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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 07-11-02 15:53 EST (US)     76 / 140       
"All right, show him in," said Ricco. He made sure the only other ears in the room were those he had specifically authorized or requested to be there. Only two other men were in the small chamber. They were Ricco's confidants of old. His friends from his youth and now his advisors and lieutenants.

A small man, ceremoniously dressed and daggered, entered the room. The door was closed behind him. He stepped to the center of the room and completed an exaggerated bow in Ricco's direction. "Do I have the honor of addressing Ricco, Duke of Millefiore?"

"You do," replied Ricco.

"Excellent! I am Ambassador Stefano from the City of Genoa. Here are my credentials." Stefano stepped forward and with head bowed presented to Ricco a sheaf of parchment written in a neat hand and bearing the imprint of the Great Seal of Genoa. After delivering the documents to Ricco he stepped back and patiently waited for Ricco's response.

Ricco examined the documents and then gave Stefano an appraising eye. After a moment, Ricco said, "All seems in order, Ambassador. Millefiore welcomes you." Stefano bowed once more to signal his understanding and respect.

"What business does Genoa have with Millefiore then, Ambassador, that brings you to our land?"

"Duke Ricco, may I speak freely here?" Stefano gave a meaningful glance in the direction of the two men standing aside in the room.

"Yes, they are my most trusted advisors. Speak freely."

"I shall, Duke Ricco. Genoa has reason to believe there is a conspiracy afoot to replace you, the true Duke, with an usurper. Further, Genoa believes that the lord who plots against you is supported by agents from Venice.

Ricco's face tightened, then reddened with barely suppressed, rising anger. "Who dares plot against me?!"

Stefano's face remained passive as if ignoring the change in Ricco's demeaner. "Suciando of San Luca Maggiore."

"Suciando!? But he... No, he and I... It cannot be!" sputtered Ricco.

"But it is true, Duke Ricco."

"And the usurper," asked Ricco. "Who is the usurper?"

Stefano shifted his feet slightly while answering. "Why, your sister, or shall I say half-sister."

"Caterina! How dare she plot against me!" said Ricco, his hands tightly gripping and ungripping the chair in which he was seated.

"No, Milord. It is your other half-sister, Loriana."

"That cannot be. Loriana is... is missing... kidnapped!"

"It may seem that way, Milord. The truth is she is being held for her own protection until such time as Suciando can return her to this Keep as Duchess of Millefiore. We suspect he intends to assert control of this region through her."

"I think I do not approve of Suciando's plan," hissed Ricco through clenched teeth.

"Nor does Genoa, Milord, since Venice expects to gain by your downfall."

"Then we have much to talk about, Ambassador, beginning right this instant." They all moved to a nearby wood hewn table to sit down and to share fruit, cheese, drink and information.

____________________________________________________________


Cat pulled her coat more tightly around her slender body. It was indeed getting colder with every kilometer they travelled. This morning she could see her own breath on the air in a small moist cloud that soon dissipated only to be replaced by another as she exhaled again.

In the distance she saw the fuzzy outline of the Alps. The mountains were still far enough away that ice on their peaks seemed to reach all of the way to the horizon. The two hooded men following Cat and Cesare saw this too... as did the man dressed in red.


LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 07-11-2002 @ 09:24 PM).]

thurdl01
Archer
posted 07-12-02 09:02 EST (US)     77 / 140       
Edited out when I realized I completely missed the continuity boat. Will attempt take two.

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.... --. / -.-. .... . .-. ..- -...
.. ..-. / - .... . / --. . .-. -... .. .-.. / . ... -.-. .- .--. . ... --..-- / .-- . / .- .-. . / .- .-.. .-.. / -.. --- --- -- . -..

[This message has been edited by thurdl01 (edited 07-12-2002 @ 03:30 PM).]

Micah Aragorn
Archer
posted 07-17-02 20:45 EST (US)     78 / 140       
Loriana wrapped the blanket around her to keep the chill from reaching further inside her body. She had endured she felt many a cold night. Or was it day? There were no windows to judge by and only when her captor brought her meals was able to distinguish the time of day. Now this was the only thing she looked forward to as the conversations with the hooded figure were becoming more than one word.

Hearing the latch of the door as it was unlocked and being pulled back signaled the approach of her keeper and she was not disappointed. Her hooded figure appeared from the right carrying a tray of hot broth and a bowl of thick vegetable laden stew. He put the tray down on the floor and slid it under an opening in the bars designed for such a task and started to walk away.

"Please, don't leave." Loriana said quickly getting her captors attention. "I don't wish to eat alone."

The hooded figure stopped for a moment, looked to the doorway entrance and turning back to Loriana said," As you wish Duchess." And finding a stool he sat himself away from the metal bars but facing Loriana.

Loriana thanked him and looking at her meal took the wooden spoon offered and tasted the still steaming stew mixture. She felt the substance heat her body as it first went down her throat and settled into her empty stomach. From there it spread and took the chill away enough for her to disregard the ragged edged blanket that tried to keep her warm. She then sipped the broth to wash the remaining particles of her first bite down and again felt the warmth. But as she ate she also realized that she did not wish to bore her keeper and that conversation was best at this moment.Looking up from her tray she wisped a strand of hair from her face and said," Is there a name that goes with the face I can't see?"

Straightening up from the stool the figure answered," I do. But it would bare little to your needs."

Loriana raising her right eyebrow in an expression that stated, Oh! really? replied," It would be polite to at least know who it is that has brought me my meals these many days or nights."

"Possibly",he replied,"But it would only help if we were to converse on a regular basis and that would not be happening."

"And why not? What great secret would you be revealing to me if all I wanted was to talk to someone instead of staring a cold stone walls, a straw strewn floor and metal bars to push my meals through."

The hooded figure stood up from the stool and looked to be getting to leave. Loriana did not want to sit alone some more so she quickly said," Please, don't go. I'm sorry! It's just I'm confused as to why I'm here."

Her captor stood silent for an instance then in a matter-of-fact voice said, "You are alive! That's what should be important to you. And you are alive because you suit my lords plans better that way." Realizing what he had just said and not wanting to further give away their identity he turned and left Loriana holding her tray of food. He hoped she had not heard the part of 'my lord'. Unfortunately for him she had. He was not unsympathetic to her demise and in the time she had been there he had grown fond of the short visits with her when bringing her food or water to wash. But he could not afford to let sentiment get in the way of his duties. He had been ordered to do the job and he never disobeyed a command.

[This message has been edited by Micah Aragorn (edited 07-18-2002 @ 05:01 AM).]

Micah Aragorn
Archer
posted 07-18-02 04:58 EST (US)     79 / 140       
Ambassador Stefano finished his business with Ricco and excused himself. The conversation had left Ricco in a foul mood and if the arms of the chair he sat in were of a more softer material the prints of his clenched fingers would surely have been permanately indentured into them. The knuckels grew redder as he continued to clench and unclench with his face keeping pace to the hue.

Dante and Carlo were deathly silent as each wished not to have the Duke's rath set upon them for saying something upsetting or wrong. They just waited.....finally....

In a voice filled with anger Ricco cried out,"Can I not trust anyone? Not even my own family!" His words reverberated through out the house as even the servants for a moment stopped their daily routines and knew this was not a day to displease their master.

Dante and Carlo looked each other in the eyes and both knew what the other was thinking at Ricco's outburst, "You ask to trust your family when you have made a pact with another to help you get them out of the way?" Both had doubts as to Ricco's sanity at this moment but neither was willing to justify their thoughts.

Turning to his companions of so long Ricco said," I don't wish to have Loriana become a pawn to Suciando willing or not. Nor do I wish her to return here to upset my plans." His eyes narrowed once more and he once again clenched the arm of the chair as he looked at Dante and Carlo,"Make sure she does not return nor be used by anyone else."

Dante knew what Ricco wanted but Carlo was as always more cautious about the instructions given to him, "You mean you wish us to kill...."

Ricco cut him off before he could finish as if he didn't want to hear such an offensive term used against his half sister and to appease his conscience," I don't care how its done just do it. And for that matter that nuissance of a little sister also. I want no loose ends. You know where they are keeping Loriana but find Caterina before they can join each other. Take what you need and as many men as you need. Do you understand!"

Both simply nodded and left to do Ricco's bidding.

Alone in the room Ricco sat quietly his anger having subsided with the commands he had given his life long friends. They would not fail him, especially Dante. But now he must make plans as to how to address Duke Suciando and fortify Millefiore.

[This message has been edited by Micah Aragorn (edited 07-18-2002 @ 05:18 AM).]

Lancer
Archer
posted 07-18-02 16:13 EST (US)     80 / 140       
Suciando whipped off his hooded cloak and handed his horse to the stablemaster. Still dusted with the grime of the road, the Duke of San Luca Maggiore quickly walked to the Keep. He was satisfied that the two men, both dressed like him in hooded cloaks, that he set on the trail of the mercenary and the boy when they left the Inn would soon uncover their destination and purpose. Suciando gave his spies explicit instructions on what to do if either the man or the boy should approach Loriana's location. Regardless, he told them, they were to gather up Loriana and they and her keeper were to escort her to San Luca Maggiore. The fortress was no longer a safe place to hold the Duchess he had concluded. Besides, Suciando did have other plans that required the woman's presence in his holdings. Then Suciando began the brief journey back to his castle.

As always the servants bowed and expressed their joy at his return. Suciando wondered how sincere these expressions might be. "Sure," he said to himself, "and my return affirms a meal and place to live to you I presume, nothing more." But he didn't say these things to them just in case they might be compelled to confirm his thoughts.

"MiLord," began his Chief Servant, "there are three who await your arrival and convenience."

"Who are they?" said Suciando.

"Two are Roberto De Strego and his ward or apprentice or something."

"Yes, tell them I shall see them. Who else?"

"The other, Milord, is Antonio Borgia, Ambassador from Venice."

"Borgia? It is not Giuseppe Lupino?"

"No, Milord. It seems there have been some changes in Venice and Signor Borgia is now the Ambassador. Signor Lupino is... uh... retired, I believe the new ambassador said."

Suciando frowned. This was not anything he expected upon his return. However, it is best to make the most of these situations. Albeit, very cautiously. "Have the ambassador escorted to my meeting room in half a glass's time. I shall meet with him first."

Suciando climbed the stairs to his room in the upper story of the Keep to wipe the dust from his face and change to clothes more suitable for receiving an ambassador from Venice.


LANCER
One word deserves another.
GillB
EXCO Alumna in Kul Tiras
posted 07-22-02 11:02 EST (US)     81 / 140       
It had been a long day and night was beginning to fall. Catarina looked up at Cesare and wondered if they were to ride all night.

As if he read her thoughts, he turned to her and said 'We must make a camp for the night. We are not so far away now, but I would prefer to approach the place at daybreak rather than in the dark.'

They dismounted and took the horses down to a stream running alongside the road. Catarina dangled her fingers in the water but leapt back when the iciness hit her.

Cesare smiled. 'We are near the great mountains and the stream is from melted snow. Come, have some food then you must sleep. I will stand guard.'

'But you must have some sleep too,' Catarina replied. 'I can stand guard for a while.'

'Don't worry.' Cesare laughed. 'What good do you think you would do against a group of armed men? Plenty of time for sleep when this is over.'

Catarina settled down but found sleep would not come. So many thoughts were chasing through her mind. How little she knew of her companion; how she had been convinced several times that she had heard hoofbeats behind them during the day, although there had been no-one in sight when she turned round; what snow looked like .. she had heard tell of it, but had never seen it herself; how Loriana would be when they found her. These and more thoughts chased round her brain until she eventually dropped off to sleep but with such strange and muddled dreams that she didn't derive any benefit from the rest.


'Inside every old person is a young person wondering what happened' Moving Pictures
thurdl01
Archer
posted 07-22-02 11:19 EST (US)     82 / 140       
Suciando drummed his fingers in an outward show of impatience. This was unusual, as he attempted to exucde either calm or menace at all points, but the situation was slipping beyond his control, and he did not like that. His spy has lost the damn clown, and none of his informants had brought him any good news in days.

Perhaps for no reason other than to break the tension, one of his men entered the chamber at that moment. "News from Venice, sire. They are preparing to make a move again Genoa, and are advancing on a small stronghold of Genoa, with hopes to overtake the outpost by nightfall on the morrow."

"And news of Genoa?"

"They have an envoy in Millefiore, sire, that could be quickly cut off from their route home if the Venicians are successful in their push."

"Send some men out to patrol the passage to Millefiore, and instruct them to send a rider back when the Genoan envoy begins to move. Send another rider to the outpost, and inform them of Venice's movements. I could use some more favors owed to me, and will probably need every last one of them. What news of the future Dutchess?"

"We have not heard in a few days. On last report, she was being escorted to the mountains."

"I know some of the nomadic leaders that hide out in those mountains. Maybe I should contact them to make sure she stays safe in her passage. You may leave."


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.... --. / -.-. .... . .-. ..- -...
.. ..-. / - .... . / --. . .-. -... .. .-.. / . ... -.-. .- .--. . ... --..-- / .-- . / .- .-. . / .- .-.. .-.. / -.. --- --- -- . -..
Micah Aragorn
Archer
posted 07-24-02 04:36 EST (US)     83 / 140       
Dante and Carlo had chosen just four others to accompany them. Any group larger than that would most definately attract attention. Crossing part of Suciando's lands was a must to get to the stronghold where Loriana was being held but the group moved with caution amidst the neighboring forests and stayed off main roads although even that was just as dangerous with the amount of theives, ruffians, and cutthroats that called this area home. It was not hard to find out that Caterina had definately been in San Luca Maggiore and was being aided by someone in seeking her sister, Loriana.

Ricco's companions talked amongst themselves and decided it was best to head straight to Loriana and wait for Caterina to find her. That would suit their purpose well and give them time to devise a plan to rid Ricco of his bothersome siblings.

One question still pondered the two companions. Who was it that was aiding Caterina and how did he know the whereabouts of Loriana's hideaway?

Lancer
Archer
posted 07-26-02 21:22 EST (US)     84 / 140       
Cesare yawned and wrapped the cloak about his body a bit more snugly to ward off the cold of the night. He had already made up his mind to not disturb Caterina and to permit her to sleep through the night. He could see the look in her eyes that suggested exhaustion was on the horizon and only a warm meal and a full night's rest would hold back its onslaught. Cesare was used to days like this. His former career was filled with them. He would be grateful for the change once his mission was fulfilled and his reward from Millefiore was in hand.

Cesare didn't the notice the hours pass, nor much of anything else except the noises of the night. He was lost in his own thoughts about life to be and the possibilities it held. Whether the cold, the dark or the ride, Cesare never really knew, but before long he was soundly asleep leaning against a tree that served as a broad windbreak against the night's chill breeze.

A branch creaked above him and a twig snapped with a cracking sound that startled Cesare from his sleep. Groggy and surprised he looked around to see where the noise originated. A different, yet somehow familiar voice called down to him. "Cesare... Don't move. Don't do anything. Just listen," said the disembodied voice. It continued. "You are being followed by two hooded men working for Duke Suciando. I expect they will attack you if they think you are planning to rescue Loriana. Caterina is not safe here. There is sufficient moonlight. Go now, do not wait until morning."

"Who are you?"

"I said listen! Do not talk! I will tell you this. I am a friend. The only one here you will have. Heed my warning. Press on in the night!"

"But..." Cesare said only to stop when he heard the branch groan as if a weight was shifted across its length. He heared a rustling of leaves and a body moving quickly along the branch, then onto the ground and into the bushes. He dared to turn his head and try to see who it was that spoke to him this warning. He caught the fleeting image of a swiftly moving man wearing something red about his head that hid his identity. One brief glimpse and then the man was gone.

Cesare decided to accept the man's warning at face value. He returned to the camp to find Caterina restlessly trying to sleep. The girl reached for her dagger at the sound of his footsteps, but relaxed her grip when she recognized Cesare's face in the moonlight. "Is it my turn?" she said, relieved to be free for the moment of her troubled thoughts, and throwing the blankets off her body, not waiting until she heard his answer.

"No," said Cesare firmly. "It is not."

Surprised and somewhat annoyed, Cat said, "And why not?"

"Because we must leave this camp now. We are in danger."

"From whom?" Caterina said, a hint of disbelief in her voice.

"I don't know. Two men, possibly. Suciando's."

"We must be very close to Loriana," concluded Cat.

"We are and so is the danger to us."

"How do you know this, Cesare?"

"I... ugh... ugh," stammered Cesare. "I got word from one of my fellows. He... ugh... owed me a favor. .. Anyway, hurry! We must leave now!"

Caterina understood the urgency in Cesare's voice and quickly gathered her own and other camp items. Still, she wondered.
Who was this 'fellow' and how could this 'fellow' know where to find them to deliver his warning? Something just wasn't right. Well, she would have to ask him later. Right now, it was obvious Cesare wanted no part of staying there any longer than necessary.

They both mounted their horses and regained the road they were travelling during the day. In consideration of the horses, they didn't drive their mounts very hard, just steadily. Suddenly, Cesare reached across and halted Caterina's horse. Cat wondered why, but heard at nearly the same time as Cesare the sound of the approaching horses heading towards them from the north. Cesare put his finger to his lips to indicate silence and guided Cat's and his own mount and the pack horses into the brush.

Two mounted figures approached. One was taller, obviously strongly built, most likely a man; the other was slighter in build but with the figure's face obscurred by a hood, it was impossible to determine if man or woman. Cesare decided to stay undercover and allow the two riders to pass. When they were gone into the night, he motioned to Cat to re-enter the road and continue to the north. They did so quickly, but a little more noisily than intended.

The slighter built of the two riders who passed by the hidden Cesare and Cat slowed its horse and turned a head at the real or imagined sound heard behind them. The other rider quickly responded by halting his horse and firmly, yet gently reprimanding the one for slowing. "Please, we mustn't tarry, Duchess. I have my orders."

Loriana turned her hooded head to look at the soldier. "I thought I heard something."

"Just forest creatures, Duchess. The night ones... Now... Please stay with me and do not lag behind."

Loriana gave one more glance backwards and then squeezed her knees against her horse's side directing her horse forward at a faster pace. Farther down the road were two more hooded men, with different orders than were delivered to the soldier. They had heard the sounds of the night, but concluded correctly they were of horses and humans.

A third man waited in the general area too; but he wore a cloth of red that covered his face and made recognition impossible.


LANCER
One word deserves another.
Lancer
Archer
posted 07-30-02 22:19 EST (US)     85 / 140       
The red-masked man in the tree heard the word "Duchess" and what was mild curiousity about the passing couple turned to intense concentration. Duchess! Loriana? Could it be?! The man dropped lightly to the forest floor and quietly as possible made his way to his tethered horse, mounting it and directing it forward all in one continuous, smoothly seamless movement.

In the shadows of the forest, when he finally caught up with the two travellers, he was forced to rein in his horse, patting its shoulder to keep the beast calm and quiet. The Duchess and her escort were no longer alone. Two more men, both hooded like the men he saw in the square of San Luca Maggiore, were blocking their passage on the road. He heard their voices getting louder and less friendly with each passing moment.

"I am on a mission for His Lordship, the Duke of San Luca Maggiore. Let me pass," protested the Duchess' escort.

"As are we, Signor. Release the Duchess to us."

"Those are not my orders! I am to take her to the south tower."

"Your orders are changed. We are to take her to the Duke to serve him at his pleasure," said one of the hooded figures. The red-masked man saw Loriana raise her hand to her face as would a frightened person and turn her head to
her escort. He could not see her expression but felt it would be one filled with pleading. He was right.

The guard glanced at Loriana once because of her looking his way and once again because of the look in her eyes. This was not right! It should not be! She is... she is... too good for the likes of him. I cannot allow this!

"I think not," said the guard reaching for his sword. Something flew from the sleeve of the hooded man closest to the guard. It was bright, shiny, but without wings. The suddenness of its flight startled the red-masked man as well as the guard who stared down at his chest and the place where the wingless instrument of death had buried itself up to its hilt. Loriana involuntarily gasped and her horse startled, only to have its reins grabbed by the other hooded man, the one who did not throw the dagger.

"I'm sorry... Duchess... Loriana," said the dying guard just before he fell from his horse and onto the gravel of the road. A pool of red began to form under him, a red as deep as the red of the mask on the man who watched.

Loriana saw the pool of blood form and involuntarily began to scream. The hooded man who had thrown the dagger spurred his horse forward and grabbed her before she could let out a second loud scream. His hand covered her mouth muffling all sound and crushing her lips painfully against her teeth. "Hush, woman! You shall wake the wolves and then you will have reason to scream! Hush, I say!"

Loriana could hardly breathe, and in struggling to do so she lost all of her urge to call out to anything or anyone nearby. She fell silent. "That's better, Duchess," hissed the hooded man holding his hand across her mouth. "Now, when I let go, you will be quiet, just like a good little duchess." Loriana stared into the hood but saw only the outline of a face, nose and a row of stained teeth. She nodded to show her agreement to be silent. The man's hand loosened tentatively, then completely when he felt reassured his point had been made. "Now, Duchess, we will go to see the Duke, just as he ordered." The men bracketed Loriana's horse on both sides with their own horses. There was no escape for her for the moment.

The man in the red mask struggled to control himself. There would be a better time and place, he argued. Now was not the time to leap to the rescue. It might end up with a failed rescue and the death of the Duchess. No, there would come a better time and place. He decided to find Cesare and tell him what had occurred.

____________________________________________________________


Ceasare exited the area of the stronghold that evidently was still in use, or was recently so. "My Lady Caterina, she is not there." Cesare braced himself for the explosion to come.

"Have you lied to me, Cesare?!" screamed Caterina. "What foul plot have you hatched to lure me to this place with such a lie! Murder?! Ransom?! What is it, Cesare, that is greater than what I promised would be yours through my sister, Loriana! And I thought you to be made of better stuff than that... that jester!"

"But, Caterina, I..." Cesare made the mistake of stepping forward. Cat reached for her dagger, intending to use it to inflict whatever damage she could before her suffering her own death.

"I warn you, do not come near me!" she cried out.

"Lady Cat, I tell you I had it on the best of advice that your sister was being held here. For some reason she has been taken elsewhere. I swear to you... I mean you no harm. Please believe me." Something in his voice penetrated Caterina's defenses and she felt strangely compelled to accept his protests as truthful. Her knife hand lowered, but she maintained a firm grip on its handle just in case.

"You swear on the blood of your kin and the Holy Book?" asked Cat, keeping her eyes focussed on his face looking for even the least sign of duplicity revealed in Cesare's eyes."

"I do."

A distant noise sounding very much like a woman's scream interrupted their talk, but there was only one. Cat looked at Cesare an unspoken question in her eyes. Cesare didn't need it asked. "Let's see what that was," he said. Both climbed quickly into their saddles and led their horses back onto the road. They travelled at a fast trot, all the speed that reason would allow in the fading light of the moon.

A goodly distance passed when suddenly a mounted figure leaped in front of them from the side of the road. Cat could make out the man's head but she couldn't see his face for it was covered by a cloth that seemed to be reddish even in the cold blue light of the moon. Cat's hand went to her dagger as surprise and growing fright coursed through her body. Strangely, Cesare made no move towards his own weapon. Coward, thought Cat.

What?! Cesare going towards the stranger in a red mask without drawing his weapon? Is this one of his 'sources'? Or a fellow conspirator? Cat tensed ready to put spur to horse and flee. Instead, Cesare and the masked man exchanged words in a low voice and then Cesare turned his horse about, the stranger at his side and both men approached Cat.

"Do not be alarmed Milady," said Cesare. "He is a friend."

"Then why does he where that mask?" countered Caterina.

"To hide his identity so that he can do what he must, unhampered by who he truly is."

"What shall we call him, this... this... masked man?"

The man in the mask spoke to Cat for the first time. "I am the Crimson Knight, Milady Caterina. You may see my deeds and then call me what you will. For now, 'Knight' will do."

"How appropriate, for it is in the night that you first appeared," The Crimson Knight lowered his head to signal that he heard the play on words and would not take offense at her critical humor.

"That is so," said the Knight. "But there is little time for more word fencing, Milady. Your sister is in the hands of two hooded men and must be rescued. Follow me and I shall guide you to her."

"The scream? Was it Loriana's?"

"Yes, Milady. But she is not hurt."

"You didn't rescue her, Knight? Are you a coward?" said Cat, accusingly. Cesare looked at the man in the red mask to observe his reaction.

"You will have the opportunity to judge that for yourself, Milady. I felt the risk too great to your sister's life to attempt a spontaneous rescue. I believed it to be more important that you and she be reunited, both of you alive, instead of presenting your sister to you for nothing other than her burial. Have I done wrongly, Milady?"

Cat's face reddened, though it couldn't be seen as such in the dim light of the moon. "I suppose not," she conceded.

"Then follow me, Milady," said the Knight, "and you will at last be reunited with your sister and fulfill the quest you set out on from Millefiore." Cat nodded and as the Crimson Knight took the lead, she moved her horse to the side of Cesare and all three advanced to the south in pursuit of the hooded men and Loriana. Nonetheless, Cat's mind worked feverishly trying to fathom this crimson-masked man. Who was he? Why did he seem familiar in certain ways, but a stranger in so many other ways?

And then, quite by accident, her mind shifted involuntarily into that well worn way of a very young woman. She wondered... Under the mask... Is he a monster, scarred and features knarled... Or is he handsome... The most handsome man who ever lived? Cat promised herself she would find out... one way or another.


LANCER
One word deserves another.
Lancer
Archer
posted 07-31-02 21:25 EST (US)     86 / 140       
Donk! Twank! Whoossh! THUMP!
Again. Donk! Twank! Whoossh! THUMP! And again. Donk! Twank! Whoossh! THUMP!

Boulders the size of wheel carts flew through the air, only to impact on the side of the modest stone structure serving as a forward fortification for the force from Genoa. The Venetians surveyed the results of their assault as new stones were placed to reload the trebuchets.

"A little left and forward men!" shouted the Captain of the Battery. "Enough! Ready the launch!" A burley soldier, axe in hand, stepped up to the knotted rope holding the trebuchet's arm in place. "Launch!" bellowed the Captain.

The soldier swung his axe at the knotted cord stretched across a wooden anvil, striking it center and true. DONK! The rope separated. TWANK! The counterbalanced arm of the trebuchet rotated on its shaft, increasing its speed as it completed its rotation. Finally, at its zenith, the arm released the boulder it was bearing, flinging the boulder in the direction of the Genoan stronghold. WHOOSSH!

The Captain shaded his eyes to ward off the glare of the sun as he watched the boulder's flight. The Venetian officer was pleased to see that the boulder's flight was properly arced and true. The boulder slammed into the upper third of the distant wall, cracking the wall's stones and sending debris in all directions. THUMP! A fortuitous bit of debris must have struck an unprepared Genoan, for a man's body was seen falling from the parapets above the place where the boulder struck, the body landing in a twisted lump on the ground below. The Captain smiled with self-satisfaction. "A bonus that time," he said to himself in a low voice. "Well done, men!" he shouted to his battery. "Again, now! Aim and strike true!"

The infantry Captain glanced at the walls and observed the accuracy of the battery's launchings. "It won't be much longer now," he said to his lieutenant nearby. "Prepare the men for the advance." The lieutenant saluted and spurred his horse to find the infantry leaders who would guide the Venetians to the walls of the stronghold and, hopefully, within.

____________________________________________________________

Duke Suciando drummed his fingers on the table in irritation. "Where is that Del Strego? There are events happening and I must be prepared!" As if by invitation sent by these words, there came a rapping at the door to the Duke's chamber. One of the Duke's advisors opened the door and in strode Roberto Del Strego and a young girl.

"Who is the girl, Signor Del Strego?" asked the Duke, all eyes, including his own, focussing on the maiden with the smudges on her cheeks.

"My uh... ward, Milord. Her name is Bianca."

"This is a business matter, Del Strego. I would not expect one such as you to bring a woman-child to such a meeting as this." At the word "woman-child" Bianca's cheeks colored in embarrassment as much as in some amount of irritation. Del Strego put his hand on Bianca's nearest shoulder for reassurance.

"My apologies, Milord. She is young and inexperienced in the way of things. I thought the girl would benefit in manner and deportment from the experience of being in the immediate presence of the Duke of San Luca Maggiore. If I have made an error in judgement, the blame is mine." Del Strego arranged himself into an elegant, sweeping bow keeping his head lowered until addressed once more by the Duke.

"Oh... Nevermind," said Suciando. "I don't have time for this, Del Strego. On your honor, is she trustworthy?"

"The same as I, Milord," answered Roberto.

"I shall remember your answer," warned Suciando. "She may stay, provided she is as quiet as a Keep's mouse."

Del Strego turned to Bianca. "Remember the Duke's warning, child," he said. Bianca nodded her understanding and then curtsied to the Duke to signal her agreement. A smile, tentative at first, then broadening, appeared on her face.

Hmmmm, thought the Duke. A comely maiden, despite the smudges on an otherwise pretty face. I must remember her for the future, he concluded. One of his advisors concluded the same as well. Except, for him, that which was to be in the future would have put the girl into immediate fear if she could have read the man's veiled mind.

Suciando waived to signal the girl should rise. "Your ward is very charming, Del Strego. Now... To the business at hand."

"And what is that business, Milord?"

"Why, Del Strego... It is merely the conquest of Millefiore, that is all."

Roberto Del Strego drew in a deep breath and prepared himself. This would be worse than he had feared.


LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 08-01-2002 @ 03:20 PM).]

Lancer
Archer
posted 08-01-02 16:06 EST (US)     87 / 140       
Loriana glanced left and right at her new escort, or captors she decided was the more accurate word. The hooded man on the left must have seen something in Loriana's eyes for he edged his horse closer and with clenched teeth and a ferocious expression hidden in his hood hissed a warning. "Now Duchess, don't be thinking anything untoward at the moment. We have orders to bring you to our master. He didn't say how you should look when you arrive. Do I make myself clear?"

Loriana knew it for a possibly baseless threat, but in the dim light of the coming dawn she couldn't be sure. Nonetheless, the first opportunity she saw presenting itself, she decided she would risk the consequences and escape; and so she said, "Yes, clear enough."

The man's hidden expression softened. "Good. Then we have an understanding."

"Yes, an understanding," echoed Loriana. She began her patient wait for the opportunity she sought.

____________________________________________________________

With the Crimson Knight leading, Cesare and Cat could see the coming light of dawn as all three urged their horses at a quick, but not debilitating pace south on the road they had just travelled. Fresh hoofprints were barely visible in the softer areas of the dirt road. This reassured the trio they were on the right course to intercept Loriana and the two hooded men.

____________________________________________________________

"Advance!" bellowed the Captain of the infantry. Hundreds of Venetian soldiers bearing pikes and swords marched forward, flanked by mounted infantry and backed by ranks of archers.

At a designated point in the open plain before the stronghold, the archers halted and nocked arrows to bows and let fly wave after wave of arrows at Genoan archers in the high parapets. This was meant to keep the Genoan archers occupied and to prevent them from sending flights of arrows against the Venetian infantry. The tactic worked only for as long as the arrows cleared the area above the Venetian soldiers and didn't fall on them as well as the Genoans.

Eventually, the Venetian infantry came into range of both their own arrows and the arrows of the Genoans. It was here the Venetians broke into a run and sprinted for the walls. Ladder soldiers found places in the wall, especially where boulders had broken through, to place their ladders and attempt to breech the wall's defenses.

Meanwhile, archers rushed forward to take positions at the back of their infantry, but now within close range of the walls. Here, the Venetian archers took careful aim, targeting individual Genoans defending walls instead of launching flights of arrows.

The battle raged on with neither combatant, for the moment, gaining the upper hand.

____________________________________________________________

"So Roberto, as I think you see, the Venetians are even now assisting us by attacking the Genoan stronghold to the northeast. Victory in this battle should make it difficult for Genoa to send forces to support Millefiore. That leaves the area ripe for the taking. The people of Millefiore will think that our troops are nothing more than an escort for Loriana's safe return and will think very poorly of Ricco should he suggest otherwise. Once inside, our escort will throw open the gates to the Keep and permit the main body of our force to advance and take Ricco's stonghold."

Roberto Del Strego nodded his head. "A clever scheme, Milord. What is my role?"

"You and my assigned Captain will lead the escort into the city. When inside, I expect you to create all manner of confusion, in your own inimitable way, and prevent Millifiore from mounting any significant defense against my soldiers." Suciando leaned back in his chair waiting to see if Del Strego's understanding of his role was as clear to him as it was to Suciando.

"I have the means to do these things, but will need an associate for certain activities. Do you have a trusworthy servant?" asked Del Strego.

"Ha!" exclaimed Suciando. "Do you see one somewhere? No, Signor, there are none who fit the criteria... But you do."

"I Milord? Who is that? There is only Bianca, my ward. She is not a servant."

"Precisely!" said Suciando.

"But Milord, she is not supposed to be... I mean, she is not... Milord, she is too young for such a risk!"

"Bianca shall be a lady-in-waiting to Loriana. A favor bestowed on the Duchess by the friendly Duke of San Luca Maggiore."

"But Milord..." protested Roberto.

"That is my decision, Signor. Do you intend to disobey me?"

Roberto resigned himself to the inevitable. "No, Milord."

"Good. Make your plans Signor Ambassador Roberto Del Strego. And see that Bianca is instructed and prepared."

"Yes, Milord," responded Roberto. One of the advisors in the room began to secretly speculate on the right opportunity to make the acquaintence of Bianca, one way or another. Lady-in-waiting... He concurred with the classification, but only for his own corrupt reasons.


LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 08-01-2002 @ 04:08 PM).]

Lancer
Archer
posted 08-04-02 14:42 EST (US)     88 / 140       
Now in close proximity to the walls the Venetians were relieved to NOT hear the whooosh of boulders coursing over their heads towards the walls beyond. The Captain stared intently at the stronghold's walls, ignoring flights of arrows raining around him from the defenders on the parapets. Breach... where is the breach? There must be a breach or a weakening somewhere.

There... where the last boulder struck, the same place three of its cousins struck. The wall appeared lowered and its lowest point low enough for even the shortest of his ladders. He bellowed commands directing his ladder corps to the wall where the breach was visible. He ordered others among his units to worry defenders above the two adjoining walls, and he ordered his battering corps to assault the barred gate with a battering ram. There was no moat, just cleared area in front of the walls of this stronghold.

A flaming arrow arced through the air striking the ground in front of the gate. Then two more. The earth erupted in a sea of flame before the gate. Pitch ditches! He should have known. With no moat, there had to be other defenses. A few of the Venetians were caught in the flames as wind whipped the fires in their direction. The advance on the gate was halted due to the flames; and attackers braced themselves for the flights of arrows launched by defenders while the flames balked their advance. Not so the ladder corps, for it reached the foot of the wall and began to raise their ladders.

Now began the seemingly endless contest between ladder climbers and defenders. The former positioning and climbing assault ladders as quickly as possible, the latter using poles with v-shaped forks at the ends to push the ladders back and send the climbers crashing to the ground. Meanwhile, other attackers used a few remaining ladders on adjoining walls to force the defenders to man them so that the defenders would not concentrate their attention exclusively on the primary point of the Venetian attack.

Screams echoed from the battlefield back to the place where the Venetian general observed the battle. He looked back over his shoulder at his mounted infantry, held in reserve for defense or for the culminating attack on the gate. He winced as he saw ladder after ladder laid against the wall only to be tumbled back to the earth and the climbers scattered on the ground where they fell. Each time a ladder fell, fewer of his Venetians would regain their feet to repeat the assault. Shattered ladders now began to litter the foot of the wall as their usefullness was ended by the forked poles of the Genoans.

The General shouted a command to his mounted infantry commander. The mounted infantry's leader relayed the command to two of his horsemen. They galloped onto the battlefield and straight towards the archers positioned to the rear of the ladder corps. The archer corps commander nodded in understanding and began to shout commands.

The archers reformed more compactly and closer to the walls, nocked arrows in bows and stood at the ready. A horn sounded from the general's site. The ladder corps ceased its assault on the walls stepping back about 10 yards just as rapidly launched flights of arrows arced overhead and rained down on the Genoans on the walls. More screams pierced the air, this time from above. The Genoans sought cover, having no archers nearby to return the favor of the attack.

The general shook his head, there was no other choice. He shouted another command and the horn conveyed his order with a different series of notes. Under protection of flights of Venetian arrows, some of which invariably would find a place in the backs of Venetian soldiers, the ladder corps attacked once again. There were fewer Genoans at hand this time to push the ladders back. A few seconds hesitation by Genoans trying to duck arrows was enough to permit Venetians to reach the top of the walls and swarm into the parapets.

Meanwhile, the THUMP, THUMP, THUMP of the battering ram echoed within the compound. The pitch ditches had burned themselves out and the survivors of the Genoan archery attack had begun anew their assault on the gate. CRASH! The gate fell back off its hinges. Genoans rushed to engage the Venetians who poured over the fallen gate. Now and then a falling body from the battle in the parapets would crash to the earth or onto Genoan or Venetian alike battling in the yard before the stronghold's Keep.

Another horn sounded from the hilltop overlooking the battlefield. Now the sounds of galloping hoofs could be heard on the wind that had changed to blow towards the stronghold. The Genoans knew what this meant: the battle was over. Here and there they began to throw down their weapons to signal surrender, hoping for quarter. What began as an isolated series of such incidents became mass reaction as the Venetian mounted infantry rode into the interior of the stronghold. The battle was indeed over, and the surviving Genoan officers shouted the commands that halted futile resistance and directed the Genoans to lay down their weapons.

As was customary, the ranking Genoan officer offered his sword to the Venetian general upon his arrival in the stronghold proper, with his solemn promise that all resistance would end. The Genoan's sword was declined, as was also customary, signaling respect for the nobility of the officer and the good of his word. The Genoan bowed and inquired about the general's intentions towards his men. "They will be stripped of weapons and allowed to return to Genoa," he replied. This too was customary. So indeed, quarter would be given. The Genoan expressed his appreciation and retired to see to his men: the living, the wounded and the dead.

For though these men fought each other as would any who are enemies, they were nonetheless of similar blood, similar language, similar culture and similar faith. Though they might be fighting for the wellfare of their citystates and their families, they knew because of their faith that there were others watching them closely: God above, and his apostle on earth, the Pope in Rome. These were the ultimate authorities who would demand an accounting of their deeds on earth in life and in death.


LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 08-08-2002 @ 01:47 PM).]

Micah Aragorn
Archer
posted 08-05-02 14:15 EST (US)     89 / 140       
As good men lay dead or dying on a battle field fighting to them a noble cause Dante and Carlo, who had reached the stronghold where Loriana was being held, waited for their scout to bring news of Ricco's sisters. When that news arrived it was not what was expected. As the scout told what he had seen the expressions on Dante's face turned from anticipation to confussion to anger.

"That can't be right. You must be blind. They have to be there", an angered Dante said.

The scout although with a slight hesitation to his voice answered," N...No sir. I speak the truth. There is no one in or about the keep. I was able to gain access to inside. And I tell you there is no one."

Dante turned to Carlo and was without words as he pondered his next move. Surely he could not go back to Ricco with that news for his life would be forfeit and he had never failed at any command given him. Failure was more his companion, Carlo. Finally a thought occurred to him and he turned to the scout once more.

"Were there any tracks about leading to or away from the keep."

"Yes sir," replied the scout. "Two older sets leading away to San Luca Maggiore and two fresh sets also going in the same direction."

Dante again looked at Carlo and this time both had the same conclusion. Duke Suciando was making his move to bring Loriana to him as her savior and bring false friendship in the hopes to gain Milifiore. And the second set had to be the younger sibling, Caterina, and her escort. They must be trying to still unite the two sisters.

Dante and Carlo turned their horses and spurred them to a gallup as their cohorts also did in the direction of the tracks. To be on the main roads in Suciando's land was seriously dangerous but so was not doing what Ricco had asked of them.

Lancer
Archer
posted 08-06-02 16:06 EST (US)     90 / 140       
Ricco stormed around the room in a raging fury, throwing chairs and anything else he could reach. "Curse the Venetians!" he bellowed. "Curse them for the scoundrels they are!"

The ambassador from Genoa thought it best not to interrupt the Duke's tirade.

Another chair flew across the small interior chamber. "So the stronghold in the northwest has fallen to the Venetians! Magnificent! Simply magnificent! Well, that makes our position all the better don't you think, Ambassador?!" Ricco's voice dripped with sarcasm.

"Genoa apologizes for the failure, Milord. We have been successful with our sea endeavors; but on land our generals have seen only partial success."

"You need better generals, Ambassador," commented Ricco, his tirade waning as his fury subsided.

"Perhaps so, Milord, though I am not the one to judge."

Ricco stared at the Ambassador as if he had another thought to convey; but the Duke of Millefiore chose not to say what was on his mind. He dismissed the Ambassador instead, saying, "Please leave me. I have these recent developements to mull over." The ambassador bowed and promptly withdrew from the Duke's chamber.

Ricco walked to the opening in the wall slit like a cross and placed there for the use of a defending archer. He stared out the opening to the countryside surrounding his Keep. "I wonder how Dante and Carlo are doing. Do they have her yet?" But since the room was empty, the only answer he heard was the silence of the stone walls.

___________________________________________________________

The village of San Luca Maggiore was abuzz with activity. The town blacksmiths were busy fashioning new swords and sharpening those swords already in possession of soldiers. The carpenters were manufacturing ladders and a battering ram. The mechanical workshops were building devices under the watchful eye of Signor Del Strego. The fletcher was fitting feathers to hundreds of arrows, and the bowman was busy hewing bow sticks from hickory and stringing each bow with just the right length of gut to give the bow the strength needed to launch arrows as great a distance as possible.

There were new faces in town as well. Some of these faces were unfamiliar to residents of the Northern Peninsula, as was their language. Mercenaries? Could that be what they were? Most likely. This was the conclusion reached in every tavern in the village. Must be the case, popular thought pronounced. Foreign looking and speaking... and commanded by Venetians. Must be mercenaries. Whatever the Duke was planning would involve these foreign soliders of fortune. Now just what was Suciando planning...? Speculation flowed as fast as the water in the fountains in the village center.


LANCER
One word deserves another.
Lancer
Archer
posted 08-07-02 22:19 EST (US)     91 / 140       
The Crimson Knight put his finger to his lips to signal to the others to keep as silent as possible. The trio, Caterina, Cesare and the Knight, continued to shadow the two hooded men and their charge.

____________________________________________________________

Loriana's body tensed when her ever alert mind saw the opportunity she sought. One of the men had to dismount to attend to a personal need. That left only one to guard her.

The small needle she kept in the hem of her dress seemed to her to grow to the size of a sword. She carefully withdrew it, her motions unnoticed by the other guard who was more intent on his comrade's horse than Loriana. She nudged her horse over until her right hand was near the rump of the horse ridden by her one remaining guard.

In the blink of an eye she drove the needle into the rump of the rider's horse sending it neighing and bucking in a veritable frenzy. The rider was thrown into the air to land hard onto the road. The other horse, freed of its owner and captor, galloped down the road. Loriana kneed her horse and turned its head to make her mount gallop to the west and into the trees and bushes bordering the road, unknowingly right towards Cat and her comrades who were shadowing them from the west.

So intent upon avoiding a collision with trees and anything else growing there, Loriana did not notice the riders hidden in the growth until an arm reached out and grabbed the reins of her horse when she slowed to a trot to navigate thick brush. Her head swiveled in surprise to see who the arm belonged to and saw... A featureless red-face staring at her with black holes where eyes should have been. Loriana did what any woman would do under the circumstances...

She screamed.

"Hush, Loriana! You'll bring the Duke's men!" It was a familiar voice, a very familiar voice, coming from the person who joined the red-faced, no... red-masked man who held her horse's reins. The face with the voice was... was... "Cat? Is that you?"

"Yes, it's me, Loriana... Now be quiet until we are free of them!"

"But your hair, sister. What have you done to your hair?"

"Hush, I said! Never mind the hair! Ride now, talk later!" ordered Caterina. Loriana looked with hesitation at the red-masked man who now released the reins of her horse and guided his backwards to give Loriana room to maneuver her mount. Cat saw the look. "He is a friend, Loriana... despite the mask."

The Crimson Knight pointed in the direction he wanted them to take. Cat nodded, as did Cesare, and the four of them guided their horses in the westerly direction pointed to, and prodded their mounts along as fast as animal and terrain permitted.


LANCER
One word deserves another.
GillB
EXCO Alumna in Kul Tiras
posted 08-08-02 04:22 EST (US)     92 / 140       
The thick forest prevented them from riding as fast as they would have liked, but after an hour or so they reined in their horses and listened intently. They could hear no sounds apart from the usual forest rustling, so dismounted to give their horses a rest.

Caterina and Loriana embraced then sat and talked in low voices, each filling in what had happened since they had last seen each other.

Loriana was secretly surprised at the changes she saw in her younger sister. Cat had, indeed, grown up. Cat, on the other hand, was worried about Loriana. Her face was drawn and there were new lines and furrows there.

"The ideal would be for you to cut your hair and be a boy too" was all she said out loud. "But we have no more mens' clothes. You will have to keep your hood up at all times."

Loriana smiled to herself at Cat's taking command. She said nothing, however, and called over to Cesare "Where are we going? Back to Millefiore?"

Cesare and the Crimson Knight had been having their own conversation but didn't want to worry the girls with their conclusions. "I don't think that is a good idea, or not straight away. There have been movements of armies and we do not want to arrive for you to take up your rightful position in the middle of a battle. What we really need is to know what is happening." He looked questioningly at the Crimson Knight who thought for a few minutes.

"Give me an hour or so" he said. "I have friends hiding in the forest who can go and find out for us. I will find them and send them on their way. In the meantime it's not safe for you to be out here in the open. You need to find shelter until we get news."

"I know of some caves near here" Cesare said thoughtfully. "Not ideal, but better than the open forest." He explained where they were to the Crimson Knight and they set off in their opposite directions.


'Inside every old person is a young person wondering what happened' Moving Pictures
Lancer
Archer
posted 08-11-02 19:27 EST (US)     93 / 140       
Loriana and Caterina examined their new abode skeptically. "Are you sure these are safe, Cesare?" asked Loriana.

"As safe as anything around here. Look... We are sheltered from the weather by the depth of the cave. We can build a fire at the entrance and that ridge just in front hides the flame and masks the glow. We truly cannot be seen from anywhere but right there, at the very entrance... And there is only one way in."

"Yes," observed Cat, "And only one way out."

"That is true, Milady. Only one way out. But easy to defend nonetheless."

"How did you come to know about this cave, Cesare," asked Loriana pointedly.

"I... Well, there was... Uhhh... In a previous trade, Milady Loriana," he responded sheepishly.

"I can imagine," chimed in Caterina. Then she changed the subject to what was mostly on her mind. "Ummm, Cesare?"

"Yes Milady?"

"You... ummm... You might not know where the Knight was off to do you?" Caterina waited patiently for the answer, any answer, just so that she knew... something. Loriana looked at her sister, her eyebrows arched. Again, the Knight. Cat spoke of him frequently and earnestly, a different emotion attached to each sentence uttered about him. What goes on in the head of my young sister, Loriana wondered to herself.

"He asked me not to concern you with that. He will return he said. But first he said he must scout out the countryside. I assume, Milady, it must be somewhere close by," Cesare speculated.

Caterina looked at him trying to determine if she was hearing the truth or not. She could not tell for sure. "Oh, well alright then. We shall expect him back soon I suppose."

"I suppose, Milady," echoed Cesare. But Caterina was not convinced.

____________________________________________________________

Dante and Carlo decided they could no longer push their horses so hard and slowed their's and their mens' horses to a walk. Timo, one of their men who for the moment was also the advance scout, was seen galloping back towards them as if the Devil himself was after him.

"Off the road!" he called out as soon as he was within earshot. "Off the road now! It is a troop of Suciando's men! Hurry!" They scattered to both sides of the road to find what hiding places they could while waiting for Suciando's men to pass.

____________________________________________________________

Fredo was sleeping soundly in the Jester's wagon when he heard a sharp knock at the door. "Fredo," called out a voice the boy quickly recognized. "Are you in there?"

"Yes, Master... And am I glad to see you!" said Fredo, relief etched in every corner of his youthful face as he unlocked and opened the door to let Figaro in.

"And I am glad to see you too," said Figaro. "All is well?"

"I mean, Master... You are in very great trouble! Where have you been?"

"Around and about, apprentice, as I told you earlier. Ricco gave me holiday and so..."

"Well he changed his mind just this morning. It seems there is to be an important visitor here, an ambassador from San Lucca Maggiore and his lady, who shall arrive tomorrow before sundown. You are expected to perform at tomorrow's banquet to be given in his honor."

"Did the Duke forget his word allowing me my holiday?"

"No, Master. He simply said I was to find you and to be sure you performed. Oh Master... I was afraid you would not return in time." Fredo looked close to tears.

"But I am here, now, Fredo. And all is well." Figaro modified his voice in a way to soothe the agitated youth. It had the desired effect and the boy soon dropped off to sleep.

"So much for my holiday," muttered Figaro to himself as he lay on his cot in the wagon. "I guess I'll have to change my plans and serve Duke Ricco on the morrow, instead." The boy mumbled something in his sleep, no doubt because Figaro's talking to himself disturbed the boy. Figaro lapsed into silent thought and then slipped into a restless sleep.


LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 08-11-2002 @ 08:42 PM).]

Lancer
Archer
posted 08-11-02 20:32 EST (US)     94 / 140       
Banners waved creating moving color along the main road into Millefiore. The Ambassador, his lady and their escort made their way in deliberate, dignified progress to the entrance to Duke Ricco's stronghold. First would come the formalities, then the customary banquet and then... but only then... the subject for his visit would be broached. The Ambassador selected various faces in the crowd, who he would most likely never see or even recognize again, and chose the person belonging to the face to receive his formal hand wave of feigned recognition.

All the while, the lady at his side appeared strained and quiet, almost frightened in a way by the crowd around her and its boisterous cheering. In turn the vocal crowd studied her with curiousity. No amount of modest veiling could hide the fact that the lady was exceptionally youthful, indeed very youthful in comparison to the middle aged portly man with whom she rode. She was slender and, in a way, pretty. Well, she could be once the dust of the road that smudged her face was removed, that is.

Figaro studied the approaching couple and their escort from the elevated position of one of the Keep's archery openings. From his vantage point he would easily see the faces of the Ambassador and his lady once they were close enough. For the moment though, they were too distant for Figaro to see much of anything.

The ambassador leaned over and whispered to the young woman at his side. "Courage now... You've been taught all that there is to know about such things. Simply remember your lessons and follow my guidance and you will do well." The woman glanced at him, but his words left doubt incompletely erased in her troubled look.

Figaro squinted hoping it might help him see them better. No... He would have to wait... Minutes passed as the procession came closer to the Keep. Duke Ricco was already on the steps awaiting the Ambassador's arrival.

No! It cannot be! Recognition flooded Figaro. Ambassador?! From San Luca Maggiore? No! Not possible! He is but a magician and alchemist, or something! How could Roberto Del Strego be the Ambassador from Suciando's dark land? And his veiled lady? She appears to be so very young. Could it be? Is it possible?

In his haste to change location Figaro spun on his heels nearly knocking over the poor servant man who was standing behind him looking over the jester's shoulder at the scene below. The jester steadied him on his feet and apologized for the collision, then the jester rapidly glided down the stairs, two or three steps at a time to get a better look at "the lady."

Figaro found his improved lookout point and as she dismounted and a breeze blew free the veil she loosely held across her face, the jester had his answer. It was Bianca. Del Strego and Bianca. But she was his lady? No. That cannot be. Del Strego wouldn't be so crass, at least that's what Figaro wanted to believe.

The opening from which Figaro watched their arrival was more plainly visible to the Ambassador and his lady as well, and much closer to area of the steps. Figaro noticed that Bianca seemed intent upon locating someone in the welcoming group behind Ricco. Her now uncovered face wore an expression more and more of disappointment than any other feeling.

Figaro saw the smudges on her cheeks and despite his misgivings about the situation laughed saying her pet name, Ceneri, out loud, forgetting the penchant for stone walls to echo. Del Strego was preoccupied with greeting the Duke and did not hear, but Bianca's head lifted and turned in his direction. She saw him and her face blossomed into a heartful, broad smile that radiated every happy feeling possible. On impulse, she nearly stepped forward to enter the Keep; but a subtle restraining hand from Del Strego reminded her of her duties. She obeyed and stayed, but every opportunity she had was given to glancing in Figaro's direction until he suddenly disappeared into the depths of the Keep and Bianca could not see the jester's face anymore.

The jester could not abide the situation. How dare Del Strego take advantage of the girl. He, Figaro, would find the right moment and then Del Strego would answer for this outrage imposed on Ceneri. It would be direct, swift and unpleasant for Del Strego, Ambassador from San Luca Maggiore or not!

Roberto Del Strego greeted Ricco with the customary bow and words of diplomacy, then he introduced Bianca. "Milord, I present the Lady Bianca... My ward." Bianca curtseyed, only to be told to rise by Ricco the moment she completed her courtesy.

"A most lovely young lady, Ambassador." Smudges and all, Ricco thought but didn't say. "Welcome, both of you, to the village and land of Millefiore."

Figaro, returning to his room in his anger, never heard these words exchanged.


LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 08-11-2002 @ 09:01 PM).]

Lancer
Archer
posted 08-12-02 21:03 EST (US)     95 / 140       
Loriana sipped the last of the broth made by Cesare from supplies he and Caterina brought with them from the village. Cesare thought it odd in his manly way to find himself cooking for two women. On the other hand, these were two pampered women who never had to cook a thing for themselves in their lives and probably didn't know the first thing about preparing and cooking a supper. It turned out he was correct.

The last of the broth in each bowl was absorbed into hard-crusted bread by the three and consumed without hesitation. "Well done, Cesare," said Loriana. "Yes, excellent," added Cat.

"Glad you liked it," answered Cesare. "You can now wash your bowls in the rivulet at the entrance, if you please." Loriana opened her mouth to say something, then realized their position and thought the better of it. She even laughed a little at the fact she was free of a jailor bringing her meals and this was the benefit that came from such freedom.

"We certainly are not in Millefiore, I can see," she observed wryly.

"No, Milady we are not," concurred Cesare. "But that doesn't mean we dispense with all formalities." So saying he bent down and picked up Loriana's emptied bowl. "Milady, Duchess of Millefiore, I present 'your bowl' for the purpose of dutiful cleaning and other such oblations as may be necessary." Cesare placed Loriana's bowl once more on the ground before her and followed this motion with an exaggerated formal bow and sweep of his hand. The twinkling in his eyes conveyed to Loriana an impression of intended camaraderie and not mocking. Cat looked back and forth between Cesare and Loriana wondering just what would happen next.

Loriana stared at Cesare stone faced and with noble dignity reached with her left hand for the bowl and offered her right hand to Cesare for assistance in rising to her feet. Now standing she said, "I thank you, kind Sir, for the services rendered: a warm, filling supper and elegant presentation of the object that held such fare, and for your strong hand. I shall endeaver to return as quickly as possible. Come Lady Caterina, we shall assist each other in this honorable task." Cat, eyes wide with surprise and her mouth puckered in amusement, followed her sister's lead, grasped her own bowl, and rose to her feet.

"By your leave, Sir," said Loriana, and she and Cat stepped towards the entrance walking towards it in a pentultimate display of absolutely proper feminine posture and gait. They were passing through the cave entrance when they both could no longer restrain their humor and began to giggle, girlishly, at their bizarre playacting.

Cesare smiled broadly, glad that they understood his intent and especially because he was more entertained than they knew. His appreciative eye noticed that young Caterina, walking her dignified walk and fitting her manchild's clothing with not quite a manlike or even boyish figure, caused movement of its seams in a way no man could. As Cat turned the corner and disappeared into the evening to find the rivulet, Cesare sighed. "The Knight is a lucky man to have the attentions of such as she," he said to the cave; for it was increasingly apparent that under that boyish cut hair was a young woman's mind focussed on the man in the red mask and considering the possibilities, many possibilities it seemed to him. Cesare wondered if the Knight knew.

The empty cave offered no answer in reply except to echo, "such as she"..."such as she"..."such as she"...


LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 08-12-2002 @ 09:14 PM).]

Micah Aragorn
Archer
posted 08-13-02 05:47 EST (US)     96 / 140       
Cesare took another piece of wood from the pile he had put further in the cave and put it on the fire. Even though he wanted to keep the flame down as much as possible he knew it may be a chilly night and wanted to make the sister's stay as comfortable as possible. Remembering their little playacting a moment ago he smiled and looked up towards the entrance of the cave expecting to seem them returning after cleaning their bowls. But they were not nor were they even at the entrance.

Cesare stood up and taking steps to the entrance called out,"Caterina! Where are you. This is no time to be playing a game. Milady? Duchess you need to come back inside where it's safe." All the while Cesare continued to the entrance.

At the rivulet lay the bowls he had had them clean. Where were they? Now he was becoming concerned yet angry at their unsafe and playful mood. He stepped outside the cave to have a better look around and turned the corner. He stopped abruptly as before him were the two sisters. Except that each struggled against the hands that held them and the ones that were across their mouths to negate any noise. But he was unable to detect the hand that carried the sword whose handle came down upon Cesare's head sending him into a unconscious state and lying flat upon the dusty ground.

.........As Cesare started to slowly come around he could hear Loriana's voice as if in a distance. He tried to move but the pain where the sword handle had struck pained him and he moved his hand in an instinctive gesture to the source only to find that his movements were being restricted by the rope that bound his hands and feet.

Loriana looked at Cesare and was pleased to see some movement. It had been at one time that both sisters feared they had lost him. Seeing he was still alive she turned her attention now towards the two familiar faces that stood above her.

Loriana angrily said, "You could have killed him, Dante"

Dante raising one eyebrow and smirking answered," That thought had occured to me, milady. But I found that I was curious as to who he was and how he knew your whereabouts. I couldn't very well get those answers if he were dead."

Loriana and Caterina both were puzzled at this reply with Caterina asking,"What do you mean Loriana's whereabouts? And how did you find us?"

Dante chuckled at his next answer," That Cat, was by pure accident. If we had not been hiding from Duke Suciando's men we would never have found the tracks that led off the main road and to this." Dante was holding his hands out at arms length and turning. Upon doing a full circle he lowered his hand and stared at the sisters.

"You said you wanted to know how he knew my whereabouts," Loriana said. "Was not my location a secret considering my being kidnapped?"

"Oh yes milady! It was a secret! At least to some. But not to us or your brother."

Both sisters faces showed the puzzled look at Dante's words but Caterina expressed the same thoughts that had flashed them both. "Ricco knew of the kidnapping and Loriana's hiding place? Yet said nothing."

This time Carlo answered the questions," Of course he did. He knew all along where you were. The better to keep you away from him and his plans. He knew Caterina would eventually go looking for her sister and once again keep an annoyance away from him."

Loriana raising her face and showing no emotion asked,"So I presume then you are not here to take us back to Millefiore."

Dante and Carlo both laughed and their companions chuckled Dante answering,"It would seem so milady. We are to make sure you don't return at all."

Caterina moved closer to her sister and a glimmer of a teardrop appeared at the corner of her eyes. Loriana put her arm around her and brought her as close to her as possible.

"Now,"quipped Dante,"You wouldn't be expecting anyone else to be showing up in the near future. I think we'll just make ourselves at home for now. Can't go anywhere until the morrow anyway." The group settled in for the evening.

[This message has been edited by Micah Aragorn (edited 08-13-2002 @ 04:05 PM).]

Lancer
Archer
posted 08-14-02 16:03 EST (US)     97 / 140       
Dante and Carlo bided their time all of the next day while Antonio, one of their men, galloped to Millefiore to advise Ricco of their catch.

____________________________________________________________

Suciando stormed about the chamber in the foulest of moods Caimbeaul had ever seen in his Lord. The exchange between them was brief and to the point.

No, they could find no trace of the Duchess. No, they never ran into any of Ricco's men, though they thought they might have at one point, that is, until the growth turned up frantic rabbits instead of frantic men. Yes, they found the two agents. Yes, they learned all that they could from the men, the one preoccupied in the bushes doing... well, you know; and the other who claimed his horse spooked and caused the Duchess to escape. Yes, there soon would be openings in the Duke's employ for replacement agents.

The Duke's frustration was evident in his face and stride. "Caimbeaul, we have no choice. I will not be thwarted in this manner. No subtle plots, no clever diplomacy. Del Strego is there to assess their military preparedness and return with his report. We are massing soldiers and weaponry in San Luca Maggiore. We shall march on Millefiore and with the support of our Venetian allies, take it by force! Captain, continue the preparations. I place the responsibility in your hands."

"Yes, Milord Suciando." Caimbeaul saluted and left the chamber. On the Captain's brow was a troubled frown. Is it truly necessary to engage in this war with Millefiore, a peaceful place that never troubled San Luca Maggiore in the past? Caimbeaul sighed. "What will be will be," he thought. "I am a soldier, not a nobleman or a politician. I take and give orders, that is all. It is for others to form or fathom reasons, not one such as I." Caimbeaul picked up the speed of his step and made his way to the armory to determine the state of the Duke's army.

____________________________________________________________

Late afternoon arrived in Millefiore and the formal banquet began in earnest. Troubadors entertained in the courtyard serenading arriving guests with tuneful melodies learned during their travels in the countryside. Guests mingled in the Great Hall anticipating the arrival of the Ambassador and his lady. Some were engaged in conversation with other guests, while some were occupied with viewing the immense tapestries hanging on what otherwise would have been cold, bare stone walls.

The banquet table was set in its usual fashion, in the form of an inverted "U" with space reserved at the head table for the Duke, Ambassador, Lady Bianca and special guests, and the legs of the U reserved for all others. There was a place for everyone who had been invited. Thick beeswax candles in hammered, branched iron candleholders were positioned to provide illumination when the sun's light finally failed.

Along the wall and near the stairs stood guards armored in chain mail and breastplates carrying sword and pike. They were present more for decoration and courtesy than for protection. In fact, the primary task of the guards was to intercept a wandering guest looking for the Keep's privy and to direct or escort the guest to the appropriate chamber high above in the structure. As the banquest wore on and the wine flowed ever more freely, the final task of the guards would be to isolate any discordant guests and to ensure the privacy of ladies in the upper places of ease was not compromised by some wine-dulled witless gentleman guest.

The servants hurried about the Hall doing those things they were commanded to do by the Chief Servant. Figaro was not among them though he, like them, was a paid member of the Duke's household, for the jester's role was entertainment in the later hours of the banquet and nothing else before. Figaro worried his and Fredo's costumes and props and instructed Fredo on the events of the evening's entertainment.

The boy had a strange look on his face as he pondered his master's instructions. It was not like a jester to entertain in this manner. Something was afoot that his master would not reveal. And was it proper for Fredo and his master to wear costumes such as these? The boy wondered but did not ask. These were his master's instructions and he was bound by his father's direction to obey. Nonetheless, there were times when he would much prefer to have been in the company of his father and his men, than in the company of this unpredictable one he must call his master. This was one of those times.

Hours passed and the banquet progressed as the guests of honor were welcomed and seated and the day's repast was served.


LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 08-14-2002 @ 04:14 PM).]

Lancer
Archer
posted 08-15-02 20:46 EST (US)     98 / 140       
Not one prone to stagefright or pre-performance jitters, Figaro was uncommonly nervous this evening. Untypically, he decided to venture out of his chamber and observe the state of the banquet from a sheltered location above.

As Figaro descended the stairs he could hear the musicians in the Hall playing their instruments. It was a trio that served the Duke's pleasure and the pleasure of his guests that evening: flute, mandolin and viola da gamba. The pleasant melodies, played lightly as a background, floated to his ears invitingly, but did very little to soothe Figaro's troubled mind. He found a proper perch and observed all that his eyes could see from his vantage point.

Paying very close attention to the mix and mood of his future audience, Figaro failed to notice the light footsteps of a person descending the steps behind him and then stopping on the same step where he stood. A young woman's voice startled him out of his concentration. "Hello, jester," the voice said.

Startled, Figaro whirled about, his multi-colored, close fitting costume of a conjoined diamond pattern sparkling in the bright candlelight coming from the wall fixtures. "Ceneri!" he said when he recognized the young woman to be Bianca. "But where is your escort?"

"Above, attending to another guest. He will be arriving shortly." And this was true, because Figaro could hear the clang, clang of the guard's footsteps and the metallic scraping of armor plating on chain mail. The guard arrived with another lady at his side. The guard eyed the jester suspiciously.

"Milady Bianca, is all well? Shall I escort you to the Hall?"

"All is well, guard. I am in good care. And thank you."

"You are welcome, Milady," said the guard, who then communicated a silent warning to the jester to beware. The jester nodded to signal his understanding of the guard's warning. The guard proceeded down the stairs to his post with the second lady at his side.

Bianca turned her attention exclusively to the jester. "I am most happy to see you again, Figaro," she said, soulful happiness evident on her face. Evident too, a single smudge of dust lingered on one cheek, no doubt from a remote corner of the keep's wall, touched by her hand and conveyed unknowingly to her face. "Always Ceneri," thought Figaro.

"I am most pleased to see you as well, Lady Bianca," Figaro responded. Bianca's face fell. "So formal, Figaro?"

"You are Lady Bianca, Lady to Ambassador Roberto Del Strego..." Figaro's anger began to claw its way to the surface from the place where it was barely contained; but Bianca disarmed him unexpectedly.

"I am not his 'lady', Figaro. I am still his ward and apprentice. You have misunderstood the situation. Nothing has changed with respect to Master Del Strego."

Figaro's mouth opened, but nothing came out... At least not right away. "Master Del Strego? But I thought... I mean, I understood... I mean, everyone said..."

"You are stammering, Figaro. How very unlike the jester I met driving a wagon to San Luca Maggiore," chided Bianca.

"I have misjudged him, Bianca; for that I am truly sorry."

Bianca's expression changed. "I would not conclude your judging too quickly, Figaro. He is very much under the influence of Duke Suciando as am I." She lowered her eyes. "I dare not say more."

"But what is it, Bianca, that you cannot tell me?"

Bianca's face mirrored her intense desire to tell Figaro something and the conflict within that prevented it. "Oh Figaro, I musn't, I simply musn't. This is all I can tell you..." Unexpectedly she stepped forward and grasped Figaro's arms with her hands. She pushed up on her toes to reach the approximate level of his face and then pressed herself closely to him, placing a warm passionate kiss on his lips. She released him immediately and swiftly descended the stairs, leaving Figaro stunned.

It was said by chroniclers of these events that the moment of Bianca's kiss clearly was the spark that set the events that followed in motion. Other's will say what followed was only one of a series of critical moments that began when the Crimson Knight first appeared in the region of the two city-states. Figaro had no knowledge of these "chroniclers" or "others". They would appear later.

In this moment, Figaro felt nothing except his rememberances of the sweet sound of separation when Bianca's soft lips abandoned his, and the warmth that was now ever so slowly fading away. Lost in this world of comfort, he became disinterested in the events below and slowly walked up the stairs leading to his room, contemplating what next should be done. He made up his mind just as he opened the door to his room.


LANCER
One word deserves another.
Lancer
Archer
posted 08-15-02 22:16 EST (US)     99 / 140       
Fredo was rummaging around in a closet for some misplaced prop or costume item. He was whistling a popular little tune, something called a gavotte, that he had heard one of the troubadors play earlier that day. His vigorous whistling drowned out the noises of the room and the sound of stealthy footsteps approaching him from behind.

Without warning, a strong hand grasped him from behind and before he could yell a second strong hand closed over his mouth. A cloth was wound around his eyes while the hand pressed to his mouth held Fredo's head still. As the boy flailed his arms in futile defense, an uncommonly gravelly voice, forced and strained, with a certain familiarity in its timber, ordered him to be silent or risk bodily harm. The boy fell silent as commanded.

Eyes blocked and unseeing because of the cloth, Fredo was turned around only to be gagged by a thinner cloth tied over his mouth. Again a warning to be silent. Now the boy's hands were tied and finally his ankles. Helpless, Fredo was lifted in two strong arms and deposited into the same closet in which he was rummaging and then the key was turned in the lock by his unseen jailor. All that Fredo could do was to listen to the sounds that passed through the closet door.

He heard the entry door open... It was the only other door in the room besides the closet door. It was the Master Jester! He heard Figaro's voice calling for him. "Fredo! Where are you, boy?!" Fredo tried to shout a warning, but the gag prevented his master from hearing him until it was too late.

Suddenly, Figaro cried out, "Who are you?! What are you doing here?!" Then Fredo heard a struggle. Well, it must have been a struggle, for the boy heard feet stomping about in the room, grunts and then chairs falling over. He heard a final thump, something thick but soft falling to the floor and finally the clatter of a wooden object striking the stone of the floor. Then there was silence.

Fredo heard very little after that through the thick closet door. It seemed whoever was walking about in the room did so on light feet, first to the balcony outside of the only open window to the room, then around the room from place to place, and finally... Fredo was relieved to hear the faint complaint of the chamber's entry door as it opened and closed. At last, Fredo believed he was alone. But his master! Where was his master? Figaro would have seen the locked closet and known Fredo was missing or heard the boy's muffled cries in the closet, or so Fredo hoped. What happened to his master? Sad, dark thoughts began to fill the already frightened boy's mind.

____________________________________________________________

Duke Ricco knew the time was appropriate. He rose in his chair and offered a wine goblet salute to the Ambassador and his lady. Del Strego accepted the salute on behalf of Duke Suciando. Bianca remembered the proper courteous response and expressed her appreciation. Their goblets were drained and the music resumed. Ricco began to wonder if the jester would ever make his appearance.

Instead of the jester, an apparently whizzened, hunched-over old man, his face hidden behind a diabolically imaged mask, appeared at the highest step of the most visible staircase leading into the Great Hall. He was wearing a hooded cape that covered all of his head except for his masked face. His other clothing was uniformly brown and baggy, though clean and seemingly cared for. The old man stood on the step silently surveying the entire scene below. He was repeatedly tapping the bottom point of a crudely carved cane on the stone surface of the step either from habit or intent. It was this tapping sound that caught the attention of the merrymakers (and the guards) seated and standing around the room.

All eyes centered on the old man. Satisfied that this was so, the old man lifted one leg and attempted, stiffly, to place it on the next lower stone step. His leg would not fall once it was lifted. Balancing on his cane, the old man pushed down on his errant leg trying to coerce it into stepping downwards. The effort caused him to teeter forwards and backwards, with each teeter accompanied by a strong intake of breath among various guests, mostly the ladies.

A guard felt compelled to assist the old man, so he hurried up the stairs only to be met with an onslaught of blows from the cane delivered by the unspeaking old man. The confused guard retreated back to his post not knowing what else to do. The old man waved his cane threateningly at the others as if to say that would be their reward as well if they should try to interfere. He was obeyed. Everyone gave a sigh of relief when the leg finally snapped downwards and the old man awkwardly finished stepping onto the lower step.

Once more the old man began to descend the stairs. This time his leg wouldn't lift. The old man grasped the baggy pant covering his hesitent leg and pulled hard to no avail, it wouldn't elevate but a short unbeneficial distance. The old man looked around. Guests imagined the lines of frustration on the face of the man behind the mask. An idea! He placed the cane under the knee of his uncooperative leg and the point of the cane on his other knee. Like a lever, he thrust up on the cane forcing his leg upwards, then quickly he removed the cane leaned forward and forced the leg down on the next step. He tottered, but the other leg followed soon enough to prevent him from falling over. The guests applauded. Stiffly, the old man bowed.

As he did so, the cane fell free from his hand and the old man no longer had an object with which to push himself upwards from his bow. The cane clattered down the stairs and fell to the floor. A guard picked up the cane and stood there staring at the object, holding it in front of himself like a pike, not knowing what to do with it next.

The old man teetered in one direction, then another, first backwards and then forwards, backwards again... and then forwards... too far forwards... much too far forwards... "Look out!" cried out a woman in the audience. "He's going to fall!" At just the moment when it should have happened, the old man, still bent over, suddenly and swiftly navigated each and every step with agile footwork so cleverly choreographed that guests and guards alike couldn't tell when a foot touched a stair. Then, at the very bottom, the old man glided by the stupefied guard holding his cane, grabbed the cane right out of the guard's outstretched hand and stopped dead in his tracks, hunched over once more, three steps later.

"Hee, hee, hee," laughed the old man in an old man's voice. "Want to see me do that again? Hee, hee, hee!" The guests applauded and responded, "Yes, old man! Do it again!"

"Not on your life, I'm far too old!" he cried out, and tottering forward once more, he somersaulted head first and landed on his feet, fully upright, throwing his cane away at the same time. He threw his hands up into the air and placed one foot forward, lowering his shoulders in an entertainer's bow. It was Ricco who first realized the truth, "It is my jester, everyone! Figaro, well done!" The applause grew louder and then slowly died down as the guests waited in anticipation of what the clever jester might do next.

The man in the mask said nothing in reply, other than to bow once more. He proceeded to the next event in his planned "entertainment". However, before he could begin, a man strode purposefully into the Hall and approached Duke Ricco. The Duke listened carefully as Antonio whispered Dante's and Carlo's message in his ear. Ricco nodded and smiled with satisfaction, telling Antonio to obtain foods from the galley and await the Duke's command.

Ricco noticed that his jester courteously was waiting for his Master's command to begin, so Ricco encouraged him to do so with a wave of his hand.


LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 08-15-2002 @ 10:39 PM).]

Lancer
Archer
posted 08-16-02 13:56 EST (US)     100 / 140       
Bianca was as much impressed with the man's performance as were the many guests. She had applauded enthusiastically and felt somewhat closer to him, certainly, than had the others. After all, she had just kissed him, the first kiss she had ever given a young man from the heart. So it was a puzzlement to her in particular when the masked man continued with his performance.

Off went the man's hooded cape revealing that the mask covered both face and head. Curiously, he kept the mask in place. Then he motioned to the guards to gather on one side of the hall, the side farthest from the stairway that led to the upstairs chambers. The guards saw Ricco's hand motion saying it was permitted. None would seek the privy at this time anyway.

In the unusually strained, almost old manish voice he used before, the masked man called for an assistant. Ricco's hair stood up on the back of his neck when the assistant called for was specifically named by the masked man. "I call upon the Lady Caterina to assist me!"

The guests looked around the room to see if she would appear from some corner of the Keep, for they already knew she had not been present when the banquet began. No, Lady Caterina did not appear and all eyes turned to Ricco to see what he would say.

"But Jester, you know that the Lady Caterina is on holiday and away from this land."

"The jester may know that, Ricco, but I know otherwise!"

Ricco's face turned pink and then red, his good humor fleeing the banquet hall. Sharp intakes of breath punctuated the surprise the guests felt in that moment. "You speak to your Lord in this manner in front of these people? This is not funny, Jester," observed Ricco through clenched teeth.

"You are not my lord, Ricco; nor am I the jester!" And so saying, the man who was not the jester ripped off his mask to reveal... to reveal... a second mask! This mask was of wrapped crimson cloth and had been totally covered by the mask he wore until then. "The jester is upstairs, knocked on the head and bound!" Guards began to move towards the crimson-masked man. He reached into his shirt and pulled out a large throwing knife, indicating Ricco would be his target. "Hold your guards back, Ricco, or I'll use this weapon on you before they can reach me!" Ricco held up his hand and his guards froze in place, well away from both Ricco and the masked man.

"Who are you and what do you want?" asked Ricco, struggling to maintain his own calm under the circumstances.

"Some call me the Crimson Knight, but I have no name. What I want is for the truth to be told these people from San Luca Maggiore and Millefiore."

"What truth,Crimson... Knight," sneered Ricco.

"The truth that you have conspired with Suciando to have the rightful heir, the Duchess Loriana, kidnapped and held in Suciando's lands! That you seek the capture of Caterina because she left Millefiore to find her sister! That you intend the demise of both, one way or another, to secure your grasp on the dukedom of Millefiore. You, Ricco, the heir unapparent, disdained by your father Alfredo for good reason, war on your sisters! But you have failed, Ricco. They are safe and I know where they are and will see that they are returned."

Ricco's mind worked quickly. How timely that Antonio should arrive with such welcome news. This was not what Ricco wanted, but it would work for him for the moment. He said, "Then you, red-masked stranger, must be one of the kidnappers! For I have received word tonight that even now, Loriana and Caterina, whom you also must have kidnapped while she was on holiday, are safe in the hands of Dante and Carlo and their men."

Roberto Del Strego's head turned towards Ricco, an unsuppressed expresion of surprise on his face. This would be unwelcome news to Suciando. And how did this self-proclaimed Knight know the truth so thoroughly about Ricco's arrangement with Suciando. Unless... Yes, unless he indeed was with Loriana and Caterina at some time before this evening after the Duchess' escape. These thoughts paralleled Ricco's continuing dissertation aimed at the Crimson Knight.

Ricco leaned back in his chair a satisfied grin on his face as he noticed the Knight seemed at a loss for words. "By the way, I should tell you this also," Ricco continued. "Your fellow kidnapper is bound hand and foot and awaiting my pleasure. You are a lier, Sir Knight, Champion of falsehood." Ricco removed a glove from one hand and threw it at the Knight in the traditional gesture of challenge.

The Crimson Knight picked it up. "I accept, Ricco. Now! This moment!"

"As you wish, Knight." Ricco continued in a sneering voice. "And since you allege to be of knighthood then you will comprehend my right as a nobleman to assign a Champion to fight in my place." Ricco gave the Knight no time to ponder. "Send to me Mercutio!" Ricco called loudly.

Into the Hall strode a giant of a man, broad of shoulder, with thickly muscled arms and legs. He was armored in chain mail and breastplate and obviously girded for battle. The scar running the length of Mercutio's face changed from pink to white and pink again as he ground his teeth, clenching and unclenching his jaw. He stood a half a foot taller than the Knight and from afar looked down on the man he would not hesitate to fight at his Lord's command.

The Crimson Knight surveyed the situation and noted that the way was still clear between himself and the flight of stairs. He reached down and picked up Ricco's glove. "I accept your challenge, Ricco, and your champion..." The Knight threw the glove back at Ricco. "But I shall fight him another day!" With that, the Knight suddenly dashed for the steps. "Guards! After the coward!" bellowed Ricco.

Del Strego said out loud so that Ricco could hear, "Methinks him not a coward, Duke Ricco, but a very practical man... and dangerous." Whether Ricco heard or not was unclear, though his eyes shifted towards Del Strego when the Ambassador spoke.

Meanwhile, the Knight had made his way to the stairs and after delivering a strong blow to the first and only guard to arrive at the same time and place as he, the Knight dashed up the stairs, other guards in pursuit. Wearing no chain mail was an advantage to the Knight as it slowed the guards down but not himself. He reached Figaro's chamber opened the door and disappeared inside, slamming and bolting the door behind him.

Guards arrived only to find the door securely locked. One after the other, they threw themselves at the door attempting to break the lock or force the door off of its hinges. Two guards found a heavy timber, the kind sometimes thrown off of battlements onto unsuspecting attackers below.
With firm grasps on the timber, four guards used it as a battering ram against the door. Precious minutes later, the door final fell back off its hinges in a shower of splintered wood.

The guards rushed in with swords drawn only to find the jester sprawled out in his colorful geometric patterned costume on the stone floor, groaning, gagged, his hands and his feet bound. A club lay on the stone floor nearby. One of the guards rushed to the window and looked out on the balcony. He saw a rope tied to the balcony with sufficient length to let a man down to the branch of a tree where he could then climb down the tree to the yard below.
On the balcony was a small pile of clothing, mostly the baggy outer garments the Knight wore in his guise of the old man... and a length of crimson cloth with two holes cut in the shape of a man's eyes.

Figaro was sitting up now and rubbing the back of his head. Occasionally he would wince as he rubbed it a little too hard. A guard was untying the rope on his feet. "These are tied snugly, Jester, but the rope binding your hands was only slip knotted. You could have escaped those bindings easily."

"True guard, if I were awake and knew this." Figaro winced as his hand found a sensitive place once more. "Ouch! A curse on the man!" he cried out.

A guard seemed to be listening intently at the closet door. "I hear a noise in here," he whispered to one of his companions. "Open it then," said the other. Both drew their swords. The first guard slowly turned the key in the lock. Grasping the handle, the guard rapidly opened the door and stepped back sword at the ready to strike at whatever might boil out.

Fredo, bound and gagged, tumbled onto the floor landing on his posterior. "Fredo!" called out Figaro. "Are you hurt?"
Fredo swivvled his head and frowned saying something irreverant that was better off muffled by the gag than spoken clearly. The boy too was ungagged and unbound by the guards.

The story Figaro told the Duke was succinct. He, Figaro, returned to his room to find Fredo missing. Someone, the Knight he presumed after learning what had occurred downstairs, attacked him, clubbed him and tied him up. He only began to regain his senses when the door caved in and the guards entered the room. Now, could he retire to his room to nurse his pounding headache. The Duke studied the man with some suspicion, put his doubts to the side and permitted him to leave.

Maybe from a sense of relief or something else, Figaro's self-attested headache was forgotten when he finally reached his room. But Fredo was full of questions and Figaro felt he should settle the boy down before he did anything else.


LANCER
One word deserves another.

[This message has been edited by Lancer (edited 08-17-2002 @ 03:13 PM).]

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