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Topic Subject:The Heir Unapparent - Story Thread
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Lancer
Archer
posted 05-02-02 20:15 EST (US)         
STRONGHOLD HEAVEN PRESENTS:


"THE HEIR UNAPPARENT"



WRITTEN BY: Cellish, GillB, Jayhawk, Lancer, Micah Aragorn, and thurdl01

CAST OF CHARACTERS:
Alfredo: Duke of Millefiore (Thousand Flowers). Middle-aged. Weary of duties. Father of Ricco, Loriana and Caterina. (Jayhawk/Micah Aragorn)
Bianca: 17-year old apprentice to Roberto del Strego. Quiet, clever and loyal. Slender figure, deep violet eyes, with a shock of dark curly hair that regularly escapes from her braids. She's not unattractive, but very unaware. Makes no effort to enhance her looks. Nicknamed 'Ceneri' (ashes) because she's always smudged with the ashes from various fires. (Jayhawk)
Caimbeaul: Captain of Duke Suciando's troops. Above average heighth and build; black hair with black goatee. Weather-worn facial features, reddened skin, dry wrinkles, cracked, chapped lips. Irritable disposition. Gains loyalty through fear of his wrath. Respected for his battle experience. (Cellish)
Carlo: Boyhood friend of Ricco's. Now one of his advisors and lieutenants. (Micah Aragorn)
Caterina: 19-year old, 3rd child of the Duke, nicknamed 'Cat'. Has slightly feline appearance.
She's of average heighth, slim build, with a slightly pointed face and large green cat-like eyes. She has long black curly hair and a smiling mouth. A mix of "romantic" and "wild child", she's fiercely loyal to her family but fears Ricco, her older brother. Overly sheltered by father. (GillB)

Cesare: Thief, opportunist, mercenary, can be loyal if the cause attracts him, about 31 years old, medium build, black hair, brown eyes. (Lancer)
Crimson Knight: Paladin of unknown origin. Wears crimson red clothing and full crimson head mask or bright metal armor with crimson plume and cape. (Lancer)
Dante: Boyhood friend of Ricco's. Now an advisor and lieutenant. (Micah Aragorn)
Figaro: Jester. Brown hair, brown eyes. Tanned complexion. 21-years old. Somewhat well muscled and slightly taller than typical. Wears multicolor, geometric patterned clothing. Adept swordsman who entertains with verbal humor and physical stunts. (Lancer)
Giangiacomo Ghaia: Minstrel. Very tall. Green eyes. Tendency towards melancholy. (Jayhawk)
Loriana: Duke's middle child. Has auburn hair and hazel eyes. Frugal, wise, practical with money. Sensitive and wise to the needs of the people. Widely liked by the people. (Micah Aragorn)
Ricco: Duke's oldest son, heir to title. Has dark eyes, black hair. Spendthrift; arrogant like a bully. Feared and disliked by populace. (Micah Aragorn)
Roberto del Strego: A wizard who lives in San Luca Maggiore. Bushy-bearded, thick-eyebrowed, portly, red-faced Roman, with big hands and an impressive (roman) nose. He moved north to get away from the Church. He's loud, bluff (rough, blunt, but not unkind). He constantly wipes a bald spot on his head with a handkerchief. (Jayhawk)
Suciando: Duke of San Luca Maggiore (Greater St. Luke). Spotty (salt n pepper) beard; thin eyebrows; entrapping turquoise-colored eyes. (thurdl01)

THE STRONGHOLDS:
Millefiore: "Thousand Flowers" - The home of Duke Alfredo and family (Ricco and half sisters Loriana and Caterina).
San Luca Maggiore: "Greater Saint Luke" - The home of Suciando and his minions.


Please only post story episodes in this thread. To communicate with other writers, please use the following link to the STORY DISCUSSION THREAD.


LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 08-12-2002 @ 09:44 PM).]

AuthorReplies:
Lancer
Archer
posted 08-17-02 15:38 EST (US)     101 / 140       
Fredo looked at Figaro suspiciously. "I've seen you fight, Master. How is it you did not defeat him?"

"He uhhh... He surprised me, Fredo. Haven't you ever been surprised by something or someone?"

Fredo wavered. "Well, yes... I guess so. I've played Hide and Go Find. Sometimes, when I found someone, the boy would leap out and startle me so much I forgot to run after him. He would find the safe place before I could."

"Then you understand that a startled person is sometimes slower to react than a prepared person. That's exactly what happened." Figaro hoped the boy would understand and accept the explanation. Fredo apparently did, for he talked no more about the Knight and what happened.

Fredo glanced at the doorway and saw a person standing quietly in it. "We have a visitor, Master." Figaro turned around to see that the visitor wore a slight smudge on her face and the very luxurious banquet gown still. "Hello Bianca," said Figaro. Fredo glanced from young woman to his master and decided he didn't want to be anywhere around if they should begin talking about uninteresting things, so Fredo announced he would sleep in the jester's wagon that night and departed.

Without further invitation, Bianca entered the room. She looked to see that no one else was in the room or behind her in the doorway and then stepped close to Figaro giving him a light kiss on his cheek. Figaro made no move to prevent this. Bianca also placed her hand on the back of Figaro's head to determine the extent of his injury. She frowned. "Not as great a lump as I expected," she observed. "In fact, not particularly any lump at all."

"The swelling is much reduced," was the only comment offered by Figaro.

"I was told your head hurt immensely."

"Not now," said Figaro.

Bianca smiled. "Is it because I am here and you take no notice of anything else?"

"That might be a reason," he said. Bianca's smile broadened. She was indeed a lovely young woman, smudges and all, and very unaware of it, observed Figaro. Conflicting thoughts raced to collide in his mind.

"I have a message for you from Master Del Strego," said Bianca. "That's why I'm here, among other reasons. The master wants you to see him tonight. He has something to discuss with you."

"What is it he wants to discuss?"

"I do not know. He said only to see you and bring you to him as quickly as possible. He is above in his chambers... The one next to mine." Bianca's expression remained the same but her eyes took on a different gleam. Figaro wondered which was at hand, the girl Ceneri or the woman Bianca. He drove the thought from his mind.

"Guide me to him, please and I shall do as he asks." It took only a brief moment and Figaro was alone in the presence of Roberto Del Strego.


LANCER
One word deserves another.
Lancer
Archer
posted 08-18-02 00:16 EST (US)     102 / 140       
Roberto Del Strego waited patiently for Bianca to depart the chamber leaving Figaro and he alone.

"Jester," began Del Strego. "I am going to take a chance, a very great chance, for I think there is more to you than meets the eye." Del Strego paused to see if his words were having any effect. If they were, Figaro was not letting on. Del Strego decided to continue.

"There may be war between San Luca Maggiore and Millefiore if the matter of succession here isn't adequately resolved. I am under certain instructions that pertain to this possibility." Del Strego hesitated. "I won't go into what those instructions are as they are not the issue at hand."

"What is the issue?" asked Figaro.

"I hate war, Jester. I find it destructive, dehumanizing and despicable. There is no winner in war. A few parties to it who have suffered less than the others congratulate themselves when it is over and call it their 'victory'. I see no victory, neither for Ricco or Suciando. I see only destruction and misery."

"Then why does Ricco or Suciando want war?" asked Figaro.

"Neither want war, but they are being goaded into it by Genoa and Venice, both of which I suspect have designs on the combined land of whichever of the two survive. I am convinced the Venetians expect Ricco to eliminate his sisters and for Suciando to eliminate Ricco. That leaves Suciando alone to manage, presuming he remains an ally, or only Suciando to dispose of with Venetian forces if he tries to thwart their will."

"And what of the Genoans?"

"They maneuver to block the Venetians in anything the Venetians may attempt to do. They are content to sustain the dual dukedoms of San Luca Maggiore and Millefiore. Actually, they would prefer the Duchess over Ricco as she is for them a more rational diplomat and local ruler than Ricco."

"It does not bode well that the stronghold to the northwest has fallen into Venetian hands," observed Figaro.

"Oh, so you know about that and understand what it implies. As I said, there is more to you than meets the eye, Master Jester."

Figaro decided to make no direct response to Del Strego's observation. "What do you expect of me, Ambassador. I am but a jester in the employ of the Duke of Millefiore."

Del Strego laughed. "Of course, Master Jester. So you are. But I think you know what is expected. I trust you will do it, for the sake of everyone in this area of the PO."

Figaro again did not respond. "Is there anything else Signor Del Strego, or may I now leave?"

"Soon, Jester, after one more thing is said. I may be a much older man who has lived many years with no such situation at hand, but I am not yet blinded by my age. Ceneri has very strong feelings for you, Master Jester, that are growing with each instance she sees or is near you. She is young and innocent, but not a child filled with girlish infatuation. Tread lightly on these matters or do not tread on them at all. I will be observing you in all things, but especially in this. She may be my ward and apprentice in fact, but in my heart, she is the daughter I was never blessed with having. I hope you understand my meaning."

"Clearly, Signor Del Strego," replied Figaro. The jester paused and then added, "In all that you have said." Figaro then left the room knowing Del Strego's eyes watched him every step of the way.

Outside he found Bianca waiting for him. She was eager to learn what had transpired. "Well, what did he say?" she asked almost immediately.

"Your father..." Figaro realized his mistake immediately and corrected himself-the man was indeed imposing. "Master Del Strego asked me to uhhh... be careful about certain matters."

"He did? What matters?"

"He asked me to promise not to tell anyone and I am compelled to keep my promise to him. So before you put me in a terrible dilemna I must go."

"Dilemna? How could I put you in a serious dilemna?"

"Oh Ceneri, you sweet, pretty young blossom!" Figaro reached across and drew her to him and kissed her on the lips, then let her go. "I must go, Ceneri. There is much I must do."

Bianca's eyes were still closed as the warm flush spread from her neck to her cheeks and to her brow. She rocked slightly on her feet, opening her eyes only when she felt she would fall over if she didn't. And when she finally opened them, much to her dismay, she saw that her jester was gone and only the faint echo of leather clad feet running down stairs was left to remind her that he had actually been there... And had kissed her.

After stopping in his room to change into something other than his costume and to collect a few important items not in the wagon or elsewhere, Figaro rushed through the open doorway. He reached the bottom of the stairs, his feet navigating steps in rapid succession. At the bottom of the stairs he halted, nearly toppling forward rather than collide with the unexpectedly appearing, imposing figure of Mercutio. The Champion had taken that moment to put hand on bannister with the intention of walking upstairs for some destination above. "Watch where you're going, clown!" bellowed the man, as startled by the sudden appearance of Figaro as the jester was by the Champion's equally unexpected appearance.

"Clown? Why Sir, I am not a simple clown. I am but a mere jester. Just as you are not a warrior, fierce swordsman or skilled combatant. You are a Champion. That is all... a mere Champion. Surprisingly, our mereness must be the very reason we are equals. I salute one who is my equal and bid you pass by courtesy of your equal, the jester!" Figaro stepped back and executed a magnificent bow to punctuate what he had just said.

Mercutio's face reddened slightly as the man knew he had been insulted but couldn't fathom how-he was not the most mentally agile among the Duke's minions. "Someday you will go too far, Jester," rumbled Mercutio. But there were more pressing matters on the big man's dull mind and so he walked up the stairs giving Figaro no further attention.

Figaro's jaw tightened and then loosened. "Most likely, Mercutio, but not this day," Figaro pointedly muttered under his breath. The jester left the Keep to do what he had planned, including readying his horse.


LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 08-18-2002 @ 08:44 PM).]

GillB
EXCO Alumna in Kul Tiras
posted 08-18-02 05:11 EST (US)     103 / 140       
Loriana and Cat awoke at dawn and, seeing their two guards still fast asleep, Cat called out softly to Cesare. He feigned sleep for a while, too embarrassed by his inability to protect the girls to want to talk to them. However, her calls became more insistent and, not wanting to wake their captors, he turned to face them, shame plainly written on his face.

Loriana immediately saw this and whispered "It wasn't your fault Cesare. If anyone's, it was ours. We should have been more watchful."

"But ..." Cesare began.

"But nothing" replied Loriana firmly. "Now the question is, how do we get away?"

There was silence for a while as all three of them thought hard.

Eventually Cesare spoke. "I don't see how we can unless I can break free of these ropes."

They lapsed into silence again and a sense of gloom hung in the air until Caterina had a thought. "Aren't we all forgetting someone? The Crimson Knight is coming back. We aren't that far from the caves. He'll be able to find us."

Loriana and Cesare both looked at her and both decided, for their own reasons, not to break the glimmer of hope that had given Caterina new confidence. They both realised that one man would have little chance of breaking Ricco's iron grip on all of them.

************************

The Knight, meanwhile, was riding back at full speed towards the caves when a man stepped out in front of him. Pulling his horse up, he rapidly drew his sword but sheathed it again when he saw that it was one of his forest friends.

The man quickly told him what had been observed since he had left and the Knight heaved an exasperated sigh. Ricco must have known the girls were back in his power the night before. Was what he had done all in vain?

He set off again at full speed trying to think what he could do and whether he, one man on his own, was equal to the challenge. He didn't dare think further ahead as to where they would go should his rescue attempt prove successful.


'Inside every old person is a young person wondering what happened' Moving Pictures
Lancer
Archer
posted 08-18-02 21:03 EST (US)     104 / 140       
For the Crimson Knight it had been two very long days that saw the sun set twice in Millefiore. Realizing he could not press his horse as hard as he pressed himself, he reined his mount in and slowed it to a walk. The horse found a comfortable lane at the edge of the road and began a slow rythmic walk that began to lull its rider to sleep. The Knight's eyes began to get heavy and his chin found a resting place on his chest. Still the horse walked on: clip... clop... clip... clop... clip... clop... clip... clop... clip... clop... clip... clop...

The Knight woke with a start. He realized what awakened him was the lack of motion. He glanced towards his horse's head and saw that the animal had found a rich patch of grass by a small brook and was busy foraging in its lushness. Then to his dismay the Knight heard a voice. It was Dante's! He knew it well and it was coming from behind the ridge above! Further, it was clear that the night was less dark than before. Of course! The Knight quickly glanced to the east and saw the first rays of dawn's light appearing on the horizon.

His mind rapidly clearing, the Knight wheeled the reluctant horse and sought a hiding place for them both. It was in the nick of time that he found a perfect place of concealment, for from his hiding place he saw Dante on the ridge eyeing the area to see if anything had changed during the night or if danger lurked at sunrise.

Finally the truth of the matter was apparent to the formerly groggy rider. The horse on its own, no doubt seeking a remembered place of food, had guided him to the caves where Loriana, Cat and Cesare were being held by Dante, Carlo and their men. The brook was the continuation of the small stream running near the cave entrance. The horse had grazed there on more than one occasion. Bless the beast, thought the Knight. Anything could have happened while he slept, and none of the possibilities seemed for the best.

The Crimson Knight reached up to check that his red mask was properly positioned to cover most of his head, except for two holes cut for him to see. He checked too to make sure the bottom of the mask ended high enough to not obstruct his breathing or speaking, but low enough to generally conceal much of his face. The mask was properly positioned. With his hand on the muzzle of his horse, the Knight waited in his hiding place and watched to see what Dante and the others would do.



LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 08-18-2002 @ 09:09 PM).]

Lancer
Archer
posted 08-19-02 16:25 EST (US)     105 / 140       
"Nothing in view," announced Dante to Carlo and the others. "We wait for Antonio." A few of the men grumbled a little louder than usual.

"Alright, alright. I guess we can permit it. Giuseppe, you can go first. Take uhhh... What's his name? Oh, that's right. Take that one, Cesare, with you."

Giuseppe grunted an acknowledgement, walked over to Cesare and unceremoniously yanked the mercenary to his feet. "Follow me and no funny business," growled Giuseppe. To add emphasis, Giuseppe pulled a rather large knife from his belt and waved it in front of Cesare before he cut the bonds around Cesare's ankles leaving the mercenary's hands bound just as they had been during the night.

"You first," directed Giuseppe.

"To where?" asked Cesare. Giuseppe kicked Cesare, causing the bound man to grimace and the two bound women to wince in sympathy. "Say nothing and walk straight ahead until I tell you differently. You don't want me to have to repeat the instruction... the whole instruction... do you?" said Giuseppe, a cunning look spreading across his face. Cesare was about to say "No" when he remembered the warning not to speak. Cesare shook his head signifying "No". "Good," said Giuseppe, a brief expression of disappointment supplanting the cunning look of before. He motioned to Cesare to proceed, which the mercenary did. "To the brook below," ordered Giuseppe.

Caterina and Loriana watched Cesare walk out of the entrance to the cave wondering if they would ever see him again. The remaining men among the group riding for Dante and Carlo eyed the two women in a way neither Cat nor Loriana appreciated. This was not getting any better the two women said to each other with their eyes. Wherever Cesare was being led, they too would be led; and they both could see various consequences of being alone, bound and helpless with one of these men in control.

A short scuffling sound and a few muffled words drifted up to Dante, who stepped from the cave entrance and called down. "Is there a problem, Giuseppe?"

There was a brief pause and then Giuseppe's voice was heard. "Uhh, no... no problems. Cesare was a little uncooperative, that's all."

Dante frowned. "Get back then," called down Dante, who then returned to the inside of the cave.

The knife at Giuseppe's throat was pressed a little harder. "Not a sound," growled the Crimson Knight. "Not one sound." The Knight pulled Giuseppe back into the forest, Cesare following. When under cover of the trees and bushes, the Knight pushed Giuseppe to the ground and in one swift motion severed the cord binding Cesare's hands. "Tie him up, Cesare, and make sure he is quiet," whispered the Knight.

Cesare jumped to the task with pleasure. When he was finished he administered to Giuseppe such a blow to the head that it was problematic whether the man would ever see the light of day again. "Was that necessary?" asked the Knight. Cesare looked at the Knight with an odd expression. "Not if he had been a friend of mine, which he wasn't," replied Cesare.

"Remind me to stay on your good side," commented the Knight wryly.

"He kicked me in the backside moments ago," said Cesare. "So that should be a hint," he added. The Knight looked at Cesare, the Knight's eyes squinting slightly behind the mask. "So noted," he said. "Now, here is the plan..."

____________________________________________________________

Cesare returned to the cave, hands bound, and was led in by Giuseppe. Dante and Carlo were conferring with each other near the entrance. Odd, thought one of Giuseppe's fellow riders, the clothes look like Giuseppe's but they don't seem to fit his body as they did before. And Giuseppe's gait was different somehow. The rider rose as if he intended to approach Giuseppe and salve his curiousity.

By then, the two returning men were within a few feet of Dante and Carlo. Suddenly, the bindings on Cesare's wrist flew off and his once empty right hand was filled with a very large hunting knife. The other man, the one who should have been Giuseppe, pulled a knife as well. Within seconds, Cesare's knife was planted on Carlo's throat, and the Crimson Knight's knife was positioned across the throat of Dante. The other men in the cave jumped to their feet looking like they would try to rush the two men threatening Dante and Carlo.

"No!" bellowed Dante. "Stop! They will kill us before you can get to them!"

"He's right!" cried out the Crimson Knight, who by now had shrugged off the hood that had been part of Giuseppe's clothes, revealing his own face covered with its crimson mask.

Caterina's heart leaped for joy and she unconsciously reached for Loriana's hands only to find they were reaching for hers' as well. But suddenly, joy turned to fear as both women felt the points of knives at the back of their necks. Dante's men had created a standoff: the lives of the women for the lives of Dante and Carlo. Cesare waited to see what the Crimson Knight would do.


LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 08-19-2002 @ 08:00 PM).]

Lancer
Archer
posted 08-19-02 22:03 EST (US)     106 / 140       
"Release Dante and Carlo, redman, and throw your knives to the ground. Then we will remove our knives from the necks of the women," exclaimed one of the men, the one the others called Rudolfo.

"Redman?" repeated the Knight. First of all, the color is 'crimson' to those who have eyes that function and a brain connected. Secondly, I generally respond best when addressed by the name some call me, and that would be Crimson Knight. But since I am being magnanimous today, you may simply call me Sir Knight. And finally, should you cause the ladies any further discomfort, I assure you Dante and Carlo will promptly be undertaking personal trips to see their maker.

"We will do the same to the women..." countered Rudolfo.

"Ahh, you must be the brains of the bunch afterall," said the Knight in a sarcastic tone. "Sure, go ahead and use your knives." Cat's and Loriana's eyes opened wide and their hearts began to beat furiously, even more furiously than before; but the Knight paid no attention and continued. "Do your worst. Now... Let's see what should happen... The two women die, though you are charged by Ricco to protect them." The Knight laughed. "Oh, don't bother to ask me how I know. It doesn't really matter at the moment, does it? The two women die and so also will die Dante and Carlo. Then that leaves just you and us. Hmmm, don't worry about Giuseppe. He's not likely to offer you any help. Now we are more than likely going to send at least two of you, maybe more than that, to your just reward, something of which you should be fearful considering what the fires of hell are said to be. The question is... which two? Any volunteers?"

The riders looked around at each other wondering who would have the courage to attack and who might hold back and try to avoid the slashing knives of the Knight and Cesare, thus dooming the more courageous among the riders to death. Confidence drained away from their faces as the seconds passed. The Knight seized his growing advantage.

"Good, I see you are all finally thinking clearly. Now consider this: The women are dead, Dante and Carlo are dead, Cesare and I are dead and some of you are dead. Who among you, presumably having survived our little battle, would be willing to take Dante's and Carlo's place and ride back to Millefiore to tell Duke Ricco what transpired here? I mean by this, specifically telling the Duke that his half-sisters are dead, his only two friends in all of the world are dead and some number of his riders are dead. Then he is told to rejoice because now he is rid of Cesare and the Crimson Knight. What do you think the Duke's opinion of that exchange might be? I can tell you this, I wouldn't want to be the messenger. Would any of you?"

Rudolfo's knife began to slowly fall away from the back of Loriana's neck. He motioned for the other rider to pull his knife back from Cat as well. Rudolfo addressed his question directly to Dante. "What shall we do, Dante?"

The answer was quickly given. "Whatever he says, Rudolfo, and exactly what he says."

"Good answer, Dante," said the Knight. "And now we shall do those things that need to be done so we all will see the next sunrise. Let's begin, shall we..."

____________________________________________________________

The Knight collected his horse while Loriana culled out the animals the other three had ridden to the cave. Dante, Carlo and their riders, even the poor unconscious Giuseppe, were left bound in the cave. This was easily accomplished by instructing the riders to tightly bind each other with rope. Then Carlo was made to bind the remaining rider and Cesare bound Carlo and Dante. Cesare and Cat guarded them if only to make sure none of them moved or attempted to free one of their comrades while the Knight and Loriana were gone.

Needed supplies were gathered from what was left of their original supplies and the supplies brought by Dante and his men. It was only a short time later that all four were ready to ride. The Knight scattered the riders' horses so that they could leave the area confident the four of them would not be followed too soon; for the Knight knew the men would free themselves from their bindings eventually, but they would need their horses if they hoped to give chase.

This time, the Knight led them into the forest northwest of the Po and then turned south towards the lands below the river and west of Millefiore. There was a place that seemed to him to be a safe haven for the Duchess, Cat and Cesare; but he would need help to find it. That help would be found in Millefiore.

Night fell before they could cross the Po. Loriana, Cat and Cesare now shared meal preparation chores while the Knight kept a watch out for unwelcome visitors. It seemed safe enough, so the Knight joined them in their compact camp to consume his portion of supper.

Some time later, when cleanup was finished and before sleep could overtake her, Caterina found the opportunity she was seeking and joined the Knight where he was standing guard outside of the camp. It was a secluded place, somewhat elevated and free from view from the camp, but positioned well to observe anyone or anything trying to approach in the night.

"Knight," she whispered so that he could hear and no one else. "It's Caterina. Can I talk with you?"

"Of course, Milady," the Knight answered wondering what the girl might have to say. Cat approached him and stood as close to him as she could, stretching but not violating the rules of modesty. Then she shivered. The Knight noticed as Cat hoped he would. "Are you cold, Lady Caterina?"

"Yes, a little." The Knight removed his cloak and stood behind Cat placing it over her shoulders and crossing it below her neck. Cat reached up and simultaneously grasped both the cloak and the Knight's arms drawing all of it closer to her and the Knight as well. "This shall warm me more quickly," Cat said, her voice radiating contentment. The Knight said nothing, but he also made no effort to remove his arms. Cat pressed back against the Knight and said, "I haven't had a chance to thank you for saving our lives today. I would like to do so now, if I may."

"Milady, I..." But Cat didn't give the Knight a chance to finish his words. She turned around in his arms so that her slender body and oval face was before him and her large, green, cat-like eyes could stare into his eyes, the brown of his pupils barely discernable through the mask in the partial moonlight.

"Thank you," she murmured and placed her lips on his in a passionate kiss that stirred the souls in both and begged for a response from him. The Knight could not resist and so he kissed her back in kind, tightening his arms around her in a way that seemingly crushed her slender body, but only served to warm her that much more even as the experience took her breath away. Finally he released her and she stepped back a little, gently freeing herself of his embrace, simultaineously removing the Knight's cloak and returning it to him. "I won't need this anymore," she said, a smile curling the corners of her mouth.

"I wish... I mean, I want so much... I mean...," stammered the Knight. Then he gathered himself to conclude, "I'm sorry, Milady. I had no right to..." Cat cut him off in midsentence once again.

"This was my choice, Crimson Knight. I do not regret it in the least; nor should you. Good night... my Champion." Caterina returned to the camp the effects of the kiss lingering on her lips, the rest of her body and her soul.

Loriana saw her face as she returned and knew there had been an occurrence. "Sister, what have you just done?"

"Something... Yes... Something wonderful!" Caterina answered followed by a very deep sigh. She sought her sleeping blanket and lay there, her eyes manifesting a very distant, preoccupied look. Loriana spent her remaining waking moments wondering what that 'something' might have been.

The Knight sat down heavily and put his head in his hands. The dilemna grew more difficult every day, and today it had become more difficult than he had ever thought it would be. What was he to do now. The answer came with Cesare's arrival to stand his watch. Sleep... Only sleep would calm the day. So the Knight returned to the camp and found what sleep he could.


LANCER
One word deserves another.
Lancer
Archer
posted 08-20-02 22:34 EST (US)     107 / 140       
Breakfast was simple fare: hard biscuits and some dried meat. A warm brew was made of a few leaves of tea. Water skins were filled with river water and loaded on the horses, along with the other remaining supplies. It was then that the generally quiet Loriana announced her plan for the rest of the day.

"We shall proceed to Millefiore," she stated matter-of-factly. The others stopped dead in their tracks and turned to stare at her.

"But Duchess..." the Crimson Knight began to protest. A wave of Loriana's hand stopped him.

"Knight, I know what you are going to say: It is dangerous and foolish. Maybe so, but it is what I want to do. I am the Duchess Loriana of Millefiore and it is time I act as the Duchess. Those of you who do not wish to accompany me are free to go your way. I will give you a moment to decide and then I will depart for the river crossing and the road to Millefiore. I expect I shall be in the village when the sun is at its zenith."

Caterina looked first at the Knight and then at her sister. She decided quickly. "I shall go with my sister wherever she leads."

Cesare considered the situation from his point of view. It was Loriana who would provide him the land he requested and so far he had done all that he could to earn it. Cat already described his wishes to Loriana and the Duchess had agreed to his request "should they ever escape this mess and return to normalcy". Cesare announced he would go to Millefiore as well.

The Crimson Knight remained silent. Finally, concern mirrored in her voice, Cat spoke to him. "Knight, why do you take so long to decide. Please come with us. My sister needs you at her side." Cat lowered her eyes. "I... I need you with me as well," Cat added. There was now no doubt in Loriana's mind what her sister was thinking and trying to say. Cesare remained silent. His hopes were never too great where Cat was concerned and he was content with what the future might bring through Loriana's goodwill.

The Knight struggled with his decision. Finally, he made up his troubled mind. "I shall be your Champion, Milady Caterina, and shall defend you and any you say I must defend; but I cannot accompany you into Millefiore. I must leave you now."

Caterina pleaded with him, tears beginning to course down her face. "No Knight! Please come to Millefiore! Is it Ricco or Mercutio or someone else? Whoever it is, my sister will take care of it! Please!" Her sister reached across to touch Caterina's right hand.

"Sister, he must have his reasons. Please respect his wishes and let him go where he must."

Cat looked at her sister and saw a directive in her eyes. "But Loriana..."

"I know, Caterina. I understand. But it must be this way."
Loriana soothed her sister as best she could. While doing so, she said to the Knight appreciatively, "I thank you Knight for all that you have done, but I think you had better leave now before this becomes unbearable for Cat."

"Yes, Milady," said the Knight. "I understand. But please remember this. There are some in Millefiore who know me. They will tell me if I am needed. You or the Lady Caterina need only make it known and I shall be there to do your bidding. I cannot reveal their names lest your brother find out somehow. Farewell."

The Knight mounted his horse and rode east along the north bank of the Po River quickly disappearing into the forest beyond. The remaining three found the river crossing, forded the Po and made their way east along the south bank towards Millefiore and what lay in store for them at the hands of Ricco. Loriana had become the Duchess of Millefiore at last.


LANCER
One word deserves another.
Lancer
Archer
posted 08-21-02 21:25 EST (US)     108 / 140       
Figaro handed his horse off to the Keep's stablemaster. The man looked towards the sky grumbling. "Come and go, come and go. Jester, don't you do anything besides come and go? The sun is high in the sky and you've disrupted my dinner once again. It it isn't dinner, it's my supper! Come and go, come and go."

Figaro handed the stablemaster a few coins to pay for the horse's keeping. "The Duke keeps me busy, Stablemaster. I entertain in Millefiore and beyond." said Figaro.

"You've ridden this horse fairly hard, Jester. It will need a cool down and rest," noted the grumpy Stablemaster. Figaro threw another coin to the man. "For your trouble, Stablemaster."

The Stablemaster smiled and nodded. "Your horse will have good care as always, Jester."

"Thank you," answered Figaro as he walked away from the stable.

The boy, Fredo, found Figaro wolfing down his own dinner in the Keep's galley. "Is all well, Master Figaro?"

"As well as can be expected, Fredo," said Figaro, once he chewed and swallowed the stew captured with his wooden spoon from the bowl on the table set before him by Cook. "No more run-ins with the Crimson Knight, I presume?"

"No, Master."

"Good." Figaro finished the last morsel of stew and ran the remaining piece of crusted bread around the bowl to capture the last of the stew juice. He ate the laden bread immediately. He looked up to see the boy's eyes focussed on him. "Fredo, I must remove some of this road dust. Fetch a pitcher of water and a dry cloth and lay out one of my everyday costumes, if you would." Fredo nodded his head and left the galley to do as he was bid.

____________________________________________________________

"It's getting late," worried Figaro as he laced up the sides of the pants that made up the lower part of his costume. Unlike his diamond patterned costume colored in reds and golds, this garment had circles sewn into it in various places and was blue, silver and black. It fit loosely, with the pants ballooning outwards at the knee. The shoulders of his shirt were heavily padded, exagerating the width of his shoulders and their thickness. All in all, the costume gave the jester a look of the east about him, as if he had just been transported from a Turkish seraglio.

He emptied a porcelain basin of dirty water off the balcony outside his room, checking first that there was no one below who would be splashed by the falling water. It was then that he heard for the first time in the village the faint echo of people seemingly cheering something. Next, he saw a rider galloping his horse up the main street on his way to the Keep. Figaro reentered his room, just as the door now remounted on its hinges flew open and Fredo ran in.

"Master, it's the Duchess! She's returned! Lady Caterina is with her! And there's a man with them. Some say he's the Crimson Knight!

"Is he wearing a mask like he did the night you and I met him?"

"I don't know, Master. I only know what the rider said when he ran into the Keep. The Duke is hurrying to meet them in the courtyard. Oh... And Master?"

"Yes, Fredo," said Figaro.

"The Duke doesn't seem very happy about it, even though the people are."

"I'm not surprised," mumbled Figaro. "Not in the least."

Just then, Bianca appeared in the doorway. She hesitated when she saw Fredo there. "Figaro, I heard you were back in the Keep again. Did you here the news?"

"Yes. Fredo just told me."

"Isn't it wonderful?! The Duchess is found and returned. Some say it is the Crimson Knight himself who returns her. Why would he do this after what the Duke's men tried to do to him? I would think he might be too frightened to return to Millefiore."

"One would think so."

"You do not seem very excited about her safe return?"

"I hope it is that... A safe return."

Bianca studied Figaro's face. She decided the time was not a good one, and besides, she had never seen the Duchess before. So Bianca navigated the stairs as quickly as she could so that she could be standing in the courtyard when Loriana arrived.


LANCER
One word deserves another.
Lancer
Archer
posted 08-22-02 21:40 EST (US)     109 / 140       
Figaro debated silently and made up his mind to observe the arrival of Loriana. He followed Bianca down the stairs with far less enthusiasm than most of those preceeding or postceeding his descent.

The way to the Keep and its courtyard was thickly lined with people. As the procession approached the gate to the Keep, the cheers of the villagers could be heard advancing with the small party of three riders, who were now escorted by a small group of guards. In the lead was Loriana. At her side was Caterina. Behind her was a man Figaro knew as the thief who, with two now dead comrades, accosted him on the road to Millefiore.

The procession entered the courtyard just as residents of the Keep were pushed aside so that Ricco could greet his half sisters. On one side of the steps to the Keep stood Roberto Del Strego and Bianca, among others. On the other side stood Figaro and various other members of the household. Ricco stood in the center, two guards and the towering figure of Mercutio nearby.

Loriana halted her horse in the courtyard and dismounted. Displaying elegance, confidence and determination she approached Ricco directly. "Greetings, brother," she said and waited for his response.

Ricco's face reddened as he struggled to contain his anger and frustration. Finally, emotions controlled, he reached for his half-sister's hand and kissed it. "Welcome home, Duchess Loriana," he said, the words sticking slightly as they were being spoken. He stepped aside to permit her to enter the Keep.

Meanwhile, Caterina and Cesare dismounted and walked towards the entrance to the Keep. Ricco acknowledged his younger half-sister's arrival, but Cesare became a different matter. Figaro was so intent upon studying Caterina's face and her every movement that he didn't notice the guards closing in around Cesare, nor Mercutio selecting a place to stand where he could easily reach Cesare with his sword.

Loriana must have sensed something was amiss because she halted at the door to the Keep and turned around. "Brother! Leave the man as he is. Cesare is under my protection," she said in a commanding voice. "Guards, permit him to pass!" The guards stepped back immediately, though they glanced at Ricco wondering what he would do or say.

"But Duchess Loriana, he is the Crimson Knight!" protested Ricco.

"It is no matter who he is or is not," Loriana replied. "He is not to be seized or harmed by anyone. It is my command."

"There is a challenge, Milady. It must be fulfilled."

"Another time, Brother. That is my command."

Ricco's face reddened once more. "Yes, Duchess," he said, though his teeth ground on each other and his words came out with a hiss.

Figaro returned his attention to Caterina who now entered the Keep after her sister passed through the doorway. Cesare followed, but not before he noticed Figaro's distinctly uncommon costume in the crowd and looked at the man who wore the blue clothing. Cesare immediately recognized Figaro as Figaro had earlier recognized Cesare, but Figaro was so intent on observing Caterina that he never noticed Cesare looking his way. It was Caterina that absorbed his total interest.

This behaviour on Figaro's part was lost on all others in the crowd, including Caterina herself. All except for one. Bianca did not understand Figaro's intense stare at Caterina when she herself was only a few paces across from him and had tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to get his attention. In fact, she was rather annoyed at Figaro for the moment, so annoyed that anger was just around the corner.


LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 08-22-2002 @ 09:41 PM).]

Lancer
Archer
posted 08-23-02 20:32 EST (US)     110 / 140       
Members of the Duchess's household began to reenter the Keep following behind Ricco... at a substantial distance. As Figaro slowly made his way to the high doorway he heard Bianca behind him. "Looks like young Caterina is favored in Loriana's eyes... and someone elses too," she said.

Figaro was lost in thought and only barely heard what Bianca said and understood it even less. "Uhh... yes... uhh, I guess so... Ummm," replied Figaro, highly distracted.
"Wait, what did you say, Lady Bianca?"

"Never mind, Jester. I got my answer!" Bianca stormed past Figaro brushing past him making no attempt to avoid a major collision between his ribs and her elbow.

"Uhnnn!" he exclaimed as the collision occurred with full force. Bianca walked past him and never turned around to look at the effect of her elbow jab. A different voice, a man's, was the next voice Figaro heard addressing him.

"Well Jester, it seems you are not in favor for the moment," observed Roberto Del Strego. "Things do change swiftly don't they?"

Figaro was not amused. Del Strego ignored this and continued. "Keep your eyes and ears open, Jester. By tomorrow night a momentous event will occur in Millefiore. It will have major implications for peace. That is all I can say." Del Strego quickened his pace and proceeded through the Keep increasingly ahead of Figaro.

___________________________________________________________

HOURS LATER IN LORIANA'S PRIVATE CHAMBER

Ricco protested as demonstratively as he could. "I planned no such thing, Loriana! If these things were done to you they were not my orders! I shall hold Dante and Carlo accountable for all that they have done and deal with them as they deserve!"

"You will not," countered Loriana.

"And if not me than who?!" bellowed Ricco.

"I will, Ricco! These affronts were made to me, so I will deal with them as I should."

"Assuming they return, sister," said Ricco, a sly look briefly crossing his face.

"When they return, brother." Loriana noted the look and guessed what it implied. "See that they do," she said.

Ricco stared at Loriana and then smiled what looked to the Duchess to be a devious smile at best. Ricco bowed and left her chamber. Loriana sat down heavily on a nearby chair. Her heart was beating rapidly and her stomach was twisted in knots. She put on a brave front, but inside she was awash with strong emotions, one of which was a modicum of fear. "How did her father do it?" she wondered. "Where did he get his strength."

Then she remembered something Alfredo once told her. "When ruling Millefiore I think first of you, then Caterina and yes, even Ricco. Among them, it is you who gives me inspiration, Caterina who gives me motivation and Ricco who shows me caution. These thoughts, taken together, reveal to me what it is I must do and how I must do it."

So Loriana thought of her father, then of Caterina and finally of Ricco. Her perspective cleared with new understanding, and best of all, her modicum of fear dissipated into nothingness.


LANCER
One word deserves another.
Lancer
Archer
posted 08-23-02 21:23 EST (US)     111 / 140       
LATER THAT NIGHT

Figaro decided he would stretch his legs a bit. Rather than merely pace back and forth in his room to the utter annoyance of Fredo, the jester decided to walk the level of the Keep on which his room was situated. He opened the door and closed it and began to walk towards the stairs. A faint echo of two voices, one a young female and the other a much gruffer, male voice drifted up from the bottom floor of the Keep. The conversation was not pleasant. Figaro walked down the stairs to investigate.

A large hand was holding the decorative stone at the end of the staircase and a smaller hand seemed to be trying to pry it loose. A hoarse laugh came from somewhere below the staircase. A woman's voice that he now recognized was protesting her treatment.

"Let me go!" cried out Caterina.

"When I'm ready," answered Mercutio. It was Ricco's champion who had one hand on the bannister finial and the other locked on to a bannister post. Caterina was trapped between the bannister and Mercutio's broad, tall body and had no way of escaping his entrapping arms. Mercutio wasn't pressing against her, but in Figaro's mind it was only a matter of time.

"I will tell Loriana about this," said Caterina, anger and anguish comingling in her voice.

"Be my guest. What is she going to do, call Ricco's guard and arrest me? You'll see, Lady Cat. This is Duke Ricco's Keep, not hers. It's only a matter of time, so you had better be nice to me, if you know what I mean." The hoarse laugh came again. The air stank of too much ale. Figaro descended the stairs lightly so as to reach the bottom as quickly as possible without detection. A few steps from the bottom, Mercutio saw him and growled a warning. "Be on your way, Jester. Nothing here is your business."

"I do not see that the Lady Caterina is enjoying your conversation, Mercutio," said Figaro. Mercutio's eyebrows knitted into a frown and his fists tightened on the bannister and finial. Figaro continued, taking a step closer. "In fact, I think that the Lady doesn't enjoy anything at all about you. You possess a face that would halt charging horses, your arms mimic knarled tree trunks, your words are pieced together like boulder-bashed battlements, your breath would make vultures retch and you must bathe in a fish barrel. Other than that, some might say you're a fine fellow. But I doubt the Lady Caterina would agree." All the while, Figaro was taking one step after another closer and closer to Mercutio until he was about two arm lengths away. A table was nearby on which rested a painted pottery vase.

Mercutio's face was becoming redder and redder. The few servants who were still up and around the Keep entered the room to see what all of the fuss was about. They knew better than to confront Mercutio and so they stayed well away and watched. "All right, Jester. You had your say, funny man. Now you will pay for your words!"

Mercutio released his hands from the bannister and turned in Figaro's direction taking a step forward. In that same instant, Cat stepped away from the two men, her mouth hanging open, her eyes open wide and staring at what was about to occur. Figaro too, moved qickly. He grasped the nearby pottery and shattered it on the head of the advancing warrior. Mercutio blinked his eyes and staggered backwards. Then he landed hard on the floor on his posterior and fell backwards. A great red knot began to rise on his forehead.

Caterina looked down at the man lying on the floor and then at Figaro. Confusion passed across her face, then an air of noble dignity replaced it. Cat walked towards Figaro in order to access the stairway behind the jester that led to her chamber. As she passed she nodded, never looking at the jester. "I thank you... but you needn't have bothered, Jester. I have a champion. I do not need or desire another." Nose uplifted, she began to walk up the stairs. Figaro watched her ascend the stairs. He shook his head and gave her no further attention.

"Pour some water on him, please, and guide him to his room," he said to the servants. "The ale will be gone in the morning and maybe his attitude and thinking will be better... Go on, I said. Miracles happen, don't they?" The laughter among the servants eased slightly their individual fears and they cautiously did as they were bid.

In talking to the servants, Figaro didn't notice that near the very top of the flight of stairs Caterina had stopped and was looking at him over her shoulder. There was something about the jester, she thought. Something odd and inexplicable. But what was it?

Figaro turned and looked up quite by accident to see Cat at the top of the stairs looking at him. Instantaneously she turned her head and resumed walking up the stairs until she was lost from sight. Figaro smiled.

Well, he thought. Mercutio is going to be a bear from this day forward. Maybe the time is now, not later. Figaro considered this as he began to walk the grounds of the Keep.


LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 08-23-2002 @ 09:32 PM).]

Lancer
Archer
posted 08-24-02 21:30 EST (US)     112 / 140       
THE NEXT DAY.

Loriana tapped her foot in agitation as Roberto Del Strego completed his message from Duke Suciando. "So, as the Duke sees it, Duchess Loriana, a marriage between you and he should settle all matters adequately. Otherwise, there are likely to be serious difficulties, or so the Duke said.

"Settle matters for whom, Ambassador? For Millefiore or for San Luca Maggiore? For the Venetians maybe? And what serious difficulties might there be if I choose to leave matters as they are?" Loriana waited for her answers, the set of her jaw not indicating expectations of anything pleasant.

"There could be unwanted hostilities, Milady."

"I see," said Loriana.

Del Strego knew his message was not being received positively and he gambled on a different tach. "Might I suggest an alternative, Milady, for your consideration?" ventured Del Strego.

"Why not. Just when I think I've heard all the words that can accompany the Duke's gall you amaze me with a few more. Proceed."

"The Lady Caterina is unattached and is of the same lineage. I suspect the Duke would be most pleased to accept the Lady Caterina in your place if you are unwilling. It will prevent the unpleasantness that might come from no union at all."

"The Duke thinks of all possibilities doesn't he when he plans his ventures."

"Actually, Milady, this is my suggestion. You see, I do not relish armed conflicts among our citystates. It is what makes this land weak and invites the intervention of others."

"Armed conflicts, Ambassador? Is that what is meant by unpleasantness?" responded Loriana.

"I misspoke, Milady. I do not threaten any such thing; but I do recommend a positive reply to the Duke as it will forestall his mind from wandering too far in that direction at a later date; and it will molify the Venetians as well."

"Again, I see, Ambassador." Loriana studied the man as she thought. No, she concluded, he does not relish this work. He is uncomfortable at best. Nonetheless, he speaks for Suciando. There is no question of that. "I will give you Millefiore's answer this afternoon, before the banquest scheduled tonight. Then, regardless of my answer, tomorrow will see you gone from Millefiore. Do I make myself clear, Ambassador Del Strego?"

"Perfectly clear, Milady." Roberto Del Strego bowed and left the chamber. Loriana slumped in her chair and waved her advisors and attendants away. She would need time and quiet to think through what had been said. No answer she conceived would be free of pain.

____________________________________________________________

Dante and Carlo cringed as Ricco sent them a withering glare. If they could, they would have mounted their recovered horses and gladly not returned to Millefiore. However, they knew they must, or Ricco's wrath would be boundless; and they also knew the former Duke still had formidable weapons to send out and find them wherever they chose as their escape.

"You have told me only one valuable piece of information within the confines of that implausible story you weave to explain your failures," lashed out Ricco. The two men looked at the stone floor of the chamber not wanting to see the accusation in his eyes as well as hear it from his mouth. "The man named Cesare is not the Crimson Knight. The Knight is yet to be accounted for, and he could be anywhere. You two remain about the Keep and the village. Keep your eyes and ears open. Go no farther or for sure it will raise the anger of the... the... (he could hardly say the word without choking on it) Duchess."

"But she will have us arrested and imprisoned," protested Dante.

"I will deal with that if the event should occur, which I will not permit. Now do as I say! And no mistakes!"

"Yes, Milord... Duke Ricco," said Dante. He knew Ricco always liked to hear that and so he played that melody the best he could. It worked. A brief smile came to Ricco's face even as he waved them off to attend to what he had ordered.


LANCER
One word deserves another.
Lancer
Archer
posted 08-25-02 21:57 EST (US)     113 / 140       
"I'm beginning to regret I ever returned to this forsaken place!" cried the Lady Caterina upon hearing what was being proposed for her future. Loriana almost agreed with her, but it was her responsibility to maintain her father's holdings and that was what she must do. War with San Luca Maggiore would be a disaster, even if they should win.

Caterina continued to protest. "And Suciando, no less. The man with a reputation that is even lower than my half-brother's."

"Caterina! How dare you say such things about Ricco!"

"Well, it's true isn't it! You saw how we were treated!" retorted Cat. Loriana pursed her lips. Yes, the Duchess suspected there was a conspiracy behind what occurred, but she couldn't yet find sufficient evidence or testimony to prove it was Ricco's work or the work of someone else unbeknownst to Ricco.

"Sister, you must understand. It is for Millefiore. It is to avoid a war."

"And what makes you think there will not be war anyway? Then, with you gone and perhaps Ricco too, there is only me, married to Suciando. He gains it all one way or another. Maybe the war now is better than what may come later!"

Loriana paused to consider this. A wild child she might be, but there rings a certain amount of logic behind what she is saying. "Caterina, please think on it. We must make our decision and announce it at the banquet. The ambassador leaves tomorrow.

____________________________________________________________

Again the Great Hall rang to the voices of guests preparing to sit at the table and partake of a feast. This time, the Duchess presided, with the Lady Caterina at her right side and Ricco seated next to Cat. The Ambassador Del Strego and Lady Bianca were seated in that order next to the Duchess.

Food and drink had been consumed and Figaro dazzled the guests with juggling, tumbles, balancing and a humorous story or two. The Duchess had specifically ordered Figaro to dispense with any special masks. She said, it would be best to not cause undue alarm to the guests, and especially to Ricco. Figaro complied without question.

Following the entertainment, the Duchess had her Chief Servant gain the attention of the guests and all others in the Great Hall by banging a banquet knife on on large pewter goblet. Figaro was seated at the far end of one of the tables, about as far away from the Duchess as the farthest guest. The Duchess rose to make her announcement. Caterina did not look happy, nor had she seemed at all amused by the anything, even the funniest of the jester's stories.

"Ambassador Del Strego and guests: Duke Suciando of San Luca Maggiore has extended his goodwill to Millefiore and has offered to receive into his household a bride from among us. The one he has chosen is... my sister, the Lady Caterina!" The guests gave a collective gasp and many began to applaud. In the midst of the applaud, Roberto Del Strego rose to speak.

"Milady Loriana, Duchess of Millefiore, Duke Suciando shall be most pleased and honored by your acceptance of his offer of marriage to the Lady Caterina." Del Strego bowed and reached for the Duchess' hand, pressing it to his lips and releasing it in a brief display of proper courtesy.

Caterina leaped to her feet. "I DO NOT WISH TO MARRY THE DUKE! CRIMSON KNIGHT! SAVE ME! CRIMSON KNIGHT! YOU ARE MY LOVE!"

Guards stiffened all around the hall and lowered pikes ready to thrust them at anyone claiming the Knight's identity. Ricco leaped to his feet eyeing everyone near and far, hand on dagger. Mercutio unsheathed his sword readying it for action.

But there was no reaction within the audience other than more gasps, especially from the women, some of whom were amazed at Cat's forwardness, and others at her proclaimed love for the Crimson Knight. A few secretly hoped he was there, if only for the chance to see him in action once more. These were soon disappointed.

The Ambassador stood passively as the guests settled back down. "It appears Milady Loriana, that the Lady Caterina is distressed over the change in her destiny. She is so very young and this is not unexpected when a woman of her tender age is faced with such a change in her life. I trust she will see the benefits of this union soon enough and will revise her choice."

"We will do our best, Ambassador. And now I think we shall conclude our banquet as the hour is late and you will be departing midmorning."

Del Strego bowed and thanked his hostess for the evening's repast and he and Lady Bianca left the Hall for their rooms. "I think that was marvelously romantic of Lady Caterina, Master Del Strego, no matter what any others may say," said Bianca to Del Strego in a whispered voice.

"So do I, Ceneri. Yes... So do I," said Del Strego, a twinkle in his eye.


LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 08-25-2002 @ 10:02 PM).]

Lancer
Archer
posted 08-26-02 16:15 EST (US)     114 / 140       
Caterina in her pale blue sleeping gown lay on her high posted canopied bed alone in her chamber crying softly into her pillow. Her thoughts were as sad as the countenance she presented to the soothing silk material that encased the goose-feather filled cushion. The shear material draped around her bed to ward off the insects of the region rippled slightly from the pleasantly cool breeze blowing into her room through the open door to her balcony.

In her grief she was deaf to all noises, great and small, that seemed to be carried on the breeze. Cat did not hear the bumping of a rope that suddenly dropped from a ledge above the balcony. She did not hear the scraping sound of gloved hands and locked legs moving down the rope one measured length after the other. She did not hear two feet land lightly, softly on the balcony floor. And she did not hear the man who gingerly approached her bed so as not to alarm anyone nearby, or Caterina herself.

The man pulled back the shear curtain and laid a gentle hand on Cat's shoulder. Startled, Cat turned from stomach to back in a single move and prepared to scream only to have the intruder's hand cover her mouth so firmly Cat couldn't have made herself heard even if she wanted to. One look at the man's familiar chin and mouth and the crimson mask on his face and Cat forgot all desire to scream. Instead, she opened her arms as the Knight removed his restraining hand, grasped his forearms and with no sense of maidenly modesty, drew herself up and thrust herself into his embrace. Passionately she kissed him, pausing only to draw in a breath of air. He kissed her as well, responding to each of her kisses with one of his own, until Cat laid her head on his shoulder and rested there contented simply with his presence.

"You heard me..." said Cat, whispering so that only the Knight would hear. "You heard me and you came to rescue me." She hugged him softly to add emphasis.

Underneath the crmison mask, the Knight frowned. "I learned of your impending marriage and what you said at the banquet and I felt I should see for myself if it is true... what you said."

"It is true... so very true! All of it!" said Caterina.

The Knight's frown deepened. "Then what I have to say will be as painful as anything I have ever told anyone in my life. Caterina... You must do nothing to thwart the process of union with Duke Suciando."

Caterina gasped, "What?! What are you saying?! I cannot marry the man! I do not love him. I love you!"

The Knight pushed Cat away from his shoulder so that she could look at the brown of his eyes in the openings of his mask. "Listen to me, Cat. I did not say marry Suciando, I said not to thwart the process. It will take weeks before any such marriage may occur. You know the protocol that's involved. Just don't do anything to give Suciando cause to declare war on Millefiore. That is why I cannot free you from this obligation for the moment and why you must comply with your sister's request, at least for now. Do you understand? You have a duty to fulfill."

"Duty! Duty! I despise the word! Why not love! What is wrong with fulfilling love?!"

"My lovely Caterina, you have been borne into nobility. Privilege is its benefit, but duty is its bane. Fail in your duty and your nobility will be stripped from you in time by forces you cannot comprehend. Believe me, Milady. I am your Champion in all things and would see no harm befalls you. I have thought long and hard on the matter and what I have told you is what you must do."

"Will you not save me from this arrangement?" asked Caterina, her voice quivering with barely suppressed emotion.

"I will do everything I can since you command it, but not by spiriting you away this day in the dark of night. There will be a better time for resolution. Until then, Milady..." The Crimson Knight leaned forward and drew Caterina to himself once more, kissing in turn each falling tear and finally her lips. He brushed an errant strand of lengthening hair from her face, smiled and released her. Then he lightly ran across the stone floor of her chamber and disappeared outside of her balcony. The rope was pulled up after him.

Caterina lay on her back staring at the canopy covering the top of her bed. Her heart beat more rapidly than she ever remembered, her breathing was quick and her mind raced. "He will prevent this," she said to herself as convincingly as she could. "Yes, my Knight will not let me marry Suciando. I must believe this..." But even as she smiled at these thoughts, her soul filled with hope, a tear or two still found a way to leave her eyes and travel down her cheek to wet her silk pillowcase once again.


LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 08-26-2002 @ 07:00 PM).]

Lancer
Archer
posted 08-27-02 21:24 EST (US)     115 / 140       
Figaro had just stepped onto the balcony when he heard a soft knocking behind him on his chamber door. He called out for Fredo to answer the knock, but the boy apparently was elsewhere for there was no response. Figaro quickly stashed his belongings then opened the door. It was Bianca.

Without waiting for an invitation she stepped into his room and closed and latched the door herself, leaving the surprised jester standing there wondering what she was about. With the door closed and latched she whirled about and virtually threw herself into Figaro's arms pressing her warm body against him and kissing him full on the lips.

"Bianca!" Figaro managed to say once she finally released his lips. "What are you doing?!"

"What do you think, Figaro?" she replied, a twinkle in her eye, a new very faint smudge visible just below on her right cheek.

"I don't know what to think, Ceneri."

"Then don't think..."

Some time and a dozen kiss-punctuated embraces later...

"I'll be leaving tomorrow and I want you to promise me something," said Bianca, a rosy glow on her cheeks making the light smudge more prominent.

"And what is it you want me to promise?" answered Figaro, holding the young woman gently in his arms.

"I want you to promise me you will do what you can to help the Lady Caterina."

"The Lady Cater...? But why, Ceneri?!"

"Because she is my age and I understand her unhappiness," said Bianca.

"But she has the Crimson Knight to help her," protested Figaro.

"The Knight may not be enough. She might need more help than that."

"Oh, Ceneri. I'm just a jester, an entertainer, I can't..." protested Figaro, only to be interrupted in mid protest by an unusually assertive Bianca.

"Nonsense, Figaro. Use your imagination and the other skills you possess. You'll find a way. I believe it with all my heart. So does my Master."

"Your Master? Del Strego? Did he send you here?"

"No, silly. I came on my own. I'm merely repeating something he said. My visit tonight is my own idea."

"But Ceneri, you shouldn't be here. Del Strego may worry about you."

"Why, my love? Are you going to do something he should worry about?" Again the twinkle in her eye. My, thought Figaro, a little courtside training and the shy apprentice is a thing of the past.

"No. I wouldn't dare," said Figaro, beads of sweat beginning to pop out on his forehead. "I think it is time for you to go."

"I'm going tomorrow, not tonight."

"Ceneri! Please!" pleaded Figaro. "If you are caught here it will be trouble for us both." Just then the door latch unexpectedly was jiggled, as if someone were trying to open the door. "Quick, the closet," whispered Figaro. He led Bianca to the closet and closed the door, then he walked to the chamber door and opened it.

"Why did you lock the door, Master? Did you forget I would return? You sent me on that errand to the wagon. Don't you remember?"

Figaro's heart crawled back down his throat into its normal place in his chest. "Fredo, be quiet and come in, would you. Yes, I remember. I just didn't expect you back so soon." The jester closed the chamber door and walked to the closet opening its door and letting Bianca out.

Fredo had a funny look on his face. "Is this why you sent me on that errand? You could have told me. I wouldn't have said anything."

Bianca smiled. "Fredo, you are a wonderful boy." She leaned over and though Fredo scrunched up his face, Bianca kissed him on his cheek. Fredo turned very red and walked away mumbling to himself.

"Now you must go," said Figaro, guiding Bianca to the chamber's door.

"Promise me what I asked, Figaro," insisted Bianca one more time.

"Yes, Ceneri. I promise."

"Good!" Bianca kissed Figaro one more time, lifted the edge of her gown and hurried out the door, checking first to see that the hallway was empty.

With Bianca gone, Figaro closed the door and turned to see Fredo staring at him. "Girls sure like to kiss a lot," the boy said, rubbing his cheek where he surmised the imprint of Bianca's kiss might still be lingering. "I don't think I like it much. It's messy."

"Wait a few years, Fredo, before deciding. You may change your mind by then."

"Pshaw... I hardly think so, Master. I've made up my mind already." Fredo turned and went about his business. Figaro smiled remembering when he had said the same thing at about the same age when that village girl, Gina, trapped him behind his Master's wagon and planted a kiss on his face. She was so disappointed when he ran away and didn't kiss her back. But what else was he to do. Girls were frequently annoying him with their airs and kisses... Well, at least they were back then.

Now, instead of Gina, there is sweet Ceneri, smudges and all, asking him to help an equally sweet young woman (well, if not to him at least to others - the Knight mostly it seems) who is suffering for the sake of Millefiore. He, the jester, being called on to help the noble woman at the request of the common apprentice. Such a turn of events.

Figaro fell back onto his sleeping cot staring up at the ceiling of his chamber pondering the dilemna. He liked them both very much, the apprentice who plies him with kisses and the noblewoman who disdains his presence. If only they could see reality through his eyes, the veils before their lovely eyes would be lifted and they would see things as they are with crystal clarity.

Lord help him, he had no choice. He would fulfill the charge given to him to the best of his ability and accept what would follow, difficult or not. With this final thought he fell asleep, rising the next morning to see the departure of Lady Bianca and Ambassador Del Strego.

The Duchess Loriana, standing at the top of the stairs to the entrance to the Keep, watched as the Lady Bianca specifically directed a departing wave of her hand towards the jester who was standing among the servants. The jester bowed in response. Interesting, noted Loriana. Caterina noticed the same thing. Oddly, a rememberance of the night she was accosted by Mercutio flashed into her mind and Cat experienced an ever so slight rush of emotion, something akin to... akin to... jealousy? Nonsense, she said to herself. Stuff and nonsense! And she shoved it out of her mind as the Lady Bianca was assisted onto her horse and began the ride that would take her to San Luca Maggiore.

Just as the Ambassador and his party moved far enough out of earshot that the Duchess' words could not be heard, she turned to the Captain of her Guard. "I much regret this order I am about to give, Captain, but see that it is carried out. Have every blacksmith in Millefiore set to work making swords, pikes and armor. Have the carpenters build bows and the fletchers make arrows. Fill the armory first. Then have the engineers build siege machines and dig pitch ditches. Recruit all of the soldiers you can and give them the training they'll need. I think we must be prepared for any possibility regarding Suciando, even the worst." The Duchess turned about and walked back into the Keep. Caterina stared after her wondering at the words she just heard. Figaro heard them also and understood their meaning too well.


LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 08-27-2002 @ 09:44 PM).]

Lancer
Archer
posted 08-27-02 21:55 EST (US)     116 / 140       
The Clerk of the Keep pointed to the land on which sat a small cottage, its door standing open and its gardens looking unkept. "Here is your grant from the Duchess, Signor Cesare. I trust this is satisfactory?"

Cesare surveyed the structure and land indicated by the Clerk. "More than adequate, Master Clerk. The Duchess is indeed true to her word and to our agreement. Please express to her my appreciation and pledge of loyalty."

"I shall do so and you may do so also very soon."

"How is that, Master Clerk?" asked Cesare. "How may I do so here?"

"Because Signor Cesare, the Duchess says she will travel this way soon to see how you are progressing. Oh, I am to give this to you as well..." The Clerk handed Cesare a small pouch of coin. "I believe this was also part of the agreement."

"It was and again I am very grateful. I change nothing that I said before."

"That is good, Signor. Of course, you are not forgiven the responsibility of taxes, but collections are concluded for this year and shall not occur until another season is completed. You will have time to prepare in the meanwhile."

"Thank you," said Cesare, bowing from the waist.

"I shall leave you now. Good luck, Signor." The clerk jerked on the reins of his horse and the man and his mount trotted off leaving Cesare alone with his new land and home.


LANCER
One word deserves another.
Lancer
Archer
posted 08-28-02 15:59 EST (US)     117 / 140       
WEEKS HAVE PASSED WITHOUT EVENT... UNTIL NOW.

The protocol of marriage between nobility was underway. Preparations for the ceremony, to be presided at by the Bishop; planning for the banquet; generation of a list of guests; selection of service content; all of these things were being prepared. Meanwhile, in the villages of San Luca Maggiore and Millefiore, the forges flamed brightly, wood was being bent and strung with fresh gut, and arrows were being feathered as rapidly as possible.

Figaro sauntered down the stairs only to find the entire household in an uproar. The jester finally cornered the Head Servant and asked him what was the matter. "Oh! Terrible news! The whole village knows of this!" moaned the Head Servant.

"Knows what?" asked Figaro as he was apparently the only one who didn't know.

"It's the Lady Caterina. She rode out with an escort of 5 soldiers for a simple excursion into the country and never returned."

"None of them?"

"One soldier only... and he died there, on the Keep's stairs after he told the guard what had happened."

Figaro was becomming impatient. "Well, what happened?!"

"The Lady has disappeared to no one knows where," said the Head Servant.

"The Knight?" asked Figaro.

"No, he was not part of it, that we know from the soldier who returned. But there is worse news."

"What now?"

The servant's expression became even more severe. "Duke Suciando sent a messenger to say he would be arriving here in two days to pay a visit to the Duchess and the Lady Caterina. Talk is if Caterina does not present herself, the Duke will consider it a slight and a rejection of the betrothal and may declare war on Millefiore."

"Just the excuse he would like," mumbled Figaro.

"What, Signor Figaro?" The Head Servant did not hear all of Figaro's mumbled words.

"I said... Oh, never mind what I said. Thanks for telling me what happened." The Head Servant blinked once or twice and then went about his business giving the jester no further attention. Figaro continued talking to himself. "Hmmm, if the village knows, then the Knight knows. And what will the Knight do? We'll just have to see, I suppose.

____________________________________________________________

The villagers of Millefiore who lined the road welcoming Duke Suciando noticed that soldiers of Millefiore seemed more plentiful than at any time in recent memory. Indeed, it seemed that there were groupings of soldiers everywhere. How unlike the time when the Ambassador and his lady visited.

As Duke Suciando and his troop made their way up the main road through the village, the Duke noticed the soldiers as well. Nonetheless, the possibility of hostilities seemed very remote in his mind, though he took the precaution of wearing his chain mail and armor plate and ordering 30 mounted San Luca Maggiore infantry to be his escort for this visit.

A few hours after his arrival, the Duke stormed out of the Keep, mounted his horse and ordered his men to lead the way back to San Luca Maggiore. The set of his jaw was firm and look in his eye was that of unbridled anger.

Loriana sat slumped in her chair in the Great Hall her advisors gathered around her, and her brother looking self-satisfied as if what occurred was something he had predicted. Loriana removed a hand that was covering her eyes. She looked at her Chief Advisor.

"Is the Duke of San Luca Maggiore gone?" she asked, her voice strained and tentative.

"Yes, Milady," confirmed the Chief Advisor.

"Then war will come to Millefiore. The Lord protect us," said Loriana. "Find Caterina, whatever you do, find her."

"We shall do our very best, Milady," said the Chief Advisor, the gravity of the situation weighing down on him as well. Loriana looked at Ricco, her eyes narrowed into two glaring slits. "You had better not have anything to do with this, Ricco."

Ricco behaved as if taken aback. "Me? Duchess, while I am not surprised your leadership has brought us to this point, I assure you I had nothing to do with Cat's disappearance."

Loriana studied Ricco with jaundiced eyes. Truth or not, she concluded. He is not at all displeased with the situation... And that made her more uneasy than before.


LANCER
One word deserves another.
Lancer
Archer
posted 08-29-02 16:17 EST (US)     118 / 140       
"Yes, find my half-sister and bring her back," repeated Ricco. "That is what I said."

"But... I don't understand," protested Dante. Carlo listened attentively trying to understand as well.

"Look, if there is war with San Luca Maggiore, there is a risk that we could lose. Where will we be then? Most likely dead or wandering the countryside penniless and homeless. Once we find Cat, if she is alive, and return her to Millefiore, then the marriage will occur and war will be averted." Ricco saw the puzzled faces on Dante and Carlo clear slightly. "I know it is different than I instructed before, but things have changed. This makes more sense for all of us, don't you think?"

"It does to me, almost," said Carlo. Dante looked like his thoughts still conflicted with Ricco's. "What if one of us preferred she didn't marry Suciando," said Dante.

Ricco's eyes narrowed, "Then that person would be at cross purposes to me... and Mercutio."

Dante lowered his eyes. He understood the message. On the other hand if he found Cat, maybe, just maybe, he could work certain things out the way he wanted them to be. Maybe. "We shall leave as soon as we gather supplies, this afternoon at the latest," said Dante. Both men turned and walked out of Ricco's chambers.

Ricco's eyes followed Dante out of the chamber. Something is going on in his mind, thought Ricco. He wasn't sure he liked what he suspected.

____________________________________________________________

Fredo guided Figaro to the location of the rebel's camp. Father and son were reunited amidst a circle of men and women who rushed to greet them.

In the hours left in the day, Figaro told the rebels what had transpired in Millefiore and the probable war with Suciando. The rebels did not have Caterina, they said. Furthermore, they had no idea where she might be, or if she was still alive.

It was then that Figaro decided that Fredo would be better off in his father's camp than in Millefiore. Much was discussed between the two men after Fredo was sent off to sleep. Possibilities were discussed and plans were made. There was a lot to be done between now and the time Suciando might return with his army. Figaro concluded his conversation and he too found a place to sleep.

____________________________________________________________

The sun rose high on the next day finding the Crimson Knight scouring the countryside southwest of Millefiore for any sign of Lady Caterina. He found the place said to be the site of Cat's disappearance and began to work his way north from there.

Forest friends told him they had seen a woman fitting her description in the company of men who were riding war horses but who were covered with hooded cloaks. It was impossible to see who they were, he was told. The Knight felt some relief. At least Cat was seen alive. Finding where she might be would be the next hurdle.

The Knight put spur to horse and guided him north.


LANCER
One word deserves another.
Lancer
Archer
posted 08-30-02 21:11 EST (US)     119 / 140       
The glum messenger from San Luca Maggiore waited quietly for the Duchess's answer to the disturbing message he delivered at the orders of Duke Suciando. Loriana looked at him, her eyes conveying the sadness she felt. "Tell the Duke of San Luca Maggiore that Millefiore is as saddened by the disappearance of the Lady Caterina as he is. We took no part in this vile act. However, if he offers no alternative than war between us, then Millefiore shall defend itself to the end. May God have mercy on us all. Messenger, be sure to tell him this exactly as I have worded it. The Chief Clerk will give you a writing of what I have said." Loriana raised her hand motioning to the Chief Clerk to write her words on a document.

The messenger bowed and accepted the parchment from the Chief Clerk. Uncharacteristically the messenger hesitated before leaving Loriana's presence. "Milady, if I may, I am but a messenger. Yet I have relatives and friends in Millefiore. I truly regret the message I was ordered to carry... I beg your pardon, Milady."

Loriana smiled. "I understand. We will do our best to protect all who live in Millefiore. Maybe reason will prevail and this will pass."

"I truly hope so, Milady," replied the messenger, who bowed and hurried from the room.

"I do too," said Loriana softly as she watched the messenger depart her chamber.

____________________________________________________________

Caterina struggled with her captors, but her strength was no match for theirs, either together or individually. She was subdued quickly. Her only hope was that the wounded guard who rode for help might somehow get to Millefiore or find the Crimson Knight before she was spirited to somewhere unlocatable.

Unfortunately, the hooded men who held her captive hurried her along at such a pace that soon she lost all hope of being found, least of all being rescued. Nonetheless, silent eyes hidden in the forest observed her passage in the company of hooded men and the information subsequently found its way to the Crimson Knight.

Cat could tell by the position of the sun and the direction of its passage that she was being taken north by northwest to some destination known only to her captors. She had no way of knowing that the Knight was riding in her direction many kilometers behind her. The hooded men were of no mind to permit anyone to find and regain Caterina, so they drove themselves and the young woman onwards, relentlessly, to their destination.

Hours later, the Captain of the Guard slammed the solid wood door shut on Caterina's poorly appointed room in the upper story of the fortress and locked it from the outside. There she stayed until the one who ordered her capture decided the time was right to observe, first hand, the fulfillment of his order given to his soldiers days earlier.

____________________________________________________________

"Then it shall be war!" exclaimed Duke Suciando. "Caimbeaul, ready our army to proceed to Millefiore at first light tomorrow morning! The woman has no right to be Duchess of anything if she cannot keep her word to me!"

"Yes, Milord," said Caimbeaul, and he left Suciando's chamber to do as he was bid.

____________________________________________________________

Dante suddenly pulled hard on the reins of his horse, signalling Carlo to do the same. Dante pointed to some vegetation that would give them both adequate protection from anyone's eyes nearby. They both directed their horses to cover.

"Why did you..." began Carlo only to be silenced by Dante who put an index finger to his lip to emphasize what he wanted from Carlo.

"There is someone coming up the road," whispered Dante. "Let's see who it is." Carlo nodded his understanding.

The man seemed oblivious to all around him as if he were on a mission with a single purpose behind it. He pressed his horse onwards paying little attention to anything except the road ahead.

Normally, his passing would have been of little interest to either Dante or Carlo, but this rider piqued their interest the moment they caught sight of him. For the man hurrying his horse onward wore a mask that covered most of his head and face, and the color of the mask was crimson.


LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 08-30-2002 @ 09:15 PM).]

Lancer
Archer
posted 09-03-02 16:17 EST (US)     120 / 140       
There was a small creek running close to the edge of the road. The Crimson Knight led his horse to it and dismounted, permitting the animal to drink the water and to feed on the lush grasses growing on its bank. The Knight knew it was necessary, eventhough his sense of urgency drove him on relentlessly. "Take care of your horse first," the old mercenary always told him, "and your horse will take care of you."

The warm afternoon sun lulled him into a sense of comfort. The image of his horse calmly forraging for grass encouraged him to sleep. So he did... only to awaken sometime later to the feel of steel at the base of his neck...

"So we meet again, Red Knight. This time it is my weapon at your throat." The Knight drove sleep from his mind and his vision cleared correspondingly. He saw it was Dante who held the point of a sword to his throat.

"My friends know me as the Crimson Knight."

"I have addressed you properly then," retorted Dante.

"Now that we've cleared that up, what can I do for you gentlemen?" asked the Knight. By now Carlo had stepped into the Knight's constrained view, for the point of Dante's sword resting on the Knight's throat made side to side movement highly risky for the Knight at best.

"You can die," said Dante.

"What?! And not reveal the whereabouts of Lady Caterina?" The Knight studied the faces of Dante and Carlo to see if his words had any effect. They had. The two men glanced at each other involuntarily. Ah hah! So they also are in the hunt, concluded the Knight.

"What do you know about the whereabouts of Lady Caterina?" asked Dante.

"Just that, her whereabouts," said the Knight.

"Tell me or you die here and now!" said Dante, his teeth clenched and grinding.

"Die if I do or die if I don't. Hmmm. Terrible choices. How about if I show you where she is and we do the dying part later? You get the Lady and then I get the point of your sword."

Dante nearly laughed. Involuntarily, the image of the Knight with a sword protruding from his belly and a surprised, pained look on his face leaped to Dante's mind. His expression changed when he remembered the wily nature of the man and his adept tongue. "I think I should kill you now and worry about the Lady later."

"I conclude you do not want to travel north with me then?"
said the Knight.

"North?" said Dante.

"Yes, I said north. That's where she is, north of here. The exact place is known to me; but that information I will not divulge. Follow me and we'll ride to..." Dante interrupted him.

"We shall not follow you. We shall take you to the place you want to go," said Dante. "Carlo, take his weapons from him. Knight, call your horse." The Knight did as he was directed and climbed into its saddle once more. He hoped he could hide the fact he didn't know Lady Caterina's whereabouts long enough to think of a way to escape these two men and the point of either Carlo's or Dante's sword.


LANCER
One word deserves another.
Lancer
Archer
posted 09-06-02 15:47 EST (US)     121 / 140       
An iron key banged around in the lock to Caterina's sparsely appointed room. Startled, she lept to her feet and turned to see who was entering her chamber unannounced.

The man who entered was imposing, well dressed in his richly embroidered uniform and had about him an air of absolute authority. Two soldiers, obviously much lower in rank, entered with him, carefully following one step behind the officer, no more and no less. When he stopped to gaze upon Caterina he did so silently, the two soldiers halting immediately and waiting for some word from the officer telling them what to do next.

The officer was at least 20 years older than Caterina. His hair was thinning somewhat, and here and there a hint gray could be discerned if one looked closely. Caterina was not inclined to take one step closer to the man than was necessary, but she did not behave as if his presence intimidated her in any way. Instead, she straightened her back and stood as tall as her diminuitive heighth permitted and addressed the officer directly, even before he had a chance to say anything of his own.

"I am the Lady Caterina, sister of Loriana, Duchess of Millefiore. Who are you and why are you holding me here?" Caterina said.

The officer blinked and a small curvature at the corners of his mouth indicated his amusement at being so addressed. "Well, Lady Caterina. It is as they said. You are a spirited one... and quite lovely in a number of unique ways."

Cat hesitated, not knowing whether to fear the complement received or to appreciate it. She chose to ignore it altogether.

"I asked you your identity, Signor," she said in reply.

"Persistent too," observed the officer. "I am General Portello. You may address me as General, not Signor. I am no common villager... Milady."

General? Alright, it would not hurt to address the man correctly as he seemed to accept Caterina's assertion of nobility. "General, then. Why am I being held here? What does Duke Suciando intend to do with me?"

The general frowned. "Duke Suciando? What has Suciando to do with anything. I am not here on the Duke's business."

Now it was Cat's turn to frown. "Are you not a general from San Luca Maggiore?"

"Why no, Milady. I take no orders from San Luca Maggiore. They come from my own city."

"Then General Portello, for what city do you hold me?"

"Why, for Venice, Milady. You are a 'guest' of the city of Venice." The General's smile broadened as Cat's expression of confusion and dismay spread across her face, and the young woman sat down hard on the chair she had been occupying when the General first entered her chamber.

General Portello turned and told the two soldiers to leave. He decided they would not be necessary. He would spend some time alone with the girl. There was no need for guards.

____________________________________________________________

Caimbeaul, Roberto Del Strego at his side, observed the progress of the march. It was slow and deliberate in order to ensure the safe arrival of their precious siege weaponry. No sense in hurrying. It was too easy to hurry pull horses and cause a mishap that would block the column for hours. No... slow but steady was appropriate.

Del Strego sat astride his mount not paying much attention to anything except the wagon a short distance from his location. Inside the wagon were some of his precious compounds. On the driver's benchseat sat a soldier of San Luca Maggiore guiding the team pulling the wagon, and next to him sat Ceneri.

As her wagon passed Del Strego, the glum apprentice managed a weak smile and waved to her master. Del Strego waved back, but couldn't muster up enough heart to smile in return. Things had not gone well, and somehow, despite his best effort with the jester, war seemed upon them. Del Strego just couldn't understand why events had occurred as they did. Something was afoot... and it troubled him that he didn't know what or why.

____________________________________________________________

Dante pulled the sword back from the Crimson Knight's throat. "Alright, we go to the place where you believe Caterina is being held. No tricks, Knight; for if we fail to dispatch you then, there will be another occasion and nothing you say will save you from the thrust of a sword."

This time the Crimson Knight thought better than to utter anything "clever". He rose to his feet and called his horse. At the animal's side he mounted and held the reins lightly patiently waiting for the other two men to mount theirs.

Finally Dante and Carlo arrived at his side. The warning remained clear in Dante's eyes, and from the way his hand rested on the hilt of his sword. The Crimson Knight decided to carry on the charade until he could think of something better. Besides, with all three of them searching, there was a better chance of finding Cat than if he alone were in the hunt. The Knight tapped his horse's shoulder with the reins and the beast resumed its journey towards the north.

____________________________________________________________

"Pass the word for the jester," called out Ricco, intent on some personal amusement that the inventive entertainer might offer on the spur of the moment.

The Head Servant, standing near Ricco's chair, bowed but didn't move from his place. "Your pardon, Milord, but the jester is not anywhere about the Keep."

"Where is he then?"

"I am told, Milord, that the jester gathered some items from his wagon and departed the village. I believe he is enteraining elsewhere, or so some have said who saw him leave. Has he behaved wrongly, Milord?"

Ricco pursed his lips and his face mirrored disappointment. "No, he was told he was free to entertain about the country when there were no official functions here. He has not done wrongly. But I shall expect a performance all the better upon his return. Be sure he is told that... when he returns."

"Yes, Milord."

Ricco turned about and walked up the stairs. "Why is that man always out and about when something is needed of him." Ricco shook his head. Before he could reach the top of the stairs, the door to the Keep burst open and one of his soldiers ran into the hall. Catching sight of Ricco at the top of the stairs the soldier called out loudly, "Milord! Milord! Suciando's army is on the march. They will be here in three days, maybe two!"

Ricco ceased thinking about the jester almost immediately.


LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 09-06-2002 @ 03:53 PM).]

Lancer
Archer
posted 09-09-02 16:22 EST (US)     122 / 140       
The general alarm sounded among the villages in the Millefiore region. "Suciando is coming! The army of San Luca Maggiore is invading! To the Keep!"

A thin but steady stream of villagers made their way along the road towards the keep. Here and there, newly recruited and trained soldiers of Millefiore stood guard making sure all movement was orderly.

Among the villagers was Cesare. He had made good progress on his homestead, but now it would be interrupted by the advance of Suciando's army. There was no point in remaining in the cottage. Anything eatable would be taken, and anything usable would be pillaged. Whether he would be alive or not afterwards was arguable. Cesare decided he would be better served offering his help to the Duchess for two reasons: 1) There might be some reward he could earn, and 2) If Suciando should find Cesare and recall the mercenary's involvement in freeing Loriana, his life was probably forfeit anyway. That's how he came to be riding his horse on the road to Millefiore when the boy Fredo suddenly appeared at his side and urged him over because of the news he bore.

"Figaro is seeking Caterina! He left my father's camp a day ago and hasn't been seen or heard from since! My father thought you might have knowledge of his whereabouts."

"Me, why I hardly know the man. I was in the company of the Crimson Knight, not Figaro," said Cesare, confused at the boy's apparent lack of information.

"Oh... Well, Figaro spoke of you... I guess I... I am sorry, Signor," said Fredo appologetically. "I and my father misunderstood, it seems. Good day, Signor." Fredo was about to turn his horse when another thought came to mind. "One thing more and then I shall not trouble you further, Signor Cesare. The Crimson Knight is said by some forest folks to be in the northwest not far from here. They say he is travelling with two men. They are Dante and Carlo. I believe you know them. My father thought it odd after what was learned about your uhhh... meeting before. Anyway, Signor. I thought you'd like to know."

Fredo snapped his horse's reins and the beast took off at a sharp trot towards the land south of the road. The boy was heading back for his father's camp that even now was preparing to move to a place close to the battlements of Millefiore, but in a place unseen by Suciando and his men.

Cesare sat quite still on his horse simply staring after the departing boy. Dante and Carlo? The Crimson Knight? Cesare's decision was hardly that at all. For the first time ever that he could recall in his life, Cesare acted on impulse and impulse alone. Before he even knew he had done such a thing, he found himself on the nearest road heading towards the northwest, and away from Millefiore and its soon to be challenged battlements. And he did so without a rational reason in the world.

____________________________________________________________

Armored soldiers on horse and on foot and machinery on wooden wheels travelled noisely down the road heading towards Millefiore. Soon they would arrive at a location close to the city-state characterized by an open field lying between themselves and the walls of Millefiore's stronghold. Here they would pause to contemplate the appropriate strategy to pursue: extended siege letting starvation and thirst do their work, or quick, forcefull military action allowing their seige weaponry to take the stronghold apart block by block. There was much to consider.

____________________________________________________________

The Crimson Knight motioned to the Dante and Carlo to take the left-most fork in the northwest road, placing them on a course that would take them by the old fortress now held by the Venetians. They all three would have been at the site of the fortress sooner if not for the three hooded Venetian soldiers who considered it their responsibility to prevent all non-Venetians from approaching the fortress by that road.

Unfortunately for the Venetians, this would be their last day of duty for their General. Lying dead on the road their horses galloping into the bushes, the Venetians in their hooded robes that covered their uniforms triggered a recollection in the Crimson Knight... something the forest folks had said. It was hooded riders who had taken Caterina, they said, who seemed like soldiers but without uniforms.

Venetians! Suddenly, the possibilities rushed through the Knight's mind. He didn't like these thoughts at all. "Dante... Let's fit ourselves into their clothes. We shall visit the Venetian stronghold this night."

"The Venetian stronghold? But why?"

"Because, Dante. I suspect that's where we will find Cat."

____________________________________________________________

Caterina's heart slowly ceased its pounding in the moments following the General's departure from her room. She had not been harmed, though she did not like the looks cast her way by the man.

He had made himself clear. She was his guest and prisoner at the same time. She would be made comfortable, barely. She would have food and drink, the minimum needed. And she had better behave, or else.

Caterina was angry and frightened. She presented a brave face all the while the general told her about her status. It was only after he left and her heart stopped pounding and the hopelessness of her situation became obvious... It was then she began to cry... softly... but to cry nonetheless.

"I need you Champion..." she said to the empty chamber. "I need you desperately."

____________________________________________________________

From the battlements of the Keep, Ricco stared out at the massed campfires twinkling well in the distance a short day's march from Millefiore. For the first time in his life, the unapparent heir as he was so named by the Crimson Knight felt remorse. How had it come to this? All of his scheming and planning... And it had come to this. War and the possible loss of all his father had built.

Maybe the old man was right to name Loriana Duchess. He, Ricco, the man who would be Duke, seems to have made a mess of things and now it was up to his half-sister to make them right once more... if she can. He wondered if there was something he should be doing. He continued to ponder the possibilities as he returned to his chambers waiting for his armor and weapons to be brought from the Keep's armory.


LANCER
One word deserves another.
Lancer
Archer
posted 09-10-02 22:06 EST (US)     123 / 140       
The Crimson Knight, Dante and Carlo, wearing their stolen hoods and Venetian uniforms, met no resistance as they entered the fortress taken weeks ago from the Genoans by the Venetians.

The Knight appreciatively concluded that Venetians had loose tongues after listening in to two guards talking about the Millefiore noble being held in the upper chamber and how pretty she was... for a non-Venetian, that is. Then one of the guards commented about seeing the General make his way towards her room. Speculation followed and so did knowing winks and coarse laughter that made the Knight consider applying a few swift swipes of his sword as a corrective measure. The Knight decided there would be another, more auspicious time.
____________________________________________________________

Caterina lay on her bed crying softly. She was still in her daytime clothing, the riding gown she wore when captured by the Venetian soldiers. Between sobs she heard a key turn in the lock once more. This time the keyturn was soft, slow and stealthy, not abrupt and noisy. Cat was more alarmed now than ever before.

The lock unlatched and the door opened. Three hooded men bearing swords, one of the swords bloodied, stepped into the chamber. The third man closed the door. Cat's heart leaped to her throat and lodged there. Her hands began to tremble. This was not good, she felt. "What do you want? I'll... I'll scream if you touch me!" she cried out. "Get out of here! Now!" A porcelain pitcher was in reach and in a surge of pure courage and anger, she reached for the pitcher intending to brain the first one to step too close.

"Not without you, Lady Caterina," said a familiar voice that made Cat halt before throwing the pitcher at the one who spoke.

"What did you say?" she said, unsure but hopeful.

"I said, not without you." With these words the hooded man who spoke reached upwards and pulled back his hood to reveal a face obscurred by a crimson colored mask.

Cat's eyes opened wide and she brought a hand to her mouth in pleasured shock, dropping the porcelain pitcher. Fortunately, the pitcher found her sleeping cot and bounced quietly before coming to rest on its side in a depression in the straw mattress's center. The young woman ignored its falling, instead she rushed into the open, welcoming arms of the Crimson Knight.

Warm lips and cheeks moist with tears were pressed against the Crimson Knight's face repeatedly. "Milady... we... must... go... and... quickly," said the Knight, trying to fit words between her affectionate kisses as he tried to get Cat's attention focussed on escape. Finally, he gently but purposefully pushed Cat away. "Change into these, Milady. It will aid in our escape." The Knight thrust into Cat's hands a set of clothing carried by one of the other hooded men with him. Cat noticed the clothing was from a Venetian soldier, a small man. She also noticed the bloodstain around a slit in the uniform's shirt. She looked at the Knight. He understood her unspoken question.
"It was unfortunate, but necessary, Milady. Hurry please."

"Who are these others," Cat asked. The two hooded men pulled back their hoods. Dante and Carlo! "I don't understand. These men..." The Crimson Knight interrupted her.

"There is no time... hurry! I will explain later," said the Knight. Dante growled his own response. "Yes, later."
The Knight didn't like the tone of it, but said nothing in response.

"Turn your backs," ordered Cat, still keenly aware of her need for maidenly modesty in a room without a dressing screen. All three turned, although Dante seemed to position himself at an advantageous angle for glancing. The Knight stepped between Dante and Cat to ensure Dante's line of sight was thoroughly blocked. Dante mumbled something threateningly obscene heard by the Knight and Carlo, but otherwise made no attempt to move or make the Knight move.

"I am ready now," they heard Cat say. All turned to see the young woman dressed in the Venetian soldier's uniform. It was ill fitting, but serviceable. It wasn't the first time the Knight had seen Cat in unwomanlike clothing, but he still had to struggle to suppress a laugh that nearly escaped. "Best push your hair into the hat, Milady," warned the Knight. "We do not want to attract the attention of any officers. And especially not the General's."

"The General's? What did he know about that?" wondered Cat as she complied with his instructions. She decided she would find out later, provided they are successful in their escape.

"Now quietly, Milady. There are horses below tied and waiting. One reminder, you must ride like a soldier, legs astride the saddle, not like a noblewoman. Understand?"

"Quite clearly, Signor Knight," she said. "You might recall I have done so before."

"Yes, of course, Milady. The boy on his horse. I do recall." The Crimson Knight managed a wink, barely discernable through the eyelet of his mask.

Cat stuck her tongue out at him in a display of girlish annoyance. Inside, her heart thumped wildly with unbridled excitement. Just to be with him again, no matter the reason or circumstance...

____________________________________________________________


At the gate they paused to report their mission to the guards. "Supplementary night patrol," said Dante in his gruff, unfriendly voice. The guard glanced at the others and waved them all through without any further hesitation. Gruffness had its merits, considered the Knight. So does the cover of night.

Fifteen minutes later, the woman sent to assist Caterina in accomplishing her nighttime oblations raised the alarm. "Gone!" she cried out from the base of the tower, running into the courtyard with Cat's gown in her hands. "The girl's gone! And she left her clothes behind! Naked girl! Look for the naked girl!"

That triggered an explosion of confused, overzealous humanity in the courtyard and in the nearby buildings as soldiers poured out of barracks and scurried to and fro to find the naked girl. Finally, amidst the uproar, a powerful voice bellowed out a series of commands. "HALT! CEASE THIS MINUTE! FORM RANKS! LAST MAN NOT IN RANKS WILL BE SHOT!" It was the General.

It took some time before all that had passed was understood. Orders were again issued and search parties by the score were sent out to scour the countryside in pursuit of Caterina and her three accomplices.


LANCER
One word deserves another.
Lancer
Archer
posted 09-11-02 21:45 EST (US)     124 / 140       
The army of Duke Suciando aligned itself in the open field between its encampment and the stronghold of Millefiore. The village was abandoned, its people scattered about the countryside or inside the stronghold. Whatever was there of value found its way into the pockets of marauding soldiers or into the larder of Suciando's encampment. There were provisions in the stronghold sufficient for a number of days, but not forever.

Millefiore was not a place perpetually prepared for war. It was a place where peace was the rule and war was the exception. On this day the pragmatics of such a posture could easily be called into question. Ricco did no such thing knowing that his father, the same father shared with Loriana and Caterina, made this policy and he, Ricco, had carried it forward during his few weeks of being the Duke as did Loriana when she returned. If there was a lesson to be learned, it would have to be learned later. For now, there was no time left to learn.

Suciando readied his demands and sent forward his messenger under the protection of a white flag as the sun revealed itself on the eastern horizon.

____________________________________________________________

The Venetian General received the report of his Captain. All search patrols had returned as ordered, except the patrol to the southeast. It was long overdue.

The General rubbed his chin and considered this carefully. "Our orders, Captain, are to use every means to secure Millefiore for Venice, take control of the PO Valley east of this location and ally or neutralize San Luca Maggiore. The missing patrol suggests to me that soon Millefiore will know who kidnapped the Duchess's sister and it will become impossible to take the area other than by conquest. Further, Suciando may not appreciate our 'ploy' and rethink his neutrality towards Venice. In which case, we will be forced to lay siege to San Luca Maggiore as well."

"General," said the Captain. "We have received all of our reinforcements from Venice and I am told the Duke's army is in the field before Millefiore. We are superior in number to his force and can press our advantage by meeting him on an open field."

The General nodded. "Just as I was thinking, Captain. Then we can turn on Millefiore after Suciando, when both may be weak from fighting between themselves. We must time our attack, however, by launching ours after the Duke attempts to seize Millefiore's stronghold." The General smiled. "We just might escape with light casualties and our mission fully accomplished as a result of this turn of events. Perhaps I should thank the woman and her three liberators for the opportunity?" The General broke out into a hearty laugh.

"Yes Sir," said the Captain laughing with him. "Right after you lead us into Millefiore's stronghold. I shall deal with her three henchmen straight away... and I'm sure you have something planned for the girl." Both laughed, for indeed the General surely did.

____________________________________________________________

They were close to Millefiore now, but the horses were exhausted and they were too. So Cat, the Knight, Dante and Carlo halted their animals and dismounted in a place darkly sheltered by trees. They dare not light a fire and so they resigned themselves to a cold night with nothing but a canopy of tree branches and leaves for cover.

Carlo examined a cut on his arm caused by the sword edge of the Venetian he battled a few hours previously. The Venetian patrol nearly caught them unawares as they watered their horses in a creek by the side of the road. Moonlight had betrayed them even as they gambled that no patrol would find them and it should be safe to water their mounts. They had lost the gamble but not the battle. Five Venetians comprised the patrol. None would return.

Dante glanced sideways at the Crimson Knight. The warrior seemed invincible, fighting magnificently to ward off the attempts of the Venetians to seize Cat and kill her protectors. In fact, Dante wasn't sure, but it may have been the Knight who had saved his life when he was beset by two of the soldiers at one time. Why? He, Dante, had so much as promised that the Knight's life would be ended one way or another over this matter of Caterina. And the Duke... Ricco... seemed of a different mind with regard to his half-sister. Things were unsettled everywhere it seems.

Dante decided then and there to let Ricco decide the Knight's fate. "Thank you," said Dante gruffly, unexpectedly. The Knight looked at him, as did Caterina and Carlo.

"For what?" said the Knight.

"For uhhh... for saving my life back there." Dante cast his eyes at the ground, incapable of looking directly at the masked face of the Knight.

"Forget it..." said the Knight. "Ricco would have been angry at me if I let something happen to one or both of the only two friends he has in Millefiore."

This time Dante did look at the Knight, as did Carlo. Then the two companions looked at each other. Irony? A lady's snicker interrupted the tableau. The Knight and the others looked at her. At last laughter broke out among them and subsided. It was Dante who spoke next. "We shall return to Millefiore as quickly as we can, night or not."

"All of us?" said Caterina just to be sure.

"Yes," said Dante. "All of us. Sleep now, I'll take first watch. Carlo the second watch. I'll wake you, Carlo. Knight, stay near Caterina. I think she'll feel safer that way." For perhaps the first time in her life, young Caterina felt a little appreciation for Dante, friend of her brother or not.

Dante stepped away to patrol the surroundings as the moonlight permitted. Cat nursed Carlo's arm with an application of creek water they managed to collect before the assault. When Dante returned to wake Carlo, he saw that the Knight was asleep and Cat was near, very near his side. A degree of jealousy crept into him, but he decided he would gain nothing with Cat if he were to do harm to the Knight. Let Ricco sort it out. He, Dante, simply wanted this whole thing to end and normalcy return.

____________________________________________________________

"Master," said Bianca. "Shall we ever hear from the Jester again?"

"I don't know, Ceneri; but I hope so. If not for anyone else's sake, then just for your's."

Bianca said nothing, but tears softly fell once again. She cried to herself quietly so as not to disturb Suciando's Master Engineer as he studied plans for siege machinery.

Nonetheless, Roberto Del Strego heard her through the sheet of sailcloth that served as a modesty panel dividing their large, but shared tent. Del Strego felt her sadness and nearly shed a tear as well. Not for the jester, just for Bianca and the unhappiness he knew she felt.


LANCER
One word deserves another.
Lancer
Archer
posted 09-12-02 16:08 EST (US)     125 / 140       
Under a white flag of truce Suciando's messenger advanced to the walls surrounding the Keep. He shouted out his message to Loriana and Ricco, who were standing on the parapet looking upon the arrayed might of Suciando's small but potent army.

"His Excellency, Duke Suciando of San Luca Maggiore, having grievance with Millefiore for its discourtesy and unwillingness to fulfill its commitments, declares hostilities with the Duchess and all who are within. He bids you open your gates to avoid unnecessary bloodshed among all innocent commoners and soldiers of Millefiore. He promises that your lives will be spared though the fate of Duchess Loriana and her half-brother will be decided by the Duke at his convenience! How do you answer, Millefiore?"

Loriana stepped closer to the edge of the parapet and replied, her voice high pitched, but forceful. "Has his Excellency, Duke Suciando of San Luca Maggiore, sent his soldiers into our villages and our farms to loot and pillage, taking what once belonged to the commoners and soldiers of Millefiore?"

The messenger hesitated. Loriana persisted. "Answer me truthfully, messenger. Answer this as the Duke himself should since you are his only ambassador standing before us."

The messenger spoke out loudly so all would hear. There was no help for it. He could not embarrass Lord Suciando by lying on his behalf. "He has!"

Loriana paused and looked around at the soldiers manning the stone walls and at the commoners in the courtyard who were preparing to assist the soldiers as needed or put out fires if necessary. She saw the backs of nearby soldiers stiffen. She saw their grips on swords, ladder forks and bows tighten. Though these men were soldiers for the moment, they also were men who had homes in the village and who tilled small plots of farmland they called their own. They knew Suciando's men would leave little for they or their families to return to, and this they did not appreciate. It was on the faces of these men that Loriana saw the answer she must give to the messenger.

"Millefiore by its own hand has not violated its agreement with Duke Suciando," said Loriana. "It is the hand of another unknown to us. These hostilities are unfounded and unjust. Millefiore will not yield to injustice or unfounded charges. Tell your Lord to do his worst and we promise we shall reciprocate in kind."

The messenger lowered his white flag, turned his horse about, put spurs into its flank and galloped back to the place where Suciando on his own horse waited.

____________________________________________________________

The Crimson Knight stirred, tried to move but found himself blocked from behind by the sleeping form of Caterina. The young woman stirred, eyes still closed, protesting unconsciously with a girlish squeak and a moan. Her eyes opened afterwards, but she made no effort to change her position. Instead, she reached for and clasped his shoulder with her right hand as if to say, "Don't move, I want no changes." Carlo's return at that moment signaled to both that they had no choice. It was time to leave.

Caterina found a moment before they mounted their horses to ask a question she had wanted to ask since their evening's reverie began. Sleep gained the upper hand and so she had waited till morning. "Knight, why do you still wear the mask?" Cat asked. "Is it necessary?"

"Yes," came the Knight's terse reply.

"But why?" she persisted.

"Because I must."

"I don't understand."

"You will when I decide the time is right to remove it."

Dante and Carlo caught the edges of Cat's questions and the Knight's answers and stared at the Knight during this exchange. The Crimson Knight looked at them and though his face was mostly covered, Dante and Carlo could read the warning in his eyes and in the set of the Knight's jaw. The message was simple. "Do not try... Not ever..." The two Millefioreans decided right then, wordlessly, the identity of the Crimson Knight was Ricco's business not theirs.

A distant whooosh and whump, the characteristic sounds of a mangonel and the impact of its missle, caught their attention and they hurried their mounts to its source.

____________________________________________________________

The Venetians formed ranks and began their march to Millefiore. At the head of the column was General Portello and his staff.


LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 09-13-2002 @ 08:08 PM).]

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