Be the first to read an exclusive extract from Barbara Greig's Secret Lives

Added about 3 years ago by Sacristy Press

Barbara Greig's new novel Secret Lives will be published at the start of October. Here's a sneak peek at the first chapter... 

ONE

High Pyrenees, late July 1530

Hernando Gharsia’s feet hurt, throbbing within his boots. He had struggled up the rocky path, feeling every sharp stone despite his thick leather soles, yet the excitement of reaching the pass and starting the descent had distracted him from the pain. Now he was lying flat on his back with his eyes closed. It was a good place to spend the night with a clear view down the mountain; a large overhang provided some shelter whilst the turf was thick and soft beneath him. He listened to the sounds of the evening: the mule and donkey nibbling the grass, the clatter of scree high up on the valley side as a mountain goat picked its way to a safe place to sleep, and the steady breathing of the child curled up tightly next to him.

Opening his eyes, Hernando breathed deeply and pulled himself upright, filling his lungs with the fragrance of thyme. The light was fading to a pale opalescent blue, streaked with rose. Wispy dark clouds, bringing a hint of dampness, glided across the sky and he shivered, drawing his cloak more closely around him. He removed his boots and, guided by the setting sun, Hernando turned east and knelt in prayer to God, thanking Him for bringing them safely to this spot. He did not wake the boy to join him but prayed that Luis would find some peace. The darkness deepened, studded with the first stars. Hernando stretched out his weary legs and pulled the sheepskins around them both.

A small hand reached out to touch him. It shook him urgently.

Hernando had been dreaming; he was back in the courtyard of the house in Granada and his grandfather was calling him.

‘Hasan, Hasan, where are you?’

He was sitting in a corner of the courtyard playing languidly with chuck stones. It was cooler in the shade of the house and all was still except for the tinkling of the fountain and the clatter of his stones as they hit the ground.

‘Hasan, come and see.’ His grandfather walked towards him, tall, purposeful as always, holding one of the first oranges of the season. His attention caught, he abandoned his game and ran to his grandfather, his eyes mesmerised by the long elegant fingers skilfully peeling the fruit. Slowly and gently his grandfather separated a segment and gave it to him and he savoured the feel of the sweet juice running down his throat.

As the shaking became more urgent, Hernando forced himself awake, the memory of the orange still alive in his mouth, and turned to the boy.

‘Luis, what is it?’

The child pointed down the valley. There in the early morning light an animal, about the size of a cat, was standing erect on a rock sniffing the air. Hernando relaxed, relieved that there was no danger, and rose to his feet stiffly, waiting for his pulse to slow. The animal made a high pitched cry and Luis clutched his grandfather’s hand so tightly that it began to hurt. Straining his eyes in the half light, Hernando could see another marmot and her young.

‘It is alright, I can see down the valley and we are alone. We must have disturbed the animals as we are so close their homes.’ He looked at the boy and spoke abruptly. ‘Come Luis, now we are awake let us make haste and be on our way.’

Packing up always took longer than he expected and an involuntary sigh escaped his lips as he turned to start the daily task. For Hernando, travelling through the mountains was an uninvited and unsettling challenge. A scholar and a healer, he had not expected to be journeying through foreign terrain at the end of the fifth decade of his life and a strict morning routine afforded some sense of normality, enabling him to face the coming day. Dawn had broken, although it would be some time before the sun would rise above the peaks. Hernando knelt and intoned his prayers and then set about encouraging Luis to eat. Reaching into his pack he found the bread and goats’ cheese he had bought from a shepherd three days earlier.

‘Come Luis,’ he said, with a tone more of command than encouragement. ‘You must eat or you will not have the strength to mend fully.’ His grandson responded by taking a piece of bread and rolling it around his mouth as if the dense dough was difficult to swallow. Hernando felt a flash of irritation but immediately suppressed it as unworthy.

‘You need to have a drink,’ he continued, reaching into the pack again to retrieve a skin of precious sekanjabin. ‘We must be careful to continue to ration this, but today is a special day.’ Hernando paused and waited until Luis reached out for the skin and took a sip of the delicious concoction of sugar, vinegar, and water. ‘Do you want to know why today is a special day, Luis?’

As usual there was no reply, so Hernando answered his own question.

‘From today most of the journey will be downhill.’

The third step in his routine was to check the boy’s face. He removed the cotton wadding and bandage which protected the wound and inspected his handiwork. The edges were knitting cleanly, pulled together by neat catgut stitches. Hernando carefully wiped the area with distilled alcohol and applied a new dressing.

‘Good, good,’ he said as he returned the precious phial to his medical bag. ‘You are doing well.’ At first he had been afraid Luis would die of his injury, but as each day had passed Hernando had breathed more easily. ‘Perhaps you could walk a little way today?’ Luis looked at his grandfather but said nothing. Pushing aside his frustration Hernando turned away. He started to gather their belongings, ready to load them onto the animals.

Half an hour later the group was ready; one man, one rangy mule weighed down by an expertly balanced large pack, and one dainty donkey, with a small, very thin boy perched on top of her panniers. Hernando glanced quickly over their campsite to check nothing had been forgotten and, turning south, allowed his eyes to rest momentarily on the pass. Aragon was now behind them, back through the Port de Boucharo. They had been travelling for two months, and in another month or so, before the autumn closed in, they should reach Caors. Instinctively his hand touched his jerkin, where his letters of introduction were concealed, and he whispered a prayer, asking God to give him the strength to reach his journey’s end.

Learn the fate of Hernando and Luis and discover how the story unfolds! Pre-order your copy of Secret Lives now...


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