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Taver moves us out early in the morning. “There will be no more delays,” he announces. No one argues with him, but I can’t tell if it is because they agree, or because they aren’t sure his temper has cooled.
It looks to be a pleasant ride, the fields are green, the sky is blue, and I don’t have to worry about what is waiting at the end of the trip. We come over a slight hill to see a boy running madly away from us. My guards move up, surrounding both me and Alan, but needlessly. The boy comes back, followed by farmworkers and their women. They only want to see us pass, to cheer for their Princess, and in my person, the royal family, and to cry curses on the assassins. The herald has stopped here long enough for his proclamation.
“Good crops to you,” I call, and wave to them as we slowly ride past. It isn’t much, but it is enough. They have sent their message of loyalty and I have acknowledged it.
So we proceed with periodic flurries of goodwill from farmers, sheepherders, and once from a party of hunters.
The next group, however, has little goodwill, only a grievance.
“We call on the Princess for judgement,” a somberly dress man speaks from the side of the road. “Our rights are being denied.” The small crowd behind him mummers in agreement. A knight and his party sit on a rock wall several feet away, and I swear I see the knight roll his eyes. He wears a sword, as expected, but no armor, and is accompanied only by his square and an older man who is likely his steward.
Of course I stop; there is no choice.
We set up an impromptu court under the trees bordering the field, and I invite Alvl, the spokesman of the village, to speak first.
“We are freemen,” he begins, “And we have the right to select our headman.”
I nod in agreement. This is ancient law.
“Sire Nalor denies us this right. Refuses to allow the headman we have chosen.” Alvl glares at the knight.
“Now tell her why I deny him.” Nalor doesn’t seem to be concerned that he not only has been accused of a crime, but has just admitted to it. “Tell her why I deny Blasm as headman.”
“It doesn’t matter what your reason is. We have made our decision and you cannot deny it.” Alvl turns an alarming shade of red.
“Blasm is dead,” Nalor tells me.
I look at him, certain I have misunderstood.
“They have selected the ghost of a dead man to be the head of their village.” Nalor is matter of fact, his voice level, but I hear echoes of ‘the damn fool idiots’ even though he does not say it out loud.
“Well?” I look at Alvl.
“It doesn’t matter, we picked our headman—it’s our right.”
Yet again I feel a rush of gratitude Mynar is heir and not me, but here now, I will have to deal with this. “We will eat our mid-day meal, and then I will talk to each group separately,” I decide, ignoring Taver muttering about ‘another damn ghost’. Maybe with a little time to compose myself, I won’t laugh in Alvl’s face. Offering no reason, I arrange three groups. Alvl’s people, hosted by Alan, because he is less likely to bash heads in the face of rampant stupidity, and Nalor’s with Traver hosting, and me all by myself except for my guards.
“Do you think this could be a real ghost?” Bevin’s tone leaves no doubt that his opinion comes down firmly on ‘no’ as the answer to his question.
“Of course not,” I agree with tone, as well as question. “But they believe. I want to toss a coin to set the order in which I talk to them, and I want Nalor to win, is there a way to arrange this?”
“Probably.” Bevin is amused. “I should make sure Alvl’s group hears the story of how you dealt with Bard Dekker’s avenging ghost. It will convince them you will take them seriously.”
I nod my agreement; it’s a good plan. Most of the people involved still think Dekker’s ghost paid Misthold a visit. Only my family and my guards and Webb know the ghost was a fifteen year old boy playing dress-up. Now all I have to do is remember not to call the villagers fools. Unless, of course, they give me a really good reason.
When I can’t delay any longer, I solemnly toss the coin slipped me by Bevin and Nalor wins.
“Those men are idiots.” Nalor starts by stating the obvious. “Blasm was an intelligent man, never wanted to be headman, but probably told the last three headmen what they should do. He died about two years ago. According to Alvl, he had a prophetic dream that Blasm could come back and keep guiding them, but he could only speak through a woman, because they are weaker than men and have less resistance. And the older the woman, the better.
“I am convinced that Alvl now does believe he had such a dream, but I think he was manipulated into believing. Women are not allowed on the ruling council, but, speaking as Blasm, the older women are running things.”
I have to look away toward the mountains and hold my breath to keep from laughing. “It is a good plan,” I can’t resist saying.
“Oh, I agree. But no matter how much I admire the plot, I am not willing to become a laughingstock by allowing one of the villages in my fief to have a ghost headman.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not about the be the empty-headed Princess who was talked into mandating a ghost headman.” Nalor relaxes slightly when I agree with him. “And, I’m guessing, the women pretend to be unwilling and have to be argued into helping Blasm appear.”
“Yes, they are smart,” Nalor agrees.
Throughout Taver has just stared off in the distance, looking for—or perhaps hoping for—anything indicating a potential attack against the Princess just sitting by the side of the road. I am absolutely sure he is thinking how glad he is that his duty is dealing with warriors and sharp weapons and the occasional sorcerer who has attack spells. Let the royal family deal with crazy.
I suggest Taver and Nalor talk about the defenses of the fief while I talk to Alvl; it will make both of them feel better.
Alvl tells the same story, from his point of view. He has no doubt about his dream, or the reality of the ghost. He even suggests I should talk to Blasm myself.
“I will talk to the women Blasm is speaking through,” I promise him. “And if you are coercing them into letting themselves be possessed..” I let my tone finish the threat.
Alvl sputters his denial, “We did not force them, we may have reminded them of their duty, after all we men are willing to face battle to defend out town. Giving Blasm a voice was little enough to ask.”
“Who did you fight, when,” I ask, knowing this fiefdom is in one of the safest parts of the kingdom, well away from ocean or border, or untamed lands harboring bandits.
“Well?” I demand when he doesn’t answer, I feel my guards come to attention behind me.
Alval realizes he has no choice about answering. “We would have.” He sounds like a sulky child.
I wave him away, and wait for the women to be summoned, for of course the village delegation is all men. Alan wanders over to join me, and adds his vote to the ‘they are idiots’ consensus.
Alvl thinks he is going to oversee my discussion with the three older women until I get tired of arguing and just nod at Bevin. Shortly after, two of my larger guards drag him away.
“So,” I look at the three women once we are alone (except for guards and Alan), “No more playing ghost.”
They look at each other for a moment and don’t deny what I have implied. “We are tired of having no voice. For us to be on the council, it must be voted, and the men on the council decide what is to be voted on. Why should we be ignored, told what will be with no say?”
“I don’t say that you shouldn’t have a voice, just that you cannot have that voice by pretending to be a dead man.” They are not happy with me, and end up forming their own small group, all looking darkly at the village men.
Taver reluctantly joins me and Alan after I have stared at him pointedly for several minutes. “I know talking to Nalor about weapons and shield walls is more interesting,” I tell him, “But we have two problems to solve.”
“Two,” I repeat. “First, there will be no ghost headmen.” Taver nods in agreement. “And second, the women must be given a voice, before they come up with something worse than a ghost.”
“The first is easy, you can issue a Royal Fiat that all headmen must be alive. But the second is more difficult without overthrowing the ancient rights of the villages to govern themselves.”
I think about it for a moment. “The Fiat will have to have a preamble explaining why it is necessary, otherwise everyone not in the village will read it and wonder why I am mandating the obvious.”
Taver nods in agreement. “But I don’t see any way to solve the other problem.”
Alan has been staring into the horizon for a while. He blinks as he finally looks at me. “Maybe.” He starts then stares in the distance some more. “The forge you told me I could use is in a deserted village, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I answer, not seeing where he is going.
“So, if you gave me the whole village, I could offer the women homes. And Taver might be willing to have some men from one of his engineering battalions help repair the houses in return for my research in exploding magic rocks or whatever. And the new village could make up its own rules.”
“Do you think the women want to leave their families?” Taver is doubtful.
“I think that the women only need to convince the men they are willing.” Alan smirks a little, “And if they can convince them to believe in a ghost, this should be easy.”
“And if they can’t, I’ll provide repairs,” Taver promises, surprising me until I realize he is just looking for the quickest solution to get us back on the road.
“Then we have a plan,” I decide. Father is always glad to see a village re-established, so I can carry through on any promises, if it is necessary.