The crowd started gathering at daybreak.
The first bystanders were the elderly who had nothing else to do with their day. Normally, they’d have found a quiet place in the center of the market to gossip and watch the day go by, but not this day. No, this day was special for the King was to die. That didn’t happen very often, so with their canes and helpers, they made their way at a snail’s pace to the stage which was to host the day’s event.
Once the creeping elders reached the stage, they stopped and evaluated where the best seats were to not just see the events unfold without hindrance, but also not become covered with blood. If the executioner was a hack, they’d need more than one blow to sever the King’s head from his body, which meant, according to legend, a difficult coming year. The past year had been trying enough, nobody wanted another one.
A bad execution also meant a bloodbath for spectators. While the younger crowd enjoyed being baptized in blood, these aged wise ones did not.
They knew being bathed in blood didn’t mean receiving good fortune for all their lives. It didn’t mean they’d turn young and beautiful and have an extended life. It certainly didn’t mean receiving the King’s powers and having a chance to come back in another life as a king or queen themselves.
No, all that touching the blood of the executed meant was getting dirty and having to clean it off. There were quiet tales about how not being touched by the tainted blood might keep evil away from their clans, but those were just tales old men and women liked to whisper amongst themselves. There certainly wasn’t any truth behind them.
It was quickly apparent where the blood-free zone was for that was where all the elders were. They had their stools and spent their waiting time talking and reminiscing with one another. This was not the first execution they’d seen, no that would have been in their early youth, a glorious day it had been too. No, this wasn’t their first but it had been awhile since the last one, meaning they had much to catch up on.
“Took them seven days to make the stage,” one elder muttered to his friend.
“Last time it only took five,” his friend replied.
“Kids these days,” the first elder said as his friend nodded.
They paused for a few minutes, before the friend said, “You know who’ll do it?”
The first elder shook his head. “They’re keeping mum about it.”
“Probably sent for a pro. He was the king and all,” the friend said.
These elders, mostly male, spent all waiting time speculating as to the nature of the executioner. Usually by the morning of the deed, someone had at least seen the man who’d dole out justice, but not this time. Not a single soul had seen the man in the hood.
And while the men talked about the executioner, the elder women talked about juicer subjects.
“Heard the King’s brother’s inconsolable,” an elder woman said to her companion.
The companion nodded. “Heard the same thing. They say he’s not going to put in an appearance.”
“Of course not,” the elder woman said. “That would be tactless. Would you go to the beheading of your brother or sister?”
“I would if you knew my family,” the companion said. “They are horrible creatures. Them being killed would be a blessing to us all.”
The elder woman nodded but she hadn’t heard a word her companion had said. “I wonder if the Queen will put in an appearance.”
“I think so,” the companion said. “She did orchestrate it. I think she’ll be ecstatic to see the cur getting his just desserts. To even think upon what he tried to do…”
“I know,” the elder woman said. “It’s enough to make me break out my own axe and take a swing at him.”
As the elders talked and speculated on the most recent turn of events, the women and children began to arrive. Finding the best place for them and their children was much more difficult because of their children.
Some children were full of bloodlust and wanted to bathe in the blood of the King. They’d been told by their friends, who’d heard it from very reliable sources, that if you got completely covered in his blood you would have super human strength and be able to kill demons with a single punch.
Others had been told that the King’s blood was a gateway to the world of God and that since children could only go to this world, the King’s execution would be their only opportunity to see that world.
The few children who didn’t want to be super human or demon killers or ever step foot on the plain God lived upon also hated the sight of blood. All they wanted was to catch a glimpse of the King before his untimely demise. The latter group stayed by the elders while the former got as close to the chopping block as possible.
“Have you heard about the executioner?” one mother asked another mother.
“No,” the second mother said in a hushed voice. “Have you?”
The first mother frowned. “I haven’t. We should have heard something by now.”
“My husband doesn’t think there will be an execution,” the second mother said. “He says that this is just for show.”
“Then why build the stage and set the time?” the first mother asked. “Why would the Queen do all this if it wasn’t going to happen?”
The second mother shrugged her shoulders. “Maybe they were going to have one but changed their mind?”
While the mothers gossiped and tried to figure out why they’d heard nothing about the executioner, and talked about the lack of mourning for the man who had been their king for such a brief period of time, their children ran around and upon the newly built stage.
They dared each other to touch the block which the King would soon place his head upon. Some would back down, thinking it was bad luck to touch the executioner’s block, that their lives would end as the King’s would, while others would defy the warnings from their mothers and touch the cursed block.
The children whispered to each other how hundreds, no thousands, no millions of heads had become separated from their owner’s body on this very block.
They told about how on All Hallow’s Eve the wooden block would bleed out all the blood of its victims.
They explained that if you listened very closely, you could hear the cries and screams of all its victims just as you could hear the sea from within a shell.
Other children wondered how much blood the King would spill and if it would be red like theirs was. They’d all heard it said that people with royal blood running through their veins had “purple blood,” but none had ever seen such colored blood. Now was the perfect time to see if their parents and elders had been telling them the truth. They couldn’t wait to see the purple blood and compare it to their own. A few children even had vials waiting to collect it as a souvenir of this momentous occasion.
The last group of spectators to arrive were the men, who came in drips and drabs. The gentry men who did no real work were the first to arrive, coming around the time the women and children had shown up. Their wives would come later to enjoy the festivities, or perhaps they’d miss the entire thing altogether, there was just no way of knowing.
The gentry as a group liked to keep to themselves, mixing with the common people as little as possible. They’d petitioned the Queen for a separate viewing box, which she’d declined to create for them. The Queen was a firm believer that if one wanted to go to something as base as an execution then all who attended were the same. That at such moments, gentry and common were identical so they should be treated as such.
Those who looked closely to the gentry noticed how unemotional they were. There was no crying or red eyes or even sadness upon their faces. They had no qualms about one of their peers dying upon this day. Indeed, if some of them had things their way, executions of peers would happen regularly.
But thankfully they didn’t get things their way. They all answered to the Queen and only she could order executions.
The next group of men to arrive were the artisans and merchants, though to be truthful they’d been working since before the sun had come over the horizon. They sold and sold, raking in the dough until their shops had been plundered. Only then were they able to close their shops and join the growing crowd gathered around the stage.
The last group of men to be free for the day was the farmers and other such laborers. They’d spent every second of the morning light completing their work so they could attend the momentous occasion. They’d known their wives and mothers would save them a good spot, so all they’d had to worry about was getting finished so they wouldn’t miss a single moment of the fun. They knew taking time off could be detrimental to their livelihood, but it wasn’t every day that you got to see a King die for his crimes.
Amongst the very worst off who couldn’t attend, they told each other how the King was lucky to lose his head on such a beautiful day and to never have to face a long hard winter again. If only they could be so lucky when their times came.
The men in attendance also speculated amongst themselves about the executioner, but their conversations were loftier than those of the women or elders.
“Heard the guy was coming all the way from the continent,” one man said to another.
The second man nodded his head. “Heard the same thing. They say that’s his lucky block.” He indicated to the block on the stage.
“And he just left it out all day?” the first man questioned. “Must be trusting.”
“Or just smart,” the second man said. “I wouldn’t steal an executioner’s block, would you? That’s the surest way to lose your own head.”
Both men laughed. “Think he’ll know what he’s doing?” the first man asked as their laughter died away.
The second man grimaced. “I hope so. I hate bloodbaths.”
“If he’s from the continent, he should have a lot of experience. They’re known to kill a lot of their gentry folk,” the first man said slowly. “Should only take one whack, but I’m hoping it doesn’t take more than two or three. Anything more than three is just a disgrace.”
The second man agreed. “It is, just like the weeping I’ve heard about.”
“Who’s been mourning this fool?”
“His cousins my wife told me,” the second man said. “They think he was framed but we all know better. The Queen would never have her husband killed if there wasn’t condemning evidence.”
The first man didn’t look so sure. “She might if she was tired of him.”
“But they just got married a few months ago! It takes longer than that to get tired of someone.”
The first man shook his head. “Not necessarily. I every tell you about my wife’s brother? He got married and…”
As the crowd grew until the city square was bursting at the seams, the venders were in their glory. Children begged their parents to buy them swords and axes and executioner hoods so they could play at being executioners. They wanted to chop off their friends’ heads and pretend apples were the King’s neck. Or they wanted to be the brave Queen who’d stopped the King, defending her people as only she could.
When not playing and imagining what could be, the children were begging their parents for food. They couldn’t get enough of the Severed Heads on a Stick or the Beheading Stone Cakes. The vender’s couldn’t make enough King’s Tears they were in such demand.
For the adults, the venders were happily supplying them with King’s Blood, an absolutely delicious admixture of a red so dark it was said to carry blood of the executioner’s last dozen victims. When you drank King’s Blood, you weren’t just drinking to quench your thirst, you were drinking the blood of kings, and knights, and lords who’d done vile things and gotten their just rewards.
You were drinking justice.
The libations and jovial atmosphere created a festival, all paid for by the sadly absent Queen. She’d want her people to eat, drink, and be merry for the main event which would take place on the stage they were all gathered around.
Time passed quickly and cheerfully, so much so that most were surprised when the church across from the square started chiming the noon hour.
The crowd’s laughs and cheers turned quiet.
Talking came to a halt.
The time of reckoning had arrived.
The church bells had barely finished chiming twelve when the front doors to the church opened, revealing four men: the King, the Archbishop, and two guards.
The King wore his finery and jewelry as if he were going to a dinner with his subjects instead of his own execution. He was a sight to behold, one none of these people had ever seen before.
And would never again.
The Archbishop also wore the best he had, though compared to the King he looked shabby, as did everyone in the King’s presence. Except for the Queen, perhaps, but she wasn’t present, as they’d have expected after everything which had happened.
The Archbishop, in his finest robes, walked ahead of the King, swinging an urn of incense as he approached the stage.
The King and his guards followed the Archbishop as he walked all around the stage, speaking in tongues the crowd couldn’t understand. They never understood what the Archbishop said when he sanctified something. Only those in the priesthood were taught the tongues, much to the protest of the people. They never did like being left out of the loop, even if the words were supposedly from God himself and were only to be spoken by those in whom God had gifted insight and enlightenment to.
When the quartet had gone around the stage twice, as was customary when consecrating, they finally ascended the stairs.
The guards followed the King, who walked directly to the executioner’s block. He looked down at the plain wooden block and appeared disgusted, as if he’d have expected more. Did he think that because he was a king he would receive special accommodations even at the end? Perhaps he did. He always did like to think of himself as better than everyone else, including the Queen.
The Archbishop gazed upon the crowd, clearly looking for the executioner whom he must have thought would be waiting for him on the stage. When he didn’t find the executioner after a minute, the Archbishop began to look impatient. He was not one who liked to be kept waiting.
No, he was a punctual man and thought lateness was one of the worst sins a person could commit in this life.
The Archbishop huffed out a breath and glanced over his shoulder, looking at the large clock on the church as if to make sure he was on time.
The crowd shifted restlessly. They’d been here all morning and were ready for the main act to occur.
When the waiting threatened to shift the tone of the proceedings from solemn to tedious, and all honor and piety in the current endeavor was threatening to depart forever, there came a sound, a commotion from the rear of the gathering.
Men, women, and children were shuffling back, creating a path for the hooded figure who had just appeared.
The crowd began to whisper to each other.
Was this him?
Was this the person who would end the King’s miserable life?
No, it couldn’t be. This had to be an imposter.
No, it was the executioner. Look at how he was dressed and what he was carrying.
The figure wore a black cloak which covered him from the top of his head to the tips of his feet.
His black gloved hands held a glistening axe which looked like it could halve a person with one effortless swipe. Was this the blade which had killed a thousand traitors a generation ago?
Perhaps it was a special axe only reserved for royalty.
But no, that couldn’t be right. In the eyes of the executioner, all were equal beneath his blade, for he was the final justice and justice was always equal before the eyes of the executioner.
A grotesquely black mask covered his head and not one hint of his hair, if indeed he had any, could be seen.
Was the mask covering up his disfigured face?
Could one see the toll of all the justice he’d dispensed on his face?
Was he scared?
Or did he simply want to stay anonymous?
There were so many questions which would never be answered, like why was he so short and slim? Surely an executioner was supposed to be taller and more muscular. How was he to swing his axe with any degree of skill? Or would he botch the job as most were now thinking?
Even with all the speculation and talk, the man’s steps stayed smooth like a deer’s gait and he never looked away from his quarry.
The King, upon seeing his executioner walking toward him, adopted a bored expression. It would never do to have it be said that his last minutes were spent appearing scared for he was the King.
Nothing was supposed to frighten him.
Kings were beyond such petty emotions like fear.
The executioner finally made it to the stage and stopped. He looked up at the King and all could imagine his soulless eyes examining the soon to be newest addition to his kill list, for all knew there must be a list. They craved to see the list and be in awe at the names upon it. To know exactly who had died at the hands of this man’s blade.
The King stared back, unimpressed. He never looked away as the executioner walked up the few steps.
The crowd watched in now silent fascination as the executioner’s hand flexed around the long handle of his axe. They could only imagine how much power one such as he could put behind the swing when he put his mind to it.
The Archbishop turned to the King and offered him the hood which would cover his head so he wouldn’t have to see the axe descending upon him.
The King shook his head and said loud enough so all in the crowd could hear, “I am no coward. I have no need for the hood. I will face death as I have faced life: with my head held high and a steely gaze.”
The Archbishop turned green as if he were imagining himself in a similar position. Would he take the hood or would he be as brave as the King? The crowd knew what they would have chosen.
Tucking the hood into his pocket, the Archbishop nodded to the guards, who grabbed the King’s wrists and bound them behind him. They didn’t want the King to get cold feet and attempt to run away from his destiny, now did they?
Of course not.
Once bound, they helped the King to his knees. The King made to lean over the wooden block which would keep him in place while the executioner did his work, but the executioner took a few steps forward and held up his empty hand, stopping the King’s movement.
The King’s back straightened as he looked to the executioner.
The crowd waited with bated breath. Would the executioner give the King a pardon against the will of the Queen? Would the executioner skirt his duty to dispatch justice?
There was a sudden gasp when the executioner handed his axe to one of the guards. The crowd’s fears appeared to be coming true. The King would not be killed on this day.
When the guard had the axe, the executioner made quick work of his cloak, stripping it from his body to reveal leather pants and a tightly fitted top.
His clothes weren’t what had the crowd gasping in surprise. It was his, or to be more specific, her body.
He was a she.
There was no way to overlook that point with her manner of dress.
With an equal amount of flare, the woman executioner pulled off her black mask. As she threw the mask onto the floor of the stage, everyone gaped at her.
The executioner was none other than the Queen! No wonder she’d been absent when the entire execution had been her idea.
With a smile which would not have been called nice by anyone’s imagination, the Queen took her axe back from the guard and stepped right up to the wooden block her husband would be bent over.
The King nodded to his wife and leaned over the block, being sure to turn his head so he could see her. He wanted her to see his last expression. He wanted it to haunt her even though he knew she had no soul.
The Queen pushed the King’s hair off the nape of his neck before taking the few steps back which were necessary to wield the axe.
After using the axe to ensure that her slice would be straight and sure, for there really was no need to make him suffer any more than he already had, the Queen’s arm went back and then came down.
Her aim was true. With one blow, the King was dead, his head cleanly separated from his body.
For a few stunned seconds, the crowd was quiet.
When reality hit them, they began cheering.
“The Evil King is dead! Long live the Queen! Long live the Queen!”
Justice had been carried out.
The Evil King, who’d plotted to kill not only his lovely Queen but also his loyal subjects, had finally received his just dues at the hands of their Queen.
All was now right in the world.
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