The Apprentice

The chill from the river, never particularly benevolent, was bitter during the winter months. The two men traversing the bridge shivered in the cold and chafed their hands in an effort to generate some small semblance of warmth.

"You are confident about this, Simon?" asked the older, wincing at the arthritic ache which lately plagued his stiffening thumb joints, as he wrapped the thick, woollen cloak more closely about his body.

Simon nodded. "It has been my fondest desire, Master Edmund, ever since I was a small boy. Ever since I attended my first..."

Edmund waved a gnarled finger, silencing his young companion who quickly and respectfully stifled his enthusiasm. "Yes. Yes. So you have said many times, but have you truly considered the consequences?"

"Consequences?" queried the younger man. "Surely it is an honor and a distinction. What manner of consequences could outweigh such eminent privileges?"

Edmund sighed. It was difficult to explain, but he would have to make an attempt before the circumstances were irrevocable. A fanciful smile played about his chapped lips. Long ago, he too had been as eager and zealous as Simon, equally as exhilerated by the prestigious appointment, but the years inevitably took their toll. Edmund was growing old and jaded and fearful. He had never believed he would become fearful. Edmund sighed again and the frosted air stabbed viciously at his lungs, a sharp reminder of his own mortality and possible future retribution.

Edmund coughed. It was a deep-rooted hack that not even the most skilled of physicians, for all their evil-smelling poultices and foul-tasting exilirs, appeared able to relieve. He spat upon the cobbles and took note of the bright, red splotches which speckled the spittle.

"There can be no turning back," he cautioned, once the breath had returned to his heaving chest. "You will never be the same. Afterward, none of us are ever again the way we once were."

"You are speaking of regret, Master Edmund?" queried Simon. He chuckled respectfully. "Rest assured that I shall never rue this day, nor will you be disappointed in my performance. You have instructed me well and my aim is to satisfy."

"I have no doubt on that score, my worthy apprentice," responded Edmund. "But I want you to realize, when it is done, that you will be the object of loathing. Despite the initial outburst of accolade, there will constantly be an underlying mantle of hatred, enmity and terror."

Simon shrugged. "A small price to pay."

The heels of their boots tapped discordantly upon the flagstones as they ascended the gentle incline to the top of the hill, nestled in the heart of the town. Even at this early hour, the streets were beginning to overflow with hawkers plying their wares in the midst of an expectant crowd. Soon, the trollops would gather along the fringes of the assembly, waiting to peddle their own brand of delectables, which would be greedily sought with an inflamed frenzy, one that Edmund had never been able to fully comprehend, after the upcoming spectacle had reached its inevitable conclusion.

Simon removed the trappings of his newly-refined trade from a leather satchel and the masses watched with morbid fascination as his identity became apparent. Instinctively, they recoiled in revlusion, but continued to eye Simon with macabre interest.

"There is yet time," urged Edmund. "If you leave now, they will not remember your face." Simon's answer was to firmly fasten the studded bucklers about his wrists.

"Very well," said Edmund. "Be swift, be sure and be clean."

It would be some months before Simon would attain either the right or the proficiency to stand upon the scaffold erected on the Green within the Tower proper, where the heads of the illustrious were severed from their noble shoulders and there could be no room for error. Until then, he would be obliged to cut his teeth upon the unfortunate commoners who warranted no such private death.

In the meantime, Edmund knew there would be inaccuracies. Nervous blades skewing from clumsily-tied knots in blindfolds; hysterical victims who struggled and sometimes refused to bestow the required pardon upon the one who would wield the stroke that ended their pathetic lives; and, perhaps worse of all, the witless or those condemned of some petty infraction, who displayed bewilderment and confusion at their demise.

A fast-approaching roll of drums heralded the arrival of the morning's first casualty. Donning the black mask, Simon mounted the steps and concealed his axe amid the straw beyond the stained block.

Edmund inclined his head with approval. This day, a new executioner would be born and, like it or not, he would never again be the man he once had been.

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