Once the three condemned, former students reached their places on the gallows, the person in the raven costume prepared them for hanging. This was an occasion crucial to the Choosing. That is, trading out the lives of those who had failed for those new Chosen who would take their place. Xala had always thought the practice barbaric, but it was accepted as part of the process by the people of Undertown.
Having tested the strength of the ropes and once satisfied at a job well done, the executioner stepped in front of the condemned, faced the crowd and raised both his hands high in the air. The fields, streets and alleys near the Mearg gate suddenly fell silent, all of the people on both sides remaining still. Out from the depths of Undertown and through the haze resounded a slow, percussive sound that grew in intensity as the seconds passed.
The guards at the central entrance to Aefenrest activated a sequence of levers resulting in a symphony of clicks and clacks which preceded the opening of the wrought iron, filagreed gate. Xala knew very well what this was.
It had been the tradition of the Cohort of the Knife to delay revealing the identities of the condemned until after they had been hanged. Of course, this meant that it could be any of the previous chosen. Xala had been told stories about some of the executed chosen who had been imprisoned in the school’s jails for many cycles before being brought to the Maerg for execution. One had been held for twentyfive cycles before his execution. Others were brought back at the soonest opportunity which, in a few rare cases, meant the execution of adolescents.
Still mindful of Toryn’s heavy presence and careful to only turn to the left, Xala looked over her shoulder to see the approaching of the Bearnleas, the childless--those still living who had been parent or caretaker of one of the chosen who had not yet returned from the Cohort of the Knife. They were arranged in ranks of five wide and ten or so deep. All were wearing brown burlap robes with cowls that hid their faces. About each of their waists was tied a cord made from a patchwork of fabric that came from the chosen’s clothing. Their feet were unshod. They had their heads down and made no sound as they stepped in unison. One of the Bearnleas in the front was striking a small hand drum with a mallet at a slow pace.
The Bearnleas flowed through the gate and into Aefenrest. The honor of entering first was theirs alone. They ended their journey in front of the gallows, their heads still down. The drumming stopped. The executioner lowered his hands and bowed to them deeply. Only the musician bowed back before lowering their own head.
The great bell sounded again, low and sustained. The executioner turned motioned toward the line of judges behind and to the side of the gallows. The line parted somewhat, allowing a single figure through. She was tall, even by Aefenrest standards which was noteworthy since everyone in Aefenrest seemed a little taller than normal. Her jet black hair was long and straight, combed behind the shoulder. She wore a crimson doublet of quilted material, studded with pearls of the same color. Her slops were tan and of fine cotton, stuffed into knee-high, black hard-leather boots. A tan neck-sash of silk hung loosely about her neck. In her black, leather belt was a small scabbard from which emerged the wooden handle and gilded pommel of a small knife. This was certainly not the knife of a commoner but neither was it that of a noble. This was a Seidar Knife, an instrument of precision and the emblem of a Cuisiner; a Fellow of the Cohort of the Knife. All students had to begin making such a knife right away and its eventual perfection was the culminating challenge they faced in their final cycle at the school. But this was a special Seidar knife. There was only one such knife. That is, the one that had a gold pommel. All others were silver or brass. And it belonged to one person. Xala knew this person. Everyone did. It was the Schoolmistress Meadowbrook.
She strode quickly and confidently up the gallows stairs and stood aside the executioner, who turned, bowed to her and again faced the crowd.
Her voice was substantial and authoritative. “Though fortune has found us on different sides of this gate, we are all citizens of this great city!”
The crowd stirred somewhat but all remained silent. The muffled sound of the waves crashing on the northern beach beyond the wall could be heard.
“But today,” she continued. “we celebrate you in Neodan by allowing three special people from among the one hundred selected hopefuls to have an opportunity to join us in our great work. For those three, it will not be easy. Every day, their resolve will be stretched, their endurance tried and their mettle tested. In time, if they are worthy, and only if they are worthy, they will have emerged victorious as Cuisiners of the Cohort of the Knife!”
She paused and scanned the crowd with violet eyes and wearing a cold expression. “But as you know, not all among the Chosen are worthy of the Knife. For those unfortunates, there is only one solution!” The Schoolmistress Meadowbrook gestured behind her toward the condemned.
“This is our way. There are secrets to be guarded and honor to maintain. This is the price of our particular arrangement.” She softened somewhat. “And while it grieves me greatly to bear this responsibility, I will bear it with complete fidelity and see it through.”
She nodded at the executioner who nearly fell over himself to get to the lever, such was his enthusiasm.
“Stop!” boomed a large and deep voice from behind the people of Neodan. All turned toward it. “Stand down, creature!”
As the large, cowled figure emerged from the haze, the sounds of his metal-shod feet impacting the cobbled ground and the whir of the mechanisms inside his armor became audible. Behind him was a compliment of armed militia, though not anywhere as large but twenty or so strong. One was carrying the standard of Port Frailty, a red flag with the profile of a white, single-masted boat in its center. Each had their hands on the pommels of their sheathed swords as they marched.
“Well, this is quite a treat!” mocked The Schoolmistress Meadowbrook. “The Minister of Port Frailty himself comes to witness the Choosing! Had I known that all it took was a neighborhood party to get you to come out and play, I’d have done this more often!”
“Enough, Zofia!” yelled the giant, armored figure whose group had made it to the main gate, which had been shut. “Stop this! It is wrong!”
“You know I cannot do that,” returned Zofia Meadowbrook. “Besides, you’ve no right to interfere here. We are in Aefenrest, after all.”
“And Aefenrest is in Port Frailty!” the man yelled. “And all Port Frailty is my responsibility as are all of its inhabitants--even you Zofia.”
“This is tradition!” countered Zofia.
“This is murder,” replied the Minister of Port Frailty. “Speak it plainly, as you are already judged for it.”
“So, the mighty and ancient Surek Taban, member of a dying order, minister to a dying city and Protector of a dying people has come to do what exactly? Relieve these failures of their obligation? To disrupt our ways and bend us to yours?” Zofia did not waver in the least.
“I have come to appeal to your humanity, Zofia,” Surek Taban continued.
“Well, then you have wasted your time,” replied Zofia. “For my humanity is at long last gone.”
Surek Taban removed his cowl, revealing a face that had been badly burned at some point in the past. His green eyes pierced the haze and met with Zofia’s. “I cannot allow this!”
Xala was reeling at the volley that played out before her. She had heard about the Minister of Port Frailty, but few in Neodan had ever actually seen him. She found it quite startling that she had, in a single day, been in eyeshot of likely the two most powerful people in all of Port Frailty. As she pondered it, she could hear that Toryn had started chuckling a bit beneath his breath. She could still feel his eyes on her. She did not look.
Zofia Meadowbrook took a step forward, to the edge of the gallows and straightened her back. “Well if you insist on action, then take it!”
Surek Taban stared for what seemed like eternity.
“You will not take action, because you can not take action, old friend,” Zofia reasoned. Neither can you enter Aefenrest. You know these gates keep you out, do you not?”
Surek Taben visibly seethed. It was true. Xala had heard of it; a curse. But, it was widely known that there were more than grouse and bierberry pies being studied among the Cuisiners of the Cohort of the Knife. The rumor was that Zofia’s father placed the curse on Surek Taben as a way to keep him from meddling in the affairs of the privileged class in Aefenrest. If all was true, then the Minister or his militia could not pass through the gate or touch the gate without instantly perishing.
Zofia once again signaled the executioner who immediately responded in kind. The three condemned, former students dropped and bounced, settling into having no slack in their ropes. After a while, they stopped struggling. During that time, Zofia did not remove her gaze from Surek and neither did Toryn remove his gaze from Xala.
Satisfied that all had expired, the executioner removed the hoods of the condemned. There were two males and one female, all around twenty cycles of age. The members of the Bearnleas who had gathered looked up in unison. The sounds of parental wailing pierced the air, overpowering the sound of the crashing waves.
Somberly, those who had not lost their loved-one today turned, reformed ranks and exited Aefenrest back into Neodan, continuing on into the haze to return in another five cycles to once again see if their relative was among the dead.
Xala noticed that Zuzi gave an audible gasp at the revealing of the condemned. Xala thought that maybe Zuzi knew one or more of them. Xala did not recognize them, though she felt very sad for their families who were now suffering before the gallows.
The line of judges and their attendants clapped wildly and cheered.
Zofia, remaining composed, smiled broadly and raised her hands in appeal. “You have honored tradition and the agreement stands strong. Now, it is time for the Choosing!”
Xala’s heart jumped in her chest. It was time.