"Mistress! my mistress! the Moriscos are upon us!"
Inez sprang to her feet, the rich southern blood receding for a moment from her cheek, as those words fell upon her ears—words of such fearful significance to the Christian inhabitants of the Moorish territory along the Sierra Nevada.
"Juana, what mean you? Speak, girl! What have you heard? What have you seen?"
Juana's face had been white when she came bursting in upon her young mistress; she held her hand to her side; her breath came and went in great gasps; yet already she was recovering the power of speech, and she seized Inez by the arm.
"Mistress, they are below already; they are robbing the house. Can you not hear them? When they have taken the wine and the oil they will come hither and murder us!"
Inez held her breath to listen. Yes, there were sounds from below—sounds of voices—loud, threatening voices, and the laughter of men assured of victory.
Juana, the maid, spoke in a fierce whisper. Fear was receding. The high courage which comes to weak women in the hour of extremest need possessed the hearts alike of mistress and maid.
"The master went forth not an hour ago. Five minutes since little Aluch ran up to tell me that, as the master was taking the air, there suddenly appeared a band of rebel Moriscos from Orgiba, who set upon him, and chased him, and would have killed him, but he took refuge in his father's house; and he will hide him, and get him safe away. But all Istan will join the rebels, and already they are crying that every Christian shall be slain!"
"Every Christian!" cried Inez, with a flash in her dark eyes. "And how many Christians are there in Istan? Two weak women, Juana, you and I, and my uncle, whom they have already set upon and chased to the mountains. Pray Heaven and our Lady that he may reach them safely, and send us help from Marbella, else there will be but short work with the Christian population of Istan."
There was scorn in the girl's voice, scorn in the flashing eyes. Istan was a Moorish village, where one Christian priest had been placed to work amongst the Moslems, and seek to convert them to the true faith.
Success in this missionary work had been small; but the good man had hitherto lived in peace with his alien flock. The wise and kindly traditions of Ferdinand and Isabella, and Hermando de Talavera, had for long kept under the natural hatred of Moor towards Christian in Southern Spain. But a monarch had arisen who hated the word toleration. To keep faith with the Moslem was to break it with the Almighty. The edict of 1567 was now a year or more old, and its pernicious effects were already made abundantly evident in fierce Moorish risings here, there, and everywhere.
Inez had heard stories as to the fate of Christian prisoners who had fallen into the hands of the Moors. Before she followed Juana she had caught up a shining dagger which hung against the wall; and she thrust it into her girdle as she ran down the broken steps of the tower.
"At least, they shall not take us alive!" she breathed to herself; and Juana seemed to hear, for she flashed back a glance at her young mistress, and for a moment showed the gleam of a long stiletto which she carried in the bosom of her tunic.
The priest of Istan dwelt in a strange house. It was, properly speaking, no house at all, but a Moorish fortalice, dismantled and ruinous, which he had partially repaired soon after his arrival there, and which, since the arrival of his orphan niece to live with him, he had desired to make more habitable still.
The place was, in fact, a sort of tower. The lowest floor was their storehouse for supplies of wheat, oil, and so forth; and from this level came up the sound of rough voices, as the Moors leisurely removed the spoil before proceeding upwards. There was only one door from the fortalice into the world without, and this it was impossible to reach, for the Moors were swarming in the lowest part, effectually preventing their egress. They knew perfectly that the two girls were as helplessly caught as a rat in a trap; they did not even hasten the work in which they were engaged. Inez, standing at the top of the long flight of stone steps which led downwards to the basement, heard what they were saying one to another, and into her olive cheek there crept a deep glow of red, whilst her lips set themselves, her teeth clenched, and her black eyes gleamed with a light like that of fire.
"Our Lady and the blessed saints protect us!" whispered Juana, with a furtive glance into the beautiful face of her young mistress; and Inez looked back at her without a quiver as she replied:
"The Christian's God helps those who help themselves, Juana. We are not here to wring our hands and look for a miracle to save us. We fight for our lives, and Christ and our Lady will help us. See, we are not quite defenceless, Heaven be thanked for that! Collect those stones, quickly, quietly. Keep out of sight. Do not let them observe us. Get together a number, then you shall see!"
It was as Inez had said. The repairs of the fortalice, which had been already commenced, had put the means of defence into their hands. Large quantities of great stones had been collected at first in the basement, but only the previous week had been laboriously carried up the steep, narrow stairs which led upwards to the dwelling rooms; and these large stones the two brave girls were now quietly collecting in a great heap at the top of the flight.
They were in deep shadow, and below the brown-skinned men, in their picturesque Arab dress, were far too busy examining their spoil, and making away with it, to heed the slight sounds from above. They talked together as they worked; they told of the attack they had made upon Orgiba, and of that fearful massacre of Christian men, women, and children at Uxixar. Inez held her breath to listen to the confirmation of certain vague rumours which had reached them before this, but had scarcely been believed. Peaceful Istan, with its terraced gardens overhanging the lovely gorge of the Verde, had seemed so far removed from the storm and strife; and its people were peaceable and kindly disposed, even though they were Moriscos. But these men were rebels and freebooters, with the fierce lust of blood upon them, their hands red from the butchery of innocent, helpless women and children; men who laughed aloud at tales of hideous deeds done in cold blood; men mad with hatred to the conquering race, knowing themselves doomed to final defeat, yet resolved to revenge themselves in every possible way upon those of the hated faith ere their own turn came.
Upon such a band of men did Inez look down, with the fire of courageous despair in her eyes. What could they do? what hope was there for them? two slight girls against a score of trained warriors.
The Moriscos of Istan would probably not join in the attack upon them; but they would not interfere with what their brethren of the faith might do. Help from without there would be none, unless the priest himself could find means of escape, and could get to Marbella and bring it. Inez knew that he would strain every nerve in this effort. But what chance had they of holding out for perhaps six hours or more? Could it be done? Oh, could it be done? She looked at the heap of stones. She looked at the flitting forms below in the gloom. And then she held her breath once again, listening to stories of how in other places Christians had taken refuge in towers and churches, whilst their Moorish foes piled faggots soaked in pitch, and such-like inflammable material against and around the walls, and reduced the building to one mass of flames.
If they kept the men from laying immediate hands upon them, would that fiery doom be theirs?
"Better that than to fall into their hands," said Inez, between her shut teeth; and Juana, looking at her mistress, with a world of faithful love in her eyes, exclaimed softly:
"Our Lady will surely send us help, mistress. You are too beautiful to die such a death!"
Inez put her hands upon the shoulders of the faithful girl, and said in a low voice:
"You would come with me from Granada, Juana, where you would have been safe; and there were those who warned us that we might not long be safe out here. But my duty seemed to my uncle; and you—you would not leave me. And what if I have brought you hither to your death?"
"We must all die once," answered Juana, her eyes full of love and courage; "and I would sooner die with you, mistress, than live without you. If I had stayed behind, and had heard this story of you, I should have killed myself, or died for grief and shame that I was not with you."
Then Inez put her arms about the faithful girl's neck, and kissed her thrice upon the lips.
"We will do battle for our lives, Juana; and then, if needs be, we will die together," she said.
Suddenly there was a cry from below. Some one had looked up, and had seen the two girlish figures clinging together. Perhaps the very action had been misunderstood, and instantly there was a rush towards the steep, broken, narrow steps of some dozen swarthy Moors.
Instantly the girls were at their post at the head of the flight. Inez, quiet and composed, gave the word.
"Welcome to the Moriscos!" she cried, in a clear and ringing voice, as the first great stone leapt from her hand and went bounding and crashing upon the head of the foremost Moor.
"Welcome to the Moriscos!" echoed Juana, dislodging another, which sprang from stair to stair, and then, bounding sideways, went crashing upon the bent back of a man in the basement beneath, who fell like a log from the blow, his spine fractured.
Crash, crash, crash! Down hurtled the huge stones, flinging the unprepared Moriscos from the steep stairs, where they fell in a confused mass, one upon the top of the other, pinned down by the great boulders which came rolling down upon them from above, cursing, raging, crushed and maimed, utterly taken aback by such a reception; and now only eager and anxious to get out of a place that seemed to rain nether mill-stones upon them.
The first great stone leapt from her hand and went bounding and crashing: upon the head of the foremost Moor.
Three of their number lay stretched dead upon the ground. A number more were badly hurt; and all were flying from the stairs, which threatened to become a veritable death-trap for all who tried to mount.
There was a rush for the outer door. The wounded were dragged away groaning by their comrades; those who were sound carried the dead. They turned and shook threatening fists at the two girls standing behind their heap of stones at the top of the stairs; they promised them that they were coming back. They breathed out threats which might well make the stoutest hearts quail. But Inez stood up tall and straight, with a great stone poised in her hand; and the strength and accuracy with which those formidable weapons had been launched against them before, caused the men to jostle each other through the doorway in their haste to escape from possible hurt from the same source.
Scarcely had the last man disappeared before Juana was down the stairs like a flash, had slammed-to the heavy oaken door, and had drawn the great iron bolts and the heavy iron bar across it.
"The master left it open when he went out this morning," she said to Inez, "and I never thought to shut it. Why should I? That is how they got in so easily; but they will not get in again so fast!"
This was true enough; for the door had been made to withstand attack, as, indeed, had the tower itself, and though it had fallen into a ruinous state inside, it was built in a very solid fashion, the walls being exceedingly thick, and light being admitted mainly by loopholes. The top, also, was protected by a low battlement, from which a view of the surrounding country could be obtained. This battlement had fallen a good deal into disrepair, like the tower itself, and material for repairing it had been brought in; so that not only had the girls the remainder of the stones they had already used with such effect, but there was a large quantity of such material that had been laboriously carried up to the very top only three days earlier; and some of these stones were very large and heavy, as they had been designed to form the coping of the battlement.
"See there!" cried Inez, as the two girls ran up the stairs to the top, to watch the retreat of the temporarily baffled foe. "Juana, how long, think you, would such artillery last us? We could slay a score of our foes, as the woman in the tower slew Abimelech the king. Did not mine uncle tell us that tale the other night? and how little we thought——"
Juana's eyes were shining. The thrill of victory was upon her. The peril was not over. Nay, they might have worse to encounter than they had done already. But at least they had driven forth the foe from the tower. Their citadel was their own. They had weapons of defence under their hands. If help would only come at last, they could hold out for awhile.
"See, see!" cried Inez, as she leaned over the wall to watch the baffled Moriscos wending their way downwards, sometimes turning to shake threatening fists at the tower and its defenders. "There is little Aluch hiding below in the orange grove, and making signals to us. Run, Juana, to that loophole below, and he will tell you what he has come to say!"
Juana disappeared down the stairs, and returned quickly with a face in which anxiety and satisfaction were strangely blended.
"The master has got safely off to the mountains. He will be at Marbella very soon, and then they will start out to help us; but Aluch said he heard the Moriscos vowing vengeance upon us as they went away. They will quickly be back; and he thinks if they cannot batter in the door and take us alive, that they will burn the tower down over our heads."
"They will if they can," said Inez, looking out over the fair, wild valley, with the expression of one who knows she may be looking almost her last upon a familiar scene; "but we have a welcome ready for them!"
They leaned over the battlements, those two brave-hearted girls, and they watched the little village at their feet, almost wishing that the Moriscos would show themselves; for suspense was harder to bear than action.
"Let us say our prayers," said Inez, suddenly kneeling in the hot sunshine upon the hard stone floor; and Juana instantly knelt beside her and took her rosary in her hands.
When they rose from their knees a few minutes later, suspense was at an end. The attack was approaching.
"They have weapons now!" cried Juana. "Mistress, have a care. Those bows and arrows are deadly weapons in the hands of a good marksman. And look—they are bringing faggots; and that mule has a barrel of tar upon his back! And see that great ram of wood! They will seek to batter down the door with that. If they do——"
Yes, if they did that, the girls' position would be desperate indeed. Before, the men had only been armed with daggers and scimitars, which were useless save at close quarters. Now they had the deadly bow and arrow, and if they once obtained entrance, it would be useless for the girls to repeat the defensive manœuvre of the earlier hours. They would be shot down instantly, and fall an easy prey. Inez realised that in a moment, as she watched the approach of the Moors; and scarcely had her head appeared above the battlement, before a shower of arrows fell clattering about them.
"This side!" she said to Juana, between shut teeth. "They will try the door first; we will be ready for them!"
The girls dared not show themselves openly; but the battlements were built with a view to defence, and they were able to look cautiously over without being seen. The Moors were approaching the door; they were almost directly underneath.
"Now!" cried Inez, setting her hand to a huge stone. Juana put all her strength into the task, the great coping stone was hoisted between them, and pushed bodily over.
A fearful yell and a thundering crash told that it had done its work well; a storm of furious execration went up, and in the midst of it down came another stone which dashed out the brains of a fellow in the crowd below.
Juana peered over and then drew back, a fierce triumph on her girlish face; for she had seen that there were two enemies the less.
"We have plenty of stones, the saints be praised!" she exclaimed. "They are closing in again, Mistress. Let us give them another!"
The Moors were always careless of life in battle; and again and again they advanced to fix their battering ram; whilst again and again the huge stones came thundering down, and, besides these large ones, were many smaller, which the girls aimed with such precision and coolness, that not only could the assailants not fix their ram against the door to batter it down, but the men approaching the walls with faggots and combustibles were picked off one by one, and dropped wounded or crushed beneath the hail of stones from above.
Inez looked over once again, drawing herself up to her full height, and straining her eyes towards Marbella in the hope of seeing the long-looked-for relief.
"Have a care, Mistress, have a care!" cried Juana anxiously, and sprang forward; but she was just too late. The arrow had buried itself in the shoulder of Inez; she gave a start and an exclamation of pain; but, taking hold of it firmly, she instantly plucked it out.
"Pray heaven it be not poisoned!" cried Juana, as she stanched the flow of blood with quick, skilful fingers. And Inez smiled bravely through her pain.
"Hark! They are at the door again; we must show them that the garrison is not disabled yet. That stone there, Juana; now both together! down it goes! Hark! what a yell that was. I am revenged for my sore shoulder!"
But the brave resistance of the girls seemed rather to stimulate than to baffle the assailants. The air was rent with frightful threats and curses; and Inez, looking rather white, though there was no fear in her heart, said quietly:
"There is no hope of mercy, Juana. If we are not relieved; if help comes not, we must sell our lives as dearly as we can; and plunge our daggers into our own hearts sooner than fall alive into their hands."
"We will, Mistress," said Juana firmly. "But surely our Lady will send us aid ere that!"
"Look! look! look!" cried Inez suddenly. "The banner of the cross! Oh, Juana, do my eyes deceive me? Is it a vision that I see?"
And indeed for a moment both the girls thought that it must be; for the light fell sparkling upon mailed headpieces and flashing swords; and a banner with the cross flaunting in the golden light of the southern afternoon was borne aloft, and waved as though in signal that help indeed was at hand.
"What can it be? Whence come they?" cried Inez, with breathless agitation. "That is not the road from Marbella! Our Lady herself must have sent them to our aid! Pray heaven it be not a vision!"
"See, see!" cried Juana in ungovernable excitement, running to the battlement and showing herself fearlessly. "The Moriscos—they run! They fly Mistress, we are saved! We are saved! It is our brave Spanish soldiers come to our rescue!"
Inez looked over in turn, and though the mists seemed to rise before her eyes in the revulsion of her feeling, she could see the flying figures of the Moriscos dashing down helter-skelter into the deep ravine below, to escape the Christian swords, and she saw the lifted headpiece of the officer in charge of the band, as he looked up and marked the two girls leaning over the low rampart.
The next minute Juana had dashed down and opened the door, while little Aluch, flushed with triumph, was telling Inez how this band had come in pursuit of the rebels of Orgiba; how he had met them and told them of the predicament of the Christian maidens, and had brought them by the nearest route to the rescue.
So Istan was saved—saved from Spanish vengeance through little Aluch's act, as the Christian population of three souls was saved by the heroism of the two brave girls. Inez rode into Marbella that evening beside the officer of the band, to find her uncle there, beseeching help, which the citizens could not believe was wanted in such a peaceful spot, till the young officer rode into the great square, still holding Inez by the hand, and told the tale of how she and Juana had held the tower against the rebel Moriscos.