█████ opened his mouth to plead, but the noose choked off his words. His feet left the ground, the rope cutting deep into the soft flesh beneath his chin. Up into the air he jerked, kicking and twisting, up and up and up.
She tugged hard on █████’s hair and sawed at his neck until the blade grated on bone. Blood ran hot over her fingers. His little bells were ringing, ringing, ringing, and the drum went *boom doom boom*.
█████ was hanging from the limb of an oak, a noose tight around his long thin neck. His eyes bulged from a black face, staring down at ▓▓▓▓▓ accusingly. You came too late, they seemed to say. But he hadn’t. He hadn’t! He had come when they told him. “You killed him,” he croaked.
[NAME BOTH] █████’s sword was sunk deep in ██████████’s throat, halfway to the hilt. █████ had always seemed such a big man to ▓▓▓▓▓, but locked in ██████████’s massive arms he looked almost like a child. “██████████ crushed his spine. I don’t know who died first.”
One instant █████ was coming after him spitting curses. The next he was spitting blood. ▓▓▓▓▓ had grabbed him by the hair, yanked his head back, and opened his throat ear to ear with one long slash. Then he gave him a rough shove, and the wildling fell forward, crashing face first across ▒▒▒▒▒. ▒▒▒▒▒ screamed in agony as █████ drowned in his own blood, the axe slipping from his fingers.
“You remember where the heart is?” ▓▓▓▓▓ asked. She nodded. █████ rolled his eyes. “Mercy.” ▒▒▒▒▒ slipped between his ribs and gave it to him.
“*Mercy!*” ▓▓▓▓▓ cried, but horns and drums and the clash of steel smothered her plea. ▒▒▒▒▒ buried the head of his axe in █████’s stomach.
[NAME BOTH] “What do █████ and ██████████ say of this?” “Little.” ▓▓▓▓▓ upended the sack, and the heads of ██████████ and █████ spilled out upon her carpets. “My gifts to ▒▒▒▒▒.”
His eyes melted and ran down his cheeks, and the oil in his hair and beard burst so fiercely into fire that for an instant █████ wore a burning crown twice as tall as his head. The sudden stench of charred meat overwhelmed even his perfume, and his wail seemed to drown all other sound.
He thrust his longsword through █████’s heart, and twisted.
Three men stepped to the gunwale, raised crossbows, fired. One bolt took █████ in the chest as he looked up, punching through the left crown on his surcoat. The others ripped into throat and belly. It happened so quickly neither █████ nor ▓▓▓▓▓ had time to cry out. When it was done, ▒▒▒▒▒ tossed the torch down on top of the corpse. The little boat was blazing fiercely as the galley moved away.
The axe crashed down. Heavy and well-honed, it killed at a single blow, but it took three to sever the man’s head from his body, and by the time it was done both living and dead were drenched in blood.
He twisted free of the old man’s grasp, shoved the knife into █████’s belly, and yanked it out again, all red. And then the world went mad.
█████ was making a dry clacking noise, trying to speak. His eyes bulged white with terror, and he lifted a hand . . . reaching for ▓▓▓▓▓, or pointing . . . *Is he begging my forgiveness, or does he think I can save him?*
They found █████ in a tree, impaled upon a splintered branch and still roped to the three men who lay broken beneath him.
█████ stumbled backward, her feet slipping on the wet marble. And then she was gone. She never screamed. For the longest time there was no sound but the wind.
█████ made a sound that was half a laugh and half a sob, and suddenly his smallclothes were wet, and he could feel the piss running down his leg, see steam rising off the front of his breeches.
His foot lashed out and caught the bench, driving it hard into █████’s shins. Somehow the bearded man kept his feet, but ▓▓▓▓▓ ducked under his wild slash and brought his own sword up in a vicious backhand cut. Blood spattered on the ceiling and walls. The blade caught in the middle of █████’s face, and when ▓▓▓▓▓ wrenched it loose half his head came with it.
“Oh.” █████ cupped his cheek with her hand. “You know nothing, ▓▓▓▓▓,” she sighed, dying.
As he drew back his huge fist, the blood on his gauntlet seemed to smoke in the cold dawn air. There was a sickening *crunch*.
They found █████ still tangled in his stirrup. He had an arrow through his right arm and a second in his chest, but it was the ground that had done for him. The top of his head was matted with blood and mushy to the touch, pieces of broken bone moving under the skin beneath the pressure of ▓▓▓▓▓'s hand.
They laid █████ in a slender wooden boat, clad in shining silver armor, plate-and-mail. His cloak was spread beneath him, rippling blue and red.
“...He washed up two days later, all bloated and broken. Crabs ate his eyes, I hear.”
▓▓▓▓▓’s finger clenched. The crossbow *whanged* just as █████ started to rise. The bolt slammed into him above the groin and he sat back down with a grunt. The quarrel had sunk deep, right to the fletching. Blood seeped out around the shaft, dripping down into his pubic hair and over his bare thighs. “You shot me,” he said incredulously, his eyes glassy with shock.
“Is there gold hidden in the village?” she shouted as she drove the blade up through his back. “Is there silver? Gems?” She stabbed twice more. “Is there food? Where is ▓▓▓▓▓?” She was on top of him by then, still stabbing. “Where did he go? How many men were with him? How many knights? How many bowmen? How many, how many, how many, how many, how many, how many? Is there *gold* in the village?”
She took them for rescue for half a heartbeat, till one of them struck █████’s head off with two huge blows of his axe. Hope blew out like a candle in a storm.
...*No, don’t, don’t cut my hair, ▓▓▓▓▓ loves my hair*. Then the steel was at her throat, and its bite was red and cold.
...█████ had an *arakh* planted right between his ram’s horns. ▓▓▓▓▓ wrenched the blade loose and parted █████’s head from his body with three savage blows to the neck.
The links tightened, digging into her neck. “For hands of gold are always cold, but a woman’s hands are warm,” he said. He gave cold hands another twist as the warm ones beat away his tears.