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Chapter 14

Rain. The watcher in the reed bank noticed it without caring too much about it. His name was Harrow, and he was, by nature, a predator. When intent on a target he was not distracted by discomfort. The slim, willowy figure out there in the lightning-torn darkness wasn't his prey, but Harrow stalked him anyway from long habit. This marshland was not Harrow's environment, and the only way he'd learn it was to practice, to hone his inborn skills.

Besides, if it wasn't prey, it could possibly be someone hunting Harrow. Or Fortunato Bespi, as they would still think of him. They had tried to kill Harrow. Burn him, drown him. Somehow news could have leaked out of the swamp that he wasn't dead. Bespi had given his all to the Visconti, for the Montagnard cause. He'd always found peace in obeying orders, pleasure in hunting down his human prey. In repayment, Francesco Aleri had done this to him, and Harrow did not doubt for a moment that the orders had come from the Duke of Milan himself.

Hatred, forge-hot, seared at his gut for a moment. With an effort that was difficult because it came newly to him, Harrow tried to drive it under.

No. That was not the way. The marsh-wizard who had saved him and taught him his true name claimed he should turn his hatred to good cause instead. Harrow, who had cut down lives with no more compunction than most people had killed mosquitoes, had listened to his talk with intense concentration. And had listened to the visions with an even greater one.

Strangely so, perhaps, given his history. But . . . Harrow believed in reasons. He believed that he had a purpose in life; believed it with a fanatical intensity. As Bespi he'd always assumed that purpose was to serve the Montagnard cause, yet they had been the ones to order his death. And what disturbed Harrow the most was that there had been no reason for it. None good enough, at any rate.

Harrow, as much as Fortunato Bespi, wanted reasons. And so, as lightning lit the sky with white tracery, he watched as the trudging figure came closer. Not much more than a boy he was, Harrow could see now. He could warn him easily that there was a prowling loco on the trail ahead—a bad one, by the pitiful local standards. But Harrow was a hunter and hunted man himself, as well as a man who believed in reasons. So he simply waited, silent and invisible in the recesses of the marsh, as the boy passed by him in the storm. Then, followed. Stalking from habit, partly; and, partly, hoping he might find some logic in a reasonless world.

* * *

Marco could hardly feel his feet, they were so numb and cold. Still, it wasn't winter. Then he'd have had to worry about losing his toes, instead of just feeling like he'd lost them.

He was halfway out to Chiano's territory, and he was already regretting the decision he'd made, with the kind of remote regret of one who didn't have any real choice. The pack on his back was large, and heavy; the goods he had to trade with old Sophia for her herbs were bulky. Blankets didn't compact well, no more did clothing.

The cold was climbing up his legs, and his breeches were misery to wear: wet and clinging and clammy, and liberally beslimed with mud and unidentifiable swamp-muck. He'd forgotten how much the marsh mud stank; it was far worse than the canals. The reeds rustled, but otherwise there wasn't much sound but for the wind whistling and the water lapping against what few bits of solid stuff poked above the surface of the lagoon.

The wind was bitter, and ate through his clothing. Also there was a storm brewing, which meant that he'd be soaked before the night was out, even if things went well.

He was half-soaked already. Just because it was possible to walk into the swamp, that didn't mean it was easy. He was just grateful that his memory of the "trail" was clear; so clear he could find his way back in pitch dark—so clear he was only mud caked to his thighs instead of to his waist.

Overhead the clouds blocked out the stars and thunder rumbled, cloud-shadows taking the last of the light. But now the swamp itself flickered with an eerie phosphorescence, making it almost like dusk. There seemed to be more of a glow than there had been before—and a kind of odd, sulfurous, bitter smell he didn't remember as being part of the normal odors. The thunder came again, accompanied by flashes of lightning, and the wind off the sea began to pick up, bending the reeds parallel with the water.

Marco had just enough time for his nose to warn him, and then the rain came.

The first fat drops plopped on the back of his neck and trickled icily down his back, adding to his misery. This morning he'd been sure that there was no way he could begin to even up the debt between himself and Aldanto. At this point he was beginning to think that the scale might just be tipping the other way.

* * *

"Hee hee he-he-he! Well, lookee what th' storm washet ep—"

The voice that brayed out of the dark and the rain was one Marco had hoped never to hear again.

"I heerd ye gone townie on us, Marco—boy." The speaker was little more than a black blot against the phosphorescent water—a large blot. "I heerd ye niver come back t' see yer old friends. I heerd ye figger yer better'n us now."

It was Big Gianni, and he had the next segment of the trail completely blocked. To either side was deep water and dangerous mud—some of it bottomless, sucking mire-pits.

"C'mon, Marco—boy—ain't ye gonna run from Big Gianni? Ain't ye gonna give 'im a race?" Lightening flickered once, twice. The blot shifted restlessly.

Marco fought panic. "Get out of my way, Big Gianni," he shouted over the thunder. "Leave me alone. I never hurt you."

"Ye hurt Big Gianni's feelin's, Marco—boy," the hoarse voice came back. "Ye wouldn't play with Big Gianni. Ye sent that Chiano t' warn Gianni off, ye did. But Chiano, he ain't here now. Now it's jest me an' you."

Marco could run. He could shed that heavy pack and run back along the safe path until he came to one of the branches. Then he could get into an area he knew better than Gianni did, where he could outdistance him and get safely back to town.

But—without what he'd come for. And it was just possible that without Sophia's spell-woven medicine, Caesare Aldanto would die, fighting for breath, choking—literally drowning as his lungs filled. The way that Marco had almost died.

His knife was in his hand without his really thinking about it, and he slipped the straps of the pack off his shoulders, dropping it to the reed hummock he was standing on. With the feel of the hilt in his hand, his breathing steadied. He wasn't fifteen any more—nor was he armed with nothing but a scrap of glass. He had most of his adult growth now, and a good steel blade in his hand.

* * *

Watching from his hiding place in the reeds, Harrow was impressed. Not by the way the boy held the knife—pitiful, that was—but the mere fact he would do so. And stand his ground, in face of such a threat. Harrow had observed the one called Gianni before. The creature was not dangerous to Harrow himself, of course. But he was a fearsome monster for the marsh-dwellers. Very large, strong, half-crazed, and driven by savage and perverted reasons.

Harrow wondered at the boy's reasons. Powerful they must be, to cause him to stand his ground. Harrow had little doubt the boy could elude Gianni in the marsh if he wished to do so. The one called Gianni was strong, yes; but also clumsy and slow afoot.

Yet . . . the boy clearly intended to fight. Very powerful reasons he must have. And thus, Harrow suspected, reasons which were also true and clean.

So, a man covered with slime waited silently and invisible in the marshes. Just watching, to see if the reasons he so craved himself might emerge in such an unlikely place.

* * *

Marco had to swallow before he could speak. Then:

"I'm warning you, Gianni—get out of my way."

"Ye gonna make me?"

"If I have to," Marco replied unsteadily. Big Gianni had sloshed a step or two closer, and now his knife seemed all too small. Gianni stood as tall as Marco—and Marco was still standing on a hummock that rose several inches above the underwater surface of the trail.

And Gianni had a knife, too; Marco could see the lightning flickering on the shiny surface of the steel. It was ribbon-thin, honed almost to invisibility, but Marco would bet it could leave bleeding wounds on the wind.

Gianni cackled again, and there was no sanity in that sound. "Ye try, Marco—boy, ye g'won 'n try! Big Gianni don't care. He c'n play wi' ye live—or he c'n play wi' ye dead."

Marco's nerve almost broke—so before it could give out altogether, he attacked. Before Gianni had a chance to react, he threw himself at the bigger man with an hysterical and suicidal leap. Marco had no chance at all except one which was so desperate that not even a lunatic like Gianni would think to counter it.

He drove the open palm of his left hand frantically down on Gianni's knife—aiming at the blade, not the knife-hand—hoping to impale his hand on that blade and render it useless.

His dive off the hummock had caught the loco marsh-dweller by surprise. Marco had always run before. Gianni's twisted mind wasn't ready for him to attack.

So Marco's half-sketched plan worked better than he hoped.

* * *

Harrow rose from his crouch, his soul ringing like a cymbal. He understood at once the boy's maneuver—it was a theoretical gambit all assassins had considered—but had never once in his violence-filled life seen anyone actually do it. Such reasons the boy must have!

* * *

The point of Gianni's knife sliced into Marco's palm as he rammed his hand right up to the hilt. The pain split his arm like the lightning that was splitting the sky. Marco screamed and closed his fist around the crossguard anyway, wresting it out of the bigger man's hand. Gianni's grip was loose, he was so stunned by Marco's unexpected action. Then, as Marco's feet skidded in the mud, he fell forward, throwing all of his weight awkwardly behind an impromptu lunge with his own knife.

Gianni's screams were a hoarse echo of his own as the knife sank up to the hilt in his gut. He beat at Marco's head with both hands; Marco slipped and slid some more, and fell to his knees, but held onto the knife hilt, ripping upward with it.

Gianni howled and tried to pull himself off the blade, pushing at Marco. But Marco slipped more, falling underneath the bigger man. Gianni lost his balance on the slimy rock of the trail, falling forward farther onto the knife blade. As thunder crashed, the big man collapsed on top of Marco, screams cut off, pinning Marco under the muddy water

All the air was driven from his lungs as the crazy man fell atop him. Marco tried to fight free but the slimy mud was as slick as ice under his knees. Then he lost what little purchase he had, and the knee-deep water closed over his head.

The surface was just inches away from his face—but he couldn't reach it!

He clawed at the twitching thing that held him there; tried to shove it off, but could get no leverage. Raw panic took over. He thrashed and struggled, his lungs screaming for air, his chest and throat afire with the need for a breath. He was caught like an otter in a drown-snare. He was going to die, trapped under the body of his enemy.

The mud conspired to hold him down, now sliding under him, sucking at his limbs. Sparks danced before his eyes, and he wriggled and squirmed and struggled for the air that his hands could reach, but not his head. He had a strange crystal-clear vision of himself floating lifelessly beside the trail, touched by the morning sun—

Suddenly, the weight of the corpse on top of him was removed. With a last frantic writhe, Marco freed himself, slipping off the trail into the deep water on the right. His head broke the surface, and he gulped the air, great sobbing heaves of his chest.

A powerful hand seized him by the scruff of the neck and half-hurled him toward firmer ground. Marco reached for and caught a clump of reeds, and pulled himself to the trail. He hauled himself back onto the hummock where he'd left his pack, crying with pain and fear, and gasping for breath, while lightning flashed above him and thunder followed it, almost deafening him. He clung there with only his right hand, for Gianni's knife was still transfixed in his left. His frantic eyes flitted across the landscape, looking for whoever had lifted Gianni off him and dragged him to safety. Marco's rescuer could also be a threat.

But he saw nothing. His rescuer had vanished.

Why did he do that? Marco wondered. For what reason?

* * *

"My God, boy—" Chiano's eyes glared out at Marco from the shelter of his basketlike hidey. He and Sophia had anchored their rafts and their hides, side-by-side, on a bit of old wood Chiano had driven into the muck of the bottom to use as a safe tie-up.

"Lemme in, Chiano," Marco said, dully. His hand felt afire. He was shivering so hard that it was only because he was holding his jaw clenched that his teeth weren't rattling. He swayed back and forth, drunk with exhaustion and pain. He could hardly use his arm, much less his wounded hand—it felt like a log of wood. He'd tied up his hand as best he could, but he hadn't been able to do more than stop the bleeding. He knew he was probably falling into shock, but didn't care any more.

"Wait a moment." Chiano propped up the edge of the basket with a stick, reached out and shook Sophia's hide. "Wake up, you old witch—it's Marco and he's hurt."

"What? What?" The edge of Sophia's basket came up and she peered out at Marco. For some reason the sight of her struck him as funny and he began to laugh hysterically—and couldn't stop.

He was still laughing when they propped the baskets together, like two halves of a shell, and helped him up onto their combined rafts. Then, unaccountably, the laughter turned to sobs, and he cried himself nearly sick on Sophia's shoulder.

Sophia held him, wrapping her tattered old shawl about his shoulders and keeping him warm against her. Rain pattered on the baskets and, for the moment, there was no place Marco would rather have been.

In the corner of his eye, he saw a strange expression come into Chiano's face. The kind of expression a man gets when he suddenly, unexpectedly, remembers something long forgotten. Puzzled, despite the pain and weariness, Marco turned his head in time to see Chiano straighten his back and spread his arms wide.

"Luminescence spareze. A Mercurio!"

There was a commanding tone to Chiano's voice; seeming to be as forceful, for the brief time it took to utter those peculiar words, as the storm itself. Maybe it was the pain, or the shock, but in the sudden flare of witchlight the lean, sinewy man seemed somehow taller, his weathered face outlined in stark, sharp shadows.

Marco, his Pauline training coming to the fore, flinched from the sight. An old half-suspicion was now confirmed. Chiano really was a Strega man-witch. His reputation, carefully cultivated in the marshes, was a double front. He really was a pagan—and a magician to boot.

Marco . . . wasn't at all sure how he felt about that. Still, Sophia's wrinkled face and Chiano's weathered one were a heavenly sight. He decided not to worry about it, for the moment.

"Drink this, boy." When the sobs diminished, and the shivering started again, Chiano thrust a bottle into his good hand. "Let the old girl see to your hand."

He drank, not much caring what it was. It was harsh raw alcohol, and it burned his throat and brought more tears to his eyes. He put the bottle down, gasping; then gasped again as Sophia took it from him and poured its contents liberally over the wound. The clouds were clearing now, and the moon emerged; you could see it from under the edge of the basket. Sophia propped up one side of the basket and held his hand in its light, examining it critically.

He had occasion to stifle a cry and seize the bottle back from Chiano, more than once, before she was through with her probing.

"Should be stitched—but the grappa will stop the flesh-rot. I've a poultice against the swelling. You tied it off right well. I don' reckon ye lost too much blood. What happened?"

"Gianni," Marco coughed. His throat was still raw from screaming and crying. "He must've seen me; followed me in. Ambushed me." Sophia was smearing something onto the wound that first burned, and then numbed the pain. Then she reached back into the darkness behind her, locating rags by feel, and bound his hand tightly.

"I settle that one tomorrow." Chiano's eyes narrowed. "For good 'n ever, this time."

Marco shook his head weakly. "You won't have to."

Once the meaning of the words penetrated, Sophia looked up into his face with stunned awe. Gianni was a legend among the marsh-dwellers for his crazy viciousness. That Marco should have taken him out . . .

"There was someone else, too," Marco added, half-gasping the sentences. "Never saw him. Helped me at the end. I would have drowned otherwise. Never saw him, not once."

The alcohol had shaken Marco out of his shock and he was beginning to take account of his surroundings again. He noticed Chiano and Sophia exchange a glance.

"Well," Chiano said. Just that one word, but it held a world of approval. In some obscure way, Marco understood the approval encompassed more than just he himself.

"Boy, you needn't hide again? Ye didn't come crawlin' out here in th' dark an' th' rain fer the fun a' it." Sophia came right to the point.

That woke him fully—reminded him of his purpose.

"N-no. I'm fine in town—but Sophia, I need something from you, one of your 'cures.' I got a sick friend in town. He's got a fever—the one with the chills and the sweats every two days. Getting worse. He hardly knows where he is."

"I know it." Sophia nodded, her face becoming even more wrinkled with thought. "Only it don't gen'rally get that bad."

"Except my friend's not from Venice."

"Then that's bad, boy, that's real bad. He'll die, like as not, 'less ye can get 'im t' take my herbs."

"Look, I brought stuff to trade you—here—" He shrugged out of his pack and passed it to her. "Whatever you want. I got two blankets, a couple of good woolen cloaks, fish hooks, a knife—"

"Haw, boy, haw! Ye got enough there t' trade me fer every last dose I got!"

"Then give it all to me, Sophia, I got more friends. This fever is startin' to go through town like a fire—more of 'em may get sick. Strega came into town at Solstice claiming there wouldn't be any plague this year"—Marco noticed Chiano stiffening at that—"but I guess they were wrong. You can get more, can't you?"

Sophia nodded. "Aye, aye; stuff's just wild weeds—know where there's a good bit of it, still good enough t' pick. Ain't no cure though—ye know that—"

"Herbs with Artemis' blessing," said Chiano quietly.

Marco smiled wryly, remembering the nausea and the delirium. "I know; it just keeps you from dying—but makes you feel like you want to! Remember? I got it first winter I was out here."

"An' ye can get it agin—"

"So I'll keep some for myself. Deal, Sophia?"

"Si—oh si si, boy, 'tis a deal." She grinned, a twisted half-toothless grin, as one hand caressed one of the damp blankets. "This stuff'll make livin' right comfy out here, come winter. Tell ye what—I'll pick all I kin find, dry it up nice. Ye figger ye need for more, why just come on out here—by daylight this time, boy!—an' ye bring old Sophia more things to trade."

"You got yourself a bargain." Marco smiled inwardly, at peace with an old debt. Sophia would somehow not keep many, if any, of the "luxuries." They'd all end up with marsh-folk, keeping other people alive. Sophia was the one person in the reed-fringed Jesolo marshes who slept deeply. She could. Not even the most loco would put a hand to her. Her reputation as a healer was more potent even than Chiano's reputation as a worker of magics.

"You've got to go back t'night?" Chiano interrupted.

Marco looked at the swamp and shivered, but nodded reluctantly. "Got no choice, Chiano. My friend's bad sick, and you heard Sophia."

"No, no—not soaked through like that, and it getting up chilly. Sophia, pack your herbs in the boy's sack. This old man knows the harbor day or night. I got a dry blanket here. You wrap up in't. I'll pole you back to the wharf. Say some words over those damned weeds for you too, I will."

Marco accepted the shred of blanket, speechless with gratitude. And, witnessing the witchlight and certain hitherto unexplained mysteries of his time in the swamp, maybe those words held more power than he'd realized previously. Ecclesiastical magic could heal. Perhaps Strega magics were not the fraud the Petrine church claimed they were, nor the unadulterated evil which the Paulines labeled them.


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