‘Tom, you are getting slow in your old age!’
Thomas looked at the beaming face of his Brother, ‘You cannot even suppress a smile let alone control a horse.’
‘I just cannot bear to see you lose all the time.’
The two riders stood next to each other under a midday sun, the flat surrounding landscape was ideal for galloping horses and settling bets. Richard Cunningham was a tall and powerfully built man, even under a blanket of chainmail his physique was obvious. Thomas knew he couldn’t match his brother in terms of power, but he was the better horseman, at least that’s what he thought.
‘So what challenge do you have for us next?’ Richard asked eagerly.
Thomas pulled his left foot out of the stirrup and slid off his horse, keeping hold of the reins. ‘Enough for now, let us find some shade, I am tired.’
They walked over to a large oak tree that stood quite alone, its broad branches and foliage provided plenty of shade and respite from the heat of the day. They left the horses to chew at the grass and sat together looking out over the surrounding lands.
‘You will have to go soon.’
‘I have all day Richard. There is still time for me to win some of my money back.’
‘I can meet you tomorrow. We can go hunting, explore the land and see what we encounter.’
‘I would like that.’ Richards face suddenly looked crestfallen.
‘Why are you so sad?’ Thomas asked.
‘Because I don’t want you to be alone.’
‘I won’t be.’
‘I am your brother and I know you.’
‘I will be fine, honestly.’
‘We will see you again soon, Father and I.’
‘Yes you will. I look forward to seeing him again, it has been too long.’
‘He feels the same, he mentions you every day in thought and in dreams.’
‘Of course, he often talks about you. Remember when you hid from him for a whole morning? He was angry but when he found you he couldn’t summon the will to be ill mannered towards you, he was so glad to discover you.’
‘I remember I never hid from him again. I didn’t like to see him worried.’
‘He is not worried now, he knows where you are and that he will see you soon.’
Thomas sensed it was time to go. He stood up but was suddenly racked with pain on his back and shoulder, Richard quickly took hold of him as his legs collapsed beneath. Thomas looked down at himself and could see his shirt was dark with blood, he looked up to Richard but he was gone. The oak tree, grass and horses were replaced with walls. He was in a room, intense pain, a concerned stranger, darkness took him. He welcomed it, wanted it, the darkness had always threatened to pull Thomas to it and he wanted to submit for these nightmares would haunt him whenever he closed his eyes. But it would seem now was not the time for light came back to him again.
‘Do you always look after strangers?’ Thomas asked, his voice barely a whisper.
She was startled for a moment before regaining her composure and turning, her eyes fixing on him.
‘You are not a stranger.’ She replied in a soft voice. Thomas could not quite place the accent. He was going to ask her, when she spoke again. ‘How are you feeling?’
‘Weak but basically well, you have cared for me?’
‘Yes you were found on our land soaked in your own blood, my father carried you here.’ she said looking around the room.
Thomas was in a small room lit by a fire in one corner. The room was sparse, the bed and a chair were all it contained. He guessed it was the house of a farmer and his family, there was little money here but it was homely.
‘My name is Thomas Cunningham.’ He said as his gaze returned to her. She had brown eyes and a sharp thin nose framed by long dark hair that fell in front of her face.
‘I must tell my father that you are awake.’ She rose to her feet.
Thomas thought of Tempest.
‘Where is my horse?’ He asked urgently.
‘He is in the stable he’s fine.’
‘My saddlebag, do you have it?’
‘Yes of course.’ She reached behind her chair and pulled out the dusty leather saddlebag and passed it to Thomas. He reached inside and felt the message still sealed and safe.
Thomas lay back down as the lady left the room.
How long have I been here? He wondered to himself, was it days or weeks? He closed his eyes.
‘How long have I been here?’ he whispered.
‘Since yesterday morning.’ The reply startled him.
The sunlight glow had dimmed and a middle aged, thin man was at his side cleaning his shoulder.
‘You are strong and are healing well. You lost a lot of blood from your shoulder wound but you will mend.’
‘You are the one who found me?’
‘Yes. You were in a bad way. Blood loss mainly. I haven’t seen wounds like that for a while.’
‘You were in the army?’
‘Yes, a long time ago.’
‘My name is Thomas Cunningham. I will try to reward you for your help.’
‘I am John Boothe and I don’t need your reward, thank you.’
Thomas thought of the time he had lost, a full day. He should be in France by now instead he was in bed. He looked through the window and saw the lady walking past. He began to get up.
Thomas studied her and saw the concern. ‘I am a Kings Messenger, I have a message to deliver and I cannot delay.’
‘You need clean wounds before you leave or you will die.’
Thomas laid back down, looking to the window he couldn’t see the lady anymore. He let out a breath, the shoulder ached badly. ‘I have to go I have no choice.’ He did not want to be here he wanted to be on the road.
‘It won’t take long. My daughter will finish cleaning and dress the wounds and you can go.’
Thomas felt an ache in his stomach, he looked at it, but there was no wound there.
‘Jasmine!’ The man called.
The girl appeared at the doorway, dust swirled in the light from outside the darkened room but Thomas’s gaze was fixed on her.
‘Dress the wounds, then he will go.’
‘Thank you Sir, I am indebted to you.’
‘How we carry ourselves in life leaves a legacy. I would not wish a man to bleed to death alone on my land.’ He walked from the room leaving Thomas alone with Jasmine.
‘Turn over please.’
Though it hurt Thomas turned onto his stomach.
‘My father closed the wound as much as he could. Try not to move too much otherwise it will open again and you will lose more blood.’
A bowl of salt water stood on a small side table, Jasmine cleaned as best she could. Thomas felt her hands on his back, she had a delicate touch.
‘My name is Thomas Cunningham.’
‘Where were you going Thomas Cunningham?’
Thomas was thoughtful, recalling his last meeting with the King. ‘France.’ He finally replied. Her hands were still on his back.
‘Is it a dangerous journey?’
‘It can be but my horse Tempest is a magnificent animal, the fastest horse in the land.’
‘Yes, I believe it to be so.’
‘Then your horse really will look after you.’ She paused for a moment. ‘You have many scars.’
Thomas’s mind flashed back to the giant and to past battles. Glinting steel, running blood, the war cry and madness. He closed his eyes and replied, ‘Yes from many battles.’
‘You were a soldier?’
‘Yes I was, for many years. But I do not fight wars for England anymore.’
‘Who do you fight Thomas?’
‘I fight myself Jasmine.’ He replied after a pause.
‘Yes, there are many demons in me and though I try to forget them, they always are able to find me.’
‘Demons? I do not understand.’ She stopped touching his back, drawing her hands away as if he was suddenly contagious.
‘Nor should you Jasmine. Let me say that I struggle to get through every day, but you are beautiful and do not need to listen to my tale of sorrow. My horse will do that, he has no choice.’ Thomas ended with a smile.
‘He will look after you?’
Thomas nodded, ‘Yes he will. But it would not be possible without you and your father. Thank you for caring for me, I am fortunate.’
‘I am glad he found you when he did. You could have been lying out there for days with no one finding you if he had not chanced upon your horse, then you.’
Thomas thought about the times when he had been left injured on a battlefield. No one had found him then but he had made it back somehow. Often he had thought about just laying there, letting the darkness wash over him and not fighting it.
‘You are thoughtful.’ her voice pierced his thoughts.
‘I am fortunate you found me.’ He stated again.
‘Is it a lonely life, being a messenger?’
‘It can be. You are travelling so much it is rare to be away from the roads. There is no time for anything other than to ride hard.’
‘Your beard is very long.’ She observed.
‘I like it this way.’ Thomas moved his right hand to his chin and rubbed the matted hair that clung to him. ‘To shave it regularly, I would never manage it.’
‘That is laziness.’
‘I feel that it allows me to hide. Without it I would feel naked.’
‘You should not hide Thomas you should face the world.’
Thomas thought about that for a long time. He had not faced the world for many years. He had ridden from place to place but always with his mind closed. He looked in on himself and never out.
‘You are right. If you permit me I would come back to see you.’
‘I would like that Thomas Cunningham.’