A solitary rider travels unhurriedly through the dark Italian morning. The rain's been soft and sporadic, finally easing into patchy mist and dripping from the forest's rich, early spring foliage. The damp isn't severe, but the cool is starting to seep though Gian’s layers of worn and somewhat threadbare wool and linen. His breath is misty in front of him. The aroma of wet horse and leather is oddly comforting, and the saddle creaks softly as his weight shifts rhythmically with his horse's walk.
He clears a small rise, and sees the other rider approaching him along the track. Even at the distance, he recognizes the tall build, the dark blond hair, and the arrogant squinting scowl of Vanni D'Ansart. As their distance closes, Gian can see that, as expected, the other man is more richly dressed, his hood, cloak, long doublet, and hose of far better materials and showing less wear than Gian's. Gian notes with a dull ironic satisfaction that the other man's red pointed shoes are of an inferior quality to his own hunting boots. The satchel on D'Ansart's saddle silently suggests that he too is on a mission for his Lord. As they lock eyes, they both know it's time. This encounter is unplanned, but it is not unexpected.
Gian brings his horse up short and adjusts his gloves with a tug. He shrugs his cloak and hood off and swings down from his mount, the aromatic mud squelching under his Polish-style pointed boots. As he adjusts the cloak over the saddle, out of the corner of his eye, he sees D'Ansart dismount, and Gian smirks as the other man winces at the damp soaking into his shoes.
With a practiced ease, Gian draws his war sword from the saddle scabbard, the 3-foot long, sharply pointed blade makes a gentle shhh sound as it slides easily from the wood and leather. It is a light and fluid extension of his hand. A soft thump-thumping sound catches his attention. He quickly looks at D’Ansart; the other man is also startled by the noise. D'Ansart's horse has taken the opportunity to relieve itself. Both men silently turn back to their preparations.
Gian steps away from his horse, and shrugs off the encroaching anxiety. This has gone on long enough. The two men meet at the center of the track, between the horses, just under a full arm span apart.
After walking through the densely packed city of Asti, the city of towers, through the narrow winding dust and stone streets, Gian and his Grandfather finally reached the shaded alleyway leading to a large studded wooden door. Grandfather knocked.
Gian loved and admired his grandfather as the strong axis around which his world revolved. The old man was a shoemaker, one of the very few in the village of Comorro. He was Gian’s mother's father, and paterfamilias of his children’s families. Gian’s mother's husband had been Grandfather's apprentice, and had died sometime after Gian’s older brother Francesco was born, fighting somewhere in the conscript militia levy for Monferrat. At least it was assumed he had died. This was not an uncommon thing at the best of times, and those had not been the best of times. However, as Grandfather was often known to say, “we must play with the dice that are rolled.”
After a few moments, a servant in yellow, belted kirtle and blue hood, and a blue crowned lion on his chest opened the door. He led them into a small antechamber where an older man, also in livery, was counting large sacks and making notes. He looked up at Gian and his grandfather.
"Ah, Gandalfo Calizo. I was told you would come by. Is this the boy?"
"Yes, Mister Benzo," Grandfather said.
"He looks sturdy enough," Mister Benzo said. "How old are you, boy?"
"His father was English," Grandfather said, and that was all that was needed. A decade before, English mercenaries under Sir Robert Kanolles had swarmed through the mountains from France like a plague of vermin: raping, torturing, pillaging, and worse. They had been invited in by the Marquis of Monferrat to fight the Visconti of Milan. Within a month, even their employer and the Green Count of Savoie had joined forces in the battle against the invading mercenaries. Eventually they were brought back under rein and were sent to fight the Milanese and their German and Hungarian mercenaries, but those weeks had been stamped across the pox-marked face of the Piedmont.
Grandfather turned to Gian. "Boy, this is Mister Coppo Benzo. He is in charge of servants for the house of the Pelletta family. It is an ancient and noble family who themselves serve the City, the Marquis of Monferrat, and the Emperor. You are theirs now."
A sudden wrenching chill slithered through Gian, as he tried to make sense of the words. "B-but, Grandfather, I don't understand,” he stammered.
The old man's face appeared to soften for a moment. "This is what is best for the family, Gian. You know that you are useless in the shop. That's not your fault, that's just the way it is. We do not have enough money that we can afford to carry a boy who can not pull his own weight in the family business."
Gian was stunned. It was true that he wasn’t as quick with an awl as Francesco, and would much rather be outside playing than in the small gloomy shop sewing bits of leather together, but didn't they know that he would do whatever was needed of him? There must be some mistake. To be cast from the family was the worst fate he could imagine. He turned to face his Grandfather, to plead with him. His grandfather’s face was stone, as if carved from the Piedmontese granite of their village. Gian was frozen into silence with the horror and grief.
Benzo handed Grandfather a paper from his stack of notes and a writing lead.
"Sign there and we’ll take him.”
Grandfather scrawled his name on the paper. "It is done, boy. Don’t be too upset. It's not your fault that you are an Englishman's bastard and a humiliating embarrassment to the family. That's just the way the dice were rolled." Benzo handed the old man a small pouch, and with the clinking in the pouch the old man turned away from his grandson, as if the boy had ceased to exist.
Benzo called to one of the nearby servants. "Antonio, take this boy to the servant's hall. I'm expecting several more boys before the end of the day."
Antonio, a boy about Gian's age, stepped from the side of the room and tapped the numb Gian on the arm. "Come on this way."
Gian shifts his balance into a slight crouch; his legs no wider than his shoulders, his weight solidly set beneath him on the balls of his feet, left leg in front. His hands are on the hilt of his sword; right over left, with the blade trailing past his right hip, the point floating just above the ground. D'Ansart takes a more aggressive posture, his legs wider apart, his sword held laterally in front of his face, his left hand slipping back to cup the pommel of his sword. Gian notices this movement, and shifts his weight slightly to his right leg.
In August, Gian had been in the Pelletta’s stables for a few months, when the English returned to the region. Four hundred lances of men from the White Company, as they had become known, for the high polish on their armor plates, had come to Asti to aid Gian Galeanzo Visconti, the young Count of Verdu, in protecting Asti from the army of Savoie under Enguerrand de Coucy. From the walls, the towers, and the roof tops, the besieged citizens watched the encircling armies. But where most saw a terrifying armored hell of death, rapine and ruin, even in their allies, Gian saw silver clad angels engaged in the most noble and glorious occupation a man could ever hope for. He knew with every fiber in his body that this was what he was meant to do.
The morning of the first engagement, he was sitting with his friend Antonio on the stone roof of a house near the city’s wall. They were watching the Savoie and Visconti forces gathering at opposite ends of what had until recently been a bit of forest and farmland in the plain below the city; two groups of armored men, marching to tabor and drum, pointing long lances and spears at one another.
"They’re nothing but riff-raff, Master. Common mercenaries. Vile English vermin. Scoundrels and nobodies.” An arrogant voice came from below.
Gian and Antonio peered over the edge of the roof. Below them, on the walkway along the top of the town's wall, five boys surrounded a sandy-haired man, all richly dressed in shorter doublets and trailing tails from their matching, brightly-colored hoods. The six were all watching the units maneuver on the field below.
"Is that so, Vanni?" the man asked with an odd accent. He was talking to a slender boy who was about Gian's age, although taller, and as light as Gian was dark.
"Absolutely, Master." The boy spoke with conviction. "I see nothing those creatures can show us."
Thunder rolled as bombards fired across the fields, filling the air with light gray clouds of smoke that filled the summer-brown field between the marching men. Suddenly, among the drums marking time as the masses drew together, there was a pop-pop-popping of hand-gonnes and more smoke filled the air. The clouds swirled as flights of arrows passed through them. Several of the common solders and men-at-arms on both sides slumped to the ground as the faint smell of gunpowder reached the walls, thrilling Gian.
"That is not war," the boy continued. "That is simply peasants killing one another."
"I may be mistaken," the man spoke, pointing out into the lines of men, "but I believe I see quite a few knights out there. And unless my eyes are lying to me, there are banners suggesting a few nobles might be out there."
"Master, the presence of nobles out there in that host is no more an indicator of that being a real battle than the presence of pepper and spices makes spoiled meat edible. Rotten meat is still rotten meat. There is no nobility out there, no glory, no vindication or honor."
The man laughed. "Well spoken, young D'Ansart. Your father would be proud." He looked to the other boys, "Although he is perfectly correct, there is a flaw in what he’s said. Can any of you gentlemen see the inherent flaw?"
The boys looked at one another, then looked back at him
"The flaw, boys, is that war isn't about glory or nobility, nor vindication nor honor. The harsh reality is that war is about winning. In a fight, any fight -- between men or nations -- he who ends the fight first, most quickly, most efficiently, with the least cost to himself, wins. And the battle that is not fought is already won. By the time a war has reached this point, there are too many losses for there to be any real winners. That is the future of war, as ugly as it is."
Gian was confused by what the man was saying, and knew he didn’t agree at all.
"Pardon me for saying so, Master, but you sound like a merchant. War has no purpose unless it expresses the nobility of those who engage in it, and brings honor and glory to them. Those knights and nobles are dishonored even being on the same ground as those … peasants. "
"Pardon me for saying so, Vanni, but you sound like a Genoese noble's son parroting things he knows nothing about." The boy’s face flashed, angry enough to challenge, had discipline not kept him in check. "A fight does not bring honor to those engaged in it. Honor can not be gained, it can only be retained. Your ancestors won their rank because they understood the importance of political power and money in shaping the world, and because of that understanding they were granted their honor and position by God." He then turned away from the boy and redirected the attention of the boys to the field, instructing them to observe the flow of the battle, the movements of the troops, the plans, counter-plans, and subterfuges of the commanders.
"Who is that?” Gian whispered to Antonio, watching the lecture with fascination.
"I'm not sure. By the livery, I'd say they were all from the Turco house. I’ve heard they’d hired some feuding Fruilian swordsman to instruct their squires. Dei Liberi, I think his name is."
D'Ansart jabs his sword forward towards Gian's face in a fast movement, shifting his weight firmly into his right leg. Gian, as quickly, shifts his left foot to the side and forward, pulling his blade up and across his body to deflect D'Ansart 's attack.
Heartbeat pounding hooves blurred over the hard-packed roads. The horses were sweating and heaving through the tightly twisting streets, their riders violently wrestling with each other for position. Walls, doorways, faces flashed past, but Gian ignored them. He was focused, concentrating on the throbbing, thrusting bay beneath him, the road twisting in front of him. He was in the lead and he knew it. He could see the movement of other horses and riders to either side of him; hear their shouting and their prayers. The yellow horse and rider to his right were close, too close. The other rider reached out and grabbed Gian’s horse by the mane, attempting to pull the animal up. Gian slapped his hand away and slapped at the other boy’s face as the pack twisted around a junction of several streets. The other boy grabbed at Gian’s hand, almost dislodging him, but the other boy’s horse had lost momentum, and fell back into the pack. Gian then glanced to his left, and a tall blond boy, on a dappled gray, had taken the opening created by the altercation, and moved his horse up along side Gian’s. Gian knew it would be close, but he knew he could keep the others behind him. With a final push of speed, he willed his horse to move forward, ahead of the encroaching gray, into the plaza, past the judges, and the throngs of cheering, yelling people.
Gian was 16, and this was the first year he had been old enough to ride in the Palio and now he had won the scarlet banner for the House of Pelletta. Surging with pride and excitement, he rode the muddy sweat-caked horse over to the Pelletta area in the Square, and waited as the rest of the racers arrived. After a few minutes, they were followed by the procession of the city's upper-class families. At the head of the Pelettas rode the grave, dignified Guiglielmo Pelletta, the head of the house. Pelletta nodded to him and Gian was thrilled. Then he saw the young woman riding slightly behind Pelletta. A young goddess with a rounded face, pointed chin, and reddish blond hair like Pelletta's poking from beneath the maidenly veils surrounding her face. Gian couldn’t take his eyes from her. He knew she must be Marguerite, Pelletta's daughter. Gian and she had lived in the same household, and even were of an age, but he had never actually seen her before. Now he had and he was in enthralled. She looked in his direction, and he fancied that she had looked at him before turning her head, smiling shyly.
As soon as the progression had broken its formation, and the people dismounted in their families’ areas and their places were taken in front of the Cathedral. As the crowd settled, the judges called for the town's attention.
"Citizens of Asti,” the dry thin figure of the Podesta, or Mayor, began. “I don’t need to remind anyone of the story of the Palio, how a century ago, we were at war with our neighbors in Albi, and how during the long siege of Albi, we the Astigiani chose to show our disregard and contempt by holding a tournament. And how every year thereafter we have had held a horserace to commemorate that first tournament.” Laughter rippled through the crowd. “So to be brief,” there were some cheers and applause, “The Bearer of this year's Palio and the Garland is… Vanni D'Ansart, Squire of the House of Turco."
The crowd was silent for a moment, then burst out in cheering and applause. Tall, lanky young man stepped off his dappled gray stallion and strode with confidence up to the judges.
Gian was furious. It had been a very close race, to be sure. But he knew that he had come in first. Obviously rather than see a noble defeated by a servant they just chose to ignore Gian's victory. He seethed, but Gian had learned over the past six years that a good servant must keep his true face hidden, to never give them anything to hold against you, never make them feel threatened so he masked his rage behind compliance and good-natured affability.
That evening the celebrations surged through the night, but Gian had no part in them. Standing off to the side of the Great Hall of the Turco House, full of happy dancing people, he kept his place, silently watching from the side, sulking. As a servant he really had no place at the celebration at all, other than because he had come in second. From the corner of his eye he noticed someone coming toward him. If another person, he thought, comes over to condescendingly congratulate me, I’m going to explode.
He was startled by a smell of flowers over faintly musky spices and felt a hand touch his arm. He turned, and then immediately ducked his head to avoid eye contact and knelt in a half-bow. It was Marguerite Pelletta.
"Yes, Mistress?" he asked, trying to keep his voice from trembling, the anger being easily brushed aside by embarrassment and anxiety.
"Gian isn't it?" Her voice was light and strong, the sound of water running over rocks.
"I just wanted you to know that I know who won". She squoze his arm gently.
Unfortunately D'Ansart had committed to his thrust, and this allows Gian to extend his leg movement just enough to place his right knee just behind D'Ansart 's left, then start to move in behind him. His intention is to brace D'Ansart as he brings his blade backward in a throat-cutting move. D'Ansart adapts to this danger and he smoothly shifts his grip to bind up Gian's guard with his for a moment, and slips his right hand off his sword, just long enough to ram his elbow back into Gian's face- enough to distract him, and break and step back away.
The firm, gentle woolen fire; pale blue-gray rings deepening; breathing her air, igniting a gut-blossom fire; moving, twisting, heaving fabric, the soft caress of warm damp linen; nature's fragrance; slender pink and pale, a salting of faint freckles; firm hands on full curves, moving, flexing; uncertain hands touching sweat-sheen marble; sweet-scented fine hairs on nervous flesh, bumping, rising; salty stickiness; black hair and blonde braiding; legs and arms interweaving; mad-blind passion, diving into a blazing pool; intensely focused movement; slickened grip and a rippling deep caress; faster, harder, more, now! A flower blooms its pulsing light up the spine. Then there is silence; pooling sweat cooling in the evening's breeze.
They lay there awash in simple happiness, him holding her, watching the setting moon behinds the clouds through the balcony door. Whatever else, for this moment, everything was peaceful and they had each other.
Finally, he spoke. "I must be getting back. I don't want them to think I’ve run away. Again", he added with a quiet chuckle.
"No, please, you can't go now. We still have some time!" His heart melted at her tone.
"This is insane." He muttered as he settled back, his arms again around her.
"I know," she sighed. "But it is our own madness. No one else can take these moments from us -- ever. Are you sure we can't fly away together?"
"Now you’re mad. You’re the daughter of an aristocratic, almost noble house. I'm a servant. They’d hunt for us. They’d find us. They’d kill me."
She was silent
"You know I would die for you," he said passionately.
"I know,” she said softly. “But you are going to have to do without me."
"What do you mean?"
She looked down and spoke very softly. "My father's made his decision. He wants me to marry Vanni D'Ansart. It's all been arranged. It will be a great alliance for the family."
Gian's anger flared, then as quickly the servant's mask returned, sealing the rage and jealousy behind calm compliance. "I see."
"Oh Gian, don't be like that. Please, this is hard enough as it is. Vanni's nice enough, a good man, I suppose. It won't be that bad. And as long as you are out there, living for me, for us, I will be able to endure it."
"For you, I promise it." He held her closer, thinking. He wondered if maybe they could convince D'Ansart to buy his bond. That could work. Then he could go to work for the new couple. He smiled to himself, then he could still be close to Marguerite. And give the nobleman a set of horns to wear in his own household. Gian liked that. The future was looking actually promising.
At that point the door slammed open, revealing Guiglielmo Pelletta, his daughter's maid, and two armed men.
Gian steps away, back into the same balanced stance, with his sword held out in front of him with the point low. D'Ansart again takes his aggressive stance: legs spread, sword held up vertically and pointed slightly behind to the right. D'Ansart brings his sword down quickly, the pommel held close to his body. Gian steps his right leg back, drawing his body out of the line of attack, while drawing his sword up into D'Ansart's downward swing.
Spring in Turin was a work of art, but Gian was too bound up in his thoughts to even notice. He had been in town for a few weeks, finding what work he could, trying to hear word of Marguerite, and what had happened to her after that night – after he’d abandoned her to save his own skin. Gian barely noticed the man come in to the small tavern’s stable, as he was mucking out a stall, hefting heavy wooden forkfuls of dung and sodden, rotting straw from the stone floor onto a small cart.
"You there." The man spoke harshly with a low rustic air to his accent. Gian paused and looked at him. He was a large, rough-looking man, in a peasant's kirtle and hose, all greasy leather and linen, but wearing a sword at his belt.
"Yes?" A hint of annoyance crept into Gian’s voice.
"I hear you’re new here. New in town."
"You are Gian di Comorro -- from Asti?" Gian's skin chilled, knowing the fate of runaway servants.
"I might be. And you are?"
"I am Augusto, they call me the Butcher. I’ve been paid good silver to bring back your head." The Butcher dragged his nicked and battered sword from its abused scabbard, and swung it wildly to his left. Gian managed to block it with his pitchfork, locking the blades in the tines; then pushed the fork and the sword from him. Gian turned and ran from stable into the hot dusty street.
He ran in confusion, down one street, up another, passing people going about their daily business. He could hear the large man following him, huffing and bellowing.
"Stop him! Stop that runaway boy!"
All too soon there was a crowd pursuing Gian, shouting and yelling. Most seemed more interested in the excitement than in actually catching him. Gian blindly ran between people, and tried to think. This didn’t make any sense. Runaways were brought back, beaten and brutally punished, but not killed. Who would want him dead? Then the answer clarified in his mind. Marguerite’s father might well want him dead for taking his daughter’s virginity, but had other, more legal ways to punish him than hiring a killer. Vanni D'Ansart, her fiancé‚ however, would be honor-bound to see him dead – and a hired killer would keep his Noble hands clean of Gian’s Common blood.
Gian ran into a large sun-baked plaza, but there was a maze of market stalls encamped there blocking him. He was quickly trapped by the mass of people. An open area spread away from him like a ripple in a pool as the crowd stepped back, away from Gian and his pursuer. The man started swinging his sword at him as the crowd stood yelling in a deep roar of voices, taunting, jeering, placing bets. But the sword was hacking through wide arcs that gave Gian plenty of opportunity to dodge, but he knew that wouldn't last. Eventually he’d tire, and be chopped apart like a goat in the kitchen. The man would swing at him three or five times, than circle a bit with the sword pointed at Gian, as he waited the time for his next surprise flurry of swings.
Then Gian saw something fly at him from the crowd, followed by a thumping sound in the dirt in front of him. He looked down through the dust cloud, and saw that someone had thrown him a long knife. He dodged the next swing and ran to snatch the weapon from the ground. Gian was startled by its unfamiliar weight, heavier than a kitchen knife, but much lighter than his pitchfork had been. He jumped back from another series of flailing swings, and then leapt to the side - shoving the blade into the large man's gut.
Gian suddenly was focused only on the large man falling to the dirt, horror twisting his stomach, mirroring the wound he had given the other man. All the noise from the crowd and the man's bellowing for help turned to a buzzing in his ears. The sunny day started to darken and twist to the side. He barely noticed that the crowed had stepped back. A man stepped up to him and placed a hand on his shoulder. Gian's numbness slipped away in an icy burst of panic over his body as his first thought was of someone arresting him for this killing.
"Excuse me, boy," came a deep mellow voice with a Friulian accent. "May I please have my knife back?”
Gian reversed the weapon and looked at his savior. He was startled to see the light brown hair, and sharp eyes of the Swordsman Dei Liberi.
With a sharp move, Gian continues the motion into a cut up into D'Ansart's crotch. D'Ansart pulls his shoulder back to the right and shifts his sword into a low half-sword block. Gian quickly steps back out of range.
Gian took off his cap and wiped the sweat from his face with it. It was like an oven in the paved courtyard of the Florentine monastery, and between the oppressive heat and the sickly sweet smell of the soured wine and water in the pitcher he was holding, he was about ready to swoon like a woman.
In the courtyard the hard clatter of wooden practice swords caught his attention. Dei Liberi and a former student, Rinaldo Agalanti, had put on padded jackets and were circling one another slowly, their weapons held in strange postures. It had taken Gian a few months of watching, whenever his employer gave him the time, before he began to see that this style of fighting was completely different from the wild flailing with swords he was used to seeing. That was more akin to the wild flailing and chopping of boys playing at sword fighting with sticks. This was more controlled, more subtle, more efficient. The sword was no longer a weapon; it was a tool being used by a skilled craftsman.
The bout ended, somewhat surprisingly, with Dei Liberi flat on his back and the point of Agalanti's sword pressing against his nose. Gian had noticed that face hits were preferred among those who practiced the Art, as Dei Liberi called it, probably to hit one of the few regularly unarmored parts of a man's body. Dei Liberi laughed and sprang to his feet, complementing his opponent, asking him to reproduce the action that had led to his defeat. After a few minutes more, practicing, trying to figure out the movement, they walked over towards Gian, who quickly offered them towels and small wooden cups of soured water.
"Oh you aren't still drinking this stuff, Master?"
"Of course I am, Rinaldo. It's good for you, especially in this heat."
Rinaldo made a face, but drank anyway. Dei Liberi moved past Gian and leaned against the shadowed wall and crouched down in front of it, opening the laces on his jack to get some air under the padded linen.
Rinaldo joined him, leaning against the wall.
"So, tell me," Dei Liberi asked. "What brings you to this flat dung heap?” Both men laughed, Florence was anything but a dung heap. "The last I heard you were going to stay with the Turco, in their guard."
"Oh yes, Master. I'm here with Master Ruberto on business to see old Arriguccio Berlinghieri."
"What about the other boys?"
"Well." The two men started talking about things of no interest to Gian and he stared off into space until suddenly he was pulled back into the moment.
"And of course, you"ve probably not heard the news yet. Vanni D'Ansart's gone off and sold his soul to Milan."
"The Milanese aren’t bad employers, and have some fairly knowledgeable swordsmen on hand. But I was given to understand that he had a rather nice arrangement for himself in Asti.”
"Certainly, but it's not been a good year for him. Last year, almost a year ago, in fact, he won the Palio and was riding high on that. Then he married old Pelletta's daughter, Marguerite? Cute girl, but a bit too distracted, and not serious enough for my tastes. That was back in December. In July she bore a baby boy."
Dei Liberi smiled, "What's the old phrase? A new wife can often do in less time what more experienced women take nine months to do." They both laughed.
"True, true. However, the child died soon after, and she fell down a flight of stairs and died the same night. And so he left a few weeks later and went to Milan." Gian felt a dropping feeling in his gut, his skin chilled, and the courtyard was growing brighter in front of him.
"Understandable. Grief often makes it easier to just pack up and move on."
"Of course, the belowstairs rumors are that the child wasn't his anyway, and he killed it and threw her down the stairs."
The world suddenly grew dark and Gian's hearing failed and he pitched forward to the pavement.
They circle each other for a moment. D'Ansart shifts his guard up into a lower position, again pointing up, but not as high as before. Gian again keeps his sword low before him.
It was snowing outside the Alpine Monastery. The passes north and south, already closed, were filling with deeper drifts.
Gian gasped as he hit the wood floor solidly, his head banging hard. His wood practice sword lay uselessly to the side.
"Stupid peasant. How do you expect me to keep in trim sparring with someone who has less skill than a pell? Noblemen pay to have my secrets imparted to them. The least you could do is pay attention. You are a disgrace to the Art." Dei Liberi kicked him in the ribs. "Now get back up!"
"I’m sorry, Master." Gian struggled to rise.
"You fight like a German -- all flourish and posturing. Mindless pushing and audacious presentation. You move a short distance to make a thrust; that spraddle-legged stance keeps your balance set. Set and stable, plodding like an oxen.”
"And that's wrong?" Gian wasn’t sure his employer wasn’t going to hit him again, but the swordsman was off on one of his lectures again.
"To move quick as a tiger, you must surrender to a higher balance. Yes, move out of the line of attack, but not so far that you lose your position, your grace. I just need to knock you to the ground, and then you are a dead man.
"Think of the elephant. Nothing can move the elephant, but the elephant. He never loses his balance. You must be the elephant. But with the speed of the tiger.”
"Master, with all due respect, this is very confusing, the stance of the elephant, look with the eyes of the lynx, move with the speed and ferocity of the tiger, but with the bravery and justice of the lion. I feel like a bestiary."
Dei Liberi laughed. "You have the measure of it there, boy. "
D'Ansart whips his sword back a beat, and brings it down into Gian at an angle, his hands close to his body, stepping into the blow; and once again Gian steps out of line with his trailing right foot, bringing his sword up higher into a block. They pause, D'Ansart's right knee to Gian's left.
Gian’s head throbbed in a deep aching, and the world wavered between dark and light, the sounds around him getting louder then more muffled with each step of the men who were carrying him.
"Put him down there, on that cot." Then after an agony of movement Gian settled into peaceful stillness, dimly aware of the conversations around him, as his consciousness wavered in and out of focus.
"Ah Vanni, excuse me, Signori D'Ansart. It has been a long time." Gian struggled to regain himself, but couldn't do more than listen and moan.
"Almost ten years since the White Company and the Visconti were turned from Asti. Much has happened since then. And Master, you have my permission to call me what you wish."
"I am honored. So what brings you and these two ruffians to carrying my servant home in such a condition?"
"When the brawling broke out at the Piazza i Maggio, I was observing the battle for the Signori Frederigo Savorgnon. After a few minutes the riot shift suddenly towards the Basilica and overran the position where your men were."
"Yes, Master." Da Montone, one of Dei Liberi's students spoke. "A fellow with a knobbed club slipped in behind us and almost took off Gian's head."
"He'll not get to do that again, Master" Brunetti, the other student said, "you should have seen Da Montone - he stepped outside and broke the peasant's arm taking that club away from him. It was splendidly done."
D'Ansart spoke again. "I made my way around the crowd and helped them get your man out."
"My thanks, Vanni. Ah, Udine." A clatter of shutters being opened, and a burst of cool air brushed across Gian, as well as the sounds of the fighting below. "Were you aware, gentlemen, that this is my home country? Well, actually a town not a day's travel further on towards the mountains."
"Really, Master?" Da Montone's voice returned lightly. "I more saw you stepping forth fully formed from the sea somewhere."
"Venus with a blade," Brunetti retorted laughing. "I think not. Clearly, he's more Minerva from these Jovian hills." The men laughed, and Gian slipped for a while into darkness.
Gian gradually faded back in to hear Dei Liberi. "I thought you were sworn to the Visconti now. I was not aware that Milan had any interest in this conflict. Venice does, of course, they are always looking to feed upon her neighbors, but Milan?"
"Ah, but Master, you forget, I am Genoese by birth. Where Venice moves, my heart begs for revenge. And since a more powerful Venice," Vanni continued, "is a threat to Milanese interests as well, I am here to support Milan by countering any Venetian actions where I can."
"And keeping an independent buffer zone can not hurt," Dei Liberi added as darkness muffled Gian again for a little while before Dei Liberi's voice cut through the pain.
"You married Marguerite Pelletta, did you not? And she died shortly after the birth and death of a child?"
"Yes, she was quite upset by the child’s death, and threw herself down a flight of stairs. But the child was born early, only seven months after we married. It was no wonder that it died, but she was not strong enough to accept it. Why do you ask?"
"Vanni, I feel you deserve to know the truth. The child was full term."
"But she and I never… Not before the wedding. She was a virgin… You are saying that someone else…"
"Was plowing your field, yes. I understand they met at a horse race of some sort. And the Pellettas never told you?”
"Who was it? That horse boy? They’d said he’d behaved improperly and ran away, and I think, died rather than be brought back. -- Wait. Are you saying... ? Him? You are l----"
"Before you finish that statement and our options become very limited., I believe you should cautiously pause. Think this through before you tell me that I'm lying, and I have to kill you to satisfy my honor. We can do that any time. Actually thinking becomes much more difficult when you are dead. It serves your family's honor nothing for me to have to kill you because I am telling you the truth. Now calm down."
"That whore! That Judas Pelletta! I swear I will kill him, and your servant too."
"You have that choice. But Signore Pelletta is in Asti, and out of your reach right now. Gian is closer, and I am certain he would be happy to fight you…"
"Fight me? He's a peasant. You think I would disgrace myself to fight him as though he were a person of name? I'll see him flogged to death in the Piazza. I should have left him there to die."
"He may still. But flogging him would reveal your dishonor publicly. You would have to explain why you want him killed. My honor would demand that much if you were to have my man killed outright. Or for that matter, if I thought you had hired someone to kill him."
“So you would protect him?"
"No, he's an adult. He can fight his own fights. But not while he is bound to my service."
"Then it seems my honor must wait." Footsteps, and a door closed, and darkness overwhelmed Gian.
D'Ansart flips his blade around Gian's to get inside the line. Gian thrusts his body forward, his sword extended past his target, his knee hooks behind D'Ansart's, then, slamming his chest into D’Ansart, his left arm and shoulder hitting D'Ansart's throat, knocking D'Ansart backwards off-balance.
"Master, I must be leaving your service". The cold January wind rattled the shutters of the dark, candle-lit room.
"Why?" Dei Liberi looked up from his supper. "Was it the duel today? Or is it to fight in this ridiculous war? Don't tell me you believe in this pathetic excuse for needless killing? I'm already losing a student to this nonsense."
"No, of course not, Master. The Paduans and the Veronese are free to kill whomever they want, how they want. I could not care less. As for Signiori Pietro – even if it were my place to hold an opinion, it would be that you had no choice but to answer his challenge. He impugned your honor, and honor demanded a response. I understand and respect that."
"Just as honor demands a response from you regarding Vanni D'Ansart."
"And you’ve discovered that he's fighting for Verona?" Dei Liberi sounded bored, as if this was all expected and something to be endured.
"I'm told that he's leading a unit of infantry men-at-arms."
"Gian, have you looked at this carefully?"
"With the eyes of a lynx, Master.” Gian crooked his lips. “I have seen my opponent, watched his strengths and his weaknesses."
"And if I told you that I believe in his innocence?"
Gian spoke slowly, almost sadly. "It may be so, Master, that he is innocent. And if he is, God will protect him. But I am honor bound to test him, just as he is honor bound to try to have me killed. As long as I avoid this encounter by the shield of your livery, I am a coward. Both in his eyes and in mine."
Dei Liberi took a drink of wine and thought for a moment. "Very well, I will not fight a battle I am losing. You are free to go. But you must remember your oath of secrecy of the Art.”
"It will be my honor, Master.”
D'Ansart topples backwards, his left hand letting go of his sword, as he tries to retain his balance, the sword in his right hand falling as he tries to grab Gian. Gian shoves his elbow into D'Ansart's chest, further driving him off balance.
The wide valley was mist filled and cool in the early spring sunrise, but Gian barely noticed over the aching in his legs, the burning tightness in his gut, and the overall sense of disconnection that comes from too little sleep. Gian, squired to Da Montone to form a Lance, was in the Paduan front line, with their backs to a dike, facing a canal and a long rising muddy field. Beyond the crest of the rise, the Veronese were being drawn forward. Most of the men in the front rank, nearly 500 Lances, were cold, wet, hungry, and anxious of the fight to come.
An hour or more passed, just waiting, sour stomach-turning waiting. Some of the Paduans Lances and other, less disciplined, footmen sat down in position to wait. Many of the people in the line ate bits of bread or dried fruit or meat from their satchels. Da Montone was kneeling to dip his costrel in the canal to fill it with water when they heard the pipes and drums echoing from up the valley. Quickly people rose and regained their formation so, as the Veronese army crested the hill beyond the slowly rising muddy fields, the first think they saw was the human hedgerow on the far edge of the canal, blocking their path.
The Veronese pulled up and spread out along the crest of the hill, about three-quarters of a mile away, well out of crossbow reach. Gian understood that. He hated bowmen and gunners of all sorts himself. They were never close enough to kill them before they began poking holes in you.
Time passed as the Veronese Carrucio, or command wagon, came into view on the rise. The Veronese commanders were clearly looking at the field that lay before them. Gian looked at them, and he could fairly well make out what they were looking at: the marsh, the dyke that was high enough to obscure what lay behind it, and the flat area by the river. As their attention seemed to focus on that area, sudden thunder and explosions in the field demonstrated that the small area of the flats was thoroughly owned by Hawkwood's artillery.
The Veronese pulled back behind the rise, leaving only the front lines visible. There began many more hours of waiting in the cold March wind.
The sun was nearing evening before the Veronese began marching forward again. Each man appeared to be carrying a bundle of sticks and twigs as a shield. It was pretty obvious when they reached bow range, they were being cautious, but it was clear that the Paduan bows were with the gunners, covering the right flank.
The Veronese reached the canal and Gian could see across to the troops, as tired and scared looking as he felt -- no one wanting to show their fear to their fellows, but making it all too clear to their foes.
Da Montone jabbed his elbow back at Gian and pointed about fifty men to their right, D'Ansart was carrying his bundle of sticks, and was eyeing the Paduan lines with caution. Gian pushed his helm back on his head, more clearly exposing his face. He gestured at D'Ansart to get his attention. As they made eye contact it was clear that the other man recognized Gian. Gian smiled and bit his gloved thumb insultingly at D'Ansart, and reset his helmet, focusing on the troops before him.
At a command, the Veronese frontline dropped their bundles into the water, and then reached behind them to get another bundle from the man behind them. This was repeated again and again until the canal started to fill with sticks, and as a few areas became more solid, troops began to start across.
Pushing, grunting sweating masses met stabbing spears and lances, sidestepping and ducking, as the overall view of the battle was lost. Swinging maces and picks, stabbing swords, flying blood. Da Montone went down early from a spear to the face, falling into the meat-mud brick they were mixing with the straw the Veronese had supplied. The lines pressed harder together, stepping on bodies, grinding in faces still crying for help, as though each man was trying to individually push the other army across the canal, and trying to avoid becoming another of the gruesome pavement underfoot.
Gian was gradually pushing forward onto solid ground on the other side, praying he was not alone in this. He was barely aware of seeing Hawkwood's mounted meat grinder wheeling up the hill behind the Veronese forces and running down the Carrucio as Gian expected.
The professionals in the Veronese army began to surrender en masse. The Veronese line broke. As the host surged back away from the canal, Gian began looking around. He soon found D'Ansart face down in the bloody muck, the weight of his armor about to drag him into the scarlet water. Gian pulled D'Ansart's head back and smiled as the other man coughed. He looked into the other man’s eyes. A vague recognition flared behind the oddly dilated pupils. He had taken a good head shot and was barely conscious, but with luck would live. Gian pulled the other man's body back away from the muck and pulled it back to the muddy bank and left it there for the surgeons to find.
As D'Ansart slams into the ground, Gian changes his footing and reverses the direction of his sword. He drops his left shin into D'Ansart's right knee and uses that as a base to drive his sword point hard up into D'Ansart's throat beneath his jaw, wedging it in the spine.
"Di Comorro!" The voice jarred Gian from his deep sleep. He paused for a moment, then, shaking his head rose from his bedroll.
"Yes, what is it?" The other men in the tent, complained at being awakened, and went back to their rest.
"Di Comorro," the voice repeated in the darkness. "The captain requests your presence, now. Sir."
He stretched and rose. He looked at his plate reluctantly. Even after a year and more, Da Montone's harness chafed when he wore it. He shrugged and tightened the points on his doublet, letting the armor sleep.
Leaving his tent, he crossed the remains of the old vineyard in the moonlight, avoiding the rest of the soldier's camps. Across the road lay the series of stone farm buildings that the Captain had commandeered to serve as a command post.
Captain Nicholas Payton and the few members of his staff stood around the candle-lit table, examining a map.
"You sent for me, sir?" Gian was a little nervous about being called before the Englishman, even though he was certain he had done nothing wrong.
"Ah, Di Comorro. Come in. What's the word among the ranks?"
"Nothing you don't know already sir. The men think we’re cut off from the main force by the Milanese host in Bologne."
"I think we could be relieved, if someone could get through the mountain, say up the Santeno River, then up over the peaks into eastern Tuscany and down to the Arno and straight into Florence." He was uncertain why he was being asked. This much seemed obvious to anyone who had been paying attention to events.
"Are you up for it? The damned Milanese are everywhere."
After a moment's thought, Gian responded, "I wouldn't have suggested it otherwise, Sir."
"Then get your things together. Signori Carre will have a satchel for you, with a message for the Captain-General."
Bracing his weight on the sword, Gian stands up. He blandly braces his foot on D'Ansart's gasping and twisting face, then jerks his sword free. Stepping back, he tosses the sword up to grab it by the thin point of the blade. Using that as a handle, he hammers the guard down into D'Ansart's face, crushing it.
He pauses, breathing heavily, leaning into the sword until the blade bites into his gloves. Gian drops to his knees, and wipes the blood from the guard and the blade of his sword on D'Ansart's still twitching body, steam rising from the wounds. Standing, he turns away from D'Ansart, and returns to his horse.