The rope chafed the skin of Farrow’s neck.
The fraying strands twisted around each other, weak worms making up the strong boa that would crush his windpipe and snap his neck when the trapdoor beneath his feet was released. More rope bound his hands together behind his back and his legs just above the ankles. The five garda hadn’t deemed it fit to give him the blessing of a blindfold.
Their captain stood a few metres away, down on the ground, his back straight and his chin high. His eyes glimmered as he caught Farrow’s gaze and returned it with a rise at the corner of his mouth. Farrow lowered his face, blinking rapidly as he pretended to examine the splintered wood beneath his feet. His bowed legs were shaking violently, and from somewhere on his right, he heard Peer let out an impatient breath. Farrow jumped as the garda on the gallows platform with them slapped the man. On Farrow’s left, Jebediah made no sound.
“Citizens,” the captain began. His voice carried on the thin air, cutting harshly through the low murmurings Farrow could hear from the townspeople slowly gathering in the courtyard before the gallows. “Good people.”
“Fucken’ pig-dog,” growled Peer, and Farrow went cold. He raised his head just enough to look out over the edge of the platform. The captain had twisted sharply, a shallow tinge of colour swimming into his cheeks. His expression was ugly and his hand twitched where it rested on the silver buckle at his belt.
“Shut your mouth,” said the captain in a low voice. He turned back to the townspeople, as Farrow inched his face to the right, jaw quivering. Peer had his head held high.
“This is the fate of all the Branded!” continued the captain in a louder voice. “By law, and by very nature.”
“Hang ‘em!” bellowed a voice from the courtyard. Similar cries rang. Farrow saw the captain smirk.
“These . . . felons . . . these infected and dangerous outsiders . . . have been captured.” The townspeople hushed as the man addressed them. “And it is our duty – yes, our duty – as garda and as men of the Archdeacon, to remove them from our land.”
The murmurs of the crowd swelled, and Farrow’s heartbeat doubled. Pinpricks of icy sweat began to sting his skin as shouts of agreement met the captain’s words. The captain continued.
“They are not needed!”
“They are not wanted!”
“They are dangerous!”
By now the courtyard was alive. The mob of awakened citizens, roused from their sleep by the execution bells of the garda, was growing in size as more and more people followed the cheers to add their voice to the air. Strangers, Farrow realised suddenly. The thought made his stomach turn. Complete strangers were calling for his death.
The captain of the garda rose his hands and the baying slowly died away. He looked to be thoroughly enjoying himself, and if not for his fear Farrow would have hated the man. As it was, all he could feel was a numbing apprehension, the chill of his circumstance creeping through his bones and body. He was going to die. He was going to die.
“Citizens,” shouted the captain. “Good people.”
“Ya’ said that already, ya’ stinkin’ sack-a-shit!” barked Peer, and once again the captain turned. The colour was full in the garda’s face now, blood thick and angry under the surface of his skin. His smirk had transformed into a leer.
“Do you wish to know how we have captured these Branded?” the captain yelled without taking his eyes from Peer.
Farrow inched his head right to look at his fellow prisoner again as the townspeople roared their desire from the courtyard. Peer was glaring straight back at the captain without blinking, an unshaking grimace etched into his squarish face. The captain held the gaze for another several seconds before spitting and turning his back on the platform.
“Our garrison is not of this town,” the man began. “We are a patrol group, one of many, and as we passed this way in the early hours of this morning, we came across these three felons hiding out in a farmhouse barely three kilometres from your very town.”
The crowd’s voices rose into a cacophony.
“They murdered the farmkeeper,” shouted the captain over them, and at his words the roar only grew. “They murdered him and took his farmhouse for their own devices! When we found them they took fire to the place!”
“Lies!” bellowed Peer, and now Farrow could hear a desperate anger in his friend’s voice. Farrow cringed as Peer lunged forward, struggling against his bonds with his teeth flashing. “Lies! You murdered that farmkeeper! You killed ‘im when you found ‘im shelterin’ us and you burned it down! It was you, it was you, it was y-!”
His voice was cut off as the garda on the platform wrapped his gauntleted hand over Peer’s mouth and sunk a heavy fist in his lower back. Peer spasmed under the blow, eyes bulging, and the garda dragged him back into place. The crowd ignored his words.
“Upon interrogation, they told us everything,” continued the captain from the courtyard. “They told us, with anticipation – yes, anticipation – how they had planned to enter this village and Brand you all in turn. How they were going to turn all of you, man, woman, and child, into one of them.”
Farrow squeezed his eyes shut but it couldn’t stop the burning as the townspeople’s freshly renewed roars hit him like a wave. An involuntary sob washed through his body and out his mouth. The burning was building. His face felt like a mass of wrinkles as he tried to hold it all back.
“This is the fate of all the Branded!” repeated the captain, and the responding wave of approval from the townspeople was a roll of thunder that built until it crashed around the square. “Filth! Lepers, outcasts, bringers of disease, freaks! They are carrion! They shall be hanged!”
The man paused as the crowd continued their tirade, their screaming and their baying, taking it in. Farrow cracked open his eyes just in time to flinch as a rock arced across the courtyard and bounced against the wood beside his feet. He could barely keep his knees steady beneath him. His jaw rattled so hard his teeth began to ache.
Dimly Farrow became aware that the crowd was quietening. The captain had raised an arm for silence and now looked up at the three of them, the three Branded bound and sentenced without trial, without mercy. He began to speak, but Farrow didn’t hear his words, only the garble that made it through the rushing in his ears.
And then the garda on the platform hanged Jebediah and all Farrow could hear was the sharp whistle of the hinges and the horrible, real crunch of the rope tightening on a throat and Jeb’s choke. Farrow threw his head to the right, eyes nailing shut and face upturned just to get away, as far away from Jeb as he could because he wouldn’t – couldn’t – look at that, but the sound of it replayed a thousand times in his brain even as he heard a groan escaped Peer.
The crowd didn’t cheer now, but there was collective murmur of satisfaction settling around the courtyard. Farrow stared at the inside of his eyelids, which were overflowing with tears that slipped through the cracks and began to roll down his face.
“Jeb …” he said, his voice in fragments.
Heavy boots stomped across the platform toward him and a sudden, sharp blow to his head turned his vision red. Farrow gasped and his eyes flew open, tears of pain now mixing with those of grief. The courtyard was hidden behind ripples.
The garda that had struck him caught him before he fell, lifting him up straight, grunting something about keeping quiet. Farrow didn’t try to defy him.
“Keep your filthy mitts off ‘im.”
Farrow swallowed hard and whipped his head to look at Peer, who was staring at the garda next to Farrow with something like vengeance in his eyes.
“’e’s not yours to touch,” growled Peer.
“N-no, Peer …” Farrow said in a voice barely a whisper, but his companion wouldn’t stop. He spat across at the platform.
“You hurt Farrow and I’ll kill you,” said Peer simply.
“Is that so?”
The captain’s voice was a blade cutting the dawn air. For the first time, the man had fully turned until his body was facing them, loathing carved across his expression. The captain’s head tilted. His tone was cold. “Why do you even bother to keep on going? Your resolve sickens me.”
“Why do I keep on goin’?” answered Peer. “Why do I keep on goin’?”
The captain began to walk towards the platform, slowly, carefully, with absolute deliberation in his entire movement. His mouth was turned up at the corner but his eyes didn’t follow through. “Yes.”
“’Cause it’s all I’ve got,” said Peer as the captain reached the base of the stairs and laid a tall boot on the bottom step. “It’s all we’ve got.” His rough voice grew louder and he jerked his head out at the crowd, addressing them all. “None of ya care, or understand, what it’s like fer people like us. People! People just like you or yer family, or yer fellow human bein’s. The only difference between us and you is this little fucken Brand on our skin. You superstitious fucks and yer omens, you don’t give a rat’s shaven arse about anyone aside from yer pretty littl’ heads and yer livestock, so long as you can keep goin’ on in your pretty littl’ lives. Well, we didn’ choose this life.”
The captain reached the top of the stairs and strolled across the platform until he stood in front of Peer, that same fake smile still spread across his face. He was uglier up close, with small eyes and a nose that was too thin to look healthy. He didn’t speak.
Peer was still yelling. “Me own parents didn’ want me ‘cause of this goddamned Brand, I’ve lived me life on the wild. You people and yer omens ruined me life from the day I was born.” He looked the captain straight in the eyes, and his head shook slightly. “And I hate all of ya. I hate ya all with every part of my goddamn bein’. Think about that when ya hang us.”
Silence fell in the courtyard, the crowd watching with captured breath. But Farrow had eyes only for Peer and the captain. Blood pounded through his body so hard that it felt as if he were being punched in the chest.
And then, with everyone watching him, the captain calmly drew a silver pistol from his coat and shot Peer between the eyes. Peer jerked and his legs folded under his body, the noose around his neck closing tight as he fell.
Farrow’s brief cry was a whisper on the breeze as the townspeople bellowed. Women’s shrieks rose high over the courtyard and somewhere a child screamed. The captain’s face turned with a smirk to gloat at Farrow, but he was too late. Farrow’s feet had already left the platform.
The lever to the trapdoor clunked, struck by his outstretched, bound legs, and finally, finally, Farrow couldn’t hear the crowd anymore.