Home > Vittorio, The Vampire (New Tales of the Vampires #2)(6)

Vittorio, The Vampire (New Tales of the Vampires #2)(6)
Author: Anne Rice

Everything was still. Everyone was dead. Dead. I knew it. The courtyard was strewn with bodies.

I ran back into the chapel. I grabbed up the head of Bartola and the head of Matteo into my arms. I sat down and held them in my lap, and I sobbed.

They seemed still alive, these severed heads, their eyes flashing, and their lips even moving with hopeless attempts to speak. Oh, God! It was beyond all human endurance. I sobbed. I cursed.

I laid them side by side, these two heads in my lap, and I stroked their hair and stroked their cheeks and whispered comforting words to them, that God was close, God was with us, God would take care of us forever, that we were in Heaven. Oh, please, I beg you, God, I prayed in my soul, don't let them have the feeling and the consciousness which they still seem to possess. Oh, no, not such. I can't bear it. I cannot. No. Please.

At dawn, finally, when the sun poured arrogantly through the door of the chapel, when the fires had died away, when the birds sang as if nothing had happened, the innocent little heads of Bartola and Matteo were lifeless and still, and very obviously dead, and their immortal souls were gone from them, if they had not flown at the moment when the sword had severed these heads from the bodies.

I found my mother murdered in the courtyard. My father, covered with wounds on his hands and arms, as if he had grabbed at the very swords that struck him, lay dead on the stairs of the tower.

The work all around had been swift. Throats cut, and only here and there the evidence, as with my father, of a great struggle.

Nothing was stolen. My aunts, two dead in the far corner of the chapel, and two others in the yard, wore still all their rings and necklets and circlets about their hair. Not a jeweled button had been ripped away.

It was the same throughout the entire compound.

The horses were gone, the cattle had roamed into the woods, the fowl flown. I opened the little house full of my hunting falcons, took off their hoods and let them all go into the trees. There was no one to help me bury the dead.

By noon, I had dragged my family, one by one, to the crypt and tumbled them unceremoniously down the steps, and then laid them all out, side by side in the room, as best I could.

It had been a backbreaking task. I was near to fainting as I composed the limbs of each person, and last of all my father.

I knew that I could not do it for everyone else here in our compound. It was simply impossible. Besides, whatever had come might well come again, as I had been left alive, and there was a hooded demon man who had witnessed it, a vicious hooded assassin who had slaughtered two children pitilessly.

And whatever was the nature of this angel of death, this exquisite Ursula, with her barely tinted white cheeks and her long neck and sloping shoulders, I didn't know. She herself might come back to avenge the insult I had done her. I had to leave the mountain.

That these creatures were not anywhere around now I felt instinctively, both in my heart and from the wholesomeness of the warm and loving sun, but also because I had witnessed their flight, heard their whistles to one another and heard the ominous words of the demon man to the woman, Ursula, that she must hurry. No, these were things of the night.

So I had time to climb the highest tower and look at the country round.

I did. I confirmed that there was no one who could have seen the smoke of our few burning wooden floors and torched furniture. The nearest castle was a ruin, as I have said. The lower hamlets were long abandoned.

The nearest village of any size was a full day's walk, and I had to be off if I meant to get to any kind of hiding place by nightfall.

A thousand thoughts tormented me. I knew too many things. I was a boy; I could not even pass for a man! I had wealth in the Florentine banks but it was a week's ride from where I was! These were demons. Yet they had come into a church. Fra Diamonte had been struck dead. Only one thought finally was possible for me. Vendetta. I was going to get them. I was going to find them and get them. And if they couldn't come out by the light of day, then it would be by that means that I would get them! I would do it. For Bartola, for Matteo, for my father and mother, for the humblest child who had been taken from my mountain.

And they had taken the children. Yes, that they had done. I confirmed it before I left, for it was slow to dawn on me with all my concerns, but they had. There was not a corpse of a child on the place, only those boys of my age had been killed, but anything younger had been stolen away.

For what! For what horrors! I was beside myself.

I might have stood in the tower window, with clenched fist, consumed with anger and the vow for vendetta, if a welcome sight hadn't distracted me. Down in the closest valley, I saw three of my horses wandering about, aimlessly, as though wanting to be called home.

At least I should have one of my finest to ride, but I had to get moving. With a horse I might just reach a town by nightfall. I didn't know the land to the north. It was mountain country, but I had heard of a fair-sized town not too far away. I had to get there, for refuge, to think and to consult with a priest who had a brain in his head and knew demons.

My last task was ignominious and revolting to me, but I did it. I gathered up all the wealth I could carry. This meant that I retired first to my own room, as if this were an ordinary day, dressed myself in my best dark hunter's green silk and velvet, put on my high boots and took up my gloves, and then taking the leather bags which I could affix to my horse's saddle, I went down into the crypt and took from my parents and my aunts and uncles their very most treasured rings, necklaces and brooches, the buckles of gold and silver which had come from the Holy Land. God help me.

Then I filled my purse with all the gold ducats and florins I could find in my father's coffers, as if I were a thief, a very thief of the dead it seemed to me, and hefting these heavy leather bags, I went to get my mount, saddle him and bridle him and start off, a man of rank, with his weaponry, and his mink-edged cape, and a Florentine cap of green velvet, off into the forest.

Chapter Four

IN WHICH I COME UPON FURTHER MYSTERIES, SUFFER SEDUCTION AND CONDEMN MY SOUL TO BITTER VALOR

NOW, I was too full of rancor to be thinking straight, as I've already described, and surely you will understand this. But it wasn't smart of me to go riding through the woods of Tuscany dressed so richly, and by myself, because any woods in Italy was bound to have its bandits.

On the other hand, playing the poor scholar wouldn't have been the best choice either, it seemed to me.

I can't claim to have made a real decision. The desire for vengeance upon the demons that had destroyed us was the only central passion I could abide.

So there I was, riding steadily by mid-afternoon, trying to keep to the valley roads as I lost sight of our towers, trying not to cry anymore like a child, but being drawn off into the mountainous land over and over again.

My head was swimming. And the landscape gave me little time to think. Nothing could have been more forlorn.

I came within sight of two huge ruined castles very soon after my departure, copings and ramparts lost in the greedy forest, which made me mindful that these had been the holdings of old Lords who had been fool enough to resist the power of Milan or Florence. It was enough to make me doubt my sanity, enough to make me think that we had not been annihilated by demons but that common enemies had made the assault.

It was utterly grim to see their broken battlements looming against the otherwise cheerful and brilliant sky, and to come upon the overgrown fragments of villages with their tumbledown hovels and forgotten crossroads shrines in which stone Virgins or saints had sunk into spiderwebs and shadows.

When I did spy a high distant well-fortified town, I knew well it was Milanese and had no intention of going up there. I was lost!

As for the bandits, I only ran into one little ragged band, which I took on immediately with a deluge of chatter.

If anything, the little pack of idiots gave me some distraction. My blood ran as fast as my tongue:

"I'm riding in advance of a hundred men," I declared. "We search for a band of outlaws claiming to be fighting for Sforza when they're nothing but r**ists and thieves; you seen any of them? I have a florin for each of you if you can tell me anything. We mean to cut them down on sight. I'm tired. I'm sick of this." I tossed them some coins. They were off immediately.

But not before they let slip in talk of the country round that the nearest Florentine town was Santa Maddalana, which was two hours up ahead, and that it would close its gates at night, and nobody could talk his way into it.

I pretended to know all about that and to be on the way to a famous monastery that I knew lay farther north, which I couldn't possibly have reached, and then threw more money over my shoulder as I raced off, hollering out that they ought to ride on to meet the band coming behind who would pay them for their service.

I know they were debating all the time whether to kill me and take everything I had or not. It was a matter of stares and bluffs and fast talking and standing one's ground, and they were just utter ruffians, and somehow I got out of it.

I rode off as quickly as I could, left the main road and cut towards the slopes from which I could see in the far distance the vague outline of Santa Maddalana. A big town. I could see four massive towers all gathered near the obvious front gates, and several distinct church steeples.

I had hoped for something before this Santa Maddalana, something small, less fortified. But I couldn't remember names or was too lost now to go looking further.

The afternoon sunshine was brilliant but now at a slant. I had to make for Santa Maddalana.

When I reached the mountain proper on which this town was built, I went up sharply on the small paths used by the shepherds.

The light was fading fast. The forest was too thick to be safe so near a walled town. I cursed them that they didn't keep the mountain cleared, but then I had the safety of cover.

There were moments amid the deepening darkness when it seemed virtually impossible to reach the summit; the stars now lighted a glowing sapphirine sky, but that only made the venerable town in all its majesty seem ever more unattainable.

Finally the heedless night did plunge down amongst the thick trunks of the trees, and I was picking my way, counting on the instincts of my horse more than my own failing vision. The pale half-moon seemed in love with the clouds. The sky itself was nothing but bits and pieces thanks to the canopy of foliage above me.

I found myself praying to my father, as if he were safely with my guardian angels about me, and I think I believed in him and his presence more surely than I had ever believed in angels, saying, "Please, Father, help me get there. Help me get to safety, lest those demons render my vengeance impossible."

I gripped my sword hard. I reminded myself of the daggers I wore in my boots, in my sleeve, in my jacket and in my belt. I strained to see by the light of the sky, and had to trust my horse to pick his way through the thick tree trunks.

At moments I stopped very still. I heard no unusual sound. Who else would be fool enough to be out in the night of this forest? At some point very near the end of the journey, I found the main road, the forest thinned and then gave way to smooth fields and meadows, and I took the twists and turns at a gallop.

At last the town rose right up in front of us, as it happens when you reach the gates by a final turn, you seem to have been thrown up on the ground at the foot of a magic fortress - and I took a deep breath of thanks, no matter that the giant gates were firmly shut as if a hostile army were camped beneath it. This had to be my haven.

Of course the Watch, a sleepy soldier hollering down from above, wanted to know who I was.

Once again the effort of making up something good distracted me from wayward, near uncontrollable, images of the fiend Ursula and her severed arm, and the decapitated bodies of my brother and sister fallen on the chapel floor in mid-gesture.

I cried out, in a humble tone but with pretentious vocabulary, that I was a scholar in the employ of Cosimo de' Medici come on a search for books in Santa Maddalana, in particular old prayer books pertaining to the saints and appearances of the Blessed Virgin Mary in this district. What nonsense.

I had come, I declared, to visit the churches and schools and whatever old teachers the town might shelter, and to take back what I could purchase with good gold Florentine coin to my master in Florence.

"Yes, but your name, your name!" the soldier insisted as he opened the small lower gate only a crack, his lantern held high to inspect me. I knew I made a good picture on my horse.

"De' Bardi," I declared. "Antonio De' Bardi, kinsman of Cosimo," I said with fierce nerve, naming the family of Cosimo's wife because it was the only name that came into my head. "Look, kindly man, take this payment for me, have a good supper with your wife as my guests, here, I know it's late, I'm so tired!"

The gate was opened. I had to dismount to lead my horse with lowered head through it and into the echoing stone piazza right inside.

"What in the name of God," asked the Watchman, "were you doing in these woods after dark alone? Do you know the dangers? And so young? What is the Bardi these days that they let their secretaries go riding all over unescorted?" He pocketed the money. "Look at you, a mere child! Somebody could murder you for your buttons. What's the matter with you?"

This was an immense piazza, and I could see more than one street leading off. Good luck. But what if the demons were here too? I had no clue as to where such things might roost or hide! But I went on talking.

"It's all my fault. I got lost. Tell on me and you'll get me in trouble," I said. "Show me to the Albergo. I'm so tired. Here, take this, no, you must." I gave him more money "I got lost. I didn't listen. I'm about to faint. I need wine and supper and a bed. Here, good man, no, no, no, take more, I insist. The Bardi would not have it otherwise."

He ran out of pockets for the money, but managed somehow to stuff it in his shirt and then led me by torchlight to the Inn, banging on the door, and a sweet-faced old woman came down, grateful for the coins I thrust into her hand at once, to show me to a room.

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