The wind gusted, the storm rumbled closer. Watched by the portly county
magistrate, the executioners dragged the condemned up steps onto the
scaffold. Avoiding looking him in the eye, Rufus took James. His sons
took the two boys. The sight of branding irons on hot coals made the
shorter thief lose control of his bladder. Sir Giles noted this. A smile
creased his tight mouth.
Three powerfully built armed men, mercenaries, marked by the scars of
foreign wars, watched from the fringe of the forest unnoticed by the
crowd. Cedric, Andrew, and Gareth, companions since youth, had been away
for five years, serving in the army of Philip of Spain. Now the Prince
needed eyes and ears in England, to judge when the rebellions had been
crushed, and it was politic for him to marry the English Queen, Mary
Tudor. This had been a golden opportunity for the three men to return
home and become rich. They had been assigned to the service of a
Dominican Inquisitor named Córdoba, proud and haughty as Spaniards
were, but perhaps the cleverest leader they had known. It was good to be
back in the old country. There were worse tasks than to observe an
execution at his behest. Cedric, the tallest, regarded the sky, hoping
that proceedings would be underway before the storm broke. Faugh!
Certainly, English weather had not changed.
Rufus and his sons secured the prisoners to posts in readiness for the
ritual of torture and dismemberment. James surveyed the crowd, to see
whether his uncle was attending. Yes. There he was. Sir Giles De Fries,
surrounded by a squad of his personal guard. Uncle and nephew stared at
each other coldly. Arrogant whelp, thought Sir Giles, how brave will you
be, as fingers and toes are snipped from your body? He had sent the
headsman a list of the torments he wished to see. He cared nothing about
the imminent storm. He would stand in the rain for an hour, if need be,
to ensure that each and every punishment was inflicted. Sir Giles was a
man who took cruelty seriously.
Unseen by the crowd, and shielded particularly from Sir Giles’ view,
Rufus took the pouch around his neck, and squeezed the contents, a dark
sticky mixture little more than a spoonful, into the palm of his hand.
He raised it to James. “Open your mouth. It will numb the pain.”
“Nay; give it to the lads,” replied James, with a toss of his head,
as if to shrug off the temptation.
“It’s for you.”
“Look at them, man! I will not have it.”
“I gave Alice my word,” the headsman insisted.
James was shocked. “Alice? Do you know?” James stared into the
executioner’s eyes. “I did not dishonor her.” Rufus nodded. He
knew his daughter.
“Tell her I died well.”
“You won’t die well, ’lest you swallow this,” growled Rufus.
Ben stepped up beside his father: “Da?” “Keep ’em busy.” Ben
distracted the crowd by displaying a favorite instrument of torture, a
metal ring for tightening round the skull till the eyeballs popped from
their sockets. The crowd roared its disapproval.
In the crawlspace, Alice flinched at the sound. Her mother tried to
comfort her. “Be strong...be strong...”
“ ’Fore God, I demand justice,” Alice whispered fiercely.
On the scaffold above, James again refused the opiate. Rufus shook his
head. “Alice is here...below.” James was aghast. “Why?” Rufus
had no answer. The prospect of Alice hearing him give in to pain was
more than James could bear. “Why?” James asked again.
“She is willful…I forbad it. For her sake…and for yours.”
“Send her away!” pleaded James.
“It is too late.” Rufus raised the potion in his hand.
“Please...” James breathed deeply, summoning his last reserves of
courage. He gestured the young thieves. “Give it to them, sir!”
The pause in the proceedings escaped Sir Giles, who had lapsed into a
triumphant reverie. Not before time, he thought, the final impediment to
his brother’s estate was about to be removed. He had hated the elder
Reynard, their parents’ favorite, who after their deaths was
frequently away on the late King’s business, leaving Giles to steward
the estate to which he should rightfully have been heir. Instead,
Reynard had married late in life and had bequeathed it to his stepson,
James. Sir Giles indulged himself in these ruminations, the more to
savor the punishment to come: “…that strutting popinjay, befriender
of peasants and pamphleteers…soon his head, full of radical poison
courtesy of a Parisian education, would be cleaved from his shoulders,
thanks be to God...nay, James was not fit to rule lands that bridge
three counties…better yet, his death will deter this town from joining
the rebellion to the south.” A single drop of rain brought Sir Giles
back to the matter in hand.
The officiating magistrate noted the thunderclouds now rumbling overhead
and waited no longer. He unfurled a scroll, signaling for quiet from the
crowd, which jeered in response. His eyes flashed with anger at the
disrespect. Clearing his throat, he bellowed for silence at the top of
his lungs. Before the second syllable had ended, an arrow slammed
between his teeth. He sank, gurgling blood. The crowd roared its
Lightning flashed from the clouds and the storm broke, disorienting the
crossbowmen scanning the crowd for the hidden archer. Arrows thudded
into three of them, as more men in the crowd opened their cloaks to
reveal longbows and let loose a deadly volley. James’ heart leapt. He
had not expected rescue. Horsemen and foot soldiers were overwhelmed.
Years of suppressed rage against injustice had exploded into bloodlust
against all authority. Sir Giles was shocked, angry, but saw that he was
outnumbered. His guards closed ranks about him and commenced a fighting
Two of the mercenaries wanted to intervene, but Cedric stayed them with
a look. Their orders were to observe and it was clear that the three of
them, strong soldiers though they were, could not affect the outcome
against so many.
Rufus signaled his sons to hide below. Ben reached the steps first, just
dodging an arrow. He missed his footing, and slammed into a post,
falling dazed downstairs into the crawlspace. Rufus and Will rapidly
followed, shedding their hoods. They grabbed headsman’s axes to defend
themselves against the crowd now tearing through the lattice. Harriet
cradled Ben in her arms. Rufus turned to yell at Alice: “Run, child!
Two of Sir Giles’ guards, cut off from escape, used their halberds to
chop through the lattice into the crawlspace. An arrow felled one at
Alice’s feet. Picking up the fallen halberd, Alice moved to protect
her mother. Too late. A townsman clubbed Harriet unconscious, while
others advanced on Alice. She swung the halberd. They backed away. Then
the invading crowd’s attention was diverted by the sudden overpowering
of the executioner and his other son. Alice heard a villager’s voice
cut through the din: “String ’em up!”
As her family were dragged up the steps to the platform, Alice and her
father shared one last agonized glimpse. She knew now that she must run
or share their fate. Using the halberd as a battering ram, she smashed
through the lattice. Torrential rain pelted down. Thunder and lightning
split the air as Alice dashed from the rear of the scaffold. She looked
up, trying to learn the fate of her family, but cheering villagers
obscured her view. James would save them, she hoped desperately, if he
was still alive. She saw the young sheep stealers, released from their
bonds, bolt free. Then someone tried to grab her. She ducked, and ran
towards a group of townsfolk sheltering at the tree line. Her coif
slipped from her head and her bright hair streamed behind her in the
freshening wind. The villagers gaped through the downpour as her shape
loomed, wild-eyed, howling like a banshee and swinging the halberd. The
Alice’s escape into the trees had been observed by the mercenaries.
Cedric decided that there was a little flexibility in their orders.
“Some sport, mayhap?” he offered. Without hesitation, they headed
along the tree line in pursuit. Unaware, Alice ran through the forest as
nimbly as her bare feet allowed until she was a good distance away. She
stopped under a gnarled oak, her panting giving way to miserable sobs.
She looked back, but the storm and descending twilight obscured her
pursuers till one burst through a bush a few yards away, a thin-faced
pockmarked man with curly red hair, holding a short length of rope.
Alice immediately understood his intentions. She grabbed the halberd and
turned to run. Another appeared on the path ahead of her, dagger drawn.
Then a third closed in from her flank. Jabbing with the spear point of
the halberd, she held them off, till they all rushed her at once. She
swung the weapon in a wide arc. Her targets ducked. The axe head
embedded in the trunk of the oak. They were on her before she could free
The mercenaries had often shared peasant prey like this throughout their
travels, and fell into a familiar routine. Gareth grabbed her wrists and
sought to bind her. Andrew used his dagger to cut the cord at her waist.
Cedric ripped off the soaking woolen shift. Alice was now naked, but
slippery. As they put their hands on her, she twisted out of their
grasp. They lunged at her but she was too quick. She snatched up a
fallen tree branch, parried a dagger thrust, and then swung the branch
into Gareth’s groin, before backhanding it into Andrew’s temple.
Both fell stunned. Cedric recoiled and slipped in the mud. Alice took
off in the opposite direction. Before her attackers could collect
themselves, she had vanished into the swirling rain.
As Alice hurtled through the forest, the storm reached a paroxysm of
sheet lightning and explosive thunder. Disoriented, she slammed into a
tree and fell. Her vision blurred, colors changed. Everything slowed.
Echoing sounds assaulted her ears. A thick hedge appeared in front of
her. She crawled through it, only to tumble down a steep grassy slope,
rolling onto a hard, smooth, rain swept surface. Then a distant noise
made her freeze. Moving lights pierced the rain ahead, dancing along the
opposite hedge, approaching with extraordinary speed. Dizzy with
exhaustion, Alice tried to get up. The lights became two eyes of a
hulking roaring Beast approaching fast. Her strength gave out; she sank
to her knees. The roaring became a screeching, like the caw of a
monstrous crow. The Beast twisted a little in its path as it closed on
her, stopping inches from her face.
Alice could feel the pulsing heat of its body, breathing on her from a
narrow slit between the intense light of its glowing eyes. There was a
clicking sound. What was this hellish creature? The flank of the beast
swung away from its body like a wing. Feet descended, not as though a
rider were slipping from its back; rather, they emerged from the very
bowels of the creature.
The Beast was a car. A 2018 model Toyota Land Cruiser, to be precise.
Certain that Satan himself was standing above her, Alice lapsed into
Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory?
With a rasping intake of breath, Alice awoke and sat upright. Did the
beast eat me up, she wondered, am I dead? A blur surrounded her till she
blinked it away. Instinctively, she clutched at her body to find that
she was clothed. In a gown of soft fabric such as the gentry wear,
thought Alice, now convinced that she was alive. But how? And where? Her
eyes darted about, taking in a small room, little bigger than the one
her brothers shared at their cottage. This was a place the like she had
never seen. Or had she? The padded bedframe on which she lay seemed to
extend from the walls without support. There was a light in the ceiling,
yet no sign of flickering flame from candle or rush light. Seeing a
window at the bedside, she drew back the curtain. A pane of impossibly
flawless glass revealed a manicured lawn lit by slanting mid-morning
sunbeams. Could this be Heaven? She saw people, clothed like herself,
playing a game with hoops, mallets and colored balls; others were
wandering the damp grounds wearing the faces of The Lost. Not Heaven,
Fearful, Alice cautiously slid off the bed, and there before her was
another wonder. Clean water half-filled a gleaming metal bowl, which,
like the bed, jutted out from the wall. Alice swallowed reflexively and
realized that her throat was parched. She knelt down to examine it more
closely. She dipped her hand into the water, sniffed, licked her
fingers. Satisfied, she bent into the bowl and drank deeply.
Ceiling cameras relayed high angle images of all ten cells in the
isolation ward to a bank of monitors at the Nurses’ Station. The day
shift Duty Nurse, June Daly, noted the unknown patient satisfying her
“5B thinks she’s a dog.”
“She’s awake?” asked Doctor Anthony Picton, Chief of Farnham
Psychiatric Hospital, who had just come in to examine her file.
Although the water had none of the sweet tang of the Farnham River,
Alice was relishing every gulp. Then a command issued from above: “Do
not drink from the toilet bowl.” Alice recoiled. The authoritative
voice continued: “Bacteria remain in the bowl. You might make yourself
sick.” Alice dived under the bed. Was this the voice of God? Perhaps
she really was dead after all. “I’m coming in to see you.”
Dr. Picton strode down the corridor. Why, he wondered, is she conscious?
Tall and a distinguished forty-nine years old, Dr. Picton regarded
himself a leader in the psychiatric field, and expected his staff to
follow the procedures he laid down without question. He checked the file
again to find the name of the doctor on duty at the time of the
patient’s admission. Ah! The American.
Alice had pressed herself into the corner behind the bed, terrified.
There was a whirring sound and the door slid open. All Alice could see
was a man’s legs stepping inside. Crisp trouser pleats, polished black
shoes. Uniformly tied laces. Had she ever seen such garments? Again the
“I am Doctor Picton. I’m the chief psychiatrist here." Alice
blinked, her mind in turmoil. “Don’t be afraid...we’re here to
help you...come out now...no one is going to harm you.” No response.
“Do you know who I am?” The tone of his voice made the question
sound important. Again, silence.
Alice wrestled with the question. “Are you … an Angel?”
Dr. Picton smiled. This would be easier than he had first thought. “I
try to be.” Alice, becoming more frightened, intoned a prayer:
“Gloria sit ad Patrum, et ad Filium, et ad Spiritum Sanctum…”
Picton interrupted, finishing the prayer. “… per omnia saecula
Alice was encouraged, which was his intention. “Amen,” she
Picton made the antiphonal response, then probed some more. “Don’t
hear much Latin these days. Certainly not from one as young as
you...What is your name?”
“Alice.” Dr. Picton wrote it down.
“Am...am I in Heaven?” she stammered.
“You’re...in the best place you can be, Alice, so please come out,
so that we can talk properly.”
Alice cautiously emerged, curiosity and fear fighting for dominance. She
looked at the tall man, his hair silvering at the temples, his demeanor
radiating authority. “Come on,” Dr. Picton said in a kindly tone,
“sit on the bed.”
Alice sat down. The doctor sat beside her. “Gramercy, Sir, is my
family here with me?”
Dr. Picton’s brow furrowed: “Family?” A jolt of recollection
brought tears to Alice’s eyes. “I don’t know what’s become of my
“What is your father’s name?” The intensity of the Angel’s gaze
was beginning to frighten her. Had she not seen a face like his before?
“Rufus Craddock, Headsman for the Farnham Assizes...”
Picton stared at her.
As the conversation in Room 5B continued, the Duty Nurse watched the
monitor and listened fascinated on headphones. This was much more
interesting than the latest panda bear birth on YouTube. Then a man’s
hand tapped her lightly on the shoulder. June looked up, smiled, pleased
to see Dr. Montgomery, the hot young visiting American just joined the
hospital as an intern. Late twenties, lean muscular build. Black hair
and green, green eyes. Umm, umm, umm. All the nurses liked him. He had
brought the day shift boxes of chocolate twice this past week. And he
seemed to be paying particular attention to herself. June took off the
headphones and handed them to him. “This is amazing. You couldn’t
make this stuff up.”
Dr. Paul Montgomery nodded thanks, applied the headphones and listened
in for a few minutes. He had a feeling that he was going to be in
trouble with Dr. Picton.
In Room 5B, a tearful Alice was recounting the events of the previous
night. She ended with: “…then I fell a-swame, and the demon beast
came, blinding me with its glowing eyes…and I can’t remember no
Dr. Picton stood and spoke as if to a child: “Understandable. So this
is what we are going to do. First you’ll be examined by a medical
doctor. A woman, of course.”
Alice gaped. “A woman…is a doctor?”
“Dr. Unwin. You’ll like her. So come with me. She’s just down the
hall.” Picton swiped his key card, and the door slid open.
Alice watched this magical act, agog. As he led her out by the hand, an
embarrassing thought occurred to her. “Is she a midwife? ’Cos I’m
not with child...that's for sure…I’m a maid, Sir, I swear.”
“Of course you are. Now come along.” He led her up the corridor
toward the Nurses’ Station, where he spotted the doctor named in the
patient’s admission file. He called out. “Ah, Dr. Montgomery. Would
you join us, please?” Paul Montgomery, the visiting American intern,
left the Nurses’ Station, hastily summoning a confident demeanor.
As the young man coming down the corridor reached a pool of light, Alice
reacted, startled. Her heart raced. Her mouth slowly opened. She took
three quick breaths. This went unnoticed by Dr. Picton.
“Why did you curtail this patient’s medication?” he demanded as
Dr. Montgomery approached. When annoyed, Dr. Picton layered a glacial
tone over his precise articulation. On these occasions, which rarely
occurred because his staff were highly motivated not to annoy him, he
This was Paul’s first week, but he had already heard stories of
Picton’s Pique. Nonetheless, Paul was undeterred. He was going to test
the boundaries. “She was a new admission. I don’t sedate patients
heavily until I’ve examined them.”
Paul noticed that the girl was staring at him intently. What was it
about this girl, marked for evaluation and transfer? She was pale, with
an arresting ethereal beauty. How had she come to be in a small private
mental hospital with no family in attendance, and without
identification? Paul had taken special note of the “Transfer
Patient” designation on her file. He had taken her pulse. Her heart
rate was quite low. The standing directive to place indigent transfer
patients in restraints upon admission and to medicate them heavily every
four hours seemed unnecessary and potentially dangerous, and Paul had
chosen to countermand the orders. Paul knew that there would be
consequences, but perhaps that would serve his agenda.
Picton’s temperature was rising: “Why did you not follow the
protocol? She could become violent.” Before Paul could answer with a
prepared excuse, the girl, who had been staring at him wide eyed, cried
“JAMES?...JAMES! YOU’RE ALIVE!”
Alice could not believe what she saw. His black hair was short rather
than long and he talked strange, but his nose, his mouth, his handsome
face, were the same, and above all his green eyes were the eyes of James
De Fries. Without a doubt.
Dr. Picton watched astonished as Alice flung her arms tightly round
Paul, mixing kisses with breathless questions. “What came to pass? Oh,
my love, how did you escape? Is my Da safe? Tell me, I pray you.”
Dr. Picton interrupted. “Do you know this patient?”
Paul sensed the girl’s emotional fragility. He took Alice gently by
the cheeks, stopping her from kissing him. “Never seen her before in
Alice interjected. “James! It is I, your Alice! You know me…”
Picton looked concerned. “Are you sure you do not know this person?”
“Yes, I’m sure!” Paul said with alacrity, then softened his tone
to Alice: “Look, I’m sorry. You must be mistaking me for someone
What does he mean? Who else could he be? thought Alice, her joy
withering, panic growing. “James, please, why do you deny...?”
Dr. Picton called out to the Duty Nurse. “Nurse Daly! Dr. Unwin.
Thorazine, please. 100 mgs.”
Paul continued to deal with Alice’s mounting distress.
“Sorry, my name is Paul. Dr. Paul Montgomery…”
Alice was bereft. “James, do you care not for me? Why do you treat me
Their interchange continued in this vein till the Duty Nurse arrived,
syringe in hand, followed by Dr. Rose Unwin. Alice saw the tiny spiked
weapon in the hand of one of the strangely-dressed women. She turned to
run but Picton grabbed her. Alice started screaming and kicking.
“AAAGH! Unhand me!”
Paul held her by the shoulders. “Calm down, please” he urged. “No
one’s going to hurt you.”
“This cannot be Heaven. I must be in Hell!” Alice wailed.
Two Male Nurses arrived. Together they held her as Dr. Unwin
administered the injection. “Don’t be afraid, dear,” she soothed.
“Everything’s going to be fine.”
“NO! NO! James...I beseech you to help me!”
The girl’s eyes seemed to bore into him, accusing and imploring. It
was clear to Paul that she was convinced they knew one another; and that
he was one James De Fries, the local Robin Hood character about whom
Paul had overheard her speak to Picton through the patient monitor
headphones; apparently, that James was the love of her life. This was an
unexpected wild card thrown into the game he was playing, one that could
endanger his plans. But something made Paul want to soothe her. Quite
normal in a doctor, although Paul was, in fact, no doctor.
“It will be alright, I promise,” he found himself saying.
Dr. Unwin extracted the needle. The Duty Nurse followed with a swab and
a Band-Aid: “Charted at 11:10 a.m., February 6th, 2020.”
“Please, James...I love you, James. Please, my love...” Alice
gradually lapsed into unconsciousness.
Excerpted from "The Headsman's Daughter" by Brian Trenchard-Smith. Copyright © 2016 by Brian Trenchard-Smith. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.