The bleating of the sheep woke me early even though it was still dark outside. The dark light of a winter morning has never been my best time, but hearing that bleat made me think immediately of a hungry fox or dog looking for an easy meal. I slipped out of the warm cocoon that was our bed and left Maria deeply asleep enjoying a joyous respite from work and motherhood.
I shivered almost as a reflex as I pulled a thick jumper over my head and stood for a moment by the cot of our dear little daughter. Although I couldn’t see her clearly I knew she’d be lying flat on her back, arms flung out wide above her head and her smooth face would crease with serene smiles. Maria had told me that when babies are growing in their mothers womb, then God tells them all the secrets of the Universe. And in those first few months of life they slowly forget what He’s told them. And it’s those fleeing memories that cause infants to smile so gloriously.
But the cold drove me to look for my trousers and to seek another pullover too. Standing on one leg I over-balanced in the dark and stumbled against the bed. Maria stirred, I held my breath. She’d been up with little Bella during the cold dark night and I knew she needed that extra sleep, so I froze with one naked leg half raised until her breathing resumed it’s deep slow rhythm and I knew she was still asleep.
Creeping out of the door, I careful closed the latch. I knew every board that creaked, so walking over the bare floor like a crazy drunk I made it into the kitchen without making a noise. I lit a lamp and shadows danced behind empty mugs and into the corners. I put some fuel on the damped down fire and watched the glowing embers leap into life send out eddies of heat into the room.
I grabbed a coat from behind the door and stepped out into the frosty night. Stars glistened like fire in the cold clear sky. The moon had long been gone below the horizon and the sky was a marvel of twinkling delight. A sheep bleated again, then another and I moved toward the pen where they were secured. I picked up my stick and gripped the icy wood in my bare hand. I reached into my pocket and found the dry gloves there. I smiled because I know I hadn’t left them there. Maria always seemed to be thinking one step ahead of me. I half turned and blew a kiss back in the direction of the house.
I was very dark outside, but there was a rim of crimson forming along the distant horizon that suggested that the weather may be changing. I checked the sheep and the pen around them and all seemed secure. I checked the barn and the door was closed tight. I stood in the middle of the yard breathing dragons breath in the frosty air and listened. I heard a bird sing, it’s crystal sound piercing that dark moment with the with a note of the new days hope. I turned and went back into the warm kitchen.
“It’s a bit cold for a walk my love”. Maria was there at the stove warming some soup left over from the day before and tearing a large chunk of bread from yesterdays loaf.
“What are you doing up dearest” I said “I thought I’d crept out as silently as a mouse”.
Smiling back at me she said “You did, best of all husbands, but I think Bella’s hearing is better than mine and when she wakes up she wants everyone else to join her!” And with that she walked towards me with our little bundle of love tucked snugly inside her shawl. Bella was feeding from Maria’s full breast and making delicious snuffling sounds as she did so.
“She’s beautiful” I said and we both just stood and stared in awe at our precious daughter as she stripped the milk from her mothers breast. “It’s amazing. How does she know how to do all these things?” And I looked up at Maria and bemused wonder.
“It’s because she’s a girl. There music smarter than boys you know” And our eyes locked in fun, then we both burst out loud with laughter.
“It’s a miracle” I said. “That’s all I can say. It’s a miracle”.
“So why were you outside when it’s so freezing cold” Maria asked me.
“There was something worrying the sheep and I was checking it wasn’t a fox or a stray pack of dogs worrying them. Some of the ewes are in lamb and being frightened by a pack of dogs could make them lose their babies.” And looking at our little Bella said “And I couldn’t bare the thought of that, even for a sheep!”
We sat and broke our fast in the slowly lightening kitchen, enjoying the warmth that flowed out from the fire. The sheep began to stir again which worried me.
“I’m just going to check outside again” I said to Maria pulling on my coat once more but feeling award glow from the food in my belly. “Just in case”. Stepping out into the bright light of a late winter’s dawn, the eastern sky was full of heavy clouds whilst overhead the sky was clear and blue. “Looks like more rain” I mumbled to myself and headed across the year to the barn.
Pulling open the door an letting it swing with a bang against the wall I entered the sweet smelling space laced with the smell of last year’s hay and fresh dung from the two cows.
The daylight sought out all the corners and reached into the hayloft where freshly muddied rungs on the loft ladder caught my attention. “That’s new” I said under my breath, and slowly mounted the steps. Lifting my head above the bales that I’d neatly stored there, I looked around. Nothing. Pulling myself onto the wooden floor I slowly began to search the area. Some muddied footprints led to a small pile of loose hay between two bales. Taking a step back I said in a loud voice “OK, you can come out now”, and waited silently for movement.
After a few seconds the hay reared up and revealed a ragged youth of uncertain age with black hair that had never seen a comb, sunken eyes that had black coals in their base and a pinched face that hadn’t been fed for some days. He shivered uncontrollably.
“When did you last eat” I asked him in a stern voice, but my heart was moved at the sight of his condition. He shrugged his shoulders, shivered and wiped his tattered sleeve across his face to hide the first hint of a tear. “Come on then. Follow me” I said and retreated down the ladder. I waited at the bottom and eventually there was a scuffling of reluctant feet soon to be followed by the sight of long skinny legs as they came down after me. “This way” I indicated and headed off across the yard after securing the barn door. In the middle of the yard and paused, “Are there any more of you in there” I questioned him. But the shake of his bedraggled head told me that he was all alone.
“Another one for breakfast Maria” I shouted out into the kitchen. And Maria appeared, Bella in arms, to see who had arrived at this early hour. “Found him freezing up in the hay loft” I said. “I don’t reckon he could have eaten anything for a few day”.
“Come here boy and sit by the fire” said Maria beginning to bustle around the room and placing little Bella in my arms to nurse. The lanky youth - for such he was - shuffled toward the fire and sat in the corner soaking up the heat. I was distracted by little Bella who’d taken a sudden interest in my nose and was gripping it and giggling at the same time. The youth had been watching her antics and his face broadened into a wide smile.
Maria turned and placed a bowl of steaming soup and a big hunk of bread into his lap saying “Go on: eat up. It’ll do you good” and with motherly love plucked Bella from my arms said “She hasn’t finished feeding. I’ll go into the other room and leave you two men to talk”. I stooped down and gave her a kiss on her cheeks and one for little Bella too. The famished youth had watched every move that we’d made as he loaded every morsel from the
bowl to his empty stomach.
“’e said you’d be good ta me” the youth said between spoonfuls of broth, or wiping his lips with his hands then licking them for good measure. And all the while his eyes searched the kitchen taking it all in.
“Who said we’d be good to you?” I asked him. Although compassion may rule in our home, I’d lived on the road for too long to trust everything at face value. And the haunted face with it’s darting eyes that sat in front of me did not inspire too much of that.
“The one armed bloke with the patch over ’is eye” he slurped back at me.
“Name of the one armed man?” I retorted leaning back against the wall behind me and folding my arms.
“Said you’d know the name Rosso, but that warn’t ’is name though”. This was said as he wiped his bowl clean with the remnants of the bread. The name of Rosso made my heart jump from surprise but I tried to hide it as much as I could. But the lad was sharp eyed.
“So if yer know Rosso then that makes you Gino. Right?” And a sly confidence grew in his face.
I pushed myself away from the wall and came and stood in front of him.
“You seem to know a lot of things young lad, so tell me what the name of the man who sent you was and what does he want with me”.
“Depends” he said examining the bowl for any tell tale remnants. “’e said you might ’elp by a bit ’o grease in mi palm”.
“Name” I repeated and hoped that my voice had an edge of menace “of it might be more than grease you get young fella”.
“OK OK he said realizing that he might have tried to push his luck too far. “’e said ’is name was the Dom. Mean anyfing to yer?”
I stood there for a moment or two then reached into my pocket for any spare coins that might be there and handed them over to him. “Here” I said “an honest answer deserves a fair reward. What name do you go by?”
“Rabbit” he answered “It’s ’cos I run everywhere and keep disappearing down ’oles” and he smiled a genuine smile that made us both relax a little. “Mi real name is Paolo, but no one ever calls me that. Which is a good ring, ’cos I don’t like it much. Mi ole lady called me that. Said it was mi ole man’s name too, but seeing as I never met ’im, I ’ad to take that on trust and she won’t the most ’onest woman I ever knew”.
“I need to know more about this man who calls himself the Dom and why did he send you here?”
“Big fella eh? Kind too. He’d heard about mi from some fella and gave me a meal and a few coins to come and give yer a message. Trouble is I got done over on the way ’ere and was robbed of mi money and seeing as it was easier to come ’ere than go back, I came on ’ere. ‘e said you an’ ’im was mates and the free of yous did a lot a travelling togever. ’e said that this Rosso was some sort of monk now and was somewhere near Sienna but that ’is little girl was in real trouble and ’e needed your ’elp.”
“Little girl? Do you mean Clare” I asked.
“Dunno ’er name Gino. But someone’s taken ’er and ’er family and your Dom wanted to get a message to Rosso ’cos ’e thought that this Rosso’d know who might a dunnit. Summink about a englishman called brother William. Never ’eard of ’im miself, but then I’m not in that line of business eh?” And again he smiled an endearing, laddish smile. Then his face fell and took on a more feral look. “But there’s some not so good news too Gino. Your Dom also finks that this young girl ’as been taken to Ferrar to the palazzo of the Duke D’Este, and the word is that ’e ’as the most grumpy dis -per-zition of all the dukes in this part of the world”
“D’Este” I muttered to myself.
“He’s the one who married that Lucrezia lady. You know, the one who’s supposed to be the Pope’s daughter” said my beloved Maria re-entering the room with both arms free. “Bella’s fast asleep. It’s amazing what a good meal does to an empty stomach” she said with a smile.
“Tell me about it” said Rabbit with a grin.
“Did Dom say what he was going to do next” I asked my now very happy and content guest.
“’e said to tell yer that ’e’d ’ead up norf to cut your Rosso off. But if ’e didn’t find ’im up there, ’e might at least get some news of ’im along the way. Then if ’e ’adn’t got any news by then, ‘e‘d backtrack down towards Sienna. If you asks me, it sounded a pretty daft idea, but then ‘e was a bit bigger than me an’ who am I to argue under such circus-starnces”
So much news had arrived in our peaceful kitchen that my head spun with it all.
“I’ll get some wood for the fire” I said to Maria “It’ll help clear my spinning head and give me time to work out what it all means.
“Need ’an ’and?” asked Rabbit. “First time I’ve been outta town fer ever such a long time. “ave you got chick-ins too. I love chick-ins. We ’ad sum when I was a lad grow ….”
“Perhaps you’d better stay here with me my lad” said Maria with her firm voice. It was the one she reserved for me when one of my ideas was a little more ridiculous than normal. “You’ve got a years worth of grim behind your ears so a good wash wont do you any harm. And I think some of Gino’s old clothes might keep you a bit warmer than those threadbare rags you’re wearing”.
“I ain’t dirty” Rabbit responded in a hurt voice, but even he was cowered when my gentle little lady gave him one of her ‘looks’! “S’pose it won’t do any ’arm” he was saying as I went out into the cold daylight.
The clouds on the horizon had now approached and were pushing back the clear blue sky into a thin band behind the hills. The air felt warmer though a breeze would soon spring up and with the threatened rain, the damp air would soon feel colder than a frost. I hurried to the wood pile behind the shed. The cattle and sheep needed feeding and so would the chickens, but I thought I’d get Rabbit to feed them later and check for eggs, once he’d been scoured by the lady of the house.
My heart was lightened to hear the names of the Dom and Rosso after such a long time. Great memories came back to me of all our times on the road together. But I wondered what had become of that frenchman VIlleprieux? There had been no mention of him. Perhaps he’d gone back to France? Too bad really, but I was glad that he wasn’t mentioned in the same breath as the other two. He was likeable enough, but he was different from us. And it wasn’t just because he was French … but it could explain some things!
But Rosso a monk! I didn’t see that coming. Falling in love perhaps. He always carried his heart on his sleeve and I always took him for the marrying kind. And the Dom? Rabbit said one arm one eye. How did that happen? How has he managed to survive like that? Who’s been looking after him? And who would have done that to one of the most gentle creatures the good Lord ever created?
My thinking was no clearer as I pulled dry wood from the stack and rummaged around for some dry kindling too. I reached for the hatchet to make sure that we’d have enough dry kindling for the next few days just in case that rain set in for longer than usual. Thinking about poor Dom’s injuries caused a small fury in my brain and I buried the hatchet in the stump whilst the kindling shot off in two different directions. “Steady lad” I said to myself, “more brains less brawn”.
A few minutes later I was backing in through the kitchen door with my arms full of wood, and dropped the load by the fire. Rabbit sat in a miasma of steam as Maria scrubbed parts of his neck that had been almost tattooed with grim. “Your dear wife” Rabbit said without looking up “has a pretty wicious
streak in her Gino”.
“Less of that cheek or I’ll really put some effort into it” retorted Maria her face full of a motherly smile.
“A scene of domestic bliss” I smiled back at them both.
“I’m not sure about the bliss bit Gino” which was met with a light flick with the drying towel from Maria.
“Less of your cheek my son” she said. “Have you had any thought about what to do Gino” she said looking straight at me.
“I have my dear. If Dom needs our help then he must get it. And seeing as he’s gone up to the north west, I think I should head to Ferrar to see if I can pick up the girls trail from there. At least then I can return back down the path from there to Sienna and hopefully catch up with the Dom there. What do you think?”
“I must admit that I don’t like the idea of being here alone with the cattle to look after with no man in the house. Before you came back I at least always had the comfort of knowing that Papa was in the house, but with him gone this twelve months now, it’ll be very strange without either of you. But I agree. You have to do something and I can’t think of a better plan, so be off with you”.
“Hold hard Maria. I haven’t finished yet. It’s come to my attention that this young lad seems to be very fond of chickens,” I said moving to stand close to the young man, ”don’t you Rabbit”
“Maybe” he replied whilst developing a nervous tic around his left eye. “Why?”
“Well as the saying goes ‘It’s better an egg today than a chicken tomorrow’. So, Rabbit stays here till I get back. He helps around the farm. He gets his food and board and you, Maria,have your security. Then when I get back we can decide what to do then?”
“I ain’t ’spcted to ’ave to change the baby’s nappies am I?” asked Rabbit with a shocked expression glancing first at me and then at Maria.
“If you stay here my lad, you’ll do what I tell you to do” said Maria folding her arms in that imperious attitude designed to subdue any attempt at male dominance!
“I have no doubt that the two of you will get on really well. But first I need to show Rabbit the ropes. Come on, Maria can teach you about the nappies later” And winking at Maria the complaining Rabbit and I put on some coats and went outside.
I left the following day for Ferrara. I didn’t have much to go on apart from the fact that the Lady Lucrezia would have recently received a young girl into her household. Then there was the reputation of her husband. Grumpy didn’t really cover the maliciousness of the man. He was reported to have had his brothers thrown into prison on the pretext that they were after his estates. But at least he had stood up to that unpleasant brother of Lucrezia, now he really was a piece of work!
It was to take me almost a week to travel from the farm to Ferrara. The weather was filthy and the roads heavy with mud. The mountains we crossed were capped with snow, and the icy rain stung my face like fierce flint flakes. Fellow travellers were few and far between. My tired legs were treated to the occasional respite by the kindness of tradesmen moving between Florence and Bologna. But the days were long and wet and the nights cold and damp. By the time I had crossed the flat fields of Ferrara not even my dear Maria would have recognised the mud-splattered person who entered the gates, seeking out a hostel where he could find a hot bath and a change of clothes.
There are few things more enjoyable than stripping of cold, cloying clothes and stepping into a hip bath in front of a warm fire. My numb toes went through stages of intense agony. But slowly the heat percolated throughout my whole body and I slumped lower and lower into that sublime heat.
Climbing out of the that bath took grew determination, but I didn’t dare stray too far from the warmth of the fire. Tip-Towing around the steaming pile of muddy vestments that were once clothes, I reached out for the warm ones that I’d purchased on my arrival. Soon I was warm, clean and dry - the holy trinity of the tired traveller. Only one thing remained: food. This was soon ordered and eaten with relish and I slumped back on the bed a very happy man. I must have dozed because when I awoke, it had already darkened outside and the rain was hitting the window with great determination driven on by the wild wind. I went down to the taverna to join the throng that had gathered at days end.
Strangers always evoke questions and soon I was engaged by the keeper of the taverna as we began to barter information that we both were seeking. Soon he knew that I was a farmer, down on his luck from near Sienna and traveling the land looking for work. I had discovered that a young girl and her father had recently arrived as guests of the Duchessa, but no one had seen either of them since their arrival a few weeks back. When I returned to my room a little later, I turned over this information in my mind. The presence of a “father” confused me, but otherwise the facts fitted well with the story given me by Rabbit. I determined that the next morning I would go to the Palazzio and see if I could find the people who had brought the pair here and perhaps learn more from them. But first a good nights sleep called, and my body gratefully complied.
I awoke to a brilliantly clear morning. A sharp frost filtered the air so that each breath was like the first breath ever taken. The cold air cleansed the skin on my face like an icy flannel and the grass crackled under my dry warm boots which made me smile. When I arrived at the gates of the grand palazzo I was challenged by the guard and told him I was a farmer looking for work.
“Join the queue my friend” was his dispassionate reply. “Unless you’re prepared to shovel manure, there’s not much use for farmers here”. And with that he pushed me in the chest as if to dismiss me.
Some things really annoy me. Perhaps it was just the delayed tiredness after a long journey. Perhaps it was worry about how Maria and the baby were faring with Rabbit, or perhaps it was because this man was just a bully and loved pushing people around that really touched a sore nerve in me. But when that hand touched my chest I felt my whole body turn into a granite rock that wasn’t going to budge one tiny inch. I felt my eyes burning with anger as I whispered with barely controlled rage “Are you trying to tell me something soldier? Or do I need to ask someone else about getting a job here?”
Fear sparkled in his young eyes and all of a sudden his uniform and helmet must have felt several sizes too large for his adolescent frame.
“Look” he muttered, looking quickly around him “I’m just doing my job master. No need to take it out on me. If it’s a job you’re looking for, then try the stables around the back” and he stood back to let me through. “And ask for Toni” he shouted after me. “He’s a farmer too”.
“Thanks” I said smoothing down the front of my jacket and locking my temper back in the closet where it was wiser to keep it.
Climbing up the slope around the base of the thick walls of the palzzo I followed the horse droppings until I came to the stables. “Anyone here seen Toni?” I shouted into the gloom.
“Over here” came a voice from one of the stalls. The handle of a rake appeared, soon to be followed by an unremarkable head with a simple smile and a small scar on one cheek. “Well, what can I do for you today my friend?”
“Salve friend. Any chance of a job - any job - for a poor farmer down on his luck?”
“You must be the third person this week who’s asked me that, but sorry friend, it’s not up to me. You’d have to ask my Caporal, but he’s a prickly one at the best of time. I’ll tell you what though, this may be your lucky day! I may have to, er, go on leave soon and they’ll be needing someone to cover for me when I’m away. An’ you look like a bloke who wouldn’t shy away from a bit of hardship” he said stroking the small scar on his cheek “and believe me, ’ardship is the Caporal’s second name!” and saying that he stabbed his hay fork into a pile of manure nearby.
“Wait ‘ere, I’ll be back in a mo’..” and with that he put on his jacket and went out of the stable leaving me alone with the horses. They are fine looking beasts and obviously well cared for. I walked over to a large bay and patted him on the neck.
“OK boy” I said in his ear, “Now what stories can you tell me about what goes on here”.
“Like stories do you” boomed a voice from the door. “Telling people about how to shovel shit is my favourite”. Looking up I saw the large figure of a man with the smaller figure of his underling waving his arms at me from behind his Caporal’s back. From his wild semaphores I guessed that he wanted me to listen more than speak.
“Whatever you say Caporal” I responded in as meek a tone as I could muster.
“I like this man” the Caporal said turning to his underling and swiping him across the top of his head. “but I’ll miss seeing that smiling face of yours up to your ears in horse manure. Still” he said putting his powerful arm around the poor mans shoulders and giving him a rib-cracking squeeze, “you’re much better at guarding than working eh? Sitting on your backside watching prisoners comes far more natural to the likes of you and your mob don’t it?” Ducking away from the ensuing swipe at his head, Toni replied “Yes Caporal. Whatever you say Caporal” and he hurried over to where I was standing the on the other side of the horse stall.
“OK my fine fella. You fill the new man in on what needs to be done here and then report to the Duchessa, after you’ve washed ’cos you stink of shit” the big man leered at him. “Dunno why she’s taken a shine to a weasel rat like you. It can’t be nothing to do with your looks or your intelligence. Perhaps it’s somethings you’re hiding from me” he said, and his lecherous grin revealed several foul teeth to match his foul talk.
“It’s ’cos I’m good with kids that’s all Caporal” Toni said shuffling his feet in the straw.
“Well you’d better be gone before I gets back or there’ll be hell to pay”. And saying that he checked both his boots for any clinging reminder of the stables and left.
“He’s a friendly sort” I said to Toni with a smile.
“Yes” he replied rubbing the scar on his cheek “We two’ve been really intimate wiv each other. ’e give me this a few weeks back just ’cos I was kind to a coupl’a people we was bringing to see her ladyship”.
“Oh yes?” I asked trying to sound as off hand as I could but my heart was beginning to start a gallop of it’s own inside my chest. But Toni remained mute. “Pick people up often then do you?” I nudged him in a friendly tone.
“It’s mi job ain’t it? Picking people up. That’s what guards do see?” and he chuckled to himself at his own little joke.
“Local people or can you just pick up anyone say, like Romans or Venetians?”
“These last two was Romans. A man and ’is daughter. Nice bloke. He stepped in front of me when Boof ’ead tried to whip me again.” Once again the fingers explored the redness of the still healing scar. “but Marco - that was ‘is name - he caught the end of it an’ pulled ’im off his perch. I tell you what, ’e warn’t too ’appy when ’e got outa the dust, but that Marco stared ’im down and ’e didn’t try it on any more.”
“So what happened to Marco and his daughter then?” I continued trying to sound as casual as I could whilst picking up the hay fork and moving some dung into a pile.
Toni began to look decidedly shifty and said “I think I’ve said too much already friend. Me and my big mouth. I’d better show you what’s gotta be done ’ere or else Caporal might just decide to take the whip to the both of us. Come on”. And with that he walked me around and showed me what chores were in store for me. Most husbanding stables are the same: fodder, water, check the tackle and clean out the manure. The rounds of the barn were soon complete and Toni made to leave.
“Don’t forget to wash Toni” I said. “And maybe a change of clothes might be a good idea too” I added pointing to the splashes of mud on his trousers.
“Thanks friend. But I’ll be needing this kit pretty soon if the Duchess has her way” and a knowing look lingered over a strange smile that flickered around his lips. “Wish I could ’ang around. But you know what it’s like with the ladies eh?” and bowing low, he left.
I was left thinking about all that had been said. It seemed that Clare and her father were here and that his name was Marco, a name I hadn’t heard of before. Still, if Clare had someone good and kind with her, then that could only be a good thing. But then Toni seemed to be acting in a strange way. Why the act about the “Lady” and what was that all about with the need for dirty clothes. I came to the conclusion that I needed to know more about Toni and hopefully gain his confidence, and if I was lucky then that should lead me to Clare and work out what to do next.
“Lovely smell ain’t it”. Those mocking words could only have been said by one person and so without looking up I said “I prefer the smell of a pretty lady myself Caporal. But each to his own taste”. To my detriment, I quickly learned that the Caporal liked to be the only comedian on the stage and felt the full force of his boot on my backside causing me to fall headlong into a steaming pile of manure.
“The only female you’re going to get close to my son is a Mare. Where’s that idle sod Toni gone? ’as he slipped away already to the Duchess? That bloke wouldn’t know ’ard work if it came up and bit ’im on the bum”. And he folded his arms across his chest and lent against the door of the stall. “So tell me mister farmer, what’s the real reason you’re ’ere?”
“Told you already Caporal. A man’s got to live. And he can’t feed his family when some idiot in a silk cloak decides he don’t like the look of you, but has an eye on your missus and decides to kick you off your land and steal your woman”. Perhaps there was something that resonated in the Caporal’s mind, but he seemed to soften a little.
“Yeah” he muttered “the bastard’s can be cruel sometimes.”
Changing the subject quickly so that he didn’t follow up with any more questions I asked him where Toni was from. “That idle son of a bitch. Comes from a large family near ’ere. Brother’s the gaoler. Just like him. ’appy to sit on ‘is backside all day and watch the others do all the work, even if they’re hangin’ from a wall wiv chains on their feet”. And his evil smile sent shivers down my back. “’e lives somewhere on the other side of the piazza near the Church. Why do you ask?”
“He asked me for a loan and I gave him my last coin, so I need to get it back otherwise I might have to eat the horses rations”. The Caporal laughed.
“I reckon you’ve seen the last of that friend”
“Still. I want to get it back. Do you have his address?” He told me where Toni lived and left. I watched him go and thought that even though he was a tough, malignant man that there was still something good inside of him and prayed that others saw it too.
A few days later I was lying in my straw filled cot above the horse stalls thinking that God must be a very happy person. Watching we humans rushing about making our plans, thinking that we’ve got it all worked out would be enough to bring a smile to the most miserable of gods. The reason I was lying in my cot in the first place was because I’d come down with a fever which had made me suddenly feel like my arms and legs were made of lead and I had the strength of a two year old. Sweat coursed down my back every time a paroxysm of coughing racked my aching body and my head felt like the inside of a blacksmiths fire. By all accounts hundreds of locals had come down with the fever but few appeared to have been fatally afflicted by it, which I suppose was mildly reassuring.
But even though I felt as useless as a wet rag, I still had to look after the horses and at least they appeared to be more understanding of me than the Caporal! He seemed to delight in everyone’s weaknesses and probe them with his lacerating comments or whip their bodies with his lacerating whip. I struggled to my feet and descended via the ladder to the back of the barn. I had just picked up some oats to fill the horse troughs when my avenging angel stormed through the door incandescent with rage shouting “Where is that little weasely bastard”.
Propping myself against the stall whilst wiping the sweat from my face I foolishly asked “Who’s that Caporal?” This was met with the full force of his fist in the middle of my chest which knocked all the wind from my lungs and dropped me like a sack of turnips.
“That rat Toni you fool. He’s been trying to hide something from me for weeks” he yelled kicking the trough I’d just filled and up-ending the contents all over the stall. “He thinks he’s smarter than me. Him! That runt of an idiot. I know his game. He’s been running errands for the Duchess and he thinks he’s god almighty. But the Dukes got wind of something and what’s to know what his popish bastard wife is up to. So that’s why I’m looking for the little weasel” At his point he placed his foot in the middle of my chest and pushed down hard. I felt a crack and knew he’d broken a rib. He smiled. “I believe there are 23 more ribs I can break if you don’t come clean with me now” and prepared himself for another stomping.
“Stop” I screamed up at him. “I haven’t got a clue. I’ve been watching him too to try and get my money back, but he’s always coming up with some excuse. Believe me Caporal, I’m with you on this” and I held the toe and heal of his boot hoping beyond hope that he wouldn’t stamp on me again.
He stood there poised above me his black eyes darting this way and that as if trying to engage his brain in useful thought. Pulling his foot away he turned and punched a hay bag “I’m surrounded by fools and idiots”.
“Look boss” I said to him as I got to my feet “If there are two of us looking for him we’ll catch him all the sooner. What do you think?” I added hopefully. If he took up my offer then I may at least be in a position to help Clare and Marco if they needed it. But my offer seemed to clutter his brain with too many suggestions and he held his head as if it were going to explode.
“Life shouldn’t be this complicated for a soldier” he moaned to himself. Then as if he’d given birth to some great insight went on “OK. You come with me but if I find you’ve been double crossing me, then it’ll be more than you ribs that I’ll be cracking. Where did you last see the rat” he spat at me.
I reached down to pick up my jacket and a small explosion went off in my chest. Standing up slowly and breathing shallowly I told him all that I knew about Toni’s domestic arrangements.
“Come on then. We’ll go and see if he’s home. I’ve no doubt that we should be able to squeeze some information out of his friends and neighbours”. By the sign of the evil snarl on his face it certainly looked as if the Caporal had regained his normal sadistic equilibrium.
Getting news of Toni’s whereabouts proved to be more difficult than we both expected. Everyone seemed to know of him, but no one seemed to know where he was. I went to the taverna which I knew he frequented, sat at a table with the Caporal and waited. “You’re getting as bad as he is with all this sitting on your backside and doing nothing” my irascible leader growled at me whilst downing the contents of a mug of wine.
“Sometimes it’s easier to let the news come to you instead of running around like a headless chicken trying to find something that you’ve no idea where it is” I growled back at him. “Toni may seem stupid, but he wasn’t a complete idiot. He probably picked up more information by just sitting here watching and listening than most of the Duke’s spies do by bribing people to give them information”.
Pouring himself another mug of wine the Caporal looked at me sideways and muttered “And maybe you ain’t as stupid as you look either” and went to dig me in the ribs with his elbow.
“Don’t” I shouted at him in anticipatory agony. ’Please don’t” I added when I saw the flare of anger in his eyes. “I think more clearly when my body isn’t racked with pain” and attempted a weak smile. I could feel streams of sweat coursing down my chest and although I wanted to cough, the very thought of it sent cold shivers through every fibre of my body.
After some time a man walked in who looked familiar to me. It was Toni’s brother. I whispered this information in the Caporal’s ear. He went to get up but I pulled him back and hissed “Wait and watch”. The man greeted the owner and asked if he’d seen his brother today. the owners brother immediately darted in our direction, but Toni’s brother missed his signal.
“No brother, he’s not been in today” the owner said whilst cleaning the wet mugs on the counter in front of him.
“If you do see him just tell him that I’ll be there”. The owner looked confused.
“Thats the message friend - ‘I’ll be there’.” And turning on his heel he left.
“Come on” I said once he’d left the room “Let’s follow him and see where that leads us”. The pain in my ribs had now turned into a blazing fire in my chest too. Standing made my head feel dizzy and light and even the Caporal was worried enough to ask “Are you alright?”
“Nothing that a week in bed with a good woman to feed me good food wouldn’t fix” I answered and beads of perspiration dripped from my forehead and into my eyes. “Come on. We don’t want to lose him now”.
We headed out after him and followed him at a distance along the every emptying streets. He certainly wasn’t going back to work as the Palazzio was in the other direction. He seemed to be heading out into the countryside. Then he disappeared.
“Where’d he go” I asked in amazement.
“Where all of us ’ave to go eventually” replied my friend with a knowing nod. “Over there is the cemetery. Want me to see if there a vacant spot for you, a’ter all, you do look a little peaky today”. And the blow that he landed on my back felled me with a bolt of pain that racked my chest.
Gasping for breath as I slowly rose I whispered “That was not funny Caporal, and we farmers have long memories”.
“Stop your moaning man” he hissed back “otherwise I might just leave you here six feet under. Now look over there. Our friend seems to have business here. Someone seems to have taken your place in that hole in the ground. Looks like I’ll have to put up with your wining for a little while longer”.
Beyond the hedge which surrounded the small cemetery was a small cart next to a mound of freshly excavated earth. The gaoler was standing next to it and staring into the abyss below him. A head docked up above the parapit and threw a shovel on to the mound of clay. The gaoler helped him out and then the two of them lifted a bundle from the cart and unceremoniously dumped it into the grave. One of them spat into the hole and the sound of laughter drifted across to the two silent watchers.
“Time to ask some questions I think”the Caporal said to me out of the corner of his mouth and ducked through a cap in the hedge and set off toward the two men. The man with the shovel saw him first and set off like a frightened hare. The gaoler had his back to us and this slowed his understanding of what was unfolding behind him. When his slowed senses worked out what was happening, he turned to run but tripped over the mound of clay and fell into the grave. the Caporal, who had broken into a fast trot, slowed to a walking pace and burst out laughing at the same time.
Arriving at the edge of the grave he peered down and said “Two birds for the price of one eh” ?
“’ow can I help you captain” asked the gaoler who was scrabbling to his feet.
“It’s Caporal not Capitain you idiot. Just tell me where Toni is” replied his tormentor as he picked up the shovel and began to throw great gobs of earth over the poor man. The gaoler tried to climb out over the side of the grave but the Caporal hit him a mighty blow on his hands causing him to fall screaming back into the pit.
“Where’s Toni I asked” he repeated and threw another cloying clod into the face of the poor man.
“If you let me out I’ll tell you. Please Caporal. Just let me out” he blubbered.
“This is the last time I’ll ask you: where’s that little rat of a brother of yours”.
“I dunno” screamed the poor man. “’e was supposed to be ’ere. Summinck must’ve put the wind up ’im.”
“And where do you think he might be going then” said the Caporal, putting down the shovel and squatting by the side of the open grave.
By this time the eyes of the gaoler were almost popping out of his head with fear “’e had a special consignment what ‘e was takin’ ta Rome. That’s all I know. Honest. Please let me outta ‘ere Caporal. It’s not nice sittin’ on top ov’a dead man in a dark grave. Please let me out” And he held up his hand for the Caporal to pull him up. But the Caporal didn’t pull him up. He picked up the shovel, swung it high and struck the man dead with a blow to his skull.
Turning to me he said “Come on. That is if you don’t want to joint your friend for a three-some”. He grabbed the reigns of the horse and cart and swung himself up into the drivers seat. Shouting over his shoulder he said “You sit at the back with the rest of the rubbish and keep your mouth shut otherwise I’ll fill it in for you”. And flicking the whip told the horse to move on.
Landing in the back of the cart was a bone wrenching agony to me. I felt each pebble that was crushed under those iron clad wheels and before long I fell into a swoon.
The cart had stopped. For how long I had no clue. Sweat filled my eyes when I opened them making the shapes of trees swim and swirl. I went to sit up and a thousand daggers dug deep into my chest causing me to grab the side of the ancient cart. My head rang and my eyeballs throbbed with pain. As my head began to clear I became aware of someone shouting nearby. I eased myself off the cart as gently as I could but almost fell to the ground as my legs buckled like a baby’s. Holding on until I got my senses under control I started off in the direction of the shouting.
Coming up behind a tall tree I saw a terrible sight in the clearing in front of me. The caporal had a small girl around the waist and was holding his dagger at her throat. On the ground in front of him was the flattened figure of Toni with a nasty gash on his head which was matting his hair with oozing dark blood. And standing a short was off was a stocky man with wild eyes who seemed paralysed by fear for the girl yet who looked powerful enough to rip the limbs off the caporal given half a chance.
I leaned against the trunk and the bells ringing in my ear became louder and louder. My clothes stuck to every part of me drenched with the sweat that was pouring from every pore in my skin. I told myself that it was only five paces to where the caporal stood with his back to me , but another part of my mind screamed that it was a thousand miles of unbearable pain and that I’d never make it. For a moment everything around the edges of my sight became dark. The caporal seemed to turn to me and leer horribly at me. And the little girl whom he was holding changed and turned into my beautiful baby back home who started to scream and to scream and to scream. Then the bells stopped, a boulder appeared to have landed on my chest and everything went black.
The nightmares that followed were both terrifying and ecstatic. The distorted face of the caporal appeared and there was blood in his eyes and his teeth were just inches from my face as he threatened me with a dagger. At other times I seemed to be floating on something soft, it felt like water and yet I wasn’t wet and when I turned my head I saw little people sitting on a wall looking at me and laughing. And during this terrible time of terrifying dreams a little angel would appear and wipe my head with an iced cloth that brought such sweet relief. Her little face would lean forward and the light behind her made her seem almost transparent. Then she would kiss me every so lightly on my forehead and disappear into the light.
I woke and thought I must be dead so began to pray for Maria and our baby. A light breeze stirred the lace curtain that framed the open window. It was so silent. Then I heard a chicken and began to chuckle at the foolish thought that there were chickens in heaven. It wasn’t the best thing to do because the pain in my chest reminded me severely that I was definitely still alive and feeling decidedly mortal!
It may have been the gasp that came with the pain that woke my angel too because her head appeared in the framed light of the window, and then disappeared immediately. I felt sad that she’d gone because eery time I’d seen her vision I had felt so much peace inside.
Then the door burst open and my little angel appeared and came and knelt by my cot. “I am so happy to see you open your eyes” she said and tears seemed to run down her cheeks.
“Am I still alive then” I asked.
“Of course you are. And you saved all of us too” she replied wiping her tears away and smiling all the time. Then putting on a more serious face “Now we don’t want you to do any more damage to yourself. Marco will be in shortly to give you some soup and maybe in a few days we’ll carry you outside to get some sunshine, but in the meantime you stay here”. And even though she only looked about 10 years old, there was a look in her eyes that brooked no dissent!
“Just one question” I pleaded. “Where am I, and how did I get here and is your name Clare?”
She smiled at me and said “Rosso said you weren’t very good at counting. Yes I’m Clare and you saved my life. And Marcos. And poor Toni’s too, but he’s been almost as sick as you. He’s on the mend now too though. Now enough talking and more resting” she ordered shaking her finger in my direction like the little mother that she was. Then she leaned down and the memory of my little angels kisses flooded back as she kissed me on the forehead once more. And this time my own eyes filled with tears of happiness washing away those bitter recent memories and nightmares.
One of the paradoxes of breaking your ribs - or in my case having your ribs broken for you - is that everything seems to be funnier! The drawback of laughing with broken ribs is that it HURTS. But the good thing is that the rubbish that had accumulated in my lungs from the infection I also got, tended to move more easily which made me cough more. And believe me, that soon wiped the smile off my face. But all in all I surprised myself at how quickly I seemed to recover. It was a different situation for poor Toni though.
The caporal had hit him on the head with the butt of his dagger, and the caporal was a mighty strong man. The blow had sent poor Toni reeling and had also removed a flap of skin from his head too. Marco later told me that he thought Toni was dead. But the little man was tougher than we all expected. His wound healed but he had a slight weakness in the left side of his body every after.
“No more guard duty for me” he smiled weakly at Marco one day.
“Well I beg to differ” I interrupted him. “I’ve got lots of sheep back at my place which always need a sharp eye to guard them. That’s if you’re up to looking after fluffy things that don’t want to kill you”.
“I don’t understand” Toni replied looking genuinely perplexed.
“It’s OK Toni, I’ll tell you more about it later. All I’m saying is that you don’t have to worry about having a roof over your head because there’s more than enough room at our place for a sharp eyed ex prison guard”. And the smile that wreathed itself around young Toni’s face was enough to make even an angel pause to smile too.
We’d been staying at a small taverna on the edges of Imola and as my strength returned I asked Marco how we had all survived and what had happened to the caporal. Marco hung his head and when he lifted it again there was a look of shame on his face.
“I killed him” was all he said. “I had no choice, but I will feel guilty for the rest of my life that I took another man’s life, but I had no choice!” He paused and ran his hand fingers through his hair as if trying to comb out the memory of it all. “He took us by surprise. He seemed to just appear whilst we’d stopped to take some refreshments. We’d been sitting there feeling so happy to be free and feeling the warms of the sun on our faces and then suddenly Toni’s flat on his face with blood pouring from his head and this leering giant has grabbed my beautiful Clare and is holding a dagger at her throat. The rage that filled me was matched by the paralysis I felt as seeing that blade at her throat. I’ve not idea what he was saying to me because I was just waiting for him to make just one mistake and I knew I would kill him”. Marco looked at me with his shame filled eyes and said “That’s a terrible thing to say isn’t it?”
“I don’t think so Marco because one thing I do remember is thinking that he was holding my baby and that’s why I rushed at him” I answered.
Marco smiled and said “Well I can tell you that he certainly wasn’t expecting that to happen! You unsettled him just enough for me to reach him before he did any damage and then we fell to the ground wrestling over the knife. We rolled over a few times and I suppose I must have turned the blade toward him on one of those turns because all I heard was the sound of air leaving his lungs and then all the life went out of him. It was so sudden and so unexpected. One second he was like a powerful animal, the next he was draped over me like a fallen tree.”
“When I got up” he continued on “Clare was holding your head in her lap. We both thought the caporal must have stabbed you with his knife when you jumped on him. Then Clare realised that your body was burning with a fever and that coughing was such an agony for you. Then we really got scared for you. I went to look at Toni who was also in a terrible way, but he wasn’t making any noise at all. He was still breathing, but he just lay there like a dead man. That’s when my little Clare took charge. It was her idea to put you both into the cart and take you to the nearest town where we could at least find a soft bed to put you in. Then she nursed the two of you for days on end. She’s a very precious child is our Clare”. He said this whilst looking across at her as she sat and talked with Toni who appeared to be having one of his better days today.
“Toni told us that he knew you but had no idea why you might be following us”.
“Rosso” I replied and he smiled back at me.
“If there’s a mystery to be found, there always seems to be a red headed monk in the middle of it somewhere” Marco quipped back. “Clare told me what had happened in the past . That was when Rosso and her went to Paris together. That’s where he told her about you and the Dom and Villeprieux. But we had no idea why you’d turned up out of the blue and saved all our lives.”
I told Marco my story and the reason why I had left in search of the two of them. In retelling it all I found myself amazed at how life can be so totally different from what you planed it to be. I never expected the twists and turns that had happened to me and I certainly never thought I would be knocking on the doors of heaven only to be pulled back by a young girl who’s only gift seemed to be that of loving a stranger. And what a gift that had been for all of us.
We talked a lot, Marco and I as I got my strength back and the more I sat with him the more I realised that he was an amazing man too. He was so strong, and not just physically. The strength of the love that he shared with his Laura was enough to include the lost and the forgotten. A friendship was forged during those days that would last for the rest of both our long days.
Then the time came for us to continue our journey back to Rome.
“I have a suggestion” I said as we prepared to leave. “In a few days when we start to cross the ranges, I propose that Toni and I head back to my farm. But on the way there is something else I want to do. I want to pay a visit to someone. I can’t tell you any more at the moment, but there’s something in my mind that tells me that they are an important link to all of this”
Toni nodding in agreement and a rare smile warmed his face. “Sounds fine by me. I like sheep”.