Read Chapter One from The Questing Sword

Chapter 1

Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
The questing sword jefferson cooper gardner f fox ebook pulp paperback novel kurt brugel kindle gardner francis fox men's adventure library historical romance sword and sorcery erotica sleaze

HE HAD NO HOME.

He was a footloose wanderer. An adventurer, riding a roan horse down into the valley of the Oglio River in this early fall of the year 1426. His closely cropped yellow hair was fitted with a steel cap, and a leather jerkin covered a shirt of fine chain mail. A long sword, carried for comfort on a leather strap from the pommel of his saddle, moved gently to the rhythmic strides of the walking horse.

His name was Gion.

Gion had no fame, no money, at this period of his life. For the last seven years he had been a professional soldier, one of those condottieri who, if successful enough, were rising into the nobility all along the Italian peninsula. For three of these years this Bergamese had served under Muzio Attendolo Sforza with the Neapolitan banners of Queen Joanna. A thin white line that was an old scar ran down from his jaw to his throat.

He had taken that scar when a blade had slipped along his sword during the fighting just outside Castelnuovo, where Sforza had faced Alphonso of Aragon over the succession to the Neapolitan throne. The scar was a souvenir of that bitter campaign.

The parchment was a souvenir, too.

His hand touched the worn leather saddlebag that hung with his heavy woolen cloak behind the cantle of the saddle. He could hear the heavy parchment rustle inside it. Gion smiled. The parchment was the reason he’d given up his commission as a captain of lances to journey northward from Naples to this peaceful little valley.

“Riches,” he said to himself almost wonderingly. “I wonder what it’s like to have all the money you want?”

At this period in his career, Gion knew only the hard ground for a bed and the coarse fare of a professional soldier. There had been a time, of course, when he’d slept on a rope bed and eaten chicken and the fine wheaten bread of Lombardy, but that had been so long ago he’d all but forgotten about it. Only in his dreams, which came to him when the woolen cloak was wrapped tight about him and morning dew was on the ground, did he see again the little stone villa just outside Bergamo that had been his home those many years ago.

Gion reined in the roan at the crown of a high hill. Spread out below him was a small apple orchard and wide, bright fields of grass moving in the gentle breeze. There was a brook, too, that looked deep in spots, gurgling over bottom-stones and between high banks where wild fern grew.

His eyes lifted, and his heart began to thud.

The castle Monterosso was before his eyes at last. Made of dark stone, with two slim towers at either end of the barbican wall, it dominated the small valley of the fields and orchard. The man studied it carefully, as he might a new enemy. It was well situated, built on high rock jutting upward from the valley floor. Its walls were stubby and thick. The rock shelf below them gave few solid places on which to plant scaling ladders. The remains of an old moat made a deep trench to the west. From what he could see of them, the big gates were of cast iron and impregnable.

Gion’s toe urged the roan horse forward. When he was down off the hill road he could see a farmhouse, set away from the orchard and close to the walls of the old castle. Chickens ran back and forth in the yard, where a little boy chased them. A pig rose grunting from the doorway and ran off into the woods. The noise distracted the boy, who halted and turned, staring after the animal.

In that moment of silence the boy heard the iron hoofs of the roan horse and swung around. He was without clothes of any kind, about eight or nine years old, Gion judged, with black hair and black eyes. The eyes widened slowly as they took in the chain-mail shirt, the long sword, the metal cap.

Un condottiere!” the boy yelled.

He turned and ran for the farmhouse door. It slammed shut behind him. Gion could hear the wooden bolt snap home and a voice scream, “Mamma! Mamma! It’s one of the soldiers! Where are you?”

Gion made a wry face. There was no surprise in him, for the valley of the Oglio lay along the route northward into the Tyrolese provinces. More than one army would have come and gone this way, looting and worse, during the boy’s lifetime. Gion would have turned away, but he needed information. He sat the high-peaked saddle and waited patiently.

The door opened cautiously. A thin voice cried, “Go away. There is nothing here for a soldier. Your friends took what we had.”

The man smiled. “I have no friends. Here just to show I mean no harm.”

His hand fumbled in the velvet purse that had been a war prize from a gutted town outside Amalfi. He caught a silver florin and flipped it lazily through the air. The sunlight caught the coin and made it blaze. It landed in the dust a few feet from the farmhouse door.

There was a pause.

The door opened, and the naked boy scrambled out into the dust. His hand grasped the florin. For a moment he poised there, motionless, staring down at it.

“A real coin. Real silver!?”

He rose from the dirt and stood looking at the man. “What do you want? Who sent you here?”

The man smiled and relaxed a little in the saddle. “All I want is information. And maybe a meal, too, that I’ll pay another silver florin for. And nobody sent me. I’m alone.”

The boy scowled. He turned back toward the partially closed farmhouse door and cried out, “Mamma? What do I say now?”

Gion watched the door open. A young woman stood between the jambs, staring at him from under loose brown hair that flooded over her shoulders and down her back. She looked sullen, the man thought, but that might be because her mouth was so full and red, and her scowl so suspicious. All she wore was a woolen smock that went from her shoulders past wide hips to the middle of her thighs. Her legs below the smock were dirty and bare.

It had been a long time since the wanderer had seen so much female in one body. Those breasts looked ripe and full, pressing against the wool. A leather belt clasped a thin waist, making the hips seem even larger. As the woman put a hand to her long hair, brushing it back away from her dark eyes, her breasts moved loosely.

“You would not tell the boy. Tell me. What is it you want?”

He was a little surprised at her voice. It was filled with resonance, a little husky, but she spoke as if she had been educated. He smiled and put both hands on the saddle pommel.

“My name is Gion. True enough, I’m a condottiere. At least, I was. I’ve given up soldiering to come home.” He let his head gesture at the dark bulk of Castle Monterosso.

The woman turned and looked where he nodded. Her face grimaced. “I am not a fool. You are not the lord Giorgio del Telesio, who owns that castle.”

“Giorgio is dead. I’m his brother, Gion.”

The woman shook her head. “I do not know. I have heard of this hot-head younger brother who ran away, maybe ten, fifteen years ago. I never saw him.”

Excitement made him ask, “There must be somebody around who knows me. Old villagers from Teledo? The tavern called the Blue Boar? Old Niccolo! He will remember me.”

“Old Niccolo is dead. There isn’t a village any more. The soldiers burned it.”

“Isn’t anybody left?”

The shoulders shrugged carelessly. “Nobody. Only the boy and I live here.”

It would be safe, then, this harebrained scheme of his. If nobody knew Gion del Telesio—it had been the fact that their first names were the same that had put the idea in his head those months ago outside Aquila—then he could pass himself off as the younger brother of the extinct house of Telesio. With the secret of the parchment he could become a nobleman.

He smiled down at the woman. This must be a lonely life for a girl her age. Looking more closely now that some of his worry had been relieved, he could see that she was younger than he had thought.

“Will you give me supper and bed space on the floor for a silver coin?” he asked, smiling down at her.

“No! Certainly not. Tom, be on your way!”

She was almost beautiful when she was angry, with her mouth twisting in hate and sullen fear, with the rigidity of her muscles tensing shoulders and bare legs. The hand behind the door that he could not see must have clenched suddenly, for her arm was tight now and alert.

Gion bent to his great sword, loosening the straps. When they slid free he lifted the blade and scabbard and yelled “Catch!” at the boy, and threw them. The youngster cried out in delight. His hands were deft as they kept the sword from hitting the dust. He stood and stared down at it with wide eyes. His mouth was grinning from ear to ear.

“Mamma, Mamma! Look at it! So big. So heavy. A real sword!”

“Give it back, Iafet!” “No, Mamma. I want to play with it!’”

“Give it back!”

Gion said, “Let him have it awhile. I’m in no hurry. It’s the only weapon I have. Look for yourself.” He swung down from the saddle and turned slowly, his arms above his head.

When he lowered his arms, the woman bit her lower lip. Her eyes were still sullen, but some of the fear was gone out of them. She brought her right hand out from behind the door, and now Gion could see it clasped a long Savoyard dagger. With a twist of her mouth and an angry look, the woman drove the dagger point into the wooden jamb. It stood there quivering.

“I do not trust any man. I hate men!” she hissed. “I will not wait on you. Nor will—” Her eyes touched the boy, and she shrugged. Her dark glance said, We know what I mean, you and I. She crossed her arms and leaned a shoulder close to the dagger.

“I’ll get my own food. And sleep in my own cloak.”

He drew the cloak from the cantle straps and shook it out to show its size. Then he drew down the velvet purse and fumbled again for a coin. He was advancing on the woman to hand it to her when she put her hand on the dagger hilt.

“Just throw it, soldier!”

It arced through the air to her bare feet. Gion drew a fast breath as she leaned forward to pick it up. Santa Maria benedetta! What a bosom on this one! He felt repaid already for the coin. He watched even white teeth flash as she bit into the metal. Her eyes regarded him, from his yellow hair under the metal cap to the cavalier boots on his lower legs. Then her shoulder shrugged disdainfully, and she disappeared inside the house.

Gion noticed that she took the dagger with her.

Gion turned to the boy, who was trying to drag the sword from the plain scabbard. It was long and a little too heavy for his young muscles. With a grin Gion went to him, squatting down in the yard, drawing the hilt and scabbard gently from his grasp.

“Like this, young one. You see? You hold the scabbard so—and the haft in your other hand. A single jerk and—”

The blade gleamed naked in the sunlight. The boy stared at it with owl eyes. “It’s so long. And sharp!” Gingerly he touched the edges of the steel. The eyes lifted. “Have you killed many men with it? How many?”

Gion shrugged elaborately. “Fifty or sixty. With maybe a hundred more wounded. I do not count them. I’ve fought a long time.”

Iafet wriggled in ecstasy. “Fifty—or sixty!” His eyes became even larger as he looked down at the sword. Then his face clouded over. “I hope some of them were the soldiers who passed through here and burned the village. Do you think they were?”

Gion nodded thoughtfully. “I think so. They would be retainers of Filippo Maria Visconti, the Duke of Milan, and those men. I was serving with the Venetian forces. We met them at Brescia and gave them a good drubbing. I must have killed about ten or twelve that day.”

“Good! I hate them all, those soldiers.” “For what they did to your mother?”

“Oh, no. Mamma took me in her arms and ran away and hid. But she could see what went on in the village. Sometimes at night I hear her crying herself to sleep. It makes me very sad, and I cry, too.”

“Your father, Iafet? What about him?”

“Mamma never talks about him. Whenever I ask, she gets angry and says words that she tells me I must forget.” The black eyes became gleeful. “I do not forget, though. I remember them all. Like—Dio mio! Sangue di Cristo!

Gion clapped a big palm over the boy’s mouth. He grinned. “Your mother is right. Those are not words for a boy to know. Even such a big boy as you are.”

There was the sound of a pot falling in the farmhouse, and a smothered oath. The Bergamese laughed under his breath. He said, “You never saw this man, then? Your father?”

“He is dead. Mamma told me so.”

“And – no other men come to the farm?”

“Only bad men, Mamma says. When they come we run back into the woods and hide. It is great fun. After a while the men go away. Nobody ever gives us money, like you did.”

“Mmmm. You don’t have much here, do you?”

“We have enough to eat. The chickens lay eggs, and I pick berries from the hillside. Sometimes Mamma goes to Costrano and trades eggs for flour and honey. Then she bakes bread and we have a feast.”

It was very quiet in the farmhouse. Gion said slowly, “How would you and your mother like to have plenty of money? Clothes for you? Pretty dresses for her?”

Iafet shrugged. “I do not like clothes. I am happy enough.”

Gion laughed and stood up. “You amuse yourself with the sword. I will go and ask your mother if I can help her.”

The pots began to clatter as he walked toward the open doorway. As he went in, the woman was crouched before a brick kiln, thrusting in a wooden board on which was placed a lump of dough. A deep iron pot, hanging on a pot-crane hook, was bubbling above the fire. Gion looked around the house. There was only one room. The stone kiln, which was little more than a box of firebricks set below an opening in the roof, served both for cooking and for warmth.

Against the farther wall, a low bedstead was placed near a small table. Ropes strung through holes in the side-rails held a cloth mattress filled with straw. On the other side of the room, a smaller mattress rested on the packed-dirt floor. The boy slept there, Gion decided. An earthenware pitcher of milk and two wooden platters, two knives, and three wooden mugs rested on the nicked surface of a table.

“It isn’t much,” the woman said, standing beside the kiln. “I have only two knives and two platters. Three cups, though.”

Gion pointed at the dagger in her belt. “You can use that to cut the meat. I’ll use one of the knives.”

Her glance was enigmatic. “You must have a dagger, eh? All soldiers have daggers. Not just swords.” Her eyes watched him as he crossed to the window and threw back a wooden shutter.

He could look at the castle from here, and see a narrow roadway twisting upward through the rocks. There were weeds growing in the road. There was no sign of life. The gates were shut. No window or arrow-slit was open. He felt satisfied. When he turned from the window, the woman was at the table pouring milk.

“Goat’s milk,” she said. “We have three goats in the hills. But I have only enough for Iafet and myself.”

“Cold water is fine,” he said.

“Iafet. Go get water in the bucket.”

She turned toward the doorway. Gion waited until he heard the boy’s footsteps fade. Then he stepped behind the woman and put a hand in her long, loose hair and tugged her head back. His right arm banded her middle, drawing her against him.

Her eyes were wide and brilliant. He caught one swift glimpse of them as he bent his head to kiss those pouting red lips. He strained her into him, felt her quiver and tremble like a wild thing.

Silently she fought against him, but Gion held her with ease. When she could not break free she whispered, “I knew I should never have trusted you. All soldiers are alike. Go! Please! Go!”

He smiled down into her face. “You aren’t the boy’s mother. I just wanted to make sure.” He released her suddenly.

The dagger was in her hand and driving for his chest. Just in time he caught her wrist and turned it. Her mouth opened in pain, and her fingers straightened. The dagger fell between them into the dirt floor, where it stuck upright.

“I won’t harm you,” he told her.

He bent and lifted the dagger and put it in her hand. She turned away from the steel to his eyes, and frowned. She put the back of her hand to her mouth and drew it hard across her lips.

Gion chuckled. “Don’t put on so. You liked my kiss. I could feel you did. You’re afraid to show me you liked it, because you’re afraid of what I’ll do. Well, I won’t do anything to you. You’re safe enough.”

The blade went into her belt. She moved away and knelt before the kiln, peering in at the bread. She asked hoarsely, “How do you know I’m not Iafet’s mother?”

“You’ve never had a man. I can tell.”

Her brown hair had fallen across her face. Through it he could see the gleam of her eyes as she spoke.

“No, I’ve never had a man. Beasts, that’s what men are. I’ve seen enough of their handiwork when they came burning the village and looting the farm people. Drinking, raping! A dozen of them killed my sister—Iafet’s mother—and her husband. I took the boy to live with me. Men! Pah!”

She was about to say more when the boy came into the room. She said, “The bread is ready. Iafet, pour water for the soldier.”

“Gion. My name is Gion.”

“As I said, pour water for the soldier.” Her eyes were fierce and untamed as they glanced at him. “I’ll serve the soup and chicken.”

“Chicken?” cried the boy, turning from the table in surprise. Water sloshed from the bucket over the tabletop. “Are we having a feast tonight?”

An angry red flooded the woman’s face. “Peste! You little fool. Watch what you’re doing.” She stormed across the floor, and taking the bucket from his hands, mopped at the water with a cloth.

They ate in silence, with Gion sitting on an upended log that served as a chopping block. He looked from the boy to the woman, wondering how to begin his questions. From the open window he could see the hillside, brown and red and gold with autumnal colors in this dying time of the year, and the dark stone towers of the castle. The iron gateway would be barred from the inside, and the walls looked thirty feet high. Not an easy place to break into.

“You live here all year round?” he asked.

“All year. It is quiet most of the time. Except when the soldiers come.” Her ripe, red mouth grimaced at him.

“Soldiers. You mean the Milanese scum of the Visconti.” “Milanese, Venetians, Florentines. They’re all the same.”

Gion scowled. “The Milanese are worst of all. They’re butchers.”

Her glance was shrewd. “The Doge, now, in his canal city, he is a tender one when it comes to his looting Venetian soldiers, eh? He forbids the molestation of women, hah?”

Gion growled, “There are some condottieri who do not let their men live off the land.”

The girl rose from the table, bending forward to pick up the wooden platters. Gion watched her bosom press twin outlines into the taut wool of her smock and sighed. Then she was moving away, hips aswing, toward a wooden bucket into which she dumped the dirty dishes.

He said, “I’m going for a walk. Up to the castle to have a look at its walls.”

She swung around at that, wooden bucket pressed into a hip. “The castle on the hill? A bad place, soldier. There are ghosts living there. At night—at night there are lights, sometimes, moving behind the arrow-slits I have seen them.”

“Some wandering beggar seeking shelter.”

He spoke lightly, but Gion was worried. Lights in the castle? Did someone else know his secret? Or had the real younger brother come back to claim his inheritance? In that case the parchment strapped to his saddle did not belong to him anymore.

He thrust past the woman and took a dozen steps away from the cottage, swinging around to stare up at the stone bulk of the castle. It was dusk. Night was in the coolness of the air, and the first evening stars were in the sky. He moved to the saddle, which lay on the ground where he had thrown it before supper. His hands fumbled a moment, then drew out the rolled paper and thrust it into his leather belt.

The woman watched him from the little brook where she washed the wooden platters and the knives. Her brows were drawn together in perplexity. Lenora felt anger at herself for the response this blond man in the leather jerkin and chain-mail shirt drew from her. He was just another soldier, despite his rugged handsomeness, so why should her blood hammer so wildly, and why did her muscles become so weak when he came near her?

Gion. It was a nice name, that, but it was not his real name. Either that, or he had looted the little velvet purse that bore the initials B and C worked into the velvet with golden thread. Old Piero, who lived close by the burned windmill, might know about that. The old man used to be a soldier himself in the days of his youth. When troops marched through the Oglio valley he chatted with them about the wars. She would go to see him and ask him about this man named Gion.

He was walking away from the cottage now, moving along the little footpath that joined the wide castle road half a mile beyond the poplar trees. Lenora rose to her feet and stared after him, a wooden platter dripping water from her fingers.

Gion walked steadily through the underbrush. The parchment scroll was tucked in his belt together with a length of pine for burning. His long Ferrara sword hung from his side. Occasionally his gaze would lift to the stone towers, but he saw no flicker of lights.

When he was before the huge iron door of the old fort, he pushed against it and discovered that it was bolted from the inside. He stood back and stared up at the high walls. He could never climb them. Gion cursed under his breath and began to pace beside the wall, moving in a westerly direction. All he had to do was get inside this pile of stone and a fortune lay waiting to his hand.

“Devil take the place,” he grumbled, walking slowly.

He came to an aqueduct that connected to the wall of the castle and was built of rough stone that afforded a man footholds and finger grips. Gion climbed the aqueduct, discovering its water trench was dry and dusty. Its mountain outlet was probably blocked with rubble. Walking along the trench, he found a barred archway set into the wall. The lower parts of the bars were rotten with rust. A few kicks broke off two of the bars. By squeezing, he could slide through the remaining ones. Once inside, he touched flaming tinder to his pine torch and held it high.

He stood on the edge of a huge cistern. Normally the castle stored water from the hillside springs in this big tank, but it was dry and empty now. Gion walked around the edge and opened a door onto a narrow stone corridor.

The cellar gave way to the dungeons, and beyond them, to a wide stone stairway built around a massive stone pier. He went up the stair, holding his torch aloft. The room he sought was on the second floor. He hesitated beside a suit of armor that stood on the first floor, near an iron étagère. His gaze ran up and down the chamber. At one time this had been the great hall of the fortress. The flickering flame from the pine torch picked out worn hanging tapestries and a long refectory table covered with dust.

“A good, strong fort, this one,” Gion decided.

He went up the stone steps to the second floor. There was no need for him to spread out the parchment scroll. He knew its plan by heart. At the head of the stone staircase there would be an oaken door. Behind that door was the room where the old lord, Teodoro del Telesio, had kept his accounts.

The oak door was half open.

Gion froze, his heart hammering. Was there someone else in the castle? His eyes sought the stone corridor wall, finding an iron torchère. He thrust the pine length into it, then moved toward the door, kicking it wide with a foot, his sword half drawn from its scabbard.

There was no sound. He listened for many minutes, scarcely breathing, but he heard nothing. Moonlight sifted through two tall windows on either side of a wide stone fireplace, placing a silver radiance on the bare floor. Gion moved into the room, holding his scabbard in a hand.

Santa Maria benedetta,” he said hoarsely.

He could not shake the sense of being watched, the feeling that eyes were fastened to his wide shoulders, his lean waist. An itch grew between his shoulder blades. Twice he whirled, expecting to see a dagger flashing at his back in the moonlight. Yet except for himself, the room was empty. He crossed to the heavy drapes and threw them back. They were dusty, moldy with years. No one hid here or behind the large ambry that took up half of one wall.

“I’m getting to be an old woman,” he muttered.

He went to the fireplace and unhooked his scabbard, placing it against the firebricks on the interior of the hearth. Then he ducked under the mantel and stood to his full height on the hearthstones.

According to the parchment there was a loose stone roughly five feet up on the inside wall of the chimney. The stone was one foot high and two feet wide, and behind it was a deep recess holding four bronze caskets. His hands and fingertips fumbled over the stones, feeling for height and length.

Here, surely—no, farther on.

“This one. It must be this one!”

His fingertips caught rough edges and tugged. The stone gave a little, scratching roughly. Excitedly Gion tightened his hold. The stone moved faster now. Its edge rested on his palms. He heaved with his powerful shoulders, taking its weight in his hands, lowering it. It was as dark as a whale’s belly in the fireplace, but for some reason–Gion told himself he was not a thief, but what he did was the act of a thief—he did not want any light. It made him feel less guilty to move so in the darkness.

He put an arm into the recess. Almost instantly his fingers touched smooth, cold metal. He grasped a handle and jerked the coffer toward him.

When he had it safely in his hands, he carried it out of the fireplace to the big sawbuck table and set it down. Then he went into the hall and took down his pine torch. He propped the length of flaming wood in a bronze rest and threw back the lid of the casket.

“God’s blood!” he cried.

The coffer was filled to its brim with round gold ducats, with here and there a jeweled bauble winking up at him in the torchlight. His hands dipped into the treasure, lifting out a palmful of yellow coins and a bracelet adorned with dangling red rubies. Each stone was the size of a peach seed.

“Where did a man like Teodoro del Telesio get such a fortune?”

He knew the answer, of course. In his dying delirium Giorgio had revealed that his father had served the Doge of Venice, Marino Faliero, for a time, and that when Faliero had died, his father, anticipating trouble, had fled with as much of the Faliero wealth as he could carry. Del Telesio had never dared spend any of this ill-gotten loot. The Council of Ten had long arms, and Venice was still hunting these balas rubies, these yellow ducats, years later.

Gion went back to the fireplace and brought out a second casket, and a third. When there were four bronze coffers on the table, the recess was empty.

One by one he opened them, feasting his eyes and hands on the riches of a city. Marino Faliero had schemed a long time to make himself dictator of Venice, which was the richest city in all Christendom with the possible exception of Milan. For years he had gathered gold and jewels for the attempt that would make him the most powerful man in that city. When his abortive try for power had failed, his treasure had been unspent.

It lay before the soldier on a table whose joints creaked beneath its weight. Like a man made drunk on rich wine, Gion went from one casket to the next, drawing out rings encrusted with diamonds, lavalieres set with emeralds, massive bracelets hung with rubies. Golden coins were here by the hundreds. His head reeled a little, attempting to gauge the value of this hoard. There were miniatures painted by a master hand, tiny crowns set with jewels encasing precious stones, and a musk-ball watch, the like of which Gion had never seen before.

Behind him a hanging swayed where there was no breeze. A slim white hand caught hold of the drapery, widening it. Another hand appeared, and in this second hand gleamed a long steel dagger. A cloaked figure moved from the brocades, tiptoeing forward on tiny poulaines. Those same soft leather slippers had carried the cloaked figure in from the hallway while Gion had been inside the fireplace.

The dagger lifted.

Ten feet separated the cowled figure from the brooding Gion. Now the distance was seven feet, now four—

The cowled figure hurtled forward.

The Bergamese heard only the swish of the velvet chaperon, but it was enough. He whirled sideways from the table, arm up as a shield against that stabbing length of steel. Its point caught the edge of his mail sleeve and scraped sparks. Then he was twisting forward, right hand driving out, catching the slim wrist and turning it so that the cloaked figure cried out in pain.

“A woman!” he cried. “By the lions of St. Mark—a woman!”

She fought him silently, clawing at his face with long fingernails, biting with sharp teeth at the hand that sought for her cowl, to pull it back and bare her head. Anger flooded Gion as those teeth drew blood from his hand. Roughly he reached for the great cloak, missing it but clutching a handful of the dress it hid. He jerked savagely. He heard cloth rip and the ring of metal on stone as an iron key fell from the loosened velvet.

The chaperon flared apart, revealing a tight red velvet dress and a torn bodice, out of which two white breasts spilled. But the woman’s face was still hidden in the folds of the black chaperon.

Gion took a backward step as if to give the cowled woman time to arrange her clothes. Instead of hiding her flesh, she leaped sideways—her lifted hand filled with the whipping length of her velvet cloak—and drove the flapping chaperon at the lighted torch.

Instantly the room was plunged into blackness.

Gion cursed and lunged, but the woman slid aside from his fingers, which closed on empty air. He raced for the door, but she was there ahead of him, running lightly, easily. He heard the faint slap-slap of her slippers moving down the stairs. He went after her two steps at a time, but the woman seemed endowed with the eyes of a cat. She ran with a thorough knowledge of the castle, while Gion stumbled through the dark halls.

He reached the entrance-way to the castle’s front courtyard just as the woman threw back the bolt on the outside doors. In the next moment her foot went into the stirrup of a big dark horse and she rose lightly to the saddle. Gion ran across the courtyard flaggings, but she was well through the iron doors now, thundering at full gallop down the road. She would be out of sight by the time he went for his own horse.

“I didn’t see so much of her face as the tip of her nose,” he growled, “but she let me have a real good look at her bosom! I’d know that anywhere.”

He felt a vague disquiet as he went back into the castle and up the stair. A woman he could not identify knew that he had found the lost Faliero treasure. She might have been hunting it herself. He had only one way of recognizing her, by those heavy breasts she had let him goggle at while she thrust her cloak at the pine torch to escape him.

“A man can’t go around hunting a woman by her bosom! God’s blood! He’d have to sleep with every wench between Lake Maggiore and the Ionian Sea!”

There was an iron key on the floor of the treasure room. Like her bosom, the key had been hidden by the bodice his hand had torn. He weighed it in his palm. Before finding the door this key unlocked, he must hide the bronze coffers in a different place. It was possible that the woman either knew the secret of the hearth or had seen Gion carry the treasure from there.

It was not until the first faint flush of dawn appeared that Gion was satisfied. He had secreted the treasure in an excellent hiding place, a cellar dry well. Now that his work was done he returned to the front courtyard. There his strong suspicion about the key was confirmed. It fitted the outside iron doors.

Locking the iron doors behind him Gion made his way down the footpath back to Lenora’s farm. For the moment, at least, he was the sole owner of Monterosso and the vast wealth which it contained.