The Price of Protection

Chapter 9

The troop mostly rode in silence as they traversed the roads. The soldiers surrounded the prince, providing a protective shell for the man. Katherine was not sure how long they had been traveling, but she was sure it had been a few hours. She rode along with Javier, who also silent.

"Have you ever been to this castle before?" the brunette questioned him. She received a shake of the head in response.

"This is will be my first time in the Amera castle, but I have passed through here before when the prince visits a relative," he responded quietly.

"You know the roads well then?"

"Yes, it is important that you do," he remarked giving her a sideways glance.

Katherine looked slightly embarrassed. "I am afraid that do not know the roads at all. I have never traveled beyond my own village."

Javier nodded in understanding. "I was like that when I first joined the castle; I did not know any roads. I admit, I got lost once, it took me a few hours to rejoin the troop." He chuckled and shook his head.

Katherine frowned, praying that it did not happen to her. She would probably never live it down and it would used to prove that her gender was incapable of being independent.

"Do not worry, I am sure you will be fine," Javier reassured her, giving a her a comforting smile. The road in silence for a while longer, until the troops came to a halt.

"What are we doing?"

"We are stopping to allow the horses to rest for a few moments," Javier explained. "We usually feed them and give them some water from the nearby river." Katherine nodded, taking Aristotle by the reins and leading him to where Javier was headed. Soon, the brunette heard the soft babbling of a brook, and a small river came into view. She released the horse, who immediately pranced to the river's edge and began to drink from it. Looking around, Katherine realized that Javier had taken off somewhere, leaving his horse unattended. She shrugged, figuring he would be back in a moment.

As she watched Aristotle, the brunette slipped her boots off and wiggled her toes, sighing in relief. Wearing the boots for a long time made her feet uncomfortable, and she was grateful every time she took the overly laced things off. Looking and seeing that no one else was there, she dipped her feet in the river, kicking them playfully. The water felt cool against her hot, perspiring skin. She closed her eyes, just listening to the sound of the water moving. However, her serene mood was broken by a familiar voice.

"Hello Katherine," the prince said, footsteps approaching her.

"Hello, Your Highness," she replied, keeping her feet in the water. It was unladylike for a woman to show her ankles. She then turned around to face the prince, who was currently wearing a grin on his face.

"How are you doing so far?" he questioned, seeming honestly curious.

"Fine, Your Highness," she said simply. She tried to keep her answers short in order to keep her distance.

"Is this your first time outside the kingdom?"

Katherine nodded. "Yes, it is."

"Are you finding it interesting?"

"Well, we have only traveled through the forest so far, so nothing of interest has appeared."

"You're not very talkative today, are you?" the prince inquired. Katherine sighed as a puzzled expression took over his face. She then looked away, staring straight ahead.

"No, not particularly," she responded quietly.

"Are you homesick?" Genuine concern colored his voice.

Katherine frowned and shrugged. "Why does it matter to you?"

"It just does," he stated softly.. Katherine turned to face him, only to find his face much closer than before. She looked into his eyes, which were filled with some emotion she could not place. Whatever it was, it cause her to blush and turn her gaze away.

"It should not," she said. Suddenly, another pair of footsteps approached.

"Katherine, Your Highness?" It was Javier. "It is time to go."

"Well then, let us go. Chances are we will not stop until nightfall," the prince stated, getting to his feet. Katherine quickly put her boots on and retrieved Aristotle.

"Come on, boy," she coaxed while trying to pull the animal away from the steam.

The prince chuckled. "It appears your stubbornness has rubbed off on him." Katherine shot him a glare before leading Aristotle back on the pathway. "Ah, now there's the Katherine I was looking for." Katherine rolled her eyes, no longer able to keep up her facade.

When she approached the horde of soldiers, some of them stared. She shot them a glare, which chased them to look away. The troop rode for several more hours until dusk began to approach. Approaching an open area, a soldier up front gave a signal to stop. Everyone dismounted their horses and removed their tents from the saddles. Remembering what Javier had said, Katherine observed where the prince's tent was being set up and placed hers close by.

Just as she was finished setting up her tent, Javier approached her.

"Would you like to check the perimeter with me? You know, being new and all? You do not need your horse, since the area is not that large."

Katherine nodded, following Javier. The two walked in companionable silence, carefully observing their surroundings.

"So, how are you so far?" Javier asked.

Katherine shrugged. "A little tired, but overall I am okay."

"Good." Javier smiled at her. "The next time we stop for an overnight rest will be in village miles from here. We usually stay at the only inn there."

"Will there be enough room?" Katherine asked, concerned. Surely the inn could not accommodate the whole troop.

"Not many travelers pass through the village at this time of year, so yes."

Katherine nodded and they headed back to camp. When she approached her tent, the brunette frowned, realizing something was wrong. Gliding her hand over it, Katherine let out low swear when she felt a hole in the tent. Someone had sliced her tent up! Searching some more, the female soldier found several more rips. The tent was practically ruined!

Looking around, she noticed a small group of soldiers huddled together, snickering. They looked at her and then looked away. Katherine scowled, before sighing. She would just have to keep as warm as she could then it seemed.

Later that night, Prince Richard awoke at the need to relieve himself. Trying to feel his way through the darkness, he lit a small candle and wandering outside his tent to a nearby tree. Two guards were posted nearby while the others slept in the prospective tents. The windy night made the prince shiver as he did his business. While he was heading back to his tent, he heard an odd flapping noise. Deciding to investigate, the prince found the source which was a ripped up tent. Not knowing whose tent it was, Richard peeked inside. When he did, he disliked what he saw.

There, curled up into a ball on the ground was Katherine. She was visibly shivering and her teeth were chattering. The small blanket she had did nothing to warm her body. Frowning, the prince exited the tent and went into his own, retrieving an extra blanket he had. It was made of bear hide, which was extremely warm. Upon returning to Katherine's tent, Richard quietly entered and began to cover her with the blanket. However, the brunette began to stir.

"Your Highness?" she asked groggily. The prince thought she looked quite adorable half-asleep.

"Shh, Katherine, go back to sleep," he commanded softly, wrapping the blanket around her.

"What are you doing?"

"You are cold, I just wanted to provide you with a blanket. Now, sleep." Katherine just nodded, before dozing off again. When he was done, Richard took some time to look at her. The candle light gave her skin a soft glow and gave gold highlights to her currently splayed out hair. The prince had never seen her hair unbraided before, and his fingers itched to run his hands through her brown locks. However, he refrained from doing so. Slowly retreating from the tent, the prince returned to his own. As he fell asleep, his dreams were filled with a certain brunette that was not far away.

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