SALERNO, KINGDOM OF SICILY
ANNO DOMINI 1204
The world was all sound: the crack of brush underfoot, her own harsh panting, the whip of the branches as she pushed her way through them, and behind her somewhere a man’s guttural cursing. The girl tasted salty blood from a cut below her eye. There would be more blood if Urbo caught her. That thought gave her a burst of strength as she climbed the rocky hill, pushing aside the brush. Then, at the crest, she stopped, stunned. She had never imagined the vista below her. Houses spilled down steeply to a city, thence to a broad bay. She had never seen the ocean before; had she not seen the white curl of waves breaking on the rocks at the harbor’s edge, she would not have believed the flat plane of gray to be water. Above, the leaden sky, bleak and still, frayed to mist where it met the water.
Then at the farthest horizon the clouds broke and a shaft of light like a finger touched the sea and made it gold-lined silver. The girl forgot that she was under sentence of death and stood, heedless of runlets of blood on her ankles and feet where thorns had torn at them. Her fisted hands uncurled and her breath quieted.
Then there was a rattle of dirt and pebbles from behind her, and not far behind. The moment was gone. The girl began to clamber down the rocks as fast as she dared, making for what might be a path. If she could reach a cottage, people, someone, might help her. If she could find a church she could beg for sanctuary. If she could reach the sea, she could throw herself in and drown.
The path she found was only a beating-down of scrub grass that threaded among the rocks and wind-shaped trees. Some of the rocks were large enough for a scrawny child to hide behind; others were small enough to cut her feet and send her skidding and sliding down the hill. She barely looked ahead, concentrating on keeping her feet until she reached a boulder that nestled in the curve of the hill. Rounding it, she crouched down and peered back up the way she had come. Despite the cuts on her feet and legs, she saw no blood on the path. Perhaps she had left no trail, but her panting and the drumming of her heart felt loud enough to call any pursuer down upon her. She looked farther, drew back, looked again, weak with terror. Up near the crest of the bluff where she had first broken out of the brush, a man was crouched against the gray sky: Urbo.
Of course. He had promised to deal with her himself if ever she dared run from him. If he caught her there was no chance she could fight him: she was eleven years old, half-starved, nearly at her strength’s end. She would have to hide. She turned, began to run and slide, keeping behind the trees and rocks where she could. Twice she almost fell. She came down a steep path in a rush and very nearly slammed into a wall.
The wall was made of white stones, half-again as tall as the girl herself. She could just see the roof of the house within. Crying out, she ran the wall’s length, turned the corner, and ran again, looking for a gate or doorway, hoping someone would hear her and come out, even to chase her away. The gate she found at last, but it was barred against entry, and all within seemed ghostly quiet. She turned and ran on.
Next was a stone cottage; a pair of short-nosed brindle dogs was tied to the gate, and they bayed and snapped at her, drowning out her calls. She went on, expecting at any moment to see Urbo behind her, rounding the corner. There was one more cottage ahead, then a stand of cypress trees. She said a prayer to Saint Margaret as she ran. Here there were no dogs and no gate to speak of. The wall was low enough that she could see into the garden by the door. The first house she had passed looked prosperous but empty. The second, well-tended and well-guarded. This one was small, shabby but neat. The girl went to the door.
A woman’s voice called out before she could speak, a voice thick, full of rales. “Carolina? Is that you?”
The girl looked in the door and spoke as loud as she dared. “Help me. Please. I beg you in the name of Christ and all his saints, please please—”
“Who? What?” Although the day was overcast it was a moment before the girl’s eyes adjusted to the dim light in the cottage. Past the firepit, where only a few coals glowed, there was a wooden bedstead tucked against the wall, its covers thrown everywhere. From it a woman spoke.
“Who is that?” The old-woman voice again, but the woman was young.
“Auntie, I beg you, don’t rise if you’re ill—but please, I need a place to hide. A man is chasing me. He’s sworn he’ll kill me. Please, I’m afraid.” Face to face with another human being she could think of no better persuasion than her fear. But this woman was very sick; the cottage stank of illness. “Auntie, you’re sick. I don’t want to bring trouble to you. Is there a priest who would give me sanctuary? Anyone? He will kill me.”
“But you’re only a child.” The woman’s voice was a little stronger now. “Not from Salerno, either. Who would hurt you?” She sank back into the pillows again, breathing hard. She was pale as thin new milk and her dark hair was plastered against her head with sweat. “Carolina!” she called again. Then, “No, she hasn’t the sense to keep a secret. Here, girl.” She hunched her body toward the bed’s edge. “You swear that you’re not running from the law, your father, or the church?”
The child nodded mutely.
“Well, if you fear your pursuer more than you fear my fever, hide here.” She raised up the sheets and made a place for the girl on her far side, by the wall. The girl did not hesitate. Dying from a fever or flux seemed a kinder death than what Urbo had promised her. As carefully as she could, the girl climbed over the sick woman and burrowed down among the damp, rank sheets. The woman pulled the covers over the girl’s head and lay back, coughing. “Lie still,” she said at last. “You should be safe here, for a time.”
The girl lay still. The woman’s body gave off heat like a bake-oven through her shift. It was the first time the girl had lain in a bed of any sort for over a year, and for a moment she imagined herself at home, cuddled beside her mother after a terrible dream. Despite the heat in the bed she began to shiver.
“Shhh,” the woman murmured. “When my daughter comes, say nothing. Lie still.”
The girl did her best. “Aunt, may I pray for you?” she asked. “For whom should I ask a blessing?”
The woman coughed again. The cough was deep and liquid and released a cloud of foul air. “I will be grateful for your prayers if you can say them silently. My name is Sofia. Now hush. Perhaps we both may sleep.” Sofia rocked onto her hip to face the door, and the girl curled as close to her as she could, thinking a string of Aves for her savior until the prayers lulled her into a doze.
Voices wakened her. There was a child, younger than herself, calling, “Mama! Mama!” Sofia stirred in her sleep, stiffened as she felt the girl tucked against her back, then raised herself up on one elbow.
“Carolina, where have you been?”
“Playing at the fountain, Mama. I met a man.”
A man. The girl longed to look, but knew she dared not.
“Did you?” Sofia’s voice was weak but calm. She coughed again. “Who, little one?”
Another voice, and the scuff of boots on the hard-packed earth floor. “A traveler, sister.”
The girl’s heart clutched: she thought surely the room must ring with her fear. It was Urbo, speaking with expansive geniality.
Sofia lifted herself higher, perhaps to mask the way the girl had started behind her. “What do you want, brother? You see I’m not well. My daughter should know better than to bring a stranger home when I’m in this state.”
“He’s lost his little girl, Mama,” the child said.
“I have, sister. A girl of about ten years, red hair, brown eyes. She’s likely to be filthy after the chase she’s led me.” He sounded reasonable. Had the girl not known otherwise she would have trusted him herself. “Ran off to spare herself a hiding.”
“Why would you think to find her here?” Sofia coughed again. Pressed against her, the girl could feel Sofia, propped upon her elbow, tremble with effort. “You see that the only child here is my own, brother. I can’t ask you to—“
“She has been here, though, hasn’t she? Did you send her on?” Urbo wheedled, the voice he used before he raised his fist. He was still across the room: he feared sickness. “She might have slipped in while you were sleeping.”
Sofia dropped back onto the bed, breathing rapidly. Her heart beat fast against the girl’s cheek. Please let her not die, the girl prayed, and pressed herself again her, making herself as small as she could.
“Brother, if you wish to look in this house you’re welcome to do it, but then go; I have no strength for talking.” Sofia coughed again. “Carolina!”
There was a bump and a shift in the bed as the little girl came to sit beside her mother. Under the sheets the girl could not tell if Urbo was looking about, was deciding to leave, or had left already.
Then a new voice. A man’s, deeper than Urbo’s, demanding to know what a stranger was doing in his house. The girl could see nothing but knew Urbo must be gauging the newcomer, judging how much of an opponent he would be. If he thought the man not worth fighting, he would become more dangerous, as if he meant to throw his opponent’s weakness in his face. She had seen him do it. She tensed in her hiding place.
“You can see there is no child here,” the other man was saying. He sounded young, vigorous, and careless, as if he counted Urbo as little threat. “My wife is sick. Look elsewhere for your child.”
“Where else would she go?” Urbo challenged.
“All of Salerno lies just down the hill.”
Now a third voice broke in. “Nicolo, take this outside, unless you wish to bury Sofia tomorrow. And you, man, can you not see there’s sickness here? Do you wish to bring it back to wherever it is you come from?” This was a woman, not young, but forceful and used to being obeyed. “You two men go bristle and preen yourselves in the yard. Leave me to my business. Carolina, I need more water than this. I’ve come to make physic for your mama.”
“All right, grannie. I’ll go,” Urbo said. “But have you seen a child—“
“I’m a midwife, brother. I’ve seen hundreds of children, but none today. Now: go.”
Urbo went. His boots scuffed on the doorstep, and the girl heard the rumbling of male voices outside the house, still wary but civil. The little girl, Carolina, left her mother’s side and ran off to fetch water. The old woman began to move around the room, rummaging and muttering. Sofia began to cough again.
“Hush, shhhh,” the old woman murmured. Sofia rolled onto her back, squashing the girl into the straw pallet. The sheets rustled, there was a pressure of hands as the old woman smoothed them across Sofia’s body. The girl braced herself, waiting for discovery.
“Well,” the old woman said briskly. “You have a guest. No—” The girl had stiffened and started to rise, but the old woman pushed her back. “If you have not taken the fever by now, an hour more won’t hurt you. Lie still, girl. Is that man truly your father?”
“No, grannie,” the girl whispered. “He’s an evil, evil man, he swore—“
“He’s gone now. Lie quiet. Sofia, I’ll talk to Nicolo.”
The girl lay still, listening to the homely sounds of water poured into a kettle and set on the fire. When little Carolina returned, the nurse woman set her to grinding herbs, and for a time the hidden girl drowsed, confusing the tapping of the mortar and pestle with the beating of Sofia’s heart. She woke again when the nurse sat on the bed and raised Sofia up to drink her physic.
“It smells foul,” Sofia protested.
The nurse laughed. “If you can care for how it smells, dear one, Death doesn’t hold you in his hand. Carolina, is there any honey in the house? No? Then run to Anna’s house and borrow some. Quickly!” There was the sound of footfall as the child ran out. “Now you, girl. I told Nico to take the stranger down to the city, so we’ve some time. Sit up and tell me what’s what.” The girl sat up, blinking in the light. The healer had lit a lamp and set it near the bed. It smoked, and with the smoke from the fire as well, the cottage was hazy. When the girl saw the nurse’s face she understood at once why Urbo had left so easily. He was superstitious, and the old woman had the face of a witch: wrinkles, bony nose, small dark eyes.
“No, I’m no beauty.” The old woman laughed.
The girl blushed. “You’re beautifully kind to me. Thank you, grandmother.”
The healer clicked her tongue, but was clearly pleased. “You were going to tell me how you come to be tucked into Sofia’s bed in this fashion. First, get out and—” She pulled a cloth from her belt, or perhaps it was a scarf. “Wrap your head up in this; that red hair is too remarkable. If anyone asks you, you’re my new apprentice. What’s your name, girl?”
“Fil-Filipa.” It had been more than a year since anyone had used it. “Filipa.” She climbed out of the bed, careful not to disturb Sofia, and took the cloth to wrap up her hair. Sofia lay quiet, watching Filipa and the nurse.
“Fetch the mortar where that foolish child has left it.” The nurse pointed a long finger toward the hearth. Unlike her fierce features, her hands were well shaped. “Now, Filipa. Why is that foreign brute chasing you through the outskirts of Salerno?”
“He swore he’d kill me,” the girl said. She brought the wooden mortar over, but, rather than take it, the nurse pushed it back to her and handed her the pestle, gesturing that she was to grind the gray-green herbs in the bowl.
“Why would a man like that bother to kill a child like you?”
“I ran away. He said if I ran—”
“And how did you come to be with such a man in the first place?” the old woman asked. “Is he some kin to you?”
Filipa scowled. “He’s no kin to any human man. He’s a brigand, and he killed all my family and destroyed my town.”
The old woman looked down her nose. “One man alone destroyed your town?”
Filipa shook her head. The hand holding the pestle shook. “There were many of them, a dozen, then. They fell on our village like dogs, surprised us. Killed all the men—” Her voice was high.
“A dozen men.” The old woman looked at Sofia. “Are they with him now?”
“Most of them are gone—some left to join with another band, another one died from a poisoned wound. There were four, and Urbo, when I ran.”
“Are they near enough for yon Urbo to bring them back here? When did you escape them?”
“Three days ago.” Filipa steadied the mortar in her hand.
“So his mates are some days away. Keep working, girl. Carolina will be back in a moment, and I want to make more of this for us to leave for Sofia.”
“Leave?” The girl looked at the woman on the bed; Filipa did not want to leave her, even for the old woman who seemed so matter-of-fact in taking her in. “Can’t I stay here?”
“And do what? If your enemy comes back, can Sofia fight him off? If Nicolo tried, well, he’s no fighter. No, you’ll be safer with me. We shall give you a craft name and say you’ve been bound to me as an apprentice; if you show some skill, perhaps it will be true. Now.” She took the girl’s chin in her strong, reddened hand. “What shall I call you? Zenzera, for that hair? No. Artemisia? Too grand for such a scrap as you.” She laughed, but her eyes bored deep, as if she were divining in a pool of water. “Laura,” she said at last. “For the laurel, which has much magic but a plain appearance. I am Crescia, but you’ll call me mistress, is that clear?”
“I will call you saint—”
The old woman gave her chin a final squeeze. “Don’t blaspheme, girl. God doesn’t laugh at such jests.” She turned back to Sofia. “Well, my dear. This is my new apprentice, Laura. She’s going to finish grinding the feverfew and mix in some—” She produced a pouch from a basket by her feet. “Some ground betulla, and when Carolina returns we shall add water and honey. You’re to drink a cupful every hour until your fever breaks.”
Sofia made a face. “And if the fever doesn’t break?”
“What a baby you are!” But Nonna Crescia stroked Sofia’s forehead. “The fever will break, daughter. You’ll be up and chasing after that scatterwit child of yours in a few days. For now, you sleep.” She made a pass with her hand over the sick woman’s eyes.
Sofia smiled and closed her eyes. Smiling, she slept.
With a great clatter Carolina ran into the house, a clay pot in her hands with a bit of honey in it, and much more on her fingers. She stopped when she saw the older girl, and frowned. Nonna Crescia explained who the stranger was; the child—less than half Filipa’s age—edged around the room until she stood on Crescia’s other side, and held the honey pot out to her.
“Laura, hot water,” the old woman commanded. Filipa did not remember her new name for a moment, and the healer gave her a clout on the shoulder to remind her, but it was a woman’s buffet, not the sort of blow she had been used to in Urbo’s camp. She dipped hot water and rinsed the honey from the sides of the clay pot and into a bowl. When she had done so, Crescia mixed in the ground herbs and stirred the whole into a gray-green sludge, then added more water until it was a light syrup.
“When your mama wakes, she must drink a cup of this. If the fever doesn’t break before noon tomorrow, come and fetch me.” Carolina was staring at Filipa. Nonna Crescia took her chin in her hand and turned the child’s face to her own. “Do you understand, ’Lina?”
Crescia repeated the instructions. The child nodded.
“Well, then.” Crescia reached down to feel by the bed and came up with a stick of polished wood with a knob of stone set at one end. She leaned upon it to rise. She was only half a head taller than her new apprentice. “Come, Laura. You carry the basket.”
Filipa—now Laura—picked up the basket, which clacked with jars and vials. The old woman moved slowly to the door and out, her weight as much on the stick as on her own legs. The girl followed after, just as slowly. It was not that she feared Crescia, or disliked pretending to be her apprentice. But what if Urbo had lingered? She was certain no amount of scolding and playing the herbwife would save her or Crescia from death.
At the gate the old woman stopped. “There is no point in being fearful, girl. That bad man has gone down into the city with Nicolo to look for you. Nico has no love for foreigners. He was a boy when the city was sacked a dozen years ago. He’ll have the fellow lost and found and turned around, all the time sure they’ll find you at the next corner, until the man himself cries off and heads for home.”
Laura did not believe it. She feared for Nicolo almost as much as she did for Sofia and Crescia and herself.
“You don’t know,” she began.
“I know his sort,” Crescia said firmly. “A bully. But he won’t be so brave away from his men, daughter. One man—I grant you, a big man—one man alone in a city he doesn’t know, being escorted by a helpful fellow who may call his neighbors for assistance?” The old woman shrugged and made the threat of no account. Laura was not persuaded. Urbo and his men had needed a scant hour to destroy Villaroscia the year before.
It was nearly dusk. The clouds had lifted, leaving rosy light on the horizon, gilding the eaves of Sofia’s house. A breeze wicked around Laura’s legs; her tunic barely reached past her knees. Nonna Crescia looked at her. “Don’t dawdle.”
Laura had run before, when she had terror to drive her. Now it seemed hard even to walk; she limped on her bad right leg and struggled with the basket she carried.
“The first thing is, you must be decently dressed.” Crescia led the way through blue shadows, past the houses Laura had passed earlier, and along a path she had not noticed before, up the hill again until they reached a cottage of stone and plaster, circled by a low fence and framed by cypress and olive and orange trees and a cluster of wooden sheds. Nonna Crescia had picked her way up the path, moving as if her stick was all that kept her upright. But once inside the fence she stood erect, tucked the stick under her arm, and moved forward briskly.
The girl stared after her, thinking this must surely be witchcraft.
“Neve, Decoro, Ravanella, Bonta! This is Laura, who will stay with us. Come, my dears!” The old woman stood, hands outstretched, and four white goats bounded out of a shed to greet her. She laughed like a girl, looking over her shoulder at Laura, inviting her to join them. She did, but she was cautious. The animals in Urbo’s camp, like the men, had been rough. One of the goats jumped at her and knocked Laura off her feet. It was too much: to be free, and frightened, and tired, and knocked down by a snowy white goat onto her backside in the rocky yard. The goat nuzzled at her ear as Laura sobbed.
“Bonta, you devil!” Crescia pushed the goat aside, pulled Laura to her feet, and guided the girl toward the house, all the while stroking her forehead as she had stroked Sofia’s earlier. “Come, girl. You’ll have food, and bathe, and I will tend those scratches on your legs, and then you’ll sleep. And you may tell me all about it or not, as you please.”
Crescia’s cottage was larger than it had appeared from the path, a series of square rooms strung together in a line. The first was a workroom with benches and two tables and shelves that held vessels and a fire with a great kettle hung above it. The room was dense with the smell of aromatics; bundles of flowers and grasses hung from the rafters, and garlands of bulbs and roots. Along one wall were jugs and pots of all sizes, some so small they might have only held a grape or a few seeds, some so large they might have held whole melons. Laura looked around her, trying to make sense of what she saw, until Crescia pushed her gently toward the next room. “You may start to learn about all this tomorrow.”
Through the square doorway into the next room was another table, and the more usual furnishings of a household: stools, a chair with a back, another firepit with a tripod and kettle; a basket with a spindle and a spool of coarse yarn, a cupboard, a broom. The old woman pushed Laura down onto a stool, took up a basin, filled it with tepid water from the kettle, and put it on the table beside a bowl of gray-green soap.
“Wash,” she commanded. She turned her back to poke the banked coals in the fireplace to life.
Laura stared at the healer. It had been more than a year since anyone had cared whether she bathed or not. Crescia turned back, took a cloth, dipped it in water, and scrubbed it across Laura’s cheek. “Wash,” she repeated.
Laura scrubbed her face, then her hands and arms and finally, when the old woman held out her hand to receive the girl’s shift and tunic, at her chest and as much of her back as she could reach. That was not so bad; the welts there were mostly healed. Still, when the old woman saw the marks of whipping across Laura’s shoulders she made a noise with her tongue against her teeth, took the cloth from her hand, and gently cleaned the skin around the welts. Laura washed her legs, dabbing at the scratches and scrapes she had got in escaping Urbo. She could not bring herself to unwind the cloth wrapped around her right ankle, fearing what she would see there.
Crescia gave Laura a blanket to wrap herself in, but then pulled it away from her shoulders, smoothed a cool, green-smelling unguent on them, and laid a cloth lightly over it. Then she knelt to inspect the ragged scratches on Laura’s leg, and unwound the cloth on her ankle.
“What did this?”
The pain of even the healer’s light touch made Laura queasy. “When Urbo—when he and his men came, they leashed the ones of us they didn’t kill to their horses, like calves. I tried and tried to get the rope off, but all it did was tear the skin until it rubbed raw.”
Crescia pursed her lips and nodded. “You’ll have a scar, and lucky it isn’t worse inflamed than it is.”
“I covered it with the rag,” Laura said defensively. “I put spiderweb on to stop the bleeding.”
“Did you?” The healer looked up and smiled. Painstakingly the old woman cleaned the sore flesh and then dabbed more of her unguent on it and, at the last, bound it with more cloth. Laura was light-headed by the time it was done.
“Now, clothes.” Crescia held out a clean shift.
It dropped to Laura’s toes, and the sleeves fell past her fingers.
“Roll up the sleeves, and I’ll shorten a tunic for you tonight. Sit, child.” Crescia had put a bowl of broth and beans and a piece of bread on the table. Laura’s stomach growled, but the old woman had not yet put her own bowl out.
“Eat!” Crescia said. “It’s a fasting day for me. Eat, before you perish in front of me.”
The girl did. She made herself eat slowly so that she would not be sick and lose all the good of her food. It seemed dreamlike to be clean and full and warm. She felt tears start, but shook her head and stopped them.
“There, now.” Crescia had settled in the high-backed chair and was stripping the shells or husks off some beans into a bowl in her lap. “Tell me.”
Laura told her of the morning when Urbo’s men had come to Villaroscia. Her father was cut down before he could say a word. She told of Mama and her sister Bice, raped and raped again and finally beaten to death by Urbo himself. She told of the months she and the few other survivors had been dragged along with Urbo’s band. They had once meant to join the army at Naples, but lawful warfare proved too restrictive for their taste. Urbo sold most of the other captives from Villaroscia, but not Laura. She had no need to tell Crescia of the beatings: she had treated their scars. But Laura told her of Urbo’s threats, that when he wanted her compliance he would smile and touch himself, hoisting his privates in a silent threat: as your mother and Bice, so you.
“He told me if I ran he would kill me.” The bowl before Laura was empty. She had used the crumb of her bread to sop up the last of the broth.
“And still you ran away?”
Laura nodded. She could not explain why she had done so, or why now rather than next month or three months before. Perhaps it had been the scent of the ocean on the air. Perhaps the same good angel that had kept her alive in the months since Mama died had whispered hope in her ear.
“God does everything for a purpose,” Crescia said. “Perhaps he meant you to come to me. Now, though, you need sleep.” As the healer said the words, Laura knew it was true, although the moment before she had not been sleepy.
Crescia rose—inside the house she did not use the stick at all—and guided the girl into the third room, a small chamber with a narrow bedstead. Laura stepped toward the bed, but Crescia caught her back. “I sleep alone, girl.” She looked around the room and seemed to come to a decision. “You’ll sleep here.”
She pointed to a large chest on the right side of the room. Beyond it was a narrow space just large enough for a pallet. From the chest Crescia drew blankets that she handed to Laura.
“Go.” She gave the girl a little push. “Tomorrow we’ll make a real bed for you, but tonight I don’t think you’ll mind the floor. Go on.”
Mind? Laura dropped to her knees and took the old woman’s skirt in her hands and kissed it. “Thank you, mistress. Thank you for my life.”
For a moment it seemed the old woman was moved. Then she snorted and pulled her skirt away. “I’m not the Queen of Heaven, girl! And I’ll make you work hard enough to wonder if those thanks were earned. Go, now. Sleep.” Without bothering to see whether Laura obeyed or not, Crescia returned to the kitchen.
Laura slept, but woke a while later to see Nonna Crescia’s shadow on the wall above her makeshift bed. She was preparing for bed, moving about quietly. Laura heard her pray before she got into her bed, which creaked under her slight weight.
“Sleep!” the old woman commanded. How had she known that Laura was awake?
“Yes, mistress. Good night.” A moment later a thought came to Laura and, because she was half-asleep, she gave it voice. “Are you a witch?”
In the darkness the old woman laughed. “I am a healer. You may be too, if you’re willing to work. Will that please you?’
The girl was asleep before she could say yes.
Copyright © 2013 by Madeleine E. Robins