Historical Fantasy for Young Adults, my kind of book. The story is set in Spain 1648. In the Spanish village of Riodelgado.Riodelgado is a typical Andalucían village, like hundreds of others dotted amongst the soaring mountains. Whitewashed houses huddle together amongst the steep, silent streets, sweltering in the summer, freezing in the brief winter. The people are cheery and live uncomplicated lives. Here the tradition of storytelling still thrives; vivid, colourful tales full of daring-do, enchanted castles and maids to be rescued. Simple, old-fashioned and charming.
The old clock chimed out the hour as it always did, the peel of its bell cutting through the still morning air, shattering the quiet. But only for a moment.
Luis Sanchez stepped out into the bright sunshine and took in a breath. Another beautiful day. For a moment, the sun shone from within and he thought that perhaps today might be a good day. He thought about his mother lying in bed dying, his tiny sister sitting on the damp earthen floor, playing with the little wooden doll Luis had fashioned for her out of an old twig, and the images brought a sad, resigned smile to his lips. If only he could do more for them. If only he were older, bigger, stronger. Then he could find a proper, full-time job, bring in more money. The only thing he could do right now, the only thing he could ever do was go to Mr. Garcia’s bakery to pick up the bread for the early-morning deliveries, then trek to school and face the baying of the children from the village. Home by two, sweeping out the house, making the meals, then reading Lucia a story before bed. Always the same, never changing, the constant round of monotony and despair.
The sunshine inside faded, despite the heat still burning his face. The day would be neither good nor indifferent, merely the same as every other.
Mr. Garcia welcomed Luis with his usual growl. Already the bread lay on the table, bundled up for the various customers whose orders never changed. Luis knew them all by now; he had no need for the list. Mr. Garcia had marvelled at that, when Luis first appeared at his doorstep.
“I can help you with your deliveries, Senor Garcia,” he had said, flashing his best smile.
“Why would I want you to do that?”
“Because you’re a busy man and I’ve been watching you working hard, making your bread. Then you have to rush out and get the deliveries done before your next batch of bread burns. I could help.”
“I’d have to pay you.”
Luis had shrugged. “Yes. But maybe the money you give to me would not be as much as the money you lose from all that burned bread.”
Garcia thought about the reasonableness of this. He seemed only partially convinced. “You’d have to remember all the customers, where they lived. It would take months. I’ve been doing this for half a lifetime and I still get some of them mixed up.”
“I’ll write them down,” said Luis and he smiled when he saw the look of total incredulity on Garcia’s face. “Yes, I can read and write, Mr. Garcia.”
The baker put his hands on his hips and shook his head slowly. For the first and only time, he smiled. “Well, if the good Lord has seen fit to bless you with such a gift, then I don’t see how I can deny you! You can start tomorrow, at six.”
And every morning, for the past three months, Luis had done just that. This morning was no different.
Without a word, he gathered up the bundles of bread and began his rounds.
Despite it being so early, the heat burned with relentless intensity. Summer in the village was often unbearable. Riodelgado sat in a little valley, surrounded by the steep sides of the mountains, the heat funnelling downwards, hugging the streets, never managing to escape. The residents were cooked in this natural oven and they grumbled and groaned constantly. No one liked the heat. They retreated into their dark, cool homes, like tiny, nervous animals, waiting for the night before they would venture outside once more, to sit and talk. And talk. Always talking.
Luis placed each bundle inside the door of the baker’s customers. Not everyone ordered bread; some made their own, others couldn’t afford it. Times were hard and news of the War filtered through every now and then to make everyone nervous and afraid. Things were not going well with the War, not now. Once, many years before Luis had been born, stories had it that Spain had all but defeated the heretics in the far north. But then, the Swedes had come, followed by the French. Lately, the forces of Spain had become hard-pressed. Luis, when he had first heard the news from a one-eyed itinerant tradesman called Pablo, didn’t believe it. “But France is of the true religion,” he’d blurted out.
Pablo had frowned, a gesture which made his single eye look quite terrifying. “How do you know that?”
“I read it. “
“You read it…?” Pablo had shaken his head. “What is the world coming to, that a mere child can read…”
“But it’s true, Senor Pablo! How can the French fight with the Swedes…Protestants?”
Pablo shook his head again, but much more sadly this time. “Like everything else in this mad world, it’s a mystery. Protestants fighting alongside Catholics, against other Catholics! We are in the end-of-days young Master Luis! The end-of-days.”
But the tiny village of Riodelgado had remained untouched by the scourges in the north. No soldiers ever came and the village carried on the way it always had, boiling in the summer, freezing in the brief winter.
A village like a hundred others in the mountains of Andalucía.
Until a soldier did come.