When the mute servant had shuffled in with his tray, Marie had known he held her last meal. The broth had been thin, turnips past ripe and mutton stringy. She had only managed a few mouthfuls before her stomach roiled. The oily taste still coated her tongue as she stared out of the narrow slit in the stone. Through the crevice she watched the first rays of light rise and pale the sky.
Smoke rose up in gray plumes from the camp fires surrounding the outer walls. The wavering coils soon blotted out the wisps of clouds raking across the dawn. Rumbling carts, the clang of metal gear, the murmurs of growing crowds and cries of animals of all sorts, laid upon each other until the quiet night had given way to a raucous cacophony.
Marie let out a breath and leaned her ragged bangs against the flaking whitewash. The thin linen dress she had been left with drooped on her sagging shoulders.
The swiftly arriving horde had come to see only one thing. It would not be long before they received their spectacle.
Drawing in an inhale laced with moist mold and mildew, she turned away from the strengthening day and building noises.
A pair of bare footed steps had her across the small chamber. Beside the thick oak door, the sloping pedestal stood like a sentry. A dust speckled ray fell through the rusted iron bars and on to the curving edge of the lone page that covered the warping table. The squat inkwell, stick of bloody wax, flickering hunk of candle and dagger-like quill kept the sheet company. The parchment felt smooth and fragile in her fingers as she lifted it from its perch. Her sullen eyes passed over the finely scripted lines and the dark splotches that littered the edges like dead flies. The gaping space at the bottom beckoned.
Marie stared down at the unblemished band. It was just large enough for her signature and seal, for which the dry surface seemed to silently yearn.
Her dirt stained fingers absently twirled at the heavy ring dangling from the chain about her neck. She could feel each cut etched into the iron that covered the flat surface. The symbol floated before her eyes as it had once fluttered in the dark blue fields of rippling flags.
She rested the document back on the tabletop as the clink of boots and rustle of plush robes echoed beyond the door. Her feet barely seemed to touch the stones as she drifted back towards the window. A brief gust streaked across her face and stirred the ragged locks that hung around her ears. The ghostly chill sent a shiver across her shoulders.
The rattle of keys was followed by the groan of iron hinges and then the pounding of footsteps.
Behind her, Marie heard the crinkle of parchment.
“You still refuse?” Rommel’s voice came hard and crisp. She couldn’t help but hear the lingering frustration that undercut his tone. But his sympathy, however muted, would gain her nothing. Neither would her words.
Pursing her lips, Marie continued her stare out into the morning. Across her narrowed vision a murder of crows took flight.
“You know what that means?”
She simply nodded.
Another set of heavy footsteps trotted across the small chamber. The soldier’s shadow dropped over her like a shroud. His rough hands reached for her wrists and lashed them tightly. The sharp edges of the twine bit into her skin. She swallowed down the burning urge to cry out in protest.
As the last of the taunt knot was tied, she heard Rommel push the heavy door all the way open. “Will you come willingly?”
Marie closed her eyes for a moment. She drew in a deep breath before turning slowly on her bare toe. Leveling her gaze on Rommel’s bearded face, she firmed her resolve. “I have done everything I have, willingly.”
“So be it.” With a startling rise of zeal, he ripped the thick parchment in half. The two sides drifted down from his hands and fell upon the ground with a deathly hush. Rommel’s coppery robes swayed as laid a ringed hand expectantly on the side of the oak.
Marie lifted her chin. Her shoulders relaxed. Each breath came steadier than the last. If she could not show him how a woman could rule, she would at least show him the way one could leave this world.