Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part thirty-seven)
The Sword Decides!
An old woman dismounted a donkey.
Her proportions were such the animal suited her riding astride, which she did. She wore two skirts, a long one that depended from a blouse joined to it below the waist; but this secret of her costume, no eye would ever see… From her waist fell a short flared skirt, under a pair of wrapped sashes, hooked round with necessities—water skins, herbs to dress the dead.
The hem was decorated with a density of needlework, the woollen stuff a rich iron red, the embroidery a flaxen hue that looked white by contrast; the pattern was of linked crosses. Above this skirt she wore a felted vest, and under all her clothing, a pair of trousers, such as the men of Italy did not, but such as her people, mountain herders accustomed to straddle a small and nimble breed of horse, had worn even when their ancestors were called Huns.
She knew one language, and it had not descended from Latin.
She was come to speak with a nervous young man. She and her escort had arrived at a camping spot, a clearing fresh-made in defiance, Giovanna’s trees cut for firewood. By Giovanna, the soldiers had not been banished; their reason for leaving the palace was yet unheralded—
The old woman had not pronounced upon the fate of Andreas.
The young man, Roderigo, had a story to tell, and was carried forward, his captors with their elbows hooked through his. He looked again and again to his right-hand guide, a man of German extraction, whom the old woman considered not Hungarian, for he was not Magyar.
But he was a court fixture, and knew French. He found the speech of Naples possible, and had made from it a working pidgin. Roderigo bowed, or inclined himself, while still tight in custody. And it was at this respectful sign, the woman dismounted.
“Repeat to me,” the German said.
A slash of her hand, and Roderigo was allowed to stand free.
“I was in the stable, asleep.” He looked aside. The German stood as a pillar, staring into distance. “Pio, who I had called my friend, woke me. With a knife at my neck. Whose man are you, he asked me, and I said…because I thought, in those moments, while he waited my answer…”
The old woman seemed to regard him with pity. But his left-hand guide, knowing none of what he said, disliked this digressing rhythm.
Smacked on the arm, Roderigo went on: “I thought I would not say the King’s. But, signora, I was the King’s groom… I was not his body servant…”
The German translated the whole of it. The old woman shook her head and spoke.
“Enough,” said the German. “Tell of your sight.”
“He said, go, you aren’t wanted. It made me think the King had sent word…that for a groom he liked Pio better. But Pio said, do you know what to do when you are told go? I will cut out your tongue. And for this, I went quickly.”
The German translated; the old woman frowned a bit. The German shrugged.
“Tell,” he said.
“I was inside the walls of the convent. To leave I would go through the gatehouse, and the Lord Henryk would forbid it, and he would want to know… And if I told what Pio had done, Pio would…”
Roderigo quaked, falling silent, and the German said, “Yes, yes. But be wise.”
Of wisdom among his present choices, Roderigo saw little; his own mother, if he served the Hungarians in any way treacherous to Naples, might reach for a knife.
“I was inside the walls, but I hid myself behind a tree. Pio I had left at the stable door. Noises came to me…I could not say what they were. Running men, it seemed. One first, then others. I heard voices, but very low. I could recall some taller trees, an orchard, nearer the gatehouse, and I crept on, passing a spring in a niche, and then I was below the tower. There is a side to the tower…there is no side really, because the tower is round…”
Roderigo swallowed. “But, where the stairs are. And a door at the bottom of the stairs, going into the convent. Where the sisters stay.”
The German issued a barking cough. He related this further news to the old woman, and returned her question.
“But you say you were not at these stairs.”
“No, no,” said Roderigo. “I was looking at the trees, hearing the same sort of noises at my back, but only when I stopped to climb, when I had climbed, did I face the convent.”
His translator and the old woman conversed.
“She thinks you are stupid,” said the German. “But she thinks you tell the truth.”
“I faced the convent,” said Roderigo, “and could see the tower window. And I saw…it made me jump…so sudden… He came over the window ledge and fell, but he was tied to a rope. And at the end of the rope, he made a dance. I mean, he was dead, his head hanging…” Roderigo demonstrated, dropping his to the side and rear. “But his legs and arms flung out, like a puppet’s. And then he was let go. I don’t know it.” A look askance at the German. “But his body fell, and the rope snaked out after. All at once, not slowly.”
“And what did you do?”
“I saw the yellow hair. I knew Andreas had that room. No, I climbed where I could leap the wall, and I ran. Some of the soldiers kept off by the storm, who were locked from the convent, knew my face and laid hands on me. And you,” Roderigo said to the German, “asked me things.”
“Do we need him?” asked the old woman.
“This Pio. Of course, we may not catch him. When Ludovic rules here, the groom will give witness that he was threatened, and for that we will have a warrant sworn. I call it best, where the law serves, to make use of it.”
She made a noise of disdain, but nodded.
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit and original material, 2021, Stephanie Foster)