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Before the judicator’s dais stood a stack of bricks, new erected. The mortar was still a little damp and the stack was knee high, yellow blocks, about as big as a bench. A broad sword stood up beside it, point thrust into the nearly-dried mud.
We took our places in ranks. Lonireilan guards in their shining white armor threw open the great doors to the keep, the half-buried house that had once been the post-master’s home, and the judicator strode out, surrounded by his Lonireilan honor guard. De Trastorces followed, then the guards and ranks of wretched prisoners. I don’t know where Weckar was.
While the judicator took his place, the drums thudded high against the clouds overhead; hammering, crashing, pounding back down into us. Darkness fell and servants ignited the torches and lamps. Their wardens herded the captives into place; they shoved and drove like oxen going to market. The drums beat on. The judicator raised a hand. We all went silent. The drums stilled.
“You have, all of you, been convicted of base treason; of attacking Lonireil’s forces, and so, Lonireil. You were deserters, or traitors, or cowards. So much the same. Tonight you die, and thus serve your empire the only way that is fit.” He waved. “Bring forth the first.”
With much shouting and shoving, two Lonireilans dragged up a prisoner. They kicked the back of his knees and he fell, and one of them put his foot on the man’s head to hold it down on the little brick bench in front of the dais. The judicator raise a hand and turned his gaze on us, the conscripts and soldiers and watchers.
“These folk must die. Will any of you prove your worth? Your loyalty? And lift the blade?”
The ranks erupted with raised hands, with shouts. Volunteers roared into the night in the dark, beneath the waning glow of the clouds. The captives shrank in their rows, standing before the broad blade and the bricks. As they waved and shouted, I saw what I could be, what I could do; the answer to my riddle glinted, standing stuck in the half-dry mud.
While others merely called out and shook their fists, I broke ranks. I rushed forward, pushed through the crowd, smashed the lines and shouldered my way to the front. Some of them shoved back, but I burst past, heedless, my breath short. Someone jostled my wound and I felt, again, the spreading wetness and heat but I fought to the front and fell on my knees before the rest and raised my fist and shouted till my throat was raw.
The judicator looked at me. A smile lit his face and he raised his hands again for silence. As the ranks quieted, he gestured for me to rise. My breath caught and my heart raced, slamming against my chest. A cold flush spread through me. Could he see me shake?
“Who is this young man?” the judicator asked. De Trastorces went to his side, whispered in his ear. He nodded and then addressed me, directly. “Do you understand my words, boy?”
I nodded, swallowed, tried to speak and failed. Again I raised my voice. “Sir. I understand. I have been practicing Lonireilan.” The prisoners looked back at me but I ignored them. They were nothing.
“So you have. Good. I hear you’ve taken a new name.”
“Yes.” I licked my lips. “Il Lonireil.”
The sound that went through the ranks had some wonder in it, some scorn or laughter, some surprise.
There are many who take names for themselves, presumptive or pretentious; names like Warlord or Prime or Judicator; but at that moment, I had chosen my name, and I liked it, and it was true for a while.
The judicator smiled broadly and clasped his hands together. “Son of Lonireil. And you would be first to execute a traitor?”
“I beg the chance to serve.”
More sounds of consternation, of wonderment. The murmur quieted as the judicator waved me forward. “Take up the sword, then, for your nation.”
I turned my gaze on the sword and stepped forward. In silence, I approached, and the man whose head they held down on the block glared at me. He was not too old; hair black with a trace of gray, long, unkempt. He had bruises around his eyes, at the neck of his filthy collar. His glare was glass, jagged and broken and warning of danger, glistening with tears, and I focused on the sword. It was heavy, too heavy by half to fight with. My side shot pain. I took the blade and took my place, facing the ranks of prisoners and my fellows behind them. There were hundreds of us, thousands, and all eyes were on me. I saw Ahdan, and set my gaze directly on his.
Behind me, the judicator spoke again. “For the Enlightened Empire of Lonireil, the High Conclave, for Prime de Juaron of Avandeil, and for Imperator Loroantes IV, long may he live; serve justice to these traitors.”
The prisoner spat, and I looked down as the drums began, a rising, hammering roll. He shook and tears ran down his face. Some of his spit had reached the hem of my tunic.
I raised the heavy blade above my head, gritting my teeth at my wound, and thrust the prisoner from my thoughts. He was the traitor. He was the traitor. He was the traitor.
I glared at Ahdan again. He stared back, no smile this time.
The drums ceased. I swung down.
The impact ricocheted up my arms, and a cheer went up as the prisoner jerked. I risked a glance down, and wished I hadn’t.
It is rare to behead a man with one blow, regardless of what the stories say. Most times, all but the strongest get stuck. I was strong, but inexperienced. In some places, executioners make a practice of beheading common criminals, to improve their skill for public display, for instances such as this. They pride themselves on a clean cut with a single stroke, an effort that takes years to cultivate.
The prisoner was dying, not dead. He couldn’t shout, that was sure, but he was trying. His mouth was open, his eyes bulging, his neck cut through to the bone. I tried to lift the blade even as the onlookers cheered, but the weapon was stuck fast. I pulled, jerked it free, my bile rising. In disgust and horror now, my breath coming too quick, I lifted again, swung, cut again, arms rushing, cold with a flood of panic and nausea, and this time the sword bit brick and his head came free. The cheers were louder, flooding my ears. In a daze, someone led me away, but not before I caught Ahdan’s glare one more time.
At that look, my head cleared. They were bringing up another executioner. Thirty-three of us would raise the blade that night, sometimes several more times than my two. I had no eyes for them, nor for the body they dragged away from the block or the maimed head they rolled into a bag as they brought up the next victim. I looked at Ahdan, and he at me, and I stared into him, and I willed him to know what I was.
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