I know Gabrielle’s handwriting. I know when she’s tired, her writing slopes upwards. I know when she’s anxious, her pen presses a little deeper into the paper. I can see when the unevenness of her letters means something is amiss. I know when she is brief, there is danger.

***

The summer had been light and beautiful. The time spent at Lord Frederick’s hunting lodge meant days to explore at the fastest pace she could manage on shaky knees, while others went hunting. It meant new forests to explore, and Vitória had even found the lake he had mentioned on a solitary ramble, the waters cool and soothing. Even travelling back to the Barrens was not so terrible as anticipated, though that owed more to the pleasing company of her companion than the improvement of the place, or of those who resided there.

It was the first time Vitória had felt on holiday, or at ease. Even the slow pace was starting to become agreeable, and when Frederick returned from the front line troops he would find her, share stories and tales that banished any thought of feeling lonely, in pain, or left behind.

***

The letter weighs heavy in my fingers, a thing apart from me. I am caught in the stillness for a moment, as if a great storm builds around me yet I am the calm eye at the centre. This feels unnatural, and there is a part of me that wonders where is the immediate action?

***

“Vitória?”

Her head turns from the letter at the gentle tapping on her open door, left ajar when she had been given her letter. The smile that should appear whenever she sees Fred is missing.

“I’ve just got back, you’ll never believe what–” Frederick pauses, before she can part her lips to explain. Is her stillness that unnatural? “Are you well?”

It takes a moment before she can speak the words that will banish the lightness of the summer, her throat thick, as if ash-filled. “The Mournwold has fallen. The armies are pushed back to Tassato… I have to go home.”

***

You understand. There’s nothing needs saying but of course you understand. It’s only when I can pass you the letter from Gabrielle that I am finally swept up in the storm, and my belongings are packed as swiftly as I can. My legs protest at this sudden change, and soon there are tears in my eyes. I tell myself it is from the pain, but I know my own lies.

We all are called to duty. It’s only after I am on the road an hour before I realise I asked for your blessing before I left.

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