Deirdre picked herself up off the sawdust, took a deep breath, and raised her sword. Her opponent came at her, repeating the familiar pattern of thrusts and parries, as she forced her aching arm to counter the movements. The dull clink of metal meeting metal reminded her to pay attention, no matter how tired she got. While this was only a practice session, if she got lazy, she could still get hurt. He traversed to her left, her weaker side, and with a practiced kick to the back of her leg, sent her tumbling once more.
"Tis time for a break," their instructor, Sir James, announced. "Grab your flask -- but no spirits, mind ye. That's for the pub afterwards."
As she once more struggled to right herself, her opponent surprised her by extending a hand. "I don't need any help from a scurvy knave like you," she cursed.
He smiled and shook his sweaty chestnut locks. "Scurvy is a term for sailors, not knights, love," he corrected.
"Give me a break," she muttered under her breath. Aloud, she said, "I call it like mine eye sees it, cur."
"Keep up that sort of lingo and they'll make you a pirate wench, instead of a jouster," he teased. His name was Squire Blake, and he was a prattling ninny.
Ordinarily, she might have been attracted to him, but nothing will kill flirtation so quickly as being locked in combat with someone for literally hours a day. For days, fighting had been their primary interaction, as Sir James had seen fit to pair them up due to their similar size. In this, the first week of training for the Renaissance Faire, she and Squire Blake had countered each other with sword, spear and lance, in between sessions of basic horse riding and horse care. She was so sick of Squire Blake's face she wanted to slash it, for real. But if she did that, she'd be fired, and she really needed this job.
At times, she wished she were taller, so they might have paired her with Squire Brian, the gentle-spirited guy with wide blue eyes who had so impressed Sir James that he seemed destined to become the Queen's Champion this season. Instead, she was saddled with this bit player, whose petty nitpicking sapped her focus while simultaneously making her want to scream.
What was worse: when he accidentally nicked her arm once, stepping in when he was supposed to fall back, he'd fallen all over himself, apologizing loudly. He'd made such a ruckus that Sir James had dashed over with the medic, causing everyone else to stop and stare. "It's only a flesh wound," she'd joked, her face burning.
When they'd begun again, she'd whispered loudly to Squire Blake, "You don't need to treat me with kid gloves. I'm not a delicate flower. I'm a fellow jouster. You won't do either of us any favors by treating me like a child."
Shaking his head haughtily, he had only responded, "Then stop acting like one." He'd come at her, saber flashing. The rest of that combat practice had gone by in a blur, as they'd focused more intensely than ever on every move, staring right into each other's eyes in shared enmity.
At the close of practice, Sir James had taken them both aside and said, "I don't know what happened between you today, but keep it up."
Squire Blake had taken that as a command, pure and simple. Every day, he'd found some way to tweak her: whether it was calling her a "bonny lass," doing a weak-wristed imitation of her technique or teasing her about her fondness for Squire Brian, whom he'd nicknamed Squire Dreamy.
At the end of week one, Sir James graded all of their performances, ranking her and Squire Blake near the top of the entire group of actors, citing their "stellar improvement."
Week two, Sir James informed them they would now learn how to ride the horses wearing their armor, starting a piece at a time with the sabatons, or steel armor shoes.
While Sir Blake was the closest to her size in terms of height, he still had men's feet, so he found a better fit with the new footwear than Deirdre did. He laughed at her when she stomped around awkwardly in them, saying she looked like a "wee mouse caught in a trap." His words resonated in her head while she rode the horse, prompting her to find ways to counteract the unaccustomed weight, although her leg muscles burned and her ankles ached.
Each day, they added a new piece of armor, and each day he called her a new belittling term: "kitten wrapped in tin foil," "hamster stuck in a bottle," and the worst of all, "tuna in a can." For that last remark, she soundly whacked him in their next jousting run, hitting him hard in the center of his shield and wiping the smile off his face.
Sir James, however, was impressed. When their two weeks of training ended, he announced the assignments for the season. To no one's surprise, Squire Dreamy (now even she was thinking of him this way) was promoted to Sir Brian and given the coveted position of Queen's Champion. Squire Blake was given a character: Sir Randall Blackheart, one of the key players in the stable of villains destined to challenge the Queen's knights. By contrast, Deirdre was dubbed Lady Evelyn Capulet, a member of the Queen's coterie.
Further days of training followed. Once more, Deirdre's Lady Evelyn faced off against Blake's Sir Randall. If possible, he became even more insufferable, practicing the "evil" mannerisms he felt were important to his character. This was nowhere more apparent than in their ground fighting routine, where Sir Randall was supposed to engage in cravenly low behavior in order to egg on the crowd, who was, of course, supposed to root for the Queen's knights. The part suited him all too well, Deirdre thought.
On opening weekend, Deirdre's nervousness soon disappeared as her every action met with cheering and approval from the crowd. In fact, on a particularly good jousting run, she got more of a crowd response than the Queen's Champion himself.
Then came the final act: the ground battle with cowardly Sir Randall. They thrust and parried, as practiced, and Deirdre savored the crowd's response. But then, unexpectedly, a little girl tossed a ring of flowers at her feet, and dancing to the left of it -- so as not to crush it -- Deirdre lost her footing. As she began to fall, she felt Blake's hand on her back: not helping her, but pushing her down harder. "Do frontfall," he commanded, as he swept her feet out from underneath!
Once she was down, he stuck his foot on her back, treating her like a trophy, a bear rug. The crowd booed and hissed, but he only towered over her, probably grinning. That was it: this was on! Using a technique she remembered from a long-ago martial arts class, she bent her knees and swung her legs out to the side, then grabbed him by the foot, twisting the ankle just enough to immobilize him with pain. As she squatted and then stood, she kept holding the foot, forcing him to hop helplessly. "Do backfall," she told him, and pushed forward until he collapsed like a turtle on his back, giving her a wink as he did so.
"I'd fall for you any time, love," he said. Despite herself, she grinned.
I am deeply indebted to my friend, Reider Bennett White, for his insider information on the fighting training at a Ren Faire, as well as friends Jim Vowles and Gwyn McVay, who provided valuable insights into Ren Faire culture. I am also grateful to Sadie O'Deay for her insight into being a woman sparring with a man in martial arts.