Sundown occurred far quicker than Frida had expected.
Her strange day culminated in a sunset of deep pink and purple hues that crested the mottled clouds. The beauty of that final glimmer of light was not lost on Frida.
She neatly placed her belongings into her pack, until her cell was clear, ready for the next occupant. She wrapped the toy spaceship delicately and hid it amongst her clothes.
After changing into more comfortable clothing, she combed the last few weeks’ accumulated dried twigs and leaves out of her tangled brown hair. She had unbound the tight bandages from her chest. She thought it odd to die looking like a boy, after all, what if they buried her in the wrong place?
She considered why her captors let her keep her pack if they intended to execute her without trial or reason. She had never spent time in the Ironguard fortress before, but had heard of the ‘sundown’ decree. Strangers and undesirables would be given till sundown to leave the city, if they failed to do so, they would be executed.
She was a registered wiretap; there was a guild house in Ironhaven which could vouch for her. She belonged to a esteemed organization, she had an education, who would execute someone who could read. As for her friends, who would vouch for their honesty? She doubted that there was anybody who could speak positively on behalf of an outsider like Nelya. Jacob, Garth and Cassidy may have associates here, perhaps they had contacted them. It all seemed so futile now. The sun was setting. A lone drum began to beat slowly in the execution yard.
Frida watched the yard through the small cell window, wondering what would happen. She stroked the soft velvet fabric on the hem of her sleeve, to calm the rising panic.
The steady thump of the execution drum continued.
The sky had shifted hues to orange, sparkling off the metal scaffold of the execution platform. The torches surrounding the yard ignited automatically.
A tall figure was lead out to the execution yard. It was followed by a procession of other hooded figures of various heights. Large, well fed Ironguard soldiers flanked the convicted to the long platform. A different group of grey uniformed men lined up near the scaffold. Each carried a long rope and a butcher’s hook. These were the executioners; prisoners released to perform this task until eventually they too would hang.
The convicted seemed to accept their fate without question. The faint smell of camphor still remained in Frida's cell. She felt sick thinking about a drug that made a person compliant in their own death.
In the fading light of day, the executions began in a silence only broken by the slow drumbeat.
Frida avoided the window. If she ignored the indiscernible figures in the yard or believed that she may not be responsible for her companions’ demise she could just pretend nothing unusual was happening.
The cell door opened. She stood up, clutching her pack. Her head lowered to avoid the guard catching the tear that slid across her cheek.
In silence she was lead down the corridor of the fortress. Her guards armour creaked and rattled. She was acutely aware of her surroundings. They were leading her towards the yard. Her muscles tightened.
She stepped into the execution yard, the gallows hung with eight hooded bodies. The ground beneath them was wet and foul smelling.
She concentrated on the ground by her feet, not daring to glance upwards until she was pushed though the archway into a larger courtyard. This courtyard was overlooked by the massive barbican fortress. Smooth concrete walls higher than trees protected Ironhaven from outsiders, except here, in a kink where the barbican sat.
There was a sudden realisation, she recognised where she was. Inside the barbicans courtyard there were two great opposing gateways; one leading back to the wilderness, the other directly into the walled city. From the direction she had entered, Frida was uncertain as to which gate Ironhaven was behind.
“Tapper, this way,” the guard said, opening a small door inset in the gate to her right.
“I had a horse.” Frida said. The guard shrugged.
Frida walked cautiously towards the doorway, either exit would be better than staying in the fortress. The guard shoved her through, with the same concern as a man throwing rubbish.
She stumbled and almost fell onto the streets of a busy city. Frida regained her balance quickly. She flicked her hair out of her face. She had been released, she was free and back in Ironhaven. A group of young boys walking past had seen her stumble, their master regained their attention with a cough before ushering them on to one of the great town buildings.
Frida sought out a vantage point, not far away the road dropped down into the heart of Ironhaven below her. The fortress overlooked the bowl of the city. From where she stood, the far extent of the wall appeared barely visible in the oncoming night. The great citadel, the true centre of Ironhaven gripped tight on the mound near the cities centre; around it twin rivers glinted as they flowed under the many bridges. There were four storey and higher buildings, larger than most Frida had encountered on her travels, excluding the ruins. No one gave her eye contact, it took her a while to notice that aside from children, the citizens refused to acknowledge her.
There was still no sign of her friends. Possibly, like her, they would be released on the whims of the Ironguard. She settled down near the gate, waiting for it to open and her friends to step out.
The streets had emptied and the curfew warning sounded before she was moved off, alone, into the night. She walked the streets, vaguely away of the night passing and the need to find some sanctuary. The realisation that her friends may not be joining her led her to one conclusion. She resolved to return to her life and headed towards the Wiretappers guild house. The tall ornately decorated guild building offered board and lodging to non-citizens, in relative comfort for a small fee. Or so the sign outside proclaimed, in writing and symbols.
She entered the guild house. A familiar voice greeted her.
“Finally, did you get lost?”