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The Castle of La Rocca by Brent Smith

© Brent Smith

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square brackets like these [ ] to differentiate thoughts from dialogue or prose.





THE CASTLE OF LA ROCCA

Autumn 1595





No-one knew anything. Exile to La Rocca beckoned, but for Beatrice it was hardly punishment at all. Rome seethed like a sewer; after the years of famine every vagabond, every gypsy chancer, every starving scrap of human flotsam had come scrabbling into the city to hustle for a chance of suckling on the old bitch’s teats. Displaced peasants, bankrupt tenant farmers, all gravitated to the eternal city in hope of something better than what they had left behind. Anyone, had they bothered to ask, could have told them they would not be welcome. Fights broke out over trivialities, Jews were baited, taverns took to shutting their doors against the in-comers, the local lads of the various Rinieri barricaded their streets and prayed for a fight. The homeless took to sleeping among the ruins of the Imperial Forum and were ambushed nightly, for the fun of it. People made their stinking camps in the Colosseum and were set upon by the local thugs. Many of Rome’s citizens began to fear for themselves and took to bearing arms, which they would never have thought of doing before; nothing more than a dagger or a stiletto, and well-concealed, but the carrying of a weapon became almost second thought in those days of nervousness. A fraught atmosphere. For Beatrice, the countryside was calling with its siren song.

***

Owls hunted nightly in the woods and fields of the Cenci lands, but it was no screech-owl's call that wakened Serena Fabbri that hot night. It was still as black as a fireplace-back outside; no moonlight showed between the shutters and the mullions, and the only sound to disturb the far-off muffled life within the silent castle was the scratchy scuttering of mouse-feet behind the wainscot. She felt her body tense beneath the blanket, felt her troubled hip-bone click as she rolled over on her side. Sleep for Serena was a blessing in those days, for it brought a respite from the nagging discomforts that plagued many women of her age; discomforts for which no cure was known and no remedy available save for prayer and submission to God's holy ordinance. She held her breath as if the doing so would make the quiet quieter but it did not; her mistress was distressed and tossing fitfully in her enormous bed. The creaking of mattress-straps as they stretched and loosened against the frame was evidence of that, seeming loud there in the unlighted bed-chamber where every noise hinted at things with a hidden life of their own. Her dear charge was dreaming again, and just when she had finally managed to put all those dreadful thoughts out of her mind.

The girl suddenly flung her arm out. A glass and a water-jug crashed off the nightstand to the floor, and still she did not wake.

[Madre di Dio!]

From somewhere far off in the fields there came the startled yelp of some poor creature's instant death; a rabbit taken by a fox, perchance; country noises…

Beatrice made the sound again, a weak and sleepy scream it sounded like, but muffled, slumberous, a troubled indication of the dreams that haunted her.

[It is nearly every night these past few days, that he comes into her mind and all wrongly. Pray for her, I do.]

Serena struggled to her feet from the truckle-bed at the side of her mistress. She had got plumper, what with age and inactivity, but she had long ago given up on a flighty girl’s youthful follies of close-waisted gowns and bosom-lifting bodices, and felt all the better for it. She looked down on her pretty Beatrice in that great gilded bed that had been both death-bed and birthing-bed in its time; ancient and creaky but a bed of witness; witness and confidant of such family matters no-one would ever know. That bed had been old even in her grandmother's youth, and now that night the child lay in it, restless and sweating under the thin summer coverlet, even though the year was changing and a golden light was smiling on the fields. She was the one whose well-being was the frame and focus of Serena's life. The dreams, the nightmares, they had come back again just as the last few carefree months when her wretched father had been imprisoned had seemed to work their magic on her, giving her leave to blossom as a young maiden should, far away from Rome and all the intrigues.

[There are stories here, though, that ’tis best she learn from me.]

Serena crossed the room and sat in a chair by the embers in the fireplace. She was glad to sit. Glad to simply sit and be there, and by her presence keep away the watchful cares of the ghost-infested night.

[Soon to tell, if I’m to be an honest woman with her, and sooner told the best it is.]

And so Serena fell to thinking; the bed -- or so the story went -- had been old even in the grandmother's youth, and was disruptive to the troubled mind. Many years before, a child was born in it, and that child bore the marks of Satan, and was possessed. A priest had come from Rieti to perform an exorcism that resulted in the child's death before the rite had been completed, much to the terror of the family and servants at the time. They buried the new-born at the crossroads half-way along the road to la Petrella Salto, with a stake through its heart and quicklime sprinkled on its little corpse. Somewhere on the way back to Rieti -- or so it was said -- the priest was thrown from his horse and smashed his skull upon a rock. When they found the body the next day the horse was dead as well. It lay in a stinking pool of its own liquid stools, having eaten of the red berries of the black bryony bushes all around, which no horse of sound mind would ever do. The tragedy, however, settled everyone that the possessive demon was finally gone, although... Serena cast a glance at the embroidered motto that hung above the bed. VADE RETRO SATANA it read -- STEP BACK, SATAN. Truly, she thought, the Church can do so much, but the old ways die hard.

***

Bernardo Cenci stretched luxuriantly on his balcony that morning, clad in a silk embroidered night-shift, inhaling the heady scent of the new Mohammedan brew they called coffee. The story went that the Pope, having recently tasted it, had declared it so good that Christians should be allowed to drink it also, and, joking with his cardinals, had blessed it. The boy had no idea whether it was true or not, but it was certainly true that scores of new coffee-shops had lately opened in Rome and were all the rage among the young men of fashion. He had not long been out of bed, and sleep still clouded his eyes. He always slept easy when his father was away. The old man thought it was a punishment, sending them away from Rome.

[So selfish of him], thought the boy. [Just because he’d miss the city he thinks we all do, but what’s in Rome? Nothing in Rome for me – no friends, no no-one. I love it here, the fields, the freedom…] He prayed it would continue. In fact, he prayed it would continue forever and that his father would never return at all, even though he knew that such a prayer itself was sinful. He put aside the thought that Padre Filippo would have to learn of his ungodliness when he went to kneel in the confessional on Sunday.

He sighed as he looked out over what would one day be his brother’s lands, and they were good lands too -- rich and fertile when the rains fell as they ought to, and bursting with the good earth's plenty; black, bounteous, loamy soil that turned easily beneath the plough. These lands with their villages and tenant farms, their watermills, and the fine limestone quarries in the Abruzzi mountains had been in the Cenci family time out of mind, and together with the fiefdoms in Tuscany and Umbria they had, over the generations, provided the family with status, honour, titles, and enormous wealth. Good lands in normal times perhaps. But these times were far from normal, and the very earth had lost its vitality, and had become exhausted. He knew these things, for he listened. Even so, he loved that place -- refuge and playground as it was -- and in different circumstances he would have been happy living there forever. He himself, just like Giacomo and Beatrice, had been born in the vast Palazzo Cenci in Roma. It may have been huge and full of the treasures of centuries but it stood in the unfashionable district of the Rione Regola on the fringes of the Jewish quarter. It was not the kind of district any of the first-tier aristocracy, the haughty Nobilità Ducale such as the Medici, the Borgia, the Sforza or the Farnese would ever grace with their presence, but the Conte Francesco Cenci was indifferent. He was quite happy in the taverns and the common hostelries down by the wharves of the Tiber or all along the quayside of the Lungotovere dei Cenci, which he also owned, and despite him being who he was, he was quite at ease mingling with the crowds he found there. Despite his tender years, Bernardo knew that all of Roma mocked his father for it.

So now, up in the high eastern tower of La Castello di Petrella Salto, which everyone knew as La Rocca, leaning on the railings of his balcony, young Bernardo watched the sun climb in the sky and burn the mist from the surface of Lake Salto far away to the left below. The view was spectacular, but it was not enough to set his mind at rest. The previous night he had dreamed once more, and worse still, he could remember it. It had been strange, and it was stranger still that he recalled it as fresh and detailed as he did. He had woken screaming, drenched in sweat with his pillows on the floor and the coverlet kicked off the bed. The dream had been a nightmare vision of his father -- too terrible to speak of, even to Beatrice. He would never tell her of the blood beneath his father's fingernails, nor would he tell her of the grunting, panting, breath that gusted in his face, the hot breath reeking of sour wine, nor would he bring himself to speak of the crushing weight, the rough and scratchy skin, the terror of unknown things and clumsy gropings, the insistent stand of something questing, something pressing against his stomach, something hard as hickory beneath the dreadful father-stranger's breeches. It had terrified him. He knew well that dreams of the past could give a glimpse of things to come, and now, like the drip-drip-drip of rain from a windowsill, visions from the future were calling out to him once more, whispering in the darkness, murmuring to him softly through the holy veils of night to say, [your father is coming home... Dino, your father will soon be home...]

He leaned out over the void below as far as he dared. The morning sunshine filled the valley like a rising tide. Olive groves and stands of chestnut trees made a patchwork with the wheat-fields that stretched as far as the forest wall that began a mile or so away on the other side. The olive groves bore little fruit, and what there was of it was fit only for cooking; the chestnut trees looked worn and dusty, and the wheat-fields showed no sign of putting forth the ears whose seed they would depend upon come harvest-time. Even the livestock had an air of listlessness about them. On a whim he went inside to climb the stairs to the top of the turret, pretending to be some mighty warlord in a fortress full of glittering knights like those in the tales of that Englishman Sir Thomas Malory, or the German Wolfram Von Eschenbach – either would do. Now, standing there on the topmost battlement, he had suddenly become the mightiest warrior since Alexander, and he wanted everyone to know it. But boys are boys and he was one, and as if to test his childish resolve, from out of an empty sky a jay-bird fluttered down and settled on the wall a yard or so away. It cocked its head and stared at him with a tiny button of an eye like a black seed-pearl, weighing up, he thought, whether he was to be feared or just ignored. Sensing no harm in him the bird took a tentative step forward, but Bernardo was already growing bored, so with a sigh he clicked his fingers at it to make it fly away. The stupid bird stayed where it was, still staring at him in its brainless way, so, disgusted at its foolishness, he left the turret and went back down the stairs to his room, where by now his servant should have prepared his bath. Then, when he was fresh and clean and in a better mood, he decided he would don his riding gear and hack out through the chestnut woods to see what he could find to give exercise to his bird.

***

In her own room, Beatrice was still asleep but dreaming quietly now of her dead mother. Old Serena sat slumbering in a chair. Soon young Isabetta would creep in and fold back the shutters and Beatrice would wake to the smell of almond-bread and honey. She would drink lemon-scented orange juice that Isabetta would pour from a crystal jug into her favorite jewelled tumbler, she would sit up nestled in a cloud of pillows and she and her gentle maid would speak castle gossip, but quietly, so as not to disturb the loyal and kindly Serena. But all of that would happen soon enough; for now, Beatrice continued dreaming, though imperceptibly the mood of the reveries darkened, turning from dreams of mother’s love to dreams of her father himself. They became terrible. Nightmarish. Visions of sickening horror. In her dreams that morning her father pointed an accusing finger at her. His head lolled almost comically to one side; his hair stuck to his forehead, spattered by the blood from a gash to the skull and by the bloody snot that trickled down his nose to stain his beard. He opened his mouth to speak, but only a harsh croaking issued from his lips. His eyes were white and sightless, like the dead eyes of a fish upon a marble slab. It was ghastly, horrible, and suddenly she was aware that from out of nowhere Bernardo had appeared like a marionette in a conjuror's trick and crouched himself behind her, clinging to her skirts the way he did when he was frightened. But then, with a panicked start and a dumbfounded blink, she woke. Someone had flung the door open much too hard, banging it against the wall. Serena was still there in her chair, muttering as consciousness returned to her, but Bernardo had gone, and with him the vision of her father too, blown away like the smoke of a dirty fire before a cleansing wind.

***

“That saddle wants a polish,” said Bernardo absent-mindedly, “anyway, help me up.”
“You must be careful,” said the groom. He daren’t have said [you are only eight and if anything should happen… That's too big a horse for you]. But the child understood the meaning even as he knew he would ignore it. Later, in a meadow in the valley, Bernardo gazed at the clouds as they moved across the sky from west to east. High clouds, thin and summery. Sultry-day clouds. Clouds of a hot day, a hot week, a hot month. He lay there on his back with his hands behind his head and waited for his Carlo, luxuriating safe and content in the flattened hollow he had rolled out with his body; a fragrant, springy declivity flooded with sunlight, like a magical nest that was all his very own. He toyed idly with a cornflower, sucked on a grass-stalk, and all the while he kept his ears pricked for any far-off cry that might alert him to his little friend's rushing return, but over the soft sigh of the summer breeze he heard nothing; only the quick scurrying pitter-patter of small hidden creatures in the grasses and his own slow-beating heart. Away in the lands beyond the valley, somewhere between the village of Petrella Salto and the city of Rieti on the River Turano, his brother Giacomo was out hunting. He had been gone two days, but often he was gone for three or four, depending on the quarry. There were deer in the woods, wild boar in the thickets, lynx and pine-martens in the uplands, and every now and then there were wolves, and occasionally a bear. He travelled light for a young man of his status; his entourage was never less than half a dozen of the local young nobility and a dozen or so of the tenant farmers' sturdy sons, whose job it was to look after the gear and set the nets if ever they cornered a boar. Young Bernardo was already missing him. He always did when he went off on one of his jaunts, but for some reason he could not fathom, that morning his head was full of thoughts of his dissolute brother, who was at once so like to him yet so unlike to him in many other ways. Although he would forever love Giacomo with all his heart, and would readily die for him in the childish battles he often dreamed of, when it came to considering his own future he did not intend to have so regular acquaintance with the magistrates and their courtrooms as his funny, rowdy, duelling Giacomo. Ah yes...the heir apparent. Suddenly he needed a piss so he got to his feet and moved a few yards away. He stood there aiming at a thistle and scanning the sky for any sign of his little murderous friend.

[He could be miles away by now, he thought; up hill, down dale, stooping for the kill then feeding. Dear Carlo, he'll never fathom how I know what he's been disporting at -- he'll never know how easily I can mark the blood upon his feathers...]

Flashy, his bay stallion, lifted his head up from his grazing with a jangle of bridle brasses and a shaking of his mane.

[Strange how they hear things…]

Something was coming... Something bearing death and triumph was coming. Bernardo slowed his breathing, the better to listen, and sure enough, Flashy too was standing stock-still with his ears cocked for a sound that only he would hear. The boy strained to catch a sound, any sound, but there was nothing apart from a stirring of the lower airs across the meadow, the drone of buzzing bees, and an unseen skylark's glorious song falling to earth in a shower of silver notes. He got up and walked towards the horse with a downward gesture of his palms as if to say, [quiet, quiet, my love, stand still and don't you whiffle]. Is Carlo coming? Is he coming back...? Is he?

And yes, he was coming back now; Carlo, stooping from out of the glare of the sun; Carlo, whistling down the valley like an arrow from a bow, Carlo making his low triumphal pass then soaring upwards once more into his realm of sky and freedom while Bernardo thrust his hand into the glove. And then -- no weight at all, like living thistledown -- he streaked earthwards once more with a scream of exultation, gripping something brown and furry in his claws. He dropped whatever it was, extended his wings to their fullest reach to slow him to a mid-air halt, then braced his tufted legs while lightly dropping down to settle, digging his talons into his master's outstretched wrist. The boy glanced down at the discarded brown thing -- a plump vole -- and rewarded the bird with a scrap of bloody beef from the kitchens. It went down in a single gulp as Bernardo hooded him and looped the jesses round his thumb and forefinger.

“You are a bad boy to keep your poor Dino waiting,” he said, running his finger down the falcon's blue-grey back. “Bad boy.”

Carlo sat motionless, only turning his head towards the sound of Bernardo's voice, enduring the indignity as he was examined for damage. Truly he was a beautiful bird, the hatchling of a carefully selected line. He was bred for speed; compact and muscular, sharp of talon and strong of beak, and his breeding showed in his imperious stance, in his commanding hauteur, and in his deep chest that was barred with black and white but now was stained with blood. He stood the same height as a raven but half the weight. A lordly tercel peregrine he was; just two thirds the size of a female but far deadlier to his prey. Even the hood he wore -- purple velvet edged with thin gold braid and crowned with a tiny spray of red-dyed goose-down -- showed his status for all the world to see. Bernardo loved him the same way as he loved his faithful Flashy; they were his friends, and along with his griffon dog Bella he made sure they had the best of everything in return for the love they showed to him.

To the father the son's playthings were as nothing; dumb animals doted on by a spoiled and weakling boy whom he vowed to make a man of when he finally prised him from his mother's clutches. Oh, he would make a warrior of the boy yet – he had told Bernardo these things a thousand times -- and get him out of his effeminate silks and brocades and into the leather jerkin of a proper son of a noble house. The little brat needed toughening up, he needed to learn from his father's example; if he could only be taught the proper way to treat his so-called pets he would learn that the same techniques would control men, and the father was determined to teach him, come what may. After all, the Count's own hunting-birds, whether red-tailed hawks or gyrfalcons; all of them could look forward only to a wrung neck and a discarding on the dung-hill when their muscles were wasted with age and their hunting days were done. Even the horses -- be they war-horses, race-horses, carriage-horses or just baggage horses -- all were destined for the knacker's yard when their usefulness was over and the farrier's bills began to mount. And so it also was with men. If they were useful, one made use of them; if not, well... Years before, he had read Niccolò Machiavelli’s slim book on that very subject, only to conclude that he knew even more than that famous diplomat about the intrigues and dishonesties of persons, and of how to make them do one's bidding while keeping them unaware of it. He knew more, simply because he was Francesco Cenci, one of the wealthiest men in all Italia, and because if wealth meant anything at all it meant superiority in all things; all things, including Machiavelli's arts of slipperiness and scheming. He had failed with Cristoforo and Rocco, and now he was failing with Giacomo, but with Bernardo he was intent upon succeeding, even if -- especially if -- he had to break the boy to get his way.

Intrusive though they were, these things were never far from Bernardo’s mind, such was his fear of angering the Count, but such thoughts were not for today; today of all days he was determined to be happy, for with his mother's permission -- long pestered for -- soon he would be going to Rieti. It would be his first time staying away from home, and he could hardly stop himself from dancing around like a silly Spanish gypsy at the wonderful excitement of it. Another town! A holy revelry! Riding out – riding, not sitting in a carriage, but riding like a grown-up! Will they let me have a dagger – everyone has a dagger – or will they make Olimpio my wet-nurse?

He had not long to wait. Olimpio was taking him. Good old Olimpio Calvetti, and who better for the jaunt than the young but dependable castellano of the citadel.

“Look after him,” the Contessa Lucrezia told Olimpio.

“Signora, he will be safe with me.”

Safe, but excited beyond thrill. He was off to see the celebrations of the Exaltation of the Cross, or Holy Cross Day, or Holy Rood Day as some called it. September the fourteenth it was, so they set off on the twelfth. They left behind them the first stirrings of strange tides that would shape both their futures; imperceptible, unnoticed like the gentle ripple of a trout as it touches surface in the slanting sunlight of some afternoon pond, or the silent beat of a moth’s wing flirting with a candle-flame. Sometimes, truth be told, ’tis better not to know…

La Rocca Cenci, as everyone called the castle, was almost empty, for the heat of the day had settled within it. There being no breeze to stir the air, mostly the people had found a spot outside to feast and drink and enjoy the coming coolness of the night in the company of friends and neighbours. All talk of spoiled harvests, intermittent rainfall, a blight upon the land and other suchlike miseries was banned; everyone searched for a few hours' escape from reality, to forget their troubles, to pretend for just a while that tomorrow would be different and all their worries would burn away as the morning mist burns off in the heat of the sun. A few people were in Rieti where the celebrations would be far more riotous and the jollity would be heartier. The Visconti Giacomo had left instructions that whoever wanted to go could do so, as long as the Contessa agreed. In the stable-yard they set up trestle tables made of planks of wood supported on saw-horses and covered in old Turkey carpets on top of large white linen sheets. Foods of all descriptions covered them, and great jugs of Sangiovese and Montepulciano reds, together with watered Chieti for the younger ones and those persons still on duty. Nearby a fire blazed on the cobbles with a spit they had dragged from the kitchen. A nicely roasting ox turned on it, with the scullery-boys straining at the great wheels at either end. In the fields beneath the fortress the villagers of Petrella Salto were making do with whatever they had garnered from the hedgerows and the forests; wooden bowls full of chopped leaves and boiled eggs with last year's chestnuts quartered and dressed with garlic oil; the first shoots of wild asparagus, kale, spring onions and other country things the wives knew of. They roasted fowl whose laying days were over, and from the number of hares and coneys roasting it seemed as if all the land for miles around had been cleared of them in an orgy of trapping. Wood-pigeons there were a-plenty, and songbirds skewered on twigs. There were even some of the Conte's deer a-roasting. The penalty for poaching them was death, but in the absence of his father the Signore Giacomo had allowed it, for try as he might -- and he hardly tried at all -- he could not bring himself to watch his people suffer for the want of a bit of venison when the forests were running wild with well-fed deer. He watched with satisfaction as his peasants dipped their leather tankards into kegs of the local wheat beer. They had games of pallacorda and climbing the greasy pole, throwing at the mark, running at the quintain like a mounted knight; a jangle-belled fool ran around with a bladder on a stick; there were card games and dancing, tossing the hoop at the peg, skittles in a wood-planked alley; they had a riotous game with no rules that was known as footeball and which often could be held between two entire villages and go on all day -- and of course the young bucks had their wrestling and their boxing and the fast-flowing River Salto to swim in, the river that led into the lake of the same name. The apprentice Paulo, all fifteen years of him, sat wedged in an arrow-slit beside his master. He dreamed of freedom... Wondered wistfully what it would be like to be free...

“I know what you’re thinking,” said the blacksmith.

“Eh…?”

“Thinking of running away. It is natural at your age. We think of things we cannot have, but where would it get us anyway? You are young. You dream, and that is good – but dangerous. We are what we are, Paulo, believe me.”

***

The door to the Contessa's apartments was always guarded by a sentry of the City of Rieti contingent. That night it was Ramondo di Martinelli, aged about twenty, a lord's son of the Cenci demesne and known to the young Bernardo as a friend he could trust. That night he had on his parade armour; all blued steel bordered with a wide gold band with a pattern of the lovers' knots of the House of Martinelli chased in black upon it. A rapier in the Spanish style -- a spada -- hung at his side in a decorated scabbard, and in his right hand he held the tasselled halberd of his rank, blued and gilded. He was bored and thirsty. His mind was racing with the many disturbing things he had heard that day, but most of all he was feeling fearful for young Bernardo, who, despite his title as the Signore Bernardo, Nobile dei Conti di Cenci, was still only an eight-year-old boy, and vulnerable.
During his few postings so far at La Rocca, Ramondo had taken quite a shine to Bernardo. The age difference between the two of them seemed huge to both, but at the same time irrelevant. The boy called him Ramon for short, and he took it as a great honour when Bernardo told him to call him Dino in return. When he was not on duty, and unbeknown to the Count, he was teaching him the basics of sword-fighting, for no-one else seemed to have bothered, and by knocking sticks together with the kitchen-boys and the ignorant stallieri, young Dino had picked up a host of bad habits that he actually imagined were a part of learning the mastery of the blade. Ramon was horrified at what he saw, so he began from nothing, right at the very beginning, and started by telling the boy to forget everything he had learned thus far, and teaching him the elementary Guard positions, the contratempo and contrapostura, then when he seemed to have grasped these first steps, the so-called Four Governors of technique, and how to use the left-hand dagger. He found little Dino to be an apt pupil, and their friendship became even firmer through the training games.

That mid- September night was different though. Dino had gone to Rieti with Olimpio Calvetti; everything seemed altogether different, and not in a good way. Something dark hovered over the festivities like the unseen shadow one can feel in one's bones but never see until it fills the sky and there is no escape. Ramondo felt uneasy and apprehensive. His thoughts wandered back to when he had spent a lazy few hours killing time earlier in the day. Rumours had been running around the castle all afternoon; his fellow guards were talking in groups, the stallieri exchanged knowing glances as they fed and groomed the horses, the indoor servants looked nervous, the carpenter and his boys were unusually quiet, and the kitchens were more full of gossip than they were of smoke. Even the blacksmith Leonello, who had shod his mount for him the day before and not charged him, had given his apprentice Paulo time off to go swimming, or so he said, but in reality, the reason had been to get him out of the way of the whispering for as long as he could manage to. It was well known that he was far fonder of the boy than he admitted, ever since his own son had drowned in a shipwreck on his way to Venezia the year before. Paulo would never take the son's place but he was good company and an attentive companion -- just what Leonello wanted as age crept up upon him and the strength in his right arm waned.

“What's the rumour, Leonello?” Asked Ramondo that afternoon as he fetched up outside the blacksmith's shop after wandering aimlessly through the sunlight and shadows of La Rocca, “they all fall silent whenever I approach.”

“This will be your first year living in at La Rocca, will it not?”

“Yes. Before that I was at Rieti one month, then one month up here, then the next month back to Rieti, then here again and so on. It's because I was doing my turn in the cavalleria, and in the cavalleria we swear an oath. We do not gossip, we keep our counsel and we keep our secrets. That’s why I think the Count wanted me based here. He knows my family, fair enough, but I can't think why he chose me over all the others.”

“He will have his reasons, you can be sure of it.”

“That's as may be, but it's not for us to know, is it?”

“That's right Signore,” said Leonello. Swiftly he inclined his head and touched his cap. “I have always found silence and not asking questions are the shield of the working man. Let our betters do whatever it is they do -- I want none of it.”

“Well said, Signore. If only there were more like you.”

The blacksmith eyed him up and down with the caution demanded by any dealings with Count Cenci's armed protectors, but it went against his nature to pre-judge the lad. Leonello was of the old belief that just as the flaws of the body are a sure sign of the sins within the soul, so in equal measure, the soul's goodness often finds outward display in beauty of form and countenance. Of course, he thought, one must always be wary of the traps and connivances of Satan. Not for nothing was the hornèd one called The Deceiver, the Lord of Lies, the Serpent of Temptation, but in this here and now, in the heat and fire of the forge -- which in ages past was the metaphor of a vision of the very depths of Hell -- he could not, would not, believe that Lucifer was present. Inwardly he nodded to himself as his mistrust faded. This guard in his costly but tasteful armour that any metal-worker's eye could only wonder at, his sword and dagger betokening his estate, the gold signet traditional to the first son of a knightly family that he wore upon his little finger -- he inspired the canny Leonello's trust. Also, as if to confirm the old belief that goodness is fair and fairness resides in beauty, the lad that stood before him was of a quality fit to break any fine lady's heart. He was of a middle stature, slender and well-proportioned, with the strong legs of a horseman. It gave him balance and an easy stature; his waist was small, as befits a youth, and his armour had been tightly fitted to his form -- and by a quality armourer by the looks of it. His complexion, flawless as a girl's, had a golden glow of health and sunlight. His hair was light brown like the colour of a roan horse and he wore it all rough-cut and shiny, curling into great loose rings in the new Ricciolo style, fashionably Spanish. His most arresting feature, however, were his eyes. They were clear and bright, of a lively hazel colour, well-shaped and full of life and vigour, kindly yet astute, framed by high cheekbones and the arc of his eyebrows. Leonello cleared his throat and spat into the hearth. Slightly uneasy it made him. He was even more unsure now than he had been mere seconds before, how to treat this unfamiliar newcomer. He had barely noticed him before, what with his comings and goings from one month to another, just like the rest of the cavalleria, but the thought flashed quickly into his mind unbidden; [You want to be careful, my dear Ramondo -- if that is truly is your name -- that you steer well clear of the Lady Beatrice, what with your looks, lest you waken jealous thoughts in her admirer, that damned Olimpio, and by God that’s the last thing you want to do].

“Well then? What's the rumour? I need to know what’s happening here -- the rumours, mind you. A rumour is not a truth, so you’ll break no confidences confiding in me.”

“Who tells a blacksmith anything?”

Ramondo bent to whisper, “Listen; If I am to do my duty here I must know everything everyone is saying -- even what they're thinking -- I need to keep my finger on the pulse, capisce? I told you I swore an oath,” repeated Ramondo. “I told you that we in the cavalleria take pride in keeping our mouths shut if needs be; you need not worry on that account.”

“Sit down,” said the smith at last; “there's a bottle or two of Sangiovesi in here somewhere, if I can only remember where I hid them.”

“You hide your wine?” Ramondo looked at him nonplussed.

“Signore, I have a pupil indentured; an apprendista. He is at that age -- fifteen, you understand? -- when boys grow inquisitive. I try to keep him on small beer or three-to-one Chieti -- we have good water here, as you will know -- for I made a promise to his mother when I took him as a ward.” He grinned, and his grey eyes twinkled. “You cannot be much older yourself, signore; you know the curiosity I speak of, do you not?”

“Ah, we have all been in that situation, I think.”

“Aye,” the blacksmith nodded, “and me more than most -- though the boy knows nothing of it!”

“And nor should he. They think they know everything at fifteen -- I certainly did -- or so I thought. But shall we to the purpose, blacksmith? What are these things the people do not tell me? Dark things, are they?”

Leonello took a moment or two to think about it, wondering how far he could afford to trust this youth, then decided he would take his cue from young Bernardo, who, despite his lack of years had no lack of judgment when choosing his friends. Yes, he thought, [i’ll take the risk].

“Sit yourself down.” He gestured towards a scarred old bench with a horse blanket thrown across it. “We’ll crack a cup together and talk of what you want – but soft -- I’ll tell you nowt of what’ll harm you.”

“So… Their lordships Rocco and Cristofero…?”

“Gone their separate ways. No-one speaks of them anymore.”

“What did they do?”

“Be born. They were born to a father who did not want them.”

“And are they well? Will they return?”

“I think they’re well enough but there is nothing for them here. Young Bernardo misses them, and the Lady Beatrice more so, but…”

“I wish I could have met them.”

“One day you might – if fate permits it.”

“So you believe in fate?”

Leonello shrugged his shoulders and sloshed some wine into a beaker for his guest. “Fate is what happens to you when you lose your faith in God, so yes, you could say I believe in fate.”

“Well then, let us hope that fate is kind to us.”

The old blacksmith turned away, distracted by a small explosion of sparks in the midst of the forge’s flames. “It’s not you or me I worry for,” he murmured.

"Who, then?"

"The whole family. The Count Cenci hates them all."

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