Authors: Matthew Reilly
At one tavern, Mr Giles did exactly this move and it enraged his opponent, a local salt miner who fancied himself at the game and was reputedly unbeaten in that town. Upon being mated, the miner kicked back his chair, rose and shoved Mr Giles harshly backwards.
Mr Ascham, standing nearby, moved with surprising speed and caught Mr Giles before he hit the ground.
The miner loomed above them, a stout fellow with a face enfilthed by his day’s labour underground.
‘You cheated!’ he growled.
‘I apologise for beating you, sir, but I did not cheat,’ Mr Giles said in a conciliatory way.
‘We will play again!’ the goliath boomed.
Mr Ascham stepped forward. ‘I think we are done for the evening. Perhaps we can buy you a drink as thanks for a game well played.’
‘Or maybe I will break you both in two, rut your little girl here, and then buy myself a drink!’ the miner said. A few of his friends chuckled ominously.
‘That will not happen,’ Mr Ascham said, his voice even.
The big miner stiffened. The entire bar went quiet. I gazed around at the crowd who were now taking a keen interest in the confrontation.
The miner locked eyes with my teacher. ‘I know you travel with guardsmen, foreigner, but your guards are outside now. I will have beaten you to a pulp before they get through that door.’
Then, with a suddenness that shocked me, the miner lunged at my teacher, swinging a massive fist at his face.
Mr Ascham moved with a speed I had not thought him capable of.
He ducked the behemoth’s lusty blow and then bobbed up and loosed a brief but powerful punch to the big man’s throat, striking him squarely in the Adam’s apple.
The enormous miner stopped dead in his tracks. His eyes bulged red and he gasped for breath as if he were choking. His hands clutched at his throat as he dropped to his knees.
My teacher, calmer than calm, his eyes steady and unblinking, stood over him. The miner was at his mercy.
‘My friend played a fair game, sir, and he meant no offence. Nor do I. I do not desire to hurt you any more.’ Mr Ascham’s eyes scanned the hall for any who might wish to avenge their choking friend. ‘But I will defend my travelling party if you make me.’
He pushed Mr and Mrs Ponsonby and me toward the door. Mr Giles followed, walking backwards. Elsie appeared then from somewhere—a side door, I believe; she must have heard the ruckus—and joined us at the exit.
Mr Ascham threw a couple of silver coins to the floor in front of the kneeling man. ‘We bid you all good night and shall forthwith take our leave.’
We left that mining town immediately and made camp in some woods far to the east much later that evening. But as we rode away from that town I saw my teacher’s hands on his reins.
They were shaking.
The following day, as I rode in the cart alongside Mr Ascham on his horse, I said, ‘Mr Ascham, I was unaware you were so, well, capable in a fight. Have you always been so?’
My teacher shook his head. ‘I’m no great fighter, Bess. In fact, had that fight gone on any longer, that miner would probably have knocked me senseless. But I did enough to get us all out of there safely, which was all I wanted to do.’ He smiled sadly. ‘Bess, despite all of humanity’s many advances in medicine, the sciences, architecture and the arts, we live in a brutish world, one in which force is still the ultimate arbiter.’
‘But what about England? Is it not a nation of laws?’ I argued, just as my teacher had taught me. ‘The rule of law is what makes ours a civilised nation.’
Mr Ascham snuffed a laugh. ‘We are not so civilised.’
‘But I can walk down any street in Hertfordshire without fear of any bodily harm.’
‘This is true. But do you know why that is the case?’
‘Because of the rule of law.’ I thought some more. ‘Because the average Englishman knows that it is better for all if all obey the law.’
‘Bess, if someone were to harm a hair on your head, your father would have that man’s head cut off and placed above Aldgate. Your safety is guaranteed by the violence at your father’s disposal. If you were to walk a street in the north, in a town where your identity as the king’s daughter was unknown, you would not be so safe.’
‘So what are you saying?’ I asked. ‘Might is right?’
‘That is exactly what I am saying, and it was why as a young man I made sure I learned some incapacitating fighting moves such as you witnessed last night. It is also why I am an advocate of proficiency with the bow. Now that I think of it, it might be wise to add some basic defensive techniques to your curriculum.’
‘You intend to teach me to
Ascham!’ Mrs Ponsonby said indignantly from the seat beside me. She had been eavesdropping and not so subtly. ‘I must protest! A lady, much less a princess, needs no such skills. I pray that you will reconsider this rash idea.’
‘Thank you for your concern and for your prayers, Mrs Ponsonby, but I feel this could be a worthwhile lesson for—’
‘I might have to inform the king of this upon our return,’ Mrs Ponsonby interrupted.
‘Please do so,’ Mr Ascham replied reasonably. ‘I have always welcomed his views on my teaching methods. Until then, such decisions are mine, not yours, so I fear I must overrule you on this matter.’ He was always courteous with her, despite her breathtaking pomposity. I barely contained my smile.
He turned to face me. ‘Bess, perhaps I have not adequately informed you of my ultimate intention in your education. I intend to make you
. By the time I am done with you, I would hope that if you were turned out of England in nothing but your petticoat, you would be able to live capably anywhere in Christendom.’
I liked the sound of that education.
At lunch the next day Mr Ascham began my new curriculum in personal defence with a question: ‘All right, Bess, what do you think is the first strategy you should employ in a fight?’
I raised my fists. ‘This?’
‘No. Wrong. You should run. If you are not there to be hit, you cannot
My brow furrowed. ‘That sounds very cowardly. And not very English.’
‘The world is not very English. Be it a stupid tavern brawl or a naval battle, a scrap avoided is the best result for everyone concerned.’
‘But last night you did not avoid the scrap.’
‘Last night I had a responsibility that I could not run from, namely your safety. I had to end that confrontation as quickly as I could and then get us all out of there.’
‘So what if I cannot run?’
‘Then you do this.’ He held up his right hand, palm vertical with every finger extended forward—and then suddenly he thrust that hand toward my eyes. I flinched as his fingers gently jabbed my face, two of them touching my eyelids.
Nearby, Mrs Ponsonby snorted in disgust. She glanced at her husband and he dutifully echoed the noise.
Mr Ascham ignored them.
‘Given your age, Bess, most assailants will be larger and stronger than you, so you will need to use guile instead of muscle. Extend your fingers like so and poke him in the eyes. Blind him. Everyone’s eyes are vulnerable, even those of the biggest thugs. And not even thugs can fight without sight. But make sure you keep your fingers bent, otherwise you will injure them in the jabbing. Now try it.’
I did so and was surprised at how easy it was to strike my teacher in the eyes with at least one finger or thumb.
‘Now,’ he said, ‘what do you do after you poke your opponent in the eye?’
‘Punch him in the throat. Like you did.’
‘No. Wrong. You run.’
‘A scrap avoided is the best result for everyone concerned,’ he repeated like a mantra. ‘You are only trying to disable him long enough for you to get away.’
‘But what if he is not so disabled?’
Mr Ascham then taught me to punch someone in the throat as he had done the night before. ‘Some men strike at the jawbone, but this is foolish because punching a bone is like punching a wall. Hitting the throat, however, will stop your attacker from breathing and if he can’t breathe, he can’t fight. Now, what do you do after you have struck him in the throat and made him gasp for air?’
I grinned. ‘I run.’
He smiled. ‘You, my princess, are such a quick learner.’
We journeyed on.
A FEW DAYS LATER
, we left the lands of the Habsburgs and entered the eastern half of the Continent.
The landscape changed immediately. Gone were the rust-and-gold leaves of autumn in the West. Here everything was darker. The mountains were black and threatening, the trees thin and skeletal, the roads muddy and boggy.
The language also changed: on the western side of Europe, the common language between foreigners was Latin, but in the East it was determinedly Greek. For over a thousand years, from their base in Constantinople, eastern Roman emperors had held Latin in contempt, a crude tongue that was not ‘sacred’ like Greek. This had not changed with the accession of the Moslem sultans.
As we approached the Black Sea, we passed through the land known to some as Romany and to others as Wallachia. It was a grim place inhabited by gypsies and peasants who all bore the haunted looks of the permanently oppressed. Their villages are hardly even worthy of the title ‘village’. A Romany hamlet is little more than a collection of hovels flanking a central boggy track.
‘Did you know, Bessie,’ Elsie whispered to me one night as we lay in our covered wagon by the side of one such track, ‘that a hundred years ago the ruler of Wallachia was a madman named Vlad the Third. His unspeakable acts of torture and murder defy belief: his preferred method of execution was impalement on a stake. The victim would be impaled up through the anus and out through the mouth—all while still alive—and then be left to slide down the stake and die slowly.’
‘How horrid . . .’ I said.
‘According to the local stories, this Vlad would have whole villages impaled. So murderous was his reign that rumours began to circulate that he drank the blood of the dead at his table. He became known as Vlad the Impaler. Apparently, he was a devoted Catholic—’
‘Elsie,’ Mr Ascham said sternly, poking his head inside our wagon. ‘Stop scaring Bess with your silly campfire tales.’
Even so, the next day, as we passed through another hamlet he rode a little closer to my wagon than usual.
Sullen-looking gypsies watched us as our caravan went by. On some occasions, the gypsies would follow us beyond the borders of their hamlets, trailing us at a distance. One time, a group of them shadowed us for three whole days and nights. During that time, Mr Ascham posted an extra guard to keep watch over the wagon in which I slept.
On one of those nights I asked, ‘Sir, is it true that gypsies kidnap children? Is that why you’ve allocated an extra man to watch over me?’
Mr Ascham looked out at the moonlit landscape. A jagged ridgeline of pine trees stabbed the sky, framing the valley.
‘Unfortunately, young Bess, the frightening bedtime stories we tell about gypsies back in England do indeed have some basis in fact,’ he said, not taking his eyes off the hills.
In the distance, a wolf howled. At least, I thought it was a wolf. It might have been a human.
‘And what exactly do these gypsies do with the children they take in the night?’ I asked. In the stories back home, one never actually found out what happened to children who were so kidnapped.
Ascham turned to look at me. He said seriously, ‘That is something I do not wish to burden your young mind with at this stage of your development.’
I rolled my eyes. ‘Surely it couldn’t be worse than impalement?’
‘Yes, it could,’ he said, and he would speak no more on the matter.
Mr Giles continued to play chess when he could, but there were fewer large villages in Wallachia and so fewer opportunities. When he did play in a small tavern one evening, I noticed an odd-looking fellow watching the match closely from the back of the room. He was a small man with a dark Persian complexion and a long rat-like nose.
I started. I had seen this man before: at the last tavern, two days previously. I mentioned it to Mr Ascham.
‘Well spotted, Bess. That gentleman has been following us for a week now,’ my teacher said calmly, not turning to look at the rat-faced man. ‘He always lurks at the back of the room and he watches Mr Giles’s matches very closely. No, Bess. Don’t turn around.’
‘Who is he?’ I asked in a hushed whisper.
‘My guess is that he is an agent of the Sultan’s, sent to observe and report on Mr Giles. Perhaps to gauge his ability before his arrival at the tournament. Perhaps to see who travels with him. We are in Ottoman lands now, Bess, and it should come as no surprise that the Sultan’s eyes watch over us.’
On another occasion in Wallachia, we stayed at a large and very rowdy tavern.
Our rooms were upstairs while at ground level there was a beer hall filled with dirty locals who played cards, smoked pipes and drank a potent foul-smelling local brew. Naturally, Mrs Ponsonby was appalled and fanned herself vigorously and ostentatiously, as if to fan away the very vice in the air. At a table in the corner, two men were playing chess for money.