The year 360, the eleventh month. (The year 1881 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
After his love-mate had been escorted weeping from the great entry hall, nothing was left to distract his mind from what was to come.
Not even his executioner, who remained silent.
He was standing facing the whipping post, not yet bound, thanks to mercy from his guard. Above him he could hear the occasional squeak from a hibernating bat roused from its slumber, as well as the murmur of the men who had been brought here to witness his punishment. No more than a murmur; none of them dared speak out. Not when his own cry of protest, such as it had been, was about to be snuffed out.
The whipping post had been brought to the dungeon for this special occasion. It was made of wood, varnished so that it shone. It looked more like an elegant piece of furniture than an instrument of torture. The vertical beam was very narrow, only four inches wide. The crossbeam soared above his head. He rested his forehead upon the smooth wood of the vertical beam, feeling his naked chest and back begin to chill in the dungeon's autumnal coolness. He did not look behind him or to the side, though he was acutely aware of the man with the whip, whom he had passed on his way to the platform.
His guard was standing nearer, out of sight, but within reach in case he should panic and try to flee. He knew that, without need to watch. But all his thoughts were inward now, reflecting upon what would come. Gathering his courage.
It would end in death, he knew. Officially, he had been condemned to one hundred hard lashes, but the whip lay in the hands of a man who had the skills – and the incentive – to turn those lashes into death. The only question was how long it would take, and how painful the death would be.
He was vaguely aware of his guard murmuring something and stepping into view. He lifted his forehead but kept his gaze upon the post as his left arm was raised. The iron rings were loose enough to require additional binding of each wrist. The procedure was to knot a loop around the wrist, then wrap the free end of the rope around the notched wood at the end of the crossbeam, and then loop and knot the wrist again, tight.
His left hand had gone numb already. That hardly mattered. This wouldn't take long, would it? A dozen lashes before it finished, perhaps. Maybe two dozen. Surely no more than that.
The right wrist was raised and pulled. And pulled. And pulled. He had not anticipated that he would be stretched this tightly; nor had he foreseen that his chest would be brought up hard against the front two edges of the slender vertical beam. Every time he let out a breath, the edges bit into him. He tried not to think what would happen when the whip began to drive him against the post.
The binding was finished, yet something remained. A hand, warm upon his. He turned his head to look.
His guard was watching him, waiting. His guard said nothing, though the two of them had spoken for many hours through the sleepless night and the sleepless day. This final flowering of their friendship had given him great comfort during those last, dark hours before his death.
He offered a half-smile. It was all he could manage. It must have been enough, for something that did not quite have the strength to be a smile touched his guard's mouth. The warm hand squeezed his, lightly.
Then the hand rose. In a voice pitched to carry through the murmuring crowd, his guard said, "The prisoner is ready, sir."
The murmurers turned silent at once, as though every head had been chopped off. Yet still he could not hear his executioner; nor could he feel any vibration of footsteps on the wooden platform. Was his executioner determined to eke out these last moments, in an attempt to drive the greatest amount of fear into his audience as possible?
Or was the executioner trying to scare his prisoner?
Something that was a bit more than a half-smile touched his face. He had reached the limits of his fear, and passed those limits, long ago. Nothing was left now but to endure the end in stoic silence. He had been wounded in battle, in years past; he had the ability to endure pain for long periods. He would remain mute throughout the torture of his execution. He would not gasp or sob, much less scream—
The first gouge of the lash ripped apart his self-deception.