The Cat: Tuesday September 20, 1513
Tabita watched with concern as Elias lowered himself over the edge of the roof. She was afraid he might fall again. Humans were not like cats; they could not twist and land on all fours and take no harm from a drop many times their own height. The wall that faced the camel-court on the uphill side was at least three times Elias’ height, and when he had fallen two weeks ago, the ground hitting his head had almost killed him.
Of course, his wound was healed now, but the left arm was still not as strong as the right. Elias used the better arm to hold the edge of the roof while his foot groped for the peg he had driven into the soft adobe bricks. It found and held.
The pegs had taken Elias three days to make and install. He had started several days ago, the morning Elias came back to the camel-court after quite some time in the paper-filled space above the lair Spots and Eva occupied. The day Elias and Spots had a hissing-spitting fight, and he took Eva away. Something that happened in that fight made Elias angry, frightened and very troubled.
As soon as he got back to the courtyard he broke an end off a branch of the carob tree and shaped it with a tiny knife, the kind used to sharpen feathers. The piece was half the thickness of his wrist and the length of his foot. It took a long time.
While he was about this, Elias talked softly to the camel, just like he used to do with the horse. Tabita wrinkled her nose. Grass-eaters seemed to like this constant stream of chatter; it calmed and reassured them. Grass-eaters were stupid.
But Fatima seemed smart enough when it came to knowing what Elias wanted her to do. Whenever he had to rest from his peg-making, he would train her.
Elias fed the camel pods from the carob tree whenever she pleased him. Fatima was so eager to get these that Tabita tried one herself to see what the appeal was. The pod was chewy and had a pleasant, faintly musty sweetness, but there was no nutrition in it that a cat could use.
Fatima already knew to be guided around the courtyard by a rider’s knees—nothing special in that. She quickly learned to come at his breathy whistle, the one most humans did not seem to hear. Elias taught her to get up and down with hand signals. And with a whispered command, she would stand where he told her to for longer and longer periods.
Tabita would not do that on command. But then, she was a pride-mate, an equal partner. Grass-eaters were only slaves.
Before dawn on church-bell day, Elias finished the first peg. Balancing on Fatima’s shoulder and reaching as high as he could, he used a rock to drive the peg into a crack between the bricks. Then he rested.
The next night, he drove a second, higher peg in by hanging onto the first. At the last stroke his weak arm gave away, and if the camel had not been standing there to break the fall, he might have been very badly hurt.
But the night after that, by pounding a third peg in place, Elias was able to climb out of the courtyard. He went crab-wise up the short roof, and Tabita, watching from a high branch in the carob tree, saw him loosen the dovecote grate and go through.
Tabita returned to the kitchen by the soot-pipe, and out the tiny window to the guard-room roof. It was early, but Fray Pablo’s horse was just coming in the front gate. That was expected; since Tabita had first come, the day before Market-day was always Fray Pablo day. When he dismounted, Tabita leaped onto his saddle-seat, safe from the curs as he led the animal to the same stall and set up his stools in the adjacent two stalls.
Elias had spoken to the priest, low and urgent: Eva was the subject, although Iago de Pazia was mentioned with even more venom than usual, along with somebody named Cerra. Then Fray Pablo diverted the people of the household, giving some kind of lecture in the front court, while Elias slipped into the feed-room below the dovecote.
Tonight Elias had merely gone up and down the wall. It was a new variation on the exercises Elias always did to keep himself strong and flexible.
Fatima stood patiently in her place below the peg-ladder, and Elias lowered himself onto her neck. He rode her over to the den, then slipped off and crawled inside. Tabita joined him there.
He was lying on his straw pallet, shaking with fatigue as he massaged the scar under his arm. And then, at last, he fell into uneasy sleep.
Tabita curled in the crook of his elbow and licked the healing gash on the inside arm while kneading the fresh scar tissue on his ribs. Elias was doing everything he could to promote rapid recovery except the one thing that was most important: he did not purr.
Elias used to purr. And for a short time, after that long ago fall when his heart stopped beating and then started again, he had purred a great deal. But then something had happened at the all-male place he lived, and Elias had stopped purring altogether. When all the other males at Holy Cross did the purring rituals he still made the noises, still went through the motions. But when he was alone, Elias did neither.
Tabita contrasted this with Spots, who purred in the manner called salat—but only when there was nobody around to see.
Tabita kneaded and purred for her damaged pride-mate.
Malaga-Granada road: Friday September 23, 1513
Eva woke drenched in sweat. In her dreams a priest had been pursuing her through trackless brush. As she shook off the fog of sleep, she realized that she had forgotten to tell Baseel about the armor the Franciscan was wearing beneath his cassock. He might be a bandit in disguise!
She sat up, every muscle protesting. Her pantalones and tunica, washed and dried, were folded on the end of the bed. Her new guitarra case was on the table. The light told her it was barely dawn, but the room was empty. She was alone.
A cold hand clutched her heart: Baseel had left without her! Eva did not take the time to question her sense of desertion; she forced her aching limbs into her riding outfit so that she could run downstairs.
Baseel came in as she was fastening her shoes. “Good, you are up. We have another long ride today. By midmorning the road will be easier, though. We will leave the mountain trails—and the danger of bandits—behind us.”
“There is something I forgot to tell you last night,” Eva said. “While I was sitting against the wall, a Franciscan arrived, but as he walked past me I heard the chink of a mail shirt.”
“Yes, Fray Pablo de Caceres. He’s the priest who has been coming to shrive Casa Cerra for the last month,” Baseel replied. “That heavy mail coat is his version of a hair shirt. And he carries a sword too. He was a knight of Calatrava before he joined the order, and now he’s one of those ‘fighting priests’. Here, eat this meat-pie, we won’t stop for anything until noon.”
Eva discovered that she was ravenous. “What is he doing here?”
“That has me puzzled as well. This morning he requested permission to accompany us back to Granada. Which seems very suspicious, considering he must have just come from that direction.” Baseel frowned. “I’m worried that he might be sniffing around for Elias. Fray Pablo is one of Cardinal Cisneros’ retinue.”
Cardinal Cisneros! Spain’s Grand Inquisitor himself! The meat pie suddenly tasted like mud. Eva swallowed her bite with difficulty.
“Perhaps he suspects Baltasar Cerra has their fugitive, and that we managed to smuggle him off to Malaga. Or maybe he thinks to worm information out of one of our men by riding back with us.” Baseel leaned out the window. “Ho—Ortiz, loosen the girth on that mule!” Then he turned back to Eva. “I found you a shawl, and I want you to wear it Saracen-style, over most of your face. And don’t forget that you are now EvaMaria Perez. This is a matter of life and death for Elias. If the Inquisition gets wind that we are hiding your brother, Cerra’s orders are to kill him and dispose of the body—and I have no qualms about doing it, if his presence endangers my people.”
A chill ran down Eva’s spine. One mis-step on her part could kill Elias, trapped between the Inquisition on the one side and this man—whom she had almost forgotten was Maloliente’s creature—on the other. “Manuel knows I’m Eva de Pazia.”
“Good point, I’ll send him ahead to scout out the road.” Baseel tightened the buckle on his cuirass.
The country opened up a little once they left the inn. Eva’s soreness eased as her muscles warmed. She looked around at the landscape, open areas interspersed with steep rugged montañas, scattered with unexpected outcrops of huge rocks, and tumbled lumps of lichen-covered boulders. Southern slopes abounded with aromatic brush, while the north-facing slopes were forested with mixed broadleaf and conifer trees.
Fray Pablo pulled alongside Eva’s mare. “Señora, I have not yet made your acquaintance. I am Fray Pablo de Caceres. Perhaps you have heard of me?”
“I know few people, Father. I am EvaMaria Perez.” Eva hoped that the road dust would explain her insistence on keeping her shawl across the lower half of her face.
Casually, as though he merely wanted to converse, Baseel let Kohli drop back so that the big gelding was between Fray Pablo and Eva. “Father, I’m curious as to what would bring you to this rugged place, only to turn and go back again?”
Fray Pablo seemed taken aback for a moment, but he recovered quickly. “The Cardinal received information that a rare Hebrew document might be held by a certain hermit who lives near last night’s inn, and I was sent to examine it.”
Baseel frowned. “Why does His Reverence Cardinal Cisneros want writings in Hebrew? Wasn’t he the one who burned all the books of the great library of Granada in the square before the cathedral?”
“Books on religion and philosophy. The church made an exception for Islamic works in medicine, mathematics, and science,” Fray Pablo corrected. “And of course none of the Old Testament volumes were burned. You see, in spite of his duties to shepherd his flock and his celebrated military victories in North Africa, the Cardinal’s life work is to produce a polyglot Bible.”
“Who are the polyglots?” Eva did not really care, but she wanted to keep the conversation away from herself.
“Polyglot means many languages. Our Complutensian Bible, when finished, will show the sacred texts in the language they were written in alongside the official version.” Fray Pablo warmed to his subject with the fervor of the true believer. “In the case of the Old Testament, this requires three columns: Greek and Hebrew down the sides, and Latin in the center. The Cardinal likes to call it ‘Christ between two thieves’. Of course, working from the oldest original texts that we can acquire is of utmost importance.”
Fray Pablo looked directly across at Eva. “Before this I was working with a young man at Holy Cross who was most gifted with Hebrew, one Elias de Pazia. Would you have heard of him?”
Eva’s heart began to thump so loudly she was afraid Fray Pablo could hear it. But Baseel was completely nonchalant. “Of course I have heard of him—everybody in Granada was at the auto-da-fé where they denounced the family’s Jewish subversion. Elias de Pazia died by plague. The hand of God, if I recall the sermon correctly.”
Just ahead the trail narrowed into a ravine, and the horses had to go single file. The north-facing side was thickly wooded. Baseel loosened his sword in its sheath, examining the slopes that loomed over them, clearly worried.
Even Eva could see that this was an ideal place for an ambush. Huge boulders frequently occupied the middle of the ravine, where they had come to rest after tumbling from the rocky outcrops above. The trail snaked over or around them as needed.
At a sharp bend in the dry creek bed, a newly fallen boulder blocked the road. The caravan halted, the eight mules and their five guards bunching up behind Eva, Fray Pablo, and the majordomo.
Baseel dismounted and waved one of the men-at-arms to come with him. Cautiously, with drawn swords, they climbed up the ravine wall until they could ease by the boulder.
As soon as they were out of view, Fray Pablo leaned toward Eva and spoke rapidly, keeping his voice low. “Listen, Eva de Pazia, and do not react. The real reason I came is because your brother told me that you had been taken to Malaga, possibly to be sold.”
Was he trying to trick her into admitting she knew where Elias was? “Father, I don’t know what you are talking about. I have no brother.”
“I know you must be careful but I can prove—” He broke off as the two men came back, slipping down the steep bank.
The majordomo spoke softly. “Keep as quiet as possible—we don’t want to attract attention. Unload the mules; we will have to squeeze them through one by one and re-load them on the other side. Jose, you and Alvaro stand guard as the packs come through. Juan and Paco stay at the rear until all is done. Father, you can stay with the señora?” He gave Eva an apologetic glance.
Fray Pablo nodded, and Baseel led Eva’s horse up the slope, stamping down the disturbed earth to make a better footing for the rest.
As soon as they were alone on the front side, Pablo continued. “Elias sent me to Malaga to buy you back if necessary. Imagine my relief when this morning I learned you were at the same inn, returning with the Granada-bound caravan.”
The first man-at-arms led his mule through the narrow spot, one of the pannier-bags on his shoulder. Behind him came another man, similarly burdened. Once back on sound footing, they went to work roping the mule’s bags to either side of the wooden pack-frame.
Fray Pablo’s tone changed, speaking as though in light conversation. “I have a friend, a young lady of about your age named Blanca. Three weeks ago Tuesday she introduced me to her charming cat, a tortoise-shell she called Tabita. And to my surprise, I found the creature in my saddle-bag later that afternoon.”
That was the day before Tabita had found her! Eva ventured a hesitant question. “Father, have you ever—have you ever dealt in slaves?”
Fray Pablo’s answer removed any doubt. “Only once, recently. The circumstances seemed to excuse my action but on reflecting on the harsh words Saint Paul wrote against those who deal in human flesh, it has so struck my conscience that I intend to undo the deal as soon as the opportunity affords.”
The two men were busy helping another mule down onto the trail. Eva leaned forward and whispered. “Please, the majordomo mustn’t suspect you know,” she begged. “He has orders—”
The men came close again, although they were so busy re-loading the mule that they paid no attention to Eva or the priest. Fray Pablo nodded. “I understand this is a life and-death situation. If the wrong persons were to discover our whereabouts—”
At that moment Baseel came leaping from the other side of the boulder. He grabbed Eva by the neck of her tunica and the waistband of her pantalones, lifted her bodily from Fea’s saddle and flung her face-down among a smaller group of rocks beside the trail. Eva’s ribs were bruised by a rock the size of a cow-skull, complete with a horned protuberance.
“Stay down!” He snarled, and then was gone. For a split second, Eva thought he knew what they had been talking about. Until something whizzed over her head and she heard a thunk of metal on wood.
She looked up and saw a spear-shaft quivering in the trunk of an oak three paces beyond her. Shouts echoed from the other side of the fallen boulder.
Bandit attack! Eva heard the clang of sword on sword, the scream of an injured horse. Too terrified to move, she put her head down and covered her ears.
If the bandits took her, she would suffer far worse than anything Cerra had devised. Eva began to pray in deadly earnest.
Prayer for herself became prayer for Baseel. So what if she was killed? She would be in heaven with Jesu. But Baseel—he would be in hell! Eva lifted her head to look for him, and saw the majordomo on the level top of the boulder, fighting with a man equally armed. Baseel leaped to avoid a sword-swipe at his legs and brought his own blade down, only to be blocked by the swift upward parry of his opponent.
Her heart was in her mouth as the two stabbed and hacked at each other. Please, Jesu, please Saint Basil, spare him! He hasn’t had the chance to believe—how could he, when the church is so corrupt?
A soft curse in Spanish came from below her. Eva became aware of a man crouching by the trunk of a huge old oak, the tree shielding him from the fighting. He was not one of Cerra’s men—a bandit, then. What was he doing, so still there?
Then she noticed the stave sticking over his head—he had a bow! The position of his arms showed it was at full draw, aimed toward the fighters on top of the boulder. He was waiting to kill Baseel!
Just as the archer had a clear shot Eva threw herself at him, slamming into his shoulder with all her weight. The man fell forward; she heard the snap of an arrow leaving the string, saw it fly as though in slow motion. But the trajectory was now towards the base of the great rock where more men struggled. It hit a man’s raised arm, and he dropped his sword with a cry.
The archer rose beneath her with an enraged bellow, and Eva was flung to the side. He threw away his weapon, useless now, its string broken, to pick her up like a rag doll. She flew backwards and hit the ground with such force that the world spun around her. Eva waited for the killing blow.
A distant shout sounded, and Eva heard the archer run off. The shout came again. Slowly, the wind knocked out of her, she pushed herself upright to look. Over the brow of the hill opposite rode Manuel, charging down on the fight without regard for his horse.
The man fighting Baseel atop the rock must have been the leader, for he yelled at his men: “Retreat!” He ducked under Baseel’s thrust and leaped down from the rock.
But the majordomo had no intention of letting his opponent go free. Baseel launched himself into the air like a madman, his sword held downward in a stabbing position. He landed almost atop the bandit leader, and the force of that landing felled the man and spitted him in the same motion.
Eva felt hot and cold sensations all over her body. Although she had held the hands of many victims of violence as they breathed their last, she had never seen a man die in battle. She could not turn her eyes away as Alcazar jerked his sword out of the man’s chest, and a fountain of blood, bright red and pulsing, sprayed him in its wake.
Alcazar turned and saw Eva standing transfixed. “Get on your horse!” he ordered. “Paco! Finish loading those mules!” And then he charged off, up and around the boulder to the other side.
Paco glanced her way. “Need help señora?”
Eva shook her head. “I can manage. You have enough to do.”
Paco did not ask twice. The two mules already brought over danced and backed, the smell of blood making them nervous, and he and the other man were hard-pressed to get them loaded.
Fea came to Eva, her ugly, obedient head hanging patiently. Eva almost stepped on the dead bandit leader.
She looked down at the face. A handsome face, and nothing written on his features to indicate whether he had been evil or good in life. His expression was not peaceful or resigned, as was usual for her hospice patients; rather he looked surprised, as though death was something that happened to others, not himself.
Eva bent down and closed the dead eyes, and, as they did at Hospice Santa Ana, said the brief prayer for the dead while making the sign of the cross on his forehead.
“Angel of God!” Eva turned and saw the speaker was lying beneath a tangle of dry tree branches that had been crushed by the fall of the boulder. “Beautiful lady, help me! If this wound is not staunched, I die!”
Stooping beneath the broken foliage, Eva saw a man clutching his arm. Blood soaked the sleeve above and below an arrow-shaft that protruded from just above the elbow. Bright red blood.
With practiced haste, she tore off her shawl and twisted it around the arm just above the arrow. As she tightened the makeshift bandage, the pulsing flow slowed and stopped.
“Eva!” Baseel pulled her out of her brushy cover. Blood was splattered and smeared all over him. “I told you to get on your horse! Our attackers may be regrouping even now.” He almost threw Eva into Fea’s saddle. “Where is your shawl?”
Eva’s stubborn courage drove out everything else. “Saving a man’s life.”
Baseel looked under the fallen branch and saw the wounded bandit. He stooped swiftly and jerked the shawl off. “Leave him to his just deserts. He was trying to kill us.”
“No!” the man clutched his arm, which was turning bright with fresh blood. “I warn’t going to kill nobody, just share a teeny bit of old man Cerra’s wealth.”
Eva started to say something, but Baseel cut her off. “Don’t listen to the ladrone. If he lived, he would be back to thieving and murder as soon as he was able.”
Eva was shocked at the majordomo’s callousness. “You don’t know that! People can change their ways.”
“Yes, I’ll change, I’ll repent of all my bad deeds,” the bandit begged. “Doncella, merciful lady, don’t let me die!”
“At least he should be shrived.” Fray Pablo was there by Fea’s side, his own cassock bloodstained.
“There’s no time,” Alcazar was getting angry. “I killed El Asesino, but I saw his brother, El Jabalí get away with most of their men. They’ll be regrouping as we speak. What is it, Ortiz?”
“Majordomo, one of the mules got a slash in the gut. And they got one of the panniers. Pepper, I think.”
“Then strap the other one on the back of Pepe’s saddle, his horse can carry another seventy pounds. Kill the mule, he’ll not recover from a gut wound.”
Eva looked around then and saw that the seven sound animals were now all on this side of the boulder, the men re-loading the last of them.
“Line them up and move them out!” the majordomo shouted. “Father, are you coming?”
“There is a soul at stake,” Fray Pablo said, very calm.
“Then stay and shrive him at your own risk.”
“My days are in the hands of God.”
Eva looked back as Fea fell in behind Kohli. Fray Pablo knelt at the dying bandit’s side. They wound up through the ravine and came out on top.
She looked back and could just see the back of Fray Pablo’s horse below them. And then she looked ahead, where Baseel’s armored back was splashed with the blood of a man he had killed—even though his victim had acknowledged defeat and was trying to flee!
Of course he did not care if the poor wounded man died unshriven—beneath his Catholic pretense, Baseel Alcazar was a Saracen through and through.