The Golden Conquest – Part 3

“Who said that he was alone?” a voice thundered from the darkness. Father Garcilosa strode into the firelight holding his staff before him. His hands firmly clenched  its wooden shaft and his eyes flashed. “Put the boy down and then you can leave!”

            “Or what, priest?”  The brigand sneered, “You’ll excommunicate me?  I haven’t cared about your church for a long time.”

            Henrico watched in horror as a third bandit appeared behind the priest. Knife in hand, the new threat crept forward toward Father Garcilosa’s exposed back. He was raising his blade to strike when suddenly the cleric moved. Father Garcilosa swiftly brought the end of his staff upward between the man’s legs. Eyes wide, the thief let out an oomph of air and fell to his knees. The priest kept his eyes locked on the other two men while he spun his weapon around his body to crack the fallen bandit across his head. The man fell forward and was silent.

            Cursing, the bearded man flung down the bedroll and pulled a short, curved sword from his belt. “You’re going to die for that, priest,” he snarled, “And then so will your blackbird.”  He motioned for Raul to hold the young man and stepped forward. The knifeman pushed Henrico to his knees. The blade was still at his throat as they watched the drama unfolding before them.

            The whiskered thief inched forward, his flashing blade weaving a mesmerizing pattern before him. He grinned cruelly and licked his lips. “I’m going to cut off your hands first, priest. And then your ears and your eyes. And then I’m going to kill you.”

            Father Garcilosa smiled gently, “You sir, really do talk too much.”  The brigand growled in anger and charged forward. The priest sidestepped deftly and struck him across the back. The thief sprawled to the ground but quickly regained his footing. He advanced again but with more cautious. He feinted to the right and then suddenly lunged forward. Father Garcilosa parried the blow with his staff and turned it sharply to strike him again. The blow staggered the thief and was quickly followed by a second and a third. The bearded man fell motionless to the ground.

            Henrico had watched the battle in amazement. His eyes widened and his mouth dropped open as he stared at the display of martial skill. He realized that Raul was just as shocked for the pressure of blade against his neck had lessened. The knife wielding bandit seemed transfixed by the sight of his comrade’s fall. The Benedictine novice became aware of the rough feel of a large stone beneath his hand. Closing his fist on the stone, he swung it against the thief’s temple. The struggle was over.

            Shoving the bandit’s limp body aside, Henrico leapt to his feet. His heart was racing and his breath came in ragged gulps. He stared at the man lying still at his feet and then at the rock still clenched in his fist. Dropping the stone, he watched with relief as Raul’s chest rose and fell and a soft groan escaped from the thief’s lips. Henrico let the stone fall from his fingers and looked up.

            The priest took a step towards the younger man but stumbled and almost fell. Rushing forward, Henrico grasped his arms and helped him to the ground beside the fire. His voice was sharp and tense when he spoke. “Father, did he hurt you?”

            “No lad, it’s the old wound. I’m not use to such exertions. No doubt, I will pay the price for them and I fear I will need to ride the mule again tomorrow. Now Brother Henrico, I suggest you make our guests more comfortable. Take their belts and some cord from our packs and bind their feet and hands. We’ll deal with them in the morning.”

            “What will we do with them, Father?”

            “I will pray about that. I suggest you do likewise. And be sure to thank the Lord for our deliverance.”

            “Father,” the young man spoke, his eyes downcast and a blush rising to his face, “I’m sorry about . . .”

            “There now, my son. I was young once also. You are forgiven. Now you had better take care of those bandits before they regain their senses.”

            The eastern sky was smudged with red when the priest stirred again. Henrico sat pale by the fire, his eyes glazed with fatigue. He had armed himself with a stout piece of firewood to guard their trio of prisoners. The robber’s weapons lay untouched in a pile beside him. A poignant mixture of shame, guilt and fear had kept him from handling the blades but also from sleep. He had failed once again in his duty and in doing so had almost cost them their lives. He promised himself that he would not fail Father Garcilosa again. The novice looked up suddenly as the older cleric knelt beside him.

            “Good morning, lad,” the priest said, “Your face bears the marks of our battle last night.” He reached out and touched the bruises and abrasions on the young man’s face. “Take this salve and apply it to your wounds. It will aid the healing greatly.” Henrico took the small clay vessel and winced at the pungent aroma that assailed his nostrils when he pulled off the cork stopper. “Yes,” the priest continued, “It is not the most pleasant of perfumes but I assure you it is effective.”

            Father Garcilosa took the curved sword from the pile beside Henrico. He studied the blade carefully in the morning light and then rose to stand over the bandits. The three men stared up at the priest, their eyes displaying a mixture of fear, apprehension and scorn. Slowly their confidence was eroded under the cleric’s scrutiny and one by one they were forced to avert their gaze. The priest held the short sword up and turned it slowly in his hands.

            “Where did you get this weapon? I assume you stole it.” The bearded man looked up sharply.

            “I wasn’t always a thief, priest. I earned that blade. I took it from a Moor after the final battle for Grenada.”

            “I remember that battle,” Father Garcilosa said, “I was in the vanguard. Where did you stand that day?” 

            “I-I was on the left. You were there?  You fought?”

            “Yes, I was, and I did. I also remember that the warfare was especially bitter on the left flank. Many good men died that day.”

            A wave of sadness passed over the bandit’s eyes. He shuddered before turning his head to spit on the ground. “And for what? My father and brother fell on that field and what good did it do? We traded the Moors for other tyrants. Our lords weren’t grateful for our sacrifice. No, no rewards for us. Just more taxes and when the crops fail and you can’t pay, out you go.”

            “Did you seek justice?”

            “From who? The courts belong to the lords and the Church only cares for lining its pockets with gold, or burning out those they don’t like. There’s no justice for the likes of us.”  The other thieves grunted in agreement. “Yes, we’re thieves, Father. And we have killed to protect ourselves but I tell you right, we’re not murderers like some of your kind. Not like that.”

            The priest stood in silence, his eyes seeming to focus on some distant point. Then he clenched the sword in his hand and bent over the three thieves. Henrico gasped as the blade flashed in the morning light and the men’s bonds fell away. They all stared in amazement as Father Garcilosa spoke. “Your words are true, sad but true and they confirm what the Holy Spirit has spoken into my heart. Stand.”

            The trio of men gingerly rose to their feet. They touched painful bruises and rubbed stiff and numb limbs. The younger men glanced at their leader who only shrugged and shook his head before turning to stare at the priest. The cleric carefully reversed the curved blade in his hands and held the hilt out to the bearded man. The man’s mouth dropped open in bewilderment. When he continued to hesitate Father Garcilosa face was touched with a gentle smile. At last he took the sword, his face was flushed with shame.

            “Why are you doing this, priest? We meant to rob you and even to kill you? Now you give me my weapon back? Why?”

“Our Lord Jesus offered forgiveness and redemption to all men. He told the thief who hung on the cross beside Him that through his faith he would join Our Lord in paradise that very day. Do you trust in God?”

            “I can’t trust the Church anymore.”

            “I did not ask you of the Church. I asked you about Our Lord. Do you believe in Him? Do you know Him? Is He your Father?”  The priest placed a hand on the bearded man’s shoulder and stared into his eyes. Henrico was amazed to see tears begin to roll down the thief’s grizzled cheeks. The man nodded and dropped his head. A warm smile creased Father Garcilosa’s face as he continued, “Now my son, go. Go in forgiveness. Go and in the words of Our Lord Jesus, sin no more.”

            Henrico watched as each of the former thieves knelt in turn to seek a blessing from the priest. The trio silently gathered their meager belongings and prepared to depart. Before they left, they pledged their good behavior and promised that the two clerics would not have no more trouble on their journey. Within moments they had disappeared over a hilltop.

            The men had been true to their word. The attitude of the common folk which they encountered had changed. People removed their headwear and smiled as they passed. Villagers, who had earlier fled behind shuttered windows and closed doors, now came forth to watch their passing. The priest’s old wound gave him such discomfort that he called an early halt to their journey on that day. They were greeted and invited into a roadside inn where they settled before the fire.

            They were there when the village elders came to them. There were no churches nearby and the people had long been neglected by any traveling priests. Their request was simple? Would Father Garcilosa hold a mass for them in the morning?  Would he serve Holy Communion? As the priest smiled and nodded yes, Henrico observed all of the pains from his old injury disappear from his face. The mass would be held at dawn in the village square.

            Father Garcilosa held the simple earthenware chalice aloft as the sun rose into the eastern sky. The villagers had begun to fill the dirt plaza well before and they now stood or knelt in eager anticipation as the mass. Though the priest’s vestments were plain and his Eucharist vessels simple, an awed hush seemed to fill the square. Henrico had assisted in the preparations and now attended the priest at the crude altar. He watched in fascination as the priest turned and began to minister to the people.

            Each liturgy that the young novice had ever witnessed had been presented entirely in Latin. True to form, Father Garcilosa commenced in the ancient language but he quickly switched to the common Spanish understood by the citizens of the village. They at first seemed surprised to hear the priest’s speech but their faces glowed as his words filled their hearts. He spoke to them not of a God of judgment or vengeance but rather of love and forgiveness. He told them of His grace and holiness and invited them to partake. The communion bread was coarse and dark and the drink more vinegar than wine, but both were made holy by God’s presence.    

   At the end of the service, the two clerics bade farewell to the villagers and resumed their journey. Henrico hesitated before speaking. His voice quaked and his brow was creased with deep furrows. “Father, forgive me, but I must ask. Most would have given the service only in Latin. Would that not have been more proper?”

            “Proper?” the priest replied with a chuckle, “I don’t think our Lord Jesus delivered His Sermon on the Mount in Latin. No, I suspect He spoke to the people in their own language. The truth of His love needs to be delivered to His sheep in a way that they can understand.”

            “But the prior at the monastery spoke harshly of any attempt to translate scripture, or even explain them to the common folk.”

            “I’m not surprised. Too many in the Church spend all of their time putting barriers up to separate people from God. It seems that they do so to make themselves more important and more necessary. Sadly, it seems that the Church hierarchy believes that this is the correct path.”

            “But Father, I don’t understand how they let you – I mean, doesn’t someone – um, I mean to say how do you—?”

            “Get away with it?” There was laughter in his voice. “There are those who would like to silence me, who disagree with my beliefs and wish that I desist in my efforts. However, I have good friends and support both in the office of the Archbishop and at court. It seems that it does pay to have friends in high places,” Father Garcilosa paused to gaze into the clear blue sky before continuing, “And of course, my closest friend is very high up indeed. As long as I stay in God’s will, I need fear no man.”

            “How can you know God’s will except from what we’re told?”

            “You should listen to your elders and those in authority over you. But if what they command you is against the Lord’s will, then you must choose to obey God and not man.”

            “But how do I know?”

            “The Holy Spirit will guide you but you can start by studying the Word. St. Paul told us all scripture is useful for instruction and admonition. Moses told us to keep them in our heart and teach them diligently to our sons, and Jesus Himself told us that if any man lacked for wisdom, he need only ask. Learn scripture, study it diligently and you have a basis to know God’s will. Here.”  The priest pulled a small book from his pack, and handed it to the novice. It was a simple testament, lacking the usual decorative pages and ornate lettering but accurate and detailed. Henrico held it in his hands as if it were the most precious of treasures and could find no words to thank the priest.

            “It is yours, only promise me that you will read and study it.”  As the young man nodded with grave vigor, the cleric continued, “Now, put it in your baggage for safekeeping.”

            They hurried on, with no further incidents to trouble them. Henrico studied the testament he had been given but often sought the priest’s help to understand what he read. The speed of their journey often prevented any deep conversations. Soon they had passed Sevilla and moved on, skirting the swampy lowlands of Los Marimas at a rapid pace. Within days a salty tang could be noted in the breeze and multitudes of seabirds swirled overhead. At last as the two clerics crossed over an ancient stone bridge, the priest pointed ahead to the end of the first step of their expedition, the ancient port city of Cadiz.

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