Chapter 5: The Sickly Girl
Two mules pulled the wagon down the red dirt road, kicking up clods of clay and dust under their hooves, whisking away flies with their long, and twitching ears about their head. They smelled like animals and the sun was starting to rise up over the eastern horizon, ripening their stench. Within hours it would be blazing, and the wagon bed would be fully exposed to its scorching wrath, but for now the ride was pleasant enough despite the odor. On the horizon, the massive Alcazar of Toledo stood atop the city like a crown, growing smaller and smaller in the distance.
Nekayah sat farthest back on a bench stretching across one side of the wagon bed with her shawl pulled low over her face. The other side of the bed carried sacks of onions and apples. She shared the bench with four other people. The man who sat right beside her was middle-aged fellow with bushy sideburns, but completely bald on top. Huge bags hung below his restless, bloodshot eyes; eyes that darted towards Nekayah more often than she would have liked.
She shifted herself away from him in such a way that put her money purse between the side of the wagon and herself. Nekayah was unsure, though, if it was really her money he was interested in. Still, he was there when the wagon was stopped at the Northern gate and one of the guards caught a glimpse of her face. She had to bribe him to let her leave unmolested. He must of known she had some money on her.
She’d been a fool to attempt any magic in town, especially a spell so powerful. If she’d pulled it if off though, she’d probably already be where she needed to be. Several days by land would have been one by air. But again, she failed.
She reached inside her satchel and pulled out an old, leathery tome and flipped through its yellow pages, passing rows of spiraling symbols charted out in geometric diagrams and passages of faded text until she found what she was looking for. It was a map she’d looked over time and time again, a map of the Iberian Peninsula coupled with the coast of Northern Africa, and near the center of Castile was an inky dot, and above it was a name: Jarangosa.
She stared at the map. She was close now, closer than she was the day before, and the day before that, and that’s all that mattered. She had searched everywhere, from forsaken deserts of the east where the sleeping city of a hundreds of towers lied buried in the red sands, to the Glass Necropolis of Barentu. All those thousands of leagues she’d traveled… Thinking about the entirety of her journey was enough to make her head spin. But to the think of what would have happened if she had not left home…well, she would have jumped off the top of Das Rashen by now and let the baboons feast on her corpse. After all, there was no point living a life of emptiness. This journey gave her hope.
How long had it been since she’d last set foot in her homeland? Days had blurred quickly into months, and months blended into what by now must have been years. Two? Three? She’d thought about trying to count the seasons to help keep time, but they were not quite the same here. It didn’t matter anymore, though. She was close to her goal now.
Putting a finger over the name on her map, she closed her eyes, as if about to say a prayer, but she jumped and slammed the book closed when a hoarse voice addressed her.
“Excuse me, Señorita.”
Nekayah looked and saw the man with fleeting, bloodshot eyes staring directly at her now.
“Señor?” she asked.
“Pardon my rudeness, but I must ask, are you a healer?”
Nekayah tilted her head. “Why would you ask such a thing?”
“It’s just hearsay, but I heard about a Moorish healer in the area and I had to ask.”
Nekayah glanced over her shoulder, considering how she would answer. The other passengers in the cart seemed to not hear or not care about their little conversation, but Nekayah knew better. Hearsay traveled faster than the wind in these parts. Whatever she said would precede her wherever she’d go in this kingdom, and being known as healer was better than the alternative.
Nekayah nodded. “I am a healer, yes.”
“Heaven’s be praised!” the old man said. “I beg you kind woman, I need your help!”
“With what, exactly?”
The old man sighed and his eyes became watery. “My daughter is ill. I’ve traveled to every town and city in the area looking for the right herbs…the right healers. All of it seemed to be in vain. The herbs were too scarce, the healers too expensive. I haven’t slept in days.”
“That’s quite unfortunate,” Nekayah said. Her words were sympathetic, but her expression remained cold and distant. How dare he try to pull her off course when she was so close to her destination!
“Pardon me.” The man wiped his eyes with his sleeve. “I don’t have much to offer, you see. I’m merely a baker. But you if you come with me, you will eat well and sleep in a warm, dry bed.”
Nekayah’s stomach gurgled at the prospect of free food, but she wouldn’t let herself be swayed so easily. “What of actual payment?”
The man reached inside the folds of his tunic and pulled out a small coin bag, jingling it softly. It was indeed a pathetic amount just by looking at how flimsily the bag sat in his hand.
Nekayah wanted to say no, but word refused to come out. The look of wide-eyed desperation on the man’s wrinkled face compelled Nekayah to surrender. “I will see how she is. If I can help, I will.” She wanted to slap herself in the face.
Another detour. Another waste of time.
The man held his hands up to the sky and gave thanks to God. “My prayers are answered, Oh Jesus Lord!”
The bald old man grabbed Nekayah’s hand and shook it, then kissed it with his dry lips. The Abyssinian pulled her hand back and wiped it on her dress. “If you keep making a scene, I’ll change my mind.”
“Call me Fernando. Fernando Panza. My village is just a few miles north up this road. We’ll reach it by dusk. What is your name, blessed Señorita?” Fernando leaned close, awaiting her reply, and Nekayah leaned away in response, shaking her head.
“I will give you my name in private, Señor Panza.” Nekayah hushed her voice to a whisper. “How do you say…the wall’s have ears.”
“But there are no walls here,” Fernando corrected. “We’re outside.”
“It’s a figure of speech!” Nekayah’s eyes darted over to the other men in the wagon. Their conversation had piqued their curiosity, and they glanced at them with growing interest.
Fernando nodded, spying the eyes as well. “Very well then. We’ll talk once we’re home safe.”
Nekayah turned away from the old man and made herself comfortable. It had been a long time since she last slept, so here she would have to make do. She wanted to be fast asleep by the time the worst of the midday sun came to bake them all alive.
She awoke, feeling something rock her body back and forth. Forgetting where she was, her body lurched with a primal fright that sent her bolting upright, gasping.
The sun was almost gone and a sparkling black-blue blanket was stretching over the sky. She was surrounded by a collection of small houses, stables, and stores, with a granite church standing in the center of it. Beyond the village was a sea of amber grain. A chorus of crickets chirped and the earthy smell of hay was thick in the air.
A hand tapped her shoulder and she spun around to see Fernando staring back at her. His leathery face and bushy sideburns were no more pleasant in the dark, and Nekayah lurched back in surprise, but she started to calm as her brain reminded her of where she was and what she had agreed to. The rest of the passengers had already exited the wagon, leaving just Fernando and herself.
“Welcome to Cebresos,” Fernando said, helping Nekayah off the wagon. “I live just down that road there.” He pointed off into the distance. Nekayah looked in the general direction but didn’t really try to see what he was pointing to. Her head still felt dizzy from sleep.
Her shrouded visage was enough to keep most of the townsfolk from gawking, However, whenever someone walked too close to her, she saw the surprise flash across their face. “You’d think no one here has ever seen a Moor before.”
“We rarely get visitors of any sort,” Fernando said.
Just as he said that, Nekayah spotted a goat relieve itself in the middle of the street. Nekayah put her hand under her nose. “That’s hard to believe… Shall we go?” She had no desire to spend a moment longer in this dirty hamlet than she needed to.
“Follow me,” Fernando said. The two of them headed off through the town as the sun cast its last rays of orange light on the town cathedral, making its stain glass glitter like embers rising from a fire. Gradually, the few people still on the streets returned to their homes and they were alone in the night.
“Perhaps now you can tell me your name,” Fernando said, looking back at the shrouded woman.
“Nekayah,” she said.
“Nekayah…?” The word fumbled out of the baker’s mouth. “What an odd name. Well, no matter, it’s a pleasure all the same. Sofia will be happy to see you, I’m sure.”
Fernando’s bakery had a modest facade with his name spelled out in bronze lettering that had turned green and dark with time. Fernando led his guest through the front door and the smell of slightly sour old bread wafted up Nekayah’s nose. Inside, Nekayah spotted a petite young woman sweeping the floor. Her pale porcelain face was framed with dark tussles of hair gently curling down to her breasts and back. Her lips and nose were strawberry pink, and a spray of brown freckles decorated her cheeks. When she looked at Nekayah, she froze in place like a doll.
“Father?” she squeaked. Her voice was a frail whisper in the air. “Who is that woman?”
“Sofia!” Fernando took the broom from his daughter. “What are you doing out of bed? Where’s Aunt Vanessa?”
“Aunty went to bed early, but she forgot to sweep the floor. So I figured I should do it.” Sofia punctuated her sentence with a rattling cough that made her body tremble. She covered her mouth with her arm to suppress the worst of the retching, but when she lowered it, it was easy to spot the specs of scarlet on her papery white arm.
“We need to get her in bed, now,” Nekayah said, lowering her shawl.
Sofia looked at the woman with big blue eyes wide with apprehension.
“Don’t worry, dear,” Fernando said, rubbing the girl’s shoulder. “She’s here to help you.”
Sofia shook her head. “She looks evil! I don’t want her help!” In her panic she started to cough again. It sounded dry and painful, and her whole body shook like it was going to fall apart.
“What’s this racket?” a crone called from atop the stairs. Aunt Vanessa, Nekayah deduced. “Fernando, you’re home—” Her words suddenly failed her when she saw Nekayah. The Abyssinian was not surprised. “What’s the meaning of this, brother? You’ve brought a damned Moor into our home.”
“Hush!” Fernando said. “You’ll wake the village and send them into a panic. She’s a healer.”
Aunt Vanessa snorted. “A witch-doctor by the looks of her.”
“Perhaps I should leave,” Nekayah said. She was not going to waste her time suffering ignorant remarks when she should still be heading north.
“No!” Fernando said. “Please!” He came grabbed Nekayah’s arm, holding it tight. His intensity caught the Abyssinian off guard. “They’re sheltered! Pay their words no mind!”
“My patience is thin…”
Fernando ordered her sister to go back to sleep and then lifted Sofia onto his back. He trudged up the stairs, taking his daughter back to her little bedroom. Sofia must have appreciated flowers, for they decorated every part of her room. White lilies sat along her window and yellow daffodils stood in a vase on her bedside table. Her bed sheets even had little pink flowers embroidered in them.
“Sofia,” Nekayah began, helping tuck the girl into bed, “you can call me Nekayah. If you allow it, I might be able to help you. Would that be alright?”
Sofia did not give an answer, and Nekayah didn’t expect one, or at least nothing positive. She reached to touch Sofia’s forehead, but she squirmed in protest. “Father, don’t let her touch me!”
“Be a good girl,” Fernando said. “She’s a godsend. Just let her do her work.”
Fernando raised his voice. “Listen, this woman is your last hope! I don’t want to lose you like I lost your mother! Now, please, let her help you!”
Sofia and Nekayah stared at the tired man. His outburst had caught them both by surprise. Neither suspected such a fury to fume out of a man so exhausted.
Fernando cleared his throat. “I’m sorry I yelled.”
Sofia, whose eyes were watering a little, reached out for her father. “You promise she won’t hurt me?”
Fernando patted the girl’s hand. “She’s a sweet woman if you give her a chance.” He nodded at Nekayah. It was a silent apology, but also a desperate plea. “Now, if you don’t mind…I have several days of sleep to catch up on.” Fernando yawned and shuffled out the room.
Nekayah watched him leave. Every step now seemed labored and weak. Nekayah half-expected the poor fool to keel over and expire right there on the ground. It was admirable struggle. The baker worn himself to the bone trying to save his daughter, now it was her turn. “Have a good rest, Señor Panza. You’ve earned it.”
She turned her attention back to Sofia and grasped the pale girl’s forehead, feeling its warmth under her palm. Sofia struggled, but didn’t have the strength to keep it up. Eventually she relaxed and laid still.
“How old are you?” Nekayah asked, her eyes wandering across the girl’s body. Her body was in good shape, symmetrical and devoid of deformities, but it would not stop shivering.
“I’m eighteen,” Sofia said. She was younger than Nekayah, but only by a few years.
Nekayah tilted her head in sympathy. “A pitiable age to die…”
Sofia looked Nekayah in the eye, giving her an incredulous stare. “What sort of Moor are you?”
“I’m no Moor,” Nekayah said. “I’m Abyssinian. I doubt you’ve met one before now.”
Sofia shook her head. “This is Castile. I’ve only ever met Castilians and Moors. Though I’ve never actually talked to a Moor. Only Christians. Aunt Vanessa taught me that Moors are sinful, and that they’re skin marks them as such.”
“Where I’m from, there are many Christians, pious and faithful as any.”
Sofia lit up with interest. “Really?”
The Abyssinian nodded. “Yes, though you still might find them strange.”
“Strange? If they’re not the same then how can they really be Christians? Are they protestant? Are they blasphemers?”
Nekayah shrugged. “What do you consider a blasphemy?”
“Something terribly reprehensible against God and men.”
Nekayah put a hand on the girl’s neck, feeling her pulse throb under her fingers. “Well it sounds like there are blasphemers everywhere then.”
Sofia shook her head. “Not in Castile! Not in Spain! Here, the Inquisition keeps us pure!”
“Pure, you say? Nothing is ever completely pure.” Sofia shook her head, but before she could speak Nekayah put a finger to her lips. “Sssshhh…No need to talk further about such things.”
The wariness in the girl’s eyes dissolved, leaving only fear. “I don’t want to sleep. And I don’t want you touching me.”
“Then you will surely die.”
That seemed to take the air out of Sofia’s attitude. Her face softened, and she cast her eyes downward. “I didn’t mean to cause so much trouble. I’m just…”
“Scared. I know.” Nekayah petted the girl’s soft, black curls and chuckled. There was something endearing about how quickly her mood swung. “And I know, I’m absolutely terrifying, but I promise I won’t eat you.”
Sofia shook her head again. “Just don’t tell me to sleep. I’m afraid to sleep.”
“What’s so scary about sleeping?”
“Last time I slept, there were no dreams. I didn’t even realize I had been asleep until I woke up.” Sofia gulped. “What if I sleep and don’t wake up, and not even realize it?” Her voice trembled, and tears were forming in the corners of her eyes. Nekayah felt a twinge of pity for the sickly girl.
The Abyssinian shook her head and smiled. “You’ll wake up. Don’t worry.”
“You would help me even though…”
“Even though you’re an insufferable brat? Yes.”
“You’re a kind woman.”
“I think the Pope is, how do you say, considering my sainthood as we speak.” Nekayah was about to chuckle, but saw that her patient was not amused.
Nekayah cleared her throat and put her satchel down. She rummaged through her supplies, sifting through tiny glass vials and bottles of herbal extracts, lotions and potions of every color, careful to keep the jars of blood tucked out of view. After a while of searching, she took out a towel and a vial of blue arrowroot essence. She uncorked it and brought it to Sofia’s mouth.
“Drink this,” Nekayah said.
Sofia stared at the blue liquid and grimaced, then looked at Nekayah. “Is father right about you? Are you really sent by God?”
“I’m just a healer.”
Sofia opened her mouth and let Nekayah poor in the medicine. The poor girl coughed a little, but kept the medicine down.
“There, not so bad.”
Sofia just stared at the woman, blue eyes unblinking, like she was trying to find something on Nekayah’s face. “You’re dark like the Devil, but you don’t act evil…how so?”
Nekayah paused for a half a second, thinking about throttling the girl, but then decided to let it pass. “There is one thing about the Devil everyone seems to forget. He has many faces, and will always come to you wearing the face you least expect.”
Sofia was silent for a moment, contemplating her words. “Can we talk until I fall asleep.”
Nekayah shrugged. “Only if you don’t make any more stupid remarks.”