Being the Random Yarns of Emily Cotton, Merry Scrivener of Fact & Fiction Historical, Animal, & Minimal to Amuse, Inform, & Enlighten.

Chapter 6 of Eva’s Secret

6. Battle Cat
The Cat
Tabita was patient. She waited through the rest of market-day. And the next day would be cooking- and baking-day at Casa de Pazia. The routine was the same at Paloma’s daughter’s lair, although in a much smaller way. But the day after that, with still no sign of Eva, Tabita went scouting on her own.
For Eva, it would be sick-people day—the second in Eva’s weekly cycle. Every week before market-day, and after baking-day, Eva always went to the place where the sick people were and worked all day cleaning and comforting and generally purring over them. If she were still in Granada, Eva would be at the sick-people place. Purring over sick people made her happier than anything else.
Eva was not at the sick-people place. Tabita knew only one thing more to do: go to Elias’ lair, the place called Holy Cross.
Elias was not there when Tabita arrived. That was not unusual. He frequently came and went, sometimes for days and one or two times, for weeks. Elias hunted a wide range, but he always came back. Tabita must wait.
When the ground vibrated with horse’s hooves approaching the gate, Tabita streaked up a nearby carob tree and settled in the crotch of a large branch where she would have a better view.
It was Abbe Matias. Tabita could see that he had been out intimidating the other humans, for he was wearing his most splendid robes and with him rode and walked more attendants than usual. The stable-man held the Abbe’s stirrup for him to dismount, for when the dominant lion of this pride wore his sparkly pelt, he needed help for everything he did. While they bustled about, sending the horses away, Tabita’s attention was on the gate. There were five more horses coming, and one of them might well be Elias, who often accompanied the dominant lion of this pride.
It was indeed Elias, although Tabita would hardly have recognized him otherwise: the lower half of his face was swathed in cloth, and what was visible above was discolored and patchy. On the near side his stallion was flanked by a tall sorrel horse and its rider; and on the far side, a bay mule whose rider was hidden from view. Tabita could see Elias’ paws were not holding the reins, as was usual, but something like a rein was tied to each wrist, and the rider on either side held the other end. Sometimes as they moved, one hand or the other would jerk out in an odd gesture, like the little puppet-doll Eva used to dance for Tabita to play with.
Was Elias playing at being a puppet? Before Tabita could decide if this was some sort of game, they rode under the gate-arch. When they came out the other side, she would be able to tell more.
But what was this? Two more horsemen approached the gate, men in turbans, which was unusual in Granada. Despite that, the one in the fancier clothing was on a she-horse from Casa de Pazia!
Now Elias’ group had come out of the arch to the near side. The stocky man on the far side dismounted. Tabita’s fur bristled as she recognized the man. Manuel Ortiz!
The sorrel’s rider tossed his puppet-string to Manuel, who used both cords to drag Elias roughly from the saddle. He twisted both of Elias’ hands behind his back and marched him toward the Abbe’s group.
She hissed at the hated sound of his voice. “Abbe Matias! Your Reverence! We have captured Elias de Pazia, the sorcerer!”
The Abbe jerked around. “What nonsense is this?” The man’s expression was one of disbelief, but Tabita saw it change to shock when he saw Elias.
The man on the sorrel bowed. “Your reverence, pardon my friend’s outburst. He used to work for Casa de Pazia and he claims to recognize that this is the son of the house. And so we gagged him to safeguard against being cursed, and brought him to you.”
Abbe Matias pulled himself up stiffly. “This is an impostor. Elias de Pazia died a week ago, in Acatusi.”
“No, he didn’t!” Manuel protested. “I know his horse! See, he’s even wearing the training caparison, there’s the Casa de Pazia crest on the lower corner!”
“Silence!” The Abbe roared. He turned to a burly man-at-arms. “Hold the suspect; I want to question him. And perhaps these two liars also?”
Manuel released Elias into the man-at-arms’ custody and backed away, gabbling hastily. “It isn’t Elias, I never saw him, I don’t know him!”
The reek of fear rose from below as the sorrel-rider backed toward his mount. “Pardon, your Reverence, we made an honest mistake, and we only meant to do service to the church.”
“Go, then!” the Abbe ordered. “But the animal stays. You say he is wearing a de Pazia caparison, and all property belonging to Casa de Pazia is forfeit to the church.”
Elias let himself be handed passively from one captor to another; but above the cloth wound around his mouth Tabita saw an alert expression. Which meant he was waiting for a moment to catch them off guard.
Silk-turban dismounted and bowed. “The canvas trapping may belong to Casa de Pazia, and you are welcome to it. But the horse wearing it is not the property of Casa de Pazia. The stallion is mine.”
The Abbe’s face froze when he saw him; the scent of fury rose even to Tabita’s perch. Before the Abbe could get anything out, silk-turban spoke again. “This stallion belongs to the Sultan of Tunis, whose buyer I am; and moreover I have as proof two documents showing that the stallion was given into my possession in return for certain—” he paused meaningfully, “—valuable considerations and services.”
“Do you have these papers with you?” The two were sparring; Tabita could smell it on them.
“I do not carry documents on my person, but like any prudent man, leave them with my agent in a safe place, to be produced as needed. However, if the Abbe will but draw aside so that we may speak privately, I will explain all the circumstances pertaining to my claim on the stallion.”
The Abbe waved his attendants aside and followed the turbaned man over beneath Tabita’s tree. “I could have you taken into the Inquisition’s custody!”
“In which case my agent would appeal at once to Cardinal Cisneros, presenting the documents I spoke of.” The turbaned man held up a hand. “But I did my best to uphold our agreement; I had de Pazia neatly trussed and on the way to the designated resting place when the horse himself managed to dash my head against an obstacle. And when I came to, de Pazia was on his back and I was the one trussed up and left for dead.”
“Then how did you come to be here?”
The turbaned man smiled and spread his hands. “It is my practice to keep my servants apprised of my movements. One found me and carried me back to my rented villa. By the time I recovered, they told me the news of Elias de Pazia’s death, and so it seemed there was no need to apprise you of what transpired between us. But today I saw the stallion being led here and followed to claim him, for what use is he to you?”
The Abbe’s mouth opened, and then closed again, rather like a fish, Tabita thought. But the turban continued. “Is it not best that the stallion be speedily removed from Granada? See, the horse is covered so none will recognize him and I will take him out of the city this very day. If you give me a writ of safe passage, stamped with the seal of the Granada Inquisition, no one will question us between here and Malaga, where a swift galley awaits my purchases. And so you will be rid of us both.”
The Abbe’s eyes narrowed in the way that a cat’s did when calculating whether the prey was worth the risk. “Very well. But the safe-passage will be good for one week only. After that, I cannot answer for what happens to you.”
The turbaned man bowed and made sounds of effusive thanks, and the Abbe shouted at the group holding Elias. “Fray Martin! Bring your writing case here. And you, Bartolomeo, take the suspect to the cell Fray Guillermo has just vacated. I will question him there.”
Tabita leaped from the tree to the boundary-wall and raced along it to the shed roof. She had hunted Holy Cross many times, and the layout was familiar to her. The direction they were taking Elias would pass through the arched gate into the herb garden, and there was a perfect place to leap down on an unsuspecting prey.
Humans were larger prey than she had ever hunted before, but that was no matter: this armored hulk was threatening a member of her pride. Elias and Eva protected and fought for her, and now she would fight for them. It was no different from catching a mouse: the trick was being in the right place and exact timing.
Running over the roofs, Tabita made it to the arch just as Elias with his big guard turned the corner of the adjacent building. It was only an opening in the wall between one area and another, such as the humans liked to surround themselves with; but the top of the thick wall had been given a little ridge of clay tile, steep to shed water and rather slippery even when dry. Tabita crouched on the tiles, ignoring the heat on her sensitive pads, and waited as the man tramped nearer.
She risked a single “Miaow!”
The guard paid no attention, but Elias looked up and his eyes widened as he recognized his pride-mate. Good: now he was prepared. They would hunt together. The eyes; she would go for the eyes.
The guard was almost beneath her; Elias sagged suddenly in his grasp, and with an earsplitting yowl, Tabita launched herself straight at his captor’s face, claws slashing with practiced precision.
“Aiee!” The man tried too late to protect his eyes, but Tabita knew that two claws at least had cut one wet orb. His flailing arm flung her into a lavender bush, but Elias had already wrenched free. Trailing a loose puppet-string from each hand as he yanked the cloth from around his mouth, he dashed back along the route they had come.
The guard bellowed, but Tabita did not waste any more time on him. She dodged between his legs and raced after Elias, away from the center of Holy Cross, out toward the gate. She would create a diversion so that he could escape.
But the guard continued shouting behind them, and the place buzzed with people like a beehive that has been tipped over, all shouting to each other.
When Tabita rounded the corner into the gate-court, she saw that Elias had three pursuers close on his heels. One with a garden-rake thrust the long handle between Elias feet, and Tabita’s pride-mate went sprawling.
And then the stallion danced sideways over his master, and Elias disappeared!
“That way! He dived under the horse, came out the other side and scaled that wall!” Turban pointed and shouted. “Just grabbed the bricks and climbed it like a cat! It took him less than three seconds!”
“Quick! Catch him before he gets far!” Abbe Matias came puffing up. “I want somebody at every city gate who can recognize Elias de Pazia by sight!”
The courtyard emptied of everyone but silk-turban and his servant, who unwound his headdress into a length of cloth, which he laid on the ground in a line. Silk-turban moved Elias’ horse to stand over it. Then he mounted, and the servant handed up first one end of the cloth, and then went around to the horse’s far side and gave silk-turban the other end.
“Best pass this under your butt,” silk-turban was directing his words downwards, as though speaking to the horse. “It’s a mile to the south gate.”
“Why are you doing this for me?” It was Elias’ voice, coming from under the horse!
Tabita ran closer and looked up. There was her pride-mate, hanging beneath the canvas blanket, pressed belly to belly with the horse.
“Because you are worth more to me alive in Tunis than dead in Granada.” Silk-turban’s voice was soft, pitched to carry only as far as Elias’ ears. “Besides, if they torture you, the Abbe might discover that I gave you those letters. There; I have loosened the front strap. See if you can get it under your shoulders.”
Elias had looped the turban-cloth beneath his hips; both knees were tucked into the leather strap that ran around the horse’s torso just in front of the hind legs, and he was shrugging his arms through the strap that passed behind the horse’s forelegs.
“Now, we are going to walk quietly out of the city. And pray to Allah that nobody notices the strain on the caparison, for if we are caught we are dead men!”
Tabita followed behind the burdened horse as the little procession left Holy Cross, tail held proudly upright. Her pride had won the victory, and now Elias would praise her.
. But no such praise was forthcoming. Tabita miaowed, thinking Elias might not have noticed her, pressed as he was to the horse’s underside.
Elias responded then, an angry whisper. “Tabita, go home!”
He followed it with a cat hiss and a spitting noise that made it more than clear her presence was unwelcome.
Tabita’s tail drooped. How had she offended him?
But the words came again, words she understood, even though they were human noises she could not make herself. “Go home!”
She turned and started on the long journey back to Casa de Pazia.
——
Tabita could not remember when she had felt so tired. She was old; it was getting plainer with every passing day. Her pride-members, the ones who kept her fed and protected, were themselves hunted.
She picked her way slowly down the brushy slope on the Alhambra side of the Darro river. Casa de Pazia was across the stream. If she was to go home, as Elias had said, she must backtrack along the bank to a certain tree that overhung the main channel, and from there she could leap onto a long, brushy bar that was exposed now the stream was end-of-summer low.
At the west end of the bar, there was a shallow spot where she could ford to the other side without getting too wet.
Above her came a crashing noise of breaking foliage: something was coming down the steep brushy slope. A round bundle hurtled into view, smacked wetly against the mossy rocks that lined an overgrown ditch, then bounced onward.
The scent that sprayed outward when it struck answered the question of what: it was a ball of clothing—wet clothing, and more specifically, Blanca’s clothing.
Tabita heard a splash as it reached the river below. Her cat curiosity was roused. Why was Blanca’s clothing being thrown down into the river?
Cloth, if it was not completely waterlogged, floated a little. Tabita picked up her pace and angled down toward the stream. The current would carry Blanca’s bundle to the shallow ford, and then she might find out what was up. Perhaps Blanca would come to get her things. Perhaps Eva had gone to stay with Blanca, as she often did!
“Hey, Aldonza, what’s that in the stream?” Tabita froze at the female voice.
Sure enough, when she crawled out on a nearby branch, she could see two naked females, young, nubile ones from the shape of them, in the pool just below the ford.
One of them was lifting the dripping object from the water. “It’s clothes, Beatriz!” She waded to the Alhambra side bank and unrolled the bundle. “Women’s clothes. And nice! This is fine linen, a lady’s chemise!”
The girl Aldonza wrung out the white garment that smelled intimately of Blanca and pulled it over her head.
“Hey! Aldonza, who says you get that?”
“I says so.” Aldonza began wringing the water out of the dark woolen kirtle. “I got to it first.”
“But you’da never knowed of it but for me!” Beatriz splashed over and grabbed at the kirtle. “I get a share, you perra!”
“Perra, am I?” Aldonza pulled on the other side. “It’s mine, you puta!”
Then the two women went for each other like a pair of cats, clawing, biting, and rolling. The one called Aldonza pummeled the one called Beatriz in the stomach. Beatriz grabbed Aldonza’s hair and shoved her face into the muddy bank.
Another voice rang out over the fray. “Those clothes are mine!”
Tabita had been so interested in the catfight that she had not noticed Blanca until she rose, dripping wet, out of the deepest place in the channel. She had nothing on except a skimpy cloth wrapped around her torso under her arms.
Aldonza and Beatriz released each other and picked themselves up, mud-smeared and wary. “Who speaks?”
“I am Maria Sanchez.”
Tabita wondered at that. It was not the usual noise by which Blanca identified herself.
“She talks fancy, like a hidalga.” Beatriz was already cowed.
“I am hidalga. And those are my clothes. Give them back to me!” Blanca’s command cracked with all the assurance of a dominant female speaking to lower pride members.
Aldonza clutched the bundle, her stance belligerent. “I’m giving her nothing. Hidalgas aren’t found swimming naked and alone.”
“I don’t blame you for doubting. But listen to my story before you judge.” Blanca changed timbre; Tabita recognized her story-telling voice, the one she used when Eva sat and listened, rapt. “It is because of my evil stepmother that I am here. You see, after my father died, she gambled through my dowry. I had been betrothed to Miguel, my childhood sweetheart, but when his father found we were impoverished he refused to let us marry and betrothed Miguel to a rich widow instead. We begged and wept, but his cruel father cared nothing for our broken hearts.”
“Ah, pobrecita!” Beatriz exclaimed.
Blanca continued: “My beloved refused to marry the heiress, a vain, spiteful woman ten years his senior. He swore that if he could not marry me, he would not marry at all. And so he went to Holy Cross, where he studied to become a priest.”
Aldonza folded her arms across her chest. “Priests are worthless parasites.”
“But he won’t be a priest after all. We resigned ourselves to a lifetime of miserable separation. And then, an answer to prayer!” Blanca exclaimed. “He was walking in a certain place, when he saw the edge of a jar sticking out of the earth. And when he dug it up, it was full of money! Straightaway he wrote me. He told me to meet him at a little picnic terrace on the Alhambra side of the Darro just after dark, and we would run away together.”
“A likely story!” Aldonza said. “No hidalga would come down here at night, the place where whores meet their customers.”
“We did not know about that,” Blanca made her voice humble. “We only picked a place where we used to meet for lunch, that we thought would be deserted at night.”
“And where do you think poor girls such as ourselves bathe, now that Cardinal Cisneros has closed all the public hammams? Perhaps in tubs filled by servants?”
“Leave off, Aldonza. She can’t help being stupid.” Beatriz turned to Blanca. “So, Maria Sanchez, how is it that you lost your clothes?”
“I had to cross the Darro, and didn’t want to get my dress wet. Since the place was so deserted, I thought it would do no harm to take them off and carry the bundle on my head. But I tripped on a stone and dropped them, and the current took them away.”
That seemed to work better than her previous imperious command. Aldonza picked up a tattered garment from the ground. “Thanks to Beatriz here, your chemise is covered in mud. So I’ll let you have mine.”
“I’ll be glad to exchange. Yours is dry.” Blanca waded to the Alhambra bank and pulled the coarse cotton garment over her nakedness.
“Then you can trade for my kirtle. It’s dry too.” Beatriz held out an old woolen garment. “It’ll fit once I take in the back-lacing. You do the front.”
Blanca slipped her arms in the sleeves without protest and turned her back to let Beatriz tighten the behind-body-section. But Tabita saw her wrinkle her nose as she poked a cord through the many holes that ran up the front.
Tabita alerted: there was a rank scent of male sweat, from two different individuals. She leaped to another branch, and ran along it, the better to see who was coming.
Her night-sensitive eyes focused on the other side of the river and spied two men, moving with the swagger of dominant males daring any to bar their way. The first leaped from stone to exposed stone across the ford. His arms were thrown out for balance, showing forearms sheathed elbow to wrist in leather cuffs covered with little iron spikes that bristled like a porcupine.
That was a threat message: such trappings were worn by males that cowed the lower class. Tabita took in more: the leather belt with a longer-than-usual knife sheath. The heavy boots. The unwashed smell.
His companion followed: shorter, but more massive in girth. His gut lapped over in front, and as he jumped from rock to rock it jiggled with each landing.
Aldonza saw them coming and turned. “Hola, Jabalí, Juanito. You are early.”
“The early bird gets extra!” Spike-cuffs ogled Blanca.
“Ay, fortune smiles on us.” Gut-lap bared his teeth in what the humans considered a friendly expression. He was missing several. “We get three for the price of two.”
“Not so fast, you haven’t paid yet.” Aldonza moved in front of Blanca. “As for this scrawny one? You don’t want her, she doesn’t know the business, and is likely terrible at it. Just a whey-faced ninny running away from home.”
“A virgin, eh?” Gut-lap gave off the scent of a male in heat. “We’ll send her back with something to remember us by.”
“On your back, girl, I’ve got a blade that wants sheathing!” Spike-cuffs whipped off his codpiece, and Tabita saw that he was fully erect and ready to mate. “It’s not for nothing they call me El Jabalí, the wild boar!”
Rather than arousing Blanca, she responded with shocked offense: “My betrothed will kill you for that!”
Beatriz tugged at Spike-cuffs arm. “Jabalí, wait! She’s hidalga.”
“And I’m the pope! She’s dressed like any tavern wench.”
“Those are our clothes. We stole hers.” Beatriz lifted her wet kirtle. “Look—merino wool—and five yards to the skirt.”
“And see this chemise I’m wearing? Fine linen.” Aldonza held up a mud-smeared sleeve. “Besides, only a hidalga would invoke her betrothed’s vengeance over the mere sight of a man’s zibi.”
Gut-lap fingered the lace on Aldonza’s wet, muddy garment. “So what’s a hidalga doing here?”
“Like I said, she thinks she’s going to run away,” Aldonza sneered. “With her rich lover. A priest, yet.”
“A rich priest, eh?” Tabita saw the men’s interest in mating shift to something else.
Spike-cuffs put away his male member. “Well that’s a different twist of the knife.”
“Yes, and he could come any time.” Beatriz looked around. “Do you want to risk being caught with your pants down?”
“I lied. Nobody’s coming to meet me.” Blanca began to cry—but her smell was all wrong for crying. She did not smell sad, she smelled very angry. “I ran away because—because my lover gave me the French Pox!”
“And how would running away help with the French Pox?” Gut-lap mocked. “It would take a better story than that to protect your lover’s fat purse!”
From a sheath that hung to his knee, Spike-cuffs drew a well-honed blade. “When he comes, we’re going to gut him like a fish.”
“Then we’ll bid you adios! We don’t want to be any part of murder.” Aldonza and Beatriz turned to go.
“Not yet, you don’t! We need you to hold the hostage,” Gut-lap growled.
“Tell you what,” Aldonza spoke in a conciliatory tone. “Before we go, I’ll tie her hands with my belt. It’s good stout round-braided leather. So long as you bring it back. It has my lucky deer vertebrae on the end.”
The men agreed to this plan. Aldonza produced a knife, which she held to Blanca’s throat. “Walk nice and quiet-like over to where I left my clothes, and you won’t get hurt.”
Aldonza marched Blanca to the water’s edge, where she scooped up a thin snake-like cord. Blanca’s hands were pulled behind her back. Tabita saw Aldonza’s mouth move, but the sound was covered by the water’s gurgle as it swirled around a tree-root.
She slipped down from her branch and crept closer so she could hear what Aldonza was saying, or, more importantly, the tone in which it was said.
It was a hissing, angry sound. “—and don’t let on I helped. This is just a noose around your wrists, see, and the rest is wrapped around and around them, nice and tight. Do you feel this knobbly thing I’m putting in your hand?”
Blanca made an almost-inaudible sound of assent.
“That will hold it so they won’t notice.” Aldonza tucked the white bone under the back-lacing of Blanca’s borrowed bodice. “Wait until they’re busy with your novio, then pull it out, unwind your wrists, and sneak off. Once you are far enough away, run like the devil was after you.”
With Blanca’s hands tied securely behind her back, Aldonza grabbed her roughly by the elbow and hauled her over to Spike-cuffs and Gut-lap. “You’ll have no problems with this one, she’s a complete ninny and scared as a rabbit. She told us they are supposed to meet in that little terrace, the one up-slope with the stone benches facing. Good hunting!”
The two women splashed off across the ford, leaving Blanca alone with Spike-cuffs and Gut-lap. Blanca was a friend of Eva’s, in the outer circle of Tabita’s pride. Tabita decided that she must try to help Blanca.
She would have to repeat the maneuver first tried that afternoon, jumping down on the enemy and going for the eyes, even though the likelihood of success was small. Tabita was more tired; there were two instead of one, and Blanca was not as strong or clever a fighter as Elias.
They led her up-slope. Tabita followed them, going from tree to tree, stalking carefully, imagining that she was hunting great big rats. They stopped at the flat place cut into the hillside. Eva and Blanca sometimes met there to sit on the mossy benches, eat, and talk. In the daylight, it was always shady, and Tabita was familiar with the overhanging branches.
They shoved Blanca down on the bench, her back facing downhill, and ordered her to stay while they moved some distance away. Blanca stayed immobile.
Tabita crept after them, wanting to see what they were up to.
Spike-cuffs was the dominant one. He was whispering into Lap-gut’s ear: “—no chances. Make him think you’ll give him the girl. Say whatever, but keep him yakking until I can slip up and knife him in the back.”
Tabita did not understand the words, but when Spike-cuffs faded into the bushes uphill and Gut-lap returned to duck behind Blanca, it was clear what their tactics would be.
Tabita positioned herself overhead. She heard a rider coming up the back road to the Alhambra gate. A male voice said, “Whoa.” The horse stopped at the place where a path led down to the river, the path that passed by the little terrace where Blanca sat.
Tabita sorted through her mental catalog of sounds. She knew that voice. It belonged to Fray Pablo, a man who came sometimes to Holy Cross. And Elias met with him in secret.
Fray Pablo dismounted. He turned down the steep path, leading his horse. Gut-lap crouched behind Blanca, his hand over her mouth.
Fray Pablo strode forward into the clearing, carrying a roll of cloth. “Doña Maria?”
Gut-lap released her mouth so she could answer. “Fray Pablo!” Tabita heard the astonishment in her voice.
Gut-Lap stepped out of the shadows, knife out. “If you want to live, you will hand over your bundle.”
“Come and take it, if you want it.” Almost faster than Tabita’s quick vision could follow, a blade was in Fray Pablo’s hand and the bundle cast to the ground behind him.
Gut-lap retreated behind Blanca and pressed a knife to her throat. “Beg him for your life, girl.”
“Abner! Abner, please think of Joab. If you love me, Abner, remember Joab!”
More oddness: Fray Pablo’s name was neither Abner nor Joab. But Tabita saw Fray Pablo’s eyes narrow and knew he received some meaning from the words that Gut-lap did not.
“My lady, your lover was discovered and captured.” Fray Pablo jerked his head upward, toward the towering walls of the Alhambra. “You must return the way you came. At once.”
Blanca stiffened. Tabita could read that she had no intention of obeying. Tabita heard the crackle of a leaf, too soft for human ears. Spike-cuffs was moving through the underbrush, he was almost close enough to rush Fray Pablo.
“She’s going nowhere!” Gut-lap snarled. “Who’s Joab?”
“You would not know.” Fray Pablo spoke with cool assurance, although Tabita could smell he was afraid for Blanca. “You also do not know that this lady is of the highest nobility of Castile. If it should become known that you had so much as touched her, a hundred soldiers would hunt you down the length and breadth of this land. Release her, and we will forget this ever happened.”
Fray Pablo’s speech somehow turned the tables; now he was dominant. Gut-lap let go Blanca’s arm and stepped away. Immediately, she bolted down the wooded slope. Tabita heard her trip and go rolling, crashing through the underbrush.
“Don’t let her get away, you fool!” Spike-cuffs jumped out then, bringing his knife down on Fray Pablo’s back. The cloth of his robe tore, and the knife slid down the mail shirt underneath, making little ‘chinks’ as it moved against the links.
Fray Pablo shifted to the side. From someplace behind his back he whipped out a wide, short sword, his movements showing the ease of long practice. The point of Spike-cuff’s blade caught in the deep grooves that scored the wide steel. And then the priest did something twisty with his wrist, and Spike-cuff’s knife flew from his hand.
Fray Pablo’s blade flashed. Spike-cuff jumped back and to the side just in time; Fray Pablo’s blade missed his midsection, but the arm was sliced along its length. He stumbled over the stone bench, dropped to the ground and rolled beneath it, the dark screening him from human eyes. Tabita smelled the coppery scent of blood.
Fray Pablo picked up Spike-cuff’s weapon and threw. Tabita heard the knife crash into the undergrowth far downhill, where it could not be retrieved. She also heard Gut-lap charging back to his companion’s aid. Fray Pablo was ready for him. The two assailants circled below Tabita’s perch, jumping into the attack and back out again, steel ringing on steel.
Tabita turned to follow after Blanca. But the stupid female was not running away: she was sneaking back up the slope—although she had no weapon but Aldonza’s belt.
Tabita saw something else: Spike-cuffs crawling from beneath the bench, drawing a short dagger from the top of his boot. He held it with both hands, the uninjured arm steadying the bloody one, crouching, hardly visible to human eyes beside the dark mass of the stone bench.
The closest branch from which Tabita could launch was three feet to the side of where he waited. Tabita slunk along it, ready to pounce down on him.
Blanca had come back to the terrace; the stupid, stupid girl! She held in her hands the leather cord that had bound her—nothing against the cold steel of her attackers!
Gut-lap was tiring; he parried too wide, and Fray Pablo’s blade buried itself in his body.
At that moment, Spike-cuffs rose from his crouch, both hands raised to swing the dagger down onto the base of his opponent’s skull.
But the blow never fell. Blanca leaped on the bench and dropped the loop over Spike’s doubled hands. She yanked, and the cord snagged in the spikes of the cuffs. He tried to lower his hands, but Blanca jumped down from the bench, letting her weight haul Spike’s arms backwards so hard that his shoulders creaked with the strain.
He almost toppled, then recovered and whirled towards this new threat. Blanca skipped just as nimbly, staying behind him, keeping the tension on the cord as she hooked the cord’s deer-vertebrae end beneath Spiked-cuff’s belt. Now he could not get his arms free, and with bound wrists behind his neck, his spiked cuffs were poking the back of his own head!
But those sky-pointing elbows were in the way, so Tabita could not aim for the eyes. She launched herself at the back of his head, screaming her battle-cry.
He ducked and she landed on top of his head. His cap flew off. Tabita dug her laws into his shaggy unkempt hair.
He bellowed and spun and flailed against the side of his head with his elbows, spiking his own ears with his cuffs, but so long as the cord encircled his hands, he could not knock her off. Tabita clung, clawing forward with her hind legs. Get to the eyes.
With one powerful jerk, Spike-cuffs got the cord free. He swiped at Tabita while racing for the horse. She hung on with both forelegs while he leaped into the saddle. He whirled the animal so swiftly that Tabita was flung off into the branches. She struck, and knew no more.

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