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The Thin Executioner
By Darren Shan
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Inspired by theAdventures of Huckleberry Finn, international bestselling master of horror Darren Shan takes readers on a thrilling, fast-paced journey into a nightmarish world where compassion and kindness are the greatest crimes of all.
OTHER TITLES AVAILABLE FROM
A Living Nightmare BOOK 1
The Vampire's Assistant BOOK 2
Tunnels of Blood BOOK 3
Vampire Mountain BOOK 4
Trials of Death BOOK 5
The Vampire Prince BOOK 6
Hunters of the Dusk BOOK 7
Allies of the Night BOOK 8
Killers of the Dawn BOOK 9
The Lake of Souls BOOK 10
Lord of the Shadows BOOK 11
Sons of Destiny BOOK 12
Lord Loss BOOK 1
Demon Thief BOOK 2
Slawter BOOK 3
Bec BOOK 4
Blood Beast BOOK 5
Demon Apocalypse BOOK 6
Death's Shadow BOOK 7
Wolf Island BOOK 8
Dark Calling BOOK 9
Hell's Heroes BOOK 10
Copyright © 2010 by Darren Shan
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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First eBook Edition: August 2010
First published in Great Britain by Collins in 2010.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Jebel Rum's beloved
OBE (Order of the Bloody Entrails):
the country of Jordan, which inspired much of this book's setting and plot, and whose landmarks provided the names of all the characters (with three exceptions) and places
Stella Paskins honed the editorial blade for the final time.
The Um Little put their heads on the chopping block next to mine, as always.
The executioner swung his axe—thwack!—and another head went rolling into the dust. There was a loud cheer. Rashed Rum was the greatest executioner Wadi had ever seen, and he always drew a large crowd, even after thirty years.
Five executions were scheduled for that morning. Rashed had just finished off the third and was cleaning his blade. In the crowd his youngest son, Jebel, was more interested in the high maid, Debbat Alg, than his father.
To Jebel, Debbat Alg was the most beautiful girl in Wadi. She was the same height as him, slim and curvy, with long legs, even longer hair, dazzling brown eyes, and teeth so white they might have been carved from shards of the moon. Her skin was a delicious dark brown color. She always wore a long dress, usually with a slit down the left to show off her legs. Her blouses were normally cropped and close-fitting, revealing much of her smooth stomach.
Rashed Rum tested his blade, then stepped forward. He nodded at the guards, and they led the fourth criminal—a female slave who'd struck her mistress—to the platform at the center of the square. Jebel slid up next to Debbat and her servant, Bastina.
"I bet she'll need two blows," he said.
Debbat shot him an icy glance. "Betting against your father?" she sniffed.
"No," Jebel said. "But I think she'll try to wriggle free. Slaves have no honor. They always squirm."
"Not this one," Debbat said. "She has spirit. But if you want to risk a bet…"
"I do," Jebel grinned.
"What stakes?" Debbat asked.
"A kiss?" It was out of Jebel's mouth before he knew he'd said it.
Debbat laughed. "I could have you whipped for suggesting that."
"You're just afraid you'd lose," Jebel retorted.
Debbat's eyes sparkled at the thought of having Jebel punished. But then she caught sight of J'An, Jebel's eldest brother, handing his father a drink. Debbat would have welcomed a kiss from J'An, and he knew it, but so far he'd shown no interest in her. Perhaps he thought he had no competition, that he could claim her in his own sweet time. It might be good to give him a little scare.
"Very well," Debbat said, startling both Jebel and Bastina. "A kiss if you win. If you lose, you have to kiss Bastina."
"Mistress!" Bastina objected.
"Be quiet, Bas!" snapped Debbat.
Bastina pouted, but she couldn't argue. She wasn't a slave, but she had pledged herself to serve the high family, so she had to obey Debbat's commands.
"Bet accepted," Jebel said happily. Bastina had a sour, pinched face, and her skin wasn't anywhere near as dark as Debbat's—her mother had come from a line of slaves from another country—but even if he lost and had to kiss her, it would be better than a whipping.
On the platform the female slave was motionless, her neck resting snugly in the curve of the executioner's block, hands tied behind her back. Her blouse and dress had been removed. She would leave this world as vulnerable as when she had entered it, as did everyone when they were executed. When the wise and merciless judges of the nation of Abu Aineh found you guilty of a crime, you were stripped of everything that had once defined who you were—your wealth, your clothing, your dignity, and finally your head.
Rashed Rum drank deeply. Refreshed, he wiped his hands on his knee-length bloodstained tunic, took hold of his long-handled axe, stepped up to the block, and laid the blade on the slave's neck to mark his spot. His eyes narrowed and he breathed softly. Then he drew the axe back and swept it around and down, cutting clean through the woman's neck.
The slave's head hit the base of the platform and bounced off into the crowd. The children nearest the front yelled with excitement and fought for the head, then fled with it, kicking it down the street. The heads of um Wadi or Um Aineh were treated with respect and buried along with their bodies, but slaves were worthless. Their bones were fed to dogs.
Debbat faced Jebel Rum and smiled smugly.
Jebel shrugged. "She must have frozen with fear."
"I hope you don't freeze when you kiss Bas," Debbat laughed.
Bastina was crying. It wasn't because she had to kiss Jebel—he wasn't that ugly. She always cried at executions. She had a soft heart, and her mother had told her many stories when she was growing up, of their ancestors and how they had suffered. Bastina couldn't think of these people as criminals who had no right to life anymore. She identified with them and always wondered about their families, how their husbands or wives might feel, how their children would survive without them.
"Come on, then," Jebel said, taking hold of the weeping girl's jaw and tilting her head back. He wiped away the worst of her tears, then quickly kissed her. She was still crying when he released her and he made a face. "I've never seen anyone else cry when a person's executed."
"It's horrible," Bastina moaned. "So brutal…"
"She was fairly judged," said Jebel. "She broke the law, so she can't complain."
Bastina shook her head but said nothing more. She knew that the woman had committed a crime, that a judge had heard the case against her and found her guilty. A slave had no automatic right to a hearing—her mistress could have killed her on the spot—but she had been afforded the ear of the courts and had been judged the same as a free Um Aineh. By all of their standards, it was legal and fair. Yet still Bastina shuddered when she thought about how the woman had died.
"Why aren't you muscular like your brothers?" Debbat asked out of the blue, squeezing Jebel's bony arm. "You're as thin as an Um Kheshabah."
"I'm a late developer," Jebel snapped, tearing his arm free and flushing angrily. "J'Al was the same when he was my age, and J'An wasn't much bigger."
"Nonsense," Debbat snorted. "I remember what they looked like. You'll never be strong like them."
Jebel bristled, but the high maid had spoken truly. He was the runt of the Rum litter. His mother had died giving birth to him, which boded well for his future. Rashed Rum thought he had a tiny monster on his hands, one who would grow up to be a fierce warrior. But Jebel never lived up to his early promise. He'd always been shorter and skinnier than other boys his age.
"Jebel doesn't need to be big," Bastina said, sticking up for her friend—her mother had been his nurse, so they had grown up together. "He's clever. He's going to be a teacher or a judge."
"Shut up!" Jebel barked furiously. Abu Aineh was a nation where warriors were prized above all others. Very few boys dreamt of growing up to be a teacher.
"You'd be a good judge," Bastina said. "You wouldn't be cruel."
"Judges aren't cruel," said Debbat, rolling her eyes. "They simply punish the guilty. We'd be no better than the Um Safafaha without them."
"That's right," Jebel said. "Not that I'm going to become one," he added with a dark glare at Bastina. "I'm going to be a warrior. I'll fight for the high lord."
"You? One of my father's guards?" Debbat frowned. "You're too thin. Only the strongest um Wadi serve the high lord."
"You don't know anything about it," Jebel huffed. "You're just a girl. You—"
Rashed Rum stepped forward, and Jebel fell silent along with the rest of the crowd. The day's final criminal was led to the platform, an elderly man who had stolen food from a stall. He was an um Wadi, but he behaved like a slave, weeping and begging for mercy. He made Jebel feel ashamed. People booed, but Rashed Rum's expression didn't flicker. They were all the same to him, the brave and the cowardly, the high and the low, the just and the wicked. It wasn't an executioner's place to stand in judgment, just to cut off heads.
The elderly man's feet were tied together, but he still tried to jerk free of the executioner's block. In the end, J'An and J'Al had to hold him in place while their father took aim and cut off his head.
J'An would come of age in a year and join one of Wadi's regiments. When J'An left, their father would need a new assistant to help J'Al. The position should be offered to Jebel, but he doubted it would be. He was thin, so people thought he was weak. He hoped his father would give him a chance to prove himself, but he was prepared for disappointment.
Debbat turned to leave, and so did the other people in the square. But they all stopped short when Rashed Rum called out, "Your ears for a moment, please."
An excited murmur ran through the crowd—this was the first time in thirty years that Rashed Rum had spoken after an execution. He took off his black hooded mask and toyed with it shyly. Although he was a legendary executioner, he wasn't used to speaking in public. He coughed, then laughed. "I had the words clear in my head this morning, but now I've forgotten them!"
People chuckled, a couple clapped, then there was silence again. Rashed Rum continued. "I've been executioner for thirty years, and I reckon I've got maybe another ten in me if I stay on."
"Fifteen!" someone yelled.
The burly beheader smiled. "Maybe. But I don't want to push myself. A man should know when it is time to step aside."
There was a collective gasp. Jebel couldn't believe what he was hearing. There had been no talk of this at home, at least not in his presence.
"I've always hoped that one of my sons might follow in my footsteps," Rashed Rum went on. "J'An and J'Al are fine boys, two of the best in Wadi, and either would make a fine executioner."
As people nodded, Jebel felt like he was about to be sick. He knew he was the frail one in the family, not as worthy as his brothers, but to be snubbed by their father in public was a shame beyond that of a thousand whippings. He sneaked a quick look at Debbat Alg. She was fully focused on Rashed Rum, but he knew she would recall this later and mock him. All of his friends would.
"J'An will be a man in a year," Rashed Rum said, "and J'Al two years after that. If I carry on, they won't be able to fight for the chance to take my place." Only teenage boys could compete for the post of executioner. "I asked the high lord for his blessing last night, and he granted it. So I'm serving a year's notice. On this day in twelve months, I'll swing my axe for the final time. The winner of the mukhayret will then take my place as Wadi's executioner."
That was the end of Rashed Rum's speech. He withdrew, leaving the crowd to feverishly debate the announcement. Runners were swiftly dispatched to spread the news. Everyone in Wadi would know of it by sunset.
The post of executioner was prized above all others. The god of iron, Aiehn Asad, had personally chosen the first-ever executioner of Wadi hundreds of years ago, and every official beheader since then had stood second only to the high lord in the city, viewed by the masses as an ambassador of the gods. An executioner was guaranteed a place by his god's side in the afterlife, and as long as he didn't break any laws, nobody could replace him until he chose to step aside or died.
J'An and J'Al knew all of this, yet they remained on the platform, mopping up blood, acting as if this was an ordinary day. In a year the pair would stand against each other in the fierce tournament of the mukhayret and fight as rivals with the rest of the would-be executioners. If one of them triumphed, his life would be changed forever, and almost unlimited power would be his for the taking. But until then they were determined to carry on as normal, as their father had taught them.
Near the front of the crowd, Debbat Alg gazed at J'An and J'Al with calculating eyes. On the day of the mukhayret, the winner could choose any maid in Wadi to be his wife. More often than not, the new executioner selected a maid from the high family, to confirm his approval of the high lord, so it was likely that one of the brothers would choose her. She was trying to decide which she preferred the look of so that she could pick one to cheer for. J'An had a long, wide nose and thick lips that made many a maid's knees tremble. J'Al was sleeker, his hair cut tight to complement the shape of his head, with narrow but piercing eyes. The inside of J'An's right ear had been intricately tattooed, while J'Al wore a studded piece of wood through the flesh above his left eye. Both brothers were handsome and up to date with the latest fashions. It was going to be difficult to choose.
Beside Debbat, Bastina also stared at J'An and J'Al, but sadly. She was thinking of all the heads the new executioner would lop off, all the lives he'd take. The Rum brothers had been kind to her over the years. She didn't like to think of one of them with all that blood on his hands.
And beside Bastina, Jebel stared too. But he wasn't thinking of his brothers, the mukhayret tournament, or even Debbat Alg. He only had thoughts for his father's words, the horrible way he had been overlooked, and the dark cloud under which he must now live out the rest of his miserable, shameful years.
Jebel wandered the streets of Wadi as if stunned by lightning. It was the middle of summer, so most people retired to the shade as the sun slid towards its noon zenith. But Jebel took no notice of the heat. He shuffled along like a bound slave, his father's insult ringing in his ears.
He had never been especially close to Rashed Rum. Like all Um Aineh, his father prized strength above everything else. He was proud of his first two sons, the way they'd fought as children, the bloodied noses they'd endured without complaint, the times they'd taken a whipping without crying.
Jebel had never been able to keep pace with J'An and J'Al. All his life he'd been thin, wiry, weak. He didn't have the build or the fire in his heart to be a champion, so he was of little interest to Rashed Rum. His father and brothers had always been kind to him—they were a close-knit family and took all of their meals together—but casually mocking at the same time. They loved Jebel but made it clear in a dozen minor, unintentional ways every day that they didn't consider him an equal.
Jebel didn't think his father had meant to offend him when he made his announcement. His youngest son probably never even crossed his mind. Most likely he assumed that Jebel was set on being a teacher or trader, so why would the boy care if his father praised his brothers and overlooked him?
But that wasn't the case. Jebel had always dreamt of becoming a warrior. He studied himself in the mirror every morning, hoping his body had grown overnight, that his muscles had thickened. Some boys came into their prime later than others. Jebel wanted to be strong like his brothers, to impress his father.
Now that could never be. His father had shamed him in public, and that stain would stay with him like the tattoo of the axe on his left shoulder, the sign that he was an executioner's son. Jebel had thought he could go far with that tattoo, even given his slim build, as everyone had great respect for the executioner's family, but no regiment would want him now. People didn't forget an insult of this kind, not in Abu Aineh. How could you ask to join a regiment of warriors if your own father had made it clear in public that he didn't consider you up to such a task?
Jebel felt like crying but didn't. He had been five years old the last time he'd cried. He had woken from a nightmare, weeping and shaking, and moaned the name of the mother he'd never known, begging her spirit to come and comfort him. Rashed Rum overheard and solemnly told Jebel the next morning that if he ever wept again, he would be disowned and cast out. It was a promise, not a threat, and Jebel had fought off tears ever since.
Jebel walked until he could deny his thirst no longer. Slumping by the side of a well, he drank deeply, rested a while, then made his sorry way home. He didn't want to go back and wouldn't have returned if he'd had anywhere else to go.
He passed Bastina's house on his way. This was one of her free afternoons, so she had come home after the executions to help with the housework. Servants of the high lord had to work almost as hard as slaves and had nowhere near as much freedom as others in the city, but it was a position of great honor, and they were guaranteed a place by their god of choice in the next world when they died.
Bastina was out on the street beating rugs as Jebel went by. She stopped, laid down the rug, picked up a jug of water, and handed it to him. He drank from it without thinking to thank her, then poured the remains over his head, shaking the water from his short dark curls. Bastina tugged softly at her nose ring while he was drinking, studying him seriously. He lacked his brothers' good looks—his nose was thin and slightly crooked, his lips were thin, his cheeks were soft and light where they should be firm and dark—but Bastina found him passable nevertheless.
"How long have you been walking?" she asked, and Jebel shrugged. "You could get sunstroke, wandering around all day."
"Good," Jebel snorted. "Maybe the sun will kill me if I walk long enough."
"I'm sorry," Bastina said quietly.
"Your father should have mentioned you along with J'An and J'Al."
"He's got more important things to think about than me."
"Fathers should treat their sons equally," Bastina disagreed. "Even…"
"Even if one's a thin, no-good rat?" Jebel said stiffly.
"Don't," Bastina whispered, dropping her gaze.
"Don't what?" Jebel challenged her.
"Don't hurt me just to make yourself feel better."
Jebel's anger faded. He didn't say sorry, but he touched her nose ring. "New?"
"Three days." Bastina grimaced. "It hurt when it was pierced. I'm not looking forward to the next one."
"It's nice," Jebel said. As Bastina smiled, he added, "But not as nice as Debbat's new earring."
"Of course not," Bastina said sullenly. "I can't afford the same rings or clothes as a high maid."
"That's a pity," said Jebel, thinking about Debbat's tight blouses. Then he recalled his father's speech and sighed. "What am I going to do, Bas? Everybody will laugh at me. How can I face my friends, feeling like a worm? I…"
He stopped, dismayed that he'd revealed his true feelings. "Never mind," he grunted, pushing past Bastina.
"You could talk to your father," Bastina said softly.
Jebel paused and looked back. "What?"
"Tell him how he hurt you. Explain your feelings. Maybe you can—"
"Are you mad?" Jebel burst out. "Tell him he made a mistake? He'd whip me till I dropped! It's bad enough as it is—I'll end up a damn teacher or judge. But if I whine like a girl, he'll send me off to do women's work."
"I was only trying to help," Bastina said.
"How can an ugly little troll like you help?" Jebel sneered.
"At least I'm not a runt!" Bastina shouted, and instantly regretted it.
Jebel's lips trembled. For a moment he thought about strangling Bastina—he'd be executed if he did, and all his worries would be behind him—but then he came to his senses and he slumped to the ground.
"I'm ruined, Bas," Jebel groaned. "I can't live like this. Every day I'll be reminded of what my father said, the way he disgraced me. I dreamt of proving myself in the regiments, of maybe even serving the high lord, but no one will want me now."
Tears welled up in Bastina's eyes. She crouched beside Jebel and took his hand. "You can't think like that. A warrior's life isn't for everyone. You have to make the best of what you have."
Jebel didn't hear her. He was thinking. "Maybe I'll enter the mukhayret," he muttered. "I can't win, but if I made it past the first few rounds…"
"No," Bastina said, squeezing his hand. "You can't compete against the likes of J'An and J'Al. People would mock you. It would make things worse."
"I might surprise them," Jebel persisted. "Maybe make it to the last eight. If I did, my father would be proud of me."
Bastina shook her head. "Only the strongest enter the mukhayret. People will sneer and make fun of you if you put yourself forward as a genuine contender."
"Not if I made it to the last eight," Jebel said stubbornly.
"But you wouldn't!" Bastina lost her temper with her foolish friend. "You'd be crushed in the first round, humiliated in front of the whole city. You're not a warrior, Jebel, and even Sabbah Eid couldn't turn you into…"
Jebel's head shot up, and Bastina winced. She smiled shakily. "What I mean—"
"Sabbah Eid," Jebel interrupted, his brown eyes lighting up.
"No," Bastina groaned. "Don't even think—"
"Sabbah Eid!" Jebel exclaimed, and leapt to his feet. "Bas, you're wonderful!" He bent and kissed her forehead, then ran off before she could say anything else, leaving her to sit in the dust, cursing herself for the suicidal notion that she had inadvertently placed in Jebel's dizzy head.
The high maid Debbat Alg was watering flowers in one of her father's gardens. Debbat enjoyed gardening. It was her only pastime, apart from looking beautiful. Her servants did most of the hard work—sowing, seeding, digging—but Debbat often watered and pruned in the spring and summer evenings.
She was examining a cluster of pink roses near a wall, when somebody hissed overhead. Looking up, she was astonished to spot skinny Jebel Rum in a tree, grinning down at her like a cat.
"What do you think you're doing?" Debbat shouted, taking a step back.
"Quiet!" Jebel pleaded. "I need to talk with you. I have a favor to ask."
Debbat's eyes narrowed. "You disappeared swiftly this morning," she chuckled wickedly.
Jebel pretended he hadn't heard. "I need your help."
"With what?" Debbat snorted. "Getting down out of that tree?"
"No. I want to quest, but I need permission. Your father—"
"Wait a minute," Debbat interrupted. "You want to quest?"
"Quest where? For what?"
Jebel paused for effect, then said, "To Tubaygat, to petition Sabbah Eid."
Debbat's jaw dropped. "You're mad!" she squealed.
"I'm going to become the new executioner," Jebel said. "I can't win the mukhayret as I am, so I'm going to quest. I'll work my way north to Tubaygat, ask Sabbah Eid to give me inhuman strength and make me invincible, then return. Nobody can stop me winning then."
"Indeed not," Debbat said mockingly. "Nobody could stop you becoming high lord either, if you had a mind to."
"But I don't," Jebel said. "I'll swear to that if your father will hear my request. That's one of the reasons I don't want to ask my own father, so there can be no trouble between our families."
"The other reason being he wouldn't let you go." Debbat laughed. "It's been a hundred years since anybody completed a quest to Tubaygat. Dozens of our finest warriors have died trying, or returned defeated and shamed. What makes you think you'll fare any better?"
"I've nothing to lose," Jebel said softly. "I'm shamed anyway if I stay."
Debbat started to dismiss him. He was a silly boy and he was wasting her time. But then she saw his look of glum determination and stopped. She was sure he'd fail, but in the unlikely event that he did return triumphant, he would be the most revered man in Abu Aineh. He would become the executioner and claim her as his wife. Her mother had taught her never to offend those you might one day be at the mercy of.
"What makes you think my father will hear your request?" she asked.
"You're his favorite daughter," Jebel said. "He'll listen if you enter a plea on my behalf."
"Why should I? I'd have to vouch for you. I'd be discredited if you failed."
"No," Jebel said. "I'll quest in your name. If I die, you'll be honored. If I fail and survive, I give my word that I'll never come back."
Debbat was excited. No one had ever quested in her name. Her friends would be jealous when they found out, even if the quester was only pathetic Jebel Rum.
- On Sale
- Aug 1, 2010
- Page Count
- 496 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers