Chapter One

  The coach came sliding along the storm-wet road to Camerone, its four white horses wildly galloping.  A whip cracked outward over the ears of the straining animals as the frightened driver screamed for more speed.  He was driving blindly in the awesome downpour of a late summer day, with only a solitary rider out in front to guide his reins, and with only four armed men behind him to protect the Lady Nicoletta da Varano in the carriage from capture.

  For the devil himself rode at their heels.

  The devil wore a chain-mail shirt and a flanged helmet; he straddled a big black horse, and ten more like him followed at his heels.  The rain that came across the road to Camerone in a wall of water hid him at times, but the yellow gashes of lightning cutting the sky beyond the peaks of the Apennines revealed him always there, his sword out and waving, and once they thought they heard the echo of his yell.

  Darkness was an hour away but the water and the sullen sky out of which the rain came pouring was its double, and the driver seated atop the heavy wooden carozza could scarcely see the road where it curved before his straining eyes.  A whiplash cracked between the rolling peals of thunder, and the creaking of the carriage axles drowned out the splashing of the raindrops in the puddles all around them.

  One man rode ahead of the big coach, searching out the way, turning every so often to glace back at the carriage that held his countess.  He was a young man, this solitary rider, but he was tall and his shoulders were wide and strong. His helmet had long since fallen in a ditch, and his thatch of yellow hair lay plastered to his skull.  He knew that four more men at arms rode behind the carozza; when the Spanish soldiers caught up to the cortege, it would be those four who first felt the sting of their Toledo blades.

  He was no hero, the young man told himself.  He could cut and run for it, and the gray horse under him would see him safely over the meadows that lay so temptingly close.  A jerk on the leather reins and the gray horse would leap the low wooden fence and be away across that farmland. The devils who were the Spanish soldiers could have the Countess Nicoletta da Varano for all of him.

  A sullen dissatisfaction at this life lay deep in his middle.  He was young, scarcely seventeen, and he owned very little in the way of material goods.  A name—Adrian, to which he sometimes added Anonimo, the nameless one—and perhaps a dozen silver florins tucked under the mattress that was his bed, were all his possessions.  The fortress of Camerone, that great stone rocca, might protect his coins, but it would not protect his life, not with the gray slipping on the muddied road and the devils in the chain-mail coming closer at every pounding of the hooves.

  His hand tightened on the reins.

  A single wrench of his big strong hand and—

  "Ola!  Surrender!  You are my prisoners!"

  The cry was swallowed up in the ring of steel.  Adrian started, looked backward, seeing little beyond the four horses drumming in his wake and the dark brown bulk of the carriage with a wall of water beyond it.  Indecision held him motionless in the saddle as the horse ran on beneath him.

  Run away, you fool!  Let the Spanish have their fun!

  He groaned and yanked back on the reins.  He had sworn an oath of sorts, to be loyal to the count and his countess.  He ate their bread, wore their colors—red and black—on his military cloak and jerkin, and rested his head of nights on a pillow that belonged to them.

  The gray turned and galloped back toward the carriage.  Adrian yelled at the coachman, "Drive, man! Save yourself if you can!"

  He bent and as the gray danced nervously—the ring of sword on sword was very close, just beyond the sheets of wind-driven rain—he reached downward to the latch of the carriage door and thrust it downward.  The door swung wide. A woman crouched in the darkness of its interior so shrouded in cloth that Adrian could see only the pale oval of her face.

  "Your grace, you must abandon the coach!"

  "I cannot," she wailed.  "I shall be drowned."

  A big dark rider splashed through the rain, sword out.  At sight of the woman helpless inside the coach, a cry broke from his lips.

  "Come, little dove.  Naples will welcome the Countess of Camerone!"

  Adrian whirled, his own sword out now and splashing.  With one corner of his mind he cursed his stupidity. He could have been gone over the fence and away across the fields, yet here he stood like any gallant, defending the person and the property of the Countess of Camerone who did not even know his name.

  And yet—

  There was a curious calmness in him, a sense of rightness and a feeling of belonging to the world around him, which always swept over him when he held a sword in his hand.  The sullen disquietude of a moment before had become and exultation of the spirit; he laughed and taunted his opponent and swept his wet blade this way and that before he lunged, with an invitation to taste the flames of hellfire, and drove his point through the side of the man's throat.

  The horse in front of him was suddenly riderless.

  Another Spaniard and then another came through the raindrops toward him.  Niccolo and the others must be down; they were old retainers of the count, willing to die for him, willing to let their life blood ooze out into the mud puddles, just to save the contessa.

  Well, not Adrian Anonimo.

  "Andiamo!  Andiamo!  Come along!"

  He bent low, putting out his arm, hooking its muscular strength about the yielding softness of the woman in the coach.  He muttered no apology, there was no time for niceties, since the Spanish horsemen were almost on top of them. His arm tightened and he swept the woman out of the carozza.

  Her protest was a whisper in the night and then her arms about his neck as she clung to him in sudden terror.  Her body was soft, warm weight against his chest as he lifted her clear of the high pommel. Under him, the gray was turning, gathering its muscles for the run.

  A sword drove in between the raindrops.  Adrian cursed, turned its blade, thrust back in anger, forgetting the countess in his other arm so that he came near to unseating himself with her weight.  He felt his point bite into flesh and wrenched it free.

  "That will hold them a moment," he growled, and used his spurs.

  The gray horse leaped past the coach, running heavily for the weight in its saddle was doubled now.  Adrian knew the wounded man would delay the others; they would see him a moment, and that single instant out of time would be his only chance for freedom.

  The rain appeared to thicken.  Only a gray wall was in front of him, only that same thickness of water behind him.  He and the contessa rode in a pall of wetness where they were the only things alive.  Adrian knew that he could scarcely keep to the road at such a gallop; he could not see the wooden fence on either side of it.  The gray would blunder into that fence and would go down, throwing its rider and his soft burden at the same time.

  Adrian made a wry face.  He had no desire to end up lamed and waiting for the Spanish to end his agony with a wet sword-blade  He slowed the horse, turned it, edged it at a walk alongside the fence.

  "Cosa e successo?  What's the matter?"  questioned the Lady Nicoletta.

  "I'm looking for a gate through this thing," he said, bending forward, letting his eyes rove along the topmost log.

  "The Spanish will be coming," she breathed.

  "Not as fast as before.  This downpour hides us as it hides them.  We'll use it to our advantage."

  She sighed and settled closer against him.

  He heard the sound of hoof-beats before he found the gate, but even as he realized a rider was almost upon him, he felt the latch beneath his fingers.  His hand swung it wide, he toed the gelding through and swung shut the gate. There was a big-boled tree not far away. Adrian paced the horse toward it, seeking refuge behind its width.

  The countess had grown heavy, so Adrian put both arms behind her and eased her upward to rest his muscles.  She stirred and smiled, and the youth grew aware of her as a woman.

  Despite the rain, her face was pale and lovely, with heavy lips which drooped slightly at their corners to reveal the sensuality in her flesh.  Her eyes were black and long-lashed, and when they opened suddenly to his stare, he found himself sinking into their depths.

  "Am I so heavy?" she wondered.

  "No, Madonna.  It's just—"

  "I am, I can tell.  Here let me."

  Her arms came up to cling about his neck, and now their faces were inches away from one another.  He could smell her perfume, it was rich and heady, being made by the artisans of Araby, and where her cloak had opened he could see the faint white swell of a breast beneath her bodice.  He discovered, when he raised his eyes, that her lips were smiling.

  "You are very strong," she murmured.

  "Non e niete!  It's nothing," he flushed.

  "Nevertheless, you are," she smiled.

  They spoke in whispers, though had they shouted the Spaniards who hunted along the road for them would not have heard.  Thunder was a steady rumble in the blackening sky and the downbeat of the rain was a soft whisper over their entire world.

  They waited, the gray moving impatiently beneath them, while the soldiers galloped away from the coach and past their hiding place.  Their voices receded into the distance. Only then did Adrian stir.

  His knees nudged the horse, turning it.  His arms were so pleasantly placed about the contessa that he would not have removed them except at her express command.  Her soft warmth was disturbing to his strong young body; he felt a gathering excitement that was very new to him.

  His eyes were drawn to the lovely face so close to his own, discovering that her smooth skin shone, when wet, like the famous marble from Mount Altissimo, north of Carrere.  He wondered whether her entire body possessed that smooth sheen and flushed again to his thoughts.

  As if she understood the workings of his imagination, the countess shifted slightly, and now her thigh lay across his lions, softly caressing as she moved it.  Her smile was wider, her face turned nearer to his lips.

  "What is your name? she wondered.

  "Adrian, your grace."

  There was a silence as the gray splashed across the meadowlands.  Neither of them was thinking of the Spaniards, each was lost in a little world of his own, in which Adrian was a rich condottiere and the Lady Nicoletta was his bride.  On her part, the Lady Nicoletta envisioned Adrian standing with a bloody dagger above the inert body of her elderly husband, Count Giulio da Varano.

  "Adriano, it is a good name.  It's all I own."

  "You are young.  Wealth will come to you—with wisdom."

  Something in her voice caught his ear.  Wonderingly he asked, "And how may I gain this wisdom, contessa?"

  "I shall tell you, in good time."

  Not now, Adriano!  she thought lazily.  Not with the rain about us and myself so uncomfortable in this bedraggled finery, with the Spanish devils at our heels.  Oh, no. The time to talk must come later, in a quiet solitude within the warm walls of a bedroom where my undraped beauty shall be an added argument to the temptation of my words.

  "Where are we going?" she asked.

  "Chi sa?  Who knows?"

  Her laughter was understanding.  "Bene!  I am reckless myself at the moment.  Yet I am also wet, drenched to my very skin and the water is so cold, like ice almost—and I would be warm."

  Dark eyes that swept him deep into their blackness studied his face.  It was a face that was handsome in some craggy way, she decided, with a firm mouth and bold jaw, a straight nose, and wide blue eyes.  Odd that she had never seen this youth before, or if she had seen, that she had paid no attention.

  "Who are you, Adrian?"

  "A bastard, in all probability."

  She pouted prettily.  "You make that sound so terrible.  It is not. Many great men are natural sons of their fathers.  Giovanni Sforza is such a one, as are the songs of Roderigo Borgia, who has just been made Pope, Giovanni and Cesare."

  "My father isn't rich.  I don't even know his name."

  His earliest memory was of a stucco wall and a black wooden crucifix hanging on it beside a shelf bearing bottles of all sizes and shapes.  He was a small child, scarcely five, and his mother worked for a winemaker along the via Camollia in Siena. There old Benedetto made the sparkling wine which was so much a trademark of the Chianti hills vineyards.

  He remembered too, the warm days when hi young feet trod upon the great purple grapes of Siena, squashing them into liquid, and the dancing afterward—he was too young for that, in those days—and the eating and the drinking which followed the harvest and the pressing.

  It was because of the wine that he became a soldier, four years ago.  The great mercenary captain Vitellozzo Vitelli had come into Siena with his condatta, that company of professional soldiers who served for pay during the many little wars of city-states like Milan, Florence and Venice.  An archer—a crossbowman from Genoa—had become drunk with red Chianti and had cornered his mother against a big wooden wine tun.

  The slap across his face, the mark of her fingernails on his jaw, had not stifled the amorous yearning in his flesh, so Adrian had come to her rescue.  He had been carrying a small barrel from the cool cellar when he had heard the rip of brown wool, and had seen the white shoulder bared along with part of the breast which had nursed him into his babyhood.

  Adrian was no simpleton.  He knew well enough that his mother had lovers; he had seen them come and go at times from her little room on the top floor of the wine shop.  This Genovese rogue was none of her lovers. He was only a stranger in the service of Vitellozzo Vitelli.

  And so he took three steps forward and swung the small wine barrel with all the power in his youthful arms.  Its edge made a crunching sound as it hit the crossbowman behind the ears. The man dropped as if pole-axed.

  Across that lifeless body, his mother stared at him with horror in her eyes. "Dio mio! You've killed him!"

  he had drawn himself up in boyish pride.  "And what would you have me do, mother? The pig was molesting you."

  "Yes, yes, I know.  You did well, Adrian—but this one has many friends in the condotta of the Boar.  Any you are just a boy, a baby." Her hands flew to her temples where she moved her fingertips, breathing, "I must think!  I must think! Diàvolo, but there must be somewhere I can send you."

  "I shall stay and admit my guilt," he declared.

  She reached out, catching his arm and shaking him fiercely.  "You shall do what I tell you to do, you fool! Do you think I want my only child strung from a rope in the piazza del Campo?  Now listen to me!"

  He obeyed her as he had always obeyed her, in the end.  Packing a shirt and a pair of red leather boots that had been a present from one of her lovers, he kissed his mother goodbye and ran through the night darkness to the barracks where another of her lovers was captain of the city guard.  Gubbio had made him welcome–without the child, the mother would be in the need of comforting—and laboriously scratching a note on a sheet of paper, sent him south to take service with the condottiere Achille Tiberti, whom Gubbio had fought beside, some years before.

  After that he had carried a pike in the Florentine attack on the city of Sarzana.  He had served the lily banner until short months ago when, the death of Lorenzo di Medici, he had secured employment with the count of Camerone.

  Something of this he told the Lady Nicoletta as the rain pelted them and as the gray horse trotted across the wet meadowlands.  They were both soaked to their skins by this time; they were so wet the water ran in rivulets down their bodies, but Adrian drew heat from the black eyes that were turned so trustfully up to him, and the countess found his arms equally warming.

  Neither realized that by riding across the flatlands, they might be seen from the road itself.  One Spaniard indeed had circled back to scan the farmland country with keen eyes before plunging on along the road.  He was a big man, with a clipped beard framing a dark face, and there was a sensual droop to his somewhat thick lips.  He laughed when he saw the gray horse with its double burden, and a flood of exultation made him open his lips to shout to his companions.

  Instead, he closed them silently.  One man, scarcely more than a youth, stood between him and a few hours' dalliance with an attractive woman.  Ride after the contessa and her companion, kill the youth and have the woman, before turning her over to his captain to be sent to Naples to King Ferdinand.  It was a brilliant thought, and one which made Miguel Sandoz flush in anticipation of those bodily pleasures.

  He spurred his horse to a gallop, his hand going to the hilt of his Toledo blade.  There was no chivalry in Miguel Sandoz. If the rain had permitted, and had he possessed an arquebus, one of those new hand-weapons which propelled a ball by exploding gunpowder, he would have shot the youth in the back.  As it was, he would make short work of him with his sword.

  Adrian did not hear the hoof-beats coming through the sodden meadow behind him.  It was the countess who warned him, for as she moved restlessly, permitting the wet cloak to open further that he might see deeper into her brocaded bodice, her eyes went beyond his shoulder and she stiffened.

  "Young man," she breathed, "there is someone coming."

  Adrian was too enthralled with the white breasts that lay before him to be concerned by what was at his back.  For a moment—during which he debated whether or not to reach a hand inside that bodice to caress one of those tempting breasts, and what the countess might say to her husband about his boldness—he did not hear her.  Only the bite of her fingernails in his arm aroused his interest in something other than the contessa herself.

  "Behind you, behind you—for the love of God!"

  "Eh?  What's that you say?"

  He turned, seeing the bearded Spaniard coming at him with his sword out and pointing.  There was little time for thought. He knew he could not fight with the noblewoman in his embrace and so his arm caught her middle and swung her unceremoniously over the pommel.  Lady Nicoletta went to the ground in a flurry of flying skirts and flailing cloak, tripping and stumbling and sprawling backward into a puddle. Her lips opened to curse but she caught her breath and choked when she saw the Spaniard veer in his run and come for her.

  Miguel Sandoz assumed the boy desired only freedom to make his escape.  The youth had seen the soldier galloping down on him with a naked blade in his hand.  Naturally, he wanted to run away. The Spaniard did not even bother to look at Adrian or he might have seen the features that were twisted in a mixture of sensuality interrupted, of jealousy and cold anger.

  Another time, Adrian might well have taken to his heels.  As he knew so well, he was no heroic fool to go risking his neck to save something that belonged to another man, but the noblewoman had heated his blood wit those glimpses of her flesh.  She was not averse to dalliance, and at the thought of seeing all of her milky skin, young Adrian was in a frenzy to be about his business. He saw in the approaching Spaniard the image of the old count, her husband.

  And so he drove in to stake a claim for what was his by right of invitation.  His spurs dug deep, he hurled the gray at the Spanish horse like a catapult. His own sword was out and waving in the air.

  The gray hit the bay with a solid thump, lifting the mare off her feet, sending her rider flying.  Miguel Sandoz was filled with a vast astonishment as he sailed through the air and landed in the slippery grass, skidded a few feet.  His hand still held the blade, and as he came to a stop his fingers tightened about its braided shaft while he let out a bellow.

  "Spawn of the devil!  Idiot! I would have let you go but now I vow to the Blessed Virgin I'll cut you into gobbets!"

  He was up and running.  Adrian slipped a leg over the cantle and dropped to the ground, being more used to fighting on his feet than in a saddle; there was an art to using a sword in the kak which he had not as yet mastered.  With a grin he launched a thrust at his opponent.

  The steel blades clanged together, parted, clanged again.

  Miguel Sandoz was a fine swordsman but in the youthful Adrian he was facing a man who was adept with the blade.

  Not for nothing had he made friends with the soldiers who were his mother's lovers.  In their free moments they took a grim delight in teaching the son certain tricks with the sword which they had picked up in their years of fighting up and down the Italian peninsula.  Adrian had been an apt pupil' he had seen the soldiers as rivals for his mother's affections. He would have killed them all, had he been able; he did the next best thing, which was to steal their most precious secrets that perhaps, at some later date, he might turn against them.

  His practice had been ceaseless.  He fenced before a cracked mirror in the attic while his mother waited on tables in the wine ship below stairs.  He constructed a stick on a swivel that passed for an opposing sword, and imagined one lover and then another behind it.  Passion had been his incentive, patience his companion, and pride his very Grail. In the end, he made himself perfect.

  His blade was a steel finger in his grip, as if it were another appendage to his hand.  It darted into the finta and slid so easily into the affondo that it seemed all one flowing motion.  Feint, thrust. Draw back to parry and then slither into the complicated finta e controcavazione  Attack, parry, bind.  Adrian made a song with his steel blade and as it floated out across the wet meadowlands, the sweat came to stand in beads on the swarthy forehead of the Spaniard.  The touch of fear made ice of his middle.

  This same fear made him reckless, heedless of disaster.  His sword blurred as it dipped and darted. His boots of Cordovan leather gripped the wet grass firmly while the cheaper gamashes which sheathed Adrian's feet and legs were worn and smooth at heel and sole.  Adrian fell back before that wild attack, and as he did so, his foot slipped and for a moment he was helpless.

  Miguel Sandoz whispered a prayer to Saint James of Campostello.  His point went out, driving into flesh, so that Adrian felt that impalement as a sharp jerk at his leg.

  Blood began to ooze from Adrian's thigh.

  Miguel Sandoz would have broken off the engagement then, could he have done so.  Had he not been so selfish for glory as to let his companions ride on without him, he might have screamed to them to come and hold this young demon and his devil spirit.  Gradually he grew aware that the youth, despite his wound, was toying with him. Slowly, steadily, he was turning him until his every backward step brought him closer to the contessa.

  "For you, madonna mia," whispered Adrian, and his blade stabbed outward in the finta de filo, grazing the other blade and then swooping in to thrust wickedly through the throat of the desperate Spaniard.

  Miguel Sandoz stood a moment, blood spurting from his neck, his eyes rolling backward in his head.  His body was rigid, then it shuddered. His mouth opened and he fell face forward at the feet of the white-faced countess.

  From the dead man she turned her eyes toward this youthful Mars in his shirt of chain-mail, with the rain washing the blood from his blade, reaching out a hand to help her up.  She smiled at him, never removing her eyes from his, aware that a head was growing in her veins born of the fight and the death she had just witnessed.

  He had make sacrifice to her as if she were a goddess.  She had heard his words, and in her feminine soul, she understood them.  A pagan lust began to seethe inside her flesh, so that as he drew her to her feet she made pretense to stumble and fall against him with her body.

  Adrian felt her softness through their sodden clothes almost as if they were naked.  Her breasts were large and firm, her belly softly rounded, her thighs gently stirring as her head drooped back and she stared up at him through lowered lashes.  Her red mouth hung half open as if to aid her breathing.

  He kissed her with parted lips.

  She whimpered as her arms tightened about him, quite certain that she had never felt as she was feeling now, with a dead man at her feet, dead because of her and offered to her as a sacrifice, with the hard young strength of this soldier crushed into her own softness.  It grew hard to breathe, it was almost painful to let her lungs fill with air because the action drove her aching nipples against the wet cloth of her bodice.

  "No more, not here," she panted.

  She hung in the circle of his arms, aware that the cold wetness of his sword was pressed into her knee, staring up at him.  His blue eyes were dark, they seemed to eat at her. Iddio! But the boy was handsome. Like the head of Lorenzo di Medici chiseled by the great Andrea Verrocchio with the same set of the lips and brooding depth to the eyes and width of forehead.

  A woman could be forgiven for falling in love with him, or at least for letting him think so.  The Lady Nicoletta wanted her wits about her; she had another use for this Mars than the one he envisioned, devouring her bared shoulders with his eyes as he dreamed of bedding her.  Oh, si!  She could read his thoughts.  She was a mature woman who had taken more than one lover into her bed-covers  Her husband was an old man, long past the days when his eyes would light with such honest fervor at the sight of her flesh.

  "Then where?" be breathed.

  "You grow impatient, mi animale?"

  His laughter and his kiss were her answer, and the pressure of his loins against her upper thighs.  She writhed to him, chuckling deep in her throat. Yes, yes, you animal, you boar, you stallion!

  "There is an inn—not far away.  The Red Bull," she panted.

  "On the road to Assissi?  I know it."

  "Its hostler once served my family.  He knows how to hold his tongue. He will welcome us, give us a room to ourselves."

  "Peste!  Why are we waiting?"

  He swung her into his arms, walked with her across the wet grasses to the gelding.  He mounted, bent and drew her upward into his arms so that she rested on him as before.  She giggled as she settled herself, hearing him gasp as her hip nudged his leg. Then she realized that the Spanish sword had slashed his skin and drawn the blood that was welling through his hose.  It was his smarting would rather than her sensuality that had made the breath choke in his throat.

  "You're wounded." she cried in alarm.

  "A scratch, no more," he protested.

  She would have none of his modesty.  "Where is it? Dove sta?  Oh, you poor darling," she laughed throatily and nuzzled his throat with her teeth.  "I shall make it better for you, I promise."

  Her hand caught his, drew it down to the gaping bodice, inserted it until his palm and fingers held the heaviness of a breast.  She breathed more harshly as his fingers moved, stroking the damp flesh and seizing upon the rigid nipple, moving it about. She bit her lower lip and let her head fall upon his chest, alive to his gentle caresses.  Her eyes closed and she let herself be lulled into a world where only her body and its pleasure might exist.

  After a while she asked, "You have forgotten your wound?"

  "Gesu—si!"  he breathed, and she laughed.

  Out of the meadow and up a slope that was part of these foothills to the towering Apennines they moved.  They gray gelding walked, there was no spur scratching now at his side in haste. His riders seemed lost in one another, and so the beast plodded lazily past a clump of berry bushes, past a stone fence to a gate that opened after a time for his entry.

  Then he was on another road, one which wound pas the little abbey of San Francesco and curved upward to the bulk of Mount Pennino.  In the distance was Assisi, but much nearer was the tavern of the Red Bull, its sign swinging in the wind that pelted it with raindrops.  Less than a mile away it lay, its lower windows lighted against the gathering night, its courtyard gate open to travelers in this late summer storm.

  Adrian saw the sign in a mist of desire.  He had been so lost in the flesh of Lady Nicoletta he had no thought for anything but the lips he kissed and the flesh he fondled.  He was no virgin, he had taken a girl or two in the stables near the barracks when he had carried a pike for the condottiere, Achille Tiberti.  They had been scrawny wenches, little more than harlots, more interested in the few solidi he had promised them than in any pleasure he might take.

  The contessa was something else.

  Her voice panted promises in his ear as he toyed with her breasts.  She willed him to see the bedchamber where she would bind his wound and the manner in which she would assuage his pain.  Honestly enough, he felt no pain at the moment. He lived in a sensual maelstrom, in the grip of desire. Her words, her kisses, were flooding him with a head that shook him from time to time with its very fury.

  The creak of the wooden bull, once red but worn to a dull brown with the passing of years and the beating of such rains as struck it now as it swung on its chains, lifted him from the languor into which he had sunk.  His eyes rose upward, stared blindly and unseeingly at the sign. Dully he understood that here was his goal, that somewhere in the building with the lamp-lit windows he would find what he needed so desperately.

  He toed the gray into the yard, reluctantly lifting his hand from the brocade bodice.  The countess sighed, stirring.

  "Are we there, Adriano?"

  "Yes, madonna—thank the saints."

  She laughed softly and lifted her head as a link-boy came running through the rain.  He reached for the reins Adrian tossed him. Then the noblewoman was sliding ground-ward, dangling a moment from the hands that held her, until her soaked slippers rested on the wet dirt.  A moment later, Adrian was by her side.

  The boy led off the gelding as the Lady Nicoletta strode through the raindrops toward the great door of the inn.  Her thick black hair was plastered to her head; much of it had become disarranged, so that it hung down one shoulder and her back, giving her a somewhat drunken look.  Her cloak and green velvet gown lay against her body, weighted down with water so that each step was an effort, though an inner fire made it seem light as gossamer.

  She had not cozened this youth who walked behind her just for the animal enjoyment she had taken in his caresses, though the devil knew she had enjoyed them.  there was another purpose behind her sensuality, one that had made her more wanton than she thought she could be, back there in the meadow and on the road itself.

  She must bend him to her will, as a smith hammered the red-hot iron into shape on the anvil. Adrian would be forged this day and night into an instrument for enjoyment, but more than that, he would become a weapon to her hand.

  He had killed once for her, and he would kill again.

  Next time, he would kill her husband.


  The common room of the Red Bull Inn was long and wide.  Against its far wall lay the tun counter, where the barrels of wine were stacked row on row with their spigots jutting outward for the deft hands of the serving maids.  Big wooden tables filled the area between the wine barrels and the scot counter with its rods and racks behind it, where hung the many objects pledged for postponed payments.  Bread lay on thick wooden platters, and bowls of fruit and dishes of cheese made the air ripe with savory aromas.

  As the Countess of Camerone swept her soggy skirts into the room, half a dozen peasants from the mountains around the inn stared, then stumbled to her feet where they stood shuffling their heavy leather solerets until her gracious wave permitted them to be seated.  While their chairs scraped, the hostler came at a trot, his head bobbing, his plump face creased with a smile.

  "Excellenza, you honor my house!  You are most welcome."

  The contessa smiled, "We were caught in a storm and attacked by the Spanish, Ciuto.  We must have a warm room, a bed where my wounded retainer can be nursed to health—no, no, I will see to his needs myself."

  Her smile was dazzling.  "He saved my life, it is only just that I give of myself to cure him."

  "Si, your grace.  Ah, yes. It shall be as you say."

  His head bowed low as he waved an arm, beseeching the Lady Nicoletta to precede him to the narrow door which opened onto a hallway where the stairs led upward to the second floor.  Ciuto had served the nobility for most of his life. He had no illusions as to their morals. If the Countess wished to put to bed the handsome young man-at-arms who stood so quietly at her elbow, it was no concern of his other than to furnish her the means.

  "Caterina, this way.  Attend her grace, you hear?"

  The maidservant curtsied as Ciuto added, "If she is not quick enough, cuff her, your grace.  Caterina is a good girl but—like all young people—so lazy, so thoughtful only of themselves."

  Lady Nicoletta smiled at the girl, and won her heart.  "I shall do no such thing, Ciuto. Fie on you for suggesting it.  Caterina shall serve me as my own maid."

  "Si, your grace," the girl breathed.

  She ran ahead of them as the contessa undid the tie strings of her heavy woolen mantle, permitting it to fall backward into his hands for Adrian reached out to clasp it.  From behind her he could see the loosened collar of her velvet gown, and admired the manner in which her pale shoulders thrust upward from its brocade border.

  She was a fleshy woman, with none of the boniness of the serving girls Adrian had known in the past.  her flesh dimpled as she moved, it was smooth and soft with the effect of costly oils and ointments; Adrian remembered how slippery her breast had been in his palm.

  Ahead of him her hips moved easily from side to side as she ascended the narrow stair.  The velvet held them too tightly for her soft flesh to shake, yet it outlined the plumpness of her buttocks with appealing honesty.  And as the magnet attracts the iron, so they drew him in her wake.

  Caterina opened the door to the bedchamber, stepping back to curtsy as the noblewoman entered the room.  Her eyes turned upward to the youth and her lips curved in a lewd grin. Then one eyelid fell in a bold wink.  Adrian grinned and flushed. He was still very young, very aware of what the world might think of him.

  "Caterina," exclaimed the countess.

  Her voice startled them both, Caterina stumbling a little as she rose upward, Adrian drawing to one side of the doorway.  He eyed the Lady Nicoletta warily, as if he expected to be waved out of her room.

  "I shall need a robe, you understand?  A ringed hand gestured at the ruin of her costly gown.  "Something to warm my body when I removed these clothes.  Can you furnish one?"

  "Oh yes, your grace.  Right away."

  The girl turned and ran along the hallway.  The countess put out a hand and touched the door, swinging it shut.  Her eyes were very steady on the youthful man-at-arms as she put both hands behind her to the buttons down her back, undoing them slowly.

  "You'd better get out of your wet clothes," she said softly.  "And hurry. I don't want Caterina to see how badly you are—wounded."

  She turned from him, head bent to concentrate on the fastenings of the gown.  Adrian watched her, seeing a flash of black linen were a damp camisa clung to her side.  The breath was catching in his throat, his heart was thumping wildly, and his mouth was dry.

  Lady Nicoletta turned and looked at him, her fingers pausing in their task.  Her plucked black eyebrows rose. "Well? Aren't you going to get undressed?"

  He nodded dumbly, unable to take his eyes from the gaping gown which showed her naked flesh beneath the black linen undergarment.  Catching the direction of his gaze, she smiled gently.

  "It bothers you. eh?  You cannot stand to see me remove my garments!  Macche!  Have you never seen a woman strip herself before?"

  His head shook back and forth.  "No, your grace. Never."

  Her laughter rang out excitedly.  "So then. Are you a virgin? Have you never known a woman?"

  He swallowed.  The two girls he had known were nothing compared to this fleshy noblewoman, being like sips o watered-down Zibibbo beside the rich headiness of Sassella wine.

  She mistook his silence for agreement, and spread her hands.  "I must disrobe, Adriano. You understand that, surely? I am all a shiver in these wet things.  Ah, I know!" Her palms beat together.

  "I will stand before the hearth where the fire is so warm and you shall stand there, behind that floor screen.  It will hide us from each other, eh?"

  He nodded, unable to speak.  So near was her soft body, so close was he to the flesh which he had already caressed to some slight degree, that he found himself confused and awkward.  It took a very definite effort of will to move his legs and to walk across the room to the wash stand which stood behind the wooden grille work screen. Not until the lavabo was before him did he realize there was a mirror above it.

  In it, he could see the Countess Nicoletta.

 Her green velvet gown was loose, open at the side so that when her hands touched it, it fell away as the leaves of an artichoke fall away before the one who peels it.  Framed in that velvet was the thin camisa of black Rheims linen, so damp it clung to her pallid flesh. It betrayed the full globes of her breasts, showed them to swing lazily from side to side as she began thrusting down the gown.

  Adrian bit his lower lip.

  His heated blood urged him to leap out from behind the screen, to catch this woman in his arms, to drop with her upon the bed, a corner of which he could make out in the glass mirror.  He told himself to wait, that the maid would be back, that it was best to let the noblewoman set the pace.

  As if to seek relief in action, he put his trembling fingers to the straps of his chain-mail shirt, loosening them, undoing buckles, lifting the heavy mail over his head.  It made a metallic whisper as he dropped it so that he might undo the tie string of his leather hacqueton that prevented the mail from chafing his skin. He undid the hacqueton, pushed it backward off his arms and let it drop behind him.  All he wore now was a thin cotton shirt and the wet woolen parti-colored hose on his legs.

  The chausses went down while he watched the contessa bend to grip the sodden him of her camisa and lift it upward.  Like a curtain that black linen rose, rising above the plump bare thighs, and darkness at her groin, the mounded belly.  Adrian stood as if frozen, his every muscle tensed to rigidity as he stared.

  A moment later she paused—could she know he was watching?—to let her fingers move under the rolled hem, rubbing her breasts as if they chafed from the damp garments in which they had been imprisoned.  Then the camisa went upward over those heavy globes that shook so ripely to her movements. Adrian swallowed, seeing how large and dark the aureola were, and how taut.

  The camisa caught a moment in her hair.  The Lady Nicoletta stood unconcernedly naked to the brocade scarpines on her feet, twisting a little as her fingers fumbled amid the black glory of her thick, heavy hair to release the bit of lace in which it was caught.  The youth opened his mouth to aid his labored breathing as his eyes devoured that pallid flesh.

  He wanted desperately to grip and tumble this woman onto the bed he could see along the wall beyond the hearth fire.  Its four posters supported a great valance and acted as tie-rods to hold back the thick curtains which could be drawn to hide anyone in the bed itself.  Yet he knew he must not rush out like a boar in heat. He must be circumspect, reverent almost, for this was no kitchen maid to be tossed but a woman with noble blood in the veins which he could make out as blue traceries beneath her moist skin.

  A fist rapped on the door.

  The Lady Nicoletta called, "A moment!"  She reached for her discarded gown and held it before her.

  The door opened and the serving maid entered, carrying a tray with cheese and bread and a long, narrow bottle of wine.  Across her forearm she had draped a thin robe of French muslin. Her eyes touched the smiling woman before the fireplace, and then slid sideways to the standing screen.  Her lips twitched in a smile.

  Her deft fingers lowered the tray to the cassone of carved oak just in front of the screen.  From behind it, Adrian discovered her wide eyes where they peeped in at his nakedness. He saw her red mouth open in surprise and enjoyment as the breath caught in her throat.

  Lady Nicoletta asked, "Is anything wrong?"

  "No, your grace," exclaimed the maid, shivering.

  "The robe, then."

  "Oh!  Oh, yes."

  She turned from the wooden openings of the hand carved screen to set the robe across the edge of the low chest where the tray rested.  Then she straightened and flew to the door. It slammed shut behind her.

  The countess laughed.  "Something seems to have startled our little Hebe.  What can it have been? Do you know, Adrian?

  "No, madonna," he whispered.

  She stretched before the fire, arms high above her head, lowering her fingers to grip and roll her thick black mane back and forth.  Lazily she turned, letting the heat warm her flesh as it dried it.

  "I am selfish, Adrian.  I stand here basking in the fire and you—poor dear!—must be frozen behind that screen."

  "I'm all right, your grace."

  She glanced back at him over a dimpled shoulder.  "Are you sure? You are wet, so you must be cold."  Her mouth quivered with laughter. "Unless, of course, you have found some other way to warm your blood."

  Lady Nicoletta turned and walked toward the screen.  The youth wanted to look away from her nakedness, but could not.  She was so lovely she overwhelmed him, who had so little familiarity with women.  He gaped at the big breasts riding richly up and down and sliding back and forth, at the full white thighs that quivered to her every step, as she approached.  Then she stood where the maid had stood, staring at him with wide eyes, letting her gaze study the lean young body, heavy with musculature, his wide shoulders and hard belly, his thick thighs and youthful vigor.

  "There is a mirror behind you, I see," she smiled.

  His head nodded.  The contessa said, slowly, "I can see the hearth in the mirror, which is where I stood as I disrobed.  Did you look in that mirror, Adrian?"

  "Yes, your grace," he admitted.

  She clapped her hands, laughing.  "The mystery is solved, then. Now I know why you are warm and almost dry.  But there is blood on your thigh, my youthful Mars."

  Surprised, Adrian glanced downward. In his excitement, he had failed to notice that he was still bleeding.  His wound was a wide one, though shallow, where he had taken the Toledo blade in the Spaniard's mad rush. Now, as if by calling attention to it, the slash began to throb.

  "I must tend to your cut, young man." she said soberly, reaching down to grasp the thin cotton robe and raise it.  "Come out, come out," she commanded, lifting the robe and slipping her arms into its sleeves.

  Adrian flushed.  He looked about him, caught up his wet linen sherte and draped it as best he could about his loins.  The contessa laughed out loud when he appeared.

  "Such modesty is most becoming, but I can't tend to that cut if you hide it from me.  Now stand before the hearth and warm yourself."

  As the heat from the fire flames dried his skin and heated his flesh, the countess bent to fill a cup with the red wine from the tall bottle and brought it to him.  Adrian told himself he did not need the wine; on top of everything else that had happened to him today, it would be like water poured on an oil fire. Yet under the glowing black eyes of the noblewoman he drained the cup and handed it back to her.

  She lifted a small faldstool and placed it directly in front of him, then sat down.  Her fingers caught his sherte, drew it away so she might examine his wound. Her fingertips touched it gently, frowning as she considered remedies, seeming to ignore the fact that he was so intimately aware of her attention.  For Adrian was shaking, standing there before her stare.

  "I shall take wine and a clothe and wash it," she said finally.  "It will mend nicely." She looked up at him and when he met her eyes, Adrian understood that she too was holding in check the raging fevers of her flesh.  Her eyes fell and now she began to examine him again, with an intensity that made him groan.

  Her robe had fallen open in her concentration, and her white legs were slightly parted.  Adrian stared between them, his tongue emerging to lick his lips. Those shapely legs parted even wider in the effort of her rise from the stool, to stand before him.

  He knew suddenly, that he must make the first move.  She had taunted him, teased him almost to madness. He had been wrong to imagine that she was any different from the stable girls he had played toss-skirt with in the past.  Lady Nicoletta was a woman, and a woman wanted to be desired, to be admired, to be taken and loved in such a way that she could not afterward reproach herself.

  His arms went out and drew her in against him.  Her flesh was feverish through the thin cotton robe.  She turned her cheek to him, she tried to struggle, but her breasts were hard against his chest and her thighs moved with a satanic slowness.

  "You must not," she whispered.

  "Madonna, I'm on fire!  The sword wound is nothing compared to the dart of love that's pierced my heart."  He had read that somewhere, he could not remember at the moment, but it seemed applicable to the circumstances.  "I die, without your kindness. I ache! I throb! My blood boils!"

  Her head turned slowly so that her lips were close to his mouth.  "Adriano, my little animal—you must not! I am your mistress, the Lady Nicoletta da Varano, Countess of Camerone.  You are only a man-at-arms."

  His mouth caught her lips, he felt the moist softness give way to his tongue, heard her moan deep in her throat as she thrust her hips against him.  The robe was open between them, her body was touching him from knee to breast, lazily writhing back and forth.

  "I worship you," he breathed.

  "You should not!  I am your countess, married to your lord, the Count Giulio.  You should respect me."

  "I do respect you.  I adore you. To me, you are a goddess."

  She drew back a little to look at him, though his arms still banded her middle so that her soft belly pressed into his hardness.

  "Venus!  Aphrodite!" he panted.

  His knees bent and he knelt before her, kissing the swollen nipples that pointed at him, pressing his lips to the soft belly, to her upper thighs.

  "Adriano!" she exclaimed.

  Her fingers caught his head, held it as her eyes closed to her slow shudder.  His lips were flames searing her responsive flesh, his hands where they fastened in the buttocks were manacles chaining her to his caresses.  She whimpered, she hunched downward, her head fell back so that her long black hair dangled past her hips.

  How long she stood there before his adoring kisses, she never knew.  A fire blazed in her body, a flame ate at her, a wildness surged throughout her flesh.  She shivered, wailing. She screamed thickly, shaking from toes to head. Forgotten was her plan to tease this youth until he agreed to become her slave in another fashion, and to kill her husband.

  The Lady Nicoletta could not resist the arms that raised and carried her to the poster bed, that dropped her in its middle so that she made a soft cushion for the youth who came following after, kissing her breasts and stroking her thighs and the sloping curves of her hips.  He knelt above her one moment, the next he was beside her, then he was above and behind her.

  She could not follow his movements except as his caresses drover her mad.  She twisted, she writhed, she sobbed curses to the air around her. Her legs flailed out, her head went back into the coverlets as her body tensed again and again.

  "You devil," she sobbed.  "Damn you, damn you!"

  "My goddess," he panted in her ear.

  And then he took her savagely, like a maddened bull.

* * *

  It was night.

  The rain still drummed on the leaded windows of the upper room where a ringed hand stroked the hard chest and flat belly of the naked youth who lay beside the Lady Nicoletta.  She had pillowed her head on his shoulder, drowsy with satiation, and her hand caressed him lazily, as if to restore memory.

  "Adrian," she murmured.

  "Si, my adored one."

  "You do adore me?"

  "Oh yes!  You are my life."

  "What would you do to please me?"

  "Anything madonna."

  Her hair tumbled across his shoulder in a thick black splash as she raised her head to stare down into his face.  Her flesh was warmly intimate with his body, her thigh lay across his upper thighs, a soft breast pressed to his chest.

  "You killed a man for me today.  Would you kill another?"

  His smile was sleepy.  "Of course, cara mia."

  Her ringed hand moved again.  "On your honor?"

  Laughter welled inside young Adrian.  Honor? What was honor to him, a simple man at arms?  His only honor was his bodily pleasure an its safety. It was easy to murmur agreement to her whispered words.

  There was a sudden coldness on his flesh as she slipped away from him.  Blinking, he looked up to see the faint whiteness of her nude body moving through the dark room.  Her fingers hunted a tinder box, scraped iron on flint to make a shower of sparks. One spark fell into the tiny pile of wood shavings, and a flame glowed.  The Lady Nicoletta touched the wick of a tallow candle to the flame. When it was ablaze she set the candle in a pewter holder and placed it on the small table beside the poster bed.

  Gone was her softness.  Now her face was hard as she stared down at the naked youth, as she sat on the edge of the bed beside him.

  "I do not joke, Adrian.  I am most serious."

  He nodded affably, letting his eyes narrow against the brightness of the candle flame so that he saw the woman through his lashes where she perched so close to his hip.  Her body was tempting, even though he had make love to it for close to three hours. He put out a hand but the contessa struck it away.

  "No!  Listen to me."

  "I am listening, my goddess."

  She frowned, then began to speak.  "It was Spanish soldiers who attacked us today.  I am sure you know why."

  "The King of Naples—Don Ferrante, the natural son of Alphonso V of Aragon and the Two Sicilies, who also calls himself Ferdinand the First—seeks to provoke the city-states of Italy to war, so that he may acquire the territories of Umbria and Abruzzi, which he desires very much," Adrian recited like a pupil repeating a lesson.

  "By capturing my person, he would cause my husband to invite Florence and Perugia, Aquila and Spoleto to attack the kingdom of the Two Sicilies," the countess murmured.  

  "His mercenaries would eat them up," Adrian added.

  "So they would, and he would gain the provinces he wants.  Naples is very powerful, with the backing of the King of Spain.  Many lives would be lost in such a war."

  Adrian frowned.  What had he to do with the battles of such potent city-states as Florence and Perugia?  He turned over on his side, bent to kiss the soft thigh nearest him, to fondle a white, heavy breast.

  "No.  Wait! This is most important."

  Her soft hands captured his head but did not push it away.  The Countess of Camerone enjoyed his kisses for they touched a vein of sensuality deep inside her.  Common sense warred with that sensuality a moment, as she felt the blood in her veins begin to bubble.  She gripped his head tighter.

  "The count, my husband, is an ally of Florence, Adrian.  Damn you—listen to me! They have made treaties of mutual assistance in the past.  They will again."

  "And?"  he wondered, running his tongue along her flesh.

  She shivered and put her finger across his lips.  "If the count were to die, what do you think would happen to Camerone?"

  "It would belong to you, your grace."

  "I would need a captain of mercenaries."

  He blinked, slightly awed.  To be a capitano at his age!  He knew well enough what old Gubbio earned as captain of the few soldiers which the Count Giulio maintained: fifty gold florins a year.  To Adrian, it was a fortune.

  "What about Gubbio?" he wondered.

  "Gubbio, pah!"  Her fingertips snapped.  "He shall be retired."

  Excitedly he rose to his knees, forgetting concupiscence before cupidity.  He would have two rooms in the rocca all to himself, there would be a woman to serve his food, to clean his garments and to air his bed sheets.  Peste! Not an old crone like Samaria who attended Gubbio, but a young one not averse to crawling in between those same sheets with him on a cold night.

  Cold reason washed across his mind.  He sank back on his heels, kneeling there, and his hands went wide.

  "Ah, but—the count lives," he said.

  Her smile was cautious.  "It is true. he is an old man but he is very healthy and may live another five or ten years.  Plenty of time for Naples to attack Camerone and begin the war it so ardently desires."

  She looked at him in the candlelight and for an instant her face seemed turned to stone.  His heart began to thump inside his rib case, as if he knew what her next words might be.

  "The sword that killed a Spaniard could kill an Italian just as easily," she said.  "A sword thrust in the shadows or the quick bite of a dagger, and there would be no count of Cameron—just the countess!"

  "They would hang me!"

  "They?  Who is 'they'?  Surely, it would be a Spanish plot to remove the man who stands between Naples and its acquisition of territory in the Marches?"

  He let the air out of his lungs slowly.  "And would King Ferdinand confirm you in your title to Camerone against the world, madonna?  Do you know for certain he would do this?"

  Under his hard scrutiny, she flushed.  "What difference does this make to you?  Or have you an abhorrence for gold excellentes because they bear the resemblance of Ferdinand and Isabella?"

  He whistled soundlessly, eyes wide.  To be thrust this close to the affairs of state was heady.  His eyes blinked and his mouth went dry at the idea that his dagger might be the one to hand over Camerone, with its mountain passes and its sloping meadowlands, its vineyards and its olive trees, into Neapolitan hands.  He did not blind himself to the fact that the Lady Nicoletta would be a figurehead only in her new status of sole ruler, were the count to fall before his blade. It would be the King of Naples who would make her jump to his call, as the puppet-master pulled the strings and worked his marionettes.

  When he said something of this, the woman laughed.  "You worry about what does not concern you."

  Not concern him!  Ah, it was his neck he would risk.  He could envision the King of Naples passing judgment on him, that he should hang by the neck until dead for murdering the aged Count of Camerone.  He would be made out a monster, an ingrate worse even than those Pazzi who had betrayed and slain Giuliano de Medici some years ago.

  Adrian shivered.  He was young, but he was no fool.  To run madly toward the hangman's rope—aye, and the rack and the wheel as well, or he would be tortured before he was slain, since it was the custom of the times—was the act of a madman.  Yet it was also folly to refuse the contessa what she asked.  Were he to do so, she might become afraid of him and denounce him with lies to Count Giulio.  Or else, hire an assassin to put him safely out of the way.

  He recognized the suspicion in her face as she stared at him.  "Well, Adrian? Must you gawk at me? What say you?"

  "Pardon, your grace .  It's just that the idea overwhelms me."

  Her fingertip touched his thigh, ran up to his groin.  "You can be a great man, Adrian. You are poor now, but with my help, you might well attain wealth."  Her fingers moved gently, and she laughed. "Si!  You can grow and grow to full stature, you can become a condottiere, a captain of lances, and hire yourself out for golden florins to some rich city-state like Siena.  You would like that."

  It was a dream he had not dared to envision, before now.  He was well enough aware that Francesco Sforza had been a condottiere before he had made himself duke of Milan half a century ago, and that Ludovico il Moro still ruled that city to the north.  He knew also that Venice had commissioned an equestrian statue to Bartolommeo Colleonni by Andrea Verrocchio, to stand opposite the Hospital of Saint Mark, and Colleonni had been no more than a great general.  There was also Robert Malatesta, who founded a dynasty in Rimini, and Federico da Montefeltro who had done the same thing in Urbino.

  Yes, to be a condottiere in Italy in this year 1492 was to snatch at greatness.  Whether he caught it, as a gioccolare might catch one of his colored balls, was something else again; at least, he would have his opportunity.

  All he had to do was kill an old man.  

  When the time came, he did not know whether he could perform the deed, but here and now with this naked woman toying with his flesh, he must make a promise.  Betray the man or betray the woman, what difference did it make? Adrian Anonimo must first be faithful to himself.

  He reached out and drew her down upon her back.  She turned a little, kissing him, and he let the fire build throughout his body.  Promise her what she asked, and enjoy this moment. He told himself he was a rogue, but he did not care.

  She said lazily, between kisses, "And now, Adrian?  Does the idea of being a great man still overwhelm you?  Or are you beginning to see reason, now your blood's at a boil?"

  "I see reason, sweetling.  Oh, yes—Gesu!"

  "You will slay him as I ask?"

  "I will, I will.  But no more talk..."

  She lay back and let him take her in the fury of his passion.

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