Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part fifty-one)
The Sword Decides!
Konrad asked, “What is it he has us waiting for?”
“Today? His tardy self. Konrad, I am going to put you on the road. You will lead a company, your own judgment as to the men. Should you meet with Montferrat, tell him this, that at the first of December, I will sit before Naples.”
“How far am I to ride, then?”
“I want horses posted every fifth mile, so our messages can be exchanged within the day. Will the forest of Aversa put you too far out?”
“I think it would be unwise to enter the forest.”
The lowering space into which these words fell was a warning, come late.
“Not…? Because trees might make difficulties, holding the men in order? Or…my wits are dull, Konrad, but I almost picture hiding places and the possibility of ambush. You will have to explain to me.”
“May I study your map?” Konrad asked, biting his tongue on the deference of “my lord”, as his lord was in a mood to hear things unintended.
Their place of conference was a villa’s open porch. The villa was situated on a hilltop, overlooking its ruffled skirt of thin-soiled acreage, which declined to a river. The river curved to bound the property, flowing at the villa’s rear under a cliff. The cliff was in a process of levelling itself, its stones rolling free to dam the river’s waters.
These ran insufficient to have formed a lake, but were progressing on a marsh. The owner had courteously removed his family, wishing Ludovic unfettered use of the house. Signor Dellucci had parted with a flick of the hand, at a tiled floor fissured by cracks. “The age of the place! But anything you find uncomfortable, you may repair as you see fit. I am not sentimental.”
Tables, chairs, chests, all were placed hugging the interior colonnade. Otherwise the war room had light and air, and vantage to show Ludovic any who approached by road. The road, this moment, was plodded by a solitary rider.
He reached the villa gate, a checkpoint manned by Ludovic’s soldiers. For a time, he contended with them from the saddle, then leapt to a dismount. He showed what he wore strapped to his body, a pouch from which he unfolded a cloth.
Or no, a sheet of velum, perhaps…
Was it possible? Reds, Ludovic could discern, and blacks, of inks. Blooming swaths of colour, as though the velum were drawn, not written upon.
“What are they doing Konrad?”
“If you can spare me, I will go down and learn.”
Alone, Ludovic viewed the next scene, the approach of Montferrat and his household knights. Another man of import rode at his side, a second flag borne ahead. From the clutch of idlers that surrounded the messenger, one would now and again veer, to meet some two or three…
Of ill-disciplined infantry, who from this eagle’s perch were apparent in pretending business to take them nearer. He who carried news would shed it; the idlers exclaim, shooting looks aside.
But Montferrat’s men swept past the messenger, his errand not (it seemed) to their chief. Shortly the party halted, the friend of Montferrat leaning to pat Konrad on the shoulder. He showed Konrad a thing under his cloak, and Konrad, reluctant, reached a hand to it. The stranger gestured encouragement. Cheery voices rose to the hill’s height.
Ludovic, feeling his head hurt, strode to the door. “Fetch Fiorina, tell her Montferrat is here, and brings a guest.”
The woman acting for Ludovic as hostess might have been Simona…if perfect resemblance were any measure. But this poor seventeen-year-old of thirty was, so far as Ludovic understood her history, daughter to a defiant merchant of Alessandria, put out of home and possessions by Montferrat’s seizing of that city. The girl and her father had ridden a single horse to an uncle in Catania; at this uncle’s trading house, young Fiorina had learned of crown spies from Naples, sent to approach Luigi, king there, with Giovanna’s blandishments.
And now Sicily was rumoured—a rumour arrived this very week—to have sealed the pact forecast by Montferrat, allying himself to Naples. Fiorina would do, Ludovic thought. Bright, eager girl. He had from Erzébet orders to find the child, Charles Martel, and send him to Hungary…
Fiorina could play nursemaid, then, why not? But Ludovic was not ready to do without her. He applauded the freighted look, to which Montferrat returned her a faint smile.
“Ludovic,” Montferrat began, presuming and incorrect as always, “I present to you Ignazio Mastracchio, marshal of Aversa.”
Mastracchio was the cloaked one, and the object that had troubled Konrad was a creature, sheltered in the crook of his arm, gripping his tunic with tiny claws.
“Proserpina, cara, here is a king, who visits us from a land far away. Kings are mighty gentlemen. He honours you, you must show him your loveliest manners.”
All this, to the animal, in a special and caressing voice; then to Ludovic: “Proserpina. She is wonderful judge of character. We will see how she likes you.”
With the aid of Mastracchio’s fingers, the animal extended a paw.
Ludovic, wanting to bat this away, touched it. The creature looked sternly black-eyed at him.
“Please, Signor Mastracchio, Signor Montferrat, refresh yourselves,” Fiorina murmured.
They sat. Konrad entered, and Ludovic said at once, “What was that messenger?”
“From Palermo, riding to Alba after a doctor of renown, who they think will know what this… What this plague is.”
Ludovic motioned wine poured, and drank it. “And what document was that he carried?”
“A priest of Messina, who had given the rites to many, who had found the signs of the pestilence on himself… He made a…a map… I don’t know what word is right. A drawing of these signs. Then he died.”
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit and original material, 2022, Stephanie Foster)