CHAPTER ONE

 

The Maggiore Hills Near Lucca

Spring, 1315

 

I

 

The entry bell to one side of the great oaken gate of the mountain villa clanked fitfully, as if from long disuse. Again it clanked, this time more sharply, the ringer indicating his impatience with delay. Its imperative tone made an old man, kneeling beside an overturned cart in the flagstoned courtyard and applying animal fat to its near hub, lift his head and sniff annoyance at this interruption of his task.

He came to his feet, gaunt and bent with years, clad in a surcoat which, once brilliant with gold braiding, now was patched and mended. “Peste!” he muttered. "What nincompoop bothers to ring admittance when the latch has been removed these past two months?" He shook his white head and gathered breath into his lungs while he limped across the paving stones the better to berate the village lout up from Lucca with freshly slain calves or beeves.

The bell danced and shook to a savage pull.

“God save us,” the old man roared in a surprisingly vigorous voice. “If it's you, Jacopo—playing tricks—I swear by the Virgin I'll break a lance-haft over your skull. All right, all right—I'm coming."

Old Erasmo threw open the gate and stood blinking.

A rider clad all in black velvet, with gold threadings at the foliated sleeves and collar of his cotehardie, stared arrogantly down at him, lowering the riding crop with which he had been poking the bell-pull A heavyset man, he had the look of nobility in his carefully trimmed beard and mustache and in the grace with which he sat the high-peaked saddle of a black gelding which danced prettily between the red Cordovan thigh-boots he affected. Amusement warred with vexation in the smile twisting his thin lips.

"You keep indifferent watch for the home of a soldier as well known as Castruccio Castracane. Is it his custom—or your laxity?”

The old castellan bridled under that fixed stare. He might have answered pertly, for his lifetime of servitude included the rank of majordomo to an emperor—the late Henry VII—had he not seen a curtained litter beyond the horseman and half a score of men-at-arms in chain-mail shirts and metal caps riding attendance. His bright eyes opened wide as he read the insignia of the house of Donati on their leather jerkins.

"Forgive me, signor," he muttered as he bowed. "We see so few visitors here in the Maggiore hills, I thought it—well, no matter. Please light down and enter. I'll inform the master you're here."

The heavyset man smiled grimly as he kicked a booted leg over the saddle cantle and stamped his legs to restore circulation. "You'll ask no questions of me? My name for instance? My rank?”

Old Erasmo chuckled. "Your soldiers' device reveals you a Donati. Your bearing, your age—pardon, signor, for the impertinence, but—I assume you to be Count Guido."

The Count of Corvanto swung about to the litter. "Did you hear that, Iride? Already we meet a good omen for our journey. If the master's as sharp as the man, we haven't wasted our time."

"I was convinced of that before we set out, Guido," said a marvelously sweet voice. "Otherwise do you think I'd have sweltered and joggled in this cursed sedan all the way from Florence? Come, your hand."

The leather curtains parted before the white, heavily ringed fingers which moved them. A servant ran to help, opening the drapes to their widest as Count Guido extended his arm.

The contessa was a woman of mature beauty whose sensual fleshiness was encased now in a blue satin kirtle, modishly cut to reveal plump white shoulders and the beginning swells of fulsome breasts. A caul of seed pearls held her rich brown hair. To the many rings on her fingers she had added a jeweled necklace for her adornment. She represented a world old Erasmo knew only too well.

Her eyes touched and held the castellan. "Signor Castracane sits late in the hills this spring,” she said. Her inflection made her words almost an accusation.”

"Perhaps he has abandoned Mars for Ceres,” jested her husband.

The old man answered only with a little bow. His hand invited them to follow him through the gate and across the flagstoned court. He shuffled slowly, exaggerating his old leg wound in order that the man and woman at his heels might see and be impressed by the orderliness of the hillside manor where his master made his winter quarters.

A long, low hall was built of those striped stones peculiar to Siena, sixty miles to the south, and was flanked at either end by pillared loggias cool with shade and made fragrant by earthenware urns filled with lilacs. The courtyard well was also striped, its round roof tiled against the rains which in this dry spring of the year 1315 were strangely absent. The beginnings of a formal garden could be seen, with box hedge yet to be planted and still encased in cloth sacks, awaiting the spade. Beyond the low wall which ran to the west, furrowed farm fields stretched as far as the lower slopes of Mount Maggiore.

There was a distant bleating of sheep being herded by barking dogs in the spring air, and the rhythmic clang of hammers on metal from the forges beyond the great hall. In the stables, out of sight of the courtyard garden, a horse neighed shrilly and stamped angry hooves on the floor plankings.

Seeing their interest, the castellan explained, "Signor Castracane forgoes his daily ride to interest himself with his paints."

"He is an artist?" asked the countess with quick interest.

Old Erasmo inclined his head.

They moved through the shadows of the loggia to an open door leading into the great hall. At the far end a dais was elevated a foot above the stone floor where a long table, bare now, stood before high-backed chairs placed in a row. The long hall, the stone walls of which were hung with banners and standards and an odd assortment of weapons and armor, was cool and pleasant after the hot, dry sunlight. Iride Donati gave a little sigh as she hastened to seat herself in a cathedra chair, leaning her cauled hair against its high back and stretching.

Her sharp eyes studied the pennons draped so artistically, recognizing them for captured standards, seeing among them the gold lion of Venice and the golden spur of Ferrara.

"Signor Castracane makes advertisement of his military successes," she commented wryly.

Her husband smiled slyly. "Would we have it any other way, my dear? The laborer but shows himself worthy of his hire.” The count swung on the castellan with gently waving hand. "Inform your master we await him. We'll take our ease until he arrives."

Old Erasmo bowed slightly and hurried off, half bursting with excitement. Jesu Maria! A Donati here at the Condotta of the Rose winter quarters? This was to believe in miracles. He found an eagerness in him to study the face of his young master when he greeted him with his news.

Castruccio Castracane was frowning as the castellan came into the bare little room he used as a studio, tilting his head the better to peruse the still life grouping on the recessed stone sill of the south window. The painting over which he labored so industriously was almost complete, but he found himself bothered by the tinting of the gauntlet. On canvas it lacked the reality it possessed on the windowsill, poised between a helmet and a dagger.

He sighed and lowered the palette. "Indulge me, Erasmo. Tell me where my brush has failed my hand.”

"Only unless you command me, signor. You have a visitor. A Donati no less, the Count of Corvanto."

Sheer surprise brought the young condottiere around, lowering the palette in his left hand, dropping the brush onto the little worktable which was the sole article of furniture in this room he called his studio.

“Donati? The only Donati I know is Corso Donati the Florentine. And he's been dead six years."

“This is his brother Guido. There's a woman with him, his wife.”

"It's a jest of some sort,” smiled Castruccio. "If there's one man in Italy who must hate my name, it's Guido Donati."

"He's come a good distance. If he makes jokes, he does so at some trouble and expense."

“But the Donati family—like all Florence—has served the Pope in his struggle against the Emperor for as far back as I can remember. It just doesn't make sense. All Italy knows I fought for the Emperor—Henry VII—before his death last year at Buonconvento."

Castruccio wiped his hands on a length of cloth, scowling thoughtfully. "He wouldn't be madman enough to attempt assassination, would he? In my own villa? With a third of my condotta within hailing distance?"

"I doubt it. He carried only a dagger, signor. And his men-at-arms remained outside the hillside gate."

"No, of course not. He'd scarcely try violence with his wife beside him. I act like an unbroken colt at sight of a saddle. However! Let's go beard this Guelphic count. If he has the courage to come here, should I lack the bravery to discover his mission?”

Still puzzled, he followed Erasmo down the narrow gallery.

As the war captain came past the wooden screen which separated the kitchen from the great hall, Guido Donati turned away from the window through which he had been studying the plows and oxen working the nearer fields. His dark eyebrows shot up as he caught his first glimpse of the young condottiere. Pursing his lips, he went to stand beside the high-backed chair where the contessa took her ease.

Castruccio gestured away the castellan as he crossed the rush-strewn floor, reading the surprise on the face of the man and the sensual interest in the eyes of the woman. In neither did he himself evince the slightest concern. He halted and stared at the man, allowing himself to frown.

Tall and muscular in tight white and gold hose and a blue jacket quartered with the Antelminelli arms, Castracane had tawny hair with reddish tints, close-cropped to his skull, and a smoothly shaven jaw that made him seem even more youthful. That youthfulness appeared to trouble Guido Donati as the older man straightened, unable to restrain the look of sheer surprise which crossed his heavy features. The woman in the high-backed chair sighed softly.

“My castellan said you were Messer Guido Donati, the Count of Corvanto," Castruccio said pleasantly. “Surely, knowing my history as you must, he was in error?"

The internecine struggle between Pope and Emperor, in which Guelphic interests warred with Ghibelline, was now two centuries old. Almost forgotten by everyone involved were the early attempts of the Hohenstaufens to establish a despotic rule in middle Europe and the Regnum Italicum, and the bitter opposition their efforts met from politically jealous Popes. At a time when an Emperor, if he was strong enough, might choose his own Pope, and when certain Popes whose duty and privilege it was to crown those Emperors might use the weight of Holy Mother Church to select that Emperor, old rivalries grew into permanent hates.

In Italy especially was this bitter feuding between Guelph and Ghibelline most apparent. Whole families of Guelphs were slaughtered or exiled because they stood for the Pope; families of Ghibellines, because they believed in the temporal power of the Emperor. Entire cities took up the sword. Some cities perished in the fight; others, like birds of prey battening on the dead carcasses of their enemies, grew swollen and great with power. Such a city was Milan in Lombardy, which stood always for the Emperor; another was Florence in Tuscany, which raised the Papal banner on its walls.

The Donati family of Florence was especially vindictive.

The count touched his thick beard which was liberally sprinkled with gray and inclined his head very faintly. "Necessity can make friends of the cat and the dog upon occasion. I need you and your Condotta of the Rose. It's that simple.”

The golden-reddish head made a negative motion. "I've retired from the field. My soldiers are scattered. Nothing would induce me to call them together again, to take the wrappings from my siege weapons. When the Emperor died, I went into retirement."

The bushy eyebrows raised. “At your age? Gods, the art of warfare must be more rewarding than I guessed."

Castracane smiled. It has been recorded that, upon occasion, he had the smile of an angel. It appeared to touch Madonna Donati, for her fingertips began to beat very gently on the arm of her chair.

"As you suggest, we know your history," she said softly, thus drawing his attention. His blue eyes considered her fleshy body revealed so modishly in an overly tight kirtle with long, pendant sleeves. Above its low-cut collar she showed a smooth white throat and bared shoulders.

"For instance," she smiled, "we are aware that you don't even know your own father and mother. You were found in a church garden when you were an infant."

"The Church of San Michele in Lucca.” He nodded, intrigued.

“The woman who found you was sister to Fra Antonio, canon of San Michele at the time: Donna Dianora Cinami, a widow. Her brother the priest thought at first that she'd given birth to you but she soon disabused him of that notion. As Moses was found among the bulrushes, so she found you in the grapevines.”

The Countess of Corvanto looked thoughtful. “They searched all over Lucca to discover who might be your parents. Were you a Guinigi bastard? An Opizi? Had a daughter of the Poggi family sinned, with you as the embarrassing result? The good father never found out. And so he kept you for his own, and for the comfort of his childless sister."

"You make yourself an expert on my life, madonna," he commented wryly. "Did your research also reveal the fact that at the age of thirteen Francesco Guinigi remarked my size and strength and brought me to his palazzo to be tutored in the career of soldier?”

She inclined her head. "He saw you for the first time in the Piazza San Michele. He came begging Fra Antonio to give up his precious dream of seeing you adopt Holy Orders in order to turn you over to Ser Francesco that you might learn to ride a horse and manage a lance.

"And how well you learned! Macche! One can almost sense the pride of Francesco Guinigi in your development. Was he your natural father, do you suppose? Had he brought you to life in the belly of some handsome servant girl? Or titled noblewoman? It's a conjecture that amuses me.

"Did Francesco see himself in you, as he had been when young? The fact that you took so quickly to the use of sword and lance would presume the fact that he—who fought so often and so well for the Visconti of Milan—was your true father. He's dead now, so I suppose we'll never really know."

The soft voice beating in his ears was bringing back old memories to Castruccio. Francesco Guinigi had been a strict tutor, demanding but not tyrannical, strict but not cruel. Often enough, he himself had wondered if Ser Francesco might have fathered him, but it was a conceit he had long ago put out of his mind.

It was enough for him that the man had lifted him from the cloister of San Michele to set him down in a high-peaked wooden saddle, and had taught his fingers to curve around the braided haft of a long-sword When he was fifteen, few grown men had cared to face his lance at the jousting barriere.

Not until he was eighteen did Ser Francesco permit him to march off to war. Then he gave him command of a schiera of foot soldiers and brought him in his retinue to fight under the Visconti viper banner at the siege of Pavia. From the fighting there he had made something of a reputation; enough, at least, for him to consider making the pursuit of arms his life work.

"You formed your own condotta after that," Donna Iride informed him, "adopting the rose as your device. And under that banner you fought at Florence with Ugo della Faggiuola and later at Rovezzano where you made Corso Donati your prisoner for ransom."

"Knowing this, still you came to visit me?” he murmured incredulously.

"As my husband says, necessity makes friends of dog and cat. Your campaigns in Sicily—for Ferrara against Venice which resulted in utter defeat for the doges, for Venice two years later against the revolt of the Serrata led by Bajamonte Tiepolo—mark you as the most successful condottiere in all Italy. A successful soldier can name his own price. We came prepared to meet it."

"I've no price because I'm not for hire. I've retired from the field. Is this all your business?"

His intonation suggested that the meeting was at an end. The contessa only smiled and wriggled more comfortably into the high-backed chair. “Every man has a price. I'll test my wits to discover yours.”

Castruccio shook his golden head. "My service with Henry VII made me wealthy. Monies secured while in his service and from certain ransoms paid by noblemen who fell captive to my banner made me independent."

“Pah,” she exclaimed, leaning forward. "What is money?"

"Enough, in this instance.”

The woman inclined her head. "The princely sum of half a million gold ducats, I believe you brought back from Buonconvento. A fortune, true. But are you merely a huckster, Castruccio? A merchant content with his moneybags? Emperor Henry is dead now."

“There'll be another emperor soon."

“Of course. And another pope when Clement dies. No man is immortal, just as no fortune remains the same. It expands or contracts. At the moment yours is expanding. So. You have enough money. But for how long?"

Messer Guido had retired into a shadow, leaving his wife revealed in the late afternoon sunlight flooding through the tall, recessed windows. She seemed to preen in that bright effulgence like a cat, extending her slippered foot so that her skirt might hug the lines of her shapely leg, then leaning forward, causing her firm breasts to mold themselves against the thin satin of her gown.

Castracane was agreeable, seeing a sudden end to this interruption of his artistic endeavors. "You've said it yourself, Madonna Donati. I find myself rich enough for my needs."

Her laughter was sensual. So might she laugh at an invited caress, he thought. "There are other appeals to be made to a man,” she said.

The soldier-artist considered this, head tilted, wondering if this woman were about to offer herself to his bed and body so that he might fall in love with her cause. She had a fine body, and beautiful dark eyes; her eyes seemed to be laughing at him at the moment.

"All is not well between you and Lucca," she murmured slowly. "Ser Francesco is dead. The Opizi and the Poggi—not to mention Posserino di Quartegiani—are all jealous of your power.”

"I have no such ambition as they seem to feel. I'm content here."

"Oh, liar, liar," she admonished him gently. “I can see it burning in your eyes. What manner of man are you, that you won't acknowledge it? Or even admit to a flash of temper at the mention of those names?"

His head shook denial of her charge but she ignored his gesture to say, “You will admit you have a grievance against Giorgio Opizi for suggesting to the governing council that it banish you from Lucca for life as it banished so many of the Antelminelli family years ago? And for the lies about you which he pours into the ears of King Robert's lieutenant stationed in Lucca?”

His wide shoulders made an impatient movement. “No longer. Time teaches a man that temper is a tricky jade, apt to turn against him if he can't control it."

"A philosopher as well as soldier," murmured the woman. “You grow more interesting, Messer Cast—oh, forgive me. Only a knight or a nobleman is entitled to prefix 'messer' to his name. You've never been knighted, have you?”

The young man flushed. It was a raw spot with him, his lack of nobility in a land where nobility was akin to godhood. For all that he had been adopted by Fra Antonio so that he bore the great name of the Antelminelli family, he still felt the ignominy of being a commoner.

"Are you offering knighthood, Madonna Donati?” he asked frankly.

"And if I were? Could that—together with a yearly stipend of one hundred thousand ducats—lure you from your paint pots?"

Castracane touched the woman with his eyes, then stared at the man. He had known the bite of inactivity this past winter. The snows came early and remained late this high in the Maggiore Mountains. To relieve the tensions building in his body, he had taken recently to the habit of riding his gray stallion at a breakneck pace along the mountain roads. Only at this moment did he understand how much he had been missing the eager bustle of a condotta camp as it prepared for war.

All this he realized the woman was reading in his hesitancy. She, rather than the man, was the acknowledged leader in this mission to secure his services. As if she suspected his thoughts she turned her head to glance back at her husband.

“Guido, I miss my shawl."

"I'll fetch it.”

She waited until her husband had hurried from the room before rising from the tall-backed chair and moving to a window recess where she leaned on her arms and stared out across the farmlands and orchards stretching away to the north. Her rich brown hair was set in a coronet above a wide, white forehead, and her thin nose with its classical cast made the gently drooping mouth below it even more sensual.

"You've never married, Castruccio."

She said it so flatly, without even the semblance of questioning, that he did no more than shrug. Her eyes darted sideways at him.

"You've thought about marriage, however? And the fact that as an unnamed bastard you have little but gold to offer any woman who might consider you?”

He inclined his head, aware that her eyes were traveling up his long, powerful legs, pausing only momentarily at the groin before sliding across his lean, hard belly and deep chest to his handsome face.

"Such a man as you must have earthy appetites. You satisfy yourself with serving maids and farm wenches, with perhaps a tavern woman thrown in upon occasion for variety."

"You concern yourself with more than my professional career, madonna. I suppose I'm being flattered."

She laughed at him. "If I wanted you to bed with me I'd do more than talk about it. No, no. It isn't for myself I ask such questions but for the girl you'll marry—eventually. None of the little tarts you take to bed would make a mother for the children you hope to have someday. Only a noblewoman should bear your babies. Yet no noblewoman would have an untitled soldier, no matter how successful or how victorious at war he may be. It amounts to this, doesn't it?"

Damn those eyes that saw so clearly down inside him! He felt like an insect held aloft on an impaling pin by a professor at the University of Padua. Castracane forced himself to calmness.

"As you say, only a noblewoman.”

Her thin brows arched as her hands went wide. "Well, then? I'm offering you riches and an opportunity for knighthood all in the same breath. Why do you hesitate? What more do you want? A chance to study painting under Signor Giotto di Bondone?”

"I'm afraid I'm an indifferent artist."

"Can you tell? Are you artist enough to be able to assess your work?” she asked, honestly curious, and moved away from the window. "Show me these paintings of yours, Signor Castracane. Permit me to judge their merits."

He knew her for a patroness of the arts in her native Florence. She had posed for Giotto di Bondone, and supported half a dozen lesser known artists from an abundant purse. What sort of critic she might make, he did not know; yet hers would be an opinion uninfluenced by a need for flattery or subservience.

His decision was immediate. He bowed and smiled and Madonna Donati found herself once more under the influence of his personal charm. She came to him in a rustle of taffeta and heady perfume, placing slim white fingers, heavily ringed, on his arm.

"Escort me to your atelier, per favore," she smiled.

"Your husband?"

“Will be searching in my effects for my shawl. It's a ruse we use often, he and I. It gives me an opportunity to speak freely without his being about to put a damper on matters."

They moved into the narrow corridor where he drew back to let her precede him. She walked with sensual grace, letting her hips sway. The thought came to Castruccio that she would make a wonderful nude model; and wondered, if he made it a condition of his employment to fight for her cause, what her reaction might be.

The atelier was a small room, its windows open to the spring air and molten sunlight. His unfinished canvas rested on an easel close beside the worktable where he had laid his brush and palette. The painting reproduced the sword and helmet resting on one of the windowsills with an imitative facility, yet with a pronounced heaviness of hand that resulted in a mild garishness of color.

Madonna Donati stood beside the easel, studying the oil with narrowed eyes. Once she glanced at the grouping on the window ledge, then at Castracane himself.

"It has merit,” she said slowly.

"Perhaps I should make my appeal to the purse of Madonna Donati the art patron rather than Madonna Donati the ambitious countess.”

Sunlight flashed on the jeweled rings on her fingers as she gestured fiercely. "Pah! I can hire a dozen artists better than you, signor. Or don't you realize that a man can be an artist on the field of battle as well as on canvas?"

"You suggest then that life itself is art?"

"'The very highest form, signor.”

His hand indicated the painting. "And this? Should I throw a cloth over it and forget it while I take the field under your banner?”

"It would be my advice, yes. I cannot imagine your art ever winning you a knighthood. Or a hundred thousand ducats."

"You make a refusal the act of a madman," he commented.

"Or of the dull clod you pretend to be," she nodded, watching him with careful eyes.

Castracane walked to the recessed window and, brushing aside the gauntlet and helmet resting on its wide sill, leaned his palms to the worn wood. No matter where he looked through these panes, whatever he saw belonged to him. Those furrowed fields where beans and herbs were planted, the vineyard beyond the stone wall, the tiny chapel in which Fra Pietro was wont to say. Mass of a Sunday morning after climbing the steep mountain road on his small gray donkey, all these were his.

It was a good domain. It stretched for miles across rolling hills and meadowlands, and down along the road to Lucca.

Flocks of sheep and goat herds fed on its grasses. There were cows to be milked every evening in the big barns, and fine horses bred for speed and for fighting in battle contained by the stone fences that crisscrossed the fields. He was a wealthy man, as his world measured wealth.

And yet— He was not a happy man.

The ambition he had denied to this discerning noblewoman flooded his veins with every heartbeat. Bastard he might be, yet bastardy was no insurmountable barrier to any man these days. If he could not be heir to a dynasty, he could create one. To do that, a man must be noble.

The Countess of Corvanto was offering him just that, as a bribe to his employment. What more did he ask? Fame? His very fame had brought her. Money? His scrigni coffers were heavy with golden florins.

Ser Castruccio Castracane degli Antelminelli. It had a ring, that name. It made music in his mind. The name could be his own, when he was knighted. Ah, and after he was knighted he could begin to look about for a wife to give him children.

What are you waiting for, man?

He laughed in his throat, harshly, in amusement at himself. "I put up arguments only to knock them down again, like a man at tenpins. As you say, Madonna Iride, my art will never get me knighted. Even as I was painting these gauds, I ached to take the field again."

Excitement flushed her cheeks. "Then you agree? You'll take employment against whatever enemies my husband or I might designate?

"Excepting only Ugo della Faggiuola, my former comrade in arms." "He is not involved.”

The tawny head lowered slightly. “Then I wear your badge, madonna."

She clapped her ringed hands, laughing. "Va bene! Always I tell Guido a woman can bargain with a handsome man five times better than he, with his long face and bushy beard. Is it not so, Signor Castracane?"

"You've proved it just now." He smiled, then added, "I'd thought to make it a condition of my employment that you pose for me. If I'd insisted on it, would you have consented?”

Iride Donati pressed his wrist with slim fingers, leaning against him just enough so that he might guess the firmness of her breasts. "Non lo saprai mia,” she whispered, and gave a tiny giggle.

Castracane brooded down at her. “My friends say I am too daring in the field of battle. Perhaps I should learn that same daring where my canvases are concerned."

A shrug and an unreadable smile were her only answer.

 

2

 

Messer Guido Donati and his wife stayed to dinner in the great hall of the villa where Castracane was pleased to lord it in the manner of il gran signor. Three musicians in the shadows beyond the grill-work screen which hid the gallery from the length of the great hall filled the air with melody. Two maidservants—the Countess of Corvanto remarked on their good looks and wondered if their master was aware of their charms—waited on the great table, running with huge wooden platters of steaming roast lamb and capons, and fish freshly caught from the nearby Serchio, together with trays of barley bread, berry tarts, sweetbreads, and herring pies.

A maidservant was employed solely to keep the pewter goblets filled with a variety of wines, red Nebbiolo wine from Lombardy and Piedmont claret with the meat, white Soave with the tarts, and golden Albano with the cheeses.

It was the woman who pushed away her platter first, wiping her fingers on the tablecloth and saying, "You've heard the terms of your employment. Now it's time you learned its target."

"The target I've been supposing. It was a Catalan hired by Vieri di Cerchi who killed Corso. I assume you'll move against Cerchi and, by defeating him, exact vengeance and satisfy your honor.”

The heavyset count nodded slowly, chewing lazily. "A good brother, Corso. The head of our family. Sometimes a touch too hot-tempered, but he did a lot for us. I was with him the night after Charles of Valois, brother of King Philip the Fair of France, and loaned to Pope Boniface against the Ghibellines of Florence—entered Florence with his French troops."

He paused to brush at cheese particles adhering to his mustache and beard. "We broke in through the Gate of Saint Martin, all of us heavily armed. With Corso to lead the way we went to one house after the other, each of them filled with the Cerchis or their followers.

"Gods, the men we put to death that night, the women we—hrummph! Your pardon, Iride. It was before we wed."

Signora Donati inclined her head, fingertips busy with a large breadcrumb, molding it this way and that. “I never suspected you were an angel when I took my marriage vows, Guido. But we only bore Signor Castracane. It would be better to let him know to what purpose we promise him so much wealth and a knighthood."

"To be sure, to be sure. I but lay the groundwork on which to build his understanding. At any rate, the Donatis and the Cerchis have long been feuding in Florence, just as the Montagues and Capulets or the Monaldi and Filippeschi feud in Verona. As you say, Corso was slain by order of Vieri di Cerchi.

"It is to oust the Cerchi from Florence that we hire you and your condotta. A quick attack on Niccolo Pasolini, who is the war captain hired by old Vieri, and Florence falls to our banner."

"I'm to be a second Charles of Anjou, then.”

Iride Donati raised thin brows. "Have you scruples, captain?"

"Only against outright murder, signora.”

It was Guido who put his mind at rest. "Your task is merely to defeat Niccolo Pasolini in the field and to march into Florence with your condotta. It shall be my affair to announce that your coming ousts the Cerchis and restores the Donatis to power.”

In an age when cities showed the way, powerful families were really far behind in the employment of these professional soldiers called condottiere. Where Venice hired Ruggiero Morosini, and Florence, Tolosetto Uberti, the Donati family offered employment to Castruccio Castracane. An example, if one were needed, had already been set them by the employment of Federico Calomallo by Matteo Visconti of Milan.

"There may be some delay," Castruccio murmured thoughtfully. "Last winter when I announced my intention to retire from the field, I gave permission to my lieutenants to seek service with other captains. Andrea Sarto, for instance, suggested he might take his lances to Pisa where Faggiuola rules. Old Gianetto Orlando owns a farm outside Arezzo. He and his men have been planting olive trees against his retirement.

"Most of the others have gone back to their homes in Lucca, in Pistoia, in little towns such as Vellano, Lizzano, Porretta. I'll dispatch riders first thing tomorrow to bring them news of my decision."

The count frowned. “Will you find them willing to serve you? Men who lay aside arms for plows and spades—”

"—itch as I do myself to take the field. Soldiering is a business, signor. You hire me to do a job. I hire the best men available to follow my orders. Compare me with the builder of a house, if you will. You go to a master architect with your needs. You leave everything in his hands, the planning of the walls and rooms and roof, the hiring of laborers to construct them.

"He knows which are the finest stonemasons, the best carpenters. If he prospers at his work—as I take pride in the fact that I prosper—good workmen will come flocking for his hiring. They will know he pays well, that success attends his efforts. Ugo remains behind the walls of Pisa so Sarto will be eager for action. Orlando will be sick of the sight and smell of olive trees by this time. My other men—returned to farms and shops and store-stalls—will have discovered there's little gold to be found in trade these days as compared with the profession of soldiering.

"And of course, I keep many of my men here at the villa. They've made themselves a hamlet of sorts out of sight of the hall. They work my forges and plow my fields. A few of them I keep always under arms, to guard against assassination or robbery." He shrugged, explaining, "These are difficult times in which we live. My villa may not be as dangerous as a city street after dark, with foot-pads and slit-purses thronging to profit by attacking a wealthy burgher, but the possibility remains."

"Even without nobility, you don its trappings,” the countess laughed. “To your servants you must appear a knight in truth, with your wealth and reputation. Tell me, do you avail yourself of knightly privileges with your people? The right of the signor, for instance, the jus primis noctis: to bed the peasant bride?

Castruccio allowed himself to smile gently while he shook his head. "Not so far, at least. I find some humanity in me."

“Other war captains do. They create their own laws."

"Not Castracane."

Her mocking eyes made him feel a fool. They knew, both of them, the conditions of the time, where a man born to the peasantry must grub the soil all his life unless uplifted to the minor orders or the priesthood by virtue of brain and sanctity. As it was with the men, so it was with their women. Only the exceptionally attractive girl might hope to find some rich or noble patron willing to share his wealth with her in exchange for her favors. The others remained on the manor farms or in city shop-stalls, resigned to lives of grinding poverty.

The count sighed. “Before mid-April then, you'll move on Pasolini?"

"Once I can run him to earth, Florence is yours."

Signora Donati studied him with narrowed eyes. "You're confident; perhaps too confident."

His smile was a mirror for his pride. "I may be an indifferent artist, but I'm an excellent soldier. What the Creator denied in one field, He gave abundantly in the other."

Guido drained the last of his wine and upended the goblet on the table. "If my wife and I were not convinced of that, Signor Castracane, we would not be at sup with you this night. Iride? The hour grows toward complines. We have a long road yet to travel before daybreak.”

He pushed back his chair and Castracane followed his example, standing tall and handsome in the candlelight, his head inclined a little out of deference to the Countess of Corvanto who was rising to her feet. A manservant came running with her fur-trimmed pelisse which her husband took and tossed about her shoulders.

“As an evidence of our sincerity, fifty thousand ducats shall be delivered to your villa before you march on Pasolini," the count said slowly. "The balance will be paid you in Florence, the day you enter it as our deliverer.”

The contessa chided, "You make victory a condition of payment, Guido. Such is not our intention. All men are human. Even the great Castracane might meet defeat."

Castruccio took her words as a cue to say, "Which then would be the greater loss, madonna—yours or mine?”

She stared at him steadily, beginning to mistrust her first impression of this young Mars. He might run deeper than her surface impression of him as a lucky commander, one who had come to riches behind the imperial banner of Henry VII. His wide forehead was that of a thinker, his mobile mouth that of a man who saw humor in himself as well as in others. For a moment doubt ran along her nerves. Under the warm pelisse she shivered.

“Come, Guido," she said almost harshly. "I weary of standing."

Castracane went with them through the gallery and out along the pillared loggia to the open courtyard. It was a cool night with a brilliant pattern of stars and a crescent moon overhead. This high in the mountains, the air was clear and dry.

Iride Donati stepped into her palanquin and held out her ringed hand for Castruccio to kiss. “When you enter Florence, you shall be our guest, captain. Until then, may fortune attend you."

She sat back and let the heavy leather curtains rustle into place. The sedan chair was heavily cushioned and under the gentle spell of its rhythmic sway she might well fall asleep. There was no need to fear the highwaymen who sometimes preyed on lonely travelers, with the men-at-arms in metal caps and mail shirts who rode as their escort.

Her husband mounted a black gelding. He reined it in a mincing, sideways step across the flaggings, leaning down to offer his hand. "As milady says, good fortune, Castruccio."

Castracane followed them to the great gate and stood a while in the cool night, breathing deeply of the wind which was fragrant with lilac as it blew across Mount Maggiore.

"I've been a recluse too long," he told himself, "I itch for battle like a novitiate for his first Mass.”

His laughter rang out, strangely boyish.

 

When their cortege was an hour along the road to Fucecchio, Madonna Donati thrust her hand through the leather curtains of her sedan chair and signaled for a halt. As if that hand were a magnet, it drew Count Guido forward.

"My dear? You wanted me?"

"I've been lying here thinking. Tell me your impressions of this Castracane."

Guido Donati pursed his lips. "He seems a cut above the ordinary condottiere, but that may be because of his adoption by an Antelminelli—Fra Antonio—and his education by Ser Francesco."

"Oh, Guido!” she snapped impatiently.

His eyes studied her. "You've something on your mind."

She shrugged almost petulantly. "I begin to suspect him, which is more than you do, apparently."

“Suspect him? God's blood, what's to suspect?”

“That he suspects us! That he sees through our employment to the trap we lay for his destruction."

"Jesu Maria! Said he anything of this?”

"No, no. Certainly not. Would I have hired him in such case? Maybe it's only my own imagination or perhaps I ate too many spiced tarts.” "I trust it's one or the other,” he muttered soberly. "If he knew we were arranging his death this afternoon while we bargained for his services"

She snorted, "He'd never have let us go!” She considered this, head tilted to one side. "No, I start at shadows. If he'd suspected us, we'd be in chains this moment instead of riding now to take conference with Signor Pasolini."

She sank back into the cushions.

"Make haste slowly, Guido. The wine made me sleepy."

"Be at ease, my dear. In all things.”

The little cortege went on its way, slowly and sedately.

 

3

 

To the true soldier, no detail of his armament is too trivial to be overlooked. An arming point which seems secure as he dons breastplate and shoulder armor may prove in the heat of battle to be frayed and part just as a crossbow quarrel or lance-head comes thrusting for an opening. Or the onager which hurls a sixty-pound boulder for five hundred yards may snap a rope at the moment its missile is most needed to batter in a barbican gateway.

An hour after dawn on the morning following the visit of Guido Donati to his villa, Castracane sat the saddle of a gray mare inspecting the unwrapping of his catapults and ballistas. His voice rang with laughter and high spirits until his men took to smiling and working more willingly in the chill mountain air.

To his delight, even the most careful inspection revealed no flaws. To be sure, new ropings and cordings would be needed, but these he would have added in any event. He ordered axles to be greased and new skeins to be wound, arms and winches tested for rot or corrosion.

The huge wagons which trundled in the van of every mercenary company must be checked for strength and readiness, for on their plank floors they carried the disjointed sections of scaling towers and wheeled ramps which were assembled when putting a city to the siege. The wheeled ramps served the same purpose as the scaling towers—to let men mount them to the tops of city walls—but they were less protected from enemy arrows than were the roofed towers.

Low-slung catapults must be joined together and the six-foot javelins they hurled tested against hay-piles half a mile away. Mantlet carts, roofed and wheeled, in which soldiers could crouch and push forward while protected from enemy arrow-fire, must be cleaned and overhauled.

Castruccio dispatched half a dozen men to the armory to fetch swords, shirts of chain-mail, shields, and metal caps. He put them to work greasing the metal with goat's-bone marrow so they would stay always bright and not rust even when it rained. Then there were pole-arms to be polished and tested, roundel daggers to be sharpened, shields needing new straps and hand-grips

Noon came and went and still he worked on, untiring.

For two weeks he would be busy here, making preparations. Even so, he would be rushing to take the field. It "might be better to go more slowly, to be more thorough, but the wine of youth sang in his veins and to perdition with delay.

He straddled a catapult lever as a new cogwheel was attached to the winch, singing a risqué ballad for the amusement of his workers. Only when he saw a slim female figure moving from the buttery did he break off and shade his eyes.

"Now who's that little squab?” he wondered aloud.

A big Catalan straightened, squinting. "Oh, that's Luisa, up from Lucca. Maddalena's girl."

"Fat Maddalena? The cook?"

The man chuckled as he began winding rope. “Never think it, would you? And the airs she gives herself. Mamma mia! You'd think she was a contessa at the very least."

Castruccio chuckled and kicked a leg over the lever, jumping to the ground. Luisa was closer now, so that he could see she carried a small flask of wine and a wicker basket covered with a napkin. This little pullet the daughter of Maddalena the plump, who ruled the kitchen, buttery, and the cantina with a hand of iron? This was to believe in old wives' tales.

"I brought your lunch, signor,” she announced from ten feet away, advancing with a walk that drew attention to the hips shifting under her tight cotton skirt. She smiled at Castruccio, exposing even white teeth. There was a pertness in her bright eyes, half hidden by long brown lashes, that made him understand he had been too much the hermit during the winter months.

"I'm not hungry,” he told her abruptly. "Take it away."

"Mamma said you're to eat it all. I'm to stay and make sure you do." She lifted a hand to her long brown hair, brushing it back from her face, exposing a smooth cheek tinted by overmuch sunlight. Last night she had waited on table in the great hall for the first time. She wondered if the capitano had noticed her.

"Only the young lord, mind,” her mother had warned as she put the ewers of chilled claret in her hands. “Go near any other man and I'll take a broomstick to your behind."

“As if any other man could interest me," she had sniffed.

“Ah, we put on airs, do we? What about Jacopo who works in the olive grove for Ser Pietro Micheli? He talks of marriage with you, day and night."

"He talks. I listen. I say nothing."

Maddalena observed her daughter more closely. "I want no bastards tumbling under my skirts as I work about the manor kitchen, girl. Understand that.”

Luisa had shrugged petulantly. "At least they'd be the lord's children. He'd have to feed and clothe them. And give fine presents to their mother."

"Oho! So that's the way the weather-vane swings, is it? Now you listen to me, young lady. I didn't bring you here from Lucca to whore it with the signor. If you've any idea like that, back you go to Uncle Gasparo."

Luisa had veiled her eyes. "Yes, mamma," she answered meekly, but she thought, What, and grub in dead ground for thin turnips the rest of my life? Or put plow-straps over my shoulder and walk behind a horse the way Aunt Enrichetta does? Not Luisa Baltasore! Wisely, she kept her thoughts locked in her pretty head and dodged the slap Maddalena aimed at her flank.

Last night the young lord had been busy with his guests. There had been no opportunity to do more than pour his wine, and though she racked her wits, Luisa saw no other way of calling attention to herself. This noontime hour, though, might prove a different story. The manner in which his glance raked the worn cotton tunic which outlined her hips and striding thighs were all the encouragement she needed.

“Thin slices of lamb with barley bread and Brie cheese from France," she murmured with a sly smile, glancing into the basket. Shaking the straw fiasco of wine dangling from her shoulder on its leather thong, she added, "And cool Nebbiolo from the spring-house”

"You tempt me, I admit,” he grinned.

With the basket in one hand and the wine flask in the other she came even closer, lifting her arms to offer the food and wine. So near to her, Castruccio could read the faint challenge in her eyes.

"We'll make a picnic of it, you and I,” he said softly, and catching her wrist in his fingers, drew her toward the mare.

Mounting, he reached down, catching her wrist and lifting her up and into the crook of his arm, her thighs were crushed between his middle and the high wooden pommel, forcing her tight against him. When the men working at the ballistas laughed and whistled, she sniffed disdainfully and let herself settle closer to Castruccio.

"Are you comfortable, Luisa?” he asked. "Si, signore. Are you?”

Her glance was sly. He laughed very softly under his breath, and touched the mare with a toe, urging it up the slope of a grassy hill and down the other side. Her body was soft and warm. The thick brown hair dangling down her back blew against the hand which held her shoulder as if with subtle caress, reminding him that he was young and healthy and too long without the company of women.

Luisa was aware of her effect on him. From time to time she glanced upward, studying his strong jaw and firm, mobile lips which revealed a discipline of self and a tolerance for others. He was as handsome as a pagan god, she thought, remembering the marble statues in the old ruins beyond the Porta San Maria of Lucca, which Fra Pietro told her were of Apollo and Mercury. He boasted the same straight nose, almost up and down, as did the statue named Apollo. She wondered if his body might be as muscular as the one carved out of stone and felt her blood warm to her thoughts. She was no mistress round-heels—Maddalena saw to that!—but she did acknowledge the bitings of her animal nature in the infrequent confessions which she made to Fra Pietro.

She sighed and shifted her weight in his arms so that her full young breast might nudge his chest. Let the young lord think of her as a woman, not just a maidservant forever with a wine pitcher or a slops mop in her hands. Luisa Baltasore knew that girls favored by noblemen or rich merchants could advance a notch or two in their station in life. She had only to look for an example to her good friend Agnese Chieri, who positively wallowed in coats of the finest Syrian cotton and Spanish wool with surcoats to fit over them trimmed in marten and beaver, in half a dozen rings for her fingers and a small money chest loaded with gold coins. She even owned a little house along the Via Roma where her mother, father, and two younger brothers lived on her good fortune.

All for going to bed with Eusebio di Corvari!

Eusebio di Corvari was old and fat. Castruccio was young, lean and strong. It would be sheer pleasure to bed down with him in the upper room, called a solar, which was his bedchamber. Luisa frowned, and bid herself be cautious. Her maidenhead might be worth little but it was a mark of her virtue and, as such, not to be exchanged for anything less than what Agnese Chieri enjoyed.

“Are you frightened, Luisa?” he asked after a while.

"No, lord. Not with—you."

He smiled, though he looked straight ahead. “Bene! There's a little clearing up ahead where we—ah, we come to it. Here, let me."

Castruccio swung down from the saddle. Then his arms were lifting, palms sliding into her hairy armpits and, while she clung to the basket and flask, he lowered her to the ground. For just a moment he held her warm and soft against his front, then sighed and released her.

"Give me your hand, Luisa.”

Like that he brought her into the clearing so that she might see the sunlight flooding the green grass and white stones. The thick tree-trunks made a natural fence about the glade and appeared to lean together and shut out the world.

"I come here often when I'm at the villa," he told her, looking around him. "Somehow it's easy to think here, to see men and women in their proper perspective, to probe at subterfuge and to question purpose—you don't know what I'm talking about, do you?”

"No, lord."

"Can you read? Write?”

She looked down at the dirty bare toes peeping from her leather sandals, shaking her head so that the long brown hair flew. Never before had she felt so insignificant and ashamed. It was like a pain in her heart, but it made her resolve fiercely to begin an education. Perhaps a man like the manor lord required something more than bed companionship of a woman.

“Before I march against Pasolini I must take you to see Fra Pietro,” he murmured. “He could teach you letters and the art of holding a quill pen."

"I know Fra Pietro," she informed him, her heart lurching wildly. The war captain was interested in her, no question about it. Why else would he so concern himself with her?

"All the better. Now then, the meat and bread."

She spread the napkin on a flat stone and served him, bending low before him so that the wide collar of her tunic might gape the wider. She sat on a flat stone as he munched, with her shapely legs visible from sandals to the middle of her thighs. At his invitation, she took a few sips of the Nebbiolo.

After a while he said, "I should be with my men, superintending their work.” He lay back on the grass, staring up at the blue sky. “Does Fra Pietro teach you about sin, Luisa? About temptation?"

“Yes, signor.”

His head turned lazily as he smiled at her. “You're temptation to me. You keep me here when I'd be better employed seeing to my armor and my horse trappings.”

So as to appear more the timid virgin, she sprang to her feet but his hand came out and banded her ankle. For a long moment she stood staring down at him, alert to the warmth of his palm on her smooth skin, excited and with every sense alive.

“Last night the contessa wondered if I amused myself with my maidservants. It's what her husband would do, and most other men, so she judged me guilty without a trial. No, don't try to get away. You can't if I don't want you to."

She had attempted to jerk free of his grip and failing, stood waiting. He made no other movement however, and after a moment she glanced down into his face. He was smiling up at her with a wistful sadness in the twist of his lips.

“You're very pretty, Luisa. As pretty a girl as I've ever seen, now that I think about it. Do you have a young man paying court?"

She hesitated, wondering whether to tell him about Jacopo Meltamanni. Instead she muttered, "Mamma would break a ladle handle over the head of anyone who came near me. She tells me not to let a man so much as touch me." The slim ankle moved gently to free itself, then quieted to remain a prisoner of his fingers.

"Sometimes I tell myself I'm a fool, Luisa. I have a dream. But will I live to see it become reality?" His hand shook her leg after a long moment. "Don't you want to know what my dream is?”

"Yes, lord."

"No you don't. Not really. You only think to humor me."

His dream! Laughter made a bitter taste on his tongue. Were there any words with which he could make this peasant girl understand the thoughts which made him toss restlessly in his four-poster bed when moonlight made a silver pool on the rushes covering his bedchamber floor? A fool, Castruccio. An orphan with God knows what father, what mother to call you son. As a boy without a copper grosso in his patched purse, standing to study the parchment maps of Lombardy and Tuscany, the Papal States, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, he had wondered why all this land below the Alps and stretching between the Tyrrhenian and the Adriatic and down to the Ionian Sea was not one, united in deed and purpose.

Aye, and later: marching through the dust and the heat toward Pavia with his schiera of pikes trudging behind him, telling himself that Milan, Siena, Rome, Florence, Lucca, Naples, Venice and Genoa, together and under one banner, would make the mightiest of states, a nation stronger even than the England of Edward II or the France where Louis X ruled.

As he had so often in the past, he asked himself, "Must I be so much the buffoon, the court jester? Gods, why can't I be satisfied with a bed to sleep on and a meal to make my middle full?” He rolled over and grinned up at the girl. "And a sweet maid like you to make me know my manhood. What need have I for dreams?”

She was astonished by the bitterness of his voice. She forced herself to say, "I do want to know your dream. I do!”

As soon as the words were out, she realized that she was only speaking truth. She wanted suddenly to know everything about this young war captain. "Please, signor?"

The hand was gone and her ankle felt cold and abandoned. Luisa wondered where she had blundered. Ought she show her willingness to give herself to him, even now? Or would that be a tactical mistake? Frightened, she wanted his hand back around her ankle, as if by its going it had taken a part of her with it.

He was standing, moving away from her toward the gray gelding. She had angered him, had done or said something to make him scowl darkly as if at evil thoughts. Frowning, she went about folding and knotting the napkin and tying it to the empty wine-flask, aware that her lips were quivering. Truly, her mother understood her best when she called her addlewit! To have the manor lord so eager for her caresses, then to let him slip from her fingers as might a greased saucepan in the kitchen! She almost wept.

A shadow took shape before her where she crouched in the grass to empty the lees from the wine-flask Wonderingly she lifted her eyes.

Back and forth in the sunlight swung a tiny medallion on a thin golden chain. She had never seen anything so exquisite. Castracane was smiling down at her, holding out the trinket.

“Take it, girl. It's yours."

"Mine?" she asked with excitement in her voice.

Oh, fool, fool! To have despaired when there was no need of it. She had not lost him by her studied reticence. Instead, she had convinced him of her virginity, had made herself more delectable in his eyes.

Already he was pressing a gift upon her. This fine medallion was of pure red gold, glinting so brightly in the April sunlight that it dazzled her. The bauble would be the first of many. Already she was setting her slender feet on the road to fortune.

"I intended to let you ransom your ankle with a kiss. And if the kiss led to something else, well—I'd have been content with that, too. This is payment for my bad intentions."

She shook her head slowly. “I couldn't take it. Mamma would be furious. She'd think I'd been naughty with you and that this was my reward." Her eyes told him she would not mind being as naughty as he liked but she controlled the fingers which itched to snatch the roundel and clasp it around her throat.

Castracane stared down at her, chuckling. “Of course. I should have known. What else could she possibly think? All right. I'll go with you to Maddalena and in her presence and explaining my reasons, I'll get her to let you accept it.”

He held out his hand, lifting her to her feet. And now as they walked across the clearing, Luisa danced on merry toes. Her lips smiled with sly triumph, and her tears were all forgotten:

When he mounted and swung her up into his arms, to hold her firmly cradled, she let her muscles relax and leaned her head against his chest as if to indicate that now he might consider her to be his property. In a new awareness of the senses, she found the springtime air perfumed all around her and the chestnut trees and berry bushes touched with a strange, golden radiance instead of sunlight. She sighed and stirred, knowing instinctively that her body was enjoying a springtime of its own.

She wondered why it was that men must go to war when there were so many other things, certainly far more pleasant things, which men and maids might do together. Castruccio, for instance: instead of arming points, let her arms lace his body. Rather than don hard, cutting mail and plate armor, he should cover himself with her softness. Luisa bit her lower lip against a giggle. Why cut off her thumb to spite her hand? The sooner he took the field, the sooner he would win more riches and shower her with gifts.

Luisa stirred restlessly. A serving maid, she knew no other life but that which existed in the great kitchen and buttery. In these spring days she planted lettuce and beets and cabbage in the gardens beyond the stables, and mended clothing. When it was permitted, she would wait on the dais table in the great hall. Ever since she could remember, it had been no other way. The summer brought no chance to rest, with crops to be garnered and fruit trees to be climbed and shorn of their burdens, eggs to be placed under the hens for the hatching, muslin to be fed the geese, and milk to the young lambs and calves. It was her task too to feed the big hunting hounds in their long runways. Not to mention spinning, and gathering honey from the hives.

Idly she wondered what it might be like to be the lady of the manor. Her thin brown brows gathered together in puzzlement. There had never been a lady here at the villa, other than to visit. She wished she knew what duties they might have except to dress in richly embroidered kirtles and wear fine rings and brooches. The thought of such a life made her glance upward at Castruccio.

To be his manor lady—

She smiled indulgently at her imagination. To sit beside him while another girl poured his wine, to bedeck herself in silken stuffs from the Levant, and flowing mantles of Mantuan velvet edged with martlet skins from Calabria, with a brooch done in the niello work for which Milan was famous to hold together her bodice linens, this was the stuff of which sensible dreams were made.

 

Maddalena was in the big stone kitchen at the mincing table, slicing cabbages, as they entered. Fires had been lighted in both huge hearths, for with the Condotta of the Rose making its preparations for the field, there were many mouths to be fed. Half a dozen plump girls from Lucca were lending their hands to the task, shelling beans and dicing vegetables on the long table set up before the spice cupboards, cleaning the entrails from fowls and two fat roasting pigs. Already the scents of baking breads and berry tarts filled the big room.

At sight of the youthful condottiere, all work stopped while the young girls gawked and giggled. Maddalena waved her chopping knife in the air, promising to box a few ears unless more attention was paid to the work at hand. Dropping the knife, she came waddling away from the heavy table covered with sliced cabbage leaves.

"Ah, there you are, mistress lazybones," she bawled at sight of Luisa behind Castruccio. "Where've you been all afternoon? Don't you know there's work to be done? I hire other girls while my daughter, my own flesh and blood—"

"Peace, Maddalena," Castruccio chuckled, raising both hands. "I invited her to go on a picnic. More than that, I commanded her. So the blame is mine."

The fat cook looked uncomfortable as she made a little bow. "Yes, lord." Her glance at Luisa made the girl understand that this subject of picnicking would be discussed later, in more privacy than they enjoyed at the moment.

“Further," went on Castracane, lifting out the golden bauble from his belt-purse, "I have a gift for her which she has refused until you give permission.”

Maddalena gasped as her eyes opened wide. “Sweet Jesu," she began and then fell silent, for hers was an age when the manor lord was master of life and death—or of virtue, if so he willed to be—and she knew no other life.

"I came because Luisa would not accept it," Castracane told her. "I give it to her because she kept me from sin this afternoon.”

"Jesu Maria,” whimpered Maddalena, crossing herself.

Castruccio smiled. “So you see virtue is not quite its own reward this time.” The medallion swung back and forth in the sunlight from the high kitchen windows. "May she accept it, Maddalena?”

"Si, signor. Oh—si!” she beamed.

Her elbow caught Luisa in the ribs, urging her forward.

His hand turned the girl so the back of her graceful neck was to him. Her hand lifted her thick brown hair, pushing it to the top of her head and baring her throat for the chain. Castruccio felt his heart leap as his gaze fell on the tiny hairs which escaped her fingers. He told himself this was only a peasant girl, no great lady shaved and scented. If he crooked a finger she would jump into his bed with him. Why then this contraction of the heart, this spasm in his middle? He was no schoolboy to whom a woman was a mystery.

Impatient with himself, he put the medallion about her throat and fastened its clasp. "There now, you're worth at least a dozen ducats. A fair price to pay for untouched virginity."

He left the girl staring down at the locket with furrowed brows, studying its engraved motto, Periculum in mora. A thick dissatisfaction stirred in him. He had wasted almost the entire afternoon with the wench. To make up the lost time he'd have to work on into the night, with torches and oil-boats making the courtyard bright as day.

As he crossed the inner ward a distant hail brought him to a halt. A rider was coming fast along the road from Lucca, standing in the stirrups, waving a velvet cap. He knew that galloping bay mare. Once it had been a foal in his own stables.

“Paolo," he chuckled, and went to the courtyard gate.

Paolo Guinigi was his young ward, left in his care when his father, Ser Francesco, had died some years before. He was sixteen now and showed promise of growing to powerful manhood, with the heavily thewed Guinigi body and thick black hair to show his heritage. Though he lived at the palazzo Guinigi in Lucca, he was no stranger to the hillside villa. It was here, while Castruccio observed, that he had come to know the use of lance and sword and to practice the proper management of a warhorse. While he watched the boy approach, Castruccio smiled fondly. As he himself had pestered Ser Francesco to be allowed to ride to the wars, so Paolo would now be pestering him.

In a cloud of dust and laughter the youth came out of his saddle to run to the condottiere, catching his hand and shoulder in an iron grip. Paolo Guinigi was possessed of heavy, rolling muscles; in a few years he would be as strong as Castruccio himself. Thick black hair hung to his shoulders, under a soft red velvet cap trimmed with ermine. His skin was tinted to an almost Moorish darkness, and his firm mouth with its quick changes of expression revealed high spirits and a natural enjoyment of life. Excitement glistened in his bright black eyes as he shook Castruccio by an upper arm.

"Well? Well? When do we march? Hey? It's all over Lucca, so don't deny it."

The condottiere grinned and punched his ribs. "We? Who said you were going? This is war, Paolo, not a game of hitting a practice target with a blunted lance-tip"

"Ho! Right now I'm as good a lance as you have in your whole company. Now quit fooling."

“I'm not fooling.” Something in his voice drove the smile from the young Paolo's lips. “Come, walk a way. There are things I want you to do for me."

"Anything, Castruccio. You know that."

The condottiere brought him at his side beyond the courtyard well and along a narrow flagstoned path that led into the gardens on the far side of the stables. At each stride he bared the reflections which had troubled him since the visit of the Donatis.

"It may be I start at shadows,” he confessed slowly. "Yet I know that the Opizis and the Poggis wait in Lucca like the cat at the mouse-hole, ready to pounce the moment my back is turned. When I remove the Condotta of the Rose from these hills, the ambition that burns in Giorgio Opizi may leap to living flame.

"He will strike for Pope against Emperor, destroying the Ghibelline families now resident in the city. He'll flood the cobblestones with blood. And he'll seize power with both hands, clutching it to his bosom as a mother does her firstborn.

"I am a condottiere. Warfare is my business. To conduct it properly, I must take my condotta where it is hired to fight. But by taking the field, I am removing the one obstacle which keeps Giorgio Opizi from tyrannizing in Lucca.”

Paolo was a worshiper at the feet of this man, his hero. He scoffed, "Pah! He'd be a fool to attempt anything when he knows that on your return you'd put things to rights. Would he dare risk giving you the excuse to hang him in an iron cage above the square of Saint Michael, as the Viscontis hang their enemies in Milan?”

"Perhaps not. Yet the possibility remains."

They came in their strollings to a great trellis laden with purple lilacs. Castruccio lifted a hand, broke off a branch and waved it to and fro under his nose while his fine blue eyes grew dreamy.

"I ask myself, if I were Giorgio Opizi what I might hope to accomplish by seizing power as soon as the Company of the Rose marches off to war."

"And?” the boy wondered.

Castruccio smiled. “Why, thereby I might win Lucca to the Guelphic cause. Without the powerful condotta of this young general sitting aslant the hills overlooking Lucca, who would stop Giorgio Opizi and Stefano Poggi from issuing edicts of banishment against the Ghibelline families now enjoying power? Eh? I'd exile or destroy the Guinigis and the Montaras as the Donatis destroyed Niccolo Cerchi and exiled Dante Alighieri from Florence a dozen years ago.

“And this young sprout of the Guinigi line, this husky Paolo? I'd slit his throat in a dark alley lest he come to power in later years and exact vengeance for my coup."

"Jesu!” whispered Paolo, paling. "You envision nightmares."

"I merely face reality.” His wide shoulders shrugged. "But—mayhap I do grow fanciful. Still, I'd be a poor commander to march off to battle and leave my rear unguarded, now wouldn't I? Have you learned this much of the art from me?"

The boy grinned. "You'd be a poor commander if you did.”

"Va bene! You shall be my rearguard, then."

"I? What can I do?”

"You can keep your fastest horse always bridled, ready to run at the merest whisper of treason. It will come through the Council."

"Opizi wouldn't dare!” the boy protested.

"Oh, wouldn't he? Who'd stop him? You?"

Young Paolo bit his lip, turning over this revelation in his mind, seeing danger as it might develop once the Company of the Rose marched out to meet Niccolo Pasolini. The more he thought, the clearer became his understanding of the situation.

"Jesu! You could be right. Without you around, the Opizi and the Poggi would rule the city. All or mostly all of the old Ghibelline families were exiled back in '93. There are a few of us left but we're nothing compared to the Guelphs."

"You perceive this at last, do you? Then you'll be the better prepared to act as my rearguard."

Castruccio put his arm about the boy and drew him out of the garden and toward the armory. “As long as you're here, I'll put you to work shining chain-mail shirts. It's a mean job but you're young and strong, and you don't mind the stink of goat's-bone marrow after it's been in the sun a while.”

“You always give me these menial jobs."

"Ho! Many's the marrow jar I emptied when I was your age before Ser Francesco said I was ready to take a schiera into battle." He flipped an earthenware pot and a rag to the glum Paolo, indicating a pile of chain-mail shirts.

"I still don't see how this can make me a better soldier," protested the boy. "The best chain-mail polisher south of the Alps, yes. But—"

"As such, you'll always have a job with me," Castruccio assured him solemnly, then laughed in delight at the boy's resigned grimace.

 

4

 

Maddalena was tired. Her fat legs ached and her fingers, numb from kneading dough for bread and doucettes, seemed about to fall off as she waddled down the narrow hall into the servants' quarters. Thoughts of her pallet engaged her mind but there remained one thing yet to do before she could pull a blanket over herself. All evening long she had kept a close eye on Luisa, had noticed the bubbling eagerness with which she ran to fill the wine pitchers and, when she thought herself unobserved, the excitement with which she studied the gold medallion and the Latin inscription.

"The girl's a fool," she grunted, wincing at every step, telling herself she was equally a fool to bother her head about what happened.

Nevertheless she conceived a certain duty in her to the child. Young and foolish, she could make a mistake she might rue the rest of her life. An old head was a wise head. Why should Luisa wear out her pretty young body with hard tasks when by the simple use of her wits and personal charms, she might make something of herself? Besides, if good fortune attended Luisa, it would also attend her mother.

And so she pushed open the wooden door of the tiny cubicle where Luisa slept of nights while she was at the villa, finding her daughter lying on her cot in the moonlight from the single window of her room. Her hands were folded behind her head as she stared blankly at the stuccoed ceiling.

"Good, you're awake," Maddalena said. "I've come to have a few words with you!"

"Oh, mamma. Must you? The signor told you the truth today. He didn't even kiss me.”

The plump cook sniffed. She reached for a copper tinder box and, scratching sparks with flint and steel, made a tiny flame with which she lit the bed-table candle. "At least you have some sense. Hunger prolonged whets the appetite."

Luisa stretched under the blanket which was her only covering. “Will you teach me to be a woman?”

"None of your pertness, now." Maddalena sank her weight on the pallet, panting from her recent exertions. "What about Jacopo Meltamanni?”

"He was here tonight. I sent him packing."

"Ah, did you so?”

Luisa smiled slyly. “Am I that much an addlewit, mamma? If the young signor looks on me with favor, what need have I for Jacopo?”

The cook blew out her cheeks. “Maybe you aren't so much the nitwit, after all. You know this much, at least. I wanted to make sure you knew what was going on. Signor Castracane is a rich man. He's young and young blood is hot blood. I saw the way he regarded you this afternoon when he was hanging that roundel around your neck. He wants to bed you."

“I know that.”

Maddalena scowled. "Have you behaved yourself with Jacopo?"

"Yes, mamma. My mirror tells me I'm too good-looking to be a farm girl, a contadina, all my life.”

"Yesterday I might have cuffed you for such pertness. Today I applaud it. It helps when you think well of yourself. Hold yourself aloof from young men who can do no more for you than put a bastard in your belly."

"And the young lord can do far more. But—will he?"

Maddalena shifted her weight on the pallet, thinking of her own bed. "Ebe, the maid, told me a little while ago that he ordered her to fetch some gowns and jeweled baubles from the storehouses."

“Mamma!” Luisa squealed, sitting upright on the cot. She slept naked as did all peasant women and for an instant her breasts gleamed pale and heavy in the candlelight before she pulled the blanket over them. “Did he really? Oh, Santa Maria! Mamma, do you think he means to give them to me as presents? The way he did this medallion?”

"If you card your wool right, he may."

"I'm so excited! I've been lying here dreaming but I wasn't sure—I thought perhaps—"

"He'll be asking you into his bed one of these nights before he takes the field. Don't put up too much of a struggle. I ask myself if you should struggle at all. People in our circumstances can allow themselves no airs."

Luisa hugged herself. "I won't. I promise. I'll make him fall in love with me. I will!”

Maddalena scoffed. "Love? Pah, what's love between a man and a woman? The mouthings of poets. You'll do better to teach his body the pleasures your body can bring to it. In that way you'll tie fetters around him stronger than the finest steel. Now listen to me, child ..."

For an hour the cook talked to her daughter, speaking plainly and frankly. When she was done, her eyebrows arched. “You understand what I say? Forgo any maidenly modesty you might have. Keep always in the back of your head the knowledge that it's easier to work in a bed than in a kitchen or a buttery." She added wryly, "The rewards are far greater, too. You can become a woman of property, even of wealth.”

"I know, mamma. Agnese—"

“What Agnese has is nothing compared to what you may enjoy. Castracane has his future before him. Unless he marries, you stand to enjoy his villa as his mistress."

"And you, mamma—some of these gifts will rub off on your fingers, too."

"I don't deny I'm thinking of myself. With money we can purchase a little home in Lucca. I need no longer work myself to exhaustion in the kitchen. And unless I read the signs all wrong, the young signor will bury you in gifts. If you please him well enough, that is. I want to make sure you do."

"I will. I vow I will."

Maddalena sighed. “From now on, all you'll do around here is wait on table with the wine.” She smiled faintly. "You've become a valuable property, Luisa. I must make certain you don't exhaust yourself with too many tasks. Save your energies for the bedchamber."

She rose and, stooping, blew out the candle. "Sleep well, little one. I hope life will be as good to you as I dream it will."

Maddalena waddled to the door, opening it and closing it behind her gently. She stood a moment in the narrow hall, frowning, wondering if she ought to confess these worldly vanities to Fra Pietro. Would the good father understand that life was very hard on a mere peasant? That a sensible person was forced to any means at all to avoid the harsh drudgery of daily living? Well, no matter. A priest had it easy, so easy he might not prove understanding.

A body had to look out for herself. It was simple common sense.

 

5

 

Four days later, Gianetto Orlando of Arezzo came clattering into the villa yard. At his back were two hundred lances, accompanied by squires and pages, and half a dozen carretas containing shields and spears. A veteran campaigner, he was tanned the color of Cordovan leather and his spade beard was a mixture of iron black and gray. He gave a deep bellow at sight of Castruccio and came free of the saddle to throw wide his arms and roar laughter to the sky.

"Addio! So you couldn't retire and stay retired, eh? Peste! I could've told you as much last December when you disbanded the company. As a matter of fact, I think I did tell you, standing right about here. Now didn't I?”

"Gianetto, you're a fortune-teller. I believe you're in league with the devil.”

The older man puffed out his cheeks and looked around nervously. "Easy on that devil talk, Castruccio. I've known the good fathers to burn a man alive for being in league with Satan.”

Castruccio clapped his shoulder. "Old one, you're priceless. Come tell young Paolo why he can't ride with us. He's been like a leech on my neck ever since he got here. A pity nobody's been able to teach him the meaning of the word 'no.'”

"Yah, yah. You should've heard yourself plead with Ser Francesco—Lord have mercy on his soul—when you were that age. I'll go talk to him. I'll tell him how you hid in the wagon that time—you mind the drubbing you got for that piece of impertinence?

The condottiere sighed. “You're all in league against me. Go. Go before I decide to replace you with urchins off the streets of Lucca."

Rumbling laughter, Gianetto went to find young Paolo.

It was dusk when his second in command brought his own retainers cantering through the villa gate. Andrea Sarto was a thickset Calabrian, all in plate armor and mail, almost as broad as he was tall, whose bearlike strength was a legend in the company. He had first worn the blue and silver livery of the Condotta of the Rose in those early years when Castruccio Castracane had been testing his fledgling muscles against the rebel Bajamonte Tiepolo.

He had none of the earthy humor and good nature of Gianetto. He was a morose man given to moods of sullen silence, but he was a good soldier. He obeyed an order and he brought the rare gift of imagination to bolster his daring forays. To him Castruccio gave the reserve in battle, knowing that if needed, the Calabrian would use his lances in a manner best calculated to surprise the enemy.

Characteristically, he had no words to waste over the fact that Castruccio had seen fit to come out of retirement. His speech went directly to the heart of the matter which troubled him.

"I bring news from over the Alps where they've elected Louis of Bavaria emperor to succeed Henry. Gossip says he'll be marching into Italy next summer, to make his kingdom here secure."

Castruccio pursed his lips. "That's news I hadn't counted on.”

"It's news which distresses you, plain to see."

"Only because I may have to revise my thinking." He went on to explain his fear of Opizi treachery once the Condotta of the Rose was in the field. "If Opizi brings Lucca over to the Guelphs and Florence can rid itself of Ugo della Faggiuola if I'm slain, all Tuscany can stand like a closed gate before the Emperor's advance on Rome."

"Peste! You're gloomy enough.”

Castruccio grinned. "I borrow a leaf from your psalter, Andrea. Seriously, I only look at possibilities. If I didn't, would you have followed me this far?”

The dour Sarto considered this unsmilingly. “Perhaps not. And again, perhaps I would. In any event, now you know the danger, what steps'll you take to avoid it?”

"I'll leave Paolo Guinigi to protect my rear."

The soldier opened his eyes wide. “The boy?"

"Do you know a finer rider? Or one better fitted first to learn and then to carry news of treachery? As a Guinigi, he has contacts with the Council. One hint of treason is all he'll need to come galloping-hoping I'll give him a lance and shield and bid him fight as he wants to fight."

The Calabrian chuckled. “You look deep into a man, by Jesu.”

"It's the secret of my success," he jested lightly.

They stood at the doorway of the forge, watching a burly smith in leather apron and loose breeks as he drove a heavy iron hammer down on a lance-point which glowed red-hot from the fire. His chest and arms were naked and running wet with sweat, gleaming in the flames as if bathed in oil. The metallic clangor of the hammer on steel made a rhythmic music in their ears. It was as if they listened to elfin voices calling from afar.

It was Sarto who stirred first. "Speaking of success, who employs us?”

“Guido Donati of Florence.”

The Calabrian let his jaw fall. “Donati! Employs us? Jesu! Has winter idleness rusted your wits?"

“Be at ease, Andrea. Our employment is no more than an extension of the feud between the Donatis and the Cerchis. We take the field against Pasolini. We defeat him and collect our hundred thousand florins. It's employment for a month, no more. After that we're free to welcome Louis into Lombardy and take service with him as we did with Henry."

 

At full strength, the Condotta of the Rose numbered somewhat over one thousand lances. For every lance or caporale, there must be a piatta or armed squire, and a ragazzo or page, so that Castruccio must take provision for three thousand men and their sumpter mules and drivers, and for the artillerymen in charge of his siege engines, before he took the field.

Carts had been trundling into the villa court with vegetables, grain, figs, and fruit for the past few days. Wagons heavy with armor from the great forges of Milan unloaded hub to wheel with carretas on which horse trappings and armor were piled ten deep. Gioso, who acted as almoner for the signor captain, paid out the silver florins for them with much grumbling.

“The money coffers grow lighter by the hour," the old man complained.

“To me war is a business, Gioso. Every business needs a monetary investment. Food and armor, weapons and horses are my investments. Upon whether or not I use them well and wisely depends our ultimate success."

“Must your men use the best Missaglia steel? The finest Mantuan cloth for their under-jackets and English wool for their cloaks?”

By his answer, Castracane revealed the secret of his greatness. "When a man wields a lance for Castruccio Castracane, he deserves the best lance, the best horse, the finest weapons and plate steel money can buy. How else can I expect him to fight his best?”

"You spoil them,” the almoner complained.

"Say rather I spoil myself."

He was in the same philosophical mood at the evening meal when his lieutenants supped with him. To their constant grumblings he turned a deaf ear, content to sit and eat.

“Until now I've never faulted your choice of employers, Castruccio," the Calabrian murmured, twisting a big pewter tankard around and around in his fingers. "This affair with the Donatis, however—”

Gianetto Orlando slapped the tabletop. “It gives you cause for worry too? Bene! I was beginning to think myself an old woman. Castruccio, give heed. Turn from this venture. Send a rider—me, or Andrea here—to the new emperor. Ugo della Faggiuola is at Pisa already in arms, ready to march for Bergamo and greet Louis of Bavaria as he comes over the Alps."

Sarto nodded grimly. "As we did with Henry, we'll do with Louis. We'll make another fortune behind the imperial gold and black banner.”

“Why, so I mean to do," Castracane answered, “but not as yet. Not until I've won my knighthood from Ser Guido."

The Calabrian blew softly. "So? Now it comes out. It's your lack of knighthood gnawing you, is it?”

Castracane was watching Luisa moving in the shadows, pouring chilled Albano from a wineskin into a tall ewer. The girl had been on his mind of late more than he would admit even to himself, distracting him at times from an inspection of a ballista or a consideration of a standing-shield's ability to stop a crossbow quarrel.

He murmured idly, "No common man may win a fief."

"God's blood! We aim high these days.”

"Any man can shoot a sitting goose, Gianetto. It's the bird on the wing that tests the skill of the hunter."

Luisa was approaching, hips swaying. He saw the golden chain about her neck though the medallion itself was out of sight beneath her peasant blouse. As she neared the table he caught her wrist, drawing her close, lifting his goblet to the ewer in her hands. Her smile was warm, friendly.

"I sought to tell Luisa my dream only the other day," he smiled. “She wouldn't listen to me. I'll tell her now." His eyes touched the fullness of her breasts thrusting into the blue peasant blouse, and he smiled when he caught the invitation in her stare. “It's a simple enough dream, God knows. I want to go into Lucca as its lord, to rule where the Antelminelli family was banished. I can do that only as nobleman."

“The Antelminellis are of noble blood," Gianetto pointed out.

"True. If I were a legitimate son, there'd be no problem. Being adoptive, who knows who my father was? Or my mother? Once I'm knighted, none of this makes any difference. I can father my own dynasty."

His hand caressed Luisa up her bare arm and beneath the blouse sleeve almost to her armpit. Her teeth were sunk into her lower lip, but under the veiling lashes which she had lowered, he thought to catch a gleam in her bright eyes.

"Pah!” said Andrea Sarto. "You only hunt for headaches."

"Everyone must have some headaches in a lifetime. Fortunate men choose their own.”

The Calabrian spread his hands. “I've followed you into battle a score of times. I suppose I always will. But go warily, go warily."

“Why, as to that, I always do."

There they left the discussion of their employment to enjoy the company of a band of gypsies who had come down the Serchio on their way to Naples. These wanderers were first migrating into Europe at this time, short, swart men with an uncanny way with horses and nimble fingers quick to steal. Their dark women were addicted to telling fortunes and to bedding down with any man owning a copper grosso.

Two gypsy girls were dancing in the cleared space below the eating dais in the great hall while half a dozen men made wild, stirring music on stringed viols. Castracane regarded them casually, being more taken with the manner in which Luisa was studying him from the corners of her eyes as she moved about the table removing wooden platters and leather jacks. There was an odd breathlessness about her that intrigued him. Twice as she refilled his goblet she seemed about to speak. Once her hips brushed his forearm where it rested on the arm of his high-backed chair.

His booted foot tapped in response to the stirring gaillard (lively dance) that resounded through the great hall. Standing lamps and candles made a yellow brilliance where the women danced, skirts flying, bare feet raising tiny clouds of dust from the rushes as they stamped and pivoted. Their long hair bounced as they whirled.

Andrea Sarto pounded the table when they were done and fumbled in his leather almoner to toss them a handful of coins. The gypsy women showed even white teeth in grateful smiles as they ran to snatch the rolling florins. The Calabrian lunged suddenly, catching one of the dancers and bringing her down across his thighs.

She jabbered at him, laughing, cheeks flushed.

"What's she say?" he asked.

"Maybe she wants more money," Gianetto suggested, dipping a hand into his purse. One by one he tossed coins at the second dancer who squealed in delight and caught them in deft hands. Dropping them into a leather sack at her belt, she sidled closer, to sit against the edge of the table within reaching distance of the soldier.

Gianetto grinned, "No fool like an old one," and put his hands on her waist, drawing her onto his lap. "I'm going to the wars, little one. See if you can make my last peaceful hours a pleasant memory to take into battle."

Castracane slid from his cathedra unnoticed by the others. He had sipped enough of the golden Albano to be at ease with the world. His sharp eyes hunted the dark shadows for Luisa. He found her standing with her back to the stone wall beneath a battle standard taken at Florence the year before.

"Is there more Albano, Luisa?” he called.

"Yes, lord," she replied, and moved toward the wine table.

"Bring a skin with you,” he told her, and went on ahead, out of the great hall and along the pillared loggia to the south garden where a spring moon made silver ribbons of the walks and white fire of the marble benches. He took his stance beside a sun dial, hands running over the bronze finial. When he heard quick footsteps behind him he turned.

"Did you tell Maddalena where to find you?” he asked.

"No, signor. My mother is tired. She's gone to bed.”

He took the wineskin and pewter goblet from her, pouring the wine, setting down the skin and handing her the goblet. “You drink, Luisa. I've had my fill."

With her dark eyes fastened on his face, she put the cup to her mouth. When she took it down, it was empty. Castracane filled it again and handed it back, saying, "Sip more slowly, now. Come, sit beside me on this bench."

After they were seated he regarded her so steadily that she smiled and looked down at the wine-cup she held in both hands. Her blouse was halfway off one smooth upper arm so that her shoulder and the beginning of a pale breast were revealed to the moonlight. The woolen skirt was pulled back a little to expose the length of a white leg from mid-thigh to leather sandal.

“Do you ever dream, Luisa?" he wondered.

Her eyes lifted to flash him an enigmatic glance as she nodded. "Si, signor. Many times I dream. Of the head of a white horse and something red, like flowing blood. It makes no sense at all. We do not even have a white horse on the farm here."

"Perhaps some vision from your early childhood?”

She nodded gravely. "It's possible. When I was young, I used to wear a tiny locket about my throat. It had a white horse-head on it. I outgrew it so I keep it in my room now, in a little box." Her smile was apologetic. "Your medallion I wear about my neck, as you can see."

His hand touched the chain, ran down into the loosely gaping neck in search of the medallion. His fingers touched warm swelling flesh an instant before they lifted the medallion. He brought it out into the moonlight but he did not look at it. Instead his gaze was caught and held by her wide eyes.

"Periculum in mora,” he murmured. "Which is to say, “There is danger in delay.' A wise device. It was the motto of my adoptive father and, out of filial respect, my own."

His hands were on her elbows, sliding her across the bench and into the crook of his right arm. Her ripe young mouth was slightly parted as if to aid her hurried breathing and she lifted both hands to rest them on his shoulders.

Her tongue tip touched her lips and then his mouth replaced it. Her head fell back as her nostrils widened with the effort to breathe. Against the hard muscles under the midnight blue cotehardie which gripped him tightly from hip to throat, her breasts were firming solidly.

Luisa felt her senses waken to his kiss.

His hands at her back were moving slowly up and down, caressing the smooth skin through the loose blouse from armpit to hip, bringing her in closer, then drawing her back until she was united with him only by her lips. A fire was building in her veins, thudding wildly.

His arm drew her to her feet, moving her in step with him along the walk, her head against his chest. They paused often in the shadows of the garden to cling and caress one another until, as they arrived at the loggia door, Castracane stooped and lifted her into his arms.

Like that he carried her along the hall and down a short flight of steps until they were before a wooden door. In amazement, she recognized it for her own, and her eyes went to his sober, intent face.

“Are you scorning me?” she whispered fiercely.

Anger convulsed her body so that she twisted free and would have fled alone into her room except that his hand was on the door, opening it for her and then shutting it behind them. Moonlight flooded the single recessed window to reveal the dark bulk of a bedstead and a washstand. A low cabinet straddled the space below the window. On a small table beside the bed a half candle was set in its bronze holder.

Luisa cried out in surprise.

Draped across her pallet bed were half a dozen rich cottes of English cloth in blues and reds and yellows. Two surcoats trimmed with ermine lay beside them. Scattered here and there on the woolen blankets were jeweled chaplets for her hair, net cauls covered with seed pearls, and belt-purses heavy with gold brocade work.

As her eyes darted from one object to another, she squealed in delight. Gasping, sobbing, laughing almost hysterically, she whirled from the bed to throw herself against him, clinging with her strong young arms about his neck, pressing her soft middle to him.

Between kisses, she panted, "You like surprises, eh, signor? Well, so do I—this kind of surprise, at least. Where did you get them? When did you have them put here?”

"Call them spoils of battle," he laughed, highly pleased by her reaction. "We'll have to see about finer ones when I return to the villa, but for now they'll have to do. Here—I've added some gewgaws on the table.”

Dazed and trembling, Luisa let herself be drawn to the worn night table which usually held only a half a candle. Now it was covered by gold rings and bracelets, a few necklaces done in Milanese niello work, and a small oaken chest. Castruccio opened the chest to reveal it heavy with Venetian ducats.

"San Maria Benedetta,” she whispered, hands clasped to her cheeks, her eyes bright and greedy. “All these riches are for me?"

“All yours, little one."

His hand went to her soft throat, following its curve with his palm until his hand cupped her shapely nape. She stood for his caress, shivering, for Luisa Baltasore was discovering that all this wealth was nurturing the vein of sensuality which ran deep in her veins. It was all she could do not to throw herself into his arms and beg him to make her a woman.

"The Countess of Corvanto imputed to me the morals of an alley-cat I find the suggestion distasteful. However, I admit to an equal dislike for the asceticism of a hermit. And so I compromise equally with custom and with nature,

"Si, signor," she breathed.

"While I am gone you will go to Fra Pietro and get him to teach you letters and something of history. I want no untutored hoyden in my solar bed, even if she is the prettiest girl I've ever seen."

She flashed him a smile and sidled closer, tilting back her head while his fingertips caressed the sloping column of her throat. "Shall I remove my tunic, signor?" she asked softly.

"Not yet a while. First bring me that locket."

"Locket? What locket?" she asked in astonishment.

His lips twitched with amusement. “The locket with the horse-head on it, the one you wore as a child before you outgrew it. Silly goose, don't you know the white horse is the device of the House of Montelupo?"

She gaped at him, only dimly aware that he had substituted curiosity for concupiscence in her mind. Fists clenched tightly, she confronted him, breathing harshly.

“Montelupo? What in the name of God are you talking about?"

“Seventeen years ago the Lord of Montelupo sent messengers all over Tuscany advertising the fact that his little girl, the princess, had been lost. Fabulous rewards were offered for her return."

Her eyebrows knitted as she followed his thoughts. “You're mad! Maddalena is my mother!”

"Molto bene! Have it your own way."

He turned for the door but she was there before him, back pressed to its wood, her eyes wide and fearful yet filled with greed and sudden hope. "No! I—I'll get the locket.”

“Bring it to my chamber," he told her casually. "So that I may examine it in detail."

She bit her lip, scowling frankly, then pushed past him toward the little bed-table As she bent over and lifted a small wooden box, she asked, “Was there really a little lost princess of Montelupo?”

"There was."

"Was she ever found?"

"Not to this day.”

Her hands pressed the box into her middle, wanting the sudden pain its edge gave her as she stared blindly at the stuccoed wall of her bedroom. Twice she tried to speak. Then she whispered, "Do you think I'm the lost princess?"

"Certainly not.”

She whirled, anger and dismay in her face. “You don't? Then why all this mummery and playacting?"

His shrug was eloquent. “Other claimants have appeared in the past and been revealed as false. If I were to make a claimant out of you by force of arms you might prove more successful than the others. Who can say 'no' when a dagger pricks him in the throat? If my dagger hand names you Elisa di Valori, then Elisa di Valori you become.”

"Elisa? Was that her name?" "Not so very different from Luisa, is it?"

His hand stretched out, palm up. "The locket, girl. Let me see if the horse-head is enough like la testa d'un cavallo of Montelupo to make our claim a serious one."

As the small cameo with its tiny chain fell into his palm, he thrust it into the almoner at his girdle and moved out into the hall. She came after him on silent feet, following him along the gallery to an upper staircase.

With his hand on its knob, Castruccio opened the brass-studded, leather-covered door to his small apartments at the north end of the villa. Two Paris candles had been lighted against the darkness, their beams revealing a huge oak bedstead, its headboard built into the woodwork of the wall. There was a table and a faldstool beside it. Along the opposite wall, which was of stucco stained a shell white, a huge Venetian cassone was flanked by a curule chair and a refectory table across which were scattered maps and illumined psalters, together with a silver dish containing fruit and figs. A tall ewer held claret which had been chilled in the spring-house The other walls were masked by thick draperies of maroon and gold.

Castracane carried the locket to the standing candles and by their light began to examine it. The trinket was no Buoninsegna masterpiece, yet certainly there was a quality to its design that made him speculative. A Valori of Montelupo might conceivably have ordered its creation as a gift for a three-year-old daughter. The condottiere pursed his lips thoughtfully, turning his head to study the girl who stood watching him so steadily.

Elise di Valori? Or just plain Luisa?

Noblewoman? Or farm girl?

"You said you don't believe I'm this Elisa,” she muttered sullenly, "so why continue to tease me?"

"To believe so would stretch coincidence to incredulity," he admitted, "though the thought of playing kingmaker gives me pleasure.” He went on as if to himself, “I could do it, too. A thousand lances would humble Montelupo in a week. Within the fortnight you'd be sitting your rump on the Valori throne. A pleasant conceit, isn't it?"

It was a pretty problem. The fact that he had a princess of the house of Montelupo in his mountain villa might put a weapon in his hand. Yes, this girl Luisa might well be a way to seize upon fortune, and force entry into Montelupo, then into Lucca. He stared at her, letting the golden trinket dangle from his fingers, as he advanced across the rush-strewn floor.

"Turn around, Luisa,” he ordered. “Let me look at you."

"You know what I look like.”

His hand shot out to catch her upper arm and yank her forward. “Will you add impertinence to indigence? God save us, a fine specimen fate hands me in you! Impertinent, poverty-stricken, virtuous! Are these the tools you give me with which to make something out of you? A princess? Pah!”

He spoke in heat but his hand was gentle as he turned her around that he might see her slim ankles and fine wrists, the delicate modeling of her throat upon her bared shoulders in the low-cut blouse. Dio mio! She was attractive enough, with her heavy brown hair piled atop her shapely little head, and with those firm breasts and slim waist.

"There was a nobleman somewhere in your ancestry," he murmured slowly. "You've neither the thick ankles nor cow-like stare of a peasant. Maddalena, your mother? It could be. And yet—"

His fingers went to the wide brow under his close-cropped reddish hair, moving back and forth. "If I were not committed to move against Niccolo Pasolini, I'd be sorely tempted to try my luck in Montelupo. Once on the throne, you'd rule as I bid you rule.” His chuckle was loud in the stillness of the room. "Who knows? I might even take you to wife, to consolidate both our claims, yours to Montelupo, mine to Lucca.”

With the fief of Montelupo at his back, he would be strong enough to move on Lucca. Give him a year to train its manpower in the use of sword and shield, spear and crossbow, and Giorgio Opizi might well lie sleepless of nights.

Her eyes were very wide as she stared up at him. Delight mingled with doubt in her stare, suspicion warring with pleased surprise. Twice her lips parted to speak and twice she shook her head. Finally she breathed, “You mean it, I can tell. You really could make a princess out of me!”

His smile was wry. “Would you like so much to be a princess? Even if, by ascending the throne of Montelupo, men might have to die?"

“Your trade is killing men.”

"True. I'm hired by powerful families or by ruling houses to fight for them against their enemies."

She moved closer, strangely sure of herself. "I shall hire you, Signor Castracane. As you prepare now to serve the Donatis, so you shall prepare to serve me."

His laughter rang out in honest amusement. "And how will you pay me, madonna principessa? With your maidenhood? That I mean to take tonight."

If he expected her to wilt before his mirth, he was disappointed. Her head went back and pride stared at him out of her dark eyes. "At first, yes; it's all I have to offer. After you make a princess out of me, with gold, if that's what you want."

Her hands caught his, squeezing them tightly as she pushed her soft loins against him. "Please, signor! I don't want to be a maidservant all my life. You could open another kind of life to me. I'd do anything—"

“You almost convince me that my harebrained scheme might work,” he muttered dazedly. “Gods, what a jest with fate! A kitchen maid to rule at Montelupo, her peasantry to help me win a dukedom in Lucca.

"Ah, I dream. I'm mad with the coming of spring. I've been cooped up too long at Villa Rosa. Here—take back your horse-head bauble."

He threw the trinket at her so that it hit her hand and fell to the floor. For a moment he thought she would hurl herself at him in insane fury, fingers curved to claw his face. Then she put a hand to her mouth and began to gnaw its knuckles, eyes wide and stormy below the trimmed brows.

"You're a devil," she whispered. "All along you've been playing with me. All I am to you is Maddalena's daughter, something you own, like an animal."

Castruccio began unfastening the tie-strings of his cotehardie. "Convince me I've made a mistake," he grinned.

"Not for every title in Europe," she spat and turned to run for the door.

He was like a big cat toying with a mouse. Before she had taken, three strides his hand seized her arm and brought her back against him. She tried to fight but felt her jaw caught and held between powerful fingers, her head forced back and up to his kiss. The sensation of his hard muscles pressed to her softness drove a flood of sensuality into her. She hated him—ah, God! That was true enough—but he was so strong, so handsome. She found her fury washing away before overpowering emotions.

She pressed closer into him, half sobbing. Her arms reached up about his neck, locking tightly.

When he gave her room to breathe, she whispered, "Please, signor. Please make me a princess."

"Can't you understand a joke?”

"It wasn't a joke a few minutes ago.”

“Only because I let imagination rule my reason. It's a trait I regard as a personal weakness and one I strive always to overcome.”

This time she laughed deep in her throat and let her hips stir against him. "All right, tease me if it pleases you, but someday you're going to have a need for me. I know it in my woman's heart. Then you'll make me ruler of Montelupo and—che sa?—you may also marry me.”

"Your intuition tells you all that, does it?"

"Si, signor,” she laughed.

Castruccio grinned. “Va bene. Now let it tell you how distasteful I find that cotton thing you're wearing and how much more beautiful I think you'd look wrapped up in my bed coverings."

Luisa ran to the middle of the rush-strewn floor, yanking off the brown tunic. A moment she posed for him between the standing candles, laughing excitedly, then freed her feet of the rope sandals and dived for the big fourposter.

The condottiere undressed himself and, naked, moved to the nearer of the twin candles to blow it out. A reflection among the rushes caught his glance. He bent and lifted the horse-head trinket, studying it thoughtfully before carrying it toward the bed and handing it to the wondering girl.

"Put it about your throat. Wear it always from now on, so that it never gets out of your possession. As you say—who knows? Maybe I will make you a princess. Right now though, I have more need of you as a woman."

His hands went out to her smooth skin and with a whimper she urged herself against him. There was a knowledge in each of them that, for the moment, destiny must wait upon desire.

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