Druid Myths

Parte Dos

Ruth Rechsteiner

"Nightmares, Bernardo," stated the young caballero, his face solemn. "It's not surprising, considering what that poor girl's been through. I wonder who Kelley is. She keeps calling out that name when she's in the throes of a bad dream, but can't tell me who it is when she wakes."

De la Vega's mute servant nodded gravely. On the deck of the ship the two men could communicate quietly without being overheard. The breeze was stiff, fifteen or twenty knots, and the captain had reefed all but the topsails. The ship heeled to port, meeting the Atlantic swells bravely. Spray from the bow occasionally showered the pair whose legs after a month at sea easily kept balance on the rolling deck. Fifteen or so sailors, most of whom hailed from Spain, busied themselves about the rigging of the ship and scrubbing the flush deck with holystone. They had little time or interest to give to the wealthy young scholar or his servant.

Bernardo indicated the girl and the ship with an inquisitive look.

"I don't know exactly how we're going to get her off the ship without being seen," Diego frowned. "She's too weak and too scared to be counted on to do anything daring, so we must think of a plan. Perhaps my big trunk," he mused.

His companion looked bewildered, then indignant.

"We'll put my clothes somewhere else," consoled the caballero. "Return to the cabin for now. I don't like leaving her alone; we know she has enemies among the crew."

The stocky middle-aged man left his side, a worried look creasing his usually cheerful face. Diego de la Vega watched him disappear below deck. Then his gaze traveled carefully over the crew at work as he himself stood unmoving, expressionless. He could not solve the riddle of the girl. Why was she so savagely beaten? What could her Druid clan possibly hope to achieve? The girl would die before recanting; that much was certain. Were her captors motivated by religious zeal or monetary rewards? If the latter, what good would she be to anyone half dead? The scholar's eyes narrowed; he did not like riddles.

How utterly incongruent on that warm August afternoon with the sun sparkling on the surface of ocean that his surroundings gave no hint to the catharsis which the world had undergone scarcely two months before! He could be sailing off the California coast, sailing home from the university as he planned to do after one more year of school, so peaceful did the world seem. There the news of Waterloo had yet to be heard. More than that, the news of Napoleon's escape from Elba was only now reaching those distant shores. His father, Don Alejandro de la Vega, had known of Napoleon's abdication for mere months. Spain and the rest of Europe seemed as remote to California as the New World seemed to Peninsulars. Never again, though, would Spain and her problems be disconnected to the young don who stood on the ship.

He had witnessed first hand the ravages of war when he arrived in Madrid in 1812. When he saw the city occupied by French forces, centuries-old buildings reduced to rubble by the enemy, shortages of bread and meat, and patrols in the streets accosting whom they pleased to demand "Papers!", Diego burned with patriotic zeal to free his ancestral home from the tyrant's grip. He had written his father, begging to be allowed to join the army, knowing it would be a full year before Alejandro1s reply could reach him. Surely, thought the youthful eighteen-year-old, taking up arms is of more value than becoming a bookworm! He had poured out his anger and frustration to his new swordmaster, Hernando Barerra. The grizzled maestro had looked up at Diego's face with piercing eyes.

"Your father did not send you here to be in the army," he had said gruffly.

"It--it is a man's duty to fight! How can I stand by and let others struggle? How can you?" It was a bold question that bordered on impertinence. The maestro had status, had credentials that went far beyond his position at Madrid University. Most swordmasters would have been affronted and cut the callow youth down to size.

Barerra passed over the insult. "Come, de la Vega; sit down with me here." He indicated some wooden benches in the gymnasium. As the two men sat together, the calm master and the eager pupil, the rest of the fencing class quietly shuffled out.

"Both your questions have the same answer. A wise man knows when to fight. He knows where and how his skills and his talents can best be used. I am old. Could I kill many Frenchmen with my sword? Perhaps. But how much better to train a hundred men like yourself, or a thousand, to fight and win! When I die, my skill dies with me unless--" the swordmaster emphasized each word slowly, "I pass on what I know!"

Diego had suspected where his mentor was going with the argument, but asked grudgingly, "And my part?"

"Is here. Gaining knowledge. A man who fights with zeal but no knowledge will soon be dead. What good is that? But a man who fights with zeal and knowledge--that man will make a difference in the world." He had clapped the glum freshman on the shoulder. "Cheer up, de la Vega! You will get your chance to fight, and when that time comes you will be prepared. Don't be so eager to die, pup!" the maestro had laughed.

That conversation had been nearly three years ago. The tall caballero from California had waited and studied, often with barely concealed impatience. But the English forces on the peninsula had gained ground against Bonaparte's General Soult, pushing the French from Madrid, then Salamanca, Cuidad Rodrigo, Zamora, and finally out of Spain and Portugal altogether. Spain had been liberated since April the preceding year, and King Ferdinand VII, "El Deseo" as he was popularly known, had reclaimed the throne.

Diego's chief regret was that Spain had needed English help to win freedom. It was galling to admit that for the most part the Spanish army had been under-trained and underfed, and the high rate of desertion spoke of the lack of discipline and patriotic fervor. Spain's once-great empire was visibly declining. When the student had dared to voice the treasonous view to Barerra, that worthy had another wise observation.

"Even a falling star will give off bright showers of sparks." The maestro's face was grave, but hope still shone from his eyes. Once again the caballero left, deep in thought.

It had seemed that battlefield glory would not be the destiny of Diego de la Vega after Napoleon's exile to Elba. But with the emperor's sudden escape and march to Paris, gathering supporters along the way, the allies opposing him once more united against France. Could Bonaparte throw the continent back into constant war? That question trembled fearfully in the hearts of all Europe. The question was still unanswered when the de la Vega scion had sailed from Cádiz for England at the end of the term.

"A tour of England will improve your fluency in the language," Professor Murcia had said. "And the English are our allies still. You can sail there safely with the English blockading French ports, and you will be treated well there."

"It seems to me that more use could come from my joining the army," grumbled the caballero. "If ever we needed to make a stand against the Corsican tyrant, surely it is now!"

"Indeed, it is now. But for others, Diego; not you. You are here to be educated as befits the son of a noble house. That is all your father commanded; it is your duty to obey your father."

The tall, handsome student had swallowed his ire. Of course Murcia would play that trump card! A father must be obeyed. It was against everything Diego's culture taught, everything that he held sacred to do otherwise. And Alejandro had answered his son's letter, urging Diego to complete his studies at the university before considering a military career. The young man loved his father; there was no question about that. But sometimes a proud, distinguished man could be a heavy burden to his son. The expectations on the only son of such a man!

"And Diego," added the history professor, "while you're there, if you can learn more of the group of Britons commonly called the Celts, I'd appreciate any information you can bring home. My lectures on the early peoples of England could use more detail, and Spanish texts are woefully inaccurate, I'm afraid."

A wry smile tried to curl the mouth of the ship's wealthy passenger. Not only was he discovering more about that mysterious group, but he was actually bringing back to Spain one of its people! The thought of Murcia's astonishment at meeting the girl Brighid finished the smile, lightening Diego's face with one ray of pleasure.

So he had sailed. And while at sea that first month the fate of the world had been decided. For just south of Brussels, the two massive armies had met and fought through several insignificant villages. And when the cannon finally stopped their pounding, one hundred thousand men lay dead on the field of battle, and the tattered remains of the French army had been scattered. Napoleon had been recaptured and was being sent to St. Helena, a remote island in the South Atlantic.

When Diego had arrived in Portsmouth on a simple Spanish merchant ship, the news of the battle, Waterloo as it was being called, greeted him. The English were jubilant from the victory, relieved at the peace ahead, and solemn over the terrible cost in lives. It was a strange mixture, the Californian visitor discovered as he toured London and the countryside. His English improved by necessity; his accent made him difficult to understand, and his textbook-acquired idioms woefully inadequate for expressing his needs. When he had journeyed through Cornwall, he had found a few people with Gaelic backgrounds, but the language barrier was more complex than ever. The merchant ship with whom he had arranged passage home from Plymouth, the Santa Catalina, was willing to take home the young scholar and his servant. The price, he was warned by the captain with the avaricious gleam, would be high. Indeed it was, but Diego had little choice except to pay it.

Now he was glad that he had, for his own gentle reminder to the girl Brighid applied to him as well. God had a plan for him, too, to be here on this ship at this time. Filling his lungs with one more breath of fragrant, salty breeze, the caballero was beginning to understand. Perhaps one could not help decide the fate of the world, but one could help a single person. That was a contribution. No, the battle was not on the grand scale he had fondly imagined, but a humbler sphere. To that girl, her private tragedies were no less significant than Waterloo had been to the Duke of Wellington.

Returning to the cabin, he found Bernardo gently sponging the girl's back. The deep wounds caused by the cat-o-nine-tails appeared to be healing. The girl was awake and watched him with wide green eyes. She would have been pretty without the wounds; there was a delicate, fragile beauty about the shape of her face and mouth. Her eyes slanted up slightly at the outer corners, giving her the look of a woodland sprite, a fairy creature. Had her looks played any part in her strange misfortunes?

"Brighid," he said to her gently, squatting by the cot so she could see his face, "why did the men put you on the ship instead of returning you to your people?"

"I dun' know. The' wan' me to--to--"

"Recant? Give up your faith?"

"Aye, tha's it."

"Then what? Would you be returned home?"

"I dun' know. I dun' even know where I'm goin', so how could I get home?"

"This ship is docking in just two days at Cádiz, Spain. You will be in a foreign country." The terrified look that twisted the girl's features prompted him to add hastily, "but you will not be alone. Bernardo and I will see that you're taken care of."

Diego's servant had a sudden thought and gestured rapidly.

"A slave? You think the crew planned to sell her?" repeated de la Vega.

Bernardo nodded and touched the girl's flaxen hair.

"Yes," mused the caballero. "A young blond girl with light eyes would bring a princely price at a Moorish auction, and it's a short a journey from Cádiz to Morocco!"

His mute companion made a cruel face and pretended to lash the girl. Then he looked at his master to see if Diego had understood.

"Yes. They beat her to break her spirit. Caliphs have less appreciation for strong spirited women than we do. If she would not recant, she would have been sold. Perhaps she would have been sold either way."

"No-o-o!" Brighid moaned. "No slave! Help me!"

"We shall," pledged the young scholar. "Rest now."

The merchant ship made landfall as the sun was rising. Diego was on deck to watch as the ship glided to her mooring and dropped anchor. The crew had spread over the deck like busy ants, climbing down ratlines after reefing the sails, securing the lines, and shouting to those on the long pier beside the ship. A gangway was put up for the unloading of the passengers and crew, and the hoists and tackles made ready to unload the cargo in the hold.

"A pleasant passage, Capitán," Diego lied to the officer beside him. "Your men have handled the ship well." His imminent departure required courteous remarks to a man he neither liked nor trusted.

"They're worthless sea scum," the swarthy, dark-bearded captain muttered. "They can't carry out the simplest of tasks without a beating. But that's the way it is in the merchant marine these days. The Royal Navy has the pick, and we get what's left over. Miserable dregs."

"Ah. Well, Capitán, do you suppose a couple of your miserable dregs could be spared for the unloading of my luggage?" Diego punctuated his request with a dazzling smile.

The captain was not visibly moved but called two men idling by the rail to help the caballero. The surly pair went below to the wealthy passenger's cabin. They saw only Bernardo there, securing one of his master's large trunks with a strap.

"Is everything ready, Bernardo?" asked Diego significantly.

Only his mute companion understood the deeper meaning. He nodded and patted the largest trunk.

"Very well. Perhaps you men can both take a handle and get this one to the dock."

The sailors hoped there would at least be a coin from the privileged young man who looked at them with an air of arrogant indifference. Perhaps not. But the captain had given an order, and Capitán Tortosa was not above turning them off without pay for insubordination. They heaved the massive trunk up the narrow gangway and out onto the deck.

"My, what a big trunk!" commented a crew member who sauntered nearer with a greasy companion. The speaker was Ricardo, and Diego recognized him immediately. "What do you suppose a gentleman like this young peacock could have in such a box, Paco?"

The other man grinned, showing his blackened teeth. "Why don't we find out?" In a twinkling he had pulled a naked cutlass from his waist and gouged a hole in the side.

"Señor!" uttered the caballero indignantly. "That is my luggage you are damaging! Stop at once, or I'll have the capitán garnish your wages for ruining my personal effects!"

"Personal effects? Let's have a look at them 'personal effects' of yours, my buck!" challenged Ricardo. "Put the trunk down, mates."

The sailors gladly set the heavy trunk on the deck.

"These are my clothes, and books, and papers!" protested the young aristocrat. "They can be of no interest to you! Pick up the trunk again," he commanded the sailors.

"No you don't, mates," Ricardo sneered. "Open it up or I'll cut it open!" he told de la Vega.

"Capitán!" shouted Diego. When that person approached, wearing an annoyed expression, the young scholar's voice rose to an excited pitch. "This boorish brute of yours is accosting my luggage! There is no logic in this irrational attack! I have friends, sir, friends who will see that you never sail a ship again, not even a garbage scow, if you don't take your men in hand! Order these--persons," he shot Ricardo and his coarse companion a glance that would have scorched men with more sensibility, "--away from my luggage immediately!"

Whether the young don could damage his sailing career was something that Tortosa doubted. But one never knew, and the rich--well, the rich had to be humored always. Money had power, no doubt of that.

"Just what is the trouble here?" he demanded of his men.

"Capitán, I think I know where our 'packet' went, the one we thought we had lost at sea," the burly sailor declared with obvious significance. "Here!"

Tortosa glanced at the trunk and hesitated. "Don't be a bigger fool than you already are," he said harshly. "The girl drowned. Señor de la Vega himself saw the body float past, and so did I."

"A trick. I think he kept the girl for himself. But she was ours, Señor; she belonged to us!"

An immaculate doeskin glove struck the ugly, unshaven mouth. "If you were a gentleman I would challenge you for calling me a liar, thief, and profligate. But as you are not," Diego gritted, "I cannot even soil my blade with your blood. I shall leave it to our capitán to flog you as you so richly deserve!"

"She's in there, Capitán, I swear it!" Ricardo strengthened the oath by calling down curses upon himself from every saint he could think of. "Make him open it! You lose that girl, and you lose a lot of money. Make him open it, or Paco will run it through!"

Paco touched the tip of his cutlass to the side of the trunk, his arm tensed behind the blade for a quick thrust. The captain yielded. Like his crew members he wanted to recover the girl, because that meant recovering the small fortune she was worth. If Ricardo was right-- But on the other hand, his wealthy passenger would be greatly offended by the seizure and search of his luggage, and would likely complain loudly to the authorities about it.

"Señor de la Vega," he said in a voice that strove to be a compromise between authoritative and placating, "my men are a little over-excited, but if you would be so kind as to assure them that they are wrong--as I know they must be!--I should be most grateful, and you could get on your way before the heat gets worse." He mopped his florid face with a grimy handkerchief.

"They are wrong! And you, Capitán, are encouraging this outrage!" Diego waged his finger at the officer's nose. "You can be sure that I will have something to say about this at the maritime office!" A frantic motion from the captain seemed to sober the caballero's rage. "But as you say, it's hot, and I have better things to do than argue with a slovenly bunch of rag-tags you call your crew! I shall open the trunk and prove that not only are your men liars, but that they have most likely damaged some of my possessions!"

The young man knelt by the trunk, fumbling in his pockets for several long seconds for the key, and continued his diatribe of the Santa Catalina's crew. At last the lock was opened, and de la Vega threw back the lid. Neatly stacked were the tailored shirts and suits of a gentleman, several hats, and a plethora of books tucked around the edges. Digging into the side gouged by Paco, the caballero pulled out a book sliced through by the cutlass, and several articles of clothing.

"Look at this!" he fumed to Tortosa and his crew. "This book is ruined! And these shirts, cut to ribbons by that villainous oaf! And this cravat! Mechlin lace! Do you know how dear that is now? This is at least four hundred pesetas of damage, and I demand retribution for every article!"

"Señor--" began the captain.

"Four hundred, or I'll make that report to the maritime office, and you'll be in dry dock the rest of your life!"

Tortosa backed up before the red heat of Diego's fury. "Very well, Señor. Four hundred, and you say nothing to the maritime office of this incident." He snapped to his crew, "Don't stand there gawking! Get Señor de la Vega's baggage to the quay immediately!" He scurried away, presumably to get the money.

The large trunk was carried down, and the sailors returned to Diego's cabin for the smaller boxes and bags. Tortosa hurried to the caballero with a purse of coins and was given only the frostiest bow in return. Without a further word of farewell, Diego de la Vega strode down the gangway to meet his servant on the quay. Bernardo had managed to secure a hack, having carried from the ship a small chest upon his back. The belligerent crew members and the captain were too preoccupied by a noisy quarrel with his master to notice Bernardo quietly slipping past them to the quay. There he waited the conclusion of the fracas.

Having given orders that the rest of his luggage was to be conveyed to the Estrella de Mer Inn, Diego joined his manservant in the hack. A glance at the small chest told him all he needed to know, and he met Bernardo1s eyes with a twinkle. The mute man's expressive face and gestures paid him a compliment.

"You think I could be a good actor?" Diego laughed. "Well, one never knows, does one?"

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