Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part thirty-one)
The Sword Decides!
It rained, while under treetops Andreas and Henryk found their shelter decent…if intermittent. Roderigo walked Samson; Pio, Henryk’s groom, led his mount Ardent. The grooms’ own mounts trailed, untethered. Wind gusted, and with each came a small crash, the canopy shedding its bucketsful, gathered on leaves in waiting.
Yet the journey must prove a short one, did it unfold as the Cavaliere had projected.
Along the wall they handed themselves, on awkward occasions crunching over falls of nuts, from garden limbs overhanging.
Andreas stooped to pocket a handful.
“Avranno i vermi,” Roderigo murmured.
“Here is a window.” Henryk stopped to knock, using a loose stone he took the pleasure of extracting from the wall itself. Wind again fanned up; the horses shook water from their manes, and the men hunkered, preserving those parts of their costumes merely damp.
“Leave it, Henryk,” Andreas said. “I see a corner ahead. The door will be just at the other side.”
Of course it will not, Henryk would have answered, but the wooden shutter at last swung away, and a face, masculine, filled the arched gap. “Cosa vuoi?”
“Tell him we want admission to the gatehouse, and that it is his King he puts at inconvenience, if he makes delays.”
Pio, an Italian from Marseille, relayed these things instructed, and the window snapped shut.
Delay enough ensued, that Andreas had shuffled a number of steps forward, Henryk not budging…
Then Giovanna’s messenger, the friar, appeared from around the corner, with a bustling gait. “Come, come! You warned us, did you not? And here, from the blue, is the King to answer his wife.” This insulting way of regarding the matter, he augmented with a comic take, leaning back to study the sky. “From the grey, perhaps, eh? Come, come!”
Henryk’s window proved a fixture of the gatehouse itself, as males and the general hoi-polloi did not infest the sacred space. On alms days, when bread from the convent ovens was distributed to the poor, it met hands by this means.
The friar told them so, merry observing Henryk’s astonishment, at seeing what the gatehouse was. An empty large room it was, with a hearth for warmth, but no fire; a fashion of attic storey, running a height along the walls that the short-statured need not stoop beneath…
Andreas and Henryk, by this, were herded to the room’s centre. “You…Friar…”
“I am Brother Adamo.”
The words I don’t care formed most visibly on Henryk’s face, but he carried his point further. “It was from your own mouth we learned that this gatehouse was resided in by Giovanna’s followers. By, to name them, Raymond de Cabane, Sebastiano di Terlizzi, for two. I assume, also, by their body servants.”
His hand swept the floor; and in fact, the floor lay swept to perfection, its chimney dust insufficient to show footprints.
“But, I suppose, if I say to you, the King resides at the Palace, you do not quibble that it cannot be so, for he stands next to you. One may reside at a place and not be in a place.”
“Then, Brother, as you are an easy reasoner, you are not pained to tell me where they’ve gone?”
“Not in the least. But that is to accuse me of making it my business, when a guest leaves, to know where he means to go. You are a worldly fellow, and I am cloistered—yet it has come to my knowledge that the courtly find such curiosity ill-mannered.”
“We’ll stay the night, Henryk,” Andreas put in. His own feelings were equitable; he was not averse to a pallet on the floor, and would have counselled Henryk to cease such engagements. It seemed fruitless to make the Italians answer for what you suspected of them.
To the friar, he said: “Are we to provide for ourselves, or may we beg of you bread and wine?”
Brother Adamo clapped his hands. “It has all been thought of, my Lord King!”
He vanished through a back way that stood open. A moment after, they heard the clang of a bell. A female servant soon put her head in, via this rear entry, and asked, like a tavernkeeper, “Will there be six of you?”
It appeared there would. Andreas and Henryk spun to view the room whole, and found only their grooms, and two slumping foot-soldiers, Hungarians.
“Pio!” said Henryk. “Where are the others?”
Pio answered with a shrug. Seeing his master glower, he expanded on this. “They were with us at the start.”
“A thing I know, churl!”
“Brother Adamo! Why did you not seek audience of me at once? The husband of our lady of Anjou has come…he will wish to dine with his wife. No, no, never mind!” the woman said. She burst upon them in company, the prioress they knew, and a nun carrying a coffer. The woman’s habit was of good, clean wool, showing something of her wealth; that, and the heavy crucifix at her breast, gold and bejewelled.
“I am Mother Crispina. Sister Evangelista!”
The nun struck a half-curtsey, extending and opening the coffer. It had nothing inside.
“Such token as you wish delivered to Giovanna,” Mother Crispina said.
“She will not know this ring.” Still, Andreas dropped it onto the velvet lining.
“Forse si, forse no.” Mother Crispina added, in French: “God has chosen you to rule in Naples, we cannot otherwise understand such things. Therefore that chamber within the walls that is kept for the Bishop, may be yours this night, and be not profaned for it. It is not fitting that you sleep in the gatehouse. Go, girl!”
She spoke to Sister Evangelista, who seemed to wake from an awed study of the noblemen. She scurried, and the Lady Superior of the house beckoned. “No, monsieur,” she said to Henryk. “The King alone.”
Unhappily, Henryk subsided, for he could not gainsay this woman.
“Come, come!” she spoke the Friar’s words, taking Andreas by the arm.
The Bishop’s room was reached by a narrow course of outdoor stairs, half-circling a tower. Mother Crispina said, in a voice seeming strained by her efforts: “I will confide to you, that before my vocation I was Giuditta, daughter to Octavio San Severino. No, I speak of Octavio the elder…it was my brother you must have known. I beg you do not trouble yourself over these things. There!”
She swung a door, and crouched at a landing’s balustrade, permitting Andreas to enter. Numbed by the need to consider what could not at the moment be, he nearly had held himself back, as though the holy lady would precede him inside.
“You see, it is very plain. Now, if Giovanna chooses, she will come to you.”
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit and original material, 2021, Stephanie Foster)