Writer, musician, educationist
Writer, musician, educationist
SONG FOR A SPY
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Return to Modena
When he was awake, I shared some of my concerns with Paolo. It is curious how often we feel that our worries are unique to us: yet Paolo understood immediately what my main concern was. Clearly we needed to find Tommaso. Equally clearly we would have to tell him the fate that had befallen his sister. And then, I guessed, when we had completed our urgent business, I would need to set out, perhaps with Tommaso, in order to effect the rescue of Rosalia from her servitude and restore her to her family.
I was worried about Tommaso, too. Paolo had heard that he was in the employ of the Bishop, presumably a safe enough job in that prosperous household. I knew how efficient and skilled a clerk Tommaso would be: his writing was perhaps not quite as good as mine, but he had always had a better head for figures and could manage accounts and transactions impeccably. Yet his family, so they had said the night before, had heard nothing from him. Why? Had he fallen into misfortune? Or perhaps (and I prayed this was the more likely reason) his employer kept him busy, paid him poorly (it seemed all the men of influence in Modena were fundamentally mean) and allowed him no time to visit. Nor could he have sent a letter, since none of the family could read.
It was Paolo, not I, who suggested how we might solve two of my numerous concerns. I wanted to help that proud but desperate family, ground down by their inability to make all their grinding labour pay sufficiently. And I wanted to reassure them about their son, although I had no firm news of him. We decided on a deception that we hoped would prove harmless.
Accordingly, when we bade the four of them farewell, Paolo pulled out a purse of money (we had been well furnished with funds for the trip). When they once again refused payment for the night's lodging, Paolo said brightly, "I almost forgot. Although I have not yet met Tommaso, I did get a message to him. His important work for the Bishop would not permit him to come out and meet me: besides, he did not know who I was.
“But when I mentioned Lorenzo here, I mean Luca, Tommaso sent a servant out with this purse, begging me to ensure that he received it. He was sure that Luca would come to see you when he was able, and he did not feel able to entrust the money to anyone else. I hope you will forgive me for not remembering yesterday – and, indeed, for forgetting to give it to Luca. Now I make amends: this is from your son."
The parents were overwhelmed. "Look, husband," declared his mother. "I told you that Tommaso would become a man of importance, and that we could look to him for help when the time came." She turned to Paolo. "Thank you, sir, for honouring our house and for bringing this gift from our son. We are in your debt."
Paolo responded with his most courtly bow, then skilfully helped me into my saddle so that I avoided making a fool of myself by betraying my inexperience on horseback, not to mention the fact that I could barely move my cramped legs. We waved a cheerful farewell and cantered up the road towards Modena. Once we were out of sight, we slowed to the ambling walk that our horses preferred and which added less aggravation to the bruising on my behind. Paolo looked at my face. "What's the matter? You look as if you’ve swallowed an onion."
"I don't know. I worry about that family. I feel guilty: I've not been in touch, barely thought about them, for three years and more. My life has moved on - while theirs has, if anything, gone backwards. The place is a lot poorer and their plight more desperate than I remember."
"Lorenzo, you must stop feeling guilty about everything! You cannot take the woes of everyone on your shoulders! Besides, you have brought them joy in seeing you again and bringing news of Tommaso, even if some of the tidings were fabricated. Sometimes a little deception’s justified if it brings happiness or avoids hurt. And we’ve left them better off than we found them. You can do no more: stop fretting."
"But I shall have to tell Tommaso about his sister, which will break his heart, I think. I can't bear to think of her, taken and ill-treated. Will they rape her? Treat her as an animal or a whore? I can't bear to think."
"Were you fond of her?" Paolo asked gently. "Was she beautiful, or one of those sturdy farming types?"
I remembered her face that last time, asking me to sing with her one more time. "I think she was the most beautiful girl I've ever seen. Oh," embarrassed, I added quickly, "I don't mean some kind of childhood infatuation. I mean she was... remarkable. And, yes, I think I loved her, as much as one child can understand loving another."
"Was she more beautiful than the lady Livia, then?" he asked mischievously.
"Livia? What do you know of her?"
"Only how much you have not said about her, but sighed whenever her name was mentioned. Yes, Lorenzo: you have mentioned her quite a lot, between calling down curses on the heads of all the other members of the Lambertazzi clan. And then, of course, you've never quite said how she came to release you from your captivity two nights ago. However did you repay her?" His eyes were twinkling with mirth, but I was unable to see the funny side.
"Damn you for a fool, Paolo! Do you think I'm like an open book to read?” He nodded, and grinned infuriatingly. “Well, I confess I think of Livia a great deal. And she is beautiful - though distant, unreal, like a goddess. But Rosalia: that was something else. We were just children, but her smile, the love for her brother, her affection for me, her warmth – those were real to me, not a dream as Livia seems. They were things I can never forget. I must find her. For Tommaso's sake. For his family's. And for the love I bore her - I still bear her."
"Lorenzo," replied Paolo gently. "I can’t resist teasing you, because you’re like a lyre. Whenever I touch your strings, you play music! But I have feelings, too: I do understand, you know. Cheer up! We have a job to do. Let’s move on quickly." And he spurred his horse to a trot and then a canter.
Somehow I persuaded my mount to something like a trot. When eventually I caught him up I asked: "If you understand, then what shall we do?"
"It’s obvious, isn’t it? We must find Tommaso and conclude your master's business. We must tell him the bad news as gently as we can. And then we shall have to see what we can do about rescuing your Rosalia. Though the Magister's business must come first. Is that agreed?"
"Agreed," I nodded, both grateful and relieved, and we set off at a pace for Modena.
We made good time. The journey had taken Tommaso and me all day as young boys walking home, or enjoying the equally slow luxury of a lift on an ox-cart: by contrast, on horseback we had covered the distance by midday. As we clattered through the north gate and into the great square, Paolo asked, "What now?"
"Now? Go and find Tommaso – at the Bishop's palace."
"And how are you going to find him?" Paolo enquired sarcastically. "Are you going to knock at the front gate and ask for him? You already look like a brigand with that mask: and they don't know you from Adam in any case."
"If they don't know me, that's all the better. Remember, I ran away from here without permission, what, three or four years ago."
"So, if they don't know you there, they won't admit you. And if they do, you'll find yourself in trouble. What's the plan now?"
I was irritated by Paolo's unhelpfulness. Back in Bologna, I had imagined it relatively easy simply to search out my old friend and enlist his help. Now everything seemed to be slipping away from me. "I don't know, Paolo. Perhaps you'd better ask."
"I can't go there. Remember, I was warned off. Oh, I know it's unlikely that there will be any of Lambertazzi's men there today. But what if there were? Or one of the Bishop's men remembered I'd been sent away from the wagon-train because I wasn't one of the trusted few? It's asking for trouble."
I paused. In truth, I was stumped for a moment. Then an idea began to form in my mind. "Paolo," I asked, "do you know anything of the layout of the palace? For instance, do you know where the Bishop's clerks and bookkeepers would work? There must be several of them. I can't believe Tommaso is his only clerk: he's too young to be entrusted with the task on his own."
Paolo considered for a moment. "I guess... yes, I think, when we were in the courtyard, Lambertazzi's foreman, the one carrying the letters, went up some stairs to the right and towards the back. Yes. I'm sure of it. It's only just down this street, and we'll find ourselves at the palace."
He was right. As I had anticipated, the Bishop's palace was indeed close to the centre of the city, almost adjacent to the Duomo and only a stone's throw from the palazzo where the Podestà exercised his power (power deputed and sanctioned by Bologna in those years) and where the council of the Comune met. Where else? The Bishop would not be far from the centre of things so that he could exert his influence and play his political games.
We found ourselves facing the gate of the Bishop's grand dwelling. Down each side of it ran a small alleyway, narrow and dark on account of the high buildings on either side. "The right, you said?" Paolo nodded. "Then we'll go down there." Our horses’ hooves clattered and echoed as we went the length of the alleyway, until we were at what appeared to be the back corner of the bishop's immense house. At street level there were no windows: but high above us there appeared quite large openings. "Maybe that's where they work?" I wondered. "Where the light's good. For reading and writing," I explained.
"So what now?" demanded Paolo. "Do we just shout his name?"
"Better than that," I replied, smugly. "We sing. Or, at least, I do."
As we had ridden through the streets of Modena I had kept my hood over my head: the city, the Cathedral and its Prior still held some terrors for me. But now I threw it back and, reaching behind my head, undid the thongs that held that grotesque mask firmly on my nose. I started to sing. It was the song that I had first sung in happy times at Tommaso's house, blending my voice with that of his sister Rosalia. I began softly: Ti canterò lo meo amor. Even quietly my voice rang from the high walls surrounding us and, my confidence grew, I sang more loudly. No longer was I singing in a treble voice: nor did I adopt the falsetto I so frequently used when performing with Sordello. This was my natural voice, sung from my chest, a warm (if unexceptional) baritone, but still I was moved by the emotions that the song still aroused in me.
Paolo sat astride his horse, a look of bemusement on his face as I launched into the second verse. Louder still I sang, and Paolo was just starting to gesticulate, to urge me to be quieter, when a voice called from high above us. "Who's singing that? Who would know that song? Is it? Surely... Luca, is it you? Is it really you?"
I looked up and saw, at a window two or more floors above us, the round face and curly hair that I remembered so well. Older, of course: perhaps a little plumper. But it was unmistakable. "Tommaso!" I laughed for sheer joy. "Tommasino, it is me. Who else?"
"Luca. I don't believe it. Don't move. Stay there. Don't move an inch. I'll be with you." The head was withdrawn and we waited. A minute. Two, perhaps. To me they seemed an eternity. And then, running from the front of the building down the street towards us was my friend, my dearest friend Tommaso. I slid from the saddle, and was nearly knocked flat when my old friend hurled himself at me with such vigour that I barely managed to prevent him from causing further damage to my nose. We hugged and disengaged. With our hands on each other's shoulders, we looked at each other. "Tommasino," I said. "You're just the same. But you're fatter!"
"Well," he replied. "You know the food's better here than the swill you must be obliged to live off in Bologna! And as for you, Luca. You're... I think you're taller. But you're still skinny: and what happened to your nose?"
"It's a long story," I laughed. "Can I tell it now? Can we go and eat? Can you escape from your work?"
"For you? Of course I can. Just give me a few minutes, and I’ll ensure I can spend the rest of the day with you. I can fix it with the chamberlain." Then he was gone again, rushing up the street until he disappeared around the corner.
Half an hour later we had stabled our horses and were sitting with Tommaso at a table at a comfortable inn, a log fire roaring at the end of the room. Tommaso, delight written all over his round face, demanded to hear all my adventures, which I recounted at length, though necessarily glossing over the parts I could not share and interrupted occasionally by a wry commentary from Paolo who stepped in whenever I risked becoming self-congratulatory. Then it was Tommaso's turn: how had he ended up in the Bishop's household? I wanted to know.
"It's simple enough, Luca. Sorry. I must learn to call you Lorenzo now. My voice broke and I never developed any kind of falsetto so, really, I was of little use to the choir: they needed no more men’s voices. Still, the Church looks after her own. My writing had become good – almost as good as yours, Lu-, Lorenzo – and I'm good with figures. I really can do numbers. So the Prior had a word with the Bishop. He’d just been made Archbishop, would you believe, so apparently he needed another clerk. And here I am!"
"Do you ever get home to see your family?" I asked, earning myself warning glances from Paolo.
My old friend's face fell. "No. We have the occasional free day for major feasts, but I don't get the week's holiday that we choirboys used to. Do you remember those visits to my family, Luca?"
I didn't correct the name, but nodded. "Tommasino, they're the clearest and happiest memories of my time here. Why do you think I sang that song?"
"I'm glad. I remember them too. I cling onto those memories when I'm unhappy or lonely: which I am from time to time. It's dull work, the dealings and accounts of a Prince of the Church. And, though I am paid, I receive so little that I have not saved even one purse-full to send to my family. I think they may have abandoned hope of my ever becoming an important man, as they hoped!" He caught my eye, and we both smiled at our shared memories of those family discussions of his outstanding prospects in the city of Modena.
Our conversation ebbed and flowed. At last, Paolo and I caught each other’s eye, tacitly acknowledging that we must soon broach the reason for our visit, when Tommaso asked innocently, "So what brings you back to Modena now?"
When my old friend demanded to know why I had returned to Modena, a city he knew I had little cause to love, I felt obliged to be honest with him.
"Tommasino, it's a serious matter, and I need to ask for your help."
"Anything," he replied, apparently astonished that I should even have to ask.
So I outlined the legal wranglings in train in Bologna. I explained how we were convinced that Lambertazzi (whose name he had already heard as the villain of my own tale) was plotting, perhaps even aiming to seize power in the city: and how, following Paolo's investigations with Giacomo and Salvatore, we were sure that the Archbishop and Uguzzoni were preparing to raise a small army to support him.
"Uguzzoni, eh?" commented Tommaso. "He'd stoop to anything. I try to have as little as I can to do with him or his clerks, though there are many dealings between them."
I leaned forward, my tone more urgent. "Tommasino, do you remember last week, a wagon coming in – just one – from Modena with some kind of special cargo?"
"It's funny you should say that, I do. It looked pretty ordinary stuff, but there wasn't the usual bill of exchange to sort out. It was all kept a bit quiet, well away from us clerks. The chamberlain dealt with it himself."
"We think there was a shipment of silver, to pay for weapons that Uguzzoni was supplying."
Tommaso made a face. "I'm pretty sure no weapons came through the Archbishop's household: I’d have known about them."
"That's the point. We think the Bishop, the Archbishop, is keeping his hands clean, but he’s passing on money and acting as intermediary. Tommasino, this is important: can you find us a letter from Lambertazzi, some kind of agreement, anything that we can use as proof back in Bologna that he's plotting to overthrow the Comune there?"
Tommaso's manner changed abruptly. "Luca, Lorenzo: You know I'd do anything for you. Well, almost anything. But this is one I cannot. You’re asking me to steal a document from my master. I’m a clerk, in his service. He's not generous, but he’s not a bad employer, and I have a roof over my head. Besides, here in Modena, what do we care about your problems in Bologna, ruled by it against our will? Modena has lost her pride, and you'll never hear a good word about the Bolognese here. I'd be betraying my city and my master. You're asking too much, more than I can give.”
I was nonplussed. Not for the first time in our long friendship, Tommaso had seen through my wiles and self-deception. Why had it not occurred to me? We certainly enjoyed the bonds of friendship, which remained as warm as they had done the day I left Modena those years before: but he owed nothing to my master, nor to a city which was alien to him, had beaten his own in battle and now ruled it from afar with the arrogance of a conqueror and scant respect or concern for its inhabitants. As Paolo started to argue, I laid my hand on his. "No, Paolo. Tommasino is right. I have no right to ask him to betray his employer, however much he may be our enemy."
"His loyalty?" replied Paolo harshly. "To the Archbishop, perhaps. But what about Uguzzoni? You haven't told him what he, or his men, have done to his family, have you, Lorenzo? When were you going to tell him that?"
The effect on Tommaso was electric. "What about my family? What's he done? Have you seen them? Why didn't you tell me?" He was angry now.
I sighed. "We went there yesterday: stayed there last night. Your parents and sisters are well, although it's hard. The harvest was bad. We didn't see your brothers. But..."
"What? Tell me." His tone was urgent, his anxiety palpable.
Paolo tried to explain. "The harvest failed, so when the bailiff came, they could not pay the rent."
"I guess that bastard Cortino was trying to screw extra money out of them?" queried Tommaso.
"I think so," I replied. "And they couldn't pay. So he..."
"Go on. Don't spare me. For the love of Christ, just tell me the truth," pleaded Tommaso.
I realised my tears were starting. "Tommasino. He took Rosalia. Cortino took Rosalia."
Tommaso was aghast. "But he can't do that. No one has the right..."
"No one has the right. I should know: I work for a lawyer," I retorted angrily. "But there was no one to help them. Cortino was cheating his employer, of course. He said that Rosalia would work for him for a year in place of payment, and earn the rent and tithe that your parents couldn't pay."
"And she agreed to this?"
"You know Rosalia. She offered herself, so that her parents and sisters would still have a home. She walked beside Cortino willingly as he rode off laughing. Your mother wept as she told me."
Tommaso was lost for words. "But he will... she, she’s not safe with an animal like that. Everyone knows about him. He’s a rapist."
I nodded miserably. "I know."
Tommaso leapt to his feet. "What are we waiting for? We have to go and find her. Get her back from Cortino: kill him if we need to. He's not taking my sister, the filth. He's bullied and cheated and… violated,” his voice cracked, “For too long. It's time to put an end to him." Other customers were looking round, disturbed by the uproar. Paolo put his hands on his shoulders and pressed him back into his seat.
"Tommasino," I said gently. "If I've learnt one thing, it's that we must tread carefully.” Knowing my reputation for over-hasty action, Paolo snorted at this. I ignored him. “We need to rescue Rosalia. But we need to make sure that neither Cortino nor anyone else can treat your family like that again."
"If my brothers knew, they would already have torn Cortino's throat out."
"Perhaps that's why they don't know. Maybe your parents didn't even tell them, for fear of what they would do, putting themselves beyond the law."
"So what can we do? Leave Rosalia with that... that filth, taking advantage... I can't even bear to say it."
"If we can bring down his master, Uguzzoni, he will have no backing. And Uguzzoni, after all, bears the real guilt for this. He allows his bailiff to rob the farmers and to cheat him, and doesn't look too closely as long as he gets enough income from his estates. It starts and finishes with Uguzzoni: Cortino is just a minion."
"A minion who has my sister in his power." He was still shouting.
"Tommasino," I continued. "If you can find me the proof that Uguzzoni is part of Lambertazzi's plot, whether or not it involves the Archbishop, I swear I’ll destroy him. Get that proof, and together we will rescue Rosalia – and we’ll make Cortino pay for everything he has done."
There was a heavy silence as Tommaso fought to bring his emotions under control. Then he looked at me in that searching, reproachful way he had. "Damn you, Luca. Lorenzo. You disappear from my life and leave it empty. Then you return, out of the blue, and turn it upside down. Damn you." And he left.
Was I shamelessly manipulating my friend? I feared I was. Yet what could I do? Loyalty to my master and to the city in which I had made my home demanded that I find the proof of Lambertazzi's treachery. Allegiance to Bologna? Yes. Curiously, when I searched my conscience, I found I really did care about that city. Its vibrant governance was chaotic, certainly, yet seemed nonetheless to afford ordinary people a voice, not to mention protection against the extortions of the powerful such as Lambertazzi.
But what of Tommaso? I knew that, if he were able to find the proof we sought, he would put himself at great risk. At the very least he might lose his employment, if discovered: yet discovery would lead him into far more danger. So complex and dark a plot did we suspect that anyone endangering it would lose not merely his livelihood but, in all probability, his life.
There again, if he could do it without being detected, and next we went to rescue Rosalia from her enforced servitude, would that not amply repay him for the risk he was taking? It was hard, so hard, to balance and calculate those arguments. I fidgeted throughout the afternoon, so much to Paolo's exasperation that he eventually barked at me, "For the love of God, Lorenzo, sit still. You're like a cat on hot bricks!"
I determined to have a walk around my old haunts. Paolo advised caution: "What if you're recognised? The fact that you ran away all those years ago might cause you difficulty: and in any case it would draw attention to you. We need to be secret." I half reassured him by promising to keep on the mask that was protecting my healing nose, and also to keep my hood up. It was a cool enough day to warrant that.
He declined to accompany me, declaring somewhat mysteriously that he “had a call to make". He would not say more, leaving me with the strong impression that he was going to visit a girl, and would not welcome company. So I wandered around the old city, pleased to be back on my own feet and even looking into the cathedral to revisit the carvings that had fascinated me all those years ago: I made a nostalgic return to that pillar on which was carved the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, San Lorenzo whose name I had taken and for whose protection I now prayed (an unusual act for me) as I pondered our next move.
As darkness fell I returned to the inn, and was joined shortly after by Paolo, still mysterious about where he had been. Eventually, when we were so hungry that we were about to order food without waiting for him, Tommaso joined us. He looked troubled, and his manner was nervous. "I have found out a little for you," he declared, "but I can do no more tonight."
I betrayed my disappointment but Paolo, consistently proving himself a far more effective conspirator than I, expressed his satisfaction. "If we manage to get any proof in our hands, we shall need to leave the city at speed: we cannot do that at night, when the gates are closed. Much better that Tommaso gives us whatever he can find in the morning. With a little luck we can reach Bologna within the day."
"So what do you think you can find us, Tommasino?" I asked my friend.
The troubled look returned to his face. "I didn't believe there was anything in the Archbishop's house. His chamberlain keeps his private documents well away from us clerks, but he does frequently have business with Uguzzoni's steward, and rather more than usual lately. That might be something to do with what you're looking for. I’ve been doing the household accounts recently, so I told the chamberlain there was some confusion over quantities of balsamico, which the Archbishop buys from Uguzzoni.
“I asked if I could go over there and sort it out with his steward, and he agreed. Then he said that, if I went tomorrow morning, I could take a couple of other papers for him, to save him the walk. I don't know if the papers I'll be taking for him will be anything that you're looking for: I doubt it, as I say. But I can try to find something when I'm with Uguzzoni's steward, if he's careless enough to leave papers around – and if his master trusts him with anything so important."
"Tommasino," I said, "don't put yourself in danger for us. This is important, really important: but I couldn't bear to see harm come to you because of me."
"It's a little late for that, Luca – Lorenzo," he replied bitterly. "I ran risks enough just looking through the chamberlain's papers. And if something goes missing from Uguzzoni's place on the morning when I'm known to go there, it won't be long before they come looking for me." He looked into my eyes, "You know I'm not doing this for you, Lorenzo. Not even for the sake of our old friendship. I'm doing it because you’ve promised to save Rosalia. If I find you the proof you want tomorrow, you can send Paolo back to Bologna with it. And you and I will go and find her. Agreed?"
Of course I agreed. What else could I do? I looked at Paolo. "It shouldn't be difficult if Tommasino and I go together. You can go ahead, and I'll catch you up on the road." He looked sceptical, but said nothing.
None of us was good company. We were all on edge, thinking about the next day. Tommaso's anguish and anxiety were etched on his face, a visage I always pictured in memory as sunny and happy. That I was the cause of that transformation troubled me deeply. And Paolo was exasperated with both of us. Since it was clear that we would not enjoy a sociable evening, we agreed to lay our plans and then part, Tommaso returning to his lodging in the Archbishop's palace. I thought that sounded a grand kind of place to live, until he retorted that the corner of a storeroom he shared as a sleeping space with two other clerks was damp, rank and infested with rats. I retorted that our inn was little better, Paolo and I looking set to share a straw paillasse with two or three other travellers. We saw Tommaso off down the street, had a piss against the wall and went to bed ourselves.
The next morning, as we had agreed with Tommaso, Paolo and I took up position in an alleyway across the square from the Archbishop's palace. From there we could watch him along his route from the palace, across the square, and down a narrow street opposite that would take him almost to Uguzzoni's even grander dwelling. We had our mounts with us so that, in the event that Tommaso succeeded in finding and giving us the proof we needed, Paolo could get quickly out of the city's eastern gateway and off towards Bologna, while Tommaso and I would head west to Cortino's farm, which Paolo had assured me was only a short distance outside the city.
I was a bundle of nerves but, if Paolo shared my apprehension, he did not show it. "Calm down, Lorenzo," he urged. "You know that Tommaso is unlikely to find anything. And, even if he does, it will not be of great significance to the people here and will probably not be missed. I've always considered this a fool's errand."
I gestured him to silence, as I saw Tommaso emerge from the Archbishop's gate. He looked around him and then strode purposefully across the street, a large satchel slung across his shoulder. Across the square he went, looking for all the world like any other clerk going about his rightful business. When he entered the narrow street opposite, however, his demeanour changed. He looked around him so furtively that, had anyone seen him, they would have immediately have deduced that he was up to no good. Then he shrank into a doorway so that we could barely see him. "Come on," I whispered to Paolo. "He's up to something. We mustn't let him out of sight."
"This isn't a good idea," replied my companion. "We're not meant to be seen."
"No one will notice us. We're just two people leading their horses across the square: we could be going anywhere.” Already I was out of the alleyway and manoeuvring to a position where we could see Tommaso more clearly. As we improved our angle of observation, I could see Tommaso now kneeling down, rifling through his satchel, which was open in front of him. Then he pulled out a piece of parchment, which he began to read avidly. Abruptly he bundled the documents back into the satchel, closed it and stood up. Then, instead of continuing along the street to his destination, he turned back towards the square. He appeared to be looking for us.
I was about to acknowledge his interest with a wave, when Paolo seized my arm. "Look!" he whispered. As if from nowhere, two burly men had appeared. They appeared to be arguing heatedly with Tommaso, who was shaking his head, apparently dismissive of whatever they were saying. The next moment the two men had seized him by the arms and were dragging him back towards the Archbishop's palace, from which emerged a figure I recognised. Hurrying towards the struggling group, the Prior’s powerful build and shining bald pate marked him out at once.
As the Prior approached we could see my friend wrestle, and hear his protestations. I could tell that Tommaso had spotted us, while his two captors, not to mention the Prior who was shouting and gesticulating, were oblivious of our presence.
I was rooted to the spot, at a loss. Not so Paolo, who leapt into the saddle and spurred his mount across the square towards the tussling group. Taken unawares, the men looked up, startled. Paolo directed his horse straight at the man holding Tommaso's right arm. As it knocked him flying, the Prior and the other guard flung themselves to the side, covering themselves (to my delight) in filth. Meanwhile my friend, exercising both a level of horsemanship and degree of strength that he had concealed from me, seized Tommaso by the arm and swung him up behind him. "Hold my waist!" he yelled as he wheeled his horse and galloped back across the square towards me. "Don't just stand there, you idiot! Ride for the gate!"
Somehow I managed to lift my sore left leg high enough to reach the stirrup and mounted my steed at the first attempt. As Paolo and Tommaso streaked past me, I did my best to follow. I turned and saw the Prior, who had appeared as stupefied as I, scramble to his feet and call back towards the Archbishop's palace. Immediately the gate opened and I could see men running into the square. I was unconcerned, as none appeared to have horses: next I became aware of arrows skittering across the square. We were turning into the Via Ǽmilia and could see, to my joy, that the gate was near, when another hail of arrows passed over my head.
I laughed in relief at another miss, until I heard a cry and saw Tommaso lurch suddenly to his right. He would have fallen, had not Paolo extended his right arm behind him. The horse stumbled a little at the sudden shifting of weight, then righted itself: but as I came alongside I spotted a red stain spreading across Tommaso's back. The shaft and feathered flights of an arrow protruded from his back. "He's hit," I gasped to Paolo. "For the love of Christ, he's hit."
"Keep going!" was the response from Paolo. "We cannot stop here. Tommaso, hold on. You must hold on."
The gateway was empty, unusually so. There were none of the usual wagons or handcarts that habitually blocked the way while their owners haggled and negotiated on the taxes they were required to pay for bringing goods in for sale. And so without slowing we galloped out through the narrow gateway, Tommaso clinging as best he could to Paolo's waist with his left arm, the right appearing to hang uselessly. I clung to my reins and the saddle's pommel, unused to such speed on horseback and in full knowledge of the fact that I had no idea how to control my mount if it chose to do anything but follow.
We were out. The great road stretched ahead of us, and, for the time being at least, there was no sign of pursuit behind us. "We need to stop," I begged Paolo. "We must see to Tommaso. He's hurt."
"Not yet," came the terse reply. "We must put distance between us and the city. Giacomo is waiting for us a league or two down the road, with fresh mounts, too."
"Giacomo? I thought he didn't come with us."
"He didn't. But I know more than you do about escaping from places. Believe me, we're going to need both him and his fresh horses - even though anyone chasing us should be held up at the gate, for a while at least."
We were yelling at each other to make ourselves heard as we hurtled down the road, which was still unnaturally empty. "How do you know they'll be held up? What have you done?"
"Lorenzo, you're such a simpleton!" We both laughed, partly from relief at our escape, and partly from the sheer exhilaration of galloping to freedom. "Your master gave me a letter for Modena's Podestà, asking that we be afforded every assistance. Don't be offended: she reckoned you had enough to do, persuading Tommaso to help us. So I paid him a visit and gave him her letter. Of course, since Bologna now controls Modena, the Podestà is one of ours, not theirs. He arranged that, if his men saw us getting out in a hurry, they wouldn't allow anyone to pass the gateway without proper authority, having their wagons searched and the like. So there should be a good old blockage in the gate by now!"
I was puzzled. "But how did you know...?"
"Lorenzo, you haven't done much of this. You can't go stealing things from powerful people without expecting trouble. I didn't for a moment think that Tommaso would find anything valuable and get it to us: not without something happening, at any rate. So I made preparations. That's the long and the short of it."
I shook my head in amazement, and we galloped on in silence.
After a time, notwithstanding my ignorance of horse-riding, I could tell that my mount was tiring. Paolo allowed his to slow, and mine followed suit. Both were snorting and breathing heavily as we permitted them to walk for a while along the great road which, straight as ever, stretched before and behind us, still without any sign of pursuit. "We should meet up with Giacomo soon,” remarked Paolo. "How’s Tommaso doing?" he added.
I looked round, to see him still clutching Paolo grimly with one hand, his right hanging uselessly. He was pale, gritting his teeth with the pain. "I'm all right," he gasped. "Just a bit sore. I'm not sure I can hold on much longer."
"Let me have a look at you," I said, and dropped back a little. The whole of his back was red and sticky with blood. "By Christ, Tommasino, it doesn't look good. One of those bastards put an arrow in you."
"I know. Luca, it hurts. It hurts like hell." He swayed, and would have fallen from the saddle if I had not been right beside him. I seized his arm to steady him, and he yelped as I jarred his shoulder. Blood seemed to seep out even more quickly. Now it was running down his back and down the flank of Paolo's horse.
"Hold on, Tommasino. We'll get help in a minute. Just hold on. You'll be all right." He smiled wanly: I knew he did not believe me.
"There he is!" exclaimed Paolo. "There's Giacomino!" Sure enough, there was our friend, standing at the side of the road ahead holding four horses.
He grinned as we approached him. "What kept you, boys? Any trouble?"
We were past joking. "This is Lorenzo's friend Tommaso. He's hurt. Badly, I think."
As Giacomo came alongside their horse, Tommaso fell off it into his arms. This time he hardly moaned at the impact. Clearly he was losing consciousness. "For the love of God, Lorenzo, what have you done to your friend?"
"It's an arrow. Can we pull it out?"
The normally taciturn Giacomo laughed harshly. "And kill him? Pack linen around the wound: try to stop the bleeding.”
“All we can do is get him back to Bologna as quickly as we can,” Paolo interrupted. “Your master seems to know all the physicians in the city. Let's hope one of them can patch him up – and that we can get there before it's too late." I was about to hush him, not wanting to alarm Tommaso: but he appeared unaware of what was happening, groaning and twitching in Giacomo's arms.
"Shit," said Giacomo. "This is beyond me. I don't know what to do."
"One of us needs to get to Bologna as quickly as possible,” replied Paolo: “That is, if Tommaso managed to steal anything important. I guess he did, or they wouldn't have tried to arrest him. We'll have to ask him." He swung down from the saddle. "Tommaso! Tommasino," he hissed urgently, shaking his head and patting his cheek. "We need to know. Did you get the proof?"
Tommaso stirred, the movement causing him to grimace again with fresh pain. "Letter," he mumbled. "Gorra letter. Luca can... read." I tore the satchel open and pulled out the parchments it contained.
"Which one, Tommasino?" I asked. "Which one?"
"It's Lamber..., Lam..."
"Lambertazzi? One from him?" Tommaso nodded as I skimmed through the letters. And there, to my amazement, was a short letter addressed, at the top, to His Eminence the Cardinal Archbishop of Modena. And at the bottom, sure enough, was what I took to be the Lambertazzi seal. There was no time to read it. "Tommasino," I asked. "Is it the proof we need?"
His reply was a sigh. "Think so. Hope it's... worth it. Take it. Mentions Uguzzoni. Make him... pay. Please, Luca. Make him pay. And promise me." His eyes were suddenly brighter, and looked straight into mine. "Swear you'll save Rosalia. Now. Go to her. Promise."
I squeezed his hand. "I will, Tommasino. You know I will. Just don't die on me." But he had lost consciousness.
I was plunged into despair. This was my oldest, closest friend. I had sworn years before that I would never ask him to take hurt on my account: yet I had led him into this. He was dying: I could see the pool of blood spreading beneath him where he lay, the arrow protruding from his back. I still wanted to pull it out, as if removing the cause of the hurt would cure the hurt itself, but Giacomo would have none of it. "Leave it," he said. "And we'll bind cloth around it as tightly as we can to slow the bleeding. It’s all we can do,” he added urgently.
"But what are we to do?" I cried in anguish. "We cannot ride further with him like this. He will surely die if we try. We have to get this letter to the Magister. That's what we were sent to do. And..." I was close to breaking down, "There's Rosalia. I swore. I promised Tommasino that I would rescue her. Must I betray her too? All I ever do is hurt the people I care for."
In an agony of indecision I buried my head in my hands. Yet I knew what I must do: leave my friend to live or to die; abandon Rosalia to her sordid fate; and perform my duty for my master and for the city that had adopted me. It was a heart-breaking decision that I could not bear to make.
"You're doing it again, Lorenzo." Paolo's tone was deliberately harsh. "Will you never stop blaming yourself? You're becoming boring."
I blustered in an attempt to justify my intense sense of guilt. "But it's all my fault. If I hadn't involved Tommasino. If I hadn't promised..."
"Nonsense. It's a rough, unjust world, and at least you try to do something about it. Besides, there's an easy answer. How many problems do we have?" I shook my head, unwilling to play games with him. "No? We have three. There's Tommasino here: a girl to save; and a letter to get to Bologna. And how many of us are there? Three. So we share out the tasks. Simple!"
I looked at him in wonder. "But how?"
"Lorenzo," he said gently, putting his hands on my shoulders and shaking me, "We can do this. I'll ride on. You've forgotten Salvatore." I looked at Paolo in bewilderment. "I'm sorry: another little precaution I didn't tell you about. An hour down the road Salvatore is waiting with more fresh horses. All I have to do is gallop on until I find him. If I take two horses from there, I can be in Bologna in hours, long before any pursuit from Modena can raise the alarm or let Lambertazzi know that he's finished. I'll send Salvatore back to you with the rest of the horses. He and Giacomino can look after Tommaso here. They can get off this road and take to the back ways, maybe get a cart to put him in and keep him comfortable till we can find him a surgeon in Bologna. He's bleeding, but he's not going to die yet – not if we can help it."
"But what about me?"
"You, Lorenzo? How can you be so stupid? You're going to ride off and find your lady-love! Go and save Rosalia. That's what you want to do, isn't it?"
Suddenly I felt a semblance of hope. As I nodded my agreement, Paolo leapt to his feet. "I'll be on my way, then. Make him comfortable, and get him off the road. It won’t be long before the Archbishop and Uguzzoni get their men out of the city to hunt us down: the Podestà won't have been able to hold them for long. Then they'll be coming hell-for-leather this way. You see that clump of trees over there?" A little way off the road to the south there was a small copse with what appeared a wayside shrine beside it. "Take cover there: I'll tell Salvatore to look out for it and to come to you there. And I'll warn him to keep an eye out for whoever’s chasing us."
With that, he sprang into the saddle, no longer disguising his expert horsemanship, and galloped away towards Bologna.
Giacomo and I set ourselves to the task of moving Tommaso who was lying face down on the ground, that dreadful arrow still protruding from his back. Knowing that he could not keep his seat on horseback, we laid him across the saddle, each clumsy movement causing him more pain, though he could do no more than groan. When it was done, I did my best to spread dirt and stones to hide his blood that had made a dark pool on the ground, hoping that any pursuers would, in their haste, miss the signs that we had stopped there. Next we led the horse slowly up towards the copse that Paolo had indicated. There we concealed ourselves and waited.
Sure enough, it was not long before we saw to the west a cloud of dust rising on the road, indicating a group of horsemen travelling at speed. Soon we heard them, and could count them as they galloped past us on the road. There must have been eight or ten of them, heavily armed and determined. I prayed that Paolo's horse would not let him down and that Salvatore would be keeping excellent fresh mounts for him.
Then there was nothing to do but wait: and it must have been three hours or more before Salvatore arrived. To my delight he brought not only two horses but also a cart. I surmised that he had stolen it, but he was indignant. "No need to steal," he retorted. "Money talks!" Again I marvelled at the preparations made for this adventure of which I had been entirely unaware.
Gently the three of us lifted Tommaso into the cart. He stirred and moaned, as we moved him, but did not speak. His breathing was shallow but even, and I could only pray with a fervour that I had not rediscovered since I had been a small child that God and his angels would preserve my friend and bring him back to me. We hitched my horse to the back of the wagon, Salvatore mounted his and Giacomo climbed into the wagon beside Tommaso. "Take care of him, boys. Don't let him die," I whispered. As they set off, keeping to the back lanes at first but vowing to return to the main road if all seemed safe, in order to get Tommaso to help all the more quickly, I turned my fresh horse in the opposite direction and headed back towards Modena, pushing my mount as hard as I could - or as it would let me.
As I approached Modena I kept my distance, skirting it and keeping well to the south of it, yet always in view, until I found myself on its western side. I looked for the landmarks that Tommaso had outlined to me the previous evening. The convent was easy to find, the sisters working in the fields on the backbreaking labour of ploughing the fields before winter set in. I found the lane to the right, and the small bridge that Tommaso had described, and very soon I was trotting down a gentle slope to what I guessed must be the farm belonging to Cortino, the bailiff of Umberto Uguzzoni and a man I had vowed to kill if he had laid a finger on Rosalia.
A sense of foreboding made me approach cautiously. Any arrival on horseback is a noisy business, so I dismounted, tethered my mount to a tree a little way from the farm and walked apprehensively towards it. The first building I reached was a byre, which I used for cover. Peering round the corner I could see a farmyard, which was much like any other. Chickens scratched around in the dirt, and in a pen to my right a few pigs rooted in the mud. Ahead of me was a large barn, bigger than anything I had seen on the poor smallholding that Tommaso's family rented. Perhaps this was where the bailiff stored the crops and tithes for his master – or, more likely, where he hid the goods that he extorted for himself.
Just as I began to fear that no one was around, almost enjoying a sense of relief, I heard a commotion. Round the corner of the barn ran a young woman, pursued by three men. She was gasping for breath, her face contorted with fear. Her shift was old, dirty and ragged, her feet bare. Her face was filthy, and her hair dark and matted. Even so, there was no mistaking her. It was Rosalia, Tommaso's sister: older, grown to womanhood, but nonetheless the Rosalia I remembered and, I realised with a pang, whom I still loved.
Three men followed her round the corner, rough, oafish and roaring with laughter. They soon caught up with her. One seized her from behind, clamping his arms round her waist and nuzzling her ear. "Come on, my pretty. What about a kiss?" She made no answer, but grunted as she tried to pull away, without success. Why did she not scream? Was that not what a woman did to save herself from unwanted attention? From the look of hopelessness on her face I could guess why she made no sound: she knew that no help would come, no matter how much noise she might make.
The hands moved to her chest. "Nice tits. I like a good pair of tits. Let's have a look at them." His hands moved again to grip the front of her flimsy shift and tear it open. The other two, who had been standing back and watching, roared with laughter, each seizing part of her pathetic garment which was torn from her in an instant so that she stood bared before them, the man behind her still holding and kneading her breasts.
"Don't keep her to yourself!" laughed one of the others. "Pass her around!" At this Rosalia wriggled all the more in the firm grasp of her captor, which was suddenly released as he pushed, almost threw, her across to his companions. She was tossed from one to the other, each groping her a little before passing her on. Again and again: until she spun round on one of them and raked her nails down his face, drawing blood. "Bitch!" he yelled, clutching his left hand to his cheek while, with the right, he fetched her a mighty blow to the head. Down she went, bouncing off the wall of the barn as she fell. "Bitch," he muttered again. "You hold her down, lads. We'll have her in turn. And then," he continued, as he unbuttoned his breeches, "Then I'll take my belt to her and teach her a lesson."
They all laughed again. The other two held her arms firmly down on the ground. Rosalia moaned and whispered with a whimper, "Please."
As I watched in mounting horror, it seemed I had become rooted to the spot. Yet now, as the first man spread Rosalia's legs while she struggled to no avail, held firmly by the two men on her arms and shoulders, I was sprinting across the farmyard towards the group who, in that instant, appeared as if frozen in a grotesque tableau.
I do not think I planned my attack: indeed, I was driven by rage. Yet it was a cold kind of fury, not the maddened, crazed sort that Sordello had almost literally beaten out of me as an emotion that would put me at risk. Moreover, Michele had also taught me well, his lessons painstaking and thorough, if exasperating. So intent on his victim was the would-be rapist that he never heard me coming. The other two men could only look up at me as I seized him by the head, my left hand on the back of it, my right under his jaw. I pulled back and up and twisted his head to the left. As he grunted in surprise I jerked upwards, flinging him to my left. There was a click as his neck broke, and he fell away, twitching, his breeches around his knees, his erection still grotesquely evident.
In an instant, the other two were on their feet. These were men evidently accustomed to violence, and too quick for me. Immediately one had pinioned my arms behind my back while the second struck me across the jaw, making my head ring and jarring my nose into intense agony. Next he punched me in the stomach once, twice. I doubled over as far as I could and my attacker grinned, preparing to put all his strength into a blow to my head. I used the other's grip on my arms to give me purchase as I swung both feet up and kicked him in the face. With a howl he collapsed while, surprised and unbalanced by my sudden movement, the man behind me released his grip and fell backwards.
I was first to my feet, leapt to the man I had felled and kicked him hard in the stomach, then in the face. Again I kicked him, and again until, his face a bloody mess, he appeared to lose consciousness.
If I had disabled another of my enemies, I was reminded of my remaining opponent by an arm circling my throat, while my head was hammered repeatedly against the barn wall. I flailed my arms but could not shift his grip. The blood roared in my ears, and I knew I would soon black out. I reached for my knife with my right hand, but could not get my hand to it. Desperately I tried to gain some purchase to loosen that vice on my throat, knowing that my efforts were futile and my time limited.
Suddenly the grip was relaxed. A grunt came from behind me. Next the weight of a body fell against me as my assailant collapsed to the ground. I turned and, in amazement, saw Rosalia, naked, filthy, panting and gripping in her hands a great log with which she had knocked my adversary senseless.
We stared at one another silently, breathing heavily. She did not release her grip on her weapon, perhaps wondering whether her rescuer might simply take the place of the men he had disabled or killed and seek to take advantage of her vulnerability. We stood, and we stared.
Eventually I managed to break the silence. "Rosalia," I said quietly.
"Who...? Is it? Luca, is it you?"
I had forgotten I was wearing that damned mask! As I had done when I met her brother, I reached behind me and undid the leather thongs. "Yes, Rosalia. It is I. I'm sorry about the mask: I, I broke my nose, you see." I laughed.
She laughed in response. It was an absurd situation. Two childhood friends meeting again, years later: the woman subjected to a vicious assault, naked and clutching a club; the boy she had known, now a man, a killer in a grotesque mask. There was little to do except to laugh.
What did I expect? I suppose that, ever since I had first begun to formulate a plan for rescuing her, I had pictured Rosalia throwing herself into my arms in gratitude to her saviour. And how would she show her gratitude? To a young man, constantly thinking of girls and the act of love, the encounter had always played out in a similar fashion as I had run over it time and again in my mind.
But I had not planned this outcome: one man dead; another covered in blood and groaning on the ground; the third unconscious; a naked girl, shivering and terrified, her modesty torn away, violated and so nearly ravished. It was not the kind of rescue that storytellers describe. It was sordid, mean, squalid: and in witnessing it, even saving her from the worst of it, I felt myself demeaned and guilty. There was another silence. Again I broke it. "Rosalia. I came for you. Tommaso sent me."
"Luca. Why? Where is Tommasino?"
I did not know where to start. "He… he couldn’t come. I had to come alone. I – and I'm not Luca. At least, that's not my name now. Now I'm Lorenzo. There's... so much to tell you. But we must go. We must get away from here."
She looked down at herself. "Luca. Lorenzo: I have no clothes."
Embarrassed, I realised I was trying to look at her, and yet not to do so, all at the same time. I was ashamed for the girl I loved, had pictured all those years and honoured in my mind. Yet the curiosity, the sheer lust of a young man, was irresistible. I could not help but drink in the sight of that body. Inspiration struck me. "I have a spare shirt in my saddlebag. It may serve as a shift for you."
"A spare shirt?” A hint of her old smile crossed her begrimed, bruised face. “My, Lorenzo, you have risen in the world!"
"Come," I ordered. "We must go." I held out my hand and, dropping her club, she took it.
A bellow of anger interrupted us. We found ourselves confronted by a fourth man. He was much shorter than I but stocky, bald on top with long, lank hair down the sides and dressed in a greasy leather topcoat. In his right hand he held a billhook, its wickedly curved blade, so perfectly designed for reaping corn at harvest, glittering dangerously in the sunlight. "Who the fuck are you? And where do you think you're going with my whore?"
"You're Cortino," I said, realising in an instant who he must be, and how apt his nickname - Shorty - was. "And Rosalia is not your whore." The determination and courage that Rosalia had shown earlier seemed to desert her. She cowered, and hid herself behind me.
"Cortino," I said again. "You cheated her parents. Took Rosalia into bondage when you had no right to. The law forbids it, and you know it. If you've laid a finger on her..." I felt her stiffen behind me, her hand on my shoulder grip tightly and then loosen, as she slipped away from me. Without looking at her I knew. "Christ, you have. You bastard. You disgusting, cheating, raping piece of shit." As Rosalia shrank further away from me, I drew my knife. Cortino and I circled one another. "I'll slice off your balls and feed them to your pigs," I said.
"I don't know who you are, sonny, but it's you who’ll be missing some bits of you." He gestured threateningly with the sickle and then swung it at me. Easily I stepped back out of his reach. He stepped forward and swung again. Again I stepped back, but this time I pretended to stumble: it was the oldest trick in the book, and he fell for it. As he leapt at me I dived forward, rolled inside his reach, seized his right wrist with my left hand and jabbed the point of my knife into his forearm so that he screamed and dropped his weapon.
I could have killed him then. I should have done. But I wanted more satisfaction than that afforded by a quick knife-thrust to his heart. I grabbed him and drove him back against the wall of the barn. I held the point of my blade to his throat, a position in which I had found myself too many times. "So now, Cortino, what were you going to do to me?" It was the remark of a bully, of somebody who had the upper hand: but I hated this man with a passion, had loathed the name and my mental picture of him ever since I had heard about him from Rosalia's parents and seen the grief in their eyes.
"It, it was only a joke, sir. I didn't mean any harm, not to a young gentleman like yourself. And the girl. You can have her. She's no use anyway. You take her, sir. Beat some sense into her."
"You don't understand, do you, Cortino? Animals like you never do. She's my friend. I knew her as a little girl, in a happy family. Before you tore all that apart with your greed, your cheating. And then you took her, and..."
"I meant no harm, sir. It's the way of the world. They don't pay me enough: I have to take what I can get."
"I should kill you now," I said.
"Please, sir, no." His voice was shrill now, his tone wheedling. I looked down, and could see his breeches were wet. In his terror he had soiled himself. Suddenly I felt sickened, disgusted by the scene around me, by what Cortino had done, and by what I had become. I no longer wanted to neuter this man, evil and venal as he was. I did not even want to kill him. I was nauseated by all of it – most of all by my own violence and blood-lust.
I may have loosened my grip on him. Perhaps he sensed that my resolve had weakened. Suddenly he pushed me away from him so that I stumbled and dropped my knife. Then he was on his knees, scrabbling for his billhook. He got quickly to his feet, kicked my knife away from me and stood still, and evil smile on his face. “Tricky young bastard, aren’t you? I’d like to geld you, you young pup, and make you watch while I have my way again with this baggage – though there’s more pleasure in shagging a cow. But you’re quick, I’ll give you that: so I’ll just tear your guts out and kill you now.”
I backed away, hands at my side, poised to take advantage of any slip he might make, but aware that most likely I was about to meet my end watching my entrails slowly empty themselves onto the dusty ground. Then a voice spoke behind me: “Step aside, Luca. I’ll deal with this pig.” Instinctively I obeyed, and stepped to my right. I turned and saw Rosalia holding a pitchfork like a spear, its wicked twin, long points pointing horizontally at Cortino.
He tried to laugh. “You won’t use that, girl. Put it down and I’ll be gentle when I have you. Don’t be…” She lunged at him, her whole weight behind her improvised weapon. The prongs pierced his belly, and he screamed. He flailed his billhook, but uselessly: he could not reach his nemesis, the girl pushing harder and harder so that blood spurted from his back as the spikes emerged. He stumbled backwards as she kept thrusting until he was forced against a densely-packed pile of straw. Again Cortino screamed, and Rosalia pulled the fork out of his guts, only to plunge it into him again. And again. Finally she drove it still harder, grunting with the effort, so that the points protruded once more from his back and into the straw behind.
We left him there, the kicking and scrabbling of his legs marking his death-agony as he stood, pinned vertical by the pitchfork. His screams turned to entreaties as we walked away. I think he begged us to finish him quickly. But I did not turn back: I could not.
I took her hand in mine as we walked, but we did not speak. We did not even look at one another.
We walked on.
We walked up the lane to where I had left my horse. Wordlessly I reached into my saddlebag and pulled out my spare shirt. Rosalia slipped it over her head, pulling her hair, dirty and greasy, unrecognisable as the intense red colour that I remembered, so that it fell in a heavy lump down her back. She laced the shirt at her neck and, looking down, saw that it fell below her knees. Modesty was restored.
Heavily I spoke at last. "I'll take you home."
This time I could not manage to heave myself unaided into the saddle. After a few attempts, at which Rosalia could not hide her smile, I felt less than ever like a heroic knight riding to her rescue: I had to ask her to cup her hands and provide a step up for me. Finally I succeeded in sliding my complaining thigh over the saddle, took my seat and pulled her up behind me. Her hands gripped my waist, tentatively at first and then, as if finding comfort from holding on, more confidently. We headed north.
I urged my horse to a canter, partly out of sheer prudence in order to put distance between us and an episode which had left two men for dead and two wounded, and partly to get away as quickly as possible from the screams and moans of the dying Cortino.After a while we slowed to a walk and, as our mount ambled along, I found the courage to ask Rosalia, whose slim arms still encircled my waist, how she came to be in the predicament from which (more by good fortune than by any planning or skill) I had contrived to save her.
"It was that pig Cortino," she said after a pause. "When I left my parent's house and went to work for him, I knew what would happen. But what else could I do? Cortino would have returned with men and thrown my parents and sisters off the farm. What would they do then, except starve? Oh,” she continued bitterly, “It started well enough. He promised that all he wanted was for me to work for him: that he needed another pair of hands around the farm. His wife was a hard-bitten shrew, and happy to have me slaving for her, for no thanks and precious little food. And so it continued for a couple of weeks.
“Then Cortino started grabbing me when his wife was out of sight, groping my body with those big, dirty hands of his. He'd come up behind me and kiss my neck: I could smell his stinking breath. He'd grab me, you know, between the legs, in all those places... Then he’d say things like, 'Come into the barn. Let's have a cuddle in the hay.' I'd tell him to get lost, that I had to work for him but I didn't have to lie with him.
"Eventually he became angry, told me that he owned me, that I was no better than a slave, and if I didn't please him he would give me to his men to enjoy, and then sell me in the market." She broke off and I could hear her weeping. The arms around my waist shook as her grief wracked her body. I wished I could turn around, at least look at her and provide some comfort: but perhaps it was easier for her this way. She could tell her story and share her feelings without having to look me in the eye.
"You don't have to tell me, you know," I said gently after a while.
"I want to. Oh, Luca – I mean, it's Lorenzo now, isn't it?" I nodded. "I'll try to remember." She continued: "I'm not sure I can tell anyone else. I cannot tell my parents."
This realisation brought more tears. Eventually she regained some measure of composure, and continued speaking. "At last Cortino wouldn’t accept any more refusals. One day, as I defied him once again, he lashed out and hit me. I was stunned: I know I fell over. I didn’t really know what was happening but, when I came to my senses properly, I was bent over a rail in the byre, my hands roped to the hay stall in front. Then I heard him. I looked over my shoulder, and there he was, naked from the waist down, laughing at me. I begged him not to do it, but he pulled up my shift, right up to my shoulders and took me. Took me from behind, like an animal.
"I screamed and begged, but it was no use. And when he'd had me, taken my maidenhead, he left me there, exposed. I don't know how long I was there before he released me: he left me, alone with my shame, for what seemed like hours. I was afraid someone would come, scared that others would see me."
I tried to choose my words carefully, wanting to know the rest of her story, yet nervous of intruding into her shame and grief. "How did... today come about, then? You don't have to tell me," I repeated hastily.
"You might as well know the rest. It cannot be any worse. After that first time he reckoned he could have me any time he wanted. He beat me when I resisted, and I could not keep fighting forever. Besides, he’d robbed me of my virginity. What was there left to protect? So I decided instead that I wouldn’t react. I stopped cleaning myself, never dressed my hair. I'm dirty and smelly. I saw how you looked at me: you found me repulsive." I began to protest, but she stopped me. “You know you did, Lu – Lorenzo. I made myself disgusting.
“I felt dirty through and through: so I made sure I became the filthy slattern he took me for and, when he forced himself on me, I didn’t respond. I just lay there. He hated that. He wanted me to be grateful or, at least, to fight him. When I would not do either, he complained that it was like fucking a sack of grain."
Involuntarily I stiffened at her use of the word. She used it to show the depth of her misery was, how raw was the hurt. She must have sensed my reaction, for we rode on in silence for some time.
After a while she spoke again. "I'm sorry, Lorenzo. Did I shock you?"
"Shock me? It is not you who shocks me. I don't know how that animal could behave in that way, how any man could."
Her right hand moved from my waist to my neck and caressed my cheek. "Dear Lorenzo. You're so sweet. I don't think you’re like other men. That's why I feel safe with you, I suppose." Safe? In truth, she was safe with me. My head was a turmoil of conflicting thoughts.
As she told her heartrending story, I felt nothing but pity for the girl I remembered from childhood and whom I still loved. Yet, even in these bizarre circumstances, I felt a degree of arousal, hot-blooded and confused young man that I was, and even some jealousy towards Cortino who had possessed the girl who had often been in my lascivious thoughts – when they were not dominated by Livia Lambertazzi.
There was another long, pained silence. Then, before I could prompt her, Rosalia started speaking again. "After a few weeks of this, Cortino lost patience. He said he might as well be shagging a cow, and said he'd give me to his men to see if that would wake my ideas up. I didn't know if it was meant as a threat, to make me respond to him. So, as always, I gave no reaction. He got angry and hit me: though that was nothing new.
“I didn't see him for a couple of days: he was off collecting rents and tithes. And those three came looking for me. They'd always had their eye on me, but never laid a finger on me when they knew Cortino was using me. He must have told them they could have me. So they were just beginning to have their sport with me,” she laughed bitterly, “when... when you came for me."
There was another awkward silence. In a very small voice she continued. "Thank you... Lorenzo. I'm glad it was you. I couldn't bear anyone else to see my shame. But you're so good, and kind..." She would have continued, but I cut in viciously.
"Good? I left you and your family to all – that. I forgot about you while I was living my exciting life in Bologna. How is that good? I damage everything, everyone dear to me. Even Tommaso."
I regretted the words as soon as I spoke them. "Tommaso? What do you mean? What have you done to him?"
"I haven't done anything," I replied heavily. "But I’ve brought harm to him. Because of me, someone has hurt him and, Rosalia," this time it was my voice breaking in misery: "I think I left him dying."
"You left him dying? You left him?"
"Not like that. He's with two good friends of mine and, if they can get him to Bologna in time, and to a physician, they will. I fear they won't be in time. Yet I had to leave him: he made me. He made me promise to leave him, to come and find you – because he was afraid for you. So you see: whatever I do is wrong. It always is."
Now it was my turn to feel the wetness on my cheeks. Her hands tightened around my waist, silently giving comfort. We found ourselves fording a small river. It was not deep, merely reaching the horse's hocks, but it was enough to seize Rosalia's attention, and change her mood.
"Stop, Lorenzo. Stop the horse. I need to get down."
I presumed that she needed to relieve herself, so I was about to turn away politely, but she seized my knee and looked up into my face. "Lorenzo, I'm going to bathe. Wash the filth of Cortino and his men from my body. Promise me you won't peep."
Surprised, and then resigned, I nodded miserably. "You see," this time she managed to smile: "I said you were safe. You don't know how good it is to have you as my protector. But please don't look."
Glumly I spurred my horse up the slope from the river and dismounted in turn. I sat on a stone beside the track we'd been following for an hour and more, and stared northwards. Behind me I could hear her splashing in the water: I thought she was even humming a tune, though I could not make it out. The sun was out, glistening on the stubble of the harvested fields. There was an autumn chill in the air, and I wondered how Rosalia could stay in the water so long, but guessed she was relishing the chance to wash all the dirt and the memories from her body, hoping it would do the same for her mind.
After what seemed an age, her voice came from close behind me: with her bare feet she had made no sound approaching. "That's better!" she commented.
I turned. My shirt, soaked, clung suggestively to her body. Her hair, wet and plastered down her back, had nonetheless already regained some of its previous luxuriance. Her left eye was discoloured and starting to close from where one of her would-be rapists had struck her. But her lips were as full and red as I remembered, and she looked better, and more like the Rosalia I had so often called to mind.
Yet my memories were of a girl, not of this fully grown, intensely desirable woman. She was entirely different from Livia, the only other female body I had seen in my young life. Where Livia’s had been slight and pale, built delicately as if of fine porcelain, Rosalia’s figure could have grown from the fecund earth whose produce I had shared with her when we were children. The slimness of her waist was emphasised by the generous swelling of her chest and hips above and below it. There was an abundance in her form that would have appealed to any man: they captivated me. And I wanted her.
As I looked at her - no, I stared at her - she blushed under my appraising glance. Then I noticed that she was shivering. I reached to the saddle and seized my cloak which I had thrown roughly across it as we made our escape from Cortino's farmstead. "I've been so thoughtless. Put this on."
Gratefully she pulled it around her, arranging her hair on the outside of it. "I'm still cold," she murmured. "Will you just hold me, Lorenzo? Please?"
I pulled her close to me, and hugged her tight. My mind was a whirl of conflicting thoughts. This beautiful young woman, so often in my thoughts recently, was in my arms. I had seen her body, all its charms revealed: yet soiled and abused. Certainly I desired her: I could feel my body responding to that need, a young man’s lust. At the same time there was a sense of revulsion, which made me feel ashamed. For she was no longer, could never be, the virginal beauty of whom I had dreamed. Nonetheless she was still Rosalia, the girl I had wanted so much to hold in my arms, to rescue from danger, to protect.
Perhaps she sensed my confusion. She pulled away and said curtly, "Thank you, Lorenzo. I'm warmer now. Let us go on."
As we rode on, I told her more of what had brought me to Modena. I confessed how, not entirely unwittingly, we had drawn her brother into conspiracy and then into danger and serious injury.
"There is a crumb of comfort," she responded quietly. "If it's as you say, if Tommaso did find something – though I don't understand all this talk of the law - then perhaps they'll come from Bologna for Uguzzoni. And we'll be free of him. As we are of Cortino now," she added harshly.
"I hope so," I replied, trying to banish from my head the picture of the bailiff twitching and screaming, impaled on that pitchfork as his life ebbed away.
Eventually we emerged from the track we were following onto a slightly larger one, and I recognised the road that would take us to our destination, the house where Rosalia, Tommaso and the family had known simple happiness, even amid poverty, until their lives had been devastated. We came to that little rise from which I knew we would see the farm across the valley.
From behind, Rosalia put her left hand on mine. "Stop here, Lorenzo. Set me down. I shall walk now."
"But I'll take you there, Rosalia," I responded in surprise. "I'll take you back to your parents. I promised Tommaso I would."
"I'm safe now, Lorenzo. It's... it's better if I go back alone. This will be hard for my parents, my father particularly."
I was nonplussed. "You don't have to tell them everything," I said. "After all, I arrived in time to save you from those three. You can tell them that. They don't have to know about Cortino."
By now she was on the ground, standing and looking up at me with a wistful smile, the hair now almost dry, gleaming in the setting sun. "Do you think my mother will not know? As for my father, he will assume I lost my virtue from the moment I left them. It will not be easy."
I looked into her eyes, at a loss. I had not become self-congratulatory, but I had felt some satisfaction in having been able to save her. Now it seemed an empty victory.
"Don't be sad, Lorenzo." She put her hand on mine. "I'll always be grateful. You did save me, you know. From the worst, if not from all of it. And you didn't know: how could you?
“Go back to Bologna. Go to Tommaso: don’t let him die. I won't tell my parents he's hurt. Send word if you can: if not, I'll understand."
"Rosalia," I could barely speak. But then the words came out in a rush. "Rosalia. If ever you need me: you can find me in Bologna. Just ask for the lawyer's house, the woman lawyer. Down by the river, the Idice. Everyone knows her."
She shook her head. She was sure she would never call on my help in that mighty city, so alien to her. "Thank you, Lorenzo. Thank you for everything. Goodbye. Live well, and be happy."
It was the most final farewell I had ever heard, more absolute even than Livia’s dismissal of me in the dungeon. Her hand started to slip away from mine: our fingers touched, then our fingertips. She turned away, and, shoulders back and head high, she walked briskly up the hill that would take her to within sight of her parents' house. She looked back once and then strode on, my cloak wrapped tight around her.
She was humming again, and then broke into full voice as she disappeared from sight, departing from my life. Now I could hear the melody, even the words of the song from our youth that recalled to me our shared love and happiness, Ti canterò lo meo amor.
I felt my heart would break. For an age, an eternity, I stared at the road she had taken, now as empty as I felt my soul to be. Eventually, I wiped my eyes, turned my horse around and, with the setting sun on my back, kicked it to a canter towards Bologna.
The burden of guilt
The setting sun of the next day was on my back as I rode into Bologna's western gate. When I had left Rosalia the previous day there was little more than an hour’s daylight left, and in the dusk I managed to lose my way before giving up the battle and paying excessively for shelter in a farmstead. I slept little in the barn, not least because I distrusted the shifty looks exchanged between the farmer and his wife, and feared robbery or worse in the night.
Bone-weary and tired of the countryside, its villainies and its lack of creature comforts (what an incorrigible city-dweller I had become!), I felt a sense of relief on arriving in Bologna. The streets were busy as always, and I urged my mount through the crowded thoroughfares, desperate to see whether my friend was alive. This time the gonfalonieriguarding my master's house recognised me and let me through, one of them moving to hold my horse as I tumbled from the saddle and rushed into the courtyard. "Where is he? Is he here? Where's Tommaso?"
The voice of the Magister, sharp yet calm as ever, came from above, from the little balcony outside her chamber. "Be at peace, Lorenzo. He is here, and he is alive – if barely. Calm yourself and come up quietly."
I did neither: As I leapt up the steps she met me at the top, blocking my way. "Calm!" she said. Putting her hands on my arms (she could barely reach my shoulders), she declared, "I am pleased to see you. So pleased, Lorenzo. I have sent you and your friends into too much peril. Now one has paid a heavy price: yet still I hope the physician may save him. Come in – but quietly."
I just restrained myself from pushing her aside and followed her inside. Tommaso lay on his back: she had given him her own bed. He was deathly pale, his breathing fainter even than when I'd left him. But he was alive, and apparently sleeping peacefully.
"His wound has been treated. The physician," she nodded to the robed man kneeling beside the bed, his ear close to Tommaso's mouth as he listened to his breathing.
The physician stood and bowed to me. I returned his greeting awkwardly. "You did well to get him to us quickly, sir. Your friends have told me how you insisted on speed."
"It was nothing to do with me," I burst out. "His injury is my responsibility, not the business of transporting him to you: that was their doing. Will he live? Tell me!"
"He is very weak, having lost much blood. Yet we have removed the arrow and cleaned the wound. We have dressed it with salves and clean linen, and I believe it will heal. If he survives this night, when he is at his weakest, I believe he will live. In the meantime there is no more we can do: except to pray for him."
"Is there nothing I can do?" I reached to take his left hand. "Tommasino. Forgive me."
"It is as I said. There is nothing you can do. He will not know you, even should he awaken. This will be his night of crisis. Your master and I will stay with him, but he must have quiet."
My master intervened. "Come, Lorenzo. You must tell me what happened, though naturally I know most of it from your friend Paolo. And we must talk of the letter he brought, that Tommaso risked so much to obtain. Come. We will go down."
Back in the courtyard we entered the large room, once a store, where Michele, Mamolo and I slept and where we ate, when I was not attending my master. She sat me at the rough oak table, and gestured to Mamolo to bring food and drink. She would not let me speak until I had fed myself, and then told me what she had learned from Paolo – which was, in effect, the whole story.
True to his word, he had brought the letter, and the other papers from Tommaso's satchel. Meanwhile, Giacomo and Salvatore had made what haste they could with the wagon bearing Tommaso whose life, the closer they came to Bologna, appeared to ebb away. The physician was waiting for them, having been summoned on Paolo's arrival, and congratulated them on the speed with which they had brought his patient. They were just in time, he opined, for him to cauterise and dress the wound, staunching the flow of blood and minimising the risk of gangraena setting in and ending his life, if the loss of blood did not do it first.
Learning that my friends had left for their respective homes, I recounted my tale to my master. Naturally I spared her some of the details of Rosalia's humiliation, though I was sure she could picture the harsh reality. On hearing that Rosalia had felled one of her attackers and slain Cortino, whom we had left to die, she raised an eyebrow. "A girl of some spirit, then," she remarked dryly.
"A girl whose spirit has been crushed and destroyed," I replied. "What kind of world do we make where someone can be treated so?"
"A world that is better than it would be if people such as you and I did not try at least to address some of its wrongs," she said quietly. "Remember that: we do make a… difference, when we can. That is all that we can hope to do."
I fell silent, preoccupied with my own thoughts. I remembered that I had not even asked what was in the letter that seemed likely to cost Tommaso his life. Would it provide the proof we needed of Lambertazzi's planned treachery to his city, and his conspiracy with the Archbishop of Modena and his associate Umberto Uguzzoni? "The letter, Magister. Is Lambertazzi condemned by his own words?" I enquired.
My master made a face. "It is a... suggestion, certainly, but little more, I fear. Even when he does commit to writing, that weasel is extremely cautious. Here: you may see for yourself, though it may test your juristic Latin." She pushed the document across the table towards me. As I thought of Tommaso fighting for his life upstairs, and likely to lose that battle, I prayed that it would be at least worth such risk and loss. Then I read it aloud to my master, translating as I went. Under happier circumstances I might have been pleased with my attempt at an unseen translation: but I had little appetite for pleasure in anything at that moment.
"It is very formal," was my first comment. My master nodded and encouraged me to continue. "To His Eminence the Cardinal Archbishop of Modena." I paused: "I don't believe he was either an archbishop or a cardinal when I left Modena."
"He has powerful friends, Lorenzo: and he has, as they say, done well for himself. Continue."
I read on. "As agreed between our... agents," the writing was not as clear as mine, and some words were hard to decipher, "The bearer of this letter brings to you a sum in silver to the value of four thousand Bolognese Lire. Trusting in your loyalty to our... this is rather flowery Latin, Magister, isn't it?"
She smiled. "It is: he enjoys shaping compliments – or, at least, his notary does, since I doubt that Signor Lambertazzi reads or writes himself. In effect it is saying, 'Trusting in your loyalty to our just cause and to the probity of a man of God...' You may continue."
"... man of God, I ask you to pass one half of the sum remitted (two thousand Lire) to our mutual friend when you are satisfied that the designated goods have been despatched to its destination.
"Upon your assurance that the agreed number of armed men are prepared, equipped and ready to march when called upon, with my summons I shall send to you by the same messenger a further ten thousand Lire of which you will retain two thousand to defray your costs, passing eight to our friend to meet his.
"As friend to my cause and as trusted intermediary, I hope you will accept these poor gifts. Then comes another string of compliments. It ends: written in the hand of Notaro Oseletti,” I interrupted my reading. “Isn’t that the jurist you always describe as an idiot, Magister?” She nodded and grunted. I continued: “And signed by the hand of – my God it's Bartolomeo Bardi: that bastard even incriminates himself for his master! Under the seal of Massimo Lambertazzi."
I looked her in the eye. "Magister, is this sufficient proof? That he is really planning to overthrow the authority of Bologna, bringing in an army from Modena?"
She sighed. "Alas, Lorenzo, it is circumstantially compelling: but not, I fear, hard proof. Nonetheless I shall take it to the Capitano del Popolo, who must learn of it."
"And what of the Gatekeeper? Can he make anything of it? Or act on it?"
She paused. "It is in the... nature of the Gatekeeper to accumulate and weigh all such evidence, and he will be... informed." She was even more evasive than usual. "But it is as I say: on its own this letter will create suspicion, but not prove guilt of conspiracy. Damn him to hell!" she exclaimed with sudden vehemence. "It is ever thus with Lambertazzi, indeed with all that clan. But he will not like its contents made public. When the Two Thousand meet, this letter may be of greater value to us as a bargaining counter than as hard evidence. We shall have to make what use of it we can: and we shall certainly do better by exaggerating its importance and thereby weakening Lambertazzi’s position than by sharing it in its entirety and revealing the paucity of its contents."
She saw that my face had fallen. "I am sorry, Lorenzo. It is a… help, but does not give us all the answers. I hope that, with cunning, we may make more of it than it truly represents, discomfit our enemies and thus render it worth your friend's... sacrifice."
"Sacrifice?" I was angry. "If it is Tommaso's sacrifice, then it was I who dragged him to the altar and honed the knife for the job."
She put her hand on my arm. "It is not played out, yet, Lorenzo. Do not characterise yourself as the Patriarch Abraham. Besides, even he, having been prepared to prove his faith by sacrificing his son Isaac, was saved at the last from wielding the knife. Tommaso may yet recover: the physician – and you know he is the best in Bologna – will not leave until the outcome is assured. Have faith and be strong: with care and not a little cunning, we may yet make more of this piece of evidence than, on the face of it, it… purports to tell."
But I was not yet ready to have faith. I pulled my arm away from her, rudely, and stood up. "It is all my fault. If he dies... I will have to go and tell his family... and Rosalia. Christ’s blood! I’ve brought them enough grief."
"You have brought them nothing of the kind." Her voice was imperious now, austere. "Lorenzo, I admire your humanity and your compassion: but I will not permit you to indulge your tendency to self-pity. You have done no wrong to that family and, if you coerced Tommaso to some extent to obtain this letter, you repaid him in full by rescuing his sister from her... servitude. You risked your life in doing it – just as he risked his for you.
“That is what friends do, and also those who search after right, as we are doing. The scales of justice do not weigh precisely in such circumstances. We can only make one decision at a time, always seeking the righteous goal. And that we are still doing." She added still more edge to her voice. "So do not become maudlin and instead focus on what must be done next."
I was confounded. "I must think," I said and went out into the courtyard, hoping that the cool evening air would clear my head.
If I was hoping to regain a measure of composure in the courtyard, I was disappointed. Immediately there was a commotion at the gate. Michele roared that he was coming, and stumped across to it. There was a shout from outside: "Oi! You can't just barge in there!" The call was ignored by a small, blonde-haired figure who burst in through the door crying, "Lorenzo! I must see Lorenzo!"
Michele caught and held her firmly. Something in his calm, almost fatherly manner seemed to have an effect, because she immediately ceased struggling. "Now, young lady, calm down. What'th thith about?"
She took a deep breath. "Sir, my lady has sent me for help. I must see Lorenzo, whoever he is."
I stepped forward. "I'm Lorenzo," I said quietly. "But how would you know my name, except... Who sent you?"
She looked at me appraisingly. Meanwhile I took in the young woman standing before me. She was poorly dressed in a plain shift, and she seemed to have a piece of rope around her neck, like a collar. Was she a serf, then? I presumed she must be: yet for all her mean status, she had a quiet presence about her, and a sense of pride. She was clearly out of breath from running, and her breasts rose and fell with each deep breath, something my male eye could not help noticing under that thin garment.
"Sir, if you are Lorenzo, then you must know who sent me. I belong to the household of Signor Lambertazzi."
"So the Lady Livia sent you?" She certainly had my attention now. "Is she in need? Tell me: Why have you come?"
"Sir, she is in dire trouble, but I cannot tell you here, in front of all these people. May I speak to you privately?"
Behind me I heard a snort from my master. "Are we to have no peace?" she snapped. "It has been one interruption after another. Lorenzo, what is all this nonsense?"