Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part fifty-six)
The Sword Decides!
Simona sat a mule; all horses, nags, swaybacks, the hoof-rotted, were being mounted this morning for Ludovic’s cavalry. Tackle was lacking, so was courage to climb the bare back of an angry beast, its mouth tortured with a stray length of rope…
Ludovic’s staunchest partisan must have agreed: his muster was chaotic. He towered on his war steed above her, and she wished he would busy himself away.
“The poor creatures!” she said, as Fiorina. “Haven’t the men any conscience? That one…”
She pointed to a tottering roan, and tottered too on her saddle. A nobleman she had spent much time with had taught her to ride. She could, in breeches, astride, or in skirts, perched…
But Fiorina’s young nerves failed easily; the girl was ill-at-ease, and the man who could spurn her plea, drag her to his battlefront, deserved…
Could she cry a bit? Simona wished so, but her emotions had died. Somehow this had happened in the night, after she’d soothed Ludovic to sleep, denying the noise that had wakened them both.
“I had a dream of dead people, lying everywhere… It was that man with his stories.”
“Her spy, Giovanna’s. Exactly the trouble he was sent to make. My pet,” he had said, and cradled her. “But I was sure I heard something. I can almost have it a table upended, the dishes sliding and falling to the carpet…”
“Your dream was a silly one. Mine had matter to it.”
“Pert!” He touched her nose. “I pray you don’t grow wise with me.”
Simona knew the noise had been. Its character she left to Ludovic’s description. She lifted her wimple, the flap under the circlet of her cap, and stared at the villa. The small river gathered fog in the mornings, fog that might have risen from a purgatory under earth, and the contour of the house, whether it sagged where the roof faced south, whether like a suicide, the Villa Dellucci braced itself, at its apex, with a tremble—
Could not be told. Her eyes were drawn to the old woman, riding down to them.
“Nagyanya!” Simona called it gaily, with a wave.
“For God’s sake, keep her off!” Ludovic said.
Nagyanya kicked, and her mule trotted, and her approach was of grim intent.
Simona in no guise could speak to her. The mules with a bump of noses spoke. Ludovic greeted the old woman. His words were sarcastic, and caused Nagyanya to gaze baldly at the girl by his side.
Nagyanya measured her want with her fingers, then, holding the five stretched, tapping each in turn.
Simona saw Ludovic’s face turn apprehensive.
But, no. The thing he feared was not the trouble. Yet he was not to mistake, Nagyanya had come to speak of trouble. She spoke, and Ludovic at once did not care to hear it. She spoke, and at his waist, Ludovic sliced his hand in air. No.
He did not care to hear it!
He pointed. The pointing finger shook, it said to the old woman, you know this already. The head shook; Ludovic’s mind could not be changed. He turned, surveyed the mustering field, came back looking pained, but to Nagyanya said a short and final thing.
No goodbyes, to the king from his old retainer. She reined up, pierced Simona to the heart with a look that knew exactly Simona’s game, and rode the hill to the villa.
“But what…?” Simona asked.
He puffed out air. “What…why, if the old woman likes to make herself mistress of the manor…” Ludovic showed a face to his pet, the drawn lips of disgust. Simona felt like shrugging.
“Well,” he said. “No…you see, girl, I can’t put them all to the sword this very morning. Or by God, I could teach them to rue…if I had the time to waste!”
“Who should be put to the sword?”
“The lot! I am leaving not a fig, not a maggoty sausage, not the stub of a loaf. Not a goat, not a hen, not a dog! When she wishes to feed her caitiffs, let her rouse the least lazy, and have him go begging to Montferrat.” His voice changed, and Simona sat amazed. “Ludovic has ridden away! You may take up your bed and walk!”
She answered, very solemn. “But they are ill. They have been, and Nagyanya cares for them…”
“Oh, some. Simple thing.”
This last was said with offensive fondness. A part of the house, a rank of upper cellars open to a cut in the hill, had been made an infirmary, the old woman’s doing. The lower cellars, reached by no light and scarcely any air, were kept for prisoners.
Ludovic of late, his anger worming deeper, had ordered dozens of arrests.
But Nagyanya’s work ended today. Not all of the soldiers harried onto their spavined mounts were unfevered, but they would ride.
“Only the camp sickness…she saw no pestilence among them, is that… Was that what you feared?” Fiorina, Simona knew it, did not read thoughts on faces; she did not gather news, and conjure it to logical ends.
After a long breath, Ludovic began, “I don’t know…”
He would have told her how little she understood, how little he wished right now to hear, of her prattle…
A surprising fog rose above the hill, blanketing sight of the villa.
Or, for a moment, it had been grey mist. The mist mutated to a cloud, yellowish. Its woolly billows broadened to the sky, and the noise came.
A slow roll of thunder.
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit and original material, 2022, Stephanie Foster)