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Chapter 4

The carriage's sudden lurch threw Rebecca against her father. Balthazar Abrabanel hissed with pain.


"Gently, daughter!" he admonished. He pressed his hand more firmly against his chest. Balthazar's gray-bearded face was drawn and haggard. His breath came short and quick.


Rebecca stared at him. Her own heart was racing with a fear so great it bordered on panic. Something was wrong with her father. His heart . . . 


The sound of a shouting voice came from outside the carriage. Rebecca recognized the voice. It belonged to the leader of the small group of Landsknecht whom her father had hired in Amsterdam to escort them to Badenburg. But the man's German was so thickly accented that she didn't understand the words themselves. Clearly, though, the man was startled by something.


Another shout. This time she understood. "Identify yourselves!"


Balthazar moaned softly. Then, with an obvious effort: "See what is happening, Rebecca."


Rebecca hesitated. Her father's condition was frightening. But, from long habit, she obeyed within a moment.


She fumbled with the sash which held the curtain closed. The hasty action brought its own exasperation. The carriage was open-sided. Rebecca would have preferred to keep the curtain open at all times, to enjoy the breeze. But her father had insisted on making the entire trip closed off from exterior view.


"This journey will be dangerous enough, child," he'd told her, "without men getting a look at you." The statement had been accompanied by an odd smile. Fondness and pride, partly. But there had been something else. . . . 


When she had realized what that "something else" was, Rebecca had been startled as much as shocked. The shock came from understanding the crime her father feared. Do men actually do such things? The startlement, from realizing that even her father thought she was beautiful. Others had told her so, but— The notion still seemed odd. She herself never saw anything in the mirror but a young Sephardic woman. Olive skin, long black hair, a nose, two dark eyes, a mouth, chin. Yes, the features were very regular and symmetrical. More so than most, perhaps. And she sometimes thought, in her rare moments of vanity, that her lips were attractive. Full, rich. But still—beautiful? What does that mean?


Finally—it took but seconds, though it seemed an eternity—she had the sash undone. She brushed the curtain aside and thrust her head through the window.


For a moment, she did not understand what her eyes were seeing. Her mind was still fixed on her father's plight. His heart . . . !


Then, she saw. She gasped and drew back. A new terror came, crashing onto the old. Some of that fear was caused by the sight of bodies scattered everywhere. Or so it seemed to her, in that first glimpse. Rebecca had never witnessed scenes of violence before. Nothing beyond scuffling ruffians, at least, and the authorities in Amsterdam tolerated little even of that. She had certainly never—


Blood everywhere! And that's—that's a head lying over there. And that woman—what? Has she been—? Oh, God!


But so much only caused fear. The terror—the hot spike sent down her spine—was caused by the sight of the man standing right before her. Advancing toward her. Not thirty feet away, now.


Rebecca watched the man come, paralyzed. Like a mouse watching a serpent.


An hidalgo! Here? God save us!


"What is it, child?" demanded her father. Hissing: "What is happening?" She sensed him lurching forward on his seat behind her.


She was torn between fear of the hidalgo and fear for her father. Then—was there any end?—came yet another terror. She heard the leader of her father's hired Landsknecht shout again.


"Let's go!" she heard him cry. "Come on! We're not getting paid enough for this!"


Rebecca heard pounding hooves set into motion. An instant later she felt the carriage rock and realized that the driver had leapt off also. She could hear him thrusting through the bushes alongside the road, racing off.


They're deserting us!


She turned back into the carriage, staring wide-eyed at her father. Her lips began to open. But the gentle and wise man upon whom she had relied all her life would be no help to her now. Balthazar Abrabanel was still alive. But his eyes were shut, his jaws tight with agony. Both hands were now pressed to his chest. He was slipping off the cushions onto the floor of the carriage. A faint groan came.


The child's terror overrode the others. Rebecca was on her knees in an instant, clutching her father. Desperately trying to bring comfort and aid, not knowing how she could do either. She stared at the heavy chests resting on the seat bench opposite her. Those contained her father's books. His translation of Galen's medical writings was in one of those chests. But it was hopeless. There were thirty-seven volumes of Galen. All of them written in Arabic, which Rebecca could only read poorly.


She heard a voice. Startled, she turned her head.


The hidalgo was standing at the window of the carriage, pushing his head through the window. The man was so tall that he had to stoop a bit to do so.


Again, the voice. The words registered, barely. She thought she understood them, almost. But it was not possible. He couldn't be speaking—


The hidalgo spoke the same words. This time, they registered fully. Most of them, anyway. His accent was very strange, unlike any she had ever heard in that language.


English? He speaks English? No hidalgo speaks English. It is beneath their contempt. A tongue for pirates and traders.


She stared at him, now as confused as she was frightened. The man was every inch the hidalgo. Tall, strong, erect, handsome. He exuded the certainty and self-confidence which only a Spanish nobleman possessed. Even his clothing, a ruffled white shirt—silk, she was sure of it—over dark trousers, was not dissimilar. True, she thought there had been something odd about his boots, but—


He smiled very widely. Who else has such perfect teeth?


And then, he spoke again. The same words, repeated for the fourth time. "Please, ma'am, do you need help?"


 


Rebecca Abrabanel would always wonder, in the years to come, why she spoke the truth then. Spoke it—babbled it. She would spend hours remembering that moment, sitting quietly by herself. Wondering.


Some of it, she would decide, was ancient heartbreak. For all the savagery of the Holy Inquisition and the pitilessness with which the hidalgos enforced the expulsion, Spain and Portugal's Sephardim would never be able to forget Iberia, the sun-drenched land they had come to love, spending centuries helping to build, convinced that Jews had finally found a place of welcome and refuge. Until Christian royalty and nobility decreed otherwise, and they were driven out to wander again. Yet they retained the language, and recited the poetry, and cherished the culture for their own. Ashkenazim could huddle in their ghettos in central and eastern Europe, shutting the outside world from their souls. But not the Sephardim. Almost a century and a half had gone by since their expulsion from the land they called Sepharad, but it was still the highest praise, amongst them, to call a man hidalgo.


So she would conclude, as the years went by, that some of her response had been a child's, discovering—hoping to discover—that legends were not lies, after all. That there did exist, somewhere in the world, a nobility that was not simply cruelty and treason, veiled beneath courtesy and custom.


But there was more. That, too, she would conclude. There had also been the reaction of a woman.


For there had been the man himself. Handsome, yes, but not quite in the hidalgo way. Even in that moment of terror and confusion, she had retained enough of her wits to sense the difference. The man had possessed none of a hidalgo's raptor beauty. Simply a good-looking man—almost a peasant, come to it, with that blunt nose and open smile. And if his eyes had been such a pure blue as to give despair to hidalgos, there had been nothing in them but friendship and concern.


So Rebecca Abrabanel would conclude, over the years. But she would still find herself wondering about that moment. Hour after hour, at times. It was self-indulgence, perhaps. No other moment in her life, when she looked back, would ever bring quite such a glow to her heart.


 


"Yes—please! My father . . ." She lowered her head for a moment, shutting her eyes. Tears began leaking through the lids. Softly: "He is very ill. His heart, I think."


She opened her eyes and raised her head. The man's face was blurred by the tears.


"We are alone," she whispered. "No one—" A shuddered breath. "We are marranos." She sensed his puzzlement at the term. Of course. He is English. "Secret Jews," she explained. To her surprise, she managed a chuckle. "Not even that now, I suppose. My father"—she pressed her fingers down, as if to safeguard the gray head in her hands—"is a philosopher. A physician, by trade, but he studies many things. Maimonodes, of course, but also the arguments of the Karaites on the Talmud. And Averroes the Moslem."


She realized she was babbling. What did this man care? Her lips tightened. "So he was expelled by Amsterdam's Jews for heresy. We were on our way to Badenburg, where my uncle lives. He said he could provide us shelter." She jarred to a halt, remembering the silver hidden in the chests of books. Fear came again.


The man spoke. Not to her, however. He turned his head and shouted: "James, get over here! I think we've got a very sick man here."


He turned back. His smile was thinner, now, not the gleaming thing it had been earlier. But even through the tears Rebecca could sense the reassurance in it.


"What else do you need, ma'am?" he asked. His face tightened. "There are some people coming this way. Men carrying weapons. Who are they?"


Rebecca gasped. She had utterly forgotten about the band of mercenaries they had encountered earlier.


"Tilly's men!" she exclaimed. "We didn't think they had come so far from Magdeburg. We encountered them two miles up the road. We were hoping to escape down this path, but—"


"Who is—Tilly?" the man demanded. The smile was gone completely. His face was tight, tense, angry. But the anger did not seem directed at her.


Rebecca wiped the tears away. Who is Tilly? How can anyone not know? After—Magdeburg?


The man seemed to sense her confusion. "Never mind," he snapped. There came a shout from a distance. Rebecca couldn't make out the words, but she knew they were in English. A warning of some kind, she thought.


The man's next words were quick and urgent: "I only need to know one thing. Do those men mean to do you harm?"


Rebecca stared at him. Was he joking? The honesty in the face reassured her.


"Yes," she replied. "They will rob us. Kill my father. Me—" She fell silent. Her eyes flitted toward the place where the woman had been lying on the ground. But the woman was not there now. She was on her feet, walking slowly toward the farmhouse. Two of the hidalgo's men were helping her along.


She heard the hidalgo's voice, snarling. "That's good enough. More than good enough." She was startled by the sheer fury in his tone.


An instant later, the door was being opened. A black man, naked from the waist up, was climbing into the carriage. In one hand, he held a small red box emblazoned with a white cross. Despite her astonishment, Rebecca made no protest when the black man gently moved her away from her father and began examining him.


The examination was quick and expert. The man opened the box and began withdrawing a vial. Rebecca, a physician's daughter, recognized another. She felt a vast sense of relief. Thank God—a Moor! Her father thought well of Islamic medicine. His opinion of Christian physicians bordered on profanity.


The Moor turned to the hidalgo. The hidalgo, after shouting a few commands—Rebecca, preoccupied with her father, had not caught their meaning—had his head back in the carriage.


The Moor spoke in quick and curt phrases. His accent was different from the hidalgo's, and he used strange words. Rebecca could only understand some of his English.


"He's having a (meaningless word—coronation?—that made no sense). Pretty bad one, I think. We need to get him to a (hostel?) as soon as possible. If we don't get some (meaningless phrase—the first part, she thought, sounded like 'clot-busting,' but what could dirt have to do with anything?) into him, there won't be any point. The damage will have been done."


Rebecca gasped. "Is he dying?" The black physician glanced at her. His dark eyes were caring, but grim. "He might, ma'am," he said softly. "But he might make it, too." ('Make it?' Survive, she assumed. The idiom was strange.) "It's too early to tell."


Another shout came from one of the hidalgo's men. Rebecca thought it came from the farmhouse. This time she understood the words. "They're coming! Take cover (meaningless—the hidalgo's name, she thought)!" Maikh?


The hidalgo was staring down the road. Rebecca could now hear the sounds of racing footsteps and other shouting men. Germans. Tilly's men. Baying like wolves. They had spotted the carriage.


The hidalgo shook his head and shouted back. "No! You all stay in the farmhouse! As soon as they come up, start shooting. I'll draw their fire away from the carriage!"


Quickly, he thrust his head into the carriage, extending his hand toward the physician. "James, give me your gun. I haven't got time to find my own."


The Moor reached back and drew something out of the back of his trousers. Rebecca eyed it uncertainly. Is that a pistol? It's so tiny! Nothing like those great things the Landsknechte were carrying.


But she did not doubt her guess, from the eager way the hidalgo seized the thing. Rebecca knew very little about firearms, after all, though she was struck by the intricate craftsmanship of the weapon.


Now the hidalgo was striding away. Not more than five seconds later, he had taken his stance many yards from the carriage. He stopped, turned. Briefly, he inspected the pistol, doing something with it that Rebecca could not make out clearly. Then, squaring his shoulders and spreading his feet, he waited.


Rebecca was at the carriage window now, watching. Her eyes flitted back and forth from the farmhouse to the hidalgo. Even as inexperienced as she was, Rebecca understood immediately what the hidalgo was doing. He would draw the attention of Tilly's men to himself, away from the carriage. His men in the farmhouse would have a clear angle of fire.


The mercenaries charging toward the farmhouse were on the other side of the carriage. Rebecca could hear them but not see them. All she could see was the hidalgo, facing at an angle away from her.


In the battle which followed, she watched nothing else. Her eyes were fixed to a tall man in a farmyard, standing still, in a ruffled white blouse and black trousers. A humble setting, and there was something odd about his boots. But Rebecca did not care. Samuel ibn Nagrela, reciting Hebrew poetry to the Muslim army he led to victory at the Battle of Alfuente, would have been proud of that footwear. So, at least, thought a young woman raised in the legends of Sepharad.


So confident he seemed—so certain. Rebecca remembered lines from Nagrela's poem celebrating Alfuente.


 
My enemy rose—and the Rock rose against him.
How can any creature rise up against his Creator?
Now my troops and the enemy's drew up their ranks
Opposite each other. On such a day of anger, jealousy,
And rage, men deem the Prince of Death
A princely prize: And each man seeks to win renown,
Though he must lose his life for it.
 


The hidalgo fired first. He gave no warning, issued no commands, made no threats. He simply crouched slightly, and brought the pistol up in both hands. An instant later, to Rebecca's shock, the gun went off and the battle erupted.


It was short, savage and incredibly brutal. Even Rebecca, an utter naif in the ways of violence, knew that guns could not possibly be fired as rapidly as the hail of bullets which erupted from the hidalgo's pistol and the weapons of his men. She could not see the carnage which those bullets created, in the small mob of mercenaries, but she had no difficulty interpreting their cries of pain and astonishment.


Literature kept her soul from gibbering terror. She took courage from the hidalgo's own, that day, and the poetry of another at Alfuente.


 
These young lions welcomed each raw wound upon
Their heads as though it were a garland. To die—
They believed—was to keep the faith. To live—
They thought—was forbidden.
 


She held her breath. Not all the weapons fired belonged to the hidalgo and his men. She could recognize the deeper roar of the mercenaries' arquebuses. She fully expected to see the hidalgo's white shirt erupting with blood.


 
The hurled spears
Were like bolts of lightning, filling the air with
Light . . . The blood of men flowed upon
The ground like the blood of the rams on the corners
Of the altar.
 


But there was nothing—nothing beyond an unseen wind which tugged the hidalgo's left sleeve and left it torn and ragged. She hissed. But there was no blood. No blood.


No blood.


Suddenly—as shocking, in its way, as the beginning—the battle was over. Silence, except for the sound of footsteps running away and the shouts of fearful retreat. Rebecca heaved a deep breath, then another and another. The motion drew the physician's eye. After no more than a glance, the Moor turned back to her father. A slight smile came to his face. Rebecca, recognizing the meaning of that smile, flushed from embarrassment. But not much. Just an older man, whimsically admiring a young woman's figure. There was no threat to her in that smile.


Rebecca collapsed, falling back from her own crouch onto the cushioned seat of the carriage. She burst into tears, covering her face with her hands.


Some time later—not more than seconds—she heard the door of the carriage opening again. She sensed the hidalgo entering the carriage. Gently, he eased himself onto the seat next to her and put his arm around her shoulder. Without wondering at the impropriety of her action, she leaned into the shoulder and turned her face into his chest.


Soft silk, over hard muscle. No blood.


"Thank you," she whispered.


He said nothing. There was no need. For the first time since the terror began that day, Rebecca felt all tension and fear fade away. For the first time in years, perhaps.


 
Has a flood come and laid the world waste?
For dry land is nowhere to be seen.


It was odd, then, what came to her mind. Recovering from terror in the shelter of a strange man's arm, all she could think of was a sun-drenched land of poetry and splendor, which she had never seen once in her life. Drying her tears on a silk shirt, she remembered Abraham ibn Ezra's ode to his cloak:


 
I spread it out like a
Tent in the dark of night, and the stars
Shine through it: through it I see the moon and the
Pleiades, and Orion,
Flashing his light.
 


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