SURRENDER TO HONOR
  SURRENDER TO HONOR

An excerpt from
Surrender To Honor

Chapter One
1440, Palermo, Sicily

Prima Ranieri clenched the reins of her albino mare and narrowed her eyes on the scene at the bottom of the hill. Her heart wept for the woman who walked beside the rickety old cart carrying the body of her dead husband. The procession of mourners followed at a snail’s pace, and Prima cringed as each mournful wail drifted across the valley.

“These atrocities must end. No more can the people of Palermo bear,” she said to her friend Orsetto. “Such senseless killings and the unfair loss of land and property cannot go on. Both the Massaro and Falcone families must be stopped before they kill every last one of us. And for what?” Her bitterness grew stronger with each passing day. Since she'd fled her father’s castle four years past, Prima had become an outcast, as had Orsetto and the others who were driven from their homes.

All because of two families bent on becoming the all-powerful ruler of Palermo.

Damn the greedy bastards. Prima ground her teeth, yet it did naught to settle her agitation. Instead, it gave her a throbbing pain along her jaw. “I’ll not let these insufferable acts go unavenged. We must gather the men of the forest and formulate a plan.”

“Your pardon, signorina. A plan will be futile without proof that a Massaro or a Falcone did indeed murder the woman’s husband.”

“You doubt the Massaro and the Falcone did this?”

“I simply doubt the families came together to commit this latest act. Don Raffe—”

“Don Raffe! The very mention of that particular Massaro makes my stomach knot.” Her scathing voice burned in her throat, their conversation fanning the blaze of revenge in her heart.

“I am merely suggesting that mayhap Vittorio Falcone is more responsible.”

Prima stared at the man known as Orsetto—little bear—since he was just a boy. For all his bulk, he was a kind and gentle soul, and as loyal as any man could be. But she couldn’t understand his insistence that the opposing families were not equal in blame.

Prima shook her head. “We will not kneel before either in defeat.”

On a hillock to the east, movement caught her eye. At first sight, the man on horseback appeared barbaric. His face was covered with a beard and mustache, and his hair brushed the top of his shoulders. He reminded her of the gigantic statues of Norman invaders who had proclaimed Sicily as their own over three centuries ago. She barely noticed the two pack horses in tow, for the beauty of the stranger’s pure black steed trapped her attention. Such a fine animal stood out in Palermo. Indeed, it didn’t blend well with the ordinary working horses in town, just as her horse did not.

Prima adjusted the mail shirt beneath her surcoat. Under the bright sun, the metal baked through her thin undertunic. “I must leave. This damn battle gear is branding its links into my flesh.” Her sight never strayed from the stranger. “Go. Tell the men I will meet with them this eve. Massaro or Falcone, someone will pay for this latest murder.”

****

Antonio Massaro stared at the funeral procession below. It reminded him of the last time he’d stood upon this very hill. He’d been fourteen, bitter and full of rage. He had watched as his mother quietly suffered, and he’d listened to his sisters’ heartbreaking wails over the passing of their brother. He would never forgive or forget those responsible for Angelo’s tragic demise. That he held his father partly to blame had eaten away at him for fifteen years. Returning to the spot intensified his long-held sorrow and renewed his deep-rooted anger. He had hoped the years would have tempered those feelings.

He squeezed his eyes closed against the roiling memories, but he couldn’t ignore the depressing tone of the mourners. The combined din of the old woman’s wails, the creaking and clanking of the cart, the murmur of grieving voices—all collided in his head with forceful commotion. As he gripped the reins, eager to escape the noise, a high-pitched war cry rent the air, and something struck his horse’s flank.

Shocked, Antonio gaped at the small warrior clinging to his saddle, struggling to climb astride. He turned his horse in a tight circle and attempted to shake off his attacker, but the man clung like a dog to a juicy bone. Antonio gripped the horse’s barrel as the soldier gained leverage and caught him off guard with the flat side of a broadsword. Antonio tumbled to the ground. The little bastard stood between his spread thighs, one booted foot on his manhood. The sword’s sharp point poked the hollow of his throat.

“Identify yourself,” the soldier commanded.

“I have no quarrel with you.”

“Be you Massaro or Falcone?”

“Mayhap I am neither.”

Mayhap I should run my blade through your throat and see what color blood pours from your veins.”

The soldier pressed on Antonio’s groin, and he sucked in his breath. “I have recently come to Palermo and have had little time to acquire enemies. If you will explain your reason for attacking me, I may better explain my intentions upon this land you guard with your life.”

“I guard against the horrible misdeeds of the families Massaro and Falcone. Were you called upon by either?”

Antonio’s eyes darted over the youth. There was no bulk to him, neither was his voice that of a grown man. He sounded as if he purposely deepened his voice. It mattered not, though. At the moment, the lad held the advantage, and another move of his small boot spread painful pressure through Antonio’s groin.

“No,” he rasped.

“Cooperate, stranger, or you shall not live to see the sun set.”

“Nor you.” Antonio swiftly brought up his foot, kicked at the back of the soldier’s knee and unbalanced him. The lad cried out a strangled oath just as he hit the dirt with a thump and clamor of tin. As he lay gasping for air, Antonio straddled his legs, turning the sword lengthwise beneath his chin. “I have traveled for weeks. I am tired and foul of mood.” He grabbed a thin wrist, and his brows drew down in confusion. Without question, this youth was the scrawniest soldier he’d ever seen. Hoisting the boy up with ease, Antonio flung him up onto the destrier. But the nuisance fought and attempted to jump down. With no other choice, Antonio tipped the blade up to stay the boy before his thrashing brought him harm. The horse was trained for battle and could easily toss an enemy, crushing him beneath his powerful hooves.

“Be still or I will tie your hands and Antonio threatened. He gathered up the reins of his two pack horses and the unusual albino mare. Mounting, he braced an arm across the boy’s middle, forcing him back. But the little soldier stiffened his spine and leaned forward.

“Where are you taking me?” the boy demanded and half-twisted. Save for his eyes, Antonio couldn’t see his features through the narrow slit of his visor, which was too large for his head.

“I have a place in mind.”

“My men will hunt you down if harm comes to me.”

Antonio’s deep laughter rumbled up his chest. “Think you to overstate your importance, my puny prisoner?”

“Such insult will go harshly against you,” he returned.

“Empty threats frighten me not. Now silenzio. I must think.”

“If you need silence to think, then you have not the brains to store much thought.”

Antonio thumped the boy’s helmet.

Merda.” The youth held his helmet between gloved hands as he glared through the slits. “You have made a hundred bells chime inside my head.”

Antonio urged his horse on. As he headed for home, he wondered about the soldier-boy. The hostility in one so young reminded Antonio of himself before he fled Palermo. “I would sheath this sword if I could trust you.”

“I’ll not try to escape. My men are out there among those trees. They will rescue me soon enough.”

“So say you.” Antonio stared at the top of the boy’s helmet. It was foreign, possibly German made, and old, an oddity at best. He couldn’t understand how the boy tolerated the heavy helmet in this heat. “Explain your reason for attacking me.”

“I will explain naught to you.” Another whack to the helmet brought a ripe curse to the boy’s lips.

“Are you wont to strike me senseless?”

“Answer me, boy.”

“I thought you were summoned by the Massaro or the Falcone to aid their fight.”

“Would not a question have been easier?”

“Words might have cost me my life.”

“Attacking me fared no better for you.”

The boy made a strange sound, like a snorting pig, apparently begrudged to admit defeat. As Antonio guided his horse along the main road, he glanced about. Much had changed in the vegetation—more growth and thicker forests. The passing years had filled the land with color, nurturing the scattered groves of orange, lemon and olive trees. In contrast, he noticed time hadn’t treated the structures as kindly. Many had been neglected or burned.

Antonio tipped the sword into the empty sheath attached to his saddle. “Was there a famine or disease here in Palermo?”

“The Falcone and Massaro are the only diseases plaguing Palermo.” Bitterness laced the boy’s words.

“Are you saying those families are responsible for the poor state of the countryside?”

“And more.”

What more could there be? Had he expected the impossible, believing Palermo would never change, that it would remain as it was when he’d left—the soil rich, the pine-covered Monte Pellegrino majestic, and the harbor clear and beautiful?

“Ho, dark stranger,” the boy hailed in warning.

Antonio glanced up. There loomed the Massaro castle. Not a giant, by any means, but he once was proud to call it home.

“Think you to wander onto Massaro land? You will suffer for your blunder.”

“How so, little warrior?”

“The Massaro family owns most of this side of Palermo. What is not theirs in property is theirs in loyalty. The people are fiercely loyal to the capo.”

“Don Raffe?”

The boy turned his head. “You know of the capo?”

“In passing.” Antonio frowned. In some respects, time stood still over the years. His father had retained his moniker as head of the Secret Society, and as capo his craving for dominance seemed yet to be appeased.

“Then you were called here by the Massaro,” the boy accused. “I should have run you through!”

Antonio gritted his teeth against the boy’s renewed struggling and forced him to his chest. “I was not called to Palermo by the Massaro. Damn you, boy. Cease!”

“I’ll not be at your mercy.”

“No? Why then are you my prisoner?” Finally, the boy stopped and sagged a little, but not enough to make Antonio trust him. “Tell me about these Falcone you so despise.”

The boy stiffened once again. “I do not know you, dark stranger. You may well be my enemy.”

“And I may well be losing my patience. Now answer my question or I shall not go easy on you.”

The boy relented, but not before Antonio flicked a finger on his helmet. “Gesu, I’ll not be free from these damn bells for a week.” He drew in a deep breath. “The Falcone wreak devastation on the good people of Palermo. They kill for pleasure and confiscate lands, all in the name of power and greed. The Massaro are no better. They have turned on the people and on the one family who trusted and respected them.”

“What family?”

“The Ranieri.”

Antonio clamped his mouth. The Massaro and Ranieri families went back centuries. Their friendship and trust was bound by mutual respect. For one to go against the other was unthinkable. As they approached the gatehouse, Antonio contemplated the meaning behind the boy’s revelation. But thoughts of the Massaro and Ranieri fell to the back of his mind when his horse stopped before the huge gate. Antonio shielded his eyes from the radiant Sicilian sun as he tipped his head back to address the guards high atop the twin towers.

“Careful what you say,” the boy warned. “See their many bows ready to attack?”

“I have no cause for alarm. Any arrow would pierce you first.”

“You would use me to shield yourself?”

“If I have to.” Antonio glanced at the many guards. Not one looked familiar. “Raise the gate.”

“By whose order?” one of the guards shouted down.

“By the order of the son and heir of Don Raffaele Massaro.”

The guard laughed. “Don Raffe’s sons are dead.”

So that was the way of it. Raffaele Massaro had lost both sons the day Antonio left—one to God’s earth and the other cut loose from Raffe’s poisoned heart. Should he have expected any differently?

“Angelo may be dead, but Antonio Massaro lives.”

The boy jerked around, giving him a start. “Antonio?” the youth asked.

He lowered his head. “You know me?”

“I...have only heard of you.”

Frowning, Antonio returned his attention to the guard. The man remained defensive.

“We have had no word of Antonio Massaro’s resurrection.”

Antonio reached inside his tunic and extricated a jewel-studded gold cross which he held aloft. Only two existed: Don Raffe’s and his. As large as his outstretched hand, the cross glistened beneath the sun’s rays. The light caught and danced on the rubies and diamonds surrounding a bold M of emeralds.

The sudden commotion among the guards brought more men from the wall-walk. Minutes later, the heavy portcullis shuddered open. Antonio crossed the outer ward to the inner gatehouse and encountered the same battery of questions. When finally he entered the inner ward, his patience had evaporated. He dropped the many reins from his fist and snapped orders to the loitering stable boys.

Scores of greyhounds yapped at his arrival. Apparently his father’s penchant for that particular breed remained strong. He recalled his youth, when he had befriended every one of the delicate, beautiful animals. He’d spent hours training them to know his commands. Now, however, they backed away from his hard stare.

Antonio dismounted, his prisoner clutched in his arm. The boy struggled anew and protested until Antonio gave him a swift kick to his skinny backside. He wasn’t surprised when the boy sprawled to the dirt, though the runt held fast to his old helmet.

“Walk,” Antonio commanded, “or I shall drag you.”

The boy rose and headed directly for the castle doors without another command. The great hall was deserted and the trestle tables set down from the midday meal. No fire burned in the great hearth, but the lingering smell of ash and the mingling scents of human and food filled his heart with sentimental warmth. It was as if he’d never left. The soldier-boy balked in front of him, pulling him from his reverie. Antonio shoved him with too much force, and he fell forward, his helmet ringing out on the stone floor.

“Damn heathen,” the boy mumbled just as guards rushed in from every entrance of the great hall, their swords drawn on Antonio.

From the east door, an assemblage of women and children swarmed toward the disturbance. Antonio fixed his sight on the graying woman leading the pack. Although she had filled out, she’d retained a youthful sparkle in her eyes and a ready smile on her lips. The woman halted, and her brood formed a crescent moon around her. Instantly, her eyes misted. He should have known his mother would recognize him, even after all the years and through all the facial hair.

Madre di Dio,” she whispered and hurried across the floor, kicking up newly laid rushes in her haste. “Mio figlio, Antonio. My son,” she cried as she glided into his arms.

“Cara madre.” Antonio hugged her to his pounding heart. He was unprepared for the elation and love welling in his chest. Posthaste, the hall was aflutter. Antonio’s younger sisters, Fabiola and Simona, surrounded him. When the chaos died, his gaze skimmed above their heads to the lone woman standing away from the small group. “Think you I would not recognize my youngest sister, though she was but a nuisance of five when last I saw her?”

With a huge grin, Romina Massaro rushed into his waiting embrace. “I am twenty, Antonio, and no longer a nuisance.”

He set her back, taking a leisurely look at the woman she’d become. Her long flowing black hair fell past her small waist. The dark eyes and features that unmistakably mirrored his own sent another surge of emotion racing through him.

“Mayhap not.” He playfully thumbed her pretty nose then faced his mother. “Your husband?”

“Raffaele is abed, Antonio. He is not in good health.”

“I shall pay my respects.”

Her hand touched his arm. “Think you a bath might be the first order?”

After a moment’s thought, he eased into a grin. “Are you suggesting I smell?”

“My son is a man, and men forget that bathing often is more than a frivolous pleasure.”

Madre, you are as blunt as ever. Sì, I am in need of a good soaking.” He headed for the stone stairs against the wall but stopped when he remembered the soldier-boy he’d brought into the castle. “Take my little knight down to the dungeon. I will deal with him later.”

“Antonio, he is but a boy,” his mother said.

“That soldatino attacked me. I will question him after I am cleaned and sated.” He started up the steps.

“Antonio,” she pressed on.

Exhausted, he wanted only a warm bath and a trencher of meat. His legs felt as heavy as mortar, and his backside was sore from the long journey in the saddle.

“I will take charge of the little knight,” Romina offered.

“Why?” Antonio asked.

“The dungeon is no place for…for little boys.”

Gesu Cristo!” His ire boomed off the stone walls. Women, children and guards all jumped. All except his mother. Very little frightened her. “Boy or not, he attacked me. Take him away,” he ordered harshly.

Hands clamped around the boy’s upper arms where his mail shirt ended beneath his long sleeves. He tried to pull free, but his spare frame proved ineffective in the grips of men more than twice his weight. When one of the guards grabbed his helmet, the boy frantically wrestled against losing it, but the guard ripped it off. A single thick coil of black hair unwound over one shoulder. Antonio ceased his climb; an icy chill closed around his heart. His cold stare collided with the golden-brown glare of the female held securely by two inner castle guards.

The soldatino was a girl! Though he could barely see her features through the sweat and dirt, there was no mistaking her gender.

He snapped his hostile gaze back to the guards. “Take her to the dungeon.” Antonio looked to his mother, then Romina, daring either to gainsay him.

“I curse this day and the return of the Massaro son!” the girl shouted above the sudden din. She kicked and struggled to no avail. The guards dragged her out of the great hall.

Antonio clenched his fists. He had hoped to return home to make amends with the past, to raise horses and settle down with a wife and children. He never imagined encountering strife in his homeland…or a young woman pretending to be a fearless warrior.

Closing his ears to the girl’s loud cursing, he found his mother’s disapproving frown. Only one man could overrule his authority in this castle, and well she knew it. Thankfully, she kept her silence.

 

Top

Back to the Books Page
 
 
divider
 

Jannine Corti Petska © 2006-2016
info(AT)jcortipetska(DOT)com