Authors: Charlotte Rahn-Lee
To Becky, my prince, who dreamed them up first.
blue-gray and made of wool. It clung tightly to the back of the man’s neck and extended austerely down his shoulders, giving way at the last moment to his sleeves. The jacket ended below the man’s waist and was slit at the sides for ease of movement, revealing slacks made of the same material in a darker hue. Although he could not now see it, Albert knew from experience that the front of the man’s uniform boasted three red stripes across the right breast and, on the left, the omnipresent, potent swirls of his father’s crest.
Albert watched the rough cloth slide back and forth across the man’s formidable frame as he walked, pulling at the place where it was trapped under the strap of his bag. He stepped easily over rocks and fallen branches that Albert had to navigate after him in an ungainly, scrambling improvisation.
Why couldn’t I have gone with Godfried?
thought Albert bitterly. It was hard to imagine any situation in which he would have preferred the company of his proud and over-accomplished cousin, but a hunting trip—
, Albert reminded himself,
a trial, a duty, a test of filial worth and regal virility
—was one of them. Godfried would have laughed at his inability to string his own bow, absolutely thrilled at Albert’s piss-poor marksmanship, but he would have shot something big enough to allow them to go home. Instead he was alone in the woods with this man for God knew how long, expected to shoot his own stag.
In the castle Albert found the constant presence of that uniform oppressive. At every corner there were at least two of them, encasing somber-faced men with eyes and hearts and arms that were extensions of the king’s: anonymous agents of his father’s will. But in the forest this uniform, taken singly, wrapped around the powerful figure ahead of him, scared Albert. It occurred to him that he wouldn’t be able to find his way back on his own.
Albert had fallen behind, and now the man was facing him, watching as he fumbled around trying to haul himself over a large fallen trunk. The man approached him, and Albert’s frustration mounted. The top of the trunk was even with his chest. His foot was caught in a branch he had hoped to use to push himself over, but now, his foot too high to be of use, he’d lost all leverage. He was stuck with his leg in a ridiculous position. The uniformed man held out his hand, but Albert ignored it.
When he was young Albert had discovered that being the prince had at least one benefit. He could decide, at least in small matters, what was true and what wasn’t. As a little boy, when he was feeling peevish, he used to insist he was hot in the middle of winter. He would have the fires doused and the windows opened. When ice began to form in his washbasin he would declare it a pleasant, comfortable temperature, and no one could contradict him. His servants would shiver, but none would admit to being cold. Albert, of course, suffered too for this game, but that was perhaps part of the satisfaction he gained from it: his painful fingers, stiff from cold, were proof of some power in himself that did not come from his title.
And now, continuing to ignore the hand reaching out to him, he was playing the game again. If Albert pretended his guard were not offering help, the latter was in no position to insist. Nor could he withdraw his hand without being inexcusably rude. It gave Albert some satisfaction to see this man stuck, his arm extended uselessly over the trunk of the tree, just as Albert was stuck, his leg pointlessly raised.
They stood together in this queer configuration in the darkening woods. Albert made another attempt to pull his weight up to the top of the log, but his arms wouldn’t lift him. He tugged at his foot, but his energy was spent. Albert closed his eyes and wished himself anywhere in the world but where he was.
Suddenly, he felt a pair of hands take hold of his trapped foot. Startled, Albert jumped back and lost his balance, his arms flailing. He hadn’t heard the man come back to his side of the tree, his stealth frightening and unnatural-seeming. Albert’s reeling arm hit the man in the chest only halfway by accident, but the recipient of the blow didn’t seem to feel it. Albert fought to keep some princely dignity as he toppled back into his father’s servant, no longer able to stand.
Off balance, helpless, and suddenly tired, Albert gave in to his condition, his back against the man’s broad chest, letting him work to free his boot. He could hear the man’s steady breath near his ear and feel the shifting muscles of the man’s arm against his shoulder. It was strangely calming and made Albert want to sleep. He smelled the man’s smell: sweat, straw, leather, wool.
That would be the uniform
, thought Albert. He rode up and down on the gentle swell of the man’s breath. It was almost a pity when his foot was freed and he was required to stand on his own.
“What was your name again?” Albert asked when they were both safely over the tree trunk. The man had told him before, but Albert hadn’t paid attention.
“John Manning,” said the man. His wide face was calm, strong, and somber.
I have yet to see one of my father’s guard smile
, thought Albert.
“Do you make a habit of sneaking up on royalty?” Albert asked him.
“I am sorry, Your Highness, I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“It is customary to ask permission before approaching me,” said Albert in the most imperious voice he could muster. He watched the muscles in Manning’s jaw tighten. Was it contrition? Embarrassment? Fear? Anger? The man had experience being scolded by royalty: he stood quietly, eyes downcast, waiting for instruction or punishment. Albert suddenly felt a little silly.
“But we thank you for freeing our person,” he continued.
God, the royal we
. He only used that when he was feeling particularly insecure. To break the strange tension, Albert set off through the woods, with little idea of where he was going, letting the man follow him for a change.
camped shortly thereafter at the top of a slight rise, where the ground would be drier. At least, that was what Manning had said. Albert wouldn’t have noticed the higher ground if Manning hadn’t pointed it out, nor would he have known what to do with it. Albert sat with his back against a tree. It felt good to be divested of his equipment: his bag, his bow and quiver, the large, twisted hunting horn he was supposed to blow if he ever did manage to shoot anything. He watched Manning build a fire. The man’s movements were simple and sure, and Albert found them strangely soothing.
He needed to figure out what he was doing. He shouldn’t have wasted so much of the day sulking. He should have been looking for signs of his quarry, as he’d been taught. The problem was that Albert was terrible at it. Three weeks of preparation had gone into this hunting trip, in addition to all the instruction he’d received before, but the forest was just as mysterious to him now as it had ever been. He marveled at the ability of his teachers, his father, and his cousin to find signs in the earth, in the plants, in the air, even, like so many forest necromancers. To Albert one tree still looked exactly like any other tree, and try as he might, he never could manage to take note of the direction of the sun, a pattern of broken twigs, or imprints in the ground.
The only way I’ll ever catch a deer is if it comes up and taps me on the shoulder
, thought Albert,
and even then I doubt I’d be able to kill it
. Unless he wanted to return to the castle empty handed, a prospect that, given his father’s temperament, he didn’t cherish, he was going to have to ask for Manning’s help.
But how far can I trust him?
wondered Albert. As he watched Manning easily swing a heavy log onto his shoulder, Albert thought that it would be temptingly easy to trust him, to fall back into him and rest on that strength he had felt before, when Manning had taken his coldness, his blows, and finally his weight and still freed him from the fallen tree. He was steady in a way that invited confidence.
Is that why my father chose him?
“Manning?” Albert liked the man’s name. It rolled smoothly out of his mouth and hung in the air around him.
His companion turned to face him.
“Have you been on many hunting trips?” Albert asked.
“A fair number, Your Highness,” said Manning.
“Did you….” Albert considered the best way to phrase his plea. He couldn’t afford to sound as desperate as he felt. “Did you ever track and shoot anything yourself?”
“Small game, yes.”
Manning looked at him with a pair of dark, intense eyes that Albert couldn’t read. Albert tried to affect more nonchalance by playing with a leaf.
Finally Manning answered, “It’s against the law for any but your father and those he invites to hunt deer in this forest.”
Albert tried not to look disappointed. As Manning turned back to the fire and worked on lighting it with a tinderbox, Albert ripped little pieces off the leaf and scattered them about himself. He was startled out of his unhappy reverie by Manning’s voice.
“Your Highness, have you given any thought to dinner?”
No, damn it, he hadn’t. He’d forgotten he was supposed to hunt to sustain himself as well. They were going to starve to death in the woods waiting for Albert to shoot straight.
“No, I….” Albert got up and began looking about for his bow.
“I don’t mean to presume,” Manning’s deep, clear voice interrupted, “but you’ve had a tiring journey. If you’d like, I could find us a meal.”
There it was, that quiet strength, offering itself to Albert, tempting him to trust this man despite the coat of arms worn over his heart. At least in this Albert had no choice. Awoken by the mention of supper, his hunger now pressed on him, and if he insisted on doing it himself they would never eat. With a nod of his head he relented. It felt good to give in.
, Albert warned himself as the man slung his bow and quiver over his shoulder and strode quietly off into the woods.
returned some three quarters of an hour later with a rabbit shot cleanly through the neck. They rigged up a spit above their now roaring fire and soon enjoyed the crispy roast meat. It was pitch-black now outside the ring of light cast by their fire, and the forest made wild nighttime noises around them.
Albert stretched out the one light blanket he had carried with him and waited for Manning to do the same. It got later and later, but the man made no motions towards going to bed. Albert’s head began to feel light.
“Aren’t you going to sleep?” Albert asked.
“Don’t worry about me, Your Highness,” said Manning. He was resting against the same tree Albert had sat against earlier, crouched as if, at any moment, he might spring. He reminded Albert of a giant cat: relaxed, but ready to pounce. It made him nervous. Albert never liked to sleep in a place where others were awake. When he was little, he had always sent his nurses and nannies out of the room when he was napping, and he would throw terrible fits if they refused to leave him alone. Albert considered briefly how this strong, quiet man would react to a princely tantrum, but he decided that he certainly wouldn’t come out ahead for putting on such a display.
“You needn’t stay up on my account,” Albert offered, trying a gentler approach.
“It’s no trouble,” answered his guard.
I can play this game too
, thought Albert. If this man wasn’t going to sleep, then neither would he. He lay down on his blanket facing the crouching figure and feigned sleep, one eye on Manning to see what he would do. He did nothing immediately, and Albert struggled to hold on to his consciousness. He began conjugating Latin verbs in his head, but before he finished
he was fast asleep.
boy seemed unwilling to sleep in his presence, but despite his young charge’s evident stubbornness, exhaustion eventually won the battle. This wasn’t surprising. They had covered a lot of ground today, certainly more than Albert was used to hiking, probably more than he’d realized.
Manning hadn’t disclosed his reasons for staying alert because he didn’t want to alarm Albert or be thought ridiculous: he’d seen signs of wolves earlier that day. The fire would almost certainly keep them away, but Manning didn’t trust in anything qualified by an “almost.” He worried. It made him a good bodyguard, but it often prevented him from sleeping.
Manning watched sleep overtake the prince. Albert seemed more peaceful now than he’d been all day. His shoulders fell back from their tense position, revealing the graceful line of his neck. His eyes, so often in motion when he was awake, were now still under their lids.
Manning had never guarded the prince before, but he’d heard stories from the other servants. Albert had a reputation for being difficult. However, the young man now in Manning’s charge was not the spoiled, choleric prince he’d been expecting. He seemed scared, lonely, young. He wore his twenty years tentatively, as if by stopping the advance of time he could escape whatever fate he feared. Manning thought back to the time, some fifteen years ago, when he had been Albert’s age. Surely he had looked older than the sleeping figure now beside him. He had certainly felt old; by twenty Manning had long since acquired the propensity for worry and care that served him so well now.
That is what three years of war will do to you
, he thought.