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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 09-13-02 21:19 EST (US)     126 / 140       
Stones slammed into the high walls of the stronghold, shattered and fell to the ground carrying pieces of the wall with them. Loriana listened keenly to the advice of her commander and, surprisingly to some nearby, to the advice of her half-brother.

Profound changes seemed to be sweeping over Ricco. It was as if his eyes were finally opened to the folly of his ways, the risk to his family's fortune and the fragility of his, his half-sisters' and the other lives around him. This was no game played on a painted board. This was real, and potentially fatally real.

Loriana nodded in agreement. Ricco did as well. "Shall I give the command then, Duchess?" asked the commander.

"Yes," replied Loriana. "We have no other reasonable choice."

"By your command then, Milady." The commander saluted and ran off to do as he was bid.

The stables were emptied of all available horses. Millefiore's mounted infantry, all 50 members, heavily armored in metal plate and chain mail, were hoisted onto their horses. Auxiliary infantry, more lightly armored and carrying pitch soaked torches, also mounted their horses. The torches were ignited as the combined unit formed itself in the courtyard before the Keep.

Suciando had not yet deployed his forces for an assault on the stronghold. Instead, for demonstration purposes he had arrayed his forces before the stronghold and then, following Millefiore's reply, dismissed them in order to permit the mangonels time to do their work of weakening the stronghold's walls and structures. The assault would follow. The mangonels had to be stopped if Millefiore had any hope of stalling Suciando's timetable.

The gates to Millefiore's stronghold swung open and remained open as its mounted infantry rapidly advanced onto the field. Sunlight glinted off the shields and armor plating of the charging infantry. Flame and smoke poured from the burning torches of the mounted men who followed behind the path swept by their heavily armored comrades.

The alarm was raised in Suciando's nearby encampment and men rushed to weapons and arms. Though their reaction was swift, the horses of the charging knights were swifter and the distance between them and the mangonels closed in what seemed a moment's time.

War axes, broadswords, maces and other weapons that cut and maim swung widely among the defenders of these moderately defended war machines. Suciando's men fought valiantly, but were very much surprised by Millefiore's unexpected sally into their midst and they were temporarily overwhelmed by the assault. Knowing further defense was fruitless, they fled in the direction of the sound of reinforcements they heard advancing towards them from their camp.

Now the Millefiorans were free to light the mangonels and burn them into useless charcoal. Torches were flung into the weaponry and at anything else that could burn. Flames traced paths across the wood bases of the mangonels and crawled up their throwing arms. The wood was thick, but the pitch would not be denied. Soon all of the mangonels were nothing but a row of unquenchable bonfires that would burn and then smoulder for hours.

Task accomplished and with Suciando's reinforcements racing to intercept them, the Millefiorans knew retreat into their stronghold was necessary. Those who could ride did so. They gathered up the horses of those who could not and drew them with them towards the stronghold as fast as they could. The stronghold's gate remained open beckoning them it seemed to hurry back as quickly as they could.

Retreating men on horseback were surprised to see four riders emerge from the west and race as well to the gate. As the distance closed between themselves and their refuge, one of the riders seemed to hesitate, slow his horse and then turn it about and guide it towards the west. The three remaining riders were the first to enter the gate, followed by the remnants of the mounted infantry who had charged the mangonels.

The smallest among the three riders threw back the hood covering her head and looked around at her two companions. It was Caterina! But something was wrong. Her expression was not one of relief or joy, but of frantic concern. "Knight! My Knight! Where are you?!" she cried out. "What have you done?" There was no answer from her two companions who also threw back their hoods to reveal that it was Dante and Carlo who rode with her.

Dante guided his horse over to Caterina's and said, "Milady, the Knight turned back as we galloped here. I saw him do this."

"But why?" She was crying, almost uncontrollably.

"I don't know, Milady."

A voice cried out from the ramparts. "Is it true?! Sister! Is it indeed you?!" It was Loriana leaning over to see if the report was truth or not. "Caterina! It is true! Do not move! I am coming to see you!"

Moments later, Caterina buried her face in her sister's welcoming arms and shoulders. Tears fell from the eyes of both. "I have lost him again, Loriana. The Knight. What am I to do?!"

"Cry freely, my sister. And then we will talk of these matters when grief passes." She led her sobbing sister into the Keep. Ricco took this time to converse with Dante and Carlo. The remaining mounted infantry, numbers reduced to only 35, were lifted from their horses and their wounds attended to. Mercutio, Ricco's champion, watched these developements through jaundiced eyes, not at all pleased to think his master's plan seemed to have gone astray. He made new plans of his own.

The surviving horses were returned to the stable. There were many more horses returned than men. This was good for there might come a time when the priorities of the stronghold would be changed by siege, and the value of a horse would not be its prowess in battle but its ability to ward off starvation among Millefiore's defenders. The stronghold's defenders knew this. It was good the horses did not.

____________________________________________________________

"I'm sorry, Caterina; but it must be this way for now," whispered the Knight as he watched from his vantage point. It was necessary to convince Cat that he would gallop with them into the stronghold in order to get her to try. The gate's opening was unexpected but fortuitous. They had only a split second to make up their minds. All four leaped into their saddles and began the run for safety.

The Knight reversed his direction when he was sure Cat was unlikely to notice. The ploy worked. Cat was safe and the Knight was free to do what was necessary in his mind. Satisfied with the outcome, the Knight wheeled his horse and guided it southwest under the cover of whatever growth he could find.


LANCER
One word deserves another.
Lancer
Archer
posted 09-15-02 23:25 EST (US)     127 / 140       
The horse he rode was exhausted from its repeated crossings of the countryside. Figaro decided it was time to give him the rest he needed. Lush grass and creek water revived the beleagered beast and its strength began to rebuild. Figaro drew some dried meat and biscuits from his own meager foodstuffs and chased it down with cups of water from the creek.

A voice sounded from the bush. "Figaro... Jester... Do not be alarmed... I've come to help."

"Who is it?" said Figaro, his hand reaching into his shirt, moving the cloth hidden there out of the way of his throwing knife. He brought the knife out just in case.

"Don't you recognize my voice? It's Cesare!"

Of course, he should have recognized it. He had heard it enough times, but it was not the voice he expected to hear this day. "Come on out," said Figaro. Cesare emerged pulling his horse behind him.

"Jester, I'm glad it is you and not a Venetian," said Cesare.

"A Venetian, huh," said Figaro matter-of-factly. "Have you seen one?"

"Not just one... many. Marching this way."

"I see."

"Does it not alarm you?"

Figaro raised an eyebrow as if to say, "No... Nothing would surprise or alarm me this day. Why be so foolish as to ask." Cesare read the message so communicated. "You know this already, don't you, Figaro."

"Yes, Cesare. I already know this."

"Then what do you plan to do about it?"

"Once my horse is rested, plenty. But for now I wait."

"Would you object to company?" asked Cesare, wondering how welcome he might be.

"Your company, yes. Others, no," said Figaro.

Cesare began to attend to his horse. It would serve him well if his horse was rested too.

____________________________________________________________

Some time passed, and Figaro decided it was time to ride once more. At a certain place on the road to the southwest, Figaro stopped unexpectedly and Cesare, confused, stopped as well. Before Cesare could say anything, Figaro put fingers to mouth and whistled softly. His horse's ears twitched back at hearing the soft, high pitched whistle and he tossed his head and snorted. The movement rattled the jester's belongings in the sacks hung across the horse's flanks.

Seemingly from nowhere and everywhere the bushes parted and about twelve armed men appeared at the roadside. Figaro dismounted and talked to the taller man among them. The conversation began with the man declining something and ended with the man nodding his head and shaking hands with Figaro. Cesare couldn't hear the full conversation, but the name Suciando cropped up more than once.

The men disappeared into the bushes from whence they came. "Well, that takes care of that," said Figaro.

"Takes care of what, jester?"

"They'll help us against Suciando and the Venetians."

"Just twelve men? What can they do?"

"Those twelve are the only ones you were able to see. They are over two-hundred strong in total... And there are others who will help as well."

"What others?"

"Just others, Cesare. It is better you know very little of these things so that you cannot be made to tell."

"Now jester, who is going to make me talk?" Cesare laughed scoffingly.

"Suciando... We will be in his camp tonight."

Cesare's jaw dropped. "Suciando's camp?! Are you crazy, Figaro?!" Figaro didn't answer.

____________________________________________________________

General Portello maintained his army's slow pace. There was no need to hurry. His scouts told him Suciando's siege was progressing nicely. Casualties on both sides were mounting. Soon, all the Venetians had to do was show up and clean up the mess. Millefiore would fall quickly and there would be nothing between Millefiore and San Luca Maggiore to prevent its capture as well.

____________________________________________________________


Suciando's men trudged back to their camp, their numbers diminshed once more from their latest attempt. Yes, the Millefioran's had sent a messenger to say that Caterina was returned and that the Venetians had been behind the kidnapping. So what, Suciando concluded. They were his allies and their help was expected. Didn't the Venetian ambassador say that the Venetians would operate in the west and take advantage of their seizing the stronghold there to secretly harrass Millefiore as the opportunities presented themselves?

Suciando sent Loriana's messenger back saying he would accept no concocted lies about the Venetians. Caterina was back because she had never left; and now, in desperation, Loriana was twisting the truth to ward off defeat and save herself from Suciando's wrath. Unacceptable. "The slight is too deep," he bellowed at the messenger. "Be off and tell the Duchess she shall see me inside that stronghold one way or another, either by her surrender or her defeat in battle!"

The kidnapping was perfectly timed. The pretense it gave him was opportune. No need to change anything. Soon Millefiore would fall into his hands. It was only a matter of time. But this damnable attrition had to stop. From his vantage point overlooking the battlefield, Suciando watched his men as they returned. He looked back at the stronghold and could see the flames and smoke rising from the covered siege wagons that housed battering rams. He could see the bodies of his men scattered about, ladders lying flat on the ground, comingled with the bodies of Millefiorans who had fallen onto the battlefield from the walls above. This would cause a delay while he re-equiped his army with more siege weaponry. But that was acceptable. Time was Millefiore's greatest enemy and Suciando's greatest ally, even greater than the Venetians.


LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 09-15-2002 @ 11:37 PM).]

Lancer
Archer
posted 09-17-02 16:02 EST (US)     128 / 140       
The Venetians camped an appropriate distance away to the west of Millefiore near a road that would quickly convey them to the open field between Suciando's camp and Millefiore's stronghold. It would only take an hour's march, a mere nothing to his battle hardened Venetians. General Portello was quite content with these things and slept well that night.

____________________________________________________________

Roberto Del Strego studied his drawings and calculations. He shook his head and then ran stiffened fingers through his thinning hair. No, these will never work: just don't have the right materials at hand. Bianca silently studied her master's face and knew the twisting and turning going on inside. On the one hand Del Strego is chartered to create weapons that destroy and kill; on the other hand, the man detests war. My poor master, she thought. She quietly rose to clear away the pewter plates with scraps of supper still sticking to them that were her's and Del Strego's from earlier.

She never heard the flap of the tent open behind her, nor heard the men enter. As she turned to exit the tent, plates in hand, she saw them both standing there. One was the man called Cesare, the other... the other was Figaro. She stifled a scream just before it was uttered and converted it into a sharp intake of breath. Del Strego looked up and behind to see what had startled Bianca. He saw Cesare and Figaro, but being somewhat forewarned by Bianca's reaction he was more prepared than she for the surprise.

It was good that the floor of the tent was the grass of the field, for when Bianca dropped the pewter plates in surprise, they fell apart and made almost no noise at all. Before the jester could speak, Bianca stepped over the fallen plates and ran to him, embracing him for all she was worth, burying her head in his chest. Cesare looked the other way, somewhat embarrassed and slightly envious.

Del Strego knew better than to speak too loudly, so in a soft voice he said to the two men, "I take it you come in peace, or there would have been 'trouble' by now. How did you manage to get into the camp?"

"You are right," said Figaro. "We mean you no harm. As to how we got in... Well, let's say a few less than alert guards will have headaches in the morning, but Suciando's army numbers the same now as before we arrived."

"Why are you here, Jester?" said Del Strego.

Figaro gently removed Bianca's enveloping arms, but made no objection to her standing very close to him. "To warn Suciando that the Venetians plan treachery against him."

"They are our allies."

"Their general thinks otherwise. He was so bold as to tell Caterina his plan and why she should comply with his wishes for her own sake."

"You were with Caterina, you say? How?" Del Strego wasn't convinced.

"I observed her telling Dante and Carlo about the general's plan. This was after her escape with them and the Crimson Knight." Figaro's expression remained fixed. Del Strego could gain nothing from it other than the words spoken.

"What is the general's plan?"

"Exactly what the messenger from Millefiore said - to cause Loriana's and Suciando's armies to exhaust each other and to defeat both, thus easily capturing Millefiore and San Luca Maggiore. I'm sure he thinks the moment has arrived to do both."

"Why not tell this to Suciando yourself?" said Del Strego.

"I expect he will believe you if you are convinced, rather than believe me alone."

"And how do I convince him, Jester?"

"Master Del Strego, I have a plan that will reveal the Venetian intent if executed properly. Tell him this plan and then use those great powers you have to convince him of its value. I believe you can convince a squirrel to leave his fur skin behind and to frolic in the snow in the depths of winter if you so choose."

"I doubt my powers are that great, but I am interested in your plan. Share it with me please." Del Strego reached over and pulled some chairs over to enable both Cesare and Figaro to be seated as Figaro told him his plan. Bianca continued to stare at Figaro, her eyes studying every contour of his face as he spoke...

"... So in this manner I believe the Venetian plot will be foiled," concluded Figaro.

"It has merit, Jester. I see where Suciando cannot refuse to make the attempt. Either way, he maintains the upper hand. Do you think Millefiore will cooperate?"

Figaro frowned. "I think so, at least I believe with Cesare carrying the message, Loriana is likely to listen. She knows Millefiore could not resist Suciando for long anyway."

"It is worth the effort, Jester. I will see Suciando immediately. Cesare shall come with me. He must hear what Suciando says so as to represent him to Loriana. I will vouche for his safety... and yours."

"I will stay here, Master Del Strego, and wait for your return." Bianca's eyes opened wide and darted quickly to Del Strego to see his reaction. The jester's assurance of no foul play, Del Strego assumed. There would be no foul play, not if he had anything to say about it. Del Strego looked at her and nodded. He motioned to Cesare to follow him. Del Strego and Cesare exited the tent to make their way to Suciando's location.

Seeing they both were gone, Figaro turned his full attention to Bianca. "Ceneri, I..." But before he could say what he wanted to say, the girl was in his arms again and his message was smothered by deep, long, passionate kisses that all but consumed his immediate attention.


LANCER
One word deserves another.
Lancer
Archer
posted 09-17-02 22:20 EST (US)     129 / 140       
"Ceneri, you have to remember to let me breathe," protested Figaro.

"Why?" the young woman asked teasingly. "Should there be time for that between kisses?"

"If you want to kiss a living person, yes. If you want to kiss a corpse, no."

"Figaro, you've been away too long. What did you expect?" Bianca scrunched her face into a pretended pout. Figaro smiled and managed to free an arm. He looked for the usual smudge on her face, found it and gently attempted to wipe it away with two free fingers.

"Ceneri... Always Ceneri..." he said affectionately. Bianca's face pinkened and she smiled in appreciation. Then she reached up with both hands, locked them around Figaro's neck and drew his face down for one exceptionally long kiss that left them both breathless.

Time passed and the bliss that marked the beginning of their time together began to fade from Figaro's mind, though not from hers, as the situation at hand invaded his thoughts once more.

"Ceneri, I can't stay," Figaro said, knowing full well it was necessary to tell her. "I must leave. There is work to be done."

"What work? You've done all you can. Let the Master do what's necessary from here." Bianca's brow furrowed along creases that her youthful face usually hid.

"He cannot do the things that I must do, and so I will have to leave before the night is gone."

Something akin to impulse caused Bianca to say, "Is it Caterina?" Figaro was startled, then realized the extent to which Bianca heard his talk with Del Strego and what she might be thinking at his mentioning Caterina. Figaro always believed honesty was best so he answered her truthfully.

"Ceneri, yes, Caterina is part of this. So too is Loriana and Ricco, and Suciando and Del Strego. And another part of this is you."

"Well why should you carry all of this burden. The Crimson Knight is Caterina's champion. Let him worry about her! And since Loriana and Ricco are Caterina's family, such as it is, let the Knight worry about them as well! The Master can manage Suciando. All you need to care for is me."

"I'm sure that the Knight is worried about them," said Figaro, lowering his head and eyes, avoiding Ceneri's look. "And I do care for you," he admitted. "That's part of what makes all of this so difficult, so confusing and why I must go do what it is I must do."

"I do not understand you, Figaro, Master Jester."

"I do not understand myself either these days..." he replied.

"But I love you all the more. I can't help myself!" Bianca launched herself into the jester's arms once more.

Noises outside, voices and footsteps heading their way, interrupted their embrace. Bianca arranged herself and Figaro stood up, ready to accept friends or repel enemies. The tent flap flew back and Del Strego entered, followed by Cesare and then to Figaro's surprise by Duke Suciando of San Luca Maggiore. There were no guards or soldiers with them.

It was the Duke who addressed Figaro. "I will not waste words with you Jester as I am sure based upon what I know of your reputation that you would be well able to repel any sent your way. Do you swear on all that is holy and on the blood of your father that what you told Del Strego is the complete truth in all matters?"

"It is the complete truth, Milord," said Figaro. He returned Suciando's piercing stare with an unblinking stare of his own and a steadfast expression.

Suciando finally relaxed his gaze. "You have convinced Del Strego and your plan is well conceived. I am satisfied with what you have said. I am not fully convinced, but I see that your plan allows me the latitude to be so and to act freely according to what I perceive at the time."

"It was intended for that purpose, Milord."

"Bene. Cesare will be sent to Millefiore's stronghold under a white flag accompanied by torchmen to light the way. I will prepare my forces as you have suggested. You are free to leave my encampment, provided you do not attempt to enter Millefiore."

"Yes, Milord. I have no need to go there."

"Then be off with you, Jester," said Suciando with a wave of his hand. "There are but a few hours to the night and you will have their use. No one in this camp will harm you this day." Suciando turned on his heels, motioning to Cesare and Del Strego to follow.

Del Strego hesitated a moment at the tent flap and looked at Figaro, the older man's lips forming an abbreviated smile, his eyes twinkling in the candlelight. "I was right on this occasion, Jester. There is much more to you than meets the eyes." Del Strego glanced at Bianca and nodded. Then he left.

"You are leaving now?" She said almost immediately to Figaro, her eyes beginning to moisten.

"Yes. As I said, I must."

"Then take this with you, Figaro, and keep me close." She reached for and found a silk scarf dyed in a green the color of rich forest leaves and gave it to him. Figaro opened his shirt and placed it next to another cloth held in the same place, a different color than the green of Bianca's scarf.

One last embrace and then Figaro left the tent of Del Strego to the sound of Bianca's soft sobbing. He entered the forest on foot and found his horse. Not far, but stealthily hidden, lay the camp of the rebels and others recruited from the forest. It was here that he guided his mount and once inside the camp unloaded the items in the sacks carried by the horse so long and so far. He would need them on the morrow.

____________________________________________________________

Cesare found it was not easy to convince Loriana of the merits of Figaro's plan. She asked him to wait in a nearby chamber while she discussed the plan with Caterina and Ricco.

Caterina scoffed at anything coming from "the jester" and argued against it. "Why not find the Knight? He would know what to do. Besides, we can't trust Suciando any more than we can trust..." she paused in mid protest, feeling guilty that the next word would have been "Ricco".

"There isn't time, Sister. We have information on the Venetians. They are prepared to move tomorrow, there is no doubt." Loriana looked at Ricco to see if her half-brother would react to Cat's indiscretion.

Ricco's face turned red. "Say it, Cat. 'Ricco'. That's the word you ommitted." Surprisingly, Ricco wasn't angry. He was... ashamed. "I deserve that and more. I see why my father put faith in you, Loriana, and not in me. I see it so clearly it shames me all the more. Millefiore would by now be nothing more than a vassal of Venice or Suciando's holding if I had been named Duke. I see it so clearly it's feel is like a knife stabbed deeply into my chest. I have nothing to offer, Loriana. I deserve her scorn."

Loriana remained silent. Caterina felt waves of regret sweep over her. "I'm sorry, Ricco. I shouldn't have spoken that way," said Cat. "You have changed, brother. I'm beginning to see that now."

Loriana spoke gently to Ricco. "I value your advice, brother. What do you recommend? What do you think our father would have done?"

At the mention of his father, Ricco lifted his eyes to meet Loriana's. "I think he would have said, a problem's solution may come from an unexpected source. The jester strikes me as being an unexpected source. We have few options. We cannot survive a long siege or to battle Suciando or the Venetians alone. The jester's plan says we keep the gates closed until we are sure. Then we can fight the battle that must be fought... once we are sure. My advice, sister, is to accept the jester's plan.

Loriana nodded. "Then we shall advise the Captain of our host of our decision so that he can prepare and lead them tomorrow, whatever the day shall bring."

"No, sister. I shall lead our host," said Ricco.

"But brother, you..." Loriana was interrupted in mid protest by Ricco.

"Loriana, please," said Ricco. "I must do this. I shall lead our men. It is what our father would have done... It is what he would have expected me to do in his place."

Loriana decided nothing more needed to be said. She sought out Cesare in the adjoining room to give him her decision and to call for the Captain of the soldiers of Millefiore.


LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 09-17-2002 @ 10:33 PM).]

Lancer
Archer
posted 09-18-02 21:02 EST (US)     130 / 140       
THE MORNING OF THE FOLLOWING DAY

Fog filling the fields between the forest and the stronghold began to lift like a sheer, but slow moving curtain rising on a stage. The grass glistened with dew left behind by the retreating thin mist of beginning day. The stone of the stronghold showed stain here and there where moisture had formed and trickled down its walls during the night. Wet metal helmets on the heads of Duke Suciando's men, who were arrayed on the rise to the south of the stronghold, seemed to reflect the rising sun more so today than on any other. The Duke studied the field, the walls of the stronghold and the advancing columns of Venetian soldiers and in his mind repeated his plan and its contingencies over and over until he was sure about what he would do. The geography of the area was so compact he knew any decision to be made must be made swiftly and decisively. There would be no time for hesitation.

Roberto Del Strego was there as well. Bianca was at his side. He did not want her to see what would happen, but he could not abide her being alone in the camp. So he yielded to her begging and permitted her to be with him as he positioned himself near, but not too close, to Suciando. He glanced across the way to the place where Cesare sat astride his horse, two of Suciando's men with hands on swords to each side. Del Strego knew what instructions were given to the two soldiers, as did Cesare. The former thief knew that the day's rising sun might be the last he would ever see, that is, if the Venetians prove to be Suciando's allies afterall.

In his chamber, Ricco permitted his servants to place over his suit of chain mail the breastplate worn by his father that bore the colors and symbol of Millefiore. When they were finished he adjusted the breastplate for comfort, checked the position of his sword and accepted his plumed helmet. He placed the helmet under his left arm. Ricco thanked his servants and dismissed them. He walked from his chamber into the great hall.

Ricco paused a moment in the hall to look up at the portrait hanging there. It was a portrait of Duke Alfredo painted when he was a young man and only a few years into his nobility. Ricco was struck by the fact that his father wore the same armor in his portrait that he himself now wore. Ricco stared at the portrait for awhile and then said, "Father, today I shall act the Duke even if not the Duke in name. I hope you will find this small thing I do to some degree fulfillment of your expectations. It is all I have to offer, but I offer it freely without any expectation now or if we should meet in the world beyond." Ricco wasn't sure if it was light from the rising sun or the flickering of unextinguished candles playing across the portrait, but he thought he saw his father smile, ever so slightly, just after he spoke these words. Ricco left the great hall feeling comfort nonetheless.

In the courtyard he was greeted by Loriana waiting there with the assembled remnants of Millefiore's army. She stepped forward to greet him rather than wait for him to walk to her. "Take the greatest care, my brother, and come back to us well and alive. May god be with you."

"Brother, Milady?" he whispered when within her gentle embrace. "That is not what I am. A conspirator against and persecuter of my sisters. No, not a brother at all."

Loriana slowly released him and whispered back. "That man is gone. It is my brother that I hold."

"I shall do my best to prove it so, Loriana. May God be with you as well."

Caterina embraced him next. "Ricco, I..." she whispered, then hesitated. "I forgive you the things of the past. And ask you to do this one thing."

"What is it sister?"

"If you find the Crimson Knight on the battlefield, stay close to him. He will see to your safe return."

"But Cat, he is a man who I must meet in combat. There has been a challenge."

Caterina released him. "I trust him, Ricco. He will not harm you. I firmly believe this. Seek him out. Promise me this thing I ask."

Ricco sighed. "So I must have both the Knight and Mercutio to protect me it seems; but yes, Cat, I promise." Ricco elevated himself into the saddle of his warhorse and waited with Dante and Carlo at his side for the critical moment to arise. Loriana and Caterina made their way to the parapets to see what would unfold. Mercutio, in the courtyard, moved his horse closer to Ricco's to ensure his close proximity to the son of Duke Alfredo. It was what his master would want him to do on this day.

In the distance the sound of drums beating a march step rhythm accompanied the advance of the Venetians. They advanced in four columns from the north west, along the southern bank of the PO River, between the stronghold to the east and the dense forest directly to the west. They continued their line of march, stepping sharply to the martial beat, on a path that kept them out of arrow's range of the stronghold and of Suciando's men on the rise directly south of the stronghold. As the Venetians marched they saw from the corners of disciplined eyes the charred remains of Suciando's devasted war machines. At the foot of the walls of the stronghold still lay those who would never fight again. The columns continued their advance until they were positioned between the stronghold and Suciando's army. At this point, a horn sounded and the columns halted.

The first column, the closest to the stronghold, consisted of swordbearing laddermen and archers. The second column held swordsmen. The third column was filled with archers and swordsmen. The fourth column, the closest to Suciando's position, was comprised of pikemen. From the same place the four columns appeared, there now appeared a host of mounted infantry armed with lances and swords, about 150 men strong, far greater in number than their counterparts in Suciando's forces or in Millefiore's. These horsemen cantered their nervous horses to positions on the flanks of the columns. In total, the Venetian host outnumbered Suciando's remaining forces by a ratio of 2 to 1.

Another note from the horn was sounded and the columns of men turned to the left. This put them in a position facing the stronghold, with the column of laddermen becoming closest to and facing the structure's walls. A Venetian horseman raced onto the field from the abandoned village of Millefiore situated southeast of the Keep. He was a scout, no doubt, concluded Suciando as he observed these maneuvers. Probably telling the field commander that the village harbored no enemies. Suciando himself took that precautionary step earlier and determined the same thing.

The Duke nodded when he saw the horsemen turn their horses about and rejoin as a unit and begin to trot towards Suciando's position. Makes perfect sense, he thought. Use mounted infantry to clean up a Keep after a battle and to protect flanks when the open field position is treacherous. Conserve them in the rear of the battle otherwise. The horse's speed will carry its rider into battle quickly enough if needed. No point wasting them at the walls of a stronghold during a ladder assault.

The attack on the stronghold would come soon, Duke Suciando concluded, as he noted the speed of the mounted infantry heading in his direction had now increased to something just short of a full gallop and the Venetian archers were drawing arrows from the cases on their backs. So much for the Jester, his plan and his warning of Venetian treachery. He, Duke Suciando of San Luca Maggiore, would be inside the stronghold of Millefiore and put Loriana and the others in chains well before the sun set that day. He smiled at the imagery his thoughts provoked.

From the walls, Loriana watched the Venetians maneuvering. When they turned to face the stronghold, ladders ready and arrows nocked, her heart sank into the pit of her stomach. She looked around at the gathering of soldiers on the walls and in the courtyard. Not enough, she knew. Not enough time, not enough men, not enough of anything. "God help us," she said in a silent prayer no doubt also said by others around her in their own personal ways. "Today we shall see You in heaven."

Loriana reached across and took her sister's hand in hers. It was trembling just like her own...


LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 09-18-2002 @ 10:08 PM).]

Lancer
Archer
posted 09-19-02 16:04 EST (US)     131 / 140       
A horn sounded an unusual string of notes. "Odd," said Suciando to one of his officers nearby. "I've not heard that one before." Then his expression changed from unshakable confidence to utter dismay as he finally realized what was afoot.

At the sound of the horn, every archer in the four Venetian columns ran from their positions and took the few steps necessary to place themselves within arrow's range of Suciando's forces. Concurrently, the Venetian mounted infantry spread their line, accelerated their horses to a full galop and lowered their lances in the direction of the army of San Luca Maggiore. In their new formation facing Suciando's men, the Venetian archers then let loose a flight of arrows that arced over the heads of the galloping horsemen and landed amidst the mostly unprepared soldiers of Suciando wreaking severe havoc. Five seconds later the Venetian horsemen charged into the disarrayed ranks of Suciando's men.

The Venetian swordsmen and pikemen promptly advanced on Suciando maitaining a steady, ground-covering run. A great shout arose from the Venetians causing further confusion in Suciando's ranks. The Duke glanced at Cesare only to see the smug "I told you so" look on the man's face. Suciando said nothing to Cesare, but bellowed for the men around himself, including the two guarding Cesare, to join him as he charged into the fray in support of his beleagered army. This left Cesare alone. Also left alone a short distance away were Roberto Del Strego with the horrified Bianca at his side. Cesare guided his horse to their location. He felt obligated to provide what protection he could to the woman who loved Figaro.

The only Venetians not entering the fray were the laddermen. These soldiers merely dropped their ladders to the ground and continued to face the stronghold. Their mission was simple. Act as a reserve against San Luca Maggiore, or ensure Millefiore did not enter the battle in force.

From the battlements of Millefiore, Loriana observed each act as it unfolded. When the Venetian horsemen and archers attacked Suciando she realized the truth. "Cat! The jester and Cesare were right! It is time!" She ran to the battlement that overlooked the courtyard. "Ricco! The Venetians are attacking Suciando! May God be with you!"

Ricco waved and pushed his horse to the front of his mounted infantry, who were positioned just behind the gate and ahead of his foot soldiers. He turned about on his horse and shouted, "For the Duchess Loriana! For Millefiore! Follow me!"

The Venetians in the field saw the gate to the stronghold open and somewhat to their surprise (this was not what General Portello said would happen) Millefoiran mounted infantry and foot soldiers poured out and rushed into the field. There was no doubt that Venetians would be their targets.


LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 09-26-2002 @ 04:20 PM).]

Lancer
Archer
posted 09-20-02 16:03 EST (US)     132 / 140       
The Venetian laddermen that comprised the skirmish line facing the stronghold stiffened in anticipation of Millefiore's charge. The remaining Venetian archers turned about, ran and took up a position that put Ricco and his men within range of their arrows. This had the effect of putting the archers within range of bowmen manning the ramparts of the stronghold. The lines of archers exchanged volleys, albeit the Venetians aiming primarily at Ricco's forces and the Millefioran archers, fewer in number, aiming at the Venetians.

Unexpectedly, Ricco waved his mounted infantry in the direction of the battle between Suciando and the Venetians and directed his foot soldiers to engage the laddermen and remaining Venetian archers. None among the mounted infantry were lancers and so the impact on the Venetians would be sword on sword or against pikes. The Millefiorans closed the distance between themselves and Suciando's beleagered force rapidly, their appearance most welcome to the soldiers of San Luca Maggiore who were slowly loosing ground to the superior numbers of Venetians.

Venetian archers fell left and right to the swords of Millefiore. General Portello, observing the battle from afar, was not entirely pleased with these developments. But as a good general should, he had a contingency plan. He decided it was time to execute the contingency plan. He motioned to his horn blower to advance to his side from among the small company of mounted infantry that were assigned to guard the general's location. He gave the horn blower the order he wanted translated into a musical command. The horn blower elevated his horn to his lips and obeyed.

Ricco heard the notes echo across the battlefield as did the Millefiorans and Maggiorans who were defending themselves against the Venetians. With no Venetians nearby at that moment, Ricco was free to turn his horse about and see what the notes would bring. To his dismay he saw what it would be. A detachment of Venetian heavily armored mounted infantry suddenly surged from the village of Millefiore! No one knew they were there! Suciando's supposition that the lone rider at the start of the battle was a scout was only partially true. He was instead a messenger telling the commander in the field that the Venetian knights were in place and ready.

The knights on their huge, lumbering war horses lowered lances and charged into the Millefiorans who were attacking the laddermen. Loriana's hopes sank as she saw man after man fall to the combined power of the Venetian laddermen, now swordsmen, and the Venetian knights. The archers on the walls watched on in dismay as their arrows simply rebounded off the armor of the knights. Only one unlucky knight fell to an arrow which found a place to lodge in the knight's neck between his helmet and his upper body plating.

Millefiore's commander of infantry saw his dilemna all too clearly. He could not retreat to the stronghold because with mounted infantry in the field, he could not arrive at the gate before the enemy horsemen. This would expose the stronghold to attack from within... and it was already too slightly defended. He also could not hold his ground against the combined forces of the laddermen and knights. Venetian archers were no longer a worry, but that was small comfort under the circumstances. So the Millefiore commander took the only option left. He ordered his men to break off their battle and to rush into the mele' underway between the Venetians and Suciando's and Ricco's combined forces. Lives would be lost to pursuing Venetians, especially the knights, but there was nothing else he could do. And there was some safety in combined numbers.

Meanwhile, Ricco, with the assistance and protection of Dante and Carlo, was successful in reaching the area being battled for and held by Suciando and his personal detachment of soldiers. In particular, Ricco appreciated the protection Mercutio's presence seemed to offer. Mercutio appeared to be the most able to avoid the Venetians in this effort. Given his size and apparent strength it was no wonder that the Venetians would hesitate in attacking him man to man. Instead, they always seemed to fade back and away from Mercutio upon seeing him in his distinctive blue/gray armor with the solid black banner painted on his back and breast plates. This is what enabled Ricco, it seemed, to meet only token resistance as he and his friends drove their horses to Suciando's side.

Seeing Suciando, Ricco at once waved to indicate his own presence. Suciando, momentarily unengaged, waved back with a bloody sword to acknowledge Ricco's unspoken greeting. Mercutio decided that the moment was right and urged his horse towards Suciando. The Duke waited for the huge man to arrive expecting a message from Ricco. It was delivered promptly upon Mercutio's arrival...

To the utter shock of the few left standing or riding in the vicinity of Suciando, Mercutio raised his unsheathed sword high and landed a vicious blow on Suciando's neck, nearly severing the Duke's head from his upper body. "For my Master!" shouted Mercutio. As the Duke fell to the ground already a dead man, Mercutio then turned his horse about and galloped into and among the Venetians, not one of them laying a hand or weapon on the man in the blue/gray armor and not once did this same man use his weapon on any Venetians.

"My god, Ricco! What does this mean?!" shouted Dante.

"It means, Dante, that I am not Mercutio's true master this day and, I am afraid, it means we are doomed."

Too demoralized to do anything immediately about the death of their Duke... Too hardpressed by Venetians to do anything else... The forces of Suciando, now solely led by Caimbeaul, fought on as best they could. The Millefiorans in the fray, led by Ricco, did likewise, though suspicion among some spread disharmony and defeat widely.

General Portello was pleased. It was only a matter of time he commented to one of his lieutenants. The battle was nearly over, the slaughter could now begin. He smiled to himself in satisfaction only to have the smile suddenly fade.

A great cry arose from the forest in the west and with that cry hundreds of men and armed women boiled out of the once silent stand of wood. There were mounted men carrying all manner of weapons from axes to swords. There were men and women on foot carrying maces, clubs, forks and pointed sticks. They wore expressions on their faces that meant mayhem would follow. None wore armor, most wore nothing other than common peasant work clothing... Except for one.

He was mounted on a warhorse and wore white armor over a suit of chainmail. He held a lance and a plain white shield without design. At his horse's right side was a sheathed sword, at the horse's left side hung a mace looped over a hook in the saddle. The man's helmet was a color unlike the clean white of the man's body armor. For where one would have expected metal with a matching look, instead one saw something completely different. The color of the helmet was...

CRIMSON!



LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 09-20-2002 @ 09:29 PM).]

Lancer
Archer
posted 09-20-02 22:07 EST (US)     133 / 140       
General Portello's anxious eyes immediately were drawn to the man in white and crimson on the horse. He uttered an explitive that surprised even the veterans among his accompanying staff. "It cannot be!" exclaimed the general. "He must be dead! I saw him mortally wounded!"

"Who, General Portello? Who must be dead?" asked one of his very worried staff officers.

"The rider there in white. He was a troublesome mercenary. But he couldn't have survived the wounds I... I mean... we gave him that day," reiterated Portello.

"It appears he must have General. What shall we do, Sir? We have no reserves and there is no possibility of recall or retreat."

"We leave them to their fate and we ride east to live and fight another day, that's what we do," said Portello.

A different voice, one he did not recognize sounded behind the General and his men. "No, General, you will not be going anywhere." Suddenly, two dozen men dressed in forest colors surrounded the Venetians putting them all at swordpoint. The Venetians had no time to react or use their weapons. It was obvious that for General Portello and his Venetians there would be no escape at all. Their swords and other weapons were pulled and thrown to the side. The leader of the forest men ordered the Venetians to dismount. They were forced to watched the fate of their army as each and every one of them was bound with their hands behind their backs.

The appearance of the horseman in white caused a different reaction in Millefiore's stronghold. The Lady Caterina was the first to see him. "Sister! Sister! I just knew he would come! It's my Knight, Loriana! It's the Crimson Knight!"

"Cat, how can you be sure? Yes, the colors fit, but how do you know? There has been so much deception today."

"Loriana, I just know. My heart tells me so!"

Loriana shook her head not knowing what else to say. Young heart, young trust. "Please don't let her be disappointed," she prayed.

The battle between the Venetians and the Maggiorans/Millefiorans slowed its pace, both because the soldiers were reaching the end of their endurance and because the appearance of the white armored man on his horse and all of the others with him was as much a distraction as anything else underway. What was the intent of this new host, they wondered... all of them.

But among them, it was Ricco, accompanied by Dante and Carlo, and Caimbeaul who knew the intent of the newly arrived army. They raced about encouraging their remaining soldiers, "Take heart, it is the Crimson Knight come to destroy Venice! Fight on! Victory will be ours!" But when Ricco and Caimbeaul crossed paths, the Captain of the army of San Luca Maggiore shouted at Ricco, "When this is over you will account for the death of the Duke! Ricco said nothing in reply. He wanted it to be over. This accounting Caimbeul demands will be aftermath, more difficult if he should survive and less difficult if he should not. It could wait, nonetheless.

The Crimson Knight looked left and right to check the location of his peasant army. Satisfied he spurred his horse forward with the other riders keeping pace to the left and the right. Behind them, the peasants began to run towards the site of the battle in a line spread broadly across the open field. They let loose a great shout, a battle cry, that echoed off the walls of the stronghold and raced to embed itself in the failing hearts of the remaining Venetians. Their enemies, whose home they invaded, felt confidence rise once more. The few surviving soldiers of Suciando and Ricco reached deeply into what was left of their strength and engaged the Venetians once more.

Here and there, anxious Venetians began to look to the rear, wondering when they would hear the notes of the horn telling them to retreat. Where was the horn blower?! Where was General Portello?! Couldn't they see there was trouble, that their battle was going against them?! Where was the retreat?!

The horn lay on the ground. The horn blower's hands were tied behind him. There would be no retreat this day. There would be for the Venetians what had been planned for San Luca Maggiore and Millefiore.

The Crimson Knight spurred his horse to a full galop and lowered his lance for the charge...


LANCER
One word deserves another.
Lancer
Archer
posted 09-22-02 13:41 EST (US)     134 / 140       
Portello watched in dismay as the white armored rider led his rabble army into the midst of the battle raging south of the stronghold. He knew the weight of so many new fighters would effectively counter the training and discipline of his own Venetian soldiers. The battle was lost, he concluded. Once more he was correct.

One by one Venetians began to cast their weapons down, knowing there was no other escape, and begged mercy from their opponents. Usually, when a Venetian fell to the ground weaponless and begged on his knees the boon of mercy was granted. Not everywhere, though. Now it was the duty of the remaining officers and leaders to see that the age old custom of military chivalry was enforced. Neither Millefiore nor San Luca Maggiore desired a reputation for cruelty, no matter how serious the original provocation that led to this battle.

Portello's capturers decided the time was right to move the general. "It looks like you will be in the stronghold tonight after all, General. Not in the manner you expected, but in the stonghold nonetheless. The Lady Caterina, I'm sure, will have just the right chamber for you too. We hope you will enjoy the accomodations." Laughter broke out among the forest men. General Portello did not want to think about the choice the woman might make. He remained silent througout.

Among the men still armed on the field, opposed to the force fighting against the Venetians, was the towering figure of Mercutio. So imposing was his strength and skill at arms that neither Millefioran nor Maggioran would combat him directly or in groups. Mercutio screamed at them. "Come on, cowards! Fight me! You call yourself victors?! Hah! Only my master can stop me this day!"

Mercutio spied a riderless horse and noted nothing lay between himself and Ricco, except Ricco's two constant companions. He grasped the horse's dangling reins and leaped up into its saddle. He drove his heels into the flanks of the horse and sent it into an unstoppable gallop straight at Ricco. Mercutio's sword was unsheathed and ready.

Carlo was hunched over in his saddle, his upper body resting on the neck of his warhorse. The blood from the sword wound in his side trickled in a steady stream down his leg. At the angle his head rested he could see Mercutio charging forward on his horse, soldiers from all sides scattering away from his horse and swinging sword. "Dante," he gasped, pointing in the direction of Mercutio. "Dante... he means harm." Carlo slipped from his saddle and fell to the ground.

Dante, very close, heard Carlo and looked to where Carlo pointed. Dante turned his horse and drove him forward to meet Mercutio. Ricco saw what was happening and called out, "No! Dante! Let the others take care of him!"

Dante didn't listen. He tightened his grip on his sword and drove his mount on relentlessly. The two men met twenty yards from Ricco's position. The sound of sword striking sword reverberated across the plain. Venetians and others alike, mostly ceasing their combat, stopped to watch the battle unfold. It was brief, far too brief... for Dante.

The second swing of Mercutio's sword found Dante's side. His armor was crushed inwards breaking ribs and tearing muscles. Dante dropped his sword and Mercutio swung his weapon one more time. The blade crashed down on the base of Dante's neck. The earth swam before the dying man's eyes and he toppled from his saddle onto the bloodstained, littered floor of the plains.

Mercutio wasted no time on this victory. He relocated Ricco, who sat in his saddle stunned motionless at seeing his two childhood friends now lying on the ground of the plains. Mercutio again drove his horse to a gallop and with eyes ablaze and focussed on nothing but Ricco he rapidly closed the distance between them.

Ricco was alone. He looked left and right. There were no other soldiers anywhere, on foot or on horse, capable of reaching him before Mercutio. Ricco tightened his grip on his sword and awaited his fate.

Mercutio arrived a moment later. He shouted something maniacal about "his master" and raised his sword to strike at Ricco. The heir unapparent raised his own sword with the barest hopes of warding off the man's initial blow. Mercutio's sword descended, and then as if from nowhere, a shield appeard before Ricco, a white shield. Mercutio's blow fell towards Ricco unerringly, but the shield deflected its force and diverted the sword harmlessly into the air. Mercutio backed his horse away to see who the owner of shield might be so that he could eliminate the interferrence.

"We meet again, Mercutio," said the Crimson Knight. "Time to settle an old score, I think. With Ricco's permission of course."

"Granted!" said Ricco through clenched teeth.

A Venetian saw a shield lying on the ground, picked it up and ran to give it to Mercutio. He was successful, but paid for it with his life. Mercutio guided his horse back a few yards, checked his hold on his shield and sword and prepared to battle the Knight. Meanwhile, the Knight, no longer carrying his lance as it was left in the bodies of two Venetians like they were spitted pieces of meat, cast his mace to the side and drew out his own sword.

They stared at each other waiting for one or the other to make the first move. Not unexpectedly, Mercutio drove his heels once more into the side of his horse and charged. The Knight followed and both men bore down on each other for the final battle of the day, one man versus the other.


LANCER
One word deserves another.
Lancer
Archer
posted 09-23-02 16:05 EST (US)     135 / 140       
From the walls of the stronghold, Caterina clearly could see her champion charge Mercutio. The sound of sword on shield reverberated across the plains up to the very wall on whose rampart she stood. It was strange in the sense she could see their swords strike, but the sound followed late to her ears and only after each blow was delivered and the two combatants were raising their swords to strike again.

Cat didn't realize it, but the fleshy base of her thumb was clenched between her teeth as the tension of the ensuing moments mounted and the warriors battled on. It would be later, when the bruised muscles throbbed with pain and the darkening appeared around the indentations left by her own teeth, that she would remember how it had happened.

Clang! Mercutio's sword struck the Knight's shield with tremendous force at an angle that ripped the shield from the Knight's grasp. The Knight teetered in his saddle trying to recover his balance; but before he could Mercutio struck again. This time the tip of Mecutio's blade found the crease where the two halves of the Knights breast and back plate were tied together. Leather straps gave way to the downward stroke of Mercutio's blade. If not for the chain mail suit the Knight was wearing, the blow would very well have been fatal. As it was, sufficient damage was done to cause a trickle of blood to begin to flow from the laceration that resulted.

The greater damage was done to the Knight's balance on his warhorse. The tilting weight of his now severed armor plating caused him to fall off of his horse and onto the ground. His sword hand involuntarily released his weapon and it tumbled tip over hilt and lay on the ground just out of his immediate reach.

Mercutio smiled, sensing victory. Chivalry dictated no interference by others, though there were plenty among the peasants who would have skewered Mercutio that moment if it were permitted. Ricco involuntarily glanced towards the stronghold knowing Cat must be watching. He dreaded the words he must say to her if the battle continued in the manner it seemed to be going.

It was then the Crimson Knight chose to do something totally unexpected. All within eyesight of the battle stared in shock or horror as the Knight quickly removed the plate armor that covered the upper part of his body allowing himself only the chain mail for protection. Then he removed his crimson helmet and cast it onto the pile of dented white armor, thus revealing his characteristic crimson head cover quite soaked with perspiration.

Mercutio drew what to him was the obvious conclusion. "Do you surrender, Knight? Do you yield?"

"Of course not! I merely felt the need to slip into something more comfortable!" replied the Knight.

Mercutio, slow as always, failed to detect the irony but knew that something barbed was aimed at him. "Do you mock me, Knight?" he called back, his face reddening more from anger than exertion. Meanwhile, the Knight was edging closer to his sword even as he spoke.

"Does the dog mock the flea?" said the Knight. He was almost where he could reach the weapon. The Knight persisted, "Ah, Mercutio, you are as entertaining as always; but I much prefer you when you are under the influence of spirits. Your mind works far more crisply then. Unless, of course, it encounters a vase. I understand you fear these most of all."

Mercutio's eyes opened wide and he let out a tremendous bestial roar. Nearby he spied an upright lance with point stuck down in the ground and reached for it pulling it out of the earth. This diversion by Mercutio gave the Knight the barest moment he needed and he quickly took one last step and picked up his sword. He looked up to see Mercutio put heels into the rear flanks of his horse, lower the recovered lance and charge. Ricco held his breath as did the others. Chain mail would not stop a lance driven at a full galop into an adversary's chest. The Crimson Knight knew this as well and desperately tried to think of a way to avoid its impact.

The menacing point of Mercutio's lance drew closer, ever so much closer, until it was nearly upon the Knight...


LANCER
One word deserves another.
Lancer
Archer
posted 09-23-02 21:37 EST (US)     136 / 140       
Surprising even Mercutio, the Crimson Knight ran directly towards the galloping rider and at the precise moment when beyond there would be no escape, the Knight performed an acrobatic forward somersault. This caused the point of the lance to merely graze the Knight's back as he tumbled forward and finished standing upright on feet once more. The Knight spun about and began to run after Mercutio and his horse.

Mercutio reined in his mount the very second he realized he had missed his target. The horse responded by bracing its front legs and sliding in the dirt of the plain, then rearing upwards. Still holding the lance, Mercutio jerked the reins to the right trying to turn the horse about. By then, the Knight was within swords length of Mercutio and he swung the blade at the lance in the mounted man's hand.

One of the peasants excitedly watching the combat asked his comrade, "Why doesn't the Knight strike the horse to unseat him?" The other looked at him disapprovingly. "It is not considered chivalrous to deliberately strike a horse. It is not the horse that is conducting the battle, it is the man. To strike the horse deliberately is considered a cowardly act." The other simply said, "Oh. I see."

Meanwhile, the Knight's blade swooshed down on the shaft of the lance. Crack! The wood of the lance was split and shattered by the blow. Mercutio cast the useless end of the shaft to the ground and reached for his sword once more. The Knight didn't wait. He took two quick steps back and ran towards Mercutio sitting on his horse, only to suddenly leap up into the area where Mercutio sat. The force of the Knight's striking Mercutio unbalanced the bigger man and caused him to fall from his saddle. Distressed by all of this, Mercutio's horse startled and galloped away.

Both Mercutio and the Knight landed on the ground awkwardly. A little dazed by the collision, both took a brief moment for their heads to clear. Once again the Knight had lost his sword, but Mercutio found his quickly. "And now to finish this just as my master said I would," hissed Mercutio.

"And who would this master be? Would it be Ricco?" said the Knight.

"No, knave! Do not say that pretender's name. I served him for convenience and he will die at my convenience! I serve the great General Portello of Venice. He is my master! All that I've done was at his command!"

"Poor choice, dullard. I suspect he is a prisoner of the Duchess Loriana about now."

"You lie... And for that you will die, Knight!" Mercutio gathered himself for one final run and sweep of his sword. He charged the Knight. Within sword's distance he gave his weapon a mighty swing aimed at the Knight's neck. The Knight ducked and then caught Mercutio in the midst of his charge, tossing the bigger man up and over by jamming his legs in Mercutio's belly and letting his forward motion propel him up and over.

Mercutio fell hard and tumbled awkwardly trying to maintain a grip on his flailing sword. The blade, weakened by the day's combat, broke about a foot above the hilt. The broken length of blade came to a stop lying flat in the dirt near a dead Millefioran. The blade's hilt disappeared under Mercutio.

Mercutio looked up at the Knight and tried to push up with his hands. An odd expression, one almost of disbelief, then filled Mercutio's face. He reached down to grasp at something near his belly but couldn't reach it. He looked up at the Knight one more time, a glance filled with hate. then his eyes rolled back into his head and he collapsed onto the ground. The dust rose around him as he struck the earth and from the final breath that left his body. Afterwards, Mercutio lay unmoving and unbreathing.

The Knight waited a moment and then with his foot cautiously pushed Mercutio over onto his back. The hilt of Mercutio's sword portruded from the Venetian's groin just below his belly, where in Mercutio's final tumble he had impaled himself below his breastplat on the broken length still attached to the hilt. The man was as dead as dead could be. The battle between them was over.

A great cheer arose from those around him, but the Knight simply dropped to his knees, head bent, eyes looking at the ground. He was too exhausted to care.

He ignored the arms and helping hands that raised him to his feet. He simply put one step in front of the other as those who draped his arms over their shoulders to give him support guided him back to the stronghold with the remnants of the army of Millefiore and San Luca Maggiore and their disarmed Venetian prisoners. Their pace back to the stronghold was no faster than the Knight could walk, despite the fact that some were, like Ricco, still mounted.

The gate loomed in front of them. A voice called down. "Ricco! Shall we open the gates now?" It was Loriana.

"Yes, Sister, open the gates to all. We have no enemies here except captured Venetians." Ricco looked at Caimbeaul. The Captain of the Army of San Luca Maggiore returned Ricco's look and nodded. Mercutio's admission cleared up any doubts the Maggioran had about Ricco's involvement in the death of Suciando. No. There were no enemies but Venetians today.

The gates opened and remaining soldiers left behind to defend the stronghold took up the task with uninjured peasants to guard the prisoners. Along with Ricco and Caimbeaul, Roberto Del Strego, Bianca and Cesare entered the stronghold as well.

"Let me go. I can walk," said the Knight hoarsely. He took careful, less than steady steps through the gate and into the stronghold. The Lady Caterina waited for the Knight in the courtyard and upon first sight impulsively ran to him and embraced him. For each ounce of pain he experienced from her embrace there was as well an ounce of pleasure; for there nagged at him throughout the night before the battle, that he might never see her again... or the other one either.

"Step back, Lady Caterina. It is time you find out who it is you embrace. My armor lies useless in the field. My sword blade is dulled and fractured beyond repair. My promise is fulfilled to my mentors and I have not the will to hide this any longer from you or anyone else."

Bianca had dismounted and taken a position in the courtyard with Cesare, Del Strego, Caimbeaul, Ricco and Loriana very near where the Knight addressed these words to Caterina. She stared with intense interest at the drama unfolding before her. She wondered why the Knight glanced in her direction when he said "or anyone else".

The Crimson Knight now reached up and began to unwrap the crimson cloth that covered his face. Length after length he slowly removed. Little by little his face became visible beginning with the brown of his hair and then down to the brown of his eyes. With a quick flick of his wrist he removed the final section and at last revealed who he was...

Figaro, Jester Extraordinaire.


LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 09-23-2002 @ 09:46 PM).]

Lancer
Archer
posted 09-24-02 16:04 EST (US)     137 / 140       
Two women nearby gasped in surprise. One was Caterina who was standing before Figaro; the other was Bianca. The apprentice to Del Strego stepped quickly and boldly to stand near Caterina, both focussed exclusively on Figaro.

Both began to fire questions at the exhausted warrior. Figaro could hardly answer the first when the second was sent his way. The women heard each other asking questions and this triggered both to turn in each other's direction. The two lady's jaw muscles tightened, their hands clenched and unclenched and their faces reddened with growing anger, among other emotions building within. "Now we're in for it," mumbled Del Strego imagining the confrontation that was brewing. Figaro merely swayed on his feet hoping someone would rescue him from these two combatants who together posed a greater threat to his wellbeing than Mercutio ever did. Finally someone responded.

"LADIES!" commanded a womanly voice filled with firmness and confidence. "Figaro shall be in my care and you will both cease this bantering!" Caterina and Bianca swiveled their heads to see the source of the commanding voice. It was the Duchess Loriana. Here and there they also heard a few snickerings and everywhere they saw the knowing smiles. When they both pinkened this time it was from embarrassment over the spectacle they had just made of themselves.

Loriana waved her hand in the direction of the Keep and Loriana's servants appeared to assist Figaro, but this time to his chamber within the Keep. His chain mail was removed and his wound attended to and bandaged. The jester fell into a long overdue, intensely deep, worry-free sleep. He remained so for the rest of the day's sunlight and into the early evening as well.

While he slept, events were afoot in Millefiore. Portello was jailed in the dungeon in a cell personally selected by Cat. The Venetian soldiers who survived were housed in the dungeon by rank. Officers first and enlisted men second. When they ran out of cells, the remainder were escorted to San Luca Maggiore for imprisonment there. Messengers were dispatched to Genoa and Venice to advise them of the battle and its results. That there were opposite reactions in both citystates surprised nobody.

Meanwhile, the peasant army disbanded with the forest people returning to their cottages and cabins and the rebels returning to their former lives in San Luca Maggiore now that Suciando was gone. Caimbeaul guaranteed that there would be amnesty for the rebels. He was the only authority in San Luca Maggiore left who could offer such a reward; and this was troubling to him since he wanted no part of nobility. He was content to be a soldier and wished for nothing more than to receive his orders and carry them out to his best ability. City matters? No, he wanted nothing to do with those and he intended it should stay that way.

Unfortunately, that left undetermined what noble should become responsible for San Luca Maggiore. It was Roberto Del Strego who advanced the notion first. Why not Ricco? Suciando left no heir or family. There is no one who could possibly challenge such a claim. All that was needed was recognition from Genoa. Venice gave up its right by plotting Suciando's demise at the hands of Mercutio. Only Genoa mattered and Del Strego suspected Genoa would have no objection whatsoever. Hence, the messenger to Genoa sent to announce the news of the Venetian defeat also carried Del Strego's message about Ricco and Caimbeaul's endorsement of Del Strego's request. The heir unapparent was unapparent no longer.

Through all of this Figaro slept, that is, until in the early evening voices outside of his door awakened him. One was the voice of a servant protesting on behalf of the Duchess Loriana and the other was... The argument concluded with what sounded like the stamp of a foot on the stone floor and a "Yes, Milady," concession coming from the servant. The door opened and the Lady Caterina entered holding a silver tray on which stood a silver tureen filled with a rich stew of meat and vegetables, a bowl and spoon and a freshly baked loaf of bread with a knife for its cutting.

"Good evening, Knight... I mean... Figaro. I've brought your supper to you," said Cat.

Figaro pushed up on his elbow as his sleep clouded vision cleared. The blanket previously pulled up to his neck fell to his hips as he elevated himself. He did not know... or did not remember... that he was shirtless. Caterina saw this and blushed... but she did not avert her eyes. Instead she smiled and placed the tray on the table in the middle of the room. "Will you need any help with your wound?" she asked, noticing the bandage on the right side of his ribcage, the place where Mercutio's sword lacerated him during the battle.

"No, Milady. I shall be (he turned a little too quickly and winced) ugh... fine." Suddenly realizing that he was shirtless he reached for the blanket and pulled it up to his shoulders. Then he peaked under its length to determine the full extent of his current clothing. He let out a sigh of relief then asked Cat to give him the clean shirt laid out on a nearby chair by one of Loriana's servants earlier in the day. This she did... and then maidenly modesty took over and she placed herself between the table and Figaro's cot, her back to Figaro, and made a long drawn out task of ladling still steaming stew into the silver bowl while she listened to Figaro's rustling as he donned his shirt and tucked its tail into his pants.

When the rustling was over she dared a careful peek and found him to be standing before his cot, only slightly favoring the smarting wound in his side. She smiled again and motioned to him to sit down on the waiting chair, which he did. Cat could wait no longer. She bent down and kissed him full on the mouth and when quite out of breath she released him and sought a chair of her own.

It was time they talked. Figaro steeled himself for her questions.


LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 09-24-2002 @ 04:07 PM).]

Lancer
Archer
posted 09-24-02 21:55 EST (US)     138 / 140       
Caterina's questions came fast and faster. Where was he born? Figaro named the village. Are his parents alive? No, dead of the plague. Why did he become a jester? It was to escape his village and its memories... Here Figaro was able to get into his mouth a spoonful of stew before the next question struck.

Who taught him to be a jester? Figaro named his master. Who taught him to be a warrior? "Mercutio, said Figaro.

"Mercutio?! The man you killed?!" exclaimed Cat.

"No, not that Mercutio. Another with the same name. He was a mercenary. Except, I found out later he wasn't." Figaro paused. "He was a paladin and I never knew it until the day he died. That's when he told me about Suciando. I thought Suciando's men gave him his fatal wounds. Antonio, the leader of the rebels and Fredo's father told me differently later. Mercutio the Paladin, my mentor, received his wounds when captured by men under the command of General Portello. It was the General who ordered him left for dead. The rebels found him mortally wounded but still alive and brought him to their camp. That was were I was brought and saw him the day he died. It was there I learned of the rebel cause and the involvement of the Venetians in Suciando's schemes. Antonio warned me of an unknown Venetian spy in Millefiore. It turned out to be Mercutio, the Mercutio I battled on the plains. I promised to complete my mentor's mission and so became the paladin in his place. They showed me his armor and weapons and gave them to me. I stored them in the bottom of my wagon. Fredo never knew stored there was the paladin's armor. He thought them to be nothing more than props for my acts."

More questions followed, but fortunately not until after Figaro managed to get another spoon of stew and a piece of bread into his mouth. Why the Crimson Knight and the crimson cloth head mask? That was Figaro's idea because it seemed a plausible way to hide his identity. Why? It didn't seem a certain young lady was very fond of Figaro the jester and so the jester thought it would be best to hide his face and identity lest there be... trouble.

"I should have known," said Cat. "There were so many clues. You missing when the Knight was present. Your act as the old man on the stairs. The way you taunted Mercutio the night of the banquet when you challenged Ricco... By the way, how did you manage to fool the guards and Fredo that night?"

Figaro smiled. Of all of his narrow escapes he was most proud of that particular sequence. "I sneaked in on Fredo, disguised my voice and kept him from seeing my face. I locked him in the closet and by simulating a fight fooled him into thinking I, as Figaro, had been surprised and overwhelmed by the Knight. Then I dressed in the "old man" costume, conducted my activities downstairs at the banquet and fled back to this room. The guards attempting to break down the locked door gave me enough time to change clothing and deposit the costume by the balcony. There, before my act on the stairs, I had previously tied a rope to give the appearance the Knight had escaped out of the window onto the courtyard below. The only bad part was the knock on my head I had to give myself to convince others I as Figaro had been attacked and clubbed. Even so, I didn't hit myself hard enough and the knot on my head was less than expected. This gave me some concern while I was under the guards' scrutiny and when others attempted to attend to my "clubbing".

"Then later," observed Cat, "as the jester at Del Strego's banquet, you heard the announcement of my betrothal to Suciando and heard me call for the Knight to save me."

"Yes," confirmed Figaro. Caterina again went introspective as she mulled her next question.

"Why, Figaro, did you as the Knight wait so long to bring your army into the battle?"

"Because I had no choice. The rebels would not help the soldiers of San Luca Maggiore until the death of Suciando was observed. They made that very clear to me quite frequently. So deep was their hatred of the man they would rather see their homeland taken by the Venetians than lift a hand to save Suciando's life. When Mercutio did as Portello ordered and assassinated Suciando at his first opportunity, he did more to hurt the Venetian cause then he could ever comprehend. Seeing Suciando fall, the rebels only then felt compelled to attack the Venetians and save both Millefiore and San Luca Maggiore. I suspect they would have killed Suciando where he lay if they found him still alive at any time that day. To save Millefiore I had to yield as Antonio was uncompromising on this."

Caterina stared at him, her unusual green catlike eyes probing every nuance of the man's face. She remained quiet as Figaro completed eating his supper, chasing all remnants with a goblet of cool, clean water poured from a pitcher left earlier by one of Loriana's servants.

Out of the blue came a question Figaro was not prepared to receive. "Do you love me, Figaro?" asked Cat. The jester nearly choked on his last draught of water.

The jester blinked a few times, looking solely at Cat as he wrestled with the answer. In particular, in Figaro's desperate thinking, he noticed that Caterina had selected a remarkable pale green gown to wear with sleeves that began at her nearly bare shoulders and ended in lacey frills at her delicate wrists. The color of the gown completely accented the green of her eyes creating a stunning image that seemed painted from tales of elves and fairies and not humanfolk. Her black hair had substantially lengthened and it now cascaded softly to the place where her neck ended and her pale white shoulders began. The bodice, however, began much later... much, much later.

Caterina stood up. "You didn't answer my question," she reminded him in a voice that seemed soft as feline fur and had the sound of a purr. She walked to him and then sat purposefully on his lap. Figaro felt helpless. She placed a kiss on his lips, then softly on his forehead and two cheeks in succession and then on his lips once more. There was no possible resistance.

"Yes," he said. And despite the pain of his wound, he grasped her and crushed her to himself, kissing her back in kind.

A short while later Caterina left Figaro's chamber. It was then that Figaro glanced around the room to see what changed, if anything, since the last time he was resident there. Very little, he concluded. Except on the same chair where Caterina found his clean shirt was another cloth carefully cleaned. It was a scarf, a silk scarf, the color of green, the cloth he wore under his shirt during the battle. The scarf given to him by Ceneri the night before...

The old confusion returned and his carefree moments ended abruptly.


LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 09-27-2002 @ 12:13 PM).]

Lancer
Archer
posted 09-25-02 16:08 EST (US)     139 / 140       
Two hours later, very much into the dark hours of the night, Figaro decided to leave his room and take a walk to stretch his legs. He moved about gingerly favoring his injured side. Once outside of his room he made his way to the steps. He walked down one flight of stairs only to be halted at the floor below his by a woman's voice calling to him from the darkness in the hallway beyond.

"Figaro," the voice called. "Is that you?"

"Yes," said Figaro. A shadow moved and revealed who it was. "Ceneri? Why are you up and around so late?"

"Shush, Figaro. Not so loudly. The master doesn't know I'm here."

"So why are you here, Ceneri?" The young woman was lightly dressed in a layered, but not thickly so, sleeping gown. The flickering light of a large candle held by a stairway sconce illuminated her from behind causing the contours of her supple body to be gauzily revealed as shadow on light. No, nothing was visible in an immodest way, but there was no question in Figaro's mind that this was a member of the opposite sex with whom he was conversing. That it was Bianca was confirmed when Figaro's searching eyes at last found the telltale smudge, just one this time, on her right cheek. It was as endearing to him as always.

"I was debating on whether to go to your room or not to tell you something. I had just made up my mind when you came down the stairs."

"What is it that you wanted to tell me, Ceneri?"

"That... That I love you, Figaro; but I shall understand if you choose to wed the Lady Caterina instead of me."

Figaro was stunned. He didn't know what to say. He held his hands out and took Bianca's hands in his. He pulled her closer, his eyes never leaving her face, and for the first time he saw the wetness on her cheeks illuminated by the light from the candles. Bianca hesitated to step any closer. "There is one thing I ask," said Bianca. "I ask that no matter how strong your feelings for Caterina you answer me truthfully this one thing." Bianca focussed her eyes on his with unwavering intensity. "Do you love me, Figaro?"

Figaro searched his own soul for the answer and the answer became plain to him. "Yes, I love you Ceneri." She smiled and closed the distance between them hurriedly crushing the injured man in a desperate embrace. Figaro winced and then enclosed her in his arms. Bianca absorbed the closeness, her eyelids shut, her head resting on his chest such that she could hear with her left ear and nearly feel with her left cheek the beating of his heart. Then the smile on her face faded and a deep sadness replaced all expression of joy that had been there before.

Bianca placed the palms of her hands on his chest and gently pushed herself away until she was free of his arms and his hands. "Be happy, then, my love," she said. Then Bianca turned about, lifted up the skirt of her sleeping gown and ran in the direction of her room, disappearing into the dark of the hallway.

Figaro lowered his eyes to the floor of the stairwell and scraped at the flat stone placed there. Now the dilemna was drawn and defined. It was clear in his mind unlike never before: Two women, two loves. One seeking, the other sacrificing. What was he to do?

"Perhaps you should decide soon," said a voice belonging to a man older than himself. It was Del Strego.

"I have been nothing but forthright with Bianca, Signor Del Strego," said Figaro hurriedly. "I have honored my promise to you."

"I have no reason to doubt that, Figaro. But what I said is true. After today's events in the courtyard and now with Bianca, it is obvious you must make a choice: The Lady Caterina, or the Lady Bianca. She is a lady now, don't you agree?"

"Yes, I agree. Without hesitation."

"Then you must decide. It is the right thing to do."

"Yes... I must decide... The right thing... I must do the right thing..." Figaro went silent for a minute, then looked at Del Strego who was standing patiently across from Figaro studying the younger man's face. "But this may hurt Ceneri or it may hurt Caterina, no matter what I decide."

Del Strego nodded in agreement. "I warned you against hurting Ceneri, meaning "hurt" in the obvious way, but even I cannot protect her from the hurt of love. Nor can you avoid hurting either woman with love. It is the way of the young. Regardless, you must decide. That is all that I say. I wish you well, Master Jester. You have more than kept your promise. You proved to be everything I hoped you would be." Roberto Del Strego left the stairway and he too made his way to his room leaving Figaro truly alone at last.

Lost in thought, the jester walked the quiet ways of the Keep until at last his decision was made. An hour later he concluded his conversation with Loriana, who welcomed him to her room despite the lateness of the hour. She too could not sleep as the pressing weight of office kept her mind fully engaged.

"Are you sure, Figaro? Is this what you truly think is right?" asked Loriana.

"Yes, Duchess. It is."

"Then, Figaro, it is not for me to judge but to see that your request is fulfilled. Sleep now for the morning will fast arrive."

"Good night, Duchess... and thank you," said Figaro, bowing deeply.

"Our thanks should go to you, knight and jester. Sleep well." Loriana, appreciative but sad, watched Figaro leave her chambers. When the door closed between them, she arose from her chair and pulled the cord that would summon the duty servants. There were instructions she must give them.


LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 09-27-2002 @ 12:08 PM).]

Lancer
Archer
posted 09-25-02 22:10 EST (US)     140 / 140       
Neither Caterina nor Bianca were early to rise on the following day. The exhaustion from the prior day's events, the late hours, all of these things and more contributed to causing the young women to remain in their chambers unprepared for the day.

Not so Loriana. There was much to do and much to undo. It was very late in the morning when one of the servants brought her word that both Caterina and Bianca were awake and prepared to receive the visit Loriana had requested.

Loriana made Figaro's room her first stop. There she found the two handwritten documents she expected would be waiting for her. Figaro was nowhere to be seen and the room was empty of his belongings. That too was expected.

Loriana tapped softly on Caterina's door. Later she did the same on Bianca's door. In both instances she was quickly admitted. In both instances she fulfilled her promise and gave to each woman the document with her respective name written above the seal in Figaro's hand. In both instances the message was the same and the reaction that followed was also very much the same: tears flowing freely, the message gripped tightly in shaking hands.

BELOVED: I have thought long and hard and considered every possibility, every variation, every justification possible. The conclusion I reach and the answer to my dilemna is always the same. No man can love two women so deeply at the same time and be true to one alone. So I must leave. When you receive this message I shall be driving my wagon west towards Genoa, the lands of Millefiore and San Luca Maggiore far behind me.

May God bless you and keep you well. And may He bring to you soon the man you shall marry; one who is more worthy of your love than I.

Figaro

Loriana gave what comfort she could. It was barely adequate in that moment, for Loriana knew that only the passage of time would soothe their hurt. She also suspected that for both the wound would never completely heal.

____________________________________________________________

The wooden wheels of an enclosed wagon pulled by a team of two horses rumbled westward on an ancient Roman road that paralleled the south bank of the PO River. A horse was tethered to the rear of the wagon. The horse was young and vigorous, but the condition of its flanks and side suggested that it had seen difficult service in recent days.

The man driving the wagon, reins in hand, was in his early twenties and bore an expression that hinted of conflict and sadness. This seemed uncharacteristic of a man in his trade, for on the side of his wagon was a sign with these words painted in blue: FIGARO - JESTER EXTRAORDINAIRE.

Suddenly Figaro cried out, "Master, why did you teach me these things?! Mercutio, my mentor! Why did you make me the paladin in your place?! I could have been happy in my village... I should have stayed there... where I... could have... been happy... in... my... village." His voice trailed away as the paladin fought back the tears that threatened to engulf him.

The faces of two women vied with each other in his mind's eye. One had the exotic look of feline beauty; the other had a more common, earthly beauty and a smudge on her cheek that was never in the same place twice. He struggled for words to say to both, finally saying to the images floating in his thoughts, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I just couldn't choose between you and by doing so cause any one of you to be hurt more deeply than the other. God... May they forgive me. I did not know what else to do..." The paladin fought all the more to control his sorrow.

The wagon and its melancholy driver rounded a bend in the road and Figaro saw up ahead the beginning of a small village. There were children playing by the edge of the road. They were cavorting about and laughing, seemingly in imitation of some of the tricks Figaro himself might attempt. The children turned their attention to Figaro and his wagon. The oldest child, a girl, one among them who could read, voiced the words painted in blue on the side of the wagon. Before she could finish, the other children who remembered his name and his sign finished the words for her and ran squealing in delight to the wagon to welcome Figaro.

One young girl in particular caught Figaro's attention as he cautiously brought his wagon to a stop. He remembered her from a visit long ago. It was the young girl to whom he gave a flower, seemingly making it appear in his hand out of thin air. She smiled at him and then began looking around at the side of the road. She bent over and did something with a small plant Figaro couldn't see. The girl approached the wagon as the other children made way for her. They then crowded around to see what she was intending to do.

The girl's expression changed to something very serious and it was obvious she was concentrating mightily. Figaro watched intently. The girl waved her left hand. The jester glanced in that direction. Swiftly, but somewhat inexpertly, the girl reached with her right hand inside her apron, a motion Figaro saw ever so briefly from the corner of his eyes. The girl waved her left hand once more and then passed it over her right hand. She opened her right hand to show Figaro the small wildflower she had just magically made appear. She flashed Figaro a heartfelt smile, walked the rest of the distance to the wagon and gave the wildflower to the jester.

The other children reacted with glee and amazement at what their friend had just done. Figaro felt something get uplifted within himself, as if a great weight was suddenly removed. The paladin reached deep inside his soul and struggled to find as best he could the thing that he sought. Finally he found it, or more correctly, the smile on the little girl's face guided his hand to the place where it hid.

The paladin grasped the jester firmly, elevated it to where he had been and took the jester's place deep in the recesses of Figaro's soul. The jester extraordinaire felt able to smile once more and to do what a jester must do: Bring joy and laughter to places known and unknown.

Figaro's face broke out into a wide smile. He reached down to offer his hand to the young girl and reward her show of budding talent with the privilege (in the child's mind) of riding into the village in the wagon of the Master Jester.

The other children ran ahead crying out to all of the village folk outside, "The Jester's back! The Jester's back!"

Indeed he was.

____________________________________________________________

THE END - "THE HEIR UNAPPARENT"


LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 09-26-2002 @ 08:10 PM).]

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