The Original Sin of William Blackhand

by R. Keelan

In the eighteenth year of the reign of King Edward III, I witnessed a miracle.

I woke in the night, on the Monday after Martinmass, roused by a noise in the chancel. I reached out from beneath my blanket, searching for something to cover myself. My hand felt the cruel bite of November stone before closing over the warmth of rough wool.

Slightly warmer in my tunic and breeches, I pulled on my boots then stumbled to the squint. My room had once been an anchorite’s cell; this small window overlooking the chancel was how the previous occupant had heard mass and received communion. She’d been sealed in and fed through an even smaller window on the other wall, but my father had torn the cell open when I grew old enough for a room of my own.

I should call him my foster father—an ostensibly celibate priest wasn’t supposed to have a trueborn son—but I rarely bothered. No one in the village ever let me forget he’d got me on some itinerant friar’s woman. He hadn’t even had the decency to do it while he was still a soldier fighting the Scots.

I bent and peered through the squint. Only the altar was visible, dimly lit by twice-reflected moonlight. At first I saw nothing, shadows upon shadows in no discernible pattern. But one shadow moved relative to the others, and I realized there was a figure stooped near the altar, reaching into the reliquary.

I gave a great shout and rushed from my room. The door my father had added to the cell exited to the side of the church, and I hoped to catch the thief as he left the front. I crunched through the snow, glad of the boots I’d donned, rounding the corner just as a shadowy figure burst from the church’s wooden double doors.

Some half-glimpsed femininity forestalled me from raising the hue and cry. I followed swiftly after her instead. Surely a girl wouldn’t burgle a church.

She fled toward the river Ouze, which had frozen over during this uncommonly cold winter. She clearly intended to attempt a crossing, but that was madness. Even in mid-January’s icy grip, the Ouze never froze solid.

I called out for the girl to stop, that the river wasn’t safe, but she wouldn’t heed me. I stopped at the river bank while she plunged ahead.

She made it less than halfway before the ice collapsed and she disappeared from sight.

Horror winged through me. The girl would surely die. I crossed myself, whispering hushed Latin: “Depart, O Christian soul, out of this miserable world, in the name of God the Father Almighty, who created thee.”

I wondered who she was, then crossed myself again. There was only one girl I could imagine bold enough to burgle the church.

Elizabeth. My sweetheart from childhood, though she hadn’t known it. She had an undeserved reputation for wrath and pride, which made her a perfect companion for me. Thanks to my father, I, too, owned undeserved ill-repute.

God as my witness, at that very moment, with Elizabeth’s name still ringing in my ears, the girl rose up from the water as if spat by some great beast. Her path through the air was shaky and uncertain, like that of an injured bird. She landed on her feet, but slipped and tumbled over backward. Her head hit the ice with a crack I felt from the riverbank.

She had landed several feet nearer to me than the break in the ice. If it had carried her weight standing, it ought to support mine spread out. I threw myself on my belly and crawled toward her.

I eeled over the ice, surrendering my hands to the bitter cold of snowmelt against unprotected flesh. Ahead of me, the girl hadn’t yet stirred. Had she been saved from the river only to die on the ice?

When at last I reached her, I saw that I’d guessed correctly. It was Elizabeth. The prettiest girl in the village—perhaps in any village.

I began dragging her back toward the riverbank, digging my palms into the ice to push myself backward, then pulling her forward by the wrists.

Inch by freezing inch, we crept toward land.

Elizabeth didn’t react. I could only pray that she was still alive.

The skin of her wrists felt curious. Neither hot nor cold, warm nor cool, she seemed to have no temperature at all.

Perhaps that was what death felt like.

I shut my eyes, feeling tears push against my eyelids. I hoped not.

Elizabeth roused when we’d covered only a portion of the distance to the riverbank. Her eyes snapped open and locked onto mine.

“William!” she said, rolling onto her stomach and trying to stand.

“Don’t!” I cried. “You’ll break the ice. Crawl back. Like this.” I pushed myself backward to demonstrate.

“The purse!” Elizabeth rose to her hands and knees and began crawling back out onto the ice.

I reached for Elizabeth’s ankle and missed. “Come back! You’ll catch your death out here.”

“I can’t,” Elizabeth said without stopping. “I stole the purse, William. I have to get it back.”

“What purse?”

The ice groaned beneath us. I should have kept going, but instead I waited, unwilling to abandon Elizabeth.

“I stole the Purse of Saint Nicholas,” Elizabeth babbled as she crawled. “I only meant to pray with it, but then you caught me.”

The reliquary. Our parish housed a purse said to belong to Saint Nicholas—most loudly by my father—but of course it hadn’t.

“The purse is fake!”

Elizabeth had reached the break in the ice and begun searching. “The shock of the water brought me to my senses,” she said. “I realized I’d sinned, and that I would die for it, but I repented.”

I resolved to drag Elizabeth back by main force if necessary. I pulled myself forward with numb hands, feeling the ice and snow through sodden clothes. “The purse is a fake, damn you!”

Elizabeth wasn’t listening. “I repented, William, because I did not want to die a sinner. I repented with all my soul as I sank into the river. And then I heard a voice, a stern voice. It spoke to me, saying ‘Penitent, save thyself!’ And then I was lifted”—she cried out, holding the purse aloft—”by this very purse. It raised me up out of the water to safety. A miracle for a penitent thief.”

I almost sobbed with relief as Elizabeth began crawling back toward me.

I was shivering uncontrollably by the time we reached land. “You must be chilled to the bone,” I said, helping Elizabeth to her feet. “Let’s get inside. I’ll start a fire.”

“The fire can wait,” Elizabeth said. “I have to return the purse first.”

Hair was plastered to her face. Her kirtle, drenched, clung to her, icicles forming at its hem. I held my peace. If she could wait for the fire, so could I.


The reliquary was a copper-gilt box built into the church’s small altar. Its front face was swung out on cleverly concealed hinges, the key poking out of the lock where Elizabeth had left it in her haste. She placed the purse inside more reverently than I’d ever seen my father do, then I closed the door. I tried turning the lock, but my hand was shaking too much.

“C-Can you?” I stammered through chattering teeth.

The hearth in the main hall was dead, the embers from Sunday having cooled to grey ash. Elizabeth knelt to light the fire while I sat wrapped in a blanket. My hands trembled too much to handle the kindling.

The purse was fake. My father liked to say there were enough pieces of the True Cross scattered across England to make a boat. And yet I had seen a miracle. I could not dispute it. I did wonder if perhaps Elizabeth was a witch, but I could not believe that of someone so kind and—if I am honest with myself—beautiful.

Elizabeth soon had a merry fire blazing in the hearth, to which I leaned perilously close.

“You’ll probably want to tell your father I stole—”

“I won’t,” I blurted. “The purse is back where it belongs. No one needs to know.”

Elizabeth looked over her shoulder at the reliquary. “He saved my life,” she said softly. “I sinned, but Saint Nicholas saved my life.”

Of course he did, I thought. He sees you as I do. But I couldn’t muster the courage to say it.


I developed a terrible fever after that night. I lay in bed for days, delirious.

I dreamt I was being interrogated in the Court of God, by an angel with the bailiff’s likeness. He asked if Elizabeth was a sinner, and I said no, because I loved her and believed that good intentions were in her heart. Then he asked if Elizabeth had stolen the Purse of Saint Nicholas, and I said no, because she’d returned it.

Then the angel with the bailiff’s likeness asked if Elizabeth had taken the purse from the reliquary, and I was faced with a question too precise to answer both truthfully and in Elizabeth’s favour. I also knew it would be the angel’s last. It was the third question, and three was the number of the trinity, the number of times Saint Peter denied our Lord Jesus.

My heart cried out to deny Elizabeth’s guilt, to deny even the premise of the question—why did it matter if Elizabeth had taken the purse or not, if I’d already stated she was neither thief nor sinner?—but I was afraid. Afraid that I would be judged untruthful, that my immortal soul would be damned in place of hers.

God forgive me, I told the truth.


I was left bedridden and consumed with guilt. Unable to seek Elizabeth out, I hoped every day that she would come see me, but each new day brought my “foster father” and no one else. He was in my little room constantly, bringing hot broth for me to drink or heated bricks to warm my bed. And if not that, he was reading to me from the Bible or telling exaggerated tales of battling the Scots. I soon grew tired of his company.

On the first day I felt well enough to let my irritation show, I asked to go see Elizabeth.

My father looked back more kindly than I was accustomed to.

A shard of ice coalesced deep in my belly. “What?”

“You can’t go see Elizabeth, boy. Don’t you remember?”

I remembered betraying Elizabeth, but that had been a dream.

“There was a trial,” my father said.

I listened with growing foreboding while he explained that a neighbour had seen Elizabeth’s flight from the church, if not the drama on the ice that followed, and made an appeal of felony. An inquest had followed. The shard of ice in my gut twisted painfully. My dream had been fevered madness inlaid with true events.

“How could I have testified if I was so feverish I can’t remember doing so?” I demanded.

“The bailiff came to interview you, at no small risk to his own—”

“To conduct a sham inquest!”

My father’s only response was that same kindly, infuriating gaze.

“Where is she now? I want to go see her!”

“You can’t, boy. She’s already been tried.”

“Then I’ll go see her in gaol—”

“You can’t, William. She’s already been taken to York.”

“But she only stole—and she returned it afterward. I said that, didn’t I? That she returned the purse of her own volition. I told the bailiff that, didn’t I?”

My father laid his hands on my shoulders. “Elizabeth demanded Trial by Ordeal, son. She failed. By now, she’s already been burned as a heretic.”


Blackness engulfed me. Grief at Elizabeth’s death broken only by guilt at the role I had played in it. I asked myself a hundred times why God would save Elizabeth from the river only to consign her to the flames. I came up with a thousand tortured answers, but settled on the simplest. God didn’t exist, not in the way my father believed. He was like the weather, capricious and arbitrary. He neither loved us nor hated us, nor likely realized we existed at all.

I left England to join the Wars in France that spring.


I took my father’s old sword and hauberk, bought a nearly-lame nag from Widow Joan, and passed myself off as a man-at-arms, earning six sous per day in the company of Sir Henry Blackwaille. After the Battle of Caen, we pursued a French knight who hid himself among the brothers of L’Abbaye d’Orne. The knight’s ransom was hundreds of ecus, but my pious countrymen, who in Caen thought nothing of murdering French burghers and raping their wives, now found themselves concerned with the fates of their immortal souls.

If I had an immortal soul, I knew it was already damned to hell for betraying my beloved Elizabeth, so I volunteered to fetch the knight. The brethren of the abbey sought to dissuade me, but I laid about with the flat of my blade and dragged the screaming knight from his refuge in the scullery.

Sir Henry was well pleased, and remembered my name thereafter. When the burghers of Saint-Fourset-sur-Mer buried the Digit of Saint Denis beneath the town cemetery, Sir Henry summoned me to his pavilion.

I entered sopping wet, soaked through by the violent thunderstorm raging outside. Unremitting lightning strikes interrupted Sir Henry a dozen times while he asked if I would dig up the relic.

His lieutenants looked on in avaricious horror, appalled that anyone might contemplate sacrilege amidst such obvious proof of God’s wrath, yet greatly desirous of bringing the relic back to England.

I waited for the next lightning strike. With the crack of thunder still reverberating in our ears, I asked for a shovel.

I trudged out to the cemetery, shovel resting on my shoulder, mud threatening to suck my boots off with every step. A patch of missing sod showed where the burghers had buried the relic. None of the other men would so much as set foot in the cemetery, so it took all day to dig it up.

The relic was a bone fragment, visible through a murky glass window in its wooden casket. It looked more like a chicken thigh than a finger-bone to me, but I presented it to Sir Henry with as much reverence as Elizabeth had shown the Purse of Saint Nicholas. I knelt before him and raised it in two cupped, mud-smeared hands.

Common men called me William Blackhand after that, and noble men began asking for my services by name. I took to wearing a black glove on my right hand, to remind people of my sobriquet and its origin.

I returned to England when a God-touched woman from Canterbury killed her children. She’d been duly tried and convicted, but no one could be found to carry out her sentence.

The God-touched were those who had been subjected to a miracle. They were saved, but also changed, with strange new Talents. Like many, I used to believe the God-touched were chosen, and therefore sacrosanct. But Elizabeth had been God-touched—I witnessed her miracle myself—and that hadn’t saved her. I knew the truth now. God saved people at random, for no more reason or purpose than a leaf falls from a tree. Those He touched were no different from the rest of us, prone to the same mistakes and cruelties that lived in all men’s hearts, and subject to the same laws. But when it came to executing the punishments ordained by those laws, my pious countrymen again became squeamish, and those charged with administering them paid handsomely to be relieved of the responsibility. So I travelled to Canterbury, and the undersheriff there begged me to see his God-touched child murderess hanged. I examined the evidence against her—I knew how little a trial and conviction could mean—and finding it good, I hanged her.

Though the God-touched were rare, the distinction of their Talents seemed to predispose them to criminality. There was a surfeit of them awaiting execution, death being the punishment for all but the merest crimes in the realm of England. I never forgot Elizabeth’s wrongful conviction, though, and assiduously verified that the crimes I was punishing had actually occurred. Once, in Bristol, I was presented with a prisoner who seemed the victim of a grudge rather than the perpetrator of a crime. Faint evidence was offered in support of the indictment, which itself focused more on the ill will of a local magnate than details of a crime.

A grand jury had approved the indictment and a petit jury had confirmed the conviction, but that didn’t sway me. Unlike those men, I couldn’t console myself that ill fortune befell sinners by the grace of God’s will. I had to bear my actions upon my own conscience.

When the undersheriff demanded I carry out the punishment despite my misgivings, I threw the court rolls in his face. His deputies advanced on me, but I tore off my black glove and shouted for any who dared to lay hands on me.

I’d coloured the blood vessels of my hand black with kohl. I left unmolested.

But most of those God-touched souls I encountered were guilty as best I could determine, and my unsmiling face was the last they saw. I often yearned for mercy, to grant clemency as did God and King, but on what basis would I do so? It wasn’t mine to give.

It was a grim life, but prosperous. I was respected by many, feared by the rest, and well paid for my services. I soon had a fine stone house in York, a new-wrought hauberk, and a middle-aged courser bred for battle. I slept easily, comforted by intricately reasoned righteousness.


On the Thursday after Easter Sunday, in the twenty-first year of the reign of King Edward III, I was asked to hang the Lancashire Witch. I travelled to Lancaster Castle, where the gaoler met me in the bailey, standing at the foot of a stepped ramp leading up to the keep’s main entrance. A weathered ladder stood next to us, seemingly leading nowhere, but a gargoyle jutting out from the wall next to the ladder had an empty noose hanging off it.

I asked the gaoler for a description of the accused’s crimes, since the woman wasn’t guilty in my mind until I’d assessed the evidence against her myself.

“She’s grotesquely disfigured,” the gaoler said. “The one side all puckered and scarred like a Devil-cursed burn. She wears wispy white rags, even in the dead of winter, and—”

“But what did she do?”

The goaler stuttered once, then resumed: “Why she flies around on a broomstick, terrorizing goodly folk!”

I flexed my black-gloved hand. “I frighten goodly folk. What did the woman do that’s illegal?”

The goaler delivered a great litany of complaints, rumour, and innuendo, from which I gathered that the woman was a thief stealing the necessities of life, and without violence. That grieved me. It was difficult for the God-touched to continue living in their villages, and banditry was sometimes their only recourse. But from the thoroughness of the gaoler’s account, I held little hope that she would prove falsely accused.

“I’d like to speak with the woman,” I said.

The gaoler produced a trio of interlocking key rings and gestured to a blocky, unadorned tower on the castle’s curtain wall. “We’re keeping her down below the Well Tower.”

He led me to a studded iron gate that opened directly onto stairs leading below the tower. Though it was now spring, each night still brought frigid air. Each morning it retreated down these passageways, relieved only by pockets of dry heat surrounding each guttering sconce.

The Lancashire Witch was asleep, lying on her side facing toward the grille, her hands bound with many coils of rope. As the gaoler had said, there were burn scars all along the left side of her body: from her foot to her shoulder and reaching up into her face.

I didn’t recognize her at first, and why should I? Hers was the death that broke and reshaped my life. Why would I ever expect to find her here, so much changed from when I last saw her, but still beautiful in my eyes?


She stirred at her name; I turned and fled.


The gaoler followed me out. I stammered a confusion of words, promising to return—or perhaps something else, I don’t know what I said. I emerged into the bailey, squinting against faded afternoon sun that now seemed harsh and glaring.

It took three attempts to mount my courser, hopping around like a half-drunk page the first time he saw a horse. I saw Elizabeth’s burns and nothing else. I rode aimlessly. My courser picked his way down from the gatehouse, then turned roughly east, headed for Yorkshire. I cupped my head in my hands. Somehow, Elizabeth had survived the pyre. Her Talent must have saved her. But she’d been suffering the privations of outlawry while I’d been enjoying my fine stone house in York, and now I was charged with executing her.

I turned around and galloped back toward the castle. I had to review the evidence against Elizabeth. I had to believe she was innocent.


She wasn’t.

I was sitting at a trestle table in the keep’s great hall, a candle at my elbow, the court records unrolled before me. I’d examined the indictment and the clerk’s account of the inquest. There were no flaws in the case against Elizabeth. Many witnesses had been interviewed. There was a long and detailed list of property stolen, and some of it had been in Elizabeth’s possession when she was taken. If it were anyone else, I would have proceeded to the execution without qualm.

The candle, which had been tall and proud when I started, was now a squalid, stunted thing, engulfed in bulbous rivulets of once-melted wax.

But it wasn’t anyone else. It was Elizabeth. Surely that meant something. I knew she was stealing only of necessity. It was right here: candles worth 2s, one heifer worth 6s, a blanket worth 18d, a horse laden with food stuffs valued at 20s.

I wondered how many of the other convicts I’d executed had acted out of necessity, or what they believed was necessity. I rested my forehead against the table. If I’d known any of them the way I knew Elizabeth, would I have been so sanguine about meting out their punishments? How could I now justify sparing Elizabeth when I had never spared anyone before?

But how could I do otherwise? This was my chance to redeem myself. I could make restitution on her behalf—repay her victims, see her well enough supported that she wouldn’t need to steal anymore.

I rolled the court records and returned them to their case. It wasn’t honourable. It was self-interested and facile and the worst kind of special pleading, but it was the only course I could live with.


I had to rouse the gaoler from his bed to see Elizabeth.

“Are you going to talk this time?” the gaoler asked. “I’ve no interest in going up and down half a dozen times while you work up the courage for it.”

I let the man prattle all the way down to Elizabeth’s cell—his rebukes were misplaced, but no less than I deserved—then dismissed him before entering. I had to speak with Elizabeth alone.

Her hands were still bound, lashed together with rope wound around her hands until they weren’t even visible, but she was awake, sitting with her legs drawn up toward her chest. What the gaoler had called her “wispy rags” left much of her skin exposed, shaming me with the extent of her burns.

Elizabeth rose to her feet more nimbly than I’d have expected, given the chill and her scant clothing.


“I’m sorry,” I blurted.

“Sorry?” Elizabeth repeated incredulously. “You find me on the eve of my execution to say you’re sorry?”

“I—no. I came to save you.”

“Last time you tried to save me I ended up on a heretic’s pyre.”

I grasped two bars of the grille separating us. “I never meant to testify against you—I didn’t know what I was doing. I was so delirious, I thought I was being tried by an angel of God. And I wanted to protect you. Neither of my first two answers implicated you. Only the third. I lost my courage on the third…”

I hated how the words cascaded from my lips, brimming with tears and fraught with guilt.

If Elizabeth’s heart softened, I couldn’t see it. Perhaps this was how my victims had felt, seeing my stern expression at the end of their lives. I’d been so proud of that. How tall and strong I’d been! It seemed a cruel, wretched thing, now.

“How are you going to help me?” Elizabeth asked.

“It—” My voice still sounded weak. I swallowed and tried again. “It depends. The gaoler said you flew, but how? And how did they hobble you?”

Elizabeth lifted her two bound hands. “I need my hands. I can’t fly on my own, but if I touch something, I can make it fly.” Elizabeth looked past me. “That night in the river, I thought the purse propelled me out of the river, but it was me propelling the purse. I was just hanging onto it.”

I remembered how unnatural her skin had felt as I dragged her from the river, how the cold that had devastated me hadn’t touched her. I looked again at the rags Elizabeth wore. It was actually a single tunic, but torn repeatedly, a filigree of dingy gray cloth. The tears appeared haphazard at first, but I noticed they left Elizabeth’s modesty strategically intact.

“You don’t feel the cold,” I said.

Elizabeth smiled, just a little. It was same smile that had thrilled me all through my youth, now tinged with melancholy that had never been there before.

“Only if it comes on gradually.” Elizabeth rubbed the topmost reaches of her burn scar. “I still feel sudden changes in temperature.”

I had an abrupt vision of how it must have happened. Elizabeth atop the pyre, as confident as I’d ever been dispensing justice to sinners. The panic-inducing realization that she’s not immune. She has to get out. She tries to fly, but she’s bound to the stake, and her skin is beginning to char. She screams and cries and finally lurches into the sky, clothing aflame.

“I will help you,” I said, “but there are conditions.”

Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed, but she nodded for me to continue.

“You—we—have to make amends for your crimes. And no more stealing. I’ll give you―”


I flinched at the finality in Elizabeth’s voice.

“I won’t be dependent on your largesse.”

“It won’t be like that,” I protested. “It will be a gift.”

“Contingent upon my good behaviour.”

“I can’t—I can’t just let you go.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’re guilty!”

“I returned the purse!” Elizabeth slammed the bars of her cell. “You said no one had to know!”

I put my hands through the grille, wishing I could take hers in mine. “I know. I know. That was a travesty and my fault and I want to make it right, but this time you are guilty. You did steal.”

“What else should I have done? They tried to kill me, William. They cast me out and left me to starve.” Elizabeth approached the grille. “I have a counter-proposal. You get me out of here, you let me go, and I promise nothing. I’ll steal if I need to, I’ll hate you if I want to, and if I ever forgive you, it will be God’s own miracle.”

I jerked back as if slapped. “But—” I wanted to insist that she had to forgive me, that I loved her. “I’m trying to help you!”

“Then help me. Without condition, without constraint.” Elizabeth lowered her voice. “I knew you when you were just William Vicarson. I called you friend when everyone else called you the unfortunate by-blow of a drunken priest.”

I crouched down, resting elbows on knees and head on palms. I was in a dark wood, and many paths lay before me, but none led to justice. At every turn, righting one wrong meant causing another.

“I will offer you this parole,” Elizabeth said. “I will act as I always have. If that’s not good enough, then let me hang.”


I did so the very next day, in the morning, from the gargoyle jutting out of the keep. It was the first Monday after Low Sunday, in the twenty-first year of the reign of King Edward III.

I used kohl to paint a network of lines on the skin of my arm, shoulder, and beyond, tracing veins from my fingertips up to the big vessels in my neck. I belted my father’s sword at my hip and donned my hauberk, both polished and gleaming.

In the courtyard, I positioned the knot of the noose just behind Elizabeth’s left ear, then guided her to the rain-stained, sun-beaten ladder. I followed a rung behind, keeping her steady because her palms were still bound by all those loops of rope.

When the other end of the noose was made fast to the gargoyle, I climbed down and tipped the ladder over.

Elizabeth swung down like a pendulum, twisting from side to side, her face limp.

But her arms were taut, straining muscles visible through the tears in her tunic. And hidden within the many coils of rope around her hands, pressed between her two palms, was a stout wooden dowel.

I searched the crowd for any sign of doubt, any recognition that Elizabeth was not being strangled by the neck until death. Once they believed her dead, I would cut her down and “bury” her in the wilderness—to keep her restless spirit from terrorizing the good folk of Lancashire. I didn’t know what would happen after that. I planned to invite Elizabeth to stay with me in York for a few days. I hoped she’d stay longer. I dreamed that she’d stay forever. I’d still be William Blackhand, I’d still execute those God-touched souls who broke the laws of men, but I’d be merciful as I—

My thoughts were interrupted by a shout of outrage. I looked up at Elizabeth. She still hung from the gargoyle, swinging and twisting, but there was something unnatural about the motion, eddies and perturbations with no cause.

“The witch isn’t hanging!” someone cried behind me. “She’s flying!”

Elizabeth’s eyes snapped open, her arms jerked up, and she rose up as far as the noose would allow. She hovered there, straining against the tether.

I crossed myself and breathed a prayer. I’d weakened the knot for exactly this contingency, but deciding how many strands to sever had been pure guesswork. If I hadn’t—

The noose snapped and Elizabeth was free, but an arrow launched behind me and plunged into her shoulder. She plummeted to the ground.

I turned, sweeping my blade from its scabbard. I knew, with the clarity that only crisis brings, what I wanted. More than to be thought a moral man, more even than to be a moral man, I wanted Elizabeth to live.

I loosed a banshee cry and drove into the crowd, heading for the archer. I spared a glance behind me. Elizabeth had bounced off the ground and was struggling for altitude. There was only one bowman. If I dealt with him, Elizabeth would be free to fly from the castle.

Before me, the archer had an arrow nocked and was pulling the string back to his jaw.

I was too far.

I threw my blade two-handed. It tumbled awkwardly end over end, careening into the archer hilt-first. He flinched aside, and I barreled into him before he could re-set his shot. I snapped his bow stave over my knee, then looked around.

Elizabeth had unravelled the false bindings on her hands and was again airborne. Some men within the courtyard were armed, but none with bows, and none were armoured as I was. Yet my position was still dire. I’d reclaimed my sword, but couldn’t cut my way through so many whose only crime was to be present when William Blackhand forsook his honour.

I resolved to try storming the gatehouse, but the gaoler set himself in my path, brandishing a wooden staff.

I raised my sword to high guard, wondering if I could disarm the goaler without harming him. Then a beardless youth joined him, the grim set of his face belied by his trembling hands. When a third man approached, I began to wonder if I could defeat them at all.

Something heavy landed on my back. Wiry arms wrapped around my neck then wormed their way under my hauberk, beneath the tunic within. I bucked and twisted, trying to dislodge my assailant, but strong legs coiled around my waist.

“William—William!” Elizabeth’s voice sounded in my ear, pain-tight and near to breaking. “It’s me!”

I felt insistent pressure and the ground dropped away beneath my feet. We rose slowly at first, but with increasing speed, until air was whipping past my face and whistling in my ears.

“Hold my arms,” Elizabeth said. “I don’t think I can hang on to you by myself.”

I clasped Elizabeth’s arms against my chest as desperately as any shipwrecked soul had ever clung to flotsam. I was an outlaw now, the honour I’d earned denying God spent defying King.

I had to believe the gain was worth the loss.

R. Keelan is a writer and programmer living in Canada. He writes fantasy, science fiction, and software for medical devices. His work has previously been published in Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales from the Margins, Daily Science Fiction, and The Arcanist. Find him online at, on Twitter and Instagram as @R_Keelan, or on Facebook as @R.Keelan.Writer.

“The Original Sin of William Blackhand” by R. Keelan. Copyright © 2020 by R. Keelan. 

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