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The siege had come and gone,
and the free city of Fermo remained free.
Fiorenza gave thanks, for in her heart
she could still see the high hill of its market
and smell the brisk salt breezes of the sea.
Her thoughts turned to Giacinto the striòs,
and she wondered about his safety,
for like her he sometimes sold goods in Fermo
and war was a chancy thing for a witch-son.
Fiorenza was in the village,
bringing herbs to the baker and the brewer,
the day a caravan of wounded soldiers came through.
They were all mustered out and on their way home
under the watchful eye of an officer on a bay horse.
She watched as they unloaded a few men at the church
and then made their slow, limping way down the road.
Alfonso the brewer's brother went with them, following
the officer to ask of adventure and speak of enlistment.
Fiorenza recalled the time he had fallen prey to a fata
and how she had rescued the elf-struck lad
from the daughters of Befana.
She wondered if she would ever see him again.
With a sigh, Fiorenza climbed up the steps of the church.
Don Candido was laying out the corpse of a boy
who had died of his wounds along the way, and muttering
that it was a shame to lose such a fine young lad.
Two other soldiers sat on the pews.
Fiorenza recognized one of them;
Nicilo had left the village just a few years before,
now returning older and worn, one arm in a sling.
She checked the work out of habit,
but the wounds were neatly tended and already healing.
Fiorenza would have left, then,
but Nicilo caught her by the hand.
"Take Ercole with you," he murmured.
"He has no one to go home to,
and my parents' house will have no room."
He tucked a coin into her fingers.
The coin flashed in the sun, Spanish gold
flung far from its native land by the tides of war.
Fiorenza frowned, recalling the Spaniard
in the marketplace and wondering
if he'd had any hand in this conflict.
"Please say you'll take care of him,"
Nicilo pressed, offering another coin.
Fiorenza waved it off. One was plenty.
"What happened to him, then?"
she asked Nicilo. Ercole ignored them,
staring blankly at the colored lights
cast along the floor by the stained-glass windows.
"A cannonball cracked his head," said Nicilo.
"He's gone strange from it."
Well, Fiorenza had tended elders gone strange from age.
Surely this couldn't prove too different from that.
She took Ercole by the elbow and led him to her home.
He sat where she put him, ate what she gave him,
and slept when she told him. He was no trouble.
He spoke, but sometimes lost the sense of words
as if he'd dropped them and couldn't find them
in the overgrown garden of his thoughts.
Perhaps, Fiorenza mused, she'd take him to Giacinto
after the skull fracture had fully healed,
and see if a witch-son might do anything
for a broken mind.
But then she heard Ercole whispering
to the belladonna in the bottom herb-bed,
and nodding as if it answered.
She saw him look up, wandersome eyes
fixed on the empty blue dome of the sky,
just before a griffin soared slowly into view.
Then again, Fiorenza mused,
perhaps Ercole wasn't broken,
merely jarred a little aside from the world
in which most people lived.
She would make room for him in hers.
It was the least she could do for someone
who had helped keep the free city free.