“We will stop here and make camp for the night,” Lord Ashford told his First Lieutenant, squinting against the wind at the village spread out in the shallow valley below them. Huxley Town was too small and too rural to be a real town: spread out over the green fields of the valley in picturesque tranquility it was almost too idyllic to be real. It was almost a shame to bring a regiment of battle-weary and bloodied men into a place which had clearly remained untouched by the war. But they had little choice. It would be dark soon and the next town or village would likely be miles away. They needed rest and the wounded needed treatment.
“Yes, My Lord,” the First Lieutenant said, turning his horse and riding back to give the order. Ashford began the steady decent toward the small town. His horse, weary and straining, picked its way gingerly down the slope, giving Ashford time to take in the sight of the town and to consider the familiar swelling in his heart: a personal, dreaded hope that what he had heard was right. That Thomas was here, somewhere.
A gaggle of villagers were coming out of their wooden houses to gawk at the newcomers descending on their town. They leaned against fences or peeked nervously from doorsteps and porches. Ashford kept looking around, wondering, waiting…
He tugged the reins so hard in surprised that his mare bucked and nearly spooked. Ashford hastily tried to calm her before turning around to face the man with that familiar voice. “Tommy.”
Somewhere in the distance, the bells began to chime and, looking up, Ashford could see the front lines of his army coming over the hill and making their own decent. Thomas was looking at him with wide-eyed wonder, something between surprise and awe and panic. It made Ashford want to laugh, though every movement of his body was becoming more and more painful by the moment.
Thomas took the reins of his horse and urged him to come and take shelter for the night at his house; Ashford had no reason or desire to refuse. They crossed over several muddy streets and stopped by a large, sturdy house, in many ways superior to the ones around it.
“So, this is where you live now,” Ashford said flatly, looking over the surroundings. Thomas had always been an odd one – the youngest son of a minor noble, who neither wished to take solace in the ranks of the clergy nor battle for his future in the military. Instead, he married the daughter of a well-off craftsman and moved into the middle of nowhere. A picturesque middle of nowhere, and yet.
“You must be fresh from battle. We heard echoes of it,” Thomas chattered on, seemingly oblivious. Ashford tried to dismount in his usual, easy fashion but the stabbing pain in his side made him double over and his vision go dark for a moment. Thomas was beside him immediately. “Let me help you down, My Lord. Oh, you’re wounded! Come, we must get inside.”
Ashford allowed Thomas to help him down from his horse and guide him into the house, which smelled of herbs. Thomas introduced his wife, a small pretty thing, sent her for the doctor, then continued his nervous chatter. “The war hasn’t reached us here, but we’ve heard all about it. You must be just back from the latest battle over the ford. We heard echoes of it even here—Did I mention that already? I must have. It must have been to your taste, My Lord, I remember.” He turned and gave Ashford a guarded sort of knowing look. Ashford, for himself, could never quite tell if Thomas was serious or mocking him when he said such things.
“I liked it well, as battles go. You shouldn’t have sent for the doctor; even the best ones rarely do much good. It would be nice to have fresh bandages though.” He’d had a hasty job done by one of the field surgeons, insisted he wasn’t too badly hurt to ride, and didn’t regret that decision at all for the first hour or so. Then the high-blood of the battle tempered and Ashford began to feel just how deep his enemy’s sword had pierced his side. But he doubted there was much to be done for it than bandages and rest
Thomas looked around as though to make sure no one was watching them – his wife had gone. “You should come lie down,” he said seriously. ‘We’ve got food and wine, My Lord. If you wish. But you should come lie down.’
“Wine wouldn’t hurt.”
Thomas led him into the small bedchamber and began to fuss over blanket and pillows and helping him get stripped down to his undershirt. Thomas attempted to continue making conversation. “We’ve heard you’ve had a son. That’s a fine thing—an heir? You probably hope he will be like you…”
Ashford closed his eyes and thought of his ten-yea-old son, fondly. The boy loved horses and wanted to be a knight and to fight in great battles like his father. His mother disapproved, just as she disapproved of Ashford himself lately. Perhaps he was too cold with her. He didn’t mean to be, but they had not married for love, and it showed.
Having made sure that he was well settled on the bed with ample blankets and pillows, Thomas disappeared into the other room again only to return moments later with biscuits and wine. “Marie is making broth for dinner, but I don’t think it’s done yet…” Thomas trialed off, handing him a glass of dark-red wine. Ashford looked over the boy even as he perched uncertainly on the edge of an armchair beside the bed. He still had that mousy tousled hair and pale blue eyes. He was still bustling and fussy and clearly anxious over every little detail. A ghost from his youth.
“You never told me why you left, Tommy,” he said finally, the taste of bitter wine seeming to awaken something in him.
“You shouldn’t call me that, My Lord,” Thomas said quietly, dropping his eyes. ‘’
“Why not? I did it all the time before.”
“When we were boys. It’s been a while since then.”
It had been. Years, really. “You could have stayed. I know you didn’t like the life your father and brothers led. Or the life I led – the balls and the tourneys and battles—”
“No, I didn’t.” Thomas’ voice was rough, raw. He still wasn’t meeting Ashford’s eyes. “All I wanted to do was write—”
“And now you heard ship. Or what—what do you do here?”
Thomas flushed and looked up with a familiar spark of anger in his eyes. “You could never understand, My Lord. You think war is glorious and noble – the parades and the victory and…all the death doesn’t bother you. I was never suited for a monastery but I certainly was never suited for the field of battle. How may men did you kill? How many of your own men died? And now you lay here dying and—”
“You think I’m dying?”
Thomas shook his head quickly. “Forgive me, My Lord. I didn’t mean—I don’t know—I’m not a doctor.’
Ashford smiled sadly at him and drank more of the wine. He must be in bad shape indeed, however, as he felt no appetite for the biscuits Thomas had brought though it had been hours since he had elated. “Wars are necessary things.’ He looked up and held Thomas’ gaze until the boy’s face began to redden once again. “As are marriages.”
Thomas winced and tore his gaze away. “Was it worth it, My Lord?” His voice was quiet, almost breathless.
“All of it.”
He had thought so until Thomas had simply left one day – a week after Ashford’s wedding day – leaving nothing but a note behind. I cannot watch you destroy yourself. I cannot allow you to destroy me – weather you love me or not makes no difference. My own pain is enough to kill me. It must end like this. It had taken Ashford several minutes to understand what the note had meant. No one knew where Thomas had gone – Ashford never found out how he ended up with some of his father’s money after his death. Rumor had it that the brother he was closest to found him, and kept him somewhat abreast of the affairs back home.
But Ashford never tried to write to him or to search for him. He had felt too betrayed. He was risking his own reputation to be with Thomas. Wasn’t that enough? Running away like that had read to him as an act of cowardice and weakness. “Which part of our lives did you hate, Tommy?” he asked. Ignoring the initial question entirely. “The part where I married a woman for duty, the part where we disagreed about war, the one where you wanted a life different from the what was expected of you and I wasn’t enough to make you stay? Which part was it that you found most unbearable?"
Thomas flinched. “It wasn’t about me.”
“Oh? Wasn’t it?” The pain in his side was beginning to slowly spread throughout his body and the weakness that had started at his knees was now consuming him. Ashford closed his eyes and sagged into the pillows propping him up into a half-sitting position. He didn’t have the energy to argue with Tommy now. They had both always been a little selfish. The kisses they had shared in abandoned rooms of his father’s castle, or in the woods, had not changed that. If he was to die, he was glad he had gotten a chance to see Thomas one last time.
The sudden weight on the bed beside him, made Ashford open his eyes just enough to see that Thomas had sat down on the edge of the bed with a bowl of water and a strip of cloth. Then there was cool, dampness on his forehead and temples and Ashford realized just how hot his face had felt. ‘Where is Marie with that doctor,” Thomas muttered, as if to himself.
“There are a lot of wounded; one of my lieutenants may have gotten him to come out to camp to help our surgeons,’ Ashford supplied, vaguely aware that his words were beginning to slur.
“Did you win the battle, Leo?” Thomas asked again, dropping the forced, almost-mocking formality. “Would it have been worth your life?”
Ashford reached out and caught his hand, their fingers intertwining instantly, from memory. “Yes,” he said. “It brought me here, after all, to see you one more time. So, yes.”