Authors: Charlotte Rahn-Lee
Suddenly, he felt those hands on him again, one on each shoulder. Albert started, his mind racing. Was this it? Did his father really mean to kill him? Had he chosen this kind man for the job? Was this why Manning hadn’t wanted to talk about killing?
Manning’s face hovered above his, handsome, with a slight smile on its lips. Albert realized Manning’s hands were resting gently on his shoulders, not restraining him. Manning pulled back his hands, leaving the large jacket of his uniform resting like a blanket over Albert’s chest.
“You looked cold, Your Highness,” said Manning.
“Oh, is that all?” asked Albert, trying to slow his breathing.
“I’m sorry I didn’t ask your permission to approach.”
Albert felt awful until he noticed the smile was still playing at the edges of Manning’s mouth. Relief flooded through him, and he let out a brief laugh.
“I can’t take this,” Albert protested, smiling in his turn.
“Please, Your Highness, I won’t miss it tonight, and you are cold.”
“It has my father’s crest on it,” said Albert, indicating the jacket’s left breast. “Are you mistaking me for my father?”
“It will be your crest, too, one day,” said Manning simply.
“You could be tried for treason, trying to usurp my father’s place for me.”
“It’s a good thing, then, that we are in the woods, far from the castle and any of your father’s spies.”
Albert could have hugged Manning right then for saying such a thing. Maybe he would not betray Albert’s secrets to the king. Maybe they
safe together, here in these woods, far from the castle and any of his father’s spies.
“Manning?” Albert asked.
“Yes?” He had returned to his position some feet away, crouching against the tree.
“Will you still be a bodyguard when I am king?”
“Unless I’ve been killed by assassins.”
“Will you be my bodyguard?”
“It will be my pleasure, Your Highness.”
“Could you really be killed?”
“It’s a dangerous business.”
“Then I don’t want you to be my bodyguard.”
“No. When I am king, you can retire and do something safer and more pleasant than following around royalty who can’t look after themselves.”
“What should I do?”
“Mmmm…” Albert pondered this question. He had spent so long being afraid of this uniform that it had never occurred to him that the people who wore it had lives of their own. He’d never considered that someone like Manning might die to save his life. It bothered him.
“Farm rabbits,” suggested Albert.
Manning laughed, and the noise was sharp, round and beautiful. Albert grinned secretly into the sleeve of Manning’s jacket.
“What should I do with rabbits?” asked Manning.
“Raise them, feed them, keep them safe.”
“I think I prefer the royalty,” said Manning.
Albert tried to think of some retort, something witty comparing himself to a rabbit, but he was warm now, and sleep overtook him.
next day was spent moving through the forest. Optimistic about his newly honed aim, Albert walked more slowly, searching the ground for signs of deer. He knew what he was looking for, the oval-shaped prints left by their hooves, but he had never been any good at picking them out of the uneven forest floor. He took his time, trying to be extra-thorough. Manning had done so much for him so far; he wanted to do this one thing for himself.
Manning walked ahead of him. He kept turning to wait for Albert as he picked over the ground, but he never got too far away. The smile and the playful words from last night had left Manning this morning, replaced by some worry Albert couldn’t guess at. He seemed almost impatient in the way he looked back to see how closely Albert was following him, but he was professional enough, or polite enough, that Albert would never have noticed if he hadn’t been scrutinizing this shift in Manning’s mood.
Perhaps he has a wife he’s eager to return to
, thought Albert,
or a mistress who works in the kitchens
. He tried to imagine what kind of woman would please Manning, but he didn’t like any image his mind presented to him. Would she be someone quiet and gentle? Who performed little kindnesses for him without being asked? She certainly wouldn’t give him any trouble after he’d been tromping around after spoiled princes all day. Perhaps she snuck him treats from the kitchen. Or maybe he preferred a more Amazonian woman. Manning could have found favor with one of the gypsy women who sometimes stayed outside the town, a woman who could shoot as well as he, who knew how to survive in the woods. Perhaps he was in a bad mood because he’d prefer the company of his gypsy mistress.
It was in the middle of this flight of fancy that Albert saw the almond-shaped imprint in the mud at his feet. He looked up, about to call out for Manning, but he stopped when he saw his bodyguard. Manning was standing ahead of him, atop a small rise in the ground, perfectly still, his strong frame taught like a spring about to be released. He had a hand raised to hold Albert back, but he was looking away, ahead of him, down into a glen below them. Albert’s breath caught in his throat. The man looked beautiful.
Without looking away from whatever had his attention, Manning cautiously waved Albert forward. Albert crept up behind him and took hold of Manning’s outstretched arm (for support? For reassurance?). His eyes followed Manning’s gaze. Down below them, not much further from them than Albert’s target tree had been yesterday, was a large doe, serenely chewing on some undergrowth. Albert’s heart began to hammer in his chest, and he tightened his grip on Manning’s arm.
In a silence that made Albert feel like a walking cacophony, Manning took the bow off Albert’s shoulder and placed it in his hands. He slipped an arrow out of his quiver and handed it to Albert. The deer wagged its tail and chewed. Albert shifted his feet and froze, sure his sound would alert the animal. When it was clear it had not, Albert carefully drew the bow.
“Aim for the back of her shoulder,” Manning indicated in barely a whisper. Albert could feel his breath hot against his cheek. Manning’s hand rested lightly on Albert’s shoulder, and he tried to relax.
He took aim as best he could, made a silent, wordless prayer, although whether it was for his good aim or the deer’s life he could not say, and let loose his arrow.
It landed with a satisfying thwack in a tree a few feet above the deer’s back. The animal raised her head in alarm, looking in their direction.
Caught up in his frustration, and perhaps a little relief, Albert buried his face into Manning’s chest.
“I tried!” he cried out into the wool uniform. “I think I was breathing too fast; I wasn’t still enough. I’m sorry,” he added, although he wasn’t sure why he was apologizing.
Manning’s body remained rigid, and Albert began to feel foolish. What had he thought would happen? That Manning would put his arms around him? He glanced up to see that Manning wasn’t even looking at him. His eyes were still pointed in the direction of Albert’s failed shot.
Surely she’s run off by now
, thought Albert of the doe. But then he heard Manning speak, his voice curt and urgent.
“Go,” said the bodyguard, “back there,” and his arm pushed Albert away, down the hill they had recently climbed.
Albert looked up and saw the deer bounding at them with surprising speed. He stood transfixed. He had never seen a deer attack anything before. Manning was shouting at the animal and waving his arms. It did nothing to deter the beast, but did draw it away from Albert who still had not run as he had been told.
The deer reared up on her hind legs, making her taller than Manning, and brought her front hooves down on him in powerful, repeated strokes. Manning turned his back against the onslaught, his arms up behind him protecting his head. Albert was horrified. The attack went on and on. He thought of the bow and arrows now at his feet, but knew that he would almost certainly hit Manning instead of the deer.
In the middle of this terrible spectacle, a definitively animal movement in the corner of Albert’s field of vision made him snap his head around. Beside him, not ten yards away, stood a small, spotted fawn. Like Albert, it was transfixed, watching the altercation, unsure what to do.
“Stop!” cried Albert uselessly, as much for the fawn’s sake as his own.
In front of them, the doe finally returned all feet to the ground. She looked ready to rear up again, but Manning took advantage of the pause to turn around and yell. She hesitated, froze, and then turned and bounded off into the woods. The fawn darted after her, giving Manning a wide berth. Albert cried out in relief.
“Are you alright?” he called as he ran to Manning’s side. It was the first time in the few days Albert had known him that Manning didn’t seem entirely self-possessed. He was bent over, leaning with his hands on his knees, his breathing deep and uneven.
When Albert reached him Manning did not answer his question. Instead he looked up and said, “Why didn’t you go?”
“I …” Albert couldn’t think of anything to say.
“A piece of advice, Your Highness. When your bodyguard tells you to run, you should run.”
Manning’s face was red, and he looked like he was in pain. Albert felt terrible.
“What happened?” he asked. “I’ve never seen a deer behave like that.”
“She had a fawn with her,” said Manning. “They are fiercely protective mothers.” He began to straighten up and winced.
“You’re hurt,” said Albert, wishing he knew what to do other than state the obvious.
“I don’t think it’s anything serious,” said Manning, the stern look on his face softening, “but I might be bleeding.”
Albert helped him gingerly peel off his jacket. Underneath, his shirt had several blossoming red spots. They built a fire and heated some water in a small pot from Manning’s bag. When it came time to take off Manning’s shirt, Albert felt strangely embarrassed, as if it were he and not Manning who was about to be exposed.
Manning was sitting with his back to Albert as they lifted the garment over his head. Albert examined Manning’s naked back. There were some unpleasant-looking bruises and a few abrasions, which Albert wiped gently with the warm water. When he touched a cut on Manning’s shoulder with the wet cloth, he heard Manning’s sharp intake of breath. He put a hand gently on Manning’s uninjured lower back, comforting, reassuring. It seemed to work. As Manning’s breath became measured again, Albert felt through his fingertips Manning’s skin, warm and alive, and the strong muscles underneath it. He wondered at what had happened to him in the past two days. Last week he had wanted nothing more than to entirely miss this hunting trip, but today there was nowhere else he’d rather be than here, wiping blood from this man’s broad, beautiful back.
The cuts were not deep, and when Albert was done Manning decided to wait until they’d stopped bleeding before he put back on his shirt. The afternoon shadows were growing long, and Manning’s bare chest was lit by the warm light of the fire. Albert couldn’t keep himself from casting shy glances at the curves of Manning’s muscular arms, the sweep of hair down his chest, the softer-looking skin over his firm abdomen. His eyes lighted on a scar, several inches across. It looked like it had once been a deep gash across Manning’s right side, just below his ribcage. Albert stared at it.
“Where did you get that scar?” he asked.
Manning looked surprised at the question. “That’s a long story, Your Highness.”
“I like long stories,” said Albert.
“Including true ones?”
“All kinds,” said Albert. “When I was little all my servants became very good storytellers. It was the only way to keep the prince happy.”
“That must have been charming,” said Manning. But Albert couldn’t tell if Manning, with his soft voice and intent stare into the fire, was being sarcastic or genuine. He felt embarrassed. He hadn’t meant to bring up the difference in their rank. The man was already stripped down to his bare skin. Albert didn’t want to force him to expose himself even more. “Don’t worry, I won’t command you to tell me,” he said.
“That’s very kind of you,” said Manning, and Albert thought, sadly, that the matter was closed. The fire crackled and spat. The forest made its evening noises. The shadows grew longer and disappeared into the growing dark. And then Manning began to speak.
“It was during the war. There had been a big battle, diffuse, with lots of skirmishes. Nobody really knew who had won, but by the end of the day the fighting had ended, and four of us had gotten separated from the army. We were tired and hungry; we had no food. We were trying to find our way back to our friends. It got too dark, and we slept under some bushes by the side of the road.
“When I woke up in the morning, Peter and Mark were gone. We saw them a few yards down the road. They were talking to a pair of the enemy, who were in the same predicament as us. They were sharing some of their food, and Mark was bandaging one of their wounds. Michael and I came out of the bushes, but the other soldiers panicked when they saw us coming. They thought it was an ambush. The wounded one slit Mark’s throat with his knife, just like that. The other one had a crossbow and was covering Peter and Michael with a bolt. He was probably aiming it at me, too, but I ran to Mark’s side and received the other one’s knife, here.” He touched the scar on his side.
“He went after Peter next, but I threw my own knife at his back, and he fell. The indecisive one with the crossbow fled, and that was that: the story of the second man I ever killed.” His voice was calm and deep. Albert could feel every word in his body.
“The worst thing,” said Manning slowly, “was that in killing the man Mark had bandaged, I undid the very last thing Mark had ever done. He was smart, Mark. He could do anything he set out to do. We couldn’t take his body with us. Peter and Michael had to carry me. We left him there. I thought I was going to die.”
Albert could feel the cool streaks down his cheeks that told him he was crying. He wanted to build a giant castle for Manning where no troubles or sadness would ever reach him. He wanted to run away with him and start a new kingdom somewhere else where there would be no war or danger or death. He wanted to hold him and keep him warm; he looked so cold without his shirt on in the night air.