Ricardo Fuentes jumped back a step hastily, and Arturo leveled a flintlock pistol at the caballero. De la Vega caught himself and retreated, jaw tightened.
"And they say that underclassmen are impetuous," mocked Arturo. "Take it easy, amigo, or there could be a shooting accident."
"What is he doing here?" demanded Diego, jerking his head toward the sailor. "I thought we had a bargain."
The freshman smiled. "I have another bidder, as you can see." He shrugged, "It's nothing personal, you understand. But I'm not from a wealthy family like you. This is merely a business transaction."
"You told me that I could have her back for your price, and I have brought it," gritted the Californian. "Have you no honor?"
"Honor is for the rich," concluded Arturo. "I can't eat it, can't drink it; it certainly won't pay my expenses for the next term. And I have fastidious tastes."
"I can double his sum," declared Ricardo. "Perhaps more. The girl is my property anyway. De la Vega stole her from me aboard ship."
"Ah," said the youngest man, casually waving the pistol's muzzle toward the girl. "And I've stolen her from de la Vega. So let's be realistic. None of us has the rights to the girl. And truth to tell," he noted, lifting Brighid's chin and smirking at her terror-filled eyes, "I don't think she enjoys our company. Except perhaps yours, de la Vega. Tell me, was she--grateful to her rescuer?"
"You foul-minded bastard," growled Diego.
"Temper, temper," laughed Arturo. He handled the pistol with seeming carelessness, but the watchful expression of his eyes warned the caballero that he was not as relaxed as he appeared. "At any rate, I'm the one who has her now. You want her; she's for sale to the higher bidder. Right now that's you, Señor Fuentes. You can double de la Vega's fifteen thousand?"
"Er, would it be indiscreet of me to ask where a sailor would get that kind of money?"
"Her own people would willingly pay that much to get her back, a little tamer than before. She's their sacrifice."
"Their what?" Arturo leaned forward, a gleam of curiosity lighting his dark eyes.
"Their sacrifice. She's the daughter of the chief of her clan, a bizarre English cult, and at eighteen she gets sacrificed."
The freshman shivered with delighted horror. "But how perfectly quaint! How charmingly medieval! Would she be tied to an altar under the full moon? I suppose she would have to be a virgin," he sighed regretfully. "With her in de la Vega's keeping for the last few days, I doubt she qualifies."
Diego kept his tongue between his teeth. As poorly as the assumption reflected on himself and Brighid, at this moment he thought it to the girl's advantage to be considered an unacceptable sacrifice.
"Then there's Caliph Mohammed Jaloud in Casablanca," offered Fuentes. "He'll pay even more for a white woman with green eyes."
"I've heard of him. His appetite for women is legendary." Barrola touched the girl's hair and smiled when she shrank away from him.
"He wouldn't pay that much for her," Diego countered brutally. "She's scarred all over her body, even there on her face." He gestured to the healed wounds, still deep purple, on both sides of her cheeks. "The caliph likes beautiful women. This one is quite ugly." He turned his gaze onto Arturo, glad that Brighid could not understand Spanish.
"She's taking enough," grumbled the sailor. "He'll still pay plenty."
"But then you'll have to run the rest of your life," smiled de la Vega, matching Arturo's airy sweetness. "Because when the caliph finds out that you sold him a--well, let us say, when he discovers that he wasn't the first man with her, he will be most displeased with you. You'll never sleep soundly again." His lies were multiplying, and he hoped Brighid would understood why a bold front was necessary.
Ricardo's face registered that the caballero's shaft had struck a nerve. "His assassins won't find me," he muttered unconvincingly. "I'll be on a ship--long gone."
"Arturo, do you really think you could trust this man to give you what he promised?" quizzed Diego. "He cannot sell her to anybody without producing her when the money changes hands. And then what guarantee do you have of getting your share? None! He'll take whatever he gets and run. Should he try to broker a deal with either the girl's family or the caliph, it could be weeks before you see any money, and meanwhile where can you keep the girl? It's already well-known that I have her, and I'll be expelled if I'm caught by the Master of Quarters. You would have the same problem, and keeping her somewhere off the university grounds would be an extra drain on your purse." The Californian stopped there; Barrola would need time to weigh the arguments himself.
The lithe, dark-haired freshman looked speculatively from Diego to Fuentes, then back to Diego, and finally at the girl, whose head had drooped onto her chest. His greed warred with his practical nature.
"I believe the bird in the hand is the better offer," he finally decided and shrugged apologetically to the sailor. "So sorry."
"Then untie her," ordered de la Vega, "and we can settle the business."
Barrola retrieved a dagger from his left boot while still holding the pistol with his right. He gestured for his two bidders to step further back. Rising to his feet, he slipped the blade under the bonds that held the girl to the chair. They parted one at a time with the peculiar sound of rending fabric. With her stiff arms free, Brighid moved them slowly in front of her and rubbed each chafed wrist.
"The gag, too," ordered Diego.
"Wait a minute, Barrola," snarled the seaman. "We hired you to get the girl for us! You can't give her to de la Vega!"
"You paid me nothing up front," reminded Arturo coolly. "You couldn't get her yourself, and I could. Now I find there's considerable interest in the scrawny creature. I'll make a bargain to suit my own interests." He sliced the girl's gag, ignoring her muffled cry of pain as the cloth gouged the corners of her mouth.
"Over here, Brighid," ordered Diego quietly.
"Not so fast, Amigo," smiled the freshman. "The money first." He grabbed the girl's arm with his free hand while the other held the flintlock steadily at the tall caballero. "Toss the bag onto the desk."
De la Vega grimly glanced at the pistol, Brighid's cowed face, and Barrola's smirking countenance. Then he focused on the desk in the far corner of the room. Silently he drew back his arm for an underhand throw as if to gently launch the ransom onto the desk's surface. But rather than release the sack on the upswing, Diego hurled it suddenly into Arturo's face. The heavily-weighted bag struck him hard, and the freshman staggered back, his finger tightening on the trigger. The flintlock discharged with a roar and a rank cloud of smoke, and the pistol ball was buried into the wall behind Diego and Fuentes. The caballero followed his surprise with a punishing left to the stomach, and Arturo dropped to the floor, groaning in agony.
"He'p me!" wailed the girl.
Ricardo had taken full advantage of the distraction to seize Brighid and drag her out the door. The caballero turned about and scrambled toward the hall. But a loud thump and a groan caught his ears before he could reach the doorway. Just around the corner he found Ricardo sprawled face down on the tiled walk. Bernardo smiled at his master and extended his foot in explanation. He had been waiting and listening outside the door, and when things turned foul for the young caballero, Bernardo had tripped the escaping sailor.
"It is good to see you, my friend, and I can't wait to hear how you found me," exclaimed Diego hastily, "but I think we should make our dainty exit." He scooped up the frightened girl and ran toward the stairs. Not until he was across the quadrangle in his own quarters did he notice that his manservant was not behind him.
"Bernardo? Bernardo!" he panted, looking down the hallway. To his immense relief, the little man appeared at the far end, trotting a fast pace and occasionally casting nervous glances behind him.
When the door was bolted behind the servant, Diego asked, "What happened to you? I thought you were right behind me."
In response the mute man smiled and produced from his inner pocket the pouch of pesetas that Diego had thrown at Arturo's face.
The caballero laughed and exclaimed, "Well done! The thief is robbed! I like the poetic justice in that!" At Bernardo's inquisitive gesture, he added, "Oh, no, I don't think my honor is sullied. I kept my end of the bargain; I gave him the money! If he can't hold on to it, that is no fault of mine."
"Ma' thanks t' ya gentlemen," murmured Brighid.
Her soft voice recalled both men to the difficulties still at hand. Bernardo held up his hands expressively and shrugged his shoulders. A frown creased the caballero's forehead.
"You can't stay here any longer," Diego told her. "It's not safe. As you can see, too many people know where you are. We must leave tonight. Put on the dress and shoes Bernardo got for you." He approached the window and scanned the street for persons watching his room. He saw no one, but was not reassured by the sight. "It will be dark soon. I suggest we leave then by the window." Grimly he opened a bureau drawer and removed a wooden case. Within were two small pistols with ivory handles. "We will not be taken by surprise again," he declared and primed the pair for himself and Bernardo.
When the streets behind Diego's dormitory were blanketed with deep shadows, three figures slipped to the ground from the second floor window. A tall man dropped lightly to the ground first and then caught the delicate woman lowered to him on the end of a bed sheet. The third man had a more difficult time descending. Having tucked the sheet back into the room, he lowered the window to almost closed as he wriggled over the sill. His legs flailed in the air until commanded softly, "Let go!" His fall was broken by the first man, and both regained their feet.
Their progress along the streets of Madrid went unchallenged. Diego knew where they were going; so did Bernardo, who followed the girl and cast uneasy glances behind them. The girl clung to his master's hand as if it were a lifeline. Perhaps it was.
Padre de la Peña's church was Our Lady of Montserrat. The Gothic structure had withstood three centuries and would doubtless still exist three centuries hence. The wooden doors at the top of the entry steps opened into a cool stone vestibule where footsteps echoed into a vast arched cavern. Diego and his servant dipped fingers in the water bowl near the door and crossed themselves. Both then genuflected before the altar as the girl watched their foreign customs with a puzzled look.
"Bernardo, wait near the door and alert me if anyone suspicious comes in," de la Vega whispered. "The padre's private quarters are to the right of the altar."
The mute man nodded and took up an unobtrusive position near the back row of pews. A few worshippers were silently praying near the front of the sanctuary. Diego led his charge to the priest's rooms and knocked quietly on the door. It opened, and a robed, gray-haired man admitted him, glancing curiously at the girl.
"Padre," began Diego when the door was closed, "here is the girl I brought off the ship. Her enemies are still hunting her, and she was taken from my room by force and guile this afternoon. Praise the saints I was able to get her back without further harm to her."
"A pitiful object indeed, my son," murmured de la Peña. "Does she speak Spanish?"
"No, Padre, nor do I think she can understand us. I know a little English as does she, and that is how we've communicated thus far."
"Then let us continue to speak in Spanish," decreed the priest. "You can translate later as best you can. You have come to me for sanctuary?"
"Yes, Father. Can you keep the girl here? She is getting stronger each day, and her terrible wounds are nearly healed. She does not ask much and does not eat much. She would not be a burden to you."
The padre pursed his lips thoughtfully. "This is not a safe place for her. I go in and out during the day; I am in the confessional most of the morning. People come in to pray, people from the streets whom I often don't know. I cannot watch her continually. I think she would be better hidden with the sisters at Las Comendadoras. The Mother Superior would be sympathetic to your plea. Is the girl in the Faith?"
Diego hesitated a moment. "She is a believer," he stated firmly. What the priest would think of Brighid's convictions he was not sure, but the differences between her faith and the Catholic Church could be vast. All he really knew was that she believed in the one true God.
"I will discuss it with her and Bernardo and decide what is to be done. Thank you for your counsel, Padre."
The mute man was waiting for them and disappointed to see both return. He had hoped that the girl would find welcome sanctuary here, but their errand had apparently failed.
"The padre suggested that we take her to Las Comendadoras Convent," Diego explained. His servant nodded with a smile; the refuge was only a few blocks away. "No, I don't like it. Perhaps it is the best thing to do, but perhaps she would be persecuted there also." At Bernardo's quizzical look, the caballero added, "For her faith. It's a little different from the way we worship, and I would not want her misunderstood nor subjected to any more unkindnesses. I have another idea; I should have thought of it before."
He beckoned the two to follow him as his cautious glance darted about the church's dimly-lit interior. The three slipped out a side door. Again they hurried through the dark streets of Madrid, Diego disdaining the foot relief that a cab ride would have brought. But his suspicions, thoroughly roused by his encounter with Arturo Barrola, told him that he had been watched since leaving the ship and perhaps was still being watched, even as they wove through the streets at a fast walk. Sometimes the tall student would put up his hand as a signal to stop. Then as the others caught their breaths, he looked and listened for a few moments behind them. So far he had no indication that they were being observed.
Two more turns brought them to a genteel area of the city where neat little row houses lined both sides of the streets. To one Diego approached and with another glance behind him knocked on the door quietly. "Watch the street," he whispered to Bernardo. Though he and his servant both carried loaded pistols and the caballero had a heavy saber at his side, events had put him on edge. There was no answer at the door, so Diego rapped again a little harder. He was rewarded by hearing shuffling footsteps approach the door and the sound of a bolt being drawn back. A heavy middle-aged woman with a cap on her head and a candle in her hand opened the door a little and looked over the visitors.
"What might you be wanting, señores?"
De la Vega shone a dazzling smile on the housekeeper. "Is this the home of Professor Juan Murcia?"
"May I speak with him please? The matter is most urgent."
"The professor is reading in his study. I'll see if he'll receive you. Whom shall I say is calling?"
"Diego de la Vega," bowed the young man.
The woman shuffled down a darkened hallway and entered a door. A few minutes later she returned.
"The professor will see you now. Follow me, señor, er, and señorita."
"Wait here, Bernardo," ordered the caballero and escorted the timid English girl down the hall after the housekeeper. She showed them into a wood-paneled room and closed the door behind them.
A small, balding man rose from behind an oak desk to greet his visitors. A pair of spectacles perched on his nose, and he studied them with a puzzled smile.
"Welcome, Diego! This is an unexpected pleasure! I didn't think to see you until the beginning of the term. And señorita! Won't you be seated? The night is rather warm, is it not?" He held a leather armchair for her, and the girl uneasily sat down.
"Indeed it is. Professor, this is Señorita Brighid from England. Do you remember that you asked me to discover more about the Celts? This girl is Celtic, and she has had the strangest adventures you have ever heard."
For the next half hour the young don described how he had rescued the girl aboard ship and tended her wounds, how he and Bernardo had hidden the girl in his quarters, and how even there her enemies had discovered her and threatened her freedom again. Murcia listened, fascinated, and punctuated his visitor's comments alternately with gasps of dismay and delight.
"And so you see, Professor, that here might be a good place for her. She speaks some English as I know you do, and she can tell you more about her people and customs than I ever could."
"I know some Gaelic also," the history teacher informed his pupil. "I daresay I could communicate quite well with her. But do you think she'll be safe here? You were probably followed tonight."
"I have been watching and listening carefully, and think perhaps we've eluded her pursuers. May she stay with you for a few days? Would your good wife object?"
"I think not. She is at the theater this evening, but will be back shortly. Paola is a maternal woman who will take good care of our little friend. Poor mite!" He threw a pitying glance at the girl, who listened uncomprehendingly to the conversation, but knew she was being discussed.
"Of course you may stay here, Brighid," the older man told her in Gaelic. "Perhaps you can help me by telling me more about your people."
Upon hearing her own tongue again after many weeks, the girl's face lit with joy. Words tumbled over themselves in her eagerness to speak. "Thank you, Sir, thank you! I will gladly tell you anything you want to know. It has been so long, so long since I've been able to express myself, and I didn't think anyone in this part of the world could speak my language! I can help with the cooking and the wash and the cleaning--"
Murcia laughed gently at her exuberance. "Perhaps, if you feel the need to do something while I'm at the university. Luisa would be grateful for some assistance, no doubt." He turned to Diego and resumed Spanish. "Do you think she's in danger here?"
"I don't know. Do you have a pistol?" At the confirmation, he advised, "Keep it primed, just in case. Bernardo and I will slip out the back."
The door opened unexpectedly, and a young, dark-haired man entered. "Pardon me," he bowed briefly to the guests. "Father, I've just returned from the university, and there was a shooting accident in one of the dormitory rooms today! No one was hurt, fortunately."
"Yes, I've heard all about it," confirmed the older man. "Carlos, this is Diego de la Vega and this is Señorita Brighid from England. My son Carlos, who works as a laboratory assistant to Professor Alvarado."
Brighid had half risen from her chair, her face chalk-white as she saw the visitor's face and heard his voice. Carlos looked more closely at her and froze, equally stunned.
"Kelley!" she uttered. She reached toward him and fainted in his arms.