Chapter 4: Swords in the Night
Diego awoke with a start, sitting upright, finding himself in a soft, warm bed. Vague images faded from his mind, like a dream fleeing recollection. He reached for his sword, but it was no longer on his hip. Scanning the room for his weapon he realized where he was, with the dark foreign woman sitting in a chair by the window.
She turned and looked at him, her eyes aglow from the moonlight trickling in. They reminded Diego of a cat that used to sit on the sidewalk outside his front door.
“Why did you come here?” she asked.
Diego saw the woman holding an ivory dagger in her lap. He swallowed hard and decided to pick his words carefully.
“That noise you were making, it was disturbing the other guests,” he began. “I wanted to warn you that guards might be sent for you.”
“How did you know I was here?”
Diego heard the impatient edge in her voice and in turn stumbled to spit his words out. “I—I asked around, I just had to see you again.”
The woman stood up and walked over to her guest, slipping her dagger into a hidden sheath in the folds of her white waist sash. His life would be spared for the moment.
Diego smiled. “Maybe it’s unusual where you come from, but here it’s not uncommon for a man to pursue a pretty girl.”
The woman smirked, but there was no warmth in it. “Hmph...”
The young man’s eyes wandered to the floor. The spiral symbols were still scrawled there in dark paint in a large circular pattern. Jagged scratches in the wood also remained. He stared at them as though he were looking upon them for the first time, and he groaned as the memories desperately tried to surface through the haze of cloudy pain.
“How do you feel?” she asked, diverting his attention away from the markings.
Diego blinked. He hadn’t even noticed that he was in fact no longer in dreadful pain. He remembered falling from the window, hitting every bit of his body on the way down, twisting his ankle, and slamming his back onto the dirt, but when he examined himself, checking for bruises and flexing his limbs, he felt fine. Diego reached for his ankle, bending it one way, then another. It didn’t hurt at all.
His eyes widened. “What happened?”
“I assume you’re feeling well,” the woman said. She walked over to the chest of drawers on the far side of the room and pulled out Diego’s rapier. “Take your weapon and leave.”
“My ankle was twisted. I remember it perfectly, but now it’s as if I’d never fallen. How did you do such a thing?”
The woman shrugged. “With the right herbs and opiates a woman can do many things… Now leave!”
Diego stared into space, his memory becoming clearer. He saw those corded black coils gather him into her room. “Sorcery…! You really are a…” He caught his tongue and lowered his voice to a whisper. “…a witch.”
The woman snorted at the mention of the word. “I’m merely a healer, plain and simple. Now leave, Diego.”
The swordsmith grinned “You remember my name!”
“What does that matter? I remember a lot of things.”
“You have yet to tell me yours.”
The woman looked away, face pinched with impatient agitation. “It’s not important! Now for the last time, leave!”
Suddenly, a loud knock came from the door.
“Open up!” shouted a rough voice.
The two of them looked at each other, then back at the door, but neither dared to check who it was.
“In the name of the queen, open this door!”
“The city guard…” the woman hissed.
Diego’s heart skipped a beat and jumped into his throat. “I guess that old toad called them after all.”
“They will not break through that door,” she said, assuredly. How she knew this, Diego could only guess until he looked hard at the door’s visage. It was made of dark wood, so it was easy for him to over look the spiraling rune drawn on it’s surface. Still, he couldn’t put his hope in the foreigner’s magic calligraphy. Diego had seen the city guard knock down any door they damn well pleased, dragging out malcontents, ruffians, and not least of all, those accused of heresy or witchcraft. The last thing he wanted was to get involved with the Inquisition.
Diego grabbed his rosary under his shirt. It, along with his mother’s name, would be the last line of defense if he was caught and tossed before those scarlet-robed inquisitors. The Inquisition was vigilant in Toledo, often going after hidden Jews who had falsely converted, but Moriscos were not immune to their hawkish gaze either. He knew many a neighbor who suddenly went missing in the middle of the night.
From those who were taken, very few returned, and the ones who did were never the same. The pounding grew louder, the pounding grew louder, both against the door, but also in Diego’s chest.
“We need to escape,” Diego whispered, turning to the dreaded window. He stole the sheets off the bed and tied one the end of one sheet around the one of the bed legs. He then knotted the second sheet to the first, and tossed his makeshift line out the window. It was only a little less than half of the way down, but luckily, the base of his crate staircase remained in the alleyway below. They could drop to it without injury, probably.
As the woman collected her satchel, Diego was already repelling down the window. The guards were still nowhere to be seen in the alley, but given enough time, they’d soon arrive. Diego had no doubt. If anything, the sound of their fall onto the crates would clue them in. So after Diego landed on the pile of boxes, he quickly vaulted off, turned and held up his arms to catch the traveler. She was light and warm, and if Diego was not so stricken with terror he would have savored the moment a little longer. He set her down, cursing his luck under his breath. Together, they ran off into the winding back alleys of Toledo.
On these paths there were spaces that were so tight at times they had to walk single file to let others pass. Back here many drunken stumblebums, sat around, barely conscious, waddling in puddles of their own piss. In the dark it was hard not to trip over them, but it made little difference. Even a swift kick to the crotch would do little to rouse these men. Besides, if anything did happen, Diego always had his—
His sword was gone.
Diego patted the area of his belt where his sword usually hung, but there was nothing but leather and cloth. No Toledo steel.
“Lord…” Diego cursed in the dark.
“What is it?” the dark woman asked.
“I left my sword in your room.” He bit back the urge to scream. Just saying the words aloud filled him with hot frustration. He could see it in his mind’s eye, plain as day, his beauty resting on the chest of drawers, no doubt being confiscated by some oafish guard ready to take it for his own. It would be his lucky day. A sword like that was worth it’s weight in gold! “We’re going to my shop.”
It was still dark. Diego was unsure of how long he was out, but the stars above still shined bright. Dawn was at least a couple hours away. Neither his father nor his brother would be there.
They had to peek their heads out from behind the corner of an old bakery across the main drag from Diego’s shop. Street lanterns cast a thin orange outline on everything and everyone, but after skulking in the pitch black back alleys, it was more than enough to see with. No guards were in sight, just a few scoundrels tottering home from Old Juan’s and a stray dog eating from a bowl of scraps left out on the side of the road. Diego darted across the street. The woman was quick to keep pace and keep her covered head lowered.
Diego saw the man with the scarred cheek wander past, and he turned away, hoping not to catch his eye, but his quick head turn did the exactly that.
“Diego?” he asked, his speech slurred from too much spiced wine. “That you?”
“Yeah…oh Felix,” Diego slowed, but didn’t stop. “You’re out pretty late, aren’t you. Listen, have a good night. Tell the wife and kids I say hi. We’ll chat later.”
The scarred man saw the dark woman following behind. Whether he could identify her or not in the darkness remained unclear. He just smiled and patted Diego on the back.
“Good on you, boy! Better than that ginger basket weaver. She was a bit on the frumpy side.” With that, he tottered onward, swaying dangerously from side to side with each step.
“What basket weaver…?” the woman asked.
Diego laughed nervously. “He’s a drunk. Don’t mind him.”
Diego unlocked the front door to the workshop and they went inside, locking the door behind them. The interior was pitch black until Diego, fumbling his hands through the dark, found a small lantern and lit it. It made a diminutive sphere of light that let the two of them see each other in the gloom, but not much else.
“Thank you for helping me,” the woman said. She set down her satchel, pulled up a stool and took a seat.
“It was my pleasure.” Diego went back to fumbling through the darkness, pulling a newly finished sword off the rack on the wall. It was his brother’s. The craftsmanship was leagues beyond what Diego could make himself. If he had the time he’d make a new one for himself, but there wasn’t any time. He hesitated before taking it, looking for one of his own to take. Most of his swords had been defective and remelted. He sighed. His only good blade was resting on some brute’s hip by now. If only he had time to make a new sword for himself.
Diego looked at her. “What?”
“My name is Nekayah,” the woman said.
Diego strapped his brother’s sword to his belt and came over to the traveler. “Well, it’s about time you told me your name. Never heard a name like that before, though.”
Nekayah shrugged. Her eye caught sight of an apple resting on the nearest workbench.
Diego followed her gaze. “Hungry? I tried to give it to you before. You’re still welcome to it now.”
Nekayah snatched the apple and bit into it. She reduced it to its core in mere minutes. She set the remains back on the workshop and wiped her mouth with her arm.
“Do you have any other food?”
Diego brought her a strip of dried, salted beef, and watched Nekayah wolf that down as well.
“So what are you?” Diego asked. “Where are you from?”
“I’m Abyssinian, not that it matters to you.”
Diego nodded in agreement. “Since I have no idea where that is, I suppose you are right. But now, answer me this. Back at the inn.” Diego’s voice quickened. “Those sounds, those lights, those...”
Nekayah gave Diego a cold glare. The shadow around her seemed to darken slightly, greedily soaking up a bit more of the meager light the lantern provided. The young man was compelled to hold his tongue and fall silent. Nekayah stood up and headed to the door. “I should go.”
“Wait!” Diego grabbed Nekayah’s arm. “I want to know!”
Nekayah shook her head. “No, you don’t!”
Her words dropped like hammers on Diego’s spirit.
“I cannot just pretend I didn’t see what I saw back there!” Diego held his grip on Nekayah’s arm. His hands were strong and calloused from years of hammering metal, but he could still feel the tender suppleness of the woman’s skin trying to pull away. “When I see you I see questions. I can’t just ignore them!”
“You’d be smarter if you did!” Nekayah cursed under her breath. “There are things people are not meant to know. Things that you’d do anything to unlearn.” She looked the swordsmith in the eye with her freezing gaze. Was this her attempt at intimidation? Maybe it scared away others, but Diego felt a strange, dreadful attraction luring him closer.
Nekayah sensed his eagerness and broke the stare, turning instead to look around the room, admiring the metalwork hanging all around her. They glinting dimly in the lantern light like steel icicles. “You are a good man, Diego. You have a life, a future. Let go of your curiosity lest you lose them both.”
Diego let go of Nekayah’s arm, sighing. “My future here is not as guaranteed as you might think.”
The sound of metal tumblers clinking in the lock on the front door rattled behind them. The door to the shop creaked open and a cautious voice called out from beyond.
“Diego? That you? I heard voices.”
A tall, muscular man with same tawny complexion and black, curly hair as Diego stood in the doorway. He was young to a degree, but with his beard and strong stature, his true age would have been anyone’s guess.
His eyes fixed on Nekayah. “Diego, who is this?”
“N—Nobody, brother,” Diego began. “Just a lost traveler who needed a place to stay the night.”
“They have inns for travelers…” Diego’s brother closed the door behind him, then returned his perplexed stare back to Nekayah. “Little brother, that’s the woman they’ve been talking about around town, isn’t it?”
“Ergh...” Diego tried to form an explanation, but was cut off by his brother.
“Is that one of my swords on your belt? What happened to yours?”
“I just needed to borrow it. She needs my help.”
Nekayah looked at Diego, then looked at his brother. “I’m sorry to have bothered you, good sir. I’ll be on my way.”
The brother’s eyes narrowed on her, but he nodded and stepped aside to let her pass. “Be on your way then.”
Nekayah headed for the door.
“Wait!” Diego said, pleading.
Nekayah shook her head and stepped out into the night. The door slammed shut behind her, and before she’d even stepped five paces from the threshold did she start to hear the elder brother’s roars of anger. Diego’s voice was quick to speak up, but was silenced with an unmistakable crack of a hand cutting across his face. It was followed by another, and another. Nekayah bit her bottom lip and trudged onward down the street. She’d happily have the boy take a hundred slaps to the face if it meant keeping one more good soul spared from the horror that dwelt in her shadow.