‘Pero da Covilha, I demand satisfaction!’
Pero felt his gut clench. There was only one man he had offended gravely enough to demand a fight. Such a man as no one but a feral dog would agree to duel him.
But what choice did he have?
Already mutters spread through the market square as people turned from the stalls, searching for the source of the challenge. He was hard enough to miss, a great tower of muscle with flowing auburn hair. The challenge’s recipient proved more difficult to locate.
‘Who did he say?’ they whispered. ‘Pero da where?’
Did nobody recognise his name? Pero had thought a squire of the king himself might deserve some fame, but no…
‘That’s him, I’m sure of it. Alvaro Cavalero, the Lance of Lisbon.’
‘What’s he doing, calling out some nobody?’
‘Rip him apart, Alvaro! He’s here!’
The last shout came from a butcher’s stall a few paces from Pero. He had remained still for too long, hunching his shoulders and hoping he would not be noticed. But the butcher knew him well. Every day, Pero bought only the freshest meat from him. Every day, told the oaf his name and regaled him with tales of the splendour of King John II of Portugal’s royal court.
He would never trust a butcher again for the rest of his life, if he survived to have a life.
‘I demand satisfaction, Pero da Covilha!’ the deep voice was closer, the heavy tread of Lisbon’s defender and scourge of the infidel parting the crowd.
No rattle of armour, thank Christ. Pero’s chances were slim enough without Alvaro having the added protection of iron encasing his limbs.
‘Yes, yes. I heard you the first time.’ Pero cringed as the words left his mouth. His tongue was too sharp. He knew it was the truth. Everyone told him so, but would he ever listen? ‘What’s this about, my dear fe-’
‘You know damned well!’ Alvaro roared, ripping his longsword free from its scabbard and scattering the crowd a dozen paces as they recoiled in fear. ‘Face me, coward.’
Seeing no sense in rushing his last moments alive, Pero pivoted like a weathercock turning in a gentle breeze. He reached for the hilt of his sword, his hand faltering. All the hours of practice with the king’s other squires and he had yet to draw his sword in earnest. It felt clumsy in his hand, the grip cold to his touch. He wanted to throw it down, but to surrender without a token fight would make him the laughing stock of Lisbon.
‘For the honour of Dama Carlotta,’ Alvaro said, provoking an enthusiastic gasp from the crowd.
Puzzlement furrowed Pero’s brow. Honour? Had the brute not realised Dama Carlotta was no more than a courtesan, albeit one of remarkable beauty? Pero had heard rumours of how the Lance of Lisbon longed to place his standard on her mount. It had been part of the appeal. But he had acted only under the most emphatic assurances that their fleeting union would remain a guarded secret.
‘For Covilha,’ Pero said, plucking the motto out of the empty air around him.
More confused muttering around him. He cursed them under his breath, common peasants who had never bothered to study a map. Instinct made him lift his sword and he felt the sharp impact rattle down his arm.
As he had hoped, Alvaro did not seem intent on killing him. The noble defender of Christendom would never kill a countryman in jealousy. Cripple him and beat him bloody as a matter of course, but not kill him. His blows were all power and no grace, hammering at Pero’s clumsy parries with the flat of his blade. He was familiar enough with Alvaro’s work on the tourney field to know he was holding back much of his skill. Saving it for the infidel, no doubt.
Pero was putting every ounce of strength he possessed into turning aside the swordsman’s blade, but his arms were tiring. He had never guessed fighting could be such a draining exercise. Give him a quill and ink, a fine courtesan and some soft words of entreaty and he would prove who was the better man. Place a sword in his hand and Pero became a wrong-footed oaf.
The blow cut through his trailing thoughts and lit a fire of pain in his left side. He staggered, almost falling as the crowd cheered Alvaro’s name. Why did they cheer him? Did they not know how Pero slaved by candlelight over faded maps and spider-scrawl correspondence, keeping the king informed of all that transpired beyond his borders? No, of course they had no idea of the sacrifices he had made. Pero was a nobody, not worth a brief word in the annals of history.
Alvaro’s sword hummed over his head, swinging down in a swooping flash of steel. This was the last blow, Pero knew. It would maim him, reduce him to less than a man in all likelihood. He filled his mind with memories of his blissful night with Dama Carlotta, a more familiar kind of thrust and parry, and asked God for it to not be so painful as to rob him of his dignity.
Feathers exploded across his vision. Short beak, beating wings and sharp feet scrabbling at the hard earth. The hen tumbled between them, shrieking in joy at its sudden escape as its owner shouted a curse beside the overturned cage.
The deep, mournful eyes of Alvaro turned to follow the bird’s flight. Pero saw his chance. Not a chance at victory, there had never been any such hope in his mind, but the tantalising prospect of showing all those assembled that he was more than a nobody. One last chance to make Alvaro sweat for the lady’s honour.
He dropped onto his front foot, letting his head fall under the path of the blade. It missed him by such a small margin he felt it trim the topmost hairs on his head. Then Pero rose, driving forwards with his sword held out in front of him.
The point wavered in the air. At any moment, Alvaro’s broad blade would batter the lunge aside. Sharpened steel snagged on marine blue cloth and Pero felt his pulse quicken. In a second, the knight’s sword would hammer into his back and spread him out on the hot earth.
Something gave beneath the point and it slid into the Lance of Lisbon’s chest with sickening ease.
Pero released the blade and stepped back. The defender of the faith looked down at the blood blossoming out across his front with a frown. No more mournful look in his eyes, only surprise.
‘Did I-’ he began, but he seemed to choke on the words.
A bottomless well of horror opened in Pero’s heart as he watched Alvaro crumple to the ground. Howls of fury on all sides. Grimy hands seized his arms. Rough fingers tugging at his hair and clothes. Nails scratching his face. He felt none of it. All he could see was the broken corpse of his hero lying in a pool of gore under the hot sun, flies settling on his proud face.
That’s all for now, but you can find my newly released historical novel Servants of Infamy here: Amazon Kindle.