Chapter 1 The Hang Man

Ilosovic Stayne, the Knave of Hearts had been ruefully trudging through the Outlands for a few months now, desperately searching for any sharp instrument he could use to free himself from Iracebeth, whom Queen Mirana had cruelly bound him to by chains.

Queen Iracebeth was currently arm in arm with him, resting her giant head against his broad shoulder. Stayne supposed he should be grateful that at the moment, Iracebeth wasn't screaming at him, as she so often did, but he couldn't tell what, her clinginess or her rage, was easier to tolerate. He long ago decided upon neither.

Therefore the Knave was thrilled to stumble upon an old, dead, thorn-covered tree, which lay on a small cliff overlooking an Outland desert. This tree was the first sign of life he'd laid eyes on for a few days in this barren stretch of the Outlands. Surely so many thorns could do some kind of damage. If not, Stayne would surely enjoy dangling his queen over a cliff.

"Come, we should get some kind of shade," he offered sweetly, as an excuse to begin climbing the rocky hill. Iracebeth offered a half-hearted smile and nod. Since Stayne's attempt to murder her, their relationship had reached a dead end. Soon any chance to rekindle it might be dead altogether, for as they ascended the cliff, a crooked grin crept across Stayne's face.

"Can't we sit, love?" Iracebeth asked, as Ilosovic was wasting time circling around the tree, marveling at its potential. Iracebeth smiled at the pet name as she began reminiscing to the happier days of their supposed courtship. Stayne meanwhile felt a rush of anticipation shoot through his nerves. The Queen had lost her power, and thus, his interest. Seeing as neither of them had political authority any longer, Stayne's only chance to feel important was to use his physical prowess, and he could hardly wait.

Stayne's excitement was interrupted as he rounded to the back of the tree and discovered a man hanging from what appeared to be a low, rather rectangular branch. Upon closer inspection, Stayne might have noticed that this branch was part of a hangman's structure that the tree had wrapped itself around.

The two stood gaping as a scraggly bird pecked at the top of the worn rope, causing it to give. The man fell into Stayne's arms like an old ragdoll. He set the man down, removed his noose, and eyed his former Queen's throat. "Stayne?" she frowned as Stayne's eyes shined with bloodlust. "Stayne!" Iracebeth screeched, aware of his intentions.

Stayne lunged at Iracebeth, grabbing at her as she strained to seize a weapon of her own. Seeing none, she head butted the Knave causing both of them to stagger over the unfortunate corpse slumped against the tree. This blow roused a frightful gasp from the man, followed by his spewing of a tiny brass pipe.

The man himself, Tony Sheppard, rather than flee from the foreboding figures, scrambled to attain the pipe, which had fallen right between the Queen and the Knave. "Excuse me- Pardon- if I could just-!" Tony tried as he dodged Stayne's boots.

"Out of the way!" Stayne barked at his distraction. Tony managed to snatch the pipe but once he got to his feet, Iracebeth grabbed his shoulders and shoved him into Stayne, knocking the trio over once more. Tony landed on Stayne while Iracebeth landed on her face.

"Hullo," Tony grinned nervously. Stayne sighed, grabbed Tony's face and shoved him off. Frustrated and tired none of them bothered to get up, but Tony rolled over to face the Knave. "Right then, let's try this again. Hi, I'm To- er, call me George." Tony was wary of using his real name.

"George, is that right? Get back in your tree, George," the Knave finally looked Tony up and down, noticing his attire. Tony was dressed in a dirty, white, pinstriped suit with a red necktie. Stayne hatched a plan.

Iracebeth whimpered, interrupting his thoughts, "I think my nose is bleeding!" Tony removed his necktie and offered it to the Queen. "Oh, thank you," she smiled. Tony was rather handsome, with bright blue eyes.

Stayne gently tapped Iracebeth's shoulder. "Can I talk to you?" He asked. "No tricks, I promise." Iracebeth frowned but nodded, and motioned for Tony to give them a moment. Stayne put his lips close to her ear. "Look at him," he whispered. Iracebeth furrowed her brow. "Look at how he's dressed. He looks like one of Mirana's pawns. Do you recognize him?"

"I don't. Why does it matter?"

"Think about it. We saved his life," Stayne's eyes glinted, "and he's at our mercy. As long as George is ours, Mirana can't touch us."