The Price of Protection

Chapter 19

After tending to the infant, the two women chatted for a while until Agnes declared she was getting ready for bed. Katherine followed and headed to her own room, but could not bring herself to turn in for the night. She knew the prince was out there wondering the town and she wanted to be ready on the off chance something happened to him. She frowned, worried over where he had gone; she wished she had escorted him. To fill in time, Katherine double checked her belongings and made sure everything was in its place. She patted the pocket of her pants, to confirm that her necklace was still there, and as she did this, she heard two sets of footsteps coming up the stairs.

The door to Katherine's room opened to reveal the prince and another man, and having caught sight of them Katherine immediately bowed.

"So, where is he?" asked the man, his brown, beady eyes searching the room. His fingers tapped impatiently against the bag he was holding. There was an air of superiority about him and he ignored Katherine, who was now standing at attention.

"She," Richard corrected, "is right here."

The man eyed her dubiously and scoffed. "If she is having womanly problems, it is better to go to an apothecary." Katherine's lip pursed, realizing the man was the village doctor.

The prince glared at him. "She is not having womanly problems. She has wounds that need to be tended to."

"This is not necessary, your Highness," Katherine said. "I am sure the wounds will heal themselves."

The doctor rolled his eyes. "Ignorant peasant," he muttered under his breath. "Fine, I will examine her wounds and see what, or if, there is anything I can do."

"Thank you," the prince said and then he walked toward Katherine. "Just humor me, please?" he begged softly. His hand lifted to touch her face, but he restrained himself. She nodded and sat down on the bed.

"I need you to leave the room." The doctor announced firmly.

The prince shook his head. "I would be more comfortable if I stayed. That is, of course, if Katherine permits it." He then looked toward her, his eyes pleading.

Katherine nodded, realizing his reason of not wanting her to be alone with a complete stranger. "Yes, it is fine, your Highness. You may stay here."

The doctor said nothing during the exchange, standing silently in the background.

Richard smiled, before turning his back. The doctor approached Katherine, who had stripped off her shirt and began to undo her wrappings. When the doctor saw her wounds, Katherine sensed that he had softened a little. As she peered over her shoulder, she witnessed his eyes grow wider and he shook his head in dismay. He sat next to her on the bed and traced his fingers over the slash marks on her back. He then ordered the brunette to turn around so he could see her front. He quickly glanced at her bruises, before sighing. The prince, who still faced the other way, tapped his foot impatiently. Katherine chuckled, knowing the prince's patience was short sometimes, in a child-like way, to was something that she had grown to love about him

"There is not much I can do." The doctor said after he was done examining Katherine. "The bruises will clear in their own time. I will pour some alcohol on the wounds to cleanse them and put some new wrappings around them. However…" The doctor trailed off and shrugged his shoulders in defeat.

Katherine heard the doctor as he searched through his bag and then moved to pull something out.

"This will sting," he warned. Suddenly, Katherine felt liquid being rubbed onto her wounds and she was forced to grip the bed sheets. The alcohol seeped into the slash marks and Katherine felt an intense burn. However, her only reaction was to hold on tightly and clench her teeth. A moment later, the doctor quickly, but gently, wrapped fresh bandages around the wounds.

"Well, I have done what I can do," the doctor said, his cold demeanor returning.

"Thank you," the prince said, handing the older man a bag of coins. "Your service is appreciated."

The doctor nodded. "Change the bandages the next chance you can, you don't want the wounds going bad."

"Yes, Doctor," Katherine said as the man shifted to leave the room.

"Have a safe journey, Your Highness," the doctor politely added, before leaving the room.

The moment the door was shut, Richard turned to Katherine and smiled.

"Is your mind at ease now, your Highness?" Katherine asked in a teasing tone.

"Yes." He sighed as he gently took her hand in his.

"So, I can ride Aristotle again? You did say that I could."

Richard frowned, but nodded. "Yes, you can. As much as I rather you not, I know you like your independence." He entwined their fingers and with his other hand gently stroked her face, now that they were away from prying eyes.

Katherine smiled. "Thank you." Her eyes flickered to his lips and his did the same. A second later, the prince bent his head down and pressed his mouth gently against hers. Katherine closed her eyes, letting their lips move as one. She put her hands on his shoulders to pull him down closer. However, when he placed his hands on her waist, she froze. Her mind flashed back to the cell, and she felt the guard's hands on her again and she pushed Richard away; her arms wrapping around her thin frame as if to hold herself together.

The prince was confused for a moment, before understanding reached his eyes.

"I'm sorry," he said softly. "I didn't think…"

Katherine waved her hand, regaining her composure. "It is fine." She smiled hesitantly at him. "I quite enjoyed it, beside the last moment."

Richard relaxed and smiled. "I'm glad." He placed a kiss on her forehead. "Goodnight, Katherine. Try to sleep well." Katherine nodded. The prince cocked his head, eyes clouding over in thought, before adding, "Perhaps a sleeping drought from the apothecary would help."

The brunette shook her head. "No, I do not wish to take anything. The nightmares will go away, in time."

"If you insist," the prince said.

"Goodnight, your Highness," Katherine said, opening the door. "Sleep well and I will see you in the morning." The prince nodded, gently stroking her cheek one more time, and then left her room.

Katherine sighed, a tired smile spreading across her face. She shook her head before readying herself for bed. The brunette then lay down, drifted off to sleep, and began to dream of the prince.

The next morning, Katherine woke to the aroma of freshly cooked eggs coming from the floor below. Licking her lips, the brunette quickly readied herself for the day and headed downstairs for some breakfast. She grinned as a plate filled with eggs and a strip of bacon was placed in front of her.

"Thank you," she said to Agnes, who had Nathaniel on her hip. Agnes gave her a grin before tending to the other guests.

Katherine ate quickly before heading back upstairs to prepare her belongings. It did not take long since she had not unpacked anything the night before. Once she had finished, Katherine joined the rest of the troop outside the inn and began to load her items onto Aristotle. When she approached the horse, he snorted.

"Hello, boy," she greeted. "Looks like you are stuck with me again." Katherine chuckled, before carefully mounting him. When the signal was given, the troop set off.

The journey went smoothly. Katherine found herself riding next to the prince for most of the trip, and chatted with him happily, glad to be on their way home. The prince gave her heated looks, which made her cheeks warm and her heart flutter. She found herself wanting to be alone with Richard again, wanted the opportunity to have a more private conversation with him.

It was night by the time the troop arrived at the castle. The torches were lit allowing them to see their way across the bridge. Katherine was surprised to see the king and queen standing outside the main door, ready to greet their son.

"Mother, Father," the prince said, dismounting his horse, and embracing them together.

Both the king and queen wore smiles on their faces, but Katherine could see the king's was more strained.

"Not that I am not happy to see you, but why are you back so soon? We were surprised when we received word from one of the guards that he saw your troop a few miles away." The king inquired.

"I will explain later, Father. Right now, I wish to settle myself in and I am sure the soldiers wish to do the same."

Alexander nodded and turned to the soldiers. "Thank you for protecting my son. You have done your duty and now you are dismissed. I am sure you all need a good night's rest."

The soldiers bowed before departing to their quarters, and Katherine glanced back at the prince, who gave her a small smile and a lingering look before following his parents into the castle.

Katherine chuckled to herself before continuing toward the soldier's quarters, happy to be home.

The brunette woke the next morning to sun light as it crept through the window in her room. She frowned and sat up. Had she over slept? Katherine looked out into the hallway to discover it was completely deserted of any soldier. Groaning, she frantically began to get dressed into her uniform, planning to skip breakfast. Not that she needed it after the hearty meal of fruit and soup she had the previous night. Apparently, Jennifer had been told about the lack of nourishment the soldiers had received, and doubled up on serving the eight soldiers who had gone on the journey.

As Katherine ran outside, she bumped into Javier, who stopped her and chuckled.

"What's the hurry?" he asked, giving her a confused look.

"I overslept! I am going to be in such trouble with the captain," she started, but stopped as Javier began laughing. "What? It is not funny!"

'We are not on duty today," Javier said once he was done laughing at her.

"We're not?"

The young man shook his head. "No. The soldiers who went on the journey were given the day off. We can do as we please for the day." He grinned.

Katherine smiled, pleased at the news. "Oh, okay. I guess I'll go find something to occupy myself.'

Javier agreed. "I am going to go see if Lanie requires any herbs from the market."

Katherine nodded, bidding her comrade farewell. She then went back into her room to change into one of the dresses she had brought with her; figuring it was best she stay in women's clothing on her day off. She also changed the bandages around her torso, making sure the new ones were secured tightly.

Katherine contemplated on what to do next. She really had no reason to go into the village and she was too tired to do any training, not that she could with her dress on. Finally, she decided on exploring the castle. Despite the fact that she patrolled the grounds, she never had the chance to examine the different parts inside. Katherine exited her room and left the quarters, ready to explore see as much as she could.

Prince Richard sighed as he sat across from his father in the king's office. They had been talking about the state of the Lockwood Kingdom and so far, the conversation was not going well.

"I am sorry, Richard. With the way the state of our own kingdom is, there is not much we can do to help."

Richard sighed, leaning forward in his chair. "Please, Father. They are in desperate need of help. They are treated terribly and can barely provide for themselves." Matthew and Eleanor's faces flashed in his mind as he said this. "There must be something we can do."

The king shook his head. "I have no power there. It is the Ameras' kingdom, not ours. The only way I could do something, is if you had married Meredith. I am glad you are home, my son, but I was hoping for a letter telling me of your impending marriage to the princess."

"I could not marry her father," Richard said softly. "The family is horrid and what they had done to Katherine…" The prince trailed off, shaking his head.

The king frowned. "You cannot let your personal feelings interfere with ruling the kingdom, Richard. I realize from what little you have told me about what occurred there, that it was not pleasant for her. However, it is not something that should prevent you from doing better for our kingdom."

"Like you did with Mother?" Richard shot back.

Alexander glared. "It was different time then, a time of peace and prosperity. You do not have that advantage. Also, you need to restore our bloodline, since you are half-royal. Any other marriage would further diminish the Rodger family line."

"Yes, Father." Richard bowed his head and ran a hand through his hair.

Alexander sighed. "I do not like berating you, my son, but you must understand what is at stake. You just need to learn to act less on this," said the king, pointing to the middle of his child's chest. "And more with this." He pointed to the prince's head.

Richard nodded. "Yes, Father."

Alexander smiled. "Good. Now, go and relax for the rest of the day. We will discuss more of this another time. As I told you, there is not much we can do for the village, but I will try to think of something. Also, I believe I have troops to send to another village?"

The prince nodded. "Not too many, just enough to control the bandits coming into that village."

Alexander agreed. "Yes, of course. Although, you know I do not use military enforcement unless completely necessary. Now go, and enjoy the rest of the day. I will see you at supper."

Richard bowed and said goodbye to his father. After he exited the office, Richard stopped and sighed. He hoped things would work out for the villagers and when he was king, he would try to help them as much as he could. Richard shook his head, knowing it was something he could not linger on, since there would be more problems that would come his family's way, for sure.

Leaving the hall where the office was, Richard headed toward the library. Whenever he felt stressed or nervous, the prince always felt himself drawn there. It gave him a sense of peace and he would lose himself in a book for a few hours. Richard had tried to do that in Ameras' library, but he wasn't able to. Their collection of books had been sparse and the furniture was ill fitting, and it did not feel like home to the prince. So, he was glad to be in familiar, comfortable surroundings.

When Richard entered the library, he was surprised to find a certain brunette perusing the shelves. He stood in the doorway quietly, observing her. She wore a blue dress that looked like it had been mended several times. Her shoes were clearly a too big, her feet slipping out of them as she walked. Her hair was in its usual braid, which trailed over her shoulder, the woven strands resting against her chest. Her face was set in a frown and her eyebrows furrowed as she traced a finger along the various scrolls and books on the shelf she was browsing.

The prince smiled, before clearing his throat, startling the brunette.

"Oh, hello, your Highness," Katherine greeted, curtsying.

"Hello, Katherine," the prince replied. "I see you found your way to the library."

She shrugged. "I have not had a chance to explore the castle and since I am not on duty today, I figured it was as good a time as any. You have quite the collection."

"Yes, we do, much more than the Ameras did." The prince wrinkled his nose. "Was there a particular book you were looking for?"

"I was, uh, looking for a map," Katherine admitted, looking slightly embarrassed. "I wanted to see the area we traveled so I know the route better for the next time we must leave the castle."

Richard nodded and gave her a reassuring smile. "There is nothing to be embarrassed about. No one is expecting you to know everything when you begin."

Katherine shrugged. "It is a little hard when everyone doubts you," she muttered.

Richard frowned, grasping her chin and lifting it slightly to meet his eyes. "No one doubts you, I assure you. Anyone who does has clearly not seen your skill."

The brunette smiled, light coming into her eyes. "Thank you."

The prince grinned, wanting to lighten the mood. "So, you said you're looking for a map? Let us see." He scanned the shelves before pulling out a book clearly titled Maps of Lockwood and Maddox, which had been right in front of Katherine. The prince found it strange that she did not see it while she was looking.

"Here we go," the prince announced, flipping through the pages. "Now where is the map...Here it is!" He pointed to a page, his finger tracing the route. "We are here, and we went here, and stopped in the village called Balsa, which is where Agnes and Phillip live." His finger tapped under the name and he looked at Katherine, who was crinkling her eyebrows in concentration and her mouth set into a frown. "Is something wrong?"

"I cannot read," she admitted, scowling. "I know it's silly. I came in here to look for a map when I cannot even read the titles. But I was hoping I would be able to at least get one with a picture I could examine."

The prince was silent for a moment, thinking. Suddenly, a grin appeared on his face and he announced,

"I will teach you!"

A surprised look took over Katherine's face. "Teach me how to read? Thank you, your Highness, but you do not need to. I am sure you have more important things to do."

The prince waved a dismissive hand. "Nonsense, I am more than happy to help you. We can do it each night after your shift is over. If that is fine with you?"

Katherine beamed. "Yes, that is fine. Thank you, your Highness!"

The prince chuckled. "It is my pleasure. Also, please call me Richard when we are alone."

Katherine shook her head. "I do not wish to overstep my boundaries."

The prince rolled his eyes. "Katherine, I am sure we are well past formalities by now." He lifted his hand to her cheek, gently stroking it with his thumb. Katherine leaned into his touch and he smiled. "Now shall we begin?" The brunette nodded. "Let us start with something simple." The prince grabbed a scroll off the shelf and gesture toward the desk near them. "Sit."

Katherine obeyed, sitting down in one of the chairs at the desk while the prince sat in the other. Opening the scroll, the prince pointed to a word and began to teach Katherine. As the lesson progressed, Richard found himself smiling as they teased each other between words and pronunciations. Her laugh was contagious, ringing like bells off the walls. The way her eyes lit up when she smiled or rolled in jest at his antics warmed his heart.

As he sat there, the prince began to wish that every day could be like this and that maybe in time he could make it so.

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