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Onyx Owl

Chapter One


                                                                                Chapter One


Stealing was the last thing on Teresa’s mind before she left the convent school.  Now she must do it to retain her freedom.  There was 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 Teresa 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 had made her way down the river to the small village of Jerez.  It 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.

Once their baby was well and Teresa freed from her duties, Raul Sandavol, Hector’s brother needed help at his inn, El Potro.  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.

As Teresa swept the upper hallway she 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. She 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. 

Making her way over to it, she 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, but there was nothing in the bag that would help her.

About to return the clothing to the bag, 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 room.

Teresa 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.”   It was 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.  Maria 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, Teresa smiled at the gentleman.  “Good night, Senor.”  She scurried down the hall.

Her gelding, Intrepido, was in the stable and nickered lightly when Teresa entered his stall.  She had changed from a skirt and blouse into a loose shirt and breeches.  She felt terrible leaving Raul and Juana without notice.  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 as if she was leaving them in a time of need.  Teresa 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 seek a stream and 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.  There were enough coins in her pocket 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 one night.” 

Teresa 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, her 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. 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 Teresa 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.  There were English, Dutch, Portuguese, Italian, and Greeks speaking their own languages.  Some spoke in a composite of the languages used in port.  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, Teresa chose 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 as an evil grin crossed 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 at how strong he 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.  Teresa 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.  There was no choice but to steal again.  Like the innkeeper had warned her, there was only one law in Sanlucar; 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 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.”

Teresa promised to repay him when she sold the owl.  During the day she learned to trust him and told him about her flight from the Inquisition.

“You will be safe in Sanlucar,” he assured her. 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.”

 “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. “No one of authority pokes his nose around here, and informers of the Holy Office are not safe within Sanlucar.  Spies are almost unknown.”

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 air. 

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, Sanchez, and who is this with you?”

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 it?”

“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 will.”

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. However, 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 me.”

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.




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