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Historical Fiction


    London, May 19th, 1536.


The endless wait was agonizing.

    Gerard sat alone in the dark, his troubled thoughts and his burdened conscience his only company. The coming dawn would bring with it an ordeal the very thought of which made him feel ill.

    The execution was scheduled for first light.

    While Gerard silently bemoaned his fate, he was painfully aware that he’d brought this on himself. The time for denial had passed, he was about to come face-to-face with the dreadful consequences of his actions.

    The priest had assured him that he’d already been granted absolution, that his sins would be washed away by the merciful blood of Christ, shed for sinners such as he.

    Gerard believed not a word of it. A religious man himself, he knew that some sins stained the soul beyond cleansing, past the reach of redemption, and the mercy of blessed absolution.

    Some sins were mortal.

    He cast his thoughts back to how he’d gotten into this untenable situation.



    Gerard had been an obedient youth and had grown into a decent, God-fearing man. He’d acquitted himself honorably in battle and had earned the right to settle down and start a family.

    Providing for them was something of a challenge for one like him, with only a single marketable skill to his name. He had no agricultural ability and proved equally inept at trade and industry.

    He was good at only one thing, learned on the bloody sands of Acre: killing.

    It was only natural, then, that he’d turned to what he knew best in desperation when he found himself with no other way to support his wife and children. That fateful decision was what had brought him to this detestable place, far from the familiar comforts of home.

    Thoughts of his family brought tears to his eyes.

    In the silence, Gerard wept bitterly.

    Did they understand his actions were bourne not of malice, but only of his desire to be a good husband and father? That he sought only to provide for them, to keep them safe? What would they think if they could see him now?

    Fortunately, it mattered not. His family would not be in attendance to bear witness to his shame. For that much at least, he was grateful.


    All this and more ran through Gerard’s mind as he sat alone, waiting. He tried to pray.

    In Nomine Patris, et Fili, et Spiritus Sancti…..

    But he could go no further.

    His faith, it seemed, had deserted him in the time of his greatest need.

    Father, why have you forsaken me?

    But he knew the answer. One who casts his morals aside and takes gold in exchange for murder, as Gerard had done, had no hope of spiritual succor at this late hour.

    He was alone.

    As torturous as the wait was, Gerard dreaded its ending. The cruel night, the moon-drenched eternity, was all too brief and over too soon.

    He was not ready.

    It mattered not. Time would wait for no man, least of all the likes of him.

    At the rooster’s first crow, the church bells began their ominous tolling.

    Dawn.

    They came for Gerard soon after.


*


    The town square was packed.

    As he was led out into the crisp morning air, Gerard beheld the astounding sight. The mass of people stretched back as far as the eye could see. Public executions were always popular affairs, and this one would have special significance. The villagers had traveled from far and wide for the occasion.    

    None would dare miss the grisly spectacle.

    At the sight of him, an excited buzz arose from the crowd. Children fled to the safety of their mother’s skirts, from behind which they gazed fearfully out in horrified fascination. Women lowered their eyes and averted their gazes. The men regarded Gerard with a strange mix of awed respect and morbid curiosity.

    He bore their scrutiny in silence, focussed solely on what stood in the clearing in the middle of the square.



    Executions ordinarily took place on the gallows. But, as this one was to be a special event, it occasioned a grander display. A large wooden scaffold had thus been constructed in the clearing.

    Gerard mounted the platform. From the top, he could see out over the sea of heads to the tranquil fields beyond. Deserted now, they bathed serenely in the first rays of the sun cresting the horizon. The sight was one of heartrending beauty, completely at odds with the deadly business soon to unfold in the town square.

    Far in the back, on his throne and surrounded by all manner of royal attendants, sat the king.

    Gerard lowered his head, unable to meet the sovereign’s steely stare.

    A black hood was secured over his head.

    It was almost time.



    A blast of trumpets split the air, silencing the crowd and heralding the arrival of the queen. Flanked by guards, she mounted the scaffold and made her way past Gerard, to the center of the platform.

    As she did so, she accidentally trod on his foot.

    At that, the queen halted mid-stride. She turned to him and addressed him respectfully, apologizing profusely for her clumsiness. Gerard could tell her kind words were sincerely meant.

    He was stunned.

    That she of noble birth and the finest breeding would deign to speak to the likes of him, a mere commoner and a foreigner besides, in such a gentle manner was unthinkable. He should have been beneath contempt, yet she’d treated him as a human being, as an equal, despite what was to shortly occur.

    Her words touched some deep, heretofore dormant part of him.

    They threatened to unman him.

    Having silently endured thus far with no outward display of emotion, his hands began to tremble. His breath caught in his throat.

    He could not do this.

    Gerard was overcome by a sudden urge to flee. The desire to run, despite the consequences, was overwhelming. But he knew he could not. Every eye in the square was trained on the platform, including those of the king.

    There would be no escape.



    The sheriff stepped forward and, from a parchment scroll, read aloud the sentence of death finishing with a solemn, “May God have mercy on your soul.”

    Gerard silently repeated the words to himself: a final prayer, a desperate plea. But he doubted any such mercy would be forthcoming.

    Now that the dreaded time had arrived, at last, he wanted only to be done with it.

    He was tired of waiting.

    He raised his head.

    Through the eye-holes cut into the executioner’s hood he wore, Gerard saw the king give the signal.

    It was time.

    He regarded the beautiful queen kneeling before him. The nape of her fragile neck lay exposed, awaiting the deadly steel kiss of Gerard’s blade. The injustice of it enraged him. She had been convicted on numerous charges, all fabricated by her husband. She was innocent of all wrongdoing, save for her inability to provide the king with a male heir.

    And for that, she would pay with her life.

    Gerard hefted the mighty blade that had been placed into his gloved hands high above his head. There it hung, its cruel blade glinting in the sunlight.

    Time froze.

    Gerard hesitated, suspended in an agony of indecision.

    It was not too late to pull out, to turn back.

    Except it was.

    Through the endless hours of his nocturnal wait, he’d concluded that he had no choice but to go through with it. And so it remained. He’d agreed to this unspeakable task, had taken the king’s gold, and traveled from his home across the channel to this strange land. If he didn’t put the king’s new bride to death as per the royal decree, the next public execution would be his.

    And, unlike the queen, Gerard would not be afforded the mercy of a clean, painless death.

    It would be the gallows for him.

    That, he could not have. His family needed him.

    May God have mercy…

    Mouthing the words silently once more, he prepared to bring the sword to bear in the skillful manner for which he was famed.

    The steel blade became a silver blur as it began its swift, deadly descent.



Historical Note


Henry VIII, King of England, married Anne Boleyn on January 15th, 1533, after breaking with the Catholic Church to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Henry desperately wanted a male heir, and Catherine had given him only a daughter.

Anne Boleyn proved similarly incapable of providing the king with a son.

On May 19th, 1536, the queen was convicted on fabricated charges of adultery, incest, witchcraft, and treason, and was sentenced to death. Her only real crime was failing to give Henry a male heir.

Her execution was the first time in English history a monarch was publically put to death, making it a unique spectacle. A scaffold was erected at the Tower Green in London especially for the occasion.

She was beheaded while kneeling, in accordance with her royal status. The swordsman had been summoned from the English-held French town Calais, across the channel. While his name has been lost to history, it is said that he was one of the greatest swordsman alive, and Henry VIII had chosen him for the task because he wanted Anne’s death to be as clean and painless as possible.

Henry VIII had six wives, all told. Anne Boleyn was his second. She was the first he had executed.

She would not be the last. 


***


July 06, 2020 14:44

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14 comments

Amith Shaju
13:26 Jul 08, 2020

Loved it. I was expecting a twist but never thought he would be the executioner! Actually thought he would be pardoned. Though i did wonder why no one threw tomatoes at him (the usual cliche scene). Also wondered what the Queen was doing in the scaffold. Well done. Loved ur attention to detail and the brilliant narration. Looking forward to more such works.

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Jonathan Blaauw
15:10 Jul 08, 2020

You know, I very nearly did put in a tomato throwing scene. Great minds think alike…. I’m glad you enjoyed it and that the twist was a surprise. It’s always hard to know whether or not I’m giving the game away with too much foreshadowing in the build-up. Thanks for reading it.

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Pragya Rathore
12:52 Aug 17, 2020

This story was amazing. I mean, mind-blowingly wonderful. You have a certain style which makes it impossible not to like your stories. I mean, this is a new level of loveliness in writing that you've reached. At first, when he talked about the 'fragile neck' of the queen, I thought that he was considering murdering her to escape. But he turned out to be the hangman! Wonderfully executed. Honestly, you are such an inspiration for me! I'd love to execute plot twists with even a quarter of expertise that I found in your story. Kudos!

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Juliet Martin
16:37 Jul 18, 2020

This is such a great story! Like the others have said, the twist is so clever and unexpected - especially since the execution scene is quite a familiar trope, which makes the surprise even more surprising! I also love the aspect of religion that you include and which becomes even more interesting when you realise the narrator is not a criminal but the one delivering justice. Such a clever story!

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Jonathan Blaauw
13:38 Jul 19, 2020

I’m so glad you enjoyed the way I executed the story. It’s fun to take something that’s been done to death and breathe new life into it with a new perspective. Okay, no more stupid puns, I promise. The religious aspect is a fascinating one for me. I mean old Henry basically started a new religion so he could marry Anne, and then he… well, we know what became of her. And his daughters were even crazier than their father (ok, Elizabeth was cool, but Bloody-Mary was another story). All the Tudors were a little nuts, actually. So the religious...

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My Name
18:15 Jul 16, 2020

I was waiting for the twist and boy, you shocked me! I was thinking of so many possible endings but him being the executioner didn't even cross my mind. Amazingly written!

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Jonathan Blaauw
12:58 Jul 18, 2020

Thanks. It came to me when thinking about executions in general when I thought no one ever spares a thought for the guy who flips the switch (or weilds the blade, in this case). Especially if the condemned is innocent. Can’t be easy. And yet, if we think about it at all, the hooded executioner is always the bad guy. Shame. That naturally led me to Anne Boleyn’s beheading and, voila, a story! Glad you liked it.

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Elle Clark
11:05 Jul 09, 2020

Oh wow! This is brilliant! I LOVED the reveal that he was the executioner - it makes his soul searching at the beginning even more poignant! As you’ve asked for feedback though, I’ll try not to fan girl over it too much. Some quick fixes: You’ve got a comma instead of a full stop after light, early on. A different option (though what you’ve used already works) could be ‘learned on the bloody sands of Acre: killing.’ The semi colon in “Gerard silently repeated the words to himself; a desperate prayer, a final plea” should be a c...

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Jonathan Blaauw
14:30 Jul 09, 2020

Thank you so much! Your attention to detail is incredible! The quick fixes have been quickly fixed, mostly they were just things I’d overlooked. Although, I had no idea about the ellipsis thing. Why wasn’t I taught that in school? I should ask for a refund… No matter how many times I reread before hitting submit, I always miss something, so thanks for highlighting. The paragraph-length observation also is very helpful. I was trying something new, going for shorter, punchier paragraphs that are easier to read, but I overshot a bit. I’ve tri...

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Elle Clark
18:10 Jul 09, 2020

I’m so glad it was helpful! I can definitely relate re: missed punctuation even with proof reading. You can see some true crimes against semi colons in mine and I proof read almost obsessively. Sometimes you just can’t see the trees for the wood, though. With the paragraph thing, I definitely saw what you were going for. The only problem is that when every paragraph is so short, the tension that it builds is almost too much for the reader to cope with so it loses impact. With the historical bits, now that I have context, it makes perfect...

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Phil Manders
12:51 Nov 05, 2021

Hi Jonathan This was really good. I could tell from the prompt that I was expecting a twist and like most, I was trying to work it out all the way through. You got me. Well done.

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Jonathan Blaauw
17:00 Nov 07, 2021

Another of my stories set in your home land 🤣 glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading (I'm going to make a point of visiting your page this week).

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Pamela Saunders
13:24 Aug 17, 2020

Wow, the chilling suspense, and then the realisation that this was how the executioner was feeling - tremendously surprising and effective, and I like the historical notes too.

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Taylor Arbuckle
16:08 Jul 29, 2020

I love that this is essentially an ancient hitman story. The twist was unexpected and incredible, and I appreciate your tendency towards history. It's not an easy subject to pull off in fiction, but you do it very well. Your style of story is one of the ones I love editing the most, so as I was reading, I got very excited. It's a very good story. Well done.

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