Threats

Salvation: Chapter Six

Gadreel felt his consciousness fading from him again with the light of the day. He had grown accustomed to the feeling every night, assuming the work he did during the day made it worse. The light in the sky would become dark, then his eyes, and before he knew it, the day would return. But that night was different.

A rough touch brought him back to consciousness, tucked into the corner of the cot. The low but threatening voices came with a shove to his side, pulling him away from his repose on the creaky platform of wood. “Up, freak.”

“It is… not daylight yet.”

“Get up, and keep your mouth shut,” Arthur’s deep, restrained voice was forcing him to attention in the darkness. It was only the embers of the dying fire that cast a light that night. The big man’s silhouette stood out against the glow.

Before he could shift himself upward, the thick gnarled hands tugged him up by the edges of his vestment and dragged him out into the yard. The clothes upon his legs met with the dew-soaked dead grass, lapping up the cold liquid before he was tossed down helplessly onto his side.

Through the cover of clouds was the glow of the moon, shining just enough light upon the others, the big man and two of his underlings. “What are your desires with me?”

Arthur sneered and huffed at the question. “Let’s have a chat about that, huh? There’s somethin’ unnatural about you. Those little things dangling from your back? What’re those?”

Gadreel sat up and rubbed his hands together, scraping off the sticky mud. “At one point, they were wings. That which all those of my kind bear.”

“That, I thought so,” The big man nodded. “My friend here was made to clean up the mess you made of them, all that fine, white plumage. Thought it was a bird, but instead it was a man. The feathers, they grow back?”

“In this form… I cannot be sure,” Gadreel shook his head slowly.

“That form?” Arthur grit his teeth, “Your words don’t make a lick of sense. Howsabout if they do grow back, can you fly?”

Gadreel imagined standing up, but something about the three men standing over him made him decide the opposite. “In this form…”

The big man leaned down close to his face, one hand on his shoulder with the other curled into a fist. “I don’t care to hear about your forms. They must have plucked you for a reason? To keep from simply flapping yourself over the walls here? If you can fly, I will make you aid me in getting out of here.”

“The possibility of all things aligning in such a way is unlikely.”

Arthur pushed himself up, tired, and began pacing about Gadreel in a circle. “I’d say the same for my chances of them letting me out as a free man. I need to get out. I’ve been here long enough… but waiting for you to sprout new feathers is something I’m willing to wait a little longer for.”

“You simply desire escape?”

“I’ve heard your words of salvation,” Arthur said, head shaking. “I don’t see any other way of making good on that sort of promise or whatever.”

“You are mistaken, sir.”

Arthur stomped loudly near his back. “You’re brave to say something like that to me. Here, a promise in return. I will make sure that they don’t lay their hands on you again while we await your wings to sprout again.”

“Your desires are clear, but I believe these men who keep us behind these walls will not make an escape easy.”

“They won’t havta’ know,” Arthur shook his head furiously, “As long as you keep things to yourself. From that Piers bloke the most.”

“Your ideas are intriguing. I shall focus myself on this task the best I can. But you must temper your expectations.”

“I don’t need your nonsense words. Just a word to let me know you understand what I want from you.”

“I understand.”

Arthur looked at the others, nodding his head. “Good. Get back to bed before they notice any of us up.”

Gadreel stood after the others departed and made his way back to the bunk alone, but soon found yet another person whispering to him in the dark. “What did they want from you?”

“Piers?”

“I was going to interrupt, but luckily it seemed like they only wanted to talk.”

“Yes. That is correct.”

“He must have wanted something from you.”

Gadreel almost spoke, but he remembered the words that the big man had said. Keep things to yourself. The desire to utter words that weren’t true entered his mind; a lie. Instead of speaking, he turned over and held his lips pursed together, awaiting the sound of Piers losing interest and turning back over.

“I can understand if you don’t want to say anything. But I wouldn’t agree to do anything for him. He’s not the kind of person you want to play around with. None of us are, to be honest. That’s why… we’re in here. But I won’t keep you awake any longer.”

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Wounds

Salvation: Chapter Five

“I’m sorry that had to happen to you,” Piers caught up with Gadreel, voice low, after the tools had been stored.

Gadreel shook his head tiredly, settling down on the ground in front of the dwellings. “I understand that I broke one of the rules of this place. I had to accept the consequences.”

“That’s hardly it,” Piers scoffed, setting himself down beside. “They want to make sure they are able to perform their spectacle of beatings to show that they aren’t going soft on us. You’re the newest and just happened to be outta’ place at the right time. There was someone you were talking to though, right?”

Gadreel nodded. “One like me.”

“Another outsider?”

“…Yes. If that is your word for it.”

Piers licked his dry lips. “You said… when you first got here, that this wasn’t your place, after all. I suppose it is like many people to look at someone who isn’t known around here and immediately think the worst of them. I’d even say that you don’t deserve to be behind these bars here. But I guess there’s more to you than I could ever know.”

“I will speak to you of anything you wish.” Gadreel forced himself up, his raw palms sinking into and pushing against the cold ground.

Piers glanced up at the man before looking back away. “Unless you really have a desire to talk about yourself, I don’ think I’ll be pryin’. I don’t think anything you say would stick with me, nor anyone else here. The impression I get from you, though, is that you’re the type that doesn’t belong.”

“It is more than of myself. Do you wish for salvation?” Gadreel asked despite the previous words.

“To be saved? From what— this? This place? I suppose that may come in time. But right now, I can only wish for a good portion of supper tonight,” Piers sighed, rubbing his neck, still sticky with sweat and growing cold.

“But after?”

The young man raised his eyes up at the sky as if to feign himself thinking. “Should I be thinking that far? You can only live in the moment, I’m afraid. At least, that’s what it feels like for me. Tomorrow, the next day, the day after that, next week… who knows for how long… we’ll be working away here behind these walls. Most of us will eventually be freed, made to leave this place. But then we just turn to another form of toiling.”

Gadreel shook his head. “I do not know much of this place, but I can be sure there is more than that.”

“If one has money…”

“In my home, there is no need for money, or toiling, or even suffering.”

“Maybe after we get out, we can find the road back there,” Piers offered a tired smile.

“It is a place where no roads lead,” Gadreel said without hesitation. “You must only open your heart to it, and at the end of your time here, it will accept your arrival.”

Piers nodded and shrugged. “I’m not sure what that means, but if we happen to meet up outside of this place, you can show me… tell me the way to do all that. But as I said, one day at a time.”

Gadreel nodded and glanced back at the others, sitting listlessly or poking at the meager fire, sometimes shifting out of the way of its smoke.

The dead grass growing up from the edge of the walls crinkled as Piers stood up. “You’re bleeding, Gad,” he said lowly.

Gadreel peered back. “Bleeding?”

“The bloodstains are soaking through your tunic. The crack of the whip can be tough on untrained skin. I should know. Nothing to think much about, really, but we should wash it off from the wounds before the flies start to swarm about.”

Gadreel nodded and watched as Piers pick himself off the ground. He followed as they walked towards the old troughs of water, filled little by little with the trickle from an old pipe. “It’s cold, but take off the tunic just for now.”

Gadreel glanced back at the shacks where the others had gone to rest. He slipped the collar up around his head and pulled the rest of the ratty clothes over his shoulders, forcing the bare wings to flex and reveal themselves. The cold air stung his skin and forced the fine hairs upon his body to stand on end.

Piers ripped a section from the hem of his own clothes and soaked them in the water before turning to Gadreel. “I see, the bulk from under your clothes…”

“I recognize no others here in this place possess such a form. These… they have been stripped of their coverings,” Gadreel explained, his back to the other man. “The people of this town did not seem comfortable with their appearance. It is simply the form I was given. Do not feel ashamed to look upon them. If you do not wish to, I will wash my own self.”

“You couldn’t reach these spots easily,” Piers sighed and pressed the clammy rag to Gadreel’s back, rubbing at the spots where the blood had dried. “The people of your land… do they all have… wings?”

“Those of us called Angels. Those who carry out God’s will.”

“I do remember you saying that. I suppose the will that your… God… imposed on you this time was to… be a messenger of sorts?”

“Yes. And to learn.”

“A shame you aren’t learning anything but how awful people can be,” Piers concluded. “There, cleaner than before. The bleeding had already stopped.”

Gadreel carefully pulled the clothing back over his head and shoulder. “The fact of people as a whole being… awful… is not accurate. Despite your place here… you have been kind. Why? To me, of all people?”

“I do not believe anyone needs a reason to be kind to another person.”

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Hands

Salvation: Chapter 4

Gadreel was re-introduced to the constable’s yard. The other prisoners had since put down their tools and transported the slightly smaller scraps of rock to slightly different places and put away their hammers in the shed, lock replaced by the man on duty. The clouded sun had crept past its highest point, allowing the fog to creep lowly once again across the sky unfettered. The meager fire among the bunkhouses crackled with flames just big enough to radiate heat under the kindling rationed to them.

Piers and a few of the others took notice of his return. “You’ve come back. I didn’t think you would.” He stood up from his spot on an old log round, offering the seat to Gadreel.

Gadreel looked at his own feet, covered in thin leather, and found them urging him forward to the heat of the fire. “Why did you think that?”

Another prisoner, a dirty man with gray hairs, stared at him from across the fire pit. “Because they usually have a reason if they’re giving someone special attention. Especially to be taken care of so soon after arriving.”

“And to end up back here at the end of it all,” another mumbled.

Gadreel shook his head. “They wished to know more about me.”

The old man across the fire leaned in and shook his head. “And what’s there to find out? You’re not from this place, that’s obvious.”

“Let him keep his secrets,” Piers spoke up. “If he so wishes.”

“I would have preferred him gone for good,” The bread-stealing man from earlier, Arthur, stepped up to the fire, shoving the others aside. “One less ration for us to have to share.”

“They wouldn’t feed us more, even if there are fewer mouths.”

Arthur held his hands to the heat for a moment before scoffing and retreating to the exterior. Gadreel examined him before turning back to the others. “Where do people go to if they do not return?”

Piers sighed and crossed his arms. “They either serve out their sentences… as long as the constable thinks they deserve… or they head to the chopping block.”

“Chopping block?”

The old man across the fire drew a thumb across his own throat and made a hissing sound. “To lose one’s head.”

“Execution. If and when they are found deserving,” Piers slumped down. “Those kinds of folks don’t stay here for long. For that reason, I had to assume your case… well, perhaps I should not speak of such things. Does your land carry out justice in a different way?”

Gadreel shook his head. “I believe… my land is one without wrongdoing.”

The old man scoffed. “A paradise. Your land must only exist in your imagination.”

Gadreel stood carefully, eyes low, head shaking delicately, offering his hands out to the others. “I can assure you that I only speak what I know to be true. I would like nothing more but to speak to you all of the glory of God; his power and his forgiveness. If you were to hear his word and accept it, you may one day come to dwell in my land of Heaven, where all your wrongdoings will be forgiven and overwritten.”

The old man chuckled and patted his knee. “You are a storyteller, then. Did you make fun of the wrong sort on your travels here?”

Piers tapped at Gadreel’s arm and pulled it back to his side. “Save your breath. Many of us are not the sort who are deserving… even desiring any sort of forgiveness. But perhaps another time we will be open to hear of the tales of the land you call home.”

Gadreel found the eyes of the others glancing up at him, drained of energy, some replaced with discontent. He stepped back, finding the seat behind him once again. The heat of the fire danced with the cold air circulating the sitting area, and he realized how cold his skin had become.

Another day began with cold water, the lines of prisoners awaiting their tools to be handed out to them, and the gathering around the hard stones that collected in the low corner of the yard. He remembered how to hold and swing the hammer, but the feeling of the raw flesh from the split blisters made it hard to do.

Gadreel battered the same stone, little by little, until the bell and the first meal, then began again until the second notification. The break after the second meal was longer. The morning fog burned off quicker than usual that day, heating the ground and the laborers faster than previous.

Gadreel felt his skin slick and cold with sweat after some time. It dripped from the roots of his long hair and collected at his back, chafing the bare wings beneath the rough vestments afforded to him.

The second round of work began at the sound of the bell once more, but at a slackened pace. Gadreel was among the first to return to his hammer and boulder. “The constable are eating and napping this time of day,” Piers spoke over his shoulder. “As long as they hear the sound of the stones being struck, they won’t be bothered to check on us. We take turns each day. I’ll cover for you tomorrow, no need to wear yourself out any more than needed.”

Gadreel nodded but focused on the work regardless. After allowing his mind to escape for several long minutes, he was pulled back once more by the passing of a low voice, the speaker looking and leaning away as if the words weren’t meant for him. “There’s someone by the fence asking for you. But don’t let yourself be seen by the guards.”

Gadreel held the heavy end of the tool by his feet and scanned the long sections of fence, made up of wood and spiked wire and ornaments of metal. A tall figure stood, back to the yard, against the fence on the far opposite side away from the main building. Gadreel glanced back and began towards the man, leaving the hammer behind.

“What is this place you’re in, Gadreel?”

“This is a place of punishment, Chazaqiel.”

“I see. I sensed your pain and came this way. They are poor fools to treat you in such a way.”

“I wish to experience it.”

Chazaqiel turned back, his face and golden hair not dissimilar to Gadreel’s. “It is unwise for these greater powers to hold you back. It was understood that our words would draw unrest. But you must speak to them earnestly, speak to them of the Lord’s grace, and at that, they might understand why you must not be kept behind these walls. They would be urged to take part in their own salvation.”

Gadreel shook his head. “There are people in this very place, behind these walls, who I believe deserve to hear our words just the same.”

“That may be true, but men like these only look up to those who have power. Their Kings, in lands like these. Dwelling here will not bring you closer to spreading your influence.”

“There is ample time, is there not? Every person is deserving of salvation, Chazaqiel.”

“For us, time is not a matter. But mortals have a finite time here. We cannot speak to each and every one, for ten more will pass on while doing so. And if they do so unknowing of their possible salvation, where do they end up? Where were we told?”

Gadreel shook his head. “Not to Heaven.”

“Very good.” The other angel nodded. “Free yourself from these walls by whatever way possible. Do what you must to convince them it is necessary. I must continue my own tasks elsewhere.”

“It shall be done,” Gadreel answered, lowing his head. The other being covered his head with the well-worn clothing and began to march away on the adjacent cobble street until he could no longer be seen.

Gadreel blinked and turned back. The ringing from the pounding rocks sounded in his ears, the uneven rhythm almost blending into the ambiance of the cold afternoon. He returned back to where he had been working. The boulder he had struck was in the same spot, but the hammer missing.

Gadreel glanced about. The other workers didn’t seem to dare to look his way. He spotted the constable, the silver-toothed man, beside the main building, the hammer resting against his thigh and eyes trained on him. He smiled and flashed his gleaming front teeth as Gadreel approached.

“I’ll have that to continue working,” Gadreel glanced at the worn handle.

The silver-toothed man smiled wider, more cynically. “I’m not quite sure why it left your hands in the first place. You’d just been fed, no possibility you were tired and hungry. But we have a reminder for those who decide they’d rather not work. Step against the wall here.”

The silver-toothed man wagged a finger at Gadreel as he approached, finding himself staring at the worn and sun-beaten knots of the building’s siding. He tossed the hammer aside on the ground and unwound something from a pouch on his belt.

“Keep your eyes forward,” the silver-toothed man barked when Gadreel attempted to look back. There was a sudden snap, then a sharp strike to his back, seeming to cut through the cloth. It ran up between his shoulder blades like a cold touch that suddenly seared his skin with a burning sharpness. The bare limbs that remained from the plucking of his wings flinched and flexed with his shoulder blades.

The sharp sound made contact with his back once more, then twice, and one final long one, accompanied by the sound of a grunt from the constable. Gadreel felt the breath stuck in his chest, awaiting the next strike that didn’t come. With its release, he felt the stinging of the strikes, the skin rising from the welts, and the cold air digging its way in through the slashes caused by the end of the whip. He realized he had sunken to the ground, his legs sucked of their strength.

The silver-toothed man snapped his fingers. “Up, now. Get back to work. You have another hour.”

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Stairs

Salvation: Chapter 3

After the first meal of the day came more hammering. Gadreel had begun tightening his muscles and blinking his eyes tight through the sound of each nearby hammer strike, but the feeling soon abated. It wasn’t long before the blisters on his hands grew elsewhere, bursting and leaving a cold slickness upon the raw areas left behind.

The light of the day had nearly pierced the clouds above. The door of the constable’s shack that guarded the edge of the yard opened. The silver-toothed man and his accompanying brutes, the ones that had brought Gadreel amongst the others, stepped out. Some of the prisoners stopped the movement of their arms to look upon them, while others knew better.

“Back to work! Those not working obviously don’t need the food, am I right?” He sneered, eying the prisoners. “Except you, feathered one.”

Piers glanced at Gadreel as he set down the tool and marched across the yard. “I knew it wouldn’t be long for you.”

Gadreel followed obediently, being led back to the main building where it seemed the constable lived and worked. The big men shut the door behind him and stood in his way. The silver-toothed man examined him up and down, pulling on the shawl down his back covering up the bulk of his naked wings. “Still no flight for you.”

“Have you now decided to hear the words I am dutied to speak?”

The sliver-toothed man came back around and examined Gadreel with squinted eyes before arching his hand back and replying with a slap across the face. “Your words are nothing but nonsense. Your body… those wings at your back, too, are inhuman. What else do you have hiding on your body? Talons? A fish’s gills, teeth of venom?”

Gadreel clenched his jaw as the sting of the slap abated. “My presence here is decreed a mission of peace… of salvation.”

The silver-toothed man folded his arms. “Keep your nonsense to yourself. The scholars and apothecaries that live in the castle desire to lay eyes on your body. So that they might determine what you are.”

“If that shall ease your qualms,” Gadreel declared, lowering his head.

The silver-tooth man growled and snapped, allowing the brute behind to take up Gadreel’s neck in his grasp. Before departing the building, they slung his shawl back over his head and back, blocking out his site of all but the movement of his feet.

The road through town climbed upwards. The cobbled that paved the ground resembled the stones that Gadreel and the others had been working towards busting apart in the work yard. Further along, the path turned to square bricks, growing moss, and climbing up one step at a time to someplace higher.

At the top of the stairs, the constable spoke to the guards at the gate. “We have the stranger.”

“Go inside.”

The interior beyond the doors was warmer and lit by candles and fireplaces. The orange light flickered and glowed against the walls which were made out of stone and not wood like the shacks the town’s prisoners were moored. Gadreel followed without complaint through the halls until they were met with those to whom the meeting had been promised.

“Well, well.” They were met behind a set of doors.

“Just like I said,” the constable boasted.

Three men, older, with wrinkles and thin hair, leaned, backs-bent forward, before Gadreel. “Do what you like. He’s not a delicate one,” the silver-toothed man added, shoving him forward and yanking off the shawl.

“Let’s have a look,” the first man mumbled.

“Have him undress,” said the second.

The already torn and loose clothes were pulled off Gadreel and left to settle at his ankles. His skin grew goosebumps, but he knew offering any reaction would gain him no favor.

“Fine skin, hair, and build,” noted the third man, pulling on and examining Gadreel’s fingernails and further below. “He’s intact, uncut, as well.”

“Disgusting,” the silver-haired man as well.

“Perhaps a sign of nobility,” The second man asked. “You found him where, again?”

“The town square. Showing off those spare limbs of his. Back before they were plucked of plumes. People came to us, though, speaking of a winged man.”

The older men trounced around Gadreel, eyes scanning his arms and shoulders and finally his back, the bare wing-like appendages hanging in the vicinity of his shoulder blades.

“There were once feathers here upon these… appendages?” the second man stroked the coarse, scaly skin with a single finger.

“They were bulky. Likely rife with nits and bugs.”

“Can you fly, sir?” The third man asked, finally returning to Gadreel’s view.

“I feel as if… it was possible at one point. But not with this body.”

The first man caught up to the third. “You have other bodies?”

“Where I was… before.”

The third man nodded, “Tell us about how you got here. Where you called home before.”

“Before…” Gadreel’s mind filled with clouds, any memory of a time before his arrival outside of the town absent. “I do not remember. But it is a place called… Heaven.”

“Heaven?” The second man asked. “I’ve never heard of such a land. Have you?”

“I haven’t.”

“No.”

The sliver-toothed man grunted. “He said he came here to spread word.”

“Who’s word?” The first man shook his head with a hiss. “The leader of your land, Heaven? A King? Or an Emperor perhaps?”

Gadreel perked up. “The Lord. He is the creator and leader of all things living, all things that have lived, and will live.”

The silver-toothed man smacked Gadreel in the back of the head. “You will speak no such words! The only lord recognized upon these lands here is the good King who sits upon the throne of this castle; for it has been his family line that has taken care of this land and our people for centuries. It has been his own blood that hath sewn this soil to allow us to prosper.”

“Calm yourself, constable,” the second man said. “Dress yourself, man of heaven.”

Gadreel crouched to bring the clothes up back around him, fastening the trousers and hiding the bare wings once more.

“This man speaks in riddles, it seems,” the first man glared at him with studious eyes. “He comes from a land called heaven, speaking of a man whom he calls his Lord.”

“A powerful man,” the third man added.

“He has said he is a messenger.”

The silver-toothed man shook his head. “A message of war, then? Invasion?”

The second man adjusted Gadreel’s rough collar and looked into his eyes. “What does your Lord desire for us?”

“Salvation,” Gadreel said slowly.

“That means nothing.”

“To be saved.”

“By what means?”

“I doubt the man knows every detail.”

“But it is a threat.”

“To save us from ourselves?”

“From what he seems to think our Kingdom is doing to us.”

“And from what point of reference?”

“Enough!” The silver-toothed man interrupted the exchange of words. The three old men stared at him, then Gadreel, who had barely moved from the spot. “When does your salvation come?”

Gadreel shook his head. “It is something you must accept on your own.”

“Are there more of you?”

“More, yes, I believe. I… feel them. But I have been placed here, solely.”

The silver-toothed man shook his head. “Your insight has been… productive, gents,” he said with contempt. “This matter now, I assume, must go to the king. His court, the guards, the scouts on the borders who might have seen something.”

“Aye.”

“Yes.”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Well, I won’t have him going anywhere, then. Good day.” The silver-toothed man grabbed up Gadreel by the hand behind his back and turned him about. “Until we hear from the King, you will return to the others where you can’t spread more of your rumors and threats. Move, now.”

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Stones

Salvation: Chapter 2

Gadreel awoke, curled up on the hard wooden surface. Someone had placed spare clothes over in him the cold of the night. His body shook nonetheless.

When he had arrived, he was without any covering. The people of this land, he spied from far away, covered themselves at all times. On the edge of that town, near a sole dwelling, were clothes hung up for him, devoid of an owner. He took them as his own before attempting to fit in and speak the words he had been ordained to share.

The young but weathered stranger from the night previous shook him to attention. “Best get up before the constable decide that you’re late.”

Gadreel rolled over and sat up. It was daylight. His fatigue had taken him and transported him to morning once more. He was able to stand and readjust his clothing to a state similar to the others.

He blinked at the man, awaiting him by the door of the shared dwelling. The others had departed. “We work first. Then we get food.”

“Food.”

The man nodded. “It will get your appetite going, at least. Warm you up, too. I’m Piers, by the way.”

“Piers.”

“Like I said, before they decide to punish you for being late.”

Gadreel nodded, standing, unaware of what he was going to work for. The clinking of metal tools broke the silence of the morning. The walled yard contained the men he had seen the night before. They worked with heavy tools, taking large rocks and pounding away at them to turn them into slightly smaller ones.

Piers made several glances back to assure Gadreel was following. The tiny building built off the larger one held tools for them. “You know how to swing one of these, Gad?”

“Gad?” He asked, taking the shaft of the heavy hammer passed his way.

“It’s easier to say.”

Gadreel glanced back at the other workers. “It is not a hard task, I can see. Why do we do it?”

“Because it’s what they want us to do,” Piers shrugged, dragging the long-handled hammer behind him. “Sometimes some people go out and replace the missing cobbles from the road with these. Most times they just get piled up elsewhere. We do that too.”

“Why?” Gadreel asked, following.

“Because if we didn’t… I suppose we would be doing nothing. And they don’t want that. Us criminals to be able to relax.”

Gadreel dragged his palms across the rough fibers of the handle, finding the most natural place to rest his hands. He hefted it like the others, found a rock that had yet to be bludgeoned, and swung. His body shook as it made contact. The handle splintered and tore at his skin. He glanced at his palms but found no immediate sign of injury. The others swung apathetically, allowing the weight of the metal head to create the force needed to make the sounds to appease the guards. Then it was time for the re-centering of their breaths before another swing was attempted.

Gadreel swung again, allowing the hammer to do the work. His hands hurt again. The face of the rock was marred with white marks, but it remained intact. The soggy dirt and moss of the ground had deformed under the force. He went again, this time feeling less than before.

The chosen rock had shed a sharp fragment of its skin, leaving behind a rough surface beneath, but no more cracks had been divulged from the remaining mass. The bell rang from the corner of the yard, near the building where Gadreel had been inducted. The workers straightened their backs up, setting down hammers and rubbing hands against their clothing. As if they had been trained to do so, they began to march away from the field of work and towards the sound of the ringing.

In two lines, the men washed their hands and faces in a long basin of frigid water, two at a time. Then they wandered to the window to pick up the rations. At the end of the line, Gadreel found his chance to clean himself. He found upon his palm a bubble of flesh, swelling with liquid.

There was yet another below the finger of his other hand, he noticed while in the second line. “Your hands will grow accustomed to it,” Piers said, glancing back at him. He held out his own hands, showing off the thickened skin and circular calluses, ridges stained with dirt despite the recent watching. “Your skin is yet too pure and soft. What exactly have you been doing before this?”

“Move forward,” the gruff voice from the window called their way. “Get your food now or you won’t eat.”

The rations were old bread, a bowl of soggy porridge with a handful of mysterious additions for flavoring, and a mug of sour ale that had been just slightly warmed. They ate sitting on the ground at the edge of the building. Gadreel forced his teeth around the crusty bread, working his jaw to separate the dry mouthful from the rest of the loaf.

“Dip it in the ale,” Piers nodded, chewing down a softened piece of his own portion. “They give us whatever didn’t sell at the market yesterday. Probably because it’s loaded down with chalk. But it’s better than nothing.”

Before Gadreel could do so, the bread was yanked from his hand by a large man standing over him. “And why does he need any at’ll?” said the man, tossing the loaf around in his wide hand. “The man wouldn’t care for it, can’t ya see? He has the head and the hands of someone who eats cake, not bread.”

“He’s here with us now, so what’s the difference, Arthur?” Piers said with a shake of his head.

Gadreel stood and offered the bowl of porridge to the man as well. “No, this man is of a larger stature, he must need more food. Take it, with my blessing.”

Arther squinted at the new member before knocking the bowl to the ground with a wide swipe of the back of his hand. “Don’t pity me, straw-hair.”

A few of the others snickered as the big man retreated. Piers shuffled and attempted to save the remaining food in the bowl from dribbling into the mud. “Don’t pay attention to him, Gad. You need to eat. To keep your strength up. It’ll be worse if you aren’t able to work.”

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