*Warning- This story contains violence.*
The darkness concealed his form while gliding into a small clearing. With a slight rustle of the tall grasses, a quick glance around secured the unease racing throughout his head as he placed the burlap bag at his feet.
“Did you bring them?” A soft voice from behind a nearby oak tree.
“I couldn’t carry all of them tonight, so I brought half of what I had. Perhaps another night I can bring the rest of it.”
A man appeared from behind the tree, “Thank you, Atticus.”
He came closer and rummaged through the bag as Atticus looked to the sky with darting eyes, tucking his off-white wings in closer.
“These seeds will help a lot. The crops are getting harder to gather seeds from. These will add some variety to them and hopefully, cross-pollinate for us. Otherwise,… I fear we may need to raid the towns.”
“Don’t raid the towns. The Enforcers will hear of it. You know how ruthless they are.”
“Yes,” rolling his shoulders, “I know all too well what they are capable of doing.”
Clasping the man with a friendly grip on the shoulder, “I need to leave, but I’ll be back again soon with the rest, I promise.”
“See that you do.”
Atticus unfurled his feathered wings and leapt into the air beating the grasses aside with the turbulence. The exiles starving out in the wilderness haunted him. But, there was little more he could do within the limits of the law without becoming a wingless exile himself. A sigh brought his focus back to the landscape around him.
The next few days crawled by as Atticus worked his land and tended his animals. A monotonous undertone muddied his thoughts as a sense of uselessness overtook him. Hunger clawed at him, forcing him to return to Oaken-home. His son, Lucien met him at the doorway.
“Dad, is something bothering you? You don’t seem yourself lately.”
“It’s,…it’s nothing. How is the race team coming?”
“We’re getting better. Elmwood still beats us at the sprints, but we have some awesome distance racers. I improved my time on the mile, but I still can’t beat Jay from Elmwood.”
“Well, it sounds like you’re improving to me. One day, maybe you can beat him in a fair race.”
“Yeah, maybe. I’m was heading out, I’ll see you later tonight.” Lucien extended his dark-blue wings and dove backwards off the landing, twisting mid-air, and letting the world know of his delight in flying.
Atticus slipped out of bed permitting the darkness to envelop him as he gathered provisions for his journey. In the kitchen putting a few of his wife’s homemade protein bars in his flying vest, a delicate set of hands rested on his wings, “Do be careful, dear.”
“I’ll do what I can. I can’t make any promises though.”
He turned to face her. Brushing aside a tear dividing her cheek, he gazed into her eyes as she blinked away her concern. She reached around his shoulder and laid a hand on his left-wing and traced its outer edge several times. Her platinum-blonde hair was in stark contrast to the deep velvet-red wings she tucked against her back. He placed a small peck of a kiss on her forehead as she closed her eyes, leaning into him. The dangers that surrounded them would never suffocate the love they held for each other.
“I should be going, it’s not getting any darker out there.”
“But think of the good I’m doing for those people. It isn’t much, but anything to bring hope to people is worth it.”
She was silent as his last words hung heavy in the air. Pulling him close, she held him tightly for a moment before breaking his embrace. They said nothing else as he finished his preparations and stepped to the front door. Looking back through the open doorway, his silhouette wore the heaviness of the night’s burdens. With a small click, the door closed and Atticus was soaring through the night towards his storage shed to retrieve his bag of seeds for the exiles.
Grabbing the bag and latching the door closed, he glanced over his shoulder towards Oaken-home. There was enough light for him to see his wife’s outstretched wings on the landing. Not hesitating a moment more, fear and determination drove his wings to aid the exiles.
Fog crept through the meadows adding to the concern Atticus had about the night air. Something heavy hung on his mind, but he was unable to pinpoint, nor shake it off as he neared the clearing. Landing softly among the tall grass, he noticed the trampled area off to the right of where he stood. Another minute and he would make a break for it. He was too unsure about this meeting.
“Do you have it?”
The voice came from behind the usual oak tree. There was something different about it, higher pitched and slightly nasally. It also held a note of familiarity behind it.
“Yes. This is the last of them.” Every square inch of his body screamed at him to turn and flee.
A pair of blinding lights illuminated the area, slowly bobbing side to side closing the distance. It was too late now. The lights belonged to that of one of the Enforcer’s bodyguards. The color drained from Atticus’s face as an Enforcer marched to face him.
“When I was told that someone was helping the exiles, the last person on my mind was you, Atticus.”
It was Jimna, one of his close friends he grew up with. Atticus dropped his head upon recognizing his friend, knowing that they would soon be enemies. The risk of being discovered was high, but that didn’t bother Atticus half as much as knowing his friend would carry out the sentence. Cold metal of a second bodyguard’s gun pressed between his shoulders, he knew that all chance of escape was gone.
“The Council has sent me to bring you to justice,” pulling the official sentence from the front pocket of his black leather attire. “May it be known that justice has been brought to Atticus Strongheart. Should the Enforcer find you guilty of the crimes brought against you, your wings shall be broken and removed. You will then be exiled from existence, and forgotten. Atticus, the charges I bring before you this night are: conspiring against the Council, treason against the people; and aiding the exiles. Do you deny these charges?”
Squaring his shoulders, “No.”
Jimna turning to his bodyguards, nodded as Atticus held out his hands with the inner wrists touching. A band was placed around his wrists and tightened, nearly stopping the blood flow. No remorse or pity was seen on the men as Atticus blankly stared ahead at Jimna. One of the bodyguards forced him to his knees, as Jimna stepped forward with a small piece of rolled up leather. Looking up at him, Atticus knew that this would be the last act of kindness he would receive from the Enforcers before the sentence was executed. Opening his mouth, Jimna pushed the warm leather between his teeth and stepped back.
A small nod from Jimna began the process. Atticus held his head high, unfurling his wings to their furthest expanse. Each wing was now in the merciless grasp of a heavy armored bodyguard. The grip tightened on his right wing as the large man brought his knee up to meet the outer bone, breaking it clean with a loud snap. The pain surged through his body as he lurched forward, a muffled cry escaping him as the man worked the bone back and forth to ensure it was broken. The tip of his wing now hung limp, completely useless. The throbbing increased as the swelling immediately enlarged the area around the break.
He could feel the man to his left grin, adjusting his grip preparing for his duty. Anticipation danced among his fingertips. It was no surprise he was an Enforcer, giving him the legal right to inflict pain on others. The man pulled his left knee up and placed it between his hand-grips. The pressure slowly increased as the bone bent around the knee until it finally cracked. The man dropped his knee, regained his balance, and brought it up again, this time with a striking force causing the break to fully develop through the bone. Atticus heard a small chuckle come the man as his broken wing now matched the other.
The pain that coursed through his body was almost more than he could bear. Being knocked out of the air once when he was a young racer in school and crashing through the tree limbs, followed by the ground knocking the wind out of him was a walk in the park compared to what he felt at this moment. He wished they were done, but nothing is short and sweet with the Enforcers.
His inner wing bones were now the focus as they moved in closer and grasped the larger bones. The man on his right took to his work first. Removing a black, metal cudgel out of its dormancy, the man readied his grip on it. Atticus relaxed every muscle possible to allow the break to happen easier. As the cudgel contacted his wing, he felt a small crack in the bone. The man huffed, raising his arm to rain down a harder blow. With pinpoint accuracy, the man hit the same location, allowing a pop to disturb the still air. The man brought down the final blow, finishing the break. Clenching his teeth, Atticus tried hard to remain conscious while desperate moans filled the night.
Tears fell from his eyes as it was now the devious one’s turn. The smaller of the two bodyguards hesitated as he contemplated how difficult it was for his comrade to break the larger bone. Looking to the man, Atticus shot him an icy glare. The dull thud following the blow told there was little hope of the man successfully making the break alone. The larger bodyguard recognized this as well, coming around the backside of Atticus. Stretching his wing out to the side while placing a foot on Atticus’ hip, he pulled the wing taught with an audible grunt.
With a twisted smile, the smaller man used both arms to bring down the cudgel onto the bone as strike after strike only resulted in tiny snaps with each. The fury built inside him until he voiced it with guttural noises. Finally, the bone gave way. Bile rose as Atticus spit out the leather choking. The man was doubled over, panting from his efforts.
“Atticus,” Jimna’s voice slow, “it pains me to say this,… you are hereby exiled, and cutoff from the people.”
The larger man kicked him in the back sending him face-first to the ground. A knee was placed at the base of his neck to pin him down. If being broken was punishment, being cutoff was a welcomed finale. He took in the warm smell of the earth, somehow, it was comforting to know the ending was near.
Metal sliding against its holster brought fear to the surface as his numb wings were pulled backwards, exposing the joints connecting them to his back. Atticus struggled under the weight of the man. A loss of feeling came from his right shoulder as the metal blade cut through the joint effortlessly. The blood pooled in the cavity and began spilling down his backside. His left wing was yanked to the side and removed in the same way with a soft squelching noise as the surrounding muscles lost their hold around the joint.
“Cauterize the wounds.” Jimna’s voice was cold towards the exile. The two bodyguards turned a questioning look towards him. He looked down at them over his nose with fire in his eyes. An electronic whirring brought the tip to life as it glowed with increasing heat. With the tip white hot, it was pushed into the wounds and the sizzling of burning flesh and tissue made the air turn rancid.
Howling with pain, Atticus tried to turn his mind away from the moment. The fact that he would never see his wife and son again carved an enormous cavern in his heart. Was this all worth it? He couldn’t trust himself to answer as he lay prostrate on the ground.
The bodyguards each gathered a wing and bound them up in a cloth, while Jimna spoke his last words. “I’ll deliver the news about your exile to your family. Goodbye, Atticus.” With that, the bodyguards’ lights were extinguished as they left Atticus alone with his new-found misery. Time crept by without any concern for him as he lay motionless, allowing the dew to cover him in a wet blanket.
He didn’t know when sleep overcame him, nor how long he slept. A pair of cracked, muscled hands worked delicately, placing cold objects on his back rousing him.
“Lie still, these will help with the swelling. Someone was looking out for you to cauterize your wounds. I wish mine would have been.” Atticus didn’t recognize the deep voice, but this simple act of kindness meant the world to him. The cold objects being placed around his shoulder wounds bit at his skin with a stinging sensation. “You’ll need different clothing now that your wings are gone. When we see the others, I’ll find you something else to wear.”
“Would you unbuckle my vest?” Atticus’ voice was raspy and hoarse as he spoke. The man removed the buckle at the base of his neck and the three at his lower back. Searing pain caused him to forcefully exhale as Atticus raised his torso slightly so the man could pull the vest out from under him. Laying back down, fingers danced along his back, readjusting the cold objects.
“What are those? They’re so cold,” he questioned the man shuffling next to him.
“We call them; ice-stones. They are small, smooth stones that are unaffected by heat, no matter how intense. We keep them in our water supplies to cool it for us. They are extremely useful in many ways, as you can see.” The man paused and moved a few of them around, “I am sorry about your exile. I’ve seen so many exiles go mad from the loss of their friends and family, but you must hold onto your dignity. You have done so much for us, it wouldn’t do for you to quit now.”
“I’ve lost everything.”
“Not everything. You are now a part of our community of exiles. We look after each other like family, because we have no one else.”
“I’ve broken the law; I’m worthless now.”
“Nonsense. You have broken a corrupted law made by corrupted people. You have stood up to the Council and denied their idiocy. That says a lot about who you are. They see you as a villain; but to us, you’re a hero.”
Silence settled in as a companion between the two men as Atticus focused on the cold emanating from the ice-stones. What else remained a secret from him in the world?
A heavy hand beat against the door of Oaken-home, awakening those inside. Jill sat up sharply and scrambled to the door with Lucien on her heels. Opening the door, a small gasp parted her lips as she took in the three dark forms on the landing.
Jimna stepped forward, “Jill Strongheart. It is my duty to inform you that your husband, Atticus Strongheart, has been found guilty of transgressing the law, and exiled from the people.” She buried her eyes in Lucien’s chest, away from the bloody masses the bodyguards held. Lucien’s eyes burned with fury.
“What did he do?”
“He was found guilty of aiding the exiles.” Jimna hesitated, dropping his eyes, “I had his wounds cauterized to help with the healing process. I only did this because we were friends, once.” Squaring his shoulders and slowly raising his head, “Thank you for your time.” The three men dropped off the landing and headed towards the capital city, home of the Council.
“No, he can’t be gone. He can’t. Why? Why did he do this to me?” Jill’s shrilling voice echoed through the trees.
The two of them collapsed on the landing, holding one another. Lucien stroked his mother’s back, trying to calm her down. He was now the lead male of Oaken-home. This position wasn’t to come until his father was late in years. Looking out over the smaller tree-tops, three black dots were barely visible.
“He’s still alive and I’ll find him.”
Lucien lighted on the landing with the whisper of a mouse. Another day of relentless searching proved nothing different; he still had no idea where the group of exiles lived whom Atticus was helping. He turned away from Oaken-home, bellowing with every fiber of his being. Birds took flight while the small rodents cowered in the tree-tops.
Walking to the edge, he stared down at the ground as the sun painted the clouds purple and blue. The problem with having wings was it left too much time to change your mind.
“There is still hope.”
“It gets harder each day without him. He never told you where they lived?”
“No. He wanted to protect me.”
“That sounds like Dad, always looking out for others.”
“Come inside. I’ll get you something to eat.”
With one last look at the sunset, Lucien followed his mother inside.
“Don’t eat that.”
Atticus looked down at the red berry in his hand, “Why not? I thought these were edible.”
“They are, after you soak them in water. Tiny worms hide between the small pods of the berries and infest your gut after you eat them. It’s painful to say the least.”
Using his thumbnail to tear the berry in half, he peered intensely at the berry. A small movement caught his eye as he noticed small, red worms on the berries. “You weren’t kidding. Do animals eat these berries as well?”
Still picking berries, “Yes. Which is why we avoid eating any of the organs.”
“I see.” This new world continued to baffle him. All it took was a small, simple mistake to end it all. The two of them continued picking berries, placing them in the woven baskets they carried. Nothing was cultivated in the rows of crops like what he remembered. Every thing out here was natural and free, all-the-while being ruthless and unforgiving.
“What were those bird things I saw earlier by the fern bushes?”
“Did it run from you when it saw you?”
“Once I was close enough to it.”
“We call it a Ground-scratcher; or Scratcher for short. We get eggs from it.”
“How are the people out here able to do so much with animals when I haven’t seen a single fence or pen since I came?”
“When you work with the animals as a friend, they learn to trust you. Except the Scratchers, they don’t trust anyone.”
“How are you able to get eggs from them if they run away all the time?”
“We keep tabs on where they nest. If we hold them in a pen, they refuse to eat and die. So, we keep an eye out for them in the wild.”
A grin broadened her face, “Like family.”
“Atticus! Come quickly!” The man was yelling from across the clearing.
Leaving the baskets, the two of the them raced to the village fully expecting an attack on the people. Coming around the trimmed hedge growing around the perimeter, Atticus slid to a stop seeing platinum-blonde hair that he could paint with his eyes closed.
“Jill,” forcing the words out, “What are you doing here?”
Tackling him with full force and knocking him backwards, they landed with a heavy thud on the lush grass. Grabbing his face, she kissed him with a furious passion. She kissed every part of his sweaty, dirty face before forcing her arms around his neck.
“I thought I lost you.” She released her grip and sat up on his stomach. He gazed up at her flowing curls of hair as they traced the side of her face. A hint of a smile tugged at her lips. Without warning she slammed her fist down on his sternum, “I’m going with you from now on, mister.”
“Okay, dear. Please get off me now, everyone is watching.”
“We’ve been apart for two months, I will kiss on my husband regardless of who’s watching.”
“That’s fine, but you’re hurting my back. I do have two large holes in it that are still healing.”
“Fine,” rising, “But don’t think I’m letting you out of my sight ever again.”
Standing next to her, pulling her close, “Fine, I never wanted us apart to begin with.”
“As much as I always wanted a younger brother, I hardly feel like now is the time and place for it.”
Atticus beamed with joy, “Lucien! You came too. I never thought I would see either of you again. How did you find me?”
“A friend of yours said he owed it to you and that you would know who it was.”
Atticus opened his arms and pulled his family into a big hug, “Whether I’m a good guy or a bad guy; as long as I have the two of you, I don’t care.”
A shadow passed over them, Thank you, friend.