Dawn pinked through grey clouds sending shades creeping along the base of the tall courtyard walls, with the gallows' long shadow serving as a grim sundial. It was almost time.
A light breeze cooled Nathan Hamilton's face through the bars but did not stir the heavy noose that now held his gaze. His eyes traced the curve of the rope looking from heavy knot, around and back again. The unexpected trill of a bird's call startled him back to awareness. His hands slid from the stone lip that barely jutted under the window and he turned back towards the man who was sitting on the rough cot that lay against the opposite wall.
"Are you tired, father?" Hamilton asked, his voice hoarse.
Father Maskie shook his head without looking up. He sat there without further movement, his hands clasped against his chest. After a while he raised his face to look at Hamilton, showing eyes that were reddened and damp.
"Is it morning already?" Father Maskie asked. "I'm sorry, my son, I should have let you rest."
Hamilton gave a derisive snort that turned into a cough. "Plenty of time for rest later," he said.
Father Maskie nodded solemnly. "I'm glad you agreed to talk to me," he said.
"I could hardly refuse you, Father," Hamilton replied. "By all accounts this will be the last execution they ever hold. The Italians have no stomach for a hanging."
"Are you certain you won't join me in a prayer?" Maskie asked. "Or I could take your confession."
Hamilton shook his head. "With all due respect Father, MY father would turn in his grave. He never cared for the Papacy."
"And yet here you are," the priest said.
"Aye," Hamilton nodded. "While my father was in the army back in England, he became acquainted with an Austrian mercenary by the name of Spenzler. He cashed himself out and served under Major Spenzler during various scuffles with the Prussians and the French. When he'd made enough for a stake he sent for mother and the rest of us. He said he chose to put down roots in Italy because there were too many old scores waiting to be settled in Germany."
"Soldiering is a hard life," Father Maskie observed, leaning slightly towards Hamilton.
"All life is hard," Hamilton fired back. "A man must become hard to make his way in life." He wrapped his arms about his body dramatically. "The comforting blanket of religion is neither broad nor deep enough to warm us all, Father."
"Indeed?" Maskie raised his eyebrows. "Perhaps the comfort of religion would have set you upon a path that was..." The priest's words trailed away.
Hamilton's eyes narrowed and his hands bunched into fists.
"Have a caution, Father." Hamilton spoke cooly, though his body trembled. "I know well the black pit wherein my stony heart lies and I have no need of your forgiveness nor your puny judgements neither. Do not presume to ease the guilt I feel for lives ended by my hand. Rather ease the weight of clouds from off the sky."
Father Maskie clenched his eyes shut briefly, then held his open palms towards Hamilton. "Oh sweet Lord pity this foolish man for his conceit. What arrogance he has. He would claim to fly like a bird while yet he falls into sin. Nathan Hamilton, have you no regret? Do you feel no shame?"
"No more!" Hamilton was shouting. "Nor yet again, Father. There is no contrition to be found here." He slapped his hand on his chest.
"Only because you refuse to let what IS there free, my son." Father Maskie's own hands were white-knuckled fists now and they shook alarmingly. "You MUST let me help you." The priest's body was bent almost double, his arms tight against his sides, rigid, his gaze fixed on Hamilton.
Hamilton's chest swelled with the breath to fuel strong words but he was cut short by a loud banging on the cell door. It opened and a guard entered, while another loitered in the corridor outside.
The guard sheepishly pulled his cap from his head, nodding at Father Maskie as he traced the sign of the cross on his chest. His eyes darted towards Hamilton then back to the priest. "It's time, Father. You must leave now."
Father Maskie lurched to his feet, but instead of approaching the door he went to Hamilton and grabbed the other man's arm in both of his hands. "I forgive you," he said, his voice rising. "God will grant you his forgiveness too if you'd only ask him for it. Don't be an arrogant fool. I can save you, my son."
"ME?" Hamilton shouted. He wrenched his arm away from the priest, sending him into an off-balance stagger that was only prevented from becoming a fall by the swift action of the guard, who gathered Father Maskie into his arms. "What about your sins, Father? Who will forgive those?"
Father Maskie strained against the guard's grip. "I am a righteous man, sinner, with clean hands and a pure heart. I perform the Lord's work." He shook his clasped hands in Hamilton's face. The black chains hanging from the manacles about the priest's wrists danced. "I didn't do anything wrong. I'm innocent!"
"That's what they all say," Hamilton sneered. He retrieved his black cloth hood from where it lay crumbled at the end of the prisoner's bed. "The Lord executeth righteousness and judgement for all that are oppressed. Nathan Hamilton executeth the rest."