The Dancing Floor
The morning sun was bright--too bright for eyes that had looked upon no light save the torches of the prison guards for days unnumbered. A gray morning would have been kinder, but this was not a morning for kindness. The line of condemned prisoners pressed their eyes shut against the painful glare, stumbled blindly forward to the waiting scaffold. By the time they had crossed the prison yard, they were able to see the dangling nooses and the exuberant mob of onlookers.
Conan squinted toward the gibbet, a black line against the climbing sun, seven coils of hemp trailing like sooty cobweb from the span overhead. To his nostrils came the acrid sweetness of carrion--wafted from the rotting corpses of last week's condemned criminals, left to swing above the scaffold until seven new partners were brought to dance with death. It melded with the sweaty stench of the crowd's anticipation.
A halbard spike dug into his back. "Get on there, ravenbait!" growled one of the prison guards.
Conan snarled an obscenity and shuffled forward. Unkempt and unshaven, hobbled by the heavy chains that shackled his wrists and ankles, the Cimmerian nonetheless walked without a limp. A month in Kordava's dungeons had seen his wounds slowly heal, although that was due far more to his savage vitality than to any ministrations of his warders. That same vitality had brought him through the degradation of his captivity with spirit unbroken, head unbowed.
like a captured wild thing, Conan had licked his wounds and awaited his chance to break free of his cage. Stealthily, so that the rasp should not alert his guards, he had crouched throughout the night hours rubbing the links of his fetters one against the other, scraping them against the stone, striving to break free of the heavy chains that shackled hand and foot. Once free of his chains, there remained the iron bars of his cell, the vigilant guards beyond--these must be dealt with in their time. Conan only asked for a chance to win free, to avenge himself upon his captors--any chance, however slim. That chance had never come. Now, even as he and his fellow prisoners walked to the gibbet, the Cimmerian's angry gaze studied the crowded square, while his brain searched desperately for some last instant means to cheat the hangman.
The prison yard--the Dancing Floor, they called it here in Kordava--was rank with jostling humanity on this, the morning of market day. Each week they streamed into Zingara's capital city from the outlying towns and villages, to fill the marketplace with their wares and their cries: produce from the inland farms, merchandise from the city guilds, fish and exotic goods from the Western Ocean. What better way to add zest to a day of bargaining than the free spectacle of an execution on the Dancing Floor?
An undulating sea of massed bodies, peering faces--all eyes turned upon the seven doomed men who trudged through their press and toward the scaffold. Seven men, seemingly no different from the hundreds of their fellows who had come to enjoy their final moments. Seven to dance for them. The crowd was not hostile, but neither was it sympathetic. Its mood was one of expectancy, of impatience for the show to begin. The beast would not lift its thousand arms to wrest the condemned from their fate; if at all, it would howl in anger should its anticipated enjoyment be denied it.
Moving throughout the milling throng, peddlers and mountebanks hawked their wares. Less open in their larceny, thieves and cutpurses prowled like wary jackals. Portable braziers spat fumes from grilling skewers of meat and vegetables--reminding Conan that he had not eaten since the day before.
"We don't waste good food on gallowsbait!" a warder had sneered, as they came to his cell this morning. It had cost the guard a broken tooth when they unshackled Conan from the wall.
Halbard butts had quickly drubbed the Cimmerian to unconsciousness. "For that," promised the warder, spitting bloody froth into Conan's battered face, "you get to wait to the last! You'll watch these other rats kick on their strings, and then we'll hoist you nice and easy, so you can show us all the new steps you'll have learned from your fellows."
It was, withal, a certain victory for the Cimmerian. The other prisoners had their manacles removed, their wrists pulled behind their backs and tied with rope. Wary of the powerful barbarian's berserk frenzy, the guards were loath to risk removing his prison shackles, so that Conan walked to the gallows in chains.
With a barbarian's stoicism, Conan resigned himself to die with dignity--if die he must He would march to the scaffold, if the alternative was to be dragged. That his belly growled from hunger pains as he walked to his death was but one final insult after many before it, and the Cimmerian swore vengeance in that hour when most men would be begging their gods for forgiveness and mercy.
The stench of carrion was heavier now. Stiffly sprawled before the scaffold, seven corpses stared heavenward through eyeless sockets. Rooks had feasted well upon their features, obliterating recognition. Their week-long sentence as object lesson to fellow miscreants now fulfilled, the dead had been lowered from their nooses, laid out for a last farewell to the crowd. Laborers dragged them one by one to a small anvil, where the leg shackles of the dead were struck off. They had no further need for them, and there were others whose steps wanted confining.
By royal concession, mountebanks peddled charms and souvenirs from the hanged men. A pack of children struggled and giggled about the scaffold, pressing closer for a better look.
"Lock of dead man's hair for you, lasses?" teased a hawker, yanking a tuft loose and dangling it before them. "It'll keep the lads following after you, if you pin it over your heart!"
With shrill laughter the children dashed away, began to play a darting game of tag beneath the scaffold timbers.
"Dead man's hand! Who'll be first to buy?" A stroke of the axe, and the trophy came free. "Hand of a hanged murderer!" the mountebank shouted, holding the decaying fist on high. "Corpse-fat for candles! Do you seek hidden treasure? Here's the charm you'll need! Who will pay me silver to find gold?"
"Seed of a dead man!" cried another, brandishing a small phial. "The death-spend of Vulosis, the famous murderer-rapist! Men! The vitality of a young stallion is yours! Ladies! Restore your man to the ardour of a young bull! Hanged man's seed! Who will buy?"
Through it all, the key players of the morning's spectacle slowly made their way. Before the halbards of the guards, the mob broke apart to let them pass. A thousand faces craned and peered, examining the seven players in their costumes of rags and chains. Parents lifted children to their shoulders for a better view. Shoulders, elbows and knees propelled latecomers through the press. They fed on skewers of meat and lumps of bread and fists of fruit. Their arms hugged their bundles and purses and baskets to their bodies. As the condemned men reached the scaffold, the frolicking band of children yelled and danced about them. Pedlars lost interest in their frenetic hawking, turned to watch the sordid drama they had seen performed so many times before.
Climbing the steps to the scaffold was no easy task with leg-irons, but the guards plied their halbards with a will to urge them upward. The man in front of Conan stumbled--unable to catch himself with his hands tied behind his back. A halbard spike goaded him as he struggled to rise. Conan, his hands manacled before him, reached out to the limit of the chain that connected wrist and leg-irons, caught the back of his jerkin and hauled the smaller man to his feet. Ignoring the abuse of the guards and the laughter of the crowd, they took their places beneath the gallows.
"Thanks," muttered his companion automatically. He seemed no more than Conan's age--a slender youth with aristocratic features and feverish dark eyes.
"Little cause for thanks," the Cimmerian pointed out.
"One likes to do these things with a certain dignity," returned the other, echoing Conan's thoughts. He nodded distastefully toward some of those near the head of their line: one man had fainted and had to be supported by the guards; another was pleading tearfully for mercy to the jeering mob.
"Let those who will continue our battle see that we do not tremble to give our life to our cause," he concluded. Conan wondered to whom these brave words were directed, decided the youth was but speaking to himself.
They stood upon a long scaffold, the faces of the crowd on a level below their feet. Massive uprights at either end supported a huge overhead beam--more than sturdy enough to bear the weight of seven men. There was no trap to the scaffold. Instead, each waiting noose was passed through an overhead iron hook, with the other end of the rope secured to a windlass and rachet apparatus. No sudden drop and quick death from a broken neck here. This was the Dancing Floor, where the recipients of Zingaran justice were slowly hoisted from the scaffold and left to writhe and kick until strangled.
Passing along the row of the condemned, a warder solemnly hung a placard about the neck of each man. Pausing before Conan, he took care to stand clear of the Cimmerian's manacled hands.
Conan scowled down at the placard that lay upon his broad chest. He tried to spell out the inverted letters, but his ability to read Zingaran was dubious under any circumstances. "What does it say?" he asked his companion.
The thin youth glanced at the placard with ironic interest. "It says: Conan Mutineer. Congratulations."
"What does yours say?" Conan wanted to know.
"Mine proclaims: Santiddio Seditionary. Our companions are sundry thieves, murderers and publishers."
"No, I wasn't merely being redundant. The fellow on the end there had the misfortune to publish my little political treatise that so incensed our beloved King Rimanendo."
"May your beloved king catch the pox from his catamites!" snarled Conan. "I killed...