The Visiting Card
Through the bars of the cage he was able to see the signs upon the walls along the street inviting the people for his hanging. His name was on all of them and what they said about him wasn’t very flattering: ‘The City of Edinburgh announces the execution of Ferus Cadafalls, runaway and outlaw, to happen on the gallows, on the eleventh of November, at dawn, in the square of the Grassmarket’. That’s precisely where the prison wagon was headed on that rainy morning. It was Ferus Cadafalls’ birthday, according to what his mother had once told him, and the present he would be getting was a noose around his neck.
The wagon was surrounded by guards, some on foot, others on horseback, like their Captain, who rode majestically in front of the party. Cadafalls was alone inside the cage built upon it, head down, on his knees, his back turned on the horse that pulled it, and he had his hands tied up before himself.
The street was deserted. Every door and window were shut as though the city had been abandoned. All he could hear were the footfalls of the guards and the hooves of the horses and the wheels of the wagon against the cobbles. On the background, a faint hubbub grew louder as they went.
Only a figure was walking up the street. Its body was covered in a terribly worn cloak, with tears and patches of filth all over it; its head was lowered, hidden beneath a hood. A beggar.
As the wagon came near him, he stopped to have a look at it. And there he stood immobile as the party moved. He wasn’t very successful, however, for it was difficult to make out what was behind the bars.
‘Leaving already, beggar?’ said the Captain ‘As if you don’t like such things…’ The beggar didn’t answer.
After the party had rode past him, he continued staggering up the street.
Soon the square came into sight at the end of the street. From that distance, it was possible to see the place was absolutely crammed full.
‘The hanged man’s comin’!’ a man shouted and pointed at the wagon when he saw it approaching.
All the heads turned around to look at it.
The news of the condemned man’s arrival passed from one to the other more quickly than an irresistible piece of gossip. In no time the attention of the entire square had been drawn: yelling and catcalls from every corner filled the cold air. People could not hide their excitement; the reason for them to be here had finally arrived.
The party came to a halt before actually entering the square. Their way into it was blocked by the massive crowd.
The Captain, a brawny, young-looking redhead with a goatee, advanced violently upon the people with his huge dark horse as though they were the enemy ready to be trampled underfoot.
‘Make way!’ he cried out loud, like he was talking to beasts ‘Make way!’
A woman holding a baby lost balance and was almost run over by him. Somebody standing nearby kept her from falling.
‘We no grape to be stomped!’ she cried.
‘Then make way, woman, or else you and this ugly thing you’re carrying will become juice!’
The ones who were standing closer to him obeyed his order immediately and began to step sideways. A corridor hardly wide enough for the wagon to ride through was formed. The Captain restarted moving; the party followed him.
The crowd was in complete turmoil.
People swarmed around the wagon in an attempt to have a peek at the condemned man through the bars of the cage. That peek would make them feel relieved that it wasn’t them heading for the gallows, but the guards prevented them from coming too close. Nevertheless, they would show their utter contempt for him at any cost by booing and whistling, by spitting with anger and hurling the most vile stream of abuse at him.
‘We’ll hear yer neck breakin’ from over here!’ ‘Hold your breath up there, mate!’
Those were the sweetest things they would shout. There were roars of laughter as the jokes popped up here and there. A lad even caught a handful of horse dung in a pile and flung it at the wagon.
‘Make way! Make way or we’ll pass over you lot!’ the Captain cried at those who insisted on lingering in their way with all the kindness he could muster.
Three boys, short as they were, managed to break the barrier of the guards and come really close to the wagon. The bravest one, the one who had come in front, peered inside it, only to catch a glimpse of Cadafalls’ eye staring intently at him through a gap between the bars of the cage.
‘It’s orange! His eye’s orange!’ he cried in horror.
When he turned around, his two fellows had already legged it.
He legged it himself next.
After vanquishing the crowd, the party came to a halt by the gallows which had been put up at the far end of the square. During the trip never did Cadafalls raise his head.
Whilst the guards dismounted their horses, the Captain, still mounted on his, told two of them who had come on foot:
‘Bring the man.’
They walked up to the rear of the wagon.
One of them unlocked the cage and held its door open. The other one crudely helped Cadafalls out of it. When his bare, dirty feet touched the ground, the rest of the guards had already gathered about him in a protective circle. At a signal from the Captain, they escorted him for a few feet up until the flight of stairs leading onto the scaffold. People in the crowd reached out their arms as far as they could, trying to touch a bit of the condemned man.
The two guards detached from the group and led Cadafalls up the stairs. There were already two people on the gallows: the first one was a tall figure in a hood and cloak the colour of wine; the second one was the Sheriff, a heavy-set, bearded man in dark green clothes. Too heavy-set indeed to venture standing on such a frail structure.
The guards left Cadafalls standing on the trapdoor, right under the pole from which hung the noose, then took up their positions on the ground, at the corners of the gallows.
For the first time, Cadafalls raised his head.
The view from up there was no less than spectacular.
He was petrified. He had never seen so many people together at the same place before; the square was full to overflowing. It seemed the entire population of Edinburgh was before him and the noise they made was so suffocating he could barely hear his own breathing. Not even the light rain, nor the early hour had scared them off. There were people at the windows and others struggling to balance upon the rooftops. Thousands of faces staring at him, trying to draw his attention, clashing over a gap in the crowd with the best view. All of them were here because of him, only because of him; all of them wanted him.
Beggars were usually a sure-fire presence at executions, but this time they were like the plague. Everywhere Cadafalls looked, he would see a threadbare cloak and a hand stretched out for alms.
Word was out that people had travelled from neighbouring cities to watch the execution. It was only natural; there were signs advertising it everywhere. Even a Damelok doll, its head tied to the end of a rope, was being sold. Children loved it.
A wicked smile flashed on the corner of Cadafalls’ mouth, but it soon vanished.
People teased him in search of some reaction: ‘Look up! Have honour!’
‘Face us! Be a man!’
But Cadafalls wasn’t a man. He was sixteen years old and looked much younger. That was the face he was showing them, the face of youth, not the face of desperation. Whatever he was feeling at that moment, the crowd wouldn’t be allowed to see. Nobody could tell that lad was only minutes away from his death.
He was extremely pale and looked even paler because of the cold. Blue and purple veins could be seen through his skin like rivers on a map. He was rather short and thin. The raind had darkened his honey-coloured hair and plastered it onto his forehead. He was dressed in a white, long-sleeved shirt and a pair of breeches. From time to time he would tremble. And although he was sodden, there was something about him that seemed to be alight: his eyes, which were the colour of melted copper. Those seemed to be at their highest temperature.
The Sheriff stepped onto the edge of the gallows and cried:
‘Silence! Silence! The sentence will be read!’ his voice echoed throughout the square.
Little by little the crowd silenced. They were eager to hear the sentence.
The Sheriff unrolled the scroll he had in his hand and held it at eye level. He began to read from it, as loud as his lungs allowed him to:
‘With the powers granted to me by His Majesty, the King, I condemn the fugitive of justice known as Ferus Cadafalls, sixteen years of age more or less, unknown birthdate, unknown birthplace, unknown parents, to hang on this 11th of November of the year of Our Lord 1591 for the crimes he committed, namely: theft, pickpocketing and poaching at night in the cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Roxburgh, Bagpipeburgh and Aberdeen; identity and money forgery in the cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness; dice cogging in the cities of Ethellel and Fog’s Hate, and for the murder of eleven people in the city of Muddymoat. Being said that he should hang not once but many times over until he payed for all of his crimes, for the crimes that we are still not aware of and the crimes that he would certainly commit should he remain alive. May the Hangman approach!’
The square was in an uproar. Heads were searching all around but the executioner was nowhere to be seen.
Cadafalls heard noises nearby. One after the other, they were like stabbings into his heart. Somebody was climbing the stairs to the gallows: a tall, heavy-set figure in a black suit and a black pointy hood that covered its entire face, with only two holes for the eyes. The crowded exploded into cheers. The Hangman had arrived.
Cadafalls didn’t turn his head to look at him, he simply felt his presence as he stood by his right side. The Hangman stepped in front of him and blocked his view from the square.
The rumpus from the crowd was disturbing him, so he closed his eyes and waited for the noose. His fragile body was shivering; his breathing was heavy. It would happen anytime now. Anytime.
The noose didn’t come.
Cadafalls opened his eyes in fright. He wondered if the Hangman was just expecting him to do it so he could place the noose around his neck, but it didn’t seem that’s what was happening.
The Hangman had a small case in his hand. He opened it. There was a quill inside it. He took the quill and came closer to Cadafalls.
‘Every author signs his work’ he said it into Cadafalls’ ear, then like a hungry vampire pushed his head sideways so as to leave the neck exposed and stuck the quill in it.
The Hangman’s quill had a blade instead of an ink point. Blood oozed. Cadafalls’ white shirt was dyed red. He cried out in pain and that made the crowd go mad.
When the Hangman stepped away from the lad, there was only a huge, bright red smear upon his neck to be seen. The Hangman never wiped up his quill. He put it away with Cadafall’s blood still dripping from it. Next, he tightened the noose around his neck, and retreated to the corner of the gallows.
When the rope touched Cadafalls’ cold skin, a purple spark flashed once before his eyes and vanished. He had no time to blink.
A rectangular, purple piece of paper that looked like a blank visiting card materialised where the spark had been and there it stayed, hovering in mid-air.
Cadafalls’ first impulse was to shout ‘Witchcraft!’, but he quickly realised it wasn’t the best place and time; he wouldn’t want another accusation to be added to his sentence. He was thunderstruck and petrified. Not even the hanging itself had had such an impact upon him. He looked around for a reaction from the crowd to that flying visiting card but found none. Nobody seemed to care.
Suddenly the card caught fire. A vivid purple flame engulfed it whole. Despite the sound of paper burning, it remained intact.
This added even more horror to Cadafalls’ already terrified face, now illuminated by the brightness of the flame. His heart was almost piercing through his ribcage.
Then, some letters appeared upon the visiting card. He squinted a bit so as to read them. To his dismay, they made sense:
London – Edinburgh – Cardiff
The four words soon changed into new ones. They read:
That noose is tight, isn’t it?
Cadafalls’ eyes were bulging.
The words on the card changed again:
Don’t worry yourself.
They cannot see it.
The sentences only lasted for a quick read:
But if YOU can see it,
it means you need our help.
Cadafalls’ reactions to the card started to reflect upon the crowd. At long last they were getting the desperation they had come for. It smelled of blood and excited them. Shouts here and there were replaced by a general bedlam. The square was invaded by a flood of ovations. People were celebrating; the show would be worth it.
‘Came all the way from Mortarlore to see it!’ somebody cried.
‘Finally! Show us some pain!’ this one lifted up his child so it could have a better view.
Cadafalls was so mesmerised by the visiting card he didn’t realise what the crowd was doing. Neither did he hear it when the Hangman tightened a rope that was attached to the trapdoor and which he had in his hand.
‘Hang! Hang! Hang!’ the crowd demanded. The letters on the card changed yet again:
If you want our help… you will have to cry.
Another sentence followed immediately:
In the most dramatic fashion.
Cadafalls swallowed hard without even noticing.
You’ve seen an execution before,
have you not?
The card changed again:
But if you don’t want our help…
The card was completely blank for a painful second.
Then, a new sentence slowly appeared.
…then, die in silence.
After this last sentence, the letters rearranged to show Cavalry again.
Next the purple flame consumed the visiting card and left no trace of it in the air. Cadafalls was facing the thirsty mob again.
A priest who had been standing nearby quite unnoticed approached him.
‘May God hear you in this time of distress. Do you repent your sins?’ the priest asked in a coarse voice.
Cadafalls could smell his putrid breath even though the priest had not come too near him.
‘Do you repent your sins?’ the priest insisted. Still, no answer came.
‘Answer, vermin!’ the Sheriff intruded. Cadafalls didn’t say a word.
‘God will hear even those who remain silent’ said the hooded figure; he blessed Cadafalls and returned to his place.
‘Hang! Hang! Hang!’ the crowd continued. The Sheriff gave the Hangman a nod.
It was time.
The Hangman was ready to give the rope a quick pull and open the trapdoor beneath Cadafalls’ feet. Then, it started.
At first, it was a shy sob, but it quickly grew into a desperate cry that almost left him breathless. Thick teardrops ran down his face. Cadafalls cried.
The shouting of the crowd was absolutely unbearable now. For them, the hanged man had just understood what an execution was all about.
A sigh came under the Hangman’s hood.
Cadafalls continued to cry, pushing his throat to the limit. He was about to get hoarse; his eyes were red and swollen.
‘Hang! Hang! Hang!’ the crowd yelled.
The Hangman agitated them even more with one of his arms in the air.
‘Hang! Hang! Hang!’
The last thing Cadafalls saw was the Hangman staring fixedly at him.
He felt the trapdoor beneath his feet open and went blind for good.