The Price of Protection

Chapter 20

A man sat at his desk in his office, scribbling furiously on a blank document. His pent up anger and annoyance, showed as he created tiny rips on the paper. A knock on the door interrupted his one-sided fight with the parchment.

"Come in," he barked, not bothering to look up.

A nervous servant entered the room, his hands clenched together tightly.

"I apologize for the intrusion, My Lord. However, I must tell you that the guard has returned."

Lord Bracken's head snapped up at the news. He scowled in distaste. He had sent the guard on his mission well over three weeks ago, yet for them both, the man had taken the liberty to extend his time away from the manor. Lord Bracken was not pleased over the soldier's actions and he would make sure that his disapproval was clear; he would ensure that this behavior was never repeated.

"Well, what are you waiting for? Where is he?" Bracken snapped. The servant hurriedly left the room for a moment before returning with the guard in question. "I see you have finally returned. I hope you have a good explanation for your extended absence. Otherwise, there is an empty cell in the dungeon waiting for you."

The guard swallowed, but kept a firm stance. "I apologize, My Lord. However, there was an opportunity that could help you and I didn't want to pass it up."

Bracken leaned over his desk, placing his chin on top of his folded hands. "What was this opportunity?" He narrowed his eyes at the man across from him.

"There is a new soldier in the castle," the guard explained.

Bracken rolled his eyes. "What concern of this is mine?"

"Well, it is clear that the prince has taken a shine to the new recruit." The soldier's lips twitched as he spoke.

Bracken raised an eyebrow, suddenly interested. "I knew the Rodgers family was odd, but even that is extreme for them. Poor King Alexander will be sorely disappointed when he learns his son cannot continue the family line."

The man shook his head. "I have not told you the best part, yet. The soldier is a woman!"

Bracken's eyes grew wide. A female fighting? The idea was laughable.

"Really? She must not be very useful," Bracken spoke aloud, voicing his internal thoughts.

"On the contrary, My Lord; she is actually quite skilled. She killed two of your men. She's very loyal to the family, especially the prince. She guarded him on his journey to the Ameras' castle."

"Ah, yes, my cousin spoke of trying to get some type of connection with the family." Bracken pursued his lips.

"The prince declined their offer of marriage to Princess Meredith. I followed them to the castle, which is why I was gone for so long."

"Why did he decline the proposal?" Bracken asked confused. Surely the prince was not naïve as to refuse an offer that could help the Maddox kingdom.

"Well, as I said before, he is quite fond of the new soldier. I would even go as far as to say he is in love."

"And the girl? What of her feelings?" Bracken inquired, now truly intrigued.

"I believe, Katherine her name is, feels the same way. However, she is afraid they will get into trouble, so she has been refusing the prince's advances."

"But she does have feelings," Bracken restated, thinking carefully. Suddenly, he asked, "Why is she a soldier?"

The guard recounted Katherine's predicament to Bracken and the lord thought for a moment, before speaking, "I believe this can be used to my advantage. However, I will need to wait a while. It is too early for another attack. You are dismissed; your quick thinking has saved you."

The soldier bowed before leaving the room.

Bracken hummed, fiddling with the quill in his hand. He had grown tired of ruling the small village that his manor presided over. He wanted to expand his opportunities. He had tried for years to conquer the Rodgers' castle, but had failed. However, with this new development, Bracken believed that he had a chance to do so. The prince had made the foolish decision to decline a marriage proposal due to his feelings for the girl. What other reckless decisions would he make due to love?

Bracken knew he could use this to his advantage; he just had to figure out how. He knew he had to be patient when it came to striking again. He knew Edward's chances of getting any linkage to the Rodger's family had been slim and now with Prince Richard declining the proposal, the patriarch would have a problem marrying off his daughter. Bracken had no children of his own and his wife had succumbed to illness a few years earlier, so he did not have to worry about that being an obstacle.

The lord threw out the destroyed piece of paper and obtained a new one from the corner of his desk. He then hastily began his letter, a smile forming on his lips as a plan formed in his head.

As the weeks progressed, the seasons began to change. The beautiful green trees gave way to orange and red tints on their leaves. The squirrels scampered about to forage food for the winter and some of the castle's men, including the prince, started hunting in order to stock food for the castle. Katherine had seen a great amount of winnings come home, including bear, buck, duck, and goose. She enjoyed the season of autumn, partly because her birthday was in the middle of it.

However, the downside in the transition of seasons was the change in temperature. Katherine had noticed it had dropped slightly over the past few weeks. A slight chill came into the soldiers' quarters at night, forcing Katherine to start using the blanket Richard had given her. Apparently, Katherine would not have to worry about the cold for much longer. At some point, the soldiers' uniforms were going to be taken to seamstress in the village to be lined with fur for the winter. The linens on the beds would also be changed in order to accommodate the changing conditions.

As the weeks continued to fly by, Katherine's reading ability progressed quickly. The prince began to pick more difficult books for the soldier to read. They varied in subject, from literature, to history, to astronomy. Katherine found herself learning a great deal of fascinating information, each day finding something new. Richard would expand on the subject as well, aiding Katherine in understanding the topic. The prince had also begun to teach her how to write. Currently, he was showing her how to write the letter H.

"Darn it," Katherine muttered, making another mistake on the H she was attempting to write. A soft chuckle came from beside her.

"Do not worry," Richard said, gently taking the quill from her hand. "You will get it eventually. For tonight however, let us stop." He gave her a smile before setting aside the quill and ink well. "I have something to show you." He got up and left his place by the fire. During the more chilly nights, the two of them would sit on the floor by the fireplace and Katherine often found herself intimately closer to the prince during these times. Not that she minded. They were alone in the library, so Katherine did not have to worry about prying eyes.

She raised an eyebrow in curiosity as Richard went to one of the shelves. He picked out a good sized book and returned to his spot next to Katherine.

"What is it?" she asked as he began to open to the first page.

"It may be a little silly, but it's book of fairytales." A blush crept on his cheeks as Richard handed her the book, showing her the first page. "I thought you would like it."

Katherine grinned, taking the book and flipping through the pages. She recognized some of the illustrations from the stories her mother had told her as a child.

"Mama used to tell me these stories when I was little," she recalled fondly as she stroked the cover. Images of her mother sitting on her bed, telling her stories of knights and heroes and princesses flashed through Katherine's head. "Thank you, I will treasure it." She gave him a small smile.

Richard shrugged. "I just figured it would be some light reading for you to enjoy in your own time; something to relax with after your shift."

Katherine nodded, but then frowned when she realized what the prince had said.

"Does this mean we are not meeting anymore?" she asked in a confused tone.

"Why would you think that?" the prince asked, equally confused.

"Well, you said after my shift, so I assumed you meant we're not meeting anymore, since we meet after my patrolling is over." Katherine bit her lip.

Richard shook his head vehemently. "No, goodness no! You still need to have a bit to go with writing, especially with that H." He winked.

Katherine chuckled, feeling relieved. She enjoyed her sessions with the prince and did not want them to end anytime soon.

"Good, I was worried you were growing bored of me," she joked, leaning into his chest, a position that had become familiar to her in the past few weeks. She felt his arms wrap around her frame and his chin rested on the top of head.

"Never," he murmured into her hair.

Katherine sighed contentedly. Things had been like this with Richard for the past few weeks. They often wound up curled around each other as she read to him or they would just sit like this after a lesson was over. They had even shared a few chaste kisses now and then. However, Katherine was usually the one who kept their intimate contact to a minimum. Richard would pout for a moment, before giving her an impish grin.

Suddenly, she felt his fingers lightly trace her back.

"How are you?" he asked.

Katherine stopped herself from rolling her eyes. Another part of their routine involved Richard discreetly asking her how was feeling. It was touching, but it was also starting to irritate her.

"Fine," she responded, twisting herself so that she was facing him. "I obtained new bandages from Lanie this morning." She raised an eyebrow and gave him a slight smirk.

Richard laughed. "Good. I just want to make sure you are in good health."

Katherine scowled. "I know, but I can take care of myself." She hated being seen as weak.

"I realize that, but I cannot help it," Richard muttered.

Katherine sighed and nodded. "I know." She laid her head on his shoulder.

"Speaking of taking care of things," Richard started, as his fingers played with her braid. "My mother is going into the village in a few days to get her clothes for winter."

Katherine looked at him expectantly, waiting for him to continue.

"She is not fond of having guards follow her and wait for her; she says they become antsy when they are in the shop." He rolled his eyes. "She believes they do not have patience in women's territory. Anyway, I was wondering if you could accompany her."

"Yes, of course, y-" Richard quirked an eyebrow. "Yes, Richard. I will join her Majesty on her trip into the village."

Richard quickly kissed her.

"Thank you, I am sure she will appreciate it. Actually, I believe she was hinting at having you as her companion earlier at dinner."

"I seem to be very popular with your family," Katherine observed. She was slightly surprised at the queen's request. Beside the time in the throne room, Katherine had only caught glimpses of the older woman. Usually when the red-head was riding her horse or the rare times Katherine was patrolling the hallways, she would only see the queen flit in and out of her chambers.

"Not surprisingly, of course," Richard teased.

Katherine playfully swatted his chest while rolling her eyes. She then turned her head, looking at the fireplace. Her mouth curved down as she realized the fire was fading.

She sighed. "I must be off to bed; I must be able to wake up in the morning." She stood up and Richard followed her.

"Goodnight then, Katherine." He smiled and his eyes held a slight glow from the firelight. He slowly leaned down, pressing his lips gently against hers. She smiled against his lips before returning the gesture. They parted a moment later, their foreheads resting against one another.

"Goodnight, Richard," she murmured, stepping back and slowly leaving the library. She gave him a little wave before walking down the hallway to the soldiers' quarters. She could not resist stopping halfway to her room; pressing her fingers gently against her lips. She looked at the book in her other hand and smiled. It seemed her life was turning out the way it did in the stories.


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