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The Swordsman of Calais by Nancy Smith

For years I have dreaded the coming of the month of May, for every year I am tormented by the most vivid dreams, beginning on around May 1st and increasing in horror until May 19th, after which they mysteriously abate for another year.

It is May of 1536, and the weather here in Calais is beautiful. I am enjoying some time off as I await my next assignment. Early one morning there is a knock on my door, and a mysterious man hands me a package – upon which is the seal of Henry VIII, King of England. I open the message and what is written inside shocks me – I am ordered to travel to London as quickly as possible, bringing with me the Sword of Calais, to carry out what will be the most important assignment of my career – the execution of Anne Boleyn, Queen of England! I read the message carefully several times – it is not, after all, every day that one gets the order to execute a Queen! The thought crosses my mind that maybe my cronies are playing a trick on me, but the letter looks authentic – as does the bag of gold coins that the messenger hands me, with the promise of an even more generous payment once the execution has been carried out. Still, I am confused. I was in Calais 3 ½ years ago, when Henry VIII visited Calais with the Lady Anne, who was then Marquess of Pembroke. The King hosted Francis, King of France, and wine was flowing from the fountains all over Calais. I caught a glimpse of King Henry and Lady Anne, and there was no mistaking his passion for her – and now I am ordered to perform her execution? There has even been talk here in Calais that King Henry and Queen Anne are planning to return to Calais in several weeks – we were all looking forward to the free food and wine that would come with their visit. I go immediately down to the harbour, trying to secure a spot on the next ship to Dover. As it turns out, there is no ship scheduled to depart for two days, so I return home to my wife and family. I am sworn to secrecy regarding my mission, and it is difficult to look my wife in the eyes without confiding in her. I am also nearly bursting with pride – of all of the executioners in England, they requested me – the Swordsman of Calais – to perform the first execution ever of a Queen of England!

Soon the two days have passed, and it is time for me to bid good-bye to my family and board the ship that will take me to Dover. I hug and kiss my wife, tell my son to look after his mother and sister during my absence, and give my little daughter a big bear hug. She looks at me with those big eyes of hers, and asks me to bring her something back from England. I promise to do so – and I can’t help but think of another little girl in London, a little girl who will never see her mother again because of the mission I am about to undertake. I cannot dwell on those thoughts, however – I am not the only headsman in the world; if it were not me it would be someone else. I am confident in my abilities and my professionalism; I will do my best to insure that the Lady’s final moments are as pain-free as possible.

Finally it is time for the ship to sail, and I wave to my family until they become tiny dots on the horizon. The English Channel is choppy, and I find myself feeling slightly nauseous – or is it a case of nervous anticipation caused by the responsibility that has been placed upon me? I go below the deck and look for a hammock on which to rest – I need to be as rested as possible, for once I get to Dover I’ll have to mount a horse and ride to London as quickly as possible. I’m confident that no one on board the ship knows my true identity or suspects what my mission is – they probably think that I’m a merchant traveling to England to sell his wares. My neighbors in Calais don’t even know my occupation, as I always wear a hood during executions, and I pray that my children never learn what their father does for a living.

I find a hammock on which to lie, and soon I fall into a fitful sleep. When I awaken, I can feel that the ship is no longer moving; we seem to be docked. I grab my belongings, making sure that the Sword of Calais is safe, and prepare to disembark. As I step on solid ground, I look around to see if there is anyone nearby who looks like they’re waiting for me. I feel a hand on my shoulder, and when I look around I see the mysterious messenger behind me – he has traveled back to England on the same ship. The messenger motions towards a groom and two horses. We approach the groom and my companion hands him a purse full of coins, and then we mount our steeds and begin the 75 mile trek to London. We must proceed in all haste, my companion informs me – it has already been necessary to postpone the execution twice, and King Henry is anxious to have it over and done with so he can get on with his life. We gallop along for hours and, just as dusk is beginning to fall, the grim, grey walls of the Tower of London rise up in the distance ahead of us. Finally our journey is at an end, and the assignment that will change my life forever is little more than 12 hours away.

My companion (he never told me his name, nor did I tell him mine) introduced me to Sir William Kingston, Constable of the Tower of London. Sir William shows me to my quarters, and then offers me something to eat. I hungrily devour the bread, cheese and ale that are placed before me, and then lie down on my bed and try to sleep. Although I am exhausted from the boat ride from Calais and the 75 mile horseback ride from Dover to London, I find it impossible to sleep. I know that I must be well-rested and in my best form for tomorrow – I know that my place in history depends on the split-second tomorrow morning when I swing my sword. If, God forbid, I fail to behead the Lady with one stroke, I will forever be known as the “Butcher of Calais”. I wonder – could Henry’s former passion for Anne be the reason why he chose me to decapitate her with my sword, rather than using an executioner from England with his clumsy axe?

I’m not sure when I drifted off to sleep, but Master Kingston awakens me at 7:00 am in order to give me time to eat some breakfast and prepare myself for my task. I am surprised to learn that I will not be wearing my traditional executioner’s outfit of a tight-fitting black doublet and hose, with the upper part of my face hidden and a high, horn-shaped cap on my head, but instead I will be wearing ordinary clothing. As my assistant and I wait on the scaffold, I become aware that a procession is forming by one of the gates. Several hundred Yeoman of the King’s Guard approach the scaffold, followed by what appears to be the officers of the Tower, and then I see her – Queen Anne, leaning on the arm of Master Kingston. I had forgotten how beautiful she is – actually, she looks even more beautiful than she had when I saw here in Calais. I am also surprised to see how serene she is in the face of death – I have seen hundreds of men die, and very often they have been trembling, but Queen Anne approaches the scaffold with a peaceful, smiling countenance. I notice that the four young ladies attending Queen Anne are crying and trembling, and she seems to be comforting them. I don’t believe that the Queen knows who I am when she first sees me – I am, as I have mentioned, dressed in ordinary clothing, given to me the night before by Constable Kingston and paid for, I assume, by the King. The Sword of Calais is hidden carefully underneath some straw, so as to spare the Queen the distress of seeing the instrument of her demise. As Queen Anne mounts the scaffold she looks around, and our eyes briefly meet. I wonder how I am going to be able to kill such a beautiful creature. She whispers something to Master Kingston, who nods his head, then the Queen begins to speak to the crowd of onlookers. While not confessing her guilt, the Queen acknowledges that she is dying according to the laws of the kingdom, and requests the spectators to pray for the life of the King. When she finally stops speaking, her ladies-in-waiting help her remove the short ermine mantle that she wears around her neck, and Queen Anne herself removes her headdress, replacing it with a white linen cap under which she gathers her long black hair. I can no longer hide my true identity from her, and I kneel before the Queen begging her forgiveness, which she graciously gives. I promise not to strike until she gives me the signal, and the Queen begins repeating “O Lord God, have pity on my soul! To Christ I commend my soul!” I had arranged with my assistant that we would distract the Queen when the final moment came, and now it is fast approaching. I can feel myself trembling. I slip off my shoes, so as not to make noise on the wooden scaffold, then I call out to my assistant, who is standing on the opposite side of the scaffold from myself and the sword, “Bring me the sword”. The Queen instinctively turns her head towards my assistant, and I grab the sword from beneath the straw. I swing it . . . then I awake in a cold sweat, safe in my own bed. I look at the digital clock on my nightstand. The time is 9:02 am on May 19, 2012. I have had the same dream that I have had every May 19th for years. I wonder if what the psychic told me several years ago is true – am I really the reincarnation of the Executioner of Calais?

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