Death does unexpected things to the living.
All his life Harry had been taught to fear the outside world. It was a place filled with unknown dangers and disease. But when sickness finally fell upon his house and took his father, he no longer feared death. He feared regret and wasting what precious little life he’d been given.
The letter from the Duke of Warwick read as follows:
The pleasure of your company is requested at the Bilsdale Fox Hunt on the sixteenth day of September, hosted by me, club president, at Warwick House in York.
Join us for a fortnight of dinner, dancing and games, culminating in what is sure to be the liveliest hunt of the season.
Ever your affectionate friend,
What was he playing at? Harry wondered. The invitation was not sent in earnest. They were not friends and Louis knew full well that Harry did not hunt. Was this mockery? A dare? He thought back to Louis’ visit four years prior with humiliation. His cheeks burned at the memory of boldly lacing his fingers through Louis’ to stroke his mare. How foolish he had been to open his heart to that boy. He certainly wouldn’t make that mistake again.
He stood and tossed the invitation in the fire, watching the red paper curl into a black fist and vanish into ember and ash.
“The Duke is cruel,” his mother agreed, reading his thoughts like she did when he was a little boy and trying to conceal them. “Are you going to your room?”
“I’m going to the stables.”
“The stables! Whatever for? You’ll catch a chill.”
Harry beckoned Charles and asked for his overcoat and hat. “I’m preparing Achilles for our trip. We’re leaving for York at dawn.”
He didn’t go down to the stables often. After Bertie was taken from him it was too painful to see her empty stall and then when another horse took her place that became a source of pain as well.
He visited Achilles from time to time but neither of them enjoyed it. This time was no different. He unlatched the stable door and Achilles sniffed, a puff of cold air escaping his large black nostrils.
“Now listen here you brute. We’re going on a long journey to York. When we get there, I’m going to ride you and you’re going to let me!”
Achilles kicked the stall until the wood splintered.
Harry tried to grab hold of his headcollar and the beast bit him.
Alfred came quickly. “Your grace, are you alright?”
“Prepare this… creature. I’m travelling to York for the Bilsdale Fox Hunt. I’ll need you pack all the riding accouterment and have him crated. Muzzled preferably.”
Alfred removed his cap revealing a few white hairs sprouting from the top of his head like horse whiskers. “Is this wise? You’ve never actually ridden Achilles before. Shouldn’t you train?”
“There’s no time for that.” Harry was already clomping across the muddy field back to the manor, Alfred chasing after him.
“Then perhaps take one of the less difficult horses.”
“No, Achilles is the finest horse we have. This is my introduction to society and I need to make an impression.”
“You will most definitely make an impression, your grace...”
When Harry returned to the manor, the Duchess was hysterical. She clutched the broach fastened to her collar. It had a lock of his father’s hair inside. She just lost her husband and was sure her son was being taken from her too. Nothing could convince her that the outside world wasn’t certain death. Harry could hear her roaming outside his room muttering to herself like Lady Macbeth.
“Mother, if you have something to say to me, please state it plainly.”
Suddenly, she slammed his bedroom door and tried to bolt it shut. He overpowered her and pried the door back open.
She called out to the footmen. “Contain him! He’s in danger! Contain my son!”
They came running and didn’t know what to do. They hated to see the Duchess vexed but Harry was the Duke. They took orders from him now.
She stood in his doorway and gathered the folds of her dress like she might collapse under the weight of her heavy heart.
Harry reached out to her but she was elusive. She did not like to be touched. He remembered being so starved for affection when he was a child that he would purposely fall so she might kiss his knee.
“I’ll only be gone a fortnight, plus three days for travel.”
Charles was fastidiously packing his bags on the bed beside him, folding his starched trousers like they were plates of gold.
Harry lifted his dinner jacket. “There will be women and dancing. Perhaps I’ll find a wife.”
His mother steadied herself on the vanity. “If you survive the northern climate long enough.”
“It’s barely autumn.”
“And what of the plague that’s gripped Middlesbrough and Huddersfield?”
He sighed. “I’ll wear my mask on the journey.”
She was desperate, clinging to any excuse like a life raft. “It’s not safe there! The Duke of Warwick. There are rumors, you know. They say he—”
Harry folded his arms around her slender shoulders. She gasped, scandalized by his impropriety. He kissed her cheek and buried his face in the high collar of her dress. She smelled of talcum powder and perfume, roses and rain. She was home, thorny and elusive but all he’d ever known.
The dark truth was, it was precisely the dangers of the trip that excited him. Harry would prove to Louis that he was not the sniveling lonely child from their first encounter but a fearless Duke, the same as he.