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Chapter 89

Erik and Manfred stood in one of the bastions of the northernmost of the Polestine forts, watching the Venetian cannons finish pounding the last of the Milanese galleasses into rubble. It seemed a somewhat pointless exercise, since the galleass had ceased being a water-capable means of transport quite some time ago. But a quick glance through the gunports in either of the bastion's retired flanks was enough to see the reason. The ditch in front of the curtain wall was a charnel house, with nothing more to fire at beyond a relative handful of wounded and maimed soldiers in Visconti colors.


Nothing alive, at least. The ditch was mounded with shattered bodies, all that was left of the Milanese mercenaries who had stormed the fortress thinking a quick rush would be enough to overwhelm the few surviving defenders. The rising sun cast a pale reddish glow over a landscape which seemed red-soaked already.


The mercenaries trapped at the curtain wall had tried to surrender, soon enough. But the Venetians were in no mood for terms. On this day, at least, the normal conditions of Italian condottieri warfare had been suspended. Milan had tried to destroy Venice; the city of the winged lion was returning the compliment. The gunners in the bastions had kept firing on the men piled up along the curtain wall until they had been turned into so much ground meat. Then, still raging, turned their fire onto the grounded and crippled galleasses. There too, clearly enough, they would not be satisfied until the ships had been turned into so much kindling.


Manfred squinted into the distance, where the retreating Milanese army could be seen frantically trying to build fieldworks. Their galleasses destroyed and the assault on the forts having been driven off with heavy losses, Sforza had led the Visconti forces into a retreat along the river. Had tried to, rather. Now, finding that Enrico Dell'este had cut off his retreat with a far larger army than anyone believed Ferrara could possibly put into the field, Sforza was doing what he could to prepare a hasty defense.


"No 'Old Fox' out there today," mused Manfred. "He's looking for Sforza's blood, or I miss my guess."


Erik did not argue the matter. That was his assessment also. He thought the Duke of Ferrara was behaving foolishly, but given what he knew of the personal history between Dell'este and Sforza he was hardly surprised. The Old Fox had waited for years to obtain revenge on Milan, and now that the day had come he clearly intended to show Carlo Sforza who was really "the Wolf of the North."


They heard footsteps behind them, clambering up the stone stairs to the bastion with an oddly arrhythmic pace. Before they even turned their heads, they knew it was Lopez. The Basque priest had been tending to his two companions in the fort's infirmary below. Diego and Pierre had both survived the encounter with Ursula and the Woden monster, but they had been badly shaken.


Lopez limped over to stand next to them. He spent no more than a moment or two studying the distant scene, with eyes which had clearly seen more than one battlefield in times past.


"Stupid," he pronounced. "We have no idea what is transpiring in Venice itself. While Ferrara obtains his revenge here, the city may still be lost."


That neatly summed up Erik's assessment. Manfred's also, judging from his nod.


"Come," commanded Lopez. "If we can reach Dell'este in time, we may still be able to convince him to forego his pleasure." He turned and began limping off.


"What can we—" began Manfred, but Lopez's impatient wave of the hand stifled the rest.


"You are the Emperor's nephew, young dolt! And I have a certain talisman which may help. Now come!"


* * *

"I'm not entirely sure I care for that man," said Manfred sourly, as he and Erik followed the Basque toward the fort's stables.


Erik smiled. "And I, on the other hand, am entirely sure that Father Eneko Lopez doesn't care in the least what you think of him."


"He should," grumbled Manfred. "I'm the Emperor's nephew, dammit!"


* * *

By the time they reached the Ferrarese lines and were able to negotiate their way through to the duke's presence, the battle was well underway.


Not that it was much of a "battle" yet. Clearly enough, from what they had seen as they approached, the Old Fox hadn't lost any of his tactical acumen. Since he had Sforza trapped, he intended to bleed him with gunfire as long as possible before ordering any direct assaults. Dell'este's own soldiers were mercenaries, for the most part. Professional soldiers—highly experienced Italian ones, especially—had little use for commanders who wasted their lives in premature assaults.


The duke's field headquarters consisted of nothing more elaborate than a simple open-air pavilion erected on a small hill overlooking the battleground. They found Dell'este standing just under the overhang, studying Sforza's lines with a telescope. Like all the optical devices of the day, the telescope was a heavy boxlike affair mounted on a stand. The old duke was slightly stooped, peering through the eyepiece.


Hearing their footsteps, he stood erect and turned to face them. He gave each of them a quick study in turn. Perhaps oddly, he spent most of his time studying Erik and Manfred, the two men he had never met before.


"Knights of the Holy Trinity?" he asked, his lips quirked into a wry smile. "Not wearing full armor? I think you might be excommunicated, if you're not careful."


Manfred frowned; Erik chuckled. "I'm from Iceland, Your Grace. Spent time in Vinland also. Full armor, in today's world, is just stupid."


The duke's eyes fixed on Manfred. "And you, large one? Do you agree?"


Manfred was clearly struggling not to glare outright. So all he managed in reply was a muffled grunt which could be taken as a form of agreement.


"I declare you honorary Italians," pronounced the Old Fox. Then he faced Lopez, his smile disappearing. "There's no point in discussing the matter, Father. I know perfectly well why you came. Venice is Venice, Ferrara is Ferrara. I've done enough for Venice this morning. The rest of the day—and tomorrow, and the day after, if that's what it takes—belongs to me and mine."


He turned his head, his fierce old eyes glaring at the distant Milanese lines. "I will have Sforza's head. And spend the rest of my days planning to reap Visconti's."


"Me and mine?" demanded Lopez. The priest reached into his cassock and drew forth a small object. When he presented it to the duke, Erik could see that it was a miniature portrait. He had wondered what the object had been that he'd seen Lopez tucking into his saddlebag when they left the fort.


"Do you remember what you said to me when you gave me this, so-called 'Old Fox'? 'Old Boar,' more like. Dumb as a nearsighted pig."


Erik was surprised to see that Dell'este did not bridle under the sarcasm. Indeed, for a moment his lips even twitched, as if he were trying to control a smile.


"Lamb of Christ, is it?" murmured the duke. " 'Lynx of Christ,' more like. Feral as a starving cat."


Lopez ignored the riposte. He simply held the portrait up in front of Dell'este's face.


After a moment, the old man looked away. "Most of all, you must remember the mother."


Eneko lowered the portrait. "Exactly so." He pointed toward the Milanese. "It was not Sforza who murdered your daughter. Other crimes can be laid at his feet, I've no doubt. But not that one."


"Had he not abandoned her," hissed the duke, "Visconti would never have dared to strike at her."


"The same could be said of you," retorted Lopez instantly.


Dell'este's face turned white as a sheet. His hand—old and veined, but still muscular—clenched the hilt of the sword buckled to his waist. The eyes he turned on Lopez were hot with fury.


Erik held his breath. Next to him, he could feel Manfred tensing.


Eneko—


Never flinched. The little Basque priest returned the Duke of Ferrara's glare with one of his own. Which, in its own way, seemed just as hot.


Indeed, he rubbed salt into the wounds.


"The father condemns the lover?" he demanded. "For the same deed which he committed himself?"


Lopez pointed a stiff finger at the unseen figure of Carlo Sforza. "What that man did was give you a grandson. A grandson who is—today; now; this minute—fighting for his life in the streets of Venice."


The Basque dropped his arm contemptuously. "Like father, like grandfather. No doubt you will abandon the grandson as you did the mother. Nothing may be allowed to interfere with a petty lord's overweening pride. A sin which he will try to mask by giving it the name of 'honor.' "


Erik's eyes were on the duke's hand, clutching the sword hilt. The knuckles were ivory white, and the sword was now drawn an inch out of the scabbard. So he couldn't see the expression on Dell'este's face or that of Lopez. But he couldn't mistake the sneer in the Basque's voice.


" 'Old Fox.' Was ever a man more badly misnamed? To give up his chance for vengeance on Visconti—who did murder his daughter—in order to salvage his pitiful dignity on the body of a lover?"


Erik glanced up quickly, seeing the twitch in the hand holding the sword. The fury in Dell'este's eyes seemed . . . adulterated, now. Filling with cunning—surmise, at least—instead of sheer rage.


The duke's teeth were clenched. His next words were more hissed than spoken.


"Explain."


Lopez, once again, demonstrated what Erik was beginning to believe was an almost infinite capacity for surprise. The priest's face suddenly burst into an exuberant grin.


"Finally! The Italian asks the Basque's advice on a matter of vendetta! About time."


He rubbed his hands, almost gleefully. Then, crossed himself. "I cannot speak to the point concretely, you understand. I'm sworn to the work of Christ. But, at a glance, it seems to me that the son is better suited to settle accounts with the father than you are. At the appropriate time. And—given some sage advice and counsel from his grandfather, in the months and years to come—is certainly the best choice to settle accounts with the mother's murderer."


Again, he crossed himself. "God willing, of course. But, on this matter, I suspect the Lord will smile kindly." Again, he crossed himself. "Provided, of course, that the son is alive tomorrow. And provided"—again, he crossed himself—"that he manages to avoid falling into the pit of sinfulness the day after."


More sedately: "Um. To be precise, manages to clamber out of the pit. Being, as I suspect he is, already halfway into it."


The sound of the sword hilt slapping back into the scabbard jolted Erik a bit. The duke's harsh chuckle even more so.


"I'd ask you to become his counselor," said Dell'este, "but I suspect that would fall into the category of putting the fox in charge of the henhouse."


Lopez managed to look aggrieved. Not much.


"How soon do you need me in Venice?" asked the duke.


The priest shrugged. "The sooner the better. But—" He glanced out at the Ferrarese forces constructing their own fieldworks. The quick assessment was that of a man who had once been a veteran soldier himself. "Under the best of circumstances, you cannot manage the task sooner than the day after tomorrow. That should be good enough. Even if the enemy wins the battle in Venice today, they will not be able to fortify their position in less than a week. Not in Venice, not without Sforza."


The duke nodded. "Very well. I'll start today. But I intend to bleed Sforza—and Visconti—of everything I can before leaving."


"Goes without saying," agreed Lopez, nodding sagely. "Drain every lira from his pay chest. Leave his mercenaries moaning their lost money but savoring their salvaged lives. They won't be able to do anything about it anyway, since you will naturally demand their guns and their pikes." He pursed his lips, considering the problem. "Probably best to leave the officers their swords. Except Sforza's, of course. You'll want to break that over your knee in front of him."


The Duke of Ferrara was smiling thinly, now. "Fierce, you are! Father Lopez, the days when I could break a sword over my knee—a good Ferrara blade, anyway, and be sure that's what Sforza possesses—are long gone."


"Allow me the privilege, then," said Manfred forcefully. He extended his huge hands. "I won't even need a knee."


"Oh!" exclaimed Lopez. "How rude of me. I forgot to make the introductions. Enrico Dell'este, Duke of Ferrara, meet Manfred of Brittany. He's the Emperor's nephew, by the way, and has some incredible list of titles. I can't remember them all. Earl of something, Marquis of whatever. Baron of this and that."


Dell'este's eyes may have widened a bit, but not much. Mostly, he seemed interested in Manfred's hands. "You'll need a pair of iron gauntlets," he mused.


"Damn things have to be good for something," growled Erik.


* * *

Manfred snapped Sforza's sword like a twig. The commander of the Milanese forces, Italy's most famous condottiere, did not so much as flinch at the sound. Whatever else he was, Carlo Sforza was no coward.


"You look just like your son," commented Manfred mildly, as he handed Sforza the point end of the broken blade. "Except Benito's not reached his full growth yet, and he isn't as mean-looking."


Sforza's round, hard, muscular face registered surprise. As much at the return of the blade, perhaps, as the mention of his son.


"You've met him?"


"Yup." Manfred held his right hand above the ground, about an inch lower than the top of Sforza's curly hair. "So tall; don't think he'll get any taller." He gave Sforza's stocky form a quick once-over. "But I think he's going to wind up even thicker than you. The kid's already got the forearms of a small bear."


For a moment, a shadow seemed to cross the condottiere's face. That was the first expression other than stoic resignation Erik had seen Sforza exhibit since the surrender ceremony began in mid-afternoon. And it was now well into sunset.


"I haven't seen him in years." The great captain's words were almost whispered.


"You will," predicted Manfred. He held up the hilt end of the broken sword in his left hand. There was more than a foot of the blade left. "I'll be giving this to him, when I see him next." He nodded toward the Duke of Ferrara, standing stiffly some distance away. "As his grandfather commanded. Some day—don't ever doubt it, Sforza—he'll be coming to get the rest of it."


"And when that day comes," said Erik between tight jaws, "I strongly urge you to have found another employer. Or your guts will be the carpet he uses to get to Visconti's throat."


Sforza's dark eyes swiveled toward him. Erik's grin was quite savage. "Believe me, Carlo Sforza. I'm an Icelander, and I know a feud when I see one. I've met Benito also."


"I'll consider your words." The dark eyes got even harder. "I told Filippo Visconti this was a fool's errand. Damn all dukes and their complicated schemes. But . . . he pays well. Very well."


Manfred snorted. "Idiot. Benito'll spill your purse before he spills the rest of you."


"That's my boy," murmured the Wolf of the North. "Others doubted. But I never did."


 


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