Authors: Jon Courtenay Grimwood
“Hurry it up,” he shouted.
The men-at-arms at the back looked at one another and increased their speed. In a day or so they’d look at one another, shrug and one would give up and the other join him. He’d hung the last two to do that. There was nothing like a good hanging for keeping soldiers cheerful. Obviously he’d hung the two least popular men in his troop. Why make trouble for himself by hanging men people liked?
Morgan and Lyle had been new. Survivors of a troop massacred outside Palermo. He’d hung them naked so his men could watch them dance their way to hell, and both had pumped their seed on to the trampled snow, which everyone knew was good luck. Also, hanging stragglers meant more food for the rest. Towler trusted Prince Alonzo would be grateful for all the hardened men he could get, and a more hardened group than this it would be difficult to find. They’d fought in Italy, Austria, Sicily and France. They’d fought for the Medici boy one year and against him the next. That was the way of free companies. Their kind kept the world safe, and he was proud of it. Captain Towler had no fear of God.
In all his life he’d never eaten meat on a Friday. He said his prayers daily, made confession monthly and gave gold to rebuild any churches he’d been forced to destroy. More than one bishop had assured him he’d be welcomed into heaven when the time came. Which he hoped, trusting in God’s mercy, would not be for some years yet.
“Pull them up,” he told a soldier squatting by a tree. “Or have your bollocks drop off from cold.”
“Like that would make a difference,” someone muttered.
Another laughed and the crouching boy blushed.
“Crap your pants if you must,” Towler said more gently, knowing the real answer was don’t crap or piss at all. But the boy was human in a wind-whipped wilderness that made no allowance for that.
This is the way the world ends . . .
He’d heard a ragged preacher in the town before last say that. Sinners brought this on the rest. God was turning his back on the world.
The preacher was selling misery as enthusiastically as a baker sells hot cakes. Someone called him a liar, someone else said it was true. Towler was glad when the local Watch arrived and his preaching ended in a grunt and a slumping body. Towler had bedded his first whore in weeks that night. Fat and greasy and stinking of garlic and smoke, she swore she wasn’t really in the trade. What she lacked in looks she made up for in willingness and he overtipped disgracefully in gratitude. She’d been so shocked she sucked him for free. Perhaps she’d be his last. If he died on these slopes would it be so bad?
That’s the cold talking
,” Towler muttered. Seeing a man look across, he scowled back. For miles the cold had been telling them to sleep. All any of them had to do was lie down on its white feather bed and the cold would welcome them home. He couldn’t remember a winter like it. No one could. Even the old – who usually claimed that what happened to them was bigger, better or worth more – shook their heads at his question. Towler wanted to know. What others had survived could be survived again and lessons learnt earlier used this time, too.
In the last town the priest said a witch was to blame, and the old women said it was the priest’s fault for forcing people to abandon the old religion. On the day they marched out, Towler’s Company passed the manse burnt out and roofless. An accidental fire, the mayor said. So it might have been, if the priest’s front door hadn’t been nailed shut, with bars of charred oak still bolted across to stop him from escaping.
In five days they’d reach the Red Cathedral. He’d told his men three for obvious reasons. They had food enough for two and imagined themselves able to do the last day hungry. Tell them they had to survive three days without food and they’d realise they weren’t going to arrive at all. Since Towler was refusing to admit that possibility to himself he was hardly going to share it with them. There were days he hated his job, and this was one of them. He should have been at home with his wife and children.
But then, of course, he’d need a wife and children in the first place. Instead he had bastards – because what man didn’t – and two or three women who probably considered themselves his wives. Sir John Hawkwood, his first captain, had let his troops travel with camp followers. In the end a much younger Towler had summoned the courage to ask why, since they slowed the troop down, caused fights and stole the stores.
If the worst comes to the worst you can always eat them.
He still didn’t know if Sir John had been joking. It was possible he meant every word.
Will we end up eating human flesh?
Captain Towler considered the question and decided it depended on how hungry they got.
“All right, Captain?”
Towler scowled at his sergeant.
“You sighed like you meant it.”
He’d been wishing he had a priest along to tell him how much forgiveness of a sin like that would cost. “We need to make camp soon.”
His sergeant flicked a glance at the darkening sky. The snow would reflect tonight’s full moon, making it light enough for any bandits to find them. The lack of cloud cover also meant it would be colder than ever; what little warmth the world still possessed stolen by eternity. “We’ll need a fire.”
“Then send men to find wood. Is Evans back yet?”
Evans was their archer, disliked by the sergeant but useful all the same. He could outshoot most men, and a longbow in a forest like this was the difference between life and death for all of them. The last animal Evans killed was a wolf, more bones and sores than ribs. It tasted like week-dead carrion but they ate it all the same and cracked its thicker bones for the marrow. The captain hoped Alonzo had food enough. He’d have a mutiny on his hands if not.
“He’s over there, Captain . . .”
The archer looked flustered and scared as he slid and slipped his way downhill towards the road. His long face was red and puffy, his overfull lips taut as he gasped down gulps of air. “Bandits?” Towler demanded.
Evans shook his head and the captain relaxed slightly. The stragglers in his troop had arrived by the time Evans finally caught his breath enough to tell them he’d seen hunting. But, first, the sergeant got his usual insults in.
, you Welsh bastard. Did you catch anything?”
When Evans shook his head the sergeant turned away to spit and almost missed the corporal’s words. “Saw a cat though . . .”
Wild cats might live this close to the treeline, Captain Towler thought. You could eat cat, he’d done that more than once. Better than rat, certainly better than wolf. Although even wolf was better than nothing. If there was one cat up here, maybe there were more. Maybe it had a mate and kittens.
“This big.” Evans held his hand waist-high.
Towler steered him away from the others, nodding to the sergeant to say he could follow. Evans looked sober enough, and where would he have found spirits this far into a march? The hill villages were deserted and the towns in the valleys where they’d billeted so poor that to find thin beer was a treat. “This big?” The sergeant’s voice was a mocking echo of his own.
Evans held his gaze and nodded. “Yellowy with spots,” he said. “Ripped a hare right open with a single bite and ran faster than a galloping horse. It dodged my bloody arrow as if it was a feather falling.”
“If it was really that big,” Towler said, “you’re lucky to be alive.”
Evans nodded soberly. “Do you think . . .?”
“No, I don’t, and nor do you, understand?” Captain Towler watched his Welsh archer join the others, glance nervously back at the captain and begin talking anyway. They were superstitious fools and the last thing Towler needed was his men getting spooked by reports of were-beasts and worse.
It he didn’t find them food soon he’d have to give them another hanging. He’d like to start with Evans but the Welshman was too valuable so it would have to be the last recruit. A dark-faced Sicilian who swore his family had never been heathen. No one believed him or much liked him either.
go and greet his arrival . . .” Lady Giulietta tried to sound like she meant it, because she did mean it; she was simply having trouble convincing her aunt. “You can’t make me.”
, now she sounded like a nine-year-old.
Blinking back tears, she fussed with her shawl so Aunt Alexa wouldn’t see how badly her hands were shaking. From the softening of her aunt’s expression she’d seen anyway. Now her aunt was going to treat her like a bloody child.
Because you’re behaving like one.
She knew it was true. Turning her head, Giulietta stared through the glass to ice on the lagoon. No ship could enter and none leave. That had to be why no message had come from Tycho. He’d have written otherwise, wouldn’t he? She knew he would, although she’d probably still rip up his first letter. She was cross enough. Every day she waited for him to write and nothing came. It was . . .
“Giulietta . . .” Alexa’s voice was neutral.
” That wasn’t how you spoke to the Regent of Venice, even if she was your aunt and you were alone except for Marco. The fact Aunt Alexa’s lips barely tightened told Giulietta how worried she was.
“It’s the poppy,” Alexa said apologetically. “I gave you too much poppy and now your body wants more to stay happy.”
“So give me some more.”
“I’d like to but I can’t . . .” Duchess Alexa shook her head.
“You only gave it to me so you could send Tycho to Montenegro.” Lady Giulietta could feel her eyes fill and looked away. She hated feeling like this. She hated being like this. And she wasn’t going to go out in the cold to greet Prince Frederick, who shouldn’t have been here anyway.
“Tycho leaving like that was as much a surprise to me. He didn’t leave Ca’ Ducale with my authority.”
“I don’t believe you. You’ve never liked him, I know you haven’t. That’s why you won’t sign the decree letting me marry. Now he’s going to get killed and Leo will die and you want me to meet . . .” Tears overflowed, and she brushed them away angrily. “I don’t even know what he thinks he’s doing here. I wouldn’t be surprised if you sent for him.”
“You doubt Tycho?” Alexa sounded interested.
“Of course I don’t doubt Tycho. He saved me in the battle off Cyprus, remember. And in the banqueting hall . . . And when that horrid Byzantine captured me. All he does is bloody save me.” Jamming her fists into her eyes, Giulietta turned for the door and froze as strong arms folded around her. She tried to fight them off and then realised it Marco, gripping her tight and stroking her hair.
“Angels f-fly away,” he said.
“Then they come back,” Giulietta replied fiercely.
Marco smiled at how quickly she’d turned
he’ll be back
. Stroking her cheek he found a tear and dried it with his fingers. “Angels f-fly away, and sometimes they come b-back and sometimes they f-fly away again. That’s why t-they’re angels . . .” He kissed her cheek. Leaning close, he whispered. “It’s my b-bad luck we both love the same b-boy. You were always g-going to win.”
Lady Giulietta stared at him.
Stepping back, Marco said. “Do this for me . . .”
And Giulietta discovered she’d agreed to greet Prince Frederick after all, which meant the carriage waiting below would be needed, despite her having spent the last half-hour telling her aunt to send it away again. Venice was not really a city of carriages. Gondolas, gondolini and luggers, yes. Handcarts and trestles, even ox-drawn sleds. But the noble used gondolas like everyone else, and anyone rich enough to have a mainland estate kept their carriages there.
“Is this going to be safe?” Giulietta asked.
The carriage was old and someone had hammered steel nails through the rusting hoops of each wheel to help them grip the ice. She imagined the carriage would look ridiculously outdated to Frederick. The bastard son of Sigismund of Germany probably had a dozen gold carriages of his own.
Frederick was her late husband’s half-brother, and the closest thing the Emperor Sigismund had to an heir. When Giulietta asked Alexa if that made him her half-brother-in-law, Aunt Alexa looked into her eyes and muttered that the poppy was taking longer to leave her body than expected.
Lady Giulietta had meant the question seriously.
No one in the Venetian court had any idea why Prince Frederick had returned in the middle of winter to a city he’d besieged that autumn. Although it would make him famous in years to come. The man who crossed the Venetian lagoon by carriage in the middle of the worst weather the world had ever known. Assuming the priests and doomsayers weren’t right, and this wasn’t the end of the world. “Do you think it is?” Giulietta asked, settling herself between her aunt and cousin. “The end of the world, I mean?”
Alexa considered the question carefully, but it was Marco who answered it as they were riding beneath Ponte Maggiore, the huge wooden bridge that linked the banks of the Grand Canal, their wheels squealing and grinding on the ice. The bridge was heaving with sightseers and both embankments were thick with crowds. Since no one but the court yet knew of Frederick’s planned arrival, and Giulietta didn’t yet know how her aunt knew about that, the carriage on the Canalasso was obviously enough to bring out the crowds. A fair number cheered, their breath rising like smoke in the freezing air. It had been a long time since anyone in Venice cheered her aunt. Now simply showing herself in public seemed enough.
“They’re scared,” Marco said. “And n-no, this isn’t the end of the w-world. At least not yet and p-probably n-never.” Even Alexa turned to hear this. “Think about it,” he said, with barely a stutter. “Think about what would h-have to change for the w-world to end . . .” He grinned. “You can’t g-guess?”
“I’m not good at guessing games.” Aunt Alexa smiled and Giulietta wondered what was funny.
“Yes, you are,” Marco said. “You just d-don’t like g-giving answers in case they’re w-wrong. Go on, tell me why the world’s not r-ready to end.”