Authors: James Byron Huggins
James Byron Huggins
Copyright © 2010 by James Byron Huggins
This eBook is licensed for personal use only. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights.
This is a work of fiction. Any similarity between characters or events in this story and with any other person or creature, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Cover Art by: Stanley H. Moore
Photograph by: Chris Darling
Mounted upon his heavy steed, armored in black, the warlord Marquis de Pianessa frowned over the smoldering bones and ashes of those who had begged for mercy He did not bother to count the dead. Monks commanded by the pale, soulless Inquisitors saw to that, though his own scribes checked names against bodies to insure he was not cheated for his pains. In any case he was not a man prone to pondering dusty tomes. No, he was a warrior, a general, and a monarch. It was what he did best, and all he cared to do.
Though he heard nothing, Pianessa was keenly aware of the black-robed Inquisitor as he approached. It was an acute sensitivity he had long ago perfected so that he was constantly aware of the position of everyone and everything—a man, a shadow, the flight of a sparrow however distant, however meaningless. He would not be taken by surprise on the field of battle.
The Inquisitor halted sparse steps apart and stared up. His hands were folded, as if Pianessa should speak first, but Pianessa, hostile and moody, said nothing. It was the old, familiar game, and Inquisitor General Thomas Incomel inevitably surrendered to the marquis' grim apathy.
Incomel glanced serenely at the smoking ashes heaped about fire-charred stakes. "Those who renounced their witchcraft and heresy have been sent to El Torre. But according to law, as you well know, they have lost all claims to their lands and possessions."
Pianessa's black eyes—eyes that revealed the faintest sharp crescents of red—blinked but once. Beneath his low, broad forehead, his down-turned mouth was framed by a thick beard and mustache as black as his mane, allowing the impression of a man grimly comfortable with any manner of death, any number of dead.
His sword, long and heavy and with a two-handed hilt, protruded high from behind his right shoulder—the image of a barbarian, which is how he fought, fierce and direct, sacrificing grace for power, finesse for bearish strength that shattered armor and flesh alike.
And yet Pianessa was also a soldier of his age. His hand ligh
tly held his long rifle, and a belt of three flintlock pistols crossed from his left shoulder to his waist, where he bore a long, broad-bladed poniard almost eighteen inches in length.
A god of war, black and armored and angry, the Marquis de Pianessa sat his horse unmoving and unmoved by all but himself.
"Children," Pianessa muttered to the Inquisitor and turned his brooding gaze beyond the smoking village where butchered bodies lay twisted upon trampled ground.
"Children, Inquisitor" he repeated. “They will not live long enough in the dungeons of El Torre to serve your God. Not that that was ever your intention."
Incomel grimaced. "Do you have a full account of those purified by flame, Monsieur de la Marquis?"
Pianessa's laugh held neither mirth nor melancholy. "Six thousand are dead, Priest. I care nothing how they died. A dead man is a dead man. They are all the same in terms of my reward."
Incomel's smile did not reach his eyes. "Some decisions are not yours for good reason, Pianessa."
Pianessa gazed down again, seeming to separate even farther from the Inquisitor with a vague, sullen deadness that many, to their doom, mistook as an indication of simplemindedness.
With a cautious bow, Thomas Incomel turned to rejoin his cadre of bodyguards who were plate-armored, though musket balls had long made the armor obsolete, and vanished behind a wall of smoke and flame.
Pianessa stared after the Inquisitor with the gaze of a man set to kill a wild dog. Then, frowning, he turned his steed toward Turin and vanished into the smoke and flame as well.
She turned toward him as he quie
tly shut the door of the cottage, and he was again reminded of her unearthly, almost spiritual, beauty. For as some men dreamed of wealth and power, he dreamed of her. But he had no time for this pleasure as a host of small forms rushed forward to embrace him, holding fast.
Joshua Gianavel leaned his rifle beside the door and responded in kind before lifting his sword belt over his shoulder, hanging it with his cloak.
The warm smell of stewed lamb in the crock awakened Gianavel's hunger, but he lifted a three-year-old boy high in the air as his three sisters laughed.
"Finally decide to come home, did you?" Angela smiled. I’d hate to see what hours you'd keep if you had an orchard to tend instead of watching for criminals in a valley that doesn't have any!"
Gianavel laughed and sat wearily beside the fire. He looked into the surrounding faces, then Jacob began sternly, "I-I-I was winning barrel slip but they cheated on me!"
Gianavel held the boy's shoulders and stared solidly into the transparent gray eyes. "Cheating on you, huh? And just how did they cheat on you?"
Jacob stared, very serious. "They made me fall first, and I didn't do anything."
Gianavel nodded gravely. "Ah, they won...Well, I tell you what we'll do tomorrow, then."
"I'll teach you to beat your sisters at barrel slip!"
Somehow, that didn't seem to be the answer Jacob sought. He glanced with suspicion at his larger, older, sisters, who smiled back at him swee
tly and without mercy.
"And now," Gianavel said, reaching for the bowl of stew that Angela had ladled for him, "I want to taste what your mother cooked for me!"
With a sigh he savored the first warm measure so heartily that he almost forgot how good it felt to be home in their quaint cottage with the lulling heat of the fire. After a moment he glanced up to Jacob sitting in Angela's lap, helping her knit a sweater that he recognized as his. It was the same off-white as the freshly shorn wool of the sheep they herded in the valley and had loose, generous shoulders, wide sleeves to accommodate his heavy arms, and a wide, deep cavity for his chest.
The cottage where they resided had stood for two hundred years, witnessing the births and deaths of Joshua s line. Built from stone and poplar by those who came first, whose names were carefully recorded in his hand-copied Bible, the cottage had been strengthened and hardened by
experience and time so that the walls were as solid as the cliff walls of the Castelluzo itself.
Angela's loving gaze caught his attention, and Gianavel held it with a faint smile.
"Nice to have you home, husband," she spoke and smiled.
Gianavel laughed and turned to the hearth. But as he stared into the flames of orange and crimson streams rising against ashen stone, the smile began to slowly fade. Today he had watched columns of smoke rising from the valley of Piedmont. He had heard the sound of cannon and seen armies roving the field under the flag of war. And he had seen no one escape the slaughter to climb the mountain to safety.
And, most tragically, he had not expected to.
Gianavel leaned against the frame of the bedroom door, watching Angela smooth the last blanket over the girls. She blew out the candle with a familiar whisper and kissed them once more before she half shut the door and stood before him.
They moved to a velvet-covered, lushly cushioned couch, and Gianavel pulled her close to his chest while shadows danced about the room like dark harbingers of doom.
"What's happening?" she whispered sof
tly and did not turn her gaze from the hearth.
Face bent slightly forward, Gianavel's forehead hardened. He released a deep sigh as he whispered, "We might be able to escape to Geneva."
Angela was silent and still.
Finally Gianavel tilted his head to kiss her softly where a tear glistened beneath her sky-blue eyes. He caressed her unusual, ligh
tly tinted hair—unusual because their people, the Vaudois, were an olive-skinned mountain race. Of the children, only Jacob had inherited her unique complexion. All the girls were raven-haired, like Gianavel himself.
"War," she whispered, and he knew she had closed her eyes. "War after war...They never stop killing us."
Gianavel said nothing, held her more tightly.
"Perhaps we should leave now, Joshua. Perhaps there's a chance we can cross the mountains before they come."
Gently lifting her chin, Gianavel gazed into her eyes. "We have a treaty with the Duke of Savoy. Charles Emmanuel is young, but I don't think he will attack above the Pelice."
She was quiet; then her voice rose in a whisper. "The righteous are as bold as a lion.. .but even lions can be killed."
Gently stroking her hair, Gianavel sighed. "It's already too late to run, my love. They've closed all the roads to Geneva. Perhaps you and I and the children might be able to slip across the mountains. But not our families, and not the village."
Angela gazed at nothing.
"All we want is to live in peace.. .to worship in peace. But, like before, they will kill us for it." She bowed her head. "It's madness. All of it— madness."
Gianavel sighed, closed his eyes as he leaned back. He pulled her tigh
tly into his chest, and their breaths were regular, together.
"Yes," he said.
All of them
?" Charles Emmanuel II exclaimed from his throne in the fortress-city of Turin. "You killed all of them? That's six thousand of my people, Pianessa!"
Pianessa did not respond. He had only reported what transpired in the past week when he laid siege to the valley of Piedmont. He had burned villages, destroyed churches, executed pastors, and killed those who refused to accept the authority of the Catholic Church. He had fulfilled his duty as he was ordered by the Inquisitors, just as Emmanuel's ancestors had done. History was merely repeating itself.
But Emmanuel, only seventeen years old, had only been named the Duke of Savoy, Supreme Lord of Piedmont, upon the death of his Regent Mother, the Duchess Christina, when he was sixteen. He had never experienced war or so much as religious purification. Indeed, since Emmanuel's tenure, Piedmont had been relatively unmolested by Spain and Germany, so it had fallen upon Pianessa to educate the young prince in the more brutal responsibilities of his crown.
"War is a simple thing," Pianessa muttered as he poured himself a
chalice of wine. "I've killed men and I've killed dogs—they all look the same inside."
Coated in riding dust, Pianessa had not yet deigned to discard his weapons. He still bore his sword, poniard, and bandoleer of pistols. His leather cuirass, doubled folded to refuse or at least slow a musket ball, was gray with ashes. His forearms were covered with thick gaun
tlets, and chain mail was visible at his wrists. He was the image of a warrior to be feared—the purest survivor, the fiercest fighter—an image enhanced by his dispassionate aspect.
Emmanuel stared sullenly and shook his head. "It seems incredible to me, Pianessa, that you would equate killing dogs with killing my people."
Pianessa's gaze did not waver. "Killing men is how other men gain wealth, my prince. Would you look poorly upon your ancestor Phillip while enjoying the rich rewards he provided you?" A laugh. "Strange that men can criticize others who insure their freedom when they are willing to do nothing themselves."
Emmanuel watched Pianessa refill his chalice, then gestured curdy to his four bodyguards. They departed without hesitation, obviously accustomed to the vague command.
Noticing the abruptness, Pianessa picked up his chalice in a broad, strong hand and strolled imposingly toward the Duke of Savoy.
Even at seventeen, Emmanuel possessed an aura of self-possession that emperors would have envied. He was not physically large—not half so powerful in appearance as Pianessa—but he presented a far stronger impression of intelligence in aspect and even in his dress. He tended to deign stockings and sleeve-bloomed blouses for tighter-fitting trousers and shirts of leather and wool. His boots, also, were out of place on the throne—high and sturdy, more suited for hunting than dancing.