The waning days of the summer of 544, which brought anguish to the palace because of the murder of Kan's closest friend and councilman, Tui, bred different concerns for the family of Gav the farmer and his wife Aya. All through the ripest and warmest days of the year, their crops had inexplicably withered, as if struck down by a pestilence. Whole acres of wheat, barley, corn, rice, and beans died, while growth of the surviving plants was stunted and feeble. When the harvest came, there was barely enough to fill Gav's quota to the land's owner, which would leave little or nothing for his own family's needs over the long, cold winter.

Gav paused in shucking corn ears to wipe the sweat from his brow. A strong, lean man in his thirtieth summer, Gav had powerful arms and legs, and a neck like a bull. His plain face was framed by lank, sun-bleached hair. Two sky-blue eyes, set to either side of a flattened nose, peered out from beneath a craggy brow. Several days' stubble dotted his chin and upper lip, obscuring deeply-bronzed skin. Gav was bare-chested, wearing a pair of dirt-smeared off-white trousers and mud-caked, worn boots.

Several years past, the paucity of the harvest wouldn't have created a difficulty. The old owner of the land, Taw, had been a generous man, letting Gav take from the top what his needs demanded. Taw, however, had died five winters ago and his entire estate had passed to his son, Bur. At first, Bur had appeared ready to follow his father's selfless policies, but that hadn't lasted long. Bur had become a harsh taskmaster, demanding his full portion of the crop before letting his workers take anything. For all he cared, Gav's family could starve this winter, as long as he got what was his due.

Gav would have left Bur if there was other work available, but there was none. Departing from Bur's land would leave his family homeless and with no source of income. He didn't have only his own welfare to consider, but that of his father, wife, and four-year old son. Gav had to play with the hand fate had dealt him. Somehow, he would find a way to see his family through the coming months, no matter what actions were required.

Supposedly, the king had set up a special fund to help farmers in his situation but Gav had already had a taste of Kan's "generosity". His father Mog had once received some of that money and it had led to disaster. Bandits had learned of the stipend and had robbed Mog's house, raping and killing May, Gav's sister, in the process. The sanctimonious Kan had been unwilling to act any more than following a normal robbery, claiming that the money was no longer the crown's responsibility once it had been given to a private citizen. A cursory investigation was conducted, and, typically, nothing was discovered. The criminals, whom Mog suspected to be members of the city guard, went unfound and unpunished.

Gav looked over the late afternoon sun-speckled fields. The stalks of corn, and, farther off, wheat and barley, swayed gently in answer to the prodding of the sultry summer breeze, a veritable sea of chest-high green, waiting to be harvested. But it was not enough. The fields beyond lay bare and, between himself and his father, all the work would be done before summer's end. The help of Gav's wife, Aya, who typically leant a hand during more prosperous times, would not be needed at all this year. She could spend all her time caring for the child and worrying that by mid-winter there might not be enough left to eat.

Gav was trapped by the cruel whims of fate that had made this his lot. Trapped, because his well-being was dependent upon the generosity of a heartless miser who cared only about quotas, not the people forced to meet them. Trapped, because any action he tried to better his position would only drag his family down. Trapped, because if his son Wil wanted to survive and build his own future, he would have to submit to even worse indignities than Gav had endured.

These were the situations that Kan was supposed to protect his people from. At least according to Mog, for Gav had been too young, that was one of the primary reasons Rel XVI had been deposed. Now, it was happening all over again. The "People's King" had taken to handing out arbitrary justice. Freedmen like Gav were treated little better than serfs and, to survive, their children might have to sell their own freedom. It was the king's duty to prevent such atrocities and Kan was failing. If Gav went to him now with a petition about his circumstances, the king would patiently listen, then inform him that a stipend had already been paid to his family and they would have to wait another twenty or thirty years until their turn came again.

Kan didn't realize that money was just a bandage, not the solution. Land was needed so that each farmer could have a plot of his own to farm. If the king could not see that, he did not deserve to rule. Instead of taking extra taxes from the nobles, he should have been annexing their lands and redistributing them to the freedmen who worked them. But the nobility intimidated Kan. Their constant assassination attempts kept him fearful, so his every attempt to aid the peasants and ordinary citizens of Vorti fell short of the radical changes that were needed.

Unfortunately, Gav knew many men who believed that Kan was doing a good job. Too few had the foresight or desire to look beyond today's meal. As a result, the king was popular among the people he was hurting the most. Stipends were damaging and destructive - they had nearly shattered Gav's family - yet men still clamored for and got them. And, among the lower classes, Kan remained a hero.

"Deep thoughts?" inquired a husky baritone from behind Gav. A big, calloused hand was placed companionably on his shoulder. After starting at the unexpected touch, Gav turned to face the man he respected more than any other in Vorti: Mog, his father.

People claimed that, except for age, father and son were alike, with similar builds and features. They had the same blue eyes, bushy eyebrows, squashed noses, and jutting chins. Mog's hair was more white than blond, but was in the same simple style as his son's. The two were even dressed identically, down to the worn condition of their boots.

"There isn't going to be enough," said Gav. They both knew what he was talking about. This was the dozenth time they had discussed the matter, not the first.

"Enough for him, but precious little left for us and you can bet when we ask, he won't roll back the quota."

"I won't let my family starve!"

"There's always a solution," said Mog, his voice calmer than his son's. "I just haven't been willing to discuss it yet. When the time is right, we'll do what we must."

"What?" demanded Gav. Thievery perhaps, if not something darker. There was no other choice, legitimate alternatives having been closed off. If it came down to it, Gav felt he could kill a man to save his wife and son.

"All in good time," said Mog. "Patience, my boy, in all things. Haste is any man's worst enemy, especially in desperate hours."

Gav nodded. Though their physical differences were few, the gap in their philosophies was wide. Gav always believed in acting on his first instincts, often without regard for the results. Mog was a philosopher by nature, a fount of wisdom and forbearance, taking action only when it was the single remaining alternative. Gav spoke openly and bluntly while Mog enjoyed toying with words and phrases. Ultimately, however, each respected the other's nature and Gav knew that often his father's was the better way.

"Fifty-five summers I've seen, Gav. You can wager that when it comes to it, Mog won't be one to sit by and let his family suffer."

Gav nodded again. He had never doubted his father's loyalty. He knew that in Mog's eyes, family was the most important element in life, and Gav, Aya, and Wil were all that Mog had left. His wife Yea, two of his three children, and one daughter-by-marriage were all dead, killed by famine, plague, or murder. Mog intended that what remained of his clan would outlive him. But intentions, no matter how firm, did not necessarily conform to reality.

* * *

Aya gazed out over the same fields as her husband, but from a different perspective. Standing in the doorway of their one-room hut - it was too primitive to even call a house - she could see not only the long rows of corn, wheat, and barley that were yielding, but those huge patches of bare ground where the crops had withered and died, leaving behind the promise of a hard winter to come.

Had life treated her more kindly, Aya might have been a comely young woman, but the trials of her early years had robbed her face of its beauty and her hazel eyes of their luster. Although only twenty years old, she looked at least as old as Gav. Faint wrinkles already creased her features and streaks of gray highlighted chestnut hair that was pulled back tightly into a ponytail, baring an ugly, pinkish scar that traced her upper forehead from left to right. Aya was petite, but had a nicely-proportioned figure that she kept hidden beneath an oversized, plain dress. She didn't want anyone thinking of her in a sexual manner except her husband, and him only because it was his right by marriage.

Aya had not been born or bred to work on a farm. Her parents had lived in the inner city, eking out an existence on the meager salary her father could earn doing various, often demeaning, jobs for nobles and highborns. She was the only surviving child of a disease that had claimed her mother and four sisters. Aya recalled her years of living alone with her father in that squalid little hovel, with a half-rotted roof and a floor of mud, as a time when her stomach was never full. After her mother's death, her father had taken to drinking heavily, and beating and raping her. Parts of her body still bore the marks of his handiwork.

She had been twelve when he had died, run over by a horse-drawn carriage after stumbling drunk into its path. So Aya had been left alone without a means of supporting herself, and, when a wild storm blew down the rickety, wood-and-thatch hut, without a place to live. She did the only thing she could and took to the streets.

At first, she tried living by begging, but soon found that selling her body could sometimes earn her more money and occasionally even a warm bed for a night. She wasn't particularly choosy about the men she sold herself too - prostitutes were prevalent in the slums of Vorti and choice was not one of their options - and one of her customers turned violent and attacked her with a horsewhip, slicing open her forehead. He left her in the gutter to bleed to death, but a kind wise-woman showed mercy, bringing her inside to wash and sew up the wound.

It was there that Aya met Gav, who had come to the wise woman to obtain a poultice for his father. Aya noticed his interest and courted it, thinking to gain a customer. Instead, she got a husband. She had never pretended to love Gav, neither then nor during the six years since. She didn't love anyone, not even her own son. But she tolerated and, at times, was even fond of him, being grateful enough to realize that no matter how unpleasant life on the farm became, he had rescued her from a worse fate. The life-expectancy of a street whore was perhaps sixteen years. Had Aya remained in her former profession, she would likely be dead by now.

"Mama?" came a sleepy voice from behind Aya. She had to clench her teeth to keep from snapping in annoyance at the boy. After putting him to bed for his afternoon nap, Aya had been hoping for several hours of peace, but had gotten less than half of the time she wanted.

"Yes?" replied Aya with cool indifference, turning to face her dark-haired, smiling child.

"Come see, Mama," encouraged the boy, pointing toward the window near his sleeping palette. "Pretty wings."

With a sigh of resignation, Aya weaved her way through the maze of soiled clothing that littered the floor - she supposed she should make an effort to clean up - and followed Wil to the clouded glass and the object of his fascination. He giggled with delight, pointing as he jumped up and down.

It was a butterfly, flapping against the window, trying to get out. On its wings were patterns of vivid orange, red, and black, and its elongated body was colored a deep purple. It drifted lazily up and down, striving toward the unreachable light, unaware of its two human observers.

With an ill-disguised snort of contempt, Aya struck the glass pane with the flat of her hand, smashing the butterfly. Her son let out a cry of dismay as she removed her hand and wiped off the remains on the front of her frock.

"Bugs do not belong inside the house," said Aya. "Now back to sleep. You can go out to play when your grandfather gets home."

* * *

By mid-winter, the scarcity of food had become a problem for Gav's family. Even rationing carefully, almost to the point of famine, they ran out of corn weeks before the Spring thaw started. They still had small quantities of grain and rice, which had been more plentiful at harvest time, but those would soon be exhausted as well. If another source of food wasn't found, the household would be a casualty of Bur's cupidity.

"We have to do something, Father," said Gav. He, Mog, and Aya were seated around the single table in the one-room dwelling while Wil played by the fireplace. Outside, a light-but-steady snow was falling, turning the world white. For men with full bellies and warm homes, this day would be a pretty one, but for a farmer's family, living in a drafty hut with little food, it was ugly.

"Of course we have to do something," replied Mog easily, taking a long draught from his tankard of ale. The cold seemed to bother him far less than the others. "I've been...exploring... certain possibilities over the past few days. After the weather clears, we'll be able to act."

Gav had mulled over the choices, and the only viable alternative seemed to be criminal in nature. He didn't like breaking the law, but it was a law that served the rich better than the poor and, in the end, had brought him more grief than justice. He didn't have the money to buy food, and there was no work for a farmer during this season.

"I say we rob Bur," said Gav. "Most of what he's got is ours by right anyway. We can break into his store house and take what we need."

"Don't be a fool," hissed Aya. Gav looked at her in surprise, obviously not expecting her to express an opinion. Had it been up to him, she wouldn't have been included in the conversation, but the hut was so small and cramped that, short of forcing her outside, there was no way to exclude her.

"Aya's right," seconded Mog.

"I don't see how." To him, robbing Bur seemed the fair and just thing to do. In a sense, it was only taking back what should have been theirs' in the first place.

"The man's a miser," explained Mog. "He probably checks his stores every day. That's the nature of people like him. They horde things whether they need them or not and cry bloody murder if even a little is missing. And who do you think he'll suspect first?

"Now, I'm not saying he doesn't deserve to be stolen from. In fact, I'd love to burn his stores to the ground, but striking that close to home would do us harm. There are other places and other ways. It's only a matter of knowing where and when to look."

"And you know," surmised Aya.

Mog nodded. "When Gav was young, we occasionally had a similar problem, before Taw succeeded his father. Raz wasn't as tight-fisted as his grandson, but it's not hard to see where Bur gets it from. Anyway, when I needed money, I went looking and made contact with a certain group in Vorti. Through the years, we've had occasions to help one another out. A week ago, I paid a visit to a few of my associates. They think they might be able to offer us something in another two or three days."

"What exactly are we talking about?"

"Caravan robbing, my boy. Fat, rich merchants traveling by road from Llam or Fels with only an armed guard or two because they're too cheap to pay for a full patrol. The deal is that we take whatever food they have, deliver everything else to the men who fund us, and get a nice pouch of silver in return."

"I suppose we'll have some help in this. Against two armed guards, we'd be overmatched."

Mog laughed. "You underestimate us, I think. You don't need a sword to fight. A pitchfork or a shovel can be just as deadly and most of the guards aren't experienced. The cheaper they come, the more inept they are. But, yes, we will have company. At least three others will be helping. We'll primarily be the decoys."

"I don't like the sound of that."

"It's nothing too dangerous. We make enough of a disturbance in the road to stop the wagons. A spilled cart or something similar. While the merchants and their lackeys are trying to get us out of the way, the others jump them. Minimal risk, maximum benefits."

Gav considered. He had to admit that it didn't sound too bad and he couldn't find it in his heart to feel sorry for the merchants who would lose out. Doubtless few of them knew what it was like to go hungry.

"One more thing," added Mog. "No survivors."

Gav's face paled. Stealing was one thing, but murder quite another. He would kill to save his family, but only as a last resort.

Mog saw that his son was wavering. "It's the only way. No matter what we do to disguise ourselves, if someone gets away, there's a chance they'll be able to identify us. It's the way of the road, Gav. They know it as well as we do. The guards and the merchants. When they set off from wherever, they recognize the dangers. Don't shed any tears for them - they serve money. The merchants are taking the trip to make large profits and their protectors area along because they're being paid."

"I don't like it."

"You don't have to like it!" declared Aya. "But you have to do it! I'm not going to spend the rest of the winter starving in this cramped warren. Stop worrying about people who don't give a damn about you, who'd trample you underfoot like dirt. Kill them if you have to! They don't deserve any better."

"Listen to your wife," urged Mog.

"You've done this before?" asked Gav.

Mog nodded. "Many times. If I hadn't, you might never have grown into the man you are. Famine is a hard thing, son, and you have to make compromises to combat it."

Gav wasn't convinced, but he conceded, "All right. If you're sure there's no other way...I'll do it. But only once."

"Hopefully, that's all we'll need, but once or twice or three times, you'll do it as often as is necessary to put food on your wife and child's plate. After the first time, it gets easier."

"So what now?"

"We wait for the word. Then we go out and get some food so we can finally have a good meal."

* * *

Gav stared at his hands. They were strong hands, calloused and accustomed to hard work. The skin was tanned a deep bronze. Dirt was ingrained under broken fingernails and veins stood out between wrists and knuckles. Now, however, those hands, meant for digging, planting, and picking, were spattered with blood.

His pitchfork had caught one of the caravan's guards in the throat. The torn flesh had sprayed out a fountain of scarlet, staining pitchfork, hands, tunic, and leggings. The pungent, unmistakable odor of death was in Gav's nostrils. He closed his eyes to shut out the grim tableau, but the bloody act played over and over again on the stage of his mind.

Before setting out, Mog had said it would probably not be necessary for them to kill. He had been wrong. Gav had slain a guard, Mog another, and their associates at least three more, plus the merchant. Fortunately, the guards had not been good fighters, or the ambushers would have been massacred.

"What a mess!" exclaimed Mog, coming to his son's side. "You really did a job on his throat all right. Looks like a wolf tore it." He examined his son's handiwork with a critical eye, as he might evaluate a spring planting. The flow of blood had nearly stopped.

Mog glanced at his son's pasty white face. "You all right?"

Gav wanted to answer that he was fine, but he didn't feel fine and couldn't find the voice to say so. Feeling his gorge rising, he turned from his father and bent over, vomiting noisily into a puddle of blood.

"Obviously not," noted Mog. "It might have been better if things hadn't gotten so messy."

Gav straightened up, wiping his mouth on the corner of a sleeve. He still couldn't find his voice.

"We're going to have to find you some new clothes," said Mog. "Can't have you going back into Vorti like that. There should be something you can wear inside one of the wagons. Oh, and wipe off your face and hair."

Gav lifted a hand to his face to find it slick with blood. He turned to the side and threw up again.

"Mog!" called a gray-robed, hooded figure carrying an unsheathed sword, "Use that shovel of yours! Get this filth buried." He kicked disdainfully at the unmoving form at his feet.

"Let's go, Gav," said Mog. "We've got work to do. This road won't stay empty for long." The ambush had come just after sunrise along one of the least-traveled roads to Vorti, but there would be enough traffic by noon to make concealment of the event impossible if everything hadn't been cleaned up.

Gav followed his father into the scrub a hundred feet off the road. Using his pitchfork like a shovel, he began to dig in tandem with Mog, helping to excavate the mass grave into which the bodies would be dumped. At least this activity - using a pitchfork to turn over dirt - was more familiar than the grisly use to which he had so recently put it. He tried not to think too much about why he was digging.

"Pangs of conscience?" asked Mog, as if reading his son's mind.

"How do you know?"

"There's a first time for everyone, Gav. If you're not the one who kills, you'll be the one who's killed and then you won't have to worry about anything. Frankly, I'd rather be the one left alive to wrestle with my conscience. Your next life's always something of a gamble."

"I don't think I'll ever forget the expression on his face," began Gav. He wasn't sure a hard-bitten man like his father would understand him, but he had to tell someone. Even speaking to the crows in the field would be better than keeping silent. "It was like he couldn't believe what had happened, that all that blood was really his. Then he just...fell over, like a sack of grain kicked off the back of a wagon."

"Have you ever seen anyone die of starvation, Gav?" asked Mog. "It isn't a pretty sight. In the end, they just lie there, shuddering and shivering, all skin on bones. They look like skeletons, son. They're disgusting. It's hard to believe they're human. I'd rather be the fellow you killed, with a pitchfork stuck through my neck, than die huddled in a corner with my bones sticking out. Getting your neck torn open is a quick death, but starving takes a long time. Think about that, and think of it happening to your wife and son."

Gav understood the point his father was trying to make. It was the same one he had been pressing home for ten days since first breaching the plan to his son. In the end, it seemed to be a choice between the survival of Gav's family or that of a group of greedy, money-grubbing fortune-seekers. Only Gav couldn't quite see it as that black and white. He didn't know what the answer was, but surely there had to be some middle ground. Wasn't there a way to feed his family without massacring a merchant and his guards?

Nevertheless, he hadn't looked too hard for that middle ground. His protests to Mog had been half-hearted and now the deed was done. The only question remaining was whether he'd be able to close his eyes at night without seeing the gaping, bloody tear in the neck of the man whose life he'd claimed.

* * *

All-in-all, financially, it was a good day for Gav and Mog. The merchant's food supplies had been limited, but the coins the farmers had been paid for helping to secure the wagons and drive them into the city would keep them well-fed for most of the winter. Mog offered two choices: they could eat like kings now and go on another raid before the new year - Mog's associates had assured him that there would be at least two more - or they could continue to be frugal and what they had just earned would last them until the earliest spring harvests. Gav preferred the latter choice and his father did nothing to dissuade him from it.

The raid had been accomplished in an efficient, professional manner. An hour after the attack, the bodies had been buried, the bloodstains obscured, and Mog and Gav, disguised as merchants with their accomplices garbed as guards, were driving the two wagons into Vorti. On the eastern side of the city, several blocks past the central marketplace, Mog's associates took charge after handing each of the farmers a pouch of silver and issuing a terse warning to keep their mouths shut if they valued their tongues. Father and son traveled south to their home with the money, two sacks of beans, and several tins of dried, smoked meat.

Aya was excited by the amount of coin they arrived with, and not particularly sympathetic with her husband's discomfort. To her, all was fair in life, because of the basic inequities of fate. As she had explained to Gav many times since their marriage, survival meant taking what was necessary by whatever means were available. That Gav had killed a man was unimportant. The fruits of his labor were all that mattered.

Gav wished he could share his wife's harsh view of life or his father's ruthless pragmatism, but the haunting image of spurting blood and wide eyes stood between him and such a guiltless outlook. As he had dreaded, he didn't get much sleep that night, or for several nights after. Whenever he did drift off, the apparition was there, twisting his dreams more fiercely than it did his daylight hours. He would awaken screaming, shaking, and drenched in sweat, with everyone in the house telling him to be quiet while his most fervent desire was never to sleep again. Inevitably, however, he always did.

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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