Read the First Chapter!
About the Book
The year is 1536, and notorious French executioner Jean Rombaud is brought in by Henry VIII to behead Anne Boleyn, the condemned Queen of England. But on the eve of her execution, Rombaud becomes enchanted with the ill-fated queen and swears a vow to her: to bury her six-fingered hand, a symbol of her rumored witchery, at a sacred crossroads.
Yet in a Europe ravaged by religious war, the hand of this infamous Protestant icon is so powerful a relic that many will kill for it. Bloodthirsty warriors, corrupt church fathers, Vikings, alchemists, and sullied noblemen alike vie for the prize as Rombaud, a man loyal to the grave, struggles to honor his promise.
From sea battles to lusty liaisons, from the hallucinations of St. Anthony’s fire to the fortress of an apocalyptic messiah, The French Executioner sweeps readers into a breathtaking story of courage, the pursuit of power, and loyalty at whatever cost.
C.C. Humphreys is the author of eight historical novels. The French Executioner, which was his first novel and a runner-up for the CWA Steel Dagger for Thrillers award in 2002, has never before been published in the U.S. The sequel, The Curse of Anne Boleyn, will be published in the U.S. in May 2015.
Humphreys has acted all over the world and appeared on stages ranging from London’s West End to Hollywood’s Twentieth Century Fox. He is also an accomplished swordsman and fight choreographer. For more information, visit http://cchumphreys.com/
Praise for The French Executioner
“Set against the backdrop of the Protestant Reformation, his superbloody Princess Bride-like adventure is, at its heart, a tale of redemption, well-earned and hard-won.” – Library Journal
“This unusual tale conjures visions of an Errol Flynn-type Hollywood swashbuckler...the tale's well-told, engagingly written, and includes a colorful immersion into a time when life was cheap and danger or death literally waited around every corner. A gory but fascinating...look at the world in the early 16th century.” -Kirkus
Although this novel is set during the Tudor era, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the main focus of the story was the Jean Rombaud. The story centers around Anne Boleyn’s 6thfinger, which the executioner cut off at her request at the moment of beheading, and in which she wanted him to bury it in a secret place in France within a set period. But the finger is stolen by an Archbishop who witnessed the execution for his own greedy purposes. Honor bound to his promise to the dead queen, Jean sets off in pursuit of the Archbishop to recover the relic. Along the way, he accumulates a colorful cast of characters to aid him in his quest.
I loved this swashbuckling action and adventure novel. The storyline had plenty of twists and turns, with plenty of fight scenes, setbacks, and dangerous circumstances to keep me reading to the very end. The story had a touch of fantasy to it too, but it was done in a highly credible way. My favourite part of the book was Jean Rombaud’s encounter with Anne Boleyn before and after the execution. It was brilliantly done and remains as one of the most vivid scenes throughout this rich novel. Another winner by Humphrey! A stunning, fun tale!
READ THE FIRST CHAPTER
It was unseasonably cold for a late May night, but the gibbet’s former occupant was too dead to care and his replacement too unconscious. It was the three men-at-arms who grumbled about it, and though the removal of the skeleton from the torso-shaped cage required some strenuous snapping and pulling, they were not grateful for the warmth of the exercise. With their prisoner finally wedged in and the cage’s key replaced on its hook, they returned to their horses. Pressing themselves against the warm flanks, the soldiers brushed the gibbet’s leavings from their cloaks, and grumbled still.
“Such a beautiful night.” The voice came silky and warm from beneath folds of cloak and fur, the breath a steady stream into the frosty air. “Look, a comet! In Siena we’d say: there’s another virginity gone.”
There was a laugh, as silken as the voice, followed by a cough. A piece of red cloth dabbed at the lips.
Heinrich von Solingen turned toward the man who had just spoken, the man whose every command he obeyed. Heinrich was confused. He liked things ordered and simple. They had gotten what His Holiness wanted. Wrapped in velvet, it rested now in His Holiness’s saddlebags. Confusion made him angry and bold enough to question.
“I don’t see why we are here, my lord. Why didn’t we just kill the Frenchman back at the inn?”
“I think you tried, didn’t you?”
“I mean after, when he was unconscious.”
The smaller figure shifted in his saddle. Moonlight fell on a sharp forehead, a long straight nose, fleshy lips. There was a touch of something sad in the silkiness now.
“Really, after what he did, we should have tried him as a heretic then given him to God’s redeeming fire. Alas, the time is not right for his story to be told abroad. So we give him here, into God’s hands.”
“But my lord archbishop—”
The blow surprised Heinrich because the Italian was neither young nor, he thought, especially strong. Pain contradicted that impression.
“I’ve warned you about using my title in a public place.”
“I am sorry, my lord, but there is only the prisoner and my men—”
The hand emerged again from within the cloak and moonlight glinted on heavy rings, which explained the blood now running down Heinrich’s chin.
“Enough! You are a fool and I another to let you question me. There may be a gibbet keeper nearby who would recognize the rank. And your men did not know it till now. I must think. Get them to find the keeper.”
A curt command and the three soldiers began to search where they could, yet there was little there: a bare crossroads a league beyond a village with neither tree nor bush nearby. Little for the full moon to shine upon but the dangling, vaguely human iron form, the crossbeamed support and the midden of gibbet filth on which, in six parts now, sprawled the cage’s last tenant.
The men reported their failure.
“Very well.” The Italian coughed, a gout of blood caught in the swiftly raised cloth. There was little he could do now; and even if the keeper did lurk and had somehow heard Heinrich’s indiscretion…Well, how could a creature of such an occupation threaten a prince of the Holy Church?
Giancarlo Cibo, Archbishop of Siena, decided he could take the risk. He didn’t take many—it was how he survived the hurly-burly of life back in Italy after all. He wouldn’t take another with Heinrich’s men. Heinrich would have to deal with them himself, later, a fitting punishment for his indiscretion. Perhaps incorporating some unusual methods. The archbishop would like to see that. It would truly upset the surly German. The archbishop would like to see that too.
“Put double the usual coins in the offertory. Let’s pay the keeper well,” he said, all silk and smoothness again.
Ducats were dropped into a small box at the base of the gibbet, and Heinrich went back to join his men. There he listened to his blood drip onto the pommel of his saddle, kept his silence, and watched from a distance as the archbishop pushed his horse right up to the gibbet.
The Italian leaned forward until it looked as if he was almost kissing the cage’s iron-slatted face. Until he could feel the breath of the man inside on his own lips. The man’s breathing was erratic; Heinrich’s men had beaten him badly when they finally felled him. Not surprising, as the Frenchman had killed two of their number and incapacitated two more, his strange, square-headed sword dancing graceful and deadly among the suddenly leaden-footed Germans. Heinrich had said it was an executioner’s sword, much favored in France as a more humane way of dispatching traitors, if their rank and purses deserved it. The sword would make a fine trophy on his palace wall, for he knew just whose neck had last been severed with it. A neck and something far more unusual—a six-fingered hand.
“Why did you do it, Jean?” Cibo whispered into the cage. “A belief that it could heal, like the bones of St. Agnes? Is that what you thought she was, Jean, a saint and martyr for the new religion? Or was it gold? The most powerful relic in the world would have fetched more than you could have earned in a lifetime of head taking.”
The unconscious man had no answer for him, beyond his shallow breaths. The archbishop studied the face before him. Features somewhat finer than was common among the French, a smaller nose, thick black hair now slick with the blood and sweat of the fight. It was ordinary. He was always surprised when ordinary men did extraordinary things.
“I do wonder about you, Jean. Sadly, I will never know. But it’s mine now, a greater weapon than any executioner’s sword for myself and for Mother Church. We’ll have to see how best we two can use it.”
And with that, Cibo turned his horse and broke straight into a gallop. He was proud of his horsemanship and his steeds were trained to respond to his instant whim. The Germans were surprised and, with Heinrich bellowing orders, followed as swiftly as they were able.
Such was the speed of their departure, such their pleasure in forsaking that dismal place, that no one even glanced back at the gibbet cage and its new occupant. If they had, they would have seen that the first effects of their beating had worn off.
Jean Rombaud, master executioner and recent slayer of Anne Boleyn, had woken up.