Yemelyan Pugachev stumbles, falling forward with no means to catch himself, his arms tied securely behind his back. Around him, soldiers laugh and jeer, dragging him up roughly by the ropes. He squares his shoulders and stumbles up, straightening his back. They will not have the satisfaction of seeing him break. Whatever it is they do to him, he will meet death the same way he met life, with his head held high and without compromise. Another yank on the ropes, this time hard enough to pull him down backwards. He feels the lurch in his stomach, instinctively tries to stretch out his hands to catch himself, but the ropes are tight and he has nowhere to go. But his head does not, as expected, hit the hard cobblestones. Instead, it is cushioned by soft, thick fur. Yemelyan smiles. Laughs almost uncontrollably as he is pulled back to his feet and shoved forward once more. Vaguely he hears the soldiers speak, cut off phrases as they drag him along:
He’s gone insane–
What do you mean ‘gone insane’, like he was ever different.
He pays them no mind. He remembers, suddenly, one of the girls from camp asking one morning as he shrugged on his clothes, why he always wears this particular fur. Why he has it sown into the trim of any new garment in his possession, why he won’t just use some new furs that come in every other day... He didn’t answer her then, and he doesn’t know the answer now. Why does he always wear it? Why? Why, because of Nicolai, of course. But why the young man matters so much to him, he couldn’t say. He is glad for his decision now though. While Nicolai nor his coat can save him from his fate, it is good to be with a friend, at the end. To know that you carry a part of them with you.
And then, as though summoned by a very thought, Nicolai is there. Yemelyan would recognise him anywhere, but dressed in white as he is in this angry dark crowd, the only person on whose face one can read grief instead of anger– well, there just is no way it could be anyone else. He laughs again, kinder, this time, tries to turn to his friend. To this man with whom his fate has been irrevocably linked on the day Nicolai had given him that coat. He sees a tear roll down Nicolai’s cheek, and the crack he has had in his heart since the first time they parted ways splinters into pieces. It’s alright, he wants to say. It’s alright my friend, my Nicolai. It was always going to end like this. Your warmth may have saved me once, years ago, but now it can only bear witness. But he only laughs again.
It’s time now. Time to meet death with his head held high, and a friend at his back.