The atmosphere was also hot and claustrophobic with the brewing storm—the gods seemed to be frowning on the scene, great storm clouds oppressing the sky overhead. The dust of the parade-ground floor rose up like a mist, and the day, which had been so fine, turned dark. Soon afterward, the rain began to fall in torrents. The pitched battle turned into a confused rout, in which the two opposing forces could barely see what they were doing. The ground turned to mud—the fighting turned more desperate and more chaotic.

But then, as if the enemy had achieved some purpose, the French trumpets sounded a retreat, and Valois’ men withdrew as swiftly as they had arrived.

It took a while to restore order, and Bartolomeo’s first concern was for the carpenters to replace the shattered gate with a new one. Naturally they had one ready-built, in case of just such an eventuality, but it would take an hour to install it. Meanwhile, he led Ezio in the direction of his quarters.

“What the hell were they after?” he asked no one in particular. “My maps? They’re precious, those maps!”

But he was interrupted by another French fanfare. With Ezio close behind, he ran up one of the stairways leading to a high rampart above the main gate. There, on the scrubby, cypress-scattered plain that confronted the barracks, a short distance away, sat the Général Duc Octavien de Valois himself, on horseback, surrounded by a knot of his officers and infantry. Two of the infantrymen were holding a prisoner, whose body was obscured by a sack thrown over the head.

“Bonjour, Général d’Alviano,” the Frenchman called out smarmily, looking up at Bartolomeo. “Êtes-vous prêt à vous rendre?—Are you ready to surrender?”

“Why don’t you come a little closer and say that, you crummy little Frog?”

“Tut, tut, mon général. You really ought to learn French. That might help mask your barbaric sensibilities, mais franchement, je m’en doute.” Smilingly, he looked around at his officers, who tittered appreciatively.

“Perhaps you could teach me,” Bartolomeo hollered back. “And I would instruct you in fighting, since you seem to do so little of it—at least, fair and square, like a gentleman should!”

Valois smiled thinly. “Hm. Well, cher ami, as amusing as this little parley has been, I see I must repeat my request: I’d like your unconditional surrender by sunrise.”

“Come and get it! My Lady Bianca will whisper it in your ear!”

“Ah! I believe another lady might object to that.”

He nodded to his infantrymen, who pulled the sack off their prisoner. It was Pantasilea!

“Il mio marito vi ammazzerà tutti,” she spluttered defiantly, spitting out bits of hemp and dust. “My husband will murder you all!”

It took Bartolomeo a moment to recover from the shock. Ezio grasped his arm, while his men looked at one another, aghast.

“I’ll kill you, fotutto francese!” he screamed.

“Dear me, calm down,” sneered Valois. “For your wife’s sake. And rest assured that no Frenchman would ever harm a woman—unnecessarily.” His tone became more businesslike. “But even a dunderhead like you can imagine, I think, what will happen if you do not accede to my terms.” He kicked his horse’s flanks and prepared to turn away. “Come to my headquarters at dawn. Unarmed. And bone up on a little French. Soon, all Italy will be speaking it!”

He raised his hand. The infantrymen threw Pantasilea across the back of one of the officers’ horses and the whole party cantered off, the infantry trotting in its wake.

“I’ll get you, you pezzo di merda figlio di puttana!” Bartolomeo shouted impotently after them. “That whoreson piece of shit,” he muttered to Ezio. Then he charged off.

“Where are you going?” Ezio yelled after him.

“To get her back!”

“Bartolomeo! Wait!”

But Bartolomeo plowed on, and by the time Ezio caught up with him, he was in the saddle, ordering the gates to be opened.

“You can’t do this alone!” pleaded Ezio.

“I’m not alone,” replied the condottiero, patting Bianca, which hung at his side. “Come with me if you wish! But you’ll have to hurry!” He spurred his horse and headed for the now-open gates.

Ezio didn’t even watch him go. He shouted brisk orders to Bartolomeo’s captain of cavalry. Within minutes, he, Ezio, and a mounted unit of condottieri were galloping out of the barracks in hot pursuit of their leader.

FORTY

General Valois’ headquarters was situated within the ruins of the fortified ancient Roman barracks of the old emperors’ personal brigade—the Praetorian Guard. It was located in the eighteenth rione, on the northeastern edge of Rome, now outside the shrunken city Rome had become, for in its heyday Rome had boasted one million inhabitants, a vast city, the greatest in the world by far, fifteen hundred years earlier.

Ezio and his troops caught up with Bartolomeo on the road and now they were gathered together on a small rise near the French base camp. They’d attempted an attack, but their bullets had bounced uselessly off the strong modern walls Valois had had built on top of the old ones. Now they had moved out of range of the responding hail of gunfire that had been the French response to their foray. All Bartolomeo could do—and was doing—was hurl imprecations at his enemies.

“You cowards! What, steal a man’s wife and then go and hide inside a fortress? Hah! Nothing hangs between your thighs—do you hear me? Nothing! Vous n’avez même pas une couille entre vous tous! There! That good enough French for you, you bastardi? In fact, I don’t think you have any balls at all.”

The French fired a cannon. They were within range of that. The shot hammered into the ground a few feet from where they were standing.

“Listen, Barto,” said Ezio. “Calm down. You’ll be no good to her dead. Look—let’s regroup, and then we’ll storm the gates, just like we did at the Arsenal that time in Venice when we were chasing down Silvio Barbarigo.”

“Won’t work,” said Bartolomeo glumly. “The entrance is thicker with Frenchmen than the streets of Paris.”

“Then we’ll climb the battlements.”

“They can’t be scaled. And even if you could, you’d be so outnumbered, even you wouldn’t be able to hold out.” He brooded. “Pantasilea would know what to do.” He brooded some more, and Ezio could see that his friend was becoming positively despondent. “Maybe this is the end,” he continued gloomily. “I’ll just have to do what he says—enter their camp at dawn, bearing propitiatory gifts, and just hope the sod spares her life. Wretched coward!”

Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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