The Legend Of Wychwood Manor – Episode 20

Characters from the serial dancing

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Lying almost horizontal on Captain’s neck, Belle as she knew herself ceased to exist, and yet every sense was heightened – the heat rising from her horse’s skin, the way her hair and Captain’s mane tangled together, even the salt taste of tears running into the corners of her mouth.

It was as if she was so close to death that her spirit had detached itself.

The girl with streaming copper hair on a maddened horse galloping towards the cliff edge was her and yet not her.

How odd, she thought. Does everyone feel like this? A sudden hope gripped her.

Was she about to be reunited with her father?

Maybe it was the thought of him, but she heard Papa’s voice, not weak and faltering as it had been in the weeks before he died, but warm and strong.

“Show him you have faith in him, Belle.”

It was what he’d said when she was nine years old and learning to jump her little Welsh pony.

With the words came clarity. Captain was as reliable as a rock. He would never willingly hurt her.

She spoke into Captain’s ear, pushing away the fear that threatened to overwhelm her.

“I have faith in you, Captain.”

The horse’s ear swivelled towards her.

Was there a slight slackening in their headlong gallop?

“Come now, Captain, my bold one, my beauty . . .”

She could feel his bunched muscles as tense as coiled springs as she reached out to grasp the left-hand rein, exerting a slow, steady pressure.

“Easy does it, boy, easy now. We don’t want to go that way. Think of your stable with all the oats you can eat and sweet Bess waiting for you.”

Belle’s mind reached out to Captain’s, her hand gentle on the rein, her voice calm and steady as if there was all the time in the world, bringing him down from his terror.

“No need to panic. We’re back in control. Good boy, Captain.”

Belle held her breath. Captain was turning.

The pounding of his hooves was less urgent, smoother, a flowing rhythm.

She spoke into his ear again, softly but authoritatively, not doubting herself or him.

“Steady, Captain. Slow down now, my beauty. Captain, whoa.”

Captain stopped.

Shaking with relief, Belle slipped down to the ground and leant against him, stroking his neck caked with sweat and whispering endearments.

Captain stood, utterly exhausted, his sides heaving.

Belle’s own legs started to shake uncontrollably and she had to sit down on the grass.

A lark was singing somewhere overhead. Belle leaned her head against her knees and let the sun soak into her bones.

All she wanted to do was curl up on the heather and go to sleep, but she stumbled back to her feet to check on Captain.

The horse was in far worse shape than she was.

What he needed most after his frantic gallop was a long, cool drink, but there was no fresh water on the cliff downland and he was in no state to go anywhere just yet.

He was still nervy, flinging up his head and rolling his eyes when a bee emerged from a purple foxglove with a loud buzz.

Belle gathered a handful of sun-dried grass and used it to rub him down, hissing between her teeth as she’d heard the stable-lads do.

Initially, it seemed to calm him, but when she worked down towards his belly, Captain jumped violently backwards, almost knocking her over.

She dropped the grass in her haste to scramble out of Captain’s way, but when she picked it up, her palm felt unpleasantly sticky.

Something about its colour made her catch her breath. It wasn’t sweat as she’d thought at first, but a reddish substance.

It looked like blood.

Belle stepped towards Captain and caught hold of the reins again as she examined his belly.

His sweat-darkened coat made it hard to see, but closer observation showed that the shadowy lines running from under the saddle skirt were meandering trickles of sticky blood.

Had Captain hurt himself? But how could that be? They had not got as far as the gorse bushes.

Belle reached out to touch the saddle and felt Captain quiver beneath her fingers, his muscles tensing, poised for flight.

She knew he would have taken off again if he hadn’t been utterly exhausted from their mad gallop.

It had to be the saddle. Belle frowned.

“Let’s get this off you, old boy,” she said. “You’ll feel much better for it.”

To be continued…

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