The riveting tale of an executioner's daughter who struggles to find a different path in life
Born into the family of an executioner, Lily has always been sheltered by her mother from the horrors of her father's occupation. But when her ailing mother takes a turn for the worse, Lily is suddenly thrust into the paralyzing role of executioner's assistant. Aside from preparing healing concoctions for the suffering and maimed, Lily must now accompany her father at the town executions, something she has never done before. Though she loves her father, the emotional burden of his disturbing profession is just too much for her to bear. Lily must find a way to change her destiny, no matter the consequences.
Set in medieval England, this well-researched and beautifully written novel tells the story of one girl's fight to rise above her fate.
About the Author
Laura E. Williams is the author of Up a Creek and Behind the Bedroom Wall, which was named a Jane Addams Peace Award Honor Book. She lives in West Hartford, Connecticut.
Read an Excerpt
The Executioner's Daughter
By Laura E. Williams
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2000 Laura E. Williams
All rights reserved.
Lily loved early morning best of all. The time before the sun rose and melted away the mist. The time before even her parents stirred in the far side of the cottage. The time when only she was awake and free to wander without anyone making a fuss.
In the warmer months, she roamed the edges of the forest for plants to renew her father's supply of medicines. This morning she gathered yarrow, agrimony, horsetail, and wild lettuce, carefully laying the sprigs and leaves in a wide, flat basket she carried over her arm. Walking along, she found herself looking at the sky as much as at the ground. Her mother said that was why she was clumsy and fell so often.
Above her, the trees rustled in the late summer breeze. She shaded her eyes against the glare of the sun, watching the slender shape of a dove circle above her before winging out of sight. She loved doves, as did her mother. Their mournful call and their gentle ways. Lily smiled, imagining herself flying free.
When the high walls that hid most of the town came into view, she stopped. Only the church spire and Lord Dunsworth's castle on the far side could be seen above the turreted barricades. Lily didn't care for the town or the dirty moat. Nor for the narrow roads that twisted and turned like a pit full of serpents. She stayed away as much as possible, preferring the solitude of the forest, though she had to be wary of the cutthroats and thieves that hid in its murky depths and assaulted travelers. But even the fields where the farmers now threshed grain, or the meadows where animals grazed and shepherds kept watch were too crowded for her.
"There it goes!" someone shouted in the distance.
Lily whirled around, her outer tunic catching a puff of air and billowing around her legs. Those boys again! Town boys. And they were headed across the meadow in her direction. In another moment they would see her. Fear left her mouth dry. Lily took a giant step toward the bushes, nearly tripping over her skirts, looking for a place to hide. Without time for thought, she flung herself into a thicket of brambles. She winced as she landed on a sharp stone. Thorns scratched her face, but at least she was hidden. And just in time, too.
A rabbit raced by, the boys not far behind. The animal dodged left then right and suddenly disappeared. The boys nearly fell over each other, stopping so suddenly. They stood in a gasping huddle right next to her hiding place. Lily barely dared to breathe.
"It got away," one of the boys said, still trying to catch his breath.
"It can't have gone far," the smallest one said. "I jabbed it good, right in the leg."
A third boy laughed. "I'm sure you missed it, John. You're always thinking you've killed the rabbit or cornered the pheasant, but you never catch a thing."
All the boys laughed now. The littlest one stomped his foot. "You'll see, sodheads. I'll get that rabbit and have it for supper, too!"
"Enough," one of the older boys said. "This isn't fun anymore. Leave it and let's find something else to do."
"But I stuck it good and now someone else'll get the rabbit," the one named John protested.
The boys looked about. Lily didn't move, not even to brush aside a spider crawling up her arm.
"Come away," the first boy said, throwing down his stick. The others did the same, all except John. "There's no one here to find your skinny rabbit."
The smallest boy blinked back tears and glanced around, staring a moment too long into the thicket. Lily felt like he was looking straight at her, but then he turned away.
"Let's go find Maggie and Eunice," the tallest boy said.
"But I thought you wanted to play with me. What do you want girls for?" John asked, twisting his stick between his small hands.
"They make good targets," Tom said with a grin. "Come with us if you like. If you can keep up." The boys laughed and trotted off toward the gates of town.
After one last look into the thicket, John gave up on his rabbit and ran after his friends.
Lily waited till they were out of sight before she moved. Better they should pick on Maggie and Eunice than a poor rabbit, she thought as she pushed her way out of the brambles and undergrowth. She brushed dirt from her palms and plucked some thorns and twigs from her tunic. Before she retrieved her basket of herbs, she picked up the deserted sticks the boys had sharpened roughly on stones, cracked them in half over her knee, and tossed them aside. With her basket over her arm, she bent down and looked closely at the grass, peering this way and that until she found what she was looking for.
With her first finger, she dabbed at the blood on one of the leaves. The little boy had stuck the rabbit after all. Slowly, carefully, she followed the scattered red trail to a mound of brush not ten lengths away. Quivering behind a barricade of dead branches, a small brown rabbit twitched its nose at Lily as she got down on her knees and reached forward. She grabbed the animal by the scruff. The rabbit kicked feebly, and then went still.
Lily cradled the injured animal. "I'll make you well," she crooned. "Don't worry about those evil boys. I won't let them harm you again."
"That's my rabbit," a sharp voice called behind her.
Lily turned. John the youngest stood there, feet wide, pointed stick gripped in both hands. He jabbed it toward Lily as if she were an animal to be tamed.
Lily dodged out of the way. Fear tightened her throat, and her voice sounded squeaky. "I thought you went with the others."
"I tricked you," the boy said. He kept his gaze lowered to the tips of her shoes. "Now give it over. 'Tis mine."
Lily shook her head. "You left it here to die and I found it. 'Tis mine now." She glanced around nervously, wondering if the other boys were far behind but she didn't see them. One small boy couldn't hurt her, not the way a crowd of them could, like the last time they'd cornered her.
The boy's tousled brown hair stuck out at odd angles, and his leggings were held up by a rope tied around his waist. And though he scowled at her feet, his dirt-streaked face puckering above his brows like an old man's; Lily saw the tremble of his lower lip.
She clutched the rabbit closer and lowered her voice to a raspy growl. "Do you know who I am?"
The boy's eyes flickered up at her, but he tried to set his quivering lips firmly. "You're Lily White as Bones," he finally managed. "Gallows Girl. You're the executioner's daughter, but" — he took a deep breath — "but I'm not afraid of you."
"Foolish boy!" Lily stared at him hard, till she thought her eyes might have crossed, giving her a truly evil glare. He took a step backward, holding the stick in front of him. "You should be afraid of me," she went on. "If I ever catch you again ..." She let her voice trail off menacingly, waiting for the waif to run away, crying.
But he only took another step backward and said, "I want my rabbit. I've got to show Tom and the others. Show them I really did stick the rabbit like I said. They'll never believe me else."
"I'll not give it over!" Lily rasped louder.
John's eyes filled with tears.
Forgetting to give him the evil eye, Lily snorted with disgust. "Do boys always cry so much?" she demanded in her usual voice. She tried to ignore the pinch of pity she felt for him as he blinked back his tears. He was a town boy, same as the others, cruel and heedless. How many times had children just like him brought tears to her own eyes? But no more. Her tears had only meant harsher taunts, so she had learned not to cry. Never to cry.
The boy hastily wiped the back of his hand across his eyes. "I'm not crying. 'Tis dust, is all. Now give me my rabbit."
"Nay, you'll not have it," Lily said. With that, she turned and ran as fast as she could, cradling the rabbit in her arms.
She took a shortcut through the forest, dodging trees and leaping over fallen branches. Her basket bounced on her arm, scattering its contents as she raced on. Lily glanced over her shoulder twice. The first time to see the boy trailing behind her. The second not to see him at all. She turned abruptly north, away from the direction of the town gates, and followed a path she'd made from her frequent walks in the forest. At last she slowed her steps, catching her breath and taking a look at the rabbit in her arms. It lay limp, blood staining its hind legs, but Lily felt the delicate thrumming of its heart beneath her hands. There was hope yet.
At last she reached the small cottage she shared with her father and mother outside the town walls. Her father had built their home in the midst of some willow and ancient evergreens, which kept it sheltered and out of sight from all but the most curious. The wattle and daub walls were sturdy, and the thatch roof overhung the sides all around to better shed the rain. Beyond their patch of land spread out fields of wheat to the front and side, and forests to the rear. Not far away on the right rose the tall, thick stone wall that circled the town like protective arms.
Their cottage contained one room with a trestle table near the hearth, a few benches and stools, cooking utensils, a bed to one side, and a curtained-off corner for Lily. Attached to the cottage, her father had built a small chamber, which he called his apothecary. Here he kept his herbs and remedies and special tools. Often she found her father and mother there, side by side, working without speaking.
Lily scattered the chickens and ducks out of the way as she neared the cottage door. Her dog barked a greeting, straining on the rope that kept her in the yard.
"Hush up, Blossom," Lily said. "I'll let you go in a bit, I promise." She entered through the back door, directly into the apothecary. "Look what I've found."
Her father turned away from his table and frowned at the rabbit. "What poor hunter maimed this animal and didn't kill it properly?"
"And the herbs you were to collect?"
Lily looked at the empty basket over her arm.
Her father knew her well enough and didn't wait for a reply. "The usual boys from town," Lily said. "They chased it with sticks and stones."
"What happened to your face?" he asked.
Lily bowed her head over the rabbit. "'Twas nothing," she said. "I tripped and fell into some prickers."
Lily's mother, Allyce, brushed willow bark powder from her fingers. She had hair the color of sunlight, and skin so white it seemed to glow. Without a word, she took Lily's chin to lift her face to the light, then she angled it this way and that. The skin around Allyce's lips tightened. "You must be more careful," she said gently.
"Aye," Lily agreed.
Her father turned back to his work. Allyce held her hands out for the rabbit. "Let me see." With soothing movements, she inspected the frightened animal. Lily watched, wishing her own touch was as soft and comforting, but she had hands like her father; strong and wide, and oftentimes clumsy.
"Can we save it?" Lily asked after a moment of silence, broken only by the scraping of her father's pestle grinding against the mortar.
"Hmmm," Allyce murmured. "I suppose we have half a chance to save the wee thing, which is better than no chance at all."
Lily nodded. "I'll make a poultice."
Her mother pointed to a couple of herbs, then she placed the rabbit in a basket loosely woven out of twigs and meadow grass.
Using the herbs her mother had suggested, Lily mixed self-heal and chickweed in a wooden bowl before adding water to form a warm mash.
Allyce inspected the medicine and nodded approval. "Get your friend."
Lily carefully retrieved the rabbit from the basket. Her friend. It was true that her only friends were the animals she brought home to care for. But at least they couldn't call her names, and if they ran from her, it wasn't because she was the executioner's daughter.
"Hold it still, child," her mother reproved, applying the poultice to the wound.
"I'm trying," Lily said, wishing again she had her mother's calming way. Animals wild with pain, children screaming, or crying men and women alike were soothed by Allyce's touch.
"Very well," her mother murmured.
Lily smiled, humming softly to the rabbit. Slowly it relaxed in her hands as her mother applied more poultice and then wrapped the injured leg with a scrap of cloth.
"It should heal properly," Allyce said, wiping her hands on her apron.
Lily squeezed the rabbit with happiness. Suddenly it struggled to get free. She fumbled, trying not to drop the animal on the floor. "Oh," she cried, "I've loosened the bandage."
Allyce tightened it again and patted her daughter's shoulder.
Lily sighed. "I'll never be like you. You could pick thorns from a unicorn's muzzle and it wouldn't run away."
"Have patience, child. You have a gentle heart, and the rest will come. Now go put the wee one outside with the others."
Lily took the rabbit outside where she had stacked cages for her injured friends. She fed and petted her collection of rabbits, one quail, a pheasant with a broken leg, and a fox who'd been half torn apart by dogs when Lily had found him over a fortnight ago. Now he scampered around in his cage and licked her fingers when she poked them through the wooden bars.
"You'll be leaving me soon," she said to the young fox. "Only, stay away from those vicious dogs, do you hear?"
When she was done, the sun hung low, casting long, violet shadows to the east.
Inside, her father sat on a bench by the unshuttered window, polishing his ax with a soft cloth. William Goodman was a large man with broad shoulders and wavy black hair. His sharpening stone sat at his booted feet. Laid out on the bench beside him was a knife with a narrow blade, a sharp hook, and a tankard of ale. Lily knew it wasn't her father's first drink. Nor would it be his last.
Allyce stood by the cook fire, stirring their supper in a large iron kettle. Her thin back curved over the pot like a willow branch, and her cheeks glowed red from the heat.
Lily took the long-handled spoon from her mother. "Let me," she said. "I like to stir."
"Thank you, child," her mother said, wiping the sweat from her brow with the hem of her apron. She moved to the trestle table and laid out wooden bowls, chunks of hearty wheat bread, creamy butter, and cheese curds.
"More ale, gentle Allyce," Will said, holding up his tankard, using his favorite name for his wife.
"You've had enough," Allyce said firmly.
In a burst of temper, Will slammed the tankard beside him on the bench. "I'll have more and plenty," he bellowed.
Allyce didn't flinch. "You won't be fit for the evening chores."
"I'm fit enough," Will said, his voice back to its low rumble.
Lily watched as her mother reluctantly filled the vessel and her father near downed the refill in two long draughts. Allyce pressed her lips together and turned away, placing the jug of ale on the table, out of Will's reach. But Lily knew that wouldn't stop her father from finishing the jug and likely refilling it a time or two more from the keg before he fell into bed and snored the night through.
Silence fell over the cottage. Her father drank every night, so Lily was used to it. But occasionally he drank far more than usual, and she didn't like how it made him angry and raise his voice. And yet other times it brought tears to his eyes as he sat in the corner, near weeping into his tankard.
"The ale is a balm to his soul," Allyce had once told Lily.
"Like a poultice for a wound?" Lily had asked.
"Aye," agreed her mother.
"But what's wrong with his soul?"
Allyce had sighed and pulled Lily close in her arms. "One day you'll see and understand. But not for many years I hope."
Lily had wanted to ask more questions, but her mother shushed her.
Remembering, Lily swung the pot off the fire and ladled the soup into the bowls. She wondered if souls could bleed like flesh, and if so, what had cut her father so deeply that he needed ale every night to soothe the ache.
"Come to the board," Allyce said to Will when Lily was done filling the bowls.
"First, I must finish my task," Will said. "I'll not have my blade dull tomorrow."
Lily looked at her mother, noticing how distraught and frail she suddenly appeared.
Allyce looked at her daughter and nodded. "There's to be an execution tomorrow." She lowered her gaze. "'Tis the fourth one in as many months. Seems Lord Dunsworth is finding great use for the executioner this year."
Excerpted from The Executioner's Daughter by Laura E. Williams. Copyright © 2000 Laura E. Williams. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The novel, The Executioner's Daughter written by Laura E. Williams is a wonderful novel that is build upon the fact that executioner's and their families do not have the same advantages the other village people have. They are shunned by others, forced to live outside the village, and not allowed to attend gatherings and special events. The main character Lily, has a cursed life ever since she was born, because she is the executioner's daughter. She does not get to play with the other children in the village, so instead she heals for wounded animals she finds in the forest, while her mother has the role of the executioner's assistant. After time, Lily's mother gets ill from a fever, and dies. Replacing her mother, Lily has to assist her father as the executioner's assistant, but how can she help to kill when she has a passion for caring and healing? Lily is a very strong character who learns to live with the circumstances she has to face whether she likes it or not. I highly recommend this novel to ages 10 to 14 who likes to read captivating and inspiring stories, because Laura E. Williams is the author of a very well-written one!
This novel was built upon the fact that during the Middle Ages, executioners and their families were shunned, forced to live outside the village walls and forbidden to attend church and social gatherings. Thirteen-year-old Lily, the fictional main character, is cursed from the moment she was born - her father is the village executioner. But because her mother is the one to assist her father in his duties, Lily keeps to herself in the forrest near their cottage, gathering herbs and healing wounded animals, and taking comfort in her mother when her father distances himself from them. Lily loses that one comfort when her mother sickens and dies. Now Lily is doomed to be her father's assistant at executions. A gentle, quiet girl, Lily cannot bear to see an animal in pain - she doesn't know how she can ever watch executions. But Lily won't resign herself to the fate assigned to her.This book was an excellant historical novel that brought the time and place of England in the 1400s, gruesome details and all, to life. It was inspiring to read a story about a young girl who chose to fight her place in life in a time when most people were forced to accept whatever their circumstances in life turned out to be, whether they liked them or not. I highly recommend this novel to fans of historical novels ages twelve and up (the more gruesome details might disturb younger readers).
The Executioner's Daughter is one of the best books i have read in a long time. I love books set in the Middle Ages. But, it was also sad as well. The fact that Lily and her family were shunned and not allowed in church was interesting yet sad. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes historical fiction and books set in the Middle Ages.
This book was written by an author who has written many other books of this time period. Laura E. Williams gives an accurate overview of Middle Ages life. The book is very descriptive, and has good twists in it. I would reccomend this book highly!
This book is very accurate in historical facts about the middle ages, and the story is very sad. It is hard to believe that an executioner was not allowed to go to church. Read this book now!