Chapter 4: Meeting in the Woods
After leaving Nathan in the woods, Anna had hastily made her way back to the castle grounds, watching behind to make sure that the assassan prince did not follow her. She trusted him, strangely, and knew that he would not hurt her. Nathan had just been at the wrong place at the wrong time when his father had called upon someone to do his gruesome bidding. Or at least that was what she desperately wanted to believe. Consorting with him could get her beheaded for treason, no matter her status as a princess.
She ran now, fast approaching the royal castle in the twilight. The budding trees flew past in a blur as she sped on, thinking. Part of her, the part that was instilled in her by her parents, the part that she listened to most times, told her to run to the head of the royal guard, report this threat to her family, if only to warn them if something sudden and dangerous were to happen. But the part of Anna that was her rebellious spirit urged her to keep this secret, and meet Nathan tomorrow in hopes of resolving this horrid warring that their countries waged against each other. She hoped that they could do something, anything, to improve the condition of life for all. She vowed to at least try, to become an emissary for her country, negotiating a resolution to the nightmarish conflict.
Anna slowed as she reached the castle grounds. On the parapet of the castle walls strode the night watch guards, crossbows in hand, ready to shoot any that did not belong near the royal fortress. She pulled the dark cloak closer around herself, running towards the stables when the guard turned and began striding the other way. She paused upon slipping into the stables, hearing Gerdric's snoring from his living quarters adjacent. Hurriedly, she traveled into the castle itself and from there into her own chambers, again using the secret passageways, avoiding the tapestry-lined hallways -and the servants that frequently journeyed therein. Anna closed and locked her chamber door, threw the dingy cloak from her shoulders and hurried into bed, not bothering to change her clothes. She lie there for a few moments, thinking on what to do the following day, but soon, in her exhaustment, sleep overtook her.
Early the next morning, Anna woke and sat up, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. The sun was just rising, she noticed. After splashing her face with cool water from her basin, Anna put on a forest-green dress -her favorite- and once again donned the worn cloak she had discarded the night before. She moved to leave her chamber, then paused, contemplating. She retrieved the small dagger and sheath hidden under her pillow, and stowed it away inside her bodice. It would be well-concealed there, but easily accessable if needed. She was still somewhat aprehensive about Nathan, and her strange "trust" of him made her suspicious. And, even though she had said "no weapons," Anna felt that she needed some sort of protection to assure herself. She checked herself in the mirror shortly, combing through her hair with her fingers, then caught herself, embarrased. Why would she care so much about how she looked? She wondered. Nathan was not a possible suitor, and she knew that she should not treat him so by fussing about her appearance. Alternatively, she reasoned with herself, she was a princess, and therefore should look the part accordingly. Finally, she just left the room and hurried to the stables. When she arrived, Gerdric was already awake, getting feed for the horses.
"Lady Anna!" He said with surprise upon catching sight of her, "What are you doing up and out at this hour?"
"I have business to attend to..."
"What sort of bussiness, Anna?"
"Nothing of your concern, Ged." Anna said this rather sharply, looking out in the direction of her destination.
"I am begging your pardon, My Lady," He said with a bow, "I did not mean to intrude upon your doings..."
Anna pulled her attention back to the groom. "I am sorry, Ged, I didn't mean it that way.... My mind is a million leagues from here. I only meant that it would be best if you did not know where I am going and what I am doing. It might put you in danger."
"Oh, that kind of bussiness... Let me guess: You are off to meet your Wrouhan Knight lover, to whom you are forbidden!" Gedric teased good-naturedly as he and Anna often did.
"Ged, you are not far off... I have need of a horse though..."
"Uh, yes," He said while placing a saddle upon Anna's favorite chesnut-colored stallion, looking as if he were trying to see if she were serious, "Yes, My lady..."
When he was finished preparing the horse for her, Ged turned to Anna, his eyes locked on hers with concern. "Anna," He said, "I do not know what bussiness you have to attend to, but I urge you: be careful! I would not like to have to explain to His Majesty that I was the last one to have seen you. Not for my sake, but for yours, my dear friend."
Anna enveloped Gedric in a tight hug. After a moment, he embraced her full-heartedly as she whispered in his ear: "I appreciate your concern Ged... I am so glad to have you as my friend. I will be careful." She released him, holding him at arms length. "And I swear to you: I will keep you from being sent to the war... I do not wish to lose you, my only friend." Anna kissed him on the cheek, and mounted the chesnut horse. She looked back a Gedric, waved briefly to him as he stared blankly ahead, his hand pressed to the cheek that Anna had kissed.
"Fare thee well, dear Gedric!" she called to him as she spurred the horse onward.
"Fare thee well, my lady!" He called back, finally recovering.
Anna urged the chesnut stallion faster and faster, her hair flying back in a auburn blur, her tattered cloak streaming out behind her like bird's wings carrying her closer to Nathan.
Closer to her hope of a resolution.
Though she pushed the stallion beyond the limit of any other, the horse was steady, strong, and panted with anticipation. Just as Anna's heart now did.
She rode for but a few minutes -for the speed of the stallion shortened the time to this- and soon reached the clearing where Nathan had said to meet him.
There he stood, in the center near the stone slab, staring rather forlornly toward her. The very sight of him flared a strange thrill within Anna. She noticed, once again, that he was very handsome. She felt herself blushing at the thought, and quickly dismounted, taking extra time to secure the horse to a nearby tree, and allowing her loose hair to cover her face as she tried to regain her composure. She tied the knot to the tree more tightly than was nessicary by accident, then turned to face Nathan.
"You came," he said, astounded, "I didn't think you would really come."
"Of course I came; I always keep my word."
"Indeed. Still, I am very glad that you did." He gazed at her adoringly.
Anna smiled politely, once again feeling the blood rise to her cheeks. She strode past him to sit upon the stone slab. "So," she started, "Where to begin?"
He turned to face her uncertainly. "Well... I wondered if you might know."
"Did you not have in mind of what to speak of when you asked me to return here yesterday?"
Nathan looked down sheepishly, kicking at the dust at his feet. "Not really..." He met her gaze, still uncertain. "To be truthful, I only wished to see you once more."
She sighed, abashed."You meet a girl in the woods, take her hostage, she escapes and takes you hostage, she lets you go, and you ask her to meet you again," Anna said, exsasperated, "And yet you do so only because you wish to see her again?"
"Well, not entirely..."
"What did you expect?!"
"I did not know what to expect. I wasn't expecting you to return, and even if you had, I thought that you would only with a battalion of royal soldiers to detain me."
"I had thought of that..." Anna admitted.
"Yes, and it would have been very easy to have done so; I could not have fought back successfully for I am unarmed, as you wished. I only trusted that you would keep your word; I put my future in your hands, really."
Was he really unarmed though? And if he was it would have been simple to detain his, as he had said. Anna was still suspicious of him, but, as not to seem so, patted the stone next to her. "Come and sit; we have come to discuss the warring, and we shall do so."
Chapter 4: Meeting in the Woods