Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part thirty-six)
The Sword Decides!
He might have dozed, though the lapse of time was slight. A gasp, Sancia’s, woke Andreas, and he found the bedcurtains drawn in the waiting-woman’s grip.
“Him!” she said, to another.
“Oh! Rise! Rise! Begone!”
Giovanna cried this. Andreas, in a stupor, did not rise, disbelieved that in this false way, she even spoke to him. Her face, her hair unnetted, lowered to him, her shoulder nudging Sancia aside. Giovanna took the plain muslin of the curtain in her own hand, and fretted at some smear of blood.
Her fingertip touched this; she spat on it, and rubbed at it.
“Begone! Begone!” she said. “How can you!”
Sancia had rounded to the bed’s other side. She twisted Andreas’s shirtsleeve, just at the place it must bind itself into his wound. He sucked breath, at least galvanized, and fully awake was able to sit.
“There is only one tavern hereabouts, that where my poor Octavio was seized, but you have managed to find it! You bleed, do you not know it? The linens ruined, and I to pay the cost! Oh, begone from my bed…are you drunk?”
And a loud whisper: “Sancia, run. Knock at the gatehouse.”
For whom did she play? For her servant? For some auditor ensconced behind the corner screen?
“I am not drunk. Nor have I been. I have set foot in no tavern, you know it well. You have called them from hiding, the men you lied had ridden home, and bade them murder me. You owe me shelter. Order them off, Giovanna.”
Effortful came the words, as Andreas fought the soft mattress, rolling to place his feet.
Giovanna stood rigid, and when standing himself, he faced her. He found a keen, calm meeting of the eyes. A movement made him think the room had gained a party more.
Another dark form slipped half-seen, shadowing the curtain she let fall.
She behaved as she had…as a woman who thinks herself alone, undefended.
“I had thought never to speak to you again. For the love I bear my grandfather, I do not care, Andreas, to call you king. How you bleed! How dirty you are! To have been drunk and fighting, as you were wont… But to come to my bed, as I do not permit!”
She withdrew. A ewer came into her hands with a strange alacrity.
Giovanna poured from it, and kneeling on the mattress, bunched the skirt of her chemise, dabbing the red patches as might any wife. Not looking at him, she said: “Please, have pity. You are cruel to cast me off, and then will not let me be. You frighten me.”
This was delirium, his own, he thought. Andreas left her at her chore, at the pretence of blindness vouchsafed her by the curtains. He found the five men circled along the walls.
Well, one could speak to the invisible before the unhearing.
“She knows. She is in the thick of your plans, Cabane. God send a fury to haunt her!”
One forester was behind him, attempting to secure his rope. A pulse at the temples told Andreas he would swoon, and he sank, ceding to it. But as he sank, he pivoted, swung his head hard, upwards into the ribcage.
A boot struck him…but Cabane said: “No. If this ruse speed a third time, you shame me, d’Artois. See to your man. The spleen may be burst, I have witnessed it with such a blow. No, there are enough of us.”
This to a grunt, Terlizzi’s. No doubt a gesture, of spread hands. Terlizzi was lieutenant to Cabane in this affair.
“Oh, where is Sancia. I need her help.”
What ought to have been a lament, issued flat, the script too droll for its own pathos.
“Out, out,” said Cabane, receiving his lady’s hint.
And Andreas, who had felt his elbows trussed at his waist, was hauled upright.
At times his lids parted, and he glimpsed Cabane stride ahead. D’Artois and his henchman, on reaching the stairs, chose the efficient way… They flung Andreas to the bottom of them. Now a scullion passed in neutrality, stepping carefully around the King’s form and garments.
The words d’Artois hissed made Andreas guess the servant had been hailed by window, and by the distressed lady herself. He would carry the dying man to a niche concealed, deposit him in the convent walls.
If the fancy were true.
The dormitory had emptied, the cots lay spare-dressed and tidy. The sisters laboured in their workrooms, and prayed, faint to be heard. Their King was dragged to the tower, and helpless this time to resist, found the bristles of a rope at his neck.
One, a French speaker of accent parochial, dared this, to the Duke of Artois. “I was your father’s man when you were building castles at your mother’s knee. It is her knitting you think of. This knot, I make to tighten when it bears weight. They do not always die if they slip free…yes… When we find a poacher, we leave him a while, to educate the others…”
The forester grew reminiscent and waxed on, educating the son of his old master.
A life so short.
Andreas felt mournful of himself, that it must end. On and off, he had tried to think of an elusive thing, a question he had been asking…
Through the night, and had slept instead. How had it happened? What had he done so wrong, what might have been righted?
A thick knot was snugged to his ear.
The breathing of a rushed man entered the room. The scullion again. He and the forester lifted Andreas. Malazzo, Terlizzi, d’Artois, and Cabane, likely Cabane…while Andreas could believe him aloof, directing his underlings from a seat on the bed, superstitious in not touching his hands to an instrument of murder…
These lords put their weight against the rope. Andreas felt his shoulders clear the ledge, felt a pang of unnamed sorrow…
But little of the flying descent.
His neck snapped.
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit and original material, 2021, Stephanie Foster)