I read this short fiction (short story or novelette) at least 20 years ago.

As in one of my other questions there is in fact no actual element of Fantasy, but it was in a F&SF collection (which might have been much older).

It takes place in Prague. I just went through a time-line of Prague and "Battle of White Mountain" stroke a chord. So it was after the troops of the Holy Roman Empire retook Prague in 1620 after defeating one more revolt.

Two men are sentenced to death. But the executions did not work out. Not just once but several times. The weather is unseasonably cold, even for winter in Prague. Once they should be hanged, and the ropes break before the necks of the men. Because they were frozen and lacked elasticity ? Once they should be drowned, and the Vlatlava has frozen solid. At least one, maybe two more executions fail, I forgot the details. But the story end with one last double execution that finally works and the death of the two men.

Now the most important part of the story is the discussions that the two men have in their prison between the many execution attempts. All the failures have a rational, natural explanation. But unlikely to happen, even once. So several times in a row ? Is it pure luck? Divine intervention? Witchcraft?

It is clear that none of these men has made a pact with the Devil, but maybe someone did it for them ? Or the Devil, even without being summoned, just for making trouble ?

This succession of potentially natural, but very unlikely, events is the only part of "Fantasy" in the story.

They consider lots of hypotheses, but at the end they are executed. I do remember that I did not see the point of the story.

So of course I will "accept" an answer with just the correct title, but if anyone can try and explain to me the point of the story, I believe the rules are that I can give a bonus (fifty points only !) even if the correct answer is already given, for a satisfactory (to me !) explanation.

John Rennie has found the answer : Experimentum Crucis by Rivka Jacobs.

He proposed an explanation for the point of the very end, the choice of an execution method that did not fit the list mentioned in the letter sent by a Jesuit

"Utere jure tuo, Caesar, servosque Lutheri. Ense, rota, ponto, funibus, igne neca.”

"Use your right, Caesar, and the servants of Luther. Kill with sword, wheel, bridge, ropes, fire."

"bridge" translated by "water" in the story, understood as throwing the into the river from a bridge

Execution by squad was not mentioned, so the point is, if these methods did not work, better kill them by another one than give up.

But this does not address the discussions the two men had in their prison, which constitute a sizable fraction of the story.

Can anyone offer a better explanation ?

I thought I could offer a bonus even after the questio nwas answered, but I cannot find how. Was I mistaken ?

  • Are you confident that the spelling was "Vlatlava" and not "Vltava?" (Or perhaps "Vlatava.")
    – DavidW
    Sep 6 at 15:48
  • 2
    I don't remember the spelling in the story ! My memory from my visit in Prague sounded like Vlatava in my mind, but Wiki says Vltava. Vlatlava is clearly a mistake I made when writing it just now !
    – Alfred
    Sep 6 at 16:23
  • @Alfred You can offer a bounty, but not during the first 48 hours after posting the question. Sep 7 at 12:36
  • @Alfred I have expanded on my interpretation of the story. See if you think it is more convincing now. Sep 7 at 12:50
  • @JohnRennie Yes, I know about the 48 hours delay. But before a question has an accepted answer, there appears a line saying something like "bonus will be possible in XXX hours" but this line has disappeared when I accepted your answer.
    – Alfred
    Sep 8 at 6:54

1 Answer 1


The story is Experimentum Crucis by Rivka Jacobs. I read it in A Spadeful of Spacetime edited by Fred Saberhagen, and according to the ISFDB this is the only place the story was published.

The prisoners are Matyas of Braunau and Vaclav of Moravia. The first attempt at an execution is beheading by sword, but the sword breaks:

The clean-shaven soldier roused, lifted the heavy nicked sword with assiduous nonchalance. He swung the blade to full arms' length above his head. There was a muted thud and sharp rattle. Vaclav instinctively twisted to observe—the weapon lay broken beside its fallen wielder. The lithic surface seemed to shine more brightly. Deepened by underlying blemishes, it seemed to glisten an accentuation. "Witchcraft," he muttered. He rose, one hand kneading a knee.

A new sword is procured, but when the executioner raises it the sword is struck by some form of ball lightning or possibly St. Elmo's fire:

Lastly, the executioner caught their reactions and gazed up. He yelped like a beaten dog—a ball of luminescence was rapidly expanded and draining down toward his hands. Above, the cloud bellies rolled, bellowed. Droplets began to spatter. He threw the weapon wide. It landed with a clatter at the foot of the parapet.

It's after this that they are thrown into the Vltava to drown, but the river is frozen and the ice doesn't break. Then comes the hanging and the rope breaks. They are finally executed by a firing squad.

And now we come to the thorny issue of interpretation. The trouble with this is that authors do not necessarily have oracular powers, nor do their stories necessarily have a deep inner meaning. Some of my favourite authors have written stories that can best be described as idle experimentation rather than deep thoughts.

Having said this, I think Jacobs is musing about the ascent from superstition to rationality. The discussion between the two prisoners is an attempt to explain their luck in rational terms. Towards the end of the story Vaclac recounts his dream that they were being manipulated by some form of superior intelligence, and he says of these beings:

"They did not spare us. They are experimenting. We learn by necessity, they by callous, impartial application. Someday we will rise above our fervent desire to convert life and become as they, capable of using life. For better or worse."

(my emphasis)

Consider also the (consumptive) officer in charge of the executions. At first he has to do them in the way the church demands:

Words reverberated in his imagination - Utere iure tuo, Caesar… kill them by sword, by wheel, by water, by rope and by fire.

But after these have failed the officer is allowed to do it the rational way and performs the execution with a firing squad. At the end the officer muses:

This revelation empowered him, swelled his grasp on fate. He stepped casually to the side of the file, gripped his hands loosely behind his back. Let the Jesuits or Ferdinand take an eye for an eye, he decided, the Lord was served best by disregarding Him. He spoke phlegmatically, "Present arms…".

  • Two notes: after the attempted drowning both prisoners note that they had previously survived the wheel: "This is thrice for me. They tried the wheel earlier." And the story can be read at the Internet Archive (registration required).
    – DavidW
    Sep 6 at 17:17
  • @John Rennie Clearly my story. I'll reread it on Internet Archive to be sure your explanation of the point is sufficient. It does not really address the discussions between the two prisoners, only the final paragraph...
    – Alfred
    Sep 6 at 18:45
  • 1
    The theme of the triumph of technology over superstition does not make much sense. If there is nothing at play but a run of terribly bad (good?) luck, there is nothing special about executing them with guns—they would have been just as likely to succeed if they had just tried one of the other methods again. The message then becomes "superstition is wrong (but modern technology is no better than no or older technology)." If there was actual supernatural intervention at work, then the message becomes "superstition is completely correct, but modern technology has more powerful magic than swords."
    – Adamant
    Sep 7 at 6:22
  • @Adamant Why not add an answer with your own interpretation? Since Alfred has specifically asked about interpretation as well as identification that seems like a perfectly good answer to me. Personally I suspect the author is just playing with ideas and there is no deep inner meaning. Sep 7 at 9:19
  • @JohnRennie I read your expanded answer. I still don't see the point of the dream. But your remark "nor do their stories necessarily have a deep inner meaning" is true. Maybe I should not try to get a deeper meaning in this dream. Anyway it is moot now, since contrary to what I thought, it seems impossible to start a bonus after the answer has been accepted. Unless someone tells me how.
    – Alfred
    Sep 8 at 5:40

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