The Seventh Execution
by Amber E. Scott
Chapter One: The Watcher Watched
Her or me. It was her or me.
After the execution, after too many sleepless nights, afraid to face the waiting nightmares, I had to put the matter behind me.
"It was her or me," I declared, then made myself believe it. If I stopped, though, if I ceased whispering my mantra under my breath when I was alone, if I left off repeating it in my mind until I nodded off at night, the horror of the day returned. It seeped into my thoughts in sudden and startling ways. Firelight glinting on a kitchen knife recalled Razor Jenni's blade. Wagon wheels rumbling on the cobblestone street brought back the murmuring crowd. Raw meat on the cutting block, waiting for dinner—
Her or me.
I had worked hard all day. Now that night had come I found that sleep would not visit. I lay motionless on my cot, eyes fixed on the ceiling, listening to the house settle around me. This used to be my favorite time of day, when I could rest my body and free my mind, letting my fancies take me to lands free from toil and fear. Now my fancies took me to very different places. I distracted myself by running through the list of chores for the next day: stop the wood-cart when it came around and purchase two bundles on account, put a roast in at noon so that it would be ready for dinner, take the curtains down in the library and wash and press them, clean the windows while the curtains hung on the line. I hated windows more than any other chore. While a stepstool and creative leveraging allowed me to do human-sized tasks in every other area of the master's house, windows required a ladder and endless climbing up and down.
I'd lifted a pot full of soup earlier that day and aggravated an old strain in my back. My head pounded like the drums before an execution. I sat up. The moonlight coming through the gabled window illuminated the old boxes and trunks piled in the room. Most halfling servants have to be content with half-rooms under stairs, attached sheds half the height of the rest of the house, or even cupboards. To sleep in an attic, even one with a close and slanted ceiling and mice that ran over me in the middle of the night, was luxury.
I rose from my cot and stretched, trying to ease my aches. The floorboards felt cool under the curls of hair covering my feet. I padded to the window and leaned on the sill.
The quiet streets of Edme stretched away, disappearing into a maze of stone walls and peaked roofs. I often stood here, looking for furtive movements or cloaked figures, any signs that Cheliax worked to invade our free nation with their bound devils and sorcery. My father had served my master's father and remembered the start of the Red Revolution and the oppression that came before it. When others were in earshot, he would tell me stories of Chelish dominance and the nobles' excesses, a time when halflings were downtrodden "slips" and not respected servants. When we were alone, he cautioned me that those without use to the nation were the first fingered as traitors.
"As long as you keep finding spies and turncoats for the master, you'll never find yourself in Razor Jenni's arms."
"In Galt, it's best to never be noticed at all. Fortunately, halflings are good at that."
There are always traitors in Galt. I had become an expert at spotting them by the darkness in their eyes and the rhythm of their gait. My master traveled to Isarn once a month to serve on the Revolutionary Council, and he used my eyes to improve his standing there. Together we had sent six traitors and Chelish sympathizers to their final rest. Six that I am certain were guilty.
And one that I am not.
My mind threatened to sprint down those familiar paths once more. I focused instead on the dark street below, watching for unusual activity. The moon was out, just past half full and waxing. My eyes quickly adjusted to the little light. Edme's resources grew leaner with each passing season, and more than one citizen crept out at night to rifle through abandoned houses. My perch allowed me to watch for such activity, and my experience helped me separate desperate looters from dedicated traitors.
I stayed at the window until I started shivering. I stretched, and was ready to return to my cot when movement in the street below caught my eye.
I stopped in mid-stretch, holding myself still. A human figure crouched in the alley across the street, wrapped in a dark cloak and hood. I couldn't see the figure's face, but his height and manner of dress suggested it was a man. I watched, waiting to see what business the fellow had so late. He pressed against the wall of the alley, motionless save for small movements of his head as he surveyed the street. The man's focus was not on the street itself, but only the building opposite him. The building in whose attic I stood, watching him in return.
He was spying on my master's house.
He must have seen me, I thought, before recalling how difficult it is to see inside an upper-story window from the ground, especially when the person at the window stands only head and shoulders above the sill.
The watcher looked up just as I stepped back. I hesitated, wondering whether he had seen me after all, fighting the temptation to step forward again and make sure I had gone unnoticed. No, no time for that. I grabbed my cloak from its peg near the door and hurried down the stairs.
My sleeping clothes are almost identical to my working ones: a thin shirt and brown linen trousers. My cloak, though, is dark blue-gray, purposefully dyed to help me blend into the night. I threw the cloak over my shoulders and pulled it tight in front. I don't wear shoes. I let myself out the back door not more than two minutes after I had first spotted the watcher.
Halfling senses are sharper than human ones. We can't see any better in the dark, but we're attuned to details. Especially here in Galt, where we live so close to death, halflings must remain alert.
I crept along the side of the manor until the mouth of the alley opposite me came into view. It stood empty. I could hear footsteps, though, muffled and growing fainter. I dashed across the street, my feet almost noiseless against the cobblestones.
I had to work to catch up. Even at top speed I moved slower than humans did. My biggest advantage was that the watcher didn't seem to know the city well, while I could navigate the streets with my eyes closed. The moon vanished behind clouds twice, and the tall buildings around me cut off much of the light. Several times I had to slow down lest I trip in the dark or splash through a puddle. My heart beat a little faster every time I had to slow. The watcher's footsteps grew fainter. If I didn't make up the distance quickly, I was going to lose him.
The watcher's footsteps doubled back. The remains of an old lecture hall loomed before me. It had burned down at the start of the revolution. Sooty timbers leaned drunkenly toward each other. Puddles of rainwater glimmered between piles of broken glass and charred rubble. I held my breath and listened. The scent of old fire stung my nose. The watcher was south of me, circling around the building. I tucked the hem of my cloak into my waistband and climbed into the ruins.
I scrambled up one of the leaning timbers. The wood, soaked with countless rains, was rotten and soft as a carpet. The timber collided with one of its fellows at a crazy angle. I leaped from one to the other. My feet slid on the sodden wood, and I windmilled my arms to keep balance. When I'd righted myself I paused, listening. The watcher was still moving.
The timber shifted a little as I ran down its length. A mess of fallen boards crossed the center of the room. I clung to the timber and slid over the edge. Carefully I dropped down onto the boards. Mud and broken glass lay thick around them. I hastened across, my breathing coming quick and ragged as I picked each careful step.
One of the boards slid out from under me. I hopped to another, hoping it would hold. The planks clattered. I froze and listened.
The watcher stopped. I bent my knees and huddled as close as I could to the ground, envisioning the fastest way out of the building and back home.
Then the watcher started up again. I gave him as much lead as I dared before continuing across the ruin. I reached the other side just as he approached. I breathed a little more easily. Now I could keep up with him for certain. I concealed myself behind a pile of rubbish and waited for him to pass.
At the same time, I heard more footsteps from the other end of the street. Quiet boots, low voices, a sharp laugh. Looters. Most criminals in Edme were driven by desperation, but lately more sordid individuals had come to the city. They were violent men who followed rumors of abandoned treasure-vaults. I hesitated in the shadows. Before I could decide what to do next, the watcher darted straight for my hiding place.
As I had guessed, he was a human man. The moonlight robbed his form of color, but it seemed his skin was a light brown shade similar to my own, and his hair and eyes were both dark. He pressed against the wall and slid down to conceal himself behind the refuse pile I was using. I held my breath and, for a wild moment, thought he might not notice me.
Then the watcher looked down and saw me crouched next to him. His eyes widened.
The sounds of the looters grew louder. I put my finger to my lips and shook my head.
The watcher nodded and kept silent. The looters came abreast of us, three of them dressed in dark clothes with weapons held openly in hand. They carried empty packs strapped to their backs, waiting no doubt to be filled with artifacts of pre-Revolution Galt. The watcher held still next to me, so tense I could almost hear his muscles hum. After a dreadful minute, the looters passed by into the darkness.
The watcher let out his breath in a sigh and straightened. He was short for a human, less than twice my height. "I appreciate your silence," he whispered.
"I've no wish to run afoul of that type," I replied. "You take a risk being out so late."
"As do you." He looked me over. "You've been following me, haven't you?"
I clenched my hands. The man had good ears to have heard me, and I had lost any element of surprise. I readied myself to run, but risked a direct question first. "You were watching the Mirford estate. I want to know why."
The watcher smiled. He crouched down to put himself at eye level with me.
"I was looking for you."
Coming Next Week: Moral quandaries and dark magic in Chapter Two of "The Seventh Execution."
Amber E. Scott is the author of "The Swamp Warden" and several chapters in "The Compass Stone: The Collected Journals of Eando Kline," as well as numerous Paizo RPG products such as Heart of the Jungle and Halflings of Golarion. She writes from her home in Canada, where she lives with her husband, Jason, and her two cats, Dabu and ZugZug.
Art by Mike Capprotti.