The day of your execution has arrived. False truths by your peers have condemned you as a traitor and you have been graciously sentenced to beheading by your king.
Crowds of peasants press against you, their grubby hands catching the rich velvet of your finest clothes, the odor of their unwashed bodies thick in the air. Your friends are among them, eyes fixed on your alleged shame to dissuade others of their own implication. An act you yourself have committed in the past.
You concentrate on placing one foot in front of the other, the simplest of actions become difficult as your mind scrambles to grasp the reality of your impending fate. The scaffold became a permanent structure years ago, its stairs worn smooth by a steady march of the condemned. Adrenaline fires through your muscles as you begin that same ascent. You fight the primitive urge to flee.
There is nowhere to go.
Your footsteps pound in your ears like ominous drumbeats that fall silent as your shoes meet the straw lined platform. Chills rake down your spine. The straw is not meant to cushion your body, but to absorb your blood. The gold coin in your hand has grown hot beneath your slick palm. Hopefully the executioner will not take offense.
A black mask obscures his identity and highlights eyes that remind you of a clear summer sky. Your lips whisper forgiveness, but your mind screams for mercy as you press the coin to his fingers.
The time has come to give your speech. The one that will thank your gracious king for a painless death, the one that will spare your family his bloodthirsty wrath. The one you rehearsed until the darkness of your last night gave way to the gentle pinks of your last sunrise.
Silence descends upon the crowd and you force strength into your dry throat. Your limbs quiver with fear, but you will appear brave before them. The people remain quiet as the priest delivers your last rites. Though his voice is warm, his gaze offers only indifference. He believes you are guilty and somehow that realization leaves you hollow.
Your legs buckle as you kneel before the chopping block. Tension hums through the masses. Do they expect you to die as the Duchess of Salisbury, running and screaming as the executioner chases you upon the dais?
Hopefully your coin and forgiveness have purchased a swift death and not one requiring eleven strokes of the axe.
Air pushes in and out of your chest, yet you cannot breathe. You grip either side of the block and lower your neck to a surface gouged deep with mortal blows. Your heart threatens to escape the confines of your ribs as seconds turn into decades. Warmth spreads down your legs and pools at your knees.
A peasant leans against the wood frame below with a wild glint in her black eyes and a mad smile upon her lips. Dots of brown spatter the front of her filthy dress: dried blood. She has stood here before, staring at another victim as she stares at you now.
In these last moments before your death, life takes on incredible clarity and you savor it. The caress of a breeze against your face, the earthy scent of sun-warmed grass beneath the scaffolding, the low whisper of the axe as it cuts the air behind you. The skin along your back tingles in anticipation, yet something inside of you flickers with futile hope.
Perhaps you will be spared.