An Autumn Tale

by Dice

The young man sat half asleep with his back to the hangman's tree. A threadbare cloak covered his thin body and he was so pale he looked near dead. The rider felt his blood go cold and he hesitated, but then made his choice and got off his horse.

A lonely crowing came from the large black birds in the tree above the youth.

The rain had turned the ground slippery and making his way towards the boy under the tree, the man's foot lost its hold and he placed one hand in the mud.

A low laugh reached his ears.

"How now, you rascal? Do you see fit to taunt me for my misfortune?" the man barked.

"They all saw fit to taunt me for mine," came the quiet reply.

"You shouldn't be here!" the man demanded in a tone that should have made it clear he was used to having his words obeyed.

"No, but who're you to make me leave?" the youngster answered defiantly, his bleak, blue eyes meeting the captain's, sharp and fragile like reed on a frosty morn.

"I am Gilles St. Luc, the new captain of the lord's guard, boy!" Well, he would be no later than he reached the lord's castle as it were. Though from a common background he had been given the high position due to his renown as a hero and leader of men in the great war.

"Ha! The last one couldn't make me leave here, why would you do better than he?" the boy laughed outright now.

Gilles stood his ground below the hangman's tree. He would not let this lowly peasant boy make him lose his temper so easily, he was a man of patience and fortitude, besides he didn't fancy chasing him through the mud in unknown country should he frighten him.

It was a cold eve; winter was still a way off yet, but autumn was no longer rich in colour, but richer still in freezing mornings and stinging rain. Gilles considered his own heavy, woollen cloak with fur trim and then looked again at the boy's scant clothing - he must be chilled to the bone.

"Would you move for a bed and a warm fire?" he asked, his tone softer.

The boy didn't move, but his eyes pierced Gilles's, doubting yet defenceless. Then he caught himself and feigned indifference, shrugging his slight shoulders.

"A berth in the lord's dungeon and a fire to heat the irons? Don't think you can fool me, old man, I've been invited to such parties afore!"

Gilles looked long and hard at the boy. The bitterness was heartfelt, though the tremble in his voice revealed he was far from as brash as he wanted to let on.

"Why do you keep wake in such a dismal place?" he asked at length.

At first he thought he would have no response from the boy, but then he looked up, his face wavering between a lost child and a man filled with anger.

"I'm waiting for my brother," he said.

"And where is he?"

"He's dead a year past! They hanged him here, I saw him kick until his life was choked out of him," the young man looked at him, his voice rough and eyes filling with tears.

"Justice is hard on the unrighteous," Gilles spoke with sympathy, but his words were met with loathing.

"To hell with justice! What would the rich know of righteousness? My brother had done no more than take a dry branch for firewood! They beat us both bloody, before they dragged him here to hang him! Hanged for a twig!"

He'd heard of lords treating their small folk with similar tight fisted avarice elsewhere, but hearing a boy speak so strongly and with such grief of the results of such a ruthless rule, Gilles could do little to prevent his compassion from flaring.

He moved to the boy's side and the youngster flinched back, but he sank down on one knee on the muddy ground, clasping the ice cold hands in his.

"Waiting for a ghost will not change matters! Let me take you out of the cold!"

The boy spat in his face.

Wiping the spit from his eyes he thought: to the devil with patience! Then he pulled the youngster to his feet and lay a round of sharp slaps across his backside, the sound rang loud in the silence and startled the crows from the tree. The young man did not fight him, he merely gasped in pain and his face contorted in fear.

He brought his hand down hard, again and again, and knew from every hard wince the pain his strength caused the boy, and still he could feel him leaning in closer, taking hold of his cloak, drawn, no doubt, by the heat of his body.

Turning the youngster to face him, a hard grasp on his arm, he tilted his face upwards and looked into the blue eyes, now reminding him of melted ice.

"You ungrateful brat! A stranger shows you an inkling of concern and you spit in his face. I should let you sit here and die!" he snarled, the boy opened his mouth, face flustered, to answer in kind, but Gilles gave his arm a rough shake and spoke on, "But I shan't! Because I was born as poor as you or poorer still and I know how hard it is to believe a gesture is kindly meant."

The boy looked down, he said nothing, but then quiet sobs could be heard and the boy buried his face in his cloak, clinging to him like a small child. At first the crying was choked and sounded almost painful, but Gilles stood there allowing the boy to weep until, at length, there were no more tears left.

"What is your name, boy?" he asked, running his hand through the youngster's hair and holding the back of his head for a moment.

"Amiel, brother of Amyon," he whispered.

"Where do you belong, Amiel?" Gilles asked him.

"I... I don't know..." the boy wiped his face on his ragged sleeve. "Nowhere, I only had my brother."

"I suppose I should take you to the church, they'll give you shelter, won't they?" Gilles resolved after a moment's pause.

The boy looked up at the hangman's tree and then he nodded slowly as if reaching a decision within himself.

"I think I should like to go to the church," he whispered.

Gilles took his cloak off and wrapped it around the boy's thin frame before mounting the horse. As he bent to help Amiel up behind him, his horse flared its nostrils and sidestepped skittishly, until Gilles pulled sharply at the reins to force her to stand still long enough for the boy to mount behind him. The boy's hands clasped around his waist and he could feel his head resting against his back as they made their way through the darkness.

The church was a small stone building, resting as if shoved to the ground on a low hill. Beneath the hill lay an unkempt graveyard with knotted trees and a scattering of gravestones. The boy slipped off the horse as Gilles pulled up on the outskirts of the graveyard. He made to give the cloak back, but Gilles put up a hand, shaking his head and the boy's hands fell to his sides.

"I'll walk you inside..." Gilles dismounted.

"I... thank you," Amiel said and a small shy smile touched his lips.

Gilles began leading the horse up the path to the church, but Amiel lingered behind him, he turned around to ask what was wrong, but hesitated when he saw the youth's wistful expression. He was looking out across the graveyard as if seeing something there that Gilles could not see.

"My brother was buried there..." the boy said quietly.

"Then, if you wish to pay your respect," Gilles replied. "I'll go on ahead." He tugged at the reins and walked up to the church.

A light still shone in the windows, and Gilles pounded at the door once with his fist. As hurried steps came towards him inside he looked back down over the graveyard, but saw no sign of the boy.

"Yes?" an old priest stuck his nose out of the door. "Who calls this late at God's house?" he asked quietly.

"Forgive my disturbing you at such a late hour, I'm Gilles St. Luc, I was on my way to take up the position as the captain of the guard. I met a youth on the road and brought him here to get him out of the cold," Gilles explained.

"A youth?" the priest looked about and then turned a questioning gaze at him. "Where is he then?"

"He stopped to visit his brother's grave, Amiel is his name..." Gilles did not finish his sentence for the priest stepped back, face pale and eyes wary.

"Amiel? And a brother, Amyon, buried here?" he said slowly.

"Yes," Gilles answered with some annoyance, "if you fear reprisals from the lord for helping him..."

"No, no my son, it's not that... Amiel died a year ago, froze to death under that hangman's tree, keeping wake for his brother who was hanged," the priest said quietly.

Gilles stared at him while the words sank in and then he shook his head. It could not be true, it was some ruse. Some wicked trick to make a fool of him. He turned on his heel, walking down the path, the priest hurrying after him, calling out.

"I gave him my cloak! He rode with me!" he lashed out angrily. "I..."

He walked to the place where Amiel had stopped and then walked in his footsteps into the dark graveyard, his blood curdling and every hair on his body standing on end.

He stopped at a small, humble stone in the earth. The only mark on it was a rough cross. No name was carved and yet Gilles knew at once whose name should have been on it. The name of two brothers dead because of a nobleman's greed.

On the ground lay a woollen cloak with a fur trim.

~ Dice

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