Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part twenty)
The Sword Decides!
Luigi di Taranto and Carlo di Durazzo advanced, the others drawing back. Chatter, and the rustling of latecomers, fell to a hush. Then a thunder of hoofs as each knight, on either side of the barrier, spurred his horse. A crash, of meeting spears, and it was over. The Prince of Taranto had splintered his rival’s weapon at the handguard; he rode along the stands to the acclaims of the crowd. Two more knights were placed; and again; and on, through the sunny afternoon—with intervals for the squires’ contests on foot, and wrestling matches between citizens.
Luigi had overthrown all opponents. He was victor of the jousts, winning smiles and cheers from those who had put their money on his prowess, while the followers of the more popular Carlo groaned, and even hissed at their defeated champion.
The cool of evening breathed in at last, as the setting sun burnished the housetops. A miniature tower, built of wood and garlanded with velvet, was rolled to the centre of the lists. From the balcony a slender arm flung a silk banner of fanciful device; from the pinnacle a pennant unfurled…and the tower’s defenders proved ten of the Queen’s ladies. Ten young gentlemen, unarmed and bareheaded, made attempt to storm this stronghold, the ladies unleashing showers of scented water, flowers and sweetmeats, and harmless gilded arrows that flew like an accompaniment to their laughter.
In the midst of this mimic warfare ran the rumour an unknown knight had challenged Taranto for the day’s honour. To Giovanna word came that the Prince had accepted. Presently, Raymond de Cabane rode before her box, glancing on her an eye which conveyed enough. He then announced in his ringing voice that this match would be the last of the sport.
The Conte da Morcane had meanwhile wrested the banner from the hands of the Contessa di Montalto, and a triumph of lutes played the heroes out of the lists, wheeling the castle (one or two mutinous defenders alighting, to escape back to their seats). Pages gathered the ammunition of sweets and scents, to toss among the crowd.
And Raymond de Cabane, dismounted, arrived at the Queen’s side. She leaned to him, asking in a whisper, “Is it nearly over?”
“Yes… Your cousin Luigi will be the victor. A pity no one likes him.”
She lowered her lids for comment…which might otherwise have been, nor I.
“But the people are pleased? Fattened and well sluiced?”
“Hmm.” This was his way with a humorous remark. He then said: “The Hungarian mistakes to absent himself. Be grateful for such blessings as you find, Madonna.”
“Andreas would die, made to sit at my side. He cannot come near me at all, since I shut the council door on him, and sent him weeping. Of course, it irks him my head alone is on the coinage…”
She could not expand further on this pleasant topic, for once more the trumpets sounded. The spectators looked in curiosity at the unknown knight. His armour was plain; and while a man’s stature might be augmented by padding at the shoulders…and while it was known some rested their feet on concealed platforms, giving length to the leg, this one looked tall and strongly built. His horse was a glossy chestnut. He circled the lists, saluted the Queen, and danced his animal into place.
Luigi di Taranto closed his visor and rested his lance. The two contestants crouched on the saddlebow. Those edging from the stands shrugged and nudged on, or else held themselves, half-seated, half-decided. The herald signalled.
A rush of galloping hoofs, and the shock of clashing weapons. The stranger sat firm, but Luigi, upset, though not driven from the saddle, had needed to right himself. Shouts rose for the unknown knight; the two backed their horses and went at each other again. This time the weapon shivered in the Prince’s hand and the onslaught bore him backwards off his mount. He struck the sand with the clangour of a man clad in weighty metal, and having nothing to clutch at that might break his fall.
Taranto’s squire dashed to seize the charger, which loosed, circled, striking here and there with its flanks, and stamping it hooves. A thunder of applause broke for the man who had overthrown the champion. The Queen raised arms to her own squire, who by the wrists lifted her, in opposition to the tent of heavy fabric that was her gown, and helped her reach the edge of the canopy. Here, the sun’s last rays gilded thread already gilt; made golden a thousand seed pearls. Giovanna’s face shone too, with secret delight.
A stir of purples, reds, and greens, and the ladies moved to view the knight’s unmasking to better advantage, or to make passage for Sancia, who bore in its coffer a gold chain set with emeralds, the victor’s reward. The knight was led by his page to the steps of the throne. Giovanna descended. At a respectful distance, the knight dismounted. Yet he did not drop on one knee before the Queen…but put back his visor and looked at her.
Words of light mockery rehearsed in her mind, and the half-smile measuring her enjoyment of Taranto’s discomfiture, died away. She was staring into a ruddy face of sweat and defiance—that of her husband, Andreas.
He removed his helmet in full, and Giovanna’s ears were stung by hoots of laughter, the sort that bursts in surprise at an unexpected witticism. Someone began a cheer, and the crowd took it up.
Giovanna stood cold and rigid with her fingers clenched in air, and at last let her arm drop, rather than remove the chain and lift it high. The crowd still shouted: “Andreo!”
“My lord,” she told him, low-voiced. “You must not rely so, on your friends’ advice. This joke you play shames our grandfather’s crown.”
Defiance faded in his eyes to puzzled dismay. “The rules allowed it. I wanted Taranto to come at me fairly… And I thought,” he added…thinking, apparently, to do so, “that if I’d bid to tilt, you or someone…”
His eyes found Cabane.
“…would have sought to spoil my chance.”
Without another word she gestured Sancia to give him the chain, and turned her back on Andreas.
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit, 2021, Stephanie Foster)