When the earl reached his chambers, a disheveled Sam already waited in front of it. It was obvious that he was awoken out of deep slumber shortly before. He informed Nathaniel that what seemed to be a scout troop of the Renat kingdom had been sighted in the forest on their side of the border. The Renat's troops were moving faster than they expected.
"Double the patrols in the area. If we can catch them, it would be great. However, it will still take a few days for the army to cross the forest either way. In that time, the towns need to be evacuated. When everything is ready, we can start the next phase of the plan."
"Yes, milord.", Sam nodded, and excused himself. The plan was moving faster and faster.
On the next day, the sky was as gloomy as the earl's mood. The message that they didn't manage to catch the scouts only worsened it. At breakfast he deliberated why he asked her to come with him today. It was not like it was a pleasant thing to do. Maybe she would fear him even more after that. Or think of him as a coward. Both was possible, actually. Either way, it wouldn't have a good effect.
Should I tell her I changed my mind? But he knew that would make her seriously angry. And he wasn't someone to go back on his word easily. Although he didn't really promise to take her with him. Weighting his options, the time for the departure neared.
He decided to just go through with his yearly actions and whatever she thought about it, he would ignore it. Simple as that.
Sam had told Katherine to bring warm clothes, saying that it would be very cold up there.
"Up there?", Katherine had asked suspiciously.
"It's on the peak of a mountain, milady. As it is still spring, there will be icy winds and snow."
"Oh." There wasn't anything to refute that reasoning. But what was the earl doing on a mountain peak? Was there some political meeting? Religious gathering? Mind me, she didn't know much about religion in the Iceland, only that one of their main goddesses was Skadi. However, everything that involved people gathering didn't seem logical on a mountain shortly after winter.
When Nathaniel saw Katherine leave the mansion with a fluffy coat in her hands, her cheeks slightly flushed by excitement, the turmoil inside him calmed down. He opened the door of the carriage for her and reluctantly gestured Sam to help her inside. In contrast to the guards, he trusted Sam to not have any funny ideas.
"Were exactly are we going?", she asked curiously when the carriage started moving.
"Don't you know already?", he hinted at her coat.
She puffed out her cheeks adorably. "But what are we going to do in the mountains?"
"Visiting someone." The answer was given quietly, and Nathaniel looked out of the window, indicating that he didn't want to talk anymore.
With a soft sigh, Katherine accepted it. They were traveling in silence. Grassland flew by outside the window, the sound of hooves accompanying them. They had a troop of guards with them additionally to Jack and Pete.
The terrain got rougher the further they traveled and around lunchtime Katherine saw a single mountain in the distance. It looked like a purely black fortress with a white tip, overshadowing the surrounding land with its might.
As there was still some time left, Katherine deliberated shortly before taking out the lunchbox prepared by the kitchen staff. The earl didn't look like he would get hungry any time soon. He'd been staring out the window for the whole ride. Katherine wondered what he was thinking about, but knew she wouldn't get an answer by simply asking.
It looked still the same, Nathaniel thought, his eyes deepening. He remembered when he first saw it when he was four years old. The memory was one of the few out of his younger years he could never forget.
Spring had been cold in that year, the grassland speckled with snowy spots like a green-white cow. When he saw the mountain reaching high into the sky, he'd already lost all hope to be found. If they didn't succeed in the first week after they left the capital, the possibility was nearing zero now. The distance they traveled was too big. And it was not like the caution of his abductors had lessened.
"You can stare when we reach it, idiot!", one of them scolded him and wanted to shove him forward with a hard push. However, the push was too strong, sending the boy into the mud.
A shriek came from behind them, stifled by a gag. A chubby woman struggled with one of the kidnappers, who yelled: "Why did we even take her with us? Wouldn't the boy be enough?"
No one answered. They knew all too well that the woman would still bring them a huge pile of gold. Only the boy stiffened, before he slowly scrambled to his feet again, despite the overflowing tiredness, which made his moves sluggish. Admirably, not one single tear could be spotted on his muddy cheeks when he turned to the woman. They had died out over time, leaving something in his eyes that was way too old for his small frame.
"I'm okay, aunt.", he said with eerie calmness, before he just turned and continued walking. His steps were slow and unsteady, but with a pride that told everyone to stay away and not dare to help him. Of course, the only thing this pride awakened in his kidnappers was laughter.
The sound of a cracker breaking let Nathaniel return to reality. When his eyes moved from the window, he saw Katherine enjoying a small lunch packet. Her cheeks were puffed up, her small hands holding the cracker to her mouth. Suddenly, the carriage jumped on the bumpy road throwing the food onto the ground.
"Damn!", Katherine cursed loudly. She was too surprised to mind her words. Although everything inside was dry food and didn't ruin her dress, she lost all of her food now! It was the food for a whole day!
When she suddenly again heard that chuckling sound from last night, and looked up to see the earl enjoying her misfortune, her fury exploded. She pointed with the finger at him. "You! How can you laugh at me?!"
The grin of the earl got even brighter. However, even the most unexpected, world-shaking laugh couldn't dim her anger.
"You really dare laugh at me!", she screamed, jumping to her feet. Unfortunately though, she forgot they were in a carriage and when it jumped for the second time, she toppled over, falling right in his direction!
The grin of the earl stopped instantly. "Idiot woman!", he hissed and hastily stretched out his hands to stop her, praying that she wouldn't land on the bare skin of his face or neck.
When he got a hold of her, they both stilled. Their faces were only inches apart, their breath grazing the other intimately. Katherine's ears slowly turned red, but it was not only because of their closeness. When the earl grabbed her, one of his hands landed on her left shoulder, the other... slightly beneath the right.
Nathaniel, who originally only wanted to shove her away, was stupefied when he felt the softness in his hand. Despite the danger she was in, his mind blanked out and he sat there like a stature, not knowing what to do. Katherine, meanwhile, knew fully well what to do.
"You bastard!", she blurted out, hitting his chest hard and pushing his hands to the side, before she backed away to the corner furthest away from him. With a beet red face, she crouched there, hiding her chest under her arms and not daring to look him in the eye.