(If you are new to the story please check out part one here!)
It was raining in the aptly named Executioner’s Square when the prisoner was dragged into its centre. On sunnier days the streets would be teeming with people, coming out especially to watch the grim activities that took place therein with disturbing enthusiasm. It would not be surprising to see gamblers banded together, placing their bets on whether the hangman’s noose would snap a criminal’s neck straight away, and how long it would take him to die if it did not. The place was almost as drenched in cynicism and cruelty as it was in blood and human remains.
Today however the square was all but empty. The rain had warded most of the usual crowd off, leaving only those whose lives had in some way been affected by the accused to stand a solemn vigil. Even that was a meagre turnout.
The prisoner wore an eyeless hood, as was the custom, which was pulled aside only as he was forced to his knees. Though he had watched the ground as they walked, and he knew his life was sure to end, there was nothing more terrifying than the wooden block upon which his exposed neck was harshly pressed. Perhaps it was the tell-tale specks of dark crimson that had never truly been washed away, or more likely the pure finality of the act. After all, in the entire history of Karinska only five executions had ever been successfully repealed. Three of which had been too late.
Cold rain spat upon his neck, dripping down into his ragged clothes and soaking them through. He was kneeling in puddles already and in spite of the terror he felt, it occurred to him that he was desperate for a piss. He could just have gone then. No one would care, and it was hardly likely to make his situation worse, but for some incomprehensible reason he felt the need to hold it in.
A strong hand pressed down upon his head and began to position it with little care for the pain it caused. The sound of heavy footsteps followed, and the prisoner became aware that there were now two people standing over him, though from his position he could see neither of them.
‘This is not common practice,’ said the closest man. The prisoner immediately recognised his baritone voice as that of the Mhortysii cleric that was to be his executioner. ‘This is a sacred act.’
‘And so it will remain,’ spoke the other. ‘But there are other sanctions to be made. I don’t want to pull rank on you, priest. I’d like very much to be able to tell your magister that this went smoothly, with your full co-operation and blessing.’
An illogical feeling of hope filled the prisoner’s mind, though the reality of his situation was far from hopeful. It was swiftly quashed by what he heard next.
‘Only I am sanctified to carry out this task,’ argued the cleric. ‘You do not have the authority to–‘
There was a thumping sound, followed by a long wheeze. Momentarily the hand slipped from the prisoner’s head, tempting him to turn and observe the commotion, but the sound of a sword being pulled from its scabbard convinced him there was nothing to be gained from that course of action. It seemed ridiculous to fear being killed by some unknown warrior when he was shortly to be executed anyway, but it was all he had left.
‘This blade authorises me, priest,’ said the second man. ‘Be thankful to your Black God that I do not see fit to have you join him. Now get up, and obey.’
There were no further words of protest.
‘Mikhail Reynoyevich,’ said the cleric, ‘your crimes are numerous and despicable in nature. You have been found guilty of five counts of thievery, three counts of assault against guardsmen of the city, and the warrant murder of loyal citizens of this nation. In addition to these charges you are found guilty of running and maintaining a syndicate of crime as a direct subversion of state laws and practices. It is with this in mind that you have been sentenced, by order of the State and the Tsar, to death by decapitation. May the Black God guide your damned soul in death, where His radiant brother could not in life.’
For a moment there was no sound at all, save for the constant pattering of rain. Then Mikhail heard more footsteps in the rain, much lighter than those of either the cleric or the second man. They drew closer and closer until the figure of a boy appeared before him. It was hard for Mikhail to recognise him at first, given the awkwardness of his position, but soon he picked out familiar features like his short, brown hair, and the dark eyes that stared at him defiantly, or the raw skin around his neck.
‘Yakov?’ mouthed Mikhail, his voice hoarse. ‘What you are doing here? They get you too?’
The boy continued to stare, but said nothing. To his left a dark shadow appeared as the owner of the second voice came into view at last. Mikhail stared at the beast of a man with a mixture of awe and primal terror.
‘Look upon this man,’ said the beast. He pointed towards Mikhail with the end of his sword. ‘This man is a criminal, boy. He preys upon the weak and foolish and exploits them. The blood of rats runs through his veins. It is an unnatural aberration, and so it is our job to see that blood spilled and order restored.’
‘Don’t listen, Yakov,’ spluttered Mikhail desperately, ‘he’s lying! You know I’m not like that. I always treated you right! We’re brothers, Yakov.’
‘This is to be your test, boy,’ said the man. ‘You choose now, your life or his.’
Mikhail’s eyes darted frantically between the two individuals. There was little of his ferociousness left. The bear was gone and left in its place was a coward with fear in his eyes.
‘Take my sword,’ said the man and he held the handle out for Yakov to grasp.
The boy looked at it with an uncertain expression.
‘Take it,’ shouted the man, thrusting the hilt into his hands.
Yakov obeyed, and gripping the heavy weapon with all his strength, held it up before him.
‘Now kill this man.’
Mikhail stared, wide-eyed at the boy as he advanced slowly towards him. At first he pleaded, but then his anger took over. He began to shake and roar in fury. For the briefest of moments the cleric’s grip slipped and it seemed as though Mikhail would break free from his bonds and attack Yakov, but he was neither fast enough nor strong enough for that.
The boy had moved out of Mikhail’s vision now yet somehow he knew that he was standing level with his shoulders. It was as though he could sense the sharpened blade hovering above his neck, its immense weight barely kept aloft by its carrier.
‘You’re pathetic!’ spat Mikhail as fear and anger gave way to madness. ‘Pathetic, Yakov, pathetic little cunt. I should have strangled you long ago. I should have broken your fucking neck! You are useless, disloyal, pathetic!’
Mikhail sensed the blade wavering above his head as its carrier felt the strain of its weight.
‘It should be you,’ he shouted, ‘not me! It should be you!’
Silence descended on the proceedings, and for a time there was only the constant pattering of the rain. Then Mikhail heard the sword fall with a thump, but not upon his neck. It fell blade first into the muddy earth.
‘I… don’t want to kill…’ said Yakov, weakly.
‘Do you not want justice for the lives this man has ruined?’ asked Khelenys. ‘Do you not want revenge for the wrong he has done to you?’
‘No,’ said Yakov firmly. ‘I don’t.’
‘Don’t be foolish, boy,’ said Khelenys. His voice had taken on a soft tone that Yakov found surprising. ‘This man’s life is over, be it by my hand or his hand.’ The knight pointed at the cleric who was watching the proceedings nervously. ‘But yours need not be. Make a choice for yourself,’ Khelenys’s voice returned to its normal course tone, ‘or join your “brother” in death.’
Yakov looked down at Mikhail, the man who had brought him from the streets and promised him a better future. The man who had called him brother, and though they shared not a single drop of the same blood, had been the closest thing he knew to a family. The man who sent him on constant errands to steal, to pickpocket, to distract the guards, to enact the crimes that Mikhail would not do himself, and for nothing more than the promise of a future. The man that had tried to choke the life from him.
The boy swallowed and tightly grasped the hilt of the sword. With a yell of pain he pulled it free from the mud and held it aloft. Mikhail howled and pounded his fists as best he could, trying desperately to break free.
Then the blade came down, but it was far from over. Blood spurted from a massive gash in Mikhail’s neck, spraying back at Yakov. Mikhail screamed in unfathomable agony as he bled out onto the wooden block. The blow had not fully severed his head, though the cut had still been deep.
Yakov stared in horror, the sword almost falling from his hands. He wanted to look away, but found that he could not. He wanted to cry out at what he had done, but he could not do that either.
In the corner of his vision Khelenys watched with not a hint of emotion on his features. ‘Again,’ he commanded. ‘Again!’
With shaking hands Yakov pulled the blade up once more. Mikhail was still screaming, his throat gurgling unnaturally with every sound he made. Blood still oozed from his wound, and Yakov could only imagine the agony that he was in. He pulled the sword up high and with all his might, brought it down once more upon Mikhail’s neck.
‘Again,’ said Khelenys.