1637 The Volga Rules – Snippet 11
July 1636, on the road northwest of Moscow
Elena Utkin was in need of some religious comfort, so she headed for Father Yulian’s wagon. Only to notice that it was rocking. Just a bit, in that certain way. Furious, she pulled open the door. Only to find Izabella astride the priest and in such a state of undress that the pregnancy was visible, if barely. She gasped. “Izabella!”
“We’re busy, Mama. Wait your turn,” Izabella said.
With a shout of rage, Elena reached for her daughter, pulled her away from Yulian, and shoved her to the floor, slapping her face as she fell. Then she turned toward Yulian and slapped him as well. “You rotten bastard!”
“Now, Elena, you need to control yourself. This isn’t the way a mother should treat her daughter. You’re distraught. You need to calm down.” Yulian reached for her.
Elena slapped him again. “Keep your hands off me, you faithless peasant! And keep them off my daughter too!”
“You don’t control me!” Izabella hollered, her hand holding her face where her mother had slapped her. “And you’re the last one to be calling anyone faithless.”
By now, the shouting had called the rest of the wagon train to the priest’s wagon and there was a crowd displaying a mixture of emotions. Quite a bit of amusement, because Father Yulian’s habits were more something not discussed than something not known. Especially in regard to his relationship with Elena and her daughter. There was even some jealousy showing on the part of some of the women. And there was a tiny bit of worry on Stefan’s part.
Stefan was riding a borrowed horse, scouting the route through the lightly wooded plains to the north of Moscow. Once this had been forests, but now it was a mix of field, pasture, and woodland, much of it abandoned as the land wore out or the peasants to farm it became unavailable. Stefan didn’t know this; he just saw the results. Peasant villages left to weather, fields left unplowed, feral goats, pigs, even sheep. The land had been over-farmed, worn out, then abandoned, and then slowly recovered as nature took it back. There were forests and fields interspersed and abandoned paths, where a village’s produce had flowed to market before the village was abandoned. Stefan was on one of those. It was about six feet wide and twisty, but he thought they could run a wagon along it, if they were careful. Right up to here, where a four-inch-wide, twenty-feet-tall tree had decided that the middle of the road was the perfect place to grow. Stefan got down and examined the tree. It was going to have to be chopped down but that was the least of it. Once it was chopped down, it was going to have to be chopped up, because the limbs were interwoven with the limbs of trees on either side of the road.
He remounted and rode around the tree and continued on. There might be more such blockages. As it happened, there weren’t, and he eventually turned his horse back the way he had come.
“I need four men with axes to cut down a tree about three miles up the road, but after that it’s clear to a crossroads and an abandoned village about five miles further.”
“That would be old Geonsk,” Yulian guessed.
Stefan shrugged. “Maybe. But no one has lived there in a long time and probably no one will see us.” One good thing about the amount of forest they were passing through — unless someone was right on top of them, they were safe from observation. On the downside, things like the tree they were going to have to chop down to make the road passable and fresh wagon ruts meant that they would be easy to track.
Balakhna, A town on the Volga
Lieutenant Nikita Ivanovich Utkin sat at the table with the other lieutenants of his unit. He slapped down a broadsheet. “All the peasants in Russia are running mad.”
“Not all of them,” corrected Alexander Nikolayevich Volkov judiciously, examining the broadsheet. “No more than a third, I would guess.”
“You can laugh. You have that new farming equipment. You don’t need serfs.”
“That’s not entirely true. My family doesn’t need as many serfs to farm a given amount of land, but we still need serfs.”
“So you don’t care if half your serfs run off? It’s just fewer mouths to feed.”
“Not at all, my friend. I am just of a more philosophical bent. We’ll get them back, at least most of them. That’s what we’re here for, after all. To catch the runaways before they get to –” Alexander paused, then continued, leaving off “czar.” “– Mikhail.” It was a touchy subject, whether Mikhail was actually still the czar.
“Maybe. But I’m worried about Ruzuka. Mother and Izabella are there all alone. And you know that the Poles and the Swedes are going to take advantage of this.”
“Maybe not. They seem fully occupied with killing each other for the moment,” Pavel put in.
“And since when has a magnate of Lithuania cared about the rest of the PLC? Ruzuka is only two hundred thirty miles from Smolensk,” Nikita said.
“That’s a long way through Russian forests. Don’t get yourself in an uproar,” Pavel said.
“And what about the runaways? You know they turn into Cossacks the moment they get out of sight of the village they are tied to. Bandits and murderers, that’s all a peasant is. Only restrained by the whip and the noose,” Nikita said.
“That’s what we’re here for,” Alexander repeated. He didn’t mind tweeting Nikita Ivanovich, but he didn’t want to say anything that would get him or his family in trouble with the Sheremetev faction. Not since it had become clear that they were coming out on top in the power struggle that had happened after Czar Mikhail had sent his radio message. They were in enough trouble for being what Bernie Zeppi called “early adopters.” They had two family members actually at the Dacha and they had been there for the last three years.
It had only been ten days since the czar had captured the airship, and no one knew which side most of the service nobility were going to come down on. In the meantime, the Sheremetev faction — which included the regiment’s colonel and Nikita Ivanovich — had been ordered to turn back the escaping serfs.
So far it was mostly individuals or ad hoc groups. A single serf or a family would run. There was no practical way to drag them individually back to the farms they were supposed to be working. If they were to try, the regiment would be turned into individual soldiers, each escorting an individual serf back home. Instead, they were to terrorize them and run them back.
Alexander wasn’t sure it would work. He wasn’t even totally sure he wanted it to, because Alexander wasn’t yet sure where he was going to come down.
On the road northeast of Moscow
“She’s not going to cooperate,” Vera said flatly, some days after the incident at Father Yulian’s wagon.
Stefan lifted an eyebrow. “Did you expect her to?”
“Everyone knows what Father Yulian is,” Vera said. “Expecting him to keep it in his cassock is like expecting sunshine at midnight.” She sighed. “Granted, the fact that Elena caught him with Izabella rather than one of the village women was probably upsetting, but really . . . after all, Izabella was willing enough to share.”
Stefan just shook his head. The whole situation was both funny and tragic. But mostly, it was dangerous for the villagers. “We need her. We need her to stand out in front and tell people that we are where we’re supposed to be.”
“We can use Izabella,” Vera insisted, but Stefan heard the doubt in her voice.