Lorenzo’s merchant caravan was just a few miles shy of Troyes, where the Fair of St. Remi was being held, when a raiding party of knights captured him and all of his goods.
As an experienced caravan merchant, traveling with a train of pack animals from Genoa to one of the Champagne fairs, Lorenzo knew the hazards of his trade. Crossing the Alps was always dangerous. A winter crossing was especially so. Local mountain guides were a necessity, but even experienced mountaineers sometimes balked in the face of heaped up snowdrifts and ice on the narrow mountain paths. The merchants made the crossing anyway, summer or winter, in spite of the peril.
Along the entire route, from the Genoese homeland of coastal Liguria into the fertile plains of Lombardy, over the treacherous Alps and thence through Savoy and Burgundy, and ending in the county of Champagne, tolls were exacted at every opportunity. The locals charged tolls at bridges, fords, and ferry crossings, on roads, along waterways, at town gates, and more. Revenue from the tolls was supposed to be used for the upkeep of roads and bridges. In fact, the roads and bridges were neglected. Most of the roads were mere dirt paths that turned to mire when it rained. Carts and wagons would become bogged down in the mire, so pack animals were used instead.
Finally, there were bandits to look out for. Often the bandit turned out to be a local knight or baron, for whom ransom and plunder were time honored sources of income. To protect themselves against such attacks merchants formed multi-party caravans, with a small complement of crossbowmen for added protection. It was just such a multi-party caravan that Lorenzo was part of on this occasion.
The caravan had reached a wayside inn a few miles short of Troyes about noon on an unusually chilly, late October day. This inn was a traditional stop for merchants going to the fair along this route, and all of Lorenzo’s fellow merchants decided to stop there for the night. They would enter Troyes early the next day. The company of crossbowmen were dismissed here, for no trouble was expected in these last few miles, and they were expensive to maintain.
Lorenzo decided to press on with his own caravan. He aimed to reach Troyes before nightfall. With him were only his younger brother, Marco; his friend and scout, Piero; his muleteer, Geoffroy; and his fully laden pack animals.
They marched along the road in good spirits, knowing the end of their long, arduous journey was at hand. Geoffroy was whistling a cheerful tune of encouragement, both for the pack animals and for the men. Suddenly, as they reached the crest of a small rise in the road, they saw Piero galloping back towards them from his scouting position well ahead of the group. Geoffroy stopped whistling, and in the silence they began to hear the distant rumbling of horsemen charging toward them across the green fields to the east. A company of knights came into view, their raised swords flashing in the sunlight. One of the knights carried a tall heraldic banner, which was flapping in the wind.
“Ambush!” shouted Piero, as he reached the caravan and reined in his horse. “Twelve mounted knights, armed for battle.”
Lorenzo stood still, appalled at this last-minute attack, with Troyes only hours away. Then he began issuing orders.
“Piero, fly straight to Troyes. Locate the Warden of the Fair and tell him what’s happened here. It’s clear we are going to be held captive, either for ransom, or to despoil us of our goods, or both. Insist upon our immediate release, with our goods, from - Geoffroy, you’re from Troyes, do you recognize that banner?”
“Yes, that is the coat of arms of the Baron of Brial.”
“So, insist upon our release from the Baron of Brial, as we are under the safe conduct of the Count of Champagne. Make haste, Piero,” said Lorenzo. “We cannot afford to miss the appointed time for the buying of cloth that begins the fair.”
“What if they mean to attack? I can’t ride away while you are being cut to pieces.” Piero reached for his sword, but Lorenzo stayed his hand.
“They won’t resort to butchering men who put up no armed resistance. There are too many of them for us to fight, Piero. Now go, there is no time to argue. They are almost upon us.”
Piero spurred his horse and was off.
As he galloped north towards Troyes, one of the knights peeled off from his fellows and gave chase. He was weighed down with armor, however, and riding a heavy warhorse. Piero wore no armor, and his horse was light and swift. He easily outdistanced the knight, who eventually gave up the unequal contest, turned back and rejoined the others, who were now circling Lorenzo and his caravan. Piero pulled up at a distance and watched to see what would happen.
“My name is Hugh, knight and retainer of Renard, Baron of Brial,” said the leader of the knights. He towered over Lorenzo and his men on his powerful warhorse, which was glistening with sweat and breathing heavily from the hard gallop it had just completed. The horse’s breath came out of its nostrils in visible puffs in the cold, wintry air. Like the other knights, Hugh was wearing armor, a sturdy mail hauberk. “You are in Renard’s domain, and are now his captives. I will take you to his castle yonder,” he said, pointing with his sword off to the east, where a castle was visible atop a small hill. “You should bring a fine ransom, judging from the richness of your attire, and the heavy loads of your pack animals. Now, throw down your weapons.”
Lorenzo and Geoffroy threw down their swords. Marco, Lorenzo’s brother, was a man of peace, and never carried a weapon. One of the knights gathered the swords, packed them away, and climbed back onto his horse.
“I am Lorenzo, a Genoese merchant traveling to the Fair of St. Remi in Troyes, under the safe conduct of the Count of Champagne. I have no time to spare for this lawless behavior.”
“You are our hostage, whether you like it or not.”
“If I don’t get to Troyes in the next few days, I won’t be able to purchase the goods I came here for,” said Lorenzo. “These fairs are run according to a strict schedule. A delay will cost me dearly.”
“These matters are of no concern to us, merchant. You travel the open road through another’s domain, and you accept the risks.”
Lorenzo was about to reply, when he was interrupted.
“I will be your hostage.”
Lorenzo’s brother, Marco, stepped forward.
“Let the others go on to Troyes. My family will pay as much ransom for me as they would for my brother, Lorenzo. I am not a merchant, I am only traveling with my brother out of curiosity - so you will not be violating the Count’s safe conduct, and you will still get your ransom.”
“A noble gesture!” said Hugh. “If we cared about the safe conduct, we might have accepted your offer. But we do not care, for reasons the baron will no doubt explain.”
Further argument proved futile, and the caravan was marched cross country toward the baron’s castle. Lorenzo turned in time to see Piero riding away north. As they marched east, Lorenzo spoke to his brother.
“Marco, we mustn’t accede to their banditry. I will not allow a ransom to be paid under any circumstance. Not for myself, not for you. The Warden of the Fair will send men to enforce the safe conduct, and we will be freed without paying any ransom. If safe conducts can be flouted like this, commerce will never be safe, for us or anyone else.”
“We differ on that, Lorenzo. Your life and well-being are more important to me than a violated safe conduct.”
“The problem is that giving in to them once only encourages them to repeat the crime. Ask yourself if you want to see the same thing happen to someone else’s brother, perhaps to someone else’s sister, father, mother. It isn’t right. Think on this and you may change your mind.”
“I will give it thought, brother.”
Lorenzo held out little hope that his brother’s mind would be changed. Marco seemed compelled to sacrifice himself for others, whenever he felt it would help them. He either did not understand, or did not care, that in the long run it made matters worse for everyone. The needs of the moment outweighed the needs of a distant, uncertain future. Still Lorenzo had to try, looking for a way to make him understand.
A few moments later, Lorenzo spoke with his muleteer.
“Geoffroy, what else can you tell me about the Baron of Brial?”
“He is a hard lord,” said Geoffroy, “but respected by his people. His retainers are fiercely loyal to him. I have not known him to ignore a merchant’s safe conduct before, or I would have advised you to take another route.”
The castle loomed over them like a stolid ogre, dull witted but powerful. The high stone walls were cold and unadorned, interrupted only by projecting towers at strategic spots. A moat circled the west, south, and east sides of the castle, fed by a river that ran along the north side. No sign of life was visible from outside. As they neared the entrance, however, sounds could be heard coming from within.
Hugh and his fellow knights herded the caravan over the drawbridge and through the gatehouse. As the open area within spread out before them, Lorenzo noticed stables, a smithy, storage sheds, and other structures arrayed along the inner side of the curtain wall. Guards patrolled the walkway on top of the wall. More knights, and a few squires, were practicing military arts in a training area. In an open kitchen a cook tended a stew in a large cauldron, while a servant brought him a bunch of onions. The hungry travelers passed close enough to smell the aroma of the boiling stew, wafting through the air, and it made their mouths water. Further ahead was another wall, encircling the donjon. The donjon was the castle’s defensive bastion of last resort, and the residence of its lord.
The pack animals were led away to the stables after their barrels and sacks of precious cargo were deposited in a storehouse. The muleteer was led to another storehouse and locked inside. Lorenzo and Marco were taken past the inner wall to the donjon. Here they ascended an outer stairway to the second floor, in which the great hall was located.
“Wait here,” said Hugh, just inside the great hall. He went to confer with someone in a chamber beyond the far end of the hall. As they waited, another man came into the great hall from outside. He looked at the two brothers curiously.
“I am Henri, Chamberlain of Brial Castle. I presume you are the caravan merchants Hugh escorted to our castle?”
“We are,” answered Lorenzo.
“I’ve just made a quick inventory of your goods. I saw cinnamon, ginger, and large amounts of pepper and woad. Highly valuable freight you were carrying.”
“People don’t risk life and limb, and spend a small fortune on transport, tolls, and armed guards, only to sell hay at the Champagne fairs. I’m not giving up any of that freight, nor will any ransom be paid. Does the Count of Champagne’s safe conduct mean nothing here?” Lorenzo spoke with some heat, and his voice carried across the length of the great hall.
“It did, when he was alive.” This answer came not from the chamberlain, but from the baron himself, who had just emerged from his private chambers with Hugh at his side. The chamberlain led Lorenzo and his brother over to where the baron stood.
“My Lord, Renard, Baron of Brial,” announced the chamberlain. Lorenzo and his brother bowed according to custom.
“Be at ease, gentlemen,” said the baron. “Now, you are aware, I presume, that Countess Blanche, widow of Count Thibaut III, styles herself Regent of Champagne and has done so since the Count died fifteen years ago?”
“I am aware of it, My Lord,” said Lorenzo. “And the safe conduct has remained in force under her authority.”
“That is not the case. Rather than bore you with the claims and counterclaims to the County of Champagne, and whose family tree is more legitimate, I will say only this: we do not recognize Blanche’s legitimacy as Regent of Champagne. The rich fees she is gathering to herself at the fairs of Champagne should be going not to her, but to Count Erard I of Brienne, my lord, lately returned from crusade in the Holy Land. As his vassal, I am gathering what fees I am able, however I am able, from the rich trade passing through our territory on its way to Troyes.”
“With all due respect, My Lord,” said Lorenzo, “I call that banditry.”
“And we call it the spoils of war,” said the baron. “Be that as it may, it is done. You dine with us tonight. My wife likes to hear of foreign lands and customs, and I am sure she will be delighted to speak with two travelers from Genoa.”
The great hall was transformed into a dining room. The high table was placed at the far end, opposite the door, where the baron and his wife would sit. Lorenzo and Marco were also seated at the high table, as the baron and his wife wanted to engage them in conversation. Several more tables were set up down the length of the hall, on the right and left side, with benches to sit on. Here the baron’s retainers would sit, along with various other officers of his castle.
“Gentlemen,” said the baron, as all of the diners got to their feet, “my wife, Baroness Caterina.” His wife walked into the hall from the private chamber behind the high table.
Everyone bowed courteously to Lady Caterina. She wore a sky-blue gown, long sleeved with yellow embroidery, and over that a light gray surcote reaching to the waist, with hanging sleeves reaching almost to the floor. She wore a white cloth circlet upon her head, decorated with rubies and emeralds, and her flaxen-colored hair was gathered beneath the veil. As she took her seat, she acknowledged the assembled knights, officers, and her two guests from Genoa with a gracious nod and a friendly smile.
Now servants brought in the food. Meat was served in trenchers and wine poured into goblets, with salt dishes, sauce bowls, and silverware placed appropriately. After a prayer of thankfulness, everyone commenced eating.
Lorenzo was seated next to Caterina, on her left, and Marco to Lorenzo’s left. During the meal there was little conversation. When the meal was over, Caterina began questioning Lorenzo about his profession.
“My husband tells me you are a merchant from Genoa,” said Caterina.
“Yes, Lady Caterina,” said Lorenzo. “We were on our way to the Fair of St. Remi, also known as the Cold Fair, in Troyes.”
“What do you trade there?”
“Spices for the most part. Sometimes silk, dyestuffs, jewelry. It has to be highly valuable, and lightweight, or it would be impossible to make a profit carrying it all the way to Troyes from Genoa. Buying or renting mules, feeding them, hiring porters and guards, paying tolls and taxes - it is an expensive proposition. Only luxury goods can justify it.”
“I see. What spices do you trade? And where do they come from?”
“Pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and many others. Most of them come from India, but some come from islands off to the east of India, we believe. The Levantine merchants we purchase them from are not very forthcoming on where they get the spices. It’s the same as someone with a gold mine. He isn’t going to tell you where it is.”
“I should think not. And what do you purchase at the fair in Troyes?”
“Cloth of Arras, Douai, Ghent, Ypres, Chalons, and many other towns is brought to the Champagne Fairs, and this is what we come here to buy. Cloths dyed green, or scarlet, or blue - such as your gown is made of, for instance - are the expensive cloths, compared to the plain cloth that is not dyed. We sell this cloth back in Genoa to drapers, or to other merchants.”
“That must be a bulkier load to carry home than you carried to Troyes.”
“It is. We need more pack animals on the trip home. Sometimes we don’t spend all of the money we make here, but have it paid to us in silver at another fair, or back in Genoa.”
“Why not have it paid to you in Troyes?”
“Because then we would have to carry it around with us, and merchants make a tempting target for bandits on the open road,” said Lorenzo. “So, we prefer not to carry any more silver than is absolutely necessary for food and lodging along the way.”
“And now you’ve been caught up in a conflict, my husband tells me.”
“Yes, My Lady,” said Lorenzo. “We are trying to resolve it peacefully. Baron Renard has told us of the dispute over who is the Count of Champagne, but we have no partisan interest in that issue. Our interest is only to trade at the Fair, pay the legitimate fees, and return home unmolested by the warring parties.”
“For our part,” said the baron, joining the conversation at last, “we would gladly have you trade freely at the Fair of St. Remi, if it were in our hands, as it ought to be. Until that is the case, we must take what actions we can to bring the illegitimate Regent to her senses. You are one of the levers with which we are applying pressure on her. Who knows, Count Erard may even reward you with greater wealth than the value of your spices, if things turn out well.”
“My Lord, I came here to trade. I want no political favors.”
“I am sorry for your situation, Lorenzo,” said Lady Caterina. “I will do what I can to make your stay here as pleasant as possible, under the circumstances.”
“Thank you, My Lady,” said Lorenzo.
“How would losing your freight affect your business?” asked the baron.
“My business would be ruined,” said Lorenzo. “My reputation also would be tarnished. That man you have locked up in a storage building is suffering because of my failure to protect him, and now a failure to pay him at the end of the journey. I am an independent merchant, in charge of my own caravan with my own goods. If you despoiled me of my goods, I would be left with no money, and no merchandise, after having spent the greater part of my wealth on this expedition. I would be reduced to a hired hand, having to start saving all over again. It took me five years as a junior partner in these Champagne caravans before I was able to set up as an independent merchant, leading my own caravan. And who will want me to lead their expedition, after a catastrophe such as this occurred under my leadership? To get even that work, I will probably have to agree to less compensation than other caravan leaders, to restore the senior partner’s faith in my value. As for a ransom, that would ruin my family.”
“Life is not easy for anyone,” said the baron. “It’s a hard world.”
“Yes,” said Lorenzo. “However, I don’t expect any of this to happen. My scout should be in Troyes by now, and the Warden of the Fair will certainly demand my release, with all of my people and all of my goods, as soon as he can get one of his officials here. That safe conduct is one of the main draws of the Champagne Fairs. They cannot afford to see it flouted.”
“I wouldn’t rely too much on that,” said the baron.
Piero rode north at a steady pace, keeping eyes and ears alert to any signs of being followed. It soon became clear that no one had followed him, the knights evidently content to have nabbed the merchant and all his goods. The road he was on led directly to Troyes, and was well traveled. Piero had made this journey before - it was familiar ground to him. A mile ahead the road wound west through a bit of forested land, then emerged into the plain in which Troyes was situated. The forest was not a place you wanted to find yourself alone in at night. Bandits of the commoner sort hid out there, waiting for the lonely and unwary traveler. He would be through to the other side before sundown, however.
Piero did not have a better friend in the world than Lorenzo. He would do anything to save him from his current predicament. His mind began wandering to the days of his youth. He and Lorenzo had grown up together, both learning the merchant trade. Piero’s father, Oberto, was a merchant, and Lorenzo had apprenticed himself to him. One day Piero would inherit his father’s business, but he never could stay interested in it. He was more interested in adventure, in hunting and fishing, than in sitting at his father’s side in a dimly lit room, learning the bookkeeping methods of the merchant’s business.
Lorenzo, Piero had learned, was looking for adventure of a different kind. He could think of nothing more romantic than foreign trade, the exchange of the goods of one region for those of another, through the medium of money - silver and gold. He looked forward to bargaining with some wizened merchant of the Levant for the silks and spices that had come, by desert caravan or seagoing dhow, from the fabled East. In turn, he would lead his own caravan over the majestic Alps, following the footsteps of Caesar. However, instead of bringing rapacious legions, interminable warfare, and unwanted overlordship, the intrepid merchant would bring the hand of friendship, life enhancing goods, and voluntary trade. Instead of conquest and plunder as a cultural ideal, trade.
Piero was brought back to present reality by the sound of a man’s voice calling out to him.
He had entered the forest without consciously realizing it. A man stood in front of him, with an ax in hand. Three other men stood off the path to the right, two with axes, one with a bow. Piero stopped.
“That’s right, friend,” said the man blocking his path, “don’t give us any trouble, if you know what’s good for you. Get down from your horse and hand over your silver.”
“I have nothing to give you, save this,” said Piero. He pulled a knife from his boot and threw it at the bowman, hitting him in the arm. Then he spurred his horse at the man in front of him, knocking him to the side, and galloped forward at full speed. One of the men threw an ax after him, but missed, and Piero was safely away.
As he sped forward, he saw on the path ahead two mounted men coming toward him at a canter. He slowed his own pace to a canter, but continued forward, trying to distinguish who or what the horsemen were, friend or foe. To go back the way he had come meant running into the bandits, now out for revenge as well as robbery. To go forward could mean a friendly encounter with travelers like himself, but it might also mean a fight, if they turned out to be unfriendly. The forest itself was too densely wooded to think of riding off to the side, in either direction. Finally, they came together and Piero saw they were knights.
“Good day,” said one of the knights. “You were riding hard a moment ago. What was the reason for your haste?”
“Four bandits accosted me back there,” said Piero. “I wounded one of them and made my escape.”
“That was well done, then,” said the knight. “This forest is infested with them. Now, if you will accompany us to Brial castle, you can rejoin your caravan.”
“What are you talking about? Who are you?”
“We are retainers of Renard, Baron of Brial. We were with Sir Hugh earlier today, when he shadowed your caravan for several miles. He sent the two of us ahead to this forest to close the door of escape, should any make it this far. By now he will have escorted your friends to Brial castle. We saw you scouting ahead for the caravan, the sole mounted man of the group, and have been expecting you.”
Piero pulled out his sword.
“There’s no need for any of that, now,” said the knight. “You have no shield or armor. Just come along peaceably -”
But Piero spurred his horse forward once more, slashing at the knight as he came even with him. The knight deflected the sword with his shield. At the same time, the other knight reached over from his horse and grabbed Piero, hauling him to the ground and landing heavily on top of him. Piero struggled to get out from under his attacker, but soon both knights were upon him and he was subdued.
His hands were bound with rope, and he was put back on his horse. One of the knights tethered Piero’s horse to his own, and they started for Brial castle.
The next morning, Lorenzo and Marco were allowed to go freely about the castle grounds. They visited Geoffroy, who was still confined but had been fed and was tolerably comfortable. They were not allowed to look in the storage shed holding their spices, which had a guard at its door. At the stables they saw their mules with hay and water enough to satisfy them.
On a post in the stables, Lorenzo saw several coils of rope hung on pegs. He grabbed one of them and secreted it under the bulky mantle he wore over his tunic.
“I don’t know if we’ll be able to do anything with this, but just in case,” he whispered to Marco.
As they came out, Lorenzo saw several scaling ladders piled up behind the stables. Continuing their tour, they approached the gatehouse through which they had entered the castle the day before.
“Good morning,” said the guard on duty.
“Good day to you,” said Lorenzo. “We’d like to go outside the castle for a while.”
“I’m afraid that’s not allowed,” said the guard. “In fact, if we see any of you outside the castle, we are authorized to shoot - and we have many crossbows on hand for the purpose. I respectfully advise you to stay within the castle walls.”
“I see. Is there any objection to our going up on the curtain wall?”
“That is allowed,” said the guard. “You will be watched, of course. Don’t try anything foolish. The walls are 40 feet high and a fall would certainly kill you.”
A few minutes later they entered one of the towers. Inside a stairway led up to the top of the wall. Ascending the stairs, they emerged from the tower onto the walkway. They were on the west wall, facing toward Troyes, although the fair town could not be seen at this distance. The top of the wall was crenellated, solid merlons alternating with gaps in the wall, called crenels. Looking out, they saw the dirt road along which they had come to Brial Castle. There was no one on it at the moment.
“I’m worried about Piero,” said Lorenzo. Shading his eyes with his hand, he searched the countryside for any sign of his friend. “Renard seemed quite calm after I mentioned Piero had escaped to Troyes, as if his mission had no chance of success. Has Piero been captured? Or worse? I think I must risk an escape, and make for Troyes myself. If I do, it will make things tough for you here. The baron may punish you for my escape. Still, I need someone here to keep watch over my spices.”
“Don’t worry about me, brother,” said Marco. “But you should at least wait one more day before attempting an escape. Piero should be here by tomorrow at the latest. Waiting one more day won’t do any harm.”
Lorenzo nodded agreement.
“Let’s walk along and see if there is a good spot to make an escape from up here. There are bound to be a few spots less well guarded than others.”
They walked northward, passing another tower, and drawing curious glances from the men on guard duty. Lorenzo noted that several of the guards were armed with crossbows, as the gatehouse guard had warned. Soon they were on the north wall of the castle, along which ran a river. The castle had been built alongside this river for defensive purposes, and as a decent source of fish. The north wall, consequently, had fewer towers along its length. Although the rest of the castle was guarded by the moat, that water was still. The river’s current, which was fairly strong here, was an additional defense against assault on the north wall.
They stopped midway between two towers and looked down over the wall. The river bank was right up against the wall, and fell at a moderate angle down to the water line. There were some large rock outcroppings on both sides of the river, as well as smaller ones midstream. A few lonely trees dotted the other side, as well, but not enough to provide cover for anyone assaulting the castle.
“The tower guards can still see us here, or dangling over the wall,” said Marco. “Not to mention the ones patrolling the walkway.”
“They can in the daylight,” said Lorenzo. “But not in the night.”
“But will they let you come up here at night?”
“Not likely. But there were scaling ladders behind the stables. I could use one of those to get up here at night.”
“First you’d have to get out of the donjon, then through the gatehouse of the inner wall, before you even got to scaling this outer wall.”
“I’m going to request we be allowed to stay with Geoffroy,” said Lorenzo. “Or, failing that, just visit him during the late afternoon, on some pretext, perhaps to share supper. Then we make the supper last into the darkness, and I’m off.”
“Your plan is full of risk, but if you are determined to make the attempt, I will do whatever I can to assist you,” said Marco.
“Since the top of the wall is crenellated,” said Lorenzo, “I have only to tie the rope off on the merlon, and lower myself down through the crenel, till I reach the river bank below. This rope is at least fifty feet long, so it will easily reach the ground from this height.”
“I know you’re a good swimmer, but that river’s current looks pretty strong.”
“I’ll get across it,” said Lorenzo.
Just then the piercing sound of laughter, clear and joyful, came to his ears. Lorenzo noticed some ladies on the other side of the river, upstream from where he and Marco were standing on the wall. The baroness, Caterina, was out with some of the other ladies of the castle, having a picnic. She was clapping her hands, looking at a small dog at the river’s edge, upstream from where the ladies were. It was barking at something in the water. As they watched, the dog slipped on the wet rocks beneath him and fell into the river. He started floating downstream with the current. He tried to paddle back to land, and Caterina, whose dog it evidently was, ran to the water’s edge and reached out to try to catch the dog as it came by. She lost her balance and fell into the water herself, floundering desperately as the current swept her downstream. It was clear she could not swim.
As Lorenzo and Marco watched in momentary shock, Caterina grabbed onto a small rock outcropping in midstream. It barely rose above the water, and was not big enough to sit or lay on. The river was too deep for her to stand up in. She was evidently going to be washed downstream, as soon as her strength gave out.
None of the tower guards were close enough to save her, if they were even aware of her peril. Only Lorenzo and Marco had a chance, as she was now very close to their location on the wall. To save her, Lorenzo would have to descend the wall right there, using the rope he had planned to use in his escape. This would reveal his illicit possession of the rope, and how he planned to use it, to one and all.
To save Caterina meant losing his own chance of escape.
He took out the rope and started tying it around the merlon. That done, he tossed the rest of the line down the side of the wall. He started over the wall.
“I’m going to alert the guards, brother,” said Marco. “They might shoot their crossbows at you before they realize what’s going on.”
“Never mind that!” said Lorenzo. “Stay here by the rope. I’ll need you to untie it as soon as I get to the bottom.”
With that Lorenzo went down the rope, with alarming speed. He simply slid down the last twenty feet, using his mantle to shield his hands from burning on the rope. He reached the ground, took off his mantle and tossed it on the ground. Next he tied the rope around his waist.
“Marco,” Lorenzo called up to his waiting brother. “Throw down the rope.”
Marco untied the rope from the merlon, and dropped it straight down to his brother. Lorenzo tied the rope around a suitable rock, then went upstream some distance and waded into the river. He began to swim, allowing the current to take him to where Caterina was holding on to the outcropping. He also held onto the outcropping, just below where Caterina held it. She flung her arms around Lorenzo’s neck. Seeing there were no rocks close enough to put them in danger, he pushed off toward the wall, with Caterina clinging to him. The rope pulled them quickly to the river bank. They were safely ashore, on the castle side of the river. Although there was enough bank to stand on where they were, at spots upstream and downstream the riverbank disappeared completely, and the water coursed directly against the castle wall. So, they could not just walk to one of the castle gates. They would have to cross to the other side of the river.
Caterina sat down on the riverbank shivering and exhausted. Lorenzo retrieved his mantle and wrapped it around her to warm her.
By this time two guards, alerted by the shouts of the other ladies, were running toward Marco. As they reached his location, they pulled out their crossbows and looked over the wall.
“The baron’s wife -” said Marco.
But he did not have time to finish. The guard to his right could not see Caterina, who was blocked from his view by Lorenzo, standing over her. And Lorenzo was holding a rope. It seemed clear to the guard that Lorenzo was making an escape attempt. The guard took aim at Lorenzo with his crossbow.
Marco tried to knock aside the guard’s crossbow, but his hand ended up in front of it just as the arrow was released. It pierced his hand and went halfway through. He fell down to his knees on the walkway, the arrow still lodged in his hand.
“My brother was saving the baron’s wife from drowning,” said Marco. “She fell in the river. He wasn’t trying to escape.” He clutched his hand in pain, blood dripping freely from the wound.
The guards now saw that the baron’s wife was indeed with Lorenzo on the river bank, and they set down their crossbows. Another guard arrived, and was quickly sent to get medical aid for Marco. Lorenzo was looking up to the top of the wall, concern for his brother showing in his face. Cupping his hands to his mouth, he called up.
“Marco, are you all right?”
“I’ll be all right, brother. Help the baron’s wife.”
Reassured, Lorenzo went back to work. Judging the distance across the river, and the strength of the current, Lorenzo decided he needed another coil of rope to reach the other side. Straight across was less than fifty feet, but with the current carrying him rapidly downstream, the distance the rope must cover was much longer. He called up to the guards on the wall.
“Get me another coil of rope down here,” he shouted. “And a knife to cut it with.”
One of the guards ran back to his tower to get a rope and knife. A few moments later, he was back. He dropped the rope, with the knife tied to it, down to Lorenzo. Lorenzo quickly cut off two ten-foot lengths of the rope, and set them aside. He tied the rest of the rope onto the end of the first rope, nearly doubling its length. Then he tied the end of it around his waist again.
“I’m going to swim to the other side and tie the rope off to that tree on the other side, My Lady,” said Lorenzo, pointing to the tree. “Then I’ll come back to this side. We’ll be able to pull ourselves along the rope to the other side with little danger.”
Caterina nodded, still too exhausted to speak.
Lorenzo put one of the ten-foot sections of rope inside his tunic, went as far upstream as the rope allowed, and struck out into the river. The current took him swiftly downstream as he swam across, but he made it to the other side. Walking back upstream till he reached the tree, he untied the rope from his body and tied it around the tree trunk. After a brief rest to catch his breath, he took out the ten-foot section of rope and looped it around the rope spanning the river, tying it off, such that it could slide freely along that rope. Thus prepared, Lorenzo mounted onto the looped rope as on a swing, suspending himself in the air. He then pulled himself along the rope, hand over hand, all the way across the river, above the water the whole way.
Reaching the other side, he walked over to where Caterina was resting.
“Whenever you feel you have the strength, My Lady,” said Lorenzo, “we can cross over.”
“I’m ready now,” she said.
Lorenzo secured Caterina to the river spanning rope with the other ten-foot section of rope, in the same way as he had done for himself.
“You saw how I crossed, My Lady? Just do it the same way. I’ll be right behind you. If you feel exhausted along the way, just stop and rest in place.”
They clambered onto the rope and headed over the river, Caterina first, Lorenzo right behind, and safely pulled themselves across. Caterina’s ordeal was over. Lorenzo’s ordeal promised to get worse.
They had been resting on flat ground above the river bank for some minutes when a few of Renard’s retainers arrived from the castle to escort them back in. Caterina’s dog, which had managed to paddle ashore somewhere downstream, joined them along the way, barking joyfully to be reunited with its master.
As they neared the gatehouse, Lorenzo saw three riders were approaching down the road to Brial. It was Piero, tethered to his captors.
Their last hope of alerting the Warden of the Fair was gone.
Caterina persisted in her argument with the baron.
“It is the honorable thing to do, My Lord. He saved my life.”
“And I have agreed to set them free, as you asked.”
“Setting them free without their goods is the same as turning them into beggars.”
“Such are the chances of war, My Lady.”
“Yes, My Lord, but you would bring honor to yourself if you show generosity to them, and restore their goods, as well as their freedom. All your men have been praising Lorenzo, and his brother Marco, for their actions today.”
“Those goods belong to Count Erard, now. If I return the goods to Lorenzo, Erard would expect me to make it up to him from my own stores. That is bad enough, in a time of war, when supplies are short already. What is far worse, though, is that Erard would see it as a sign of weakness. A weak baron will not get anywhere in this world.”
“But is it really weakness, My Lord? Is it not rather a sign of strength?”
Renard summoned the merchant and his brother, along with Geoffrey and the newly arrived Piero, to meet with him in the afternoon. He received them in the great hall, with his wife at his side, and his retainers in audience.
“How is your hand, Marco?” asked the baron. “That was an ugly wound you received from my guards.”
“It is doing well, My Lord,” said Marco. “Your physician cleaned and dressed the wound, and I am grateful for all the care I have received.”
“That is well,” said the baron. “As you have learned,” he continued, turning his attention to Lorenzo, “we never had any fear of your scout reaching Troyes. Sir Hugh is not one to stage a raid without planning for all contingencies.”
“I am relieved to get Piero back unharmed, at least,” said Lorenzo.
“As for what you did today, it leaves me in a dilemma,” said the baron. “You saved the baroness from drowning. You also were planning to escape, it seems, after I gave you permission to tour the inside of the castle unescorted. I assumed you would honor that trust by not making any such attempt.”
“I am sorry it displeased you, My Lord,” said Lorenzo. “But I was equally displeased, as a peaceable man of trade, to be ambushed and made a hostage to begin with.”
“Wars have always had civilian casualties, and always will,” said the baron. “In any event, the baroness interceded on your behalf, and persuaded me to be magnanimous.”
Lorenzo looked at Caterina, and his eyes conveyed his gratitude. She smiled in acknowledgment.
“Therefore, let it be known,” said the baron, speaking loud enough for all to hear, “that I release, without ransom, and together with all of his goods, Lorenzo, merchant of Genoa, and all of his men.”
The baron’s retainers roared their approval.
“Thank you, My Lord, and My Lady,” said Lorenzo.
Chuck Salvi lives and works in the Charlotte, NC area. He was born and raised in Michigan. He enjoys reading fiction of the romantic school, portraying man as he could be, and ought to be, e.g., the writings of Victor Hugo, Edmond Rostand, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. He writes in whatever spare time he can find, which isn't as much as he would like.