by Aeryn Rudel
The block gleams with congealed blood as I kneel before it. The headsman has been busy today—I’m the last of twenty. He towers over me, and his eyes, a surprising bright blue, gleam from the depths of his black hood. They are twin glaciers where it seems warmth or mercy can find no purchase. He takes one hand from the haft of his axe, places a meaty palm between my shoulder blades, and pushes me over, forcing my neck into the notch. The block is cold on my skin, and it smells of the butcher’s stall, coppery and rank.
“Don’t squirm,” the headsman says, leaning down to whisper into my ear. His breath smells of onions and pipe weed. “Stay still, and the axe will bite clean.” It is a kindness, this warning. Today I saw the axe crack the spine of a man who jerked forward to avoid the headsman’s stroke. His pained screams still ring in my ears. I will be still.
I stare at the small crowd gathered before the gibbet. It has dwindled now; most have had their fill of death. Lord Magister Vyard is still there, of course, a gaunt scarecrow in black, the three-pronged sigil of his office glaring from his breast, blood red in the fading afternoon sun. Lucinda stands next to him, trying to look away. Vyard’s thin fingers are locked around the back of her neck like talons, keeping her facing forward. He wants her to see this. Vyard’s lips are moving. I cannot hear what he says, but his mouth twists and draws violently as he utters some silent, hateful curse.
The headsman draws in a deep breath above me, and I hear the honed steel of the axe-head scrape away from the gibbet. The axe whistles down, and there is sudden, terrible pressure on my neck, just below the base of my skull. There is no pain as my head comes cleanly away from my body, just the dizzying terror of the world turning end over end.
My head rolls a few feet and stops, then I hear the heavy tread of the headsman moving in my direction. I open my mouth to speak but can make no sound. The throat and lungs that empowered speech are part of the body sprawled lifeless behind the block.
The headsman’s thick fingers twine through my hair, and he hoists me up for the crowd’s appreciation. I have a clear view of the executioner’s square. I see the crowd, I see Lucinda on her knees before a puddle of vomit, and I see Vyard striding forward. He holds open a black silk bag, and when he reaches the scaffold, the headsman drops me into it.
I plunge into darkness, and here I wait for death. I wait for sight and hearing to fade. I wait to behold the gates of heaven or writhe in the fires of damnation. I experience neither. I come to the strange and awful realization that my head lives apart from my body. This realization is quickly followed by another. Vyard is the Lord Magister, the king’s most powerful sorcerer, a man to whom death is a paltry obstacle. For loving Lucinda, Vyard’s young wife, he had me executed and now something much worse. The man’s rages are feared throughout the kingdom, and his curses are more than angry words.
Light returns as I am pulled from the silk bag. The light is from a torch carried in the left hand of man who is not Vyard. He holds my head in his right. I see a bare stone wall before me, and upon it a row of tall iron spikes. The man lifts me above the wall, and I see the executioner’s square below and the city sprawling beyond. The height of my vantage point and the view tells me where I am—the Lord Magister’s tower.
There is sudden sharp pressure—again, no pain—as the stump of my neck is forced down onto a spike. The man, a guard perhaps, grunts with the effort of forcing the iron barb through the meat and gristle. His task complete, he leaves me, taking the light of his torch with him.
This is to be my fate, to spend years uncounted as a ghoulish ornament upon my killer’s wall. Vyard has condemned me to a hell of slow and certain madness, another victim of the Lord Magister’s cruelty.
Before I can slip further into despair, I am aware of a strange sensation. A feeling outside the prison of my skull, like an old memory I can’t completely recall. Then it crystalizes, and joy surges through me—I can feel my hands, my legs, my body! At first it is little more than a ghostly tingling, like an itch I can’t quite scratch. Then the sensation intensifies, and I feel my fingers moving against soft and yielding resistance. I can see the empty square below and the pile of corpses near the gibbet. I focus on my body, forcing my legs to move, my arms to push. The pile of headless corpses in the square below topples over, and among them is my own.
I tell my body to stand. It obeys my phantom urging, and I can feel solid ground beneath its feet. I carefully pilot my orphaned flesh to the gibbet, mount the stairs, and move to the block where my mortal life ended. I tell my hands to pick it up the headsman’s axe, and its dread weight feels like something I have long been without. It feels like power, and it feels like vengeance.
I turn my body toward the Magister’s tower. Vyard will come to gloat soon, and when he does, all of me will be waiting for him.