The Witch of Castile

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Chapter 7: The Juggler

Fernando proclaimed his house blessed by God. Sofia’s maladies had vanished completely within the course of just a few days. Her cough disappeared and her fainting spells had ceased to be. All things considered, she was ready to get back to work, but her father insisted she stayed in bed a while longer for fear of relapse. During these days, Aunt Vanessa kept to herself. She didn’t even join the family for supper, especially now that Nekayah was invited to the table. Though her absence was appreciated, it began to worry the Abyssinian to some degree. The only thing worse than an enemy she could see, was one she couldn’t see.

“I doubt you’ll need my help after tonight,” Nekayah said, coming into Sofia’s bedroom one morning. “I’ll be leaving tomorrow.”

Sofia sat in bed, picking over bits of toast and eggs that remained from breakfast on her pewter plate. “The festival is tomorrow. Can you at least stay until then? I’d love for you to see it.”

Sounds of hammers pounding and saws gnawing came in through Sofia’s window as they spoke. For the past few days the village had been preparing for the celebration. Nekayah peered outside to observe the men and women scurrying around like bugs, carrying planks of wood, rolling barrels of ale and hauling loads of dirt and stone. Tent poles were being planted, and musicians practiced their tunes. They sprinkled the village with lyre notes and unfinished flute tunes.

“They certainly are busy,” Nekayah said.

Sofia set her plate aside and went over to Nekayah, grasping her hand softly. “It’s not often we get an outsider to appreciate all our hard work. It’d be a shame if you left so soon.”

Nekayah watched a blacksmith hammer a beam of molten steel across the road. For a moment, her mind went back to that rambunctious boy from Toledo. “The longer I stay here, the closer trouble comes. I’d be putting you in danger.”

Sofia cocked her head to the side, confused. “Trouble? What kind of trouble?”

“I’m, how do you say…bad luck for those around me.”

“Don’t say such things! You saved me, and spared my father a broken heart! You’re good luck! You’re a miracle worker! My father speaks of you in town as if you were Saint Jude!”

The Abyssinian wanted to yell at the girl for being so painfully naive. The girl’s words stung deep like bee’s venom, mocking her misfortune. “No! You don’t understand…”

Nekayah was interrupted by Sofia wrapping her arms tight around the woman’s waist. She pressed her face into Nekayah’s bosom, crying. “What if I get sick again? What if I need you? I don’t want you to go!”

“Please, Sofia…” As Nekayah spoke, Sofia lifted her head, pressing her pink lips against Nekayah’s brown ones. In that brief moment time stood still, holding its breath, unsure whether or not to continue. Was it a kiss? It was hard for Nekayah to tell. It was sloppy, childish, unsure in its conviction. Nekayah grabbed the young woman, and Sofia grabbed her in turn. It was sinful softness, sweet and purer than anything she’d felt before. It was too much, Nekayah panicked, pushed the young woman away, giving herself a chance to breathe. Her face felt hot, but the blush was hidden well under her dark cheeks.

“I’m sorry…” Sofia squeaked, tears welling in her eyes. “I just—I just felt like I had to…oh Lord, what have I done?” Her knees started to tremble, and soon she sank to the floor. Overwhelmed with shame, she started grabbing at her own hair.

Nekayah went to gather Sofia off the ground, but she refused her help, slapping her hands away. Nekayah didn’t push the matter and instead made her way to the door. She looked back at the pale girl one more time, not sure what to expect now.

“I’m sorry,” Sofia said, again and again. “I must still be sick.” Sofia clasped her hands in prayer and began muttering to the Lord. Nekayah exited the room.

Leaning against the closed door, alone in the hallway, Nekayah put a hand over her chest, feeling her heartbeat settle. The same confusion that rattled Sofia was also spinning inside her as well, but she’d be a fool to let herself collapse into a puddle. She let the feeling pass, but it wasn’t easy. She needed some air.

It was first time Nekayah walked the streets of the sleepy hamlet since they started building for the festival. She wrapped her shawl around her head to protect herself from the summer sun and prying eyes. Yet, the ferocious heat did little to slow the hearty villagers in their toil. Smiling and talking to each other, they swapped mundane dribble stories as they sawed wood or hammered nails, undaunted by the blazing inferno. Envy plucked lightly at Nekayah’s heart strings. Would she ever know such peace?

“You’re the one who saved the baker’s daughter,” one man said, sweat dripping from his tangled beard.

“Yes, I am.”

The man called to everyone nearby. “It’s the woman who saved Fernando’s daughter!” Many faces turned, setting down their hammers and saws. They came to Nekayah, complimenting her on her work. Some came describing their own ailments, hoping she could help. However, as they surrounded her, Nekayah felt an instinct override her mind. She felt overwhelmed, like she was being swallowed alive by the crowd.

“I’m sorry,” she said. Like a rabbit, she fled, dashing from the people who had done nothing but shower her with praise.

As the crowd returned to their work, Nekayah went to sit on a barrel under the shade of the cathedral. There was no one nearby, and her nerves settled. She made herself comfortable, took a sweet bun out from her pouch and nibbled, savoring it’s buttery sweetness.

Normally, Nekayah preferred to keep her distance from churches, as she rarely got along with the devout of this kingdom, but here, hiding in this structure’s shadow, she found the seclusion she craved. There was nary a peasant in sight, and so long as she kept her shawl pulled low, she wouldn’t attract too much attention.

The stone structure stood like a behemoth next to the quaint, little town square, with its flying buttresses stretching out on either side like the legs of a stone centipede. Its bell tower housed a large circular window of stained glass, shimmering like cyclopian eye, gazing over the village.

She paused and smiled to herself. Alone with a tasty snack, the Abyssinian felt some semblance of peace. The lyre player, wherever he was, started playing again. In that brief moment, things were good. But then a question came hurdling through her mind.

What was that girl thinking? No, she wasn’t going to think about it. She discarded the thought as quickly as it came. What did she care for the girl’s feelings—or anyone’s? The only people who mattered were long dead in a land far away. She could still see their butchered bodies lying in the smoldering ruins of her family’s home If she had not been so well hidden, she would have been cut up along with them. Even though she was only a girl when the raiders came, those images were not easily forgotten.

“Are you alone?” the voice in her memory said.

Crying, little Nekayah turned to see the old hermit from the cursed mountain, with long brown arms like branches of a ficus tree. He stood there, a guardian angel cloaked in white.

“Come with me, girl. I’ll look after you.”

Little Nekayah reached out and took his hand.

If only she knew the cost of that decision all those years ago. She would have preferred to have died alongside her family.

Nekayah gobbled up the rest of the bun, letting the fruity menagerie of flavors distract her from her bitter memories. Then a thought dawned on her. More of an image than a fully thought. She saw herself, eating from a basket of sweet buns. Sofia was beside her, and together they sat on the roof of the bakery, watching the sunset. No more wandering, no more running. Everything was peaceful.

No! Sofia was only healed because of her magic. If the townsfolk knew the truth…if they knew what she really was… So long as she was influenced by the arcane forces that stirred inside her, she would find no peace, no matter where she’d go.

There was only one thing left for her in this world, one last hope. She had to move forward, not backwards, and certainly not stand still. No matter what temptations gathered to try and drag her off course, she needed to remain focused. No more playing savior to the poor and needy. No amount of pretending to care would bring back her soul—only Jarangosa. But maybe, if only to tease her fantasy, once this was all over, if this little hamlet would still have her, then maybe she would return.

“You are so close…” a voice whispered on the breeze.

A chill raced down the Abyssinian’s back. Nekayah looked behind her, but saw only the mossy headstones of the church cemetery. She took a moment to think. There was no one living within earshot, yet the voice was familiar. She’d heard that whispering before in the night. That nightingale in the tree.

“Whatever devil you are,” Nekayah said, “I don’t need you reminding me.”

Her eyes caught sight of something strange. A man. He was one of the villagers, dressed as a performer in a bronze mask and burgundy shoulder cape. With great dexterity, he was juggled in the town square, practicing for the festival. An oddity to be sure, but his performance had garnered the attention of a mob of giggling young children and more than a few giggling adults.

Nekayah admired the routine from afar, and something inside her suggested to leave town right then and there. She’d be leaving on a positive note and never have to look back. Unfortunately, all of her belongings were still in the baker’s house, along with his distraught daughter. With a sigh, she stood up, dusted off her dress, and headed back to the bakery. It was time to gather her things and leave.

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