A wave of disconcerted murmurs rose. Villagers turned to each other with panicked eyes.
Everyone knew that Raven and Hens were deserters. They hoped that the Royal Army Police would never find them. They chose to celebrate away the night. The entire village also knew that those two men were staying with Grandma Gartha in her tiny hut at the edge of the village.
No one spoke.
Sable hugged herself around the waist, her heart beating hard. The village was surrounded by army police; if things became awry, it would be difficult for her to escape. She glanced over to Grandma Gartha; the frail old woman stared at the ground, her old eyes unblinking.
Her grandsons or the village. What a terrible choice, Sable thought. She wanted to go over and comfort hers, but she dare not move.
“People of Ellensheim! I will count to ten. If no one hands over the two deserters by the time I finish counting, I will order the Royal Army Police to search every hut in the village; and if they are found, their host will be executed and the taxes will be tripled.”
The knight began to count.
The crowd buzzed with alarm. Triple taxes! The village would not survive the winter.
Sable clenched her jaw. She peered up at the gallows. It was hastily built with splinters still clearly visible at the ends and sides, the wooden beams freshly cut from the forest. She imagined Grandma Gartha’s old body hanging off the noose, her eyes bulging and her tongue blue. No! They couldn’t possibly do that to such an old woman.
What to do? What to do? What to do?
A young woman with flowing red hair raised her hand. The knight stopped counting and his eyes fell on her. He raised both eyebrows. He liked this young woman—her new dress and leather corset showed off her bosom and womanly curves.
“The...the two deserters…,” she said, her voice quivering. “They are...they...”
“Speak girl, have no fear. The Eisen King is a merciful king.” He smiled reassuringly.
The red haired girl took a breath to calm herself. “They are Grandma Gartha’s grandsons.”
“Oh? And where might she be?”
No one dared to look at the old woman. The red haired girl pointed at her.
“Mrs Gartha.” The knight’s voice was even and calm. “Where have you hidden your grandsons? Do not hide them; they are cowardly deserters; traitors to the Eisen King.”
Grandma Gartha’s hands trembled on her walking stick.
Sable felt despair wrenching her gut. She wanted to help this kind old woman whom she broke bread with; this old woman who had seen too much suffering with her old eyes and lost too much at an age where she should be surrounded by joy and grandchildren.
“They are hiding in her hut!” the red haired girl said and pointed at the edge of the village.
With a nod, the knight ordered his two subordinates to search the hut.
Sable felt the air about her change. Before, she felt a nervous tension so thick that she could cut it with a knife. She had expected the villagers to protest these accusations and desperately protect the two young men—but instead, there was a sense of relief.
The worry in the peoples’ eyes vanished. Some glanced over to the red haired girl and nodded with silent gratitude.
It didn’t take long for the knights to find the deserters—there was nowhere to hide; nowhere to run. They were dragged kicking and screaming out of their grandmother’s hut and towards the gallows. On top of the platform, they each stood on a wooden chair.
Raven’s shoulder length black hair was tousled and dirty and his body shook with sobs. His trousers gave off a nauseating stink.
Hens, Raven’s brother, was much calmer. His short blonde hair was clean and tidy. His calculating gaze swept across the crowds until they rested on Sable. And suddenly, a spark of hope glimmered in his eyes.
“Deserters! On this day, you will be executed for betraying the Eisen King. You are traitors and therefore your names will not be remembered! You will have no graves and your body will be fed to the dogs. However with the mercy of the Eisen King, you may speak your final words before these witnesses.”
Hens immediately spoke.
“I am not a deserter! I have sworn to protect the Eisen King—an oath I have kept every day of my life! I have not run away from the front lines! No! I was dragged away...listen! Listen to me!” He pointed at his brother. “It was he who pulled me away from the front lines. I begged him to stay, but he had wanted to come back to see his lover—to see her!”
He pointed at Sable. Everyone’s eyes fell on her.
For a moment she was speechless with her mouth half open.
“I’m a traveling bracegear technician; I arrived in this village two days ago,” Sable said with a shrug. “I have never met any of these two men until they arrived last night.”
She expected for the villagers to agree with her, but she only heard her own voice. The people averted their eyes and pretended to have heard nothing.
“You all know that I am not from this village.” Sable turned left and right. Her heart thumped with rising panic. “How can I be his lover?”
“Is what he says true?” the knight asked.
There was a heavy silence. Then, a fragile old voice sounded.
“Everything he says is true,” Grandma Gartha spoke. “Hens would never betray his King. This girl...this whore seduced my dear Raven and filled his pure heart with lies and lust.”
“Aye!” Hens quickly chimed in. “This girl! I warned my brother not to spend the night with her before we left with the holy priest, but he had his heart bewitched. Bewitched! All I wanted was the serve my King, but this witch charmed him and I got caught in his scheme to desert!”
The people in the crowd began to nod. There were murmurs of agreement.
“Aye, I saw them together before the war.”
“She always had her eyes on him.”
“Raven was always a good man before he met her.”
The village girls who had been jealous of her last night stood by the red haired girl and voiced their agreement.
“She’s a nasty one! I heard that she was born in King’s Pride! Will do anything to a man—even taint his honor!”
“No!” Sable cried, but her voice as drowned out by the crowd. The young women grabbed her and pushed her towards the scaffolding.
“No! No! It’s not true!”
She resisted and tried to force an opening in the crowd to escape, but the strength of a dozen pushed and pulled her forwards. The owner of every hand looked away. Sable frantically looked left and right. The villagers had formed an impenetrable wall of flesh around her. She could hardly breathe. There was nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. No one to help her.
With a final push she was ejected from the crowd. The red haired girl took a stone and threw it at her forehead. Sable lost her balance and fell into the mud.
“Ugh,” Sable rubbed her head and saw that her hand was covered in blood.
The knight and the priest exchanged a nod and Hens was released. He scampered towards his grandmother.
Sable stood and no one in the village would meet her gaze. No one wanted to be called out. Her eyes sought out Grandma Gartha, but she only had eyes for her precious grandson.
And it was then that Sable realized it: she wasn’t one of them. Even though Hens was a deserter, her life weighed nothing against his. Hens was one of them and she was a girl who just happened to be passing by. The people of the village will accept help from outsiders, but they will not lift a finger to help an outsider. It didn’t matter if she gave the village the means to survive the winter; they had taken what she could give and now it was time to move on.
“Seize her!” the knight ordered.
“Grandma Gartha!” Sable yelled desperately. The old woman looked at her and their eyes met. Her old eyes were stoic; no guilt, no sadness, no gratitude.
Sable felt her heart grow cold.
The knight’s two subordinates grabbed her, tied her hands behind her back and forced her to kneel before the priest who had been quiet the entire time. With a tilt of the golden cross in his hands did he acknowledge her presence.
“As the woman who has seduced and caused one of the King’s servants to abandon his oath and give into his sinful lust, our Lord deems you guilty of the same crime as he is.”
He spoke with solemn authority; confident that his judgment was God’s judgment.
“He is lying, they are all lying,” Sable cried and tried to pull free. “Please, you have to believe me! I am just a traveling bracegear technician—these people—they are all lying!”
The priest shot her an incensed glare and kicked her in the face. She felt her lip burst and tasted her own blood. She was stunned by his callousness.
“You filthy whore! The Gods did not give you permission to speak! Are you suggesting that Mrs Gartha is lying? An honorable grandmother who has raised her grandsons to serve the Eisen King?”
“Please…I am telling the truth,” Sable croaked.
“You have filled this man’s mind with sinful thoughts and you will die together for your sins.”
He made a dismissive wave two knights of lower ranking pulled her to where Hens stood moments before. She glanced over to Raven; he was still shaking, his soiled pants reeking of urine.
I am going to die.
This thought finally entered Sable’s mind. She could no longer hope for any help. A subordinate tightened the noose around her neck; he squeezed her buttocks while he was at it.
The people of Ellensheim had all conspired together and decided to send her to her death to save one of their own.
Sable could not even cry. She had been so kind to these people and they had betrayed her. All of them.
“No...no...save me,” Raven whimpered. “I don’t want to die...no please.”
Nobody in the village tried to argue on his behalf—not at the risk of tripling the taxes. The village folk had decided to cut their losses.
A voice entered Sable’s head. A sinister voice that spoke smugly and with a malicious giggle.
Use your magic…ke...ke...ke
No, I can’t...my hands...I can’t.
You will die, Sable. Ke...ke...ke...you will die for this scum...this moral filth.
No, they are not—I can’t.
They are trash—all of them. Use your magic...kill them all.
No! I can’t use magic for—I shouldn’t use magic.
You will die like this…Sable.
The knight raised his hand and shouted: “Kick away the chairs!”
Sable felt her body sink. She kicked and struggled to find footing. She desperately tried to breathe but her own weight prevented her.
Such a pity…
Give me your body, Sable…I will make everything all right.
Her brown leather gloves subtly seeped out a black mist. It was barely visible and lingered behind her back, hidden from everyone.
Sable, what is your answer?
The black mist burst forth and pulsed violently. It crawled up her arms, over her shoulders and towards her breast. And just as she was about to lose consciousness, the black mist solidified into black flames. Her entire body was consumed by it and it burned away the rope around her neck and hands.
Sable fell to the ground, gasping for air. She coughed violently, her eyes wide open.
“Demon! A demon!” the priest cried.
Now Sable...burn away the filth...ke...ke...ke