The Executioner’s Axe
only of death. The death of Aphila, who had betrayed him; the death of Jorna,
who had stolen Aphila from him; the death of everyone in the village who had looked
the other way when it happened; but most of all, his own death because he was
too cowardly to do anything about it but to throw himself over the cliff and thus,
end all thoughts of life or death.
because he was contemplating this last, final act that he was high enough up
the mountainside to witness the fireball light up the sky in a searing flash, to
discover where it landed, and to find the glowing sky stone nestled in the
A message to
him, to only him and his thoughts of death.
That it was a message, he had no doubt. He’d
been praying for justice and retribution every waking hour, his dreams had been
of bloody revenge, and as he stood at the edge of the cliff, ready to jump and
end it all, the Gods had saved him, for why else would such a thing have
happened at that moment, where only he could discover the precious metal?
headsman had a blade of sky stone, displayed pretentiously on his belt, shining
in the firelight—the symbol of his office, a token of his power. But that knife
was but six inches long—not enough to impress any bride except by its strength
quickly, grabbing two branches off the ground and pinching the still glowing rock
between and lifting it. The branches flared and snapped under the weight, but
not before Cord had maneuvered it to the middle of a flat stone. While the
metal was still soft, he pounded upon it with whatever rocks he could find
until the metal prevailed and the rocks splintered.
Cord curled up by the anvil stone and closed his eyes, still feeling the heat
of the sky stone.
He slept for
the first time in days, and for once, his dreams were peaceful, his reprisal
already fulfilled, Aphila once again at his side, he in the headman’s place, holding
the sky stone set on a polished shaft, still glowing from the light of the Gods.
When he woke
in the morning, he was refreshed. He quickly killed a hare with a single throw
of a rock, something he’d never accomplished before. The sky stone was still
hot enough to ignite the twigs he laid upon it, and soon he had finished his meal
in the warmth of a fire.
The sky stone
gleamed in the spots where he had struck it the night before. It was not much
more than a slightly flattened shape, but Cord could see within it the shape he
wanted. An axe head, long and curved, its edge so sharp it glittered.
energy, he gathered firewood and set about building a huge bonfire over the sky
stone. For all of daylight, each time the wood diminished into embers, he added
to the fire, and as night fell, he threw all the branches he had left and stood
shielding his face from the heat with his hands.
Below in the valley, the villagers exclaimed,
for they had all witnessed the fireball, and it seemed to them that a God must
have descended to earth, and was playing with flames for purposes that only a
God could know.
Cord again slept
for a time, but when he woke, he was ready to finish his task. He had set aside
rocks he’d selected for their denseness and shape. The coals of the bonfire
still glowed in the morning, and as he swept them aside, the sky stone was
revealed, shimmering red in the morning light.
the metal, each rock lasting only long enough to slightly outline the metal. As
the day progressed, he began to despair, for the sky stone was too hard, and neither
the rocks nor the strength of his arm were enough to shape it.
he gave up and once again gathered firewood, and built another bonfire, though
this one lacked the exuberance and brilliance of the night before. He slept,
and in his dreams Aphila and Jorna were laughing at him, pointing at the
misshapen metal in his hand.
Yet, in the
morning, Cord saw with fresh eyes that he’d succeeded in shaping the sky stone
more than he’d thought. It was clearly in the shape of an axe head. It wasn’t
pretty, but it was functional enough to serve its purpose. He thought of the
village blacksmith, who had a forge and billows, even if his bronze tools would
soon break under the strain.
sensed that he would be given but one chance, that word would quickly reach
Jorna of his new weapon. Jorna was a giant of a man—he would not be killed
unless Cord had the element of surprise, no matter how formidable the sky axe.
He set about
once again pounding on the axe, this time working on the edge, and as night
fell, he could do no more. He had not the strength to build another fire, and
so he slept, shivering, the cold sky stone near his head.
The next day’s
task was easier, for he had spent most of his life sharping the blades of other,
stronger men. He’d failed on his quest to kill a single animal, and so he had
been relegated to village chores while other men went hunting. Only Jorda had
been friendly to him and because of this, Cord had made the mistake of bragging
about his young wife, and then of taking his new friend home to share a meal.
night, he’d heard Aphila cry out, and he knew that sound though he had heard it
only a few times before—it was of her pleasure and satisfaction. He’d burst
into the common room, to find them already finished, staring back at him with satiated
He'd gone to the headsman for justice, but the headsman
had merely shrugged, for what business was it of his which man pleasured a
woman. Others had looked away, and some he had caught laughing behind their
hands. The shame had become too much, and he set off on his journey into the
mountains, not even aware of his intention until he stood on the cliffside and
realized that he’d thought of nothing but death for days.
was ready by nightfall, and that night he slept soundly again, though he could
remember no dreams. He hunted that morning, for he hadn’t eaten in several
days, and once again, to his surprise, he brought down a hare with a single
that though the blade was sharp, it was ugly, so he set about polishing the
blade, and finding a strong branch for a shaft and shaping the skin of the hare
into cords. When he was done, he could
see how the axe could be finished, the final rough spots polished and gleaming.
For the first time, he wondered if that wasn’t enough, that possession of such
a blade would be revenge enough.
But no, his
woman had been taken from him, and it would mean nothing to the headsman or for
the other villagers for Jorna to take the sky stone too.
morning he rose before dawn and made his way down the mountain. He had never
felt so confident, so manly. This must be how hunters felt returning to the
village with stags slung over their shoulders. The sky axe was heavy, and Cord
laid the haft over his shoulder, shifting it to his other shoulder when it
began to hurt. Once or twice, he swung the blade and realized that the deed
would need to be done swiftly, before his arms tired.
down the middle of the street. At first, no one paid any attention to him. But
as the sun rose higher in the sky, the light caught the axe and the metal shone
so brightly that no one could look at it for long.
Cord had no
doubt where he would find Jorna—in his bed. If Jorna was not hunting, he’d be sleeping
late, for there was no one to give him orders, even the headsman.
the door to his bedroom, to be confronted by Aphila, still naked and sleepy,
crouched over the chamber pot in the corner. She rose, mouth open, and for a
moment, Cord quailed, for she was even more beautiful than he remembered.
the axe and her head came off cleanly, striking the wall and falling into the
Cord heard a
grunt and without thinking, turned, swinging the axe with all his might. His
blow was nearly premature, but the edge of the sky axe sliced across Jorna’s
massive chest. Something red and glistening fell to the floor. Both men stared
at the object, which beat three more times before ceasing. Jorna toppled forward,
with his last act, knocking the axe from Cord’s hands, then landing atop him.
breath was knocked from his chest. By the time he could inhale, men had entered
the room, standing over Cord and the bodies of the betrayers. Cord smiled,
reaching out for the blade, but one of Jorna’s hunter friends, stepped on his
hand, and snatched the blade away.
morning had broken. Cord had dreamed of Gods and of lighting from the sky. His mind
was still dazzled by the light as he was dragged from his prison.
The entire village
was there—the first time they’d ever paid him such attention.
stood over the blacksmith’s anvil, the blade of office tucked into his belt. In
his hands he held the new talisman. It gleamed in the morning light as if it
had just landed among the mortals.
made to kneel. His thoughts were of death, of Aphila and Jorna, and of his
standing on the edge of the cliff, the Gods laughing.
swung the axe over his head and down on Cord’s neck. The blade above him seemed
to roll away, and then there was darkness.
wiped the blood off the axe and handed it to the blacksmith.
“It needs to
be sharper,” he said.