Lord Hunsdon's Men
"Stop! Halt! You'll kill each other!"
Our fencing master said this with a laugh, but for an instant, while my opponent's pale wolf-gray eyes drilled holes in me, I believed him. This was how it went with Kit Glover: practice one moment, dead earnest the next. We had begun with an ordinary rapier match, trading thrusts and parries under Master Cowley's watchful eye as he shouted, "Ward left, Kit! Watch his point, Richard--left foot back. Look to your side--point! Point!"
Then I put too much weight on my right ankle and stumbled a bit. In recovering I made a straight lunge forward that jabbed Kit on the hip. The blunt tip could not have hurt much, but Kit wore his pride like his clothes: just as readily pricked or cut. He went at me with such vigor that I could easily forget this was only a practice round. "Lay back!" shouted Master Cowley. "The foot must
follow the weapon, never precede--Kit, do you hear me? Kit!" Heedless, the boy pressed his attack, forcing me to put all my defenses to hard use. Dodging right and left, my eye on his weapon and my hand following his lead, I barely heard our master's cry to halt. Halting didn't seem prudent anyway, with the tip of that foil so relentlessly seeking me out. Faster and faster it came, beating me back until it slipped past a hole in my guard. The cold steel blade slid along my neck, with just enough pressure to hurt. "You're dead," said my opponent as he stepped back, suddenly as cool as the April breeze that gusted over our heads. Once again he had proved he could beat me any time he set his mind to it.
"If you have made your point, Master Glover," our instructor remarked dryly, "pray consent to go a match with Robin."
Kit nodded, taking a long drink from the stone jug of cider left on the stage. The exercise had scarcely raised a sweat on him--just a silvery gleam that complimented his ivory skin and set off his raven-black hair. As for me, I was blowing like a horse and dripping buckets. I picked up my cloak from the rough boards and wrapped it around me to ward off chills.
Robin Bowle stepped up for his match, pausing to slap me on the back with a smile both friendly and anxious, as though to say, "Don't mind him--'tis just his humor." Any tension between Kit and me unsettled Robin, as though he feared that when we finally got around to killing each other, he would find himself in the middle. But I knew all about Kit's "humor." That quick heat and abiding coolness were part of his construction, which helped to make him the finest boy player in London.
He and Robin squared off in the approved stance, left feet forward, shoulders parallel. At Master Cowley's command-- "Present!"--Kit raised his foil so swiftly that it sang, while Robin crossed his arms over his head and knocked his knees in mock terror. Gregory Lake, sitting out the practice because of a lame foot, laughed at his expression. But at our master's exasperated sigh Robin dropped his fooling and assumed a more serious pose. "To ward!" cried Richard Cowley, and the steel rang. Robin, who was shorter than Kit and three years younger, had put on weight since turning thirteen in the fall. I narrowed my eyes at the two combatants trading their workmanlike thrusts, imagining how their duel would look as part of a play. After barely a year on the stage I was thinking like a player, judging the match not by swordsmanship but by how well it might convince an audience that it was a fight to the death. Robin was now fully on defense, biting his lip as he warded off the thrusts coming at him. Kit's face at the moment showed only concentration, but in it lurked any passion a play might call for: hatred, exhilaration, fear, lust for vengeance. I stared at him, as though to draw some of his assurance and control into me. Then I caught myself at it and abruptly turned away to fix my attention on the Theater surrounding us.
It was a round building open to the sky, with three galleries circling the inside wall. The stage I stood upon was only a platform of rough-planed boards held up by trestles. Here, for six days of every week as weather permitted, the players of our company enchanted Londoners with tragedy, comedy, and romance--to greater or less success.
I had spent an uncertain year learning this trade, but the reason I was still here was due to Kit as much as to me. I had gained some skill as a player, but he had spoken a word for me at a time when all the skill in the world would have done me no good. Why he had done so was a mystery. I could only conclude that facing down officers of the law on my behalf was an act of daring, not friendship--as he did not appear to like me at all. Nor did I like him, exactly; it's hard to like someone who could make you feel, at day's end, that you have been punctured like a colander with your own flaws.
Still, my place in the Company suited me well enough. Though there were times, such as now, when my mind strayed to visions of a warm room in some warehouse where I could add up accounts all day long and see them come out as expected.
Instead, before dawn I had dragged myself out of the bed I shared with Robin, swallowed a cup of cider and a slab of cold porridge, trudged a mile up the Shoreditch Road to the Theater, spent an hour practicing dance and swordplay, stubbed my toe in the Morris dance, taken a snub and a defeat from Kit--and it was not yet eight o'clock. In a few moments the Company would assemble to rehearse a play I had never heard of before yesterday, and that would be the last chance I would get to practice my part, which I must then perform to a boisterous, disrespectful audience at two hours past noon. It was not a large part--one long speech and two short ones, plus single lines in three scenes--but I was expected to get it down pat, plus all my entrances and cues. None of the other actors could be counted on to prompt me, for they had their own parts to occupy them. After the performance we would immediately begin putting together another play for the morrow and would not depart for home until after dark. At times a clerk's position looked very good, or at least very peaceful.
"A match!" sang out Master Cowley. Kit had worked his blade under Robin's hilt and disarmed him. The foil clattered on the stage, and Robin wrung his offended hand, whistling in pain. "'Ware to your right," our instructor told him. "That's where he slips past your defense every time."
"Only because I let him," panted Robin. "I could see he was winded, so I ended the misery for both of us." Kit, passing behind, gave him a jab in the ribs that made him yelp. "I shall take that as your humble thanks."From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from The True Prince by J.B. Cheaney. Copyright © 2004 by J.B. Cheaney. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.