The Golden Conquest – Parts 7 & 8

My computer has been in the shop being repaired for the past 2 weeks, so I’m behind in my installments of my manuscript. Therefore to make up for this, here’s a double dose.

“Lift your right foot. Just your right. Lift it slowly.”  Without opening his eyes Henrico began to obey the voice. And as he did, he began to feel less afraid. The voice continued, “Now move your left hand up the rigging. There, now lift your left foot. Good. Now reach up with your right hand. Yes, that’s it.”  The novice stretched up his arm and suddenly felt it grasped strongly in a rough and calloused hand. He opened his eyes to stare into the grinning face of a seaman. Within seconds he found himself scrambling up the last few feet of rigging up into the crow’s nest.

“There you go, lad. Naught to fear now,” the sailor smiled, “Never been up here before, have you?”

“No, never,” Henrico gasped as he slid onto the small platform and wrapped an arm around the mast for security.

“So, why’d you want to come up?  Most landsmen like yourself don’t even want to try.”

“The first mate Olmedo asked me to come up to check the weather.”

“What?  Why would he do that?  All he’d have to do is call up to me. Besides, Tomas doesn’t need to know what the sky looks like. He can smell a change. No, he must have had some other reason for sending you aloft.”

“It might have had something to do with Montoya,” Henrico conceded. The sailor frowned and shook his head.

“You’d be best stay away from him. He’s a nasty one.”  He reached up and rubbed a lump of scar tissue behind the corner of his jaw. “He sliced off part of my ear for no good reason. He’s a bastard, that’s for sure.”  The seaman spat on the decking and was quiet for a moment. Then he grinned again and stretched out his hand, “I’m Fernand from Castile. They call me Black Fernand because of my hair, you see. You’re Brother Henrico, right?”

The two men settled down against the side rails of the crow’s nest. The sailor pointed out a low bank of clouds far on the western horizon and explained the significance to the young monk. In tacking down to towards the Azores, the ship was departing from an area in which the prevailing winds were westward to one in which the winds would head back towards Spain. The clouds could herald a change in the weather but were too distant to say for sure. Besides, Black Fernand said, he’d been spying out those clouds for most of his watch and they had not changed. The seaman continued to chatter on, filling the novice’s head with various seafaring lore and tales.

Henrico found himself smiling at the simple sailor’s disjointed stories. He prattled on skipping from subject to subject without finishing any and often without making much sense. The Benedictine found himself wondering if the seaman hadn’t been banished to the crow’s nest to spare the rest of the crew. He did start to grate on one’s ears after a time and Henrico found himself beginning to plot his escape. The sailor was friendly and well meaning, though and the young man did not wish to offend him. However, he must at least try to focus the sailor on one thing.

“How is it that the first mate seems to give way to Montoya?  Is he afraid of him?”

“Ah well, Tomas is a good fellow, don’t you see?  But he’s not a strong man. How would you say it?  He’s not very tough, not hard enough. He’s smart though. One time he was telling me about the stars. Did you know that a bunch of them are grouped into pictures?  He told me about one called . . .”

“But what about Montoya?”

“Oh yes, well nobody knows for sure but I think that that bastard Diego knows a secret about Tomas; something that Olmedo doesn’t want anyone else to know. He’s not brave enough to do anything about it though. Not like another fellow I knew. Juan was his name and one time he took a dagger and . . .”

“I’m sorry Fernand, but about the second mate again, if he has something on Senor Olmedo why doesn’t he replace him?”

“Ha,” the sailor laughed, “Because the black hearted worm is too stupid. He can’t learn how to navigate and so he can’t be first mate. He’s mean and tough alright but he can’t figure numbers any better than I can.”

“I see. Perhaps I’d best report back to Senor Olmedo. He did ask me check on the weather.”

“Oh, I suppose that you ought to. Perhaps we’ll get to talk again some time. Now be careful there, lad. That’s it.”

The novice found the first few steps down the rigging almost as frightening as his journey up it. The ship was still rolling from side to side, but its pitch was less severe. He gained confidence as he climbed downward and by the time, he reached the deck his pulse and breathing were almost back to normal. The second mate Montoya could be heard berating the crew on the foredeck, so Henrico headed towards the stern. The helmsman was standing at the wheel beside Captain Quintero but Olmedo was nowhere to be seen. The Benedictine wondered for a moment if he should give his report to the captain but decided there was really no need.

Entering their cabin, he found Father Garcilosa kneeling in prayer beside the cot. Henrico started to quietly step out of the room, but the priest looked up with a smile.

“No, my son, please stay. I have finished my prayers. I was spending some extra moments speaking to Our Lord about the state of our little ship. The captain will not let me take a turn at the pumps, but I know that prayer is more powerful than machines anyway. How did your shift go?  Come; let me look at you.”  The priest took him by the hand and carefully examined his palms. Most of the blisters were healing and the lad was pleased to see hard calluses forming. One blister however had burst to leave a raw, painful wound. “This needs some care,” the older cleric said as he applied salve to the wound and began to wrap it with clean linen.

The young novice watched as Father Garcilosa finished bandaging his hands and wondered at the things he was feeling. He could feel himself growing and maturing but there was still so much he did not understand. And so much more that troubled and worried him. Could he speak of them? Should he? When he looked up the priest was watching him intently.

  “There we are. That should do for now.”

“Father?” The young man hesitated and looked away, his voice trembling. “Would—would you hear my confession?”

“My son, I would be most honored.”

            It was some days later that an excited shout reached the deck from the crow’s nest. Land had been sighted and they had finally reached the Azores. The sky was washed red with the rays of the setting sun when the Gabriella entered the bay at Angra on the island of Terceira. For once good fortune seemed to be with the crew for the tide was just below the high-water mark and they were able to run the ship up onto the beach. When the tide receded the damaged and leaking timbers would be exposed and the crew would be able to start the needed repairs. A lusty cheer arose as the last shift of men was able to step away from the pumps. It was a job none of them would miss.

            The following morning Captain Quintero went into the town to get the supplies and tools needed to make the ship seaworthy. Before he left, he gave strict orders that no members of the crew were to be allowed ashore. The men’s loud howls of protest were quieted only when Quintero shouted over them that he had also ordered two hogsheads of wine to be brought onboard. The protests changed to cheers when he advised them that the wine barrels would be broached as soon as bracing could be placed about the ship.

            The ship’s carpenter and his mates had been at work since before the tide started to recede. They had prepared stout timbers and footings which were now hauled into place against the sides of the ship. The Gabriella was bracketed by sturdy struts and joists that served to keep it upright as the waters of the bay slowly ebbed away. The ship was allowed to fall slightly to starboard; enough to better exposed the damaged planking but not enough to shift its cargo or to hamper the easy movements of the workmen. By the time the tide had begun to flow back into the bay, the job was completed.

            Diego Montoya was unhappy with his circumstances. He was angry at the thought of allowing the men to slack off from their work to indulge the wine and even more upset at having to remain onboard. Being left in charge to keep some semblance of order did nothing to assuage his temper. Nor did the explanation his captain offered.

            “I know the men,” Quintero had said in overruling his second mate’s objections, “If we try to keep them sober and on board, we’ll lose half of them to the dockside inns and taverns. This way we’re sure to get the bracing done quick and proper before they start into the drink. And by the time I’ve been able to gather the supplies we need they’ll have recovered enough to get back to work.”

 Montoya’s scowl had only deepened at Quintero’s reasoning. If –no—when he was captain, there would be no coddling of the crew. They would work when ordered or they would pay the price.

He stood by the railing to watch Quintero and the first mate along with the Dominican being carried ashore. Brother Sebastian had demanded to be taken to dry land in a voice that was almost desperate. Montoya grinned at the memory before turning to curse some idle men. Since he had to stay with the Gabriella, he would be sure to make the most of it. He had already marked some of the crew for his wrath and wondered for a moment where the Benedictine novice was. Perhaps he would remain onboard as well. Perhaps Montoya’s day would not be a total waste. An evil smirk crossed his face and he slowly twisted his lash in his hands.

Yes, he thought, that would make it all worthwhile.

Aboard the Gabriella, the priest and his young apprentice were preparing to follow the others ashore.  Both clerics had changed their clothes into more traditional garb and waited by the rail for the return of the ship’s boat.  Henrico regretted the change in clothing.  He had enjoyed the light weight of the more common apparel and was already feeling the warmth of his black woolen robes.  The young Benedictine ran a finger around to inside of his collar to let some of the heat out.

“I hope that you haven’t gotten too comfortable in secular clothing, my son,” Father Garcilosa smiled, “I would hate to think that you would wish to forego your calling just for some comfort.”  His eyes had a mischievous gleam to them as he spoke, but the young monk blushed, nonetheless.

“Oh no, Father, I am fine.  I am quite content to be back in my cassock.”

“Well, I for one will be happy when we’re back at sea and can wear less formal attire.  But this is more suitable for our visit into the town.  I have some acquaintances in Angra whom I wish to visit, and they tend to worry about such things.” 

At that moment the ship’s boat bumped up against the Gabriella’s side.  Henrico stepped toward the rail only to be shoved aside by a black cowled figure.

“Out of my way, boy,” the Dominican said as he pushed forward, “I’m getting off this wretched tub now.  Move aside.”

“Brother Sebastian,” the priest said as he laid a hand on Henrico’s arm, “We are more than happy to share the boat with you.”

“I am taking the boat.  And I do not want company.  Especially yours.”

“Pardon?”

“I’ve watched you.  I’ve listened.  You are a heretic and a danger to the church.  I don’t know how you have evaded the Inquisition so far, but your kind needs to be stopped.  I will stop you.”

“I am sorry you feel that way,” Father Garcilosa replied, “My friend the Archbishop wouldn’t agree.  Perhaps we can speak to him together.  When we get back to Spain.”

The Dominican face went white and then red.  He opened his mouth to speak but only a faint choking sound came out.  At last he turned way and scrambled down into the ship’s boat.  He almost fell and had to be pulled to safety by the sailor holding the mooring line.  Brother Sebastian responded by striking the man about the head and demanding to be taking ashore.  Henrico and Father Garcilosa could only watch as he was rowed away.

A short time later the boat returned and soon Henrico was helping to pull it up onto the beach.  The two clerics stepped through the gentle surf and turned to head into the Portuguese port.  As they reached the street, they were surprised to see a rakish figure waiting for them.  The courtier d’Amarco had been leaning against a wall in the shade and now stepped into the sunlight to greet his fellow passengers.  With a flourish he doffed his hat and smiled at the two clerics.

“Greetings my friends, I’m glad you’ve elected to come ashore.”

“But when did you leave the ship?” Henrico asked, “We thought you were still in your cabin.”

“Ah, I availed myself of an opportunity to leave our floating home shortly after we reached the bay.  Brother Sebastian is I am sure, a credit to his office but he is sadly lacking as roommate.”

“But how?  The captain did not release the ship’s boats until this morning?”

“Oh, my young comrade,” d’Amarco laughed, “There are many other boats in such a port, and one need only know how to call for one.  Am I not right, Father?”

“If you say so, Senor,” the priest said, shaking his head slowly.  Looking intently at the young aristocrat he continued, “Did you have business to attend to?”

“Oh, nothing important.  My departure from the Gabriella was prompted more for the desire for a decent bed and a palatable meal.  Sadly, I was only able to achieve the former.  These Portuguese have no idea on the proper use of garlic and simply no concept on how to make pastry.  But enough of my woes, what do you have planned for this day?”

“It is my intention to visit the local church and speak with its priest.  There used to be some men in this port that I knew, and I hoped to inquire about them.  Henrico is to accompany me.”

“Father de la Vega,” the courtier said, clucking his tongue, “Surely you would not require a young man to spend his first day ashore touring dusty old churches?  He needs to move about and stretch his legs.”

“What exactly are you suggesting?”

“I’ll take Brother Henrico under my wing and show him around.  Oh, not to worry Father, I promise not to corrupt his innocent soul and I’ll even keep him from entering any taverns.  Come, what do you say?”

Father Garcilosa paused for a moment.  He seemed about to speak but then glanced at Henrico.  The young Benedictine had been studiously quiet during the exchange, but his face betrayed his true desires.  Surely the priest would let him go.  Father Garcilosa sighed and clapped Henrico on the shoulder, “I expect you to be on your best behavior and to meet me back here an hour before sunset.”

“Yes, Father.  Thank you, Father,” the novice called as d’Amarco quickly hustled him away.  The courtier whispered something in his ear and then laughed loudly.  The hint of a blush rose onto Henrico’s cheeks before he was propelled around a corner by Senor d’Amarco.  The Benedictine felt a rush of excitement and fear.  What was he getting into?

The day passed as a blur of bright colors and loud sounds for Henrico.  D’Amarco plied him with extravagant tales of court life but also answered his questions on the history of the Azores.  Exacting to his word, the courtier kept them outside of the many cantinas that they passed.  With the warmth of the day and the brilliant sunshine there was no need to go indoors and almost every establishment had set tables and chairs in the open air.  The novice was careful not to over indulge but as d’Amarco put it; while the Portuguese did not know how to cook, they did know how to make a very good Madeira.

Flushed with the excitement of the day and from the effects of the heady wine, Henrico failed to notice as their talk turned from the Old World to the New.  It was his turn to supply answers as the courtier gently probed his knowledge.  He was pleased to have so much attention from the young aristocrat and readily described all the things that Father Garcilosa had shared with him.  The priest had also piqued d’Amarco’s interest and Henrico did not hesitate to respond to his inquiries.  The courtier hung on his every word and continued to lead him through the town. 

The town of Angra made no claim to being cosmopolitan and by late afternoon the two young men had explored most of it.  They found themselves on a small grassy hill rising above the bay and settled down under the shade of a large tree.  D’Amarco carried a skin of wine while Henrico had purchased some overripe melons and a pungent goat cheese.  They ate their lunch in silence, enjoying the cool ocean breeze and listening to the songbirds.  The day was warm for autumn and the wine along with the gentle sunshine soon had its affect.  The two young men began to doze.

Henrico awoke with a start to notice the sun low in the western sky.  He must hurry or he would be late in meeting Father Garcilosa.  He twisted around to awaken his companion but d’Amarco was nowhere to be seen.  The young Benedictine stood in puzzlement for a moment, wondering where the soldier might have gone and then turned to hasten down to the beach.  Within moments he was racing down the hill.  He turned the corner in a flurry of black robes in time to see the priest approaching from the other direction.  He slowed himself to a walk and carefully straightened his cassock as the two clerics neared each other.

“Well, Henrico,” the priest smiled, “Did you enjoy your day?”

“Yes Father, it was most pleasant.  Thank you for letting me go.”

“Where is Senor d’Amarco?  Were you not together?”

“Yes—yes, we were.  But we were resting and when I awoke, he was gone.  I’m not sure where he is.  Do you think he is all right?”

“My son, I am certain that he is quite capable of getting himself out of any trouble he might get himself into. Come, it is time that we got back to the ship.”  They walked to the edge of the water and waved to the Gabriella.  Within a few moments the ship’s boat was launched and being rowed quickly towards them.  At first, they were surprised at the promptness of the response but then a noise behind them alerted them that they would not be the boat’s only passengers.

Captain Quintero and his first mate, Olmedo were striding towards them from the town.  The captain was speaking to a smallish man who scurried beside him, writing rapidly on a sheaf of papers.  As they neared the two clerics could hear that Quintero was dictating a long list of supplies and needs.  At one point the seaman stopped and gestured broadly as he attempted to make a correction on the clerk’s list.  The diminutive fellow startled the onlookers by forcefully shaking his head and refusing the request.  The disagreement went back and forth but sea captain ultimately had to concede defeat.  With a shrug and wave of his hands he acknowledged the fact and turned toward the two ecclesiastics.

“Greetings my friends, I hope that you’ve enjoyed your time ashore.”

“Yes, we did, Alonzo,” Father Garcilosa replied, “Was your day productive?”

“Fairly so, I was able to arrange for most of the supplies and equipment that we’ll need.  Hopefully the weather will stay clear and we can get on with things.”

“How long do you think the repairs will take?” Father Garcilosa asked as they climbed aboard the ship’s boat.”

“Two weeks – maybe three.  It depends on how soon the crew recovers from their day of revelry and how hard they work in return for it.”

“Well, I suppose that you know your crew.  Brother Henrico and I will have more time on our hands then.”

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll find something to do,” the captain laughed, “I’m told that there’s a fine library in the chapel in the hills and you must have some other old friends about.  And speaking of such, we are all invited to dine at the villa of Paulo de Silves the evening after next.  He’s an old acquaintance of mine and one of the richest merchants on these islands.  I told him we’d all attend.”

“Certainly Alonzo, we shall look forward to it.”

It promised to be a fine evening.  The heat of the day was beginning to dissipate before a cooling breeze from the west.  The wind brought a faint hint of salt from the sea, but the scent was overwhelmed by the masses of flowering shrubs surrounding the villa. Paulo de Silves had built his home on a hill overlooking the harbor, positioning it so that he could watch the ships approaching the island and still be seen by the town. Captain Quintero had explained that de Silves was a rich man and a proud one. Quintero had known him for many years and while it was a relationship based more on finance than friendship, they were comrades of a sort.

Father Garcilosa followed the sea captain up the hill towards the mansion. The walls stood pink and warm above them as the group proceeded upward. Henrico walked beside him, his tonsure freshly trimmed and his cassock washed and mended. The two clerics had been surprised by the appearance of Ponce d’Amarco in their midst as they stepped from the ship’s boat.  The courtier had not been seen for two days but he somehow had learned about the planned gathering and was dressed ornately in keeping with the occasion.

The Dominican had also arrived in time to accompany the group. He too had not returned to the ship since their arrival at Angra, though hr had sent a messenger daily to check on the progress of the repairs. Captain Quintero had not wished to inform him of the invitation but Father Garcilosa had recommended that he do so to avoid further discord with the Inquisitor.  The seaman had reluctantly agreed. Thus, it was that there were five who arrived at the merchant’s home.

Paulo de Silves greeted them at his doorway. A heavy gold chain hung around his neck in bright contrast to the rich silk sash that enveloped his ample midsection. Small black eyes danced from the midst of a florid face crowned by wisps of fine white hair that waved and floated in the air like smoke whenever he moved. With an elaborate bow he ushered the quintet into his brightly lit ballroom and began to introduce them to his other guests. He presented each person as his dearest friend and one undoubtedly delighted to have been invited. Senor de Silves was, in his own eyes at least, the preeminent host in the whole archipelago.

When they were seated at the great table for the banquet, Henrico found himself seated between a banker from the town on his right and de Silves’ wife on his left. The moneychanger was a tall thin man, cadaverous in appearance and personality. He barely spoke all evening and never lifted his face from his plate. The Benedictine marveled that anyone so thin could consume so much food. Senora de Silves was the source of his greatest discomfort however.

The lady of the house was much younger than her husband but was still a mature woman.  While the years had smoothed her features to plumpness, she retained a degree of beauty. When she spoke to the person on her left, she shifted so that her leg pressed against Henrico’s. And when she conversed with the young monk, she fluttered her eyelashes coquettishly and turned so that her breasts brushed against his arm. Henrico attempted to slide away from her but was greeted by a grunt and an elbow in the ribs from the banker. He finished his meal as quickly as he could and excused himself from the table.

Escaping to the villa’s backyard Henrico sighed quietly and stepped between the heavily laden fruit trees to stare up at the jeweled night sky. Lowering his head to clasped hands he began to pray, asking God to protect and deliver him. His reverie was broken by a woman’s voice behind him and he turned to see the mistress of the house approaching him.

“Do you like my garden, Brother Henrico?” she purred quietly as she neared him.

“Y-yes, Senora, it is very beautiful.”

“I’m glad you appreciate beauty. Tell me, you are a novice you not?”

“Yes – yes I am.  I am to be a monk,” Henrico stammered, backing away from the woman.

“But you have not taken your vows yet, have you?” she breathed and stepped closer, her perfume drowning out the fragrance of the flowers.

“No, but I . . .” his mind raced frantically, searching for a way out. Suddenly the words of a Psalm came to him. In you, O Lord, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame.

“And I hope you have not taken a vow of chastity as yet.” She moved nearer, and began to reach toward him. Henrico edged backwards and suddenly stumbled and fell onto a garden bench. The senora leaned over him, her lips parting as they reached for his. Free me from the trap that is set before me, for you are my refuge.

“Henrico!” a voice called out from the shadows. Ponce d’Amarco stepped into the flickering torchlight and with a wry smile continued, “I believe that Father Garcilosa is having an ecclesiastic discussion with the other gentlemen. Perhaps you should see if they require any of your—ah—insight.”  Senora de Silves hastily stood upright and pulled her shawl up around her shoulders. Another scripture came to Henrico’s mind from the Epistles of Paul; God is faithful . . . but with the temptation will provide the way of escape, and he acted on it immediately. He gave no thought for decorum or proper manners but raced for the house.

As the black robed figure ran past him, d’Amarco watched him go and turned back to the woman. He genuflected with an air of sophisticated detachment and then plucked a pale-yellow blossom from the shrub beside him. Holding it to his nose, he asked, “Tell me, Senora de Silves, what flower is this?  The fragrance is quite intoxicating.”

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