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Authors: J. M Mcdermott

When We Were Executioners

BOOK: When We Were Executioners
13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

About the Author

J. M. McDermott is the author of five novels and a short story collection. His first novel,
Last Dragon
, was shortlisted for a Crawford Prize. 



He lives in Decatur, Georgia, in a maze of bookshelves, coffee cups, and crazy schemes.


I dream of dead men.

The skull that rests upon a lip in the cave pollutes my mind, in sleep. Corporal Jona, the Lord of Joni, died in the woods. My husband and I found him there, polluting the ground with the stain of the demon in Jona’s blood.

For days we cleaned the ruin, there, and called upon the Goddess Erin for the mind of the dead. When it came upon us, it came to me in a flood.
Where is my body… Where is Rachel…
I wept for the dead, and the loneliness.

I wrote it all down. All that I could peel away from the mind inside of mine became ink on paper, handed off to my husband that together we could find the living remains of the demon stain.

The city spurned us. Sabachthani demands the demon-stained for his abominations, and his wicked magics. No one stops him, not even us.

We left, my husband and me, for the hills, on the trail of old stains, searching for clues.

Finding none, we slept.

And, in sleep, I dream of dead men.

* * *

Corporal Tripoli sits alone at a table. He is a handsome enough man, with huge, strong hands. He cracks peanuts between thumb and forefinger without looking up. He isn’t eating the nuts. He’s placing them on one side of the table, away from the shells. He looks up. He nods at Jona, his fellow king’s man, watching Tripoli crack the shells. He picks up one of the nuts and tosses it at Jona, the Lord of Joni. Jona’s a corporal in the king’s men, too. He catches the nut and eats it. Tripoli’s face is bony in the tavern light. His thinning hair looks like a skull. His eyes are hollowed out. He’s a dead man, already sick.

Jona reaches over to take another nut. When he looks up, Tripoli is gone, like he was never there. The pile of peanuts cracked and sorted is all that’s left of him.

The tavern is the same as it was before. The city is the same as it was before.
Tripoli’s death was like nothing had happened.

Save us from these cities of men, Blessed Erin. Howl in the night like wolves for the dead. Let their souls travel across the mournful wails, riding the painful prayers to Erin’s mercy.

I dream of dead men.

Oh, but he isn’t dead, yet. Still, I know he will be dead, soon. The ones who die, most of them, cloud into Jona’s memory. He had time to forget them. He had time to believe in their absence.
Their names fade. Jona knew Tripoli’s first name, and I do not. He had a father, so I know it could not be Tripola.

My husband whispers in my ear.

Restless dream, my love? I have brought the quill and parchment. Write it down. Maybe there will be a clue in the dream.

And, I do.


I dream, still.

Jona was asking Rachel a question.

I don’t know where they were. I can’t smell the location inside his skull, only the words. Maybe they were in his dark bedroom, clinging to each other, so it smelled like nothing to him because it smelled like him and her but mostly him.

“How do you learn how to be a Senta?” he said, to her.

 “You breathe,” Rachel said. “How do you learn to be a noble?” 

“I guess you just breathe, too. What about all those tricks?” 

“The greatest Senta never discover such things. The greatest Senta—the Seers—see through them. Dreamcasting is an expression of that path. I struggle to touch that Unity, Jona. Our skin, mine more than yours, they are only partially made of the world of light above Elishta. The other part is an absence that even light ignores. Senta—dreamcasting Senta—see right through me with glowing eyes of light. I can’t see that way. I try but, I can’t. I am a novice’s novice.”

“I’ve seen you freeze two buckets on a whim.”

“The Unity is greater than two buckets, Jona, and much smaller than a single crystal of ice.”

“Now you’re just tossing me. You’re trying to sound wise.”

“You’re just listening. I’m saying nothing. We’re both saying nothing. This is all a ruse because what we really want is to kiss. But do not kiss me now. Let’s stay a while just like this. Don’t move.”

* * *

Aggie, in her cell, her hands slowly turning black where her fingers leaned back in her pallet. 

“Are you all right?” 

“Who, me?” said Jona.

She rolled away from him, her back to him. She looked at the wall. Aggie had been Salvatore’s beloved. Once she had committed one sin, he had abandoned her. And, Jona was to blame that she was in a cell, with an infection in her nose.

“You just going to sit there like that?” said Jona.

“I didn’t ask for you to come here,” said Aggie. “I don’t want you here. The last time you came here, I was sick. I couldn’t tell you to leave. Now I’m telling you to leave.”

“Feeling better, though, right?”

“Of course not. They’re burning me alive as soon as the church mother signs the form.”

“Ain’t dead yet, though.”


“Salvatore’s going to get here, soon. I promise. He’ll get you out.”

“I don’t believe anything you say.”

Jona stood in her cell, looking down on her, her back to him and she was feigning sleep. He had brought her food. He had brought her some better water than they have in the prison. There were vomit stains along the wall by her pallet. She had been puking in her sleep. Her neck was flush. She must have been running a fever.

“Tell Salvatore...” She started to cry.

* * *

I dream of dead men.

I dream of dead men, all night long.

Geek steps into an open sewer grate as if swallowed. His uniform vomits up in dirty water overflowing from the rains. In the dream, he is standing at the bottom of a sewer grate, looking up, reaching his hand up for the light above the flood. The rains come again, and flood the ground with muddy water. It pours over Geek, staining him in mud, and pushing him away until he’s gone. Flowing in the water, all the lost boys with their broken crowns, and all the girls in their dresses and cracked jars and porcelain, lime-white skin of Rachel’s brothels and all the animals moved from boat to killing floor in the abbatoir dismembered and thrown into the brack.

Bad dreams, from two minds blurred in sleep.

I woke up in a cold sweat, half-woman, half-wolf, thrashing around in the dark. Blessings of Erin, they are difficult things. Goddesses do not ask us to do easy things. In life, he was a king’s man, a lord of Dogsland, fallen into poverty after the failure of his father. In death, he was a blight below a bluff, where toxic mushrooms sprouted in his acidic demon blood.

I could smell Jona’s skull in the cave. I could feel its empty eyes upon me, as if he could see though dead. I’m the one who sees through his eyes. The dead see nothing. His skull was dead weight, and toxic, but the smell of it helped me see through his eyes.
When we finish the hunt, we will leave it with the Temple of Erin in the city, and it will be easier to keep my dreams away from his.

Salvatore, the thief, eluded us in the city with the aid of his masters. Rachel Nolander, a nomad all her life, had been running north beyond our territory when Jona died. All the places they had touched and corrupted in our territory must be cleaned of the stain.

This blessing of Erin, that I might see and smell the world inside Jona’s memories, walk down the paths that a Walker can read in the signs of things, read the patterns of a life like Senta dreamcasting, it all fills me up in the dark. At night, this blessing makes it hard to sleep. Last night, I turned over and over again enough to drive my husband to another corner of the cave. I woke up afraid, reaching for him, because I was dreaming with memories that were both mine and not mine. My husband was not there.

I searched for a body that was not my own in between the three bodies I knew. I was only supposed to have two: I am wolf and I am woman. The third, Jona’s body from Jona’s memories, was never mine except in dreams. Those first moments awake were as unreal to me as a dream.


My husband came to my side. I calmed. I wondered how long until the demon child’s mind might fade away into the distant hum of old memories. My husband carried a demon child’s mind, too, and he never seemed so anxious as me. He had had so many years to think the bad dreams through to quietude. He licked my face. His long whiskers tickled me, and I laughed from it. I was a woman, and laughed like a woman. He had the wolf skin pulled over his back.

Don’t lose yourself in him.

I joined my husband in the early morning dawn outside the cave. He flicked his ears at the small insects that liked this dry cave upon a small mountain. I let them land. I liked how they felt in my ears. The itch was my own, and helped me recover from the dream. The wind over my fur. The ground beneath my paws. I was a Walker of Erin, and I knew my mind from Jona’s.

I stretched. I walked into the early dawn. “I’m getting breakfast.”

My husband ran on ahead into the forested places down the side of the little mountain.

Easier like this.

I paused to watch the sunrise. Every hill is a mountain dying or being born; every mountain is a hill upon a hill upon a hill. From where I stood, I could see over the trees to a rising sun. It looked like the hills were on fire.

I started a fire of my own. Without the wolfskin on my back I was cold, but I had human hands, and I could build fires. My husband yawned awake, flashing his predator teeth. He wanted meat for breakfast, and he did not want to eat bread like we did in the city. He spoke to me.

What do you remember?


I remember many things I had forgotten, just being here, where he lived long ago. I have seen nothing new in the demon child’s mind that leads to our enemies. Had Jona ever come here? Do you remember him here?

“Jona only left the city twice in his life. Once to train with the king’s men, and once more to die. We should find Sergeant Calipari, again. He knows the streets, the way criminals hide in pieces of paper. We can force him to lead us to Jona’s mother.”

We can ask anyone. Jona should have known such things. Other people should know them. Where did she work? He knows where she worked, doesn’t he?

The sun cracked over the treeline, light like fire everywhere, and rain clouds in a haze, deep grey like smoke.

“Yes and no. There are too many places that he remembers. If we found precisely his street, we’d find his house. If she has left her house, sold it off perhaps... We’d need to purify the ground, still. I need the streets below my feet to find it, more time studying his skull. I can’t get his mind in order outside of the city.”

What I remember of this one from the cave is so old. Even were they my own memories, it would be hard to find anything new to unravel Sabachthani.

“We have to go back.”

My husband pulled the wolf skin from his back. He stood up, on two legs—man’s legs—and he held his hands to my fire. “Lady Sabachthani? What would Jona do about her?”

“I think… If I were Jona, I would write to her father.”

My husband growled deep in his throat. The red valley was Lord Sabachthani’s legacy, at the northern boundary of the kingdom. Two of the three skulls we kept with us were from the demon children’s, them only just children, and bones we stole from his estate.
He will kill us faster than she.

We don’t know that

He is our enemy more than she is.

We don’t know that, either.

He snarled. He pulled the wolf skin over his back, gathered up our three skulls, and howled a mournful song of death. We would return to the city.

Three skulls: two deformed children and Corporal Jona Lord Joni. Both of us had taken the children’s skulls from Sabachthani’s estate, stolen from the shape that his wicked magic had twisted them to enslaved abominations. Inside their minds, their memories would be only confusion and pain and a void where a soul might have been. We suspected their father’s name, and that was enough. Jona’s skull was mine, alone. We had found his dead body near the north, and found the stain of his death. We took his skull from the body. With the blessings of Erin, his memories came to me, and I carry them still. I’ll carry them, and his skull, all the days of my life.
I buried our fire with rocks and sand. I gathered all the maps and letters we had accumulated from both Sergeant Calipari and my own quill pouring out the memories inside of me. We had packed them away in oilskin and stones to keep them dry and away from mice. We needed them, now. I pulled the wolf skin over my back.

We would travel slower back to the city than when we had run to here. We were going to be cautious, this time, with Lady Sabachthani watching for us.

Down the hill, through the trees and valleys until we reached the roads. A small rain storm came. I closed my eyes, rolled onto my back and opened my mouth for the drink.
I carry his mind. It pushes into my own, like a kept sea. His whole world was mine, with my senses, the Blessings of Erin, a wolf ’s nose for scent, and the wisdom of the wild places, I dive deep inside his memories.

BOOK: When We Were Executioners
13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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