Chapter 7: A Reluctant Farewell
"My Lady!" A voice yelled into Anna's ear. "Awake, My Lady!" The maid shook her by the shoulders, trying to get her to rise.
"Jen," Anna groaned to her, turning over in bed, "Let me rest a bit longer."
"No, I must insist, My lady! The day is nearly half gone!"
She groggily pushed herself up, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. She glanced over at the open window, observing the bright light that entered therein. It indeed was nearly noon.
"Jen! Why did you not wake me sooner?" Anna inquired of her.
"As you had said last night, My Lady, you were exhausted. I thought that I might let you sleep in a bit this morning. I went down stairs earlier to see about getting breakfast for you, thinking that you might rise while I was gone. But, alas, I return and you still slept." The lady-in-waiting answered while retrieving an elegant dress from the closet.
The princess lept up from bed, and crossed to the water basin on the vanity. Jen laid the gold-colored dress on the bed and sidled up to the girl, grabbing a brush and begining to untangle Anna's hair as she splashed her face with water, eyeing the extravagant dress in the mirror curiously.
"Why such a fancy for this morni- ah, afternoon?" she asked.
"Have you forgotten, Your Majesty?"
"Why, today another asembled battalion will be heading off to war. You and the royal family are required to see them off, offering a heroes farewell."
She could not believe that she could have forgotten such a thing. Gedric was to leave for battle and Anna had been so preoccupied with her situation with Nathan to remember her dearest friend's plight!
"Oh, dear me!" she exclaimed, "I forgot!"
"Pardon my boldness, My Princess, but are you feeling ill? I suspect your humors may be unbalanced."
"Oh no, Jen, I am perfectly well... Just a slip of the mind."
Jen finished combing Anna's hair, then piled and pinned it beautifully atop her head in a modest fashion. She then dressed the princess in the deep gold-colored, formal dress making sure every aspect of her appearance was perfect. As Jen tightened the laces on the back of the dress, Anna tried to remain quiet and normal else her actions reveal her thoughts. Her mind ruminated over all that had transpired the previous night; of the conversation, the plan, and most of all, of Nathan.
Jewels were strung about her neck, and a bit of rouge Jen had procured from the Queen's supply was dabbed, much to Anna's disapproval, upon each of her cheeks and with the maid's last approval or her appearance, she was sent downstairs to await the King and Queen.
When she was away from Jen's sight, Anna's rubbed most of the rouge off on the inside of her voluminous sleeve. The dress was too formal, too lacy and bedazzled for her fancy; she was afraid of getting it dirty and had to constantly check to make sure that everything stayed in place. The extra-tight corset that she wore made breathing a nigh impossible thing, and the neckline was so plunging that she wondered if the conbination of it and the corset would expose herself to all the world. She hoped not.
She trudged to one of the many opulent sitting rooms, holding her dress up while tip-toeing down the stairs laboriously. This was the reason that she most often wore more simple gowns, they were practical -not to mention comfortable- everything that this clown suit was not. Anna was occasionally required to wear such livery as a child, but, as she was coming of marrying age, her parents demanded that she wore more elborate gowns during public events. She didn't see the reason why. Aside from looking like a princess, there was not really any reason because her parents would never allow a union between she and a commener. She only hoped that when she did marry, that she did so for love and that her husband would allow her to wear anything she wished, even if it were a sack cloth gown that she had sewn herself. She laughed at such a thought.
Sitting was even worse. When Anna had settled onto a small love-seat, she had to remain completely errect and keep her back ram-rod straight. Sure, she looked very ladilike and proper, but having such a posture had a price. She was glad when her mother appeared in the doorway. She stood, as she always did when her mother or father entered a room.
"Anna!" Queen Gwena exclaimed upon catching sight of her. "You look so beautiful dear! I knew that dress would look ravishing on you, darling."
Anna just smiled, a forced smile but a smile nonetheless. Her mother was wearing a similar dress of the same style only of a deep red color, embroiderd with gold thread. She was surprised that her mother could even hold her neck as straight as she did for the weight of the numerous jewels hanging from her throat.
"You're father should be here any moment. He'll think you look perfect, just perfect I say! You look exactly as I did at your age. You'll be married within the season."
She continued smiling, fearing that if she losened her lips, they might release the retort she thought at the word 'marriage'.
At this moment, Anna's father, and king, Felloro appeared in the doorway.
"Did I hear talk of marriage?" He asked, smiling pleasantly. He too was over-dressed, although the king normally always dressed opulently. His silver doublet was shimmering with gold thread and jewels, a embroidered cloak trimmed in fur hung from his shoulders, and his shimmering sword was fastened at his hip.
"Why, yes, dear," answered Gwena. The prospect of Anna's marriage excited the Queen. She extended a hand to the king, beckoning him closer; he stepped to her side and slipped his arm around her waist.
He turned to Anna."Ah, so who is this suitor you have your eye upon, Daughter?"
"You see, Father, it seems that all of the aspects of my betrothal have been planned, and are in order except for one important detail." She was half-teasing, half-serious.
"Which would be?"
The three burst into laughter, however Anna's false merriment faltered several moments before her parents'.
"Do you not fancy anyone though?" The king asked after calming.
"No, Father," Anna replied, her mind straying toward the possiblility.
"Come now, the most lowly peasant girl longs for a husband by your age. And a lovely princess such as yourself, with such high breeding and beauty as you have would make a fine catch for any man, indeed!"
She just smiled.
"Now," Felloro continued, "I would that I start considering a match for you. I would prefer royalty: a king, a prince..."
An image of Nathan flashed to her mind and she blushed a deep shade of red, not unlike the rouge Jen had applied.
"But I suppose that a knight could do, if he were noble and..."
But Anna wasn't listening. A knawing had formed within her, a fear that she would be forced to marry someone she would loath. But maybe her parents would see the way she felt and would choose someone to her liking.
Her heart fell. Sir Kent was a forty-something-year-old, overweight knight who had, in his youth, driven the dragons from Malthine. There had been rumors that after his first wife had died, he had turned into a drunkard. A vilolent drunkard.
"-son Gavin is a fine boy I hear...."
She sighed mentally. From what she had heard, Gavin was closer to her age, and was also a knight like his father, albeit a newly "ordained" knight. She hoped that he was at least partially tolerable.
"Yes, well, I'll look into that...." He finished. "But for now, I do believe that we should get going."
A manservant had just appeared in the doorway announcing that the royal carriage was ready and waiting.
The King and Queen babbled incessantly to each other about the possiblilties if their daughter's marriage and future heirs to the Mathinian throne. Anna lagged behind slightly as they made to leave, and climbed into the carriage without a word. She was utterly silent while they traveled the moderate distance around the exterior of the castle grounds to a jousting field near the eastern gate where the assembly was to be held.
A drone of cheers and milling about of people greeted the royal family when they halted.
"Anna!" said Queen Gwena, trying to wake Anna from the stupor of thought that she had slipped into.
She started, violently. "Yes, mother, what is it?"
"I said: 'are you feeling well?'"
She took a cleansing breath. "Yes, mother, I am feeling quite well. Why do you ask?"
"Your eyes were glassy and dull, and you weren't paying any attention," she explained. "I worry about you often, dear. Now, put on a smile! Let my beauty shine through you, Anna! We'll find you a husband yet!"
As was custom, King Felloro disembarked from the litter first (much applause and cheering), followed by Qween Gwena (less cheering, but more applause and whispering of her attire from the women folk), and finally Princess Anna (much cheering and applause, though most hooting from the crowd originated from a group of young men). To the right-hand side of the crowd on the jousting field stood the formation of soldiers. All were standing proudly and stately under the watchful eye of their commanders, and their shining plate and mail armor reflected the sun with glaring brilliance. Anna had no doubt that all of them were suffocating in the early-afternoon heat. She scanned the ranks for Gedric, but could not distinguish him from the identical figures, all bearing the Malthinian crest -the white lily from Gwena's family emblem, atop the crossed twin swords and twelve encircling gold stars that were the trademark of the royal family of Malthine- on their shields and maroon surcoats.
The royalty were directed to a platform raised several feet above the crowd, directly facing the battalion. The king's advisors and most of the coutiers were already stationed on the ascending seats lining the viewing platform behind where Anna now stood. She and her mother sat in two of the foremost empty seats while her father remained standing and prepared to make his customary speach to the knights and peasants alike.
Anna again searched the solidiers for Gedric, looking into each man's face carefully. Just as she reached the forth row, the man on the end raised his hand and threw a small salute her way when his commander had his back turned. She knew instantly that it was him, and the more she looked at him, the more her suspicions were made more evident: he was of the same stature and height as Ged, and curly brown locks peeped out of his helm.
She turned to her mother, trying to come up with a reason to excuse herself from the assembly for a moment to speak with Ged. "Mother, I-I'm afraid that... well, I need to be excused for a moment..."
"Well, I have... certain..." she lowered her voice and whispered in her mother's ear, "Matters to attend to... in the... the privy..."
"Oh!" Gwena replied just as sliently. "Yes, dear, by all means, do go. Just do your best to make it back as soon as you can; you are required to wish the soldiers well."
"Yes, mother, I'll try my best. " She hurried from her seat and down the stairs, slipping behind the platform. When she reached it's end, she peeked around at Gedric, who had descreetly been watching her progress. Anna gestured at him, beckoning him to meet her in the gap between to outbuildings nearby. He nodded slowly, signaling his agreement. He leaned toward the soldier next to him, speaking lowly to him. The man glanced over at Anna, a grin starting on his face, then nodded. He, in turn, whispered something short to the man next to him, and he to the one next him. By now, King Felloro had already started his speach and the soldiers cheered, raising their weapons. The commotion neatly covered him as Gedric broke formation and hurried to the place where the princess had indicated. The men whom had been whispered to slowly spread out, concealing their brethren's dissapearance.
Anna hiked up her voluminous skirts and also hurried to the alleyway where Gedric was. He looked so unfamiliar to her in his raiment; the armor was big and bulky, concealing his true form underneath, and the sword and shield he bore were very unlike the tools that his hands normally used in grooming the horses, and looked harsh in his hands.
"Ged," Anna breathed,"I'm so sorry that I didn't come down this morning to say good-bye!"
"No, that is fine, Anna. I'm just glad that you came to see me off!" He observed her gown then said, "You look simply beautiful, my princess."
"Thank you. I hate it."
Ged laughed. They were silent for a moment then Anna blurted:
"Ged I don't want you to go!"
"I don't want to go either, but I must."
Suddenly, her eyes filled with tears. "Oh, Ged!" She cried and flung herself into his arms, holding him tightly, wondering if it would be the last time she would see him. He held her in his arms, hugging her, letting her cry upon him. They remained thus for a moment until Gedric broke the silence. "Uh, Anna?"
"Please, stop crying..."
"I can't help it, Ged, I don't know what I'm going to do without you here!"
"Please, Anna, you must stop crying."
"Because, you're going to cause my armor to rust!" He teased, sniffing once more. Anna laughed, and released him.
"You are always joking!" She laughed again.
"Yes, but, I believe the damage is already done," he rolled his right shoulder in it's joint, feigning stiffness, "I can't move my arm!"
They laughed again. "I do hope that you will be able to move when you are fighting. I wouldn't much like to be the very death of you..."
"Nor would I..."
Although they joked about this, it was only spoke lightly of; they both knew that Gedric could possibly never return alive. Anna's lip started to quiver and another batch of tears threatened to overwhelm her. She launched into an oration, before she could stop herself: "I promise you, Ged, you will come home safe... I have a plan to save you -everyone! This fighting has to stop; it must! I can't lose you, Ged, I just can't!" She wailed. Gedric took her in his arms again and cradled her, kissing her hair and murmering, "Shh, it will be alright, Anna, you'll see... I'll be fine..."
What would she do if she lost him? Anna wondered. She had known him most of her life; they had been friends from the time they were toddlers, and they had grown up together. He was her best friend. He had been there when no one else had. He had listened to her when no one else had even cared. Anna felt so sheltered in his arms now, and comfortable, she weeped with earnest. Things between them had never reached a romantic stage, and there had never been a need for such a thing, and neither of them had ever wanted that from each other. Such a friend as Gedric was not easily found, and Anna was greatful for him.
As they stood there, once again locked in embrace, Gedric sniffed and she knew that he too was crying; his body shook slightly with the attempts to quiet his sobs. After a moment: "Ah, what's a little rust?!"
Anna sniffed and giggled into his shoulder as he pulled her to arms' length. "You are such a caring and beautiful woman, and I am glad to have known you..."
He had been crying; his eyes were red and his cheeks were damp.
"No. Do not speak in such a way," Anna smiled, wiping her face and eyes on her sleave. "You will return unscathed, and we shall laugh in years to come about all that we have said here..."
Gedric smiled back at her. "I really must be going..." he said reluctantly, "Your father may be long-winded, but he is not excessively so!"
Anna looked down at her dress, then grabbed hold of the hem of her sleave and ripped, tearing of a long strip of the golden material. Ged just looked quizzically at her.
"Ged, I know that we are not promised to one other, or anything like that, but," She offered the bit of cloth, "Would you accept this favor as a token of our friendship?"
He smiled, kneeling before her. "I would love nothing more than to charge into battle bearing such a token, my dearest friend, my princess... I will fight in your name and will honor you and our kingdom with my actions..." He rose and allowed her to tie the strip of cloth onto his right arm. And with a last bid of farewell, they parted; Anna heading back to the platform, and Gedric returning to his formation, striding to his fellow soldiers with proud steps, the gold material a shining token of his and Anna's friendship.
Anna walked slowly, and reached the platform just as the ceremony ended. She prayed for Gedric, bidding God to spare him from death and to provide for him and his battalion a hedge of protection. But most of all, she prayed: Dear Lord, please, let this fighting end.
Chapter 7: A Reluctant Farewell