From By Force of Circumstance

Chapter 1

Genoa, early summer 1644.

Ludo sat down in Leonora’s much travelled cane chair in the gentle dark of their chamber and rested his head, now greying at the temples, against her bright Indian cushions. “It was Vico,” he said. “Nurse is with him. He was talking in his sleep. It feels strange for them, sleeping on dry land after so many months on a rolling ship.” Ludo was referring to the small twins in the nursery along the passage. “You should go back to sleep as well,” he said softly, noticing his wife’s flushed face in the candlelight.

Leaning forward Ludo put a hand to her brow, she was sweating again: another bout of malaria, and in the final third of her pregnancy. He lifted a lemon-scented cloth from a bowl and dabbed her forehead. “Better?”

Hot fingers touched his. Leonora started to say something, then suddenly she was sitting bolt upright clenching the sheets.

“Has it started?” he asked anxiously. “Surely, it is too soon.”

“Yes – yes,” the response was a twisted hiss. “Too soon.”

“I’ll fetch Nurse and send for the midwife.”

As Ludo made his way back to the children’s room there was a loud, insistent banging on the door below. Ignoring it, he raced to get the twins’ nurse, who was already crossing the landing towards him. “Go to Donna Leonora,” he said.

“Ludo!” Leonora screamed. The battering below continued.

“I’m going for the midwife, carina. Here’s Nurse.” Ludo placed his large paw on the local woman’s narrow shoulder. “Stay with my wife,” he said urgently. “I’ll send a servant up with water and fetch the midwife myself.”

The small woman nodded and entered Leonora’s chamber.

As Ludo reached the turn in the stairs one of their new maids was reaching the front door. “Tell whoever it is to go away, we are not at home.” Ludo stopped in his tracks, “No, don’t, I’ll go. You go for the midwife. You know these streets better than I do. Tell her to hurry!” The battering became more insistent. “Go on, run! I’ll deal with this.” Whoever had come knocking at this time of night, and in such a manner, had an emergency of their own that no chit of a girl could deal with.

Ludo pulled back the first bolt just as Leonora’s second wail of pain rent the calm of their new home forever. “What?” he demanded, not looking at the visitor because he was staring back up the stairs. A rough hand pulled him out of the doorway.

Ludo was tall and broad-shouldered but the brute manhandling him was bigger. A much shorter man flanked by two men-at-arms in fancy livery handed him a folded letter with one hand and brandished something like a rolled document in the other. “You are instructed to come with us,” the letter-bearer stated.

Struggling to free himself, Ludo retorted, “Instruct who you please, I’m going nowhere. My wife is in childbed.”

“That’s no matter to us at present,” the short man said. “Bind him!”

One of the men in livery flourished a length of rope from concealment and began winding it rapidly around Ludo’s arms and body. The second magicked a thickly-knotted truncheon from nowhere, and the messenger stuffed a rag in his mouth.

“No!” Ludo’s voice was a muffled scream. Then there was blackness.

Sometime later, he had no means of knowing how long, a slither of light showed Ludo he was in an extremely small space. Waking from an over-vivid dream of climbing waves and monstrous sea-serpents he lay still, sweating and frightened. His mouth was dry yet sticky. He put a hand to his lips then his chest, the front of his cotton blouse was tacky. He assumed it was blood, but it was more like molasses or honey. He ran his tongue over his lips. They were sweet-tasting. Moving his hand across his chest, Ludo remembered he had been bound and gagged, but now he was not. He began to explore his confinement. He was lying on a narrow wooden pallet or shelf with his right shoulder shoved up against a stone wall. His feet touched another wall, his head touched a third. Turning onto his side Ludo’s next thought was not to his situation but what was happening to his wife. Had the midwife been found? Was Leonora all right? And their baby? How ironic, how appallingly ironic that she had survived sea-sickness and all the rigours of caring for two small children on a voyage half way around the globe to be caught by malaria in Genoa – and premature labour.

Ludo searched his memory for something resembling a prayer. Having never prayed except under duress as an adolescent he had no solace to grasp or employ.

The wall to his left moved, a door opened, a widening of the sliver of light brought a cup and plate then blackness returned. “Hey!” he called. No one replied.

A dull thud settled into his left temple – like the thuds on their door – thump, thump, thump. He pressed the heels of his hands against his forehead and drifted back to the nightmare at sea.

The next time the door opened a bucket was pushed in, allowing the smallest draught of enter, but the door was closed again before he could sit up. This time Ludo put his feet to the floor: his head threatened to explode but he stayed upright then tried to stand. His head cracked against wooden boards. His toes stubbed against the bucket. He was barefoot. He tried to remember what he had been wearing when he was taken: a loose blouse, thin pantaloons and Turkish slippers. It had been night time. His son had called out and his daughter had started to cry. He had gone to them. Anger pulsed through him as he reached across the black space and banged on the door. It made a hollow sound. Wooden planks. He tried to kick it open with his feet.

“You’re wasting your time.” A voice speaking English. Ludo sat still. English, here? Why? “Who are you?” he demanded. There was no reply.

Then the door opened, just wide enough to show an elderly priest standing in what appeared to be a large room. “Let him out,” he said, addressing to two liveried men behind him.

Bent and aching, Ludo shuffled into a muted daylight. Thick curtains had been pulled across a window. He had no idea where he was or why, but the great brute that had manhandled him here was standing by the door with his arms crossed like the evil genie in an Arabic tale.

The cleric, a Jesuit from his robes, crossed to a desk and indicated Ludo was to stand before him. Lifting a document, he said in a thin but educated English voice, “Ludovico da Portovenere, you are hereby accused of conspiring with the devil in the practice of alchemy.”

Ludo frowned. “What?”

“A crucible has been revealed in your warehouse.”

“Yes. What has this to do with the church? There is no law against mixing spices, nor against melting metals. If there were, you’d have no swords or daggers – no dainty new forks to eat with.” Despite the pain in his head he cast around for any such weapons. “And you can hardly call my crucible –”

“We can and shall call it what we choose. Sit,” said the cleric, a spare man who matched his voice.

Seated, Ludo stretched his neck, trying to ease the pain across his shoulders where he had been coshed. As he moved, he took in the room again: a spartan chamber containing a plain desk bearing an ebony crucifix and a tiny brass bell. It was Indian in design. “This isn’t anything to do with my metal experiment, is it?” he said.

“It can be – if you choose not to co-operate.”

Ludo closed his eyes. “Tell me,” he said.