Story by Maria M. Anderson
Gilfre paused the plow, granting his aged dappled beast invite to nibble the few early sprigs of green, poking through the departed winter’s fallow soil. It was not fatigue, but curiosity that prompted the farmer’s attention elsewhere, to the adjacent road, whereupon a team of black horned goats pulled a gilded wagon. Alone, managing the reins, appeared to be a crimson-robed king, of sorts, his hands gnarled, jeweled wooden crown worn upside-down.
“Stranger!” called Gilfre. “A foreign sight to behold, insooth!” The farmer’s hearty amusement chuckle short-lived, extinguished by sudden stench of brimstone, arrived in a hot whirl of grey smoke. The stranger now stood beside the startled farmer, and his even more terrified horse, that in a frenzied instant managed to release from its yolk and hasten home, towards the barn.
“A gallant steed,” commented the Stranger.
“In a day long passed, perhaps,” replied the farmer, whilst exchanging fear for marvel, at the speed of his spooked beast, fast fading from view.
“Perception determines value,” said the Stranger.
Every hair on Gilfre’s body prickled in foreboding, yet his curiosity was piqued by what he could not comprehend. “I am a simple farmer.”
The Stranger smiled and removed a rolled document from beneath his red robe. “Riches await. May we strike a deal?”
Finger-prick sangre signature, in exchange, the Stranger’s promissory note. Gilfre sold his soul and his horse to the faux king, for a magnificent sum, twenty pieces of gold, secured by indiscernible verbiage, pre-penned on parchment paper. At the Stranger’s instruction, as noted in the agreement, the farmer was required to immediately buy back his plow horse, and return the afore signed note, promising twenty pieces of gold, plus two additional silver coins, as interest. Silver coins, Gilfre’s sole life savings, that he was required to retrieve (much to his wife’s angry dismay) from a hidden box beneath the cottage hearth, and present in tangible actuality, to the open-handed Stranger.
Transaction complete, with verifiable receipt.
Gilfre could now tout his plow horse, to the entire village, as a fine equine specimen, one that he had purchased for twenty pieces of gold, plus two silver coins.
A stud craze ensued. Every townsperson, from near and far, who wished to capitalize on Gilfre’s invested fortune, brought broodmare, along with gold and silver payment, hoping to breed offspring of equal or greater value.
In the name of conspicuous consumption, Gilfre’s wife forgave her husband for what she’d deemed foolish. Every coin earned by the procreating plow horse, two coins were spent by his jubilant spendthrift masters. Until the old plow horse died of pleasure, leaving Gilfre and his wife with numerous debts, and no means of repayment.
Desperate not to lose his only remaining asset, his land, Gilfre called upon the faux king for advice and assistance.
The Stranger produced a second binding document, one that required the farmer’s wife to sangre sign, before financial remedy could be divulged. She pricked and penned without inquiry or hesitation.
“Very well,” said the Stranger. “I will purchase your land.” He removed a tin coin from his robe pocket and handed it to Gilfre.
“This pittance would not garner a loaf of bread from the baker, let alone the land on which the wheat was grown!” Gilfre attempted to return the coin to the Stranger. “Do you think me a simpleton?”
“Who sought my assistance?” asked the Stranger. “Go forth and inform farmers the value of their land, and my offer to purchase it before prices fall lower. Each secured parcel purchase, I will reward you with a piece of silver as commission.”
The farmer’s wife pulled her husband aside. “A fair compensation, one that will pay our debts and provide means to repurchase our land.”
Gilfre’s past financial success, as master of a valuable plow horse stud, gave credence to his dire alarm: Sell your land before it is too late. Frightened farmers lined up to trade their properties for coins. The Stranger, in self-pronounced charity, offered consolation to dismal market values. Since most lands had been owned and worked by families for generations, the farmers could continue to plant and harvest on their former plots, in exchange for providing a portion of crop proceeds to the Stranger. All agreed.
Gilfre and his wife once again became rich, on commission silver. Rather than squandering as before, they paid creditors and saved half of the remaining silver coins; the other half were presented to the Stranger. “I come in good faith to repurchase my land,” announced the former farmer. “Offering the amount paid, plus fair profit, to give thanks for your prior assistance and generosity.”
“That land has increased in value, tenfold.” The Stranger laughed and tossed Gilfre back his bag of silver. “A barrel of gold would not suffice for property as precious as that which you once owned.”
Word of increased property values spread like fire throughout the village. The few farmers who had not sold for a pittance were tempted to finally forgo their lands for hefty profits, paid by other foreign investors, procured by the Stranger. Most of whom paid low-wage imported crews to manage, plant, and harvest the lands. Farmers who had sold cheap, rightly feared the Stranger would increase crop proceed amounts.
Amounts soon doubled, then tripled.
To make up for the deficit, farmers inflated the price of their crops sold to merchants, and decreased the wages paid to local hired laborers. The village bakery was the first business to close. Gypsies replaced local workers, who departed town to seek better compensation, elsewhere. Children of age fled family farms for big cities, without intention of returning. Those without means entered servitude. Instead of land and toil, the generation with means, inherited or borrowed, sought ideas and progress. Skills and traditions were deemed useless by scholars who lectured about knowledge in brick and mortar institutions, created and financed by the Stranger, for profit.
The village and surrounding farms fell into abject ruin. Consumption, crime, and poverty plagued the few who remained. Still, the Stranger grew richer, claiming for his own the deserted decay, and mortgaging it to a new crop of eager speculators, who also signed sangre on the dotted line.
Years passed. Nothing remained of the village, not even its name. Gilfre’s former way of life had become an industry, owned not by many, but by a select few. Gilfre blamed himself. On his deathbed, the old farmer pleaded for his wife to summon the Stranger, one final time.
“Please, tell a dying man who you are,” implored the farmer, fast fading. “You wear a misplaced crown, but are more cunning and powerful than any king.”
“True. I own what remains of you, and many others, for eternity,” the Stranger replied. He bent down and whispered into Gilfre’s ear. “Call me, The Banker.”