Chapter One - Zarita
We did not see the man who followed behind us.
For in the summer of 1490, before the Holy Inquisition brought fear and suspicion to our town, I did not glance constantly around me when I went about my business. After all, I was Zarita, daughter of a rich and powerful magistrate, and I could go where I chose. And on that day in August, a day so hot that even the cats had slunk from sun to shade to find some coolness, I was escorted by Ramón Salazar, a handsome young nobleman who had declared he would die for love of me.
Ramón sauntered at my side, his new sword of Toledo steel swinging at his hip, as we made our way along an unpaved street in the old port. He took his role as my protector very seriously, pulling his face into a frown and giving severe looks to every passer-by. We were here because I wanted to visit the shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows, which was situated in a church close to the sea. At sixteen Ramón was only a year older than I and had never fought a duel, yet he swaggered along beside me like any experienced soldier.
Ramón stayed by the main entrance while I went to the side altar. I wanted to ask the Mother of God to intercede for the lives of my mama and the baby son she’d just delivered with much pain and blood. It took several minutes for my eyes to adjust to the gloom.
I didn’t notice the side door open and a figure slip inside.
He stood in the darkness, this man, and watched me as I walked towards the statue of the Virgin. He waited behind a pillar while I lifted my veil, lit a candle and knelt to pray.
Then, when I opened my purse to take out some money for an offering, he darted forward.
Chapter Two -Zarita
‘Señorita, I beg you. One coin only.’
‘What?’ Startled, I stood up. The man was bigger than me, his eyes enormous, brown seeping to almost black in a face that was gaunt and grey with unshaved stubble.
‘I need money,’ he said. ‘I’ve walked all morning and found none. I cannot go home empty-handed to my wife and my son.’ He held out his hand, palm up.
I was suddenly aware that I was alone with this ruffian inside the empty church. I pulled my veil down over my face and took a step back.
He came forward – so very close to me. His mouth opened, showing blackened and missing teeth. An overpowering foul odour. His outstretched hand brushed mine.
I shrieked in alarm.
Ramón came running down the aisle from the main door.
‘My son is hungry. My wife is very ill. She needs medicine. One coin would buy something to ease her discomfort,’ the man gabbled at me.
But I paid no heed to his pleas. The smell of him and the contact of his fingers, with their roughened skin and broken fingernails, repelled me. That a peasant would go so far as to try to grasp the hand of a woman of my status was outrageous.
‘He touched me!’ I screamed. ‘This man actually touched me!’
Ramón looked at me in horror. His face turned red with fury. ‘You assaulted this woman!’ he yelled at the beggar.
‘N-no!’ the man stuttered in confusion. ‘I was only asking for a coin.’ He looked at me, as if I might verify what he said.
In fear, I shook my head and sobbed again. ‘He touched me.’
‘For that you die!’ cried Ramón, and tried to pull his sword from its scabbard. But he wasn’t practised enough to do this in one movement. It caught on his tunic, and he swore and snatched his dagger from his belt.
The beggar turned and rushed out of the side door.
Ramón gave chase, and I, terrified to be left on my own, gathered up my skirts and ran after them both.
Chapter Three - Saulo
I had watched my father enter the church through the side door.
I bit my lip in embarrassment as I realized that he was too humble and afraid to go in by the main door. He didn’t know that I was there; that I’d tagged after him for the last hour or so as he trudged through the town, begging. He would have been shamed if he’d known his son had witnessed people spurning him, and one grandee pushing him aside and spitting in the street as he passed by.
He thought I was with my mother, sitting beside the straw mattress where she lay, unable to move with the sickness that had struck her down a few weeks ago. I was supposed to stay beside her and try to keep her quiet, for last night she’d started to call out words in a language I didn’t know. When this began, my father became very anxious and tried to hush her so that the neighbours wouldn’t hear her speak in this strange tongue. And then he’d stroked her head, while murmuring, half chanting, some poem in her ear. It seemed to soothe her. When I’d asked him what she was saying, he told me it was the speech of angels. But I recognized his expression: I had seen it on his face before, in other places we’d lived, when he decided it was time for us to move on – the look of a hunted animal when it scented danger.
All my life we had travelled from town to town. At the time I didn’t think much about the reason for this. There was never enough money.
Any we had my father used to buy medicine, for my mother’s health
was always poor, and often one of us would have to stay home to look
after her. Our days were spent finding enough food to eat, and this was what occupied my mind now. My father would have been distressed had he found out that I sometimes resorted to begging for bread. But I’d done it before, taking advantage of the fact that I looked much younger than my years. When neither of us could get work, I would huddle down in a doorway until I saw some rich señora approaching, and then I’d whimper in a pathetic way.
But as I sat under a tree in the square outside the church on this sultry summer day, I was very hopeful that my father would be successful. When he left that morning he’d asked me to tend to my mother, but I had disobeyed him. My mother had fallen asleep so I’d trailed behind him as he followed the richly dressed girl and her companion. I figured out, as I imagined he had, that if someone like her was walking in this area, she could have only one destination. She would be going to the shrine of the Virgin Mary, which was inside the church on the cliff overlooking the sea. And if this girl was visiting a church to pray on a day not designated for religious observance, then it was likely that she had a merciful disposition. She seemed to be about my age, with the most beautiful long black hair caught up in swirls and curls with fine tortoiseshell combs. From time to time the young nobleman who was with her would turn to smile at her and reach out to touch her hair. She looked like a good girl, her face properly covered with a veil, kind and devout. She’d come to this poorer part of the town to visit the shrine, so it must mean that she sought some special favour, that she had a sorrow or a petition of her own.
I thought: She will listen to my father as she expects her God to listen to her.
I was wrong.
Chapter Four - Saulo
The side door of the church banged open and my father came scuttling out. He glanced to the rear of the building: the cliff wall surrounded the back, with no path visible. He turned and raced along the side of the church towards the front.
Right away I sensed danger. I stood up.
The church door opened again and the young nobleman who had been the girl’s escort appeared, and then the girl herself, further behind, skirts clutched up in her hands, running.
The young man chased after my father, shouting wildly.
‘Murder! Thief ! Assassin!’
There were few people about, but those who were in the square stopped to look.
I beckoned with my hand. I thought my father had seen me but he veered away to the right, in the direction of a staircase going down to the sea.
My heart thudded in my chest. No! That way led to the shore, and the water would bar his way.
At the first step the young man caught up with him and lunged out with his dagger.
‘Ramón!’ the girl screamed. ‘Be careful!’
My father carried no weapon. He shoved away the man called Ramón and sent him sprawling. But, in doing so, he himself fell backwards and tumbled down the stairs.
With the other onlookers I ran over to see what was happening.
Below us, my father scrambled to his feet. A few more seconds and
he might have got free; found another alleyway or a cliff path to make
his escape. But then a group of soldiers came marching along the
quayside. From the top of the stairs his pursuer, Ramón, bawled at the
lieutenant in charge.
‘Arrest that man! He has just assaulted a girl inside the church and tried to kill me!’
The soldiers charged after my father, grabbed him and, with many blows and kicks, hauled him up the staircase to face the man, Ramón.
‘Take him to this girl’s father!’ The young nobleman’s face was twisted in rage. ‘His name is Don Vicente Alonso Carbazón and he is the local magistrate!’
And so my father was dragged through the streets to the home of the magistrate and flung down in his compound. I ran after them, unable to think clearly about what was happening, so fast were these dreadful events unfolding. On the way there, more folk gathered behind the soldiers to watch the spectacle. They now crowded about the open gateway.
The girl went to hug her father as he came to the door of their house. She made to pull off her veil but he stayed her hand. He was without his jacket, and the collar of his shirt was undone. His hair was wild and his body trembled as he spoke.
‘What is the noise,’ he demanded angrily, ‘that disturbs me at a time when I most need peace?’ He held up his hand. ‘Silence!’ he roared. Then he pointed at the young nobleman. ‘You, Ramón Salazar, tell me what’s going on here.’
‘Sir, Don Vicente – this beggar man attacked your daughter in the church in a most atrocious way. And when I went to restrain him, he attempted to kill me.’
Don Vicente took a step forward and struck my father in the face with his fist. My father fell to the ground, spitting teeth and blood into the red dirt of the yard.
‘Sire’ – my father tried to speak – ‘most noble Don—’
Don Vicente aimed a kick at his head. ‘Silence, you cur,’ he snarled.‘If I had not more pressing matters to deal with, I would try you here and have sentence carried out upon you immediately.’
‘We are in a state of war.’ The lieutenant in charge of the soldiers
spoke up. ‘Queen Isabella of Castile and her husband, King Ferdinand
of Aragon, have stated that they will tolerate no civil unrest while they
fight to reunify all our provinces so that Spain can become one country
again. A town magistrate can have a traitor executed by a military officer without formal trial. And anyone who harms a nobleman or a woman in a church must be guilty of treason.’ He pointed to a nearby tree. ‘We can hang him now and end the matter here.’
‘Do it,’ Don Vicente ordered. He swivelled on his heel and prepared to go inside his house. ‘And get rid of that rabble at my gate.’
‘Father!’ I yelled as the soldiers began to close the heavy wooden doors to the compound. ‘Father! Father! Father!’