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Bell, Book and Candle
Mist cloaked the Cemetery of Koroke in shades of dismal gray. The tombstones, crooked and broken, loomed eerily out of a dense fog. Blackened trees reached out skeletal hands to the sky where a full moon hung, a bright silver button woven into the dark cloak of midnight.
A wiry figure moved quickly on the cobblestone path, ducking occasionally behind shadowed graves. Not that Hugin really expected anyone to catch him(who took trips to the graveyard in the middle of the night, anyhow?). But you could never be too careful. Especially in his profession.
If you looked close enough, you could just discern a black shape perched upon the boy’s shoulder, blending in with the cemetery’s gloom. And if you cared enough to peer closer, you would notice that the figure was a raven, sleek ebony feathers illuminated with a lustrous sheen in the faint moonlight and bright yellow eyes darting and wary.
Hugin clucked softly and the bird turned her head sharply to stare intensely at him. He held up a scrap of meat in his leather gloved hand.
“Here, Dajak. Here, raven.” Silent and deadly as a striking adder, Dajak’s beak plucked the scrap, recently thieved from the butcher’s shop, from Hugin’s fingers. Then she went back to gazing solemnly at him with those intelligent goldenrod eyes, something that Hugin found slightly disconcerting.
The satchel at his waist clinked as he set a quick, marching pace towards the curved iron gates. Four beads, a silken handkerchief, a golden chain, everything that Hugin managed to find at the graveyard went into the small cloth bag to be sold at the Market on Sabbath Day. Though sometimes larger objects, like an ornate pot or a hack-silver cross, had to be carried out under his cloak. All the more profit for him.
Hugin was a frugal thief. He was careful not to take too much, to be spotted carrying stolen goods. Unlike the more unfortunate citizens of the local underworld. He had seen those men and woman die. Watched them as the noose tightened around their throats. Hugin had seen them many times, the gallows birds, as they were commonly called. And every time he had felt sick. Every time the white-robed priest uttered that dreaded line, “The bell is rung, the book is closed, the candle is extinguished.” and motioned for the executioner to pull the lever, his stomach had been in turmoil. Because every thief in the town of Koroke was waiting for the inevitable: the feel of a rope around their neck.
A particularly gruesome rhyme that a local law enforcer had devised, consisting of three ominous lines, was hummed and murmured almost constantly by the constables:
Feel the noose,
Feel the fire,
Feel the flames, growing higher!
This was sung in such a cheery manner that it could have been a song young school children were taught. It was composed during a time when the customary punishment for long-time thieving was burning on the stake. Luckily for them, the villages moved forward and invented the gallows, a less painful was to be executed. Now, towns that had supposedly “upgraded” looked upon towns that still used the burning method with disdain at the vulgarity that they too had only recently emerged from.
Hugin glanced, worried, at the sky. It was already tinged with the faintest hints of morning. Dawn would arrive soon, along with the first watch. He had to get out of there.
On the way out, he met up with a fellow urchin, Kyra, who had just finished looting by the River of Noor. They exchanged cordial greetings silently. They knew only too well the dangers of speaking in the open.
The two felons froze at the sound of hoof beats before ducking behind an array of barrels. Dajak left Hugin’s shoulder to perch unsuspectingly on a narrow branch.
It was the first watchman, his brown hair and beard mussed from sleep and riding an iron-grey charger. A retiree of the Holy Crusades, perhaps?
Kyra’s short-cropped, straw-colored hair was shiny with perspiration and her tanned face was streaked with mud and grime. Hugin’s heart beat fast with fear. Time seemed to move in slow motion as the guard trotted sluggishly by.
At the last second, Hugin’s nerve failed him and he darted out from behind the barrels and sprinted into the forest, leaving Kyra behind and unknowingly revealing their hiding place.
The guard ’s head glanced toward Kyra and his eyes widened.
“You!” he roared in a deep, angry voice. “You stole my babe’s cradle! It cost a fortune to have a tinker carve it!”
Kyra tried to sprint away, but the huge man had already dismounted and seized her arm roughly. “Yer comin’ with me, gallows bird,” he growled. Kyra struggled but in no time her hands were bound behind her back and she was being led away on a rope, eyes cast down.
Hugin watched in growing horror as Kyra was dragged towards Koroke’s center. And the dreaded Roundhouse.
For a split second she glanced at him, a silent plea lurking in her eyes. Hugin shielded his face and looked down, not wanting to meet her desperate message. What could he do? Just watch as Kyra was led away and the cry for help turned to panic, then anger, then disgust.
Guilt made Hugin’s stomach roil until he could no longer see the two figures. Dajak landed on his shoulder and looked at him in silent accusation. Hugin felt his face turn bright red.
“Well. . . .,” he managed to say half-heartedly to no one in particular, “I might as well get home.” The raven clacked her beak.
Swiftly he ran back to the abandoned potter’s hut that was serving as his temporary shelter, fleeing burning guilt.
He lay upon the mat of damp straw and gazed up at the rotting boards. Dajak perched on a piece of timber. Hugin could not sleep. What have I done? he thought to himself over and over again, What have I done?
Finally, he slept. He slumbered right through the day, as was every thieves’ custom. The only day the citizens of the underworld walked the lighted hours was on Sabbath Day, when the Market was held, to trade their goods.
Hugin awoke just as the first stars were beginning to appear and the last shift of the graveyard was ending. But he did not feel like going to the cemetery. His guilt had not yet deserted him. Kyra would be hanged in the Market Square. And it would be all his fault.
Not quite sure of what he was going to do, Hugin donned his thick woolen cloak to keep of the autumn chill, had Dajak perch on his shoulder and ran into the night. Stars speckled the inky black sky like luminous, sparkling sequins. Hugin could feel the rain coming in his bones. The atmosphere was charged with the lurking menace of a thunderstorm.
He reached the main path just as the first fat droplets began to smack the paving stones. He could not even pull up his hood because Dajak was nestled comfortably inside it, completely dry. Lightning carved bright swathes across the sky and thunder roared like a colossal lion in the distance. Hugin’s charcoal hair was matted and dripping and he blinked water constantly from his tawny eyes. Buildings, illuminated by brief flashes of light, loomed ominously from the darkness.
Hugin slipped on the rain-slicked cobble stones and he was sent careening into the side of a building. Dajak squawked in protest. Rain blinded him and his shoulder screamed out in pain. Hugin levered himself up, checking to see if Dajak was alright. He felt dizzy and nauseous, as if he were going to faint. Hugin was not a fan of physical pain. With effort, he straightened himself and leaned against the building . The rain was still pelting down and the moon was out, a lustrous crescent in the predawn sky.
When he finally gathered his wits, Hugin realized he had reached his destination. The building he had smacked against was the Roundhouse.
He tottered around it, keen eyes searching for a way in. There were no horn windows and only one iron door that was locked when he tried it. Foolproof.
Despair filled him and he knocked on the door, calling.
There. He could hear a muffled voice. “Hugin? Hugin, is that you?”
“Yes. I’ve come to free you,” he said through the door.
“How?” Kyra’s voice was mocking. “The door is locked.” Hugin glanced around. The new day was almost here. The day of the trial. The day of the execution.
He scuffled his bare feet. “Wait here. I’ll think of something.”
“It’s not as if I can go anywhere,” she grumbled. “Just hurry!”
Hugin scratched Dajak’s beak absently, thinking deeply with his brow furrowed in concentration. The sun was just beginning to poke it’s sleepy head over the horizon. Almost dawn.
Just then, Hugin felt a strong hand grip his arm. “Yer out after curfew, raven boy,” growled a gravely voice in his ear. A guard. It was not the same one who had captured Kyra. This one’s face was clean shaven and he had bright blue eyes that were curious and, more importantly, stupid.
Dajak shrieked, beating her wings in the man’s face. Shielding his eyes, he pulled back. The raven seized the moment, grabbing something from the guards neck and flying high into the air.
“Aye!” cried the man in despair. “That’d be moi lucky rabbit’s foot! Come down! That’s a good birdie, come to Bertram!” Bertram cajoled and pleaded with Dajak, begging for the return of his talisman. Then the guard did what most men do when they are angry or distressed or have had too much to drink(Bertram was probably all three)he started hurling things.
Hugin slipped away in the commotion, silent as a wraith. The rain had let up and his nose was filled with a clean, fresh, after-rain scent.
This was ruined, however when Hugin heard the forbidding cry of, “Gardy loo!” and narrowly avoided being hit by the contents of someone’s chamber pot which had been hurled out of the window. This was why he was nocturnal.
The town of Koroke had a very fine set of gallows. They were kept in good condition even though they were not used very often. Only long-time thieves were hanged. Like Kyra, he thought, Like me.
The noose had been fitted, the lord and priest had been summoned, the crowd had gathered, the sun had emerged. It was a perfect day for an execution.
Hugin merged with the throng of exited onlookers, trying to spot Dajak or Kyra.
Kyra was led up onto the platform, hands bound and eyes cast down.
The lord, decked out in luxurious silks with ermine trimmings, eyed her in confusion. He said nothing, but what he was thinking was written all over his face. A hanging for a mere peasant girl? Which just showed how much he knew.
The lord called for silence, addressed Kyra, and asked for the commoners to relate how they had suffered at this gallows bird’s hands. This went on for around an hour. The baker; flour stolen. The blacksmith; a missing horse shoe, a local knight; a missing horse and so on.
The lord sighed in exasperation and finally put a stop to it all by saying, “I declare
Kyra of Koroke guilty of all charges. Except the one about how she stole your wife, Tanner. Just how stupid do you think I am? You don’t even have a wife.”
“True, true, m’lord,” sniffed a man who bore more than a passing resemblance to a bilge rat.
The priest recited a few verses from his book before motioning to the black-clad boy who served as bell ringer.
The first toll. “The bell is rung.” Kyra stepped up to the noose.
The second toll. “The book is closed.” The executioner fitted it over her head.
The third toll. “The candle is extinguished.” He pulled the lever.
Confused, the executioner pulled it again. Nothing. It was jammed.
Hugin made his move. He leapt up onto the platform and slashed the noose away with his long, saber-like knife. Commoners weren’t allowed to carry weapon, but what was a fine or a day in the stocks weighed against a public hanging? Dajak fluttered up from beneath the platform to alight on Hugin’s shoulder.
Hugin grabbed Kyra’s hand and jumped off the platform, ignoring the cries of, “Seize them!”
The three mounted a horse, much to the despair of it’s owner and galloped away into the densely wooded forest. Away from Koroke. Away from the gallows.
When the village had calmed down enough, someone went to investigate the jam. When he emerged, sweaty and triumphant, he was holding something tightly in his hand.
A single rabbit’s foot.