If you follow the news, my place of work got some undesired attention the past couple of weeks after someone reported evidence of a noose in a closed construction site. Varying pictures came out, some that, to a sailor and person who uses rope often, look like bowlines used for hoisting stuff, which is a task being performed there. An investigation is on-going, so we’ll see what comes out of it.
I’ll be honest, my immediate, internal, reactive, 1st second thought was “It’s a bowline. Next question.” But I’m learning to slow down and sit with my immediate reactions when I can. I can 100% understand how something I don’t have an immediate reaction to can cause someone else to have a strong, visceral, emotional reaction. And so my 2nd thought, my “stop and sit with this” thought, was “Yes. I can validate others’ concerns and reactions; they are just as valid. It’s right for us at least stop and ask some questions. Might be nothing. Might be something.” (I share that in a vein of transparency, as a snapshot of a moment in time, but not a full unpacking of my thoughts through the whole period. I really am waiting to learn more.)
But it raised to mind my own reaction to some of my writing. I write fantasy fiction, speculative in nature, and much of it action-oriented. There is fighting. Fighting causes injury. War causes a lot of things. In Ascent of the Fallen, one of my characters, Lord Fallondon Breck, beheads an enemy. I wrote it working through the fight in my mind, and then during editing realized, “Oh boy… that just happened.” Then I reminded myself, “C.S. Lewis did the same in Chronicles of Narnia, and that’s a kids book, right?” (Full disclosure, I read two of them each year and fully believe they are even more applicable for adults!)
So I’m rereading Girl and the Golden Mirror in preparation for restarting Map of the Stars (I know, I know…). I was struck by the emotion I had surrounding a scene that was controversial to me. A hanging.
I wrestled with that writing for a while. I didn’t want to come across as insensitive. And, that was the point of the scene: the whole cast is weighing that decision, so we need to see them wrestling with the implications of their actions.
After reading it again with fresh eyes, I’m glad it held up. I also glad I pressed into uncomfortable space. Hopefully we as authors can do that, or provide a safe space for others to press into uncomfortable subjects and ask themselves questions. I know my favorite series have always allowed me to do that!
So, all that said, I’d like to share two chapters from Girl and the Golden Mirror (still available for free on Amazon and your favorite book sellers). It’s something on my mind, and for me it’s an opportunity to stop and do some more of that sitting with my thoughts. Remember for context, the knights have captured an enemy combatant who just committed an atrocity. Now what to do…
Joram and Baldur stood over the kid. He lay on the cool floor of Joram’s house bound up like a lamb for shearing. He was still out from what Hart’s men did. Probably no more than thirteen, fourteen summers old, he barely had peach fuzz on his dark face. Akram stood in a corner looking on. If I didn’t know better I might have confused the two. The prisoner looked like every other young man in this land. Dark skin, dark hair, dark eyes and lanky. He smelled. We were road-worn, but even I picked it out. Too many weeks living in rough conditions. Safyl’s story of the caves aligned with what we saw before us.
Two fathers looking down at a prisoner, weighing him out in their minds. I spied a blooming darkness under his side as wet blood soaked into the hard dirt. His weight was going down ever so slowly.
“Hart, what did you do to him? What’s his story?” I paced against the other wall. Plans formed and fell apart as the mental engine upstairs churned.
He choked, “I’m sorry Fallon, it’s too much. I…I can’t say…ye don’t want to know.” Hart was still shaken up by this event.
I walked over to the chair he sat in, pulled his face up to look into mine, and gave him a hard jostle, “Hart, listen to me. You are as close to family as I have here. Like a brother to me. This kid is the only clue we have. The only thing that connects anyone to the murders. He’s not dead yet. But one of you stuck him and stuck him hard. I’ve got to find answers before we lose the chance, and I need your story to get my questions. Now, what happened?”
Hart looked over at Joram and Baldur. He spied Jody sitting in the opposite corner, a heel of bread in hand and disappearing fast. Akram stood in his corner looking at the other boy, a confused look on his face. Poor kid probably never saw anything like this before.
Jody took a long look at his cracked leather boots, shifted under the weight of his chainmaille, drew breath and began, “We made for the east like Safyl said. Figured we would stick to the road until we saw where the hill paths started. If we came upon any strength we could either fight in the open or at least have a clear line of retreat. Better than getting stuck up in one of the passes. Last night passed without issue. No fires, no travelers, nothing but us. This morning we took an early start and found the cross. No more than a few leagues from our camp. She was done recently too. Fresh earth around the pole, blood still dripping. The birds hadn’t gotten to her. Much. They must have done it in the night, maybe early morning.”
Baldur looked at Hart and said, “And you think you could have stopped it if you’d traveled on just a little further?”
Hart blushed, “Yea, I do. Ye understand, don’t ye? We were right there. Never heard a scream, a cry. No sound of horses or men. Nothing.”
“The hills carry sound differently child. I’ve known two caravans to pass within shorter distances without noticing the passage of the other. Or it could be they struck earlier. Who knows?” Joram stared at the prisoner, trying to unravel the mystery of his identify. Jody returned to filling his gob with bread. Hart stared at the kid.
“Go on, brother. What happened?”
“We lost minutes to shock. I’ve never seen anything like this, Fallon. I’ve seen things, done things, but not like this. What they did to her… I lost my stomach. So did most. When we recovered I set two men to take her down and bury what was left while the rest of us searched the area. Akram found the boy asleep among the rocks above the road. Looks like he was set there to spy on any who came to investigate, but fell asleep on watch. Crowley got a hold of him first, saw the blood on his hands, and tore into him. We struggled to get him under control and get the dagger away. Eventually he stopped. I didn’t want to stop him. It shames me that we were so affected.”
I understood. None of us talked about our past actions. We’d had enough experience with this kind of war since coming here. Ascalon was little different, though I’d like to say less targeted and personal. We were just bad men there. Here, well, this smacked of a dedicated evil. I nodded, gripping his shoulder, “It’s alright, Hart. You’ll get through this. I can guess the rest easily enough. Finished burying the girl, tied up your prisoner and made straight for Ghmam. Sound right? Any others you saw?”
“That’s right. No others. Not a soul.” I left Hart and returned to my pacing. He sunk back into silence.
A groan escaped from our little bundle of evil. The kid rolled over to display the brightness of his gut wound. Crowley stuck him good. He was a big man from our holdings in the north, the village of Waenrye. No surprise he tore into one such as this. He came from a big family of crofters. I think he had a little sister or four.
The kid’s eyes fluttered. He started to whisper in a tongue I didn’t know.
“Joram, can you make that out?” It was all gobble gobble to me.
“He asks where he is. I think I caught something about ‘my master’ or ‘my father’, and ‘infidels’. He’s lost in fever, I suppose.”
I knelt beside the boy and tilted his face up to see mine. Hatred crossed his cloudy eyes. He was in shock, but he well knew who held him now. “Joram, if I ask questions, can you translate?” The old man nodded, waiting for me to begin.
“Kid, I think you’re a bad person. What reason did you have for murdering the girl? Was it to punish her, or to draw us out?”
More foreign words, then Joram explained to me, “He said she deserved it for serving infidels like you. She got treated right before they killed her, like the… well… I think you know.” Joram blushed as he translated. I could guess well enough what that meant. Pack of men living in the hills all alone. Young girl. Not a hard sum to work out. He continued, “They knew you were here, your men and your mission. This was your welcome to Syria.” He choked back tears and anger like bad wine.
“Kid, you got a name? If you know us, then maybe you know I’m Lord Fallondon Breck.”
Gobble gobble gobble. Joram translated, “His name is Ahmed the Night Dancer. He says he dances the dance of death with such as you.”
“Well, Ahmed the Dancer. I have a choice. I can try to fix you up, see what we can do about that wound, or I can let this village take their vengeance on you. You took one of their daughters. How about if we let them take your manhood?”
Ahmed heard Joram’s translation and tried to spit at me. Still had some fire in his gut. I stood up and let him listen to our conversation. Even if he caught no words he’d get the idea. My head spun from everything that was happening. I drew deep breaths to center myself, collect my thoughts, and give the appearance of strength. I wanted to kick that wound until he cried and gave up his spirit. Let God deal with him. Yet I knew something else was driving the wagon, pulling it along outside of my control.
“Baldur, Jody, what say you? What do we do with him?”
“You know what you must do, Fallon. You can’t kill a man in cold blood. See if there’s a physicker here and get him healed first. Then we can dispense justice.” Baldur was surprisingly calm, but I sensed anger lingering beneath that facade.
Jody spat in the floor rushes by the door, “Sire, string him up. Just like he is. String him up and be done with it. He’s done his worst and got caught for it. These folk deserve justice, to see it done. No different than yer father woulda done.”
That brought some memories home. Breckshire was fortunate. In my childhood we’d rarely had to dispense justice among the villages. Most crimes were petty, and the village masters made short work of those involved. A day tied to a pole in the square, subject to switching from the boys and girls. Extra work, service to the community. I can only remember seeing father hang a man one time. He made sure the entire village was out to see it. It was both horror and amusement. Sweet meats and pies, jugs of ale passed between idle hands. Like a feast day, the people came to celebrate in a festival of agony. We had no scaffold or gallows, only a tall oak tree in the meadows of the common. Our knights stood guard as father described the crimes and punishment. Lord Walter meted out justice with a cold hand, slipping the noose over the man’s head himself. He didn’t go quietly, unrepentant to the end. The priests ran from his vitriol, calling curses up from Hell on those present. Father gave the word and a warhorse pulled the rope taunt, hiking him high into the air. No fall to snap his neck. The man choked to death, aided by his violent spasms. Poor horse had to endure all of it while waiting for him to expire.
I looked again at Ahmed. He was barely a man. Yet he knew well what his deeds would earn him. I looked at Joram’s boy Akram, rubbing his hands together. Two boys. Same place. Different outcomes. Ahmed sputtered some more, which Joram listened to. “Fallon, I think he’s El-Salib’s son.”
“He keeps saying ‘My father’ when he describes what’s coming for you, but I think he means it as family. He might not be his actual father, but maybe someone close.”
“What do you mean?”
Joram looked at me. “I think Ahmed might be related. He might be El-Salib’s child.”
So, we had the son of the serpent?
Jody walked over and kicked the boy’s hip and stopped his rolling around, “Ye heard me sire. Ye want to draw out this viper, ye string the kid up. Put him on a gibbet, or get a cage together near the entrance to the village. Someplace in plain sight. Then let the crows do their work. He’ll learn soon enough and come for us. If the kid’s guilty of having a bad father, then so be it. He’s guilty of worse than that I’m sure. Best thing to do.” My grizzled sergeant minced no words. I could trust him to be frank and honest, saying exactly what was on his mind without regard for sensibilities and decorum. A rough man, but a true man. Like an uglier, pock-marked, courser version of my father, Walter.
“Fallon, you cannot do that. Look at him. He’s a boy. He’s no different than Akram there, or my own boys at home. You do this and you’ll be no different than El-Salib.” That was it, wasn’t it? Were we the same men, or were we different? I wanted to think we were better. Men of honor and right action. Baldur looked serious, but I suspected some doubts lingered still. It was likely the feelings of a father for his child. Baldur had left his boys behind to join us on crusade.
Jody stood and faced down Baldur. “We don’t have time for this. Every day we waste, El-Salib will kill more. We need to send him a message. Now. We need to get ahead of him, and this is the only option we’ve got. Ye think he’d do different? Look what he did to that girl just because we showed up. Think this kid would do differently? Well yer wrong. He’d rape and kill every girl in this village if he had the chance. That’s all he is. Ye want to wait for him to bleed out and then bury him, go ahead. Won’t stop that mad man in the hills. Make an example of him and maybe it will make a difference. But yer out of time sire. That’s one thing we don’t have.”
Ahmed groaned beneath us. His wound had opened further and spilled new blood on the floor. He wouldn’t be with us much longer, no matter how skilled the hands. Was it honorable to dispense justice to one such as this? Did we owe him any duty beforehand? He was a boy, yet he was an enemy and bore us no good will. He’d as soon stick a dagger in us as smile. Under different circumstances I believed he might have turned out better. He was flesh and blood like us. No better or worse, probably. We’d done our share of less than honorable deeds. Just a matter of perspective.
Minutes passed. I settled the war in my heart, steeled myself for what came next. No one likes bad decisions, so best to harden the heart against them.
“Jody, get some rope. We have business to be about.”
Ahmed swung in the dry breeze kissing the hills around Ghmam. The same breeze that kissed the cheeks of Saracens defending their homeland from white barbarians. That kissed the cheeks of noble Christian knights and pilgrims seeking to restore the man Jesus’ kingdom in this world. The Kingdom of Heaven, some said. Kissing the lips of peaceful women and children trying to survive in the midst of such great upheaval. It kissed the cold, dead lips and pale face of our prisoner, then passed on without memory.
Once I made the decision things progressed quickly. Neither Baldur nor Joram put up much fight. Joram recommended we use a tall tree outside the village. Most of the scrub here was low and prickly, myrtles and boxwoods, but the cedars and cypress grew tall. This one had a branch just high enough to display our trophy to any passing by, yet kept him out of the village proper. He wasn’t a lesson for these people. He was a lesson to his peers and a message to El-Salib.
Everyone gathered together at Joram’s command. My men formed an unnecessary shieldwall around the thick trunk of our gallows. Starchaser was saddled to pull the boy up when the time came, after which we’d tie him up there. Jody suggested we’d have a few days till his corpse would need taken down before it came down on its own. I knew the birds would announce our message to the road below. Crows circled above like black sentries scenting death nearby. They were an ill portent.
Everything happened without incident. I stood beside Joram and announced the reason for our coming, Ahmed’s involvement, the punishment chosen for his crime. Safyl’s search had revealed the identity of the girl, Amira. She had gone up to the well to draw the evening water and do some washing. Her parents were distraught when they learned of her loss. Her sister Reem wept beside her family. Her mother wailed like a thousand damned spirits unleashed. Hart had explained his actions to them, where they could mourn their daughter when the time came. He and Joram agreed not to tell them the whole truth of what took place.
Ahmed stood paled-faced and without protest as Joram translated my words to him and the village. It took time to say everything in multiple tongues, but it was right. No one would deny we had done justice. The boy tried to look stern, but he appeared to be lost in the pain of his wounds. I don’t think he really understood what took place. The dog lay beneath the tree, watching everything and everyone. I felt his eyes bore into mine, accusing me. Baldur said words over the kid, asking for forgiveness for his deeds in this life and the next. Wasted words.
Joram and I moved to the crowd and I signaled. Jody cracked Starchaser into motion. My warhorse pulled without issue as the braided leather rope slipped easily over the branch above. Ahmed’s body floated above us, finally coming to a stop. He shook briefly, but gave up his ghost without cry or struggle. Given the blood flowing from his side, he was gone before we chose this path.
I felt like a man condemned. My hard heart threatened to burst. It was as if a smith poured molten steel down my gob. Wretched, despicable, and yet energizing and exciting. I wanted him to suffer and pay for his crimes. I knew he was guilty and deserved worse. I hadn’t seen the girl Amira, but my imagination left little unplayed. Safyl stood to my side, her hand brushing briefly with mine. Blood coursed hot through my veins and her touch energized me more. Her sandalwood scent added more wood to an already scorching fire. Too many emotions all wrestling for control of my mind.
She looked up at me and caught my eyes. That fire banked sharply. A question passed between us, unspoken and humbling. Safyl didn’t need words to explain what her eyes asked without hesitation. Is this the kind of man you are?
I knew she’d cry for Amira. For Reem and their family. That she would rest in the justice done today, and the prospect of justice we intended to finish. Justice against El-Salib’s band. But today she saw a hardened heart. A knight who would hang young boys to bait his enemies. A man capable of great evils, given the right nudge. Her eyes said what worried me deep inside. You are a dangerous man and I don’t trust you.
Joram told the villagers to return to their lives and work. People slowly peeled away, faces looking back at the boy swinging from a tree. Akram stood at the edge of the crowd and stared. Tears were shed, but I suspected most were for Amira. Women came alongside her mother and Reem, sharing condolences and tears. Safyl told Joram she would go to the well to mourn. There were women who needed to go up there and they’d stay together for safety. Akram walked back to the village without a word.
After Ahmed had passed to the next life, Baldur came to my side. “M’lord, what next?”
“We prepare. Word will pass soon enough. We need to get patrols out on the road. Station pickets so we know when they come. Ask Joram to have Akram pass the word among the shepherds. They’ll know something first. We must be ready for them by tomorrow, and no later.”
“Aye. I’ll see to it. Hart should stay here. He’s too shook up to be use on the road. Be good to have Jody’s help with the preparations as well. He’s seen more siege work then we have. It might come to that.”
I hesitated. “Did we do the right thing today?”
Baldur thought for a moment, hand stroking his thick beard. Sharp eyes met mine, testing the quality of my heart. “Nothing else we could have done, sire. I don’t like it, but that’s the truth. Ahmed knew the risks of his life. He may not have had a choice, but he knew. El-Salib made that choice long ago for these boys. I don’t know what drives him, but he won’t stop until someone stands against him. Best way to end this is to finish him.”
I looked at my friend and asked, “Do you think he’ll be forgiven?”
Baldur didn’t hesitate, “Better question to ask: will there be forgiveness for us?”