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Revile finished his tale, then sat quietly, thinking over the story. He shook his head. The others fidgeted, uneasy there was silence again.
While Revile spoke, their plight seemed diminished, a small affair in the great scheme of things. But as the silence lengthened, they were closed in and left alone in the dark with their doom – and fear and despair filled them.
Alwyn stirred, needing to break the silence. “Have you seen the Lady Shona again?” she eventually asked. “You seemed very friendly.”
“We were – then,” he replied with a sigh. “I saw her not so long ago, but we parted as enemies.”
“That is a pity,” said Margaret. “I’d thought, perhaps, she of all people could have helped you.”
Revile sighed. “Maybe she would have once,” he said, “but she doesn’t know of my imprisonment – the lands of the Feni are many miles to the north and west. And they have just withstood an invasion during which Dundonald was besieged by the men of Strathclwyd and for the most part destroyed. Yet even if she did try to interfere, Prince Bregorin would take no heed. I’m just one more no-account criminal – too unimportant for the attention of princesses or kings. All of you must have attended the hangings?”
“Of course,” said Margaret, answering for the others. “They are something of an event.”
“Did you ever wonder,” the assassin went on, as was his wont, “why those particular people were to be hanged? For wasn’t their deaths – dancing at the end of a rope – not just entertainment to relieve the monotony of your dreary lives? Yet you think your deaths are unjust. What had those others done? Had they stolen a stale loaf of bread? Had they stolen trinkets from their customers? Had they refused to sleep with the prince? Were their offences as great as yours? I fear you didn’t care – not one of you.”
“No, why should we?” said Margaret coldly. “We were too busy surviving. We have enough misfortune in our lives without worrying about other people’s. Why do you attack us in this way? For one thing is very clear: you yourself don’t give a damn for them or one tiny bit for us. How dare you lecture us! I have more compassion, care and humanity in my small toe than you have in the whole of your heartless body.”
“A whore with a heart of gold,” said Revile. “How touching! My faith in people is restored!” And then added: “But I don’t care, not a tiny bit. I accept the last walk into the dark, I accept my death, I don’t curse or feel ill-done. I have murdered a man, been caught, and am to be executed. Why do you think your deaths so unjust?”
“Because we did nothing,” swore Fergus. “Nothing compared to you anyway, you back-stabbing pig! My crops failed, my family had nothing to eat, we were starving. Yet we still had to pay dues to the King. The crime was my wife and children would die of hunger while lords in their grand halls stuffed their bellies. What else could I do? I took the only option left to me.”
“Do you try to convince me or yourself?” said Revile. “And I don’t know of what help you will be to your family for your holdings will be seized and your family evicted. They will have less than nothing, not even a roof over their heads. They will die all the sooner. Don’t fool yourself, Fergus.”
“Don’t accuse me of that!” said the farmer, his voice broken. “It is enough I am to die without my family as well. I am not the same as you! It is ridiculous!”
“Is it?” said the assassin. “You’re right of course: you are not the same as me – you are far, far more stupid. Killing a merchant or stealing a loaf lead to the gallows. At least I’d have earned more than one poor meal.”
“I can’t believe you think that,” muttered Fergus. “I have done nothing wrong my whole life. I’ve paid my dues, gone to war when my lord asked, attended church every Sunday and Festival since I was born. I treat my wife and children well, I have never raised my hand to her. How can you judge me so? I only tried to feed my family. I didn’t murder for profit or malice!”
“Yet tomorrow we’ll both be as dead,” said Revile. “Isn’t it strange all you virtue will end with all my wickedness? Did the commandment: ‘Thou shalt not steal’ not apply to you?”
“Leave him alone!” cried Margaret. “What right have you to judge him? There are degrees of evil and sin – that is what we are taught. Perhaps in this life they are treated the same – but not in the Next! God would not damn Fergus or this young woman – for myself I don’t know, my life had not been blameless. But you, Revile the assassin, are as surely damned as I sit here.”
“Perhaps I am,” he said, “yet luckily I don’t share your faith in gods. We’ll just have to wait and see, won’t we? We’ll find out first thing tomorrow.”
“What do you believe, then?” said Alwyn softly.
The assassin paused for a moment, then shrugged. “I believe,” he said, “that when I die I will be snuffed out like a candle. Then, perhaps, for a few years people will remember me or my deeds – I will live on as long as they do. But eventually I will be no more. My bones will disappear into the earth, and all my deeds, dreams and existence will vanish into the nothing from whence they came. So much for me: Revile the bold adventurer!”
“Aren’t you frightened of dying?” asked the girl. “Doesn’t it scare you?”
“No,” he replied. “I value my life highly but I have always accepted I will die. I’ve been too close too many times. It is that last release from old age or agony or torture.” And he laughed. “What would I do in my old age except end my days starving? My pride would not let me beg or rely on charity. I’m just disappointed it could not have been later, during some great adventure or enterprise.” He smiled crookedly.
The others were puzzled for a moment – it seemed a strange admission from a man like Revile.
“What is wrong with growing old?” asked Fergus, forgetting his earlier anger. “I was rather looking forward to it.”
“The loss of strength and power and independence,” replied the assassin. “If I have wanted something I’ve gone out and got it – or at least have had the strength and cunning to try. But if I grew old my limbs would weaken, my wits would become blunted, and in the end I would have nothing, not even my pride. If I was to choose to end my life now or to live into an unending dotage I think I would rather die now.
“Mind you,” he added, “I might think differently if I was old. Anyway, Margaret, if there is a Hell, as your religion believes, then my torment would be to spend eternity as a doddering old man, but still able to remember what had been.”
“You are a strange one,” Margaret told him. “You are cruel to us but I can’t stay angry with you. You sometimes surprise me. Why should that be, do you think?”
Revile laughed. “Perhaps you realise I don’t take myself seriously. Many things cross your mind, alone in the wilderness with an empty purse and belly, every hand turned against you, the howl of wolves in your ears. I am Revile but inside I revile myself as much as I do you or Fergus or Alwyn here. And, in all truth, I am embarrassed to be here. I’ve done one or two things worthy of note and it hurts my pride to think I will die with the likes of you!”
“Damn cheek!” muttered Fergus. “What’s wrong with the likes of us?”
“Nothing,” he replied, “you are good honest folk but I despise you all the more. I hoped my death would be more exciting and notable, amongst the company of the Great. I am, as I have said, sadly disappointed.”
The farmer swore, but Margaret laughed at the assassin. “You poor lamb,” she said. “My whore’s heart of gold goes out to you!”
“Could I ask you one thing more?” added Alwyn. “Do you think you are evil?”
“How can a man judge?” replied the assassin. “Let me answer that by asking you a question: do you believe you are evil?”
“No,” said the young woman, her voice certain. “I don’t.”
“I see,” said Revile. “Do you hate the prince for what he’s done to you?”
“Yes I do,” she said equally as certain. “But I have good cause.”
“Would you like to see old Bregorin hanging from his own gallows?”
“Yes, I suppose I would,” but her voice faltered as if she could see the direction of Revile’s argument.
“If I told you I was going to kill the prince would you try to stop me?”
“No,” she said wearily, “I wouldn’t.”
“Would you even pay me if you could?”
“I guess so.”
“I suppose,” said Revile, sounding pleased with himself, “you think I enjoy killing people. Yet you would all employ me if you could – for whatever reason. Perhaps it is only the idea of murder for profit which is wicked to you – murder for hate or revenge is fine. But I am the only dagger in the hand. So let me ask you this: is the assassin more evil than the person who pays him? The assassin does not have hate in his heart ...”