The Price of Protection

Chapter 21

Katherine sat on the bed in Lanie's room, waiting for her friend to find the bandages.

"I hate taking you away from your duties," she stated as Lanie walked over to her, the newly found strappings held high in triumph.

"Oh, it's fine." Lanie waved a dismissive hand. "I won't be missed. Besides, this is part of my duties." She stared intently as she began to wrap the clean bandages around Katherine's torso. "Your back is healing nicely; you'll definitely still have some scarring, though."

Katherine sighed. "I know." She would have those scars as a constant reminder of what had happened to her. The nightmares had decreased, but they were still there. However, they were beginning to be taken over by dreams with Richard. Some dreams were purely innocent, while others contained very improperly delicious thoughts. Katherine blushed just thinking about them.

"So, I hear you are going to town with the queen today?" Lanie prodded as she finished wrapping Kate's back.

"Yes, the prince asked me if I could," Katherine responded. She could almost feel the raised eyebrow from Lanie. Katherine had been keeping her time with Richard at the library a secret, so no one knew about her lessons or the bonding time she'd had with the prince. As far as she was concerned, the moment they left the library, they were to return to their roles as a soldier and prince. However, she knew Richard did not really agree with this idea, but went along with it anyway. Of course, going along with it didn't stop him as he tried to see her during training. "I am only doing my duty."

"If you insist," Lanie chuckled, patting her friend's shoulder. Katherine rolled her eyes before standing up, putting on her shirt and buttoning it.

"I must get going," Katherine announced. "I am expected to meet the queen in the courtyard. I will see you this evening."

"Have a safe trip," Lanie called out as she left the room and in return she gave a little wave of acknowledgement.

The brunette headed off to the stables, where Aristotle was waiting for her. Opening the stall, she led the horse out of his pen, before gently stroking his snout.

"Time for you to get some real exercise," Katherine said, grinning as the horse bumped its nose against her hand. Besides the few times Katherine used the horse during training, Aristotle did not get much exercise and Katherine felt bad for having the horse cooped up so often.

Katherine led Aristotle to the courtyard, where the queen and king were already waiting. A servant was securing a pack onto the queen's horse, Venus. Meanwhile, the royal couple was having a private conversation, so Katherine stood back a few feet in order to let the couple be alone.

The king's eyes moved from his wife's face onto Katherine's and he smiled.

"Ah, there you are, Katherine!" The king exclaimed, grinning. "I trust you are ready?"

Katherine bowed. "Yes, your Majesty."

"Good. Now, I have the utmost faith in you to keep my wife safe."

"I will do my best," Katherine replied.

"Oh, do not worry, dear, I'm sure she will do fine," chastised the queen. "Now, come, Katherine, we must be off; I wish to make it into town before the afternoon."

Katherine nodded, before mounting Aristotle and the queen did the same with her horse.

"Please try to return before sundown. I do not feel comfortable with you riding in the dark," the king said.

Martha waved a dismissive hand. "You worry too much, my dear." She rolled her eyes and Katherine saw her lips twitch. "We will try to return before dark. However, we cannot do that if you keep us here." She raised an eyebrow at her husband.

Alexander chuckled. "Yes, of course. I will see you later then."

Martha smiled before gently kicking her horse and setting off, yet as Katherine trailed from a respectable distance behind, she couldn't resist one last look back toward the castle. The king stood forlorn, a hand waving his goodbye and she smiled to herself before turning her attention back to the queen.

The two rode in silence, until the queen eventually broke it.

"How are you adjusting to life at the castle?" she asked kindly.

"I am doing well, your Majesty," Katherine answered. "Everyone has been helpful and I have adjusted well."

"Are you homesick?"

Katherine shrugged and smiled at the familiar line of questioning.

"I was, at first, but not so much anymore. The castle is becoming home to me." Katherine replied honestly. The castle was becoming her second home and a certain prince was helping with that.

The queen beamed. "Splendid! I am happy you are enjoying your time here, even if your job is a bit grueling."

Katherine chuckled, feeling oddly at ease with the queen. The queen reminded her of Richard a litte. "It is fine. I actually enjoy being soldier. I know it is not…traditional, but it is something I am good at."

Martha nodded. "So I have heard. My son speaks highly of you." She hinted elusively, a smile shining through her words.

Katherine blushed. "I am good, but I am only doing my duty. His Highness has no reason to think highly of me." She already knew the prince thought highly of her, she was just not going to let his mother know by how much.

The queen rolled her eyes. "Do not be so modest, Katherine. If my son is praising you, then you must be doing something right. Despite his playful and somewhat boyish personality, my son is not easily impressed, most of the time. Although, I must admit, being a beautiful woman does not hurt either." The red-head gave Katherine a playful wink and she chuckled in return at the queen's compliment.

"Thank you, your Majesty. I appreciate the kind words," Katherine remarked, smiling at the queen. She was surprised at how casual the queen was being with her, not that she minded. She concluded that Richard had inherited that part of his personality of his mother. Although, the king did seem fairly easygoing as well.

"Tell me about your parents," the queen said suddenly, an expression of curiosity on her face.

She furrowed her eyebrows in thought, doubting the fact her family was as interesting as the queen's, but Katherine told her anyway.

"Well, both of my parents were born and raised in the village. My father became an assistant to the blacksmith when he came of age and then met my mother a few years later. They fell in love and were married within a year. Two years after that, they had me."

Martha raised an eyebrow. "Really?"

Katherine sighed. "Yes, we have led a fairly normal life, until now of course." She grinned.

Martha laughed and then beamed as she looked ahead.

"We're almost there," she announced. "Come on." She kicked Venus, sending the horse into a canter and Katherine followed after her.

The duo arrived at the shop a while later, tying their horses to a nearby post. Katherine took the pack from the queen's horse, despite her objections.

"You should not need to carry this, your Majesty," she said.

The queen scowled. "I am perfectly capable of carrying my own things."

"I am sure you are," Katherine replied patiently. "However, I am more than willing to help you."

The queen pouted slightly, but nodded. Katherine had to stop herself from laughing at the queen's behavior. It reminded her so much of Richard's.

The two entered the shop, stopping as the queen examined some of the dresses. In her peripheral vision, Katherine could see the two shop owners appear from the back room. The younger girl nudged the other one to get her attention.

"It is good to see you again, your Majesty," the older one said politely and Katherine plastered a polite smile on her face. The one talking was Victoria, while the girl next to her was Brigid. They were sisters who lived near Katherine's home in the village. They were not the friendliest people, and often tried to stir up trouble in order to initiate some gossip.

"Same to you," the queen replied politely. "I am here to exchange my clothes for the winter season. I believe you were given notice a few days ago?" she inquired with a raised eyebrow.

"Oh yes, of course. Let me just retrieve your items from the back," Brigid replied before once again disappearing into the back of the shop.

Meanwhile, Katherine could see Victoria squinting at her.

"Is that you, Katherine?" she asked. "You look so different," she said in a rude tone.

"Yes, it is me," Katherine replied, trying to hide her annoyance.

"Well, it has been a while since we have seen you," Victoria commented.

"Yes, it has been," Katherine conceded, while she thought to herself,

thank goodness.

"Then I am assuming you have not heard the good news?" Victoria grinned.

Katherine cocked her head in confusion. "What good news?"

"I am engaged to be married. Papa found a local boy for me to marry!"

"Do you know who he is?" Katherine asked.

Victoria shrugged. "No, but I will find out who he is on our wedding day!" She smiled softly and then raised an eyebrow. "What about you? Any plans for marriage?"

Katherine shook her head. "No," she responded carefully, not wanting to offend the queen. "I have not really been out since I became one of the king's soldiers."

Victoria pursed her lips. "That is…most unfortunate."

The queen, who had been silent throughout the girls' conversation, chimed in, "Oh, I know, it is horrible! I am usually stuck in the castle as well. Sometimes, I forget there are other people besides the ones inside the castle walls." The queen chuckled and Katherine joined her.

"However, I am sure you have your pick," Victoria stated. "After all, you are surrounded by men."

Katherine scowled, knowing what Victoria was implying. "None of the men see me that way," she lied. Well, technically it was not a lie. The men Victoria was speaking of did not see Katherine that way.

"I am sure someone will or maybe someone already does," the queen spoke up. "After all, no one can deny that you are a beautiful woman, Katherine."

"Thank you, your Majesty." She mumbled, her cheeks tinged in pink at the queen's compliment.

"I am only stating the truth." Martha smiled gently at her, the queen's eyes expressing kindness.

A moment later Brigid returned from the back with a bundle in her arms.

"My apologies, I had trouble finding one of the dresses," she stated, placing the pack on the counter.

"It is not a problem," the queen stated. "Here is what I owe you." She handed Victoria a small sack, which clinked in the dressmaker's hand as she received it. "I will see you again in the spring." The two women behind the counter curtsied. "Goodbye."

Katherine and the queen retrieved the items and left the shop quickly, before they began to untie their horses. As Katherine did so, she looked across the way and stopped when she spotted the blacksmith's shop. Katherine sighed. She really did miss her father, but she knew that she could not ask the queen if she could go see him.

"Is that where your father works?" the queen asked, following the brunette's gaze.

Katherine nodded. "Yes, he does. He works from dawn until dusk there."

"Would you like to go visit him?" the queen asked gently, giving Katherine a reassuring smile.

Katherine looked at her in surprise. "That is not necessary, your Majesty. Besides, we are supposed to get you home before dark and the days are growing shorter now."

The red-head chuckled. "I do not mind, Katherine. I know it seems unusual, but I am sure you are aware by now that we Rodgers are an unusual family, and this means we usually make strange requests. So, I request that you see your father."

Katherine felt her throat tighten. "Thank you," she whispered. "Will you come with me? I do not feel comfortable leaving you alone."

"Of course! I was going to go with you anyway. I wish to meet the father of one the best soldiers I know."

Katherine grinned, before turning around and heading toward the blacksmith.

The queen was right, the Rodgers were certainly an odd family.

A few moments later, the two women arrived at the entrance of shop. Smoke was filtering out of the doorway, making it a little hard to see. The first thing Katherine noticed inside was her father, who was leaning over the forge. He was crafting what appeared to be a ring and Katherine lightly knocked on the doorway.

"I will be with you in a moment," he said as he picked up the ring with a pair of tongs.

Katherine smiled, knowing how engrossed her father could get in his work. She looked around the forge, seeing that nothing had changed. The chair she would sit in as a child as she watched her father work was still near the fire place. The equipment was in its usual spots. It was like no time had passed since she left.

"Now," her father said, wiping his hands together, not looking at the two in the doorway. "What can I do for-" He stopped when he saw Katherine.

"Hello, Papa," she said softly.

"Katherine?" He questioned at first. However, realizing that it was really her, he grinned. "Katherine!" He quickly went over to her and embraced his only child. "Oh, Katherine, how I have missed you."

"I have missed you too, Papa," Katherine said, pulling back to examine her father. He looked much healthier than the last time she had seen him. It seemed he was eating more. Her father seemed to be examining her too, as his eyes trailed from her head to her feet.

"You look well, Katherine," he stated, grinning. "You definitely look stronger."

"So do you," Katherine replied. The sound of a throat clearing interrupted their reunion. "Oh, forgive me, where are my manners? Papa, I would like you to meet the-" Her father cut her off.

"The queen," he said bowing. "It is an honor to have you in the shop, your Majesty."

The queen smiled. "You may rise and the pleasure is all mine. I wanted to see the man who raised this fantastic soldier."

Katherine almost chuckled at the blush that formed on her father's cheeks.

"Well, you have met me," he said, gesturing toward himself. "I am a simple man, as you can see."

"Well, sometimes that can be a good thing." The queen gave him a wink that seemed to be putting him at ease.

Interrupting their conversation, Katherine could not help but ask, "How is Mama?"

James shrugged. "She is okay; she's misses you so much though. She talks about you almost every day."

"Is she upset with me?" Katherine asked, knowing how sad her mother had been when she'd left.

Her father shook his head. "No. Of course not! Far from it. She is actually very proud of you."

"I can assure you that you and you wife have plenty to be proud of," the queen chimed in. "Katherine has proven to be quite the soldier. In fact, she protected my son on a journey. She was very helpful, from what he has told me."

Katherine shrugged. "I was only doing what I was supposed to."

Martha rolled her eyes. "You are being too modest." The queen then looked the door and toward the sky. She frowned. "Unfortunately, we must get going. The sun will begin to set soon and as Katherine knows, my husband wishes to have me back by nightfall." James nodded in understanding.

Father and daughter embraced one last time, hugging each other tightly.

"Say hello to Mama for me and tell her I miss her," Katherine said as they parted.

"I will." James nodded.

"Goodbye, Papa," Katherine whispered, her heart hurting at the departure.

"Goodbye, it was pleasure meeting you," the queen said.

"The pleasure was all mine, you Majesty," James responded.

The queen nodded and exited the shop, Katherine following her.

As they untied they mounted their horses, she smiled gratefully at Martha.

"Thank you, your Majesty."

"It was no trouble. It figured it was the least I could do with all the service you have done for me." The queen glanced at her. "Now, we must get going, there is one more place I wish to go before we return to the castle."

Katherine looked at the queen curiously, but did not question her further. She just followed the queen to wherever they were headed.

A while later, the two arrived in a small clearing that was not far from the castle. The clearing was filled with various flowers, mostly lilies. There was also a small waterfall that spilled into bubbling brook. In the middle of the clearing was a stone. The queen dismounted Venus and approached the stone, while Katherine stayed behind, wanting to give Martha some privacy.

The queen kneeled in front of the rock for a while before gesturing to Katherine to join her. Quietly, she dismounted her horse, and walking slowly, she closed the distance between them. Upon closer examination, Katherine saw that a name was engraved on the stone, surrounded by angel wings. As she read the inscription, Katherine felt her heart clench.

Here lies Isabel Rodgers, a life which was ended too soon.

"She was my first," the queen said softly. Katherine looked at the her, remaining silent so the woman could continue. "We were thrilled when we discovered I was with child. Alexander was so happy; he claimed he did not care whether it was a boy or a girl. Anyway, everything was fine, until the day the baby was born. The midwife said there was something wrong and when Isabel came out, she wasn't crying." Katherine could hear the crack in the queen's voice. "Everything that could be done was done. Unfortunately, Isabel did not make it. She died an hour after she was born." Martha smiled a little. "Alexander and I agreed to give her a proper burial, so we picked this spot."

"It's beautiful," Katherine commented.

"Just like she was," Martha replied. "Richard came two years later." She chuckled nervously. "I was so afraid something would go wrong. Alexander almost forbade me from doing anything; he was just as frightened as I was. However, as you can tell, everything went fine."

Katherine smiled and bit her lip. "Yes, I certainly can."

The queen turned her gaze back to the tombstone.

"I always visit here, whenever I'm in town or when it's her birthday. Alexander comes with me on occasion."

"Does Richard know?"

Martha nodded. "Yes. We never keep secrets from each other. He's come with me a few times; he wanted to meet his sister." She then stood and smiled at Katherine. "I guess we must get going, don't want to disobey the king's orders," she joked as she headed to Venus.

"Certainly not," Katherine agreed as she mounted Aristotle.

Both women laughed as they began to make their way back to the castle.

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