Chapter 17.1

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The sound of booing made him look up. Almost everyone in the stalls had come to their feet.

"You had one job," a man shouted, and there was laughter.

Ward couldn't understand what he was seeing. The ropes had vanished. So had the Carmichaels. The Reds were scurrying about the scaffold like ants. One of them scratched his ear and looked up at the scaffold. His voice floated across the square, carried on the wind. "One rope, maybe. But two? It was them birds."

This was met with a wave of derisive laughter.

Tamerlane rose to his feet and the laughter died out. "Enough." He turned to the Reds. "Bring new ropes." He sat back down. The crowd whispered nervously.

The Carmichaels were hauled back up out of the trapdoors, through which they had fallen when the ropes broke. They emerged looking pale and dusty and confused. The nooses were still fastened around their necks. The end of each rope was frayed.

Ward glanced at Mildew, then they both looked up at the birds on the scaffold. Although some were larger than others there was no way to tell if Ludwig was among them. How long would it have taken them to peck through the ropes? Hours, he guessed. And what had they achieved except to prolong the Carmichaels' misery by a few minutes?

A Red climbed up to tie new nooses to the beam. He lashed out with the rope-ends and the birds took to the air, swinging away in a body toward Sam Sung's. The crowd cheered as the fresh nooses dropped down. The trapdoors were reset. The prisoners were positioned over them and the whole horrible process began anew.

A Red grasped the heavy wooden lever in both hands, waiting for the signal. The crowd grew suddenly quiet. A small nod from Tamerlane, and the Red drew himself up over the lever with a movement that seemed somehow too slow, almost hesitant. And in that moment, before he could bring his full weight down on it, a clear voice rang out over everything.

"STOP!"

The Red looked up. Tamerlane's head shot to one side and his eyes narrowed. There was a gasp from the crowd. It was a serious offence to interfere with an execution.

Into the space before the scaffold rolled a peculiar wheeled chair, upon which sat an old woman wrapped in a woollen shawl. Behind her, pushing the chair, wall-eyed with terror and exhaustion, came Carmen and Slops. Carmen stopped when she saw her parents, her face white and her mouth moving noiselessly.

The woman got to her feet, supporting herself on the chair's arms. When she was standing her voice rang out again.

"BROTHER TAMERLANE. THIS EXECUTION IS UNLAWFUL."

Tamerlane turned back to the Red who was still gripping the lever with both hands. "Proceed," he said. The Red looked from Tamerlane to the old woman and back again.

"DO NOT, under any circumstances, proceed." Ward couldn't believe such a commanding voice could issue from that sunken chest. "I was late to the trial, not having been made aware of it. Why? Because the defendants didn't seek legal counsel. Why?" Her eyes swept across the crowd. "Because no trial took place at all." Her eyes returned to Tamerlane. "Nevertheless, I am here now, in my capacity as counsel for the Defence."

"You're a interfering old bat," came a man's voice from the crowd, and there was a burst of laughter.

Grandmere Anna smiled in the man's direction. "I would sooner be an interfering old bat than an accomplice to murder."


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Also, Hammer time.

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