I saw her once; I know I did, and I never forget a face, ever. It must have been around 1516/17, I cannot quite remember which, but I would not have been more than fifteen years of age or so. It was a bright, sunny July afternoon; far too hot really, but it was an occasion not to be missed. Their Majesties, King Francis and Queen Claude were on a summer progress, and they had graced our little town of Saint-Omer with their presence. The pomp and ceremony had to be seen to be believed. I see him now; our Mayor, the Burgesses and Merchants, all puffed up in their finery; waiting upon the Cathedral steps, ready to meet our Sovereigns.
I had perched precariously at the edge of one of the enormous wooden loges set up on either side of the great doors of the church. I remember this well, because I felt the slight sway of the contraption as it became loaded with people. It was only because my friend Phelippe’s parents had secured themselves a place early on; letting us two boys sneak in and find our own vantage points. We should not have been there really but ours was a friendly town, and we were simply smiled upon fondly and let to our own.
They approached the steps, glittering and ethereal in their magnificence. Our King, so handsome, was waving; smiling and confident in his glory. His Queen, God bless her, oh so tiny, so fragile, but pretty and gentle with such grace. She stopped as she was about to mount the steps, and took hold of the hand of a beggar who had slipped around the back of the loge, out of sight of the halberdiers guarding Their Majesties. The Queen had turned around and asked one of her ladies to give alms to the poor woman, and it was that very moment when she entered my life.
Slight of frame with the deepest hue of brunette hair, cascading down her back beneath a vivid green French hood, she saw me; legs dangling above her head and she giggled; a sweet tinkling laugh. I was completely overcome, but it was her eyes that so transfixed me; such dark, hypnotic, sensuous eyes. They held my gaze; it seemed forever, but it cannot have been more than a few seconds. They burned into my very soul and I did not forget.
And so here I am, some twenty odd years later, sitting in a small boat being rowed along the River Aa. The rain is sheeting down and the wind is howling, causing the reeds on the surrounding marshes to bend violently, creating a bleak desolate sound. The oarsman is having great difficulty keeping the little craft on a straight course and is cursing his God; the oaths carried away into the wind as he pulls on the wooden paddles. I huddle stiffly into my great cloak; the rain drips from my head down my neck and, for the umpteenth time this day I reach to touch the oilskin sheath wrapped around my most prized possession; taking some comfort as I press on the tough rigid article lying safe within its bonds.
I have prayed, prayed so hard for mercy, mercy for my soul and mercy on those whose lives I take. I have spent hours on my knees in the tiny confession chapel in St Bertin’s Abbey, spoken of my pain and sorrow to the black monk who was one of my childhood friends, needing his forgiveness for what I do. How I changed from the happy, funny, and caring boy that I once was, into the man that I am today; a man with blood on his hands, and what for? I was apprentice carpenter with my friend Phelippe, we both had a future, secure in the knowledge that we would both stay working together in the little town where our families were known and respected. Phelippe would joke with me that one day we would be true brothers, for it was known that I had an eye for his sister, Cecille; pretty, sweet and affectionate Cecille. She has not spoken with me since that fateful day; she married Edouard, the Vintner’s son and has two children of her own.
It could so easily have been Phelippe but it was me; me who was asked to help with the construction of the scaffold in the market place in readiness for the executions of two men, not of our town, but who had committed the heinous murder of a mother and child, the wife and baby of Giles the Baker. It was whilst my Master was busy securing the final posts in place that the executioner came up to me and said he would pay me well if I would help with the disposal of the remains after he had taken off the heads of the criminals; his own lad had taken it upon himself to run away that very morning. I had no stomach for the task but, as they say, money speaks. The rest is history, as I went on to become an expert headsman myself. I have earned myself the reputation of being a swift and merciful executioner, and my services have been required and paid for well in both France and the Low Countries.
So today, as I sit cold and wet in the driving rain and chilling wind, weather which is far from expected for mid-May, I am well able to find the time to dwell upon my mission. Of course, it had to be me; famed throughout the land for my expertise, the swiftness of stroke, the silent blow, and the total and utter finality, the end of a life. This contract was to be the pinnacle of my career, indeed I had been given the ultimate accolade; the prize to exceed all expectations of my trade. This was my chance to have my name spoken throughout all the courts in Christendom; I would be legend. I, Jean Rombaud, supreme and most celebrated headsman, had been given licence to kill a Queen, and no ordinary Queen at that. She was Anna Boleyn, Queen to His Most Gracious Majesty, King Henry the Eighth of England. The woman who had kept a King at bay for over six years whilst she held on to her chastity, swearing she would only relinquish the same to the man who was her husband. The fool married her, thinking she would give him the son his previous wife was not able to produce. The joke was on him though; Anna Boleyn gave him a child, a fine healthy child but it was not the cherished son His Majesty longed for; it was a girl, Elizabeth, their only living child. The die was cast, and even though there were other pregnancies, none survived and so he needed a way out. They say the vultures were already beginning to congregate even before the King decided upon his course. She was already dead to them, a new Queen waited in the wings; it has brought me the largest payment yet; my vanity could not refuse.
The little craft judders suddenly as we hit a hidden mud bank. The oarsman swears as he pushes us away with some difficulty ‘Bah; such weather, Oui?’ He laughs and looks down at my possession.
‘Ha, you guard it well Monsieur’. I nod, and once again reach down to touch the article which has given me such notoriety. It rests silent and still, this inanimate object, brought to life by the power in my arms. We are nearly there; I make ready to jump from the boat onto the riverbank; ready to continue to my journeys end, ready to finish what I started all those years ago.
‘Au revoir my friend’ says the boatman, wiping the rain from his face, ‘and good luck to you’. I smile back at him and turn to walk away.
It is nearly dusk, and the weather has changed at last; the sky has brightened and the few clouds that scud by are blessed with the faint rays of the sun as it makes a brief appearance. A rainbow has appeared in the distance; who would have thought there would be such beauty after such a dark and dismal day, but I must continue to complete my task so on I tread.
The wooden door is set back in the wall of red stone. I lift the solid iron hammer and knock loudly until I hear the bolts being slid back one by one. The door creaks open and he is there. I knew he would be, for I sent word only last evening that I was on my way. He knows me for what I am, for what I once was, and he has not let me down.
The Black Monk; my friend, Phelippe stands there, arms open wide to greet me. The tears are streaming down my face as he holds me in his arms. There is no need for words. He knows what I have come to do and takes hold of my burden, leading me on toward the familiar chapel where I know I will at last find my peace.
We enter the silent place and Phelippe motions me towards the very back, near to the stone altar and the small tomb of an innocent child we had found drowned on the side of the riverbank one sunny day many years ago. The same day I had seen her; the one whose face stayed in my mind for a lifetime, the one with the brunette hair and the bewitching black eyes, the laughter of a young girl with an unknown future, a happy future. The one whose life I had taken away so cruelly, three days since. The one I could not and will not ever forget.
Phelippe bends down and starts to pull and tug at the large stone underneath the tomb of the child, and I see an empty blackness beyond. I unwrap the sword from its bonds and pull it out of its sheath. The Flemish steel glints even in the dull light of the chapel and along the length of the glinting, sharpened blade, there are the still red drops of blood, some even yet congealing, holding in place one single hair of the darkest hue.
I am shaking as I return the sword to its home and, wrapping it once more in its oilskin coat, place it well into the dark depths of the deep blackness. Phelippe says nothing as we push the heavy stone back into place, so that when all is returned there is no trace of any disturbance whatsoever. It is done and so is my life.