Three empty nooses swung in the light breeze. A tall wooden gallows was surrounded by townspeople.
Kate pushed her way toward the front, between a bent, old woman and gaunt-looking youth, so thin that the bones of his wrists pulled tight against his skin. Kate felt bile rise in her throat at the sight.
The short, round man stood just ahead of her on the platform, to the left of the nooses. He raised his beefy arms to quiet the excited babbling of the crowd. She watched him with a mixture of interest and unease.
The man wore long robes of expensive cloth with dark hose and ankle-high leather shoes. His hair was thin with a gray goatee and mustache, carefully groomed and greasy. His bulbous nose appeared red, as if he had an allergy to the air. Flabby cheeks blended into the thick rolls of fat under his chin.
“Hearken! Hearken!” the man shouted, his voice booming from the depths of his potbelly and out his thin lips. “All ye gathered here this day to bear ye witness….”
Kate couldn’t believe what she was hearing. The man spoke as if he were a circus entertainer! He continued his speech and Kate realized she’d missed a few words.
“…in this year of the Almighty Lord, 1186, Duke Robert Van Josiah has giefan these, Ben of Ambarlyn and Hawkins of Bridgend, to be hon by the neck till dead.” He gave a dramatic pause and cleared his throat.
1186! Kate’s mind shouted. She wanted to move, run away, but felt frozen to the spot.
The round man continued. “Ben of Ambarlyn is guilty of seeking to murder Duke Van Josiah with a hidden knife. Hawkins of Bridgend is guilty of high treason.”
As he spoke, a large cart drawn by a shaggy old work horse was driven into sight between the crowds to Kate’s right. Two men knelt in the cart bed, hands bound behind their backs and facing the back of the cart. The townspeople grew riled at their arrival as the cart stopped beside the gallows.
The prisoners were led up to face the nooses. The crowd shouted and shook their fists at them. The younger—appearing to be Kate’s age—sneered back, defiant, his copper red hair gleaming with grease and soot. His green eyes held a spark of fire to them and he fought the bonds with all the strength his wiry, youthful frame possessed.
The second condemned prisoner mounted the steps onto the platform. His hands, like the boy’s, were bound behind his back and he kept his head lowered slightly. He was athletically build with a firm, chiseled jaw and dark blond hair.
Kate studied him with confusion. Why didn’t he fight? Did this man not care that he was about to die? Did no one care? There seemed a quiet strength about this man that shouted its presence to the crowd, for their commotion lessened as they, too, studied him.
While the prisoners stood there, the crowd shook their fists and hurled insults. Kate stood still, staring in abhorrence at what was about to take place. This is real. The thought stunned her. These two men were going to hang and there was nothing she could do to stop it.
Horrified, she turned to try and push her way back through the crowd, desperate to flee, but the crowds pressing in prevented her escape. There was no waking up from this nightmare.
A tall, muscular guard with a shaved head approached with two black hoods. Kate couldn’t tear her gaze from the scene.
“Ben!” someone called from the crowd and the red-haired boy jerked his head up—and sudden, uncertain fear of what was to come momentarily altered his defiance. “Ma,” Kate just barely heard him call in response through the crowd.
The other prisoner, Hawkins, raised his head slightly and there was no fear there. The startling blue depths of his eyes locked onto Kate. He looked at her steadily for a moment before the hood covered his face and the noose was drawn back and slipped around his neck.
The round man lifted one arm, appearing to enjoy the suspense of the moment, as two guards took positions behind each condemned man, prepared to push them off the platform. They would drop and hand suspended as the noose grew taut.
Kate felt nauseated, that these throngs of people could actually enjoy the cruel deaths of two living, breathing human beings. She closed her eyes tightly, trying to shut herself away from the horror as the round man’s arm started to drop.
Suddenly, a loud commotion broke across the air like the crack of a whip. From the back of the crowds came the ringing of steel and people’s terrified cries. Kate spun around, opening her eyes in surprise.
A horde of armored men surged forward through the crowds. They came, some on horseback and others on foot, brandishing their broadswords. The crowds scattered in a confused panic, shoving into each other, trampling each other in haste to be clear of the swinging blades.
The armed men came straight for the scaffolding; straight toward Kate, who couldn’t bring herself to move.
A strong arm swept around her, pulling her back against a hard, compact chest, and out of one oncoming horse’s path, then pushed her down behind the cart by the gallows. Kate fell hard against the dirt. She quickly looked around, but whoever her rescuer, he blended back into the fray.
The guards at the base of the gallows drew their swords and met the onslaught bravely as the condemned stood precariously at the edge of the platform. Steel clashed and rang against steel, but they were sorely outnumbered.
Kate stood and pulled her attention to the gallows to see the round man scrambling away. His bald head disappeared from her line of sight as he melted away into the thinning crowds. The prisoners stood vulnerable, pulling at their bonds and unable to see what was going on around them, as their guards drew their swords and turned away to defend themselves.
Kate turned in a half-circle when someone bumped into her, almost knocking her off her feet. Her gaze swept the remaining crowds. She saw one guard and his opponent fighting near the gallows, not ten feet from her and before she could turn aside or even close her eyes the man ran his sword through the guard’s chest. The guard’s eyes widened and he opened his mouth in a silent scream. He crumpled to the ground in a pool of bright, flowing blood as his eyes rolled into the back of his head.
A merchant ran into Kate as she felt the world spinning around her and her breakfast churned up in her stomach. She stumbled, fell to her knees and promptly vomited onto the street.
Suddenly, a guard disengaged from the battle and his movement drew Kate’s mind back into focus. She saw him on the gallows. He was going to push the prisoners off the platform! Kate staggered unsteadily to her feet and gulped in air.
Time seemed frozen in that moment as Kate looked toward the condemned. Ben was trying desperately to free the noose from his neck without success. Hawkins stood still and worked swiftly at freeing his hands, trying to work out the knot binding his wrists.
All she could think about were those startling blue eyes as he’d looked at her and something she’d seen in those depths stirred her into action. She lunged up the steps and at the guard without second thought, not taking the time to consider her actions in the adrenaline and confusion of the moment. She tackled him in a surprise move and caught him off balance. He lost his grip on his sword and fell to the platform, pulling Kate down with him.
Hawkins snapped the rope binding his wrists and yanked off both hood and noose with one sweep of his hand. He turned and stared in surprise at the two struggling on the platform.
A guard coming up from the other side moved to strike him, the glint of steel betraying his move. Hawkins ducked just in time and rammed his elbow into the guard’s mouth, causing blood to spurt from several broken teeth, knocking him off balance so he fell off the gallows to the ground below.
“Take him!” Hawkins ordered down to one of the armed invaders.
Kate found herself on her back with the guard on top of her, pinning her down. She let out a cry of pain as the guard’s arm pressed down against her injured ribs. The immense pressure caused white flashes to spot her vision and pain crashed like hot fire through her nerves.
Her head lulled sideways. She wavered on the verge of unconsciousness as the guard increased the pressure, realizing the pain it caused her. His added weight had the desired effect of cutting off her air supply, while he grinned wickedly.
She struggled weakly and tried to pull air into her failing lungs.
Suddenly, the guard was yanked backward out of sight. Kate gasped in air and rolled onto her side, coughing and choking. How wonderful it felt to breathe!
Hawkins smashed his fist into the guard’s head, hard enough to leave him unconscious, and gasped at the pain it rent to his knuckles. His face appeared above Kate and she managed to push herself into a sitting position.
“Cunnan you standan?”
She nodded and he pulled her to her feet, his hand strong and lightly calloused.
Somewhere a bell began to ring.
“Cuman. Be swift!” He grabbed her hand and together they left the gallows. He pulled her down the street, avoiding guards and townspeople. Kate had little time to gain her sense of bearing. Hawkins led her through twisted alleyways, pulling her in one direction and then another.
It felt like they ran forever. “This way!” he’d instruct a split-second before veering into another alley, leading away from the main street. Kate only kept up with him because the condemned man still held her hand.
She was hurting at every step before they finally stopped and leaned back against a far, back-alley building to rest. Waves of dizziness and fatigue washed over her but lessened with each even breath.
What have I done? she wondered as her mind cleared with sudden horror as she met Hawkins’ gaze.
Hawkins studied her. “My thanks, my lady.”
Kate didn’t see how pale she’d become as images of the gruesome fighting and spilled blood flashed before her mind’s eye. When Hawkins caught her by the arms she found her legs had nearly buckled beneath her.
“Are you sick?” he urged with true concern, but she pulled back and blinked at him in surprise. Her eyes cleared.
“I’m fine,” she answered stiffly.
Hawkins hesitated. “Might I ascian how you cuman to wear a man’s clothing?” he questioned, with an eyebrow raised ever so slightly.
Kate lifted her chin stubbornly and calmed her trembling. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Hawkins lifted a hand in apology. “Forgive me, ’tis not my business.”
He should talk, Kate thought. He was the one about to hang! I’ve freed a criminal….
Hawkins leaned back against the building and Kate stared at him. He appeared young, in his twenties, yet there was a wisdom and maturity beyond his years that shown from his eyes and posture. His sweaty, dark-blond hair was cropped to a couple inches long, with a crisp lock that fell forward onto his forehead. His square face sported high cheekbones, firm jaw, and faint cleft in his chin on lightly tanned features. He had a natural, ruggedly handsome appeal—something that went beyond his physical appearance.
Hawkins, sensing her eyes on him, turned to look at her. “The weards were witness to your helpan. You are in mickle peril. You should be gone of Ambarlyn at once,” he explained.
Kate took a step back and shook her head. Her mind swam with his strange words. Hawkins straightened away from the building with concern. “I can’t,” she said firmly. “My dog was stolen from me, by the guards at the gate. I have to get him back. He’s all I have.”
“Your dog?” Hawkins said softly.
Kate lowered her brows, seeing something unreadable in his expression. “What is it?”
“Forgive me… Forsooth, if he was taken, then you will not have him agan. Robert Craig has taken all hunds of these lands.” He spoke as if she should already know this.
“What?” she exploded. “But he can’t!”
Hawkins reached out and grasped her arm. “Be stillan,” he demanded in a low voice.
She went still to his touch, obeying his command. For a moment, she didn’t pull away—his hold an only anchor to keep her steady as his words brought fear flooding through her. She lowered her voice. “General is my dog. He was stolen from me and I will get him back.”
“Robert made this so when he took Ambarlyn, many years afore now. ’Tis for this you see no hunds on the streets, nor serving their men. You are not from here or you would know this.” Hawkins continued, “Those hindered—who are marked or are sick—are quelled.”
“What does that mean?” Kate insisted, dread inching its way over her.
Hawkins’ jaw tightened and he didn’t quite meet her gaze. “Slain,” he answered apologetically. His gaze flickered back to hers.
The color drained once again from her face and she drew back in horror.
“I know,” Hawkins said softly. “’Tis a grislic thing.”
“But…” she denied. “He wouldn’t really kill General, would he?”
He didn’t answer.
“When you say marked…? He has a scar across the face, from a bear. The sight in both eyes were miraculously spared but I—I almost lost him.”
“I færan naught can be done,” he said. “He could be—.”
“No,” Kate interrupted, her jaw tense as she stared him straight in the eyes. “He isn’t dead. None of this is happening, okay? I’m going to wake up and it will all be over!”
“Be stillan,” Hawkins urged. “I ne cunnan understand a word you speak.”
Kate opened her mouth.
“This way!” the shouts from the guards crashing through market booths came without warning.
Hawkins grabbed her hand. “Cuman.”
They headed down another alley toward the outer wall of Ambarlyn, then back again toward the main street. This way, then that way. It all seemed pointless—as if they were going in circles—but Hawkins seemed to know where he was going.
When they stopped again, she voiced her concern. “How are we getting out of here?”
Hawkins pressed his back against the building and carefully looked around the corner, into the main street where guards searched for them. “We do not,” he replied tersely.