Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
When he went back into the tent, Truda was sitting on the edge of the cot. She had lighted two oil-boats; in their red glare she seemed a different woman, softer and more friendly. Her eyes were wary as they watched him cross the dirt floor to stand above her, looking down.
His silence made her stir. “Are you going to burn me? Or have I made myself useful to you?” she asked. “I can be even more useful, you know.”
“How?” Her hand made a sweeping gesture. “Your men are hungry. They need food, better weapons. That iron coffer of yours is empty. It should be filled to its brim with gold.”
His lips twitched into a grim smile. “Can you do all this with one of your spells?”
“In a way I can. You’ve come into Italy seeking service. Serve me, John Hawkwood! Serve Truda—and all those things can be yours!”
He laughed at her. “Am I a fool? What do you have to offer outside a pretty body?”
Her gaze was steady. “I have nothing myself. But I know where these things can be found. There is a castle not far from here called Altosasso, which means the high rock. The lord of that castle is a wealthy man. He has a new wife.” A spasm of hate crossed her face. She sat up straighter, and rage twisted her mouth. “He also has many chests of gold in his cellars. And not many men to defend them.”
Sir John growled. “Blood of God, you’d make me into a common thief.”
“You have no choice, Englishman.” The tent grew silent. The man was aware that his right hand was balled into a fist at his side. This redheaded woman could look down inside him with those slanted green eyes. For all he knew she might even be laughing at him. What was he, after all, but a poverty-stricken adventurer leading the riffraff of a war out of France and into Italy, hoping with them to make his fortune?
She lay back on the rope-bed, stretching her arms above her head, writhing lazily. In a dreamy voice she said, “I can picture Bernabò Visconti giving you his daughter’s hand in marriage when you appear outside the gates of Milan. A ragged soldier who owns nothing of value but a sword and his golden spurs! He will laugh in your face. His servants will kick you out onto the cobblestones of the Piazza Arrengo.”
Anger made him reach down for her, catching her long red hair, lifting her up off the cot-bed. “I’ll be better off by robbing some poor devil you hate, will I?”
“You’ll be richer. Your men will have good weapons, better horses. It will be a start.”
His hand threw her back on the bed. He moved across the tent, staring down into the flames of the brazier. “I’d dishonor myself if I did what you ask.”
“Think of me as a noblewoman, not a witch. Pretend I am a countess whose possessions have been stolen from her by Paolo da Marucci. I come to you, offering your lances and your archers employment. Because my lands and possessions have been stolen from me I cannot pay you, except when you have won my castle back for me.”
Sir John swung around and stared hard at her. “You make it sound almost believable.”
The slant green eyes mocked him, defying him to guess at truth. She said, “You’re the only one who’s said I’m a witch. I’ve admitted nothing. For all you know I really am Hertruda da Tordone.”
“The spell you cast—”
“Was I acting? I could have been so carried away by my pretense that I fainted. The foam on my mouth? A well-chosen herb when chewed will cause that.”
His hands opened and closed. He had the feeling that this woman was seeking to bend his will by words as metal was bent by forge-fires and hammers. “The merchant you served in Genoa, who took you with him to far countries—”
“Lies, all lies. Words to catch your interest, to keep you from burning me at the stake. An Englishman in Italy, with a ragged lot of riffraff at his back, seeking his fortune. What more natural but that I learn his goal and play up to it?”
She came to her feet, striding toward him, the slits in the brown bliaut opening to give him glimpses of a rounded hip, a pale thigh. “Do I look like a witch, Ser Giovanni? Or do I resemble more a dispossessed contessa seeking vengeance on the husband who spurned her?”
Sir John was an unworldly man, used only to the battlefields and war encampments. He believed the evidence of his senses. Earlier this woman had seemed a witch, helpless and afraid. Now she was an Italian contessa, smiling languidly and proudly, sensuously beautiful even in the tattered garment which was her only covering.
His face betrayed his indecision. The woman laughed softly and came even closer. Her hands lifted to frame his face. “Let me be your first employer, Sir John. Take up the cause of justice in my behalf. Wear the red gorgon of Altosasso on your banner. Win my inheritance back for me and be rewarded from the gold in the strongboxes of the usurper.”
“I—I don’t know what to say.”
“Then let me convince you,” she laughed. “But must we starve while discussing your terms of employment? Is there no food, no wine in the whole camp? Come, pretend for the nonce I am a contessa, homeless and poverty-stricken, but able to lay claim to a fine castello and all its belongings. Eh? What do you say?”
Her gaiety was infectious. She was very appealing. And it was true that he was in no position to shy at scruples. Donnina Visconti herself had told him there were innumerable opportunities for soldiers in Italy. Rather than doubt Truda, he should accept her offer in the spirit with which it was tendered. By taking service under the gorgon banner he would be enriching them both.
His shout brought a man-at-arms running with an iron stew-pot and two loaves of bread, a small wine-skin filled with cheap Nebbiolo.
“It isn’t a royal feast,” the woman said, “but it will fill the stomach, and Nebbiolo is better than water.”
She sat on the cot-bed with long white legs bared to the middle of her thighs. “Unladylike but effective with a soldier of fortune like yourself,” she smiled. “While you’re busy admiring me you won’t be able to think so clearly.”
She ate daintily enough to be a countess, grasping the pieces of meat between her fingers carefully and using the knife he gave her to slice off small portions. “In Milan I have seen an eating instrument with two prongs called a fork, but only the very elite use it. I’ve always thought it an affectation.”
Truda leaned forward, thrusting a chunk of meat into his mouth. “Eat, Sir John. A man needs more food than a woman. Eat—no, let me feed you—and I will tell you all about myself.
“I am a contessa, in all truth. My name is really Hertruda da Tordone, and I’m the countess of Altosasso. Three years ago I married a man I thought was a paragon of delight. He was handsome, a nobleman of Naples, wealthy in his own right.
“That was what I thought I was getting. Actually he proved to be a cheat, a fraud, a schemer.” Her brows drew together in a frown. “He was a nobleman by birth. In that alone did he speak the truth. His inheritance at Naples he had sold for monies with which to lead a dissolute life. When he married me he married my estates. Love? He doesn’t know the meaning of the word.”
“But I found you homeless. If he’s all these things—Her palm touched his mouth. “Allow me to explain further. All the time he was my husband he was scheming to get my property. He was having an affair with a cheap woman, Adelaide Taresca. With her he planned to bury me beneath my own castle
Fury shook her breasts under the low-cut bodice. Her hands clenched into fists. “Sí, sí! He fed me drugs, did my gallant Paolo! Drugs to induce me to sleep. And while I slept he paid a soldier of his employ to sleep beside me in my poster-bed. While I lay asleep he brought the local bishop to see me, telling him that I had been sick, shutting myself up in my bedroom and not admitting him.
“Ah, you see how sly and cunning he was?” Holy Mother Church itself became his ally. I do not blame the bishop. No! He saw what he thought was adultery. With gold my husband purchased new servants, casting out my old retainers. He filled every office with his own men. When I was alone and defenseless I was to be slain. But I overheard enough of their plans to know what was to be my fate.
“To save my life I ran. I lived for weeks on berries and nuts. The only clothes I had are these rags you see on me. The hut where you found me belongs to an old woman who used to be my servant. She took me in, sheltered me. Every night we prayed together for my deliverance.”
Truda smiled wanly. “You are that deliverance, Ser Giovanni. You are the savior sent me by that first Savior.”
“If I take service under your banner,” he pointed out, “I’ll be robbing you to pay my men, to fill my coffers.”
Her white arms lifted as she displayed herself in the cheap bliaut, “How can you rob me of what I don’t possess? Paolo da Marucci owns everything which once belonged to me. I’d rather see it destroyed completely than remain in his hands Can you understand that?”
Sir John nodded slowly. “Yes, yes. It will be an honor to serve you, lady.”
She glanced at him slyly. “Am I telling the truth now, Ser Giovanni? Or was I telling the truth when I said I was a servant hired by a Genovese merchant?”
He stared as she put white hands to her thick red hair, lifting it high on her head until it made a crimson mane above her oval face. “Well, Sir John? Witch woman or countess? Which is it? Which am I to be?”
“I don’t know,” he whispered. “The choice is yours to make. Yours alone.”
“In either event there is a castle Altosasso? There is a lord of that castle? He has gold to reward me for taking his rocca?”
“Oh, that’s all true enough.”
“Why?” he groaned. “If that’s true why continue this deception with me? Why not admit to being a witch? Or to being a noblewoman?”
She smiled tautly. “You want a sop to your conscience, I gave it to you. I want Paolo da Marucci dead. We compromise, you and I.”
His fist struck the edge of the cot. “I can’t understand you. You’re one thing or the others!”
“If I admit to being a witch, I stand in danger of the fire. If I admit to being a countess of Altosasso, you may sell me to Paolo da Marucci. It’s as simple as that. A need to survive.” Sir John Hawkwood drew a deep breath. His dreams of high adventure in Italy were come to this, a chance at employment by a penniless noblewoman. He was not even sure of that, but he had to make a beginning somewhere. He would choose to believe her a dispossessed countess rather than a witch. It would give his foray against Altosasso the appearance of legality.
In these early years of his knighthood, legality was a chimera fixed always before his eyes. He was not strong enough yet, inside himself, to scoff at forms and appearances. Or it may have been the need to justify his knighthood to himself.
“You’ll need your own tent, countess,” he said, getting to his feet. “I’ll make arrangements to have it set up beside my own.”
Truda looked about her. “I don’t need a tent of my own. I’ll manage fine in here.”
He felt his cheeks go red. She was laughing at him with her green eyes, mocking his scruples. He growled, “If you want it that way.” But when he reached for her, being warm with wine, she twisted aside from his clutching hands.
“Consider me as part of your reward, Ser Giovanni,” she breathed, standing with her hands on her hips, a white leg thrust through an opening in the torn tunic.
“I’m doing just that,” he told her. Her smile was brittle. “Since when does the reward precede the deed that wins it?”
With that as a promise he had to be content.
Altosasso had been built upon solid rock during the latter half of the eleventh century, when Peter the Hermit was stalking through Europe preaching the Crusades. Originally intended for a supply depot, its natural advantages were such that first one nobleman and then another sought to possess himself of its high stone walls and turreted battlements. From the wall-walks a man commanded a view of the surrounding countryside. No army could approach its defenses unseen, for the three roads that led to Altosasso traversed the low, wide plain of Varaita and were visible for more than twenty miles from the citadel. Catapults and arrow-engines could sweep each with deadly fire in case of attack,
Sir John Hawkwood sat his high-peaked wooden saddle and bit his lower lip, scowling at those distant turrets. An army ten times the size of his would founder below those merlons. To take such a stronghold he would need a hundred siege engines, a hundred scaling towers, a hundred balistas and onagers. He had none. Bitterness moved under his chain-mail shirt. To fail in his first venture on Italian soil would auger poorly for his future reputation.
And he needed to build himself a reputation here in Italy. He knew that much, now. Bernabò Visconti would never be content with a failure for a son-in-law. He would demand perfection in any man to whom he gave his daughter Donnina. To wait until he was a famous man before he asked for her hand would be stupid. Even a Visconti would not demand that of a suitor.
Altosasso was perfect for his needs. By capturing it, he would start a whisper of gossip about his White Company. In the echo of that whisper he would go to Milan, lay his heart before Donnina and his proposal of marriage before her father.
“My reasoning is perfect,” he smiled wryly. “All that remains is to bring it to reality. And that won’t be easy.”
He glanced at his two captains—the German mercenary Albert Sterz and the dour Andrew de Belmonte whom the Italians nicknamed Dubramonte—who were eyeing him with puzzled concern. Dubramonte, who had brought his company into the hire of the Black Prince six days before Poitiers, caught his hard glance and shrugged, his ailettes moving in the sunlight.
“It’s a tough nut to crack. Maybe too tough.”
“Maybe too tough?” cried Albert Sterz. “It is too tough. Regard their towers, eight in all. Regard the manner in which every road comes under the firepower of their archers, of their javelin-catapults. Better to leave this stone for someone else to overturn.”
Sir John shook his head. “It’s Altosasso or no place at all. Our food is low. The men have no money to spend on wenching or drinking. Soon—unless we give them wine and women and a little loot to put in their purses—they’ll be wandering away to join another captain.”
The German waved a mailed hand at the distant castle. “I am a sensible man. I have taken part in many stormings, many sieges. I can remember no castle so ideally situated as that one. Has it a weakness?”
‘No,” cried Dubramonte, slapping hand to thigh. Sir John Smiled. “In its very strength lies its weakness.” Dubramonte stared, “You talk in riddles.”
“Let us hope Paolo da Marucci thinks as you do.” He reined his big white horse around and sent it galloping down the grassy slope of the high ridge. After a moment during which they eyed each other in puzzlement, his lieutenants came thundering after him. Sir John Hawkwood smiled grimly, his hard face half-hidden under the chain-work of his camail. He wanted his lieutenants to puzzle over his words. If they failed to learn his purpose, he’d feel that much more confident of its eventual success.
He found Red Truda perched on the tailgate of an arrow-wagon plucking at the strings of a fat-bellied lute, singing Provencal love songs to a hundred gawking, grinning archers. There had been no more talk of burning her as a witch since Sir John had spread the word that she was the rightful owner of a fine castello. Rather it seemed that the men had adopted her as a mascot, much in the manner in which the Company of the Dove had carried a pair of white lovebirds in a silver cage.
When she saw him striding toward her Truda laughed and tossed the lute to its owner, sliding down off the wagon with a flash of white thighs. Her laugh was merry, carefree.
“I’m not at all sure whether I want you to capture Altosasso for me, Giovanni. I’m having too much fun with the soldiers. I’m free, no cares of state, no bothersome advisers to listen to day after day—”
“Just because you rule it doesn’t mean it has to be your prison,” he told her with a grin. “Leave Altosasso to your advisers and come with us to Milan.”
Her green eyes considered him carefully. “Now I might do just that, signor. You will need a loving woman when Bernabò Visconti kicks you out on your ear.”
He grunted, remembering the lonely nights in his tent with Red Truda only a few feet away, untouchable until the end of the campaign against Altosasso. “Can you be a loving Woman?”
Her fingers reached out to pinch, but finding him helmeted and clad from camail to mailed sabbatons on his feet she drew back her hand. Her laughter bubbled up. “Diavolo! I find you as well protected as Altosasso itself!”
“It’s Altosasso I want to talk about,” he said, drawing her by an elbow across the tent square. “The fortress is only a big rock. It can’t grow its own food. It must do business with local farmers and tradesmen.”
“Twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays. They come from all over the countryside a little after dawn. In carts, in wagons, on mule-back. All day long, as at the fair of St. Denys in Paris or St. Ayoul at Provins, they hawk their wares in the great marketplace. They go on selling far into the night, with lamps and candles making it look like day.”
“The eve markets of London Town,” he muttered, remembering those feast—day eve—cheapings at Westcheap and Cornhill conducted under candlelight. “It suits my purpose perfectly.”
“Are you a merchant or a soldier?” she asked softly, head tilted to one side the better to study his sun-browned face.
Sir John began to laugh and when Truda frowned, laughed all the harder so that tears came rolling down his cheeks. “To be one I must be the other. Ah, if only you knew what Wondrous merchandise I shall have for Ser Paolo!”
She teased and threatened, pleaded and pouted, but he would not satisfy her curiosity. Instead he strode off with a clatter of cuish-plate on mail toward his tent, a wide grin on his mouth. . . .
The day was Saturday, well gone by the time Sir John returned from studying the high walls of Altosasso. Sunday morning they rode to the Abbey of Vezzalano to hear mass in the small church adjoining the cloisters, sitting together behind a carved wood screen below the ornate rood loft. Sir John was silent and morose during the services. Only later, as they neared their camp, did he rouse from his reverie. “axes,” he said suddenly. “axes and daggers. Twenty men so armed will be enough.”
He reined away from Truda to fall back beside Sterz and Dubramonte. Truda could hear their muted voices but she paid them no heed. It was pleasant to ride a gently pacing palfrey on this lovely September day, with the mistral out of Provence a soft caress on her shoulders. From the wooden supply chests which held odds and ends of White Company loot she had salvaged a gown of blue damask—somewhat stained and torn, but stains can be removed and rips mended —and felt as much the great lady as Sir John Hawkwood looked the war captain. Several times she glanced back over her shoulder at him, congratulating herself that this big Englishman had come into her life so conveniently.
He was young and crude but there was an unformed power in his big frame. She would mold that power with her hands; yes, with all her body if need be, to make him what she wanted. He had a good mind. She would see it tutored, teach it to sop up knowledge as a bit of manchet bread sopped gravy from a roast. She rode with a dreaming smile on her face, pleased with what she could see of her future.
Dawn on the banks of the Borbore in early autumn can be cold and raw. More than fifty peasants clad in long woolen cagoules huddled about their campfires and waited the arrival of the farmers from Chieri. They beat their work-hardened hands together, blowing breath into their cupped palms, wondering when those fools from the Chieri uplands would come creaking into the town square. It was growing lighter by the moment. They should be on their way shortly. When they heard the creak of axles the peasants drew away from the fires and went to their own carts, climbing up, lifting the reins. Sitting there, they stared dumbly as a big man in armor with a white velvet jupon showing a broad chevron and three escallop shells came clattering across the hard-packed dirt of the Canale marketplace. Behind him came the dray-carts of Chieri, but strange men held the reins of the horses. The peasants looked in vain for the men they were accustomed to seeing on those carts.
The condottiere called out, “A golden ducat for the loan of your wagons for a day. You’ll get them back, and monies for whatever goods we sell, a little after sundown.”
A peasant shouted, “How do we know this isn’t a trick?”
“You don’t. You have only my word for it—and the promise to use this sword if you don’t agree.”
The Spanish sword flashed from its scabbard. Sir John let them get a good look at its glittering blade. Heads turned as eyes looked into eyes. Then one of the older peasants shrugged.
“I haven’t seen a gold ducat in ten years. Take my cart, signor. I’d much rather spend the day over those fires than go to Altosasso any time.”
One after another the peasants swung down. Hard-faced men wrapped in shielding woolen cloaks came running from the lifting shadows. Here and there, as a cloak opened, the peasants could see the gleam of chain mail. Once a running man dropped a long object he carried under his cloak. Everyone could see it was a big war-ax, but the peasants did not stir. Let the nobles kill one another, as fast and as soon as possible. There would be more to eat for the common folk when that happened.
The carts moved off into the gathering day. Someone threw more wood on the fires.
Paolo da Marucci lay late abed this morning, fondling the woman at his side. Life was very pleasant for the lord of Altosasso these days, and he permitted himself the luxury of enjoying it to the utmost. As his hand moved from her throat across the Smooth skin of her shoulders he reflected that, for the poverty-stricken nobleman he had been two years before, he had done very well indeed.
“A fine fief to call my own,” he murmured to the smiling woman, “revenues from the farms and vineyards of the countryside to put gold in my coffers—and you, sweet Adelaide.” Adelaide Taresca stretched and pushed his hand away. “I never thought you could do it, Paolo. Really I didn’t. This Hertruda must be a fool.”
He bridled. “I am a handsome, personable, noble. It’s true I lied a bit before she consented to go before the marriage altar with me, but—”
A knock on the oaken door made him lift to an elbow. “Eh? Who is it?”
“Jacopo, Signor Paolo. There’s a nobleman at the gatehouse door who claims to have a gift for you. He won’t give me the gift or even tell me what it is. He insists on seeing you.”
“A gift? All right, Jacopo. I’ll be down presently. Put him at his ease, this nobleman.” To the woman he said, “I grow in importance, it seems. Wandering knights stop by to win my friendship.”
Greed brightened the woman’s eyes as she threw back the bedclothes. “See if he has a gift for me too, Paolo. A new cloak, perhaps, or a handful of trinkets.”
Paolo da Marucci watched the woman walk naked to the aumbry that held her garments. He sighed. Life grew more pleasant every hour.
When he was dressed in black velvet jupon and hose of black and white, he went below-stairs and ordered that his breakfast of fruit and wine be brought to the gatehouse. Crossing the cobbled court between the chapel portico and the stone outer staircase to the palazzo, he savored the crisp fall air. Such days as this put appetite in a man, he reflected. Three men in plate armor and chain mail rose from the gatehouse benches at his entrance. Only one of them, a giant with close-cropped black hair and a nut-brown face, was with out his helm. The big man bowed slightly.
“Ser Paolo? Permit me to introduce myself. I am Sir John Hawkwood—or Ser Giovanni l’Acuto, as your own people name me. I’m on my way to Milan to take service under the banner of Bernabò Visconti. On the way I chanced upon an old acquaintance of yours. At least she claimed acquaintanceship when I sought to know her more intimately.”
His smile invited Ser Paolo to lewd thoughts. Sir John went on, “Naturally, I knew that the wife of anyone as important as the lord of Alt—”
“Wife, you say?” choked out Ser Paolo. “A redheaded Woman? Beautiful as a sunset?”
“She could answer that description, yes.” Shrewdness made Ser Paolo look more sharply at the English knight. “Is this your gift, this wife of mine?”
The condottiere spread his big hands. “I thought you would be pleased. If you’re not—”
“Oh, but I am,” the lord of Altosasso said hurriedly. “Very much so. Enough to reward you handsomely for your concern. Shall we say a hundred gold pieces?”
Sir John appeared to ponder, pursing his lips. “It’s true I’d thought her worth at least three hundred. A handsome woman can always find admirers to help her cause, if she has one. Sometimes such an admirer might be powerful enough —like Bernabò Visconti—to use her claim as an excuse to—”
“Enough, enough!” Ser Paolo wiped his moist brow with a scented kerchief. He knew Bernabò Visconti as all Italy knew him—cruel, grasping, selfish, greedy. Like an octopus he lived in Milan, reaching out with the feelers that were his armies, laying claim to this fief, to that city. “Perhaps you misunderstood me, I meant to say four hundred ducats!”
The Englishman bowed more deeply. “Rumor speaks truth when it credits you with generosity, my lord.”
“Yes, yes. Where is she, eh? Where’s the red slut? I’ll—he broke off as a servant entered with a silver salver heavy with grapes, plums and dates. “Will you join me, captain?”
“Forgive me if I ride at once so as to conclude our transaction the faster,” Sir John murmured. “I have Madonna Hertruda at some little distance. I’ll fetch her now, with your permission.”
“Of course, of course.” The lord of Altosasso popped a succulent date between his teeth. His hand gestured graciously. “Ride swiftly, Sir John. I am more anxious than you know to be reunited with my bride.”
His laughter was harsh and savage. It pursued the armored men out the gatehouse door which was lifting with a creak of chains to permit the entry of the farm wagons from Chieri and Canale. Ser Paolo brought a handful of grapes with him to the wooden doorway, watching the Knights gallop off in a rising dust storm. His glance swung to the heavy-laden dray-carts, but he was not really seeing them. He was much too busy considering just what to do with red Hertruda when she was once more in his power.
His seneschal came hurrying toward him. “Highness, these farmers—”
“Later, Jacopo, later. I have important business to transact right now.”
“I feel you should know these men are strangers to me. I’ve never seen any of them before.” Ser Paolo frowned. “Strangers?”
“The peasants, lord. I know most of them. These men I have never seen before. And they have the look of soldiers.” Ser Paolo let his eyes widen. “Their carts? Do they hold food and produce? Bolts of cloth from Chieri”
“Yes, lord. But—” The lord of Altosasso moved toward the trundling carts, a hand lifted imperiously. “You, fellow. Since when have you been a farmer in the valley of the Borbore?”
The man grinned, showing white teeth. “I’m not a farmer now, lord. I used to be a soldier but I’m a bit down on my luck. These others with me were members of my company.” His hand gestured at the drivers of the other wagons. “We came into Italy from Provence seeking work so as to eat. The farmers around these parts are mighty prosperous. They hired us to bring goods here to be sold.”
“Prosperous?” asked Ser Paolo in surprise. He had not thought his peasantry overburdened with wealth. This was interesting news. Apparently their well-filled earthenware money jars could stand a higher land tax. Ser Paolo giggled. He would be even richer.
His gaze touched the carts, counting them. Less than thirty. What harm could thirty men do Altosasso? He turned to his seneschal and walked a little way with him.
“Close and bolt the gate, Jacopo. Permit only Sir John and the woman he brings to enter. I’ll receive them in the great hall. Keep a sharp eye on these fellows. Have a detail of the guard ready for trouble. I think that will handle any emergency that may arise. Oh—and Jacopo! Remind me to discuss the question of our land taxes with you at the earliest opportunity.”
Jacopo smiled wryly and turned away. He did not notice one of the dray-cart drivers moving after him in the shadows of the pillared cortile. When the arm went about his throat it choked off his cry. The slim dagger-blade in his back let out his life with his blood.
Ser Paolo da Marucci noticed nothing of this. His head was too filled with the image of Hertruda da Tordone writhing on the rack or hanging in chains while a whip made a scarlet froth of her back. She had caused him nothing but misery and anxiety since she’d fled from the Rock those months before. Nights he lay awake wondering where she was, if she had gone with her suit to Milan or Genoa or even as far as Venice. What was worse, she might have made her way to Avignon, asking for pity and the intercession of Pope Urban V. Yes, yes, she had made him miserable—she would be made to pay for it.
Adelaide Taresca was seated in a curule chair as he entered the solar which was their bedroom. She clapped her hands when he told her the news.
“Do you know what this means, Paolo? Do you? It means we can be married just as soon as Hertruda’s dead.”
The lord of Altosasso put a smile to his lips, but he pondered this idea with something of repugnance. Adelaide was a playful thing, but, to tell the truth, he was a little tired of her charms. The world was full of women who would be happy to come to Altosasso believing its lord intended to make them his lawful spouse. However, first things first. “And she will be dead within the week,” he nodded. Her eyebrows rose. “Within the week? I should’ve thought you’d have said within the hour.”
His jaw muscles moved. “I owe that bitch something for the trouble—and the gold—she’s cost me. A little torture would go well, eh? Something to relieve the monotony.”
The blonde woman clapped her hands. “May I think up some torture, darling? May I?”
For an instant Paolo da Marucci regarded her with a stony stare. At least his reason for the torture was revenge. Adelaide Taresca had no reason other than an inborn cruelty. In that, she might have been a Visconti.
It seemed like half a day before the clatter of hoofs on the courtyard cobblestones summoned the lord of Altosasso and his lady to the great hall. As he glanced at the barred shaft of the towering tortys candle which was used to mark the time of day he saw that less than an hour had gone by —Sir John had not loitered.
As he entered the great hall he paused abruptly at sight of his wife. She was panting harshly, sobbing with hate and terror. Her long red hair had come undone. The damask gown she wore was ripped at its vair collar and at the full skirt where her legs threshed wildly as she fought to free herself from the mail-clad men who held her wrists. Her wide eyes sought his face, read her fate there—she screamed, flinging herself from left to right.
“You’ve caged a wildcat, Ser Giovanni,” Marucci smiled, advancing slowly. He was savoring this moment as he might a rare wine; truly was it said that triumph was an actual taste on the tongue.
His gaze ran up and down the twisting, writhing body of the redheaded woman. His nostrils trembled. He thought he could actually smell her terror. Aye, the jade knew what was in store for her. Well might she tremble!
“The gold, Ser Paolo,” the Englishman said. “Eh? Oh, the gold.” Ser Paolo glanced side-wise at Sir John. If Jacopo had followed instructions the Englishman and his two men-at-arms were alone in the castle. If he had brought other men with him they would be outside the walls. And the walls of Altosasso were impregnable.
The lord of Altosasso concerned himself with a perfumed orange which hung in a golden cage from his belt, swinging it back and forth and sniffing at its tartness. With amusement he watched Adelaide Taresca Walk around Hertruda who had fallen silent, breathing harshly but not speaking. Like strange cats, the two of them. Be interesting to see what torture Adelaide would dream up, at that.
“The gold, signori” This time there was asperity in the Englishman’s voice. A giant of a man, this Sir John Hawkwood. A veritable colossus in chain mail and armor. But as stupid as the rest of his kind. Ser Paolo laughed softly. “Are you really so naive, captain? Do you think I honestly mean to pay four hundred ducats for such as this?” His hand indicated his terrified We.
The black eyebrows rose in surprise. “Are you joking, my lord? Between men of honor an agreement is sacred.”
Ser Paolo giggled. “Whoever told you I was a man of honor? Certainly not her!” His laughter lifted as red Truda glared at him. “No, no. I’m not an honorable man.”
“You stupid fool!!” Hertruda da Tordone screamed at the Englishman. “You could have had a dozen times four hundred ducats if you’d kept your word to me! But not You had to play the greedy guts. N—now you—”
She broke off in a storm of weeping, head hanging low. Her husband stirred, moving in front of her, catching a handful of her red hair and yanking on it so that she was forced to look at him.
“A week,” he told her. “I promised myself I’d keep you alive a week to amuse me. My torturers are very skillful workmen.” He beckoned Adelaide to come to his side, “Tell my wife what choice indignity you’ve figured out for her, sweetling.”
Adelaide leaned forward and whispered. Hertruda flung her head back, a scream bubbling in her throat. “Sweet Gesu, not Have mercy’
Only Sir John saw the man with the bloody ax in his hand come to the great hall door and wave it overhead. He nodded at the men-at-arms who stood behind the ax-man. Then he stepped forward and tapped Ser Paolo on the shoulder.
“One last chance I’ll give you, milord. Either produce your gold or suffer the consequence.”
The lord of Altosasso laughed delightedly. “Ser Giovanni, you amuse me. One man alone in Altosasso and you dare to adopt that tone? It would be only just if I were to add you to the dungeon guests. You and Hertruda could keep one another company with your screams. A duet, as it Were. . . .”
He dissolved in laughter. As he was straightening up, Sir John caught him across the side of his face with the back of a big hand. Ser Paolo went stumbling backwards and fell heavily.
The Englishman smiled at Red Truda. “The farce is over I think.” His hand lifted out a dagger with which he cut the bonds that held her wrists. Her eyes were frozen wide in disbelief.
“You’re freeing me?” she choked. “You were never my prisoner. I only needed an actress to get inside Altosasso’s walls.”
“I’m not sure I understand—”
“I could never have attacked Altosasso openly and win it, not with a hundred times the men I have. It’s too strong. Its weakest point is behind its walls, as I hinted to Sterz and Dubramonte, in the hearts of the men who defended them.”
His hand invited her glance to her husband, who was crawling backward away from them, heels and hands shoving at the cold stone floor. When he saw he was discovered he screamed and leaped to his feet.
“Jacopo! Jacopo, come save me! The guards! The guards!” He ran as far as the door, where two men-at-arms in the livery of the White Company caught him by the arms and dragged him behind them the length of the great hall. When he stood before Sir John and the Lady Hertruda, his eyes were rolling and he foamed at the mouth.
“Mad,” whispered Sir John. Lady Hertruda shuddered. She glanced aside at Adelaide Taresca, who was in little better state. Then her eyes went to the Englishman reproachfully.
“You could have told me! If this was all a plan I would have been glad to lend my acting to it.”
His head shook. “You could never have acted the way you did unless you thought me a turncoat. This way your fright was real.”
“Can you blame me?” He shuddered, looking at the madman gibbering in the hands of the men-at-arms. “No, I daresay I couldn’t. He was a devil.”
“Learn your first lesson in diplomacy then, Ser Giovanni. My husband was but a poor imitation of a powerful Italian nobleman, one of those who call themselves signorie. The signorie are the members of the great Italian families who have come to power in the city-states. The Visconti in Milan with Bernabò, in Pavia and Alba to the west with Galeazzo Visconti his brother. The Gonzaga in Mantua, the Pepoli of Bologna, the Scaligers in Ventia, the Carresi in Padua. Dozens of others. Each is a Paolo da Marucci magnified a hundred times. Greedier, crueller, smarter.”
“More dangerous then, you mean to say.”
“Exactly. Be warned. Be alert to their machinations when you have occasion to confer with them in the future. Never let any of them hold the upper hand with you.”
His smile was twisted. “I’m already repaid for my service under the Altosasso gorgon.”
“Not yet. Not until you receive the gold I agreed to pay you. Fulfill your obligations by remaining in Altosasso until I can replace Jacopo and the others like him with my own retainers.” She hesitated, then said, “I still don’t know how you accomplished this miracle of taking Altosasso.”
“I sent a score or more of my men here disguised as farmers. They took the gatehouse, having already slain Jacopo so no alarm could be given. It was easy to open the gate and hold it until the bulk of my army arrived. There was almost no fighting. The guards were overwhelmed in their quarters. I doubt that five men in all were slain.”
“It’s a miracle, as I said.” She moved close to him, hooking her arm in his. “Come with me, Ser Giovanni, while I make a tour of inspection of the citadel you took back for me in such wondrous fashion.”
Within the hour Hertruda da Tordone had taken complete command of her castle. Paolo da Marucci was dispatched with a dagger-thrust in the dungeons. The dead body of his seneschal was carried to the fields below the rocks and buried. The men and women who had served the former lord of Altosasso were turned out the iron gate and sent on their way. Adelaide Taresca went with them only because Sir John insisted Hertruda be merciful.
A pair of men-at-arms served supper to Sir John and Lady Hertruda at the long table on the dais end of the great hall. The witch woman was gone before the gracious, poised signora. In flowing gown of white satin edged with cloth of gold, her red hair done in a pearl coif, she sat at her ease in a high-backed chair and toyed with her food. From time to time her slanted green eyes regarded the handsome giant who sat opposite her in white velvet jupon and unmatched hose.
“There is no need for you ever to leave Altosasso, Ser Giovanni,” she said at last, reaching for a high-necked silver ewer and pouring white Fior d’Arancio wine of Sicily into his goblet.
Sir John leaned back in his own cathedra, smiling faintly. “You tempt me, milady. Only for the fact that Donnina Visconti lives—“
His wine cup and his shrug drowned out his words. “Altosasso could be your home,” Red Truda said softly. “As its lord you’d have dominion over its farmlands, its vineyards, over the castello itself. Even over me.”
“The latter fact outweighs all the others,” he smiled, admiring the rounds of her smooth shoulders bared by the fashionably low collar. “Nevertheless I must make my try at finding her.”
“After seven years? She may have married.”
“I’ve considered that fact. If she has, I’ll be back.” Lady Hertruda frowned faintly. “I ought to be insulted, I suppose, to be taken as second best. Still, I like to think of myself as a realist. No flesh-and-blood woman can compete with a dream. And it is a dream—not a real woman—you’re in love with.”
He sighed, “Dreams can be so very unsatisfying.” When he met the arch glance she threw at him he rose to his feet, reaching a hand to her arm, lifting her to stand beside him. “Let us make a division of the gold, witch woman.”
She laughed, showing white teeth and red tongue. “I’d forgotten about that, Aren’t you glad now you saved me from the burning?”
“More so than you realize.” He took down a lighted torch from the walls and lighted her way down the spiral stone staircase which led into the dungeons below the castle. From the velvet almoner at her girdle she drew a large iron key. Inserting it into the lock of a huge oaken door she gestured him to precede her.
Torchlight revealed a score of dusty chests, iron-bound and spider-webbed. When he tried to lift one he could not. Sir John pursed his lips, staring from the chests to the woman who waited in the doorway.
“Are they filled with gold or sand?” he asked. “Gold. My father and his father before him were frugal men. Here on the high rock they spent little of the fortune they amassed in their lifetimes.”
“I didn’t know there was so much gold in the world,” he grinned.
“Half is yours by our bargain.”
“You make me wealthy and yourself poor by your generosity. I can’t accept such payment. One chest, yes. Perhaps even two. No more.”
“You cheat yourself, Sir John. You’ll never become the rich and famous man you need to be before you can marry Donnina Visconti at this rate.”
“You say I must be rich. No one else has said it. I say my love is enough to win her.”
She sighed in amusement. “Poor Sir John. He thinks he’s living in the time of the Love Courts. Someone ought to open his eyes to the facts of life, to tell him that important signorie like the Visconti don’t marry off their daughters to penniless adventurers. In Visconti eyes, even if you took all those coffers, you’d still be a pauper.”
Anger clouded his face. He took a step forward, caught her shoulder, twisted her around to face him. Mockery lay bold on her curving lips, in her over-bright eyes. Where the torchlight caught the low bodice of her surcoat he could see the shadow between her breasts.
“Pauper, you call me. An adventurer.”
“Aye! To you. And being so, having won your body today as I won your castle—”
His big hand on her shoulder drew her in against him. He felt the press of thighs against his parti-colored hose, the gentle touch of mounded belly to his loins. His lips were less than an inch from hers when her palm came up to his face, slapping hard. In that same motion she whirled out from under his hand and ran, long skirts lifted to free her feet, toward the spiral stairway.
Sir John stared after her, fingertips grazing his burning cheeks. The sudden rage in him had turned to another emotion. His hand yanked the torch from the cubicle wall. Turning the key in its lock he slipped it into his belt-purse. Lightly, for all his big body, he moved across the dungeon flooring after her.
As he put his foot on the first tread, Lady Hertruda halted at the top of the stair to look down at him. She said, “Adventurer, pauper, fool. You’re all those things’ Then she was turning, racing away. He could hear the pounding slap of her leather poulaines on the stone floor.
He stalked her up the stair and along a corridor, through the great hall to the balcony above the dining dais and into an upper solar. From time to time he caught glimpses of her face staring back at him over a shoulder and heard the twitch and rustle of her gown as she turned a corner.
When he came through the solar door she was standing with her back to a wall hanging, breathing heavily, hands clenched at her sides. Her slanted green eyes were wide and alert, seeing him come at her through the barred shadows lying across the floor, silently, slowly. For a brief instant it seemed he was some great white animal which had been hunting her for hours.
“Let me be,” she panted. “Take the gold—all of it—but let me be.”
“I won you. You said yourself I could have you when I’d given you. Atlosasso.”
“I never thought you’d do it!” His hand touched her bared shoulder, ran along it to her soft white throat. She closed her eyes and trembled under that stroking palm. Her whisper grew like a bond between them.
“You will be making a mistake, Ser Giovanni Let me alone and go your way in peace, with friendship between us. Once you—take me—there can be no friendship for us, only love. Sí, love! The love of a man for a woman. Not the—the dreams in which Donnina Visconti comes to your pallet. Strong love. Almost—evil love. I know this, inside me.”
His fingers were behind her back, unfastening the laces of her kirtle. She could feel the collar loosen on her shoulders, slip down along her upper arms, Beneath the gown she wore only a transparent sendal shift. The Lady Hertruda could feel the heavy pulse beat at her throat, the steady pound of blood along her veins, the strange weight of her swollen breasts. She had warned this man. With the same inner sight through which she had prophesied for him in his tent near Pinerolo she knew that his fate and hers hung on what happened next between them.
“I beg once more,” she breathed. “Let me walk from the solar. Remain behind me, alone. If you do not—”
The kirtle had fallen to her waist where it was held by a cloth-of-gold girdle. Lady Hertruda opened her eyes, saw his gaze held by the firmly jutting breasts. Below the thin camise he could see the dark circles of her nipples. It was not too late. He could still permit her to walk from the room. If she could walk, that is. Her legs were weak, trembling . . . His hands caught her beneath the armpits, lifted her off the floor, brought her so close he could kiss her body through the thin shift. She sobbed suddenly and caught his head in both hands, driving his mouth deeper into her flesh. Then she was sliding downward against him into the circle of his arms, lips hunting his lips, quivering, breathless.
Sir John found himself swept up into a maelstrom of emotion. Her hands were frantic messengers, racing from hip to shoulder to disrobe him. Between kisses on his mouth and chin she cried out soft, feverish words he could not understand but which spurred his blood to riotous fury. Then the air was cool on their flesh and he swung her high in his arms, carrying her toward the bed, knowing that whatever fate was in store for them because of this night’s loving must come as inevitably as the sun in the morning’s dawn. She lay on the coverlet in a pool of lamplight, all white and scarlet to the eyes, arms uplifted, eyes stormy and languorous. As he sank beside her and felt himself caught and cradled, urged to madness by the fierce sweetness of her body, Sir John wondered if he or she were the conqueror of Altosasso.
For a month Sir John remained at Altosasso, marching and drilling his free company until pack wagons arrived from Genoa containing newly purchased armor and weapons, horse trappings and saddles. There were white great-cloaks and white velvet Cyclades for himself and his officers, white surcoats for the men to be worn over their mail shirts.
When they were gathered on the road below the High Rock, they made a fine sight to see, all silvery armor and white cloaks stirring in the breeze.
“I hope they’re as impressive at Milan,” he told Hertruda. “It’s my way of showing Bernabò Visconti what a good son-in-law I’ll make.”
Red Truda only smiled and shook her head. She offered no other warning, being content to let the Englishman discover for himself what manner of man this Bernabò Visconti might be.