Chapter 6: The Maiden’s Heart
Three days had passed since Nekayah took residence in the old baker’s home. She was treated to fresh bread and butter, and a dry bed, just as the baker had promised, but these trifling compensations were not enough to make Nekayah forget about her real prize. Right before bed every night, she would take out her tome and gaze at the map. She guessed she was less than a week’s journey from her destination—she would have been half way there by now. But she couldn’t leave…not yet.
Sofia’s disease was not an easy fix. Sometime the young maiden would appear healthy again, and would crawl out of bed when no one was watching, head down stairs, then promptly collapse into a fit of coughing. Each fit was worse than the last.
“Why do you keep doing this?” Nekayah asked, helping Sofia back to her room one day. She’d gotten halfway down the steps this time before she felt her body begin to fail. “It’s not good for either of us. You know how your aunt gets when I go downstairs to fetch you.”
Fernando was busy with baking while her sister, Sofia’s Aunt Vanessa, managed the customers. Before her illness, that role had been Sofia’s. She was the smiling, lovely face of the business, and people came from across the village just to see her. Making a purchase was often incidental. However, the visitors lessened after Aunt Vanessa took control. Nekayah couldn’t blame them. A loathsome goat of a woman, it was a cruel joke that someone like her shared any blood with someone as comely as Sofia, and every time Sofia fell into a fit, the crone’s suspicion of Nekayah increased.
Coming in from the street one rainy afternoon, during one of Nekayah’s rare outings, she found Aunt Vanessa sweeping the shop floor. Nekayah smelled of sweet, soggy grass and dirt, and her traveler’s cloak dripped on the floor.
Aunt Vanessa gave her a mean stare. “Filthy.”
“Good day,” Nekayah said.
“Who gave you permission to go outside?” The old woman’s mouth had few teeth left, making her words sound wet and muddy. “What do you want the neighbors to think!”
“I’m not a prisoner. Your brother explained my being here to the neighbors days ago. It’s no mystery who I am.” Nekayah moved towards the stairs, but Aunt Vanessa stuck out her broom handle to block the healer’s path.
“And what were you doing outside?”
Nekayah breathed deep. There was no need to get upset. Not yet. “I was collecting herbs.” She held up a hand full of sage leaves bundled in twine. There was a patch growing wild near the border of town that the baker had told her about. “These will help with her cough.”
“So you say.” Vanessa lowered her broom handle to let her pass. “I’m watching you. My brother’s been weak ever since you came. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.”
“He just got back from traveling—”
“Shut your mouth, succubus.” The crone waved the broom handle in Nekayah’s face. “I’m not worried about him. He made his choice, but if I see you putting a spell on my niece, by God I’ll…!”
“Aunty!” Sofia screamed from atop the stairs. “Leave her be!”
“Take your butt back to bed, girl. I’ll deal with this demon.”
“All of you, quit your yelling,” Fernando boomed from the back room. He had been laboring over that oven, barely stepping out but to sleep, eat, and handle his call to nature. Whenever the women got into an argument, he’d shout out, sending his voice to end the scuffle, but never come in person.
Nekayah grabbed the broom handle before it came too close to her face, and stepped past the old woman and went up the stairs.
Beside Sofia’s bed was a pewter jug of herbal tea Nekayah concocted with the sage leaves. She poured Sofia a cup and gave it to her. Sofia put the cup to her lips and drank deep.
“I need to get better soon,” Sofia said. “The Cortoba Fiesta is coming up. I can’t miss it.”
“Cortoba Fiesta?” Nekayah echoed.
“It’s a special day we have in our little village. There’s dancing, flowers, music, food. It honors an old hero of our village, a knight of who fought the Moors during the Reconquista. On that day my father bakes sweet buns for the whole village and I sell them in the town square, then afterward I get to dance.”
Nekayah ate one of Fernando’s sweet buns every day for breakfast. Those buttery confections, along with the wheat bread, Nekayah presumed, were the staples of the bakery. It was rare to see a customer order anything else. “Sounds fun.”
Sofia giggled. “Your stomach certainly thinks so.”
“Regardless, you won’t be going anywhere if you keep having fits going down the stairs. The more your aunt sees me, the less likely I’ll be allowed to stay.”
“My aunt is a very opinionated woman.”
“Is that why she’s a spinster?” Nekayah asked.
Sofia chuckled a little. “That’s what father always says. He once he told me that being a good Catholic doesn’t always equate to being a good wife.” The young woman waved for Nekayah to sit on the stool beside her bed. “Please, sit.”
Nekayah accepted the invitation and sat on the stool beside the sickly girl. Sofia reached out and took Nekayah’s hand and eyed it closely, scrutinizing the mahogany flesh on one side, then flipped it over to look at the lighter palm. She flipped the hand back and forth several more times, focusing, contemplating, much to Nekayah’s amusement.
“Yes?” Nekayah asked. “Something I can help you with?”
“One side is light, one side is dark…” Her words were merely thoughts spoken aloud, wispy, trailing into silence. “Did it rub off? Can you rub off the rest?”
Nekayah chuckled. “No.”
Sofia continued to stare at her hand. “That’s too bad.”
The Abyssinian rolled her eyes. “Quit playing with my hand. I’m not your, what do you call it…your rag doll. Aren’t you still scared of me?”
Sofia shook her head. “Not really. You’re a kind person.”
“A pity.” Nekayah put her free hand on Sofia’s head, checking her fever. She was still burning.
“Why did you come to this place?” Sofia asked, looking up at Nekayah’s hand.
“To help you,” Nekayah replied. “Your father is paying me…although barely.”
“I mean why did you come to this kingdom? You’re so far from home. I’d be terrified if I were you.”
“I’m looking for something.”
“Looking for what?” Sofia took Nekayah’s other hand and pulled Nekayah’s arms, urging her to come sit on the bed. “A hidden treasure?” She gave a Nekayah a wry grin. “A lost lover?”
Nekayah sat down on the bed beside Sofia. The girl shifted herself closer until there was no space between them. She was like an eager puppy waiting for a scratch behind the ears. It made Nekayah want to shove her aside, but she didn’t.
“I carry a sickness,” Nekayah said, “and somewhere in this kingdom is the cure.”
“A sickness? Why not heal yourself? You’re healing me.”
Nekayah shook her head, jingling her beads. “It’s a sickness not of the body, but of the spirit…the heart. A curse.”
“A curse! Then we must take you to the priest! I’ll tell father to take you to Father Joseph!”
Nekayah grabbed the girl’s arm. She was already halfway up from her bed. “He can’t help. Believe me.”
“Well, you helped me, maybe I can help you.” Sofia took Nekayah’s hand and brought to her chest. Her heart thumped against her ribs. “I have a strong heart. Can’t you feel it? I’ll pray for you.”
Nekayah’s hand lingered on her breast, feeling the rhythm underneath begin to quicken—a fluttering of a butterfly’s wings, not strong at all. Was the girl delusional, or was she willingly lying to herself?
The Abyssinian locked eyes with the baker’s daughter, blue on gray, unmoving for an indeterminate amount of time. The sweet scent of fresh bread wafted in from under the door. Nekayah wondered if she could see the worry in her eyes. She wondered if Sofia could see her own death in the reflection of her eyes. She had so little time.
Sofia’s face flushed red, and her breathing became labored. After a moment she doubled over in another coughing fit.
Nekayah gave the poor girl a cup of tea and watched her choke it down.
“Thank you,” Sofia said, catching her breath. A moment of silence hung between them. Then, without permission, Sofia reached up to touch Nekayah’s hair, running her fingers through Nekayah’s beads. Nekayah slapped her hand away.
“I’m not your pet.”
Sofia looked at her feet, embarrassed. “I’m sorry.” She flexed her feet, curling her pale pink toes, and then shifted her weight forward. With great care, Sofia stood up, planting her bare feet on the hardwood floor. “Help me walk.”
“I’ll do no such thing. Your father and aunt will both kill me if I willingly take you downstairs.”
Sofia scoffed. “Don’t be silly. We’re not going downstairs. I want to show you the roof.”
A new vitality possessed the young woman, glowing from her alabaster pores. Her blue eyes twinkled with a lucid shine. Suddenly the young woman seemed less a child needing coddling and more like an adult.
Sofia held out her hand, as if she intended to help Nekayah off the bed. The healer sighed and stood up on her own. She wasn’t trying to be rude, and even though Nekayah herself didn’t weigh much, it was unlikely the girl had the strength to lift a breadbasket.
Together they quietly exited Sofia’s bedroom and climbed up a ladder in the back of the upstairs hall that led to a trapdoor. Nekayah climbed first, opening the trap door only to be momentarily blinded by the flood of white, hot sunlight that poured onto her.
The sun had dispersed the dark clouds and cast a blinding light over the world. It took her eyes a moment to adjust to see what was around her. The roof was a gently sloping surface made of red tiles. A clothes lines was stretched across it’s length, suspended between sturdy poles nailed in place. Sofia guided her caretaker past the blouses and underclothes fluttering in the wind, bringing her to the edge where they gazed over the entirety of the village.
The collection of white cottages and stores topped with brown and red roofs spread out further than Nekayah originally thought. Beyond were amber pastures bleached by the blazing sun that drifted overhead. On the horizon, emerald hills rose shyly, with subtle curves and smooth peaks. Somewhere above, kites and hawks darted under the few remaining clouds, making shrill cries that echoed across the sky.
“Quite the view,” Nekayah said.
“Isn’t it?” Sofia pointed to one house not too far away. “That’s where the tanner lives. I used to play with his son when we were little. He was handsome, but he married a milkmaid a three years ago. I don’t see him anymore.” She looked off in another direction. “There’s a creek over that way on the edge of the village. It’s best place to be in the summer. If I wasn’t sick, I’d be there now, dipping my feet in the cool water.”
“I’ll get you a wash pan full of well water when we go back in.”
“It’s not the same. The water needs to be moving.” She paused, then started giggling. “Oh, was that a joke?”
Nekayah shook her head. “You really thought I’d carry a pan of water up those stairs?”
The two snickered, holding their hands over their mouths to keep from being heard from anyone below. A pleasant silence hung between them again, letting them soak in the scenery. Sofia breathed deep. “My mother died when I was six. It was a strong pneumonia. The apothecaries couldn’t cure her. I don’t remember much about my mom, but I remember what she looked like when she died. Her mouth was overflowing with blood.”
“I’m sorry about that,” Nekayah said.
“It’s fine. She’s with God now. Still…I really don’t want to die like that.”
The Abyssinian cocked an eyebrow at her. “Hm?”
“Are you lonely?”
Nekayah laughed through her nose. “Why would think that?”
“I see it in your eyes. You look so cold.” Sofia shrugged. “What does your curse feel like?”
A warm breeze blew over them, scattering Sofia’s raven curls around her freckled face. Nekayah looked at the girl for a moment, considering her response. “It’s an emptiness, a feeling like something that used to be there is gone—like I’m not a part of this world anymore. A ghost.”
Sofia nodded as if she comprehended everything perfectly. “Mhmm. Sounds like you really are lonely then.”
Nekayah looked back out over the horizon. “More than you could possibly know.”
“People aren’t meant to be alone. And here you are so far from home. I can’t imagine what that’s like. This hamlet isn’t much, but it can be a good home. We could use a good healer here.”
Nekayah looked down as if she were looking at the people below, but she didn’t really notice them. “My issue is not quite so simple.”
Sofia shrugged. “I can’t say I know much, but I do know one thing…”
“What is that?”
“I’m happy that we met. Father was right about you. God must have sent you.”
Nekayah felt a heavy sense pity sit in her stomach. The girl was approaching death’s door despite her efforts, and here she was, thanking God. God had forsaken her.
Sofia squeezed Nekayah’s hand tight. She felt a vitality in her grip, but only for a moment. Like a fleeting gust of wind, the strength in her hand died went limp. The girl stumbled a bit, and leaned towards the edge of the roof, losing her balance.
Nekayah’s heart froze. Panic shot through her as she gasped, pulling Sofia close. She moved away from the edge, gripping Nekayah tight. Nekayah held her until the rush of panic subsided and her heartbeat returned to normal.
Sofia, looking up at Nekayah, gave a faint smile, unafraid and unworried. She put her arms around Nekayah’s waist and squeezed. The hug was feeble, but it was genuine. “Thank you,” she whispered.
Nekayah took Sofia by the arm and led her back to the trap door. “Come. I think we’ve had enough fresh air for one day.”
“Are you mad at me?” Sofia asked, sounding hurt.
“No!” Nekayah shook her head violently, wagging her braids. “I just need to get you back in bed. If your father sees you out here, we’ll both be—”
“What is the meaning of this?”
The voice was familiar in its hateful tone. Standing by the trap door was Aunt Vanessa, with hands on her hips and venomous spite in her glare. “I thought I heard noises coming from up here. What are you doing with my niece, you devilish blackamoor?”
“Aunty, no!” Sofia said, standing between the two of them. “It’s my fault! Don’t blame Nekayah!”
Aunt Vanessa waved a hand in dismissal and snarled. “I don’t want to hear it, girl! Go back to your room!”
Sofia stood steadfast, refusing to leave. “Not unless Nekayah comes with me!”
Aunt Vanessa gave the girl a bemused look, mouth gaping with disbelief. “Don’t disobey me, girl! Bedroom! Now! And I’ll see to it that this savage is thrown out of our village for poisoning your mind!”
“No!” Sofia’s voice cracked.
“She’s bewitched you! Come to your senses! I won’t tell you again!” The crone pointed a bony finger to the trap door. However, her words were sharp, and they cut through the sickly girl, making her flinch like a whipped cow. She started to tremble and fall to her knees, coughing.
“Look at what you’ve done!” Nekayah said, bending over to collect the shaking girl.
“Do not touch her, witch!” Aunt Vanessa moved to take Sofia away, but the girl flailed, spitting out words of protest between coughs. Nekayah tried to push the old woman away, but she kept tugging at Sofia. The girl’s face began turning pink and sweaty. The sun, the stress, the coughing, it was all wearing on her.
Nekayah felt a hard, leathery smack crack against her face.
The old crone had slapped Nekayah. Her nails left small, stinging cuts on her cheek. The old woman seemed pleased with what she had done. Curling the corner of her mouth into a slight grin. She had struck the decisive blow against a menacing evil, beating it to submission, or so she thought.
The Abyssinian grabbed the hag’s neck with one hand. Her irritation for the old woman had grown into outright hatred. Nekayah held the decrepit woman’s windpipe in her grip, listening to her wheeze and choke, watching her try to pry herself free with those weak, skeletal hands.
The sun was still out, yet Nekayah’s shadow started to grow along the ground, soaking up light in an uncanny veil of shade.
“I am not here to play games with you, wretched old hag!” Nekayah said, her voice a deep growl bordering on inhuman. “Sofia is good girl with a kind heart. My heart, however, is not so kind. So if you care at all for Sofia, or your own well being, you will leave us be.”
Nekayah let go of Aunt Vanessa. The old woman grasped her throat and coughed until she caught her breath. The burning ire in her face was gone, extinguished by the eldritch chill that had descended upon her, filling her nerves with ice. She retreated back to the trap door and crawled inside.
“You will burn…” the old woman hissed, before shutting the door.
When she was gone, Nekayah turned her attention back to the girl. Her breathing was irregular and strained, and her eyes were closed…there wasn’t much time and there were no options left.
The Abyssinian undid the top buttons on the girl’s blouse, exposing the upper half of her chest and carefully cut a small sigil into her skin above her left breast. She put her hand over the sigil, murmuring quickly under her breath. In her palm, Nekayah felt the pulsing life of Sofia weaken with every beat. The girl’s heart felt clogged and heavy, thick with a suffocating malaise.
Gently, she began to pull. The veins across Sofia’s body swelled as the blood rose from the sigil carved in her flesh. Coagulated and dark, the infected glob collected in the palm of the sorceress’s hand. When the last drop was pulled out, she flicked the tainted blood onto the red roof tiles.
Sofia coughed for a second, but soon breathed steady again.
A soft creaking noise sounded behind them, and Nekayah turned her head in time to see the closing of the trap door.