Master of The Castle

**The latest piece as part of my Creative Writing module; a study in the historical fiction genre, specifically action/historical fiction. This is the unedited original, without cuts having been made to fit under the word limit.

 

The city state of Udine had known relative little peace in it’s time and had only persisted as a feature on the arid, Italian landscape through a practiced tolerance handed down through generations of citizens like a family helmet.

Such a city could spare little attention for the gouts of dust now blotting the low horizon like a shroud, cast up from the footfalls of many booted feet trudging off into the nearby countryside. In fact, for the average layman whose answer to the question of home was ‘Udine’, more consideration was due at this time their respective dinners than spent worrying over the noble’s insistence of a war of succession.

Yet for all their indifference it would be their like slaughtered in earnest to staunch the wounds of Udine’s independence; common flesh thrown by noble hands to the butchers yard.

A singular pair of eyes watched the retreating garrison, dispatched in answer to an impending assault.

Supposedly. High upon the battlements of Castello Fagagna overlooking the city, the figure sighed in retrospective scepticism. The wavering orange glow before the sunset cast the lines of his face in grim contrast but could not quite mask the silvery streaks flecking his temples.

Idle fingers plucked at the thick crop of dark hair that trimmed his chin and jawline, as he leaned forward against the nearest stone crenelation. His brow contracted under the duress of his current line of thinking as he was forced to consider, not for the first time, that the current circumstance was not exactly his game.

Hurried footfalls intruded upon his brooding, his hand slid instinctively towards the rondel dagger at his waist.

“Maestro Fiore? Are you up here?” The voice carried the familiar clipped intonations typical of Teutons, ever present even when evoking the gentler Italian tongue. His hand made to retract from the dagger’s hilt but something stayed the motion. Across the wide gap presented by the courtyard below, stood the curtain wall, built on ground a few metres down the slope from the bastion upon which they stood. As per his own instructions as newly appointed captain of the defences, the walls were to be manned by four men per twenty feet at any hour of the day.

Yet the low light glinted off more than his instructed number of helmed heads, all of which seemed to be moving as one along the parameter that led to the bastion parapets.

“We were tricked.” It was a simple statement, said without any trace of ire and cut to the quick the subject yet spoken by his latest protege, Peter Von Grunen, from where he stood at the top of the stairwell breathing heavily.

Fiore raised an arm, indicating the ensuing mass of men in answer to a questioning eye he felt bore into the back of his skull.

“Where?” Fiore kept to the point.

“They’re in the foyer, we don’t know how but they haven’t breached the-”

Steel sawed through air, crashing with a blast of sparks on the stone footing as Peter rolled to the side. The dagger was already to hand as Fiore pivoted on his left heel, leant on the right foot and extended outwards into the space a split second earlier occupied by Peter. The assailant had sprung from the stairwell and lashed out with a downward cut at his protege’s back, bit stone instead which left him over-extended as the wicked, thin blade took his left eye and gouged the grey matter beneath.

The man dropped like a puppet with its strings cut, tumbling back down the stairwell.

“Get downstairs, now.” Fiore pulled his protege to his feet and pursued the ungainly descent of the dead man down the spiral stairs.

A garbled cry and a meaty crash resounded in the close space from further down the steps. At the bottom of the stairs Fiore’s former victim lay broken in a heap, limbs twisted in grotesque angles. His body had collided with another of his band, presumably behind him only moments before who now lay on hands and knees in the doorway struggling to rise.

Fiore bent low near to the man’s side, the hand he placed upon the small of his shoulder almost tenderly, as if to console and with the other hand he relieved the man of his lifesblood in one quick motion.

A quick glance about the interior of the main hall confirmed it to be empty, whilst the carpet drank greedily of the crimson torrent reinvigorating the fading colours. Peter paid the mess little attention, he’d seen it before in the line of his master’s teachings whenever some cocksure peacock happened to require plucking. He closed and barred the inset oak door to the stairwell, sealing off the approach of those above.

Fiore set the pace, moving down the corridor. If the castle had been breached, the securest sanctum within was the war room and adjoining private chambers. It was the most probable place the others would have fled. Something in that last notion interrupted his gait and he paused, turning to look on Peter’s enquiring face.

“Peter, why had you sought me out on the parapets?”

Fiore overtopped his protege by a few inches, but Peter was stocky, stolidly built with arms corded in muscle. His large shoulders rolled in their sockets as he considered the peculiar importance his master placed in such an innocuous subject.

“I was told you were conducting an ordnance survey of the artillery, I came to help.”

“And whose idea was it that you assist me? I know you detest menial work.” Fiore’s smile was genial.

Peter grinned ruefully in turn. “Gaubert. Truth be told, I was glad to excuse myself of his pious droning.”

The smile sloughed off into his beard. “Where was he?”

“The dining hall, boring the buttocks off Duilio last I- what?” Fiore had redoubled his pace without a word, leaving Peter no choice but to follow.

Despite the speed at which he closed on the double doors, Fiore slowed to stop and pressed an ear near to the timbers. There was noise enough on the other side, voices clutched tight in low murmurs. Too many voices.

A curtain seemed to close behind Fiore’s eyes as he gave a short nod to his protege and the pair drew longswords, his face locked into a mask behind the beard. Yet the gentle elegance with which he pried the door open gave the impression he fully expected a lover to be on the other side, naked, flushed and demure.

The room was much as Peter had left it; spacious, drafty and arrayed with thick tables and matching benches. On the right side of the room a fire crackled menacing in the hearth. A figure stood close by, mantled in the dancing shadows and garbed in finery typical of landed Italian gentry.

His attire was in stark contrast to those crowded loosely about him, speaking in low but insistent voices. Their mutterings died the instant the door swung open and the entirety of the room’s attention focused on the new arrivals.

“Ah, Fiore D’ei Liberi. I see your.. Survey was expedient.” Gaubert took a tentative few steps forward, brushing past the men around him. Fiore counted. Four by the hearth, three more nearer the back of the room. They were outfitted in a motley assortment of armaments: mostly leather and chain; brigandines primarily with one or two concessions to plate. The thick-set man who had been talking to Gaubert wore the most plate, with a gorget protecting his throat. Condottieri.

Their weaponry was as unpredictable, yet none held anything two-handed only warhammers, arming swords, axes and an assortment of shields. Likely they predicted the close-spaced fighting would be an impediment for swinging larger weapons. Fiore indulged a private smile.

Those at the rear were hauling something across the floor between them. A pale face flashed between table-legs, a red ruin beneath the jawline weeping feebly.

Peter swore. “Du Hurensohn!

“I suppose it would be foolish to feign innocence any longer,” Gaubert simpered sheepishly, his eyes flicked to Duilio’s prone form and back, “not least because I hold the clear advantage.” His grin turned feral as more men poured out of a hatch on the opposite side of the room, a dozen at least.

Both sides eyed up the other whilst Peter seethed. The mercenaries took in his bulk with appreciative, wary glances but hardly deigned to look in the direction of the older man also holding a longsword.

“Besides,” Gaubert continued, clearly enjoying himself, “I’m sure Pope Urban wouldn’t hesitate to absolve my sin once his will is exercised, it is only a shame Federigo insisted on leading the garrison otherwise I would’ve severed all the heads of the entire resistance.”

“We were meant to die up there.” Fiore posed, only looking to solidify his conviction.

Gaubert looked mildly perturbed. “Indeed. I had hoped to kill the pair of you off, trusting your pride as a fencing master to overcome reason and drown in the men I orchestrated to take the battlements.”

The larger man wearing the gorget seemed to lose patience. Taking a stride to stand by Gaubert, he sized up Peter for a moment before shaking his head. “Well?” He growled, “Done flapping your pretty mouth yet?”

Gaubert’s eyes narrowed in distaste, but before he could respond Peter overrode him.

“Why?!” He thundered, “What on God’s earth do you hope to achieve by this? We could have held!”

“He’s from Burgundy.” Fiore’s toned remained measured, as if discussing guards with his protege back in the grounds over small-beer. “No doubt he has ties to the French court and more importantly, Philip of Alençon; the newly appointed Patriarch of Udine by the grace of His Holiness.”

The daggered grin faltered upon Gaubert’s lips for the smallest second. “As you say Maestro, I owe you at least that measure of truth.” A chuckle coloured his voice when he spoke again, “you’re not going to manage killing all of us and living past this day, either way.”

“And pray tell, what truth do you owe me of this?” Fiore took a quick glance at the men in the room shuffling impatiently, then fixed the noble with a peculiar stare. “These mercenaries are in your employ correct? With payment upon fulfillment, the usual condottieri contract?”

A small nod.

“Then we only need kill one.”

Comprehension crept upon Gaubert like a poison, the smug poise slipping like a tarred shroud. Before he could anticipate the first move, Fiore tapped Peter on the shoulder, clicking his fingers in the direction of the larger body of mercenaries.

Peter sprang to life like an overwound coil. He lunged low and took the first man straight in the gut with a foot of steel. Whilst the first lay mewling in a pile of slimy, blue ribbons Peter had already moved passed, using the momentum of retracting the long blade to pivot into a high slash at the second off to his left.

His longsword skated off the opponent’s buckler, hastily raised and leaving the lower half exposed to his kick at the knee that took the man’s strength. He fell sideways, Peter finishing the fallen victim with a single thrust through the breast.

By this time the rest of the band had gathered their wits, weapons raised, they maneuvered through the tables towards Peter. He parried a cut, returning with one, two strokes, knocking the hammer away and laying open a thigh.

“Fools! Protect me or you don’t get paid!” Gaubert cried, backing off. The men paused, looking at one another and at their captain.

Fiore lunged, but kept his eye on the captain. Instinctively the larger man flinched back, only aware of the deception when the mercenary to his left emitted a gargled cry. Fiore’s longsword retracted, leaving a flapping rent in the man’s throat.

The mercenaries on the side of the room nearest Peter changed course, heading to the defence of their investment. Peter caught their movements, disengaged from his current opponent with a wild swing then put his shoulder to the nearest table. With a grunt, he gave an almighty shove that sent the table careening in the next in the row, which collided with the next, and the next and creating a solid barrier. The quickest of the bunch got caught between two tables, his hips cracking with a strangled scream.

Wasting no time, Fiore closed with the captain. He stood straddling the path to Gaubert and spat contemptibly, readying his shield. He swung suddenly but without commitment, testing his opponent. The shield caught the strike, the captain’s other arm swing overhead with his sword in response. Fiore merely sidestepped and gave the larger man his most patronizing smile.

The tangled brows knotted in a scowl, and he followed cut with a sideswipe, hoping to catch Fiore’s exposed torso. Fiore caught the attack low on his blade and flashed the pommel upwards, blood and cartilage spewing from where the nose once sat, then retreated a few feet.

With a nasal bellow, the captain’s temper broke and he charged. Mistakenly, some assume the primary importance of strength when using a longsword. True enough, a measure of physique is needed to wield the weapon. But only with speed can the steel be made to sing.

Fiore caught the brutal strike, binding the blades. Twisting the weapons to the right, his body pivoting around fully and disengaging his longsword, he passed the man’s charge and under his guard.

Carried by the momentum, he spun again and cleaved downwards. The captain’s front was encased with plating, but the back his brigantine was softer canvas. The longsword laid open the raw meat of his back as the bellow devolved into a howl, his knees giving way and arms frozen in a rictus.

He dispatched the last two grunts with a quick flourish as they stood trying to protect Gaubert. The noble tripped in blind panic over their prone limbs in his haste to back away from Fiore and tumbled head first into the hearth.

With a shriek Gaubert backed out of the fire, his delicate silks aflame at the cuffs. He twisted on the spot as he clambered to his feet and darted away from the hearth. Fiore simply lifted his longsword perpendicular to the flooring and watched as the nobleman skewered himself on the point. In his hysteria, Gaubert’s legs continued to push the blade deeper into his sternum, only realizing his mortal error when the hot blood spilled over his groin.

Wordlessly, he locked eyes with Fiore before toppling sideways, the sword slipping free.

Fiore turned slowly to watch the mercenaries scurry away, wide eyed glances flicking back in his direction.

Peter rested a foot on the table and breathed heavily, his eye on Gaubert’s body.

“Fools rush in..?” He said, glancing at Fiore.

“Please, don’t.”

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