As my vision pierced the gloom of the recess where he sat. I saw him raise his fists and shake the shackles that secured him. “Pretty aren’t they?” And his thin manic laugh echoed off the stone walls once more. “My dear brother thought it best to restrain the body. But as you have discerned, my mind and my tongue remain my own. Well, for the present at least. As for him,” and pointing at a pile of rags on a bench in the other corner “My esteemed servant needs no restraining. In fact I think he may even be dead already. At least he’ll be warm where he’s gone” Once more his laugh grated my agitated mind. “And he’ll deserve every flame that Hades can serve up to him no doubt. But I will say that it’s very hard to find loyalty in a servant these days” And at that he spat on the floor in my direction.
I walked over towards the bench to see if indeed there was still any spark of life in the poor soul. I reached down and touched what I presumed was his shoulder and he instantly sat up showing me his skeletal face with it’s shrunken orbits staring wildly out at me. Not a word did he utter. Just that terrified look as if he’d looked into Hell already and seen his doom. Then he flopped back down like a phantom and let out a long lingering sigh.
“Forget him. He’s just worthless fodder for the worms. What’s your name?” he asked.
Thinking it a harmless thing to do I replied “Marco. And yours?”
“Giulio” he said as if enjoying the sound of his name being spoken. “Giulio” he repeated. “My dear brother was threatened by my backside” and he laughed again. “Don’t you get it? He was afraid my backside would sit on his Ducal throne so he decided to give me my very own kingdom down here with rats for subjects. I hope you don’t mind rats” he asked “because they’re very busy in here when it gets dark”. And he made scratching sounds with his long nails on the wall next to him. “And they have very sharp teeth too”. And again that piercing laugh echoed of the walls of his mad realm.
I truly forget how many days I was in that forgotten place. There was never any real daylight: just enlightened gloom and sightless blackness. The only defining difference was the sound of the rats scurrying around for any scraps of food that might have fallen from our plates where they were thrust under the doors of our living tomb.
I hadn’t seen the gaoler since he’d locked us away, just the sound of his feet scuffing along the flagstones outside and the jangle of the keys on his belt. Then one day the door opened and he went over to Giulio. He unlocked his chains from the wall, merely observing that there had been too much ’Chat” recently and that the instructions were for us to be separated.”But we were having so much fun” mocked Giulio, “but you’re right. This idiot was completely boring. Not even the rats enjoyed his company” and with a parting spit he left like a big child in chains. And I can thankfully say that I never saw or heard of him again.
Shortly after the gaoler returned. He went over to where Giulio’s servant lay and gave him a shove with his boot. “Been dead long” he asked in a bored fashion.
“I didn’t know that he was dead” I honestly replied. “But I’m certain he hasn’t eaten anything for maybe a week”.
“Get you clothes off” the gaoler said.
“What” I answered in uncomprehendingly.
He walked over to me to where I could see his face and he repeated “Get your clothes off. We ain’t got much time”. And as he spoke that sense of recognition returned to me.
“What’s going on?” I asked as I began to unbutton my tunic. The gaoler meanwhile was struggling to remove the dead servants clothing too.
“Antonio’s mi brother. Told me all about you. The lady..” and here he indicated with a jerk of his thumb pointing upwards “she says to get you outa here pronto. So get your clothes off”.
The dawn of understanding grew in the horizon of my consciousness and I increased the speed of my undress.
“You swap places with ’im. They takes ya to the cemetery and bury you. Only Toni will be there to help you escape. Understand?” And he released each piece of information like a the opening of a prison door.
“But what if Toni doesn’t get there in time” I said whilst pulling a foul smelling shirt over my head. The gaoler shrugged his shoulders and began to dress the body in my tunic.
“Not my problem” he replied philosophically. “’urry up, they’ll be ’ere to collect you soon”. And even as he said the words, footsteps could be heard coming down the stone steps.
“Quick, ‘elp me drag this bag o’ bones over there an’ we’ll ’ide it under ’is lordship’s bench in the corner”. The poor servants remains were as light as a feather and the job swiftly completed. I just had time to lie down in the recently vacated spot and try to tame my breathing.
“Did yer bring the sack with yer?” enquired my friend the gaoler.
A gruff voice grunted an answer “I ’opes as it’s big enough” the voice said “’e looks pretty big for a ’alf starved beggar”.
“That’s ’cause I take such good care of mi prisoners” the gaoler responded which was met with leering laughter.
A musty sack was pulled down over my head and secured with rope below my feet.
“Probably best to drag ’im till we gets to the stairs then we’ll have to lump ’im up ’em between us” said the man with the gruff voice, and they rolled me onto the floor and it was all I could do not to cry out as my head hit those terrible, fractured flagstones. The journey up and out of the dungeon and onto the cart took lumps of flesh out of my legs and arms whilst my head throbbed at eh repeated insults it suffered.
I was left in the cart for some time. Where it was located I had no idea and so I had to remain as still as possible even though my limbs screamed at me to move. For all I knew I was in a courtyard surrounded by guards, so stillness was my only shield. Eventually after much low chatter with unseen faces, the cart lurched forward and we proceeded to the cemetery. Once there I was once again unceremoniously dumped on the ground, but this time the fall was onto softer soil which had the smell of being freshly turned. I was lying by my own grave, but there was no sound of Toni and panic began to rise in my heart.
The sound of shovelling started next to me and the sound of clay falling on clay whispered of imminent death to me. Rills of earth tumbled back into a black, unseen depth and made the hairs on my neck rise and a light sweat break out on my brow.
“Looks deep enough to me” said a previously unheard voice. “Yers don’t want to bury ’im standing up do yers?” There was a scrambling of limbs and the sound of heavy breathing as the man climbed out of my grave.
“OK” he said “give ’im the ’eave ’o” and with the bottom of his foot the greave-diggers assistant pushed me into a living nightmare. ‘Where is Toni’ my brain screamed to me, ‘why hasn’t he arrived by now’ and despite myself I began to move just a little bit as the first shovelful of worm-laden clay landed on my covered head.
“Come on” said the grave-digger “why don’t hers give me an ’and then we can get ’ome early. ‘ow come it’s always me what does the diggin’?”
“’cos there’s only one shovel, that’s why” replied his assistant. And it was because of the simple fact that there was only one shovel that I lived to tell this tale. More earth was slowly filled in on top of me and soon breathing became more difficult under the heavy damp soil.
“Oy” a voice called out and the digging halted “are you the gravedigger” And the joy that flooded my heart when I recognised Toni’s voice was indescribable.
“’course I’m the gravedigger. Who do you think I was then? The virgin Mary? Who are you?”
“Been sent ’ere from the Palace. They’ve got another one for you. Slipped in the dungeon and bust his neck poor blighter. Strange ’ow these things ’appen eh?”
“Best finish off filling this ’ere ’ole. Buggalugs ’ere won’t do it will yer?” said the gravedigger to his companion. This was met with a healthy sniff followed by well rehearsed spit.
“Ain’t my job bruvver. I’m just the driver in this business” he said.
“Well you’d better get a shift on about this one ’cos the gaoler don’t like dead bodies in ’is dungeon. Says it make ’im feel creepy. Funny that ain’t it?” said Toni who was obviously having a great time with his friends whilst I slowly froze to death in that black, cold pit. “Why don’t I finish off ’ere and you clear off and fetch the uvver boke. That ways everyone’s a winner and you owe me big time”.
“”Well you just make sure you fill it in properly OK?. I’ve got standards you know and I’ve got a reputation to maintain too”. And I heard the sound of stamping feet as he stamped the clinging clay from his boots and listened to them as they faded from my hearing.
“Hang on” said Toni in a stage whisper “they’re almost gone”. I tried to shout that I didn’t have much choice but the muddy sack that covered my face prevented any sound escaping.
I felt the thud of his boots landing on either side of me and them his hands were scraping away the soil that covered me. A knife appeared before my face and then a blinding light scolded my eyes with beautiful brilliance. But the sweetness of the air that I drank into my lungs imprinted itself on my memory forever. How little we think of the air we breath, those gentle evening breezes, the icy winds from wintered hills, those fierce gales lacerated with falling rain. Only a man who is gasping for life can fully understand what a gift it is to breath great lung fulls of clean air.
Toni helped me struggle from my living grave, pushed me back out over the rim and restored me to life. Then climbing out himself we embraced like brothers in that unique place where life and death constantly embrace each other.
“We’d beet finish the job” he said “and leave it looki’ like it’s a proper grave”. And giving me one of his winks, picked up the shovel and began his labour.
“Feels a bit odd, filling in your grave and you ’ere sitting next to me” he said with a cheeky grin on his face.
“It feels wonderful to me” I said back “Thank you Toni. You’ve saved my life. And you’re brother too. Tell him I will be eternally grateful to him”
“Well you’ll be the first customer of ’is to ’ave ever said that” said Toni beavering away at the job. “If all goes to plan then the real body should be in the ground in a few hours and we should be a long ways off by then”.
“I can’t leave without Clare” I told him.
“I know” said Toni pausing to gather his breath and leaning on his shovel. “That’s exactly what the Lady said: ’He won’t leave without his little girl. But he won’t ‘ave to’. That’s ’er exact words” And he wiped some sweat from his brow and returned to complete making the grave. When he had finished the job he stabbed the spade into the brown earth, spat on both hands and said “Good rinse to bad rubbish”, turned on his heels and left. I followed Toni to where he’d left his horse tethered to a tree. There, he unlaced a pack behind the saddle and handed it to me saying, “The Lady sent you this. She said you’re to follow the road south until someone makes contact with you”.
“But who’s going to contact me and what about Clare? Where is she?” I demanded of the poor fellow.
He looked at me with soft humble eyes, scratched his head and said simply “Dunno”.
“I’m sorry Toni. I didn’t mean to shout, but after all the treachery we’ve been through, it gets difficult to believe these people sometimes”.
“I knows how you feel Marco” the quiet man said “we poor people often feel let down by them what has the power over us. But this Lady is different. Some say terrible things about what she’s done in the past, but if you were to ask me, I’d say that at ’eart she’s a good woman. That’s what she is, a good woman” as if by saying it twice he was hammering home his point.
“And I trust you Toni, though it tests my deepest fears to walk away from my little girl”. And we embraced like brothers whilst the horse chewed on it’s bit behind us.
“You stink” said Toni pushing me away with a grin. “You’d better change into them clothes that she sent, uvverwise you’ll be dead of the smell yourself before youse get to the next village”.
Untying the bundle fresh clothes fell to the ground at my feet and in their midst was a small packet. I quickly tore off my rags which Toni tied to a big rock and then dropped them in a nearby stream. The clothes I put on were clean working mens clothes which had been carefully chosen. I pushed the packet into my breast with the intention of opening it when I had time to myself later on.
“Well, bruvver,” Toni said “I’m off now. You take care and if you see that little urchin Coppino, tell ’im I’ll see ’im in Rome. And tell ’im ’e’s a good lad and that Toni said so”. And embracing each other once more he mounted his horse and left and I watched that simple honest man disappear out of sight.
I turned to head south and felt his absence immediately. When you leave the embrace of simple kindness that’s laced with honest trust, you experience a diminishing of self, and I felt smaller because I had parted from that good man.
The road south was over flat terrain and I covered the leagues quickly. After some hours I sat under the shade of a tree and took the package from my jacket and opened it. Inside there were some golden coins inside a letter, and inside the letter was a small,neat square of tissue silk. I opened it and discovered a beautiful goldne Crucifix with a fine golden chain. I held it in the palm of my calloused hand and stared in awe at the beauty of its craft. Placing it back carefully inside it’s silken cloth, I put it back inside my tunic and opened the letter, out of which emanated a scent that immediately aroused such vivid memories.
“Dear Senor Marco,
I am sorry that I cannot be there with you to say a final farewell. Sometimes in life unexpected people cross your path: some for good, some for ill. Yet there are a rare few who reach into your heart and stay there forever. Thank you Marco for being such a person. Your wife is truly blessed to be married to such a man as you. The Crucifix is my gift to your wife. It was mine once, but such gifts as it represents cannot be owned by one single person. In time perhaps she will pass it on to the person who best deserves it.
Your daughter, and my blessed God Daughter, is an exceptional person. She is surely a gift from God. But He has given her a better father than her God mother could ever have offered her. I know you will always love and care for her, and I bless and thank you for that. I will try to do whatever I can to help her in the years ahead, but I fear that I may not be able to do much. Even a Duchess has a Lord she must obey.
Marco, we shall never see each other this side of Paradise, but I thank you for the brief time we spent together and I pray that one day we will all meet merrily in heaven.
I read the letter several times before finally folding it and placing it next to the Crucifix in my bosom. I sat there for several minutes remembering each detail of our brief encounter and the intoxicating emotions that it had created. “There but for the grace of God..” I muttered to myself. Then I began to understand that Lucrezia was a captive of her circumstances - birth, power and wealth - and yet had managed to keep a sacred place in her heart for kindness, and even love. Whilst poor, humble unknown I, well in the end I was far richer than she will ever be in this world in terms of loving and being loved. And touching my breast I whispered to myself “I will not forget you my Lady”.
I looked up at the sound of a horse cantering down the same road. “Toni” I cried in joyful surprise. And then with sudden fear in my heart “Is there something wrong?”.
Toni slowed to a halt and behind him sat my darling Clare. “Papa” she beamed as she slid from the saddle and rushed into my arms. “Oh Papa, I’m so glad to see you’re safe and well. They didn’t harm you did they?”
Between the laughter and the tears we hugged and shared out stories: even Toni joined in with how his brother had explained the unexpected accident of Marco and had left the poor gravediggers to explain why his body had been put in the local Lime Kiln and not buried in a paupers grave. “We fought ’e ’ad the plague” was the story they told. Not a mention was made of the gold ducat in their pockets that had so convinced them of that story.
“And did the Lady treat you well” I asked at last.
Clare gave me a quizzical look before saying “She was wonderful to me Papa. Is it true that she’s my real Mama?”
“Yes my precious” I replied with my hand holding hers, “she is. And, in a different world in a different time perhaps, I think she would have been a wonderful mother to you too”.
“Perhaps” she mused. “It’s fun living in a Palace for a few days” she said “but they’re really crafty and cold, and everyone seems to know your business.” And tossing her head back added “Anyway, I much prefer living with my real family. Sara will never believe all the things that go in in such a place”.
We both laughed at the thought of the two of them sharing their recent experiences. “I hope they’re safe” I said. “I hope they meet someone as kind as our Lady”.
Clare looked coyly at me and said “I think she really liked you Papa”. I felt my face heat up under her look before Toni broke in saying “I ’spect His Lorship may not like you quite as much” and we all laughed out loud at the thought.
“I think the best thing for us to do now is to head back to Rome and see if we can get news of how Laura and the children are. Maybe the Dom or Julian have some news by now” I said.
“From what I ‘ear” said Toni “Cesare Borghia is in a spot of bother and won’t be heading home to Marche to be puttin’ ’is feet up in the near future. So maybe there’s some ’ope to be found there eh?”
“Well, we’ve some days travel in front of us so we’d best make a move. We can pick up some fresh horses in the next town with the money the Lady gave me”.
“And she gave me some too” said Clare tapping her belt.
“Me too” said Toni tapping the hat on his head. “Who’d a thought of stealing a poor fellows ’at. Boots is a different thing. Lots a people don’t ’ave boots. But ‘ats ….” and he made a sweeping bow which made us both laugh. “I may not be the sharpest sword in a scabbard, but when it comes to gold I keeps that sort o’ information under mi ’at”.
Dom takes up his story again.
The four men had listened to me for some time now. They appeared good and kindly men and the flickering fire was mirrored in each of their bearded faces. Nico was the first to speak whilst the wind howled around the house like a wolf, sending icy, emissary drafts through the loose fitting windows and doors.
“Life can be a strange journey” he said and those eyes of his glistened with innate enthusiasm. “We’ve been on a journey of sorts too Dom,” and looking around at his friends as if seeking their secret permission, continued “Our families were once Cathars. It’s not a pretty story to tell. Our ancestors were french way back when, but were hunted from their homes like animals just because they had a different view of god. I suppose you’ve heard of the Inquisition?” and he gave a shrug and tapped the side of his head. “Sometimes the human race seems completely mad.
“We also heard of this englishman of yours and were on our way to listen to him when we found you the other day. It’s taken us weeks to travel through the passes around here because only a crazy person would travel at this time of year”. And he smiled at his friends saying “welcome to the madhouse! But my point is that if there had been any pilgrim monk on the road then we would have heard of him. As you may gather, there aren’t that many ways to cross a mountain when winter storms are raging!”
“Are you sure?” I asked in ignorance. Carlo pulled a glove off his hand and held it in front of my face.
“Those fingers weren’t black three weeks ago. Take a close look friend. Frostbite. If your Rosso tried any other path than the one we were on, he’ll be a frozen corpse by now”. Then he carefully put the glove back on his broken hand.
“So you think that Rosso is still in Italy?”
“If the englishman is as holy as you say then your Rosso is probably still sitting under an olive tree and saying his prayers in the warm sunshine” said Carlo with a grin. “But why are you up here having swimming lessons in Lake Como when Sienna is even closer to Rome than Florence is!”
“That’s a very good question” I replied sheepishly “and I have a very simple answer. I thought I was being smart, but by all appearances I’ve been pretty stupid. But let me put you more in the picture.
When Pietro came back and told us about Marco Laura and their family being kidnapped we were totally confused by what was going on. Then Pietro told us of his little street urchins who’d been following the carts that had abducted Marco and the family. We came to the conclusion that it must have been something to do with Clare, and that was somehow linked to what Cardinal Villeprieux had said to Rosso. Seeing as how Rosso was the only one who really knew what had happened in Paris, we assumed that he had his own idea as to who Clare’s Mamma really was. So it was vital that someone had to go off and find him. Then little Coppino, he’s one of Pietro’s little helpers returned and told us of how he’d climbed on the back of one of the coaches up at Monte Sacro, close by where the kidnapped family had been taken.
Somewhere along the way, hunger had met tiredness and he’d fallen asleep. Then suddenly he was discovered and he thought his end had come, but Marco the blacksmith who was with Clare had stepped in and saved him and whilst he was getting a meal to the coaching stop, he managed to tell everything he knew to Clare and she told him that it appeared that they were being taken to Ferrara. The mystery of her mother seemed more unreal than any of us had anticipated. Clare said that they were headed to the D’Este palazzo in Ferrara.
Knowing this, we all thought that it was really important that we got a message to Rosso. The only lead there that we had was Brother William in Sienna, so we decided that seeing as I was the only one who was really free to travel, that I should go and look for Rosso. Perhaps it might have been better if they’d chosen someone with a few more brains between his ears!”
“I traveled light and had a few coins in my pocket to keep me fed and dry along the way. The dawn starts were the hardest with that damp cold seeping into every joint and muscle. But when that sun sent blues and oranges throughout he morning mist over the countryside, well, it did my heart good to be out on the road again. Getting to Sienna isn’t difficult, just one foot in front of the other and a big dash of persistence and you’re there. The only problem was that I couldn’t actually travel to where brother William was as there was a little war going on in that area and neither side wanted any outsiders spying on what they were doing. And that included one eyed, one armed men looking for english mystics! Some people have very suspicious minds eh?” And again the group chuckled in agreement.
So I headed out around the western side of Sienna hoping to creep in from the north. The countryside in that part of the world is beautiful, even in winter, but soon some landmarks reminded me of the last time I had been there. Bitter memories of a brutal battle. But then I also remembered that Rosso’s Agnes also lived somewhere in that area and it came to me that perhaps I should seek her out, just in case he had called past there himself.
As Rosso had told us it was difficult to find her house. It’s in such an out of the way place, but I asked at some of the farmhouses and they didn’t seem to be threatened too much by the looks of me. Some even invited me in to rest and give me a feed. Good folk. Good hearted folk.
So eventually I found myself walking down a winding path not far from the river where Agnes’d dragged Rosso back into this world. It was neat and homely and deep in my heart I felt I’d always known that place even though it was just like so many of the other isolated cottages that dotted the landscape. I knocked at the door half expecting that it’d be empty and that I’d wasted some precious days searching for something that was no longer there. But the door opened and a young man stood there looking at me like he’d seen a ghost!
‘What do you want’ he spat out at me.
Sometimes, being much bigger than other people does have certain advantages” and the others nodded in smirking agreement.
“That’s a fine way to greet a stranger I said to him” The man’s close set eyes darted looks behind me to see if there was anyone else with me.
“You have to be careful Sir. There are some wilful men abroad and not all can be trusted” and with that he stepped outside the door and closed it behind him. “How can I help you”.
“Some information would be nice I said to him, and rubbed my beard with this stump of mine just to annoy him with its ugliness. Who are you will do for a start I said leaning down over him.”
“I’m Fredo and this is my home” was his reply but every fibre of my mind knew he was lying through his teeth.
“That’s strange I said, I thought Agnes owned this farm”
“Well, that’s sort of true he replied, she’s my wife”.
Your wife says I?”
“Yes Señor, he replied and taking hold of my arm started to lead me away from the door. His grip felt weak and his palm was damp with sweat which made me pull my arm away. “I feel we got off on the wrong foot he said trying to gain my confidence. My wife has been ill and it’s best that we don’t disturb her. Now, what would you like to know?”
“Your wife - and the very word stuck in my throat as I said it “once knew a man called Rosso and I was wondering whether he’d called past here recently. It’s very important that I know ’cos I’ve got a very important message for him and the sooner I’m on my way the better for both of us I said. And this time it was me gripping his arm which made him flinch with the power of it.
“Rosso you say he said. I’ve heard my wife speak of him but, no he hasn’t been through these parts”. And From the look on his face I thought that he was telling the truth.
“Have you heard of an englishman called Brother William then I asked him”
“Oh yes he said and he couldn’t stop his eyes from darting back to the door of the house.”
“Something bothering you friend I asked him.
“No, nothing. I just hope that the dear woman is resting well. And he fashioned a half smile on those smooth shifty features of his. Brother William I can help you with. Agnes often talks of him. She’s a very devoted lady my wife. Anyway, he’s been living the other side of Sienna for some time, but I heard recently that he’s gone back to England.” And even as he said it I knew the he was lying but it planted a small seed of doubt in my mind, and I knew he could see it.
“Sorry I can’t help you any more. I would ask you in but with my wife the way she is” and he shrugged those weedy shoulders of his and smiled a patronising smile at me. I had a great urge to flatten him there and then.
“If I find that you’ve been lying to me, then these here knuckles of mine are going to have a field day with your face, I said to him. But he turned his back, closed the door behind him and left me standing alone on a stone path uncertain as to whether to knock the door down, or leave him alone.
Muttering an oath under my breath I thought to myself that not everything he told me could have been lies. So I decided to take a chance and believe him. I turned back to the highway and headed for Florence, my plan was to go from there and on up to Milan where I thought I might get some more information. I got to San Gimiano and hired a horse. He was a tired and weedy beast but as my journey went on he seemed to get stronger and stronger and by the time I got to Milan I was sad to leave him behind. And I think he was sad to see the back of me too”.
“He would have been sadder if you’d tried to make him swim across the lake” said Crisofero and the others laughed with him.
“I shall ignore that comment Crisofero” I said smiling along with them “but one good thing I did do before I left San Gimiano was to send a message to Gino. He and Maria lived not far away from there and I thought he might have heard something of Rosso. If nothing else happened, it was good to think that he’d be thinking of us, just like the old times. Anyway, I went bumbling along up to Milan asking if anyone had heard of the englishman. Some said they had but most had never heard of him. But no one could tell me where he was.
I had to make a decision: turn back to Sienna and accept that I’d made the wrong choice or head up to the border and see if I could pick up his trail there.
But as you now know, I made the wrong decision and almost ended up as fish bait in lake Como, which is where my story began.”
There was a silence in the room as my companions digested all they’d heard.
Niccolo broke the silence. “I think we’ve heard all we need to hear. Brothers,” he said and we all looked at his gleaming face “ when this storm finally stops we’ll head down to Sienna. There, God willing, I expect we’ll find Brother William. And it’s my belief that Dom will find his friend Brother Rosso sitting with him, in glorious solitude and making better sense of this world than we have so far.”