I never did meet the Countess. Not that I didn’t intend to deliver the king’s letter on my way back to Barley, but that was before I discovered why Karl Wynn wasn’t getting any messages from the area.
I was on the highway through Khorun Woods, approaching the edge of the forest, when I came across a barricade in the road, manned by a trio of Royal Knights in full armor. (Leather and chain, that is; not plate.) “You’ll have to turn back, traveler,” one of them said. “The road is closed.”
I shook my head. “I bear a message for the Countess of Desh Glen from the King himself.”
The knight frowned. “No such countess exists. Alissa Williams fled in fear for her life when the people rose up in revolt.”
…what? First off, that’s an odd way to phrase it. No such countess exists? So… what, then? Does fleeing for your life in a time of crisis count as “abandoning your post” and abdicating? I wasn’t sure quite how to feel about that. And second, that last bit.
“What revolt?” I asked. “The palace has no news of open revolt in Aster.”
The knight looked down at me. “Then you’d do well to carry word to them. There is nothing you can do here. Travel to the affected areas is interdicted for the duration, on Duke Bronson’s orders.”
Well, this just keeps getting worse. “Very well,” I said warily. “What should I tell them?” And how would I know these three were loyal, and not feeding me some pile of draconic lies?
Apparently the same suspicion existed on both sides. A second knight spoke up. “Wait, first, how do we know you are a true messenger of the Crown?”
It was a reasonable enough question. I dismounted and fished the scroll case out of my saddlebag, then handed it over. “Sealed with the king’s own signet,” I pointed out.
They looked at the seal, but only briefly; what they seemed truly interested in were the carvings in the wood. The case was adorned with imagery of towers, crowns, and scepters, interspersed with swirly letters of the local script. I had no idea if they meant anything, but apparently these three did. They murmured something back and forth to each other, then the first knight turned back to me with a very intense look on his face.
“Were you there when this letter was drafted?” I nodded yes. “What were the words the king used to conclude it?”
I had to think about that for a few moments, to get them right. “I think…” I said slowly, “‘Signed and sealed by my own hand, Ryan, Third king of that name.'”
From the question, I was half-expecting that that was some formal way of verifying my identity as a messenger, and that they would accept me. The other half of me was expecting that they were dracora and I was about to be attacked.
What I was not expecting in the least was for the three of them to drop to one knee, almost in unison, heads bowed, fingertips touched to shoulders in a respectful salute. “Arbiter,” the knight whispered almost reverently, “we are at your disposal.”
It took every bit of the discipline instilled by my bardic training to not look as floored as I felt. What in the world had the king done now? An Arbiter wasn’t simply a royal messenger, but a royal proxy. The king didn’t just want me to deliver a message; he wanted me to clean things up! How do I keep getting into worse and worse messes like this?
All right, if that’s the role he was going to cast me in, I might as well play it. I stood up straight, shoulders back, and addressed the knights in my best “exasperated colonel” voice. I gestured for them to rise. “The first thing I need is information. What’s going on, for how long, and how bad is it? How did it start? What are we doing about it, and what are our assets?”
“Sir Arbiter,” one of the knights said, getting back to his feet. “Three counties are in open revolt. Five nobles have fled or been forcibly deposed. The rest are secure in their manors for the time being. It’s becoming chaotic quickly. Social order breaking down, looting, riots. Banditry all over. There are unconfirmed rumors of dracora stirring things up, and also of the Blind Bandit waylaying travelers. There are paladins running around trying to pacify the worst of it, but there are only five of them and they’re overtaxed. We have a hundred knights in the area, but that’s not enough to do more than prevent things from becoming worse.
“We’re not certain how it began, but there are rumors flying everywhere. The most common theme seems to involve an altercation between a paladin and the outlaw Paul Twister, who had been hired by some of the rebels as their champion. He was killed, and it was like setting spark to tinder.”
You know, in hindsight, I really should have thought of that. I have a bit of an argument with Aylwyn where everyone can see, and then the next day I vanish without anyone knowing why… what are they going to think? Ugh.
“Sounds like your biggest problem is that you’re undermanned,” I said. “When can we expect reinforcements?”
The knight looked troubled. “We don’t know whether there are truly dracora involved here, but someone is coordinating this with a central plan. One of the first things that happened was the cutting-off of communications with the outside. Mirrors smashed, pigeons stolen or killed, messengers waylaid, and so on.”
And going all the way back to Keliar to seek reinforcements would take far too long. Well then, there was only one thing I could do. “Can you hold this position for two days?”
The knights looked back and forth at each other, then nodded. “We can!”
“Very well,” I said as I mounted up and got my horses turned around. “I’ll be back as soon as soon as I can with a troop for relief.” I shook the reins and headed back into the forest, watching for the landmarks that led to Amber Spring Camp. I hoped they wouldn’t mind horribly if I showed up with a troupe for relief!
* * *
“Broken strings and empty taverns!” I cried out as loudly as I could when I reached the camp. It was a call of the utmost distress, and every bard who heard it responded appropriately, repeating the call at the top of their voice and then dropping what they were doing and hustling to gather round me, ready to lend assistance.
I waited until people stopped coming, and looked around at my assembled audience. There were about two dozen bards present, maybe a few more, and they awaited word of the disaster eagerly. I got right down to business. “There’s open revolt in Aster,” I said. “A handful of nobles deposed already, and it’s getting worse.”
“And not aforetime!” one of the bards called out. He spat on the ground. “Hurrrk-ptah! That for each and every one of them. Not a good one in the province!” I looked around, and it didn’t look like everyone agreed, but his viewpoint seemed to represent the general consensus. OK, go with it. Yes-and principle.
“True enough,” I said. “But what of the regular folk? There’s banditry and looting and all manner of chaos in there, and everyone’s going to be suffering. Doesn’t seem right to me that a bad lord makes everyone suffer, and then throwing him out makes everyone suffer even worse. My friend Aylwyn is in there, and she’s called for other Paladins to assist her. Any of you familiar with the Paladin Charter will know just how serious that is, but they’re all busy making sure things don’t get worse. So I reckon we should go in and do what we can to soothe the people and calm things down.”
Amber spoke up. “If there’s open revolt, knights will have the entire area quarantined. What will we even be able to do within?”
I let the question hang in the air for a few moments to build dramatic tension, then I pulled out the scroll case and tossed it over a few people’s heads to her. “Whatever we want,” I said.
She looked at it for a moment, then gasped and jumped back, fumbling it and almost dropping it. “Drums of heaven! Peter! It’s an arbiter box! Where could you have found such a thing?”
Well, it was more of a cylinder than a box, but if that’s what they called the thing, oh well. “The king gave it to me,” I said.
Everyone looked at me strangely. “That’s really not funny,” she said. “Imagine the trouble this box could bring down upon all of us, and you!”
“The king,” I repeated slowly, “gave it to me. That’s a tale for another day, but on my fingers and my voice, it’s true.”
She gave me a dubious look, but to call me out after an affirmation like that would put a very serious strain on our relationship, not to mention making her look like a fool if I turned out to be telling the truth. “So you say.” She stepped forward through the crowd and handed the Arbiter box back to me.
“Believe me,” I said, “I was as surprised as you to find myself named Arbiter. But if the king is going to put that sort of trust in me, I need to live up to it. And that means I need help.”
“And what can we do that a bunch of knights and paladins can’t?” a bard I didn’t recognize asked. He was tall and lean, maybe thirty or so, with short blonde hair and a close-trimmed blonde beard. “If people are in revolt, walking in there in the name of the king would be a bit counterproductive, don’t you think?”
I looked at him. “I’m open to suggestions.”
And I was, but that didn’t mean I had to accept them. Especially not what he said next. “Let it run its course. Order the knights and paladins out, and let the people resolve their own issues.”
That was a singularly bad idea. Last thing I wanted was to have a French Revolution on my conscience. “If a revolt goes unchecked, and it’s run by angry people with real grievances, tempers can burn hot, and burn out of control. If people get a taste of blood and vengeance, some of them will get a taste for blood and vengeance, and that doesn’t go away once the people who deserve it get theirs. Your proposal could turn Aster into a land of horror, and I’m not prepared to risk that.”
“That’s it!” came a familiar voice from the middle of the crowd. “Wildfires!”
“Come again?” I looked and saw Cory, the geeky young bard who’d invented about 80% of a piano.
He tried to explain. “In Ìludar, the elves have a way of managing wildfires in their forests: the druids will get out in front of the flames and cut down trees in their path. With no wood to burn, the flames can’t advance past that point, and it becomes far easier for their magic to quell the fire.”
I nodded slowly. “That sounds like it would work in a forest, but I hope you aren’t suggesting we go in and murder the rest of the nobles before the mobs get a chance to!”
He shook his head. “No, no, but it’s… what Charles said. If our authority derives from the Crown, how do we help in a revolt against the nobility? This is how! We establish the authority of the Crown as distinct from the nobility. If the people seek vengeance, we will give them justice instead.”
The blonde bard (Charles?) looked over at him, then nodded slowly. “Put them on trial,” he said. “Let the commoners testify against the nobility, but only if they abandon their rebellion and swear fealty to the Crown.”
I thought it over for a moment, looking back and forth to gauge the bards’ responses. They seemed to be generally favorable, at least, so I nodded. “All right, but we need to make it clear that this is the King’s justice. This means two points. First, our court can determine guilt, but not punishment. Any noble found guilty of crimes against the people will be deposed and sent to Keliar to await the King’s judgment. Second, as far as possible there will be one law, and all will be equal under it. If a noble is on trial for abusing the privileges of their station, they will not have that privilege to fall back on as a defense.” I looked around. “Do those sound like sound principles?”
We talked things over for a while and hashed out a few ideas and details, but the basic principles I had proposed survived the process pretty much intact. They added a couple more: we would put the word out that anyone of age may testify, but as all are equal before the law, anyone who takes the stand may be charged with crimes of their own by the nobles in return, which will be heard and tried impartially. This is to minimize the influence of the type of people I spoke of before, those with a taste for blood. And, as a fourth principle, building on the third, in recognition of the severe hardships that a corrupt noble could create in the lives of their subjects, any commoner found to have violated the law in a reasonable attempt to protect themselves from harm or hardship caused by a corrupt noble would be shown reasonable leniency, up to and including a full pardon, at the court’s discretion.
Once we had settled on core principles, we started planning what we would do. A few of them would remain with me to organize things, but the majority of my little group of bards would go in and do what bards do best: wander the countryside and work to lighten people’s hearts. And in the process, they would spread the news of the King’s Arbiter who had come to hear the people’s grievances and cast down the corrupt nobles. We set various bards to the tasks of preparing whatever they could on short notice, including a banner. And I had a perfect idea for what the banner should be…
I know. It was a crazy plan. But it was just crazy enough that it might actually work.
* * *
I had one other thing to take care of: getting word back to the king. I asked Amber to draft the letter, and she said she had a pigeon that could send it to Keliar, to someone trustworthy that would ensure it would end up in King Ryan’s hands without being disturbed.
I tried to imitate the style of the king’s message as best I could:
Peter Parker, Arbiter of the Crown on assignment to Aster, to His Majesty King Ryan de Morgan,
I hope that all is well in Keliar, that my comrades the sorceress, the minstrel and the ninja are in good health, and that our mutual friend is enjoying her well-earned accommodations in the palace in all the comfort and luxury she is due.
Things are worse than expected here. There is open revolt throughout the southern half of the province, with multiple nobles cast down or fled. Rumors abound of dracora involvement, which I find credible, and of outlaws plundering openly amid the chaos, including such notables as Paul Twister and the Blind Bandit. Knights have quarantined the area, on the authority of Duke Bronson. Communications have been disrupted by some well-coordinated agents-provocateur.
By your authority I am calling upon available resources to calm the populace and establish a tribunal where the people’s grievances can be aired and judged in a civilized manner. Any noble found to have violated your trust will be deposed and sent to Keliar to await sentencing at your hand.
I will call upon other resources as needed.
Written and sent by the hand of a trusted scribe,
She wrote the words out onto a rather large sheet of parchment, then took a knife and cut out a much smaller rectangle of unused space from the corner. She took several moments to prepare a complicated spell that burnt the letter to ash, but along the way it made tiny flames dance across the smaller cutout, burning the words into the surface in miniature. Then she very carefully rolled the little scroll up and bound it with a plain green ribbon, tying it to the leg of a magical pigeon. When it had disappeared, I had her scribe out another letter to April, bringing her up to speed on the crisis and asking if she could get the Circle to send anyone to help.
When it was sent off, Amber gave me an appraising look. “Sorceress, minstrel and ninja, hmm?”
“A simple recognition code, so he would know it’s truly me writing.”
She smirked a little. “You and Sarah and her father, and another, found a woman, had her locked up in the palace dungeon. Some great troublemaker? The fake princess perhaps, from the rumor that you spoke to me of? And for that, the king decided he could trust you with the heavy mantle of an Arbiter Box, sending you to Aster?”
OK, that’s kind of spooky how easily she pieced things together. But Sarah’s father had not been involved in the affair at all, and neither had Karl until it was all over. So I could say with perfect honesty, “that’s not what happened.”
That just made her smirk even more. “Just how much of that did not happen?”
I shook my head. “We all have our secrets.” I hummed a few bars of the song I’d heard Sarah singing. “How does that song of yours end, anyway?”
She looked at me with a twinkle in her eye. “Perhaps you should learn it.”
“Another day,” I said. Then I turned to leave. We had a revolt to stop, afterall.