Chapter 3: A Chance Encounter
The blazing sun was coming to its apex along its arc in the immaculate blue sky. Diego sweltered below in the midday heat, trying to catch a deal in Toledo’s old market square before the shops and stalls closed up. As an apprentice swordsmith, his tawny arms were solid, and his curly dark hair was cropped short to keep sweat from dripping in his eyes. His smile was known in town to make naive girls swoon, but the women at the market place were far from naive. The scowling young woman behind the apple art was growing tired of Diego’s haggling.
“I said it’s a silver for two,” she said. “I won’t change my mind.” She sat on a stool under the shady canopy propped over her stall, but Diego could still see the sheen of sweat glisten on her neck.
“One for three,” Diego pleaded. “It’s only one more apple. You won’t miss it.”
“If I agree on that, then what? One for four? For five? You’re trying to put me out of business!” Her stern voice carried far in the emptying plaza. An impressive feat for such a lithe girl. Few people remained out and about at this hour to endure the full strength of the midsummer heat, but those who were around started to glance over in curiosity. The space was turning into an open oven with every passing minute.
“Surely, a woman as smart and sweet as you can understand I’m just a poor apprentice. An extra apple would mean so much to me.” His voice held a guile sweetness. Diego even flashed a disarming smile as punctuation, but the apple seller crossed her arms in defiance.
“No, you must understand,” the young woman began in a voice mocking Diego’s, “that as a purveyor of apples, selling them at a fair price is all that matters to me.”
Diego turned his smile into a pout. She was a stubborn girl and the heat only made her more so. Diego saw little hope to strike a deal, and decided a roundabout approach. “Surely there must be other things you care about. You are a good Catholic, are you not? What does scripture say about helping those in need?”
The girl cocked an eyebrow. “What does a Morisco know about scripture?”
Those words cut into Diego’s facade, making his calm face twitch like a blown candle flame. His family had been converted for three generations now, his father even married the daughter of an Old Christian family from the north to be the mother of his sons, but Diego’s bronzed face still clued many a keen eye to his Moorish heritage. The rosary under his shirt was usually enough to quell any suspicion, but the apple girl wasn’t worthy of such appeasement.
“Tell you what,” Diego began. The sweetness in his voice had turned sour. “Clearly you are an ornery little shrew destined to become a lonely old crone. I don’t wish to make your miserable life any more unbearable than it already must be. One for two it is.”
Diego dropped the small silver piece in her hands and snatched up two apples before walking away. Diego gave the apple seller one last glance. She was not ugly. Her neck was thin and her face was perfectly egg-shaped. With the right attitude she would have made some man in town a happy husband. Diego sighed and looked away, biting into one of his apples. Cunt.
The streets of Toledo were sparse with people now. Cats napped in the shady alleys and a few children scampered by, chasing a dog with a stick, but beyond that there was nary a soul. A tranquil silence flowed through the streets. In the distance stood the huge alcazar, a massive fortress of high walls and spires, looming over the rest of the city with dimensions more befitting a giant’s palace than a human’s.
Diego turned a corner, heading down a gently sloping road leading towards the river beyond the city walls. He passed by one swordsmith’s shop, then another, and another, each with a handcrafted facade marked by a family crest. Toledo was the city of swords. Here, masters of their craft perfected the art forging the espada and other blades with the use of Toledo steel. Diego’s father’s shop rested at base of the hill and was barely in sight among the huddled buildings clotted together.
He rubbed the hilt of his own rapier hanging from his hip. It was the latest and best blade he’d made under his father’s tutelage, but unlike his father, he was keen to train with his creations even more so than making them.
Then he saw her, trudging uphill. A woman alone, dressed in a gray-blue cotton dress of exotic style with short sleeves, exposing her slender mahogany arms. She wore a cloak to compensate, but it did little to hide her modesty when the wind blew it back. A shawl shrouded her face and shoulders, protecting her head from the heat, but also obscuring her down-turned face in shadow. She carried a satchel and slung over her shoulder and a walked with a staff of gnarled wood.
“The market is closed right now,” Diego said as she passed. “Due to the heat.”
The woman did not reply, but simply continued onward.
“You’re a traveler, are you not? I’ve never seen anyone like you around here.” Diego turned to follow her, but she continued to act as if she didn’t even hear him. He handed her his extra apple. “Hungry?”
Finally, the woman gave acknowledgment to the man with the slightest turn of her head to look at the apple. She then turned to look him in the eye.
Her eyes, big almond-shaped eyes, were a curious shade of gray, making it hard for Diego to look away. Her other features were slight and rounded as if she had been gently sculpted from ebony. Braids beaded with white seashells hung off her head, jingling softly as they brushed past each other. There was something more, though, something beyond what Diego could see, but rather, he sensed it, a writhing darkness fomenting behind her bright eyes—a shadow over her very presence.
Diego smiled to himself to dismiss that strange feeling. She was beautiful and that’s all that mattered.
“Thank you,” she said, taking the apple. Her voice carried a deep accent, but one Diego could not place.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“As you said,” she replied. “I’m just a traveler.” Without another word she turned away and continued up the hill.
“Wait! Are you from the south? Are you a Moor?”
The traveler shook her head, but didn’t say a word.
“Well, wherever you’re from, let me show you around the city. Toledo’s a big place and you’ll need a guide.”
“My name’s Diego, by the way. Diego Aldora. I know you didn’t ask, but I just wanted to be polite.”
The traveler ignored him and continued up to where the road leveled out, walking until she disappeared from sight. Diego shrugged, turned around and walked back to his father’s shop. By the time he reached the front door of the swordsmith’s shop, his apple was nothing but core, which he tossed on the ground for the birds.
Inside it was cool and dark. The forges were extinguished and both Diego’s father and older brother had probably gone home for the day. They came in early in the morning, but often didn’t work past noon. On the walls hung rows of side swords, virgin rapiers of impeccable quality with metal shining fresh from the forge.
Diego took an unfinished blade off the workbench and went to the grinding stone in the corner. He got the stone spinning by pressing the pedal at it’s base and carefully put the rough steel against it. Sparks flew and the unsavory sound of grinding metal and stone filled the shop, but Diego was used to it. To him it was music. He worked blade after blade, trying to put his curious mind at ease, trying to forget that strange beauty on the street, but by sunset he’d sharpened every sword he could find and yet she remained at the forefront of his mind. If work wouldn’t fix him, then he’d have to drown his obsession in tankards of cerveza.
The cantina near his shop was like a second home for Diego. The rundown establishment that harbored vagabonds, ruffians and prostitutes was once the home of some nobleman who became the last of his name and died without an heir, and thus it fell into the hands of his closest servant, Juan. Juan saw no better way to honor his master’s legacy than by turning it into the biggest cesspool of vice in all of Toledo.
The lion-head door knobs, once pristine copper, were now green from the years of being groped by the hands of sweaty laborers. The cherry wood walls had turned black with pipe smoke and mold, and hanging from the den’s ceiling was an ornate chandelier, crusted with drooping fingers of wax. Of course, no one came for the scenery, though. It was well known around town that Old Juan served some of the most potent cerveza in the city. If a man wanted to forget his worries, this was the place to be.
Diego weaved through the hot, unwashed patrons, ripe from their day’s work, breathing in their tangy sweat. He was no exception. Running the grindstone all day had made a mule of him. Here, just about anyone could fit in.
Diego shared a few words with some familiar, scarred, faces then took a seat at the bar, away from everyone else. He ordered a tankard of draft from Old Juan, who slammed it down in front of him without finesse or consideration, spilling foam droplets across the counter top.
“Thanks,” he said.
Old Juan grunted, which was his typical response. Diego brought the tankard to his mouth and sipped deep, looking to alleviate his troubled mind. But even here, amidst the drink and raucous mirth of tired men happy to be done for the day, Diego found no respite from his obsession. The cantina was abuzz with talk of a certain strange woman sighted in town. Rumors and hearsay darted around Diego’s ears like horse flies. Many spoke in hushed voices, but Diego was nothing if not a master eavesdropper.
“I heard she came across the narrow strait,” one voice said.
“I saw her—blacker than any Moor I’ve ever seen,” another said. “I heard she was a sage. She could be Egyptian. Egypt’s full of sages, I hear.”
The first voice grunted with doubt. “I heard she was a witch.”
“You think she’s got somethin’ to do with those bandits up north?” another voice asked.
“Piss on that! What would a witch want with bandits?”
“Hmph! Evil attracts evil, don’t it?”
Other voices chimed in with their wild ideas. The conversation turned to talks of wraiths and minotaurs. It was clear that they were as ignorant as he was.
The young man groaned into his cup. There was no escaping her. Her voice, her face, her shadow—what was she about? A sage? A witch? What purpose did she have being so far from wherever she came from? He would not be able to rest until he learned more. Somebody had to know something real about her.
“What have you heard about that foreign woman?” Diego asked Old Juan standing behind the bar.
“Aah, she’s been the talk of the town tonight, hasn’t she?” Old Juan said, scratching his leathery, wrinkled cheek. The old man’s voice wheezed in pensive thought. Diego often wondered how old Old Juan was, but every time he asked, he got a different answer. “What haven’t I heard? Every bastard has a different tale. She’s a healer…a street performer…an illusionist…some dare say a demon. Who on earth knows! She’s short for words with anyone who tries to talk to her. A woman with more than a few secrets, I’d wager. Then again, she might just be some Moor’s wife.”
“You know, I saw that woman earlier today.”
Old Juan perked his bushy eyebrows. “Did you now? She as cute as they’ve been saying?”
Diego laughed. “She surpasses all the local girls, easily.”
Old Juan laughed. “Exotic ones always have that appeal. But know this, boy, they all feel the same on the inside no matter what they look like.”
Diego took a sip of his drink. He wasn’t quite sure how to add to that statement. “Did you hear where she’s staying?”
Juan scratched his cheek again. “I think I heard someone mention the inn by the market plaza.”
“Really? That place isn’t cheap.”
Juan nodded. “I suppose a girl like that wants her privacy.”
“Thanks for the information.” Diego put some coins on the counter top and finished his drink in a series of quick gulps. He stood up from the bar and headed back out into the night.
The streets were more active now than they were during midday. It was cooler, and a soft breeze was rolling in from the south. Diego could walk up hill without breaking a sweat. Somewhere a man was playing a tune on his vihuela, plucking a somber melody from its strings. Men strolled by, laughing and calling out to pretty women with flowers in their hair. One girl glanced at Diego, flashing an enticing white smile. Diego smiled back, but kept moving forward. Another time, perhaps.
The inn by the market plaza was a fine place, but compared to Old Juan’s everything seemed classier. The walls were white, striped with wooden beams, bereft of cracks or soot. Red and white Flowers lined the windowsills, giving the place a sweet perfume—a far cry from the beer and sweat Diego had just escaped from. Sconces held candles on the wall, bathing the foyer in a warm orange glow. Oddly, despite the many lavish comforts, only one customer was present to enjoy it. A man in a red tunic sat quietly, reading a yellow roll of parchment. He looked up from his reading to glance at Diego just for a moment, then reverted back to his parchment, mumbling something under his breath.
The old woman behind the front desk was a toad-like creature with a wide mouth and was the only other soul present. She’d been staring at Diego since he stepped through the door, yet hadn’t spoken a word.
“Excuse me,” Diego said, approaching the front desk. “I’m looking for a woman, dark of complexion with beaded hair.”
The toady woman tilted her head and pursed her bulbous eyes. “You know that Moorish girl, do you?”
“We’ve met, yes.”
“Then take her away. She’s frightening off some of my other guests. That’s bad for business.” Suddenly, an unearthly growl seemed to resonate from above. It was muffled by the floor and walls, but the sound was unmistakably bestial, like an entire heard of deer dying all at once. Startled, Diego crouched low and covered his ears. The candles on the walls flickered and dimmed, briefly filling the room in a momentary shadow.
Diego looked around, confused, collected himself, then turned back to the toady woman. A cold sweat started to prick through his skin.
The man in the chair rolled up his parchment and walked out the front door.
The old woman gestured to the door. “Aye, see what I mean?”
“Was that her?”
“I’d bet my thumbs it is! Get her out! If not, I’ll have the guards come by and throw her out!”
Diego opened his mouth to ask, but the woman was already giving him the answer. “Third floor, second door on the right.”
Nodded and headed for the staircase. The young man ascended the stairs, but whereas he had entered the inn with a certain confidence, he now made each step with growing trepidation. He remembered that shadow, that miasma of unease that clouded his mind when he looked upon her. By God, what horror lurked behind that alluring face? Those thoughts sent Diego’s heart fluttering with fear, but the fear only made him that much more intrigued. It was that undying curiosity that lifted his legs, step after step, each one bringing him that much closer to solving that beautiful mystery.
He patted the hilt of his rapier and shook his head, ashamed of how emotional he allowed himself to be, raptured by the moment. She was just a woman—a girl. Perhaps she was a little strange, but there was no reason to fear her anymore than there was to fear the apple seller’s daughter. All her mystery would be swept away to reveal another cantankerous damsel with a pretty face and an unworthy personality. Diego wanted to laugh at his anxieties, and yet, something kept him from doing so.
The swordsmith came to the second door on the right on the third floor. Unassuming and bland, it was a basic wooden door with a basic brass doorknob. The apprentice knocked on the door twice with the back of his hand and waited, assuming the dusky woman would peak her head out at any moment. Instead he was greeted by another growl. Diego felt the hairs on his body rise.
“Señorita?” Diego called, knocking again.
Diego tried the knob, but as he expected, it was locked.
Quickly, he hurried back down the stairs and past the toady woman. He ignored her attempt to ask him of his progress in ending that horrid noise, and walked right out the door, saying only, “I’m going around back.”
Diego went into the alleyway behind the inn, trying to figure out which window on the wall above him was the traveler’s. On the ground sat a huddled collection of crates and barrels. With a little effort, he pushed several of them together, stacking the ones that were light enough to be lifted, and before long, built a rudimentary staircase to the third level window.
The top crate wobbled under Diego’s boots, but even standing on his tip-toes, the windowsill was still half a head over his eye line.
Another growl resonated from the window, shaking the wall and the wooden crates under his feet. Diego lost his footing and grabbed hold of the windowsill before he fell. His feet scraped against the wall, trying to find purchase and push his body upward. His strong arms made themselves useful, pressing on the windowsill to keep Diego perched.
In the darkness of the bedroom Diego could make out the back of the strange woman, staring at the floor illuminated by incomprehensible spiraling symbols arranged in a circle, glowing with a soft, purple light that pulsated. Something was crawling up from the floor, with claws like vulture, but as large a horse’s leg. It clawed at the floorboards, and even though its face was obscured by the woman’s back, he heard it screech.
“Ayi!” the Moorish girl said. “Ts’et’i yale!” She groaned, pulling on her braids. “Alemesakati!”
Diego found himself struggling to maintain his grip. He dug his nails into the windowsill. The woman must have heard his struggling, for she turned and looked, eyes wide with surprise.
Diego yelped and his grip on the windowsill slipped completely.
He fell and hit the boxes below. A twisting pain blossomed in his ankle as it bent in a bad angle, and in his writhing, Diego stumbled off the makeshift staircase of boxes and crates, banging into their hard, wooden edges all the way down. On the alley floor Diego stared up at the window from where he was just a moment ago. His body ached and his ankle was bent in strange angle. All the young man could do was lay there in pain, starring, as the corded black tentacles stretched down from the window towards him.