Excerpt from Bleak Harvest

“They say no one likes death or taxes, but I’ve heard people beg for death. Never heard someone beg for taxes.” Jonmarc Vahanian, mercenary and newly promoted captain rode down the dusty road with a troop of eleven soldiers. Outlander mercenaries under contract to the Eastmark army, they were headed to collect taxes for King Radomar.

It was a thankless task given to hired soldiers to protect the popularity of General Alcion’s Markian soldiers. The politics of the mission rankled Jonmarc, and although he had said nothing aloud, he was sure his men both understood and resented the situation.

“You know, that’s a good point.” Circan replied. He was Jonmarc’s second-in-command, a fellow mercenary who was also from Margolan, and over the last few months, the two had become good friends. “Although I imagine it depends on whether or not the taxes get used for improving the road or going into someone’s pocket.”

Jonmarc shrugged. “Well, that’s always the question, isn’t it?” Growing up in a small village in Margolan’s Borderlands, things like politics and kings had seemed distant matters, far removed from the daily lives of blacksmiths, fishermen and other ‘regular’ people. After his family was murdered, he had traveled across Margolan with a caravan, and the transient life made such matters even less of interest.

Now, as an outlander in a strange kingdom serving for pay instead of loyalty, he felt even less attachment to political maneuvering, except where it threatened his men. His intuition prickled with warning that somehow, a real threat loomed from what should have been a simple errand.

“These villages aren’t much different from the ones back home,” Circan went on. “No one liked paying coin when tax time came, but they always wanted plenty of king’ guards around when problems arose.” He shrugged. “Can’t have one without the other, I guess.”

Jonmarc mumbled an agreement, but he knew there was more at stake. Alcion, brother to King Radomar, made a habit of using mercenary troops to enforce unfavorable decrees. Having foreign soldiers force compliance with unpopular laws increased anger against the king and stirred unrest. Jonmarc feared that Alcion was setting himself up as a challenger for the throne, and the outland soldiers could find themselves caught in the crossfire.

Three days had passed since Jonmarc and his men had set out on a circuit of ten villages to collect the king’s taxes. Ayerby, the first village, was a prosperous trading town. Merchants grumbled as they handed over pouches full of silver to pay their due, but the amount gathered matched what was expected. Bennerton, the next village, paid the tax collection scant attention, as if its farmers and tradesmen could not be bothered to fuss about something as inevitable as sunup and sundown. In the third town, Kespermoor, the initial collection was short, but the village elders pressed the hold-outs to make good on their obligation, and the soldiers departed without incident.

Now, heading toward the fourth stop, Ettenheld, Jonmarc could not shake a feeling of foreboding. His soldiers seemed restless, as if they sensed something was wrong but could not pin down the cause. As outlanders, they were painfully obvious, since all of Jonmarc’s soldiers hailed from Margolan or Dhasson, with light skin, while Eastmark prided itself on the ebony coloring of its native sons and daughters, bloodlines that were jealously guarded. There was no hope that his soldiers would be overlooked, or that passers-by could mistake them for anything other than what they were: foreigners sent to enforce the king’s law.

The road thus far took them south, though it would turn west after Ettenheld. That suited Jonmarc just fine, since two seers had given him dire warnings against traveling south, cautions that haunted his dreams. He tried to dismiss the predictions as superstition or the sham prophecies of dishonest fortune-tellers, but he could not ignore the caution so easily. Deep in his heart, he feared the warnings were true, though he had no idea of what shape the danger would take.

“Looks like a pretty quiet place, Cap’n,” Lieutenant Markelson said, as Ettenheld came into sight. Markelson was one of the newest soldiers under Jonmarc’s command. At nineteen, Jonmarc was younger than several of his soldiers, but Markelson struck Jonmarc as barely old enough to enlist, though the lieutenant vigorously denied lying about his age.

“Let’s hope so,” Jonmarc replied as they rode for town.

Ettenheld was a market town, the place all of the farmers whose fields lay to either side of the road brought their produce and livestock to sell, and where they came to purchase what they could not produce themselves. A windmill on a hill turned the grain from nearby farms into flour. Jonmarc was willing to be that the main street offered a blacksmith-farrier, an inn that doubled as a tavern, a cooper, cobbler, and chandler, as well as a few other shops. It was largely self-sufficient, as were many of the villages, this far from any major city or the main thoroughfares leading to the palace.

Yet before Jonmarc and his soldiers could get beyond the outskirts of town, they found a hastily-built barricade made of wood and stones blocking their entrance.

“Go back where you came from,” a man shouted from behind the barricade. “We get none of the king’s protection when we need it, so he’ll get none of our coin now.”

Jonmarc sighed, and moved to the front of his contingent of troops. He did not draw his sword—yet—but he let his hand fall to the pommel in a gesture he was certain would not be overlooked. “If you’ve got a grievance, take it to the tribunal. All Eastmark citizens are bound by law to pay the taxes decreed by King Radomar. We’re here at the king’s command to do just that.”

“What does the king do for us?” the man demanded. “We never see patrols unless they come to collect the tax money. When someone was stealing our sheep, there wasn’t a guardsman to be found. We had to hunt the blighter down and hang him ourselves.” The man stood with his hands on his hips, and more of the townspeople had gathered behind him, though Jonmarc noticed that they were not armed.

“What did the king ever do for us?” a woman demanded. “Did he send us any help when that big storm flattened all those trees and knocked down two barns? No. We had to clean it up and rebuild all by ourselves—and pay as much tax as if we hadn’t lost what was in the barns.”