The wind rose, rippling through the thick canopy of branches above their heads, making the shrivelled leaves whisper, and the scented fir and pine needles hum softly. The end of the summer was approaching swiftly; she could almost smell the rain in the breeze, caressing her face.
Feeling nostalgic, the girl looked at her three companions-- her best friend and cousin Garreth, an eighteen-years-old, fully-trained, oh-so-proud-of-himself knight, and two young men from the village spreading at the foot of the imposing Warwick Castle, the home of Garreth's family.
This was the place Ginny loved the most in the world-- her world, comprised within the borders and shores of the fair Albion, which she had never left before. Here, she spent more time with her aunt's family while she grew up than at her father's court.
Warwick Castle, with its sweeping staircases, countless chambers, tens of turrets, towers, and impressive halls always teeming with kind servants and friendly guests, was encompassed by a wide moat. The river Avon running at a stone's throw from the castle, perfect for boating, fishing, swimming even, added greatly to its charms. And, beyond the river, lay Ginny's paradise, the endless forest, where she and her friends spent every free moment, hiding from those who had something very important, and boring, for them to do whenever they laid eyes on them. Like studying. Dancing. Learning manners.
But it will all be over soon...
She was seventeen now and expected to marry a man she had never met, a prince of the neighbouring kingdom of Caledonia, in a month and a week. She knew well that it was her duty, her responsibility, she had to do it to secure the welfare of her people-- her tutors had had seventeen years to plant the idea firmly in her mind. But still... Ginny wished that she could marry someone she would choose herself, someone she would love...
She sighed, following the gaze of her three friends absentmindedly. They stood motionless, half-hidden behind the thick trunks of ancient oaks and pines not far from her, their eyes trained on a small clearing.
Her reverie was disturbed by the sound of hoofbeats muffled by the layer of the first fallen leaves, reaching them from the forest beyond the clearing, followed by a faint clatter coming from Garreth's direction.
Turning towards her cousin, Ginny glanced from the tip of his crossbow, ready to shoot to the clearing at which it was pointing. A magnificent deer appeared in its middle, noble and proud like the king of the forest.
Garreth shifted his weight, adjusting the angle of his arm for the perfect aim when Ginny saw them-- a graceful doe, her hide shining like gold in the sunlight filtering through the branches, and a couple of the cutest fawns, the bright specks on their backs sparkling like dew-drops at sunrise. Without thinking, she bent down, unpredictable and impetuous like the wind, picked a pine cone, and threw it at her cousin, upsetting his fancy velvet hat, making him drop the crossbow with a clatter.
Their two friends burst out laughing even as the deer family vanished in a blur of russet fur and grey hooves, and Garreth called, "Ginny, what's got into you? Mother said we were running out of venison!"
He picked up his crossbow and straightened his hat, then started walking towards the girl, slowly, menacingly...
Ginny would have managed not to laugh, had she not known him so well.
A smile tugged at the corners of Garreth's lips as she exclaimed, "That wasn't venison, Garreth, that was a father of a family!"
She moved away from him, stumbling backwards, then turned around and ran even before he finished his next line, "Just wait what I'll do with you for this, Princess Guinevere..."
"You would have to catch me first!" she called as she sprinted towards the river as fast as she could, nearly doubled over with laughter.
Reaching the bank, she did not hesitate. Pausing only to kick off her shoes, she jumped into the current and swam over to the other side. She was still laughing as she climbed out on the opposite bank, noticing only now that the boys running towards her were dry.
"You... crossed over... the bridge, cowards!" she called, out of breath, wiping the water dripping down her face with the back of her hand. The current had stolen the ribbon she had worn, and now her long hair was loose. Darkened by the water it had absorbed, it was the same colour as the deer fur, making the girl look like a fairy from the forest rather than a princess.
She hadn't noticed at all how her light summer dress clung to her wet body inappropriately until the boys' eyes dropped to her heaving chest a few times, deep blush spreading over their cheeks.
Why do they have to look at me like that, why does everything have to change? she mused, crossing her arms across her chest, frowning at them, longing for those moments when she used to feel like a boy, like one of them.
"Stop staring, will you?" Garreth said. He dropped the shoes Ginny had left on the other bank, took his coat off, and wrapped it over her shoulders. "Come on, Ginny, let's go home. You'd better change before dinner. If Mother sees you like this, she'll never let you come out with us again. And don't let me think about what your father would say..." he muttered while she put her shoes on.
After a quick goodbye and a promise of meeting again tomorrow, the two boys stalked towards the village while Garreth and Ginny headed towards the moat, crossed the drawbridge spanning over the glittering expanse of water and entered the castle's courtyard. Moving within the deep shadows pooling beneath the walls they decided to sneak inside through the kitchen, which, this time of the afternoon, was bound to be bustling with activity and no one would have the time to notice them.
"What's suddenly wrong with everyone, Garreth?" Ginny asked after they crossed the kitchen unnoticed and climbed up the stone staircase leading to her chambers. "Why do men look at me differently? Why Father wants me to get married... Wasn't everything perfect before? I don't want anything to change."
Garreth sighed, "But everything did change, Ginny. You are not a little girl who can run around with boys any longer. Even though you can still outrun us all, climb the trees and wield a sword like a knight, you are a woman, a princess... our future queen."
"I know that... I just don't want any of it..." she said, shrugging out of his damp coat and passing it back to him. "I wish I could stay here. Imagine... next week I'll be at home, watched day and night by a small army of tutors and ladies-in-waiting preparing me for the wedding..." She shuddered, then shrugged, opening her door. "Oh well, let me get changed. See you in a while."
Trying to lift his cousin's spirits, Garreth said, "Not all men stare at you, Ginny. I don't, do I?"
She giggled, "That's because you don't like girls, Garreth. But thank you, anyway."
They smiled at each other before the door of her chamber separated them, and Ginny was assaulted by several maids, gasping at the sight of the waterlogged, wild-looking tomboy, their future queen.