There’s a trick to fighting on the deck of a ship. I don’t know what it is, but I fully intend to find out one day. I imagine it requires not being seasick whilst trying to evade the attacks of a rather large group of enemy guards and nobles – oh, and an enraged bride.
‘Take them!’ the lead guardsman shouted. A gold stripe around the collar of his black and yellow livery marked him as either their captain or perhaps just the most stylish dresser among them. His voice wasn’t especially commanding, but it was insistent, and combined with his bushy red hair and buck front teeth, made me think of a particularly angry squirrel.
All sixteen guards were now staring at me, so I took off at a run, charging straight at them across the tops of the tables beautifully dressed in white and gold, screaming obscenities at the top of my lungs and knocking over translucent porcelain plates and golden goblets as I went, much to the consternation of the noble guests and their attendant Knights. This tactic – and it is an actual tactic, which we in the Greatcoats call a ‘Wanton Dancer’ – distracts the enemy by focusing their attention on the wrong target, in this case, me. One day soon I plan to rename this particular version the ‘Suicidal Idiot’.
Brasti took advantage of the momentary diversion to grab his quiver and sling it over his shoulder before running to the raised foredeck where he could rain arrows down on our opponents. Kest slammed the rounded front of his shield across the face of the man closest to him before driving the edge into the stomach of the next. ‘Falcio, coming in low!’ he shouted.
I leaped up from the table and heard the whoosh of a broadsword stroke that could have cost me my ankles pass harmlessly beneath me. The agility and grace of my manoeuvre became marginally less impressive when I landed and the tablecloth slipped out from under my feet, sending me tumbling backwards, shattering crockery and sending half-eaten chicken legs and chewed ribs flying into the faces of those guests who hadn’t yet had the presence of mind to move away.
With the wind knocked out of me, I struggled to draw breath into my lungs, much to the grinning satisfaction of the guardsman who had raised his broadsword high for the killing blow. He was so convinced he was about to end me that I hadn’t the heart to tell him that what I lack in luck and skill, I make up for in sheer bloody-mindedness – well, that, and the fact that a rapier thrust moves at twice the speed of a broadsword stroke. Wincing through the pain, I drove the point of my blade through the leather of his jerkin and into his belly. From the expression on his face, it was clear that he’d found the outcome of our exchange exceedingly disappointing.
I tossed the bleeding man a clean linen napkin from the table. ‘Keep pressure on the wound. The blade missed your stomach, so you still have a chance to live.’ Believe me, I’m no Saint, but I’d dealt with so many monstrous individuals lately that I was developing a fair amount of sympathy for the people forced to work for them.
I rose to my feet in time to face the rest of the guards, who’d been wrestling their way through the crowd to get to me. I’d chosen my terrain carefully: by fighting on the tables in the midst of the guests, I’d made it almost impossible for my opponents to swarm me without accidentally skewering the nobles. Hard to believe, but some of them still appeared to think this was some elaborate wedding performance – Viscount Brugess came within inches of being decapitated as he leaned forward to grab another leg of chicken, clearly sharing Brasti’s enthusiasm for Southern spit-roasted poultry.
The Knights were taking a more pragmatic view: they’d already begun dragging their noble employers to the relative safety of the back of the barge, clearing the way for the guards to close in on me. As that made the field of battle less favourable – to me, at least – I jumped off the table and began running along the barge’s wide railing.
Don’t fall. Don’t fall. Don’t fall. Brasti will never let you forget it if you tumble into the water and drown.
‘Protect the Margrave!’ Captain Squirrel shouted, cleverly guessing at my destination.
As it happened, I had no false illusions about my chances of reaching Margrave Evidalle in time to deliver the death he so richly deserved, but my apparent intentions were enough to convince the guards currently cornering Kest, Brasti and Chalmers that I was the more urgent danger, and with everyone’s attention once again on me, Kest moved on to Part Two of the plan.
‘Find the sister,’ Kest told the young woman who’d been posing as a Greatcoat.
She didn’t move. This ‘Chalmers’ had likely never been in a battle this full of chaos and mayhem before – more evidence that she wasn’t a proper Greatcoat, since chaos and mayhem were pretty much our stock and trade. As if to prove my point, one of the guards got the brilliant idea to drop his sword and instead try to swat me off the railing using a long bargepole. I squatted down, grabbed the other end and jumped off the rail, then ran to the other side of the boat. With the bemused guard clinging manfully to his end of the pole, I managed to knock the swords out of the hands of at least two of his fellows before he yanked, hard, and I dutifully let go – sending him crashing backwards into yet more of his unfortunate comrades.
‘Cestina’s sister,’ Kest pressed Chalmers. ‘You said Margrave Evidalle was holding her captive on the barge – is she truly his prisoner, or might she be part of his scheme too?’
‘I . . . no, the Lady Mareina is innocent in all of this! They’ve got her below in the—’
‘Don’t tell me, just go and get her! We’ll keep the guards busy.’ Kest shoved her unceremoniously towards the stairs leading belowdecks before coming to my aid.
Brasti joined us. Sighting along the line of his arrow at a group of guardsmen who were preparing to make a run at us, he asked, ‘Tell me again why we didn’t bring fifty Greatcoats from Aramor on this little pleasure-cruise?’
‘Perhaps because we don’t have fifty Greatcoats?’ Kest suggested.
In fact, we had less than a dozen at Castle Aramor, despite all the Bardatti we’d sent out in search of them. But that wasn’t the reason why I’d only brought Kest and Brasti with me to Margrave Evidalle’s wedding. ‘We’re here to send these bastards a message,’ I reminded them.
‘A sternly worded letter wouldn’t have sufficed?’ Brasti grumbled.
A massive brute of a man grabbed one of the tables by two legs and held it out in front of him like a kite-shield, and more guardsmen rushed to take up position behind him so that they could rush us without fear of Brasti’s arrows. Brasti tried sidestepping, looking for a clear view of their flank, but the table was too wide and the big man holding it too wily to give him a target.
‘I hate the big ones,’ Brasti complained. ‘Since we’re likely to die here, Falcio, do you mind telling me what message we were supposed to deliver?’
‘It’s simple,’ I replied, reaching up to wrap the end of a rope hanging from the yardarm about ten feet above me around my forearm. Once it felt moderately secure, I leaped from the raised foredeck, the point of my rapier aimed at the face of the man carrying the table. I’d never tried anything like this before, but if I was stuck having to have to fight on a boat, I’d damned well try and enjoy it. When the guardsman tilted his makeshift shield over his head to protect himself, I let go of the rope and landed squarely on the middle of the table. Before the big man could shake me off, I’d hopped to the other side of his little squad and by the time the man at the back had turned to face me, I’d already stabbed him in the arse.
‘Think twice the next time you decide to ambush a Greatcoat, gentlemen,’ I suggested. ‘We’re better at this than you are.’
Believe it or not, that got a smattering of applause from the wedding guests.
The rich really are different from the rest of us. They’re insane.
‘Seems a little unfair to punish these poor fellows for ambushing this Chalmers person,’ Brasti said, taking advantage of the confusion to fire an arrow into the thigh of the man holding the table. ‘She wasn’t even wearing a proper greatcoat.’
‘Neither are you,’ Kest pointed out, joining us at the barge’s centre mast.
‘You know perfectly well I couldn’t wear my coat under my disguise. You’re being intentionally abstract.’
‘I think you mean obtuse,’ Kest said, parrying an opponent’s clumsy swing with his shield and sending the blade screeching along its surface. By the time the guard had his weapon back under control, Kest had already bashed him across the face hard enough to send him toppling back into his fellows.
‘I need help – now!’ Chalmers shouted.
‘I’m on it,’ Kest said calmly as Chalmers came struggling up the stairs, hampered both by the young woman in torn, filthy clothes who was clinging desperately to her and by the two guardsmen intent on blocking their escape. Chalmers was waving around that broken cutlass of hers, but she couldn’t even get a decent swing at her enemies for fear of hitting Lady Cestina’s terrified sister.
Speaking of whom . . .
‘Face me, Trattari!’
I was barely in time to parry what I thought was a pretty impressive lunge by the bride-to-be. Her smallsword was a lovely piece, the glittering gold inlay positively gleaming, which reminded me that my own rapiers were in sorry need of some love and attention. I felt decidedly shabby next to the radiant bride.
For her part, Lady Cestina was full of passionate fury as she came at me. ‘Your tyrant Queen’s laws will never take root in our lands while I live,’ she cried. For someone who’d apparently been deeply involved in the conspiracy, not to mention the murder of her former husband and the kidnapping of her own family, Lady Cestina’s outrage sounded positively noble.
I deflected a series of thrusts aimed at sensitive parts of my body as I said, ‘Forgive me, my Lady, but there is one law we all must obey.’
The tip of her sword whipped out suddenly, leaving a tiny cut on my cheek. ‘What law might that be, Trattari?’
She pressed her attack, and I felt a strange mixture of admiration and sorrow for her. When you spend a good part of your life studying the sword, you like to think it somehow makes you a better person, but the look of glee on Lady Cestina’s face, presumably at the prospect of killing me, was rapidly disproving that theory.
On the other hand, I’ve always argued that there are differences between an experienced duellist and someone who just happens to be good with a sword – differences such as knowing to pay as much attention to the changing terrain as you do to your opponent. When people get stabbed, they bleed, and that blood has to go somewhere. In this case, I’d noted a nice little pool of it on the deck between us, so I gracefully allowed her to press me back – and just at the moment she started smiling at my apparent retreat, she slipped on the slick surface. I contented myself with a gentlemanly thrust to her shoulder – although it was her sword arm, naturally.
‘The law we must all obey, Madame, regardless of rank or privilege, is the first rule of the sword: whoever’s first to put the pointy end in the other guy wins.’
She dropped her weapon, grimacing in pain. Margrave Evidalle, who’d thus far been too busy nursing his own injured hand to pay attention to anyone else’s situation, shouted in despair, ‘Monster! What kind of man are you, to wound a lady?’
I assumed he was being ironic, but Brasti said, ‘Actually, he used to be offensively squeamish about fighting women as equals.’ He clapped me on the shoulder. ‘You’re really growing as a person, Falcio.’
‘A little help here?’ Kest called out.
The last of the guardsmen were now focusing their efforts on keeping Kest from helping Chalmers to rescue Lady Mareina.
‘Hey,’ Brasti called, ‘you men attacking those nice ladies—!’
Much to everyone’s surprise, several pairs of eyes turned towards him.
‘Want to see a magic trick?’
The absurd question was delivered with such ebullient confidence that I swear some of the guards were about to nod yes.
‘Watch closely now, because I’m about to make you disappear.’
Despite the fact that I suddenly found myself occupied with a stubborn opponent who was unreasonably good with a mace, I couldn’t help but spare a quick glance. Like a weaver spinning silk in the air, Brasti’s hand whisked back and forth from his quiver, each time sliding an arrow gracefully into place on the string of his bow, pulling, aiming and releasing, all in one smooth action, then repeating the motion. By the time I’d thrust my rapier into the leg of the man with the mace, Brasti had taken down three of the guards harrying Chalmers. ‘Ta-da,’ he said.
I hate Brasti sometimes.
‘Regroup! Regroup, damn you all!’ Captain Squirrel shouted.
‘He does a lot of shouting,’ Kest observed.
‘He’s their commander,’ Brasti said. ‘Isn’t shouting part of the job?’
‘Perhaps – but have you noticed? His orders don’t have much thought behind them. He just barks out vague commands and expects everyone else to figure out what they mean.’
Chalmers and the young woman stumbled towards us as a number of the Margrave’s other functionaries reluctantly obeyed the urging of their Lord, armed themselves with the weapons of the dead and injured and joined the remaining guards, inconveniently making a force larger than the one we’d started fighting in the first place.
‘Form up!’ Captain Squirrel shouted. ‘Run these bastards down!’
‘I see what you mean now,’ Brasti told Kest while nocking another arrow. ‘“Form up” – into what? Run us down – how? He’s really not giving these poor fellows much to go on, is he?’
The guards, however, didn’t appear to require much in the way of guidance. Two men with crossbows moved to either side of the main group, while three more settled long halberds into position and took the front of the line where they could use the longer weapons to keep us at bay while their fellows outflanked us. The rest lined up behind them, clearly waiting for the moment to overwhelm us with their superior numbers.
‘How would you rate our chances?’ I asked Kest.
‘Not good. Six of them will die before they manage to down one of us, then three more, but after that we get overrun,’ he replied without any discernible concern. ‘Brasti will fall first.’
‘What? Why is it always me?’ Brasti tossed his bow behind him and drew his sword. We were in too close for archery now. ‘Why not Chalmers? She’s not even a proper Greatcoat!’
‘At least she doesn’t hold her sword as if it were a snake about to bite her,’ Kest pointed out.
‘Stop saying I’m not a Greatcoat,’ Chalmers growled, bringing her cutlass into a forward guard as she pushed the emaciated Lady Mareina behind her. ‘And leave me out of . . . whatever this gabbling thing is that you’re doing.’
‘It’s called “strategy”,’ Brasti explained kindly. ‘Kest tells us how bad our odds are of survival, and then Falcio finds a way to make them worse, usually by—’
‘Shut up, Brasti.’
The wedding barge was beginning to look like one of those terribly complicated board games King Paelis used to make me play while expounding on military theory until I threatened to arrest him for violating his own prohibitions on torture. Kest, Brasti, Chalmers, Lady Mareina and I were boxed in near the front of the boat. Opposite us, the eight remaining guards, bolstered by a dozen of the Margrave’s other retainers, were wielding a variety of swords, maces, crossbows and knives of varying lengths. Behind them were some twenty wedding guests, many of them armed as well, and each with their very own armoured Knight for protection.
No way to fight them all, and nowhere to flee.
‘Surrender,’ Evidalle called out, his voice no longer quite so musical as it had been before Brasti shot an arrow through his hand.
I wasn’t above trying to take Evidalle or his young bride captive in order to escape, but they were too well protected behind their guards. In fact, had this been one of the King’s game boards, you’d have come to the inescapable conclusion that we were well and truly buggered.
‘Falcio?’ Kest said. ‘They’re getting ready to—’
I cut him off with a wave of my hand. The problem with games of war is that they’re deceptive precisely because they presume that there are rules to be followed. But this is Tristia, after all, and corruption runs deep in the bone.
‘Everyone shush now,’ I said, taking a step towards the guards. ‘I’m about to be impressive.’
Tyrant’s Throne © Sebastien de Castell, 2017