“Are you ready?"
I nodded, whilst every word I was about to voice quickly died in my throat. I didn’t dare to glance back at the endless sea of merchants and peasants alike that I knew were standing behind me, scrutinising every minute movement I made and every word I spoke. I didn’t want them to think I was afraid. I couldn’t die like that, feeling humiliated in such a form. I was wary of every shiver, every tremble that I knew could be mistaken for fear.
In the deathly silence of those short few moments I heard little other than my own breathing and my own heart. The crowd that surrounded the scaffold was completely soundless, all sound having ceased a number of minutes beforehand. I supposed that they were only waiting for the moment when the axe fell so that they could give their solemn cheers and return home, having had their brutal entertainment. I should have been the same, I realised - if I were not the one about to become the one who would entertain them unconsciously.
I noticed the executioner’s overly large and glinting axe before I noticed his face. We’d met once before, back in the cells, when he had brought me food and tried to reassure me that perhaps death wouldn't be as the sort of terrifying swish of ceased reality that I had already found pressed into my consciousness. He'd only irritated me then, with his painfully bright and cheery attitude to something I could only see as disgusting... and yet, in the moments of looming death I became desperate for anyone, anyone at all, simply to take me away from the Hell I had found myself submerged in.
There was something oddly fascinating about my executioner, when I thought of it. I still could not bring myself to believe that he would be the man to kill me, to murder me. I didn’t know how someone with his sort of personality could not feel the level of guilt I was so certain would surely come with the intended murder of another human being. He was such a cheerful individual, coming across as somewhat oblivious in ways; while yet other moments it was easier to see the sorely hidden side of him that was controlled by a ruthless spirit and solid, deadly intentions.
Although, what else could I expect from a fellow human? That was all he was. He was little more than human - like me. He had emotions, as I did.
But in that moment, the difference between us seemed so vast I could hardly imagine it, nor bring myself to wrap my mind around the truth of it all, being curiously forgetful of the time I had remaining in my world of cobbled streets and jostling, living, ignorant humanity.
At that moment, though, he very suddenly laid both his heavy hands on my shoulders, steering me to face him as he plucked a thin piece of ironically white cloth from one of his many pockets, slipping it loosely behind my ears and around the back of my head whilst I remained wordless. It was then that I noticed he was speaking to me, his voice lost somewhere within the fierce, pounding roar in my ears.
“I’m sorry about this. You know I’m sorry. I’m just trying to make my own living, you see? It’s nothing personal. It’ll be quick and clean, I promise.”
And then he had given a sort of distant, quieted laugh, the sound a world of difference away from the grating chuckles I had become accustomed to hearing back in the cells.
I could feel the undeniable attempt at reassurance in his voice as he spoke to me. I could practically hear the apologetic grin in his tone as he tied the blindfold’s knot just above the nape of my neck. I felt almost sure that his words were sincere as he spoke to me, and that like me, he felt that death generally wasn't something he wanted to be heavily involved in, no matter the fact that he was the one holding the axe.
But I didn’t dare to cry out. I hardly thought of resistance, knowing it was futile and paying no heed to my emotions.
At that moment, I could only silently pray that he wouldn’t feel the slight tremor running through me at the time, and that no more words would be exchanged between us. I was terrified that somewhere amidst my thoughts I would do something childish and irrational, or burst into tears.
I didn’t dare to try and stop him, or to hesitate when he would force me down to my knees and place my head against the block. There was simply no point wasting my final moments in struggle that would end in a far worse circumstance than it had begun.
“You should be proud of yourself. You’re brave.”
I wanted to smile back at him with some semblance of the courage he said I had (by nothing more than a whisper, no less), but by then my heart was beating so quickly and I felt so lightheaded that I could hardly stand.
“Not as brave as I should be,” I answered him, as quietly as I could manage.
“Braver than most, though. It’s something to be admired. I see a lot of criers, a lot of screamers, and I hate it. It makes me feel much worse, but they don't know that, do they?" He gifted to me one of his smiles, but as he did I longer felt irritated by it. I wanted him to keep smiling until I forgot that I was going to die, and perhaps be lost in belief that it was all some silly dream of an axeman's blade and a fool's murder.
Only then did he speak again.
"You... well, I still feel terrible, don't I? But you're braver than them.”
A quiet chuckle resonated through the chilled air, and I very suddenly felt a shove against my shoulder, roughly forcing me down. It took several moments, what with how my head was swimming, for me simply to realise what he meant for me to do, but still I didn't want to do as I was being told. I suppose that that was my fatal flaw, in the end: I could never listen to or obey what I was told, unless absolutely forced to without a way to meander out of fate's claws. No wonder, then, that wasteful and pathetic, criminalising habits had arisen into my conscience over the years I had spent in my own native kingdom.
At last kneeling, I waited as I felt my mind churn with uncompleted thoughts and memories I could never truly lay a finger on, my blood feeling colder by the moment. My eyes vaguely stung with the beginning of shameful, fearful tears that I would never have the time to let fall.
“You know it hurts me to do this.” His voice was sharp to me in the unearthly silence, no matter of how quietly he had spoken.
“It’ll hurt me more; I can assure you of that," said I, with a strange neglect of my own despair.
And then there were warm fingers pressing into my neck, firm in what they were implying. I leaned forwards tentatively, ashamed of how horribly, horribly ill I felt with the motion of it.
At last my neck touched the roughly hewn wood of the block, and I inclined my own head forwards, not wanting to comply with what was necessary, but blindly enslaved to authority. Turning my head to the side, I allowed myself to close my eyes, although it may have seemed redundant. I didn’t even know why it was that I did so. Perhaps it was that, unconsciously, I already knew that I didn’t want anyone to have to close my eyelids over for me once I was gone, being disturbed by the thought of it.
Shuddering, it was a time before I again noticed and felt the careful, feather-light touches over my head and my neck, brushing aside my hair for a clean cut.
That horrible, exposed, terrifying moment of stillness I recalled being worse than all the others combined. It was at that moment that I felt the thrum in my chest reach such a point where I was sure I would die soon enough simply because it was going to burst from my ribcage. My vision was agitated beneath my eyelids, hands trembling before I could stop them.
I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want to have to wait for that axe to fall and sever my head, only for me to have my remains thrown into a pit. I didn’t even know if what the executioner had promised was true, and that it would be a quick slice and nothing more.
I hated myself for it. I hated it all.
There was his voice again, coming from above me. I briefly wondered whether or not he was supposed to be speaking to me, or whether no one simply dared to stop him.
How was I to respond? Was I to somehow give back that fool of a labourer his life and be done with, even after the murder? It was impossible. I had accepted the blame.
“It didn’t come soon enough, did it? It’s too late. This is my fault.”
What? What did he mean by that?
But I was too numbed with my own silent terror to bother giving any more thought to his words. Who was to say that they had even been directed at me? I was the murderer here, the guilty one.
It was too late for pleaded innocence.
With a final lurch of my stomach I gritted my teeth and braced myself for what I knew was inevitable. My thoughts drifted to the executioner above me, and I had a vivid picture in my mind of myself, kneeling there pathetically whilst an axe was held above my head, ready to drop and end everything. I saw in my mind's eye images of the silent crowd, mothers with their children as they waited for blood.
I whispered a final prayer, mouthing the words more than anything, throat too dry to choke out the words themselves.
And then I waited, each heartbeat more painful than the last.
I waited, knowing that when I awoke I would certainly be somewhere very different.
I waited, ignorant to my own terror.
I waited for the strike of the blade - but it didn’t come. I could have waited for hours or seconds and it would have made no difference.
And suddenly there was a low, throbbing, terrible groan arising from around me (having come from the crowd, undoubtedly), lingering in the air like the resounding beat of a drum.
Unsure of what was real and unreal, and whether or not I was only dreaming in my delirium of fear, I didn’t speak.
I kept my eyes closed.
But suddenly I was hearing footsteps, echoing around me. There was what sounded like a person of great importance speaking from what seemed to be miles away, yelling something I couldn’t understand for the life of me.
I caught only one word.
And yet, the news came but a second too late.
For already, I knew the axe had fallen.