Rebecca quivered with tension, taut as a bowstring.
It’s now or never, she told herself.
Simon was at work in the smithy, she could hear the clang as he beat the metal. From her bedroom window she could see the smoke from the forge rising into the afternoon air. He’d be busy for hours.
Nathan was out of the way too. Since Don Reza and Atta left, two days before, Simon had allowed him to help Senor Thomas at the hospital. Nathan wouldn’t be back until dusk.
She took one last look around the little room that had been her home for so long, with its sloping ceiling and small window. Long coils of brown hair lay on the floor. It was her own. She lifted it, gently and tied it up with a ribbon. Stroking it, she placed it deep inside the coffer under the window, beneath her finest clothes, her silk undershirt and linen petticoat. She folded the fine fabrics as she replaced them, enjoying their touch.
She looked down at the clothes she was wearing now, Nathan’s rough cotton breeches, shirt and jerkin.
The face that looked back at her from the silver hand mirror looked very different. Her shorn hair made her grey eyes seem even larger than usual and her skin looked tanned and weathered. She had stained it with walnut juice.
It would do.
From beneath her bed she drew out a heavy bundle, bound in a blanket. Hefting it on to her hip, she crept, quietly, downstairs. In the vestibule she reached for her cloak on its peg and, wrapping it around her shoulders, poked her head out into the courtyard.
It was empty. The clanking from the forge continued.
She flitted across the flagstones to the stable.
Careful, she told herself, make sure the big door doesn’t creak.
Inside it smelled of hay and mule. Ruben stood in his stall.
Rebecca placed the bundle on the floor and stroked his nose, then she took his saddle and saddlebags from the tack rail.
‘Hush now, hush, there’s a good boy.’
She took bread and some salted meat from her bundle and tucked these into the saddlebags, with a leather water flask. Ruben’s fodder bag she hung on the saddle.
‘There, there,’ she said. ‘Not much more now.’
‘More of what?’
A harsh, male voice rang out.
A shower of hay fell from the hay loft above and one of the younger pike-men thudded, feet first, to the floor. Ruben snorted and paced backwards, surprised by the man’s sudden appearance. ‘That wouldn’t be food you’re taking away now would it?’
Rebecca gasped, heart racing. She backed away, eyes flitting around the stable. Was the man alone? Did he know who she was? The man was between Rebecca and the stable door. He looked mean and grasping.
Her uncle was only feet away, but she couldn’t call him, not unless she was to give up all hope of getting away.
Was it just food he wanted?
She would have to speak. She kept her voice low.
‘Only kitchen scraps,’ she said.
The pike-man sauntered towards her. His eyes ran over her and Ruben, taking everything in. She prayed that her disguise would fool him.
‘It’s a fine kitchen in an occupied town that has scraps to spare,’ he said. ‘Or one with the King’s doctor as guest. Who are you, anyway? I haven’t seen you before.’
‘I’m cousin to Nathan,’ Rebecca replied, in a voice scarcely above a whisper. ‘I’ve come for our mule, it belongs to… my father.’
‘And here’s me thinking that it belonged to the silversmith,’ the man’s eyes narrowed. His tone was suspicious. ‘Ruben here has been in these stables since before me and my mates was billeted here.’
Rebecca would have to stick to her story. She had no option. ‘He was borrowed,’ she said.
There was no way past the man, certainly not if she was leading Ruben. He was only yards from her now. There was a menacing sneer on his face.
In the corner of the stables was a pitchfork, propped against the wall. She edged towards it. She might be able to knock him down. But no, her uncle would come running at the first shout.
The man leaned against the end of a stall.
‘I don’t know who you are,’ he said. ‘But I know you’re lying about something. Are you a little thief? Let’s have a look and see what’s in these saddlebags.’
He lunged forward, catching Rebecca’s wrist in his hand. She stumbled and almost cried out in alarm. His grip hurt. What was he going to do?
The pike-man pulled her to one side as he rummaged clumsily in the saddlebags. He threw her thick blanket onto the stable floor. Then he found her little draw-string purse. He shook it open.
‘If you are a thief you haven’t found much to take,’ he said. He tossed the few coins that Rebecca had saved into the air, one by one, and caught them. ‘I think I’ll have this. Thief-taker’s perogative. But what shall I do with you now? Tan your hide?’
Rebecca tried to wrench free, but the man’s grip on her wrist was like iron. She made a leap for the pitch fork, but he pulled her back and she only just kept him at arm’s length. He was much stronger than she was.
The blood rushed in her ears. She had to act quickly.
‘All right,’ she said. ‘But if those coins belong to the smith, you’ve just been looting. No looting, on pain of death. By the. King’s order. It’s not just my hide that would be tanned.’
The man’s lip curled back, but he hesitated.
‘I won’t tell if you won’t,’ Rebecca hissed. ‘And you come out of things several coins better off.’
A sullen look on his face, the pike-man let go of her wrist with a flourish. ‘Get off with you then,’ he said. ‘Before I change my mind and tell the smith.’
Without taking her eyes from the man, Rebecca grabbed at the saddle and went over to Ruben. He was restless, moving round the stall.
‘Alright, it’s alright,’ she calmed him as she secured the saddle.
Followed by the pike-man, she walked Ruben out into the yard. The ringing blows of the hammer in the smithy could be heard more clearly. She licked her dry lips and lead the mule across to the gate.
This was it. If she went now, there would be no going back. She was leaving her home and family, with all its security and shelter.
She took a deep breath and, in only a second, they were out through the gate and on to the cobbled street.
She shut the gate behind her.
The street was empty, though she could hear people in Plateros Square just around the corner. Almost sick with relief, she mounted the mule and pulled the hood of her cloak over her head. They set off along the winding street.
Rebecca hadn’t bargained on one of the pike-men being in the stables. Usually they were all on duty at the same time. It had cost her the blanket and what money she possessed.
No matter, she told herself, she still had a good, thick cloak and food, water and fodder for Ruben.
As they threaded through back streets Rebecca’s heart stopped thumping so violently, but still the adrenaline was coursing through her veins.
Concentrate on the next part of the plan. Get out of the city.
She was going to leave through the Sevilla gate, blending in with the others who were fleeing the city. Anyone watching would see what she wanted them to see, a young boy riding his mule, but she would have to look out for anyone who might recognise her and avoid them.
The narrow street ran into a square, a space in front of the arch of the gate. A small crowd of travellers were gathered there, milling about and talking as they waited for their caravan to move off.
Rebecca dismounted, keeping Ruben between herself and the others.
Up ahead, she spotted the Herrera family, who ran the chandlery near the Juderia, with two wagons crammed full with their goods.
Rebecca swung around sharply, leading Ruben to the back of the crowd. They mustn’t see her, she couldn’t be discovered now, before she had even left the city. She watched closely until the Herrera wagons passed through the gate, then moved forwards to join the end of the caravan.
Beyond the walls, the travellers formed up in their winding convoy along the wide Sevilla road. They would travel through the darkening evening, into the night.
Rebecca ignored them and turned to skirt the city walls. She planned to find the southern caravan route to Algeciras. This was the route Ben Isaacs would have taken. She was going to follow in his footsteps.
There were no buildings here anymore, they had been pulled down during the siege. The ground was rubble-strewn and treacherous, but at least the ruins provided some cover.
All the familiar landmarks had gone and, without the usual markers, Rebecca had to guess which way to go. By now the light was almost gone. The temperature was dropping and there were clouds to obscure the moon. She would have to make camp soon, or lose her way completely and never find the road.
Rebecca dismounted and walked Ruben down into a stream-bed, where scrubby grass grew around pools of water. The steeper side of the depression would give some shelter. It was enough.
Looking back over the lip of the stream bed she could barely see the walls of the city half a mile away in the gloom. Much too close for her to risk making a fire.
Rebecca hobbled Ruben, tying him to the branch of a tree overhanging the stream bed. She removed his saddle, it would be her pillow. Lying on the stony ground, she curled up beneath her cloak and tried not to think of her cosy bed at home or the blanket which she’d left behind.
Around her neck was Nathan’s silver ring, hanging on a string. The pike-man hadn’t found that.
Nathan would be furious when he discovered she’d taken it. She had sneaked into his room when he was out at the hospital. He never wore the ring there.
Her hand tightened upon the silver circlet. She would only trade it if she had nothing else, if she was in extreme need. It reminded her of Nathan, of her uncle and their home.
All was blackness now. Rebecca couldn’t even see Ruben, though she could hear his regular chewing as he ate the grass.
Had they missed her yet? Did they even know that she had gone?
She thought about her uncle. He would be so angry. By running away, she had betrayed his trust. And he would be so hurt, after all his care of her. But she had to do it. She had no choice.
Most girls her age had been married for a year or more. Many were already mothers themselves. But Uncle still thought of her as a child, he had put off arranging her marriage. That wouldn’t last forever. Once he did arrange a betrothal, her few freedoms would be even further curtailed, until the day she left her uncle’s house for that of her new husband and his family.
Perhaps if Ben had spoken, things might have worked out. But he hadn’t. And then the war had come.
Who would offer for her now? It would be a stranger, perhaps an older man, or someone who only wanted her dowry, not her. Many of the young men were gone, or dead.
What would her married life have been like? Where would she have lived? Would she be allowed to read and write? She’d been lucky to learn, devouring the contents of the scrolls that Nathan brought home, pestering him for new ones. She couldn’t imagine life without reading. She couldn’t bear life without it. Yet any husband might not allow her to read. The confusion after the siege was her chance, her one chance to escape that fate.
No, she had to do what she had done, however much it would hurt her Uncle.
It was cold and the ground was hard. Rebecca curled up even more tightly and pulled her cloak around her. She thought of Ben and what might have been.