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To a free man, the tenth bell might have meant he had overslept, or he had forgotten some important appointment. For Roedanth, however, it foretold death, each clear ring a reminder that within the hour, after the ninth sounding, he would burn. Maybe then they would leave him alone.
A different man came to collect him, young and smartly dressed. Smelling fresh and clean, Roedanth envied him that. Like all the others, the guard wore the yellow crow insignia on his breast.
“Crows aren’t yellow,” he muttered.
“I know,” answered the guard cheerily as he kept pace with Roedanth’s shuffling.
The cage this time was to be drawn by horses, big, coarse, hairy brutes. It would be a climatic spectacle and as a crowd gathered the drays stood patiently. The iron box was a large receptacle, room for more than a few. From out of the same door came five others, each as dirty as Roedanth, all condemned to the flame.
They had been chosen at random, two prisoners shackled together side-by-side like dogs. Up and into the cage roughly pushed. There was a black skinned man amongst them. Tall and proud, he bore the scars of many wounds; some fresh but others laced white crisscrossing welts and lines of past battles. He spoke not a word, not even when the shortest of guards whacked him soundly with the butt of his spear.
Roedanth was chained to a man with a hand heavily bandaged, blood still seeping from his wound. Afraid as he was, Roedanth couldn’t help but let curiosity win him over.
“Did they do this to you?”
Muddy coloured eyes peered out from a face so stained with grime that the fellow looked as if he had just finished a day sweeping chimneys. Still, he answered congenially enough, and Roedanth’s eyes widened as the man began to speak. “They did and may the jest be on them for the sons of bitches they all are. I was called six-fingered Ned, and still will be, no matter what they do to me.” He chuckled; it was infectious and despite the dire predicament, Roedanth was forced to hide a smile. Ned continued. “You see, dear boy, I am a thief. Sorry, was a thief. And getting caught is the worst thing a thief can do. Usually, a hand is all they need, but for me the cost was my extra finger and the flame. I’m considered unclean by the Biscop House.”
“Surely they can’t be that cruel,” whispered Roedanth.
Another prisoner had a scar that ran from his left temple down to his chin, winding further still to disappear under his badly woven tunic. Pale skinned and black haired, the man spoke in the same Tolerian slur as of one of the guards he had been hiding from with Peetra.
“You know, I heard you actually choke on the oily black smoke before the flames melt you. Then there are these other stories of how men because the wind is blowing the wrong way, can’t scream loud enough to drown out the sizzling of their own skin burning.”
The black man laughed, and it was as though the sun had broken through on a dark, cloudy day. “You men with your lack of faith make me laugh. It is not what they do to your body that matters, but what happens to the light in here.” He tapped his chest. “They can’t take your soul.”
“Where do you come from?” asked his chained partner, and Roedanth leaned as forward as his own chains allowed.
“I am a son of the sun and rain, the wind, and the dark, rich soil. I am a Benzine, a nomad and…” His fervour sounded shaken as he spoke his next words. “I would rather die by their heathen fire than live locked away from the earth and sky.”
Six-fingered Ned nodded in understanding. “I agree, brother. Living like a dog is not a life. But don’t worry, the flame is not for you.”
All eyes turned to Ned, but he refused to engage any of them, and lowered his head to his chest, pretending to sleep. Horses harnessed, the guards in their crisp, shiny uniforms made ready to present to the people of Crow’s Nest their version of a holy scene.
Just to add further insult to injury, the killing square lay at the far end of the Seed. Not even the poorest of the poor lived anywhere near the burning ground. The clerics insisted it was because people recognized the fact that the area was sacred and stayed away. The truth was the spot was as dead as the people they murdered.
“Holy, my ass! The stink of charred bodies keeps them well cleared of the place.” Roedanth chided. As they entered the Seed the cobble-stoned road would soon turn to mud. They passed under an arch made from red stone. This was the entry point into the seedier part of the lower level of Crow’s Nest. The Guilds had their own guards here, and although these bullies didn’t wear uniforms, the cudgels or thick bars of iron in their meaty hands easily recognized them.
Crowds lined the streets; people gathered in doorways and windows, all in supposed support of the Biscop’s pageant. It didn’t mean they supported the idea of burning people. No, this lower based community had ties that far outreached the King, the Biscop and all their bloody, useless laws. Children followed the drawn cage with hoots and laughter, men and women equally jovial; it seemed they thought sizzling men herald a true spectacle after all.
Halfway through the Seed the mood of the crowd changed. The laughing died away, and the youngsters disappeared. In front of the horses stood a mess of mean looking men, truncheons in their hands, with brandishing wicked knives but they made no attempt to move. A guard halted the procession.
“Ready, men.” He called out, and the rest of his troop mechanically placed their hands on their scabbards. “In the name of his Holiness, the Biscop of Crow’s Nest, I demand that you step aside and allow us safe passage.”
“You have no friends here,” shouted a gruff voice in the crowd.
“We don’t recognize the bloody Biscop and his love for killing the people of Crow’s Nest,” screamed a woman to the right.
The guard began to look doubtful. As one of the Biscop’s men, he knew the rough side of the lower level was unsafe for them, and the threats and determination of those before him were very real but he had a job to do. “Be reasonable. We carry six condemned men. They have been sentenced to the flame by order of your King. So, I will ask again. Disperse back to your homes and I promise you all no one will be harmed.”
“The only person getting hurt around here will be you unless you and your combatants disappear from here,” another curt voice, angry now.
“Piss on you, and piss on the Biscop,” boasted a woman’s voice.
The guard’s face reddened. He left the horses and walked towards the back end of the cage, tapping a freshly scrubbed trooper on the shoulder. In a loud voice, rambunctious enough to carry over the crowd out front, he said, “Arrest that woman.”
The man leaned his head around his superior, wild round eyes viewing the mob with uncertainty. “Do you think that it is wise, sir?”
The officer took a step forward, whispering fiercely to the young man, his nose almost touching the frightened soldiers. “If you don’t detain that woman, there’ll be a seventh offering to the flame, soldier, and it won’t be me. Do you understand?”
The man visibly paled and nodded. He motioned to the soldier next to him and they both stepped away from the cage. With a roar, the mob surged forward. Its occupants grabbed at the bars, and Six-Fingered Ned smiled. The Benzine roared with the masses. Like the coming of a storm, this black skinned man flashed his white teeth in a savagery equal to the rushing of rancorous men.
The stars save me, or else I’m going to die here in this bloody cage. They’ll find my body when it’s all over, twisted and bent around the bars.
Roedanth felt a sudden sheen of sweat soak his body.