The flat orange disc of the sun slipped slowly behind the city’s western sky-line. The walls cast long shadows on to the wide road ahead.
Looking out through the large stone arch of the gateway, Nathan watched as the purple shadows lengthened, to blend with those of the fields and trees. His father stood at his side. They had come to bid farewell to the latest group of exiles leaving the city.
The line of riders and wagons walked out along the Sevilla Road. They chose to leave at sunset so as to travel by night, by the light of the moon, rather than risk being attacked upon the road during daytime. There were renegades and thieves abroad, it was said, preying upon the unarmed and unwary.
Two mounted figures, leading a donkey between them, turned aside onto a country track. The smaller rider stood in his stirrups, turned and raised his arm. It was Atta, waving goodbye.
‘Hasta luego! Till we meet again!’ Nathan called, returning the wave. He peered into the dusk.
Surely, he could still see them?
No. They had melted into the darkness of the countryside. His friend was gone.
Would they ever meet again?
Atta had promised to write as soon as he and his father arrived in Cordova, if anyone could be found to carry a letter. Now the only couriers were royal ones. Nathan didn’t hold out much hope, he might never hear from his friend again.
Then Nathan felt his father’s firm hand upon his shoulder.
‘We must go,’ said Simon. ‘The guards want to close the gate to secure the city. Curfew will begin soon.’
Nathan shrugged off his father’s hand, but allowed himself to be lead away.
They hurried along the familiar but empty streets. Soldiers passed them, armed with swords and pikes. Nathan was silent and looked away.
As they paused for a moment to allow a group of pike-men past, Nathan looked upwards at the ironwork on the windows of the building next to them. It was the Delgado house.
A full day had passed since the parade, when Miguel had been taken away by the soldiers.
‘No-one knows where Miguel Delgado is,’ Nathan said. ‘He’s completely disappeared.’
‘Miguel Delgado should have known better than to attack a priest,’ Simon said.
‘He didn’t attack a priest,’ said Nathan. ‘I was there, I saw it. He just wanted some answers.’
Nathan’s last memory of Miguel was his being beaten by his guards and dragged away. Just for asking questions. Yet he, Nathan, had done nothing. He had turned around and walked in the opposite direction, leaving Miguel to his fate. Nathan felt ashamed.
‘He should have kept his head down, not drawn attention to himself.’ Simon said. ‘Come along.’ He started off again, along the street.
So that was what his father really thought, keep your head down, don’t get singled out, don’t stand up for what is right.
‘Miguel Delgado is old enough to look after himself.’
Only two years older than me, Nathan thought. Yet you still treat me like a child.
‘They’re saying the Delgados are accursed,’ he said. ‘The priests say it’s God’s vengeance on the family, as Christians who stood against the King.’
‘No more cursed than many others,’ Simon said. ‘It doesn’t suit the priests that Christians resisted the King too. And who’s saying this? Where did you hear it? And who says Miguel Delgado has disappeared?’
‘Our pike-men said the stockade was empty. All the prisoners have gone.’
Simon stopped walking. He turned to look at Nathan. ‘I told you to keep away from those soldiers.’ His expression was fierce.
‘I was only talking…’
‘As long as you live in my house you follow my rules,’ Simon’s voice was quiet, so as not to attract the attention of the passers-by, but it was full of intensity. His eyes gleamed with anger beneath his furrowed brows. ‘Do you understand? If you want to do as you please, you do it somewhere else, where you can’t hurt those you live with. Think of your cousin.’
So saying, Simon strode off, quickly, towards Plateros.
My house, my rules – Nathan had heard it all before. Do this. Don’t do that.
What did his father know of losing people close to him? Miguel Delgado knew. What did his father know of being left behind? Nathan half-wished he had gone with Atta. At least Don Reza expected his son to think for himself.
They were nearing the Juderia now.
On both sides of the street the houses were closed up and empty. Families were leaving, more of them every day. It had started before the siege, with people like the Isaacs, going back to Antioch, their ancestral home. But the numbers had grown to an exodus since the city had fallen.
They passed a boarded-up shop front. Joachim the baker and his family had gone. One morning their bakery simply wasn’t there anymore. People sought safety, with those possessions they could pack into carts or on to donkeys, or carry on their backs. Just like those selling what they could in Plaza Mercado.
Nathan’s thoughts turned to the Isaacs. They would be so much better off than the families who were leaving the city now, taking only what they could carry. And it had got worse since the rioting.
Would anyone be left? Nathan could count the number of his contemporaries on two hands – already there would be too few to fill a school class. If school ever began again, who would be there and who would be missing?
And the young men, like Miguel Delgado and Ben Isaacs, were gone too.
Nathan had often looked out for Ben, the thin youth with his pale face and wispy brown hair, coming along the street to visit them. He knew Rebecca had liked Ben and he her, but nothing had come of it. After the Isaacs had gone she’d seemed to be angry rather than sad.
Nathan shook his head. He didn’t understand it. Not so long ago, she had been like an older sister to him, but these days…
The street lanterns were being lit by the lamp man, their lights reflecting half-moons on the cobbles, as Nathan and Simon reached Plateros.
Ahead he could just make out the tree trunks round the square and the fountain basin at its centre. His footsteps slowed and he hung back.
‘I’ll just be a moment,’ he said.
‘See that you are or I’m coming to get you,’ Simon replied, sharply, as he looked back at Nathan. ‘Be indoors by curfew.’
Nathan sat on the turned stone rim of the fountain. The wind skittered leaves around its dry bowl.
Think of happier times, he told himself.
Nathan reached for his silver ring, on the chain around his neck. Only last summer Simon had taught him and his two friends how to cast and tease the hot, pliant metal. Each of them had made a ring, marked with simple signs – a fish for Juan, a bird for Atta and a cup for Nathan. It seemed so long ago now. Before the army came.
His ring lay close to his heart, but where were the others now? Juan’s was buried beneath the rubble of the Alcazar. Atta’s was somewhere out in the lawless countryside.
Atta was gone and Juan was dead. And he was left behind. The whole city was full of ghosts.
In the square, the leaves of the jacaranda trees rustled and fell, blown by the gusty autumnal wind. The bell high in the watchtower shuddered, a ghostly half-ringing sounding across the city. Somewhere a window shutter banged.