The Price of Protection

Chapter 12

Katherine woke up to the scent of freshly cooked eggs. Sighing, she got up and dressed herself in her uniform before heading downstairs. When she arrived, she saw most of the soldiers chatting with each other while digging into their breakfast.

"Here you go, Katherine," Agnes said, handing the brunette a plate. Katherine thanked the woman before finding a seat next to Javier.

"Good morning," she greeted.

"Morning," he greeted back before taking a bite of his eggs.

"So, where do we go from here?" Katherine questioned, figuring Javier would know the route.

"Well, there is no other village after this, so we will be camping for the rest of the time. The route to the Lockwood kingdom is fairly straight and the castle is a little ways after the border."

"Is there a village below the castle?"

Javier shrugged. "I would assume so. Like I told you before, I have not been to the Amera castle, so I do not know the area that well."

Katherine nodded and cleaned off her plate before returning upstairs to pack. She frowned as she packed her tent, making a mental note to repair it as they traveled. She figured her needle and thread would suffice. As she retrieved Aristotle from behind the inn where the other horses had been stored, she hears footsteps behind her.

"Good morning, Katherine," the prince greeted, retrieving Thunder, his own horse.

"Good morning, Your Highness," she greeted. "Did you sleep well?"

The prince nodded. "You?"

"Fine, definitely better than the night before last," she said honestly. "Again, thank you for the blanket."

"You're welcome." Richard gave a small smile. "Now, we must be off if we want to make it to Amera castle within the next few days."

Katherine chuckled, before leading her horse to the front. She spotted Agnes watching the troop prepare for its departure.

"Thank you for everything," Katherine said as she walked up to the innkeeper.

"No, thank you," Agnes replied, resting a hand on her bulging stomach. "Without you and the rest of the soldiers, I may not have a child right now."

Katherine shrugged. "We were just doing our duty."

Agnes nodded and then smiled. She gave Katherine a coy smile before saying, "The prince seems quite taken with you."

Katherine frowned and shook her head. "It will pass once he meets Princess Meredith."

Agnes pursued her lips and narrowed her eyes. "I would not be so sure of that. I do not think you are just a passing fancy to him."

Katherine sighed, knowing what Agnes was implying. "I highly doubt that. I just met him not long ago. He does not know anything about me."

Agnes shrugged. "That may be so, but he seemed more excited when talking to you than when he talked of the princess."

Katherine sighed. "Whatever fascination he has with me will pass." She tried to ignore the slight pain the words caused her.

"If you say so," Agnes remarked, patting the brunette's shoulder. "Now, I wish you a safe journey, and I hope you will return sometime soon."

Katherine chuckled. "I sure hope so. Good luck with your child and I hope you stay well."

"Thank you," Agnes said, giving Katherine a grin.

A few moments later, the soldiers mounted their horses and set off toward the village exit. As they rode away, Katherine gave a small wave goodbye to Agnes and Phillip, who had appeared at the door. As she turned away, Agnes' words replayed in her head. Katherine frowned before shaking her head, trying to force the words out of her mind.


The next few days were uneventful. As Javier had said, the travelers camped the rest of the way and forged for food in the surrounding forest or nearby streams. Thanks to the blanket the prince had given her, Katherine had plenty of warmth at night as she slept. She still continued to fix her tent though.

Katherine also found herself growing closer to the prince. He seemed to seek her out in the mornings and sometimes at night, where they would have casual conversations. He also helped the troop search for food and set up camp, which pleased Katherine. She liked that the prince would get involved instead of sitting around giving orders. She had a hard time keeping a straight face when he made an attempt to catch some fish, which ended with him landing face down in the water. He had just given her a boyish smile and twinkling eyes in response.

On the fifth day of their traveling, the troop crossed the border into Lockwood.

"It will not be long now," the prince stated to everyone. "If we continue at this speed, we should be able to reach the castle by night fall."

Katherine sighed in relief. She had never felt so tired in her entire life and her body longed for a bed. She was sure poor Aristotle felt the same.

A few hours later, Katherine saw the castle from a distance. Her eyes widened as she saw how large the castle was. It looked bigger than the Rodgers' castle from where she was riding. She wondered if it was just as grand.

In order to get to the castle, the caravan had to travel through a small village just below the castle. Katherine took time to observe her surroundings, knowing that a village could show how a kingdom was run and if it was flourishing or not.

The first thing Katherine noticed was that there were soldiers in grey uniforms all over the village. They occupied the market, standing by stalls and some of the other shops. The soldiers also patrolled a group of small cottages near the edge of the village. Their stern, unmoving expressions unsettled Katherine. The second thing the brunette noticed was that unlike the village before, the current village was fairly quiet with only a few people walking around.

"Where is everyone?" Katherine asked herself, looking around and seeing a few people poke their heads out of buildings to take a look at the new comers.

As people began to step out of the shops and homes to look, the guards immediately went into action, beginning to hold people back from the troop. The gathering villagers began to chatter among one another, growing louder as more people came. Soon, the chatter turned into yelling and shouting. Katherine could hear what some of the villagers were shouting. Some of the shouting was pleading, while the rest was derogatory.

"Help us!"

"Go back to Maddox!"

"Thieves!"

"Stand up to the king!"

"Scoundrels!"

Katherine looked ahead toward the prince to see his reaction. He wore a solemn expression, and she could see concern in his eyes. Cautiously, she rode up beside him.

"Why are the villagers so unhappy?" he seemed to be asking himself.

"Perhaps the king will be able to provide you with answers," Katherine offered quietly.

Richard sighed. "The kingdom is supposed to be thriving. I would think that the villagers would be content."

"You will find out soon, I suppose," Katherine said.

"I hope so," he muttered.

As they rode along, Katherine saw the cottages and shops become dilapidated looking, some of them even being abandoned and boarded up. There were even some homeless people occupying the doorways of the abandoned buildings. The atmosphere became increasingly unsettling, making Katherine wish she could race to the castle.

"Are feeling a little unnerved as I am?" the prince asked her as he looked around. Katherine nodded. "Hopefully it will get better."

"Perhaps," Katherine said cautiously and braced herself as they approached the gate to the castle. A few moments later, the bridge lowered and the troop entered the courtyard. The sun was setting, so Katherine was only able to make out some of the details of the castle.

A servant with blonde hair and blue eyes greeted them as they dismounted their horses. He bowed to the prince before speaking.

"Good evening, Your Highness. I am Mathias, the head of the servants. The king wishes to see you right away, so you must follow me." The man lifted his slender body up from his position.

Richard nodded. "Thank you, Mathias."

Mathias walked quickly, guiding the group to a was only able to quickly scan her surroundings. From what she could observe, she found a lot of the decorations to be gaudy and tasteless, a stark contrast to the Rodgers castle. They also looked very expensive. The hall was spacious, but was dimly lit with torches and only one or two windows.

"The king is inside. I hope you enjoy your stay here, and if you need anything, just ask," the servant said before departing in the opposite direction.

As the the troop walked inside, a man, who Katherine assumed was the king, stood up and walked towards them.

"Ah, Prince Richard, it is great to meet you," the king said, giving the prince a hearty handshake. His green eyes glistened with mischief, and not the good kind.

"Likewise, Your Majesty," the prince responded, bowing.

"Come, come," the king gestured towards his throne. "I would like you to meet my wife." He turned around, the red cape he was wearing sweeping behind him as he did so. Getting closer to the thrones, Katherine saw an older woman sitting in the left seat, a bored expression on her face. Her thin lips formed into a frown, and the bun her red hair was formed in made her look severe. However, once she saw the prince, her expression changed to one of joy.

"You must be Prince Richard," she said, rising from her seat and curtsying. "It is a pleasure to meet you. We have been awaiting your visit." Her brown eyes roamed the prince, clearly assessing him.

"Thank you, it is a pleasure to meet you too," Richard said, taking her slender hand and quickly kissing it.

"My daughter will be with us in a few moments," the king said, returning to his throne. "She has the unfortunate habit of dawdling at the most important times."
As he said this, the king took time to look over the group in back of the prince. "I see you brought some company."

Rick nodded. "There was a recent attack on our castle, so my father thought it would be best if I traveled with some extra protection."

"I see." The king nodded. As his eyes searched the group, they landed on Katherine, causing him to frown. "You had the gall to bring your mistress?" he asked, pointing at the brunette.

Rick quickly turned around to where the king was pointing and a scowl formed on his face.

"Katherine is not my mistress, she is a soldier for my father's army. She came along to protect me and does it well."

The king raised an eyebrow. "A woman as a soldier? It is unheard of, forbidden almost."

"I assure you," the prince started; "Katherine is perfectly capable and is very talented with a sword."

Katherine smiled, her heart fluttering at the compliment.

The king sighed. "I will let it go. However, please know that while she is here, she must obey my rules. If I ask her to do something, such as leaving her post, she must do it. This goes for the other soldiers as well. Is that clear?"

Richard nodded. "Yes, Your Majesty." Katherine could tell he was trying to keep a grimace off his face as he said this.

A moment later, a girl came bursting through a door. She looked slightly panicked, but then quickly composed herself. She immediately walked to the thrones, greeting both the king and queen with a curtsy.

"You wished to see me, Father?" the girl asked.

"Yes, My Dear. I summoned you to meet Prince Richard."

The princess turned her gaze to the prince and smiled softly. She curtsied, causing her purple dress to spread out. She bowed her head.

"It is a pleasure to meet you, Your Highness," she said, keeping her gaze down.

"As it is mine, Princess," Richard replied, greeting the princess in the same fashion as he had with the queen. "I hope to get to know you better during my stay here."

Meredith nodded. "I wish the same, Your Highness." The uneasiness and tension in the atmosphere as the two spoke was palpable. Katherine hoped it would fade soon.

The king suddenly clapped his hands together, breaking the tension.

"Now that introductions are over," he said. "I have an announcement to make. In honor of your arrival, Prince Richard, I have arranged a ball to be held two days from now."

Surprise covered the prince's face. "Oh, you did not have to do that. I do not wish for any fuss to made over me."

"Nonsense," the king stated. "It will give you a chance to meet new people and maybe some old friends. It will be grand."

Richard gave the man a timid smile. "Well, if you insist. I'm always ready to mingle."

The king patted him on the back. "Then it's settled. Besides, the invitations were already sent out. There will be a feast and great music. Real music of course. not that ridiculous peasant noise."

Katherine had to stop herself from frowning. She loved the music from her childhood.

Richard nodded and then quickly changed the topic. "Is it all right if the soldiers get settled in? They have been traveling and I'm sure they wish to rest and have dinner."

"Of course," the king said. "However, I do not think we have enough room to accommodate all of them."

"I will room with one if the men if it is needed, Your Majesty," Katherine spoke up.

The king frowned, but nodded. He then waved a dismissive hand. "Fine, whatever you do in there is none of my concern."

Katherine's temper began to flare, but quickly composed herself. She knew she would not help the prince if she had an outburst. She settled for a nod instead.

"A servant will show the soldiers to the servant's quarters and also to your quarters, Richard." The king gestured to a servant, who bowed and gestured the group to follow him. "As soon as you settle yourself in, I wish to speak to you privately, Richard."

Richard nodded as he followed the servant. They were first led what would be the prince's chambers and as the servant began to lead the soldiers to their quarters, Richard stopped them.

"I wish to speak with Katherine, alone."

The rest of the troop looked at her, but then they just shrugged it off, following the servant.

"Yes, Your Highness?" she questioned.

Richard sighed. "If you ever feel uncomfortable during this visit, please let me know."

"Thank you for the concern, Your Highness. However, I am capable of taking care of myself." She gave him a knowing smile.

"I know." Richard chuckled. "Nevertheless, I dislike the connotation of you being a harlot, when you are definitely not." He lifted his hand and brushed a strand of hair, which had fallen out of her braid, away from her face. Katherine's heart began to flutter as she felt a buzz between them. She looked at him, giving a grateful smile.

"I apologize for not speaking up back in the throne room." He frowned.

Katherine shook her head and looked at him intently. "There is no reason for you to be sorry. I understand why you could not, so I am not angry with you. The king on the other hand." She scowled.

"Yes, him. Unfortunately, I will need to be on his good side if I want to succeed." Richard sighed. "I hate politics," he grumbled.

Katherine chuckled softly. "I think many people do. Anyway, thank you and I will inform you if there is an issue."

Richard nodded and gently put a hand on the brunette's shoulder. "I mean it, please tell me if there is any problems." His cerulean eyes became intense.

"I will," she said softly, gently removing his hand. She had to stop the urge of entwining it with her own hand. "Now, I must go settle in and have something to eat. It was Your Highness' wish."

Richard let out a low laugh. "Yes, it was. Go and settle yourself in, I'll see you in the morning."

Katherine nodded and bowed. "Goodnight, Your Highness."

"Goodnight, Katherine. Sleep well."

Katherine smiled, before heading in the direction the group had gone.


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