The walk to the gallows is dead silent. The crowd is split on either side of Alex as the guards drag his shackled body along the gang walk. He feels their eyes on him as keenly as he does the silence pressing into his skull. He wishes they would spit or snarl at him, shake their fists or bayoneted rifles, anything to shift time out of this slow crawl towards death. It makes him want to vomit, and Alex realises that the Colonel must have commanded it.
He does not want to die with anger in his heart. He casts his eyes skyward, beyond the gallows, its arms near black against the bleached grey sky. On the stage built at its back the Colonel sits in his throne, eyes shadowed by the lid of his general’s helmet. Beside him stands his daughter.
Alex feels the calm settle in; slow, steady, sure.
(“You must really be thirsty,” she says, slowing her horse to a stop by the well. Alex smiles and reaches for another canteen from the empty pile to his left. Seventeen others, freshly filled, stand in the cart by his feet.
“My regiment said it’s part of my initiation,” he says, shrugging.
“Apparently every new recruit acts as an errand boy for the first few weeks.”“They do,” she nods, “if they’re unfortunate enough to fall for it.”
“I guess my mind’s not the sharpest.”
“A fine quality in a soldier.”
She dismounts from her horse and perches on the edge of the well, the skirt of her dress tickling Alex’s thigh. The canteen he is filling overflows and soaks the sleeves of his uniform, and her laughter becomes his favourite song.)
Alex holds her gaze for as long as possible until the guards wrench him around to face the silent crowd. Fellow soldiers and townspeople alike stare back at him. He ignores those twisted with fury and focuses instead on those of his friends, forcibly slackened of any expression.
The noose is thick and heavy. It scratches his neck as the guards tighten the knot and nestle it at the base of his skull. Already he is having trouble breathing. The trapdoor under his feet creaks when he moves even an infinitesimal amount. It is the loudest sound he has ever heard.
Behind him, the Colonel rises.
(“How do I look?” she asks.
Her dress is crimson silk. She grips the skirt between her fingers and turns in a slow circle. It runs like water over the gentle curves of her body, the bare skin of her legs a flicker of ochre flame beneath the folds of fabric. She refocuses on Alex, his transfixed, desirous stare, and grins.
“You’re beautiful,” he says, and feels the words nudge against a tripwire tight with danger.)
“This regiment of the militia is the most prestigious in the country,” the Colonel booms. “After the fall of the government, I vowed that this nation would rise from the ruins. Together, we fed the people hope as water does the soil, drawing them out of the darkness and into pillars of strength on which to rebuild the country we thought lost.
“To ensure its protection, there must be order. There must be rules, and they must be abided. To break them is to threaten the safety of our people.”
Heavy footsteps precede the cold press of a bayonet to Alex’s jaw, the skin rubbed shiny and red under the rope’s grip.
“Such actions have consequences.”
(“You’ve been avoiding me,” she accuses, prodding Alex’s uniformed chest.
In truth, her security is allocated via a rota. That Alex had traded his last two security stints for training new recruits is a fact he hoped had slipped her—and the Colonel’s—notice.
She pouts, tilting her head to one side. “I missed you.”
“My apologies,” Alex murmurs. She flattens her hand against his chest. Her fingers slalom between the buttons of his tunic and hook beneath his belt.
She lifts one shoulder in a shrug, her mouth a crimson bow. “You’ll make it up to me.”)
The Colonel talks of treason, betrayal, dishonour. He spins a story about a coward abandoning his country and its people. Alex half hopes for one of the silent crowd to unspool the Colonel’s lies along with the noose stretching him out like a marionette, all the strings cut bar one.
Half hopes, because revolution does not breed anything but death in the Colonel’s kingdom, and he would rather brave the gallows alone.
Still; salvation would sound sweet in her voice.
(Alex is preparing to go on manoeuvres with some of the newer recruits when one of his bunkmates barrels into the stables, shouting for him to leave, that the Colonel knows, is on his way with six dozen men and their bullets in tow. Alex can only stand there, his horse’s reigns slack in his suddenly boneless hands.
“Go,” his friend commands, “before they catch you.”
Alex shakes his head. “I have to see her.”
His friend blinks. “Pak,” he says, frowning, “who do you think gave you up?”
Just like that, the world is falling down.)
They ask for his last words, but the silence is too loud, and Alex doesn’t trust his voice to break it. She is still out of sight behind him. He closes his eyes and lets her image bloom on the backs of his eyelids, washed in yellow light.
The hangman mounts the steps to the gallows. He takes the handle arrowed up from the platform, and pulls.
The trapdoor drops.
Alex’s body jerks downward, snapped into a straight line that sinks his stomach six inches south of where it should be. The rope cuts into his neck. Forbids his breath. His vertebrae grind to dust.
He tries to swing his body in a half-circle, to catch a glimpse of her in his periphery; to make the last face he sees one he loves.
He dies trying.
(She talks one of the guards into letting her into his holding cell. He is chained to the wall, wrists and ankles shackled and half-dead from lack of blood flow.
“I’m sorry,” she says, and looks it.
Alex doesn’t ask. Maybe she wanted them to be free. Maybe she never cared at all. He figures it doesn’t really matter.
It was going to end this way, regardless.)
Written by Shannon Eden