Pruner hated his work. It was the first thought he had when the morning sun stabbed through the curtains, waking him. With a groan he rolled over to avert his eyes, but it was too late, he was awake and now had to face another day.
He sat up on the edge of his cot, rubbing the last remnants of the night’s dreams from his eyes, and looked up at the empty bed against the opposite wall. A tattered stuffed toy that might have been an owlbear when it was new lay on the bed, the only sign that someone else shared his quarters.
Heaving a sigh he stood, his joints crackling as he stretched. He shuffled toward the privy and relieved himself, then poured water into the washbasin. He scrubbed his haggard face and forced himself to view his reflection in the small steel mirror that was the room’s only decoration. He stared deep into his own eyes, trying to recognize himself, trying to remember the last time he was happy.
It was her hair that first drew his eyes to her. He was pushing his way through the throng of onlookers that were gathering in the courtyard. It was All Kings Day, and the people of Halvon were anxious for blood. There was nothing like the execution of a traitor to celebrate Galt’s freedom from tyranny. As he angled his way into the press of bodies, he caught a glimpse of her out of the corner of his eye. Her hair was black as a raven, and fell down her back like a river rushing down a mountainside. She showed no interest in the fervor of the crowd, instead smelling the flowers in a merchant’s cart. She straightened from the blooms and turned toward the noise, a look of disdain on her face. Their eyes met. The onlookers pushed on, and he was swept up in the crowd, but not before he saw the hint of a smile on her lips.
He came to the market every day since, seeking out the raven-haired girl, and he found her at the flower vendor a week later. He can’t recall the words he said to her, but they worked, and soon they were meeting regularly in the market. He can’t remember her face, but he knows she was beautiful, and that he soon fell in love.
They were wed the following summer, and she soon quickened with child. The pregnancy was difficult; she was bed-ridden for weeks leading towards the birth. He can remember this day in vivid clarity, and he prays that he didn’t. His son, Quintus, came early, and with him came the blood. It wouldn’t stop, and as the infant squalled in his swaddling, the Pharasman midwives rushed about, some bringing fresh bandages, while others took away sheets soaked crimson. His wife cried out in pain and fear in concert with their shouting and prayers beseeching the Lady of Graves for aid. The cacophony was overwhelming, and he left the room to clear his head. Just as he steeled himself to return, he realized the sound of his son crying was all he could hear coming from the chamber. He entered, all warmth gone from his body, and stood watching as the midwives prepared his wife for the grave. Her hair was the last thing he saw of her as they wrapped her for her journey to the Boneyard. Outside, the haunting cries of whippoorwills lifted to the night sky.
Hilas Hewer did not pray, but it seemed to him now that the gods had listened to his thoughts. Standing before him in shackles was the answer to his unspoken prayers. Hewer stroked his beard as he contemplated this fortuitous event. Litran had not sent any new Grey Gardeners to Halvon for years, and Hewer was tired of acting as both judge and executioner for the town’s criminals and traitors.
The man before him was accused of dissention, spreading propaganda against using the final blade for public executions. Not quite traitorous enough to warrant his head, but punishment must be meted out. Hewer decided that cruel irony would be this man’s sentence. He would make the dissident his own Grey Gardener, and Litran be damned. And he had the tool to force the man’s hand at the final blade’s lever.
“Bring in the boy,” he said to his bailiff. After a moment a towhead lad was ushered in, tears running down his freckled cheeks.
“Father!” he shouted, his voice raw from crying.
“Its alright, Quintus. You need to go with these men. They will take care of you, and I will see you, from time to time. Be strong, my son.”
Tears threatened to spill from the prisoner’s eyes, but he held them back as he encouraged his son.
“So, you understand the terms of your sentence? I would hate to see any harm come to the boy.” Hewer turned to the bailiff, motioning for the boy to be taken away. He turned his gaze back to the prisoner. “You will serve no prison time, but you cannot speak of this to anyone. You will serve as my Gardener first and foremost. Should you refuse, the boy will meet the final blade.”
Hate blossomed in the prisoner’s heart, and he swore that he would find a way to free his son and leave Galt once and for all. If Hewer should die in the process, so much the better.
Freedom was worthless without his son. Pruner, as Hewer was now so fond of calling him, set about his work without emotion. The roar of the implacable throngs meant nothing. The blood and the blank staring eyes of the heads removed by the final blade had no effect on him. He was numb.
Then he saw her at the edge of the crowd. For a moment he thought she was the shade of Quintus’ dead mother come to mock what he had become. As the head of the latest traitor thumped into the basket, he watched her turn away in disgust and run toward a bakery on the far side of the town square. He didn’t understand why, but he had to meet her, if only to see if she was real.
She was indeed real, and her name was Myranniel.
He had finally mustered the courage to meet her, introducing himself in the bakery where she worked with her mother. As he came to know her, he began to feel emotions he thought were long dead in him. Part of him believed he might find happiness again, but he knew better than to fool himself.
It all came crashing down around him the day he went to meet her at the bakery like he did every evening. He found her mother sobbing hysterically. Most of her words were unintelligible, but he gathered that Myranniel had been arrested on charges of high treason. His fury burned like the sun. The false accusation had the reek of Hewer’s machinations.
He raced home. He retrieved the dagger he hid in the floorboards of his hovel, his vision going red with rage. As he stood with murder in his eyes, a knock came at the door.
The courier handed him the scroll. He had seen ones like it too many times for him to count. The single line of text, written in a child’s script, brought tears to his eyes.
“Report for duty at sunrise, Gardener.
The sun was just beginning to climb into the sky, but dozens of onlookers were already gathered around the final blade. Pruner took his place on the platform; his eyes the only feature not hidden by the Grey Gardener regalia. He could feel the weight of the dagger hidden in the wrist sheath under his sleeve.
His blood ran cold as he watched Hewer take his usual seat on the balcony with Quintus standing at his side. The sun had barely climbed over the buildings, but he could feel sweat beading on his forehead. He clenched his fists, reminding himself to wait for the right moment.
His reverie was interrupted as a clamor went up from the spectators. The bailiff escorted the prisoner roughly to the wooden ramp that led up to the final blade. As Myranniel made it onto the platform, she was pelted with rotting food and other offal. She held her head high as the crowd jeered. Pruner averted his gaze afraid she would recognize him. The bailiff forced her to kneel at the bascule, securing her neck in the lunette. The onlookers went quiet in anticipation.
Pruner surveyed the crowd, Hewer, his son, the woman he loved. He turned his gaze back to Hewer. The dagger screamed to be let loose. The magistrate sensed his hesitation. Leaning forward in his chair, he put his hand on Quintus’ shoulder and shook his head.
Pruner’s hand reached for the lever, trembling.