If it hadn't been for the hanged man, she would have fallen. The rain battered the lamplights low, and the rain-slicked granite had offered no purchase. In this dark, no-one would have noticed a shadow simply falling off the edge of the world. As it was, suspended from the the ugly, thrown-together bulk of the Drochaid Mhoridh', the harsh wind tearing at her cloak, the situation was no less grim. The dead man had bloated, then frozen at the onset of winter; so while Aela really preferred not to think about the clammy sensation of something sticking to her palms, she was glad for the extra weight, which kept it from swaying too much in the gale.
Twice blessed, then; the rope had held, and she didn't have to look at the face. She had fallen badly, with no respect for technique; missed the bridge wall by inches and hit the man's back with a sickening noise. At least she'd had the presence of mind not to scream. And now she was clinging onto the man's neck from behind, and into her mind came the black thought that if he could have survived the hanging, that would probably have finished him off. They did that sometimes, she had heard; when the court or king was not disposed to mercy, and left slack in the rope, tied the knot loose. They said a man could live for an hour like that, staring out at the mist-covered plain below the city, choking to death by inches. They said a lot of things. Aela had always maintained it was the wind, moving their limbs. As the rope twisted and she swung round with it to see the forest of bodies, she wasn't so sure. The nearest one to her, a woman, had her hand inside the noose. She had a fine gown on. A lady. Maybe an adulterer. They didn't hold with that sort of thing on the Ard-Craig. It was an example, that's all. The common cut-throats didn't warrant a rope, just an invocation to go to their god, and the baillie's boot in their back to send them on their way at terminal velocity.
Not that any of this was at the top of Aela's mind. Just the small, frivolous part that keeps on working while the remainder feels the cold running up her fingers to the knuckles. Or the burning in her shoulder muscles. Or just how far she'd have to fall before she hit the ground. A long way. First with one shaking hand, then the other, she grasped the rope, the thick, cold hemp burning her fingertips. With a grunt of exertion she swung herself up, one boot kicking at miles upon miles of thin air, while the other found a perch on the dead man's shoulder. Looking up to keep herself from looking down, the bridge the poor folk called the Convict's Umbrella seemed a long way above. This is not hard, she told herself. You've done this a thousand times before. The other boot steadied itself on the man's left shoulder, and she allowed herself a brief moment of satisfaction that lasted until his neck finally gave way.
The rope nearly jerked itself from her hands, and on reflex she looked down to see the dead man falling. The way his arms flapped, he could have been alive, were it not for the fact that his head was taking a separate journey down. She suppressed the urge to vomit as he disappeared down into the mist. Another one for the rocks and the carrion birds. She wished she hadn't taken the job, but the derbhfine had asked her. To do otherwise was unthinkable. No choice. And no choice not to climb. And so, hooking one boot into the frozen noose, slick with viscera, that is what she began to do. Slowly at first, inching her way upwards, nerves screaming at every movement. She was grateful for the night. If someone from the Druimceann had happened to look across and see a shadow climbing a hangman's rope, they would never have believed it. And Aela knew well enough that it was the unbelievable stories that got repeated most.
First one hand, then the other. Sheer terror kept her moving. She was practised, and the people of the city have long been said to be good with heights. They need to be. The secret, they'll tell you knowingly, is about belief. You don't look down because you'll only fall if you remember to. They'll also tell you not to trust a bard, and that the old days were the best. Yet on this occasion, Aela thought, the common wisdom might be onto something. Both eyes fixed firmly on the bridge, it seemed so close now that she could reach out and touch it. Getting there had cost her most of the skin on her hands, all of the breath in her lungs, and a considerable portion of her self-respect. She reached out to the ancient stone, felt nothing but air, and all of a sudden remembered about falling.
They'll also tell you that your eyes play tricks on you, she remembered bitterly as she clung to the rope and inched up the remainder of the climb. The bridge was a narrow, tall, ramshackle structure, built over two floors with a roadway on top of the lot. For a city where space was at a premium, expanding into thin air was the next logical step, and so the bulk of the bridge was a haphazard assembly of shops, tenements, markets and inns, all built over miles of nothing. Somewhere within there was the original spur of rock that linked the two parts of a city built on the edge of the sky, long since buried under progress. The problem with progress was that it didn't offer a lot of steady handholds.