Sister Maria came into our rooms in the basement of the convent, and the door was bolted behind her. Since we’d been brought here we’d only seen her and another young sister who had delivered our meals, but who was obviously sworn to silence and had dutifully obeyed her Superior. But Maria was different. She’d seen us when we arrived and asked if we had been treated well and if we were in good health. She had kind eyes and the children had taken to her immediately. But when she entered on this occasion she was without her veil and her close cropped hair gave her the air of someone persecuted and alone.
“We didn’t expect to see you sister” I said. “How long are they going to keep us here, and why are we here anyway. We’ve done nothing wrong.” And I repeated “How long are they going to keep us here?”
“I don’t know” was all she said as she slumped down into a chair and burst into tears. I looked across at Marco who had the children behind him in the corner. Whenever we heard anyone outside our door he immediately herded them there so no harm could come to them unless they got past him first. And it would take a mighty man to get between Marco and his children. But the sudden appearance of Maria, without her veil, and seemingly locked up with us too only deepened the mystery.
I crossed the few paces that separated us and put my arms around her shoulder and let her sob her fears away. Soon she stilled and wiped her eyes. She sniffed and wiped her nose and when all anguished had been wiped away she looked straight at me and said “I’m Maria Salomone, daughter to Baroni Maurizio Salomone and up until a few moments ago I was Sister Maria di Angelo, the apothecary at this convent. It appears that Mother Superior has decided that the company I keep is not conducive to remaining in holy orders and so she has stripped me of my veil and ordered that I join you as special guests of the convent down here in the basement”. And as she said these words a whimsical smile began to appear on her lips.
Marco looked at me and shrugged. Since we’d been bundled out of the forge in the middle of the night and brought here, this was the longest conversation we’d had with anyone, and even though she had an innocent and true face, it crossed my mind that perhaps she’d been sent here to spy on us for whatever reason our captors had.
Maria reached out her hand and held mine as if she’d been reading my mind and said “Perhaps if I tell you why I think I’ve been locked up with you it might ease your mind. You know Brother Julian?” And at the mention of Pietro and Rosso’s friend we glanced at each other and relaxed a little. Marco came and stood near me, but still placed himself between the children and the door.
“We know Julian” interjected Marco. “What’s your connection with him?” he asked with a slight edge remaining in his voice.
“How do I know him?” she smiled in reply “He has the voice of an angel and the gentle heart of a good and pure man. I met him the other day and I think he knew you were here. He came to the convent to have lunch with us and we’d planned to meet so that I could tell him about our “visitors” in the cellars, but someone must have overheard me saying that I would contact him and obviously jumped to the correct conclusion. That’s why I think they decided to lock me in here with you”.
“Who are they?” asked Marco who’d had plainly decided that Maria was telling the truth.
“I’m not sure. But whoever they are, they must be very powerful because not many people can upset Mother’s equilibrium, and she’s been shaken by this whole affair. Brother Julian really rattled her when he intimated that he knew you were down here” she replied. “But who ‘they’ are is still a mystery to me. But tell me” she said smiling kindly at the children who had begun to play a game in the corner “who are you and why did they bring you here? Perhaps that might cast some light on this dark mystery”.
I felt Marcos little finger entwine itself around mine and felt great comfort from the warmth of it. The air of tension and sadness in the room had gone and now we felt strengthened by a new and blossoming friendship with a fellow traveler on an unknown path.
“We’re just a normal little family who live next to the piazza near Santa Maria Maggiore. Marco here is the blacksmith and these are our children Sarah, Clare, Rizo and Bini. We know brother Julian through our friendship with Brother Rosso and Pietro who often visit our house. A few nights back we’d put the children to bed after a normal days work. We’d gone to bed as usual when there came a banging at the door. Marco looked out of the window and saw two men below with a cart. They said Cardinal Borgia’s coach had broken an axle and that it was needed for urgent business. Marco called down that surely it could wait until the morning, because surely even a Cardinal needs sleep. But they kept banging on the door and so he went down. I turned over to return to sleep when there was another bang on the door and then another. I went to the window and the two men were still there with their cart and Marco lay on the street at their feet. ’You’re husband seems to have tripped and fallen Signora, perhaps you should come down to help us with him. I threw some clothes on and rushed down and knelt next to dear Marco.” I paused in anger at the memory of it all but Marco’s hand gripped mine more tightly and whispered, “It’s OK, just tell Maria the rest of it.”
One of them grabbed me and said that if I wanted Marco to be unharmed, then I’d better bring the children down too because we we’re going on a journey. I was beside myself with fear. I suddenly thought that Marco might be dead already, but thank God he stirred. He’s a tough man to kill. And even now, just thinking about it, brings tears to my eyes.
I went upstairs and gathered some clothes. Then I woke my little sleepy-heads up and told them we had a surprise for them and we were going on an exciting journey and that they should get ready as quickly as possible as it was going to be such fun. The girls were great, but the boys had to be prised from their bed and carried downstairs.” Again she paused but this time with rising anger in her face. “Those terrible men tied scarves around their mouths and then threw sacks over their heads. We were lashed together like cattle and pushed up onto the cart and lashed up tight under the canvas. We had no idea we were in a convent until your Sister appeared with food the following day.” A slip of Laura’s blonde hair caught in her lips and she paused to remove it.
“Are you alright Mamma” asked Sara from the rear of the room.
“Yes darling” I replied, “Come here here and meet Sister Maria. You too Clare, and that includes you too boys. The bare-headed nun held out her arms to embrace them all and they happily fell into her arms.
It was as if they’d known Maria all their lives and they proceeded to give her a hug and then a kiss on both cheeks.
“Thank you so much” said Maria. She turned to me and said “you have beautiful children! Are the girls twins? They look the same age to me.”
“Clare came to us a little while back. But she’s one of the family now and we all love her being a part of our family”. Marco had crept up behind them and had his arm around Clare’s shoulder.
“She’s a very special part of our family. Brother Rosso brought her to us when she was abandoned in the Piazza. Her father’s dead and we think her mother is too. But our family is very blessed to have her as a daughter and a sister.”
Maria looked at them all with a gentle sadness in her eyes. “Thank you for having the faith to share that with me. I know I’m a stranger to you, and I’m - or was - a sister in the community where you’ve been imprisoned: and that’s the terrible truth, because that’s what’s really happened to you. You’re prisoners here. I have no idea why it’s happened, but someone wants you kept locked up, and they’ve locked me up too because they heard me talking with your friend brother Julian. So I’m afraid my good intentions have come to nought!”
“Don’t worry Sister” said Sara with her serious voice “Mamma and Papa will look after you, won’t you Papa?”
“Thank you Sara” replied the nun with a warm smile playing at the corner of her lips. “I am sure that with the protection of your Papa and Mamma everything will be fine.And don’t forget dear Brother Julian. Now Mother suspects that he knows you are here, I’m sure all of this will be cleared up shortly and you’ll be back home before you know it”.
In a short time we’d all begun to feel at ease with each other and soon the children were sitting on Maria’s knee as if they’d known all their short lives. Marco and I sat in a corner and enjoyed the scene.
“I don’t know what’s going on” said my loving husband “If they were going to kill us why haven’t they done so already? And why these comfortable room? It’s not as if we’ve been thrown into dungeons or anything, and even the food has been good enough to satisfy a very hungry blacksmith”, and he smiled at me with those gleaming brown eyes of his.
“We keep coming back to that little word ‘why’ “ I said. And in the pause afterwards added “you think it’s something to do with Clare don’t you?” And he simply replied
“I do. Rosso told us all about Villeprieux, but he was always very close when it came to talk about Clare’s Mamma. Do you think he was hiding something from us too?”
“I’m not sure, but I think you’re right. Whatever the reasons behind it all, we must protect the children and be strong for them” I said.
“Don’t worry Mamma” said Sarah from behind a chair “We’ll be OK”. And both Marco and I burst out laughing.
We didn’t laugh for long though. There was a rattling at the door as it was unlocked, and in came Mother Superior accompanied by four very irreligious-looking men in long cloaks. “These men have come to take you to your next destination. I am sorry that we’ve had to keep you locked up like this, but it was for your own good” she said in her clipped, sharp voice. Maria stood tall and never flinched from looking at her. “But you have to make a decision”. Marco and I instantly locked our fingers together and braced ourselves for some bad news. “You cannot travel together. We have to break you into two groups” she said struggling to tell a lie “as there isn’t enough room in the carriage for all of you. So you and you will go in one carriage and the rest of you will travel separately”.
The two she had picked out were myself and Clare. Marco stood forward immediately and said “you will never separate my wife from her children unless you kill me first”. The four men looked at each other and then braced to advance on him. But Mother lifted her arm and held them back, and spitting out an icy “No” then went on to say, “There will be no blood spilt in this house”. In the tension of the following seconds I exchanged a glance with Marco and he indicated that he would go with Clare and I would go with our children. I knew he was right, but my heart yearned to disagree with him. But I know Marco. And I love that gentle good yet powerful man to be as fast in thought as he is with a hammer, and what he was suggesting would be best for us all.
Mother seemed to have come to a conclusion “So be it” she said “you will go with Clare and the rest will travel separately.
We instinctively gathered in a tight huddle. I noticed Maria standing to one side isolated and vulnerable. I held out my arm and waved her into the welcoming embrace of our family. “It’s going to be a bit strange” said my good man “but we will make the most of it all as long as we keep true to each other. Be good for Mamma until Clare and I get back to you, and remember me in your prayers ever night.”
“Daddy” said Rizo “are these men bad men?” We all turned and looked at them and as we did so, one blushed uncomfortably and the others stared at Mother and tried to avoid our gaze.
“I think they’re just doing their jobs Rizo” Marco said. “And sometimes following orders can be a very hard thing to do eh? Like washing your hands before meals”. And a sudden hug drew us all closer together as we smiled at what he’d said.
“I’m sorry” said Mother Superior “but you must come now”. Marco held me tight, and in that moment I tried to imprint in my memory how every part of his body felt, how warm his breath was against my cheek and the scent of his hard body that I had breathed into my own every day of my married life. Then Clare came to me and held me close.
“It’s alright Mamma, I’ll take care of him for you. We’ll be fine”. My throat tightened but I determined not to cry in front of them. The children hugged their Papa and smothered Clare with kisses. Sarah whispered final instructions into Clare’s ear. And then they were gone.
Two of the men led them away with Marco carrying Clare in his arms. My last memory of that moment is the touch of Marco’s little finger as it gently twisted itself with mine.
Maria came and stood next to me with the three children held close in front of us. One of the remaining men indicated with his head that we should leave whilst the other went on in front. As we passed Mother Superior, Maria paused and said quietly to her “I forgive you Ann” and moved on without waiting for a reply. It was probably the first time in many years that the poor, frozen soul had been called by her real name, and I prayed too that her heart would be softened by the memory of it.
“Did you see the size of that man’s dagger” said Bini to Rizo in a very loud stage whisper. And the guard of whom he spoke couldn’t suppress a smile as he marched on in front of us.
We were led down long dark passages with other black mouthed openings telling of other passages going in other directions. The man in front held a tarred torch above his head which burned and spattered dark shows on the dank and dark walls. We finally came to an open door, down through which light was dancing from other lit torches. We went up the narrow stone stairs and came into what looked to be a scullery, the recesses of the room glinting with pans whilst the lingering smell of the previous evenings cooking haunted the space like a friendly ghost.
The door to that room was unlocked by an unseen hand and we went out and down through a garden path with the night stars remote and pure in the heavens above. A dark carriage loomed out of the darkness and we were bustled inside and the door secured. There was a sudden lurch and we moved off. I had my arm around Sarah and Bini whilst Maria hugged Rizo close on her lap.
“Do you think we’ll see any robbers Mamma?” asked Rizo from the safety of Maria’s arms with barely suppressed excitement. It was difficult to be cross with him so I quietly answered “I doubt it Rizo. Not when we’ve got you and Bini to protect us”.
It was a long night and we dozed between jolts. Although the city is quiet at night, the noises of the countryside are quite different and we soon realised that we’d left the city behind. Dawn found us many leagues distant from the city and heading north toward Florence. We stopped shortly after that at a small village to break our fast and were let out of the carriage. Our guards were surprisingly courteous and made sure the Inn keeper provided us with all the food we desired. And from that point on we were allowed to have our windows open so that we could enjoy the sights of the countryside as it slowly marched past us.
“Where do you think they’re taking us” asked Maria.
“I’ve no idea” I honestly replied. But inside all I was thinking about was where they had taken Marco and Clare and what might be happening to them.
“Don’t worry about Papa” said Sarah in her prime and proper fashion. “He’s a blacksmith, and there is no-one stronger than him in the world. And I told Clare to never leave his side otherwise he might get very upset”.
“I think you’re probably right” was all I could find to say between my desire to laugh and my inclination to weep. We continued to rock our way north skirting the large towns and stopping where we could to change horses and attend to our essential needs.
“Why Clare?” Maria asked out of the blue during one of those long periods of time when the mind becomes numb with the monotony of what it is seeing. It seemed unfair to not tell her, and to tell you the truth I was happy to share my thoughts with someone else. So I recounted the story of how she arrived at our home after Rosso had found her abused and abandoned in the Piazza. Of how it had taken some time before she’d come to accept Marco and then hearing of the terrible things that had been done to her when she’d lived with foster parents. Of the mysterious reason Rosso went to Paris and why he had taken Clare with him in search of her French father. And how it turned out that Villeprieux, a friend of his during the time he wandered the highways after running away from home, was her real father. But of her mother nothing was known, and of which Rosso never talked at all.
All these things I shared with Maria and we both moved to the conclusion that perhaps it was the link with Clare’s unknown mother, long undisturbed until Rosso appeared in Paris, that had stirred up this current turmoil. “But why separate us? Why not keep us all together where they can keep an eye on us all? It doesn’t make sense” I said.
“I may have lived in a convent for some years, but I come from a minor noble family too. And believe me, there is a great deal of intrigue with those powerful Ducal families. I wouldn’t be surprised if we haven’t become some pawn in a bigger plan” said Maria, then she suddenly laughed. “But those Ducal families have nothing on the intrigues that go on inside some of our Holy Church institutions! Look at me! Sister Maria one day, Concietta da Montefeltrothe next.”
“I thought your name was Maria” I asked somewhat astounded at this news.
“Maria was the name I was given when I entered. My really name is Concietta Maria da Montefeltro. Maria is my confirmation name. But when I was little everyone called me Connie. In fact I’d be really pleased if you’d call me that because it’s the name my Mamma used when I was young.”
“Did you hear that boys?” I said gaining the attention of my two young bandits who were shooting imaginary arrows at brigands on the trail. “Maria’s real name is Connie. Did you hear that?
“OK Mama. OK Connie” was all we managed to get out of them as they continued to slaughter the enemy in a new shower of arrows from their imaginary bows.
From the direction we were headed I thought that perhaps we were going to Perugia but the carriage detoured around it and then continued in an easterly direction.
“Do you think they’re taking us to Ancona” I asked Connie with fear in my voice. Ancona being a port where ships travel to the Orient, and people are traded like cattle. Connie held my hand and tried to reassure me that all would be well, and why didn’t we ask our guards as they seemed reasonable people.
As the days had drawn on our guards had relaxed more and more and even begun to indulge the boys with games of bows and arrows, often falling dramatically into the dust clutching an imagined lethal shaft in their chests. After a pause in a death like pose that would entice Rizo and Bini towards them to see if they were really dead, they’d leap up and chase the boys around the carriage with much screaming and laughter. Their names were Antonius and Nicola and they were simple young men who were just doing what they had been told, even though guarding women and children was not the reason why they had joined up as soldiers. They were sons of small farmers from Marche and the land their father worked was too small for all of his sons to make a living off so they’d been sent off to become soldiers. It was the first time that she’d heard the name Cesare Borgia mentioned and it troubled her a lot. But Nicola and Antonius spoke of him with great admiration. They spoke of his daring feats as Commander of the French forces that had won so many battles around Italy. They spoke of his courage and his deep loyalty to his father Pope Alexander. And they spoke of their confusion as Cesare had seemed to change after the defeat of the S’Forza family in Milan. But that was a world away from where they were now, half way to their home land of Marche and the real hope of seeing their dear parents, their brothers, their sisters and all the little children that had no doubt appeared in the time they’d been away.
“It looks like we’re going to Marche then” said Connie to Nicola.
“I’m sorry Connie, but I can’t tell you that” he said with a smile “but I’d be lying to a nun if I were to tell you we weren’t” and gave her a wink that made her blush.
“They should never let young soldiers near women” she said straightening her habit and unconsciously brushing her cropped hair into place.
“They’re harmless” I told her. “Mind you, there are many that aren’t. But I think we’ll be safe in their charge. It’s what happens after we get to where we’re going that worries me” I automatically looked around to check that my little brood was in my sight.
“There must be a reason why someone like Cesare Borgia would take a harmless little family and an ex nun hostage move them away from Rome to Marche” said Connie “But I’m blessed if I know the reason why”.
“I think the most important thing is to say as little as we can and to accept whatever it is that comes our way” I said and then called the children to me. “Sarah, Bini, Rizo: listen to me for a moment. I know we’re having fun with Antonius and Nicola, but when we got to where we are going, it may be that there are other people who might not be quite as nice as them”. And holding them close I continued “Some of them might even be cruel to us and others might try to be our friends just to get information out of us”.
“What’s information” asked the little Bini?
“It means they might want you to tell tales about Papa or Clare” I answered, and before he could air the thoughts that were forming in his mouth I added “but we must always be loyal to them and if anyone asks you anything about them just tell them to talk to Mamma.”
“Does that include me too” asked a somewhat crestfallen Sarah.
“I’m afraid it goes doubly so for you young lady” I said. “It will become immediately apparent to them that you are a very knowledgeable member of our family and they will almost certainly try to weasel information out of you if they can. All I’m saying is think before you speak, and if in doubt then ask them to talk to me” and with that little sermon finished I gave them all a big hug an sent them off to play whilst the two men changed horses for the final leg to Marche.
“Laura” said Connie to me quietly. “If I need to tell you something about myself”. She’d said it in such a confessional sort of way that she immediately had my attention.
“Go on” I replied and arched out to hold her hand.
“You know that I told you that my name wan’t Maria but Connie Maria Della Rovere?”
“Yes” I answered with quiet interest.
“Well it would probably be wise not to tell anyone else about that. You see, Cesare Borgia drove my Uncle, the Duke Guidobaldo da Montefeltro out of Urbino, and how shall I put it, they don’t exactly see eye to eye. And if Cesare knew that his niece was riding into his town unannounced, well, he might not be quite as kind to us as we’d hoped he might”. With which she gave me a wry smile and squeezed my hand in reassurance.
For some reason I laughed softly. “It’s at times like this that I thank God that I married a simple blacksmith”. And Connie smiled back happily at my understanding of it all. “I don’t think the children will have noticed you telling me your full name so there’s no need to trouble them with that. But what will you do now? Be a nun or be a lady?” Connie looked out the window of the moving carriage, but I don’t think she saw anything that passed in front of her eyes.
“You know what Laura? I think perhaps that’s the wrong question to ask.” And giving me a wide smile said “You’d be very surprised to find out how many of my Sisters at the convent didn’t act like ladies most of the time. I think”, she continued in a measured tone “that perhaps I will live the life of a nun within the world and not locked behind cloistered walls. I know some orders already do that, but in my heart I need greater freedom than most religious orders allow me to have”.
“Go on” I said, intrigued at her line of reasoning.
“I really feel, very deeply in my heart that I do have a calling to follow our Lord, and that makes me very happy and I could easily continue to stay as a nun. But when I met Julian - and he’s such a beautiful man with such an incredible gift - something inside of me changed a little. Please don’t understand me” she added, her face colouring a little “there could never be anything like THAT between Julian and I. But I saw in him something that I share with him and that’s having gift that I really want to share with others for their benefit and not for mine. His great gift is music, my lesser gift is to bring healing and caring to those who suffer. And although the Habit allows me certain respect, it also cuts me off from many of those who need me most.”
I looked at this shorn, exiled nun in the remnants of her habit and I felt humbled by what she had shared with me. Surely this was a gift of love just dressed in another form of clothing. Marco and I shared a love that had filled our life to overflowing joy and had blessed us with our beautiful children. But how many more would these two people touch by their unique and generous gifts.
“You are a very special lady and I am honoured to call you friend Connie. Allow me to be your companion where I can and to help you in whatever way you would like me too”. And we embraced and smiled at one another.
“There’s a huge castle over there Mamma” said Bini with eye’s the size of saucers “an’ there’s soldiers with huge spears riding on huge great enormous horses too”.
“That’s Urbino” said Connie. “That’s where my family came from. They’re not there now as Cesare has chased them into exile, but there are probably still people there who might recognise me and that could prove difficult for all of us”.
“When were you last here” I asked her.
“I was sent to the convent when I was 10” she answered.
“Well” I smiled back at her “I think that this shorn headed, intelligent confident lady looks dramatically different to a shy 10 year old. And I doubt that Cesare will have let any of your family’s servants stay on if there was any fear one of them may poison him”. And Connie relaxed a little at that reassuring thought.
“Perhaps” she said after a pause. “Let’s just pray that you’re right Laura”.
“But before we get there we need to get you out of your habit and into the spare dress I brought with me. We can rip your old clothes into rags and drop them out the window as we go along”.
“We can use them Mamma” shouted Rizo. “We can make capes and masks for when we get there just to show them that we’re soldiers too”.
“For a boy” said Sarah “that’s an amazingly intelligent idea. Come on” she said “I’ll show you how to do it properly.”
When our carriage stopped outside the palazzo at Urbino, three ladies of varying heights stepped out, then two small, stern, Bodyguards dressed in black capes and black masks stepped out after them which made even the craggiest of attending guards smile with amusement.
We were led up the steps of the palazzo and taken to a suite of rooms towards the back of the building. They were light and airy and had a good view of the surrounding countryside, but the sound of the lock being turned from the outside reminded us that we were prisoners and not long looked-for guests. The children had the greatest of fun exploring the apartment for hidden panels and concealed trapdoors, and all three squealed with delight whilst jumping on the large double bed they’d decided would be theirs to share at night.
Connie and I also made a round of the rooms and to our delight found that there were spare clothes already to be found in a large chest in the second bedroom. A knock came to the door and the lock was undone.
“Enter” I called out as the children gathered around us. A swarthy man of short stature who sported a very serious expression came in and bowed slightly to us.
“I hope you find your accommodation to your satisfaction ladies” he said. “I see you’ve found the change of clothes in the trunk” he added glancing toward the open chest and the scattering of clothes around it. “Although we had been told to expect only one lady in the party.”
“Signor, none of us expected to be here.” I interceded “and we would sincerely appreciate an explanation why we were kidnapped from our home, held hostage in that convent in Rome and now dispatched to distant Urbino cruelly separated from my husband and other daughter too. Sister Maria here appears to have been caught up in this terrifying ordeal simply because she tried to get news of us to our friends, and for her pains has been thrown out of her community and into our nightmare”. All this was said with rising indignation that seemed to have little effect on our gaoler’s icy exterior.
“Be patient Signora” he replied in a condescending voice “but thank you for explaining the presence of Sister Maria who seems to be a member of a most liberated community by the style of her dress”. And a slight smile flickered around the edge of his pencil thin lips.
“If it comes to making remarks on how people dress Signore, I would appreciate it if you would remove your muddied boots from the clean coverings on our floor”. And we both stood there staring hard at each other.
“My apologies Signora” he said after a moment of silence “it is good that you respect the splendour of your surroundings. I will tell the Duke of your sensitivity to your accommodation” and leaning his back against the wall, he lent down, pulled off his boots and handed them out of the door adding “clean them” to some hidden potentate who was waiting on him outside.
“Now, down to business” he said and came fully into the apartment and stood by the desk that faced the window. “You have full use of these rooms whilst you are guests here and at certain times of the day you will be allowed free use of the gardens outside. Should you wish to go into the town, then arrangements can be made to escort you. You may wish for your children to continue their education and if that is so then we do have the services of s tutor who can help them in their studies. Are there any questions?”
“Where is my husband?” I asked as politely as my emotions would allow.
“I am afraid I am not in a position to be able to tell you that Signora. But once my lord the Duke has arrived, then I am sure he will inform you of the reason” he said with all the emotion of an bored clerk performing a perfunctory role.
“Children” he said “do you have any questions?” Although it did not show, to my mothers eye I could see the great effort it took Bini not to utter one single word as the three of them stood there is polite yet steely silence. “Humph” he said “I see. But when you are ready to talk, please just knock on the door and ask your retainer to call Consigliere Farinosi” and bowing once more left the room. And the locked turned once more to seal us in.
“What’s a tutor” Rizo exploded.
“And what’s edu -whatsist” said Bini
I looked at Connie and our faces mirrored each others smiles, releasing the tensions of the previous few minutes. “It’s a bit like making bows and arrows and using them to catch animals. But instead of making them out of wood, you make them out of ideas and use them to capture knowledge” I replied with a certain smugness at the image created in my mind. The boys just looked at me with blank expressions.
“It means using that” said Sarah giving then a pat on the head “instead of that”. And she tickled them under their arms which led to a furious chase around the rooms accompanied by a great deal of screaming and laughter.
There was really very little that we could do. Escape wasn’t an option and we had no means of contacting anyone to help us. Our only choice was to make the most of what we had and wait for an opportunity to make a plan.
That evening we asked for food and were brought a very presentable feast which we ate with relish, and nothing was left on the plate. When the servant came to clear away the platters, she let a little smile show on her face as if pleased that the food had been fully appreciated.
“Do say thank you to whoever prepared such a wonderful feast” said Sarah in her most polite voice, and for once both boys joined in with a very loud “Thank you” too. It doesn’t take much to make a Mamma a very happy person.
“I’ll be sure to pass your thanks onto Cook” said the servant over her shoulder.
We settled down for the evening but as we were all very tired from the journey, we said our prayers early and went to bed with the setting sun. If Marco and Clare could have heard the prayers sent up to our heavenly father by his littlest children, his heart would have beehstrengthened by the love that went up with those innocent aspirations.
The next morning I asked the guard to call for Consigliore Farinosi.
“Buon Giorno Signora” he said. “How may I be of service to you today?”
“Thank you for coming so soon Consigliore. I am sure you have plenty of things to do for your master. We would like to take you up on your offer of a tutor for the children, and perhaps later this morning we might visit your gardens too?”
“I will see to the tutor this very morning and as for enjoying our modest garden, I will arrange for the gardener to attend to your wishes too. Is there anything else that you need for your comfort?” He spoke all this in a much softer manner than he had used when we had arrived, and although I felt I could never fully trust him, I thought him to have an honest heart - albeit a heart under the control of a scheming Duke.
“No.” I answered with respect “I think that should be all thank you.” And bowing once more he left.
“Did you notice he’d cleaned his boots” said Connie with a grin. “I don’t think he’s used to dealing with women”.
“Mamma” Bini interrupted.
“What’s a tutor?”
The tutor turned out to be an old man, clean shaven, with a long shock of white and white bushy eyebrows that had a mind of their own - much like their owner. He entered after a soft tap on the door which was opened by Sarah.
“You must be Sarah” he said with a polite and gentle incline of his head. “If I’m any judge of character, then I may not have much to teach such a bright young lady”.
“Thank you kind sir” replied my eldest with a modest nod of her own head in return.
“Ladies” he said turning to Connie and I and adopting a more formal bow “allow me to introduce myself, I am Jacob - often referred to as the Jew, and sometimes politely so”.
I heard Connie’s quiet gasp, and I saw Jacobs quick clear eyes dart in there direction. There was no change in his attitude but I saw in his eyes a fleeting look of surprise. “I am Laura and this is Connie. I believe that your star pupils are the ones making that racket in the other room” I said to gain his attention.
“It always helps to have a lively body and a lively mind if one wants to live a full life my lady” he added looking directly at me. “I have been blessed to have many such students over the years” he added and even though he was looking at me I knew the words were directed at Connie. He continued “If my hearing is correct, my new pupils are hunting down bandits and with a modicum of success by the noise they are making. Believe me madam, in these times they will find plenty of bandits to chase in any Italian court”. His smile spoke volumes but he went silent.
I went to the door of the boys room and ushered them into Jacobi’s presence. They stood on either side of me as I introduced them to him. “Fine young lads and fertile ground no doubt” he said coming forward to greet them. “I am pleased to meet you Bini and Rizo. No doubt we will learn a great deal from each other.” He stood with his hand resting on each of their shoulders and speaking straight to me said “We all learn in different ways and at different speeds. It will take me a few days to find out where their strengths and their needs lie. If the weather is clement, then you will find us in my school of life out there in the gardens. Then once we understand each other, I will start the journey of their enlightenment. Do feel free to join us at any time after all, you are their first and best teacher”. And bowing his head to me he turned to Connie and said “Signorina” and held her proffered fingertips whilst looking closely at her face.
“Signor”. Connie acknowledged him with a slight inclination of her head.
The boys glanced back over their shoulders as Jacobi led them out the door with Bini putting his fingers to his lips and making a theatrical “Shh” sound. Even from the half-view of his face I could see a smile alter the old man’s expression. As the door clicked shut Connie whispered “He knows me. He was my tutor when I was only very little but he had a falling out with my Uncle and I thought him banished from the land.”
“Will he keep quiet?” I asked her.
“I’m not sure” Connie replied with a furrowed brow. “Uncle treated him very harshly, but Jacobi was always very kind and patient with me. I don’t think he’d done anything wrong its just that the Jews always seem to get squeezed when a war is bubbling somewhere. But he seems to be back in favour now and he’ll be an excellent teacher for the boys too.”
“What’s it like being back here after all these years” I asked Connie. We were sitting on the edge of the bed looking out over the magnificent gardens below.
“It’s funny” she bagan. “Everything seems so much smaller, and yet after convent life some things seem so much bigger too. I always thought the garden went on for every but when you see it from up here, it looks beautiful but it’s not that big really”
“Believe me” I interrupted “it’s a lot larger than the average garden you’ll fond behind a smithy’s forge”. Connie’s face reflected my grin as she continued with her story.
“When my Uncle was in charge here I was pretty well left to roam the place as much as I liked. Being at the end of the family line and being a girl meant that not much was expected of me. That’s why I so enjoyed my times with Jacobi. He taught me so much about the herbs and medicinal plants that were grown in the palace Physic garden that it was only natural that I thought of becoming an apothecary. But most of the people who work in the palace are quite secretive. They have to be really. If you say something that might be held against you later, then you’d be thrown out or even worse ..” Connie looked sad as if remembering something that she’d rather not remember. “Powerful people can do some cruel things when forced into a corner”.
“Do you think that’s what happened to Jacobi then”? I asked. Connie smiled.
“One thing you could always be certain of was an honest response from him on any subject. And of course he made many enemies. I suppose it was only a matter of time before one of them found an excuse to get some revenge on him for telling the truth”.
“Come on” I said “Lets go outside and see what those boys are up too. And I wonder were Sarah has gone?”
In the days that followed, the palace seemed to absorb us into its daily routine. The weather remained sunny and warm so much of our time was spent in the garden. Sarah appointed herself as Jacobi’s permanent assistant and followed him everywhere. “She is a very bright young lady Laura” he told me one day. “In another world she would make a wonderful Consiglieri”.
“Thank you Señor Jacobi. She is a wonderful daughter too although I fancy she will make a great teacher too having practiced so much on her two younger brother”.
“You may well be right there Laura” he said with a dutiful inclination of his head.
Although our time there was comfortable, Connie and I never lost sight of the fact that we were incarcerated there against our will and we still had no idea of where Marco or Clare were. Then things began to change rapidly.
A messenger had arrived early in the morning and all of a sudden the Palace was in uproar.
“What’s happening” I asked the young man who wa stationed outside our door.
“Pope’s dead” was all he said and bit deeply into a very crisp apple.
“The Holy Father?” I replied incredulously.
“The very same” he replied between crisp crunches of his fruit. “No doubt there’ll be plenty of others lining up to take over. Always is eh?” he finished as he popped the remaining piece of fruit into his mouth.
I closed the door and went to tell Connie.
“The Pope is dead and the Don Cesare is sick” I told her. Connie instinctively crossed herself and said a silent prayer.
“That’ll set the cat amongst the pigeons” she said. “I wonder what Papa will do now?”
She didn’t have to wait for long. The next morning an envoy arrived at the Palazzo. It was from Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, the exiled Duke of Urbino, and Connie’s uncle. He was coming back to reclaim his lands. Shortly after hearing this news there was a light tapping at the door which Sarah opened.
Her eyes lit up in delight and she said “Come in Senor” then over her shoulder to me shouted “It’s Señor Jacobi Mama” and ushered her wise mentor into our apartment.
“Good morning Señor” I began.
“Good for some but not for others I suspect Señora” he interrupted me. “I fear that I must leave in haste. No doubt you’ve heard the news about Señorita Connie’s uncle returning to Urbino?”
“So you knew about Connie all the time” I blurted in surprise.
“But certainly Señora. A teacher never forgets one of his star pupils”. Turning to place a hand on Sarah’s shoulder “Your daughter reminds me so much of her”. Jacobi looked very happy as he said those words, but his face soon clouded. “But I fear the Duke may not be as happy to see me here and I think it prudent to leave as soon as is convenient. Which will be this afternoon” he added as an afterthought.
“But where will you go” I asked.
Connie entered to room then asking “What’s happening”? I explained all that had happened in the last few hours and she say down to consider what might be the best plan for us. Jacobi coughed.
“With your leave ladies, but I must be gone. Adieu”.
“You can’t just let him leave Mama” said Sarah with pleading eyes. “Where will he go”.
“Get me some paper” ordered Connie and I did as she asked. She quickly scribbled a note and handed it to Jacobi. “You’re to go to Rome Señor” she ordered. “Give this to Brother Julian at Santa Maria Maggiore. Once he has read the contents, he will advise you what to do next. You will be safe with Julian”. Pausing she added with a slight colour to her cheek “He’s a good man”.
“Thank you Señorita Connie.” He reached out to hold her hand and quietly said “I have always trusted you.” then he turned and left.
“Where are those boys” I asked Sarah. “Go and find them and tell them to come here at once” Sarah recognised the tone in my voice and did as I wished immediately and without any comment. Turning to Connie I said “What do you think we should do now?”
“Pack” was all she had time to say before the thunderous sound of a hundred horses reached our ears from outside the wall of the Palazzo. She looked at me with a wan smile as she went to the door and said “I think I’d better go down stairs and meet Uncle don’t you?”
When the children returned they were already aware of the arrival of the real Duke of Urbino. “You should have seen all the horses and soldiers Mama” said Bini with his eyes as wide as saucers. “And they had HUGE spears too” added Rizo stretching his short arms as high above his head as he could.
“What’s happening Mama” said Sarah in her sensible voice. “And where has Connie gone?”
I explained everything to the children as best I could and then fussed over them as they gathered their things together. The boys were delighted to put their black capes on although even in the short time we’d been at the palazzo, they both appeared to have grown. “Look at you Bini” I said “Your Papa is going to be amazed at how big you’ve grown. You’ll soon be able to help him out in the forge”.
A troubled look clouded the young mans face “But what if I want to be a noble knight or an artist” he said “I’m not sure that I want to be a smith anymore”. I crouched down next to him and looked him in the eyes.
“Every job needs men with good hearts Bini” I said “Whether you’re a man who leads, a man who follows or a man who shoes your horse, we need those men to be good men. That’s all your Papa wants for you too. As long as you have a faithful heart then we’ll do whatever we can to support you in whatever trade you choose. But believe me, you will never meet the man who is the equal of your father even if you were to walk to the other side of the world” Bini looked at me and then my little son, my beautiful little boy threw his arms around my neck and burst into tears.
“I miss Papa” he sobbed into my neck. “I miss him so much”.
The sound of men walking down our corridor increased and then stopped outside of our door. It opened and a tall man walked in. He was followed by two guards who’s large frames almost obscured the small figure of Connie who brought up the rear. I dropped a knee in front of him and Sarah immediately copied my action. The boys just closed in tight against me.
“Senor Laura?” asked the Duke of Urbino.
“Yes my Lord” I replied “ and these are my children, Sarah, Bini and Rizo”
“Fine looking children eh” he said taking the chin of each one in his hand and studying them closely. “Father’s a blacksmith I hear?’
“Yes my Lord. I believe he an dmy other daughter are being held hostage elsewhere”.
“Hmm. Yes. That’s what my niece here has been telling me. Well, you’re not much use to me. Connie” he called over his shoulder. “What do you want me to do with these people?” Connie came forward and stood next to us.
“There is much work to be done in the city my Lord Uncle, for the sick and the suffering and I offer my humble services to you to help alleviate their distress. But before I do that, I ask that you permit me to accompany this badly misused family back to Rome to be united with their family. It may be that I can persuade Marco, Laura’s husband to return with me to Urbino as there is much he could do to help restore the city after the recent troubled times that it’s been through”.
“Always wanting to make the world a better place Connie. If only there were more soft hearted, good people like you about instead of the head headed, selfish idiots I have to deal with most of the time. Be off with you but please don’t take my best horses. They’re pretty tired after the gallop they’ve just had.” Taking his niece in his arms he said “You know? You always were my favourite” and he kissed her tenderly on her forehead.
“One more thing” Connie said as her Uncles eyes rolling up towards heaven.
“With a woman there’s always one more thing. Go on. What is it?”
“Money?” she said.
“Give her what she needs and no more” the Duke said. Spinning around to leave the room he said “and don’t loiter in Rome for too long or I’ll miss you too much”. Then he was gone.
Connie went to the door and shouted down the corridor after him “Thank you Uncle. I love you too” and a fading voice shouted back “Come back soon”.
Smithying is a patient business. When I was a young lad I suppose that I was like most young men and very impatient with the world. But working with iron changed all that. I remember the first time I tried to make a horse shoe with my own Papa. I put the iron in the fire, I pulled it out far too soon and banged on that iron until my arms ached, and all the time my Papa watched and never said one word. When my arm was so fatigued I could hardly raise the hammer, he quietly took it from me and put it on the edge of the forge. He took the bellows and blew air into the coals until they were a gleaming red. Then he took my piece of iron and put it in the hottest spot, and sat down in the sunshine.
“All it needs is a little patience” he said and put his head against the warmed wood of the wall and whistled softly to himself.
He knew his iron. He knew what patience was. And he knew how to use his straight when it was really needed. When he was ready, he plucked the glowing iron from the fires and placed it on the anvil.
“You try now son” he said and stood back to watch.
Even though my hand was still red and stinging from my earlier feeble attempts, this time the when the hammer hit, the softened metal sang and obeyed my commands. It was a lesson that I’ve never forgotten.
Most men can become very strong, but not many men know how to effectively use that power and very few very powerful men know the meaning of patience which is why they never achieve great power.
But as wonderful a teacher as my dear Papa was, it was my Laura who reveal the gift of love in me and that is what really changed my life. The day she walked into my life and said not one word to me, in my heart I listened to a story that has been told since ancient times of love, of beauty, of giving, of cherishing, of gentleness and of commitment. She changed my world by completing it so when those men arrived at dead of night and banged on the door and threatened our lives my physical power was of no avail, but our powerful love would endure all that came our way.
That thought was in my mind when the door on the carriage that was to take Clare and I away was slammed and sealed by the guards. My arm may have been her shelter, but it was Laura’s love that cemented our true strength.
“Where are they taking us” my precious girl asked.
“Nowhere that we can’t cope with” I replied as peacefully as I could. “We just need to be a little patient until things become clearer. If they’d meant to harm us, I think they’d have done it already, so there’s something else going on here, and we won’t know until we get to our destination, so why don’t we just try and get some rest eh?” And I closed my eyes and tried to remember the feeling in my little finger when Laura had last held onto it.
The dark gloom inside the carriage cleared as our eyes became accustomed to it. There was a lamp next to where the driver would sit and which sent shards lot light through the cracks by the door. We saw Mother Superior standing on the steps of the house her face a soft yellow glow in the lantern light and to me there was a look of suffering etched into it. Then there was a slight lick of a whip, a whisper to ‘Move on’ and we started to move. Mother superior remained in my mind like a frozen image as she went from view.
We tried to make ourselves as comfortable as we could and Clare nestled close into me in the cold of the night. Two blankets had been left for our use, which intrigued me, and I used one as a pillow and the other covered us both so that we were cosy and warm.
“Have you ever been on a long coach trip” Clare asked, obviously having no intention of going to sleep just yet.
“I went to Anzio once to do a job which was quite far enough for me. Clare had just been born and I really shouldn’t have left her and Laura behind. But a job was a job in those days and I couldn’t afford to turn it down” I answered. “It’s a beautiful spot Anzio” I continued. Then added cheekily “Do you think if we ask the driver he’ll take us there instead?” And Clare chuckled conspiratorially form out of her safe cocoon.
“Rosso and I went on a long carriage drive to Paris with VIlleprieux when he was very sick” she said. Clare had never once mentioned to Laura and I that Jacques Villeprieux was her real father. As if reading my thoughts she said “I only knew him for such a short time and I don’t think he ever knew that he was my Papa, which is very sad for him don’t you think?”
“He knew” I quietly replied. “Rosso told me that at the very end when he was with his friend, your Papa, that he told him that you were his daughter and that it had made him very happy. Rosso said that he went to his maker with that beautiful thought in his mind and great peace in his heart”
“Goodnight Papa” said Clare. “I think I’ll go to sleep now”. And with those words she nestled deeper into my chest and fell fast asleep.
When I thought back to those heart-wrenching times when Clare cringed at the sight of me when she first arrived: and now here she was knowing who her real father was and yet she had chosen me as her Papa, I was humbled by her unconditional love.
Whilst Clare slept softly on my chest I wondered how my beautiful Laura was going. I felt some relief that Sr Maria was with her to help her with the children. I knew she would cope with whatever came her way and that no-one or no-thing would daunt her. But the deep dark doubt that someone would harm her or the children refused to fully submit to my will until I hammered it shut behind an iron door in my mind.
I awoke to a sheet of white light flooding into the dark carriage.
“Alright” a voice said “you can get out and stretch your legs. Time to change horses and get some food.” And out-stretched arms reached up to help Clare as I handed her down to them.
“Where are we?” she said rub bin the sleep from her eyes.
“Not allowed to say Giovane. But if you go into that taverna you’ll find refreshments fit for a real Signora” he said in a civil manner.
I climbed down behind Clare and easing my cramped limbs looked around at where we had stopped. We were on the edge of some small hillside village where life had carried on despite Popes, Emperors and Caesars leading their armies up and down this track for a millennia. I’d guessed that we were taking a northerly route and said to the other guard “I haven’t been to Perugia before. What’s it like”. He was about to answer me when his friend shouted out, “Remember what I told you about talking to our guests?” And put his finger to his lips to demand silence from him.
I followed Clare into the taverna and sat down at the table which certainly had a welcoming spread on its sold wooden surface. The owner of the taverna was trying to shut the door to the kitchen where sounds of slaughter were coming. “Chickens” he succinctly said. “One of them didn’t want to die without a struggle” and gave a whimsical smile to me.
“I know how he feels” I replied and we both smiled at each other in a friendly manner. “What’s wrong with the door? Bad lock or bad hinge?” I asked.
“Both” he said. “Ive been meaning to get it fixed for months, but with one thing and another…” and he came over to us with some fresh baked bread, some fruit and some wine.
“Mind if I take a look at it?” I said to him. “I know a bit about those sorts of things”.
“Well, if you don’t mind my friend, it would be a great mercy to me and a great relief to my wife. She hates the smell of cooking to linger here in the dining room and spoil our guests appetites. But eat your fill first and then have a look after that.” So Clare and I broke our fast and whilst she was finishing her meal, I checked the lock and the hinge. They were simple problems which I was able to help him with and it also allowed me to see who was on the other side of the door.
The kitchen was a hive of activity with the tavern keepers wife busily preparing the food for the day. She was short, square and stocky as are many good lady’s in this country of ours. And like all good Italian women, she loved to talk. “Nice to meet at least one handy man in this house” she said as she bustled around the kitchen. “Aldo said he’d fix that door last year” she said and nodded toward the public area where Aldo was within hearing distance, and then threw her hands in the air in mock despair! “It’s not often we get such fine visitors as you so early in the day” she went on “you must have left in the dead of night from Rome” and gave me a knowing glance whilst she pummelled some pasta dough. “Your messenger came through yesterday morning on his way to Perugia and said to expect you. Are you her body-guard” she asked with a quizzical eyebrow raised high.
“Less chat in the kitchen my love. The gentleman don’t need to have his meal spoilt by your tittle tattle. He’s kindly offered to fix our latch, so let him be in peace”. At which she rolled her eyes towards heaven and stuck her tongue out in his direction.
“I’d better finish doing what Im doing and then get back to my little girl” I said. It was a simple thing to fix the lock and make it move freely on it’s hinges, . Then I thanked the Señora for her kindness and her wonderful food and left.
“I hope those town-folk in Perugia can produce as good a meal as you’ve eaten this morning. But knowing them, I doubt they will” she shouted after me. Our first guard shook his head in disbelief whilst the other sported a satisfied grin on his face.
The smile was swiftly removed from his face however as a sudden swirl of wind appeared out of nowhere and whipped the canvas at the back of the carriage, the leather fastener coming loose and striking the man across his cheek with a stinging ‘thwack’. At this, his companion gave a smug shrug and said “Make sure you fasten it properly this time, and went to climb up front and take the reins.
“That hurt” his friend said with real upset in his voice and rubbing the red weal now rapidly appearing on his cheek.
“Here, let me help you” I suggested.
“Thanks friend” he replied and we went to secure the rear cover in the now still air.
“Well what have we here” he said, forgetting for an instant the discomfort of his face, and we both looked into the luggage area to see a dust covered, half starved little urchin who was fast asleep. “Well I’ll be …” and as his mind struggled with astonishment, he was interrupted by his leader who shouted from his elevated position “What’s going on back there?”
“It’s just a little kid stowed away in the luggage area” I shouted back to him. “He only comes up to your knees so I don’t think he’ll cause you any troubles” And at this moment, the little boy - for so he was - woke up, and the whites of his eyes were heightened by the grime on his face and the black rings encircling those sunken features.
“Who are you and where am I?” he asked in fright whilst receding into a corner like a cornered little beast.
“It’s OK my little stowaway” I said to try and reassure him “I’m Marco” and the guard with me chimed in with “And I’m Antonio but everyone calls me Toni”, and he looked at me with the most benignant expression.
“And I’m Clare” said a head that had popped up between the two of us.
“And if you don’t clear of out of there before I’ve got my belt off” shouted the angry leader “then I’ll give you a thrashing that you won’t forget for a long long time”.
I turned and stood in front of that ignorant fool and quietly suggested to him that such an action was not going to happen unless he wished to move me out of the way first. “You see” I said calmly looking at his stubbly face “You’ve taken my wife from me, and you’ve taken my precious children away from me and now you threaten this small boy with violence. I am normally a very peaceful man, but I too have my limits. But if you lay one finger on that boy, I promise you that I will break every finger on both your hands so that whenever you try to do up your belt in the future, you will remember what a stupid fool you really are”. And I just looked into those eyes of his and saw the little bully behind them.
He hesitated for a few moments before saying “If he’s not out of there in five minutes, he stays there till we get to where we’re going and then see what happens to him”. And pretending to give a fierce snarl, turned on his heel and went back to the reins.
Toni reached in and lifted him out “What’s your name little friend” he asked as if they’d just met in the Piazza.
“Coppino” said the little lad in a dry husky voice.
“Let’s take him into the taverna” I suggested “I’m sure the Señora will be kind to him if we ask her nicely”. And so with Toni in front and Clare and I following, we went back inside and called for Señora.
“Mama mia” she said when she see the little mite in such an exhausted condition “Bring him into the kitchen where it’s warmer and we can get some food and drink into him”. We followed her and Toni set his light load down on a bench saying “you be good now and do as this kind lady tells you”. And leaning down whispered into his ear “If you’re still here when I come back down this way, I’ll give you a lift back to Rome if you like” and gave Coppino a conspiratorial wink to seal the deal. Then looking around with some embarrassment added “I‘ve got lots of little brothers and sisters at home, and the kid reminds me of one of them. Still, I’d best get back to the coach before Himself goes completely off his tree at me”. And with that he left!
Immediately Coppino said “Marco. You know Pietro?” Hearing that dear man’s name came as a complete surprise and yet reminded me of a world that I’d only left a few days ago but which now seemed like a lifetime away.
“Did you say Pietro? Of course I know him, but how do you know him” I asked in complete confusion.
“Tush tush” Señora butted int “he can answer questions once he’s got some nourishment into him, and the look she gave me reminded me of why men think they run the world, but women run our lives!
“I’ll help him” said Clare and the two children retreated to a corner near the fire whilst Señora bustled around preparing some food and drink for Coppino, and I stood guard by the door to intercept any disturbance.
Just as the boy was eating his food, there was shouting from outside the taverna. “If you don’t come out here now, then we’ll come in with swords drawn and that means someone is bound to get hurst if you get my drift”. It was the voice of our guard who had rediscovered his power and sounded like he really meant to use it.
“Well go on then” said Señora, “I don’t want my home smashed up by those two ignorant brutes. I’ll look after this little lad as if he were my own bambino”. And ruffling Coppinos unruly hair - much to his great annoyance - she shoo-ed the two of us out of the kitchen.
“It’s alright Papa, Coppino and I had a good talk whilst he was eating. I’ll tell you all the news when we’re in the coach”.
Toni shrugged his shoulders as we exited the building but his superior was still sulking after I forced him to back down and harried the two of us as we climbed into the coach and made a big fuss about making sure the doors we securely locked.
The carriage danced forward with a loud crack from the whip of the guard and we continued our journey to Perugia. “I think we’re going to Ferrara” said Clare.
“Ferrara?” I replied “why would we be going to Ferrara?” There was a delicious look of intrigue in Clare’s eyes that made me smile and say “OK, I promise not to say anything until you’ve finished”.
“Well” she bagan with breathless anticipation.
“Unless that is” I interjected with impish humour “I have a question to ask”.
“Papa, will you please let me speak” she said. Then adjusting her dress, she sat into the corner so that she could talk directly to me and I must admit to feeling like a little boy being given a lesson. But in my heart I was very proud of the confidence of this young lady.
“Coppino’s friend, he’s called the Bishop by the way but he’s much younger than I am” she added with a certain superior look in her eye. “Well he’s a friend of Pietro and he’s the one who’s been helping him to find out what happened to us. They’ve also been talking to Brother Julian and the Dom too, and they’ve been frantically searching all over Rome for us. Luckily the Bishop was near our house when they kidnapped us, and it was Coppino and his sister Lola who were sleeping in a doorway nearby who the Bishop woke and got to follow the cart to the convent. Then Brother Julian went up there on some sort of pretence and got into the convent and met with that frosty Reverend Mother”. At which point Clare paused to a give a fair imitation of Mother giving one of her haughty, frosty looks. “This must have put the fear of God into her. And I think it was then that she suspected that Sr Maria was part of the plot against her and that’s why she was bundled in with us. But the really interesting news is that the guards who first captured us are in the service of Cesare Borgia”. At which she folded her arms across her chest in triumph and sat staring at me with a look which said ‘You do understand the implications of that statement don’t you?’
I am a blacksmith and the music of hammer on metal is a steady slow beat, but it’s gets results with persistence and accuracy. Perhaps that’s why a woman’s mind is a bit of a mystery to me - apart from my beloved Laura that is. She knows my pace and it seems to suit us. But she sees and understands things that are a riddle to a simple mind like mine. She calls it female intuition, and even just the act of saying it I can see her face and the small smile that is creeping around her lips as she says those words. “Where have they taken her?” I said to myself staring at my impotent, calloused hands. But I must have said it aloud because Clare continued her conclusions of her conversation with Coppino.
“Remember when Rosso and I went to Paris looking for news of my parents?” she said in her lively bright manner.
“Of course I do. And do you remember the look on my face when you came home again?”. And she threw her arms around my neck and said from the comfort of the collar of my coat “Of course I do Papa. Of course I do”.
“Well dear Rosso was so kind to me and he tried to protect me from all sorts of things, but as Mother in Milan said, ‘Men aren’t very good at hiding the truth from us women’. So of course I found out that VIlleprieux was my other Papa, but he abandoned me and never even bothered to find out where I was. Not like you Papa - he was nothing like you”. And again she nestled into me and the power of love that had grown between her and the rest of the family breathed a freshness into that darkened, bouncing coach. “Did I tell you that I met his uncle to, my great uncle?” I nodded my head. I knew the whole story and it was safely stored in my heart. “I know he told Rosso that he must never ask after my mother because that would put us all in danger. But when he talked with me he told me that he’d known my Mama when she was the same age as me, and that he could see which side of the family I took after. He also said that she was a good woman who was in a very difficult position and that she had been sorely used by her father and her brother. But perhaps one day things might improve and then, and only then, she might send for me”.
By this time Clare was sitting on the seat next to me holding both my hands and staring earnestly into my eyes. “If I’m right Papa, then we’re going to Maman’s house and her brother is holding Laura Sara and the boys at his Castel in the Marche.”
I stared into those perfect, innocent yet intelligent eyes and let the clang clang clang of my slow wits reach the only possible conclusion. “So that means, the Holy Father is your Nonno. Now I understand why Cardinal VIlleprieux said it would be very dangerous to know that”.
In the silence of our minds ideas flashed in and out of our consciousness, whilst outside the sound of the metalled wheels striking flint from the road seemed an eternity away.
Ever since we had been taken hostage - for there was now no doubt in my mind that that was what we were, hostages - I had thought of escape. It would have been so simple to overpower those two guards and disappear into the countryside. But then what would become of Laura and the children? And now I knew that they were in the hands of Cesare Borgia, a man with a cruel reputation, the dangers we faced seemed small compared to what might happen should Clare and I escape. Our only hope lay in the fact that Clare’s Mama, Lucrezia Borgia, appeared to have sent for her. The Pope’s daughter was often talked about in the market place and not all of it was to her advantage. But some said that with this last marriage and her removal from Rome, that she had become a model Duchess in Ferrara, and if she had any of the traits of her daughter, then perhaps there was hope for us all.
The journey continued for several days as we headed north and then east across the hills to Ferrara. Toni was a simple man who lived in fear of his fellow guard, but I could see that he was trying to be kind to us and so we returned the compliment. When his companion jeered at his slowness of wit we made sure to always thank him for his small kindnesses to us even though they sometimes led to a cuff around his ears. They were approaching a large city and Clare asked Toni if this was where they are going to. “No little lady, but we’re not far away now. That’s Bologna. We’ll stop there tonight and get to where we’re going tomorrow.”
“Stop your jabbering and tighten those girths you lazy good-for-nothing” his companion shouted and flicked his whip at him. The tip of the whip was a bit too close for poor Toni and a deep red slash opened up on his face. I stepped down from the carriage and went to the lads aid. “Get back inside” roared the wild man from his high perch “Or I’ll give you a whipping you’ll never forget”.
I may look slow. I make move slowly, and I may even think slowly but when you’re daily job is dealing with flesh burning heat, sharp flakes of fiery metal and the sudden jerk of a terrified beast as it’s being shoe-ed, then we blacksmiths know when to move quickly and have very fast reflexes indeed.
So I stayed firmly in place with my hand on Toni’s shoulder and dared his companion to strike me. He raised his long leather whip, gleaming and shredded with over use on innocent flesh, and watched it arc with geometric beauty toward me. I smiled, remembering the time’s we lads had played games in the stables where we’d learned our craft and had often played “will or the whip” with each other.
At the last moment I shifted my weight and grabbed that vicious leather lariat and pulled hard. The guard, who was totally un-prepared fro such a movement, suddenly found himself in mid air and heading back to earth with nothing to hold onto. Winded from the fall he lay there gasping for air whilst I cared for Toni’s wound. By the time the guard had found his feet again, I was back inside the coach with my arm around Clare looking out the window, which I had decided we should have open to celebrate the final instalment of our journey.
“Thanks Master” said Toni as he walked past the window. “I don’t think he’ll try that again, do you?” and winked and winced at the same time.
The Castello Estense loomed out of the grey curtain of mist that covered the plains surrounding Ferrara. Like a giant out of some fairy tale it towered over themin the dripping silence. As they passed through the gates and into the town, familiar sounds met their ears. Sounds of carts moving over cobbled stones: shouts from vendors at the stalls in the small piazzas along their route, but I heard a sound that made me put my head out of the window and look about for its source.
“Civilization at last” I said triumphantly to Clare “There’s a smithy back there” I explained, with a happy feeling in my heart. And she looked at me for a second and smiled a broad smile too. The town was alive with workers and new buildings seemed to be going up everywhere. The Catherdral Church of Santa Maria soared into the misty heavens whilst its great doors suggested a darken, mysterious cavern inside. We were driven straight to the Castello Estense with all it’s imposing fortifications. “There’s a deal of iron work gone into that building” I said over my shoulder to Clare who’s chin was now resting on my shoulder as she too peered out of the window with increasing delight.
“I wonder where they’ll take us Papa? I hope it’s not some dreadful dungeon”. And although she only said it in mirth, my heart froze a little at the thought of it. But we needn’t have worried. We stopped at a side door hidden halfway down one side of the Castello and ushered respectfully in through it, up some stairs and along a long, wide corridor festooned with paintings I’d never seen the like of before. Finally we stopped before an ornate door which was opened for us and we entered into a very comfortable apartment.
“Someone will be here to see you soon” said the servant. the door closed, but there was no sound of any lock turning. Being inquisitive, I tried the handle and the door opened smoothly.
“May I be of service” said a man who was seated next to the door.
“No. It’s OK. I was just checking” and smilingly retreated and closed the door again.
Meanwhile Clare had begun a tour of inspection and had found a bedroom where she had begun to bounce on the very large bed.
“Look at me Papa. have you ever seen such a huge bed in your whole life? And the sheets are made of silk and have you seen the gilt around all the mirrors?”
“It certainly is nothing like home” I replied “but for all it’s glitz, it’s still our prison and we shouldn’t forget that”
“I know Papa, and I haven’t forgotten Mama or Clare, but just imagine what Rizo and Bini would do in a place like this” and her eyes fairly sparkled with mischief!
“Lets have a good look around and see what we can find. You start in here and I’ll check out the other rooms” I said conspiratorially. And we parted on our separate voyages of discovery.
It didn’t take me long to tire of all the glitz and excess of that pampered apartment. Mirrors, silks, even I think ivory abounded: but nothing of real use to my eye anyway.
A knock on the door disturbed us.
“Come in” I called out and a young lady entered, bent her knee slightly and murmured quietly “Follow me please”, then waited for us to precede her out the door. We followed her through the passage, up a staircase that was more used to the steps of servants than lordly people. There she paused by a low door at which she produced a heavy iron key and turned the lock. The open door revealed the rouge reverse of a heavy curtain which she pulled to one side.
Come in and wait here” she said in that soft voice of hers and disappeared throughout he far door of this comfortable ante-chamber.
“Do you think it’s my other Mama?” whispered Clare to me.
“I don’t know” I honestly replied “I only wish Laura was here to shine a light on all of this mystery” looking down into her bright reassuring eyes.
“I must apologise for all the mystery. But I’m glad to see that you’ve arrived safe and sound”. The words were spoken by the lady who had silently appeared through that far door. At the sight of her all my thoughts were frozen by what was before my eyes.
She wasn’t the most beautiful woman I have ever seen: my Laura is that woman. But she was very beautiful and despite her soft oval eyes that glittered with life, it was as if there was some animal power deeply hidden inside her that she would only reveal when most needed. She induced great wonder in the observer, and yet there was just the faintest hint of fear that came with the wonder too. And such a mixture can be a very intoxicating mixture for any man.
Lucrezia D’Este, for that was the name she gave to us had golden hair and grey eyes with large black pupils that seemed to dilate when she looked at me. I felt my whole body shiver. But then she released me from her silent hold and turned to look at Clare.
“What do they call you child” she asked gently.
“Clare Signora” she replied whilst curtseying politely and reaching up to hold my hand at the same time.
“And this is your Papa?” she said with just the faintest of pauses before the word ‘Papa’.
Do you know who I am?” continued the Duchess.
“No Signora” said Clare whose hand I felt was beaching increasingly moist in mine.
“We will get to know each other well soon” she said coming forward to take Clare’s other hand “but first I must have a word with your Papa”. And with a slight movement of her head she indicated to me the door she had entered through. “Just wait here a minute my dear, I won’t keep your Papa very long” and looking at me with those grey fun-filled eyes added, “Lead on Senor”.
The apartment on the other side of that little door was sumptuous. So many things in that room dazzled my eyes leaving me bereft of any comprehension of what I was looking at.
“Its very pretty isn’t it?” the lady said as she came and stood close beside me. For my part I wasn’t aware of one thing in the room, all I was conscious of was the rustle of her silk dress which reminded me of the soft swirl of leaves in springtime: and of the musty, feminine scent that came from her body which was now almost pressing against mine. She came an stood right in front of me and gazed at me with those misty, beautiful grey eyes of hers and said “Do you find me attractive too Señor?” And as she said this she reached out and lightly touched my cheek and every muscle in my body responded to the lightness of her touch. She must have read the reaction in my face because she moved closer until I could feel her breasts touch my chest. I found myself intoxicated at the intimacy of her body as she slowly reached her hand behind my neck and slowly arched her head up towards me.
Her little finger dug into my flesh as she pulled my head towards her own and it was that touch that brought me back to reality and saved me from a treacherous and foolish fantasy.
The last time I had felt the touch of a little finger against my flesh had been when Laura and I were parted from one another.
The lady immediately sensed the change in me and paused. “What is it? Are you afraid of being seduced by me Señor” and still a flickering fire lit up those grey eyes.
“Yes and no Milady” I smiled back at her. “I am honoured by your attentions, Forgive my impertinence, but I am just a humble blacksmith with a wife and four children whom I love and care for. I am sure that there are many men who are far more worthy of your attentions than I”. And lifting my arms up to release her grip from my neck, gently let them down until we were just two humans holding hands and facing each other, as normal people so often do.
As I looked at her face through clearer eyes, I now saw faint lines around her own as once again her look changed ever so slightly to reveal a glimpse of what I thought might even be fear. But it disappeared in a flash and now she looked at me questioningly. “Your wife is a very lucky woman Señor blacksmith. Very few men would refuse the attentions of Lucrezia D’Este if they knew what was good for them”. But there was no malice in her voice which surprised me. “So Señor blacksmith, tell me what name do they call you when you are a blacksmith and not the almost lover of Lucrezia D’Este?” By now her eyes were giddy with fun as she turned her back and retired to a seat in the mullioned window. “Come” she airily ordered. “Come and sit by me. We have some things we must discuss and we mustn’t keep the girl waiting too long because these children have suspicious minds. I know, because I am a parent too”. And she tapped my on the thigh in such a playful manner that even I was forced to smile.
“My name is Marco and my wife is Laura and we have been blessed with three wonderful children.” I looked at her for a brief moment to consider whether I should trust this enigmatic lady, but inside I felt that she was worthy of my trust. “And of course you would know that Clare has been been brought up as our daughter ever since she was found abandoned in the local Piazza”.
“Ah yes” she said quietly “Brother Rosso. Tell me, what has happened to Brother Rosso? He seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth”.
“You are well informed Milady” I replied with quiet surprise.
“When you have lived the sort of life that I have had to live, then all information is precious: but it’s weapon that can cut both ways too. Be warned Marco, if I know about Rosso then others will surely know too”. And looking down at her hands now formally clasped together in her lap she went on “And no doubt on your journey here you’ve given thought as to why I - shall I say - summoned you”?
“I’m just a simple blacksmith whose duty it is to love and protect my family and I will do everything and anything to make sure that they all stay safe. Understanding the mind of a Lady whom I’ve never met is a gift I have yet to master”. I said these words quietly and firmly, and without any rancour towards her.
“Wisely said Marco” she replied. By now we were feeling our way towards each other in hoped-for friendship and neither power nor passion would help us here.
“You are a good man and Laura is very blessed to have you for her husband. But for me, this is my fourth marriage and still I have to find the type of love you share. There was a man once, a long time ago …” and silence filled the room. She shook her head as if emptying out some cluttered memories and said “We will talk more later, but for now I want the two of you to feel very welcome here. My lord the Duke is away at the moment but no doubt he will already know of your presence and you will want to meet you when he returns. Alphonso is, how shall I say, a little formidable on first meetings him, but if he likes you then you will have no better protector in the whole of Italy. In the meantime make yourself as comfortable as you wish and perhaps you and Clare will join me this evening for a meal”.
“We will be honoured Milady. But there is one question that I must ask before I leave: where is the rest of my family?”
“They are safe for the present” she replied with well chosen words. “Apparently my brother Cesare decided that he needed what he calls insurance against any unforeseen alliances that could affect his … er, inheritance.” She looked at me as she said that and I recognised the look of a kindred soul who was trapped by circumstances. Her expression changed again and she said, dare I say with great honesty, “perhaps in a different time in a different age, it would have been good to know Marco the blacksmith. Before he was married of course” she added and that impish twinkle had returned to those beguiling grey eyes.
“Perhaps it would Milady” I replied “Perhaps it would”. And I kissed the tips of her proffered fingers as she held the door open for me to re-join Clare.
The sound of the latch being locked behind me was the signal for Clare to unleash a torrent of questions at me. “Whoa, my precious one. One at a time and anyway, you’ll be able to ask as many questions as you like this evening because we’re going to dine with the lady of the house”. Clare’s eyes opened wide and her excitement was tangible. She let out a small ‘whoop’ and clapped her hands as she spun around. Then she hurled herself upon me saying “Oh Papa, you are the best and bravest of all Papas in the whole world. How luck are we”.
“Come on” I said taking her by the hand and leading her back towards where our room was, “we have the rest of the day to explore. But remember Clare, this is a gilded prison and Laura and the family are locked in another such as this but a long long way away. We may appear to be free to come and go as we wish, but we will be watched, and things could change in an instant.”
“But what’s she like and what did the lady say about me” she asked with all the enthusiasm of youth.
“I can honestly say that I’ve never met a woman like her before in my life. In fact it was like meeting several different, intriguing women all wrapped into one in the space of five minutes. I think it’ll take me some time to work out which one she really is. But leaving all that aside, I think she’s a good hearted woman who wants to do best by those she loves.” I stopped halfway along the corridor leading to our room and said to Clare “and I think she really wants to know who you are. And once she’s found that out, she’s going to love you just as much as Laura and I do”.
“Thank you Papa. You’re the best Papa in the whole world!” And we hugged each other close.
For a man who’s always been used to eating with their family around our own kitchen table, I’d expected that eating with the Duchessa would be a grand affair with servants’ pages and general hangers-on. For the occasion we’d tidied ourselves up as well as we could for the Duchessa and I’d helped Clare brush her hair as best I could having watched Laura doing it several times in the past. When she’d placed a fine silk ribbon in it I thought she looked like a Princess and proudly told her so.
“For a blacksmith Papa, you coiffe my hair beautifully” she said with a lovely smile. “And you definitely the most handsome blacksmith I know too” and taking my hand we followed the servant girl to our repast.
The room where we ate was small and intimate and was in the same wing as the rooms where we’d met the Duchessa earlier. She hadn’t arrived as yet and so we were left waiting my the open window that let in the fresh eddies of air from a gently darkening evening sky. Birds sand and swooped around the turrets as they searched for their muddied nest tucked high amongst the ramparts.
“It looks so beautiful from up here doesn’t it” I said to Clare without daring to take my eyes off such a beautiful vista.
“The voice of a poet and the hands of an ironworker. What an enigma you are Master Blacksmith. Or may I call you Marco now?”. She’d silently appeared in the room and had been observing the scene before her. From the serene smile on her face it appeared that she liked what she’d seen.
“Marco it is, Duchessa” I replied moving to bow in obeisance.
“Please: no Marco. There’s no need to be formal when we’re alone, please just call me Lucrezia.” And turning to Clare she reached out both hands and said “Welcome Clare. You cannot believe how long I have waited for this moment. Come, sit at table with me and we can eat and talk at the same time. There is so much I want to hear about you and perhaps you might have a few questions for me too” And that impish twinkled reappeared in her eye.
“Marco, you sit on my right and Clare sit here next to me on my left”.
And with that we sat down like a little family at a normal meal time. Except that this table was covered in an embroidered cloth of rare fineness, the plates were of silver and the glass the best that Murano could produce! Lucrezia was dazzling in her shimmering dark silk dress that reflected some of the grey from her eyes. It was high necked and her jewellery was remarkable for its absence. Her long golden hair was tied back almost severely behind her head, but her face radiated happiness and hope.
“Firstly my little Clare I have to ask your Papa for his forgiveness for the trials I put him through earlier”. Clare looked at me questioningly as my face reddened to match the sinking sun in the velvet blue sky. “But don’t worry, your Papa is a rare man and worthy of the name Papa” and she unconsciously reached out and gently placed her hand on mine for a fleeting second.
“And you Duchessa are a formidable woman and worthy of every man’s respect” I said.
“A good answer Marco. But please call me Lucrezia. I think entered a place where friendship lives and the rules of trust and honesty order the language we use.” A servant appeared with simple food of cheese, olives, tomatoes, fresh bread and oil. “I have good spring water if you like or would you prefer that wine? I’m told that it’s very good” she said to us both.
“Water will suffice for us both thank you” I replied. When the servant had left them alone Lucrezia asked whether I would say the blessing over the food.
“Mama usually says it at home” said Clare “because Papa says the same prayer every time” and she gave me a knowing wink across the table. We all laughed at that and Lucrezia suggested that perhaps Clare might like to say the blessing instead.
“Father” she began “thank you for this food that you have provided for us to share and eat. Thank you for Papa and Mama and all the family. Please keep them safe wherever they are and do tell the boys to behave. Thank you for” and here she paused, opened one eye and said up to Lucrezia in an aside “What shall I call you?”
In that pause a thousand things would have flown through Lucrezia’s mind but she replied with tranquility “Perhaps you should call me your God mother”
And closing her eyes once again Clare finished her prayer with the two of us looking in with humbled hearts.
Food was passed from one to the other and the conversation that started with fits and starts slowly gained a life of its own and soon there were tears, laughter and moments of dense silence where only friends can pause in peace.
Our evening of happy sharing was shattered by loud noises outside of the door and by it being flung open to reveal a travel worn man with his dark hair, his dark eyebrows and his dark beard grimed grey by the dust of the road.
“So here you are my doting Duchessa” he roared across the small room. “Plotting something nice for your husbands return eh?” Lucrezia never batted though wonderful grey eyes of hers.
“You’re home early my Lord. We weren’t expecting you until tomorrow. Would you like a drink of wine to clear your throat? All that dust makes it sound so very grumpy”.
“Of course I’m grumpy” he replied with vigour as he reached out for the proffered silver cup. “It’s your bloody brother again. Up to his old tricks and trying to wriggle out of the snake pit he’s created for himself. And who the hell is this” he said daring the cup to the very dregs in one swift swallow.
“This is Clare” she said quietly, trying to calm her very agitated spouse. “She’s my God daughter and she’s here for a visit with her father Marco”. At the mention of my name I stood up and bowed my head toward the Duke.
“Never seen him before in my life and what with your bloody brother..”
“Please, my Lord” Lucrezia begged him “Please. Not in front of the child”
“I’ll say whatever I want, wherever I want in MY bloody Palace” he roared back at her. “And seeing as your bloody brother has stirred up such a shit storm, it seems strange to me that these so called visitors arrive at such an unusual time” and he eyed me with such a villainous look that I averted my gaze. “Look at him” he roared again “Bloody shifty eyes too. Take him down to visit my brothers” he said with a leering look that didn’t speak too much of brotherly love.
Lucrezia stood up straight away, her chair making a discordant scratch on the wooden floor. “He’s my guest, my Lord” she said with regal power ringing in her voice.
“I know my dear” her slightly subdued spouse responded “Once I am certain of his story, then I will welcome him as a ..” and here he paused before adding with a smile “as your God daughter. In the meantime he can spend time with the rest of the family eh?” And clicking his fingers for the guard said “Take him away”.
I was escorted from the room leaving the Duchessa white with rage and her husband flopping down into a chair calling for another wine.
We marched along corridors, down narrow stairs and as we descended further, windows disappeared and a cloying dampness began to seep into the air we breathed.
“The Duke’s brothers don’t appear to have a room with a view” I asked of the guards who frog-marched me forward. But my wit was met with their silence.
A flickering oil lamp sent a sulphurous light around the small room we finally arrived at. Straw was on the floor and a low oak table blackened from years of abuse stood in the middle. Behind it sat a squat man with pale skin and close set eyes. His oily black hair was held in place by an even oilier black bandanna, yet there was a familiarity in his expression that tugged on a memory mislaid somewhere in my mind.
He merely grunted once his eyes had flicked over me and indicated to the guards that they should follow him. He opened a dismal low door behind him and lifted the torch from its rusting iron ring. Small gobs of flaming fuel spat their light around him, but he ignored them all. Stopping outside a heavy wooden door, pinioned with great iron nails, he reached for the keys hung from his thick leather belt. Squinting in the light to check he had the correct one he yelled through the door “Stand away” and proceeded to unlock the rusted ironwork that sealed this living tomb. Hinges squealed at the insult of being woken form their ancient slumber and reluctantly let the heavy door swing open. An awful smell assaulted my senses and I was roughly shoved through the opening into this claustrophobic hell.
Strangely enough, my eyes soon accustomed to the gloom of the cell. I looked up to see high above my head a narrow opening. This led up through the massively thick walls to a higher iron grill that bled a thin moonlit sky into the dismal dungeon.
“Welcome to our hell stranger” a mocking voice said out of the darkness. “Did my beloved brother send you here to keep us company or to further your education?” And he laughed at me. It was an icy laugh that sent a colder shiver through me than the one produced by the air in that awful place.