The man at the table had a cold, hard face. His chin and nose jutted out so sharply that it was as if an unskilled carpenter had sawed them clumsily out of a chunk of wood. He seemed too tall and thin to be seated in the chair and his legs were stretched out awkwardly underneath the wooden table top. When his thin lips parted, the voice that came from within them seemed surprisingly deep and resonant to come from such an ill-formed face.
"Are they all dead?"
"No, not yet. There are still three left," replied the servant.
"Then they shall be killed tomorrow." The man's echoing voice seemed to fill the room.
"But, sir," the servant protested. "One of them is only a child. It doesn't seem right to kill a child."
"Everyone who I have captured will be executed," said the man in a tone which clearly stated that the decision was final.
"Very well." The servant turned and walked quickly from the room. It seemed that he could not leave fast enough.
The door to the underground cellar creaked in protest as the servant opened it. He slowly lowed himself in to the opening beyond. For a moment he stood in a small square of light which shone down from the door above. After savoring the last drop of sunshine for a moment longer, he crept deeper into the darkness around him.
A girl's voice rang out from some where within the gloom. "Is it you?"
The man took another step forward. "Yes." In the dim light, he could hardly make out the shape of a girl's figure clutching onto the iron bars which separated the two. Her face was veiled in the shadows as she pressed it between them. A glint of light shimmered, reflecting off her eyes which were focused on the servant.
He crossed the room, silently, his feet making no sound on the dirt floor. The girl's hand reached from inside her prison and their fingers brushed against each other. Her lips curved into a smile. "How are you?"
The servant turned his face away. He could not let the girl see his tears as they rolled down his cheeks. "I'm all right."
"Tell me a story." The girl sat down on the earthy floor, pressing her cheeks against the bars.
"What kind of story?" the servant asked, touching the girl's fingers again with almost fatherly affection.
"Tell me about the sun." the girl whispered. "And about life. And what it's like to be free. It's been so long that I've forgotten."
For a moment, the servant's voice was caught his throat. There were words pounding at his lips, fighting to come out. He desperately wanted to hold them in. The girl's sweet voice was lingering in his ears and he felt that it would be wrong to silence it forever. The thought of something so horrible overtook him and pressed his forehead against his fingers, for a moment unable to speak.
"What's wrong?" as the girl's voice drifted through the air, the servant noticed a melodic quality to it. It reminded him of a sunset – most beautiful at its end.
"I cannot save you." The servant choked out, his own rough voice barely escaping from his throat.
The girl did not reply. The servant caught the glimmer of a tear rolling down her cheek in the dull light.
"I'm scared." She whispered, her words barely audible. "It seems like I'm supposed to brave, but I'm so scared."
The servant swallowed a new rush of tears, blinking furiously. He didn't want her to know that he was just as terrified as she was. "If you were never scared, you'd never be brave." He said, partially to himself.
The girl reached her arms through the bars between them and wrapped them around him. He could feel tears on his cheek, but he didn't know if they were his or hers.
"You've been like a father to me." He heard her lips form the words in his ear.
And yet, he hated to love her. He loathed the tears stinging his eyes and the deep sadness that was tearing him apart. If he had never loved her, it wouldn't be so hard to let go. In a rush of anger and despair, a small scream escaped from his throat. The girl tightened her embrace. For the longest time, they stood, comforting each other and wishing they could remain there forever.
As the sun's vivid rays peaked over the dark horizon, the door of the girl's prison was roughly thrust open. Two men barged in, pushing aside the heavy, barred door.
"Come on." One of them seized her tiny wrist in his strong fingers.
The girl rose from where she had been seated on the dirt floor. She showed no reluctance. Quietly, obediently, she followed the men. Together, they climbed from the dark prison into the light.
The girl paused outside the prison, looking around her. One of the men yanked on her arm.
"Do you think we have all day?" He asked, sharply.
The girl looked away, turning her face toward the rising sun. "You do." She replied. The men let her stay there for a short time, her tangled hair and dirty white dress blowing in the wind. They themselves were captivated by the beauty of the moment as the girl looked at the world one final time.
At last, one man tugged the sleeve of her dress. "It's time to go." He whispered. The girl turned away from the sun. In front of her was a hill, reaching so high that the top seemed to brush the clouds. The men crossed her wrists behind her back as the small group climbed the steep incline.
A large crowd of people was already gathered at the top. The two other victims were lying on stone slabs in the center of a patch of grass. The slab in the middle was empty. The girl swallowed as she stepped forward.
The men pushed on her shoulders, urging her in the direction of the space which had been kept empty for her. As she walked toward it, the crowd marveled at her radiant beauty. A light wind blew the messy locks of hair out of her face, which was illuminated by the rising sun. The hem of her dirty white dress, which hung loosely around her thin figure, played around her ankles in the breeze. She seemed too beautiful and innocent a thing to be obediently walking toward her death. The assembled spectators murmured amongst themselves as she passed. Near the back of the crowd, the servant stood alone, fighting tears as he watched the girl continue to move forward.
As she reached the piece of stone, she climbed onto it, without coaxing from the men behind her. She moved like a feather flitting across a hard surface, lightly propelled by the wind. The eyes of every member of the crowd were fixed on her as she laid back, her face toward the sky. Her eyes closed softly and it seemed as if she had already drifted into the eternal sleep that she was destined for. Her relaxed face was the perfect picture of peace, all of her features relaxed, breathing quietly through slightly parted lips.
And yet, the peace was only temporary. A man, clad in black appeared slowly, behind the slab of stone. He raised a sword dramatically into the air and plunged it into the girl's chest. Her eyes fluttered open, her face contorted with pain. The slight body twisted under the pressure of the sword. Blood seeped from the wound, staining her white dress crimson. The man pressed his blade deeper. The girl let forth a sharp cry, breathing heavily. Her body writhed on the stone slab, her hands tightened into fists. The blood ran faster, dripping onto the light colored stone. Tears ran from her panicked eyes, mingling with the blood as they rolled down onto the rocky surface beneath her. Her lips parted and she screamed and screamed, filling the air with the sound of death.
At that moment the sun rose above the horizon, shedding its rays onto the gruesome scene. The sky, already painted with the beautiful colors of the sunrise was lit up with shocking beauty. No one on the hill noticed it, but somewhere someone must have seen what a stunning sunrise it was.
It was at that exact time that the girl stopped moving. Her face relaxed and her arms and legs went limp. She took one last shuddering breath before giving in to the pain that was overtaking her.
The other two victims were also dead. The blood stains on their breasts were the only evidence that they had been executed in the same cruel fashion. No one had watched them die.
The men who had led the girl from her prison only minutes before picked up the bodies on the stone slabs on the left and right. They tossed them down the hill, letting them tumble to the river at the bottom where they would be washed away. As they made their way toward the girl's body, the servant began to shove his way through the crowd.
Before the men could reach her, the servant already had her in his arms. Death had made her prettier than ever, he thought as he held her body close to him. The blood soaked his shirt and dripped onto his arms, but he hardly noticed it. He let the tears stream from his eyes as he kissed her face.
But he didn't cry alone. Lightning split the sky and rain poured down as he carried the body down the hill.