fbpx
You have 4 free member-only stories remaining for the month. Subscribe now for unlimited access

The Twins

Reynier de Ridder is the Dutch trade envoy of Mary, Queen of Scots, to the Low Countries. While on his first mission for the Queen, he learns a bit more about his Italian travelling companions. They arrived at Mary’s court with their Italian friend David Riccio, but there is a dark history behind their departure from Italy.

As they stood waiting for their horses to be saddled and brought out, Chiara unexpectedly embraced Reynier. It took him by surprise, and he looked at her as he hugged her back. She looked back up at him, but said nothing. She then turned to Seamus, and appeared as though she would hug him as well. Unsure what to expect, he looked slightly bashful, but then at the last moment she gave him a sharp shove in the chest, unbalancing him and throwing him back a couple of steps.

‘Don’t think that I’m hugging you, smelly Irishman!’ she jibed, then turned around, giving Reynier a sly wink as she did, and went to see how the horses were coming along.

Poor Seamus didn’t quite know how to react, and Reynier simply smiled at him and shrugged, and looked over at Gio who was also attempting to hide his smile.

#

With the morning fog lifting, it was turning into a nice clear day, though it was still chilly enough for Reynier to be wearing his great woollen cloak. Once they were out of Amsterdam and on the open road, Chiara spurred Seamus on for a run with the horses – always competitive – challenging him to race to certain landmarks ahead of them.

While still keeping in sight of the others, Reynier and Gio didn’t join in the racing, but rode slowly behind, and talked.

It had come as a surprise to learn the truth about Chiara, though in hindsight it made sense. Before departing from Scotland, Gio had confided in Reynier that he really wanted – in fact needed – to get Chiara out of Scotland. He was worried she would put a crossbow bolt through Count Bertino di Morette, or that he would be found run through with a sword. She had been very much in love, he said, but when the affair between the Savoy ambassador and Gina started, first in secret and then flauntingly obvious in Edinburgh, it had broken her heart. Reynier naturally had assumed she had been in love with di Morette, and he had cheated on her with Gina.

Then the night before, Reynier had learned the full story of the affair. Back in Italy, David Riccio, Gina and Chiara, all good friends, had joined the entourage of di Morette, the Savoy Ambassador, along with Gio – who always followed his sister. Chiara and Gina were in love, and they were hoping to find somewhere they could enjoy their love openly as partners, without having to hide or fear persecution. Reynier had already guessed that David Riccio fancied men. In fact, it was quite obvious, for he didn’t make a great effort to conceal it. Gio told him how David had heard of this lovely princess, Mary Stuart … young, kind, open-minded and liberal, seemingly tolerant, at least religiously so. If any ruler in Europe would tolerate their … non-conformity, or unnatural attractions, David believed it would be her – Mary of Scots – and so they had come to Scotland with the Count of Morette.

Before long the count had begun to make advances on the women. Chiara had made it quite clear she wasn’t interested, but Gina had treated it like a game, accepting small trinkets and presents from him, which encouraged him all the more, while laughing and joking about him behind his back. Gradually the count and Gina became closer and closer, and then he employed her officially as his assistant. When Chiara confronted Gina, she claimed she was simply using di Morette, and that it was just temporary until they arrived in Scotland. However, by the time they arrived in Scotland she had virtually become his mistress.

As Gio had recounted the story, Reynier remembered back to his first interchange with Chiara at the Holyrood ball, and imagined what she must have been going through. Watching the love of her life dancing with another. He had assumed she was jealous of the count dancing with another woman, but it was the reverse! It must have been horrible for the poor girl, not only being denied to share her true feelings publicly, but then watching the one she loved practically cheating in front of her, without being able to say anything. And then to have all those men, whom she had no interest in, wanting to dance with her when she couldn’t dance with the one person that she loved. No wonder she had sounded bitter that night.

Later, Gina had ended it with Chiara, leaving her devastated. So Gio and Chiara had left Scotland with Reynier – as he embarked on his first trade mission for the Queen – and Reynier had since grown quite fond of the Italians.

Recalling the conversation from the night before, Reynier now asked, ‘You told me you had a brother, Chiara’s twin … what happened to him? If you don’t mind me asking.’

Gio didn’t answer at first, and Reynier realised he must have touched a nerve, or asked something sensitive, and immediately wished that he hadn’t.

#

They rode for a while in uncomfortable silence, but finally Gio spoke. ‘Although I haven’t known you for long, Reynier, I already think of you as a close friend, and I trust you … so I will tell you the story of my brother – Carlo – and my sister Chiara, and myself.’

He had slowed a little, and looked across at Reynier. Reynier didn’t say anything, but kept pace beside him, and as they locked eyes he knew he was being entrusted with some personal, confidential knowledge.

‘My mother died giving birth to Chiara and Carlo,’ Gio began. ‘She was very small – smaller even than Chiara – and not made for bearing children, the twins were too much for her tiny body. She had already lost another previously, a miscarriage, between myself and them. I was five when my brother and sister were born, and I lost my mother. I still remember her – quite well, in fact. At first, I blamed my young brother and sister for my mother’s death, but then I grew to love them. Father was a good man, a very strong man, brave, a good worker and provider … but he wasn’t good at taking care of a young family.

‘We owned a small estate in Tuscany, which had been in our family for generations. The land was hilly with some woodland at the top, but we had a nice vineyard, some olive groves, and a flock of goats. We had some workers, that lived at the bottom of our property, and the goatherd’s wife had a young baby that she was still breastfeeding, so she came and nursed my brother and sister for a time. But eventually it became too much for her, for she had her own family to care for. Father expected too much from her – cooking and cleaning as well as nursing the twins, besides her own young. So then father paid a young woman from the village to come and live with us as a nanny. Eventually, my father married her, and she lived with us for several years.

‘I don’t think she ever cared greatly for us children, and to be honest I resented her for taking the place of my mother. She eventually ran off with one of the young men working in our vineyard. By then, I was already ten, and we could fend for ourselves.’

Reynier listened attentively as they rode along, giving the odd affirmative or sympathetic reply.

Gio continued, ‘The thing about Chiara and Carlo was … well … people always thought they were identical twins. They looked like twin boys, right up until they were in their teens. There was something odd about them though. Chiara always wished she was a boy, she did everything the boys did, she competed against them, and in many cases beat them – in everything. But Carlo – he was different, he never had a competitive spirit. He was gentle, shy … some would say weak. He never said he felt like a girl, but Chiara held the belief that something had gone wrong in Mother’s womb, or God had made a mistake, and she had been meant to be the boy, and Carlo the girl, but their parts had been put on wrong somehow. Carlo disagreed with her on that point, he believed God had made them the way they were and loved them the way they were.

Our father was quite harsh, and unaccepting. He was happy to have a girl like Chiara, he taught her how to use crossbow and sword, as he did me – for Father had been a soldier in his early life. He taught her how to hunt as well. But Carlo … he wasn’t interested in weapons, and he wouldn’t hunt. Our father couldn’t understand how a son of his could be like that – so soft. Carlo didn’t even want to eat meat … it was always a struggle at mealtimes. He loved animals, you understand?’

Gio looked across at Reynier as they rode, and Reynier nodded. ‘Carlo didn’t fit in with people, he was forever bullied, and he wouldn’t fight back. It was Chiara who would come home bruised and with black eyes, getting into fights defending her brother, who was as small as her but lacked her spirit. Naturally I tried to look out for him too, but I couldn’t always be around – however, those two were inseparable.

‘So Carlo avoided people more and more as he got older, immersing himself in the woodlands with his wildlife instead. My brother loved animals and nature. You’ve never seen anyone that had an affinity with animals like he did. He was always bringing home injured wildlife. He’d find a bird with a broken wing, or an orphan animal that had been abandoned, and he would mend them and care for them.

‘My father was quite a lot older than my mother, and eventually he passed away, when I was just nineteen. One cold winter, he developed a chill, then a fever, and then he was gone. We were old enough to take care of ourselves by then, in fact as Father had been getting older I had been taking on more and more responsibilities on the farm. Our father had been paying to get tutoring lessons for Carlo and Chiara for their education, so I continued those. But they were already fourteen, and at fifteen they both decided they had enough … of grammar, philosophy, science and languages, so we all worked the farm together. Once Father was gone, Carlo never touched meat again, and even had Chiara and myself eating a lot less – mainly because he did most of the cooking.’ He chuckled a bit as he remembered, shaking his head.

‘My family have been producing good wine for generations, and I had perfected it,’ Gio looked over at Reynier, ‘Really, Reynier – you’ve never tasted wine like the wine from our vineyard. We couldn’t keep up with demand.

‘One day, a young man – Luca – came to our farm seeking work, and I employed him as an extra hand. He was a good worker, and a nice young man, slightly younger than myself. After some time, he and Carlo developed feelings for each other. Maybe I should have put a stop to it, made him leave. But I didn’t, I liked him – besides, he had no family of his own or anywhere else to go. My brother was almost eighteen by then, and old enough to make his own decisions in life, who was I to stand in the way of his happiness. However, clearly there would be some who weren’t so tolerant. It was Chiara who came up with the idea of building them a cottage, up on top of the hill in the woods of our property, where they would have privacy from prying eyes and could live in peace.

‘Chiara experienced her own first heartbreak at fifteen – she had been seeing a girl for a number of months, secretly. A girl she had met in the village while taking her lessons. They had even kissed, but the girl had no idea that Chiara was a girl! She still dressed like a boy, and there were people who still assumed that she and Carlo were twin boys, people called them Carlo and Charo you see. I guess, at some point Chiara must have realised that the girl believed her to be a boy, so she carried on with the pretence. When the girl finally discovered the truth, she was horrified. She called Chiara all sorts of evil things and threatened to report her and have her punished – which she never did, probably fearing how it would reflect on herself. But Chiara was devastated, cursing the cruelty of life and fate for creating her a girl rather than a boy. That was when they quit their lessons and resigned themselves to helping me on the farm.

‘So … getting back to Carlo – he was eighteen, and entitled to a portion of our father’s property – so we built him a cottage of his own, in the woods, somewhere he and his friend Luca would be able to live peacefully and privately together.’

Gio looked across at Reynier, ‘You probably think me wicked, that I could allow it, even encourage such unnatural behaviour.’

Reynier reassured him, ‘Gio, I assure you I don’t. You are probably the best brother anyone could hope to have.’ He had a horrible feeling this story didn’t end well.

Gio nodded, reassured, and went on reminiscing, ‘Carlo was so happy once he was able to move into his cottage. He had his bees for honey, his goats he would milk to make cheese, his chickens for eggs, all kinds of beautiful fresh vegetables and fruit in his gardens. He was so generous with it as well, always inviting us for meals, and giving us food.

‘He never hurt a thing, honestly he was the gentlest person I have ever known. I remember visiting him, and the rabbits had burrowed under his fence into his garden and eaten his cabbages. He merely shook his head and said, “Oh well, they must have been more hungry than me, to have gone to all that effort to get a meal”. He was like that. When we were younger, he would allow us to come into the woods with him, if we would promise to sit still and remain very quiet. Then all the wildlife would come out, animals that you normally wouldn’t see due to their shyness, and we would just watch. Little squirrels would crawl all over him, and he would feed them nuts, and … what do you call them, ermellini? Ermine?’

‘Oh – stoats? Stoats and weasels?’ Reynier suggested.

‘Yes! They would come out, running around and playing, doing their summersaults and their little dances, and Carlo would laugh and whisper – “God must really have a sense of humour, to create such strange little animals that like to play”. He never carried any bitterness within him, no matter what life threw at him. He loved God, even when he was no longer welcome at church, and was always thankful for what he had.’

‘But don’t confuse God with religion or the Church,’ put in Reynier, ‘the Church is an institution of men, not God. God’s institution is nature, which your brother loved so much, creation itself – and it’s perfect.’

Gio nodded at this, thoughtfully, then he went on, ‘So … my brother lived a quiet, private life in his cottage on the hill. My sister still spent a lot of time with him, but she didn’t like Luca. They clashed you see, only because they both loved my brother so much, and were mutually jealous of each other.

‘As my wine became more popular, I began to take annual trips to Florence, the capital city, to conduct business and meet other winemakers. To be honest, it was as much a vacation for me as anything, for we didn’t need more business, but I would take a few weeks and enjoy my time there each year.

‘Then one day a bishop took over the diocese, intent on an inquisition – cleansing the area of all heretics, infidels, witches … anyone he considered evil or “in alliance with the devil”. When he came to our village – well, the parish priest there was eager to impress him and help out. It was the same time of year that I was away in Florence – away enjoying myself over several weeks,’ he let out a small sob as he said it, ‘which I’ve regretted every day since…’ at this point Gio choked up, and couldn’t go on.

Reynier looked over and saw that tears were streaming down his cheeks, and he felt constricted at the back of his own throat. He knew this had a bad ending. ‘Gio, stop. You don’t need to go on, it’s too upsetting. I know, it ended badly … and your brother was a good man, but you cannot blame yourself or feel guilty for not being there. I know, from what you’ve told me, that your brother wouldn’t have wanted that. He would have been thankful for everything you ever did for him, and he would have wanted you to enjoy your life. Don’t tell me anymore, it will only upset you.’

They rode on in silence for some time. Up ahead, it seemed Chiara was getting impatient, waiting on them and probably wondering why they were riding along so slowly. She had pulled up with Seamus, and they were both sat on their horses facing Reynier and Gio, waiting for them to catch up.

As Gio and Reynier got closer, he wondered what she would think when she saw her brother. While his tears had now dried, certainly it would be evident to Chiara that her brother had been upset when she saw his face.

However, they didn’t get close enough, for once they were within thirty yards or so, Chiara called out, ‘Come on, you pair of old men – why are you going so slow!’ She then swung her horse around and shouted to Seamus, ‘C’mon Irish!’ and rode off at a canter. Seamus looked back at them, shrugged, turned and followed her.

Reynier looked over at Gio, it had been at least fifteen or twenty minutes since either of them had said a word. ‘What do you think Gio, shall we quicken our pace and catch them?’

Gio looked at him, earnestly. ‘I need to finish this – please. I have never felt comfortable to talk to anyone about it, and I don’t know when we will get another chance alone. Unless you don’t wish to hear more…’

Reynier realised that Gio needed to talk about it, to unload his feelings, a sympathetic listening ear to help him get past it. He felt a great deal of empathy for Gio and Chiara, and wanted to try and help. Reynier smiled reassuringly at him, ‘Of course, my friend, tell me the rest – if you think you’re able to.’

Gio thought for a bit, silently as they rode. Then he returned to the story, ‘So … I was away. The priest brought the bishop up to our farm, with a group of armed men. Twelve of them there were, well … more followers as well – spectators – but twelve of them. Chiara was taken first, totally unaware and unprepared – she was working in the vineyard. Then Luca – oh, there were those who were happy to point out the culprits, to rid the village of its sodomites, as they called them. Then they went up to the cottage on the hill, and found my brother – oblivious to what was happening – and took hold of him. They set fire to his cottage, and then killed his beloved goats in front of him, as he screamed in protest.’

Gio paused to compose himself before continuing, ‘You can imagine how my sister screamed and fought, but they had tied her and they beat her bloody. Then they took the three of them back to the bottom of our property, where a crowd from the nearby village had gathered. The bishop gave a stern speech, warning them all of the righteous punishment that would be meted out to unnatural men, and how the people should repent for allowing such abominations to God to live in their community. They set up makeshift crosses, tied my brother Carlo and his friend Luca to them, piled up wood around them…’ Gio paused here, ‘Then they set them on fire – forcing my sister to watch, as her brother was burned alive.’

Gio had broken down again, and Reynier also felt the sting of salty tears on his own cheeks. After a while, Gio composed himself and went on, ‘Chiara had screamed herself hoarse, watching her twin brother burn until he was no more. But it wasn’t over for her. After they had burnt, and Chiara could do no more than sob softly, the bishop turned on her. He told her that she too was an abomination and would need to learn what the true natural place for a woman was. He then let all ten of the guardsmen that had accompanied him and the priest take her – one after the other, brutally. It was the only time she had ever had any kind of sexual encounter with a man, and it was enough to ensure that she would never let another man touch her again.’

#

Reynier just shook his head, speechless. It was the most horrific thing he could imagine anyone having to go through. ‘I don’t know what to say. It’s unimaginable, how does she cope – Chiara? …What happened afterwards, and once you returned?’

Gio gathered himself once more before continuing, ‘Once they had left, and the crowd had dispersed, the old woman – now a widow – who had nursed my brother and sister twenty years earlier when they were infants, came and carried my sister back to her home, and nursed her once again as she had so many years before. The woman was bruised and bleeding herself, for she had fought to try and help them. Her son, who had taken over his father’s position as caretaker of our goat herd, had also fought and been beaten quite badly. The rest of our workers had fled, or cowered and watched from a distance.

‘Afterwards, Chiara asked that they take the remains of her brother and his friend and bury them at the top of the hill, where the cottage had been. She was unable to walk herself, so they carried her up on a litter the next day, and buried the charred remains of Carlo and Luca together, and planted an olive tree over them. She said there they would remain in peace together, forever, without fear of men.

‘When I returned, three weeks later, I was completely unaware, for no one had told me what had happened. Chiara hadn’t fully recovered yet, though she was back in our house, with her old nurse-maid calling in daily to check on her and bring her food. When I walked in that day, and she told me all that had happened … well, that was the worst day of my life, worse than the day I lost my mother.’ He choked up again, as did Reynier – for it was the saddest story he’d ever heard.

‘We cried together, my sister and I, for what seemed like hours, after she told me everything. Then – finally – my grief turned to anger, and I went and girded my sword and grabbed the crossbow, but Chiara stopped me. She said she couldn’t lose me as well, or she would take her own life. Whatever we did, we had to do together – from then on, for we only had each other left. But first … she needed to recover.’

#

Here, Gio took a breath and a small break in his story. The worst part of it was over at least. After he had calmed himself, he continued, ‘It took several more weeks for her to fully regain her strength, but once she did, she was stronger than she had ever been, and had single-minded determination. She cried no more after the day I returned, the crying time was over. We honed each other’s martial skills, practicing incessantly with each day as her strength increased.

‘When the day came, we knew exactly what had to be done, and there would be no going back. Twelve men would never blacken anyone’s day again, and we would never be able to return.

‘Before we left, we called into the shepherd’s cottage at the bottom of our farm and spoke with the woman and her son the goatherd, who by then had recovered from his injuries. We explained that we would be leaving and people would come looking for us. We told them to take anything they wanted from our house, for it would probably be sacked anyway. They could take ownership of the farm and vineyard afterwards, for we wouldn’t be returning. The woman cried and expressed her sympathy and sorrow to us, and then we left – the home where our family had lived for generations.’

After a pause, Gio went on, ‘It wasn’t difficult to ascertain where the bishop resided. We made the priest take us to him, bound and gagged as he was. We dragged the bishop out of his bed in the middle of the night, in the manse of a town nearby. Chiara had special plans for the churchmen, and I let her take the lead in the matter. Carlo had always acted as a calming influence on her fiery spirit – but he was no longer there. We took the bishop and the priest to the church beside the manse, and tied them together inside. Chiara used the oil from the oil lanterns to splash on the floor around them, and on the walls and door. When they realised what she was doing, the panic became evident in their eyes as they struggled and tried to plead, but it was too late. I didn’t try to stop her when she set it alight.

‘We stood outside watching the inferno as the flames engulfed the inside of the building, and windows broke from the heat, and I saw in her eyes that this was the vengeance she had determined she would repay on them, all those weeks she had been recovering.

‘In the dark early hours of the morning, the townsfolk started appearing, bleary eyed, wondering what was happening and how the church came to be on fire. By the time the alarm was raised and a concerted effort was made to try and put it out, the cries from within had fallen silent. There was no chance of saving that church, only the stone walls of the outside would remain, the interior would be nothing but ash and cinders, and some charred bones. Nobody paid much attention to us, as everyone was intent on putting out the fire, but later they would recall a man and a woman – strangers – observing silently, before leaving on their horses.

‘Each of the men that had raped my sister died that night, by her sword or with a crossbow bolt through their backs as they fled. Most had been with the bishop or the priest, but we had to return to our village to find the last two. Some nights I still see their wives screaming as I dragged them out of their rooms, while Chiara dealt with their bastard husbands.

‘By the time it was done, it was already daylight, and people were wakening. They were alerted to the fact that someone had been attacked, and they came to investigate. We didn’t care, we almost wished someone would challenge us and give us a decent fight, but no one dared. When they saw us, and no doubt recognised who we were and what it was about, they gave us a wide birth. And so we rode away, justice had been served for our brother.’

Gio paused for a while, and they continued to ride in silence.

‘Where did you go?’ Reynier asked.

‘I was friends with a wine merchant in Florence, whom I stayed with each year when I visited the city. In fact, I was quite fond of his daughter, and had considered asking her to marry me. We got on well together, and I thought we would make a good partnership. We went there.’

Reynier nodded – it was the first time Gio had mentioned any girl in his life, other than his sister of course. ‘And did anything become of that?’ he asked.

Gio gave a shake of his head, ‘No – we were on the run. We had killed twelve men, including a bishop, and burnt down a church. The Church would be after us, and it wouldn’t take them long to track us down to the wine merchant in Florence, and I was putting both he and his daughter in danger by staying with them. What’s more, I no longer had any property, vineyard, or prospects to offer the girl, so a marriage proposal was out of the question.

‘The wine merchant came up with a solution for us. We could sail to Constantinople as his agents, selling wine. There was good trade to be had there with the Christians of the city, and a demand for wine. The job was well-paid, and it would get us out of Italy. It sounded like the ideal solution, so we took it.

‘We did other trips abroad for the wine-merchant as well, and eventually we met David Riccio in Savoy, and became friends with he and Gina. They convinced us to join them on the trip to Scotland, and … well, you know the rest. It’s over two years now since my brother died.’ Gio had finished, and it seemed as though a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders.

Reynier said, ‘Thank-you, for telling me … I really appreciate you confiding in me.’ It explained a lot, particularly how protective the man was of his little sister, and why they did everything together. Gio would never let anything bad happen to her again, that much was certain. But what a burden they both bore psychologically.

Gio looked at him and nodded with a sad smile, but said nothing.

Chiara and Seamus had once again slowed down and were waiting for them to catch up, so when they got to within earshot, Reynier shouted out that they would stop for a break – before they went riding off again. They would refresh themselves with something to eat and drink before completing their ride to Egmond.

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in Historical Fiction

Responses