Here’s a short story, originally posted on my writing blog Darkaria. I’ve shortened and polished a bit.
THE HERETIC DIES
The giant red sun began to rise over the Court of the Invisible Moon. In a short time, it would fill a quarter of the sky. But its glow was pleasant, not harsh at all as it banished the few stars that dared to shine above the place of execution.
Already the early mourners were there, professional weepers practicing their sad wails and moans. The Magister had decreed that the Heretic, hated though he may be, was not to die in loneliness unmourned. Since no villager would dare mourn him for fear of sharing in the suspicion of heresy, the Magister had hired out the mourners, and hired the best. He ruled for a State that tempered its harsh justice with uncommon mercy.
Presently, as the sky brightened, others began to gather – witnesses from the city and village, come to see confirmation that truth always wins out over lies, and liars and their heresies must, after being given a fair hearing in light of cold, unfeeling fact, be stamped out for the good of all, and for the good of truth.
A tunesmith was there, playing on a stringed instrument a sad song about a wife’s husband who had given in to temptation and sinned in lust with another woman. She sought not to leave him but to have him tried for the crime before the court. The court sympathized but told her that though it may be a crime to her, no law was broken because the people were enlightened, and no longer killed sinners against sexual morality as they did in ages past. So rebuffed, the wife went home and banished her husband from the house. The husband ran into the forest and found himself chased by wild animals, who had no qualms about killing the immoral and moral alike. “We trust unto our Law,” the singer sang the last line, “and trust fate to catch where the Law fails.”
The song was specially chosen for the event.
As the chill of the night faded in the warmth of the morning, the important people began taking their places in the stands surrounding the courtyard, at the center of which stood a lonely gallows. Presently the Prosecutor of the Law came in with his retinue, followed shortly by the Defender of the Accused. They had already performed their primary tasks, though the Prosecutor was to remain silent from this point on, his duty fully complete. The Defender would have one more task before the Heretic was put to death, one more chance to plead the case for acquittal or mercy. The condemned had a chance, up until the very last.
At last the Magister with his attendants and assistants arrived and took the highest seat. He did not smile or frown. He was there to represent the State, which had its duty to perform in the cold light of Truth.
Heresy, because it was dangerous, must be put down. The Heretic, at long last having used up all the forbearance of the wise and learned as they waited for him to see the error of his ways, must die.
The Magister, before sitting down, raised his hands and the people became quiet. He took his seat and said, “It is time. Bring in the Condemned.”
Guards led into the courtyard a man with his hands bound behind his back and a black hood over his head. He seemed to have no fight left in him. The guards walked him up to the gallows, not with anger or enmity, but with a sense of duty. This was not a celebration. This was not something to enjoy. This was a sad task that had to be done. They treated him with all the kindness they could.
There was no waiting and no ritual as they led the Heretic up the steps, positioned him underneath the rope, and gently slipped the noose over his hooded head and fastened it around his neck. Then the guards stepped back.
The Magister then said to the man, “You have been tried and found guilty of the crime of heresy. The State has reasoned with you, begged you to renounce your heresy. You refused. Therefore you were tried before the Court where you heard all the evidence against you, and even then refused to recant. The State has no choice but to put you to death.”
The Magister did not address the Heretic by name. Once found guilty, he no longer had a name. His name would never be uttered again. He was to be killed, buried, and then forgotten along with his heresy. That was how you put lies to death.
The Magister then rose to his feet and gestured to the Prosecutor of the Law. “You have performed your duty,” he said. “Go now with the thanks of the State and the Magister who speaks here in its name.”
The Prosecutor and his retinue then left as silently and solemnly as they came.
The Magister then turned to the Defender of the Accused and addressed him. “You have defended your client well, but the State has found against him.” Here the Magister raised his right hand. “But we have been taught that mercy must always accompany justice, though mercy must accept what is due to justice. Even though the court has ruled, we will hear you once again.” The Magister then took his seat.
The Defender had only one final duty. He had already defended the accused, and indeed, the Heretic was no longer the accused but the condemned. “The only mercy that remains to be asked of the State,” the Speaker said, “is to allow the condemned man one more sight of the sun, to remove his gag and allow him a final word. I ask you that grant him yet another chance to repent and acknowledge the Truth.”
The Magister shook his head. “A sight of the sun, yes. We will remove his hood. But his gag must remain, because we fear he will not repent but will speak his heresy once more.”
The Defender bowed before the Magister, his duty done, and he began to leave as the Prosecutor had done before him.
“But,” the Magister said, “perhaps… Hold. The State is as merciful as it is just. I will allow it.” He raised his voice. “Heretic! Hear me! We will remove your hood and grant you a final look at the life you leave behind. We will remove the gag also, but I warn you, at my left hand is the release for the gallows, and if you speak your heresy, I will not wait for final prayers, I will hang you then and there! Do you understand?”
The Heretic, up on the gallows, with the noose at his neck, nodded his hooded head in the affirmative.
The Magister signaled the guards to uncover the condemned man’s head. This they did, and then was seen the gag. It was a metal brace around the front of his mouth, pulling the lips back, and connected through by a rod that went into one cheek and out the other, locking the gag in place. There was dried blood around the wounds and his neck where the blood ran when the gag was applied.
The guards brought forth a key, and inserted it into the front and turned it. The gag and the metal rod removed, the condemned man began to bleed again, but seemed relieved to have the cruel instrument removed from his mouth. The guard closest to him could see his tongue through the hole in the Heretic’s cheek, working as he prepared to speak.
He was moving his mouth but no sound was coming out. He seemed to redouble his efforts, blood pouring from the wound, the tongue occasionally peeking through the hole. He winced in pain as his second attempt to speak failed.
And then he seemed to realize there was no more need for strength, since he was at the end and death was coming. There was nothing left to hold in reserve. For a brief moment he thought to beg for mercy, and perhaps even to renounce his heresy. The Magister was not known for excessive cruelty, was known to be a good ruler, one who chose to rule more often by persuasion than by compulsion, and perhaps, even now, even at this moment, might grant clemency if the Heretic at last renounced the terrible heresy he had come first to believe, and then to promote. Even then he knew the Magister would relent and allow him to live, the lesson having been given to all that heresy leads to death, but death need not be assured if the heresy was recanted even now, even at this extremity, even on the very precipice.
With a final blast of pain, and a renewed flow of blood from the wounds in his cheeks, he opened his mouth and began to recant…
But before the first word came forth, he came to himself again, and knew that he could not. His heresy had cost him so much. He had given his life to it, had lost his family, his friends, and he knew at that last moment he could not be faithless to the heresy that had cost him so dearly, asked so much of him, exacting from him the final payment due from all those who would not recant.
And so he spoke his heresy once more, blood sputtering out of his tortured mouth, as loudly as he could, “THE EARTH IS FLAT! THE EARTH IS FLAT! THE EARTH IS FL—“
The Magister’s left hand had moved quickly. The Heretic now hung, his body jerking spasmodically, his bladder giving way and making a puddle on the ground. Presently he became still, though he was dead moments before his body seemed to realize it.
There were no cheers. Only the sound of the professional mourners was heard. On the face of each and every person there was only a look of sadness to hear heresy against such an obvious, such a holy Truth.
Robert Archer, Los Angeles, September 2010.