There was to be a hanging today. It was a strange sense of calm that had washed over the room as the sun rose, even though she knew what was coming. The gallows waited below, the final punishment for her crime. She stared down at it from her castle window, watching the soldiers secure the perimeter of the velvet ropes to keep her citizens close but far enough away that they didn’t interrupt anything. Everyone loved an execution; especially when it was the execution of the criminal princess. A slow smile slid over her dry lips. It was too bad her people would be disappointed today.
Two guards entered the room, their faces solemn at their task. “Ma’am,” the taller one said, stepping forward with iron bangles in his hands. “It’s time.”
Nell turned, taking in the two, drawing a long breath. “I’m sorry that you two have to do this,” she said, her voice sounding soft and raw from years of not being used. She presented her wrists willingly to him, sagging under the weight of the shackles as they clamped around her.
With one guard in front of her and one beside her, they filed down the grand staircase towards the front corridor. It had been so long since Nell had seen this part of the castle, it all seemed so foreign to her, yet so strangely familiar. And yet, this would likely be the last time she’d be seeing it. She kept her eye looking forward after a curious glance around at the bustling castle, the maids and cooks preparing for some sort of celebration after the criminal was disposed of. Well, at least she knew where she stood at this point. The guard behind her stepped closer and grasped her bicep tightly as she slowed her steps, acting as if she was resisting. Her eyes slid up to his, and he grunted and nodded forward, speeding her along. There was no delaying this, no matter how she tried to resist, though as she raised her brown eyes to his, he slid his eye closed into a discreet, quick wink, before returning to his prior seriousness.
The wink was all she needed to set her shoulders, and continue outside to the gallows, the early morning sunlight hitting her face. Nell squinted and recoiled, raising her bound hands to block her eyes. The sun was so bright out here, unfiltered by her window, and it was blinding to her sensitive eyes. Nell’s guard squeezed her arm and pushed her forward.
“Your people are waiting for you,” he growled. “And they’re expecting a show.”
At his push, the Princess jerked forward, almost falling if he didn’t have his arm holding her up. She swallowed hard and nodded meekly, pulling herself up and making herself follow, her eyes on the gallows before her. The crowd was gathering, everyone awake early and out in the early sunlight to make sure they were close enough, so that they could say they saw the look on the Princess’s face when she died. So many people who would be disappointed. Or who would have an even better story to tell.
Nell was led up the stairs, and she stared down the noose before her, squinting against the sun to see it hanging down before her. The first guard, who’d been in front of her until now, looked down upon her. “Would you like the hood, Ma’am?” he asked.
Nell tilted her head back, looking up at him, her mouth set. “I am not afraid to die,” she told him. “I would do so feeling the warmth of the sun for the first time in five years.” Besides, the darkness of a hood would be suffocating and disorienting, difficult to run in when she couldn’t take it off until her shackles were removed. No, she’d need all of her senses for what would happen.
The guard nodded and helped her up to the rope, fitting it around her neck, tightening it just so. The clamoring of the crowd quieted as the King stood from his perch oabove the gallows, raising his hand to demand his attention. A scroll was placed in his hand by the servant standing at attention next to him, and he cleared his throat to read the charges.
“Penelope Cavell of Edginton, you have been charged with the murder of Duke Archer, punished by death. How do you plead?”
Nell lifted her chin to look up at her younger brother, who had taken the throne in her stead. Her brown eyes stayed steady on him, and she let out a breath. “Guilty,” she said in her raw voice.
The King gave a resigned nod, though his people could see that he, too, was feeling a little sad for all of this. “Do you have anything to say for yourself?”
There was a long silence as Nell stared up at her brother. “I love you, Brother,” she told him, with a nod affirming it. “I wish you all of the luck in the world, and I mean that sincerely. ”
The King cleared his throat, and looked over to the guard who’d been in front of her, and he stepped forward again next to her. “My God grant your soul peace,” he said in his gravel voice, before pulling a lever that dropped the floor of the platform beneath her.
The fall was the hard part. Keeping a brave face up to the gallows, up to the rope, seeing her brother, she could do. But here, she could so easily be betrayed, and she’d never know it. She’d just be dead. Before she had time to worry, or die, an arrow sliced through the rope, and the strong grip of her guard returned and was pulling her from the gallows.
“Don’t stop running,” he growled in her ear, even though she’d hardly gotten her feet beneath her. The rope was still around her neck, tighter than she’d like it, she couldn’t get her balance with her arms shackled in front of her, and she couldn’t catch her breath. But this was all part of the plan.
“Not stopping,” she promised, thankful for his arm on her, finally feeling the movement of her legs beneath her. It’d been years since she’d expelled this much energy, since she’d moved this much at once, and yet she couldn’t give up. This was her one chance at freedom.
There was the clamoring of people around them, townspeople scattering to the side and some trying to get in the way to capture the criminal and her accomplice, but her guard was knocking people back with his sword, keeping the crowd away from them, and keeping her ahead of the King’s guards that were chasing after them. When he finally stopped, he was reaching an arm around her waist, scooping her up to the back of a horse that was saddled and waiting. He climbed on behind her, kicking it into a gallop, and once they were at a reasonable speed, he worked on untying the noose around her neck. “Let’s get you out of the city. One of your men is waiting for us in the forest, we must hurry.”
Nell nodded, glancing back at him, gulping large breaths of the fresh air now that the noose was gone. “My sword?” she asked.
“He’ll have it for you once you reach the forest,” he said with a nod. “You’re safe now, Princess. You’re free.”
Freedom. It had seemed so long since Nell had dreamed of freedom that now it still seemed too far away. She shook her head, still afraid to believe it. “Not yet, I’m afraid. Your name?”
There was silence, as if he was debating telling her. Of course he was, if she was caught, she could easily turn him in as one of her accomplices. “You must know, Ma’am, that your men will each have an alias. They all have a family, someone to protect. Please understand that.” With the nod of the Princess, with her understanding, he cleared his throat. “I am known as Pearce.” He raced through the gates of the city and towards the forest that surrounded it, getting them hidden in the trees before anyone could follow them. The plan had worked, so far.
Pearce swung down from the horse and reached up to pull his princess down. Once on the ground, Nell stared back towards her city, towards her castle that had once been her home but had turned into her prison. She had so many fond memories of growing up there, and yet the past years of pain had almost erased those. Pearce took a step closer to her and cleared his throat. “Your next appointment is here, Ma’am.”
Nell turned, holding her hands out to be released from the shackles. A rumbling laugh came from him, and Nell shook her head, her own bemused smile creeping up over her dry lips. “You could have come a little quicker,” she teased, rubbing her wrists once they were free.
“Your Majesty,” Pearce said, bowing to the King as he embraced his older sister, then held her at arms length to make sure she hadn’t been harmed. “How long can you stay?”
The King didn’t take his eyes off of Nell, his hand under her chin to lift it and make sure the rope hadn’t caused any damage. “Not long, I’m afraid. They’ll be looking for me to give me an update on the situation. A wanted criminal has just escaped, after all.” He winked to his sister, then leaned down to put a kiss to her cheek. Next was her sword, which he ritualistically looped around her waist on its belt, tying it tightly. “I wish I could go with you, but I can’t. I’ll keep them off of your trail at home, until you come back with the evidence to clear your name.”
Nell reached up to embrace him tightly, owing this man everything; her freedom and his faith in her. “Thank you,” she whispered to him, her hand drifting down to the hilt of her sword.
Her brother looked over at Pearce, nodding to the guard. “Keep her safe. Good luck to you both, I’ll see you when this is over, and the celebration will be over your return, and not over your execution.” He gave an easy smile, before sauntering off to his horse, easily starting back to the city and to his people who would expect an answer for this.
Nell looked up at Pearce, the weight of the day wearing on her, but she wasn’t ready to give into it just yet. “Well then?” She asked, sliding a smirk his way. “We’ve got a long way to go, we might as well get started.”