Heartstone

14 – Collars Off

Arwin approached the work camp with great caution, taking care to stay out of sight and making as little noise as possible. The sounds of the camp came to him: axes hitting wood; pick axes and hammers hitting rocks; the grunting of the blue collared workers and the the scathing commands of the white collars. Hiding behind some bushes, he studied the scene.

A blue collar man hacked at the base of a tree not six paces away. His clothes were sweat stained and covered in dirt. He moved with the slow, measured pace of someone exhausted, yet forced to go on.

“Faster! Faster!” a short, white collared man shouted from behind the much-bigger blue collar. “No, not there, hit lower. Lower. No, swing harder. You simple-minded buffoon, that’s not how you swing an axe. Higher over your shoulder. No! More of an angle! Are you stupid?”

A micromanager. Arwin shuddered. Sneaking up behind the man, he threw an arm around the manager’s neck and dragged him back into the bushes. A couple of punches to the chubby gut and another three to the face had the man reeling in a daze. Arwin ripped the manager’s clothing off and used it to bind and gag him. Then he returned to the blue collar.

The sweaty worker finally seemed to notice the absence of the micromanager. He let the head of the axe fall heavily to the ground and stood, semi-straight with a deep groan. He was of middle age and well muscled. Dark hair was streaked with gray on the sides. 

Arwin saw his face and recognized him at once. What luck! He was about to say the man’s name when he realized that for the other person, this would be the first time they met. “Ahem. Hey there.”

The blue collared man turned. “Yeah?” He looked around, confused. “Where did…?”

“Forget that guy. He’s all tied up at the moment.” Arwin smiled. “My name’s Arwin. Yours?”

“Uh, Jacque.” He looked around nervously, glancing at the axe, then the tree, perhaps feeling like he should be working, not talking to strangers. 

Arwin wondered if he could straight up talk to the other man about freeing himself or if that would just lead to trouble. It was hard to predict how someone would react while wearing those collars. Arwin had an idea. “Looks like part of your collar is damaged.”

Jacque’s blue face paled. “It is? Am I in trouble?”

“No, not at all! I’m here to fix it. Don’t worry, nothing to it, only take a second.” Arwin pulled out a blue tooth. “Here, let me just put this into that hole there.” He reached up and pushed the tooth into the hole on the collar. The device snicked open and fell to the ground. 

A look of revelation dawned over Jacque’s face. He staggered back, then shook himself. Looking up at Arwin, he spoke in awe. “You freed me!”

“How do you feel?”

“Better,” Jacque admitted. Then he frowned. “Angry, too.”

Arwin grinned and pulled out a handful of blue teeth. “You feel up to freeing all the others wearing those collars?”

Jacque looked at the teeth, then over at the busy work camp. “Damned straight.” Then he turned a suspicious look Arwin’s way. “Who are you? Why are you so interested in helping?”

“I’m a friend. I want to help.”

“You aren’t blue.”

“Nope. Traveller. I met a couple of beautiful young women just over yonder and learned about your situation here.”

“Women? Who?”

“Bleu and Aoi.”

Jacque’s brows rose. “You met Bleu?”

Arwin was surprised at the strength of the man’s reaction. He must know the belle. “Yes. Actually, they were both rather sad at the time, pining over bluebells. But I liberated the flowers for them. They seemed much more cheerful when we parted.”

The older man tilted his head. “Bluebells? But they only grow in Lord Azamont’s garden, don’t they?”

“Not anymore they don’t.” Arwin chuckled.

Jacque’s brow rose once more. “That’s bold. And dangerous. Could lead to trouble.”

“Could. But it felt like the right thing to do.”

Jacque ruminated. “Freeing those of us wearing blue collars will likely cause a whole lot more trouble.”

“Feels like the right thing to do though, doesn’t it?”

Jacque slowly nodded. “It does. Ok, Arwin. Guess I’ll trust you. For now.” He meaningfully hefted the axe in his hand, but didn’t say anything more direct. 

Arwin got the message. “When they break for lunch, they’ll round up all the workers to eat while the managers gather separately, right?”

“Yeah…”

“I’ll distract the managers.” Arwin handed over the teeth. “You take these and free the others. There’s a lot more of you guys. If you surround the managers, we can capture them all without letting word of the escape get out.”

Jacque mulled things over. “All right. This’d better work though. No tricks. The nobles find out we tried to free ourselves, heads will roll. And I mean that literally.”

“No tricks, Jacque. I’m here to help, I promise.”

The two men nodded to each other, then moved off in opposite directions. 

When lunch was called, the men in the work camp separated into two groups, as before. Arwin wound his way through the trees unseen until he reached a point close to the gazebo with the managers. With a deep breath, he stepped out of the shadows and into the light.

All conversation in the gazebo immediately ceased and six razor-sharp pencils pointed in his direction. Sunlight gleamed off eye glasses and merciless-looking pocket calculators. The expressions on the managers’ faces were cold and heartless. 

“Who are you?” one in the front of the group challenged.

Arwin smiled, doing his best to be disarming. “Just a harmless traveller.”

“What do you want?”

“Well, it just so happens that I was visiting Lord Azamont earlier today, enjoying his garden—“

The managers exchanged glances with each other.  

“—when I happened to overhear some very interesting news.”

The lead manager’s voice dripped with suspicion, “What news?”

“Seems the nobles are very pleased with all the work you lot are doing out here. Very pleased indeed. So pleased, in fact…” Arwin paused for dramatic effect, “that they’re talking about promotion.”

“Promotion?” a manager gasped, stepping forward, hunger on his face.

Pencils wavered. 

“That’s right. To…” he paused again, “vice president.”

“To VP?” they all shouted. Eager, excited conversation broke out. Weapons no longer pointed at Arwin. 

“Ahem,” Arwin broke in. “Thing is, not everyone is getting promoted. Just one of you.”

All conversation stilled. Friendliness evaporated from their faces, replaced with wariness. Just like that, they’d been transformed from colleagues to competitors. 

Arwin shrugged. “Too bad, huh? Guess you’re just going to have to fight it out amongst yourselves to see who gets to be VP, huh?”

Silence stretched out. Pencils came back up, but this time the managers pointed the weapons at each other. 

One of the men trembled with nervousness, sweat breaking out on his forehead. He was a head shorter than the others, chubbier, and looked like he had a weak disposition. His eyes darted from one manager to another. “Listen, let’s not be so hasty. Perhaps we can work something ou—“

The others didn’t even wait for him to finish. Sensing weakness, they all turned on him first, stabbing him in the back, the front, then all over. And then it was a free-for-all as they all battled amongst themselves for the status of a new title. Blood flowed, but it only increased the fervour of the managers, like how chum in the water excites sharks. 

Arwin noticed movement out of the corner of his eye. Surreptitiously, he looked around and saw that the workers were in position. He waved them forward. 

“Get them!” Jacque’s voice shouted from the trees.

Workers swarmed the managers, swinging fists and using broken branches as clubs. In seconds, the out-of-shape managers were easily subdued. 

Jacque laughed and slapped Arwin on the shoulder with a meaty hand, voice filled with triumph. “We did it! Great work.”

“Free at last!” a worker crowed.

“I’ll never let these bastards push me around, ever again!” another cried, kicking a manager in the gut, which elicited a violent groan. 

The oldest man in the group approached Arwin and Jacque. He looked at them with shrewd eyes. “All well and good, but what now? Freedom, but at what cost? Gonna be trouble when the nobles find out.”

Jacque rubbed his chin. “True.”

“You can’t just go back to town now that you’re free?” Arwin asked.

Jacque ruefully shook his head. “Blue Village is run by a council. But just about all of them on the council are loyal to the nobles.”

“Puppets,” the old man spat.

“If we go back,” Jacque continued, “they will likely order us collared again. Nobles will just pay them off again. And they got soldiers to back them up.”

“That’s always the problem with the rich, isn’t it?” the old man said with much bitterness. “They just buy people off to make them do what they want.”

“Hmm. So the problems are corruption, and wealth and power inequality.” Arwin hummed in thought. “Well, what if we took away their money? That would take away their power too, wouldn’t it?”

“How would we do that?” Jacque asked, looking doubtful but intrigued all the same.  

There was much humming and hawing from the group but no one was forthcoming with ideas.

At last, one man threw up his arms in exasperation. “This is crazy. Insane. We never should have tried to free ourselves.”

The old man gave him a sour look. “Calm down, Orloff.”

But Orloff, a skinny young man with a nervous attitude, only grew more agitated. “Are we forgetting about the soldiers? Who says they’ll listen to reason? We’re all dead men! Let’s put the collars back on. We’ll beg forgiveness. Take any punishment. At least some of us will live!”

Orloff’s fear was contagious and a few of the workers also grew agitated. Murmurs and unease spread. Even Jacque and the old man looked stricken at the idea of continuing with their actions and making things even worse for themselves should they fail. 

“Papá!”

Jacque lifted his head in surprise. 

Bleu and Aoi came running out of the forest to join the group. 

Bleu had a big smile on her face and threw her arms around Jacque. “Papá, you’re free!”

Jacque blushed, but hugged the young woman back. “Bleu! What are you doing here?”

“Arwin helped us get the bluebells back from Lord Azamont,” she gushed, flashing Arwin a wide smile, “After we replanted them in a safe place, we came to help!” She belatedly took note of all the other men standing about. Her cheeks tinted pink and she demurely moved to her father’s side, as if for protection.

“Long live the revolution,” Aoi added in a calmer, but iron voice. She stood with hands on hips, a fiery look in her eyes.

Jacque looked down at his beautiful daughter, fingered the expensive dress she wore, and opened his mouth to say something, then choked up. He wiped a tear away. “Look how lovely you are. You must hate me. Letting my own daughter become one of their… So they could use you like…” His voice broke down. 

Bleu smiled and hugged him again. “No, Papá. I know it was the collars that you and Mamá wear. I don’t blame you. I blame the blue bloods.”

Jacque looked down. “With that collar on, I thought I had to accept everything, even things that are unacceptable. When I think of all the ugly ways they were going to abuse the daughter I love so much, and that I put up no fight, that I stood by and let it happen, I’m ashamed. Ashamed and terrified. We never should have let things get this bad.”

Arwin sympathized. “The fault isn’t yours alone. It’s shared with your ancestors, a little here, a little there, for giving up and allowing evil people to get their way more and more. But, more than anyone, the blame most lies with the selfish men and women who pushed you into this state. They actively sought to deceive and manipulate and dominate you for their own benefit. They’re the driving force behind all the ways you and your people have suffered.”

Aoi nodded. “We all need to take responsibility for our weakness and failures, for allowing bad people to get their way. But we also need to take action to set things right and prevent this from happening again in the future. The blue bloods need to be punished.”

Renewed determination took over Jacque’s features. He released his daughter and turned to the other men, full of command. “There’s no way I’m ever going back to living like a slave. Ever since we let those blue blood scum put those collars on us, they’ve taken over our village and over our lives. And we’ve paid for it. They’ve taken our food, our money, even our lives. Like fools we’ve given them power over us. We work ourselves to the bone and they abuse us in return. They act like they’re superior, act like they’re benevolent, act like leaders but, in truth, they have manipulated and enslaved us. I, for one, will no longer stand for it. I will no longer watch as my wife fades away before my eyes from unhappiness and overwork she doesn’t even benefit from.” Jacque put an arm around Bleu. “I will not stand by and watch as they take away my daughter for their cruel amusement.” He reached out and touched Aoi on the shoulder. “I won’t stand by and let them do that to any of our daughters, nor our sons. I will fight to take back our lives, whatever it takes.”

“And I!” the old man stated, slamming a fist into his palm.

“And us!” Bleu and Aoi added.

“You’re crazy, all of you!” Orloff said, shaking and backing away, eyes darting around for an exit. “I won’t be a part of this. You get yourself killed if you want. But I’m—“

Two men leaped on the coward and forced him to the ground. They dragged him into the center with the managers and dumped him there. Orloff whimpered and whined to be allowed free, but everyone just ignored him.

One of the men who’d tackled Orloff looked Jacque’s way. “No doubt he’ll turn traitor and tell the nobles everything. Gotta keep him silent.”

The old man spoke up. “Wanting better lives is all well and good. But how? The nobles have all the money and own all the land. They have mercenaries and personal guards in their employ. Even if we robbed them all, what’s to prevent them from just taking the money back and putting the collars back on us?”

A slow smile spread over Arwin’s lips as an idea came to him. “What if we put the collars on them, instead?”

Heads sharply turned his way. 

“On them?” Jacque mused.

“Justice!” Aoi said through gritted teeth. She had a hard look in her eyes. “They should pay for what they’ve done. ”

Arwin flat out grinned, liking the idea more and more as he pictured it in his mind. “Once collared, they’ll feel the need to serve, yes? Which is perfect.”

Aoi made a thin smile. “They’ve spent all this time forcing others to serve them. It’s about time that they served the community instead!”

“We collar them,” Arwin continued, “and then get them to donate all of their money and land back to the village, to the people they took it from. Then the village can fairly redistribute all that wealth to the people or use it as a shared resource for everyone’s benefit.”

One of the other men raised a hand. “The current council will just overturn things and try to free the nobles. Or, worse, replace them. We’d be trading one bad master for another.”

“Council’s mostly nothing but thieves and scum,” the old man growled, “people that’d go along with whatever the nobles want.”

“Then we collar those guys too,” Arwin suggested, “or enough of them to get them to dissolve the current council. Then we hold a snap election and vote in a new council. With the worst of the nobles and old council collared and not running or using their influence, then we should get better people elected, right?”

“In theory,” Bleu quietly answered. She looked up at her father and spoke more boldly. “You should run, Papá!”

“Me?” Jacque looked astonished. He shook his head. “No no. I’m no leader. I’m not qualified for that kind of thing.”

Bleu frowned. “Of course you are. You’re a really good person. That’s the most important thing, right? But if you don’t run, then it means someone less good will. Isn’t that how things got to be this way in the first place? At some point in history, good people stopped running for council and more and more selfish people got in until they could do whatever they want.”

Jacque bowed his head. “How did my daughter ever get so wise?”

She sweetly smiled. “Because I have good parents.”

He playfully nudged her with an elbow. “Maybe you should run.”

“I’m too young! You need to do it, Papá. And other men like you.”

Orloff interjected, refusing to keep silent. “Have you forgotten the Ravens?” he yelled out. “You think they’ll just stand by and let you do what you want? The nobles are the ones paying their salaries!”

Arwin gave them a questioning look. “Ravens?”

One of the men answered in a subdued voice. “Professional soldiers. Nobles all have their own personal guards, but these they house in a barracks at the edge of town. Dozens of them. Used for hunting down bandits and protecting the town.”

The old man scoffed. “More like they keep the nobles from going at each other and any one trying to take over. The soldiers ensure that the status quo stays in place.”

Arwin felt grim. “Which means they’re going to be a direct threat to us.”

“With a new council in place,” Jacque surmised, “the collars off us and on  the nobles, with the nobles’ money in our hands, we should be able to buy the soldiers off. We can get them to see reason.”

The others didn’t look wholly convinced. However, there was a general murmur of agreement and small conversations broke out as those gathered debated who would be best suited on to be on the new council or what might really happen when the soldiers caught wind of events and showed up.

Jacque turned to Arwin. “Well, it looks like everyone’s on board.”

Arwin turned serious. “Now comes the hard part. Putting those collars on everyone who actually deserves it.”

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