"I don't see why we're bothering to show up," a soldier complained as he made his way slowly towards the stables, surrounded by some of his comrades. "It's not like he's going to be there. He's practically royal, why should he get his hands dirty when we could do it for him?"
Daniela ignored the negative words coming from the men behind her and strode on as quickly as her aching legs could carry her. She hadn't thought it was possible to feel as tired as she was at that moment, but a part of her now knew that there was a whole new world of exhaustion that she had never experienced before.
"Hello?" She called out hesitantly as she entered the stables and found them deserted. When there was no reply Daniela was tempted to turn around and leave but she remembered what the men had said on her way over. She would not let his words demoralise her.
With her face set in a firm but determined frown, she grabbed a pitchfork from its place against the wall and entered the nearest empty stall. Clearing out the used, dirty straw was back-aching work and Daniela's already tired muscles felt like they were being pushed towards breaking point.
"Hello?" A male voice called from outside the stall where Daniela was working.
"Hello," she replied, leaning against her pitchfork to keep her upright as she waited for the intruder to show themselves.
"Danny?" Ronan's head peered around the entrance to the stall. "Why are there a load of men hanging around outside when you're in here?"
"I don't really know," Daniela replied. "I suppose they're not as committed as I am."
"You're going to end up killing yourself," Ronan said, digging his hand into the inside of his jacket and pulling out some food wrapped up in a torn rag. "Here, eat this. I heard that you weren't being allowed into the mess hall. Pretty harsh punishment for not being able to run fast enough."
"If that's the punishment we've been given then why should I grumble?" Daniela opened Ronan's parcel to reveal bread, cheese and ham, a sight that sent her stomach into spasms of hunger she didn't realise she had been holding back.
"Not so fast," Ronan warned as Daniela took a huge chunk out of the bread. "You'll end up with cramps if you eat too quickly."
But Daniela didn't care about getting cramps, she just wanted to have the food in her belly as soon as possible. Within moments all that remained of the bread was a few crumbs in Daniela’s hands and she was moving quickly on to the slices of ham that had sat under the bread.
“So why are you in here working while the others are outside?” Ronan asked, leaning casually against the wooden stall. “Bit eager, aren’t you?”
“The sooner the work is started the sooner it will be over and I can get some rest,” Daniela reasoned, finishing off the food in her hands and preparing herself to resume her work.
“Do you even know how to relax?” Ronan commented, one eyebrow raised. “Because it seems to me that you need to learn to unwind.”
“I’m just focused,” Daniela reasoned. “Nothing wrong with that.”
“I’m not saying there is, it’s just-“
“Being a distraction, soldier?” Garrett stood in the doorway, the sunlight behind him making him appear imposing.
“Not at all, sir,” Ronan replied, slowly standing up to his full height. “Just dropping by to check on a friend.”
“Very good,” Garrett replied. “You’ve done that now, so unless you want to help Danny here I suggest you find somewhere else to be. Wouldn’t want the others to think you were skiving off work you aren’t meant to be doing.”
“No, we couldn’t have that,” Ronan replied. “I’ll see you later, Danny.” He smiled and winked at Daniela before walking past Garrett. As he passed the commander, Ronan looked back, grinned and rolled his eyes, forcing Daniela to bite her lip to stop herself from smiling.
“He pulled a face, didn’t he?” Garrett asked Daniela as soon as Ronan was out of earshot.
“Of course not, sir,” Daniela hastily said, not wanting to get her friend into trouble.
“You’re a terrible liar,” the Captain replied, sending fear down Daniela’s spine, praying that he was wrong. “I don’t mind, as long as he doesn’t try to stir up trouble. It’s good to have some men with a bit of character. He clearly cares about his friends if he’s willing to come and see you here.”
“I hardly know him,” Daniela said defensively, blushing involuntarily. “I only met him when I enlisted.”
“Good to know you make friends so quickly then.” Garrett looked over his shoulder. “Looks like most of the others aren’t going to show. I’ll have to sort that out later.” As he turned to look back at Daniela she could see a sad look in his eyes that was pushed out a split second after she noticed it. “You’ve done enough, go and get some rest before training this afternoon.”
“That’s an order,” he insisted with a smile that warmed Daniela’s heart. “You’re a good lad, Danny. You deserve it.”
“Thank you, Captain,” Daniela said, leaning her pitchfork against the stable wall and moving to leave. As she reached the doorway, Garrett put his hand on her shoulder. “Thank you for trying.”
“I was just obeying orders,” Daniela replied, trying to ignore the shivers the feeling of his hand sent through her. “I’ll see you this afternoon, sir.”
“See you later, Danny.”