When Master Radegast retired and gave him the vaunted sword – a weapon whose history was shrouded in mystery and legend – Radegar knew that his duty was clear and his obligation acute. Only three years after Unification, the dungeons were still full. In his role now as the Hierarch’s chief executioner, it would be his task to dispatch all of those, and they were legion, who had opposed the grand consolidation of power in the Ekklesia. One of the condemned, of course, was his own father.
Radegar was no sadist. The psychological testing that had been done when his uncommon skills with the sword had first come to the attention of those in power had shown that quite clearly.
In addition, the young man was also well aware that had it not been for his father’s former prominence in the hierarchy (before his views on politics and religion had changed), he most probably would have perished on some god-forsaken field of battle as just another simple soldier – albeit one remarkably gifted with the blade – martyred in the fight for Unification. He also recalled his father’s love for and devotion to his wife, Radegar’s mother, long dead now from the plague.
Thus the young functionary did not particularly relish the thought of taking his sire’s life. At the same time, he also realized that his superiors would be watching closely when that time came for any signs of weakness or wavering resolve. Radegar prayed to the One that his hands and shoulders would be firm and that his aim would be true … both for his own as well as for his father’s sake.
For nearly a year, Radegar performed his duties with integrity, compassion and, judging by the adulation of the crowds in the capital and the approval of his overlords, with élan. During that time he discovered many things remarkable, miraculous even, about the blade that had been bequeathed to him as it had been to all of those who had served in his capacity since before the people of his land began worshipping the One untold millennia ago. In the first place, the sword was perfectly balanced. Heavy as it was when it lay in its jewel-encrusted scabbard, in the performance of its primary function it felt quite literally like an extension of his hand and arm.
Most amazing, however, were the weapon’s mystical powers. At the top of its arc, just before he braced with his legs and followed through with his back and shoulders in the fell descent, he caught a fleeting glimpse … an intuition, as it were … transmitted wordlessly, unaccountably through the weapon itself concerning the character of the condemned.
So, for example, in the case of the priest Procopius, a flash of insight the instant before steel met flesh revealed to Radegar that in addition to the man’s suspect theology and politics he was also a violent pedophile; a fact that had not hitherto come to light. And then there was the copyist Cassidorus condemned for altering official ekklesial documents. Radegar discovered that he had murdered his own brother to advance his career. The prisoner had successfully hidden his crime by making it look like an accident.
The first time he had experienced the sword’s arcane power it had been mildly unsettling. Only his iron will and self-discipline had enabled him to carry out his task unflinchingly and, he hoped, without anyone observing his slight hesitation. Above all else, Radegar prided himself on doing his duty.
Since that time he had grown accustomed to the eccentricities of the weapon. He could now understand why the secret of the sword had been guarded so closely for thousands of years, and why the substance of that secret was never revealed in advance to those who were chosen to assume the role of chief executioner. Its discovery was intensely personal, a rite of passage, as well as both a gift and a burden that could only be borne by those truly fit to do so.
He was also astonished at the righteousness of the judgments passed by the Ekklesial Tribunal. Not one prisoner that Radegar had executed since assuming his role had been innocent. If the individuals under sentence had not in fact been guilty of the crimes for which they had been condemned, Radegar’s sword revealed to him that they had nevertheless been the perpetrators of offences far more heinous.
On the much-anticipated morning of his father’s scheduled execution, Radegar took his position on the platform to await the arrival of the prisoner. He stood, as was his custom, just to the side of the block. His legs were spread, feet apart, and he held his sword point down in front of his body. His hands were clasped on the top of the pommel. He was a model of dignity and composure. The vast crowd that had assembled was silent. Protocol dictated that they refrain from cheering until after the execution. In truth, Radegar felt very little out of the ordinary. He focused his attention on the myriad details of the duty he was about to perform. He also felt confident that, at its accustomed time, his sword would make known to him the depth of his father’s guilt. His experience thus far deemed that such was almost inevitable.
What little noise the crowd had been making subsided completely as the condemned man was led onto the platform. He knelt and placed his neck on the block as instructed. Simultaneously, the dignitaries and official witnesses on the dais stood. Radegar stepped forward – father and son never made eye contact – and raised his sword.
The blade sang as it flashed through the air. Suddenly, just as he was to deliver the severing stroke, his sword mere inches from the base of his father’s neck, Radegar dropped his weapon and strode calmly from the platform. His ineluctable obligation had been made instantly, blazingly clear. The noise of the crowd was deafening. Needless to say, the young executioner was seized by guards as soon as he descended the steps.
Now languishing in prison awaiting his own execution as a traitor, Radegar took some comfort in the fact that his former protégé, Ragnorak, would learn the truth on the day when, now as chief executioner, he would sever Radegar’s head from his shoulders. What the sword at first revealed to Radegar, it would surely also reveal to Ragnorak … if it had not already done so when the latter completed the task that had been begun and subsequently, shamefully, aborted by his erstwhile master. Radegar’s father had certainly been guilty of crimes against the Ekklesia as alleged. But he was not, in actuality, Radegar’s father. The condemned man had married Radegar’s mother to protect her honor and he had raised Radegar as his own out of a sense of obligation, compassion and, eventually, love for mother and child. In the end – and as Ragnorak already knew or would soon intuit – both father and son, each in his own way, had done his duty.
© 2008 by James C. Clar
Original fiction debuting at Residential Aliens.
James C. Clar is a teacher and writer living in upstate New York. His work has appeared in print and online. Most recently his short fiction has been published in the Taj Mahal Review, Everyday Fiction, Powder Burn Flash, PenPricks, Microfiction, Orchard Press Mysterie,. MysteryAuthors.com, Crime and Suspense Magazine, and Long Story, Short.
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