The Executioner’s Correspondent
by Kathleen Brogan
When Dornan Blackthorne was twenty-three years old, he began receiving strange messages from an unknown correspondent. Dornan had just been appointed Master Executioner in the city of Telvannath, after eleven years apprenticed to his father, and had never corresponded with anyone in his life. His father, the executioner in a much, much smaller town, had taught him how to read and write via the Scriptures, but that had been for God, not for letter-writing. And letters, Dornan knew, were something quite different from what he was receiving. They were longer, for one. Two, you knew where they were coming from. Three, letters came by post, not in your private journal.
The idea for the journal came from his father. Grellik Blackthorne was a sharp old man, and he knew the trade as well as anyone. “Write ’em all down, the poor sinners,” said Grellik, “Mark ’em down with a date, the crime, and the sentence. Show it to the city when you need more money. Proof of work performed.” And so Dornan did. There was no more honorable an executioner than Grellik Blackthorne, Dornan thought, so he planned to follow in his father’s footsteps the best that he could.
Dornan did not notice his first correspondence until after he had completed his second execution in Telvannath. He had pulled his journal from the shelf and sat down at his desk, a rickety old thing in the cluttered, unpacked room where his children would live if he had them. His wife, Caralee, sat in the floor hunched over a copy of the Scriptures. The right side of her face was horribly scarred–an accident from her childhood. She was the blacksmith’s daughter, and had an unfortunate encounter with a piece of hot metal. She’d fallen face-first on a rack of cooling pots and pans, and from what Dornan understood, she was lucky to be alive. Caralee was much older than him–thirty-five, she had told him, but she wasn’t sure. Her marital options were limited by her scarring, and Dornan’s by his occupation. No one wanted to marry the hangman. Dornan opened his journal and glanced over the first entry he had completed.
1. Jorund Faxil. Theft, rape. Death by the sword. Guilty
The sword. He snorted at the memory. The man deserved death by the wheel. The man would’ve been drawn and quartered back home, but they didn’t do that in Telvannath because they were progressive. His father would’ve caused a fuss, Dornan knew, but the executioner in Telvannath didn’t have that kind of power. Everything here was decided by Senate ruling. Dornan was naught but the instrument of the Senate’s will.
Dornan was still thinking about that, and a little bit of what he might’ve done differently had he the power, when he noticed something underneath Jorund Faxil’s entry. There was a word there, a word he had not included in his original assessment.
Or perhaps he had included it in his original assessment? He looked more closely at the handwriting, which at first glance could’ve passed for his own, but upon closer inspection it was far too neat. Dornan’s handwriting was serviceable at best. Besides, why would he, Dornan, write the word guilty as an addendum to an entry? Of course he believed Faxil guilty, or he wouldn’t have bloody executed him! It was justice!
The back of his neck was hot, flushed, and he thought that maybe he should open a window. “Caralee, love,” said Dornan. “Have you had any guests over that I’ve not known about?”
“No sir,” she said. “Why do you ask?”
“Someone’s mucking about in my journal,” Dornan said. “I didn’t write this bit.”
Caralee appeared beside him and set her copy of the Scriptures down on his desk. She leaned in close to read the word–she had awful eyesight. The smooth, unscarred side of her face brushed up against his. “Goo-lty.”
“Guilty,” Dornan corrected. Caralee was not a good reader, but she tried very hard.
“Guilty,” she repeated. “You didn’t write that?”
Dornan shook his head.
“Maybe it’s someone having a laugh,” said Caralee. “Sneaking into the hangman’s house on a dare.”
“Maybe,” said Dornan, but he doubted it.
Caralee stood up straight and placed her hand on the Scriptures. “Maybe it’s the Lord talking to you. Telling you you’re doing the right thing, and that Faxil’s burning in a lake of hellfire right now.”
Dornan snorted. He hadn’t set foot in a church in years. Not because of any reservations against the institution (he had his Scriptures and he read them daily) but because no one liked seeing the executioner in church. In his hometown, Dornan’s father had been told explicitly not to attend sermons because it made people jumpy. Dornan didn’t want to make any good church-going folk uncomfortable, so he stayed at home with his Scriptures. He sincerely doubted that the Lord wanted anything much to do with him. “I guess that’d be a good thing,” Dornan said.
“Put it away somewhere safe,” said Caralee. “That way you know you’re the only one writing in it.”
That, at least, was a good idea. Dornan carefully wrote his latest entry:
2. Gerard Wallace. Embezzling city funds. Death by the sword
And locked his journal in the box where he kept the money that he would send home to his father every month. Old Grellik’s eyesight was failing, and Dornan knew he couldn’t keep up the profession much longer. The pittance the town would give Grellik once the executions stopped would hardly be liveable.
◊ ◊ ◊
There was some period of time between his second and third executions. Dornan spent much of his time travelling back and forth between the Senate hall, located at the top of the escarpment that was the city of Telvannath, and Docktown, where his home was located. Every day he made the long trek from the bottom of the hill to the top, seeing if the Senate had any work for him that day. He was paid either way, and perhaps because of that he felt obligated to check in frequently to ensure he was completing his job to the Senate’s satisfaction. It was what his father would’ve done. He took to stopping by the cathedral on days that the Senate didn’t need him, again because it was what his father had done. “Church-goin’ folk don’t need a reminder of earthly punishments when they’re thinking of heavenly ones,” Grellik had told him. “But don’t let your Bishop be a stranger.” Telvannath’s holy man, Bishop Yelvin, never made Dornan feel unwelcome. More importantly, the frail little man seemed comfortable in Dornan’s presence. Perhaps it was because they had somewhat of a professional relationship–Bishop Yelvin gave the last rites to poor sinners before their execution.
Execution number three was Dornan’s first woman in the city of Telvannath, and also his first hanging in the city. It was a much more high profile case than his first two, and Dornan felt that this could really cement his position. In the days that led up to the event, Dornan worked himself up into a frenzy making sure that everything went off smoothly. He replaced the ropes in the gallows and then double-checked and triple-checked their integrity, using heavy sacks filled with stones. Caralee cleaned up his black leather armor with some oils she bought from the tanner, and she cut his hair. When Dornan had tried to go to the local barber, the man had shooed him out quickly, not giving him any definitive reason as to why. He didn’t have to. Dornan had seen the same thing happen to his father all of his life.
Elizabeth Baker, the poor sinner that Dornan would be executing, had been charged with killing her newborn child, caught in the act by her husband. As with the execution of 1. Jorund Faxil. Theft, rape. Death by the sword, Dornan was surprised that Elizabeth Baker was getting off so easily. His father had executed many women by the wheel, by drowning, even one drawn and quartered for the same crime. Not so in Telvannath. Elizabeth Baker was to be hanged.
Dornan did not sleep well the night before. He kept thinking of the journal, though he refused to look at it. If anything had been written next to 2. Gerard Wallace. Embezzling city funds. Death by the sword (which, Dornan knew, was highly unlikely), it could compromise the sense of calm that was so important for all executioners. He had to maintain the impassive face of justice. Any showing of doubt or uncertainty could not only end his career, but start a public riot.
At high noon, Dornan led the procession from the Senate Chamber, flanked by soldiers in shining metal breastplates and blue plumage. Back with the sinner walked Bishop Yelvin, wearing no armor except for the heavenly kind, his long black robes brushing up against his boots. Bringing up the rear of the party was one of the town’s Senators, dressed in judicial red, who would be pronouncing judgment on Madam Baker. The streets were filled with Telvannath’s citizens, far more than for his first two executions. Dornan’s suspicions had been right–this was going to be a spectacle. They passed midtown, where merchants tried to hawk ‘holy’ or ‘blessed’ items to anyone who would listen. They further descended Telvannath’s hill, coming back to Docktown. The gallows were built against the southeast wall of the city, where the tang of the river’s smell mixed awfully with that of the rotting corpses the city occasionally left artfully displayed across Dornan’s workstation.
Dornan ascended the gallows steps with Madam Baker and Bishop Yelvin. Despite the bishop’s soft, gentle assurances at possible salvation, she did not repent. Dornan suspected that was more from the fact that she could not stop crying long enough to form words. The crowd was immense, reaching past the field of Dornan’s vision, but in that moment he was not worried. He had prepared as well as he could, and besides, he had the most experience with hangings. They were the execution of choice back home. The gallows were better constructed in Telvannath, actually containing a trap door so that the executioner wasn’t required to simply push the sinner from a ladder. The only other difference was that the sinner was hooded which, as far as Dornan was concerned, was kinder to the children in the audience. The awkward way the dying kicked their legs was enough to cause nightmares. The eyes bulging, the tongue flailing–no one needed to see that.
Elizabeth Baker was safely conveyed into the hands of the Lord, Dornan performing a near flawless hanging. The noose gave him no difficulties, the trap door did not stick, and the poor sinner did not kick–well, kick more than was to be expected, at any rate. Dornan did not let his impassive countenance drop as the crowd dispersed and, once he felt the body was safe from any sort of mob behavior, he decided it was safe to head home. They’d remove Madam Baker in a few days, once everyone had the chance to see her. Dornan thought about his journal and felt a sense of dread and apprehension, though he told himself that was foolish. It had been a fluke, a one-off trick by some street rat. That was the end of it.
In Docktown proper, the streets were largely empty. People were probably still hanging about the pub, talking about the poor sinner and what could’ve possibly motivated her to kill her own child. When Dornan arrived home, he noticed that some of the shingles had fallen from his roof and cracked on the cobblestone street. He would have to get them replaced.
Docktown as a whole had a slapdash feel to it, built from whatever materials were travelling through port at the time, but Dornan was making enough money to maintain a level of upkeep that his neighbors could not. Dornan knew that he could probably afford a house in one of the nicer districts, but he also knew that would never be allowed. It didn’t bother him so much. His was a nice little house.
Caralee was inside, trying to read. At first he thought that she was looking at his journal, but of course she was not. It was the Scriptures, as always, and he immediately felt guilty for his momentary suspicion. Caralee was one of the kindest people he’d ever met, and she deserved better. He didn’t give a damn about her scarring, but everyone else had. Now she was stuck with him, the son of an executioner who had no other job prospects. No one would apprentice the executioner’s son. No one would marry the executioner’s son–no one, except sweet Caralee. She glanced up at his entry. “How’d it go?”
“Off without a hitch,” said Dornan. “Talk about it in a moment.” He retreated to his bedroom, where he kept his lockbox underneath his bed. He took the lockbox to his office, hands shaking slightly, unlocked it, and retrieved the journal. Underneath 2. Gerard Wallace. Embezzling city funds. Death by the sword, were the words Not Guilty.
The rage that burned through Dornan’s veins was like nothing he’d ever felt before. Not when a poor sinner broke his father’s wrist during an execution, not when he’d watched his mother’s body become riddled with boils from the plague. This was a personal attack. His lips formed words that never saw air, and he was suddenly sweating. It wasn’t his place to judge the sinner. That was the Senate’s job! Yes, he’d done it before, but not in Telvannath–that wasn’t his job. If he wanted to keep himself and Caralee in good health, why, he had to keep doing what the city told him. Besides, Wallace was obviously guilty. He’d confessed to Dornan three times under the screws, which he had done at the city’s behest. Who was this person to judge Dornan in his own journal? He was merely the instrument of justice!
Furious, he withdrew a piece of parchment from his desk and began writing some correspondence of his own. His father would know what to do.
I find myself in a situation that is perplexing and peculiar.
He had a dictionary and had to look up how to spell both ‘perplexing’ and ‘peculiar’.
I am keeping a career journal as you have requested of me, but someone is leaving notes in it.
He gave a brief description of the hangings, further consulting his dictionary three times. Dornan closed his note with his own suspicions.
I think that someone is breaking into our home and playing some sort of trick on me, though Caralee thinks it is the Lord writing these messages. This journal is well guarded and locked away. I would appreciate any counsel you could provide. With all of my love, your Son Dornan.
Writing the note had calmed him somewhat. He was giving this mysterious person what they wanted by giving into his anger. He shook his head as if that would actually clear it, then wrote the third entry in his journal:
3. Elizabeth Baker. Infanticide. Death by hanging.
Dornan didn’t know what he would do if this one read ‘Not Guilty’. He placed the journal in a pouch, grabbed the lock from the lockbox and its key, and made for the front door. “What’s the matter?” asked Caralee.
“I have to go to the locksmith,” said Dornan, not even sparing his wife a glance. Perhaps it had been her, after all. He didn’t know what to think.
“Another note?” she asked, but he did not answer her. He slammed the door shut behind him and set off at once for Docktown’s locksmith.
The locksmith was a man probably close to Dornan’s age, but the way his skin pulled tight over his bones made him look much older. Dornan hoped he wouldn’t turn him away like the barber. Dornan looked to the lock in his hand and realized he was still wearing his executioner’s leathers. He cursed inwardly. No chance of the man not recognizing him. “I need a new lock,” said Dornan, when the locksmith did not initially demand that Dornan leave. He seemed to be testing a tumbler mechanism, fiddling with a pick in the keyhole. “I think someone’s figured a way to get into this one. I’ll gladly exchange it for a discount toward a new one.”
“That was funny about Baker, wasn’t it?” said the locksmith. “Bring me your lock.” Dornan was not eager to speak of 3. Elizabeth Baker. Infanticide. Death by hanging, but the locksmith continued. “Happy marriage. Why do you think she dunnit?”
“Who can guess the mind of a sinner?” asked Dornan. This was not a conversation he wanted to be having, and he hoped the locksmith would take the hint.
He did not. “I think–I’ll tell you what I think–I think that it was the husband that dunnit. I think he framed the lady.”
“I don’t make those kind of decisions,” said Dornan. “I just follow the will of the Senate.”
“Easier that way, I bet,” said the locksmith. He tossed Dornan a new lock, which he fumbled and had to retrieve from the floor.
“How much will that be?” asked Dornan.
“Two silver? Are you mad?”
“Two silver or no lock,” said the locksmith. His smile showed too many teeth.
Dornan grumbled but seemed to be without option. He handed over two silver to the locksmith, who inspected them closely.
“Thank you kindly,” he said, dropping the silver into his pocket. “Good work today, hangman. You did your job good.”
Dornan was still fuming about the price-gouging, but he had enough of a mind to remember his place. At least he hadn’t been refused service. “Thank you, good smith,” he said, his face becoming impassive only through years of practice. He returned home and locked the journal away in his lockbox with his new lock. He placed the entire box inside a larger box, which had some trivials inside–old dice, a hammer and nails, a piece of flint and steel, and the like–that he had not bothered to unpack since his arrival in Telvannath. Caralee came upon him there, in the space room.
“Another note?” she asked again.
“What did it say?” Caralee asked.
He said nothing.
“You’re just doing your job,” said Caralee.
Her words echoed the locksmith’s, and he didn’t like it.
Execution number four was rushed through Telvannath’s courts because the poor sinner was considered a risk to both himself and others. His name was Marvin Addle and he was the closest thing the city had seen to a career killer in some time. He murdered women who looked like his mother, though from what Dornan could gather, she was a ripe old bird and he could almost understand Marvin’s frustrations. An unfortunate trio of black-haired, blue-eyed women fell to him before he was discovered by a stable boy, who had come to work in the early hours of the morning and discovered Marvin screaming at the corpse of his Master’s wife. The only reason Marvin was granted death by the sword was because the Senate wanted it over as quickly as possible. Dornan later discovered that one of the poor black-haired blue-eyed young women had been a Senator’s wife.
Marvin was a difficult case from start to finish. He babbled and flailed as Dornan’s assistants attempted to reign him in for judgment. He kissed Bishop Yelvin on the lips when the priest asked if he sought absolution for his sin (Bishop Yelvin took that answer as a ‘no.’) Dornan could hardly hear the Senator’s judgment decreed over the sounds of Marvin’s yelps. The Senator gave Dornan a helpful nod and then–in what could only be considered divine providence–Marvin stilled enough so that Dornan could give a clean cut. A good death. An excellent example of his ability to remain calm in the face of adversity. He considered writing that in his journal, though he knew he would have to look up how to spell “adversity.”
Following this particular execution, Dornan chose to accompany Bishop Yelvin and his assistants on their journey outside of town, to the mass grave where Marvin Addle’s body would rest. The Senators had insisted that his body be removed from Telvannath as soon as possible. Yelvin’s assistants sat in the back of the church’s wagon with the body, while Dornan sat next to Yelvin in the front.
“Bishop,” said Dornan. “I have a question, and it’s not going to come out right. I try to do right by the Scriptures, but it’s hard when I can’t come to church.”
“Ask away, Blackthorne,” said Yelvin. “And the Lord appreciates your efforts, even given your situation. Especially given your situation. You know that.”
Dornan ignored that statement. “Does the Lord speak to you directly? Does he leave you messages that you give the church?”
“It is…” the Bishop paused. “A trifle more complicated than that. The Lord nudges my thought patterns, but he doesn’t give me words in the way that, say, he gave us the Scripture.”
“Oh,” said Dornan. The wagon creaked along, and the two men sat in silence for a moment.
“Don’t worry on it, Blackthorne,” said Yelvin. “Though he may not speak to you in a manner you understand, he guides your life in other ways. Especially you over others, as the instrument of his judgment.”
Dornan considered revealing his situation to the Bishop, telling him of the strange messages that no one else could possibly leave. But Dornan was afraid. The Bishop had close connections to the Senate and, well, if they suspected Dornan was mentally affected, then he would be removed from his position. What would happen to him then? And Caralee? So he remained silent, and looked on as the Bishop’s assistants unceremoniously dumped Marvin’s body into the stinking pit.
Instead of returning immediately home after his excursion with the Bishop, Dornan returned to the church with him and confessed. He confessed his desires for other women. He confessed his anger at the children in his community who threw horse dung at his windows. He confessed his doubt in the Lord and the judgments that he cast down on the poor sinners. Bishop Yelvin assured him that the Lord worked in mysterious ways, and Dornan agreed with that wholeheartedly. Yelvin gave him some special prayers to try over the coming week, and Dornan was grateful.
When Dornan finally made it home, dusk had fallen over Telvannath. He kissed Caralee and ate the pork chops she had made for him. She told him that his father had responded to his letter, and Dornan told her that he would check it when he was done with work that evening. He had put off the journalling long enough. Then he retreated to his office and locked the door.
3. Elizabeth Baker. Infanticide. Death by hanging.
He breathed an immense sigh of relief. The word guilty had never looked so lovely. Of course, the mystery of the correspondent still went unsolved, but Dornan had exacted justice for Elizabeth Baker’s child. The shaking that had stirred his bones since Marvin’s death ceased, and he rubbed his temples, feeling as though he could smooth out the wrinkles that had taken root. Then he wrote:
4. Marvin Addle. Murder (3 counts). Death by the sword.
He breathed in, and out.
He had expected being the instrument of righteousness to involve less anxiety. Already, he was wondering what the journal would say for Marvin. When would his bones begin to quake again?
Deciding that it was not a topic for the moment, Dornan locked his journal away, putting it in the same place it had been before. It was obvious that there was no hiding it. Dornan found Caralee, who gave him the letter from his father. It was short, and it was simple, like his father always was.
My dear Dornan,
Send your correspondent my regards. I have retired from the profession and am glad to finally be free of his incessant judgments.
Dornan frowned and read over the letter again. And again. He checked the back of the paper to see if he had missed something, but he had not. He looked up to Caralee, who wore an expression of mild concern. He knew that he should apologize to her for having been so cross lately. For suspecting her of being responsible for this foolishness. She really was too good for him. “What did he say?” she asked.
He did not have a ready reply. He looked back to the paper and thought of his father, poor Grellik Blackthorne, and how the old man was to survive with the pittance paid to a retired executioner. “He’s retired now,” said Dornan. Maybe he could stay in Telvannath with him and Caralee. Dornan could clean out the spare room.
“Oh,” she said. “Did he say anything about…” She did not finish her sentence. The smell of the pork chops from dinner lingered in the air, and it nearly made Dornan sick. There was innocent blood on his hands, and there would be more. Innocent blood bought his livelihood.
“Someone playing a trick,” said Dornan. “Must be. No need worrying our heads about it.” He gave his best attempt at a smile and took her hands in his own. She raised her eyebrows at him, but did not question him further.
He wore the mask for the rest of the evening, the mask he knew he would wear for the rest of his life. It was not so different from the stern indifference he wore when working at the gallows. But it was a lie then and it was a lie now. What would be written underneath his name, he wondered, were it written in his journal?
Dornan Blackthorne. Murder, innumerable counts.
He never wanted to know the answer.
Kathleen Brogan recently received her MA in English from Marshall University. She works as a librarian in Huntington, West Virginia.