The heat beat at the crowd and fueled their hate as the deserters were marched onto the scaffold. Dukirk watched from a holding cell nearby. It had a surprisingly good view of the proceedings. Or perhaps it was not so surprising, Dukirk mused; as this was where prisoners would watch their possible future.
The deserters were a rough looking bunch, unshaven and dirty. Two had tears melting through the grime caked onto their faces. The scaffold was built to hold five people at a time and Dukirk had heard that 23 of the deserters had been found guilty. The morning had just begun.
A magistrate stepped forward onto a platform near the scaffold. He held a parchment, but probably knew all the words by heart, Dukirk mused. The pronouncement of guilt was always the same for a deserter.
“For crimes against the defense of this land, for a failure to be steadfast in the face of the enemy, for the willful disobedience to their superiors, and for the betrayal of the general populace and their wellbeing, these men are condemned to die! May there deaths be a warning to those who would follow in their footsteps!”
“It was you, Dukirk!” one of the men cried out. “My gods I hope you’re watching! You’ve blood on your hands, you bastard! Blood! I’ll haunt you! I swear I will!”
Dukirk turned away from the spectacle. “I doubt that, Cravis. You never believed enough in anything to do a proper haunting.”
He let out a loud sigh and slouched on the cot. The cell smelled of rotted food and unwashed bodies. Dukirk could see dried blood in the straw around the chamber pot.
Hours ago the cell had seemed much worse. The other prisoners were held across the hall and could see Dukirk. The air was charged with hatred, and the men often screamed curses at him. Others just asked why; while still others flung offal at him. Dukirk had abided through the whole time. It had been like this ever since the trial a week before. He didn’t answer the curses or questions anymore, and could not be bothered to dodge the filth that they threw at him.
He almost wished he hadn’t turned on them. That he hadn’t told the truth. He knew that their former captain had escaped. He knew he could either turn away or die with the rest of them when Captain Gues showed up. Except the captain hadn’t shown up.
They all could have lived if it hadn’t been for Dukirk. They could have claimed they had been separated from the main army, and that their captain was killed. Something. Not the mutiny that really occurred, the murder of the sergeant and the claiming of food stores, rations and whiskey.
During the mutiny, Dukirk was tasked with murdering the captain. He’d had the captain’s tent duty, setting up the tent and arranging his table. He was directed by Cravis to set up the tent, and then to wait inside. Cravis was supposed to have had others nearby to help Dukirk should the captain be aware of their plan.
However, Dukirk had decided not to murder the captain. Captain Gues had always been a fair leader and even then Dukirk knew the value of a good leader. Instead, he had seized the captain when he entered and whispered the whole plan to him while the captain struggled. Gues had escaped and Dukirk had claimed that he had been on to him the whole time. He’d even had the captain black his eye before he ran out into the darkness.
It didn’t matter much at the time, though. They all lived high on the hog after that. They seized what they wanted from nearby peasants, and some of the men had killed those that tried to stop them. That was, until they ran right straight into an entire platoon of soldiers. The officers had questioned them sharply. They’d been arrested and sent to West Acot City to be “sorted out”.
So Dukirk had told the guards everything; the whole sad story. They told him that Captain Gues had never reported back, but that he would get preferential treatment for his behavior. Dukirk watched when the others’ fate was pronounced. The trial was just a formality. They’d even brought Dukirk up before the crowd to describe the events of the mutiny.
That night he was moved away from the other men to the empty cell across the hall. All of this was a week ago.
The rest of the morning, Dukirk heard the sounds of men being hanged. Cravis wasn’t the only one of them to scream against him, or promise retribution from the grave.
That afternoon, a group of guards escorted Dukirk to the office of the magistrate lieutenant. He entered the office to see a barrister speaking to the magistrate.
”...he’s only an odious little man, hardly worth… Ah! Dukirk, there you are.” The barrister turned a pretentious smile on him.
Dukirk glared at him briefly. “Barrister Bartolew. Guess you found the executions to your liking?”
“Quite. Magistrate, I leave him to your capable hands,” The barrister swept past Dukirk and out the door.
Dukirk and the Magistrate watched him leave. Dukirk was relieved to see the magistrate’s face showing disgust at the barrister. He waited for the magistrate to address him.
“Dukirk, you’ve left us with a bit of a problem,” began the magistrate. “Your confession saved us a fair bit of time to be sure, but no one is quite sure what to do with you. Your fate is left in my hands.”
The magistrate rubbed his temples. “Here are my options,” he said. “I can throw you in some dungeon to rot, I can have you executed, or I can throw you out on the front lines of the war. Some think I should just execute you… but I’m in favor of putting you back in the war. If you were truly against the mutiny, as you claim, then that shouldn’t be too big of a problem for you. Should it?”
“No sir.” Inwardly, Dukirk was grimacing. He’s seen friends cut down already, and that was nowhere near the front lines.
“Good. You’ll be issued boiled leather, a pike, and a dagger. I’m recommending that you be assigned to Todor’s Pikemen.”
Dukirk took a sharp breath. Todor’s Pikemen was notorious for their casualties. Their captain, Todor Duvet, was said to be as stupid as he was vicious, but with a nobleman’s luck. Dukirk had heard that Todor sent his men to certain death and looked at their loss as no more troubling than busted furniture in a drinking hall. Yet, no matter how fierce the engagement, Todor was never hurt. He was never even scratched.
“That a problem, Dukirk?”
Dukirk hesitated before he muttered, “No sir.”
“Good. You’ll be with the first supply wagon on its way to the front.”
The magistrate dismissed him and Dukirk left the building. A guard met him. “I’ve been told to tell you that you can move about the town however you please. However, if you try to leave early, you’re dead on sight. Also, if you are seen here after the wagon leaves, then you’re dead again. Got it?”
The guard hesistated. “Yeah, also, here’s your pay.” He shoved a small leather sack into Dukirk’s hands. It clinked softly.
Dukirk judged that the guard might have been thinking of keeping it for himself. “Thank you,” he said, genuinely grateful.
So it was that Dukirk found himself on his way to the front lines, to join Todor’s Pikemen. Dukirk figured he’d probably die in the first week.