“As good a gallows job as I ever did, and he survived anyway. Guess we’ll have to hang him again.” The gallows man’s raspy words inspired both wonder and horror in Bannor. In the last moments before the scaffold hatch slammed open, he’d fervently wished he could survive and escape to find the slavers who took Sarai. If he died, his betrothed would suffer a life of misery beneath a slaver’s lash.
Each detail stood out in Bannor’s mind with sun-bright clarity–the race of his heart in anticipation of death, the shock as the cord jerked taut, the flash of light around his body, and the crushing grip of the noose.
Gagging and trying to take air, he forced his eyes open. He felt the prickly kiss of raw hemp rubbing his cheek and the vibration of the rope as he spiraled. His neck burned as though wrapped in scalding cloth. A sodden collection of straw-roofed huts hunched beneath a slate-gray sky came into view. The air stank of spoiled straw and stagnant water. Needleleaf trees jutted up in the distance–sharp intrusions on the panorama of green foothills nestled beneath the majesty of Radigast pass.
As Bannor turned, he saw flabby, pig-faced boss Ratch dressed in moth-eaten sheepskins. Two men flanked Ratch, his mountainous enforcer who looked like a summer-sheared broadpaw wearing a floppy hat and suspenders, and the gallows man, a crater-faced scarecrow dressed in a jaundice yellow tunic.
Blackwater’s drab inhabitants shuffled their feet as they stood in the road that went through the center of the village. They were a motley assortment of men, women and children dressed in rough burlap. None looked as if they’d ever been graced by soap and water.
Dark hair shrouded Bannor’s face as he kicked on the end of the rope like a prize catch on a fisherman’s stringer. His focused movements caused the townsfolk to murmur, men and women shying back as he struggled with the restraints. He narrowed steel gray eyes, hardened body tensing as he focused all his strength on getting free. Every instant that passed, Sarai was getting further away. The thought of her in the hands of Corwinian slavers only increased the urgency of his predicament.
“What we do, Boss?” The giant enforcer said in a raspy baritone. “He not die. We won’t get our gold if–“
“Shut up!” Ratch smacked him in the stomach. “Pull him down. We’ll hang the murderer again. Do it right this time.”
Gagging and coughing, temples thundering with his efforts to escape, the word ‘murderer’ sizzled through Bannor’s consciousness. The gallowsman’s perverted brother had brought it on himself trying to rape Sarai. A clean death was better than that sadistic cur had deserved.
A muscle in the gallows man’s cheek twitched. “It was done right.”
Ratch’s henchmen clambered onto the platform.
Breath hissing through clenched teeth he levered his tied arms. Burning pain accompanied the prickly fibers tearing his flesh. Slick blood lubricated the bindings allowing him to shift his arms.
“Pull him up,” the ruddy faced Gallowsman said. “This wolf is even tougher than he looks.”
The burly enforcer grabbed Bannor’s shoulders, fingers clamping down like the tongs of a blacksmith. The tension in the rope relaxed. The other man worked at pulling the trap door shut and resetting the bolt.
Bannor stared at the crowd. Dingy faces studied him with a mixture of fear and awe. He locked eyes with a young woman. Strings of greasy hair hung across her face. He saw no spark in the girl’s eyes. She turned away when she felt his attention. No one else in the crowd would meet his gaze.
It was so sad. He was no stranger to this town. He had policed Blackwater for summers, dealing with all kinds of vermin, human and otherwise. He had helped them in their need many times, yet when these outsiders threatened him, not a soul would help. Cowards. People couldn’t be trusted. For a little bit of food and clothing, they were willing to step aside and watch him die.
Bent over and trying to fit the bolt in the hole, the gallows man crouched at the edge of the scaffold. Bannor braced one foot against enforcer and kicked out with the other. Bone popped as his heel struck the hangman’s unprotected head.
The man howled and hit the dirt, writhing and clutching his face.
The big man shook Bannor. “Do that again. I break your neck.”
The irony of his words made Bannor want to laugh.
A woman’s voice rang out from the edge of the square. “You aren’t breaking anyone’s neck. What you’ll do is cut him loose.”
Hope surged through him. He glimpsed the heavy skinning knife on the enforcer’s belt, if he could grab that…
The villagers turned toward the speaker. A small woman of perhaps thirty summers swept across the road toward the gallows, a green cloak swirling behind her. Gold hair, that shone even in the somber daylight, framed a narrow face. She wore a short sword and several sheathed daggers like an experienced fighter.
Following the woman was the biggest Myrmigyne Bannor had ever seen. Ebony hair trailing in the breeze, she appeared a head taller than the enforcer and looked thick with muscle. She nocked an arrow in a great-bow and took a bead on the big man.
“What do you want?” Ratch snapped. “Who are you?”
The blonde woman stopped near the scaffold, a pace from where the gallows man muttered obscenities and wept. She looked Ratch up and down, lip curling. “The question is: what are you?”
The Myrmigyne gestured with the bow. The enforcer set Bannor on the scaffolding near the trap opening. A buzzing filled his head, as if insects swarmed inside his skull. The feeling waned. The short woman winced, glanced to the Myrmigyne and nodded.
Ratch reddened. “Listen, woman, I–“
The blonde lady’s sword shrieked from the sheath, leaving a trail of sparks as it sliced open the boss’ jacket leaving only a pink line on the skin beneath.
“Tell him to cut him down.” She pointed at the enforcer. “Otherwise, Irodee will put a shaft right in this monster oaf’s throat.”
Ratch’s mud-colored eyes went wide. “You can’t–“
“Irodee, I changed my mind. Shoot him first.”
The Myrmigyne swung the bow around.
Bannor stared at them. They had come to free him. Why? It occurred to him that he might be getting into a worse situation. He discarded the thought. What could be worse than dying and having your mate enslaved?
He sensed the enforcer tensing.
The blonde seemed to feel it too. “Don’t–your boss will be dead before you take a step.” Her blue eyes glinted. She scanned the throng of murmuring villagers. “Anybody feel strongly enough about punishing this murderer that they’ll risk crossing steel?” Instants of silence passed. She turned back to Ratch. “I didn’t think so. What’ll it be?”
The enforcer spoke. “Boss, we’re not going to get our–“
“Shut up!” He eyed the sword glowing in the woman’s hand. “Cut him loose.”
Grumbling, the big man undid Bannor’s wrists. He fumbled with the rope around Bannor’s throat, it had cinched up mercilessly tight. The skin was slick with blood. He still didn’t understand why his neck hadn’t snapped or how he had been able to continue breathing.
The blonde smiled, still keeping the sword ready. “That’s better. Step away. All of you.” She gestured to Bannor. “You–down here.”
He jumped down next to her. One knee buckled and he caught himself. His legs felt like wet rags. He needed to stay alert, who knew what these two wanted.
She looked shorter than Sarai. The contours of her close fitting leather armor suggested a trained athletic body. The way she stood and held a weapon told him this was a person of dangerous skill. “Why are you helping me?”
She tilted her head. “Would you let an innocent man hang once, much less twice?”
“Neither would I.”
“Innocent!?” The gallows man bubbled through bloody hands. “He killed my brother!”
Bannor scowled. “Twisted scoundrel tried to rape Sarai. He rounded on me with a knife, so I put an axe in him.”
“Sounds reasonable to me.” The lady said with a shrug. She glanced to her Myrmigyne companion. “What do you think, Irodee?”
“Think town smell bad, Wren. We go.”
Wren nodded. Bannor felt the odd buzz grow in his head, then dwindle again. His chest tightened. He felt dizzy.
The woman put the sword to Ratch’s throat. “Last thing. Where was the elf, Sarai, taken?”
He paled. “I don’t–” He gagged as the blade pressed into his skin. “West, toward Marintown.”
They knew about Sarai. What was going on? “How did you–?” he started.
“Rescue first, conversation later. West.” She pointed.
Bannor took a breath and the queasiness passed. Eying Ratch’s henchmen, he walked in the direction indicated. Irodee stayed close behind. He glanced back to see what the shorter woman did.
She drew a dagger and flipped it into a throwing position. Pointing to the fat man she said, “Don’t follow us. They aren’t paying you for that kind of grief.” With a casual flip of her wrist she launched the weapon. The blade whirled out and impaled the hanging rope ten paces distant and hung there vibrating. “Get me?” She leaned her head to one side and whispered a word. “*Stervallen*.” She snapped her fingers and the dagger reappeared in her grip. It drew a chorus of breaths from the audience.
“Boss, we’re not–“
The whole town watched as they walked into the forest. The two women kept a brisk pace, not saying a word. They moved as though woods-wise, staying on hard ground and balancing along dead-falls to prevent leaving tracks.
The hanging had taken more out of him than he first realized. All the rocks and trees appeared ringed by a white corona. Odors were distorted as well, the scent of needleleaf and sage, even the traces of the recently passed storm smelled strong. His skin tingled, and he felt hot.
“How’s the neck?”
He struggled to keep his voice level. “Hurts. I didn’t get a chance to thank you.”
“It’s only fair. You’ll be helping me soon.”
Bannor rubbed his throat. He took extra care picking through some bracken in their path. He needed to look strong until he knew whether he could trust them. He needed to get on Sarai’s trail fast. “You assume much. I know nothing of you.”
“My name is Wren. That’s Irodee. You’re Bannor Starfist. Those thugs were paid to kidnap your girlfriend, Sarai. You resisted; the big guy clubbed you. Being nice ladies, we helped out.”
Bannor stumbled on a root and caught himself by leaning against a tree. The texture of the bark felt all wrong, smooth instead of with ripples and indentations. He strained to stay focused on Wren. “How do you know all this?”
The Myrmigyne shook her head. “Irodee think Wren going too fast.”
“Hey, whose rescue is this anyway?”
Bannor moved a little further, then stopped and leaned against a boulder. He couldn’t concentrate on talking and walking at the same time. “I want to know why you helped me. What do you expect in return? I won’t do anything–“
“–until we get Sarai back. I knew that.”
Bannor clutched the sides of his head. It would be bad enough without the world spinning. “Stop finishing my sentences for me!”
“Only trying to save time. We have to move fast to catch those slavers.”
Bannor rubbed his eyes. His vision cleared slightly. Strange as this woman was, she did appear sincere, and he needed help. All his equipment and weapons were locked away in town.
“Slowly this time, as if this were a normal conversation. I’m Bannor and you are–?”
Wren half smiled. “I’m Wren Kergatha, this is Irodee De’Falcone. We’ve been looking for you. We would have stopped them before they hung you, but Irodee insisted on following me into the jailhouse.” She glanced at the bigger woman. “It took a while to dislodge her posterior from the window.”
Irodee reddened. “Not Irodee’s fault!”
He sat down on the rock as another wave of dizziness hit. “What–why were you there?”
“Getting your equipment.”
Irodee removed a pack and pulled out his traveling items and his hand-axes.
Wren frowned. “Are you all right?”
He put a hand to his head. “Don’t know–I feel–” He tried to continue, but his throat constricted. Dots danced in his vision. His stomach tightened. “Odin, I–“
He sensed Wren and Irodee lowering him to the ground. The view of the forest canted to one side. His heart thundered. Wren’s words distorted, some distinct, others lost in confusion of sound.
“Bannor… backlash… awake…” He felt himself being shaken. Her warm hands pressed against his brow.
So strange. He had escaped the noose, only to die like this. Sarai, what would happen to her if he died?
A voice rang in his head. He didn’t hear it with his ears so much as feel it. <Bannor!> The word hummed through him. <The Nola is backlashing on you. You have to stay awake!> Each utterance came through clear and concise with no slur or accent, too powerful to have issued from human lungs. <Bannor!>
Blackness pushed at the edges of his mind’s eye. He saw visions of Sarai’s misty lavender eyes staring into his, the kitten-soft touch of her fingers on his cheek, her breathy elven accent giving grace to guttural human speech. Images of her suffering made him burn like fire.
A sharp pain coursed through the darkness. He experienced a strange duality. The real world, wrapped in a blanket of shimmering colors, the silhouettes of the two women moving around him, their probing fingers a distant tingling.
The dreamy illusions swayed and danced like shadows cast from a campfire.
<Sorry, Bannor, this is a bit intimate for a stranger, but I need you alive.> He felt the words more strongly.
A single bright pattern blotted out everything. It pulsed with life, not his but another’s. It swelled until he felt he would burst trying to contain it.
He felt a sharp twisting sensation, and the light vanished. Thoughts–not his own–female. Gaea, it’s hard enough doing it to myself. He felt a curious warmth spread through him. Come on–respond!
He wanted to rage at her, to demand to know what was happening. Why couldn’t he see? Where had his voice gone?
Sparks flared like traces dislodged by a blacksmith’s hammer striking a molten ingot. Again.
Damn, he’s stubborn. A sharp prickling sensation, then a cascade of flashes.
Everything turned white.