Chapter 6: Midnight Conversation
"Where have you been, dear?"
Anna's mother, Wrouh's high queen Gwena, asked this of her daughter, concern in her voice and a worried look on her beautifully aged face. She was nearly forty years of age, but looked not a day over thirty, except for the thin crows-feet on the edges of her eyes and the wisps of silver in the hair near her temples. Anna resembled her very much, with the same auburn hair and bright green eyes that had ensnared her father Felloro in his youth.
"I," Anna studdered, unsure of what to say. She was not one to lie to her parents very often. "I was just out for a morning walk, dear mother. Just enjoying the brisk morning air, is all."
Anna had met her mother in one of the many opulent rooms within the royal castle, upon her summoning. This sitting room was ajacent the queen's private chambers and was filled with colorful decor and smelled of the bouquets of lavender situated in ideal areas of the over-done room. Anna disliked the excessive style; one would never know that many in the kingdom were starving and dying because of needless bloodshed the way her mother loosened the royal purse-strings.
Gwena sighed. "Dear, going for a walk is fine, but you should at least let others know before you do! And take one of the royal guards or servants to attend to you and protect you."
"And where were you yesterday? I don't remembering seeing you much then either."
"I then too was out walking; I was trying to clear my head, and sort out my emotions," Anna replied. "Did you hear about Gedric, mother," she continued, thinking once again of her dear friend. "He has been assigned to the royal forces to join the fighting!"
"Who? Oh, that groom... What is it to you, dear, that he goes?"
"He's my friend, mother! He simply cannot go! We need him here, to attend to the horses!"
"Oh dear," the Queen dismissed her with a wave of her hand, "We can always attain a new groom! And besides, you shouldn't fraternize with those kind of people."
"Those kind of people?!" Anna roared. "Mother, he is my best friend! You could never find such a fine man! Have you no respect-"
"Lower your voice, Anna, it ill becomes you to shout," Gwena scolded, a stern tone to her voice.
Anna did so, falling quiet though her anger at her mother still fumed within her. She knew her mother had as firm a resovle as she, and arguing about Ged wouldn't do him any good. Besides, Anna had another means to keep him from certain death, and discussing with her mother about she and Nathan would not do anything to further her forming plans.
"Now," Gwena sighed, smoothing her dress and returning to her former state of calm, "From now on, I would greatly appreciate it if you did not go wandering off during the day without an escort of some kind. And be sure to ask permission. "
"Yes, mother, I will." Anna curtsied, making to leave the room quietly.
She closed the door softly, then stormed down the darkened hallway to her personal quarters, fuming al the way. She didn't bother to use the secret means to venture unseen; it would become too suspcious if she were never seen among others. It was nearly twilight, granting the already richly colored maroon passages a dark and depressing air. At large intervals, the setting sun would seep in and give some light to Anna's way. She was appreciative of the glow, though not only for the shine to see. Sure, she hated the dark hallways of the royal castle, and the sunlight was a welcome guest, but what gave Anna the most delight was that the sun would set over the horizon very soon, and she would leave the castle once again to meet Nathan in the woods.
She smiled to herself at her mother's naivete. She had said not to "go wandering off during the day" and Anna intended not to do so. Night, and the cover it bestowed, was sometimes a great ally when sneaking away and evading nosy mothers who were often too worrisome.
When Anna reached her room, she found her handmaiden Jen there, tidying the room and smoothing the bedcovers carefully.
"Mistress," she offered, curtsying respectfully.
"Jen," Anna nodded her head politely.
"Mistress," she moved to the corner of the room, retrieving something from the floor there. "I found this cloak here." She held it up. It was the dirty cloak that Anna had used in her escapades into the forest.
"Yes?" Anna held her head high, assuming a "high-classed" air. "It is mine. Why do you make mention of it?"
Jen lowered her gaze. "I noticed that it was tattered and worn. I thought that you might need a new one. So," she moved toward the closet, "I sent down to the talor and asked that he make a new one for you, Mistress." She reached into the hangers and pulled a dark length of cloth from therein. It was a dark, velvety, hooded cloak embroidered at the hem and up the edges with silver colored vines that twisted and climbed seemingly of their accord. The differing of the black and bright silver thread created a sharp, and beautiful, contrast.
Anna liked the cloak instantly. She smiled at Jen. "How considerate of you! Thank you, Jen. I love it." She took it and tried it on for size. It fit perfectly. "Now," she continued. "If you would excuse me, Jen, I would like to go to sleep early tonight; I am dreadfully tired."
"Yes, Mistress," she replied, heading for the door. "Sleep well..."
Anna closed the door behind her, hung the cloak back on it's hanger, and settled into her four-poster bed for a nap.
Anna awoke with a start, sitting bolt upright in bed. She was drenched in sweat, panting hard from fear. Just a nightmare, she thought, trying to reasure herself.
And indeed it was.
She had dreamt that she was riding throught the forest on her way to meet Nathan, wearing the black cloak, when a legion of soldiers -both Malthinian and Wrouhan- leaped down from the sky, all riding black horses with terrible leather-like wings. They were fighting each other, yet never slaying their opponants; trapped in a battle that would seem to last until Judgement Day. They fought on, hacking limbs and spilling blood until the whole forest seemed to be covered and flooding with each drop splashing the gore-covered ground. Anna rode forward, trying to escape the grusome scene, but however fast she forced the horse to go, she could not suceed; the soldiers seemed to follow her, yet were oblivious to her at the same time. In the distance, she could see Nathan, standing on a small hill, calmly; waiting for her. She rushed to him, but gained no ground. The spilled blood now literally rose, getting deeper and deeper until it was flooding the forest, a few feet high. Anna's horse whinnyed and reared, nearly throwing her. She held tight as the horse ran towards Nathan. Then, suddenly, with a rushing tide of red blood, the horse lost it's footing, and she fell into the sea of gore, gasping as she swam to the surface of the blood bath. Nathan still stood on the hill, though the blood nearly came to his waist now. She swam with all her might, but could not fight the currant that kept her from him. Anna called to him, begging him to help her somehow, waving her arms at him. Nathan just stood there, staring solemnly at her. He raised his hand to her, reaching for her but making no other attempt to save her. Anna's muscles were too weak and cramped from treading and screaming to fight the currant, and in exhaustment, she sucumbed to the flow of blood. She sank, the red liquid drowning her. Then, all went black, and Anna woke.
Even after a moment, she still was panting and shaking with fear. She knew that she could not return to sleep after such a horrific vision, so she rose and went and opened the window. It was cool and dark outside, the moon steadily rising, nearly straight overhead. She dressed, and donning the black cloak, slipped from her room into the depths of the secret passages of the castle.
When Anna reached the clearing where she had agreed to meet Nathan, she found a small fire burning in the center, its crackle mingling with the sound of spring peepers. It was a somewhat chilly spring night and she was luckily bundled in the warm black cloak. Nathan sat by the fire, turning bits of meat on a spit over the blazing fire, oblivious to the world around him. She stepped forward on unintended silent feet, approaching him while stepping around the high bushes at the edge of the clearing. At the breaking of a twig beneath Anna's feet, Nathan stood, his head snapping around, his hands grabbing for a dagger in his boot. He faltered upon recognizing her, replacing the weapon in the hidden holster.
"I thought I had said no weapons," Anna teased Nathan good-naturedly, strutting pristinely to take a seat next to him on the stone slab upon which he sat.
"Well," he shrugged with a smile, "I man has got to find, and attain, his meat somehow."
"True... Mmm...." Anna smelled the savory scent of spiced meat. "Deer?"
"Yes." He returned his attention to turning the spit. The flickering light of the fire cast long shadows on Nathan's nose, eyes, and jawline; his chiseled features set sharp by the contrast. Anna admired the visual affect it created, distracted enough not to hear his next words. "Would you like some...?"
"What?" She answered akwardly, having not paid any attention to any else but the shadows.
"Would you like some?" He repeated, staring pointedly at her.
"Oh- uh, yes- sure... Thanks...." She studdered.
He handed her one of the improvised "shish kebabs," taking one for himself and nibbling on the hot meat.
Anna took a small bite of the deer meat. It was sweet and spicy, yet was obviously game, and broke apart in her mouth with succulent juices.
"Mmm, this is really-!" She exclaimed through a mouthfull. She blushed at her unladylike action, but Nathan had already caught her, and flashed a smile in her direction.
She swallowed and returned his grin with one of her own. "This meat is delicious."
"How did you learn to cook like this?"
"My childhood nanny was one of our chefs; she taught me. She knew quite a lot- about nearly anything. She taught me much, and insisted to my parents that I become a very well-rounded man. Father probably thought I turned out a little too rounded for his likings. I think freer than he would want, most generally; I refuse to remain a mindless wastrel the way he would desire all his subjects to be. The dumb mass is much easier to control then the few who can think for themselves."
They sat for a moment in silence, eating the deer meat and staring into the fire, neither willing -nor knowing how- to break the silence that had resumed.
"So, um," Nathan finally said, licking his lips upon finishing his portion, "What do you wish to speak about? I do not intend for you to return home without having accomplished anything of value once more."
"Well, I am not completely sure. However, I believe that we first need to dicuss what our goals are in meeting this way in secret."
"Yes, true. Well, my motivation would be to end this war overall!"
"As is mine, but we cannot do so without planning of some sort."
"Aye. What kind of planning do you presume?"
"We want peace, that much is certain, but how do we come to such an end? And what do we define as peace?"
"You speak in riddles," Nathan smirked.
"What I mean," Anna laughed. "Is that what one monarch sees as peace may differ very much from another. Peace could be defined as 'control,' or 'domination,' or even 'sucess' of some sort. I believe ours is neither of these. I define true peace as a sacred thought of life; the saving of lives from tormoil and death."
Nathan nodded. "As do I. My goal would be to strive for such a thing."
"Yes, so that would be our first step: what brings about the saving of lives?"
"Yes! It is a circle!" she exclaimed, annoyed by such a thought. "One cannot be attained without the other and yet is incomplete without itself."
Nathan laughed. "Again: riddles!"
Anna smiled at his outburst of mirth.
"Yet however riddled such a paradox may be," he continued, "it is a true one indeed."
"So, to make sure that I understand your words correctly, we need to stop the fighting to attain peace, and yet we cannot have peace until we stop the fighting." All the while saying this, Nathan motioned his hands animatedly, considering his own words with a furrowed brow of confusion.
"It seems that we have no visible means to accomplish what we seek." Anna felt somewhat overwhelmed with defeat by this.
"Aye... Unless....." Realization dawned upon his face, lighting his features with hope.
"Unless...?" Anna prodded when he did not expound.
"Unless... We don't nessicarily have to stop the fighting. The same result could be had if the battles could be averted!"
"How could we do that?"
"Oh," the triumphant look fell. "I... I'm not sure..."
The two heirs sat in silence for the next few moments, ruminating. The fire continued to crackle and the full moon rose ever higher, now on it's course to the opposing horizon.
"What if," Nathan finally broke the silence, the look rising to his face once again, only slower. "Okay, the battles only initiate because our fathers give their approval. Right?"
"And the leaders appointed over the soldiers dictate where to move the troops and when. If we could somehow divert their destinations, and cause both sides of the armies to miss each other completely, we could literally avail any bloodshed by eliminating the battles altogether!" His voice rose steadily as he spoke, and he stood at the last phrase of his statement.
"Nathan!" Anna exclaimed. "You're a genius! If we issued the orders, we could control both the war and the outcome!"
"We could smuggle false information to the heads of the armies to send them off in a direction of our choosing!" Anna too stood now, adrenaline coursing through her body as she steadily became more and more excited about the prospect.
"Brilliant!" He yelled this and pulled Anna into his arms in a thankful embrace. He squeezed her momentarily, then caught himself and quickly released her. Both their eyes grew large and they averted meeting the other's gaze. Anna looked at her feet and smoothed her skirt. Nathan coughed uncertainly. They finally just both sat, then burst out laughing at themselves.
"I-I'm s-sorry! Forgive m-me!" Nathan managed through his fit of laughter.
Anna could not even answer, but just waved her hand dismissiverly at him in her amusement.
When they finally recovered, she smiled up at him. "Such an idea, Nathan!"
He smiled back just as sweetly as she. "Thank you, my lady."
"Just call me Anna, please."
"As you wish, Anna."
He was so kind in his reply, and Anna was so excited with their idea that she had an overwhelming urge just to kiss him, full on the lips. She blushed at herself then turned away to stare into the fire. Why would I feel this way? She thought, reprimanding herslef inwardly. I don't even know him! However, she did admit, I feel as though I have known him all my life. It was such a strange thought and feeling that she knew that it was not something to be ignored. But I must be cautious, no matter what 'feelings' I may have towards him; in all that I say and do around him.
Chapter 6: Midnight Conversation