This story is continued from last week's story, "On Bended Knee", and is based on today's A to Z Challenge post, "Q is for Quick-set epoxy"
"Stop what you're doing, old man, and put your hands up. Now! Or I'll kill you right where you're kneeling!"
Potemkin froze just as the angry young man had instructed. With a jerk, he sat back on his heels, his entire body and demeanor conveying the shocked surprise and fear he knew they wanted to see. In a moment, he would let his shoulders slump and bow his head. He would be the picture of a defeated, scared old man.
Then they would all die.
With slow, pained movements, Potemkin braced himself to rise. One hand on the tree, one on his knee, he levered himself to stand. In the moonlight, he could see the guns all the men carried. Assault weapons over their shoulders, pistols on their hips. They all had knives, too, long bush knives strapped to their thighs. The eight young men looked angry and hard; their leader mixed speculation and suspicion with his anger.
The trees had warned Potemkin of their approach, warned him that they were armed. They hadn't simply killed him from a distance, so the only dangerous moment was now passed.
He looked from face to face. So young... they were all so young. Or was it that he was so old?
Two of the men grabbed him from behind and bent his frail arms back. He cried out in real pain. No, there was nothing to fear... except the pain he had to endure before his task was complete.
"What were you doing there? Tell me!" The leader raised his weapon and put the muzzle under the old man's chin. "Tell me, you old bastard or I blow your head off!"
"I was looking for truffles." Potemkin's Polish was fluent, but his American accent made all the men raise their weapons and scowl.
The barrel of the leader's gun pushed upward, digging it into the soft, flabby flesh of the old man's neck.
"You think I'm a fool? An American, digging for mushrooms, here? In the middle of the night? You insult me again and I will kick your teeth in again before I kill you. There are a hundred places I could dump your body and no one, I mean NO ONE would find you. Now, answer me! What are you up to?"
"I'm a tourist, on a cheese tasting tour. The light of the moon makes the flavor of the truffles stronger. Please," Potemkin said, "I meant no offense. I'll go."
"Sasha! Dig in there, see what he was doing."
Another man in the group nodded, slung his rifle up behind his back and bent to scrabble in the dirt Potemkin had loosened at the base of the tree. After a moment, he pulled up an irregular, brown lump the size of a walnut. He smelled it.
"It's a truffle, Taddeusz. Do you think he was telling the truth?"
Sasha returned to the hole, widening his search. After a moment, he shouted a curse and yanked his hand away. Then he reached back and pulled out a short knife, barely two inches long at the blade. He held it in his bleeding fist, waving it at the old man.
"It cut me! That wrinkled old son of whore buried this knife in the dirt and it cut me!"
"Give me that knife." Taddeusz held out his hand and Sasha handed him the blade. The blade seemed to absorb the moonlight and give it back in a silver swirl. It was a long time before the leader took his eyes from it. When he did, Potemkin could see that he knew. With a gesture, the younger man motioned Potemkin's captors to turn toward the path.
"Let's get moving. We're taking him back to the chapel. The Bishop will want to see him."
"Tad? Are you sure that's a good idea? Don't you think we should -"
"Be quiet, Sasha!" Taddeusz looked at Potemkin. "I know what you're here for, old man. You want the magic wood. You're a greedy American who knows nothing about the underpinnings of the world. The wailing wood is valuable and that's why you're here, right?"
Potemkin raised his eyes to meet those of his captor. Their gaze locked, but only for a moment. They were interrupted by a CRACK as loud as a cannonshot. A heavy branch, as thick as a man's thigh, dropped directly on top of Sasha and the four man standing with him. They screamed as branches stabbed downward into their upturned faces, impaling eyes, cheeks and throats.
Like reactive machines, Taddeusz and the men holding Potemkin stepped back, readying their assault rifles. As they did, each of them tripped, their heels caught on looping roots. Gunfire erupted upward, spraying into the leaves as the men fell.
Unlike the men crushed by the fallen limb, these three men died almost instantly, stabbed in the back of the neck by a thick root, newly risen up in the exact spot where their heads hit the ground. All the roots were covering in clinging, fresh dirt.
Potemkin waited until the screaming stopped. His heart pounded and his head swam. Four years he'd been searching for this grove. Four years from completing the floor, and now his final task was well and truly begun. He could afford to wait to catch his breath.
From a pocket he took a mass of gray putty, wrapped in plastic. From the dead Taddeusz's jacket he retrieved his knife. Then, Potemkin went to the tree that had given its limb to save him. He leaned against it, his hand on the rough bark.
"Now, Alexi... their lives have opened the door... wedge it open, just as we taught you... you must act quickly, Alexi... set us free..."
Potemkin unwrapped the plumber's epoxy putty and kneaded it until it was sticky-smooth. He wrapped the mass around his left thumb and pressed it against the tree bark. He counted a thousand heartbeats, trying to keep his breathing slow. With a tug, he tested the epoxy and found it already beginning to set.
With a deep breath, he held the knife at the base of the thumb, just at the joint. In a smooth motion, he swiped it upward, severing tendons and cartilage as though he were slicing through cardboard. He yanked his hand away, leaving the thumb stuck in place.
Blood sprayed in pulsing jets as he pressed the flat of the blade to the ragged, bleeding joint. Burning moonlight flowed into the wound, an agonizing, icy cauterization.
"Almost there, Alexi... almost there..."
Tears flowed down the old man's face.
"Courage, Alexi... almost there... almost there... you must be ready to go to him, Alexi... be ready... you are almost finished... we are almost free..."
This story concludes with "Living Stones, Living Wood", a piece based on next Friday's A to Z Challenge post, "W is for Whetstone"
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