First Chapter Excerpt — END OF DAYS

Several posts back, I said my intention was to release a few lines from the sequel to VENDETTA. Then life happened. In any case, it’s a little late but here you go …

**Full disclaimer: this content might vary drastically in the final draft. It probably won’t, but story lines begin with the best of intentions. Then the Good Idea Fairy hits you over the head with a sledgehammer, and you wave bye-bye to your carefully conceived plot and character arcs. Also, this is an excerpt and in my current reckoning excerpts are short.

Fun factoid. The featured image of this post is the watchtower above the village of Brisighella mentioned in the excerpt. I took the photo in October, 2014.

If you’re unfamiliar with VENDETTA, the events in it take place mostly during the month of May, 1377 in the Romagna region of Italy.

I’m done yapping. Enjoy.

Angelo Anchioni and Stuart Heton — defrocked squires of the Hospitaller Order and through sheer recklessness, and no small amount of luck — in the employ of the feared condottiere and captain-general, Sir John Hawkwood, had been content to observe the hill for a number of days. They had enjoyed the assignment, for it allowed them to escape the stifling heat and incessant bugs of the plains and fens of the Romagna. The foothills of the Apennines were instead washed with cool breezes from the sea, heralding the onset of autumn. From their perch they could see the towers of Faenza three leagues northeast, and when the wind was right, hear the incessant, frenetic racket of hammers shaping iron, the crack of stone, and burr of saws as the city (sacked and gutted by their employer the previous year and again not two months past) was rebuilt. On clear days, they could could see Forlí to the east. Beyond it the grim ruin, blackened and silent, that was Cesena, and the shimmering Adriatic. 

Hawkwood told Anchioni, “Watch, listen, and do not be seen.” The captain-general of the Company of St George delivered this instruction over an armored shoulder, mounted on a foul-tempered blood bay courser. As was his wont, he had appeared of a sudden at the villa the squires shared on the outskirts of  Bagnacavallo. It was late July in the Romagna, a bright Tuesday morning just after Prime, and he had an escort of fifty lances in his wake. Anchioni and Heton found it remarkable, for the last word they had received of the captain-general was that he was in pursuit of Bretons in the employ of the Papacy, and many leagues south and west.

While his escort fanned out in search of shade, the Hawkwood strode through the cool courtyard, scattering pullets and ducks. He hammered on the doors, burst in without waiting for acknowledgement, and made himself at home in the squire’s white-washed solar. He noted with approval the floor tiles had been swept and scrubbed. Dried lavender and rosemary hung from the eaves, along with bundles of other herbs. The fire in the hearth was banked and all appeared neat and tidy. 

Both young men stood before him dressed in brown hose, belted tunics, and boots, all well made but without ornament or embroidery. Heton wore a leather jerkin over his tunic, while Anchioni chose to wear a brown capuchon. Both young men wore plain hats, though Heton’s sported a jaunty eagle feather. Their Hospitaller garments, ravaged by travel and battle, had been carefully mended and stowed in a chest, buried far from prying eyes under blankets and broadcloth.   

Hawkwood was attended by his chancellor, the Lucchese exile Jacopo da Pietrasanta, and accoutered for a campaign: cuirass, spaulders, vambraces, cuisses, greaves, and sabatons, all of Milanese make, the finest armor in Christendom. A bascinet nestled in the crook of his arm. On his head was a faded, dusty gray chaperone. He looked vigorous and fit, dark eyes agleam. His chancellor, however, was rumpled and unhappy, his robes and beret sweat-soaked and streaked with grime. 

The captain-general settled himself on a bench with a clank and rattle. Feigning outrage, he demanded hospitality in flawless, Florentine-accented Tuscan. “By Cuthbert and Barnabas, is this how a lord is treated by his vassals?” Using a foot, he shoved a chair toward Jacopo. “Sit before you fall on your face. We must harden you, Jacopo. After all these years, a night in the saddle shouldn’t trouble you so.” 

The chancellor settled himself and responded with a brittle wheeze. He waved away a cup proffered by Angelo, and instead sat, legs splayed, one arm dangling and the other across his breast, gripping a large leather satchel. His dark woolen robes and hose were coated with horse hair and from him emanated a warm, damp fog. 

While removing his gauntlets, Hawkwood said, “I believe poor Jacopo will never forgive me for this latest outrage on his well-padded frame. Messer Angelo, that basin and pitcher if you please. I’ll have a wash before dining. Young Heton, you seem to be moving well. Your legs have healed, then. And the beard suits you. What of your hand?”

“My thanks, Sir John,” replied Stuart Heton with a nod as he bustled about the table placing chargers, cups, spoons, a salt cellar, and knives. The tall youth walked with a slight limp. “My legs have healed; I can ride and run. But I’m still unable to hold hilt, axe, or lance.” In Mantua two months past, shortly after rescuing Angelo Anchioni, Heton had been on the losing end of a duel with a skilled, savage Breton mercenary. The cuts on his face, shoulders, and legs had knitted. But a stab wound through his right forearm remained unresolved.

“He can manage a bow well enough,” said Anchioni as he placed a linen towel and chunk of soap in front of Hawkwood. 

“Indeed?” Hawkwood cocked an eyebrow. He placed his bascinet on the bench and laved his hands in the basin. “What is this, Messer Angelo? Snow melt? Do I not deserve a bit of warm water? Lay the board and then we can discuss your first commission.” Switching to English, he said, “Why do you not have any servants?” 

“We’re rarely here, as it is, milord,” said Heton. “And we feel it’s not right to pay someone to do things we are capable of doing ourselves.” 

Hawkwood grunted. The squires had been warned of his impending arrival the previous evening by messenger, and so were neither flustered nor unprepared. While the captain-general washed, they completed laying the table: fresh bread, still warm from the town ovens; pottage; honey; favas in broth; eggs both fried and hard-boiled; and a roasted chicken. To drink there was mead and wine. 

The captain-general thumped the table, which startled Jacopo da Pietrasanta into awareness. “Sit! Messer Angelo, be a good lad and bless the food. By God, I haven’t eaten since before Compline yestereve.”

Angelo Anchioni delivered a brief blessing. The four men turned their attention to the food, Hawkwood with great gusto. They ate in relative silence. Heton had thrown open the weathered oaken windows and along with a soft breeze came an occasional burst of laughter, the scrape of steel on whetting stones, the scent of fresh turned earth and manure, the jangling of harness and nicker of horses. From further afield came the cries and songs of contadini busy at work in the fields and orchards around Bagnacavallo. 

The edge of his hunger blunted, Hawkwood deigned to speak, a faint grin on his brown, weathered face. Both squires, though courteous, had been fidgeting with impatience. They had eaten as though compelled at sword point. 

“You have kept abreast of recent events? Reports have arrived?” When they nodded, he continued. “And Messer Angelo, you have followed my instruction and become familiar with the lands between Rimini and Bologna?” 

“I have done so, Sir John.” Left unasked by the squire was why he had been sent on an almost ceaseless reconnaissance. Nor did Anchioni discuss several encounters during his daily rides that had ended in sword strokes and bloodshed. Unlike Heton, Anchioni had made a full recovery as the brigands who attempted to waylay him discovered. 

“Good. There is a matter of great interest in the foothills, not far to the south. Mischief may be brewing and I would know more of it.”

Heton said, “Mischief, milord?”

“Aye, mischief. What know you of Faenza, the Este family, and Astorre Manfredi?”  

The squires glanced warily at each other and shrugged in unison. With furrowed brow and pursed lips, Anchioni regarded the contents of his cup. Heton spoke for them. “Of Faenza, signore, we know you sacked it and gave possession of it to Signore Manfredi, who aided you in the assault and is now part of the anti-Papal league. Signore Este owned it previously. He purchased it from you last year, but remains allied to the Pope. We can only assume — ” 

“Ah! Make no assumptions,” said Hawkwood. He grabbed the ewer containing mead, sniffed it, and filled his cup. “Signore Manfredi and I have an accord, it is true. We sent the Bretons around Cesena scurrying for the hills like the dogs they are. As for Signore Este, he and I also have an accord. Do not concern yourself,” he paused to wet his throat, “with making assumptions. What I need are eyes. Sharp, young eyes. On Brisighella. Eyes that can be trusted. You know Brisighella? Did you acquaint yourself with the location of it, Messer Angelo?”

“Yes, signore.” Anchioni, lips still pursed and brown eyes troubled. “It is a small village in the hills, several leagues south of Faenza. The Fiume Lamone runs through a canyon east of it. The village is not large but it’s well fortified, and the road to it is heavily patrolled. There is a stout, round tower and keep high above it. The hills are steep, though there are olives and grapes. Heavy timber, too. I spent a day watching it from the opposite side of the valley.” Once more he stared at the contents of his cup. “It was hard going, getting up there. More fit for mules or feet than horses.”

“And north of the tower and keep?”

Anchioni nodded. “Another tower, signore. Though it is smaller, as is the hilltop on which it is sighted.”

“And it is that smaller tower upon which I would have your eyes,” said Hawkwood, and rapped his knuckles on the board. “Can you manage it? What I mean is, are the two of you ready to take the field?” He turned his attention to the charger of fried eggs.

Anchioni squirmed. “Signore, when last I saw pestilence flags flew from those towers, and the town walls.”

“Yes, yes. The sable standard of warning. A subterfuge I’ve used on more than one occasion to fool prying eyes. Were there fires? And could you hear mourners howling their grief?”

“No, signore.”

“There you have it,” said Hawkwood.

“So they are hiding something or wish not to be disturbed. What are we looking for, milord?” asked Heton.

“You’ll know it when you see it, Master Heton. And once you’ve seen it, send word to me immediately.”

Heton glanced at his friend, who continued to gaze at the the contents of his cup, though now with puckered lips and raised eyebrows. He then turned to Hawkwood. “Milord, we have stood more than our share of watches on land and sea. And always knew what we were looking for. It would greatly aid our cause if — ”

“You will know it,” Hawkwood snapped. “Is it beyond your skill to sit on a hill top, remain undetected, and report all that you see?”

The young men sat erect, hands in their laps, at the abrupt change in the captain-general’s voice.

Anchioni cleared his throat. “No, milord. But such a task would be easier were you to tell us — ”

“Enough, by Cuthbert and Barnabas! If I say you’ll know it, then that is what I mean. My rede is thus: provision and arm yourselves, and get to that damned hill. I give you seven days to prepare. Jacopo will give you further instructions.” Hawkwood pushed back from the trestle and stood. “My thanks for this fine meal, but I must away. Messer Anchioni, attend me in the yard. Master Heton, do what you can to revive Signor Pietrasanta, else you’ll never see any coin. And remember Jacopo, who is to accompany them!”

Anchioni followed the captain-general into the courtyard, on his left hand and half a pace behind the rapidly striding Englishman. At the sight of their commander, Hawkwood’s escort immediately began making ready to depart. His squire remained in the shade and held the reins of his master’s snorting courser. 

Without a backward glance Hawkwood thrust his bascinet at Anchioni and grunted, “If you please.” Abruptly facing Anchioni he tugged on his heavy gauntlets and in an undertone said, “I can tell by the set of your jaw, Messer Angelo, that all is not well. What concerns you more? The health of your comrade, or the distinct lack of Visconti blood on your blade?”

Anchioni turned the helm in his hands, admiring its heft and the spare yet expertly wrought silver and gold chasing. Its visor bore the stamp of a forge from a renowned Lombard armorer in Villa Basilica. In an equally low voice, he said, “You said I could count on your aid, milord.” 

Hawkwood nodded and checked the fit of his spurs. With practiced ease, he removed the scabbarded arming sword from his belt. “Just so. I did.” In June, the Englishman had promised to assist Anchioni in exacting revenge upon Bernabò Visconti, the ruler of Milan, under whose order Anchioni’s parents had been slain in Barletta the previous year.

“When shall we strike then?” He frowned at the taller man. “When shall I have my vengeance?”

“Patience, Messer Angelo,” Hawkwood chided. He grasped the sword hilt and exposed a third of the blade, examining its edge and scanning for rust. “I am newly wed and have a campaign to manage. There is also the welfare of my men to consider. There aren’t many months left in the fighting season. Arrangements must be made for garrisoning the Company of St George. And there is the problem in Brisighella. It is of great interest, as I said. Consider it a measure of your abilities, if you like. Should you perform well, I’ll be moved to aid you that much quicker.”

“Milord — ”

“Enough.” Hawkwood raised a hand. “I know your aim. And my wife, Lady Donnina, affirmed my thoughts on this matter. You have recovered from the wounds you received in Mantua?”

“Yes, milord.” Anchioni shuddered with rage as remembered the dank, dark cellar where he had been imprisoned and savagely beaten, nearly two months past. He had ultimately avenged himself on his hated half-brother, Romigi, for it was he — with assistance from Milanese agents and Genoese mercenaries — who had plotted the death of his mother and father.

“And what of Master Heton? Do you believe him fit or is this task beyond him?”

Anchioni’s dark eyes narrowed. “If watching is all that needs to be done, aye, he can manage, signore. He has not yet regained his full strength, or wind, though. I worry about his sword arm. It may never be the same.”

Hawkwood passed the sword to his attentive squire. Shading his brow, he checked the angle of the sun and disposition of his escort. “There is more?” he asked. “Speak now, Messer Angelo, for only God knows when next you’ll have me thus.”

Anchioni considered, also watching the activity taking place in the villa courtyard, gut churning with indecision. “No. No, signore,” he finally grated, unable to look the captain-general in the eye.

“Good.” Hawkwood motioned to his squire, who helped his master mount. “My helmet, Messer Angelo. Fear not. I am not one who forgets those who aid me. And I do not forget a promise.”

Anchioni lifted the sturdy helm but would not relinquish his hold once Hawkwood grasped it. The Englishman frowned at Anchioni, and his hard gaze was met by Anchioni’s grim countenance. “Nor do I, signore. Nor do I.” With that he released his grip and backed away from Hawkwood’s irritable mount.

Hawkwood grunted and eyed the younger man. “May your saints watch over you, Messer Angelo. And do not fail me.” Turning to the commander of his escort, he snapped, “Sound the advance.” And amidst shouted commands and a brazen fanfare of trumpets, Hawkwood led a handful of horsemen out of the courtyard to join the rest of his escort. The column ambled south toward Faenza, the points of lance and spear flashing, helms gleaming, raising dust and scattering folk from the narrow, rutted road.

Swiftly ascending the villa’s narrow watch tower, Anchioni watched the cavalry dwindle into the haze and in the column’s wake, those it had displaced regained the road and continued their travels. The former squire stood, arms crossed over his broad breast, the hood of his simple brown capuchon tugged by a warm mid-morning breeze that carried the salt tang of the sea. “Nor do I,” he muttered.

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