(1 of 1. Originally posted on January 27, 2023 for the prompt “Clear Skies.”)
Princess Havilah leaned against the stone window sill, squinting toward the mountains. An invading army camped near enough for her to make out individual tents, but too far to get a good count of the soldiers. Her best guess put their number in the thousands. Several hundred horses stood in rows, saddled and ready. Havilah’s stomach twisted, pressure rising through her until it pushed tears into her eyes.
Clouds appeared overhead, darkening the sky in moments. Some part of her knew she should be shocked. Any other time she would have stared in wonder to see so many clouds appear from nothing on a clear day. Today her sense of wonder lay whimpering in a dark corner, beaten senseless by despair. A bit of odd weather barely made it twitch.
“My Lady,” her chambermaid huffed into view at the top of the stairs. Her cheeks glowed red as she struggled to breath and speak at the same time. “You must come, at once, to be presented, to the king.”
“Why would my father call me now?” Havilah glanced from her servant to the window and back. “I expect he’s rather busy.”
“Not your father.” The chambermaid shook her head. She took a few breaths and then continued. “Your father ordered you to come, but you’re to be presented to King Edmund of Storvia.”
“Storvia? To meet the invaders?” Anger bubbled in Havilah’s chest. Thunder rolled outside, giving primal voice to her feelings. “Why? What do they expect me to do?”
“His Majesty said you must come at once, My Lady,” the chambermaid twisted her hands together and took a half step back toward the stairs. “After that, I don’t know.”
Havilah’s indignant huff faded into a sigh. Her father’s standing army totaled twenty knights and two hundred foot. No walls protected the town. Nothing surrounded the castle but open fields. She’d never studied tactics, but it didn’t take a trained eye to recognize a hopeless situation.
Her mind swirled in dark circles as her body passively submitted to being stripped, wiped with damp cloths, and squeezed into corset and bodice and fine lace. Someone put her in a carriage, which drove her out into pouring rain. A deluge, on a summer day that started hot and dry. A dozen morbid scenes played in her head, and she wished the rain would drown her before any of them could come true.
She met her father under a canopy in the field. A delegation of invading soldiers stood at the far end. At least they had the decency to give her some space to greet her father. He looked like he’d aged ten years in the few hours since she’d seen him last. His back stooped, his eyes dull. She could swear the number of gray hairs in his beard had doubled since morning.
“Forgive me, child,” If her father’s face had aged ten years, his voice had aged twenty. “I had to do it. A king must think of his people, even if it costs his heart.”
“I forgive you father,” Havilah embraced him, ignoring the rest of the world for a moment. “What did you do?”
“I offered you to him,” The king’s voice cracked. “I offered him you, in exchange for our people.”
Emotions flooded Havilah’s heart, too much at once to process the feeling. They washed over her and left her bare. She turned toward the enemy soldiers. One stood out from the others, a burly man, radiating authority. His immaculate uniform and piercing blue eyes stunned her. She still hated him, but only by strength of will. She couldn’t help feeling impressed, and slightly intimidated. To compensate, she gave him as much attitude as she could muster, eyeing him up and down. “Are you the one who will bring me to the king?”
“Havilah, my heart,” her father laid a hand on her arm. “This is King Edmund. Your majesty, I present to you my daughter, Princess Havilah.”
King Edmund stepped forward, and Havilah quivered from head to toe. It took everything in her to not step back. He looked at her with the intensity of the sun, and then bowed to her father. “Her, for your kingdom? I fear I am left in your debt.”
He waved his soldiers forward. “You are my witnesses. I hereby declare this man to be Duke Arnould, steward of…this land. Rule these people as you have been, with justice and equity. I withdraw my demand for your daughter’s hand. Having seen her, I would rather have her heart, and that is hers alone to give. I can only humbly request it.”
The rugged warrior lifted Havilah’s hand and bent, his lips stopping a hair’s breadth above her skin. Then he looked in her eyes, and smiled. With that smile, the rain stopped and the clouds vanished. A ray of warmth touched her heart, as the sun shone down on them from a clear sky.