It turns out I was never a major target. I became a mercenary, earned a bunch of renown and was granted some land, but it was an insignificant holding that attracted no attention from anyone. It's just as well, because I never got the point where I had more than a small band of followers. My troop limit was 40 or so, and most important garrisons were at least twice that. Only after buffing my leadership skill and earning more renown would I have been able to compete on equal terms with the NPCs. And that would have taken a lot more grinding. Clearly, Mount & Blade is another one of those games where 20 hours isn't nearly long enough.
However, I'm not going to try and master it. I know it's probably a cliche for me at this point, but I didn't like the part of the game where you have to take sides and fight against the NPC villages. It just felt cruel to me, looting and pillaging in order to finance my military operations. I mean, you start the game off doing favors for those guys, chasing away bandits, finding cattle, and training their troops, and then to just swoop in and take all their stuff . . . It's a betrayal.
I suppose I didn't have to. Selling looted equipment was just enough to keep me ahead of my troops' wage bills. It's just that being a mercenary/vassal is otherwise uneventful. You get called to follow the marshal around and he just wanders in circles, only occasionally getting into fights. On the rare case that he would stop near a military target, I wound up raiding villages just to have something to do. It was kind of ridiculous, because between the marshal and all the various vassals following him, he had hundreds of troops - enough to besiege nearly any castle, and quite a few cities. If he'd shown any strategic inclination whatsoever, we could have easily expanded the empire of the Nords all the way up and down the coast.
But I guess they had to leave something for me to do once I got powerful and influential enough to be marshal myself. Or, at least, that's what I choose to believe.
In the end, Mount & Blade was a pointless purchase for me. Mount & Blade: Warband is nearly the exact same game, but strictly superior in every way. They aren't even different enough for Mount & Blade to hold interest as a historical curiosity. On the other hand, I spent less than $9 on the whole bundle and I've already gotten more than 50 hours of gameplay out of it, so maybe I don't have too much to complain about. I'll just play the last of the three Mount & Blade games, decide which one I like the best, and then delete the others. . .
I just happen to know already that Mount & Blade isn't going to make the cut.