Excerpt from GAEBREL’s GAMBLE
To the good people of Tasevanya, Hanging Day was as close to a national holiday as they ever got and as such was observed with diligence and a sense of amusement seemingly out of character for such a somber occasion.
For those who cared to look at a map of the westernmost continent of Cunerin, Tasevanya was merely one name among many, one more irregularly formed speck of land jostling up against a dozen others of similar shape, size and general bellicosity. An Empire ruled here once, long ago, as indeed there continued to be on the eastern continent and there might someday be in the southern. But the Empire of the West was no more, remembered now only in the songs of troubadours, the scribblings of historians and poets, and the fevered rhetoric of royal advisers claiming their Grand Prince or High Duchess or other potentate of the moment to be the true heir before whom all others must pay homage. It was a lively source of disagreement which provided a constant source of employment for soldiers fighting the inevitable wars and the diplomats trying to end them.
So in that regard, Tasevanya was no different from any other little realm seeking to expand at the expense of others. A blot of territory two hundred miles in wide at its greatest extent, wedged between a mighty river to the east and a tall mountain chain to the west. Its people made their living as farmers, though that was true for most people alive at this time on any world circling any Sun. The women were famed (and mocked in some places) for the tall peaked hats of starched linen they wore in all weather, which the uncharitable claimed made their heads looked pointy. The local dialect sounded harsh to some, musical to others, and slurred to all. Yet everyone could agree that when it came to the business of public executions, the Tasevanyan’s possessed a rare talent. No one begrudged them this honor; given the rather humorless nature of the man ruling over the country at this particular moment, the people had to find amusement where they could.
It started before dawn on the appointed day, with long lines of carts and carriages and even longer lines of people on foot streaming through one of the three gates around Uvanyarina, the capital city and a place currently bristling with troops. Faces were checked, wagons searched. The more thorough guards would even search through the feathers of the various giant flightless birds pulling conveyances, risking a fearsome pecking in the process. (A peculiarity of the planet; horses found every variety of grass on Cunerin toxic in the extreme, to the point that even the hardiest of breeds dropped dead within a week of eating but a single blade. The people made do with local replacements. Many an offworlder was treated to the startling sight of proud knights riding to the battlefield on what looked like giant roosters with iridescent green feathers.)
Once suspicions were allayed, the crowds would gather in the Square of the Glorious Ancestors, flanked on the north by the Three Temples dedicated to the local cults of Sun and ancestor worship and to the south by the Palace of Seventeen Flowers, ancestral home of the Grand Princes of Tasevanya, whose current occupant was the cause of such rampant paranoia. By nine in the morning the Square would be packed with late arrivals being turned away. The more intrepid made their way onto the rooftops of the buildings surrounding the site, the owners making money hand over fist charging exorbitant fees to allow true enthusiasts the chance to break their necks climbing up rickety ladders and treacherous roof tiles. Vendors and costermongers made their way through the throngs like ships crossing a turbulent sea, their path eased by the barrels of ale and cheap wine they sold by the mug to thirsty spectators, the end result being a air of drunken expectation.
The bells would ring in the second of the Three Temples. Half an hour until show time. The crowd cheered at the sound. Thousands of hands began to clap and a raucous song rose from their throats. “Time to die, time to die, oh my it’s time to die!”
“Almost time to die, you maggots!” The chief jailer whacked his baton against the iron bars of the cells, laughing as several of the inmates scrambled back. “That’s right, practice your shakin’! The mob expects a good show, don’t you know! Better not disappoint!”
The jailer laughed again, being one of those fortunate fellows easily amused by anything and everything he came across. He passed by the last cell on the block, his fat greasy face peeking through the bars of the door. “Here now, don’t you look a pretty sight! How much for a kiss then, my lovely?”
“You couldn’t afford me,” Gaebrel Harrn answered back calmly, adjusting the collar of his freshly laundered shirt. “Better stick with dogs and pigs, they’re more to your liking.”
The jailer laughed uproariously, as if those were the funniest words he’d heard in years. “Sun and bones, you be a clever one, Harrn! Gotta say, I be missing you after.”
“Then maybe you can open that door, let me walk out.” Gaebrel picked up his coat from off the back of the chair. “You’ll then have ample opportunity to share in my cleverness.”
“Would that I could, boyo.” The jailer shook his finger. “But mob wants its show, and you be the prize attraction at the moment. They be calling your name.”
“I always aim to please.” The faint lilt in his voice became more pronounced as he put on the coat, his eyes focused on the wall, his mind on what was to come.
The jailer frowned. “Been meaning to ask you, Harrn…where the hell be you from? No accent like that I ever heard, and I heard a lot. Jasovani? The Northern Duchies? Or Tiazhaad, maybe?”
“The Harza States.”
The jailer frowned. “Where be that? One of them strange lands down in the South?”
“Far away from here.” Gaebrel gave the coat one last adjustment. No mirror in here, he had to use his best judgment. At least it fit, they got his size right.
Further bantering with the jailer was cut off by the sound of an iron door banging open, followed by indistinct shouts. The jailer looked over with a smile. “It’s time.”
“As it shall be for every man.” Gaebrel turned about, fastening one last button. “Lead on, if you please. Let’s get this over with.”
The prisoners were led out of the cells, guards armed with muskets and blunderbusses watching with wary eyes as they marched down the long central hallway and through a wide open door to a waiting courtyard. Wagons stood there, the beds surrounded by iron bars that turned them into cages with wheels, each pulled by a pair of flightless birds taller than a man with gray plumage. One of them pecked forlornly at the ground in search of something to nibble, the others waited placidly, their size matched only by their intelligence in the inverse.
“In you go!” Guns were pointed and one by one the condemned were herded in, the doors locked and chained behind. The jailers gave them cheerful waves as the wagons rumbled out of the courtyard, through a main gate and into the crowded streets beyond, lined with people eager for a glimpse of men about to make a close acquaintance with Death. A few ragged cheers came from some throats, duly accepted by the more magnanimous inmates as though they were kings enjoying the accolades of peasants. Others hurled cabbages and moldy fruit, splattering the projectile against the bars to the sound of insults and curses, partaking in that ancient peculiarity of the human soul of mocking those whom fortune had seemingly abandoned.
Gaebrel ducked his head aside as an apple core bonged against one of the bars, bits of juice and pulp splattering across the convicted thief and rapist sitting next to him. Ignoring the man’s curses, he looked out at the faces passing off to the side, the men in the shirt vests and round caps typical of this kingdom, the women in those odd headdresses. Six years now he’d been on Cunerin, the most ever spent on a single world since he left the place of his birth. Half of them spent wandering about Tiazhaad, perfecting his grasp of the local languages, then taking a seagoing ship to those strange lands of the southern continent (which hadn’t seemed so strange to his eyes, truth be told. The locals did have the habit of going about bare above the waist, men and women both, which made perfect sense given the climate but scandalizing those living to the north.) Then across the Sea of Spires, so named for the ancient stone pylons rising up from the sea bed to stab at the sky, a marvel to behold and a constant source of hazard to navigation. Never staying in one place, never putting down roots. There was always a new horizon to cross, new lands to see, new voices to hear…new riches to steal. Always somewhere else to go. Nothing would tie him down…except now he was bound for death, about to make friends with the hangman’s noose. And the one thing truly annoying about this whole affair – they weren’t hanging him for anything that he actually did, but for something that he didn’t. A different man would have found it ironic…but that fellow likely wouldn’t be dancing on air within the hour.
As that particular thought passed through his head, a hand drifted involuntarily to the inside pocket of his coat. The clothes were delivered last night. The guards never got a clean look at the one who delivered them, except that it was a woman. Which didn’t clarify things in the slightest, since there were any number of ladies in Tasevanya who might be likely candidates. He’d only been here a few months, but they were busy ones, to say the least.
He found the note tucked in a pocket. Plans are in motion, it said. The hangman is one of ours, do as he says and you will live through this. Your friends haven’t forgotten you.
One of the birds made a honking sound, clattering its peak and skipping slightly in the traces. The driver cursed, jabbing the beast with a long prod, forcing it back into position. The wagon jerked a bit, the men in the back swaying as they rounded a corner and entered the main square. A roar of applause struck them like a wave, city watchmen keeping a clear path through the masses for the condemned to pass through. Gaebrel resisted the urge to stand up and bow like an actor on the stage. One by one the wagons came to a halt, to be met by yet more armed guards – city watchmen this time from the bowl-shaped helmets on their heads – who removed the contents of each conveyance one by one, escorting them up to the gallows for the all-important preliminaries.
The crowd had already been subjected to the pre-hanging speech, delivered this day by one of the senior priests from the Temple, who expounded greatly on the virtues of obedience to the law and necessity of resisting ones baser urges, along with the importance of loyalty to the current occupant in the Royal Palace, looming over the proceedings like some sort of ancient beast which it would be best not to awaken. Since the fellow delivering it was a priest, the crowd listened with respect, many making any number of holy signs when he was done.
Onto the main event. The first batch of prisoners were brought up, fourteen men in all. A notary read off their names and the crimes for which they were condemned from a list, while the hangman in his traditional green hood and jacket fitted each neck with a noose. Afterward, he might allow those whose crimes were truly heinous or who possessed some measure of notoriety to make a speech, uttering a few final words of repentance or a fiery declaration of defiance unto death.
But all of the men in this first lot were petty thieves and hardly merited the honor. One of them tried to speak anyway, but only got out a few words before a black hood was pulled over his head. “I swear I never….!”
The priest uttered a brief prayer then stepped back smartly. A yank on the lever, the bottom hatch fell, and fourteen men dropped as one, the muffled cracks of their necks hidden under the roar of the crowd, who watched the bodies jerk and twist on the ropes with the appreciation of true connoisseurs. Much to his disgust, the hangman had botched one of the nooses and it failed to snap the neck, so there was a delay of several minutes while the fellow in question was strangled to death. The hangman was embarrassed out of professional pride, though no one else seemed all that upset.
Afterward the final death check was made in the traditional manner for this region by pressing a glowing hot brand against the face of each corpse, which also served the purpose of marking it as the remains of a condemned criminal to be disposed of like so much other trash. Tasevanyan’s were nothing if not efficient in such matters. The corpses were tossed back into the wagon that brought them here, while the next batch was led up.
Being in the fourth wagon, Gaebrel had ample opportunity to observe the proceedings, noting the differences in the local methods versus others he’d seen in other lands and other worlds. Hanging…well, that was a classic. Hard to go wrong with a rope and wooden beam. In Tiazhaad they went for public beheadings, sometimes a dozen at a time, right in the market square. A man could go out to buy a sack of onions and as an added bonus see some other fellows head bounce across the ground. But perhaps the most exotic method of disposing those deemed surplus to requirements had to be the Pig of Calabrenas…seen from afar as a boy with his father. A giant brass contraption made in the shape of a boar, the insides would be stuffed with five or six miscreants and one time and then roasted over an open fire until red hot. The screaming coming out of the nose vents sounded much like that of an angry hog from a distance…
Nothing like that here, the good people of Tasevanya seeing themselves as hearty, no-nonsense folk with little patience for such degenerate methods! No, mass hangings followed by a general holiday, that was the civilized way of doing things.
Gaebrel’s reverie was cut short when the back of his wagon opened. “Let’s go,” said a watchmen. One by one the men stepped out. Gaebrel stood up straight, arms bound in front, bearing up the scorn of the crowd with pride. He would not die here today…not like this. Unless that note had been a cruel joke of some sort…his eyes met that of the hangman, and there was a flash of recognition. The fellow knew his face.
The notary bellowed out their names as nooses were fitted to their necks. “Yavlan Isuvarias! Convicted of burglary, theft of livestock and damage to property! Condemned to death by hanging!”
A cheer followed this, blood lust running through the crowd.
“They’re running late,” the hangman whispered in his ear as he fiddled with the knot.
“Ododvan Harviadanen! Convicted of the stealing of corpses for illegal dissection! Condemned to death by hanging…”
“I can’t slow the proceedings without drawing suspicion. You have to delay them somehow…”
“…of sodomy, rape and general lewdness…”
“How am I supposed to do that?”
“…death by hanging…”
“Think of something, you’re a clever man.”
“…death by hanging…”
“I hate it when people say that…”
“…death by hanging!” The notary, his voice a bit raw at this point, went to the last name on his list. “Gaebrel Harrn! Convicted of the most grievous ravishment of a lady of noble rank…”
“That was you?” the hangman asked with some astonishment.
“‘Ravishment’ isn’t how I’d describe it.”
“Condemned to death by hanging!”
“Speech! Speech!” came the cry, picked up by others in the crowd. “Speech! Let him speak…”
“There’s your chance.” The hangman shoved him forward. “Talk as long as you can.”
Gaebrel raised his bound hands high. “People of Tasevanya!” he called out, his voice carrying across the square. “I am Gaebrel Harrn, and it seems I am to your afternoon’s entertainment!”
A wave of laughter followed. “I can only hope that my performance will exceed those of the men came before me!” He gestured at the cart loaded down with stiffening corpses. “Yet in truth there is no man here more deserving of punishment than I! Many are the crimes that stain my soul. I confess to stealing the property of other, of lifting purses from the pockets of distracted wives, of smuggling various contraband across countless borders! I have insulted men and women of high station, patronized houses of ill repute and committed all manner of acts nefarious and shameful! I confess, my soul is tainted…so it is an supreme irony that the crime for which I am to swing is the one offense I have never engaged in! Ravishment…such an ugly word, and hardly the truth of what happened that night, unless it has a different meaning here!” He spotted the young lady in question, the cause of his recent travails, sitting on a reserved stand near the gallows. Clothed in black, a slender maiden barely out of her teens who blushed prettily at his gaze. Beside her was a man much older and fatter, who glowered first at her, then at him.
“I confess to enjoying her company on that clear summer night…and that she was eager for it to begin and reluctant for it to end. Hardly ravishment by any measure! I would also pay honor to her husband, a man whose name is well known among the people of this realm.” Gaebrel bowed ostentatiously at the man, all eyes in the square turning to the stand. “A man of great wealth and…ample appetites. Though I do hear rumors about his lack of stamina certain respects.” He made a flopping gesture with one of his hands.
The husband, red-faced with outrage, shouted something back towards the gallows, but was drowned out by the roar of laughter from the crowd. Gaebrel grinned, bowing again and taking a breath for another spate of wordifying. The notary made a chopping gesture with his hand and two watchmen hauled him back.
“Enough!” the notary snapped at the hangman. “Get it over with!”
The hangman nodded, then waited until he was out of earshot to whisper, “Nice speech. Is that how it happened?”
“Every word. What now?”
“Well…” The hangman set the knot of the noose just under and behind his left ear. “Seeing as we’re out of time, I’ll have to pull this lever and send you to whatever gods you worship.”
“Looks like they’re not gonna make it. My apologies.”
“Wait a moment…”
The hangman stepped to the lever, wrapped his hands around the shaft, ready for the final pull…
The top floor of a building on the far side of the square suddenly vanished in a cloud of smoke and debris. Everyone turned to look, watching in amazement as the roof transformed into a cloud of fragments, taking with it a pair of spectators who’d climbed up for a good view of the executions. Screams filled the air as another house exploded, followed by several barrels stacked against a wall.
A loud rolling squawk cut through the din as several riders mounted on giant birds trotted in the square, firing off pistols and waving swords above their heads. Their leader drew a truly fearsome looking saber and pointed it at the gallows. With a yell he spurred his mouth, feathers flying behind as he charged through the crowd, people diving out of his way Within moments the place was in chaos, ordinary citizens running away as fast as they could, many of them being trampled underfoot, watchmen and soldiers trying to get at the riders. More guns fired and a pair of watchmen went down with holes where their faces should have been. The rest of the riders caught up with their leader, shooting and slashing anyone who got in their path.
The remaining watchmen fled. The hangman came up beside Gaebrel. “Lucky for you, eh?” he said, cutting the ropes around his wrists before jumping off the gallows and legging it.
A rider trotted up by the gallows, wearing a broad floppy hat, his face hidden below the eyes by a scarf. “Get on!” he said, voice slightly muffled by the cloth. Gaebrel didn’t argue, jumping onto the back of the mount, wrinkling his nose slightly at the smell of musty feathers. He glanced leftwards to the young woman staring at him from the stand. Of her husband there was no sign. He gave a wink and a grin, just before the rider snapped the reins and they sped off, headed out of the square and down a side street. The others followed behind, alarm bells ringing in their wake.
Left, right, left…past the square the streets narrowed into a maze of tiny alleys and passages. One of the men cursed as his head banged against a shop sign, knocking away his hat. People scattered before them, men ducking into alleyways, women pulling their children inside houses and slamming the doors.
They halted before a livery stable. “Dismount!” came the order, the riders sliding to the ground and slapping the backsides of their steeds. Outraged squawks sounded as the giant birds galloped away riderless, headed in any direction that was open. “That’ll buy us some time,” said the leader. “Everyone inside!”
They went into the stable, closing the doors behind. Birds of various shapes and sizes stared at them from behind the stable doors, large eyes devoid of anything resembling intelligence. The riders – his rescuers – pulled away their masks and hats. Gaebrel recognized one of the faces. “Halvarin.”
“Gaebrel.” The man was a respected leader among the rebels, known for his dash and daring and complete lack of any sense of fear. The bearded face with the scar on his forehead was said to haunt the dreams of the current Grand Prince, not to mention the fantasies of any number of youths and maidens. “Got there just in time, it seems.”
“My thanks and my compliments. No one else could have pulled that off.”
“Well…it’s the least one can do for a friend.”
“And you can never have too many friends.” Gaebrel looked around the stable. “So, what’s the next step? Do we take these mounts and ride for the country?”
“Not exactly. Turn around, if you please.”
Gaebrel heard the sudden change in tone. “Is something wrong?” he said, turning back to Halvarin and finding a pistol pointed right between his eyes. Halvarin’s thumb cocked back the hammer.
“What is this?”
“Hands up, that’s a good fellow.”
Gaebrel slowly raised his arms. “Was it something I said?” he asked, just before a burlap sack was dropped over his head.