Read chapter Two from The Questing Sword

Chapter 2

Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library

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The OLD MAN removed his straw hat and wiped at his forehead with the long, dirty sleeve of his shirt. His face was the color of newly tanned leather. Against it the white of his beard and hair seemed strangely bright. His shoulders, once broad and solid, were rounded and shrunken with age. He replaced the straw hat and began to move the wooden hoe back and forth in the ground, making a furrow.

He ignored the girl as long as he could, or as long as she let him. With this fiery Lenora, old Piero never knew quite where he stood.

“Papa Piero! You haven’t answered me! Twice I ask you the same question, and twice you mop your face and go back to your hoeing.”

The old man leaned on the long hoe handle, frowning. “What question?” he asked at last, in a soft, deep voice.

Santo Giacomo il màrtire!” the girl screamed. “I have told you twice before. Now for the third time: Who is this Gion?”

“Gion, Gion! Do I know every homeless adventurer in north Italy? Am I Francesco Petrarca to keep a directory on the flyleaf of my Vergil?”

“You talk to the soldiers when they come.”

“I know nobody named Gion.”

“Or anybody whose initials are B and C?”

Papa Piero hesitated, pursing his lips. A light came into his eyes that he hid quickly, but the girl had seen. He was turning back to his furrows when she stepped forward and caught the hoe handle in her fingers. Strong fingers they were, as old Piero discovered when he tried to wrench his tool free of her grasp.

“You know him. You do! I saw a look in your face. Tell me who he is.”

The old man cackled laughter. “Has he bedded you, my beauty? Do you carry his bastardo in your belly, that you want to know his name? Eh? Eh?”

Lenora was haughty. “He has not so much as laid a hand on me!” That was a lie, for her mouth remembered his kiss of the evening before. Even thinking about it made the blood run a merry course in her veins, but she would have died rather than admit it. “It is only that he interests himself in Castle Monterosso.”

“Now, why should he do that?”

“His name!”

Old Piero sighed. “I am not sure. A B and a C. Not much to go on, those initials. And yet there is a man, a young man—“

“Go on, for the love of heaven.”

They heard the hoof-beats at the same time. Lenora let go of the hoe and ran up the slope of the little hillside farm to a ridge that looked out across the valley. Scarcely less spry than the girl, the old man came running at her bare heels. Under the shade of a gaunt olive tree they came to a halt, staring.

The road below, winding between abandoned vineyards and the charred remains of what once had been the village of Teledo, was lined with men. Sunlight glinted on their steel jackets, their helmets, on lance-points and pike-heads Wagons trundled in the dust, drawn by heavy draft horses. There were smaller wagons, too, little more than wheels fixed to wooden beams, which held brass cannons.

“So many,” said the girl. “They will find Iafet all alone. I must go to him!”

“Wait!” cried the old man, catching her by the wrist. He shook his head. “They will not harm Iafet. Maybe you, yes, for they are men and you’re a good-looking wench. But these are no Milanese dogs serving Filippo Maria Visconti to line up on a defenseless female. No, no. Look at their banner, girl!

“Those short, stocky men carrying pikes are Swiss mercenaries. None better. The taller ones, with crossbows over their shoulders, are Genovese professionals. See the red cross on their jerkins. Here come the lances now. Those will be the Sforza troops, with the black-lion banner flapping over their heads. Francesco Sforza—son of Muzio Attendolo, who died two years ago—leads them. Ah—and there! More lances. Fortebraccio himself, to judge by his ox-horn standard.

“Sforza and Fortebraccio! Two of the greatest captains in Italy, approaching Monterosso to meet with young Colleoni. Now, why? I wonder why?”

The old man became pensive, leaning on his hoe. The girl had to pinch him twice before he roused from his reverie.

“Colleoni? Who is this Colleoni?”

Old Piero grinned. “Bartolommeo Colleoni—the B and C of your velvet purse, little firecracker! A young captain of lances, but a shrewd one. I think that this may be your Gion, this Bartolommeo Colleoni. He hates the Visconti and Milan as God hates little devils. They killed his father and let his mother die in a burning castle when he was only a boy.”

“Why does he call himself Gion?”

“Why don’t you go ask him instead of bothering a poor old man who has to tend his vegetable garden?”

The girl scowled at him frankly, then shrugged and began to walk down the ridge toward the distant road. As she went, she flapped the back of her skirt at him. The old man raised a fist and shook it. “I hope this Gion puts you in a bed and teaches you manners, you shameless baggage! It’s time somebody taught you respect for your betters.” He breathed harshly a moment, then cackled laughter.

“Colleoni, Sforza, Fortebraccio! Are you shaking in your bedstead, Filippo Maria Visconti? And all Milan with you? Ah—and Messere Lotario da Carpi, the Marquis of Croma. This Colleoni hates you worst of all. What will he do when he gets his hands on you?”

Shaking his head and talking to himself, old Piero moved of the ridge toward his furrowed garden. In a little while his hoe was stabbing viciously at the ground, as he had stabbed long ago with his halberd at Milanese soldiery.

Gion stood between the open iron doors and watched three thousand of the finest fighting men in all Italy move down on him. The ox-horn of Fortebraccio, the Sforza lion-and-quince standard, the white cross of the Swiss pikes, the red cross of the Genovese bowmen: he knew them all. Even the artillerymen, sitting on the big brass cannon coming up in the dust, he could call by name. Inside him a voice cried out, Can you hear the sound of these hoofs, these wheels, the pound of pike-butts on the ground, Lotario? They are drumming out your doom and the destruction of your castle of Croma! A tide of pleased triumph began to wash through him.

Three mounted figures paced before the cavalcade. Two of them were men. The one on the left was Francesco Sforza, a fellow war captain, big and thick set, with thick lips and a hooked nose above a black spade beard. His body was massive and powerful, and he wore his heavy armor lightly. A giant, this Sforza. The other man, Girolamo Fortebraccio, was short and stocky, with heavy muscles acquired during a youth spent at the forge fires of his father’s smithy. His hair was heavy and black, and a thick mustache hid the ripe sensuality of an over-red mouth.

Between them was a girl.

“Lenora,” he said in surprise, and took a step forward.

She rode straddling the leather saddle, skirt up to her bare thighs, naked feet dangling free of the stirrups. Thick brown hair bounced on her back to her mount’s every stride. Gion glared at her, planting fists on his hips.

“I told you to keep out of my way today,” he shouted when she came within earshot. “You said you were going to see an old man named Piero!”

“I saw him,” she yelled back. “I also saw all these fine gentlemen. This one”—her thumb jerked at the squat, grinning Fortebraccio—“would have felt me up from toes to eyes, but I told him I was your wife. He did not believe me. Tell him yourself!”

She slid from the saddle and began to walk past him. Gion caught her by the wrist, turned her slightly, and resoundingly brought the flat of a palm across one rounded buttock. Lenora yelled and tore free. Defiantly she faced him a moment, rubbing her backside vigorously, and words trembled on her lips.

Girolamo Fortebraccio laughed harshly. “My apologies. Obviously a man and woman who fight as you two do could be nothing else but man and wife.”

Lenora threw him a glance of such sheer hatred that the condottiere paused, eyes wide, half in and half out of the saddle, to whistle soundlessly. Then he chuckled and shook his head. “Better you than me, Bart!” He laughed and came rolling forward with a hand held out.

The Bergamese made an expansive gesture at the castle behind him. “Here she is, just as I promised. Strong walls. Iron doors. Plenty of rooms. A good fortress.”

“Good, but not great.” Francesco Sforza stood beside them, running a shrewd eye over the courtyard. In his late twenties, he was gifted with that muscularity of body that had won his father before him the cognomen Sforza. Already he had made a name for himself on the Peninsula by his daring sorties during the Neapolitan campaign. “However, it will do for the moment. Until we find a better.”

“Cavareggio.” Gion smiled.

Fortebraccio lifted thick, black brows. “I thought you aimed at Croma?”

“To get at Croma, we must first win Cavareggio.” Gion chuckled. “I intend to do that all alone.”

When the squat captain puffed out his cheeks dubiously, Sforza clapped him on the back. “Between the bed-sheets, man! The Signora Imperia del Infessura owns Cavareggio now. She is a widow. Remember? Our Bartolommeo made her one when he served Teresa di Bordoni.”

“She’ll give you venenum atterminatum to drink.” Fortebraccio shuddered, making the sign of the cross. “Forget your blond Teresa. She isn’t worth it.”

“Teresa di Bordoni is an angel out of heaven! That foul pig Lotario da Carpi is the one I blame for—ah, but never mind past history. The present beckons us. See to your men. There’s plenty of room for their tents on the hillside. Your officers can bed down in the hallways. Tell them to bring their own gear with them. Everything in the castle is moldy with age and disuse.”

Gion stared at the lowering sun. “We’ll eat in the main hall at moon-rise Until then, take any room you want except my own.”

“Which one is that?” asked Francesco Sforza.

It was Fortebraccio who answered. “You’ll know it from the sound of the fighting inside it! Gates of hell! What a fire eater our young captain married. Who’d have thought it of him?’”

Sforza was thoughtful. “I thought the only woman he’d ever marry was Teresa di Bordoni. I wonder how that farm girl got her hooks in him?”

The farm girl was striding up and down the bedchamber, waving her arms and yelling. Anger flushed her dusky cheeks and made her eyes sparkle feverishly. In dirty bare feet, wearing only the thin woolen smock that reached as far as her knees, she resembled a thousand peasant girls that Gion had seen, from Bergamo to Bologna, in the past few years.

And yet there was something different about this one. It might have been the ripe red lips or the tilted nose, or the fire that burned inside her, that made him lean back and smile a little. All he knew was that when he was near her, his blood was like the molten lava that came flowing out of Vesuvius. Teresa di Bordoni had had this same power over him, but he had been afraid of the Neapolitan noblewoman. He was not afraid of Lenora.

“You’ll do what I tell you to do,” he told her quietly, when she had to pause for breath.

“I will, will I? Never! Not in ten times ten thousand years, Messere Gion Whoever—you—are! Never will I put on these clothes you tell me to, and play hostess to those bloodthirsty cutthroats! I hate all soldiers. I hate them with all my heart!”

He glanced down at her dirty legs and pursed his lips. “A bath, too. You’ll have to take a bath. You’re filthy.”

Maria, Madre di Dio! To talk this way to me!”

She stood, outraged, panting at him, as he rose from a high-backed bench to move across the room to the big canopied bed. Over it was flung an outmoded gown of black taffeta with a bateau neckline and a front-laced bodice. He lifted the dress and held it out at arm’s length, scowling.

“God knows, it isn’t much,” he admitted. “Still, it’s the best I can do at the moment. It hung in one of the closets, and right now everything in the castle belongs to me.”

The girl said sullenly, “The dress is lovely. It is not the dress that annoys me but you!”

“The dress is old-fashioned! Women do not wear bellows sleeves any more, nor such a high neck. It is fashionable to reveal the bosom these days.”

“You know a lot about women, eh? And what they wear? Who taught you such things?”

He laughed at her. “You’re just a farm girl. I wouldn’t expect you to know styles. Just do as I say. You’ll be happier for it.”

She flung at him, “You say I will be happier. I say I will not. I was very happy until you came riding down into the valley.”

“You’re the one who married yourself to me, by telling Girolamo Fortebraccio you were my wife.”

“Only to protect myself from his lust!” she yelled.

“That’s what you get for being so pretty.”

Her shoulder shrugged disdainfully, but under the long brown lashes, her eyes brooded at him. She came to stand at his elbow, looking up into his face.

“You think I am pretty?” “As a painting by Messere Pisanello.”

“Who is he?”

Gion grinned. “You see? You’re just a farm girl. You don’t know anything about the world. All you know is your little cottage and how to make bread.”

Fury exploded in the hand that came swinging for his cheek. “You wild beast!” she screamed.

He caught her wrist and turned it up behind her back. His heavy muscles held her helpless to do anything but pant swiftly, angrily, her lips inches away from his own. Gion savored the softness of her thighs, the yielding rondure of her belly. She smelled a little of grass and dirt and sweat, but he found the odor strangely compelling.

“You’re just an animal yourself,” he whispered hoarsely. “A pretty barnyard animal I mean to tame.”

He kissed her fiercely, his teeth bruising her lips. She tried to fight him, but the arms around her body were weights that held her helpless. Against her will, her mouth opened to give entrance to his tongue. A sob became a throaty moan as she felt her middle slump against him.

His mouth moved from her lips to her throat.

Her fingers tangled in his hair, holding his face against bared flesh. “I am ignorant, eh? A barnyard animal, eh? Then why do you have anything to do with me?”

“I don’t know. God knows, I don’t know!”

“You love me,” she whispered down into his ear. When he would have pulled free, she grasped his sandy hair more firmly. “Yes, you love me! No—don’t laugh! Don’t ever laugh at me! Since you saw me in the cottage door, you’ve wanted me!”

“Wanting isn’t loving!”

“For us it is! For us it will always be that way! I am a barnyard animal, and you’re a city animal!”

She thrust him from her then, and pulled up her smock on her shoulder, laughing at his flushed face, his disheveled hair. “Go fix yourself, Messere Know-it-all! I am going to bathe in the pool near the cottage. You will stand guard over me, eh? You will like that!”

Her hands lifted the torn woolen skirt to reveal shapely legs, from bare feet to mid-thigh “Yes, they are dirty. All stained with dust. I will wash them good so I will not disgrace you tonight at the dinner table. Your wife will not be a smart one, but she will be clean.”

He said hoarsely, “Not yet. Don’t go yet.”

Lenora laughed jeeringly. “Your guests are waiting. It will be moon-rise in another hour.” She moved closer to him, and her palm ran along his jaw. “We will tame each other, you and I, before we are done.”

Gion followed her down the hall to the stone steps leading to the postern gate, which opened onto what had been a moat years before. Now it was only a tangle of tall weeds and grasses. A fire ran along his veins. This farm girl was only another peasant woman. He had taken a score of them during the Neapolitan campaign, when he had served under Muzio Attendolo Sforza, the father of Francesco. What makes this one so special, he thought, that she can make me feel she’s the only real woman I’ve ever known? He did not know the answer to that. All he knew was that for this girl, walking ahead of him with an inviting wriggle of her haunches, he felt a deep, powerful desire.

As she stepped into the little pool, which made a blue deepness beside the stone ruins of the old mill, he turned away. Not out of modesty, he admitted grudgingly, but to prevent the sight of her body from tempting him into some rashness. Her laughter mocked him behind his back. There was the sound of a splash and various gurgles and watery noises that suggested she might be washing herself. In the distance he heard the drumming of wooden mallets on tent pegs, the metallic clang of a smith’s hammer driving down on an anvil. These soldiers who had arrived with Sforza and Fortebraccio today would belong to him for the next month. He wanted nothing—not even the girl in the pool—to prevent his using them the way he planned.

After a while she came out of the water, sliding her smock down over her head. Gion saw that she had washed the smock, too. It clung wetly to her full body.

“I’m clean, eh? Not white exactly, but then my skin is brown. You like me clean, Gion?”

“We’re late now,” he growled. “Come on!”

They were waiting in the great hall, where the camp cooks and sutlers had cleaned the tables and covered them with cloths. Sforza and Fortebraccio had saved two places between them. They stood gallantly as Lenora seated herself with a faint rustle of taffeta skirt.

“We need no flowers on the board when you sit beside us,” Sforza said.

“Watch out, Bart,” hooted the stocky Neapolitan. “Francesco may steal away your woman.”

“Not Sforza. He aims for higher things than the wife of a mere captain of lances.” Gion chuckled. “An alliance with the Visconti, maybe, or the Estes of Ferrara.”

Francesco Attendolo laughed and reached for the wine cup before him. “And why not aim high? We soldiers of fortune are almost as powerful as the despots that rule the cities of Italy. What the Medici did in Florence, I can do, too. Madonna, your good health.”

They ate the simple fare of the soldier in camp: roast lamb, salad greens, and coarse black bread. When they were done and only the wine ewers and goblets remained on the table, Fortebraccio hunched forward.

“Now, then, to business. You want to rent our soldiers. We are going into winter quarters soon, so we might as well make a few ducats for ourselves. How much will you pay?”

Gion smiled grimly. “I’ll feed and shelter your men for a month. And I’ll pay each of you three hundred ducats for their loan.”

Sforza pushed out his lips thoughtfully. “It’s not a bad offer. You’ll pay in advance, of course?”

“Naturally.”

The Neapolitan looked puzzled. “A captain of lances can afford six hundred ducats? I’m no banker like the Balbi brothers, but it seems scarcely believable that you possess such a fortune.”

Gion grinned. “You’ll believe me in the morning when you weigh the coins I give you.”

Sforza said hesitantly, “If you want me to ride with you, Bart? I have nothing pressing to do, that is.”

“No,” murmured the Bergamese softly. “This is a private matter.”

The two condottieri rose and went stamping off into the black shadows thrown by the standing floor lamps. Their high cavalier boots gleamed below puffed trunk hose. Above their waists each man wore a heavy woolen doublet. Gion held them in his gaze until they disappeared through the wooden doorway at the far end of the hall.

“Someday I will be as powerful as those two men,” he said softly. “Someday all Italy will know me for one of the world’s most famous soldiers. It’s a goal I hold for myself while I am occupied with—other matters.”

Lenora asked, “What matters?”

“Vengeance. Vengeance and—”

He shook his head impatiently and rose abruptly from the table. “You’re not interested in my affairs. No reason for you to be.”

The girl tossed her head indignantly. “You did lie for me today, saying that I was your wife, to protect me from that Fortebraccio. The least I owe you is an interest in your talk. Now I’ll be going.”

“Where?”

She mimicked him. “Where? Where? Back to my cottage, where I belong. Where did you think I was going?”

“Upstairs, to our bedchamber.”

Her laughter taunted him. “Oh, no! I had enough of that bedchamber this afternoon!”

“Don’t be a little fool!” he rasped. He caught her by the wrist and dragged her, protesting in short, bitter oaths, away from the great hall and up a short flight of stairs. “Be quiet, for the love of heaven! I’m not going to hurt you. I only want to show you something.”

She subsided, lips pouting angrily, but she did not fight him. She let him lead her to the end of the corridor, which was covered with a vast brocade, dusty and moldy with years. Grasping a corner of the hanging, Gion yanked it back to expose an open, recessed window in the stone wall.

“Look out there, girl. Go on. Look!”

Lenora stepped forward. The hillside slope spread out below, toward the valley. Half a thousand campfires made red brilliance in the night. There were tents off to the right and forges set up by the smiths. What caught and held her gaze were the soldiers. They were crowding around the fires, watching drunken women dance. She tried to count the women, but could not.

“Camp followers,” Gion explained crisply. “Women who have no homes, who trail after the armies to make their living by catering to the men who comprise it. If you went out there, those Genovese and Swiss would take you for one of them. A new one. You’d get a lot of attention.”

She stared in fascination at a girl dancing lewdly in the fire flames. To one side of her, two soldiers were lifting another woman and dragging her into the darkness. From one campfire to the next, Lenora’s eyes moved in the grip of horrified fascination.

Dio mio,” she whispered.

Gion let the drapery fall. “You see? The bedchamber is the safest place, after all. You can have the bed. I’ll sleep on a couch.”

Her grimace told him she did not believe him, but she went at his elbow quietly. As he was opening the big wooden door, its iron hinges creaking, she threw a side-wise glance at him.

“Your name isn’t really Gion, is it?”

He looked surprised. “My mother used to call me Gion. It’s a diminutive for giovanetto, a little one. I used the name after my father was killed and my mother died in the flames that destroyed our home.” Bitterness came into his voice. “The Visconti of Milan did that. The present duke’s father, Giovanni Galeazzo Visconti.”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

His shrug was casual. “They were unlucky. My father was a man of peace. He asked nothing of life except to be allowed to tend his gardens and read his books. Our hilltop castle stood in the way of the Milanese advance into Bergamo. Facino Cane, who was Visconti’s captain-general at the time, gave the order to destroy us. My father was a peaceful man, but he fought them because he judged it was his proper course as a man.”

He moved across the room to light a wax taper from a bronze oil-lamp flame. With the taper in his hand throwing brightness across his face, he looked to the woman in the doorway like some avenging spirit. Anger was a coldness inside him, she realized, and that was the most deadly kind of rage.

His voice was flat. “Cane smashed us easily. I can still remember some of the things that happened to the young women servants. I used to wake up from nightmares about it for a number of years after that. I swore then that if I ever commanded troops, they’d loot in a proper manner and not make beasts of themselves.”

Lenora came into the room slowly, watching him move past a curule chair to touch his taper to a floor candlestick, then to a silver candelabra on an oaken ambry. Now that he had announced he would sleep on the low couch, which she could see against the wall, a spirit of perversity moved in her. He need not be so willing to leave her to a lonely bed!

She paused before a mirror of Venetian glass, tilting her head this way and that, studying her thick brown hair set in rolled braids, and the manner in which her smooth shoulders rose out of the taffeta gown. Hmph! She was just as attractive as any highborn noblewoman, she’d wager a gold ducat—if she owned one.

“Gion, why didn’t you tell me your real name was Colleoni? I suppose you didn’t trust me!”

He stared at her. “What difference does it make? After I leave the castle we’ll never see each other again. Or not for a long time, at least.”

“You’re going off to fight somebody, aren’t you?”

“To fight and kill a man who cheated me.”

“Tell me about it.” She swung from the mirror, confident in her beauty, her smile cheerful. He was bending over, shrugging out of his doublet and undergarment. He tossed them aside, and wearing only trunk hose and long cloth chausses on his legs—one was maroon and one was white, she noted idly—he lay down on the upholstered couch. Lenora scowled fiercely. “You aren’t even listening to what I’m saying!”

He rolled over and showed her his brawny back, bare to the waist. He grumbled, “You sound like a real wife. Go to sleep.”

Her red velvet slippers made no sound as she came across the bare floor to stand above him. She glared down at him, opening and closing slim fingers convulsively. “Wife! Wife! I wish I were your wife! I’d teach you husbandly manners!”

Gion rolled over on his back and laughed up at her. “What does a farm girl know about husbandly manners?”

“I know the way I’d want my husband to act. He would be courteous and loving—and when I wanted to talk about his affairs, he’d pay attention!”

“The age of chivalry died out fifty years ago. Now go to sleep.”

“Oh! Oh! You—you aren’t even as polite as old Piero! At least he talks to me when I want to talk.”

“Gabby old codger! Does either of you listen to the other?”

She sank a haunch on the edge of the couch. In a small voice she asked, “Gion—what will happen to me when you’re gone?”

“What will—? What happened before I came along?”

“It won’t be the same. Not at all. It’s like eating Palermo sugar. If you’ve never tasted it, you don’t miss it. Once you taste it—”

He came up on an elbow, staring at her. “Santa Maria benedetta! I’m hearing things. The little farm firecracker is soggy with self-pity! Look, girl! I’m a busy man. I have no time to attach women to my train, like those camp followers you saw.”

“Could I stay on at the castle?”

“What for? I won’t be coming back this way. Not ever.” Gion seemed to hesitate. He scowled and opened his mouth. He closed it silently, frowning thoughtfully. “Mmmm. Now, maybe you have an idea there. Keep the castle as my own. Let you and Iafet live here, with old Piero to take care of things.”

She clapped her hands. “I’d almost really be your wife then, wouldn’t I?” He caught the wistful hunger in her voice but hardened himself against it. She chattered on. “I could learn to weave. I saw a loom, and there’s a woman a few miles from here who could teach me. She used to serve the Duchess of Gonzaga. She probably knows a lot of things I could learn.”

He grunted sourly and rolled over again. “I’ll sleep on it. Now go to bed and stop bothering me.”

Lenora stuck her tongue out at him and got to her feet. Lazily she walked to the big four-poster bed, waggling her hips. If he didn’t want to pay her any attention, the loss was his, not her own. Let him sleep, like a tired goat! She did not care in the least! She tossed her head and began to disrobe in front of the standing mirror.

Sometime during the night—there was moonlight on the stone floor and darkness along the walls—Lenora woke in sudden terror. Instinctively her hand went under the pillow where she had slipped her Savoyard dagger. Her heart was hammering wildly. Twice she stared about the room before she realized that Gion was not on the couch.

Throwing back the bedclothes, she was about to rise when she heard a moan. “What is it? Who’s there? Gion?”

Her bare feet touched the stone floor and lifted instantly, only to descend more bravely. She whispered through her teeth, “Diàvolo! That stone is first cousin to a chunk of ice!” The autumn air made tiny bumps rise on her flesh, but she tiptoed across the room, seeing Gion slumped over in a curule chair. He was sound asleep.

Her hand shook him. He muttered, “You devil out of hell, Lotario! I’ll be back—laugh all you want! Next time it won’t be so easy to cheat me of my honest gain!” There was a pause—Lenora, bent above his sleeping form, did not consider that she eavesdropped—and then he said harshly, with agony in his voice, “Teresa! Don’t believe what he says. Come away with me. Teresa!”

He was silent then, and when she shook him a second time he opened his eyes sleepily. His arms went out to her. “Teresa—you came to me!”

Madre di Dio! I am not your Teresa!”

Gion started back, and came to wakefulness. “What do you want? What is it?”

“I heard a sound and woke,” she snapped. She grew aware that she stood as naked as she had slept and that the moonlight silvered her body. “You were not on the couch, and I grew afraid.”

“I woke up,” he grumbled, rising to his feet and stretching. “I came to sit here and look south toward Croma.”

She ran for the bed and dove in, pulling the covers up to her throat. “Is that where this Teresa is? In Croma?” she asked from the depths of the quilts.

“Forget Teresa and go back to sleep.”

“You’re going to her!?” “God’s blood! Will you be quiet?” he roared.

She sat upright, still clinging to the quilts. Anger distorted her face. “Why are men such fools? She does not love you, this Teresa. I am a woman. I can tell!”

Gion, between fury and amusement, planted fists on hips. “How do you know that, farm girl?”

“If she loved you, she would have gone away with you when—when this Lotario did whatever it was he did.”

The Bergamese was silent, facing the wide eyes of the girl. After a time he said slowly, “It was not her fault. She could do nothing else. Lotario da Carpi is a very rich man. I helped make him rich. It was my company of lances—in his employ after my service with the senior Sforza for Queen Joanna of Naples—that won him his marquisate of Croma. Someday I’ll tell you all about it. But for now—go back to sleep.”

Lenora subsided in the bed. After a moment the man heard her breathing deeply, steadily. A smile touched his lips. He went and stood over her, looking down at the smooth cheeks, the thick brown hair flooding the pillow. Tenderness became a lump in his middle.

“Little farm girl, you’re a witch!” he whispered. “If I could, I’d stay here in the castle with you and become a gentleman farmer. I cannot do that. My father’s blood and my own pride demand that I fight both Da Carpi and the Visconti. It is necessary!”

He picked up his doublet and military boots, his cape and sword, and moved silently from the room. The iron door-latch made a sharp, dry sound in the night. To the man it seemed that he was shutting out everything that was finest in his young life.

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