Authors: Gonzalo Giner
The Horse Healer
Translated by Adrian West
Dedicated to the love of my life, Pilar
In 1195, in the vicinity of Alarcos, the troops of the Almohad caliph Abu Yusuf ben Yaqub al-Mansur had just faced off against those of Alfonso VIII of Castile. Defeated, the Christian monarch manages to flee Toledo in extremis. From that day forward, he will be tormented by this humiliation.
hey had been born and taught to kill.
They called them Imesebelen, the bridegrooms.
They were African warriors with black skin, fanatical and fierce assassins, chosen from childhood to become the guardians of the caliphate of Al-Andalus.
For them, there was no greater honor than to die in its defense.
In Alarcos that day, the earth shook beneath the gallop of their horses. There were more than a thousand of them, and they galloped as fast as wind. They were following the trail of their Christian enemy with a single object in mind: his extermination.
The orders given by their superior still rang out in their ears, that extraordinary person with the noble name, long allied to the king of Castile, and now become his vicious betrayer.
“Decapitate them all! Burn their fields and pillage their possessions. Take their women and destroy their houses. â¦ But remember, above all, that not a single witness should be left alive.”
“And, Father, if we do not win this war? We live too close to the border of Al-Andalus, and they could attack us. â¦” Young Diego, very astute, hastened to the bed where his father was recovering.
“That won't happen, son. The Order of Calatrava will protect us; remember that we are their vassals.”
“And if they can't? What should we do then, Father?”
Don Marcelo remained silent and looked at him. He was as uneasy as his son, but he could not allow himself to burden the other with his worries. In the present situation, he tried to tell himself that when the time came, the knights of Calatrava would defend them, because if not â¦ if not, he couldn't protect his own, and Diego, only fourteen years of age, was too young to defend the inn and all the family.
Don Marcelo could feel the charge of the Imesebelen. Terrifying words of the brutality of those African warriors had spread through the inn. His thoughts led him to shiver, but he did not want to buckle before his fears or convey the smallest bit of cowardice to his son. To the contrary, at that moment, he wished with all his might to inspire that young man with all the bravery and security he was going to need.
“Come closer to me.”
Don Marcelo took the boy's hands and noted his disquiet.
“I trust you, son, and I know that if something happens, you will do what is right. Don't worry; everything will turn out fine. You'll push on ahead. You're intelligent, strong-willed, and a good son besides. But now, listen to me well because I have to ask you for something important.” He breathed in and continued talking in a more solemn tone. “Swear to me you will do it, no matter what, even if you don't understand. â¦ Will you?”
“As you wish, Father,” Diego said, concentrating on his words, aware of their significance.
The man pulled the boy's hand to his heart.
“Nothing bad will happen to us, but if something does, if for some reason the Muslims attack and we are separated, if I cannot be at your side, I want you to know that, as the only male in the family, you will inherit this humble inn and the pact that binds us to the Order of Calatrava. But that is not my will.”
Diego looked at him, confused.
“I don't want you to end up being a vassal like myself. â¦ No. You will take your sisters and you will look for work far from here, in Toledo, perhaps, that's the nearest city. If you content yourself with following my example, you will never fully become a man. Dream high and fly like the eagles. That's what you should do, to reach life's highest peaks. Look for wise people, learn from them. Cleave to your ambitions, so long as you hurt no one. Always do your work well, never give anyone reason to rebuke you. And whatever the contest, play to win. Don't let anybody make you their vassal, and even if you were born into a humble home, don't think you're any less dignified for it. If you fight with valor, you will achieve whatever you go after. And last of all, take care of your sisters, protect them, your blood runs in their veins. â¦ My son, never forget you had a father who loved you more than anything in the world, and who will one day look down on you from heaven full of pride.”
“I don't want to leave your side, Father,” Diego protested. “We could make improvements to the inn and the stables as wellâ”
Don Marcelo stopped him short.
“Swear to me that when the time comes, you will do what I have asked!”
The boy looked into his eyes and immediately understood what his answer had to be.
“You have my word, Father.”
“Then it's done, and we needn't talk about it anymore.” He stroked his son's chin. “Now go back to the stables and carry on with your chores.”
“Father, when will I have to leave?”
“You'll know in due time, son. Don't ever forget what I've told you to do, and consider it a sacred duty.” The boy nodded his head. “And never, ever forget your sisters.”
“I promise to protect them.”
on Marcelo was lord of a very modest inn near the hamlet of MalagÃ³n, on the shores of the Great Lake, lying along the route that joined Toledo to Al-Andalus. Through its possession, he incurred a small tribute to the monks of Calatrava as a part of the terms of his vassalage, and yet he was always one or two months in arrears.
Before taking up that occupation, if that's what it could be called, he had been a pastor, blacksmith, day laborer, and farmhand. A long life of work and dedication that, in his case, could be portrayed in just two words: sweat and penury.
Three years back, he had watched his wife die in the inn, and he had been bedbound for the last two, victim of fevers that had left him paralyzed.
Since then, his four children had taken charge of the inn. Belinda, Blanca, and Estela shared the kitchen work, took care of the diners, and the cleaning up; Diego, the lone male, worked in the stables, in the smithy, and at the old mill. The boy had learned to make horseshoes with his father and also to care for the beasts. He adored them with such a passion that he said he could anticipate their reactions and always knew what they were thinking.
The three girls were red-haired like their mother. But Diego's hair was black and stiff like Don Marcelo's.
Estela, though she was a year younger than her brother, was his truest ally. With freckled skin and an upturned nose, she was always smiling and was the most cheerful of them all.
Belinda, on the other hand, was pure nervousness. She was easily intimidated and had the capacity to pass her anxiousness on to everyone in her vicinity. She lived obsessed by cleanliness and order, and as a consequence, suffered when her siblings did not do things as she wished. She was also a screamer and angered very easily. But all her severity vanished when you looked into those deep blue eyes, which she had inherited from her mother, that were incapable of transmitting anything but kindness. Then, no one could resist her will. Her gaze exercised an almost magical charm.
About Blanca, the middle daughter, her father said that she had inherited her mother's character and her sense of sacrifice, but especially her sweetness.
Business at the inn had never gone well. Not even in peacetimeâwhen the way between Toledo and Calatrava was still openâdid many travelers stop there to rest. They went to another inn, a few leagues away, which was famed for its cooking. In any case, since the first rumors of war had begun to be heard, they only received the occasional visit from a straggling soldier or some of the few neighbors who went on living in that small village. And to make their already desperate financial straits worse, the troops who had recently passed through the inn had left without paying, claiming they had a right to dine there for free.
Don Marcelo, who was in charge of the accounts, was used to seeing little money in the strongbox, though he never thought the situation could grow as bad as it had over the past few months.
On that hot day, in the middle of the afternoon, shortly after hearing the seven tolls of the bell from the neighboring church of MalagÃ³n, the tavern, which scarcely ever held more than a half-dozen patrons, was witness to a very grave occurrence.
Estela and Blanca were waiting on the guests, and Belinda was in the kitchen preparing supper. Outside the main building, in the stable, Diego was brushing Sabba, his sorrel-colored Arabian mare.
And it was then that he arrived.
A soldier, coated in dust and sweat, his eyes bulging from their sockets and his hair matted and filthy, entered the tavern in a rush. He bumped against a table, pushed two chairs out of his way, and nearly fainting, he gave out a strident cry. Everyone present looked at him in huddled silence. The man, badly injured and exhausted, fell over one of the tables with three arrows plunged in his back.
“Imesebelen!” he shouted, spent. “They're here. Flee!” As soon as he had finished his phrase, he gave a piercing cry.
No news could be worse. The presence of the Africans could only mean that their enemies, the Almohads, had won the battle. They were known for being ruthless murderers. A terrible fear gripped everyone, sinking down into their entrails. They understood that no one and nothing could free them from the danger and savagery. By now, their defenders, the Calatravans, would be retreating or else dead.
As if chased by the devil, all the guests abandoned the posada in terror, leaving faces fraught with panic and frailty behind them.
Blanca ran to the stables to warn her brother of the danger. Estela stayed back with the wounded man. She didn't know what to do. Her family couldn't escape. Her father was infirm; it was nearly impossible to move him from the bed, let alone get him into a carriage to escape.
She went over to the man on the table and looked into his eyes. Death was marauding through his pupils.
“Tell us how close they are, please. â¦”
The man clutched at her arms as though trying to find the hope there of somehow clinging to a life that was draining away.
“There's no more time. â¦ They attacked me,” he answered her in a whisper. “They had black skin â¦ and they rode on white coursers. I thought they were the sons of the devil himself. â¦”
Estela tried to break free, but the man's calloused hands seemed to have melted into her arms. The girl screamed as loud as she could.
Belinda heard Estela cry out and ran from the kitchen to defend her. She tried to snatch her from his arms, using the knife she carried in her hands.
“Let her go!” she said, showing him the blade of steel. “If you don't, we'll all die. You were very generous, coming here to warn us of the danger; now continue to be so, I beg you â¦”
The dying man focused on her eyes, and they seemed to him like the gates of heaven. He also looked at Estela and saw in her the living image of horror.
“Go with God, both of you!” In the agony of death, he let the girl free.
At that moment, the other two siblings ran in.
“I've just readied the horses for the cart,” Diego calmly announced. “As soon as we bring Father down, we can leave.”
A disturbing ringing of bells warned them that the danger was imminent. There was no more time. They went up to the second floor and into their father's bedroom. Without knowing what had happened, the man had glimpsed the gravity of the situation, and though they explained to him the cause of it and what they planned to do, he refused to come with them. He would only slow them down, and they would run a greater risk of being captured.
“I refuse to leave my house behind,” Don Marcelo said, clutching the sheets with force. “I lived here with your mother, and I witnessed all of you being born here. You all run, save yourselves. I order you! I'm not going.”
The three daughters prepared everything for their escape, trying to ignore their father's words. Belinda, Estela, and Blanca went from one end of the room to the other, picking up the few things they might need.
Don Marcelo shouted, and for a moment, everything stopped.
“I told you to get out, and to carry on without me!”
“But we can't do that, Father. Either we go together or we stay together,” said Belinda, the oldest child, sternly.
The father pinned Diego with his eyes, and his son understood the message. It related to what they had talked about only a few hours before. From that moment, Diego felt that the responsibility of taking charge of the family's destiny had fallen on his shoulders.
The boy came over to his father, kissed his forehead respectfully and sorrowfully.
“Obey Father's will and come with me. We don't have more time. Fast! Let's go, now!”
Diego remained strong in spite of his sisters' refusal. He pressed the two younger ones, hoping to receive the support of the elder.
“It's fine, let's go,” Belinda said, coming down from the bed and pulling at her two sisters. Though it hurt her to say these words, she knew it was the right decision.
With nearly no time to mourn, unable to react to all that was happening to them, the girls took leave of their father. They kissed his cheeks, his hands; they didn't know how to tell him good-bye. But he pushed them so they would leave as soon as possible.
Then they all fell quiet, hearing shouts and the sound of horses approaching the inn.
“Get out now!” the father screamed, enraged.
The four children went down the stairs tumbling one against the other, and when they'd made it out of the house, they rushed to the stables. A cart waited for them there, hitched to two nervous horses ready to set off quickly on their journey away. Diego helped his three sisters get in. Once he was in the coachman's seat, with Belinda at his side, the boy snapped the reins over the animals' flanks and they responded by setting off at a ferocious trot.
After they had gone only a few yards, amid the crack of the road against the horse's hooves, Diego heard a high-pitched whinnying behind him. He turned and saw his mare, Sabba. She ran behind them like a lightning bolt, slicing through the air. Her tensed body and her determined look made her the most beautiful animal in the world. That mare had come into his life shortly after his mother had died, to help him overcome his deep sadness. Don Marcelo had paid a great deal for her, and yet he never rued doing so once he had seen them together.
Diego shouted her name and Sabba sped up more until she came up alongside the cart. The mare snorted with pleasure when her master reached out to stroke her head. Her eyes showed loyalty, but also fear.
“Poor Sabba â¦ I forgot you.”
His words made him think of his father. With a wounded heart, he looked at his older sister, he begged her pardon, passed her the reins, and in one leap bounded onto Sabba's back.
“I have to help Father â¦!” he shouted while he watched them speed on. “Don't stop for anything until you get to Toledo. When I can, I'll come look for you. Go, don't turn back. We'll see each other again in Toledo.”