“Polish that shield! Pikes up straight! Stop looking about, guardsman!” the military snap of Sir Ren’s voice cracked out over the outer courtyard and echoed off the stone walls of the keep. As he passed by, Huntsman’s eyes flickered up to the outer walls of the castle.
There was a balcony on one tower that overlooked the entrance to the outer courtyard so that anyone riding in and approaching the main castle portcullis would be subject to an audience. Ladies and courtiers had been stopping there all morning to pause in their duties and watch the guards’ rehearsal.
There had been enough changeover in the soldiers based at the castle for Sir Ren to insist upon a full morning’s training session to refresh them on marching, standing to attention and saluting in unison before the arrival of the King’s guests that evening. Apparently it had been quite necessary because even the more experienced guards were stepping out of time, although Huntsman thought privately it was more likely fatigue than lack of discipline. The sun beat down on them as they marched in full armour, and some of these men were passed their prime. Sir Ren had nearly yelled himself hoarse by the time he let them go.
He pulled off his helm and wiped the sweat from his brow. His hand came away mucky from a mixture of perspiration and the dust that they had kicked up over the past four hours. He would have to clean all his armour again for the evening’s parade, that was troublesome. The steel polish stank and the smell lingered. That evening his regiment of guards would be charged to stand in rows to protect the procession of guests to the castle, and to do them honour. Huntsman huffed at the waste of time. Guards were there to protect the castle, not line up on show. He could have been working on improving Logan’s axe technique, that would be a better way to show his respect to his king.
When space opened up at the fountain, Huntsman found himself face to face with Logan himself, and two of his friends. They were just slightly younger than himself, but born within the keep and raised to handle a sword and nothing more. In contrast, Huntsman’s forestry work with his axe and helping to farm had given him far greater strength and he had recently been charged with training them. Skinny and sweaty, they pulled off their armour and scooped water over their bare chests.
“All right Huntsman?” Finnick asked as he joined the group at the fountain. He was the shortest of the three, a keen archer, with wispy brown hair and squinty eyes.
“Much better now we can get on with some real work!”
“Oh hello Sir Ren!” Logan piped up, looking over Huntsman’s shoulder and bursting into laughter as he spun around, only to see Sir Ren standing across the courtyard. A swift punch to the shoulder soon quietened him.
“Oww, now I’m going to have a dead arm!”
“That’s a shame,” Huntsman smiled benignly. “You won’t last long in our axe bout later then.”
“You want to train more today? Wasn’t that enough?” Logan puffed, still rubbing his arm in outrage.
The other man laughed loudly. Huntsman had not caught his name before. Now as the younger man met his eye he realised that he was almost as tall as himself, with a thicker beard coming through than the others could boast of. “I saw you practising swordplay with the Princess, Huntsman,” he continued, “You be careful not to hurt her or you’ll have us to deal with.”
Huntsman smiled around jovially but all of their faces were stern. Surely they knew he would never push her limits too far? She was the Princess, and he was no fool.
Logan nodded, “Pie’s right. We’re the Princess’s unofficial guard you see, known her since we was all kids.”
Huntsman raised his eyebrows, “Is that right? So how come she’s a much better fighter than all of you?” he teased, trying to shift their frowns. They were serious, that was clear enough.
Logan shrugged, grumpily, “Well all she does is practise right? Whereas we have to march and stand outside doors for hours at a time.”
“And I suppose she has to embroider and practise music and household management the same as most women,” Huntsman suggested pointedly, turning back to his washing. “Though I suppose it’s castle management for her, and politics…” He had managed to get most of the dirt off his face and neck now but his back itched and he longed for a swim to feel properly clean.
The one they called Pie seemed to have the same idea. “I suppose they won’t need us for a bit eh?” he muttered, looking around. Most of the other guards had drifted back towards the barracks. “I fancy a dip.”
Casually, the four of them gathered their things and wandered over to leave their outer armour in the barracks. Out of the sight of the general they dashed as a group out the back and down towards a small gate in the keep wall. Then it was just a short sprint to the outer wall that surrounded the town. They climbed the steps up, racing each other, breathless with laughter. There was a walkway across the top of the wall, which was as thick as the height of a man. Several guards on duty were patrolling and they skidded to a halt at the top to let them pass. One, a ginger fellow wearing his formal cape, paused and beckoned to Logan. The others carried on down the steps on the other side, half running, half leaping down the steep incline on the other side to the edge of a large lake that bordered one side of the town.
Once there they quickly striped off the rest of their uniform and waded in to relax and clean themselves. Huntsman lay his head back in the cool water and sighed at the relief it gave. Despite the heat of the day they had the lake to themselves for now. Across the water he could see a pair of swans drifting in lazy circles around each other.
He had just turned back to check where Logan had got to when a flicker of gold and brown on the top of the wall caught his eye and he realised, just as she turned away, who had been standing there. He smiled at the idea of her blush, how much had she seen? Logan was walking down the incline, pulling his shirt over his head. Huntsman stood to greet him, his bare torso rising above the surface of the lake.
“Everything all right?”
“Oh yeah, it was a message for you actually.” Logan said, stripping off. He took a run up and jumped, naked, into the water.
Huntsman sighed impatiently as the waves from his arrival splashed his arms and stomach. What did the guard want from him? He peered back up at the wall but it was now empty. Logan’s head resurfaced and he shook his hair out like a dog.
“Who was that?” he asked, curiously.
“Cain Ren, he’s one of the Princess’s personal guards. He wanted to know if you would agree to be her practise partner, until his father’s back has healed. She usually practises a few times a week”
So Sir Ren had a son, interesting. Huntsman had spared little thought in the past to the cloaked guards who worked mostly within the castle walls but, now he considered it, the Princess was always seen with two such men at her back. The first time he had seen her alone was in the sparring paddock. He was glad to hear she had full time protection. He lay back into the water, allowing it to take his weight, and thought for the hundredth time about his meeting with the Princess. Had he imagined the way her bright eyes had penetrated him, or the quirk of her smile? And now she wanted to see him again. Only to fight him, he was sure. It was obviously good practise for her to take on such a mismatched opponent, but why did see not just spar with her guards?
He realised that Logan was watching him, waiting for an answer. Huntsman shook the water from his ears as he started to speak.
“Well, will you agree?”
“Of course,” Huntsman answered quickly. He cleared his throat, “it was an official request.”
“Oh she wouldn’t insist if you would rather just train us,” Finnick chimed in. “Princess Ella is very sweet.” Huntsman compared the word ‘sweet’ with her determined expression. It did not seem to match. Finnick continued,”Hey, maybe we could all train together?”
The others had all taken an interest in the conversation now, much to Huntsman’s dismay. He had been quite taken with the idea of more one-on-one sessions with the beautiful warrior maiden. He frowned to himself, examining his motives thoughtfully.
Huntsman had never been one for romance. Raised to farm and hunt, he had spent most of his adolescence with other men, and only really mixed with women at a dance or on a fayre day. His sister had always introduced him to her friends, who were pleasant enough, but they were always so keen to rush into marriage. All they wanted was a baby of their own. The idea did not mesh well with his experience of the world. Hunting in the forest, fighting in the borderlands, and now a guard at the King’s castle, Huntsman’s world revolved around being stronger, quicker and smarter than anything you came up against. Women simply did not factor in. Until now.
The Princess did not bare any resemblance to those gossiping women he had socialised with before. Her mind was focused on more important subjects.
“Group practise may be a good idea,” he agreed. “If she is willing, I would suggest we all practise fighting when outnumbered. I’ll set up some scenarios.”
Later, that evening, Huntsman found himself wishing he had more pressing tasks to engage his mind. Standing to attention for an hour had allowed his mind to wander back to visualising private practise sessions with the Princess. He imagined throwing his sword away in frustration at her quick jabs and simply wrestling her slender body to the ground.
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the royal family enter the balcony. Their guests’ arrival must be imminent. He had gathered from the rumours going around that they were foreign nobility from Hauve, possibly even their crown prince himself. The crowd of spectators behind their assembled lines had swelled within the last half hour, waving flags and shouting with excitement.
He tilted his head ever so slightly for a better view of the balcony and was rewarded with the sight of the Princess leaning over the stone balustrade. Was she searching the line of men? He imagined again taking her on in hand to hand combat. Were her fingers as delicate as they looked from this distance? Would she laugh if in fighting they tumbled to the ground together? Did he want her to laugh?
Soon the procession of mounted nobility entered and blocked his view of the balcony. By the time they had all passed, the royal family had withdrawn inside to greet their guests.
He was to guard the dining hall with another man named Joe. Within fifteen minutes, the pair of them stood, resplendent in their crimson capes, helms under one arm and pikes in the other, either side of the grand doors to face the approaching royal entourage. The King and Queen led a small group of five sombrely-dressed nobles, all talking animatedly about their journey and the beauty of the castle. From the sounds of it, this was not their first visit. If Huntsman had thought to expect an accent, he would have been disappointed, for they all spoke the local tongue perfectly. Only the style of their garb placed them elsewhere.
Princess Ella trailed at the back, clearly relaxed and smiling happily at her company, a man in a navy cape with an over-embellished sword at his hip. He was chatting away to her in a very familiar tone.
“And I know you said no presents, Princess, but-”
“Alex! You didn’t!” she scolded, although her smile grew. She wore a forest green gown that trailed behind her as she approached. It hugged her waist and flared out from the shoulders into wide sleeves. Huntsman caught himself appreciating the neckline and snapped his focus back to the job at hand.
“Only a little something,” he was laughing. “You need to learn to accept gifts more graciously,” he teased.
As they passed into the dining room, Ella nodded with kind familiarity at his companion on the other side of the entrance, then paused in recognition as she glanced at him. Huntsman inclined his head slightly in deference and then they were gone. He joined Joe to close the great doors in unison behind them.
The older man was tall like him and well built. If there had not been lines on his forehead and silver in his hair, Huntsman may have considered him an equal in battle. He eyed his younger counterpart thoughtfully before speaking in a gruff, quiet voice.
“I understand you will be training with her majesty.”
“Word spreads quickly here. It was only confirmed this morning,” Huntsman replied. He was not used to other people knowing his business, but he supposed when it came to the Princess, it was their job to know her comings and goings.
“I protect her daily, with Cain Ren, so I am privy to more information than most,” explained the older guard. He smiled kindly at Huntsman, “She seems to like you.”
He tipped his head, watching for Huntsman’s reaction, but he kept his face carefully neutral, nodding slowly. “She is a skilled fighter. I only hope I’ll be up to the task.”
Joe’s smile deepened, “Yes, she is that. You should have seen her as a child, running around with a stick in her hand. No one could catch her then, and she’s just as fast now.”
“I’m well aware, she left some painful bruises in our first bout,” Huntsman chuckled quietly.
It was clear to him that his companion’s affection for the Princess ran deeper than his role as her protector. He was smiling to himself in a fatherly fashion as he described her antics in her youth. They kept up their whispered conversation through much of the dinner, before lapsing into a comfortable silence. Joe had asked a little about his life before the castle, and told him about his daughters, and what effect they had on his now greying hair. It was easy to converse with Joe and Huntsman found himself relaxing as he tried to paint the picture of his own parents’ home in the borderlands, the way the mist clung to the slopes of the mountains, and heather grew everywhere in abundance. The main farming was of sheep, that climbed like goats on the roads that broke up the countryside.
“I expect wolves are a problem,” Joe had commented at this point.
“Yes, I’ve had to kill several. That is why I grew accustomed to carrying my axe wherever I went.”
“A formidable weapon, so I hear.”
“For a formidable enemy.”
After some time Huntsman heard laughter emitting from the royal dining room. He could pick out the Princess’s tone of delight, clearly reacting to the raised voice of the man she had entered with. He found himself gritting his teeth and shook himself, somewhat sadly. She was inside with her kind, whilst he stood guard over them. What he wanted could not be, and it was dangerous to hope for. It would only lead to his unhappiness.