The sight of her mother’s freckled and sunburnt face slipped like water through her fingers as sunlight crawled along the backs of Marisol’s eyelids. She was still tired and aching and hungry, but anticipation and excitement energized her. She practically leapt to her feet, took a moment to scrape off the worst of the dirt and bits of hay, and changed into the relatively clean clothes she’d brought with her before meeting Diego at the main house.
In the thin light of dawn, Don Lope de la Barca’s estate was less than impressive. It was certainly large, with a sprawling main house, carriage house, stables, and some other low buildings whose purpose Marisol couldn’t immediately decipher. And the land itself, to judge by the extent of gangly stalks of barley struggling through fields that had quite clearly gone to seed, stretched some distance in all directions. But the buildings were filthy, with doors creaking precipitously on their hinges, with broken windows and toppled chimneys. One building, which must have been the guest house Diego had described, had indeed suffered some traumatic accident: an entire wall was missing, the whole shape of the building dissolving into a mess of tumbled bricks on the north side. A handful of small animals, plainly emboldened by the estate’s neglect, scurried impertinently through heaps of rubble and patches thick with overgrown weeds.
There was a kind of grandeur to the estate’s disrepair, Marisol felt. It was like looking on an old man, broken down by wear and time, but with the mark of his greatness still indelibly stamped on his features. This had been a beautiful, thriving place once, maybe long ago, and if it had now collapsed under many years’ worth of brute grinding, turning it into the fallow field from which something new might one day grow, then the shadow of its greatness still hung about it.
It rankled to use the servants’ entrance, and rankled more that Diego gave her a bowl of cold bean soup and then immediately sent her off to chop wood, all without so much as introducing her to the mysterious Maestro and the inscrutable preferences that Diego continually invoked:
“The Maestro does not prefer to take his meals with students.”
“The Maestro prefers you to perform your chores before training begins.”
“The Maestro prefers that you gather water only in wooden pails.”
It was aggravating, but Marisol grit her teeth and determined that she would bear it. The Maestro’s attitude was one that she was familiar with: the boring work came first, the interesting work last. Chopping wood and carrying water was the same as lugging around iron ingots. It may even have been a kind of test; the Maestro, unwilling to teach students of middling resolve, was trying to gauge her commitment – establishing her worthiness by, perversely, attempting to drive her away. Marisol intended to perform the menial, backbreaking tasks she’d been assigned with such care and diligence that there’d be no question that she was here for the duration.
Chopping firewood is not really a task that requires care, of course, so much as a task that requires strong muscles and a supreme tolerance for sustained boredom – both characteristics that Marisol had developed to one degree or another by working in her mother’s smithy. Her arms and back were definitely strong, and of them she was justifiably proud; her ability to withstand boredom was somewhat weaker. Still she made a game show of it – she found the woodpile, near the edge of the Maestro’s estate, where the narrow dirt path wound away from the main road. The wood was in utter disarray; fat logs, probably delivered by another woodcutter somewhere, lay in haphazard piles, scattered around the grass. Many had gone to rot; at least one revealed a pair of little, brown, slithering snakes when she moved it.
Marisol spent a good hour stacking the wood into piles, enjoying the dull ache of exercise, the relaxing sense of carving a little routine out for herself. Rotten wood was tossed to the side, dry wood was stacked by the block. Soon, she’d made a neat pyramid out of the usable logs, and began the process of chopping them up.
She probably would have managed two hours at it at least, lulled almost into a trance by the regular dull thunk of the ax biting into hard wood, if she hadn’t heard the singing. It wafted over the hills; she almost didn’t hear it over the sound of the ax. A momentary chill gripped her spine, as she thought of the circle of severed heads. Had they followed her? Had she dreamed them?
Marisol set down her axe and listened warily; soon she began to pick it out, not that strange and formless dirge at all, but a jolly tune sang by a chorus of male voices. Distant and garbled at first, it soon became clear that the song was in a language that she didn’t know. Marisol shielded her eyes from the sun and scanned the horizon. She finally saw five dark figures, slowly loping into view.
They were Prussian soldiers; that was unmistakable. Tall, with pale blond hair and ruddy faces. They wore intricate clothes of black cloth and dyed red leather, punctuated by bits of burnished steel and polished amber. Two of them had long, long lances that ended with cruel-looking blades; the rest carried fat black donnerguns and thick-bladed knives. The men traveled in a loose knot, like they were staggering home from a tavern together. They sang and laughed uproariously, and passed around a leather skin that was full of something that probably wasn’t water.
The soldiers came into view and their voices grew louder, as the road took them past where Marisol stood. They didn’t look at her as they walked, preoccupied with song and drink. Marisol felt her hands ache. She looked down to see that her knuckles had turned white where she gripped the haft of her ax like she meant to crush it, or snap it across her knee, or twist it apart into splinters.
She looked up just as the soldiers passed her by. The man at the back of the group lagged a bit behind the others, and she imagined running up behind him and burying the ax in his head. She would kick him away and yank the ax free to crush the next two soldiers as they turned in horror, spattered with blood, while the last men went for their guns, but she could get to them first, could put the ax in the first one then bear the next to the ground, crush his throat with her hands if she had to…
Her foot scraped in the dirt, almost of its own volition, as the urge to run at the soldiers welled up inside her. The man at the tail end of the group turned back to look at her, actually smiled and waved, and it was nearly enough to send her screaming after him.
Nearly. Some rational part of her reached out and seized control of her mind. Not here, it warned her, not now, not against so many. The hate she felt for the soldiers was almost palpable, a thick miasma that radiated from her pores and must surely be visible; but it was nothing compared to her hate for the man with the red right hand, and she wouldn’t compromise her revenge against him by needlessly risking her life against strangers like this. Marisol took three long, deep breaths through her nose – her teeth were clenched so tightly that no atom of air could have made its way through her mouth – then slammed the ax deep into the chopping block and stalked away. The Prussians, oblivious, continued singing their way off towards the horizon
It would not take long, Marisol reasoned as the waves of her fury slowly receded, to catch up on her work. It was just chopping wood, after all. And it would be in her interests to know the estate a little better if she was going to be expected to work on it. She prowled around the several buildings, doing her best to stay as quiet as a cat, and keeping her ears pricked for any sounds – but in particular the telltale clanging of a fencing lesson. She heard nothing as she wended around the stables and still nothing as she decided to explore the ruined guest-house.
It was – or had been – a modest, one-storey affair. A small sitting room, two rooms that might have comfortably held as many as four students each. A large hearth in the center that would have made the whole thing fairly cozy. All three of the rooms were exposed to the air, now, and Marisol wondered what could have actually happened to it. The roof seemed to have been torn off and scattered in pieces; the north wall had collapsed outward, as though struck by some titanic blow from within. The floorboards were warped and rotted from their exposure to who-knew-how-many months’ of weather in some places, but also scorched by some great fire in others. Fetid water pooled on the floor. The place stank of mold and rot, its ripe odor the foulest sign of the building’s disuse.
Marisol left the mystery to itself and wandered towards the main house. This, at least, was in good repair, even if it seemed like the only building on the estate that was. The Maestro didn’t appear to have any servants, no tenant farmers, no anything, so it was really a bit of a wonder that he’d kept even the house he was living in together for so long. Maybe fixing up the house was what Diego did between lessons, Marisol reasoned, stepping a little ways back and trying to see into one of the second storey windows.
From the ground, she couldn’t see anything but darkness and maybe a faint hint of the shape of the ceiling, and she’d just decided to get back to all the wood that she’d carelessly left un-chopped when she heard, from around the corner of the house, the unmistakable sound of something rustling through the grass. It was probably just a rat, or a cat, or a cat chasing a rat, but Marisol’s curiosity was piqued in the way only the sort of inconsequential noise that comes just at a moment when a young woman is thinking of reasons to avoid her chores can pique it.
Careful not to startle whatever it was, Marisol quietly sidled around the corner. What she found was not a cat.