Fool and Mortals Excerpt

‘Becky!’ deValle shouted, ‘wake up, bitch!’ The girl stirred and sat up, pushing her red hair away from her face. She looked wordlessly at deValle who pointed at me. ‘Tell me what you think,’ he ordered.
She yawned, stretched, then stood and sauntered round the table to look at me. I looked back. I guessed she was about my age, but she had a knowingness that made her seem older. Her eyes were green, like a cat’s, her face was freckled and her hair a tangle of thick curls. She was attractive, no man could look at her and not be stirred, but the knowingness made her more than a little frightening. She reached out a hand and stroked my cheek. ‘He’s pretty.’
‘Pretty!’ deValle spat.
‘Handsome then.’ She smiled and flicked a finger across my nose. ‘I like him.’
‘If he could afford you,’ deValle said sourly, ‘he wouldn’t be here. Why are you here?’
And what was I to say to that? That I was poor, owed rent and needed employment? Or that I wanted revenge on my brothel-owning brother who had cozened me by offering me a man’s part only for me to discover that Francis Flute played a woman? My anger at that betrayal had brought me across the river, but this was no time to tell that truth. ‘I hear you want players, sir,’ I said with as much dignity as I could muster.
deValle grunted at that. ‘You have employment now?’
I nodded, ‘at the Theatre, sir.’
‘So why leave?’
‘I’m a hired man, sir,’ I said, ‘and they have plenty of those already.’
‘So you don’t get used much, is that it?’
‘I’d like to be busier, sir,’ I said.
‘He is good, Mister deValle,’ Francis Langley said eagerly. When we had met on the stage Langley had been full of bluff confidence, but now, in deValle’s presence, he was humble.
‘So are the others we’ve seen,’ deValle said, ‘or so you say.’
‘They’re not as handsome as this one,’ Becky said.
‘Put some wood on the fire, girl,’ deValle said, ‘then keep your whore mouth shut.’ He was gazing at me still, an expression of dislike on his face. ‘I’m told,’ he said, ‘that players need to be swordsmen, is that true?’
‘If the play demands it, sir, yes.’
‘And most plays do?’
‘The crowds like to watch swordplay,’ I said.
‘Then let us see if they would like to watch you,’ deValle said and went to a chest which stood among the shadows on the far wall. He lifted the lid, rummaged among its contents for a moment and plucked out a sword which he shook from its scabbard. He tossed me the sword, and I let it drop to the floor rather than try to catch it by the blade. I picked it up to find it was an old backsword, its foreblade blunt and the leather of its hilt ragged. The weapon was ill-balanced and clumsy. deValle smiled at my expression and drew his rapier with its elaborate silver guard, the long blade sliding from its scabbard with a barely audible hiss. ‘We’ll try a pass,’ deValle said, ‘and see if you’re good enough to entertain our crowds.’
‘Mister deValle,’ Francis Langley said nervously.
‘Quiet, Langley,’ deValle said, keeping his eyes on me. Becky looked excited. ‘First blood?’ deValle suggested, meaning that the fight would end when one of us was wounded.
‘Maybe I should just yield now then,’ I said. I was holding the sword clumsily, the point down.
‘Not if you wish employment here,’ deValle answered savagely, and raised the rapier.
He was proposing a match between an old, ill balanced sword and a rapier. On stage the fights were usually with swords, made for cutting as well as lunging, because such fights took less room than the long-bladed rapiers needed, and because the crowds liked to see sweeping cuts as well as elegant lunges. A rapier could not cut, it was designed solely to pierce. It required as much skill as a sword, but the skill was different. Henry Condell and Richard Burbage, who performed most of our fights at the Theatre, could fight with either weapon, but Signor Mancini,in whose hall I trained at least once a week, had only taught me the backsword. ‘You learn this sword first,’ he liked to tell me in his liquid accent, ‘because the rapier is easy afterwards.’
I pretended to know nothing as I faced deValle. I suspected he was a good swordsman, proud of his skill and eager to inflict a wound, but I was not as clumsy as I pretended to be. I was a player, so I played being an awkward unskilled, frightened man. I stood flat-footed, square on to deValle who was poised elegantly, his right foot forward and his blade angled upwards. ‘Ready?’ he asked.
‘Sir?’ I said uncertainly.
‘First blood, boy,’ he said and stamped forward, his long blade coming for my face and I flicked it aside, using the weak outer end of my blade, the foible. I staggered backwards and looked alarmed.
‘Not his face, Mister deValle,’ Francis Langley said, ‘please, not his face! He’s a player!’
DeValle ignored the plea. He had retreated, smiling. He thought that my parry was a lucky chance because no swordsman would parry with the foible if he could help it. He stamped forward, long blade lunging, and immediately stepped back. It was a feint, but I twitched my blade and stumbled two steps backwards as if in panic and he laughed. ‘Maybe you should only play women, Mister Shakespeare,’ he said.
‘Cut him, Kit,’ Becky said savagely.
‘Not his face!’ Langley pleaded again.
‘Not his face,’ deValle said, ‘then I’ll mark his thigh.’
I knew he would come for my face. He was a bully, sure of his skill, and he wanted to humiliate me. He was a bad player, though, telling the lie about marking my thigh without any conviction. He simply wanted to mislead me, then draw blood from my cheek and, just as I expected, he looked at my legs, lowered his blade slightly, then smiled and stamped forward. Sure enough the long blade flicked up, aiming for my face, and I stepped to my left, cut hard and fast to the right to beat the rapier down and slashed the blade inwards to slice it onto his exposed forearm. The blade struck and he looked alarmed. I was no longer hesitant, no longer clumsy. I was moving lightly, I had turned him, his rapier was off to my right and the length of the blade meant he had to step backwards to use it, but I gave him no chance, stamping forward, lunging, and stopping the blade an inch from his beard. ‘First blood, sir,’ I said, nodding at his forearm where a seep of red was staining the lace cuff of his sleeve.
For a heartbeat he looked furious, then he forced a smile. ‘Clever,’ he said.
‘Beginner’s fortune, sir,’ I said, lowering the blade, and then, to show I meant the fight to be over, handed the sword to Francis Langley.
‘Beginner’s fortune, eh?’ deValle asked. He sheathed his blade. ‘I think not. I think you are cunning, Mister Shakespeare. I think you’re a weasel. I think you’re sly. But you drew first blood.’ He pulled up his sleeve. My blunt blade had broken the skin, little more, but there was blood there and he would have a bruise to remember me by.