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The Sword of Saints and Sinners

Kat Otis was born with a surplus of creativity and quickly learned to cope by telling stories to anyone who would listen. When she's not writing, she's a historian, mathematician, singer, and photographer. You can find her full bibliography at katotis.com and she procrastinates on Twitter as @kat_otis.
Every condemned man and woman of London has the right to face my sword before they die, but I pray they will choose not to.
The first man to face death is dressed in his Sunday best and plays to the jeering crowd as he walks to the gallows. As the executioner ties the noose around his neck, I offer him the sword and he spits at my feet. He makes a fine speech about being seduced by worldly pleasures then they drive forward the cart upon which he stands and leave him hanging from the gallows. Men rush forward to grab his legs and hasten his end.
I avoided my duty once, but I know it will not last given the queue of the condemned. One poor fellow's eyes dart everywhere, as if seeking some last-minute reprieve, and I know desperation when I see it. He drags his feet to the gallows and shakes like a leaf in the wind while the executioner ties the noose around his neck.
"Yes!" He blurts before I even ask the question.
I draw my sword from its scabbard. The crowd roars its bloodlust and is apt to riot if I fail to make a good show. So I pray over my blade, calling upon the Lord Almighty to reveal whether the man before me is a saint or a mere sinner like the rest of us.
Then I swing my sword downward and it bites deeply into the condemned man's thigh.
He screams in shocked agony as blood spurts everywhere, staining the straw of the cart in which he stands. I yank my sword free and leap backwards, holding the sword aloft so that the crowd can see the red stains of sin upon it. The executioner does not offer the man a chance to speak--it is clear that he is beyond speech now--and instead drives the cart forward to silence the man. No one ventures to help him as his body twitches and jerks out the last of its life, though one base fellow tries to capture some of the blood in a tiny jar. The executioner drives him away with blows that the crowd is eager to continue.
The next three felons decline my offer with wary glances at the noose where their fellow man still hangs dripping blood. The executioner gives them nooses far away from his body, a small mercy. But when the infanticide is brought forward, the executioner takes clear pleasure in dragging her to a vacant noose beside the bloody body.
She is a pretty enough woman that I can see how she fell into sin and found herself with a bastard child. But there is no excuse for murdering an innocent babe and I do not expect her to ask for the sword. Still, I step up beside her and dutifully offer my services.
Her voice is almost steady as she answers, "Yes, thank you."
Her tattered gown covers her legs too thoroughly for me to make a good show there and striking her arms might free her hands to fight the noose. Instead, I angle myself so that I might drive my sword through her belly and spill out her entrails for the crowd's delight. A hushed stillness falls over them in the moment before I strike and they roar as my sword rushes forward.
There is no blood.
I pull my sword out, still polished clean, and the roaring of the crowd rises to fever pitch as the woman bursts into tears. A saint.
The executioner shoves me out of the way and races to finish the saint's execution before the crowd can interfere. The cart nearly runs people over as the crowd surges forward to tug her feet, ripping away her shoes and shreds of fabric and any other relics they can get their hands on. Candles will be lit in her name and prayers sped heavenwards towards her tonight. The magistrates and priests who sent her to the gallows will congratulate themselves on having redeemed a fallen woman and saved her soul from the eternal torments she otherwise deserved. None will wonder if she was innocent.
It will be a while until the crowd calms enough for the executions to continue. I perch on the edge of the executioner's car and lay the flat of my bare blade across my forearm. For a moment, nothing happens. Then the weight of the blade begins to press downwards and the faintest lines of blood appear along its edges.
God forgive me.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, April 20th, 2020


When I nabbed this title during the annual Codex Weekend Warrior Title Rummage Sale, I knew the story had to be about justice... and injustice. For the characters, I turned to the Old Bailey Online project (oldbaileyonline.org), which digitized the records of London's central criminal court from 1674 to 1912. Some of the stories implied by those crime summaries are fascinating, some are heart-breaking, and all of them are very human.

- Kat Otis
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