Chapter 2 Love-at-Arms by Rafael Sabatini

ON A MOUNTAIN PATH
“Armed men, my lords!” had been Fanfulla's cry. “We are betrayed!”

They looked at one another with stern eyes, and with that grimness that takes the place which fear would hold in meaner souls.

Then Aquila rose slowly to his feet, and with him rose the others, looking to their weapons. He softly breathed a name—“Masuccio Torri.”

“Aye,” cried Lodi bitterly, “would that we had heeded your warning! Masuccio it will be, and at his heels his fifty mercenaries.”

“Not less, I'll swear, by the sound of them,” said Ferrabraccio. “And we but six, without our harness.”

“Seven,” the Count laconically amended, resuming his hat and loosening his sword in its scabbard.

“Not so, my lord,” exclaimed Lodi, laying a hand upon the Count's arm. “You must not stay with us. You are our only hope—the only hope of Babbiano. If we are indeed betrayed—though by what infernal means I know not—and they have knowledge that six traitors met here to-night to conspire against the throne of Gian Maria, at least, I'll swear, it is not known that you were to have met us. His Highness may conjecture, but he cannot know for sure, and if you but escape, all may yet he well—saving with us, who matter not. Go, my lord! Remember your promise to seek at your cousin's hand the gonfalon, and may God and His blessed Saints prosper your Excellency.”

The old man caught the young man's hand, and bending his head until his face was hidden in his long white hair, he imprinted a kiss of fealty upon it. But Aquila was not so easily to be dismissed.

“Where are your horses?” he demanded.

“Tethered at the back. But who would dare ride them at night adown this precipice?”

“I dare for one,” answered the young man steadily, “and so shall you all dare. A broken neck is the worst that can befall us, and I would as lief break mine on the rocks of Sant' Angelo as have it broken by the executioner of Babbiano.”

“Bravely said, by the Virgin!” roared Ferrabraccio. “To horse, sirs!”

“But the only way is the way by which they come,” Fanfulla remonstrated. “The rest is sheer cliff.”

“Why, then, my sweet seducer, we'll go to meet them,” rejoined Ferrabraccio gaily. “They are on foot, and we'll sweep over them like a mountain torrent. Come, sirs, hasten! They draw nigh.”

“We have but six horses, and we are seven,” another objected.

“I have no horse,” said Francesco, “I'll follow you afoot.”

“What?” cried Ferrabraccio, who seemed now to have assumed command of the enterprise. “Let our St. Michael bring up the rear! No, no. You, Da Lodi, you are too old for this work.”

“Too old?” blazed the old man, drawing himself up to the full height of what was still a very imposing figure, and his eyes seeming to take fire at this reflection upon his knightly worth. “Were the season other, Ferrabraccio, I could crave leave to show you how much of youth there is still left in me. But——” He paused. His angry eyes had alighted upon the Count, who stood waiting by the door, and the whole expression of his countenance changed. “You are right, Ferrabraccio, I grow old indeed—a dotard. Take you my horse, and begone.”

“But you?” quoth the Count solicitously.

“I shall remain. If you do your duty well by those hirelings they will not trouble me. It will not occur to them that one was left behind. They will think only of following you after you have cut through them. Go, go, sirs, or all is lost.”

They obeyed him now with a rush that seemed almost to partake of panic. In a frenzied haste Fanfulla and another tore the tetherings loose, and a moment later they were all mounted and ready for that fearful ride. The night was dark, yet not too dark. The sky was cloudless and thickly starred, whilst a minguant moon helped to illumine the way by which they were to go. But on that broken and uncertain mountain path the shadows lay thickly enough to make their venture desperate.

Ferrabraccio claiming a better knowledge than his comrades of the way, placed himself at their head, with the Count beside him. Behind them, two by two, came the four others. They stood on a small ledge in the shadow of the great cliff that loomed on their left. Thence the mountain-side might be scanned—as well as in such a light it was to be discerned. The tramp of feet had now grown louder and nearer, and with it came the clank of armour. In front of them lay the path which sloped, for a hundred yards or more, to the first corner. Below them, on the right, the path again appeared at the point where it jutted out for some half-dozen yards in its zigzag course, and there Fanfulla caught the gleam of steel, reflecting the feeble moonlight. He drew Ferrabraccio's attention to it, and that stout warrior at once gave the word to start. But Francesco interposed.

“If we do so,” he objected, “we shall come upon them past the corner, and at that corner we shall be forced to slacken speed to avoid being carried over the edge of the cliff. Besides, in such a strait our horses may fail us, and refuse the ground. In any event, we shall not descend upon them with the same force as we shall carry if we wait until they come into a straight line with us. The shadows here will screen us from them meanwhile.”

“You are right, Lord Count. We will wait,” was the ready answer. And what time they waited he grumbled lustily.

“To be caught in such a trap as this! Body of Satan! It was a madness to have met in a hut with but one approach.”

“We might perhaps have retreated down the cliff behind,” said Francesco.

“We might indeed—had we been sparrows or mountain cats. But being men, the way we go is the only way—and a mighty bad way it is. I should like to be buried at Sant' Angelo, Lord Count,” he continued whimsically. “It will be conveniently near; for once I go over the mountain-side, I'll swear naught will stop me until I reach the valley—a parcel of broken bones.”

“Steady, my friends,” murmured the voice of Aquila. “They come.”

And round that fateful corner they were now swinging into view—a company in steel heads and bodies with partisan on shoulder. A moment they halted now, so that the waiting party almost deemed itself observed. But it soon became clear that the halt was to the end that the stragglers might come up. Masuccio was a man who took no chances; every knave of his fifty would he have before he ventured the assault.

“Now,” murmured the Count, tightening his hat upon his brow, so that it might the better mask his features. Then rising in his stirrups, and raising his sword on high, he let his voice be heard again. But no longer in a whisper. Like a trumpet-call it rang, echoed and re-echoed up the mountain-side.

“Forward! St. Michael and the Virgin!”

That mighty shout, followed as it was by a thunder of hooves, gave pause to the advancing mercenaries. Masuccio's voice was heard, calling to them to stand firm; bidding them kneel and ward the charge with their pikes; assuring them with curses that they had but to deal with half-dozen men. But the mountain echoes were delusive, and that thunder of descending hooves seemed to them not of a half-dozen but of a regiment. Despite Masuccio's imprecations the foremost turned, and in that moment the riders were upon them, through them and over them, like the mighty torrent of which Ferrabraccio had spoken.

A dozen Swiss went down beneath that onslaught, and another dozen that had been swept aside and over the precipice were half-way to the valley before that cavalcade met any check. Masuccio's remaining men strove lustily to stem this human cataract, now that they realised how small was the number of their assailants. They got their partisans to work, and for a few moments the battle raged hot upon that narrow way. The air was charged with the grind and ring of steel, the stamping of men and horses and the shrieks and curses of the maimed.

The Lord of Aquila, ever foremost, fought desperately on. Not only with his sword fought he, but with his horse as well. Rearing the beast on its hind legs, he would swing it round and let it descend where least it was expected, laying about him with his sword at the same time. In vain they sought to bring down his charger with their pikes; so swift and furious was his action, that before their design could be accomplished, he was upon those that meditated it, scattering them out of reach to save their skins.

In this ferocious manner he cleared a way before him, and luck served him so well that what blows were wildly aimed at him as he dashed by went wide of striking him. At last he was all but through the press, and but three men now fronted him. Again his charger reared, snorting, and pawing the air like a cat, and two of the three knaves before him fled incontinently aside. But the third, who was of braver stuff, dropped on one knee and presented his pike at the horse's belly. Francesco made a wild attempt to save the roan that had served him so gallantly, but he was too late. It came down to impale itself upon that waiting partisan. With a hideous scream the horse sank upon its slayer, crushing him beneath its mighty weight, and hurling its rider forward on to the ground. In an instant he was up and had turned, for all that he was half-stunned by his fall and weakened by the loss of blood from a pike-thrust in the shoulder—of which he had hitherto remained unconscious in the heat of battle. Two mercenaries were bearing down upon him—the same two that had been the last to fall back before him. He braced himself to meet them, thinking that his last hour was indeed come, when Fanfulla degli Arcipreti, who had followed him closely through the press, now descended upon his assailants from behind, and rode them down. Beside the Count he reined up, and stretched down his hand.

“Mount behind me, Excellency,” he urged him.

“There is not time,” answered Francesco, who discerned a half-dozen figures hurrying towards them. “I will cling to your stirrup-leather, thus. Now spur!” And without waiting for Fanfulla to obey him, he caught the horse a blow with the flat of his sword across the hams, which sent it bounding forward. Thus they continued now that perilous descent, Fanfulla riding, and the Count half-running, half-swinging from his stirrup. At last, when they had covered a half-mile in this fashion, and the going had grown easier, they halted that the Count might mount behind his companion, and as they now rode along at an easier pace Francesco realised that he and Fanfulla were the only two that had come through that ugly place. The gallant Ferrabraccio, hero of a hundred strenuous battles, had gone to the ignoble doom which half in jest he had prophesied himself. His horse had played him false at the outset of the charge, and taking fright it had veered aside despite his efforts to control it, until, losing its foothold, man and beast had gone hurtling over the cliff. Amerini, Fanfulla had seen slain, whilst the remaining two, being both unhorsed, would doubtless be the prisoners of Masuccio.

Some three miles beyond Sant' Angelo, Fanfulla's weary horse splashed across a ford of the Metauro, and thus, towards the second hour of night, they gained the territory of Urbino, where for the time they might hold themselves safe from all pursuit.