@copyright 2005 Jean G. Hontz
I was working in the garden one fine day when a young boy, the boy the inn owner used to run errands for him, came running up to me breathlessly. I supplied vegetables to the inn, you see.
I loved gardening. I had a knack for it. The plants seemed to respond to me and I found it exceedingly uplifting to work with them. I was happy.
I looked up at the boy and smiled at him. He smiled back shyly. “My master wishes you to send whatever you have. We are having very important guests! Please, as soon as you can!”
I grinned. I’d get extra for this. “Yes, of course.”
The boy turned and ran back as fast as he’d come.
I got busy harvesting the best of what I had and loading the small cart I used.
Normally I did not visit in town during the day. Yes, I generally took fresh produce to the inn very early in the mornings but not many men were free to gossip or visit then. So this seemed like an outing. And I might get to see the famous personages. Who knows. I might learn something important from the servants who would be certain to have their noses in the inn’s kitchen. I could ask them what was happening in Firenze.
I changed into my best clothes and washed my face and hands. I had listened to Darius and nearly always wore a week old beard. My facial hair was thin as yet, but it was dark. The men in town teased me that I was afraid to shave it, or perhaps too proud of the fact I had any at my age to remove it. I generally ignored these comments as they were not said in such a fashion that I felt insulted. Mostly they were teasing me and I did not mind it because they saw me as one of their own, rather than an outsider. Safer for me and for Donata.
I hitched up our one donkey to the cart I had already loaded with fresh produce and headed into town.
Fiesole was alive; more than it was generally on market day. The streets were full; there was laughter and merriment, music and swirling colours. The Bardi family, I saw from the uniforms of the armsmen, was the cause of Fiesole’s excitement. They were one of the most prominent families in Firenze. Wealthy, known for their willingness to sponsor artwork, the family also were major importers of foreign goods and spices.
The moment I handed the vegetables over to the cook I hied myself out to the inn courtyard where grooms, armsmen, nobles and even a few ladies were all flowing in and out amongst the other groups with much noise and a great deal of laughter. I smiled to hear it. I was dazzled by the beauty of the clothing the nobles wore, the magnificence of their horses, the mystery of the ladies turned out in gold and silks. Perhaps I was a little nostalgic as well. Not that my previous life boasted any of these things, still, when I visited my family such things were common.
I turned away then, fighting back a moment of grief, as I thought of my mother and my sisters; that sudden movement caught one old grizzled campaigner by surprise. He was eying me with a look that worried me. He was not dressed as a Bardi armsman. But all the houses employed spies and other retainers who did not wear the house colours, so that in and of itself was not that worrying.
Still. I was horrified that I’d so easily ignored or forgotten all of Darius’ teachings.
“Boy!” the old man called out to me.
I thought about refusing to answer him and just going on as if I had not heard him call to me. But defiance might draw unwanted attention to me so I chose to appear obedient. I hurried over to him.
In being this close to him I became even more alarmed. He did not look so old close up as he had appeared from halfway across the piazza. His eyes gleamed with curiosity and a certain sort of intelligence. I stood there, shuffling my feet and trying to look in awe and in some fear. The fear part was not difficult.
“Look up at me,” he ordered me.
I very nearly panicked then. But I held my breath and looked up to meet his eyes. “Sir,” I said. He was my better. I was only a farmer.
“Who are you?”
“Carmine Cabria, nephew to Donata Cabria. I delivered the vegetables,” I said.
He frowned, as if he were trying to place me.
“If I may, sir, I ought to be returning home. I have chores.”
“Yes, all right. Go.”
It took all my courage to walk calmly to the cart, get on it and head it toward home.
That night I hurried off to see Darius. He and I talked for some time. He peppered me with questions regarding who I’d seen, what I’d thought, how that old grizzled man had reacted. At the end of it Darius frowned.
“You did not recognize this man?” he asked.
“No. But then I would not. I never had much to do with any armsmen, neither my father’s nor those of a guest.”
Darius nodded. “Fine. I will go into town and listen and learn. Stay here.”
“I should go home…” I said worriedly.
“You should stay here,” he repeated. He made me to promise to stay at least until he returned. He promised to return in a few hours.
I did not read. Instead I spent the time pacing. Worrying. Making the whole thing into much more than it could possibly actually be.
An hour or so later I heard a noise outside the cabin, perhaps a footfall. When Darius came he was silent in his approach. Then I heard what seemed to be someone quietly testing the door latch to see if they could open it.
I froze. Darius was always wary of strangers. He’d tried to instill this wariness in me, too. And he’d once said that anyone coming here, other than him and me, was a danger, perhaps a mortal danger.
He’d shown me a place to hide not long after I began coming here. He’d drilled it into me that I ought to use it too much rather than too little. I’d never felt the need until now.
It was a narrow cabinet that was built into the wall as if it weren’t there; made to be undetected. Possibly it had been used to hide illegal or smuggled goods.. I slid myself into the very small space and closed the door securely. Unless someone suspected such a place must be there, no one would notice it. I held my breath…
There were at least two of them. They spoke to each other. I heard their footsteps as they walked into the room. Then I heard… I’m not sure what I heard. One managed a quickly strangled shout; the other I could hear gurgling.
“Carmine?” Darius called quietly.
I opened the door to the small closet and stepped out.
One man lay dead, his eyes open, staring up at the ceiling. The other was gurgling his last breaths drowning on his own blood.
I stood there horrified, frozen in place, as I looked down at them.
“They’ve killed Donata. We need to leave. Now.”
I was woken up by the jouncing. My head hurt but my jaw hurt worse. I struggled to remember just what had happened. I’d tried to go to Donata’s to say a few words over her, to bury her to.. I don’t know. She’d been a good and kindly woman and she’d been killed because I am an idiot. That was all I remembered, until just then.
Darius looked around as I struggled to get to my knees and to steady myself enough to move forward to sit next to him on the wagon’s seat rather than in the back with the few trunks that held his possessions. We were not headed toward Firenze but instead were heading across the hills eastward.
He didn’t apologize as I took a seat next to him. I really didn’t think he needed to. I had totally lost all reason over Donata’s death, I freely admit.
The sky was lightening ahead of us. He frowned at the sky.
“We have to stop,” he said.
“Wouldn’t it be smarter to keep going?” I asked.
“_Have_ to stop,” he said heavily.
“Si,” I agreed, a bit confused.
He guided the horse that pulled our wagon off onto a narrow rutted track. Not far from the road was an old barn. “We’ll stay here until dark.”
“But… Well, less likelihood people will see us,” I mused. I was confused. I was miserable for having gotten Donata killed. I … So much…
He looked over at me. “There is something I need to tell you.”
His voice alerted me to something important. I pushed aside my own questions and waited expectantly.
He looked away from me and said, “After we’ve stopped and taken care of the horse.”
“Si. I’ll do that.” I’d noticed animals didn’t seem to like him much.
“Thank you,” he said.
We pulled the wagon itself into the barn, too. I fed and watered and then curried the horse, crooning to him, since he seemed nervous. “How did you get him hitched up?” I asked, since the horse shied whenever Darius came close to him as he re-arranged things in the wagon for some reason.
Then, as I finished, Darius took my hands. “Please. I haven’t much time.”
My heart started beating very fast. Was he going to tell me he was leaving me here alone? I had no idea where we were going, where to go…
I swallowed and met his eyes.
“In a few moments I’ll be dead.”
I looked at him in terror. “No one can know that,” I said with what little assurance I could muster.
“I can,” he replied.
“Listen,” he said and stroked my hair with one hand.
“Si.” I prepared myself and waited. I trembled, I’m not ashamed to admit.
“I am… I will be dead until tonight. I must stay in a place where no light can find me. At dark I will awaken.”
I stared at him, trying to understand what he was telling me. Italy did not have, or at least I had not heard, much of a tradition with regard to vampires. Thus he struggled to explain himself to me; thus my total incomprehension as he spoke.
“I will lie in that trunk on the wagon. You must close the lid and lock it. And only open it at dark.”
“But you will die!” I said fearfully.
“I will die. I will rise again. If you must, you can watch me as I enter the sleep. But please have faith that I will rise at dark.”
I stared at him trying to understand this. “I have faith. I have faith in you. I love you.”
“I love you, little mouse. Now I must enter the trunk.”
He moved differently as we walked to the trunk together. Slower, lethargically. He climbed up into the cart and opened the trunk. He barely fit. He looked at me and… It is hard to explain. It was as if he turned to stone. I watched in dismay. I stood there for a long time, staring at him, tears running down my cheeks. I reached out and touched him.
I was not afraid of the dead. I’d helped dress a dead priest. But Darius didn’t feel dead. He felt…different. I closed and locked the trunk as he’d asked. I felt incredibly lonely and frightened.
I spent the day trying to make sense of everything that had happened yesterday and just hours ago.
They’d killed Donata. Why? She could have harmed no one! They’d come for me, yet again. Why? It had been several years now since my family was murdered. I’d made no attempt to extract revenge, and yet, what, they thought I would? Why didn’t they think me dead at the monastery?
I was hungry and wretched. I wanted to mourn for Donata but had not the energy. I looked through Darius’s store of goods but there was no food there. I walked outside and thought about my options. I needed food. I could attempt to trap a rabbit. Or… Perhaps there was a stream…
I dug out the knife Darius had given to me but I’d never quite had the courage to take to Donata’s. It was a weapon, not a normal vegetable farmer’s knife. If I saw a rabbit I might throw at him…. Or.. well, we’d see.
I exited the barn cautiously, looking around to check for movement. Nothing. I followed a tree line down a steep slope. At the bottom of that slope I saw a narrow stream. With luck I might catch a fish. I generally carry a few things in my pocket. A bit of string is one of those things. I found some rocks and dug around under them unearthing some worms and grubs. I chose a grub and tied a loop of string around one. I walked back to the stream and threw the grub attached to the string into the water. Sure enough a fish rose to bite at the grub. He was fast though and I had no hook on my line.
It took me almost two hours of frustrated attempts, first using the string, then with my hands, then finally I got a flat rock and heaved it down at the fish. It was dumb luck, really. But I stunned the poor fish enough to grab him and heave him onto the side of the bank. I then began to search for roots or such. I had little luck there, but I did find some leaves I could wrap the fish in to smoke him.
I carried my fish back to the barn and checked to be certain no one had been there. The horse was quiescent. All was as I had left it. I ran my hand along the top of the trunk where Darius slept. “Do not leave me, Darius,” I prayed.
It was too dangerous to make a fire near where Darius lay vulnerable so I left the barn and walked some distance away. I decided to build a fire in amongst a grouping of rocks. It would give me cover and hide me from prying eyes but gave me a view of the barn so I could watch over my friend.
I pulled out my flint and made a small fire, placing the leaf-wrapped fish in a scooped out dirt hollow up against the fire. I built the fire with dried twigs so it would not make much smoke. I was gratified to see that at least I’d managed that well.
I had brought a bottle of wine I’d found in the wagon and drank it as I ate my fish.
Finally I rested. But still I could not mourn for Donata although I hated myself easily enough.
I woke after a few hours of sleep and began to re-run my conversation with Darius through my mind. What had happened to him. Was it an affliction? What… Why… Where were we going? What might I do? I had no home, no money (what little I’d had was still at Donata’s unless it had been taken by her murderers). If Darius did not awaken…. I forced that thought away. He promised! He would awaken. I had faith. It was the only thing I had.
I’d fed and watered the horse again, and had everything tidy by the time the sun began to set. I was sitting there, staring at the trunk that held Darius when suddenly I heard a knocking.
I got up cautiously and realized it came from the trunk. I dared to breathe finally, and unlocked the trunk. I opened it.
Darius, looking as he always did, smiled at me and met my eyes.
“You stayed,” he said.
“Where else would I go?” I asked.
He got out of the trunk and took me in his arms. He kissed the top of my head and just held me as I trembled against him.