The Hunt’s Man
by Amberly Smith
The key to saving an alluring squire is a pint of the best lager and perfect timing. It also, on occasion, takes a Knight. Sir Reginald and the squire crouched in the shadow cast by the billowing blacksmith’s shop. A stable cart filled with fresh hay ambled across the cobblestones of the court yard. Here was their chance.
They strode out the open gate and swiftly ran for the protection of the distant woods. The sentry on the parapet was drunk and, awake or asleep, he wouldn’t clearly remember who had left when.
The squire’s breath grew ragged. Reginald slowed to a quick walk. He grabbed the young man’s shoulder when he saw him turning to look back. “No Sebastian. Look only to your future.”
Sebastian looked at him, blinking eyelashes the color of pitch. They fanned his pale cheeks like the wings of a dove. His young beautiful eyes ignorant to the danger he was in. Reginald had seen evidence of his sharp cunning, but that wasn’t what he saw when he looked upon him of late.
The green forest still sparkled with morning sunlight and dew. A perfect canvas to showcase the man in front of him. His lips were firm, full, and red. Therein lay the tragedy. Reginald was not the only one to think this lovely vision would make a passionate companion.
Though maybe the Lady Quinn saw him more as competition for her husband’s affection. Either way, the innocence would be broken and jaded before he had a chance to even be knighted. If she allowed even that for the ward of the fief.
Reginald had to have faith that the good lord would look out for this gentle soul. They traveled deep into the forest, Reginald instructing as they passed edible plants, showing ways to track water. The boy was already well versed in fire and hunting. All day Sebastian would nod, face earnestly listening to each instruction. He never spoke and, truly, Reginald was grateful. This would be so much harder if Sebastian pleaded to go home.
They built their camp in silence late in the day, the deepest Reginald had ever gone in the forest in this direction.
As dawn crested the horizon, narrowing the trees with light, Reginald climbed out of his oiled tarp and looked toward Sebastian. He’d wake the boy and tell him the last piece. Tell him to never come back.
Instead the squire’s gear was folded and sat beside the dying embers of the fire. Had he risen early and walked into the trees to relieve himself? Why hadn’t Reginald heard him? The empty clench of his stomach tightened further. His mouth flooded with saliva as nausea pushed up his throat. Did Sebastian go back? They’d both be dead before the day was done if he did. Or worse, Reginald would have to watch as Lady Quinn took him apart. She would send Reginald, sworn to silence, to live the remainder of his life with the terrifying images of this beautiful man destroyed. No, he wouldn’t let her.
He started gathering his bed tarp and gear. He searched the ground for Sebastian’s foot prints. Nothing. Bloody hell.
Then he heard movement toward the stream. Sebastian walked toward him, his black hair jutting wet, standing in tufts around his snow-pale skin. He carried a parcel in his hand, wrapped in oilcloth. Reginald took and released a deep breath. The jay birds chittered to each other and the breeze carried in the smell of new life. His relief heightened his dread. How would he tell Sebastian to never return to the only home he had known?
Sebastian extended his hands, offering up the package. “For the Lady. She will think you’ve fulfilled your duty.” His voice had a seductive deep chime, the sound reverberating in Sir Reginald’s chest. One day Sebastian would fill out to be a mighty woodsman, grow into that voice and those hands.
Reginald opened the oilcloth. “Careful,” Sebastian said.
It was the heart of a young pig. Reginald felt his mouth open and his blood rush.
“I wrapped it in spiked wire. The Lady has a taste for such things. She will think you have offered up your allegiance along with my death as a gift.”
“Yes. I saw what happened to the last boy to catch the lord’s eye. If she ever dies or it is once again safe for me to return, wrap spiked wire around that tree.” He pointed and then dropped his hand to his side. He no longer looked at Reginald.
The wet organ was still warm. The smell of blood would attract predators. Reginald, careful of the barbs, rewrapped the heart. He needed the moment to deal with the burning at the corners of his eyes. “You’re right and very cunning. She’ll think it a gift to earn favor.”
Sebastian picked up his bag and slung it across his chest. His bow and quiver must be back where he’d slaughtered the pig and cleaned up. Sebastian turned back to the trees and then paused, his shoulders squared and straight. “She’s wrong. It is a gift. But not for her.”
He looked back at Reginald, his eyes bright with moisture. “Thank you for saving me, Sir Reginald,” the last two words whisper-soft, “my love.” Reginald watched until he lost sight of Sebastian. The squire would survive and that was enough.