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Schrödinger's Steel

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Marian could hear the joyous bleating of trumpets in the courtyard, heralding the arrival of her fate.

But they told her a story she didn't want to hear, a story about a prince who had likely succeeded in his nefarious plan, a prince who was about to be crowned King of England and have it within his power to put her to death. She could only hope that Bess was safe, that Robin and his men were safe, and that they would continue fighting this fight to see England restored, if not to the proper hands, then at least to its proper glory.

The sole window in her cell was set high in the wall, too high for her to see more than steeples and sky. But that alone told her it was too high to leap from safely, and though her gown was dense with layers of fabric it was still not enough to strip and tear and tie into a rope to make her descent.

Not that either of those things mattered when there were iron bars blocking her way. She'd tested them, twisting and shaking and rattling them in her fists, but while she'd freed a trickle of mortar and sand they were no looser when she finished than when she began.

Of course, even had she been able to loosen the bars, even had she escaped out the window of the cell, there were still Prince John's loyal men on the ground below, more of them than ever.

And to take that chain of hypothetical events to its inevitable and bleak conclusion, even if she were to pry the bars away, even if there was no rope and the men on the ground weren't a concern, even if her goal wasn't escape but to end this on her own terms, she wouldn't give them the satisfaction. If they found her body on the cobblestones below they would pronounce it evidence of her guilty conscience, and if she was going to be put to death she wanted it on their heads, not hers. She wanted to live on in their guilt and shame. She wanted the people sympathetic to the cause of Robin and the Saxon people and King Richard the Lion-Heart to condemn them.

But she was not nearly at the point of despair. In fact, she fiercely rejected the notion. She was decidedly low on options, but as long as she was breathing, there was hope.

 

*

 

Marian could hear the sound of steel on stone, as familiar to her as her own breaths. She'd grown up with that sound, a little girl in plaits spying on the knights skirmishing on the grounds, listening to their heavy footsteps and breathy grunts in the corridors of the castle in London. She knew those sounds of swordwork, but in her imprisonment she could not tell what they meant.

Her tower cell was chilly, damp clinging to the walls and no fire here to keep her warm. It wasn't yet winter, but she imagined she could feel the first hint of it in the air. She couldn't smell it, though, not over the smell of the cell itself, the sweat of a hundred former captives, mould in the crevices between the stones and the carcasses of animals in the corners.

It smelled like the stables on her childhood home, as though prior to her it had been used to house animals, and perhaps that was no accident. Perhaps, in fact, that was exactly what Prince John thought of the Saxons, and took just that much care in the upkeep of these cells.

She was not so different once.

Oh, in the important ways she was different, she'd never been a cruel woman or a callous woman. She'd never been a person to inflict needless harm on anyone and she wouldn't dream of torture. She carried herself with dignity and was convinced of the right and the generosity of her people. But she'd been childish and thoughtless and upheld the things she'd been brought up to believe without ever questioning them, without ever asking for more than someone's word.

She wasn't that trusting little girl anymore.

The sounds drew closer, or perhaps those were just echoes off the strange angles of the corridors, obscuring the truth of what was happening beyond her cell. It was clear, though, that something out of the ordinary, that something unanticipated, was afoot.

But what was ordinary or anticipated anymore? Her life became extraordinary from the moment she first laid eyes on Robin of Locksley. Robin Hood.

 

*

 

Marian could hear shouting in the courtyard, great shrieks and bellows. They might have been the sounds of triumph. They might also have been the sounds of defeat. They might have been neither, just the sounds of growing chaos.

The stone floor was cold as she knelt upon it, no better or worse than it had been in the deep dark of night, but still she knelt and pressed her hands together in front of her and prayed. She prayed for the people of England, she prayed for Richard's safety, she prayed for her soul and above all else she prayed for Robin.

Love was such a funny thing, the easiest thing in the world to feel and the hardest to understand.

It felt like it happened in a moment, though it couldn't have because she couldn't recall what moment it was. Was it when he first flashed her that smile? When he first demonstrated his bravery? His convictions? Or perhaps when he first showed her all those things she'd been blind to?

Robin fought injustice, though when they first met she didn't even understand what that meant. She thought she did, but she still had many things to learn, then.

Injustice meant something different when she was a girl. Injustice was being denied her pudding, or a trip to the countryside. She hadn't been a child prone to tantrums, but she was a wilful one. She believed what she believed and stood stubbornly behind it. Injustices were acts perpetrated against her.

Now she knew what injustice truly was, and that knowledge came with a terrible price.

But it was her own choices that led her here, and not chance. She chose to stay and fight in the best way that she could, and she would face the consequences of that choice. She was no bystander.

Her only regret, should the worst come to pass and she soon faced the executioner, was that she wouldn't have the chance to understand love better, to explore all of her blossoming feelings, to become the woman that she could see herself becoming.

 

*

 

Marian could hear the cries of the dying, the inarticulate strangles of men who had been battered, beaten and run through. No sheltered upbringing could prevent her from knowing those sounds. She could hear the thud of bodies on stone, the clatter of steel against steel.

For all her determination she still felt like such a fool now, for failing to see that John did not have Richard's - or at least the country's - best interests at heart, for failing to see that the very criminals she disdained were the true loyal subjects. She felt like she'd lived her whole life up till now wilfully blind.

But when it came down to it, when it mattered, she knew what was important. She knew where and with whom she stood. Whatever came now, she could face it with her head held high.

The sounds came closer, and closer, and closer still. She began to be able to make out individual voices if not individual words. Everything was muffled by the thick oak door, but her skin prickled and tingled and she knew that whatever was going to happen, it was going to happen soon.

She closed her eyes and thought of God and Robin.

The door shook and the lock rattled, and Marian took three steps back, huddled near a set of rusted chains that she at least did not have the indignity of being forced to wear, and waited.

There was someone beyond that iron-barred door, and he came either to kill her or to save her. Until he did, she was neither.

The door burst open.