The marketplace in Dargon was swarming with people. Not one seller needed to shout to attract buyers; every one of them had their hands full, dealing with their customers and haggling over the price for merchandise. Unusual as this was, the sellers were as excited as their customers.
Among the people in the marketplace were three friends, two men and a woman, who were trying to make their way through the crowd. Their progress was slow, and more than once they were pushed aside by an impatient buyer when they came too close to a stand.
“I wonder what all this commotion is about. I don’t think I’ve seen so many people here at once before,” one of the men said. He was rather skinny, with his long arms wrapped around his chest, covering a tear in his shirt. His pants looked like he’d outgrown them years ago; they barely reached halfway below his knees and were full of holes.
“You mean to say you haven’t heard about it, Kal?” the woman asked teasingly. She was dressed in the traditional garments of a bard. Her lips were painted blue, which created a lovely contrast to her long black hair.
“No, I haven’t heard. I’ve been looking for someone selling clothing,” Kal said grumpily. “And I would appreciate it if you could tell me what all that commotion is about. I think Nai agrees with me.”
“Straight!” Nai grinned. “Simona can tell the story so much better than I anyway.”
“You mean she’s told you already?” Kal asked indignantly.
“No, I was there when the herald proclaimed it. You, on the other hand, were daydreaming as usual,” Nai retorted.
“Humph,” Kal uttered and looked angrily at Nai.
Simona placed a hand on Kal’s shoulder. “I’ll tell you. There’s no need to start an argument. Some poor guy is going to be executed for killing his neighbor.”
Kal’s face brightened. “I haven’t seen an execution in a long time. I can hardly wait.”
Simona shuddered. “Come on, let’s find a place to get something to eat, but not before you buy a new pair of britches and a shirt. The garments you’re wearing are beyond repair! I am not making another attempt to fix them.” Simona said, looking at Kal’s ragged outfit. “Next time you decide to climb a tree and rob a bird of its eggs, take your shirt off first.”
“Stop your nagging,” Kal replied. “I’ll buy a shirt and britches, and then I’ll watch the execution. I need some entertainment.”
“Over there.” Nai tapped Kal’s shoulder and then pointed at a cart to his left.
“Straight,” Kal sighed and fought his way through the crowd towards the nearest merchant displaying clothes. He’d been teased almost mercilessly for the past sennight for his attempt to add some eggs to their meager meals as they traveled toward Dargon. He’d spotted a bird’s nest and had climbed the tree. He had reached into the nest to take some of the eggs, not thinking that the feathered owners could be nearby. He’d been attacked by two large black birds. In his surprise, he’d let go of the branch he’d been holding on to and fell to the ground, tearing his shirt and ripping his britches. His attempts to stitch his garments had been futile.
The selection in the merchant’s cart was limited. It didn’t take Kal long to pick out a pair of brown pants and a green shirt; however, haggling over the price took time. Kal enjoyed negotiating the price, but knew Simona’s patience was going to wear thin if he took too long. Out of the corner of his eyes he noticed that she was shifting position quite frequently. He had a feeling she was about to interject and tell him to pay the price. Kal reached an agreement with the merchant and pulled out his purse. He imagined Simona letting out a deep sigh and grinned inwardly.
“I’m hungry,” Simona declared when Kal had his new garments wrapped together and was ready to go on.
“I suggest the Inn of the Golden Lion. I’ve stayed there before during my travels several years ago. The inn still stands,” Nai said. “I asked. It’s not the closest one, but there won’t be too many people there, and hopefully we can get a room for the night as well. I will meet you there; I have an errand to run.”
“Will it take long?” Simona inquired.
“Shouldn’t,” Nai replied. “If you want to wait, I’ll be back in a few menes.”
“Straight,” Kal agreed. “We’ll wait and then head to the inn together. You seem to be the one who knows the way. I could use a room and a decent meal for a change. We’ve been traveling for too long.”
Nai returned a quarter bell later, grinning. “I got what I needed. Ready for some food?”
“Straight,” Kal replied.
“Then let’s go,” Simona said as she turned and began to make her way towards the Street of Travellers. Within half a bell the friends reached the inn and entered. A grim-looking barmaid greeted them halfheartedly, putting a mug of ale in front of each of them before they could order.
“Could we have something to eat as well?” Simona asked, taking a sip from her mug.
“Nay,” the barmaid replied grumpily. “Cook’s not back from the market yet.”
“I reckon he won’t be back for a while then,” Nai said and looked at Kal.
“Then I want to go back and watch the execution!” Kal said looking straight at Simona and Nai. He hoped his friends wouldn’t try to stop him. “Did you hear how he’s supposed to die?”
“They’re using the Falling Judge to behead him,” Simona explained quickly.
“The people around the Falling Judge are already taking bets on how many drops it will take to get the head off,” Nai added. “I heard them when I bought my things.”
A brief shudder ran through Simona’s body. She took a sip of her ale and hoped her friends hadn’t seen it.
“Is that why you dragged me away from the marketplace?” Kal challenged them. “You know I enjoy these shows.”
“And you know Mona hates them,” Nai retorted and placed his arm protectively around Simona’s shoulder. She shrugged him off.
“But she never told us why,” Kal replied. “I’m going back there. I want to see it.”
“I could tell you why I don’t like executions,” Simona said quietly and looked at Kal who had stood up. For a moment, Kal looked directly at Simona. Something in her look made him sit back down.
“I’m all ears,” Kal said. “I’d like to know.” Simona took a sip of her ale, brushed some fine strands of hair out of her face and began her story.
“It happened about six years ago. I was still a student at the College of Bards in Magnus, when one of my teachers took me and a few other girls to the marketplace to watch an execution. Our teacher had told us in the days preceding the execution what had happened and we had discussed it in detail. He made sure we were close to the scaffold, so we could see everything.” Simona’s voice got quieter.
“The woman to be hanged that day had given birth to a small boy only a fortnight before. The baby had been early and a few days later his mother found him dead in his cradle. She buried him behind her house. One of her neighbors had watched her dig the hole and when he saw her cover a small bundle with dirt, he alerted the guard.”
“It didn’t take the guard long to dig up the baby and arrest the woman. They said she had used the child as a sacrifice to Eilli-Syk, the taker of life. The midwife who had delivered the child said that the baby had been healthy. No one believed the mother when she said she didn’t kill the child. Instead she was tortured so she’d tell the truth. For three days this went on; still the mother insisted she was innocent. On the fourth day, when she couldn’t stand the torture anymore, she gave in and told them she had used the baby for a spell. She then was sentenced to die by hanging.”
“I remember,” Kal interrupted. “I watched that execution.” He looked at Simona and smiled. “It was the first time I saw you.”
Simona returned his smile, then sipped on her ale, took a deep breath, and continued.
“One of the girls at the College of Bards, Shanna, began having nightmares after the woman had been arrested. Shanna and I shared a room and I was woken up by her screaming. She confided in me and I told her to talk to our teacher. The first night she dreamt that this woman placed her baby in a cradle, and when she came back the baby was gone; instead there was a kitten that was then taken away by a cat. When Shanna told our teacher about her dream, she was told she shouldn’t interfere in affairs of which she knew nothing about. I don’t know why our teacher discouraged her. Usually dreams and visions are investigated and interpreted.
“The second night, she dreamt that this woman placed her baby in the cradle, and when she returned, instead of the baby there lay a wolf cub that was then taken away by a wolf. Again Shanna went to our teacher and again she was told to let it be.
“On the third night, she dreamt the baby lay still when the woman returned to check on her child. But when the woman tried to pick up the baby, all she held in her hands was empty linen. Scared of what might happen if she told her teacher, Shanna remained silent. She told me that the animals taking away their young were a symbol of innocence and because the women in her dream saw the animals, she was innocent. She wept for the poor woman and herself, unable to help her even though she believed that the woman was innocent. I comforted her that night as she relayed more images of her dreams to me.
“The night before the execution, she dreamt the woman lay in a pool of blood and the baby was crying. Shanna woke up that morning, calm and composed, and went to the marketplace with the rest of our group.
“The guards had made quite a spectacle out of the whole thing. It was almost like a parade with people shouting and clapping. Some threw overripe fruit at the woman who was kneeling on a cart, her hands tied together in front of her. The cart was stopped in front of the scaffold. As the woman was led to the ladder, a voice in the crowd shouted, ‘Hang that murderess!’ Another voice called out, ‘Kill the witch!’ More overripe fruit was targeted at the woman. Some of it fell to the ground, splattered us, and made us look like we were bleeding.
“The woman was forced to climb the ladder. She was struggling. Over and over she repeated, ‘I’m innocent, I didn’t do it!’ The crowd, however, shouted, ‘Hang that murderess, hang her!’ It was like a chant. No one listened to the one girl in the crowd who said, ‘She’s innocent, let her go.’ Shanna cried softly when the executioner placed the noose around the woman’s neck and then placed a blindfold over her eyes. It seemed he took pleasure out of delaying the pull of the lever. The woman began to shiver and she cried out, ‘I’m innocent!’ But no one in the crowed seemed to believe her, except for Shanna and me. I was too frightened by the whole experience to say anything. Finally the executioner pulled a lever and the floor underneath the woman’s feet disappeared, leaving her hanging. Her body convulsed several times before it hung still.
“We had to watch until the body was cut from the rope and placed on the cart to be wheeled away and buried. The crowd dispersed slowly. We just stood there without saying a word. The executioner stepped from the scaffold, examined the body, and proclaimed her dead. He untied the rope that bound her hands and her arms fell to her side. When the cart began moving, Shanna followed, disobeying our teacher’s instructions to follow him back to the college. I heard her crying and softly repeating, ‘I know you’re innocent. Get up and go home.’
“Shanna arrived back at the College of Bards two bells later than we did. She wouldn’t give us any explanation where she’d been or what she’d done. Even though Shanna and I shared a room and usually told each other everything, she refused to confide in me. All she ever said was that the woman had been innocent, that she shouldn’t have been killed. I believe her. It is so hard to tell whether a person is guilty or not unless someone has actually seen the crime. I cannot bear to see anyone killed. I don’t want any part of it.
“Our teacher put Shanna on kitchen duty for a fortnight. The next day we found out that when the cart had arrived at the cemetery, the woman had been gone. She was seen two days later, wandering the streets of Magnus, looking for her baby. Those who saw her said she looked transparent with a dark red ring around her neck and wrists and a purple face.”
“By Stevene!” the barmaid cried out and dropped a tankard of ale. The brown liquid splashed onto the floor. Simona stopped talking. She’d forgotten that anyone else besides her two friends was in the room.
The barmaid rushed out of the room and returned with a mop. Slowly, she washed the floor where the ale had spilled.
“What happened then?” Nai wanted to know. Simona stood up and turned her back towards her friends.
“She is still wandering through the streets of Magnus,” she whispered so only Kal could hear her, and aloud she said, “I don’t know.”
Half a bell later, Kal and Nai made their way back to the marketplace. Simona had refused to watch another execution and had stayed behind at the inn.
“I hope we’re not too late,” Kal said. “I don’t want to miss it.”
“You won’t,” Nai assured his friend. “I heard the herald say the execution will happen by seventh bell. We have two bells to get there, and get some food beforehand.”
“Do you think they’ll have flingers?”
“Why would you want to throw a shelled fish onto a stone and then have a soothsayer read your fortune? You know it’s all humbug.”
“Why not?” Kal asked. “What better day than an execution day to find out what the future holds? Besides, afterwards they cook it for you, and I need some food.”
Nai shook his head. “Fine! You can only hope the line isn’t too long.”
When the friends finally arrived at the marketplace, there were even more people present than before. Kal soon gave up trying to find anyone selling flingers. Instead each bought a bowl with boiled vegetables and meat in it. Hungrily they ate and then made their way to the center of the place where the Falling Judge was set up. Underneath the thick branch of a tall oak tree was a platform upon which stood a wooden block with clamps to hold arms, head, and body in place. A long rope hung from the branch. The blade of an axe was tied to the end of the rope.
“There is no way we can get any closer,” Nai said and stopped moving.
“We’re still too far away to see well,” Kal argued and tried to push forward, but the crowd was like a solid wall. Soon there were so many people behind them that they couldn’t move in any direction. Kal relented. Grumbling, he watched as the herald ascended the steps to the platform on which the Falling Judge stood. With the wave of his arm, the herald asked for silence; the crowd complied.
Kal let out a sigh. Finally there was some action. He strained to listen to what the herald had to say and learned that the accused had fought with his neighbor over a chicken and had been found guilty of killing the man with poison. It took three men to drag the accused onto the platform. “I’m innocent,” the man screamed. “I didn’t kill him! He just dropped dead in front of me! I’m innocent!” One of the men who had forced the accused onto the platform struck him with his fist. The crowd roared.
“He is innocent,” a small voice said near Kal. He looked around and noticed a young woman in blue garments repeating, “He’s innocent.”
“How do you know?” Kal addressed the woman.
The woman looked at him in surprise. “How do I know what?”
“How do you know he’s innocent?”
“Did I say that?”
“I heard you!”
“Then it must be true,” the woman said and shrugged.
“What’s your name?” Kal inquired.
“Does it matter?”
“Are you related to the man up there?”
“The one being accused of murder.”
“Then how do you know he’s innocent?”
“I just do!” With that, the woman ducked and did what Kal and Nai hadn’t been able to do: move forward in the crowd towards the platform.
Kal tried to follow her steps with his eyes, but soon lost track and gave up. For a moment he thought about what the woman had said and the story Simona had told earlier and wondered if the woman was Shanna, but then he brushed the thought aside and directed his gaze forward. He looked at the platform where the herald had placed a large cabbage on the wooden block. He let go of the rope in his hand and a heavy looking axe rushed downward, making contact with the cabbage and splitting it in half. The crowd roared again. Kal felt a surge of excitement go through his body.
Up on the platform, one of the men cleaned up the cabbage and then helped force the convict into the Falling Judge. The man was struggling, screaming, “I’m innocent,” but to no avail. As the herald restated the charges, the executioner pulled on the rope to lift the axe.
“He is innocent!” A voice shouted. “Don’t kill him! He is innocent!”
Suddenly, there was a commotion in front of the platform. A woman in blue garments managed to climb up and reach the prisoner.
“He is innocent!” she yelled at the executioner. “Let him go!”
It took several guards to subdue the woman, Kal now recognized as the one he’d spoken to menes earlier. During all her struggles she continued to shout, “He is innocent! Don’t kill him.” After she had been removed from the platform, the herald proclaimed the sentencing was righteous and the execution would begin shortly.
Around Kal and Nai, people began guessing how many strikes it would take to sever the head from the body. As Kal listened to the guesses, he got an eerie feeling and wondered if the man indeed was guilty. What if his story was true? What if … Never before had Kal doubted the ruling of a justiciar. He wished that it would take only one strike to behead the man. However, his wish was not heard as the axe fell and struck the man’s neck. For the first time, he was glad he was so far away from the Falling Judge that he couldn’t hear the sound it made.
The executioner raised the axe for the second time, and then a third; still the head was attached to the body, and the axe was lifted once more. Kal closed his eyes. He felt sick to his stomach. He hoped the man was dead and wouldn’t have to endure excruciating pain. After the axe fell for the sixth time, the executioner opened the clamps, pulled a lifeless form off the Falling Judge, and pronounced the man dead, head still attached. A few people in the crowd shouted, “Cut his head off!” and others picked it up, but the executioner didn’t heed the people. Instead, he ordered the crowd dispersed. Slowly the marketplace emptied. Kal and Nai moved into a small alley and then returned to the marketplace upon Kal’s insistence. From afar they watched as the body was tossed onto a wagon. As the wagon left the marketplace, the woman in blue garments followed. “Shanna,” Kal thought, and recalled Simona’s story again. He had been at the marketplace in Magnus then, too. It was then that he had noticed Simona for the first time and seen her crying and he remembered the girl next to her, who was trying to comfort her. Had that been Shanna? He wasn’t certain. He recalled that the girl comforting Simona had worn blue garments and had long brown hair. He yanked on Nai’s arm.
“Nai, Nai!” Kal shouted excitedly. “See that woman following the cart with the corpse? The one with the blue tunic.”
“Aye,” Nai replied looking in the direction Kal pointed.
“I think that’s Shanna!”
“Mona’s Shanna?” Nai’s eyes opened wide.
“How do you know?”
“I think I’ve seen her before. In Magnus, when I first saw Mona. There was a girl next to her with the same brown hair and blue garments.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s Shanna.”
“True, but I talked to her just before the execution. You saw her up on the platform where the guards subdued her. She said the man was innocent.”
Nai swallowed hard. The men walked back to the inn in silence and discovered that Simona had already retired to her room.
Simona woke when sunlight shone in her face. She felt disoriented. She had dreamt about Shanna and her days at the College of Bards and wondered where her friend was and what had happened to their belongings. The dream had been so vivid, Simona found it difficult to return to the present. She forced herself to get up and complete her morning ablutions. When she entered the main room of the inn a quarter bell later, she was the first one there. She sat at a table by the window and let her thoughts wander. Several menes later, the barmaid entered and Simona ordered breakfast. Moments later, Kal and Nai joined Simona for breakfast. Kal was sporting his new garments.
“Good morning,” she greeted them without her usual smile. “I don’t want any details about the execution!”
“Straight,” Kal said. “I wasn’t about to give you any.”
“You’re still sour because we went back to the market, aren’t you?” Nai said.
“No –” Simona began, but didn’t finish.
“What?” Nai wanted to know.
“I was just thinking,” She said slowly, “Where to start looking.”
“Looking for Shanna?” Nai asked.
“What makes you think that?”
“Kal thinks he saw her yesterday.”
Simona swallowed hard. She turned towards Kal. “You did?”
“I can’t be certain, she had brown hair, fair skin, dark eyes, and she wore a blue dress. I talked to her briefly, that’s when I thought she might be Shanna.”
“What did she say?”
“Not much. Only that the man was innocent.”
Kal was about to ask Simona a question, but was interrupted by a man storming into the inn.
“Hear! Hear!” he shouted. “I have a story to tell you!”
“What is it?” the barmaid asked.
“You know about the man they executed yesterday, straight?”
“Straight!” the barmaid replied.
“Well, when the wagon with the body arrived at the cemetery, the body was gone! The Rattler, who was driving the wagon, said he never stopped, and no one approached the wagon either! And this morning, the man was seen walking the streets. His neck was all bruised. His head kept falling to one side every time he pushed it back up and you could see the huge gash the Falling Judge made. Blood was dripping down, leaving a trail on the road.”
The barmaid’s eyes were wide with horror. She slapped her hand over her mouth, staggered backwards, and then fainted. Nai got up and tended to the woman. When she came to, she was quite embarrassed and excused herself.
“I think I saw Shanna yesterday after the execution, following the Rattler’s cart,” Kal spoke softly so only Simona could hear him. She felt the blood drain from her face.
“Shanna! I have to find her,” she whispered and turned to Kal, “Don’t follow me. I’ll be back. Just wait here. Straight?”
“Straight,” he replied and Simona left.