Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part eight)
The Sword Decides!
The Hungarians followed thundering across the great square and drew up their horses at the gates of the Castel del Nuovo. Before the crowd, that murmured and drew closer, the guard challenged them.
“Be ashamed you welcome me so to Naples!” cried the Prince in bitterness. “I am Andreas of Hungary.”
The Italian officer eyed the bedraggled riders. “Him they would marry to Madonna Giovanna?”
“Your King! Stand aside!”
Konrad of Gottif inched his horse nearer the Prince’s.
“Fool, there! Must you hear again that you bar the way to Andreas of Hungary, whom your escort should have been at the gates to meet!”
The warden lifted his shoulders. “The King is dying. Everything is in confusion. God’s witness! All in confusion. Perhaps you were not expected so soon, Prince.”
“My herald has surely arrived!”
The Italian, not answering this, ushered forward the Prince and his immediate retainers, but the Hungarian knights, he told them, must go to the Castel del Ovo, where soldiers were quartered.
Angry in heart, Andreas submitted to what he could not help. Some further parley in the glaring sun, and he with a handful of his men were allowed to enter the palace. Crossing the shadowed moat he said, low-voiced, to Konrad, “They wish to humiliate me.”
They waited unnoticed among an assembly of other horsemen in the courtyard, and no heed was taken of their shouts for the seneschal or for any of his servants. Those present spoke absorbed in their own affairs; it seemed to the Prince apparent he had been neither expected, nor was now remembered. He leapt from his horse, flinging the reins to a man of his own. He stomped and shoved up the crowded steps that led into the palace, Konrad of Gottif and Henryk of Belgrade doing likewise, labouring to accompany their lord.
Nobles most concerned in this death, and counsellors of the king, looked to be gathered in the great hall, whispering in their cliques. The darkness was difficult for sun-dazzled eyes to pierce, the high-placed windows admitting little light; and the rich painted walls, the gloom under the arched ceiling, the subdued movements and soft steps, contrasted strongly with the brilliant, noisy streets.
Andreas took off his helmet, faint. He leant against a wall, but lifted his head when a page emerged from the throng to ask his business. Rubbing a hand on his forehead where the helmet had left a red mark, Andreas answered once more with his name.
He added: “Take me to the King.”
The boy stared. Konrad of Gottif repeated the demand in rougher tones. Many by now had turned to watch with interest this splendid young knight in scarlet and leopard-skin.
“My lord, you cannot see the King,” faltered the page.
“Take me, then, to the Duchess Giovanna, my wife.”
“I will seek her.”
“And there, in the person of a lad, goes all the governance of the palace!” frowned Henryk. “Churls…!” He caught sight of the Prince’s face. “Why, are you well, my lord?”
“I feel sick, Henryk. The sun, I think, on my helmet…” Andreas put his hand to his forehead again.
The rumour had circled the hall that the stranger slumped against the wall was to be the Queen’s husband. But these were Giovanna’s courtiers, and they made no move to welcome a Prince arrived with so little state.
Only one man crossed to speak. He was dressed in sumptuous black and silver, his pleasant face soft-featured. “You are the Prince of Hungary? You arrive at a troubled time, my lord, but welcome to Naples! I am Carlo di Durazzo, Madonna Giovanna’s cousin and your own.”
“Signor di Durazzo, yours is the first welcome I have had,” answered Andreas, glancing round the hall.
The look did not communicate. The young Duke smiled. “We think the King will not last the day. At least, his physicians say so.”
With this remark, he returned to his friends. Andreas stood with downcast eyes, drawing heavy breaths.
The voice of the page came: “Will you follow me, good my lord?”
Andreas looked to Konrad of Gottif, and surprised a queasy pallor. Signing that he wanted nothing, he left his comrade, and pursued the page through the staring crowd, trailing a wake of hushed comment.
Up a staircase and down a short corridor they went, to halt before a closed door.
This, the boy pushed, disappearing in soundless retreat behind it, and Andreas walked to the room’s centre. The chamber was large and low-ceilinged, beamed and painted, a quiet space of rich hues and polished wood. The furnishings, few and simple, clustered chiefly near a great carved chimneypiece. To the right was a diamond-paned window that bore the Anjou lilies, the sun flaming glass into jewels, casting doubles of yellow and azure on the polished floor.
Seated on a chair by this window was a lady. She turned her head as Andreas approached.
“The Prince of Hungary, Madonna,” said the forgotten page. He crept backwards through the door.
Andreas watched the woman rise in reluctance, holding his gaze. The impression she made was of glowing colour…rich chestnut hair, blue eyes… A gown of wine-coloured velvet fitted close to her slender figure, its bodice framing her lawn chemise, over which lay the reflection of the window’s golden lilies. In the curves of her full mouth, in her proud carriage, were magnificence and splendour.
Her voice was gentle. “So, you are Andreas of Hungary.”
“And you…you are Giovanna…?”
Her glowing eyes considered him. “No. I am Maria d’Anjou, her sister.”
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit, 2020, Stephanie Foster)