Thomas sought shelter in a quiet corner of the grand entrance garden. He sat on a low stone wall surrounded by foliage and put his hand into his knapsack again. When he had reached in to retrieve the message for the King he had been surprised to feel two letters inside. One had been the recognisable scroll with the King of France’s seal that he had passed to King Henry. But what of the second message in his knapsack? Thomas pulled out a smaller folded note. It was sealed, an image of a large tree stamped into the bright red wax. On the opposite side was simply written Messenger. Thomas looked around him, saw no one nearby, and broke the seal with a decisive crack before unfolding the message and reading its contents.
My dear Messenger,
Someone unknown moves against the peace that exists between us. The great friendship toasted at the Field of Cloth of Gold is over yet the main protagonists are not our Kings. Dark forces move against them and good people are slain. Be on your guard for treachery exists close by. I hope you do come back.
C. He thought for the briefest of moments, it must be Catherine. She speaks of treachery and the end of peace. Thomas thought of the commotion of his last visit to the palace, the death of Arnauld. Was it an accident or was there something more sinister at work here? He thought again of the attack on him, had the giant really been after the words he carried?
Only a few months ago, the Kings of England and France had entertained each other in a magnificent display of friendship and excess. Although only relatively recent the event, known as the Field of Cloth of Gold, had already become legendary. Thousands of tents had covered the earth at Balinghem near Calais to house the magnificent entourages that each King had brought to the occasion. Games, feasts and entertainment had been plenty and the two Kings had embraced each other as never before. To anyone who witnessed the events you would believe that conflict could never be a proposition again. A union of the greatest countries in the world was being cemented for all time. There were still some who spoke negatively of the closeness, fearing that England was embracing a foreign power for ill reason but they were a minority. It had seemed the two countries were unified and yet, just these short months later, dark clouds were hanging over the two Kings and it would seem the friendship was over just as it had begun.
Thomas was troubled not only by the suggestion of treachery at Court but by the fact that Catherine took the risk to tell him this much in the first place. Why did she give me a letter? Thomas thought. Why not just raise this with the councillors? What possible reason could she have for thinking that by telling me, I could do anything about it?
He burnt the letter on one of the torches that illuminate the gardens, the paper slowly blackened, curling and disappearing in front of his eyes, bright red embers danced into the night sky carried high by the flames. It was dusk and he sought the shelter of the horse yard where he could sit in the hay and think. He pondered doing nothing, after all what could he do? But Thomas felt that he needed to talk to someone about the letter, he needed to establish if there was any truth in the suggestion that Arnauld was murdered. He would talk to Charles Baker. The only man left in his life whom he could call a friend.
Charles Baker rubbed his eye sockets for a long time before he raised his head and looked at Thomas with disbelief. ‘Are you aware what you are saying Thomas?’ He said.
Thomas nodded. He had just told Charles of the letter he had received from someone in the French Court concerned at treachery that was leading their two countries to war.
‘The treachery is the letter. Someone is trying to deceive you.’ Charles studied Thomas.
‘But Arnauld’s death if it was an accident should have no bearing on relations.’ Thomas replied.
‘It is not as simple as that Thomas. There is an underlying tension between our two countries, there always has been. Sometimes it can be papered over with politeness, gifts and wagers, think of Balinghem. But false smiles hide venom and hatred. There is hostility with France because they have insulted the King and revealed their true perceptions of us. They do not want us as allies they want our land and wealth and that alone. We need to destroy them Thomas, and we will.’
Thomas couldn’t believe the conviction and disdain of the words being spoken. Once again the soldiers would march, once again they would fall. Blood would seep into the ground from the dead of English and French armies. It had happened time and again in history and now it was about to happen all over again. Thomas had seen war, had lived war and he had did not ever want to see it again.
‘The world is a dark, cruel place. People fight, people die. People get sick, people die. Good lord, Thomas there are hundreds of children dying every day right here in London, on the Kings doorstep. There are always wars going on whether it is between countries, between disease and people or between neighbours. War is a fact of life. Horror is a fact of life.’ Charles said coldly.
‘But it has not been a part of our lives for many years. Will you raise the possibility of treachery with the King and your people? Ensure there is no deception leading you to war?’ Thomas asked.
‘Do not worry I will be raising any concerns with the King directly. Now you need to get some rest, you are a Kings messenger Thomas, keep your mind focused on that. We will need you shortly so stay close.’
‘You will talk to the King?’
‘I will go there immediately. You need to rest, be back here in one hour.’
Thomas considered riding for Jasmines little house in the village. He could be there in her arms in a couple of hours, but his mind was full of suspicion about the letter he had received. He would have to wait until there was some news from Charles before seeing Jasmine again. Thomas walked from the palace entrance into the gardens that spread out before him. Although it was dark, torches illuminated some of the closer paths. As he walked the pathways he thought of the letter he had received, it was still inconceivable to him that someone in the French court had singled him out, had attempted to communicate in that way. The French, how could he trust them over his own people? Thomas’s mind turned to drink. He needed a drink.
The cry was a sudden loudness in the dark surroundings that was almost instantly cut off. Thomas’s mind was alerted by the desperation in the voice, his eyes strained in the darkness, the shout had come from close by somewhere up ahead. It was a woman’s voice and sounded terrified.
He ran forward, feeling for the pathway as he went. There was a noise ahead, then, as he turned a corner he saw several men surrounding a young lady. She was partially clothed and lying on her back, her arms pinned down by two of them. Thomas recognised several of the men in the torchlight, they were members of the Court and they were raping this lady.
‘Get away from her!’ Thomas shouted. The men recoiled away from the woman and turned as if connected to each other. Thomas lunged forward and pulled the girl to her feet.
‘What the hell do you want?’ One of the men asked of Thomas.
‘My lady, go to the Palace, now!’ Thomas spoke urgently and gathered her clothing together, quickly placing it over her body before walking her in the direction he had just come from.
Then he felt a hand on his shoulder, he flinched and turned, the shoulder had not healed yet. Just as he did so a fist landed squarely in his face and he fell to the ground. The girl screamed briefly before running back to the Palace. Thomas rolled on to his back, his face numb from the sudden attack. He glanced along the pathway and was relieved to see that none of the men had gone after the girl.
‘We’re going to break your face you bastard.’ One of the men spoke. Thomas had to stop himself from smiling because the man had a particularly elegant sounding voice which was completely at odds with the words he had just uttered, Thomas had no fear.
‘Who is this idiot?’ Another man spoke before kicking out with his right foot at Thomas’s legs.
‘I’ve seen him before. He is one of the messengers.’
Thomas wiped a hand over his face then got to his feet slowly.
‘You should be delivering letters messenger, not sticking your nose into my business.’ The figure snarled menacingly.
Thomas studied the man who had spoken. He was a similar height to his own but he was also fat. Thomas recognised him as Richard Manfield, he was the brother of one of the senior members of the Kings personal staff. Many people shied away from him aware of the connections to powerful individuals. Thomas did not.
‘What is your business apart from raping young women? Or is that all you do?’ Thomas replied to the fat man.
‘Maybe you do not recognise me, Messenger,’ Richard Manfield sneered, ‘I have powerful friends here.’
‘A man who mentions his powerful friends as eagerly as you is covering up for the fact that they have no power themselves. If you walk away now, then I won’t hurt you.’
Richard Manfield’s face looked shocked for the briefest moment, and then he turned and studied the faces of those around him before settling his eyes back on Thomas and laughing. ‘What is your name?’ He asked as the laughter died away.
‘Well Thomas Cunningham, you are a dead man.’
Now it was Thomas’s turn to laugh. The men surrounding him looked on incredulously, as if not believing he had heard correctly. Then Thomas stopped laughing and fixed Manfield with a cold stare. A few days ago he would not have put up much resistance; he could have been beaten up and left for dead. But he was curious about the note from Catherine. It had been given to him for a reason and Thomas was not going to go until he had found that reason.
Thomas dusted himself down, stooping slightly then moved forward so quickly that Richard Manfield had no opportunity to defend himself before he was head butted violently, sending him crashing backwards against the floor. He hit hard, his hands at his face trying to stem the blood that flowed from his nose. The other men watched him amazed before turning their attention back to Thomas.
‘Who’s next?’ Thomas asked, eager for the fight. But the men were not looking at him anymore, they looked past him. Thomas turned and saw Charles Baker with several guardsmen.
‘No one is next Thomas, come with me.’
‘But these men were raping a young woman Sir, they should be arrested.’
‘They will be dealt with, I assure you.’
Thomas turned back to the men who stared arrogantly at him. He spat at Richard Manfield who was still prone on the ground and then turned and walked away.
‘Thomas, that is not wise.’ Charles muttered as the two men began to walk back to the palace gates.
‘Wise? They are rapists.’
‘They are connected at Court Thomas. You should tread very carefully.’
‘They are weak.’
‘If they are weak in body Thomas, they are not necessarily weak in mind or friends.’
‘Are you arresting them?’
‘I told you Thomas, I will deal with this.’
‘Did you see the girl?’
‘Make sure you do, she looks a mess but she should testify.’
‘Thomas, you have a mission to complete. Put your mind to that and let me worry about things here. I cannot have you trying to get killed when we have a job to do.’
‘I was not trying to get killed Charles.’
Charles stopped walking for a moment as they neared the palace entrance. He turned and faced Thomas. ‘You bait death like no man I have ever met. Any opportunity to risk your life and you take it.’
‘If I wanted death that much I would have stayed in the military.’
Thomas watched Charles study him for a long moment, before he replied ‘Thomas, you are a sorry soul and death is going to come for you.’
‘I will embrace it.’ Thomas replied almost defiantly.
Charles turned back to the Palace, ‘Come on, the King is waiting and I need to talk to him before you enter. Wait outside the door until I call for you.’
Thomas took off his helmet and sword and walked into the narrow corridor leading to the Kings quarters. He had heard Charles call for him. It was time.
Two men of the Kings guard stood in front of the door but moved aside as Thomas neared.
He entered the room and saw the King in discussion with Charles Baker. They both turned to the doorway as he entered.
‘Ah, Cunningham is it not?’ The King asked.
‘Yes Your Majesty.’
The King reached over to a large table by his side and held out a folded and sealed document. Thomas approached and took it.
‘I want you to take this to the Earl of Somerset.’
‘Please do not be like so many of my messengers by being slow about it, I would like some speed now and again.’
‘Of course Your Majesty.’
‘Good. Some of them forget that they carry my word and I expect haste. I think our mutual friend Charles here is too soft on them.’
Thomas glanced towards Charles who feigned innocence.
The King turned his attention back to Thomas, ‘But, I should not paint you with that same brush for I know your haste. Go.’
‘Yes Your Majesty.’ Thomas glanced at Charles who nodded very slightly before Thomas turned and left the room. He strode out of the Kings quarters and turned right towards the main hall, placing his helmet securely he then tied his sword around his waist. Buttoning his tunic he passed through the hall and into the entrance of the palace before exiting and turning for the stables.
Placing the message into his knapsack he mounted and headed towards the Gatehouse, the torch’s crackled in the near blackness as he passed under the archways through a tunnel of dancing light and into the surrounding streets.
Somerset. A more straightforward journey than Paris, but it was in the wrong direction to speak to Jasmine or Catherine. Never mind, his chance would come soon surely, until then he would gallop as fast as he could for the King.