A strong breeze blew over the castle walls, ruffling Lizzie’s hair. Despite the sun shining, she tucked her arms under her threadbare cloak and wrapped it more tightly around herself.
It wouldn’t do to catch a cold.
Not yet anyway.
Closing her eyes, she could almost imagine that she was back home. Safe and cozy in front of the log fire, her father laughing from his seat at the head of the table as the ladies danced, her brother trying desperately to keep his eyes open as the men bowed low to him and her sister…..
Well, her sister had never been part of the picture.
Banished or living in disgrace, even when she was there, her father would frown.
Almost as if he could still see her mother, beckoning him from beyond the grave.
A small cough came from behind her.
Reluctantly she opened her eyes again.
One of the guards watched her nervously, his eyes darting from side to side as if he wished some one would take his place.
“If you please, we have to go back inside now”, he said, his hands clasped together, his fingers interlaced.
Ignoring him, Lizzie continued her slow walk along the inside wall.
Stretching her hand out, she could feel the rough stone surfaces against her fingertips.
The guard coughed again,” Please, Your Grace, we have to go back inside”.
She turned and looked down at him, throwing her head back. He was taller then her but shrank at her gaze, dropping to his knees despite orders that he shouldn’t.
“I will go when I am ready”, she replied, the blueness of her eyes sparkling.
The breeze was becoming colder, and bringing with it the smell of the water, salt and dead fish.
Lizzie wrinkled her nose.
It was really too much but there was no way she was going back inside yet. Not to the cold rooms.
A loud blast of trumpets sounded at the castle’s main gates.
Another guard shouted a challenge but, on seeing the Royal standard, lowered the drawbridge with much clanking of chains.
Guards and workers scurried around, each dropping to their knees as the ornate carriage rolled into the courtyard.
“Your Grace, please”, the guard mumbled, still on his knees.
Ignoring him, Lizzie stared as the Queen stepped onto the cobblestones. She could see the richness of her dress even from a distance, it’s satins shimmering, and the white ermine collar tucked neatly under her chin.
Bitterly she glanced at her own gown.
The hem was frayed, the tips of her scuffed boots could be seen underneath, and the color faded.
It seemed to please the Queen to keep her poorly dressed, hoping she would catch a cold and fade away without a whimper in this miserable, draughty castle.
Lizzie threw her head back defiantly.
She knew she was made of better stuff.
Her time would come.
The Queen moved inside with a final swish of her gown, the guards and workers bowing so low their noses almost touched the ground.
Lizzie turned to look out of the castle. The breeze was even stronger. It was going to storm.
She breathed deeply and then coughed.
There was a strong smell of decay and rotten flesh.
“What is that smell?”, she snarled, a delicate eyebrow arched.
“Your Grace, it is the smell of the people burned today’ the guard mumbled and then, having looked up and seen the fire in her eyes, added,’ in the market place”.
“The Queen is burning the people?”.
He didn’t answer, not sure what else to say.
“I will see the Queen now”, Lizzie announced, marching inside.
The stairwell was empty, the steep stone steps echoing the sound of her footsteps, her shadow elongated as she moved past the flaming torches hanging in the brackets.
The main hall was also, surprisingly, empty.
Lizzie looked around.
She’d never seen it when there was only her.
The long wooden tables were covered in tankards and metal plates, hunks of juicy meat and flagons of wine. Almost as if everyone had suddenly left the party.
Of course, she thought to herself, the Queen was here.
A figure, so small she hadn’t noticed before, stood from the carved wooden chair by the fireplace dominating one end of the room. She looked at Lizzie, her expression thoughtful.
It was the Queen.
“Sister”, she said, holding both arms out to Lizzie.
Hesitating, Lizzie slowly walked towards her, the rushes strewn across her floor muffling her steps.
She thought of her mother dying outside the castle walls, her brother dying all alone in his little bed with no one to hold his hand and then she thought of all the people, her people, who were dying each day in the market place because of the Queen. Her sister.
And then she thought of herself, imprisoned.
She could catch a cold and die at any moment and no one would know.
“Sister please”, the Queen pleaded, her hands beginning to tremble.
Lizzie opened her mouth but paused as the fire crackled.
It’s scent, mixed with the Queen’s wafted to her.
Breathing in deeply, she remembered the Queen braiding her hair telling her one day she would be a beauty, sponging her face when she had a fever and shielding her from their father’s anger.
She’d never stopped to think that their father could then turn on her, as he usually did.
But could these memories outweigh her current deeds?
The Queen nibbled her lower lip as it began to wobble.
“Oh Mary!’ Lizzie cried, throwing herself into her arms,’ don’t let us fight anymore!”.
Queen Mary sobbed as she gripped her tightly, almost squeezing the breath out of her,” You’re all I’ve got left! Come and take your place alongside me”.
Forcing a tear or two out of her eyes so her cheeks were reddened and damp, Lizzie looked at her lined face.
“I would be honoured”, she said, hugging her back.
The satin dress felt smooth and cool. The ermine was soft and richly scented.
It reminded her of home.
And at least she wouldn’t catch a cold there.
Not for a while anyway.
After all, the Kingdom needed her.