Hallowed

XXIX. A Last Look

Frost woke to the clatter of a food tray being dropped unceremoniously into her cell.

“Eat up,” said the guard. “Could be your last meal, if your trial today goes south.”

Frost picked up the spoon, bent and dinted as it was, and poked at the unidentifiable sludge in the tray. “What is this?” she asked.

The guard shrugged. “Don’t eat it if you don’t like it.”

Frost took a tentative nibble. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good, either, but Frost had lived off worse. She finished her plate, her heavy handcuffs jangling as she ate.

The woman who shared her cell chuckled from her corner. “You must be hungry, if you’re eating that rot.”

“I’m not a picky eater,” said Frost.

“Then have mine, too,” said the woman. “Better to hang with a full belly, eh?”

“I’m not going to hang,” said Frost.

The woman cackled. “Keep telling yourself that,” she said. “Might be you start to believe it.”

Frost leaned back against the wall. Flame and Garthniiel would get her out; she knew it. They had never let her down before. Then again, they had never had more to worry about than each other. Now, with the fate of the world at stake, what would they choose?

No. No, she couldn’t die in this city; she couldn’t. Not after all she had done to escape it. There was still the trial, after all, and what evidence of her crime could they possibly have after so many decades had passed? She would lie. She had spent all this time lying about what had happened to her father and why she had left Selkie’s Shore. What was one lie more?

“So who d’you kill?” asked the woman. “A guard? A shopkeep? A suitor who won’t hear ‘no’?”

“How do you know I killed someone?”

The woman shrugged. “They don’t hang you if it ain’t murder. Thieves like me just get left to rot in here, nevermind that I only stole to feed my boys. You should count yourself lucky; one way or the other, you’ll be out of here soon.”

“How long have you been here?” asked Frost.

“Who knows?” said the woman. “It makes no matter; I ain’t never getting out. One of these winters, they’ll have to carry my frozen corpse out that door.” She shifted her weight, and her chains rattled as she did so. “I hope it’s soon.”

Frost turned to look at her, at her long, matted hair that covered half her face and body. “They say the world might end soon,” said Frost.

“Yeah?” asked the woman. “I’d say ‘good’, but…”

“But?”

“But I ain’t ready for my boys to go.”

It wasn’t long before the guard returned. “It’s time,” he said, unlocking the door to Frost’s cell.

“For what?” asked Frost.

“For your trial,” said the guard, and grabbed her unceremoniously by the arm.

Frost turned to look at her cellmate. “Go on, then,” said the woman. “Think of me when you’re out there, swinging in the wind.”

Her chains rattled against the ground as she followed the guard down the corridor. A hood was pulled over her head, and she was loaded into a wooden cage of a wagon. For a long time she waited, long enough that she almost wanted to ask what they were waiting for, then others were loaded into the wagon with her. None of them spoke as the wagon rolled through the streets.

She remembered what the hangings had been like in her youth, and it would seem not much had changed. Execution days had been like holidays, with young and old alike gathered in the square. She could tell they were nearing the square by the increasingly loud and riotous voices outside, throwing insults, expletives, and rotten fish at the wagon. We haven’t even been tried yet, thought Frost, and a moment later she felt the wet squelch and rancid smell of fecal matter hitting her arm.

At last the wagon stopped, and the hood was pulled from Frost’s eyes. She blinked, blinded by the sunlight. Here, at least, there was some reprieve from the crowd, as she and her fellow prisoners stood behind the raised platform on which the gallows and noose had been erected.

She looked up at the magister’s dais, a wooden box overlooking the crowd and the gallows. Lord Matiias was already there, reclined in an ornate chair, a pair of guards behind him. As though feeling her gaze, he looked down at her, and Frost flinched and looked away. Stupid, she thought. An innocent person would have no reason to flinch. Now he’ll know you’re lying.

She wondered where her brother and Garthniiel were. On a ship, on their way to save the world? Had they really left her behind?

“Stop fidgeting,” said the guard beside her. It was a different guard from the one who had loaded her onto the wagon. This one was shorter, his face obscured by a helmet, one hand on Frost’s arm and the other on the sword at his hip. If I try to run now, thought Frost, would he cut me down?

There were two other prisoners beside her, a balding man with sagging cheeks and a boy scarcely Deena’s age. The balding man went first, half dragged up to the platform by the guards.

There was a herald in the box next to Matiias, and the crowd quieted as he cleared his throat. “Iliias Eln,” called the herald, “for the gruesome rape and murder of a child.”

The crowd roared in anger and indignation, pelting the hapless Iliias with fishbones, produce, and worse. He took a half-step back, but a guard forced his head into the noose.

“Wait,” said Frost. “What about the trial?”

“What trial?” asked the guard beside her.

“His trial. He hasn’t been tried yet.”

The guard turned to look at her. “Of course he has,” he said. “The trials happened this morning.”

Panic rose like bile in Frost’s throat as she glanced up at the midday sun. It was already noon. The hangings always happened at noon, she remembered, but why hadn’t she had a trial? “I—I didn’t have one,” she said. “There’s been a mistake. I didn’t—”

The guard’s grip tightened on her arm. “Of course you did,” he said. “Lord Matiias saw to your case himself.”

The executioner pulled the lever, and the trapdoor opened under Iliias’s feet. His neck snapped as he dropped, and the crowd cheered their approval. In desperation, Frost looked toward Lord Matiias on his dais, but he was no longer looking her way.

The boy was next, and he obediently walked up the steps to the noose. “Barra the Simple,” announced the herald, “for putting rat poison into the food of his master’s son, causing death.”

“I didn’t mean to,” shouted the boy, and his voice gave away he was even younger than he looked. “I didn’t know it was poison, I swear!”

The crowd didn’t care, and whatever else Barra might have said was lost to their jeers and insults. He was still trying to shout over the crowd as the executioner placed the noose around his neck. Unlike Ilias, the boy wasn’t heavy enough to break his neck, and for several long minutes, he dangled kicking and twitching, until at last he grew purple and still.

Now it was Frost’s turn. She watched as the guards cleared away Barra’s body, then the executioner turned to beckon her forward. Her own heartbeat thudded loudly in her ears as she walked up the steps, and then—

And then she saw them. Her brother, his hair bright as a beacon, and Garthniiel standing beside him. What were they doing there? If they hadn’t left with the ship, then—then why hadn’t they tried to save her? Above her, the herald read her name and crime, but she heard none of it as she looked at them, at Garthniiel and at her brother most of all. He was standing on tip-toe, looking intently at her as though trying to convey something with his eyes alone, but she could not understand what it was.

Perhaps this was for the best. She had, after all, committed the crime for which she was to hang. Perhaps this was only justice. The executioner placed the noose around her neck then stepped aside, and for the first time that day, Frost noticed the beautiful blue infinity of the sky.

The woman in the cell had said she’d be swinging in the wind, but she was wrong. There was no wind today.

There was a shout from the magistrate’s box—gasps from the crowd. The wood of the box was on fire, the guards rushing to pull Matiias away from the flames. The herald shrieked, and in a panic, the crowd began to scatter, shoving into one another in their haste. Something—an arrow?—flew past Frost’s head, severing the noose overhead, then the trapdoor beneath her opened and she fell through. Someone caught her and, setting her on the ground, quickly set about unlocking her manacles.

It was the guard from before, the one who had been at her side as she stood awaiting her death.

“Who are you?” asked Frost. “What’s happening?”

The guard took off his helmet, and Frost was surprised to see it was a woman underneath. “I’m Garthniiel’s Aunt Welsiica,” said the woman. “Perhaps he’s spoken of me.”

“Barra the Simple,” announced the herald, “for putting rat poison into the food of his master’s son, causing death.”

Lord Matiias scanned the crowd. He could see the Queen’s Bastard and his redhead friend near the front, but they were simply standing there, not even attempting to save the woman Ellia. They hadn’t even brought their weapons with them; not a sword or bow was in sight.

He gave a wave of his hand, a signal for the executioner, and the trapdoor beneath the boy swung open. Oh, how he hated when they twitched and squirmed as they dangled; watching a slow death was never pleasant, regardless of person’s crimes. He returned his gaze to the Queen’s Bastard. The false prince had recoiled slightly at the boy’s death throes, but other than that, neither he nor his companion had budged. Matiias frowned. Had he misjudged the situation? Were the three of them not so close after all? No, the prince had sought him out, had practically begged for the woman’s release. And the redhead—he was her brother, was he not? They would not simply stand there and watch her die. It was a ruse; it had to be. They were waiting for her to step onto the platform, that was all, and when they made their move, so would he.

He kept his eyes on them as he gestured for the next prisoner to be brought forward. This was the one, the bastard’s friend, yet still he made no move toward her. What was he waiting for? If he did not act now, the noose would soon be around her neck, and then—

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a golden bird flit past, and then half the floor was ablaze.

Chaos. One of his guards yanked him away from the fire while another tried vainly to smother the flames with his cloak. The herald had pressed himself against the corner, shrieking incoherently. The crowd below was screaming too, as the guards yelled for order, but no one was listening to a thing that anyone else was saying as all descended into madness.

Matiias scrambled to his feet, but smoke obscured his vision. “The woman,” he began, but the smoke stung his throat and he broke into a fit of coughing.

Why was there a fire in his box? How was there a fire in his box? It didn’t matter; what mattered was when. His guards tried to usher him toward the stairs, but impatiently, he waved them away. Could they not see what was happening? This was a distraction, nothing more, and by the time the smoke cleared and order had returned, the woman would be long gone.

He had not expected the false prince to be so clever, but he would not be made a fool of by a bastard.

“Find them,” croaked Matiias in between a fit of coughs.

“I’m sorry, my lord?” asked the guard.

“Find them,” repeated Matiias. “Find the Queen’s Bastard and his whore, and bring me her head.”

Welsiica had stripped off her armor and given it to Frost, and it was this guise Frost wore as she made her way to the docks. When she was almost there, a bird alighted on her shoulder, and it took her a moment to recognize Nicholas.

“Down that alley,” said Nicholas. “There’s a sack with some clothes for you.”

She was about to ask, then realized that of course she couldn’t board the ship dressed as a city guard. Nicholas turned away as she changed.

“Did you set the fire?” asked Frost.

“Who else?” asked Nicholas, puffing out his chest feathers. “I had to hide in the rafters all morning. Chased away three seagulls.”

“Who cut the rope?”

“I did,” said a voice, and Frost looked up to see Avenel drop down from the rooftop, Flame’s bow strapped to her back.

“I thought you all left,” said Frost.

“Not without you,” said Avenel.

Deena was waiting for them at the docks. When she saw them, she ran forward to throw her arms around Frost. “You’re alive!” she exclaimed. “I was so worried!”

“Uh, thanks,” said Frost awkwardly. “Where’s Flame and Garth?”

“They’re not back yet,” said Deena.

“They should be soon,” said Avenel. She handed the bow to Frost. “Nicholas and I will wait for them. Deena, take Frost below deck, out of sight of the guards.”

Frost didn’t argue. Taking Flame’s bow, she turned and followed Deena onto the ship.

Nicholas took a perch by Avenel’s shoulder. “They should’ve come back before us,” he said.

“I know,” said Avenel.

It was a while before Flame returned. On seeing Avenel, he ran the last few steps. “Where is she?” he asked.

“On the ship,” said Avenel. “She’s safe.”

Flame nodded and moved to hurry past her, but Avenel caught him by the arm. “Wait. Where’s Garthniiel?”

At this, Flame looked surprised. “He isn’t back yet?”

“No,” said Avenel. “He isn’t with you?”

“We were followed,” said Flame. “We separated to lose them more easily, but he should be back by now; I took the long route.” He turned to look the way he had come. “The guards must’ve caught up with him. Do you think they—”

“No,” said Avenel quickly. “Matiias is one thing, but the city guard wouldn’t dare touch him if they knew who he was.” She turned to look at the ship. “Go join the others,” she said. “We’ll leave as soon as he returns.”

Flame nodded.

Nicholas waited until he was out of earshot. “You’re worried,” he said.

“I don’t like waiting,” replied Avenel. “The longer we’re here, the greater the risk of Frost being discovered.” She paused. “If he isn’t back in an hour, tell Captain Baal to set sail.”

“You want to leave without him?” asked Nicholas.

“His life isn’t in danger. Matiias won’t kill him without cause.”

“You’re still abandoning him.”

Avenel turned away to walk back to the ship. “I’m doing what I have to.”

There was a merchant sitting at the side of the street, selling dolls made of colored clay. Garthniiel stopped and bent down, pretending to examine his wares.

“A bauble for your son or daughter?” asked the merchant. “Handcrafted and brought all the way from the distant shores of Monlai.”

“I see,” said Garthniiel. Surreptitiously, he glanced back at the quartet of guards behind him. As at the last few market stalls that he had stopped at, they stood watching him, hands never far from their swords.

They had approached him shortly after he and Flame had separated. “Prince Garthniiel,” their leader had said. “Lord Matiias humbly requests your presence.”

“Now?” Garthniiel had asked. “I’m, ah, rather occupied at present. Could it wait?”

“Of course,” said the guard. “His Lordship awaits you at his residence, at your earliest convenience.”

That was easy, Garthniiel had thought, but then the guard continued.

“Until then, we’re to accompany you for your protection.”

Ah.

And so the guards had followed him as he meandered through the market, pausing at every stall in an attempt to buy time. Avenel would have left them behind long ago, he was sure; he wished she were here now to tell him what to do.

Think, Garthniiel! he chided himself. Use that brain of yours, for once in your life. It was growing increasingly obvious that he wasn’t shopping but simply stalling for time, yet what else was there to do? He didn’t dare go closer to the docks lest the guards realize where Frost was hidden, yet he wanted to make sure that when he did lose the guards, he wouldn’t have far to run.

He looked around. Here and there were some small alleyways branching off from the street, and he wondered if he could simply outrun the guards. No, if he tried that, he would surely get lost in the twists and turns. Further down, the market was so crowded that the shoppers were nearly shoulder to shoulder, but with his height and stature, even that wouldn’t be enough to lose the guards. There was a bard on a street corner he could pretend to watch, but that would only serve to buy more time.

The doll-seller was beginning to grow impatient. “Are you going to buy one or not?”

Garthniiel set down the doll. “Just looking, sorry.”

Across the street, a tavernkeeper sweeping his front stoop looked curiously at Garthniiel and his entourage of guards.

Garthniiel turned to the guards. “Would any of you gentlemen care for a drink?”

The head guard shook his head. “Not while on duty, your highness, but we’ll gladly accompany you inside.”

“Suit yourself,” shrugged Garthniiel, and strode toward the tavern. “Excuse me, sir,” he said to the tavernkeeper. “I’d like a cup of your finest ale, please.”

“We aren’t open yet,” said the tavernkeeper, glancing between Garthniiel and the guards. “It’s barely past noon.”

“Ah, but what if I were to tell you that I’m a prince?” asked Garthniiel. He nudged the head guard with his elbow. “Tell him.”

“You are standing in the presence of His Highness, Prince Garthniiel of Ajjraea,” said the guard.

“Oh, you mean the Queen’s Bas—” began the tavernkeeper, then dropped his broom in his haste to cover his mouth. “I—I’m so sorry, your princeliness, I didn’t mean—”

He was about to throw himself on the ground, but Garthniiel caught him by the arm. “It’s—it’s alright,” said Garthniiel awkwardly. He hadn’t quite expected that reaction. “I could go elsewhere for a drink, if—”

“No no, please, stay!” exclaimed the tavernkeeper. “Sit where you like! Our finest ale, on the house!”

“In that case, I thank you,” said Garthniiel and chose a seat in the center of the tavern. The guards chose to stand.

The ale soon arrived, and Garthniiel feigned an air of nonchalance as best he could as he sipped at the drink. He waited until he was halfway through before he stood again.

“Excuse me, sir,” he called to the tavernkeeper. “I was wondering if I might possibly use your outhouse?”

“Of course,” said the tavernkeeper at once. “Does—does the ale not agree with you, your princeliness?”

“No no, the ale is fine,” said Garthniiel. “Very enjoyable. But, you know, nature calls.”

“Of course,” said the tavernkeeper again and lead them through the back door and into the courtyard. “It’s just through this door here.” He glanced at the guards. “It—it only has space enough for one person, though.”

“That won’t be a problem,” said Garthniiel, “unless these gentlemen feel the need to hold my hand while I defecate?”

The guards, at least, had the decency to turn red. Their leader shuffled nervously on his feet for a moment, then: “W-we’ll just wait outside, your highness.”

“Good,” said Garthniiel and stepped inside the outhouse, latching the door firmly behind him.

There was a small window for ventilation high up in the wall, a common feature for an outhouse. Quietly thankful for his height, Garthniiel pulled himself up and out through the window. On the other side was the alley that ran behind the tavern. A pile of rubbish cushioned his fall, and after dusting himself off, he hurried in the direction of the docks.

He hadn’t gone far before a familiar bird swooped down onto his hand. “There you are,” panted Nicholas, breathless.

“What are you doing here?” asked Garthniiel. “Is Frost—?”

“She’s on the ship,” said Nicholas, “but you have to hurry!”

“Why? What’s happened?”

“It’s Matiias. He’s sealed the port and ordered the ships searched one by one.”

From the deck of the ship, Avenel watched as the guards began their search. They had started at the south end of the docks, and it was fortunate that Captain Baal had chosen to dock his boat at the northern end. That would buy them some time, but time for what? The entire area had been surrounded by guards; it would be impossible to smuggle Frost off the ship again.

To seal the port of Selkie’s Shore, even for an afternoon, was insane. The economic consequences alone would cause most men to think thrice. And to then search the ships—Already, they could hear the indignant protests of merchants and captains as the guards pried open barrels and stabbed their swords into sacks.

“Bad day to be carrying cargo,” said Captain Baal. “Don’t you wish we’d left yesterday, instead?”

“In hindsight, yes,” said Avenel.

“What do you think they’re looking for?”

“Contraband, perhaps,” replied Avenel.

The captain gave a snort. “That’d be a first for Selkie’s Shore. The guards never care so long as they get their cut.”

“I see,” said Avenel. “Excuse me a moment,” she added, and ducked down the hatch into the cabin below.

“What’s happening out there?” asked Flame as she descended. “Are they really searching the ships?”

Avenel nodded. “They’re asking all the passengers to line up on the deck. Where’s Frost?”

“We hid her in a crate,” said Deena, “in the storage hold.”

“That’s going to get her killed,” said Avenel. She looked around. There was nowhere to hide in the cabin, no lofty rafters, no windows. Frost was too short to be convincingly disguised as a man, but perhaps—

There was a commotion above. “Wait here,” she said to the others, and climbed back up to the deck.

Garthniiel had shouldered his way past the guards, Nicholas—in human form again—at his heels. One of the guards ran to catch them, putting his sword across their path. “By order of Lord Matiias of Selkie’s Shore—” began the guard.

“And by order of Prince Garthniiel,” said Nicholas, “stand down.”

The guard blinked. “The Queen’s Bastard is here?” he asked.

“That’s ‘His Highness’ to you,” snapped Nicholas. “Why aren’t you all kneeling?”

“That’s enough, Nicholas,” said Garthniiel. “Sirs, I ask only for safe passage for my vessel.”

The guard continued to stare for a moment, then remembering himself, hastily sheathed his sword. “A-apologies, your highness,” he said, bowing. “I didn’t recognize you. You and your ship are of course free to leave once we’ve searched it.”

“And if we’re in a hurry?” asked Nicholas.

“Then we’ll search it at once,” said the guard, and gestured to his fellows.

From the horrified look on Nicholas’s face, this wasn’t the response he expected.

Avenel stepped forward to block their way. “May I ask what it is you’re searching for, sirs?”

The guard hesitated a moment as though trying to discern if she was someone he could risk offending. “With all due respect, ma’am, we aren’t at liberty to say.”

“I see,” said Avenel. “So this is how Selkie’s Shore treats royalty: a sudden search without even the courtesy of an explanation. I’ll be sure His Majesty is made aware of this.”

The guard dropped to his knee. “We’re only following orders, ma’am—milady. If you take offense, you’re welcome to address it with Lord Matiias. In the meantime—”

“Let them search,” came Izra’s voice, and Avenel turned to see her climbing up from below deck. “Captain Baal?”

The captain shrugged. “I’ve nothing to hide,” he said.

The guard got to his feet. “Thank you for understanding,” he began, but Izra put up a hand to stop him.

“On one condition,” said Izra. “Only one of you goes in the prince’s quarters. I won’t have common soldiers invade his highness’s privacy like it’s nothing.”

The guard hesitated a moment, then nodded. Gesturing for his men to begin the search elsewhere, he followed Izra down into the cabin.

Avenel turned to look at Garthniiel. The same concern and confusion she felt was written plain across his face, and she had to give him a surreptitious tilt of the head to remind him to hide his expression.

It was a while before Izra and the guard returned. “Nothing down below,” called the guard to his fellows. “Come on, we have other ships to search.”

“Does this mean my companions and I can leave?” asked Garthniiel.

“What?” asked the guard. “O-oh, uh, of course, your highness. Apologies for the inconvenience, and safe voyage.” He gestured to his men, and they filed off the gangplank, already on their way to the next ship.

Avenel turned to Baal. “Shall we, Captain?”

Captain Baal nodded. “Aye.” He clapped his hands together for his crew. “You heard her, boys. Hop to it!”

In his haste, Garthniiel more fell than climbed down the ladder into the cabin. Deena was there, and Flame, and Frost sitting between them. Wordless, Garthniiel ran up to her and pulled her into an embrace.

Frost patted him on the arm. “You’re choking me, Garth.”

Garthniiel relaxed his arms, but not quite enough to let her go. “How?” he asked. “How did you hide from the guard?”

Frost shrugged. “I don’t know. He saw me, but… it was like he didn’t.”

“As long as you’re safe,” said Garthniiel, and squeezed her tight once more.

On the deck, Izra stood by the railing, the wind whipping through her snow-white hair. Nicholas stood beside her, his hand on her arm. “Izi,” he said. “What did you to that guard?”

“I took his memory of who he was looking for,” said Izra. In her hand was a small glowing orb the color of molten rock. As it cooled, it congealed into a black stone, its surface as smooth as glass.

“You tampered with his mind?” asked Nicholas. “You said you’d never do that again.”

“I did what I had to,” said Izra and hurled the stone into the sea.

All around them, the crew bustled to and fro, shouting to each other as they worked. Behind them, Selkie’s Shore receded into a mere rock, then speck, then finally nothing at all. There was only the horizon, an unmarred expanse of sea. And in the west, at the prow of the ship, the sun was a white crescent, blindingly bright.