“They’re on all sides of us, your highness,” said Sir Blokk. He was wearing chainmail to indicate his understanding of the situation’s gravity. “All the supply routes are cut off.”
“Well, that’s what a siege is, isn’t it?” said Queen Heloise.
The night was chilly and the wind snapped the pennants mounted on the tower walls. “Send Sir Dorlett and Sir Grax off to King Bartrem at once to ask for aid. God willing, one of them will get through.”
“Their horses are very slow, your highness.”
“Well, loan them some good horses then, Sir Blokk. Come on.”
“Yes, your majesty,” said Sir Blokk, and he disappeared down the tower steps with a graceless clatter of boots and chainmail.
Queen Heloise looked out at the campfires again. They looked pretty even if they probably meant the end of her and her kingdom. She wondered who had come to conquer her. Once the sun came up, the standard would be visible on the invader’s flags and she’d know for sure. But for now she was guessing King Rudolph. He was angry with her for reasons that she couldn’t recall, and on top of that, a fiend for conquest.
Already she could hear the sounds of panic filtering up to her from the city below as the news of the siege spread through her subjects. Queen Heloise went back to her chambers, took her day-planner out of her desk, and for the next morning wrote, “Send emissary to invaders” and “Give speech about rationing.” Then she sat in her desk chair and stared at her empty bed, the covers still thrown back where she had left them. She imagined that she was watching herself sleep, lost in a pointless dream and oblivious to any and all actual crises.
The invader was indeed King Rudolph. Queen Heloise allowed herself a small twinge of satisfaction at having guessed correctly. When Sir Blokk came back from his meeting with King Rudolph’s emissary, having met under white flags halfway between the city and King Rudolph’s main encampment to the East, he informed Queen Heloise that King Rudolph didn’t have any specific demands.
“He just wants to kill us,” said Sir Blokk. “Whatever you did to him really pushed him over the edge.”
“Do you think they’ll attack?” asked Queen Heloise. “Siege engines? Try to smash the gates open?”
Sir Blokk shrugged. “I dunno. Personally I think they’re content to let us starve.”
Heloise opened her day-planner and crossed “Send emissary to invaders” out with a quill dipped in red ink. “Have the heralds assemble the people in the square,” she said.
“I guess you have to try,” said Sir Blokk. “But I personally don’t see rationing going well.”
It was well after noon by the time Queen Heloise addressed her subjects from the palace balcony. “Be wise with your food,” she said. “Ration it out very sparingly. We don’t know how long what we have now will need to last. Only eat once a day, if you can. Maybe less. And small portions!”
“Are we gonna have to eat rats?” shouted a baker.
“We’ll do whatever it takes to survive,” said Queen Heloise.
“Are we gonna have to eat people?” shouted a teacher.
“OK, I’m not going to play this game,” said Queen Heloise. “I just ask that you all please ration your food for the good of us all. Those who just eat up all they have right away will not be given extra food. Got it? Do you all understand?”
The crowd applauded politely, but Queen Heloise had very little faith in them. They were not the world’s greatest subjects in terms of following instruction. Pretty far down the list, actually.
At dinner, Queen Heloise ate only a small piece of bread. She felt guilty for the rest of the night.
As the days passed, Queen Heloise grew accustomed to the ever present sensation of hunger. Then the hunger passed and it was replaced by a pervasive weakness and a near constant desire to sleep. She stopped writing in her day-planner. She ate only the occasional thin slice of bread or small turnip and received reports on the state of the siege from Sir Blokk, who she insisted continue to eat well along with the rest of the soldiers in order to keep peace among her subjects and to be strong enough to give King Rudolph’s men a respectable fight if they got tired of waiting and decided to storm the city.
The reports from Sir Blokk were not encouraging.
“Any sign of a change of tactics from King Rudolph?”
“None,” said Sir Blokk. “Every day at around noon, he feasts at a table set up in plain view on the grass just outside of catapult range. Sometimes when he sees me looking at him through the spyglass he raises his cup to me. Then he takes a big bite of what I take to be delicious veal cutlet, usually, though sometimes it’s clearly mutton.”
Queen Heloise shuddered in her seat near her bedchamber’s window. “Let’s not talk about King Rudolph’s perverse sense of humor. How are the subjects doing with the rationing? Any better?”
Sir Blokk appeared hesitant to answer.
“Don’t spare me truth, Sir Blokk.”
“There was an incident, your highness. The baker, it seems, convinced that we would eventually need to eat rats in order to survive, had been feeding enormous quantities of bread to the rats in order to fatten them up for their eventual slaughter.”
Queen Heloise flinched. “How much bread was lost?”
Sir Blokk looked at his boots and spoke in a low voice. “Most of his wheat supply was used up in the foolhardy venture. Also, the rats are now in much better physical condition than most of the subjects and have proven to be quite elusive.”
Queen Heloise fumed in silence.
“You really should eat more,” said Sir Blokk. “You are the Queen.”
“And as the Queen I need to set a good example. If I eat recklessly, then how can I expect my subjects to do otherwise?”
Sir Blokk sighed. “All right, your Highness.”
“And no sign of King Bartrem coming to rescue us?” asked Queen Heloise. “No word at all?”
“None,” said Sir Blokk. “We don’t even know if Sirs Dorlett and Grax got through.”
Queen Heloise nodded and waved Sir Blokk away with a trembling hand. As he closed the door to her chambers, she was already dozing.
Days drifted past in a haze for Queen Heloise. Soon she had little concept of how long the siege had endured. She didn’t even know where her day-planner was. While she was awake, her mind was cloudy and she slurred her words as if drunk when she spoke. While she slept, she dreamt of nothing but King Bartrem’s arrival, of the sound of his trumpets as his army swept up from behind King Rudolph and sent him fleeing over the hills and back to his swampy, mosquito-infested kingdom. When she woke from these dreams, she was embarrassed by the hopefulness of her subconscious.
Sir Blokk continued to bring her updates on how poorly her subjects were handling the rationing.
“Today was a bad one,” said Sir Blokk. “We found a man cooking a scrawny dog over a fire he had made using perfectly healthy rhubarb plants as kindling. Rhubarb had been growing wild in his back yard for years and he had no idea it was edible.”
“Does any rhubarb remain?” asked Queen Heloise.
“No,” said Sir Blokk. “He’d been heating his house by burning the rest. He must have had an enormous crop. All gone now, though, to no nutritional good.”
Queen Heloise said nothing.
“Let me bring you a meat pie from the royal pantry,” said Sir Blokk. “I know a few remain.”
“No,” said Queen Heloise. “We’re under siege. I’m rationing.”
Some time later, probably on another day, maybe in another week entirely, Sir Blokk told Queen Heloise about a man who had been keeping twelve sheep in his attic.
“He’d been carrying grass up to them every day in his pockets so as not to alert his neighbors by taking too much at once,” said Sir Blokk. “Finally, overcome with guilt at the desperation and suffering around him, the man decided to bring the sheep down and herd them to the square to give to those most in need, keeping only one at home for his family.”
Queen Heloise flashed a brief, distant smile. “Have you given this man a royal commendation yet?”
“Well,” said Sir Blokk. “Let me finish the story. So the man was herding eleven healthy sheep through the streets at an early morning hour before most people had risen, but as he was passing the South gate, he decided to take a quick peek outside to make sure King Rudolph’s army was still there so as to not go to all the trouble of herding the sheep for nothing, and as he cracked the gate for a look, the sheep rushed him, knocked him to the ground, and stampeded past him out of the city and into the hills where they’ve undoubtedly been consumed by wolves.”
“Probably not worthy of a royal commendation, then,” said Queen Heloise.
“Probably not, your highness.”
More days passed and Queen Heloise slept almost all of the time, waking only long enough to hear Sir Blokk’s accounts of her subjects’ most recent rationing disasters and grim admissions that no word had come back from King Bartrem. Sometimes she ate a small piece of something brought to her on a tray. It must have been food, though she couldn’t tell anymore.
Finally the day came when Sir Blokk woke Queen Heloise and told her that her subjects were completely out of food. “We’ve eaten everything there is to eat,” said Sir Blokk. “Or, if not eaten it, we’ve managed to dispose of it through every possible kind of dimwittedness.” He put one hand on the bedpost to steady himself. “It won’t be long for us now.”
Queen Heloise tried to focus her eyes on him.
“Even your personal pantry is all but empty,” said Sir Blokk. “Someone’s been plundering it, probably your servants, though it’s hard to say which since they’re all as gaunt as can be. Anyway, all that’s left is a wilted head of lettuce.”
“What else, Sir Blokk? What aren’t you telling me?”
Sir Blokk’s eyes welled up with tears. “Your highness,” he said. “This morning as I observed King Rudolph’s camp for signs of change, as I do every morning, he again set to feasting at the table in the field. But this time, my Queen, he had two guests at the table with him: Sirs Dorlett and Grax. The traitorous dogs! Eating his food and drinking his wine while we, whom they were sent to save, starve to agonizing deaths!”
“Help me to my balcony,” whispered Queen Heloise. “Assemble the people. And bring the head of lettuce from the royal pantry.”
It took a long time for the surviving citizens to assemble. They moved very slowly, shuffling and quiet. Some of them crawled. When at last it seemed as if everyone had come who was going to make it, the Queen began to whisper and Sir Blokk called her words down to her subjects in as strong a voice as he could manage.
“Your Queen says that the end is upon us much sooner than it needed to be. Your Queen says that you were all very, very bad at following instructions and that if you had rationed like she suggested and shown even occasional shreds of common sense, we might have survived long enough to be saved, treachery from Sirs Dorlett and Grax notwithstanding. As it is, you blew it. And all that remains is this head of lettuce.” Sir Blokk held up the head of lettuce. “Your Queen, though you have given her no reason to trust you whatsoever, will ask you one last time to follow instructions and share the lettuce equally among you as what will likely be your last meal.” The crowd was silent. “Here,” said Sir Blokk. “Someone catch this.”
A man in the front row, who looked like the carpenter used to look but much thinner, raised his frail arms and Sir Blokk tossed him the lettuce. The man caught the lettuce, staggered backwards, and then held it under one arm and turned to face the rest of the gathered subjects. “OK,” he said. “The only fair way to do this is to weigh the lettuce and divide that by the number of people here. Does anyone have a scale?”
On the balcony, Queen Heloise whispered something that Sir Blokk couldn’t hear.
“What’s that your majesty?” Sir Blokk leaned down, his ear next to his Queen’s lips.
“I said,” whispered Queen Heloise. “I’ll bet you anything you want that lettuce doesn’t get eaten.”