Day Ten

By then the sun had slipped far enough towards the horizon that the streets were coated with wintry shadows. But Gerald had one more stop to make before he returned to the castle, so he buried his hands in his pockets, hunched up his shoulders, and trudged on. Thankfully, he knew exactly where he was going this time.

As he moved through the thinning crowds, his thoughts returned again and again to his newly purchased sword and the way he had felt holding it. Magnus had been right - there was a new confidence stirring within him. He now had a weapon to carry out his plan with, and he was even going to be taught how to use it. There was no stopping him.

But then his eyes fell upon a poster nailed onto a tavern wall and stop he did.

There were two men standing near it, retired soldiers judging by their age and the way they carried themselves. They were discussing whether or not they would take up the challenge that had been written on the poster in big black letters, beneath a picture of Blackwing The Beheader.

“Behead the Beheader and become the next king,” Gerald read aloud. “Receive your Royal Promise from King Owen in the Great Hall, one hour after sunrise, this Friday.” Hearing him, the two men turned to look at the jester. He offered them a weak smile. “So will I be bending my knee to either of you in the near future?”

“Not me,” the man on the right replied with a shake of his head. “I’ve seen more than enough bloodshed in my days. I’ll leave this beastie for the young ones.”

“Aye, the ones that don’t know enough to know better,” the second man added. “Dragon killing is about as dangerous as it gets and I’m lucky to have survived the risks I’ve already taken.” He jerked a thumb at the poster. “Would you want to stand in front of that massive creature, with a wee little sword, and try to take its bloody head off?”

Gerald stared at the image of the dragon. Rising up on thick hind legs, wings fully extended, talons ready to rend, teeth ready to shred. He tried to picture himself standing in the foreground, new sword held high in his hands. He wasn’t sure whether he should laugh or cry.

“No, that sounds rather… insane, actually,” Gerald said, wondering if he would be better off bashing his head against a wall in order to lose a few brain cells instead of wasting precious time working on his swordsmanship. “Good luck to the nuts who are actually going to try, hey?”

The two men nodded their agreement before heading into the warm confines of the tavern. Gerald stood shivering in the street for a few moments, telling himself it was just the rapidly cooling air, before finally continuing on. All of the confidence that had buoyed him along only a few minutes ago seemed to have vanished in the breeze that was steadily increasing in intensity.

By the time he was standing outside the butcher shop he was no longer certain he should bother entering. But he wasn’t getting any warmer staring up at the black and red sign hanging above the door and it smelled like someone inside had a steak over the coals, causing his stomach to cast a rather demanding vote that he get in there.

“Well I already have the coins in my pocket,” he muttered as he made his decision. “Better to spend them on this than… I don’t even know what else I’d buy. A nice frilly dress to wear to the Great Hall to make sure everyone knows I’m really just a scared little girl?”

With a sigh he forced himself into Leave It To Cleaver and tried to concentrate on the things he would need. If he actually left. Which he very much doubted he would.

“Jerry! It’s good to see you again!”

The man everyone called Cleaver waved a chubby hand at the jester while he used his namesake to remove the legs from a chicken. A man of average height and above average appetite, Cleaver was a man who enjoyed his primary work from beginning to end. Dressed in a red apron (to hide the blood stains from his more squeamish customers) and almost always smiling, the butcher seemed to have a monopoly on all of the best sources of meat in the kingdom. No other meat shop in the city could come even close to the quality of his goods.

A casual observer would never have guessed what the jovial man’s other job was.

“Good day, Cleaver,” Gerald said. “It smells fantastic in here - have you started selling cooked meat then?”

“No, you just caught me as I was about to close up shop,” the big man said with a chuckle. “What you smell is my dinner - I was getting hungry and couldn’t wait any longer!”

Gerald nodded and allowed his stomach to rumble its approval. He patted it gently and assured it that he would feed it food soon. But first there were coins to be spent.

“Is it too late for me to pick up a few… well, a lot of things?”

“Of course not - as long as you don’t mind me eating while you shop!”

Gerald moved around the store, ignoring the fresh cuts and zeroing in on the dried meats. He grabbed a large sack from a box on the floor and filled it with a week’s worth of lamb. After placing that on the counter, he did the same with another bag and the dried beef. Once that was deposited next to the first bag, he grabbed a third and headed for the goat meat.

“Going somewhere, Jerry?” Cleaver called as he tore a chunk off of his steak with his bare hands. There was concern in his voice and in his eyes.

“What? Oh, this stuff isn’t for me,” Gerald replied with a shaky smile. He was a terrible liar and he knew it. Best to keep the explanation as short as possible. “One of the servants is taking a trip up north to visit some relatives but he’s busy with his duties and asked me to pick up some things for him. He, um, really likes your stuff. As well he should! Best stuff in the city by far, I’ve always said so!”

Gerald turned back to the dried goat cuts with a grimace, having been forced to silence himself by biting his tongue. Reaching for another piece, he suspected he had drawn blood.

“Is that right?” Cleaver asked, putting down his steak and wiping his hands on a relatively clean cloth. “Who’s that, then? I remember all my customers - I bet I could even tell you his favorite meat!”

Cursing his stupidity, Gerald brought the last sack over and added it to his pile. He reached for his coins with trembling fingers and spilled several coppers onto the floor.

“Oops, sorry about that,” he mumbled, dropping to his knees to fetch them. Unfortunately the delay didn’t produce any good answers and by the time he had returned to his full height the butcher was watching him closely. “Actually I… I don’t think he does any of his own shopping. Here. The king keeps him very busy, you see. So, um, how much do I owe you?”

Cleaver offered only a grunt in reply as he placed the sacks one at a time on his scale, jotting down the weight of each on a scrap of paper. While he tallied up the total he kept glancing up at the jester.

“This wouldn’t have anything to do with that dragon nonsense, would it?”

“I certainly hope not!” Gerald said with a nervous laugh. “This guy wouldn’t last a minute against Blackwing!” Finding an uncomfortable amount of truth in that last lie, he hurried on. “Speaking of which… can I ask you a personal question?”

“You can ask it,” Cleaver told him with a hint of his usual smile, “and I just might answer it.”

“Fair enough.” Gerald cleared his throat as he tried to find the best way to word it. “Okay. So, not to be too blunt or anything, but you basically make your living by killing things.”

“And cutting things.”

“Right, that too. Um, does it… does it ever bother you? The killing, I mean.”

“Which one of my jobs are we talking about here?” Cleaver asked, resting his forearms on the counter.

“Either. Both, I suppose.”

“The answer is no to both, but I’ll expand on that a little since you’ve caught me at an… interesting time.” The man had Gerald’s full attention as he eased himself around the counter and took a seat on one of the stools normally reserved for customer use. “When I’m here, the killing is easy. One goat dies so that a family can live for a week. A cow is sacrificed so another family lives for a month. I treat the animals with respect, I make them as comfortable as possible, but at the end of the day I have to see them as food.”

“And when you are called to the castle to serve the king?”

“When I’m there, the killing is never easy.” Cleaver ran a hand through his short black hair and closed his eyes. “But it is easier to justify. As Royal Executioner, the men whose lives I end have committed the worst crimes imaginable. I sleep better knowing that they are no longer with us. But it is not easy.”

They were silent for a while before Gerald remembered something the butcher had said earlier.

“What did you mean by this being an ‘interesting’ time for you?”

“My business here is doing very well,” Cleaver told him as he returned to his usual side of the counter. “And I live very simply. Now that my home is fully paid for, I think I can afford to only have one job.”

“You’re stepping down as Royal Executioner?”

“As soon as a man can be found to take my place. I’ve told King Owen and he understands my position. The search for my replacement has already begun, but it’s not the easiest job in the world to fill. I have promised to continue on until then, but… it is wearing on me.”

“I hope, for your sake, that a new man is found soon,” Gerald said, placing the coins he owed the butcher for the meat on the counter and heaving the sacks over his shoulders. “And that no new executions are required until then. Take care, Cleaver.”

“You too, Jerry. Tell your friend I wish him a safe journey north.”

“I will, thank you.”

With those parting words Gerald escaped back to the streets, which felt like they had grown several degrees colder since he had first entered the shop. He hurried back to the castle, as best he could with the weight of the meats making his legs and shoulders ache. By the time he reached the side gate the sun had slipped from the sky and the soldiers on duty were holding torches.

“Who wishes to enter King Owen’s… oh, hey Jerry! What have you got there?”

“Hey guys, just a delivery for the kitchens. Doing Madame Larue a favor - maybe I’ll get an extra helping of bacon tomorrow for this!”

“Ha, good luck with that. That woman guards the food as though they were her own children! Anyway, in you go before you freeze to death with us out here. Have a good night!”

Gerald entered the castle grounds with a sigh of relief, grateful that the soldiers hadn’t wanted to inspect his bags or asked further questions. He felt like he was all out of lies by then.

He managed to reach his room without further hassle as most of the castle‘s inhabitants were busy eating dinner. He stuffed his food for the road north under his bed and then forced his legs to carry him down to the kitchens. If he had thought of the trek back up the stairs required to get him back afterward, he probably would have chosen to starve for the night.

As it was, his stomach had barely begun digesting his dinner before he collapsed onto his bed and fell into an exhausted sleep.

The End

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