How many times, she wondered, had she woven together cloth that his sword had then torn apart along with the flesh underneath?
The year is 1136, the place Tropèa, a walled sea town in Southern Italy during the Norman domination.
Kallyna d’Àrgira, a master of the arts of the loom who can turn the world into silk thread, is pledged in marriage by her father to Raimo Trani, a man she hates. After a sudden tragedy leaves her at Raimo’s mercy, into her life comes Dàlibor d’Hancourt, the Norman knight sent by King Roger of Hauteville to be the new governor of Tropèa, a man who, like her, is burdened by a life he did not choose.
Their opposite stations — Kallyna the daughter of a fisherman, Dàlibor the son of a foreign lord — pit them at first against each other. When Kallyna’s talent attracts the unwelcome attention of the heir to Roger’s throne, who can destroy them both, the common threat will draw them together, with a bond that defies all distinctions, into the time of iron that saw the founding of the greatest kingdom in Italy.
Dianne Hales, author of La Bella Lingua
and Mona Lisa, a Life Discovered
author of Bohemian Heart and 1906
Daniel J. Langton, author of Querencia
and During Our Walks
In Roman times, when heroes passed among men like comets, the town had been called Hercules’ Harbor. In the year of Our Lord 1136 it was named Tropea, “She who puts her enemies to flight.”
It rises high atop a spur of grey granite jutting into the Mediterranean along the rugged coast of Calabria, almost halfway between Palermo and Naples. Above the steep face of the cliff the walls came sheer out of the rock, rounding up in their hold a cluster of red tiled roofs that broke only at the two gates. From the Portammare, the Sea Gate, a long curving stairway cut into the stone led to the Marina, where the fishing boats were kept and ships cast anchor beyond two little islands of white sandstone molded by the wind; from the Porta Vaticana started the road toward the watchtowers of the coast and the farms of the inland.
To remind the people of Tropea that yet another foreign race had fallen in love with their land and was now their master, there was the tallest and newest building in town, the Castro. There the Norman governor sent from Palermo by King Roger d’Hauteville kept his soldiers and meted out justice. Only the lords could look at that massive castle without fear, for they were the only ones who entered it or left it of their own will.
Safe in the shadow of the Castro and of the Norman Crown, Tropea gathered along its narrow streets its narrow houses, those of the local noblemen side by side with those of fishermen and artisans, yet kept solidly apart by invisible walls thicker than brick. The true heart of the town was Piazza Portèrcole, opening bright and unexpected between the marketplace on one side and the church of the Black Madonna on the other. From a house in Piazza Portèrcole one could watch the world unroll its endless tapestry woven of days and nights.
The house of Vasili d’Àrgira looked onto Piazza Portercole. Two stories high, it had been cut from a single block of granite. The two small round balconies with their black wrought-iron bars looked like two spiders that had stopped their climb to bask in the warmth of the stone. Each window had its fringe of swallows’ nests under the sill, and each had its bunches of herbs hung to dry. Behind it was a garden bursting with fruit trees, while a lone palm shaded the roof; and by the steps of the front door rested two crossed oars, painted green and black.
If a fisherman’s family could have a coat of arms, those two green-and-black oars would have been chosen for the d’Àrgiras of Tropea, to whom from time beyond memory the sea had been home, road, and often grave. Their name was Greek, meaning `silver’. Not that any of them had ever been wealthy enough to deserve it; the pure sparkle it brought to mind spoke not of their pockets but of their souls.
In an age when a man could only accept injustice as he would have accepted drought and disease, Vasili d’Àrgira had been born with the hallmark of an undying hatred of everything unfair. He wouldn’t just sigh and pray to God every time the armed servants of the Byzantine lords went down to the beach and took away in the span of a moment the best of an entire fishing season. First he had grumbled, then he had tugged at his basket of fish; finally one day he had openly refused. The scars left on his back by the whip had become his most precious possession.
For ten years since that day he had gathered around him the men whose trade was the lifeblood of Tropea. He had argued and he had fought, and the hangman’s noose had often dangled closely before him. When the Norman rulers had replaced their Byzantine predecessors, with different titles but with the same arrogance, they had found him at the head of a guild of fishermen so strong that they had been forced to accept it along with every other long-established institution of the town.
Two generations of Falizza, the local breed of aristocrats, had wanted him dead. But to lay hands on the “most just man in Tropea” meant to face the anger of nearly every other man and woman in town; not to mention the frown of the Norman governor, who delegated to Vasili the task of peacemaker in litigations, and who that peace was very much interested in maintaining.
Yet no enemy Vasili d’Àrgira might have made ever afflicted him like a private nemesis all his own: his daughter Kallyna, whom he felt that God had given him as he would have given him a thorn in the side, to remind him day and night of his many other blessings.
Even the lack of a son had been remedied years before, when fate had sent to his house Michele and Arni, the two orphaned sons of his best friend. Michele had been pledged to Vasili’s youngest daughter Sila since the two were children; to Michele he would hand over the leadership of the fishermen’s guild, and both young men were as dear to him as true sons. But Kallyna seemed bent on defying Vasili’s every plan for a peaceful old age. For years now she had refused to marry the man he had chosen for her, causing unending trouble within his home; until he had been forced to allow his youngest daughter to marry first, against every proper custom he knew.
It was now the middle of July. Summer dried up the hills and smoothed the sea into long days of blue sleep. For many months Vasili and his men had hunted the swordfish in the manner practiced along the coast of Calabria for thousands of years. Now it was time to end the hunting season and to think of the wedding, to celebrate with man’s brief rituals the enduring ones of nature.
✶ ✶ ✶
“God willing, wife, this is the last day.”
“God willing indeed. A supper table where only women sit is bad luck.”
In the new light of dawn Vasili got up from bed, put on his shirt and his black vest, and reached for his cap.
He was one of those men who don’t need to be tall to command respect. Everything in his spare frame had a quiet dignity about it. In his handsome face the eyes were of a strikingly clear blue, which stood out from his many wrinkles like the sea from beyond furrows of brown earth. His wife Neia only came up to his shoulders. She was a small, thin woman who even in her appearance knew how to keep her place, one step below her husband.
“Here is your lunch, eat it in good health,” Neia said like every morning. That morning, however, she let a smile wander on her sunburned face. “Michele and Arni are down in the cellar grinding the spears,” she added.
Vasili took from her hands the cloth bundle still warm with loaves of bread that had just come out of the oven. “Michele won’t kill a single fish today,” he grinned. “Not the day before his wedding.” He stepped out on the landing, opened the door of the room next to his and glanced in.
The room was still almost in the dark; the thick shutters still held out against the first daylight. His gaze ran on the loom made of olive wood and tall enough to almost touch the ceiling, with the small icon of the Black Madonna nailed to the uppermost bar and the shuttle carved in the shape of a boat. The blanket Kallyna was weaving was almost finished. Bedsheets and linens were neatly piled on top of the walnut chest; Sila’s wedding gown lay across a chair.
The embroideries seemed to gleam in the dimness, bursting into a rainbow of colors: baskets of fruit, ships and waves, birds, flowers and trees. Only Kallyna could turn the world into silk thread, Vasili thought with a pleased smile; and in what little space was left by the loom, the bed in which his daughters slept seemed to him only a little larger than their cradles of years before.
Sila slept peacefully, wise even in her rest; Kallyna lay instead wrapped in her long black hair, her hands gripping the sheets and a frown on her face. Suddenly she stirred in her sleep, shaking her head.
“No … no!” she whispered frantically.
Vasili eyed her for a moment, until she went back to sleep. Then he drew a long sigh and closed the door.
“Had you ever noticed that Kallyna talks in her sleep?” he asked Neia on his way downstairs.
“Yes,” Neia nodded, “and it’s not a good sign at all. Perhaps if we spoke to Padre Costantino, if he could finally give her some peace …”
Vasili went on down the creaking stairs. “She’s young. Give her time. Once she’ll have a little one crying for hunger at her breast she’ll be all sweet,” and his voice was sweet already at the thought.
Neia shrugged doubtfully, then followed him into the kitchen that gleamed dimly with the large copper pans hung above the hearth. “Let’s hope so. Now that Sila is all settled down, Kallyna can marry Raimo Trani any day she wants.”
Vasili turned around, looming over his wife’s fragile figure. “You know she won’t even hear Raimo’s name anymore. By now I myself am not so sure I did the right thing when I promised her to him. Why, I think she spurns him even in her sleep!” he blurted out, remembering Kallyna’s panicked whisper.
Neia approached him cautiously. “But she’s been pledged to him for all these years,” she reminded him softly. “You can’t take back your promise now… or can you?”
Vasili didn’t answer, annoyed. He slipped a slice of bread into his shirt, grabbed a chunk of cheese from a plate, and finally moved away from his wife’s outstretched hands. “Michele, Arni, it’s time to go!”
Neia’s hands fell against her sides.
The two brothers stepped out of the cellar’s door. Arni must have been teasing Michele, and was still smiling mischievously.
“Father,” he said, “look how sharp the spear is this morning. Michele woke up to grind it earlier than he ever did in all his life.”
Michele kept winding around his elbow the rope tied to the end of the double-pronged spear. Once more he pretended not to have heard anything. He pointed at the front door. “Go get the oars, huh?”
Arni kissed Neia goodbye and went out. In the hour before dawn the square was quiet and empty.
Resigned now to brooding alone over Kallyna’s troubles, Neia stood patiently on the threshold to watch the three men leave. But first Michele cast a look at the window of Sila’s room, and Vasili didn’t miss that look. He grinned to himself, then spoke his gruff farewell to his wife.
“Come on, boys, come on. Like the proverb says, men do and women talk.” Then under his breath he added, “And if women didn’t talk, we’d all live like dumb beasts.”
On the smooth cobblestones of Piazza Portercole their footsteps sounded so familiar, like drops of water from a fountain.