Trees

Salvation: Chapter Seven

The morning was cold, just like the others, and Gadreel found his body difficult to move. The fire pit between the shacks was quiet, only its meager warmth remaining to signal that the glowing embers deep inside still lived. A thin film of ice had grown and partially melted in the troughs of water that the men washed themselves in. Before reaching the front of the line, Piers stepped out and knocked at the door of the constable’s shack.

Gadreel watched from the line as the door opened for him. “Breakfast isn’t ready yet. Get.”

“We’re running low on wood. Our fire is going to die off at this rate.”

“I don’t care,” the man on duty huffed. “It will get warmer soon, you won’t need much more. The calendar doesn’t lie.”

“The calendar doesn’t set the weather, that’s the wind’s doing.”

“Then stay out of the wind’s path.” The constable shrugged, preparing to shut the door.

“Tell that to the holes in our clothing and gaps in the siding.”

“What a pain. Fine, you know the drill. Choose who you want with you. Five people, max. Someone’ll yell when the supply cart comes this way.”

Piers nodded and retreated gracefully. He cut back to his previous place in line, rejoining Gadreel’s side. “That’s done.”

“Get to the back!” A few of the others grumbled and shouted.

The younger man jerked his head back. “I’ve done what ya’ll won’t, ask for more firewood. Who’s with me for getting more?”

Some ignored him or shook their heads, while others shrugged and wearily nodded. Gadreel pulled his attention back to Piers, proceeding to the wash basin. “I will gladly join if it is to aid the others here. It cannot be much more of a hardship than the rock-breaking?”

Piers washed his face with quick swipes in the freezing water, pushing back his shaggy hair from his forehead. “I hoped you would say so. I fathom it isn’t too much worse. Certainly preferable to freezing to death. But it’s often the company that makes it more difficult.”

Arthur pushed up past the others, ramming his shoulder into those who weren’t paying attention as he passed. “I’m with you as well.”

Piers finished his business and stepped out of the line. “Be my guest.”

After the morning meal and a brief bout of work, the silver-toothed man stepped out into the yard, rubbing his stomach and drawing attention of the workers. “Piers, we’ve got the cart ready. Grab your helpers. N’ make it quick!”

Gadreel laid down his hammer as did a few of the others. It was Piers, Arthur, and a few other young but weathered men joining them. The silver-toothed man counted off five individuals as they went into the guards’ living space. “That’s enough. Stay where y’are now.”

Beside the main room was an open doorway to the old kitchen where Gadreel had been captured and plucked free of his plumes. One of the brutes glared at him and the others, waiting for their boss to give the next directions.

Gadreel and the other captives lined up as the big constable stood by the back door. The silver-toothed man blocked off the exit that would have led them to freedom otherwise. With a grunt, he grabbed something off the wall, a long object that rattled with a metallic clank. “A reminder,” he growled, “if any one of you is seen trying to get these off, you’ll return bring dragged behind the wagon.”

The device was tossed down in front of them; a set of shackles to bind their ankles together, with more links of rusted chain running between each pair to connect all five men in a single group. Gadreel watched as Arthur clasped the iron sections around his legs. The cuffs of their trousers winkled as the tight connection held them inseparable from one another. Gadreel did as the others, attaching the shackles and tightening them with a bolt and pin.

The silver-toothed man kicked at the chains on the ground to make sure that the group had properly become one, and one of the other guards twisted the security pins with long-handled pliers to hold them tighter.

“Alright then, Piers, lead the way.”

The constable pushed open the door and they trudged out carefully, the chains and their own movements holding them at a poor pace. Outside on the cobbled road awaited a cart drawn by a skinny donkey, its breath making clouds in the cold air. The captives lined up at the back of the cart in a single file with Piers at the front. The constable climbed up on the meager driver’s seat and flicked the reigns against the donkey’s back. “Keep up now.”

The worn wooden tires of the cart crackled and creaked as they began to move forward. Piers kept the pace, while the others moved their legs in barely matching strides.

“That isn’t for us?” Gadreel asked.

Arthur, directly ahead, chuckled. “It’s for the wood. Nothing but walking for us.”

“And keep up,” the constable at their rear added with a huff.

The city folk lining the cobble road glared and shook their heads as the group of prisoners passed. Some mumbled to each other, or spat. Small children giggled and ran close, before dashing back, biting thumbs at them. Gadreel attempted to seek out the stranger’s gazes, attempting to make sense of the feelings they held. He recognized a few of them from the days previous when he had been free from the walls. Someone amongst them had reached out to the constable to have him arrested. He felt himself being tugged forward, the cadence in his steps suddenly failing as the person in front of him continued on without noticing.

The city thinned out the further from the prison yard they descended. The cobbles faded under the wash of old dried mud, and eventually dwindled down little by little until the path was nothing but dirt and weeds. By that time, the road was lined with trees, and beyond, a few meager houses and farms that peeked out from behind the foliage.

Beyond most signs of people is where they stopped. It began with the sound of the driver yapping at the donkey to halt, followed by the rumbling of the cart’s wheels, then the cease in the jangling of the chains that connected the five prisoners in a line. They stretched their legs and bent their knees to the lengths they could manage and took in the newfound silence.

The driver and the rear guard met somewhere in the middle and mumbled to one another. The driver then turned back and waived at the group to leave the road. “Go and get’cher wood. And don’t try anything funny. We’ll be watching.”

Piers took them forward, off the road, and into the old dry grass. The trees were nearly naked, with tiny green buds sprouting from the tips of the branches. The remains of their shedding littered the ground, in piles of decaying leaves and shards of old branches. The captives stepped out of the line the best they could to gather up the old shattered boughs left to rot and desiccate on the ground.

“The quicker we go, the more they’ll let us gather,” the young man second to last in the line spoke forward.

“These aren’t the best pickings…” Piers sighed, trudging forward.

Despite the conditions, their arms became laden with viable sticks and logs that would provide them with the heat they desired. At first, they held the loose bundles under their arms, then supported them between their outstretched grasps until most of the men were sufficiently weighed down.

“Let’s get back, my arms are tired.”

“Ahead,” Piers shook his head. “A snag, it looks like. Old dead wood, thick too.”

“We can’t carry that.”

“As a team, we can,” Gadreel spoke up.

Piers trudged to a halt before the barely-standing tree and scanned its near branchless features.

“Let’s just drop off what we got.”

“Who knows if they’ll let us head back out this way again,” Piers sighed. “Those oafs are too lazy.”

“Too big.”

“I’ll split apart soon as it hits the ground. Or you want to freeze yer toes off, burning only this kindling?”

“Fine.”

“Arthur?” Piers leaned into the old bark and looked to the big man.

He dumped the load from his arms and shrugged, stretching his shoulders. “Fine,” he grumbled, pushing into the edge of the tree with the others.

The ground beneath their feet began to shift, old roots hanging on barely to the loam beneath the cover of the leaves. There was a snapping, followed by a low huff from the men catching themselves, and the low thump of the dead tree meeting the ground and separating into jagged sections. “There we go.”

“A few proper scraps.”

Arthur cracked his knuckles as he followed the others to the fallen bits of wood, glancing back. “If we can do something like this, ya’ll think those two guards would give us any resistance?”

“All it takes is one of us to fall and drag down the rest of the line,” Piers huffed, tearing up a section of wood out of the mass of timber.

“You heard what he said,” Gadreel spoke up. “They will tow us behind the wagon for acting out.”

Arthur shook his head. “Why so wary, new guy? You’re obviously special to them, they wouldn’t dare it.”

Gadreel shook his head. “Attacking these men would be unforgivable. They are simply doing a task given to them.”

“So soft now, are you? Even after being whipped?” The big man teased. “Or perhaps you’re just a piece of limp twine no matter what? Remember that we’re prisoners because they decided we should be.”

“Yes, we are deserving,” Piers interjected knowingly. “Best to serve out our time, and not cause these men any undue trouble.”

“That’s quite easy to say for someone with the most meager of crimes, even if it was done while serving the court of the king. The poor man who’s serving time for some debauchery.”

The two other men chuckled. Gadreel leaned forward around Arthur to glance at Piers, who pursed his lips and turned back forward.

“What was it,” Arthur taunted, pushing at Piers’ back. “Courting with the Queen’s chambermaid while at work? Perhaps even more? Even though the Royal family won’t see your face again, you’ll be out to walk elsewhere.”

Piers huffed loudly and leaned forward on one knee. “Let’s get this back before they decide we’ve been out here for too long.”

Arthur stood in place, anchoring the others. “Piers here is cocksure enough to know he can be uppity with the guards, but not enough to get in their way and really find himself on their bad sides. As for me, no sense in trying to play nice when they’re going to hold me as long as they like no matter what. Getting more blood on my hands doesn’t phase me.”

The hair stood on Gadreel’s neck, a feeling like never before. He gazed at Arthur’s wide palm, rough and stained from the work and deep with cracks. As if guided by an unknown force, he reached out and took the wide hand in his own, turning Arthur back his way forcefully.

“Don’t touch me,” the big man huffed, trying to pull away. His strength left him for that moment, allowing Gadreel’s hold to stay.

“I feel it,” he mumbled slowly, eyes glazed over. “The blood. The soul of another. You took someone’s life.”

The man behind grabbed at Gadreel’s shoulder. “Stop this.”

“Gad…” Piers said, worry creeping into his voice.

“Enough,” Arthur found the strength to yank free. “I do not need your cryptic words. You must know by now we’ve all heard enough. You don’t know what you’re doing, nor for what reasons. If you want to aid me, you already know what our deal is.”

“What are you talking about?” Piers spoke up.

Arthur jerked his leg back, pulling the chains attached to the younger man’s ankles. Piers fell forward, catching himself on his hands. “Let’s get this picked up and leave. It’s long past lunch now,” Arthur huffed, glancing up at the sky through the clearing.

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