[This story is a first draft and a work in progress!]
After her husband falls in battle, Queen Hadassah must become the sole ruler of a small kingdom, navigating the intricacies of her position while trying to do the best for her people. But when her duty doesn't line up with her desires, Hadassah must choose to either forge her own path or make some tough decisions.
The queen never seen a sky like the one she saw that day: greying, sulphurous yellow, with a brightness to it that cast the world in a strange dreamlike light. Below her balcony the peasants shifted and muttered, faces lifted to stare, but Hadassah had other things to worry about. Instead of the sky she watched the gate of the keep, directly below and in front of her. For now it was closed, a swathe of red velvet still draped across it - the general had been so confident in the success of his plans at the border that he himself had ordered the servants to decorate before they’d headed off to battle. The first Hadassah had heard of it had been a few mornings ago when she’d nearly tripped over one of the serving girls running past her with an armful of cloth. It had been later that morning when the messenger had arrived, tattered and bloody, with the news of their victory. Now, alongside the drapery and the tables piled with food and drink waited the keep’s entire medical staff, ready to receive whatever it was that the soldiers brought back.
“Your majesty.” A soft voice next to her pulled Hadassah from her thoughts, and she turned to see her maidservant offering her a goblet of wine. Taking it with a nod of thanks she returned to her vigil, only to set the goblet aside as a cry went up from the watchers on the keep walls.
“The army is in sight!”
At once the gathered crowd burst into activity, servants rushing about to organise the food and drinks and the healers readying themselves for the soldiers. Though the guards did their best to keep order, the civilians gathered there also surged forward, eager to try and get a good view. Rising to her feet, Hadassah crossed over to the balcony, resting her palms lightly on the cool granite as she watched. The stone was solid and unmoving under her hands and she found some comfort in that, trying to calm the beat of her heart.
“It will still be a while until they reach us, surely,” she said, straightening up and curling her fingers to warm her palms once more. “They do know that they’ll still have a while to wait?”
“Many of them are family of the soldiers, ma’am.” Her maidservant stepped forward, as was polite when she was being spoken to. “I’m sure they’re just - just worried. It’s been too long with no news.”
With a sigh Hadassah turned back to the throne. It was one of the smaller ones which were used for festivals - still heavy enough to need five servants to carry it, but it was more portable than the giant stone chairs that took pride of place in the throne room. Both of them had been hewn from the same hunk of black granite and polished to a high shine; the flickering lights of the candles and torches which lit the throne room made them glitter as they caught the facets of the thousands of tiny mineral deposits in the rock, as if the king and queen were seated on pieces cut from the night sky. The smaller ones were far more modest, just wood, metal and upholstery. Even so, Dassah would have been perfectly happy just to wait for their return in a normal chair. She knew the reasoning, though - people were afraid. It comforted people to see that whatever happened, their queen was alive and there with them, waiting to see the return of a loved one just as they were. There would be a feast tonight, celebrating the victory and mourning the loss of those who had not returned, but for now it was time for waiting and solidarity. Sitting, she picked up the goblet and drank slowly.
“They’re here!” The call went up again, this time with the accompanying creak of the giant bars being lifted from the gate. “They’re here!”
Down below the guards once again held back the crowd as they raised a cheer, trying to move forward with the feral desperation of those who knew their loved ones might be dead. Another cheer as the gates opened wide enough to start letting the soldiers pass through. Dassah stayed seated, but leaned forward as the first of the healers moved. Closer to the approaching soldiers than the rest as they were, they must have been able to see more clearly the state they were in. A few hurried forward, moving to support a boy being held up by two of his comrades. Even with his dragging steps and loose limbs he lifted a pale face to the balcony and raised a hand to his forehead, a sign of respect. The queen stood then, returning the sign, and even at this distance she saw the tired smile that lit his face before he was led away.
The rest of the healers were also on the move now, flitting about the new arrivals. For the most part the crowd had quietened, barring the occasional cry of recognition or relief. Those who saw their family or friends return hurried to meet them, sometimes having to follow the healers with quick, worried steps as their loved ones were led away. The rest of the crowd waited. Dassah watched them. As their numbers dwindled, more and more leaving as the people they waited for appeared, those still waiting grew increasingly more desperate. What Dassah had read from the messenger’s face a few days ago was now clear to them all: this was not a victory parade for the returning conquerors. It was the battered remnants of an army limping home.
At last there were only a few more soldiers yet to arrive. As the last crossed the threshhold into the keep, the gates began to creak shut behind them. Below, those who had not had their loved ones return had begun to drift away. Many wept openly; some had already been doing so for some time, as if sensing what had happened before it had really been confirmed. Dassah made a mental note to do her best to ensure all of them were provided for, their loss recognised, but in truth she was already distracted.
As was the tradition, the first soldier to leave the keep had been the king, and as was the tradition he was also the last to return. Hadassah let out a shuddering breath as the gate shut behind him, signalling the official end of the campaign. The king was a large man and an imposing figure in his armour, with plumed helmet and a red sash; now he was supported on one side by another soldier, the plumed helmet clutched under one arm. As he looked up at the balcony he straightened, motioning for the soldier to leave him, and saluted Hadassah. Once more she returned the gesture, pressing her fingers to her forehead, but her smile faded as she saw the healers rush to meet him. She stood frozen for a few moments, watching, and then turned to hurry out, down the stairs to meet him. There would be time for ceremony later. Now she just wished to see her husband.