Excerpt from Red Shadows - The Nine Suns

Untitled2The Legend of Fenn Aquila Continues!

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High summer in Galadorn and the days were hot and the nights humid. Sunlight dappled the waters of Balendaas, reflected off the ancient stone walls, turning the cannons mounted on the top into impromptu stoves that might burn a man’s hand should he hold against the metal too long. As the heat rose, so did tempers in back alleys and taverns, even as clothing became lighter, often just inches from the crossing the line to scandalous. Hot enough to burn bare feet on the cobble stones…while the nights hid secrets of a different kind; music wafting through narrow side streets, tavern doors open and terraces packed to near collapse, summer flowers spilling down in vines, filling the darkness with their perfume.

High Summer in Galadorn. There was nothing else like it and even when one discounted the excesses to which poets were prone, there was no denying the place held a special charm, a heightened sense of possibility. That around the corner anything might happen, a sudden tryst, a sudden fight, a rendezvous with inspiration, a final appointment with death.

Yet there was one day above all others in this warm season, when Galadorn in all splendor and squalor might be seen in one place. High and low, foul and fair, the scrupulously clean and the irredeemable unwashed. Three days after the solstice came the Feast of The Proclamations, a holy day for those who followed the Archaerim faith, a day off for those who did not, when the words of the Red Prophet spoken two thousand years before on a distant world circling a different sun were recited in temples of every sect and denomination. After which the taverns were filled to bursting as men and women both sought to balance ascetic holiness with the joy of strong drink…but not to much. For the day after came something many reckoned as the vulgar height of the season. The summer hanging day.

Even as the city resounded with revelry, a crew of workmen labored through the night to erect the scaffold, supervised by several savants up from the Spires. This year interest in the summer hangings were higher than ever; in his wisdom and beneficence, the Prince called upon the finest minds in Galadorn to devise a new, quicker and more humane method of execution. By long established law and custom, public executions were limited to twice a year, once in the summer and once in the winter. Galadorn was a city of laws, which her magistrates applied sternly and without favor to those with the bad luck to be caught without the connections to wiggle free. For minor infractions a malefactor might be let off with a fine (if he could pay) or a flogging (if he could not.) Petty theft earned a spell on the city labor gang. More severe offenses against the public weal could result in anything from a spell in the stocks, being ‘sent to the water'(where the convicted was tied to a post in the harbor with his nostrils just barely clearing the surface…) or branding. Those who really got on the wrong side of the forces of law and order might be exiled for life, forfeiting all their property to the city, being whipped naked through the streets and hurled bodily through the gates, after which they had one day to get beyond the borders of the principality or else any citizen had the right to kill him on sight.

Only the most vile of offenses (murder, rape, theft of property worth more than one hundred gold aurins) merited a drop at the gallows, and it was a testament to the industriousness of Galadornian criminality that when the hanging days arrived there was a long line of men waiting to meet their maker. By ancient law and custom, executions could not begin before noon, and had to end when the sun dipped below the western horizon. The old way of dispatch (beheading, slow strangulation by hanging) meant that when the allotted time ended there were invariably men left behind, resulting in a six month wait at the very least before the next opportunity came for the city to dispose of the rubbish. A more efficient method was required, the Prince demanded it, especially this year, with the death cells packed like fish barrels, the result of a long-demanded crackdown on street crime in the poorer districts.

Enthusiasts arrived early, staking out prince viewing spots in the Campelor, the great square of the city. Others with money to spend hired others to do so in their place. A tall viewing stand stood off to one side for the highborns, the city elite with a desire to take in the sights, and though many publicly expressed their disdain at the amusements of the vulgar mob, they would not absent themselves from such a thing. To be a man of consequence in this city was to be a public man, for how else could he know himself worthy?

By noon the square was packed. Thousands stood shoulder to shoulder, fathers perching children on their shoulders. Vendors passed through the mob like fish through the sea, bellowing skewers of roasted meat, cups of ale and sour wine or vinegary rolls that had come up from the south and were increasingly hawked by food sellers. Fiddlers played, poets proclaimed. The sun came out, bright and warm. The air was thick with the smell of sweat and perfume, cooked food and fermented armpits. Of humanity.

All eyed were on the fruit of the savants labors. Officially it was called the Arm of Demaraatil, after the man responsible for the design, but the people had already given it a new name: the Rooster. A thick wooden base, from which two pillars rose up. Suspended between them on an axle was a third beam. One end had a large metal basket filled with stone weights and was raised high in the air, the other was locked down by an iron bar placed on the topside. One end was hinged on a mount to the left, the other end in some kind of locking mechanism, with a lever prominently rising from the side. Embedded in the front of the beam was a thick iron hook.~From a certain angle it did look like a male chicken bent down for a drink.

Temple bells across the city rang out the noon our. Trumpets sounded, a line of soldiers keeping a path through the crowd clear as the first wagons transporting the condemned rolled through the square, accompanied by a rising wave of cheers, insults and cat calls. Five wagons in all, hauling twenty-seven men in all, bound for the gallows and doing double service today in the cause of advancing human knowledge. All were from the lower classes – noble-born malefactors condemned to die had the privilege of beheading when and if necessary. Some made an effort to dress up, wearing the finest clothes they possessed, standing tall and proud under the torrent of abuse. Others hunkered down, faces blank with horror, as if they were only now starting to realize that yes, they were going to die.

More trumpets sounded, signaling the arrival of the Prince. The highborns bowed and curtsied, while the crowd raised a dutiful cheer, which the Prince graciously accepted. He didn’t have to be here, but since only he had the right to impose the death penalty, it was known that he felt it an obligation to attend the final result. Even the most hard bitten street skag might respect that.

Time passed while the savants made some final adjustments. Apparently all was ready, since a single trumpet sounded and a herald mounted the platform. He gave the Rooster a suspicious look, clearly not approving of this innovation. “Hear these words, O Galadorn!”he bellowed through a speaking trumpet, his voice cutting through the babble. He waited a moment for the crowd to quieten. “Be it known that the Law is the ultimate Mistress of our city! For those who break her precepts, punishment shall inevitably fall! On this day, and by command of our most gracious Prince, we send the worst offenders to the ultimate judgment!”

And with that the days business began. First up was a fellow who’d broken into a house in Saint Barelin and murdered the occupants while they slept, apparently over a gambling debt unpaid. The herald bellowed out the charges while two of the palace guards hauled the miscreant up. “Here we go,”one of them told the executioner in his traditional yellow hood and red jacket. “Think it will work?”

“We’ll see,”the executioner replied. “Stand ‘im here.”He pointed at a red X painted on the wooden boards.

“Oh Saints, aid me,”the condemned moaned.

One of the guards sniffed, then muttered an oath. “Davan’s Beard, the scum just shit himself.”

“Please,”the man babbled. “I didn’t mean it! I lost control see, it were the drink, I swear on the bones of the Prophets I’ll never be bad again…”

“Suns and Spirits, the executioner muttered. “Shut up! You’re going to die, so you may as well do it like a man! Pull yourself together, everyone is watching!”

The condemned continued to whimper. Those closest to the gallows took note and did not approve. Crude insults and jeers flew out as the executioner fitted a noose around his neck. “Stand back,”he told the guards, headed over to the galley. He glanced over his shoulder, where an official stood at the base of the gallows. The man nodded once. Without further ceremony the executioner yanked the lever. The iron restraining bar popped free, flying away with a clang as the beam shot upwards, pulled by the dropping weight on the other end. According to the eminent Demaraatil the force of the rising beam would be enough to snap the neck of the condemned, killing him instantly. The crowed watched with great interest as the condemned was yanked off his feet, flung high in the air. The weights crashed to the ground, followed a moment later by the condemned;s body. The roped snapped tight, halting his descent, and everyone heard the loud crack of his neck.

“Success!”a voice cried from somewhere behind the gallows. The inventor.

A few minutes passed as several strong men hauled on ropes, pulling the beam back down and locking it in place. The noose was removed from the gallows, the body hauled away as the next of the days condemned was marched up. Unlike the first man to die, this one went on his way with an admirable lack of cowardice, bowing in the general of the Prince before they fitted him with a noose. He died quickly, the crowd murmuring in approval.

The third attempt did no go as well. The fellow in question – convicted of a particularly brutal rape of a minor – was considerably fatter than the fellows who came before, and when the arse of the Rooster dropped did not fly upwards with great speed. He dropped back down and started to squirm, slowly chocking to death.

“Bugger me backwards,”said the executioner. “That’s going to throw us off.”

A minute passed, then a captain of the Palace guard came up the platform. “How long is that going to take?”he asked, pointing at the hanging man.

The executioner tapped a chin, thinking it over. “He’s a heavy one…ten minutes maybe?”

“Can’t wait that long…can we pull him down and try again?”

The executioner shook his head. “Bad idea, captain. Law says we get one chance. We pull him down, it counts as official. We’d need another death warrant.”

“The Godhead rot all lawyers.”The officer drew a pistol, took aim at the condemned and shot him in the chest.

The crowd did not approve. “Bad form!”someone shouted from the crowd. Others seconded this opinion.

“Pull him down,”said the officer, holstering the spent weapon. “We have a schedule to keep.”

“Did you hear that?”Fenn Aquila turned around at the sound of the gun shot.

“What?”Osric looked up, somewhat irritated at the interruption.

“Sounded like a gun shot.”

“So?”

“Odd thing on a hanging day…”

“Pay attention, you dozy bastard!”Osric bent back to the task at hand. Various components were scattered about the street, petal rods and carefully shaped pieces of. “You’re supposed to be watching the street.”

“And I am. Is this going to take much longer?”

Osric didn’t answer. Fenn turned away, keeping an eye on the narrow street. Anyone who passed by would have seen a tall, lean fellow with light olive, dark eyes and brown hair leaning against a wall, looking for all the world like a layabout apprentice enjoying a rare day off. He wore a leather vest over a sleeveless shirt, his arms marked by pale scars. Battle wounds, if anyone had a mind to ask. For the purposes of the moment, such attention was unwelcome.

“Are you done yet?”Fenn asked.

“Almost.”

“Why didn’t you put the bloody thing together before we set out?”

“A man carrying a blood big crossbow through the streets draws all kinds of eyes. Even in Galadorn.”Metallic squeaks sounded as Osric turned a bolt. “Besides, I been looking for a chance to use this. Bought it special two months ago. Finest quality….and done.”He stood, holding the reassembled weapon. It looked like any other crossbow Fenn had seen, save for a slightly smaller stock, but designed to be broken and reassembled quickly. Useful for a pair of thieves out and about in the day.

“Now we wait,”Osric said. “Shouldn’t be long.”

Fenn nodded, a grimace twisting his face. “Shame. I was looking to forward to this day.”

“I didn’t take you for am enthusiast of the executioners art, Fenn. Thought you seen enough death on all those battlefields folk say you fought on.”

“This day I would have made an exception.”

“To see the Rooster in action?”

“Just one fellow in particular. Hoping it would fail in his case.”

“Plenty of skags happy to see the Hooknose dance on air.”

“Count me at the head of the line. It’s why I charged double for this job.”

A horn sounded, followed by a larger then normal roar from the Campelor. “And that would be our man,”Osric said. “Right on time.”

He raised the crossbow.

“Arpan Dalapuran, also known as Arpan Hooknose!”The herald paused for a moment as a roar from the crowd washed over him like a wave. “Convicted of murder and conspiracy against the most righteous rule of our gracious Prince! For these crimes, your sentence is death by hanging…”He give up at that point, drowned out by the mob.

The guards stumped up the stairs, hauling their charge behind them. The last few months had not been kind to the man. Once the terror of the Gardelaar’s back alleys, whose very name could cause the most hardened skag and bullyboys to lose control of their bladders, now looked to have aged at least a decade. His skin was pale from lack of sun and his once muscular body thin from lack of decent food. He stumbled slightly as he came up the steps, flinched at the harsh laughter from the crowd, then stood up straight, glared at the guards and then at the thousands come to watch him die.

The executioner got to work, looping a fresh noose about his neck and tying the free end around the beam’s hook. The guards kept an eye on the crowd, in particular on the worryingly large number of thuggish fellows crowded up near the front. Many of them openly displayed crescent brands on their arms and tattoo’s on their cheeks. The mark of the Crescent Lords, the largest gang in Galadorn, masters of the Gardelaar (despite the best efforts of the Docksiders to dislodge them.) Not too long ago every one of those tough would have bowed his head as Arpan approached, would have taken their orders from him. Only months before he was the second in command below Ogeron the Brick, the one who oversaw the day-to-day affairs of the organization. Now his name was mud to them. A traitor to the city, but more importantly to those fellows, a traitor to his brothers. And they had come to watch him die.

The executioner turned to the condemned. “Any last words?”he asked.

Arpan shook his head. “Just get it done,”he growled. “I got someplace to be.”

“Heh”The executioner smiled at that. “At least you know how to die.”

The Crescents watched with great anticipation. So focused were them on the imminent spectacle, they didn’t notice a slender fellow creep up behind.

The executioner yanked the lever. The Rooster shot up, and so did Arpan, his neck snapping as he fell. The crowd cheered, none more loudly than the Crescents.

“Arpan was innocent!”the slender fellow shouted. “Down with Ogeron the Brick!”One of the Crescents turned about and was punched. He fell back with a curse, then came forward, first swinging wildly. The slender man ducked, and the fist connected with another man, who did not receive it kindly. More punches flew, the Crescents attacking the rest of the crowd, not sure why they were fighting, and given the mood they were in not really caring. Whistles blew and soldiers and watchmen forced their way into the crowd, falling on the brawlers and restoring order with musket butts and truncheons, causing an unwelcome delay.

“That’s your cue.”

Osric squeezed the crossbows trigger. The grappling hook shot upwards, trailing a long line behind it. It arched over the roof of the building and disappeared. Osric waited a moment, then set the crossbow aside and gave the rope a strong pull. There was some slack, then they heard the faint clink of metal points digging in.

“Perfect. Up you go!”

Fenn took old of the rope. Knots were tied in it at regular intervals. He placed one foot against the wall, then said. “I’ll say it again – we need a third man for this job.”

“His lordship was only willing to pay for two.”

“Keep a sharp eye out. This isn’t a job I want to die for. It’s bloody embarrassing.”Fenn said the last as he climbed up the side of the building. Feet dug into cracks in the brick, scraping away pebbled and pieces of plaster. After the first twenty feet his arms ached, which he dutifully ignored. Looking back downwards was not an option. In the distance came the shrilling of whistles, following by a slow cessation of violence, suggesting the authorities put down the brawl with dispatch. Not surprising, with the Prince watching the proceedings, and the delay it caused only helped Fenn in this particular matter.

It was a job for hire, a simple break-in to a town house owned by a nobleman of middling rank and wealth. According to the man’s butler (who acted as the go-between) his lordship had grown weary of marriage to his wife,who hailed from a merchant family of lesser lineage and greater wealth. Their marriage brought benefits to both sides – a large dowry that restored his lordships fortune, increased social status for the lady – but his lordship had fallen passionately in love with (or something resembling it) with a nubile young daughter of House Shomrim, blue-blooded members of the Forty, a girl over twenty-years his junior. A quiet divorce was out of the question – the laws of Galadorn stated that when a marriage ended, both parties took out of it any wealth and property in, meaning his lordship would have to forfeit his wife’s dowry, which he was understandably reluctant to do. The only exception to this rule was if someone in the marriage was creditably accused of adultery.

Hence Fenn’s climbing up the side of the building. Tucked under his shirt was a forged letter to the clients wife, written as if it came from her lover. Fenn’s job was to break into her boudoir on the third floor and place the document underneath her pillow, allowing his lordship to storm in at a suitable moment and discover the ‘evidence.’Dissolution of the marriage could then take place without any discomfort to his lordships purse.

Fenn thought the scheme sounded harebrained. But the money was good, enough to make him skip watching Arpan Hooknose swing by the neck until dead, dead, dead…and at least no one here was shooting at him. Always a bonus.

He reached the third floor. All windows were open due to the weather and he slipped in, landing on a polished wooden floor. The boards creaked slightly under his weight and Fenn paused a moment, in case anyone overhead him. Nothing.

He was in her ladyships bedroom. Much as one might expect – four posted bed against a wall, various tasteful pictures from up-and-coming artists to tell the world that the occupants of the house were patrons of culture and taste. Set on corner pedestal was a clock with bands of glowing runes on the side. Built at great expense by a Artificer, who bound the eldritch powers of the Aethyr into the runes. Worth a fortune in the right hands…if this were a simple sneak and grab it would be the first item into his sack. Fenn looked away with some regret, wondering if he might come back in a few months for his own benefit…

Now, to the work at hand. He pulled the letter out of his coat, moved silently to the bed and slid it under a pillow. There, done and done. Easy money earned, all he had to do was climb out the same way he came in…

“That’s all I need.”

A door opened. The woman on the other side was somewhere on the far side of her fourth decade, portly, wearing a severe black dress of the type favored by some of the more puritanical sects in the city. Tucked through the plain leather belt around her her waist was a slender long-barreled pistol, on which rested her right hand.

Fenn stepped away from the bed. “Wait…this isn’t my house,”he said weakly. “A thousand pardons, mistress, I’ll just be taking myself out…”

She jerked the pistol. “No, I don’t think you’ll be leaving. I think you sit down like a good boy and wait until that degenerate husband of mine returns from his latest bout of whoring. Then I’ll have him by the stones, along with a summons of divorce…”

Fenn turned to the window ready to jump out. He them jumped aside as the pistol barked, the ball whizzing past his ear. He bounced off the wall, onto the bed and then to the floor. Shaking his head and seeing stars, he stood back up.

The woman’s face was obscured by white gunsmoke. “Stay where you are!”

Fenn shook his head. “You had one shot there, woman. You missed. Who knows what will happen after. Best just let me go.”

“Oh no,”she replied, stepping aside. “I had one shot. They have more.”And with that a pair of burly thugs strode into the room. “Boys, break his legs for me!”High summer in Galadorn and the days were hot and the nights humid. Sunlight dappled the waters of Balendaas, reflected off the ancient stone walls, turning the cannons mounted on the top into impromptu stoves that might burn a man’s hand should he hold against the metal too long. As the heat rose, so did tempers in back alleys and taverns, even as clothing became lighter, often just inches from the crossing the line to scandalous. Hot enough to burn bare feet on the cobble stones…while the nights hid secrets of a different kind; music wafting through narrow side streets, tavern doors open and terraces packed to near collapse, summer flowers spilling down in vines, filling the darkness with their perfume.

High Summer in Galadorn. There was nothing else like it and even when one discounted the excesses to which poets were prone, there was no denying the place held a special charm, a heightened sense of possibility. That around the corner anything might happen, a sudden tryst, a sudden fight, a rendezvous with inspiration, a final appointment with death.

Yet there was one day above all others in this warm season, when Galadorn in all splendor and squalor might be seen in one place. High and low, foul and fair, the scrupulously clean and the irredeemable unwashed. Three days after the solstice came the Feast of The Proclamations, a holy day for those who followed the Archaerim faith, a day off for those who did not, when the words of the Red Prophet spoken two thousand years before on a distant world circling a different sun were recited in temples of every sect and denomination. After which the taverns were filled to bursting as men and women both sought to balance ascetic holiness with the joy of strong drink…but not to much. For the day after came something many reckoned as the vulgar height of the season. The summer hanging day.

Even as the city resounded with revelry, a crew of workmen labored through the night to erect the scaffold, supervised by several savants up from the Spires. This year interest in the summer hangings were higher than ever; in his wisdom and beneficence, the Prince called upon the finest minds in Galadorn to devise a new, quicker and more humane method of execution. By long established law and custom, public executions were limited to twice a year, once in the summer and once in the winter. Galadorn was a city of laws, which her magistrates applied sternly and without favor to those with the bad luck to be caught without the connections to wiggle free. For minor infractions a malefactor might be let off with a fine (if he could pay) or a flogging (if he could not.) Petty theft earned a spell on the city labor gang. More severe offenses against the public weal could result in anything from a spell in the stocks, being ‘sent to the water'(where the convicted was tied to a post in the harbor with his nostrils just barely clearing the surface…) or branding. Those who really got on the wrong side of the forces of law and order might be exiled for life, forfeiting all their property to the city, being whipped naked through the streets and hurled bodily through the gates, after which they had one day to get beyond the borders of the principality or else any citizen had the right to kill him on sight.

Only the most vile of offenses (murder, rape, theft of property worth more than one hundred gold aurins) merited a drop at the gallows, and it was a testament to the industriousness of Galadornian criminality that when the hanging days arrived there was a long line of men waiting to meet their maker. By ancient law and custom, executions could not begin before noon, and had to end when the sun dipped below the western horizon. The old way of dispatch (beheading, slow strangulation by hanging) meant that when the allotted time ended there were invariably men left behind, resulting in a six month wait at the very least before the next opportunity came for the city to dispose of the rubbish. A more efficient method was required, the Prince demanded it, especially this year, with the death cells packed like fish barrels, the result of a long-demanded crackdown on street crime in the poorer districts.

Enthusiasts arrived early, staking out prince viewing spots in the Campelor, the great square of the city. Others with money to spend hired others to do so in their place. A tall viewing stand stood off to one side for the highborns, the city elite with a desire to take in the sights, and though many publicly expressed their disdain at the amusements of the vulgar mob, they would not absent themselves from such a thing. To be a man of consequence in this city was to be a public man, for how else could he know himself worthy?

By noon the square was packed. Thousands stood shoulder to shoulder, fathers perching children on their shoulders. Vendors passed through the mob like fish through the sea, bellowing skewers of roasted meat, cups of ale and sour wine or vinegary rolls that had come up from the south and were increasingly hawked by food sellers. Fiddlers played, poets proclaimed. The sun came out, bright and warm. The air was thick with the smell of sweat and perfume, cooked food and fermented armpits. Of humanity.

All eyed were on the fruit of the savants labors. Officially it was called the Arm of Demaraatil, after the man responsible for the design, but the people had already given it a new name: the Rooster. A thick wooden base, from which two pillars rose up. Suspended between them on an axle was a third beam. One end had a large metal basket filled with stone weights and was raised high in the air, the other was locked down by an iron bar placed on the topside. One end was hinged on a mount to the left, the other end in some kind of locking mechanism, with a lever prominently rising from the side. Embedded in the front of the beam was a thick iron hook.~From a certain angle it did look like a male chicken bent down for a drink.

Temple bells across the city rang out the noon our. Trumpets sounded, a line of soldiers keeping a path through the crowd clear as the first wagons transporting the condemned rolled through the square, accompanied by a rising wave of cheers, insults and cat calls. Five wagons in all, hauling twenty-seven men in all, bound for the gallows and doing double service today in the cause of advancing human knowledge. All were from the lower classes – noble-born malefactors condemned to die had the privilege of beheading when and if necessary. Some made an effort to dress up, wearing the finest clothes they possessed, standing tall and proud under the torrent of abuse. Others hunkered down, faces blank with horror, as if they were only now starting to realize that yes, they were going to die.

More trumpets sounded, signaling the arrival of the Prince. The highborns bowed and curtsied, while the crowd raised a dutiful cheer, which the Prince graciously accepted. He didn’t have to be here, but since only he had the right to impose the death penalty, it was known that he felt it an obligation to attend the final result. Even the most hard bitten street skag might respect that.

Time passed while the savants made some final adjustments. Apparently all was ready, since a single trumpet sounded and a herald mounted the platform. He gave the Rooster a suspicious look, clearly not approving of this innovation. “Hear these words, O Galadorn!”he bellowed through a speaking trumpet, his voice cutting through the babble. He waited a moment for the crowd to quieten. “Be it known that the Law is the ultimate Mistress of our city! For those who break her precepts, punishment shall inevitably fall! On this day, and by command of our most gracious Prince, we send the worst offenders to the ultimate judgment!”

And with that the days business began. First up was a fellow who’d broken into a house in Saint Barelin and murdered the occupants while they slept, apparently over a gambling debt unpaid. The herald bellowed out the charges while two of the palace guards hauled the miscreant up. “Here we go,”one of them told the executioner in his traditional yellow hood and red jacket. “Think it will work?”

“We’ll see,”the executioner replied. “Stand ‘im here.”He pointed at a red X painted on the wooden boards.

“Oh Saints, aid me,”the condemned moaned.

One of the guards sniffed, then muttered an oath. “Davan’s Beard, the scum just shit himself.”

“Please,”the man babbled. “I didn’t mean it! I lost control see, it were the drink, I swear on the bones of the Prophets I’ll never be bad again…”

“Suns and Spirits, the executioner muttered. “Shut up! You’re going to die, so you may as well do it like a man! Pull yourself together, everyone is watching!”

The condemned continued to whimper. Those closest to the gallows took note and did not approve. Crude insults and jeers flew out as the executioner fitted a noose around his neck. “Stand back,”he told the guards, headed over to the galley. He glanced over his shoulder, where an official stood at the base of the gallows. The man nodded once. Without further ceremony the executioner yanked the lever. The iron restraining bar popped free, flying away with a clang as the beam shot upwards, pulled by the dropping weight on the other end. According to the eminent Demaraatil the force of the rising beam would be enough to snap the neck of the condemned, killing him instantly. The crowed watched with great interest as the condemned was yanked off his feet, flung high in the air. The weights crashed to the ground, followed a moment later by the condemned;s body. The roped snapped tight, halting his descent, and everyone heard the loud crack of his neck.

“Success!”a voice cried from somewhere behind the gallows. The inventor.

A few minutes passed as several strong men hauled on ropes, pulling the beam back down and locking it in place. The noose was removed from the gallows, the body hauled away as the next of the days condemned was marched up. Unlike the first man to die, this one went on his way with an admirable lack of cowardice, bowing in the general of the Prince before they fitted him with a noose. He died quickly, the crowd murmuring in approval.

The third attempt did no go as well. The fellow in question – convicted of a particularly brutal rape of a minor – was considerably fatter than the fellows who came before, and when the arse of the Rooster dropped did not fly upwards with great speed. He dropped back down and started to squirm, slowly chocking to death.

“Bugger me backwards,”said the executioner. “That’s going to throw us off.”

A minute passed, then a captain of the Palace guard came up the platform. “How long is that going to take?”he asked, pointing at the hanging man.

The executioner tapped a chin, thinking it over. “He’s a heavy one…ten minutes maybe?”

“Can’t wait that long…can we pull him down and try again?”

The executioner shook his head. “Bad idea, captain. Law says we get one chance. We pull him down, it counts as official. We’d need another death warrant.”

“The Godhead rot all lawyers.”The officer drew a pistol, took aim at the condemned and shot him in the chest.

The crowd did not approve. “Bad form!”someone shouted from the crowd. Others seconded this opinion.

“Pull him down,”said the officer, holstering the spent weapon. “We have a schedule to keep.”

“Did you hear that?”Fenn Aquila turned around at the sound of the gun shot.

“What?”Osric looked up, somewhat irritated at the interruption.

“Sounded like a gun shot.”

“So?”

“Odd thing on a hanging day…”

“Pay attention, you dozy bastard!”Osric bent back to the task at hand. Various components were scattered about the street, petal rods and carefully shaped pieces of. “You’re supposed to be watching the street.”

“And I am. Is this going to take much longer?”

Osric didn’t answer. Fenn turned away, keeping an eye on the narrow street. Anyone who passed by would have seen a tall, lean fellow with light olive, dark eyes and brown hair leaning against a wall, looking for all the world like a layabout apprentice enjoying a rare day off. He wore a leather vest over a sleeveless shirt, his arms marked by pale scars. Battle wounds, if anyone had a mind to ask. For the purposes of the moment, such attention was unwelcome.

“Are you done yet?”Fenn asked.

“Almost.”

“Why didn’t you put the bloody thing together before we set out?”

“A man carrying a blood big crossbow through the streets draws all kinds of eyes. Even in Galadorn.”Metallic squeaks sounded as Osric turned a bolt. “Besides, I been looking for a chance to use this. Bought it special two months ago. Finest quality….and done.”He stood, holding the reassembled weapon. It looked like any other crossbow Fenn had seen, save for a slightly smaller stock, but designed to be broken and reassembled quickly. Useful for a pair of thieves out and about in the day.

“Now we wait,”Osric said. “Shouldn’t be long.”

Fenn nodded, a grimace twisting his face. “Shame. I was looking to forward to this day.”

“I didn’t take you for am enthusiast of the executioners art, Fenn. Thought you seen enough death on all those battlefields folk say you fought on.”

“This day I would have made an exception.”

“To see the Rooster in action?”

“Just one fellow in particular. Hoping it would fail in his case.”

“Plenty of skags happy to see the Hooknose dance on air.”

“Count me at the head of the line. It’s why I charged double for this job.”

A horn sounded, followed by a larger then normal roar from the Campelor. “And that would be our man,”Osric said. “Right on time.”

He raised the crossbow.

“Arpan Dalapuran, also known as Arpan Hooknose!”The herald paused for a moment as a roar from the crowd washed over him like a wave. “Convicted of murder and conspiracy against the most righteous rule of our gracious Prince! For these crimes, your sentence is death by hanging…”He give up at that point, drowned out by the mob.

The guards stumped up the stairs, hauling their charge behind them. The last few months had not been kind to the man. Once the terror of the Gardelaar’s back alleys, whose very name could cause the most hardened skag and bullyboys to lose control of their bladders, now looked to have aged at least a decade. His skin was pale from lack of sun and his once muscular body thin from lack of decent food. He stumbled slightly as he came up the steps, flinched at the harsh laughter from the crowd, then stood up straight, glared at the guards and then at the thousands come to watch him die.

The executioner got to work, looping a fresh noose about his neck and tying the free end around the beam’s hook. The guards kept an eye on the crowd, in particular on the worryingly large number of thuggish fellows crowded up near the front. Many of them openly displayed crescent brands on their arms and tattoo’s on their cheeks. The mark of the Crescent Lords, the largest gang in Galadorn, masters of the Gardelaar (despite the best efforts of the Docksiders to dislodge them.) Not too long ago every one of those tough would have bowed his head as Arpan approached, would have taken their orders from him. Only months before he was the second in command below Ogeron the Brick, the one who oversaw the day-to-day affairs of the organization. Now his name was mud to them. A traitor to the city, but more importantly to those fellows, a traitor to his brothers. And they had come to watch him die.

The executioner turned to the condemned. “Any last words?”he asked.

Arpan shook his head. “Just get it done,”he growled. “I got someplace to be.”

“Heh”The executioner smiled at that. “At least you know how to die.”

The Crescents watched with great anticipation. So focused were them on the imminent spectacle, they didn’t notice a slender fellow creep up behind.

The executioner yanked the lever. The Rooster shot up, and so did Arpan, his neck snapping as he fell. The crowd cheered, none more loudly than the Crescents.

“Arpan was innocent!”the slender fellow shouted. “Down with Ogeron the Brick!”One of the Crescents turned about and was punched. He fell back with a curse, then came forward, first swinging wildly. The slender man ducked, and the fist connected with another man, who did not receive it kindly. More punches flew, the Crescents attacking the rest of the crowd, not sure why they were fighting, and given the mood they were in not really caring. Whistles blew and soldiers and watchmen forced their way into the crowd, falling on the brawlers and restoring order with musket butts and truncheons, causing an unwelcome delay.

“That’s your cue.”

Osric squeezed the crossbows trigger. The grappling hook shot upwards, trailing a long line behind it. It arched over the roof of the building and disappeared. Osric waited a moment, then set the crossbow aside and gave the rope a strong pull. There was some slack, then they heard the faint clink of metal points digging in.

“Perfect. Up you go!”

Fenn took old of the rope. Knots were tied in it at regular intervals. He placed one foot against the wall, then said. “I’ll say it again – we need a third man for this job.”

“His lordship was only willing to pay for two.”

“Keep a sharp eye out. This isn’t a job I want to die for. It’s bloody embarrassing.”Fenn said the last as he climbed up the side of the building. Feet dug into cracks in the brick, scraping away pebbled and pieces of plaster. After the first twenty feet his arms ached, which he dutifully ignored. Looking back downwards was not an option. In the distance came the shrilling of whistles, following by a slow cessation of violence, suggesting the authorities put down the brawl with dispatch. Not surprising, with the Prince watching the proceedings, and the delay it caused only helped Fenn in this particular matter.

It was a job for hire, a simple break-in to a town house owned by a nobleman of middling rank and wealth. According to the man’s butler (who acted as the go-between) his lordship had grown weary of marriage to his wife,who hailed from a merchant family of lesser lineage and greater wealth. Their marriage brought benefits to both sides – a large dowry that restored his lordships fortune, increased social status for the lady – but his lordship had fallen passionately in love with (or something resembling it) with a nubile young daughter of House Shomrim, blue-blooded members of the Forty, a girl over twenty-years his junior. A quiet divorce was out of the question – the laws of Galadorn stated that when a marriage ended, both parties took out of it any wealth and property in, meaning his lordship would have to forfeit his wife’s dowry, which he was understandably reluctant to do. The only exception to this rule was if someone in the marriage was creditably accused of adultery.

Hence Fenn’s climbing up the side of the building. Tucked under his shirt was a forged letter to the clients wife, written as if it came from her lover. Fenn’s job was to break into her boudoir on the third floor and place the document underneath her pillow, allowing his lordship to storm in at a suitable moment and discover the ‘evidence.’Dissolution of the marriage could then take place without any discomfort to his lordships purse.

Fenn thought the scheme sounded harebrained. But the money was good, enough to make him skip watching Arpan Hooknose swing by the neck until dead, dead, dead…and at least no one here was shooting at him. Always a bonus.

He reached the third floor. All windows were open due to the weather and he slipped in, landing on a polished wooden floor. The boards creaked slightly under his weight and Fenn paused a moment, in case anyone overhead him. Nothing.

He was in her ladyships bedroom. Much as one might expect – four posted bed against a wall, various tasteful pictures from up-and-coming artists to tell the world that the occupants of the house were patrons of culture and taste. Set on corner pedestal was a clock with bands of glowing runes on the side. Built at great expense by a Artificer, who bound the eldritch powers of the Aethyr into the runes. Worth a fortune in the right hands…if this were a simple sneak and grab it would be the first item into his sack. Fenn looked away with some regret, wondering if he might come back in a few months for his own benefit…

Now, to the work at hand. He pulled the letter out of his coat, moved silently to the bed and slid it under a pillow. There, done and done. Easy money earned, all he had to do was climb out the same way he came in…

“That’s all I need.”

A door opened. The woman on the other side was somewhere on the far side of her fourth decade, portly, wearing a severe black dress of the type favored by some of the more puritanical sects in the city. Tucked through the plain leather belt around her her waist was a slender long-barreled pistol, on which rested her right hand.

Fenn stepped away from the bed. “Wait…this isn’t my house,”he said weakly. “A thousand pardons, mistress, I’ll just be taking myself out…”

She jerked the pistol. “No, I don’t think you’ll be leaving. I think you sit down like a good boy and wait until that degenerate husband of mine returns from his latest bout of whoring. Then I’ll have him by the stones, along with a summons of divorce…”

Fenn turned to the window ready to jump out. He them jumped aside as the pistol barked, the ball whizzing past his ear. He bounced off the wall, onto the bed and then to the floor. Shaking his head and seeing stars, he stood back up.

The woman’s face was obscured by white gunsmoke. “Stay where you are!”

Fenn shook his head. “You had one shot there, woman. You missed. Who knows what will happen after. Best just let me go.”

“Oh no,”she replied, stepping aside. “I had one shot. They have more.”And with that a pair of burly thugs strode into the room. “Boys, break his legs for me!”

How will Fenn get out of this mess? Get your copy of RED SHADOWS NOW to find out!

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