Arbitrary Trials

Darbs piedalījās literārajā konkursā LatCon 2006 ietvaros.

A crimson sun slowly ascended from the horizon painting the lowest clouds deep red. The executioner was gazing at the unearthly view hearing little of the crowd’s murmur. There was something uncanny about that sunrise. A quick thought rushed through his mind that the heavy clouds looked sodden with blood, but he brushed it away. However queer the petty mountain town may be, this was still just a routine job. Just like that of the sun, which rose routinely as always, with no intention of conveying ill omens.

The executioner had been summoned from the nearest city located down in the valley specifically for the task, as there was no need for a full-time executioner in such a small settlement, yet none of the inhabitants wished to taint their conscience. The man in the black mask was not here to lighten a murderer’s shoulders - he had come to deliver a young woman to flame under charges of witchcraft.

The execution was to start immediately after the red disc had left the skyline. A dozen score people – the better part of the poor souls that inhabited the backwards village – had already gathered to enjoy the show and were anxiously eyeing the sun that was now only just touching the distant mountain tops. None of them seemed to have the same weight in their hearts that the executioner felt.

Soon enough a door sprung open on the other side of the square and through them in a determined stride came a tall gray-haired man wearing a deep blue mantle. It was the Ward – the only official of the town, governor, head of guard and judge in one person. Behind him walked both of the local guardsmen carrying more than leading a pale, broken-looking woman – the convict. Her head was hanging lifelessly on her chest, her fair hair covering her face in long, dirty strands. The shapeless dress hanging from her shoulders and entangling her legs had once been white, though little evidence of that was present. For the executioner she appeared to be wearing nothing more than dirty, gray rags.

Part of the crowd, mostly young males looked sympathetic, others cast hateful glares at the woman. The man in the mask unwillingly felt sorry for her. Suddenly the thought of ending a young woman’s life seemed hardly bearable. She was convict number four hundred sixty-one and the first one to inspire any compassion in his heart. And he still had not seen her face… now he was afraid of seeing it.

When the populace parted to give way to the procession, the woman wearily lifted her head and stared the executioner straight in the eye. All she saw was a black mask, but what the man under it saw stroke him deeply and painfully. Despite the ragged appearance, most probably credited to several days in a cell down in the Wardhouse basement, she was a most attractive being. Uncannily attractive even – the executioner found himself unable to turn away. Only when his knees faltered, did he manage to break eye contact and catapult back into reality.

While inspecting his own boots the masked man thought of what the woman could had done to deserve the stake. All he knew was that she was accused of witchcraft. No details had been given back in the city, when he received the assignment, and none were given the day before upon his arrival. He was supposed to simply come to the village, drop a torch into oil-soaked firewood and leave, but one look in the witch’s eyes had made it personal. Perhaps she had bewitched him as well. Perhaps the unearthly red sun and the heavy feeling in his heart was her work. Perhaps that is why none of the locals had dared to do the job – they knew that she was capable of wrecking men’s hearts.

A grim determination swelled in the executioner’s heart. He would not fall victim to the hex’s stare. For the four hundred sixty-first time he would carry out his task ruthlessly.

When he finally looked up, the guards had already tied the convict to the stake. Their visors were down hiding their faces. Clad in armor, they stood on each side of the stake like inanimate steel statues. Whatever thoughts were possessing their minds, whatever emotion swelled in their bosoms, they did not show any of it. The Ward was standing in front of the woman with the calmest of faces. Had he worn a closed helmet or a black mask, it could not conceal his thoughts any better. The woman’s head was down on her chest again – none of her face could be seen. Everything seemed to be in order, yet it felt unnatural. The guards were to still, the Ward was too calm, the woman was too normal. Everything was in too good order. Everyone was perfectly placed and perfectly shaped like theater decorations. Even the crowd seemed to have fallen silent behind him.

The Ward held a lit torch in his hand. It’s flame was a beacon of life in a breathless scene. That flame would now have to kill. The executioner slowly approached him and took the torch.

As the Ward stepped away from the stake and merged with the crowd, the masked man was left alone versus his victim. The guards on either side were facing the crowd still inanimate, visors down. It was time. All that was left was to drop the torch into the firewood. With another surge of determination the executioner lifted the torch above the wood… and froze.

The woman had lifted her head to meet his eyes again, this time from up close. His determination withered away without trace. The convict’s face lacked any particular expression and if there were any, the masked man would not be aware of it. The large, dark eyes were the only thing he could focus on. Everything else faded into some dark corner of his mind like a distant memory. He could not hear a sound, he did not feel his legs or the burning torch in his hand. With every passing moment the captivating eyes seemed to grow larger and the rest of the world seemed to shrink, to pale, to blur until he forgot of it’s existence.

And while standing thus, the executioner did not notice how his grip on the torch was loosening until it parted from his hand and fell straight into the firewood. His mind was immediately set free. The world with all its colors, sounds and smells rushed over him shoving his thoughts back into order.

The heat made the masked man stagger a few steps back half-consciously. He then turned around to face the crowd, the village and the mountain tops beyond – all so ordinary it made the woman behind him sink among other thoughts and become what she was meant to be – convict number four hundred sixty-one.

Yet one face in the crowd was different. One face, set on shoulders clad in deep-blue, had finally changed. The Ward looked pale and horrorstricken. Whether he had seen what the executioner had only he could tell, but some dark thoughts were still haunting him and his eyes were still nailed to the witch.

The executioner turned around following that gaze and looked upon the fire. Smoke and flame engulfed the woman, yet he caught a glimpse of her head low on her chest. Only now did he fully realize that he had indeed killed her – job number four hundred sixty-one was done. But with that revelation came horror at what he had done. How could this woman had deserved such death? Why was he not told what she had done? Witchcraft? Is it always evil? Was she really that wicked or were the villagers simply afraid of what they did not know?

The masked man turned to face the crowd determined to demand elaboration from the Ward, but met only commoner faces. Some were sorrowful, some were cheerful and some had a filthy sneer, but the Ward’s aghast visage was nowhere to be seen. He cast another look at the fire and the guards on either side with their visors down. He had dropped the torch - nothing more was to be done here.

Feeling sick of the commoners’ blunt faces and the uncanny stiffness of the steel-clad guards behind him, the executioner strode off without much care for direction or destination. He just needed to leave the woman behind and erase all memory of her. Either that or find the Ward and hear her crimes to sooth his heart in affirmation that the deed was necessary.

As he walked the roar of fire and chattering of the crowd died behind him giving way to complete silence. The masked man was now treading a small path that led out of the village into mountains. The further he walked, the stiller the surroundings became. Soon the silence made him uneasy. Paranoia crept up and knocked on his back. Something was watching him hidden behind the rocks. He could not hear or see anyone, but felt accusing glares cast at him from every direction. Unable to bear it the man darted off. He had to leave the stake, the guards, the crowd and the eyes beyond the rocks as far behind as possible.

Still, he felt no better on the run, for he heard not his footsteps nor felt wind in his face or weariness in his legs. All he felt was a mute accusation as if every stone on the path denounced his deed. When the path disappeared among rocks, the executioner did not stop. Tripping and falling yet feeling nor pain nor fatigue, he scrambled forward as fast as he could.

After a while the man’s ears greeted a distant sound. Escape from the murder, the woman’s eyes and the accusing rocks was somewhere ahead. He could not yet recognize the sound, but it did not matter what it was and where it was. It was a salvation.

In a short while the executioner reached that salvation. He was standing above a waterfall. Waters of the small mountain stream were pouring into a gorge so deep it’s bottom was lost in fog. As he stood upon that waterfall the masked man felt a dark thought emerging from the depths of his mind encouraged by the accusing stones behind him. There was only one way out. After setting fire to a young woman there was only one way to wipe it from his mind.

Wind rushed into his face. Then fog of the waterfall. The last thing the executioner saw was a body clad in deep blue, crushed upon the rocks.