THE GALLEY CREPT ACROSS THE BLUE waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea, its single banks of twenty oars a side giving it, from the cliffs above Amalfi, the appearance of a strange insect tiptoeing its way toward the high, rocky cliffs that sheltered this section of the Italian coast. Late afternoon sunlight caught those dripping, moving oars, burnishing them with silver. The Etesian wind had died and now the twin lateen sails rippled on their spars until lithe brown men with twists of white cloth at their loins could scramble up the ratlines and furl them.
Watching them with back-thrown head stood a tall man in chain-mail shirt and thigh-boots of Cordovan leather, a striped jellaby wrapped about him from shoulders to hips. On his head he wore a turbaned helmet which came to a sharp point. His left hand was placed on the pommel of a curving scimitar whose scabbard was hung from his belt by silver chains.
This man was the corsair captain, Khair ed Din.
The scourge of the Christian lands of Spain and Italy in this year of God, 1534. A giant red flail in the hands of his royal master, Suleiman Khan, Sultan of Sultans, the Shadow of God and Keeper of the True Faith, Lord of the Two Worlds, Ruler of White Sea and Black Sea, the Sultan who ruled at Constantinople. It was because of Suleiman that the famous pirate was here in Italian waters of this early summer afternoon. Not that the Magnificent had ordered him so rashly to risk his life and his precious galley in this daring attack on the stronghold of Montefaldo.
No, this was merely a whim of Khair ed Din Barbarossa.
He had come to Italy to steal a woman.
His mailed arm flashed in the sunlight as he gestured at the dais in whose hand an iron mallet made rhythmic tappings on a metal anvil. The tempo of the oar strokes increased in speed. The sweeps flashed just a little faster in the sunlight, and the galley strode more swiftly over the waters.
“There are high rocks along the coast below Amalfi," the Redbeard threw back over a mailed shoulder at his lieutenants. “They can hide us as the Prophet hid during the Hegira."
Soft laughter acknowledged his sally. There was no worry, no anxiety in the faces of these pirates. They were with the Barbarossa, with him of the red beard. Nothing could happen to them. Khair ed Din Barbarossa bore a life on which Allah the Compassionate looked with kindly eyes. No matter how great the odds or how bold the foray he set himself, the Redbeard always knew the sweet taste of victory.
They were volunteers for this desperate mission.
It was a chance to loot as they were accustomed to loot the shores of Italy, of Spain, of Greece. Their swift, terrible galleys controlled the waters of the Mediterranean Sea as they had controlled them since the seventh century, when the Umayyad dynasty was rising to power in the Arab world. They would return with jeweled baubles or priceless oil paintings done by an Italian master like Titian or Giorgione, or at worst pretty girl slaves to be enjoyed and then sold on the dellal's block at Algiers. The conclusion was accepted as an accomplished fact; only the execution of the foray and a chance at some lively fighting stirred the blood in their veins.
And so the Moslem pirates laughed and nudged one another at the sight of Khair ed Din standing so cool and unconcerned in the very heart of enemy country, his red hair and beard making his head seem aflame with holy fire. If the Duchess Elena del Santo were aware of the fate so rapidly approaching, her pretty white feet would be quaking in their velvet slippers.
Elena del Santo was the most beautiful woman in Christendom.
A fit gift for the Lord of the Moslem world.
“Veer your helm to starboard," the Redbeard rumbled to the helmsman. “Get us in under those aspens that hang out above the waters of that cove."
His pointing finger stabbed at the shoreline where high gray rocks and an overhang of trees made a perfect hiding place. Once in under that leafy foliage and with lookouts posted, nothing could surprise them. Soon now the sun would sink beyond the western horizon. Darkness would lie upon the land, and darkness would hide the stealthy approach of eighty hardened Barbary pirates.
The most beautiful woman in the Christian world had less than seven hours of freedom remaining to her.
Elena del Santo laughed softly, clapping her hands.
She sat upon a marble bench in the gardens of the great castello of Montefaldo, framed before the waters of a garden fountain in a tight red velvet dogalina with cloth of gold at sleeve cuffs and skirt hem. The crimson velvet clung with shameless honesty to the lines of her heavy breasts, to the curving rondures of her hips and the lines of her firm thighs. Her profile was classical in its perfection, and was enhanced by the weight of the thick black hair piled atop her head in a jeweled coiffure.
“Never have I seen its like," she laughed, eyes sparkling. An onlooker might have wondered whether it was the lines of the tiny galleon—no more than a toy, really, since it stood less than two feet high from keel to maintruck—or the body of the young man who had created it, which caused her black eyes to flash so brilliantly.
"Explain it to me again, Stefano," she ordered.
Stefano da Siena smiled his adoration of the Duchess. His was the body of a soldier, tall and powerful. His long legs were clad in skintight parti-colored hose and gray leather slippers, his wide shoulders encased in a doublet of black and gray brocade beneath a damask jerkin trimmed with fur. A gray velvet cap perched rakishly on his yellow hair, close-cropped to the skull. Only his face revealed the artistic side of his nature, with wide sensitive mouth and eyes that stared out at the world with a naivete belying the sophistication and sometime cynicism of the inner man.
“The English call it a 'galleon' after the Spanish manner, donna duchessa. There are no oars, you'll notice, only sails."
"A carrack, then?" she wondered doubtfully,
“A carrack is too broad in the beam. This ship is long, a fine sailor. And it can house an armament of more than twenty cannon."
"I shall buy it myself," she informed him.
His laughter was humoring rather than humorous. "This model shall be yours, Madonna Elena. But first I want to see its life-size sister floating on the sea. It's why I came here so much ahead of time, hoping to interest the Duke your husband in its possibilities as a weapon against the pirates of North Africa. It can out sail the fastest galley in a good wind and when becalmed its fire power makes it a floating fortress. With enough of these, we can sweep the Turks off the Mediterranean.”
Elena del Santo pouted. “I thought it was to paint my portrait that you hurried here from Tuscany."
"And so it is, your husband having so commissioned me. I took the liberty of arriving a full month ahead of time with the hope of inducing Duke Giacomo to invest monies in several such vessels in order to protect his merchant ships. An escort of several galleons would insure the safe arrival of his merchant cogs at any port of call they choose. Why, they could even go to the New World."
"To deal with the red Indians?” she asked merrily. "Spain grows rich from Indian gold," he reminded her.
The woman leaned forward as if to scan the lines of the painted ship more closely; actually, she was tired of talking of ships and commerce, and wanted the attentions of this personable young artist to turn upon her. The square bodice of the dogalina, low and wide, revealed the white perfection of her bosom as it fell away from her flesh. Before such an intriguing disclosure, surely Stefano would forget his galleon and the number of guns it could carry.
"The Duke hunts tomorrow," she murmured as her eyes ran over the toy vessel. “Even now he's dressing to leave Montefaldo before the moon is up. You'll have to stay for a few days, at least until he returns."
Her glance was sly. His own gaze had been made captive by her indiscreetly exposed breast, she saw; satisfied, she sat back and ran a wet tongue-tip over her red lips. "Of course, you could go with him, I suppose, but the lodge at Chiarito is small and dirty and when Giacomo is out to kill boars, he can have no other thought in his head."
“We could begin your portrait, Madonna."
"I would like that. By day we shall bathe in the waters of the bay and picnic in the groves beyond the Cistercian monastery. At night, you may paint me in oils.” She preened herself before his eyes, laughing roguishly. “If your work progresses well, perhaps we shall have time for other things too—before the Duke returns."
Her palm patted the white marble bench. "Sit beside me, Stefano. I would talk with you about my picture. How do you intend to pose me?"
"As Venus, surely, if the choice were mine to make.” His shoulders lifted. “But since your husband will make the selection, I suppose it will be in a dogalina such as the one you wear, against a drapery of some sort containing the Del Santo arms."
Her hand touched his thigh as she leaned closer. “Suppose there were two portraits, Stefano? One for the Duke, one for the duchess? Hmmm?"
Stefano da Siena was no stranger to the world. This was not the first time his brush had been hired to preserve the features of a noblewoman for posterity. Nor was it the first time a noblewoman had hinted that there might be more between them than the role of model and artist. Her gesture invited his eyes to rove down her body, to the fine legs outlined under the clinging velvet from slender ankles to broad thighs and curving hips, to the firmness of her ample breasts. “Beauty such as yours was never created to be hidden from the eyes of men, Madonna. To do so were to commit a sin in my eyes, the sin of selfishness. Not being a priest or monk, I can't argue with your husband. But perhaps between the two of us we can keep such a sin from staining his immortal soul."
Her eyes were dancing. “Is this how you prevailed upon Elisabetta da Uzzano to shed her gown for your canvas? Or the wife of the French Ambassador to Florence? There was a scandal of sorts, I seem to recall.”
"Her husband had commissioned a head portrait. Marquise Lucienne la Frapère and I conceived her body to be insulted by the request. We conspired to wipe away the affront by doing a headless nude study."
Thin black eyebrows lifted. “And the scandal?"
“The Ambassador paid my studio an unexpected visit one morning. His wife was reclining in all her fleshly loveliness on a couch over which a lion-skin had been thrown. There were harsh words between the Marquis and myself. The result was a duel."
“Stefano da Siena is a famous duelist," she murmured.
"I blooded his shoulder enough to put him in a bed for two weeks during which time his wife and I completed the nude study-an up-flung arm hid her face—and had ourselves a holiday of sorts."
He chuckled. "We made amends by telling the ambassador the nude study was a surprise to him, a birthday gift from the Marquise. It satisfied his pride as the duel satisfied his honor. We parted great good friends, especially since, in gratitude to the Marquise, he doubled the fee he paid me."
Her fingertip traced a line up and down the tight black hose on his nearer thigh as she asked, “And the Marquise? Was she as knowledgeable in the love arts as you hoped?”
He caught her hand and lifted it to his lips. "I swore a vow to Lucienne never to speak of our more personal relations with anyone.”
"As you do with every noblewoman sitting for your brush?"
"As I would do with you, certainly."
The Duchess of Montefaldo looked pleased.
A footfall swung them around on the bench. A short, stocky man garbed in black doublet and cape, with black hose on his powerful legs above black leather thigh-boots, came striding between the beds of bougainvillea and zinnias. A high-crowned fur bonnet gave his heavy-jowled face a somber look. He wore his sword with an ostentatious awareness as he fixed the artist with hard eyes.
“What's this? A month before time, Stefano?"
Stefano da Siena rose to his feet, bowing slightly. “I came with you in mind, my Lord—and not your wife.” His hand indicated the tiny galleon resting on its wooden stand. “When I was in England to paint Sir Thomas More, I visited the shipyards in Portsmouth where I saw this toy enlarged a thousand times, resting on its ways about to be launched.”
"Ha! A ship." His lower lip protruded as the duke studied the small vessel more closely. No fool, he was quick to assess her sloping bulwarks, the sail plan which included topsails for the first time on mizzen and bonaventure-mizzen. “I've never seen anything like this before."
“The galleon sails the western ocean to the New World. It never enters the Mediterranean. It's the reason for my surprise visit.”
"I deal in merchant cogs, not in warships."
"And lose a third of your goods every year to the Algerian pirates."
Anger made a black cloud on the duke's face. "You take a reckless course with a patron, Stefano."
"Only because I have your welfare in mind, my Lord.”
Giacomo del Santo let his amazement show. "What the devil can an artist do to secure my welfare?”
"In England I made sketches of the original of this toy. Henri Grace à Dieu, they called it. The Great Harry. Henry VIII built it. Even in Italy we know the English reputation as ship builders. The Spanish-use these galleons to escort their slower treasure caravels home from the New World, to defend them against any chance depredations of English or French captains. In such manner might you use them to defend your cogs from the Barbary pirates.”
The duke of Montefaldo pursed his lips, nodding thoughtfully. His manner grew less truculent. “You made sketches, you say? And from them you made this model? It stands to reason then that from those same sketches a boat-wright could build life-size galleons. Yes. I begin to understand.”
With understanding came excitement. “They might do the job. With such a beam they could carry a tremendous weight of cannon.”
“They are almost like floating forts, Signor."
"Mmm, I see. Macche! I'd like to sit down and go over your sketches with you at once, Stefano. Unfortunately, I'm committed to a hunting party with Messer Iafet Soranzo of Venice, the banker. He's financing a new venture of mine. I'll tell him of this galleon. It may lend spurs to his loan if he can be sure of such additional safeguards for the golden ducats he's investing in my silk goods."
The duke let his eyes touch his wife where she sat on the white marble bench. His mouth quirked, whether in amusement or jealousy the artist could not decide.
"Madonna Elena will surely make you welcome in my absence. However, it might be well for you to finish her portrait while I'm gone so we can sit down and talk shipbuilding upon my return."
He bent and lifted the toy galleon, held it up to the fading sunlight, turning it this way and that, studying the wooden cannon protruding from its gun deck, their barrels gilded to simulate metal, the furled sails on the yardarms, the three towering masts. From time to time he would nod as if at a theory confirmed by fact. At last, satisfied, he bent and replaced the toy upon its stand.
“I like it, Stefano. I like it so much I intend to invest monies in these galleons. Be here when I return." He turned to his Duchess, scowling down at her, seeing the casual immodesty of the dogalina and the smooth slope of shoulders it bared to any eyes that cared to look.
"The Duchess will make your stay a happy one, I'm sure," he added heavily, "See to it that her portrait is completed, or if not completed, well on its way. There'll be little time for painting when I commission half a dozen of those galleons to be built."
Stefano bowed his pleasure, flushing slightly. The duke glanced from under bushy brows at him, nodded curtly and went striding off into the gathering shadows. The man and the woman watched him go with varying emotions. Donna Elena saw in his leaving the release from a bondage which chafed her spirit as metal gyves might chafe her tender wrists; Stefano beheld a patron whose golden moneybags might make him independently wealthy.
A sigh by his companion recalled the artist from his musings. "It grows chill in the garden, Stefano. I should have brought a stole."
"Ought I ring for a servant?"
“No time for that. Loan me your hand to rise. Then you may accompany me to the wall-walk which overlooks the valley. We'll wave the Duke Godspeed together.”
From the wall-walks of the castello Montefaldo, one could look out across the valley of the Atrano, divided here into deep ravines and rocky gorges where green pines and ilex trees warred with gray rocks for the mastery of nature. A thin dirt road stretched from the castle barbican northward along the coast to a small wooden bridge, narrow and rickety, over which only a single horseman might pass at any one time. From the bridge the road disappeared under the thickly leafed branches of great oaks and chestnuts to emerge beyond the forest at a waterfall where it turned in upon itself before disappearing inland.
In the courtyard far below, the black-clad figure of Giacomo del Santo advanced upon the little party of huntsmen who were to be his companions for the next four days and nights. Iafet Soranzo of Venice was a lean, dour man who sought by gay colors in his clothing to lessen the normal morbidity of his expression. He wore scarlet and white taffeta now, as his legs straddled a gray mare, and the striped cap upon his head gave him the appearance of a buffoon playing at nobility.
Silently the duke mounted up, as silently toed his gelding to a place beside Messer Soranzo. Stirrup to stirrup they clattered through the portcullis and out upon the sea road. Elena del Santo disengaged a red silk scarf from about her wrist; it was in the air and waving when the riders came to the first turn and her husband stood in his stirrups to look up at her.
Stefano joined her wave, using his Flemish cap.
Then the huntsmen were moving on toward the bridge. The Duke went first with the Venetian following after, their lackeys and man-servants bringing up the rear. Even from the wall-walk they could hear the rolling thunder of the hoof-beats on the bridge plankings. Then the riders were gone into the forest.
The Duchess said, “It's a lonely place, this Montefaldo, but Giacomo loves it. And so to please him I become a prisoner.”
Stefano guessed they were waiting for the duke to appear along the waterfall road, and let his eyes assess the stones of the merlins. “An old place, certainly. It was built by Roger the Norman about four hundred years ago, wasn't it?"
"I believe so. After he captured Amalfi he used it as a stronghold while he warred with Pisa." Her tone showed boredom and Stefano merely nodded.
Then her arm was lifting and the scarf fluttered in the sea-wind as she waved it back and forth. Animation was on her face now, and quick laughter.
“There he goes past the waterfall, my Stefano. See how he rides, like a centaur. Like the poor dumb brute he is. God! For a little while I am free. She turned and looked at him and her ripe red mouth smiled lazily. “Let us go somewhere so we can be alone, my handsome artist. I have a goblet of Sicilian moscato chilled by mountain snow in my bedchamber."
Her hands caught his arm and drew it close against her side as they walked from the castle wall down a narrow stone stair to the gardens. Shadows were long and dark and beyond the western wall the sun was half a red ball dipping below the rim of the world. The wind off the sea was filled with coolness. The Duchess shivered as she walked.
His fingers went around the bronze door-pull, opening the thick oaken door, revealing a whitewashed corridor leading from the gardens into the upper stories of the castello. He stood aside to let her precede him but Elena del Santo would have none of that, she relished this handsome young man too much to cater to modes and manners. Pressed close by the narrowness of the ancient corridor, she could touch him with soft hips and striding legs in a manner that, at any other time, might be thought salacious.
When they stood just inside the doorway of her bedchamber she closed the door with one hand while with the other she drew him toward her. "I gave my maid Caterina a holiday of sorts this night,” she whispered, long-lashed eyes uplifted to his face. "Now-if I'm to dress to sup with you-I find a need for hands other than my own."
"My hands belong to you, Madonna. They are as much your servants as I am myself. And yet this gown you wear-surely there's no need to put on anything else?”
She was pressing into him with her soft belly, bringing the touch of flesh and faint perfume to his mind, silently letting him know that beneath the red velvet there was the white body of a beautiful woman. Her mouth was upturned, slightly parted. In the candlelight, it seemed an overripe fruit.
Stefano da Siena was never a man to call himself a saint. The Duchess Elena wanted desperately to be kissed, but her husband was less than half an hour along the road to Chiarito, where he had his hunting lodge. Stefano told himself not to be a fool; no man in his right mind passed up the opportunity to cuddle a woman as lovely as Elena del Santo.
He kissed her, drawing her close, banding her slim waist with his arms the better to reveal to the softness of her body the hardness of his own. For long moments they clung, her opened lips feasting on his mouth, her tongue darting exploringly this way and that until his teeth closed on it and held it prisoner.
“Macche," she breathed when he let her go. “I thought I was escaping prison when my husband left for the hunt. Now I find myself being enslaved in another manner.”
Her hands on his upper arms pushed him away. “If ever I'm to change garments for our little supper, my Stefano, I must have you across the room from me, at least. Go stand by the bifore window-but first, undo my gown."
She turned, smiling archly over the round of a white shoulder. A row of cloth buttons ran from her neck as far down as her hips. He began unfastening them one by one, until the dogalina lay open to reveal the length of her bare white back. There was neither linen smock nor silk beneath the crimson velvet. He bent and kissed soft skin.
“Is this what you did with the French Marquise?"
"I might have except that she undressed herself.”
"While you watched?”
“Only as an artist admiring beauty.”
Her answer was a snort of disbelief. Ringed fingers held the bodice as a covering for her front but as she moved across the room she was naked from the beginning swell of her buttocks to the thick black hair which made a helmet for her oval face. His eyes assessed her loveliness and found her to be as beautiful as rumor said.
He murmured, “Bathsheba disrobing under the eyes Paris." of David. Or Aphrodite on her way to the judging of Paris.”
Flushed with pleasure, Elena halted at a small table, lifting a silver ewer and pouring chilled Sicilian moscato into matching goblets. Lifting one, she held it out to him.
"Drink to my husband's success in the hunt, Stefano.”
He kissed the fingers which held the goblet before lifting it from their grasp. “And after sipping a libation to goddess of love?" Diana the huntress am I permitted to toast Venus, the
She considered that, lower lip caught between white teeth, then nodded swiftly as she raised a silver cup to her lips. The moscato had been brought into Sicily by the Arabs during the tenth and eleventh centuries. It was a sweet wine, strong and cloying. It may have been the wine which heightened the color in her face or the fact that Stefano da Siena was letting his admiration show a little too clearly in the eyes which roved her pale arms and shoulders.
The Duchess lowered her cup to the table. "I think dogalina.” you'd better go to the window now. I must remove the dogalina.”
He made a little bow and carried a goblet across the room. Darkness lay upon this section of the Italian coast; the forest below was a thick blackness on which the moon made little impression. There was the hushed breathlessness of a spring night, forerunner of the sweltering summer evenings when the siffanto brought heat from the coast of Africa across the white limestone cliffs of Cape Santa Maria di Leuca into Italy proper. As if to quench the thirst that summer brought, he lifted the silver cup.
Its metal sides had been polished almost to a mirror-like brilliance. In the silver he saw Madonna Elena facing away from him and stepping from the dogalina which was pooled at her slippered feet. She was a perfect miniature woman caught in the bright metal. Temptation warred in him. Ought he turn now and fill his eyes with her naked loveliness or ought he wait a little longer? With Elisabetta da Uzzano or with Lucienne la Frapère he would not have hesitated.
The woman in the silver goblet paused with the red dress hanging from a hand to lift both arms above her head and stretch, smiling faintly. Even the turn of her mouth was caught by the bright metal. He could see the dark hair in her armpits and the wide brown nipples of her thrusting breasts, even the slope of white belly and the rondures of her gently curving hips. His breathing quickened.
She felt so secure, standing there in just the red leather scarpines on her feet. Stefano chuckled, wondering what she might say if she knew his eyes were drinking in the perfections of her body. Turning, she walked toward a massive aumbry which held her gowns and cloaks, over-skirts and petticoats.
Now she was lifting out a linen mantua, thrusting her arms into it, belting it at her slim middle. As she turned to look back at him, he brought the cup to his lips and finished the wine.
“Stefano," she called, and as he turned, stood with both hands on her hips, posing. The Rheims linen was thin, nearly transparent. He could see clearly enough that under it the Duchess was naked.
An intimate supper, she had said. Va bene!
"If I had a golden apple such as Paris owned,” he murmured, "it would belong to you alone.”
"Prettily said, darling. Now come, give me your arm."
A small table had been covered with a cloth and spread with earthenware platters holding cold meat slices, small squares of coarse yellow meal fresh from the kiln, and half a dozen wedges of cheese. A bowl of mixed fruit and figs rested beside them.
Elena seated herself on a curule chair, gesturing him to take the joint stool. She leaned to hand him bread and meat, glancing at him flirtatiously.
"Tell you how you'll pose me, Stefano. Not for the painting we'll give the Duke, but in the canvas which shall be my gift to you."
“As a slavegirl on the block, laden with golden chains? Or a Moorish odalisque awaiting the coming of her lord? There are so many ways I want to see you caught in oils, Madonna. So very many."
"Surely we must choose one?”
"Then let it be as a spoil of war, tossed on a bearskin, surrounded by swords and shields and the captured banners of your people. A captive queen, perhaps, terrified yet somewhat eager for the embrace of her conqueror. Does the notion please you?"
Her head nodded slowly as her eyes grew feverishly bright, picturing the pose she would adopt. She ate slowly, taking little bites, sipping the moscato. At last she said, "Yes, I like it. When we are done eating you'll go to your room and bring back your easel and your oils then-"
"Not so fast," he grinned. “First I must make a sketch in charcoal, to outline the subject. Only after I see the picture clearly in my mind can I reduce it to oils."
"Then hurry, Stefano. I find an eagerness in me to begin. Will we need swords? Shields? The bearskin, of course. I have one somewhere about. I'll find it."
Excitement pulsed in her, making her sit upright, impatient with him as he ate. "Finish, Stefano. Must you dawdle so? Aren't you as anxious as I to see what I might look like as a prisoner of war? Oh, please. Hurry!”
He laughed at her, crammed his mouth with meat and bread and brushed his palms together. They were all alike, these titled women, when it came time to show off their bodies to his eyes. They felt they were conferring a priceless gift. Well, in a way they were.
He rose to his feet and made a little bow. “Festina lente—make haste slowly, my darling. We have the night before us.”
She pouted, “I thought you were an eager lover.”
“Eager, yes. Hasty, no."
He bent and kissed her hungrily, half lifting her out of the curule chair. Against her lips he whispered, "First I must be the artist, remember, then the man."
She smiled and hugged him.
Stefano da Siena made two trips from the bedroom to the room which had been assigned him at the castle Montefaldo. He set up his easel and placed his palette on the small table which he stripped of its earthenware platters and fruit bowl. Across the room some twenty feet away he spread the bearskin. Lacking shields, he would invent them. His own sword-a thin steel blade done by the Missaglia forges in Milan-he placed close to the yawning jaws. Standing back, he let his mind weigh the scene as it would be with the Duchess sprawled on the dark brown pelt.
Elena del Santo came from the shadows into the candlelight. She had kicked off her scarpines and now walked barefoot across the thick Turkish carpet. While Stefano had been making trips to his room, she had loosened her thick black hair so that it hung down across her shoulders to the small of her back. She seemed smaller and younger as she moved across the room.
She shook free of the linen manteau, letting it slip backward off her shoulders and down her arms, ripe breasts quivering to her movement. Stefano drew a deep breath as her nakedness was revealed to him. To capture this woman on canvas would need the graceful sensuality of Titian himself or the realistic virtuosity of Raffaele Sanzio. Humility touched him.
"Take your pose,” he said almost harshly.
She walked to the bearskin and reclined in an attitude of terror, half upraised with right arm lifted imploringly. One leg was doubled up under her, the other stretched out behind her.
Stefano nodded approvingly. “You should have been a mime in the playlets of Messer Pietro Bembo," he complimented her.
He began to sketch swiftly, transferring the naked body with its black, hanging hair to the canvas, filling in helmets, a limp and empty chain-mail shirt, two-handed battle swords and long, triangular shields. He added golden chains, leaving the gyves open as if they had been tossed onto the pile with the thought of later manacling the woman. The lump of charcoal flew this way and that, making straight lines and curves, pausing a moment at the bend of a knee only to fly to the braided pommel of a long-sword
As a background for the scene he used a portion of the huge poster bed he could see in the shadows, filling in chiaroscuro and suggesting candlelight by the faintest of bordering smudges. An imaginary coffer with lifted lid and its golden coins and jewels scattered across the bearskin and the floor added a touch of Oriental opulence.
He lost track of time, living within his imagination, seeing Elena del Santo not as the Duchess of Montefaldo but rather as some frightened queen tossed from her throne to the floor of a bedchamber, waiting the approach of the warlord who had taken her city, and who would now take her.
The sketch was powerful. In color, the canvas would be overwhelming. Flesh tones for the crouching woman, ebony for her hair, metallic lusters for the helmets and swords, reds and golds for the heraldic designs on the shields, umbers for the shadows and dark brown for the bedposts, green and blue and red for the jewels and again gold for the spilled florins and ducats: the picture would be one of barbaric beauty.
"Stefano," said the Duchess.
She had to speak again before he threw back his head, startled, seeing her as a person, not a model. “Eh? What is it?”
"I'm tired. I've been holding this pose for more than an hour."
“Of course. I was lost in—"
Somewhere below them a man screamed in agony.
"Merciful Jesu," whispered Elena del Santo.
The alarm bell in the watchtower began to make a rolling clangor in the night. Stefano dropped his charcoal and ran to the bifore window, craning his neck, leaning far out over the stone coping.
"I can't see a thing from here," he told her when she came to stand beside him, hurriedly knotting the belt of her manteau.
They listened, her hand fastened tightly to his forearm. Now the metallic rasp of swords meeting in combat filled the air. They could hear hoarse voices shouting but could not distinguish the words.
"An attack," Stefano said at last. "But by whom?"
He stepped to the bearskin, lifting his rapier with its belt and scabbard, buckling them about his waist. His face was hard and grim. Two years before in Venice, he had painted half a dozen Algerian pirates taken off a Barbary galley. Though he could not understand it, he had been fascinated by the jargon they spoke among themselves. Just now he had heard shouts which reminded him of that harsh Turkish speech.
Barbary pirates, then. I He said nothing of his fears to Madonna Elena, other than to hurry her into a riding gown. “We may have to leave suddenly and ride hard. You can't go anywhere in that wrapper.” When she might have argued, he snarled. “Will you stop to bandy words? Haven't you heard how Dragut Reis and Barbarossa have been raiding in Spain and along the shores of Sicily? Must you be taken as a slave to their marketplaces before you believe me?"
“Oh, Jesu. Pirates!”
She had good reason to fear, did Elena del Santo. Since the middle of the last century those daring sea rovers had made it a custom to come raiding the coastal towns of the Christian world, snatching at loot, killing the men and abducting the women to serve their pagan lusts in bagnios and haremliks. Once she'd seen a small fishing village two hours after the Algerians had fled with a score of its young women in their fleet galleys and as much as they could find worth taking in the small huts and cottages of the villagers.
The ground had been red with blood. Corpses lay sprawled in street and doorways. One man hung on a thrown spear, impaled by its shaft to his own wagon. Ten feet beyond him a trunkless head lay in the dust, white eyes staring blindly. For three hours the pirates had killed and ravished. What they had left behind them was not pleasing. She had been sick, she remembered, and for a long time after that her nightmares had been filled with those terrible sights.
“Please, Stefano. For the love of God, don't let them get me," she was begging as she dropped the manteau and ran naked to the aumbry. Her shaking hands lifted out a green velvet riding gown, and she squirmed into it heedless of modesty.
For once Stefano da Siena was more concerned with his own hide than with hers. He stood at the door trying to listen, hearing the sounds of conflict growing closer. His right hand was tight on the braided hilt of his sword but one blade could do little against the number of pirates who would come swarming along these castle corridors in a flood of steel.
The Duchessa was at his elbow, panting harshly. "Can we get away? Is there any hope at all?”
His hand caught her arm above the elbows and like that he hurried her past the dusty bannerols and draperies in the corridors, asking her terse questions when they came to branching passageways. The stables were his immediate objective. There were fast stallions and geldings in the stalls, one for Elena, one for himself. Once mounted, they would be a long step nearer safety.
The sounds of fighting had receded as they made their way along the lower levels, where the offices of the clerks and account keepers were located. The management of the castle estate was a big business, and Duke Giacomo often used the nearby port of Amalfi as a shipping point for his silken goods and enamel wares. Here too was located the great library, for in his more contemplative moments the duke considered himself a man of letters and a historian, being especially interested in naval warfare. It was this latter preoccupation of Giacomo del Santo which had brought Stefano and his toy galleon to castello Montefaldo in the first place.
Now as he moved down a long, sloping ramp to the huge rooms which flanked the cortile and served as warehouses upon occasion, the Sienese cursed the day he had made those sketches of the Henri Grace à Dieu. He was an artist and sometime swordsman but no sailor. He had been guilty of enthusiasm and was like to pay for it with his life.
Side by side they raced through the warehouse rooms out onto the pillared loggia which flanked the paving-stones of the cortile. Three dark shapes lay outstretched on the flaggings beyond the great wall. Elena del Santo choked back a sob at sight of them; then Stefano was moving her through the black shadows of the loggia toward the stone stables.
“Praise Jesu we've been unseen so far. It gives us an advantage,” he told the woman.
"They'll hear the hoof-beats when we ride off.”
"And chase us. I expect that. At least we'll have a good head start.”
He was slapping a saddle on the back of a gray mare as he spoke, tightening cinch buckles, thrusting a bit between the animal's teeth and fastening the bridle. His hands made a cup for her foot so the Duchess could mount. He did not bother with a saddle for the black gelding he chose, saving precious time by choosing only a bridle.
With a leap he was on the horse and toeing it into a canter toward the wide gates which opened out onto the hard-packed dirt of the coastal road. The Duchess was a little ahead of him, looking back nervously over her shoulder at the stone bulk of the castle she was abandoning. The clatter of their hoof-beats seemed to drum thunder into the night to Stefano da Siena; the gateway towered above them, the portcullis grill-work poised overhead on its heavy chains.
Then the barbican was behind them and Stefano shouted, “Va presto!” His toes rammed the black hide of his gelding. Stirrup to stirrup they fled through the darkness, crouched forward so that the manes of the racing horses whipped their faces.
Behind them a voice bellowed an alarm.