Madonna! Where was he?
If the boy got hurt, the Doc would mount her head on a stick next to the Bardini banner. Valerius might be a handful but the little stronzo was their only Contract this year. Besides, a dead Concordian would imperil all Rasenna. Sofia’s dark eyes flashed with anger and she swore again: in her haste she had forgotten her banner. Being unarmed in Rasenna used to be merely careless. These days, it was suicidal.
Valerius ran down the sloping streets with his head in the air, pursued by his shadow made strangely large by the blood-washed light. Smashed roof-slates crunched underfoot like leaves in an autumn forest. He followed the trail of the topside battle as it moved downhill towards the river, focused on the jagged red slash of evening where the towers leaned towards each other across the emptiness.
The Concordian had the pale blond curls, soft skin and, when he tried, the disarming innocence of a cherub. Now, scowling, he resembled something fallen and impious. Sofia, only five years older than Valerius, watched him like his mother. He had endured this ordeal since his arrival last Assumption, but to return to Concord unblooded? Ridiculous.
The hunt was practically the whole point of a year in Rasenna – that was what his father had paid for, not endless drills and lectures on banner technique. So when this chance came to sneak out, Valerius took it, vowing to get the General’s money’s worth. Two households in combat: what a story! This was Rasenna’s real meat: raids and rogue bandieratori. He wasn’t in real danger; this was still Bardini territory. Sofia wouldn’t be far away.
He couldn’t see the individuals leaping between rooftops, just the banners they wielded. Bardini black outnumbered Morello gold four to six, and the Morello were retreating – noisily. These boys weren’t bandieratori, they were like him, just bored students looking for fun. So it was an unofficial raid, then; the gonfaloniere would never sanction such a pointless attack.
Valerius followed through one backstreet after another, concerned only with keeping up. A black flag vanished behind a corner. He turned it himself and saw nothing but swallows listlessly drifting on air rising from the empty streets.
No Morello, thankfully. No Bardini either. Valerius stopped to listen. The wall he leaned against was builtaround the ghost of an Etruscan arch, the gaps between its massive blocks stuffed with crude clay bricks, bulging like an old man’s teeth.
He could hear the river now, but not the battle. He had been in Rasenna long enough to know that most raids ended "wet". How could so many raiders disperse so swiftly? It began to dawn on him that Bardini flags need not be wielded by Bardini.
How could Sofia be so irresponsible? He was the Bardini Contract, the Bardini’s only Concordian student, and that made him an obvious target for the Morellos; he should be protected at all times. The General would hear of this.
"Keep calm, Concordian," he rebuked himself, just as the General would have. He knew northern streets pretty well after a year, didn’t he? Not like a Rasenneisi, not as lice know the cracks, but well enough. He looked for clues to his location. That ceramic Madonna, perched in a streetcorner niche and drenched in blue-white glaze, that would orientate a Rasenneisi. The ghastly things all looked the same. The superstitions of Rasenna were not the answer; he would rely on Concordian logic. The raiders had led him down and south. If he followed the slope up he would eventually reach the shadow of Tower Bardini and safety.
He turned around. Now he had a plan it was easier to fight the urge to run for it. Yes: he was impressed with his courage, even if he did keep glancing overhead. If only his footsteps wouldn’t echo so.
At last, something familiar: the unmistakable drunkentilt of Tower Ghiberti – the Bardini workshop was close after all. Valerius’ relieved laughter trailed off when a rooftop shadow moved. Another silhouette emerged on the neighbouring row. And another. Lining the tower tops, above and ahead of him. He counted seven, eight, nine – a decina – but forced himself to keeping walking. Whoever they were, they were interested in him alone. It was not a flattering sort of attention.
Behind him someone landed on the ground and he was torn between two bad choices, to turn defiantly, or to run.
"Sofia! What are you doing?"
"Exceeding my brief. Doc said babysit. He didn’t mention stopping you getting yourself killed."
"I wouldn’t be in danger if—"
"I said keep walking!"
He whipped his head round to continue the argument, but went suddenly mute. Anger enhanced the Contessa’s beauty. Her dark eyes were wide and bright, her olive skin glowed like fire about to burn. She looked fabulous just before a fight.
"What do we do?" Valerius asked, his confidence returning.
Her wide-shouldered jacket was a bold red, in contrast with the earthy colours favoured by most bandieratori. She was not tall, but she held her head proudly. Below her large brow and sharp Scaligeri nose were the smiling lips that graced statues of cruel old Etruscans.
But she was not smiling now and her pointed chin jutted forward. "You’ll do as I say. I’m going to help these gentlemen get home. Give me your banner."
"I don’t have it," Valerius whispered, losing hope again.
"Madonna. This is going to be embarrassing. I’m not exactly in peak condition."
Valerius looked down at the sling on her arm. Without a single banner, against a decina, even Sofia …
"What do we do?"
"When I say run, run – Run!"
Sofia led the way through the maze of narrow alleys, not looking back or up. She knew by fleeting shadows overhead and loosened slates smashing around them how closely they were pursued. She skidded to a stop when they reached Piazzetta Fontana. The alley leading north was blocked by five young men. And now Valerius saw what Sofia already knew: they were not students. They were bandieratori. Their ruckus had been part of the deception.
Sofia pushed Valerius into an alley on the right – it was barely a crack between two towers, but it led north.
"Run. Don’t look back."
He didn’t argue.
She boldly stepped forward. "You bambini must be lost in the woods. You’re on the wrong side of the river."
There was consternation as the southsiders saw who they had been chasing. "What do we do?" asked one.
"Her flag’s black. That makes her Bardini," said the tallest boy with assurance.
"I don’t know – if Gaetano—"
"Show some salt! There’s one of her and lots of us. Haven’t you heard who broke her arm?" The tall boy continued talking even as he approached her. "She’s hasn’t even got a flag—"
Way too casual. Sofia was ready. She dodged his lunging banner and snatched it away in one movement and his jaw had no time to drop before she floored him with a neat parietal-tap. By the time she looked up the others had vanished, gone to get Valerius before she got them. Sofia returned to the narrow alley and vaulted left-right-left up between the walls.
Etrurians said that Rasenna’s towers were different heights because not even the local masons could agree. But they made good climbing, and bandieratori jumped between towers as easily as civilians climbed stairways. The upper storeys were peppered with shallow brick-holes, invisible from the ground, which had originally supported scaffolding but which now allowed the fighters to scale what they couldn’t jump.
With only one working arm, Sofia knew her climbing was awkward and inefficient. Even so, when she made topside she took a moment to catch her breath and scan the endless red roofs, feeling no need to hurry despite their head-start. This was her territory, and she knew every roof, every crumbling wall. They did not, and in the wan light of dusk they’d have to be cautious.
In the heat of the chase the boys let one of their number fall behind, and it wasn’t long before Sofia caught up. His falling scream was cut off by the crash of broken slates.
Two down, out-classed on strange rooftops. Normally in this situation it would be each raider for themselves, but these three knew that their only hope of ever getting home was to regroup and turn and fight together. They were waiting on the next tower Sofia leapt for, and gave her no time to recover her balance. Two of them launched a noisy attack to make her retreat, while the third slipped behind. As Sofia dodged flags she was struck in the back of her knee.
"Ahh!" she cried as she landed on her back, sliding a little before halting herself. She had no time to rise before she felt a flag-stick prodding against her neck. She lay still before the pressure crushed her larynx.
"Beg your pardon, Contessa."
Sofia ignored their giggling. She still had the advantage. She knew every tower bottom to top, their flags, the fastest routes, how old they were. She kicked her heel and a slate came loose, then several fell in its wake and the tower shed its skin with a shudder that drowned out the boys’ shouts as they all slid and tumbled together. Sofia went over the side with the rest of them, but she reached out and grabbed the unseen flagpole. She didn’t look down. No need.
She heard them land with the slates, breaking all together.
Sofia hauled herself onto the flayed rooftop, then climbed back down. She found Valerius waiting streetside with an amused expression on his face which, like his clothes, was splashed with blood. The boys’ bodies lay where they’d fallen, perfectly arranged in a semi-circle around him as if hunting him even in death.
"Where’s the rest?" she asked, more to herself than Valerius. She had been occupied, yet the others hadn’t gone for the Concordian. Wasn’t he the prize?
Valerius ignored her, more interested in rolling the corpses to see their last expressions.
"Show some respect!" she snapped. "The dead are forgiven."
"Come here," she said, pulling Valerius towards her.
"Oh Sofia, I was frightened too!"
She pushed his embrace aside roughly. "I’m checking for wounds, cretino!"
But no, none of the blood was his. Doc’s charge was intact, the Contract secure. "You got blooded, Valerius. Satisfied?"