"What madness drove you into becoming a farmer?" Silvana asked.
"Hunger." I replied, tossing the wheat at her. "Alice mentioned you two are hoarding the oven. Start it up, everyone's hungry."
Silvana nodded, and began counting the bundles. "That has to be a hundred at least, not bad."
"Enough to feed everyone for the day, I hope at least." I said, finding myself a seat. The wood of the chair seemed so strange now. I had spent so long in the fields, bending down and kneeling to harvest more crops, that sitting seemed like a distant memory. It was only a few days of working, but it could have been a month and I wouldn't have noticed the difference. The villagers agreed with me. I really had done several weeks worth of work.
Food, you see, is a necessity. Not just in surviving either, but in working. A basic principle both you and I know, yet ignored by Silvana. The fact that I, a new worker, was more productive than farmers who had been toiling all their lives was testament to that fact and the horrible situation the poor peasants were in.
"Bring the rest, I'll bake a loaf for you." Silvana said, writing something on a parchment.
"Is there a problem with the oven? I'm rather certain you can bake more than one load with that." I said. I looked at the bundles again. A massive pile of golden wheat piled up so high it dwarfed Silvana. If I were to guess, it would be enough to feed the villagers for quite some time.
"Wheat must be ground into flour before being baked. Both of which, will cost you." Silvana said.
"Fair. How much?" I asked.
Silvana took out her parchment. "By rights, the lord must receive six out of ten crops from his peasants as rent. For use of the storage granary, another one crop of ten is given to the lord. For the milling of the grain and baking of the bread, another two crops of ten. That leaves one, for the peasant." She responded.
My jaw dropped. "What? That's ridiculous! No wonder they are starving. You're snatching the food out of their mouths! Do you have any idea how hard it is to work in the fields? The poor farmers barely have the strength to stand!"
"There are the higher noble's taxes, the king's taxes, and the taxes of the Serpent Sect. The manor also requires great amounts of funds to maintain. The mill, the oven, the manor house. All required coin purchased through sale of grain. Grain taken here." Silvana said.
"What are you doing, eating money? These farms are massive, probably enough to feed a town ten times this size. Is food that cheap?" I demanded.
Her face looked like a cross between pity and exasperation. "Learn to manage a manor, and you will see that it is not easy."
"I find myself inclined to agree." I said, glaring at her much harder than I should have. "A better lady would have the ability to feed her peasants."
She flinched as if I had struck her, but I didn't regret my words. She spoke up as I turned to leave. "You have no idea what's it's like, do you? Surviving as a chicken in this feast for foxes."
"No, I am a man, and woe to the beast who tries my knife." I responded.
She laughed, a sound so bitter and mocking it made my insides heave. "Foxes you can kill, yes. But what of the agents of the Falcon Throne? The Serpent's high mages? The Dragon itself? Will you slay them all?"
"If I must." I said, my voice quiet as the calm before a storm. She grabbed my arm as I turned my back.
"I must say you are a better man than I first thought, Leon Marshall. You are brave, but I am not. What little I offer my peasants will be taken away. Good harvests and happy peasants draw power hungry nobles like a fat sheep draws wolves. Better to remain lean, to avoid greed. A few less meals will pay for their lives." She said. Silvana shook my arm. "Do you understand?"
"No!" I shouted, throwing her hand off. "Why is it that we must bow to the whims of those who wish to claim our livelihoods? Why is it that we must pay taxes to men we have never met? What has the king done for this village? What has the men you call the Serpent?"
Silvana fell silent. She sighed. "Perhaps not this village, but you think the king less than he is. The king must care for his whole kingdom, and his rule. The Serpent and Dragon allow him to keep his throne, and without him there would be no great cities."
"Oh, great cities. Very helpful. Now, what exactly do they do for this village? Do they provide soldiers to guard against bandits? Or do they send bandits disguised as soldiers and tax collectors? Do they protect the villagers? I don't think so, they rob them! They rob them of their food, all without regard for their lives. Let me tell you what those animals are doing to this village. They are tearing it to pieces and gulping it down for dinner!"
"Yes." Silvana hung her head. "They are. But what will you do? What can you do? What can anyone here do?" Her voice rose to a shout. "The king demands what he does. Do you know what happens to those who resist? Thousands of heads have fallen into the river of blood the king crafted! Tens of thousands! Will you fight him? Lay down your life for a meager portion of bread?"
Her voice dropped to a whisper. "If there was an opportunity, do you think I would not have done something already? I've known the people of this village my whole life. I was raised here on this soil. I ate their food and drank their water. Do you think that I don't care?"
"No, you just don't care enough to get dirt on your pretty dress." I spat.
If only I had turned around. If only I had seen her tears, her reddened eyes. But I didn't. I thought her to be a heartless monster. How naive I was back then, assuming that there were only two kinds of men. Those that were with me, and those that were against.