"If I call out your name, then I might suddenly wake up."



Today is my 20th birthday. Today I am going to die.

I never thought that this would happen. After all that I've been through in my life, I always thought that the gods would surely allow me to see my 21st birthday. But no – now I have an appointment with the hangman's noose.

I have no one to blame but myself. As I look back over the last four years, I realize that I probably should have kept my radical ideas to myself. But why accuse me of treachery? I had committed no treason against King Llewen. I merely exposed the Deardaoin crown for what it was – rotten, greedy, self-serving and hypocritical. I thought the people of Deardaoin would have realized that, after seeing how their precious king acted during the Vatn Rebellion. How he had called evil good, and good evil. How he never lifted a finger to aid the oppressed people of his island territory. How, instead of listening to their pleas for freedom, he crushed them under a militarian boot of tyranny.

And I was the traitor? Ah – but I have no power. I don't wear a crown. Those that do are above common law. They're even above the law of the gods, or so they think. Power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolute.

And because of that law of kings, I was going to hang.

My trial had been swift and the outcome had been sure. It had been more of a "kangaroo court" than a proper military tribunal; every judge had been in the pay of the king. The best defense lawyer in Deardaoin couldn't have won my case. My fate had been sealed before the deliberations ever began.

Thinking back over the trial only made my mood darker. But thinking ahead to my execution gave me no joy, no satisfaction, either. With a sigh, I laid my face against the stone walls of my cell. The rough-hewn rock felt cool and soothing against my flushed flesh. All of my senses had been heightened. Knowing that I would soon die seemed to make me feel all the more alive. I wanted to live – oh gods! I wanted to live!

I could hear the steps of the jailer echoing down the stone stairwell. I could hear the brutal jangling of his keys as his heavy boots thumped closer to the door of my cell.

"So we've got a dead woman walkin' today, do we?" Rudd, my crude and loathsome jailer, sneered as he swaggered into the doorway.

I didn't rise to Rudd's bait, but continued to sit placidly on my cot and seethe inwardly. Despite his boorishness, the jailer could sense that he wasn't going to get anything out of me. We both glared at each other with open venom before he stepped out into the corridor. With a grunt, he motioned for me to walk in front of him, and with a hideous clanking of chains, I shuffled out the door of my cell, never to return again.

With head held high, I marched purposefully in front of Rudd – or as purposefully as I could march with shackles on my feet and fear gnawing at my heart. Rudd and I had rehearsed this walk before – I knew exactly where to turn and where I was supposed to go. Instead of struggling up the stairwell, as I had done when being taken to and from the trial, I walked in the opposite direction down the corridor. After about five minutes worth of walking, twisting slowly upward, past countless, heavy iron-plated cell doors, we came to a rusty pair of double oak gates.

During our practice run, the gates had been closed, but now they were thrown open, revealing a contingent of soldiers gathered around a small wagon hitched to a pair of large black horses. I had assumed that the gates opened onto the street level, but hadn't known for sure until now.

Here was where Rudd would leave me for good, putting me in the care of the King's soldiers. They in turn would see me to the scaffold, where I would be placed in the keeping of the black-hooded executioner. And from there, into the strangling embrace of the hemp noose, which would bring me into the eternal custodianship of the gods.

It was a cold winter day. Snow lay banked up against the sides of the buildings, and the cobbled streets were slick with treacherous ice. A soldier stood on each side of the horses to keep them from stumbling their way across the slick boulevard. Two other soldiers walked along each side of the wagon, and two more marched grimly behind. I grabbed the front of the wagon in order to keep my balance as the vehicle lurched drunkenly underneath me.

I refused to hang my head as the wagon slowly began its short odyssey through the gauntlet-like crowds pressing on either side. I refused to show the jeering masses my fear of dying – they had come to see a woman cry and scream and beg for mercy. They would not see one today, I vowed. I was not going to be a spectacle for their morbid entertainment.

The crowd seemed to sense this immediately. More than once I had seen a criminal take this same strange ride through the crowded streets, only to be bombarded with cat-calls, obscenities and rotten projectiles. The throng kept silent today. There were still jeers and rude comments made by those bold individuals close to the wagon-path, but for the most part the masses stayed silent, satisfying themselves by merely fixing me with evil eyes and leers.

The hushed silence weighed on me like a heavy hand on my soul. I could feel the emotions of the crowd, even though they weren't verbally or physically manifested. I could feel the hatred, the fear, the repugnance, the pity and the curiosity. I could sense the inner passions of each individual I passed by. And here and there, spattered throughout the mob, I could feel – more than see – the presence of my old companions and friends, who had come to see me into the next life, since they could nothing for me in this one. I could feel their hurt, their indignation, and their sorrow. It gave me strength, knowing that at least I still had a few friends left who would pray for my soul as it left this mortal shell.

Within minutes – which seemed liked eternities to me – the wagon rumbled up in front of the scaffold, and I was helped out of the wagon by one of the soldiers. He would have continued helping me up the scaffold stairs, but I shook off his hand. I wanted to face Aki alone; it was my silent way of saying that I was strong, I had courage. I was not afraid to die – only I would know that that was a lie.

And that's how I found myself, standing with my hands bound before me, facing a jeering mass. The executioner to my right began to drone on, reading aloud a list of my offenses both real and imaginary.

"Be it known, that on this day, in the forty-second year of our King Llewen's reign, that this woman, Winter Braiell, is to die for treason."

Of those accusations that were real, I had joined forces with outlaws and Rogues. I had written "treacherous" literature railing against the king and the government. I had defied the natural order of a woman by posing as a man and training as a Knight of Deardaoin. Of those imaginary, I was a danger to society. I wished ill against the Royal House. And I was an ensnarer of men – a lecherous whore.

As I stood there, the cold winter wind whipping through my hair, billowing briskly through my shirt, I felt like laughing at the last offense. It was by far the most ludicrous. In all of my years, through all of my travels, I had never lain with a man. To do so would be to trap my true form forever within this human body. I would cease to be pure, untainted – I would cease to be what the gods had made me.

Never had I felt so lonely as when I stood bound on that scaffold, gazing out into the hostile swarm. I knew that there were little pockets of friendliness in the midst of the unsympathetic multitudes, but they could no longer give me comfort. I so desperately wanted to live, but I couldn't see how I could. Fear – a feeling that was previously so foreign to me – gripped my heart as I swept my eyes over the host. Not one glimmer of hope, not one raised sympathetic face met my searching eyes – until I caught sight of him.

I hadn't seen him in six years, but I recognized him immediately. And I could tell by the thoughtful look on his face that he remembered me as well.

For mere seconds, I blocked out the sound of the executioner's voice and the restless hum of the crowd. All of my attention was focused on that one swarthy, handsome face – a face that had often haunted my dreams since I was fourteen years old. For one suspended moment in time, there were no other people in Tir-nan – just him and me.

He was about a hundred yards away from the scaffold, and I could see him clearly from where I was. His face was cocked to the side, as if he was puzzling over something. His lips were slightly parted, revealing a thin line of straight, white teeth. His unshaven cheeks curved smoothly downward into a straight, firm jaw, stubbled with a days' worth of whiskers. His gray-green eyes were narrowed, his eyebrows pulled down low into a straight line, as he eyed me almost wonderingly.

Yes, he remembered me. He knew who I was. I was more than mildly surprised. We had met only for a few isolated minutes and nothing was said or done between us. Yet the gods had profoundly ordained our meeting and now here, on my 20th birthday, on the day I was to die, we met wordlessly again.

I was raised a Ranger's daughter, and I had always accompanied my "father" on his travels throughout my childhood – I was his constant companion until the day he died, almost five years ago. We had lived a solitary life, but it had been a life I loved. A life close to nature and to the gods.

But from time to time, our travels would bring us in contact with other humans, and my father had many friends among the scattered natives of the northern Impasse Mountains. One such friend was a commander of a fort called Vierne, a rather rough establishment that guarded a part of the Deardaoin-Ijs border. The first and only time we ventured that way in our northern travels was the summer of my fourteenth year. However, Father was always conscientious about my safety, and he bade me stay in a little glen not far from the fort while he went to speak with the commander. He would not allow me to venture into the compound since the soldiers who were stationed there were not always the most honorable of characters.

Father was gone much longer than I had anticipated, and I remember it as being a scorching midsummer day. There so happened to be a lake close to the glen, and I, disobeying Father's orders to stay put, decided to take a swim.

The day had been so hot that little heat mirages had shimmered above the surface of the water. I remember that my clothes stuck to me, stifling my pores and making me even hotter than I already was. I stripped off my clothing in short order, and without even thinking about consequences that could occur, I jumped into the cool, refreshing water.

I don't know how long I swam and cavorted in the lake. But I do remember how cool and clean the water was – how refreshing it was to splash and baptize myself in its depths. But my simple joy was soon spoiled when a deer suddenly burst out of the bracken near the edge of the lake.

Startled, I stood up (I remember being in the shallows at that moment) and turned toward the deer – a young, comely doe. Her eyes were dilated with fear and I could tell, without even Whisptering to her, that she was hunted. She stopped with a snort when she saw me, her eyes beseeching me to help her, before she bounded off with a skittish leap.

Just seconds after she moved, an arrow whistled through the air. Thankfully, it missed her and buried itself deep into the moist earth around the edges of the lake. Before the arrow even touched the ground, the doe had disappeared – she had bested the hunter for now.

Before I could even wonder who or where the hunter was, he stomped ill-naturedly out of the trees, where the doe had appeared. He was grumbling to himself and didn't see me at first – I was frozen in fear, much like the doe, and stood stupidly, undecided as to what I should do before he caught sight of me. I remember praying that he wouldn't see me…it was a futile request.

As soon as he saw that the doe wasn't in the glen, he turned his head and saw me standing in the shallows of the lake. No man before or since then has ever seen me naked – but he did. I stood there, fearing for my very life, painfully aware of the water that ran in little rivulets between the gentle swellings in my chest that at time could barely be deemed breasts. My hands hung foolishly at my sides, nonplussed, as water dripped down my back, my shoulders, my arms, my stomach, my thighs. I instinctively wanted to cover my shame, but I was afraid that if I moved, he would notice. As if he didn't already notice the blossoming womanhood my body manifested!

I could feel the heat rising in my ears and my cheeks as his eyes slowly traveled from my feet to my head. I could tell by the deliberate, unashamed away he gazed at me that he was taking it all in. I began to shiver, partly because I was suddenly beginning to feel cold, and partly because I was afraid.

But then his eyes met mine and I realized that the look in those gray depths was not one of lust, but of reverent astonishment. By the awe reflected in his face, I suddenly realized that he thought me a young river goddess – a figure to be worshipped, not coveted.

As he looked me, I looked at him. He was the first man I had ever seen without a shirt and to a fourteen year old's eyes, he was perfect. I remembered the smooth muscle bulging underneath taunt, olive-tinted skin. His shoulders were broad, his chest deep and his stomach tight. Sweat glistened, enveloping his form in a soft sheen, and beaded his upper lip. His jaw and cheeks were dark with stubble, and his hair was in wild disarray. It was his hair that particularly fascinated me – it was almost black, but there was no mistaking it for any other color than a dark shade of blue. He carried a bow clasped in his right hand, and a quiver slung over his back.

As I looked at him that hot summer day, I thought – for just seconds – that I had glimpsed a god in human form. But the spell was soon broken. Not-so-distant shouts called and rapidly approaching feet crashed through the forest. The young hunter touched two fingers to his forehead in reverent respect, bending his head toward me, before turning rapidly on his heel and jogging to meet his nearing companions before they too saw me.

I thought that would be the last I ever saw of him. Until today, when I looked down on the crowd, eager for the sight of my neck in the noose, and saw him standing in front of me, looking at me with forlorn puzzlement.