I’m not a talented writer; the words don’t gush from my mind onto the page. I have a tendency to bite off more than I can handle, so I wind up crafting my novels relentlessly, reading them, re-reading them, shaving a word here and adding a scene there.
The chapter that Justin is going to post here at Staffer’s Book Review is much like Guillermo, Diago, and Miquel in that it’s been through many incarnations. The chapter may have a few left to go before The Garden sees publication. I’m okay with that.
You’re going to meet Guillermo at the start of his journey. Portions of the chapter are graphic and there is profanity.
You’ve been warned.
Welcome to the Garden …
Cloaked in a haze of smoke and dust, the sun went down on the city of Épila. The clamor barely settled over the battlefield when the royal señors ordered the King’s caballeros to search for survivors and plunder. No one held much hope for either. Unlike the sun, Épila would not rise at dawn.
Guillermo reined his skittish horse to a halt midway down the alley and scanned the smoldering buildings for any sign of movement. Smoke wisped across the ground where bits of pottery and scattered furniture laid discarded and broken.
Several yards ahead, the street opened to a field that led to a vineyard. The Unionists had set fire to their own crops and the homes on the outskirts of Épila in an effort to force the King’s army into the open, but their strategies failed. The laborers couldn’t withstand the experienced caballeros of King Pedro’s Aragonese nobles and the Castilian mercenaries who rode with them. The King ordered Épila to be razed; it was rumored that he intended to sow the ground with salt until his councilors stayed his hand.
Somewhere in the distance, a wail pierced the air. The cry ceased almost as soon as it began. Guillermo looked over his shoulder when hooves beat on the hard-packed earth behind him. His hand strayed to his sword hilt, but he didn’t draw his blade. He doubted the riders were Unionists. The last of the Union army already fled to the rear lines to protect their pretender, the infante Ferdinand.
Three caballeros rode past the street without looking toward Guillermo; a fourth paused and squinted in his direction. The man’s helm obscured his face, but Guillermo recognized the dented greaves of Alfonse Perez.
“Need help?” Perez called out and started to rein his mount toward Guillermo.
“No,” Guillermo said. “It’s all burned.” The narrow space barely afforded him enough room for his horse. “Have you seen Tomás?” For most of the day, Guillermo worried for the old blacksmith, who was like a father to him. Tomás had not looked well this morning, but nothing dissuaded the stubborn old man from riding with his company.
“Saw him an hour ago,” Perez said. “Probably back at camp by now, lucky bastard. Why is it we always get stuck with the shit duty, huh?” Perez spat a gob of phlegm into the street.
Guillermo shrugged off Perez’s discontent. “The sooner we get to it, the sooner we can rest.”
“You sound like the old man.” Perez continued on his way.
Maybe he did sound like Tomás. He had lived with him since he was nine and more than once wished Tomás was his father. There were worse ways to be. Guillermo faced forward again and assessed the alley. He unbuckled his helm and loosened the ties at his throat to push back his arming cap. Hot wind dried the sweat in his hair and swirled the ash in dervishes.
A metal grate hung from the sill of a window. On his right, two hovels smoldered, twin charnel houses; one burned to cinders, the other miraculously retained three walls. The smoke cleared to reveal a burned arm stretched across the hut’s threshold. The hand was small, probably that of a woman. A scorched bracelet encircled her blackened wrist, her bones visible beneath the tarnished silver cuff. Guillermo’s eyes latched on the silver.
Bring me a treasure, Christina whispered against his throat before he left Luna. If you love me, bring me a treasure.
Oh, and he loved her. Guillermo clenched the reins in his fist. Christina had only to look at him with those dark indigo eyes and he would give her whatever she craved.
He glanced over his shoulder again. Other caballeros called to one another as they moved ghostlike through the town. Anything they found had to be taken back and turned over to the royal señors as booty for the King’s coffers. To steal from the plunder was to steal from the King and the penalties were grave.
It didn’t matter. Christina wanted proof of his love; he would bring it to her. The alley was his and it was merely a bracelet, damaged and forgotten. Surely the King with all his riches wouldn’t miss this one thing.
Guillermo nudged his stallion forward but the horse shied when the hand moved. The woman was still alive. He cursed softly. His horse tossed his head and snorted at the stench of burned flesh. There. Again. The fingers twitched with the faintest of movements, but Guillermo was certain the action was deliberate.
From out of the hut came a mewling cry, not quite human, not quite beast. The woman’s hand looked odd. Her palm was small and instead of five fingers, there were only four. Her thumb was almost as long and tapered as her three fingers.
The unnatural shape of her hand gave him pause. He craned his neck, but he was too far back. The combination of smoke and the evening’s encroaching darkness hid the rest of her body. Sweat soaked the palms of his gauntlets.
Guillermo jumped at the sound of his name and turned. At the end of the alley, a lean shadow sat upon a gaunt horse. Vicente. Shit. Had the little man seen the bracelet?
“Anything there?” The royal señor asked.
“A woman, my lord,” Guillermo said. “She’s dying.”
“You fucking imbecile.” Vicente spat. “Is there anything of value?”
Valuable to me; no one else. “No, my lord. There is nothing.”
“Like the rest of this shithole.” Vicente jerked his reins and his horse jittered and pranced. “Let’s go. We’re finished here.” He wheeled his mount and disappeared into the gloom.
Guillermo looked back to the hand. The smoke cleared and the illusion was gone; the woman’s hand was normal. It must have been a trick of the twilight. A fingernail snapped off when she grasped the dirt. She tried to drag herself clear of the hut. Air whistled through her swollen throat.
He dismounted and tied the reins to the iron grate hanging from the window. The wall scraped his back as he squeezed his bulk past his horse. Pottery shards crunched beneath the soles of his boots. His knife weighed heavy in his hand. He would be quick. It would be an act of Christian mercy and when he was done, she’d have no use for the bracelet. To leave it would be a waste; if he didn’t take it, some other caballero would.
Eyes streaming from the smoke, he squinted into the hut. Not even the gaps in the roof dispelled the stench of burning hair and flesh. Embers glowed and popped behind the woman’s body. She was face-down, her right arm pinned beneath her.
He took her shoulder and rolled her onto her back. Her hand shot forward and she grabbed his wrist. Her left eyeball was gone and her right eye focused on him. Her chin worked; the white line of her jawbone moved up and down. No words came. Her tongue was gone. Her lips drew back into a grin, malignant and dark as death.
A chill passed over him. He cut the woman’s throat to silence the endless night in her terrible eye. A quick glance to the alley assured him he was alone. He snatched the bracelet from her wrist and rubbed his thumb along the warm metal. Without looking at the woman again, he ducked into the street to better see on the delicate scrolled lines that emerged beneath the soot.
He kept a watch for other caballeros and worked the piece until the worst of the scorch-marks were gone, counting the number of strokes as he would number the strikes against a piece of iron. At forty, his breathing eased and the tightness left his chest.
The bracelet was a work of art, worthy of any fine woman. Vines with heart-shaped leaves were carved into the metal with exquisite detail. Once he was back at the shop in Luna, he’d shine it to a fine luster. Christina would be pleased.
Guillermo pocketed the treasure and mounted his horse. He averted his gaze from the dead woman as rode past her. The bracelet dug into thigh and he shifted his weight to alleviate the pressure. He need not mention the cuff, especially to Tomás. The older man was a staunch royalist, who would sooner cut off his own hand than secrete a treasure for himself. No, Guillermo would say nothing and no one would notice.
The falling night drove him toward the army’s fires. Anxiety tightened his chest. Murder and stealing from the King, that makes a man tense. Guillermo scoffed at his conscience. The woman was dying; trinkets were nothing to the dead. There was a reasonable explanation for his agitation. His blood was still up from the fighting, from Vicente’s intrusion on the scene.
Guillermo shook himself. It was the day. “That is all,” he murmured as he neared the camp. The heavy air of an approaching storm held the odor of burnt crops close to the earth. Even the camp smells of leather, horses, and unwashed men couldn’t overcome the scorched scent.
Campfires sprang up across the landscape, devils’ tongues of flames leapt among the white of the tents. A group of soldiers hovered around a spit, roasting a pig. Guillermo swallowed against his rising vomit. He avoided the men and directed his mount toward the black and gold standard of his company.
Another caballero rode past him, a heavy-set man with jovial cheeks and a thick beard. He leaned dangerously far from his saddle and slapped a full bottle into Guillermo’s hand. “Drink up, brother. We live to fight another day!”
Guillermo smelled the sweet scent of orujo. The day sat hard upon his shoulders and he took a long drink. When he turned, the caballero was gone, absorbed by the crowd.
Guillermo looked at his hand; a piece of the woman’s flesh still clung to his mail. He wiped the back of his gauntlet against his thigh and raised the bottle again. He soon lost himself in the camp’s chaos, riding aimlessly and drinking.
By the time he found Tomás a half hour later, the orujo was gone, but the alcohol wasn’t working. The numbness he so desperately craved evaded him. He felt as sober as when he had awakened this morning.
He stopped and watched Tomás groom his horse. The silver in Tomás’ black hair shimmered in the lingering twilight. His movements were slow and stiff; soon he’d be too old to ride when called to service. Guillermo wondered if Tomás’ pride would survive the indignity of being left behind.
Guillermo dismounted. “Vicente kept us at it late.” He led his stallion next to Tomas’s mare, grateful to rest. He doubted he could lift a hammer to strike the iron tonight. Tomás was exhausted too, dark circles shadowed his eyes. The hard ride from Tarazona had worn them all down.
Guillermo minded his horse and tried to lose himself in the familiar rhythms of rubbing the animal down, but the memory of the woman returned to him with Épila’s stench riding every breeze. He felt her stare touch his shoulders, yet each time he turned to look into the night, he saw nothing but the king’s army. The bracelet burned hot against his thigh.
“Guillermo?” Tomás knelt by their fire, the frown that creased his lips barely visible beneath his mustache.
“I’m fine.” Guillermo finished with his horse and went into the tent. He knelt and shed his mail shirt, then removed his arming cap. The bracelet he left in his pocket. He couldn’t wait to present the gift to Christina and recount the great risk he’d taken. If Tomás’ negotiations with her father went well, she would soon be his wife.
He unbuckled his sword and as he lay the weapon aside, his hand struck Tomás’ saddlebag. The lip of a bottle protruded from the beneath the flap. A quick sniff of the cork provided all the evidence he needed. Orujo.
A second bottle nestled close to the first. The King got gold and the soldiers were paid in liquor. And what silver they stole, a tight smile twisted Guillermo’s mouth. “One of these for me?”
Tomás turned. “No. But bring one out. I could use a drink.”
Guillermo left his sword with his mail. He passed Tomás the bottle and sat beside him.
They shared a meager meal, Tomás oddly silent and withdrawn. He ate only a few bites then opened the bottle. “I have an answer from Osmundo.”
Guillermo’s pulse quickened and he glanced around. Christina’s father? Here in the middle of the army? Guillermo couldn’t imagine Osmundo dragging himself away from his dinner table to follow an army unless there was a profit to be had. “Osmundo was here?” he asked.
Tomás took a long drink. He looked across the field. “No. He sent a servant. He turned down our offer, Guillermo. Christina will marry Sebastian.”
Sebastian? The tax collector? “No,” Guillermo whispered and tried to dampen the anger building in his chest. “You said if we served, then I would win Osmundo’s respect.”
“That is not what I said!” Tomás’ cheeks flushed. “I said you must give him no justification to call you to dishonor. We had no choice about our service.”
Guillermo pushed his hair out of his eyes, twining his fingers in the tangled locks. Tomás was right. A horse and armor meant service to their Don and the King; Tomás answered the call with his household as he should have. To refuse meant the forfeit of either money or property, and while they weren’t poor, their smithy didn’t bring them enough status to buy their way out of service. Especially with the way Guillermo had been spending coins to impress Osmundo.
So he served only to lose Christina to Sebastian. “She loves me.”
“She will do as her father commands. Christina never should have led you to believe you had a chance. It was cruel.”
“It’s not her fault.”
Tomás sighed. “She is his only daughter. Osmundo will use her to tie his bloodline closer to Sebastian’s fortune, not to an illiterate blacksmith. She knew that.” Tomás took another drink. “You did too.”
Guillermo glared into the haze surrounding the encampment. Thunder rumbled in the distance and lightning skittered across the sky. Smoke from a neighboring fire gushed upward. The billowing cloud formed the illusion of a bulbous head with a large round mouth that extended to the nostrils. Wisps of smoke curled into fangs. The wind caught the flames and turned the eyes crimson with hate.
Someone laughed, sharp and wicked, like the bark of a mad dog. The sound jerked Guillermo’s gaze from the vision. When he looked again, the daimon’s face elongated and faded into the night.
Guillermo’s heart pounded. It is nothing. My imagination. It was the day. He forced his scattered thoughts back to the problem of Osmundo. The remedy was simple. “I’m going back to Luna. I’ll ask Osmundo to reconsider.”
Tomás’ large hand gripped the back of his neck. The older man bent close. “You will do no such thing. You go home when the king gives us his leave and not a damn minute before.”
“If I don’t go now, I’ll lose Christina forever.”
“You never had her!” Tomás’ fingers dug into Guillermo’s neck. “Why can’t you see what’s before your eyes, Guillermo? You wouldn’t listen when I told you to leave her alone. Listen to me now. You are talking about deserting. They’ll hang you. Merciful God, it’s treason to think it! Then what have you accomplished?”
Guillermo knocked Tomás’ hand away and instantly regretted the move. He stared into the coals and avoided the hurt in Tomás’ eyes. He was right. That’s what stung—Tomás was right.
“You are young,” Tomás said. “There will be other women.”
The bracelet lay heavy against his leg. “I want her.” Guillermo took the bottle from Tomás and stood. He welcomed the scorching liquid to his throat.
“She makes a fool of you,” Tomás said. “She probably laughs now.”
“Stop it.” Tomás was wrong. She loved him. He saw it in her eyes, tasted it in their stolen kisses.
“The rich, they have few amusements, Guillermo. They make games with people’s lives.”
“I’m not listening to this.” Guillermo kicked dirt into the fire and turned to walk right into Vicente.
The royal señor staggered backward into another caballero, who prevented him from falling. Several men at a nearby fire laughed.
Guillermo stared at the smaller man. Vicente shouldn’t be in this part of the camp. A sick thought squeezed the back of his mind. What if someone saw him with the bracelet and told Vicente? He looked at the other men’s faces and didn’t see a friendly one among them.
Vicente flushed scarlet and shook the other man’s hands off his arms. “You’ve been missing for over an hour, Ramírez. What took you so long to get back?” Vicente’s lip curled. “Stop to fuck your dead woman?”
The laughter trickled away. Guillermo felt the men’s accusing stares. They knew. Somehow they knew that he withheld the bracelet from the plunder. Vicente toyed with him. The rich have few amusements.
Guillermo almost ripped the bracelet from his pocket, but he didn’t dare. He refused to give Vicente the satisfaction of humiliating him in front of these men. He fingered the knife at his hip.
Tomás was suddenly at Guillermo’s side, a firm hand on his arm. “Apologize to the señor and come back to the fire.”
“Stay out of it, old man.” Vicente shoved Tomás.
Tomás staggered backward, tripped and fell. His countenance darkened with his shame. The others respected Tomás, but no one moved to help him. They were more terrified of Vicente and his volatile temper. Guillermo glared at the cowards.
Vicente jabbed his finger at Tomás. “Open your mouth again and I’ll have you whipped!”
Guillermo got between them. “No. You won’t.”
Vicente’s hand lashed out, his palm struck Guillermo’s cheek as if he was an errant child. Guillermo didn’t think about the ramifications of his actions. He swung the bottle. It cracked against the royal señor’s helm. A satisfying jolt traveled up his arm. The stunned expression on Vicente’s face and the roar of the approval from the surrounding men drowned Guillermo’s doubts. Damn the consequences.
Vicente recovered and charged. Guillermo didn’t respond to the smaller man’s feint until it was too late. Arms went around his waist and Vicente shoved.
They sprawled to the ground and another shout went up from the men. The surrounding chatter faded in Guillermo’s ears. He instinctively aimed a punch at Vicente’s side. The other man’s chain mail split Guillermo’s knuckles open. They crashed into a neighboring camp and sprayed sparks from the fire as they rolled.
Guillermo found himself on his back. Black clouds ate the stars as the storm picked up speed. Then the sky was blocked by Vicente’s enraged face. The señor’s lips peeled away from his bloodied teeth in a grimace. His mailed fist came down toward Guillermo’s face. Guillermo barely deflected the blow with his wrist. He twisted hard to the left. The weight of Vicente’s armor pinned him down.
Guillermo punched upward. The señor easily dodged the blow and drove his fist into Guillermo’s ribs. Pain shoved the wind from his lungs. Vicente spit in his face. His mailed fist struck Guillermo’s ribs again.
White agony shot into Guillermo’s brain. Blinded with fury, he bucked his hips but Vicente didn’t budge. Instead, the señor drew back his fist. Another blow and Guillermo’s ribs would break.
Guillermo’s fingers brushed the hilt of his knife. He drew the blade and rammed it into Vicente’s throat. The men around them fell silent. Guillermo slid away from the señor and stood. He wiped Vicente’s spit from his cheek.
Vicente wheezed. His accusing gaze settled on Guillermo.
God, oh, God. He hadn’t meant to kill the man. “I didn’t mean—” Guillermo turned to the nearest caballero.
The man backed away from him to melt into the crowd.
Scattered raindrops hissed in the fires.
A scrawny caballero knelt beside the fallen señor. “Bring the surgeon!”
Another man joined the first and together, they loosened the straps of Vicente’s helm, trying in vain to stop the bleeding.
Fear sobered Guillermo and set a hard lump in his stomach as the enormity of his crime hit him. He looked around for Tomás but didn’t see him. A tall caballero wearing a surcoat with royal colors appeared at the edge of the crowd. He consulted with a shaggy-haired man who pointed at Guillermo.
Guillermo struggled to breathe. Three days ago a soldier traded blows with an officer. They shaved the man’s hair and beard, practically scalping him. He received fifty lashes, and Guillermo later heard the man lost all use of his legs. In that fight, the officer sported a few bruises from the altercation. Christ’s holy blood and Vicente lay dead. What would they do to him?
Panicked, he broke from the crowd and jogged to his horse. No one tried to stop him, but he felt the royal caballero’s eyes on his back. His hands shook as he grabbed his mount’s bridle and slipped the halter over the horse’s head. He didn’t have time to saddle the stallion, so he swung himself up bareback.
“You!” The royal caballero shouted and gestured for Guillermo to stop. “Halt!”
No. He witnessed enough of the King’s justice. If they found him with the bracelet, he’d be branded a thief and a murderer. Without the status and money to buy his way out of the crime, they’d force him to take whatever punishment they dictated. The same way they expected him to remain mute while the woman he loved was traded like a mare, or that he meekly accept insults from men such as Vicente.
Guillermo spat in the royal caballero’s direction and met his glare. They could all burn in hell.
He kicked his heels to his stallion’s sides and sent his mount into the storm at a gallop. The clouds obliterated the last light of the full moon. The sounds of pursuit were drowned by the wind. Lightning split the night and illuminated the olive grove through which he rode. The branches of the old warped trees ripped his flesh and hair. His horse laid his ears back and snorted. Guillermo leaned low over the stallion’s neck.
Someone shouted. Torchlight bobbed through the tree limbs; the height of the flames indicated that his pursuers were mounted. He dug his heels into his mount’s flanks and sent the tired horse off the road. The animal was almost spent from the day’s battle. Guillermo took solace in the fact that the royal caballero and his soldiers’ mounts were in the same condition, their horses weighed down by the riders’ armor. Guillermo still had a chance to outrun them.
The heavens opened up and rain spilled onto the land. The sudden torrent reached through the trees to blind him. A boulder loomed out of the night and his mount reared.
Guillermo slid backwards and fell. The ground slammed the wind from his lungs. Precious seconds sped past before he regained his wind and rolled to his knees. His ribs, aching from Vicente’s blows, protested the motion with blinding pain. He staggered to his feet in time to see his horse galloping into the darkness.
Guillermo crossed himself and offered a prayer of thanks. For once, his ill luck disguised a blessing. While the caballeros chased his mount, Guillermo ran for his life. The orchard ended and lightning revealed a bank of trees several yards away. Beyond the trees, a low line of hills hunched against the horizon. The hills raised the possibility of caverns and shelter; a place to rest until the king’s caballero tired of his hunt.
The downpour showed no signs of easing but that, too, worked in his favor.
Amid the thunder, someone shouted, “Sound off!”
Guillermo recognized Don Flores’ voice. Flores was Tomás’ battle leader and his reputation rested on his ability to keep order in his ranks. He was a man who took his responsibilities seriously.
Flores shouted a man’s name into the night. “Perez!”
“Nothing!” Alfonse Perez—they fought side-by-side at Tarazona, and twice Guillermo saved Perez’s life. Guillermo had no doubt Vicente’s murder cancelled all debts.
The trees lay just ahead, only a few more yards and cover was his. Guillermo’s right foot landed in a depression and he stumbled. Unable to regain his balance, he fell and slid sideways down an embankment into a steep gully. Grit scraped his arms and the branches of a shrub left welts along his neck. He came to a sudden stop at the bottom; his teeth clicked together painfully and he tasted blood.
Guillermo remained still and listened. Had they heard his fall? The names and answers went on and no one charged toward the ravine.
Rainwater formed a rapidly moving creek in the ditch, and the water rushed over his ankles. He resisted the urge to rest. If they caught him here, the chase was over. He got to his feet and staggered to the other side of the ravine.
The eroded banks gave him no place to gain purchase. The lip of the gully remained just out of his reach. Guillermo felt along the muddy bank. His fingers grasped a root. Another appeared above the first. Guillermo climbed upward inch by careful inch. He hefted his body over the ledge and stood.
Steel touched his throat.
Several feet to his left, a horse danced between two trees and pulled against the reins that tied it to a sturdy branch. In the distance, other caballeros continued to sound off one after another, their voices drifting beneath the wind. Guillermo lost track of the names and answers. His entire world diminished to the sword against his neck. Lightning revealed the familiar crest of Tomás’ surcoat.
Tomás lowered the blade. He grabbed the collar of Guillermo’s gambeson and twisted the soaked fabric in his fist. Guillermo didn’t resist when Tomás pulled him beneath the trees and slammed him against a trunk.
“You’ve dishonored yourself.” Tomás’ whisper was a hiss. “And me.” The water in the older man’s eyes was not caused by the rain.
Guillermo didn’t drop his gaze. “Vicente gave the insult.” Why, for once, couldn’t Tomás take his side?
“He was your superior! You think you are better than him? As good as him?” Tomás’ gauntleted fist struck Guillermo’s chest, just over his heart. The steel ripped his gambeson and tore into his flesh. “Why can’t you accept your place in this world?”
“Shut up. He’s dead, Guillermo. It is four hundred maravedís for killing a señor during a conflict! Do you have that money?”
“You know I don’t.” Neither of them had to articulate what would happen if the fine wasn’t met. Guillermo remembered the caballero’s shrieks as the lash had shorn his back into shreds. “I can—”
“No!” Tomás’ eyes blazed. “You will let me handle this. I will talk to Don Flores. We can offer the smithy, but you must come back and accept responsibility. You can work the debt off in Vicente’s household. It’s a matter of honor, Guillermo.”
Flores called out. “Moreno!”
It was a matter of honor when Vicente shoved Tomás. The thought of working off the debt as a slave to Vicente’s relatives sent a bolt of revulsion through him. How could Tomás even suggest such a thing? “No!” Guillermo struggled to keep his voice low.
“This is not how I taught you. They will call you a coward.”
“For standing up to him? For that, I’m a coward?”
“You’re a fool!” Tomás raised his fist again. Were it any other man, Guillermo would kill him, but not Tomás. Instead, he waited for the blow that never came. “You will come back.” Tomás said slowly. “You will take your punishment like a man or you will leave forever. If you desert, you become a traitor, and I will not shelter a traitor in my house. Or in my heart.”
Guillermo stared Tomás in disbelief. Surely he didn’t mean this. Guillermo never remembered a day when his own father didn’t hate him. Even his sister Sancha, who claimed she loved him more than her own life, forced Guillermo to leave home. Of all the people in his life, he never expected Tomás to turn his back on him. Not the man who had treated him like a son all these years.
Yet the truth was in Tomás’ eyes.
Guillermo’s heart grew hollow.
“Moreno!” Flores’ voice called out again, closer.
He wasn’t the traitor—it was Tomás. “I’m not going back.” Guillermo jerked free of the older man’s grip.
“Moreno!” A hint of alarm edged Flores’ call.
“Nothing! I see nothing!” Tomás shouted over the next peal of thunder. He lowered his voice to a savage whisper. “You are dead to me.” He grabbed his horse’s reins and mounted. Tomás put his heels to the mare without a backward glance.
Guillermo took one faltering step deeper into the woods. The ground slipped beneath him, but he caught himself before he fell. He blinked against the burning in his eyes and kept moving until each subsequent step was firmer. Nothing mattered now but survival.
He picked up his pace and prayed for the darkness to hold. No sooner had the prayer left his thoughts than an extended flash of lightning turned the night into day. A triumphant shout from one of the men went up before thunder crashed around them. A man pointed in Guillermo’s direction, then the night plunged down.
Even God was against him now. Guillermo swore and ran into the shelter of the trees. Wet leaves slapped his face. The undergrowth snatched at his ankles and a thick branch caught his leg. He half-ran, half-stumbled down a slope to splash through another creek. Shapes rose from the night to become tree trunks, rocks, piles of brush.
A horse snorted. Guillermo veered left and plunged into a thick bramble. He pushed his way into the brush and went to his hands and knees. Sharp thorns scraped his palms. His fingers dug into bark, softened by rot and the rain. Fallen trees surrounded him, and the deadfall swayed in the last of the storm’s wind.
The caballeros’ voices echoed oddly, sometimes near, other times far, but they were there, prowling the border of the deadfall. Guillermo moved away from their shouts. He crawled between two logs. Sticks reached into his hair and snagged his torn gambeson.
Ahead, he glimpsed an opening among the branches. The constriction within his chest eased when he finally crawled free of the deadfall. Overhead, the last of the storm faded, clouds churned across the sky as if pursued. The cold blind eye of a full moon illuminated a path that disappeared into the surrounding foliage.
He rose and looked back the way he’d come. A postern gate’s iron door stood open, partially blocked by the downed trees of the deadfall. A cold wash of moonlight illuminated a high wall covered in ivy.
As his eyes continued to adjust to the pale light, he detected thorny branches that formed arches over the lane. The cloying scent of roses filled the air. Heather crowded jasmine and foxglove for a place to grow. On the opposite side of the path, a wooden bench squatted amidst a tangle of vines. The area appeared to be some noble’s garden grown wild with neglect.
If that was the case, he needed to get out of here. Just because he didn’t hear Flores and his men didn’t mean they weren’t out there. It was possible they found the main gate and questioned the garden’s owner right now.
A screech tore through the air. Guillermo looked back at the gate. Rust showered the ground as the iron door clanged shut.
He ducked behind a nearby tree. His pulse filled his ears. No cry of alarm passed through the grounds. Nothing moved.
A door that heavy doesn’t shut by itself. Someone had to be there, out of sight. Guillermo reached down into the weeds and found a sturdy piece of wood. The stick was the length of his calf and three fingers thick, heavy enough to silence a wagging tongue.
Mouth dry with his fear, Guillermo ignored the cramps in his legs. He clung to the shadows and returned to the gate, expecting to be challenged by a guard at any moment. Heavy silence descended over the area. He knelt by the gate and ran his fingers lightly over the ground. No footprints were evident in the wet soil.
No one was here. Some mechanism must have triggered the door. Guillermo felt for a latch. Instead, he discovered a ridge of metal welded the gate shut. But how? A weld like that simply didn’t appear.
He used the stick to move the vines that covered the hinges. A pair of eyes blinked at him. Three quick seconds passed before Guillermo’s mind registered the scene before him.
Corpses were stacked like cordwood, one body atop the next to create the nine foot wall. A skull barely clothed in flesh grinned and snapped sharp teeth. Maggots squirmed and fed on the writhing mass.
A hand shot out, straight at Guillermo’s face. The movement broke his paralysis. He released the vines and jumped back. The decayed fingers brushed the tip of his nose and left a wake of icy air. A tendril of ivy encircled around the hand and pulled it back into the stack of bodies.
Guillermo gaped at the suddenly motionless wall. Moonlight. It was the moonlight and the madness of the hour. Gates welding themselves shut, a wall of living corpses, and hands reaching for him. If he pushed the ivy aside, he’d see a wall made of stone. All he had to do was look. Yet no matter how he tried, he couldn’t bring himself to complete the act.
A shaky sigh escaped his parted lips. He smoothed the goose bumps on his arms and turned back to the path. Somewhere on the grounds there had to be another way out.
Guillermo gripped the stick and hurried down the lane. He kept to the mossy areas to silence his footsteps. Narrow trails split from the main path in lines of gravel thin as spider’s legs. Thorns scraped his skin as he pushed through the roses and crushed fallen petals beneath his boots. About twenty yards into the garden, he came to a small courtyard. The grounds felt deserted.
An ancient yew stood in the center of the yard. The tree draped elegant limbs over a fountain, moonlight trickled across the water.
Driven forward by his thirst, he approached the fountain. He’d take a quick drink then move on. As he neared, he saw that no fresh water flowed from the copper spigots. Green scum floated across the pool. In spite of the recent rain, the water was too brackish to drink.
Moonlight struck the tiles that decorated the fountain’s stone rim. A fleur-de-lis shaped the handles and arms of miniature crosses with each cross ending in a point like a sword—the cross of Santiago.
Refuge might be his after all. This was a monastery, perhaps a resting place for pilgrims.
He searched for further confirmation. About ten yards beyond the fountain, the moon cast sad gray light over a hall. The building squatted in front of a low, ugly tower alive with ropy vines. A flicker of torchlight danced through the cracks of the shutters. Someone was inside.
Guillermo allowed himself a cautious measure of relief. In all likelihood the hall was the refectory. The brothers probably gathered for their evening meal. If he told his tale carefully enough, sanctuary was his. He need not lie, but neither should he be too truthful lest they turn him over to Flores.
His thoughts were interrupted by a low moan. The sound erupted from somewhere deep within the tangled garden, followed by the unmistakable snarl of a lynx. A smattering of chills marched down the back of Guillermo’s neck. He turned and scanned the foliage, his grip tightened on the stick. Fear turned his gut hot.
He placed the fountain between him and the garden. A loose tile banged in the wind and he almost cried out. Only a few feet to his left, a clump of rosemary waved spiny arms in the air. The branches swayed as if a large animal passed.
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