“Lieutenant Harte,” the captain snapped.
“Yes, Captain.” Until two days ago, Harte had never met the captain who led the crown prince’s escort for this hunting expedition. Why Harte had been assigned to the escort at the last moment still bewildered him. Regardless, it had quickly become apparent the captain had some sort of grudge against him. Harte sighed and hoped no one saw, then quickly moved to comply, and took a position behind Crown Prince Beynon and his oldest son, heir-apparent to the Brynmor line of kings, who sat near the campfire.
Harte was young and a newly anointed Shield, having recently received his spurs, which he guessed was at the heart of the captain’s disdain. The third son of a Baron, Harte had been sent off as a page to another nobleman, then at fourteen became a squire. He served under Ser Brickel—not a young man—but who took his duty to provide for Harte’s training seriously.
The Shield’s many years of experience provided the man with a wealth of tales and knowledge that he willingly shared with his ward. Harte cherished the stories and claimed he learned more about chivalry and strategy from them than any training his instructors could teach him. After seven years as a squire, he was finally dubbed a Shield.
Everyone assumed Harte would be welcomed as a vassal by a Duke or an Earl and enjoy a rich future. It came as a shock when he proffered his services to the King’s Guard instead, stating that the guardsmen he had met were richer in something more than just material treasures. Harte could feel a sense of purpose in their duty.
The crown prince smiled and laughed with his oldest son, Mael, who had recently turned nine. The younger son by two years, Hafgan, sat to side with Grioral Malbery, son of the Earl of Greenmerrow. Harte had just met the Earl’s son, and while he tried not to judge anyone until they proved themselves otherwise, he had already developed a dislike for the man.
It was well known that Malbery had taken Hafgan under his wing after the accidental death of the crown prince’s wife, especially when the young prince was said to be weak of mind. Harte had only dealt with the boy on a few occasions and couldn’t see anything wrong with the prince other than he thought him shy—probably as a consequence of being born with a humped back. Regardless of Malbery’s intentions, being in the man’s presence gave Harte the same feeling as when he stumbled across a viper.
It was just after nightfall and Harte had become slightly distracted as he stood and drew his foot back and forth fiddling with the newly engraved spurs. He remembered his shock the first time someone addressed him as Ser Harte, in the high bailey. He was focused on these memories when a guardsman called out from across the camp.
“Hold.” Two guardsmen moved toward the tree line where a lone warrior rode out into the light of the encampment. The stranger’s horse stepped between the two guardsmen, who seemed bewildered that anyone could even have gotten this close to the camp. By the time they thought to turn their pikes toward the warrior, he had already reached the campfire and stared across it at the crown prince.
Prince Beynon pulled his oldest son by the arm and forced the boy behind him. Harte stepped up next to the boy while he drew his greatsword prepared to jump in front of the crown prince if needed. Malbery grabbed the younger prince and pulled him away so that they both stood behind three nervous looking guardsmen.
“To the Prince,” the captain screamed, and six guardsmen stepped between the warrior and the crown prince as another dozen pikes quickly surrounded the warrior. The captain stepped forward but not in front of the guardsmen, and demanded of the warrior, “Who are you and how did you get past the sentries, Intruder.”
The warrior’s gaze fixed the captain as the guardsmen edged a little closer. Their anxiety showed in the twitching of the pikes they held. Harte looked over the seated crown prince’s head and could see the top of the warrior’s leather breastplate above the man’s cloak. It was embedded with brutish metal studs.
The captain moved slowly, his movements restless, and Harte couldn’t blame him. Harte imagined the captain also recognized the leathers as armor traditionally worn by the Riddare warriors of the northern kingdom, Haldane—equivalent to the highest-ranking Shields in the Cainwen hierarchy.
“I will ask you once more Riddare. Proclaim your name and your purpose, or you forfeit your life. You have breached the Crown Prince’s camp,” the captain’s voice was becoming louder and more agitated. Harte wondered if much of it was the captain’s own fear that his guards had let the warrior approach this close. “Dismount now and hand over your weapons.”
The warrior lifted his head and stared beyond the captain to Crown Prince Beynon, his eyes narrowed, and his head tilted slightly as if inspecting the prince. The captain was preparing to follow through on this threat when Harte noticed something and stepped forward walking toward the campfire.
“Hold your weapons,” Harte shouted and raised both arms so he could be clearly seen in the flickering light of the fire.
“Harte,” the captain cried out, the degree of his discomfort evident by the fact he had not called Harte Lieutenant or at least by his Shield title, Ser.
“I think patience may be a better course, Your Highness.” Harte turned his back to the warrior and ignored the captain’s command. He looked at the crown prince. The scowl from the captain spoke of a retribution to come when they returned to the castle, but Harte realized something his superior had not. He hoped it would be enough to excuse his leaving his post with the crown prince.
Beynon looked at his Captain of the Guard and then back at Harte with a nod to continue.
Harte turned around and pointed to the warrior’s cloak. “In service to Ser Bickell, I traveled to Haldane several times.” Harte paused. “Like the principal Families of Cainwen, each noble Haldane Clan is represented by a different color. The only exception are members of the royal Haldane Family who wear a multicolored cloak.” Harte reached out but did not touch the warrior’s garment which was woven of crossed blue, green, and yellow strips.
The crown prince leaned forward to look at the cloak in the dim light of the fire. The captain was visibly tense. Harte guessed that his patience must have worn thin. He was someone used to being in control. The captain began to step forward when the crown prince held up his hand freezing the man.
“Are you saying Lieutenant that this…warrior is of the Haldane royal family?” Harte imagined the crown prince’s mind deducing that this could easily become a problem if handled incorrectly.
“Normally yes, Sire, but in this case…it is not.”
Beynon frowned, and Harte continued to explain quickly before he wore out the crown prince’s patience. “There is one other exception.”
The crown prince’s eyes said he was interested, but he continued to frown. Harte had to make his point quickly.
Harte walked towards the back of the horse where the Riddare’s shield hung.
The warrior’s eyes followed.
Harte started to reach for the shield but stopped short and looked up at the Riddare and nodded at the shield.
The stranger’s lips tightened, and he just stared at Harte with the same scrutinizing look. A few moments passed before the warrior nodded his approval.
Harte lifted the shield off the horse, then turned and planted it in front of himself so the crown prince and the captain could see it clearly.
“The other exception is a Protector.” The shield had a dragon rising straight up with crossed curved swords behind it. He ran his finger over the design on the shield as he explained, “The dragon represents the fidelity and potency of the Protector, and the crossed-swords represent the Protector’s lethality.” He didn’t wait for either man to ask and went on. “Protectors are elite warriors; some say almost mythical…” He stared up at the warrior with a little smile then turned to the crown prince. “A Protector takes a vow directly to the Burning Lady to protect a specific individual. They dedicate their very existence to the one they have vowed to protect. They will remain the Protector until they or the one they are protecting dies. During all my travels to Haldane, I have yet to meet a Protector.” He turned to face the warrior. “Until now.”
“How do we know this?“ The captain glanced at the Protector. “Maybe the Riddare has not come of the shield rightfully.” The captain argued—his stature dwindled.
The Haldanen glared at the captain and his teeth pulled back in a snarl.
Harte stepped back and looked up at the Protector, his eyes pleading. “Protector, can we see your right arm?”
The Protector’s eyes narrowed, but after a moment nodded and pushed up the sleeve of his fur cloak. A raw wound ran between the Protectors wrist and elbow. It was a representation of the same dragon in flight, as on the shield, that had been burned into the Protector’s skin. The act had to have been recent as the lines were still scabbing over.
Beynon looked suitably impressed. He addressed the Protector in a royal tone, “Riddare, are you one of those known as a Protector?”
The warrior’s expression never changing, nodded.
Smiling like he had found a new discovery, the crown prince then asked, “Did Lieutenant Harte describe your mission accurately?”
The Protector looked down at Harte, the hint of a smile on his face. The Haldanen then looked up at the crown prince and nodded his head again.
“Well then.” The crown prince looked to those around him smiling. “Have you come to protect me?”
The Protector, still stone-faced from the moment he arrived at the camp, shook his head no.
“Then my father, King Einion?” the crown prince questioned, not as cheerfully.
Again, the Protector shook his head.
Beynon looked around at one son then the other, and the Protector must have anticipated his question, because he indicated no once again.
The smile drained from the crown prince’s face and his voice lowered in anger, “Well then, Protector, if you have not come to protect those of my family, why have you taken Our time?”
“I be protecting ye family,” for the first time the Protector spoke then reached for the front of his cloak causing the guardsmen; their pikes having relaxed during the conversation, to now point steadily at the mounted Haldanen.
The captain looked back up to the crown prince who waved his hand in response.
“Hold back,” the captain ordered the guardsmen to step away, though he cautioned them, “Remain vigil.”
With the threat removed the Protector pulled back the front of his fur cloak to either side to expose two children sitting in front of him on the saddle. They appeared to be around four years old with flaming red hair.
Everyone, including Harte, just stared at the children. Their youthful eyes were an emerald green. They were lit and shimmering, which Harte contributed to the reflection from the campfire. The first thought that went through his head was red hair, green eyes. Evil. Shades. Then he shook off the old superstition and looked objectively at the children. They were dressed in simple dark-green linen tunics with gold striping. Harte thought to himself, Brynmor colors. Then he realized they were twins.
Some of the guardsmen stepped back when the little ones were exposed. More than one put three middle fingers together and touched them to their head, then lips, and finally, the heart, while they whispered a protective invocation asking for the Burning Lady’s favor.
Prince Mael, the oldest boy, evidently as frightened by the stories as some of the guardsmen, yelled, “Who are you to bring this evil into our camp?”
The Protector spoke. “Ye be calling me Dougal. These…” he waved his hand over the children’s heads, “be Prince Rowyn and Princess Willoe.” He let that sink in for a moment. “They be children of Crown Prince Beynon. These be the ones that I protect.”
The guards backed away and started talking over each other. Within the uproar, the crown prince stood which brought immediate silence.
“You dare to bring these children in front of me and declare that they are of my loins?” His voice roared and he stepped down from the raised edge of the circle to stand with the campfire just in front of him. The reflection of the fire contorted his face and heightened his enraged expression. “Protector or not you will spend the rest of your life in my dungeon.”
Harte was stunned. He started to argue, but he could not with the crown prince.
“Seize him and the baseborn pups.” The captain moved forward, but not ahead of his guardsmen.
“Alina be dead,” the Protector said softly, but the words seemed to rise over the clamor as the Protector kept his eyes fixed on the crown prince.
“Hold,” Beynon shouted as he stepped around the campfire, pushing guardsmen out of his way as he came to stand in front of Harte and stared up at the Protector.
“When?” the crown prince asked in a low and somber voice.
Harte could see a sadness in his eyes.
“Four moons past,” the Protector answered, his own tone grieved.
“And these?” The crown prince looked from one child to the other.
“Alina’s.” The Protector picked up one of the children and lowered the child to Harte.
To the surprise of everyone, Harte included, the crown prince reached out and took the lad from Harte’s arms.
The Protector handed the other child down to Harte.
“They have her face,” the crown prince commented as he held the young prince in his arms.
Harte could see a far-away look in the crown prince’s face.
Beynon ruffled the child’s hair and smiled. “With eyes and hair to match.”
“Aye,” the Protector said as he dismounted.
“It was more than four years ago, nearly five,” the crown prince’s voice was wistful and seemed meant for another—someone not there.
“Prince Rowyn and Princess Willoe be nigh on four in the next moon.” The Protector took the child from Harte’s arms.
“If what Lieutenant Harte says is true, you have given the rest of your life to protect them.” The crown prince looked at Harte and then at the Protector as if waiting for confirmation.
Harte was amazed that the crown prince remembered his name as he had only been a member of his personal guard for two fast-paced days. He stuttered but was saved any embarrassment as the Protector answered first.
“I be abiding your laws and ye will…” He paused as he looked at the child in the crown prince’s arms. “But my loyalty be to Alina’s children.”
“And mine,” the Crown Prince whispered with a weak smile, the look on his face a mix of pride dampened with sorrow.
The Protector nodded.
“Captain,” the intensity of crown prince’s command startled Harte.
“Yes, Sire.” The captain ran up so fast that Harte had to keep from grinning.
“We leave for Westhedge at daybreak.”
“Sire?” The captain’s expression really made it hard for Harte not to laugh.
“Did you not hear me, Captain?”
“No Sire. I mean yes Sire.” The man fumbled. “All shall be ready.”
The Captain of the Guard started to turn, but the crown prince stopped him. “And Captain.”
The captain turned back as rigid as the main gate at Castle Westhedge. “Sire?”
“Captain Harte will be on special duty until further notice.” He turned to Harte. “You will make it your duty to acquaint Protector Dougal with our ways and assist him in any way he deems necessary.”
“Sire, Ser Harte is not—” The captain began to correct the crown prince.
“Do you dictate to your Crown Prince?”
“No, Sire.” The Captain of the Guard put a fist to chest and bowed, his voice rose nervously.
“When we return, inform Commander Kemble that Captain Harte will be housed in King’s Tower, along with Protector Dougal.”
“Sire.” The captain waited a moment, and when no other orders were given, he turned and called out commands to make arrangements for an early departure.
Harte had been so busy enjoying the crown prince’s roasting of the difficult captain that it had not sunk in that he had been raised to a new station again, in less than two weeks. And would be taking up residence near the royal family.
The crown prince took the little princess and bounced both children in his arms.
In that moment Harte glanced over at Prince Mael. The older boy peered intently at the children—more curious than anything. In contrast, Harte caught an odd emotion that crossed the younger Prince’s, Hafgan’s, face. It was brief, but Harte thought that it appeared hostile…though later he would say hateful. Again, it was only momentary before the prince’s expression returned to one of disinterest.
Captain Harte’s attention was drawn back to the crown prince as one of the children wiggled vigorously and tried to get down, while the other rested calmly against the Crown Prince’s shoulder.
Protector Dougal pointed to the restless child. “That be Princess Willoe.”