A soft wind ripples the grass beneath the gallows tree…
“They were here before we even knew it,” she whispers. Her young face is covered in dirt, streaked through with tears.
He is silent as he watches the sun spill blood into the sky as it bows low.
A beautiful punctuation to a horrific sentence.
“Most didn’t want to come out.” She swallows the memory. “Those who didn’t… They… They knocked their doors in and dragged them out.”
She nods and swallows. “And dragged them to the hill.”
Moot Hill. Where judgments are handed down without trials.
The young girl hangs her head. “I ran to the woods. I… ran to…”
“To what?” he asks, staring at the ground.
“To… to get her. I thought, maybe… maybe if I gave her back, maybe…”
He looks at the girl, hands behind her back and nods.
Slowly, painfully, she reveals what she is hiding. A rope. “I… Faither said they were coming for all of them. Every one. They took count last month. Had lists… and… and… the new lord wanted a great feast.”
The new lord.
The small lord is a more fitting title.
He knows the man. Knows how he rose to the title after his father, a very bland ruler, died mysteriously in the night. Knows the pettiness, the complete disregard for anyone but himself… as demonstrated in today’s actions. Cows were seldom eaten in this village. Their value was in the milk, not the meat. Most who lived here had little more than the clothes they wore and, if they were lucky, the crops and animals they tended. Taking all the livestock spelled certain disaster for these people. But the small lord didn’t care. Finding a way to stay alive was the villagers’ problem, not his.
“They even wanted the calves,” the girl sobs. “But I… I didn’t think… she’s so small. Since she was born, she’s been so small… Why would they care? She’s nothing.”
There is blood on the rope.
“One of them… one… he found her before I could…”
“So they did this?” He nods to the gallows tree.
The girl weeps.
She shakes her head, squeezes her eyes shut.
“What else?” he repeats.
She points to a spot not far from the tree, then falls to the ground where she sobs and shakes. He slowly walks to the place and looks down. He stares until it is cold and black all around them, then he gathers up the small girl. It is too dangerous to take her back to her own house, so he takes her to a place no one knows about. The place he stays when he visits this part of the world. He tries to feed her, but she won’t eat. He tries to comfort her, but she finds no relief. His last recourse is a small vial of liquid that will allow her to sleep through the next day without thoughts or dreams. It is all he can offer. When he is sure the drug has taken hold, he rides out.
As the sky lightens, he feeds a small fire and stares at the fortress across the plain. He never liked the stone structures the small lords built around themselves. And he especially doesn’t like this one. The wealth displayed is even more obscene when he considers how most of the people in this land live. Today, lines of horses and wagons flow in.
For the great feast.
To honor a small lord’s birth.
When he enters the walls, no one notices him. No one notices when he joins a group of courtly folk entering the great hall. No one notices as he breaks off from the group. No one notices as he slips into the quarters of the small lord. Inside, he takes an object from the pouch cinched at his waist.
“Who are you?” The small lord’s voice booms.
He calmly smiles. “No one of consequence.”
“Clearly,” the small lord huffs. He is draped in furs and finery. Rings populate his fingers and a large gem hangs at his neck. The clothes make him appear formidable. He is not. “Why are you here? No one is allowed in…”
“I have been given a task of great importance.”
The small lord’s jaw tightens. “This is how you speak to your lord? I am to be addressed properly. Or didn’t anyone teach you manners?”
He smiles again and tosses the bloody rope on the floor.
The small lord pauses. “Is this a threat?”
“It’s a rope. Stained with blood of a calf your men killed yesterday.”
The small lord snorts as he grabs a quaich of wine from the table and drinks. “So that was your village?”
“It’s a village I know. One of many.” He sits on a carved oak chair.
“That’s my chair and I didn’t say you could sit.”
He smiles again and remains seated.
“So you’re here to… what? Threaten me? Wail and beseech me to show mercy?”
“Mercy? No. I’m here to study you.” He folds his hands and watches the small lord squirm. Power but no strength… not without his guards at least.
“Study? So you’re a monk? Or a scholar, perhaps? ”
“Does it matter?” he says.
“And what do you study?”
“Those like you.”
The small lord looks pleased. “Ah, so you pass on the tales of great men and their deeds?”
“In a way.”
“Well.” The small lord swaggers to his ornate chair and slumps into it. He pours more wine and drinks deeply. “You have found the source of many tales. I am a great man and have certainly done great deeds.”
He is silent.
The small lord sits up and glares at him. “I am a great man, am I not?”
“You are not.”
The small lord’s face reddens. “Look at you. What do you know about greatness? Nothing.”
“I have watched the wise and just rise to power only to be defeated by those like you. I have watched whole civilizations be destroyed by those like you. You are not a great man because you thrive on others’ weaknesses. Every single person around you is simply a… thing to be used and thrown aside. Whether weak or powerful , you use them without thought or feeling.”
“It is my right. I earned this power.”
“You were born. And had power handed to you. And you did nothing but serve yourself. Feasted on the flesh of the people who toiled and died for your pleasure.” He looks at the bloody rope on the floor. “And you did, without hesitation or regret, take human lives as payment for a calf that was saved from your slaughter. A calf that, when found, was promptly killed as well.”
“It is my right to deliver justice as I see fit.”
“This is justice?”
“And you see nothing wrong with what you’ve done? With any of it?”
“I did what I had to do. I rule this land. Everything on it is mine. Everyone who lives here serves me. I set the law…”
“You changed the law to suit your needs.”
“As is my right,” the small lord bellows. “And those who don’t obey the law suffer the consequences.”
“And you live by those words? Laws must be obeyed or there is a price to pay.”
“And you feel this makes you a great man?”
The small lord stands. “I have a feast to attend. Find your way out of my sight.”
And the small lord leaves.
The room is silent.
“You saw,” he finally says to the empty room.
Yes, they saw.
“I know where it went wrong this time. If we take them back to…”
He is not allowed to finish.
Six other times he managed to talk them out of completely destroying this small planet full of even smaller beings. Six times they walked the clock back to a pivotal point in history, changed the variables and tried again. Six times, the small beings arrived at the same small, petty conclusion.
Might is right.
The seventh time will be a complete reboot.
He shakes his head and in that moment sees the drowning pit. Full of the bodies of mothers and daughters. Of babies. Weighed down with hurdles so there was no escape. And the gallows tree, ropes on every limb and on every rope a body. Fathers, brothers. Young boys. Old men.
All because a child wanted to save a calf.
He sees all this in his mind and feels hollow because he has no argument. He finally agrees. A complete reset is the only answer. It seems, no matter what they do, the path these beings walk always leads to domination, greed and power. Collaboration, altruism, even compassion remain with those who suffer under the yolk of the small lords. Whenever they rise to power, whatever form they take.
As he leaves the room, several guards are waiting. No surprise. He never expected to walk out of this fortress. But he is wrong. The small lord wants to pull his wings off and watch him struggle.
So he is returned to the village.
To the furca and fossa.
He is silent as the armored men raise his body to the noose. He has died before. Many times. But this is the first time he will be hung. As his weight pulls the rope tight around his neck, he swings languidly beside the other bodies and watches the sun spill blood into the sky as it bows low.
He thinks of the girl who wanted to save a single small life. He thinks of the men who followed orders without question and executed an entire village as payment for the deed. He thinks of the small lord who will never be troubled by any of this and he closes his eyes for what will certainly not be the last time and weeps…
As a soft wind ripples the grass beneath the gallows tree and…
The sky explodes with a blast of energy, laying waste to all life.
This week’s idea is courtesy of Grafton Lee Swickard: “A soft wind ripples the grass beneath the gallows tree…”