Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Chapter Eight

Donatella spurred her horse onwards.

She had taken a boat across the lagoon to her family's farm at San Guiliano on the main land. The ostlers had readied a young filly for her, quickly and efficiently saddling her with a minimum of fuss. At the same time Donatella packed a few supplies that she would need for the journey - some humble rations of bread and olive oil, some cheese, a small wine skin, a purse filled with golden ducats - the life blood of the Venetian economy - and finally, her two most prized possessions. A swept hilt rapier, wickedly sharp and with perfect balance, and a matched dagger. She rarely wore the weapons in public - it simply wasn't acceptable for a noble woman such as herself to go armed routinely - but she had trained assiduously in private. Her tutor had schooled her after the style of the grand master Salvatore Fabris, an economical and elegant method of defence.

The road followed the coast in a wide arc, curving to the south and east. The Romans had established this route over fifteen hundred years previously as one of the major trading arteries of their empire and it had been in use more or less continuously ever since. Donatella knew from her classical history that the road was bisected by the Rubicone river, the point that marked the boundary between Cisalpine Gaul to the north and Italy to the south, where Julius Caesar had made his declaration of war upon Rome by crossing the waters.

Caesar had famously said "the die is cast" as his armies began their march on Rome - Donatella reflected that she now felt like a pawn in a much bigger game, the boundaries and rules of which she could only guess at.

For the moment, though, she was gloriously free - the wind in her hair and the sun breaking through the scattered cloud on the seaward horizon. Although she enjoyed her life in the city, she frequently felt stifled by the rules and conventions that dictated what she could and could not say and do. As the daughter of a noble family, albeit a relatively minor one, she was expected to attend to a social round of parties, dances and formal dinners, and the spend the rest of her time in suitably ladylike pursuits such as sewing, music and dance. She lived for the moments when she could exchange her silk dresses for a more practical outfit of doublet,hose and cloak, and leave her house under the cover of darkness to carouse in taverns, take fencing lessons from a maestro and scale the rooftops and hidden places of the city. Her most favourite time of year was, without doubt, the carnivals where the identity of every participant was hidden by a mask, and a wild bacchanalia ensued, with convention being thrown to the wind.

She had taught herself the arts of stealth and subterfuge, and made contacts with the rogues, thieves and smugglers, and other inhabitants of the city's underworld, and learnt how to listen to the gossip and cant and other information that flowed freely, if only you paid attention to it. There were some who believed that the famous freebooting spirit of Venice that almost verged on the point of arrogance, would lead to retribution from those who opposed any form of renaissance or enlightenment, but those voices were very much in the minority.

The spirit of Italy, and Venice in particular, was unique amongst the countries and principalities of Europe. That spirit was best summarized by the concept known as sprezzatura - that studied nonchalance that gave the impression of accomplishing everything in all spheres of life with ease and grace and no sign of outward effort and concern. It could apply equally to practice of the arts of music and dance, of trade where a deal satisfactory to both parties could be struck without the desperate haggling of merchants from less civilized nations, and most notably in the art of fencing where it manifested as an almost casual disregard for ones own life as you deprived your opponent of theirs, preferably with a stylish flourish as you pierced their heart and then turned your back before they had hit the ground.

Donatella's felt her horse starting to tire, so she eased back on reins to drop the pace from a hard gallop to a steady canter. She estimated that she had another hour or so before she would arrive in Ravenna at this pace, and there was no sense in running a valuable horse into the ground if she didn't have to.

The open road was a fine place to be on a day such as as today. She took advantage of the slower pace to look around her and enjoy the scenery.

To her left hand lay the flat coastal plain covered in hardy sea grasses broken only by small patches of stunted trees and shrubs, clinging to a precarious existence in the margins of the land. The road that she was travelling on was raised almost six feet from the surrounding terrain and protected from all but the most devastating flooding by a stout dyke, giving the impression of a defensive rampart to hold back the fury of the sea. Today though, the sea was quiescent, although she could see whitecaps and breakers further out.

To her right, the land rose gradually to a series of hills, divided into a patchwork of small farms and groves of olive and lemon trees. The harvest had long since been gathered in, so they were largely bare of any foliage or fruit. Beyond the first rank of hills, she could see the smoke from what appeared to be a collection of camp fires. This struck her as odd, as she had not heard of any mercenary companies of condottieri, being based in the area. The companies rarely campaigned during the winter, and their members generally used the time to return to their home villages to fritter away their spoils of war before returning to the internecine wars of the Italian principalities and dukedoms in the Spring. Italy had existed in a state of almost permanent warfare between highly paid mercenary companies for over three hundred years, and it was an accepted fact of life that at any given time there would be a city somewhere under siege. She resolved to ask in Ravenna if anyone had heard any rumours of such unusual activity. As a member of a trading company, it paid to be well informed about such matters, if only to be able to protect your own interests.

Before long, the walls of the city came into sight and after finding an inn where she could leave her horse to be fed and watered, she made her way to the merchants quarter and the docks in search of the wine trader Signor Bompanzini. There seemed to be a lot more activity than usual, with horse drawn carts laden with food and other supplies leaving the city in all directions. It is said that an army marches on its stomach, and in this case a substantial army must be preparing itself for action.

She hailed a passing ox cart, piled high with barrels of wine and bales of hay.

"Business is good, I see - who's buying?"

"Who wants to know", the somewhat surly carter replied.

"A ducat if you tell me where you are headed, and another if you can direct me to Signor Lucio Bompanzini"

The carter needed no further encouragement to reply.

"Bompanzini has an office down by the docks - just follow this street and turn left past the main square, you can't miss it. As for the business - where have you been living, under a rock? Somebody's hired Sir Roger de Montfort's Black Company, and kept it bloody quiet too. First thing anybody knew about it is when they pitched up a couple of miles from here and started spending gold like it was going out of fashion. Whoever's hired them has either got very deep pockets, or has got their eye on a big prize. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must be on my way"

Donatella flipped the carter the promised two ducats, and made her way slowly against the prevailing traffic following the directions she had been given. Perhaps Bompanzini would be able to shed more light on the situation?

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