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A Palpable Hit: A Master of Defence Story

A story of espionage and dashing swordplay from Peter Tonkin.

A Palpable Hit: A Master of Defence Story

A story of espionage and dashing swordplay from Peter Tonkin.

‘A hit!’ The referee’s judgement echoes round the room as the ringing clash of the rapier blades dies.

Tom Musgrave disengages and steps back along the fencing piste, out of the wide measure called larga misura where his opponent’s rapier could still reach him with a lunge but his dagger could not, into the measure called fiuri misura beyond the point where neither weapon can reach him. Only now does he lower the sword and the dagger he holds in his black gloved fists. One more step back and he stands further away still, in rompere di misura, having broken the measure entirely and ended this element of the bout as the referee calls his judgement once more.

As Tom catches his breath, he realises he has been thinking in the terms laid down by the Continental Masters in their various manuals because he has been explaining them to the student who faces him now. Putting into generally agreed terms the directions of the Spanish Masters de Caranza and de Navarez, whose methods and style of fighting his student wishes to study. The slim, erect young man is also retreating and lowering his blades as the duellists’ separation grows wider.

But there has been no need for the referee to call out. Both Tom and his opponent know the truth. They are each wearing a padded black tabard and the buttons on their foils have been chalked. There is a white smear on Tom’s breast just below his heart.

‘Admitted,’ says Tom. ‘A palpable hit. Play on.’

Turning slightly, Tom moves forward as he re-enters the misura, measure or fighting area. His sword leads him back into the wide measure, coming up into the first guard as it does so. Called the first guard by the Spanish and Italian sword masters Heironimo de Carranza, Camillo Agrippa and Salvator Fabris because it presents the rapier as though it has just been withdrawn from its scabbard. Tom’s own master Ridolfo Capoferro teaches that this is not a guard – it is a position which is best used to launch an attack rather than providing protection against one. But everyone agrees it is a position that should be used sparingly for it is the most taxing of all. The simple strength of Tom’s arm, shoulder, back and hips holds the weight of the rapier steady, however, as his feet position him for the next lightning-fast move with the lightness and precision of a dancer’s. Considerable stamina is required to hold the rapier like this at the end of a tiring lesson, because Tom’s sword weighs well over two pounds and he has been wielding it for almost three-quarters of an hour now. The pommel of the lethal weapon is level with his right shoulder, the thumb of his sword hand points down, his palm facing away to his right; the blade also angles down, its true edge uppermost, facing his opponent, the false edge facing the floor. It reaches forward, an extension of his arm, its unwavering point targeting his adversary’s upper body, head and face.

The dagger in Tom’s left hand waits at his left hip, his left elbow well back, giving balance to the high guard on his right. He steps forward once more, into the narrow measure, the misura stretta or strettisima, where the killing is done. Tom leads with his right foot. Tom’s slight opponent does the same, his sword held in the lower third, or terza, guard which is not as useful for attack but has the advantage of being solidly defensive as well as relieving tired muscles; as approved in both aspects by de Carranza, Agrippa and Capoferro. Attack and even defence are by no means matters of life and death here and now, however, because this is a practise bout designed to draw the lengthy lesson to an end. Or so it appears.

Tom is on his honour, for he is the master, and indeed one of the Four Ancient Masters of the Corporation of the London Masters of Defence; his opponent an apparently untutored student; a bit-part actor by his own admission preparing to play a part. He seems to be little more than a boy with his sweat-darkened shock of blond hair and his peach-skinned girlish face which is striking in its dramatic beauty, fit for the stage, indeed. Untutored, perhaps, but by no means unlucky – for only the purest good fortune could have let the student’s point past the master’s blade and unerringly into his breast. Moreover, Tom’s advantages are many. He is taller. His reach is longer. His experience is vastly more extensive. His near- priceless Solingen sword blade is far superior to his opponent’s cheap Ferrara steel. One more white mark on his black tabard or – Heaven forfend – the loss of the bout, will do his reputation no good whatsoever. And he will not be able to offer any excuse.

   Because when Robert Poley, the Chief Intelligencer to Her Majesty’s Council, summoned him to view the corpse in Dead Man’s Place whose murderer Tom is currently completely preoccupied with trying to unmask, the spy-master swore him to absolute secrecy.

***

‘You’ll not tell a living soul of this,’ growled Poley. ‘If you do, I’ll have you in The Tower passing the time of day with Rackmaster Topcliffe before the echo of your words dies on the wind.’

‘And yet your messenger said you want my help,’ said Tom. ‘I have to warn you, Master Poley, that threats like those are a poor way of getting it.’

The pair of them stood either side of the corpse that Tom had been summoned to see. Poley’s men stood further back – a solid company of them keeping the scene private. Tom, like the dead man, was here alone. The body was that of a well-to-do gentleman approaching middle age, but still obviously fit and active. His tight doublet revealed a muscular breast above a lean belly and the tights below his fashionable galligaskins clad well-muscled calves which ended in practical shoes held in place by a strap buttoned over the instep. Or they were if the left foot was anything to go by, thought Tom – the right was twisted so that the button was hidden. His arms were as well-muscled as his legs, from brawny shoulders down to strong-fingered fists holding rapier and dagger in what was literally a death grip. The lifeless face was long, lean, chiselled and olive-skinned with an oiled moustache and a modish point of beard. The wide, staring eyes were the colour of Walter Raleigh’s dried tobacco leaves, still fashionable more than ten years after he first imported them. The forehead beneath the thick brown, silver-stranded hair was wide with a slight round mark in the middle of it. The thin lips were drawn back in a grimace of surprise and the beak of the nose that rose between lips and forehead was distinguished by a gaping slit in the right nostril, reaching from the rim to the nose-bone, and a tiny worm of blood which had started to ooze towards the middle of the upper lip but which had stopped moving as it reached the centre-parting of the moustache.

Tom’s incisive gaze focused on the doublet which was of yellow silk held closed by silver buttons that matched the shoe-button. The bright cloth was utterly unblemished, which struck Tom as surprising. The corpse had seemingly died in the midst of a bout – he was armed for sword and dagger work – and yet the logical cause of death was not apparent. The mark on the forehead was striking but by no means enough at first glance to be from a lethal sling-shot or pistol bullet. ‘No wound on the front,’ said Tom. ‘However he died, he was not run through.’ He looked up at Poley and then allowed his gaze to study the scene of the crime – if there was indeed a crime.

The corpse lay in the middle of the aptly-named Dead Man’s Place. The Place was on the south bank, beyond the jurisdiction of the London City magistrates, beneath the aegis of the Bishop of Winchester whose land this was. Whose Bailiff, as the nearest law officer, should be here – his absence as unsettling as Poley’s presence. This was especially so as his headquarters, the Clink Prison, was on Clink Street hardly any distance from the bank-side opening of Dead Man’s Place itself. The Place indeed lay close to many of Tom’s friends and acquaintance. Will Shakespeare and his current mistress Rosalind lived hard by. The Globe Theatre, newly erected, was not far – nor were the Rose or the Bull-baiting pit. The Rose stood in Rose Alley into which Dead Man’s Place opened at its southern end. The Bear-baiting towered closer still, in the Bear Garden a hundred yards to the west, which was lined by kennels housing the mastiffs that fought the great animals on baiting days. There was no baiting today, however, so the only noise coming from the Bear Garden was the howling of hungry dogs. There was no performance under way at the Rose either, for that matter. Some other, more human, sorts of noises issued from the north, where, at the last count there stood some two-dozen hostelries which doubled as popular brothels side by side along the bankside, with windows looking out across the Thames and doors always wide and welcoming. The Liberty of the Clink was also a favoured place for matters of honour to be settled, for there was less law south of the River than there appeared to be north of it.

The weather had been hot lately; rainless enough to have caused the stream that normally rushed along the centre of the path to run dry. The Place was therefore surfaced with solid earth from side to side, well-enough trodden for the grass to have retreated to its borders where it crouched beneath the bushes, one of which was dressed in the dead man’s coat. Scuff-marks and footprints suggested a properly presented duello. A duello to the death, in fact. But with no clear sign as to how the death had been effected. ‘I’ll need to see his back,’ said Tom. ‘And the back of his head – for dagger-wounds and club marks.’

‘I checked before I summoned you,’ said Poley. ‘I sat him up and examined him closely before I laid him down again so that you could find him just as I did when I was summoned here. There are none. No obvious explanation for his death at all, in fact. Hence my need of you, oh great Master of Logic; reluctant though I may be to beg for your help.’

‘Then you do appear to have a puzzle here indeed, friend Poley. For the man is clearly a swordsman. Perhaps a master. And a Spaniard if I can judge from the tone of the skin and the origin of his Toledo blades. And therefore, given your presence and concern in the matter, a spy. Either a Spanish spy come here on some secret mission that led him to this end. Or, more likely I would judge, a spy of yours lately returned from Spain with some vital message to report whose death has silenced him and inconvenienced you.’

‘His name was Hernan Delgado,’ admitted Poley with ill-grace. ‘A master of defence recently arrived in secret from Valladolid. Had he lived, he would have given vital information from the new Spanish King Phillip’s court there. How he came to be dead in Dead Man’s Place I cannot begin to fathom. My only hope of understanding what has gone on is if we can understand how he died.’

‘And, I would hazard, whether his death is to do with his mission or whether it is merely coincidental to it. It is a riddle, I agree,’ added Tom as he saw Poley’s disbelieving expression. It would indeed be stretching coincidence if a man such as this died for any reason other than his secret mission. ‘A master of defence and yet somehow bested. Killed, with only a nostril cut to show for it, as though he were a common scoundrel. I will need to examine the body in more detail before I can offer thoughts of any weight in the matter.’

‘Oh very well,’ snapped Poley. ‘But we must be quick. If we are laggard in this matter, this death may well lead to others, starting with my own. And, now that I have involved you in the matter, yours.’

***

With mine, thinks Tom as he enters the strettisima close-measure killing ground in the middle of the piste in the long room of his fencing school in Blackfriars, aware that his preoccupation with Poley’s Spanish corpse is dangerous, to his reputation if to nothing else. Equally aware of the further distraction posed by the fact that he is alone here; as alone as he was in Dead Man’s Place. The referee and the audience – such as it is – both came with his mysterious student. At the student’s request. Offering to pay an irresistible sum for the absolutely private lesson. A suspiciously irresistible sum, perhaps, reflects Tom but then immediately he dismisses the thought. He has enough on his mind with Poley’s triple-damned corpus delicti.

Tom’s right fist flashes forward. The point of his rapier is at his opponent’s throat in much less than a heartbeat. But the boy’s defence is immediate and solid – the weaker, flexible debole section nearest the point of Tom’s blade is knocked off line by the strong forte section of the boy’s blade nearer the grip. The first third of Tom’s edge whispers past the young man’s ear as the blades hiss together and it is only the merest reflex that brings Tom’s dagger up in time to meet his opponent’s as it slices towards his chest. For a moment their strengths counterbalance – neither rapier nor dagger can move. An impasse almost all of the Masters would disapprove of. Then Tom yields and steps back once more, well aware that had this bout been real and to the death, his size and strength would have carried the day and his dagger would be buried to the hilt between his young opponent’s ribs. As his dagger disengages and he steps back again, he glances down. The boy’s stiletto, which might have spitted his heart had things gone otherwise, is very different to his workaday rapier. True, it is Ferrara forged by the look of it but the lethal steel is long and thin; more so even than the Solingen blade in Tom’s silver dagger hilt. Of extraordinarily strong metal, therefore, and probably extremely expensive. Were it otherwise, thinks Tom, then the dagger would be flexible, unreliable and all-but useless, which, he strongly suspects, it is not.

‘The point to you, Master,’ the young man allows, his words causing Tom to look up once more. The bright blue eyes regard him coolly and calculatingly. The full, soft lips twist in the shadow of a smile. ‘Were this not a lesson – and a lesson well-learned – I’d be spitted like a side of mutton for roasting now,’ he concludes.

‘The honours stand even: one pass to each,’ says the referee. ‘Shall we make it best of three for the match? Or best of five?’

***

Poley gestured to his men. ‘Get the cart from the end of the lane and load the corpse into it. We’ll take it to the Clink and examine it more closely there.’ The latter part of this speech was to Tom. The Clink was the prison overseen by The Bishop’s Bailiff, Tom’s friend Talbot Law. It was the most convenient place – unless the Chief Intelligencer wished to take the corpse to the nearest brothel. Or to either baiting pit or either theatre, come to that; all of which shared much the same reputation as the brothels.

As Poley’s acolytes went for the cart, Tom crossed to the coat which was hanging spread over a man-sized bush. There was nothing special about it, except that it was of good quality and Spanish cut. It seemed to have no pockets, and a quick check as he lifted and folded it seemed to establish that there was nothing sewn into the lining. Unless there was a paper secreted somewhere else about the corpse, then the message Poley was expecting must have been a verbal one. Which explained his frustration and desperation. For only desperation would have driven the most powerful spy-master in the land to beg for Tom’s help. It was almost as though the current King of Spain’s father Philip II had asked Raleigh, Drake or Hawkins for help with his Great Armada.

The grunt of men lifting a weighty load made Tom turn. The late Hernan Delgado was suspended in the air, arms and legs akimbo, body bowed and ungainly, backside hanging low as he was hefted into Poley’s cart for transport to the Clink. Tom stepped forward and placed the coat over the corpse coming as close to decency as possible by covering the dead face at least. He stooped to retrieve the sword and dagger which had fallen from the dead hands. As he straightened, something glittered on the ground, catching his eye. It was a silver button. Giving it no thought beyond supposing it must have come off the dead man’s shoe, he put the sword and dagger in the cart then stooped again, picked it up and slipped it into the purse he wore at his belt. The cart creaked into motion, heaved forward by Poley’s men. Tom and the spymaster followed it, side by side in silence along Dead Man’s Place.

At the end of the Place, they turned right into Clink Street behind the water mill that stood between Bank End and the river stairs at Winchester Place. The prison was the third building down on the right. It was neither large nor prepossessing. A stout door with a barred grille at head height opened onto a short flight of steps leading down into the Bailiff’s area, behind which stood a series of cells, walled with iron-bars to the side and solid stone at the back. There were no doors – nor any need for any, for there were gyves designed to be fastened round ankles attached to the walls by short steel chains. The cells were currently vacant but Talbot Law was seated at the table he used for a desk. The smile that creased his weathered face as Tom entered, disappeared the instant Poley followed him. ‘What’s toward?’ asked the bailiff, coming to his feet.

‘We have a corpse that needs examination,’ answered Poley. ‘Clear your clutter off that table so we can lay him out.’

Talbot’s gaze met Tom’s. Tom raised his eyebrows, rolled his eyes and gave a minimal shrug. ‘Let me help,’ he said.

Fifteen minutes later, Talbot had forgotten his irritation, caught up in the mystery as surely as Tom and Poley. Delgado lay on his back on the table. Poley’s men were busy stripping him, handing each piece of clothing first to their employer, who then passed it on to Tom after he had examined it for hidden letters. The exceptions were the items that had already been studied – the coat, the weapons and the shoes. The coat was folded neatly on Talbot’s chair with the sword and dagger laid across it. Talbot had placed the shoes on the ground between the chair’s front legs. As they worked, Talbot Law chatted to Tom. ‘This is a coincidence,’ he said.

‘How so?’ asked Tom paying his old friend scant attention.

‘That he’s a Spaniard. And a sword master,’ shrugged Talbot.

‘Meaning what?’ demanded Poley, famously mistrustful of coincidence.

By way of an answer, Talbot turned to Tom. ‘You remember when the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were enacting Will Shakespeare’s play of Romeo and they hired you to teach them the art of Italian rapier play?’

‘I do,’ nodded Tom. ‘It was a great success.’

‘Well, word around the Liberty is that The Lord Admiral’s Men want to revive Tom Kyd’s old Spanish Tragedy at the Rose now that the run of The Wise Man of Westchester has come to an end. They say Ned Alleyn may come out of retirement to play Heironymo the mad hero once more – just as the Queen has requested. But he wants the production to have something new about it for the play is more than ten years old now. So they’ve been looking for a sword master to teach them Spanish sword-play.’

‘Very interesting,’ sneered Poley as he passed Tom the Spaniard’s galligaskins. ‘But not even Ned Alleyn would play Heironymo so madly that he killed his instructor outright. And this was a duello, not a lesson.’

The Spaniard’s galligaskins had been gathered just below his knees, held in place with three silver buttons sewn vertically. This was sufficiently unusual to attract Tom’s attention despite the conversation and it reminded him to check the shoes for the missing button. But when he did so, he found that both shoes were complete. With a frown of mild surprise, Tom reached into his purse and pulled out the extra button. As he examined it, his frown grew deeper. He reached for the rapier and looked closely at the point.

   ‘What is it?’ asked Poley.

‘The button,’ answered Tom. ‘It’s not from his clothes. It’s from the end of his rapier.’ He looked up, across the half-dressed corpse at the spymaster. ‘Signior Delgado didn’t die in a duello after all,’ he said. ‘He was somehow murdered during a lesson.’

***

A clock in Old Bailey chimes the three-quarter. ‘Let’s make it the best of five,’ suggests the student. ‘We have fifteen minutes of the lesson left.’ He attacks immediately with a perilously long lunge: a dangerous move, relying on surprise to be effective. Tom’s sword whirls in a sweeping movement called cavaszione, collecting the young man’s blade, wrapping it safely in a corkscrew motion. This makes Tom’s own blade almost a shield in front of his body while Tom steps across the line of the attack so that the boy’s buttoned point slides across his back, just above the empty dagger-sheath. The student disengages at once and stands back, eyes narrow. No points have yet been won or lost. Tom takes up the second guard, palm down, which will shut out any further lunges along the outer line. The quick-witted student recognises the stance and thrusts low to the left, reaching forward from the waist without moving his feet. His speed is impressive but so is Tom’s in riposte. The blades clatter and sing together but the boy has hardly extended himself and recovers immediately, only to thrust once more. Tom steps forward to meet the move. They are close together now, in the measure Capoferro calls strettisima where either man can kill the other with a thrust from sword or dagger. This close, thrusts are not only deadly but also, with parries and counter-thrusts, dazzlingly swift. Tom finds to his surprise that they seem suddenly to be almost equal in speed and technique. After an exhausting few moments, the boy once again resorts to an attaccare di spada, pushing his blade against Tom’s with all his might in the hope of shoving it out of line and out of the way. This is unexpected, for it failed the boy in the last bout, but given the closeness of their bodies and the speed of the attack and defence, it is a logical move to use, especially as the boy is clearly beginning to tire.  Even so, it takes Tom by surprise. Tom answers with a cederi, apparently yielding to the pressure, but then voiding, or stepping out of line as he had with the first attack, only to find that this time it is the young man’s dagger-point which is resting against his ribs. He steps back again and lowers his weapons as the referee announces, ‘A touch!’ He has lost this bout as well: things are getting serious.

***

Tom looked down at Signior Hernan Delgado who now lay naked on Talbot’s table, his modesty preserved by a cloth across his private parts. They had finished examining him, but apart from the slit nostril there was nothing to show how he had died. His nakedness, however, drove one point home for Tom. The body was as well-muscled as he had suspected – a true right-handed sword-master’s body. And yet there was the matter of his ribs, which stood out like those of a starving dog. And his belly which was more than lean – it was cavernous.

‘Poley,’ said Tom quietly. ‘You remember Kit Marlowe?’

‘Another of my spies who came to a bad end, you mean?’ frowned Poley who had, with Nick Skeres and Ingram Frizer overseen Marlowe’s murder at Eleanor Bull’s house in Deptford some years ago. Poley had helped specifically by holding the spy helpless with Skeres while Frizer ran a dagger through his eye deep into his brain, killing him at once. His precise motivation for organising the murder had never been clear; and it was not a subject that he and Tom usually discussed.

Tom skated past the matter of the murder now: ‘Remember how Marlowe spent time in Holland and came near to being detained for clipping silver coins – trimming the edges off them with shears then melting the trimmings down? Only to come home to England the poorer and more desperate from the escapade, narrowly escaping arrest?’

‘I remember,’ said Poley grudgingly.

‘Did Kit trim those coins out of simple lust for money, as cover for some work he undertook for the Council – or out of the desperation of a starving man waiting for payment that never came?’

‘The Council are sometimes laggard in settling their accounts…’ allowed Poley.

‘So a starving Spanish spy awaiting your summons to be debriefed and paid, someone who is too proud to sell his buttons, his weapons or his clothes, might well be tempted by a request, apparently from an acting troupe, to give lessons in Spanish swordplay so he could earn enough to pay for food and lodging in the mean-time.’

‘Sounds likely enough to me,’ nodded Talbot.

‘It sounds,’ said the suddenly pensive Poley, ‘like a trap to me.’

‘Indeed,’ agreed Tom. ‘Poley, I suggest you have this body taken to the anatomist John Banister in Silver Street – he’s the one man who can search deeper into this death than we can; get under the skin of it if you follow my drift. Meanwhile, I’ll go to the Rose Theatre and see what I can learn from the Lord Admiral’s Men there. Talbot, put out the word across the Liberty that Signior Delgado shared some of his expertise and much of his knowledge with a certain Tom Musgrave, Master of Defence, sometime associate of Master Robert Poley, Chief Intelligencer to the Council, whose school of fencing is in Blackfriars. We’ll see if we can trap the men who trapped Poley’s Spanish sword master and spy.’

‘With you as bait,’ said Poley.

‘With me as bait indeed, like a worm upon a hook.’

‘A worm!’ chuckled Talbot. ‘More like a shark on a hook.’

‘Let us hope so,’ said Tom. ‘For I have no intention of sharing this poor Signior’s fate if I can help it.

***

Tom takes up his position opposite the surprising youngster, in Capoferro’s third guard, his thumb pointing at the ceiling, his palm facing left, his body in perfect position back foot firmly across the line of the piste, hips, shoulders, leading foot, sword arm and sword precisely along the line of it. His blade lower, his left hand higher, putting a little more weight on the anchor of that firm back foot.

The youngster lunges again. A long, flashy move, kicking his leading foot forward over almost a yard. Tom sees the move coming, for its size makes it clumsy and obvious. He avoids the blade, letting it pass on his left side, answering with the dagger in that hand. In riposte he moves his foot forward by its own length, striking like a snake. His blade should rest on the boy’s left shoulder, at the junction of his throat: an inch in to the left and his throat would have been cut by a naked blade. But things do not work out that way. Like Tom, the boy collects the blade on his dagger, where the dagger-blade meets the quillions protecting his fist. Honours remain even. They freeze in position for a heartbeat.  Then Tom recovers as swiftly as he had struck, stepping back to leave his young opponent overextended, fighting for balance. The next pass starts at once. The boy takes up the same guard as before: the good safe third. His face is expressionless. Tom takes up the first guard once more, in itself a challenge, leaving himself almost defenceless, poised to attack. Tom’s position invites another lunge– to his apparently unguarded belly. But the instant he sees it coming, he steps inwards, across the line of it, in a defensive move called in quartata.  So that when the boy completes his lunge – only to find his blade safely across the small of Tom’s back – Tom’s own sword-point is at last resting in the little well of flesh at the very pit of his throat. Were it not for the button, the boy would be dead. This time there is no need for the referee to call out. Two passes each. They will need the fifth passage of arms to settle matters after all.

***

When this eternal substance of my soul Did live imprisoned in my wanton flesh, Each in their function serving others’ need, I was a courtier at the Spanish court.’ Bellowed Thomas Downton from the stage of the Rose Theatre as Tom pushed in through the groundlings’ entrance, his familiar face gaining him easy access even though rehearsals were under way rather than a performance. The stage itself was a hive of noisy activity above which Thomas’ sepulchral tones rose majestically.

‘He’s far too fleshly and forceful of voice,’ Tom said to James Tunstall who fell in beside him with a welcoming grin. ‘He’s supposed to be a ghost, surely?’

‘Ah,’ said Tunstall. ‘But there’s a chance Ned Alleyn’s coming back at Her Majesty’s request so we’re all putting more force into our performances to compensate or he’ll outshout us all… outshine us all, I mean to say.’ He gave a grin and a knowing wink.

‘So long as you don’t tear every speech to tatters and deafen the groundlings,’ said Tom. ‘Is Master Henslowe in his office?’

‘He is. Do you remember the way?’

‘This is the Rose, James, not the Americas.’

‘Ah, young Tom,’ said Philip Henslowe, looking up from the ledgers where he kept accurate accounts of all the theatres he owned, outgoings and income accruing from each, all the plays he commissioned and all the actors he – grudgingly – paid. ‘What can I do for you?’

‘I had come, Master Henslowe, to enquire whether the Admiral’s Men are really planning on reviving the Spanish Tragedy. But Thomas Downton’s rather forceful Ghost has answered that question for me. So, on to the next enquiry: have you or any of your company sent out word that you required an expert in the Spanish style of fencing to add authenticity to your new production?’

‘No! New production? Perish the thought! We have all the costumes and the properties from the original run carefully stored. There will be no new production! Waste of money. Besides, the original was one of the most popular we ever did. Why in the names of all the saints would we want to change it now?’

‘But there is word all over the Liberty that you want a Spanish sword master – will pay almost any amount to secure the services of such a man.’

‘Pay any amount! Are you mad? Have you no concept how expensive these productions are? Why man we can scarcely keep body and soul together on what little we accrue in the way of profit as it is. Hire a Spanish sword master for any amount! Whoever started that rumour is fit for Bedlam!’

With his brow furrowed in thought, Tom turned out of Rose Lane into Dead Man’s Place and started walking north towards the River. The situation was a tangle in his head – as though Ariadne herself had become confused in Daedalus’ Labyrinth leaving her thread in a hopeless jumble, trapping Theseus in there alone with the bull-headed Minotaur. Darkness was falling. The Admiral’s Men were using the last of the light augmented by torches to complete their rehearsal. The Bear Baiting was silent now, for the howling mastiffs had been fed. Dead Man’s Place was a tunnel of darkness leading towards the brightness of bankside and the River beyond. Tom suddenly realised he was starving. Such was his distracting hunger that it took him a heartbeat longer than usual to register the footsteps following him and whip out his rapier.

He turned, his blade catching what light there was, becoming a quicksilver fan in front of him.

‘Master Musgrave?’ said a black-cloaked, almost invisible figure.

‘I am,’ said Tom.

‘My master understands that you can teach him how to fence in the Spanish style,’ said the stranger. ‘He will pay handsomely for your time and tutelage.’

‘Will he?’

‘On condition that you mention this to no-one and that you permit him to come to your School of Defence on the morrow in the morning, where you will teach him alone – except for myself and such others as he might wish to bring as audience.’

‘Handsomely,’ said Tom. ‘How handsomely?’

‘Twenty gold florins, perhaps twenty-five if he is satisfied.’

‘Is he from Florence, then, with his florins?’

‘No more than he would be from Venice were he offering ducats. Is the sum sufficient?’

‘Tell him I will see him at my school at the first chime of eleven tomorrow. And that I will be alone as he wishes.’

‘Alone and having told no-one of our arrangement.’

‘Even so,’ said Tom.

The stranger vanished into the shadows and Tom headed towards the Swan, his current favourite of the taverns. He picked up the pace of his footsteps, wondering why he did not feel more elated at having caught the interest of his quarry. Wondering why he felt so much more like a worm on the hook than a shark.

***

For the third time, Tom’s young student takes up his favourite terza stance. Tom varies his again. This time he takes up the lowest of Capoferro’s guards, the quarta or fourth, with his sword-hilt almost level with his leading knee, the blade pointing upwards towards his opponent’s chest. Tom believes he has the measure of the man. His aim is to get rid of Tom as he got rid of Delgado in case the fencing master carried any of the Spanish spy’s vital information in his head and the fifth pass is his last chance to do so. The fourth pass, just completed, had been the obvious one to use, for it would have fooled Tom into expecting a final passage of arms, tempting him to relax, fatally. Hence the boy’s suddenly wilder swordplay – his lunges and his repeated use of the attaccare di spada. But apparently he has no desire simply to run that impressive dagger between Tom’s ribs. It seems that he wishes to repeat whatever strike he had used to kill Delgado. Whatever it involved, it was at once an unsettlingly unusual method of killing and also a unique one – as though the boy is an artist putting a signature on his bloody work. The fact is that the boy’s technique is more than sound; he has indeed been well-taught. He stands in no real need of lessons in swordplay – in the Spanish technique nor in any other. But he is no fool. He knows he is outclassed by Tom. And yet there is some element that will gain him a murderous superiority in this last pass. Tom has not yet discovered what that mysterious element consists of – but he is certain that it is something to do with the mark on Delgado’s head and the slit in his nostril. Therefore, as he settles into the fourth guard, Tom leaves his head and face apparently exposed, a tempting target for someone seeking to repeat the moves that killed Delgado in Dead Man’s Place. But his strategy has to rely on reading his young opponent instantly and accurately. Reacting immediately and correctly himself. One mistake and he will end up with his nose cut open like the Spanish sword master, and his life almost magically snuffed out with no trace remaining of how it was done.

‘ALLEZ!’ calls the referee.

The boy does not lunge this time. He thrusts and cuts, leaving his feet where they are and simply striking out of the terza guard, his movements precise, confident and incredibly fast. But they are those that Tom expects. Instead of thrusting or lunging in return, he drops into the position called passata sotto, ducking under the boy’s blade and taking his weight on his left fist as it rests on the floor, a move made easier by the low fourth guard but at the same time rendered almost unthinkable by the fact that he holds a dagger in that left  fist. The left hand and left leg anchor him as he ripostes. Had Tom been conducting a fight to the death, he would have skewered the boy from belly-button to shoulder-blade, like a side of mutton ready for roasting indeed. As it is, Tom’s button skids up the black tabard, leaving a clear chalk line which should end the bout at once with Tom the victor. But it does not. With a most un-boyish snarl, the student steps back and falls into the third guard once more. Tom picks himself up and as he comes erect he senses how completely the atmosphere in his familiar school-room has changed. He knows this charged air all too well – it is what fills the Bear Pit on baiting day when the bear is chained to its post and the dogs are about to be let loose. On the positive side, he no longer needs to feign ignorance of what is going on here. He stands, warily, out of measure, watching the boy. The boy’s eyes flick to the referee. Tom’s gaze follows his so-called student’s. The referee is no longer pretending to be impartial, and he is holding a snaphaunce pistol. ‘Allez!’ he orders once more. There are no niceties. The combatants are within easy reach of one another, already on the very edge of stretissima, the killing ground.

Tom takes the fourth guard. If the boy wants access to his face, let him have it. At least the button is still on the point of his rapier blade. So it is that vicious-looking stiletto Tom needs to be wary of. But then he remembers the strange mark in the centre of Delgado’s forehead; the rapier should not be forgotten – it plays a part in whatever the murderous youngster has planned. This time the student is the one whose rapier comes into the first guard. High, angled inward and downward and steady as a rock. He has no sooner attained it than he attacks. The buttoned point flashes towards Tom’s breast, seemingly aiming for his throat. Tom dances back, turning, forced to use the flexible debole near the tip to guide the thrust away. The move only just succeeds – but that is sufficient. With no opportunity for a counter-strike, Tom concentrates on his dagger, collecting his opponent’s easily as it is thrust almost haphazardly at his belly. They break apart, but only for an instant. They fall back into the same positions – the boy in first and Tom in fourth. The boy strikes again, lower this time, as though he expects the buttoned point somehow to pierce Tom’s tabard and the chest beneath it. Tom collects the blade on his forte, turning it aside more easily. The daggers hiss together for an instant as though they are an afterthought. They break apart but still remain in stretissima. The no longer boyish student takes the first guard again and Tom takes the fourth. It is as though they are both expecting to re-play the last two brief encounters – or might do so were there time. But there is not. The student launches his attack with lightning speed and disorientating accuracy. Before Tom can stop it, the button on the young man’s blade slams squarely into the middle of his forehead. Tom automatically jerks his head back, his sword almost invisibly knocking the attacking blade aside, a gleam in the corner of his eye. Dazed, he finds himself looking upward, nostrils flared as he gasps with shock. In that instant, he understands the boy’s murderous plan.

That long, thin stiletto blade is destined for his left nostril, as it was for the Spaniard’s. The better part of a foot of slim but solid Ferrara steel was aimed up his nose, directly into his brain. He has time to turn his head a fraction. The blade hisses past his cheek and cuts through his eyebrow, feeling as though the dagger is made of ice. The quillions and the boy’s fist slam into his cheekbone and skid off. The slim body crashes into Tom’s and bounces off again as though it was a ball. Tom’s eye fills with blood as he steps back, gasping. To see that his opponent’s eye is also filled with blood. For Tom has made the only fatal strike he could make with his own buttoned point – straight through the boy’s left eye and as deep into his brain as the dagger was destined to go into Tom’s; as deep, indeed, as Ingram Frizer’s blade went into Kit Marlowe’s. He slips his fist out of his rapier’s guard as the dead boy topples to crash onto his side, twitching as though his body does not yet realise the fatal truth.

‘POLEY!’ bellows Tom and the door into his schoolroom bursts open. Poley appears like a spirit from one of the old tales. He too holds a snaphaunce pistol and the men behind him hold flintlocks at their shoulders, all aimed at the referee.

‘Ah,’ says Poley, his voice dripping satisfaction. ‘We meet at last, Father. Master Musgrave, may I introduce you to Father William Weston, graduate of Cardinal Allen’s spy-School at Douai; one among many of such graduates who will still stop at nothing to prevent Her Majesty and King Philip III coming to a peaceful settlement; who still stand in the dangerous error of believing that Pope Pius V’s bill of excommunication should continue to have more importance than the chance of lasting peace between England and Spain. The dead boy no doubt was his creature. His puppet in this matter. As, in fact, you were mine. My worm, indeed, upon my hook fishing for the good Father here. That looks to be a nasty cut on your eyebrow, Tom; though I admit it’s nowhere near as lethal as what you’ve done to your opponent. I’d have it seen to as soon as possible if I were you – you don’t want it to turn into a scar. It’s what I really would call a palpable hit.’

This story is from, Royal Blood, an HWA Short Story collection.

Royal Blood