Author's Note: New stories always make me nervous, but I'm hoping you guys will like this one. I have a good portion of it written already, so I should be able to update somewhat regularly . . . emphasis on the somewhat. Anyway, I'm going to try my best, and any critiques/comments are more than welcomed—there's nothing I like more than reviews!
Hanging by a Thread
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There was going to be a hanging.
There was war between the two neighboring countries, and the man sentenced to death had been found selling information to the enemy. He would hang in Fenbrooke, a small town on the border that needed, in these times of war, assurance that they were winning.
And so there was going to be a hanging.
The townspeople were excited; the day had been declared a holiday and the hanging was the main event. The gallows stood in the town square and hadn't been used in at least two years, but now the villagers were crowding around them again, ready for the spectacle.
Kylie pushed her way through the crowd, leaving her father and younger sister behind. She loved hangings.
While the town clock ticked its way slowly towards the hour, she scanned the mass of people for a face.
There he was! Although he stood farther back in the crowd, Stephen looked just as eager as she. She studied him curiously; although she did not know him well, they would be married in less than a month.
She liked watching him from here, when he didn't know she was looking. She noted the strong, honest lines of his face and the wide breadth of his shoulders. As though he felt her gaze on him, Stephen turned to look at her. Their eyes met and Kylie, feeling her face grow red, quickly turned away.
Maybe he would walk her home today, she mused, gazing absently at her feet. He had such kind eyes. Maybe he'd take her hand—you were allowed to hold that hand of your betrothed, weren't you?
She was jerked from her thoughts by the loud chimes of the clock, announcing the hour, announcing the hanging! The excitement in the crowd grew as the accused man was brought up to the wooden platform. His hands were bound at the wrist, and although his feet followed direction his eyes moved wildly, unseeingly. He would die soon, and he knew it. Everyone knew it.
It was the knowledge that made it so exciting.
When the executioner placed the dark hood over the man's face, the crowd grew quiet. So quiet that Kylie could hear the boards creaking as the hangman walked towards the accused. So quiet she could hear to coarse rope sliding around his neck.
"Bloody traitor!" A man bellowed, breaking the silence and sending the crowd into fits of cheering.
Her heart quickened as the hangman stepped away, and the townspeople quieted down again, knowing that the end was coming soon, that the final moment was almost here . . .
The floor dropped out underneath the accused man, and the snap of his neck was heard across the square.
He was dead. All it took was a second, and a life was gone.
The breath Kylie had been unconsciously holding escaped her lips, but it was not just hers. The air rushed out of a hundred lungs and filled the gaping void in the world where a life had been.
That was why she came to hangings: that moment, that very instant when a life vanished. When what had been a person with thoughts and friends and family vanished and was filled with the empty breath of a crowd of watchers. The sigh of the living filling the void of the dead.
Where did the life go? Kylie wondered as the talking started again and the crowd dispersed. She turned to look for her father, drawing in a deep breath; hangings always left her feeling rather shaky.
She couldn't find him, but she spotted her friend Becca and ran over to the taller girl, dark haired girl, trying to shake herself back into the holiday spirit. Today was a celebration, after all, proof that they were winning the war!
"Do you want to go get lemonades?" Kylie had been given a bit of change for the holiday.
"Of course!" Becca agreed, and they hurried down the street to the small general store in hopes of getting there before the crowd.
The hanging was almost forgotten as they sat outside the store sipping their drinks and talking of Kylie's upcoming marriage.
"Are you nervous?" Becca asked.
"Nervous?" Kylie took a long drink from her cup.
"About, you know . . . your wedding night."
Kylie blushed. "Well, yes . . . but, I mean, I do want to have children, and you've got to do what you've got to do." The last part came out in a rush.
Becca nodded, and then suddenly the two girls burst into giggles.
"I don't understand why men like it!" Kylie exclaimed. "It sounds ever so dreadful!"
"You'll have to tell me all about it—everything!" Becca insisted.
"Oh, you'll be married soon enough, and then we can . . . compare!" They collapsed into laughter again, nearly dropping their lemonades.
"Listen." Becca said as their laughter died down. "Do you hear something?"
Kylie could hear a faint rumbling in the distance, but it was growing louder with every passing second and the ice her cup was beginning the shake.
Louder and louder and louder—a sound like that of galloping horses, but it would have to be hundreds of horses, thousands of hooves!
Kylie stood up and walked to the end of the street to see where the noise was coming from; Becca tried to call her back but the noise had grown to such an extent that nothing could be heard over the pounding.
Kylie was almost knocked over as the first horse came galloping by, followed by rows of others. They flew by in a wash of red and white, the riders wearing the uniforms of Samsera, the neighboring country.
The country with which they were at war.
Becca grabbed Kylie roughly by the back of her dress and pulled her to the edge of the street just as some of the riders began to turn down the small lane. They stood, backs pressed against the brick wall of the store as wave after wave of solders passed, many carrying flaming torches that they threw onto the thatched roofs of the houses.
The crowd of people who had been packed into the small store came running out, screaming as flaming pieces of roof fell from above. The onslaught of horses had finally thinned, but the surge of fire was growing; Kylie grabbed Becca by the hand and ran, pulling her out into the main square.
She didn't know where they were running, only that they had to move, had to find someplace to hide until the soldiers passed through. She had to stay away from the soldiers, she had to find her family—Kylie's mind was racing faster than her legs, so that she hardly noticed when she tripped over the body.
It was a face she recognized, but didn't know well; his chest had been cut though and was still bleeding though he lay lifeless on the ground. Kylie looked up and realized that there were bodies littered all over the wide street, some wounded by weapons, some bruised by the hooves of too many horses—and behind it all, the village slowly burning to the ground.
How had this happened? Moments ago she was laughing with Becca, and now . . . now she didn't know if she'd live through the day. Or the hour.
Her hand felt cold inside of Becca's. She had to keep moving. Kylie started forwards, but Becca remained rooted at the spot, staring openmouthed at the dead around her.
"Becca, come one!" Kylie urged, pulling at her friend. "Becca!" She got no response from her friend, no sign that the other girl even heard her.
Some of the soldiers were finding their way out of the twisting alleys and back into the main square. One soldier, his coat finer than the rest, was openly staring at Kylie from across the square.
"Becca, let's go!" She hissed desperately, and forcibly pulled her larger friend away from the center, praying that she would find an exit unblocked by fire.
Becca showed no sign of recognition, but her feet stumbled underneath her as Kylie pulled. Stumbled until they collided with the head of a woman, her body twisted in an unnatural angle.
Becca stopped, her eyes wide in horror, and screamed: a loud, piercing scream that seemed to carry itself throughout the entire town. Kylie grabbed her arm but it was too late, the scream (and the screams that followed) had drawn the attention of some of the soldiers, four of whom had ridden up and now clustered around the two girls, dangerous grins on their faces.
Abruptly, the sound stopped coming out of Becca's mouth and she stood next to Kylie in mute terror.
"Well, look here." One of them dismounted, the rage of war still burning in his eyes. "And I feared all the pretty ones had already died." He grabbed Kylie roughly by the arm, forcing her to let go of Becca. "I get this one first!"
The men laughed, and another jumped down from his horse and grabbed a hold of Becca. But Kylie could not see what was happening to her friend, for the soldier had forced her to the ground.
She screamed and kicked against him, but the man pinned her to the ground with his weight and was roughly pushing up her skirts when they heard a voice.
"Stop." No one stopped.
"Stop!" The soldier Kylie had noticed earlier grabbed the man atop her and pulled him off her, sending him reeling backwards.
"General!" The man cried, surprised. "General, it's a right of invasion . . ."
"Of course." The man agreed. "You can do what you'd like to the rest. But not this one."
"But Sir . . ."
"That is an order!" He turned to Kylie. "Get up, girl." She scrambled to her feet, puling her skirts down with one quick motion.
Without warning, the general hoisted her up onto a horse and the squeezed into the saddle behind her, turning to the soldiers once more. "You boys better hurry and finish up—we're setting up camp in the east field."
With that, he urged the horse forwards and they rode off, ignoring Kylie's cries for Becca and her attempts to push her way out of the saddle. Despite her struggles, the general's arm remained tightly around Kylie's waist as they rode towards the soldier's encampment.