Into the afternoon, they crossed an animal trail that prince Alexander felt was worth following. Catherine stayed far behind him while he slowly followed the trail on foot. After a while he stopped her.
"We're close enough. Wait here and be very quiet. Do not move about."
Catherine sat down on the ground, grateful for yet another break. Before long, though, the wait began seeming endless. Sitting still, watching Pello grassing behind her, observing the ants crawling across her leather boots. The silence reminded her of what her life would really be like if she were ever forced to travel the woods alone. It would become very lonely, she suddenly realised.
She already missed prince Alexander's company, and he was by far the scariest man she had ever met.
She waited for hours, if the feeling of it was anything to go by. Her legs cramped and her back hurt. Her hands had gotten filthy from resting on the ground. She thought she was dreaming when she heard the sound of something crashing through the branches further below. It was in fact the prince, using his poor horse to help drag a small deer towards her. She stood up, her legs spinning and burning from the lack of use.
"You got one," she shouted excitedly.
Prince Alexander grinned at her.
"I am not the worst hunter if I can say so myself," he answered. "In fact," he continued, "we will camp right here and celebrate! Do you know how to gut one of these?"
Catherine blanched. He laughed at her.
"Do stop fretting, my girl. I will do it. But you are going to have to gather some firewood in the meantime. I need to make sure that our enemies are not closing in on us. They were far away this morning, but we don't want them getting anywhere near us. Like I said, it looks like my death should one of them even learn of my position."
"I'll gather the wood, sir," she said, repressing a shudder. It was unnatural for a man to know about his own death like that. She did not like the fact that he was using magic so easily. He did not even seem repentant.
She gathered the wood, though it took her a lot longer than she had anticipated. The prince finished with his own smelly job before she was done. After disposing of the waste, he came to join her. The carefree smile on his face when she met his gaze surprised her. She had, yet again, expected him to get angry with her for not meeting his expectations.
He hurried past her with three times the amount of branches that she was carrying herself, and when she reached him, he had already lid a few small sticks. Before adding anything larger to the fire he drew out a small pouch from under his cloak and took out a bag that she had seen the evening before. He went to retrieve a small cup from where the carcass of the deer was hanging down from a large branch. Catherine drew back when she saw the blood it contained. He must have noticed. Grin still on his face and eyes fixed on the flames he started explaining.
"The blood makes the spell stronger and allows me to follow their movements a little while into the future as well. It is a strong spell, and it will let us know for how long we can safely stay here."
He sprinkled some small grains from the bag into the flames and then allowed the blood to drip into the sizzling branches. Catherine saw no difference, and had no idea what he was looking for. He was still smiling, however, and that made her feel safer.
When he did not move for a while, she had an idea. She unpacked her knife from one of the bags on his horse and went over to the deer. She kept the sheath of the knife tied to her belt. No need to have it lying in the bag in case something happened and she needed it.
His very poor job of cutting the bread had shown her that cooking was most likely not one of his strong sides. She was no cook herself, but she felt confident that she would be able to do a better job than him. She got her hands and sleeves bloody, and the result was far from pretty. At least the pieces of meat were relatively even and not just random chunks out of the animal.
She cut two branches and got them pointed enough that she could stick the meat unto them. Then she went back to the fire, where the prince had finished.
"Are they far?"
"At least two and a half days from where we are now and not really going our way at all. Most of them have gone to the east of the city, actually. I have a mansion there."
"I don't know how to do this," she said and waved the sticks at him. He smiled.
"Let me see," he said.
He placed the sticks so that the meat would cook, and they sat down. Catherine, no longer distracted by her various tasks, had to bite her tongue in order to keep in the whimpers of pain that wanted out from escaping her lips. Her legs were burning. In fact, her entire body felt like she had taken quite a beating.
The prince looked at her questioningly. Then he grinned.
"It takes a toll on you. You will get used to it. You might not even have to get used to it. With a little luck my men will have overtaken the castle by tomorrow, and the assassins will be gone."
"I hope so, sir."
"If they don't take over, what happens then?"
"Then I will wait for them here and gather them up for a second attack once they have regained their strength. We will not be defeated."
"So if they overtake the castle now, does that make you the king, then?"
"Indeed, that would mean that I would be king. after the crowning ceremonies."
"Then you don't have to marry after all," she said, thinking out loud.
The prince's expression soured. He was quiet for a second.
"You forget that I already cast a spell that is apparently useless," he growled.