This story is by Ichabod Ebenezer and won the Grand Prize in our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Ichabod Ebenezer has lived in the Pacific Northwest for twenty-three years, making him a virtual native. One of these days he may settle on a favorite genre, but for now he writes Horror, Mystery, Sci-fi, and Fantasy. Links to all his works can be found on www.theichabodebenezer.com.
I hefted my axe and ran my thumb along its edge, split and doubled over in places, caked in blood and hair.
Not today. The axe would not touch today’s condemned in its condition. It would be clean and sharp, and it would get a good polish and oiling as well.
I rested it on my shoulder as I walked the length of the prison. Today I was glad for the hood that preserved my identity. The prisoners only saw, and rightly feared, the executioner. Outside the castle, they didn’t know me from any other servant of King Tybald. They treated me good in the market, because I was castle staff, but no one imagined I was anything other than a steward, a valet, or groom of the stool.
I didn’t usually worry about that stuff, as the condition of my axe testified. I’ve used it one hundred thirty-two times, and someone died each time. I did my job and took my pay. The men I executed meant no more to me than chickens to the butcher. My dull blade took two or sometimes three blows to properly kill each one, and it didn’t affect my sleep.
At the far end of the cells was the chamber where the king’s enemies were forced to confess their secrets. At the moment all the shackles were empty. Today’s condemned would not be tortured — there would be no confession.
In the center of the room was a furnace where the instruments of torture were heated to a blazing white. I plunged the blade of my axe into the coals to burn off the blood and pumped the bellows to stoke the fire. I turned my axe once, then removed it from the fire and quenched it in a nearby barrel of oil.
The king was mad. The whispers were everywhere in the market, though nobody spoke too loudly. He began with messengers who brought bad news, then moved to loyal members of his own council. It became obvious that the men he sent my way were innocent of the charges, but those who spoke up were next in line, and every one of them confessed before they felt my axe.
I drew the oily axe across the whetstone in long arcs, concentrating on the sound it made. Schlick! Schlick! Schlick!
I knew exactly how many lives I had ended, and I told myself that meant it was only a job. If I didn’t do it, someone else would. One hundred thirty-two people were fated to die, and I was just the instrument — no more guilty than my axe.
Schlick! Schlick! Schlick!
I could see now that I was complicit.
Today the queen was to be executed. The king’s madness knew no bounds. The people went from willing to die for him, to cursing his name. The only thing stopping them from open revolt was the victims. They didn’t care enough about a bunch of foreigners and nobles who would spit on them as soon as look at them.
But the queen was different. She came from the same stock as the rest, but somehow she turned out kind and good. She gave coins to the beggar children, and what’s more, she’d come into the market with handmaids instead of guards. She’d look you in the eye and pay a fair price. A bit of simple respect can mean more to the poor than all the charity in the world.
A bell rang high above, and the sounds of the crowd came in from the courtyard. I swiped my axe across the stone a couple more times, tested the edge, and gave it a final grind.
The blade was sharp enough now to do the job in one shot, but I wanted more than that. Today, the job would be done with respect. I took the blackened cloth from the instrument rack and rubbed at the axe’s filigree. It had once been beautiful.
The bell rang again, but now I was ready to heed the call. I left the torture chamber and climbed the spiral staircase outside, staring ahead at the stone wall as I went ‘round. I would do what I must today, not because it was my job, but because it was my duty.
The queen did not deserve to die. She was not the king’s enemy, and everybody knew it. If anything, she was guilty of trying to save him. Only, she didn’t understand how far gone he was. Her pleas to change his mind were seen as taking the enemies’ side, and suddenly every act of kindness looked like treason.
This was going to be the hardest thing I ever did.
I tugged at my cowl, making sure my face was covered. As I passed another brace of torches, I caught my reflection in the polished brackets, and I thought for the first time about the hooded man on the other side of the line. I oversaw the last moments of life, but he took over at the first moment of death. Was he making the same preparations even now? Did he have the same thoughts of respect? Or was everyone the same once they died, from highest-born queen to lowest of peasants?
Would his scythe be sharp today?
I reached the top of the battlement, and came into view of the crowd below. A hush fell over them like always. Guards lined the walkway, and I marched past them numbly. My feet knew the way to the block of wood that completed my toolset.
Someone yelled out, “Long live the queen!” but the crowd didn’t take up the cry. I reached my position, and soon there were boos and hisses throughout the crowd. Those took less courage.
Another bell, higher pitched, was rung. I looked up to see the king on his throne, out on his wide balcony, surrounded by guards. I expected some sign of amusement, but his face was stony. Perhaps some part of him understood he had gone too far.
The door on the castle-side of the parapet opened, and there she was, wearing the green dress with low collar and wide bustle. It suited her eyes and exposed her neck, as did her chosen hairstyle, piled high and held in place with silver combs.
To her credit, she showed no signs of crying — her makeup was flawless. She lifted the hem of her dress, and strode forward on her own, making the guards that followed her seem unnecessary.
She made her way to stand in front of the chopping block. For a moment, our eyes met, and I was thankful once again for the hood. She knew my face, as she knew my duties at the castle, but I still did not want her to see my tears and thereby lose her courage.
It lasted only a moment, and she turned to face the block and the crowd below.
Another bell rang, this one much lower. The first bell summoned the executioner, the second the condemned. I suppose this third one was to summon Death.
The queen knelt. I could hear crying coming from the crowd, and not just children. The queen was loved.
“Executioner!” came the call from a paige who stood at the right of the throne. The king raised his hand, and I lifted my axe to waist height, sliding one hand toward the top of the shaft. The queen laid her neck on top of the block. The king’s hand hovered in the air for a small eternity, then fell.
My axe did not. “No,” I said.
No one spoke. It seemed that all sound had gone from the castle.
“What?” It was the king. He sat forward on his throne, hands clenched into fists, and his face contorted with rage.
I let the axe slide through my fingers to the stone walkway. “I will not take another innocent life!”
The king launched out of his throne and leaned on the balcony railing. “Seize him!”
I knew this was coming. I’d been thinking about it all night. I let it happen. There was no point in struggling — they would have me either way, and it would lessen the point I was making.
Guards crowded around me, twisting my arms behind my back.
“Put him to the axe!” Spit flew from the king’s mouth as he yelled.
The queen was roughly shoved aside, and several guards forced me to my knees in her place. I heard my axe scraping against stone as it was lifted by one of the guards. My mask was torn from my face, and I saw recognition amongst the people below. I saw redemption for my crimes. They knew me — I was one of them. And hopefully, if I could stand up, they could stand up.
I closed my eyes as my head was forced down and I felt the wood block against my throat.
At least I knew the blade was sharp.