“Just answer my question, don’t volunteer information.”
“But I can’t. I have to tell how it happened, I can’t just jump in and answer your question, you need to know why they were there.”
Joseph stood, held between the guards, shivering with fear. The King’s man was asking him to give up his friend.
“I’m not going to ask again, tell what happened. No more of your foolishness. I don’t have time to play games. Just answer me, now!”
Joseph stared straight ahead, and refused to say anything more. The black glove that was being shaken in his face jerked back, “Toss him in the cellar! Let him sleep with the rats for a while, then he’ll talk.”
“Robert, you’re going about this the wrong way, if you want answers, you have to let Joseph tell it his way. You need to hear it from the beginning, so we can determine what the actual outcome is.”
Robert twisted his head, turning his tired eyes on Sir Richard, “Sir, this is my job, I find out who did what, and I see that they are properly punished. I won’t molly coddle criminals. I don’t care why it was done. I just want to know who did it. Everything else is just wasting my time. These serfs are not capable of thinking, they just act. And it’s my job to keep them in line.”
Sir Richard was studying the toe of his boot, trying to decide how to guide this discussion before it degenerated any further; he looked up and forced a smile. “Robert, I understand that you are very good at your job, or you never would have been appointed Bailiff of this hold. But I must disagree with your process, at least this time. I believe there may be mitigating circumstances that caused their actions. I know Joseph; he has been my villein for many years. As his father was before him. The family is honest. We need to discover what caused the trespassing.”
Robert was obviously fighting back angry words, to avoid provoking the higher-ranking knight. He spoke slowly and carefully. “Sir, I must ask you to refrain from interfering as I do my duty. I have a suspect to catch, and there is only one way to make them talk. They live a hard life, they cannot be treated with kid gloves.”
“But that is my point, exactly. They do live a hard life, from their birth till their death, they struggle to just have enough food to eat. I know that often some of my people are glad to get just a few bites of soup, made with whatever they can find. I am working to change things, to improve the lives of my villeins, but it is a slow process. I must first teach them how to work together, and I am finally seeing results. They are supporting each other, and not quite so quick to toss their neighbors to the wolves. That is what Joseph is doing. There is a reason why this happened, let him explain things, from start to finish, so we can determine if this was actually an intentional crime, or just an accident.”
Robert straightened his back, his leather jacket stretching tight across his broad shoulders. “These are not gentlefolk, they’re not much more than animals. They do not have the right to trespass on the King’s property. I don’t need reasons. I need names. I will imprison the lot if they will not tell me who was seen running across the fields. Trespassing on the King’s land is a crime, punishable by death. It was not an accident.”
Joseph cried out “but she was just a toddler. She wandered from home, we were looking for her.”
Robert turned back towards the prisoner.
“They went onto the King’s lands to search for her, before she could be hurt. They weren’t there to poach.”
“Well, Bailiff, we have a conclusion. I will not see any of my people put to the gallows for looking for a lost child. What began as a search for a trespasser has proven to be nothing more than a misunderstanding.”
“That is not our decision to make. You have the right to plead their case, but only the King can grant mercy for the trespass. It has always been so. And will be for eternity.”
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