This poem came out of the September 5, 2012 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by prompts from siege, aoife, janetmiles, the_vulture, and DW user jjhunter. It has been sponsored by janetmiles. This poem belongs to the series Path of the Paladins, and you can explore that further on the Serial Poetry page. Also, this finally connects the dots enough to unlock "Strike Twice," a poem about Johan that I wrote earlier. He gets himself into such situations, Johan does.
Johan picked his way through
the little mining town, or what was left of it.
Copperton had been halfway functional,
the last time he passed this way.
"What happened here?" he wondered,
not really expecting an answer.
"Bosses quit paying," a beggar said,
"so the miners revolted.
They threatened to starve themselves.
Bosses just let them." He jerked a thumb
at the long low hill of a mass grave.
"They brought in slaves to do the digging now.
Not as fast, but they make less trouble."
"The miners had a right to fair pay,"
Johan said softly.
"Sure, you try telling the bosses that,"
the beggar said. "These days,
nobody has rights but what they can take."
Then he gave a hoarse cackle.
"That includes the bosses, though.
Somebody went and strung up a few.
Who's going to find a judge in this blighted land?"
There had been judges, once, Johan recalled:
circuit judges to cover the rural areas and villages,
station judges in the larger towns.
There had been guardsmen to keep the peace
and barristers in the big cities to interpret the laws.
He remembered only a little of the guild rules,
but all the guilds had required that workers earn a living
because starving men did desperate things.
Johan himself hadn't needed the guild rules,
because he had taken service with Gailah
and a paladin or a priest could go anywhere,
trading his knowledge and magic for whatever he needed
and anyone would gladly spare him food and shelter.
Now all of that was in ruins.
Farmers scrabbled to raise crops
and hoped the armies wouldn't trample them.
Livestock wandered loose with nobody to tend it,
or got eaten, and who cared about the law of fences
when there were so few gardens left to damage?
Sometimes Johan could still trade for what he needed,
but other times -- not so much.
He rubbed ruefully at his bruised hip:
the last caravan had thrown rocks to run him off.
It was like taking the bolts out of a wagon
and watching the whole thing fall to pieces.
The peasants had responsibilities but no rights left,
nothing with which to meet the expectations heaped on them.
The armies had both might and right
but precious little sense of responsibility;
they took whatever they wanted without care for the cost.
As Johan watched, a door hanging by one hinge
gave way and fell.
Even the bonds of community were fraying,
though those were the last to go.
The fallen door was left where it lay;
people had quit trying to take care of the village.
The beggar's bowl was empty, too;
the village had quit taking care of people.
A young boy furtively pulled the pins holding the wheels
on a mine wagon, a subtle bit of sabotage.
Johan hurried toward the edge of the village,
not wanting to catch the blame himself.
The place was still simmering,
plainly going to boil over again before long,
and it didn't want him around.
Sometimes you had to know when to walk away.
Outside the village, the land stood empty,
no horses or cows grazing in the fields.
They were starting to thicket up in places.
For a while, the loggers had stripped whole forests
to supply the armies, but even the armies
were wearing thin after so many people had died.
The trees were taking back their territory now.
Between the lonely pastures and the woods,
the road dwindled into two tracks forking apart.
Touching the short sword and dagger at his belt,
Johan wondered which way he should go.
A cool breeze fingered the hair along his neck
and sent the dry leaves dancing down the right track.
Johan followed the leaves and the breeze.
He would just keep going until
someone wanted him for something.