By A.J. Brown
“Aye, it’s a thankless task, but someone has to do it.”
The words rolled off Ivan’s lips as if he had spoken them hundreds of times. He ran the blade across the grindstone, dipped it in water and repeated the process, making sure the blade slid across the gray stone at a slight angle. He held the axe up, then shook his head when the sun’s rays winked off the shiny steel.
“That should do fine.”
He leaned the axe against the stone house and looked over to Joseph. The young man’s face was a study in worry. The tips of his brows bunched above his nose, his lips pulled down into a thoughtful frown, his eyes focused on the dirt at his feet.
“Lad, what seems to be bothering yah?”
Joseph’s skin was pale white. His hands trembled. He looked like he would run away at any moment.
“This doesn’t bother you?” Joseph asked, his voice shaking.
“Oh, no, my boy. It’s a handy work not many appreciate, ‘cept for those with an odd tastes and a sick humor.”
Ivan picked up the axe and slung it over his shoulder. “Follow me, Joseph, and I’ll show you how it’s done.”
Joseph hesitated and gave his uncle a weary look.
“Come, boy. Don’t dally.”
Joseph stood and fell in line behind Ivan. They made their way through town and across the Old London Bridge.
“Where are we going, Ivan?”
“To the Stone Gateway.”
Joseph stopped in his tracks. An icy finger traced its way along his spine.
“But, Ivan, that is where—”
“Aye, lad, it is.”
“But, then you would be the—”
Ivan stopped, turned to face Joseph and lowered the axe to the ground. “Joseph, yah need not be concerned with what I am—yah need to be moving along and keeping up with me. The king despises tardiness. Especially, when his subjects are present.”
“I thought you just …”
“I just … what, lad?”
Joseph swallowed hard and shook his head. “I thought you only sharpened the blade.”
Ivan let out a laugh that sounded more like a roar. “I do not hone the blade for the executioner. What joy would there be in that? Now, come.”
Again Joseph followed Ivan toward the Stone Gateway. As they neared the entrance, Joseph’s stomach began to curdle. They passed lines of peasants and semi-royalty. The stone structures on either side of them loomed high in the air, casting shadows on the ancient bridge. The king sat near the foot of the bridge, raised high on a platform. On the ground beneath him was what looked like a stake, head and arm restraints and a chopping block stained with the blood of those executed before this day. Four men rolled out a large black cauldron on a stone slab with wheels attached to it.
Joseph’s breath caught in his throat for a moment when he saw the many severed heads on stakes lining the road and the fields near the castle. Most of them looked old but had somehow survived the elements and time.
Ivan looked back with a smile on his face.
“Yah ‘aven’t been to this side of the bridge before, ‘ave yah?”
Joseph shook his head.
“Over there. Yah see that ‘ead?” Ivan asked. “That’s William Wallace’s ‘ead. It’s been there for 237 years.”
The head sat on a stake, its eyes missing, and its mouth frozen in an eternal scream. There was still skin and hair and teeth on it; its tongue still resided behind its teeth.
“This is absurd,” Joseph said in protest. “This is not right, Ivan. We must stop this.”
Ivan looked at Joseph in astonishment. “Don’t let the king ‘ear you, lad. Or you’ll be one of them.” He pointed to the head closest to the king. “That’s Thomas Cromwell. He’s the newest one—only been up for a little over two years now.”
A scream arose from the crowd as guards hauled a young man through the people, his hands in shackles. He fought for all he was worth but the guards held him firmly.
“Oy, here we go. Watch and learn, Joseph.”
A man with a shock of white hair on his head and dressed in a long blue coat and pants, stood. He unrolled a scroll and held it in front of him. “Louis Waddle, you have been sentenced to death for crimes against your king and your fellow man. You shall die by the blade and—”
“I did nothing,” Louis yelled.
Louis gave one guard an elbow to the ribs and kicked a second one. The third one tried to grab him but missed. Louis ran through the crowd to the edge of the bridge, his chains rattling. When he reached an open ledge he jumped, plummeting into the Thames.
“This is an outrage,” Joseph said. “That man was clearly innocent of his crimes.”
“Joseph, close your mouth.”
“No, Ivan,” he said then toward the king he yelled. “This is wrong. It is a sin.”
The king levied a stern look to Ivan, then nodded without speaking. Ivan turned to Joseph, his only nephew, and frowned.
“I’m sorry, Joseph,” he said.
“What do you—”
Ivan struck Joseph with a balled fist, sending him to the ground. The guards grabbed him and carried him to the chopping block. His hands were put in restraints and he was lowered to the ground.
“I’ve committed no crime,” Joseph yelled in protest.
Two of the guards held his shoulders, keeping his neck against the stone block.
“Ye should ‘ave kept your mouth closed, Joseph,” Ivan said and swung the axe down.
Joseph’s head fell into the basket at the base of the block. Blood sprayed from his neck. His body twitched several times and his eyes blinked as if in disbelief.
Ivan picked up the head as one of the guards lifted the stake from the ground. It pained him to place his nephew’s head upon it, but it was what had to be done. With Ivan’s help, the guard lowered the stake and Joseph’s head into the cauldron. They lifted it up and tar dripped off the head.
Ivan nodded to the guard and several others came over to help him place the stake in the ground.
“Well done, Sir Ivan,” the king said and clapped loudly. The crowd joined in, their cheers echoing along the bridge.
Ivan looked up at the head of his nephew. Tar dripped down the spike. His mouth was opened in a scream. One eye was open, the socket empty. The other one was closed. His hair clung to his skull, never to blow in the wind. Ivan nodded to the king.
“Aye, it’s a thankless task, but someone has to do it.”
Like the previous story, this one was written in the Flash Challenge group. The topic was to write a story of an executioner in old England. I took a few liberties with history but tried to keep it accurate as well. Most of us have heard the name William Wallace thanks to the movie Braveheart. Wallace was executed at the Old London Bridge and he was beheaded. His head was dipped in tar and placed on a spike atop the London Bridge. The amount of time his head sat on the spike and on top of the bridge isn’t accurate.
Thomas Cromwell also died by beheading and his head was tarred and placed on top of the London Bridge, some 200+ years after Wallace’s.
Obviously, I took a few liberties with dialogue and dialect.
I hope you enjoyed this His Undoing and that you won’t give me too much grief for making a few changes to history. If you have a minute or two, please like, share and comment on this post. Thank you.
If you’d like to donate a couple of bucks to a working author, it would be greatly appreciated.