Well of Bones

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Chapter 18

“A manipulator might say, ‘An honorable death on the battlefield is the highest form of glory.’ A truthful man might say, ‘A death on the battlefield may further our cause,’ and leave it to the individual to determine if that cause is worth dying for.”

Sidney Templeton, traitor to the crown

Executed by hanging on the thirteenth day of Tending, 3312

The knights donned their uniforms, straightening their lapels and pleats. The morning mist still clung to the cool air. Jake kept his eyes low. None of them spoke and Jake preferred that. They loaded pistols, rifles, muskets, blunderbusses and slung their swords to their sides. Margaret fixed the assassin’s scimitar at her side in place of her rapier. Spoils to the victor. Jorn and Brutus hastily bandaged their wounds with some clean linen bed sheets. They tied their hair up and out of their faces. Brutus gave his helm a quick polish with his sleeve before placing it on his head. Outside the tavern, Count Varro, Master Salvo, Professor Valencia, and Argot DeRothe waited on horseback.

Jake wondered why Mister DeRothe was there. Perhaps he thought there might be resistance and would offer assistance. If that were the case, Jake definitely could not imagine why Sir Uric Valencia was there. The man was about as useful in a fight as wet paper.

The knights mounted their horses as several curious villagers gathered around. The party moved up the hill to the governor’s mansion as one unit. The villagers followed at their back. Jake silently hoped Bradford would resist.

Rage burned in Jake’s eyes. He wanted nothing more than the traitor’s blood on his blade. Then he thought of Anna. She also waited at the top of the hill. How could he tell her that her fiancé and his best friend had been brutally murdered? An order given by Governor Bradford himself, her so-called caretaker.

The house appeared vacant as they approached. News must have surely reached Governor Bradford of the failed assassination. Had he fled? Were they too late to stop him? Too late to bring him and his agents to justice?

The fog hadn’t yet lifted, keeping the cold of the morning. The ground was muddy and slick underfoot. Jake searched the massive house with his eyes and imagined it burning. All was silent. No birds, no buzzing insects, just calm. Jake jumped as the side door slammed open.

“The butler!” Amir shouted.

Mister Gray fled into the woods. Jake wondered what chance he thought he had. They were on an island, after all, and his pursuers were on horseback. Jorn, Margaret, and Amir spurred their horses onward to run him down.

Count Varro sighed and dismounted. Dogwa, Brutus and Jake followed his lead. The four walked up the stoop to the elegant double doors. Varro reached up to the brass knocker and gave three sharp raps on the door. The sounds could be heard echoing inside as if the house was empty, a shell. Varro called Bradford’s name. Still no answer.

“We are coming in one way or another,” Varro warned. Still nothing. He turned to the giant and gave a short nod.

Brutus kicked the heavy front doors just beside the knob. They flew inward, splinters spiraling across the wood floor. The right door came off its hinges altogether and tumbled into the sitting room. As the knights entered, they quickly found Bradford in the parlor, sipping on a glass of fine brandy. Varro stepped forward in his crisp dress uniform. He removed his polished helm and placed it under his left arm with the long horsehair plume flowing to the floor.

“Governor Bradford, you are hereby charged with conspiracy, espionage, treason, and murder. You will stand trial before the court of this colony under the laws and regulations of the Brenarian crown. Will you comply?”

“What is the meaning of this?” Anna asked alarmingly from the top of the stairs. She descended quickly and charged into the parlor and toward Count Varro. Jake restrained her by the arms.

“Let me go,” she demanded.

“Bradford must answer for what he has done,” Jake said.

“Answer for those charges?” She gave a half-smile as if the charges were ridiculous. “What evidence do you have? Where is Bromley?”

Jake hung his head and remained silent for a moment. Varro inhaled as if to answer but Jake stopped him with a brief hand gesture. Anna asked again where Brom was. This time with tears in her eyes.

“Anna, the knights were attacked this morning by assassins.” Jake inhaled sharply to stop his lip from shaking. “Brom was shot.”

“Where is he?” Anna shrieked. “Will he be alright?”

Jake looked deeply into Anna’s eyes, tears welling up in his own and he could see Anna knew. She jerked her arm free and stepped back into the hall, shaking her head. She dropped to her knees and sobbed into her hands. Jake crouched next to her, trying to soothe her as best he could. Her cries grew louder as she realized this was real. Brom was gone.

“Anna,” Jake spoke again. “This man is responsible for the attack.”

She stifled her sobs and stood up. “Is this true?”

“Anna, I—” Bradford began to defend himself but was sharply cut off by Anna’s insistent inquiry.

“Is this true?”

Bradford said nothing, hanging his head. Anna scooped up the crystal decanter and flung it at Bradford. He moved his head just in time for the bottle to shatter on the wall behind him. Dark liquor streaked down the wall and onto the floor. She stormed across the room and slapped Bradford on his left cheek.

“You treacherous coward,” she screeched between sobs and sniffs. She slapped him again and Jake pulled her away before a third strike could land.

“Take her to the drawing room,” Varro ordered. As Anna and Jake passed, Varro took her by the elbow, stopping them for a moment. “Mister Zimmar is also at a loss, Miss Crane.”

She nodded and, with running makeup and a deep frown, said only, “Yes.”

#

Once Anna was out of earshot, Bradford poured himself another brandy from an unravaged bottle and cleared his throat.

“I am guilty of these charges,” he said rather casually. He threw the glass back, gulping the alcohol before finishing, “Which is why I will not come quietly.”

“There is no need for more ugliness today, sir. You cannot overpower all of us.”

“Heavens, no. I am a dead man no matter what I do at this point, my good Count. I only wish to have a bit of sport before I leave this world.”

“I warn you,” Varro fumed, pointing a finger. “I will not risk any more of my men for your sport. If you come against us, we will destroy you in the most unpleasant manner. Believe you me.”

Bradford’s mouth curled on one side, as a man who had nothing left to fear on this earth. “I would only risk your life, Count Varro. One on one.”

“A duel,” Varro affirmed. Bradford nodded. Bradford cannot expect to win this, Varro thought. He is committing himself to death by my hand. Perhaps this is his strange way to avoid the embarrassment of a trial. He will have it anyway.

“Very well. I accept. If you would be so kind as to meet me outside when you are ready.”

Bradford bowed but Varro was already out the door. The knights followed.

#

The butler tripped over a grounded branch and tumbled into the black soil face first. In an instant, the pursuing knights were all around him astride panting, muscular horses. Margaret enjoyed the fear he showed. She watched as his eyes darted to find a way out of their circling horses.

“Give it up,” Jorn said gruffly. “You have no place to go.” Gray pulled a knife from his sleeve and slashed wildly. Margaret unsheathed her scimitar and severed the hand holding the knife with one swing of the wide curved blade. Ironic, she thought. The assassin’s blade cutting off the hand that commanded him.

He screamed and stared at his bleeding stump in disbelief. Jorn kicked him in the chest, sprawling the butler on the ground. Amir dismounted and stepped forward onto the man’s good hand and pressed downward with his boot heel. Amir crouched over him.

“Go ahead,” Gray sputtered through his teeth, spraying saliva. “Finish it.”

“We will not make it that easy on you,” Amir said with a smile, wrinkling his facial scars. “You have been charged with espionage. You are going to stand trial, and then they will put a noose around your neck and let you drop. A short drop. Not long enough to break your neck. The only death befitting a spy.”

“I hope it’s slow,” Margaret chimed in.

“I bet he kicks for a good minute,” said Jorn.

“Longest minute of his life,” Amir said ominously. “You mess your pants when you hang there. Your eyes pop right out of your head.”

Amir tied his forearms together and began dragging him to the others. Gray kicked and begged, “Kill me. Kill me.”

Margaret kicked him in the ribs. “Shut up.”

Gray’s cries faded into hopeless sobs as he regained his breath. When they reached the others, Varro, Dogwa and Brutus exited the house. Varro pinched the fingers of his white gloves and removed them. Then his jacket came off. He rolled his sleeves to the elbow.

“What’s happening?” Margaret asked Dogwa.

“Bradford challenged Varro to a duel.”

“Where is Jake?”

“Inside with Anna,” Dogwa said solemnly. Margaret nodded with acknowledgment, her lip quivering and her eyes glossing. Just the thought of her being that close to her wedding day, to have her husband-to-be taken in such a violent way. And by her benefactor of all people. She was glad Jake was there with her at least. She should not see this.

“It has been long enough, Bradford,” Varro challenged. The governor stepped out the front door with his rapier in hand and a cool demeanor about him. He had also downgraded his outfit, leaving his exquisite jacket inside. He left his sleeves down and loose around the wrists, however.

The knights and other onlookers gave the combatants plenty of room on the well-manicured lawn. The knights were confident in the Count’s ability in one-on-one combat, however, there was a haze of worry hanging over all of them. Margaret felt sick. She could not shake the feeling of this being an unnecessary risk. The man had already confessed to the crimes. They were well within their right to restrain the man and take him into custody by any force necessary. Bradford would surely hang. Perhaps he was attempting suicide by means of a duel, knowing the Count would not pass up the opportunity to avenge one of his men.

Count Varro bowed but Bradford did not return the courtesy before charging, swinging his sword over his head wildly. The seemingly uncontrolled swings were broken up by moments of exquisite form. Perhaps the erratic movements were meant to disguise the true attacks to put the Count off balance. Varro blocked several expertly placed lunges and slashes before parrying with a quick sidestep.

Bradford was on him again, jabbing and snarling like a rabid dog. Varro parried again and followed it with a lunge. The Count’s blade pierced the governor’s left arm just above the elbow.

“You have had your bit of sport,” Varro said, straightening to his full height. “This is your last chance to face your trial, plead your guilt before the gods and receive a quick death.”

“I will not hang,” Bradford said.

“Face your trial, coward,” Varro said. “End it with some dignity.”

“I will.”

The governor drew a hidden dagger from his right sleeve and charged again, lunging and slashing with both weapons. Varro retained his composure as he expertly blocked all attacks, shuffling backward. The Count lunged again, puncturing his attacker’s thigh. Bradford dropped to a knee and Varro kicked the governor’s sword hilt, sending the weapon spinning across the lawn.

The Count slashed the governor’s left wrist causing him to drop the dagger, then paused as his opponent bled from his wounds, still sneering. Bradford spat and Varro stepped forward sharply, punching his knuckle guard into Bradford’s throat. The governor groped at his neck and choked for several seconds before falling face-first into the short grass.

#

The Marion had arrived just in time for Captain Albreight to attend Brom’s funeral. The colonists did not know the man well enough to say anything about him. The knights were still fuming with rage. Anna could not stop crying long enough to get anything out other than curses for Bradford. Vibrant wildflowers covered the mound of freshly churned dirt on the wind swept hillside. The villagers placed them there with care in memory of the knight’s sacrifice.

The funeral had ended hours ago, yet Anna remained with Jake by her side.

The rest of the knights were at the bottom of the hill, supervising the preparations for the hangings. The trials were also short. Many eyewitnesses of the attack came forward, and the surviving assassins turned on Bradford and his manservant quickly. Each man was given his sentence: to be hung from the neck until dead. This would be carried out immediately. Jake believed Bradford deserved more, but the knights did not participate in torture. It went against their code. The gallows sprouted in the town center in mere hours.

Anna was on her knees facing Brom’s wooden grave marker, tears still flowing freely but her audible sobs had subsided for the moment. Searching for words to soothe her anguish, Jake stood a few paces away, with his head bowed in reverence. Why should he be the one to comfort her? He had lost his best friend, after all. He had known Brom much longer than Anna had. They were as brothers. Better than brothers, even. Jake preferred Brom’s company over anyone else’s. They had laughed together, fought together, killed together. A fellowship only brothers in arms could understand and yet fewer did.

The woman at his grave had only known him for several months. She was his wife-to-be yet Jake still felt he had lost more than she could ever understand. Anger surged anew. Anger at Bradford. Anger at those cowardly assassins. Anger at Bromley for being so slothful in his drunken stupor. Anger with Anna for presuming her loss was even comparable to his own. Selfish perhaps, Jake thought. But he could not help but feel that way.

“Was his death quick?” Anna asked. She was looking at Jake now and he found himself wearing a grimace. He flinched and tried to untwist his features. The question caught Jake off guard. What should he say? The details were gruesome and far from what she needed to hear. She did not need the truth.

“Yes,” was all he could say.

“How did this happen?” she persisted. Jake took a deep breath and thought for a moment.

“That does not matter,” he said. Anna turned around and glared at him with pleading eyes tainted with anger and pain, so Jake continued. “He passed as a Knight of Apollo should. With bravery, grace, and pride.”

None of that satisfied Anna.

“I believe death can be a beautiful thing,” she said.

“His death was not a beautiful thing,” Jake snapped. He felt himself growing angry towards her again. He wanted to curse. He wanted to yell until his throat burned. For a moment, he asked himself why he thought that would help. Then he realized it didn’t matter if it helped anything. So Jake turned away from Anna, his chest heaving with violent breaths. He drew in as much air as his lungs could hold and let out a long wordless roar.

Anna did not flinch. She could see it coming. Jake pressed his diaphragm, deflating his chest completely as his voice echoed in the shadow of the mountain. His veins bulged in his neck, his eyes watery and bloodshot. He fell to his knees when he did not have any more breath. He sat motionless as he listened to the echoes as if others mourned in that same way all over that mountain at that exact moment.

He had spent all his rage, leaving only the sense of abandonment. Jake erupted into heaving sobs. He let his salty tears roll over his flush cheeks and drip onto his uniform. He did not try to mop them up or wipe them away. He let them go. It seemed right. Anna stood and tentatively moved to Jake. Once she stood beside him, Jake grasped her dress and plunged his face into the folds of her black petticoat.

“I am so very sorry,” he muffled into the fabric. “Sorry. I’m so—”

Anna stroked Jake’s head and made a soft soothing sound as one would calm a baby or a frightened animal. She then knelt next to Jake and took him in her arms.

#

Count Varro, Master Salvo, and several marines descended the steps to the jail cells below the rather modest town hall which doubled as the courthouse. The magistrate had tasked them with retrieving those to be executed. Varro was happy to accept the assignment. The dank basement reeked of mold and decay. Salvo pressed a handkerchief to his nose. Motes of dust floated rancid air. The marines banged on the bars with their batons as they walked down a narrow corridor with three cells on either side.

“Get up,” one of the marines ordered. “It’s time for a short walk.”

“And an even shorter drop,” another chimed in.

Varro could hear the assassins wail and cry out as they were dragged from their cells and urged along with swift strikes to the back of their legs with the batons. Mister Gray’s face was a mask of frozen terror, but he did not make a sound as he was prodded up the stairs.

The Count continued to Bradford’s cell and looked in the barred window on the heavy wooden door. Inside, the ex-governor sat with his back against the wall, his skin pale and colorless. Varro opened the door and kicked Bradford’s boot. Bradford fell over with no attempt to catch himself. The Count crouched over him and shook him by the collar. The traitor’s hand flopped to his side and opened up, revealing a long shard of glass stained with blood. Only then, in the dim light, Varro had noticed deep gashes in both of Bradford’s wrists. Varro stood quickly. He had been standing in the man’s blood.

“You have damned yourself for certain,” Varro yelled at the lifeless body. He kicked Bradford’s ribs.

“What is it?” Salvo asked as he entered the cell.

“The coward opened his veins,” Varro spat.

“Well then,” Salvo said with a hand on Varro’s shoulder. “Any chance of finding atonement in an honorable death is out of his reach. He destroyed that possibility when he took his own life. Let him burn in the eternal fire. He is not worth any more of our thought.”

Salvo led the Count out of the cell. “Push him from your mind. The best thing we can do now is forget the serpent.”

#

The knights stood at the foot of the hangman’s platform, a large congregation of onlookers at their back. The prisoners were led up the stairs by ropes around their necks and their hands bound behind their backs. The crowd erupted into jeers and volleys of rotten vegetables were thrown. Mister Gray was first in the procession, in front of the two surviving assassins. All three had a look of shame and despair on their faces.

The hangman was a tall, scrawny man who wore a black hood with eye holes cut in it. The attempt to hide his identity was wasted, however. Everyone in the colony knew him. He removed their lead ropes and ushered each up onto a stool. Then, one by one he slipped a noose over their necks and tightened them so the coiling knots rested on their right shoulder. Salvo, as a man of the cloth, was asked by the magistrate to allow the men their last rights. He stepped to the front of the first sailor.

“Will you confess your sins before the gods, my son?”

“I will,” he said with a shaky voice. “I led a life of booze and women. If I had any family, I am sorry I never knew them. I have done evil things for money and sometimes for my own pleasure. I would like to say I’m sorry for that but that won’t change the things I did.”

“The gods acknowledge your sins, my son. If your heart seeks forgiveness, let them decide to grant you peace in the afterlife. Have you any last words?”

The sailor shook his head, no, and Salvo moved to the second assassin.

“Will you confess your sins before the gods, my son?”

“Just get on with it, Priest,” the sailor said gruffly. Salvo nodded calmly and stepped sideways to Mister Gray.

“Will you confess your sins before the gods, my son?”

“I will,” he said in a wavering voice. “I have done evil things for my country, but I do not deserve to die for serving Spratze. I deserve to die because I have failed her.”

The enraged crowd hurled more vegetables and shouted jeers and profanity. Salvo stepped out of the way and nodded to the hangman.

“Long live Emperor Cedric Leone! Long live the Empire of Sprat—” The hangman kicked his stool out from under his feet and Mister Gray dangled by his neck. He sputtered and gurgled, kicking his feet as the other two stools were kicked out and his assassins joined him. All three suffered for several moments before losing consciousness. Several minutes passed of the three men hanging motionless, tongues swollen, eyes bulging. Salvo checked each one by feeling for a heartbeat. Once he declared each of them dead, the crowd dispersed slowly leaving the men to hang for the rest of the day.

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