Authors: Charlotte Rahn-Lee
Albert certainly hadn’t been in any wars, and maybe that had kept him looking so young. But for all the lack of battles, marches, and nights spent on rough ground, there was still something in the way the prince held himself, in the way he jumped when Manning had come behind him to free his caught foot, that suggested his life had not been entirely sheltered.
What have you seen in your twenty years to make you so nervous?
Of course, Manning knew well that the prince had reason to be frightened. He cast an eye over the soft brown hair that fell across Albert’s shoulders and over his velvet jacket, tailored to reveal the vulnerable shape of the long, svelte figure beneath it. With his quick, shallow breaths and fine clothes, he reminded Manning of a small bird that needed to be returned to its nest.
Manning had done many things for his strange and cruel monarch. His life in the castle did not have as much bombast as his life in the army; there was less shouting, less blood, but not necessarily less violence. In the castle the violence was an insidious, hidden half-secret, a tool selectively deployed: kept away from those who should not see it, displayed to those who should. There were fingers broken, servants lashed, loved ones punished or sent away in the stead of the offender. Albert’s father, Edward, was ruthless and unpredictable, and Manning had grown adept at swallowing or ignoring his qualms in the execution of his duty.
But the task ahead of him, concerning this innocent young man who thought he was simply on a hunting trip, promised to be his most difficult yet.
You must get through this
, Manning reminded himself. He peered out into the dark woods, determined to keep the boy safe, at least from the wolves.
morning dawned clear, with shafts of bright sunlight piercing through the leaves. Manning cleaned out their campsite before Albert woke up. He wondered how long to let the prince sleep. They had a good distance to cover today, and Manning wanted to get to their destination as quickly as possible.
It was astonishing to him how oblivious Albert seemed to the direction and magnitude of their travel. Manning didn’t understand how he’d gotten away with taking Albert so far from home. They had agreed at the beginning of their journey to stay in the southwest corner of the forest surrounding the castle, but they were now at least twelve miles from anything the young man would be familiar with. Manning didn’t know what he would do if Albert began to suspect something was wrong. It would be best to get it all over with as soon as possible. They could make it today if they kept up the pace.
There was another reason for Manning’s urgency, one he couldn’t quite explain. Was he afraid he would be unable to betray Albert? The longer he spent in his company, the more he felt responsible for him. He had best keep himself distant. Manning would only regret it later if he let Albert’s clear gray eyes win too much of his affection.
Luckily, Albert woke before Manning decided he would have to rouse him. The young man also seemed to want to keep to himself as he moved stiffly to fold up his blanket and gather his things.
He must be very sore from yesterday
, Manning thought, impressed by how Albert neither complained nor showed any signs of giving up.
What does he think he’s doing?
wondered Manning as they set off again to the east.
He seems almost eager to be led. He’s hardly tried to hunt at all
. He decided not to curse his good luck and to make use of the prince’s willingness while it lasted.
It was at noon, when they stopped for a short rest and some food, that Albert broke the silence between them.
“How long have you worked for my father?”
The question took Manning by surprise. Royalty didn’t usually ask personal questions of their servants. “Fifteen years, Your Highness.”
“You must have been young!” Albert’s surprise broke through his thus far serious demeanor, widening his eyes and bringing warm tones to his voice. Manning could see that the prince would have a very charming smile, if he ever showed it.
“I was your age, Your Highness, when I joined the castle guard.”
“Oh,” said Albert. He pensively picked at his cold leg of rabbit. “How does one come to such service? Was your father also a bodyguard?”
Manning almost laughed aloud at the idea. He couldn’t imagine his rotund, opinionated father ever following orders or standing at attention.
“My father was a blacksmith,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a blacksmith, so I ran away from home and joined the army. It was from the army, when the war ended, that I came to the castle guard.”
“Is that where you learned how to shoot so well?”
“Yes,” said Manning, strangely pleased at the compliment. He’d only shot the rabbit, and not even in Albert’s company. His charge was clearly very observant of some things, if not, it seemed, of direction. He’d have to be careful.
“What was it like?” Albert asked.
“Yes, when you first joined. How old were you?”
“I was seventeen. It was… exhausting, for a while, and exciting. Then it became frightening, and then it became routine.”
“What did you do?”
“We walked a lot. I’ve crossed from one side of this country to the other on foot. We carried all our equipment, much like we’re doing now. We kept watch. We practiced fighting. And then we did fight.”
“When you were fighting, did you see the enemy up close?”
The question surprised Manning. It brought images to his mind he usually tried not to think of: faces twisted in rage or fear; lifeless bodies he’d stepped on; worse, the dying, beyond hope, suffering on the ground. It felt like an intrusion, this question.
“Sometimes,” he said.
“Did you… kill anyone?”
“Yes.” Manning heard his voice sharpen at his answer. He felt resentful of this young man with his regally ornamental hunting attire: velvet with pearls sewn in, sturdy enough, but not meant to withstand any real weathering. How dare he ask such things about this war fought for him when he was a baby? It was done and over with—asking such questions could do no one any good. Manning’s body and perhaps his soul might belong to the crown, but surely his memories were his own to bury as he saw fit.
Manning’s indignant thoughts were interrupted by Albert’s reply.
“I’m sure I would have just died.”
“Of course not,” said Manning perfunctorily. Albert’s self-pity seemed glib to him: how could the boy know how he would react in the face of death until he was confronted by it?
“I can’t imagine what it would be like to have to kill somebody in battle, to see their face coming toward you and then end their life with a sword or arrow? I would lack the strength. Even if I had the strength of body I would lack the strength of will. Even my father, when he executes people, always has somebody do that part for him. You must be very strong.” He looked so small and scared.
“When the other person is trying to kill you, it’s different,” said Manning gently, “Something inside you takes over. You kill to stay alive.”
Albert looked at him. “Always?” he asked.
“It always has for me,” said Manning.
“I …” Albert started off hesitantly, but when he finally spoke it was quietly and all in a rush: “Two years ago I killed a man. He was a servant at the castle. Something had gone wrong, a thing stolen, I don’t remember. He didn’t do it, and neither did the two others taken with him. My father made me stay in the room as he asked them who had done it, and none of them knew, and they repeated and repeated that they didn’t know until he had a man cut off each of their left hands. And as the sword was coming for Tallis he panicked and accused one of the other two. It was clear it was not true, and my father had the swordsman cut off both his hands and his feet, and they all left him there on the floor, and my father told me to have someone clean up the mess, and the woman who came with a bucket and mop said that Tallis would die, was dying, slowly and in pain. There was nothing to be done for him, and no one dared help him for fear of punishment, but I could do it because I was the prince, and the prince can do no wrong, she said, and so I did. With a cloth over his face. It took longer than I thought it would, longer than it should have with all the blood he’d lost all over the floor and all over me, and I know now that when they come for me, the assassins or the executioners, if they ever come for me, I won’t be able to stop them. I will see that man writhing under my hands, and I will have lost my moment, and I will be dead.”
He paused for breath.
“I’m very sorry to have asked you about killing, if you don’t want to talk about it. It’s only that I envy your strength.”
Manning didn’t know how to respond to this confession. He was angry that a person so young had been made to deal with so much; none of the men he had killed had been helpless or tortured before his eyes. He was surprised that the king was so cruel to his own son.
Why are you surprised
, he asked himself,
with the orders that you are following now?
Words of indignation or consolation that rose to his throat were choked back by guilt. If Albert survived the ordeal ahead of him he would some day stammer out a similar, terrible secret, and it would be Manning’s name, alongside Edward’s, among those who had wronged him. The prince envied his strength? If he were strong, he would have refused to do the job he was now undertaking.
“No,” said Manning softly, “You have strength. I’ve seen how you’ve continued on this trip without complaint despite how hard it is for you.” He wanted to reach out and touch him, to reassure him with a hand on his arm, but he remembered the rebuke from yesterday and refrained.
“I’m no good at hunting,” said Albert. He looked like he was about to cry. “I can’t track anything, I scare everything away, and I can’t shoot at all. I can’t even string my own bow.”
“I’ll teach you,” Manning heard himself say. “Somebody taught me how to shoot, and I can teach you.” What was he doing? Assuaging his guilt? He just couldn’t bear to see Albert looking so unhappy.
The rest of the day was spent at target practice. Manning set up a target on a tree a short distance from where they were. He strung Albert’s bow for him and demonstrated the best way to hold the arrow and how to aim. Albert was a willing student and showed some promise, but he was hesitant and lacked confidence.
Being sure to first obtain the prince’s permission, Manning stood behind him to reposition his arms as he bent back the bow. He could swear he felt Albert lean back into him slightly as he came close, reminding him of their contact yesterday at the fallen tree. He could feel Albert’s shallow, nervous breaths against his chest. The boy’s whole body was trembling as he pulled the string back.
“Relax,” Manning suggested, his voice quiet, right above Albert’s ear.
“I can’t,” said Albert, “I’ll drop the bow.”
“You don’t need every muscle you have to hold the string taught.”
“… how?” asked Albert.
Manning didn’t respond in words. Instead he slowed his own breathing, placed a hand on the top of Albert’s shoulder, ran it gently down his side, showing him. With his body flush against Albert’s, he could feel the extra tension begin to leave him. Albert’s neck and shoulders relaxed. His breathing slowed to match Manning’s. They stood together like this, Albert’s bow drawn, poised, relaxed. Manning could smell lilacs and sandalwood in the young man’s hair, still detectible under the earthy scent a night in the forest had given it. As he relaxed, Albert’s slender body came to lean against his with a trust that was beguiling.
Manning could feel his face growing warm and flushed. His pulse quickened, and the beginning of an erection began to push at the front of his uniform. He stepped back suddenly, embarrassed, lest his arousal become apparent. This was not going well; his reaction was even stronger than it had been at the fallen tree. He would have to keep some distance between them. He couldn’t afford to be attracted to the king’s only son.
When Manning stepped back, as if a spell had been broken, Albert simultaneously tensed up and released the bow. The arrow flew yards to the left of the target.
Manning cleared his throat in an attempt to cover his awkward retreat. “Yes,” he said, “that was very good.”
They kept practicing, and the whole day they didn’t move a step from where they’d stopped for lunch.
We’ll have to get there tomorrow
, thought Manning, as he built the evening’s campfire.
No more stalling
arms hurt. His shoulders hurt. Even his hands hurt. He knew they would only hurt more the next day, but he felt good, better than he had in a long time. His aim was still by no means consistent, but he occasionally hit the target, and sometimes his shots seemed almost good. Manning had praised him so sincerely when he had sunk his first arrow into the tree that he was still smiling about it.
Part of Albert was still worried about how much he had told Manning. He hadn’t meant to hand the bodyguard such a powerful weapon against him—it would only take a few questions from his father:
what did my son say to you on your trip? You were alone with him for all those days and nights; come, surely he said something?
Albert’s confidence had been betrayed by such questions to his servants before. He knew he could not trust Manning to lie for him, and yet he hadn’t been able to stop himself. This was always Albert’s problem. If he tried to show a little of himself, he could never hold back the rest.
Albert shivered a little as he lay back on his blanket. It was a cold night, and the fire was doing an excellent job against the dark, but less so against the chill. Manning crouched again, catlike, not far away. Did the man ever sleep? By rights, Albert should have been exhausted, but his mind would not settle. He closed his eyes and tried to sleep. He wondered who had taught Manning to shoot and if his lessons had excited him, too. He remembered the touch of Manning’s large hand against his side. He wondered who the men were that Manning had killed.