Here’s a little something I’ve written as part of Chuck Wendig’s most recent flash fiction challenge. If you don’t already follow his blog you definitely should because it’s awesome.
1,561 words (so a little over, my apologies.)
Warning! This involves a bit of torture (because that was pretty common in Elizabethan England.) But it’s not a gorefest. Proceed as you see fit…
James knew, as all lads his age with more than fluff between their ears did, that there was money to be made in death.
He had seen the crowds howling at Tyburn as the bodies swung, had seen the bloodlust in their eyes as the executioner dropped his axe. Most of the men he’d seen dangling were good, honest Catholics, the Pater Noster on their lips as they waited for that bastard Henry Tanner to pull the cord.
James did not want that end for himself. Sometimes he’d dream that it was Tanner’s body that swung from the noose, his feet scrabbling in the air, but more often it was his own. Those were nights he awoke to sheets sour with sweat.
As far as James could see it, the best way to stay out of the hangman’s knot was to be the person tying it.
Torture paid the most, £7 a year if you made the traitors sing. He had the build for it, his arms being as wide as most men’s legs, so he found himself a likely master, Richard, and began as a lowly apprentice.
He watched keenly as Richard explained how best to slide needles under a man’s nails, how to crack the knuckles like ripe walnuts. There was a craft to it, a science of pain, and James was a fervent student. The human body could only take so much before it started to fight back, surrendering to unconsciousness rather than being made to watch the horror unfold. If Richard had been a smarter man, he would used this as a tool, but he was blind to it now, following his routine as easily as the bakers and butchers that wound past the windows, shouting their wares.
The Scavenger’s Daughter was Richard’s favourite tool by far. It looked innocent enough, and countless times James had seen relief flit across their subjects’ faces as they realised their torturers had ignored the long knives and sharp needles.
They soon learnt better.
The Scavenger’s daughter looked like a stirrup, cast in iron and big enough to contain a man on his knees. They would huddle beneath it, their arms and legs bound, and James would work the screw at the top, pressing the steel into their backs until their bones creaked under the pressure. Some were hardier than others, but the Scavenger’s Daughter claimed her fair share of confessions.
If that didn’t work, Richard would resort to a combination of pain and madness. He would crush their fingers in a vice (not their writing hand, of course, that had to be preserved) until the blood ran freely between the stones. Then, when they had had enough, he would lock them in a cage called the little-ease, not quite wide enough to sit in but not quite tall enough to stand in. The combination of being hunched and half their hand poking through the flesh took its toll, but never quite quickly enough for Richard’s liking. He would grit his teeth, getting crueller and crueller the longer he was kept from his ale.
And it gave James an idea.
The Priest Hunters would often deliver their victims personally, staying to watch the first few moments of gore before disappearing to pat themselves on the belly and tell themselves what good, Godly work had been done that day. Tanner appeared regularly in Richard’s workroom, but it had been a full six months since James had been permitted his own chamber and Tanner had not come.
He imagined he would know the sound of Tanner’s footsteps on the stone, that somehow he would sense his presence. As it was, a full year passed before Henry Tanner strolled through his door, hauling a quivering old man by the collar, and James was so deeply involved with his lunch that he barely noticed him come in.
‘Found this one in Margate,’ Tanner said, giving the old man a hearty kick to the stomach that sent him into a fit of wheezing. ‘Hidden like a rat, he was. Under the floorboards.’
James put down his sandwich carefully, trying to control the trembling in his hands.
‘Have I interrupted?’ Tanner said, his eyes straying to the crumbling bread on the table and then back to James.
James shook his head, trying to unstick his tongue from the roof of his mouth. ‘Not at all,’ he said, pleased to hear his voice was calm. ‘Would you like to watch?’
He had always watched. Sometimes, in Richard’s workroom, he would stay until the very end. It took a particular kind of man to take such pleasure from another’s pain. ‘Just for a moment,’ Tanner said, his fat fingers working at his collar. ‘I like to know my work has meaning.’
James nodded. He walked towards the priest and hoisted him up, holding his elbow and leading him towards the Scavenger.
Unless you worked the machine yourself, you wouldn’t be able to tell whether the screw was slotted in properly or not. If it wasn’t, then turning it would have no effect on the prisoner. It would simply grind against air.
‘Shall we start with this?’ James said, raising his voice to Tanner.
‘I’d rather start with that,’ Tanner said, pointing to the door at the end of the room.
‘The Dreamer’s Door comes after,’ James said, giving the man a wolfish smile. ‘Patience.’
The old man went on his knees and James locked his arms behind his back before binding his feet. He leant next to the man’s ear, on the pretence of tightening the steel bands that wound around his body. ‘When I grunt, I want you to scream,’ he said. ‘Don’t acknowledge me, don’t say a word, but when you hear me puff, you scream your lungs out.’
The man gave the slightest of nods, trembling bodily as James stood. He moved towards the pin, pretending to strain against it, and huffed loudly.
On cue, the man screamed.
‘You deserve every inch of it,’ Tanner muttered, his eyes wild with glee. ‘Heretic!’
James pretended to wind it twice more, grunting noisily and making his arms shake with false pressure. Tanner was delighted, slapping his hands together. ‘That’s it!’ He said, his voice thick with bloodlust. ‘Wind it further!’
James stopped, wiping his brow with his forearm and feeling the cool skin collect the grease from his hair. ‘Do you want to see The Dreamer’s Door now?’ he said. ‘I think you’ll like it. I invented it myself.’
Tanner hesitated, clearly torn between the instant gratification of seeing a man in pain before his eyes and waiting for the possibility of more. Eventually, he nodded, tearing his gaze away from the hapless priest moaning like one of Shakespeare’s own on the ground. ‘Show me,’ he said.
The Dreamer’s Door was James’ pride and joy. He had spent months refining it, adding to it, until it was a relentless, masterful tool.
All it required was a little patience.
‘Hop on that wooden step,’ he said, ‘and I’ll show you how it works.’
Tanner looked at him incredulously. ‘You want me to get on it?’
‘It won’t work with you only standing on it,’ he said. ‘Trust me. But you’ll get a much better idea of what this wretched soul will go through.’
Tanner chewed the thought, his jowls wobbling. ‘And no one else has seen this before?’ he said.
‘No-one,’ James lied.
‘Quickly then,’ Tanner said, nodding to himself. ‘Just to see how it works.’
James helped him up, his thick boots barely fitting on the slender, wooden platform.
‘How am I supposed to balance on this?’ Tanner said. ‘It’s near impossible.’
‘It’s part of the torture,’ James explained. ‘But you can hold onto those rings up there if you like, given I am just showing you.’
The man obliged, stretching to grasp the two iron cuffs attached near his head.
‘It’s mighty uncomfortable,’ he said. ‘What does it do?’
‘Whilst the prisoner is on it there is a constant flow of water from above,’ James said, pointing to a square of wood in the roof that he had darkened with polish. ‘They are all but drowned.’
‘Excellent!’ Tanner said. ‘Masterful. And then what?’
‘Look down,’ James said.
The beauty of The Dreamer’s Door was that it only activated when one’s head lolled forward. This normally happened when they passed out or fell asleep, because it was the body’s natural reaction to pain. It was its first defence.
Of course, some hapless idiots could also be convinced to trigger it of their own accord.
James held his breath, his heart thrumming in his chest. Any second now.
The mechanism tripped and Tanner let out a curdled shriek, his breath turning to frothing bubbles of blood as his feet scrabbled for purchase. A vicious, claw-like nail had sprung from the rear of the door, impaling his chin and tongue in one fell swoop.
‘Wonderful, isn’t it?’ James said, crossing the room to help the priest to his feet. ‘As you pass out, you’ll push the blade deeper and deeper until… well. I think you’ve watched enough men tortured to know how this ends.’ Tanner slammed his hands against the wood, banging and shouting with everything he had. ‘I told you you’d like it,’ James said, returning to his sandwich and taking a hearty bite.
And he watched Tanner’s legs swing.