Chained upright, standing alone, Fistmar faced a mob baying for his blood. The bars that denied him freedom now protected him, as the prison wagon pitched and rocked its way down a rutted causeway, carrying him to his doom. Fellow convicts huddled as far from him as they could manage, trying to avoid the crossfire of filth and rotting vegetation being hurled at Fistmar by the enraged peasants who lined both sides of the road. They had waited for the rolling cage to come, so they could show their hatred for the man who had murdered their prince.
Covered in muck, Fistmar ignored the jeering peasants, ignored the petty criminals behind him, ignored everything except Schtalegaard Castle’s looming bulk. Four great towers jutted from its squat mass, irregular fingers clawing at the sullen sky. Smoke-red banners fluttered in the wind, shaking off recent rain. Daylight was fading, the towers and walls ahead darkening in a gloom Fistmar shared. He fought back a wave of helplessness at being trapped, captive for the first time, a fate he had long avoided as a thief in the glittering city of Aranvail, the World Belt’s fifth-greatest metropolis and the Jewel of the East, his home. He cursed the ill fortune that had forced him from the city and into the uncouth countryside in search of easy coin.
Mud and dung spattered against his cheek. He calmed, slowed his heart as he had so many times in the past when waiting to start a job. Nerves and a shaking hand were no good to a thief, and he was undeniably skilled, a lieutenant in the Thieves Guild that ran Aranvail’s black economy. He closed his eyes and forced away all distractions. He was not without resources, tricks he had paid dearly for in preparation for this eventuality.
Capture. Imprisonment. It happened to every thief sooner or later, and the smart ones planned for it. He would be free again. He would learn who had done this to him, played him to fall for another’s crime. He would find out why, and he would have his revenge.
High walls rose above him, and from scaffolds on the battlements hung a collection of gibbets, hollow iron eggs built to display the condemned. Some swung empty, their chains rattling a dark lament for inhabitants past and yet to come. Others held grisly residents, tangled limbs and windblown hair hiding the ruins of faces that had doubtless endured the grim attention of crows. Fistmar looked up dispassionately. If he was lucky, they would put him in one of those and he would be gone the first night. As long as the duke’s pet magician did not discover his tooth.
The wagon rumbled across a moat-spanning bridge, slid beneath a raised portcullis and into a dreary tunnel, where the horses’ hooves and creaking wood made a tremendous crashing din as they passed beneath murder holes and guard stations in the thick wall. Fistmar could not imagine the soldier’s life, the chaos and terror of battle, of death in a place like this. Better the long drop than that. But he was not ready for the noose yet. He intended to be fat and happy with a bulging purse and a doxy or three to keep him busy abed in his dotage.
They emerged into a gray courtyard, sunlight now a stranger. Within the courtyard’s wide expanse of clean stone stood the central keep, a tower at each corner. Upon a broad, shallow stair a welcoming party waited, armored guards with weapons at the ready. Their leader wore a red surcoat over black leather, long sword at his side, wide belt cinched tight to reveal no hint of comfortable old age, his gray-white hair cropped close in traditional military style. Fistmar glanced at the old man, then away. Best not to seem too defiant. He did not want to anger a man who could have him executed on the spot.
The wagon halted and soldiers with pole arms kept Fistmar pinned into his corner as the other prisoners, most of them cattle thieves or poachers—local men who had offended against the duke’s law and who would pay for their crimes in servitude—were hustled out, shackled, and led to a shadowed door at the base of the keep’s southern tower. Swordsmen then entered the cage to undo his bonds, and with a few punches and kicks threw him to the ground. He lay inert as heavy manacles were roughly attached to his wrists and ankles. There was no point in struggling. He knew to bide his time. Slow, steady steps sounded upon the stone. Black leather boots and a red surcoat halted in front of him.
“Look at me, dog!” a harsh voice commanded. Fistmar did not have to affect a flinch as he obeyed the order. The old man’s glare smoldered, his face a wrinkled iron mask of disgust. “It pains me that you yet breathe while my lord’s third son sleeps eternal. It pains me more that you shall not die today. The duke desires that in darkness you contemplate the pain you have inflicted and the agony you shall receive come the morning.”
Fistmar rolled onto his knees at the aged warrior’s feet, chains clanking in protest.
“I didn’t kill the boy, I swear! Please. You must believe me. I stole from him, yes, some coin only. I’m no cutthroat!”
The iron face showed scorn. “Spare me your false histrionics, dog. I have seen them all, and performed by better men than you. My lord’s mage has divined your guilt. The deadly blade you left embedded in my prince stinks of your essence—how else could we locate such a grubby little thief so quickly? Drinking and chasing after tavern wenches with not a care in the world!”
“Show me this blade—I swear it’s not mine! Your men took all I had when they pinched me. Check my tools, they’re sealed, nothing of me is on them. The knife you found is a plant! I stole from the prince, yes, but I left him snoring in his bed. I’m no fool—I knew who he was—no profit in killing him, only in taking gold he’d barely miss. I aimed for him to wake the next day and think to have lost the gold at dice when he was in his cups, no harm done. Why use and abandon a knife with my aura on it when I have tools that leave no trace? There’s no sense in that! Your mage can read the truth of my words.”
Fistmar’s mind reeled. His essence on an unknown blade? That was a Washer’s work. Someone powerful had planned this for him, but why? Gloster could just have him killed, so why would his old master set him to fall for a prince’s murder? Who else might have done this? He knew too little now to even guess.
The old man shook his head, a bitter smile beneath angered eyes. “Why would I do that when I have all the evidence I require? I do not need to learn that you believe you are innocent—desperation makes believers of all fools. Why would I care to discover that you are no different? You admit your guilt of theft. As punishment for that alone I would take a hand and an eye to render you useless. Does that satisfy you?”
Unable to meet the fury of the old soldier’s stare, Fistmar did not answer.
“I thought as much. How many crimes have you gone unpunished for, dog? Enough to earn a death sentence, I wager. Many times over if you use sealed tools. A fine claim indeed from a bedraggled cur such as you! And the knife we possess is the one you slew my prince with. Even an unwashed halfwit like you must know strong emotions will leave a ready imprint. Anger you felt as you sought to reclaim the gold you drunkenly lost at dice!”
Fistmar found his voice, though he spoke to the stone at his feet.
“My lord. I’ve never killed anyone, only made my way as best I can. I don’t think that’s worthy of death. I never dice with my marks—why bring attention to myself? And I don’t drink when I’m working, and yes, I call it work. If I’m to die, then let it be for my trade tools, though I’ll not say it’d be fair. You’ve been played for fools to take me as the murderer. Of that I’m innocent.”
It was a heavy blow. A studded fist slammed into the side of Fistmar’s head, knocking him awkwardly back to the ground. The old man bent forward to hiss into his ear, “It matters not to me, your guilt or innocence. What matters to me and to my lord is that our beloved prince is dead, and you fit the offence better than any other. You wish to believe you did not do this thing. I know you did. The wizard knows you did. You are long past due death for sins unprosecuted in that cesspit of a city you came from. They should have put you down years ago. That task falls to me, now, one crime too late. Prepare for judgment.”
The old man straightened and drew his sword, holding it over Fistmar’s head. “Tomorrow you shall die the twelve deaths, and thus mutilated you will face eternity marked as the worthless scum you undoubtedly are. The dead will shun you in their houses beyond the veil. Accursed in life, friendless in death, you shall be a warning to all who think to spill the blood royal. This is the sentence I, Mikhael Schtalfir, pronounce upon you as the Duke of Schtalegaard’s lawfully appointed Castellan.” The sword was sheathed, judgment done. “Guards, take this wretch away. It offends me that he dares bandy words with his betters.”
The twelve deaths. His hands, feet, and genitals cut from him, wounds tarred shut to stop the bleeding. His nose, ears, and one eye burned away, the other eye left to see the horror approaching. His tongue intact so he could still scream for a mercy that would not be granted. He would be hanged, but only so he could choke and struggle, cut down prior to death. After that, his gut would be slit and his entrails paraded before him on burning tongs, and then, only then, would he be allowed to die, head on the block, headsman’s axe decapitating him. First blow, if the gods be good. Fistmar numbly let the guards drag him upright and beat him into a shuffling run toward the south tower. Their blows meant nothing, the pain unnoticed as his mind froze around the thought that a Washer had arranged his doom.