The Protector – Prologue

I had foot-slogged my way for six months across half the country and back again. I had found nothing except a numbness, and the stale dregs of straw-strewn taverns in the villages I passed. Uxbridge, this one, I think.

I’d wager she got bored and run off with some other fellow.’

Six louts sat around a table together. I did not see which of them said it. They were watching me, listening to me foul drunk on watery beer, wine-slurred and moon-faced, waxing loud of my missing Caro, ranting and railing at the smoky air and the vicissitudes of a fickle and heartless fate. I had barely noticed their presence in the tavern until that lucid moment. I saw them now. They were laughing.

She wouldn’t do that. Not my Caro.

They looked back at me as I turned, and their laughing fell off their faces. Among all the things I am, I am a large man and a soldier, and have been so for too many years. I have killed men, and I have seen men die. As I took a step towards them they rose from their table and bunched together, ready to stare me down.

What did you say?’ I could tell from their eyes and their exchange of glances which of them had spoken.

I said I’d wager your wife tired of your talk and has run off with some other fellow, you sot.’ He stood across their table from me – given courage, perhaps, by the knowledge I would have to pass through his friends to reach him. I did not feel so inclined. I raised my foot and smashed a kick into that table, slamming it into him. He howled, as did I, a roar of such fury and despair that I could not imagine it was my own. I would have jumped after him and pulled him out and beaten him half to death, I think, but instead I staggered and fell, unbalanced by drink as I was. I floundered to find my feet and a boot connected with my ribs, and then another. I barely felt them. I stumbled against the wall, almost fell into the fireplace, and lurched a drunkard’s punch at the nearest of the men who now set upon me. Another and another. I lashed with my feet. I try, now, not to imagine what a sight I made, flailing limbs, the mournful snarls and howls of a pitiful fury. Perhaps I gravely injured a stool or two before they had me. The air filled with shouts, a thick cloying smoke of them. The men seized me between them. They carried me out to the street and held me up, and beat me and beat me again. Blow after blow. I felt them in the distance. I saw the fists fly at my face, knuckles clenched, bloody and raw from the blows before. I remember most clearly of all the moment before my eyes closed. The spittle-flecked, twisted faces. The fist like a knuckle of ham.

It was not the last. I felt a handful more, like the shake of distant drumbeats through the air, but I was no longer among them. I had taken myself to another place and another time. I was in my house. My empty home, and where once had been laughter and smiles and movement, now was cold, still air. The table stood bare, and I sat alone. The pans were neatly hung in the kitchen, the blankets folded in the closet. There were clothes in the dresser. Old dresses my Caro had once worn. In the room where our son John had slept, I found shirts and smocks I had never seen before. They were years old, but already for a boy taller than the lad I remembered. He would be starting to grow traces of his first beard now. He would be almost a man, old enough to pick up a pike or a musket. Old enough to fight. In a corner beside my daughter’s bed I found an old cloth doll. Discarded. The girl I remembered had loved that doll. She’d taken it everywhere, but it was a child’s toy, and she would be sixteen years now, and all childish things long forgotten.

Six years since I had left them for the King’s banner. Outside, snow lay heavy on the ground, but no one had lit a fire in these hearths for months. I ran my hand through the dust by the fireplace where we had once sat, and my fingers came back thick with it. I wrapped myself in blankets and lay on the bed that my Caro and I had once shared. I shivered myself to sleep, and in the morning I left again and did not come back.

In the place and time from which I had come, in the summer evening outside an Uxbridge tavern, the men beating me had gone. There were others looming over me now, faces in soldier’s coats; and then I slipped between them to the past once more, and they were Cromwell and Thomas Fairfax. They would force the King to terms before the year was out, they said, but I no longer cared. My home had abandoned me. My family had waited as long as they could, but I had not come back in time. I had tried to tell myself, in all the days that followed, that I would find them again. That they would be alive. They had left our home with a quiet determination, with no sign of haste or fear, and my Caro was strong and wilful. One way or another she would survive. I told myself she had found some haven where she and Charlotte would be safe from marauding soldiers, where my son would find good honest work and never wear a soldier’s coat as I had done; but it was a fragile hope, and somewhere I had lost it.

Did I throw it away? Did I simply misplace it? Did it quietly slip into the dark one night as I slept? I couldn’t say, for at first I didn’t notice it was even gone.

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