Disclaimer: The characters, Tessa Alvarado and Marta, are copyrights of Paramount and Fireworks Productions. No infringement is intended. The story is original and copyright of the author, Maril Swan.
The hammer paused in mid-swing. From the corner of his eye, he caught sight of the colourful skirt as it swirled with her confident stride. The blacksmith set his hammer down on the anvil and looked up to see Marta moving purposefully toward him. Almost involuntarily, a smile stretched across his face and his heart seemed to pump a little harder. Black pulled out his grimy handkerchief and mopped at his perspiring face. The heat of the forge made his body glisten with sweat, and his soaked shirt stuck to him like a second skin. He felt abashed by his unshaven cheeks and soiled clothes, especially as the woman entering his shop seemed so cool and composed, in spite of the torrid temperature.
"Buenos dias, Marta," he rumbled in his deep voice. "You always brighten the darkest corners of my humble shop," he added expansively. He knew she enjoyed his teasing and flirting. Did she know how much he looked forward to it, and to seeing her? He watched her serious face light with amusement as she stepped under the canopy of his shop. He glanced away to avoid staring at her. She looked more beautiful than ever, standing in the shadows, her vivid colours contrasting sharply with the murky interior of his smithy. Her auburn hair with its riotous curls framed her lovely face and hung over her shoulders in a loose cascade. His fingers itched to touch their softness, to feel their fine texture. Her lips smiled and her eyes twinkled with an impish light. She liked him, he could tell by her high colour. But how much? Was it just a pleasant game to her?
"When will you come to your senses and run away with me, Marta?" he pleaded with mock earnestness. Her sudden joyous laugh gladdened his heart and sent his pulse racing.
"When my horse finally has all its shoes," Marta retorted in a sharp tone. Then she laughed gaily at his dismayed expression. "Is she done yet?"
"Your horse is ready for you to take back to the hacienda, Marta. She has had her hooves trimmed and new shoes on her dainty feet. I even gave her a thorough grooming, just for you. A horse fit for a Gypsy queen," he added with a grin.
Marta smiled at the light teasing tone of the blacksmith. They met infrequently, but she always enjoyed his good humour, and even his attempts at flirtation. His Spanish had an interesting accent, an overlay of Russian which she found very pleasing to her ears. She leaned on the rail near his forge, seemingly in no particular hurry today. But she had an important mission to fulfill, and it must be done delicately, to arouse no suspicion.
"A Gypsy queen, am I?" Marta watched appreciatively as he moved gracefully away from the hot forge. He lifted a dipper and drank some water, all the while keeping his dark eyes fixed on her. His sinewy strength attracted her, with the muscular arms that rippled under his damp shirt, and especially the strength of his hands with their blunt and adept fingers. She had to admit to herself, Black fascinated her though she didn't know why. Certainly, on the social scale, he was below her. Class distinctions were never a concern to Marta. Except that Tessa's social standing prevented any sort of liaison between Tessa's servant and the blacksmith. That was just the way it was. She gibed at him, "So, where is my knight in shining armour?"
He held up his hand suddenly. "Wait! I'll make the armour and be right back!" He pretended to be hurrying about his shop, clattering pieces of metal to assemble something. His antics made Marta laugh. Emboldened by her seeming delight with his silliness, he came to stand beside her. A delicate scent arose from her, something herbal and exotic that tickled his nostrils as he sighed softly.
Marta suddenly felt ill-at-ease. This was going too far. She had not intended to encourage him, only engage in a little light banter. His eyes were dark and serious and Marta feared some declaration was forthcoming which would ruin the rapport they had built up. It could never be more than what it was an enjoyable game of verbal thrust and parry.
"Black," she said, moving a slight distance away. "We need you at the hacienda for a few hours. There is a horse which needs your attention. Could you come later today or tomorrow?"
Her sudden coolness signalled a change in her attitude and Black realized it was just a game to her. And the game was ended for now. A leaden feeling in his stomach slowed his response. He collected himself and answered in a mocking tone, "You know I would go to the ends of the earth for you, Marta. But, not to your hacienda. I have many soldiers' horses to shoe. They treat the poor creatures so badly, and take such poor care of them, it's no wonder they can never catch the Queen of Swords. Why don't you bring the horse to me, and I will get to it as soon as I can?" He noted the distressed look on her face and wondered. What was wrong with the horse?
"The horse cannot be moved. You must come to the hacienda. Please, Black! My mistress will pay you well, but you must come soon." Marta placed her hand on his sinewy arm and felt him flinch. She took her hand away, and pleaded with her eyes.
"I will come after dark tonight. That is the best I can do." He stepped back to the forge and, with his tongs, picked up the horseshoe from the anvil. The horseshoe was cold now, and would have to be reheated for shaping. All his concentration seemed focussed on his work as he placed the shoe into the forge.
Feeling dismissed by his actions, Marta said, "Until tonight then." She strode quickly into the white heat of the pueblo street.
He watched her walk away, a blaze of bright colour against the pastel adobe of the buildings. "Until tonight," he repeated to himself hopelessly. He struck the hammer against the horseshoe with a strength born of frustration and it broke. He cursed lustily in Russian and went to get another shoe.
The sun's last rays were disappearing in a red glow as Black's wagon jingled into the Alvarado courtyard. Attached to the sides was a variety of horseshoes and tools that rattled and clanged with the motion of the wagon. As he pulled the horse to a stop, he saw no one about, and waited to see if anyone would come out to greet him. He had never been here before and wasn't sure what he was supposed to do. At length, he climbed down and picked up his tools, and moved uncertainly toward what looked like the stable.
As he entered, a chorus of whinnies greeted him and someone stepped out of a stall at the far end of the stable. He noted her look of anxiety and wondered about it. Was her horse sick? Healing horses was outside of his experience. Black halted and waited for Señorita Alvarado to approach him. She smiled briefly but her brow was creased and she seemed apprehensive.
"Señor Black," she said as she stepped carefully down the alley between the stalls. Though the stable was very clean, the air was redolent of ammonia and manure. She lifted her skirts delicately as she came toward him, though her boots were soiled with mud from the earth floor. "Thank you so much for coming all this way. My horse needs your attention. This way please." She gestured and Black followed her to the end stall. It was almost completely enclosed and at first, he didn't see any horse inside.
Tessa opened the door and preceded the blacksmith as she strode into the large box stall. The horse grunted and whinnied as it moved toward his mistress. She petted Chico, her horse, affectionately on the nose and stroked his dark velvety neck. In spite of the heat, the horse was covered with a linen sheet as it stood shivering uneasily in the gloom of the stall.
"I will need light in here, señorita," he said respectfully. "What is it that you wanted me for? I am a blacksmith not a horse doctor. If your horse is sick, he needs a doctor." Black could see she was extremely nervous and could not account for her anxiety. The horse seemed perfectly sound, as much of it as he could see. Why was it covered with a sheet, he wondered.
"Please look at his feet," she said as she moved away from the horse.
Black bent and picked up the horse's foreleg and had a close look. An angry exclamation burst from him. "Horse's shoes are bad," he growled at her. "Does no one look after the horse? Who would let it get into this condition?" He saw Tessa wince and regretted his outburst. More gently he said, "Get me light, please. I will take care of the horse's hooves."
Tessa went out and fetched the lantern. She lit it and hung it on a peg inside the stall. For a few minutes, she stayed to watch as the blacksmith acquainted himself with the horse, gaining its confidence as he prepared to work on its hooves. He gave her an impatient look that seemed to dismiss her. With a last anxious glance at her horse, she went out of the stable and into the villa.
Marta had been standing by the front door of the villa as Tessa approached. "The blacksmith is here," Tessa said as she passed her friend and went into the main room.
"I can see that," Marta said, as she joined Tessa and sat down on the sofa. Marta felt restless, and tried to occupy herself with some sewing, but her fingers seemed clumsy, botching the stitches and tangling the thread. She finally gave up, exasperated. "I think I will see if he wants anything. Something to eat or drink." She got up as Tessa glanced curiously in her direction then went back to reading a book.
Black was startled when Marta entered the stall. He had pulled the shoes off the horse and was trimming and filing its hooves. Chico moved uneasily but Black's soothing voice kept the horse calm while he applied the file. He smiled a welcome to Marta and continued with his work.
Marta squatted beside him to watch. His strong, adept fingers moved confidently as he worked, and he seemed totally concentrated upon the job at hand. She inhaled the tangy scent of him as she leaned closer to observe him. She felt his warmth near her arm and a rush of pleasure coursed through her. "May I get you something to eat or drink, Black," she said. Her voice had a throaty catch to it, and he turned in surprise, then perplexity. He studied her for a few seconds.
"Some water would be fine, Marta. This will not take much longer, then the señorita can ride him again." He looked a bit chagrined and added, "I think I have insulted your mistress. I said she did not take good care of her horse. Maybe I was harsh."
"Tessa loves this horse more than anything," Marta said. "But she has never had a horse to take care of before. She did not mean to neglect him." To herself, Marta thought, she was afraid to have it known that the Queen's horse was here in this stable. I was only able to convince her to trust Black with a lot of persuasion. She watched the blacksmith as he continued to select tools and work on the next hoof. I don't think he suspects whose horse he is shoeing. She got up and went back inside the villa to get him some water. Perhaps some lemonade too, she mused. Everyone likes my lemonade.
As Marta passed through the main room, Tessa asked, "Is the blacksmith finished yet?"
Marta called over her shoulder, "He will be a while longer, Tessa. I am getting him something to drink."
Tessa arose and yawned widely. "I think I will go to bed, Marta. It has been a long day, and I didn't get much sleep last night. Poor Chico had to run for what seemed like hours before Grisham finally gave up the chase. Pay the blacksmith well for his trouble and thank him for me. Buenos noches." The younger woman disappeared down the hall and went into her bedroom.
Black hammered the last of the nails into the shoe and straightened up, patting Chico on the flank. The sheet had nearly slid off and he picked it up to replace it. Out of curiosity, he lifted the covering and examined the horse more closely. Why was it covered? There were no biting insects inside the stable, and it was certainly not cold. In the soft light of the lantern, he studied the horse and an image began to form as he stepped back to look at its conformation, its markings. He had seen this horse before, but where?
Suddenly, his mouth dropped open as he remembered. He turned as Marta entered the stall and he could see she was alarmed that he had uncovered the horse. She set down the tray of food she had prepared, and stepped toward him. Her eyes were frightened and he wanted to reassure her. "I did not mean to look," he said. "The sheet slipped off." He placed his hands on her shoulders. "I won't tell anyone, angelita. My word of honour."
The blacksmith's strong warm hands sent a pulse of desire through her and she tensed. He felt it and massaged her shoulders gently. She took his hand away from her shoulder. As she held his large rough hand in hers, a vision erupted in her mind horror, death, terror. Screams and blood. A strange language chattered in her head amid the chaos. Her eyes widened and she exclaimed in horror. She nearly staggered from the impact of her vision. Marta pushed away quickly, shaken from the scene and wondered how it was connected with him.
His eyes grew darker, more serious. "What is it, Marta? What is wrong?"
She shook her head, trying to establish the real from the unreal. "I saw something." She told him and watched his face sag with pain. His distress moved her, evoked the healer in her. She moved into his arms and he enfolded her closely. She could hear his strong heart beating against her ear. For long moments, he held on like a drowning man and she felt him tremble, felt his chest rise and fall with deep long breaths as he tried to collect himself.
Finally, he said, "What you saw is what I have been trying to forget." He pushed her back and looked intensely into her eyes. "I want you to know everything. Where can we talk?"
Without answering, Marta took the lantern from the peg and stepped out of the stall. She led Black to a section of the stable that looked like part of the wooden wall. Except when she pulled on a section, it swung open to reveal a tunnel. "Stay close and hold my hand," she said.
"I'm not afraid," he laughed.
Into the inky blackness, Marta led him, down the dark corridor while the lantern flickered over the earth walls. She shuddered and pressed his hand tightly as she forced herself through the tunnel. This was only the second time she had ever gone into this hellish place. She had a terrible fear of dark enclosed spaces though she did not know why. Black's reassuring presence gave her more courage but she sighed with great relief as the end was reached. She pushed open the door into the hidden room.
Marta set the lantern down on a table and observed Black looking around in fascination. She saw him start when his eyes encountered the Queen's costume and sword hanging from pegs on the wall. A muscle jumped in his jaw. She wondered what he was thinking.
"Would you like some wine, Black?" she asked. Her voice seemed unnaturally loud in the muffled silence of the room.
"My name is Alexei," he said. "And yes, I think I need something to drink. This is too much for me. I am a simple man. This is too much." He dropped into a chair with a loud sigh.
After a few glasses of wine, Alexei seemed more composed. The colour had returned to his cheeks, and his humour had returned. He grabbed Marta as she passed to pour him another glass of wine and pulled her onto his lap. "I think you have lured me in here for lustful purpose, Marta," he chuckled as he held her. She struggled half-heartedly. "Now I am here, have your way with me," he said, spreading his arms wide in surrender.
"You mind your tongue!" she reprimanded with mock severity. "Don't forget, I keep a dagger in my boot." She laughed as she lifted her skirt to show him. He reached for the knife, then slid his hand along her leg. His touch sent a river of pleasure through her. Somewhat shakily, she got up and moved a distance away. "You said you wanted to talk. This is a good place where no one will disturb us."
"Why don't we sit over there," he said, gesturing to a cot near the far wall.
Marta had placed the narrow cot there in case Tessa ever needed to hide for any length of time. So far, it had not been needed. "I don't think so, Alexei." Maybe this was not a good idea, she thought. He is far too tempting, and it has been so long since I have been this close to a man. "Tell me about what I saw. I want to know."
He got up and sat on the cot, and leaning forward, put his head in his hands. Her heart went out to him. Marta sat beside him, and he put his arm around her. "I was a captain in the Russian army. We were fighting Turks. One day we came to a small village, where we had been told there were Turkish soldiers hiding. My men entered the little town and became like wild dogs. Officers could not control them. They killed everyone in the village, even babies. When they were finished, there was nothing left of the village. It was burned to the ground. I can never forget screams and pleading, as soldiers cut down mothers and children." He brushed his hands over his eyes and shuddered. "I left the army, got on a Russian whaling ship and sailed across Pacific. When we arrived on this side, I jumped ship and ran away. I came to Santa Helena with nothing, not even skill to earn a living. The old blacksmith offered me job and taught me everything. When old Sancho died, I took over the business."
He smiled uncertainly and took her hand. "I have lived that day in nightmares over and over, Marta. I can never forget it. Maybe you will help me forget, just for tonight."
With his other hand, he caressed her hair as he had longed to do since he had first seen her. As he thought, its texture was fine and soft. He brushed her ear with his lips and heard her sigh. "Marta," he whispered. She shivered with pleasure and leaned closer to his warmth and strength. She turned her head and brushed his lips softly with hers, waiting for his passion to catch up with hers. He held her more tightly and deepened the kiss until they were both breathless.
Gently, he laid back on the cot, taking her with him. Do I want this or not, Marta thought as his hands caressed her. Soon she could not think of anything but sensation and delight.
Now that Chico has new shoes, perhaps the Queen will pay a visit to a certain doctor. For some reason, I can't get to sleep tonight, Tessa thought as she made her way down into the wine cellar. She reached for the wine bottle that released the lock to the hidden room. As she began to pull it back, Tessa thought she heard a voice. Leaning closer, she heard it more clearly. Marta's voice. Then another, deeper voice. The sound of murmurs and laughter.
She let go of the bottle as if it were red-hot and stepped back. Suddenly, her face burned as she realized what she was hearing. Her body went cold then hot, her scalp prickled and she put her hand to her mouth to stop herself from making the inarticulate sound that nearly burst from her. Marta...in the hidden room...with a man! Tessa backed away from the door, trembling with sudden distress. Who else could be with her but the blacksmith? How could she demean herself so? Tessa turned and ran to the stairs, then through the villa and toward the stable.
Chico's low whicker greeted her as she made her way to his stall. As she feared, the horse was alone. The blacksmith was gone, but his tools lay where he had left them in disarray on the straw. So, it was true! In a sudden blinding fury, Tessa threw open the stall door and then leapt onto her horse's back and urged him out of the stable and into the night.
She had no thought of where she was going; she just kneed her mount into a fast gallop while hanging onto his neck. His smooth gait made it easy to stay astride as Chico raced through the moonless dark following the familiar trail toward Santa Helena. When Tessa finally realized where he was heading, she slowed the horse to a walk. She was breathless and her heart ached, but she could not rid her mind of the images that kept forming. Marta with the blacksmith locked in an amorous embrace with his heavy hands upon her. I knew she seemed interested in him. She blushed when he jested with her. But I never thought it would ever come to this! Tessa's eyes burned with indignation as a few tears forced their way down her cheeks.
The horse ambled for a while then stopped, receiving no encouragement or direction from his mistress. Tessa leaned forward, hugging Chico's neck, and tried to think more coherently.
Why am I reacting like this? Is it jealousy? Am I jealous that Marta has a lover and I do not? Or is it that I am afraid she may leave me and marry? That the love that has always sheltered me will be given to another?
She shook her head. That was the most troubling image. So selfish of me, she thought morosely, to deny Marta happiness to keep her with me. But a blacksmith! A flash of anger rushed through her and she pondered her reaction. In Marta's world, there is no difference between a don and a blacksmith. In fact, to her, the blacksmith is more worthy. He works to sustain himself with his own labour. Marta has always felt contempt for the idle rich who produce nothing but live off the toil of others. She has said so many times. After all she has taught me, how could I feel she has demeaned herself by choosing the blacksmith for a lover?
The uncomfortable answer formed and Tessa tried to thrust it away. But it returned to belabour her conscience. Maria Theresa Alvarado, you are an aristocratic snob! It is your system of social values that you are imputing to Marta, not hers. The troublesome truth hit her with an impact that made her sit up and take a deep breath. Of course, she thought morosely, I would want Marta to choose someone who would reflect well on me. I was more upset by what others might say than about whether Marta would care. She would not. Only I care. And I should not. In spite of all Marta's teaching and effort, I have still become what she would despise someone to whom status is more important than real merit.
For long minutes, Tessa sat upon her horse, staring sightlessly into the night. Overhead, the stars rained down from the cloudless sky, and the wind whispered through her hair like a lover.
"Madre mio!" Marta exclaimed softly and turned quickly to Alexei. Her eyes were distressed as she walked out of the stable to gaze at the dark horizon. Heaviness invaded her limbs and she leaned against the stable door. Tessa knew, and she was gone! What did she think? It was obvious to Marta. She disapproves and has run from a confrontation, rather than face me. She felt a pair of warm strong hands press her shoulders and she relaxed against Alexei's broad chest.
"You should go now, Alexei," she whispered. "I have to speak to Tessa...alone."
Wordlessly, he left her and began to pack up his tools. Marta returned to the stall and bent to help him. She did not want him leave as if he had been dismissed. He had tender feelings in spite of his great strength. "Alexei," she began gently. "This can't go any further. You know that. But, tonight, you made me very happy, and I love you for it. There may be other times for us in the future, but for now, we have what we have. Let us be content with that." She tried to smile, but the look on his face pained her.
"We could have more, angelita," he said softly, lifting a lock of her hair, and pressing it gently to his lips. "We could marry." Even as he said it, he knew the impossibility of it. As long as Tessa pursued her crazy quest for justice as she saw it, Marta would stick loyally by her. He brushed Marta's lips with his own, then breathed sadly, "For now, we have what we have. I shall be content."
Her eyes were burning with fatigue and her back was aching from the long hours on horseback, spent wandering aimlessly through most of the night. A sliver of pale light in the east heralded the dawn as Tessa slid off Chico's back and urged him into his stall. Relieved, she noted the blacksmith's tools were gone. With practised efficiency, she checked Chico's feet, then fed and watered him.
Finally, she dragged herself across the courtyard and into the villa. It was too early for anyone to be about. She went into the kitchen to get some water. Her head ached and she was very thirsty. Tessa dipped into the water barrel and quenched her thirst then began to make her way to her bedroom.
She opened the bedroom door, and encountered Marta, sitting in a chair waiting for her. Marta looked up. Tessa could see uncertainty in her eyes as she came into the room. "I suppose you're going to ask me where I've been," Tessa said wearily as she dropped onto her bed.
"I know where you've been. I was worried though. You left without your sword."
An uncomfortable silence hung between them as Marta tried to gauge her companion's mood. It was evident she was tired, but what else. Angry? Disapproving? Unhappy? Marta could not tell. She took a deep breath and said softly, "We have something to talk about. Last night..."
Tessa cut her off quickly with, "Last night is your business, Marta. You have a right to a life of your own, a right to love someone. Let's just leave it that." She rolled over and pulled up the comforter.
Marta stood up and crossed to the bed to tuck her in more securely. She bent to kiss her cheek, then thought better of it. Too soon, she decided. We will talk about this later. By the time she closed the door, Tessa seemed to be asleep.
"He recognized your horse, Tessa. But he won't give away your secret. I trust him." Marta paused in her gardening to look up at the younger woman. The scent of fresh thyme pervaded the warm air as Marta cut some of the herb and placed it in her basket. She brushed the dirt off her hands as she stood up. So far, Tessa had scarcely spoken to her since she had arisen just after noon. It was now near dinner. Time to get some things straightened out.
"I want to talk about this, Tessa. We can't avoid it." She watched Tessa turn away with a look of great distress on her face.
"There's nothing to talk about, Marta. You have a lover. That's all there is to say." The younger woman's face was flushed and she seemed uncomfortable, awkward in Marta's company. "Just be discreet, that's all I ask," Tessa said over her shoulder as she strode away quickly and went into the villa.
With a heavy sigh, Marta knelt back in the kitchen garden and began to pull at the weeds. Her thoughts were far away and eventually, she realized she was pulling up seedlings with the weeds. She cursed vehemently in her Rom language, and just remained still, trying to think what to do. Why was Tessa acting that way? Is she afraid I may leave her? Cause a scandal? She shook her head sadly. A warm breeze sprang up suddenly, lifting her hair away from her face and she almost felt once more the soft touch of Alexei's hands as he caressed her. A deep yearning to see him again took her by surprise, the intensity of the desire shook her. What did she feel for him?
It had been a long time since she had such strong feelings for a man. She almost laughed aloud at the memory. What folly that had turned out to be! She had nearly ruined her life. She had been young then, much too young and too impetuous. Life had taught her many things about love. Her love for Tessa was unconditional and total. No matter what she did, Marta would love her. It had been that way since Tessa had come into her care as a child.
She had tried to guide Tessa away from the mistakes she had made, especially when Tessa had become infatuated with Antonio. With terrible fear in her heart, she had watched her young ward fall under his spell. She had guarded Tessa closely, maybe too closely. She has very little experience with men, Marta thought. If she had a lover, she might understand what is between Alexei and me. Marta wondered about Doctor Helm and Tessa. Were they lovers? She shook her head. No, I do not think so, not yet. I would know in a minute. She smiled to herself. Tessa cannot hide anything from me.
The shadows were lengthening when Marta finally stepped out of the garden and went into through the back door to the kitchen. She found Tessa trying to make a salad. Peelings and bits of greenery were scattered on the floor and table top. Taking the knife from her, Marta said, "I will do this. You can put the plates on the table for us. And open a bottle of last year's vintage." Without a word, Tessa left the room, and Marta assumed she would do as she was asked. They always prepared the meals together and left the cleaning up for Rosa, whose husband worked on the hacienda.
The meal passed mostly in an uncomfortable silence. Tessa seemed withdrawn and distant. Whenever Marta spoke, the younger woman answered in monosyllables, when she answered at all.
"This cannot go on!" Marta said finally. "Do not leave. We will have this talk." She noted the paleness of Tessa's face and the way she kept her eyes averted. "I did not plan to have a lover. It just happened. I cannot say I would not do it again, but if it makes you so unhappy, I will end it." She waited anxiously for Tessa to look into her eyes, and to answer.
"It isn't you, Marta, that is wrong. It's me. You don't need to give up anything to please me. I'm the selfish one, not you." Tessa drew a deep breath, and finally met Marta's gaze without flinching. "I don't like myself very much right now, Marta. You deserve a better friend," she said, her voice barely above a whisper. "If you want to know the truth, last night I was angry with you. I thought you were letting me down. Taking someone who was not your social equal as a lover. I know I'm wrong, but, God help me, I still feel that way." Tessa arose suddenly and rushed from table.
Well, Marta thought, at least I know what is troubling her. I don't know how to set it right. It isn't up to me. The feelings are hers and she must deal with them. But I must tell her the truth about last night. Marta got up and took their plates into the kitchen, delaying the moment when she must confront Tessa again. Finally, steeling herself, she went out onto the verandah then into the rose garden. It was nearly dark and the blooms appeared blood-red in the last rays of the sun. A time of peace, Marta thought, though peace seemed elusive, as she walked toward Tessa.
The younger woman turned as Marta approached. "I'm not very good company right now, Marta," she said. "Please leave me alone."
"That is exactly what I will not do." Marta moved closer. "You do not want to hear about last night. But I must tell you. Alexei guessed that your horse was the Queen's horse. I was afraid he would. But I also trust him. He will not betray you." Marta took a deep breath. This next would be the hardest part. "When I touched him, I saw a vision of horror beyond imagining. He knew I had seen something and I told him. He said we must talk, so I took him to the hidden room. He explained what I had seen, and why he is here in Santa Helena instead of his homeland." Marta laughed shortly. "It would seem that our little pueblo is a haven for those with pasts to hide."
"We talked for a long time, Tessa. When Alexei saw your costume and the sword, he seemed very troubled. He said it was too much to add to the problems he already had. In honour, he could not just be my lover. He wanted more. Marriage. And of course, an end to my involvement with the Queen of Swords. I didn't have to answer him. He already knew what my answer would be. Then he left. And that was all there was to it."
Tessa looked away. "That isn't the real issue, Marta. It's the class prejudice in me that is the problem." She turned earnestly to the other woman, despondency in her eyes. "How did this happen? All those years with you and I have still turned out to be arrogant and haughty like my cousin Elena." Her troubled eyes searched Marta's, looking for reassurance. "All I ever wanted was to be like you."
Tears smarted behind Marta's eyes and she lost her voice for several seconds. Finally, she said, "I have had some influence in your life, Tessa. But so did many others your father, your uncle, your friends. You grew up among aristocrats with their class prejudices and bigotry. It was in the very air you breathed. How could you be otherwise? But, Tessa, you have helped those in need whether they were nobles or tradesmen or peasants. Can you see Elena ever stooping to help anyone but herself? You are nothing like her, never will be." Marta gathered Tessa closely and kissed her cheek. "I am very proud of you."
Marta stepped back and smiled. "And Tessa, Alexei's family in Russia is as noble as yours. Just for your information." With that, she returned to the house, the heaviness in heart relieved a little. A small lie, but necessary, she rationalized to herself.
Vera sidled up to Tessa and Marta made room for her, dropping back a few paces. The pretty blonde woman had become Tessa's closest friend among the inhabitants of Santa Helena and a veritable fountain of gossip which she channelled into Tessa's ears whenever they were together.
"It is so strange, Tessa," Vera said, holding the other woman's arm. "Colonel Montoya has arrested the blacksmith. Capitan Grisham told me."
"For what, Vera? Señor Black seems to be the most honest of men." Tessa maintained the slow pace that Vera preferred to walk, and tried to keep the concern from her voice. She wondered what Marta was thinking.
"The capitan says he was arrested for suspicion of aiding the Queen of Swords. How foolish! What could a lowly blacksmith do to help her? They think she is a Spanish lady. How would she even know a blacksmith?"
Vera's words evoked the guilt Tessa had tried to overcome. She is voicing the prejudice that I also hold. It sounds even more distasteful coming from my friend, an echo of my own arrogance and bias. Tessa turned to speak to Marta, but she was gone. She glanced around the square and toward the market but the other woman was nowhere in sight. "Did you see where Marta went, Vera?"
"While you were speaking, I saw her walking toward Colonel Montoya's office. Tessa, where are you going..."
The last words were lost as Tessa hurried toward the pastel-coloured building where the colonel ruled his small empire. She rushed up the wide stone steps and into the cool, elegant interior. A guard tried to bar her way, but she pushed past him and entered without knocking.
As she suspected, Marta was already there, though Montoya seemed not to have acknowledged her presence yet. He looked up when Tessa entered and a scowl crossed his face. "It is bad enough that servants show such ill-bred manners, Señorita Alvarado. But their betters should set an example. Knocking on doors before entering, for instance." He arose from behind his rosewood desk, and then sat on its corner, his pale gaze swinging between the two women. "Well, what is so important that I have two intrusions into my private office?"
"Why have you imprisoned Señor Black?" Marta said bluntly. If she was nervous, it did not show. Her mien was cool and her manner forthright.
"I do not see how that concerns you, Marta. Maintaining the law is my business." He gauged her reaction and saw nothing to arouse his suspicion. His eyes travelled to Tessa. A smile tried to tug itself across his face as he saw a bit of indignation light up in her eyes. A passionate woman, he thought to himself. Such a waste!
"It concerns me, Colonel, because he is a friend. What has he done?" Marta's throaty voice was edged with anger.
She is as relentless as a terrier, Montoya thought with annoyance. I may as well tell her, then she will leave me alone. "Señor Black was seen leaving the pueblo two nights ago under the cover of darkness. He had his smithing tools in his wagon and was obviously going somewhere to work secretly on someone's horse. I suspect he was tending the Queen's horse. He will remain in prison until he confesses the truth."
Marta took a deep breath and said, "He was coming to the hacienda to see me."
The colonel's breath hissed between his teeth and he stood up abruptly. "Why?"
Marta smiled seductively. "Why do you think? I said we are friends. We are actually more than that."
Montoya flicked his gaze to Tessa and saw the shock on her face. So, he mused, the señorita did not know about this tryst between her servant and the blacksmith. It has the ring of truth. Caramba! Every time I nearly have her, the Queen slips through my fingers. Aloud he said, "If the blacksmith corroborates your story, Marta, he will go free."
"Colonel, Alexei is an honourable man. He will not say anything about us to you. You must take my word for it." Marta held perfectly still, scarcely daring to breathe while she watched Montoya considering her request.
Finally, he said, "I will release him on your word, Marta. And Señorita Alvarado, I would like to speak with you...alone." After Marta had gone out the door, he closed it and turned to Tessa with a look of concern.
"Maria Theresa," he began in a paternal tone. "This is just another instance of how lax you are with your servants and workers. They do not respect you as they would a man. You let them get away with behaviours that would have serious consequences if a man managed your hacienda. My recommendation is that you should sell your hacienda and return to Spain. Marry well, and have children. That is a woman's place, not trying to run a large estate on her own." He took her hand and patted it gently. "I have only your best interests at heart, my dear. Think over what I have said."
With that, he returned to his desk and Tessa felt herself being dismissed. She bit back the retort that wanted to spring from her lips, and instead said, coolly, "I appreciate your concern, Colonel Montoya. If I should decide to sell, you will be the first to know. Buenos dias."
As she descended the steps, Tessa saw Marta seated on the fountain in the plaza. A few seconds later, the blacksmith strode across the square toward her, having been released from the prison. Tessa noted his military bearing as he marched briskly to Marta's side. She watched them for a few minutes, talking animatedly together. Marta's smile lit up her face and she seemed very happy.
So, Tessa thought wistfully, Marta has Alexei, the Queen has Doctor Helm, and Maria Theresa Alvarado must wait her turn.
©Black Russian - Maril Swan - April 2001
Please send your comment on this story to the author - Maril Swan
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