It was unseasonably damp in The Skirrid Inn on the night of 17th June, 1724. A tremendous storm had struck during the day, clearing the early summer humidity and setting the scene for a dramatic couple of days in the small town of Knaresborough.
Unfortunately, the clientele couldn’t focus on the highly anticipated event scheduled for the 18th, nor could they enjoy their inebriation in their usual good humour, for there was something bothering the punters of the inn. The Executioner, rarely seen in public during those days, was visiting. He was sitting alone in the corner of the inn, lit up intermittently by the flickering wick of a candle. A tankard of beer lay empty in front of him, but he wouldn’t go to the bar to order another; the landlord didn’t like that.
The punters were huddled together next to the scorched fireplace. They were speaking at a lower volume than usual and more infrequently. The atmosphere was distinctly tense, which didn’t fit the pleasant petrichor smell that had arrived with the rain. Even the drunkest drunkard, swaying on a wooden stool at the bar, was on his best behaviour, keeping his mouth shut to avoid discharging his typical foul remarks. He kept them to himself, poisoning his insides with his filthy thoughts and a constant flow of alcohol.
The Executioner knocked loudly on the table with his rugged hand curled into a fist, then lifted his index finger to signify to the bar keeper that he wanted another tankard of ale. The bar keeper shuffled over with the frothy brew, laid it on the opposite end of the table and pushed it across to The Executioner with the palms of both hands, avoiding eye contact throughout the transaction.
As it always did, the bar keeper’s unfriendliness saddened The Executioner, but he was accustomed to it by then.
Enduring the public, and its superstitious prejudice, was a necessary burden on that particular night, as The Executioner had a death to deliver the following day. It was only the fourth execution he had had commissioned in 1724, so he was out of practice and needed to fill his stomach with liquor to chase off the nerves.
The frequency of jobs had declined as the years had gone on. Not because of his increasing age or his deteriorating strength, but because of the growing distaste, amongst the enlightened gentry, for capital punishment. The baying masses still craved the gore, but this was not a time in which the proletariat held the ear of the ruling class. On the 18th June, however, they were due to get the pound of flesh they so desired, for the condemned would not be getting a pardon after her particularly discourteous crime.
The Executioner, although less prosperous, was invigorated by the downturn in his profession. He despised the practice. The horror of it all; the suffering, the injustice, the window into the dark corners of humankind. From his vantage point, he believed that he witnessed the very essence of evil that lived and breathed amongst his species. He believed also that he had been condemned to embody it in a physical form.
Each of his many executions troubled him deeply. His father, an executioner as well, of course, had reassured him that it would become easier, just like riding a horse. His father was profoundly disappointed when he saw in his son’s eyes that it never did, eventually dying ashamed of the boy that he had brought into the world. How much more ashamed he would have been if he had known that his only son had dreamt of being a painter or a sculptor; an enthusiastic participant in post-Renaissance Europe.
The patrons of The Skirrid Inn were on high alert when they heard The Executioner’s chair scrape across the wooden floor. They watched fixedly as the considerable lump of a man lumbered to his feet. He pulled a leather pouch from his pocket and lay a few coins on the table.
All the while he kept his eyes away from his spectators; he didn’t want to trouble them further. As he walked passed them, they recoiled a few feet in fear. The Touch of The Executioner was considered a curse, but little did they understand that the only curse was on the lonely man exiting the inn.
The most suitable word to describe the ambience of The Executioner’s Waiting Room was ‘unparalleled.’ Nowhere else in the known world were the senses on such alert, nowhere else was the vulnerability of mortality so keenly felt and deliberated over in the depths of one’s soul. It was a dreary stone cell 16ft by 16ft buried halfway underground. A comical twilight dripped in from a thin horizontal window; for the condemned it felt like they had already arrived in purgatory. Unfortunately for them, they still had to suffer the unpleasant business of dying.
Krystabelle Abergavenny paid little attention to the pomp of the affair, she didn’t even pray as she waited. She sat on the stool in the middle of the room, as radiant and cultivated as always, eager to get the whole ordeal over and done with. It was remarked that she had the most steadfast posture in the whole of England, but it did not make her appear ridged, rather more celestial, ordained perhaps.
When The Executioner entered the room with the priest, he was shocked to his foundations at the beauty of the woman that sat in front of him. He had overheard rumours of Krystabelle Abergavenny’s elegance, but never could he have envisioned such exquisiteness. Her long blond hair flowed free across her shoulders, delicate cheek bones outlined her petite nose and set the foundations for her sky-like eyes. To violently remove such a creature from the earth felt villainous to The Executioner. Another sin for him to bear.
He approached her hesitantly, not escaping her kind-hearted gaze for a second. Once he dared to look directly into her eyes, a wave of emotion hit him so profoundly that he felt as though he would cry – not for the first time in his illustrious career.
After the priest recited the last rites to the prisoner, he ordered a banquet to be brought in for Krystabelle. This was offered to all those condemned to death, a last delicious meal before their senses were rendered permanently retired. Often, it was the finest meal the condemned had ever enjoyed; a quick reminder of the worldly delights that they would be leaving behind.
Krystabelle gracefully declined the feast; she had eaten enough splendid food in her lifetime and preferred that it be eaten by somebody who would live long enough to benefit from its energy.
To see such tranquillity within Krystabelle Abergavenny made The Executioner increasingly anxious. A sickness entered his belly that no amount of vomiting could expel. To control the nerves, he drunk generously from his flask of liquor that he procured illicitly from The Skirrid Inn the night before.
On the street outside the waiting room, the beginnings of a mob stood in irresistible anticipation, cramming the mile-long stretch that led to the ravenstone in the centre of town. It had been the scandal of the century in Knaresborough, and nobody wanted to miss its final act. Hardly an inch of pavement was clear, it seemed as though even the rats and the mice had taken to the streets to attend the morbid festivities.
After a morning filled with jubilation, the first moment of silence fell upon the crowd when Krystabelle Abergavenny emerged from the town jail. She was flanked on either side by The Executioner and the priest. The priest muttering religious nonsense in Latin, The Executioner struggling to focus his vision and regretting his liberal consumption of liquor.
Despite the disrespect that Krystabelle was set to endure and the rampant defamation of her character that had lasted for months, the majority of the crowd still felt a sense of inferiority in the presence of such a noble woman. She stood in front of the great mass of human loathing without a shred of malice. A fleeting smile set upon her delicate features as she let the two men lead her forward.
With her first step began the jeers. Hisses and shouts, all manner of inconceivable slander. Likenings to farmyard animals, potent imagery of erotic misconduct, it was the release of a great swath of extraordinary envy – an emotion that was frequently bottled up inside the lowly peoples of the time.
The bitterness amidst the crowd was part frustration against the inequality that epitomised the age and part outrage at the crime for which Krystabelle Abergavenny was set to be punished; murdering one’s husband was highly frowned upon, no matter how abusive and wicked that husband might have been.
One man looked on with a different flavour of dismay. The one-time lover of Krystabelle Abergavenny and her full-time admirer. He had been inconsolable since the arrest of the woman whom he dreamt about in each of his lonely nights, reaching a fierce crescendo of horror on the day that she would be torn away from his hopes forever.
Walking along the grubby street from the jail to the ravenstone took longer than usual. As this was the last time she would experience the world that she knew so very little of, Krystabelle took everything in greedily. For the first time, she savoured the thick stench of rotting waste and human excretion that filled the main street, and the occasional unwashed odour of the on looking crowd. She marvelled at the modern wooden scaffolding that surrounded the four-story bibliotheca, she cherished the provocative sign outside of the central pub, she appreciated the fashionable brickwork that was used to construct the bridge over the river. It was a small world, but a growing town, and all was overseen by the church sat upon the hill in the distance, blackmailing the inhabitants of Knaresborough with everlasting judgement.
The ravenstone was the centrepiece in Knaresborough’s main square, between the courthouse and the town hall. A small outlet of the newly established Bank of England was located in the corner of the square. It wasn’t explicit, but it was explicitly known, that any blunder with one of the four landmarks of the square would inevitably lead to one of the others.
As with the main street running through the town, the square was crammed with spectators. The town’s folk were more gregarious than usual, discussing with strangers the finer details of the case and, of course, the potential contours of its fast approaching conclusion. A small number of enterprising individuals had taken advantage of the occasion to sell some hot gingerbread, while other, less scrupulous, entrepreneurs were trying their hand at pickpocketing members of the crowd.
When Krystabelle Abergavenny reached the ravenstone, The Executioner led her up the steps alone. The priest was left to continue his gibbering at ground level, granting him licence to wash his hands of the murder that was about to unfold.
Looking out at the crazed eyes and the gnarled teeth of her formerly-cherished neighbours, Krystabelle felt her first wrenches of fear – an emotion she could control better than most, but when opened could fester irrepressibly like an infected wound. She clamped her jaw and forced her mind back to simpler times, before becoming aware of her noble heritage, before her regrettable marriage, before the unravelling of these most unfortunate events.
As the town crier read out the charge against Krystabelle Abergavenny, The Executioner placed her into position. First, he tied her hands with a piece of rope, then he whispered into her ear for her to go down onto one knee while applying the slightest downwards pressure on her shoulders. He felt a sense of shame that he could not formulate into a thought let alone into words. She glanced up at him as she descended, defeating his last resolve, leaving him too weak to pick up his sword.
And a mighty sword it was. Sculpted from the sternest steel, it had been in The Executioner’s family for three generations, and had done away with more heads than anyone had cared to count. The tip of the sword was blunt and flat, to save it from the chores of combat, but the length of the steel blade was viciously sharp. The handle was wrapped in burgundy leather that was soft to the touch. The body of the blade had mysterious markings on it, the meanings of which had long since been forgotten. The Executioner’s father and his father before him had affectionately called the sword The Varmint, but The Executioner was repulsed by the device, so refrained from addressing it directly.
As Krystabelle’s knee touched the floor, the fabric of her linen dress fell away from her shoulder, a slip that would have been highly provocative in another context, but on that particular day, it made her seem somewhat childlike.
With great effort, The Executioner picked up the sword. His eyes were blurred from the liquor and from the tension of the occasion. Children were sat on the shoulders of their parents, some covering their eyes with their hands, but peeping through their fingers. The crowd fell quiet again, the revelry was paused for those few self-reflective moments as the silence forced the community to question in its communal mind the virtue of state-sponsored slaughter.
One last obscenity was howled at the condemned, then The Executioner took his swing.
Before the onlookers could absorb what had happened, a high-pitched scream rang out around the square. Krystabelle fell forward roughly, hitting her cheek on the floor of the ravenstone; head still in place.
A lump of flesh and bone, adorned with that gorgeous blond hair, flew some distance into the crowd, eventually hitting an elderly man in his chest and giving him an awful freight.
The Executioner looked down in horror at the bloody gash that he had opened up on Krystabelle’s head. He wanted to fall to his knees, embrace her, beg her for forgiveness, and carry her speedily to the physician. But etiquette would not allow for anything of the sort. He was obliged to complete the sentence; failure of which would result in his own severe punishment.
The brutality of The Executioner’s blunder had shocked the crowd into compassion. Grins were replaced with grimaces and the occasional twitch of the eye, as if the audience had collectively eaten an over-pickled radish. One observer was clearly more distressed than the rest, Krystabelle’s former lover. He called out repeated appeals for mercy alongside a concerto of “oh”s in varying pitches. Those that were stood close to him withdrew slightly as though he were diseased; a leper fit for quarantine.
Although she appeared drained of any remaining strength and was in considerable pain, Krystabelle rallied herself, amidst her sobs, to get back onto one knee. Considering the blow that she had been dealt, it was miraculous that she managed to maintain her impeccable posture; a marvel of her heritage and education.
By now, The Executioner considered it his duty to put the dear girl out of her misery as quickly as possible. He felt a rise in temperature infiltrate his senses, sweat start to drip down his face. He cocked the sword, but, rushing with his swing, again he missed the neck, this time hacking off Krystabelle’s finely detailed jaw.
The gasps in the audience after the second blow were those of pure exacerbation. Members of the crowd with heightened sensibilities fainted in shock. The beautiful girl who had grown up amongst them, who had been married off to the local duke too young and abused too often, lay mutilated and despondent in front of them. The sight of her flesh was suddenly too much for the once bloodthirsty crowd to endure.
There was a palatable will for Krystabelle’s suffering to be over. The Executioner felt this turn in temperament keenly, adding to his already overwhelming nerves. To complicate matters further, there was a short pause before he could take his third swing, as Krystabelle was no longer able to rise unaided. The town crier and his apprentice rushed onto the stage to help her; the apprentice vomiting in his mouth when he saw the mangled face at such close proximity, then swallowing the bile back down to avoid embarrassment.
Once Krystabelle was back in position, propped up by a wooden stool, The Executioner took his third swing.
His mind now wildly uncontrollable, his third attempt was his most wayward, burying the sword deep into her shoulder.
Krystabelle was silent as the sword struck her for the third time, the only sound, a loud thud from the blow. The Executioner let go of the sword, but it stayed stuck into her shoulder. He stepped backwards, all too aware that he had broken the unwritten three-strike limit, and that the crowd was not in a forgiving mood.
Missiles of stone and brick flew haphazardly past The Executioner, landing hard on the ravenstone, with one knocking the delirious Krystabelle, who had astonishingly remained upright, to the floor. He had not encountered this situation before and froze in the pandemonium, unsure of what to do.
Before he was obliged to make a decision, fate took control.
A brick, launched with extreme malice from the grip of the one-time lover of Krystabelle Abergavenny, clattered into the side of The Executioner’s cranium, dealing him a blow that would render him immediately unconscious and eventually dead. He fell with a thud alongside the still conscious, but hardly coherent, Krystabelle Abergavenny, in a twist of irony that lived long within the onlookers, longer than any sense of remorse for the ordeal suffered by the girl. An irony that occasionally materialised as a wry smile on the face of the citizens of Knaresborough, who enjoyed orating their quip about the executioner who died in disgrace before he could finish his final job.
Image: Linda Spashett (Storye book) [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D
6 thoughts on “The Caste of the Executioner by Virgil Barrington”
Excellent story! The three failed strikes was a very clever way of making the reader feel like part of the crowd, hoping that there would be no more failed attempts.
Hard going, but wonderfully told. The part in the tavern especially exceptional. The drunk keeping himself to himself thus poisoning himself was a fine touch.
Well told tale, tightly written, the author kept the suspense up, absorbed me within the well detailed atmosphere of the time. The characters were vividly described and the protagonist’s conflict believable. In Canada, the executioner was always known as “Mr. Ellis” after a very prolific British executioner of that name.
Beautifully told with vivid descriptions. It was gripping from the start. I didn’t expect the prisoner to be who it turned out to be.
He was hated and feared in life and ridiculed in death. Neither the most inspiring existence or memorable legacy.
Brilliant tone and you got a fair bit of atmosphere into this.
All the very best my friend.
Thanks for the feedback, much appreciated