The War Garden
Ella and her brother Richard sat alone on the balcony overlooking the courtyard. The crescent moon smiled above them. On nights when it was full, they could see the gleam of moonlight on the lone guard’s chain mail and the shadows of the battlements stretch far across the wall. But tonight, barely anything was visible beyond the castle. Only by the light of the torches could one see the walls of the stable and the tiny roof of the castle well.
Ella and Richard were quiet, content to enjoy each other’s company, both with minds too full to speak. Richard was to leave the next morning.
It was certainly not his preference. Their father insisted, however, that Richard needed leadership experience outside the well-ordered walls of the keep and had promised he would be sent out at the next opportunity. When reports of ruffians came from the border, Ella knew Richard would embark.
“I’ll take care of the garden,” Ella said.
Richard looked at her and smiled. The garden had started as a school project three years prior and had become their favorite shared pastime. In between writing lessons, Latin, and Richard’s combat training, they both made time to work the garden together.
Weeding, turning the soil, pruning the vines, and harvesting in season, they learned the timing of the plants. Most grew slowly. Weeds shot up quickly then needed to be pulled. The apple tree had yet to bear fruit.
A cloud passed before the moon as Richard stood up to go to bed.
“Good night,” he said.
Ella stood and embraced him. She clung to him tightly, knowing tomorrow’s farewell would need to be more solemn, more reserved.
“Good night,” Ella whispered, wishing to never say goodbye to her older brother, her protector.
Richard went off to bed, while Ella stayed to stare at the moon. Only a portion glowed outside the cloud, like a half-eaten sliver of cheese. As the upper winds blew the cloud away, Ella herself went on to bed.
Morning came, and Richard gathered with his unit. When the time came for the send-off, Ella stood with her father and mother on the balcony. Richard and the unit knelt while Father gave his blessing. Then they stood; boots laced, swords girded.
Ella heard her brother shout, such as he had only shouted when in practice. Now he was taking command of his own formation.
With precise order, Richard and his men marched out of the courtyard and through the village, towards the border. Father left the balcony when Richard passed through the gate. Ella and her mother stayed until they could no longer see him, then went up the stairs to watch from Mother’s private chamber.
The Great Hall was quieter that night. Ella and her mother filled their stomachs while Ella’s father fulfilled every opportunity to laugh.
Summer days passed quickly. Ella tended the garden and practiced her writing. Summer nights passed slowly. Silent fights between Ella’s father and mother hung in the air like the scent of chicken scraps thrown out to rot. She often retreated to the balcony to do her mending in the evening light, looking towards the western horizon every few stitches.
Autumn brought rain and Ella harvested turnips while she wondered when Richard would return. Every letter that came was addressed to Father and barely contained anything but the briefest of tactical details, and even those were weeks old upon receipt. She wondered about him every day. How could she not? In a castle full of rumors and gossip, he was her closest friend.
Carrots, parsley, and potatoes filled Ella’s every waking moment and her hands were rarely free of dirt, despite hard scrubbing with the wash rag. Winter’s first frost would come soon. The apple tree grew a little taller and a little greener, yet barren another year, no matter how Ella piled the manure and trimmed the lower branches.
Roasted turnips with parsley and wine brought shouts of joy from the Great Hall feasters. Ella served her harvested cooking and returned their boisterous smiles. She fell asleep smiling that night, even as tears wet her face and sprinkled her cot. If only Richard could have been there to taste this year’s victory. But was he safe? Was he even well fed? What if …? But Ella did not let herself consider these possibilities. Instead, she focused her mind on how to best help the women with their winter weaving. Despite these efforts, however, her fearful mind and the brilliant moonlight kept her fully awake.
The midnight moon shone through the castle window. Ella rose to stand in its light. The frigid stone chilled her toes, her breath glistened in the air. And when she stood before the window, the beauty of the newly frosted castle etched itself upon her memory as strongly as one who carves faces into stone. Her heart broke within her and muffled sobs flooded the princess’s chamber. She was the jewel of the castle with no one to turn to.
Morning came and the frost stayed. The guards kept the torches lit during the day as an attempt at warmth. Ella walked the garden, bundled in a thick wool robe, when a shout came up from the courtyard.
The tramp of boots and the clink of chain mail jolted her heart. Ella grabbed her wool robe and threw herself into a run, decorum abandoned.
Tall and lean, Richard led his men into the courtyard, followed by a throng of village families rejoicing to see their loved ones return whole. His joyous face smiled greater as Ella raced towards him. Her arms wrapped around his chain mail and he held her tight, not letting go until their mother and father drew close.
Richard released Ella abruptly. Mother clasped her hands before her as tears overflowed her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. Richard embraced his mother. Her soft hands stroked his armored back, followed by a kiss on his cheek.
Father looked his son up and down while Richard waited. Then, with outstretched arms, their father engulfed his son in a strong embrace. Upon separating, Father took Richard’s shoulders and resumed looking over his son.
Richard would later tell Ella all about the harrowing ruffians and the irritable farms’ people. There were late-night watches and offensive midnight raids. Richard would recount with fervor the first time he held his head up in respectful disagreement with the lead farmer, and also the first moment he ever laid eyes on a certain temperate farmer’s daughter, a gentle woman of the field.
None of this did he verbalize now, but Father seemed to see the change in Richard’s manner. Father nodded, slapped Richard’s shoulder, and turned to welcome the other soldiers home.