“Sir, we just received a new prisoner. He’s under penalty of death.”
The head jailer Joseph O’Keefe nodded. “What’s his name?”
“They couldn’t find out his real name, but he calls himself Crowfeather. He—sir, are you okay?” The guard stepped forward, seeing the jailer sway suddenly, but O’Keefe waved him off.
“It’s just my knee.” He sat down, massaging his knee and not daring to look up in case his face betrayed anything. “Get out of here, would you. I’ll go check on the prisoner.”
The guard left and a moment later O’Keefe stood up and limped slowly down the dank stone corridor, all the way down to the Cells of the Condemned. He had never known it to take so long and his heart was pounding so painfully it felt as if his arteries were filled with acid.
Peering through iron bars, he saw the prisoner sitting in a pile of moldy straw. He did not see the baby that he had bounced on his knee or the little boy he had taken to market that first time. There was only a prisoner.
The prisoner looked up. “Yeah?”
“I like Gabriel Robins better.”
The prisoner was on his feet in an instant, his fists clenched. “How do you know that name?” O’Keefe looked at him steadily and watched as recognition grew on his face and the anger drained away from his expression. “Father. So this is where you ended up.”
“And this is where you ended up,” O’Keefe said. “What did they catch you doing?”
A thrill of horror went down O’Keefe’s spine. “Counterfeiting!” he hissed. “Are you mad, boy? Do you know what the punishment is for that?”
The prisoner shrugged. “Death is death in the end, no matter how you get there.”
“I have witnessed many executions and not all deaths are created equal. Men would give all they had to choose their death; to avoid the one coming to you.”
The prisoner sat down again, shrugging in defiance. “So, did you come here to gloat? To say I was stupid? You taught me to do this, after all.”
“I never taught you to counterfeit!”
“No, you only taught me to steal, to pickpocket, to hold a crossbow to a man’s throat while our friends took his horse and everything he owned in the world. How is that much better?”
O’Keefe put his forehead against the wood of the door. His knee was throbbing.
“Father,” the prisoner said. “What happened that day at Hind’s Crossing, when the ambush went bad? You disappeared and we thought you were dead.”
There was a moment of silence before O’Keefe spoke. “After they counterattacked, I knocked one of the soldiers down with my staff. I thought he was out, but he crushed my knee with his mace. I killed him after that, but then fell into unconsciousness. After the fighting, when you and the lads had fled, I woke to find myself bandaged and lying on a stretcher. There were two groups of pilgrims in the party we ambushed and both thought I was part of the other one. They carried me with them, all the way to this city where I slowly healed, at least as much as possible. I changed my name and got a job as a jailer.”
“Why didn’t you try to find me?” the prisoner asked.
“It was too far for me to travel like this, and even if I had, I would have been a burden on you. I have found a better way, through my suffering.”
“When is the execution scheduled?” the prisoner asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Will you come to it, to see me?” For a moment, O’Keefe heard a touch of the boy he had known in the prisoner’s voice, the child looking up to his father for assurance and advice.
The jailer stifled a groan and punched his fist into the door. The physical pain seemed like a blessing compared the torture filling his mind. “How could I go? How could I watch them do that to my only son?”
“What will you do then?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know.” O’Keefe turned and shuffled back down the long hall to the guard room. His knee was screaming at him by now, the pain shouting accusations.
The deputy jailer William Crandell was in the guard room when O’Keefe entered. They nodded at each other in professional acknowledgement.
“William, the new prisoner—do you know when the execution will be?”
“The counterfeiter? Yes, I just received the news. It will be in two days. They need time to fill and ready the cauldron.”
O’Keefe gave a quick nod and turned to hide his long, shuddering breath. He had only seen one execution that had involved that squat, black cauldron. The images were burned into his memory, and now his mind unwillingly combined the iron monstrosity with the tiny tin basin he had used to wash little Gabriel in front of the fireplace. The little boy had splashed and laughed, spilling water on the dirt floor. In O’Keefe’s mind, he could see the water thickening into oil around the small boy, the surface swelling and bursting in sickening pops as the oil began to boil.
(to be concluded in Part 2)