Heartstone

17 – Soldiers

With Azamont trudging behind them, Arwin, Harl and Aoi strode towards the village proper. 

Harl limped along, a measure of pride on his face as he glanced over his shoulder at the prisoner, the blue blood now meek and obedient in his collar. “The tables have turned. It feels good.”

“You wore a collar a long time?” Arwin asked. 

“Most of my life.” Harl nodded. “The nobles were already in charge, since well before I was born. But it was only in my twenties that the collars were introduced. At first, they were only put on criminals: spouse abusers and thieves and the like, people guilty of serious offences. But then they were used for lesser and lesser offence. Nobles began collaring people over a bad debt or a word against them. Soon enough, half the village was wearing them.”

“And that’s when they started raising some us as belles and beaus,” Aoi added. 

“That’s right.” Harl agreed. “At first, the nobles gave compensation to the families. They treated it like a kind of paid employment. They got parents on board by promising large sums of money and by offering to educate the kids they picked out. So of course many parents bought into the idea. After all, at that time, belles and beaus were just supposed to be educated servants and aides. At least, that’s how it was portrayed.”

Aoi huffed. “They probably lied right from the start. I’ll bet they were abusing everyone they took into their houses from the moment it began.”

Harl looked sad. “I suspect that’s the case.”

Arwin shook his head. “I think, most of the time, most of us don’t intend for things to turn out this way. Nobody wants to be oppressed or manipulated. It usually happens gradually. People are just going about their lives, trying to survive. But then selfish people show up, like those nobles. They push a little bit here, a little bit there, things that seem small on their own. They take advantage of our willingness to compromise without us realizing that these compromises only work in their favour, and they build up over time. Next thing you know, there’s a whole system in place that only works to their advantage, not ours, and it seems like you can’t get out of it.”

“Until now.” Aoi looked over at Arwin, serious. “Thank you for this.”

That caught him by surprise. “I didn’t—“

“You started it by freeing Bleu’s father and the others. You helped inspire us. You even joined in. And now I can live a normal life in the village instead of being someone’s abused sex toy. I’m very grateful.”

As am I, lad,” Harl added. “You were the spark we needed. You’re right: the rest of us grew into the system, got used to it without thinking to do something about it. We needed a wakeup call.” He slapped Arwin on the shoulder. “We’re lucky you came along.”

Aoi’s face brightened and she gave him a blue-lipped smile and nod of agreement.

Arwin flushed a bit, embarrassed. He wasn’t really used to praise, nor was he sure he really deserved it. The others were giving him too much credit. “You guys were pretty impressive yourselves. It was definitely a team effort.”

Harl stood a bit straighter. “Well, we’re not done yet. Let’s see how well things went for the others, shall we?”

It was soon clear that the actions of the freed workers had caused an uproar in the village. A crowd was gathering in the circle at the center of the village. Nobles, and several other men and women that Harl pointed out were part of the village council, had been rounded up and were being herded together in the circle. All of them now wore the same blue collars that had been on the workers, leaving them pliable and weak. Many had bloody mouths, from losing teeth. Villagers were going about the crowd and removing collars from all their peers.

Wounds and sour faces on some of the workers indicated that they, too, had come up against resistance while capturing the nobles. However, against all odds, it looked like they’d somehow managed to pull the plan off, so far: both nobles and council were in custody. The villagers would have the chance to change their lives for the better.

Fear and hope mingled on the faces of those villagers who hadn’t been involved before now. There were tears and laughter and anger from those whose collars came off. The crowd was abuzz with conversation, both excited and worried. But, overall, there was a palpable sense of unease and uncertainty in the people gathered, as if they weren’t sure what would happen now, and if things really would turn out all right. 

“Change can be scary,” Harl noted. “The bigger the change, the more some people feel threatened by it.”

“Let’s hope they’re brave enough to overcome that fear,” Aoi stated. 

Jacque and Bleu arrived with a downtrodden Tremblée in tow. Bleu pushed him to the ground next to his peers and gave him a savage kick for good measure. Her normally good cheer seemed to have taken a beating during the capture process. Her torn bodice and a bloody cut on her father’s arm were likely the cause. 

When Bleu and Aoi caught sight of each other, they threw their arms around one another. 

“I’m so glad you’re safe!”

“Thank goodness you’re ok!”

Jacque grinned and shook Arwin’s hand with his uninjured arm. “You’re looking a little banged up there.”

“I was about to say the same about you.”

Harl jokingly puffed up his chest. “Psh. You young folk acting like you’re tough.”

They all laughed, relieved that danger had passed and that their goal was in reach. 

Jacque waved to a formerly collared worker standing by the prisoners. 

The man grabbed a village councillor by the neck and hauled him to his feet. “Now, say it. Just like we agreed.”

“That’s the first councillor,” Harl told Arwin while trying not to move his mouth too much because of the cut there. “He’s also the most loyal of those boot lickers. He’s a nasty one. Three of our young women, belles, have died in his house. Mysterious circumstances, they said. Illness. Bah. He likes choking the life from them. Nobles knew it, let him do it because he has so much sway over the others on the council.”

The first councillor nodded in submission. He called out in a shaky voice, “As per the council’s unanimous agreement, I hereby declare this town council dissolved. We will now hold a vote for all new council members.”

The villagers’ voices raised in shock and fear, everyone talking at once. 

Jacque stepped up onto a box that someone had dragged over and bellowed above everyone’s heads. “Good people! Listen, please!”

The crowd quieted a little. 

He spoke so all could hear. “Look at them.” He pointed to the collared nobles and council members. “Too long have we suffered at the whim of the worst among us. We gave them our wealth. We gave them our power. We let them decide how we should live. They profited every step of the way, taking more and more and more for themselves while the rest of us got less and less. Today, that ends!”

“What are you doing, Jacque?” a nervous voice called. “Have you all gone mad?”

“It’s not madness,” Aoi called out. “It’s justice!”

Harl stepped up next to Jacque. He held up the stack of papers they’d taken from the chateau and a key. “Here are the deeds to Azamont’s house and lands. And this is the key to his safe where he’s got a literal king’s ransom in gold stashed away. While we slaved away, this lot robbed us blind. Today that ends. Today, we’re taking it all back.”

“Take it back how?” someone asked.

“First, we take back our power,” Jacque told them. “We vote for a new council. We do it here and now: today. We need good men and women, people who believe in equality and merit who will put the people of this town first. Then we take back our lives. We vote for new laws. No longer will good people be collared and forced to work against their will for someone else’s profit. No longer will we allow our innocent children to be taken from us and abused in noble homes. We take back the fruits of decades of hard labour and sacrifice. We take all the land and wealth stolen by the nobles and redistribute it between the rest of us.”

The crowd rumbled once more, but this time, there was more excitement in their tone.

Jacque continued. “For generations, we’ve let ourselves be manipulated. We let them divide us and use us for their own personal gains at our expense. Today it ends. Let us stand together and together we will give each other better lives and prevent parasites like these from hurting us in the future.” 

The crowd broke out into a hundred different conversations.

Arwin could see a lot of scared faces and hear people voicing their worries. But he was pleased to see the freed workers, and both Bleu and Aoi, pull people aside in the crowd and speak earnestly to them, doing what they could to raise their courage. 

Seeing the nobles who’d long oppressed them now collared and docile in the village circle was powerful. Those long in overwhelming power had been reduced to nothing. Years of pent-up suffering, of anger at the unfairness and unjustness of their lives, boiled over. The crowd increasingly latched on to this chance that others had been so brave to give them. Several men and women were put forth as candidates for the new council. A simple show of hands was made for or against them. One woman, a known noble supporter, was soundly rejected. The rest, including Jacque, were voted in. 

Bleu came to stand next to Arwin while the villagers discussed her father’s potential on the council, with many calling for him to be first councillor. When he was voted in, she beamed, jumping up and down and clapping. She threw her arms around Arwin. “I’m so happy!”

Arwin hugged her back, also pleased to see Jacque recognized, and fully aware of just how beautiful the girl in his arms was. When she took his arm and remained by his side during the ongoing deliberations, he felt quite proud of himself for no reason he could define. 

Without wasting any time, the new council unanimously voted for the village to immediately re-acquire all land and wealth that the nobles had possessed. A plan was put in motion to sit down and discuss a fair and merit-based redistribution in the near future. There were cheers all around. The revolution seemed to be a resounding success. 

That’s when trouble arrived. 

It started with the sound of boots tromping along the road and with the sound of spear butts on the cobblestones. Soldiers arrived at the edge of the village circle in pastel blue uniforms. Spears heads and steel helmets shone in the sun. There were dozens of them. 

While the villagers outnumbered them, they were unarmed and plenty of women, children and the elderly were amongst them. Fear returned to the crowd, though this time a sense of grim purpose accompanied it. Wary of the soldiers, the villagers backed away to the opposite side of the circle. 

Bleu, standing beside Arwin, looked worried and she clenched his arm tighter. “This doesn’t look good.”

“Are they villagers too?” Arwin asked.

“A few. Most are foreign mercenaries. Hired so they don’t have any loyalty to any particular noble.”

A soldier in fancier dress than the rest, black feathers in his silver helmet, stepped forward. “That’s enough. This farce is at an end. Return to your homes at once!” He stamped his spear on the ground.

“Commander Zewer,” Bleu whispered to Arwin. “He commands Ravens.”

Jacque stepped in front of the crowd. He held up his hands in a gesture of peace “The people have spoken. A new council has been voted in. Those who have employed you are no longer in position to do so.”

Zewer sneered. “They will be back in that position once we take those collars off them and return you to your rightful places like the peasants you are.”

Arwin studied the soldiers. They looked fit and able, much more so than the guards they’d battled earlier. They had spears and swords and wore light armor. The villagers would be no match for them. It would be a massacre. From the growing unease on their faces, the villagers knew it, too.

Jacque took a few steps forward and spoke directly to the soldiers behind the commander. “Men. We humbly thank you for your services. We will pay what’s owed and more besides. But we have no need for soldiers here any longer. Please, allow us to continue in peace.”

Zewer rolled his eyes. “You’ll need my spear in the belly if you keep talking, fool. Now, I said — disperse!” He stamped his spear butt on the ground again. 

Impressively, most of the villagers held their ground, with only a few cowards weaselling away in the background. 

At an annoyed wave from the commander’s hand, the soldiers stomped forward.

Arwin feared that violence would break out at any moment. He jumped forward. “Gentlemen!” he cried in his most confident voice, speaking directly to the soldiers. “Please hold!” He smiled, ignoring the adrenalin spike and anxiousness in his veins.

The soldiers came to an uncertain halt. 

He quickly continued. “What my friend here says is true, we have no need of soldiers. But — we do have need of peacekeepers.”

A few of the soldiers glanced at each other. 

Arwin sensed an opening. “Those of you who wish to stay employed in this beautiful village can! We need good, strong men to protect the people here from lawbreakers and bandits and monsters. Think of it. By leaving the employ of the nobles and swearing your loyalty to the village instead, you no longer have to walk through town being feared and hated as instruments of oppression. As peacekeepers, you’ll be appreciated, regarded as heroes and fellow villagers.”

A good portion of the soldiers seemed to take note of this. Some looked thoughtful. A few whispered to others in the ranks.

Arwin raced on lest he lose this chance. “Earn a good wage, live a good life, here with and for the people instead of against them. You can settle here as peacekeepers, have a family and settle down, or take a big, fat payday and adventure elsewhere, it’s your choice.”

Jacque smiled as well. “Please, disband the Ravens. Stand down your arms. Let there be peace this day.”

“Stop listening to that prattle!” Commander Zewer shouted. “Disperse them at once!” He angrily waved them forward.

Some soldiers moved forward again, levelling spears, but many others hesitated and held back. 

The commander, with almost twenty men at his side, gained enough confidence to level his own spear. “Charge!” he cried, malicious glee on his face. 

Villagers screamed. Many tried to flee. In the pandemonium, many fell in the rush to escape. 

A united roar sounded from behind the charging soldiers. 

Arwin’s heart fell as he watched the Ravens in the rear rush forward as well. He turned back to the crowd. Seeing Aoi, he scooped her grabbed her hand and pulled her away from the soldiers. 

Jacque scooped Bleu up into his big arms and ran after them. 

Arwin worried that they wouldn’t make it in time. 

A soldier in the front line grunted and fell. Then two more did. The others slowed, confused. In moments, the soldiers in the second wave were all over them. Spear tips flashed in the sun, fists crashed into jaws. Bodies fell. 

The villagers in the crowd closest to the battle noticed that the rear soldiers were on their side. Regaining their courage, many turned and charged into the fray. 

Seeing the change, Arwin released Aoi’s hand and turned to help as well, Jacque by his side. 

In minutes, it was all over. The commander lay face down, two spears sticking out of his corpse. Many other soldiers were wounded or tied up. 

The villagers cheered. The revolution of the Bleu region had come to an end.

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