La Vagabonde
by Vicki Kirchhoff-Martin

   Fleurette covered her head with a shawl as she made her way into the small Castillian village. Garbed in drab, homespun clothing, even had her head not been covered, there were few that would mistake her for the beautiful young Montaigne widow of Louis Riche' du Paroisse.

   As much as she had despised her late husband, she was now grateful for his paranoia and for the secret ways in and out of his manor home. They had made this trip and all of the ones like it far easier than they might have been. Secrecy was of the utmost importance.

   She entered the small Castillian church, glancing around quickly before dropping several gold coins in the collection box at the front. Theus and this place had taken very good care of her over the past year since her husband's death. Though it was frowned on and totally out of fashion in the Montaigne court to be one of Theus' faithful, Fleurette had never lost her faith. She had lost only her loyalty to the spawn of Legion who called himself L'Empereur.

   She knelt in quiet solitude in the church, thanking Theus for the fact that she was still alive to work against L'empereur and that none so far had guessed that the angry widow who swore vengeance against the Castillian vagabond was, in fact, one of his strongest allies. She had joined Los Vagos on a whim as a girl and now aided them with an almost Castillian passion as a young woman.

   Once a week she made her pilgrimage to this church to pray and thank Theus and to pass information to her contact. True to the secrecy of Los Vagos, he did not know her true identity. He knew only that she was a noblewoman of Montaigne. There were others deeper in the organization who knew more, but with the Castillian cardinal searching desperately for El Vago or any of his supporters, what someone did not know could not be tortured out of them by the Inquisition.

   She finished her prayers, picked up her holy book and entered the confessional. "Bless me, father for I have sinned," she said, passing the book through the screen to the priest on the other side.

   A hole had been cut into every page so that items could be stored in it without being noticed. Today, she had brought information on Montaigne troop movements and money, both of which would be needed.

   "Theus bless you, child," the priest said. "He knows what you have done and that you are sorry. I absolve you from your sins. Go in peace."

   The book passed back through the screen. She opened it quickly and then stopped. Inside it was a white mask. The mask of El Vago.

   "When you are praying, Senora," the priest said as she quickly closed the book. "If it would please you to remember a young boy. The Inquisition heard him playing as El Vago with his friends. They have arrested him and will burn him publicly in the square this evening. All in the village are required to attend. The Inquisitor wants to make sure everyone is aware that El Vago is an enemy of the church and anyone of any age who support him will be punished. The boy is only 6 years old."

   Fleurette gasped and tucked the book under her arm. "This evening?" she asked.

   "Yes," he replied. "This evening at sundown. All are required to attend. Any who do not will be dragged from their houses and hung the following evening. I trust, Senora, you will be there."

   "Yes," she said. "I will be there."

   "Go with Theus, child."

   Fleurette's heart raced as she made her way back to the manor house. Though all in Los Vagos were told that they might be asked to ride as El Vago at any time at a moment's notice, she had never imagined being called to actually don the mask. There was always someone else in the village available and more suited to the task. However, if what the priest had said was true, no one in the village could be spared this night. Anyone missing would be immediately suspect should the vagabond appear. It was certainly an Inquisition trap and one that she alone had to manage to elude and still rescue the boy.

   She kept her head covered until she was in the secret passage that led up to her bedroom. It was nearly mid day. She had only a scant few hours to form a plan and find a way to become El Vago without anyone in her household finding out.

   She tucked the book under her pillow, shed her drab clothing and crawled into her bed. She rang for her servant and Rosario knocked softly on her door before entering. "Dona, how may I be of service?"

   "I am not feeling well, Rosario," she said. "I should like no callers today."

   Rosario was a Castillian woman only a few years older than Fleurette. She was a small, kind woman who had shown genuine concern for her new mistress from the moment she had come to the manor house. She was one of the few Castillians who had remained after she'd given them all leave to return to their homes. Previous to Louis' death, they had all been no more than slaves and those that stayed were so delighted at actually being paid to do work they had previously been beaten to do, that they worked hard and happily. Fleurette was fairly certain that none of the household staff missed their former master. Louis Riche' du Paroisse was well known for his cruelty.

   Rosario nodded. "You do look a bit pale, Dona. Shall I fetch a doctor?"

   She began fussing with the blankets and trying to make her mistress as comfortable as possible. Fleurette gently shooed her away. "You dote too much on me," she said kindly. "I will spend the day in bed and we will see what tomorrow brings."

   Rosario frowned. "But Dona, what if you are worse tomorrow?"

   "Then I will not be able to protest you going for a doctor, will I?"

   Rosario smiled, "No, I suppose you will not. Would you like me to bring you something to eat, Dona?"

   "Please. Only, leave it by the door. I am going to try to go to sleep. I will eat when I awaken."

   "As you wish, Dona."

   As soon as the servant was out the door, Fleurette was out of bed. There was so much to do and so little time. At least she knew she would not be disturbed.

   She flung open her wardrobe. After her husband's death, she had taken several items of his clothing and hidden them just in case she should be called even though she never expected to need them.

   The black breeches were last year's fashion as was the white lace shirt. She cut apart a purple velvet doublet and her matching purple velvet gown. They were also last year's fashion and would never be worn again. She breathed a silent thank you for the two years she spent in Castille with Los Vagos or she would never have been able to fashion this costume so quickly. It was going to be poorly constructed but it would be dusk by then and no one would get a very close look at it.

   The sun continued toward the horizon as she worked and she had only a scant two hours left by the time she was finished. She found her sword and dagger where she had hidden them and reverently, she retrieved the black hat hidden beside it. It had belonged to Henrique, the young Castillian man who had captured her heart and whisked her away to his kinsman and Los Vagos. His death at the hands of Montaigne soldiers had been what had convinced her to continue the work of Los Vagos.

   She fought the urge to weep as she held it. That had been several years ago and she had no time for a girl's teary moments.

   Brushing away her tears, she withdrew the mask from the book. It was a simple leather thing, but what it symbolized was so much more. Her fingers trembled as she tucked it into her shirt.

   She gathered all her things plus a bucket of ash from her fireplace and down the secret passage she went.

   The servants and stable hands were all at evening meal and the stable was empty. She crept quietly into the stall of her favorite horse, Etoile. Etoile was a spirited palomino with brains and good speed. She was exactly what Fleurette needed except for the color but she had come prepared for that.

   Etoile was not very fond of having the ash rubbed in her coat or her mane. She snorted her indignation. Fleurette spoke soothingly to her and tried to work as quickly as possible until the reddish gold horse was a dark charcoal grey from her nose to her tail.

   The sun continued to sink. Fleurette knew there was not much time left. She went to the paddock and chose a half dozen of her older horses. She haltered each one and led them out to the stable. She saddled Etoile and mounted, careful not to smudge her ashen coat. She put on the purple velvet coat and cape and put a hood over her head. She gathered the leads to the haltered horses, kicked Etoile into a gallop and they sped unseen out of the gates of the manor and onto the road.

   Out of sight of the manor and the town, she donned the rest of her costume. She tied the black hat over her wavy black hair and under her chin and then held the mask. She paused, looking at it again. She had known several who had worn this before her and knew there were others she would never know, but now it was her turn. For the peasants of Castille and perhaps for those of Montaigne as well, she donned the mask.

   Father Pedro Escala watched as the sun touched the horizon. He stood with his entire village just outside its limits around a pile of wood that would serve as young Diego's pyre. He tried not to let the hope he felt show. He tried to concentrate on consoling the weeping women and assure them that all was in Theus' hands. Only he knew that they were also in the hands of an unknown Montaigne Dona.

   There had been no other choice but to ask her. No one else would have been able to go missing without raising the Inquisition's suspicions and no one else was close enough to get the message in time. They obviously thought El Vago was someone in town. Pedro did not think even Cardinal Verdugo himself had persecuted children. Perhaps they had attracted the Inquisition's notice by riding too often in this area.

   Beside him, Esteban Fuega shifted nervously. "You did send the message, didn't you Father?" he asked.

   "Yes, my son," Pedro replied. "But I do not know if they will get it in time."

   There were several Los Vagos in the village, but Father Pedro was the only one who knew of the Montaigne Dona. Many of the others had reasons to hate the Montaigne and he feared they would not trust or respect her. His instructions to trust her had come from ones he trusted, but he had come to value her. The information and the money she provided had been a gift from Theus to his small village in their struggle against their enemies.

   There was the sound of drums. The Inquisitor and his guards led a trembling and pale boy through the assembled crowd. The guards made certain that none of the villagers got near enough to touch him. The women began weeping again and Pedro glanced around for some sign of the rescue he prayed was coming but there was nothing.

   "Someone has to do something, Father," Esteban hissed beside him. "We can't just stand here."

   Pedro sighed. "My son, that is exactly what we must do or everything we have worked for will be for naught."

   Esteban growled but said nothing more.

   Suddenly, there was the sound of hoofbeats. Pedro could here whispers of "El Vago" throughout the crowd as they turned to see where they were coming from.

   A half dozen horses at full gallop burst from the fields. Villagers screamed and scattered away from them and toward the Inquisitor, the boy and his guards. Pedro turned his attention from what was obviously a ruse to the boy.

   The guards so busy trying to keep the fleeing crowd away from the Inquisitor that they did not see the lone rider behind them until he was nearly upon them. In the chaos of the other horses and the panicking crowd, he maneuvered his charcoal grey steed right beside the prisoner. In smooth motion, he swept the boy onto his horse and wheeled away from the guards.

   The Inquisitor swore and the people cheered. El Vago kicked his horse into a full gallop and sped away, but not quickly enough as one of the guards pulled a pistol. The shot brought screams from the crowd. Pedro could tell El Vago had been hit but could not tell where. The Vagabond kept his seat and rode out of sight.

   It took all of Fleurette's self control not to scream as she felt the pistol ball rip through her side. She thanked Theus for all the padding she had put there for had she been a man, that shot might well have been fatal.

   "El Vago?" the boy asked her. "You are hurt."

   "Shhhh," was all she said.

   Etoile navigated the road at full gallop needing little of Fleurette's guidance for which she was grateful. She was practically giddy with excitement and probably loss of blood. She had done it. She had rescued the boy and fled without being caught. She had ridden as El Vago.

   Her mind raced on what to do with the child now that she had him. She couldn't return him to his village and taking him home with her was out of the question. She hadn't really planned past the rescue, mostly because she hadn't really considered it succeeding.

   She remembered a convent not too far from where she was and slowed Etoile down to a walk. She had no great desire to have to walk the rest of the way, especially with the pain in her side. Any pursuit would be too far behind her to be of any concern now. The sun was nearly gone and it was getting dark. The sweat of the run was making streaks in Etoile's ashen coat and she was grateful for the darkness.

   The convent was further than she remembered. The moon was nearly halfway to zenith by the time Etoile reached it. With the adrenaline of the ride gone and the late hour she was starting to doze in the saddle. The boy was sound asleep.

   There were no lights but the full moon was more than bright enough for her to navigate her horse to the convent door. She dismounted, her legs threatening to give way when she put her weight on them. She leaned on Etoile until the weakness passed. Her left side was sticky with dried blood. She drew the boy off the horse and he stirred only briefly. She gently placed him at the doorstep and then pulled the bell cord outside.

   She struggled back onto Etoile and left, hoping to be gone before anyone came to the door.

   Etoile knew her way home. Fleurette let her have her way and went over the rescue in her head. She couldn't believe she had actually done it. She had saved the boy and fled the Inquisition with nothing more than what she hoped was a grazing shot for her trouble.

   The moon was nearly at the far horizon when they finally arrived near her estate. No one appeared to be awake. She stripped down to breeches and shirt and rode toward the manor house. She took off Etoile's saddle and put it away and then led the horse to the nearby stream and made her wade into it up to her belly. She rinsed as much of the soot from her coat as she could in the dim light. The icy water felt good on her wound and washed the caked blood off herself and her clothing.

   Back at the house, she dumped the wet clothing just inside the secret door from her bedroom. When she was finally able to climb into her own bed, the sun was beginning to rise.

   She was relieved to find that the pistol wound was nothing more than a very deep scratch though it would likely leave a scar. It had long since stopped bleeding. Satisfied that it was nothing serious, she fell into a deep sleep.

   "Dona Fleurette! Are you awake?"

   Fleurette moaned and rolled over in her bed. The sun was streaming through her window but she was not ready to wake yet. "What is it, Rosario?"

   The door to her room creaked open. "I did not mean to wake you, Dona, but several of the horses are missing."

   "Have Gaston find them," she said pulling her blanket over her head.

   She hoped that Father Escala and some of the villagers had been able to round them up and use them.

   "Well, Dona, I would not have awoken you for this but for the fact that I have heard from the nearby village that they were stolen by El Vago."

   Fleurette was glad she had her head covered so that Rosario could not see her smile. "El Vago? Is there anything of mine that he does not feel free to help himself to?"

   "We believe he may have taken Etoile as well since she was absolutely filthy this morning, but the dear was back in her stall. I suppose if any horse was smart enough to find her way back… Gaston has spent most of the morning grooming her."

   "He is so very good with her," Fleurette said. "No wonder she returned. Now, tell me more about El Vago."

   "Well, he rescued a little boy who was going to be burned by an Inquisitor. Apparently, the Inquisitor was fuming. He was made to look quite the fool. The people are very excited. They adore El Vago. Dona, I have never quite understood why you hate him so."

   "He killed my husband and regularly robs our coaches. He takes my horses and encourages his people to revolt against authority. Why shouldn't I hate him?"

   She heard Rosario shut the door and there was a pause. "Dona, I know where you were last night. I know and am very thankful for what you have done."

   Fleurette sat up, unsure of what to say. "What are you talking about?"

   Rosario chuckled. "Don't worry, Dona. I was sent here to take care of you. You shouldn't have to bear your secret alone. I really wanted to be there last night, but there was no way for me to leave. I heard it from the village though. Everyone is talking about it. You were wonderful."

   "But how?"

   "A Don of El Corazon," she replied. "I don't know who he was, of course, but he asked me to watch you. He is afraid you are too young for what you are trying to do."

   "Too young?" Fleurette said. "How does he feel I'm too young?"

   Rosario smiled. "He's a man, Dona. I told him that you were a fine strong lady and you would be just as good as any and better than some. You have a good heart. What you have done just for us here would give me faith in you and after last night…"

   Fleurette sat back and sighed. "Thank you, Rosario. I… I can't tell you what that means to me."

   Rosario blushed slightly. "That's very sweet of you to say, Dona."

   She glanced around the room. "Now, where are those clothes of yours? They will need to be washed and perhaps mended. They said you were injured."

   "It's just a scratch, really. It had stopped bleeding by the time I came home. Nothing to worry about. As for the clothes…"

   She threw her blankets aside and went to stand up.

   "No, Dona, you'll stay right in bed," Rosario said gently. "You had quite the night already. I will want to take a look at that wound. I'll go get my things when I take the clothes away. Are they in the secret passage?"

   "You know about the secret passage?"

   Rosario winked. "How do you think I managed to avoid Don Louis for so long?"

   She walked directly to the secret door and opened it. The pile of clothing was where Fleurette had left it. "Wet?" the maid said shocked. "Dona, you could have easily caught fever."

   She held them up and looked them over. "Hmmm, this will not do. I can't imagine this fits you properly and the stitching… Oh, I suppose you didn't have much time. No matter, I'll take care of it. Do you like the velvet, Dona or would you prefer something in leather?"

   Fleurette watched her in silent amazement. "I… uh like the velvet."

   "Fair enough, Dona. I'll have this fixed up for you in no time."

   She bundled the clothes into her arms and stepped into the secret passage. "Oh and I'll be back with my tools and some hot water to take care of your wound later."

   "Rosario," Fleurette said as the servant was closing the door.

   "Yes, Dona?"

   "Thank you."

   Rosario smiled. "No, Dona, thank you."

   Fleurette watched the door close and sighed with relief. She no longer had to bear her secrets alone. She hadn't realized just how much she needed what Rosario was offering. It would be nice to have an extra pair of hands, not to mention the eyes and ears. She felt more confident knowing she wasn't alone.

   The best part of it was she had ridden as El Vago and the people believed.

   Grinning like a lovestruck girl, she fell asleep.