The Dead Man's Tree


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Scene Title The Dead Man's Tree
Synopsis The road to death is a lonely one… at least when you're not traveling.
Date December 5, 2010

Outside the Village of Highbird

Gnarled and vaguely human in appearance itself, the dead man's tree of the village of Highbird looms over the crossroads, giving warning to any who pass by. Local legends say that if you pass under the tree's shadow by the light of the full moon, you'll be hanging there by morning. Morning hasn't been seen around these parts in a very very long time and the tree has been starving for lack of bodies.

There are still a few occupants in the cages that hang from its disjointed fingers. Made of iron, they're stronger than the prisoners trapped inside. For petty crimes you get only a few days, but to count the days, the sun must come up. The sun hasn't shown its face in too long and the prisoners have been left to rot.

Trapped in one such cage, Gael Cruz was accused of treason against the crown. A crime punishable by death but since the only witness was later accused of witchcraft, he got a lighter sentence of three days. If the sun were to rise on a regular schedule, tomorrow would mark his third week anniversary. He's over due for food, water, and a bath. It's unfortunate that the man sharing the cage with him was not cut from hardier stock, or perhaps it was lucky for Gael… His cagemate's death had the fortuitous tidings of food for Gael himself.

Even with the sun's disappearance, there are other ways to count days— or what would have been days. Meal times— except they seemed to be spaced further and further apart as his sentence dragged on. Phases of the moon… until it became painfully clear that those had been frozen in place, too. The closest thing to darkness was when he managed to pass out for a while.

Most of the time, Gael just stared out at the silhouette of the hanging tree, and the other cages as they gradually swung back and forth. Or was that his own cage— or maybe it his vision was to blame? So dizzy. It took him hours just to tear a few fingers loose from the nameless body before him, after he was certain it had collapsed for the very last time.

The swinging. He had a plan about that, once. When the time was right - when no one was watching - he'd throw his body back and forth in just the right way, swing close enough to use his clothes as a lasso, and then he'd… something. What the hell was it? He can't remember, now— and even if he could, he doesn't have the strength now to even try.

But there's always someone watching. The damnable ravens roosting in the branches overhead heckle with their loud croaks, seemingly laughing at the one man left alive in the cages. A flutter of inky wings repeats itself as one by one they hop down the branches to get closer. The last man left alive will be something of a treat. They haven't eaten in a very long time.

At least not since he's been asleep.

A low whistle off in the distance warns all of those with heartbeats left that someone is coming down the road. For the ravens it means there might be someone new and their heads pivot and angle to get a better look at the figure with their fish eye view.

Against the black of night, the soft curtain wave of white cotton in the warm breeze moves ever closer to the tree. A swath of bright red hair, that practically glows under the light of the full moon, tops the approaching person. As it nears, it can definitely be identified as a female, early twenties (if that at all), and as tall as a man.

The ravens, he isn't so worried about. They might nip off some bits of skin and nail while he's passed out, but those will grow back. And if he loses enough strength that he can't even fight them off when they grow more ambitious— well, at that point, he's done for anyway.

No, his focus is locked on the new human as soon as he spots her. Ignoring the stink of the cage floor, he drops down and peers just over the edge of it, eyes wide. Maybe she'll let him out. Maybe she's going to be thrown in.

She's not being escorted, she's quite alone on the road… which probably means that she's not about to be thrown in. It also means, unfortunately, that she's less likely to let him out. Being female and alone while on a dark and deserted road makes a person a little wary of her surroundings. But she's whistling, which points to the fact that she's at least a little bit carefree of the dangers she might encounter.

As she gets closer, the prisoner is awarded a very good look at her features. The redhead seems familiar, though placing from where is near impossible. Her white dress is crisp and clean, as though she just put it on a few minutes ago.

Again, there's something naggingly familiar about the latest arrival… not that Gael has any real hope of laying hands on the memory, now. Not unless she hands it to him on a silver platter, and right now it isn't even clear whether he's noticed him at all. So many of the cages have nothing left in them but rotting bits of flesh.

Calling out to her won't work. He can't whisper - his throat is sandpaper - and a shout would alert his captors that he was up to something. Instead, as she approaches, he picks up a two-inch length of bone and tendon, tossing it out between the bars toward the walking path.

The only jailers that would hear the man are the ravens themselves. He’s been left alone for much too long, as a warning to others. They cackle and rustle their feathers, one even bold enough to swoop down in front of the young woman and nab the bone before she has a chance to see it. But she didn’t really need to…

The sight of the tree itself is enough to invite those who pass by it to look. Those sacks of chewed and pecked at meat that weren’t lucky enough for a cage, swing freely by ropes at the neck. It’s enough to streak a frown of worry across the redhead’s brow as she closes in. The smell is unbearable and in turn it causes her to hold a hand over her mouth and nose. Her blue eyes, forbidden blue, meet the lone survivor’s brown ones. The furrow of her brow changing from one of displeasure to one of worry.

Unlike him to her, she is quite familiar with him… or at least his face.

The rustling of feathers catches Gael's attention, and when the signal is intercepted— he nearly collapses onto the floor of the cage in despair, down to hands and knees before he meets the newcomer's gaze.

"Wait, don't leave!" he cries out, no longer caring who else might hear. By the time they arrive, he'll probably be gone anyway, one way or another. "Can you cut the rope?"

The young woman's step is halted by the plea for mercy from the bearded man. Her blue eyes flit back to meet his and she seems somewhat hesitant to follow through on his request. "I can…" she answers with a trembling voice, "But how do I know it's not some sort of trap?"

After all, he's not on the island with the rest of the people. He never followed them there.

"How do I know that you won't use me to find my dad?" It's her main concern, above finding her own body, to avoid those who would do such a thing.

Her father, that's where he knows her from. He still can't remember her name, but he remembers Ben's face now. When did they see each other last? Where are they, and why didn't he follow them. There's a dark patch where his memory should be. He opens his mouth to answer her—

—and all at once, it comes back to him, like a light being shined in his face to blind him. The wolves chasing him, chasing all of them. They had his scent and he knew it. As terrible as the cage is, it's a slow way to die: no such promise was forthcoming from the wolves.

"I lost your dad!" he calls down. "On purpose! I had to, they were about to capture both of us." Come on, woman, does he look like a threat? Actually, he might, if he were let out.

Glancing both ways down the road, the young woman pulls a broken sword from her pack. Still uncertain, she eyes him for a moment before raising it with both hands. Her blue eyes flit down toward the lock and with a strong swing, she brings the blade down with a CLANG and a shower of sparks. Again and again, the ringing of the lock sets the ravens alight into the air, calling the guards.

Nothing ever disturbs the ravens from their rest.

The clang isn't something that should be heard from the direction of the tree.

Shouts precede the twinkling of torches that crest the hill. Still the lock is firm on the cage, the shower of sparks that emits from it with every clash with the sword is phenomenal in its own right. "I can't do it! They're coming!" The young woman shouts, her worried cry alerting the mob to hurry faster toward them.

The crash of metal against metal sends a shockwave up toward the cage, reverberating twice over in Gael's ears. He sits up just in time to watch her hack away at the lock, only to press his hands to his ears as he doubles over once again.

As the angry orange lights appear in the distance, he lunges forward once again, waving her away with a haphazard sweep of his arm. "Go!"

It's not worth getting them both locked up. Especially together, because look how that worked out last time…

The approach of the mob holds its own sort of promise. Maybe they'll haul him down and finally get it over with. Or maybe— Leaning back, he reaches for a longer shard of pale white, cracking it against the bars of the cage until it produces a jagged edge.

One final clash of metal against metal finds the cage is free from a lock and the gate swings open. "Hurry! You have to run!" Delia shouts as the mob gets closer. Just like her father, unwilling to leave without seeing the last man through, she reaches into the cage to help Gael out of it.

Sword still in hand, she holds it at the ready, waiting for the first of the crowd to bear down on them. "Come on! You have to get out!" Pulling at his arm so hard that it feels it might dislocate, or even worse come off, she yanks him from his prison. Only then does she begin to run for safety.

It's been so long since Gael has actually moved more than a few feet at a time, it takes him a second to remember what it feels like. He's quicker to react to the wrenching pain in his arm, stumbling along for the first few steps before recovering his balance. Then - still clinging grimly to the half-a-bone in his other hand - he makes a beeline toward the horizon. As the shouting behind them grows nearer, he doesn't look back, just takes a couple of blind backward lunges and keeps going.

If he manages to hang on to his life, then he owes it to her. He'll be damned if he lets such a debt go unpaid any longer than he has to.

Ahead of him, Gael can see the young woman sprinting faster than he could ever imagine her going. Perhaps a flight of terror might be a good description of what is happening now but with every step of his, they are separated with three of hers. Long legs carry the woman swiftly down the road, to what she presumes is safety.

Behind him, the mob only draws closer. Until a very real pain at his back jolts Gael…

With a gasp, he sits up, eyes wide with terror as he scrabbles at the air to fight off whatever is attacking him. There, underneath where he lay his back, is the corpse of a small rat, still twitching in its death throes.

Once he lays hands on it and gets a good look, he winces and promptly flings it across the room, pacing toward the sink to rinse his hands off— this isn't the first rat he's had to dispose of lately, and the last one gave him a rash. Splashing the water into his eyes as well, he attempts to shove the dream images out of the way, into the back of his thoughts: there's still another long day ahead of him.

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