“Aye, that’s right, and the longer you leave it, the more chance that poor lassie has of sobering up, eh?”

“I don’t mind telling you, I’m getting tired of all this talk, Kenway.” He turned to Julian. “How about we teach this little bastard a lesson? Oh, and one more thing before we start, Master Kenway. You ain’t fit to shine your mother’s shoes, you understand?”

That hit me hard, I don’t mind admitting. Having someone like Tom Cobleigh, who had all the morals of a frothing dog and about half the intelligence, able to reach into my soul as if my guilt were an open wound, then stick his thumb in that open wound and cause me even more pain, well, it certainly firmed up my resolve, if nothing else.

Julian pushed his chest forward and with a snarl advanced. Two steps away from me he raised his fists, dipped his right shoulder and swung. I don’t know who Julian was used to fighting outside taverns, but somebody with less experience than me, that’s for sure, because I’d already taken note of the fact that he was right-handed, and he couldn’t have made his intentions more obvious if he’d tried.

The dirt rose in clouds around my feet as I dodged easily and brought my own right up sharply. He shouted in pain as I caught him under the jaw. If it had just been him, the battle would have been won, but Tom Cobleigh was already upon me. From the corner of my eye I saw him but was too late to react and next thing you know I was dazed by knuckles that slammed into my temple.

I staggered slightly as I swung to meet the attack, and my fists were swinging much more wildly than I’d have liked. I was hoping to land a lucky blow, needing to put at least one of the men down to even up the numbers. But none of my punches made contact as Tom retreated, plus Julian had recovered from my first strike with alarming speed and came at me again.

His right came up and connected with my chin, spinning me about so that I almost lost my balance. My hat span off, my hair was in my eyes and I was in disarray. And guess who came in with his boots kicking? That worm Seth Cobleigh, shouting encouragement to his father and Julian at the same time. The little bastard was lucky. His boot caught me in the midriff and, already off balance, I lost my footing. And fell.

The worst thing you can do in a fight is fall. Once you fall it’s over. Through their legs I saw the lone rider up the highway, who had become my only chance at salvation, possibly my only hope of getting out of this alive. But what I saw made my heart sink. Not a man on a horse, a tradesman who would dismount and come rushing to my aid. No, the lone rider was a woman. She was riding astride the horse, not side-saddle, but despite that you could see she was a lady. She wore a bonnet and a light-coloured summer dress, and the last thing I thought, before the Cobleigh boots obscured my view and the kicks came raining in, was that she was beautiful.

So what, though? Good looks weren’t going to save me at that moment.

“Hey,” I heard. “You three men. Stop what you’re doing right now.”

They turned to look up at her and removed their hats, shuffling in line to hide the sight of me, who lay coughing on the ground.

“What is going on here?” she demanded to know. From the sound of her voice I could tell she was young and while not high-born, definitely well-bred—too well-bred, surely, to be riding unaccompanied?

“We were just teaching this young man here some manners,” rasped Tom Cobleigh, out of breath. Exhausting business, it was, kicking me half to death.

“Well it doesn’t take three of you to do that, does it?” she replied. I could see her then, twice as beautiful as I’d first thought, as she glowered at the Cobleighs and Julian, who for their part looked thoroughly mollified.

She dismounted. “More to the point, what are you doing with this young lady here?” She indicated the girl, who still sat dazed and drunk on the ground.

“Oh, ma’am, begging your pardon, ma’am, but this is a young friend of ours who has had too much to drink,” Seth said.

The lady darkened. “She is most certainly not your young friend, she is a maidservant, and if I don’t get her back home before my mother discovers she’s absconded, then she will be an unemployed maidservant.”

She looked pointedly from one man to the next. “I know you men, and I think I understand exactly what has been going on here. Now, you will leave this young man alone and be on your way before I am of a mind to take this further.”

With much bowing and scraping, Julian and the Cobleighs clambered aboard their cart and were soon gone. Meanwhile the woman knelt to speak to me. Her voice had changed. She was softly spoken now and I heard concern. “My name is Caroline Scott, my family lives on Hawkins Lane in Bristol, let me take you back there and tend to your wounds.”

“I cannot, my lady,” I said, sitting up and trying to manage a grin. “I have work to do.”

She stood, frowning. “I see. Did I assess the situation correctly?”

I picked up my hat and began to brush the dirt from it. It was even more battered. “You did, my lady.”

“Then I owe you my thanks and so will Rose when she sobers up. She’s a wilful girl, not always the easiest of staff, but nevertheless, I don’t want to see her suffer for her impetuousness.”

She was an angel, I decided then, and as I helped them mount the horse, Caroline holding on to Rose, who lolled drunkenly over the neck of the horse, I had a sudden thought.

“Can I see you again, my lady? To thank you properly when I look a little more presentable, perhaps?”

She gave me a regretful look. “I fear my father would not approve,” she said, and with that shook the reins and left.

That night I sat beneath the thatch of our cottage, gazing out over the pastures that rolled away from the farm as the sun went down. Usually my thoughts would be of escaping my future.

That night I thought of Caroline. Caroline Scott of Hawkins Lane.

FOUR

Two days later I woke up to the sound of screaming. In a rush I dragged my breeches on and hopped out of the room with my shirt unbuttoned, still pulling my boots on over bare feet. I knew that scream. It was my mother. Moments later her screams had died down to a sob, replaced by my father’s cursing. The soft cursing of a man who had been proved correct.

After my fight at the Auld Shillelagh I had returned inside the tavern in order to do something about my cuts and bruises. To numb the pain, so to speak. What better way of doing that than with a drink or two? Thus, when I’d eventually arrived home I’d been in a bit of a state. When I say “state,” I mean “state,” as in a man who looked as though he’d been in the wars—which I had, with bruises to my face and my neck, and my clothes ragged and torn. But also “state,” as in a man who had had far too much to drink.

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