The Golden Conquest – Part 4

As he moved through the streets of Cadiz, Henrico’s senses were assailed from all sides. The tang of the salt air mingled with the pungent aromas of sweat and raw sewage. Gulls shrieked overhead while dogs snarled and yelped at their feet. The cries of shopkeepers and street vendors hawking their wares competed with the laughter and curses of drunken sailors. The young Benedictine was dazzled by the myriad smells and sounds and even more so by the sights. The slow-moving Rio Guadalete mingled its silty brown waters with the sparkling blue of the bay. Dhows with red and white striped sails slipped past dingy barges laden with cargo, while tanned and sweating fisherman tossed glistening silver fish into woven baskets made golden by the sun.

            The streets were filled with countless people. Drab merchants with faces as pinched as their purses jostled with brightly clad sailors from distant ports. Liveried servants pushed aside ragged street urchins to allow the passage of ornately decorated sedan chairs, while overhead whores leaned from windows and balconies to call down their profane offers. The young novice blushed a deep crimson at the sight of their too loose bodices and quickly looked away. Purposely fixing his eyes down on the cobblestones, Henrico walked straight into a man standing by a tavern. The man’s flagon of ale splashed onto his shirt and he turned with a curse.

            “Look out, you fool,” he snarled, “You had better start to watch you step. Or do I have to teach you.”  He reached out to grab the novice’s arm but Father Garcilosa stepped between them and raised his hands in a conciliatory manner.

            “We are most sorry, sir,” the priest spoke gently, “Our Benedictine brother meant no harm. Come; let us replace your drink.”  He attempted to redirect the scowling man back towards the tavern, but he shook off the cleric’s hand and swore again.

            “Let go of me, priest!  I want satisfaction alright but not from more ale.”  He was attempting to step around Father Garcilosa to confront Henrico when a second man stepped into his path.

            “Is there a problem here, Diego?” the man said, his voice calm and even. His swarthy face was smiling but his eyes were hard and cold. The seaman stopped short and took a step backwards.

            “No, no problem, Captain. Just a little misunderstanding. No harm done.”

            “Lucky for you,” the captain’s grin widened as he pointed to the priest. “Do you have any idea who this is? This pastor could give you a beating just as quickly as he could a blessing.” The sea captain grasped the cleric’s arms and thumped him on the back as they embraced. “It’s wonderful to see you again, Father. I’ve been waiting for you.”

            “Not for too long I hope, Captain Quintero,” Father Garcilosa replied.

            “Not to worry, Father. We’re still loading supplies.” He turned to stare at the sailor. “And as my second mate, you’re supposed to be overseeing the work, Montoya. Now get yourself back to the ship.”

            “Yes, Captain.” Montoya gave a quick bow and headed back to the docks but not before flashing an angry glance at Henrico. The young Benedictine felt a chill run up his spine. Suppressing a shudder, he turned his attention back to the two older men.

            “Henrico,” Father Garcilosa was saying, “This is Alonzo Quintero, the captain of the ship which will carry us to the New World. We will be quite secure in his care. He has made the voyage across the ocean several times. Indeed, it was he who took Senor Cortes there for the first time.”

            “Ah, Father. That was long ago. We’ve all changed a lot since then.”

            “So, I see,” the priest laughed, waving a hand toward Quintero’s fine clothing. The embroidered doublet disguised but could not hide his wide girth. “I see you’ve done well for yourself.”

            “What can I say? Life is good and the market for trade grows. A smart man can do very well for himself.”

            “Especially if he’s willing to overlook the rules now and then, eh Alonzo?”

            “Father de la Vega, you know I’m an honest man or at least as honest as the rest of them, and what about you? I’ve some tales about you also. You still don’t always do as you’re told either.”

            “We had better take care, my friend, lest we corrupt our young brother here. Now, where is that ship of yours?” The trio turned and continued down the avenue, Quintero’s booming voice clearing the way for them. His obvious delight in pointing out the sights to Henrico eased the young novice’s apprehension, and his fascination grew as the sea captain elaborated on the history of the port city.

            “The oldest city in all of Spain, it is,” Quintero was saying, “Cadiz was here before the Romans even. It was the Phoenicians that first found this port and a fine anchorage it remains. See that arch, lad? The Romans built it, they did, but those stones were cut first by the Sea Folk.”

            “Actually, Alonzo,” Father Garcilosa interjected, “The stones were probably brought here by the Carthaginians. The Phoenicians were here earlier, yes, but they settled mainly on the island.”

            “Why would they do that? The food’s much better on this shore.”

            “I bow to your expertise in this matter, my friend,” the priest smiled, “There is much history in this city, Henrico, and many peoples have trod over its stones. We could spend many weeks exploring its streets and alleys but I fear we must soon depart from its shores.”

            “That’s right, lad,” Quintero said, “We should finish loading the supplies on the ship within a few days and then we sail. It’s already late enough in the season. I’d rather that we had left in early spring and now it’s almost summertime.”

            “You worry too much, Alonzo my friend.”

            “That’s my job, Father. I’ve seen too many other sailors end up as bait for the fish because their captain didn’t worry enough.”

            “I am sure that is true, but I know that if we are in God’s will, we are also in His hands and need be anxious for nothing. I feel assured that this is the case.”

            “I hope so, Father. But look, we’re spoiling the lad’s sightseeing. See that building there, the Moors built it. Now it’s a gathering place for seamen from all over the Mediterranean. That place hasn’t seen a priest or monk in decades. Probably the last time a cleric was in there was when Father Garcilosa was . . .”

            “Captain Quintero,” the priest interrupted, “Are we not approaching the docks? Which is your ship?”

            Henrico was intrigued by the vessels moored along the stone quay or driven up onto the narrow beach. Tiny one- and two-man fishing boats vied for space with larger barges and cogs. An old caravel listed on its side on the shale while workers scampered over its darkened timbers, scrapping off layers of barnacles and encrusted weeds. A long slim ship bobbed gently in the swell of the bay. Its prow was high and peaked and sculpted into the shape of an eagle. The ship’s stern was square and ornately carved and painted. Gold leaf shone from around the glass stern windows and from the name proudly displayed above them. Henrico noted its sides were pierced for oars which were stacked on its sparkling white decks.

            “Is that it?” he cried, “Is that your ship, Captain? It’s beautiful.”

            “That?” Quintero laughed, “No lad, that’s the royal galley, Santa Anna, and yes, it is pretty. But you couldn’t get me on board that wooden pig in the open sea for love or money. It’s meant only for skirting the shore and isn’t fit for blue water. No boy, that’s my ship.” He pointed further down the wharf to a stout three-masted ship anchored just off shore. Its sides were a dull red hue, and the sails furled limply on its masts were more grey and brown than white. Both the bow and the stern were raised and square, and devoid of any decoration or paint. In Henrico’s mind, the boat looked cumbersome and barely seaworthy.

            “Now that is a ship,” the captain continued, “She may not look like much but she can out sail anything else in this port, or any other I’d say. She’s a nao, like the Santa Maria was, but she’s Portuguese built and a superior ship. A nao is much bigger and stronger than a caravel is, you see, and a better sailor. She’s out of the same shipyard as Vasco da Gama’s vessel, and is even named after his. But there’s no doubt that the Gabriella is the best ship, and she’ll get you to the New World safe and sure.” 

            Observing the confused look on the Benedictine novice’s face, Quintero continued, “You know who da Gama is, don’t you? No? He’s one of the greatest explorers of our time and sailed the entire way around Africa until he reached India. His ship was also a nao and they are some of the best sailing vessels there are. You’ll see.”

            Captain Quintero continued to expound on the virtues of his ship while Father Garcilosa watched with a benign smile. He placed a hand on Henrico’s shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. The young man face remained tense. He had never been in anything larger than a small dory and then only on a lake. The monastery had a fine collection of maps, and the novice had observed how broad the ocean was and how filled it was by strange beasts and creatures, many of them so much larger in appearance than the Gabriella. Perhaps it would have been better to stay in Salamanca.

            As if reading his mind, Father Garcilosa leaned forward. “Do not fear, my son. Our Lord Jesus calmed the sea and brought the Apostles safely to the other shore. I am quite certain that He will do the same for us.”  Henrico looked into the eyes of the priest and felt a wave of peace come over him. Father Garcilosa was right, they had nothing to fear. The priest turned back to the sea captain. “Alonzo my friend, I see you have much yet to do and we are weary. Is there a decent inn nearby where we can obtain lodging until we sail?”

            Henrico grinned as he stepped into the street. What a rare privilege. While Captain Quintero completed preparations for the voyage and Father Garcilosa conferred with the local bishop, he would have time to himself. The Benedictine novice enjoyed the warm sea air as he sat on the quay watching the fishing boats come and go. As he helped the crews of the small vessels unload their cargos, he listened to their tales of the sea and began to grow more comfortable at the thought of being away from dry land. Henrico even accompanied some of his new compatriots out of the bay into the open sea.

            One vessel he avoided was the Gabriella. The first time he visited, Captain Quintero was present, and all went well. The second instance did not end so well. As he climbed over the rail to venture aboard, he found himself looking into the second mate’s face. He shuddered at the pale grey eyes staring at him from a harsh faced framed with lank brown hair. Henrico attempted to move away but Montoya thrust out a foot to send the novice sprawling to the deck.

The sailor leaned over his prone form and scowled. “What’s the matter, boy? Are you as clumsy as you are stupid? Help him to his feet, my lads.” Henrico was hauled to his feet by two grinning sailors as others of the crew ducked their heads and looked away.

“We can’t have someone so clumsy running about at sea, can we? You might get hurt and we wouldn’t want that, would we lads?” Montoya’s face creased into a cruel sneer. “We’ll have to teach you to be steadier on your feet. Put him up, men.” The two ruffians lifted the novice onto the ship’s side rail and held him in place while the mate picked up a long boat hook.

“Now we’ll teach you a little jig.” Henrico had tucked his cassock up into his belt before he had clambered onboard the ship and Montoya now thrust the boat hook out at his exposed legs, striking a glancing blow. The young man cried out in pain and would have fallen had he not been being held on either side. The second mate laughed harshly and continued, “Oh, I’m sorry, boy. You need to move faster.” He swung again at Henrico’s legs. This time the novice was able to pull his leg back quick enough to avoid the blow.

“That’s better,” the bully continued, “Now let’s see how well you can do on your own. Let him go, lads.” The two sailors released Henrico’s arms but remained on either side of him to prevent him from stepping down from the railing. The novice wavered back and forth for a moment before he was able to regain his balance. Montoya struck out again at his legs. Henrico leapt from one foot to the other to avoid the blow, desperately trying to steady himself. The mate swung the boat hook again and the young novice toppled over the side.

Henrico splashed downward into the chill waters of the bay. Floundering in his heavy black cassock he struggled to the surface, gasping for air. The second mate glared down at him and laughed, “Have a nice swim, boy. And if you want another dancing lesson, just come back tomorrow!” The novice felt the wool of his garment becoming heavier as the salt water soaked into it. He fought against the downward pull of his robe and desperately worked toward the shore. Henrico felt a burn enter his shoulders as his arms begin to weaken. A wave splashed against him and he tasted salt in his mouth. He worked his arms despite the growing ache in his muscles and prayed in silent desperation. Just as he felt his strength failing him, he felt the hard shale of the seabed strike his foot.

Coughing and gagging on the seawater, Henrico stumbled up the steep beach. Hands gripped his arms and pulled him higher. Through watery eyes he looked up at the rough visage of the same fisherman who had rowed him out to the Gabriella. The simple seaman shook his head sadly and gave the young man a knowing smile. Without a word the fisherman carried the half-drowned novice up onto the shore. Over their heads the wind carried the taunts and insults from Montoya and his two followers. Henrico felt a red heat rise into his face and a hard lump into his throat. Shame washed over him and then dissipated to be replaced by something harder, something dark.

            A few days later Henrico stepped out onto the street to find Father Garcilosa and Captain Quintero seated at a small table in front of the inn. It was a fine summer day with bright sunshine streaming down from a clear azure sky. A breeze from the bay brought cooling airs to the town and song birds filled the trees. A day to enjoy God’s creation. Or, so it seemed at first.

Quintero slapped his hand down on the table and grimaced. “I sick and tired of dealing with idiots and bureaucrats!  We’ve been ready to leave for four days and now they say we must wait another week. Don’t they know it’s late in the sailing season already? It’s almost the end of July and the hurricane season has started in the Caribbean by now. The whole court must be full of fools.”

            “I’m afraid that I must agree with you, Alonzo.” The priest’s face was also grim. “I also am concerned about our delay but not just because of the lateness of the season.”

            “My new passengers, eh? That’s just what I need, more clerics to baby-sit. No offense Father, but one priest, even one as sensible as you, is enough for any ship. And where in Hades am I supposed to put you all?”

            “Hopefully not there, my friend,” Father Garcilosa laughed, “I’m sure we will manage somehow. I am not concerned about the sleeping arrangements. I am worried about the reason behind these late additions.” As Henrico approached, the priest glanced up. Clearing his throat, he shifted in his chair. “Ah, there you are, my son. I see that the sea air is putting some color in your cheeks. I also see we need to find a barber to touch up your tonsure.” The novice self-consciously rubbed the growing stubble on the top of his head and nodded. His furrowed his brow and glanced back and forth between the two men but did not speak.

            Later as they returned to their lodging the priest asked Henrico how he had been passing the days. The novice told of his visits to the beaches and his work with the fishermen of the town. He smiled when he spoke of his boat ride out of the bay but became quiet when the older cleric asked if he had been out to the ship. Instead, he asked how much longer they would be staying at the port. When the priest explained that they would be delayed a few more days the young man asked for a favor.

            “I’ve been wondering Father, that is, with us going to the New World and all, and with the dangers there, I mean . . .”

            “What is it, my son?”

            “Well Father, I saw how you dealt with the robbers on the trail and I was wondering if you could teach me to use a staff like that?” The novice blushed and stared at the ground. “I am sorry. I should not have presumed to ask. I know the abbot would not approve. But . . .”

            Father Garcilosa paused and stroked his chin. “Did not your father or your brothers teach you such skills?”

            “No, Father, my mother always felt that I was too young and after she died, my father was too ill. My brothers never had any time for such things.” When the priest remained silent, he looked up. “It’s just that I felt it wise to learn how to help you if we ever have trouble again.”

            “Hmm, so I see. Very well, but on one condition. For every hour of instruction that I give you in weaponry, you must spend two in prayer and another two in studying the scriptures.”

            “Yes, Father. Thank you, Father. When can we begin?”

            “First your time of prayer and study and then the instruction. Now go and fetch our supper.”  

            The bargain was kept. If Henrico applied himself more vehemently to learning to use a staff than he did to his prayers, he still was quick to memorize and recite the Scriptures. How much of the knowledge was just in his mind and how much in his heart was harder to discern? The priest was forced to watch in silence as his protege exercised in the inn’s courtyard. God alone knew the answer. He could only wait and pray.

            The young novice stood in the afternoon sun holding a stout oak staff in clenched fists. He turned the pole slowly in his hands, stretching his arms and working the stiffness out of his shoulders and began to swing the stave in gradually larger circles. Picking up speed he began to move forward and back, dancing around a thick post set in the middle of the courtyard. A sharp crack split the air and was followed in rapid succession by a series of quick blows against the post. A trickle of sweat began to work its way down his brow and a burn edged into the muscles of his upper back. But he did not quit. He continued even though his breath came in ragged gasps.

            His face was set in grim determination. A red flush crept over his face and his eyes grew wide and wild. Gripping the staff with hands close together he began to strike the post with all his strength. Again, and again he swung at the pillar until the stave slipped from fists slick with sweat. The novice stared down at his hands for a moment, a quiver of fatigue coursing through his body. He turned away from the courtyard, his shoulders slumped in frustration and weariness, his face grim.  With a sudden start he looked up to realize that he had been observed.

            “Father, I—ah—I hadn’t noticed you there.”

            “I see you have been working very hard at the exercises, my son.”

            “I don’t think it’s working. I’m not getting any better at it. It—it’s just too hard.”

            “You must have patience, my son. Your skill and your knowledge are increasing. They will continue to do so. Is there anything else we need to speak of?”

            “Ah, no.” the young man blushed, casting his eyes down to the ground. “No, I do not think so.” He looked up to find the priest staring into his eyes. Silence stretched out between them before the novice glanced away. “Not right now anyway. Perhaps later, I hope—I hope that would be alright.”

            “My son, I will always be here for you. When you are ready to talk, I will be more than willing to listen.”

Henrico bit his lip and nodded. “Perhaps, I should—.” A shout from the street shattered the moment and he jerked his vision away.

            “There the two of you are.” Quintero strode into the courtyard, waving his arms in extravagant glee. “The day is finally here. Our other passengers have arrived and we sail with the tide. So, get your baggage and hurry on board. I have had my fill of dry land and need to feel the sea under my feet again. Come quick, if you’re coming.” The Gabriella’s captain laughed and dashed back into the street.

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