Alchemist's Gift

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Comes the Tempest

Eleven-year-old Hans, one of Fra Benito’s favorites, stood on the narrow observation bridge between the two towers that flanked the city gates. He looked down on the road and saw a cloud of dust swirling maybe a mile off and determined it could only be one thing. He turned around and cupped his hands against his cheeks. “They are coming! The duke’s men are coming! They are coming! The duke’s men are coming!”

Hans scurried down the stone steps. “They are coming!” he shouted as he crossed the square and headed for the orphanage.

Sofia put the string of dried fish she was considering down. “What’s happening?” he asked.

“I do not know.” She shook her head, and they watched babies and young children being called after or picked up by frightened parents. Foodstuffs were covered up and hidden. Coins were snatched up and hastily stashed. The butcher put his coin pouch under the fly-covered sheep’s head. Canvas fronts were unrolled and securely tied. Some parents rushed their sons and daughters to the orphanage for safe-keeping. Fra Benito hurriedly let them in along with Hans and locked the door behind them.

“Fra Benito!” gasped Hans. “The duke’s men are coming on horses.”

“Many?”

The boy held up his two hands and spread out his fingers. “That many, for sure.”

“Do not worry, children. Do not worry. Come and sit at the tables and be still.”

Fra Benito looked at Lady Rosanera and her entourage. “I fear you must leave here quickly.” All looked to Benito and heartily agreed.

Duke Gunter made it abundantly clear to Lady Rosanera that she would stay inside of the castle walls, and if she were discovered beyond the walls, she would be arrested, and she and her court would be confined to their rooms until he returned. Rosanera was the last link Gunter had to the Vatican. It was through her great-uncle, the influential Cardinal Georgio Funari that he had received financial support to make war against the Seven Princes trying to unite Germany into one Protestant State. Gunter had no great like for his stepdaughter, nor did he trust her, but he adhered to Machiavelli’s advice about keeping your enemies closer than your friends.

“One at a time, go out to your left and then left down the alley. Your horses are back there.” The five stood in line by the door.

Cecilia was the first to go. Fra Benito opened the door enough to see that the duke’s man had not arrived. He opened the door, and she hurried left and into the alley and out of sight. She was followed by the others one at a time. Rosanera hesitated when saw the duke’s horsemen enter the square.

The people watched Cardetti and the hated soldiers pass under the arch at a reckless canter. They rode through the narrow pathways between the stalls; one rider made sport of pulling over several canopies, and another upset a few tables with his foot. He sent the glassware display to its sparkling conclusions on the paving stones. It took both an instant and an eternity for the riders to pass through the marketplace and turn the corner. The horses reared, snorted, and whinnied when their riders pulled up hard at the front door of the orphanage.

Roland and Sofia helped the vendors pick up their spilled wares. After he had put the last basket back on the garlic sellers table, he turned to Sofia. “I’ve got to see what’s happening.”

“It is better you stay with me.” She reached out for his hand.

“Don’t worry, I’ll be right back. I’m just going around the corner and take a look; that’s all.” Roland jogged to the corner just in time to see the door to the orphanage close. He saw two soldiers who stood at the head of the alley holding the unsettled and nervous horses. When he walked past, one of the soldiers leered at him, and the other soldier put his hand on the handle of his short sword. Roland bowed his head and walked close to the wall on the orphanage side of the cobblestone lane. The two soldiers laughed and returned to their conversation.

Roland saw enough and was ready to return to Sofia. When he passed a deep doorway a woman called to him in a loud whisper, “You, please, you must hide me.”

Roland glanced into the shadows and saw a beautiful woman with fearful eyes, dressed in black standing there. He was taken with her and the situation. He glanced at the two men holding the horses and casually leaned against the stone door casing as if resting. “I’ll help you,” he whispered.

Inside the orphanage, Sergeant Cardetti stood before the soldiers and addressed Fra Benito. “Good day Fra Benito, children.”

“What do your men want here? We certainly have no gold.”

“Calm yourself. We are here on the duke’s bidding. Give us six strong girls and four strong boys,” he said amiably. The men behind Cardetti looked over the human lucre.

“For what reason?” Benito held his own.

The sergeant hesitated, “Reason? To help in the scullery and stables.”

“You have papers signed by the bishop?”

Leo looked over at Mario, gave his confederate a subtle nod and then he looked back to Benito. “My aide will show you such papers. I myself, must away. The children will be in good hands. Good day Fra Benito, children.” Sergeant Leo Cardetti turned his back on the children and his men and quickly left the orphanage. He collected his horse, mounted it and rode toward the town gates as fast as he could, wishing he would never stop riding.

Fra Benito looked at Mario and the men behind him. “You have the papers?”

Mario laughed. “There are no papers involved here, old man.”

Benito went right up to Mario and stood nose to nose with him. “The children are in my charge, in the charge of the Holy Mother the Church.”

Mario was surprised at the courage the friar showed. He backed up a step. “Come now, what do think we are going to do with them? Sell them to some stinking black Moor in Sardinia?” Mario turned to the men and laughed. The men laughed back, but in a dark and evil way. Their laughter stopped abruptly, and each man trained his attention on a suitable catch. Mario nodded and the men paired up. Mario dispatched the distracted Fra Benito with two quick blows to the forehead with his weighted club.

The children jumped up from the benches when they saw the men charge toward them. The soldiers made short work of it. The children who tried to fight back by kicking and scratching were thrown to the floor with more force than necessary, or sent flying with a sharp slap or shove. Those girls and boys in the clutches of the soldiers were subdued with a few stinging slaps across the face to quiet them down; those who still struggled were punched in the back of the head until they gave up their efforts and resigned to the terror. A boy and a girl were knocked unconscious.

Fra Benito lay on the floor bleeding. The toddlers and younger children who surrounded him were crying and clinging to each other. One soldier, a brute named Nero Emiliani, carried away two frightened young girls, one over each shoulder. He kicked the door open, which caught the attention of Roland and the two soldiers who were tending to the horses. One by one, the soldiers, each holding a child by the wrist or by a handful of hair, roughly led them outside into the bright morning light. The soldiers mounted, hoisted up a child, and held their captive fast in front of them.

Mario was the last to leave. He came out of the orphanage pulling a blonde girl named Martina, whose mama, just moments earlier, had ushered her to the orphanage for safety. He kicked the door closed, forced the girl into the saddle, mounted up behind her, and held her fast with one arm around her chest. The girl was in tears. Mario already shoved his groping hand under her skirt.

Roland was frozen in place. He could not believe his eyes. Rosanera crouched down, bowed her head, and pressed against the wall. Her black riding habit was lost in the triangle of the dark shadow.

The horses reared and wheeled and whinnied as their riders circled into a ragged formation and readied to ride out.

Martina saw Roland and held out her hand to him. He quickly summoned his courage, left Rosanera, took a few bold steps toward the girl, reached up, and took her hand. He tried to pull her into his arms.

“Step back,” yelled Mario. He took a better look and recognized Roland. “Oh, it is you, is it? Have I got something for you.” Mario grinned, abandoned his groping, deftly and quickly unsheathed his weighted club, and gave Roland a smart blow to the top of his head. Roland grabbed his head, staggered, fell to his knees, slumped forward, and was on the verge of fainting.

Mario laughed and held Martina a bit tighter. He pushed Roland to the ground with his foot, spurred his horse and galloped around the corner, back through the be-shambled marketplace. He passed Sofia. Sofia looked at the sobbing girl and into the horseman’s cruel eyes. She felt a jolt when she recognized him as the soldier who manhandled her the day before.

The second the soldiers were gone, Rosanera ran out to Roland. She knelt down, turned him over, and put his head in her lap. Blood streamed down his face from his wound. Rosanera took a hanky from her sleeve and pressed it against the wound.

Antonio timidly looked out from the alley. All was clear, and he called for the others to follow. When they saw Lady Rosanera kneeling down in the middle of the cobblestone lane, they all rushed to her side. A boy ran to the church to fetch the priest or maybe one of the nuns to come and help.

“Get him up and onto my horse.” Luis and Antonio hoisted Roland up between them. With Catharina’s and Cecilia’s help, they worked Roland’s leg over Enzo’s back. Rosanera mounted, took the reins, and supported Roland in front of her between her arms.

Sofia got to the corner just as Lady Rosanera and her entourage was leaving. Antonio took the lead. Catharina and Cecilia flanked Rosanera and Luis rode behind. Sofia saw Roland sitting in front of Lady Rosanera. She saw blood running down his face. Roland’s head bobbed in time with the horse’s gait. Sofia took a step forward.

“Stand clear,” Antonio said loudly in a commanding voice.

“He is my friend,” Sofia called back just as loudly.

“Stand clear.” Antonio raised his riding crop and gave it a shake intimating he would use it.

Sofia took a step back and watched as the group passed. Rosanera looked down at Sofia.

“Gittup.” She nudged her stallion, and the group picked up its pace.

Sofia could do nothing more than stand silently and watch the nobles and Roland cross the square and pass through the gate. She sadly and slowly walked through the marketplace back to the empty cart.

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