Authors: Lisa T. Bergren
By Lisa T. Bergren
© 2012 Lisa T. Bergren
To Alexandria (Alessandra, in Italian), Amber and other River Tribe girls, who pressed for more of the Betarrini/Forelli/Greco story…thanks for being as passionate about these characters as I am!
She was gaining on him. She leaned hard, pulling on the reins, leaning around a giant oak to pick up his trail again.
She glimpsed his brown, furry rump, the speck of hooves as the boar dived into the bramble, hoping to lose her.
But he would not lose her. She’d tracked him for hours, losing his trail and then picking it up again. Through two woods and a creek. All she could think of was bringing him back to the villa, tied over her gelding’s back. Cooking fat chops over the fire, Papa curing the hocks. Eating their fill, for once.
Ever since the battle, times had been terribly hard in their house. Her brothers, gone. No beau, coming around to court her. She and Papa circled each other, uneasily, neither of them sure how to proceed as family, alone. But summer was almost upon them. Hope surged. And this boar was a symbol of that new beginning.
She ignored her thirst, nagging at her for hours, and leaned forward, urging her gelding to give his last to the effort. She knew the horse was weary, desperate for drink, but they almost had him! The boar grunted and then squealed as she closed the distance between them. He had to know that his moments were short.
She pulled the brim of her father’s hunting hat low, and lifted her spear in hand, concentrating on naught but the boar, seeing it on a roasting spit this very night, her family washed, ready, eyes bright with hope…
“A rider approaches, hard,” Luca said, glancing over at me and Gabi.
“Only one?” Marcello asked. “Are you certain?”
Luca and Lord Rodolfo Greco listened, together, and then shared a long look and brief nod. Still, they edged over to me, Marcello and Gabi, slowly drawing their swords in a protective stance. We were in a clearing, the woods fading for a moment, the shock of a threat startling us all. Things between Siena and Firenze had died down. A skirmish here and there, but nothing like last year. We’d settled into the peace, like a new snow covers the ground.
As the rider drew closer, we tensed, bracing ourselves. I ran my hand over the curve of my bow, but resisted the urge to nock an arrow. It was only one rider. What harm could be coming our way? That three of Siena’s finest couldn’t handle? Not that I was really ready to shoot anyone again. Not since—
I heard the snort of a boar, then glimpsed the hunter, a bit of a man—a boy?—but still coming at a full gallop, long spear in hand, heading straight toward my sister. Did he mean to—
“Gabi!” I shouted, as the men shouted too, moving to intercept him.
But the boar emerged then, running between our horses, making Gabi’s mare rear and Luca’s shy, whipping him around in a circle.
“Sta solamente cacciando!” Wait! He’s only hunting.
But I was too late. Rodolfo charged, angling himself so that the hunter would hit him instead of my sister. He swung his sword, hitting the tip of the intruder’s spear, sending it flying. The hunter’s horse collided with his, faltered, then went down, while Rodolfo held his seat.
“He was hunting! Only hunting!” I yelled, as all three men dismounted and approached the slight man, swords drawn. Confusion filled their eyes. The hunter lay frightfully still.
Gabi and I dismounted.
“Stay where you are,” Marcello growled at us, eyeing the forest beyond the hunter suspiciously.
“Marcello, he’s alone," Gabi said. "A boy on the hunt. For boar, not for
.” She edged past him and I followed her lead. We hurried over and crouched next to the hunter.
Gabi paused and then reached out. “It’s a woman,” she said quietly. She eased the hat off and gently lowered the huntress’s head back to the ground, grimacing when her hand came away wet with blood. My sister was right; the huntress was filthy, but clearly all-girl.
“A woman?” Rodolfo said in shock, sheathing his sword, his face a mask of confusion.
It was scary, seeing her lying still. “Is she alive?”
“For now,” Gabi said. She leaned back, considering. Greco bent and ran his fingertips through bright red blood on a small boulder a foot away. Her gelding was back on his feet, nuzzling the girl, as if urging her to move. Luca ran his hands down his hocks and legs. “The horse is in better shape than the girl.”
Gabi pushed the horse’s head away, like he was a big, nosey dog, and went to the girl’s other side. Gently, she ran her fingers along the girl’s neck and head.
“How bad?” I whispered.
“I don’t know,” she returned. “I’m no EMT. But I’d guess we need to put her on a stretcher and get her to the castello. Keep her steady, quiet, until she wakes. Mom might know more.”
“To the castello?” Rodolfo said, picking out the lone Italian word among our English. He moved to pick the girl up.
“Nay!” Gabi shouted, reaching out her hand. He pulled back, his dark eyebrows lowering over his eyes. He really was one of the most beautiful men I’d ever seen, and was still trying to get over his crush on my sister, more than a year after she’d married Marcello. There was this low-lying tension between them you could feel anytime they were in the same room. And proximity didn’t help.
Her tone and face softened. “Moving her might hurt her further. We need a flat surface, a stretcher, to transport her back to the castello.”
“I’ll go,” Rodolfo said. “I can be back fast.”
Gabi and Marcello nodded, and Rodolfo mounted and raced out of the clearing as if this girl was his own sister.
Gabi and I shared a long look. The mighty Lord Rodolfo Greco had been through a lot in the last year. He basically made a play for Gabi and lost her for good to Marcello. All his holdings in Firenze had been taken and he’d been banished from ever entering the city again, an enemy of the republic.
All because he chose us over the city of his birth.
Marcello had done what he could to mitigate the pain. He granted Castello Paratore, and most of the land we’d won in the battle, to Rodolfo. But that put him perilously close to the border. While the castle was in his name, he was forced to remain with us, a little farther south, for protection. Hanging out at Castello Greco merely invited assassins to try and bring him down. But hanging out at Castello Forelli brought its own kind of tension. Which was probably why he was so on edge when the huntress raced toward us…
And now he’d be wracked with guilt. We’d seen many die of far lesser injuries in this era. If the girl was paralyzed, even partially, she was unlikely to live long. Even I knew that the stress on her inner organs would be something we’d be ill equipped to handle. Mom had tried to save a paraplegic man last month, to no avail. It was one of the hardest parts of living here…to know that medical conditions readily handled in our own time often proved impossible in medieval Italia. Infection was our biggest enemy. As scary as this girl’s unconsciousness or potential paralysis was…it was the blood that really freaked us. An open wound.
“Lord Forelli,” Luca called.We all looked up. He’d lifted the saddlebags across the hunter’s horse. Beneath was a blanket. Even muddy, it was clearly embroidered.
With the emblem of Firenze.
We all froze, staring. Marcello broke first, turning, hands on his face, looking up into the new green leaves of the massive oaks high above us.
“The Fiorentini,” I muttered in English, toward my sister, “they won’t like this. They won’t like it at all.”
“No they won’t.” Slowly, she lifted her brown eyes to meet mine.
“I can’t do it, Gabs.”
Not after last year’s battle. The Santis, the Hercolanis, all murdered. Not after so narrowly escaping ourselves. It couldn’t all be starting again, could it? Because I couldn’t.
I can’t I can’t I can’t
Gabi reached out and put a hand on my shoulder.
But she had no words of comfort for me.
Rodolfo paced for hours outside the Fiorentini girl’s room, chin in hand. Marcello tried to talk to him, persuade him to retire to his quarters, but he refused, somehow believing the whole incident was his fault. Sighing, Marcello left him to continue his pacing, and pulled up a stool on the far side of our patient. Gabi reached across the girl to take his hand and squeeze it. “
Hai fatto quello che potevi,”
You did what you could
. Mom nodded her agreement.
I leaned against a wall, waiting to be sent on whatever errand Gabi needed done, wishing Adela, Luca’s sister, was here, rather than in Roma, visiting friends. She’d received some training in the healing arts—such as they were in medieval times—and was pretty good with concocting foul-smelling herbal blends that actually seemed to work.