Preview: Blood in the Gray (Episode 3)
Updated: Mar 17
Below is the complete third episode of J.D. Mankowski's Kindle Vella series 'Blood in the Gray' (releasing in 2023)
EPISODE 3: A Hanging in Hogsport
As Bersi walked through the crowd with his wrists bound behind his back, he yearned for the security of a sharp weapon of any kind - he wanted his hatchet, but he’d settle for a letter-opener at this point. If he even had that, Bersi knew he could cut his bindings and lay waste to each and every one of Idon’s soldiers guarding the Hogsport prison yard.
Around him, hundreds of citizens gathered like fins to fresh chum. They hollered passionately at him and the line of criminals sentenced to hang before noon. Some, Bersi could tell, had spent the morning drinking in a local tavern. What he would give to down a final flagon of ale.
Beneath the gallows at the center of Hogsport’s prison yard was a mess of shit, piss, and blood. Bersi thought about one of his sentenced companions, a cut-purse whose name now escaped him. The man had purposefully relieved himself in the corner of their shared cell an hour ago.
“I won’t give them the satisfaction of seeing me ruin my trousers,” he had snarled. “I saw a man drop a cow’s load as soon as his neck snapped when I was a boy. The crowd fuckin’ roared with laughter about it for weeks. That’s not how I’ll be remembered.”
“Who do you think is going to remember you?” One of the guards had replied. “We hang two or three petty thieves a week.”
That same guard now marched Bersi and the other criminals towards the gallows. The sharp snap of ropes being pulled taught after platforms were dropped was met with rabid applause.
To the crowd, Bersi was the prized capture they were waiting to see. The tattoos around his neck and arms gave him away as one of Vasil Cane’s marauders - one of the last to be sentenced after the Gray King’s capture. As he neared the steps to the gallows, their incessant chanting of Hang Black Gut grew louder.
Bersi waved towards them and grinned. After watching Cane being marched through the streets from his cell window, he had resigned to accepting his fate. No one would be coming for him now. No one still left in the Independence would dare to show their face in a place like this. It was better to hang in Hogsport today, Bersi reasoned with himself as a rotten cabbage hit the side of his head. There wasn’t much of a future to fight for with Cane now being dead.
Still, he would have loved nothing more than to escape one last time; to ruin a few people’s day, to drink a couple ales, and to eat a final meal befitting Idon himself, even if it meant getting brought right back to the yard in the morning.
A prison guard punched Bersi’s spine with the hilt of their sword.
The line of criminals ahead of him had all been escorted to their nooses. Bersi slowly turned towards the guard that had followed him up the stairs. “Looks like you ran out of ropes. Shall we try again tomorrow?”
The guard scoffed. “We’ve got a special rope just for you,” he promised.
If the Righteous soldiers hoped to humiliate him in his last minutes, they were truly fools. Bersi flexed his muscles and waved towards the blood thirsty crowds below. No one would see him fear his death. No one would get to hear him repent. They’d just get a show. He was proud of the sins he’d committed against Righteous Law. If given the chance he’d do it all over again.
“Bastard Marauder!” shouted a preacher, his words cutting above the incoherent yelling of others impatiently waiting for the platform to drop.
Bersi laughed boisterously. He must’ve done something right in his life to receive such a scathing remark from the island’s most pure-of-heart. ‘Mother, look at me now,’ he thought darkly. Then he fixed his gaze on the preacher. “You think the Collector’s coming for me today?” he hollered. “Nah, it’ll be the Winged Righteous, you just wait and see. My sins are nothing compared to yours.” He jabbed a finger in the man’s direction. “I’ll be a free man yet.”
The platforms unlatched and five criminals dropped to their death. Only two necks got a clean snap. One of the criminals garbled and spat blood, having bit her own tongue after the fall. The last two writhed like snakes until a prison guard from below pulled out her wand and cast two deadly spells of ice through their hearts.
“Your death will go just like that, Black Gut," the preacher screamed.
“You better hope so, for your sake,” Bersi replied, and flashed a toothy grin.
Snow flurries fell from a dull gray sky and a cold wind raced over the prison’s high stone wall. It was a shame they didn’t hang criminals before a half-descent view. It might have been peaceful staring out into the bay for one’s final moment. Instead, Bersi was directed to stand beside his noose and face the large yellow flag of Taraan, hanging from the eastern watchtower. Below were the ugly faces of people who were too subservient to understand what they were actually cheering for.
They thought it was for justice, but it was for their own enslavement.
Half-starved, taxed beyond their means, and oppressed by a military state directed by an impotent King across the Gray didn't seem to affect them. They believed in the Righteous words, and woefully ignored the actions that mocked them.
There was a better way to live. A better way to be governed. Bersi knew that. But that knowledge turned out to be a ticket to the gallows.
The noose's slip knot was pulled tight behind his neck.
"Bersillo Scott, you are hereby sentenced to hang without a trial for your criminal endeavors upon the Gray," declared the hangman. "May your soul be unburdened in the next life."
There was drumming, cheering, and then - the world shifted. Bersi felt scorching heat race over the top of his head as he dropped through the platform. It was a sensation he had not been prepared for.
A series of screams followed. But instead of experiencing the sharp tug and a swift end as he had expected, Bersi found himself collapsing onto the paved stones beneath him.
Flames erupted around the gallows.
Bersi felt sick as he wriggled through the muck and excrement of those who died before him. His wrists were still tied behind his back, and something had cracked the wrong way in his knee when he hit the ground. The smell mixed with a thick cloud of smoke made it nearly impossible to breathe.
It was hard to see; harder to think. Bersi wasn't dead, yet, but he knew if he didn't arm himself fast, he would be. He tried to make sense of immediate threats from under the gallows
The audience who had come to witness his death had turned into a frantic mob. People shoved and trampled each other like stampeding hogs - hoping to escape the attack. The tide of movement turned towards the fort gates, where unprepared guards failed to control the situation. They too were confused by the inferno erupting in the prison yard.
Soldiers raced in from their posts, rasping blades and wands drawn at the ready. A desperate need to control the situation and ensure Bersi didn't escape was paramount.
None seemed to sense this more than the guard who had escorted Bersi up to the gallows, as he willingly dropped through the opening in the platform and splashed in the bloody shit below.
"Don't move!" He commanded.
But his decision to act was too late. Bersi headbutted him in the face, then swiftly raised a knee into his groin. The guard doubled over in pain. Bersi body-checked him, and then dropped his full weight onto the man's skull.
Bersi knew there was nothing graceful in his actions - nothing honorable. But he had always been one to choose self-preservation over honor. He could stomach almost anything. It's why they called him Black Gut.
Rolling over the mangled body, Bersi fumbled around for the guard's knuckle knife. It wasn't easy with his wrists still bound, but the moment he felt the hilt, he knew he was going to be free.
Sawing away at the rope, Bersi looked towards the other guards who were fighting against the crowd to get to him. He glanced up at the blackened end of the noose that had failed to hang him. There was only one person he knew who loved him enough to set Hogsport's prison yard on fire for him. The only person who would fight for the Independence even after Cane's death.
"Bersi!" shouted the woman as she appeared through the ever-growing inferno. "Get your fat ass up, we're leaving!" She waved her wand to deflect a shot of ice and light.
"We?" Bersi laughed.
"The Underdock Guild is holding the line. I called in every fucking favor to get you."
"Thought the Guild would have disbanded," Bersi confessed. He pulled the limp loop of rope around his neck free.
Helga shot a spell of ice past Bersi's left ear. A frozen spike buried itself in a soldier's abdomen behind him.
"Here," she said, unclipping his hatchet from her belt.
"How'd you get this?" Bersi asked in disbelief.
"I'll tell you when we are in the clear." She motioned for him to follow.
"I'm going to be slow," Bersi hollered after her, and pointed at his busted knee. When she seemed not to care or acknowledge his state, Bersi braced himself for the fight ahead and moved towards the frenzied crowd of people trying to escape the prison yard.
Nearly a dozen marauders of the Underdock Guild could be seen across the open space spraying fire with their wands in the directions of the enclosing guards. They had continued to feed the hysteria while Helga moved to Bersi's aid.
"Close the gates!" commanded an officer along the wall. The order was relayed until a bell in the watchtower began to ring. This only fueled the crowd's panic even more to escape back into the city.
One of Helga's men moved towards Bersi and tossed him a large black cloak and hood.
"Time to blend in," Helga ordered.
Bersi disguised himself as best as he could as the other marauders sent fresh flames into the sky and around the prison yard. It wasn't easy, seeing as how he towered over most of the people. But the goal was to move with them, to look and behave as if panicking. All he really had to do was elbow people out of his way while keeping his head down.
A couple soldiers combed the crowd, passing him and Helga without a second glance. There was too much action going on near the gallows thanks to her crew. Bersi hoped they knew part of Helga's plan was to leave them behind. This wasn't a grand escape so much as it was a trade… a few unnamed guild members for him.
Despite the attempts to close the gates, the confusion and outbursts of fire across the prison yard made Idon's soldiers incapable of doing anything.
And then suddenly, Bersi was free. It was almost too easy. The people who had come to see him die practically carried him across the threshold of the Hogsport prison and spat him back out into the surrounding streets.
When the frantic exodus began to dissipate, Helga and Bersi broke free and followed two of her accomplices down a narrow cobblestone path. Bersi kept his head bowed and grip tight on his hatchet concealed beneath his cloak. If there was one thing he'd learned as a marauder, it was that even the best laid plans could go wrong in an instant.
Thank You For Reading Episode 3:
A Hanging in Hogsport.
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Cover Art By Lewis Cattouse