The Royalist – chapter one

Chapter One

Three times they tried to kill me. They came for me on those blasted northern moors and I lived. They cut swathes through my fellows at Edgehill and somehow, deep in dead men, I came through. They routed my company outside Abingdon and cornered me in the thick of night when I had nowhere to run to and nobody to watch my back. Yes, three times they tried to kill me.

Third time lucky.

I strained to see. There was no window in the cell but somewhere there was candlelight and it was enough to show that I was alone now. There had been three others in here with me when I closed my eyes but it was no surprise they were gone. They were Irishmen, all three, and I found out long ago what they do to Irishmen here. Sooner or later the same was coming for me. I found myself bewildered that I’d slept through it but felt little else save to be all the more sickened at how far I’d fallen. I’d listened to those men cry and talk of the homes, the families they’d left behind, lovers and wives and sisters and sons. Now they were gone and I couldn’t even remember their names. That’s what they bring you to in a place like this.

I rolled onto my side and sat cross-legged in the gloom, picking tacky damp stalks of straw from the rags that were left of my clothes. I had no doubt that I stank. The cells festered with sweat and filth and urine but I’d been here so long that I didn’t notice any more. I thought of my wife, my beautiful Caro, of the scent of her hair when she stood close with her head pressed to my chest. I waited for the shudder of loss and longing to come but it didn’t. I was nothing now but numb.

I didn’t suppose it mattered. I wasn’t getting out of there alive and all those promises I’d made to the three Irishmen, to take away messages for wives and brothers and sons, well, we’d all known they were empty words. Sometimes you say what you’ve got to say and even if the other man knows it’s a lie, he’s still glad to hear it. Sometimes, flying in the face of everything around us, we choose a sliver of hope. I was never good at that.

I don’t know how long I sat there. I didn’t draw myself up when I heard footsteps. If they came for me today then I wouldn’t sob or scream or rain a thousand curses on their heads like some I’ve known, but I wouldn’t stand up for them either. It’s come to be that that’s what they expect, that we stand for them. They’d have us doff our hats as they led us to the gallows, if hats we had.

My jailer appeared as a darker silhouette against the deep gloom of the distant candlelight. He jangled his keys. He wasn’t the man I knew when they first brought me here – that man was long gone, probably to the same war that had kept me from home for five long years. The soldier who appeared before me instead was scarcely more than a boy, no older than the son I was certain I’d never see again. He fumbled a jangling ring of keys until he found the one to fit my lock. A faint smell of gunpowder reached across the air between us, sharp and sulphurous. A thought flashed across the backs of my eyes: that I was still strong enough to run this boy down. The gate to my cell squealed back but I didn’t move. It wouldn’t serve any purpose. It just felt good that that part of me hadn’t withered away, no matter how long they’d kept me alone in the dark.

Falkland,’ the boy said. His voice had barely broken.

I looked up. Nothing more.

You’re to come with me.’

So there it was. My time. When the boy decided I wouldn’t thrash about and grapple him, he strode in – purposefully, as he must have been taught – and fiddled with keys again. He left my ankles and wrists manacled but unlocked me from the grille and bade me stand. I stayed sat where I was just long enough to make him think he might have to call for his masters and then did as he asked. I had no interest in causing trouble. He was just a boy. Nothing I did was going to change things now. I’d be dead within the hour and in a way it would be a relief. It’s a bitter war whose purpose is lost to those who fight it. It has a will of its own, I think. It grinds men to husks and those are the lucky ones.

I walked with the boy behind me along rows of cells just like mine. Some were open-faced with grilles and I could see the men lying in scarred heaps inside. I’d shared conversations with some of these fellows though most were too deranged to remember. I tried not to look but I couldn’t stop my eyes from being drawn. One man lay stretched across the cold stones in a horrible paroxysm of grief. He dead-eyed me, his tongue lolling out. I saw another man lay underneath him, already dead.

Somebody shrieked from the cell opposite, startling us both. I looked round. Chains rattled against bars. Even if I didn’t hear a word, I knew the other prisoners were singing me on my way. There was only one exit to a place like this.

We reached the end of the row of cells and climbed a stone stairway to the next. The steps were old, chipped and uneven, thinly coated in a wet slime of mud and dung, trampled back and forth by the boots of our jailers. A fresh reek of rot and offal rose from them, climbing through the stink of the prison. Even when we came to a passage where cold daylight streamed in to dazzle me, it still felt as if we were six feet underground. The air remained stagnant and rank. I began to think this wasn’t Newgate at all as some of my fellow prisoners had said. Perhaps we weren’t even in London.

We came to a gate where two turnkeys sat. The boy instructed me to stop. ‘I’m sorry, Falkland,’ he said.

Nothing to be sorry for, son. It’s not you who’ll pull the lever.’

He paused as if he didn’t understand.

I have to, sir . . .’

Sir? I must have misheard. He probably meant cur.

The boy produced a hood stitched out of an old grain sack from a loop on his belt. The sight of it killed any last flickering thoughts I might have had of some miraculous escape. That hood and I had become friends these last long months. I’d been wearing it when they brought me in here and now I’d wear it on my way out too. I managed a smirk. It was the sort of neat pattern by which I once wanted to live my life.

Do what you’ve got to do, boy. But I’d rather look my hangman in the eye. That’s a mercy the King used to grant every man he condemned, no matter what he’d done.’

The boy mumbled something I didn’t hear and dropped the hood over my eyes. It tightened with a drawstring around my neck. I heard the gate lift and we were on our way again. It was difficult enough to move with my ankles still shackled, so the hood didn’t make much difference. I felt daylight strike me for the first time in months and, even under the grain sack, it was brighter than any light I’d ever seen in my cell. I knew it was beautiful, as was the wind that touched my skin, the air bitter cold. In my cell I’d judged the month to be November: now I wasn’t so sure. This felt more of a January or February chill. However we tried, we all lost track of time in the relentless gloom.

I stepped where I was told. I slowed when I was told and stopped when I was told so that gates might be opened and steps pointed out. The boy tugged me along like a dog on a leash. I didn’t resist. Wherever we were, the day was eerily silent. I’ve seen more than my fair share of public executions and never felt one as miserable and unwatched as this. I began to climb what I supposed must be the gallows steps and didn’t hear a single scream, a single cry, the smashing of a single stone thrown by some onlooker in the crowd. Underneath the hood I started to smile. I couldn’t suppress it. Had it finally come to this, then? Not even the commonfolk could bear it any more? Usually they turn out for any spectacle at all, no matter how grisly, but today the will of the people was being heard and it sounded like nothing I’d ever known: it sounded like silence. Had they had enough at last? Was it coming to an end? I’d heard as much but prison rumours are wild things, whole stories grown from a single misheard word.

Watch your head, Falkland.’

The boy pressed his palm on the top of my head and bade me stoop down low. I supposed they were fitting me for the rope and I was pleased to find that I wasn’t afraid. I was ready for this, as ready as I could be, even as the last regrets and a final memory of my Caroline filled me. A hand pushed me forward. I stumbled and almost fell as the boy pushed me down into a rough wooden seat. I felt him withdraw and heard a door shut close by. A horse whinnied.

Wait. What? This was no scaffold and gallows – was I in a carriage now?

At once my calm was gone and a fear took me in its place. I whipped my head left and then right. I’d been ready to hang, ready to die, but not ready for this. I felt certain that I was not alone, too, but I would have known it if the boy had climbed aboard behind me. Someone was already here then. I tried to lift my hands but now the boy had locked them down. A horrible panic churned deep inside me. I heard a heavy breath and then a stench crept into the air inside my hood, the like of which I’ve only known from men on starvation rations whose very bodies have started to eat themselves. The sickly smell came through the grain bag hood and wrapped itself around me. I had no choice but to breathe it in.

Sit still, Falkland.’ I didn’t know the voice. It sounded deep and musical: a thespian or a minstrel, some courtly fool too cowardly ever to fight. I imagined it might belong to a jester, except the Puritan men who held me would never entertain such a thing.

Who are you?’ I knew then how afraid I was from how desperate I was to know. A condemned man can come to peace with his fate; but a man who doesn’t know it might kill himself with worry.

You might count yourself fortunate, Falkland, that you’re even here to ask that question.’

You didn’t answer.’

It matters little,’ the syrupy voice returned. ‘I’m an escort. Nothing more.’

Escorting me where? I was supposed to die today.’

Were you?’ This must have amused the man for he let out a little chortle. ‘You were supposed to die every day for the last month. Fortune smiles on you, Falkland. When we heard who you were, we were intrigued.’

Who I was? I was nobody. I wasn’t even a commander. A mistake, then, but now some intelligencer wanted to ask his questions before they hanged me, was that it? Damn it but I wasn’t even with the King, not really, not through anything other than blasted chance. Hundreds and hundreds of men out there were dying for their ideals but there were thousands more like me, dying just for the sake of dying. I was tired of this war long before it even began. I just wished they’d hurry up and get on with it – let me die for somebody else’s crusade and then let me rot in peace.

I sat in silence. The other man didn’t make a sound but sometimes you can hear a smirk.

Where are we going?’ I asked. I knew my questions must be futile but I felt compelled to break the silence. At least, for a few seconds, it saved me from breathing his hideous breath.

Settle down, Falkland. You’ll find out soon enough.’

The carriage rattled on. I had no idea where we were going but I knew we hadn’t left the city. The air was fresher than I remembered of London from five years before, but that was only because the King held Newcastle and so there wasn’t any coal. People would freeze on the streets this winter. All the same, I could hear the city sounds and smell the city smells. I fancied we’d come to the river and were following its banks because we stopped threading through narrow streets and I could hear seagulls. Their screeching reminded me of home, of those Cornish beaches where the waves would thunder and crash, and I felt a horrible flurry of joy – horrible because I’d abandoned both hope and joy long ago. To know it could reappear so suddenly, so violently, felt like a betrayal.

I heard bells then, and not the plaintive pealing of bells from a country church – I’ve heard that sound too often, as if the church towers themselves are crying out against the marauders ripping out their altars and setting fire to every icon. No, these bells were more powerful, more strident and they were getting nearer. They were the bells of Parliament, of St Stephen’s Chapel.

I heard the man beside me shuffle. He must have known, now, that I had guessed.

Why?’ I asked him.

Your questions will be answered, Falkland.’

You’ll answer them now!’ I was so desperate to understand why they’d bring me all this way, and for what purpose, that against my own will I lashed out, but the chains only snapped me back with a jolt that shuddered right through me. Bones jarred and old wounds started to shriek. My heart pounded in my breast.

You exert yourself too much for a man who’s been shackled to a rail for four months.’ There was a sneering disdain to the voice.

Four months? Is that all it’s been?’ Four months. Barely November. I wasn’t as wrong as I’d first thought, though the chill of the air remained as of the very depths of winter.

The carriage slowed to a halt. I felt it turn and cut a tight circle. The horses whinnied and then we were still. The man beside me stood and bustled past, dropping out of the door on my right. ‘It feels longer, doesn’t it, Falkland?’

He sounded contrite, as if he too had suffered similar deprivations. Hatred would have angered me less. I wasn’t expecting him to feel anything for me at all. ‘You have the wrong man,’ I told him, though I knew I was wasting my breath. His hand grappled with mine and in that way he steered me to the ground. Somewhere above us the pealing of the bells went on. It was, I had counted, noon. In my cell I had made it midnight.

It’s almost over, Falkland.’

There was a terrible irony in that. I had thought it almost over from the very beginning.

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