15 May

Soon after opening his law office in the crossroads town of Apo, Opi Derm had a visit from a dominative with a serious ownership dispute with a neighboring plantation owner.

Taori Craik , a wizened old man with gray hair and beard, had flashing emerald-green eyes that reflected a sharp mind and strong will. He sat across a wide rosewood desk from Opi and described what his problem was.

“The bulk of my land is an allodium I inherited from father and grandfather. But there is a fringe of border territory that my enemy and I both lay claim to. He says that it is clear burgage from one of my ancestors, that as long as it is used and maintained there is no rent or service owed for it to me. But I have documents that prove that the large parcel is under pure socage, so that for four generations his family has provided nothing whatever for holding and using it, yet they should have.

“So, Avocat Derm, it is to be your task to obtain court authorization for direct action for the return of that area to full possession by me.”

The short bantam lawyer focused his grayish blue eyes on his new client.

“Tell me this, please: are there any pawns of the neighbor living or working there?”

Craik wrinkled his brow. “Only a few little cotes, so that they can be near his fields.”

“That is interesting. Do these hilotae grow and harvest crops on the land in dispute?”

“Indeed. The bondsmen take care of triticum consumed right on my neighbor’s own praedium. But he has never irrigated the fringe to grow any algodon. There has been no cash crop taken off of it, only food grain and fodder.”

“No oryzon or arborion?” asked Opi Derm.

“None at all. Only wheat triticum. Is that of any importance?”

“It could be, if the case ever reaches a justiciary’s court.”

The two men, eyeing each other, fell silent for a short time. Finally, Opi spoke up. “I will try to do all I can. First, all the documents have to be finely examined. And I plan to visit the fringe and study it for myself. When can I make a visit to your plantation, Dominative Craik?”

The pair agreed that the attorney would arrive in a week to inspect for himself the land in question.

Moving along slowly on his small caballus, Opi would glance occasionally at fields of cottony algodon and watery oryzon. Visible were the hilotae pawns, bonded to their landowning overmen who claimed to hold possessive rights of mastery over them. These workers, tied to the praedium where they lived, could not be bought or sold, but in all other respects their situation was one of slavery. They floated between a form of serfdom and peonage, binding themselves and their children to their dominatives.

Following directions given by Tacri Craik, the avocet at last arrived at the plantation holding of the embattled client. He turned in at the entrance gate and made for the owner’s steading, passing by small fields where pawns were digging and hoeing. No one raised his or her head, as if not seeing the little man on the caballus.

A mulus carrying a long, wiry figure with a dark blue tricorne on his head drew the avocat’s attention. The headgear identified him as the plantation overman, the superior of the hilotae who worked for Tacri Caik.

The two animals grew nearer, until the rider stopped his mulus. Opi decided to do the same.

“My name is Plazo. I am head enthraller for my Dominative.”

The lawyer felt a shiver. This is a man with ensorcelling ability who keeps the pawns in check. He is the one who becharms and spellbinds the serviles into laboring as required by their master.

“I am Opi Derm, avocat from Apo. Your overman has summoned me here on business most important for him.”

“Yes, I know,” said the man in the three-horned hat. “You have been engaged to settle the disputed fringe of the praedium. May you meet with success.

“The Overmaster requested that I bring you to the steading. Please follow me, sir.”

Silently, they passed a fraiseberry patch on whose edge a group of half a dozen pawns in rough jute clothing lay resting.

“Up and working!” shouted the enthraller loudly. “Rest can wait till evening, when all your tasks are finished. Up and working!”

His inky black eyes turned on each of them, one by one, spreading out a fine net of dominance. His own mind acted as a kind of overconscious that engulfed all the separate wills of the crew of pawns. First one, then several more sprang to their feet.

Without a word, they picked up the huge baskets resting in a pile and began to pick the ripened fraiseberries with speed and care. Not one of them looked back into the terrorizing dark eyes of the overman.

The mulus again was ridden forward. Likewise, the caballus.

Plazo took the avocat to the front veranda of the plantation residence, where the Overmaster was waiting, a comely young woman standing at his side. Without a word, the Enthraller slipped away to the side, leaving Opi to tie his beast to a rail, then climb the steps to the veranda.

Craik took his hand and gave it a vigorous shake.

“I am so happy to see you here, my good man,” said the owner. “First of all, let me introduce you to my daughter, Miero.”

Opi made a small bow in the direction of the winsome and attractive heir to the praedium they were on. Thinking legally, the avocat realized that this only child stood to become sole possessor of the Craik plantation at some future day.

He noted that she shared the grayish blue eyes of her father.

“Shall we go inside and eat?” suggested the latter.”There are some tempting dishes spread out on the table made by the hands of my Miero,” he boasted with parental pride.

Over cordero lamb stew, the landholder dominated conversation.

“I am fortunate to have so experienced an enthraller as Plazo serving as my Overman. He has a magnetic hold on my pawns, all of them without exception. His efficiency in managing the labor force is extraordinary. I am dependent upon him for the running of my praedium. All overmasters have their own enthrallers, but none can compare with my Plazo.”

He paused, taking a long, deep breath. Then Craik continued.

“The ancestors of the landowning elite in Laconica migrated here eons ago, along with the enthrallers whom they made their overseers and superintendents. Since then, there has never been trouble with the conquered population of hilotae. Things have operated smoothly because of the dominative power that we apply over our pawns. That has become the system sanctioned by history and tradition.”

He suddenly gave the avocat a cold, severe stare.

“Can you win unquestionable ownership and control over the land fringe?”

“Yes,” answered Opi. “I believe that I can, sir.”

“Good!” grinned the Dominative, looking ahead with new confidence.

That evening, the lawyer began to study deeds and documents that might have some connection to the question of the fringe. At a late hour, he went to bed in the guest-chamber assigned to him.

The next morning, as he stepped into the corridor leading to the room where breakfast was waiting, the daughter of the landowner appeared before him.

They exchanged good mornings.

“How are you, Miss Craik?” asked the visitor.

“I am fine, but worried about my father.”

“Is he ill?” inquired Opi.

Her perse eyes darkened. She appeared to be frowning.

“My father has been deeply affected by our legal tangle over the fringe. I can tell when his stamina and energy are lowered by concern and worry.”

“I believe that we will win this contest. The documents that I have seen all tend to strengthen our case and make me confident.”

She still seemed to be in a funk of some nature.

“I have attempted to warn my father about leaning too much on…Plazo.”

“The Overman?”

Her eyes expanded as she gave him a tiny nod of her head.

“He is a person who can convince him of anything he wishes,” she muttered with anger in her voice. “His influence is bad and seems to be growing daily. I fear it will take over my father’s reasoning completely.”

Since there was nothing for him to say to this, Opi moved away in a haze of new thoughts.

Once he was back in Apo, the avocet got down to work at once on a detailed petition for the claim rights his client held for the fringe land. The legal plea was for a final judgment in favor of Tacri Craik  by the General Praedial Court.

Fee simple absolute was the definition the lawyer spelled out for the jurists who were to decide the case. The original instrument of grant to the Craik ancestor was discovered and closely examined, establishing a strong prima facie argument for accepting the present-day claim. Also, tax documents and receipts were presented to prove that old levies were at one time paid on the fringe territory.

Extremely convincing were the district water charts showing the brooks and streams of the area. These showed the extent of the Craik water claims far into the disputed zone. More and more proof was collected to build up the arguments.

The courts of Laconica proved to be slowly operating ones. Days turned into weeks, then became months. The attorney sent encouraging missives by post to his client, receiving no reply. He continued pressing the suit for the border-land.

Finally, success was attained. A writ of freehold ownership was issued by the Praedial Court, granting Tacri Craik complete title to the disputed fringe of land.

Opi was overjoyed, writing a full description of the contents of the legal document for his distant client. But before he could post it, a special delivery envelope arrived for him from the Craik plantation. It was written by Miero and notified him that her father had suffered a debilitating, paralytic stroke.

The avocat wrote a message of sympathy and informed the grieving heiress that he was traveling at once to give legal counsel on estate matters to her.

Lying in bed with his head resting on a huge bolster, Tacri Craik watched his visitor with unmoving, expressionless eyes. He gave no signs of being able to hear or read the freehold-recognizing instrument he had dreamed of winning for himself and his daughter.

Miero, standing next to the perplexed Opi, spoke as if her father had no hearing or comprehension. “Unfortunately, he shall not be able to understand what you have accomplished. But allow me to tell you this: our Overman, Plazo, has taken over all decision-making and direction as far as the praedium is concerned. He is, at present, acting as a sort of surrogate for my stricken father. His claim is that he now does what was he was authorized to before the illness befell his Overmaster.

“Can that be legal? I need to know that today, at this moment.”

The lawyer thought a moment. “It is hard to say. Does the Enthraller have any signed command or assignment of any kind pertaining to these actions of his?”

“I did not think to ask him,” she confessed. “The pain and strain of his condition constrained me.”

Opi looked at her with tender sympathy.

“Have no concern, Miero. I will question the man about such important matters.”

She frowned with genuine fear. “You must be careful with him. Plazo has shown himself as proud and even supercilious, both to me and to the pawns on our plantation.”

“I am sure that I can handle the man,” said Opi reassuringly. “It appears to me that he is taking an authority that was never meant to be available to him. So, it will be necessary to put him back in his place. Should he refuse or resist recognition of you as the proper heir of your father, then he will have to be removed from his position here.”

She seemed to shudder at that. “But you must be most careful, for he has a very violent character. Believe me, he has dangerous aspects to his nature, that is certain.”

“Do not be distressed,” he confidently told her, “I can deal with his type.”

Plazo ran his domain from the office he had improvised behind the stable mews. That was where Opi discovered him, going over expenditure receipts of the praedium.

The Enthraller did not appear at all surprised at seeing him.

“Come in, come in, Avocat Derm. You have been to see our ailing former Overmaster, I take it. All that has happened can only be described as tragic. But there is no going back. The truth is that Tacri Craik can never recover use of his mind and body. He is at the door of the final transition, no doubt about that.

“His daughter may have informed you that his last conscious, rational act was to sign a transfer of his rights and authority. I have been named and appointed his surrogate.”

“Surrogate?” reacted Opi, not concealing his anger and outrage. “I have never heard or read of the juridical concept of mediary or agent being enlarged or elevated to such an enhanced elevation. There can be no absolute substitution of an Overman to the authority and prerogatives of ownership and mastery. Such an attempt would be absurd and extralegal in every sense.”

The Enthraller lowered his inky eyes downward and coldly replied.

“I beg to differ, Avocat Derm. For many years I have studied the land laws of Laconica on my own. Although only an unlearned amateur, my knowledge has grown through reading many antique cases that can serve as precedents for today. For example, the ancient law of seizin permits a praedial holder to bestow or confer property before death, as long as the giver is of sound mind. That has occurred in innumerable instances to persons not blood relatives of the donor. There is no legal question concerning any such actions.”

“Your claim is one of being a receiver of a grant? A spontaneously chosen heir?” cried out Opi Derm in nearly a shout.

The Enthraller nodded. “I have the Overmaster’s signature on a grant document,” he blankly said.

“What will happen in the future to Miero?”

Plazo gave an insidious, sly grin. “She may certainly remain on the steading. My intention, eventually, is to make her my wife.”

The lawyer stalked out, fearing that if he remained he might become violent toward this miscreant.

Miero was sitting next to her father’s bed when Opi announced the decision he had made after confronting the Overman of the plantation.

“I must leave at once for Apo. The goal of my journey will be to obtain a court command ordering Plazo to vacate and abandon the powers he had usurped on the praedium.”

“But will he obey any such writ?” anxiously asked the young woman.

“We shall have to see. The law cannot be permanently flouted by anyone.”

The two of them studied each other for several moments.

“My hope is that I will have you and your father in a safe situation,” went on the lawyer. “There must be no hint to the criminal of what I am about.”

“I will stay mum,” she promised. “He shall hear not a word from me.”

“My departure will occur this evening, after the pawns have quit working and the Enthraller has retired from his assumed duties.”

“Our future depends on your success with the legal authorities,” said Miero in a desperate voice. “We cannot afford to fail in this matter.”

The third day after the departure of the avocet passed with no word from him. About the praedium hung an atmosphere of ominous anticipation. An unknown, invisible factor seemed to be present everywhere, yet had not materialized into specific form.

Miero rarely left the room in which her paralyzed father lay. She had taken charge of forcing food down his stomach. In the back of her mind hovered a fear that Opi had failed in his petition and would not be returning soon.

It was well past the evening repast when Plazo unexpectedly came into the oil-lamp lighted bedroom. Miero, sitting on a soft ottoman, gazed in astonishment at the black serge suit worn by the Enthraller. She had never seen him so attired, did not know that he even possessed such an expensive outfit of clothing.

“I am here to present you with a magnificent offer, dear child. It is a subject that has long resided at the core of my heart. It has for a considerable time been my hidden secret. But now, this night, it is possible to give it expression with words.

“Until now, the difference is in our levels of social honor and respect did not permit me to approach as a suitor. But now all that has changed. As surrogate to an Overmaster, namely your father, my own rank is on the same plateau as yours. So, it is perfectly fitting that I come and make personal petition for your hand.”

Miero began to shake with terror, as if seeing an apparition before her. She was too astonished and confused to speak.

Grinning satanically, the Overman went on.

“As you recall, the Laconican custom at the time of announcement of the intention of a landholder to wed, is to call an assembly of all the pawns of a paedium together at the residential steading for the purpose of presenting the couple for congratulation and cheering, so that the hilotae can give their approval vocally to the intended match. But since your father is now incapacitated and no longer able to function as Overmaster, I shall take his place as designated surrogate successor. Do you understand what is to happen then?”

She could say nothing as the Enthraller took her by the hand, leading his intended toward the outside balcony on the upper story of the steading residence.

Outward the pair moved, till they could see the pawns below in the darkening twilight. Plazo knew what he was going to proclaim, having repeatedly rehearsed himself.

Opi dismounted and let his caballus find itself a place to stand at a distance from the crowd of hilotae congregated in front of the steading house.

What was going on at this early evening hour? he wondered as he rushed forward.

His emerald-green eyes caught sight of the two figures on the balcony. Almost instantly he recognized who they were.

The avocat stopped a little behind the males and females gazing up at the pair above them.

It was the voice of Overman Plazo that they were attentively listening to.

“I have the exalted, elevated honor to announce to you the coming nuptials of…”

Before he was able to mention his own name and that of Miero, a third person appeared on the balcony, behind the other two. The ghostly shape held a shining oil lantern that had been burning in the bedroom of the paralyzed Overmaster.

Tacri Craik, no longer weak and bedridden, had acquired some new life force. Perhaps his overhearing what his surrogate planned to proclaim that night had given him a new will and revivified capabilities. He now moved forward with almost unnatural strength.

All eyes down below focused on an incredible sight. What was going to be the outcome of the appearance of this man taken for half-dead until that moment?

The Enthraller, interrupted in his proclamation of his ascent to full mastery, turned around to find out what the crowd was staring at.

Miero, doing the same, whispered “Father!” in her complete surprise.

It was then that Tacri Craik reached out one arm toward her.

“Come with me,” croaked his long unused voice. “Come with me, my dear.”

At that point, Plazo lunged forward toward the intruder, upsetting the burning lamp that the latter was holding. The sequence of events was too rapid for anyone below to see all the aspects of the many movements.

Tacri, holding the hand of his daughter, retreated backward into the bedroom from which he had emerged. The oil lamp fell onto his assailant. All of a sudden, the burning oil jetted out, touching and setting aflame the dark coat of the demonic third person present.

Fire spread on all sides as Plazo attempted to save himself. He became a fiery incendiary, turning the balcony into a scene of catastrophe.

Turning outward toward the excited pawns, the Overman stretched out his arms and yelled some incomprehensible message to the mass of dumbstruck hilotae.

Only Opi had a rational idea of what was happening.

Where was it that he had read that great flames can break an ensorcel spell?

That appeared to be what the pawns were experiencing at the moment, watching their Enthraller being destroyed by the bright tongues of light and fire.

It was an awakening, Opi realized, before his eyes.

Plazo fell to the floor of the balcony. Tacri and his daughter slipped inside. But the fire had spread into the bedroom by now and escape was almost impossible.

“In the barn, the ladders are in the barn!” called out a pawn.

Within a few seconds, a group had reached there, returning with means of rescue. A strong wooden ladder was placed against the outside edge of the balcony.

Opi ran up to the ladder where the hilotae held it.

“Let me climb up there,” he volunteered. “I can bring them down.”

Before any objection could arise, the avocat had begun to scale the rungs.

The face and eyes of Miero were all he was able to see above as he hurried toward the burning balcony where death and destruction loomed.

Where is Overmaster Tacri? he asked himself when he reached the balcony. The father of Miero was nowhere about. Had he retreated into the flaming bedroom? Was he engulfed by fire?

“Come,” he commanded the one remaining person, taking her into his arms and starting down the ladder. His hold on the survivor was as tight as he could make it. The descent had to be safe and successful, even if uncomfortable.

When the pair reached ground level, they were surrounded by rejoicing pawns.

“The Enthraller is dead!”

“I saw him burn to nothing with my own eyes!”

“We are no longer enslaved to his evil spell, we are liberated!”

Opi still held his arm about Miero, though they both stood upright.

Each of them stared into the eyes of the other.

“Father?” desperately asked the daughter.

The lawyer looked up, seeing both balcony and bedroom destroyed by fire. It was evident that the entire structure was doomed to total destruction.

He made no verbal reply to the woman he was holding, but attempted to give her courage by holding her hand firmly in his.


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