A boy’s horse is his heart.
Harry’s horse was a small mare named Bertie. She was a common carthorse, white with a black mark between her eyes. The horsekeeper planned to put her down. She was not strong enough to work the land and not regal enough to pull a carriage. Harry rescued her when he was visiting the stables one afternoon and she broke out of her stall to nose his chest.
He knew no other boys his own age. As the lone heir of the Duke of Somerset, Harry wasn’t permitted to leave the estate, go to school or associate with those of low birth lest he catch typhoid or scarlet fever. He spied on the footmen’s children with his mother’s opera glasses from his bedroom window, longing to join them.
Bertie was his only friend and he doted on the sweet-tempered mare, sneaking cakes from the breakfast table down to her stall every morning.
His father commented on how plump she was getting. “Soon she’ll be too heavy to ride. Do choose a proper horse for hunting.”
Harry didn’t care for hunting.
Lemon teacakes were Bertie’s favorite. Harry hid them in his waistcoat so his father wouldn’t see and ran to the stables. From there, he walked Bertie to the riverbank where he would feed her treats and scratch behind her ear until her tail swished with delight. Sometimes he would tell her about his day and pretend that she was telling him about hers.
One cool April morning as he was brushing Bertie’s mane, he noticed that the thoroughbred in the next stall had been replaced with an Arabian stallion—muscles long and lean, coat as black as midnight. Harry poked his head over the stall door to get a better look at him and the horse struck the ground with his hoof in protest.
Harry found the horsekeeper and asked about him. Alfred lifted his tweed cap. “He’s not ours, my lord. Your father had him imported from Egypt. He’s a gift for the new Duke of Warwick.”
“A visitor? Father didn’t tell me.”
“Perhaps he didn’t want to overexcite you.”
“Why would a gentleman’s visit excite me?”
“Because the Duke of Warwick isn’t a gentleman.”
Harry was confused.
“He’s a boy.” Alfred smiled. “No older than you.”
A boy, Harry marveled, here?
Later he asked his mother if it was true and she said it was. In a fortnight they would receive Louis, the new Duke of Warwick, a boy his age, of noble birth. Harry would be permitted to sit with him, speak with him. For the first time in his life he would have a real friend.
Harry hardly slept thinking about the Duke’s arrival. He wondered what he would be like and what his interests were.
In preparation for his visit, Harry organized his coin collection. He went to the library and plucked from the shelves all the books he thought the Duke might want to discuss. He practiced his best arrangements on the piano in hopes that one might please his ear.
On the day of the Duke’s arrival, Harry and his family stood outside the manor to receive him.
The black carriage barreled down the path in a cloud of angry white dust. When it came to a standstill, a footman opened the carriage door.
Harry caught a flash of red.
The blazing summer sun paled beside him.
He had the shape of a boy but was dressed like a man, with an ivory cravat tied in a bow and a gold-tipped walking stick, the tails of his red coat licking the air behind him like flames.
He was everything Harry dreamed he would be and yet wildly different from the image he had in his mind.
Etiquette dictated that his father greet the Duke first but Harry was too excited. He threw his arms around the boy’s neck and kissed his cheek. “Welcome, friend!”
The boy stiffened.
Embarrassed, Harry’s mother pulled him away. “Forgive my son. He’s not used to company.”
Inside, the butler took his walking stick. Louis kept his hat tucked beneath his arm. His hair was the color of fox fur and parted neatly to the side. Harry tried to smooth his own dark curls to no avail.
They led the Duke into the drawing room for tea.
Harry tugged on his sleeve. “Would you like to see my coin collection?”
His father brushed him aside and began to discuss the Duke’s succession. They sat opposite each other on leather armchairs.
“You had two older brothers?”
“And they all passed away in the accident? With your mother and father?”
“Yet you survived. Quite… miraculous.”
Louis lifted the teacup to his lips. “Isn’t it though?” The china’s swirling blue pattern echoed the storm in his eyes.
The young Duke was in bad temper.
Harry played his finest arrangement on the piano to cheer him, but he wasn’t listening.
By supper, Harry had barely spoken two words to the boy.
As the butler swanned in with the soup terrine, Harry cleared his throat and said, “I read Bleak House this winter with my governess. I quite enjoyed it.” He turned to Louis. “Do you like Dickens?”
“I loathe him.”
They said no more on the subject of books.
The boy chatted politics with Harry’s father instead, debating the result of the Blackburn by-election and sparring with him on the subject of voter intimidation, until the Duke of Somerset became weary and conceded his point.
Harry ate in silence. He pushed the last morsel of lamb around on his plate and kicked the legs of his chair.
The young Duke barely touched his food. His blonde lashes beat heavily on his cheeks. He announced that he’d had a long journey and would be retiring early.
Harry panicked. Louis was leaving the next day. He may never get an opportunity like this again, and he wanted so badly to make a friend.
“How did your family die?” he blurted out.
His mother pinched his leg. “Harry!”
His father shook his head. “Honestly, child.”
Louis stood and dragged a hand through a candle flame without flinching. “House fire.”
Originally, he asked the horsekeeper to adorn the reins and saddle with green ribbon that matched the Warwick family crest. But Louis appeared to prefer red. Harry had them change it at the last minute so that everything would be perfect.
Harry could tell the young Duke was an accomplished rider from the shape of his legs. He’d attended the Bilsdale Hunt in Yorkshire six times.
Louis asked Harry which club he belonged to. Harry kicked the grass sheepishly. “None. I’m not allowed to leave the estate.”
He sprinted ahead of his father and the Duke to the stables to fetch the horse.
Achilles wouldn’t budge. Harry tugged on his reins and he turned his head and sniffed haughtily. It took three farm hands to coax him out of his stall.
The beast was even more magnificent in motion. He trotted into the sunlight, his muscles rippling like the sea beneath his glorious dark coat.
Louis was impressed. He put his hands behind his back and examined the horse’s hindquarters and forelegs.
As Louis thanked the Duke of Somerset, Harry snuck away to the stables to feed Bertie the biscuit he nicked at tea. She neighed with excitement when he came near. He opened his hand and felt the tickle of her soft nose as she gently lifted the biscuit from his palm.
He heard footsteps behind him.
“Is she yours?” Louis approached, his manner relaxed now that Harry’s father wasn’t there.
“Yes. Her name’s Bertie.”
“She’s a carthorse,” he said, his blue eyes scrutinizing her the way they did Achilles. “You like her?”
“She’s my best friend,” Harry replied with a catch in his throat.
Bertie shied away from the Duke. His eyes made her nervous.
“Here.” Harry took the boy’s hand and removed his glove, exposing the warm skin beneath. “She likes to be scratched behind the ear.” He placed a hand on top of Louis’ and moved their fingers together through the thick white fur.
Louis stared at him.
Harry felt his cheeks get hot. “I wish you would stay for one more day.”
Before he could answer, Louis’ footman walked into the stable.
“Your grace, pardon the interruption but we’re preparing to leave. The stallion is being loaded into the crate.”
The young Duke stopped him. “No.” His eyes met Harry’s and his small pink pout spread into a smile. “Take the mare.”
Harry felt the blood drain from his face. The footman opened Bertie’s stall door and Harry heard himself yell, “no, no, no!”
His father walked into the stable to see what all the commotion was about.
“You can’t let him take her, Papa! She’s mine!”
Insulted, Harry’s father asked, “What would you want with this pitiful creature? The stallion is worth ten times as much. This one isn’t worthy of a farmer let alone a Duke.”
“I like a challenge.” Louis tapped the mud off his boot with his riding crop. “I can make a champion out of dreck.”
Bertie wasn’t dreck, Harry sobbed, she was everything to him.
Harry’s father sighed, ignoring his son’s cries. “As you wish.”
Trusting and sweet, Bertie followed Louis without struggle.
Hot tears spilled down Harry’s cheeks.
Instead of leading the mare to the crate, the Duke had her saddled. “I’ll ride her until she tires.”
He didn’t wait for his men to follow with the carriage. He leapt onto Bertie’s back, yanked her reins sharply and tore down the grassy knolls, through the iron gates.