Justice. A small word, but a very important one to a hangman.

Justice.

Justice and punishment go hand-in-hand, and are in many ways directly related to one another. Justice cannot be done without the right punishment, and there can be no punishment without the right justice having been passed. A hangman's job is to carry out the punishment justice has ordained, and to do so with complete faith that this punishment is the right one. The hangman that questions justice is the hangman who questions punishment, and the hangman that questions punishment is no longer a hangman, but a killer. Any man can be a killer, but it takes someone with true dedication to be an executioner

The priest's voice carried far across the silent square, a strong voice, used to preaching loudly from the pulpit. The rites finished, the priest crossed himself in front of the nooses, and turned away. He walked quickly down the wooden steps of the frame, giving Colin a tight-lipped smile as he passed the hangman. Colin stared back impassively, the black hood masking his face to the crowd. Some preferred not to wear the mask, so the condemned could see the conviction in their faces as they placed the noose around their neck. Colin had faced too many defiant grimaces, heard too many whispered final threats. For him the grim visage of the hood, and the anonymity he gratefully accepted.

Colin ascended the stairs, slow steps, his boots thumping the wood. The condemned were a fickle race, wily and fearful, yet at the same time prone to insane last periods of bravery. Every one was bound, and menaced by a spear-holding guard, as insurance . Colin reached the top, and turned. The condemned were in a line, facing the silent crowd, and Colin stepped up to the first with a slow, menacing tread. There was an art to conducting yourself that Colin had mastered years ago. The slow, impassive tread, the strong hands securing the rope, the blank stare afforded by the mask, they all inspired fear in the condemned.

The first was young. A girl, wearing a rough cotton dress. Colin lifted his hand to the rope, and pulled it slowly over her head. Gloved fingertips brushed her skin, and Colin fought hard to keep his hand steady. He stared once into her eyes as he tightened the noose, and saw the fear he saw in most of them. She was wide-eyed, trembling slightly, hazel pupils seeking any hint of emotion in the slits of the mask. Colin gave her none, and turned his head slowly to the second. He lifted a foot, and took two sweeping steps to the next noose.

The second was the first's mother, he could see that at once. They shared the same small mouth and dark hazel eyes. They had the same fear, too. The second was murmuring, lips rushing through quiet words. Prayers, no doubt. The Aztecs loved their prayers, they had so many different Gods and spirits there was a prayer for nearly everything. The woman trembled as Colin's gloves touched her cheek, and she shrank back and shook her head slightly as his fingers secured the noose. He turned again, and moved to the third.

The third was a little boy, stood on a small stool, his eyes filled with curiosity for the black-clothed man in front of him. The noose had to be adjusted, and Colin worked it without thinking, measuring in his head the length needed. He felt something stir in him as the boy smiled when the rope went over his neck. He was little more than three years old, and didn't understand what was happening. Colin crushed the shred of responsibility, and spoke tersely. "Stay still, don't fall off." The boy nodded, evidently pleased at hearing Colin's voice. Colin allowed himself one gesture of emotion, and patted the boy on his head as he straightened up. He chanced a look at the crowd, something he never did, and saw they were still silent, silent and staring.

The fourth was a man. A middle-aged, dark skinned Aztec. Colin wasn't gentle with him, and tightened the noose sharply, cutting off the whispered curses. He glared inside his hood, and lingered for a second, eyes fixed with the man's in a battle of will. The man turned away first, eyes filling with tears as his resolve collapsed. Colin left him silently weeping, and moved onto the fifth. The fifth was another man, with a long hooked nose that Colin had to force the noose over. This one was silent, and Colin respected that. If the women or children cried, well that was normal. But a man, a grown man weeping in front of the crowd before he died. Those ones disgusted Colin.

The sixth was another woman. Hard-edged. Her body was straining against her bonds, and her face spoke of a life of defiance and hard work. She didn't even attempt to whisper her piece, but spoke in a harsh voice. "This is wrong! We didn't do anything. Can't you see, you blind idiot! We didn't do anything!" Her voice broke, and she started howling abuse at Colin, tears streaming down her face.

Colin slapped her, gloved hand smacking her mouth shut. Her voice was snuffed out in a sudden squeal, Clin attempted to keep his composure, tried to stay impassive, but snarled darkly as he turned away. "Fool! Do you think I care why you are here."

The sixth stayed silent, but Colin could feel her gaze on the back of his neck, the silent, unfair rage prickling his skin as he stepped up to the lever. He gripped the polished wood, felt the familiar knots and bumps through his gloves. He knew they were all looking at him, the crowd, the condemned. Everyone in the square. Colin savoured it for a moment, and almost looked around. He turned his head slightly, and smiled inside his mask.

He shoved the lever over, and heard the familiar clank as the panels dropped. He closed his eyes to the sounds, as he always did. They would come back to him later, he knew it. The gasping, the writhing sound as they tried to get air, the liquid sound as their bowels emptied. These condemned took a long time to die, several shrill screams emerging from choked mouths. They eventually stopped moving, and the sounds went. It was an awful sound; Muted gasping as they tried to breathe, the fragments of words, the frantic kicking. It was replaced by the slow drip of piss, and Colin opened his eyes again.

He walked stiffly to the sixth, and took one look at the intense terror frozen on her face. He ignored the feeling rising in his gut, and walked on. The fifth had not cried, and had died with at least some dignity, eyes closed and jaw locked in a final grimace. The fourth had the same look as the sixth. Colin walked past the third, not looking at the boy. Not looking, not seeing anything. His imagination filled in the blank, and Colin saw that small face contorted in horror as the boy realise what was happening. He opened his eyes, not realising he had had them screwed up. He took one look, to satisfy his desire for closure.

The boy's visage struck real fear into Colin's soul. His face had a look of deep betrayal on them, and his mouth was open, as if asking... "Why?"

Colin turned away quickly, not wanting to gaze again into those terror-filled eyes – eyes that had not seen any hardship, but eyes filled with such pain. The image stayed imprinted on his eyes, and he cursed himself for looking. He stood still for a second, trying to face the image that would haunt him if he didn't confront it now. He breathed deeply, and opened his eyes again, throwing the memory away where he put all the other faces he had seen. This was justice. He carried out justice through punishment, and this was what had been decided.

The image of the sixth shouting at him came back into Colin's head, but he shoved it away, and continued on. He forced himself not to care, shoving his feelings down forcefully at the looks on the mother and daughter's faces. They had died roughly together, weeping pitifully at the end. Colin reached the end of the line, and turned to the crowd. He shouted, the words that normally came so easily to his lips quavering in the wind. "Justice has been done here! Let this be a warning to all those who would commit a crime in Scottish lands!"