Spirit of the Highway

By Deborah Swift

Historical fiction

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3 mins

Chapter 1 - Highway to War

England, August 1651

I can hang like a mist, seep through solid walls, slither through keyholes. When you turn to look, you won’t see me, just feel the chill of a frost ruffle the hairs on your neck. You will sense my presence, and stare hard into the dark, but I’ll be already gone, into a past or future where you can’t follow.

My sister Abigail likes to tell my story, but she often gets it wrong. Sometimes she doesn’t understand, being deaf and all. Besides, she only ever tells her side of the tale, and not how easy it is for simple events to shift and change and be embroidered into a legend. That’s because, like the rest of the living, she can’t have my perspective.

Being dead has its disadvantages. I feel nothing, not the grit underfoot, not the weave of the linen shirt on my body. I will never feel those coarse things again, only the subtlest tingle as I move through the trees, through objects more compressed than I am myself. The solid part of me is my feelings, and they haven’t diminished. Sometimes I’m all anguish, sometimes a wisp of temper, or a vapour of tenderness. And I can look back on myself, the living me, and wish it had been different. Yes, sometimes I’m a cloud of regret.

The day I went to war I didn’t look back, despite the fact I could feel Kate’s eyes on my neck all the way down the highway. Or maybe because of it. I fixed my gaze on the ranks of marching men, not wanting to let Kate see how much I cared. How heavy the soldiers’ footfalls seem now! Though Kate was left behind, her face seemed to burn before me, her expression troubled, her green eyes full of questions and doubt about me going to war.

We would win, I thought to myself, and the King’s scurvy men had to fall. I was angry inside for feeling so much, so I gripped my musket tighter to my shoulder. Pray God the rumours were right and our numbers would be greater than theirs, because I had to survive. If I did not, my Kate would be left to the Fanshawes, and that I couldn’t bear.

I marched on. Though when I say marching, it was more of a slouching, a rousing of dust as the rabble clanked their disorderly way down the road, their provision pots banging against their pikes and muskets. I can hardly remember the smell of that dust now, nor the heat of the sun, nor the grit on my kerchief as I wiped my wet cheeks. It was sweat, I told myself; that’s why my eyes were watering so.

‘You at Marston Moor?’ A shorter man appeared at my shoulder and fell in next to me. His face was flat and open, and blue with old bruises.

‘No. I just joined.’ It was a relief to speak.

‘So late?’

I bridled at his slight reproof. ‘I don’t hold with armies.’

‘Then why’d you join?’ He pushed his lank, black fringe out of his eyes and fixed me with an owl-like look.

‘To finish it. To make a new world, where the men who work are masters of their own lives. So womenfolk can rest safe again in their own beds.’

‘Ah. A girl is it?’

I sniffed, hitched my musket further onto my shoulder. ‘Don’t you want to change the world?’

‘Me? Nah, just want to survive it.’

We marched on in silence except for the sound of tramping boots. The first cold vestiges of fear had begun to worm their way into my blood.

My short companion glanced over to me, ‘Odds are for us, they say. We’ll whip them this time.’ He grinned, showing a gap the width of my little finger between his front teeth. ‘That whelp of a King won’t know what’s hit him.’

I nodded, tried to look more knowledgeable than I felt. Father was just ahead of me somewhere, on his horse, leading the line. At the thought of him I clenched my teeth, marched faster. The drunken bastard. I wondered how I could ever have admired him.

‘Hey, slow down, don’t want to wear yourself out, do you?’ The short man quickened to stay abreast of me. ‘I’m Cuthbert Briggs, by the way. Folks call me Cutch.’

‘Ralph,’ I said.

‘You a farmer? Thought so. From your hands, see. Harvester’s scratches, no mistaking them. I was apprenticed to a wheelwright, before all this. Can’t remember a thing about it now, been all over the country this last five years. Look.’ He rolled up a sleeve, pointed to a livid purple scar. ‘Sword cut. But I slit the devil’s throat in return.’ He laughed. ‘You stick with me, you’ll be right. I can mend anything, me. I’ve learnt bone-setting, amputation, all manner of surgeon’s skills. Let’s hope we don’t need ‘em, eh?’

I thanked him, but knew I’d rather be alone. The air was charged with excitement, with the buzz-ing, anxious thoughts of men intent on battle. Some of us would die, it was certain, and nobody wanted to be that man.

Moisture gathered on my upper lip, but I licked it away, concentrated on the buff-coloured back of the marching man in front. If we won, when we won, and Cromwell was victorious, then what would happen to Kate? My stomach lurched.

That’s what came of falling in love with a Royalist. Someone on the wrong bloody side.

I thanked God our troops were well away from Markyate Manor. For now, at least, Kate would be safe.



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