The Hangman’s Noose

The rain was coming down hard outside as I found my way to a tavern.  I had been walking for quite some time in the heavy storm.  As soon as I found my way inside, I immediately sought a spot to rest by the fire, and signaled to the barkeep for a pint.  Waiting for my drink, I noticed two men at a table.  They were dressed in the cloak of the church and counted their coin.  They spoke of the folly of men and how men fought and died for petty things like honor and dignity.  They called for the waitress with snide and crude comments.

As they piled on their gold, stacking them in towers, they spoke mockingly.

“What need do we have for such things as honor, when we might just purchase our way into heaven.  Death is of no concern to me.”

Then they began drunkenly laughing.

I cleared my throat to interrupt their foolishness.

“Forgive me father, but you know nothing of death.  You know nothing of the pain and torment.”

They looked at my direction, my face the only thing that peered from the darkness, lit up by the flares of the fire.

“And what do you know?”

The waitress brought my drink and I quickly downed half of it with a need to quench my thirst.  I sat back down in the dark, where I felt most comfortable.  My voice echoed again from the silence and shadows to tell my story.

~~~

The sky was a grim grey.  No sun.  The air was moist, as if wet with the taste of the rain still lingering.  It was rather fitting.  Dozens of eyes peered at the caravan as it made its way through the crowd. About eight guards escorted the cage.  Within it, one man whose hands were bound, mouth gagged and face concealed with an empty potato sack.

Why had such measures been taken?  Simple.  Orders by the king, presented in a letter stating,

“This filthy peasant shall no longer see the light of the day.  His eyes shall give no hope for the citizens, nor his words give them inspiration.  He shall be punished accordingly.  The punishment shall exceed the crimes for we cannot know to the extent which he has plagued my kingdom.  He shall hang to a slow, painful death.”

The crowd cheered as the wagon passed.  The man in the cage could do little, blinded and constrained.  There were several myths about this man though.  That he had killed hundreds, he was a freedom fighter, a king slayer, a ghost.  None of which were known for certain.

And then there was me.  His executioner.  Nobody knew of me.

You could say he was sort of a legend.  Many praised him, but at the same time, many feared this man.  I did neither.  No one really knew the man in the cage.  But I knew what I needed to know.  It had haunted me for years.  And now, I relished in the fact that his death would come by my hands.

Years ago, perhaps about a decade or more, I had witnessed a scene that would forever be burned into my mind.  It was at night, we had just finished supper.  I sat on the floor, playing with my carved wooden horse, just in front of my father who was resting on a chair after a long day’s work.  Mother was in the kitchen, cleaning up with the help of my older sister.  It’s the picture I remember in my head, just before men burst through the door.  They dressed in heavy armor and bore the crest of the kingdom we resided just outside of.  They first grabbed my father, as we all screamed in panic.  My mother and sister were then restrained as my father was taken from us.  The remaining men spoke in a whisper before hesitating at door.  They turned back, and took hold of the rest of us as we scratched and clawed, yelling whilst the struggle.

Forgive my lack of detail, as I vaguely remember the events between the intrusion of our home and finding myself, with my family, locked up in a cell.  The events prior to waking up imprisoned were blurred with screaming and struggling, until the point I tired myself out.

I woke up to find myself in a prison, with my mother and sister lying on the cold stone floor across from me.  My father was nowhere to be found.  We were all bound by our wrists.  I cried out for mother, but she did not wake.  I did the same for my sister, but she was just as weak, managing little more than an acknowledging groan.  I quickly quieted upon hearing footsteps creep up from the distant hallway, proceeding to lay back down in the shadow in fear.  Two men approached the cell door, the bigger man handed over a satchel of what sounded like coins, as the other revealed a set of keys.  My eyes focused on the other man, a bullish figure stood tall as if towering over the first man, violently grabbed my mother.  She reacted with a scream, immediately flailing her limbs, but to no affect on the behemoth.  My sister awoke with the sudden break in silence, and began screaming again.  I was ready to cry, but my sister caught my eyes in a glance.  She stopped momentarily to place her finger over her mouth and prompt me to remain quiet and undetected.  Then, with no warning, she was pulled by her hair forcing her to let out a cry.  I held my breath as I watched this man carry my mother on his shoulder and drag my sister out of sight.  I cried in the shadows, so no one could see me.  But my quiet sobbing was soon disturbed by the screams coming from the other room.  I recognized them to be that of my sister and mother.  Those screams remain ingrained in my head, haunting my thoughts and dreams.  That would be the lasting memory I had of my family.  I never saw them again.

I stayed quiet, still not sure what to do.  I had been forgotten about, for the most part.  I guess the guards just didn’t know what to do with me.  I spent days in that cell, losing count after the first week.  Part of me died behind those bars and bricks.  I didn’t know what was going to happen to me, I just stopped caring.  I had nothing, I had no one.  I just waited out my nights in the darkness, waited for death to come, surviving solely on the fact that prisoners came in and out of the cells.  The guards would make their rounds and bring just enough water and bread to keep us fed until we were to be hanged.  The executioner came in and out regularly.  I grew to know him.  I saw how he moved, how he spoke.  I grew, in fact, to despise everything about him, yet felt compelled by his demeanor.  Here was a man, who held the power of life and death in his hands.  It was of little meaning to him.  This fascinated me, maybe even drove me to a state of insanity.

One night, an older man was thrown into the cell with me.  He was dirty, skinny, and frail.  He took notice of me and asked why I remained in the cell.  “I don’t know.”  When he asked how long I suspected to be there for, my response was the same.

After a moment of quiet, I asked in return why he was where he was.  He had been caught stealing food from a market stall, and for that would be given the death penalty.  Ironically, when the guards came by with a stale piece of bread and a tin of water, he was reluctant to take it.  I was curious as to why this was.  “The bread I took wasn’t to feed me, it was for my family.”  He then proceeded to take the bread and water and slide it over to me.  “You look like you could use this more than me.  I won’t see past the next day.”  I was left in awe as he turned to the barred window to watch as the sun came up.

I heard footsteps again and quickly drank the water and hid the bread beneath my ragged clothes.  I then moved to the corner and curled up and hid my head in my arms.  The executioner came from behind the corner, directed the guard that accompanied him to open the door, and dragged out the old man out.  I looked up from my slump and saw the man look back at me.  His eyes pierced mine, and with a sudden feeling of shame, I hid my head again as the guard went to close the door behind them.

“Hey”, he yelled.  “How long we had this rat here for?”  I knew now that I had finally been noticed.

“We got ‘nuff rope for this lil’ shit?”

He reopened the bars and grabbed me by the shirt, pulling me along with him, out of the cell, and following the executioner and the old man.  Soon a door opened, and revealed the sunlight of the day.  I turned my head back, as the glare was a shock to my eyes, but the guard forcefully yanked at my neck.  We walked down the streets, with the crowds beginning to form around us.  As we parted through the people, I saw where we were heading.  In the middle of an open courtyard, there was a stage, where the crowd gathered.  As we neared, the old man looked back as he walked.  Up until now, he’d remained silent and passive.  Just before reaching the stage, when he knew I was paying close attention to him, he made a quick move toward me.  He lunged, as if toward me, but threw all of his weight into the guard holding me.  I fell, as the guard’s grasp held on tight.  But as soon as we hit the ground, I felt his grip release.  “Run child!”  I quickly stumbled to my feet, and ran as I had been told to, easily blending into the crowded street.  As I looked back, the guard and executioner struggled to restrain the old man who was now unrelenting in his squirming.  It wasn’t long before the old man stood on the stage.  As the executioner tied the noose around his prisoner’s neck and positioned him beneath the wooden beam, the man was rambling on loudly.  I was unable to hear everything clearly, but knew he was reciting bible verses.  What I caught from him were only a few lines.

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him…”

I could not make out the rest of it, but I did hear him say loudly and with great clarity,

“Do not let yourself be conquered by the evil…”

And before he could finish, the executioner pulled the lever that gave way to the floor that supported his feet.  All that was left was the sound of him in a futile fight against gravity.  I looked down to turn away from the sight.  And as I peered about my feet, I noticed a piece of bread that had fallen out from my rags.  I picked it up, and trying to remember what the old man said, I threw it at my enemy before running again.  The man who had just pulled the trigger reached down for the stale loaf.  He bit through it, and glared through the crowd to search for the perpetrator.  But it was too late, I had disappeared.

Suddenly, I was fast forward back into the present time as I felt something in my hand.  “Here ya’ go”.  I looked down and saw the noose, remembering where I was again.  It had been so long ago.

And how I got here, it was like a vague memory.

I looked now at the man that was presented before me, his face still covered.  The crowd began to grow restless in my momentary pause.  Of course, they were a ruthless mob that either came to see blood, or people that hoped to show support to their revolutionary anarchist, who fought with a robin hood cause.  Either way, it was difficult to tell because they were faceless in their numbers.  I clinched the rope as I grabbed the bound man.  I pulled the knot over his head, down to his neck and tightened it.  I set him up above the trap door and walked over to the lever.  Now I grew with anxiety as I stared at him, defenseless.  The crowd grew louder and louder, but was nothing more than a slight buzz in my ears.  I was overcome with anger and a sudden internal moral conflict.

I pulled the lever.

The crowd hushed, as the sounds of gagging and gargling filled the air, along with the creaking of the rope.  All eyes were on the body that struggled.  I pulled out a dagger I had beneath my robes, and walked over to the struggling man.  My eyes, and soul, burned with anger.  I raised my dagger, and in one quick motion, cut the rope.  He dropped to the ground, but I immediately pulled the man up, removing covering that hid his face.  He gasped for air, coughing and wheezing.  I turned and brought a bowl of water, putting it to his face for him to drink as his arms were still bound.  He sipped it between his attempts to regain his breath.  When he was done, he thanked me in an infinite gratefulness.  I smiled.

~~~

“I don’t understand the story.  So you didn’t kill him?  Congratulations, you son have earned morality.  What might that buy you?”

Interrupted, I took a drink from my third now.

Now, the tale so far doesn’t have any sense, I know.  But here is what I had failed to mention.  The night before this, I found myself in the cell black I had once resided as a child.  No, not as an executioner seeking the bodies of an innocent woman, but as a prisoner, sentenced to death for the crimes I had committed.  I had snuck in with a caravan of prisoners and prostitutes sent to the guard tower.  I told you, as a child, I studied the movements of the guards and the executioner.  I sat in the dark corner, and waited patiently.  And when the executioner came in, and excused the guard, in search for his new prey, I struck swift and precise.  Like a ghost, I remained unnoticed.  And when the he was bound and gagged, I left a note, along with a bag of coin to the guard upon his return.

I had set out with a purpose and planned to carry on with it.

~~~

Returning to the story, I revealed it had not ended there with me on that stage.  I looked at the man kneeling before me and recited to him a bible verse, one I had remembered and studied.

“Return evil for evil to no one. Provide fine things in the sight of all men. If possible, as far as it depends upon you, be peaceable with all men. Do not avenge yourselves, beloved, but yield place to the wrath; for it is written: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says Jehovah.” But, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by doing this you will heap fiery coals upon his head.” Do not let yourself be conquered by the evil, but keep conquering the evil with the good.” -Romans 12:17-21

I reached behind my back again, and threw a single loaf of bread in front of him.  He looked down, then back at me bewildered.  “I am not so forgiving.  You are my enemy.  I shall take my vengeance with my own hands, in your blood.”  And with that, I slit his throat and took his life.

~~~

My audience was now quiet, like two statues frozen during the cold winter.  I grinned as no further words were spoken, but empty stares simply exchanged between the clergymen.  When I finished my last glass, I stood and made my way to the bar keeper.  I paid my debt and pulled my cloak over my shoulders.  Opening the door to reveal the storm still heavy in the night, I turned back.  I tossed a bag, which rang with an ample amount of gold pieces.

“Give these men food and drink, until they are filled and satisfied.”

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