Book Two: the maid of Milan
Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
Three weeks later the White Company lay encamped on the banks of the Olona, just outside the high red walls of Milan.
With an escort of twenty lances, Sir John Hawkwood rode across the drawbridge that spanned the wide moat, almost a river in size, on which, because it was connected with the Ticino, a number of skiffs lay tied to wharves or swung at anchor chains. The huge stone gate and gatehouse detained them but a moment, long enough for the Englishman to state his business and be waved on along a wide, cobbled street which led to the twin courts of the Ragione and the Arrengo, which were the heart of the city.
His heart was thundering in echo to the hoof-beats of his white horse. Soon now he would set eyes upon the woman he loved. Within minutes the dreams of the past seven years would flower into reality. His hands could touch her, his lips pour out his heart as he flung it at her feet.
As he reined up in the Court of the Arrengo his eyes went to the basilica of Saint Ambrose, then on to the Broletto, that palace which was the home of the Visconti as lords of Milan. From the pillared portico of the palazzo a man clad in black, with the Visconti serpent set in a silver seal on a silver chain about his throat, came from the shadows and advanced to inquire his business.
“An English knight to see the Lady Donnina,” he said, wondering at the fuzziness of his voice. “Sir John Hawkwood, captain-at-arms, commander of the free company which hereabouts is called the compagnia bianca.”
He paced the tiled portico with restless eagerness. To quell the trembling of his hands he hooked thumbs into his sword-belt. Would she be the same after all these years? Would her face be as pertly lovely, as elfin as he remembered? Oh, she would have matured. The girlish figure would be more womanly now. The body that had been so slim would be rounded at breast and hip. Excitement was a pulse beat in his blood under whose goad he had eyes for nothing but the doorway through which the castellan had disappeared.
It was an eternity before the man was back, arrogantly demanding that the Englishman follow him. Slightly behind his guide, marveling to himself how a man could pace so slowly, he was escorted into a great hall hung with battle standards, with pole arms and shields, and its floor dotted with little groups of courtiers and their ladies, who broke off in their conversations to turn and stare at him.
If possible, his guide walked more slowly than before, savoring this moment to the full as he brought the armor-clad Englishman at his elbow to an ornate walnut table piled with scrolls and purses, with psalteries and petitions. A middle-aged man, whose black hair was sprinkled with gray, lean and hard in black and white hose, short cote-hardie and hip-belt, stood watching him with bright, dark eyes.
This man was Bernabò Visconti, lord of Milan, enemy of emperor and Pope, vain, ambitious, cruel, greedy. Or so said his detractors. A trimmed beard hid his powerful jaw. Nothing could hide the arrogance with which he watched this foreign war captain approach.
“Milord, the English condottiere, Sir John Hawkwood.” Bernabò made a faint motion of his leonine head, which the castellan took as permission to withdraw. To Sir John he said, “Your business with my daughter, if you please?”
Flushing, the Englishman said, “I come to renew an old acquaintance. I had hoped to see her in private.”
Visconti smiled grimly. “My daughter does not hold private audience with common adventurers.”
“I don’t consider myself a common adventurer. I’m a nobleman of England.”
“A penniless, landless nobleman.”
“Nevertheless a noble. And as such, entitled to offer the Lady Donnina my hand in marriage. I—”
Bernabò Visconti cried out harshly, his incredulity easy to read. He flung out an arm in one of those dramatic gestures of which he was fond, crying, “Can I believe my ears? Are you a fool or a madman? Or do you take me for such, even to consider giving my daughter to a pauper soldier without a home to call his own?”
Sir John bit his lip, well aware that mocking laughter, scarcely stifled, was rising on all sides of the great audience hall. Anger became a flame inside him. He was weary, having brought the White Company from Altosasso at a fast pace, then not pausing to rest but taking his escort at the gallop from the camp to the city of Milan. The stains of travel marked his white cloak, his red cord-wain boots. His armor was splattered with mud and flecked with dried foam from the mouth of his white stallion. He supposed his weariness added to his lack of patience,
“I met your daughter in Sibil Hedingham where—”
“Where you won an archery shoot and later saved her life. Oh, I’ve kept informed about you, Sir John. I make it my business to be interested in those who show an interest in me and mine.” Visconti swung to a table where a dozen small leather purses were arranged in twin rows. His hand caught a purse, lifted it, tossed it through the air. “I’ve been told you were never properly rewarded for your brave deed against the boar. Accept this—and be gone.”
The purse hit Sir John on the left thigh and fell to the floor. His right hand opened and closed. A hush silenced the hall. His anger was rather terrifying to these men and women, used only to fawning subservience to the Viscontis. They watched him fight the fury in his body, watched the flush in his sun-dark cheeks fade before a gathering whiteness.
“You dishonor the Lady Donnina with your gift, my lord. Judging by how lightly you hold her worth, I should have brought along a coffer of gold pieces and bought her from you.”
It was Bernabò Visconti’s turn to stare, to go red, to leap forward, hand upraised to strike . . .
His wrist was caught in an iron hand, held so tightly that he thought a bone would break. He cried out harshly.
“Guards ho! The guards!” Sir John laughed softly. With his right hand he lifted the long dagger from his belt, touched it to the bearded throat until a drop of blood showed red against the skin. “Summon your men, if you must. Know that before they touch me, you die.”
For a long moment Bernabò Visconti stared into the face of the mad giant who held him as if he were a child. Black eyes burned down into his own, challenging, defiant.
“Go back,” he called to his men-at-arms. “Swiftly! Andate Subito!”
The dagger went into its scabbard. Bernabò Visconti felt himself swung about as if he were weightless, still the prisoner of that iron hand, forced to walk beside the big Englishman down the length of his vast audience hall, below the war banners of his ancestors, past the portraits by Giotto di Bondone and Martini of his father and grandfather, until they stood on the steps of the portico looking out over the magnificent Court of Arrengo.
“I’ve ridden across a thousand miles and seven years to see the Lady Donnina once again, signor,” the Englishman murmured. “I don’t intend to leave Milan without speaking to her.’
Bernabò Visconti said softly, “Permit me to grant you an hour with her in the gardens behind the Church of San Gottardo. If you’ll release your grip on my wrist—”
Harsh laughter checked the words on his lips. “Do you think me insane as well as penniless? No, no. One thing I’ve learned in Italy—never trust a man in power. We shall ride, you and I, my lord. To my camp on the banks of the Olona. You’ll leave word for Madonna Donnina to come after us.” Visconti quivered with fury. He could read men well enough to know this mad Englishman would not hesitate to drive his dagger into his chest if he refused his wild demands. And life was sweet to Bernabò Visconti. Only as recently as last winter he’d added Bologna to the possessions his uncle Giovanni, Archbishop of Milan, had left him, when he divided all Lombardy between Galeazzo II, Mattso III and himself. It was true that the Marquis of Montferrat disputed his claim to Bologna, but Montferrat was a small fief, scarcely able to stand against the Visconti lances.
Bernabò shrugged philosophically. Life was too much worth the living to die in this, his fifty-second year. “As you wish, captain. I shall ride with you. If you plan treachery—”
“My name is Hawkwood, not Visconti!”
“I forgot that you’re an incurable romantic.” They rode stirrup to stirrup along the narrow road that emerged from the Tower Gate to wind in leisurely manner past the great Della Torre villa, which had been built in the past century, only to lose itself in the forest bordering the Olona. Once committed, Bernabò Visconti enjoyed himself to the fullest. His sly eyes studied the big English condottiere, noting his gloomy air, his despondency.
At last he said, “I’ll make you pay for this indignity, you know. Somehow, in some manner.”
“My lord Bernabò, you may not live that long.”
“Eh? What’s that? Dio mio, if you mean to assassinate ne—”
Hawkwood grinned at him. “How happily Pope Urban would welcome such news. It was his legates you made eat the Papal bull of excommunication addressed to you, wasn’t it? Parchment, seal and ribbons? The whole thing?”
“Under threat of torture they ate every last scrap,” Bernabò said with a laugh. “I only wished it might have been Urban himself on his knees in my audience hall, chewing, chewing, chewing!”
“You make enemies with rare ease, my lord. The Pope. The bankers of Florence. The Marquis of Montferrat. The emperor Charles the Fourth. Even myself.” He turned in the high-peaked wooden saddle. “Is Donnina really your daughter? Or can a devil truly breed an angel?”
Visconti flushed and said, “You take advantage of my helplessness.”
“We’re alone, you and I. If you want to fight me I’ll give you my sword and use the dagger. That ought to be about even.”
Bernabò rode in silence the rest of the way. His sharp eyes were avid as they studied the cone tents of the White Company, the stacked longbows, the thousands upon thousands of arrows hanging ready in their quivers. Polished armor and chain mail dangled from innumerable tent-posts. In an empty field a dozen officers were training new recruits. The more he looked, the less he liked what he saw. This Englishman was a soldier. His men were sober and industrious. There was no drunkenness, no bickering or dagger-fights among the men. It was in sharp contrast to the camps of such condottieri as the ex-Templar Montreal and Count Landau.
When he said as much, reining in before the huge striped tent which housed the Englishman, Sir John nodded. “It should occasion no surprise, my lord. You care for your possession, for Milan and Genoa and the rest. The White Company is my possession. I own it. It is my fortune, my very life. Always it must be ready to fight. Even in the dead of night.” He smiled faintly. “You own many cities, much land. I own only my free company. I treasure it zealously. I lavish all my love on it, all my devotion. There’s only one thing in all the world I value more.
“That is your daughter.” Bernabò Visconti was now positive the man was mad. To him, as to certain other men of his time, a woman was a chattel to be enjoyed, then thrown aside and forgotten. A man married for wealth or land, and he treasured his wife for what she brought his coffers. Few women possessed such beauty, such charm, that they could lay claim to a man’s heart. Fleetingly he thought of Donnina Porro, his mistress and mother of the natural children she had borne for him. The blonde and lovely Donnina Visconti was his daughter by the Porrina. He planned a better marriage for her than giving her in wedlock to a landless, penniless English adventurer.
Bernabò Visconti considered this attitude of Sir John Hawkwood to be a weakness. As a weakness he would exploit it. He spread his hands wide, indicative of his conciliatory mood.
“It may be that I have misjudged you, Sir John. As a father I must consider first the welfare of my child. You can understand this. Consider You make love as you wage war. You enter Milan and storm me as you might a citadel, seeking my consent to your marriage. You abduct me at dagger-point. Can you wonder at my resentment?”
Sir John smiled grimly. “The resentment existed before the abduction. No, no, milord. There will never be peace between us.”
“A truce, then?” the Milanese asked quickly. “A truce, yes. And under the terms of that truce, I’ll ask you to step into another tent while I speak with your daughter.” He frowned. “It’s true I haven’t seen her for some years. She may have changed in that time. If so, I’ll not trouble you again.”
Two men-at-arms came at his hand-clap to escort the Lord of Milan from the big pavilion to a lesser tent. Bernabò Visconti went with his teeth nibbling feverishly at his black mustache. This Englishman was not quite the dupe he had expected. It would need other and more subtle plans to trap him.
A moment before he ducked to enter under the upheld tent-flap his eye caught a small dust cloud approaching along the tower road. That would be Donnina, riding in answer to his summons. He sighed. He would let matters run their course. An opportunity to strike would come to him. It always had in the past.
Sir John Hawkwood also watched that dust cloud, aware that his heart was pounding with tremendous vigor inside the short white velvet cyclas and silvered cuirass with hip-belt of silver squares he had affected for his ride into Milan. His big hand opened and closed at his side. Agitation was an excitement against whose goading he could not remain still. Was Donnina riding to meet him as eagerly as he had ridden over the Cottian Alps to find her? In the seven years they had been apart, had she lost her heart to another? For the first time he realized what a romantic fool he must seem to all the world.
She rode a white palfrey sidesaddle with the wind whipping at the red brocade gown whose skirt flared back from her ankles. A turbaned headdress gave her an elegance that surprised him until he remembered that he still thought of her almost as a child.
The palfrey danced as she reined it in and sat looking down at him. Sir John drew a deep breath. The promise of her girlhood was more than fulfilled in her early maturity. The elfin beauty of her face with its ripe red mouth and long-lashed eyes was framed with pale yellow hair cunningly coiled so as to reveal itself below the satin turban. All in red, her blonde loveliness was that of a precious jewel seen against a crimson drapery. Now he understood the reputation for beauty she enjoyed, rumors of which had come to his ears in the past.
“Madonna,” he whispered, coming to her stirrup. Her eyes were wondering, a little awed. They told him that he made a handsome figure in black and white hose, with the Calabrian martlet fur edging the long white military cloak. The large ring on the forefinger of his left hand was a souvenir of the last campaign the White Company had fought in France against the lords of Provence.
“My father? Is he well?”
“He waits in a nearby tent. If I’ve offended—” A man in black velvet pushed his horse before Sir John. “You say he’s in the tent. What guarantee have we that you speak the truth?”
“Francesco,” chided the blonde woman. Sir John was affable, “I’ll do better than offer you a guarantee, my lord marquis,” His hands beat together and half a dozen men armed in chain mail and metal caps, wearing swords at their hips, came running. “Step down, my lord of Ponza.
Francesco di Lucchio scowled blackly. Save for the six men who had accompanied them, he and Donnina Visconti were unprotected. He sneered, “With an army at your back you can afford to be overbearing.”
The Englishman looked surprised. “Overbearing? I offer you proof as to the safety of Signor Bernabò. No more, no less.”
The young Marquis of Ponza was no coward. He came off his black gelding with an air of helplessness which he accented with a shrug toward Donnina Visconti. He was sneering as he moved off between the men-at-arms.
Sir John extended his hand upward. “I have chilled Orvieto in my tent, Madonna,” he invited.
Donnina smiled and bent toward him. His hands came up, clasped her slim waist, swung her down off the saddle to the ground. A moment longer he held her like that, so close that he could feel the slamming of her heart on his chest. Then she drew away, laughing breathlessly.
“Had ever a girl such a whirlwind of a lover?”
“You are not annoyed? Angry?” His heart waited for her next words. For this moment he had fought and struggled on bloody battlefields, taken wounds and known exhaustion, fatigue and despair. As she moved toward the tent she turned and glanced back at him over a shoulder and he knew that everything which had happened in the past seven years was as nothing.
“Angry because a man wins to knighthood for my sake? Angry because he builds an army out of riffraff and cutthroats —oh, I’ve heard how you whipped these masterless mercenaries into good soldiers—in order to bring me a dowry of sorts.”
She turned inside the tent, lips parted slightly. “Let me look at you, sir lover! Yes, yes. You are no longer the awkward boy, the bowman who won a purse of coins at Sibil Hedingham. You’ve become a man.”
“A man very much in love!” She permitted him to take her slim white hands, to press lips to their fingers. “Tell me,” she whispered breathlessly, “tell me everything! How you became a knight, how you conceived the idea for the White Company—”
“I’d rather tell you of my dreams, of how you came to me in them night after night, like a vision of beauty calling me across France and England.”
“Of those, too. Sit!” Her laughter was roguish. “I too have done a little dreaming in those seven years.”
They gazed at one another, the outside world forgotten. Their chance meetings had been such frail reeds upon which to build their love that even now they were uncertain of one another. In another age and time, they would have forgotten those two days in Sibil Hedingham long ago. Nurtured by the romantic ideals of a Guillaume de Lorris and a Jean Chopinel, what should have been frailty became strength instead. The dreams of youth can weave imagery out of gossamer. Sir John, by achieving knighthood and entering Italy for love of her, had made the dream reality.
“You did it. You brought your heart to me.” Her dark blue eyes were shining. “I still cannot quite believe it. I’ve thought about you often—remembering the boy who kissed me, who saved my life—but I never expected to see you again. Never!”
“And now that you’ve seen me? Can you marry me? Or must you bow to the will of your father and marry the man he chooses?”
She shook her head. “I am no war captain to give orders. I’m a woman. What my father dictates, I must do.”
“Then I have to win you.”
“Win me?” Her eyes searched his hard young face. Disbelief warred with tenderness in her red brocade bodice. Her blood sister Violante was engaged to marry Prince Clarence, son of King Edward III and brother to the Black Prince, but Donnina would not have traded places with her for all the lands below the Alps. What this hardheaded young Englishman had done for her was more priceless than gold.
“Aye, win you.” He moved about the tent as if to shed his emotion by action. “Do you think I’ve done all I’ve done to give you up so lightly? If Bernabò Visconti won’t let me have you, I’ll find a way to take you. I’ll plunge all Italy—all the world, if need be—into bloody war before I’ll see you handed over to another.”
He stood above the snow-filled bucket which held a tall flagon of purple Murano glass. Drawing it out he poured red wine, brought a crystal goblet to her.
“Only say the word, Madonna. Only tell me your heart feels as my heart feels. I need no other encouragement than your love.”
“Giovanni—oh my darling!” She rushed to him, pressed herself close, cheek resting on his chest. The hand that held the wine glass trembled so much she looked about for a place to rest it. When the table held the goblet she placed her hands on his cheeks, gazing deep into his eyes.
“Yes, yes, yes. I love you. I do. I do.” She spoke out of pride and a sense of obligation which was no less insistent for its being unrecognized. This man had performed miracles in her name. Could she be less than gracious by denying him the love he sought? It may be that Donnina Visconti was in love with love at this moment, rather than with Sir John, but the effect was the same.
From the whispers of love to its caresses is but a moment. They kissed, pressing close, and the fevers of their young bodies became a conflagration that burned away any last lingering doubts.
“Let me look at you,” he pleaded against her mouth. “You aren’t a child any more. You’re a woman, the most beautiful woman who has ever lived.”
Hands on hips, she paraded up and down the tent for him, knowing her gown was tight from rounded hips to smooth shoulders, limning the curving lines of her slim body. His eyes were mirrors in which she read his adoration. Laughter bubbled on her mouth. “You like me, sí?”
“I worship you.”
“I am not a saint to whom a man must offer prayers.” He was behind her in an instant, arm hooking her middle, drawing her back to him. His lips were twin fires on the flesh of her throat, her ear.
“Ah, no. You are a flesh-and-blood woman, the woman I mean to make my wife.”
“—Shall consent! I’ll find a way to win him over.” She turned in his arms, kissed his cheek, the corner of his mouth. “If you can do that, my lover, then you can do any thing. For he means to wed me to Francesco di Lucchio.”
“The Marquis of Ponza? That simpering popinjay?”
“We’ve been betrothed since childhood,” she whispered. He caught the despair in her voice and kissed it from her lips. “I didn’t come to Italy to see you marry another.” His hand hunted beneath his cuirass, bringing out a small velvet purse fat with coins.
“My purse,” she said softly. “The one I tossed to you in England.”
“I’ve worn it ever since, first on a leather thong, now on a silver chain. It was my one assurance in the past that you were real, not something I created in a dream. Can you believe a love like mine will balk at one more hardship? What is gaining your father’s consent compared to winning my knighthood? Or to gathering the White Company? Or to winning at last to your side like this?”
“You make me believe in impossibility.”
“Rather, believe in love.”
“I will, sir lover—oh, I will”
He brought her to a small Spanish chair called a silla and seated her, choosing himself a stool to hold his weight. With his hands holding her fingers he spoke of the charge of murder of which he stood accused in England, of his flight to London Town, of his war record with the Black Prince in Acquitaine, Gascony and at Poitiers. Her face showed horror as he spoke of old Cnut and of the pool of blood in which he’d found him. She clapped her hands when he told her of Poitiers and of the time he’d straddled the fallen Black Prince and saved his life. Tears stood in her eyes when he displayed his golden spurs and explained how King Edward III had touched his shoulder with the royal blade.
When he was done with his story dark shadows lay across the dirt floor. Sir John came to his feet, saying, “In my selfishness I’ve kept you until sundown.” He went to the tent-flaps, summoned a man-at-arms, sent him to fetch Bernabò Visconti and the Marquis of Ponza.
Donnina was standing beside the table which held his sword and scabbard, fingers idly toying with the great hilt. Her smile was wistful. “When will I see you again, Giovanni? I don’t think I can wait until my father gives his consent to our marriage.”
“First, I must find employment for my lances. I’ve thought of going down to Naples where Queen Joanna rules. She’s always at war with one or another of her titled subjects.”
“If it’s employment you want, stay here. My father makes a sport of war. Count Landau is his captain-general at the moment, but a condotta such as the White Company should find easy hiring.”
“It’s a thought I thank you for. As to when we next meet, could I hope for tomorrow at sundown?”
“The monastery garden by the river. Hire a boat, a skiff, where we can be alone.” She was near and perfumed, her hands resting on his forearm. Sir John drew her into his arms, kissed her gently.
When he turned toward the tent opening, he saw Bernabò Visconti watching him curiously. How long had the Lord of Milan been waiting so silently? Almost to himself, the Englishman shrugged. Visconti knew he loved Donnina, and men and women in love will kiss.
“Donnina,” said the Milanese. “It grows late.”
“I’m coming, father.” Bernabò held Sir John with his feral black eyes. “I am constrained to ignore the insult done my person this day, Ser Giovanni. Be assured my patience will not last forever.
“Until you have your retainers around you for support, my lord? Believe me, I understand.”
Bernabò Visconti flashed him a savage glance, unseen by Donnina. Under his breath he murmured, “I will be avenged.” The Englishman stood in the tent-way until the gathering dusk hid the little party of horsemen along the tower road.
Bernabò Visconti twirled the pomade ball dangling from his fingers, sniffing at its orange scent with dilated nostrils. He was closeted with the young Marquis of Ponza in the antechamber off his bedroom. Twin oil lamps of the type called cesendele hung from the beamed ceiling, casting a pallid radiance across the room. From time to time the Lord of Milan glanced furtively at his young companion.
“His death, Francesco. I will be satisfied with nothing less than the death of this fortune-hunting Englishman.”
“I’d like to see him dead myself,” muttered Lucchio. “That’s the difference between us, my young cockerel. You make a wish. I make preparations.” Bernabò smiled. “Are you surprised? And yet you heard Donnina in his pavilion make the appointment to meet him tomorrow night in the monastery garden by the river. He’s to hire a boat, I believe.” Ser Francesco shifted against the pedestaled figure of Venus where he leaned. “You’ll tell me you’ve laid a trap for him.”
“Francesco, Francesco. For shame! It’s what Hawkwood will expect.”
The Marquis frowned. “You prepare the unexpected?”
“Sí, the unexpected. You can’t guess, eh?”
“My wits are at a loss, I admit.”
“I intend to have him assassinated. It’s as simple as that.”
“But you said he would expect a trap!” Francesco protested.
“Which he will. However, if Donnina herself were to be his slayer—”
“Good Gesu! She’d never do it. She fancies herself madly in love with the cutthroat!”
Bernabò laughed shortly and rose from the bench of polished cypress where he had been seated. “Come with me, Francesco. Tonight I will teach you a lesson in statecraft. You’ll recall Federico Consalvi, the banker who dared to call in certain loans he had the privilege of making me?”
“He languishes below-stairs at the moment, chained to a dungeon wall. He has a lovely wife who, foolishly or not, happens to love her husband.” Glancing sideways, the Lord of Milan surprised a puzzled frown on his companion’s dark face. He chuckled. “Enter the bedroom first, my Lord of Ponza.
As he moved between the hanging drapes into the wide, low room and saw the woman awaiting them, Francesco cried out, “Donnina, what—”
The woman in the tight red gown and turban turned, and now Lucchio could see this was not Donnina Visconti, though this woman was as slim, as full at bust and hips as the woman he meant to marry. She stood in a pool of candlelight beside the heavy walnut table which Bernabò Visconti used as a writing desk. Her cheeks were very pale. Her eyes were wide, frightened.
Bernabò asked, “You have the dagger?” From the folds of her girdle she lifted out a slim stiletto. This woman had been weeping, the marquis saw, but her nerves were under control at the moment.
Bernabò said, “When you’ve killed the Englishman your husband will be freed. You’ll both leave Milan, never to return. I’ve confiscated his estates, his bank. However, his family in Venice is well-to-do. Be grateful I am giving you his life.”
His hand gestured. The woman inclined her head, then swept from the bedchamber with a swish of long velvet skirts. Francesco smiled tightly, watching her move through the doorway.
“I learn statesmanship under a master,” he said at last. “Hawkwood will think her Donnina and will embrace her. When his arms close about her, the dagger strikes his heart.”
“And I am rid of both an enemy and an embarrassment. I daren’t condemn young Consalvi to death, so I’ll banish him. Yet I’ll allow his wife to believe it was she who changed my mind and by her tears and pleadings compelled me to create an opportunity for her to serve me. She commits a murder, but she wins back her husband.”
“It’s devilishly clever,” applauded the marquis. Bernabò made a little bow. “Grazie. In such manner must you command your own subjects, my Francesco. Aim always where you do not look. Appear to do one thing but carry out another.”
“So long as I aim at destroying this English adventurer, I’m satisfied at the moment.”
“Oh, him. He’s as good as dead, believe me. The Signora Consalvi Would not dare fail me. But to make certain of her loyalty I’ve arranged for a few chosen retainers to appear the moment she bloods her dagger in him, to spirit her away and to finish him off if he still lives.”
Bernabò sniffed with relish at his pomade ball.
The Monastery of Sant’Andrea had been a country villa when the Caesars ruled in Rome. Of red brick from Tuscany and white Carrara marble, its chapter house and cloisters were low and wide, with tiled roof and slender pillars. The gardens lay to the west, between the riverbank and the refectory. A high wall surrounded the gardens, broken here and there by arched brick gateways which held oaken doors.
At one of these gates a man waited, covered from boots to velvet cap by a great woolen cloak. He waited impatiently, glancing often at the winding road between the monastery and Milan. A stone bench was inset against the wall but he ignored it to stride back and forth. Occasionally he turned his eyes to the river where a skiff lay moored to a ring-bolt on a wharf.
Sir John Hawkwood told himself that the seven years he’d waited to come to Donnina Visconti had moved at a faster pace than these few minutes. The scant miles that separated them made her seem as far away as the moon which would soon begin its climb into the evening sky. His arms ached to enfold her, hold her warmth and softness close.
The pound of hoof-beats jarred his thoughts. He strode forward onto the road, seeing, in the faint red haze of sunset, the slim woman riding her palfrey at a fast gallop with a single attendant behind her. She was clad all in scarlet and wore the turban hat which gave her elfin face an oriental look. His heart thudded in its rib case. To protect her face from the wind and dust she wore a veil about her nose and lips.
Then she was reining in the horse, lifting a leg free of the saddle-hook, extending her arms toward him.
“Madonna mia,” he breathed, catching her, lifting her down.
She let him draw her in against him as they stood pressed together, but when he would have drawn away the veil she hid her face on his chest.
“Are you so shy?” he asked with a laugh, reaching for the veil again.
As his hand caught the red stuff, a naked dagger came stabbing through his cote-hardie and under-tunic to the chest beneath. He felt the bite of steel, the swift agony of its passage through his flesh.
‘Donnina’ he cried out. “What madness is this?” The monastery wall and the sky reeled in a wild saraband before his eyes as he staggered back, his action wrenching the hilt from her suddenly nerveless fingers. In that instant she seemed to shrink, to turn aside so that she need not look at him. He heard a sob, the indistinct murmur of her voice. Then she was running for the white palfrey which her attendant held by its stirrup and bridle.
Behind him in the monastery garden he heard the pound of many feet. Sir John could not move. It was as if every muscle in his body were frozen with death. His gaze went from the dagger-hilt to the woman swinging up to the saddle, catching the reins and driving her toes into the animal’s side.
“Delilah!” he roared. “False Visconti bitch!” The monastery gate burst open. Half a dozen men wearing the viper of the Visconti poured onto the road. They carried swords in their hands as they came running toward him. To finish the job Donnina Visconti had begun. He was sick in spirit as well as wounded in body, but the sight of these enemies sent a sudden fury through his veins. His left arm swept aside the cloak, gathered it up about his forearm. His right hand yanked free the Spanish sword at his hip.
Sir John was surprised at his own strength. Such a blow should have stretched him out on the ground, dying. But aside from the pain in his chest, he felt as strong as ever. He put a hand to the dagger-hilt, pulled it loose. To his amazement he saw, instead of blood, a flood of golden coins spill from the slashed cote-hardie.
Laughter exploded in his throat as he went to meet the men-at-arms. “Her purse of coins. The dagger struck it—the coins deflected the point!”
Bitter rage powered his long Toledo blade. He was in among the Milanese, flailing out with its glittering length, slashing through metal and leather with its edge, storming them as if there were a demon inside him. For a few moments he held his own by the very savagery of his attack.
Before their weight of numbers proved too much the oak door slammed open again. Several monks ran forward, crying out with horror at this desecration of holy ground. Even more to the point, Sir John felt, were the men in mail who followed them.
He recognized Albert Sterz, his lieutenant, and several men-at-arms wearing the white jupon of the Company, who had been at services in the cloisters chapel.
The assassins turned and ran with his own men in hot pursuit. The German was at his elbow, an arm about him, staring down at the blood which stained his cote-hardie.
“What happened? Did those dogs do this?”
“It was the woman—Donnina Visconti. As I took her in my arms to kiss her she ran steel into me. No, it isn’t as bad as it looks. The purse of coins deflected the blow. It’s only a flesh wound.”
“You’ve lost a lot of blood. Come, sit down on the bench.” A monk ran to the chapter house to bring salves and bandages. The others gathered about them, murmuring against the treachery of the deed.
In an agony of spirit Sir John cried out, “Why? In God’s name—why? If I’m so hateful to her why’d she promise to meet me here? Why didn’t she tell me yesterday that I meant nothing to her? I would have gone away.”
He was silent until the bandages were wrapped about his deep chest. Then he laughed harshly. “Gesu, it’s ironic. She gave the purse to me long ago in England. Tonight it turned away her blade.”
Sterz said in his harsh, guttural voice, “By her dagger she gave you death, by her purse she gave you life. Be content.” It came to the Englishman, as he leaned on Albert Sterz and walked slowly back toward camp, that he hated now as strongly as once he had loved. Deep inside him he felt an unutterable scorn for Visconti treachery, Visconti slyness. But he would have his vengeance.
Vengeance! Aye, he would find a way to be revenged for this night’s work. Not in love would he seek out Donnina Visconti but in hate, in cruelty. And in that hate he would take her as he might a camp follower, one of those women who followed a condotta in wartime, offering their bodies for a bit of plunder, for food, even for the shelter of a canvas tent against the rain. He would demean her as other war captains demeaned the noble women who fell into their hands. He would take her himself, then give her to his soldiers. It had been done often in the past. It would be done in the future.
As he paused before his pavilion flaps he said to the German, “Break camp at once. March south toward Parma. If Bernabò Visconti is half the man I think him, he’ll order an attack by Conrad of Landau or his other captain-general, Nicholas of Tortona, by morning. We’ll leave him with a puzzle to solve: no dead body, no band of foreign soldiers to be destroyed by a surprise attack.” He drew a deep breath. The wound in his chest was throbbing with a steady ache now. Above everything else he wanted sleep. “But we’ll be back, Albert. Tell the man that. We’ll be back. Next time well take instead of asking.”
The White Company was a week on the road to Parma when Hertruda da Tordone overtook it, galloping fast with half a dozen armed men at her back.