution put an end to all that by sweeping away the landholding classes."

"You mean you killed them." Drew said.

"Not all them, no. Our aim was not extermination but to break the power of their class over the peasants. True, we slew those who took up arms against and their hirelings who were mostly human mercenaries. I've never regretted killing any of them."

"Their best forces, the giants, withdrew from the conflict, abandoning the landowners to their fate. I devised a stratagem for neutralizing the Frost Giants who made up their palace guards and their shock troops by offering them safe passage to the south then on to New Varangia. Six thousand giants and their families took us up on the offer. Understand, we did not drive them out. They left of their own accord with their wealth and goods as emigrants not as refugees."

"Still a revolution is a bloody business, no two ways about it. Our goal was to destroy the class structure that created oppression, not necessarily the landowners as individuals. We realized that it was hardly their fault that they were born into an unjust social system. Like everyone they had to accommodate themselves to that situation as best they could. There were

many decent people among them and some actually joined our cause, surrendering their lands and privileges, to fight on our side. The best of them were later engaged to manage their old lands in behalf of the new owners, the village collectives."

"Doesn't that system just mean that now it is really the government which owns the land -- through these collectives?

"You don't understand. What the collectives own and manage are the commons: assets that all may use like the pastures, woodlots, grist and saw mills, and the granaries. They also maintain local roads and the smaller bridges and run the primary schools. The farmers, as we now call the peasants, own the fields. Each family has a freehold title to the acres it works and keeps the proceeds from the sale of its crops."

"I must ask you to withhold judgment on our system till you know us better."

"That's only fair." Finn said, bringing the conversation to a close as they passed through the gates of a sizable town named Junction because it was at the confluence of the three tributaries which joined to form the Conwy. It was the former capital of the last state to fall to the revolution five years earlier. Its fall was what had prompted the other states to appeal tothe Commonwealth for help.

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