A Broken Dream
“The arrow knows the way. Just let it free.”
Burnt into my memory by endless repetition, the words came to my mind unbidden, with the soothing rhythm of a familiar song. But somehow this time they were not just words: A tingling feeling ran through my fingers and the bow became an extension of myself. I could feel the trembling of the string and the cold of the metal at the tip of the arrow as I felt the tension in my muscles and the pounding of my heart.
Then the arrow took flight. Like a falcon aiming at its prey, it went straight to the target drawn on the trunk of the distant oak. In the complete silence of the wait, I heard the vibration in the air, and the thump of the tree hurting as it was hit, in the center of the bull’s eye.
All over the field, the roar of the multitude exploded like sudden thunder, breaking my concentration. Still holding the bow I no longer felt, I tore my eyes from the arrow trembling in the tree and walked back to my companions.
Don Gonzalo, our instructor, moved forward as I approached them. “Bravo, Princess Andrea!” he shouted. “A perfect shot!” His red hair a mane of fire in the midday sun, he crossed his right arm briefly over his chest before extending it toward me, his open hand facing the sky. The salute to an equal. I blushed with pleasure at his words and returned his salute, while the pages surrounded me screaming my name in victory.
I laughed with them and answered their calls. And for a moment, lost in the exhilarating feeling of belonging, I almost forgot the empty seat on the High Stand by the king’s side. The empty seat that meant Tío Ramiro had not come to the Games. The empty seat that meant, despite my perfect shot, I had already lost.
“Andrea, I will try to be there,” Tío had told me months ago before leaving for his manor. “But you know it doesn’t depend only on me. I have other obligations.”
It was not exactly a promise, but I had taken it as such because he was my only hope. Tío Ramiro, my mother’s brother, was the only one who had shown any interest in my desire to be a knight. I knew that without his help, the king, my father, would not allow me to become a squire. He would send me to Mother instead to be made into a lady as he had promised her he would on my fourteenth birthday. And my fourteenth birthday was only months away.
A lady! I shook my head. As a lady I would not be allowed to play in the courtyard or hunt in the woods. As a lady I would have to stay inside the castle and do a lot of curtsying and smiling.
I shook my head again to get rid of the dreary thought, and closing my fingers around my lucky charm–– a flat round pebble with four perfect holes I had found once in my uncle’s room–-I watched as the herald, magnificently attired in the blue and white colors of our kingdom, rode into the center of the field and in a clear voice announced the winners.
“Winner at the wrestling contest, Don Luis de Can. Winner at the sword competition, Don Enrique de Hul. Winner at archery: Princess Andrea de Montemaior.”
The world around me disappeared in a cacophony of sounds, and I knew I was shouting, although I could not hear my voice. Moments later, and without any recollection of how I had got there, I found myself in front of the highstand where my father was now standing. His eyes, bright and proud under his bushy eyebrows, met mine briefly as he offered me the prize: a golden arrow. One knee on the ground, my head bent in respect, I took it from his hand and went back to my comrades.
I could not stay long, though. After all, I was a princess and was expected to be with my family in the Great Hall. I would join the pages later and wait with them while the knights met to choose their squires. While the knights fought to choose me as their squire, I thought and smiled. Fate was smiling at me today. I had won first place. Father would have to realize at last that I, Andrea, his fourth and last daughter, could be as good as the male heir he had always wanted.
My feet barely touching the ground, I rushed to the castle.
Back in my room, I gave myself over to Ama Bernarda, my old nurse, to be dressed for dinner. For the first time ever, I did not argue when she slipped my fanciest dress over my underdress, and combed my hair again and again in a useless attempt to make me look like a lady. I did not even complain when she scrubbed my nails with a sharp brush until my fingertips were red and sore.
Once I was ready, I looked in the mirror. A tall, lanky girl with dark green eyes and short brown curls returned my stare. I couldn’t recognize in her the mighty warrior I really was.
A sharp knock interrupted my musings. Margarida I thought. But when I opened the door, I didn’t find my sister, but one of my father’s footmen standing outside.
“Princess Andrea,” he said. “His Majesty the King demands to see you.”
I froze. Why should Father want to see me now? Had I already been chosen? Or . . .? Someone—Ama Bernarda, I realized—touched my elbow.
“Come on, Princess. Don’t make Don Andrés wait.”
“But . . . ”
Ama smiled, her eyes, so surprisingly blue in her worn-out face, staring right at me. “Have no fear, my child. You have worked hard. Maybe we were all wrong and your father will grant you your wish to be a squire after all.”
Encouraged by Ama’s words, I rushed to Father’s quarters, and after the footman’s formal announcement, I rushed inside. From behind the immense mahogany table which dominated the room, Father looked up. “Pray have a seat, Princess,” he said as I curtsied to him.
I did as ordered. My fingers tightly wrapped around the carved armrest of the chair, my feet on the deep red carpet, I leaned forward.
Father smiled—the unusual gesture making the old scar that ran down his right cheek stretch itself into a pale line. “Today has been a great day for you, Princess,” he said. “One phase of your life has come to a close, and a new one is about to begin. So it is with joy that I dismiss you from my service as a page and welcome you as a lady into my family.”
I jumped to my feet. “A lady? But, Father, I don’t want to be a lady. I’ve won the Golden Arrow. I—”
Father’s voice was cold. Cold and hard as hail, and his eyes were ice. Under the soft silk of my skirts, my legs were shaking and refused to hold me. Gasping for air, I stumbled back.
Again Father smiled. A brief, sharp grimace that did not reach his eyes. “You are right, Princess. You didn’t do too bad this morning—for a girl—and I am proud of you. But you are almost fourteen now, and the queen and I have an agreement. Your time to play games with the pages is over.”
Father raised his hand. “Yes, Princess, all you have done till now, I call games. Even if playing them has taught you the basic skills of a soldier, that is all they were. But from now on your comrades will start the real training and, believe me, it will not be place for a girl. You are a princess, Andrea, like it or not, and you have to learn to behave like a lady. One day you will understand and thank me for having sent you to your mother, Doña Jimena, today.”
Pushing the heavy chair back, he got up and offered me his ring. The audience was over. As powerless as a bow under the skilled archer’s hands, I rose and bending over the polished table, kissed the blue stone in his middle finger: the symbol of Gothia, our kingdom.
Behind Father, from the tapestry which covered the wall, the brown, damp eyes of the hunted stag were pleading with mine for help. Around him in a mêlée of bodies and legs, several hounds, fangs bared, were waiting for their master to finish the kill. I was the stag. And my time was over. I turned and the walls swirled in a blur of colors, while ahead of me, the doors swung open without a noise.
When I came back to my senses, I found myself in the garden, standing by my old companion the oak tree. Up on its branches, hidden by the dense foliage of summer, my secret hideout was waiting. I reached up and grabbing its lowest limb firmly with my hands, I swung my body up. But my gown, entangled on the undergrowth, pulled me down.
Jerking the skirts over my knees, I kicked the trunk. “How can Father do this to me? Sending me to Mother? Isn’t it obvious I’m not a lady? I don’t look like a lady, I don’t feel like a lady, and I definitely don’t act like one.”
I hit the tree again. Pain shot up my legs from my bruised toes and brilliant points of light flashed in front of my eyes.
I ignored the call.
“Andrea,” the voice repeated, closer now.
I waited for the rustle of the skirt on the grass that would tell me Margarida was leaving. But my heavy breathing was the only answer.
“Ama Bernarda told me Father had summoned you,” my sister said after a pause. “When you didn’t come back, I guessed you would be here.”
My nails biting deep into my clenched palms, I turned. “Leave me alone.”
A flash of pain crossed my sister’s eyes. “I gather Father said no,” she said.
I wanted Margarida to hold me in her arms and hated myself for it. That would only prove my father was right, that I was only a girl. I shook my head. “I don’t care what Father says,” I cried. “I am a squire.”
“Andrea, you are a lady.”
“No, I’m not. I don’t like to sew. And I hate curtsying.”
Margarida smiled. “I don’t like sewing either. But that is not all ladies do and you know it.”
“The only thing I know is I like to be outside, in the meadows, and to shoot and fight, that I only feel alive when I’m riding on Flecha.”
“You can still ride Flecha.”
“Sure, and when would that be? Once a month if I behave. That is not enough. You know I’ll die if I have to stay inside.”
“But Andrea, you cannot be a squire. If Father has forbidden it, no one in the castle will take you at his service.”
I sulked. Margarida was right. No one in the castle would dare defy Father. No one in the castle. Suddenly the total implications of her words hit me and I laughed. “Margarida, you are brilliant!” Rushing to her, I hugged her wildly.
My sister moved back and, holding me at arms length, stared into my eyes. “What is it, Andrea? One of your crazy ideas?”
“My ideas are not crazy,” I said. But as I was talking, I remembered the time, some winters past when, annoyed at my sister Rosa’s teasing, I ran away and almost froze to death in the snow. I shrugged. “This time I will plan my journey carefully.”
“A journey? But where would you go?”
“It doesn’t matter where as long as it’s away from this awful castle. I will dress like a boy and offer my services as a squire to some distant lord.”
“Andrea, please, don’t go. You left once before, remember? And Father had to rescue you.”
“Sure.” I sighed in exasperation. “But thanks to my running away, Mother agreed I could train with the pages until my fourteenth birthday. Besides, it’s summer now.”
Margarida hesitated. I had to keep her busy so she could not think to alert Mother. “I will need pages’ clothes, a blanket, and some food.”
“What you need is some sense, Andrea.”
“You may be right, sister. But it wasn’t my fault you took it all.”
“So, dear sister, would you be so kind as to get me some food from the kitchen?”
“You have made up your mind, haven’t you?”
I nodded. “Please, Margarida, I need your help.”
“All right, all right, I’ll help you. But—”
“You will not regret it, I promise. Now go. And meet up with me at the stables.”
I had almost reached the door to the keep when I remembered Ama Bernarda would be in my quarters. I hesitated. Ama would get suspicious if I were to change into my page’s clothes. I could not take that risk. Turning back, I ran to the laundry house. I picked some plain tights and a soldier’s tunic from the clean pile. I rolled them and with them bundled under my arm, rushed across the cobble stones of the courtyard toward the stables.
From the darkness of her stall, Flecha greeted me with a loud nicker. Stretching her neck, she rubbed her head against my chest. I ran my hands through her golden mane. Flecha neighed.
“Shh. Nobody must hear us,” I whispered into her soft, warm ear.
Flecha’s big limpid eyes looked at me for a moment, questioning. “We are going away,” I told her. She snorted, and remained still while I slid the bridle over her head.
While my hands worked on her saddle, the faces of the lords I had seen at my father’s court flashed through my mind. I rejected them, one by one, until I found the perfect candidate.
“I’ve chosen Don Pelayo as my future Lord,” I told Margarida after she had joined me. “His castle is on the Boreal Island. Father will never imagine that I have crossed the ocean. He knows I hate boats.”
“But the Boreal Island is so far away; Father will find you before you get there.”
I thought for a minute. The shortest distance to the island from the mainland was from the village of Forcarei at the other side of the Northern Sierra. Although it was not far in a straight line, to actually reach Forcarei would take me several days because the road made a long detour east around the mountains. Unless . . .
“No,” I said. “He won’t.”
“I will not take the main road. I will go west until I hit the ocean, then continue north along the coast. I will be in Forcarei by morning.”
Margarida gasped. “But you cannot do that, Andrea. You’d have to cross the Forbidden Lands. It is too dangerous. People disappear there without a trace, and strange creatures swim ashore at night.”
“Come on, Margarida. You cannot seriously believe those stories.”
“They are not stories. My dueña remembers. She saw the strangers they found by the shore in Grandfather’s times. They looked like us, she says, but spoke a strange tongue, and they were naked like animals. Then one night they disappeared from the dungeon, through the castle walls, and were never seen again.”
“So what? Even if that was true, which I very much doubt, why should I care? That was a long time ago.”
“Please, Andrea. Be reasonable. Don’t go.”
Her face was tense with fear. I knew her resolve to help me was melting. I hugged her quickly. “Now, sister, promise me you will not tell.”
Margarida sighed. “Will you be careful?”
“I will. Don’t worry. And before you know it, I’ll be back. A real knight.”
Margarida shook her head. I hugged her again. Then I turned to Flecha and not wanting to waste any more time, I tucked the stolen uniform and the food in her saddlebag. The reins wrapped around my hand, I led her into the courtyard.
The castle gates were open. I jumped on Flecha’s back and cantered toward the sentries. The guards came to attention as I approached and crossed their spears. But when I got close enough for them to see me, they moved back and saluted. I returned their salute and, pressing Flecha’s flanks, sprang forward.
Soon I had left the drawbridge behind and at full gallop, dashed ahead across the plains which surrounded the castle in the direction of the Northern Sierra. I wanted to pretend I was going north just in case someone was watching.
The evening was warm and clear, not a single cloud tainted the sky. On my right, beyond the thatched roofs of the village, over the eastern horizon, Athos, the golden moon, was rising. I could not have asked for a better night.
By the time I reached the forest, the sun was already on my left, sinking rapidly toward the raised lands that hid the ocean. The day would be over soon. I reined Flecha in and looked back toward the gray walls and towers of my father’s castle. Nobody was following me. Yet.
I took a deep breath. The air smelled of grass and pine, of horse sweat and leather. It smelled of freedom. Over the repetitive call of the crickets, invisible birds were singing.
Flecha neighed. I pressed my legs, and her supple body turned at my command. Leaving the road I had followed so far, I headed west, toward the Forbidden Lands.
At first, the woods seemed no different from the ones that flanked the highway. But, little by little, trees became scarcer and were replaced by shrubs and bracken until finally, and after a steady climb, I reached a plateau, a raised land which ended abruptly over sharp cliffs that plummeted to the sea. In front of me, over the ocean, where the sun had been, the sky was burning red, orange, and purple, turning Athos, the golden moon, into a ball of fire.
Flecha neighed again and the sound echoed in the distance like a warning. I shivered. “Let’s go, Flecha. We must hurry. We have to reach Forcarei before Father’s men.”
I pressed Flecha’s flanks and, at a fast canter, we continued north following a winding path along the coast. But before long, big boulders, still and menacing like giants turned to stone, blocked our way. Flecha reared.
I stroked her neck to calm her down and dismounted. Holding her reins, I stepped on the narrow ledge left between the rocks and the cliffs. Flecha reluctantly followed. We strode thus for a while, my eyes on the gravel to avoid taking a false step, until Flecha, letting out a loud snort, pulled at the reins and refused to go further.
“Come on, Flecha. What is it, now?” Tearing my eyes from the slippery ground, I looked up. What I saw was not encouraging.
Before me, the coastline had lost its battle against the ocean, and receding inland to form a small bay. Except for a huge rock carved like an arch which appeared to be still fighting the pull of the water, the cove was covered by the tide. Up the cliffs, where I was standing, the ledge we had been following didn’t turn with the coast to surround the cove, but continued straight, took a deep descent, and disappeared. We couldn’t go on. Still I hesitated. It didn’t make sense. Paths are supposed to lead somewhere. They cannot just vanish.
My hands firmly on the reins, I looked to my right trying to find a way to get around the cove, but the boulders, impressive and bare, formed an insurmountable wall.
“You are right, Flecha. We have to go back.”
I was still talking when, over the roar of the waves breaking against the rocks, I heard a rumbling noise—like horses galloping. Down at the cove, the solitary arch I had noticed before seemed to fade away, and the water at its base withdrew as if caught in a whirlpool. Under my feet the ground shook.
Flecha neighed in fear and reared pulling at the bridle. Just as I turned to hold her still, I saw a dark form emerging from the broken rock in the cove. For a moment, I froze. Again Flecha pulled and the leather ran through my fingers, burning them. I screamed in pain and let go of the reins so suddenly I fell backward. I heard Flecha’s hooves against the ground, and I knew I had lost her. But I did not have time to worry about her. Under my weight, the gravel cracked and scratched my legs as I slid faster and faster, down the broken trail that ended right where the cliffs began.
Carmen Ferreiro Esteban