It was almost midnight when I turned down the steep cobbled streets into the Via di Vallerozzi.
I walked alone except for my shadow, a black companion in the lamplight.
At the entrance to the Contrada of the Wolf I raised my eyes to the bell tower and felt the knot in my belly tighten. I stepped up to the door and knocked, rapping four times then four again. Then I waited, counting my heartbeats. I was about to try once more when I heard footsteps and then the creak of ancient hinges as the heavy oak door opened.
The guardsman, thin and sallow-skinned, shoulders hunched with age, poked his head out. He looked at me warily.
“Hello, signor…” My accent gave me away straight off. I didn’t have the chance to say anything more.
“No tourists, Americano!” the guardsman grunted dismissively. “Not on the night before the Palio.”
He began to close the door and I had to thrust my arm out to stop it shutting in my face.
“I’m not a tourist!” I insisted. “I’m Lola. Lola Campione.”
I had expected my name to mean something to him, but there was no flicker of recognition on his stony face.
“Go find the Capitano. Tell him I’m here.”
The guardsman didn’t move. “The Capitano is in a meeting. Very important. He cannot be disturbed.” He pushed the door and I felt it closing against me.
“No! Please don’t –”
From behind the guardsman a voice rang through the dark corridor.
“Come now, Drago,” the voice said. “Do you not recognise this girl? This is the fantino herself. Let her in.”
The guardsman hesitated, the look on his face made it plain that he was unimpressed. You’re kidding me, right? This twelve-year-old kid’s the fantino? Then, grudgingly, he did as he was told, releasing his grip on the door so that I could push it wide enough to move past him and come inside.
The hallway was lit by oil lamps that illuminated the dusty paintings on the wood-panelled walls. In this gloomy half-light a man with thick black hair, a sculpted beard and dark eyes stood in the centre of the room, dressed in floor-length black and white robes trimmed with brilliant orange.
“Hello, Capitano,” I said.
“Good evening, Lola,” he replied. “We were not expecting you tonight. Is something wrong?”
“I couldn’t sleep,” I said. “I was worried about Nico.”
“I am touched by your concern,” the Capitano said, not sounding touched at all. “I can assure you he is quite safe and well.”
“I need to see him,” I said. “I won’t leave until I know he’s OK.”
“It is not possible, Lola,” the Capitano replied.
“No one can see him tonight, not even you.”
He grasped my arm and began to escort me back towards the front door. “You should go home. Get some sleep…”
I resisted, jerking my elbow away and pulling free of him. Standing at his post by the door the guardsman saw me do this and reached for his sword. The Capitano had to raise his hand to quell him.
“Lola, I have no time for this.” The Capitano glanced anxiously over his shoulder into the darkness of the hallway. From a room at the far end, I could hear the muffled voices of men arguing in rapid-fire Italian.
“The rival contradas are here,” he said. “We are discussing arrangements for the race tomorrow. I must ask you to leave.”
The Capitano resumed his attempts to usher me to the door. I could see he was losing his patience, but I stood my ground.
“Let me see Nico. Please, Capitano? I’ve come all this way…”
When I said this, I only meant that it was a long distance to walk here, all the way from the villa,but the Capitano seemed to think my words had a deeper meaning.
“Yes, of course. It is a miracle, this journey you have made, Lola.” He waved his hands dramatically. “From New York to Italy, you have come home to us, your people. And tomorrow you will ride in the greatest race in the world, the Palio, for the glory of the Lupa, the Contrada of the Wolf. Everything depends on you, Lola.”
The conversation in the room beyond had become a shouting match. The Capitano was flustered, anxious to get back to his meeting.
“Very well, Lola,” he said abruptly. “I will allow it. But it is against all the rules of the Contrada so you must tell no one. Are we agreed?”
“Then quickly, come with me.”
I followed the Capitano down the hallway, through one of the many doorways that led off the main corridor.
The room we entered had a high vaulted ceiling and walls lined with antique glass cabinets. Behind the glass, headless mannequins were dressed in Romeo and Juliet costumes with swords and flags, and suits of armour propped up behind them. It looked like a museum exhibition – except tomorrow all these glass cases would be opened up and the museum would come to life.
“Quickly, Lola!” The Capitano kept me moving past the display.
We continued through a labyrinth of secret rooms and passages that would have been impossible to navigate on my own. I stuck close as the Capitano took one turn after another, until we reached a narrow corridor that led to an iron door. On the door was the head of a wolf, cast in black iron, life-sized with two crossed swords behind it and eyes made from grey stone. Those eyes! They seemed to glare at me, challenging me. The wolf looked so lifelike, its muzzle jutting out, jaws open and teeth bared. If it had sprung from the door snarling and snapping I wouldn’t have been at all surprised.
Beside me, the Capitano began muttering away, strange words that I didn’t recognise, an incantation in Italian that seemed to be some kind of ancient ritual. As he spoke he raised his hands up, palms spread out in front of the wolf ’s head, then he placed both hands upon the hilts of the swords and pulled down hard. The swords acted as levers, splitting the wolf ’s face in two and opening the doors to reveal what lay on the other side, a spiral of stone stairs descending into darkness.
I waited, expecting the Capitano to go on ahead, but he stepped back away from the edge of the stairwell to make room for me to pass him.
“You must go alone from here. I need to return to my meeting.”
And with that he turned and left me at the top of the stairs.
I peered down into the pitch-black, my heart hammering. I had to do this. Nico was down there and I hated to think of him alone and terrified in this strange place. I put out my hands, my fingertips brushing the cold stone wall to find my bearings, then I took my first step and began my descent into the darkness.
Feeling my way, shuffling along, I went down step by step until I reached the base of the stairwell. Here, I groped blindly until I clasped the cool iron of a door handle. Gripping it, I pushed as hard as I could and the door groaned open to reveal a narrow stone corridor lit by torches. I was underneath the rooms of the contrada. Ahead of me, I could see a door with a tiny window of heavy iron bars, like a prison cell.
“Hello?” My voice echoed down the corridor and I heard a snort in reply – the restless stamping of hooves on soft straw.
It was him! He called back to me. Not his usual cheerful nicker, but a vigorous and frantic high-pitched whinny.
“Nico! It’s OK!” I ran to the door and began to work the bolt. “I’m here… Uugghhh!”
The bolt was stuck. I strained at the rusted metal, trying to force it open but it wouldn’t move. I could see Nico on the other side of the bars, fretting and pacing, back and forth, flicking his head anxiously. “I’m coming, Nico. It’s OK.”
With a rush, the bolt finally came loose and I had the door open and was running to his side, flinging my arms around his golden neck, burying my face deep in the coarse strands of his flaxen mane.
“Of course I came,” I whispered. “You didn’t think I would leave you here alone, did you? I’ll always come for you, Nico, no matter what.”
It broke my heart the way he leant in to me, nuzzling in with his muzzle pressed against me, snorting and blowing, making these strange snuffly noises I had never heard before, like he was talking to me, saying, “You took so long! I was so lonely!”
“I’m sorry, I came as soon as I knew,” I murmured. “It’s going to be OK, I’m here now, I’m with you.” I knew that being trapped in this basement stall would terrify him. Nico had never been left alone like this before. He’d grown up in the fields at Signor Fratelli’s farm with the other horses by his side. Even at night when he was brought in to his loose box in the stables, he’d had their whinnies and nickers right next door for company To be brought here and kept in solitary confinement in this tiny, cramped stone cell must have felt like cruel punishment, when in fact it was supposed to be a sacred honour; the final
stage before his ascent to glory.
But glory is for gods, not for horses. Nico didn’t know that he was part of an ancient ritual or that the hopes and dreams of an entire contrada were riding on him tomorrow. As far as he was concerned, the only thing on his back when he stepped out onto that racetrack would be me. It was for me alone that he would gallop until his legs buckled and his heart burst. He had the heart of a champion, my horse, I had known it from the very first moment I saw him. I took one look into those deep brown liquid eyes of his and I knew that he was special, that he was the one.
“A horse that’s going to win has a light in their eyes,” my Nonna Loretta always says. “You look hard enough, Piccolina, and you’ll see it. The good ones burn inside with the desire to prove themselves.”
My nonna can look at a horse and tell you straight off before it sets foot on the track whether or not it’s gonna win. When I was little, she’d take me to the Aqueduct on race days and we’d spend hours at the birdcage, me perched on her hip, choosing winners as the horses paraded by.
“Can you see which one it will be, Piccolina?” she would ask. That’s her nickname for me, Piccolina, it means little one.
I always chose the hot ones, of course. Won over by their flashy looks, I’d single out the horses that fretted and danced like prizefighters. They looked like they wanted to go fast.
“No, no, Piccolina!” Nonna would shake her head in disapproval. “You must look beyond the shiny coat and the pretty face. You need to look deeper, look at the heart.”
“That’s silly! I can’t see their hearts, Nonna!” I would giggle.
“Try again,” Nonna would say. And then she would give me a hint. “Look at that one over there. You see the way his ears pricked at the roar of the crowd in the grandstand? The flick of his tail when the jockey mounted? He has heart, Piccolina. I think he is the one.”
“Should we bet on him then, Nonna?” I would ask.
“Oh no!” Nonna would say. “Racing is the sport of kings, but gambling is for fools and scoundrels. A Campione never bets.”
That’s our name, Campione. It means Champion in Italian. Our stables are called Champion Racing. Not that the horses we train are champions. Often, by the time they come to us they are ten-time losers, and it’s our job to turn them around because no one else will take them.
My dad, Ray Campione, was a pretty famous jockey back in the day, but he was always falling off and breaking bones, and after my mom died Nonna said it was too dangerous. She said if he fell again then us four kids could wind up being orphans, so Dad gave up riding and started training. He’s supposed to be the head trainer, but everyone knows it’s really Nonna who calls the shots, deciding the feed and workout regimes, which jockey will get the ride and when the horse is ready to run.
Nonna used to ride track, but she’s too old for it now. “Eighty-five, Lola! How did that happen? I still feel sixteen.” That’s how old she was when she came to New York on her own, all the way from Italy. It was 1945. The war had just ended and she arrived on a boat at Ellis Island “with nothing except the clothes on my back and my jodhpurs and riding boots in a duffel bag”.
Nonna never liked to talk about “the old country”. I would try and ask her about what life was like back in Italy, but she never did say much. The only thing she would ever talk about was the horses. “They were Anglo-Arabs,” she told me. “Very intelligent, beautiful creatures, quite different from these hot-heads we have to train!”
I didn’t realise what she meant until I met Nico. He isn’t like any horse I ever met in New York, or even any of the other horses he shares a stable with at the Castle of the Four Towers in Siena. He’s enormous for a start, and he’s showy with his rich honey-chestnut coat, white blaze and thick flaxen mane. He could almost be too pretty, except he’s burly too; real powerful with these strong shoulders and haunches. If he wanted to, he could lash out with a hoof and kill you with a single blow, but he would never do that. He’s sweet-natured and gentle as a faun. When I’m in the loose box with him I never even need to use a halter to restrain him. I can leave the doors wide open and he’ll just stay in the stall with me like he wants to be here, shoving his muzzle up against me as I pet him, just like he’s doing right now.
“Tomorrow,” I tell him, “we’re going to go out there and win this crazy bareback race in front of all of Italy, and when we cross the finish line we will be heroes and the contrada will remember us for ever.” The Palio is the world’s most dangerous race. The horses are ridden by hard-bitten jockeys – men who won’t think twice about using whatever means necessary to beat us if we get in their way.
“There are no saddles,” I remind Nico. “And no rules either. The other horses will crash into you and their jockeys will whip and push me if they can get close enough.”
Nico shakes his mane anxiously.
“Hey, hey, no…” I reassure him. “Don’t worry, Nico. Those guys, they think they’re tough, right? But they never met a girl from Ozone Park before.” It’s not like I’m lying to him. Nico is my best friend and I would never do that. But he needs his jockey to be strong right now. If he realised the fantino was nothing more than a scared twelve-year-old girl then we’d both be in real trouble.
Lucky for me, if there’s one thing I’m good at it is acting tough when I am actually terrified. I guess I have Jake Mayo to thank for that.
It’s funny to think that you owe a debt to the boy who made your life at middle school into a living hell, but in a weird way I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Jake. Growing up in Ozone Park, I was already pretty battle-hardened before he started his own personal war against me. But after our fight, something changed deep inside of me. So if you want to know how I got here, then I’ll tell you. It all started the day that I broke Jake Mayo’s nose.