The Tigery Horseman
With a cool purr of humour Pan Aeneas put out her hand, sliding her dolphinskin book onto the narrow tabletop between us, and withdrew her arms again, pulling the lips of her lion-mantle closer about her body. “To whom will I apply for spear-bearer, Raymond?” she asked. “Philip is too busy, and no one else is man enough to match me.”
With a little meaningful widening of his eyes, nostrils expanding upon the scent of his own exasperation, my friend replied smartly, “If you would remember to draw upon the rein, and think a little to the value of your own hide, you might not outstrip the rest of us in the chase. You know how simply Father would peel the skin off my hide if anything became of your neck.”
“Yes!” Her eyes flashed with sadistic charm. “Fie but I would not be there to see him do it!”
Perceiving that her glass was empty I leaned forward in the worn leather seat, whose twin Pan Aeneas occupied, and tipped the vessel of wine forward over the lip of her cup. It was a rich yellow wine, like the rim of the world at sunrise, and slid the back of its smooth lady’s hand down one’s palette like a lover’s caress. When the curl of liquid had ceased to roil I set back the vessel and pressed two fingers against the base of the glass, pushing it closer to my lady’s chair.
“The truth, my lady,” I said with the mockery that comes of long acquaintance, “is that you will not let a man come headstall to headstall with you for pride.”
Two long fingers turned over from among the lionskin and slipped around the stem of the glass. “Cans’t blame me, my lord?” she inquired, green eyes gone sleepy. She raised the glass to her red lips and let the soft yellow liquid play against her mouth.
“Not at all.” I sat back heavily into the armchair. “It is also in my mind that you anticipate to find your quarry at the end of the chase, and not beside you. Some phantom well in the wood, no doubt, will conjure up a man for you.”
Her eyes were on her glass, her brow played over with the sun’s reflection off the wine, and I perceived in her face that I had hit upon something: some slight pain, the briefest, the most momentary flinch as from an unwelcome yet persistent thought. Her hard, vixenish face, framed in her auburn coils, bore of a sudden the look of a setter which hears the halloo far off and entertains for one weighty moment the fear of never following it.
Raymond said levelly, “Splendour of God, Pan—I am not asking you to catch a mate. I am asking you to find an escort. You are as good with a whip as any I know, and you have an unrivalled eye with the bow—no doubt,” he added, flinging an angry rhetorical eye at the smoky rafters, “you can turn a knife in the dark if you must—but it would put several minds at ease if you had a guardsman beside you.”
I kept still, set back in the chair with my arms upon its own, my chin bent toward my chest so that I looked out from under my own brows like a stallion which is deciding to be difficult. On Pan Aeneas’ face I saw the pain was still lingering, but also that she was coming out of it. She set back the glass, imprinted with her lips, and smiled gently up at her brother.
“Would it set to rest the mind of Philip Cheval also?” she murmured.
Raymond opened his mouth to answer sharply, then seemed to see, as I did, the picture this little question sketched, for he thrust himself back a step, perplexed. It had been some time coming, this slow metamorphosis of our threesome friendship, so long a tangled skein of puppy-limbs rolling out of our childhood, running into our youth. Now we were full-grown, with the weight of our lands upon our shoulders, and Raymond was just now seeing the new shape our friendship was taking.
I had seen it coming a long time now.
Before he could find the words to say, Pan Aeneas jerked her head to the side, glancing over my shoulder with the half-angry interest of the proud; I also came forward, twisting round to see the thing which was happening behind us.
At the same instant she turned her head a gentleman of the way-house was calling out, “No, get ye gone! Off my doorstep! I’ll not have thy trade beneath my beams!”
It was a woman who stood in the entryway, backlit by the harsh summer morning, her body lymer-thin and gathered about in a heavy red mantle and a brood of shabbily-clad children. Out from a mass of black hair she gazed at the way-house owner, who was coming meaningfully across the oaken floor toward her.
“I am come for food for my children,” she told him. Her body clenched and arched like a cat which is pressed too close for comfort. I could not blame her: the proprietor was a goodly-sized man, and she could not have been a hedge high, and was skin and bones. The children crushed around her; the eldest of her brood, a boy of about seven, even took a step forward as if to close off the man’s path to his mother.
“I am come,” the woman repeated with a quiet desperation, “for food for my children.”
“And I am telling thee,” the man returned doggishly, “that there be no room in here for gypsies and harlots. I run a respectable establishment. Now take thy whelps, and take thee off!”
The woman’s harsh black eyes cut swiftly round the room. She seemed to see all, and was yet unaware of the stillness which had fallen over the long low room: every body in the place was poised to watch, listening to the mounting irritation of the way-house keeper and the harp-string hum of desperation in the woman. “The crumbs which fall from thy table,” she remarked softly: “be they not for the children of Heaven?”
My hands clenched on the arms of my chair, my mind sent a shock of imperative through my body—but suddenly Raymond was holding me down with one hand: I flung up a searching look toward him, but he nodded once, wordless, and I saw another bystander was already coming forward. He had been there since before we had come, quietly seated at a trestle-table eating his meal and painstakingly scanning the thick pressed pages of a book. At the time I had spared him no more than a glance: now, as he slid his legs over the bench and rose, coming to a breath-taking height, I ran a more critical eye over his length. He walked like a cat, very softly and soundlessly, and wore the simple tunic and sword of a horseman who is off-duty.
As he came one hand, in a manner so smooth it was almost absentminded, took up the complimentary bowl of breads and cheeses which had sat on his table and bore them past the way-house keeper. The man stared at him in a kind of shocked stupor, the woman’s eyes kindled with a rage of hope, and the rest of us watched the drama with a thrill of anticipation.
The horseman held out the bowl toward the woman, every movement fluid and deliberate. By the twelve houses! I swore in my wrathful love of him, to see him break a horse would be a marvel!
“Take thee the breadstuffs, mother,” he bade her. His voice was like that of a tiger humming in its contentment. “Take thee the bread and the cheese for thy little ones, and go thy way in peace.”
One thin birdlike hand, encircled by a dozen bronze bangles, lifted from the shoulders of the eldest boy, stretching out for the bowl. But the way-house keeper suddenly snatched the vessel from the horseman, demanding, “Hast paid for that, that thou mayest squander it at will? I will thank thee not to dispose of property which is not thy own!”
The woman started back from the quarrel. The horseman, however, flung up one hand in a silent imperative, biding the woman stand still. Then, with his other hand, one eye all the while on the way-house keeper, he fished down inside the fawnskin pouch tied at his belt against his left flank and drew out between two fingers one coin of copper and another of half-silver. With a small, silent flourish he produced them between himself and the way-house keeper. He spoke no word, but he dropped his chin a little as if to say, “Now give me the bowl.”
But the way-house keeper coloured up and flung up his own hand in refusal of the money. “It is a matter of principle! I do not service these women, nor will I ever. Take thy money and keep it—and you—” he swung round on the woman and her children.
A laugh kicked in my gut. The horseman, with a movement so swift it was over almost before I had seen it, stepped between and struck the soft of the man’s wrist with two outstretched fingers. There was a cry, a recoiling of body, and the bowl was in the air, swiftly falling toward the oakwood. It would break—but the horseman, still in the gap, caught it on the saddle of his boot and spun with it, sliding it off between the feet of the seven-year-old street-whelp. The boy dropped down on the balls of his feet and snatched up the bowl—his mother offered no scruple—and leapt back out of range before the way-house man could recover from the stinging nerves which the horseman had dealt to him.
“Oh, hoc habet!” hissed Pan Aeneas, thrust forward shoulder to shoulder with me as we watched.
“You—!” spluttered the proprietor, effusing rage. His huge shoulders hulked forward, hands clenching into fists that would have dropped a horse.
“Yea, and there is hell to pay, an’ sure,” purred the horseman. He put out an arm’s length and pressed his palm and the two coins against the man’s chest. “Take the money, and in good grace.”
For a moment the man did not know what to do, he was so choked with the audacity of the horseman and with his own wrath. Between them, silhouetted in grey and harsh black in the door, the woman paused in the act of slipping from the place, her arms full of children and food. All eyes were on the horseman and the way-house keeper: I think I alone saw the look of uplifted gratitude in the woman’s meagre features, and the hero-light which shone, to her eyes, around the half-breed features of the tigery horseman.
Then she was gone, in a flutter of ragged scarlet and bronze light, and the storm which was brewing between the horseman and the way-house keeper had only just begun.
For a long time neither gentleman spoke a word. The room was oppressed in silence, laced through with dozens of wills straining at the traces for an outcome. I could not see the way-house keeper’s face, though I could see his fists: the horseman stood turned upon the proprietor, his face turned toward me and downward bent, a feather of a smile playing in his eyes. He, too, was waiting for the outcome, wondering with a lordly patience if the way-house keeper was going to make much ado of the matter.
Lifting his head a little, the horseman said presently, “Wilt take the money, sir?”
Stung by his enchanting voice, the way-house keeper backstepped out from the horseman’s hand. The money fell in sparking shards to the floor. Like a cat the horseman started a little, brows askance as he watched the coins rebound their several ways across the oak. I watched the fight flood through his limbs and he was moving before he was looking, sweeping up his forearm to block the way-house keeper’s bullish blow. The next instant he had followed it up with a sharp right, taking the man beneath the breastbone. As the man staggered back, eyes popping in surprise, the room erupted into a ragged cheer of approval and blood-lust. Two boys sprang over the counter to come to the owner’s aid, gentlemen hauled back their benches to make room, and all in a moment the thing had turned into a kind of cock-fight, the horseman in the middle of the pack, indisposed to taking to his heels, his heels singing with the morning light off a pair of razor-sharp sun-disk spurs.
Raymond said in my ear beneath the roar of the gathering, “Wilt have the guard upon him shortly, and a flogging soon after, if he is not quieted presently.”
I smiled and held up my hand, willing to watch the horseman a little longer. I had rightly judged him: his movements were all of precision, gracefully mingling a foreign style of boxing with our own, and though he was angry—deeply, ragingly angry with the way-house keeper in whose face he landed some half-dozen blows—I could see he was enjoying himself.
Cloth tore. The man wrenched free of a miscreant’s hand, baring his back beneath the cavalry tunic to display the flesh picked out in scarlet lines, sketching a magnificent dragon. The northern style, my brows flickered with interest: half-lion, half-reptile. A picture of the man began to form in my head, and I liked the image which I saw.
With his long arms he held the way-house keeper at bay, digging his heels into the floorboards, and his tremendous laugh thundered over the noise of the place as the proprietor swung fruitlessly at his ribs.
“Insolent Carmarthen cur!” roared the way-house keeper.
The horseman’s laugh was cut short by a blow from one of the yard boys: he caught the man hard in the kidney, and the man gave a little short gasp, trying to laugh, but I saw a momentary pain flash across his face. It gave the boys enough time to loop their arms around his neck and pull him down. The ring imploded. I could no longer see the horseman, and knew only where he must be for the way-house keeper was ramming his boot into that place.
A bull-horn roared in from the yard. The next instant the doorway was darkened by five or six figures in scarlet and leather harness, the plumes of their helms flashing white in the drift of motes and sun. They crowded into the little space left to them and the foremost man among them stood a moment looking down at the hearty sprawl in the floor. Disgust swept his face and he flung up his left hand; behind him, his second lifted the horn and blew another blast: the glasses in the cupboard rattled.
“Away!” cried the Captain, letting loose his whip and cracking it around the ears of the way-house keeper. “Away! Look, man, he’s had it!”
The way-house keeper stopped kicking in the ribs of the horseman and the boys reluctantly slunk off the carcase. I got a glimpse of the man kneeling hands and knees upon the floor, spitting up blood, his shoulders still shaking with an irrepressible humour and a fighting spirit. He had not had it—I think the Captain saw that also—but he had sense enough to draw himself quietly back and get his feet beneath him. His only piece of insolence was, in his languid, graceful way, to hold out his hand again to the way-house keeper, the two coins between his fingers. His face was torn, bleeding freely, his dog-teeth glinted like the happy hunting cat, and he laughed, silently, hugely. Whatever became of him and of the way-house keeper, I felt the two of them would go away forever knowing who had bested who.
“Dog!” snapped the way-house keeper, and struck the coins from the man’s hand.
“That is enough,” said the Captain. He planted his hand firmly on the horseman’s shoulder. With a jerk of his fiery head—for he alone of his men went bare-headed—he added crushingly, “I have not had to patrol the yard-stoop of this place since you hung out your shingle. What are you about, brawling in this uncivilized manner?”
The way-house keeper nursed a busted knuckle to his lips. “Nay, nor would ye! This bantling would go against me, and throw good foodstuffs to the riffraff—when I expressly forbade it, moreover!”
“Feeding the widow and the orphan!” exclaimed the Captain with vicious humour. “Fie upon it!”
Perceiving that the officer was not impressed with him, the owner was sullenly quiet.
The Captain thrust out his coiled whip, taking in the chaos. “Lock up your postern and clean up your mess. I will let you go this one time—but mark me: if you let another brawl like this happen I will be posting a guard at your door.”
The man opened his mouth.
“And—moreover—if you want to press your charges, you must needs come up to the garrison to do it. But I find it unlikely your claim will swing much weight. Sha!” said the Captain irritably, herding his men back from a fight which was beneath his station to attend to. To the horseman, whom he had kept within his grasp, he said, “You, also, will come with me. If you cannot keep yourself under rein in the off hours you will also feel the sting of the spur in your flank.”
With his gauntlet digging down deep into the horseman’s shoulder the Captain hauled him round. At that moment I put out my hand for Pan Aeneas; she glanced at me with the green, dark laughter of the phantom-well and let me lift her to her feet. Then we stepped forward, the scabbard-chapes of two of us clicking sharply against the table as we came, and broke in upon the ring of the party.
The Captain spun round at our advance, ready to drive us off, when recognition spread over his face. “My Lord Raymond! Philip Cheval! I had not known you were on the premises.”
“Yea,” said Raymond with latent humour, “we have been sitting quietly by this while.”
I watched this information pass swiftly into the Captain’s mind, but he was already turning to Pan Aeneas. He let go the horseman, who had also turned and was sweeping us with a supercilious look worthy of a war-lord. Our eyes met: I smiled my salute. He frowned.
Pan Aeneas lifted her chin, acknowledging the Captain’s smart bow. “You have come and spoiled our sport, Ireton. I had my money on my dog getting up again in a moment or two.”
Ireton laughed huskily. “No doubt. But the dog is going back in the kennel, I fear. My lords…”
I held up my hand. “Stay only a moment, Ireton.”
Ireton, with chagrined complaisance, retracted his step and waited as the horseman and I continued to sum each other up. I had already seen all I needed to see of him, but he had not yet got my scent, and it was needful that he should know me as I had come to know him. In contrast to his half-naked figure, brutally beautiful and covered over in sweat and sun and bruises, I was clad from neck to heel in soft linen and buckskin doublet, as light and airy as a fawn’s flanks. He was still breathing quickly: it was the only sound in the room.
Two dark amber eyes left my face and ran the length of me, critically, before returning. The lids closed languidly and reopened. “I perceive you are a gentleman.”
His voice had lost the vulgar cant upon his perception, and he spoke to me as fluently in a gentleman’s speech as Raymond or myself. Here is a diamond in the rough. Verily have lowly loins born a great man! My eyes, also, dropped a fraction, and saw the little hand-span of steel tucked inside the horseman’s belt.
“I perceive you carry a knife with you,” I replied, coming to his face again; “also, that you have not used it.”
Ireton pulled away his elbow to get a look at the knife, but left it be.
Suffering the Captain’s handling, the horseman nodded with sullen pride. “Yea, I carry the knife. I always carry the knife. I do not always use it.”
I probed a little deeper. “A gift, I think, among the northern tribes, to their boys when they come of age.”
And for a moment the cock-fight had begun again, with myself and the horseman at the centre of it. We were suddenly not two proud gentlemen testing each other’s mettle, but Honourman and Carmarthen, and somewhere in our heart of hearts we were enemies. I stood perfectly still, waiting to see if he would try to draw my blood, waiting to see if the hand hanging at his side would lift toward the knife. It trembled; blood spattered off the broken knuckles.
Then the lips smiled straightly, softly, digging two lines back into the cheeks. “Even as your fathers give the spurs and sword to their sons. And see,” he added lightly, twisting one heel: “I have learned the trick of that as well.”
I flicked a finger at the proffered spurs. “They are splendid spurs indeed. Some of Godolphin’s, by the look of them.”
He waved one hand dismissively, for much as it was a great thing to own a pair of Godolphin’s spurs, it was a small thing for me to recognize them, and he knew it. Just in that way, with so simple a gesture, the liking sprang up between us, swift and fierce.
I turned to the Captain. “The kennel lies bare tonight, Ireton. I will take the dog home with me.”
Ireton turned an askance brow on the horseman. “You will want your horse?”
The horseman spared a soft smile on the way-house keeper—which must have cut up the way-house keeper’s pride like the knife he had not used. “I will want my horse. You know the one?” he inquired, purring down a little, for he was taller than the Captain. “The long-boned dun. Mind that he does not take the bit between his teeth, for he will do so if you let him.”
“Indeed? And wherein did he learn the trick of that?”
Raymond flicked out a palm toward the doorway. “It is close and a little mussed in here,” he remarked coolly. “Monsieur Le Reynard, if you slip on the halter, we will go up to the Eyre together.”
I laughed my swift and soundless laugh and we went, walking in no particular manner for we never fell into any order when we would go out. Light broke up around us in a swell, driving hot summer air into our nostrils. Pan Aeneas’ skirts rushed around her tall, slim frame as she stepped down into the street, a whirling palette of ivy-green and auburn; I let her take my hand, though she hardly needed the help on the single step, and our eyes met a moment over her wrist. Several understandings passed between us in that heartbeat—among them the understanding concerning the horseman with the dragon on his back.
Raymond slipped loose the numerous buttons on his doublet and slung it underhanded at the man. “An’ here,” he recommended. “It will just fit you, for we are of a size, you and I.”
With accustomed dexterity the doublet was put on and done back up, and we trained our steps up the cobbled roadway toward the rocky outcropping and the severe brow of Raymond’s house. “You are very kind, my lords,” mused the half-breed. He glanced over his shoulder and ran a quick eye over my lady, saluting her also with a gesture of one hand. Then, meeting my eye, he added, “It is true that I own the honour of having the Lord Marius’ son and the fabled Philip Cheval as my saviours?”
“And Pan Aeneas,” said her brother off-handedly, “who would have put a thumbs-up for you into that man’s nostrils if she needed to.”
The lady added softly, walking with her hand inside my arm, “A noble thing you did, sir, to remember the condition of your mother in a foreign land.”
The horseman’s movements, swinging and easy, checked for half a heartbeat. I felt the surge of temper in him come and go at once as he realized that we all knew he was a bastard of the north country, and realized also that we did not care.
Lightly, I asked, “Whom do we have the honour of rescuing from Ireton’s watch?—although, I confess, Ireton liked you rather warmly and would not have done you harm.”
With a guttural purr of comfort the horseman put out his hand: I felt the long hard fingers close over mine, felt the rich energy pulse in the wrist. This man had power in him, power and tempest and a genius banded in light like gold. My skin thrilled.