London 1604 -Whitefriars Fencing School
Lucinda Evans knew she should not touch, but no one was looking, so where was the harm? With one swift motion she picked up the sword, expertly feeling its weight and balance, gauging its strength and possibility, her hand seeking out the dormant energy hidden inside the steel. Quickly she looked behind her. All were engrossed in their own thoughts, conversation, or sword play, not paying any attention to her, a mere woman whose purpose was to fetch, carry, and clean. Hiding the sword in the folds of her skirt, she moved to the cover of a storage alcove, hefted the blade upward and commenced a series of sweeping arcs, each motion blending into one sinuous flow. So engrossed was she in the sing and soar of the weapon, she did not hear the footfall until it was too late. Her chest gave a sudden lurch as a shadow loomed behind her, and yet she finished the sequence with a determined downward swipe. Clasping the sword to her breast she turned to face the consequences, a prickle of dread working its way down her spine.
“What have we here?” Robert McCrae said, his gaze as penetrating as his sword.
Lucinda braced her shoulders and held his stare. “It is not what it looks like.”
“A lass playing at swords?”
“I wasn’t playing. I was testing it.”
“Testing it for what, pray tell? Fighting off an army of suitors?”
“My tongue usually suffices for that. Or so I am told.”
“Ouch!” He jumped back snatching his hand up to cover his arm as if it were nicked. “It is rather sharp.” Lucinda stared back at the tall broad-shouldered Scotsman. The only good thing in this whole situation was that her height meant she could face him eye to eye.
“If you plan to complain to my father once you have had your fill of mockery, may we hasten and get it over with? I have work to do.”
“So I saw.” He imitated the sword drill she had just executed using the blade of his hand, all the while keeping his eyes fixed on her. “What do you suggest I tell him? That his daughter has been playing with my sword?” Lucinda felt her face redden. Curse the man for twisting her words.
“I suggest there is nothing to tell,” she replied.
“I suspect you are probably right. Only a fool would risk such a confession. No harm done,” he said echoing Lucinda’s own thoughts, “though some might say that touching without permission is a risky proposition.”
“Some might,” she said, the heat in her face continuing its slow burning creep as he held out his hand for the sword. Gladly she passed it to him, cradling the blade carefully and offering him the hilt. Unlike the training weapons at her father’s fencing academy McCrae’s sword had a double-edged and lethally sharpened blade. He turned the sword over from a palm-up to a palm-down grip. “What did you think of her? Is she not a beauty?”
“A beauty yes, though I was not aware it was a she.”
“Are not all swords like a woman?
“Best kept close...and dangerous when unsheathed.”
Lucinda lifted one shoulder in a nonchalant shrug. “I would not presume to influence your opinion on women. As to the sword, it is exceedingly well-balanced. You could be fooled into thinking the basket work is purely ornamental, but it is cleverly designed both to protect the hand and to counter-balance the weight of the blade.”
“You are a fine judge of a weapon. An unusual skill in a woman.” Once again, his eyes looked her up and down.
“Not so unusual if you grew up here.” Lucinda swept her arm around to take in the racked weapons in the storage area. “Swords, halberds, buckler shields, these are the tools of my father’s trade and have always been part of my life, just as leather to a glove maker or cloth to a tailor.” She shifted her weight from one foot to the other to peer around McCrae. If she tarried too long her father was bound to notice her absence, yet the aggravating man seemed intent on prolonging their conversation.
“So a sword for you is like fish to a fishmonger?
“You could say that.”
“Tell me, I am curious to know, in this vast and shining sea of steel what was it about my sword that caught your eye?” A mocking smile played about his lips. The question was more difficult than it appeared. How could she explain the unseen forces of attraction? How McCrae’s sword seemed to beckon her, to call out to her waiting hand? How to explain the curiosity and longing it inspired?
“I had not seen a hilt quite like that before,” she said. She could have left it there, with a partial truth palatable to her conscience, but the way this man studied her so intently tilted her composure and before she could stop herself, she was revealing far more than she should. “Most swords are useful but ordinary, and some are decorative but not very useful. The swords I am drawn to possess something intangible. It is a quality I struggle to describe that goes beyond beauty or function. Who can say what separates the everyday from the remarkable? All I know is that it is rare to find and when I do there, is an overwhelming urge to seize it.”
“Indeed,” McCrae said in his soft Scottish burr. “When you see it, you know it instantly.”
Lucinda lowered her eyes and clasped her hands together. She really should not go on so much. She was feeling very hot despite the cold stone of the storage alcove. What did Robert McCrae care of her opinion? Women were not supposed to have opinions, especially opinions about swords.
“I am sorry. I really must see to my chores.” As she tried to step past him, he blocked her way.
“Before you go, I must extract a promise.”
“What manner of promise?” she said warily.
“Only that we continue our conversation some other time?”
“I am afraid my father forbids too much familiarity. I am not supposed to––”
“Touch?” he said, amusement twinkling in his eyes.
“Talk too much,” she said with a glare.
“Lucinda!” As if on cue, her father’s voice beckoned.
“After you,” McCrae said. “From the way you carried out that sword drill, I fear it is not safe to have you at my back.” She shot another glare his way. Would the man ever let her hear the end of this? From the grin on his face, probably not, for it was a grin which left her in no doubt, he had more than conversation in mind.
As Lucinda made her way across the crowded fencing school, she felt many eyes upon her, even some, which by rights, should be concentrating on the sword coming their way. An army of suitors? More like an army of oglers. What she would give to go back to her girlhood, when she dressed as a boy and fought among them as an equal judged on her sword skills rather than the swish of her skirt. Most of the old hands, the regular patrons, were accustomed to the presence of a woman in a fencing school and treated her with as much interest as the stonework of the old refectory walls. It was the newcomers who did most of the staring, especially the new influx of Scottish swordsmen, with their bragging and their broadswords, and their lilt that was easy to listen to but difficult to understand. Her father beckoned from across the room using his head, his one good arm being occupied with a back sword while his half-arm, amputated below the elbow, was anchored at his side.
“A rubbing cloth for myself and my scholar. We have worked up a mighty sweat.”
“Yes, Father.” She dutifully fetched the cloths, passing them to the men with her eyes lowered.
“A word,” her father said, in a stern tone. She followed him to the alcove where McCrae had caught her red-handed.
“What were you doing out here all that time?”
Of all Lucinda’s vast and many faults, lying was not one of them. “Master McCrae was showing me his broadsword. It has an unusual basket hilt he is most proud of.”
“Do you have any notion who he is?”
“One of the many Scots who now patronize the academy and save us from ruin.”
“He is also the nephew of Lord Colin Cavendish, a man of great influence in King James’ inner circle, so you must be very careful what you say to him.”
“It would have been useful to know this earlier,” she said keeping her hands behind her back as if to hide the guilty members of her body.
“Lucinda?” her father said sharply. “What did you say to him?”
“Not a great deal. I merely complimented him on his sword. It is a beautifully balanced weapon.”
“And how, pray tell, did you know that?”
“Arr...I might have picked his sword up briefly.” She turned her head away. Confession was one thing; eye contact quite another. No wonder the Catholics hid in darkened cells to spill their sins.
“Lucinda?” Her father growled. “There is more. I know that look.”
“I might have tested the sword a little.”
“A small sword drill.”
“Did McCrae witness this...this testing?”
“I suspect so.” Her father groaned and put his stump to his head.
“It was only a basic broadsword drill.”
“So he knows you can fence?”
“No need to fret. It has all been dealt with. I explained that growing up in a fencing school breeds a certain familiarity with weapons which he seemed to accept as a reasonable fact.” Her father took her by the shoulders and for a moment she thought he might shake them. They rarely disagreed over anything; however, this one sore point festered between them like an un-lanced boil.
“You promised me, no more trouble—”
“I kept my promise. I do not fight in public anymore. I hold my tongue and do not correct the fencers’ errors.”
“And yet you help yourself to another man’s sword. What were you thinking?”
“It won’t happen again.”
“You are right. It will not. From now on, you must not touch a weapon unless it is to clean it, carry it, or hand it to a student.”
“What of our practice together, when no one else is around?
“I cannot allow it to continue.”
“But we have always fought together. Surely you do not expect me to forget everything you taught me? What harm is there if no one sees?”
“But someone did see, didn’t they? My mind is made up.” He placed his hand gently on her shoulder. Although his touch was gentle, the set of his mouth was firm. “The risk is far too great. I would be hounded out of the Masters of Defense if anyone found out. It was wrong of me to teach you sword craft and falsely raise your hopes. I should have stopped long ago.”
Her shoulders stiffened as her anger flared but losing her temper would only serve as vindication for her father’s ultimatum. “You did not think it wrong when you came back from fighting in Ireland with only one hand. It was I who helped you take up your weapons again when your shame and pride would not allow you to train with another swordsman.”
“True. But that was then. This is now. Reputation is everything, and I cannot compromise my livelihood or your future. There are plans afoot which are too important to jeopardize.”
She squeezed her hands together having nothing else to clutch.
“What plans do you mean?”
“Nothing for you to be concerned with. Tis men’s business.’ He waved his shortened arm dismissively, the way he used to when he still had the hand. “Simply do what I ask, and all will be well, and we should be able to put this matter behind us.”
Easy for him to say all will be well; he was not the one being asked to give up the one thing he truly loved. The clang of sword on sword and the encouraging shouts of swordsmen cut across the silence that fell between them, provoking Lucinda into a vehement outburst. “This is so unjust. Making me work here and not use a sword is like locking me in a larder and forbidding me to eat. It is a torture I cannot bear.”
“You do exaggerate.” He dropped his hand from her shoulder and put some space between them. “The desire will fade with time if you do not indulge. You will soon adjust as I have done to my altered situation.” His eyes drifted down to the stump below his right elbow.
“And if I do not care to adjust?” she said through gritted teeth. “What of my desires?”
Her father let out a long sigh. “There are many things you might desire that are never going to happen. I might desire to have a new hand, but I can no more grow a hand than you can grow a beard. There is no place for a woman in the world of swordsmanship. I do not make the rules, but I will not tolerate you flouting them either. So please try and act more womanly. That is my final word.” As he stepped from the alcove, he turned back to tell her. “Take another jug of ale around and be mindful of the Scotsmen. This union with Scotland is our future. We cannot stay stuck in the past.”
Womanly! Lucinda kicked at a shield propped against the wall, sending it clattering and spinning. She had a good mind to throw the thing at her father’s head. Of course she would never do such a thing. Instead, she would do his bidding, handing out ale like a tavern wench and applauding the paltry skills of mediocre swordsmen. She could demolish most of them with her rapier given half the chance. She had lived and breathed the arts of defense every day of her life and now she was supposed to forget about them entirely and act more womanly? How was she to achieve that? Flutter her eyelashes? Smile sweetly? Sway her hips from side to side and draw even more attention to the fact she was a woman stuck well and truly in a man’s world? Why would anyone ever desire to be a woman if a woman could never do anything she desired? And as for Scotsmen! If it wasn’t for the money they brought in, she would banish them all.
She fetched the ale jug and some spare mugs on a tray and attempted to weave her way in a “womanly” fashion between each clump of swordsmen. It was surprisingly difficult to swing your hips without spilling any ale. And as for pouring while leaning forward and offering a tantalizing glimpse of her breasts, well, it was also a considerable challenge, but it did provide a perverse sense of satisfaction when a man was so distracted, he did not notice the ale puddle forming at his feet. As she worked her way among the fencers, she caught Robert McCrae watching her every move, a twitch of amusement clearly evident on his face. A stab of anticipation shot through her chest at the thought of further conversation. She had made no promise. She had explained her actions to him, and yet his eyes still followed her around the room. What colour were his eyes exactly? Blue? Green? Something in between? A colour she imagined the sea might be, if the sailors who trained at Whitefriars were to be believed. She would be best advised to avoid him, go on as if nothing had happened, and yet she found herself returning his glances, pulled to his gaze as if caught on a surging tide. Curiosity and admiration were a potent combination. And the man did have a mighty fine sword.
To Lucinda’s relief, there was no opportunity for any more conversation with either her father or the too-handsome and too-irritating Scotsman, since before she was finished delivering the afternoon ale, her grandmother came to fetch her.
“I need you to come with me and hasten about it.”
Lucinda did not need any further prompting. The only time she was glad to be born a woman was when she was called upon to help her grandmother in her work as a midwife and healer. Despite the many frustrations and sorrows that came with the role, it was, for the most part, equally fascinating and satisfying. In a strange way sword fighting and midwifery were somewhat akin. In both occupations much was arduous or routine, but the margin between success and disaster was terrifying and slim.
Despite her greying hair and tendency to roundness, Grandma Jones surged ahead, and Lucinda needed to run to catch up, the basket she carried banging at the side of her hip.
“Where is the confinement?” she asked between rushed breaths.
“It is not a confinement we are called to.”
“I do not know. It was not in the message. We shall find out when we get there.”
This was not out of the ordinary. There were many matters of a delicate female nature that people did not care to trust to a messenger. In this line of work you never really knew what to expect. Grandma Jones constantly impressed on her the need to be prepared for all manner of situations and ailments. While Lucinda was prepared to deal with anything that came her way, Grandma Jones’ patients were not always amenable to Lucinda’s presence. Midwives did not as a rule begin to ply their craft until they had birthed a few babes of their own. Grandma Jones would have none of that. “I am already sixty. I might be dead before you have babies,” she argued. “Why waste time and risk losing all the knowledge I have gained?” It was hard to disagree, so Lucinda happily complied with her grandmother’s plan and accompanied her whenever the opportunity arose. Of course if her mother and twin brother had not died when Lucinda was a mere five years old, things might have been very different indeed. Then her mother would be working with her grandmother as a midwife. Her brother would have been helping Father run the academy and she would not have grown up haunted by the notion that the wrong twin had survived.
The room was dark when they entered, and it took some time for her eyes to adjust and locate the source of the whimpering. In a corner of the upstairs room was a simple timber-framed bed where a young woman, close to Lucinda’s age, lay curled up on her side clutching her belly. An older woman knelt by the bed stroking her forehead. She stood to greet them as they stepped through the low door. The dwelling was above a ropemaker’s shop, and the smell of hemp and jute permeated from the workshop below.
“Mistress Jones, I am so glad you are here.” The woman wrung her hands as she approached them.
“I only pray that I may be of help. I have brought my granddaughter Lucinda with me. My sight is not as sharp as it was, and I must rely on her youthful eyes. She is training to be my assistant. This is your daughter?”
“Yes. Mary. The youngest.”
“How long has she been like this?”
“The stomach cramps came on this morning. Most sudden and severe.”
“Has she eaten something to upset her digestion?”
“Nothing that we did not all have.”
Grandma Jones put her hand to the girl’s forehead. “No fever?”
The woman shook her head. “Only this, which is why I called for you.”
The woman reached a hand under her daughter’s night shirt and pulled out a blood-soaked cloth. It was obvious even to Lucinda’s less experienced eyes that the blood was too fresh and copious to be explained away as her time of the month.
Grandma Jones drew the mother aside, and Lucinda had to strain to catch what she said. “Does Mary have a sweetheart, or a suitor?”
“Indeed, she does not. She is only a girl of sixteen summers even though she looks womanly for her age.”
“I will need to look closely for the source of the bleeding.” The girl began to groan and draw her knees up, causing her mother to hover anxiously until Grandma Jones sent her to boil water to scald some more cloth, with the reassurance that all was in hand. She spoke soothingly to the groaning girl and began to feel her belly working her way around in a circle, fingers probing for lumps and places of tension.
“When did you last have your courses?”
Mary hesitated, then reluctantly confessed. “Four months gone.”
Grandma Jones waited a few moments while Mary’s belly convulsed with another bout of gripping pain. In the ebb between pain and awareness, she quietly explained. “I will give you a remedy that will help a little with the pain and some warm compresses to soothe the ache. The bleeding and cramping may go on for a few days. Do not be alarmed if there are some larger clots of blood or tissue. That can sometimes be the case.”
Anxiety clouded Mary’s large luminous eyes as Grandma Jones continued, “I believe you were carrying a child, but sadly the child has not taken.”
“No. That cannot be,” Mary cried out, distress streaking across her pale face. “Please do not tell my mother. It is not what you think...I have not...I would not. My reputation...I would be ruined.” She buried her face in her hands. A muffled sob escaped through her fingers, and her dark hair tumbled forward in a tangled mess.
“I am afraid your mother will want to know the nature of the problem.”
Mary sobbed harder turning to face the lime-washed walls. “I cannot talk of it,” she said between sobs.
Despite all manner of gentle coaxing, Mary refused to be drawn any further on the matter. After settling her with a hot poultice, Grandma Jones drew the girl’s mother aside. Lucinda strained again to hear what was said.
“Mary is not like that. She is a virtuous and pious girl.”
“I have seen many a virtuous girl whose virtue has been preyed upon through no fault of her own. Is it possible something could have happened against her will?”
All color drained from the woman’s face. She swayed on her feet like a bowling alley skittle not-quite knocked down. Lucinda stepped behind her in case she should suddenly sink. “There was...an incident around three months ago.” Clutching one hand to her breast she paused and took a deep breath. “My husband and I were out on errands and left Mary to tend to the shop. She had just finished selling a man a length of jute rope. After the customer left, she turned around to restore the rope to its place on the shelf and as she did, another man came in. She said she could not see his face as it was covered by a cloak. He asked for our finest small rope, which is stored up high, so you need to stand on a stool to fetch it down. She said when she was perched on the stool, he knocked her to the floor and made off with the whole coil and a few coins. We had no reason not to believe her account. She did not seem to be harmed but was exceedingly distressed. Then a few days later I spied bruises on her wrists which she could not account for. The bruises were quite distinctive. They looked like a bracelet. You don’t think he could have? Surely not?” The woman’s words sputtered to a stop. “Please. Do not say anything of this. The shame...it would destroy Mary.”
Grandma Jones nodded in sympathy, taking the sting out of the bad news with a salve of reassurance and a dose of common sense.
“We never reveal matters of a private concern. Perhaps the child not taking is a blessing. Your daughter is young and healthy, and her body will recover quickly. With no evidence to the contrary, no one need ever know what has occurred. If she chooses to confide her troubles to you, then listening and caring are as good a remedy as any, but many girls prefer to push the unpleasant away and simply try to forget.”
During the whole exchange Lucinda kept a silent and respectful distance, not giving any indication that she heard every word. There was nothing she could do to improve the situation. Yet as they walked home to Whitefriars and the fencing academy filled with loud and confident men, all clanging and banging at each other, she could not quell a growing outrage at what she had witnessed. Her thoughts churned, and she found herself squeezing the hilt of the short dagger she always kept hidden in the folds of her skirt. Finally she could stand it no longer. She had to know more.
“Grandma, have you seen circumstances such as this before?”
“Too many times,” Grandma Jones replied without slowing her pace.
“If the girl was attacked and ravished why would she not speak up? If it were me, I would want the scoundrel punished.”
“I am afraid it is not that simple,” she said with a weary sigh, pulling Lucinda out of the way of a cart laden with freshly-skinned rabbit pelts. “No matter how innocent, the woman is always blamed.”
“How could it be a woman’s fault if a man forced himself upon her?”
“Forcing is a difficult thing to prove unless there is someone to bear witness.”
“She was carrying a child. Surely that is proof a man had his way with her?”
“Being with child only makes it worse, for many believe a child can only be conceived if the woman is enjoying the act.”
“How absurd. That could not possibly be so. Take poor Mistress Travis, for instance. She bears an infant every year, yet her husband is a drunken, smelly mound of blubber and tannery sweat. No one could possibly find pleasure in the act with Bartholomew Travis, yet his poor wife falls with child as easy as sneezing.”
Her grandmother stopped and swapped her basket full of remedies from one hip to the other. “I did not say I agreed with the notion, only that it is commonly believed. The burden of shame always falls to the woman even though she is the victim. It is also possible that Mary made the story of the theft up. She would not be the first girl to have a sweetheart and keep it from her parents.”
“What sweetheart bruises his beloved’s wrists?”
A wry smile briefly crossed her grandmother’s face. “You would make a fine lawyer if you were a man.”
“I would make a better swordsman.”
“Perhaps...if you were a man. Thankfully for me, you are not.”
By now they were nearly back at Whitefriars reminding Lucinda of the problems she had left behind. But what were her problems compared to Mary’s? She was not hiding a terrible secret and bleeding all over the bed. She was not choosing to suffer in silence rather than risk bringing shame upon her family and ruining her reputation. There it was again.
Reputation. Reputation. Reputation.
“So keeping up appearances is more important than justice?” She had not meant to say it out loud, and Grandma Jones had very sharp ears. She stopped Lucinda in her tracks with one of her listen-to-your-grandmother looks.
“Yes. If it saves unnecessary suffering. No point fighting a fight you cannot win. You would do well to heed my advice.”
“What do you think will happen to her?”
“If she was indeed attacked, she will go on with her life looking over her shoulder for quite some time. If her parents are wise, they will not leave her alone again. This city is not safe for a young woman.”
“I run errands for you and Father all over London on my own.”
“You know how to look after yourself.”
“Only because Father taught me how to fight, which is why I need to practice, and yet he denies me the chance!” Her grandmother pierced her with a look as sharp as any rapier.
“Pray do not start with that again. I will countenance no more of your quarrelling. Your father does not want you to fight anymore because it could put you in danger.”
Lucinda snorted. “Seems to me I would be in more danger if I did not know how to fight.”
Her grandmother laid a warning hand on Lucinda’s forearm. “Do not go aggravating him. He has not been himself lately. Have you not noticed?”
“I have, and it does concern me.” More than she cared to admit. Her father had always seemed invincible. Even losing an arm in the Irish rebellion had not slowed him down for long, so his frequent lapses of concentration and staring into space were peculiar and baffling. There were times when he was physically present but did not seem to be aware of what was happening around him. It was occurring more days than not and lasting for longer. While he refused to acknowledge anything was amiss, it could no longer be ignored.
“So pray do not go and aggravate him by behaving like a strumpet. I saw what you were doing before we left, and it is a dangerous game you play. Keep dangling your wares under a man’s nose, and he may just help himself to the goods. You do not want to end up in poor Mary’s state. Do you?”
Indeed she did not. Somewhat chastened Lucinda held the large oak door to the fencing academy open and followed her grandmother meekly inside, the truth in her stinging warning prompting Lucinda to tug her neckline up. It was foolish to invite the wrong sort of attention, on that point Grandma was undeniably correct, but Mary’s fate only bolstered her determination to continue her campaign. Why shouldn’t a woman have the knowledge and skills to defend herself? She simply had to make Father see reason. But with Grandma’s stern eye firmly upon her, she knew better than to cause further provocation. She would bide her time, map out a plan, and in the meantime keep practicing on her own. He could hardly expect her to give up without a fight, she was a swordmaster’s daughter after all.