First Page – The Apprentice – Historical
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Six leagues from Bologna to Modena, an easy day’s ride unless you are leading three nuns, their chaplain, four nervous merchants with reluctant servants and a pack of fifteen mules. Not to mention two mutinous adolescents and the stout young monk with the wiry red hair and spectacles. It was mid-morning already, four mules had been unloaded and repacked, there were sure to be further delays on the road. The nuns would moan and whinge at every bump in the road, they’d agree to keep their lunch short but they’d certainly order the most complicated dishes in the inn. Instant indigestion; the cavalcade would have to stop for the ladies and it would be dark with three hours to go before reaching Modena’s outskirts.
It was not quite ten when the ill-assorted gaggle trailed out of the Montanari stables and onto the road. Lolo was flanked by Brother Theo, the Scottish monk and her brother Giovanni. Fourteen and furious. Furious with her father, with her aunt, with her pain-in-the-neck brother and most of all with Theo and his bright ideas. There was no sign of lightning in the clear blue sky, no possibility that the hand of God would strike Giovanni down for whining or Brother Theo for his plotting and planning. No chance that plague or boils would afflict her inflexible, tight-fisted father or her loathsome, snake-eyed aunt. She’d evaded it for five years, but now, thanks to Brother Theo, she was finally convent-bound. The only reason she kept her horse close by Giovanni and Theo was because the alternative was to ride alongside the nuns. Standing with the women as the mules were packed and repacked had been quite enough.
For now, there was bright sunshine, a change after weeks of dismal rain, the trees were coming into leaf and it was hard to fester. Between them, Theo and Giovanni were keeping up a spanking pace. What Theo’s game was, she couldn’t work out, but a game he certainly had. He’d come to Bologna a year before. One morning, she and Giovanni had stumbled onto a scene of controlled chaos at the Montanari Palazzo, supervised by a, squat monk with a strange accent.
“No, over there, and careful with that box, it has scientific equipment. For the love of Mary and all the saints, don’t drop that box, it’s got the marmot in it.” He caught sight of the two bewildered children in the doorway. “You, yes, you, come and give me a hand with this. Are you the cousins?”
He had heard of them. He lifted piles of books out of yet another box and said, “Take these up to the schoolroom, Fra Benedetto asked for them and it seemed quicker to bring them than send them by carrier. And when you’ve delivered them, come back, there’s more to take up, I’ve got a globe and an astrolabe. Hurry now.”
The stocky little Dominican friar was from the edge of the known world, exiled for clinging to his faith when all around him were flocking to heresy. He’d been educated not in his homeland but in France and Germany. He bustled and busied himself with reorganising the schoolroom, a task which the stalwart but elderly Fra Benedetto observed with gentle scepticism. What thrilled Brother Theo most was the discovery that Lolo was working for Ulisse Aldrovandi, Bologna’s greatest man of science. Theo intended the marmot as his passport to an audience with the old man. Lolo drew it huddled over its breakfast, presented the sketch that afternoon to Aldrovandi.
Faster than Theo had dared hope, he was invited to Aldrovandi’s extraordinary house crammed with exotica and curiosities. That was the first of several favours Lolo had managed for the monk. All apparently forgotten; her thanks was an escort to a life in a cloister. A cloister full of scheming, dissatisfied, frustrated creatures like Aunt Lucrezia, seething, erupting, interfering.
If the anger dissipated, she would start weeping. So, despite the beauty of the day, Lolo tended her fury, fanned it and refreshed it with resentment and bitter reviews of all the injuries the world had ever done her. She did not really notice how far Theo, Giovanni and she had advanced ahead of the rest of the party. Not until the horsemen were heading towards them.