by Madeleine Loewith
The blades came down swiftly and without any doubt.
“Guilty,” the judge decreed. And my job is done.
I am High Lord Executioner in my small kingdom. We are neither powerful nor rich, yet we have something no other kingdoms have: Truth. Years ago a guillotine appeared in the very courtyard in which I stand, with a note bearing no name or seal. It read: Only the guilty shall be punished. So far it has stayed true to it’s word. The blades jam when an innocent person is tried. And since then, my family has handed down the post from father to son.
The only problem is that I hate it. I hate the bloodstains that never fully wash out of my clothes. I am relieved when the blade jams on it’s descent. I despise talking to the prisoners. As Executioner it is my duty to take last requests. Many of the convicts executed seemed so sincere, so innocent. Many seem guilty, yet they go free. My father told me I had to remember that they only die if they are to blame. I am just being soft. I must remind myself of this several times a day.
I am the last one left standing in the courtyard. I begin walking down the run-down cobblestone road to my house. It is not far yonder, as I must be able to arrive at the courtyard quickly.
I stop at a roadside butcher’s shop and pick up a slab of beef. I get half price from the butcher.
“No, that is unnecessary,” I insist.
He thanks me, a hint of fear still plays at his mind. I can see it in his eyes. One of my influences on the townsfolk is intimidation. Had I been born a blacksmith or leather tanner, I would appear almost comical. My large ears and freckled nose insist upon it. Yet I am Executioner. My face invokes fear, even if it is covered by a mask at work. Everyone knows who I am. And they are all afraid of me.
I open the door and step into my house. It smells of roughly cut wood, my own work. I lay the meat down on my table and walk back to the living room. The fireplace glows with embers, stubbornly refusing to go out even once the kindling had long since turned to ash. I placed another two logs on the fire and rub my hands. It was spring, not that cold, but my joints ached, and the healer told me that heat should help ease the pain.
The scent of smoke has seeped into the house. It is comforting most days. I find much solitary pride in the hearth.
Once the stew pot hung above the fire and I changed out of my uniform, I went out to chop wood. My house sits at the edge of an oak grove, and a large one at that.
One step into the woods and the sunlight filters out. The light only lessens as I walk deeper within. The woody smell is quite strong. Everything is a deep green, and the ground makes a pleasant crunch underfoot as twigs snap and leaves crumble. I can hear soft pattering of paws in the distance. My worn path has begun to become less noticeable. I stop.
The tree I stand before is quite old, leafless and lifeless. Several of the branches once reaching to great heights were fallen or previously chopped by myself. I bring up the axe strapped to my back. It was well weighted, the blade broad and sharp, the years of use seemingly nonexistent.
It chops through the dry, dense wood easily. I hack off a limb with very little effort and much sense of accomplishment.
That’s when I hear a scream. A brutal awful scream of pure agony.
I run towards the sound echoing in my ears. Where am I going? The trees are closer together now. My feet snag on gnarled roots, as if telling me to turn back. But I don't.
The screams have stopped now. I can hear shallow, fast breathing. Then I see it. A stocky man, his long hair matted down with sweat, towering over a corpse. I don’t recognise him, but I know the look in his eyes. It is the cold look of a killer, merciless and emotionless.
He doesn’t see me. He is preoccupied with the body. I take this as an advantage.
I run from where I was observing the act, and leap at him. He turns and swings a poorly aimed punch at me, his face quickly changing from one of shock to rage. It hits me in the jaw, but too late to stop me.
I hit him with full force, knocking us both to the ground. He screams a curse, but was smart enough to stop struggling. He could see his position.
“You are under arrest for crimes against the church.”
The hour is late, cool night air fills my lungs, but it is anything but pleasant. I am chilled to the bone. I lead a group of armed city guards with a large cart through the woods. I never noticed how different it was at night. Almost pitch black, albeit the lantern’s light. All bird song has since stopped, the occasional snarl or snap of a twig are the only forest dwelling company.
“Over there,” I point ahead of our group, towards where I arrested the man, a foreigner I now know by the name of Samson.
“The body is still here. Poor chap. He’ll get his vengeance, bless ‘is soul,” a guard nods at me respectfully.
I stay silent. The festering corpse has started to stink after only a few hours, the smell of death burning my nostrils.
Two guards pick up the body, one at the head, the other at the feet. They grunt and heave it onto the cart.
“A’lright. Le’s get back to town,” the guard says with a huff. We follow the pathway of broken branches and displaced leaves we left in the midst of our first crossing. It takes but minutes for our return journey.
When we reach the edge of the clearing, I bid them a pleasant rest once their work is done.
I swing the heavy door open, and I can immediately tell the fire has gone out.
“Carec Samson; you are charged with the murder of an innocent, a crime punishable by execution. Your trial shall be held and determined on the date of execution: today. You may give any final requests now,” the judge’s gravelly voice booms.
Samson, hands bound and surrounded by guards, looks around calmly. His eyes meet mine, and they narrow menacingly. He seems unshaken by his fate, yet his eyes appear bloodshot and his face tearstained.
“I shan’t give any final requests this day.”
“So be it,” the judge decrees.
Two guards drag Samson to his feet, then march him to the centre of the courtyard, where I await.
My breath feels hot against my face, between the scratchy mask and ragged, panting breaths. His head is placed down, the blade hoisted high above his neck. The only difference between life and death, innocence or guilt, lies in the magick of the guillotine. My hold on the rope loosens, then lets go completely.
I let loose a breath of disbelief. A cry of shock sounds from the group of onlookers. Samson begins to weep silently. The blades remained, stuck, at the top of the guillotine.
“Oh dear,” I whisper.