As the boy trudged back in the failing light of dusk, the creaking trees leaned in towards him and cast barren shadows across his face. His features were fresh and bright, though thin with hunger and dark against the setting sun, and in his eyes, there was a sharp alertness, drawn out by years of cold. In his arms he cradled a faded knapsack, the same worn and aching gray as the autumn sky, and wrapped snugly within it lay a pile of dry kindling for the earl’s fire.
Squinting at the blurred outline of the manor in the distance, he could see that he had a long walk ahead. There had been plenty of sticks and dead leaves closer by, of course, but they had been slightly damp and already on the ground and unfit for his lordship’s noble hearth. So, the boy had been sent deep into the woods to fetch kindling deserving of his lordship’s status, and he had spent the past hour snapping new branches from the trees with his bare hands. Now those hands were raw and blue, and trembling from the weight of the wood.
The boy knew only exhaustion and hunger and a deep, cold desire to go home. But he knew, also, that he would be slapped or beaten or worse if he did not return in time for the earl’s supper, and so, despite the aching in his legs, he began to walk faster. He could feel numbness prickling on his fingertips and the taste of coming rain on the air, and a shiver ran through him as he clutched the knapsack tighter to his chest.
When his father had died, his mother had sat him down, her eyes still rimmed in red. After his father’s death, she said, his lordship had taken their ox, and they could only use it to plow their fields if they paid him. Since they had no money, they would have to pay by sending him a servant. So here he was, fetching kindling in the cold for the fire of a stranger.
He had run out for wood several times before, but never on a day quite as cold as this one, and never before without his mantle. He had forgotten to snatch it up as he scrambled out of the servant’s quarters, and he had not dared to turn back upon noticing its absence.
The boy sighed. To his right towards the near horizon, peering through the breaks in the rows of trees, he could just make out the sky-stained echo of his old village. A thatched roof here, a gentle firelight there, the dark shapes of animals wandering into their pens for the night. Perhaps he could go home instead – turn away from the clear-cut path and pick his way through branches and brambles, towards the lights bobbing on the horizon. Even amid the wind and the cold, a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, and he sighed again into the frigid air.
He was cold and alone, and suddenly he told himself that, he would go home. The lord did not matter; money did not matter; the ox did not matter. All that mattered was himself and his family, and he was going to see them tonight.
He would stroll down the familiar path to his cottage, and his mother would catch sight of him as she dug up cabbage to put in the broth for supper. The world would be bathed in subtle blue, soft and silent as the evening light, and her hands would go up to cover her mouth and her eyes would shine. She would run forward to take him in her arms. She would insist that he stay.
The sun sank lower in the sky, the fiery sunset swelling up into a penetrating gray, then a lonely blue. It was colder now than ever, and the boy realized that he could no longer feel his arms. At least, he thought, I will have the fire when I get home. The thought comforted him, and he walked faster, thinking of his mother’s embrace.
He came to the cottage now, and he froze, for he could see them through the window. The seven of them – his mother, his four sisters, his brother, and the baby – sitting around the table. The fire was crackling in the corner, silent and safe, and they were talking and laughing…and they were all happy.
And suddenly, he could not bring himself to knock. The rain began to fall now, all at once. It pounded on the ground like a fist, running down his face and seeping into the fabric of his shirt. He could feel it hitting his shoulders, and the cold seeped through his skin and down into his bones. It soaked into the gray fabric bundle in his arms.
Slowly, he turned around and trudged down the muddy path, through the shuddering fields, back into the woods and towards the manor. He walked for a long time through the cold and the rain, and then came to the manor gate and knocked.
The door opened, and the boy, shivering, thrust the soaking pile of kindling into the cook’s arms. She took it from him, a smirk frozen on her lips as she took in his state. Then, without a word, she stepped aside to let him through. He rushed forward, sighing at the slight burst of warmth, and immediately stripped off his soaking boots.
The lord regarded the boy silently. He was cold and shivering, and his eyes were misted over with a quiet contemplation that the lord mistook for wistfulness. The lord felt a sudden stab of guilt.
“Sit, boy. Warm yourself by the fire.”