You know why I did this. These lands can ill afford another war. Our people are angry, sick and hungry. Regardless of your wishes for me, I will not sit idly by as things grow more dire by the day, nor will I see our armies march against our own.
Most importantly, I owe this to William.
Just as my brother once sought peace on your behalf, I now do the same.
I will not ask your forgiveness, nor will I ask for leniency upon my return home. I only do what I know in my heart to be right.
By the time you discover my absence, I will be far from your reach.
The letter sat atop a small desk within the Princess' living quarters. It was carefully rolled and sealed in a wax. Around the parchment was the coiled braid woman’s bright auburn hair.
Sweat pooled beneath her breasts, under the many layers she wore, starting with a tunic bearing the colors and crest of her family. Beneath that she wore her brother’s chainmail, and yet under that a man’s shirt. Finally, within all those layers of a man’s attire were the tight bindings meant to disguise her womanhood. Her red locks curled and plastered against her brow where she continually wiped the perspiration from her eyes. Gingerly, she trotted a short distance behind her fellow Knights.
She did her best to ignore the ongoing banter, only picking up bits and pieces of their lewd ridicule. In truth, it was difficult to hear such things about old maids, and ladies of low virtue. Gabrielle lost count of the number of times she had to stop herself from scolding the Knights on such talk in front of a Lady. At one point, she thought to join in with such banter, if only to maintain her carefully crafted façade… after several minutes of awkward silence and confusion, she decided it was best to remain silent. Idly, the Princess wondered what Adela, having been a knight for so many years, thought of such talk. What would Elena think if she were ever close enough to hear?
Pushing such musings from her thoughts, she instead turned her attentions to the road ahead. Silently, Gabrielle took note of all she saw across countryside. So many lands were left salted and scorched. The remaining lands fortunate enough to be untouched by years of war were left overgrown and poorly tended; that is if the lands were tended at all. Even the livestock were too lean, or worse, left for dead with vultures patiently circling overhead. Each passing day the Princess found her despair rising, despite the proud face she put on before her Knights. William would not have voiced his concerns either; at least not openly.
Her beloved twin would have kept a level head and he would devise an equitable solution. He would have calmed the angers of the people and soothed the hurts of the land. William would have worked alongside the farmers. He would have gone to the fields himself and help the people sow. Gabrielle would do no less. This land would be green and plentiful again. This was her promise. And her resolve.
Silently, as if the heavens themselves held answers, Gabrielle let her gaze rise. Though you are not here, brother, I will see our lands returned to their former glory. I swear it.
With a heavy sigh, Gabrielle knew they would soon reach Eweald. She returned her gaze to the lands before her. Despite it all, few could deny that it was indeed a gorgeous spring day, and even the light breeze did much to ease the exhaustion and burden of such travel. In the rare plots that the Princess spied a small crop, the grains were sickly and seemed unnatural in their color.
It was certainly not a lack of rain that prevented these crops from rising. The soil beneath her horse’s hooves was rich and ripe for tilling and sowing. Even if the cattle continued to roam parts of Eweald’s land, much of the farmland could be tilled. Why were there so few farmers tending this land?
As the Knights of Westend rode, the occasional farmer would look up from their work. It was not a look of respect or reverence. There was anger in those looks. Disappointment.
In that moment, Gabrielle—or William, as the others believed her to be—was ripped from her thoughts as she heard a rearing horse and the barking commands of Matthias “Company halt!”
She looked up and trotted forward, ignoring the Knight’s commands. As she watched the older man tease and cruelly taunt a small defenseless child. She felt her temper rise.
“From ranks! Look sharp!” The leader of the knights shouted.
“We come in the service of his Majesty Reinhard, King of Westend.” He called into the peasantry in a deep and bold voice. “Who among you might receive us?”
She guided her horse to the Knight’s side, letting her shadowed gaze show her disapproval.
“Matthias!” She narrowed her bright blue eyes to him, confident that her deep, practiced tone would pass as her brother’s, even if it was little more than a whisper. “You will not behave in such a manner toward our people again. Especially the children. We are here to offer aid and hope. We need to regain the trust of these people. I will not have you upset them further.”
She turned her gaze then, toward the village of Eweald. Her heart pounded in her chest as she waited for the people’s response to her Knight. Gently, she swallowed, thinking of the words she would offer these people. What could she possibly say that would soothe their fears? What reassurances could she give?
She prayed for strength.
This was her choice.
“Beloved people! I, William, come to you on behalf of my father King Reinhard.” Gently she guided her horse forward, praying that no one saw her trembling under all her layers of armor and clothes. After taking a slow breath she let her low tone carry on the cool spring breeze. She let her words be heard by all present. “We know that the past several years have been a burden! That you are hungry and weary! Your King would see your hearts glad again and your bellies full! Your King would see you return to the fields!
“We come in peace. We come to offer what support we can.”
The silence, save for the pounding of her heart, that followed her speech lasted an eternity.