Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part thirty)
The Sword Decides!
The cavalcade divided among a stand of pine; the master of hounds belayed his whip, and let the dogs run. Andreas, intent, listening, eyeing every clearing from which game might burst, looked aside at last…
The man nearest him was Henryk.
A great baying rose from a green place, where the pines subsided to a streamside riot of thorn and vine. The view could be seen only at a squint; the sun pierced the clouds just above.
Andreas spurred, as the kill was his. Unless, with that magnanimity he recalled in Ludovic, he were to give the honour to another. He did not feel charitable towards Henryk that day. If manoeuvring free of him were possible, Andreas meant to lose his protector.
A strange squeeeee and an angry snuffle reached his ears.
His horse, threading the margin at a trot, came stymied to a stand of beech, employed as a coppice, a fence of slim trunks denying entry…at every point, it proved, but one, more readily discovered by Samson than his rider. This path, woodchipped by constant axe-work, led to the streambank, and the straggling entourage. The beast, incredibly in an attitude of prayer, knelt ringed by dogs at crouch, who whined their puzzlement and frustration.
It was a boar, and not a boar. It was an odd, tusked thing, with protrusions on its face…and its demeanour was odd as well, almost, as quizzical exchanges among the huntsmen communicated, amiable.
“Ciao! Ciao! Ciao!” someone shouted. “You will please not kill my warthog!”
“Yes,” the man laughed, appearing on foot by another straitened and muddy way along the bank, a second man at his heels. He sketched obeisance. “My Lord King, perhaps you have not been told of the Cavaliere Ignazio Mastracchio, your loyal servant. You see…” he went on, a gesturing hand arresting Andreas, who dismounted with the dismal suspicion he was to hear a lengthy story, “the trader Ahmed Abdullah, who will bring you anything you like, if, like myself, you keep a menagerie…and confessing on the Holy Day the sin of ambition, you make place for one small purchase…eh? Ahmed was not able to sustain these African beasts alive on the crossing. The large ones want trussing to calm them, he tells me, and always they are found in a dying state, after a day or two asea, and so he had secured me at last a litter of shoats. But my witless swineherd has fed them so, on apples and pomegranates, which you know, the pomegranate, by tradition, is the very lure of love…that they are tame as lapdogs.
“Now we have had an accident at the house, some fifty of tiles sliding from the roof, and the great clatter of it has wrought havoc with the creatures. I heard the baying of the dogs, and knew the worst.”
He squatted, cooed, and the beast rose from its posture of supplication, to bound into its master’s embrace.
“You will be my guest, my Lord King, since I have robbed you of your dinner, yes?”
Andreas felt inclined to agree. Rain began, just then, to fall, not drenchingly; and the forest’s general din obscured the certainty of thunder. But soon a roof would be welcome. Henryk loomed at his side.
The stranger, the Cavaliere, who had not quite introduced himself as such, snapped his fingers. “Giuseppe! I doubt you’ve seen a mongoose.” This, confident, to Andreas. “Show him Proserpina.”
Giuseppe opened his tunic, and a cat, that was also a weasel, thrust forth a snout and bright button eyes.
“Pat her. If you are not a snake, she won’t bite.”
“Signor!” Henryk said. His eyes had searched among the huntsmen in vain for Konrad. The storm wished to make itself earnest, and Gottif, who had touted for this adventure, deserved warthogs and mongooses, not the man who had warned against it. “Where is the convent? It must be close by.”
“Maiello, do you mean? Look there! You are outside the walls.”
Barely having found the courage to touch Proserpina, Andreas turned with Henryk to stare. White stucco showed cracked, greened with moss…hedged by trees on the stream’s opposite bank. The feeling was sinister, like a human shape all at once discerned behind a curtain.
“Now, will you follow me to my house?”
“We have business at Maiello,” Henryk said coldly. “How is it you don’t know? The Queen resides there.”
“Does she truly? They keep themselves very quiet, our neighbours. Which, paying alms, I feel they ought. If they were raucous…”
“How does one reach the gate?”
“By crossing and making round the wall. I have never sought entry. But my answer strikes me logical. If you try, and find yourself in error, my home is there, you see the corner of the roof…”
The rain picked up, and the Cavaliere bowed off, tugging the sleeve of Giuseppe, and trailed by the pig.
“Who is that fellow?” Henryk demanded, of the groom Roderigo…an unsatisfactory Italian, but one kept on for his passive nature, and the bad luck to have been on hand in the first place.
“The Cavaliere Ignazio Mas…”
“Yes, yes.” He turned to Andreas. “None of this do I trust. The lie of not knowing the Queen was here!” But as he grumbled, Henryk stalked ahead, to test the stones of the stream.
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit and original material, 2021, Stephanie Foster)