I’d never seen the three men with their necks in nooses before today. Their long red hair, braided and beaded, whipped in the breeze like a wildfire and their faces held as still as the stone carvings on the battlements of the castle. Besides the two other adoptees living in the town, I’d never seen anyone who had features like mine. These men could have been my uncles — not that I would know.
My heart pounded, my chest heaved with each deep breath, and I wondered when the execution would start. The horses nickered in the courtyard below, but their chatter was nothing compared to the low roar of the crowd. Their bloodthirsty cries twisted my stomach in knots. I didn’t know my homeland, had no reason to be loyal to it, but a small part of me felt something for those men. The resemblance between us was so strong. I wondered if they had my blue eyes too, but I couldn’t see that from so high up in the castle.“Draw the curtains,” the queen commanded me. I squinted, trying desperately to see if their eyes were blue. I willed one of them to look up at me, reaching deep inside me for some remnant of the magic my people once had. Not one of them glanced towards me
“Lianne....” I turned to her for only a moment. The queen’s face was drawn and her eyes downcast, staring at her infant son. I let the curtain swing back over the open window. My fingers grazed the sharp brick as I pulled my hands away from the ledge.
“I just wanted to see them. I wasn’t going to watch the execution,” I said. “I don’t think I could stand seeing my countrymen hung.”
“I know you’ve never seen anyone from your land other than Kellan and Bryden, but this isn’t the way to gain an impression,” she said.
I glanced behind me, irritated with the musicians as they tuned their instruments. It wasn’t that I wanted to see them die, but I’d never seen, or heard, an execution before. As the queen’s maid, I was required to attend her and she refused to even acknowledge executions. She always arranged for musicians to play on execution days so she couldn’t hear anything beyond her chambers.
I admit I had trouble tearing my eyes away from the men who’d snuck here from my homeland, been caught, and arrested for violating the treaty. I was here as an honored adoptee, the hope for the future relations between our people. Other than the two boys who were here for the same reasons, I had never seen anyone who looked like me. I was fascinated by their red hair and pale skin, so much like mine, and so unlike the dark haired, olive skinned Fithians.
“I wonder why they came here, Mags,” I said to Queen Margaretta, the lady I served and my secret best friend. She was only a few years older than me and one of the only people in Fithia who didn’t treat me like trash. “Didn’t they know that coming here will only get them killed?”
She shrugged. I couldn’t help notice how vibrant she looked, even though she’d recently given birth to her third son. Her dark ringlets glowed in the dim, candlelit room. “The king didn’t make me aware of their reasons. I know little more than you.”
The drums beat out a rhythm I’d only been told about, a steady, deep pound that reverberated through my body, warning the spectators the execution was about to begin. I’d heard rumors the men would be drawn and quartered too. My stomach turned, but I reminded myself they’d crossed the clearly marked boundaries.
They should have known the consequences. It was their own fault.
I fingered the side of the curtains, the heavy frayed damask littering small strands onto the floor, but I stopped myself short of actually pulling back the panel. The musicians in the room struck up a rousing song and we couldn’t hear the drums anymore.
“If you insist on seeing this, then stick your head through the curtains. I don’t want to hear any of it though,” Mags said. I wasn’t surprised she gave in to me. Mags was strong spirited, but so was I. We chose our battles and this was one she knew I wouldn’t give up on.
Clutching the curtains, I stuck my head between the two panels. I caught a faint whiff of decay. The curtains were older than me and their musty scent assaulted my nose, but I didn’t care. I saw the men again, sunbeams sparkling off their red hair. Wild and unkempt, their leather clothes bespoke of a land far more brutish than this one and each of them looked straight ahead into the crowd. Not one appeared afraid and I wondered if they felt the same trembling in their stomachs that I felt in mine.
The drumbeat accelerated and my heart sped up, keeping time with it. I didn’t want to look, but I couldn’t turn away.
“For crossing the borders illegally, you have been sentenced to death.” King Rotlar’s voice, as big as his girth, boomed from his golden throne. He must have had his servants bring it outside for the big occasion. His voice carried as the crowd fell silent. “After the hanging you will be drawn and quartered, then your bodies sent back to your homeland in disgrace. Hopefully your people will remember who won the war.”
The men didn’t acknowledge the king; they only stared ahead into the crowd, their gazes never wavering. If they weren’t afraid then they were the bravest men I’d ever seen. Knowing death was imminent, they showed no emotion.
Three of the king’s guard marched up behind the horses, each holding a whip in the right hand.
“On the count of three,” the guard on the right yelled. “One! Two! Three!”
The whips cracked simultaneously on the horses’ rumps and they ran forward, only breaking to the side once they spied the barrier separating them from the crowd. My eyes flickered back to the men, their lifeless bodies hanging from the nooses. I’d heard other people whisper that their necks would break as soon as the horses raced off. From the angle their heads limped, I believed it.
I pulled back and the curtains grazed my body, like it was giving me a light hug. I could use one after seeing that.
“Is it done?” Mags asked. I nodded my head.
“You may leave,” she said to the musicians, waving her hand at them.
The lead guitarist bowed his head and motioned to his fellow performers. Without a sound, they left the chambers, leaving Mags and I alone with her infant son, Trevin.
“How is Trevin feeling today?” I asked, wiggling my finger above his nose. He cooed and giggled at me, his pink cheeks puffing in and out. I needed to remind myself of my reality, to pull away from what I’d just seen. His color was better today. After Trevin’s birth, his skin turned yellow. We’d feared the worst, but after a few days under the bright sunlight, at the direction of the ancient midwife, his color returned.
“He’s good. Noisy. Doesn’t sleep. Screams. Exactly like his older brothers did.” Mags sank back into a lush pillow. “I’m so tired.”
“Why don’t you have someone take care of him at night?” I asked. “You’re perfectly within your rights. You are the queen, you know.”
Mags smiled, sat up in bed and craned her head over Trevin’s bassinette.
“I know, but there are so many things I’m not allowed to do anymore. I can’t make plans to see my old friends or join them in a tavern for a quick drink. But I can keep my sons at my side for as long as possible. I am their mother. They can’t take that away from me.”
She loved her sons fiercely. Anyone could see that. The two older boys, Daniel and Matthew, slept in the chamber across the hall from her so she could help them at night if one of them woke up from a nightmare or was sick. The last queen had fostered her son out as soon as he was weaned. King Rotlar barely knew his mother. He thought Mags’ attachment to her boys was unhealthy and frequently insisted she’d have to give them up. But so far, he hadn’t done anything. Just yelled, as he did about most things.
“You’re a great mother,” I answered. “Don’t let anyone tell you that sending your boys away is better than keeping them close to you.”
Mags picked up Trevin and cradled him in her arms, but she focused her gaze on me.
“I’m sorry you’re here against your will. I know you can’t leave for another four years. I’m sure you wonder about your family and why they gave you up.”
She always thought about someone other than herself. My heart swelled as I looked at my friend. The queen. This was the last place I’d ever expected to find a friend, but in a way, we’d found each other. Her life was as restricted as mine, even more in some ways.
While she was never allowed to leave the castle alone, at least I could slip out for some secret hand-to-hand combat training with my boyfriend Kellan and his adoptive father, Aric.
“I don’t blame them.” I fingered the silken blanket on her bed. The intricate stitching illustrated an arboreal scene. Our castle was surrounded by forest on three sides and an expansive river on the fourth. I avoided it as much as possible, preferring my feet to stay on dry land.
“I’m sure I was chosen for a reason,” I said. “When I go home, maybe I’ll be elevated as an advisor or ambassador. Maybe my people were promised something in return.”
“They considered it an honor to give their children up to us,” Mags whispered, her eyes downcast. “Or so I’m told.”
“You don’t believe that?”
Mags had doubts? My heart pounded. We’d been friends for a couple years, but we’d never talked about my homeland. Not once. I wasn’t sure I wanted to. Not after what I’d witnessed today.
“I don’t know what to believe, Lianne. There’s so much we’ve been taught about the war that doesn’t make sense. And as a mother, I can’t imagine ever giving up my children, no matter how politically advantageous it is.”
I held up my hand and Mags stopped talking. “I’ve heard it all before. No need to tell me the rest. I’m sure I’ll find out someday why my parents gave me up, but talking about it isn’t going to lead to any answers. I have to wait.”
Mags looked at me with sad, dark eyes, and nodded in agreement. Then, as if to signal the close of the topic, she held up her index finger, and spun it around in the air, motioning me to turn around. It was time for Trevin’s mid-morning snack. I averted my eyes. We were friends, but I didn’t want to see her nursing Trevin, and she understood it made me uncomfortable.
I stood and wandered to the window. The crowds milled about, not yet breaking up even though the men’s bodies were already removed from the courtyard. I looked out on the river in the distance. Leagues upriver the border to my homeland would be guarded, posts every five miles or so with tall towers. A byre laid in wait in each tower, to be lit in case of an emergency. Within moments a signal of fire would be seen and the next would be lit. They would know in a few moments of an attack from my people.
Yet an attack never came. They were subdued. Quiet. Obedient. Yet these three men came. They weren’t brandishing swords or leading an army. We hadn’t heard why they were here, only that they broke the treaty and were sentenced to death.
“You can look again.” I turned back. Mags’ gown now covered part of Trevin’s head.
“Do you really think it isn’t an honor for them to give us up?” I asked, going back to our conversation. I changed my mind. Maybe I wasn’t quite ready to stop talking about it. “We’ve been told to believe it was an honor for our parents.”
There were days I wasn’t sure what was true. I had trouble reconciling what I was told by my teachers and what I felt in my gut. The peaceful river out the window or the stories of violence and death — which was the truth?
Mags pulled Trevin out from under her gown and stroked his hair. A little milk pooled on his chin and his gums smacked together in satisfaction. I smiled at him. His olive skin, so smooth like his mother’s, always charmed me. Whenever I held him in my arms, I reveled in the contrast. His skin dark and mine, so pale.
“You shouldn’t always believe what you’re told,” she said. “I’ve heard things, seen things, you wouldn’t believe. Being the king’s wife gives me accessibility to the most interesting discussions. Being a woman makes me invisible. They are quick to ignore me, but I listen anyway.”
Mags fluffed up her pillow again and scooted back against it. I wondered if she grew bored with lying down all the time, but it was customary for the queen to stay down for at least three months after giving birth. Kings wanted to be sure their wives would be healthy to bear more boys. Mags had proven her reproductive worth by producing three boys.
“I’m going to eat soon. Do you want to stay here with me or take some time to meet up with Kellan?” Mags asked. “I’m guessing with the confusion of the hanging, no one is going to notice if you two spend a little time together.”
A smile spread across my face. I couldn’t help it. Everything was so new with us and I stole every moment I could to be with Kellan. I’d followed him around like a puppy for years and he’d only recently paid attention to me. A blush crept across my face. He did far more than pay attention to me now.
“Thank you!” I pushed the hanging, and my homeland, to the back of my mind. It was over and it wasn’t like I knew those men. We had no real connection.
“And if you see your sister,” Mags said, “send her here. She didn’t show up this morning and we need to have a little chat.”