This piece is a little dark, though I really didn't mean it to be. I started writing it as an introduction to a much larger story, but it took on a mind of its own. Like some short stories become books, this book firmly and decisively decided to stay a short story. It wanted to finish itself and stand alone, and who am I, a lowly author, to deny it? So, with a bow to whatever Writing Gods or Muses there may be, I present to you..

The Execution

The crowd rustled and murmured, stirred and whispered uneasily. The execution was about to commence, the execution they had been threatened with and ordered to witness. But they didn't like it. Not one little bit. Whispers escalated to low voices, which rose to louder ones. People banged mutinously against the tall wooden platform in the center of the square, hating it for the uncertainty it caused them. The structure began to shake, and the tall post in the middle looked as though it would break and topple. Suddenly a captain called an order, causing the hundreds of soldiers ringing the wide square to snap to attention. Reminded again of the threat, the city-dwellers in the square fell silent.
The reason for the captain's order soon became clear as the voice of a herald, now audible, rose into the sudden quiet of the dawn air. "Hear ye, hear ye!" it proclaimed. "You, the people of our capital, are called upon to witness the shame of a criminal. The dishonored, convicted for endangering our country, will be punished severely for her crimes."
The crowd rumbled again with disquiet as a small procession forced its way to the platform. Execution, they had been told, and they assumed it meant a hanging. The government had promised a dangerous hardened criminal, someone whose very existence threatened the kingdom. But those in the crowd with sharp eyes noticed several servants carrying huge containers of hay, wood, oil, and other combustibles. They were followed by a single stone-faced executioner carrying a flaming torch. None of the usual priests were present, who not only offered to hear confessions and say words for the dead, but to remind the people of the gods' omniscient presence in the justice system. No, observers squinted carefully; there was not a shred of a frock to be seen. However much raucous this might have caused, though, it was overwhelmed in a larger protest. Every eye, no matter how nearsighted or dimmed with age, looked towards the cart that carried the criminal. Such was always the focus of the crowds' attention - how could it not be? There, manacled and gagged, surrounded by wary guards, lay a baby girl. Barely a year old, with her soft brown hair matted and her diaper wet, her small green eyes were screwed shut as she protested her condition. Her wailing cries were clearly heard by all present. No amount of soldiers could prevent the reaction. A wave of shock rippled through the crowd, followed by a tremendous uproar as men and women shouted and tried to vent their fury. The soldiers, holding the mob at bay with spears, could not help but feel revulsion as well. Although they stood fast at their posts - they had been well trained by their Queen-General - doubt racked their minds. How could a baby be dangerous? What's more, a hardened criminal and conspirator? It was so outrageous as to be comical, if not for the stark reality of the platform before their eyes. The platform. There it stood in the center, burly men now tying the baby to the post. It became apparent that she was to be burned as servants stepped forward to pile hay around her. A thin, trembling herald began to read off her crimes in a worried voice - his conscience was bothering him, and he did not like this business one little bit. Meanwhile the servants continued to pile hay and wood, shamefully keeping their eyes averted from the child. Soon, her small body was hidden from view by the combustible materials piled around her, but no one seemed to notice or care. They were too busy hiding their distaste from the towering black and red figure that had just entered the square. Riding on a powerful black stallion, the new King was a frightening sight. His face, so often stonier than those of his men today, was currently crunched and dragged into a smirk. The crowd went still again, except for those fighting each other to get further away from him. With almost no warning, the execution began. The stony-faced executioner cut an imposing figure in his dark head-to toe robes, outlined against the rosy dawn sky. With no flourishes or unnecessary movement he tossed the torch onto the foot of the post, and the whole thing went up in a blaze of fury. A child's panicked cry rang out, but was cut short abruptly. That was all it took to set off the crowd. Nerves stretched to the breaking point snapped, submerged loyalties flared, ignored consciences overwhelmed. A roar went up, and the mob turned on whomever and whatever it could find to blame. The King stood untouched, though. All were too afraid, retained too much sanity to touch him. There were rumors, many rumors about him, almost all embellishing his cruelty and awesome fighting strength. The platform swayed once, them toppled suddenly and explosively. Burning brands sprayed outwards, one landing right in front of the King's horse. The beast shied, then reared. It dumped His Royal Highness on His Royal Behind and raced away through the crowd. That was all it took. A first blow had been struck, and the now fearless crowd poured in to avenge themselves upon this man. The platform blazed in the late dawn light, and the execution began.