The morning air was chilling with the bite of a harsh winter. The townsfolk had gathered in the plaza, and every one of them was here to watch a criminal beheaded. Antonio was here with the priests: he had taken the criminal outside, and had the man bound and made to kneel before the crowd. The man to be beheaded was old, and stank of the urine the townsfolk had thrown at him when he was paraded through the streets. Antonio pitied the criminal. But his feeling had gone numb. His heart was cold as the sword sheathed at his waist.
For years, Antonio had been a killer — it was his duty to execute the people deemed vile by the priests. The man he was about to kill had been accused of heresy, a sin so unspeakable the priests saw execution fitting. But why? Antonio studied the criminal again. This man was scrawny like a leaf, looking barely able to lift a sword. What vile acts can he have done, other than having displeased the priests?
Antonio did not like his duty, and he knew how he got himself into this: A young man’s follies. A young man thought he’s strong. He could use a sword well, so he volunteered to be the priests’ left hand, foolishly dreaming about glory and heroism. Antonio’s fists tightened. The townsfolk began to shout curses at the now trembling heretic. A man spat obscenities. A woman called the criminal a depraved animal. Neither seemed aware of the coins the priests were hiding in their solemn robes. But it turns out the priests he’d respected are naught but a clique of corrupted old men. That was how he had grown to loathe the priests. For the sake of their power and silvers, they’ll tell me to kill anyone. Anyone…
As a priest told the mob to be quiet, Antonio looked away. Today, it was different. There had been nights when Antonio saw the men he’d killed in his dreams. Their dead, blank gazes would make him wake up screaming and send his wife gawping at her trembling husband. He had killed dozens of men. He should’ve been used to this, but today, it felt different.
This was the first time he was to execute a frail old man.
Not a thug or a rebel, but an old man who could barely lift a sword.
He whispered to the man, “Is there anything I could do for you, brother?” his voice was low enough, the priests and the townsfolk would not hear. “Is there any wish unfulfilled? Is there any to-be-widowed wife or child whom I can give my coins to? I’ll…”
The criminal gawked at his executioner, “What…?”
A quiver ran through Antonio. The man’s eyes were blank: a cold, empty gaze, devoid of sentience. Antonio had seen such eyes for hundreds of times, but even now, they made his guts coil. It’s the eyes of the lost, men flogged and tortured throughout the days they spent in prison. It was the same blank gaze he’d seen in his nightmares, the dark gazes that’d pressed onto him. “I mean…”
“Now we shall all see this vile man beheaded, in the name of the Almighty God!” the high priest, the lean old man in a black robe, declared. Then, he turned to Antonio and urged, “Please do your duty, executioner!”
For a short while, Antonio wanted to scream at the priests, to tell the crowd about how hypocritical these old men in robes had been. Fleetingly, Antonio glowered at the priests, but snapped into silence then.
“Behead him!” a man’s shout from the crowd cut him short. Then a wave of shouts and curses swept across the town people. The men were screeching obscenities, while the women were glaring at the heretic with cold scorn. All of the gazes bore onto Antonio, their eyes red with bloodthirst. Antonio shivered. He knew what these gazes meant.
If you don’t kill this man, we’ll do it for you!
Antonio’s fingers fumbled. Suddenly, he noted that he was trembling with grave fear. He dreaded more blank gazes in his nightmares and the heretic’s blood, but what frightened him most was what the mob would do to him if he didn’t do what he was commanded to do.
The high priest nodded, smiling faintly.
Next, Antonio was unsheathing his steel with shaking hands. He muttered a quiet prayer. There was a silvery flash. The blade plummeted. Red blood sprayed onto the earth. Yet a few hazy moments passed, and Antonio heard the old man’s groans and the people’s screams. He looked. The blade had been stuck in a half-severed neck.
“Finish him!” the crowd barked. The high priest nodded again.
It was an effort for Antonio to keep himself upright. With trembling hands, he pulled. The blade climbed upward and fell again. And there was another blossom of blood and moan. This time its edge cut deeper, but the head wasn’t coming off. “Finish him!” Antonio obeyed. The sword rose, and fell again. This time, there was a snap. The criminal’s head fell leaving a trail of blood on the ground.
The priests and the crowd cheered with an unholy glee. By then, Antonio was trembling and praying to his God. Please, God, tell me I’m not doing anything wrong… Yet he knew he was merely trying to delude himself as he peered down.
The severed head was gaping up at him. The skin was pale and covered in blood, but he could clearly see the dead blank gaze stamped on the lifeless eyes. Then he knew that another pair of eyes had been added to his haunting dreams.
The high priest nodded yet again.
By the time they retreated, the last of Antonio’s strength had departed him. He glared at the priests’ backs as he cleaned up the heretic’s corpse, while imagining slitting the corrupted priests’ throats. One day, I’ll make you suffer, he brooded bitterly.
Li B.Y. Ralph is a fiction writer from China. He is currently working on his first novel.