Chapter 1 : When the Axe Fell
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31st October 1492
After a glorious summer that had continued well into October, autumn seemed determined to make its presence felt and the inky skies were tearing themselves apart in a bid to do so. Rain beat down heavily, soaking into the parched and dusty ground. Threads of light flashed through the air, competing with the deep rumbles of thunder that sounded at intervals. The heavens appeared to be in a dangerous mood.
In spite of the storm, a large crowd was gathering next to a crudely built wooden structure. They attempted to cover their heads from the water drenching them, but their eyes were fixed hungrily on the same point. A strange excitement seemed to pulse through the air they breathed. They waited.
A few minutes passed and the people were rewarded. A group of men emerged from an imposing stone building. The Tower, they called it. The majority of the party were dressed in gleaming chainmail, but they dragged with them a man shackled in a different type of chains.
Upon the appearance of this man, the noise from both the sky and the throng increased. Jeers and shouts rose angrily, directing their hatred towards him. The man kept his eyes down and refused to look at any of them. He hoped that they would believe he was shaking with cold from the pouring rain. Eventually the guards pushed him up the steps of the wooden platform, where he was joined by a tall man clothed in black. The latter leant forward and unlocked the manacles restraining the former, but the heavy axe by his side belied the kindness. This was the executioner.
A third man stepped up, wearing a priest’s cassock. As the crowd became livelier, he spoke clearly to the man accused.
“Sir Nicholas de Mimsy Porpington, you have been found guilty of witchcraft and have been sentenced to death. Do you repent your sins?”
Trembling, Sir Nicholas nodded. “I do,” he replied in a voice so weak with fear that it came out as barely a whisper. The priest opened his Bible and began to read passages from it. With each word he spoke the witnesses that were gathered seemed to gain more enjoyment. There hadn’t been a public execution in a while and this one was greeted with great anticipation. Courtiers found themselves mixing with peasants as they assembled to watch, and their restlessness was palpable.
So many factors enhanced the appeal of this execution. Sir Nicholas was a popular and well-known figure, often identified as one of the bravest and best knights at court. He had been a particular favourite of the king, and had always amused him with his mysterious abilities; until last night, and his unfortunate mishap with Lady Grieve’s crooked teeth. To see him reduced to a quivering wreck of a man was mesmerising and somewhat satisfying for some. His evident fear encouraged them to laugh and mock him.
The executioner was nervous as well. A young man of eighteen, he found himself easily intimidated by the boisterous audience and the magnitude of the occasion. It didn’t help that he had never before executed someone. Practicing on pumpkins was all well and good, but when it came down to it only experience made an expert in such matters.
The people in the crowd considered themselves experts. The knowledge they had acquired from watching countless others being put to death meant that they had realised something the executioner hadn’t: his axe was blunt. This execution would be long, drawn-out, and painful.
The priest had finished reading and turned once again to face Sir Nicholas. “Do you have any final words?” he asked in a sombre tone.
Sir Nicholas shook his head. He was barely managing to remain standing before the bloodthirsty mass. He thought he was going to collapse with fear.
“Very well,” said the priest. “May God have mercy on your soul.”
It was a relief when Nicholas could kneel at the block. Never before had he behaved in so cowardly a manner. Fighting skilled opponents and riding into battle did not scare him, but in the face of death, he could barely even believe he was a Gryffindor. He looked down at the wood he knelt on, searching for a pattern in the grain – searching for anything that would save him from the indescribable terror that gripped him. How could people face such a death calmly? To die in war was noble, but to be sentenced to death as a young man was petrifying. There was nothing he feared more than a death like this.
As thunder roared through the sky, the executioner shuffled forward and the crowd tensed in expectation. Nicholas tensed as well, bracing himself for the blow that would end his life. That was his one comfort: he would die quickly and cleanly, without any of the suffering that age or illness imposed. Seconds passed, and then, still shaking, he closed his eyes as he heard the axe sweep through the air.
It was the worst pain imaginable. Nicholas couldn’t help crying out in distress as the axe fell on his neck, cutting into the skin but travelling no further. Why was he still alive?
The blow of the axe was stronger this time, and Nicholas felt it cut through the first layer of flesh and make contact with the bone that lay beneath.
Blood trickled down his neck and into his hair and he understood. The axe was blunt. His stomach tightened as he realised that his death would not be the swift and painless one he had hoped and prayed for.
The bone began to shatter.
Six. Seven. Eight.
The agony increased and so did the noise from the crowd. They were revelling in watching his bloody death.
Lightning tore the sky in two.
Fourteen. Fifteen. Sixteen. Seventeen.
Nicholas was consumed by the pain. His vision was red from the blood that had seeped through his hair and found his face. He couldn’t hear anything anymore. He could barely think.
Twenty five. Twenty six.
Miraculously, Nicholas was still alive. His neck was partly severed, bone crushed by the repeated blows it had suffered. The executioner continued swinging through the air, and the axe fell on his neck time and time again. He was becoming numb to the pain. Fear was replacing it once more. Death was inches away and the thought of it shook him to the core. He didn’t want to die.
Twenty eight. Twenty nine. Thirty. Thirty one. Thirty two.
The executioner was desperate. He brought his axe down again and again, arms weak with the exertion. The crowd were still jeering and catcalling. He felt sick. He hadn’t wanted it to be like this.
Nicholas could feel the life slipping away from his body and he fought desperately to remain alive.
Thirty six. Thirty seven. Thirty eight.
Nicholas was dead. But he wasn’t gone. From the corpse that knelt on the wooden platform a silvery figure emerged, floating into the air. He looked around as though he was trying to work something out; first at the assembled onlookers, then the executioner, the dead body hunched over the execution block and finally at himself. The expression on his features changed from one of confusion to understanding as he realised what had happened.
Forty one. Forty two.
The executioner was hacking at a corpse while the ghost of the man that used to inhabit it looked on. Nicholas surveyed the picture. The throng was slipping away, bored by the scene playing out in front of them. The executioner was inconsolable and the man on the block was already dead. There was no entertainment in mocking either now; it was pitiful to watch.
Blood spurted from the deep gash in the neck, but the blood elsewhere was already congealing and drying. The head was almost completely removed from the body now, held on only by a strip of skin.
Hardly anyone was left regarding the spectacle. People walked through Nicholas as they departed, experiencing a cold shiver that they put down to the storm. They were muggles; they couldn’t see him. The isolation that he already felt as they looked through him was wretched.
Tears streamed down the executioner’s face. He had made the journey from man back to boy during the execution, as he tried to correct his mistake and remove the head completely from the body. He raised his trembling arms again, struggling more than ever with the weight of the heavy blade, and prepared to let the axe fall.
“Stop,” ordered a voice. The executioner paused and then, upon seeing the priest lowered his arms.
“He is dead already. There is no need for you to continue. I will send somebody to take care of the body, but I must go now and prepare for the celebrations tomorrow.” The priest had been the only other living person remaining at the execution, but he too moved away and left the executioner standing beside a dead body and a ghost that he couldn’t see.
“I’m sorry,” the boy choked out through sobs. He dropped the axe and, after quickly looking around, sprinted away.
Nicholas remained where he was. He had begun to regret his fear already; because of it, he would be condemned to walk the earth for evermore, with no escape from the evidence of his final cowardice. He remembered that it was All Hallow’s Eve, and the celebrations that were commencing tomorrow seemed perversely appropriate. Muggles would be praying for the souls of the departed that had not yet moved on from this world. He was one of those souls, but he would never have the chance to make the journey on.
The storm continued, completely unmoved by what had passed below it. The rain travelled straight through Nicholas, but started to wash away the bloody proof of the event that had occurred. And, trapped as he was in this world in between – neither mortal nor immortal, living nor dead – he wished that he had known what his fear would cause him to become, and he wished that he had made a different decision when the axe fell.
A/N: The idea for this popped into my head and I just had to write it. I hope you like it - please leave a review and let me know what you think!