Brent did not smile. Not when the criminal was led up to the steps, not when the bag was pulled off the man’s head to reveal a purpling bruise underneath his eye, and not when the hangman’s noose was cinched around his neck. Brent did not smile, because there was no particular joy in death. Executions were a necessary fact of life, and some people had to be removed from the world–that was the reality of it, and one he was very familiar with. He had put many people to the sword himself and returned many more for judgment, wherever possible. He was neither judge nor jury: that was a job reserved for someone else. Someone who knew better than he did, for all Brent truly knew was the edicts of his lord and the strength of his blade.
So he did not smile. Not as the distasteful procession continued, not as the crowd cheered on the death of the man that had put three young women into early graves. Not as the executioner put his hand on the lever that would drop the predator to his final end. And he did not frown when at the last moment, a messenger called out above the din of the crowd. Not when the king’s emissary introduced himself and began the machinations that would set the criminal free. And when the criminal strutted away from the gallows, flanked by knights, Brent simply watched.
Later that night, among the dull murmur of the patrons of the Bounding Stallion, his squire was less stoic.
“It’s unbelievable,” the young boy hissed. His sandy blond hair dropped in front of his face as he shook his head and the boy brushed it back.
“That criminal, walking free? Able to keep hurting people? I just don’t understand.”
“It’s not for us to understand,” Brent answered simply. His voice was calm but rough, the product of a scar across half of his throat. He always sounded as if he’d just been clearing his throat. “Perhaps the king has more knowledge of the situation than we do.” He raised a hand for the serving-woman to bring them two mugs of ale, and she did.
“More knowledge than seeing that monster pulling his dagger out of his second victim? What do we need, a signed confession? And besides–” the boy picked up his mug and drank a long gulp. “You saw the way he strutted off the gallows stage. He’s guilty.”
“He is,” Brent agreed, bringing his squire up short. The dark-haired man scanned the inn as he shifted in his chair, his thick armor clanking.
“He is? I mean, of course he is! But if you know he’s guilty too, then what are we waiting around here for?” his squire’s eyes flashed with righteous indignation–a necessary element for a Paladin. But not the only one.
“Orders,” Brent supplied. “The law.”
“If the law means we can’t go out there and catch a criminal–” the boy stopped short, recognizing the dangerous glare Brent had fixed on him. He shut up and hid behind his mug, drinking another slow draught. He realized that perhaps he’d gone a little too far and the man sitting across from him, although calm at the moment, was the same he’d seen crush an Orc’s head with his bare hands.
“The law is what separates us from beasts,” Brent said calmly, the dangerous glare softening. This was a lecture he was used to giving. “Without rules, we’re no better than killers. It’s not up to us who lives and who dies.” His squire simply nodded, kicking his feet out underneath the table. He wouldn’t look him in the eyes.
Brent drained his mug with a few large gulps, then set several coins down on the table. “Come now. Perhaps a stroll through the night air will raise your spirits.”
His squire didn’t seem convinced, but at least he followed.
Half an hour later they were on the streets, walking casually and quietly. The constant clanking of Brent’s full plate had been replaced by a quiet jingle: with the boy’s help he’d exchanged his ceremonial armor for a light chain mail shirt underneath his tunic. They weren’t planning on getting into trouble, but you never could be sure.
There weren’t many people out this late, at least not in the nicer parts of town. Just a pair of guards that nodded to the two of them as they passed by, a gesture of shared respect between the four. After all, they weren’t so different.
But the boy still looked frustrated, and after a time Brent couldn’t ignore it.
“Still angry?” he asked, and the boy simply nodded. “I understand,” Brent said. “It’s been some time since the first time I encountered an edict I disagreed with, but I still remember how it stung.”
“What was it?” the boy asked, suddenly curious. He didn’t always agree with the Paladin’s actions, but it was clear to everyone who saw them that he worshiped the man.
“It was my own general. It had been a long war and the man had made several orders that I thought foolish. But then he made one I couldn’t abide by.” Beside him as they walked, the boy’s eyes shone in clear interest. “He said that when we entered the next village, we would have to put the inhabitants to the sword for aiding the enemy–every last man, woman and child.” His expression darkened as he remembered the order, and the boy shied away nervously… but not too far. He couldn’t stand missing out on the story.
“So… what did you do?”
“Nothing,” Brent answered him. “It was a time of war, after all, and a commander’s orders must be followed absolutely. So I prepared myself to murder innocents.”
His squire looked at him with horror, watching as the worship he’d built up around the man began to crumble. How could he respect anyone that did something so… so… horrible?
“And…. did you?” he breathed, almost afraid to ask it. Ready for his hero to shatter.
“No,” Brent answered him easily. “As luck would have it, during the next battle something spooked my general’s horse, and he ran headlong into battle. We fought our way to him as quickly as we could, but it was too late. And thankfully, his replacement did not see fit to recommend the same order.”
The two of them walked on, making their way deeper into the city. Gradually the quiet neighborhoods transformed into loud, lit-up boroughs with stinking gutters and stumbling people. A leper called out to the two of them from the side of the road and Brent tossed a copper coin into his open hand. He bit the coin and called after them illegibly. From the upper floor of a house women with half-exposed chests called licentiously down to the pair, making the squire blush. Onward they walked.
A crowd soon came into view, clustered around a gambling house. Inside dice clacked and shouts echoed into the street. The boy fell slightly behind the Paladin but followed him nonetheless as they peeked in.
Inside the gambling hall, sweet-smelling smoke trickled out from the rafters and a thick haze clung over the scene. The crowd murmured as two men sat at a table, gold coins piled up in the middle, and then erupted in shouts as one man laid his cards down and the other hung his head. The man must have been having an incredible run of luck–more incredible still since he was the very same criminal pardoned that morning. Brent grabbed the squire beside him before he could do anything stupid.
The crowd surged in and clapped the winner on the back, congratulating him for his win as he ordered a round of expensive drinks for everyone. The boy turned to leave, frowning strongly, but was held back by the Paladin’s strong hand. He turned to him and hissed: “why are we here? We can’t do anything, he’s got the king’s protection. Let’s just leave.”
Brent simply hushed him.
“Stay here,” he said. “And sit tight.”
Brent disappeared into the crowd and his squire took a step back, standing in the street to wait for him. He tried to track the Paladin with his eyes but finally gave up: when the man wanted to, he could fade into the shadows. It was uncanny.
Instead the squire watched the criminal with narrowed eyes. He was laughing, preening, getting ready for another game of cards–utterly unconcerned with the lives he’d taken. It made the boy furious. It was petty, but he couldn’t help but smile when someone bumped into the criminal, sending him staggering. The man glowered into the crowd as he regained his balance, but whoever it was had disappeared.
A moment later, Brent reappeared at the boy’s side. It made him jump. “There you are. What next? Are we just supposed to tail him all night?”
“Not quite. Wait a moment.” The boy clammed up and waited, watching. He wasn’t sure what exactly they were waiting for, but he knew better than to argue with the older man. Often he saw something that his squire didn’t.
The card game launched off with even more cheering than the last. Again, almost uncannily, the criminal was winning. He kept having just the cards he needed to beat his opponents, and he gathered their coins before him as his own pile grew while theirs shrank. He never seemed to lose, and the crowd ate it up: “lady luck!” they yelled, and said he must be favored by the gods.
“Can’t we just–” the boy asked, but the Paladin shushed him, and pointed. As the most recent win was celebrated the criminal held his arms up in exultation, and a small patch of white stood out in his sleeve. “He’s cheating?” the boy gasped, and Brent nodded. They weren’t the only ones to notice: a general cry rang out and the expression on the criminal’s face turned from greedy joy to confusion and then to terror. Bright knives flashed and the gambling house erupted in screams.
The Paladin patted his squire’s back and nodded. “You see?” he told the boy. “Evil never survives for long. We just have to be there to clean it up.” He stepped forward to restore order and to haul the killer, or killers, off to jail.
And the boy watched as Brent slipped a half-empty pack of cards into his pocket.