The Execution by Sharon Cramer
Tomorrow…he would be dead
D’ata, a young priest, is a dark angel amid the death and despair of the medieval prison. As he enters the cell of the condemned man, the mercenary—the evil one—D’ata is immediately transfixed by the killer’s eyes. He is shocked to discover that the face of the murderer is his own, a mirror image of himself.
The twins, unknown to each other until now, reveal the life events that brought them to this fetid dungeon, creating an unbreakable bond sealed with their darkest secrets. But with only hours until the execution, D’ata begins to question which man should truly be condemned. Should it be Ravan, the ruthless killer—a boy from an orphanage who suffered the unimaginable? Or, should it be himself, the man of God whose own tormented desires ended in the inescapable darkness of his own soul?
As the sun rises, D’ata knows what he must do. Only one man would die…but two men would be free.
Ravan awakened to the clanking of armor and ringing of swords in the yard. He groaned, sat upright on the edge of the bed, and squinted against the daylight. The empty remains of his meal were still on the settee from the evening before. He reached for the water pitcher but had finished the last of it midway through the night…and he was hungry again.
His battered body still objected to standing full upright, and he struggled to his feet. Leaning heavily on the windowsill, he squinted, trying to make out the activity outside. Dinner had agreed with him, and he felt just the tiniest bit stronger this morning as he shifted his weight from one leg to another.
The corpses were gone from the courtyard. Instead, a fire raged nearby, smoldering as the tissue boiled from the bodies. He wondered if the men had been friend or foe. Perhaps, he thought, this was to be his eventual fate as well.
He watched as thirty to forty men fought, mostly in pairs, sometimes three or four together. Their weapons varied from sword to axe, spear to pike, and some fought bare-fisted. There appeared to be watchers—referees of sorts—who negotiated the rules. They appointed partners and, when the fighters were inadequate, flailed upon them with heavy staffs without apparent objection.
It seemed to Ravan a ridiculous sort of conditioning. He scowled at the obscenity of it and turned his thoughts instead to the archers. They gathered his attention much more critically. At the far end, men with longbows practiced. Their targets were rude, straw-stuffed replicas of human beings. There was also a row of pumpkins on posts, emulating heads, he presumed. The targets were varying distances, the farthest not more than three hundred paces. He studied the archers, found them average for the most part. They were fairly accurate at two hundred paces; only a few were consistent at three.
These men were the most elite of Duval’s soldiers; this Ravan knew. While anyone could point and shoot a crossbow, the long-bowmen were the most sophisticated and highly skilled of all the soldiers, their training frequently beginning at a very young age. While the crossbow could kill at two hundred paces, in the right hands and with the right conditions, the longbow could possibly kill at four. Also, the longbow could be fired up to five times more frequently in the span of a moment than a crossbow, making it not only more precise but more efficient. It was true both weapons could penetrate all but the thickest of armor; however, it was a skilled long-bowman who remained the most coveted in battle.
Ravan wondered if Duval knew of his skills at this craft—if the Innkeeper’s wife was correct—that this was what had landed him as a captive at the encampment. He had to admit to himself that it was a possibility, or perhaps he was simply intended to be a foot soldier. He instantly decided that this was not likely, considering the sacrifices Duval made to bring him here.
Never mind Duval’s plans. Ravan had plans of his own—many things to think through. He turned and sat back down on the end of the bed as he began to fabricate a strategy. Eventually, he rose to test the door—still barred. Leaning his head against the heavy timber of the jamb, he closed his eyes and listened. He could make out the occasional soft scuffling of boots and the muttering of the guards beyond.
“You out there, I am hungry again.”
Nothing. Unable to gain their attention, he returned to stretch out on the bed and wait. The room was cold, and he pulled the blanket up over his chest, crossing his arms beneath it. Slowly straightening and retracting his bad leg, he willed the stiffness to leave his thigh. Breathing in and out, he took measured, deep breaths to test his lungs, forcing gradual depth to the amount of air he could take in. He pondered Duval, and hatred immediately, reflexively, stirred in his belly. It was a visceral, physical sensation, and he sucked a quick breath in.
This triggered yet another coughing fit, and it was at that very moment that LanCoste, the giant, came through the door unannounced. Ravan struggled to sit and restrain his coughing. Slowing his breathing, he was able to stifle the coughing somewhat and more easily than yesterday. He flailed a bit as he tried to extricate himself from the blanket.
LanCoste, heavily bearded and sporting his trademark axe, looked absently at the floundering boy before grunting, “Get dressed. It is time to fight.”
“I’m hungry and thirsty,” Ravan said between spells of coughing.
LanCoste turned to leave. “You will eat when you have fought. Get dressed.”
Ravan stood. “I will not fight.”
LanCoste halted, his back to the younger man.
Ravan was again silently awed by the sheer size of the monster.
“Then…you will die.”
The giant spoke so calmly, so matter-of-factly, that at first Ravan wasn’t sure he’d heard him correctly. But then the giant loosed the axe from its bindings. Turning slowly, he raised the awful weapon above his head, holding it with both hands. The tip of the enormous weapon scraped the wood of the vaulted ceiling. The giant’s expression was cold and blank.
LanCoste towered above Ravan, occupying more space than any man he’d ever seen. The boy was dumbstruck by a sudden realization of how awful the final moments of his victims must be. They must experience great terror just from the giant’s presence alone. This man appeared to have a solitary purpose and sincerely seemed about to express it right here and now.
Ravan instinctively leapt to the other side of the bed, landing heavily on his feet, feeling the burning sear through his thigh as the coughing started again. His tousled hair fell into his eyes, and he swept it aside.
For Ravan, common sense appeared the better part of valor. Without a weapon, he realized the absolute futility of a fight. “All right, monsieur! All right.” He held his hands up acknowledging defeat, trying to reason with the giant. “I will go fight your little fight. You can put your cleaver away. I’ve no argument with you.”
The giant paused—LanCoste might have wondered at his master’s reasoning for bringing the pup here—and Ravan wasn’t at all sure he’d communicated effectively. LanCoste lowered the mighty axe. He did not, however, replace it to its resting place.
Ravan dropped his hands to his sides. “But please—just a cup of water first.”
LanCoste hesitated, squinting so that his eyes almost disappeared into the depths of his massive brow. He turned and left without speaking, ducking to even fit through the door. The crossbeam fell with a heavy thud back into place.
Ravan shook his head as he recalled the giant ordering him to, “Get dressed.” He’d slept dressed. Never would he allow himself to be unprepared, and the first moment that allowed it, he would escape and be gone. He sighed and pulled his boots on.
Walking to the door, he pounded. “Hey, you out there—hello? I’m ready.” He purposefully softened his words and the way that he said them. He realized it would serve to make an ally or two if he was ever to get out of here alive.
He considered whether the giant might be a good target for allegiance. The man seemed too simple and too adequately institutionalized by Duval to communicate with on a civilized level. Even his thought processes seemed slow. Ravan wondered if the monster even had true reflex on the battlefield or if it was sheer strength that made him so deadly. He decided that LanCoste would not serve as an ally.
Quite suddenly, and for no good reason, he thought of Pierre. A wave of nausea and shame washed over him. No one knew—no one but Renoir and Pierre. As he thought of the two of them, he was plunged back to that awful scene, reminded of the snow that blinded and suffocated him. He remembered the gag choking him, the inability to breathe. Choking back a sob, he recalled how his body had been bent and exposed, Renoir’s boot on the back of his neck, them standing over him. He remembered the smell of them, and then—
Ravan heard the crossbeam thud once more to the floor. He stepped back from the door, jarred from the defilement of his memory back to the present. Two guards entered. LanCoste was not with them. Ravan recognized one of the guards as the man who’d brought his dinner. The other was unfamiliar but carried in his hand a single cup of water. Choking back the emotions from seconds before, he thought to himself, Perhaps LanCoste is a possible ally after all.
The man reached toward him, handing him the cup. Never taking his eyes from the guard, Ravan drank the water cautiously, like a wild creature forced from the highlands by severe weather that accepts food from the hunter in the valleys below. Their eyes never parted.
“Thank you.” He handed the cup back. The guard looked at him quizzically and turned but said nothing.
The two men escorted Ravan from his quarters down two corridors, the second of which ended at a heavy door with no window box. Unlocking the door, the first guard pushed it open to the outside courtyard. All three men squinted at the brightness of the morning.
It was cold and clear, and the fresh, icy air burned in Ravan’s lungs. His breath puffed out in tiny frosty clouds. He remembered his flight in the woods before he’d fallen—how the cold had burned his lungs. He wondered how severely they might be scarred from that night. Mustn’t breathe too deeply or too rapidly; must keep the coughing at bay.
He stepped into the light—fragile, bent, and small in comparison to the men who stopped to stare. Ravan’s feet were numb almost right away. He had absolutely no idea of where they were but guessed, from the amount of time they’d traveled, that they were in the Western Alps, either toward Chambery or further north in the direction of Geneva. He only knew of these places because of the way traveler’s back at the Inn had talked about their journeys and the magnificent mountain ranges they’d seen.
Rubbing his arms to warm himself, he hopped lightly from foot to foot testing his legs. They were weak but seemed predictable enough. His thigh would need more time to recover, but for the first time in a long while his legs felt familiar to him. He checked his breathing again and searched the yard. Some of the men were familiar—most not. He then scanned the walls.
The encampment was built fortress style with broad, covered walkways atop the enormous stone walls. The base was much larger than Ravan had originally realized with archer’s windows built into the distal towers and corner peaks. It was clever, for even in foul weather the walls would hold, and the grounds could easily be guarded and defended.
Men walked casually on top of the walls, their longbows and crossbows engaged and ready. They watched outwards, not in. Apparently, the threat was not that the fighters within the yard would leave but that they might be attacked from outside the fortress. Ravan thought to himself, These men are here of their own accord, and then he wondered again why he’d been chosen to walk among them.
Just then, LanCoste turned the corner and approached the three of them. He towered enormous even in the out of doors. The giant carried with him a sword—a wooden sword—and offered it to Ravan. The young man glanced around as, one by one, mercenaries slowed, pausing their training to watch.
“What would you have me do with that?” Ravan asked.
He volunteered a wry grin to the giant, remembering the water offering from just moments before, and politely accepted the weapon. The smile immediately faded as he saw Renoir step from around the corner of the barracks. Ravan stood frozen, the wood sword dangling from his hand. This was impossible—a horrible joke! He looked at LanCoste to implore his assistance, but LanCoste remained silent and only gazed toward the advancing Renoir.
This man was a coward—a dangerous and cruel coward—an opportunist, and…a rapist. He carried in his right fist both falchions that were his trademark. Instinctively backing away, Ravan was mortified to be facing the man who had not so long ago dragged him from the cage.
The horrid, greasy little man sneered at Ravan and briefly grabbed his crotch as he approached—a gesture of his true intent or perhaps a reminder of a previous day. He tossed aside the falchions, picking up instead a wooden staff, almost two and a half meters long. This he swung with familiarity over his head and around his back.
LanCoste stepped away and nodded slowly, his expression blank.
Holding his hands out, Ravan allowed the wooden sword to dangle loosely, looking in appeal at the giant. “What? I don’t understand; you want me to—”
Renoir lashed out violently with the staff, striking Ravan heavily in the midriff and sending him sprawling backwards onto the frozen ground. The wiry man laughed heartily and advanced upon his prey swiftly and with precision.
Ravan recognized his immediate peril as he gasped, shocked and surprised, the breath knocked from him. The sword had fallen from his hand and lay ten feet from him. As the older and more seasoned mercenary moved in on him, Ravan rolled quickly to one side. He narrowly avoided Renoir’s staff, which would have caught him viciously on the side of his head. Kicking backwards across the icy ground, he scrambled crablike, clambering to avoid Renoir’s assault and reach the sword.
His fingers finally wrapped around the roughly hewn handle, and he checked Renoir’s next blow with the ridiculous weapon. He struggled to his knees and then, to the surprise of his enemy, lunged for his tormentor, taking them both down heavily onto the ground. His opponent grunted and gasped as Ravan, lighter though he was, allowed his elbow to absorb the majority of his own weight squarely onto Renoir’s sternum.
Renoir easily tossed the younger, slighter man from him, but not before Ravan landed a solid and vicious blow with the butt of the sword to the hawk-like face of Renoir. Blood streamed from the man’s nose, and Renoir paused, wiping it from his face and staring at the bright red hand before him.
Fighting a man was something Ravan had never done before. Taking a moment to regain his composure, he adopted a stance ready for the next round. He trembled with anticipation, adrenalin coursing through him. He was no longer cold.
When Renoir finally looked up at his attacker, Ravan laughed aloud, pointing at Renoir’s dripping nose, purposefully taunting him. He knew this would serve to enrage the man. Ravan had observed this often enough at the Inn—the weekend fights. Animals were much more dignified, refusing to surrender to blind rage, succumbing only to quiet honor when death ultimately claimed them. Just as Ravan anticipated, Renoir squealed, dumb with fury, and lunged at the younger man.
He retreated then turned suddenly, as though he’d fallen, and dropped to the ground. His legs were drawn up and ready. As Renoir plunged recklessly upon his prey, bent with rage, the boy parried the staff with his sword allowing it to narrowly miss his head. Without warning, he thrust his feet upwards with all of his strength into the groin of his attacker, landing a solid, crunching blow to the man’s testicles.
This crippled Renoir and sent him first into the air then heavily to the ground where he curled into a sniveling heap. Frothing at the mouth like a rabid animal, he struggled to overcome the brutal waves of pain and nausea, clutching desperately at his scrotum. By now a sizable group of men had ceased their own training to watch.
Ravan didn’t hesitate. He leapt onto the fallen Renoir, shoved his knee between the man’s’ shoulder blades, grasped his head by the hair, and forced it sharply back, exposing the vulnerable soft tissue of the neck.
Drawing his wooden sword, Ravan ritualistically drew the blade slowly and deliberately across the neck of his enemy before bringing the butt of the sword crushing and savage into the temple of the man who had staged his rape. Ravan’s eyes glazed with untamed fury, and he gasped raggedly then stepped up and off of Renoir. The man lay unconscious and dead apparent, face down on the ground.
Ravan stood, sword pointed to the sky, and let out a long, deep, feral howl. It was all of his rage, all of his anger and righteous indignation that culminated in this one glorious gesture. It echoed back from the canyons around them and carried with it all the ferocity of a caged animal that had finally, mortally, bested his captor.
As the howl died, Ravan panted and coughed only once, breathless from the fight. Clarity slowly returned. Glancing about himself, the sword still in his clenched fist, he noticed that the courtyard had become completely silent. All eyes were upon him. Even the birds and animals were utterly quiet. The cold, soft whistling of the winter wind was the only one who dared speak.
Motionless, breathing heavily, evenly, he slowly looked about the yard at the stares. Squinting, he scanned the fortress walls. Four hundred paces away on the east wall of the yard stood a familiar figure. He was black with the sun behind him, but the silhouette was unmistakable. Ravan saw Duval nod slowly in satisfaction.
Straightaway, he was painfully reminded of his purpose, that he was a pawn performing for the sake of this evil sovereign. And he had performed, just as Duval said he would. It was Duval who controlled his captivity, his food, water, sleep…freedom.
Suddenly enraged, he dropped his wooden weapon. Ignoring the pain in his leg, he sprinted across the yard toward a nearby weapons rack. His behavior was so sudden, so unpredictable, that he had within his hands a longbow and single arrow before the guards swarmed him. He let fly with the one arrow just as he was overcome by the mercenaries and struck hard to the ground.
The arrow flew like a falcon and found not the heart, but the arm of its prey.
* * *
Ravan’s deadly aim had been thwarted by the urgency of the moment. A mere second longer and Duval’s heart would have caressed the sweet barb. With sudden realization, Duval knew this without doubt, that what he’d heard of the boy was true after all.
Duval swore and bent over as he grasped his arm. The arrowhead, having completely intersected the flesh of the muscle, protruded from the back of his arm. Breaking the shaft with an agonizing groan and blasphemous curse, Duval drew the offending weapon from himself. Arterial blood spurted and ran bright red and urgently down his arm, dripping from his fingers. He clasped the wound tightly with his other hand, leaving the wall to find his physician to tend the wound.
Meanwhile, Ravan was tied to a timber in the yard and beaten by the now conscious Renoir. LanCoste watched lest the vehement Renoir permanently damage or kill Duval’s property. Renoir, in fact, did not seem quite right. He was unsteady as he beat the boy and by the grace of God—or the Goddess of Luck—was shortly spent. Ravan survived but sagged upon the timber. His face and body were bruised and bleeding, his healing left ribs fractured again. He fainted into a deep and deadly sleep as the night became colder.
Duval ordered his body left on the timber for the night as an object lesson. It was a risky order, cast from rage, and could cost him his hard won mercenary to the elements. Along about ten o’clock, LanCoste knew the foolishness of the order. As the temperatures fell, he stole to the courtyard and cut the bindings with his axe. The giant heard a groan. Ravan roused only slightly as the axe fell so close to his ear. LanCoste hoisted the young man over his shoulder and carried him inside to his warmed chamber.
Ravan moaned again, roused to consciousness with the pain of being moved, and smiled—his face contorted by Renoir’s handiwork. “Guess I made a good first impression, don’t you suppose?” he whispered.
“If you ever do such a thing again, I will kill you,” LanCoste said. He was expressionless as he deposited his burden unceremoniously onto the bed.
Ravan gasped with pain and splinted his broken ribs, unable to breathe. LanCoste left water, but Ravan was too wounded to reach the urn and instead slept reposed again upon the footsteps of death.
It was two weeks before Duval came to see his prisoner. Ravan’s face was at that point almost recognizable, the bloody pulp had lightened to purple and green bruises. His eyes, however, were sharp and black as pitch.
Duval, still pale from the massive blood loss he’d suffered from the severed artery, fingered his bandaged arm thoughtfully as he approached Ravan. “I thought you would be easier to reason with. I didn’t believe you would be so reckless, so…stupid.”
Ravan stood up slowly, painfully silent. There was something about the way Duval was speaking, so calm and quiet. It made him uneasy and triggered within him a nervous regret. Duval’s pallor gave his disposition greater weight as well. Ravan’s anxiety rose, a nasty feeling growing in the pit of his being.
“You will not be fighting Renoir anymore,” Duval continued, waving his good arm in the air.
Ravan shrugged as best he could under the circumstances. His effort was one of indifference, an effort to hide fear, but he was naive.
“Oh, you care not? Well, that is good. I have sent Renoir to kill the Innkeeper’s wife.” He said it flatly, without emotion.
Initially, Ravan felt he’d run headlong into a stone wall. The blow of Duval’s comment crashed hard against him so that he physically staggered back a step. His shock turned to rage, his torment catching in his throat. He lunged, reaching up with both hands. He would kill Duval with them, with his bare hands, and he limped pathetically toward the evil one, his right leg dragging behind.
LanCoste quickly stepped in, his broad axe drawn, and pressed the blade against the young one’s chest. Ravan ignored the weapon and shoved it aside with both hands as he lunged at Duval. LanCoste reached an arm around the wounded young man and easily overpowered him, holding him to face his captor.
Ravan struggled helplessly against the chest of the giant. First, he raged, then he begged. “Please—please don’t hurt her. It is my foolishness that should be punished. Kill me instead, please just kill me! I beg you!”
“Now what would that accomplish me?” Duval lifted his good hand helplessly. “Besides, it is quite too late. But your point of view is very interesting.” He approached his captive.
Tears stung Ravan’s eyes as he watched the man absentmindedly stroke his beard, a thoughtful expression on his face. He appeared to be only mildly interested in the anguish displayed before him.
Ravan sensed his throat closing, and his heart pained him with the torment one feels when helplessly forced to watch a vulnerable or innocent creature tortured by heartlessness. “You can stop him. Send word…please.” Ravan trembled in LanCoste’s arms.
Duval suddenly changed, his face writhing in anger. He spat into the face of his captive as he clutched the chin of the young man, shaking his head roughly. “Know this, my impudent, young fool—if you ever disobey me again, in any way, I will kill every child at that pathetic little orphanage!” He shoved Ravan’s head backward into the chest of LanCoste. “And I will not wait for your answer! Do we have an understanding? Because if we do not, I will behead each one of them, and you can sleep caged with them until you rot together!”
Ravan stared, stricken. Duval was so suddenly enraged that it caught him very much by surprise.
Duval struck the young man across the face as he repeated himself. “I said, do we have an understanding, because if we don’t, I will send my troops to that miserable little orphanage today!”
Ravan shook his head. “No, No! I mean yes—yes, we have an understanding.” He sobbed and dropped his head, looking at his boots. “I will do as you say; there will be no more trouble.” His eyes blurred as the tears welled in them, dropping onto the floor. He hated this weakness, his inability to change things, and hated his tears. He was suddenly swamped in grief for her—oblivious of anything else.
Duval grinned, satisfied. “Good, then we are in agreement.” He turned to go but then hesitated. “Oh…one last thing.” He looked over his shoulder. “Kill yourself and the orphans are as good as dead. You are of no use to me injured or dead. It will be in their best interest if you thrive.” He snorted as guards entered again with food, leaving it on the settee. Everyone left, and Ravan was alone.
Time stood still for him as the room slowly darkened. The smell of the food nauseated him. He lay curled up on the bed, not moving, as he sobbed quietly. One hand held the braid of her hair, the other gently slid the ring up and down the silver necklace. Ravan closed his eyes and finally quieted, listening instead to the soft whirring of the ring upon the chain.
When not painting monsters and planning historical ruin and perfectly crushed hearts, Sharon can be found wandering around obscure Eastern Washington, talking to the voices. Driven by sleeplessness and a seemingly endless draw to the keyboard (and the occasional extra strong coffee) she is inspired by unorthodox friends and extreme weather. Mother to three sons, a bad cat, and eleven fish (who all have names) she is married to a man who surely has won the Nobel Prize for Extreme Tolerance.
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