Strangers on the mountain

FictionIssue OneIssues

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By Kirsty Seebeck

The boy rested against a sun-warmed rock, watching the sheep browse through the scrubby grass, as early summer insects hummed and chirped around him. The lambs were older now; soon it would be time to shear them and sell the fine wool. His father had said that he could come to the market this year. Even though his hands were not yet strong enough to handle the heavy metal shears, he could still watch and learn how he would one day bargain with the traders for the best price. It would be his first visit to the town, and he dreamed lazily of what he might see there – soldiers, musicians, noblemen – and perhaps, if his father was feeling generous, he might get a coin or two. He would buy a pie, he decided, and if he had enough left over he would look for a ribbon for his little sister’s hair.

Faintly at first, through his daydream, a new sound reached his ears. Men’s voices and heavy footfalls were approaching from beyond the rise of the hill. The sheep, startled from their drowsy grazing, jostled each other clumsily away from the unexpected noise. Scrambling to his feet the boy followed them downhill – they were sure-footed enough on the dry ground but he wanted to watch that they kept safe on the wet, lichen-covered rocks of the stream. God help him if one of them slipped and was hurt; no chance of anything but a beating from his father if that happened. He glanced up at the mule path in anticipation of the visitors. He grinned to himself – it was about time something happened.

A black horse came into view, its rider wearing a bright striped cloak of red and green. Another man, tall and bulky and clothed in simpler garb, followed on foot. As they neared him, the boy took a step back. He had only seen one or two horses in his life, and he had forgotten quite how big they were. The rider pulled to a stop in front of him, the huge animal throwing a cool shadow. Hot breath puffed from its nostrils and its skin twitched irritably as insects bit enthusiastically on its sweaty neck.

‘Well?’ said the man, ‘what are you waiting for? Are you touched, or just stupid?’ The stranger’s eyes narrowed with impatience and his wide mouth curled downwards.

The boy felt a sudden lurch in his stomach, his previous excitement at the prospect of visitors replaced with an inexplicable fear. ‘P-pardon, sir,’ he stammered, wondering if there were any point in trying to run away, ‘is there something you want me to do?’

‘Hold the reins so I can dismount, idiot!’ commanded the rider. The boy reached hesitantly towards the horse’s head and made a clumsy grab for the hanging reins. The big animal whinnied and tossed its head out of his reach, then took a step backwards and lost its footing for a moment on the loose shingle. As the man swore and pulled the horse to rights, his cloak slipped to reveal what looked like a deep gash on his forearm, fresh blood glistening through his torn sleeve.

He felt a sharp and sudden pinch as rough fingers grasped his ear. His attention fully occupied by trying to keep out of the way of the big horse and its injured rider, he had not noticed that the other man had slipped around to stand beside him.

‘Think he might be a bit simple, my lord,’ the man sneered, the stench of his stale sweat and breath like a cesspit setting the boy’s stomach to roil. ‘Reckon we’d get more sense out of those sheep, you ask me.’ From this vantage point the boy could see the glint of a long knife, shoved through a loop in the man’s leather belt.

The horseman stared down scornfully. ‘You hold the bad-tempered bastard then,’ he said, dismounting with a grunt of effort and handing the reins over. The big man had to make a lunge for them before the skittish animal had a chance to back away again, the movement causing his grip to tighten on the boy’s ear. Through tears of pain, the boy watched the rider as he limped towards the stream. He crouched and removed his hat to reveal a mop of bright blond hair. He splashed water on his face and drank, before gingerly rolling back the slashed cloth of his sleeve to inspect the wound on his arm. ‘Gianni, get me something to tie this up,’ he said.

His companion looked at the boy appraisingly. ‘Give my master your shirt,’ he demanded.

‘My shirt?’

‘Yes, you dunce! Take it off, unless you want me to take it off you myself?’ He gave the boy’s ear one final hard twist, then cuffed him roughly away, making him stumble and fall painfully onto his hands and knees. Shaking, the boy pulled the woollen shirt over his head and handed it over. His mother would be angry; had she not just sewn it this past spring, all the while complaining about how fast he was outgrowing his clothes?

The blond man took it and placed it between his teeth, tearing a rough strip to bind his wound. Closer now, the boy could see how deep it was, and how it still bled. He wondered what had happened, and who had inflicted the cut. The man tied it off then stood up and swayed, his face paling slightly.

‘You all right?’ called the big man, Gianni.

‘Fine, fine,’ said his master, the strain in his voice belying his words. He made his way slowly back to the horse and hauled himself with evident difficulty into the saddle. ‘Nothing a mug of beer and a meal won’t fix.’ He looked back the way they had come. ‘Can’t very well go back to Campovalano now, not if we want to keep our heads,’ he said with a bitter laugh. ‘You – ‘ he said, turning his attention to the boy, ‘you must have come from  somewhere – where can we get some food?’

The boy thought for a moment, wondering if he could send them in another direction. The problem was that there was only one path – the way they had come, from the town, and the way to the village. Eventually, he nodded dumbly and pointed downhill to the wood.

‘Right, let’s go,’ said the rider, kneeing his horse into a walk. Gianni followed, aiming a booted foot at the boy as he passed. ‘Maybe this one’s got a pretty sister who can keep us company while we eat,’ he leered, then sauntered on after his master.

The boy’s ear throbbed where the big man had pinched it, and as he watched them go his feeling of disquiet grew. Now that they knew about the village so close, they would surely be impatient to reach it.

I must warn Papa, he thought. The men would need to stay on the main path as it twisted through the wood; the big horse had proven already that it could not handle too steep a descent. On foot, he could head straight down to the valley below, and reach the village before them. He scrambled and slid through the loose shale down the hillside, chips of stone and sticks flicking up and scratching the bare skin of his back and chest. His heart was beating so loud in his ears he was sure the men would notice and turn back for him.

The bell tower rose ahead as he reached the bottom of the hill. Relief flooded through him; the church was closer than his family’s cottage, and he knew that Father Antonio would know what to do. Scanning the doorway within for any sign of movement, he didn’t remember the big crack in the porch step until it was too late. He took a step up, then tripped and hit his already painful knee on the sharp edge of the stone. His tears spilled over as he struggled to his feet and limped inside.

The interior of the stone building was cool and dim, and it took a moment for his eyes to adjust from the bright day outside. A dark shape by the altar rose into a shortish man in a simple brown robe, tied with rope at the waist. He turned and noticed the boy in the doorway.

‘Beppe? Is that you?’ he said, his mild expression turning to one of concern as he approached and took in the shirtless boy’s dishevelled appearance. ‘Is everything all right?’

‘The men – Father – they are coming!’ said the boy urgently, pointing outside.

‘Men? What men?’

Beppe told him what had happened on the hill, and Father Antonio frowned. ‘Hmm. Let’s find your father and meet this ill-mannered pair – I would speak to them about treating a child so ill.’

‘No, no, please, they will hurt you,’ said the boy, putting his hands out to stop the priest from leaving, ‘they are bad men – they have knives… and a big nasty horse… and one of them was bleeding!’

‘Beppe’, said the priest, placing a hand on the boy’s shoulder and guiding him gently towards the door, ‘do not worry. If they are in need of our aid we will give it to them, and then we will send them on their way.’

As priest and boy stepped out of the quiet church and into the sunlight, they heard an angry shout. Father Antonio’s face set and he strode briskly towards the noise, Beppe trotting anxiously behind. They rounded the curved path and Beppe saw the black horse, tethered to the rail of the sheep pen. Beppe’s heart sank. It was clear now who had shouted – it was his father, broad back filling the doorway of their cottage, holding his shears in his hand.

‘For the last time, get out of my house!’ he yelled, taking a step inside. Beppe, forgetting his fear, rushed forward to intercept him.

‘Papa, stop!’ he cried, grabbing him by the sleeve, causing his father to pause and look down. As he attempted to pull his father back outside he peered past him into the cottage. His mother stood pressed against the grain chest on the side wall, her arm cast protectively in front of his little sister Rosa. The child was silent, her eyes wide and terrified. Standing close to them with an unpleasant smile on his face was the man Gianni, his intimidating bulk seeming to fill half the room. His eyes were watchful and his hand, Beppe noticed, rested casually on the hilt of the long, ugly blade that hung from his belt.

The blond stranger squatted by the hearth. He held a wooden bowl in one hand and a spoon in the other, and was paused in the midst of serving himself from the earthenware pot that bubbled over the fire. Glancing up with studied nonchalance at Beppe’s father he said, ‘Come, my dear fellow, you wouldn’t begrudge a weary traveller a little sustenance, now would you?’ His eyes lit on Beppe and his mouth curled sardonically. ‘Besides, your boy and I are already well acquainted, aren’t we, child?’

Beppe’s father looked down at him. ‘Is this true?’ he said.

Beppe nodded quickly. ‘I met them before… up on the hill. They took my shirt… it’s around his arm,’ he said, pointing at the rough dressing which had evidently failed to staunch the wound’s flow – bright scarlet bloomed through the cloth.

‘And very grateful I am too,’ said the stranger with a cold smile, before waving his spoon dismissively and turning back to the pot. ‘Now, if you don’t mind, my friend and I are hungry and tired and your wife was just about to offer us her kind – ah – hospitality before you so rudely barged in.’

At this, Gianni snorted with amusement. ‘Oh yeah, very hospitable she’s been,’ he said, and raised his hand to display angry red scratches. Beppe noticed then that some of his mother’s hair, usually so neatly tucked away under a cap, had escaped from its confines, and the sleeve of her blue dress had come apart at the shoulder. Her dark eyes narrowed and she raised her chin. ‘Touch me again and I’ll show you worse,’ she spat.

Beppe’s father stared at his wife, in sudden realisation. ‘He touched you?’ he roared, and, shaking the boy off, surged across the room in fury.

Had he not been holding freshly sharpened shears in his hand, things may have gone differently. As it was, Beppe watched Gianni hastily draw the blade from his belt in alarm and then strike out as the other man crossed the short distance between them. With a grunt of surprise and pain as the blade plunged deep into his side, Beppe’s father stumbled backwards into the hanging pot shelf on the wall opposite, then slumped to the ground, blood bubbling out from between his fingers as he clutched at the wound.

Beppe’s mother screamed, the sound harsh and inhuman. Rushing to kneel amongst the broken pots and utensils that had fallen around her husband, she tore her apron off and pressed it to the wound, sobbing frantically as she tried to stop the rapid flow of blood. Rosa, huddled by the grain chest, began a high, thin wail of distress. Gianni was blocking the way to her mother, and her eyes flicked in panic around the room as she tried to decide what to do. With a cry of grief and rage, Beppe picked up the shears, which had dropped from his father’s hand onto the rush-covered floor.

‘Beppe, no!’ cried his mother, who had realised what he was planning to do. With her free hand she reached out to stop him, but he avoided her and charged at Gianni, stabbing the sharp points forwards with all his strength. The big man yelled in shock and whirled to face the boy, the shears now firmly lodged in his arm. He smacked Beppe hard across the face with the back of his hand and sent him flying to the ground, narrowly missing the smouldering embers of the fire.

‘You little shit,’ growled Gianni, yanking the shears out and throwing them to the floor. He advanced on Beppe, who cringed and shrank backwards, one hand held to his stinging cheek.

At that moment, the blond man, who until now had been watching impassively from his position by the hearth, placed his bowl on the floor and slowly rose to his feet.

‘Now, now,’ he said evenly, raising both hands in a conciliatory gesture, ‘let’s not get excited. Gianni, my friend’ he said, stepping forwards to push his companion’s raised knife hand gently downwards, ‘leave the boy – he’s just a child, and I’m sure he left barely a scratch.’ Gianni hesitated, then with a curt nod he shoved the blade, unwiped, back into his belt.

‘My lady,’ the man continued, addressing Beppe’s mother, who looked up, stunned at his calm demeanour in the midst of such chaos, ‘I must apologise for my companion’s impulsiveness. He is useful in so many ways, but thinking before he acts is not one of his strong suits. Of course,’ and here he frowned slightly, ‘if your husband had not been so unreasonable himself, we may have been able to avoid all this unpleasantness. Oh, and of course,’ he added, leaning forward to examine the injured man and tilting his head in an expression of exaggerated sympathy, ‘I am most sorry for your loss.’

Beppe’s mother looked back at her husband, whose head had fallen forwards to his chest. His skin had turned a sickly grey, and blood was pooling in the lap of his tunic, having soaked through the wad of fabric still pressed to his wound. ‘Francisco, no…’ she moaned, and shook him gently, trying to bring him back to consciousness. Beppe shuffled over to join her, numb with shock. It seemed to him that hours had passed, but it must have only been moments. Father Antonio, able to enter now the doorway was clear, stepped inside. He took in the scene, his face like chalk. Rosa ran to him and buried her face in his robes, finding a safe haven at last.

‘What is the meaning of this?’ said the priest. ‘Anna, Francisco, are you alright?’ Beppe’s mother shook her head mutely, tears falling unchecked down her face. The priest made to move towards them but was prevented by the blond man, who raised a hand to stop him.

‘This is none of your concern, priest,’ he said in a flat voice, ‘leave now, and you will come to no harm.’

‘If I were you, I’d do as he says,’ Gianni added, looming forwards and forcing Father Antonio to take a step back towards the doorway.

Watching, Beppe held his breath. The blond man seemed angry now, where before he had been calm. Father Antonio spoke, his eyes fixed on the stranger.

‘Beppe, take your mother and sister and leave. Get as far away as you can. I know these men.’

Beppe took a step towards his mother, who had lowered her husband gently to the floor and was rising to her feet. The blond man shook his head and reached out a hand to gently touch Beppe’s face.

‘Oh no, you’re not leaving us, not when we were all just getting to know each other. The woman and the boy stay,’ he said to Father Antonio, steel in his voice.

At that moment, Beppe’s mother, unnoticed by the two men, picked the pot up from the fire and smashed it sideways against the blond man’s temple. His eyes rolled back and his legs buckled from under him as he collapsed to the floor. Outraged, Gianni turned towards her, drawing his knife as she cowered back against the wall, clutching amongst the debris for something to defend herself.

‘Beppe! Rosa! Run!’ she screamed, and Father Antonio grabbed Beppe, shoving him and his sister out the door. ‘Save yourselves, children,’ the priest said, before he turned back inside.

 

Image by Tomasz Paciorek