“If only life were as simple as you think it’s going to be,” thought Tom, “it wouldn’t be nearly such fun. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be nearly as dangerous either.”
And at that precise moment it was the dangerous aspect of life rather than the fun aspect that Tom was experiencing - although he wasn’t quite sure which bit of it was more dangerous: the drop that had suddenly opened up beneath him or the animal that was at that moment banging its tusks a few feet above his head.
Goodness knows why the boar was banging its tusks against the trunk of a tree, but there it was - doing it. Maybe it was a case of sheer bad temper – after all, the creature had just been cheated of its quarry – which happened to be Tom. It was one of those curious reversals of roles of which life is full. At one moment, Tom had been the pursuer, hunting the wild boar, and yet the next moment one of his co-hunters had given a piercing whistle, Tom’s horse had reared, Tom had fallen off, and the wild boar had started chasing him.
It was just possible that the wild boar simply had poor eyesight and had mistaken the tree for Tom. In which case, thought Tom, as he watched large gobbets of bark flying off the tree in all directions, poor eyesight in wild boars was definitely something to be encouraged.
The more he thought about it, however, the more it seemed to Tom that the drop below him represented the most immediate danger. The small branch onto which Tom was pinning all his hopes of a future existence in this world was really more of a twig than a branch, and even that seemed to be in the process of coming loose from the ground out of which it was growing.
As for the ledge, onto which Tom had leapt, as he escaped the wild boar’s leading tusk, that was even now still tumbling down the cliff face as a shower of earth and stones. It had not, it appeared, been the right thing to leap onto…but then he hadn’t had much choice – or much time to choose.
Tom was, in every sense of the word, in the middle of a cliff- hanger.
At that moment, however, the danger diminished by 50%. A voice rang out:
“Sir Thomas! Sir Thomas!”
And the wild boar turned, without even saying “Excuse me!” to the tree, and charged off into the wood.
Tom tried to yell back but simply couldn’t find his vocal chords…his mind was too pre-occupied in considering whether or not the danger had really been reduced by 50%. True the wild boar had run off, but the danger from the drop below him was still 100%, since the twig onto which he was holding was now definitely severing forever its connection with Mother Earth.
“Sir Thomas!” It was the voice of his squire, John. “Where are you?”
“I’m here!” Tom almost yelled, but the awful fascination of watching the last root of the twig pulling itself free of earthly ties stopped the words in his throat. Or was it the loose earth falling from the root and filling his mouth that stopped the words? At all events the only thing he could say was:
“Mgmeurgh!” “Sir Thomas!”
“Here it goes…” thought Tom, watching the root, “Going…going…”
“Got you!” Squire John’s face had appeared over the cliff edge and his hand had grabbed Tom’s jerkin just as the last root came free, and Tom hung dangling from his squire’s fingers for what seemed like half an hour but was, in fact, half a second.
John’s other hand grabbed his wrist and Tom rammed his feet and hands against the cliff edge as the loose earth tumbled slowly down…down into the ravine.
In another 30 seconds, which felt like three hours, Tom had been hauled up to the comparative safety of the cliff edge, and Squire John was dusting him down, as a good squire should.
“The pleasures of boar-hunting are rather over-rated if you ask me, John,” Tom said. His squire grunted, and went off to find the horse.
It’s curious, thought Tom, as they rode back to the great castle of Bernabò Visconti, how you can get something you’ve always wanted, only to find out that maybe it wasn’t really what you wanted at all. Here he was, Sir Thomas English, a knight in the service of a great lord, riding with his squire, and yet nothing about being a knight was quite what he thought it was going to be…and, the more he thought about it, the more he wondered whether what he used to think was what he now wanted anyway.
The Visconti fortress loomed ahead of them, and he turned to his squire and said: “Do you really like boar-hunting, John?”
John shrugged. “Not that much,” he replied. “It has its moments.” “But…” said Tom.
“Where does it get us?” asked John, who was a bright lad. “Exactly!”
“Halfway down a cliff-face?” suggested John.
Tom leant across and cuffed him across the ears. John choked on a laugh. That was another thing Tom liked about his squire – his sense of humour.
They were now within sight of the guards, stationed outside the main gates of the Visconti stronghold. In a few minutes they would have to plunge into the gloomy depths of the palace of the great warlord of Milan. They would make their way to the great hall and then, doubtless, they would have to hang around for an hour or two until the great lord himself deigned to appear, and the dinner could commence.
“The food isn’t bad,” said Squire John, as if he were following Tom’s chain of thoughts.
“Yes but the place is so stuffy,” replied Tom.
“Well nobody dares say anything,” said John. He had a way of serving up the truth without any of the usual trimmings – no garnish, no stuffing, not even any gravy. Just plonked on your plate like a slab of raw meat.
“Well, would you?” asked Tom. “You never know what sort of a mood my lord Bernabò is going to be in.”
“Did you hear what he did to that funny looking chap with the long ears?” asked Squire John.
“The ambassador from my lord the Conte Verde? Yes, I know,” said Tom, “he said he was as ugly as a bloodhound, and he had him shut up overnight in the kennel with the other dogs. I believe it was a joke.”
“But they were my lord Bernabò’s Great Danes,” gasped Squire John. “And by the morning all that was left of him was his earring.”
“Some sense of humour, eh?” said Tom.
“I’ll tell you what,” said Squire John, lowering his voice even more, so that the guards couldn’t overhear, “my lord Bernabò may have a sense of humour but I don’t think I’ve laughed once since we’ve been here.”
“Exactly my point!” exclaimed Tom. “That’s why we’ve got to escape!”
Squire John looked a bit non-plussed. “Escape?…I didn’t know we were prisoners, Sir Thomas.”
“We’re not,” agreed Tom. “But my Lord Bernabò won’t take kindly to people spurning his hospitality. If he gets wind that we’re thinking of bunking off, he might turn ugly.”
“That won’t be hard,” said Squire John, although in fact the Lord Bernabò was proud of his good looks.
“In fact it’s ten to one he’d try and stop us,” said Tom. “Like how?”
“Like…er…cutting off our legs?”
“That would slow us down,” agreed Squire John.
“And the great plus is: we wouldn’t have to go boar hunting ever again,” added Tom.
“It’s over-rated anyway,” said his young companion, but he wasn’t laughing. In fact, as Tom looked across at him, he looked downright gloomy.
“What’s the matter? Don’t you want to get away?” asked Tom. “Yes yes…of course…everything you say is true about this place…”
“Ah! Don’t tell me! The lovely Jenny has her apron strings tied around your heart and you just don’t want to cut free?” said Tom.
Squire John went bright red. “No…not Jenny…though indeed she is truly lovely of course…”
“But only last Sunday you were ready to die for her!” exclaimed Tom.
“Indeed…I…er…” If Squire John could have turned an even brighter red, then he must have done. “But…I met someone…someone so beautiful…so charming…and…well…there it is…”
“And what is your new mistress’s name?” asked Tom.
Squire John looked round as if he were searching out a hiding-hole from which to escape his master’s queries. But he was duty-bound to reply.
“My lord…” he stumbled… “Her name is Beatrice.”
Suddenly all Tom’s cheery banter dried in his throat. As if to mark the moment, a cloud passed over the sun as Tom let out a low whistle.
“The young Lady Beatrice?” he asked. Squire John bit his lip and nodded.
“John…” Tom sighed. “It’s one thing to make eyes at a serving- girl but to make love to one of my Lord Bernabò’s own daughters…”
“She is only his natural daughter,” said John. “Legitimate or illegitimate - you’re playing with fire.”
“But what can I do?” asked John. “She’s told me she loves me…and…”
“That settles it,” said Tom, “the sooner we get out of here the…” but at that moment they came to the city gate, which also formed the outer entrance to the Visconti palace. Two guards grabbed their horses’ bridles and the chief held out his hand for their documents.
Everywhere you went in the domain of the Visconti, you had to have passports and paperwork ever at the ready. Innkeepers had to report each and every person who stayed in their inn. Bridge-keepers kept a record of whoever crossed the rivers. Gatekeepers noted the names of those that entered and left their town. The Lords of Milan knew who was where and when almost every hour of the day. And those, whose where- abouts they didn’t know, were soon sniffed out by the Visconti spies. And there were a lot of those.
“Every time I come into this place,” whispered Tom in English, so that the guards wouldn’t understand, “I feel like that poor fellow up there.” And he nodded up to the top of the gatehouse, where a man with his arms held up in horror was being swallowed by a serpent with a wolf’s head. The image was scored into the brickwork, and the man was painted blood red against a blue background. It was the emblem of the Visconti lords.
Squire John shuddered, as the guard returned their papers and nodded them in. Tom and his squire kicked their horses forward, and they were quickly swallowed up by the grim fortress.
They were honoured guests of the Lord of Milan. And they were trapped in his world like two flies in the jam.