Day One - Night

The sky was darkening as the men left the cottage. William lifted his face just as the rain began to fall. The others began muttering uncomfortably as they took in the change to the weather, and all of them, seven grown men, jumped in fear when lightning crackled across the sky, followed instantly by a boom of thunder.

Foul weather for foul deeds,William found himself thinking.

"Let's hurry home. Alden, you're on first watch tonight, alright?"

The younger man seemed on the verge of protesting for a moment. Finally, he nodded. Staring at the ground, he went back to the cottage with the air of a man with an unpleasant duty to fulfill and in no particular rush to do it.

The rain wasn't coming down hard, yet. They still had time to get under shelter before getting soaked. But none of the remaining six men had any intention of staying out tonight. They'd stay on the road until they reached their homes, even if it were pouring sheets of rain.

The thunderstorm overhead was muttering and grumbling, making conversation almost completely pointless, and none of them were in much of a mood to talk. Still, William wished he could think of something to say. Anything at all, if only to distract himself.

A little more noise would be good. He could almost swear that he could still hear the begging and pleading, the heart wrenching sobbing, even with the storm overhead.

Finally, the rain began to pour.

Day Two

Jon had first watch of the day. It had all been arranged a week before. Alden would take most nights, because he was unemployed at the moment, still living with his parents. Jon worked nights, so could take the days. William himself was retired, and a widower, and he would trade off with both younger men for the more difficult shifts. The other four would fill in as best they could when they could.

He was carrying groceries with him in a canvas sack. Bread, cheese, oil for the lamps and stove, and a few other items. Every time the shift changed, the person coming in would bring more food and supplies. William had worked it all out, and had written lists for each of the men.

They had a disagreeable task to do, but they could at least try and be comfortable.

The cottage itself was remote, and far off the roadway. Jon glanced up and down the lane, and saw no one. He steeled himself with a deep breath, then walked off the road into the woods.

He came closer to the cottage, his footsteps dragging. Sooner than he would have liked, the cottage came into view. It was a ramshackle affair, and hadn't been occupied for decades, until last night. The men had repaired the thatch and patched it up as best they could, new lumber standing in stark contrast to the older wood of the cottage. New stones had been mortared into place along the bottom, and the small front porch had to have some boards replaced.

They had spent the last three weeks cleaning and restoring the old place, all the while managing to not talk at all about what they planned to do with it. There were two bedrooms and a small kitchen inside, and not much else. Water came from a nearby well, which the men had dredged clean. On the other side of the cottage, there was a small outhouse.

Alden was sitting out on the front steps, a blanket wrapped around him as he huddled against the morning chill. Jon was about to greet him when he saw the puddle surrounding Alden's feet. His glanced at the blanket, and saw drips of water coming off of it, dropping to the ground below.

"Have you been outside all night?" he asked

Alden gave a start and lurched to his feet. He hadn't heard him approaching, it seemed. He was drenched, shivering, and miserable. He nodded.

"Good lord, man! You'll catch your death! Come inside and warm up before you go."

Alden, teeth chattering, shook his head no.

"I can't go in there," he said. "It never let up, not once. The only time there's anything like quiet is when I'm out here."

Jon stared at him for a moment. Alden was the youngest of William's group, barely a grown man. A daydreamer with soft brown eyes and permanently disheveled black hair, he had been the first one William had recruited to his cause, and the one that had first brought Jon himself in.

Jon himself had required quite a lot more convincing before he agreed, but William was both passionate and persuasive. He had come to see the sense of things. Some sacrifices were required for the greater good, and Jon was willing to make them if needed.

"All right," he told the younger man. "I'm here to relieve you. You can go, but leave the blanket."

Alden gave a sigh of relief and dropped the blanket onto the front step. Not quite running, he hurried off towards the road.

Jon stooped with a sigh to pick up the sodden blanket. It would need to be dried before it would be of any use to anyone, and it looked like rain again today. Still, he hung it up on the clothesline. If it rained, at least it couldn't get any wetter.

He let himself inside the cottage and began unpacking his sack of supplies. There was a cot in the smaller of the two bedrooms, in case he wanted to lie down, but he decided instead to read a book out on the porch while the rain still held off.

While he unpacked, he pretended not to see the door to the other bedroom, the one with the heavy wooden bar across it, and with muffled sobbing coming from behind.

Day Four

Alden's feet dragged. William had taken the second night's shift, and last night's as well. Alden had claimed an illness the third night, in order to keep himself away. In truth, he was feeling a little feverish. But William insisted that Alden do his fair share of the work. So now, here he was, trudging back to that damnable cottage that had been haunting his dreams for the last two days.

As he approached, Dai, a bearded older man in his thirties, stood up from the porch. He had been eating an apple, and dropped the core and waved as Alden approached. Alden handed him the lantern he had used to find his way.

"No trouble tonight, she was pretty quiet," Dai said with forced cheer.

Then why are you on the porch? Alden thought, maybe a little uncharitably. It was the fourth night. Surely, she would have calmed down by now, accepted her position. It wasn't like she was being hurt, after all.

"Still," Dai continued, "I don't think she's eaten much. Try to get her to eat something, if she's still awake."

Alden nodded, feeling slightly resentful. The day and evening shifts were supposed to feed her, according to William's plan. Alden couldn't help but think that Dai had shirked his duties, pushing them off on him.
The older man waved and said a cheerful goodbye, and Alden let himself in. He would have rather stayed outside, but a sense of duty weighed on him. And it was cold outside, too.

He heard the sound at once, muffled though it was by the thick door.

God help me, she's still crying, he thought. He began unpacking the supplies he had brought in, trying to be as loud as he could to drown out the sobs coming from the other room. He then busied himself with making some soup on the small kitchen stove. He stood outside in the darkness while the pot simmered, trying his best not to think.

This was needed. A few must suffer so the rest could prosper. That was William's reasoning, and Alden had agreed. He knew, before even before they had started in earnest, that this would be unpleasant work.

After some time, he let himself back into the cottage. The soup had heated up to near-boiling. He turned the burner off, ladled some of the soup into a wooden bowl, and, steeling himself, went to knock on the heavy door.

"Do you want something to eat?" he asked, "I have some vegetable soup. It's very good."

The sobbing stopped abruptly at the knock. There was silence for a moment after Alden stopped speaking. Then, from behind the doorway, came the sound of something heavy being dragged across the floor, clanking and rattling. It stopped just on the other side of the barred doorway. Alden was aware of his pulse pounding and the blood rushing in his ears sounding thunderously loud in the silence.

Then there came a scratching from the other side of the door.

"Please…" a voice moaned, "please… let me go… I have to go…"

"You can't go." Alden's voice barely came out as a quavering whisper. He tried to put more force behind it. "You can't go," he said, louder.

"I have to… please… I won't tell anyone… You'll never see me again, but I have to go… please…"

Alden was breathing heavily now. A pressure seemed to be squeezing him around his chest, he felt barely able to breathe.

"You can't go. But I have food for you."

The scratching continued, with the occasional clank of metal.

"Please… please… please," the voice kept begging.

"I can't… I can't!"

"Please..."

"Shut up…"

"Let me out! Please!" The sobbing increased.

"Just shut up!" Alden screamed, and flung the bowl at the door. From the other side, he only heard weeping, miserable and forlorn.

He fled the cabin, running into the night.

Day Five - Morning

William arrived with the morning sun. Alden was nowhere to be seen on the porch, or in the cottage. A large pot of soup sat congealing on the kitchen counter, and a bowl lay broken on the floor. Panicking slightly, he unbarred the door and stepped into the dark bedroom. The girl was still in there, huddled in the fetal position on the bed. She was so still he worried for a moment, but then he saw her chest moving as she breathed. Quietly, trying not to disturb her rest, he closed the door.

Now that he was sure their charge was safe, he felt anger bubbling up. Alden had, apparently, deserted his post. He would have words with the other men to have the young boy found and brought to him. If he thought this was some kind of game, well… there were two bedrooms in the cottage, and it would require no special effort to acquire chains to hold the boy.

He left the cottage to draw some water from the well and was surprised to find Alden sleeping there, back against the stonework. He nudged him awake with the toe of his boot. The boy jerked awake, and stared up at him with muzzy, red-rimmed eyes.

William found his anger receding slightly. It was easy to forget how young he was, sometimes. The older men saw this as an unpleasant duty, but Alden was young enough to forget necessity and only see the injustice of what they did. Still, he had left the cottage on his watch. What if something had happened?

"You awake, boy?" he said roughly. Alden nodded and scrambled to his feet. Seeing him standing there, disheveled and miserable, he talked to him a lot more kindly than he had originally intended to.

"You can't leave her alone in there, Alden. We need to keep her safe. It's the only way."

"I know," the boy whispered, "But she wouldn't stop… She won't stop crying. I guess it got to me."

"A good sleep, that's what you need. You'll feel right as rain tonight."

Alden opened his mouth as if to say something, hesitated, then nodded. He started to walk past, and William took him firmly by the arm. The boy looked up in startled surprise as William leaned in towards him, staring him directly in the eye.

"I need to know if I can count on you, Alden." He didn't like to think about what would happen if he couldn't. The boy looked away, and William felt a moment of fear. Finally, Alden spoke.

"Is this really for the best?" His voice was quivering, weak, and hopeful. William breathed a sigh of relief. All the boy needed was a jolt of confidence and he'd be back up to the task.

"Of course it is," he said earnestly. "For the good of our town, our people… and, of course, for her. We're doing the right thing. Keep that in mind."

Alden stared at his shoes for a while, then finally looked up at him and nodded. He even smiled a little. William felt a burst of relief.

"You go on home now," he told the boy. "Get some rest, get something to eat, maybe have a little fun if you can. There's no reason we can't enjoy our lives a little bit when we have the chance to."

"Ok, William. Thanks." Looking much better, though still tired, the young man began to walk off.

"Alden." William called after a moment. The boy stopped and looked back curiously. "Will you come back tonight for your shift?"

Alden hesitated only a moment before nodding, then began walking to the road again. William waved him off. He waited until the boy had vanished into the surrounding woods before he turned back to the well and drew up some water.

Judging from the soup left over from last night, their guest hadn't eaten at all yesterday. William was determined that she'd eat something today, if he had to hold her down and pour it down her throat himself.

Day Five - Evening

Shiro was waiting for him, sitting in a chair on the porch. Even in the dark, the wind and the rain, the men would rather wait outside the cottage than inside.

Alden's feet still dragged as he walked. In spite of his assurances to William this morning, he still had no real desire to go in. What little sleep he had managed had been plagued by dreams of crying and pleading.

"William said she ate today, even if just a little bit," Shiro said as Alden approached. "So that's a relief. Maybe things will start getting better once it sinks in that she isn't going anywhere."

Alden nodded, thanked him, and watched as the other man left with his lantern. He stood with his back to the door, facing out into the night, until the light was well and gone. The little patch of sky above the clearing with the cottage showed a patch of the autumn sky, lit with countless stars. There was no moon tonight, though. The night was dark and still.

Shivering, Alden decided to go inside. Maybe it really was better. Once she got used to it, maybe she would even begin to enjoy herself, maybe even go outside from time to time. They wouldn't have to keep her locked in that room forever.

That notion was dashed the moment he closed the door behind him. As if hearing the noise, the occupant of the barred room started moving towards her door, accompanied by a dragging sound. There was that awful scratching again, and then the pleading started.

"Please," she said. "You have to let me go."

Alden tried to ignore her. He started to tidy up in the kitchen. But she kept pleading, kept scratching at the door. Finally he had enough.

"No!" he screamed at the door. "You can't go! You have to stay!"

"Why?" The scratching stopped, and there was a thump behind the door, as of someone falling to their knees. "Why? Why? Why?" she asked over and over, sobbing.

"Because we need you. The town needs you!"

The girl was still sobbing, sounding nearly hysterical. Suddenly, she started banging at the door and screaming.

"Let me out! Let me out! LET ME OUT!"

"Stop it! Stop!" Alden screamed back. But she didn't stop, and Alden felt a panic rising up in him. His eyes fell on the toolbox near the door. The men had left some of their tools behind, in case further repairs were needed. The handle of a large hammer jutted up from the box. Alden tore his eyes away from it.

"You need to shut up NOW!" he screamed at the door. The girl finally stopped beating on the door and screaming, and went back to sobbing instead.

"You need to stop," Alden said desperately. His nerves were worn thin, and he felt about to break.

But the girl didn't stop. She kept up the relentless crying.

"You have to stop," Alden repeated. Then he became aware of something. She wasn't just crying, she was pleading.

"Please, please, please…" she was saying, over and over again.

Alden had to get out. He walked towards the door and was about to push it open when the girl screamed behind him.

"Don't go!"

Alden stopped, breathing hard.

"Please, don't go! You have to let me out!" the girl continued, then repeated herself. "Don't go, you have to let me out!" Over and over again.

Alden was looking at the toolbox again without realizing it. Something gave over in his head. He couldn't take this anymore. He pulled the hammer out by its well-worn handle and advanced on the doorway.

He had to end this.

The Final Days

William was still on the roadway when they took him, roaring up on motorcycles. He heard the sound behind him well before they reached him, a sound like thunder. He glanced back, and saw four figures approaching rapidly.

He knew that there was no point in running. He was an old man, and could barely run anyway. And besides, where was there to go?

He stood and waited for them, the constables on the motorbikes, back stiff and proud. He had no regrets about what he had done. Every thing he did, he did for the town.

For a moment, he wondered who had broken. Which of the men had betrayed him? Alden? It seemed the most likely; he was the weakest of all the recruits.

The constables surrounded him, and one of them stepped off his bike and removed his helmet.

"William," the constable said with a nod.

"Hello, Jiro." He said, with a nod of his own. "How's the wife and family?"

"Doing well, thank you. I assume you know why we're here?"

"I might have an inkling, yes."

"I have to ask, William; will it be necessary to cuff you?"

William laughed at that.

"Jiro, I'm sixty-two. There are four of you. And it's not like I can flee from you. You have my word, I'll not cause any problems."

"Thank you for that." Jiro seemed honestly relieved. "Do you think you can manage this sidecar? If not, other transport can be arranged."

William regarded the sidecar with distaste.

"I imagine," he said finally, "that I can manage with a little help."

Jiro himself helped him into the sidecar of the motorcycle. William's knees protested mightily, but he ignored the pain. He wouldn't flinch from his duty, ever, no matter the cost to himself.

The constables turned their bikes on the road, and road in stately calm back to the town. When they reached the station house, in spite of the early hour, there was already a small crowd formed outside the station. Some of the crowd pointed at him and whispered as the constables drove him past.

William was confused for a moment as they rode past the front entrance. Then it occurred to him, they weren't going to bring him in the front door. They were heading around to the back. William felt a moment's relief as he realized that he wouldn't be escorted in the front door like a criminal, in front of the townsfolk.

They brought him in, patted him down briefly, and took out the contents of his pockets. These items were placed in a small box labeled with his name and put on a shelf. William was asked to sign a form with all the items listed on it, then was led back to the cells.

There were only two cells in the station house, and for the most part that was plenty. Most times, they stood empty and unused. Today, though, they were occupied. William saw five other members of his group spread between the two cells. Of Alden, there was no sign.

William was led to a cell with Dai and Shiro. Dai was resting on the cot and staring at the ceiling, and Shiro was huddled on the floor with his head in his hands, crying softly to himself. He looked up when William entered the cell and scrambled to his feet.

"What are we going to do, Will?" Shiro asked, near panic. "They know everything! What's going to happen to us?"

"What's going to happen," William responded, disgust plainly evident in his voice, "Is that you are going to pull yourself together."

He waited a moment while Shiro stared at him, gaping. Finally, when the other man had sufficiently mastered himself, he turned and spoke loudly, addressing the occupants in both cells at the same time.

"Listen well. We knew this could happen when we started this. It was a risk we all took, for the good of the town. I only regret that one of us buckled. I blame myself for that, since I made a poor choice. Was it one of you? Did one of you here betray us?"

He looked each man in the eye, but nobody flinched away. As he expected. The weak link in the chain was Alden.

"Very well. I was the one who led this group. I'll accept the responsibility for it, try to convince the judge that I'm to blame. Hopefully, most of the punishment will fall to me. But if it does not, remember this: what we did, we did for the people."

The other men nodded and murmured their agreement. Dai stood up from his cot and offered his place to William, who gladly lay down to rest.

The trial took place the next day, in a closed courtroom. William had expected crowds, but there were none. With the exception of one man, robed and indistinct in the background, the gallery was empty.

The men were led in together and were sat down at the defendant's desk on a bench that had been brought out for this occasion.

They rose when the tribunal of judges entered, led a bent-backed old man that William had been acquainted with for his whole life. William felt a spark of hope, momentarily. If Yasahiro could be made to see the sense in what they did, he may be lenient… to the other men, at least, if not to William himself.

The list of charges was read off. Kidnapping, imprisonment and, shockingly, torture, which produced a gasp and muttered protests from the men on the defendant's bench. Judge Yasahiro banged his gavel until the men quieted down, then asked for a plea.

Standing straight and tall, William stood before the judge and looked him in the eye. He felt the hope die a little as he did; there was no sympathy there. Still, he had to try, for the sake of the others.

"Sir," he said, "on all counts but torture, which I wholeheartedly deny, I plead guilty, but with reason. Furthermore, I state that I bear full responsibility for this action. The others were convinced by me, and acted at my request. I beg leniency for the others."

"Be that as it may," Yasahiro returned sharply, "The fact remains that they did act. Your prompting them is irrelevant. We'll hear the pleas from the others, now."

One by one, the other men followed William's example, standing and pleading guilty to all charges but torture.

Their fate decided on two of the three counts, the tribunal began questioning the men, one by one. The chains were brought out and demonstrated. Constables came forward to talk about the condition of the door, barred by a heavy wooden bar on one side, and scratched on the other, where their prisoner (the entire tribunal had reacted angrily when William tried to correct them with the word "guest") had scratched at the door.

One by one, the men were brought to the stand and ordered to give an account. The first one, Dai, hesitated, and attempted to gloss over much of it, only to be asked sharp questions by one of the three judges on the bench. Eventually, he broke down, and confessed it all. After that, the other men didn't hold back at all.

They talked of the repairing of the cottage, and the forging of the chains, which Dai had done in his metalworking shop. When talking of the kidnapping itself, several of the men broke down and cried. But when asked about torture, each of the men vehemently denied it.

"We kept her against her will," William asserted, "But we never tortured her."

"That is not true," said a voice, from the sole occupant of the gallery. William looked at him as he stood, and saw his suspicion as to the man's identity confirmed.

"The court recognizes the Washi of the Haibane Renmei," said one of the judges. The Washi walked forward, and though William could not see his face behind his mask, the body language was that of one who was a short step away from open rage.

William was excused from the witness box. As the Washi passed him, William almost flinched in fear. The man's fury was unmistakable, and for a moment William felt afraid for his life.

"Please explain," Yasahiro asked him as the Washi settled into the witness box.

"Gladly, provided that it is agreed that this information never leaves this courtroom."

The judges agreed to this, and the Washi began to speak.

"I will not explain in any great detail the nature of the Haibane. This is not something that I can reveal. What I will say is this, and it is what most of us in Glie know. The Haibane appear to us one day, innocent and new. They grow here, connect with us, bring joy to our lives and become strong. And then they leave us.

"Why they leave does not matter, as far as this case is concerned. What matters is the inevitability. One way or another, a Haibane who is blessed shall leave Glie. This is a great joy for them, and a great joy for us, who helped them on their way. Of course it is a great sorrow as well, to lose those we care for so deeply.

"What these men did, and I am still uncertain how they did it, is prevent a Haibane from leaving when her time came. The compulsion is overwhelming for the Haibane. It is not something they can deny, it is much like the need for water or air.

"By locking her away, you denied her what she needed most. To think that this didn't cause her pain is foolish. And you did it all for no reason!"

"That is not true!" William, unable to contain himself, bolted up from his seat. Yasahiro banged his gavel angrily and demanded that he sit down.

"I will not!" William shouted. "All of this inquiry, and not once did you ask us why! Not once did you request an explanation! We have admitted guilt, at least let us speak as to why we thought it necessary!"

Yasahiro started to order him removed from the courtroom, but a different judge laid his hand on his arm.

"Very well," this other judge said. "We would like to hear your reason for this crime."

William, composing himself as best he could, and very aware of the Washi's stare, began speaking.

"The Renmei themselves say one thing. This town exists for the Haibane. They are our fortune, our reason for being here. They are our luck and our blessing. And yet, they've been becoming more and more rare. Ask the Washi, how many Haibane now remain in Glie?"

The judges looked to the Washi who, without looking away from William, said, "As of this moment, there are no Haibane at all within the city of Glie. The one they captured was the last."

"You see?" William said. "We had no choice! If we are truly blessed to have the Haibane here, then we must be cursed if they leave us all! Our crops will fail, the river will dry up, and Glie will die!"

He could see fear, now, in the eyes of the judges. Yasahiro turned to the Washi and asked, "Is this true?"

"Such a foolish thought." the Washi replied. "We have said that the Haibane are the blessing of Glie, but it is not in such a way that this is true. Glie exists. Haibane come here, and we are blessed to have them, in the same way we are blessed by the wind and the water, the birds and animals, the plants and the flowers, and the presence of our friends and family. But Glie will survive without Haibane. It has done so many times in the past. They will come again. And we will survive until they do, though our days will be less colorful until then."

"There have been times in the past with no Haibane?" William was totally stunned by this statement. "I don't believe it. No, it can't be…"

"It is true. There have been times in the past where Glie had many Haibane, and times, sometimes decades at a time, with no Haibane at all. This is simply one of those times." The Washi was still staring at him. William found himself wishing he could see the eyes behind the mask.

"I thought… We were always told that our fortune was the Haibane… Oh, what have I done?"

"What you have done is commit a monstrous crime. We are fortunate to have Haibane in our lives, for the joy that they bring. Now I ask you," and with this, the Washi stood up in the witness box, and pointed a finger at William, and his voice boomed with a rage like thunder, "I ask you, what joy can be derived from a Haibane locked in a cage?"

William shrank back, from the voice and the accusation. He could offer up no defenses to that.

The judges deliberated briefly, after a moment of shocked silence. Finally, Yasahiro turned to the Washi. "Thank you for your time, sir. If you would care to have a seat, we have one more witness to produce."

The Washi left the stand, and resumed his seat in the gallery. After a few moments, Yasahiro summoned a bailiff and bid him to bring in the prisoner.

William looked up as they brought Alden into the courtroom. The youth was refusing to meet his eye, keeping his own downcast on the floor. William could no longer feel any resentment towards the boy. If it had been him who turned them in, then he had possibly done the noblest thing out of all of them.

There were a few moments of shuffling around as Alden settled himself in the witness box. When he was ready, Yasahiro told him to explain what had happened.

Alden, still not looking up, related his story:

Alden was looking at the toolbox again without realizing it. Something gave over in his head. He couldn't take this anymore. He pulled the hammer out by its well-worn handle and advanced on the doorway.

He had to end this.

He lifted the heavy wooden bar off the door, and let it fall to the ground. Then he pulled the door open.

The Haibane was huddled on the floor, and looked up at him with puffy, reddened eyes. Her appearance had changed over the last several days. Her hair was a rat's nest, wild and matted. Her face was filthy, and streaked with tear-tracks. Her dress was wrinkled, and ripped in several places. Her halo was flickering rapidly, first dim, then blinding bright, then fading away, in a seemingly random pattern.

She saw the hammer in his hands and flinched back, raising her hands as if to defend herself. With a start, he saw that her hands were covered with blood, her fingernails ripped and shredded. He remembered the scratching at the door with a shudder.

Her wrists were manacled with the dull grey metal William had provided, joined together in front of her. The chain between the manacles only allowed her to move her hands a few inches apart. On the chain between her wrists hung another chain, running down to another set of manacles clamped around her ankles. To these, another chain was attached, running to a ring on the wall with a large lock. The chain could be unlocked, allowing the Haibane to be escorted to the outhouse if needed.

Her wings were bound together behind her back by a single large clip of the same dull grey metal. All of the cuffs and the clip on her back were held together by pins.

"Please…" the Haibane said, hands still raised.

"It's ok," Alden replied, "I'm not going to hurt you."

He walked past her, to the ring in the wall. Taking a key out of his pocket, he unlocked the chain. It fell heavily to the floor.

"I'm going to get you out of here," he told her, and she began sobbing again, in relief this time.

"Thank you," she said, "Oh, thank you!"

He led her out of the room she had spent the last several days in. He had her sit at the table, and tried to strike the pin out of the cuffs. It didn't work, and the resulting impact jarred her wrists, causing her to moan in pain.

"Oh, god, I'm sorry!" Alden sprang up and ran to the toolbox. After digging for a moment, he found what he was looking for: a chisel, nice and sharp.

Being as careful as he could, he placed the chisel under the head of the pin and struck as hard as he dared. After several strikes, the head of the pin popped off, and the pin slid out easily. One cuff was off, four remained.

He repeated the process on the other hand, then on each ankle. The wings were more of a problem: The large clip was located in the center of the wings, binding them together, and it was a difficult angle to strike at. He ended up hurting her more then once. Even so, she forgave him quickly and begged him to continue.

Finally, the clip was free, and fell to the floor with a crash. The Haibane tried to stand, but she hadn't eaten properly in days. She collapsed after a few steps, groaning.

"I have to… I have to go…" she kept saying.

Alden looked at her, and made up his mind. He bent down and stroked her filthy hair.

"I'll carry you," he said, and the Haibane looked up at him with a sudden, radiant smile that Alden would remember for the rest of his life.

He took a lantern off the hook by the door and lit it, leaving it on the table. Then, carefully, gently, he lifted her onto his back. She radiated heat like a furnace, and weighed nearly nothing. Her condition scared Alden severely… she was wasting away. Suddenly, he felt sure that there was very little time left. She would reach her destination soon, or not at all.

He gathered up the lantern in his left hand, supporting her weight easily with his right arm, and followed her directions out into the darkness.

She led him deeper and deeper into the woods, further than he had ever gone, even when playing games of dare as a child. Eventually, they reached an area of ruins.

"You can set me down here," she said. "This is far enough."

Alden looked around in confusion, seeing nothing out of the ordinary. But she seemed sure. Maybe there was a secret way out of Glie from here.

"Are you sure? I could carry you further."

She nodded, and he lowered her gently to the ground. Steadying herself with her hand on his arm, she stood shakily.

"This is all the further I need to go, and thank you." She kissed him gently on the cheek.

She took one stumbling step, and nearly fell. Alden reached out, but she recovered by herself before he could touch her.

"Are you sure you can walk?"

With a laugh, she looked back at him, and smiled another one of those smiles.

"Walk? Today I can fly!"

And with another step, then another she seemed to grow in strength as she moved forward. She stopped before a short broken staircase, looked back one more time, and said one word.

"Goodbye."

And the night exploded with light.

"It took a while before I could see again. After that, I came to the station house. I suppose I could have just pretended nothing happened, but… Well, what we did was so wrong. I felt I had to come clean, or I couldn't live with myself."

Alden looked over at the others for the first time. William had is face in his hands, horse-faced Jon seemed to be crying, bearded Dai simply stared at him with hatred in his eyes. Most of the others simply stared at the floor.

"This metal," the Washi said, "I would know where it came from."

"William got it for us, I don't know where."

One of the judges, the old man, glared at William. "Well?" he demanded.

With a sigh, William stood up. He looked around at the Washi, nodded, and began to speak.

"When I was a boy, I often wondered about the Haibane. I don't think that is too unusual. For the most part, they are a complete mystery to us. Well, I was in the central plaza one day when a small group of them walked past. I heard them talking about one of their numbers who had left, and so I followed them hoping to learn more.

"There was something about a day of flight that they mentioned, and something about an old chapel in the woods. I hadn't heard of any such thing, but I decided to try and find it. It took a long while. Weeks, actually. But I finally found some ruins that seemed to fit the description.

"There was nothing special there at the time but some old metal rings, so I took those. I kept them hidden in my bedroom. From time to time after that, I would play in the chapel. It became like my secret hideaway. Only the Haibane and I knew it was there.

"One day, when I was playing, I heard people coming. I hid, and to my amazement saw a group of Haibane coming up to the chapel. They placed a metal ring on the alter and they prayed, and I suddenly realized what the rings were.

"They were the halos of the Haibane who had left Glie."

There was a long moment of silence before the Washi spoke again.

"And what made you think that those halos could be forged into a chain that would be effective in keeping a Haibane tethered here?" he asked.

"It just seemed to me that everything of the Haibane goes but that halo. It seemed a logical conclusion."

The Washi sat silently for a long moment, then addressed the judges.

"This information can never, under any circumstances, leave this room."

"We are aware of the seriousness of that, Washi. There is no need to try and order us around."

"You don't understand," the Washi said. "If that information leaks to the townsfolk, the Renmei will withdraw their support from Glie. Permanently. There will never again be visits from the Toga. And never again will there be another Haibane seen here. It will be the end of Glie as you know it."

The judges looked shocked.

"Is that a threat, Washi?"

"If you choose take it as such. I view it as a necessity. I will never again allow Haibane to be chained in such a way."

Another long moment of silence stretched out, and finally each judge in turn swore that they would never reveal the information.

In the end, the verdict was expulsion for all members of the group. Even Alden was forced to leave. Though freeing the Haibane redeemed him somewhat in the eyes of the tribunal, the judges made it clear that it in no way made up for his participation in the first place.

Some of the men who were married were allowed to ask their wives to accompany them. All but one of the women, Dai's wife, refused to go, preferring to stay in Glie with their children and families.

They were given provisions and equipment to help them when they left. Loaded into small carts that could be pulled easily by hand were tents, sleeping bags, camp stoves and lamps with plenty of oil, blankets, and enough food for weeks.

Since there was no stopping speculation as to their crime, it was put out amongst the townspeople that the men were being evicted for trying to capture a Haibane, but they were caught when the Haibane left anyway. The rumor was told in such a way that it made it sound like it was impossible to hold a Haibane who's time had come to go. It was hoped that the seeming futility of such an act would deter others from trying the same thing.

It was early morning when Alden was brought to the gate with the others. Many townsfolk had gathered around, and a quiet murmur of conversation echoed off the walls. Finally, the gatekeeper opened the massive doors to the town. There was a long tunnel that went through the wall, lit by glowing lamps. At the far side, Alden could see nothing but a dense fog that obscured the landscape.

A clerk escorted Judge Yasahiro, hobbling along with the help of a cane, to a small podium that had been erected near the door. He unrolled a sheet of paper and once again listed off their crimes and the punishment it had required. All talking amongst the citizens stopped as he read, and then there was a moment of silence.

Nobody moved. Alden himself was terrified of what he would find beyond that tunnel. He glanced around desperately at the crowd, hoping for some miracle, some last-minute reprieve. He caught the eye of the Washi, who had come to see the sentence carried out.

The Washi stood looking at him for a long moment, then finally gave a slight nod. Unbidden, the memory of the Haibane came back to him, and he found the courage within himself to take that first step. After the first one, each successive step became easier.

Pulling the cart that held his only possessions behind him, Alden moved confidently down the tunnel and into the mist beyond the walls of Glie, the memory of a radiant smile that lit the night carrying him along.