The Joust of Connor and Philippa
Coastwatch Tournament Field
Six years ago
Connor’s tournament pavilion was a simple round affair of green silk with panels that could be rolled up to permit a cross-breeze. That the pavilion was closed on such a hot day should have alerted him that something was wrong, but his mind was on the joust.
His father was waiting for him inside, with Connor’s arming hose in hand. Lord Hugh was a huge man, and layered with flat slabs of muscle even at forty-two. Smithers was nowhere to be seen, which could only mean that Hugh had sent the valet away deliberately. Hubert was here, though, at twenty-one only slightly smaller than their father. It was to be a family discussion, then.
“Come to wish me luck, Father?” Connor asked. He pulled his gardcote over his head, feeling silly for missing Smithers’ familiar hands to help him undress.
His brother took the garment and hung it on a peg as his father grinned. “Why? Feel like you’ll need it?”
“Oh, not at all.” Connor began untying his points. “I’m only about to joust against my future wife. What could go wrong?”
“If you find you have trouble with your lance, I’m sure we can find some willing sparring partners at Lusiya’s,” Hubert said.
Connor gave him a sour look. “Very funny. Do you have any idea how many songs I’ve heard this week about spearing Philippa with my lance?”
Hubert took Connor’s hose and hung them next to the gardcote. “Oh, I’m sure you’re just itching to add them all to your library, little brother. Tell me, have you heard ‘The White Rain?’ It has the most inventive rhymes for -”
Connor gave him a playful punch. “So help me, Bertie, I’ll call you out next.”
Hubert laughed and grabbed Connor in a headlock. “Go ahead, pipsqueak,” he laughed. “If you think your lady love will leave anything left of you for me to pound.” Connor’s retort turned into a surprised squawk as his father piled in, and the three fell to the floor in a wrestling match that ended with Connor and Hubert struggling to keep Hugh pinned.
Connor laughed and pushed away. “All right, all right. I feel better. Now why don’t you tell me why you’re here, Father?”
Lord Hugh looked uncharacteristically abashed. “I wanted to apologize,” he said. “I know this joust has meant a lot of unwanted attention for you, Connor. For both of you. I’m sorry.” He handed Connor the thick linen arming hose.
Hubert knelt to help his brother arm. “Nothing to apologize for,” Connor said as he balanced on one foot. “You weren’t the one who -”
He stopped. “Unless … it was you who entered us into the lists.”
Hugh met his eyes steadily. “It was,” he said.
Connor let out an explosive breath and sat on a stool. “Why?” he asked finally.
Hugh sat down as well, but it was Hubert who spoke. “It was my idea,” he said.
Connor narrowed his eyes. “I think you had better explain that, or I really will call you out.”
Hugh waved that away. “Don’t be a child,” he said. “It was a good idea.”
“So you say,” Connor said. “Why?”
His father rose and began to pace the pavilion’s sweltering confines. “Because we need this marriage to be remembered,” he said. “I’m glad you like your betrothed, son, but don’t forget why we’re here.”
“To bind House Ronnel more firmly to the south,” Connor said. “You don’t believe the aliens are beaten, and you’re afraid that Lord Gareth will not come if you call.”
Hugh gave a mirthless laugh. “Oh, he’ll come all right. When he sees the profit in it. But that’s not good enough. Not for the dead his politicking will cause, and not for me.” Hugh stopped and pointed a finger at both of his sons. “Remember, boys: this is what it means to be a great House. Not the wealth, not the power, not the privilege, not the damned rivalries with our brothers. First, and above all, we protect. House Darry holds the ork at bay.”
“We hold the ork,” the brothers echoed. Unbidden, Connor remembered the spatter of gore on his face from a man cloven in two by an orkish sword last year. He flinched involuntarily at the thought.
“I know that,” Connor said. “I don’t see how beating Philippa black and blue will help it, though.”
“Assuming you can,” Hubert said. Connor feinted another punch, which Hubert ducked with a grin.
“I want these people to remember her,” Hugh said. “The blushing maiden doing battle with her besotted lover -”
“I am not besotted!” Connor protested.
“The crowds love it!” Hugh went on. “You’ve heard them yourself, Connor. This will be a joust that they talk about for years – and I want them talking about it. Ten years hence, when Philippa has been long gone, when the orks come in strength, I want people to remember that one of their own is in the south, and I want them – all of them, the lords, the knights, the peasants – to want to rescue her then as they can’t rescue her today.”
Hubert stood up and took the arming jack off its stand. He held it open for Connor to slip into. “So go on out there and hammer her, little brother,” he said. “And just think – after today, she’ll have nothing to fear on your wedding night.”
Coastwatch Jousting Stadium
His father was right about one thing. The crowds clearly viewed this joust as an event not to be missed. The stands and galleries surrounding the pitch were massive, but they groaned under the weight of jostling spectators. Even on the benches of the stands, nobles were crammed shoulder to shoulder. The crowds bellowed their impatience, waving pennants emblazoned with the arms of the combatants – the majority Philippa’s solen and sanguine, he couldn’t help but notice.
“Well, at least I know who the favorite is,” Connor muttered. His destrier, Malleus, snorted and shifted beneath him.
Hubert patted Connor’s thigh. His older brother would squire for him. “Don’t worry about them,” he said. “Just do what you need to do.” That was Hubert all over. Connor had long since learned to pay attention to what he didn’t say as much as what he did. Philippa had never before competed in a tournament except against squires, using wooden weapons, but Coastwatch’s master at arms had been talking the ear off of anybody who would listen about how well she had acquitted herself in those jousts. Hubert was telling him not to underestimate her, to focus.
He found it hard not to focus on her as she entered the pitch astride a dark bay destrier. She rode straight and tall, in silver plate with glittering sanguinite roses that drew the eye to her chest and shoulders. She wore a visored close helm, with the visor down; Connor wondered if she was nervous.
Nervous or not made no difference. The stadium roared its approbation as she appeared, a solid wall of sound that made Malleus stamp and snort, eager to fight. Coastwatch’s master at arms walked beside her, carrying a lance from which her arms fluttered in answer to the pennants being waved from the galleries. The old man was beaming with pride fit to burst as Philippa took her station at her end of the pitch.
Hugh had entered Connor’s name as challenger, so he was to be announced first. William Thatcher paused by Connor’s knee to whisper, “Good luck, Sir,” before striding confidently onto the field.
He whirled his herald’s cloak from his shoulders as he did so, letting the green fabric draw the eye. Boos and hisses greeted Thatcher as he planted himself firmly in the center of the pitch.
“My lords!” he called. “Your excellencies, your honors, good people!” Thatcher put a hand to his heart, warming to his element. “You wound me! For today I bring you a knight who I know is dear to your hearts! I bring you the man who unhorsed Sir Gracchus Timor at Romurgh, a man who not eight months past stood before the slavering orks at the Battle of Bloodmist Woods – but I know it is not on account of his past glories that you have come to see him; no, have you not come to see him for his future? I bring you a knight who has come -” Thatcher paused, and the crowd’s roar was replaced by titters. The herald was in full voice now, roaring loud enough to be heard in the farthest corners of the stadium.
“Who has come, I say, to throw your own Dame Philippa to the ground beneath the might of his lance not once, not twice, but thrice before your very eyes! Who has come to give her three strokes from his axe – and then, good people, to submit her on this very pitch, pressed close together, with the dagger. Is this not what you have come to see? Let him hear you then, beloved of your own, my master, Sir Connor Darry!”
Thatcher pointed at Connor at the last, and the crowd obeyed. Connor heard his name shouted over and over amidst a sea of applause, and a rose glanced off his green enameled breastplate. Then Philippa’s herald was meeting Thatcher on the pitch, exchanging a congratulatory word, and holding her hand up for silence.
“But that is not all you have come to see,” she said when the crowd had at last quieted. “For I have come to bring you a knight, newly come into womanhood, who met her future husband not ten days past. I was there at hall when he rose to toast our lord’s hospitality, and there at hall when I saw his eye fall upon my mistress and lead his speech astray. I was there in the hall to hear him ask for her hand the very day he had met her, and to see the love on her face as she accepted.” The herald’s voice had fallen to a whisper, forcing the crowd to maintain its silence to hear her.
“And now,” she said, volume rising, “I am here to see her contend for you with steel, and why? Exists there some secret quarrel between these two knights? No! Nor yet do they contend for glory; I tell you true, for I know my mistress well, but for love! Yes, for love, but not love of each other: love of you, her people, and through you her husband’s people who will become hers if it is the Emperor’s will. I told you I have come to bring you a knight, and a knight she is. Who but a true knight would take the field and place her body between any of you and the war’s desolation? This is the daughter of your House, who will put herself to the hazard before one she loves well. How much more will she stand before your foes with righteous hatred in her heart when they come? She comes now to prove not only her skill at arms nor yet her courage, but her love for you all – welcome her, if you love her well, Dame Philippa Ronnel, the Rose Red Knight!”
Connor listened, surprised, as the herald clasped her cloak about her throat and primly walked from the pitch beneath the crowd’s deafening roar. It was true that jousts were dangerous, and often ended in injury, but it was rare for heralds to draw attention to that fact. Whose idea had that been? Did it matter? What sort of woman kept that sort of herald? He had a sudden urge to gallop to the end of the pitch and simply talk to her.
The thump of Hubert’s fist on his thigh brought his attention back to the present. “Sorry,” Connor said. “What were you saying?”
Hubert rolled his eyes. “I was saying, forget about the judges. They aren’t who you’re competing for.”
“Especially not now,” Thatcher said. The herald was leaning against one of the stadium support beams, shaking his head in admiration as Philippa’s herald cleared the pitch. “I tell you, Connor, if I weren’t a married man -”
It was Connor’s turn to roll his eyes. “I know,” he said. He looked at the judges’ stand. The judges were to signal an end to each bout, measured by turns of a water clock, and to declare the victor of each bout if neither combatant were able to knock out the other or force him to yield. Some knights deliberately tried to maneuver the combat so that the judges had the best view of the blows exchanged. At this point, if anything, Connor should be playing this joust to the stands.
Hubert handed Connor his rounded green-enameled greathelm. It was a heavy thing, beaten from a single piece of steel, and cunningly shaped to rest on the collar of his breastplate so that his head did not bear its weight. Thatcher handed Hubert a mounting block so that his brother could help Connor secure the buckles that held it firmly to his plate. The helmet immediately muffled the noise of the arena, and Connor felt – heard – his breathing slow as his world narrowed. Hubert slapped him on the back and handed him his lance. It was a stout thing, eleven feet of hardened ash with fore and rear guards to prevent his hand from slipping. The butt was weighted with a great spike to move the balance point back from the center of the shaft and let him maneuver its warhead with greater agility. Neither spike nor warhead was sharpened, but both were still dangerous pieces of steel.
Connor accepted his shield and walked Malleus a few paces forward. He let his gaze center on Philippa, keeping the judges in his peripheral vision only. He caught the vermillion flash of the starting flag, and spurred Malleus into a gallop.
Philippa galloped to meet him head on. A meeting charge like this was one of the few ways to reliably unhorse an opponent, but it was a bold move, carrying the risk of horses colliding or lances shattering under the colossal impact. Connor switched to an underhand grip on his lance and centered it on a rose just left of the keel of Philippa’s breastplate, where the head might catch and throw her to the pitch.
An instant before contact, Philippa shied to her right. Connor thundered past and saw her stallion rear and wheel just before he lost sight of her, then felt the impact of her lance thump him between the shoulder blades. Malleus’ speed robbed the blow of most of its force, but the crowd roared at their favorite scoring the first hit. Connor wheeled, grateful once she came into view to see that Philippa had not followed her advantage. He advanced more cautiously, wary of her charger’s agility, and the two exchanged several blows with their lances. Connor circled, forcing her to fight side to side, where his greater reach could make up for the vulnerability of turning his shield away from her. He leaned from the saddle and landed a solid hit in the shoulder beneath her pauldron, drawing a cry that he could hear even through his helmet. She recovered before he did, cantering past his left and deflecting another thrust with her shield, then wheeled like lightning and landed a savage blow that would have struck his neck had he not been wearing a great helm.
When the bell sounded to end the first course, the judges awarded the bout to Philippa by two to one. Connor rode back to Hubert and hastily unbuckled his helmet to accept a drink of water.
“She’s a better rider than I am,” he said after dashing water over his sweat-soaked hair.
“But timid,” Hubert said. “She doesn’t want to hurt you.”
Connor squeezed his shoulderblades together and twisted at the waist. “Hasn’t stopped her from hitting me,” he said.
“But you can use that. You have reach, power, and you’ve done this before. Stay on her, and don’t let her get away from you.”
Connor nodded and buckled his helmet back on. Philippa was still in conference with her master at arms. When the bell sounded, Connor advanced at the trot with his lance held level. Philippa circled left, ready for another fencing match.
Connor didn’t give her the chance. With a shout, he spurred Malleus ino a sudden gallop, driving his lance forward with all his weight. The steel caught Philippa’s shield squarely, the solid ash flexed, and with a sharp retort his lance shattered. Philippa rocked to the right, nearly unhorsed. Her mount, confused by the strange pressure of the reins as his rider fought to right herself, wheeled left. Connor broke off at the last moment and circled her, reversing his broken lance to batter her with the butt-spike. Philippa dropped her lance and swept up the battle axe that hung from her saddle. Then Hubert was there with a spare lance, seemingly oblivious to the hooves and flashing steel, and Connor had the range advantage again.
When the bell sounded each judge hung a pennant with Connor’s arms from before his seat, giving him the unanimous victory. Connor watched anxiously as Philippa spoke with her master at arms. “Do you think I was too rough on her?” he asked anxiously.
Thatcher snorted. “Look there, Sir,” he said. “Does that look like the face of a woman who is about to retire from the list?”
Connor looked. Philippa had her visor raised, and the look on her face was neither nervous nor beaten.
“She looks ready to fight,” Connor said. “She looks beautiful.” He began to grin.
“Well then,” Hubert said. “Oblige the blushing beauty.”
Philippa leaned forward to whisper something to her destrier as the bell sounded for the third tilt, and horse and rider hurtled down the pitch like an avalanche. Connor accepted the charge, spurring Malleus forward. Philippa intercepted his underhand thrust with her shield, but her thrust slipped past his defense and caught him in the breastplate. He heard a sharp crack, and then Malleus was suddenly no longer beneath him.
The ground seemed to slam every part of him at once. He pushed himself to his feet and turned in a circle, head swimming, looking for Philippa. He spotted her lance an instant before it slammed into his helmet – a lesser blow than if he had carried the helm on his head, but the grate of steel on his eyeslit made him flinch and stumble backward.
His shield was still strapped to his arm, but he had lost his lance and his sword was attached to his saddle. Philippa circled Connor as he huddled behind his shield, staying between him and Malleus. Once more Hubert dashed forward, darting beneath Philippa’s lance, and flung Connor his last spare lance. Connor caught the weapon, but by then it was too late to recover from the beating he had taken, and the judges awarded the third tilt to Philippa by two to one.
The combatants had a few minutes after the tilt to give instructions to grooms and change the weapons they would carry into the foot bouts. Hubert examined Connor’s breastplate where the enamel had cracked as his brother gulped water.
“Are you okay?” he asked. “You’re bleeding.”
Connor looked down and was surprised to see a trickle of blood from his inner thigh, where Philippa’s lance point had driven the mail into his skin. He didn’t even remember getting hit there.
He laughed, and tossed the waterskin back to Hubert. “Never better,” he said. “Give me my axe. Time to have a philosophical discussion with my betrothed.”
Philippa chose a long halberd for the foot combat, nearly half again as tall as she was. That was no surprise; the halberd would help her turn the tables on Connor’s reach advantage, and he had heard that she favored the weapon in any case. Connor kept to his poll axe, a shorter weapon but faster at close quarters.
Connor bowed before she came into reach of her halberd. The crowd roared its approval. “Madam,” he shouted, “may I have this dance?”
She bowed in answer. “Sir, you may,” she shouted back.
“Then see if you can keep up with the steps!” he replied.
Philippa rushed forward. Connor swayed past her thrust and whipped his axe down to crunch into her armor over the left shoulder. That brought another roar from the crowd, but Philippa slammed into him, driving a hip between his legs and dumping him onto his back with a sweep of her weapon. Connor kicked her in the shin and rolled away.
The bout ended in victory for Connor at two votes to one. Both combatants stalked back onto the pitch after only a brief stop to drink. Connor drove into Philippa relentlessly, pressing her hard to prevent her from recovering her composure and opening the distance. He felt alight as his blows slashed in at her, grinding away at her defense, and he could feel himself growing hard beneath his plate. Then one of his strokes swept up and past her guard to slam into her armpit, and Philippa toppled onto her side.
“Yield!” she shouted, voice thick with pain, then hurriedly pushed up her visor and repeated it. “I yield!” She rolled to her right to take the pressure off her wounded arm.
Connor dropped his axe and knelt by her side. “Are you seriously injured, madam?” he asked. Philippa groaned through gritted teeth.
Her master at arms arrived, and her herald, bearing water. Swiftly they removed her left pauldron to examine the injury. “The mail held,” the old man told her, “but I cannot recommend that you continue to use this arm, Your Excellency.”
Philippa tried to roll the shoulder and bit back a scream. “Nor can I, old sir,” she said ruefully, “but if I do not, I may as well concede now.”
The herald looked towards the judges’ stand. “My good lady, shall I inform the judges that you wish to continue? It is no shame to withdraw due to injury.”
Philippa gathered her legs under her and rose shakily. “Thank you, Kate,” she said. “Pray inform Their Excellencies that I will continue. My betrothed and I have matters of the heart still to settle.” She met Connor’s eyes briefly and smiled, then lowered her visor and limped towards her side of the pitch.
“I want her,” Connor informed his brother when he had returned to his own station.
Hubert looked at him curiously. “Good thing you’re betrothed then,” he said.
“No, I mean I want her right now,” Connor said. “I want to throw her onto the grass and take her.”
“That [i]would[/i] make this a match to remember, I don’t doubt,” Thatcher broke in. “Still, Sir, I can’t be quite certain that’s the done thing.” He paused, a wicked glint in his eye. “Shall I consult with my colleague across the pitch?”
Connor turned to face him. “You, my good man, are incorrigible. God’s Golden Throne, Bertie, she’s a fighter.” He pumped his fist. “God give me a fighter to wife!”
“You might think about not wasting what the Emperor provides, then,” Thatcher pointed out, “because it looks like she’s waiting for you.”
Philippa was indeed back on the pitch, grimly holding her halberd. She came to him as Connor took the pitch, circling to force Connor to use his wounded leg more. Twice he rushed forward, and twice she anticipated his rush with sharp stop thrusts. His leg was beginning to pain him through the adrenaline haze of combat, and he could feel his footwork slowing. As Connor gathered himself for a third rush, Philippa intercepted him with a quick thrust to the leg; he voided, and too late realized that the thrust had been a front. The blade of her halberd crashed into Connor’s left bicep and sent him stumbling to the right. His leg collapsed on him, and he rolled to avoid another chop of the halberd. Her movements were becoming jerky now; she was trying to finish the fight before her shoulder betrayed her utterly. Connor launched himself forward before she could close to finish him, landed a short blow to her wounded arm, and then his leg wobbled and he was forced to let her retreat. The bout ended two to one in Philippa’s favor, and both combatants returned to their stations on unsteady legs.
By now the roar of the crowd was only background noise to Connor, but it assailed him anew as he removed his helmet to drink. He gave an exhausted nod to Hubert as his brother took the poll axe, which suddenly seemed to weigh twenty pounds.
“She won the tilt, you won the strokes,” Hubert said. “Time to finish it.”
Connor stretched his leg experimentally. “I’ll have to do it quickly,” he said. “I don’t know how much more I have in me.”
Hubert gave him an encouraging slap on the back, sending a fresh jolt of pain through Connor’s leg. “Neither can she, after the beating you’ve given her,” he said. “You’ve got height and weight on your side. Don’t bother with striking; just get her on the ground and have done with it.”
Thatcher smothered a laugh. “I’m … told that’s not generally the appreciated method,” he choked out. Hubert gave him a level gaze, which sent the herald into full-throated laughter.
Connor shook his head, then buckled on his helmet. The last segment of the joust, blows with the dagger, was really more about wrestling than knife work. An armored opponent could generally only be killed with a dagger once immobilized, so the conventional approach was to wrestle a combatant to the ground and then force him to yield with a dagger pressed against a vulnerable point. Some knights preferred to begin the blows by striking, either empty-handed or with their dagger, to soften their opponents up before moving in for the kill. Hubert was right, though, Connor decided. He didn’t think he had lost a significant amount of blood, but he was already exhausted, and his body was beginning to add up the earlier blows that Philippa had landed upon him. Connor left his dagger sheathed, and tried to stand straight as he limped onto the pitch.
Philippa met him in the center. Her visor was up, and he could see sweat-soaked strands of hair that had worked their way from under her arming cap. The judges signaled the beginning of the bout. Neither combatant moved.
Philippa spoke first. “You are wounded, sir,” she said, gesturing to his leg. “That was not my intention.”
Connor waved it away. “It was a blow fairly struck,” he said. “Believe me, I shall not think of it.”
She smiled shyly, the warrior seeming to drain out of her like water. “It was not my intention to meet you like this at all,” she said. “What Fraser said when she announced me – it was a good story. But it seems a poor way to thank you for your gentleness this week.”
“Madam, I pray we will have all the time we wish for gentleness later,” Connor said. He resisted the urge to embrace her, lest she think the bout had begun. “I can scarcely think less of you for exerting yourself to the full.”
He smiled, though she could not see it behind his helm. “And besides, how shall I think you a rude host when you have yet to win?”
Philippa snapped her visor shut then, before he could catch a glimpse of her reaction. “Let us finish, then,” she said, and moved toward him.
Remembering Hubert’s advice to skip dragging things out with pugilism, Connor reached to grapple with her. Philippa grabbed his wrist, twisted inside his reach, and then he was on the ground, and before he could move she was leaning over him and he felt the tip of her dagger shoved up hard between his legs, near the artery. He was instantly hard again, and Philippa had to shove the dagger further before he remembered to yield.
The next bout he came in low, slamming into her wounded shoulder and bringing both of them down in a clatter of steel. Their legs intertwined, and Connor managed to wrench her visor up. Her eyes locked on his as she writhed under his weight, and Connor struggled to free his dagger for the coup de grace. Then Philippa heaved, and the world tumbled; Connor hit his head against the inside of his helmet, and then Philippa was astride him and the point of her dagger was at his eyeslit. “Do you yield, sir?” she asked. Connor thumped the ground in submission and said, “I yield, madam,” though he had never felt less yielding in his life.
“All right,” Hubert admitted when Connor retired for a drink. “Perhaps you should have boxed her ears a bit. She’s already won, now. You’ll just have to finish with honor.”
Connor spat out a mouthful of water and drank again. “I don’t care,” he said. “Thatcher, how old is her brother again?”
“Less than a year,” Thatcher said, “as well you would recall if you had any blood left for your memory, Sir.”
“Less than a year,” Connor shook his head. “God on Terra, and they want us to wait until he’s three? She’s magnificent, Bertie! Did you see her out there?”
“Most men prefer to be beaten by their lovers in private, at most,” Thatcher observed. “I must say, Sir, this is a side of you I would not have expected.”
Connor tossed away the waterskin and buckled on his helmet. “She fights,” he said to Thatcher, and hobbled back to the pitch.
Bertie was right, of course; Philippa had already won the joust. Still, there was no sense in acquiescing. He couldn’t move well enough to stay away from her, and she was clearly the better wrestler, but if he kept his dagger drawn from the start he might be able to wear her down enough with punches to make a credible finish. One victory, and the joust would have been a close run thing.
Philippa faced him with hands empty, crouched low, her wounded shoulder refused. Connor feinted, then struck with his knife hand, and like a mongoose she seized his wrist again. Connor half stumbled, half fell forward and drove a knee between her legs, but she rolled and twisted and then she was on top of him again. Connor rose from the waist in a surge of effort, shoving her weight away. He could feel her slipping on the smooth plates of his armor, and then her forehead crashed into his helmet and knocked his head once more against his steel.
When he came to, Hubert was removing his helmet, and Kate Fraser was touring Philippa around the stadium, exulting in her mistress’ victory. “That was not quite the honorable end I had in mind,” Hubert observed.
Connor grinned up at him from the pitch. “I don’t care,” he said. “I want her, Bertie.”