"We're having a dinner party," Elizabeth announced the next morning.
Nick sat up in bed and yawned. "We are? Why, when we're short on food?"
"Because we're short on food. Only right now we have lots of pork, so I'm going to invite over Lord Hamilton, Baronet Trimble, Sir Geoffrey, Sir Oliver, Sir Edgar, and their ladies. All of them were lucky when the Francks came through. Their houses in Sothalia went mostly undamaged and their country estates are farther south so they weren't pillaged during the war."
Nick frowned and slowly moved to sit on the edge of the bed, wincing a little at the pain in his leg. "How do you know all this?"
"I don't just sit around embroidering, you know. I've paid calls on their ladies and all of them serve an excellent tea and have full larders. They should be contributing to the support of Sothalia and as their duke, you could simply tell them how much food they are to contribute."
"I don't like it."
Elizabeth paused in her dressing. "Why not? You've tried to personally provide food for everyone, and it's just not working, you know that. You have been feeling overwhelmed and with good reason, Nick. You agreed we need help for all the tasks that need to be done, so it only makes sense to me to get that help now rather than wait for spring."
"But I'm the duke. We're already living in their castoffs, and now you want them to feed us too? What exactly am I contributing then? I won't be one of those fat, lazy rulers who just sits around giving orders."
"No one will think that. You are far from lazy and everyone knows it. You're going to tax your vassals anyway, aren't you?"
"Sure, it's necessary that the wealthy bear some portion of the cost of providing services . . . oh. I could give them credit for what they supply now against their future tax bill when I figure out how much that is. You're sure they can afford to give up food now, in the middle of winter?"
"Those I'm inviting to dinner, definitely, and there are likely others as well. We can announce a survey of food stores among the nobility in town at our party, and then you can figure out everyone's fair share."
Elizabeth laid out clothes for Nick on the bed and he began dressing as he said, "We'll need to know how many people each household is feeding, too. It sounds like a big job to gather that much information."
"The ladies manage their households; they likely have a very good idea what they have. Each house can provide an inventory, say in a week? That should be enough time."
"Somebody might cheat."
"They might, but if they do, then we'll get a different kind of information, won't we?"
Nick couldn't argue with that. They went down to breakfast, the prince riding on his shield, and informed the staff of their plan. After eating, Harry and Vernon were sent out to deliver the invitations as soon as the duchess had them written.
Gwen went into a frenzy of cooking, Laura cleaned the main hall, and Reggie moved tables and chairs to create one long table that would seat fourteen. Sylvie came up with something for a tablecloth that Nick suspected had once been a tent divider. The duke himself just sat in the middle of the bustle and read, excusing himself on account of his leg, and also because no one needed magical assistance. Elizabeth went over the dinnerware and cutlery to make sure all the mismatched pieces were clean and shining.
The dinner party itself went well, everyone enjoying roast pork and gravy, mashed potatoes, the last of the winter squash, and several bottles of the excellent wine that had been stored in the tower. The announcement of the food inventory and early tax put a damper on it.
Lady Hamilton seemed pleased, and suggested old clothes and blankets could be donated too, she was sure she had some in storage. Baronet Trimble frowned and mumbled something, but didn't argue. Sir Geoffrey just shrugged and kept eating. Sir Paul and Sir Edgar exchanged significant looks, which Elizabeth noticed but didn't understand. Most of the ladies at the table exchanged looks as well, but those the duchess did understand. They were recalculating their meal plans and how much food they could afford to give up without noticeable effect. Sir Oliver requested that the duke make the command official by writing out a decree and having it posted, which Nick agreed to do.
At the end of the week they received seventeen inventories and personnel counts from twelve knights, two baronets, and three sons of barons who had households in town. By that time Nick's leg was mostly healed and he sat up late with his sheets of paper and columns of figures, including their own inventory of what they had left.
By morning he had "bills" for seven of the knights, both baronets, and two of the young lords; the others didn't have enough to spare. The lists included ham; dried meat, fish, fruit, and vegetables; crocks of pickled vegetables and jams; potatoes and winter squash; flour of three varieties; wine, brandy and ale; tea; sugar and honey; milk and butter from a lord who kept cows on his estate nearby; and eggs from a baronet with a large henhouse behind his stable. The payments of dairy products Nick spread out over five weeks.
Harry and Vernon delivered the duke's notices delineating what was expected from each of the taxed households and that no food would be expected from those without excess. Nick and Elizabeth waited to see what would happen. They were pleased when the first wagon arrived and Parker checked the contents against a copy of the tax bill and declared everything there. He gave the driver a receipt when the wagon had been unloaded, and Laura, Sylvie, and Reggie helped Gwen sort and store everything.
There were a few hours of quiet and then more wagons began arriving and everyone pitched in to check, unload and store, even Nick. He used magic to move the heaviest items such as large bags of flour and kegs of ale. There was so much that some of the less sensitive foodstuffs had to be stored in the main hall since the kitchen pantry and root cellar were full. There were also contributions of worn or stained blankets and clothing, and used footwear. Elizabeth was glad to get them; she knew that to someone who had no blanket or was wrapped in rags such things were treasures.
The wagon from Sir Paul arrived with everything expected, but there were bugs in the flour, half the potatoes and squash showed rot, and the two kegs of ale were only three quarters full. Nick noted the shortages, and sent back the unacceptable items with a terse letter informing the knight he could provide replacements or be charged higher taxes later. When the wagon returned, Sir Paul came too and apologized, blaming his steward and promising the man would be punished for attempting to send the duke inferior products. Since Nick didn't know if it had been the steward or Sir Paul himself who tried to cheat, he just nodded and let it go.
The next morning the line for handouts at the castle was the longest Elizabeth had seen. Word had spread, and some people had even brought containers for flour; others ran back to get something when they saw it being scooped into those containers. Baskets of clothing and blankets had been put out and were mobbed at first, but Nick took charge and the handout became extremely orderly--one item per person until everything was gone, or until everyone had gotten a turn.
They also redistributed some of het food to households that had submitted inventories that showed they were short on food too, and the castle residents' diets improved dramatically. Nick didn't feel the least bit guilty about it either. He was the duke, the taxes came to him to decide what to do with, and he hadn't had fresh bread with butter and jam for a very long time.
Five weeks later came the thaw that signaled spring was coming. There were still cold spells and occasionally snow flurries or sleet, but the level of snow and ice began steadily dropping from that point on. A few people started using the roads--just one or two parties every few days at first, but the trickle of travelers and wagons gradually grew.
The impact in Sothalia was seen immediately. Buildings that had been empty acquired residents and repairs were begun. Some of the wagons belonged to merchants who stocked and opened businesses. Familiar faces in the charity line disappeared as people found work, while new faces appeared as others returned to find their property in ruins.
The road was well open when a large group of ragged men arrived. No one at the castle noticed until Reggie came running to the tower and called up. Nick lifted him up on his shield. It was the first time the older man had experienced being raised high above the ground on apparently nothing, and he arrived pale and crouched with one hand on the invisible support.
When he reached the doorway, Reggie leaped into the tower. He hadn't been there before, but his attention was all on the prince.
He gave a quick bob and blurted out, "Your Highness, something has happened, something bad! I went to the market, just to see if there was anything we might want to buy. But there wasn't any market; there were just broken bits of stalls and carts here and there and nobody in the square at all."
Elizabeth had heard him from where she and Sylvie were going through her lighter-weight wardrobe items and came down the stairs as Nick asked, "Did you talk to anyone in the buildings around the square?"
"Aye, Your Highness. They told me a gang of strangers just came and took everything, beat anyone who tried to interfere, broke up stalls and carts and took away the pieces. A couple of the wagons with horses hitched to them got away into the side streets and the men didn't go after them, just took their loot and went off in a bunch. Folks in the buildings barred their doors and closed their shutters so some didn't see much, but the mob didn't try to get in anyway."
"How many were there? Any clues to their identity?" Elizabeth asked.
Reggie shook his head. "Don't really know, some said twenty, some said fifty, one fellow who'd been smacked on the head and his wooden bowls stolen said a hundred! But everybody agreed they were a dirty, scruffy lot."
"I'll see if I can spot them," Nick said and turned and dashed up the stairs and the ladder to the tower roof.
Elizabeth asked, "Were the men armed? Did anyone have any idea who they were, or where they came from? Could they be Francks left behind?"
Reggie shook his head. "Nah, folks said they spoke Anglian right enough, so they aren't leftover Francks or foreigners, Your Highness. They were poor, no uniforms but some had helmets, and they had clubs and staves and some had swords, lances and pike ends, things like that."
"Things they could easily have picked up off of the battlefields," Elizabeth concluded. Nick came back down the stairs and said, "They're in the small square over on the west side. There's a bonfire and I can see a lot of figures moving around. Reggie, go get Falcon ready and tell Harry and Vernon we're going after them."
"Yessir, Your Highness!" Reggie said, and Nick lowered him back down. Elizabeth stopped the duke from going and getting his cloak.
"Not alone, Nick. You have knights now, remember? Send Harry and Vernon to tell them to meet you in the main square ready for battle. Do this as the duke, not as a magician."
Nick hesitated. He could do it by himself, but leading his vassals into a battle would gain him their respect if he didn't already have it, and get them used to following his orders. And while one-on-one fighting was more dangerous it was also less destructive than him just burning the lot of them with fire.
He nodded. "Send our men out to gather my vassals. I'll be down in a minute."
The duke lowered her and she ran to get their messengers dispatched. He climbed back up the stairs and dug out the leather armor he had worn when hiding his identity during the war. It wasn't really of much use since he could protect himself better with his magic, but it made him look more martial, more like the leader of his little army should look. Nick tossed on his gray cloak over it and lowered himself out of the tower.
Parker was waiting for him in the stable. There remained about three quarters of the original structure, but the back wall was jury-rigged from stones and timbers that had once been part of the castle. Nick's Falcon was saddled and the valet had a second horse ready as well.
The duke saw the two horses before he noticed Parker was wearing a breastplate over a chain mail shirt and a helmet, and had a sword at his side. The usually nondescript ex-coachman looked at ease in his martial wear, too.
"Where did you get that, and what do you think you're doing?" Nick asked, gesturing at the armor.
"I keep a trunk of things I don't use much here in the stable, Your Highness. Mister Winkershime would be very disappointed in me if I let you go off to battle by yourself."
The duke pointed at his servant's sword. "Do you know how to use that?"
"Quite well, sir. Before I became your valet you are aware I was a spy, not just your coachman, and before that . . . well, Your Highness, I had a number of different jobs including assisting Connidian."
Nick was impressed; Connidian was the Anglian arms master who trained the royal family, senior officers, and upper nobility in Londinum and was possibly the finest swordsman in Anglia.
"Princess Elizabeth isn't coming?" Nick asked. He was used to having her by his side in battle, along with his former valet Winkershime.
Parker grinned. "No sir, she thought it might put your knights off a bit to have her leading them. It just isn't traditional, Your Highness."
Harry burst in then, panting. "Everyone is on their way, Your Highness! Me and my brother are guards, we should come too." Vernon arrived to hear the end of his brother's statement.
The duke ordered, "Get the wagon hitched and you and Vernon follow with that. We'll need transport for the wounded." He appreciated their willingness, but he didn't want them to get hurt.
Harry looked disappointed, but said, "Yes, Your Highness," and went to hitch the team. He and Vernon had been raised to be blacksmiths, not soldiers, and in spite of training from Elizabeth weren't overly adept with weapons. Nick and Parker mounted and left the brothers getting the wagon ready.
The main square was filling with men ready for battle. Nick looked over his little army. Everyone he had expected was there, some with squires and house guards. Not all the local nobility were fit for battle, some were elderly, some had been badly injured in the war, some had lost their squires, and not all could afford house guards.
But he had eight knights, both baronets, and the brothers Lord Percy and Lord Gerald, as well as about twenty others. Nick hesitated when he saw Sir Roderick; the man had lost an arm in the war and still looked thin and pale, but the prince just nodded to him. The duke didn't expect there would be much of a fight with thirty trained, experienced, well-armed men against a ragged bunch of bandits no matter how many of them there were. And he could always add in his magic if necessary.
Nick rode off toward the west with his band following. The residents of Sothalia poked their heads out of windows or stood in their doorways when they heard the horses coming and pointed down the street in the direction they should go. The duke was glad to see they supported their local lords, even though he already knew where the band of vandals was.
He also became aware that his group was making a lot of noise. Shod horses on cobblestones would alert the enemy to their approach. As the neared the square with the bonfire, he put up a large matter shield not knowing what they would encounter.
Their entrance into the square was met with a few arrows, mostly wobbly and badly shot. His shield easily blocked them and he dropped it as unnecessary. There were forty to fifty scruffy men waiting for them in a half circle, armed as expected with whatever they had scrounged from old battlefields.
Nick pushed his trip line into the central group ahead of him, toppling most of them. His knights and lords engaged the bandits on either side and charged past him to take care of the group he'd knocked down, now regaining their feet. The duke trotted up behind his men looking for unnoticed side or rear attacks on his people while Parker hovered nearby doing the same for him, but none came.
It wasn't much of a battle. Most of the bandits broke and ran almost immediately but were easily caught by the horsemen. Some tried to fight and were struck down. Some just threw away their weapons, knelt, and raised their hands in surrender. Nick saw two flee into an alley with Sir Roderick and his squire in pursuit.
It was over in minutes. The young duke sat on Falcon in the middle of the square while his knights and lords directed the aftermath. Living bandits were herded into a group and made to sit under guard. The dead were dragged to one side. Sir Roderick rode out of the alley with his squire walking behind him herding one wounded man in front of him and leading his horse with a body slung over it. Nick stopped worrying about Sir Roderick and started thinking he should be taking charge, but it didn't seem as if he was needed.
The bonfire was knocked apart and guardsmen were carrying buckets of water to put it out. The bandits' weapons were gathered and sorted, usable weapons put in one pile and damaged ones tossed into a small fire kept going for that purpose.
Harry, Vernon, and Elizabeth arrived in the wagon. She had put on a helmet, chainmail, and a sword, but carried her medical bag. Lord Percy had a gash in his leg and was helped down from his horse so she could treat it, which she did while he sat on the back of the wagon. She cleaned and bandaged a few other minor injuries as well, but Nick was glad to see none of his people had been killed or even badly hurt.
The duke didn't know what he was going to do with the prisoners since his castle's underground cells were buried in rubble, if they still existed at all. Baronet Trimble was sitting on his horse hear the captive bandits and his men were guarding them. Nick rode over to him and asked, "Does anyone have facilities for prisoners?"
The baronet, a middle-aged heavy-set man, replied, "Your Highness, I'm taking the nine with serious wounds. I have a physician on staff and a large enough cell to handle them. Baronet Fordham and Lord Percy are splitting the rest. Lord Gerald already has men with picks breaking ground for a mass grave near where we dumped the dead the Francks left behind. When do you want them brought before you for judgment?"
Nick was surprised by his efficiency and caught off guard by the question. "I'm not sure. I think the day after tomorrow, but I'll send word."
"Very good, Your Highness. This was quite a pleasant outing. If there are any more bandit groups around, please let us know. After that mess with the Francks, it was nice just to roll over an enemy so easily. Will there be anything else?"
"No, thank you Baronet, and please pass on my gratitude to the others."
The baronet then asked snidely, "So do we get credit against our taxes for this and for feeding prisoners, Your Highness?"
Nick was shocked by the question and didn't know how to reply. His lords owed him military service in defending his territory, and he hadn't expected a request for payment. He said tersely, "I'll consider it" and the baronet nodded and rode over to consult with his squire. Nick rode back to the wagon, deep in thought.
The wagon was no longer empty. The usable weapons from the bandits as well as any other valuable property they had carried were piled in it.
Elizabeth had taken off her armor and sword and that was in the wagon as well. She said to Vernon and Harry, "Put the weapons in a stall out of the way. For now, I suppose we'll have to use one as an armory. The rest just put on the head table in the main hall for us to go through."
The duke dismounted and tied Falcon to the back of the wagon. "Elizabeth, walk back with me?"
She gave him a puzzled look, but said, "Of course."
The wagon pulled out and they started down the street behind it. They walked in silence for a while, Elizabeth waiting to hear what was on Nick's mind.
Finally he said, "I think I made a mistake with the inventories and taxes and all."
"How so? You have the right to impose taxes as you see fit."
"Yes, but I turned my relationship with my lords into that of a banker or merchant or money lender, instead of what it should be. They owe me loyalty and service, and I owe them the same back, although in a different way. These are intelligent, strong men who run their own domains, and I treated them like . . . like clerks or something."
She took a moment to digest that, and then replied, "I'm sorry, it was my idea. I wasn't thinking about how it would seem to them, I only envisaged how much good could be done with the food. Neither of us is experienced at this. It seemed quite reasonable to me that when we needed food, you should take a portion of what they had since they had so much. What do you think you should have done?"
"I don't know, I wish I could ask Winkershime. Maybe I should have just let them know we were short and relied on their loyalty and generosity."
"When you were Head of Commerce did you notice if Duke Hubert taxed them?"
"Yes, he did, but not much. Most of his income came from import and export taxes as well as the production of his own properties. I don't remember exactly his whole tax structure, but I think the main tax was on wool."
"If you write to Ralph, I'm sure he would look it up for you. I saw a royal mail carrier the other day. He was having trouble finding the people he was supposed to deliver to. He might still be in town."
"I'll write a note when we get back. Elizabeth, do you have any ideas about how I can repair my relationship with the lords here in Sothalia?"
"Nick, you know as much about being a duke as I do about being a duchess. But when the weather improves a bit more I'll pay formal calls on the ladies. Unfortunately, I haven't any place where I can entertain them in turn, but I can ask them what they think and pass along some ideas that will undoubtedly get discussed with their lords. It's indirect, but it might help."
"Thank you. You can tell them that I'm thinking of just going to Duke Hubert's tax structure as a starting point, and make adjustments after I see how that works. Hopefully I'll find out what it is before anyone realizes I only have a vague idea."
"Normally you would have had all his papers when you took over. You did some spying when we were here on our Progress, do you remember anything from that?"
"Just that the duke was engaged in some light smuggling. I think I'll leave that out of my tax plan, though."
They were approaching the castle when they heard the clatter of horses coming up the street from the gate. Four horsemen came into view carrying two flags. One was the Anglian flag: red lion, black sword, and gold dragon on a white background. The other was red with two rampant black lions and a white sword upright between them.
Nick recognized both. "That's Arthur's banner. The Warlord is coming."
They hurried forward to meet the riders, concerned about what sort of message would be delivered. If Nick's brother was coming to enforce the witchcraft law, he had to flee or he would be taken back to Londinum to be burned at the stake.
When the riders dismounted, one of the two not carrying a flag removed his helmet and the duke and duchess immediately recognized him.
"Winkershime!" Elizabeth exclaimed, and ran forward and hugged him. Nick's previous valet and spy trainer corrected her. "It's actually Sir Ralph now, Your Highness."
"And you must remember to call me Elizabeth, except in a formal setting," she responded.
"Which this is. We are here on official business."
Nick came forward and to Ralph's surprise, hugged him as well. "It's great to see you, Sir Ralph. I thought you were retired."
"I was. I baby sat my grandson, and advised Princess Anne for a bit, but Prince Richard is back so I wasn't need in that capacity anymore."
Nick asked hopefully, "Richard? He's all right?"
"Physically, no. He's designed a chair with wheels for himself so he can get around, but he'll never walk again. But his brain is as good as ever, and he's decided to use it. He and Anne are working together." Ralph didn't say at what, he didn't need to. All three of them knew that Richard had been Anglia's Spymaster as well as her Warlord, and Anne was in training for the job.
"So you just decided to take a ride?" Elizabeth asked.
"No, I've somewhat un-retired. My grandson is wonderful, but frankly, babies are a bit boring when you're around them all the time. You know, their repertoire consists mostly of eating, eliminating, sleeping, crying, spitting up and the like. Since you're short on personnel, I thought you or Prince Arthur could use me in some capacity."
Nick proclaimed, "You are now officially my advisor. Unless you want to be my valet again?"
"Lord, no. I've pressed enough clothes to last me the rest of my life. I brought you a present but let Arthur's herald here give you his official communique first."
The herald stepped forward and presented Nick with a sealed scroll. The duke opened it and read, then turned smiling to Elizabeth. "It's from Arthur, he says the witchcraft law has been changed and I'm not in any danger, although he neglects to say what it has been changed to. He expects to be here tomorrow and promises he'll give me all the news then."
Elizabeth replied happily, "Then we get to stay here. This is our permanent home now, and you are safe. I'm so pleased, Nick."
"Me too. So what have you got for me, Ralph?"
It was Ralph's turn to smile as he unloaded a heavy saddle bag from his horse. "Neither Commerce papers nor intelligence this time. But I've dug up all the information I could find in Londinum on Sothalia, including two years of tax reports. I had copies made and brought it all along. I thought you might find it useful."
"Perfect," Nick and Elizabeth said in unison.
The other three riders departed to report back to Prince Arthur that his message had been delivered. Ralph brought in a small traveling case while Reggie led his horse to the stable.
Elizabeth took Winkershime through the main hall and down to the standing block of rooms. "All we can give you right now is a cot in the corner of the lower room here where you stayed before. I'm afraid everything else is occupied."
"That's perfectly fine," Ralph replied. "It will do for now, and with spring here I'm sure your accommodations will soon improve."
"They will? But we don't have much of a workforce back in Sothalia yet."
Ralph laughed. "Don't worry; just be patient until Prince Arthur arrives. There are going to be some changes!" But he refused to say another word on the subject after that.