“Where is he then?”
“He’s gone missing, Your Honorable Honor.”
“Yes, sir. I’ve dispatched my most capable guards to find and recover his corpse.”
“With all due respect, Your Honorable Honor, it stands to reason, the flames were moments from closing in before the downpour and–”
“And I suspect your men won’t have any difficulty tracking a dead man, eh, Executioner.”
“We’re searching throughout the village, Your Honorable Honor.”
“Do you think who stole the body is foolish enough to keep it in the village?”
“Well, Your Honor…”
“And what use has one of a corpse, Executioner, unless their desire is such as your own depraved manner. No, I believe Peter the Vegan is very much alive, though I suspect not feeling well. Nonetheless, when he does recover and manages to show himself again, and I believe he will for I’ve little confidence that your goons are even capable of finding their own penises — unless it used for some debauchery — much less tracking a dead man fleeing his execution. And whose survival may well be perceived by those simpletons who had witnessed your botched performance with this immoral, a miracle of God he survived. And that Executioner, need I tell you, will cast us both in a dim and challenging light.”
“Yes, yes, I agree, your most Honorable Honor. The masses have started mumbling even now, ‘bout the storm sent by God; some swear…”
“By God or Satan, I suggest you find this vegan and any accomplices that have abetted his departure from the Justice of the Almighty’s hand. Quickly, and leave the rambling rabble to my tending.
“I will take the search over myself, Your most Honorable Honor.”
“Oh, how reassuring.”
As the click of his heels echoed across the high vaulted ceiling, and his snappy salute was left unreturned, the Executioner stiffly turned about and marched out of the ornate chambers of the Honorable Honor. Who himself in a show of disrespect to his lead henchman turned his back to look out the leaded Palladian window, across the parade grounds to where the stake stood slightly skewed on its pile of partially burnt timbers, and where the cords that once bound Peter the Vegan lay severed. “Yes, a corpse he’ll be, and not a martyr,” the Honorable Honor whispered beneath his breath.
The days passed. The search expanded across hill and dale into outlying villages and farms as it gathered up many falsely accused accomplices in greater and greater number to be tortured into false and meaningless confessions. It was after all, for the sake of torture alone that they were taken captive by the Executioner, who reveled in his sadistic pleasures.
• • •
Save the flickering light of a single lantern hung on the wall near his head, Peter the Vegan awoke in darkness. His mouth gagged, his limbs tied immovable to an old wooden pallet. The air musty and brought with it the taste of stale, dry dirt through his crusty nostrils and across his rough, parched tongue. As he lay, he regained a hazy awareness of his execution and wondered if this was not the very Hades he swore out of existence. With this thought, a flashback. Beads of a terrified sweat rolled off his forehead and into his eyes, blurring what little there was to see. A frenzy seized him. The silent flickering flame rose to a disconcerting crescendo, swelling into a multi-headed fire breather engulfing him. With each breath he drew, his muscles tighten with cramps. The superheated air seared his tender lungs once again. His feet were again blistering atop the burning platform as each he tried to raise in vain for a moment of relief. Then, finally, exhaustion. The final surrender, the incontestable affirmation that further struggle was useless. It was time to allow Death its way, once again. A submission that brought a strange calm. Then, the slow realization that he was not in Hades, he was not dead, but still very much alive in the hold of a dark cell.
He tried unsuccessfully for what seemed like hours to free his arms and legs. When suddenly he froze, hearing the creak of rusty hinges twist in the unseen corner. A faint light broke through the widening crack of a small trap door opening above him, to his left some little distance away, bringing with it a welcomed but a brief respite of cool fresh air. A dark figure moved in the space, quietly shutting the door and sealing off the light behind it.
By the faint glow of lantern light, he watched as the phantom crawled toward him. Where in the light, he saw the shadowy face as it sidled up next to his. A young face, but grotesquely disfigured, causing him no small alarm and his eyes widened disproportionately in fright.
“Ah, you’re awake. I was worried you’d never come to,” whispered the soft, gentle, almost feminine voice, bizarre in its opposition to its appearance.
“I’ll take the gag off, but first, you must promise not to make a sound. We wouldn’t want to alert anyone we’re down here. Do you promise that, to be quite?”
For a moment Peter the Vegan did not know how to respond, unable to grasp his situation, but soon he nodded his accord, for what choice was left him.
And with the gag removed he whispered, “Who are you?”
“Otto. My name’s Otto, sir.”
“Otto, why am I here? Are you in the employ of the Honorable Honor?”
“Oh, no, sir. You’ve nothing to fear from me,” said Otto with an innocent chuckle. “It was me who rescued you. It was only for your own good that I gagged and tied you…”
“My own good? You have me, a prisoner.”
“Yes sir, I had no choice. I thought you might hurt yourself the more. You thrashed about so violently when the fever set high, and you began rambling ever so loudly. I had no option but to tie and gag you lest you give us away.”
“Give us away?”
“Yes, sir. You see, we’re in the basement of the courthouse, the old prison pits beneath the storm cellar floor, where they once kept the malcontents. The fact is sir, you’re bunked with one now,” Otto said taking the lantern from the wall and holding it high for Peter the Vegan to see the rotted and sparsely skinned skeleton sitting propped in the corner, dressed only in cobwebs and holding a rusty tin can down at his side. With its head drooping, and its leathery skin curling away from its eye sockets it appeared possessed of a silent expression that seemed to mock a mutual predicament.
“You rescued me by bringing me to the courthouse?”
“Yes, and quite a trick it was. Not without personal risk,” said Otto as he returned the lantern on the wall.
“Do you think?” replied Peter the Vegan in sarcasm.
“It was ingenious, sir. They never once came down here looking for you, but they tore the villages apart and took many prisoners on your account.”
“Yes, that’s rather unfortunate. But tell me, Otto, how’d you manage?” he asked gaining a slight confidence.
“A violent storm came, and you were left to burn while everyone ran for shelter. The Horrible Horror ran for this very storm cellar…”
“Horrible Horror? Yes, I know the man.”
“Anyway, with everyone sheltered away, I cut you loose, dragged you into the garden aside the courthouse, and covered you with foliage. When the storm was over – and it was a dandy, sir, it saved your life you know – everyone went looking for you. When night fell, I brought you down here and tended your burns. That was several days ago. I’ve managed that you take a bit water now and again, but you’ve no food in all this time,” he said, holding a flask of water to Peter the Vegan’s mouth for him to sip from.
“Why, Otto, did you risk yourself to save me?”
“I know well what it is to be set against the odds, sir. An outcast, ugly, unloved and ridiculed. –Not, that you’re ugly, sir! Oh no. But, you see the burden I carry.
“Oh, but forgive me, you must wish to be free. Be still, please, don’t move.”
“I don’t believe I can, Otto.”
Otto whipped out his dagger, seemingly from nowhere. Its long slender blade glistened menacingly in the lantern light as he deftly slit the ropes with its razor sharp edge and with such ease and swiftness that it set Peter the Vegan’s mind to a momentary but unwarranted concern for what was now apparent, Otto’s nimble skill with a blade.
Although his skin was still quite sensitive and he felt as unbending and breakable as the skeleton beside him, he sat up the best he could and took more water from the offered flask.
“Easy with that, sir. I have food, here’s an apple. If you get to feeling better, and you’re up for it, we should leave this evening after dark.”
“Up for it? I can’t wait.”
“But we must. And once we have a couple of days behind us, I’ll fix you a hardy meal, a vegetable stew,” Otto opened a bag into the dim light and showed Peter the Vegan the scant few vegetables inside. “Stole these from the Horrible Horror’s personal garden. And there’s more where these came from.”
“You raided the garden of the Honorable Honor?”
“Just this morning, before light.”
“Excellent. So, you’re a vegan and a thief then?” he said attempting humor.
“Urchin. I don’t mostly like eating flesh, but I eat whatever I can steal, only to stay alive.”
“Yes well, we must do what we can to remedy that, Otto.”
“There’s a place I heard tell of, sir,” Otto said in a burst of excitement. “Way west of here, somewhere deep in the Rockies where vegans have escaped to and now live in peace. We could go there.”
“The Rockies is a big place, Otto, faraway. And these vegans you tell of may be nothing more than legend, I’ve heard.”
“Maybe. But, we can’t stay here.
“We have a few hours ‘till dark. And we need more food for our journey. And you’ll be needing a pair of shoes. And a change of clothes. Something less conspicuous than the prison gown. They’re looking for a man; I think we should dress you as a woman.
“Here, sir, keep the dagger with you and stay quiet, you never know who might come down here. I’ll be back at dark with everything we need,” and with that Otto left as quietly as he came.
• • •
The ruckus awoke the Honorable Honor in his chambers, disrupting his midday nap. Cursing, he walked to the foot of the balcony overlooking the grand entrance of the courthouse, and there seeing the Executioner leading a small throng, asked, “Who are these people in chains, Executioner?”
“Suspects from the outlying villages, Your Honorable Honor. I have reason to believe they know about our missing corpse. But as most scoundrels do, they claim to know nothing. Thirty lashes and a few days in the prison pits below without food will loosen their tongues quite nicely. And if not, I’ll cut the useless things out from their mouths,” he said with a growl as he cast a threatening look at one of the terrified prisoners.
“Collaborators, Executioner? Or, hapless souls for your own brutal pleasures?” said the Honorable Honor in the tone of incrimination, as he walked down the wide curving staircase to stand before the rabble.
“We found this too, sir,” said the Executioner, ignoring the insinuation as he reached between two prisoners and grabbed a boy by his thick locks of wavy hair and yanked him to the forefront. “Picking his way through your garden with this bag of vegetables, and this.”
“A woman’s dress?”
“Yes, Your Honorable Honor, as perverted as he is ugly I’d say.”
“No. I doubt it. Who is the dress for, boy?”
“He’s not offered a word, sir, might be a deaf-mute.”
“He hears quite well. I asked you who this garment is for?”
With the built-up hardened look of a lifelong hatred raging from his eyes and an equal measure of scorn choking his tender voice, Otto stuttered, “My mother.”
“Your contempt is noted and will be dealt with accordingly, later. However, we both know that your mother is dead. Don’t we, Otto?”
The Executioner gave only a puzzled look to Otto and asked, “Shall I commence the punishment of a thief, your Honorable Honor?”
“No, Executioner. No need to chop hands off this day. Leave the boy with me and tend to your prisoners as your filthy vice demands.”
To be continued.