The sun was going down by the time they decided to hang me.
In fairness, they hadn't rushed the decision. They'd been debating it for almost an hour since my capture and initial beating. One of the three was in favour of handing me over to an officer from amongst the regulars. The second had been determined to slit my throat, and was so set in his opinion that I'd hoped he might make a start with his companions. On that basis, I'd decided to lend him my encouragement. 'He's right, you know. It's quick, but painful, and less messy than you might expect.'
All that had earned me was a particularly vicious kick to the forehead, so I'd settled for the occasional nod or mumble of assent instead.
I'd often been told that sooner or later I'd steal the wrong thing from the wrong person and end up with my neck in a noose. While I'd occasionally suspected there was some truth to the theory, I'd made a point of trying not to think about it. Hanging struck me as a needlessly drawn out and unpleasant way to go, so I'd comforted myself with the knowledge that — law enforcement in the Castoval being what it is — I'd never need to worry unless I got careless or exceptionally stupid.
That day, unfortunately, I'd been both.
The debate went on, and I followed it as best I could, while surreptitiously dodging their clouts and trying to work my hands free. Despite their posturing, I felt sure they had recently been fishermen, likely down from the coast above Aspira Nero. They wore no colours, and no armour except for leather bracers and skullcaps. Their amber skin was weathered and leathery from sea spray; their speech was thick, and as rough as their manners. I was heartily bored of their company by the time they reached a consensus, not to mention tired of the irregular blows.
One — the tallest, his face glossy and flushed behind a straggle of beard — turned to me and said, 'You hear that? We're going to string you up.' He was the one who'd been arguing for it all along.
'I heard. I still think you'd be better off with throat slitting. It's much more straightforward, and I'd be less likely to foul myself. Still, it's your time to waste, I suppose.'
'That it is,' he agreed, darting a warning glance at his companion, who was toying sulkily with a bonehandled dagger.
If they'd decided my sentence beyond question, I could see no harm in telling what I thought of him. 'I suppose it would be too much to expect any finesse from someone so oafish and malodorous, and whose mother in all likelihood-'
I'd planned much more, but my concentration was broken by another whack to the head, this one hard enough to knock me down. For an instant, everything went black. The next I knew, my lips tasted of blood, and though the blood was mingled with dirt, I could tell I was no longer on the ground. There was something rough and warm between my legs and something else tight around my throat. The warm thing identified itself by whinnying irritably. The other I recognised without any assistance.
I considered not opening my eyes. It didn't seem likely to be fruitful. Then it occurred to me that I didn't want to die in darkness. But the view was disappointing. Everything was as I'd left it: the road still stretched to our left, still busy with traffic meandering toward the encampment ahead; the fishermen's cart still sat upon the grass; the old beech tree was where it had been all afternoon. My view of it was a little different, though, now that I was suspended from one of its branches. The moon was clearer in the sky, the sun almost gone. I judged that only a few minutes had passed since they'd settled my fate.
'He's awake,' observed the shortest, the one with the obsession for throat slitting.
'I am,' I said, the words garbled a little by the noose around my throat. 'So can we get on, please? There's a nip in the air, I fear it's going to be a cold night.'
I'd like to think this sounded courageous. More likely, the impression was of fear-maddened babbling.
'He's right,' the tallest agreed, 'who wants to stand around in the cold? Let's get it over with.' He turned his attention to me. 'What's your name again?'
'Damasco,' I told him, for the third time. 'Easie Damasco. Remember it when my seven brothers come to avenge me in the night.'
'Damasco,' he said, 'do you have any last words? Be civil and perhaps we'll pull on your legs for you.'
'I'll simply remind you of my complete innocence. You may not see it, but your gods will, mark my words. Justice will be served in this life or another.'
'Ha! Goodbye, Damasco.'
There were other things I wanted to say, and they seemed tremendously important. Just then, however, he motioned with one hand to someone behind me. I heard the swish of a lash, the horse complained, and suddenly there was nothing between me and the ground except air.
I tried to reach for the noose, forgetting that my hands were tied behind my back. One shoulder cracked unpleasantly, and I gave up the attempt. For the first time, I began to panic. I thrashed my legs, as if this might somehow bridge the gap between feet and ground. I tried to scream, and heard a sound like water burbling, which was strangled off immediately. The pain in my throat was astonishing. It seemed to surge outward, filling my extremities, draining them of strength. Still, I struggled. I knew on some deep level that if I once stopped moving I'd be dead. But my energy was fading by the moment.
'What do you think you're doing?'
Something went 'thud' above me. An instant later, incomprehensibly, I was falling hard into tall grass. I landed feet first, and tumbled backward. Gritting my teeth, I struggled to my feet. I was surprised to find that I'd closed my eyes at some point and opened them again, looking to where I thought the voice had come from.
There were a dozen riders, all similarly dressed, but he stood out like a hawk amongst sparrows. There was little physically to distinguish him: his horse stood a hand or two taller, his cloak and armour were evidently expensive, though devoid of decoration. His skin was noticeably darker than my own olive brown, his hair and thin beard bound into coils with whorls of wire, his features sharply angled. Though the effect was striking, the characteristics were typical of many a northerner. What told me this was the warlord Moaradrid of Shoan was something altogether more subtle. It was in his bearing, in the way his black eyes darted over us, in the intensity of his smallest gestures. He exuded authority, even at rest.
Other than that, his only mark of rank was the deference paid by his bodyguards. One still had his bow hoisted. I followed the angle and saw where his arrow had sliced my noose free at the bough. The three fishermen had fallen to their knees, with their brows scraping the roadside. I thought it prudent to follow their example.
'Do we waste men?' asked Moaradrid.
Every syllable had weight. The composite effect was like a rockslide.
'Your majesty, sir…'
'Do we waste capable men?'
'No lord, but we caught him stealing from the baggage train-'
'Then he has use of hands and feet.'
'Yes sir, only-'
'You,' he said to me, 'do you want to be hanged?'
'Truthfully, I find the prospect unappealing,' I replied.
My throat still felt constricted, and the words stung like salt in a cut.
'Would you prefer to serve in my army?'
'That, lord, was precisely why I was here, before these ruffians misguidedly apprehended me, and-'
'Take him to a volunteer brigade,' said Moaradrid, speaking again to the self-declared leader of the fishermen.
He turned away, drove his heels into his mount's flank, and started up the road. His bodyguard fell in around