This entry is both a short story and the next chapter in the saga of ‘The Hangman’s Valley.’
Chapter 17–The Last Moor
Robin slept in darkness and awoke in darkness. He saw nothing when he opened his eyes; heard nothing when he held his breath. He was certain of the darkness as total and complete as he was certain he was still alive. Robin figured his position to be somewhere near to the center of the earth; or at the very least well beneath the castle and deep into the mesa. At the bottom, as the Colonel had said. He was alone and at the bottom of a mountain.
He knew he was in a locked cell. The walls were rough rock and the ground was packed earth and there was what felt like a door made out of iron. He had no memory of how he arrived there, having been beaten by the two guards who dragged him away from the gatehouse common room at the orders of the Colonel. He could lie down on the ground in the cell and stand up, but those were about the only comforts he had. After a while, he actually counted those two comforts as blessings, as he knew he might have accidentally knocked himself unconscious on numerous occasions had his cell been any tighter.
He slept for all the time his body allowed, until his awakening mind snatched without success at the last threads of some unremembered, peaceful dream, and his eyes opened of themselves, forcing him to arise in a place of nightmares. Robin thought he must have slept a week. His body ached from sleeping on the ground, but felt somewhat better considering the bruises he had suffered from the beating. Hunger did not bother him yet, nor the necessities of nature, which afforded him an opportunity to stare in the direction where he suspected was a ceiling and ponder his environment. He thought his eyes might gradually adjust to the lack of light, to give him some minimal picture of his surroundings. But he was not nocturnal. He was lucky his other senses were active enough to tell him he was still alive. He felt the bowels of the earth, smelled the ancient musk of the cell, and heard his regular breathing, unrelenting, which kept his body alive.
Soon, the sound of his breathing overpowered his other senses, until he feared the noise would drive him mad. He stopped breathing for a moment to give his ears a rest, but the noise continued. Robin was in the midst of thinking he had lost his mind when he realized he may not be entirely alone at the bottom after all. He resumed his breathing, quickened by excitement, and sat up.
“Hello?” Robin said to the sound of the other breath. It stopped short at the sudden nearness of Robin’s voice. It resumed a moment later without a response, perplexing Robin.
“Hello!” Robin said again, this time louder. Robin heard shifting of a body coming from somewhere not too far beyond his iron door.
“No,” struggled a voice, old and weak. Robin stared into the darkness and smiled at the discovery of company at the bottom.
“No?” responded Robin “I just want to talk, that’s all.”
“No!” said the old voice. “You’re another plague of my imagination!”
“I swear, sir, I exist, so you don’t have to worry none,” Robin said to comfort the old man. “I ain’t no fake spirit troubling your mind. I’m just trying to make conversation.” Robin heard silence on the other end, but after a time the old man spoke again.
“What…is your name?” the old man asked weakly.
“My name is Robin, sir.”
“What a beautiful name. I cannot recall the image of a robin, or of any bird in flight for that matter, but I remember how their shape and their motion used to make my heart soar.”
“What is your name, sir?”
“I do not remember. I’m not sure I ever had one. It has been too long since I’ve been down here. I heard you arrive yesterday, but I believed at the time it was only my mind playing one of its many tricks.”
“Yesterday?” Robin asked, “I’ve been here only one day?”
“Yes. You ask, what is one day when it feels like an eternity? The question I ask myself is what is an eternity, when it feels like one day? Or a single moment? I have a constant feeling down here that I am unborn, in my mother’s womb, on the day of my birth, and this is the last blackness I will see before I enter the next world!”
“You have no hope of freedom?”
“What is freedom when the sun would melt my eyes, and the wind would tear my skin? I’ve known fear, but not in here. My umbilical cord to the darkness is not severed yet!” Robin was about to respond but the old man went on. “The forces of nature do not frighten my imagination in my condition. I feel only a remote sadness to be deprived of the one great joy in nature—color. Do you remember it?”
“Color?” Robin asked in surprise.
“Yes!” the old man gasped excitedly. “You remember it, don’t you? The only color I possess here actually possesses me, this blackness, and it is indescribable. But you, you still know colors, do you not?”
“Well, sure,” said Robin, “aren’t they hard to forget?”
“Everything is forgettable,” said the old man, “everything but…”
“What?” Robin asked.
“Are you aware…” began the man in a hushed voice, “of a certain painting found above, within the castle of Aguila, depicting a valorous cavalier lancing a cowardly infidel?”
“The painting? Of the Conquistador and the Arab? I saw it only yesterday!”
“It is the one thing that has stayed in my memory, even after all these long years. Or, I should say, the whiteness of the infidel’s robes; that is the one image that has never been able to shake itself from my memory. How white I made his robes, right before the unavoidable slaughter; or murder, or sacrifice, whatever you wish to call it. Sometimes that whiteness is all I see. And maybe to you, who remembers every color for your mind is yet fresh, this is nothing, but for me this is my one great comfort.”
“Old man, what do you mean ‘how white you made his robes’?” Robin asked curiously.
“Child, have I not told you? I am the man who painted that work—my masterpiece! I am the artist whose brushes brought life to the story of Santiago de Alcanadre and the Last Moor! That story was told to me, and so vivid was its relation that I completed the painting in a single day and night, as if possessed by some sprightly muse of the ancients. Though my own candles died out, one by one, a single image of the story burned itself into my mind that night and I let its flames flow through me in the act of inspiration; and though it has been many centuries and the flickering embers are near to ash, there is still enough fire in me for one last retelling.”
And so the painter told Robin the story of the Christian Cavalier and the Last Moor.
Robin was asked if he could imagine a great land, full of many peoples, good and bad, weak and strong, that had been divided in two for many long years. Robin said he could. Robin was then asked if he could picture how joyful and exuberant all true patriots of that land were when that land was united once again after years of strife. Robin said he could. Robin then was asked if, once that land was united, could he believe in an enemy, a common enemy shared by both former halves that was the scourge of their land and all true patriots, and an obstruction to expansion and the true destiny of a growing kingdom. Robin said he could. Then Robin must surely understand that once this enemy was destroyed, the only thing that stood between the kingdom’s flaw of mortality and the lands of the undying was the setting of the western sun? Robin did. So was the fate of Spain, the painter said, in the year of Our Lord 1469, when the Iberian kingdoms of Aragon and Castile were united by the marriage of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.
The Reconquest of a peninsula over centuries had returned a land if not a people under the iron banner of Christianity. Redemption was at hand, and all that was required was a final ascension of Christian saviors and Muslim martyrs in one of many final battles between peoples on the Continent. The last bastion of western Islam threatened to regroup beneath the twin hills of Granada, and a clash was imminent. Santiago Ebro de Alcanadre, an experienced Moor-slayer of no small renown, would later thank the shared God of Christian and Muslim that he was on His chosen side. From the seat of his horse and on his feet he had fought in battles in every part of the Two Kingdoms, throughout every part of the peninsula no less, and he longed for a land not stained by the blood of Reconquest. During the day he beheaded infidels and at night he dreamed of a people, somewhere beyond the ends of the earth, who had no blood to spill, and no spirit to madden them.
But the blood was to continue to flow, he knew, as long as the Moors remained in the land of the Two Kingdoms. That is, until the last of the infidel armies made their retreat, and rallied on the plains before the hills of Granada. A great siege ensued, equal parts attacking and waiting; where waiting for the besieger was to only postpone victory, while waiting for the besieged was torture before certain death. The city of Granada was cut off and sealed, and as supplies dwindled desperation set in. Prayers offered five times every day under the siege were to no avail, and gradually amongst the Moors a great scheme was concocted. Across the Straights were whole kingdoms of rich and powerful Moorish allies, who would be eager to help their brothers in plight, if only notified in time.
In the cover of darkness on the night of a new moon the finest representative warrior beneath the banner of the Crescent and Star slipped down the walls of Granada and stole past the Christian siege lines with a single message for the Muslim world. He was never seen. He never would have been discovered had he not been betrayed the next day by a captured infidel spy, who was violently tortured before accepting the amnesty of a quick death for information, at which point he revealed to the Conquistadors the Moorish warrior’s secret mission, the ultimate goal, and the western road on which he covertly traveled.
Many cavaliers assembled and offered their services for the honor of the duty to hunt this Moor to the last and save the newly reconquered lands from fear of foreign invasion. Many offered their lance, and there was a great clamor of bloodlust, until one spoke the name ‘Santiago Ebro de Alcanadre;’ famed Moor-slayer, and the one Conquistador fit for the assignment. How could they know that at that moment Santiago Ebro de Alcanadre, having not been present to offer his lance, was then asleep, dreaming of bloodless lands across infinite oceans? Nevertheless, he was chosen in a unanimous vote by all those assembled, and within the hour he was awoken and sent to his glory with earned, solemn dignity.
The night was dark, as said, but the western road was well known to Santiago Ebro de Alcanadre, once the loyal subject of Castile, who had ventured when he could on any road that led him west. He rode fast and hard, on a horse that was surely better cared for than the one the Moor procured, and by morning he had picked up the trail of a man fleeing with determination, near due west on a road eventually ending at the sea. The ports were Christian, however, so Ebro, as he was known to his peers, knew the Moor would avoid them for their great risk, and seek some less worn path, where he may stumble upon an idle cove and the boat of a defenseless fisherman. These thoughts were natural to the hunter of Moors, whose speculations turned out to be deadly accurate.
In a certain place in the geography between Granada and the sea there is a patch of rotten earth that, over millennia, has decayed from fertile lands to sand and dust; an undesirable, arid desert the traffic of life circumvented in those days with no little pleasure. It was the Moor’s reckless decision, nevertheless, to weigh his hopes against his fears, and decide his only recourse in the rescue of an entire culture, people, and history, was to cross this desert; to arrive ever more expediently at some sleepy coastal village on the other side full of seagoing vessels. Yet the Moor knew the risk to be so great that he paused in his flight to pray, facing the rising sun in the east; and it was at this moment that destiny decided Santiago Ebro de Alcanadre, Moor-slayer, should crest a distant ridge and spot his quarry, bent toward him in the act of prayer, pleading with their shared God. Finished with the prayer, the Moor counted his blessings and raised his covered head only to see a solitary figure in silver armor atop a frothing horse, and he knew behind that one man stood the armies and the power of all the Two Kingdoms and Christianity; and a part of his soul died for he knew his quest was hopeless. Yet the Moor ran on, straight into the scorched terrain of the desert. The cavalier in his armor followed behind at full speed, with the desire to end the chase quick and soon. But quick it was not and soon his horse was slowed by desert sand and lack of water, and Ebro feared to kill his ride before he killed his prey. Luckily for both, the night arrived, accompanied by the disappearance of the sun and the arrival of cool winds. After the dark sky of the night before, the Moor spent this night, his last on earth, awake beneath the beloved sliver of his crescent moon; and he would have felt at peace, one with God, had it not been for the other man close behind, riding ever closer, consumed by the endeavor to make that oneness with God an inevitable certainty.
By morning, their horses plodding with deliberate steps through unending waves of sand, near to collapse from the exhaustion of the chase, the Moor-slayer, having behaved as his brethren outside Granada in his siege of the body and will of the enemy, knew the time for deliverance had come; the answer to the prayers of one half of God’s people through the destruction of the other half. The warrior Moor’s horse was mere yards away from Ebro when it finally died on its feet, martyred by the sun and the lack of sustenance, having shared an equal burden in a cause so desperate. Horse and Moor tumbled to the sand and for a brief moment it looked as if the fall had done the work Ebro had been sent to ensure. But the Moor regained his stance and continued his fruitless task on foot, never giving up till the last.
His sandals lost, stumbling across the hot desert, the Moor was on the verge of accepting his bloody fate when he heard a cry from the heavens and looked to the sky—a seagull! How it made the Moor weep, his tears the only drops of moisture it seemed the desert had seen in a thousand years. Ebro neither saw nor heard the bird above, possessed as he was by the hunt; he truly being the most experienced of the peninsula’s Moor-slayers and knowing the full extent of the Moor’s potential for trickery. Ascending a final dune, the Moor was about to reach its peak and behold a vision of magnificence when the sand gave way and he fell, sliding down the hill to its bottom where awaited the cavalier of Christianity. Santiago Ebro de Alcanadre knew not, when the Moor opened his mouth and spoke his final words in the grunts and clicks of his language, whether the warrior cursed him or begged for mercy. It made no difference to the Moor-slayer, for he rode him down and slew him with his lance as if he were the last man on earth. The white robes of the Arab were stained red, as dark as the cape of the cavalier, and for a second time that day the desert received a liquid memory of its fertility.
His duty complete, the Moor-slayer dismounted his quaking ride and walked the path of the Moor up the dune, as if his disappeared footsteps had paved an eternal road and not been absorbed by infinite grains of shifting sand. Where the Moor failed Ebro succeeded, and at the top of the dune he was greeted by the endless blue of the sea. Through the undulating waves, equally eternal in their indifference to passing creatures as the sand, Ebro saw the same paved road of the Moor, and knew, though he had not the sight to see such a distance, along this path and at the ends of the earth there existed a people and a land where there was no blood and no spirit, only the immutability and immortality of time; and he descended to the shore, and thereby in a day or so found a fishing village with the boat he required. Nevertheless, it was many years before he could attempt to make such a journey to those lands, but he never forgot or lost sight in his mind of the paved road west and the first man who began that long road while alive, and arrived there after his death.
Thus ends the retelling of the story of the Christian Cavalier and the Last Moor.
“When they come for you,” the painter with the eye for color said at last, “tell them I’m alive. I’m still alive, down here! I don’t think they know that. It’s been too long. Everybody may be dead, or have grown old and lost their memory. I can’t even remember what I did to be so far down here for so long. Maybe I took some gold from the Prince. I know I wanted to. Or maybe it was a girl. I wanted that, too. I don’t remember. Maybe I’m down here for nothing, no reason at all! That must be it, because I can’t remember. Not just the reason I’m down here, I mean, but the sun, and the stars, and the wind. Do you have news of them? Do they still exist in the universe as they once did for me? I can’t remember. Maybe I shouldn’t, that’s probably a good thing. Just tell them I’m alive. The Prince or the sun or the wind. Please, before it’s too late; before I forget even what the darkness of this abyss is like. Please, just tell them I’m alive!”
“How did you come to hear such a story like that?” asked Robin in earnestness, before the painter succumbed to madness.
“It was told to me by the Moor-slayer himself, when the painting was commissioned.”
“The Moor-slayer told you, in person, even after all these years?” Robin asked.
“Yes; and a great many other stories does he have, Santiago Ebro de Alcanadre, the Marquis of Cibola, and the Prince of the Valley of Gold…”