I haven’t been to a hanging in a while. I wasn’t planning to attend one today, but this one may well be my last.
The crowd cheers as the soldiers lead me toward the gallows. There’s eight of them; four pushing and shoving their way ahead through the throng of people, two walking at my sides, and the last two following behind.
We’re almost halfway there. On a good day, I’d be long gone by now. But my hands are tied behind my back, and the shackles are made of dragonsteel; the only metal that can block magic. They’d thought of everything, the bastards.
Or so it would seem. They can’t know that the executioner is my friend. Or should be, given how much I’ve been paying him for the past three years.
I didn’t need to make use of him so far. I’ve made this walk twice before, and both times I was gone before I reached the platform. Not this time though. Perhaps he’ll find a way to save me.
Then again, perhaps it’s not even him up there on the platform, behind that mask. One could never tell.
I walk on, one step ahead of the other. I pretend to stumble, but one of the guards keeps me upright. It hasn’t worked the last time either, but there’s no harm in trying again, is there? I mean, what could they do to me, hang me or something?
I catch myself. This isn’t funny, Stavros. You should be thinking your way out of this. But there’s no time.
I reach the platform and the crowd howls as the soldiers lead me up the steps. Today’s the Midsummer Feast, and yet they look like there’s nowhere else they’d rather be.
Of course, they haven’t come here just to see me die. Apparently I’m to be hanged on the same day as some nobleman. A dubious honor, not that I’ll be around to enjoy it.
The soldiers walk off the platform, having done their duty. It’s just me, the executioner, and four of the Black Guards now.
I look the executioner in the eye. It’s him. Even with the mask on his face, I recognize him easily. He has the same strong build, the same brown eyes, and wears the same heavy boots he always does, even now in midsummer.
He walks toward me. What’s he going to do, slip me a knife? A knife won’t cut through dragonsteel. A knife between the ribs, that’d be the only way to deprive the crowd of a good hanging.
No. Cut it out with the gallows humor, Stavros. He must have a way to get me out of this. Otherwise I’ve been paying him for nothing. Not that I’d get my money back, either way.
He’s three steps away when he stops and he does what no executioner in this city has ever done before.
He pulls off his mask, and — it’s not him.
It’s Adrastos, the captain of the Duke’s guards. The bastard, he almost caught me twice. I broke his nose the last time. Looks like he’ll have the last laugh after all.
“Stavros Stormwind,” he says. “What a pleasure to see you here, thief.”
“Master Thief,” I say. One must have pride, even in his final moments. “What happened to Ammon?”
“He’s still recovering from last night’s drinking,” Adrastos answers. This must be the Fates playing a cruel joke on me. I pay a perfectly good executioner for years and he chooses exactly the wrong night to get drunk, leaving me up here with this brute.
Adrastos grins. “I might have had something to do with that, just so you know.”
I guess this is it then. No more Stavros after all. At least I can smash my forehead in Adrastos’s face when he comes near, and break his nose again.
That sly bastard, he must have thought of it. He comes from the side. Two of the Black Guards grab my shoulders and hold me in place as he slips the rope around my neck.
He walks away. When he’s out of my reach, he turns around and gives me a satisfied grin. In moments he’s going to pull the lever at the side of the platform and send me to my death. Knowing him, he’s going to botch the execution and leave me thrashing like a fish on the line, until I suffocate.
That’s it then. Farewell, cruel world. It’s been fun while it lasted.
Adrastos raises his hands high in the air and the crowd slowly quiets.
“People of Floria,” he shouts. “On this glorious day of the Midsummer Feast, I give you a hang–”
“Wait,” a voice booms from the right side of the square.
I glance that way. The royal carriage has arrived. There’s no mistaking of it, all polished with gold and silver leaf. The door is open and the King has already descended the steps.
So His Majesty has come to attend my execution. I should be honored. Then again, I’ll be dead all the same.
The crowd parts in front of him and the King strides forward, surrounded by twelve of his knights. They look resplendent in their suits of armor — and must be baking inside, in the cruel summer sun.
Today is the Midsummer Feast, and on this day it’s customary for the King to give a pardon. He hasn’t done it in years, but… could I be so lucky, to be pardoned by the King himself?
My heart is beating twice as fast as he reaches the front row and turns toward the crowd. His knights are arrayed in a semicircle around him, keeping the people at bay.
“People of Floria,” he shouts. “On this great day of the Midsummer Feast, I have decided to give a royal pardon. It is my will as King that — what?” He turns to his right as one of the knights places a hand on his shoulder.
“Your Majesty,” the man says, loud enough for me to hear. “This man is not the Count.”
“Oh,” the King says. “I see.” He raises his voice again, speaking to the crowd. “It is my will as King that Count Lembas is pardoned for his indiscretion. As for this man right here,” he pauses and the knight whispers something in his ear, “Stavros Stormwind, a thief and a scoundrel, he will receive the fate the Fates have reserved for him.”
So that’s it. Thanks, Fates. I couldn’t have pulled a neater trick myself.
I watch the King as he turns toward the platform. “Proceed,” he says.
I raise my head toward the sky — and see her. Eve. Perched upon a rooftop, her bow in hand.
She nocks an arrow. She’s going to cut the rope!
She looks me in the eye — and I see the man skulking behind her, dressed in the uniform of the Black Guards. Sunlight glints off his sword as he pulls it out of its sheath.
I jerk my head to the right and Eve catches my signal. She turns around and stabs the man in the throat with her arrow. He falls backward and Eve turns toward me again, nocking another arrow just as Adrastos pulls the lever and I plummet toward my death.
The arrow flies through the air…
… I thrash as the rope tightens around my neck…
… and the arrow thuds into something behind me. She missed.
I see her nocking another arrow as the crowd erupts with shouts. Then everything goes black.
“You’re awake,” Eve’s voice comes from the right. I open my eyes and find myself lying down, staring at a low-beamed ceiling. My hands are free, but my head feels like it’s been pounded by a giant hammer, at least half a dozen times.
I turn my head to the right. Eve sits on a stool at the side of my bed. A torch hangs from the wall behind her, giving us a dim light. Below it hangs a painting of an old woman’s face, her features twisted in a scream. I’m certain I’ve never been in this room before.
I force myself to smile as I sit up and turn to face Eve. “So this is the afterworld. I was expecting a hundred virgins with flowers in their hair. Instead, all I get is you.”
She slaps me, hard. “That was uncalled for.”
“You shouldn’t have left me in that tavern.”
“They were too many, Stavros. They would have caught us both. I had to flee so I can save you.” She gives me that sweet smile that makes men’s knees go soft. “Besides, I’m not that bad, am I?”
An exotic beauty, many men call her. Of course, I don’t think of her that way. She’s been my little sister ever since our master found her on the streets. She was five at the time, and I was ten. Old Master Bracchus died only three months later of a bad heart and a bad conscience. For the past thirteen years, we had to fend for ourselves.
I change the subject. “I blacked out after you fired that first arrow. What did I miss?”
“My second arrow cut the rope. Then there was a big ruckus. People looking this way and that, the knights shouting ‘Assassins!’ and ‘Protect the King!’, all the things you’d expect. Of course, I was off that rooftop before anyone could see me.”
“How did you get me out of there?”
“How else? I had two of the Black Guards help me.”
“I thought the Black Guards couldn’t be bribed.”
“Not with money, no. But one of them fancies my friend Medina.”
“Ah,” I say. I know Medina well. She’s one of those women who like to string men along, usually two or three at a time. To my last count, five duels have been fought over her since she arrived in Floria three years ago. Four of them ended in death. Yet men don’t seem to learn.
“I met with the man yesterday,” Eve continued. “I told him I’d put in a good word for him and he agreed to help me. He struck Adrastos in the back of the head when he wasn’t looking, then he and his brother dragged you away. I had a cart waiting nearby.”
“And now we’re here.”
“Yes.” She sighs. “For all that’s worth.”
I’m puzzled. “What do you mean?”
She jerks her head and, for the first time, I look to the other side of the room — and I see it. The room has no windows, and only one door. A door made of metal bars. Even in the dim light of the torch, I recognize the metal instantly.
Dragonsteel. It can’t be anything else.
This is it then. We’re in a jail cell, both of us this time, and my magic is useless again. No doubt more dragonsteel bars run through the walls.
“We were halfway to the Trader’s Gate,” Eve says, “when we took a turn and ran into a wall of spears. More soldiers came from behind, and they had two spellcasters with them. The Black Guards laid down their weapons instantly. There was nothing I could do.”
“So let me guess. It’s back to the gallows tomorrow at noon. For both of us.”
“Perhaps,” she says. “They haven’t spoken a word to me since they took me.”
I stretch out my hand. “Well, it’s been nice knowing you, Eve.”
“Wait. Aren’t you going to search for a way out of this?”
I shake my head. “There’s no use. They’ll be well prepared for anything we could try. I think the Fates are against me, Eve.”
“So I risk my life to try and save you —“
“For what good that did,” I interject.
“And you’re going to give up on me, just like that? What would Master Bracchus say?”
“ ‘Welcome to the afterworld, my children?’” I try. Why am I being such a jerk? She doesn’t deserve it. Looks like I’m not too good at dealing with the sense of impending doom.
Eve punches me in the shoulder. “No. You can’t give up, Stavros. I won’t let you.”
Just then, I hear footsteps coming from the left. In moments, a hooded man arrives at the door.
He pulls up the hood covering his face, and I grin. It’s Garrod, the spymaster. Finally, a friendly face. We, the men who work in the shadow, admire and respect each other. Besides, when Garrod and I play cards, I usually let him win.
“Garrod,” I say as I rise. “I’ve never been so happy to see you.”
“You still owe me twenty silvers,” he says from behind the dragonsteel bars.
I nod. “I’ll pay you back before the next full moon. You know I’m good for it.”
“You used to be,” Garrod says. “You’ve been slipping lately though.”
“My assistant saved me,” I say. “And you captured us. Why?” Through all this, Eve wisely remains silent.
Garrod shrugs. “It would have been the Duke’s men if I hadn’t. And you know how that ends.”
I do. Perhaps I shouldn’t have made an enemy in the Duke after all. Some people know how to hold a grudge, and he employs the most skilled torturers in the realm. I’d choose hanging any day.
“Why did you bring us here, Garrod?”
“I figured nobody would be looking for you in a jail cell, of all places. Besides, if they did,” he snorts, “I could simply surrender you and keep my hands clean.”
“That’s not funny,” I say.
He grins. “I actually find it pretty amusing. But I don’t think it will come to that.” He pulls a key out of his pocket and unlocks the door. “Come, Stavros. We have much to talk about.”
Eve smiles at me as we walk toward the door. “Free at last. It seems the Fates weren’t working against you after all.”
I return her smile. Perhaps she’s right. Then again, the day isn’t over yet.