The last stretch of the mountain path was straight but steep and the top branches of the Hangtree peeked above the rise. Each weighed footstep brought more and more of the titanic canopy into view.

The Hangtree was three hundred feet tall. Several dozen frayed nooses dangled from the lower branches. Below the trunk, stripped bones and rotten corpses had fallen atop each other in a morbid mirror of a forest floor.

Aldus walked onto the blanket of bones, and in between cracked skulls and vulture ripped stomachs, grinding soft skeleton into dust. He looked up at the last man hanging. The dead one had lost an eye to a scavenger and his dagger was half out its sheath.

He reached beneath his tunic and pulled out the end of the noose that he wore around his neck. He felt for the blade at his side, and let go again.

Aldus climbed. He went slow and with devout caution, past the first layer of branches and onto the second. He hooked one leg under the branch and then he crawled out until he was halfway across it, between one frayed rope and another.

He took the end of the noose around his neck and looped it under the branch and tied it off around it.

Aldus settled down onto the branch top and swung his legs right. The rope was slack around his neck. He looked down. The dead man hung still now.

“May you take me and remake me,” he prayed.

Then he pushed off. He fell in a flash of blue sky and gray ground and then he felt his neck whipped up as the rope tautened. Pain flared. He swung forward and then he swung back. He drowned for air.

Aldus grasped the rope dug tight into his throat and thought the word over and over and over again.

The rope snapped.

Aldus landed hard with a crack of bone and felt something pinch through his leg. He stared up at the tree in surprise, instinctively reached for the noose, and then sat up in the white dust.

He saw a beaten boot that lay, unattached to any leg, with its toe pointed up towards the sky. He thought another word then, again and again and again, and waited for the boot to catch fire. But there was no flame.

Aldus pulled the noose from around his neck and looked down at its end. It had snapped, it was true, but the split wasn’t clean and the word wasn’t working. He realized then that it had broken not from the word but from the weight.

He stood, in pain. He dropped the rope onto the skeleton that had broken his fall. Only worded men were permitted to wear a noose after hanging. He was no mage, then, just a fool that the gods had spared.




* Originally published in Forty Flashes.