This week, Rachael Ritchey’s blog battle theme is Hair, and this is my entry. It seems to be Historical Fiction:
Behind The Mask
She had cried when they cut her hair. At least, that was what he had heard. But stories told from behind prison walls grow in legend or ridicule, depending upon who is doing the telling.
He had also heard that it was the only emotion she had shown. No other tears, not even when they passed down her sentence, when she was led to the stone tower where she would spend her final days, shut into darkness alone.
It had been her great beauty, apparently. Hair like pale sun on wheat, long enough to sit on. Add to that her youth and her lustrous grey eyes, set against the gilded halls she frequented, enough to make her stand out even in the most illustrious company.
But youth and beauty are no match for age and power, and the man she murdered had been powerful indeed. Never mind that he had been her father. Never mind the rumours of what he had done to her for years, had let his friends do to her, hidden behind privilege and the high walls of their palazzo.
He thought of his own daughter and his heart clenched, his being shying away from the idea of visiting such desecration on her tender flesh. He shifted, wood creaking beneath his feet, his hands tightening on the timber he held, worn smooth with use.
He could see her coming, now. Hear the calls and jeers of the crowd. Yet even they seemed more subdued than usual. Word had travelled, and she had more than the usual amount of sympathy. Including his own. He shook his head slightly, as if to dislodge the thought. He wondered, not for the first time, whether this had been the right path, the right choice, for him.
His job conferred privilege, though his family knew not what he did. Though he thought his wife might suspect, the nightmares that brought him screaming from sleep perhaps more than would trouble a captain of guards, as she thought him to be. He clenched his jaw, tilting his head to one side and stretching his neck, which had grown tight.
The cart drew to a stop at the base of the stairs. The crowd grew silent as the guards opened the back of the cart and helped her down, even their hands on her slender arms more of a courtesy than to stop her from escaping. She stumbled, her bare foot catching on the timber frame and several women cried out, the guards stopping her from falling.
He had seen so many come to the scaffold. Crying, screaming, others numb with shock, still others pleading and begging, protesting to the very end. But she was none of these. She stood, looking at each guard until they let go of her arms. They did, finally, stepping aside. One of them bowed his head. She nodded in return. Then, taking the rough brown cloth of her skirt in her hand, she held it as though it were the finest silk, so as to ascend the stairs without tripping on the ragged hem.
He was glad to be wearing a mask. The official story was that it was to protect his identity, so that the relatives of the dead could not seek their revenge. But it was more than that. There was no room for sympathy, not in his job. He was merely a tool, delivering punishment meted out by the will of the people.
And yet, it was hard not to be moved when a girl of only sixteen summers made her careful way across the creaking timbers, her head held high. The cropped hair only served to heighten her youth, the fine bones of her face standing out against her pale skin. She stopped, looking at him with her head slightly tilted to one side. She seemed to be looking through the mask, to the very heart of him. He tensed. Then a ghost of a smile crossed her features and she moved closer still.
‘It is all right.’
She knelt, placing her hands carefully on the block and bending her head forward. Her exposed neck was slender like the stem of a flower, skin pale against the tattered edges of her shorn hair. The sun came through, briefly, gilding the ragged strands. Pale sun on wheat, just as the stories told.
He swallowed. Then swung the axe.
To read more Blog Battle entries, or to add one of your own, visit Rachael’s blog, The Chronicles of the Twelve Realms. See you there!
Lovely story Helen. 😊
Thanks, Ali 🙂
Yow. I don’t actually “like” this story, ’cause it’s so sad… But so very well written and moving!
Thank you. I had started out thinking from the point of view of the victim, but it soon became clear it was the executioner telling the tale 🙂
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I can’t even… This is horrific. (The story, not the writing – which is wonderful). I wanted to stop reading but couldn’t. Brilliant having this told from the executioner’s POV.
Thanks, Sarah. It started out being from her point of view (the first sentence, anyway), but then it changed fairly quickly to being that of the executioner. I do wonder where my mind goes, sometimes!
You’re a pantser. 💖 I love when the characters take over. (They’re usually right.)
I am such a pantser! Story of my life 😉 And yes, I’ve learned to let the characters take over, as they pretty much laugh at any planning I try to do.
Wow. Intense. And beautifully written. Bravo!
Thanks, Grace 🙂
I agree with everyone else. I was on the edge of my seat, completely drawn in by the emotion, and the beautiful tension you created. Great work 🙂
Thanks Melissa, that’s really nice to hear 🙂
Gripping. I was waiting for her to know who the axe man was. Maybe she did?
Thanks Hugh 🙂 I wrote it more from the point of view that she was ready to die, and also, perhaps, that she understood men who hid behind masks.
Excellent! Lovely tension and extremely evocative. 🙂
Thanks, Cathleen 🙂
Lovely story. Unusual to see the tale from the executioners POV, but I think that gives it more tension and emotion. I can’t imagine being brave enough to write it. 🙂 I wouldn’t want to kill the poor young girl.
Thank you 🙂 Apparently a young woman was executed under similar circumstances in the 1600s (though I don’t know much more than that) so it was her story that initially came to mind when I saw the prompt, as I knew they used to cut women’s hair before an execution. However, as soon as I started to write it became clear that the executioner was telling the tale. I didn’t like killing her either, but it was unfortunately all too common in those times.
Interesting. I didn’t know that womens’ hair was cut before execution. I’ve learned something new today. 🙂
I think it was to shame them as much as anything else, sadly.
Wow Helen!! I am speechless. What a piece! Loved it and the POV. You write historical fiction well 🙂
Thanks so much, Lucy – a bit of a departure for me, but I quite enjoyed it (despite the subject matter) 🙂
So many feelings in this, and so sad, but beautifully written! I like this all the more for being the executioner’s POV.
Thanks so much 🙂 I hadn’t meant to write it from the executioner’s POV but, as the story grew, it became obvious that’s who was telling the tale.
It’s like the story told you how it should be written.
Yes, that often happens to me – apparently I have no control over my characters 😀
Some characters are unruly creatures. 😉
Most of mine seem to be! 😀
Agreeing with all the other comments! ❤ That first bit definitely pulled me in and I couldn't stop until the last word. Well done.
Thanks Rachael! 🙂
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Congrats! You’re the Hair winner! ❤ 🙂 If you are up for an interview later this week, email me: email@example.com! 🙂
I just saw – can’t believe it! Thank you so much, this is a nice way to start the day 🙂
❤ 🙂 I'm so glad to hear it! Sorry for being so late in letting you know. I try to get it all squared away with the winner on Monday, but I'm behind. We'll blame it on the flu! 😉
Oh no, were you struck down as well? It’s just the worst, isn’t it? I hope you’re feeling better 🙂
Thanks. Some moments better than others!
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Congrats on your win! Loved this!
Thanks, Sarah! It was a really nice surprise to actually win 🙂
It was a well-deserved win. This is a fantastic piece.
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Thank you 🙂