Navigate / search

5: River Joust

On the following Saturday, the ambassador was treated to a traditional London entertainment: boat-jousting on the Thames. The competition was to take place upriver from the city, at Richmond Palace, and would be attended by all the city guilds as well as the court. Mal, the ambassador and the skrayling honour guard were collected by one of the royal barges as the church bells tolled nine. It was about fifteen miles by river from London Bridge to Richmond, following the lazy curves of the Thames across the Middlesex countryside.

It had rained the night before and now the sky was a clear empty blue, only a few pearl-white clouds drifted near the horizon. At the insistence of Ambassdor Kiiren, Mal played his lute throughout the half-hour journey. The swordsman was still not sure what to make of the young skrayling. Kiiren was endlessly curious about his human hosts, asking question after question about their customs and history. If it had been anyone else, Mal would have suspected the ambassador was spying, but Kiiren’s openness was disarming.

Quite what the ambassador was here for, Mal could not fathom. So far there had been no secret meetings, no negotiations with the Queen or her council. It made no sense. The skraylings were merchants first and foremost, and they depended completely on their trade with friendly human nations for their survival so far from home. Still, Mal told himself, it was early days yet. The ambassador had been in London less than a week. Perhaps this was how their most eminent persons expected to do business. It had better be worth it; judging by the lavishness of the entertainments so far, Prince Robert was emptying his coffers to pay for all this. He chuckled. The Queen must be having apoplexy.

“You are amused,” Kiiren said. “Is this comic song?”

“Hardly,” Mal said.

“It has words, though?”

Mal paused, his fingers hovering over the strings. “Do you wish me to sing, Your Excellency?”

Kiiren inclined his head. Mal cleared his throat and began the song again.

“Fortune, my foe, why dost thou frown on me?

And will my favours never greater be?

Wilt thou, I say, forever breed me pain?

And wilt thou ne’er restore my joys again?”

All the while, he was aware of Kiiren watching him. He wondered what the ambassador made of the choice of song, and its words. Perhaps he should have refused to sing, or chosen something less melancholy. Something less close to his own heart…

As they rounded another of the river’s wide bends and rowed south towards Richmond, Mal became aware of a low roaring sound: the London mob in full voice. A vast crowd covered the west bank, a mass of indigo blue dotted with red, yellow and green. It looked like every apprentice and journeyman in the capital had turned out to watch.  Well, it could be worse, Mal thought. It could be a football match.

The crowd fell silent as the skrayling barge came closer;  whether through curiosity or hostility, Mal could not be certain. Some of each, most likely.

“This is popular pastime with your people?” Kiiren asked.

“One of many,” Mal replied. “Do your people play such games?”

“Not this one in boats. But running, climbing, other games of skill. We are perhaps more alike than unlike.” He smiled shyly and looked away.

Sweet God in Heaven, I think he’s flirting with me. “Perhaps,” Mal said, trying to keep his voice level. Leland might want him to bend over backwards to accommodate the ambassadors’ needs, but a man’s loyalty had its limits. Perhaps they should have hired Ned for this job instead.

On the east bank, opposite the crowd, stood Richmond Palace itself. The facade, with its many slender towers and arched windows, lay in half in shadow still, but sunlight glinted on the gilded tips of the towers’ onion domes and struck dazzling reflections from the water below. In the narrow grassy space between the palace and the river, a canopied stand had been set up from which the Prince and his party could view the proceedings in comfort. Another stand held the aldermen of the city and the masters of the guilds. The ambassadorial party disembarked at the jetty, where poles wrapped in guild colours were stacked ready to display the scores to the watching crowds.

Heralds in scarlet tabards showed the ambassadors to their bench just below the Prince’s throne. After a moment’s hesitation they allowed Mal to follow, but they refused to allow the skrayling guards onto the stand.

“Is there a problem?” Mal called down to them. “These are the Queen’s honoured guests.”

“Sorry, sir,” said one of the heralds, “but there aren’t enough seats for all their lordships’ party. These… guards are welcome to stay on this side of the river, but all the seats in the stands are taken.”

Kiiren bowed. “We understand.”

The herald raised an eyebrow at being addressed directly by the ambassador, but managed to maintain his professional demeanour. Kiiren gave the guards their instructions in Vinlandic, and they filed dutifully away. By the time the ambassador was settled in his seat, the guards were squatting in a line at the foot of the stand, their staves laid neatly on the ground in front of them.

Behind them, the ladies-in-waiting giggled. Scarheart turned and smiled at them, showing his fangs, and they shrieked in alarm. Kiiren looked irritated.

“You do not care for the ladies, sir?” Mal asked, and instantly regretted the question. What if he thinks I’m making advances?

“I am… not used to being close to so many. And—“

He paused, and Mal’s heart sank. How was he going to say no to the ambassador without causing offence?

“In my homeland now,” Kiiren went on, “there will be contests much like this. Young men displaying their strength and skill, with our women watching. And afterwards, some are chosen and taken to city for sharing.”

“Sharing?” That sounded… ominous.

“Coming together of man and woman, for making of children?” Kiiren said. “You have word for this?”

“Ah. That.” Mal laughed with relief. “Yes, we have lots of words for that.”

“Is very strange here, with men and women together all time. So strange…” Kiiren broke off, and sniffed quietly.

Dammit, the poor youth is homesick, nothing more. “So,” Mal said brightly, “you miss the sharing. With women, that is.”

Kiiren said nothing, only brushed an insect from the sleeve of his robe.

“That’s easily mended.” Mal leant closer. “There’s more houses of, um, sharing in Southwark than fleas on a beggar’s dog.”

Kiiren looked up, his amber eyes inscrutable. Somehow Mal had been expecting tears, but the young skraylings eyes were dry. Do they even shed tears? he wondered. Until Kiiren’s speech about the skraylings’ peculiar wooing habits, he had been able to forget how alien they were. He had managed to forget a lot, these past few days.

The first bout of the day was between teams from the Goldsmiths and Vintners, wearing tabards embroidered with their guild coat of arms. Mal had almost expected the combatants to be as overweight and unfit as their masters, but it appeared that apprentices had fewer banquets and rather more hard work under their belts, The Vintners’ champion looked like he could hoist a tun of wine over his head with ease, and his opponent, though more slender, betrayed his wiry strength in the way he swung the blunted ‘lance’ in a menacing figure-of-eight.

The teams rowed out to their respective start lines, one upstream from the royal stand and one downstream. A the sound of a horn they began rowing swiftly towards one another, the upstream craft of the Goldsmiths moving decidedly faster.

“This does not seem fair,” said Kiiren. “Team in blue and… And…”

“Red,” Mal supplied.

“Yes, red. They have river to help them.”

“On the first run, yes,” Mal replied. “But they change ends each time, so it all works out.”

Kiiren nodded his approval, and turned to Scarheart to explain this rule. The older skrayling seemed to consider this for a moment, then asked something.’

“Elders wish to know, how marks are counted.”

Mal launched into an explanation of the rules, of how the man who put his opponent in the river without being ousted himself won a point for his team, and the winning team in each round won the right to begin upstream on their next bout.

The skraylings took a much keener interest in the competition than they had in the pageantry of court. Mal was not surprised; it must be deathly dull to listen to so many speeches and songs in a language you barely knew more than a few words of. Though he could not understand the guards’ muttered conversations, he saw some kind of tokens – money? – changing hands after every bout and had no doubt they were betting on the outcome. The ambassadors, meanwhile, watched with polite interest, clapping each victor in imitation of the humans.

At two o’clock there was a break for refreshments. The royal party processed into the palace, followed by the heads of guilds, and assembled in the great hall where a light banquet of spiced wine and sweetmeats was served. On this occasion, Mal was seated at the lower table, far from his charges, whilst the skrayling guards were relegated to the common benches in the courtyard outside.

Mal picked at the honeyed pastry on his plate, unable to keep his eyes off the top table. Kiiren had been seated next to the Duke of Northumberland and the two had been deep in conversation all through the meal.

“Is the food not to your liking, sir?” asked a small man sitting opposite. His uneven beard and dirty nails contrasted sharply with his immaculate doublet. “All this rich fare can get a bit much after a while, eh?”

“Thank you, sir, I am simply not hungry,” Mal said. He stared down at his plate.

“Oh dear me, I do beg your pardon, sir, being so impertinent when we have not even been introduced…”

“No matter.”

The small man took off his hat and bent his head in salutation. “I am William Clay, Fireworks Master. I designed the display for last night’s masque.”

“Oh, indeed,” said Mal. “It was… splendid. Quite unparalleled.”

Clay preened. “You are most kind, sir. And might I ask…?”

“Catlyn. Mal Catlyn.”

“‘Tis an honour to meet you, sir. I—“ He leaned across the table. “I couldn’t help noticing you staring at the skraylings. They are quite odd, aren’t they?”

“What? Yes, I suppose so. Until you get to know them.”

“You know them?”

“Oh yes. Well, as much as one can after only a few days’ acquaintance.” Mal shook his head. “What good is it, being a bodyguard, when your charge is too far away to protect?”

“You fear an assassin—“ Clay glanced around nervously, “—here, in the royal presence?”

“Here. Anywhere. Death has no courtesy.”

The Firework Master’s eyes widened.

“I would have thought you a man inured to danger,” Mal said. “Your work is surely as hazardous as mine.”

“Oh, aye, well, I reckon it is, in a way,” said Clay. “But fireworks mean no harm, you see. ‘Tis only our carelessness that makes them dangerous. You have to be exact in measuring out the black powder—“

Mal let the man chatter on about saltpetre and sulphur, fuses and lifting charges, whilst he continued to watch Kiiren and Northumberland. Carelessness leads a man into danger: that was true enough.

As Mal was returning to the stand after dinner, he was approached by the young ambassador.

“Master Catlyn.” Kiiren bowed and smiled nervously.

“Your excellency.”

“I— that is, it has been said to me that it would be mark of friendship for skraylings to compete in this game.”

“Has it indeed?” I can’t imagine who might have been putting ideas into his head. “Can you swim?”

Kiiren laughed.

“I would not be in boat, that would make for our people much worry. No, four of our guards will row.”

“Good.”

“And you will fight.”

“I?” Mal blinked. This was not what he had expected at all. “I—“

“You are… warrior of your people, no?”

“Yes, I have been. I fight well enough with a sword, but a joust… I have not done so in many years. And never in a boat!”

“Ah. I am sorry. I make mistake. I am told you are champion, you fight in another’s place.”

Mal looked away. Had Kiiren somehow heard about his duelling?

“Then you will fight for us,” the ambassador went on. It was not a question.

Mal bowed to the inevitable. Besides, Leland would have him strung up on Tower Hill if he found out Mal had done anything to offend the skraylings.

“It would be my honour, Your Excellency.”

 * * *

Half an hour later Mal strolled down to the river bank, trying to look more confident than he felt. Kiiren had taught him a handful of Vinlandic words that could be used to direct the rowers, and Mal muttered them under his breath as he went, in desperate hope of remembering them.

A lone apprentice in goldsmiths’ colours was rowing one of the boats across to the east bank, so that the skraylings could take it over. When he climbed out onto the jetty, Mal realised that it was Thomas Jardine, nephew of Lord Brooke. It was not unknown for younger sons of the gentry — those with no likelihood of inheriting — to be apprenticed into the city’s more prestigious trades; if things had not gone so ill for Mal’s own family, he might be sitting there in Jardine’s place.

“Your armour, sir?” said one of the stewards, beckoning him over.

“Armour?”

“His Highness does not wish to see anyone killed today.”

“I did not see anyone wearing armour,” Mal said, puzzled. “Wouldn’t that be dangerous if I fell in the river?”

“Simply a breastplate of boiled leather, sir, to spare your ribs. All the, ahem, jousters wear them under their tabards.”

“Well, if you insist.”

Mal took off his doublet and let two of the stewards strap the breastplate in place. It felt stiff and awkward, though it was surprisingly light. At least it wouldn’t drag him down too much if he did fall in. Not that he intended to.

“So, are we contending against the Goldsmiths?” Mal asked the steward.

“No, sir, I believe the Stationers’ Company drew the marked lot. The Goldsmiths are the ones lending you their boat.”

Stationers? He had lost track of all the dozens of guilds after the first few bouts. Well, a huddle of bookworms should not prove too much of a challenge.

The boat bumped against the jetty and one of the steward’s assistants scrambled down and caught the painter. Jardine got out of the boat and walked towards the royal stand without a single glance at the waiting skraylings. Mal watched him scan the benches for his uncle’s hunched figure, shake his head when he realised Brooke was nowhere to be seen, and walk over the the guild stand.

The skrayling guards were already climbing into the boat, so Mal hurried onto the jetty ready to join them. The boards drummed ominously under his feet, and the muddy river water swirled against the piles. He wondered just how cold the water was, this time of year, and hoped he wouldn’t find out.

The guards settled into their places and took up their oars. Mal stepped gingerly into the boat and a waiting servant handed him down his ‘lance’, weighing it thoughtfully in one hand to get the balance. It was little more than a pikestaff, though with a blunt disk instead of a blade at the head and a counterweight at the butt end, so the balance was somewhat off-centre, like a jousting lance.

A fanfare sounded, and the rowers bent their backs and began manoeuvring towards their starting places. Evidently the skraylings had been instructed beforehand, since they ignored Mal and rowed steadily upstream towards the start line. Favouring the visitors, eh? Well, it was only politic.

The rowers on Mal’s left slowed their strokes and let the boat turn in midstream until the prow was facing their opponents, who were doing the same at the downstream end. For a few more minutes they sculled gently to keep the boat level with the start flags. Mal practised swinging the lance into position; it would take a minute or so for the boats to get within striking distance of one another, and there was no point in hefting it too soon. His thoughts drifted back to his childhood, and his grandfather teaching Charles and himself to tilt at the quintain on their ponies. Charles had protested that it was pointless, since they would never need to ride into battle, but their grandfather just told them that if it was good enough for the Prince of Wales, it was good enough for a Catlyn—

The starting horn blared, jolting Mal out of his revelry. The skraylings heaved on their oars and the little boat swept downriver towards their opponents.

Mal’s conjecture about bookworms had been sadly mistaken.

The Stationers’ boat was heading towards them fast, propelled by four sets of biceps that spent all day cranking the printing presses. Their jouster was not so tall as Mal, but more than made up for it in breadth. Mal shifted his grip on the lance. At least the other fellow would be hard to miss.

All too soon the gap had closed to twenty yards. Ten. Mal cursed. They were heading too far to the right, they were going to collide— He racked his brains for the Vinlandic commands.

Shal-an!” he shouted, then cursed again as the skraylings began to steer right.

“No, no, dammit, inal-an!” he corrected. “Inal-an!”

Both sets of oarsmen were frantically correcting course now. Just in time they straightened out, and both jousters raised their lances to chest height, whilst the rowers lifted their oars clear so that the boats could pass within inches of one another.

Mal aimed for his opponent’s breastbone, pointing inwards at a slight angle; the armour was pitched to deflect a blow that came straight on. Gritting his teeth, he stared his opponent in the eye, trying not to think about the ten-foot ash pole aimed at his own heart. This is just another duel, he told himself, a duel with sticks instead of swords.

The impact, when it came, knocked the breath from Mal’s lungs, and his lance dropped from his hand. The stationers’ apprentices whooped in triumph as Mal staggered and fell backwards onto two of his rowers, gasping for breath. He lay there for a moment, watching their jeering faces slide past like figures out of nightmare. Then the two skraylings were helping him to his feet whilst the other four carried on rowing to the downstream start line as if nothing had happened. One of them passed him the lance and make a sign with his hand that Mal took to mean good luck. At least, he hoped that was what it meant.

The boats turned and made ready for another pass. This time the skrayling team would be rowing upstream and would not have as much speed behind them, which put Mal at a disadvantage. Or perhaps not. The skraylings were steady, well-matched rowers, and a slower approach would allow Mal to keep a firm stance in the moments before impact. Perhaps that would be enough. He damned well hoped so.

The two jousters clashed again. Mal’s stratagem paid off: his opponent’s lance skidded harmlessly across Mal’s breastplate, whilst Mal’s own weapon hit home with a thud, sending the hapless stationer flying over the side of his boat to land in the river with a loud splash. As the boats slid past one another, Mal caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. The last apprentice on the near side seemed to drop his oar; it raked Mal across the shins, sending him stumbling over the bow, his face only inches from the churning green water. As Mal groped for a handhold, something hit the back of his head and he fell forward into cold, black oblivion.

 * * *

The next thing Mal knew, he lying on the ground looking up at the sky. Fat white clouds floated overhead. Am I in Heaven?

A face loomed over him, haloed in golden curls.

I am in Heaven, he decided. That whoreson Josceline Percy bribed the rower to knock me in the river, and now I’m dead.

“Catlyn?”

The voice sounded familiar, and not at all angelic.

“Sir James?” Mal croaked. If Leland was here, perhaps this was not Heaven after all.

“He lives,” Leland announced.

From the cries of relief, Mal surmised he was surrounded by people. Lots of people.

He tried to sit up, and regretted it immediately. Strong hands caught him as he fell back, and he looked up to find one of the skrayling guards leaning over him.

“Was it y-you who rescued me?” Mal asked him.

The guard helped him into a sitting position. Mal thought he was the same one who had made the good luck sign; at least he had the same S-shaped tattoo in the centre of each cheek.

“Aye,” the skrayling growled, and added in Tradetalk, “I give go-sky, you no die in water.”

“Th-th-th-thank you.” Mal had no idea what the skrayling was talking about. His head was pounding, and he suddenly realised he was soaked to the skin and icy cold.

“Here.” Leland bent down and wrapped his cloak about Mal’s shoulders. “Damn close thing, that. We thought you were lost for sure, and when this fellow started pressing on your chest and k—“ He coughed. “Well, it seemed indecent, but His Excellency insisted, and here you are.”

“They brought me back from the dead?”

“Wouldn’t say that.” Leland looked uncomfortable. Understandably so, since no-one wanted to be the first to accuse the ambassador or his retinue of witchcraft. “Out cold, you were, that was all.”

“I must thank him properly.”

A shimmer of silk, blue as the sky overhead, appeared on the edge of Mal’s field of vision.

“Your thanks not needed.”

Mal turned his head to see Kiiren looking down at him.

“Forgive me, Your Excellency.” He shifted into a kneeling position appropriate to a penitent. “I was careless and lost the advantage.”

A hand touched his head.

“You fought well against skilled foe,” Kiiren said. “We ask no more of any of our people.”

“But I would have drowned if not for…”

“Then thank Tsekkota. He leap in river and pull you out.” Kiiren gestured to the guard, who nodded and grinned.

“Thank you again,” Mal said, and held out his hand. The skrayling grasped it, and Mal tried not to wince at the fellow’s strength. They should have had him jousting in my place. Tsekkota  caught his eyes and shrugged, as if reading his thoughts. Mal nodded his sympathy. A man had to follow his lord’s instructions, even when he knew the choice would not end well.

“It was an accident, then?” Leland asked in a low voice.

Mal exchanged glances with Kiiren. Even if Percy had planned the whole thing—and Mal would put money on him having done so—there was nothing to be gained by saying anything.

“Yes,” he said, and noted the approval in the ambassador’s eyes. “We passed a little too close, one of the other rowers must have lost his balance when their jouster fell in. It was an accident, nothing more.”