Was he dead?
He looked dead. He didn't make any discernable moves. The blood from the wounds had long since stopped flowing. The red stains on the ground were not growing. They just slowly seeped into the sands.
No sounds passed his lips and no breath heaved his chest upward. He was flat on his back, baking in the searing heat of the drought-spawned desert. Sprawled around the epicenter of the crossbow bolt that pinned him to the earth, he looked very dead.
In spite of the visual evidence, Blakgard wasn't positive his foe was dead. From his vantage point on the crest of a rocky ridge, he took in the sight of the body below him on the desert floor somberly. It was quite within the realms of possibility that the figure lying starkly still on the sands and stones below only pretended to be dead, and would either escape if left alone or would leap to his feet in a desperate struggle if approached. No matter how badly wounded he was, some miracle of medicine or magic could revive the fallen figure and cause it to create no end of trouble for Blakgard.
Blakgard's features hardened as he resolved to insure his enemy was indeed deceased. He stood up, crossbow loaded and ready, his black armor gleaming hotly beneath his cloak of midnight darkness. Standing atop his perch on the rocky crest, he appeared as formidable as a destroying angel to all who could see him. The only living or possibly living things that could see him were the vultures overhead, the emaciated horse that had carried Blakgard to the scene, and the still, corpse-like body of the criminal he had ambushed and shot down with a well-placed bolt. If he could have seen Blakgard, the sight of this hellion bent on his utter destruction would have paralyzed the criminal with fear.
He must have been paralyzed by fear. That was the only reason Blakgard could conjure up to explain how a man could hold so perfectly still and yet be alive.
The slope of the hill was rocky and steep, strewn with pebbles and boulders, and feet less sure and certain than Blakgard's would have stumbled. Blakgard did not use his hands for balance, keeping them instead tightly gripped around the stock of his well-oiled machine of summary justice. The crossbow was ever ready to unleash its fury with murderous accuracy if the figure below dared to make a move.
-- A move!
Blakgard was certain he saw a move -- SNAP! Blakgard had already moved behind a nearby boulder and was reloading his bow by the time the shaft thudded into the chest of its motionless victim. If the man had been alive, he would have suffered extreme pain as the bolt shattered his ribcage and tore his right lung apart. Instead, the corpse only moved back a few inches to accommodate the kinetic force of the fierce shaft.
Blakgard peered around the boulder, ready to fire another bolt. He stared at the corpse for several moments, marveling at how a man could hold so perfectly still and yet be alive and wracked with the most intense pains imaginable. Blakgard respected the toughness of his antagonist as he crossed the rocky ground to the frozen, unfeeling body.
Blakgard was soon standing over the seemingly-lifeless person. The two bolts stuck out of the chest like eerie skewers from some demonic feast. The face was contorted with pain, but motionless. The eyes stared directly upward into the center of a circle of hungry vultures. The eyes stared directly into the heart of the sun, stabbing across time and space without even a kindly blink to wet the burned-out orbs.
Blakgard noticed the original shaft had no shadow at all: it was directly underneath the noonday sun. A perfect shot, reckoned Blakgard. Although satisfied with his marksmanship, one thought still troubled the mind of Blakgard.
Was he dead?
SNAP! A bolt slammed into the center of the body's head, crushing it like some unholy melon. Blakgard reloaded his crossbow as he watched the body closely for any signs of motion.
SNAP! A bolt tore into the guts of the criminal, spilling them thoughtlessly on the dusty earth. Blakgard coolly reloaded his crossbow and studied the body to see if it really was dead.
SNAP! A bolt stood at attention on the parade ground of the criminal's formerly functional throat. Blakgard reloaded his crossbow and made a slight grin revealing the deep coldness within him. His unsmiling eyes, however, gazed steadily at the fallen man. Blakgard stared at the body for five full minutes and the body did not even bleed, it was so still and quiet.
Blakgard was satisfied. This man was indeed dead.
Blakgard carefully lifted the corpse and returned to his horse, taking great care to keep all the innards in their former homes as best he could, and all the bolts in their new ones. Producing a sack from his saddlebag, he covered the body with burlap and then bound it up for the long trip back into town. He placed the body on his saddle and then took the reins of the horse and started walking. The skinny horse obeyed and followed its master, who was almost as gaunt as the horse. Neither, however, had a body as wasted by hunger as the slain criminal's corpse.
The hot wind blew dusty streaks across the desert flats and wailed mournfully through the sensitive canyons and between the moaning hills. This dirge served as a prelude for Blakgard's eulogy for the man who tasted death five crossbow shots ago.
"You were a damned fool, Williams. You were a damned fool to have done what you did. Those thirteen other ex-criminals should have taught you a lesson. Didn't you see them? You'll be with them now, Jack. You'll be with them, you'll look just like them, and everyone will look at you and shame you and your family. Yessir. Jack Williams, crook number fourteen.
"Couldn't you tell that I solve every crime and punish every criminal? Were you that blind? You may have been a friend of mine once upon a time, Jack, but my friendship ends where your lawbreaking begins." Blakgard began to justify his actions to his former friend who was now his punished criminal.
"Make no mistake, Williams, I don't hold anything against you personally, but you did steal, and stealing is just flat out wrong. It leads to worse crimes like murder and rape, and I can't tolerate stealing in the town where I'm the law. I don't care how much wealth the fat merchants downtown have and how much you may desire it: you just can't steal, Williams, and that's the law!" The wind howled as Blakgard thought of his next statement.
"You should have thought about your family, Jack. Things were hard enough on them with this drought and all without having their father become a convicted and punished felon. At least they get to grow up in a town where there's one less criminal, even if that criminal was their father.
"At least they get to grow up in a town where I am the law. I'll hunt down every damned fool criminal thief that walks in your footsteps and make sure he's dead just like I did you, Williams. It may mean twenty or a hundred wind up on that square, but I'll keep the law around here!"
Blakgard finished his eulogy for Jack Williams. The winds whipped up a storm, blowing sand and dust everywhere. Blakgard adjusted his cloak to protect his face, but plodded along directly toward town. The horse shut its eyes tightly and followed its cruel master blindly.
The storm lasted for several miles' worth of walking, but Blakgard never rested. His drives were stronger than any natural thing, for he was the law. In the wake of the storm, the sun seared the landscape hotter than before, but Blakgard drove on. He did not even pause to check his direction after the blinding storm. He knew his bearings were true and he was heading straight for town.
He began to think in the desert silence. He liked to think out in the desert, because it gave him the clearest visions of his imagination. He saw a vision of a town without crime, his town, complete with the thirteen -- no, fourteen -- bodies full of justice and crossbow bolts or sword wounds on the platform in the town square. He saw himself, the law of the town, standing guard over the shops of the rich and the homes of the wealthy innocents who were so often the victims of impoverished thieves. He would protect them from the starving, lawless, damned fools that dared to lift a finger to commit a crime in the face of the overwhelming central display of Blakgard's prowess in law enforcement.
Lawbreaking would soon be as dead as Jack Williams, thought Blakgard.
The last thought gave Blakgard an uneasy feeling.
He did not turn his head to look over his shoulder, but he did check on his prisoner. He listened as carefully as possible to hear any noise other than the panting of the horse or the moan of the distant sandstorm. Not hearing any unusual sounds only made Blakgard more suspicious.
He could not stand the uncertainty anymore. Blakgard had to make sure Jack Williams was indeed dead. He let the horse continue walking along its straight, unerring course as he dropped back to line up with the burlap-wrapped cargo.
Blakgard opened the sack to reveal the head of Williams. The expression was unchanged from what it was when it was placed in the sack. The bolt in the center of the head and the bolt in the throat had not budged at all.
Blakgard drew his sword.
Blakgard cut the head off. He held it by the hair and watched as no blood fell from the fresh wound. The corpse was pale from the loss of just about every drop of blood. Blakgard nodded at the final proof that the man was dead and put the head back into the sack. He refastened the sack to the saddle and got back in front of the horse, picking up the reins he had let fall.
He put the reins in his mouth as he wiped the gore from his sword blade. He took hold of the reins again after he sheathed his sword.
Blakgard made a mental note he would have to tie another head to a corpse so it would all be together in the town square, just as he had done thirteen times before. Blakgard felt a bit frustrated and wondered why people in the town weren't being reasonable anymore. After all, they could easily see what he had done to every criminal in the town. Why didn't they realize the central display was for their own good? The townsfolk constantly avoided it and turned away from it. Blakgard couldn't help but think of the good a weekly public assembly would do if it involved everyone in the town viewing every one of the permanent fixtures in the center.
Smell was only a problem for the first few days. After that, the town embalmer was able to pour some odd chemicals on the bodies to preserve the flesh and to repel the vermin and vultures. For most of the time, the town square was a silent, inoffensive study of pure justice. Blakgard could not see why decent folk avoided walking past it or turned their eyes away when they had no other choice but to go by.
Blakgard finally pulled into town. The streets were quiet and still. The hot wind was no relief in the blazing sun that was baking the town out of existence. Blakgard brought his horse up to the square and tied it to a post. He removed the body from its sack and lashed it to the scaffolding in the square that supported 13 more former criminals. The last thing he added was the head, tied around the torso of the corpse that was once his friend.
Williams had stolen two loaves of bread, and Blakgard could not recover them. Williams had eaten one completely and the other had landed in a fetid mud-pool somewhere along the path of pursuit. At ten marks per loaf, that was rather a stiff loss for a single theft.
The price of bread always struck Blakgard as being an odd measure. For as long as he could remember, Rechmund the merchant had kept fat on charging just five small coins a loaf. Once the drought began, Rechmund had gotten even fatter when he raised the price.
Blakgard also realized that the crime wave of bread-stealing began roughly around the time the price of bread got to around two marks per loaf. Deep down in his heart, Blakgard wished that the townsfolk would work harder at some line of prosperous business so that they could afford the bread. He did not enjoy killing his former friends.
He was the law, though, and he could bend for no man, no matter how hungry that man's children might be.