Benjamin stood, nodding an order to his men as they placed a noose around each person. It was his duty to his men to make certain that he was the one to give the order each time. It was his duty to absolve them of any guilt he could. He did not like hanging people who's only guilt was in being too loyal to nobles who did not deserve their loyalty. So far at least, he could be certain that each man and woman hanging before him had at least been guilty of PLANNING to do more than profess loyalty though. They were all from the same resistance cell, but they were not the entire cell. One of their number had turned them in. Benjamin turned to look at the informer.
"If there are any here who are not guilty, now would be the time to speak," he said to the man.
The informer gulped, lowering his gaze against the mixed hatred and terror in the line of people he had turned in.
Benjamin's gaze turned cold and he grabbed the man's chin, lifting his head up to face the people he had worked with until this morning.
"They will die because of your choice!" Benjamin shouted. "Do them the honor of watching!"
The informer tried to jerk away but he held on tight enough that the man winced in pain.
"I ask again," Benjamin continued, his voice colder than hard steel. "Did any of these people protest the plans we found? Did ANY of them refuse to follow them?" His eyes narrowed further and he twisted the man's head until he looked the man in the eyes. "Did any of them profess a plan to stop you from performing the plan we found on that table?" The man's eyes widened in shock. "Did anyone else try to turn the cell in?" Fear filled the man's eyes for split second. "Did you STOP anyone from turning you in!" Benjamin finished with another shout.
The informant's eyes flicked to the side, to the line of people he'd turned in. "N...N...NO!" he finally screamed in answer, trying to squirm out of Benjamin's grasp.
Benjamin's cheek twitched, once, and he threw the man to the ground. "Wrong answer." He waved for one his men to grab the man. The informer struggled and another soldier moved over to help subdue the man. The informer screamed as they pulled them up to his feet. He kicked, he clawed, he did everything he could to escape, but they held him tight. Benjamin motioned for them to bring him with, and walked up to the line of dissidents sentenced to death by one of their own.
He stopped in front of the first one, a man. Their eyes met and Benjamin saw a mixture of hatred and determination. Benjamin had sat and watched each interrogation, for every single man, woman, and child they had brought in on the informer's words. He knew what the informer had tried to hide. He knew who the instigator was. He knew those who had disagreed.
He stepped over to the next person, a young woman. She glared back at him and spat. He wiped the spittle off his cheek and wiped it off on her tunic before stepping to look at the next man. Beside him, his soldiers brought the informer up and stood him before the people he had convicted to death. Benjamin continued to step over, looking each member of the cell in the eyes, accepting their anger or hatred or terror. A few kicked at him, more spat at him. One even spun around to try to claw him with hands tied behind her back. He accepted what they did to him. He was the man who would command their deaths after all, and they deserved the chance to fight back. A few begged him, pleaded with him, offered anything to be let go. He hardened his gaze towards them and stepped on.
And all the time he watched as his soldiers dragged the informant before each member of the cell. He watched and he listened as they screamed at him, as they promised to haunt him until he died, as they condemned him to a thousand hells for his treachery, as they pleaded with him to say that they were innocent, as they asked him why he was doing this to them. Benjamin watched.
Finally he stepped away from the last person held in the grips of a noose, waited until the last victim had the time to confront his accuser, and then Benjamin pointed at one of the prisoners. His soldiers stepped forward, grabbed the noose, and the woman cried out. The noose loosened, came off her head, and her cry turned to one of astonishment. The soldiers led her away from the gallows and Benjamin waved for the informant to be placed in her noose.
The man screamed and struggled, but Benjamin had the opportunity to see many the man had convicted to death smiling in approval at the switch. He waved at another, and another, and another, and his soldiers pulled one man, woman, or child out of the line until a half dozen had been reprieved.
"He committed blood libel," Benjamin intoned. "He betrayed his own in hopes of money. His reward will be given to the families he wronged." He made eye contact with each of those still on the gallows, then with each of those standing next to him. "Now would be the time to speak up, if any others are not guilty of his claims," he said slowly.
He examined each of the people standing next to him, saw their temptation, saw one woman looking to her husband still in the noose. He watched a young man look at the girl he'd joined the cell to get close to. Family and friends stood, some in nooses, some free, and he watched the temptation and the sorrow and the desperation in each of them. And he saw acceptance. He saw hearts breaking.
"Can anyone honestly say that justice is not done today?" he asked.
A reprieved woman turned from her noosed son and opened her mouth. Benjamin met her gaze, telling her without words that he would KNOW any lie. Her mouth snapped shut. He met the gazes of each of the other reprieved, and none went as far as she had. None tried to lie to him.
He waved at the people still in nooses. "These people are convicted by your actions. Do them the honor of saying good bye to them." The reprieved moved forward and hugged or kissed their family or loved ones.
One turned back to him, holding her husband with tears in her eyes. "Please, can't you have mercy?" she pleaded.
Benjamin trembled, his very soul wanting to give in to her plea, but his mind telling him he could not. He knew the man was guilty and so did she. "I don't know," he answered slowly, turning his gaze to her husband. "Do you think I could give mercy to one I know is guilty and still have this mean anything?" he asked with a wave of his hand at the entire gallows.
The husband looked down and did not answer.
"That is what I thought," Benjamin said slowly.
"He didn't DO anything!" the wife wailed. "Please! I know him! He couldn't! He wouldn't have!"
Benjamin turned on her in a flash, fire in his eyes. "You KNOW this? You KNOW? You are certain with all of your being that if you took his place in that noose that he would never do what you all planned?"
Her eyes widened in shock at his question, fear in them again.
Benjamin waved two of his soldiers over and they stepped up to secure the man. "If you are so certain of this, if you so certain that you can buy his freedom with a promise, then take his noose now."
"NO!" the husband protested, but the wife just looked at Benjamin as understanding came. Finally she turned, reached up to her husband's neck, and unstrung the noose. He fought, but the soldiers held him still until she finished her work. They led him away, struggling and screaming, as she slipped the noose on over her own neck. She didn't say another word and Benjamin did her the honor of accepting her gaze.
"I'll kill you, you bastard!" the husband shouted and Benjamin's eyes flashed fire as he turned to the man.
"Really? Really?" he asked the man, anger filling his tone. "She is willing to give you your life and you would throw it away in anger? Do you really place such a low value on her life?" Benjamin grabbed the man's jaw and held him tight. "If you do, let me kill you now so at least you don't have to stain your wife's final moments by outliving her!"
He saw the guilt in the man's eyes. "Let her go!" the man shouted at him finally.
Benjamin shook his head. "She is dead already. She bought your life with her's and there is nothing you can do to change that. Honor it or not, that is your only choice." He pushed the man back and turned away as his soldiers dragged the man away. The man continued to plead and shout, but Benjamin had no more time for him. Benjamin looked to the other reprieved and waved to those still in nooses. "I offer you the same choice as her. If there is anyone there who you would give another chance, if you truly believe they would use that chance, now would be the time to take their noose."
A mother stepped forward without hesitation and took the noose from her struggling son. Soldiers took him away, kicking and screaming. A boy took a noose from a girl he probably hadn't even kissed yet. Or maybe he had. Kids grew up so quickly these days. A husband took the place of a wife. His soldiers held the newly reprieved in place, watching the gallows, and Benjamin turned to the last of the first reprieved.
"All the condemned are there by their own actions. They have earned their positions there. Is there truly none that you believe could be reborn?" The last of the reprieved did not meet his gaze. They stared at the ground, shame in their postures. They wanted to live. They wanted to save their loved ones. In the end, their urge for self preservation won out.
"All who die here, do so by your words," Benjamin intoned and pointed at the four who had taken the places of their loved ones. He made a single hard gesture and soldiers stepped up, pulled the nooses from their heads, and marched them over to the ones they'd been willing to die to save.
He stepped over to the reunited as the others wailed in realization of the test they had failed. "Your lives are bound now. I pardon you all into each others' parole. If either of you are ever found guilty of sedition, you will both die. That is my sentence." He waved again and the soldiers marched them off. His eyes strayed to the boy and girl, hugging each other as if the world would end. It would be a damned shame if they didn't share at least a kiss tonight.
He turned his face back to stone and returned his gaze back to the reprieved, now begging him to save their loved ones. Soldiers had already grabbed the reprieved, holding them back, and Benjamin nodded in approval to his men.
"Mercy has been requested and granted," Benjamin intoned, using the practices of his family to extend the power of his voice. "Now it is time for Justice." He waved once and the gallows opened, rebels fell, and necks snapped. The last of the reprieved screamed in horror and cursed him.
He turned on them in a flash. "YOU killed them!" he shouted. "I gave you the chance to save them and you did not! You had the chance to stop them from planning death or joining this group and you did not! You had the chance to change this story long ago and you DID NOT! Life and death is ruled by DO or DO NOT! Your lives have been given. DO something with them, or DO NOT. Overcome your weakness or don't. Learn to live free or die. Now be gone from my sight," he finished with a wave of his hands and his soldiers dragged them away, kicking and screaming.
His scribe stepped up to stand next to him, staring at the bodies hanging from the gallows. "That was...terrible," the scribe whispered.
"Yes. It was," Benjamin answered.
Medron Pryde - The Great and Terrible
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