Janryc stirred his tea as Astram described the situation with the rebels. He felt Janryc’s unbridled rage rolling off him in great waves. He had to resolve this situation before any more people were hurt or killed. Yet, Janryc made that near impossible with his impulsiveness and cruelty.
“And what is the size of this rebel force, Astram?” Janryc asked, taking a sip from the cup.
“Less than a thousand, my lord,” Astram said. “However, many of them are townspeople from the surrounding villages. Farmers. Tradespeople—.”
Janryc cut him off mid-sentence. "And the leader, this Leilatha? Who is she anyway? Why are the peasants following her?”
The way Janryc said her name made Astram’s skin crawl. Even after all these years, he was still protective of her. “She’s from Hilltown. The daughter of the woodsman whose execution you ordered a month past,” Astram said.
“Hilltown? Isn’t that where you are from, Astram? Do you know this woman?”
Astram was silent for a second. Trying to keep the emotions from his face was like trying to wash a dirt floor. “Yes, my lord.”
Janryc harrumphed. “Ser Carwel said this woman is a mage. Is that true?”
Astram's blood ran cold, despite his own bit of anger burning inside of him. Carwel had been a thorn in Astram's side ever since his father had purchased Carwel's commission in the battalion. Constantly undermining Astram's efforts, trying to force him out so he could take command. Despite his incompetence in most military matters.
“Yes, my lord, but Leilatha is untrained. It is doubtful that she would be a threat in any way.”
Janryc fixed his eyes on Astram, his steely gaze boring a hole in Astram’s head. He continued as if Astram had not been speaking at all. “If she is a mage, then why isn’t the Order here to deal with her? What use is a body dedicated to controlling the mage population if they don’t do anything about them?”
“It is doubtful the Order will intervene, my lord. Leilatha does not pose a threat to the public and has not been using her powers for ill.”
Janryc set his teacup down and sat back in his chair, a smug look plastered on his face. “We will see, See Astram. I had Carwel send runners to the Order and to the fortress to request a company of the Emperor’s Own. Use them and see that this rebellion is ended, Ser Astram. Permanently.”
Astram felt the blood drain from his face as he responded. “Yes, my lord.”
Leilatha marched in front of the crowd of townspeople that assembled to support her cause. She wore the old chest plate her father had worn while fulfilling his enlistment in the Emperor's Own, the division of professional soldiers who served as the empire’s military. She also wore his bow and quiver on her back, despite being a terrible shot. These were the only things she had left of him after Janryc had him executed. If only she could have been there, instead of in Severnaston. If I had been home, then these would be lost too. As would I, she told herself in vain consolation.
Despite the heartbreak of losing her father, she did feel somewhat warmed by the gratitude she had for the hundreds of farmers that have joined her march to Arcaedia. Every person in the crowd behind her had suffered at least one loss at the hands of Janryc's cruelty. She hoped that they could make it unmolested to the Council Hall to present their grievances. They were the legislative body that was supposed to represent the interests of the common people, after all. But, if they did meet resistance from Laecanon's forces, would they be ready?
Leilatha led the group down the road, descending a low hill. The town of Laecanonton was in sight. Beyond, she could make out the skyline of Arcaedia, the imperial capital and the dueling spires of the Castle of the Order and the Imperial Palace on opposite sides of the city. On the road, just before Laecanonton, she saw a dust cloud form. It was small at first, yet quickly grew as it approached. Minutes later, a rider on a horse emerged from the cloud. Nalia, Hilltown’s horse coper and one of Leilatha’s scouts.
Leilatha walked to the edge of the road and met Nalia, who turned the horse around and came to a walk beside her.
“What news do you bring from Laecanonton?” Leilatha said, her thin smile failing to mask the anxiety she felt.
“Nothing good, I’m afraid,” Nalia said, as she brushed a lock of graying hair behind her ear. “Astram has his battalion assembled in front of the bridge leading into Arcaedia.”
Leilatha sighed. The last thing she wanted was for this to come to violence, but it appeared that was the direction it was headed. Yet, there was still a slim chance it would not, as long as Astram had not forgotten where he came from. “Well, with Vertorem’s grace, we will get through without harm.”
“Doubtful, but one can hope. Astram has a long history of failure in taming that beast Janryc.”
“That is true,” Leilatha said, thinking of her father. Where was Astram when her father was taken? Did he use his influence to try to convince Laecanon that her father had no choice in poaching deer? That he did it to help feed townspeople who were starving, after having their money and crops confiscated to fuel the opulence of Laecanon’s manse, along with their loved ones sacrificed on the altar of Janryc’s brutality? It was doubtful.
“Well, what do you want to do?” Nalia asked. As Leilatha formulated her response, two more of Hilltown’s elders approached.
“Astram’s has soldiers blocking the bridge,” Leilatha said as they approached. “Shall we continue, or shall we go back home?”
Agrander, the local storekeeper, was the first to respond. “Continue,” he said, hefting the spear he wielded when he fought alongside her father decades ago. “The townsfolk are finished with cowering in their hovels, waiting for Laecanon to brutalize them further.”
"Aye," Briren, a farmer, agreed. "Best we die standing up, then on our knees with a battalion's sword in our back."
The mix of gratitude and fear swirled within Leilatha. Was she leading the townspeople towards folly that will get them all killed? Or was Briren right in that many of them would die anyway? Yet, they all needed some measure of justice for those lost, as she needed it for her father. And that was something one cannot ask for.
“It’s settled then. We continue.”
“Ser Astram,” the messenger called out as she approached on her horse. “The Order has declined the request to assist in this matter.”
Astram sighed in relief. While it was possible they could have used their influence to convince Janryc to satisfy some of their grievances, it was more likely that they would have carted Leilatha off to a life of imprisonment. “What message did they pass along?”
"The Grand Magister said that unless the mage is using her powers unlawfully, there is nothing they can do."
Astram nodded and dismissed the messenger. He rubbed at his temples, the stress of the situation weighing down on him. Leilatha, and the people marching with her, were his people. Once upon a time, he lived among them. Worked beside them. Attended their wakes. And weddings. They all, especially Leilatha, were so supportive when he was made a squire to Lord Brythan, Janryc’s noble father who died an unexpected death a few years past. How far the apple had fallen from the tree.
He turned to his lieutenants. “Have your soldiers block the streets to force the townsfolk down this road,” he said, gesturing to the cobblestone street that ran along the river and served as Laecanonton’s main thoroughfare. “But order your troops not to attack, unless in self-defense. These aren’t a group of brigands we are dealing with. They are the people of these lands. Our own brothers and sisters. Fathers and Mothers. Husbands and Wives. Treat them accordingly.”
"Yes, sere," two of his lieutenants said, departing to carry out their orders. Yet one remained, a smug look painted across his face. Carwel, the petulant son of a minor lord who swore fealty to House Laecanon. Carwel was turned down numerous times for an officership in Laecanon's battalion by Lord Brythan for his brutality and ineptitude. Yet, those same qualities allowed him to climb the ranks under Janryc's lordship. He was sure to replace Astram when he was done with his service. Or when Janryc tired of his constant pleading for mercy for the people. Whichever came first.
“Ser Astram,” Carwel said, not even attempting to mask the contempt in his voice. “It is doubtful that Lord Janryc would approve of your lenient stance towards the rebels. In his address to the officers of the battalion, it was made clear that he wanted an example to be made of these retches.”
Astram sighed, trying his best to address Carwel with some modicum of respect. While he was lower in rank as a company leader, he still had a vast amount of influence that Astram did not. “Thank you for your concerns, Ser Carwel. But Lord Janryc ordered me to subdue the townsfolk by any means necessary. As commander, I do not see it necessary to inflict bloodshed against our people when the matter can be resolved peacefully. Now please see to your duties.”
“At once, sere,” he sneered as he maneuvered his horse towards his company.
“And Ser Carwel,” Astram called out. “If you see a runner from the Emperor’s Own, send them to me immediately.”
Carwel rolled his eyes and nodded in response as he rode towards his company, shouting orders to maneuver them to their positions.
Leilatha led the townspeople into Laecanonton, and they were soon met with the entirety of Laecanon's soldiers, blocking all of the streets, except for one. The road that ran along the river led to the bridge to Arcaedia. None of the soldiers had their weapons drawn, which gave Leilatha hope that Astram's influence was still strong in the battalion.
The group followed the street as it transformed into a cobblestone street which was the lifeline of the area, carrying goods from the country to markets in Arcaedia. They followed the street as it bent to run parallel to the river. Astram was ahead atop his horse, in the middle of the street, holding a white flag. His soldiers were arrayed around the vicinity of the bridge, blocking their way across the river to Arcaedia.
“Leilatha!” Astram shouted. “Will you parley?” Leilatha motioned for the townsfolk to stop and approached Astram. He dismounted and walked towards her.
“Hello, Astram,” she said, feeling the anger burning inside of her. “I wish I could say it was nice to see you again.”
“As do I,” he said, hanging his head low. Shame was plastered across his face, or that is what Leilatha thought as she looked at him. “I am sorry about the loss of your father. He was a good man. Please know that I had no hand in his death.”
Leilatha scoffed. "You may not have swung the ax that beheaded him, Astram. But as you continue to serve that tyrant Janryc, you're responsible for all of his misdeeds against the people of these lands."
Astram winced. “Let’s not be hasty with our words or actions, Lei. Your father was a great man, but he did poach from Laecanon lands. And the punishment for that crime is death. Just as it would have been under Lord Brythan.”
"Keep words of my father out of your mouth, traitor," she spat. "Brythan would not have let a situation fester where his people needed to kill his deer or steal from one another to eat. He gave that venison to a young woman who was pregnant and starving. She and her baby would have died if he had not done so." Leilatha stared at him, letting her words sink in. "And do you know why she was starving, Astram?" Astram continued looking in her direction, but not making eye contact. He stayed silent. Leilatha thought she could see tears welling up in his eyes. A little late for sympathy now. "Because Janryc had her husband killed on yet another contrived misdeed."
Astram opened his mouth to respond, but no words came forth. His eyes grew wide in terror. Behind her, Leilatha heard horses galloping and the clang of metal hitting metal. She turned and saw the bright blue coats and polished silver breastplates of the soldiers of the Emperor’s Own attacking the townsfolk from behind. Astram’s soldiers unsheathed their swords and approached the group, intent on entering the fray. The townsfolk, some with swords and other military weapons, others with axes and farm implements, maneuvered to fight off the Emperor’s soldiers.
“Sheathe your arms!” Astram shouted at his soldiers as he ran to them, waving his arms wildly above his head.
Leilatha turned to instruct the townsfolk to do the same. But before she had a chance, she heard the swish of a crossbow bolt sailing through the air and the thunk of it hitting its target. She turned and saw Astram stagger and fall to one knee. His chest piece had a dent in the center of it from where the bolt had struck him. Luckily it had not pierced his armor, but she would be surprised if he escaped with all of his ribs intact.
“Attack!” Someone yelled from the crowd of soldiers in front of her. She watched in stunned horror as Astram got back onto his feet and drew his sword. But it was too late. Carwel galloped through the crowd atop his horse and cut down Astram before he could react. His lifeless body crumpled to the cobblestone street, the sound of his armor hitting the ground announcing his death to everyone in earshot.
“Astram is a traitor to Lord Janryc! I am in command now! Rout the peasants!” As Carwel shouted orders at the soldiers, he briefly glanced at Leilatha, flashing her with a smug look of satisfaction. The rage she had been harboring all this time finally boiled over. She reacted.
Leilatha screamed as she pulled the bow off her back and nocked an arrow. She focused her magical energy, using the sheer power of her will to infuse the arrow with it. She drew back the bow and fired. The arrow glowed a golden color as it sailed through the air, impacting Carwel’s armor, exploding in a plume of the same amber light.
The townspeople took her lead and attacked the assembled soldiers. Some soldiers from the battalion fought against the townsfolk. Miraculously, other soldiers joined the fray on the side of the townsfolk, protecting them from the onslaught of the soldiers loyal to Carwel and the Emperor’s Own. Despite that, they were still being pushed back towards the bridge, where Carwel had assembled the rest of his troops, the anvil to the Emperor’s Own’s hammer.
Leilatha fired magically infused arrows in a high arc above the townspeople, which impacted among the Emperor’s Own in a dazzling explosion of golden light, knocking down any soldiers caught in its blast. She turned to the soldiers of Laecanon’s battalion and swept her arms outward in front of her. Arcs of light grew in the center of the formation of soldiers and spread to the edges. The blast knocked some of them back into the walls of the buildings lining the street or onto the cobblestones. Others, the blast threw into the river on the other side. The remaining soldiers who hadn’t been caught in Leilatha’s wrath fled a hasty retreat out of town.
The dust settled and the soldiers of the Emperor’s Own and Laecanon’s battalion finished retreating from town. The townsfolk hugged one other, cared for the injured, and said silent prayers for the dead, requesting the aid of the Goddess of Light, Vertorem, in guiding the last of their essence to the heavens above in everlasting peace.
Leilatha sat on the cobblestone street, with Astram's head in her lap. She stroked his curly brown hair and shed tears that trickled down his bloodstained cheeks. How far they had grown apart in these past few years. She remembered the night after he was freshly knighted. He had asked for her hand in marriage, and she had accepted. She remembered the joy enveloping her body as they hugged. She remembered the warm touch of his hands on her body as they made love in the tiny bed in his chambers at the barracks.
But that was before. Before Janryc came to power and brutalized the people of the land. She had begged Astram to abandon his position and run away with her, but he had denied her.
I cannot, Lei. I swore an oath. Plus, I can do more good for the people as Janryc’s commander than I can a fugitive.
And that was the last time the two had spoken civilly to each other. It felt like centuries ago now.
"Leilatha," she heard Nalia say softly. She turned to see her motherly face, graced with the deep lines of a life spent laboring outdoors. "Many of Laecanonton's townsfolk have joined our cause. Everyone is ready to continue." She paused. "What do you want to do?"
Leilatha rested Astram's head gently on the cobblestones and stood. "We continue," she said, wiping the tears from her face. "To the Council." Her resolve steeled as the words left her mouth. There was one more death for which her people needed justice.