The squirrel fell to the ground, struck by Kel's arrow.
"That makes five for me!" she yelled.
A younger soldier tramped over at her call, pitifully dangling a single catch at his side.
"Looks like I'm still the dinner-catching champion," Kel bragged.
The boy rolled his eyes. His name was Leif, and he was a new guard recruit who had been selected for the mission due to his remarkable sword talent. As the two youngest of the group, Kel and Leif were stuck on hunting duty.
"I'm just worried you might injure your delicate fingers at this rate, Milady," Leif teased, dipping into an exaggerated bow.
"Since you brought it up," Kel quipped, "perhaps you should carry everything back."
She winked as she tossed her bag of prey to Leif. "You know, so I won't strain myself."
Leif shook his head, but obediently picked up the bag.
"Can I ask you something?" he queried.
"Go ahead," Kel called over her shoulder, pushing a branch aside as she trekked back toward camp. Leif jogged after her.
"Um… there was this one time I was in charge of guarding the princess on her way to a banquet," the boy began sheepishly.
"Go on," Kel murmured, uninterested.
Since setting out ten days ago, Kel had been continuously showered with questions about Princess Adriell.
At first, the soldiers were mainly curious about how the role of body double worked. They had been shocked to learn that aside from hair and physique, the two actually looked nothing alike. They were even more amazed when Kel explained the extensive makeup and styling techniques used to make the two appear identical. In reality, the princess the public knew wasn't a true reflection of Kel nor Adriell's actual appearance.
After the initial interrogation, the soldiers started asking about the princess directly. Answering the questions was easy, as she knew more about Adriell than anybody else, but she was quickly growing tired of the topic. The dual identity of Mevani's golden flower was a novelty to everyone else, but it had consumed nearly every part of Kel's life for the past several years. Every moment she hadn't spent at the training grounds, she was being tutored alongside Adriell, practicing etiquette with Adriell, or pretending to be Adriell.
"You see…" Leif continued, oblivious to Kel's indifference. "I was walking at the princess's side and, well, I sort of… tripped a bit."
"Oh I remember," Kel remarked. "You tripped over your own feet and brought the guard behind you to the ground as well."
She turned around to face Leif, whose face was a deep shade of crimson.
"Yeah, that's what happened," he mumbled. "I'm glad it turned out to be you that saw."
Kel couldn't resist snickering at the boy's embarrassment. Imagining the shame Leif had endured for months as he believed he'd made a total fool out of himself in front of the kingdom's number one beauty lifted her mood considerably.
"Cheer up," she consoled him, "Even if it had been the princess, I'm sure she thinks clumsy kids are cute."
"I-I'm only three years younger than you!" Leif shouted, his face reddening even more.
"But that makes you five years younger than Her Highness," Kel laughed. She threw her arm around the dejected boy and steered him through the bushes. "You have a lot of growing to do before you ever catch the princess's attention."
Leif had recovered from his humiliation by the time they reached camp. The other soldiers welcomed them back, eagerly snatching the meat away from Leif. Before long, they were gathered comfortably around the fire, listening their leader's low humming and readying the squirrels for roasting.
Their leader, the man who had explained the situation at the Vitocian border to Kel during their briefing with the king, was named Barclay. He was only thirty years old, but his long hair and thick beard made him seem much older. He sat whittling a small piece of wood into some kind of flute while the others enthusiastically shoved chunks of squirrel meat onto freshly sharpened sticks.
"Guys!!!" An excited holler echoed through the trees, interrupting their dinner preparation. One of the soldiers came bumbling through the bushes, lugging a weathered wooden box.
Barclay stopped humming. "Aren't you supposed to be keeping watch?"
It was an old tradition of the Mevani military, dating back to the early days of the kingdom, to leave at least one soldier distanced from camp at all times. The soldier on watch would be able to warn the others of incoming attacks, but the true purpose was to ensure that there was always a survivor to report back.
"I was keeping watch, sir! But then I found this!" The soldier rushed over excitedly. He set the crate at Barclay's feet.
The small group gathered around earnestly, pushing against each other to get a better view. The box contained several amber-colored bottles. Each bottle was filled nearly to the brim with liquid.
Kel rolled her eyes. In all her years as a palace guard, she'd never come to understand other soldiers' obsession with the bitter drink.
"No way!" One of the men exclaimed. "Where did you get this?"
The box-bringing man crossed his arms proudly. "I was keeping watch over there, and something caught my eye. I have excellent sight for these sorts of things. There was this rock, ya' see, an-"
Barclay cleared his throat impatiently.
"Uh, and I found a cache! Looks like some soldiers stashed this away for later," he finished timidly.
"You idiot!" another solider chimed in. "We're close to the Serin border! You have no way of knowing who stashed that there!"
"The way I figure," the first soldier smirked, "either this is stashed by the enemy and therefore spoils of war, or it's left by our fellow soldiers and aren't we all friends anyway?"
His absurd rationalization was met with a few smacks from his fellow soldiers and an intense glare from Barclay. Nobody, however, asked him to return the alcohol.
Merrymaking began as soon as the sun went down. The original finder of the alcohol had been sent pitifully back to his post, but the rest of the men heartily enjoyed the drinks in his absence. The boisterous singing and laughter was a pleasant contrast to the placid evenings they had spent so far on their journey.
Kel perched next to Barclay, observing the celebration.
"That kid," Barclay muttered, watching Leif twirl around the fire while the others clapped and cheered.
"He certainly knows how to liven up a place," Kel giggled. "Do you know him well?"
"He's my sister's son," Barclay replied.
Kel was stunned. She glanced back and forth between the two a few times. Leif's shaggy red hair and pale eyes bore no semblance whatsoever to Barclay's dark features.
"He looks nothing like you."
Barclay grunted in agreement. "He looks exactly like his father."
"You couldn't mean…" Kel trailed off, picturing the only other red-haired soldier she could think of, "Sir Anselm?"
"That's him." Barclay nodded.
Kel studied Leif in disbelief. To think this gangly boy was the son of one of the most famous knights in the country. Swordsmanship must run in his blood, she mused to herself, recalling that Leif had only been selected for the mission due to his skills with the sword.
While Kel scrutinized his nephew, Barclay turned his attention to the far end of camp.
"Do you think one of us ought to go switch him out?" he murmured.
"What?" Kel looked at Barclay and then followed his gaze. He was staring at the brush he'd sent the night's benefactor trudging through nearly an hour ago.
Kel smiled. Barclay seemed like a tough leader, but he was completely soft on the inside. She rose to her feet and turned to salute him.
"Don't worry, sir! I'll take care of it!"
Barclay had made the right call, and the man was euphoric to return to camp and join the fun. Kel couldn't help but laugh as she watched him skip out of sight.
A crisp breeze fluttered through the leaves. Autumn is on it's way, Kel thought, hugging her cloak tightly around her.
Images of her first autumn at the palace filled her mind. She'd lived there for nearly six months, and her hair had grown down past her jawline. The king had taken her on a mission as his tiny apprentice. Dash had come along with Uncle Itzae in a similar role. The two children had a blast during the day assisting as well as they could but mostly playing.
When evening had come, the king volunteered to be on watch and took Kel with him. The same crisp breeze swirled through the darkness.
"I-I'm not c-c-cold, sir!" Kel had insisted, assuming her most knightly position.
"Of course. No apprentice of mine would ever feel something as trivial as cold," the king agreed solemnly. "However, this cloak is a bit too cumbersome, so please do your duty and keep it for me."
He tossed his cloak to Kel with a jovial glint in his eyes. She gratefully pulled the large cloak around her body.
The king spent the rest of the night relaying fascinating stories of ancient warriors and the grand history of Mevani. She listened, starry-eyed, until Uncle Itzae and a sleepy-yet-determined-looking Dash came to relieve them of duty.
Despite the chilly air, her memories of that night were filled with nothing but warmth.
Footsteps plodding through the brush jolted Kel out of her thoughts. She turned to see Leif bouncing down the trail toward her.
"I'm here to switch you out!" the boy grinned.
"I'm surprised you're still carrying yourself so coherently," Kel joked.
"Ah, they wouldn't let me have much to drink. Apparently it's the duty of us youngsters to keep an eye on everyone else or something like that," he responded, scratching the back of his head.
"I'd better get back then and make sure they haven't made a mess without you there to watch them," Kel laughed, turning to leave.
"Good luck!" Leif called after her.
The drunk soldiers had indeed made a mess. Bottles, gear and miscellaneous articles of clothing were strewn all over while the men snoozed like logs around the fire.
Kel noticed Barclay tidying up, and moved to help him.
"You should get some sleep now," Blarclay remarked as the last of the bottles clinked into the crate.
"What about you?" Kel asked, already yawning.
"I'm going to wait up a bit and then go trade Leif."
Kel was too tired to press the matter any further. She quickly unrolled her own blanket near the circle of snoring drunks and instantly fell asleep.
It seemed she had barely closed her eyes when she was startled awake. A disquieting racket filled the air. Kel's heartrate quickened. It was the unmistakable sound of soldiers marching. Even in her groggy state, she could tell it wasn't just a few soldiers. There had to be at least a hundred.
Her eyes widened as she realized what was happening.
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