By Conor Foley
The saber rattled on the stone floor with the drops of wine trickling down from the edges of the armored man’s lips. Dripping and rattling echoed through the cavernous cellar, sparsely lit with dying torches. He finished drinking and sat on the cold, wet floor, the smells of wine and mold burning in his nostrils. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness long ago, and he could make out the shapes of other casks. See the dull gleam in his armor when the light from a torch hit it in a certain way, the dark blood on the blade of his sword. He had lost track of how long he had been in the castle; having long ago abandoned the upper floors he had no perception of time anymore. He wandered in a stupor through the lower rooms, stopping only when accosted by his captors. He had killed four, even through his drunkenness and hunger. “Philip Francisco Torres,” he shouted as he staggered nimbly at them, “is not to be taken lightly.” He almost began to wonder again how he’d gotten here, but the futility of that struck him before he could begin to think. He was in a state of drunken half-sleep when he began to recall his last experience of open air.
A beach somewhere in Holland; he never bothered with the names or the language. The familiar sounds of battle, the comforting weight of his pike and the press of the tercio around him. He could never recall battles completely, just in flashes, the foamy mouthed horses charging the lines, the constant explosions of cannon and musket, the heat and heavy legs and the chaos and fear.
They had been firing down from the dunes. He must have been hit, and he remembered sand getting into his armor and that last view of the sky before waking up in the dungeon, armed and healthy. How? He put his head back against the cask and passed out.
About ten feet away a woman named Catherine Alvarez was cowering in the cold. She was completely lost, unaware of how she’d become lost, and the image she couldn’t shake from her head of a large man with a large knife played more and more with her mind, until she was reduced to a sobbing heap. As her sobs softened, she heard the loud snores of Philip. Who could that be? she thought. Who falls asleep in a wine cellar? It’s better not to judge. After a few minutes’ deliberation she stood up and followed the sounds to the pitiful man sleeping in armor. She nudged him twice with her foot before he started awake.
“Who are you?” He said, starting to stand up.
“My name is Catherine. Who are you?” she said.
“Philip Francisco Torres,” he said. “What is your business here?”
“What is yours?”
“You seem familiar,” she said, thinking quickly. “Where are you from?”
“Ah, yes, I remember you,” she lied, peering at him in the torchlight. For the first time he looked at her as well. Memory struck him. That first night after his father had chased him out of the house, he had spent it in her arms, with a flask of wine and stolen money.
“Of course, I remember you too,” he said, stammering. “It’s wonderful to see you again.”
“Likewise, Senor.” She smiled. “Do you know where we are?”
“I thought I had been captured in battle, but if you’re here… I don’t know.”
“The last thing I remember is having my throat slit by a drunkard. Perhaps this is purgatory? Or perhaps that was a dream.”
He frowned, fighting back some great emotion.
“Regardless,” she said, “we should try to escape.”
He was silent, still peering at her face through the dimness of the room and the wine-fog. That face, the solace she had given him for a night and taken from him the next day.
She looked at him more closely. He obviously really knew her, but who was he? Why was he sitting there like an awestruck child, staring at her? She extended her hand to him.
“We should go.”
He looked at it for a moment before reaching out and taking it. She grunted with the effort as she hauled him to his feet.
“Let’s go,” she said, and started walking. He staggered behind her, still entranced in drunken nostalgia.
Barely visible three feet in front of him, Catherine led the way as they walked through the shelves of stacked wine, casks stacked on casks towering up into the gloomy darkness where the dying light from the torches wouldn’t reach, and their footfalls sounded out loud on the dark stone floor and reverberated around the room, off the unmarked oak winecasks and the darkened ceiling and seemed to somehow blend with the chill in the air and the smells of mold and rat dung which engulfed them like fog, altering the perception of everything irredeemably until every glimpse of anything from a flickering torch or a strain of the eye seemed malignant, and Catherine started turning left at every fork between the claustrophobic casks until they arrived back at the pool of Dutch blood Philip had been sitting in when they had met.
Philip looked at the dark spot on the floor. Lost. He saw the darting movement of a rat in the gloom and swung a wild fist at it, denting one of the casks. He looked around, tried to see through the encroaching darkness some sort of a way out but all he could see were the walls of wood and wine and the dancing shadows of torchlight. Anger and nausea welling up, he walked back into the maze, hand on his sword, leaning forward, chin out. Catherine watched him go. Yes, she remembered him now, the tantrum when she’d asked him to leave. He’d aged poorly. She ran after him.
By the time she caught up with him he was seething, fingering the hilt of his saber, staring up at the piled casks. She remembered him more and more, the aggressive stance, the forward lean, gruffness hiding loneliness, the blatant desperation. She had thought for a few days about finding a different vocation after the encounter with him. How did the both of them wind up here? And how could they get out?
Philip paused his mental recriminations and looked over at Catherine. Still so beautiful. The night with her was the only time he could remember feeling as good as that. But then the morning.
“I’ve got it,” she said.
He snapped out of his daze.
“We have to go this way.”
“How can you tell?”
“You left a trail of blood coming in. The floor feels different here, see?”
He dabbed his foot where she pointed, daintily. She was right. They followed the trail to the heavy wooden door he had barged through after his fight. He jerked it open and walked through it, Catherine scurrying in behind him.
It was much brighter in this part of the castle and she finally got a good look at him; the scars on his pockmarked face, the gray and black beard, the resentful eyes which softened uncomfortably when he looked at her. Still? Poor man.
She was just as beautiful as he remembered, round face, deep set eyes. He turned away and looked down the hall. Nondescript gray brick, ending in a fork between identical pathways. The hall was much wider than the aisles in the wine shelves, and it was much brighter, but the same feeling of being lost, trapped. He looked at her briefly, then started walking. She followed behind him, looking at his battered armor. What had happened to him? She changed her pace to catch up.
“Excuse me, what happened to you?” she said, indicating his broken panoply.
“Don’t remember. Battle.” He said. “Which way?”
He turned right silently.
“It really is nice to see you again,” she said. He looked at her, keeping his expression neutral except for his softening eyes.
“It’s nice to see you too,” he said, with effort.
“I’m sorry that we parted on such bad terms—“
“It’s quite all right,” he interrupted, increasing his pace. She hurried to keep up.
“No, truly,” she said. “I regret it very much.”
“So do I.”
He continued walking, but then stopped and looked at her.
“I am sorry too.” His gaze lingered for a moment; he was so passionate. And besides, it would be wise to become friendly again.
“We have a lot of catching up to do,” she said. “Tell me what’s happened to you since we last met.”
He shrugged his broad shoulders.
“Became a soldier. Drank. Fought. What about you?”
“Oh, the same things. I can’t think of much that’s changed exc—“ he stopped walking.
“Philip?” No reply.
The tapestry was about eight feet high and ran the length of the hall. Philip stared at it, shaking, for ten minutes. It all seemed so familiar, the sand and the fire and the guns. The ocean cold coming in from the beach, the screaming and shouting, the baying of the horses. He could remember it all. His feet sunk into the sand and the pike was comforting in his arms, the weight and unwieldiness of it. The shout to prepare, the sound of horns as the first cavalry charge came in. He held his pike out, caught a horse directly in the chest. He felt, as he had so many times, that last passion of death through the pike as the beast threw its rider. The yells of his comrades, the screams of his enemies, the thunderous cannons, the constant musketry from the dunes above them. The fighting continued, his tercio charged the dunes and he felt it, the ball hitting his neck, puncturing the jugular, the cold sand engulfing him while his life spilled out of his neck like a drunken piss in a field, the sky above him, his comrades moving around him. Then somehow he had woken up here. Was he dead? Was this purgatory? He became aware of a voice calling his name, waking up from a trance. Catherine. She kept saying his name, he stood there, motionless, though back to his senses. She kept speaking him, prodding him, “Philip? Philip?” Eventually, he answered. “Yes.”
“Are you all right?”
“I suppose so.”
“What’s the matter?”
“I think I may be dead.”
“Dead? How?” She ignored the recurring image of a plump rich man, angry, brandishing a knife.
“Battle.” He grabbed her hand. “Let’s go.”
They both heard the footsteps behind them and ran forward, reaching a staircase and beginning to climb it, Philip pressing faster and faster. They disappeared from sight as Willem got there.
Willem held his sword in his hand. He had heard voices speaking Spanish in here; he was sure of it. Where could they have gone? Why had he woken up armed and unguarded in a Spanish prison, if that’s what this was? He stepped forward again, still listening, hearing nothing. He stopped and looked across the hall to the tapestry, and then it struck him; the dunes and the gunfire. Still, how he had gotten from there to here did not cross his mind, he thought only of the Spaniards. The things he had seen, the friends they had killed. He shook the thoughts away. They had not been able to kill him. Nobody had ever been able to beat him in a fight. Like art, his master of arms had said. Whatever that meant. He saw the door to the staircase ajar. He went in and began to climb. Halfway up the stairs he heard the Spanish voices again and hurried up to the landing.
“I think we’re being followed,” said Philip.
“Just a feeling,” he said, stepping up to the door and slowly pulling his saber from his belt. The door burst open and Philip and Willem stood face to face for the second time. Willem dismissed the vague familiarity, Philip embraced it; “Time to avenge myself” his only thought as they circled each other. Catherine stood ten yards back, not knowing what to do.
Philip roared and strode forward, slashing with his saber, Willem parried, tried to counter, and Philip did the same. She watched them, realizing that Philip was completely outmatched, with this stranger’s inconspicuous strength and flowing movements. Their sabers flashed in the gleaming torchlight, too fast to tell which was whose, and the two forms blurred too, each like a moving dab of paint on a lighted gray canvas, flashing swords. They danced back and forth, metal clashing and whirling, and then, gracefully, the stranger disarmed Philip, and reared up in triumph, even as Philip slammed a knife into his neck. The beautiful stranger collapsed and Philip ran and grabbed her by the waist. “Let’s go.”
She tried to keep up, their footfalls ringing on the stone floor. Each hall forked, and each time they picked which way to go at random. Catherine watched Philip running ahead of her, trying and failing to conceal the slash to the thigh he had received. He was so brave. She wanted to tell him so, but she was short of breath; she was running with all she had to keep up with him through these nondescript, curving hallways, windowless with torches all at the same intervals, winding endlessly, seeming to go up and down incrementally, always sloping, always with an echo that made it sound like they were being chased through these awful halls until they finally came to a large, round chamber with a door on the far side.
“We made it!” she shouted.
Philip strode across the chamber, hacked at the bar until it broke, and threw the heavy double doors open. Catherine ran up next to him.
“What? No…” she fell to her knees weeping. Philip looked gloomily out the doors, at the vast ocean, listening to the humming tide and Catherine’s frantic sobs. As far as he could see, ocean washing up to the rocky shore. On the horizon the line between sea and sky was indistinct, and all the way out there, what difference did it make, anyway?
Conor Foley is a recent graduate of the University of South Florida with degrees in English and History. He lives in Tampa where he spends his time reading, writing, and bussing tables.