Stealing was the last thing on Teresa’s mind before she left the convent school. Now she must do it to retain her freedom. She could think
of no other alternative. If either Senior Hector Sandavol, who had taken her
into his household, or his brother Raul, ever learned what she was about to do they would disown her. Both men were devoted
to the Catholic Church and feared the Inquisition. Those who slid from the faith
could be arrested and imprisoned by the church. She did not want to think about
what would follow.
Earlier that day she had heard rumors in the village that a gentleman was inquiring about Senorita Alvarez. Had the sisters sent someone from the Inquisition to track her down?
After leaving the convent three months ago, Teresa made her way down the river to the small village of Jerez. She was lucky that Senor Sandavol was looking for someone to help his wife. Since their youngest child was ill, Senora Sandavol’s time was taken up with his care and she needed
help with the older children. Hector Sandavol was known as a cartyano,
a breeder of fine horses for the Spanish court. His estate held vineyards lush
with grapes as well as pastures full of sleek grazing horses. While staying with
them Teresa also helped feed and care for the horses, and out of his generosity, Senor Sandavol had given her a gray gelding.
He named the horse Intrepido, fearless, as a jest, for the animal seemed to be afraid of his own shadow.
About the time their baby was well enough to free Teresa from her Raul Sandavol, Hector’s brother needed
help at his inn, El Potro, which means the “stallion.” His wife,
Juana, had sprained her back and was not able to navigate the steps to the upper rooms.
Teresa’s duty was to straighten the rooms, and clean them when they were vacant.
The El Potro was one of only a few decent inns for travelers to spend a night in on their way to or from the
coast. In most small villages between Madrid and Cadiz, the inns were filthy.
Wood was rare and most buildings were made of mud, clay, and straw. Many buildings had no windows. Teresa wrinkled her nose
at the thought that villagers would spread dung on the outside walls of their houses to keep the flies out. But in the near-by
village, Jerez de la Fontana, there were beautiful residential buildings as well as Arab baths. Since it was close to the Andalusian coast, the village had been influenced a great deal by the Moors.
Teresa was grateful that both Sandavol families were above the poverty level and able to give her work. El Potro was made
of both wood and clay. Juana kept it neat and clean, giving the inn a reputation that drew the wealthier traveler, which put
more marveles into Raul’s pocket.
Juana was downstairs serving lamb stew to a distinguished looking gentleman in the dinning room. While he was busy eating, Teresa set out to search his travel bag to see what she could find of value. She would need coins in order to leave Jerez and hide in Sanlucar.
The gentleman’s room was small but clean. A narrow bed sat
along one wall while a washstand and chair were against the back wall with a small window.
It let in enough light to help in her search. Scanning the room she was
disappointed to see that the man had left no baggage of any kind in the room. As
she turned to leave, she noticed the bed had been moved about a hand span away from the wall.
She made her way over to it and pulled the bed further into the center of the room. Between the wall and the bed was a small satchel. Lifting
it onto the bed she quickly unbuckled it, opened the flap, and looked inside. She
must hurry now, the man could return at any moment. She pulled out a couple of
shirts, a pair of gloves, and some under clothes. There was nothing in the bag
that would help her.
She was about to return the clothing to the bag when she noticed a small box at the bottom. Her hand closed around it. Lifting the box, she opened it
and found a piece of onyx carved into the shape of an owl. It was the size of
a large coin, but maybe worth much more. She turned it over in the palm of her
hand. The stone absorbed the small beam of sunlight that struck it.
Her fingers grasped it and she shoved it into her apron pocket. She quickly replaced the empty box where she
had found it, put the clothing on top, and returned the satchel. Moving the bed
back against the wall, careful to leave a space a hand span wide, she smoothed the bed covers and turned to slip out of the
She stifled a scream when she saw the owner of the purloined jewel standing in the doorframe. How much had he seen? His black eyes pierced her to her soul
as she stood frozen in place. He was a tall, bearded man, mature in years but athletic looking, with the straight back of
a soldier. His eyes fixed on her, with an owl’s unblinking stare, from
beneath brows that had none of the gray of his beard. His crop of black hair
hinted at sprinkles of gray at his temples and he wore black traveling clothes of a fine cut.
Silence hung heavy between them until the man spoke. “I am
Don Sebastian del Solar, Senorita. “Who are you and what are you doing
in my room?”
“Oh, Senor, you startled me. I am employed here and was straightening
your room.” She felt bad enough stealing from the man, now she had
to lie to him. She gave him a warm smile.
“It seems that everything is in order, I shall be on my way.”
He stood in her path staring at her, then spoke. “Of course my dear.” Stepping aside he let her pass.
As she slid around him, relief flooded through her. By the time
he noticed the onyx owl was missing, she should be on her way to Sanlucar.
“Senorita,” he called after her. She stopped in her
tracks and turned around. “Si, Senior?”
“You look familiar. What is your name?”
Was he the man looking for her? If so she must not give him her
real name. “Dolores Hernandez, Senor.”
Don Sebastian rubbed his beard thoughtfully then shook his head. “I
do not recall the name but you remind me of someone. Someone I once knew. But
you cannot be her. She is much older now.”
Teresa noticed the sadness in his eyes. Her guilt grew stronger,
as her hand brushed her pocket and she felt the hard lump of onyx. He seems such
a nice man...no, she must not think like that. She needed the stone to get away.
Clearing her throat, she smiled at the gentleman. “Good night,
Senor.” She scurried down the hall.
Her gelding, Intrepido, was in the stable and nickered lightly when she entered his stall. She had changed from a skirt and blouse into a loose shirt and breeches.
She felt terrible leaving Raul and Juana. They had been kind to her. Juana’s back was on the mend and she should be able to go back to her duties
soon. It was not like she was leaving them in a time of need. She prayed the Inquisition would never connect the Sandavol families to her. It meant punishment to all
who aided those sought by Church authorities. It would be safer for everyone if she left. Although everyone in Sanlucar, a
costal village, was suspicious, no one talked.
Teresa began her journey during the darkest part of the night. After
several hours she stopped her horse under a rock overhang and found a soft spot to get a few hours sleep. Sanlucar was a little more than a day’s ride to away, and if she resumed riding at dawn she should
arrive in the port town before dusk.
While the sun rose over the horizon, Teresa ate a piece of dry bread and washed it down with water from a goatskin
bag. She would have to seek a stream to refill it. Traveling in the heat of midday, water was essential. She
guided Intrepido off the road and headed cross-country to avoid meeting any one who might see her. The day wore on. They proceeded through rugged terrain where
the air acquired the hot bite of a furnace. Teresa stopped to rest in what shade
she could find.
It was dusk when she saw the first signs of Sanlucar, and with the approach of the Andalusian night, the heat
of the day disappeared. Color faded from the sky, dim stars became visible, and
the moon grew brighter as she entered the town. She walked Intrepido up a hill,
threading through the maze of narrow streets. A lantern lit a sign over an arched
doorway. The building had a courtyard, whitewashed walls, and an assortment of
travel-worn mules and donkeys. She had enough coins to purchase a room for the
night, a hot meal, and a stall for her horse. Tomorrow she world find a buyer
for the onyx owl.
Inside the inn, long tables cluttered a cave-like room where a small group of gypsies were talking in one corner. A short man, wearing an apron approached her.
He was almost as wide as he was tall and his nose traveled across his face as if it had been broken several times. “What is a women like you doing here?” he said in a low voice.
“I need a room for the night.”
“This is not a good inn for you. It has a bad name for bloodletting.”
“Are you turning down a customer?”
“I am serious,” he replied. “I cannot protect
you from anything that might happen. The life in Sanlucar has only one law, survival. The weak are fair game.”
“Thank you for the warning, Senor, but I have nowhere else to go.
I am sure it would be more dangerous out on the streets than in your inn. I
have money to pay.”
The innkeeper shrugged his shoulders. “All right Senorita,
but once in your room keep your door locked, and you may stay for only for one night.”
She followed the innkeeper up the stairway that led them to the second floor.
It opened onto a hallway with rows of doorways on each side. The small
room they entered provided a sleeping pallet. Once the innkeeper left with his
torch, Teresa’s eyes had to adjust to the darkness of the room.
She fumbled with her tinderbox and lit a candle. Taking the remainder
of the dry bread and some cheese from her pouch, she ate in her room. She would
do as the innkeeper said. Even if there was no one to bother her in the dining
room, she did not want to take the chance that someone had followed her and was sitting there waiting.
In the morning she strolled down to the harbor. An offshore breeze
carried the smell of orange blossoms mingled with odors of tar and fish. A variety of people lined the dock-English, Dutch,
Portuguese, Italian, and Greeks speaking their own languages. Some spoke in a
composite of the languages used in port. Mostly merchants, their clothing reflected
a blend of all the cultures. Everyone seemed suspicious of one another and kept a vigilant eye on their valuables as well
as their life. If she was not careful, someone would try to steal the onyx owl
and she would be left with nothing.
Scanning the area, she decided to visit the booth of a jewelry merchant.
He did not look as tough as the others. In fact he was a small, quiet-looking
man. Approaching him, she pulled the onyx owl from her pouch, centered it in
the palm of her hand and held it out for him to see. “I would like to trade
this for-” Before she had finished her sentence the man snatched the black
stone from her hand and thrust it into his pocket.
“Give me back my stone,” she demanded. “Now!”
The man no longer reminded her of a friendly vendor. Instead she
saw an evil grin cross his face. When he spoke her heart sank. “Stone? What stone?”
Without thinking she grabbed the man by the front of his shirt. “I
have a dagger. If you do not return my stone, I will cut your throat.”
While her right hand held tightly to his shirt, her left pulled a sharp weapon from her belt. The vendor grabbed her left wrist. Teresa was surprised how
strong the man was. She let go of his shirt to switch the blade to her right
hand and was about to plunge it into the man’s shoulder. She wanted to
distract him enough to get the onyx back. The dagger shot forward then came to
a sudden stop. A large hand held her wrist.
She swung around and saw that it was one of the gypsies that she had seen in the inn the night before. He was a tall, well-built, young man with olive skin and hair the color of a raven’s wing. His eyes sparkled with amusement under thick brows.
The vendor let go of Teresa’s left arm. “Ah, Sanchez,”
he said in a croaking voice. “This Lady claims I have stolen from her and
is trying to kill me.”
“Is that so?” the gypsy replied in a lighthearted voice.
“But he did,” Teresa insisted, trying to pull her right arm from the gypsy’s grasp.
The gypsy held tighter to her wrist. “What was it that he
stole, my lady?”
“An onyx owl. I wanted to sell it, for I need the money. When I showed it to him, he slipped it into his pocket.”
The vendor shrugged and gave the gypsy an innocent look. “Now
Sanchez, you do not believe this harlot over a reputable man like me?”
Harlot was she? Men! She
had to get away before they made things worse for her. She sunk her teeth into
the gypsy’s hand. As soon as his grip loosened, she snatched up the dagger she had dropped and bolted down the street.
Turning down an alley she slipped into the alcove of a building to hide, pressed her back against the wall,
and slid down to a sitting position as tears spilled down her cheeks. Now she
would have to resort to stealing again. Like the innkeeper had warned her, there
was only one law here; the law of survival.
She took several deep breaths and started to get to her feet when a shadow fell across her. She looked up into the bold black eyes of the gypsy. They
seemed to be laughing at her. He stood still as a statue with his muscular arms
crossed in front of his broad chest. His head was cocked to one side and a smile
played on his lips.
Teresa attempted to dive through his splayed legs, but he grabbed her by the back of her collar and pulled her
to her feet. Holding her with one hand, he pulled something from his pocket with the other and held it between his thumb and
index finger. When she saw the onyx owl she ceased to struggle.
“Sanchez Veleta at your service, Senorita. I believe you
said this was yours?”
She snatched it from his hand.
“Do you think I would bother showing it to you if I planned to keep it?”
“I am sorry, Senor. That was rude of me. Then you did believe me?”
“Of course I believe you, but you did not give me a chance to prove it.
The vendor you were dealing with is a pirate. He would sell his own child
for a profit.”
Teresa looked at the owl then at Sanchez. “Thank you.”
“It was a pleasure. You said you need money. I think I can help. I know nothing of the value of this stone,
but I know someone that would give you its full value. I can take you to him this evening at a tavern along the waterfront. Meanwhile, let me introduce you to Sanlucar and buy you a fine meal.”
She promised to repay him when she sold the owl. During the day
she learned to trust him and told him she was being pursued by a member of the Inquisition.
“You will be safe in Sanlucar,” he assured her. “No
one of authority pokes his nose around here. No informer of the Holy Office is
safe within Sanlucar, and spies are almost unknown.”
“But I have done such terrible things,” Teresa replied. “I
have run away from a convent school which shows that I have a lack of faith. They were looking for me in Jerez. I stole that onyx stone from a gentleman at the inn where I worked.”
Sanchez put a comforting hand on her shoulder. “It is good
you chose Sanlucar to hide. Here you will be accepted without question. There is a hands-off policy between the brotherhood of the beach, and the local authorities.
Everyone minds his own business.”
That evening Teresa and Sanchez entered a tavern with an open side facing the harbor. As Teresa scanned the scattering of ships bobbing in the water, twilight deepened and lights appeared on
the anchored vessels. She listened to an isolated voice ring from the wharf,
then laughter. A tinkle of instruments and snatches of a song floated in the
Sanchez had suggested that Teresa disguise herself as a boy. It was an easy task. All she had to do is stuff her long sable brown hair under a hat.
“You must act like a caballero, not an ignorant woman.” he whispered as they found a table.
Teresa shot him a look that would have frozen the bay.
A well-dressed hidalgo headed for their table and with a nod toward Sanchez and took a seat. “Ah, good evening, and who is this with you Sanchez?”
Teresa’s companion introduced her as Juan, and she learned that his name was Marco de Alercon. The two men talked about the New World and the fleets of Vasco Nunez Balboa, who had discovered a new land
beyond the islands and Cuba. Senor Alercon was especially interested in what
Ponce de Leon had discovered, a land he named La Florida.
“I would prefer Cuba or the lands Cortez conquered,” Sanchez said.
“Yes,” Senor Alercon agreed. “But it takes many
different people to make a world. La Florida sounds more to my taste.”
“The reason I have asked you here, Senor,” Sanchez said, “is that this lad has an object he
would like to sell. I thought it might interest you.”
Sanchez motioned for Teresa to display the owl. When she pulled
it out of her pocket and set it in the palm of the man’s hand she noticed a startled look cross his face.
He grew nervous.
“Where did you get that?” he asked in a low whisper.
Teresa did not know how to reply and looked over to Sanchez. Sanchez
cleared his throat. “He found it in ah...Granada.”
“But how can this be possible?” Alercon asked. “The man who owns this is from Madrid and would never let it out of his sight. I am sorry, I cannot help you.”
To get an idea of what she should do next, Teresa asked, “Who is the man you speak of? Maybe I can return the stone to him. Will he be looking for
“I am sure he will, but it is not my place to name him. I
suggest you hide it until he, or someone he trusts, finds you. For find you he
A hard lump formed in Teresa’s stomach. She had stolen an
object she could not sell. An object that would bring its owner looking for her
and lead her to more trouble than she was already in.
Senor Alercon stood. “I must be on my way. My ship to the New World leaves at dawn and I would like to get a good night’s rest before I go to
sea. Do not forget what I said. Hold
on to that stone. Guard it with your life.
The owner will reward you handsomely when it is returned.”
Once the man had left, Teresa heaved a great sigh. “If the
owner finds me he will reward me all right. But it will be with imprisonment.”
Sanchez rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “If the owner is from
Madrid, it might belong to royalty. Maybe King Felipe himself. I think you are in deeper than you thought.”
“I looks that way. Even Sanlucar may not be enough to hide
The tavern was growing noisy. “Although the patrons are here
to eat and drink,” Sanchez said, “later they will gamble with dice and fights will break out. I think it is time to leave.” Sanchez pulled Teresa
to her feet. “Come Senorita, we will find a room for the night. Maybe you can get enough from the sale of your horse to buy passage on a ship to the New World.”
Teresa’s mind flew in many directions. “But I cannot...”
“Think about it,” he said as they headed down the torch lit street, “and we will discuss it
in the morning.”
Teresa realized her muddled mind was the result of too much wine mixed with the bad news that came with the
“We could go together,” Sanchez suggested. “I
have enough money saved for passage. Ships leave frequently for the New World.”
Sanchez guided her through winding streets until they turned into the courtyard of an inn. He led her up an outside stairway and pulled her through a door into a large, dark room. He lit a candle and Teresa saw an alcove with a bed at one end. There
was little furniture.
“I will sleep on the floor,” Sanchez offered, pointing to a corner of the room. He drew a blanket from the bed and made himself comfortable.
The last thought on Teresa’s mind as she drifted off to sleep was that she did not want to sell Intrepido,
and she wished she had never seen that miserable onyx owl.