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A pale cold sun hangs low over the town, doing little to dispel the dampness. Seen from above, the town is almost invisible. The small, crude buildings are made of mud-colored stones and bricks that blend into the surrounding countryside. The poorer houses are made of dark, water-stained wood and coated with mud for insulation. The thatch roofs look like hillocks on an undulating plain.
The town is divided by a narrow muddy gash called High Street, which joins the main highways of the kingdom, to the north and south. In the center of the town, another road runs from High Street. This road continues up a hill to a castle that overlooks the town and the sea, bleak and dark like a malevolent bird of prey. In the town, Castle Road terminates at the steps of the cathedral that forms one side of Market Square. The cathedral is the only substantial building in the town proper; it bulks large over the surrounding hovels, a toad among the midges. High Street holds the life of the town, but the ends of Castle Road hold the power.
If the town is difficult to see, it is not difficult to smell. A stench envelops it like a fog. When an easterly wind blows off the land, fishermen at sea can always tell that they are approaching home. The stink has its origin in the huge piles of rotting garbage and refuse that fill the narrow alleyways between buildings, sometimes to the height of the houses themselves. Where there is no alley, or where the alley is already overflowing, the garbage is dumped in High Street in front of the buildings. Here it stays, the pile daily growing larger, until traffic is impeded enough to force its removal. And, as a matter of course, as if to add seasoning to the stew, chamber pots are emptied into the street each morning; they are thrown out of open doorways or dumped from second-story windows, the contents mingling with the mud of High Street to form small rivers of slime.
Though this environment is less than healthy for the town's inhabitants, certain creatures thrive. Rats grow large and prosper. Beetles and cockroaches gorge themselves to achieve enormous proportions. A haze of flies fills the street and alleyways. Seagulls find the scavenging so abundant that they have difficulty lifting their bloated bodies and make easy prey for small boys with stones.
Life in the town is crude and rough, but the townspeople do not consider it so. They have no experience of any alternatives. If a clean town does not exist for them, then this town is not dirty. Not only do the "burghers accept the conditions in the town, they are pleased with them. With nearly four thousand people, it is among the largest in the kingdom, and is becoming more and more prosperous. If the town grows filthier as it grows larger, that is merely one of the necessary accompaniments of progress.
Today the normally calm atmosphere of the town is charged with an air of excitement. Many people work at their usual tasks, but a large number line High Street and many more fill Market Square. There is a mood of curiosity and anticipation, a carnival feeling. Sounds are heard down the street, and the crowd in Market Square rustles in expectation.
On High Street, a small cart accompanied by several guards is drawn toward the square. In the cart are two men, with heavy iron shackles around their wrists. The men are extremely dirty, and look bewildered. They are poor, pathetic specimens, but the spectators lining High Street feel no sympathy for them.
A third man is pulled along behind the cart, attached to it by a rope tied around his wrists. He is completely naked. His body shows signs of severe abuse, even torture. Burn marks cover his back, shoulders, and chest; large welts show on his stomach and legs; small, blood-rimmed puncture marks dot his forehead. He is barely able to keep on his feet as the cart pulls him along.
The spectators on High Street nod and smile with interest as the procession passes. Some go into their houses after the cart goes by, others follow behind it, including a gang of small boys who shout and laugh at the three prisoners.
As the cart nears the square, the naked man finally loses his footing. He is dragged face down through the mud for some distance before he is able to stand again. The guards pay no attention. Some of the spectators laugh at the man's struggles, and yell with delight when he rises and they see he is covered with mud.
Two figures await the cart at the center of the square. One, a tall, muscular man, wears a leather tunic and a black hood that entirely covers his head. He is the Executioner. A variety of paraphernalia surrounds him.
A short distance away is the Magistrate, before whom the guards come to attention. The Magistrate is short and fat like an overstuffed sausage, fair-haired and pink-skinned. His eyes are two black holes in the doughy slabs of fat that form his face. His tunic and tights are made of good material, but they are too small for his figure. His belly bulges over his thick belt.
The Magistrate holds his staff of office in one hand and a piece of parchment in the other. He arches his back, sticks his chin in the air, and purses his small, full lips as he surveys the crowd, waiting for silence. This is the moment he likes best—the moment when all eyes are upon him. At last, he speaks.
"Have the prisoner Ian Jennings brought forward."
Two guards pull one of the men roughly from the cart and stand him before the Magistrate. Ian Jennings is very thin and stooped. His skinny body is barely covered by rags. He is clearly feebleminded; though he is frightened by the attention focused on him, he does not understand what is happening.
"Ian Jennings, you have been tried and found guilty of begging." The Magistrate keeps his eyes on Jennings, but speaks loud enough for everyone to hear. "You are an able-bodied man, and it has been decreed that all able-bodied men will work, that they must not be a blight on the kingdom of Scotland. Those that resort to begging are to be punished accordingly. Henceforth, you will forever bear the mark of your crime. In the name of His Majesty King James I of Scotland, and the King's representatives, let the sentence be carried out."
Jennings does not understand any of this. Therefore he does what he always does in similar circumstances; he "gives the Magistrate his most ingratiating smile—people usually leave him alone after he smiles. This time, however, the guards grab him by the arms and drag him over to the Executioner, who stands next to a large brazier filled with glowing coals, in which various iron implements are being heated. The guards press down on Jennings's thin shoulders, forcing him to his knees. The Executioner takes a branding iron from the fire. The "X" design glows red-hot. A murmur runs through the crowd.
Jennings struggles and squirms as the branding iron is brought up to his face, but the guards hold him firmly. The iron is placed on Jennings's cheek. His screams drown out the sizzling of his flesh. The iron is removed, but he continues to scream.
The Executioner picks up a bucket of dirty water and throws it full in Jennings's face. The shock of the water knocks the beggar unconscious, and the guards drag him over to the side of the square and leave him there.
At the conclusion of the punishment the tension that has mounted among the spectators subsides; there is a general relaxation throughout the crowd, which is in fact a cross section of the town. Most trades and stations are represented, from the humblest servants to master craftsmen and merchants. Several members of the minor nobility, astride horses, offer expressions of bored disinterest. From the cathedral steps, the Bishop watches with smug superiority. Some members of the crowd seem unconcerned with what they have seen, some appear fascinated. Others are simply pleased to have something a little out of the ordinary to watch.
One spectator, though, has a most unusual reaction. Watching the branding has given Sawney Beane a pleasure that warms his whole body. He has responded on a fundamental level to every detail of the punishment: the beggar's powerlessness, the fear in his eyes, the inevitability of the torture, the screams, the smell of the burning flesh. Shocks of sensation tingle through his body, causing his shoulders, his arms, his hips to twitch and jerk in small spasms of pleasure.
Sawney Beane's sunken cheeks are covered with a sparse, wispy beard. He has a weak chin, and loose, flapping lips. His hair would be light brown if it was not so dirty and oily; it scraggles past his shoulders in long, greasy rattails. Sawney Beane looks to be about eighteen years old, but he is not sure of his age. Usually his eyes are dull, uncomprehending, but at this moment they are alive, bright with a piercing animal intensity—the eyes of a snake mesmerizing a bird, of a cat stalking its prey.
Sawney Beane's glance turns from the prostrate form of Ian Jennings back to the Magistrate.
"The prisoner William Galbey is to be brought forward."
The man still standing in the cart is dragged off it and over to the Magistrate. Galbey is another miserable looking creature. He is poorly dressed, but an attempt has been made to mend his clothes and keep them presentable. Unlike Ian Jennings, he is fully aware of what is happening; his shoulders are thrown back and his eyes show a spark of spirit.
The Magistrate looks down his nose at him. "William Galbey, you have been tried and found guilty of attempting to steal a loaf of bread from Master Linton, the baker. This is a—"
"I took it for my family," Galbey interrupts. "I could not get work and my child was starving. Don't you understand?"
A woman pushes through the crowd to stand close to the Magistrate. A frightened child clutches her legs, whimpering into her dress. The woman is distraught, but tries to speak calmly.
"My husband is a good man. He's never done anything wrong before. Please have mercy on him."
The Magistrate barely glances at her, then resumes speaking as though there had been no interruption.
"This is a particularly serious offense against property and must be dealt with severely. You will be blinded in both eyes, thereby making it impossible for you to again covet your neighbor's property."
Galbey has been holding his breath, but on hearing the sentence, he expels it as though he had been hit in the stomach. His wife shouts "No! No! No!" and runs toward the Magistrate. A guard moves to block her path.
"In the name of His Majesty King James I of Scotland, and the King's representatives, let the punishment be carried out."
As before, the prisoner is dragged over to the Executioner and forced to kneel. The Executioner takes a poker from the fire. Galbey cries out, pleading for him not to do it; he strains to move his head back, but he is firmly held. The last thing he sees before he closes his eyes in terror is the red tip of the approaching poker. He feels the warmth of it radiating on his cheek; then an intense stab of pain snoots into his brain. It feels as though the iron has gone into the center of his skull; he can only scream and keep screaming in an attempt to cover up the incredible pain. He does not notice the approach of the Executioner with a second poker, does not feel the warmth as it nears his face. Then the second poker is pressed into his other eye. The new pain washes over and combines with the existing pain, flashing red, then yellow, then white hot before Galbey mercifully sinks into black unconsciousness. The guards release him, and he falls forward. He is dragged to the side of the square where his wife and child, both crying hysterically, fall on his motionless body.
Galbey's screams seem to echo and hang over Market Square. A few in the crowd stir uneasily, then leave, their faces white. A woman holds up a small boy to see Galbey; she tells the child that the same thing will happen to him if he is not good.
Sawney Beane's breathing has become more rapid. His eyes dart around the square. His lips are partially open. A drop of spittle runs from the corner of his mouth. His skinny body twitches from time to time, as though he were a marionette manipulated by an absentminded puppeteer.
The Magistrate looks around the crowd, smiling to himself. "The prisoner Robert Duncan is to be brought forward."
The third man, the one who has been dragged behind the cart, has collapsed against the back of it. Barely conscious, he is completely unaware of what has been going on. The guards untie his hands, pull him to his feet, and drag him before the Magistrate. When they release him, he crumples to his knees, then falls forward, landing face down in the mud. A few muffled giggles are heard in the crowd, but the Magistrate frowns at the offenders and they fall silent. The guards pull Robert Duncan upright.
The Magistrate speaks. "Robert Duncan, under questioning and ordeal you have confessed to acts of treason against the Crown. There is only one punishment for this most serious of all crimes. You will be quartered and beheaded. You will be buried in an unmarked grave in unconsecrated ground. Your name will e remembered as that of a most foul villain and reprehensible traitor. All your property and estates will be confiscated by the Crown. In the name of His Majesty King James I of Scotland, and the King's representatives, let the execution be carried out."
Duncan is still slumped, unconscious. The guards drag him over to the Executioner, who as set up a heavy wooden frame.
The crowd murmurs in anticipation.
Duncan is attached to the frame, his arms and legs spread wide. Metal bands fasten his wrists and ankles, a heavy chain goes around his chest. When the prisoner is secure, the Executioner steps back to let the crowd have a last look at the traitor. A chorus of jeers and curses assails the naked, unconscious figure; bits of mud and garbage are thrown. Something hits Duncan in the head, and his eyes flutter open for an instant, but they do not focus.
The guards lower the frame until it is almost flat on the ground. The Executioner picks up a large battle-ax. The ax head is so heavy, and the edge has been honed to such sharpness, that it will cut with almost no effort. The Executioner shows the ax to the crowd and receives shouts of approval. He walks over to Duncan and slaps him several times. The prisoner's eyes open.
The Executioner raises the ax overhead to the full extension of his arms. With great force and precise aim, he brings the weapon down on the middle of Duncan's right thigh. Faster than the spectators can see, the blade cuts through the epidermis, the derma, the layer of fatty tissue, the muscles of the quadriceps femoris, the femur, the sartorius muscle, the femoral artery and vein, the adductor muscles at the back of the leg, the biceps femoris, the hamstring muscles, and through the adipose layer, the derma, and the epidermis at the back of the leg. The lower leg falls away, but it is still held to the frame by the band at the ankle. A tremendous surge of bright, oxygenated blood gushes out and soaks the muddy ground. Darker venous blood oozes sluggishly from the severed limb.
Duncan emits a weak groan, but it is not heard over the cries of the crowd. The Executioner pulls the ax free from the wood of the frame. He walks to the other side, lifts the blade high overhead again, then brings it down to sever Duncan's left leg. Duncan emits a sharp cry, and his head slumps to the side. The Executioner slaps him, but there is no response. He takes a bucket of water and throws it over Duncan. Still no response. He puts his ear over Duncan's heart, then turns toward the Magistrate.
"The prisoner is dead."
A groan of disappointment rises from the crowd. The Magistrate's expression remains unchanged. "Complete the execution as ordered."
The Executioner continues, but the procedure now lacks a certain interest. The crowd watches silently as the corpse's arms are severed. There is a small reaction when the head is cut off and rolls for several yards along the ground.
The guards pick up the wooden frame and place it in the cart. The Executioner puts the severed head in a sack and tosses it on top of the frame. The cart is drawn away. The crowd disperses.
Excerpted from The Flesh Eaters by L. A. Morse. Copyright © 1979 L. A. Morse, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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