Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part forty-three)

Creative Commons photo of knight in armor

Marjorie Bowen
The Sword Decides!
(part forty-three)










The cellar where the body lay had four lights. These were openings calculated into the convent’s foundation, blocked at night by shutters—boards roughly fit, having chocks of wood nailed on for handles.

But the hour was midday, and Andreas was not abandoned here, to a cold, drear sleep. The late King of Naples was on a shelf. It was a wide shelf, where stores were kept above the damp; these, polite respect shown in the neatness of their displacement, filled a corner. They seemed earthen jars of brined olives.

Nagyanya removed one fruit and sampled it. She untucked a flask from her belt, to swirl a mouthful of pálinka around the harsh saltiness, not disliking the savour of it. The herbs that filled her pouch were aromatics, many both sweet-scented and holy…

Some few were to please spirits not strictly Christian.

The soul does not leave the body at once, she had been taught. And well might the soul of a murdered youth linger beyond its time. Nagyanya supposed this of God’s grace, while she allowed that the soul of Andreas must hunger after justice indeed, if it lingered in dank and dark, untempted by the light of glory.

“Have you flown, boy?” she asked, uncovering the face.

The skin was deepened in colour towards the black of rot. But the display of the body was for particular eyes—eyes that would either weep for pity or be shocked, deservingly. The old woman, in following her soldiers’ battles, had seen every state of death, every portion of identifiable humanity that still could merit burial. For in ancient days, so the art of churches portrayed, so the priests chanted, a horror had descended from a cross, and the reverence due to Him, was due for His sake to the severed head of a poor unknown…

Transcendent compassion. One could train oneself to it.

There was no rigor in the corpse, and so the old woman crossed the arms over the naked chest, the left hand now nearer the steps Giovanna would descend. In this hand Nagyanya placed basil, invoking the basilisk’s eye.

In the right hand, rosemary.

She drew a cloth, of her own embroidering, from the belt that held such an emporium of utility. She drew another, a rag, and emptied a portion of the flask to moisten it. She anointed the face. The skin could not now be cleansed of blood or dirt; these were no longer marrings, but adulterations. The substance of Andreas had part-consumed his injuries.

At the court, at the annual musters, wherein the lords of Hungary came bearing the fruits of their fiefs, to swear again their fealty—lately to Ludovic—were phrases exchanged, to flatter the farthest-flung. The brothers had put it about, in their pride, that their Magyar speech was fluent. Nagyanya, after a rueful twist of the mouth, now sang to Andreas, a rising and falling melody that asked clasped hands, and rhythmic strings. Once she had danced with her charge, only two in their circle, and they had sung the words together. And the old grandmother had laughed.

A human warmth whispered into the room. A smell of nobility, the orange peels and spices that warded moths. Only the rich had such finery; only the rich had gowns they wore so rarely, for possessing so many…

That moths among the woollens could trouble them. Only the rich ran the rats from their larders, for having stores of plenty. Nagyanya, often, cooking for the soldiers, made use of rats. But flesh is meat, and stew fills bellies.

She stepped aside, to allow the Queen full sight.

The face Nagyanya stared at was white as marble, smooth as the frozen figures dressing a tomb. She was young, this wife; she was not tall, her limbs not round enough to suggest strength.

Come closer, Nagyanya gestured. She laid a hand on a forearm, restraining Giovanna at her husband’s side, to smell the death and meet the clouded eye. She spoke, words she had asked to be taught, words she had practiced, to inflect them with clarity.

“È questa vittoria?”

She saw Giovanna start. In Italian came a rush of expiation…

Under the unflinching gaze, the expression changed. Nagyanya read there surmise, that her language was not understood… And another sort, that a test was to be passed.

The old woman bobbed her head with vigour. For it was victory. Her chance to catch this one off guard had been fleeting…

And was gone—no one would find the lady of Anjou quite so unwary again.







Creative Commons photo of knight in armorThe Sword Decides! (part forty-four)

















(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit and original material, 2021, Stephanie Foster)




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