Here is Part 2 of my award winning manuscript, “The Golden Conquest”. I hope you enjoy it and pass the word on to others. – Kevin
Spain, 1518 AD
The chill of the stone floor sent a shiver through his knees and up his spine. He welcomed it. It would keep him awake and help him finish his vigil. The chapel was deserted but the prior’s eyes were everywhere, quick to note every fault and quicker to punish. The young novice tried to be obedient, he really had, but the day had been so hot and the pond so cool and inviting. It would have been bad enough if he had merely left his work to go wading but you can’t swim in a heavy cassock. It had lain at the water’s edge to be found by the prior just as the naked novice dove beneath the dark waters.
He had accepted his beating meekly. Though the prior was skilled with a rod, he lacked the strength and determination of his own father. The dull ache in his shoulders seemed a fair exchange for the moments of bliss his illicit swim had given him. The extra punishment of a night of prayer in the old chapel did more to dampen his spirits. A gnawing ache in his belly and dryness on his lips reminded him that he had also been denied food and water. The aching numbness in his legs vied for his attention. How could the days be so hot and the nights so cold? It must be winter’s last gasp before the coming of spring.
The novice tried again to return to his prayers. He knew them all by rote and recited them easily, first in Latin then in Spanish. He tried a bit of Greek but found his mind too dull with fatigue to finish and so changed to French. Soon his mind was not on his prayers but some doggerel from his childhood. That would never do. What would the prior think if he heard such a verse. A faint smile creased his face as he pictured the man’s face red with pious indignation. The novice half wondered if the sight would be worth the consequences.
“I am glad to see that you have at least obeyed this command,” the prior spoke from behind the young man, “If I had my way you would continue this vigil through the day as well. But the abbot has commanded your presence as soon as prime is over. Come.”
“Are you sure you want this novice?” the abbot said, “Henrico is young and headstrong and has not yet taken his vows. I do not wish to question your judgment Father, but—”
“But you can’t help yourself, can you, my friend? But do not worry. I have my reasons for wanting one. I am confident that he will not disappoint me.” The priest smiled and turned from the window. He was tall and dark, his temples tinged with grey but his eyes clear and sharp. His cassock was simple and befitting of a country priest but his face showed much more. Father Garcilosa de la Vega had been a soldier before he was priest and he remained an adventurer even after.
The abbot shook his head. “You have been my friend for almost three decades but still I did not know all about you. There are so many stories and I wonder how many are true. Perhaps it is best not to know. Still, I admit I do not understand. You are an educated man. Not just at the university here but in Paris also. You served in Rome before the Moorish wars. You’ve seen so much. Why take such a risk again? You have already been to the New World once.”
“Yes, I was there. From the decks of the Nina I saw it. Now I must return.”
“That made no sense at all,” the abbot said, “You are a soldier, a commander, a priest, a scholar but yet you signed on as a common sailor with that madman.”
“Columbus wasn’t mad. He might have even been inspired.” The priest stared back out at the horizon before continuing, “He came aboard the Nina, you know, after the Santa Maria was lost. I was at the Captain’s table by then.”
“No doubt. Your skills as a healer and priest would be wasted as a common seaman.”
“Ah, but I loved the adventure of it.”
“At last, you answer with the full truth. Is that why you must return?”
“Perhaps in part, but more so because I truly feel the call of God.”
As the chapel bell sounded the end of the first canonical hour, Henrico stood wide eyed behind the prior as he knocked on the door to the abbot’s quarters. As it opened, the monk bowed deep and with a grunt signaled for the young man to enter. Henrico swallowed hard and stepped over the threshold. His mind raced. What had he done that warranted an audience with the abbot? What sin had found him out? Was he to be expelled? Or worse? The abbot’s smile was benign as he turned and left the office.
The novice was more confused than ever. He looked up to study the tall priest standing by the window. The morning sun gave a golden cast to the halo of hair rising from his head and served to increase the young man’s apprehension. When the priest spoke, his voice was calm and strong, “The abbot has a fine view of the university, does he not?”
“Y-yes, I mean, I d-don’t know. I’ve never been in his office before.”
“You are Henrico de Medillin, are you not? And I . . .”
“I know who you are, Father. I was allowed to attend some of your classes, and once the master of novices took us to see your church.” The young man blushed at his interruption and stared back at his feet. “I’m sorry, Father.”
“Quite all right, my son. Did you also know that I was a friend of your father’s? No? We fought the Moors together in Castille. I also knew your mother. I was sad to hear of their passing.”
“Thank you, Father,” Henrico managed to say through a throat suddenly tight and dry.
“I also know that is why you are here at the Monastery of San Vincente. Your father had planned to send you to the University, hadn’t he? But then he died, and the estate could only go so far.”
The novice lowered his head and stared at the ground with clenched fists as Father Garcilosa continued. “The eldest received the manor and lands. The second inherited the orchard and olive press. And the third son . . .”
“Stephano took father’s horse and armor.” Henrico’s voice was cold.
“Ah yes, off somewhere seeking his fortune. But not much left for you, the youngest. Sadly, your brothers chose not to honor your father’s plan to send you to the university here in Salamanca.”
“They offered a position at the press or in the fields.”
“Yes, and what a waste that would have been. Thankfully you came here instead. I have had my eye on you and am pleased with what I have seen.”
“You are? I mean—thank you, Father.”
“You have an excellent ear for languages and a quick mind. Your Latin is good and your Greek is passable. I believe you also speak French and Italian.”
“Yes Father. I know Portuguese as well and a little English.”
“Very good,” the priest smiled “I believe you can be of use to me. And in helping me you would also allow me to repay a favor to your father. Now tell me, what you know of the New World and of the man Hernan Cortes.”
The sun was warm and gentle on the shaved tonsure of the young Benedictine as he strolled beside the laden mule. He still found it hard to believe. Was he truly on this journey south the great port of Cadiz? Had someone like Father Garcilosa de la Vega really requested his service? The prior was against it. Even the master of novices had opposed the plan. He knew their concerns were justified. He was young, he was inexperienced and he had not yet taken his vows. But somehow the priest had prevailed and the abbot had agreed. The young man was released into the care and direction of Father Garcilosa. He glanced ahead where the priest rode the other mule.
“Father, would you tell me more of the New World?”
“More? Haven’t I already told you enough? Very well.” The priest spoke as Henrico walked behind him. The miles passed quickly. After a time, Father Garcilosa stepped down from his mule and turned to the novice. “So many questions, but there is one you have not asked – why are we going back?” He stood in silence for a moment. “There will be another expedition to the west of the known lands. The reasons are many.
Diego Valazquez, the Governor of Cuba, wants more power. Our King, Charles, wants the gold and wealth that is rumored to lie further west. And Cortes, well he wants glory. I know him, did I tell you that? He was a student for a time in Salamanca. Not a very good one but there is a spark within him that others lack. He is also from your home town.”
“Yes, we will carry letters confirming his commission to Cuba. We will then accompany him on the expedition.”
“What will we be doing on it, Father?”
“God’s will my son, God’s will.”
When they had reached the Rio de Tajo, Father Garcilosa dismounted from his mule and stood leaning on his staff. He shifted his weight and grimaced slightly, a flicker of pain showing in his eyes.
“Father, are you injured?”
The priest paused. “It is nothing new, my son. Someday perhaps, I shall tell you the story. For now, suffice it to say I have been privileged to shed blood both for my country and for my God. Yes, at times my leg pains me but I accept God’s wisdom.” He gave a small smile and then pointed to the river, “There, the ferryman has arrived to take our coin and send us onward in our journey. Let us make haste.”
As the two clerics traveled, they spoke of many things. Freed from the rigid rules of ecclesiastic society, Henrico was able to question the priest directly. He willingly answered and shared his knowledge and experience. The Benedictine novice had never heard anyone speak about God the way this man did, not just as a King but also as a father and a friend. Henrico wondered how such a thing could be. The God he knew was distant and stern. How could anyone have such a relationship with Him? Was such a thing possible?
The road steepened as they climbed into the Sierra Morena. Settlements and farmsteads became sparse and scattered in the rough terrain while the people they encountered seemed withdrawn and suspicious. The two clerics were watched with faces set in careful stoicism, only their eyes betraying a sullen dislike that surprised and troubled the novice. He was walking in silence beside the mule, trying to find the right questions to ask the priest when they came over a sharp rise. Before them, they saw the burnt-out ruins of a small village.
Without a word, they moved through the deserted streets. Cracked and crumpling stone and brick walls still bore the blackened scars of the fire that had gutted the small cluster of houses. The central well was overgrown with briers and thorns. A rabbit darted out from the weeds as they approached. It raced past the shattered hulk of a red brick building. Henrico noted it had not only been burned but also pulled down and broken apart. As if whoever had done this wanted to wipe out all memory of the place. The young man looked around with eyes wide and mouth fallen open.
“Father Garcilosa,” the young man stammered, “What happened here? This is not new. Why has no one rebuilt?”
The priest looked around the devastation and shook his head. “This place was visited by Tomas de Torquemada in the past and it is his handiwork that you see here.”
Henrico stepped back with a sharp indrawn breath. He had heard so many tales of the Inquisition. The name Torquemada had been used to frighten him into obedience as a child and now he stood where the Grand Inquisitor had held sway. “They say he killed tens of thousands.”
“You should not believe all that you hear,” the priest said, “The truth is horrific enough.”
“Horrific? But wasn’t he doing God’s work?”
Father Garcilosa turned to stare at the novice in silence. Henrico saw his eyes flash and his jaw clench and relax twice before he spoke.
“Our Lord would have all men drawn unto Him that is true, but not once in the Holy Scripture did He command that they should be threatened with burning at the stake if they refused.” The older cleric bent over amongst the tumbled piles of red bricks. He turned over a large stone to reveal a carved relief of a simple seven stemmed candlestick, a menorah, a symbol of the Jews. “The people who lived here were the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as was our Lord. Jesus came first for the Jews and only second for us, the Gentiles.”
“But, they rejected Him. They killed Him!”
“The leaders of the Jews did. The Pharisees, the Sanhedrin and the court of Herod did. And never forget, the Romans. But remember, Saint Paul and all the Apostles were Jewish and so were all of the early Church. On the day Saint Peter preached three thousand were converted to the Faith. All of them were Jews.” The priest sighed and stared at the horizon for a moment. “I believe in my heart that our Holy Lord Jesus will continue to call His chosen people to Him. He is their Messiah and I pray some day they will respond to His love.
But I know that threats and fear will never change the hearts of men. It may lead to an outward change; a change in action but not in attitude. Jesus tells us in the Holy Scripture that they shall know us by our love. Sadly because of men like Torquemada many now know the Church only by our hate. I fear we may have driven them further away from God. We will have to answer for that.”
“I don’t understand, Father. I’ve always been taught that the Church never is wrong. What does this all mean?”
“My son, God’s Holy Church is His Bride without spot or wrinkle. But it is inhabited by foolish, fallible and sometimes corrupt men.”
“But what about …”
The older cleric interrupted with a gentle smile, “I think my young friend, that we have risked enough heresy for one day. The sun will be setting soon and I would rather not spend the night in this place. Let us hurry.”
For the next few hours the two traveled in silence. Henrico noted when Father Garcilosa paused to stare into the distance, seeming deep in old memories. The novice looked back toward the abandoned village and shook his head. What did it all mean? They made camp on a rocky hillside that night and, after sharing a simple meal of bread and dried meat, settled in beside the campfire. Both remained quiet allowing their thoughts and prayers to mix with the wood smoke as it drifted upward. The young novice fingered the simple brass cross his mother had given him years before. If only he could speak to her now. She could make sense of things for him, whether the aloofness of his older brothers, the pain that so often seemed to fill his father’s face, or the simpler questions of country life. She did not have all the answers but her simple love and goodness would calm his worries and fears. He missed her.
The priest announced it best to set a guard this night. The Sierra Morena hills were isolated and wild, and it was wise to take precautions. Father Garcilosa took the first watch and awoke the novice hours later to take his turn. Henrico settled in with his back to a large stone and fed wood into the fire. The warm flames danced before his weary eyes in an almost hypnotic pattern. The long hours of travel and the tiring stress of the day took their toll and his eyelids grew heavy, his breathing shallow and regular. The young man’s head slowly dipped forward in slumber.
The warm sun dappled the ground with gold as it flashed through the leaves of the olive trees. He lay on his back and watched the small birds flit from branch to branch. A woman’s infectious laugh brought him to his elbows and he saw his mother coming down the path from the house. Her dark hair shimmered in the sunlight, and he thought how much like an angel she looked. She was carrying a woven basket and stooped to pick wild flowers for the manor. Looking up she caught his eye and waved a greeting.
With graceful ease she continued to walk toward him. Her ebony eyes shone with love and happiness as she approached the grove. He was her youngest son and he knew that he held a special place in her heart. She was more than his mother; she was also his confidante and his protector. She laughed again as he waved back to her. Suddenly she stopped, her face becoming clouded and her eyes anxious. She looked beyond him and he turned abruptly to see a darkened figure standing over him.
“Sleeping again, you lazy whelp? Wake up and get back to work!”
A sharp blow across his cheek shattered the dream and brought him back to the rocky hillside. The dark figure swore foully, “I said wake up, you little swine!” The apparition grasped him by his robes and pulled him to his feet. Fetid breath watered his eyes as the bearded man grinned to show crooked and missing teeth. Taking note of Henrico’s Benedictine cassock, he laughed harshly, “So we’ve got a blackbird, do we? Well, little blackbird, you nested on my hillside tonight and now you must pay the toll. And pay you will.”
Henrico gasped in pain as the bandit struck him again and shoved him into the arms of a second man. The other brigand spun him around and grabbed his throat. The novice caught a flash of steel in the flicker of the firelight and felt the prick of a knife blade at his neck. His eyes widened with fear as his head was stretched back. The bearded man spoke again.
“Now we’re going to take your mules, monk. But that’s not enough. I want your gold too. We’ll call it a tax – no, a tithe.” He laughed again and spat into the fire. “So, blackbird, you can just tell me where your gold is or I can let Raul convince you to talk.” Henrico winced as the pressure from the knife increased fractionally. A tiny trickle of blood began to inch slowly down his exposed neck. His eyes darted from side to side. What could he say? He had no coin but would the bandits believe him?
“It was very stupid to travel these hills alone, monk,” the bearded man said as he rifled through Henrico’s bedroll, “Very stupid indeed.”
“Who said that he was alone?” a voice thundered from the darkness.