The Price of Protection

Chapter 8

Katherine's face was twisted into an expression of concentration. She threw her left hand at the punching bag, which resounded with a loud thwack as her fist made contact. She alternated her hands, each getting a fair turn at the bag. As she continued, her face dripped with sweat and she began to pant heavily. Just as she was about to take another swing, a voice called her name.

"Katherine," Captain Montgomery called.

Immediately standing at full attention, Katherine focused on the man in front of her. "Yes Sir?"

Giving her the signal to relax, Montgomery then spoke, saying, "You are to join the group tomorrow that is escorting the prince."

Katherine gave the man a bewildered look. "But Sir, do they not leave at dawn?"

"Yes, they do. However, these are the king's orders. Due to the recent attack, the number of guards has increased. You have been picked to help escort His Highness."

Knowing she could not object, Katherine just sighed. "Yes, Captain. I would be honored to carry out the king's orders."

Nodding, Montgomery saluted her. "Good. Now I suggest you prepare yourself."

Katherine nodded, bowed, and walked to quarters. Once in she was in her room, Katherine packed only a few things, which included her night dress, a needle and thread in case anything tore, and an extra pair of shoes. She did not pack any of her dresses since she figured she would be wearing her uniform the whole time.

As she packed, Katherine tried to remain calm. This journey would be the first time she had ever left the kingdom's boundaries. She had absolutely no clue where she was going, and on top of that she would be alone with men the whole time. She had no problem being with them in the quarters since the castle was nearby. However, she knew that some of the soldiers were still envious of her for gaining the king's praise. She just hoped that if she stayed clear of them that they would leave her alone.

Knowing that she would have to rise early, Katherine decided to head to the kitchens to eat her supper and then go to bed. When she arrived at the kitchens, she was greeted by Jennifer, who handed her a plate full of various delicious looking cheeses and fruits.

"How come you are giving me all this food?" Katherine inquired.

"You need to keep your strength up of you are going on a journey," Jennifer responded as she chopped vegetables. "All the soldiers are given double portions before they leave."

Katherine frowned. "Word really does travel fast around here."

"Yes it does," a low chuckle escaped Jennifer's lips. "The rumor is that the prince requested you."

"He requested me?" Katherine could not fathom why the prince would do such a thing.

"Yes. Apparently he was very pleased with your skills last night and wished for you to travel with them."

"I was just doing my duty as a solider. There's is nothing unique about that!" Katherine huffed.

The blonde woman shrugged. "Well, not according to the prince it seems."

Katherine sighed, deciding not to discuss the matter further. It seemed that the prince was taking his fascination with her too far. The female soldier just decided to keep her distance from the prince, hoping he would lose interest.

As soon as she finished dinner, Katherine headed back to the quarters and prepared herself for bed. As she climbed into bed, her thoughts of the next day stayed with her. Would she be able to protect the prince properly, especially since they were so vulnerable to attack? Would she be able to keep up with everyone else? She did not know the forests that lay beyond her village. Would she get lost? Finding herself tossing and turning, Katherine reached out to the small dresser beside her bed and grasped the small object that rested on it. Placing the object close to her face, Katherine let the cool metal calm her. As her thumb gently circled the blue stone, the brunette sighed.

"Oh Mama, Papa, how I wish you were here to advise me," Katherine murmured. The brunette then fell asleep, thoughts of home and a certain prince invading her dreams.

The next morning, Katherine woke before sunrise. When she went to tend to Aristotle in the stables, she was caught by surprise when she spotted two figures standing in the middle of the stalls. Katherine stopped to observe them. It was Javier and Lanie, who were currently kissing. Once they broke apart, Javier lifted his hand to Lanie's cheek and smiled at her. Lanie then turned to leave, only to be startled be Katherine's presence.

"Oh, uh, Katherine," Lanie stuttered, trying to compose herself.

The brunette chuckled softly, giving the couple a wide smile. "It's okay, your secret is safe with me." Both Javier and Lanie gave her relieved look before Lanie sighed.

"I must get back to the castle. I need to prepare some last minute things for the prince." Lanie gave Javier a quick kiss on the cheek, causing the man to blush. After the maid left, Katherine tended to her own horse.

"So you are the soldier she has been seeing," Katherine teased. The man gave a surprised look. "Jennifer teased her last week about running around with a soldier. She did not name anyone though."

"Good. I have only been courting her for a few months and wish to keep it a secret," Javier replied quietly.

"I understand," Katherine replied, nodding. The two continued in comfortable silence, each tending to their own horse. Once Katherine was done, she brushed herself off and began to leave the stable. "Have you had breakfast yet?" She asked Javier.

"I was just about to get some. Would you like to join me?"

After saying yes, the two headed off towards the kitchen. When they arrived, Kevin was standing near the stove talking to his wife. When he turned to face them, he gave Katherine a small nod, which she returned. Katherine never really interacted with Kevin, so she did not know him that well. As she observed him, she noticed that he had bags under his eyes as if he had not gotten a good night's sleep.

"Good morning Kevin," Javier greeted. "Is your wife keeping you up at night?" The soldier teased when Jennifer went off to do something else.

"Yes, the misses has been keeping me up," Kevin grumbled. When Katherine gave him a confused look, the servant explained. "Jennifer wants a child and we have been trying. Unfortunately, we have not been successful so far."

"I wouldn't mind being kept up at night," Javier joked. Katherine rolled her eyes.

"Trust me, you would," Kevin yawned. Jennifer then reappeared with two bowls full of porridge. After handing the soldiers their food, she resumed preparing breakfast. "Good luck on your journey."

"Thank you," Katherine said, digging into her meal.

"Thank you, Kevin. May the gods smile upon you," Javier grinned, winking.

"You are lucky you are my friend, otherwise I would hit you," Kevin huffed.

"I'm sure," Javier teased. "Anyway, we must get going, the prince is leaving soon."

Katherine nodded before finishing up her porridge. Once she was done, she went to retrieve Aristotle. Easing the horse out of the stalls, Katherine walked to the courtyard where the other soldiers where waiting. A few moments later, Javier retuned with his own horse and an arm full of items.

"Here, you need these," he said, handing the brunette her bag and a bundle of rope wrapped in cloth.

"What's this?" She inquired, referring to the bundle.

"It is your tent that you will use. I had a feeling you had not acquired one yet," Javier explained.

"Oh, thank you, that was very kind of you." Katherine gave him a grateful smile. She then tied the items to Aristotle's saddle.

He shrugged. "Consider it a thank you for earlier."

As the two continued to prepare the horses, Javier explained what would happen on their journey.

"Normally the prince would ride in a carriage during the journey," Javier stated. "However, due to the attack the king felt it would be better if His Highness just rode along in a horse. This will make the prince less conspicuous, but more vulnerable to attack. This means you need to pay close attention to your surroundings."

"Okay," Katherine said. "What happens if we stop to rest?"

"When we stop, we will station out tents close to the prince's. Two soldiers will patrol the perimeter to make sure the area is clear."

Katherine nodded and turned around when she heard footsteps approaching her. For some reason, she was not surprised when she came face to face with the prince.

"Hello Your Highness," she said, bowing.

"Good 'morrow Katherine, Javier," he said cheerfully. "Ready for the journey?"

"Yes, even though I was given short notice." The brunette narrowed her eyes at the prince.

"Ah, yes, my apologizes," he said, giving her an apologetic grin. "How is your wound?" Genuine concern flashed in his eyes.

"It is healing well, thank you." Besides the occasional twinge of pain, Katherine had forgotten about the wound in her side.

"Glad to hear it. Well, we best be off now." The prince then walked to his horse and mounted it. The soldiers did the same with their own horses.

Katherine gave the horse a light kick to get it started. As they crossed the drawbridge, she prayed that the journey would be a smooth one.

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