The Example by Windsurfbabe|
Summary: Sometimes, a sacrifice is necessary.
It was, Cearl thought bitterly, a beautiful day, blessed with a shining sun and a wind that blew warm though the spring was still early, carrying the fragrance of early flowers. The golden roofs would glisten like gold, he thought.
Yet Cearl dared not look up as he was dragged towards the central square. He kept his eyes resolutely fixed on the mud that pooled around his feet, even as the guards released him and he landed on his knees into the dirt. The rope around his wrists chafed at his skin, but he relished the feeling. After all, soon he would lose it for good.
“Cearl, son of Cealwulf,” called out Eafa, the captain of the King’s guard. “You have been convicted of horse theft, and sentenced to punishment in accordance to the laws of the Mark.”
Cearl nodded grimly, still not looking up. The ground was cold beneath him, his bound hands painful and itchy. He could almost feel every string in the rope that touched his skin, every little stone in the mud. If he closed his eyes and concentrated hard enough, he would hear the falcon’s cry above the plain below. The bird was free…
“Do you wish to say something, before the sentence is carried out?”
Cearl shook his head. What was there to say? He was guilty. He had stolen – no, attempted to steal – that horse, and failed, as if to stoop low enough to do such a thing was not a sufficient humiliation. Horse-thief: a title that came second only to murder, in the Mark. A title, and a finished life.
A muffled sob forced Cearl to glance up. His mother stood there, the crowd parting in disgust rather than in respect before her. She was wringing her hands and crying, the tears drawing rivulets on her painted face. He wanted her to stop, to look away. He wished she had been spared the shame to see her son kneeling before the wooden block, tethered like a sheep, despised and mocked. Wished she was not here; that he was not her son.
He growled as the people around them started to whisper condescendingly about his mother’s attire and her looks, exchanging knowing glances. She was a whore, his mother. A whore with a heavily painted face, a skimpy, torn dress that revealed too much of the heavy flesh. But she was also the woman who had raised him, who had sung to him when he was ill with the cold and surrendered her best dress to make him a tunic, for his coming of age.
Little did she know that Cearl had never worn it, ashamed that his friends might recognize the fabric.
Now, he was ashamed of himself. She deserved better than an ungrateful bastard son. Why was he unable to love her the way he should?
Aragorn sighed at the sight of the boy being dragged out into the square. “He is so young!” he heard Legolas mutter, and cast his friend a sympathetic glance. But Éomer spoke before he could reply.
“He is young, but do not let it fool you. He is a horse-thief.”
“An attempted horse-thief,” corrected Aragorn softly. “Éomer, my friend, Brego is safe in the stables again. I hold no grudge against the boy.” And even if he had managed to lead Brego away I would not have, he mused. He is so scrawny…
It was as though the boy had sensed his pity. He snarled, baring his teeth like a small, wounded animal caught into a trap, but with enough strength left to fight the iron jaws.
“And it suffices for me to let him go?” Éomer smiled sadly. “What if the next time he succeeds?”
“He is terrified!” whispered Legolas, shaking his head. “Look at him. Fear is enough punishment for now. He will not forget this feeling.”
Éomer sighed. “It is a risk I can not take.” He nodded towards the crowd gathered all around. “My people are watching, my friends. They are waiting to see my reaction to a crime – successful or not. If I do not punish evil, I can just as well command it to be done.”
Aragorn could feel Legolas radiate indignation from where he stood.
“Let them watch!” his elven friend hissed. “Éomer, this is folly!”
Éomer’s eyes hardened. “And what would you have me do? Let him go, and encourage a dozen others to do the same?” He took a step towards Legolas, so that even Aragorn had to strain his ears to hear him. “Do you think I do not know who he is? That I do not see how hungry he is? We lived through a war, master elf. There are many like him; dispossessed and desperate, with families to feed. So tell me: what will happen if I let him go?”
Aragorn looked away, to the anxious crowd below, and the vast land beyond the gates. How easy it had been for him to take up the crown, he mused, with no expectations to live up to, and no comparison to stand day after day. He had little to prove, anymore. But not Éomer.
He nodded and lay a hand on the young King’s shoulder. “Do your duty, my friend.”
Legolas sighed, closing his eyes briefly. “Forgive me,” he muttered. “I was wrong to question your judgement.”
“Eafa, do your duty.” The King’s voice rang loud and clear.
Cearl could feel himself being lifted from the ground and dragged towards the block. He saw the blood incrusted the wooden surface, smelt its remains on the blade of the captain. “Noo!!” he screamed suddenly, his heart hammering in panic. “No, please, not this!! Not this, everything but this!!” He kicked and he fought, trying to snake away from the punishment, driven by blind fear. But they were many, and pried his hands away as he tried to shield them with his body. He felt them being pushed against the cold wood.
“No! Please, just kill me!”
He saw the King’s unwavering gaze, and the sad eyes of the man whose horse he had tried to steal. “Please!!” he screamed again, not caring anymore that his mother should witness him begging. He would not survive this! Handless, marked as a thief, what would he do?
Eafa raised the sword.
And then came the pain.