Hope Not To Have Killed
Five men sat in a room with two windows pouring in the bright morning light reflected off of the night’s snow. A smell of gunpowder rose in frozen air that gnawed harmlessly on ten pairs of old leather gloves carefully fondling the handle ends of musket tampers. The men were set around a dinner table strewn haphazardly with tiny bits and gadgets of great importance.
In the middle of the array of moldy wooden slabs slumped an open cloth pouch filled with forty or so metal balls whose uppermost members gazed hatefully out onto five uneasy murderers. Only four of these balls would be loaded, the last musket being loaded with the torn remains of a paper gunpowder cartridge that lay a few inches from the sack. They prepared their vile instruments in silence, looking deep into each others’ eyes while the weapons were scrambled so that they could see and trust in each others’ honesty.
They were done, ready to finish their two month long queue with only one remaining mutineer still set out in stocks. The ship's wizard, as it was assumed he was, was never pestered by the exhausted soldiers of that fort, though still the winter had swallowed his feet and withered his hands, and he was due for destruction.
Four men looked briefly at the face of a young girl named Lahel as they marched past her on their way to the stocks, the last straining to fix his gaze ahead. His daughter looked very much like Lahel in life, but had been frozen in a blizzard a week back, and the pain was still very fresh.
Lahel was mostly jaded by the horror of the naval front, like any child would become, but for the past two months she had had a friend. Johan, he called himself, had been on the ship Belle during its mutiny, and fought with mutineers against a storm that ultimately would drive them to enemy harbor.
He was no animal, though. He seemed mystically distanced from brutishness for a sailor. The birds and rabbits would visit him without fear, and he would hold little conversations with them, talking about how "Winter's only gettin' colder!" and such small things. He wielded empathy like wand, and seemed almost like a magician at times, though he would tell you otherwise.
"It is simple," he told Lahel, "all one needs is love."
Three men released the final prisoner from his stocks while two leaned gently on their muskets at guard positions. Possibly they slept during those moments it took to properly prepare the prisoner to be conveyed to the firing alley. They could probably take him out of chains and walk and talk with him to the alley, but there were protocols.
Lahel looked on with concern, familiar with the whole ritual of prisoner retrieval. She had seen some of these same guards, certainly the one who would never look at her face, perform these rites many times before, and she never saw the men they took after that. Ever since that tattered galleon with no captain and but a hundred and a half hungry, tired men aboard took harbor here, the air has been more than cold. It was still, sagging over everything, making your throat tight. Quiet.
“A once glorious ship…” they called the thing that over a hundred “mutineers” poured out of two full moons ago, back when the leaves were red and the air was not so bitter. They had asked by raven what to do with them, and they were told to carry out due punishment for treason. Johan, however, was no traitor. He would take his own life had he wronged any man so severely that his life they sought.
The two talked whenever they had the chance, which is to say whenever Lahel wasn’t finding food or sleeping. He told her of the world, of the sourswamp and its pickypig. He talked of the faeries of the eastern Gyey, the largest of elven forests. Lahel sat with him all the time and they laughed and made fun for weeks as Johan learned his unwitting acolyte. Taught her of dangerous poisons and killer rodents of both usual and unusual sizes, the perils of the world at large.
But always of utmost importance to him, he taught her love, and how to love her father no matter what he said or did, because "Drink gets sweeter in times like this." And when she learned love, he taught her a name and a word and gave to her the strange and beautiful medallion that hung bronze around his neck, but became brilliant around Lahel’s.
Two men held either arm of the prisoner already bound in chains during his escort, a required security measure, but in this case they held his broken body upright. The others surrounded in the front and behind, and one of them carried a stretcher on his back. Lahel was curious and worried but cautious enough to follow at a safe distance. This was the first time she had followed the guards, because she loved the man who they carried, the man who had become like and uncle to her in the past two months.
A gleaming, golden medallion with the shape of a bird’s face cut out of it bounced quietly against her blouse, and she noticed this and tucked it in, remembering the words taught to her upon the medallion’s bequeathal.
“Faerva’skol,” the man said to Lahel, “remember this name. Speak it, and it will listen.” Lahel nodded her head, affirming her reception.
“When you have little warmth left in you, and the world is dark, tell to it, ‘Shaa’, for that is the word for love in an older tongue, and is Faerva'skol's purpose.” And Lahel hugged the man’s head and trodded off to where she liked to be alone. She stayed there and felt good for a moment before returning to the grind, and this usually meant begging until sundown when she started stealing potatoes from the soldiers’ rations.
The guards’ walk halted in a dark alley with a brick wall at the end that was covered with stains. They stood the prisoner against that wall and walked back to the end of the alley, about 10 feet away. They all checked for prying interlopers, but Lahel was experienced in concealing herself, so they did not find her.
She watched from through a crack in a fence as all the guards armed themselves and took aim. Lahel knew on the surface of her consciousness what was transpiring, but it took the sound of thunder and the gruesome limpness of death to truly hurt her heart, and she fled to someplace where she could cry a little louder.
One man had not harmed the prisoner at all, though five took solace in assuming it was them. The stretcher was rolled out, and two men carried the body to the undertaker so that he could have it conveyed to the mass grave outside the walls of the fort. The morning was still fresh and cold, and the day seemed so long now.