Book One: the witch of Altosasso
Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
It was Sir John who found the witch.
He came out of the forest into a little clearing beside a small stream, a big man in plain armor with a worn white cloak hanging from his shoulders, staring at the girl who crouched over a tiny fire before a small, thatch-roofed hut. Smoke rose from the fire, swirling around her body so that for a moment it seemed she floated in gray mist.
To his surprise she was young and beautiful, with long red hair falling down her back. He had always imagined witches to be old and wrinkled, toothless, with jutting jaws and pointed noses, gray hair matted and tangled on their heads. This one was something to make the breath catch in the throat, slim and supple in the torn woolen smock against which overfull breasts pressed their outlines.
It would be a shame to burn her. She stood up in the smoke wisps, staring at him with slanted green eyes, backing foot by foot toward the hut behind her. Not quite as tall as his heart, she was lovelier than any other woman he had ever seen—except one. Only blonde and elfin Donnina Visconti was any lovelier, and it had been so long ago that he had seen her in another land, seven years and six hundred miles away Sir John smiled grimly to himself, remembering that he saw her nearly every night in his dreams.
“Be glad it was I who caught you, not the others,” he said gently, moving forward with a faint clank of chain mail and plate armor.
“Will that make the fire hurt me less?” she panted. Panic stood in her green eyes. She stared about her this way and that as if seeking an avenue of escape. Her breath came quicker in her open mouth. Despair pushed like a pulse beat at her throat. She would make a run for it, he knew, and braced himself.
He began talking, always moving forward, slowly, carefully. “Witches must burn for their sins. It’s the law. Too bad you’re so young and beautiful. I don’t like to think of fire eating at—”
She came from the hut like a wild thing, graceful and lithe. The skirt of her woolen smock swirled above her knees, revealing slim white legs. So swiftly she ran that she was almost past him before he moved. He lunged with startling speed for so big a man, weighted down as he was by chain mail and an iron cuirass covered by a white velvet cyclas. His hand caught her shoulder, whirling her off balance so that she stumbled and went down. Instantly he straddled her, reaching for her wrists to bring her up off the ground.
“There now.” He smiled. This close she was more beautiful than ever. Her mouth was red and moist, heavy lips parted to ease her frightened breathing. The slant green eyes were bold and challenging as her unbound breasts stormed in the brown wool bodice whose lacings had come undone. Sir John could see almost an entire breast, globular and ripe, quivering in the opening. He sighed. It was too bad she was a witch.
“Wait,” she whispered. “Wait just a moment for me to catch my breath.” Her lips trembled into a smile. Calculation lay deep in her eyes, and a furtive slyness. “If you’re as clever as you are handsome there may be no need to burn me.’
He laughed and shook his head. “I’d damn my soul to hellfire if I were to lie with you, witch, then free you. No, no. Come along. They’ll be waiting at the camp.”
“You’re a fool, you know. It’s a waste of good flesh to burn me. And—and of knowledge. I’ve been a—a servant to a rich merchant of Genoa. I’ve traveled with him all over Italy and across the seas to Africa and the Holy Land. I know several tongues, the manners and customs of the many cities in Italy. Not only this—you’d be burning an innocent woman. I’m not a witch.”
“The men say you are. Twenty of them are down with the shaking sickness, near death in their tents. Horses are crippled. Food is scarce. They claim you put a curse on the White Company.”
He drew her through the woods with a big hand on her wrist. She tried to hold back, her face sullen and angry to hide fear. “The shaking sickness was caused by the lowland bogs. If you insist on riding horses through marshlands they’ll injure their legs. And the food—madre del diavolo! If you were to pay for your food instead of taking it like common thieves, perhaps the food you seek would come out of its storage bins.”
His laughter was tinged with bitterness. At this early stage of his career Sir John Hawkwood was more concerned with actuality than with appearance. He rasped, “To buy presupposes the existence of money. My coffers are empty. The purses my men carry are flat. And yet none of us likes to starve.”
He drew a deep breath. “Say I borrow on the morrow for the needs of today. I’ll find a way to pay for what I took—”
The green eyes considered him thoughtfully. They had paused to exchange words and stood now in a little glade through which an early autumn sun made golden brilliance. The woman saw a tall man with broad shoulders and a lean waist, a not unhandsome face under close-cropped black hair, a thick neck and wide jaw, a mouth that was firm with discipline yet mobile enough for humor. He wore heavy plate armor, and under that the chain-mail hauberk and chausses, with an ease that betrayed the muscular body it hid.
“Your tomorrow must be full of promise,” she murmured.
“It’s a hope I intend to make reality. I’ve been in Italy less than a week.”
“All you have to show for it is a witch.”
He caught the laughter behind the slanted eyes and wondered. He said gently, “I admire courage in a person. It can’t be easy to be flippant when you know you’ll burn at the stake come sundown.”
A shudder moved from her bare feet to the long red hair. “I’m not a witch, I tell you! Who names me one?”
“Half a dozen of my men have seen you slipping in and out of the forest. Two of them broke their legs thereafter. One man saw you change yourself into a black cat.”
Her laughter was harshly mocking. “Oh, sweet Gesu! Those must be the six who cornered me near the ruins of an abbey some days ago. I gave them the slip. This is their way of getting revenge.”
She sounded honest enough. If it were not for the fact that the sin of befriending a witch damned the soul to hellfire, he might have become her champion.
With determination but with an added touch of pity, he drew her with him out of the glade and along the narrow forest path which led to his encampment. He listened to her soft, terrified weeping, disturbed and ill at ease. But for the chance that had taken his steps toward the little brook and the thirst working in his throat, he might never have found her.
“Be still,” he told her gruffly. He was more used to dealing with men than with women. From his fifteenth year on he had lived in battle camps with men and weapons for companions. For seven long years, ever since that day in Sibil Hedingham when he’d fled to London Town with the cry of murder ringing in his ears, his life had been almost as austere as that of a monk in a cloister.
It had been the life he wanted, he knew. Years before he’d set himself a goal, and to achieve a goal a man must make sacrifices—if not to a deity, then to the baser elements of his nature. The golden spurs of knighthood that glittered on his mailed sollerets as he walked were his reward, yet they were only a part of the Grail he hungered to obtain.
The weeping woman cried out, “I am not a witch. Before God, I’m not!” Her lips trembled as he turned to stare at her, as if there were other words she could pour out that would prove her innocence. Yet she did not speak them. Terror lay deep in those disturbing green eyes, terror not so much of fire as of some other menace that hung above her.
He waited, but she turned her face away. They went on at a slow walk. The camp lay in a meadow close beside the flowing waters of the river Lemina, fifty miles below Turin. Its cone tents made a field of white against the green grass. If she had the time, the witch woman could have counted more than two hundred of these big tents and twice as many smaller ones, which housed the archers and the pike-men. Three hundred lances, five hundred archers, two hundred pikemen—every man from England and a foreigner in Italy.
Sir John paused to run his eye from the ropes that held the horses and the sumpter mules to the poles from which hung mail and helmets, on to the squads of men drilling, practicing their art of warfare under the tight scrutiny of his lieutenants. Pride moved in his chest, the woman was quick to see even through her tears.
“I gathered them in Aquitaine and Poitiers, Provence and Languedoc,” he said. Masterless men, ruffians, thieves they had been. Left leaderless after the Treaty of Ghent—which ended for a little while the long warfare between an England under Edward III and a France that swore its allegiance to John II—they had taken to living of the land in the only way they knew, with blows and killings, threats and savagery. “I offered them a different life,” he told the redheaded woman. “I gave them a chance to be men again, not animals.”
“By turning them loose in Italy,” she said. His surprise was genuine. “Not so. But other men have made their fortunes below the Alps by serving the city-states in their times of need. I’ll make mine. They were wolves when I found them, set adrift in a land that did not want them. Their employment under Edward the Black Prince ended at Poitiers when we smashed King John and all his chivalry. They were ripe for plucking, every one of them, by someone who could use and command them.”
There was wonder in her face. “To what purpose?” To adventure after a dream woman, Sir John Hawkwood? Into another world, into Italy in this year of 1362, seeking a woman you saw for a little while seven years ago? To make those nightly visions of Donnina Visconti come to full, pulsing reality? A fool, the witch named him. Aye, a fool. A blind, dreaming fool to think he could find fame and fortune and the woman he loved beyond the Cottian Alps.
Angrily his fingers tightened on that slim white wrist. He dragged her after him across the meadow, past groups of staring men-at-arms leaning on their swords or pikes, beyond groups of archers pausing with arrows nocked to their longbows to stare with wide eyes. He heard them call out, but he paid no heed to their voices. A thick stake with a wooden crosspiece hanging from its top by chains stood in a square of grass between the tents. He walked with his eyes on its narrow bulk as if it were a beacon.
“The witch! ‘E’s caught the witch.”
“She burns tonight at sundown.”
“Her do be a pretty one, though.” To the stake he dragged the witch, catching her wrists and tying them to the crosspiece so that she hung as if crucified, arms outspread. Her green eyes were wide and staring, her red mouth quivering. After a moment her body began to shudder uncontrollably.
The mercenaries came closer, forming a great circle about the pole. They began to call out gleefully, enjoying the discomfiture of such a pretty wench.
“Strip er down, Sir John!”
“Ar. Give’s a chance to see what a witch looks like.”
Sir John glared at their faces. He did not relish this burning and already felt shame at his part in it. Angry, strangely disturbed, he yanked the long-sword from its scabbard and thrust it into the ground before the girl.
“This protects her,” he growled. “Remember it.” His wide shoulders bulled a path through the men, who gave way before him in a respectful silence. Still in a mood of furious annoyance, he strode toward his pavilion.
The interior of the big tent was cool with shadow. His fingers yanked at arming points and rerebrace straps. The heavy plate armor clattered to the hard-packed dirt floor. He would hang it on the pole pegs later; at the moment he wanted only to let his savagery run its course. He tossed the empty scabbard on a plain wooden table that held an iron coffer. This made him recall his blade—a magnificent length of steel turned out by the forge-fires of Toledo in Spain and a battle prize from Poitiers—standing upright before the witch woman.
He sneered at himself for a quixotic fool. With that blade King Edward III had knighted him for his furious fighting at Poitiers, during which he twice had saved the life of the king’s oldest son Edward the Black Prince. Prince Edward himself had tied on his golden spurs. Oh, he had come far from Sibil Hedingham. It made no difference to the world now that he was only the son of an ignorant tanner. It was a knight—Sir John Hawkwood.
He smiled grimly, hands resting on the wooden table top. Knighted by the king of a country to which he could never return lest they hang him on a gallows for a crime he never committed—it was an ironical jest of fate. Somewhere in the world lived the real murderer of old Cnut, for whose death he had been blamed.
The wildness softened in him as he remembered the old soldier and the water mill he’d bought with the loot won by his own fighting in France, at Crécy and Calais, more than ten years earlier. Old Cnut had taught him the use of a sword, how to manage a shield in battle, the proper way to aim a longbow. Kill old Cnut? He would sooner have died himself. Yet he had been accused of his murder and pursued as far as Epping Forest like a mad dog.
Only the day before he had fled from Sibil Hedingham he had seen Donnina Visconti for the first time. He allowed himself to dream, standing with a hand on the empty iron coffer, seeing once again her elfin face and long yellow hair caught up under a toque and chin band.
She had appeared before him on the village green, sitting sidesaddle on a white palfrey, tossing a white velvet purse down into his hands. He was the youngest archer of them all that day—scarce fifteen years of age but big and strong, the son of Hugh the tanner—yet the Italian girl with the elfin face and long yellow hair thought enough of him to wager golden ducats on his longbow.
His hand fumbled beneath his quilted hacqueton for the white velvet purse that he carried always with him, strung about his neck on a silver chain. He brought it out into the dim tent-light, touching it almost reverently. His dream had been born that long-ago day when he had wagered those golden ducats on himself to win, with the girl-child who was Donnina Visconti looking on proudly.
Never before had he shot so surely, so accurately. His shafts fled like startled sunbeams into the big butts, again and again. He could not miss. And after each hit he’d heard her dainty palms clapping their delight as her childish laughter rang out above the amazed voices of the onlookers.
They gave him the purse of shillings and the money he’d won. He went looking for the girl, hungering again for a glimpse of her pert face and long yellow hair. He could not find her, so he went to old Cnut to display his prizes and boast a little because he was so young to have won such a shoot.
The old soldier gave him a ring and told him to go to London and seek out Mark o’ the Noose, his old comrade in arms, whose life Cnut had saved when the French caught him foraging a week before Crécy and had begun to hang him. Ever since, Mark suffered from a wry neck. It was time for young John to seek his fortune on foreign soil. He promised Cnut that he would pack his few belongings and return the next day to say farewell.
Sir John tightened his fist slowly, crushing the purse. Next day . . . Ah, he would never forget that day which stretched in his memory with bittersweet remembering! At dawn he was up and sliding from the hut on the edge of the Hawk’s Wood that was his home, moving like a shadow between the tree-boles, carrying a quiver of arrows and an extra pair of sandals, a spare woolen jerkin and braies slung over his shoulder on the longbow. His heart was light and gay as he dreamed of the girl-child who had thrown him the white velvet purse.
The sound of a hunting horn startled him. He heard the thunder of hoof-beats, the cry of the hounds racing across the fields. They were after a boar, one of the curved-tusked brutes who made the forest their home. The temptation was strong in him to pause and watch the kill, but the day was growing and old Cnut waited. John moved on along the forest pathway.
A threshing in the underbrush warned him the boar was near at hand. He had been calm about it, dropping his belongings onto the path, swiftly stringing the yew bow with a yard-long arrow. Fear had not touched him yet.
The boar squealed. Almost in the echo of that angry call he heard the terrified whinny of a horse. John ran through the hazel thickets, between the oak trees.
A horse was rearing high. The rider—a woman in rich samite gown and ermine mantle—was screaming in fear. The boar was pounding out of the underbrush, fanged snout low for the savage slash which would disembowel the palfrey. As the horse went high the young girl lost her grip on the reins and fell. In that moment John saw her face and knew her for Donnina Visconti.
His heart stopped its beat. The blood drained from his face. For an instant he stood nerveless, frozen in stupid disbelief.
Then his hands came up, the longbow bent to its fullest, and his shaft was away and winging. The arrowhead drove deep into the boar behind its left shoulder. The animal stumbled. Again he shot an arrow and then another. When sanity returned, he realized the boar lay dead a few feet from the fallen girl. Seven arrows bristled from its tough hide.
On shaking legs he ran forward. He knelt and stared down into her face, seeing the aristocratic nose, the sensuously full mouth, the thin brows. It was as if she were asleep. His hands itched to touch her, but he did not dare. She was a young noblewoman. He was a commoner, the son of a tanner. Donnina Visconti lived in a world he knew only by hearsay, much in the manner by which he was aware of heaven.
After a moment she opened her eyes to regard him in puzzled fashion. “Are you dead too?” she asked. When he shook his head she extended a white hand. “Help me up, John.”
“You know my name?” he asked, foolishly pleased. Her smile was roguish. “Of course I know your name. Didn’t you win the archery shoot yesterday? John the tanner’s boy they called you. Don’t you have any other name?”
He shook his head, ashamed, suddenly hating the coarse brown wool jerkin and rope belt about his lean waist, his bare legs, the hide sandals on his feet. He was a commoner, she was a noble. If anyone knew what he had dreamed about her last night they would hang him.
Her voice was tender. “It’s all right not to have more than one name. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’d rather have you strong and handsome the way you are with only one name than be any different and have a dozen names.” She tried to take a step and almost fell.
John caught her. The moment he felt her soft flesh through the red samite gown and smelled the strange scent of Arabic perfume, he knew he would love this girl for the rest of his life. The knowledge was in his mind without question, without doubt.
His hands aided her to a flat rock. She sat and drew her skirts about slim legs, looking across the fields, saying, “My uncle and the Marquis of Ponza will miss me and come searching. Stay with me until they do, in case another boar comes.” Her hands gestured. “Sit on the ground. So… Oh, a little closer, silly. I’m not going to hurt you. Now tell me about yourself.” His tongue seemed loose with mead, babbling endlessly of the hides in the tanning hut and the stink of the curing fires, of the endless drudgery and toil required to make enough groats to purchase food. He was not usually so garrulous, but the warm blue eyes and smiling mouth drew him out of himself so that he forgot he was a big, gawky youth not yet attained to his full growth, with shaggy black hair and bright black eyes, big of hand and wide of shoulder, still somewhat clumsy with immaturity. He let her see the water mill, hear its slow creaking rotation as the wheel-shaft turned the heavy grinding stones to make flour out of grain, as he went on talking.
Her eyes brightened when he spoke of old Cnut who had taught him the handling of weapons. She nodded in agreement. “A soldier can be many things if he’s a good enough fighter, John. In my land—in Italy—many condottieri have become rich and famous. It isn’t the way it is in England or in France.”
Her slim white fingers molded a fold of her samite gown. “I live in Milan. My father Bernabò is always paying soldiers to fight for him. He pays them thousands of gold ducats. Venice, Siena, Florence—all hire these condottieri. There are so many little wars in Italy these days. Every city wants to fight some other city, it seems. It is frightening some times.”
“I wouldn’t be frightened,” he said boastfully. “I’m good at fighting. Cnut has told me so.” He frowned anxiously. “Is Italy very far away?”
“A long distance by sea. But if you knew I—that is, if I wanted you to come to Milan and see me, you would come, wouldn’t you?”
“Oh, yes. Nothing could keep me away.” He flushed when she looked at his woolen jerkin. “It would take me a long time, though. I’m poor. I can’t read or write. All I am is strong.”
“If you became a good soldier, nothing else would matter. Sometimes they make very good soldiers into noblemen. At least it happens in Italy, especially when some very powerful man wants to—to marry of his daughter to a great condottiere for protection.“
The worship gleaming in his eyes made her blush, but she did not drop her eyes or look away. They were young. The attraction between them was an animal one, founded on good looks and youth and nearness, but it was strong and honest.
The dream in his heart was born at that moment. Theirs was an age when the ideals of chivalry lingered on, an age in which the wandering troubadour and the tenets of the Love Courts were not quite forgotten. To their minds there was nothing strange in this chance meeting, in this rescue, in the unspoken promise each made to the other. Donnina leaned closer and John knelt to meet her.
His lips touched hers, felt their moist yielding, their young hunger. His hand lay spread on her thigh, telling him that her flesh was soft and smooth beneath the skirt. A low croon began in her throat and came out into his mouth. Her hand was behind his head, holding him to their first kiss.
A shout roused them from their trance. Half a dozen men were galloping across the field toward them. In the van rode a slim youth clad in black velvet houppelande and parti-colored hose, a velvet bonnet perched rakishly on dark curls. In one hand the young man held a riding whip with which he flailed at his mount’s heaving flanks.
Donnina made a face. “That’s the Marquis of Ponza, Francesco di Lucchio. Father wants me to marry him. I don’t like him, not at all. I’d much rather marry you.” She sighed. “I s’pose he’ll be furious, having seen me kiss you. Oh, he won’t do anything to me—he wouldn’t dare! But he might hurt you. Promise me you won’t say anything, not a word! Leave everything to me. Please?”
He could refuse her nothing. “I swear it.” The marquis began to shout from a hundred yards away. “Foul English pig! I’ll see you hang for this. Hang, I tell you! If I have to perjure my immortal soul I’ll watch you kick out your life on a gibbet!”
Then he was leaping from the saddle, whip raised and slashing across John’s face. His swarthy face was convulsed with fury. “For touching Madonna Donnina I’ll put the rope about your neck myself!”
The whip-blow was an explosion on his cheek. John felt the jagged rip of agony, the convulsion of pain that made him whirl away, hands to his face, bent over. In that same moment he heard Donnina Visconti speaking in cold, hard tones.
“You stupid fool, Francesco! The boy saved my life. Look there at the boar with all those arrows in it. Where were you when the boar came rushing toward me?” She turned on the other horsemen who were reining in beside the flat rock, “And you others—sworn to defend me at the cost of your own lives here in England—where were you? This tanner’s son saved my life. You reward him with a whip Is this how little you regard my life?”
“Madonna mia,” whispered the young marquis of Ponza. “Forgive my hastiness. I saw him kissing you—”
Donnina Visconti stepped forward. Her palm cracked against the nobleman’s cheek. “You always had a foul tongue, Francesco. Kissing me? He was trying to hold me upright. I was weak with terror. Yours should have been the arms to do the task, if you love me as much as you protest. But where are you when I need you? Off galloping to the hounds.” Francesco di Lucchio glared wildly from the girl to young John, whose face bore the long red imprint of the whiplash and whose eyes were filled with livid hate. On his estates at Ponza, if a peasant had looked in such a way at him, the marquis would have him tortured to death. Here in England with its Magna Carta, with the craftsmen and workingmen pampered and spoiled by their betters because of the ravages of the Black Death, he was not so free. Inwardly he cursed all social improvements, all these foreign coddlements.
“I’ll reward him with a purse,” he choked out. His eyes told John that he would sooner plunge a dagger into his belly. “No need for that,” Donnina said coolly.” I can give him my own reward. Take the men and go. At once!”
The marquis hesitated. His shrug was eloquent. Silently he swung away, put boot to stirrup, rose into the high-peaked saddle. His waving arm brought his followers after him at a gallop.
Donnina Visconti waited until they were out of sight before turning to her rescuer. Tears brimmed over her long lashes. Her young bosom was stormy in its samite bodice. “I wanted you to kiss me. And for that you have suffered.” She came closer, quivering fingertips lifted to touch the whip-scar gently. “I am sorry, believe me. I wish the whip had marked me, not you.”
“Oh no,” he cried hoarsely. “I could never stand that!” He fell to his knees before her, arms bringing her legs in against him so that his black head was pressed into her yielding loins. Her hand caressed his hair tenderly. “I adore you, milady. My heart is yours.”
“Then bring it to me—some day.” She was gone in a flurry of hoof-beats while he knelt with the imprint of her body warm against his cheek, the feel of her slim legs still clinging to his palms. He was paralyzed in a kind of agonized pleasure. This girl-child loved him. She wanted him to come to her, to bring his love and lay it, like the precious gift she thought it, in her sweet hands.
And he would. Sweet Jesus, aid me! Into this dream breathe the breath of life as once You breathed it into Lazarus.
He walked like a blind man the rest of his way, bumping into a tree-bole, stumbling heedlessly through berry bushes. He was a very young man, and his eyes were misted with romance. His was an age which carried memories of Dante and Beatrice, of Héloise and Abélard. Its minds were nurtured by such flights of the imagination as Roman de la Rose and the poetry of Guillaume de Machaut and Philippe de Vitri. He saw nothing strange in this sudden passion, in this unrestricted adoration of a woman. It would have been strange if he had not felt this deeply.
John blundered from the wood onto the stream banks where the mill wheel groaned noisily as it went around. If his voice had been any sweeter than the bray of a Norfolk donkey he would have sung his joy. As it was he let his heart sing for him, crossing the grass plat before the mill house, thrusting open the door. He halted, staring. Old Cnut lay in a pool of blood, unmoving. The leather sack in which he kept his few golden coins, his small treasures and the silver crucifix he’d taken from a
French knight at Crécy, lay limply empty. Cnut had died defending it. John went to a knee, whispering a prayer.
He was still kneeling, weeping, when some men of Sibil Hedingham, led by a big archer named Tall Will of Round Marsh, burst in on him. It had been Tall Will he’d defeated for the prize yesterday afternoon, Will whose money he’d won betting with Donnina Visconti’s purse of florins.
“There ‘E be, kneeling over his kill!”
“Ar, wi’ blood still on his jerkin!” It was boar’s blood, spilled on him when he’d pulled his arrows free of the carcass, but the words of explanation stuck to the roof of his mouth.
“Cnut’s ring on his finger”
“And probably his gold hidden somewhere about!” Old Cnut had given him the ring, had told him to search out Mark o’ the Noose in London Town where the Black Prince was gathering men for the foreign wars. His muscles bunched under him and his body quivered like that of a cat when it gathers itself for the leap. Then he was up and leaping, slamming into Tall Will, knocking him off his feet and into the townsmen, toppling them like jointed toy soldiers.
He had run, then . . . Sweet Christ, how he had run! Until his breath was a ball of agony in the throat, until his legs were numb with strain, he had raced along the forest pathways and the grassy meadows, vaulting over fences, racing up stone stiles. Several times he fell flat on his face with the breath rammed completely out of him, but always he’d clawed himself erect and gone on. Toward sundown he came to the vast bulk of Epping Forest some miles north of London Town, and knew he was safe at last.
Sir John opened his hand and looked at the white velvet purse. So many years ago, that had been; so much had happened since that terrible, wonderful day. He sighed and shook the webs of memory from his eyes. He put the purse back on its silver chain beneath his hacqueton.
A roar of laughter swung him toward the tent-flaps. He had forgotten the witch woman. His men would be amusing themselves with her, probably cutting the garments off her white body to feast their eyes on her nakedness. They would be ignoring his sword, thrust point down in the ground.
Let them enjoy themselves, he thought bitterly. The girl had brought it on herself by her spells and incantations. She knew the deadly fate of witches caught for punishment.
And yet . . . His frown was black and ugly. What was it the girl had said while he was questioning her back in the glen? I have traveled all over Italy. She had been a servant of a merchant of Genoa—more probably, his mistress.
Genoa lay in Italy, in that part called Liguria. His heart thundered in its rib-casings. Milan was only slightly more than one hundred miles from Genoa. The witch may even have walked the Milanese cobblestones and seen Donnina Visconti with her own eyes.
Fool! Fool! not to have thought of this sooner. It was not yet too late. The sun lay hours away from the horizon. Sir John moved to the tent-flaps, thrust them apart. A huge crowd stood about the oak stake, silent, watchful. His scowl grew black.
If they kill her before I can question her further . . . Madness ran in his veins as he raced toward the stake. His big hands caught men by their necks and shoulders, heaving them sideways out of his path. In moments he was in the front ranks, staring at a pike-man who was standing before the witch-woman, slowly divesting himself of his garments.
The witch was naked. Her clothes lay pooled around her slim white ankles. The manner in which her arms were fastened, so that her body formed a living cross, revealed the full beauty of her figure. Sir John could not prevent the glance that raked upward from full thighs to scarlet apex, to the gentle swell of belly and the heavy breasts. He had never seen a more beautiful woman.
Even Donnina Visconti might pale before this loveliness. Angrily he shook his head against that treachery. He took two steps forward and his big hands caught the pike-man and hurled him heels over head into his staring fellows. Fury was such a flame in his throat that he could hardly speak, His fingers wrapped about the hilt of his standing sword and pulled it free.
“She was under my protection,” he rasped. The man went white where he lay on the ground. His trembling lips opened. “Lord, I—she’s only a witch!” He screamed as Sir John moved toward him with the sword extended.
His arm lifted high, trembling with the rage in him. It flashed downward, barely missing the screaming pike-man. “Get out of camp,” he said thickly. “If you’re here by sundown I’ll hang you to a tree-branch.”
The pike-man scrambled to his feet and ran.
Sir John looked at his men. “Disperse, the lot of you. Have you no tasks to occupy your time? Is there no food to be cooked? Are your swords and pikes sharpened for the fighting? Is every arrow ready in its quiver?”
He moved to the crosspiece and began working the cords loose. A few of the men lingered, muttering, growling under their breaths. He ignored them to work on, freeing one wrist and then the other. The witch was trembling. Twice she tried to speak, touching her tongue to her lips.
“Follow me,” he told her, waiting to let her stoop and slip on the tattered remnants of her woolen tunic.
He walked toward his tent with the witch following him closely. As he lifted the tent-flap out of the way the woman slipped under his arm, supple and graceful even in her tatters. He found his gaze drawn to her swaying, rounded hips where they swung so provocatively.
She put her back to the tent-pole. Her slanted green eyes were wary as he let the flaps fall behind him. To her obvious surprise he walked past her to the table that held his empty scabbard. Lifting it, he thrust the sword home.
Not looking at her he asked, “Have you really traveled all over Italy?”
“Where in Italy?”
“Genoa, Siena, Rome, Milan—”
“Ahh! Milan, you say? Do you remember much about it?”
She stirred and smiled warily at his broad back. He was a big man, handsome in a dark fashion, with lean hips and wide shoulders. There was power in his hard face, but humor on his mouth and a latent kindliness in the bright black eyes. She had not read him wrongly, back there before the hut. He would not let her die in the stake-flames. Not if she had her wits about her. He needed something which he sought in her. She would give it to him, in one way or another.
“I’ve been in Milan many times. It’s a big city and wealthy, ruled by a family called Visconti who have their power from the Emperor.”
“Charles IV. Milan is a part of the empire.”
Viscontis rule Milan? They’re a powerful family, then?”
“One of the most powerful in all Italy. Their feud with the Della Torres ended when Matteo Visconti imprisoned six of them in iron cages hung on chains above the square of the Arrengo. After that there was no one left to quarrel with the manner in which the Visconti’s ruled their world.”
He turned from the table and his sword and scabbard. For the first time she saw the small iron coffer and the play of his fingertips over its carvings. When he saw her gaze linger on its bulk he shook his head and smiled wryly.
“It’s empty.” His big hands caught it up, lifted and shook it back and forth. There was no sound. “Once it was full. I used the gold and silver I got in ransom money from French knights to buy horses and equipment for my free company.” She laughed softly. “A strong man takes money as he would take a woman. In Italy it’s easy for a soldier to make money. A good soldier, that is.”
“Ah? Now this is what I wanted to learn from you.” She shrugged, careless of the torn smock, aware that a slim white leg stood revealed from hip to ankle. The soldiers had used daggers to cut the garment off her. More than her leg was exposed to him if he cared to look.
“Italy is different from France and England, where kings rule. There is no man powerful enough to rule Italy, which is why its cities are so strong. Venice, Milan, Genoa, Siena, Naples. Each is a kingdom in itself. One fears and hates the other, which is why the professional soldiers—in Italy they are named condottieri—can make themselves rich. No city can maintain a standing army. It must hire its soldiers when trouble comes. You understand?”
Sir John drew a deep breath, excitement flooding his veins. All this confirmed what Donnina Visconti had told him, long ago. It had not been for nothing that he had stumbled upon this witch woman today. His glance went from her tumbled red hair down across her body to her shapely legs. It had been a long time since his last woman. Not since that farmhouse beyond Arles where his men had broached a keg of wine and the housewife had grown maudlin along with them. It would be good to have a woman beside him on his journey to Milan.
He caught her arm and drew her in against him. “You have a name, witch woman. What is it?”
“Hertruda. Or as some call me, Truda.”
“Men tell me witches can foresee the future.”
“I am no true witch.”
“By that you mean you don’t want to burn for it.” He smiled lazily. His head jerked toward the tent-flaps. “Don’t be afraid of the men out there. I rule them. They obey me or they leave. Or die.” His hand moved into a slit in the woolen smock and began to stroke her nude thigh. “Admit you’re a witch, girl. Work a spell. Look into the futures as I ask.”
Truda hesitated. Whenever she thought of the stake-flame her skin crawled with terror. In Italy they did worse than burn witches, usually. The fire was reserved for the very last. Before the stake they used red-hot pincers on the body and sometimes sharp knives to flay off the skin. She shuddered.
“I will do as you ask. Only promise you won’t burn me. Give me your word as a true knight.”
His laughter was harsh. “A true knight? What’s that? I was born the son of a tanner. I saved the life of a king’s son which is why the king touched my shoulder with his blade. I’m only a commoner at heart, an ordinary man. A peasant. No, no, girl. Don’t ask me to swear on my chivalry. Rather ask it on my greed for power or my hunger to be rich.”
Her eyes explored his features. “Every man wants that. You want something more.”
“A woman. Her name is Donnina Visconti,” he whispered. Coldness touched her heart. He was asking her to help him, then turn him over to the arms of another woman. She rather liked this man, in her own fashion. She would help him, yes. As far as she wanted to help. He ruled the free company—she would rule him.
“The world is full of women,” she said lightly.
“Are you going to prophesy for me?”
“If you want.” She moved toward an iron brazier where a fire smoldered. From a leather bag at her belt she drew out a pinch of dark powder and threw it at the coals. There was a muffled explosion, and a cloud of white smoke rose into the tent, heavy with a strange, sweet smell.
The flames grew brighter, flaring with purple hues. Truda crouched down, leaning forward, staring blindly into the red depths of the fire. Witch woman, he called her. A dealer in spells, a familiar of the devil. She was no witch
And yet . . . There were moments when some strange rapport came over her, when an uncanny sense of foreknowledge touched the roots of her tongue and made her say strange words. Luca Pegolotti, who had been her lover in Genoa, was wont to regard her somewhat fearfully when she felt the visions coming on. At other times he was not so fearful, when it was night and the red Sassella wine was working in his veins. She made a wry face, knowing her dangling red hair would hide it from Sir John.
He wanted prophecy. Va bene! He would get a prophecy. “I see a long, low room,” she murmured huskily, “in which there is a large wooden table with two chests filled with golden coins and jewels upon it. A blonde woman sits at the table, running her fingers in and out of the coins. . . .”
Her head was light. Her thoughts grew fuzzy. She knew she was saying words, but she could not hear them. It was as if she were in another place entirely, a world filled with thick and shifting mists that parted here and there, giving her glimpses of other times, other lands. She could never remember these glimpses when she came back to the old, familiar world. And yet she spoke of them as if she were a living, breathing part of what she saw.
“. . . Running her fingers in and out of the coins . . . mists . . . heavy fog. . . and now I see something else, something that frightens me. I do not want to stay here. Please let me out of here. . . .”
Sir John felt his skin crawl. The witch was speaking in an entirely different voice now. It was as if she were another person, unfathomable distances away. The fire was making the interior of the tent very hot. That sweetish smell, whatever herb it was she had tossed on the flames, was making his head ache. And yet he could not turn away. Whatever power had the girl in its grasp also held his every sense.
“. . . Get away, want to get away . . . see terrible things city on fire and men and women screaming, running from the armored man on the big white horse . . . thousands dying from the sword and arrows, innocent people, killed because the man on the white horse orders their deaths. He is coming nearer, nearer. He is strong and handsome, but hard . . . black hair, black eyes. . . . On his white cyclas there is the design of a chevron and three escallop shells . . . the mist is coming in thicker, stronger. . . .”
Sir John touched the emblem worked onto his velvet cyclas. In God’s name, was he to become a butcher of innocent people? His hand shook as he wiped sweat off his forehead.
“. . . A blue cave below the sea and a man and woman swimming in the water, the same man but a woman I have never seen, with long black hair and a body stained brown by exposure to the sun. They meet in the water and kiss, and sink . . . oh!”
Sir John was hoarse. “What? What do you see now?”
“Death! Death for the black-haired man. In the hands of a woman death flaps white and shapeless as she brings it to him—”
“Who? Who is the woman?” The witch woman shook convulsively. A white thread of foam ran out of her lips and down onto her chin. She collapsed and lay trembling so close to the fire that Sir John knelt and drew her back lest she burn herself.
The spell was over. He lifted Truda in his arms and carried her to his cot-bed. She was sleeping fitfully, head tossing to one side and the other, murmuring unintelligibly. He looked down at her a long moment before turning on a heel and crossing the tent to the dangling flaps.
Thrusting them back he stepped out into the dying day. The sun was a red ball behind the stake and its chained crosspiece, lowering in the west. Sir John put his back to it and stared eastward toward the darkening pall of night, toward the distant plain of Lombardy.
Here around him in the gathering darkness lay all Italy. The land that held his love. And if he could believe the witch woman, the land where he would die.