The executioner sat on the rickety wooden chair as the morning sun poured in through a small window. Today was the day, he thought as he felt his woolen executioner's hood between his fingers. The hood his father's father had worn, the hood that had been witness to a hundred executions. Killing was in his blood; it was his legacy. But the executioner's father, and his father's father, had long since passed, leaving behind only a small wooden shack and a bad name. His family's reputation preceded him wherever he went; slaughtering criminals was not a respected occupation. Growing up as the executioner's son had been a lonely and violent childhood, and after taking up his father's mantle, the situation had not changed much.
Today was not the day for self-pity, the executioner thought as he pulled his hood over his head. Today was the day the kingdom's most famous vigilante, whom the citizens had so endearingly named the Songbird, would be put to death. The man had a tongue as sharp as a dagger, so went the tales in the taverns, and all of the songs the court jesters sang of him had been written by the Songbird himself. But nobody sang those songs today, for the Songbird sat in the dungeon in chains, awaiting his fate. The executioner pulled his gloves over his hands and walked out of his house.
The sun was hidden behind dark clouds overhead. The long, well-trodden path leading to the village was utterly deserted. The forest was quiet, its inhabitants hushed at the executioner's presence. No squirrels chirped, no birds called. Even the wind was silent before the executioner on this day. The grass shivered as he stepped over it, his heavy boots crunching the dirt underfoot. Apprehension gripped the very earth by the throat.
As the executioner walked down to the city, he could not help but think of the criminal whose end was so very close. Up until recent weeks, the Songbird had been the hero of the kingdom, the misunderstood bandit. Steal from the rich and selfish, give to the needy, such was the Songbird's creed. He had appeared out of no where just a few years ago, and he and his gang of bandits raided caravan after caravan, stealing gold, jewelry, always giving to the people, never once taking a life. The stories, songs, and poems were endless. The Songbird's bravery, chivalry, and heavenly voice were admired by all the commoners, despite his blatant disregard for law and order. It was obvious why the people loved him. He and his stories satisfied their lust for adventure and danger and glory, all while fattening their purses with stolen money. What was not to love about a bandit with morals?
The king nearly drove himself insane in his search for the Songbird. Dozens of soldiers went into the foreboding woods which the Songbird held as his lair, only to come back empty-handed, their weapons and valuables stolen from them in their sleep. As the years went on, the Songbird became less of a nuisance and more of a threat to the kingdom. The peasants were no longer content with the tavern songs; they desired adventure. The Songbird was their hero and idol. The men admired his strength and virtue. The children took their turns playing as the Songbird. The women swooned at the thought of the Songbird and his legendary voice. As the hunger for excitement grew, so did the malcontent. The king found himself at a terrible impasse when his own son, a charming and excitable boy, pleaded his father to end his search for the Songbird. But the executioner knew as the king did that an idolized criminal could only lead to utter chaos.
Had the Songbird, having taken his fill of illicit gold, simply disappeared into a remote forest settlement, all would have been forgiven and forgotten. But one day the Songbird attempted to raid the king's processional. There would be no songs of how the king's guards valiantly retaliated against the Songbird's bandits, fearlessly striking down the thieves as they appeared from beyond the trees. No poems would be written about the bravery of the knights as they covered their swords thick in the blood of the criminals, nor stories of how the Songbird was tackled to the ground. The people felt nothing but nothing but remorse and sadness toward their captured hero.
The executioner entered the city, passing through a small gatehouse in the thick stone walls. Clothes hung limp from lines running across buildings high above. The normally crowded streets were silent; nothing moved save for the occasional stir of a tramp, still sleeping with the flies in his pile of filth. The tavern windows were dark and the market stalls were all closed. The only sound came from the church nearby, where the tower bells were tolling the end of mass. The executioner could feel the eyes peeking out from closed shutters follow him as he strode to the town center.
A short distance away the narrow streets broke open into a wide space. The gallows stood there, tall and threatening. A noose already hung from the wooden bar where the executioner had taken measurements the night before.
The Songbird, weighed down in chains, had stood before him as he readied the rope, preparing it for the next morning. A huge full moon hung in the air, making the torches lighting the executioner's workspace almost unnecessary. The Songbird did not move as the executioner placed the rope around his neck, tightening it until he was satisfied. The bandit only watched the executioner as he prepared the Songbird's death. He watched him with the strangest expression; it was curiosity, wonder.
"It must not be easy, doing what you do," The Songbird had said to the executioner. "Taking the lives of those whom have never done you wrong."
"They have done His Grace wrong," the executioner had replied. "And my life belongs to my king. Anyone who has done him an injustice, has done me an injustice."
"So you are but your king's servant, then? You simply do what he commands?"
"My life is his, prisoner. I belong to him. We all belong to him. Yes, I am his humble servant."
"Why?" The Songbird asked. The executioner looked at him. "What has he done that put you in his immoral servitude?"
"He protects these lands, and their people. Our king oversees our welfare, and ensures we do not come to harm, and in return, we humble ourselves before him and place ourselves in his servitude."
"What a narrow mind you have!" The Songbird laughed. The executioner said nothing. The guards nearby took a step toward him, but the Songbird continued nonetheless. "You give your life to your king, and look where it has you! The people of this land work hard, full days to make their meager profit so your king can add it to his purse in his magnificent palace. He ensures that you poor stay poor, so he can stay rich, fat, and happy. Any fool can run a kingdom. Give a dunce a scepter and an army and call him a king."
"How dare you liken the king to a fool," The executioner asked, more of an inquiry than retaliation.
"I do not owe my life to any monarch, my friend," The Songbird replied. "This king of yours has not done me any favors, nor any of my people."
"Your people?" repeated the executioner. "Is stealing not a great enough crime for the likes of the Songbird? Must you now too aspire to treason?"
"Is it treasonous to have dreams of equality and health?" The Songbird retaliated. "If so, then I'm a traitor as much as I am a bandit."
"As much as you are anything you are a radical," the executioner said. The Songbird smiled.
"And so you come to the conclusion as to why the king so desires to be rid of me. Things could be better for these people, only at his expense. Why spend his wealth and power on his people when they are already so content with being miserable?"
"And so you work to inspire malcontent," the executioner asserted. The Songbird chuckled.
"No my friend, I work to inspire hope," He replied, a smile of sadness upon his face. Whether the look of sadness had been of self-pity, or a sadness that he would never see the revolutions he desired, the executioner could not be sure. It had occurred to the executioner that night, just as it did as he viewed the scaffold in the light of the morning sun, that the Songbird would never achieve this ambition of his, whatever his intent may be. The Songbird would be hung, and the people would go back to their lives and all would be as it once was.
Quickly the executioner became aware of a small crowd around the gallows. Though there were still several hours until the execution commenced, the people were already standing before the noose. Every head turned to the executioner as they became alerted to his presence. He looked at their faces; some were sad, some were frightened, and some wore the unmistakable glare of loathing. These were his countrymen, the executioner thought bitterly. These were the people for whom the Songbird had sung.
The executioner gave the crowd a wide berth as he crossed the town center on his way to the castle. He maneuvered through tiny, dark, streets littered with waste of all kinds. Finally before him lay the king's magnificent palace, the centerpiece of the entire kingdom. The castle stood mighty and powerful, an imposing picture even to the executioner. Before it were beds of beautiful gardens, and a stable housing the most magnificent horses the executioner had seen. He walked to the prison, tucked away in the corner of the bailey. It was a grimy place; cold, dark stone colored green by age and neglect. A fitting environment for the scum of the land.
The Songbird sat in a dank, cramped cell at the far end of the room. On the table before him the Songbird's mask lay in pieces. The executioner picked up a shard and looked it over idly. This was not the first time the beaked mask of the Songbird had seen the dark of the prison. As the Songbird's fame had grown over the years, so too had the prevalence of these wooden masks. Once, during the harvest festival, revelers had come to the square wearing the masks of the Songbird. The executioner had stood watching with a drink in his hand as the unfortunate roisterers were stripped of their masks and beaten severely by the town guards. The men charged with keeping the city safe left the partygoers to bleed in a crumpled heap.
Several guards were waiting for him within the prison. They scraped the Songbird off the floor of his dank prison cell and chained his hands together. The Songbird sighed sadly at the sight of him. "I would say it was good to see you again, my friend, but we both know I would be lying," he said. "Is it time?"
"No," the executioner replied. "You are to be hung at noon."
"I rather despise long waits."
"Then your punishment should be all the more effective," the executioner replied. The Songbird laughed a full, hearty laugh.
"A witty executioner?" He asked incredulously. "Now I am ready to die, for I have at last seen it all!"
The guards set the Songbird down at a table. The executioner stood in the corner as the priest entered and the Songbird spoke silently with him. As the priest was exiting the door opened again and a group of guards entered. The prison guards dropped to their knees as the king walked before them. The executioner dropped to one knee and bowed his head as he realized whose company he was in. The Songbird only smiled at him and waved his hand.
"Your majesty," One of the guards stuttered, "This is a surprise."
"Surely you don't think I wouldn't want to have a word with my favorite malcontent before he was hung to death?" The king replied.
"Please, you flatter me," the Songbird said. He motioned at the chair opposite him. "Won't you sit down?"
The king glared at the bandit as he offered him a seat. He was a large man, broad in the shoulders and the stomach both. A rough brown beard spilled from his face, and his eyebrows were full and harsh. He was dressed peculiarly well, for a prison visit. A purple cape lined with gold trailed to the floor down his back. His jeweled gold circlet crowned his head.
"I won't be staying long," the king replied. "I only wanted to make sure you were feeling your best before every last breath was strangled out of you by the hangman's noose."
"I have never felt better, your worshipfulness," the Songbird replied. "I do appreciate your concern."
"Indeed," the king responded as he turned to the executioner. As he bowed again the king said to him in a low voice, "Do not rush with him. I want his death to be a spectacle and an example for the ages."
"Of course, my lord," the executioner said.
"So long!" the Songbird sang to the procession as the king and his guard exited the prison. "Enjoy the show."
The heavy wooden door slammed. The room was dark, save for the red light of candles and a few small windows. The executioner watched the Songbird's face in the light of the candle. He wore a look of concentrated thought, as if he were remembering some long-forgotten memory. "Tell me, my friend," he said after some time. "Do you have any children?"
The guards looked at the executioner.
"No," he said simply. He was beginning to tire of the Songbird's friendliness.
"I suppose it's for the best, eh?" chirped the Songbird. "An executioner would never make the best father figure."
"My father was a hangman. As was his father," retorted the executioner.
"So it's a family business, is it? Curious. Tradition is an odd thing. An odd, evil thing."
"What is so evil about following in my father's footsteps?"
"Is that what it is?" the Songbird inquired. "Or were his the only pair of boots left available to you? Have you never thought of what you could have been were your father a blacksmith, or a carpenter, or a noble?"
"It would be different," the executioner conceded.
"Imagine, my friend," the Songbird bade. "A land where you could be free from the chains of your ancestors. You could do whatever you wanted, be whatever you desired, live however you wanted to live."
"The stories are true," the executioner said. "Your tongue is surely sharp enough to slice stone, the way you spin tales."
"All people are equal in death; surely you of all people must realize that. So why then should we not be equal in life?"
"A land where all were equal would end in chaos. Order cannot exist without those to enforce it. How could they enforce it without the right to do so?"
"They would have it!" The Songbird cried. "But, think! The right would not come from a noble lineage, but a life of honor and virtue!"
"You are a bandit, a traitor, and a fool," the executioner said dismissively. His heavy boots stomped as he exited the prison into the huge magnificent castle. He made his way back to the gallows. The sight at the town center stopped the executioner cold. The plaza was packed; hundreds of people stood close together around the gallows. From their clothes the executioner could see merchants, doctors, tramps, tavern keepers, farmers and all manner of folk. It was like nothing the executioner had ever seen before. Never in all his years had there been such an audience for an execution like this one.
Holding on to his composure, the executioner made his way to the gallows. He walked up the wooden steps until he stood upon the scaffold. An empty noose hung down before him. Hundreds of eyes watched him as he stood in shocked silence.
The sun hung high as noontime came. The castle towered over all nearby, in clear view of the gallows. The executioner had a feeling the king would bear witness to the execution from his palace. Finally a horse-drawn wagon sauntered down from the castle, and as it drew closer the executioner could see the Songbird, standing chained to the wagon facing away from the horses and his audience. Every head turned to see the Songbird. His long, brown hair fell to his shoulders, now grimy from his days in the dark stone prison. He stood tall and straight; even now, as his death was laid out before him, the Songbird stood tall. He wore ripped, tattered prison rags, but even in such terrible attire the Songbird held an aura about him. The people watched him with hungry eyes.
The audience parted as the wagon plowed through, pushing each other up against buildings to avoid being crushed by the horses. It was amazing, the executioner thought, how the Songbird entranced the people so. The mass was incredible and terrifying. The executioner wondered if the king knew how popular a man it was he was having killed.
The wagon, driven by two guards and a judge, trudged onward through the throng of people. Those closest to the wagons reached up to touch the Songbird. He returned their affection with a sad smile. What it must be like, the executioner thought, to have such a silver tongue as the Songbird's. How incredibly empowering it must have been, the ability to command their hearts and minds with his tales.
The executioner felt a surge of pity for the people down in the crowd. It was not their fault they were so fooled by the Songbird. But could the king see that? Surely he had not expected such a huge turnout to the execution. It could only lead to repercussions for the poor, ignorant commoners who so adored the Songbird. The executioner was not sure what would come of them, but he felt confident his expertise would be needed often in the near future.
The people were utterly silent as the guards held the horses at the gallows. The judge dropped down from the wagon and joined the executioner on the scaffold as the guards drug the Songbird from the wagon. The executioner, from beneath his hood, met the Songbird's glance. Even as he was dragged up the wooden stairs in the guards' arms, his confident air did not waver. He nodded in solemn acknowledgement of the executioner.
Finally the Songbird stood on the scaffold with the executioner and the judge. The guards stepped back as the judge stepped forward and, clearing his throat, addressed the Songbird.
"Sir, you have been charged with the following crimes against the royal crown: theft, assault, breaking and entering, burglary, conspiracy and high treason. You have been found guilty before the royal court, and have been sentenced to hang until dead. May God have mercy on your soul."
The executioner felt his heart begin to race in his chest. After all the tales, all the songs, all the poems, all the years the Songbird had wreaked havoc upon the rich, he was about to end his life. It seemed so surreal to the executioner, like a dream. Or perhaps more a nightmare. With great effort, the executioner moved toward the Songbird, a black hood in hand. The Songbird looked at him, for the first time, with fear in his eyes. There was more, too: fear, disappointment, pity. The executioner could not look away from the Songbird's eyes. His lips moved, slight and small.
"I die today." The Songbird smiled sadly. "Today a man is hanged. Today a man dies. But the Songbird lives on. An idea lives on. Hope lives on. Hope is all these people have, and your royal majesty can never take it from them."
The executioner became aware of a tense crowd watching them. He wondered how it looked from where they stood; the great Songbird, conversing with his hangman before his demise.
He finally broke the Songbird's gaze, looking out into the crowd. Every eye was on him, watching him, dissecting his every expression to try and make sense of the confusion that was the Songbird's execution. He looked back at the Songbird, but he was looking out beyond the crowd. He opened his mouth and began to sing.
Did you hear the songbird sing
As he sang before the king?
The Songbird looked out to the palace that stood above the city. His eyes were wide as his voice rang out like the crying of the robin.
Did you hear the songbird's song
As he sang it all morn long?
The people stood entranced as the Songbird's voice echoed through the city.
He sang it to the people there
As they gathered in the square.
He sang his song to all in town.
As he sang before the crown.
He sang a song they all knew well;
Clear as the ringing of a bell
Was the plea the songbird sang:
Of hope and joy it rang.
The Songbird's words hung in the air long after his voice died away, leaving a silence louder than the rolling of thunder. Minutes passed as his song rang on in the thoughts of the people before them. The city that was usually roared with activity was quiet as a graveyard. The Songbird looked beyond them all, out to the king's palace.
The executioner broke the silence with the ruffling of the black hood as he pulled it down over the Songbird's head. This simple execution had not gone at all as planned. His heart beating fast, he grabbed the rope noose from above the Songbird's head and pulled it tightly around his throat, tightening it until it was snug against the Songbird's neck. As he stepped back he found his legs were shaking. He could not look away from the covered face of the Songbird as he stepped back, his hand reaching for the wooden lever that would end the Songbird's life.
He felt his hand grasp the rough lever behind him. As he stood by it, he realized his arms were weak and shaking. The eyes of the people had followed the executioner from the moment he put the hood over the Songbird's head, and were now boring into him.
With all the strength he could muster, the executioner pulled the lever and the floor beneath the Songbird fell away.
The people had to understand, there was nothing he could do. This was the way of things: the Songbird had broken the law, and there had to be consequences. The executioner could not be blamed for what happened to the Songbird. It was not as if they could detest him any more than they already did. He was only doing his job, he told himself. It did not relieve the aching in his chest.
They in the square stood as motionless as the Songbird's body. After the corpse was cut down and carted away the people still stood. The judge left the executioner to stand alone with the crowd on the scaffolding. He looked at them, and they looked at him. He couldn't help but wonder what was running through their heads as the events of the last hour took hold in their minds.
As they stood, the melody the Songbird had sang still echoed through the executioner's skull. Try as he might he could not rid himself of it. He looked out among the group of people. They were merchants, doctors, tramps, tavern keepers, farmers, all manner of folk, trying to get by, trying to keep their dying hope. The executioner looked out among them, the commoners trying to make their way in this land. He looked out toward the majestic, magnificent palace of the king.
There was a man in the front of the crowd with fire in his eyes. A woman stood nearby with tears down her cheeks, her lips tight. A dirty child clung to her mother. The executioner met their gaze, glad to have a hood before his face. A young man, no more than a boy, really, looked at him with shock in his hollow eyes. His childhood had been extinguished like a candle in the water. The Songbird, the subject of the tales his mother told him at night, of the songs he sang while he danced, of the dreams where he hid his hopes, was dead.
The executioner watched the shock fade slowly from the boy's eyes, leaving a dull, aching emptiness. There was something else there, too; a resolution, a fearlessness. The boy opened his mouth and began to sing the Songbird's song. One voice grew to two, and two to four, and soon all the people in the square were singing the Songbird's words. The song echoed through the town, up to the king's magnificent palace.
The Songbird was not dead, the executioner realized. The thought made him sad for the people singing before him. The king would make their lives miserable for the treason they were committing with their voices. They would be punished harshly, made to suffer until their lesson was learned. Despite this dark foresight, the crowd of voices made the executioner's face twitch. Beneath his hood, he smiled for the first time since he was young and full of vivacity. The sensation felt strange on his face, the executioner's smile, yet he smiled anyway. The Songbird was not dead, not truly, and neither was hope.