Magnus remembered his father very well. When he closed his eyes to picture him, he saw bright eyes, bright teeth, and a nose that took up a lot of his face. His palms still felt the bark as they climbed the trees in the garden. He smelled the wet mud and sweet water from late afternoons ankle-deep in the stream that passed behind the house. He heard and felt the deepness of his father's laugh in his chest and shoulders. He remembered a lot of good things. His mother couldn't remember any of them. That's what he had to believe to be able to understand the choice of the man she remarried: the Duke.
The Duke of Regatia was nothing like his father. The Duke was called the Duke and nothing else. His own sons called him only the Duke. Even Magnus' mother, the Duke's new wife called him by his title. He was a stern man with a hairy face and small eyes set beneath bushy eyebrows. His stance was always martial, hands clasped behind his back, feet apart, chest out. He required the same posture from all three of his sons, and now required it from Magnus.
Magnus' father was a baron, not as noble title by far, not as concerned with the manners and obligations of the royal court. So Magnus learned to walk like a noble, the duke's newest apprentice. He was schooled for ten years in gentlemen's ways; riding, mathematics, science, and more as were his stepbrothers. His mother was proud so he didn't feel right complaining. He went to royal court gatherings and parties, but the expectations the Duke had for him were not as high as his blood sons. He was allowed to hide in shadows and eventually avoid going altogether.
When his mother got sick, very sick, all of his schooling was set aside to care for her and all responsibilities of nobility fell to the wayside. He made soup and cold compresses and herbal teas to soothe her fevers. He built her fires, made her bed when she could get out of it, and fed her when she wouldn't voluntarily eat. She smiled at him but her smile was far away, like she was already gone. When she wouldn't get out of bed, he got her up and into a chair, got her at least out of the bedclothes to clean them. She sat in her chair by the window, her lap covered in a large blanket she was embroidering. She sewed for hours, then paused and forgot about it completely as she stared out the window at the garden. He sat at her feet and read to her. She hummed and brushed his hair with her fingers. She fell asleep leaning against the back of her chair. He tucked her into bed every night. Her fever grew and her temperament withered beneath the illness until she withered away completely.
The Duke did not cry. Neither did Magnus in the company of his new family. He only cried in the silence at night in his mother's bed. He couldn't bear to sleep anywhere else.
After she was buried, as the months passed, Magnus was forgotten. He didn't receive any more schooling, nor was he acknowledged as a member of the household. He was demoted to a servant. He didn't know that was possible, but with nobles all they seemed to care about was titles, and Magnus was just one more son in the fight. His things were slowly moved into a room in the servants' quarters and his mother's room was redecorated, stripping away everything that was left of his mother. He only managed to filch the blanket his mother had been embroidering. He hid it under his cot and wrapped himself in it every night until soon he was too tall and his feet stuck out from under it. The blanket became a comfort rather than a useful covering.
And so his life went on. He fed the horses, mucked the stables, banked the fires, and became a manservant to his stepbrothers. And the older two were particularly cruel.
"Here, Maggie, hold my horse for me," said his stepbrother Archie.
Magnus held the reins. He was silent when he felt the kick to the small of his back, a painful place to be kicked, Archie knew.
"Awful sorry, Maggie, my legs are longer than I remember," Archie said, a smug grin on his face.
Magnus said nothing, a response would only entice him more.
"Let him be, Archie," said the middle son, Wagner. He trotted up on his horse, followed by a few other nobles' sons with whom the older boys were friends. "You wouldn't want to make him cry again, like he did for his poor dead mother." Wagner began to mock cry, putting one fist to his cheek like he was wiping away tears.
Magnus clenched his fists, his jaw, and ever other muscle to keep from lashing out.
"You're right, Wagner. He's pathetic enough without our help. Come on, lads!" Archie called to the hunting party.
Magnus stood still as his stepbrothers rode off for the hunt, followed by the other noble sons, their manservants, and their hounds. The Duke had an enormous tract of land that had wonderful hunting in autumn. Magnus used to be a part of these hunts. Now he watched them all ride away.
Magnus turned to see Otto, the youngest son of the Duke, standing in the arch of the front porch terrace of the manor house.
"They're both horses' asses. I'm sorry."
Magnus said nothing.
Otto looked away after the hunting party. "You miss it, don't you?" he asked as Magnus approached the terrace steps that jutted away from the front porch.
"You don't have to pretend to be the silent type with me, you know," Otto murmured.
Magnus sighed and said, "What do you want me say then, sir?"
Otto furrowed his dark brows. He stepped down, placing himself under Magnus' impressive height.
Magnus understood the meaning of his action and grimaced a bit in shame.
Otto looked over his shoulder then back at Magnus. "We've got a moment."
With a sideways glance at Otto, Magnus marched through the doorway. He headed to the back of the house, took the servants way into the study where Otto waited with a book in hand. Magnus sat at the desk as Otto set the book before him.
"Sir Ogden taught us yesterday about a mathematics subject called calculus. It's very difficult," Otto said, turning the pages of the book. "It's much more involved than anything we've learned yet."
Otto and Magnus bent over the book for an hour or so, learning together. Otto was a few months younger than Magnus himself. He was the only person in the household who still considered Magnus a part of the family, though he never voiced this opinion in public. Instead he kept Magnus up to date on all their studies and helped him progress along with the rest of the young men in secret. He was the only one of all of them who did not prefer to hunt. He was a studious young man, interested in mathematics and science even more than most studied young gentlemen. Otto wanted to go to university, but that required money that the Duke wouldn't even consider giving to something he thought unnecessary. Being the youngest of his family and far out of the running to take on his father's title of Duke, he was pushed less than his older brothers and therefore ignored more often than not which gave him plenty of time to teach Magnus.
Magnus paused in his scribbling numbers and stretched his arms above his head. "Otto, this is numbing my brain."
Otto grinned. "Fascinating, huh?"
"You're catching on quickly. Archie had trouble with these equations," the younger man laughed. "He would be furious if he knew how well you're doing."
A commotion in the yard had both boys looking up guiltily. The older brothers were coming back, several of their manservants laden with fat deer.
Otto cursed, slammed the book shut, placed it on the desk with the others, discard the papers, and rushed from the room. Magnus took even less time to slip into the corridor the servants used and disappear into the house. He knew he would be needed to go stoke the cooking fires in the kitchen for supper. He ducked into the kitchen and made his was to his place by the hearth.
He pulled out of the way of a maid carrying a load of vegetables. She gave him a glance over and a hello as she passed, when another high voice caught his ear, "Where have you been? I've been worried."
Magnus glanced at Phoebe. She was a kitchen girl, but because she had been his mother's lady's maid, she spoke more genteel than the other girls. She spoke as often as she could. And under Rowena the cook's watchful eye, she was becoming a good cook herself. He shrugged at her.
"Magnus," said another maid in greeting as she passed carrying away a tray of sweet rolls. He smiled with one side of his mouth and stole a roll to her giggling disapproval.
Phoebe smiled prettily and tucked her loose hairs back. "You've been gone all morning. Haven't seen you since dinner last evening."
Magnus put pieces of the sweet roll in his mouth and shrugged again, not knowing what to say because she knew he had chores to do. She always asked him where he had been when he entered the kitchen, or really any room. And every time he did not reply. Regardless, she continued to ask. It irritated him for reasons he couldn't put his finger on.
Phoebe looked away at the pot that was boiling on the cast iron stove to give it a stirring. She turned back, her eyes wide. "Well, you here now, aren't you? I'm glad. Want a muffin? Rowena and I baked them this morning so it's a bit cold." She picked up the delicious looking muffin from beside the pot. She had been keeping it beside her to give to him.
Magnus accepted the pastry to Phoebe's silent elation. He held both the muffin and remnants of the sweet roll in one hand as he ate.
"Where ya been, boy?" demanded Rowena as she entered the kitchen. She was an eternally red-faced Scottish, or maybe Irish woman. Magnus wasn't sure. She had a thin figure and a mess of shockingly white hair, which was strange on a woman who was not much older than Magnus' mother would have been had she lived. She covered her hair always by a cloth wrapping to keep it out of her face and the food she prepared. She had to lift up on tip-toe to peer over Phoebe's shoulder to inspect the broth she was stirring. "Add more bones to tha' broth, it looks weak. And stop starin' at the boy. Well?" she said, turning to Magnus.
He shrugged as he tore the muffin in half and thumbed one half into his mouth.
Rowena rolled her eyes. "Studyin' with Otto, I suspect." It wasn't a question, but it had a hint of doubt that required an answer.
Magnus gave a close-mouthed grin.
Rowena smiled back. "As long as ya don't let tha' fire go out. They're back ya know and we're goin' to be at it all afternoon. Stop starin', ya silly girl!" Rowena turned to the back door that lead out to the yard and stables as the manservants came with the deer in tow between them, hindering their steps and making them waddle.
Magnus pumped the bellows, giving the fire breath again. His muscles were familiar with the heave and stretch as he pumped. His back knew the bend as he picked up armfuls of logs at a time to drop into the fireplace. His arms swung easily into the hoeing motion as he raked out cinders and ash into a cloth to be dumped behind the stables near the gardens. He tossed the ash-filled cloth over his shoulder and made his way behind the stables.
A plucky gray horse stuck its nose out of the stable door to greet him.
Magnus dumped the ash before stepping up to the the stable door. He gave the gray horse an affectionate pat on the nose. "Hello, friend." The horse pushed its soft nose at his stomach and hips. "Of course I've got a treat," he said, reaching into his trouser pocket for a lump of sugar he'd filched from the clay crock in the kitchen. "There." The horse lipped the sugar out of his hand and munched contentedly. "You're spoiled," Magnus laughed. He rubbed the horse's neck and ears and nose. "You're going to get fat sitting in there all season. We'll go for a ride tonight." The horse seemed to understand because it pawed at the ground and snorted into his chest, eager and ready for a gallop through the woods. "Shh," he warned the horse. "It's a secret, you impatient horse. Best kept between us."
Magnus gave the horse another pat and returned to the kitchen where Rowena had him help with deer skinning and pulling meat from bone. He worked until the Duke and his stepbrothers dined, waiting on their table as he did every night with the other manservants. As soon as his duty was fulfilled, his work was done, chores done, and Rowena made him swallow a hunk of meat, bread, and cheese, Magnus escaped out into the yard to the stables. The gray horse was waiting for him. And so was Otto.
"He should be yours," Otto said, patting the horse who seemed unsure of the affection being shown by the young man who was equally wary of the horse.
Magnus grabbed a saddle from the tack room inside the stables. "He is mine. He was my father's therefore he is mine."
Otto helped him saddle the horse. "You know what I mean."
Magnus said nothing as he fetched reins for the gray horse. He bounded into the saddle and felt the horse beneath him prance with anticipation. "I know."
"I'm sorry. That they don't remember what day it is," Otto said. He met Magnus' eyes. "I miss her too, you know. I had always considered her my… I never met my real…" He stopped and tried again, "I'm sorry."
Magnus held out his hand to Otto who clasped it in his own. The younger boy patted the horse's neck and said, "Be careful."
"Always am," Magnus said and needed little coaxing to get the gray horse to move at a gallop into the forest.
He rode the horse hard, knowing the poor thing might not get another chance to in a long while. They rode through the Duke's lands, on into the meadow that separated his land from that of the castle, though Magnus didn't know this. His time hunting was cut short by his mother's death and so he never learned the boundaries of the two lands. Nor had he ever gotten this far into the forrest before. His head was filled with memories. Sounds of his mother singing, a tuneless song that followed her around the house as she directed servants. The smells of his father that were heightened in the forest; the smell of wet wood and green and heather. He was engulfed in these senses when he was interrupted by a whooping sound and a flash of black and red through the trees.
Magnus did not think, just acted. He followed suit, giving chase to the noise'. He could feel the gray horse pulling them towards this new rider in the woods, as though the horse was also excited by the prospect of a chase. Magnus urged the horse on and clenched his knees to the horse's side as they jumped a fallen log. He could see the rider on the black horse, the setting summer sun glinting off the horse's polished rump and the rider's bright red hood. Magnus urged the gray horse faster and lowered his body against the horse's neck, becoming one with the horse's movements. He hadn't felt this alive since his mother passed and the thrill of it was addictive. He gave chase until suddenly the other rider turned his horse and darted into a forest clearing. Magnus followed, slowing the gray horse down a little as he approached the red rider.
The rider let his horse canter around the clearing before he stopped, watching. Magnus slowed the gray horse to a walk and then to a stop, his attention on the other rider.
The rider drew back his hood. "Do you know that you are trespassing on the queen's land?"
Magnus was confused to face a girl. Or rather a young woman. He'd never seen a woman dressed in men's clothes before but the sight was not unbecoming. Her trousers were dark like her horse and her jacket and cloak were two complimenting shades of red. She was seated proudly in the saddle, her hair drawn back behind her in a plait like the sweet bread Rowena made for the winter season celebrations. Strands of hair fell loose around her stern face and shoulders. She was certainly very pretty, maybe not the most beautiful, but it was her manner that caught his attention. There was something about her posture and the way she held herself that captured him completely. Though Magnus had not met many women, he knew at once that she was an exceptional one.
Magnus had forgotten the posed question in light of the identity of the rider. "I didn't."
The young woman drew her chest up even further. "Then I will have you know that you could be executed for this crime."
Magnus bowed his head. "My apologies."
"How often do you usually ride this was?" The girl tilted her head.
He shrugged. "Not."
She coaxed her horse forward until she was beside him. "I've never seen you before. And you came from the Duke of Regatia's grounds, did you not?"
"Are you one of his sons?" she asked.
Magnus only shrugged. He didn't want to get into that with a stranger. He especially didn't want to explain to a noble woman who did not already know of the poor Regatia stepson now servant in his stepfather's and dead mother's house. He had enough judgement. And for some reason he very strongly wanted her approval.
"I've only ever spoken to the eldest, Archibald is it?"
"Well, it's a pleasure to make your acquaintance," she said, extending her hand.
Magnus was surprised by her bare skin. A lady out riding wore gloves, according to his knowledge of such things. He kissed it as a gentleman ought to, a chaste brush of his lips across the bare skin of her hand. He'd never met a girl so near his age in such a personal manner and to meet one and touch her bare hand in the same encounter was extraordinarily different to him. He felt unsteady. "Are you a lady of the princess?" He knew a few noble girls who were ladies maids to the princess. She had the formal manner of someone who worked in the castle.
The girl's surprise was something giddy. "You don't recog—" She paused as though choosing her words carefully. "I am of nobility, yes," she said, her voice tinged with sweet laughter. The sound was familiar, like a rippling river to a lost man in the woods recognizing salvation.
She smiled for a long moment as they sat in comfortable silence. "You don't talk much."
"You ride like a man," Magnus said.
She ducked her head but she was laughing with her lips parted, teeth showing. "I'm afraid riding like a lady is not as thrilling."
Magnus smiled back. "I agree."
She laughed again, a sound Magnus was growing to like more and more. "Do you have much experience riding like a lady?"
Magnus only smiled. He liked this banter.
She turned her horse. "Will you be riding again tomorrow?" she asked.
He looked down and patted the gray horse's neck. He looked up again, hopefully. "I shall try."
"Until then." The young woman grinned again and rode off through the trees.