Francisa entered the house unseen through the scullery, the way she had left. All the occupants of the house had retired to their chambers long since. The only candle burning was in Francisa's own rooms, her nurse sitting vigil beside the tester bed. The fire had burned low upon the hearth, and only a few red embers remained aglow.
"Child, child, I've been so worried!" the nurse exclaimed as she rose to her feet and rushed to her charge.
"I am fine, Elsbet," Francisa assured the older woman. She stripped off her cloak and draped it over the small settee placed below the room's only window. A chill ran through her, and she shivered violently.
"Come, take off those wet clothes. You'll catch your death, child."
Francisa turned and walked towards her nurse, her confidante and companion, a substitute mother since her own had passed so many years ago. As the small light cast a feeble glow upon her charge, Elsbet gasped, taking in the faint blush of passion still lingering on Francisa's cheeks and breasts with disappointment and concern.
"You've been with him again," she accused in a querulous voice. Francisa remained silent, though she permitted a slight grin to spread her lips. "God's own truth, Francisa, he is the devil himself."
The slur wiped the smile from her face. "He is kind and gentle..."
"Gentle," the nurse scoffed. "Then what is that wound on your throat?"
Francisa raised a hand to her neck in an attempt to hide the evidence of Nicholas' love. Elsbet would have none of it, and roughly pulled the slender hand aside. Bringing the candle flame close to Francisa's throat, she studied the twin wounds. The bleeding had stopped and small scabs had formed, but Francisa flinched back from the nurse's probing fingers.
"Oh, child, don't you see? He will kill you."
"No! We are in love. He would never harm me," she protested, defending her lover. As Elsbet opened her mouth to continue the argument, Francisa held up her hands wearily. "Please, spare me this night. I am cold and tired and would soon see my bed."
Elsbet met Francisa's challenging gaze and backed down, as she had done with countless arguments, though the tide often turned her way with such a strategy. She must win this round, for the victory would mean more than words, it would mean the girl's life. Elsbet was not Francisa's keeper, but as the woman who had reared her as if she were her very own child, she just cared for her quite deeply. "I do not wish to see you harmed," Elsbet replied in a subdued voice. "But we will speak of this no more tonight."
Her own challenge issued, Elsbet assisted Francisa with her brief toilette in near silence. She spread the heavy bed curtains aside and Francisa climbed onto the high tester bed. Elsbet smoothed the eiderdown coverlet up to the younger woman's chin, then bent to bestow a small kiss on her forehead. She lifted the candle from the low night stand, its flickering glow casting her face in more shadow than light.
"Sleep well, 'Cisa, pleasant dreams."
As the chamber door closed behind the nurse, Francisa whispered into the darkness, "Oh, they will be. Of that I may be certain."
The two women had had a heated argument the very next night. Elsbet had physically detained her charge from running to the arms of her lover, but only barely in time. Threatening to have Francisa sent away to the nunnery stunned the younger woman into a temporary submission, but Elsbet was not fooled. She knew Francisa would take the first opportunity to fly to her mysterious stranger. She wished for the strong presence of Francisa's father, a man of great stature and assuredness, but feared he would not be home in time to prevent this tragedy. Elsbet must take the responsibility upon herself to prevent the tragedy she felt was brewing. A few loyal servants remained for Elsbet to call upon for assistance, but Francisa would listen to none of them. Even Elsbet had trouble controlling the head-strong young woman, and she had all but been a substitute mother. Elsbet sighed. It would be a long fortnight before the message would reach Francisa's father, and likely another fortnight before he could find his way home - if he even decided that this incident warranted his return from a lucrative journey.
In the days that followed, Elsbet contrived to be at hand at all times, whether Francisa walked among the barren fruit trees, or did crewel work by the fire. There were few moments the young woman could call her own. She grew frantic that Nicholas would tire of her absence and search out another woman to take her place. She had to find some way to leave the house. A plan was born of desperation, but the timing would need to be exquisite. Patience was in short supply, but Francisa would bide her time for the perfect moment for escape. Just after midnight on the fifth day since the confrontation between the nurse and her charge, Francisa rose from bed, fully dressed in her warmest travelling clothes, a quilted gown of velvet and brocade. She cursed her lack of foresight; she should have ferreted away a uniform of the yeoman of the guard. It would have made the trip so much easier. Yet, there was no help for it now, and the jewels sewn into her undergown would aid her in her new adventures. Francisa had not permitted Elsbet into her chambers, calling out that she was not in need of aid from someone who cared so little for her well-being or happiness. She felt a twinge of guilt and doubt in speaking to her closest friend in such a manner, but Nicholas weighed heavily on her mind. All would be put to rights once she saw her knight.
It was Elsbet's habit to see Francisa to bed, then make a survey of the grounds along with one of the guardsmen. Then she would settle herself in her chambers to say her nightly prayers. Francisa knew Elsbet would be long asleep at midnight, though she had assigned two guardsmen to patrol the grounds each half hour. Francisa had taken note of their schedule very carefully. Watching from her high vantage point, she saw one of the guards walk by and stop below her window. He looked up, and Francisa quickly faded back into the darkness of her chambers, glad she had not lit even one small candle.
Francisa bided her time, knowing that the guard would soon be fighting off sleep, yet succumb as he had done each morning at this time. She had listened to Elsbet stress the importance of vigilance, but the young soldiers had merely chuckled as soon as the nurse had turned away. Yet they knew the folly of disobeying her orders outright; they must at least give every appearance of deference to the nominal head of the household while the rightful lord was away. However, that did not mean standing a full day's watch or doing a hard day's labor without a decent night's sleep. After all, these were nothing but womanly worries.
Francisa chewed on her fingernail as she watched the young guard head off for his favorite spot against the low stone wall that surrounded the manor. He settled down and, minutes later, his body posture told Francisa that he had finally drifted into a deep sleep. Another minute and she would be able to walk right past him and into her lover's arms. The only part of her plan she had no control whatsoever over was Nicholas, and whether he would be waiting for her. She had had only one glimpse of him in the past week; she had put a candle on the sill, the signal prearranged between them and used successfully many times, but he had heard her gasp of fear from the window and retreated before any member of the household spied his presence. Her most fervent wish was that he had also heard her whisper "glade" before he had vanished into the trees.
Tying the bedclothes together into a rope had come to her in an inspired burst of creativity. She fastened one end to a post of the heavy tester bed, and threw the other out the window. It fell far short of the ground, but that did not deter Francisa. The cloth rope only needed to reach as far as the limb of the old oak tree that spread out over the kitchen. Once on the sturdy branch, Francisa would have little trouble climbing to the ground, her childhood memories a steady guide to the hand and footholds necessary to reach the ground safely.
Standing on the small bench beneath the window, Francisa climbed out and sat on the sill to get her bearings. The ground looked so far away. Resolutely raising her eyes to the sky, she stepped off into the blackness of a moonless night and hung on to the tied-off sheets with a tenacious grip that belied her age and slight build. After a slow, hand-over-hand descent, her booted feet touched the sere branch of the old oak, and she breathed a sigh of relief. That relief was short-lived, as one of her feet slipped on a patch of ice that clung to the wood. She caught herself against the rough trunk, skinning the tender flesh of her hands and cheek. Droplets of blood welled up in the cuts, but the bleeding soon came to a halt, staunched by the cold night air. Somehow the climb had seemed so much easier when she was a girl.
Francisa peeked around the trunk of the tree to take a worried look at the guard. He had stirred restlessly, but he did not awaken. Searching her memory for the path to the ground, Francisa proceeded more cautiously, checking each foothold for ice before committing her full weight. After nearly a quarter hour, her feet finally came to rest on the frozen ground. Glancing in both directions, her eyes searching in the smothering darkness, she quickly darted from her spot beneath the tree, the slit skirts of her heavy tabard pulled out of her way. She ran as far as was prudent, then crept past the young man sleeping directly in her path. He mumbled to himself and huddled more deeply in his cloak, but Francisa passed him as quietly as possible, and without incident.
Her feet flew along the familiar path through the barren orchards and into the forest beyond. She was far enough from the house to chance a cry of attention, so she called her lover's name. The first attempt came out as no more than a sharp whisper, yet she immediately sensed a presence.
"Nicholas?" she called again, her voice gaining strength and confidence.
She turned in the darkness, seeking him out, and collided with a solid object. Francisa started, a gasp of fear escaping her lips, and would have fallen away had Nicholas not gripped her with strong hands.
"Here," was the reply, close to her ear.
"I need to see you."
"One moment, Francisa. Let me guide you to a safer place."
He took her hand in his and led her to a secluded glade surrounded on all sides by trees and low bushes. Here, a lantern burned, bathing the frozen ground in a circle of golden light. His face was still lost in shadow, the lantern-light too weak to cast more than a pale glow above the hem of his cloak. She bent to retrieve it, but his hands around her waist stopped the movement.
He pulled her to him with a roughness to which the young woman was unaccustomed, and growled deep within his chest. Francisa felt a wetness against her cheek, then the softness of his lips. With a start, she realized he was tasting the blood that had dried on her face. She stiffened and tried to pull away, but his grip was like iron.
"Please," she whispered, "not like this."
A few moments passed between them in silence, but Nicholas withdrew at last, giving her cheek one last pass with his tongue and pressing his chill lips against her forehead in apology. The knight stepped away hastily and turned his back to Francisa. Trembling from the cold and with the realization that her plans had come to fruition, Francisa stood undecided for several minutes.
"God's own truth, Francisa, he is the devil himself. He will kill you."
Strangely, the memory of her nurse's voice, thick with dire threats and warnings, lifted the veil of uncertainty from her mind. She found her resolve once again. Lifting the lantern from her feet to eye-level, she closed the distance between them. The frozen grass crunched loudly beneath her light steps and seemed to echo within the copse of trees. Hearing her approach, Nicholas turned, meeting her gaze. His eyes were haunted with a deep sadness and remorse, but also alight with a savage hunger or desire. He stepped backwards, no sound produced by his movements, until his retreat was halted by the gnarled trunk of an ancient chestnut tree. The knight held up his hands, palms outward, silently asking that Francisa halt her approach. She did not understand his request, and was upset by the rebuff, but she came to a stop an arm's length away.
They studied each other intently in the lantern light, blue eyes meeting green, as two currents of the same river blend. Nicholas saw a young woman, beautiful, in the first blush of womanhood, with an active intelligence not seen in many women of this era. Francisa saw a handsome man, an enigma, equal parts predator, seducer and protector, a knight who would whisk her away to great adventures and lift the dreary burden of daily life from her shoulders. That these descriptions were more simple and yet more complex than any mere words did not escape their notice, but they were lost in the liquid gaze that locked their souls together. He had tasted the truth of her love in her blood, and she had learned trust when he kept the beast from killing her. What was there left to say when mere words could not express the depth of passion or the enormity of their love and desire?
There were no words, only actions.
Francisa slung the heavy lantern on a low-hanging branch. The golden glow burnished Nicholas' hair to a fine copper and lit his eyes with a reddish fire. She moved slowly into his arms, giving him the chance to refuse her once again, but he was caught up in the moment, as was she. Her hair gleamed with iridescent highlights in the lamplight, like the wing of a raven; the warmth of her flesh and the scent of her blood held the promise of ecstasy. Even as he clasped her within his embrace, she tilted back her head and invited his lips to take hers. Holding the hunger in check took a supreme effort, but he managed to cage the beast. Francisa was a delicate beauty, one he wanted with what remained of his soul, and he would not take her as some whore against the rough bark of a tree.
Pushing her away gently, yet still keeping a hand on her arm, he looked into her eyes. "This is not the way it should be between us, Francisa."
"I am here for you, Nicholas," she replied, confused.
"Are you? Do you know what I am?" he asked harshly.
"You are my love."
He dropped his hand from her flesh as though burned. "I am a creature of the night, Francisa. If you truly come to me, you will share my fate. I will not make the decision for you."
"I am here for you," she repeated after a moment of serious consideration. She thought about her father, Elsbet, and all that she was leaving behind with this choice. Yet, the decision had already been made by her heart, by her soul. She would not turn away. "I understand what that means, and I wish to embrace it."
He stared at her for many heartbeats, weighing her sincerity, then he lifted a hand and offered it to her. "Come, then. Let me see to your comfort. I have rooms nearby."
She nodded and allowed him to guide her past the trees and into the clearing beyond. There was neither a horse nor a carriage. She wondered how they would reach the inn ahead of the sunrise she knew to be inimical to Nicholas and all his kind. He did not appear concerned at the lack of conveyance, and simply smiled when she asked how they should travel.
"Will you trust me yet again, Francisa?"
"Of course, signore," she responded readily.
Wrapping an arm tightly about her waist, he murmured a few words of warning, then their feet lifted from the frozen ground and they were airborne. Francisa gave a gasp of fright and buried her face against his shoulder, yet she was easily coaxed out of hiding by his amused laughter. Wonder replaced fear as they flew over the dark, squat shapes that could only be the houses and barns of her nearest neighbors. The glimmery surface of the Arno, deep and silent as it bisected the city, north from south, passed far below them. They were over the heart of the city in a matter of moments. Francisa could make out the Ponte Vecchio, where meats were sold by day, and the Bargello, with a tower so high she could see it from her window on a clear day. Directly below them, but for merely a moment, was the pitched roof of Santa Croce. In the distance, the eight-sided Duomo rose above the landscape; Francisa now understood why everyone touted signore Brunelleschi's cathedral as the engineering marvel of the age.
Following the Affrico, a minor tributary of the Arno, led the couple towards the Appenines, but Nicholas maneuvered safely through the narrow pass only a short time later. The flight was not overly long, and Francisa uttered a sigh of disappointment as Nicholas set them down just beyond the stables of the inn he had chosen for their tryst. She understood now the great appeal and wonder over Leonardo's flyng machines.
"Where are we?" she whispered shakily.
"An inn outside Faenza," he replied casually.
Her eyes widened in disbelief. "That is far, far from Firenze, Nicholas."
"So it is, Francisa, but not beyond my range." He smiled down at her, seemingly reading her earlier thoughts. "Leonardo's machines are but the promise of flight; I have shown you the reality this night."
She could do naught but agree as Francisa yet felt the effects of their headlong journey. He waited until her legs had stopped their trembling, then took her by the hand and led her to the door of the inn.
Although the hour was late, a few men ringed the fire, goblets of the local wine in their hands and on the trestle tables that dominated the greatroom. The innkeeper bustled over, taking Francisa's cloak and Nicholas' mantle and throwing them over his arm before leading them to a table by the roaring open hearth. The expensive cut of their garments and the shiny gold of the Florins Nicholas spilled from his purse marked the couple as one of means. Their needs would be met, whatever the hour. Nicholas called for wine, and the serving maid sauntered over, two goblets balanced precariously on a pewter tray she held with practiced ease. Her chemise was sheer and low-cut, and her overgown was tucked up to reveal a shapely ankle and bare feet.
She leaned forward to place the goblets on the table, offering more than just the wine. "Is there another service I may do for you, my lord?" she asked in a husky voice.
Nicholas had no time to answer, for the innkeeper returned in time to witness the offer. He called sharply, "Carina, cease your prattling, and see to these good people's rooms." Giacomo shooed his daughter off towards the stairs at the back of the greatroom, and took over serving Nicholas and Francisa himself. "Forgive my daughter, signori, but we do not receive such fine guests everyday. Your rooms will be ready in a few moments. Take this wine to warm you."
"Thank you, good innkeeper, you are most kind in your praise," Francisa told the jolly man.
He blustered about, and wiped his hands on his apron, then turned to attend to his other customers. A dish of hard boiled eggs was set on the table, and Francisa chose one for herself. Nicholas took it from her hands and peeled the shell for her, presenting it like a gift. She was heartened by this attention, however small it might have been, and chewed thoughtfully on the tender flesh of the egg.
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