Authors: Danita Minnis
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #romance, #Fantasy & Futuristic, #historical, #Historical Romance, #Paranormal, #angels
Night had fallen in the changeable landscape of the
He and Umberto Dell’Acqua had been traversing dry, dusty coach trails all day. To his surprise, the old man was holding up very well.
Tonight, they were passing through a forest that closed in on them every few miles to create a cave of foliage overhead. Bounded by the Adriatic Sea and the Apennine mountain range, the
region offered an opportune stream here and there. They’d stopped once already to water the horses and had ridden in silence the entire way.
It was only when they entered the woods that Carlo noticed the slump to Umberto’s shoulders.
Without a word, Carlo turned Arturo off the road into a forest so dense that the Friesian slowed. Rafi followed behind slower still, as if the horse knew Umberto must be handled with care.
They met the stream again and made camp by the water.
Umberto never uttered a word, but began snoring almost immediately. His supper of rabbit and wild greens left untouched near the campfire.
After a day of hard riding, Carlo expected to be snoring as well, but he could not sleep. He wrapped Umberto’s supper and put it in the satchel. He must have sat for hours next to the sleeping Umberto, his back against an old willow tree, staring into the black stream.
The trees stilled. The incessant rustlings of the night creatures in the forest ceased.
He shouldn’t have known that voice calling to him in this strange wood, but he did.
A year in the grave and miles away from the bedroom she surely shared with him, Margaux called to him. That fact didn’t stop him from getting up and walking towards the stream.
The moon reflected on the quiet water and called to him with as much determination as he felt pulling off his Hessians and wading in. He was knee-deep in the stream before he considered how deep the dark water might be. That thought fled for more intriguing one.
Turning full circle, he searched for the moon, which had disappeared. There was no moon tonight.
Umberto turned on his side, and the snoring stopped. It would have been the perfect opportunity to sleep, but just then, Carlo saw the moon across the water.
He dunked his head once and then swam above water, keeping an eye on the white light, which was too low in the trees to be the moon.
Margaux had been silent these last few minutes but he could still hear the urgency of her call. He could not see Margaux but across the stream the trees, previously indiscernible this black night, shined a verdant emerald, glowing from a source of light.
Carlo climbed the bank. The sphere of light in the distance grew as he approached. He kicked off his waterlogged boots and forged a path through the brush as if the stones beneath his feet were soft grass.
He did not dare say her name aloud for fear the light would disappear and the forest would cloak him in darkness once again. After all this time, had she come to him?
Carlo walked faster.
Shaking now and blinded by the white light, he shielded his eyes with one arm and with the other outstretched, entered the sphere.
* * * *
Fingers gently tugged his hands away from his eyes.
“My love,” Her laughter fell around him like spring rain in Lazio’s verdant valley, cooling him where he was feverish. She held onto his hand and the light was no longer too bright for him.
“Margaux,” He gripped her hand and pulled her close. She wrapped her arms around his neck.
Beautiful golden eyes, the color of the glittering panniers on her gown, were serious now as her hard nipples rubbed against him.
“Margaux,” He lifted her midnight hair and smelled amber and musk before he buried his face in her neck. “Stay with me,” he said between kisses.
She sighed, curling back in a feline stretch so that he wanted to bite her neck. He tasted ripe apples.
“I love you. I need you.” He wrapped an arm around her and laid her down. The surface was soft and cushion-like, but it appeared to be a bed of white leaves.
Carlo did not question that her gown just fell away under his hands or that his pants and shirt were gone. He buried his face in her full breasts and suckled.
Margaux wrapped her long legs around him, and her warm, wet curls pushed rhythmically against him.
“Ah, Margaux…” He slid into her. He should take care since this was her first time. But she was flesh and blood, hot, moist, and giving, and here with him…
Carlo couldn’t help himself. He rode her greedily, mindlessly; afraid she would disintegrate before his eyes as in his dreams. Until the hypnotic slap of flesh upon flesh, the satisfying friction of him inside her at last convinced him otherwise.
“Mon cher.” Her breath was a warm puff of air against his chest, and her palms pushed him in further as her body convulsed around him.
He lifted her hips and ground into her, watching her come. She had the most beautiful skin, warm vanilla flushed with pleasure. He was staring into her eyes when the release took him. He threw his head back and roared out his pleasure as he poured himself into her.
He was still shuddering against her when she cupped his face in both hands and pulled him close.
“We should have done this long ago, mon cher.” Her whisper stroked the right spot as they lay joined at the hips. They nipped lips, stroked thighs, chest and breasts, whispering nonsense words of love…
Carlo woke to see her tiger’s eyes smiling down at him. She leaned up on an elbow and her hair fell across her breast, curling over it as his hand wanted to.
“Will you stay with me?” He asked.
Margaux traced a finger over his lips and he kissed it.
“Then I will stay with you,” he insisted.
She looked past him and he remembered where they were.
Following her gaze, he saw nothing but white around them. The sphere was some type of room. It did not have walls and yet he could not see beyond the brightness. However, Margaux was staring at something beyond it. He’d never seen that particular expression on her face in life. In death, her rage was inciting, and heartbreaking.
“You cannot stay with me.”
He sat up. “Why not?”
She came to her knees and her breasts danced as she took both of his hands in hers. “You must remember. You can save her.”
“Save who? Rosa?” He shook his head. “I don’t want her. I never wanted her. I want…”
Margaux’s mouth covered his. The way she slid her tongue in his mouth, she was determined to sooth the frustration out of him. At first, her kisses were angry and desperate. When they were both calm, she leaned her forehead against his.
“The gypsy’s path is set. It is you who must take care, my love. And remember all. For us.”
Unable to stop the rage from welling up inside him all over again—a year of sorrow and loss—he turned away. Margaux touched his cheek.
“Why now? I would give my life to lie beside you in the grave, why do you come now with your farewell?”
She did not answer. Their despair hung in the air and the light around them dimmed so that he could see shadowy outlines of trees beyond the sphere.
When she spoke, her tone faded with the light. “We cannot escape destiny.”
“But did you not see…” The truth was in her eyes as they filled with tears. He gathered her close. “You did not know what was going to happen. Oh, my love, I thought you knew and did not want to tell me.”
Her shoulders shook against him and he buried his face in her hair. The pain was raw, as darkness eclipsed what light remained.
After a while, she quieted and he rubbed his eyes.
He would not leave her in anger, not when she had spent so much energy to be with him tonight.
Why had she come on the eve of his arrival in Forlì? What made this night of longing for her so different from countless others?
It was a nagging thought, but not one he would dwell on while she was with him.
He had once heard a superstitious tale that the dead came to usher their loved ones home. Well, if that was the case, he would die tonight, to be with her.
And if he lived? He’d felt her many times before at the
, she would come to him again.
He kissed her wet cheeks. “I dream of you,” he said, his voice shaking with hope.
Margaux nodded, her giggle was more of a sob. “Oui, mon cher. I am with you. Always.” She pulled him down and the light shined around them once more, the bed of leaves glistening like snow atop the Apennine mountain peaks.
Now that he’d had a taste of her, he was in control. He took his time with her, savoring her gently rounded hips and the honeyed curls beneath. He memorized every sigh of his name on her lips and finally, the way the soft hollow of her belly undulated beneath him.
When she gripped his shoulders, he took her cries into his mouth. She was still coming when he tensed.
Afterward, he wrapped his arms around her and rolled her on top of him. They did not speak, but stared into each other’s eyes until she kissed his eyelids, and they closed.
Carlo knew she was leaving, knew there was something he needed to ask … she’d said he could save her … if not Rosa, then who?
But he’d been bewitched, and as he drifted off to sleep again he sighed, knowing he would see Margaux again, when she could manage it, in his dreams.
* * * *
Carlo opened his eyes to the green canopy overhead and then closed them. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly as he flexed his outstretched arms.
“Marchese Carlo!” The voice was closer now, and distressed.
He’d better get up before Umberto’s heart failed here in these solitary woods. He leaned up on his elbows. “Here,” he called.
Umberto must have passed him by in his search. The old steward was walking towards the camp.
With pants still dripping from the stream, Umberto turned around and came to stand by his outstretched legs.
“Were you sleeping?” The steward squinted the way he did when he could not believe what his eyes were seeing. “Out here?”
“Of course.” Carlo got up, stretching. He took his time. After a good neck roll, he said, “I haven’t slept so well in a year.”
“Out here?” Umberto repeated. He wasn’t squinting anymore. He was glaring.
Carlo felt like laughing but Umberto had had enough of a shock this morning.
“I thought…” Umberto stopped mid-sentence as if he’d lost his train of thought, and stared at Carlo’s naked chest. “Where is your shirt?”
That is a very good question.
Carlo stalled by brushing leaves off his pants as he glanced around.
Umberto looked past him into the trees. Carlo turned around.
His shirt hung from a branch overhead. He would have to climb up a few feet to get it. He hid a smile at Margaux’s mischievous nature.
Umberto watched the entire procedure in silence.
Carlo avoided his eyes.
After Carlo retrieved the shirt, he said, “I am well, Umberto. Thieves do not roam these woods.” He took a long look around at the trees crowding in on them. Ancient sentinels. “Don’t you feel the desolation?” He heard the sadness dragging down his tone and stopped talking.
Umberto was looking at him as if he were trying to figure out whom he was.
He shrugged off his languor with a change of subject. “How did you know to cross the water?”
“You left your boots at the water’s edge.”
“Ah.” He chuckled.
Umberto was squinting again but Carlo said nothing more.
The steward turned and started back in the direction of camp. “Sleeping,” Umberto murmured before picking an apple up off the ground.
Carlo stared after him. The old man did not seem to realize these were not apple trees surrounding them. Yet, the scent of ripe apples wafted through the air.
Thank you, my love
He picked up the only other apple lying on the ground and took a bite of the breakfast Margaux had left for him as their bed of leaves scattered on the early morning wind.
The sun burned a reddish gold as it descended over the aromatic fields of maize, potatoes, and onions surrounding the
Though weary, Carlo insisted on helping the old coaching inn’s stable hand with Arturo and Rafi. It usually was not necessary; the horses were well-traveled. However, tonight the Friesians were stamping their hooves in protest of the stable hand’s approach.
“Good. Very good horses,” the man said.
Carlo looked up from brushing Rafi. There was no admiration in the man’s words, only gratitude. “They are not usually this shy.”
The man gave a curt nod and went for a bag of oats in the corner.
Tending Arturo and Rafi should have settled him down for the night, but Carlo’s earlier peace of mind had vanished with the horses’ aggravated neighs. Their restlessness intensified the urgency that had been eating at him with every mile closer to Forlì. Baldoni and the ruby dragon mystery had his blood humming.
“Marchese Falco?” A young boy waved at him from the doorway. “You have a visitor.” The child looked around seven or eight years old. He had the dark skin of a field worker. The boy left just as quickly as he had appeared.
So much for hiding our identities
. Carlo exchanged a look with Umberto.
Umberto took Rafi’s reins. “Go. A meal will settle them.”
Tony was traveling under the name Maurisi Arguello. He was passing through Forlì with his manservant Rinaldo. He needn’t have bothered with that story. Someone waited for him in a town where no one knew him.
Maybe Baldoni had them followed into town, and waited for him now. However, they hadn’t seen anyone else on the roads. The carefully tended fields surely must be populated with workers daily, but it had seemed to Carlo that the land they had passed through was deserted.
Carlo grabbed his bag and walked through the stables. At least he wouldn’t have to search for Baldoni. He quickened his step as the little boy waved him up a dim staircase to a bedroom on the second floor of the villa. He changed clothes and made his way downstairs to the common room.
“Marchese Falco,” a man called from a shadowed corner across the room.
Carlo chuckled to himself as he passed a handful of occupied tables.
Marchese Falco it must be, then.
The young man stood and they shook hands. “Domenico Tarcisio. It is my pleasure to meet you.”
“How is it you know me when I don’t know you?”
Tarcisio’s face reddened. “I am sorry. I thought your father sent you. I mean, I had hoped…”
Carlo stared him down and Tarcisio continued grudgingly. “I’ve corresponded with your father.” Domenico Tarcisio looked around at the other patrons. He was apparently not going to explain how he’d known Carlo. Tarcisio seemed nervous. “Please, may we sit?”
They were as far away as they could get from the elaborate stone front patio where the sun blasted through the open doors of the villa. They both remained silent as a waiter served them.
Carlo sipped on Verdicchio. The cool wine with hints of apples and lemon did much to revive him after the long journey.
“He is a heretic.” Tarcisio spoke in hushed Italian, and his brown eyes held a fire that branded him a natural evangelist.
Tarcisio had begun so abruptly that he stopped as if derailed from his train of thought. After a moment, he continued, his tone low, but chiding. “Signor Baldoni.”
“Hearsay. That is a strong accusation, Signor Tarcisio.”
“It is because of him that this town runs red with the blood of the innocent.”
Carlo took a slow sip of the wine. “Unless you have proof, I suggest you tread carefully.”
Although they were about the same age, Tarcisio was slight of build and a foot shorter. His face was smooth, giving him the appearance of a boy in an insolent rage over Baldoni’s offenses. The severe black he wore from head to toe made him appear old enough for the weight of responsibility he carried.
Tarcisio seemed unaware of Baldoni’s visit to Lazio and it was best to leave it that way. Carlo did not want to create any more animosity between the rivals.
He had no reason to trust Tarcisio, but there was something in his eyes. This man was afraid, yes, but he was also stubborn. Carlo knew a great deal about stubbornness. Tarcisio was going to get himself killed if he went after Baldoni alone. Maybe Tarcisio didn’t care about his life. Maybe they had something in common.
In that moment, Carlo decided, but he was not ready to reveal himself yet.
“What can you tell me about this?” Carlo placed the signet ring on the table before Tarcisio.
Tarcisio’s eyes widened and he covered the ring, scooping it up in his palm. When he spoke, his quiet timbre turned into almost imperceptible murmurings.
Carlo leaned over the table to hear him.
“Please, Marchese Falco, no one must know of this. Forlì is a city divided. We are separated in our beliefs, in our practices, in our very natures.” The boy-man glanced at the other occupants of the hall.
Carlo followed his gaze. The closest inhabited table was in the far right corner. The traveling family with three children carried on an animated conversation while enjoying a robust supper. Townsfolk sat at two other tables near the hall entrance. No one took notice of Carlo and Tarcisio.
Tarcisio’s hand relaxed over the ring and he slid it across the table. “Many fear this symbol of
Carlo slipped the ring into his vest. “They fear a ring adorned with the hotel’s insignia?”
“There are those who would not be pleased to find it in your possession.”
Again, Carlo waited, but Tarcisio lapsed into frustrating silence and it seemed he intended to say no more.
Carlo summoned a passing attendant.
“What are you doing?” Tarcisio whispered.
Carlo eyed Tarcisio as the attendant stopped before them. “I thought to order another glass. The wine is very good. It will calm your nerves.”
“That is most kind of you, Marchese Falco, but I do not drink spirits.” His normal speaking voice was marginally more discernible for the benefit of the attendant, who turned and walked away.
“What does this symbol really stand for?”
“Something so dangerous, I feared entrusting it to the messenger, and I could not write of it in my report to Duke Amadeo.”
“What is this danger you speak of?”
“It is something that must be seen first-hand to be believed,” Tarcisio said.
Carlo leaned across the table, laying his hands flat so that he would be less inclined to shake answers out of Tarcisio. “What is going on here?”
Tarcisio went on as if Carlo had not spoken. “The situation has reached the extreme. I need a witness, a neutral party. Someone the duke trusts. Someone outside of Forlì.”
Finally, Tarcisio looked up into Carlo’s eyes. He lowered his chin in remorse. “There is a ritual. You must come with me tonight to
Carlo stared at Tarcisio. Whatever was happening in Forlì frightened Tarcisio, and it was something so terrible he was afraid the duke would not believe it.
Carlo felt some of that fear on a different level, and it had to do with a certain rose whose thorns might not be enough to keep her out of danger.
* * * *
“It could be a trap,” Umberto murmured, staring into the darkness beyond the bedroom window.
Carlo pulled the disguise over his head. “If it is, you must send a message to my father.”
Umberto snorted. “The duke will not be satisfied with a message. You are his heir.”
Carlo opened the bedroom door. “He has asked me to find out what is happening here. If I am not back by morning, send the message.”
The lamp outside his door was unlit and the hall was quiet.
Even Rafi and Arturo had settled down for the night. He could no longer hear the Friesians nickering to each other. He closed the door silently behind him.
* * * *
“Say nothing, no matter what you observe.”
Tarcisio’s whispers were easier to understand now in the still and quiet city of Forlì.
In long, brown hooded robes tied with lengths of hemp around the waist, Carlo and Tarcisio blended well into the group.
Dusk gave way to the black of night as they joined the crowd milling around
Carlo would have thought
was the town square if he hadn’t known better. The intricately designed exterior boasted huge stone columns, which rose to the sky. Gold-painted stone arch façades accented the white walls. And yet somehow, the grandeur of
did not seem out of place in this simple farming town.
His eye was twitching, and it wasn’t because of the coarse wool hood shading his face. It was this inn, which was no inn at all.
Even though he had not yet entered
, Carlo knew it was some type of memorial.
That was the twitch in his eye.
Groups of three and four filed into the inn. Carlo and Tarcisio fell into step.
The crowd filled the polished wooden benches in the main hall, which was twice as large as the
. Murmurs of conversation hummed around Carlo while he waited for the meeting to begin.
When the crowd quieted, Carlo looked up to the front of the hall where Giuseppe Baldoni sat in a throne-like chair. His outstretched hands silenced all.
“Bring me the accounting.” Baldoni motioned to a man in the front. He opened a loosely bound book near the halfway mark, and shook his head. “Only one last week, Gregorio. You must do better.”
Midway in the crowd, brown hoods turned to the right. A brown hood lowered in apparent shame.
“Luciano. Four more this month.” Baldoni’s lips parted to reveal yellow teeth. “And tonight’s offering,” Baldoni continued. “You have redeemed yourself.”
Approving murmurs ran through the crowd and a large brown robe stood and bowed.
Baldoni’s accounting of this yet unnamed profit and loss seemed interminable.
Carlo folded his hands in his lap. He had never been a patient man, and his feeling of unease grew with every praise and admonishment. Something he heard in Baldoni’s voice made him look up.
The reckoning had apparently ended and Baldoni’s Latin was now full of verve. He spoke of Saint Mercuriale, the first bishop of Forlì who fought against paganism his entire life.
“I promise you we will exact revenge against Saint Mercuriale for the murder of our protector,
,” Baldoni cried.
Carlo felt the arm next to his stiffen, but he did not look at Tarcisio. He couldn’t take his eyes off Baldoni.
Baldoni and his people worshipped a pagan symbol of divinity.
Carlo’s insides churned with purpose.
I have you now, Baldoni, you heretic.
In the next instant, Rosa’s anklet flashed in his mind, the dragon that unified heaven and earth in pagan rituals. What sacrilege had she become involved in?
, to the Master.”
On cue, the enclave rose as one.
Tarcisio would not look at Carlo and stood rigidly, his brown eyes blazing up at Baldoni.
Row-by-row, the flock made their way up to the front of the main hall.
In a glorious painting of the Ascension was a hidden door. A brown robed figure opened it by lifting a lever fashioned as part of the scrollwork on the wall.
With heads bowed, the brown robes walked single file through a regally appointed antechamber of gold and mahogany. They passed through red velvet drapes parted with gold tassels hooked to the wall, and made their way down the rough-hewn stone steps of a dark passage.
Carlo kept his head bowed while the group filed down the steps.
Walls dank with moisture held wrought iron sconces with burning torches lighting the way. The steps leveled off and Carlo felt a cool breeze swirling from several directions into the large circular room in which they now stood.
As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he could see lanterns hanging above archways around the central chamber. The lanterns were so far apart that they did little to illuminate the area and only served to light the openings around them.
The smell of rich soil permeated the chamber. The sound of trickling water came from somewhere overhead.
Up ahead, Baldoni stood in front of an archway. He now wore one of the brown robes and on top of his head was a heavy circlet engraved with the symbol of
. The dragon shined even in the gloom of the cave and the eyes set with rubies glowed red. A dragon’s head, also winking rubies, topped the gold staff he held.
Holding the staff before him, Baldoni turned ceremoniously into the archway. He reached up and removed a torch from the wall to light the way through a narrow stone corridor.
Carlo glanced at Tarcisio. With eyes half-hidden under the brown hood, Tarcisio’s features contorted in pain and embarrassment.
Tarcisio was slow to follow the group, but Carlo would have none of it. A wrath not unlike his rage over Margaux’s death had surfaced at this blasphemy.
I will see all.
He pushed past Tarcisio and moved ahead of him.
Their footsteps echoed in the passageway, which led to a series of galleries.
How far do these catacombs spread under the city?
Tarcisio must know. Baldoni had managed to keep his sect hidden all these years, at least from those outside of Forlì. The people of the town must know of
, yet in their fear of the cult they kept its secret.
Baldoni led the way into the center gallery, which was flanked by two ten-foot stone effigies of
. An orange glow emanated from that portal and spilled out into the surrounding gloom as it did in Carlo’s nightmares.
The hair on the back of his neck rose. An overwhelming anticipation made him crane his neck to see what was beyond the stone archway.
The brown robes had adopted a ceremonial march.