Excerpt from Hard Choices

“We have no coin to give you,” Sahila said.

“You don’t have a choice,” Jonmarc Vahanian argued. “General Alcion won’t take ‘no’ for an answer on taxes. He’ll have to make an example.”

Sahila was a thin, wiry man in his early forties, one of Chauvrenne’s village leaders, perhaps chosen to negotiate because he spoke excellent Common. Jonmarc had brought his squad of ten Eastmark mercenaries to collect taxes, and while the other towns had managed to make their payment, Chauvrenne was empty-handed.

“Believe me, Lieutenant, I know that,” Sahila replied. The three other elders nodded, and Jonmarc could see in their expressions that they grasped the seriousness of the situation.

“Surely there’s some way you can raise coin,” Jonmarc argued. But he knew in his heart that Sahila was telling the truth. He and his men had been cautioned by the residents of the other towns where they had collected taxes that the year had gone particularly hard on Chauvrenne. Everything Jonmarc had seen since they arrived corroborated that story.

Chauvrenne, in the best of times, was not a wealthy town. Like many of the other Eastmark villages, it was mostly self-sufficient, with farmers trading their produce for goods in town that they could not make. Since it wasn’t on a main highway and did not benefit from travelers who needed to spend coin at an inn for food, lodging, and fresh horses, the residents got by mostly on barter, except for when they took their crops, crafts, and animals to market.

This year, a dam that burst after heavy snows melted flooded fields just after planting time, and caused a blight on the crops. Many of the buildings had been damaged or destroyed, including the grist mill. Then the livestock took sick, whether because of tainted feed or, as some of the locals believed, a curse. Those hardships meant that there was little to take to market. The town’s weaver, blacksmith, candle-maker, and beekeeper could hardly make up for the loss of more profitable animals and produce.

“What coin we were able to raise at market, we had to spend to buy food and seed,” Sahila said. “Even so, you can see that none of us have been eating too much,” he said with a self-deprecating, half-hearted smile as he held out his own bony wrist as proof. The other elders chuckled wryly, acknowledging the truth of the statement.

“A few years back, the same kind of bad luck hit one of the other cities,” one of the other elders, an older man with a gray beard, said. “The General was merciful, and allowed them to make up the payment the next year.”

Jonmarc sighed. “Then perhaps the general has grown more stern since then,” he said. “Or maybe there are expenses to the kingdom that cannot be put off. I’m not privy to those things; I just know my orders. And my orders are to bring back full payment from every town on the circuit.”

He hated the tone he had to take with Sahila and the others. They struck him as good people, much like the farmers and tradesmen of Chauvrenne. As a child, he remembered overhearing the whispered conversations of the adults when it was time for the king’s soldiers to collect taxes. But that had been in Margolan, under the reign of King Bricen, by all accounts a more beneficent ruler than Eastmark’s King Radomar. General Alcion was Radomar’s brother, and in recent months, he had gained a reputation for ruthlessness that made Jonmarc suspect Alcion had ambitions for the throne. Such an endeavor would require money, lots of it, and so whatever grace Alcion had been willing to give in years past was no longer likely.

“We have nothing of value except the tools of our livelihoods,” Sahila said, “and our land. Without those, we’re beggars.”

I did not sign on as a soldier to bully villagers out of their last mouthful of bread. Jonmarc tried to rein in his anger, hoping his feelings did not show in his face. Soldiers often found themselves administering policies they did not like, against people who had done them no harm. Yet his suspicion that Alcion’s sudden hardline tactics were fueled by his own illicit ambition made his orders weigh heavy on his conscience.

“Talk about it. Come up with something. I’ll be outside,” Jonmarc snapped. He walked out of the small building the town used as its gathering place and out to the street, where his men were waiting.

“How bad?” Circan asked. As Jonmarc’s second-in-command, Circan shared Jonmarc’s opinion that Alcion would accept nothing less than payment-in-full. And while neither Jonmarc nor Circan had voiced their deeper concerns, Jonmarc had the distinct feeling that Circan—and the rest of his men—were uneasy with the direction things appeared to be headed with the general.

“Bad,” Jonmarc replied, and vented his frustration by kicking a rock so hard that it crossed the dirt road and ricocheted against the wall of the opposing building.

“Surely they’ve got some coins buried somewhere,” Lieutenant Markelson said. He was the youngest of Jonmarc squad, and though he claimed to be seventeen, Jonmarc guessed the truth was even younger.

Jonmarc shrugged. “So far, they say not. Let’s see what they can come up with.”

Sahila came to the doorway for Jonmarc minutes later. The quickness of the elders’ deliberation gave Jonmarc a good idea of what the answer would be.

“We have heard stories about General Alcion of late that make us all afraid,” one of the elders said. He appeared to be the oldest of the group, perhaps in his seventh decade, his hands scarred and gnarled by hard work. “There are rumors that he seized the land from one town last season that could not pay, and forced its residents into the hills to make their way or starve. And it has been said, though I pray to the Dark Lady that it’s not true, that in another town that disobeyed an edict, the townspeople were sold as slaves to the Southlanders.”

Jonmarc had heard the same stories, from the soldiers forced to do Alcion’s dirty work. And as bad as the rumors were, the truth was worse. That was last year, Jonmarc thought. Something’s pushed Alcion to get even more ruthless since then. I’m afraid that he won’t be satisfied with half-measures now, no matter how brutal.

“Then you know the stakes,” Jonmarc replied. “For your own sakes, I beg of you, if any of your residents has coin, there’s no benefit in withholding it. You are likely to lose everything if the taxes can’t be paid.”

Sahila nodded. “We know. And we have told our people the bald truth. There has never been much coin in Chauvrenne, so I believe my people when they say they have nothing hidden away.”

“Five of our young men have volunteered to go with you as payment,” the middle-aged man said, and Jonmarc could see what the offer cost him in the man’s eyes. “They’re fit for soldiers. The price of a substitute for a wealthy man’s son as a conscript would easily equal or better what we owe in taxes.”

Sahila was right in figuring that young noblemen often paid commoners to take their place when the king called for conscripts. But it was Alcion, not Radomar, making the rules, and Eastmark had no mass conscription at the moment. Besides, Jonmarc thought, Alcion probably figures that all the people in his territory belong to him anyhow. He’d see no reason to pay them as substitutes when he figures that he owns them, body and soul.

“Surely your people earned some coin since market trading with the other villages.” Jonmarc said.

Sahila shook his head, and his shoulders drooped. “It’s been hard-scrabble for everyone around here lately. The people who live out in the forest or up in the hills used to come in every fortnight or so for supplies, but they’ve either moved on or made do, because they haven’t come to trade with us in months. We barely have enough livestock to pull our plows and give us wool and eggs, and after how bad the birthing season was this year—curse or blight—we’ve got none to spare, even to eat ourselves.”

“Then you had best look to pack up what remains and leave, before Alcion sends us back to make an example of you,” Jonmarc warned. His stomach churned. He had no desire to be the general’s instrument of vengeance, nor did he want to see the village’s bad luck taken out on his own men.

“We are discussing what to do,” one of the elders said.

Jonmarc’s eyes narrowed. “Discuss faster. It will only take us a few days to reach the city, and a few days to return. Make up your mind, pack your things, and be quick about it.” With that, he and Circan left the building.