The Hanged Man
streets were quiet. There was still time before the hanging, but that
rarely stopped the crowds from coming early.
Goridan’s nose was still sensitive to the smell of fresh bread, even after all these years. Earlier, he had continually opened his stove and checked on the loaves. There were different opinions about how to check up on your goods. Some said opening the stove was bad for the bread; it let the heat escape, and made for uneven baking. Others thought it was better to be safe than to overcook. Goridan never minded a bit of crispness, and he was resolved to bake however he pleased. He had regular customers, and his business had passed the hard times. He was trusted, his prices were satisfactory, his bread tasty and full. Each roll was heavy.
A gruff man and his young son walking by made eyes at his stall and the carefully laid out buns lying on the trays. He knew the smell would tantalize passerby to stop. It was only a penny per roll and there was a hanging.
“One roll,” the man said roughly. He wore wool, and it fitted vaguely to his shape. His son was better accommodated, his clothes fitting more properly. The son looked up eagerly at his father, then at the buns, and his eyes widened even further. He started to bounce on the edges of his feet, his excitement as delightful to Goridan as the bread to the child.
“Take your pick,” Goridan said. The child’s mouth dropped. Most bakers did not give choices. You ordered, and you were served, and you paid. And you left. The child’s enthusiasm turned to wonder. He examined each bun, clearly trying to weigh which was biggest. The father was patient, though. He did not rush the child’s decision.
The child turned to look at his father, his expression troubled. “Do you want to pick?”
The father rubbed his son’s head, who looked back at the tray, again carefully examining them and taking his time. Goridan did not mind. Even with his good name, it always helped when people saw others buying from you. A fact you learned exceptionally quickly once you opened a stall, a fact known even to those not trying to sell their work.
The child picked one up hesitantly, and again turned his gaze to his father, who nodded. Now Goridan watched the gruff man, who placed a penny into his hand. Only then did Goridan see the child take a bite.
“God be with you,” said Goridan.
The man grunted and had his son walk in front of him as they moved on.
There were a few more people walking the roads now, still the early ones. That first row in front of the gallows was already full. There could even be a second, but it seemed calm and orderly. There was no shoving yet, though. That would come soon enough.
“Hey, a roll of bread, please,” Goridan’s attention turned back to the man now in front of him, from Ayatol in the south. It was obvious from his colouring, his accent, and the distinctive smell of sharp, tangy spice on him. Goridan wished he could use that spice in his bread, but he did not know how, so he thought it best not to try. “A roll, please. Here.” The man placed his penny firmly into Goridan’s hands. They were remarkably soft. Young, in face and in manners. That, and his clothing, his brusque manner, the way he surveyed Goridan’s products, betrayed that he was a merchant, likely from a family of merchants.
This man had probably never held a sword in his life. Never baked bread, Goridan corrected himself quickly, or worked. The thought lingered. Goridan pocketed the coin and placed a bun in the man’s young unmarked hands as opposed to his own speckled ones. But they were still strong, aged as they were. He figured, back when he started, if he had been different, he’d have given this man a smaller bun from his batch. Or a lesser one, in some way. The way the Ayatolan frowned at his trays full of bread angered him. Goridan did not cheat, and tried hard to make all his rolls a similar size. No one would feel short-handed that way.
Goridan had thought once to put lesser ingredients into his bread. Back when he had been losing money every day. His customers were always happy with him, but happiness did not pay for shelter or clothing. It was funny how a baker could have an abundance to eat, yet the threat of homelessness, of cooling weather, had lingered in those first trying years. He had never compromised on quality, even with all the trials he had passed. Compromising was for the faint of heart. Goridan had seen compromise destroy more than a simple bakery.
The Ayatolan had already moved off, with no salutation. Manners were different in the south, he knew. The heat made people impatient. Goridan strained his neck to look up. He was too used to bending over stoves, to cleaning, to wrapping up his stall. There were many white clouds, the ones that did not necessarily promise rain. They would break the heat of the sun. A perfect day. Goridan looked towards the gallows and grimaced. Maybe not so perfect.
There were several people on the road. A group of four, with a younger couple and an older one, were close enough for him to hear their conversation. Of how soon the hanging would be, though that seemed a silly question. There were still hours until then, but the day itself turned into an event. Hangings happened rarely. For murderers, thieves, heretics. . .
“The man is a hero, to some folks,” said a pretty young woman.
“Fools, who say that,” said a man in his middling years, perhaps fifteen years younger than Goridan himself. He spoke too loudly and, though the woman beside him appeared to be his wife, Goridan thought the man was trying to impress the younger of the two. “The man was a bloody traitor who killed farmers.”
. . . and traitors, rebels. That thought lingered, too. Hangings were good for his business, but they were hard for him. The trap's release, the snap of the hanging. The sound would linger for days.
“I hear he didn’t kill them.”
“He stole their grain,” said the wife. “That’s bad enough.”
“He fed his family and some others from his village.”
Goridan had had enough, and started trying to catch the eyes of passersby. He smiled at them. He tried not to be forceful and, though it took him some time to mix friendliness with pressure to buy, it undoubtedly worked. Looking at potential buyers often turned them into actual buyers. He did not understand it, and had felt guilty and uncomfortable when he first started staring at people. A year after he started, the guilt ended after a particularly cold, hard night. Pressuring customers was the only way to go about it. Still, even though he had compromised on how to obtain the sale, he had never done the same with what he was selling.
Two customers came in quick succession, one a miller who appreciatively commented on the bread’s quality as he bit into it. Another father, with two children, a boy and a girl. The boy was taller than his sister. The father made them share one. He yelled a lot, though his children were just being children, wanting more for themselves, or less for their siblings; the distinction probably mattered to them.
But those comments kept nagging at him, “the man is a hero -- to some folks.” The justifications of youth, the pain and fascination that came with rebellion. The excitement of holding a sword. The seemingly inhuman rush of power that comes with it, followed by the realization that the rush is a little too human and inevitably leads to hangings.
Goridan remembered sitting around a fire with friends, in a cave, hidden from unwelcome eyes. Those fires were rare, but the laughter and fun that came every night, fire or no, were common. Discussing how best to ruin a supply line, to recruit a town’s populace to support them in their rebellion against old King Gareheim, whose grandson was, for eight years now, Goridan’s crowned king. Or how old King Garaheim could suck Tian’s sack. “But gently, the way he licked his father’s ass.” Goridan, chuckling now, still recalled the paralyzing laughter that had fallen upon everyone when Tian had said that with his quiet enthusiasm. That was Tian.
“Three rolls, if you please.” Goridan was shaken out of the past. Another merchant, one he served often. A solidly built man, but always quiet and polite. A good customer. Unlike others in his trade, he never touched the fresh-cooked buns. Those millers would poke and prod as if Goridan were a cloth trader.
A young couple started browsing through the buns as well, and Goridan had to keep his eyes on them in the meanwhile. Some were inclined to steal, even though these two seemed well enough not to need to. Still, you never knew how they came by their food.
Another man had stopped by who was several years older than the merchant. His broad shoulders, his savaged right ear and the thin scar, clearly from a blade, on his right cheek spoke of his experiences as a fighter. Whether he was a soldier or a thug, Goridan could not yet tell. He searched under his booth for the hammer he kept in case of potential threats. He found the smooth wooden handle, gripped it, then released. He just wanted to make sure he knew where it was.
The man stared at the merchant, who said nothing, but his fingers were digging into the bread. The merchant’s nervousness made Goridan nervous, so he turned to watch the young couple again, keeping the fighting man at the corner of his eye.
The man turned his gaze on Goridan, and glanced to his left. Goridan stiffened. The soldier was looking at his scar, he knew. Such a man would recognize an old battle wound. He would ask how he’d gotten it. And which regiment he had served in. But Goridan had never been much of a liar. “I’d like a roll, as well, goodman.” Goridan passed his hands over the tray and said nothing. Let the man choose.
The scarred man took a bun and paid the penny. The merchant paid for his. “God be with you, son,” Goridan said. The merchant smiled, his hands full of the rolls, the rolls full of holes from fingermarks, and walked off.
Goridan kept his eyes on the fighter, though. He was alone, it seemed, and walked slowly towards the gallows, accompanying the crowd. He had no one to join him. Goridan wondered if the soldier had a wife, or if he was a widower, or if he had ever been married at all. If he had raped women as he sacked towns. Many soldiers did not. But most did. Especially if the women were rebels. He had heard of Gayle, one unusually pretty one with a decidedly lush body, who had been taken by an entire company. The better-looking the girl, the harder it was. But soldiers did not stop with pretty ones. Gillian, a small woman over sixty years old, had bled from her genitals; she had been taken by a man who had stood a full foot taller than Goridan and was as wide as a tree. He had seen Gillian after. The pool of blood.
But those days had been towards the end. The beginning had been wrought with anxiety, until he had settled in. Tian had been a charmer, the son of one of their captains. He had taught Goridan how to fight, how to avoid the enemy, how to cause as much damage with as little risk as possible. It was easy, with the size of the land they were able to hide in. “There is nothing more frustrating to a tyrant than having an uprising start with lush woodlands nearby,” Tian would say. “Burn us out and he loses the timber. The only other option is to let your soldiers die in the woods, and let us grow. So that’s precisely what we’re doing. Killing Garaheim’s sword fuckers by introducing them to our arrows. Pierced either way.”
How Tian had laughed. And how he had cried when Garaheim finally did burn some of the woodland, a pocket of forest that stretched like a finger out of a hand, where the rebels had been destroyed. The smell of burning stuck with him always, one of the reasons why Goridan did not cook meat, and why he watched his oven so carefully. Anything to avoid the smell of wood, leaves, pine needles gone to ash, the black specks floating before his eyes like death’s snow as he baked food for the living.
The memories would always get stronger, Goridan knew, watching the assembling crowds, the word “traitor” and “hanging” escaping everyone’s lips. The only people who came close to the infamy of traitors were thieves, men who took what was not theirs from people who owned so little. Murderers were interesting, but an eye for an eye was a well-appreciated concept. Those were the three most common, and usually if there was a hanging for a traitor, there would be a dozen of them at a time. A lone traitor was of no interest to the highborn, but join a traitor here with a couple down the road and a few beggars outside of town, then arm them and give them common cause against the nobility, and it became high season for kneading dough.
Goridan had only joined much later, six months after the rebels said they had started. A famine, they said. It was always famine, caused by drought or war or too many taxes. This time, Tian’s father had seen Garaheim’s noble representatives claim what they had taken from the commonfolk in years of plenty, though drought had fallen on them for four years. Hungry men turned starving. And they had been proud. Awakening the fury of proud, simple men by being humiliated by the king they had fought for in their youth, Tian had whispered, was a singularly foolish thing to do. They had started by gathering friends and old comrades. Then they had spoken to the younger generation.
It was the children that made Goridan take the most pleasure in his work, just as the adolescents were the ones who forced his mind into the past. Those young men and women who hated traitors with endless fury, or who were alternately most sympathetic to their cause. It was the latter group Tian’s father and his friends had sought for their rebellion. That was how they had found Goridan.
He wondered what those hostile to their uprising would say if they had ever slept in a rebel camp, had known the sound of Tian’s laughter and his sudden seriousness as he taught Goridan what rebels needed to know. Tian introducing him to Liette, whose skin was white as snow, whose lips were so full and soft. Her odd, almond-shaped eyes that betrayed her foreign ancestry. Tian, who had taught Goridan how to listen to a woman when she spoke if he wanted to kiss her, if he eventually wanted to run his hands along her thighs in the dark, to suck at the tips of her breasts and hear the gasp escape from her lips.
Goridan felt himself respond to the memory, even after all these years.
He had barely spoken to Liette. He had not realized that until the king’s men had come charging through the forest with steel and fire and he had pushed her to run, to run and hide deep in the forest. He remembered her stumbling as she tried to avoid branches and look back at him. That sorrowful look she wore before the thick of the woods took her as she turned to run full ahead. That last wind-blown fragment of her that disappeared behind the trees. Standing there, momentarily oblivious to the death of his friends as Tian yelled at him to come, to get the fuck out of there, with her last words in his head, “I know so little, Goridan. So little about you,” and then he had pushed her. It only occurred to him then, watching her run, how little he had spoken.
He denied this at first, but their conversations had always stayed with him before he went to sleep. He had savoured every word, worried over his reactions to her talking to him, and he realized that he had barely spoken to her about what really mattered to him. Their conversations consisted of him listening. He had adhered too strictly to Tian’s instruction to listen, to listen to the girl if you wanted to feel that wetness between her lips. Liette knew so little of him. All she knew was that he had taken up baking instead of fighting, and the hope that she did not think him a coward was still part of him. The last image of her leaving him haunted him as she tripped and fell out of sight, that last inelegance. He smiled at the memory, knowing how that would usually embarrass her. He cried because he had wanted her to escape, but knew that she probably hadn’t.
Goridan shook himself out of the memory, tried to keep it distant and let his eyes fall on a young man. He wondered if the boy was a coward. Goridan could see him from a distance, walking with a girl about the same age. “Me mam and da gave me some pennies to spend, not so often there’s a hanging, ya see?” The boy was talking too much. The girl was obviously shy, but stayed close to the boy. She peered eagerly at the rolls in front of him. “Ah, I can get us some rolls, would ya like that?” She walked towards Goridan’s stalls, so the boy tramped steadily forward and passed her, to settle in front of Goridan. Goridan’s face twitched, but he was able to suppress the smile. Wouldn’t do to hurt a young man’s pride.
“How ya do, goodman?” the boy said to Goridan.
Goridan smiled. “I’m fine, young man, and God be with you and your lovely lady friend.”
The young man seemed exceedingly pleased with himself, and turned to the girl whose whole focus was on the bread. The young man looked peeved. Goridan found it difficult not to laugh, and wondered if his initial disappointment with Liette had been that visible to Tian. Maybe that was why Tian had so loved teaching Goridan. A young man’s worries over girls were always absolutely hilarious to others. He decided to let the young man try and figure this one out on his own, though. That was the best way to learn.
“Fiall, which one ya want?” he said. The girl looked up and smiled at the boy. She pointed at a roll, and the young man, now full of confidence, turned back to Goridan and said, “the one she pointed at, and I’m not picky, so--” Goridan heard the familiar crunch of a clenched fist meeting someone’s face. He saw a man around his age reeling from the blow, a ruffian of around sixteen years with a hard, dangerous look about him rushing towards him. The man was holding a terrified child firmly by the wrist, the child clearly trying to break free.
The adolescent attacked again, but this time members of the crowd had recovered, and Goridan winced at was to come. The pickpocket had been caught, and his paymaster, clearly the young man, had thought to save him. Noble, but foolish. The second blow was cut off as the crowd surged to press in on the attacker. There were no guards in sight, and eventually the young man lost his footing and fell. The crowd went after him, and Goridan looked away. They were far enough to not disturb his booth.
The young man and his girl stood with their mouths agape, watching the scene. “Excuse me,” Goridan said, and held his hand out. “Young man!” and the boy came out of it, though the girl was entirely absorbed. He stared at Goridan, then at his hand, and took out a small pouch. His fingers probed in and, trying to be quick with it, Goridan saw the worry on the young man’s face. “It’s here,” he sifted further, and Goridan stood ready to grab for him if he tried to run into the wild crowd, where Goridan dared not venture, “here we go.” And put two pennies into Goridan’s hand.
“Let’s go,” said the young man, and pulled the girl away. He stuffed the pouch somewhere and was off.
The crowds were dispersing, and the king’s men had finally appeared. “The king’s peace, move off! You are breaking the king’s peace!”
“Fuck off, they’re pickpockets!” shouted a man shaking his fist, and the soldiers went looking for the speaker. They passed Goridan’s booth, but he said nothing. The speaker blended into the now rowdy crowd. Goridan wished him well.
Soldiers “keeping the king’s peace” were the ones who had driven him out of his town and away from his parents. They had heard rumours of what was happening in Goridan's town. Identifying themselves as villagers whose homes had caught fire, a group of rebels had settled in the outskirts of their town. Fire was common enough, so Goridan did not think to question them further. He never suspected they were enemies of the king. If he had, his whole life would have been different. He never would have gotten involved. He had dreamed of soldiering and often pretended to be a warrior with others in his village. Rebels were scum, the village boys would have agreed.
But Tian was not the type to be ignored. Tian had caught him first, and when Liette had eventually joined, Goridan found himself raising his hand against those “bastard soldiers” keeping the king’s peace, and he was loud in giving voice to this newfound certainty, especially when Liette was around. She was a girl men noticed, and not only by boys his age. And when these “villagers” started killing soldiers who explicitly spoke in the king’s name, any doubts about the new settlers’ intentions were obliterated. Goridan joined them then, and did so happily. He made sure Liette was watching as he wiped the blood from his blade.
The crowd was having little of this peace, either. There would be no calming them from here on in. Any pickpockets that continued to work the streets did so at great risk. Orphaned children were the most common thieves, which was why parents kept such a tight hold on their young, why you had to be sixteen or thereabouts to be allowed at public gatherings without someone to accompany you. Once the first pickpocker was caught, it became dangerous to be young and alone.
Pickpockets had tried stealing rolls of bread. He had discouraged this by promising his remainder from every hanging day to the orphaned. If even one roll was missing, the children got nothing.
He still had a few more than half his rolls available, and he figured he would have less than a dozen to distribute. He always baked a tad more for the children, about three extra buns. It didn’t hurt him too much, and it protected him besides. He worried that if he provided too little after the hangings, they would decide that stealing would be their best bet, even with the risks. But ten loaves were usually enough to keep them happy.
Bribes always worked. The loyalty of the occasional sentries in small towns they passed was easily bought, and that was where the rebels would camp and recruit new rebels. A few extra coins to those sentries to pay for grain to feed their families, grain that was already so bloody expensive, “No thanks to bloody Garaheim’s taxes,” often said aloud. A fur cloak, even an old one with holes and crusted blood stains (“from protecting the fucking borders,” they went on), to keep them warm on those frigid winter nights when your jaw turned to ice and your throat ached with the cold. At least it kept their bodies warm. “And there are other ways to keep fighting men warm, aren’t there,” Tian would say to the other youths, as Liette and other girls served them hot stew.
“Let the boys get hard on thoughts of fighting and fucking,” Tian would say. “Two swords to make them feel like men.”
Whenever Tian said that, Goridan imagined himself doing unspeakable things with Liette. The wistful memory of her and her smooth skin, of having her for the first time, how painfully hard he had been, how quickly he had been spent, of the next morning when they made love again. And then his ravenous hunger and having her join him and Tian. He could see that knowing glance in his eye, that smirk whenever Liette looked away. Eating breakfast with the two people he was most fond of.
Tian was dead, and Liette gone past the pinewoods, and he was fairly sure but never certain what had happened to her. He sighed, and rearranged the buns into an orderly fashion. He cleared the empty trays and let the crumbs fall to the ground, then placed them at the back of his stall. He was getting nervous, now. The crowds were so thick and eager. The hanging would be soon.
The morning he had loved Liette was also the first time he had taken an interest in baking. The smell of fresh bread as he sat with Liette and Tian roused something in him. He had moved to speak to the baker, Hammond, a tall and thin man with robust arms and a strong back. Two weeks after Goridan had joined the camp, he heard that Hammond had lost his wife to looting soldiers. Goridan also heard tell that Hammond never spoke about what had happened. Goridan did not want to hear anymore and had avoided Hammond ever since, not wanting to look into his eyes. Until now.
Hammond had agreed to take Goridan on as an apprentice and was surprisingly talkative. He was, in fact, completely normal. “You cannot rush the bread, young man,” Hammond said in one of his first lessons. “Rushing is for fools, in war and in baking as in everything else. You rush, and you either burn the bread or lose the woman. Never rush a woman, or you’ll lose that musk you carry on you now.”
His cheeks burned over three decades after those words had been said. A mix of pleasure and embarrassment that others knew. He had not been old enough to worry about Liette’s reputation. It hadn’t lasted long enough to matter much, anyway, but knowing that he had not even thought of asking for her hand continued to shame him. A shame similar to the one that still crept on him every time he put fresh dough into the oven and brought baked buns out of the oven, a skill he took up instead of being beside Tian, dying beside Tian with sword in hand. Learning one trade at the expense of another.
“Knead the dough, let it rest. Let it rise,” Hammond would say. He would rest his firm hands on Goridan’s shoulders if he rushed. “It needs time to grow, and only after many hours can you put it in the oven. Take the time to create more dough, to clean up and save what you can of the flour, to keep the oven hot, to gather more fuel for burning. To sharpen swords, to learn how to fight. This is a rebel camp, after all. We must all fight, even us bakers.”
He was a baker, then. Hammond said it himself, even though it had only been Goridan's second day. He learned to love the ovens, the thick pasty feel of the dough as he molded it with his hands. This was manly work. Like bricklaying, or forging swords. To create with the power of your hands, to add some flour and to make sure it blended in well, not too much and not too little, and to stand near that blazing hot fire that singed the hair off your arms, off your face. There was nothing as hot as the ovens when you went to take the buns out, even with a paddle. Not even the sun blazed so.
And so it had gone, those last two weeks. Happy, filled with learning a new craft that Goridan happily took up, thinking of how he finally had some way to earn coin in the future, how he could avoid a life of soldiering once the rebels had won. How proud his parents would have been. Wanting to share this with Liette, but burning so hot with desire for her at night and sometimes during the day that he never knew when to share memories of his parents lest it quelled his heat for her. Joking with Tian and the others and learning his new place, but still training in the way of the sword. He had good cause in his rebellion, he was feeding the men and training with them, too. And he had a woman. The image of what a man should be. And so happy, at least until King Garaheim decided they were a real threat, and clamped down on them with all the fury of an indignant king.
The first day he had slept with Liette, they had started hearing rumours of other rebel camps being squashed, massacred, burned out, the rebels caught and hanged at the end. But how could he have cared? Even tales of public hangings where people threw rotted cabbages at the caught rebels couldn’t discourage him.
It took a few days for the fear to start settling in. This was not a simple drawback to recover from. It seemed unreal, and Goridan would not have believed the stories if it weren’t for the older fighters among them who suddenly became sombre as a new widow.
Still, Goridan insisted to himself and to Tian: they were the heroes. Tian’s father was one of the captains, a great man, and Tian likely to follow. Hammond’s wife had been raped and murdered by Garaheim’s soldiers. He, Goridan, was now a baker and was getting his dick wet every night. They were the leaders, the wronged, the ones who had fought for Garaheim in their youth, who had lost family and friends fighting wars and crushing rebellions, whose only tangible reward was “a small fucking plot of land that that cock-sucking shit Garaheim taxes us so heavily on that we end up with nothing!” The righteous rage of youth, the determination of the adults to provide a better future for their young. They were in the right, by God, and they would win.
Alas, you don’t get the woman because you loved her. At least not always. He had gotten Liette, but the rebels had lost the war, so he had lost Liette.
There could not be a quarter of an hour until the hanging, now. The streets were packed, and Goridan was shocked to see less than a tray left. He cleared it, dumped the crumbs, and stacked it with the others. The crowd’s fury had turned to excitement now, and was as palpable as Goridan’s dread. And when his eyes fell upon two cloaked figures, he was brought back to his first hanging.
The crowds had been even more wild than this, larger, angrier, savage. Rebels had been caught. The first ones caught from the last rebel group, the leaders. And there was enough rotten fruit thrown at the soon-to-be-hanged to force Goridan into shamefully thinking how they could feed their whole camp, how these fools wasted so much food on dead men. Thinking this even as he stared up beneath his hood at the familiar faces, hiding his own so no one would see, standing beside Tian and three others, all armed with clubs except for Tian with his sword hidden under his cloak.
It had been chilly that day. But he remembered the faces. Those first three, one of them Hammond. They were bruised from the beatings of the soldiers, bloodied from their resistance before the capture. These were the soon to be hanged. His friends. He watched them guided onto the gallows with the ominous slipknots dangling freely. A wooden stage, the creak of the stairs as they climbed up. Or maybe they hadn’t creaked, he couldn’t remember. Soldiers stationed around the screeching mob, in burnished steel, faces hard. The captain reciting the crime: treason against the Throne, His Majesty, King Garaheim, the Hand That Wields the Sceptre. The executioners tightening the slipknots around their necks. The roar of the crowd, and the snap of the wood as it gave to let the three men hang. The snap of their necks. They did not strangle, as some men did. Clean and quick. Alive one moment, dead the next. Tian had not given the signal to try and free them, and Goridan doubted if he would have seen it anyway.
And then the second hanging. Five men caught, and now only four of them hiding under cloaks to watch, to set them free if the chance arose. The third hanging, with eighteen rebels caught and only himself and Tian to watch, the rest of the camp a day’s ride away, most of them worn out, tired, sick, starving. It was the largest public execution in that town in twenty years. Longer than Goridan had even lived. It was hard to imagine then, easy enough now. He had seen larger since that time.
At that hanging, he had caught the eye of one of the rebels his age. There was hate in those eyes, and absolute terror.
“It’s Fleece,” Tian had said. That was his name, Goridan had forgotten. Fleece, who always spoke of how he loved small breasts but wanted at least one experience with tits large enough to bury his head in. “’They would be soft, and smell of some womanly smell,’” Tian repeated as they watched Fleece lower his eyes to his feet as the splatter of raw foodstuffs were hurled at him. Fleece had said that once in an attempt to be one of them. How they had laughed at him.
Fleece had been the only one to see and recognize Goridan and Tian. But he had not screamed and pointed, though the hate was so obviously there, directed at him for escaping, his ill-hidden jealousy that Goridan was fucking Liette with those soft swaying thighs. Fleece would not take comfort knowing that it was Tian who had directed Goridan to seduce Liette. Then the sound of Fleece’s neck snapping.
After that, Tian and Goridan had split in an attempt to confuse their pursuers. That was when Goridan had started baking. He set up his oven as close to the gallows as he could get. His plan had been to set fire to some closeby buildings to save any rebels caught.
Over two months, he had watched his friends hang, always on the edge of throwing a hot piece of wood where it would catch. Always deliberating, hesitating. Then the rage would strike him, but he would calm. He knew he would never do it, just in case they ever caught Tian. He’d only be able to attempt a rescue once, and he wanted that time to count. For Tian. Or, though this was the stuff of dreams, to save Liette.
Tian had never been caught alive, though, and for that Goridan had never stopped thanking God. At least he was not tortured, of course. But the fight had gone out of him, and he had baked for the rest of the hangings, waiting for Liette, dreaming of Liette. He had decided to refuse to compromise with clients on price, or with himself on the quality. His bread was good and should be paid for. He had learned to cook to feed his friends.
Goridan paid a local baker to use his oven so he could set up his booth closer to the gallows. Maybe the smell would drift over, waft into their nostrils. Have Hammond’s smells comfort them, even with the noose around their necks. Goridan believed it would have comforted them. The smell of creation, of knowing the smell was good, inherently good, the smell of something that could feed a man for a day. A last thought before death. Assuming they could smell it at all.
The screaming of the crowd brought Goridan into the present. The rebel was being brought out. Emaciated. You don’t feed a man about to die. It was wasteful.
A soldier rode beside him, with an executioner holding the prisoner’s shackles. The man stumbled, could barely walk without tripping. Goridan never stopped wondering if he would have tripped, on his way to the gallows. He never doubted that Tian would have walked straight and true if they had caught him, but Goridan always wondered at what point he’d have lobbed the lit firewood into a haystack.
This new rebel had scraggly brown hair and tufts of beard. You don’t groom a man before his death either, it seemed. The traitor did not bother looking at anyone. He must have been held for a while. A raw tomato squelched and soaked into his clothing and covered half his shirt, with blotches of red giving way to scattered dots. It was visible even on his rags.
“Traitor!” screamed one.
“You fucking rebel!”
“We hanged your friends, too!”
Goridan flinched. More followed, but he stopped paying them any mind. He watched the crowds, indifferent to the couple of children trying to pick at pockets. He had a dozen rolls left, which was sufficient. He had made enough today.
The rebel was slowly led onto the gallows, and stood beside the noose looming over him like a watchful eye. Goridan cursed, couldn’t remember if the stairs had creaked. He wanted to remember. He gazed into the rebel’s eyes, even from this distance. His eyebrows, his face. He was sad and scared. This new rebellion had petered out weeks ago, and they were catching the dregs across the kingdom and hanging them. It would be awful to be one of the last. There would be no watchmen to pay their respects, no one to save you. Theirs was now a lost cause.
Goridan had considered conducting his act of defiance for another rebellion, but there was always an issue he took with the new rebels. The next one had been led by younger men who had delighted in raping a few too many townswomen, as the rumours had gone. The one after that, eight years later, had been in times of plenty, when the farmers far to the north argued about the amount of tax they had to pay, that the crop yield had been nowhere near as plentiful as down south. By the third, Goridan had felt himself getting too old. He realized only at this one that Tian’s father must have been the same age as he was then. But now, Goridan was justified. He was too old to embark on such a path. Those roads were meant to be taken by the young and proud.
There was no pride in the man’s face, though. There never was, and Goridan wondered why the pride a rebel took sitting around the campfire, singing songs and waiting for an attack, conducting a raid and manoeuvring around the enemy was never present in those last moments as he was martyred. He hadn’t witnessed the hanging of Tian’s father. That was too important to be conducted here, in a small village. But Tian would surely have shown some pride. He had loved the cause, and truly believed in it. Even with all his friends, and his father as a leader, Tian had believed in the purpose behind their rebellion. That belief must have been why he hadn’t given up, why he’d fought and died. But no one remembered Tian but him. To be martyred, you had to be remembered. And without memory there could be no pride.
Snap. The rebel was fighting the noose, dragged to the ground but held steady.
“Fuck you, rebel!” The cheering of the crowd, the gloating at the death of the savages affecting the kingdom. Goridan felt the wetness at his cheeks and quickly brushed it off. His heart lay heavy in his chest as the traitor turned blue and his tongue swelled, forcing its way out of his lips.
He cleared his booth and put the rolls all into a corner closer to the street as he tidied everything else up. Some people were moving out; the main attraction had passed. But it would be a long while before the crowds really broke off. The excitement was still in the air. This was not sex, where you spurt and then ease up with resounding tranquility. After battles, soldiers don’t smile and sink into soft beds unless death is doing the smiling. They go araping and adrinking.
The orphan children started coming by. They split the loaves as they often had. He had taught them how to share, how to savour the taste. He taught what he could.
That was it. All the trays were empty. The rebel was hanged. Goridan carefully tucked them under his arms, shaking off the last loose crumbs and walked home.