Disclaimer: The Queen of Swords characters are copyright to Fireworks Productions and Paramount. The other folks in this tale and the story plot are original and copyright to the author, Maril Swan.
by Maril Swan
Tessa snapped the whip over the horses and drove off in a huff. It had taken all Marta's persuasion to get her to go to town alone. "I have too much to do, Tessa, to go into town today." Marta had said. But the younger woman had been almost relentless in her insistence until Marta had firmly said no. Guiltily, she watched the wagon disappear in a cloud of dust. 'I will make it up to her later with my paella. She always loves that dish.'
As soon as the wagon was gone, Marta went to the stable to saddle her mare, and lead it out. Mounting quickly, she turned the horse toward the distant hills and the appointment she had made for that morning. She urged the mare into a trot, enjoying the smooth gait as she sank into its rhythm. Ahead were the hills and canyons, one either side were the fields where the workers were already labouring under the remorseless California sun. It promised to be another sparkling clear day, no clouds on the horizon to offer a respite to the heat and dryness. Marta tried to moisten her mouth. It was as arid as the trail she rode over. Her canteen was tied on the saddle, but she ignored it as her destination grew ever nearer. In spite of the heat, she shivered with dread. Her stomach clenched with sudden apprehension. Why am I doing this? she wondered.
At the foot of a high rocky hill, Marta reined her horse. She tied the mare behind a large rock which afforded some shade for the sweating animal. With a quick pat on its flank, she began to climb toward a cave about halfway up the cliff. The loose gravel made the ascent difficult and several times she slipped back a few feet. At last, she clambered over a ledge and stood before the cave entrance. She turned to gaze over the landscape; it was a spectacular view from this ledge, a sweeping vista of rolling hills, scrub brush, and the winding trail leading to the hacienda. Around the villa were the fields, the only verdant colour in that sere land. A warm sense of pride pervaded her as she took in the scene. Only a year ago, those fields had been barren, abandoned. Now they were fertile again with waving stalks of grain for the cattle. Further up the hills on the other side of the villa were the vineyards, once more producing the best grapes in the territory. Marta smiled with satisfaction. We did this, Tessa and me, she thought.
Returning her attention to the cave, Marta stood uncertainly at the entrance. 'By going in, I accept whatever happens,' she thought with a sense of foreboding. 'I can turn away from this step, and go on as I am, or I can go in and see where this will lead me.' She drew in a steadying breath and stepped across the threshold, from the blinding brightness of the sunny ledge into the dimness of the large cave. Once inside, she looked around. The cave was only a few feet higher than her head and she could see that it was deep, and branched off in two directions. Other than the light from the entrance, there was no illumination to guide her. Marta moved further into the cave, surprised to find soft desert sand under her feet. As she had been instructed, she removed her shoes and left them near the entrance. She adjusted the pouch on her hip and began to walk forward into the blackness ahead, taking the left branch. All her innate fear of dark enclosed places assailed her at once, and she froze, unable to move. She could hear her own ragged breathing echoing in the cave and the pulse of her racing heart hammering in her head. 'I can do this,' she said to herself, over and over as she willed her feet to move. It was no use. She couldn't go on. Tears of frustration arose behind her eyes as fear held her in its thrall. She trembled, clenching her fists so hard, the nails bit into her skin.
She closed her eyes, trying to find that centre of peace, trying to overcome this terrible fear that she had always had. Where had it come from? she had often wondered. It was as palpable a force as a wall, keeping her from going forward. She would break through somehow. Stilling her breathing with long deep breaths, Marta began to relax. A sense of calm spread through her, and she took an uncertain step forward. The black abyss ahead threatened to swallow her up and she halted again. Another deep breath and another step, then another. Soon she was completely enclosed by the utter blackness of the cave. Sudden panic gripped her; she felt disoriented, like she was falling, weightless. Her hands flung out to either side, searching for something solid. She knew she could not return as she did not know which way. As she felt for the cave wall, her hand encountered something soft, warm, human. She screamed and moved back, hitting her head on the rocks.
A torch flared suddenly, blinding her momentarily. Joachim grinned at her when he saw her look of relief. In the weeks since she had first met him, he had become a dear friend, and teacher. Though Joachim was mute, they had learned to communicate through hand signs. He also spoke to her sometimes in her dreams. Now, he held out his hand to lead her further into the cave. Somehow, his strength assured her as she allowed herself to be led forward into the blackness with only the feeble light of the torch to guide them. Her terror of this place made her feel suffocated. Only the warmth of Joachim's hand kept the icy dread of those tomb-like walls from freezing her steps again.
Finally, he stopped. The torchlight revealed the remains of a cold campfire. All around on the walls were pictures, painted in earth tones, of birds, animals, fanciful shapes she could not recognize. The hair rose all over her body. This was a place of power, a sacred place. She could feel its energy all around her.
Joachim let go of her hand. He began to assemble a campfire from the sticks and firewood placed near the cave wall. Using the torch, he lit it and soon, the fire was crackling and bright, its flickering light illuminating the cave pictures and making them seem animated.
Using the sign language he had taught her, Joachim gestured to a pool a short distance away. He wanted her to disrobe and bathe in the pool, to prepare herself. He set the torch into a crevice in the rock wall, and sat down crosslegged near the campfire with his back to the pool.
'I can still go back,' she reminded herself as she walked toward the pool. 'I don't have to do this.' The eyes on the cave paintings seemed to stare at her as she took off her clothing and stepped into the water. It was bracingly cold and shallow. She had to plunge under to fully immerse herself. She climbed out and put on the gown which had been placed there for her. The soft cotton warmed her chilled skin. The dress was covered with designs of stylized animals and other sacred signs; a ceremonial gown that he had made for her. She was moved by the care that showed in every detail of the garment. She remembered an old proverb her mother had told her: "When the pupil is ready, the teacher will come."
'Am I ready?' she questioned herself uneasily as she glanced at Joachim's solid back. Marta moved to the campfire and sat beside her mentor. He nodded approvingly and gestured to the pouch which she held in her hands. She opened it and pulled out the card her card, the Queen of Cups.
Joachim gestured that she should put the card into the fire. For a long time, Marta stared at the card, unwilling to burn it, to destroy the symbol of her beliefs. The Indian waited patiently, not watching her. Marta sensed his presence as a steadying supportive force; he would not rush or coerce her to do anything she was not prepared for. At length, she laid the card on the fire; it burned from the edges inward, then dissolved in a puff of black ash. Marta almost felt bereft, as if part of her soul had burnt away with her card.
He closed his eyes and began to hum, quietly at first, then more loudly until the cave reverberated with the sound. It was hypnotic, filling Marta's head with its rising and falling cadence. Suddenly, he stopped and picked up a clay cup which was incised with intricate patterns. He offered it to her, signing that she should drink it.
"What is it?" Marta asked as she took the cup.
'Manit,' he signed. 'It is our sacred drink, used to bring dreams and visions. It is made from a plant that grows here.'
"I do not know this plant. Show me the leaves so I may learn what it looks like."
Joachim reached inside a large pouch near his side and pulled out the branch of a plant. 'This is manit,' he signed to her.
Her hands shook slightly when she saw the plant. 'Datura!' she thought in alarm. 'In the wrong dosage, it is fatal.' Aloud she said, "I know of this plant, and its dangers. It is also called Jimsonweed. But, Joachim, I trust you." With that, Marta swallowed the contents of the cup.
Joachim reached across and gripped both her hands. Marta suddenly felt cold and nauseous, her head seemed to be expanding, her mind blanking. She held onto Joachim like a lifeline as consciousness fled. Then she was in a dark place, and falling helplessly into an abyss. In another instant, she was in another cave, faintly lighted and someone was waiting for her. Someone she had not seen since she was a child.
A sob broke from her as she recognized her father, still as she had last seen him, darkly handsome with a wide smiling face, intense and intelligent eyes that twinkled when he laughed. He was dressed in a white shirt trimmed with colourful edging, a dark vest and trousers. He held out his hands and she rushed into his arms. The scent he always had about him rose into her nostrils the horsey smell of someone who trained and healed horses. Her heart felt near bursting with the remembered love she had for this strong man; it had been so long since she had been so close to him.
Suddenly, she was a child again, and he was holding her close. She could hear his heart beating fast and loud against her ear. He held her away and said urgently, "Go with your mother and brother. Take care of them, mi corazon. Hurry!" Marta felt herself being drawn away by hands that gripped painfully. In the dark, she could hear loud sounds, shrieks, angry yells, and screams. She tried to escape those hands dragging her from her father, and she turned to look as lights danced in the forest, and dark shapes loomed into their camp. She sensed terror and danger, then felt herself being picked up and someone running with her into the darkness. Her mother held her so tightly she could hardly breathe. The horrific sounds receded and she was set down. She could hear her mother panting, sobbing. Others were nearby though she could not see them in the dark. She broke away from her mother and ran back toward the noises and the lights back to her father. Finally, she saw him illuminated in the brilliant light of the fires that were burning their caravans. He was fighting with another man. When he saw her, he pushed the other man into a burning caravan and ran to her. Picking her up, he found a hollowed tree stump and pushed her inside. "Don't come out no matter what you hear, querida. Wait for me to come for you." Then he was gone. Marta covered her ears against the noises. The smoke stung her eyes and she shut them tight and hid in the dark.
Marta moved away from her father slightly and gazed into those black eyes. "I remember everything now, Papa," she said brokenly. "That night has been hidden in my memory all this time. I never knew what happened. Mama wouldn't speak of it. Nor would the others. It was buried in the forest like your body, and I had lost those memories until now." She shook her head, almost too overcome to speak. "Why did you bring this all back to me? It is too painful." She pressed herself against him again.
"It is better to know the truth. If you understand your fears, you can control them." His deep voice resonated against her ear. "I am very proud of you, Marta."
She pushed herself away suddenly. "How can you be proud of me, Papa? I have turned my back on my people, brought nothing but pain to my mother." She took a deep breath and continued, "I ran away and married a French soldier. Are you proud of that? I left Mama when she needed me. She was training me to be her apprentice, to succeed her as the healing woman. I left that behind me too. What is there to be proud of? It would have been better for everyone had I not been born."
"Look, Marta," her father said softly. An image formed in the darkness. A little girl sat weeping by a fountain. The young Gypsy girl stopped to look, then passed by. The child's aunt came out, scolded her and took her back inside the villa. The image changed to the inside of the villa and the child was now a young woman. Her dark eyes were angry, resentful. "What a nerve, Tia Damona!" she said. "He actually proposed marriage to me. That fool Enrique. Who would want such a simpleton?" Her aunt, a portly woman dressed completely in black, came to her side. "You have done the right thing, Tessa. His family is a disgrace. I have someone else in mind for you. A young man from Madrid. His name is Antonio de la Cruz, and his family is illustrious and wealthy. Antonio's father has wisely invested in French businesses. I will arrange an introduction." Tessa turned to her aunt, her eyes uncertain. "Tia, do mean that Antonio's father is an afrancesado? A collaborator with the French?" Her aunt tapped Tessa's hand with her lace fan. "Of course. The important thing, Tessa, is to ally yourself with the winning side. Always remember that." The scene changed again. Tessa, now older, was in California. Her hacienda was a shambles, looted and abandoned. She turned as a handsomely dressed military man dismounted from his horse. "I am Colonel Luis Ramirez Montoya," he said as he gallantly kissed her hand. "I am sorry for you to have such a welcome." Tessa looked him up and down, calculation in her eyes. "My welcome had left much to be desired, but that has now been rectified, Colonel Montoya." Their eyes met and an understanding passed between them.
The images vanished and Marta's father smiled at her. "You have made mistakes, mi corazon, but they were made from love, not hate. And the good you have accomplished, do you not think it balances those mistakes? You have taken a child into your heart and raised her as your own. Think what a difference that has made in the world."
"I have given Mama much pain. And very little else." Marta turned away and looked into the darkness that surrounded them.
"Your Mama will join me soon. But for now, she has been training your brother, Rafael's daughter to be her successor. The girl is learning quickly and seems fitted by nature to be a healer. Had you stayed, Amelia would not have had this chance to learn the healing arts. Fate has directed your steps, Marta. You could not have done other than you did. Your mother forgave you long ago. When will you forgive yourself?"
Marta was silent for a long time. The image of Tessa growing up vain and spiteful like her cousin, Elena, disturbed her. 'Had it not been for me, that would have been her fate. To be a cold and calculating woman like her aunt.' Marta shuddered at the image of Tessa allying herself with Montoya 'always be on the winning side', as her aunt had counselled. She smiled to think of little Amelia, now grown up, and learning to be a healer. 'Rafael must be so proud of her', Marta thought with a rush of warmth. She felt her father's eyes watching her, and turned back to face him.
"I understand now why I was brought here, and the lesson I had to learn. Will I ever see you again, Papa?" she asked in a hushed voice. He smiled sadly and held out his arms.
"You will see me again, Marta. Now I must go." He held her closely and darkness enclosed them both. Marta closed her eyes against the sudden pain that threatened to suffocate her.
When she opened her eyes, she was alone in the cave. The faint light was fading and she knew she must hurry to get out before the light was gone. There was one tunnel leading out of the cavern and she rushed into it only to confront again the terror that held her from taking any more steps. Suddenly, a large black bird came from the darkness and landed on her shoulder. 'A raven', Marta mused as she recovered from her shock. 'The bird of augury and death.' Its talons dug into her shoulder, and as it leaned against her head, she could hear its heart beating rapidly, its warmth and solidity gave her courage. She reached up and stroked the bird's glossy feathers. It squawked loudly and fluttered. She began to move forward. The bird's eyes brightened and all at once, there was a weak light to guide her, enough that she was able to find the way out.
She stepped out into the brightness and found herself still sitting in the cave holding Joachim's hands so tightly her knuckles were whitened. His soft brown eyes regarded her with understanding and fondness.
He placed his hands on both sides of her head and leaned his head against her forehead. She heard his voice in her mind. "Did you meet your Dream Helper?"
"Yes," Marta thought back. "It was a ..." Her thoughts seemed to meet a blankness as he shut her out.
"Your Dream Helper is a sacred being, known only to yourself." He released her and, with some difficulty, stood up. "Now, it is time to return to the world, Marta," he signed to her. Carefully, Joachim put out the campfire, then picked up the torch. Without warning, he doused it, plunging them both into complete darkness.
Panic seized her at once as the light disappeared. She could hardly breathe. Or move. 'What did I learn here?' she thought morosely. 'The terror is still there.' What was it her father had said? 'If you understand your fear, you can control it.' Marta forced herself to remain still, and searched for that understanding. 'My fear came from that terrible night when my father was murdered by superstitious villagers. He hid me to save me, but I have been hiding ever since from that memory.' The sights and sounds of that night arose once more in her mind. A tear slid down her cheek as she saw that last glimpse of her father before he hid her in the hollow tree trunk. A knifelike pain seemed to slice her heart as she heard it all again. From somewhere ahead, she saw a faint glow, like two tawny eyes in the dark. She started toward them and kept moving. Soon she saw a brightness before her and knew the end of the tunnel had been reached and she was near the entrance of the cave. As she stepped out of the tunnel, she saw Joachim already there, waiting for her.
'The cave has two exits,' he signed to her with a wide pleased smile. 'I kept a candle in the other one to find my way out. I do not have the eyes of a bat.' His laugh sounded like a wheeze as he regarded her with a mixture of amusement and pride. 'You have found your own way, Marta. If you let them, your guides will never fail you.'
"Must I give up my ancient beliefs to adopt these new ones," she asked anxiously.
'Your beliefs and mine are the same. Your people and mine share a deep kinship. We are all one people,' he signed.
He took Marta's hand and placed it against his heart. She felt the bond grow stronger, something beyond words. She smiled, too moved to speak. At length, she stepped away and turned to her clothing that lay near the pool. She gathered it up and placed it in her pouch. Then, going back to him, she kissed both his cheeks and went out onto the ledge. The climb down was easier and soon she was at the bottom where she had left her horse. She came around the rock and out into the plain.
To her surprise, she found Tessa seated on the wagon, waiting for her. A bemused look crossed the young woman's face as she watched Marta leading her horse, preparing to mount. "Where you up there in that cave, Marta?" Tessa asked, incredulity edging her voice.
"Yes," Marta replied with a secretive smile. She climbed on her horse, and turned toward the villa. "Why are you back so soon, Tessa?"
"I didn't go to town. I felt bad about our argument and came back to apologize. Rosa told me you had gone out on your mare, and she pointed the direction to me. I have been searching for you. I was worried. What were you doing in that cave? I thought you were afraid of such places."
"I am, but I had something to learn there." Marta kneed the horse into a trot, and Tessa got the wagon moving, keeping pace with her.
"What is that strange gown you're wearing? It looks like a ceremonial outfit," Tessa called over the din of the wagon.
"I may explain it to you later, Tessa. For now, I prefer not to speak of it." She looked across at the younger woman, how the wind made her black hair flow behind her head like a raven's wing. 'The signs are everywhere, if we have eyes to see them,' she thought with a full heart.
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