Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
Camerone sprawls like a great green carpet across the Umbrian Apennines. From the mountain roads which run like broad ribbons across its flatter levels, its stone fortress appears to tower upward as might a massive fist poised to strike downward anywhere along roads or in the fields which border them. Beyond it, seen through the puffy clouds slipping past, was the grayish bulk of Mount Pennino, still with white snow at its high peak even in this late summer of the year. Nearer were the foothills of the lower mountains, cover with cypress and stone-pine trees, leafing to spread a splash of greenery across the barren brown and gray of the rocky slopes.
As one approached the little town that lay at the base of the towering rocca, the road divided into an upper highway to the fortress itself, and a lower dirt avenue which brought one into the town proper. Here, the road was little more than a wide track deeply pitted by caretas and farm wagons heavy with produce, and it ran between upwards of two hundred homes and shops. Most of the economy of Camerone was agrarian. Its fields were wide in the valleys and ripe with grain and olive trees, with flax and barley. Herds of goats and sheep pastured in the grassy foothills. Tidy farmsteads could be seen amid the greenery and the rocks, like jewels in velvet cushions.
From the hills and vales of Camerone, a rider could look east across the Marches, that alluvial flatland which was once the Pontine Marches and now bordered the Peninsula against the Adriatic Sea fro Rimini south to the waters of the Pescara. Or he might turn his eyes northward toward the greater bulk of the towering Apennines and the vast plain of Lombardy, more than two hundred miles away. Westward lay the spine of the mountains, and beyond them, Rome and all of Tuscany.
Adrian stood in the stirrups in the morning sunlight, turning his gaze to the south. There lay the danger, there in Naples with its ambitious king and his Spanish soldiery. His eyes scanned the road and the gorges on either side, the high black crags and the distant meadows. There was no sign of the men who had attacked them yesterday.
His toe tickled the horse to a run.
As he urged his gray gelding along the road, Adrian studied the vast stone pile of the fortress of Camerone with new eyes. No longer was the rocca just a place to live and eat and collect the few grossos a month which were his pay; it was also a springboard from which he might leap to greatness.
Beside him, the Lady Nicoletta was cantering on a borrowed mare, her green velvet gown and cloak brushed and cleaned, so that her beauty shone forth on the world as it had before the attack of the Spaniards. From time to time she smiled at him, remembering the night they had spent together at the Red Boar. It was a night he was not likely to forget, Adrian told himself. The contessa had been insatiable after she had gained his promise to do murder for her. He himself had been as eager, as potent as she could ask.
Now in the full light of day, with Camerone before him and the inn bedroom far behind, his native common sense was asserting itself. Run cold steel into Count Giulio? Be hung for a deed that would better only the woman beside him? Ah, no. He had enjoyed her body, but it was not reward enough to make him risk his neck.
His eyes slid sideways at her. He would have to put her off, of course, with more promises. Delay her, explain that the opportunity was not ripe, that another time might be more propitious. Failing that, he supposed he would have to make a run for it. Or confess her plans to her husband. But what could he offer the count as proof?
Adrian squirmed in the saddle. No matter where he put his thoughts, he ended at an impasse. Almost he began to curse the fact that he had saved the woman.
Her eyes had been studying the vineyards and the fields of grain, and beyond them the trees that grew along the sloping hillsides. Now she turned to him.
“This is a rich fief, Adrian.”
“You shall be a rich woman, madonna.”
“Ah! You have not forgotten?”
His smile was brilliant, showing his fine white teeth. “How could I forget, cara mia? I dreamed last night—during what little of the night we slept—that I walked hip-deep in golden florins, florins your grace had given me. I rode a horse decked in cloth-of-gold, and my armor was touched with silver. I was a great personage, and I owed it all to you.”
She reached across to press his hand where it held the reins. “You shall be great, indeed. I vow it. Never forget it. Keep it before you like a vision.”
A voice hallowed from the rocca wall-walk Adrian lifted off his borrowed cap and waved it back and forth, imagining the activity and the excitement behind the rocca walls when it was noticed that the contessa rode sidesaddle on a strange mount. The count himself would come into the courtyard to hand her down from the stirrup, questions quivering on his lips and worry in his sunken eyes.
None knew better than Ser Giulio da Varano that the roads were not safe for travelers these days. Spanish men, and outlaws made robbery a reasonable safe way to make a living, everything considered. The escort should have been sufficient to protect her against all but an attack by trooper.
Adrian reined up to let the contessa proceed him. She flashed him a conspiratorial smile as her head bent in acknowledgment of his thoughtfulness. She cantered on, proudly, head up and her cloak fluttering in the breeze.
Hooves clattered on planking, then they were under the portcullis grille, moving through the tunnel-way beneath the barbican and reining up in the courtyard. Stable boys ran for their mounts, two serving women waved kerchiefs with great smiles on their faces, and Count Giulio came striding from the chapel stairs.
“Nicoletta! God be praised you’re safe,” he cried. “The Spanish are up to raiding into the Marches and I feared greatly that you might fall victim to their men at arms.”
“As well I might—save for this young man.”
She permitted her husband to aid her down from the steep saddle. The count was a tall man, almost as tall as Adrian, but his once mighty frame was sadly shrunken, so that he seemed almost a walking skeleton. Looking at him from his height on the gray, Adrian knew a touch of pity.
Sweet Gesu! Stab a dagger into that mess of bones? As well kill a corpse in his grave. He would have made a wry face except that Ser Giulio was turning to stare up at him imperiously, with that look of eagles which he possessed, and Adrian felt himself stiffening.
“Sa-ha! Saved you, did he?”
Adrian was remembering the manner in which the countess and he had disported themselves in the tester bed of the Red Boar, and flushed. The count whooped with delight, seeing that blush but misinterpreting it.
“And he is modest about it! Come down here, young man. Come down.”
He dismounted, noting that several of the men at arms who wore the dagger device of Camerone on their jerkins had come from the long barracks off to one side of the chapel, to stare. He was a newcomer to Camerone, he was a Siennese, they were Umbrians, all of them, and moreover, Adrian was handsome. he was not too well liked in the barracks.
The count surveyed his height and the width of his shoulders. He clapped a palm to his upper arm, testing the thick roll of muscle. His lips widened in a grin.
“A good youth, a good youth,” he nodded.
The countess pushed forward, eyes demurely lowered before the young man, saying, “He is a master with the blade, signor. Macche, but you should have seen him ply the steel before he cut down the last of them.”
“Oh? A swordsman, are you? I wonder what Biagio would say to that?”
Adrian smiled faintly. Biagio was of a cut with the rest of the bravos in the employ of the Count Giulio da Varano, a bully and a cut-purse hiding behind the Camerone dagger, a swaggering tub of talk and muscle. More than once, they had almost come to blows. The Umbrian fancied himself with a blade in his hand, as he was always saying.
The count was shrewd. His eyes touched the loungers near the barracks benches. He said slowly, “I have need of a serjeant, Adrian. Your bravery in rescuing the contessa makes me feel you’d be the man for the job.”
Laughter came up within the Siennese. Promotion because he had saved the noblewoman from one ravisher, only to tumble her himself! Heigh-ho! It was a crazy world.
He said, “I’m not sure whether I’m worthy the honor, your grace.”
It was the turn of the count to smile. “Prove yourself, then. You know the duties of a serjeant? Good! See to them and report to me at dusk.”
Adrian bowed, and watched the contessa take her husband’s arm and move off toward the great hall stair, chattering animatedly. Her hips moved back and forth, as if waving him farewell. Last night he had covered those hips with kisses, as he had held them naked in his arms, he had made them shiver and dance with passion. Adrian sighed. That had been the pleasant part of this business. Now would come the unpleasant and the dangerous.
He turned and walked toward the barracks.
The men were slouching, grinning at him from benches where they sat, from the wall against which they leaned. His heart was thumping fiercely; he knew well enough that one false move, one unguarded statement, and he would lose forever his chance at being an officer for Count Giulio.
One or two of the men catcalled at him.
“How was it, saving the contessa, boy?”
“Was she properly grateful? Lucky you.”
He came to a stop before them. He said, “She was grateful. So was her husband, who made me serjeant in the rocca.”
They looked at one another, then at a big man who was pushing away from the lintel of the barracks door with a scowl darkening his already swarthy features.
“How’s this? Serjeant? You?”
His laughter came out loud and jeering. Adrian only stared at him, telling himself not to lose his temper. Peste! Temper was no good to anyone, as more than one of his mother’s soldier-lovers had assured him. Be angry, stay cool. This was the secret. The anger the goad, the coldness to rein it in.
“You laugh like the animal you most resemble, Biagio—the jackass. When you cease from braying, I’ll go on.”
“Why, you—you goffo!”
Adrian grinned. Diavolo! It worked. Biagio went the color of new grapes, so furious he was, and his ham-like hands balled into fists. Adrian became even colder.
“You others! Inside with you, and polish up your gear. There are Spaniards outside these walls. We may be called on to face them.”
“Bastardo!” howled Biagio. “No man stirs a finger.”
“A half dozen strokes of his strap for you, my fine rebel,” Adrian said. “Now get inside or I’ll make it a dozen.”
The heavyset Umbrian looked around him at his cronies. They were half a mind to obey Adrian—the habit of obedience is close to the soul of a military man—yet half of a mind to defy him.
Biagio growled, “I think you’re playing us a joke. I say you aren’t our serjeant at all.”
The others seized on that excuse to howl and advance upon the youth. Adrian held up a hand. “If you think I lie—go ask the count. But wait! If he confirms my new appointment, your back takes a full dozen lash strokes. Is it understood?”
They turned from Adrian to their comrade, suddenly relishing the play. They would punish Adrian in their own fashion, were he jesting; he risked his in what they looked upon as a gamble. Biagio risked the dozen stripes on his naked body. Either way, the onlookers stood to gain some entertainment.
Biagio shuffled his feet, staring from one face to the other, hunting for encouragement. All he saw were blank faces and gleeful eyes. It was his move, now.
Adrian clapped his hands.
“All right, inside on the double. Fa subito!”
Biagio was the first man to wheel and lunge through the doorway. Adrian felt the perspiration begin to ooze from his pores, now the first test was at an end. He had faced down the first rebellion. The others would be long in coming, now they admitted he was master.
His voice preceded him into the long, narrow room where twig beds covered with hides lay along the walls. Here the soldiers lived, here they kept their small possessions in leather sacks at the foot of the beds, here they let time and the sweep of destiny bypass the tiny eddy of their dull little world.
“All this is changed,” Adrian growled from the doorway.
They scowled at him, but now it was a different sort of scowl. All soldiers scowl at orders they resent, but this is not the scowl of disobedience. They jumped when Adrian clapped his palms and they brought cleaning rags and mail shirts and swords and metal caps out into the sunlight. They sat down cross-legged while Adrian went to the old aumbry that had been discarded by Count Giulio’s grandfather in the days when he had warred against King Ladislaus of Naples, and from it he brought the leather containers of goats’ bone marrow, which would protect their metal gear from rusting, even when it rained.
He went around pouring out the loose grease, and then paused to watch them begin their tasks. After the polishing would come the weapons inspection, and after that the practice at the target butts in the meadow beyond the rocca walls.
Three men he set to cleaning rust spots off their swords, two others he ordered to replace the cordings on their crossbows. The rest he led out into the meadow and put them to work firing at barrels swinging from long poles thrown over crossbars.
“You’ll thank me when the Spanish come,” he chuckled to their grumbles. “Ha! And when you run among the dead bodies to strip them and grow wealthy, you’ll praise my name with those of the saints.”
They thought him mad, but did what he asked.
Adrian did not believe the Spanish would come into the Apennines to Camerone, but he would be as ready for them as he might. The lances—fifty in all, was enough of a drain on the treasury of little Cameron—were under the orders of the capitano, a Bergamese named Gubbio Sodini. His own concern was the foot soldiers, the crossbowmen and the few pike-men
Once he glanced up from a target butt and saw the old count standing on a ridge, staring down at him. The wind flapped his worn cloak about his skeletal frame, he looked like death brooding over the countryside. Adrian wondered at his thoughts.
At night, he went into the great hall to make his report. The count and his countess were at table, the many lighted candles making the table cloth and the silver goblets ablaze as with an inner fire. Jealousy flared in the youth. He would have liked to be sitting here, feasting on rich red Valsassina, across the board from the Lady Nicoletta in the low-cut gown that exposed her shoulders and the vale between her white breasts. Diavolo! His hunger for this luxury was such that he could almost taste it.
This opulence was not for him. He had eaten his cheese and coarse barley bread and the gobbets of lamb at his evening meal with good appetite, and washed it down with cheap Zibibbo. He supposed he should be grateful for the extra wine ration the count had ordered.
As the count sipped from his beaker, Adrian recounted his doings of the day. He was aware that the contessa was watching him from under her long lashes.
“So then,” said the count when he was done. “You begin well. The men obey you. It is a good sign. Tell me, Adrian, do you believe the Neapolitans will come raiding as far as Camerone?”
“I do not know, signor.”
“If you do not know, what should we do?”
“Send out riders.”
The old man glanced at his wife. “Madonna the countess does not believe they will dare go to such lengths. It would be madness, she says.
“The madness would lie in not preparing for the possibility.”
The nobleman slapped the tabletop. “Macche! And so say I! Only the ostrich hides its head from danger while the rest of its being booby body lies exposed—or so the travelers of our world tell us. We shall not be so stupid, eh?”
“Tomorrow, you and I will ride—you do ride?—to examine the countryside. If the Spanish are in force, we will find the evidences of it.” Ser Giulio sighed, and added, “These are terrible times in which we live Adrian. We must adjust our thinking to them.”
The times were terrible, indeed. Italy was a ground on which the wars of the Guelphs and Ghibellines still continued in desultory fashion, following the bitterness of the past three centuries. From the south, Spain by way of its cousin the King of Naples, Ferdinand, also know as the Duke Ferrante, looked northward with greedy eyes toward the rich Papal States, the fecundity of Tuscany and the broad agrarian wealth of the Lombard plain. From the north and west, a powerful France under the despotic rule of Charles VIII aspired to all this wealth itself.
Between the two lay the Pope in Rome, quarreling with the nobles who had taken the lands and patrimonies belonging to the Tiara. Milan hated Venice and Venice wanted Milanese lands, and Florence tried to be a balance weight between them with the sometime help of Siena, Pisa and Lucca.
The nobles hated the Pope, the Orsini hated the Borgias, and the Montagues despised the Capulets. It was indeed, a sorry world.
Tiredly the count gestured. Adrian bowed and took his leave.
He was patrolling the donjon wall-walk some hours later, when the Lady Nicoletta came to him, slipping through the shadows and clad only in a long black cape which hid all her body saving only her white face. Her hair was unbound and hung down over her shoulders and as she hurried toward him, he saw the pallor of her ankles where they rose upward out of her scarpines.
“Madonna,” he breathed, and drew her into the darkness below the great wooden catapult. She was perfumed, and seemed warm from bed.
“It is clever of you, Adrian—oh, so clever!”
“What was clever, signora?”
“To maneuver Ser Giulio into riding out with you tomorrow! Peste! What an opportunity to slay him. Alone with him, the Spanish in the neighborhood, and your dagger ready to your hand.”
“Your grace,” he exclaimed in dismay, “I had no such intention.”
Her laughter was quick. “Then I’m glad I pointed out the opportunity.” She pressed closer to overwhelm him with the memory of her flesh.
“Can’t you understand, Adrian? I’ve been thinking and thinking. It will be difficult to kill him here in the rocca, or in the town below. But on a lonely road! Who could ask for better surroundings?”
Her point was well taken, he knew. It would be simple to slip steel between the easily discerned ribs of the old man, easy to claim the Spanish had cut them off and attacked them. Leave the old man dead, ride for the fortress and babble out his story, and—
Ah! And then what?
Would the contessa profess to believe him? She would have no other way of knowing whether the death of her husband had been at his hand or at Spanish hands. He might easily murder the count and escape any punishment. After all, he could be telling the truth.
He doubted very much that he could stoop to assassination. A killing in the heat of battle was one thing, deliberate murder quite another. Gazing down into the wide eyes of the noblewoman, breathing in her panted breath, he realized it would not be easy to lie to her. She would sense his reluctance, perhaps not then hesitate in some manner to denounce him to her husband.
“It is as you say, your grace—very easy. Perhaps too easy.”
“What do you mean?” she asked sharply.
“Surely he will order out a few lances to act as escort?”
He smiled and shrugged. “I shall try, certainly.”
She nodded as if satisfied, glancing about her drawing the heavy woolen cape closer about her shoulders. “It grows cold here. The wind is biting off the peaks.”
His arm went about her, finding her soft and yielding under the great-cloak Was she naked under it? He did not know the customs of great ladies when they slept, but the stable girls he had known wore nothing but their own skins to bed. An excitement grew inside him.
“There is a little guardhouse not far away,” he whispered. “It will serve as a shelter to your body.”
She shook her head, but lifted her mouth to be kissed. His arms went around her, bringing her softness in against his hardness. Her lips were moist and open, clinging to his mouth. After a moment her tongue invaded his mouth and toyed with his.
“You are a young bull,” she laughed. “Didn’t last night tire you at all? Peste! You tempt me, you do.”
“The guardhouse, madonna,” he breathed.
She pushed him away. “No. I must not. He sleeps but sometimes he wakes up and goes to the library to read his scrolls and Psalters. He must not find me gone.”
Her hand reached out to him, to clutch avidly.
“Toro mio,” she breathed, and let him go.
Then she was running back along the wall-walk, white ankles flying. Her whisper came like the wind floating down off the Apennines. “Tomorrow, then I am a widow. Tomorrow, tomorrow.”
He cursed slowly and with sullen anger.
The morrow was cold and dry, with the sun a white ball in a blue morning sky. The count was early at the stables, supervising the saddling of two horses, his thin frame clad in a heavy ganache. Adrian joined him after a hastily eaten breakfast of figs and milk, his sleepless night showing in the down pulled corners of his lips.
Yet he was armed with a sword, and accoutred in chain-mail shirt and steel cap, with a shield ready to be hung at his saddle cantle. The count looked at him from beneath arched brows.
“You go as if to war, he pointed out.
Adrian bowed his head. “We ride to find an enemy, signor, as you say.”
The count puffed out his cheeks. “By which you man, the enemy might just as easily find us. There is no fool like an old fool. I shall order out ten lances to keep us company.”
Adrian relaxed for the first time since the Lady Nicoletta had left him the previous evening. All night long he had lain staring up at the beams of the barracks room, wondering how he might avoid killing the count, yet at the same time remaining in the good graces of the contessa. He had dressed in chain-mail and steel cap this morning hoping that the nobleman would take the hint.
He had not suggested they take an escort, the idea must come from the count himself, for later if the contessa questioned her husband he must take the responsibility for that decision. Were Adrian to suggest it, the Lady Nicoletta would be understandably suspicious of his intentions.
Now he rode with a light heart, cantering ahead of the old man as guide, offering himself as a target for any crossbow quarrels or longbow arrows that might whiz down from the rocky heights His eyes were alert to nay shifting shadow, to the branches of the cypress trees where the wind moved them, to the white ruins of what had been a Roman temple and was now no more than a nesting place for hawks.
The green tints of summer were upon the land, yet snow still lingered on the high peaks. Olive trees were budding in the lower foothills and from this high up along the road to Visso the land was a mixture of furrowed fields and gray granite sills and earth pillars afforded shelter from one man or a dozen.
Adrian had no worry over the main body of the Spanish soldiers. He would hear them long before they came into view. It was the outriders who bothered him. As he rounded a curve he might run into a score of mounted lances and then it would be cut, slash—and devil take the slowest.
They rode all morning without event, seeing no more than farmers in their fields and goatherds pasturing their flocks. A little past midday, the count confessed himself satisfied.
“If there are Spanish, they won’t come this way. Perhaps from the Marches to the east or from Assisi to the west, but scarcely from the south.”
“It would be a good idea to send out riders every day,” Adrian advised, and added quickly, “There is no need to trouble your grace, however. I will be happy to act as lookout.”
Count Giulio grunted. “You’re too valuable a man with those lazy good for nothings who take my pay for loafing in the barracks. I’ll send a lance or two.”
Adrian hid his disappointment. It would have been a good excuse to give the contessa. When he was on the road riding to find the Spanish, he could not be at the rocca murdering the count.
They cantered back through the afternoon haze with hunger in their bellies. As they came into the rocca yard, the Lord of Camerone ordered that they be given extra food and a double measure of wine. His cheeks were flushed and his step was springy as he walked away from his mount, and Adrian thought that he looked far healthier than he had for several months.
The late summer of the year is a busy time in a feudal world. There are fresh crops in the ground to be harvested and bushes thick with berries to be plucked. It is a time for fishing the swollen waters of the rivers and the mountain brooks, and for going into the highland places for wild game. With the balmy weather, the craftsmen can make repairs against the ravage of winter winds and snows. The world is alive with a great rustle that resounds from peasant hutch and castle wall.
Adrian found the days which were already growing shorter, affording far too little time in which to accomplish all his duties. Daily he marched his foot soldiers into the meadows for practice at the butts, instituting a program of money prizes for the most accomplished crossbowman. There were daily prizes to encourage the lesser marksmen to have a good day and so to improve their aim and weekly prizes for those whose quarrels flew dead on target almost all the time.
He paraded them in the roadway leading to the castle, teaching them to wheel and run at one cry, to drop flat at another. They puffed and sweated, the growled and groused but he saw to it that they learned, and that they obeyed.
One rainy days, and in this season the rains were heavy across the Apennines, blown by the squally reffoli with its hundred mile an hour gusts, he set them to work fashioning more crossbow bolts, refurbishing and refitting worn parts of their armor and their weapons.
“I am a hard taskmaster.” he told them, “but I do what I do to save your lives. SI, I do!”
He grinned in their glum faces.
“The Spanish will be upon us before you know it, and when the day comes when you must fight them, you will be ready to teach them what it means to attack such bravos as you shall be.”
They did not believe him, of course. They knew in their hearts and minds that no Neapolitans were ever going to come up the road from Visso. Adrian was making it all up, as an excuse to look good when the count came to inspect them. And with the fatality of their kind, they accepted it as part of their life. There were no good serjeants, each one was a bastardo and a killjoy, a combination ogre and martinet.
“You drive them hard,” Lord Giulio protested once to Adrian as he sat his saddle and watched the complicated drills they performed among the rocks and gorges of the mountain roads.
“Not hard enough, signor! One day soon they may fight for read beside this road. They will be ready for that day, believe me.”
He ate with his men in the bare, somewhat cold cellar beneath the rocca great hall. Two fireplaces, each large enough to hold half a tree, barely managed to keep them warm, for it was cold and damp in these high hills, and the rain seemed to penetrate deep into the bones.
Three weeks went by, and Cameron was still as peaceful as it had been for the past hundred years. the men began grumbling now in earnest. Biagio led the dissenters in loudness and coarseness of speech. He protested from the moment he rolled off his twig bed until he lay down upon it at night.
One afternoon he lost his temper.
He had been running and dropping, leaping up and charging, whirling to seek shelter behind the great rocks piled here and there about the gorges. His foot slipped and he sat down hard in a goat dropping. The other men stared, then broke out in loud laughter, slapping their thighs and clinging to one another.
“Not another inch do I go,” he vowed bitterly.
“On your feet,” snapped Adrian.
“Not if I die here,” growled Biagio, and called upon the saints in heaven and the devils in hell to witness his oath.
“Then you shall die,” announced Adrian, and whipped out his sword.
Biagio leaped to his feet, yanking at his own blade. “Can I believe it?” he asked the others. In love with his own swordsmanship, he could not credit skill to any other man.
He flung himself forward, to be met by a strong paratta di picco that turned his point aside. Instantly Adrian was inside his guard, steel flashing. His point thrust, scratched, and came away.
Dumbly, Biagio stared down at the red slash from which blood was oozing to stain his sleeve. His face twisted into an ugly mask.
“A lucky stroke,” he snarled.
Adrian grinned. “I’ll make your other arm the same way, stupid one. Observe!” His came in swiftly in the attaco, his steel flashing from a feint to a disengage to the thrust. Biagio fell back, panting. The blade had been a flash of brightness before him. Invisible! Only by retreating had he saved himself another wound.
“Fight fair,” he bellowed, lowering his point.
“Why? Just because you know only the hack and slash methods of the street brawl? I have been taught by masters, Biagio. By men who would spit upon you as a crude know-nothing. But come—get back to it!”
He raised his sword but Biagio wanted no more of this unequal fight, and flung his blade to one side, scowling and flushed.
Adrian said, “Go clean yourself and come back on the double. I’m going to train you until you can do what I want in your sleep. Fa subito!”
After that, there was no more open rebellion. The grumbling remained but it was a subdued mutter at best, and Adrian looked upon it as a way of letting off the anger which tired muscles and aching bodies built in the men. He would have been alarmed had there been no grousing.
The rains went away and the sun shone down and warmth crept from the lowlands and the Marches into the Umbrian Hills. The roads firmed, the puddles disappeared, and the last summer flowers opened up their petals.
The days came and the days went.
Even Adrian was beginning to doubt the strong intuition that is so much the mark of the born warrior. This was the place and the time to strike, surely, if Ferdinand meant to force a pathway into Tuscany and the Papal States. Drive a wedge into Umbria by taking Camerone and installing his lances here, use the rocca as a supply depot for his armies, become a hawk perched above the soft underbelly of Florence, Rome and Pisa: it was a simple but effective plan.
It had to be, or there was no sense in the world.
He spent his nights on the wall-walks, staring southward, hunting the flicker of light that would be a torch. His days in the rocky gorges were interrupted by his lonely rides on the gray gelding south as far as the waters of the Chienti, where he paused to survey the river washing eastward to the sea.
Nowhere were there any Spanish.
And then, toward the middle of September, on a night that was cool and with the promise of coming autumn, the Lady Nicoletta sought him out. She came striding along the wall-walk, clad from neck to ankles in her dark cape, its hood drawn up to hide all her face but her dark eyes.
He was leaning against a merlon as she advanced through the shadows. At the first sound of her footfalls he drew away and made a little bow.
“You have failed me,” she berated him.
He spread his hands apologetically. “Madonna, I have been so busy with the troops, with my duties—”
“Your duties! Pah!”
Her slippered foot stamped. “You could have slain him long weeks ago, that day you rode out to check upon the Spanish. It was your finest opportunity. You refused to take it.”
Her face was stormy below the hood, and her flashing eyes indicative of her anger and her disappointment. Adrian glanced about, then caught her by a wrist and drew her again the building wall.
“Would you have had me do the deed before a dozen lances? They’d have cut me down before my blade was up to its hilt in his chest.” His eyes narrowed as he pretended dismay. “Or is my death a part of your plan? Do you intend to be rid of husband and lover in the same stroke of the dagger?”
“That’s not so. I swear it!”
Her fingers caught his fingers, drew him with her as she settled her spine against the stones behind her. Her body was soft beneath the great cloak, suggesting nudity.
She breathed, ‘It’s just that I grow impatient with delay. There is a fever in me to own Camerone, to make you my captain of lances, to take you freely to my bed.”
The prospect pleased Adrian too, but not at the cost of the old count’s life. He knew well enough that the contessa would not hesitate to denounce him before her husband should he fail her; she could turn vindictive easily enough. She would scarcely mention the night at the Read Boar, that was a month ago or more and the Lord Giulio would wisely ask why she had held her tongue until now. No, it would be for another crime the Lady Nicoletta would accuse him.
If her gave her the chance, that is.
“Where’s the count?” he wondered, sense alert for danger.
“Sound asleep and snoring. There is a little powder I posses, made from the juice of the poppy flower, that makes a man so drowsy, he sleeps like a corpse for ten hours or more. No, no. We are safe enough.”
The entire rocca slept around them, for his was a solitary watch on the wall-walks Her arm came white and smooth out of the cape sleeve as it hooked his neck and brought his lips to hers. She kissed him hungrily, with darting tongue as her breasts moved slowly against his chest.
She bit his earlobe with her sharp white teeth, laughing softly. “You devil? You know I cannot live without you. Now be sensible.”
His hand found the opening in the cape, slipping inside so his palm might discover once again the soft smoothness of her hip. It was as he thought, she was nude beneath the heavy cloak, and her skin was flushed as if she had come from slumber. His fingers touched her buttock, fondled it a moment as she panted softly, then moved around to her mounded belly.
She was half turned away from him, with the back of her head against his shoulder at his hand toyed with her nakedness. There was no hurry in Adrian, he was not tired, and the contessa seemed disposed to pleasure. From her middle his hand sought out her breasts, lifting each white mound and shaking it gently so that its nipple scratched against the coarse wool of the cape. Her gasp assured him that she enjoyed his strokings, and when her soft hips pressed back into his loins, she knew well enough his own mood of the moment.
“We must find a way—and quickly, Adriano,” she breathed.
“Ah, of course, signora,” he murmured, running his lips across her soft throat. Her buttocks cradled him, they moved and bumped lazily, exciting him to still more daring caresses.
As his hand slipped down to cup her, she gasped and whimpered. Her fingers caught that hand, held it still. Her breath was thick in her open lips, her eyes were half closed in ecstasy, yet the youth sensed the iron strength that lay deep inside this woman.
“Fa subito! You must do it quickly now,” she cried.
Adrian was startled. Did she expect him to make love to her here on the wall-walk like a lusting schoolboy with his first prostitute? Had he a bed, or even a sheltered place, he would—
Adrian bit his lower lip.
Gesu! What a fool I am! She does not speak of whoring—but of warring! The Spanish are coming. Soon, soon! She knows! Somehow the contessa could pinpoint the day and the moment. Treachery was a perfume off her body in his nostrils.
His lips dipped to hr open mouth and he used his muscular strength to crush down any resistance she might have offered. She wanted to talk about the Spanish? Va bene! So did he! But only on his own terms.
“I cannot wait, my lady,” he panted.
“No, Adriano, mi animale. Not yet—ah, no. Wait!”
He would not be held off. His arms banded her, he lifted her and swept her back against the stone merlon where it was black with shadow. His palms were under the cape, lifting it so his hands could clutch her soft thighs, lift and spread them to imprison her between his body and the wall-walk
Let her understand the extent of his need. Let her feel the swollen hunger of his manhood. Perhaps then her own senses would swim in a sea of sensuality so thick that the sharpness of her mind might be dimmed a little. Just a little, just enough so that the lock upon her tongue might come undone!
His lips swept from her throat to her breasts as he nuzzled aside a fold of the heavy mantle. Across those heavy breasts he ran his tongue, listening to the panted words she cried above his golden head.
“Adriano, mi animale! Ah, so much the bull, the stallion. I cannot—not here and in full view of the rooftops of—no, no. Ah, Gesu!”
Torture her. Make her mad with desire.
Her nipples were berry tarts to be tasted, to be enjoyed. They filled his mouth, one after the other, and now he felt the contessa slithering herself against him, clutching his muscled arms until her fingernails sank deep. The pain was a spur to his own passions.
“Now, you fool! I ache for you.”
She misunderstood him, as earlier he had misunderstood her.
“I meant the Spanish. When will they attack?”
She heard the words through a haze of need and hunger. His hands on her buttocks, his lips at her breasts, the strength of him pressing to her own desire, was as a whip laid across her womanhood. She arched to him, blindly seeking, but his strong fingers held her back.
“Don’t you understand?” he panted.
Her head shook back and forth. The hood had fallen and now in the brilliance of the moon, her face was made from silver and ebony. Her lips were twisted grotesquely, and the lashes of her closed eyes lay like fans upon her upper cheeks. She was a woman who could think only of her body and its demands.
“The time to kill him, cara mia!” he breathed.
He glazed eyes tried to focus. “What?” she asked.
“The time to kill his is when the Spanish arrive. Can’t you see? The rocca and everything else will be in confusion. There will be much running around. Then when the dagger strikes and the count is dead—macche! We lower the drawbridge across the gorge and the deed’s accomplished.”
She hung heavy in his arms, her hips moving up and down. Her head had dropped back and he saw her tongue tip come out to moisten her lips.
He wondered what she was thinking, wondered indeed, if she were thinking at all. There was a stupor about her which showed how deeply the web of sensuality had fastened in her flesh. Slowly her head went back and forth.
“I know nothing,” she sobbed.
“You do, my darling. You do!”
It was hard to think with her buttocks filling his palms and her flesh moving steadily, steadily against him, with her breasts bared in the back pulled folds of the cloak, the dark nipples staring up at him like accusing eyes.
“The attack on the road was planned. How else would the Spanish have known just where to find us? We were not followed from Visso. I was watching. No, no. It came from a side road, suddenly—without warning!”
Adrian told himself he was a fool not to have seen it before now. The attack to capture the person o the contessa, her kidnapping so that with her person in his power, King Ferdinand might make terms with the old count. Quarter his soldiers, he paid for their keep, make terms with Naples and permit its army to move out of Camerone and across all central Italy. This is what Ferdinand wanted.
Adrian alone had spoiled it, by playing hero.
There were to have been no survivors so that Duke Ferrante could tell any story he chose. The contessa would be his prisoner, amenable to his will because he would have promised her sole possession of Camerone for her participation in his scheme.
On the off chance that it might fail there would have been an alternative plan, perhaps this very one to murder the count. Peste! The Lady Nicoletta had come to find him this night to seduce him to obedience, for the very reason that the attack was to come soon. Soon!
She knew the time and the hour.
So also, must he!
Gently he lowered her slippered feet to the wall-walk She clung to him, her hair tangled about her shoulders where her hood had fallen back, her eyes searching his face in frantic desperation, to find the reason for his sudden continence.
“Adriano, what is it? Why did we stop?”
“You have tortured me enough, madonna.” He caught her wrist, drew her stumbling beside him with the great-cloak flapping from her shoulders and at her ankles, along the wall toward a small sentry box built against an angle of the keep.
His arm pushed open the door.
“In here we shall have privacy,” he whispered, and yanked down the cape as she passed him. She cried out, clutching for the failing cloak.
He drew it away from her, tossed it across a wooden stool. She stood bathed in moonlight, all white silver and ebon hair. Her nipples were almost as black as the triangle at her loins. She laughed suddenly, teasingly, and ran her palms down her sides to her middle, then touched herself lightly, and reached up to cradle her breasts. Boldly she lifted them at him.
“So now. We are alone. There is none to see or hear.”
He began to remove his clothes. She watched him, smiling lazily. When he was naked and stepping toward her, she lifted her hand.
“Wait, Adriano. There is something I must say.”
“Good. Tell me when the Spanish are coming.”
Her eyebrows lifted. “Are you mad?”
“You know! Just tell me, that I may strike when that moment comes. As soon as I do, we’ll let the Spanish in and you shall be mistress of Cameron.”
She advanced on him, pressed her softness against him, locking her bare arms about his neck and drawing his lips down to her wide-mouthed kiss. Adrian shuddered, understanding that the whip hand was gone from him to this woman. No longer could he use the lash of desire to learn what she did; rather, she would use it on him to control his actions.
Laughter was a musical bubble in her throat as her thighs opened, closed. His palms were sliding up and down her fleshy back to the rounds of her soft shoulders and to the curves of her firm buttocks. She arched to him, still laughing, and felt him quiver.
“You shall strike then, Adriano?” she whispered.
“And kill the count my husband?”
He was babbling, not knowing what he promised. Her lips, the teasing nails of her gentle fingers, were exciting him to madness. He would have agreed to anything at this moment of hysteria. The woman sensed this, she made as if to draw back, but she was caught up in her own net.
Her hands pushed him toward a wooden chair.
“Sit down, sit down,” she panted.
He sat there, looking up at her as she came to straddle his tensed thighs and lower herself gently, carefully, gasping a moment, then groaning as her full weight came down upon his body. She shuddered. Lazily, and then more swiftly, her pallid hips began to move.
I am a slave to my own body! This woman who uses me for her pleasure is not in love with me. She draws me to her by the power of her lust, and were she to ask anything of me but that one thing, murder—before God, I would do it for her!
He was an unusual youth, he understood his weakness, a frailty against the pleasure of the flesh, that sin against which the fathers of Holy Church inveighed most strongly.
Ah, but who can blame me? This body on my flesh carries me away from this life of deadly danger into an Elysium of the senses, where nothing exists but we two and the furious strife by which we play at godhood!
His fingers were sunken into her hips, his lips were savage with the breasts she fed him. And when he cried out in the explosive spasm that shook him wildly, which drained him of his strength like some fabled succubus, she whispered in his ear, over and over, as if she spoke some litany to the devil.
Not until the contessa was gone from the wall-walks did he realize what she had told him in the moment of her own excitement. To play the traitor was to climax her portrayal of the tart.
He knew now when the Spaniard would come to Camerone.
He saw them from a bend in the road fifteen miles from the rocca, a great line of men in plate and mail, riding horses decked with the golden trappings of Aragon, Castile and Naples. Their lance points twinkled in the sunlight that reflected also off their sword hilts and their helmets, their shields and crossbows and pike-heads
Adrian drew a deep breath.
Gesu! They were as the sands of the seashore.
The little force inside the rocca was nothing to this juggernaut of men and arms. They would be swept away, slain and captured, before the day was dark with twilight. It was a hopeless cause.
His brain worked furiously as he tensed his legs in the saddle, easing his weight against the gallop of the gray horse. Va bene! If this is what fate wanted, it would be what he gave that fickle damsel. Si! Murder the count. Open the rocca gates and lower the drawbridge. The Spanish would enter, the Lady Nicoletta would own Camerone and he—ah!
What of Adrian the serjeant?
Would the countess point him out as the killer of her husband or would she do as she promised, make him captain of her soldiers? It was a rick he must take. Captain or corpse, he would strike down the Lord Giulio and chance his punishment.
He was standing in the stirrups and waving his velvet cap, shouting the alarm before he was within hearing distance. The men on the wall did not need to hear his words, his manner was sufficient warning. They began to run through the corridors and cortiles of the fortress, bringing dismay where they went.
Behind him as he galloped into the great courtyard, Adrian could hear the rattle and clang of the drawbridge chains as that wide planking came up from its position over the gorge. Built as it was on a thick hump of solid rock thrusting away from the rest of the great tor which formed its base, the fortress was almost invulnerable. The deep gorges all around it, the sheer stone walls of donjon, keep and barbican, placed it out of reach of everything but the strongest arrow.
Only from inside could the rocca be taken.
As he came down out of the saddle, Adrian told himself he was the finest weapon Duke Ferrante of Naples owned. His right hand touched his dagger-hilt, he lifted and shoved it back inside the scabbard. With this dagger, he would slay the old count as soon as he laid eyes on him.
His footfalls were empty echoes in the castle hallways. When he burst into the solar room where the count conducted his business matters, he found only the contessa.
“Where is he?” he croaked.
“Gone to fetch his armor, the old fool!’
She gestured him across the room toward the bifore window, pointing down at the town far below. Adrian could make out a motley assembly of men in peasant garments, in woolen caps, in leather aprons and wool breeks.
“His people are going to fight for him,” she exclaimed bitterly. “He conceives it to be his duty to lead them into battle.”
Relief washed over Adrian. “Then I need not—you know. The Spanish will do my job for me.”
She whirled, her hand gripping his arm. The eyes she turned on him were slitted with fury. “Are you afraid? Is this why you keep putting off the deed? Answer me, answer me!”
“No,” he said harshly. “I’m not afraid. For the reward you promised I’ll do what you require.”
He was interrupted by the clank of armor. He whirled toward the doorway to see three grooms carrying in the steel cuishes, paldrons, breastplate and tassets which was some of the war gear of a mounted nobleman, followed by two more with the rest of the gilded armor which the old count had worn into battle years before in the strength of his youth. Adrian could make out the black dagger on the red shield that was his device.
The count came limping after, head bent against the thoughts that turned his face so gloomy. He halted in the doorway, seeing his wife and Adrian close together by the window. He stared a moment, then a smile touched his thin lips and he came hurrying to join them.
“Adrian, my boy! Your warning has given us time to prepare. I am most grateful, most grateful.”
The old hand, thickly veined, clapped him on the shoulder. He stood between the husband and the wife, with her hand pressing his forearm, squeezing it as if to trigger the stabbing muscles of his hand and arm. Snatch out the dagger! Drive it deep; her nails were urging.
And yet, there were five grooms in the room.
He could not nerve himself to be so careless. The sweat stood on his forehead, his arm trembled, and there was a dryness in his throat. Is it the fact of murder that holds me motionless? Or the fear of punishment? He was honest enough to admit he did not know.
The count turned away and watched as the grooms began fitting his armor together, latching solerets to greave, and elbow-cop to vambrace. The contessa stirred.
“There was your chance,” she hissed.
His eyes turned toward her, seeing the hate and the fury that contorted her lovely features. Dazedly he thought, King Ferdinand must have promised her much for her to be so eager for the kill.
“They would have cut me down, signora.”
She turned her black eyes upon him, and her full mouth sneered, “Does it mean so much to you, the opposition of five peasants? They would not dare touch you if I ordered them not to do so!”
This might be true. Yet he did not know which way her grace would jump, once the deed was done. He felt helpless, standing there.
Then the count was turning, staring back at him. Adrian knew his blood was running cold in his veins. Did the old man suspect? Those dark eyes were studying him so carefully! Were they seeing him hung high upon a gibbet in the courtyard? The sweat ran down his chest.
“Adrian, come here.”
The old count gestured at the armor that was now ready to be donned. “You can manage a horse. Can you also manage plate armor?”
“I—I don’t know, signor. I was to fight with the crossbowmen and the pikes. The armor, now—”
“Pah! Damn the foot soldiers. My people need a leader. I am not strong enough to fight all day in that armor. I would fall from my saddle at the first encounter. Yet I dare not let them down.”
His eyes swung to the waiting youth. “You are my size when I was young. Big in the shoulder, lean in the middle and with good thick legs.” He chuckled, staring past Adrian at his countess. “You might almost be my son except for your yellow hair.”
His hand moved. “Put it on! Help him, men.”
Adrian let himself be stripped of breeches and mail shirt, dagger belt and undergarment. He stood with only a loincloth about his lean middle, aware that the old count had forgotten his wife was watching from the bifore window. There were more immediate things to be concerned about than modesty.
The grooms brought the quilted hacqueton and chausses to protect his chest and legs from armor chafe. He felt them lift and hook the breastplate into place, and slipped his arms into the jointed pauldron and rerebrace. There was the sound of metal clanking, of leather straps being laced. Within moments he had become a man of iron. Only his head was unprotected, but the great helm would cover his poll when it was put on just before the battle.
He said, “Your grace, the Spanish have us out-numbered at least by five to one.”
Ser Giulio chuckled, “The more reason to fight hard then.”
“I don’t mind a fight,’ Adrian said gloomily, “but this will be a slaughter. We have no chance at all.”
The old man came around to stand in front of him. “Adrian, I have watched you drilling your men along the road by which the Neapolitans must march to reach the rocca. Your instinct made you select the one spot in all Camerone where a single man can meet five and drive them back away from him. Trust that instinct. It is the mark of a born soldier.”
The count stood back to run his eyes up and down his armor. “No one will know you, with your visor down. All will think it is I inside that steel-work”
The voice of the contessa struck across his words. “Are you a coward, that you permit another to fight in your place?”
He turned slowly and Adrian saw his face go gray and drawn. “My lady wife, when a man becomes old, he often grows wise as well. I do this not to save my own life, but to protect the lives of the men and women in the town below—aye, and in the rocca itself—who put their trust in me.”
He sighed and spread his hands. “What would it accomplish were I to go down there and die at the first passage of arms? My people would be disheartened, I would be slain to no purpose, and defeat would be your fate.”
When your husband turned away, Adrian caught the full glance which the Lady Nicoletta hurled at him. There was bitterness and fury, hate and dismay in those black eyes. Adrian shivered, wondering if her emotions were directed against the old man or against him for having failed her.
He clanked after the count, feeling oddly futile.
The grooms put on his helm in the great hall, away from eyes that might betray the fact it was a yellow head ad not a gray one inside its crested bulk. Now Adrian could only see the world through the eye slits, a narrow wedge of hall and part of the count’s head. When he spoke, he realized that he made a hollow boom which would serve to disguise his voice.
In the courtyard, the hoist ropes were swung down and fastened about his middle, and he was raised up into the high-peaked saddle. From it hung a huge sword, and beyond it, on the other side, a battle-ax A lance was pushed up into his hand. Beneath his thighs, he felt the black warhorse shift its stance, eager for the fray. Miserably, he wished he might feel the same way.
The lance was not completely unfamiliar to his hand. One of the lovers his mother bedded was a lancer whose pride in his occupation compelled him to teach young Adrian the art of using the forty foot pole tipped with its yard long point of sharp steel. As the others taught him swordsmanship, so Benedetto Chiuci had taught him the use of the lance.
It was not the prospect of the fight which disheartened him but the utter uselessness of it. Defeat was certain, this was a waste of time and human lives, going out to do battle along a narrow stretch of road.
Yet as he clattered out of the courtyard and across the drawbridge plankings in his black armor etched with red and silver, the roar that went up from the gathered lances, the crossbowmen and the pike-men, was enough to stiffen the spine which had bent under the weight of armor and despair. Adrian lifted his heavy lance and shook it.
“For Camerone,” he boomed.
“For Camerone!” his soldiers bellowed.
For the nonce, he was the count. Va bene! He would be a count. His gauntleted hand waved Gubbio Sodini and Biagio to him. The captain of lanes looked doubtful of the wisdom of a battle, but Adrian, if fight he must, was going to fight as cleverly and as audaciously as possible.
“Biagio, you are serjeant this day. Adrian is—otherwise occupied.”
The burly arches grinned and swelled his chest.
“You know how to command the men? In the rocks?”
“Better than Adrian himself.”
He would have kicked the man in the mouth for his impertinence, but there was little time for personal indulgence. He lifted his metal gauntlet and waves.
“Go then. Position yourself as you’ve been trained, close by the split oak in among the rocks. When the trumpet sounds, discharge your quarrels. And Biagio! Make every one count.”
The crossbowman knuckled his forehead, turned and bellowed. At his order, the arbalesters came trotting forward, seventy-three in all. They made a brave show in the black and red gipons over their mailed shirts. Each man carried two quivers of crossbow bolts as well as a sword and a dagger.
Adrian waited until they were out of sight around a bend in the road. Then he beckoned the pike-men to proceed him along the narrow roadway, and Captain Gubbio with his lances to follow after him.
Lance-butt in his stirrup, Adrian rode out to war.