Friday, 28 November 2008

Chapter Forty

Sir John Fletcher had a nose for trouble.

As soon as he had stepped off the barge and set foot on the streets of Venice he knew instinctively that something was amiss. The atmosphere was one of hostility and incipient violence, and he didn't like it, not one bit. He dismissed most of his men, telling them to find a tavern and stay out of mischief, and decided that if something was wrong he wanted to be at the heart of it.

He wandered the streets, following the sound of the crowd and heard a commotion some way ahead of him. A fight of some sort was in progress, or to be more precise, on a closer look he saw that a large crowd was gathered round a group of five or six men who were attacking a prone figure on the ground with a wicked looking selection of cudgels and sticks.

Time to even the odds a little, he thought, drawing himself up to his full height and taking a deep breath.

"Think this is a fair fight, do you?" he shouted in his best parade ground sergeant major bellow.

The attackers stopped their assault and turned to face him, and the crowd pressed in at the prospect of more entertaining violence.

"What's it got to with you, you interfering fool?" replied the tallest man, the nominal leader of the gang, it seemed.

"I don't like to see anybody kicking a man when he's down, and if you don't stop of your own accord I'll bloody well make you", at the last he dropped his voice to a growl.

"This man ", the attacker gestured at the wretch laying prostrate on the ground, "is a filthy Jew out on the streets after dark. Everyone knows that the Jews are to blame for the war and the panic at the Rialto! Isn't that right, boys?"

His appeal to the crowd provoked a few cheers in response, but most appeared a bit uneasy at the turn of events and stayed silent.

"We're teaching this piece of vermin a lesson, and we'll teach it to you as well", the man sneered and waved his cudgel.

"I was handing out lessons in how to take a beating while you were still wrapped in swaddling clothes", replied Fletcher, and he rushed the nearest thug with a shoulder charge that he dropped into the man's midriff at the last moment, knocking the wind out of him and sending him sprawling on the ground struggling for breath. One down, four to go. He picked up the man's stick - a useful looking five foot length of ash pole, which he casually tucked behind his back to keep it out of view.

"Who's next?" asked Fletcher.

The attackers seemed momentarily nonplussed, and then one of them made a move, making a wild swing with his cudgel at Fletcher's body, aiming to crack him in the ribs. Fletcher stepped neatly back on his right foot and brought his stick up and over his own head and delivered a smart thrust into the man's face breaking his nose in the process. The man yelped and clutched his face, blood spraying from between his fingers. That was two.

The next two attackers were smarter and worked as a team. One of the pair approached Fletcher, swinging his club in a lazy figure of eight while his partner edged around the Fletcher's blind side. The attacker to the front suddenly attacked with an over head swing attempting to cave Fletcher's skull in, but Fletcher blocked the strike with his stick held high in both of his hands. He then dropped and planted his boot in the man's stomach, allowing the man's own momentum to carry him up and over, cannoning into the other thug sneaking up up from behind. Four down, and less than a minute had passed.

The last attacker drew a knife and eschewing all preamble or bravado launched himself at Fletcher to stab him in the heart. Fletcher planted the stick, like a pole arm set against a charging horse, and caught the knife wielder in the chest, stopping him dead. That was all of them, but he had to move before anybody in the crowd picked up the courage to intervene.

He knelt to the man on the ground and offered him a hand. He whispered urgently to him.

“Can you stand, my friend? Good. We need to walk away from here - right now. Don’t run, and whatever else you do, don’t look back. Now, come on - let’s get out here.”

They commenced walking at a stiff pace, some in the crowd jeering at them as they left, but the five thugs sprawled on the ground in various states of injury and conciousness had obviously been enough to dissuade anybody else from interfering.

Fletcher introduced himself to his new companion - “Sir John Fletcher at your service sir!” and the man he had rescued from a beating replied simply that his name was Isaac.

“I assume that you need to return to the ghetto, Isaac, before we run into any more troublemakers?”

“Yes, I was just about my business this night when I was attacked. It is well before the hour of the curfew, but that didn't matter to the crowd. I don't think that it was all of them, but there were certain people provoking and encouraging the others”

Isaac led Fletcher through a succession of back alleys to avoid the main streets, and they headed to the North West of Venice until they reached the gate by the bridge over the Canale di Cannaregio. The gate was usually manned by a rota of guards drawn from the city's Christian community, paid for by the inhabitants of the ghetto but tonight the guard posts were empty.

“I don't like this, not one little bit” said Fletcher, feeling an ominous sense of foreboding in his stomach. His mood was considerably improved as he recognised a friendly face standing in the centre of the ghetto's central campo, an open space surrounded by tall buildings each with multiple stories piled higgle de piggledy one on top of the other, some with synagogues at the very peak.

“Fletcher!” shouted Alonso, genuinely pleased to see his friend.

“I wish we could meet under more peaceful circumstances, my friend” replied Fletcher, “but I fear that an attack is on the way. The guards are missing and the gates are wide open. We need to organise a defence, and quickly!”

They ran to the open gateway, gathering a handful of men on the way. A mob was already gathering on the far side of the bridge, some armed with cudgels and swords, or rocks and other missiles to throw, others with flaming torches, and their mood was an ugly one.

“If they cross the bridge and get into the ghetto, there’ll be a bloody massacre” said Fletcher urgently, “We have to hold them here until cooler heads prevail”

“How do we do that?” asked Alonso, worry etched into his face

“Just watch me” replied Fletcher, and he strode into the middle of the bridge, head held high. He looked at the members of the mob with a steady gaze, challenging them. If they wanted to cross the bridge they would have to get past him first. He reflected that his stand here was a microcosm of the siege of Mestre that he had fought so recently, only now he did not have cannon fire and black powder traps to fall back on.

The mob seemed to hesitate, with no one person willing to make the first move. Alonso noticed a black clad figure, lurking in the background of the crowd. He was talking in conspiratorial tones to a group who detached themselves from the main body to challenge Fletcher. One of them threw a rock which hit Fletcher on the side of his helmet, making him stagger backwards a pace. They prepared to rush him, and then Fletcher spoke again.

“So it’s come to this has it? An armed mob picking on the weak and helpless. Why, for goodness sake? These people are your neighbours and your friends. You are happy to work with them, trade with them and for them to be your physician when you are ill. The real enemy is outside the walls” - he gestured in the direction of Mestre - “and inside too, whispering in your ears and trying to drive a wedge between people who should be on the same side.”

The mood of the crowd seemed to change abruptly, and they shrank back, leaving the figure in black standing in the open. The man looked about desperately, as if were a centipede found under a rock, looking for another dark place to scuttle away too. He realised that there was no escape and came forward on to the bridge himself.

“You fools!” he shouted “Can’t you see the canker that is infecting your city from within? It matters little, for even now your palace is burning and your precious Doge will soon be dead! This city will belong to the church, and we will scour it clean!”

He was within reach of Fletcher now and he reached into his black robe, pulling out a short but wickedly sharp blade, catching Fletcher off guard.

“So die all heretics!” he screamed, plunging the knife deep into Fletcher’s chest before turning the blade on himself, cutting his own throat in a spray of crimson blood.

Alonso could only look on in horror, as John Fletcher sank to ground, mortally wounded, and beyond him from the direction of the Doge’s palace, smoke and flame seared the night sky.

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