by Melissa Mead
When Alejandra was nine, her mother died of dehydration. When she was ten, Alejandra made her father bring her to the Luchadores’ barracks. The three ancient wizards who would choose the boy who would become the next Luchador weren’t pleased. They almost sent Alejandra’s father to the hellstone mines, where men died with their limbs charred black. Then Alejandra marched up to the eldest of the Magos, the one in flame-red silk, and demanded that he make the bull-man stop waking her up at night. The other two Magos, in silk as gold as the sun and as blue as the sky, gasped. The first wizard scowled.
“What do you mean, child?”
“The bull with the man-face. He came when Mama died. He comes in the dark, and whispers to me.”
The old man’s caterpillar brows pinched together over his nose. “What does he say?”
“I don’t know. He sounds too far away. Then he breathes cold breath on me.”
“What do you do then?”
“This.” Alejandra thrust out both arms and splayed her fingers in a star pattern. “Then he gets angry and goes away. But he always comes back. Papa says this is where the Luchadores learn to fight him. I want to be one.”
The old wizards conferred in low, angry voices. Alejandra’s father twisted his hands together as though he could already feel them burning. At last, the old man came in red returned to Alejandra.
“Did your father tell you that if you lived here you would wear silk and eat meat every day? That we would give him water-rights?”
“No. He didn’t want to come here. He said little girls shouldn’t bother the Magos. But the bull-man won’t leave me alone.”
The oldest of the Magos turned to Alejandra’s father. “You are a widower?”
“Yes, Learned One.”
“What have you told this girl?”
“Nothing! Nothing but that the Luchadores and your worthy selves have protected us from El Toro for generations.”
“True. We have no time to raise the daughters of widowers who wish to be rid of their burden.”
Alejandra’s father paled beneath his coating of road-dust. “Great One, I assure you…”
“Enough.” He turned back to Alejandra. “Child, we can teach you to fight this bull-man,” he said. “If you defeat him, he will be too weak to return for twenty years.”
“I know. Mama said the bull-man came just before I was born, and that he’ll come back when I’m old enough to get married. She used to tell me about how the first Luchadores drove El Toro back with spells and swords and burning stones, back when there was more water and everybody had flowers in their gardens.”
“Infants’ stories. This is not a story, girl! Many boys have come here, hoping to become El Luchador. Most of them quit in disgrace. Some died. No girl has ever tried this. If we keep you, you must do what we tell you and never cry, never complain. Do you understand?”
“Then come with me.”
“I want Papa to come too.”
The old man frowned. “No. Come with me now, or go home.”
Papa squeezed Alejandra’s shoulders. His hands were wet with sweat, damp through the thin fabric of her dress. Alejandra understood. If she relented now, the Magos would think that her father had brought her here to mock them. She turned and hugged him goodbye. Then she followed the old man with the caterpillar eyebrows.
The old man led Alejandra through a courtyard. The grass here had a touch of green in it and the trees held a few limp leaves. Alejandra realized that this was the first greenery she’d seen in a long time. She hadn’t seen anything so pretty since she was little, when her mother used to sew leaves and vines onto her smocks. She wanted to linger, to touch the living plants, but the old man strode on without waiting for her. He led Alejandra past rooms lined with benches to a tiny cubbyhole.
“You’ll sleep there. Stay out of the boys’ dormitory.”
“It’s full of brooms and buckets,” said Alejandra.
“You will address me as El Primero.”
“It’s full of brooms and buckets, El Primero.”
The eldest of the Magos scowled. “Then put them to good use.”
“When will I learn to fight El Toro, El Primero?”
“Are you complaining?” His voice implied that he could still have Alejandra’s father sent to the mines any time he liked. Alejandra shook her head. As soon as the old wizard was out of sight she cleared a niche for herself among the supplies, picked up a rag and a wooden bucket, and set off to explore the barracks.
The corridors were full of boys in fine blue and gold jackets. Some gave Alejandra odd looks, but no one bothered her once they saw the bucket in her hand. She found a pump in the courtyard and gave some water to the tired-looking trees. At home, Papa always saved the wash water for their onions and beans. She’d never known anyone who had their own pump. That impressed her more than silk robes.
“Hey, girl! What are you doing?”
Alejandra turned. A boy, a couple of years her elder from his looks, stood watching her with an expression of amused exasperation.
“The Magos will thrash you if they catch you dumping water on the ground,” he said.
“Then why did they put the pump next to the trees? And my name’s not “girl.” It’s Alejandra. But you can call me La Luchadora if you want.”
The boy laughed. “The water and the trees both belong to the Magos. You could be whipped for touching them. I’m Lucas. What do you fight, Luchadora? Cobwebs?”
“No! I’m here to learn how to fight El Toro.”
Lucas shook his head. “If the Magos wanted you to study with us, El Tercero would have introduced you. I think they just wanted a girl to help the old ladies in the kitchen.”
“That can’t be. They didn’t even show me where the kitchen is.”
Lucas grinned. “If you ever plan on eating, you’d better learn. Come on; I’ll show you.”
Two hallways down from Alejandra’s closet, Lucas stopped outside a stone archway and called “Is La Bruja in?”
A ladle shot through the door, aimed at Lucas’ head. Inches away it stopped dead in the air and clattered to the stone floor.
“If I’d been Gilberto, you’d be cleaning blood out of my suit,” said Lucas to the gray-haired woman who emerged to retrieve the ladle.
“If you’d been that lout Gilberto, it would have been worth it. El Primero had better not see you. He said that if the girl was too stupid to find her way here by herself, she deserved to starve.”
“He promised to teach me how to fight El Toro!” Alejandra protested.
La Bruja gave her an unpleasant gap-toothed smile. “Did he say so, in those words?”
“Yes! He said ‘We can teach you to fight this bull-man.’”
“Can, not will. The Magos love to quibble about such things. I’m sure they could teach you, but I doubt they will.”
“Then why didn’t they just send me home with Papa?”
“Now there’s a good question.” La Bruja sucked on her remaining teeth. “There are easier ways to get a pot-scrubber. Something about you must’ve got their attention.”
“That’s a dirty trick!” said Lucas. “But Alex, what did you mean about a bull-man?”
Alejandra didn’t correct his odd shortening her name. There was something friendly about it, something that told her he was taking her seriously.
“El Toro. He has eyes like a man’s. Gray. And he’s white as clouds. It’s hard to see his face clearly, though. It’s always foggy when he comes.”
“Now I know you’re pretending. No one’s seen El Toro, except maybe the Luchadores.”
“You mean you haven’t? All of you boys? Then why are you here?”
Lucas shrugged. “It’s expected. Any family with water rights sends a son to the Magos. You get an education, and maybe learn a little magic.”
“El Primero said boys die here.”
Lucas snorted. “Not likely. Do you know what they’re teaching us this year? Sewing! Am I supposed to die of a needle prick?”
“The girl’s right,” said La Bruja. “Think. If it hadn’t been for those scraggly bricks embroidered on your jacket, you’d have a ladle-shaped dent in your forehead. If you could sew a straight line it wouldn’t have gotten as close as it did.” She shoved a bowl of beans into Alejandra’s hands and said “Now get out of here. I’ve got work to do.”
The next morning a gong woke the barracks. Alejandra scrambled up from her uncomfortable night’s sleep on a pile of rags. She stole a handful of water from the pump to splash her face and slick down her hair, and joined the line of boys filing into a classroom. When she tried to slide onto a bench, the wizard in yellow poked her with a wooden staff tipped with hellstone.
“You can’t sit with the young Luchadores.”
“Yes I can. I’m La Luchadora.”
“You aren’t allowed in the classrooms.”
“Yes I am. I’m here to fight El Toro. I’m going to learn.”
The tip of the staff pressed against Alejandra’s breastbone and began to smolder. Alejandra gasped. The boys on Alejandra’s bench edged away from her.
“You will keep out of sight, or be kept so.”
Alejandra held still until he lowered the staff. Then, with wisps of smoke still trailing from her blouse, she rose and walked, with careful dignity, to the kitchen.
No cutlery shot through the doorway. Alejandra walked through it into a bizarre vision.
Old women scurried around a gaping pit in the floor, where skillets broader than paving stones and full of eggs and sausages sizzled. Beneath it, black stones glowed red at their hearts, tainting the smoke with a bitter scent.
“That’s hellstone!” Alejandra said.
The work stopped. La Bruja turned from measuring water into stone mugs.
“So is what made that hole in your blouse. What are you doing here?”
“Looking for breakfast.”
“Then earn it. Start chopping onions.”
When Alejandra had a large pile of chopped onions in front of her, the work stopped again. She looked up through streaming eyes to see El Tercero, the wizard in blue, standing in front of her.
“El Primero warned you about crying.”
“I’m not crying! It’s the onions.”
With a nasty smile, El Tercero reached across the table for her. Alejandra threw up her hands in the gesture she used to ward off El Toro. El Tercero pulled back, the tips of his fingers bluish-white. Then he nodded, slowly, as though Alejandra had answered a question in a way he hadn’t expected, and stalked out of the kitchen. Alejandra went back to chopping onions with even greater vigor.
“Go get your things,” said La Bruja.
“Your clothes, or whatever you brought with you. Get them and come back here.”
“After I’ve found a way to get into the class.”
“Listen, girl. You’ve confused the Magos. You’ll live longer if you stay out of their way, and I want to see how long you last. There’s space in the back room.”
A back room sounded like a better place to sleep than a storage closet, at least. Alejandra ran back to get the faded cloth she’d used for a blanket. To her annoyance, Lucas was waiting outside the cubbyhole.
“All right, you can say you told me so.” Alejandra said. “But I’m still going to learn to fight El Toro.”
“Did you see the look on El Segundo’s face when he touched you with the hellstone? How bad is your burn?”
Alejandra slid a cautious finger through the hole in her blouse. “There isn’t one.”
“La Bruja’s right. You are strange.”
“At least I can sew in a straight line.”
Lucas’s hand went to the scraggly glyph on his jacket. “I’ll tell you what. You help me improve my sewing and tell me what El Toro’s really like, and I’ll teach you as much as I can of the rest. I swear by the Spring. Deal?”
Alejandra considered her chances of learning anything useful from the Magos, and stuck her hand out for Lucas to shake. “Deal.”
The other boys, eager to please the Magos, banded together against Alejandra, forcing her to become stronger and more agile than any two of them together to avoid their beatings. The kitchen work helped with that; the iron pans were heavier than the boys’ practice swords. The old women left the heavy work to Alejandra while they hung strings of fish and vegetables near the hellstone fire to dry. According to La Bruja, the smoke from the fire was a preservative.
“It must be,” Alejandra joked. “You talk like you’ve been here forever.”
La Bruja gave her an odd look and told her to stir the soup.
Lucas kept his word, sparring with Alejandra and teaching her how to read glyphs and form the choreographed movements that were supposed to keep El Toro at bay. Her warding gesture, she learned, was a basic move called Estrellas. In return, Alejandra described El Toro’s nightly visitations in detail and saved up yards of scrap cloth to help Lucas practice his stitching. Embroidering glyphs took patience, because the symbols held power. One missed stitch could send the cloth up in flame, or worse.
The first thing Lucas crafted, after he learned that three boys had gone blind from dropping a stitch in the Farsight glyph, was a belt stitched with symbols of concealment and misdirection, to cover his frequent visits to the kitchen. It worked so well that Alejandra made herself one so she could watch the boys’ swordfights and listen in on bits of their lessons. Ten years passed, and she was never caught.
As the hot dry summers faded into cold dry autumns and back again, both Alejandra and Lucas grew in skill as well as body. The few boys still left, those who hadn’t fallen victim to fighting injuries or magical mistakes, accused Lucas of mooning after the serving girl. Although Alejandra hated the teasing, she had to admit that it deflected the attention of the Magos.
La Bruja seemed to enjoy encouraging their secret lessons, even going so far as to produce a hidden cache of thread for Alejandra to practice embroidering glyphs.
“There’s so much green! I never see green on the robes of the Magos, or on the boys’ suits. Lucas says it’s bad luck.”
La Bruja snorted. “You won’t see it anywhere outside of this kitchen. It’s forbidden, like leaving the barracks or touching the Magos.
“My mother sewed green leaves on my clothes all the time. And flowers she called bluebells and carnations and lilies. Her grandmother told her about them. I’ve been practicing them.”
La Bruja smiled a fierce, sad smile. “I doubt the Magos even remember their grandmothers.”
Lucas rushed in, fully visible.
“Do you want a spoon to the head, boy?” said La Bruja. “Standing there in the open-”
“Alex, get out of here. The Magos are ready to challenge El Toro, and they want to use you as bait.”
Alejandra exchanged glances with La Bruja. “You were right. That’s why they’ve kept me all this time. Good.”
“’Good?’ Alex, did you hear what I said?”
“Yes. How else am I going to get close enough to El Toro to fight him?”
“With what? A sewing needle? A wooden spoon? Alex, for Spring’s sake-“
“Why do you say that, Lucas? Why do you swear by the Spring?”
“Well, a spring’s water, it’s precious…”
“I suspect it’s something else. But I don’t know. I can’t be sure.” Alex threw the spool of green thread into the hellstone fire to smolder and blacken until no one, not even the Magos, would be able to tell its color. “Lucas, would you forgive me if I did something terrible? If people died because of what I did?”
“As long as it wasn’t you who died,” he blurted. “Alex…”
La Bruja whacked him alongside the head. Alejandra winced in sympathy.
“Get out of my kitchen!” the ancient cook bellowed as all three Magos entered. “I have enough to do without lovesick boys moping around.”
El Primero gave her a sour smile. “Let us solve both your problems, old woman. We’ll take the girl off your hands. Young man, get back to your studies.”
Lucas took a step toward Alejandra, but she shook her head and he let La Bruja shoo him away.
The Magos took Alejandra out through the back door and marched her down the path that led to the hellstone mines. Outside the Luchadores’ barracks, the land had suffered even more than Alejandra remembered. Years of drought had cracked the earth and withered the fields. The parched hills shook as though with fever. The people slumped, dusty and dry-throated, in whatever shade they could find.
“El Toro is getting stronger,” the Magos said, when Alejandra startled at the tremors. “Soon he’ll break free and destroy everything around him.”
Alejandra said nothing, even when they locked her in a stone cell near the entrance to the mines.
In the darkness, El Toro spoke to her. Lucas had taught her how to fight, but La Bruja had made her listen- to tales hundreds of years old, to the mutterings of the Magos as they ate the flesh of mortal bulls while crouching by hellstone fires, and to her own suspicions. Alejandra listened to the rumblings of El Toro and heard the turning of the earth. The cell grew cold. Frost formed on the stone, to become clear water in the warmth of her hands. Reassured, she drank the water and waited.
When the Magos released Alejandra hours later, her eyes had adjusted to the dark and the sunlight stung them. While the three wizards bound her to an iron post in front of the hellstone mine, she squinted toward the miners’ huts, where all the surviving boys but one formed a line intended to keep the desperate miners away from the Magos.
Alejandra counted a dozen dark shapes against her dazzled vision. Of the swarm of boys who had crowded the barracks ten years ago, only thirteen remained. These twelve, and El Luchador.
“Let it be Lucas. Let it be Lucas,” Alejandra prayed.
The gong from the barracks sounded, magically magnified to echo across the barren fields. The Magos swept over the brown grass, their feet not quite touching it. Behind them, walking normally except for a tremor of either fear or rage, came El Luchador.
Lucas. Alejandra hid her smile of relief. Lucas wouldn’t understand it, and the Magos surely meant to torment her, knowing that El Luchador would likely die in achieving his task.
The Magos raised their staffs high, the hellstone tips blazing. The protective sigils on their robes shone red. They chanted- a high, whining sound. Thanks to her studies with Lucas Alejandra understood most of the words. They were mocking El Toro, taunting him, calling him to take the pittance they offered in Alejandra and creep back into his hole.
El Toro came, turning the air colder than anyone had felt in a generation. Frost whitened the mouth of the mine. The earth shuddered. The great horned head emerged from the darkness, and even Alejandra gasped at his solid reality. The massive white bull’s body shouldered its way free of the earth. The heavy head with its human eyes turned to glare at the Magos, then swung to face Alejandra. Lucas shouted and ran forward, sword drawn.
He did, looking baffled and angry.
“Put the sword down, please.”
“Put the sword down, and whatever happens, don’t touch El Toro. Or me. Don’t let the Magos touch me either. Please.”
Lucas put the sword down-and snatched it up again as the Magos advanced toward Alejandra.
“You heard the lady, Learned Ones. Leave her alone.”
Alejandra shut out their voices until nothing was left but her and the great bull. She held still as El Toro sniffed her over. He smelled like water and cold stone. Then, with a toss of his head, he ripped Alejandra’s dress in two from neck to hem. Half fell to the ground. The other half dangled from one of El Toro’s sharp horns. Alejandra looked down, expecting to see herself gored open, but saw only split rope and her white underdress, with its embroidery of green leaves and flowers. She stepped free of the post and El Toro backed away from her, shaking his head.
“I was right,” she said, half to herself and half to the mighty creature before her. “Green isn’t evil, but it’s powerful. Just like you.”
“Stop her before she curses us all!” El Primero’s voice whined in her ear like a mosquito.
“Alex, do you know what you’re doing?” said Lucas.
“No. But I know this much. La Bruja says she’s seen ten Luchadores die keeping El Toro at bay. That’s two hundred years. Two hundred years without the Spring we swear by. Because you can’t have Spring without true Winter. Lucas, bring me nine hellstones, please.”
“You can’t do this! I forbid you!” shouted El Primero. The bull’s presence held him frozen. None of the Magos moved.
“You’re a traitor!” said El Segundo.
“People will die. Their deaths will be on your head.” El Tercero didn’t shout. He spoke with matter-of-fact calm. His words made Alejandra pause.
“I know,” she said. “But more will live.”
Lucas brought her the hellstones, glowing through a runestitched cloth. Alejandra brought them to El Toro in her bare hands.
“I know your name,” she said. “And you can be free for three months out of the twelve, like the stories say you used to be. Eat these to seal the bargain, and I will free you.”
When the last hot stone had vanished down El Toro’s icy gullet and the creature stood steaming and looking at her expectantly, Alejandra called out “Winter, I free you!”
El Toro became a storm of ice and snow, blasting across the field. The students shrieked and ran; the wind shrieked louder. Alejandra and Lucas held tight to each other until the gale passed, and peered through the thickly-falling snow. Traces of crimson, gold, and blue vanished beneath the white flakes as they watched.
“The Magos are dead,” said Lucas.
“Yes,” said Alejandra. She was shaking, and not just from the cold.
“They were over two hundred years old,” said Lucas. “And they were drying up the land.”
“Yes.” Alejandra forced down her guilt and straightened. “Get the other students together. We need to distribute hellstones to as many people as we can, to help them keep warm. And blankets, and warm clothing…”
“As you command, my Luchadora,” said Lucas.
They worked into the night, bringing people what they needed to survive the winter. Some cursed Alejandra. Some cried. Finally, she and Lucas snatched a moment for themselves in the barracks kitchen.
“La Bruja is dead,” said Alejandra. “All the old women are. I’m sorry.”
Lucas nodded. “And your father… The miners told me. The Magos sent him to the mines anyway, and he died five years ago. I’m sorry.”
Alejandra dropped into a chair and stared at the floor. “I should never have come here.”
Lucas didn’t speak for a long time. Then he said “We were all dying, slowly, along with the land. What the Magos did was wrong. What you did will set things right. We’ll all see that when the Spring comes.”
“If we’re still here.”
“Alex! Aren’t you La Luchadora? Can’t you fight more than dust and cobwebs?”
Alejandra gazed into the hellstone firepit. Pans and kettles of snow, melting into precious water, lined the rim. “Lucas, tell the other boys to throw the Magos’ bodies into the fire. Let them burn. And then… the old women… I know the right place for them, and then I have something more to do. I’d like you to help, if you will.”
“Of course, my Luchadora.”
Her smile flickered and faded. “Thank you, Lucas.”
Alejandra and Lucas walked beneath the trees in the courtyard amid the newly-turned damp earth.
“I think La Bruja would like us to put flowers here, once we can find the seeds,” said Alejandra. “But in the meantime, this will have to do.”
She walked back and forth, scattering her gleanings from the kitchen: carrot and turnip tops, bean pods, vegetable peelings.
“You’re putting garbage on their graves?”
“Papa used to say it made plants grow better. But look, Lucas! It’s green. And soon things will be green everywhere. I swear by the Spring.”
About the Author
Melissa Mead lives in Upstate NY. She’s had stories in several places, including Daily Science Fiction and Intergalactic Medicine Show, but this is her first podcast.
About the Narrator
Sandra is a New York born and raised voice actress with a background in literature and writing. After a childhood where video games were banned from the house, she one-eighty’d so hard she’s finally in them and never leaving.
Some games Sandra’s voiced for include Heroes of Newerth, Marvel’s Avengers Academy and the critically acclaimed Wadjet Eye Games adventure RPG “Unavowed” as Mandana. Catch her on Twitter or Facebook under the handle “DustyOldRoses,” obsessing over good food, good games and the color pink.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.