Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part thirty-five)
The Sword Decides!
A lift of his other knee, an anchor to launch from, and Andreas wrenched free both from Terlizzi’s grip, and the chance of its being renewed. His stockinged toes found tiny ledges of stone, his fingers slight prominences. In the curve where the tower met the main of the building, by some instinct Andreas bounced the balls of his feet wall to wall, keeping contact by mad force of will.
The ground came at him in a breath.
But adrenalin shot him to a crouching stand, feet bared and bleeding, a thumb torn of its nail. He flattened himself as he sidled, and prayed the window ledge obscured him. Silence would have been impossible. His gasping from fear was vocal; almost he would have spoken aloud, where is the stable?
And Malazzo, leaning while Terlizzi held his belt, sent the knife plummeting, the honed skill of a young noble whose coterie amused themselves with wagers and stunts. Andreas heard the impact, and this was more to him, in the moment, than the blow. Of pain, he felt none.
Holding himself tight to the wall, he knew another flash of guiding sight, that his assassins would make for the stairs. The stairs he must pass…he could recall that much, seen in periphery as he had followed Mother Crispina to the room they’d meant to trap him in.
He ran, ran faster when the thud of soft boots warned at least two were dispatched to the chase. The smell of horses drew him.
And here was Pio, opening a half-door and sleepily peering out.
“Your master! Run to Henryk, tell him I am attacked!”
“My Lord King, is that you?” In a stupid way, Pio blinked. Andreas found the door bolted, or its rusted hinges lodged, and with the strength of panic wrested it wide, herding Pio back. He swung a crooked arm and struck him, elbow to temple.
“Run! Go! Henryk and Konrad, shout down the house! I am attacked!”
Pio jogged up the passage between stalls. Andreas, past one and another flung, staring, finding but a few errant chickens scratching the straw. He ran into the stableyard, and saw a sole mountable beast, a donkey, lapping at a water trough.
He heard a stream of Italian, spoken at his back.
The voice was unfamiliar, but a familiar face reappeared.
“Pio!” This time the speaker was Bertrand d’Artois, the words French. “My friend Malazzo is missing his knife. Have you seen it?”
Slowly, Andreas turned. D’Artois stood, not altogether at ease, but flanked by the foresters. Their ropes were as they’d readied them, coiled half on the shoulder and half in the hand. Pio moved to catch the donkey by a fistful of mane. He looked Andreas in the eye.
Invitation, an offer of help, was not seen there. Nor urgency, to follow the command of Naples’s King. Pio gazed with Provençal stoicism, blank at this prospect and the role he would not play.
“Oh, look,” said d’Artois, arid.
The knife was yanked loose, and still Andreas felt not agonized, but sunken. Blood soaked his shirt. The foresters had him each by an arm—and as he was marched from the stable, he sought his angel’s voice. What now?
He glanced at the gatehouse, inhaled to shout. They would not sleep while this bright sun glittered through their windows. They would be awake, crosslegged on the floor, swallowing what Brother Adamo served them.
Andreas was pulled by the hair; the blade of a knife probed his throat.
“Your friends are not armed. Perhaps, this morning, they feel unwell. But if they scurry to you, I must put you out of my way at once. The stupid one, Konrad, to see you lying dead, will bend. Cabane will have him down with an arrow. And the other…” A laugh. “At such a pass, he should run, but he will make to fight.” D’Artois shrugged. “They are both stupid. Malazzo! Take your knife!”
Malazzo was there, when d’Artois stepped aside.
Cabane was there, on the tower stairs, arrow fitted to bow. Tracking their movements, he climbed higher. The narrow space, where two men could not stand side by side, limited his work. The plan seemed to have Andreas returned to the room, killed by some bloodless means…
Impossible now, to spare the Bishop. The stains would rise, Heaven’s demand for justice haunt. At the foot of the tower, a door stood ajar. This to Andreas appeared simultaneous to the thought: There is a way.
He let his feet stumble, and sagged, his fall too sudden for the foresters. He lay slack, feeling the blood trickle along his ribs. A new danger arrived, a great temptation to let himself fade to unconsciousness.
But a bell sounded, women’s voices rose from behind the door. Other voices, his captors’, reached his ears in low discussion. Feet trod close; the bottom of a boot pressed the wound. Andreas bit the cheek that touched earth, and gave no sign.
“Sisters!” It was d’Artois. “Do not come this way.”
Had word gone about the convent that today might occur events…events all knowledge of must be forsworn? D’Artois stepped back, ushering back the foresters. He had left the door open.
In his blind feint, Andreas was tensing muscles; he had felt the breeze of garments, smelled arms lifted. He staged the scene in his head, estimated distances, and knew that he might, for the fortune of being dressed in only shirt and hose, succeed at this one chance.
He sprang. He was in a tiny, windowless vestibule. A door on the other side was unbarred. Through a sleeping hall he flew, cots in rows on either side, a cluster of women stalled at the end by an identical vestibule. They stared, and blanched…and even gasped, but drew their wimples low and turned from the dirty, bleeding man.
Andreas gladly would have shoved his way clear, but here were stairs. He bolted to a landing, and for the first time in this ordeal, his strength flagged. On hands and knees he reached the middle floor.
A matching hall, but with chambers sectioned by hanging rugs. Andreas entered the nearest, crawled onto a bed, loosed the curtains.
A hiding place, until nightfall…
But it could not be here. Everything he had seen at Santo Pietro a Maiello ran through his head. That, and the murmur of voices.
Giovanna’s voice, and Sancia’s.
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit and original material, 2021, Stephanie Foster)