Also by Philippa Gregory The Tudor Court Novels  The Constant Princess  The Other Boleyn Girl The Boleyn Inheritance    Th...
Historical Novels      The Wise Woman         Fallen Skies     A Respectable Trade         Earthly Joys         Virgin Ear...
First published in Great Britain in 2012 by Simon                & Schuster UK Ltd                A CBS COMPANY  Text copy...
1st Floor             222 Gray’s Inn Road                   London                 WC1X 8HB         www.simonandschuster.c...
CONTENTSCASTLE SANT’ ANGELO, ROME,JUNE 1453THE CASTLE OF LUCRETILI, JUNE1453THE ABBEY OF LUCRETILI,OCTOBER 1453VITTORITO, ...
CASTLE SANT’ANGELO, ROME, JUNE      1453The hammering on the door shothim into wakefulness like ahandgun going off in his ...
the stone cell. He had beendreaming of his parents, of his oldhome, and he gritted his teethagainst the usual wrench oflon...
hard work.   ‘Luca Vero?’   ‘Yes.’   ‘You are to come with me.’   They saw him hesitate. ‘Don’tbe a fool. There are three ...
cape around his shoulders.   ‘Who are you?’ he asked,coming unwillingly to the door.   The man made no answer, butsimply t...
most serious trouble of his younglife. Only yesterday four dark-hooded men had taken him fromhis monastery and brought him...
and the place was in darkness andutterly still. Luca’s guides made nonoise as they walked along thegallery, down the stone...
closer until the menacing bulk ofhis body pressed Luca onwards.   ‘I insist . . .’ Luca breathed.   A hard shove thrust hi...
back up to the handsome white-faced young man.   ‘Come,’ he ordered.   Luca could do nothing else. Hefollowed the man down...
‘My lord,’ he said, trying fordignity. ‘May I ask you now wherewe are going?’   ‘You’ll know soon enough,’ camethe terse r...
boatman held a well-worn ring onthe wall to steady the craft, theyreached down and hauled Lucaout of the boat, to push him...
blue that it appeared almostblack, the hood completelyconcealing his face from Luca,who stood before the table andswallowe...
truth: you would be a fool to diefor a lie.’   Luca tried to nod but found hewas shaking.   ‘You are Luca Vero, a novicepr...
black feather as the quill movedacross the page. ‘You hope,’ theman said briefly. ‘You hope thatthey are alive and will co...
at the dark wooden floor, at theheavy table, at the lime washedwalls – anywhere but at theshadowy face of the softly spoke...
nothing more.   ‘Why did you say the relic was afake?’   ‘I did not mean . . .’   ‘Why?’   ‘It is a piece of a nail aboutt...
‘I calculated the likely size ofthe nails,’ Luca said miserably. ‘Icalculated the number of piecesthat they might have bee...
to say whether any nail or anyfragment is genuine or not. It’snot for me to judge. But I can’thelp but see that there are ...
made the calculations, and thenthe abbot found my paper where Ihad written the calculations and—’He broke off.   ‘The abbo...
‘I know,’ Luca said, very low.  ‘You made a vow of obedience –that is a vow not to think foryourself.’  Luca bowed his hea...
monastery,’ he said. ‘He took aliking to me as soon as I arrived,when I was just eleven. He wasonly twelve or thirteen him...
‘Yes,’ Luca said, surprised. ‘Yes.’   ‘People talked at the time, Iunderstand. That such an oldcouple should suddenly give...
specially gifted? That you neededthe Church’s protection?’   Luca, still on his knees, shuffledin discomfort. ‘I don’t kno...
speak languages?’   ‘People remarked that I learnedto speak Romany in a day. Myfather thought that I had a gift, aGod-give...
commander of an Order appointedby the Holy Father, the Popehimself, and I answer to him forour work. You need not know myn...
judge the living, the dead, and theundead. You will have heard thatthe      Ottomans     have    takenConstantinople, the ...
every year, every day, it pressesmore closely. People come to mewith stories of showers of blood,of a dog that can smell o...
pen meant one: I, two strokesmeant two: II, and so on. Butthese were strange roundedshapes. He had seen them before,but th...
columns. His arm stretched fromthe sleeve of his robe and Lucalooked from the O to the whiteskin of the man’s inner wrist....
beyond.’   ‘Beyond? Beyond nothing?’   The man pointed to anothernumber: –10. ‘That is beyondnothing. That is ten places b...
you know how they got that sign?’   ‘No.’   ‘It is the shape left by a counterin the sand when you have takenthe counter a...
like they think, to count like theycount. Perhaps a young man likeyou can learn their language too.’   Luca could not take...
had, how much he would have toearn before he had somethingagain.’   ‘Yes,’ the man said. ‘With zeroyou can measure what is...
know them, and arm ourselvesagainst them.’  ‘Is zero one of the things I muststudy? Will I go to the Ottomansand learn fro...
seek darkness in all its shapes andforms. I will send you out tounderstand things, to be part ofour     Order    that    s...
towns or the lords of the manor;or when they can be punished bythe Church. You will learn when toforgive and when to punis...
at unseen things, and questionthem.’   There was a silence. ‘You cango,’ the man said, as if he hadgiven the simplest of i...
they?’   There was a cold silence. Luca’sstern young face revealed nothing.‘I have never answered such aquestion, and I ho...
child in the Order. A faerie child tomap fear.’
THE CASTLE OF   LUCRETILI, JUNE        1453At about the time that Luca wasbeing questioned, a young womanwas seated in a r...
dark blue eyes fixed on the richcrucifix, her fair hair twisted in acareless plait under a black veil,her face strained an...
she put her hands over her eyes.‘He didn’t ask for me? Not even atthe end?’   ‘He didn’t want you to see himin pain. He wa...
He nodded.    ‘I will share the vigil tonight,’she decided. ‘I will sit beside himnow that he is dead though hedidn’t allo...
arms stood, one at each point ofthe compass, their heads bowedover their broadswords, the lightfrom the tall wax candlesgl...
Her father, she knew, had left thecastle and the lands to her; thesepeople were in her charge. Theywould want to see her a...
hall, where the smoke from thecentral fire coiled up to thedarkened beams of the highceiling.   As soon as the men saw Iso...
loose pantaloons with a long veilover her head held lightly acrossher face so that only her dark eyeswere visible as she l...
that from now on she wouldalways see her brother where herfather ought to be. She was sonew to grief that she had not yetf...
something, as if they might sharea secret. Isolde took back herhand, and bent towards herbrother’s ear. ‘I am surprised yo...
nothing had changed, when herdead father lay in his vigil,guarded in the chapel by his men-at-arms, and would be buried th...
been offered to the top table, andtaken away, Giorgio touched herhand. ‘Don’t go to your rooms justyet,’ he said. ‘I want ...
Roberto.   ‘Roberto is concerned in this,’Giorgio explained. ‘When Fatherwas dying he said that hisgreatest hope was to kn...
castle and lands in France. Weagreed this. We all three agreedthis.’   ‘We agreed it when he waswell,’ Giorgio said patien...
castle, the fertile pastures, thethick woods, the high mountains.Isolde gaped at him. ‘Why solittle?’   ‘Because the princ...
leave me without any prospects atall? And Father? Did he want toforce me to marry the prince?’   The prince put his hand o...
It took her only a moment todecide. ‘I cannot think ofmarriage,’ Isolde said flatly.‘Forgive me, Prince Roberto. But itis ...
to me!’    Giorgio nodded. ‘I too wassurprised, but he said that it wasthe future he had planned for youall along. That wa...
much I love it here; how I lovethese lands and know thesepeople. He said he would will thiscastle and the lands to me, and...
orders.’   ‘Excuse me,’ Isolde said, hervoice shaking as she fought tocontrol her anger, ‘I shall leaveyou and go to my ro...
‘I know,’ she said. ‘I am hisdaughter. Of course I will obeyhim.’ She went from the roomwithout looking at the prince,thou...
his soul,’ she whispered. ‘Godcomfort me in this sorrow. I don’tknow that I can bear it.’   The little tap came again, and...
‘Just a crack,’ she said, andturned the key, keeping her footpressed against the bottom of thedoor to ensure that it opene...
‘Your brother allowed it,’ helaughed. ‘Your brother approvesme as your husband. He himselfsuggested that I come to you.Now...
our betrothal right now, so youdon’t       make      any     mistaketomorrow.’    ‘You’re   drunk,’     she   said,smellin...
hospitality. You are our guest, myfather’s body lies in the chapel. Iam without defence, and you aredrunk on our wine. Ple...
hot embers and ash dashedagainst his face and tumbled tothe floor. He let out of a howl ofpain as she drew back and hit hi...
The two young women pulledthe rug and the limp body ofPrince Roberto slid along the floor,leaving a slimy trail of water a...
Isolde nodded.  ‘Then let’s leave him here,’Ishraq decided. ‘He can come toon the floor like the dog that he is,and crawl ...
using the tips of her fingers andscowling with distaste, she pulledat the prince’s breeches so thatthey were gaping wide o...
clasped forearms, hand to elbow,like knights. Ishraq grinned, andthey turned and went back intothe bedroom, closing the do...
door, as he claimed, then you area traitor to me.’  He bowed his head. ‘Of course Idid no such thing. I am sorry, I gotdru...
brought such a man to our dinnertable. Father should never havebeen advised that he would makea good husband for me.’   Sh...
in, and put a hesitant hand on hisarm, wondering how she couldpersuade him to let her go free.   ‘There’s no need to look ...
I would do anything for you, buthis will is clear, and I have to obeymy father – just as you do.’   ‘Brother – don’t force...
you? I will marry no-one. Thecastle is yours, I see that. In theend he did what every man doesand favoured his son over hi...
exile – he could have ordered thatyou go anywhere. But instead youwill be in our own property: theabbey. I will come and s...
He had tears in his own eyes. ‘Itis like losing a sister,’ he said. ‘Iam burying a father and losing asister. I don’t know...
THE ABBEY OFLUCRETILI, OCTOBER       1453A few months later, Luca was onthe road from Rome, riding east,wearing a plain wo...
servant      Freize,   a     broad-shouldered, square-faced youth,just out of his teens, who hadplucked up his courage whe...
a donkey laden with theirbelongings. At the rear of the littleprocession was a surprise additionto their partnership: a cl...
here.’   ‘He is here to serve as my clerk,’Luca replied irritably. ‘And I haveto have him whether I need aclerk or no. So ...
path for goats, which woundupwards out of the fertile valley,alongside little terraced slopesgrowing olives and vines, and...
destination, and I give you yourorders then and there.’   ‘Got them tucked away in yourpocket all the time?’ Freizeinquire...
Freize    asked    gloomily.   ‘Forotherwise it’s bed under the treesand nothing but cold bread forsupper. Beechnuts, I su...
warm welcoming lights showingand no open doors. The shutterswere closed at all the windows inthe outer wall, and only narr...
expected. Let us in.’    The spy hole slammed shut,then they could hear the slowunbolting of the gate and thelifting of wo...
she said to Peter, looking at himand his fine horse. ‘This house isin troubled times, we don’t wantguests.’   ‘No, I am to...
tomorrow.’   ‘Rich in nothing,’ the old womanremarked, holding up her torch totake another look at Luca’shandsome young fa...
kitchen gallery. You’ll find itthrough that doorway. They’llshow you where to sleep in theguesthouse. You—’ She turned toL...
of the softest bleached wool, thewimple on her head pushed backto show a pale lovely face withsmiling grey eyes. The girdl...
follow her through the stonearchway, along a flagged gallerythat opened into the archingrefectory room. At the far end,nea...
since he had been sworn into themonastery at the age of eleven.‘And you are?’   She smiled at him and herealised in the gl...
thick gravy, and concentrated onthe food to hide his consternation.‘Satan?’   She crossed herself, a quickunthinking gestu...
sisters with our goods to market.We can’t trade if the people willneither sell to us nor buy from us.’She shook her head. ...
at his confusion, and walkedslowly from the room, and hewatched the sway of the hem ofher gown as she left.On the east sid...
The two drew back from thewindow and noiselessly closed theshutter. ‘I wish I could see my wayclear,’ Isolde said. ‘I wish...
‘There was nothing we could dowhen we first came here. And nowthat the whole abbey is fallingapart around us, we can still...
tower above his head could wakehim. But, just when the night wasdarkest, before three in themorning, a sharp scream cutthr...
Luca heard her sharp wail ofdespair as they grabbed hold ofher, and saw her knees buckle asshe went down under theirweight...
close that he could hear theirpanting breaths, one of them wassobbing quietly.   It was the strangest sight. Thegirl’s han...
nightgown. She had the hands ofa girl crucified. Luca froze wherehe stood, forcing himself to stayhidden in the shadows, u...
somehow find the wisdom, despitehis self-doubt, to discover whatwas so very wrong in this holyplace, and put it right.He w...
a clean strip of linen beside it.   Luca sluiced his face and handswith water. ‘I know it. God knows,I have seen some of i...
‘Lord save us, no. I slept in thekitchen and all I could hear wassnoring. But all the cooks say thatthe Pope should send a...
his face. He tossed the cloth toFreize. ‘I shall have a properinquiry with witnesses and peoplegiving evidence under oath....
‘You speak to me like I was achild,’ Luca said irritably. ‘Andyou’re no great age yourself.’    ‘It’s affection,’ Freize s...
brother. Bad as being walled up.And, ever since she came, thenuns have started to see thingsand cry out. Half the village ...
together for the glory of God, andhelping the poor. Now the newlord in his turn supports it. Hisfather was a crusader, fam...
gliding through the pearly light ofthe morning. Luca stepped back,and even Freize fell silent at thebeauty of the voices r...
stone, all the while listening to thepurity of the responses andwondering      what      could     betormenting such holy ...
pattering quietly on the stonefloor, the priest followed them,and stopped before the youngmen to say pleasantly, ‘I’ll bre...
better for everyone if the nunnerywere put under the discipline ofthe Dominican order. They couldbe supervised from our mo...
Almoner came up, treading quietlyon the beautiful marble floor ofthe church. ‘Well, here is my LadyAlmoner come to bid us ...
none.’   He led the way out of thechurch across the cloister throughthe entrance yard to the housethat formed the eastern ...
jam.   ‘Does the Lady Almoner alwayseat privately and not dine with hersisters in the refectory?’ Lucaasked curiously.   ‘...
and looked out of the window atthe entry courtyard where thepriest’s mule was waiting.   Idly, Luca glanced round theroom ...
hidden door swung open, just likethe one he’d known as a child.Behind it was a glass jar holdingnot sugared plums but some...
hams. She used to tell my father itwas mice, God bless her.’   ‘How did you get your learningin such a poor house?’ Luca a...
‘Now I’ll take you to the LadyAbbess,’ the priest said, carefullystoppering the cork. ‘And you’llbear in mind, if she asks...
them. ‘The inner square is madeup of the church, with the cloisterand the nuns’ cells around it. Thishouse extends from th...
Luca and Peter went in, Freizebehind     them.      They    foundthemselves in a small roomfurnished with two woodenbenche...
through      the    richly   wroughtironwork of grapes, fruit, leavesand flowers. There was a faintlight perfume, like ros...
‘Very well,’ she said. ‘Since wehave agreed to your inquiry.’  Luca knew perfectly well, thatthis cool Lady Abbess had not...
Lady Abbess. They will know thenthat I am co-operating with yourinquiry, that they come here tospeak to you under my bless...
leaded window pane.   ‘But I do wonder why,’ Lucarepeated out loud.   Freize opened the little windowand released the bee ...
head as if he had shamed her.  ‘I am ordered from Rome tohelp you to discover the truth,’ heinsisted.  She did not reply b...
over the woods behind the abbey,in the back of the house so thatthey could not see the cloister, thenuns’ cells, or the co...
looked blankly back at the othertwo. Freize grinned at him, andmade an encouraging gesture likesomeone waving a flag. ‘Onw...
Formally, he took her name, herage – twenty-four – the name ofher parents, and the duration ofher stay in the abbey. She h...
sleep – getting out of their bedsand walking though their eyes arestill closed. One cannot eat thefood that is served in t...
new, so inexperienced, havingdeclared herself unwilling. Anunnery needs strong leadership,supervision, a woman who lovesth...
visions, then nothing would stopthem. But if they are errors andfolly,   if   they     are   womenfrightening       themse...
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Philippa Gregory, Order of Darkness

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Changeling

  1. 1. Also by Philippa Gregory The Tudor Court Novels The Constant Princess The Other Boleyn Girl The Boleyn Inheritance The Queen’s Fool The Virgin’s Lover The Other Queen The Cousin’s War Series Lady of the Rivers The White Queen The Red QueenThe Kingmaker’s Daughter The Wideacre Trilogy Wideacre The Favoured Child Meridon
  2. 2. Historical Novels The Wise Woman Fallen Skies A Respectable Trade Earthly Joys Virgin Earth Modern Novels Alice Hartley’s Happiness Perfectly Correct The Little House Zelda’s Cut Short Stories Bread and Chocolate Non-FictionThe Women of the Cousins’ War
  3. 3. First published in Great Britain in 2012 by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd A CBS COMPANY Text copyright © 2012 by Philippa GregoryMap of Mediterranean Sea used on endpapers from world map by Camaldolese monk Fra Mauro, 1449. Detail © DEA / F. FERRUZZI / Getty Images Journey map, abbey plan and chapterhead illustrations © Fred van Deelen, 2012 Section break artwork © Sally Taylor, 2012 This book is copyright under the Berne Convention. No reproduction without permission. All rights reserved.The right of Philippa Gregory to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with sections 77 and 78 ofthe Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988. Simon & Schuster UK Ltd
  4. 4. 1st Floor 222 Gray’s Inn Road London WC1X 8HB www.simonandschuster.co.uk Simon & Schuster Australia, Sydney Simon & Schuster India, New DelhiA CIP catalogue copy for this book is available from the British Library. HB ISBN: 978-0-85707-730-1 TPB ISBN: 978-0-85707-731-8 E-BOOK ISBN: 978-0-85707-733-2 This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either aproduct of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, events or locales, is entirely coincidental. Printed and bound by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CR0 4YY
  5. 5. CONTENTSCASTLE SANT’ ANGELO, ROME,JUNE 1453THE CASTLE OF LUCRETILI, JUNE1453THE ABBEY OF LUCRETILI,OCTOBER 1453VITTORITO, ITALY, OCTOBER1453
  6. 6. CASTLE SANT’ANGELO, ROME, JUNE 1453The hammering on the door shothim into wakefulness like ahandgun going off in his face. Theyoung man scrambled for thedagger under his pillow, stumblingto his bare feet on the icy floor of
  7. 7. the stone cell. He had beendreaming of his parents, of his oldhome, and he gritted his teethagainst the usual wrench oflonging for everything he had lost:the farmhouse, his mother, the oldlife. The thunderous bangingsounded again, and he held thedagger behind his back as heunbolted the door and cautiouslyopened it a crack. A dark-hoodedfigure stood outside, flanked bytwo heavy-set men, each carryinga burning torch. One of themraised his torch so the light fell onthe slight dark-haired youth,naked to the waist, wearing onlybreeches, his hazel eyes blinkingunder a fringe of dark hair. Hewas about seventeen, with a faceas sweet as a boy, but with thebody of a young man forged by
  8. 8. hard work. ‘Luca Vero?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘You are to come with me.’ They saw him hesitate. ‘Don’tbe a fool. There are three of usand only one of you and thedagger you’re hiding behind yourback won’t stop us.’ ‘It’s an order,’ the other mansaid roughly. ‘Not a request. Andyou are sworn to obedience.’ Luca had sworn obedience tohis monastery, not to thesestrangers, but he had beenexpelled from there and now itseemed he must obey anyonewho shouted a command. Heturned to the bed, sat to pull onhis boots, slipping the dagger intoa scabbard hidden inside the softleather, pulled on a linen shirt,and then threw his ragged woollen
  9. 9. cape around his shoulders. ‘Who are you?’ he asked,coming unwillingly to the door. The man made no answer, butsimply turned and led the way, asthe two guards waited in thecorridor for Luca to come out ofhis cell and follow. ‘Where are you taking me?’ The two guards fell in behindhim without answering. Lucawanted to ask if he was underarrest, if he was being marched toa summary execution, but he didnot dare. He was fearful of thevery question, he acknowledgedto himself that he was terrified ofthe answer. He could feel himselfsweating with fear under hiswoollen cape, though the air wasicy and the stone walls were coldand damp. He knew that he was in the
  10. 10. most serious trouble of his younglife. Only yesterday four dark-hooded men had taken him fromhis monastery and brought himhere, to this prison, without aword of explanation. He did notknow where he was, or who washolding him. He did not knowwhat charge he might face. He didnot know what the punishmentmight be. He did not know if hewas going to be beaten, torturedor killed. ‘I insist on seeing a priest, Iwish to confess . . .’ he said. They paid no attention to him atall, but pressed him on, down thenarrow stone-flagged gallery. Itwas silent, with the closed doorsof cells on either side. He couldnot tell if it was a prison or amonastery, it was so cold andquiet. It was just after midnight
  11. 11. and the place was in darkness andutterly still. Luca’s guides made nonoise as they walked along thegallery, down the stone steps,through a great hall, and thendown a little spiral staircase, intoa darkness that grew more andmore black as the air grew moreand more cold. ‘I demand to know where youare taking me,’ Luca insisted, buthis voice shook with fear. No-one answered him; but theguard behind him closed up alittle. At the bottom of the steps, Lucacould just see a small archeddoorway and a heavy woodendoor. The leading man opened itwith a key from his pocket andgestured that Luca should gothrough. When he hesitated, theguard behind him simply moved
  12. 12. closer until the menacing bulk ofhis body pressed Luca onwards. ‘I insist . . .’ Luca breathed. A hard shove thrust him throughthe doorway and he gasped as hefound himself flung to the veryedge of a high narrow quay, aboat rocking in the river a longway below, the far bank a darkblur in the distance. Luca flinchedback from the brink. He had asudden dizzying sense that theywould be as willing to throw himover, onto the rocks below, as totake him down the steep stairs tothe boat. The first man went light-footeddown the wet steps, stepped intothe boat and said one word to theboatman who stood in the stern,holding the vessel against thecurrent with the deft movementsof a single oar. Then he looked
  13. 13. back up to the handsome white-faced young man. ‘Come,’ he ordered. Luca could do nothing else. Hefollowed the man down the greasysteps, clambered into the boatand seated himself in the prow.The boatman did not wait for theguards but turned his craft intothe middle of the river and let thecurrent sweep them around thecity wall. Luca glanced down intothe dark water. If he were to flinghimself over the side of the boathe would be swept downstream –he might be able to swim with thecurrent and make it to the otherside and get away. But the waterwas flowing so fast he thought hewas more likely to drown, if theydid not come after him in the boatand knock him senseless with theoar.
  14. 14. ‘My lord,’ he said, trying fordignity. ‘May I ask you now wherewe are going?’ ‘You’ll know soon enough,’ camethe terse reply. The river ran likea wide moat around the tall wallsof the city of Rome. The boatmankept the little craft close to the leeof the walls, hidden from thesentries above, then Luca sawahead of them the looming shapeof a stone bridge and, just beforeit, a grille set in an arched stonedoorway of the wall. As the boatnosed inwards, the grille slippednoiselessly up and, with onepractised push of the oar, theyshot inside, into a torch-lit cellar. With a deep lurch of fear Lucawished that he had taken hischance with the river. There werehalf a dozen grim-faced menwaiting for him and, as the
  15. 15. boatman held a well-worn ring onthe wall to steady the craft, theyreached down and hauled Lucaout of the boat, to push him downa narrow corridor. Luca felt, ratherthan saw, thick stone walls oneither side, smooth woodenfloorboards underfoot, heard hisown breathing, ragged with fear,then they paused before a heavywooden door, struck it with asingle knock and waited. A voice from inside the roomsaid ‘Come!’ and the guard swungthe door open and thrust Lucainside. Luca stood, heartpounding, blinking at the suddenbrightness of dozens of waxcandles, and heard the door closesilently behind him. A solitary man was sitting at atable, papers before him. He worea robe of rich velvet in so dark a
  16. 16. blue that it appeared almostblack, the hood completelyconcealing his face from Luca,who stood before the table andswallowed down his fear.Whatever happened, he decided,he was not going to beg for hislife. Somehow, he would find thecourage to face whatever wascoming. He would not shamehimself, nor his tough stoicalfather, by whimpering like a girl. ‘You will be wondering why youare here, where you are, and whoI am,’ the man said. ‘I will tell youthese things. But, first, you mustanswer me everything that I ask.Do you understand?’ Luca nodded. ‘You must not lie to me. Yourlife hangs in the balance here, andyou cannot guess what answers Iwould prefer. Be sure to tell the
  17. 17. truth: you would be a fool to diefor a lie.’ Luca tried to nod but found hewas shaking. ‘You are Luca Vero, a novicepriest at the monastery of StXavier, having joined themonastery when you were a boyof eleven? You have been anorphan for the last three years,since your parents died when youwere fourteen?’ ‘My parents disappeared,’ Lucasaid. He cleared his tight throat.‘They may not be dead. Theywere captured by an Ottoman raidbut nobody saw them killed.Nobody knows where they arenow; but they may very well bealive.’ The Inquisitor made a minutenote on a piece of paper beforehim. Luca watched the tip of the
  18. 18. black feather as the quill movedacross the page. ‘You hope,’ theman said briefly. ‘You hope thatthey are alive and will come backto you.’ He spoke as if hope wasthe greatest folly. ‘I do.’ ‘Raised by the brothers, swornto join their holy order, yet youwent to your confessor, and thento the abbot, and told them thatthe relic that they keep at themonastery, a nail from the truecross, was a fake.’ The monotone voice wasaccusation enough. Luca knew thiswas a citation of his heresy. Heknew also, that the onlypunishment for heresy was death. ‘I didn’t mean . . .’ ‘Why did you say the relic was afake?’ Luca looked down at his boots,
  19. 19. at the dark wooden floor, at theheavy table, at the lime washedwalls – anywhere but at theshadowy face of the softly spokenquestioner. ‘I will beg the abbot’spardon and do penance,’ he said.‘I didn’t mean heresy. Before God,I am no heretic. I meant nowrong.’ ‘I shall be the judge if you are aheretic, and I have seen youngermen than you, who have done andsaid less than you, crying on therack for mercy, as their joints popfrom their sockets. I have heardbetter men than you begging forthe stake, longing for death astheir only release from pain.’ Luca shook his head at thethought of the Inquisition, whichcould order this fate for him andsee it done, and think it to theglory of God. He dared to say
  20. 20. nothing more. ‘Why did you say the relic was afake?’ ‘I did not mean . . .’ ‘Why?’ ‘It is a piece of a nail aboutthree inches long, and a quarter ofan inch wide,’ Luca saidunwillingly. ‘You can see it, thoughit is now mounted in gold andcovered with jewels. But you canstill see the size of it.’ The Inquisitor nodded. ‘So?’ ‘The abbey of St Peter has a nailfrom the true cross. So does theabbey of St Joseph. I looked in themonastery library to see if therewere any others, and there areabout four hundred nails in Italyalone, more in France, more inSpain, more in England.’ The man waited inunsympathetic silence.
  21. 21. ‘I calculated the likely size ofthe nails,’ Luca said miserably. ‘Icalculated the number of piecesthat they might have been brokeninto. It didn’t add up. There arefar too many relics for them all tocome from one crucifixion. TheBible says a nail in each palm andone through the feet. That’s onlythree nails.’ Luca glanced at thedark face of his interrogator. ‘It’snot blasphemy to say this, I don’tthink. The Bible itself says itclearly. Then, in addition, if youcount the nails used in buildingthe cross, there would be four atthe central joint to hold the crossbar. That makes seven originalnails. Only seven. Say each nail isabout five inches long. That’sabout thirty-five inches of nailsused in the true cross. But thereare thousands of relics. That’s not
  22. 22. to say whether any nail or anyfragment is genuine or not. It’snot for me to judge. But I can’thelp but see that there are justtoo many nails for them all tocome from one cross.’ Still the man said nothing. ‘It’s numbers,’ Luca saidhelplessly. ‘It’s how I think. I thinkabout numbers – they interestme.’ ‘You took it upon yourself tostudy this? And you took it uponyourself to decide that there aretoo many nails in churches aroundthe world for them all to be true,for them all to come from thesacred cross?’ Luca dropped to his knees,knowing himself to be guilty. ‘Imeant no wrong,’ he whisperedupwards at the shadowy figure. ‘Ijust started wondering, and then I
  23. 23. made the calculations, and thenthe abbot found my paper where Ihad written the calculations and—’He broke off. ‘The abbot, quite rightly,accused you of heresy andforbidden studies, misquoting theBible for your own purposes,reading without guidance,showing independence of thought,studying without permission, atthe wrong time, studyingforbidden books . . .’ the mancontinued, reading from the list.He looked at Luca: ‘Thinking foryourself. That’s the worst of it,isn’t it? You were sworn into anorder with certain establishedbeliefs and then you startedthinking for yourself.’ Luca nodded. ‘I am sorry.’ ‘The priesthood does not needmen who think for themselves.’
  24. 24. ‘I know,’ Luca said, very low. ‘You made a vow of obedience –that is a vow not to think foryourself.’ Luca bowed his head, waiting tohear his sentence. The flame of the candlesbobbed as somewhere outside adoor opened and a cold draughtblew through the rooms. ‘Always thought like this? Withnumbers?’ Luca nodded. ‘Any friends in the monastery?Have you discussed this withanyone?’ He shook his head. ‘I didn’tdiscuss this.’ The man looked at his notes.‘You have a companion calledFreize?’ Luca smiled for the first time.‘He’s just the kitchen boy at the
  25. 25. monastery,’ he said. ‘He took aliking to me as soon as I arrived,when I was just eleven. He wasonly twelve or thirteen himself. Hemade up his mind that I was toothin, he said I wouldn’t last thewinter. He kept bringing me extrafood. He’s just the spit lad really.’ ‘You have no brother or sister?’ ‘I am alone in the world.’ ‘You miss your parents?’ ‘I do.’ ‘You are lonely?’ The way hesaid it sounded like yet anotheraccusation. ‘I suppose so. I feel very alone,if that is the same thing.’ The man rested the blackfeather of the quill against his lipsin thought. ‘Your parents . . .’ Hereturned to the first question ofthe interrogation. ‘They werequite old when you were born?’
  26. 26. ‘Yes,’ Luca said, surprised. ‘Yes.’ ‘People talked at the time, Iunderstand. That such an oldcouple should suddenly give birthto a son, and such a handsomeson, who grew to be such anexceptionally clever boy?’ ‘It’s a small village,’ Luca saiddefensively. ‘People have nothingto do but gossip.’ ‘But clearly, you are handsome.Clearly, you are clever. And yetthey did not brag about you, orshow you off. They kept youquietly at home.’ ‘We were close,’ Luca replied.‘We were a close small family. Wetroubled nobody else, we livedquietly, the three of us.’ ‘Then why did they give you tothe Church? Was it that theythought you would be safer insidethe Church? That you were
  27. 27. specially gifted? That you neededthe Church’s protection?’ Luca, still on his knees, shuffledin discomfort. ‘I don’t know. I wasa child: I was only eleven. I don’tknow what they were thinking.’ The Inquisitor waited. ‘They wanted me to have theeducation of a priest,’ he saideventually. ‘My father—’ Hepaused at the thought of hisbeloved father, of his grey hairand his hard grip, of histenderness to his funny quirkylittle son. ‘My father was veryproud that I learned to read, that Itaught myself about numbers. Hecouldn’t write or read himself, hethought it was a great talent.Then, when some gypsies camethrough the village, I learned theirlanguage.’ The man made a note. ‘You can
  28. 28. speak languages?’ ‘People remarked that I learnedto speak Romany in a day. Myfather thought that I had a gift, aGod-given gift. It’s not souncommon,’ he tried to explain.‘Freize, the spit boy, is good withanimals, he can do anything withhorses, he can ride anything. Myfather thought that I had a giftlike that, only for studying. Hewanted me to be more than afarmer. He wanted me to dobetter.’ The Inquisitor sat back in hischair as if he was weary oflistening, as if he had heard morethan enough. ‘You can get up.’ He looked at the paper with itsfew black ink notes as Lucascrambled to his feet. ‘Now I willanswer the questions that will bein your mind. I am the spiritual
  29. 29. commander of an Order appointedby the Holy Father, the Popehimself, and I answer to him forour work. You need not know myname nor the name of the Order.We have been commanded byPope Nicholas V to explore themysteries, the heresies and thesins, to explain them wherepossible, and defeat them wherewe can. We are making a map ofthe fears of the world, travellingoutwards from Rome to the veryends of Christendom to discoverwhat people are saying, what theyare fearing, what they arefighting. We have to know wherethe Devil is walking through theworld. The Holy Father knows thatwe are approaching the end ofdays.’ ‘The end of days?’ ‘When Christ comes again to
  30. 30. judge the living, the dead, and theundead. You will have heard thatthe Ottomans have takenConstantinople, the heart of theByzantine empire, the centre ofthe Church in the east?’ Luca crossed himself. The fall ofthe eastern capital of the Churchto an unbeatable army of hereticsand infidels was the most terriblething that could have happened,an unimaginable disaster. ‘Next, the forces of darkness willcome against Rome, and if Romefalls it will be the end of days –the end of the world. Our task isto defend Christendom, to defendRome – in this world, and in theunseen world beyond.’ ‘The unseen world?’ ‘It is all around us,’ the mansaid flatly. ‘I see it, perhaps asclearly as you see numbers. And
  31. 31. every year, every day, it pressesmore closely. People come to mewith stories of showers of blood,of a dog that can smell out theplague, of witchcraft, of lights inthe sky, of water that is wine. Theend of days approaches and thereare hundreds of manifestations ofgood and evil, miracles andheresies. A young man like youcan perhaps tell me which ofthese are true, and which arefalse, which are the work of Godand which of the Devil.’ He rosefrom his great wooden chair andpushed a fresh sheet of paperacross the table to Luca. ‘Seethis?’ Luca looked at the marks on thepaper. It was the writing ofheretics, the Moors’ way ofnumbering. Luca had been taughtas a child that one stroke of the
  32. 32. pen meant one: I, two strokesmeant two: II, and so on. Butthese were strange roundedshapes. He had seen them before,but the merchants in his villageand the almoner at the monasterystubbornly refused to use them,clinging to the old ways. ‘This means one: 1, this two: 2,and this three: 3,’ the man said,the black feather tip of his quillpointing to the marks. ‘Put the 1here, in this column, it means one,but put it here and this blankbeside it and it means ten, or putit here and two blanks beside it, itmeans one hundred.’ Luca gaped. ‘The position of thenumber shows its value?’ ‘Just so.’ The man pointed theplume of the black feather to theshape of the blank, like anelongated O, which filled the
  33. 33. columns. His arm stretched fromthe sleeve of his robe and Lucalooked from the O to the whiteskin of the man’s inner wrist.Tattooed on the inside of his arm,so that it almost appearedengraved on skin, Luca could justmake out the head and twistedtail of a dragon, a design in redink of a dragon coiled around onitself. ‘This is not just a blank, it is notjust an O, it is what they call azero. Look at the position of it –that means something. What if itmeant something of itself?’ ‘Does it mean a space?’ Lucasaid, looking at the paper again.‘Does it mean: nothing?’ ‘It is a number like any other,’the man told him. ‘They havemade a number from nothing. Sothey can calculate to nothing, and
  34. 34. beyond.’ ‘Beyond? Beyond nothing?’ The man pointed to anothernumber: –10. ‘That is beyondnothing. That is ten places beyondnothing, that is the numbering ofabsence,’ he said. Luca, with his mind whirling,reached out for the paper. But theman quietly drew it back towardshim and placed his broad handover it, keeping it from Luca like aprize he would have to win. Thesleeve fell down over his wristagain, hiding the tattoo. ‘Youknow how they got to that sign,the number zero?’ he asked. Luca shook his head. ‘Who gotto it?’ ‘Arabs, Moors, Ottomans, callthem what you will. Mussulmen,Muslim-men, infidels, ourenemies, our new conquerors. Do
  35. 35. you know how they got that sign?’ ‘No.’ ‘It is the shape left by a counterin the sand when you have takenthe counter away. It is the symbolfor nothing, it looks like a nothing.It is what it symbolises. That ishow they think. That is what wehave to learn from them.’ ‘I don’t understand. What do wehave to learn?’ ‘To look, and look, and look.That is what they do. They look ateverything, they think abouteverything, that is why they haveseen stars in the sky that we havenever seen. That is why theymake physic from plants that wehave never noticed.’ He pulled hishood closer, so that his face wascompletely shadowed. ‘That iswhy they will defeat us unless welearn to see like they see, to think
  36. 36. like they think, to count like theycount. Perhaps a young man likeyou can learn their language too.’ Luca could not take his eyesfrom the paper where the manhad marked out ten spaces ofcounting, down to zero and thenbeyond. ‘So, what do you think?’ theInquisitor asked him. ‘Do you thinkten nothings are beings of theunseen world? Like ten invisiblethings? Ten ghosts? Ten angels?’ ‘If you could calculate beyondnothing,’ Luca started, ‘you couldshow what you had lost. Saysomeone was a merchant, and hisdebt in one country, or on onevoyage, was greater than hisfortune, you could show exactlyhow much his debt was. You couldshow his loss. You could showhow much less than nothing he
  37. 37. had, how much he would have toearn before he had somethingagain.’ ‘Yes,’ the man said. ‘With zeroyou can measure what is notthere. The Ottomans tookConstantinople and our empire inthe east not only because theyhad the strongest armies and thebest commanders, but becausethey had a weapon that we didnot have: a cannon so massivethat it took sixty oxen to pull itinto place. They have knowledgeof things that we don’tunderstand. The reason that Isent for you, the reason that youwere expelled from yourmonastery but not punished therefor disobedience or tortured forheresy, is that I want you to learnthese mysteries; I want you toexplore them, so that we can
  38. 38. know them, and arm ourselvesagainst them.’ ‘Is zero one of the things I muststudy? Will I go to the Ottomansand learn from them? Will I learnabout their studies?’ The man laughed and pushedthe piece of paper with the Arabicnumerals towards the novicepriest, holding it with one fingeron the page. ‘I will let you havethis,’ he promised. ‘It can be yourreward when you have worked tomy satisfaction and set out onyour mission. And yes, perhapsyou will go to the infidel and liveamong them and learn their ways.But for now, you have to swearobedience to me and to our Order.I will send you out to be my earsand eyes. I will send you to huntfor mysteries, to find knowledge. Iwill send you to map fears, to
  39. 39. seek darkness in all its shapes andforms. I will send you out tounderstand things, to be part ofour Order that seeks tounderstand everything.’ He could see Luca’s face lightup at the thought of a life devotedto inquiry. But then the youngman hesitated. ‘I won’t know whatto do,’ Luca confessed. ‘I wouldn’tknow where to begin. Iunderstand nothing! How will Iknow where to go or what to do?’ ‘I am going to send you to betrained. I will send you to studywith masters. They will teach youthe law, and what powers youhave to convene a court or aninquiry. You will learn what to lookfor and how to question someone.You will understand whensomeone must be released toearthly powers – the mayors of
  40. 40. towns or the lords of the manor;or when they can be punished bythe Church. You will learn when toforgive and when to punish. Whenyou are ready, when you havebeen trained, I will send you onyour first mission.’ Luca nodded. ‘You will be trained for somemonths and then I shall send youout into the world with my orders,’the man said. ‘You will go where Icommand and study what you findthere. You will report to me. Youmay judge and punish where youfind wrong-doing. You mayexorcise devils and unclean spirits.You may learn. You may questioneverything, all the time. But youwill serve God and me, as I tellyou. You will be obedient to meand to the Order. And you willwalk in the unseen world and look
  41. 41. at unseen things, and questionthem.’ There was a silence. ‘You cango,’ the man said, as if he hadgiven the simplest of instructions.Luca started from his silentattention and went to the door. Ashis hand was on the bronzehandle the man said: ‘One thingmore . . .’ Luca turned. ‘They said you were achangeling, didn’t they?’ Theaccusation dropped into the roomlike a sudden shower of ice. ‘Thepeople of the village? When theygossiped about you being born, sohandsome and so clever, to awoman who had been barren allher life, to a man who couldneither read nor write. They saidyou were a changeling, left on herdoorstep by the faeries, didn’t
  42. 42. they?’ There was a cold silence. Luca’sstern young face revealed nothing.‘I have never answered such aquestion, and I hope that I neverdo. I don’t know what they saidabout us,’ he said harshly. ‘Theywere ignorant fearful countrypeople. My mother said to pay noattention to the things they said.She said that she was my motherand that she loved me above allelse. That’s all that mattered, notstories about faerie children.’ The man laughed shortly andwaved Luca to go, and watched asthe door closed beind him.‘Perhaps I am sending out achangeling to map fear itself,’ hesaid to himself, as he tidied thepapers together and pushed backhis chair. ‘What a joke for theworlds seen and unseen! A faerie
  43. 43. child in the Order. A faerie child tomap fear.’
  44. 44. THE CASTLE OF LUCRETILI, JUNE 1453At about the time that Luca wasbeing questioned, a young womanwas seated in a rich chair in thechapel of her family home, theCastle of Lucretili, about twentymiles north-east of Rome, her
  45. 45. dark blue eyes fixed on the richcrucifix, her fair hair twisted in acareless plait under a black veil,her face strained and pale. Acandle in a rose crystal bowlflickered on the altar as the priestmoved in the shadows. She knelt,her hands clasped tightlytogether, praying fervently for herfather, who was fighting for his lifein his bedchamber, refusing to seeher. The door at the back of thechapel opened and her brothercame in quietly, saw her bowedhead and went to kneel besideher. She looked sideways at him,a handsome young man, dark-haired, dark-browed, his facestern with grief. ‘He’s gone,Isolde, he’s gone. May he rest inpeace.’ Her white face crumpled and
  46. 46. she put her hands over her eyes.‘He didn’t ask for me? Not even atthe end?’ ‘He didn’t want you to see himin pain. He wanted you toremember him as he had been,strong and healthy. But his lastwords were to send you hisblessing, and his last thoughtswere of your future.’ She shook her head. ‘I can’tbelieve he would not give me hisblessing.’ Giorgio turned from her andspoke to the priest, who hurried atonce to the back of the chapel.Isolde heard the big bell start totoll; everyone would know thatthe great crusader, the Lord ofLucretili, was dead. ‘I must pray for him,’ she saidquietly. ‘You’ll bring his bodyhere?’
  47. 47. He nodded. ‘I will share the vigil tonight,’she decided. ‘I will sit beside himnow that he is dead though hedidn’t allow it while he lived.’ Shepaused. ‘He didn’t leave me aletter? Nothing?’ ‘His will,’ her brother said softly.‘He planned for you. At the veryend of his life he was thinking ofyou.’ She nodded, her dark blue eyesfilling with tears, then she claspedher hands together, and prayedfor her father’s soul.Isolde spent the first long night ofher father’s death in a silent vigilbeside his coffin, which lay in thefamily chapel. Four of his men-at-
  48. 48. arms stood, one at each point ofthe compass, their heads bowedover their broadswords, the lightfrom the tall wax candlesglittering on the holy water thathad been sprinkled on the coffinlid. Isolde, dressed in white, kneltbefore the coffin all night longuntil dawn when the priest cameto say Prime, the first office ofprayers of the day. Only then didshe rise up and let her ladies-in-waiting help her to her room tosleep, until a message from herbrother told her that she must getup and show herself, it was timefor dinner and the householdwould want to see their lady. She did not hesitate. She hadbeen raised to do her duty by thegreat household and she had asense of obligation to the peoplewho lived on the lands of Lucretili.
  49. 49. Her father, she knew, had left thecastle and the lands to her; thesepeople were in her charge. Theywould want to see her at the headof the table, they would want tosee her enter the great hall. Evenif her eyes were red from cryingover the loss of a very belovedfather, they would expect her todine with them. Her father himselfwould have expected it. Shewould not fail them or him.There was a sudden hush as sheentered the great hall where theservants were sitting at trestletables, talking quietly, waiting fordinner to be served. More thantwo hundred men-at-arms,servants and grooms filled the
  50. 50. hall, where the smoke from thecentral fire coiled up to thedarkened beams of the highceiling. As soon as the men saw Isoldefollowed by the three women ofher household, they rose to theirfeet and pulled their hats fromtheir heads, and bowed low tohonour the daughter of the lateLord of Lucretili, and the heiressto the castle. Isolde was wearing the deepblue of mourning: a high conicalhat draped in indigo lace hidingher fair hair, a priceless belt ofArabic gold worn tightly at thehigh waist of her gown, the keysto the castle on a gold chain ather side. Behind her came herwomen companions, firstly Ishraq,her childhood friend, wearingMoorish dress, a long tunic over
  51. 51. loose pantaloons with a long veilover her head held lightly acrossher face so that only her dark eyeswere visible as she looked aroundthe hall. Two other women followedbehind her and as the householdwhispered their blessings onIsolde, the women took theirseats at the ladies’ table to theside of the raised dais. Isoldewent up the shallow stairs to thegreat table, and recoiled at thesight of her brother in the woodenchair, as grand as a throne, thathad been their father’s seat. Sheknew that she should haveanticipated he would be there,just as he knew that she wouldinherit this castle and would takethe great chair as soon as the willwas read. But she was dull withgrief, and she had not thought
  52. 52. that from now on she wouldalways see her brother where herfather ought to be. She was sonew to grief that she had not yetfully realised that she would neversee her father again. Giorgio smiled blandly at her,and gestured that she should takeher seat at his right hand, whereshe used to sit beside her father. ‘And you will remember PrinceRoberto.’ Giorgio indicated afleshy man with a round sweatingface on his left, who rose andcame around the table to bow toher. Isolde gave her hand to theprince and looked questioningly ather brother. ‘He has come tosympathise with us for our loss.’ The prince kissed her hand andIsolde tried not to flinch from thedamp touch of his lips. He lookedat her as if he wanted to whisper
  53. 53. something, as if they might sharea secret. Isolde took back herhand, and bent towards herbrother’s ear. ‘I am surprised youhave a guest at dinner when myfather died only yesterday.’ ‘It was good of him to come atonce,’ Giorgio said, beckoning theservers who came down the hall,their trays held at shoulder heightloaded with game, meat, and fishdishes, great loaves of bread andflagons of wine and jugs of ale. The castle priest sang grace andthen the servers banged down thetrays of food, the men drew theirdaggers from their belts and theirboots to carve their portions ofmeat, and heaped slices of thickbrown bread with poached fish,and stewed venison. It was hard for Isolde to eatdinner in the great hall as if
  54. 54. nothing had changed, when herdead father lay in his vigil,guarded in the chapel by his men-at-arms, and would be buried thenext day. She found that tearskept blurring the sight of theservants coming in, carrying morefood for each table, banging downjugs of small ale, and bringing thebest dishes and flagons of bestred wine to the top table whereGiorgio and his guest the princepicked the best and sent the restdown the hall to those men whohad served them well during theday. The prince and her brotherate a good dinner and called formore wine. Isolde picked at herfood and glanced down to thewomen’s table where Ishraq mether gaze with silent sympathy. When they had finished, and thesugared fruits and marchpane had
  55. 55. been offered to the top table, andtaken away, Giorgio touched herhand. ‘Don’t go to your rooms justyet,’ he said. ‘I want to talk toyou.’ Isolde nodded to dismiss Ishraqand her ladies from their diningtable and send them back to theladies’ rooms, then she wentthrough the little door behind thedais to the private room wherethe Lucretili family sat afterdinner. A fire was burning againstthe wall and there were threechairs drawn up around it. Aflagon of wine was set ready forthe men, a glass of small ale forIsolde. As she took her seat thetwo men came in together. ‘I want to talk to you about ourfather’s will,’ Giorgio said, oncethey were seated. Isolde glanced towards Prince
  56. 56. Roberto. ‘Roberto is concerned in this,’Giorgio explained. ‘When Fatherwas dying he said that hisgreatest hope was to know thatyou would be safe and happy. Heloved you very dearly.’ Isolde pressed her fingers to hercold lips and blinked the tearsfrom her eyes. ‘I know,’ her brother said gently.‘I know you are grieving. But youhave to know that Father madeplans for you and gave to me thesacred trust of carrying them out.’ ‘Why didn’t he tell me sohimself?’ she asked. ‘Why wouldhe not talk to me? We alwaystalked of everything together. Iknow what he planned for me; hesaid if I chose not to marry then Iwas to live here, I would inheritthis castle and you would have his
  57. 57. castle and lands in France. Weagreed this. We all three agreedthis.’ ‘We agreed it when he waswell,’ Giorgio said patiently. ‘Butwhen he became sick and fearful,he changed his mind. And then hecould not bear for you to see himso very ill and in so much pain.When he thought about you then,with the very jaws of deathopening before him, he thoughtbetter of his first plan. He wantedto be certain that you would besafe. Then, he planned well foryou – he suggested that youmarry Prince Roberto here, andagreed that we should take athousand crowns from thetreasury as your dowry.’ It was a tiny payment for awoman who had been raised tothink of herself as heiress to this
  58. 58. castle, the fertile pastures, thethick woods, the high mountains.Isolde gaped at him. ‘Why solittle?’ ‘Because the prince here hasdone us the honour of indicatingthat he will accept you just as youare – with no more than athousand crowns in your pocket.’ ‘And you shall keep it all,’ theman assured her, pressing herhand as it rested on the arm ofher chair. ‘You shall have it tospend on whatever you want.Pretty things for a pretty princess.’ Isolde looked at her brother, herdark blue eyes narrowing as sheunderstood what this meant. ‘Adowry as small as this will meanthat no-one else will offer for me,’she said. ‘You know that. And yetyou did not ask for more? You didnot warn Father that this would
  59. 59. leave me without any prospects atall? And Father? Did he want toforce me to marry the prince?’ The prince put his hand on hisfleshy chest and cast his eyesmodestly down. ‘Most ladies wouldnot require forcing,’ he pointedout. ‘I know of no better husbandthat you might have,’ Giorgio saidsmoothly. His friend smiled andnodded at her. ‘And Fatherthought so too. We agreed thisdowry with Prince Roberto and hewas so pleased to marry you thathe did not specify that you shouldbring a greater fortune than this.There is no need to accuseanyone of failing to guard yourinterests. What could be better foryou than marriage to a familyfriend, a prince, and a wealthyman?’
  60. 60. It took her only a moment todecide. ‘I cannot think ofmarriage,’ Isolde said flatly.‘Forgive me, Prince Roberto. But itis too soon after my father’sdeath. I cannot bear even to thinkof it, let alone talk of it.’ ‘We have to talk of it,’ Giorgioinsisted. ‘The terms of our father’swill are that we have to get yousettled. He would not allow anydelay. Either immediate marriageto my friend here, or . . .’ Hepaused. ‘Or what?’ Isolde asked,suddenly afraid. ‘The abbey,’ he said simply.‘Father said that if you would notmarry, I was to appoint you asabbess and that you should gothere to live.’ ‘Never!’ Isolde exclaimed. ‘Myfather would never have done this
  61. 61. to me!’ Giorgio nodded. ‘I too wassurprised, but he said that it wasthe future he had planned for youall along. That was why he did notfill the post when the last abbessdied. He was thinking even then,a year ago, that you must be keptsafe. You can’t be exposed to thedangers of the world, left herealone at Lucretili. If you don’twant to marry, you must be keptsafe in the abbey.’ Prince Roberto smiled slyly ather. ‘A nun or a princess,’ hesuggested. ‘I would think youwould find it easy to choose.’ Isolde jumped to her feet. ‘Icannot believe Father planned thisfor me,’ she said. ‘He neversuggested anything like this. Hewas clear he would divide thelands between us. He knew how
  62. 62. much I love it here; how I lovethese lands and know thesepeople. He said he would will thiscastle and the lands to me, andgive you our lands in France.’ Giorgio shook his head as if ingentle regret. ‘No, he changed hismind. As the oldest child, the onlyson, the only true heir, I will haveeverything, both in France andhere, and you, as a woman, willhave to leave.’ ‘Giorgio, my brother, you cannotsend me from my home?’ He spread his hands. ‘There isnothing I can do. It is our father’slast wish and I have it in writing,signed by him. You will eithermarry – and no-one will have youbut Prince Roberto – or you will goto the abbey. It was good of himto give you this choice. Manyfathers would simply have left
  63. 63. orders.’ ‘Excuse me,’ Isolde said, hervoice shaking as she fought tocontrol her anger, ‘I shall leaveyou and go to my rooms and thinkabout this.’ ‘Don’t take too long!’ PrinceRoberto said with an intimatesmile. ‘I won’t wait too long.’ ‘I shall give you my answertomorrow.’ She paused in thedoorway, and looked back at herbrother. ‘May I see my father’sletter?’ Giorgio nodded and drew it frominside his jacket. ‘You can keepthis. It is a copy. I have the otherin safe-keeping; there is no doubtas to his wishes. You will have toconsider not whether you willobey him, but only how you obeyhim. He knew that you wouldobey him.’
  64. 64. ‘I know,’ she said. ‘I am hisdaughter. Of course I will obeyhim.’ She went from the roomwithout looking at the prince,though he rose to his feet andmade her a flourishing bow, andthen winked at Giorgio as if hethought the matter settled.Isolde woke in the night to hear aquiet tap on her door. Her pillowwas damp beneath her cheek; shehad been crying in her sleep. For amoment she wondered why shefelt such a pain, as if she wereheartbroken – and then sheremembered the coffin in thechapel and the silent knightskeeping watch. She crossedherself: ‘God bless him, and save
  65. 65. his soul,’ she whispered. ‘Godcomfort me in this sorrow. I don’tknow that I can bear it.’ The little tap came again, andshe put back the richlyembroidered covers of her bedand went to the door, the key inher hand. ‘Who is it?’ ‘It is Prince Roberto. I have tospeak with you.’ ‘I can’t open the door, I willspeak with you tomorrow.’ ‘I need to speak to you tonight.It is about the will, your father’swishes.’ She hesitated. ‘Tomorrow . . .’ ‘I think I can see a way out foryou. I understand how you feel, Ithink I can help.’ ‘What way out?’ ‘I can’t shout it through thedoor. Just open the door a crackso that I can whisper.’
  66. 66. ‘Just a crack,’ she said, andturned the key, keeping her footpressed against the bottom of thedoor to ensure that it opened onlya little. As soon as he heard the keyturn, the prince banged the dooropen with such force that it hitIsolde’s head and sent her reelingback into the room. He slammedthe door behind him and turnedthe key, locking them in together. ‘You thought you would rejectme?’ he demanded furiously, asshe scrambled to her feet. ‘Youthought you – practically penniless– would reject me? You thought Iwould beg to speak to youthrough a closed door?’ ‘How dare you force your way inhere?’ Isolde demanded, white-faced and furious. ‘My brotherwould kill you—’
  67. 67. ‘Your brother allowed it,’ helaughed. ‘Your brother approvesme as your husband. He himselfsuggested that I come to you.Now get on the bed.’ ‘My brother?’ She could feel hershock turning into horror as sherealised that she had beenbetrayed by her own brother, andthat now this stranger was comingtowards her, his fat face creasedin a confident smile. ‘He said I might as well takeyou now as later,’ he said. ‘Youcan fight me if you like. It makesno difference to me. I like a fight.I like a woman of spirit, they aremore obedient in the end.’ ‘You are mad,’ she said withcertainty. ‘Whatever you like. But Iconsider you my betrothed wife,and we are going to consummate
  68. 68. our betrothal right now, so youdon’t make any mistaketomorrow.’ ‘You’re drunk,’ she said,smelling the sour stink of wine onhis breath. ‘Yes, thank God, and you canget used to that too.’ He came towards her, shrugginghis jacket off his fleshy shoulders.She shrank back until she felt thetall wooden pole of the four-posterbed behind her, blocking herretreat. She put her hands behindher back so that he could not grabthem, and felt the velvet of thecounterpane, and beneath it thehandle of the brass warming panfilled with hot embers that hadbeen pushed between the coldsheets. ‘Please,’ she said. ‘This isridiculous. It is an offence against
  69. 69. hospitality. You are our guest, myfather’s body lies in the chapel. Iam without defence, and you aredrunk on our wine. Please go toyour room and I will speak kindlyto you in the morning.’ ‘No,’ he leered. ‘I don’t think so.I think I shall spend the night herein your bed and I am very sureyou will speak kindly to me in themorning.’ Behind her back, Isolde’s fingersclosed on the handle of thewarming pan. As Roberto pausedto untie the laces on the front ofhis breeches, she got a sickeningglimpse of grey linen poking out.He reached for her arm. ‘Thisneed not hurt you,’ he said. ‘Youmight even enjoy it . . .’ With a great swing she broughtthe warming pan round to claphim on the side of his head. Red-
  70. 70. hot embers and ash dashedagainst his face and tumbled tothe floor. He let out of a howl ofpain as she drew back and hit himonce again, hard, and he droppeddown like a fat stunned ox beforethe slaughter. She picked up a jug and flungwater over the coals smoulderingon the rug beneath him and then,cautiously, she kicked him gentlywith her slippered foot. He did notstir, he was knocked out cold.Isolde went to an inner room andunlocked the door, whispering‘Ishraq!’ When the girl came,rubbing sleep from her eyes,Isolde showed her the mancrumpled on the ground. ‘Is he dead?’ the girl askedcalmly. ‘No. I don’t think so. Help meget him out of here.’
  71. 71. The two young women pulledthe rug and the limp body ofPrince Roberto slid along the floor,leaving a slimy trail of water andashes. They got him into thegallery outside her room andpaused. ‘I take it your brother allowedhim to come to you?’ Isolde nodded, and Ishraqturned her head and spatcontemptuously on the prince’swhite face. ‘Why ever did youopen the door?’ ‘I thought he would help me. Hesaid he had an idea to help methen he pushed his way in.’ ‘Did he hurt you?’ The girl’s darkeyes scanned her friend’s face.‘Your forehead?’ ‘He knocked me when hepushed the door.’ ‘Was he going to rape you?’
  72. 72. Isolde nodded. ‘Then let’s leave him here,’Ishraq decided. ‘He can come toon the floor like the dog that he is,and crawl to his room. If he’s stillhere in the morning then theservants can find him and makehim a laughing-stock.’ She bentdown and felt for his pulses at histhroat, his wrists and under thebulging waistband of his breeches.‘He’ll live,’ she said certainly.‘Though he wouldn’t be missed ifwe quietly cut his throat.’ ‘Of course we can’t do that,’Isolde said shakily. They left him there, laid out likea beached whale on his back, withhis breeches still unlaced. ‘Wait here,’ Ishraq said andwent back to her room. She returned swiftly, with asmall box in her hand. Delicately,
  73. 73. using the tips of her fingers andscowling with distaste, she pulledat the prince’s breeches so thatthey were gaping wide open. Shelifted his linen shirt so that hislimp nakedness was clearlyvisible. She took the lid from thebox and shook the spice onto hisbare skin. ‘What are you doing?’ Isoldewhispered. ‘It’s a dried pepper, very strong.He is going to itch like he has thepox, and his skin is going to blisterlike he has a rash. He is going toregret this night’s work very much.He is going to be itching andscratching and bleeding for amonth, and he won’t troubleanother woman for a while.’ Isolde laughed and put out herhand, as her father would havedone, and the two young women
  74. 74. clasped forearms, hand to elbow,like knights. Ishraq grinned, andthey turned and went back intothe bedroom, closing the door onthe humbled prince and locking itfirmly against him.In the morning, when Isolde wentto chapel, her father’s coffin wasclosed and ready for burial in thedeep family vault – and the princewas gone. ‘He has withdrawn his offer foryour hand,’ her brother said coldlyas he took his place, kneelingbeside her on the chancel steps. ‘Itake it that something passedbetween the two of you?’ ‘He’s a villain,’ Isolde saidsimply. ‘And if you sent him to my
  75. 75. door, as he claimed, then you area traitor to me.’ He bowed his head. ‘Of course Idid no such thing. I am sorry, I gotdrunk like a fool and said that hecould plead his case with you.Why ever did you open your door?’ ‘Because I believed your friendwas an honourable man, as youdid.’ ‘You were very wrong to unlockyour door,’ her brother reproachedher. ‘Opening your bedroom doorto a man, to a drunk man! Youdon’t know how to take care ofyourself. Father was right, wehave to place you somewheresafe.’ ‘I was safe! I was in my ownroom, in my own castle, speakingto my brother’s friend. I should nothave been at risk,’ she saidangrily. ‘You should not have
  76. 76. brought such a man to our dinnertable. Father should never havebeen advised that he would makea good husband for me.’ She rose to her feet and wentdown the aisle, her brotherfollowing after her. ‘Well anyway,what did you say to upset him?’ Isolde hid a smile at thethought of the warming pancrashing against the prince’s fathead. ‘I made my feelings clear.And I will never meet with himagain.’ ‘Well, that’s easily achieved,’Giorgio said bluntly. ‘Because youwill never be able to meet withany man again. If you will notmarry Prince Roberto, then youwill have to go to the abbey. Ourfather’s will leaves you with noother choice.’ Isolde paused as his words sank
  77. 77. in, and put a hesitant hand on hisarm, wondering how she couldpersuade him to let her go free. ‘There’s no need to look likethat,’ he said roughly. ‘The termsof the will are clear, I told you lastnight. It was the prince or thenunnery. Now it is just thenunnery.’ ‘I will go on a pilgrimage,’ sheoffered. ‘Away from here.’ ‘You will not. How would yousurvive for one moment? You can’tkeep yourself safe even at home.’ ‘I will go and stay with somefriends of Father’s – anyone. Icould go to my godfather’s son,the Count of Wallachia, I could goto the Duke of Bradour . . .’ His face was grim. ‘You can’t.You know you can’t. You have todo as Father commanded you. Ihave no choice, Isolde. God knows
  78. 78. I would do anything for you, buthis will is clear, and I have to obeymy father – just as you do.’ ‘Brother – don’t force me to dothis.’ He turned to the arched wall ofthe chapel doorway, and put hisforehead to the cold stone, as ifshe was making his head ache.‘Sister, I can do nothing. PrinceRoberto was your only chance toescape the abbey. It is our father’swill. I am sworn on his sword, onhis own broadsword, to see thathis will is done. My sister – I ampowerless, as you are.’ ‘He promised he would leave hisbroadsword to me.’ ‘It is mine now. As is everythingelse.’ Gently she put her hand on hisshoulder. ‘If I take an oath ofcelibacy, may I not stay here with
  79. 79. you? I will marry no-one. Thecastle is yours, I see that. In theend he did what every man doesand favoured his son over hisdaughter. In the end he did whatall great men do and excluded awoman from wealth and power.But if I will live here, poor andpowerless, never seeing a man,obedient to you, can I not stayhere?’ He shook his head. ‘It is not mywill, but his. And it is – as youadmit – the way of the world. Hebrought you up almost as if youhad been born a boy, with toomuch wealth and freedom. Butnow you must live the life of anoblewoman. You should be gladat least that the abbey is nearby,and so you don’t have to go farfrom these lands that I know youlove. You’ve not been sent into
  80. 80. exile – he could have ordered thatyou go anywhere. But instead youwill be in our own property: theabbey. I will come and see younow and then. I will bring younews. Perhaps later you will beable to ride out with me.’ ‘Can Ishraq come with me?’ ‘You can take Ishraq, you cantake all your ladies if you wish,and if they are willing to go. Butthey are expecting you at theabbey tomorrow. You will have togo, Isolde. You will have to takeyour vows as a nun and becometheir abbess. You have no choice.’ He turned back to her and sawshe was trembling like a youngmare will tremble when she isbeing forced into harness for thefirst time. ‘It is like beingimprisoned,’ she whispered. ‘And Ihave done nothing wrong.’
  81. 81. He had tears in his own eyes. ‘Itis like losing a sister,’ he said. ‘Iam burying a father and losing asister. I don’t know how it will bewithout you here.’
  82. 82. THE ABBEY OFLUCRETILI, OCTOBER 1453A few months later, Luca was onthe road from Rome, riding east,wearing a plain working robe andcape of ruddy brown, and newlyequipped with a horse of his own. He was accompanied by his
  83. 83. servant Freize, a broad-shouldered, square-faced youth,just out of his teens, who hadplucked up his courage when Lucaleft their monastery, andvolunteered to work for the youngman, and follow him wherever thequest might take him. The abbothad been doubtful, but Freize hadconvinced him that his skills as akitchen lad were so poor, and hislove of adventure so strong, thathe would serve God better byfollowing a remarkable master ona secret quest ordained by thePope himself, than by burning thebacon for the long-sufferingmonks. The abbot, secretly glad tolose the challenging young novicepriest, thought the loss of anaccident-prone spit lad was asmall price to pay. Freize rode a strong cob and led
  84. 84. a donkey laden with theirbelongings. At the rear of the littleprocession was a surprise additionto their partnership: a clerk,Brother Peter, who had beenordered to travel with them at thelast moment, to keep a record oftheir work. ‘A spy,’ Freize muttered out ofthe side of his mouth to his newmaster. ‘A spy if ever I saw one.Pale-faced, soft hands, trustingbrown eyes: the shaved head of amonk and yet the clothes of agentleman. A spy without a doubt. ‘Is he spying on me? No, for Idon’t do anything and knownothing. Who is he spying on,then? Must be the young master,my little sparrow. For there is no-one else but the horses andthey’re not heretics, nor pagans.They are the only honest beasts
  85. 85. here.’ ‘He is here to serve as my clerk,’Luca replied irritably. ‘And I haveto have him whether I need aclerk or no. So hold your tongue.’ ‘Do I need a clerk?’ Freize askedhimself as he reined in his horse.‘No. For I do nothing and knownothing and, if I did, I wouldn’twrite it down – not trusting wordson a page. Also, not being able toread or write would likely preventme.’ ‘Fool,’ the clerk Peter said as herode by. ‘“Fool,” he says,’ Freizeremarked to his horse’s ears andto the gently climbing road beforethem. ‘Easy to say: hard to prove.And anyway, I have been calledworse.’ They had been riding all day ona track little more than a narrow
  86. 86. path for goats, which woundupwards out of the fertile valley,alongside little terraced slopesgrowing olives and vines, and thenhigher into the woodland wherethe huge beech trees were turninggold and bronze. At sunset, whenthe arching skies above themwent rosy pink, the clerk drew apaper from the inner pocket of hisjacket. ‘I was ordered to give youthis at sunset,’ he said. ‘Forgiveme if it is bad news. I don’t knowwhat it says.’ ‘Who gave it you?’ Luca asked.The seal on the back of the foldedletter was shiny and smooth,unmarked with any crest. ‘The lord who hired me, thesame lord who commands you,’Peter said. ‘This is how yourorders will come. He tells me aday and a time, or sometimes a
  87. 87. destination, and I give you yourorders then and there.’ ‘Got them tucked away in yourpocket all the time?’ Freizeinquired. Grandly, the clerk nodded. ‘Could always turn him upsidedown and shake him,’ Freizeremarked quietly to his master. ‘We’ll do this as we are orderedto do it,’ Luca replied, looping thereins of his horse casually aroundhis shoulder to leave his handsfree to break the seal to open thefolded paper. ‘It’s an instruction togo to the abbey of Lucretili,’ hesaid. ‘The abbey is set betweentwo houses, a nunnery and amonastery. I am to investigate thenunnery. They are expecting us.’He folded the letter and gave itback to Peter. ‘Does it say how to find them?’
  88. 88. Freize asked gloomily. ‘Forotherwise it’s bed under the treesand nothing but cold bread forsupper. Beechnuts, I suppose. Allyou could eat of beechnuts. Youcould go mad with gluttony onthem. I suppose I might get luckyand find us a mushroom.’ ‘The road is just up ahead,’Peter interrupted. ‘The abbey isnear to the castle. I should thinkwe can claim hospitality at eithermonastery or nunnery.’ ‘We’ll go to the convent,’ Lucaruled. ‘It says that they areexpecting us.’It did not look as if the conventwas expecting anyone. It wasgrowing dark, but there were no
  89. 89. warm welcoming lights showingand no open doors. The shutterswere closed at all the windows inthe outer wall, and only narrowbeams of flickering candlelightshone through the slats. In thedarkness they could not tell howbig it was; they just had a senseof great walls marching off eitherside of the wide-arched entrancegateway. A dim horn lantern washung by the small door set in thegreat wooden gate, throwing athin yellow light downward, andwhen Freize dismounted andhammered on the wooden gatewith the handle of his dagger theycould hear someone insideprotesting at the noise and thenopening a little spy hole in thedoor, to peer out at them. ‘I am Luca Vero, with my twoservants,’ Luca shouted. ‘I am
  90. 90. expected. Let us in.’ The spy hole slammed shut,then they could hear the slowunbolting of the gate and thelifting of wooden bars and, finally,one side of the gate creakedreluctantly open. Freize led hishorse and the donkey, Luca andPeter rode into the cobbled yardas a sturdy woman-servantpushed the gate shut behindthem. The men dismounted andlooked around as a wizened oldlady in a habit of grey wool, with atabard of grey tied at her waist bya plain rope, held up the torch shewas carrying, to inspect the threeof them. ‘Are you the man they sent tomake inquiry? For if you are not,and it is hospitality that you want,you had better go on to themonastery, our brother house,’
  91. 91. she said to Peter, looking at himand his fine horse. ‘This house isin troubled times, we don’t wantguests.’ ‘No, I am to write the report. Iam the clerk to the inquiry. This isLuca Vero, he is here to inquire.’ ‘A boy!’ she exclaimedscornfully. ‘A beardless boy?’ Luca flushed in irritation, thenswung his leg over the neck of hishorse, and jumped down to theground, throwing the reins toFreize. ‘It doesn’t matter howmany years I have, or if I have abeard or not. I am appointed tomake inquiry here, and I will do sotomorrow. In the meantime weare tired and hungry and youshould show me to the refectoryand to the guest rooms. Pleaseinform the Lady Abbess that I amhere and will see her after Prime
  92. 92. tomorrow.’ ‘Rich in nothing,’ the old womanremarked, holding up her torch totake another look at Luca’shandsome young face, flushedunder his dark fringe, his hazeleyes bright with anger. ‘Rich in nothing, is it?’ Freizequestioned the horse as he ledhim to the stables ahead. ‘A virginso old that she is like a pickledwalnut and she calls the little lorda beardless boy? And him a geniusand perhaps a changeling?’ ‘You, take the horses to thestables and the lay sister therewill take you to the kitchen,’ shesnapped with sudden energy atFreize. ‘You can eat and sleep inthe barn. You—’ She took in themeasure of Peter the clerk andjudged him superior to Freize butstill wanting. ‘You can dine in the
  93. 93. kitchen gallery. You’ll find itthrough that doorway. They’llshow you where to sleep in theguesthouse. You—’ She turned toLuca. ‘You, the inquirer, I willshow to the refectory and to yourown bedroom. They said you werea priest?’ ‘I have not yet said my vows,’he said. ‘I am in the service of theChurch, but I am not ordained.’ ‘Too handsome by far for thepriesthood, and with his tonsuregrown out already,’ she said toherself. To Luca she said: ‘You cansleep in the rooms for the visitingpriest, anyway. And in themorning I will tell my Lady Abbessthat you are here.’ She was leading the way to therefectory when a lady camethrough the archway from theinner cloister. Her habit was made
  94. 94. of the softest bleached wool, thewimple on her head pushed backto show a pale lovely face withsmiling grey eyes. The girdle ather waist was of the finest leatherand she had soft leather slippers,not the rough wooden pattensthat working women wore to keeptheir shoes out of the mud. ‘I came to greet the inquirer,’she said, holding up the set ofwax candles in her hand. Luca stepped forwards. ‘I amthe inquirer,’ he said. She smiled, taking in his height,his good looks and his youth inone swift gaze. ‘Let me take youto your dinner, you must beweary. Sister Anna here will seethat your horses are stabled andyour men comfortable.’ He bowed and she turnedahead of him, leaving him to
  95. 95. follow her through the stonearchway, along a flagged gallerythat opened into the archingrefectory room. At the far end,near the fire that was banked infor the night, a place had beenlaid for one person; there waswine in the glass, bread on theplate, a knife and spoon eitherside of a bowl. Luca sighed withpleasure and sat down in the chairas a maidservant came in with aewer and bowl to wash his hands,good linen to dry them, andbehind her came a kitchen maidwith a bowl of stewed chicken andvegetables. ‘You have everything that youneed?’ the lady asked. ‘Thank you,’ he said awkwardly.He was uncomfortable in herpresence; he had not spoken to awoman other than his mother
  96. 96. since he had been sworn into themonastery at the age of eleven.‘And you are?’ She smiled at him and herealised in the glow of her smilethat she was beautiful. ‘I amSister Ursula, the Lady Almoner,responsible for the managementof the abbey. I am glad you havecome. I have been very anxious. Ihope you can tell us what ishappening and save us . . .’ ‘Save you?’ ‘This is a long-established andbeautiful nunnery,’ Sister Ursulasaid earnestly. ‘I joined it when Iwas just a little girl. I have servedGod and my sisters here for all mylife, I have been here for morethan twenty years. I cannot bearthe thought that Satan hasentered in.’ Luca dipped his bread in the rich
  97. 97. thick gravy, and concentrated onthe food to hide his consternation.‘Satan?’ She crossed herself, a quickunthinking gesture of devotion.‘Some days I think it really is thatbad, other days I think I am like afoolish girl, frightening myself withshadows.’ She gave him a shy,apologetic smile. ‘You will be ableto judge. You will discover thetruth of it all. But if we cannot ridourselves of the gossip we will beruined: no family will send theirdaughters to us, and now thefarmers are starting to refuse totrade with us. It is my duty tomake sure that the abbey earnsits own living, that we sell ourgoods and farm produce in orderto buy what we need. I can’t dothat if the farmers’ wives refuse tospeak with us when I send my lay
  98. 98. sisters with our goods to market.We can’t trade if the people willneither sell to us nor buy from us.’She shook her head. ‘Anyway, Iwill leave you to eat. The kitchenmaid will show you to yourbedroom in the guesthouse whenyou have finished eating. Blessyou, my brother.’ Luca suddenly realised he hadquite forgotten to say grace: shewould think he was an ignorantmannerless hedge friar. He hadstared at her like a fool andstammered when he spoke to her.He had behaved like a young manwho had never seen a beautifulwoman before and not at all like aman of some importance, come tohead a papal inquiry. What mustshe think of him? ‘Bless you, LadyAlmoner,’ he said awkwardly. She bowed, hiding a little smile
  99. 99. at his confusion, and walkedslowly from the room, and hewatched the sway of the hem ofher gown as she left.On the east side of the enclosedabbey, the shutter of the ground-floor window was slightly open sothat two pairs of eyes could watchthe Lady Almoner’s candleilluminate her pale silhouette asshe walked gracefully across theyard and then vanished into herhouse. ‘She’s greeted him, but shewon’t have told him anything,’Isolde whispered. ‘He will find nothing unlesssomeone helps him,’ Ishraqagreed.
  100. 100. The two drew back from thewindow and noiselessly closed theshutter. ‘I wish I could see my wayclear,’ Isolde said. ‘I wish I knewwhat to do. I wish I had someonewho could advise me.’ ‘What would your father havedone?’ Isolde laughed shortly. ‘Myfather would never have lethimself be forced in here. Hewould have laid down his lifebefore he allowed someone toimprison him. Or, if captured, hewould have died attempting toescape. He wouldn’t just have sathere, like a doll, like a cowardlygirl, crying, missing him, and notknowing what to do.’ She turned away and roughlyrubbed her eyes. Ishraq put agentle hand on her shoulder.‘Don’t blame yourself,’ she said.
  101. 101. ‘There was nothing we could dowhen we first came here. And nowthat the whole abbey is fallingapart around us, we can still donothing until we understand whatis going on. But everything ischanging even while we wait,powerless. Even if we do nothing;something is going to happen.This is our chance. Perhaps this isthe moment when the door swingsopen. We’re going to be ready forour chance.’ Isolde took the hand from hershoulder and held it against hercheek. ‘At least I have you.’ ‘Always.’Luca slept heavily; not even thechurch bell tolling the hour in the
  102. 102. tower above his head could wakehim. But, just when the night wasdarkest, before three in themorning, a sharp scream cutthrough his sleep and then heheard the sound of running feet. Luca was up and out of his bedin a moment, his hand snatchingfor the dagger under his pillow,peering out of his window at thedark yard. A glint of moonlightshining on the cobblestonesshowed him a woman in whiteracing across the yard to scrabbleat the beams barring the heavywooden gate. Three womenpursued her, and the old porteresscame running out of thegatehouse and grabbed thewoman’s hands as she clawed likea cat at the timbers. The other women were quick tocatch the girl from behind and
  103. 103. Luca heard her sharp wail ofdespair as they grabbed hold ofher, and saw her knees buckle asshe went down under theirweight. He pulled on his breechesand boots, threw a cape over hisnaked shoulders, then sprintedfrom his room, out into the yard,tucking the dagger out of sight inthe scabbard in his boot. Hestepped back into the shadow ofthe building, certain they had notnoticed him, determined to seetheir faces in the shadowy light ofthe moon, so that he would knowthem, when he saw them again. The porteress held up her torchas they lifted the girl, two womenholding her shoulders, the thirdsupporting her legs. As theycarried her past him, Luca shrankback into the concealing darknessof the doorway. They were so
  104. 104. close that he could hear theirpanting breaths, one of them wassobbing quietly. It was the strangest sight. Thegirl’s hand had swung down asthey lifted her; now she was quiteunconscious. It seemed that shehad fainted when they had pulledher from the barred gate. Herhead was rolled back, the littlelaces from her nightcap brushingthe ground as they carried her,her long nightgown trailing in thedust. But it was no normal faintingfit. She was as limp as a corpse,her eyes closed, her young faceserene. Then Luca gave a littlehiss of horror. The girl’s swinginghand was pierced in the palm, thewound oozing blood. They hadfolded her other hand across herslight body and Luca could see asmudge of blood on her
  105. 105. nightgown. She had the hands ofa girl crucified. Luca froze wherehe stood, forcing himself to stayhidden in the shadows, unable tolook away from the strangeterrible wounds. And then he sawsomething that seemed evenworse. All three women carrying thesleeping girl wore her expressionof rapt serenity. As they shuffledalong, carrying their limp bleedingburden, all three were slightlysmiling, all three were radiant asif with an inner secret joy. And their eyes were closed likehers. Luca waited till they hadsleepwalked past him, steady aspall-bearers, then he went backinto the guesthouse room andknelt at the side of his bed,praying fervently for guidance to
  106. 106. somehow find the wisdom, despitehis self-doubt, to discover whatwas so very wrong in this holyplace, and put it right.He was still on his knees in prayerwhen Freize banged open the doorwith a jug of hot water forwashing, just before dawn.‘Thought you’d want to go toPrime.’ ‘Yes.’ Luca rose stiffly, crossedhimself, and kissed the cross thatalways hung around his neck, agift from his mother on hisfourteenth birthday, the last timehe had seen her. ‘Bad things are happening here,’Freize said portentously, splashingthe water into a bowl and putting
  107. 107. a clean strip of linen beside it. Luca sluiced his face and handswith water. ‘I know it. God knows,I have seen some of it. What doyou hear?’ ‘Sleepwalking, visions, the nunsfasting on feast days, starvingthemselves and fainting in thechapel. Some of them are seeinglights in the sky, like the starbefore the Magi, and then somewanted to set off for Bethlehemand had to be restrained. Thepeople of the village and theservants from the castle saythey’re all going mad. They saythe whole abbey is touched withmadness and the women arelosing their wits.’ Luca shook his head. ‘The saintsalone know what is going on here.Did you hear the screams in thenight?’
  108. 108. ‘Lord save us, no. I slept in thekitchen and all I could hear wassnoring. But all the cooks say thatthe Pope should send a bishop toinquire. They say that Satan iswalking here. The Pope should setup an inquiry.’ ‘He has done! That’s me,’ Lucasnapped. ‘I shall hold an inquiry. Ishall be the judge.’ ‘Course you will,’ Freizeencouraged him. ‘Doesn’t matterhow old you are.’ ‘Actually, it doesn’t matter howold I am. What matters is that Iam appointed to inquire.’ ‘You’d better start with the newLady Abbess, then.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because it all started as soonas she got here.’ ‘I won’t listen to kitchen gossip,’Luca declared haughtily, rubbing
  109. 109. his face. He tossed the cloth toFreize. ‘I shall have a properinquiry with witnesses and peoplegiving evidence under oath. For Iam the inquirer, appointed by thePope, and it would be better ifeveryone remembered it.Especially those people who aresupposed to be in service to me,who should be supporting myreputation.’ ‘Course I do! Course you are!Course you will! You’re the lordand I never forget it, though stillonly a little one.’ Freize shook outLuca’s linen shirt and then handedhim his novice’s robe, which hewore belted high, out of the wayof his long stride. Luca strappedhis short sword on his belt andnotched it round his waist,dropping the robe over the swordto hide it.
  110. 110. ‘You speak to me like I was achild,’ Luca said irritably. ‘Andyou’re no great age yourself.’ ‘It’s affection,’ Freize said firmly.‘It’s how I show affection. Andrespect. To me, you’ll always be“Sparrow”, the skinny novice.’ ‘“Goose”, the kitchen boy,’ Lucareplied with a grin. ‘Got your dagger?’ Freizechecked. Luca tapped the cuff of his bootwhere the dagger was safe in thescabbard. ‘They all say that the new LadyAbbess had no vocation, and wasnot raised to the life,’ Freizevolunteered, ignoring Luca’s banon gossip. ‘Her father’s will senther in here and she took her vowsand she’ll never get out again. It’sthe only inheritance her father lefther, everything else went to the
  111. 111. brother. Bad as being walled up.And, ever since she came, thenuns have started to see thingsand cry out. Half the village saysthat Satan came in with the newabbess. Cause she was unwilling.’ ‘And what do they say thebrother is like?’ Luca asked,tempted to gossip despite hisresolution. ‘Nothing but good of him. Goodlandlord, generous with theabbey. His grandfather built theabbey with a nunnery on one sideand a brother house for the monksnearby. The nuns and the monksshare the services in the abbey.His father endowed both housesand handed the woods and thehigh pasture over to the nuns, andgave some farms and fields to themonastery. They run themselvesas independent houses, working
  112. 112. together for the glory of God, andhelping the poor. Now the newlord in his turn supports it. Hisfather was a crusader, famouslybrave, very hot on religion. Thenew lord sounds quieter, stays athome, wants a bit of peace. Verykeen that this is kept quiet, thatyou make your inquiry, take yourdecision, report the guilty,exorcise whatever is going on, andeverything gets back to normal.’ Above their heads the bell tolledfor Prime, the dawn prayer. ‘Come on,’ Luca said, and ledthe way from the visiting priest’srooms towards the cloisters andthe beautiful church. They could hear the music asthey crossed the yard, their way litby a procession of white-gownednuns, carrying torches and singingas they went like a choir of angels
  113. 113. gliding through the pearly light ofthe morning. Luca stepped back,and even Freize fell silent at thebeauty of the voices risingfaultlessly into the dawn sky. Thenthe two men, joined by BrotherPeter, followed the choir into thechurch and took their seats in analcove at the back. Two hundrednuns, veiled with white wimples,filled the stalls of the choir eitherside of the screened altar, andstood in rows facing it. The service was a sung Mass;the voice of the serving priest atthe altar rang out the sacred Latinwords in a steady baritone, andthe sweet high voices of thewomen answered. Luca gazed atthe vaulting ceiling, the beautifulcolumns carved with stone fruitand flowers, and above them,stars and moons of silver-painted
  114. 114. stone, all the while listening to thepurity of the responses andwondering what could betormenting such holy womenevery night, and how they couldwake every dawn and sing likethis to God. At the end of the service, thethree visiting men remainedseated on the stone bench at theback of the chapel as the nunsfiled out past them, their eyesmodestly down. Luca scannedtheir faces, looking for the youngwoman he had seen in such afrenzy last night, but one paleyoung face veiled in white wasidentical to another. He tried tosee their palms, for the telltalesign of scabs, but all the womenkept their hands clasped together,hidden in their long sleeves. Asthey filed out, their sandals
  115. 115. pattering quietly on the stonefloor, the priest followed them,and stopped before the youngmen to say pleasantly, ‘I’ll breakmy fast with you and then I haveto go back to my side of theabbey.’ ‘Are you not a resident priest?’Luca asked, first shaking theman’s hand and then kneeling forhis blessing. ‘We have a monastery just theother side of the great house,’ thepriest explained. ‘The first Lord ofLucretili chose to found tworeligious houses: one for men andone for women. We priests comeover daily to take the services.Alas, this house is of the order ofAugustine nuns. We men are ofthe Dominican order.’ He leanedtowards Luca. ‘As you’dunderstand, I think it would be
  116. 116. better for everyone if the nunnerywere put under the discipline ofthe Dominican order. They couldbe supervised from our monasteryand enjoy the discipline of ourorder. Under the Augustinian orderthese women have been allowedto simply do as they please. Andnow you see what happens.’ ‘They observe the services,’Luca protested. ‘They’re notrunning wild.’ ‘Only because they choose to doso. If they wanted to stop or tochange, then they could. Theyhave no rule, unlike usDominicans, for whom everythingis set down. Under theAugustinian order every house canlive as they please. They serveGod as they think best and as aresult—’ He broke off as the Lady
  117. 117. Almoner came up, treading quietlyon the beautiful marble floor ofthe church. ‘Well, here is my LadyAlmoner come to bid us tobreakfast, I am sure.’ ‘You can take breakfast in myparlour,’ she said. ‘There is a firelit there. Please, Father, show ourguests the way.’ ‘I will, I will,’ he said pleasantlyand, as she left them, he turnedto Luca. ‘She holds this placetogether,’ he said. ‘A remarkablewoman. Manages the farmlands,maintains the buildings, buys thegoods, sells the produce. Shecould have been the lady of anycastle in Italy, a natural Magistra:a teacher, a leader, a natural ladyof any great house.’ He beamed.‘And, I have to say, her parlour isthe most comfortable room in thisplace and her cook second to
  118. 118. none.’ He led the way out of thechurch across the cloister throughthe entrance yard to the housethat formed the eastern side ofthe courtyard. The wooden frontdoor stood open, and they wentinto the parlour, where a tablewas already laid for the three ofthem. Luca and Peter took theirseats. Freize stood at the doorwayto serve the men as one of thelay-woman cooks passed himdishes to set on the table. Theyhad three sorts of roasted meats:ham, lamb and beef; and twotypes of bread: white manchetand dark rye. There were localcheeses, and jams, a basket ofhard-boiled eggs, and a bowl ofplums with a taste so strong thatLuca sliced them on a slice ofwheat bread to eat like sweet
  119. 119. jam. ‘Does the Lady Almoner alwayseat privately and not dine with hersisters in the refectory?’ Lucaasked curiously. ‘Wouldn’t you, if you had a cooklike this?’ the priest asked. ‘Highdays and holy days, I don’t doubtthat she sits with her sisters. Butshe likes things done just so; andone of the privileges of her officeis that she has things as she likesthem, in her own house. Shedoesn’t sleep in a dormitory noreat in the refectory. The LadyAbbess is the same in her ownhouse next door. ‘Now,’ he said with a broadsmile. ‘I have a drop of brandy inmy saddlebag. I’ll pour us ameasure. It settles the belly aftera good breakfast.’ He went out ofthe room and Peter got to his feet
  120. 120. and looked out of the window atthe entry courtyard where thepriest’s mule was waiting. Idly, Luca glanced round theroom as Freize cleared theirplates. The chimney breast was abeautifully carved wall of polishedwood. When Luca had been a littleboy his grandfather, a carpenter,had made just such a carvedchimney breast for the hall of theirfarmhouse. Then, it had been aninnovation and the envy of thevillage. Behind one of the carvingshad been a secret cupboard wherehis father had kept sugared plums,which he gave to Luca on aSunday, if he had been good allthe week. On a whim, Luca turnedthe five bosses along the front ofthe carved chimney breast oneafter the other. One yielded underhis hand and, to his surprise, a
  121. 121. hidden door swung open, just likethe one he’d known as a child.Behind it was a glass jar holdingnot sugared plums but some sortof spice: dried black seeds. Besideit was a cobbler’s awl – a littletool for piercing lace holes inleather. Luca shut the cupboard door.‘My father always used to hidesugared plums in the chimneycupboard,’ he remarked. ‘We didn’t have anything likethis,’ Peter the clerk replied. ‘Weall lived in the kitchen, and mymother turned her roast meats onthe spit in the fireplace andsmoked all her hams in thechimney. When it was morningand the fire was out and wechildren were really hungry, we’dput our heads up into the soot andnibble at the fatty edges of the
  122. 122. hams. She used to tell my father itwas mice, God bless her.’ ‘How did you get your learningin such a poor house?’ Luca asked. Peter shrugged. ‘The priest sawthat I was a bright boy, so myparents sent me to themonastery.’ ‘And then?’ ‘Milord asked me if I wouldserve him, serve the order. Ofcourse I said yes.’ The door opened and the priestreturned, a small bottle discreetlytucked into the sleeve of his robe.‘Just a drop helps me on my way,’he said. Luca took a splash of thestrong liquor in his earthenwarecup, Peter refused, and the priesttook a hearty swig from the mouthof the bottle. Freize lookedlongingly from the doorway, butdecided against saying anything.
  123. 123. ‘Now I’ll take you to the LadyAbbess,’ the priest said, carefullystoppering the cork. ‘And you’llbear in mind, if she asks you foradvice, that she could put thisnunnery under the care of herbrother monastery, we would runit for her, and all her troubleswould be over.’ ‘I’ll remember,’ Luca said,without committing himself to oneview or the other. The abbess’s house was nextdoor, built on the outer wall of thenunnery, facing inwards onto thecloister and outwards to the forestand the high mountains beyond.The windows that looked to theouter world were heavily leaded,and shielded with thick metalgrilles. ‘This place is built like a squarewithin a square,’ the priest told
  124. 124. them. ‘The inner square is madeup of the church, with the cloisterand the nuns’ cells around it. Thishouse extends from the cloister tothe outer courtyard. The LadyAlmoner’s half of the house facesthe courtyard and the main gate,so she can see all the comingsand goings, and the south wall isthe hospital for the poor.’ The priest gestured towards thedoor. ‘The Lady Abbess said foryou to go in.’ He stood back, and
  125. 125. Luca and Peter went in, Freizebehind them. They foundthemselves in a small roomfurnished with two woodenbenches and two very plain chairs.A strong wrought-iron grille in thewall on the far side blocked theopening into the next room, veiledby a curtain of white wool. As theystood waiting, the curtain wassilently drawn back and on theother side they could just makeout a white robe, a wimpleheaddress, and a pale facethrough the obscuring mesh of themetal. ‘God bless you and keep you,’ aclear voice said. ‘I welcome you tothis abbey. I am the Lady Abbesshere.’ ‘I am Luca Vero.’ Luca steppedup to the grille, but he could seeonly the silhouette of a woman
  126. 126. through the richly wroughtironwork of grapes, fruit, leavesand flowers. There was a faintlight perfume, like rosewater.Behind the lady, he could justmake out the shadowy outline ofanother woman in a dark robe. ‘This is my clerk Brother Peter,and my servant Freize. And I havebeen sent here to make an inquiryinto your abbey.’ ‘I know,’ she said quietly. ‘I did not know that you wereenclosed,’ Luca said, careful not tooffend. ‘It is the tradition that visitorsspeak to the ladies of our orderthrough a grille.’ ‘But I shall need to speak withthem for my inquiry. I shall needthem to come to report to me.’ He could sense her reluctancethrough the bars.
  127. 127. ‘Very well,’ she said. ‘Since wehave agreed to your inquiry.’ Luca knew perfectly well, thatthis cool Lady Abbess had notagreed to the inquiry: she hadbeen offered no choice in thematter. His inquiry had been sentto her house by the lord of theOrder, and he would interrogateher sisters with or without herconsent. ‘I shall need a room for myprivate use, and the nuns willhave to come and report to me,under oath, what has beenhappening here,’ Luca said moreconfidently. At his side the priestnodded his approval. ‘I have ordered them to preparea room for you next door to thisone,’ she said. ‘I think it betterthat you should hear evidence inmy house, in the house of the
  128. 128. Lady Abbess. They will know thenthat I am co-operating with yourinquiry, that they come here tospeak to you under my blessing.’ ‘It would be better somewhereelse altogether,’ the priest saidquietly to Luca. ‘You should cometo the monastery and order themto attend in our house, under oursupervision. The rule of men, youknow . . . the logic of men . . .always a powerful thing to invoke.This needs a man’s mind on it, nota woman’s fleeting whimsy.’ ‘Thank you, but I will meetthem here,’ Luca said to thepriest. To the Lady Abbess hesaid, ‘I thank you for yourassistance. I am happy to meetwith the nuns in your house.’ ‘But I do wonder why,’ Freizeprompted under his breath to a fatbee bumbling against the small
  129. 129. leaded window pane. ‘But I do wonder why,’ Lucarepeated out loud. Freize opened the little windowand released the bee out into thesunshine. ‘There has been much scandaltalked, and some of it directedagainst me,’ the Lady Abbess saidfrankly. ‘I have been accusedpersonally. It is better that thehouse sees that the inquiry isunder my control, is under myblessing. I hope that you will clearmy name, as well as discoveringany wrong-doing and rooting itout.’ ‘We will have to interview you,as well as all the members of theorder,’ Luca pointed out. He could see through the grillethat the white figure had moved,and realised she had bowed her
  130. 130. head as if he had shamed her. ‘I am ordered from Rome tohelp you to discover the truth,’ heinsisted. She did not reply but merelyturned her head and spoke tosomeone out of his sight and thenthe door to the room opened andthe elderly nun, the porteressSister Anna who had greeted themon their first night, said abruptly,‘The Lady Abbess says I am toshow you the room for yourinquiry.’ It appeared that their interviewwith the Lady Abbess was over,and they had not even seen herface.It was a plain room, looking out
  131. 131. over the woods behind the abbey,in the back of the house so thatthey could not see the cloister, thenuns’ cells, or the comings andgoings of the courtyard before thechurch. But, equally, thecommunity could not see whocame to give evidence. ‘Discreet,’ Peter the clerkremarked. ‘Secretive,’ Freize saidcheerfully. ‘Am I to stand outsideand make sure no-one interruptsor eavesdrops?’ ‘Yes.’ Luca pulled up a chair tothe empty table and waited whileBrother Peter produced papers, ablack quill pen and a pot of ink,then seated himself at the end ofthe table, and looked at Lucaexpectantly. The three young menpaused. Luca, overwhelmed withthe task that lay before him,
  132. 132. looked blankly back at the othertwo. Freize grinned at him, andmade an encouraging gesture likesomeone waving a flag. ‘Onward!’he said. ‘Things are so bad here,that we can’t make them worse.’ Luca choked on a boyish laugh.‘I suppose so,’ he said, taking hisseat, and turned to Brother Peter.‘We’ll start with the LadyAlmoner,’ he said, trying to speakdecisively. ‘At least we know hername.’ Freize nodded and went to thedoor. ‘Fetch the Lady Almoner,’ hesaid to Sister Anna. She came straight away, andtook a seat opposite Luca. Hetried not to look at the serenebeauty of her face, her greyknowing eyes that seemed tosmile at him with some privateknowledge.
  133. 133. Formally, he took her name, herage – twenty-four – the name ofher parents, and the duration ofher stay in the abbey. She hadbeen behind the abbey walls fortwenty years, since her earliestchildhood. ‘What do you think is happeninghere?’ Luca asked her,emboldened by his position as theinquirer, by his sense of his ownself-importance, and by thetrappings of his work: Freize atthe door, and Brother Peter withhis black quill pen. She looked down at the plainwooden table. ‘I don’t know.There are strange occurrences,and my sisters are very troubled.’ ‘What sort of occurrences?’ ‘Some of my sisters havestarted to have visions, and two ofthem have been rising up in their
  134. 134. sleep – getting out of their bedsand walking though their eyes arestill closed. One cannot eat thefood that is served in therefectory, she is starving herselfand cannot be persuaded to eat.And there are other things. Othermanifestations.’ ‘When did it start?’ Luca askedher. She nodded wearily, as if sheexpected such a question. ‘It wasabout three months ago.’ ‘Was that when the new LadyAbbess came?’ A breath of a sigh. ‘Yes. But Iam convinced that she hasnothing to do with it. I would notwant to give evidence to aninquiry that was used against her.Our troubles started then – butyou must remember she has noauthority with the nuns, being so
  135. 135. new, so inexperienced, havingdeclared herself unwilling. Anunnery needs strong leadership,supervision, a woman who lovesthe life here. The new LadyAbbess lived a very sheltered lifebefore she came to us, she wasthe favoured child of a great lord,the indulged daughter of a greathouse; she is not accustomed tocommand a religious house. Shewas not raised here. It is notsurprising that she does not knowhow to command.’ ‘Could the nuns be commandedto stop seeing visions? Is it withintheir choice? Has she failed themthrough her inability to command?’ Peter the clerk made a note ofthe question. The Lady Almoner smiled. ‘Not ifthey are true visions from God,’she said easily. ‘If they are true
  136. 136. visions, then nothing would stopthem. But if they are errors andfolly, if they are womenfrightening themselves andallowing their fears to rule them .. . If they are women dreamingand making up stories . . . Forgiveme for being so blunt, BrotherLuca, but I have lived in thiscommunity for twenty years and Iknow that two hundred womenliving together can whip up astorm over nothing if they areallowed to do so.’ Luca raised his eyebrows. ‘Theycan invoke sleepwalking? Theycan invoke running out at nightand trying to get out of the gates?’ She sighed. ‘You saw?’ ‘Last night,’ he confirmed. ‘I am sure that there are one ortwo who are truly sleepwalkers. Iam sure that one, perhaps two,

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