raven winged its way along the edge of the cliffs. Below, the waves
crashed and foamed against the rocks, each one rising higher and
higher, reaching almost angrily toward the black bird. The raven
changed course, circling inland across the fields of flowers, above
the bare slopes, flying higher and higher until it reached the timberline.
It appeared to be meandering, slowly gliding across the sky, the
waning rays of sunlight glistening off of its back. Patches of clouds
began to drift across the horizon, almost in its wake, as if the
bird was drawing a gray shadow across the land far below it.
in the thick stands of trees, the bird changed speed, swooped
quickly, maneuvering through leafy branches, and around thick
tree trunks, as if racing the setting sun. It flew as straight
as possible, up the side of the hills into the grove of trees
on the far slope of the mountain. It made its way unerringly to
a thick, twisted branch. Settling there, it folded its wings rather
majestically, round shiny eyes fixed intently on the small woman
carefully packed the rich soil around the small fern she had recently
moved. The earth was more fertile and would enable her much needed
and rarer shrubs to grow here. She used the extracts from the
plants as medicine for the people in the surrounding villaggi and
farms . What had started as a small garden had grown into an enormous
undertaking, transplanting all of the herbs and plants that could
be used for various medicines and experiments. Her bare hands
were buried deep within the soil, the rich fragrances of the plants
enveloping her. A riot of color from the vegetation and flowers
she had sown into the earth were scattered all around her.
shivered suddenly as a the gray shadows caught up with her, obscuring
the last warming rays of the sun and leaving an ominous portent
of disaster firmly entrenched in her mind. Very slowly Nicoletta
stood up, dusting the damp soil from, first her hands, and then
her long, wide skirt before she tilted her head to look up at
the bird sitting so still above her in the tree.
you have come to summon me," she said aloud, her voice soft
and husky in the silence of the grove. "You never bring me
good news, but I forgive you."
bird stared at her, not breaking eye contact, the small round
eyes shiny and bright as it looked at her. A last sunbeam lit
the feathers on its back almost into iridescence, before the graying
clouds obscured the sun completely.
sighed and shoved at the wild mass of long tangled hair flowing
like a waterfall down her back to hang well below her small waist.
Small twigs were caught in the silken strands. She looked like
a mysterious, mystical creature, wild and untamed with her bare
feet and her delicate features. A young, beautiful witch, perhaps,
weaving spells amidst her lavish, exotic garden.
bird opened its beak, emitted a loud squawk, the note jarring
in the hushed silence of the grove. For a moment the insects ceased
their incessant humming so that the earth seemed to be holding
am going, I am going," Nicoletta said, catching up a thin
leather pouch. She raised her head to the sky above her, turned
in a slow circle, facing in each of the four directions, north,
south, east and west, for a few seconds each way, her arms outstretched.
The wind tugged at her clothing, whipped her hair around her like
a living cloak. Hastily she began gathering leaves and seeds from
various plants. It took only a few minutes to drag crushed, dried
powders and leaves and berries from a small wooden box she kept
for storage at the base of the tree.
began to run at a steady pace along a well-worn path leading down
the hillside. Bushes caught at her full skirt, the wind tugged
at her hair, but she made her way easily through the brambles
and thick growth of vegetation. Not once did her small feet touch
a stone or sharp twig lying in wait on the ground. As she approached
a stream, she simply lifted her long skirt to reveal flashes of
shapely bare legs as she raced across smooth stones, occasionally
kicking up a spray of water so that droplets fell back into the
rushing stream like a shower of glistening diamonds.
gave way to meadows and barren rock as she neared the ocean side.
She could hear the sea thundering against the cliffs, continually
seeking to erode the massive peaks. She paused then to look down
upon the great palazzo that sat beside the raging sea. It was large and beautiful, yet
dark and foreboding rising out of the shadows with its towers
and terraces. It was whispered the great halls held secrets and
the passageways could empty into the seas should there be need.
The palazzo was huge, with gables and towers, turrets and enormous walk ways.
The tracery facing the cliff was a slender intersecting stone
bar which formed a geometrical pattern. It was very intricate,
a distinctive pattern, not simply dividing the crown of the large
window, it was on the highest gable overlooking the cliffside.
Something about the pattern always caught her attention, made
her feel as if she was being watched. There were at least two
stories with the towers and turrets rising above that. Sculpted
into the eaves, the gables, even on the towers were silent sentinels,
the gargoyles, watching the surrounding countryside with hollow,
staring eyes and outstretched wings.
shook her head, not daring to linger any longer. There was in
urgency in her, the need must be great. She turned her back on
the palazzo and began to walk quickly along the path winding away from the
sea back toward the interior of the hills. The first houses came
into sight, small, neat, scattered around the hills, tiny little
farms and single dwellings. She loved the sight of those homes.
She loved the people.
elderly woman met her as she entered the main square. "Nicoletta!
Look at you! Where are your shoes? Hurry, piccolo,
you must hurry!" The woman sounded scolding, but she was
gently pulling the twigs and leaves from Nicoletta's long hair.
your shoes. You must fix your hair as we go."
smiled and leaned into the woman to press a kiss on her lined
cheek. "Maria Pia, you are the light of my life. I have no
idea where I left my sandals." She didn't either. Somewhere
on the trail, perhaps by the stream.
Pia sighed softly. "Bambina,
you will be the death of all of us." Nicoletta was the joy
of the villaggio,
their lifeblood, their secret. She was impossible to tame, like
trying to hold water or the wind in their hands. The older woman
lifted her arm and waved toward the nearest hut. At once there
was the sound of laughter and a small child raced out carrying
thin leather sandals, the leather thongs dragging on the ground.
the dark-haired little girl thrust the shoes at Nicoletta. "We
knew you would lose them," she said.
laughed, the sound soft and melodious like the clear running of
water in the streams. "Little imp, skip along now and stop
Pia was already starting down the narrow path back toward the
cliffs. "Come quickly, Nicoletta, and plait your hair. A
you must cover your head. And take my shawl. You cannot draw attention
to yourself." She was clucking the orders over her shoulder
as she walked briskly. She was old, but she moved as one still
young, as one well used to traveling the steep hillsides.
easily kept pace, the sandals slung around her neck by the thongs
while she deftly bound her hair into a long thick braid. She wound
it carefully into a tight knot and covered her head with a thin
scarf. "We are going to the Palazzo
Pia swung around, scowling fiercely, emitting a slow hiss of disapproval.
"Do not say such a thing, piccola,
it is bad luck."
laughed softly. "You think everything is bad luck."
She wrapped the tattered black shawl around her shoulders to cover
her bare arms.
"Everything is bad luck," Maria Pia scolded. "You cannot say such things.
If He should hear of it
isn't bad luck," Nicoletta insisted, "and who is going
to tell him what I said? It isn't bad luck that kills the women
who go to work in that place. It is something else."
Pia crossed herself as she looked around carefully. "Take
care, Nicoletta, the hills have ears. Everything gets back to
him, and without his good will our people would be homeless and
we must deal with the Il
Demonio and pray the price isn't too high." For the first time Nicoletta
Pia paused for a moment, reaching out to take the young woman's
arm. "Do not harbor such thoughts, piccola,
it is said he can read minds," she cautioned it very gently,
lovingly, sorrow and pity in her eyes.
many more of our women and children will that place swallow before
it is done?" Nicoletta demanded, her black eyes flashing
with anger like a bright flame. "Must we pay our debts with
Maria Pia insisted. "You go back to the villaggio,
you should not accompany me."
marched past the older woman, her back stiff, her slender shoulders
square, outrage in her every step. "As if I would leave you
to face Signore
Morte alone. You cannot save this one without me, I feel it, Maria Pia,
I must go if she is to live." Nicoletta ignored the outraged
gasp at her admitting to having knowledge of something not yet
revealed to them. She tried not to smile as Maria Pia solemnly
made the sign of the cross, first on herself and then over Nicoletta.
was swirling up from the foaming sea, curling around their ankles
and clinging to their bodies, fine sifted droplets of salt water.
The wind was savage now, rising up off the ocean waves to slam
into their small frames as if trying to drive them back. They
were forced to slow their pace and choose their way carefully
over the little used path to the hulking palazzo.
As they rounded the narrow steep cliff jutting up from the sea
and the palazzo came into sight, the sun slipped into the water plunging the sky
into a blood red stain.
Pia cried out, halting as the vivid color swept across the sky,
a portent of disaster and death. She moaned softly, her body trembling
as she rocked back and forth clutching at the cross she wore around
her neck. "We go to our doom."
put her arm protectively around the older woman's shoulders, her
young face passionate, fierce. "No we do not. I will not
lose you, Maria Pia, I will not. He cannot swallow you like he has the others! I am too strong for
him and his terrible curses."
wind howled and tore at their clothes, raging against her challenge.
"Do not say such things, bambina,
it is dangerous to speak of such things aloud." Maria Pia
straightened her shoulders. "I am an old woman, better that
I go alone. I have lived my life, Nicoletta, and yours is just
has taken mia
Madre and mia
it will not swallow you too. I will not allow it!" Nicoletta
vowed it fiercely, hurtling the words back at the wild wind, refusing
to bow down before its savage intensity. "I am going with
you as always, and He can go to hell!"
Pia gasped her shock and blessed Nicoletta three times before
proceeding along the path. The wind shrieked its outrage of Nicoletta's
defiance, roaring through the pass. Small pebbles trickled down
from above them, dislodging larger rocks so that they picked up
speed, pelting the two women as they went through the narrow pass
between the two cliffs. Nicoletta, circled the older woman's head
protectively with her arms, trying to shelter her from the shower
of stones cascading down around them as they ran.
he command the very mountains?" Maria Pia cried. Her words
were whipped away from her and taken out to sea by the fury of
you hurt?" Nicoletta demanded, running her hands over the
older woman, looking for injuries, anger and defiance swirling
together like the mist. She was very gentle, her touch light and
soothing despite the emotions seething deep within her.
not at all," Maria Pia assured, "what about you?"
shrugged. Her left arm felt numb, but the rock that had hit her
hadn't been particularly large and she felt lucky to have escaped
with only a bruise. They were on the palazzo grounds now and overhead the clouds darkened until they roiled,
spinning black threads that boiled like a great witches cauldron.
Long dark shadows were everywhere, shading every bush and tree,
every bench as the house loomed up before them. It rose right
out of the cliff like a glistening castle. Enormous, towers and
turrets rising toward the heavens, heavy gables and intricate
windows. There were sculptures everywhere, huge, heavy ones and
small delicate ones. The grounds had great stones carved into
impressive guards scattered around the maze and the gardens. Two
huge marble fountains gilded with brass rose up in the centers
of the rounded courts, heavily laced with winged sculptures and
deities of every kind.
made their way up the immaculate path with the great hulking statues
glaring at them and the wind battering them continually. The door
was massive, a great heavy thing intricately carved. Nicoletta
studied the etchings for a moment while Maria Pia fussed over
her, making certain she was properly covered. "Your shoes, bambina,"
she hissed suddenly.
were both shivering in the unrelenting wind. It was dark and very
gloomy with the great hulk of the door staring unpleasantly at
them. Nicoletta thought the carvings were lost souls shrieking
in flames, but her imagination was always getting the better of
her when she was near this place. Maria Pia took hold of the heavy
knocker and allowed it to drop so that it boomed cavernously,
the sound hollow and mournful in the bands of fog and gathering
Nicoletta slipped on the offending sandals, tying the thongs quickly
around her ankles as the door swung silently open. Rows of tapered
candles burned in the entrance hall, flickering and dancing along
the high walls, shrouding the long corridor and vaulted ceilings
in grotesque shadows. The man standing in the doorway was tall
and thin with gaunt cheeks and silver-peppered hair. His dark
eyes moved over the two women with a hint of disdain, but his
face remained expressionless. "This way."
one moment neither woman moved. Nicoletta stepped into the house
first. At once the earth shifted, the slightest of tremors, barely
felt, but it was enough that the candles in the hall swayed and
wax splattered onto the wall. The flames leapt high as if in warning.
Maria Pia and Nicoletta looked at one another. Hastily the older
woman made the sign of the cross toward the interior of the house
and then back behind them into the darkness and the howling wind.
manservant turned back to look at the women uneasily. At once,
Maria Pia followed him, her entire demeanor changed. She looked
taller, confident, a quiet dignity clinging to her. Nicoletta
was just the opposite. She slunk along the great hall, casting
nervous glances this way and that, her head bowed low, her eyes
on the floor. She scooted along the edges of the wall so that
she seemed to blend into the shadows, a slight nondescript figure,
barely noticeable, her features almost blurred. She made no sound
as she walked along the square tiled floor not drawing attention
to herself at all.
man leading the way took so many twists and turns along various
passageways and halls, through several large rooms, moving so
quickly Maria Pia had no time to notice any landmarks. She looked
serene despite the circumstances, relying on Nicoletta as she
had so many times in the past to know their way back. The palazzo was a work of art. The double thick walls were made of smooth
pink and white marble. The ceilings were high, vaulted, with impressive
domes and arches. The floors were marble tiles, large blocks,
smooth beneath their feet. Sculptures and artwork were everywhere,
huge winged creatures guarding the devil's lair. Alcoves and portals
were embedded with intricately carved angels and demons. Horses
and mythical creatures abounded above the archways and along the
walls. Great columns rose upwards, ribbed doorways, each room
larger and more ornate than the last. The tapers lent a certain
animation to the silent sculptures as they stared down with flat
eyes upon the women as they hurried along the wide corridors.
sounds of wailing could be heard echoing through the halls. As
they rounded a corner, two women came into view. They were clinging
to one another, the younger sobbing hysterically, the older one,
crying softly. A young man stood rather helplessly beside them,
obviously grief-stricken, one hand covering his face. A quick
glimpse told Nicoletta they were of class, their clothes lavish,
their hair perfect in spite of the circumstances. For some reason
that detail stuck in her mind. She knew of the two women, of course,
they came often with their servants to the villaggio demanding new material for their dressmakers. The older woman
was beautiful, cool and aloof, no more than thirty-five and probably
younger. Portia Scarletti and her daughter Margerita. Portia was
a widow, a distant relative who had lived in the palazzo most of her life. Her daughter was about fifteen or sixteen and
extremely haughty around the girls in the villaggio. Nicoletta knew the young man was Vincente Scarletti, youngest
brother to the Don. She
averted her eyes quickly and shrank further into the gloom of
servant escorting them stopped at a door. "The bambina is in here. She is very ill." The gloomy tone of his voice
indicated they had taken too long to get there. He pushed open
the door and stepped back, not going into the room, but rather
moving quickly out of the way, one hand discreetly covering his
mouth and nose. A blast of heat and a foul odor exploded out of
the bedroom. The stench was overpowering.
child had been sick repeatedly. The coverlet was wet and stained
with the aftermath of her body attempting to rid itself of poisons.
Nicoletta had to tamp down the swift surge of fury that the adults
would leave the child to suffer alone because they were so afraid
of catching her illness. She repressed the need to gag at the
unholy stench. Cautiously she approached the bed. Behind her the
door swung shut with a loud thud. Despite the thickness of the
marble walls, it didn't drown out the useless annoying wailing
coming from the hall. The fireplace was roaring, generating a
tremendous heat so that the room seemed to glow from the orange
child looked tiny in comparison to the heavy wooden bed. She was
young, perhaps seven, her dark hair in tangles, her clothes soaked
and stained. Her face was beaded with sweat and twisted in agony.
Nicoletta approached her without hesitation, moving to the bed,
her large black eyes mirroring her compassion. She slipped her
hand around the child's tiny wrist, her heart in her throat. "Why
did they wait so long to summon us?" She whispered softly.
large and menacing stirred in the deeper shadows of the room,
hidden in the recessed alcove near the large window. Maria Pia
cried out and leapt backwards toward the door crossing herself.
Nicoletta stepped between the shadows and the child protectively,
prepared to defend her from the specter of death. A man's large
frame blurred with the dark, slowly emerging until they could
see him. He was tall, powerfully built, his black hair long and
damp with sweat. He swayed unsteadily for a moment, one hand pressed
to his stomach. There was pain etched deeply into the lines of
moved swiftly toward him but he shook his head, his black eyes
at once commanding. "Do not come near me." His voice
was faint, but held an unmistakable command. He indicated the
child with a gesture. "Is it the Black Death?" His gaze
was on Maria Pia's lined face.
women froze in place for a moment. It was the Don
Scarletti himself. Even ill as he was, wracked with fever and sickness,
he looked powerful and entirely capable of easily disposing of
two peasant women. Much to Nicoletta's disgust, Maria Pia crossed
herself a second time.
"Dio! Woman! Answer me." He issued the command, his white teeth
snapping together like a hungry wolf. "Donna Sigmora, do we have the plague?"
Pia glanced very briefly at Nicoletta who shook her head slightly
and moved once more to the child, quickly resuming the demeanor
of a frightened servant girl. She was well versed in the role,
using it often. She didn't look again at the man, rather focusing
her attention on the little girl. It would be a fight, the child
was nearly gone. She stripped the coverlet and bedding, taking
great pleasure in opening the door and hurtling the contents out
into the hall right onto the manservant lurking at the other side.
need hot water," she said without lifting her eyes to him.
"Lots of hot water and clean rags. Clean bedding at once.
And send two servants to help clean this room immediately. The
healer must have them now if the bambina is to live." Her voice was thin and reedy, well practiced.
Scurrying back inside she ignored the man leaning against the
wall and threw open the window. The wind howled into the room,
so that the curtains danced macabrely and the fire leaped and
roared. The cold sea air immediately rushed through the large
room so that temperature dropped almost instantly and the mist
pushed out the terrible odor.
child was shivering, beads of sweat running down her body. Nicoletta
stripped her of the soiled clothing, smoothing back her hair.
Maria Pia leaned in close that they might consult. "Are you
certain it is not the Black Death? He is ill also." The older
woman whispered the words into Nicoletta's ear.
need to know what food they shared." The words were barely
discernable, Nicoletta's lips didn't even move. Her hands were
gentle on the child's distended abdomen.
sir," Maria Pia said, "did you and the child share a
meal together? I must know if you two shared something to eat
man was shivering almost uncontrollably. He clenched his teeth
together to keep them from chattering. "You are certain of
what you are doing?"
must bring the fever down quickly. Both of you are far too hot.
And the room reeks of sickness. It is not good. Come, come, girl,
hurry now." Maria Pia did not like the way those black piercing
eyes took in Nicoletta's graceful soothing hands as they moved
over the child. Deliberately she shoved her body in front of the
younger girl, briskly examining the patient. "We must hurry."
shared a bowl of soup. Sophie did not wish to finish it. I helped
her." The words revealed far more of the man than he might
glanced at him, she couldn't help herself. He was the devil, his
family under a terrible curse. He was arrogant and aloof, cold
and unyielding, his neighbors were terrified of crossing him,
yet he had finished a bowl of soup for a child, most likely to
prevent her from being punished. It was the first nice thing she
had ever heard about him. Their dictator, the man who held the
power of life and death over her people.
Pia coughed to get her attention. Nicoletta blurred herself further,
hunching as she closed the window and straightened the curtains.
Two servants peeked in timidly with buckets of hot water and armloads
of rags. The taller male servant behind them had coverlets folded
in his arms. None of them entered the room, but rather lingered
out in the hall. Nicoletta had little patience with them and took
the water and rags rather abruptly, setting them down before whisking
the coverlets out of the manservant's hands. With her foot she
rather forcefully slammed the door closed on him hoping it hit
him right in the nose.
Pia hissed softly at her, scowling fiercely to remind her the Don was watching. Nicoletta and Maria Pia went to work. While Maria
Pia bathed the child to bring down her fever and clean her, Nicoletta
scrubbed the room and the bed. Maria Pia consulted with her 'assistant'.
The two women conferred briefly in whispers quite often. Under
the older woman's watchful eyes, Nicoletta combined various potions,
insuring the medicines were mixed properly. It was Nicoletta who
assisted the child, pulling the small body into her arms, rocking
her gently, while she fed her tiny sips, coaxing and soothing
with whispers of encouragement while all the time the devil in
the corner watched them with a steady, relentless black stare.
when the child made a feeble attempt to drink on her own did he
finally stir, sagging against the wall as if his legs could no
longer support his weight. Maria Pia went to him at once, helping
to ease the large, muscular frame into a sitting position. "He
is burning up," she said with a nervous glance at Nicoletta.
lay the child carefully onto the bed, drawing up the coverlet.
The blanket caught her attention. Neat little stitches, beautiful
workmanship, the pattern so dear and familiar. For a moment she
could hardly breathe, her throat clogged with painful memories.
She traded places with Maria Pia, as if the older woman needed
to examine the child while her assistant took care of the basic
needs of the second patient.
used the excuse of bringing down the Don's fever to run her hands over his hot skin, to examine him and 'feel'
his illness. Don
Scarletti was all roped, sinewy muscle, as hard as the tree trunks beneath
her gentle, exploring fingers. She skimmed over him lightly, soothing
him with her touch so that he circled her wrist like a vice, holding
her still while he examined her hand. He stared down at it curiously.
pain-filled eyes saw far too much. Nicoletta tugged hard to get
her hand back, her heart slamming uncomfortably loud. She jerked
away from him, moving out of range, back into the shadows, drawing
the shawl tighter around her. There was much danger in his close
scrutiny. Maria Pia and Nicoletta had perfected their illusions,
the role reversals that insured Nicoletta's safety and guarded
her differences successfully.
Pia clucked her sympathy as she bustled around looking very busy.
She conferred with her assistant, watched carefully to assure
the younger woman mixed her droughts and powders correctly and
insisted on helping the Don swallow the liquid herself. "You must rest now," Maria
Pia ordered. "We will see to the child through the night,
hopefully we did not arrive too late."
signed with her hand discreetly as she once more went back to
persuading the child to drink small sips of the medicine.
must know if others are ill? Did others share the soup?"
Maria Pia asked reluctantly at Nicoletta's insistence.
man shook his head, ignored the older woman's nervous gasp as
he staggered across the room to a large padded chair. "I
will stay." He said it firmly, closing his eyes and turning
his head away from them.
Pia looked helplessly at Nicoletta who shrugged. The room was
as clean as they could make it in so short a time. The child's
fever was down slightly, although she was still quite ill, but
it was a good sign she was attempting to take the potion Nicoletta
had concocted. Her stomach was not rejecting it. The Don was not nearly as sick as the child. He was much larger and probably
had not eaten as much as the child.
Pia took several candles from her bag and placed them around the
room. Nicoletta had made them herself out of various plants and
aromatic herbs. The scent of the candles at once filled the room
dispelling the last remnants of the foul sick odor. The fragrance
was peaceful and soothing, aiding in further calming the little
fratello awaits news of his bambina."
It was another clear order, delivered by a man well used to being
was outraged that the child's father was outside the room, leaving his daughter to the care of strangers. She bit
down hard on her lip to keep from making a single sound. She would
neverstand under the aristocratici. Never.
Pia opened the door and delivered the news that the Don was going to live and that they would continue to battle for the
child's life throughout the night. It was not the dreaded disease
the household had thought and that the Don wished them to retire.
wished they would all just go away and stop the useless wailing.
The racket was getting on her nerves. What good did wailing and
sobbing do? None of them had come near the child, afraid they
might catch her illness. Poor little girl, to matter so little
that her own people refused to see to her! Nicoletta's heart went
out to the child.
a hush fell onto the household, Nicoletta settled down close to
young Sophie. She desperately needed more medicine in her to counteract
the effects of the poisoning. Had it been accidental? Or deliberate?
She tried not to think about that as she settled against the strangely
carved headboard, quietly removing her sandals. Nicoletta rested
her head against the board and drew up her knees, tucking her
bare legs carefully beneath the long skirt. With the firelight
from the stoked fire and the flickering flames of the candles,
she had enough light to observe the room.
was too big and monstrous for a child. Nicoletta couldn't understand
why anyone would put a small child in such a room. It was far
too large and the carvings etched into the walls were demonic.
Long coiled snakes with forked tongues and strange cats with wicked
teeth and claws decorated the walls between the enormous windows.
The clay and marble sculptures seemed almost alive, almost as
if they had the ability to move. There was a particularly wicked
looking gargoyle. The eyes were sunken and staring and the wings
were widespread as if the creature was prepared to leap on someone.
Even the curtains were heavy and dark, covering the flowing patterns
at the windows. The ceiling was far too high and carved with a
plethora of winged animals with curved sharp beaks and talons.
Nicoletta couldn't imagine a child of seven attempting to fall
asleep with the creatures surrounding her in the darkness.
Maria Pia fell asleep slumped in a small chair beside the fire.
Nicoletta covered her with the spare coverlet and reluctantly
checked on the Don. He was very quiet, his breathing shallow enough that she could
tell he continued to be in pain, but was refusing to acknowledge
it. She laid a cooling hand on his forehead, almost afraid to
touch the man. There seemed to be a strange current running between
the two of them. She could feel it arcing and crackling beneath
her skin, beneath his, and it made her distinctly uneasy. His
fever was down, but not entirely gone. With a little sigh, Nicoletta
held the cup of liquid to his mouth. She didn't want to wake him,
but he needed the medicine. It was the only way to insure he continued
to get better.
hand moved up to trap hers around the cup as he drank, making
it impossible for her to let go. He was enormously strong for
a man so ill. When he had drained the contents, he lowered the
cup, but retained possession of her hand. "How does the healer
know which medicine will work? I have heard of her skills often.
She is spoken of with great respect."
stiffened, her heart thundering loudly in her ears. She tugged,
a not so subtle reminder to release her, but this time he tightened
his grip, not allowing her to escape back into the shadows. There
was danger here, she sensed it, a threat to her. "I-I do
not know, Signore
Her secrets are hers alone." Deliberately she stammered and
hung her head, shrinking into herself like a not-so-bright servant.
The Don continued to hold her still, regarding her through half-closed
eyes. In the firelight he looked a dark and dangerous devil, far
too sensuous and powerful to be trifled with. Nicoletta didn't
waver beneath the scrutiny, although she wanted to tear her hand
free and run for her life. He was so much more dangerous to her
than she had first thought. She felt it, as she did everything. Resolutely she stared at the floor.
The Don retained possession a few moments longer, than abruptly let her
go, his eyes closing, clearly dismissing her. Nicoletta prevented
the sigh of relief from escaping and moved swiftly to put a safe
distance between them, curling up on the bed beside the child
once more. She breathed slowly, calmly, watching the rise and
fall of his chest until she was certain he had gone back to sleep
and she could once more relax.
times she attended the child, washing her to keep the fever down,
prompting her often to drink fluids and the medicine. The child
seemed to be breathing much easier and each time Nicoletta rested
her hand on the distended little abdomen, it seemed to be twisting
less, the pain easing.
was drifting off to sleep when movement near the far side of the
chamber caught her eye. A bell pull seemed to sway when there
was no breeze. She shifted her gaze to the wall, watching intently.
For a moment the smooth seamless piece seemed to almost waver,
as if her eyes were out of focus. She sat up, staring intently.
The wall was marble, a beautiful pink and white, yet it seemed
to move in the flickering fire light. Shadows danced and stretched
and the flames leapt along with the curtains as if a draft had
entered the room. She shivered, as two of the candles suddenly
one awful moment she thought she saw the sheen of eyes staring
at her malevolently from the darkened shadows, but then the child
moved restlessly, a small moan escaping, breaking the spell. Instantly
Nicoletta protectively gathered her close, her gaze once more
straying to the wall. It was as smooth as a sea-carved stone.
The little girl began to cry in her sleep, a soft pathetic sound.
rocked her gently, began to hum softly at first, then sang a soothing
lullaby, the whispered melody only for the child. The little girl
began to relax in Nicoletta's arms, clinging to her tightly as
if she might never let go. The words were long forgotten, yet
they emerged naturally, a ballad Nicoletta's mother often sang
to her when she was young. Nicoletta's heart went out to the lonely
child. She had no one who cared enough to hold her in the middle
of the night when the nightmares came.
looked around the cavernous room, taking in the heavy curtains
and the hideous carvings. It was enough to make anyone have nightmares.
She rocked the little girl until the child snuggled close to her.
They drifted to sleep together, neither noticing the man sitting
in the chair observing Nicoletta through half-closed eyes.