Welcome to the June 2020 edition of First Monday Free Fiction. To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on every first Monday of the month. It will remain free to read on this blog for one month, then I’ll take it down and post another story.
So far, most of the free stories I’ve posted on this blog have been science fiction, fantasy or crime fiction, since those are my main genres. However, I also write historical fiction and historical romance on occasion and today, I will share one of those stories.
Trigger warning: There are some scenes of physical and sexual violence in this story, not overly graphic.
The Kiss of the Executioner’s Blade takes us back to France in the year of the Lord 1516, where the disgraced nobleman turned travelling executioner Geoffrey de Bressac finds himself faced with a dilemma. For the traitor and assassin he is supposed to behead turns out to be a young woman. Worse, she insists she is innocent.
So witness as Angeline de Golon faces…
The Kiss of the Executioner’s Blade
The key turned in the lock and the iron gate opened with a pitiful moan. A red-faced guardsman squinted at the black-clad figure towering in the doorway. “Are you the headsman?”
Geoffrey du Bressac nodded, even though the guardsman’s words had stirred an old wound. It was not right that he, whose forebearers had been knights of the realm, should now be reduced to the ignoble profession of executioner, forced to hide his face behind a mask. But even though none knew his face, Geoffrey was renown as the most skilled headsman in all of France. And on this day in the year of the Lord 1516 he had come to the town of Charentes to see that a most despicable traitor received his just punishment.
The dungeon of the Chateau de Charentes was a place of darkness, misery and despair. The men and women interred here knew that they would never again see the light of day. And even if they should be blessed to set their eyes on the sun once more, they knew it would be the last thing they would see in their lives.
The moans and the cries of the damned could be heard everywhere, as the guardsman led Geoffrey though the gloomy corridors. Upon seeing the shadow of the executioner, many prisoners scurried away in horror, tearing at the chains that held them. All feared that he was coming for them. Yet Geoffrey had not a glance, neither of condemnation nor of pity, for the doomed. He just stared straight ahead into the darkness.
They left the common gaol and its squalor and dirt behind and entered the part of the dungeon that was reserved for ‘special’ prisoners. It was even darker here than before and more quiet, too. The silence served its purpose, for here the prisoners were held whose incarceration should remain a secret until the day of their execution. To Geoffrey, the sudden absence of the usual mixture of screaming, crying, whimpering and mumbled prayers came almost as a shock. It was as if the shadows themselves had swallowed up all sound.
He followed the guard along the silent corridor, his heart beating in perfect tune with the echo of their booted feet on the bare stone floor. Finally, the man stopped in front of one of the heavy oakwood doors. “Here we are.”
A grated window was set into the door. It was covered with a piece of black cloth to indicate that the prisoner therein was condemned to die. Geoffrey swept the cloth aside and pressed his face to the peephole. The cell beyond was lit by a single tallow candle. Two figures could be seen in the dim light. One was clad in the black robe of a priest, come to give the condemned the last rites no doubt. The second figure, kneeling before the priest, her hands clasped in prayer, was a young woman, scarcely more than a girl. She was clad in a dress of crimson silk, now dirty and torn. Her long dark hair was falling loose over her bared shoulders. Suddenly, her head shifted and for the merest of instants, her large pleading eyes seemed to look straight at Geoffrey.
He turned to the guard. “I was not told the condemned was female.”
The guard shrugged. “Traitor is traitor.” He licked his lips. “Though I admit that it’s always a special treat when a woman is put to death. Particularly a highborn lady like Angeline de Golon.” He leant forward. “They say she’s still a virgin,” he whispered.
“What is her crime?”
“A crime of the foulest kind. She is an assassin. Stabbed the Comte with a knife.”
“She is hardly an assassin then…” Geoffrey remarked, “…considering that the Comte is still alive.” In fact, Henri, Comte de Charentes, had personally requested Geoffrey’s services.
“The Comte was only wounded, Mother Mary be praised. Nevertheless, any attempt on the life of a member of the royal family constitutes high treason. And for that she must die. Were she a man, she would suffer on the spokes of a wheel. But due to her birth and sex, the Comte has decided to be merciful and grant her a less shameful death.”
Geoffrey cast another look through the grated window at the kneeling girl. She certainly did not look like an assassin and high traitor.
“I wish to examine the condemned.”
Angeline de Golon knelt on the bare stone floor of her cell. The abbé had urged her to confess her sins and go to the scaffold repentant so that her soul would be welcomed in heaven instead of cast down into eternal damnation. But what sins could she confess, when she was wholly innocent of the crime she had been condemned of?
The bar slid back, the cell door opened and Angeline froze in terror. For in the doorway, a sinister figure loomed, tall and clad entirely in black. The figure stepped into the cell and Angeline saw that his face was covered by a mask. She screamed and shrank back into the farthest corner of the cell. The headsman had come. He had come for her.
The abbé reached out and placed a calming hand on her bare shoulder. “Have no fear, my child. Be brave, sincerely repent thine sins and thou shalt sit by the Lord’s side in heaven.”
The executioner hovered in the middle of the cell like a malign shadow. “Bring the prisoner into the light,” he commanded, “I wish to see her.”
In response, one of the guards, the fat one with the foul teeth, barged into the cell and grabbed hold of Angeline. Within seconds, her arms were pinned behind her back and she was thrust into the circle of light. Coarse hands tore at her dress and ripped the fine Lyonesse silk, exposing her tender breasts for all to see.
The priest at least had the decency to avert his eyes. The guardsman knew no such scruples and grabbed her right breast, squeezing it like one would an orange. The executioner just stood there, unmoved. “Leave us alone,” he ordered, “I will interrogate her in private.”
Obediently, the guard trotted out of the cell, murmuring something about never getting any fun. The abbé paused in the doorway. “Confess, my daughter,” he urged, “Confess, repent and thou shalt be saved.” Then the heavy door fell shut and Angeline was left alone with the man who was to put her to death.
Shivering she knelt before the executioner, very conscious of her nakedness. The cold air of the dungeon hardened her nipples until they resembled rosebuds about to erupt in bloom. She felt the executioner’s eyes, invisible behind his mask, on her body, examining every inch of her bared skin with a cold, clinical gaze.
“You are very beautiful,” the man said.
Angeline had heard tales about what happened to virgins condemned to death on the eve of their execution and she was gripped by a shudder that was deeper than the cold.
The hangman, however, abruptly turned away. He took a blanket from the floor and tossed it at Angeline. “Cover yourself.”
Gratefully, Angeline pulled the blanket around her shivering body, covering her nakedness. The executioner was circling the kneeling girl. “Do you wish to confess your crime?”
“I… I have nothing to confess.”
“Do you deny then that you attempted to murder the Comte de Charentes?”
“I was only defending myself,” Angeline whispered, not daring to look at the black figure towering above her, “Defending my honour.”
A gloved hand touched Angeline’s face, cupping her chin and gently forcing her to lift her head. “Speak,” the executioner ordered.
“The Comte, he wished to marry me. He wanted to add my lands, my wealth to his own. But I could not love him. So I refused.”
The executioner stroked her cheek, curiously gentle. “Go on.”
“The Comte, he is a powerful man and used to getting his will. So he had me kidnapped and brought here. He was polite at first, even though I was his prisoner. One night, he dined with me in his private chambers. And for dessert, he attempted to… ravish me.”
The executioner let his fingers trail across Angeline’s skin, his touch prompting her to continue.
“The Comte said I could no longer refuse a marriage when it had already been consummated. He threw me onto the table and then he was on top of me and his breath was in my face and his hands were everywhere…”
Unbidden the horror of that moment came back. The Comte’s weight pressing her to the table, the stench of cognac on his breath, his mouth, his tongue, his hands defiling her body. The gleam of silver, promising salvation.
“And then I saw the knife,” Angeline said, “And I took it and stabbed the Comte.”
“Yet you were convicted of high treason and sentenced to die? Did you not appeal to the king?”
“How could I possibly appeal when the Comte de Charentes is a cousin of King Francois himself? Who would believe me? No, there is no escape for me. Except one. After the trial the Comte said that he would pardon me if I consented to marry him.”
All of a sudden, Angeline realized that the hand that was calmly caressing her skin would only a few hours from now slaughter her just as calmly. In horror, she pulled away.
“But I shall never marry such a fiend. No, better to die.” She wanted to be brave, go defiant to her death, but tears overcame her and she buried her face in her hands.
The executioner said nothing, even though Angeline could still feel his eyes on her body. Gathering all her courage together, she wiped the tears away and looked up straight into that expressionless mask. “Please, will you grant me one last request?”
“If it’s within my power…”
“Could… could you take off your mask, please? I want to see the face of the man who… who will…” She broke off, unable to say the unthinkable out loud. Come sunrise, this man would kill her, snuff out her life as casually as one might extinguish a candle.
In silence, the executioner removed his mask. The man beneath was younger than she would have expected. And unlike the way men of his profession were commonly depicted, his features were not coarse and brutal. He was clean-shaven, his hair was dark, his eyes were the colour of steel. Under different circumstances, one might almost have called him handsome.
“You have the face of a nobleman.”
For an instant, regret clouded those eyes of steel. “I was of noble birth… once.”
Angeline took a deep breath. She had to know all. “Tell me, how will it happen?”
“You will die by the sword.”
Beheading? At least that was an honourable death, not as shameful as the gallows or the wheel or the stake. “Will… will it hurt much?”
“You need have no fear,” the executioner said, “I will be swift. And gentle.” Again, he reached out for her face. Tenderly, his gloved hand ran down her cheek and neck. And this time, Angeline did not shrink back. “You will scarcely feel it. Just the touch of the blade, as light as a lover’s kiss. And a brief flash of pain, as brief as the one that turns the maiden into a woman.”
In spite of the early hour, a great crowd of townspeople was already gathered at the place of execution. The times were dark and the joys but few, so the people saw an execution, particularly that of a young and beautiful maiden, as excellent entertainment.
On a dais, Henri, Comte de Charentes, was seated in a comfortable chair, surrounded by courtiers and advisors. A tall man of middle age with a pointed beard still unmarred by silver, the Comte cut a splendid figure in his doublet of black velvet lined with scarlet silk. He did not look like a man who had only narrowly survived an assassination attempt. Yet few in the crowd seemed to notice, as their eyes were directed elsewhere.
For the centre of attraction was the scaffold that had been erected on the market square of the town, just outside the walls of the chateau. A company of soldiers surrounded the scaffold, but the platform itself was empty except for the executioner, an intimidating figure all clad in black. His face was covered by the traditional mask and at his side, still sheathed, was the blade that would soon sever the head of Angeline de Golon. Apart from the sword, the only other objects on the scaffold were a pillow of scarlet velvet upon which the condemned would kneel and the coffin into which her headless body would be laid. There was no block, the condemned would have to kneel and bend her head to receive the deadly blow.
From his raised seat, the Comte surveyed the arrangements. Then he looked towards the East where the first rays of the morning sun were painting the sky in fiery splendour. Satisfied, he rose from his chair. A wave of his hand silenced the crowd.
“Citizens of Charentes, we have gathered here today to witness the execution of a most despicable traitor and assassin. For her crimes against our glorious realm and against my own person, Angeline de Golon shall now be put to death. Have the malefactress brought before the headsman.”
Upon another wave of the Comte’s hand, the palace gates were opened and a small procession marched out into the square. The abbé led the way, murmuring Latin verses. He was followed by four guardsmen escorting the condemned.
Up to now the spectators had been cheering and jeering, as they customarily did during public executions. But once the condemned appeared, the crowd suddenly fell silent. There was no one present whose heart was not touched by the sight of the beautiful girl who was being led to her execution, so brave and composed in the face of death. She seemed so young, scarcely more than a child. A life barely begun that was now about to be nipped in the bud.
She was clad in a gown of thin white linen that was little more than a shift. The gown was low cut, exposing the girl’s shoulders and neck to the sword. Around her throat, a ribbon of scarlet silk had been tied to mark the executioner’s aim. Contrary to custom, her head was not covered by a veil. An early morning breeze pressed the thin execution gown to her naked body, outlining the gentle curve of her thighs and the firm mounds of her breasts.
The small procession had reached the wooden platform. Three of the guards remained below, the last man led the girl up the seven steps to the scaffold. The priest followed, still murmuring prayers to himself. Once they had gained the top, the executioner dismissed the guardsman with a nod.
Of the two men left on the scaffold, the priest was the first to administer his attentions to the condemned. One last time, he urged Angeline to confess her crimes. Silently, she shook her head. Undaunted, the abbé touched the girl’s forehead to bless her. He placed a crucifix at her lips and in response Angeline bowed her head to kiss it. Finally, the abbé handed her a simple rosary. “Repent, my child,” he urged, “Repent and pray for thy soul.”
When the priest had finished his ministrations, the Comte de Charentes himself rose from his seat to read out the sentence. “Angeline de Golon you were found guilty of high treason. For a crime of such magnitude there can only be one punishment: Death. Death in the most shameful and public manner. Therefore, we decree that on this day you shall be taken to a place of execution where your head shall be severed from your body with a single stroke of the blade.”
The Comte paused and looked straight at Angeline, hunger in his eyes
“However, in our most infinite mercy, we have also decided to grant you one final chance of saving your worthless life. Should any man of noble birth declare his willingness to take you for his wife, you shall be pardoned the moment the vow is spoken. And in spite of the cowardly attempt on my life, I have in my boundless magnanimity already made you an offer of marriage. So what is your answer, Angeline de Golon? Which do you choose, the ring or the blade?”
“I choose death,” the girl replied bravely.
An angry flush raced across the Comte’s face. “So be it. Headsman, do your duty. And may God have mercy on your soul.”
“Amen,” Geoffrey du Bressac thought, even though he knew that the last sentence was addressed to the girl and not to himself. Yet he realized that he needed the Lord’s forgiveness as much as the condemned, maybe even more so. For while Angeline had solely fought to protect her virtue against those that would strip it from her, Geoffrey was about to murder an innocent woman. He who had once sworn to protect the innocent.
Gently, he took Angeline by the arm and led her towards the pillow of scarlet velvet. Without prompting, she knelt down, clumsily but unafraid, and raised her hands. She was still clutching the rosary. By right, Geoffrey should have taken it away from her, but he did not. Instead, he produced a length of rope and proceeded to bind her hands, careful that the rope would not cut too deeply into her wrists. He wanted her to be as comfortable as possible.
Angeline seemed well aware of the uncommon tenderness with which she was handled and gave him a brief smile of gratitude. Then she calmly lowered her head, awaiting the fatal blow. Geoffrey brushed the raven tresses of her hair aside to expose the nape of her neck. She was beautiful. Those eyes, so large and pleading, that skin so milky white. The perfect curve of her neck and shoulders, those firm breasts, nipples already hardened in expectation of the blade’s caress.
The sight of her, kneeling before him quietly awaiting the kiss of his sword, sent fire streaming into his loins and blood rushing into his privates. It was not the first time that Geoffrey had experienced arousal during an execution. Sex and death, Eros and Thanatos, were closely related. No one knew that better than Geoffrey. But this time it was different. This time, it was more than mere arousal. He felt as excited as a man on his wedding night, about to lead his bride to the conjugal bed.
Geoffrey always made sure that the condemned, particularly those that were female, suffered as little as possible. When he had hanged a girl at Dieppe, he had ordered weights tied to her feet to ease her passing. At Amiens he had seen to it that three condemned witches were quietly strangled before being burned at the stake. And at Lille, he had beheaded an adulteress and her lover with a single stroke, uniting in death what had been separated in life. But no condemned prisoner had ever touched his heart like Angeline de Golon.
Why was she not veiled as was the custom? To make it easier for the girl as well as for her executioner. So Geoffrey pulled a square of fine black silk from beneath his tunic and proceeded to cover Angeline’s face. “Have no fear,” he whispered.
“What are you doing?” the Comte de Charentes demanded.
“Veiling the prisoner.”
“It has been decreed that due to the gravity of her crime, this malefactress does not deserve the privacy of the veil. She is to die with her head bared, so that her shame is for all to see.”
“I refuse to behead the prisoner unless her face is covered. They tend to shift at the last moment, making things very messy.”
Messy executions tended to cause uproar and uproar was the last thing the Comte wanted. “Have it your way then”, he grunted, “And be about your business.”
The time had come. The first rays of the morning sun were spilling across the horizon. Geoffrey unsheathed his sword and raised the blade high above his head, ready to deliver the fatal blow.
Angeline’s bound hands were clasped in prayer around the wooden beads of the rosary. Every muscle in her body tightened, in the knowledge that the next breath, the next heartbeat might be her last.
The sun crossed the horizon, its rays striking the executioner’s blade. The Comte’s intestines were quivering with anticipation. With his left hand he was surreptitiously massaging his crotch. With his right he gave the final sign. The crowd held its collective breath. The priest crossed himself and averted his eyes. The executioner finally… did nothing.
“What are you waiting for?” the Comte demanded in irritation, “Do it!”
Geoffrey did not move. “I refuse to carry out the sentence.”
“I refuse to carry out the sentence…” Geoffrey repeated, lowering his sword, “…and I demand this woman, Angeline de Golon, for my wife.”
Angeline raised her head and a stray gust of wind tugged at the black veil covering her face. Geoffrey laid a calming hand on her bared shoulder. “Hush. Stay where you are and not a word. Trust me.”
“You have no right to demand anything of that sort,” the Comte thundered, “Now carry out the sentence or suffer the consequences!”
One of the Comte’s advisors leant forward. “Actually, my lord, he does have that right. You yourself said that any man of noble birth may…”
“A man of noble birth, yes. But this is just an executioner. A lowly executioner.”
Geoffrey ripped off his mask, “I am the Chevalier du Bressac…” he declared, “…and my blood is as noble as your own, Comte.”
“You have no choice,” the advisor urged, “You must grant his request.”
The townspeople had been watching the proceedings with the mixture of horror, morbid curiosity and perverse gaiety that such displays usually attracted. But with the sudden interruption of the execution, the tension of the crowd had been growing like the string of a bow drawn by the archer’s hand, until it had to be released. One by one, clamours for mercy arose until the townspeople were shouting in unison. It seemed as if a turmoil was about to break out.
The Comte de Charentes had no choice but to relent. He turned to Angeline. “Are you willing to accept this man as your husband?”
Angeline hesitated for the merest of seconds, seeking the eyes of the man who would save her.
“Yes, I am,” she said firmly.
The Comte glared at her, but there was nothing he could do. “Citizens of Charentes…” he announced, “…this woman, Angeline de Golon, has committed most heinous crimes. Crimes which deserve the strictest of punishments. Nevertheless, I have decided to be merciful and grant the executioner her life and her hand. But be warned, headsman, that my mercy is limited. Should you or your woman ever enter the city walls again, you shall be both put to death at once. Abbé, perform the ceremony.”
And so Geoffrey, Chevalier du Bressac, and Angeline de Golon were wed on the very spot where the bride was to have been beheaded. Angeline was still clad in her execution gown and instead of a bride’’s wreath she wore the black veil of death. Yet her eyes were full of hope and gratitude as Geoffrey’s hand tightened around hers.
The Comte de Charentes remained true to his word and formally pardoned Angeline as soon as the vows had been exchanged. Once the ceremony was over, Geoffrey swept his bride up in his arms and carried her from the scaffold. Within the hour, they had left the town of Charentes behind, never looking back.
That’s it for this month’s edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when a new story will be posted.