The Golden Conquest – Part 14

.           The great mastodon shook her head and stamped her feet against the packed earth of the trail. Xlenca leaned forward to whisper into Moon Dancer’s ear in an attempt to calm her. She had become increasingly irritable as they neared their destination and the young master had to sooth her nerves repeatedly. He reassured his new Rider that this was unusual and that Moon Dancer was merely upset by the absence of Master Tu-Tuoan. Xlenca could not but wonder if there was something else troubling the animal.

As they climbed to the Great Hill Barracks, the young Beast Master also felt a growing anxiety. There seemed to be a dark cloud over the site. The outer grounds were not as meticulously maintained as at the Red Sun compound and the jungle had encroached closer to the outer walls than was acceptable. The guards in the watch towers seemed bored and moody while the gatekeeper’s attitude bordered on surliness. Lotec had had to pound on the gate with his spear shaft to get the man’s attention and he was still slow to respond.

“Is it customary for the Barracks gate to be closed during the day?” Xlenca asked.

“It is,” the man grunted, “And we like it that way.  What do you want?”

“We wish to speak with the Master of the Great Hill Barracks and have traveled from the Red Sun to do so.”

“What’s your business?”

“Our business.” Lotec’s face grew red and his voice dropped to a low growl. “Our business is with the Master not with a servant.  Now, move aside or . . . “

Xlenca interrupted Lotec with a touch on his shoulder. “What my Rider is meaning to say, is that our mission is confidential and urgent. Please inform the Master that we are here.” As he spoke, he tapped Moon Dancer on the side and she began to slowly advance. The gatekeeper was forced to give way or risk being stepped on and the group entered the compound. The servant scurried off to find someone to deal with Xlenca’s request. Once he was out of sight the two men slid down from the mastodon’s back. For a moment they stood in silence, surveying the courtyard.

            The interior compound was better maintained but the few servants and apprentices about seemed cowed and withdrawn. They scurried along with their eyes downcast, sneaking quick peeks at the two intruders. Xlenca was surprised to notice one young woman standing by a side gate openly watching them. On perceiving his gaze, she stared at him defiantly before turning away to resume her duties. The young Master shifted his attention back to other concerns.

“Lotec, look after Moon Dancer. Please make sure that she is given fresh food and water and try not to cause any trouble—unless absolutely necessary.” The Rider’s grin was fierce and stern as he led the mastodon away. Xlenca strode forward pulling a message rope from his shoulder bag and holding his Master’s rod before him.  As he stepped up to the main building of the Great Hill Barracks the gatekeeper reappeared accompanied by an older Beast Master. The grey-haired Master waved the servant away and stepped forward with open hands.

“Greetings young sir, I apologize for your reception. We were not expecting visitors. What can I do for you?”

“I greet you also, Master. I am Master Xlenca of the Red Sun Barracks. Are you the Master of the Great Hill?”

“Oh no young sir, I am merely one of his followers. Can you tell me why you need to see Master Tagazuma?” Xlenca nodded and held out the message rope. The old man took the knotted strands and quickly scanned its fibers. The message did not reveal all the details of Xlenca’s mission but introduced him and emphasized the urgency of his visit. It also warned that a similar messenger had been dispatched to the capital. The elderly Master frowned deeply at this. Without a word, he motioned Xlenca to follow him and conducted him into the Barracks council chamber.

Two men stood hunched over a table as they entered the shuttered room. The grey-haired Master cleared his throat to announce their presence and the two looked up with a start. The taller man quickly moved to pull a cloth over the table while the second man stepped forward. His necklace of green stones and the tattoo on his left chest identified him as the Barracks Master. This must be Tagazuma. Xlenca bowed his head briefly in greeting and watched as the older master handed Tagazuma the message rope. The Master of the Great Hill took the colored strands and waved the old man away. Without even acknowledging Xlenca he turned back to his companion.  As the taller man stepped forward into the light the young Master was surprised to recognize him as a high priest of the Sun God.

While the priest surveyed the colored knots and fibers of the message Xlenca observed him carefully. Tall and fit, he stood erect with a carefully practiced dignity. His long black hair was woven into four strands, one hanging over each shoulder and two down his back. His face was smooth with high cheek bones framing an aristocratic nose, and his high forehead was covered by a golden headdress inlaid with bright jewels and bearing the image of a flaming sun. The short, feathered cape he wore completed the picture of wealth and power. The priest looked up suddenly and caught Xlenca’s stare. His eyes were as black as obsidian and as hard as flint. Xlenca suppressed a shudder and bowed a second time.

“Master Tagazuma,” the priest said, “You are being a negligent host. This young Master has traveled far and has not yet been greeted properly.”

“Huh?  Yes, all right.” The Barrack Master turned back to his visitor and gave him the briefest of salutes. “So uh, what is your name anyway?”

“I am Xlenca, Master of the Great Beast from the Red Sun Barracks, and I am sent hence by Master Quezoema with the message you hold. I am also instructed to show you this.”  He pulled out of his bag the dried ear of the dead rogue bull mastodon. Despite its worn condition, the notches in the ear remained distinct and identified its origin as the Great Hill. Tagazuma started to reach for the ear but then quickly withdrew his hand and glanced sideways at his companion.

“What is the meaning of this?  Why do you bring me carrion?”

“Do you not recognize this? It is from a rogue bull that terrorized a whole village and then killed a Great Beast and its Master. It also grievously wounded my own Master, Tu-Tuoan.”  Holding the piece of skin up, he struggled to keep his voice even. “Look at it. Can there be any doubt? This creature came from these very Barracks. How could that happen?”

“You dare to speak to me like that?” Tagazuma straightened and puffed out his chest. “I should . . .”

“You should introduce me,” the priest said stepping forward and spreading his hands. When the Barrack Master sputtered and began to redden in the face the tall man continued, “I am called Lo-Huitzlapoch and I am a priest of the Sun God here to visit my good friend. I can understand why you are upset. I have met Master Tu-Tuoan and am saddened to hear of his injury. I am sure Master Tagazuma will do all in his power to solve this mystery.” As the sun priest spoke, his cape parted and Xlenca noted the elaborate tattoo that covered his entire upper chest. It was not uncommon for priests to bear tattoos but these were usually restricted to the arms or cheeks and all were easily recognized as referring to the Sun God. This tattoo was different yet strangely familiar.

The sun priest took his companion’s arm and turned him away from the young Beast Master. Tagazuma maintained his glare at the younger man for a moment before yielding to Lo-Huitzlapoch’s pressure. He looked to the priest and lowered his eyes. Xlenca was sure that he saw a brief tremor go through the man. After a moment, the sun priest released his arm and spoke again. “Master Tagazuma, I seem to recollect a fire some time ago, in the animal pens I believe. Do you remember it?”

“What? A fire? Oh yes, the fire in the pens, I do recall that now.”

“Yes.” The sun priest’s eye fixed upon Xlenca. “The pens were almost destroyed and one or two animals were lost.”

“Animals? Yes, there were some mastodons killed I think.”

“Yes, Master Tagazuma, I recall now that a female was burned and didn’t you believe that her calf also died, a bull calf, I believe.”

The Barrack Master looked puzzled for a moment but then nodded his head vigorously. “Yes, that must be the answer.” 

“So young Master, that answers your question. I’m afraid your wild bull must have been a calf that escaped in the fire. Master Tagazuma would not have reported that the animal had escaped for he thought it was dead. Isn’t that right, my friend?”

“Yes, Lord Lo-Huitzlapoch, that is correct.” The Master’s face twisted into a smirk. “I’m sorry the animal caused so much trouble but as you see, no one was to blame. It was merely an unfortunate set of circumstances.” 

“I see,” Xlenca said.

“Come,” Tagazuma said, putting his arm around his visitor’s shoulder, “You must be weary from your long journey. I will have quarters prepared for you and your Rider.” He directed the young Master toward the entrance of the chamber, glancing back at the sun priest as he did, “I shall have a reply prepared for Master Quezoema. You will be able to take it to him when you leave.”

“Perhaps I could speak to some of your men. Someone might have more knowledge of this fire and might be able to assist further in clarifying matters.”

“I am afraid that will not be possible.” Lo-Huitzlapoch stepped forward. “The apprentice who cared for the lost mastodon and her calf perished in the fire. The other servants are no longer with the Barracks.”

“Surely there is someone.”

“No,” Tagazuma said, his voice stern, “There is not. Now, Lord Lo-Huitzlapoch and I have other business to attend to.” They reached the doorway where the waiting elderly Master led them back into the compound. Servants laden with food and drink followed as he led them to their quarters. One of them was the same young woman Xlenca had noticed earlier. She walked with the other servants but moved with an easy dignity that seemed absent the others. Once they had reached their temporary lodging the elder Master motioned for them to be seated while the simple fare was placed before them. The young woman gave them each a small bowl into which she poured water. In doing so, she leaned close to Xlenca’s ear.

“Beware of the priest,” she whispered, “And watch your back.” The young Beast Master was so startled he almost spilt his water. When he looked back up the girl was gone. He glanced at the older Master and at Lotec but it was apparent they had heard nothing. Perhaps he had misunderstood the young woman’s words, perhaps she was just a mischievous servant girl, but he felt not. There was something about her that pricked his spirit. He would be watchful.

The sun was barely peaking over the horizon when Xlenca and Lotec were roused from their sleep. While quiet almost to the point of sullenness, the apprentices and servants of the Great Hill Barracks remained efficient. Xlenca was pleased to find that Moon Dancer had been well cared for. She had been given fresh food and water and bedded down on a bed of clean straw. Her Master thanked the apprentice for his efforts but received only a grunt in return. The servant who brought them a tray of food was equally careful not to meet his gaze. Xlenca could feel that their welcome to the barracks was drawing to an end.

Master Tagazuma was not to be seen. The older Master was waiting for them with a message rope which had been prepared for them. Xlenca took the colored strands and surveyed them carefully. The message was a retelling of the story he had been told the day before. He was folding the rope and placing it in his satchel when the sun priest Lo-Huitzlapoch appeared. 

“I see you are ready to return to your own barracks. Please pass on my best wishes to Master Tu-Tuoan.” The priest held up a black amulet to the young Master. “I noticed that you had lost your talisman. No one should attempt to walk through this life without the guidance and protection of the Sun God.” His eyes flashed black and cold.  It would be most unwise to do so.”

Xlenca took the amulet in his hand without a word and climbed aboard Moon Dancer. The black stone felt cold and heavy in his hand. He could feel the sun priest’s eyes on him as they moved out through the gate and felt a chill run down his spine. His mouth turned dry and he sensed a pounding rush in his head. He stared down at the black amulet, wondering how much the man had perceived, how much he understood. As the mastodon trotted down the trail and out of the sun priest’s sight the stone seemed to grow hotter and hotter in Xlenca’s hand. A great fear gripped his heart and with a shudder he threw the idol into the underbrush.

As quickly as it had come, the sense of panic passed and a feeling of calm settled over him. A wind whispered through the trees and a heavy rain descended on them out of a sky that only moments before had been bright and cloudless. Xlenca pulled his cape more tightly about his shoulders and reached down to scratch Moon Dancer’s ear. The great beast lifted her head briefly and continued on down the trail. Xlenca glanced over his shoulder to find Lotec watching him intently. The Rider looked from Xlenca down to the black stone talisman which hung around his own neck. Without a word, he slipped it off and tucked it into his satchel. Xlenca nodded to his Rider but remained silent.

The rain had abated by late afternoon as the mastodon maintained her tireless pace along the path. The gentle sway of her gait had allowed each of her passengers to doze in turn but both were now fully awake. Soon they would seek an appropriate campsite to spend the evening before resuming their journey back to the Red Sun. Xlenca pointed down the trail, past the steep cliff that edged this part the forest track. There was a spring of fresh water only a short distance further with a pool fringed with a thick growth of green grasses that would serve well as feed for the mastodon and bedding for them all. His musings came to an abrupt halt when Moon Dancer suddenly stopped in the middle of the trail.

“What is it, girl?” Xlenca said, peering into the deep foliage. Lotec readied his spear and raised himself up on the platform. The jungle was silent and still. Not even a breath of wind stirred the branches. Moments passed but there was no sign of danger. Xlenca attempted to coax the great beast forward but the mastodon only stamped her feet. She refused to advance further.  At last Xlenca slipped down to the ground and began to lead her onward. The stillness of the air was shattered by a sudden deep rumble. The young Beast Master looked up and froze at the sight of a massive rock falling from the cliff face.

Before he could react, the mastodon reared up and spun on her hind legs. Lotec gripped the sides of his platform to keep from being spilled over the side. Xlenca’s hand was locked around Moon Dancer’s bridle and her hurried action jerked him backward like a rag doll. He grunted in pain as the immense stone struck the ground where only seconds before he had stood. A chill silence settled back over the trail.

“Are you alright?” Lotec cried as he threw himself over Moon Dancer’s side and raced to his stricken Master.

“Yes.” Xlenca grimaced as he released his grip on the heavy leather and massaged his aching limb. “Yes, I’m fine.” The great mastodon reached out with her trunk to caress his face. Smiling, he stroked her head and leaned into her massive bulk. “Thank you, Moon Dancer. You saved my life.”

Both men stared up at the edge of the cliff. Neither could detect any movement and nothing seemed out of place. Xlenca watched as Lotec moved further along the trail to a place where the cliff became only a steep hill. Reaching the top, the Rider turned and eased himself along the peak of the escarpment, clambering over rocks and pushing through dense foliage till he came to the spot overlooking Xlenca and Moon Dancer.

“I see where the stone lay.” His voice echoed through the ravine. “I don’t see any sign that anyone’s been here. No, wait.” He dropped out of site for a moment and when he arose, his face was pale and grim. Xlenca watched with fierce intensity and shifted rapidly from foot to foot as his Rider scrambled back down the hill. At last, Lotec stood before him and held out his hand.

There clutched in his fingers was something cold and hard. Xlenca started to reach out to take the small figurine but stopped as a chill tremor inched up his spine. It was an amulet of the Sun God—identical to the one that Lord Lo-Huitzlapoch had given to him, the same as the one he had cast aside. The young Master felt his mouth grow dry and his heart turn cold. He looked at the man and beast beside him and he was afraid.

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The Golden Conquest – Part 13

.           The whole encounter was over within seconds and the remainder of the troop had been unable to intervene. They moved in now, encircling the crazed bull mastodon. The Masters carefully positioned their mounts to ensure that they kept their long, curved tusks pointed at their adversary. Two of the Riders leveled their long spears and jabbed out at the animal while the others prepared their javelins. The bull spun in a circle, trumpeting madly and charged forward.  The Master he faced was prepared for the assault and his mount deftly grappled with the bull in an attempt to lock his tusks in hers. The others in the troop moved in.

            Xlenca steadied himself and readied his spear as they closed in on the bull’s rear. The two flanking teams also edged nearer and the Riders simultaneously launched their javelins.  Both weapons were well aimed and struck the bull high on his neck. Blood flowed down his neck and enraged him even further. The bull was able to shake himself free from the mastodon he had engaged and whirled to face his attackers. The animals stepped back quickly but one stumbled on a fallen tree limb and started to go down. The bull rushed ahead to attack but was blocked as Tu-Tuoan urged Moon Dancer forward.

            The bull lashed out with his trunk and tusks but his blows were blocked by Moon Dancer. Xlenca stabbed out with his spear, wounding the bull again on its neck. The beast screamed in pain and anger and reared up on hind legs. Xlenca thrust out his spear at the bull’s exposed chest, the obsidian blade cutting deeply through muscle and bone. A javelin hit the animal from the other side while the remaining Rider drove his spear into its flank. The bull shuddered and lurched forward. As it fell it struck out with its trunk one last time. The blow glanced off Tu-Tuoan and propelled him through the air.

            The bull staggered to its knees and the troop struck again with javelin and spear. Finally, it rolled onto its side and lay still.  Moon Dancer had remained between her fallen Master and his attacker but now turned toward him. Xlenca dropped his spear and slid down her side and rushed to Tu-Tuoan. The old man lay in a crumpled heap at the base of a tree. The Rider feared for the worst but as he reached the Master, the elder moaned softly. Xlenca carefully rolled him onto his side and was relieved when the old man opened his eyes.

            “Is it done?” Tu-Tuoan said in a hoarse whisper, “Is Moon Dancer uninjured?”

            “No, Master, she is fine, The fight is over. The bull is dead.” He gently laid a hand on the old man’s chest and felt the air moving easily in and out, no sign of any damage to the lungs. He carefully pushed on Tu-Tuoan’s abdomen and looked into his eyes for any sign of pain.

            “It does not hurt, my Rider,” the Master said firmly, “I just need to rest. Please check on the others.” At that moment Xlenca was joined by one of the other Masters, and reluctantly arose to turn away from the old man. He surveyed the carnage about them. The bull lay unmoving where it had fallen, a pool of dark blood collecting by its side. The female which had been wounded weakly flailed its legs in a desperate attempt to regain its feet. Xlenca could see that it was injured too severely and knew that it would not survive. Lotec and the other Riders had managed to free Master Hantuachal from under the wounded beast and had laid his corpse on a small mound of ferns. Lotec knelt by his slain Master, holding the now stilled arms and weeping unashamedly. Xlenca placed a hand on his comrade’s shoulder.

            “I failed him, Xlenca,” the Rider said, his voice shrill and high, “I should have stayed mounted to protect him and River Song. I let them down.”

            “No, you did not,” Xlenca replied, “You could not have changed the outcome. You were doing your duty.” He twisted to stare again at the injured mastodon. “There is another duty that must be done. River Song is badly hurt. She is in great pain and cannot endure. Do you wish for me to see to her?”

            “No,” the young man said tightly, “I will do it.” Lotec laid his Master’s hands carefully on the older man’s chest and arose to stand over his mount. The animal quieted as soon as he placed his hands on her great head. She fixed her eye on his and reached out to touch his arms with her trunk. 

“I am sorry, River Song. You were very brave and very good. You will always be in my heart.” Lotec proceeded to stroke the mastodon’s cheek with one hand while drawing his knife with the other. The great beast continued to watch the man’s face and a sense of peacefulness seemed to come over both of them. The stone blade of his dagger was as sharp as a razor and the animal did not flinch as he slipped the blade between the folds in her neck, severing the carotid artery. The blood flowed quickly from the cut and River Song closed her eyes. A moment later she was gone. Lotec lowered his head and wept anew.

Xlenca left his companion to his grief and strode back to where Tu-Tuoan lay. This had been a truly terrible day. Two mastodons were dead and a master killed while another lay injured. He reached for his amulets to give a quick invocation to the gods but then recalled casting the Sun God’s symbol aside. Was that why these things had happened? Was he being punished for what he had done? But why were others suffering? Why had the Sun God not attacked him but had instead allowed the others to be so grievously harmed? It made no sense.  As he approached the fallen elder, Master Quezoema arose and stepped toward him. The older man stared intently at Xlenca but did not speak.

“How is Master Tu-Tuoan, Wise One,” Xlenca at last said in respectful tones. Quezoema’s stern face looked even harder than usual.

“He is badly injured, Rider. It is his back. He cannot feel nor move his legs.”

“Will he recover?”

“No,” the Beast Master replied almost coldly, “No, he will not.” Without another word he turned away and walked to the edge of the jungle. Xlenca stood in shocked silence. Did he not care? He watched as Master Quezoema stood staring into the foliage clenched fists hanging at his side. Then he noted the odd jerking movements of the older man’s shoulders and realized with a start that he was weeping. Each member of the troop was grieving in their own fashion. Xlenca turned back toward his fallen Master.

The Riders prepared a litter of woven cloaks stretched over spear shafts and placed the injured man on the stretcher with intense care. Xlenca whistled softly to Moon Dancer who responded by stepping forward and settled to her knees. After padding the war box on her back with leaves and moss they cautiously lifted Master Tu-Tuoan into place. The old man smiled through his pain, refusing to show any sign of discomfort. While one of the younger Riders sat behind the box to stabilize the Master, Xlenca settled himself astride Moon Dancer’s neck and motioned her to her feet. The great beast floated upward with so little motion that the men did not even sway.

Xlenca sat twisted atop the mastodon, watching his Master as he lay in his nest of foliage. The old man’s eyes were closed and his breathing regular but there was a tenseness in his shoulders and arms that revealed some of his inner turmoil. Master Quezoema approached astride his beast and passed Xlenca a packet of bright green leaves.

“Rider Xlenca, have your master chew these. They will cause him to sleep.” Xlenca watched Tu-Tuoan’s body relax as the medicating plant juices began to flow into his bloodstream. Moments later Quezoema signaled the troop to begin their journey back to their barracks. As the animals moved into position, Moon Dancer snorted impatiently when Master Quezoema’s beast assumed a position at the head of the troop. It was her usual place, and sensing her discomfort, Xlenca reached down to scratch her ear and reassure her. Glancing back, the Rider realized that she was not the only one feeling lost and out of place. Lotec rode holding the shrouded body of his master. River Song had been left where she had fallen.

The troop moved down the trail in a silent, solemn procession. Even the birds and monkeys remained quiet. They had traveled a mile or two when Master Quezoema allowed his mount to fall back parallel with Moon Dancer. His face remained unyielding when he looked at Xlenca.

“I will have a task for you when we have reached the barracks.”

“Yes, Wise One.”

“I wish for you to go to the Great Hill Barracks.” 

“But . . .” Xlenca cried, catching himself at the Master’s sharp glance, “I am sorry Master Quezoema, but I hoped to be allowed to attend to Master Tu-Tuoan.” The older man’s eyes softened briefly as he glanced at the sleeping form atop the mastodon’s back but quickly hardened once again.

“The task I have for you is on his behalf. Master Tu-Tuoan will be cared for. I need you to investigate this.” Xlenca took the small packet the other man held out. He pealed back the large leaves wrapping about the package to find a bloody piece of the bull mastodon’s ear. The edge showed a series of well healed notches. Such cuts were made when the animal was a calf and were as distinctive as a tattoo.  They were the mark of a Quetzolite Barracks, the Great Hill Barracks. 

As the Rider examined the ragged piece of flesh, he realized such marks meant one thing, the bull had not been wild. Somehow the rogue mastodon had, against all convention and reason, been raised at the Great Hill Barracks and then escaped. There had been no reports of a fugitive breeding bull and the notches were not usually seen on a breeder. Inexplicably, the animal also had not been hamstrung but left whole and fit. It was troubling, and could only mean added danger.

The journey back to their barracks was slow and difficult. Master Tu-Tuoan’s injuries made travel painful and he required frequent rests. Lotec was sent ahead with the body of his slain Master to prepare for the others arrival. The rest of the troop trudged on together, a somber procession that wound its way through the countryside. Xlenca shook his head sadly when they at last passed through the gates of the barracks. It had only been few weeks since he had returned from the Sun Festival but it seemed like a lifetime. He felt that his portion of grief and sadness was too great and he wondered once again if he was being punished for rejecting the Sun God. The great god of the Ixtec could be possessive and pitiless. Had Xlenca brought this tragedy upon them? Was he to blame? Was it his doing?

He slid down from Moon Dancer and stood for a moment surveying the clearing. A warm soft light filtered down on him through the trees and gently touched his brow. He turned at the joyous sound of a birdsong. A cluster of bright flowers caught his eye for a moment and then a vivid butterfly fluttered by. Somehow, in a manner he could not explain or fully comprehend he felt some of the fear and doubt fall away. The tight constriction that had gripped his chest since the day of the battle with the rogue bull began to loosen. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes briefly. Without further thought he led Moon Dancer into the compound. There was much to do. 

He slowly led the mastodon towards Master Tu-Tuoan’s quarters where two of the older apprentices were waiting to assist the injured man. As they entered, Xlenca could see that orders had been sent to prepare for the Master’s comfort. The room’s usual spartan furnishings had been replaced with cushioned chairs and a bed with a soft mattress. The royal physician had been summoned from the capital and was even now preparing potions and ointments. Everything would be done but Xlenca feared their efforts would be in vain.

Reluctantly he left the old man when summons arrived for him to appear before the barracks council. Passing Moon Dancer’s pen, he was grateful to note that his young apprentice had already begun to clean and feed the Great Beast. The lad looked up as the young man passed and Xlenca gave him a small smile. The boy’s cheeks were wet with tears but he continued with his task.

The council chamber was dark and quiet when Xlenca entered. Three of the senior Masters of the barracks sat speaking in low tones in a corner while a fourth stood hunched over a fire pit. He straightened upon hearing the Rider’s footsteps and motioned the young man forward. It was Quezoema, looking even more grim and stone faced than usual. A worried look passed over the younger man’s face. What was wrong now? He had expected the summons to the council knowing that Quezoema planned a mission to the Great Hill Barracks. But why did that require the four most senior Masters? Quezoema remained silent and pointed to a mat in the center of the room.

Xlenca knelt as he had been ordered and watched as the four Masters formed a semicircle before him. The quartet of the elders stared at him solemnly and then in turn each gave a curt nod to their leader. At last Master Quezoema stepped forward and broke the silence, his voice gruff and firm.

“Rider Xlenca, you have served in these barracks for many years, as Initiate, Apprentice and now as Rider. You have sought the Path of Quetzol with diligence and determination. Master Tu-Tuoan has commended you to this council. You have been a most fine Rider of the Great Beast.” Pausing he turned to accept a gilded cup from one of the other elders and an ornately carved rod from another. Looking back to Xlenca, he fixed his eyes on the young man and spread his arms to hold forth the two relics.

“But no longer shall you ride the Great Beast. Those days have departed from you forever. Now the council invites, no, commands that you put down the tools of the Rider and accept the Rod of the Master.”

Xlenca was speechless. Mutely he accepted the ancient black scepter, his fingers closing tight over the worn carvings. The gilded cup was held out to him and he received it with his free hand. Lifting it to his lips, he drank deeply of the hot bitter cocoa mixture. The sacred drink sealed his elevation in rank. He felt a heavy cloak of bright feathers being placed on his shoulders. Other hands lifted him to his feet and directed him to the door of the council chamber.  Stepping back into the bright sunshine he was greeted by a roar of approval. The members of the Red Sun Barracks saluted their newest Master of the Great Beast.

Still confused and surprised, Xlenca greeted each person with a short bow as they passed before him; the Initiates, wide eyed and more than a bit frightened, the Apprentices awed and excited by the ceremony, the Riders pleased and perhaps even jealous of their former comrade and lastly, the Masters, welcoming him into their fellowship. After the procession had ended, servants appeared bearing trays of food and drink. The barracks often dined together but today they would feast to honor Xlenca’s promotion. As the celebration began Quezoema took the younger man’s arm and lead him aside.

“I see this surprised you. That is good. Humility is a valuable asset for a Master.” Xlenca was astonished to note a slight smile cross the elder’s visage as he continued, “It is also sometimes lacking in my—our compatriots. Walk with me.”  he barracks youngest Master followed the older man through the courtyard. The sounds of revelry continued unabated behind them as they approached the mastodon pens. The great animals were seemingly unaffected by the excitement around them. One beast however was restless and crowded against her enclosure as they approached. The sight of the two men brought a loud trumpet from her and Xlenca quickly stepped forward to stroke Moon Dancer’s head and ears.

“This is one of the reasons for your elevation. Master Tu-Tuoan will likely never be fit to lead a Great Beast again. He felt that you and you alone would be fit to assume mastery over Moon Dancer. I agree.”

This was most unusual, Xlenca knew. It was most common that a newly made Master be given a calf to raise and train, thus forging the bonds between man and animal which would allow them to function together. If a Master was killed or became ill, his mount was usually retired or used for breeding purposes. Only rarely did another assume care of the animal and then only if a senior Master was available. Never would such a responsibility be given to one so young or junior. It was even more unexpected as Moon Dancer was the matriarch of their herd.

Xlenca’s thoughts seemed to fly in all directions. Fear, apprehension and doubt swept over him but as the mastodon nuzzled against his shoulder, they were replaced with determination and confidence. 

Master Quezoema spoke again. “The Path needs Moon Dancer still . . . and she needs you. The council is satisfied to follow Master Tu-Tuoan’s leading in this manner. You also must make a decision.  Who would you have as Rider?”

“Lotec,” the young man blurted out, almost without thought. But yes, Lotec was who he would wish to have share in Moon Dancer’s care and direction. “That is if you and the council should agree. I think that Rider Lotec would do.”

“Very well, I have no objection. I will inform the council of your decision. I will leave you now. You may wish to return to the celebration.”

“If it is alright Master Quezoema, I would most like to visit Master Tu-Tuoan.” As the elder gave a nod of approval, Xlenca turned and hurried to his former master’s quarters. He still needed the old man’s help and council. He needed his assurance that the council had made the right decision.

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The Golden Conquest – Part 12

.           The fierce rays of the rising sun touched the cold stones with a golden glow. The young warrior felt a shudder go through his body as the first rivulets of dark red blood began to flow down the side of the temple. The temple guards lifted another sacrifice onto one of the stone altars, holding him firmly in place. Like the rest of the men his arms were bound at his sides and his eyes were glazed from the effects of the drug he had been given. The priest moved quickly, grabbing a handful of hair and forcing the victim’s head back to expose his throat. Dramatically he held the glistening obsidian blade aloft and then slashed downward, severing both carotid arteries in one motion. The blood spurted forth to be caught in an ornately carved stone bowl and funneled into a channel that began its course down the front of the pyramid. The knife flashed again, cutting deeply into the still heaving chest. The priest reached in to rip out the sacrifice’s heart and turned to toss it into the fire blazing at the center of the platform.

            Greasy black smoke curled upward into the azure sky as Xlenca looked away. His gaze traveled down the score of prisoners inching forward towards the altar. Some were Aztec warriors captured in the last war, others were criminals condemned to death, and a few were slaves who had proved unprofitable. The last in the line was different. She was a young girl, just approaching womanhood and she stood erect and proud at the end of the procession. While the others were naked but for a loincloth, she was dressed in an ornately embroidered robe and wore a cloak and headdress of bright multi-colored feathers. While the men’s arms were tied tightly with leather thongs, her hands were free and held a bouquet of flowers. Her eyes too were different. No drug had dulled them and even from this distance, Xlenca could tell they were bright with fear. She was his sister.

            Xlenca knew that he should be proud. It was a great honor to his family that his sister had been selected for sacrifice at the winter’s solstice. It was the most important ceremony of the year and the only one requiring a virgin maiden. The People believed that this was needed to heal the Sun God of his wasting illness and bring him back to full strength. They also believed that this outpouring of blood would keep him satisfied and content for the full year and ensure good fortune for the People. Oh, there were other sacrifices, on the summer solstice and on the Day of Quetzol, but these were much smaller and restricted to prisoners. The People or Ixtec, as the other tribes called them, were pleased that they were not bloodthirsty savages like the Aztec or the Mayan had been. They were civilized.

            Xlenca continued to watch as his young sister moved closer to the knife wielding priest. Why she had been picked he could never know. The whole process was secretive and supposedly random. No family was ever allowed to be honored more than once. The selection brought great prestige to the family and could elevate the household to a higher class. The young man knew his father was pleased, for coupled with his own rank as a Third Degree Quetzolite it virtually ensured the family receiving nobility status. Xlenca did not care and guessing by the muffled sob to his left, neither did his mother. Marta continued to shuffle forward to her doom.

            She was so young and so full of life. She loved to tease and was constantly chiding him for being too serious. The boys of the village were all smitten with her and continually strove for her attention. She would have none of them.  Her big brother was ever her hero and the one she always sought out. He wished he could truly be her hero now and save her. Xlenca saw a slight shudder go through her slim body as she stepped into the firm grasp of the temple guards. Their eyes locked for a moment and he saw her trembling lips shape themselves into a smile, for him. And then the guards turned her about and laid her down onto the altar. Xlenca could not watch but lowered his head. A single tear fell from his eye.

            His duties did not allow him to stay with his family for long and he found no enthusiasm for the feasts and festivities which typically followed the sacrifices of the winter solstice. As soon as they had returned to their home Xlenca bid a hasty farewell to his family, delaying only to weep silently with his mother and remaining sister. All three used the pretense of his parting to grieve but it was not the reason for their sadness. Ma-Zena especially seemed wounded by the morning’s events and told Xlenca she wondered why chance had spared her but taken her younger sibling.

            “Be brave, Little Bird,” Xlenca said in a whisper, “Look after Mother and do not let her heart grow too heavy.”           

            “Do not worry, Big Brother.” Her voice was strong and, though her lip trembled, her dark eyes flashed. “I will watch over her. I will not leave her side.” Despite his sadness, the young man had to smile at the determination in her final statement. Ma-Zena was of an age to be wed, and their father would no doubt try to use their newly elevated status to arrange a favorable marriage. But Xlenca knew that there was great strength in his sister’s slight frame. She would resist any attempt to remove her from the family home. Giving his sister and mother one last embrace, he turned and strode down the path leading away from the house.

            Turning a corner in the trail he was surprised to find his father waiting for him. The old man was still tall and straight. His black hair might be shot through with grey but his eyes remained bright and clear. There was something else in them now however. For the first time he could remember Xlenca noted sadness and regret in his father’s eyes. The old man did not immediately speak but fell in beside his son and walked along with him. They had gone a score of paces when he paused to face the younger man.

            “I will not show disrespect to the memory of my daughter with tears. I know that the ways of our people can be hard but they have served us well and we must trust in them.” When Xlenca remained silent, his father continued, “I loved my Little Flower and I will miss her.” His voice broke momentarily but he gritted his teeth. “Your mother will grieve and that is acceptable. But you and I must keep our heads high. The People have honored us greatly this day. We must accept that honor and move on.”

            “Why?” the younger man said, fighting to control his voice, “Why must we accept it?”

            “Xlenca!  Do not forget yourself.  Do not forget your position amongst the People and what you owe them.”

            “Owe them? The priests took my sister today. They took her and they cut her throat. I think that I’ve paid enough. No father, I owe nothing. Not to the People and not to you.” Without another word he spun about and ran down the trail. He paused at a bend in the trail and glanced back. He saw his father turn with head bowed and shoulders drooping. As the old man trudged back to the house, he seemed to shrink slowly into himself.  Xlenca hesitated and then hurried on.

            The young warrior barely noticed the passage of time as his feet carried him over the trail back to his barracks. A heavy blanket of sadness enveloped him as memories tumbled down through his mind like water over the edge of a cliff. He had been five summers old when his second sister was born to be held aloft to the rising sun by his father. She had tried to toddle down the trail after him two years later when he had left for his initiation ceremony at the barracks. His acceptance as a Quetzolite novice meant that he spent much time away from home, but Marta had always welcomed his visits with joyous shouts and kisses. Her exuberant spirit made her the center of their little abode, but the selfless love she exhibited ensured that there was never a hint of jealousy amongst the siblings.

            Xlenca knew that his mother would especially feel the loss of little Marta. There had been other pregnancies he knew but each had ended in miscarriage or stillbirth. And each time it was Marta who comforted their mother and encompassed her with her love. Now it was Marta who was gone, and the nature of her passing meant that instead of grieving the family must rejoice in the Sun God’s selection of their Little Flower and accept the honor and glory this would bring. The young man could feel no joy, no pride, only regret and sadness.

  Xlenca stopped in the middle of the trail as his hand absent mindedly reached for the talismans hanging about his neck. Three leather thongs held three different stone images. The first and simplest was a dull grey rock bearing the figure of a prancing monkey. It identified his clan and family. The second was a glossy black stone carved in the fierce likeness of the Sun God, the chief god of his people. The third was a strange greenish pebble bearing no image. None was needed as the stone together with the broad tattoo covering his left breast clearly identified him as a Quetzolite, a Rider of the Beast. He stared with unblinking eyes at the three icons. His family was his foundation, something he could never forget. His profession was who he was and all that he knew. With a sharp jerk of his hand he snapped the other of the leather strands. For a moment he held the black idol in his clenched fist. Silently, he dropped the icon by the side of the path and walked on.

            His eyes were dry when Xlenca reached the barracks some days later. He had traveled through night and day almost nonstop and the sun was approaching its zenith as he came into the valley. From the top of a ridge he could overlook the cluster of stone buildings in the center of the broad shallow basin, the Barracks of the Red Sun, Keepers of the Path of Quetzol. He raised both hands to salute the sentries in their watch towers and continued through the open gates. As he passed the thick stone walls, he glanced at the pillars lining the pathway and noted once again the rows of names listed on them—names of generations of Masters and Riders. He stopped for a moment to stare at the spot on which his own name had been carved. Someday perhaps the designation of Master would be added to his name.

            A voice called to him and he turned to see a boy running toward him, bare feet slapping against the packed earth. In spite of himself Xlenca had to smile as the boy skidded to a stop in front of him, almost falling in a tangle of gangly limbs. The lad caught himself and bowed in an attempt to show the proper formalities of greeting.

            “Rider Xlenca,” the youngster said as he tried to slow his breathing, “You are back. Master Tu-Tuoan left word that you should come to him upon your return.”

            “Very well my apprentice, lead on.” Xlenca smiled at the boy. At ten years of age he had just entered the second level of the Path of Quetzol and was now officially apprenticed to Xlenca and Master Tu-Tuoan. Just as had the two older men, the youngster must now put aside childhood things and spend the majority of his time at the barracks far away from home and family. Marta had wept on the day Xlenca had graduated from Initiate to Apprentice but had bravely kissed him goodbye. She knew what it meant to him and accepted it without complaint. The memory now brought a fresh wave of sadness to him.

              The young man paused as they passed the pens and sheds that dominated the center of the compound. Leaning close to the chest high stone fence he gave a low whistle and listened intently. He whistled a second time and heard a rustling sound from within the enclosure’s outbuilding in reply. Xlenca smiled as the doorway of the thatch hut was filled by a familiar shape. The Great Beast let out a snort of recognition and ambled forward to stare into his eyes.  Gently she reached out and wrapped her trunk around the Rider’s shoulders. The Great Beast was a mastodon, a creature from a line stretching back to a pair the founders of the People had captured and tamed many centuries before.

            “Hello, old one.” The young man grinned and reached up to scratch behind a great ear. “I missed you also. It is good to see you again.” The mastodon closed her eyes in pleasure and stamped her feet. Xlenca ran his hands down her jaw line and under her neck, searching for burrs and biting insects. He had been caring for the old mastodon for years and was not yet fully confident in his apprentice’s ability to maintain her health. She turned her head slightly to stare with one great brown eye into his two. As ever before, a subtle message of love and understanding passes between them. She seemed to recognize the grief he was carrying and nuzzled him again with her trunk. For a moment the young man leaned his head against the mastodon’s only to have his reverie broken by an urgent tugging on his arm.

            “Rider,” the boy said, “Please come. The Master is waiting.” Xlenca nodded and followed the lad, glancing one last time at the mastodon. She stood taller than a man at the shoulder, her body covered with thick coarse hair now turning grey from its original reddish brown. Her long, curved tusks, the tips covered with heavy leather caps, were yellowed with age but remained wickedly sharp. She waved her trunk after the departing humans and flapped her smallish ears. She was the oldest mastodon in the herd and was its matriarch. Her name was Moon Dancer.

            Xlenca and the young boy continued to hurry through the compound. They entered the main building to find a grey-haired man seated cross legged on a woven mat. The elder was staring at rope of multi-colored strands interspersed with a complex array of knots and twists. The seemingly random array of knots and colors were actually a clear and readable form of writing. The old man seemed troubled by the message, a deep frown creasing his weathered face. At the sound of their approaching footsteps however, he looked up and smiled. 

            “Welcome back, Xlenca,” he said, “Thank you for bringing him so quickly, young one. Now I believe Moon Dancer needs to be fed. Would you please attend to the Great Beast’s needs?” As the apprentice bowed and scurried off, the old man turned his eyes back to Xlenca. “You did not stay for the feasts or for the solstice festivals?” The Rider only shook his head in reply and stared down at the ground. Tu-Tuoan rose from the mat and stepped forward to place a gnarled hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “I heard that the priests had selected your sister for the ceremony. I share your grief.”

            Xlenca jerked his head up in surprise. He had expected another admonishment to be proud, to accept joyously the honor the temple guardians had granted to his family, not recognition of his sadness. His voice broke as he spoke, “I—I don’t understand. Why do you . . . speak so?”

            “Why?” The old man’s smile was tinged with sadness. “You did not think you were the first to ever lose a loved one to a random drawing of lots by the priests of the Sun God, did you?” He paused and stared into the distance. “Did you not ever wonder why I had never wed? There was a girl once. She was fourteen summers old and I loved her. She too was ‘honored’ just as was your Marta. She too was . . . so young, so beautiful.” He lifted his hand in the sunlight as if trying to catch a beam of light in his palm. “So long ago.” Tu-Tuoan shook himself and straightened his shoulders. “Grieve, weep if you must but do not forget your duty. Look at this.” He handed Xlenca the knotted strands.

            The Rider was not as adept as his master at discerning the encoded message but he nonetheless quickly grasped the older man’s concern. A village to the south had reported that their crops were being ravaged by a rogue mastodon. If the report was true then the situation would have to be dealt with quickly. There were no known wild or missing animals but such occurrences had happened, though rarely, in the past.  The mastodons were never fully domesticated but were rather controlled through their close relationships with the men who served as their riders and masters. It was a relationship forged through years of companionship which began at the time of the animal’s birth and it was only broken by the death of the mastodon or of the Master. 

Only the legendary Quetzol, the founder of the Path, had ever been able to manage more than one mastodon and only he had ever taken a bull mastodon for his animal. Since his day, all others had taken only female animals. Most male calves were culled from the herd and the few bulls reserved for breeding purposes were kept confined in strict isolation. The Great Council of the Quetzolite Path required that all such beasts be hamstrung to reduce the chance of escape. Even so, a bull mastodon was a fierce and dangerous creature easily enraged and inclined to wanton destruction. If such a beast were rampaging through the countryside, their work would be difficult and potentially deadly. Xlenca welcomed the mission. It was a chance to set aside his grief and fix his mind elsewhere. His face was set and grim when he looked again at Master Tu-Tuoan.

“When do we leave?”

The thudding tread of the mastodons echoed through the trees, dispelling even the morning mist. Chattering monkeys fled before their approach while brightly colored birds watched unmoving from the treetops. The troop was rapidly approaching their destination.  Master Tu-Tuoan raised his rod to call the force to a halt and with a spry dexterity surprising for a man his age scrambled to stand atop Moon Dancer’s great head. Holding his hand out to call for quiet the old man closed his eyes in deep concentration. Even the mastodons sensed the need for silence and stood immobile. After a moment the Master settled back astride Moon Dancer’s neck and waved the troop forward.

Xlenca like the other Riders was perched within a box-like structure tied upon the mastodon’s back. None of the men were armored as they would have been for war but all were armed with an array of weapons. Xlenca held a long spear tipped with a keenly sharp blade of obsidian while a woven basket at his side held a clutch of javelins. He tensed now and gripped his spear more tightly as they moved forward. The other masters directed their mounts to flank Tu-Tuoan’s and the five beasts moved onward through the underbrush. Moments later they burst into a large clearing to survey a scene of destruction. The group paused briefly and again advanced in order.

It had been a small village, only a score of huts and pens surrounded by fields of maize and vegetables.  The buildings had been torn asunder and the crops crushed and trampled. It was obvious from the mayhem that the villagers had been fortunate to have escaped unharmed. The message Tu-Tuoan had received had indicated that the inhabitants of the small settlement had heard something large and ferocious approaching through the jungle and had fled. The decision had no doubt saved lives but it also meant that the Beast Riders were advancing against an unknown danger.

The quintet of mastodons moved forward in loose formation, their great heads swinging from side to side and their ears perked up in apprehension. The Masters stroked the creature’s sides and spoke softly to maintain calm control. The Riders gripped their weapons more tightly. Xlenca hoped that it would not be a mastodon that they found. He dreaded the thought of having to kill one. The mastodon herds had never been large and the numbers had been greatly reduced during the People’s wars against the Aztec. Once there had been some ten barracks scattered throughout the territories but now there were only three.

            The troop passed through the clearing and entered the jungle that encroached on the far side of the village. Smashed trees and crushed underbrush gave silent testament to the comings and goings of a large creature. As they approached a small stream one of the Masters, an older man named Hantuachal, called a halt so his Rider Lotec could leap down to inspect some tracks in the muddy soil. Though partially obscured by an overlay of the spoor of smaller animals, there could be no doubt that a mastodon had traveled through the area. Lotec crossed to the opposite side of the creek and pointed out more, fresher prints. One footfall had snapped off a small sapling.  Its broken bark was still green and its heartwood moist. The Beast they followed had passed this way only recently.

            Lotec’s head jerked up suddenly as a crashing came from the jungle next to him. An immense bull mastodon burst through the underbrush and charged forward. The Rider barely had time to roll out of its path before the Beast slammed into Hantuachal’s mastodon. Lotec’s Master desperately tried to turn his mount but reacted too slowly and the bull’s wickedly sharp tusks struck the mastodon’s side. The blow was deflected by the heavy boiled leather armor draped over her flanks but the bull twisted his head and tusks were thrust forward. One dug a deep gouge in the female’s cheek while the second caught her behind the jaw and dug deeply into the soft flesh. 

            Blood poured from the wound and the mastodon bellowed in pain. She turned sharply in an anxious attempt to escape the pain. In doing so, she trapped the bull’s tusk under her jawbone.  The bull shook his head viciously almost pulling the weakening mastodon from her feet. Suddenly the entrapped tusk snapped halfway up its length and the two beasts were flung apart.  The wounded mastodon spun away but stumbled and fell, pinning her master beneath her massive bulk. The enraged bull lunged out again, goring the female’s exposed underbelly and causing her to roll. Master Hantuachal was crushed.

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The Golden Conquest – Part 11

In the weeks that followed the settlement took shape rapidly. Cortes conferred with his captains and made plans with the assistance of his native allies. Father Garcilosa and Henrico continued to be kept busy learning the indigenous languages with the assistance of Cortes’ two interpreters. The sailor from Cuba was soon surpassed by the two clerics and they spent more time being tutored by the native woman. Her name was Malitzin and the three of them were soon able to converse. Her own grasp of Spanish improved daily and she soon could share her own dialect which she told them was called Mayan. Malitzin was able to instruct and assist the two clerics as they studied the Cempoalan tongue, a variant of Mayan. She also brought to them an assistant, an older Cempoalan named Txella. He promised to help her teach them the language of the empire to the west; the language of the Ixtec.

Father Garcilosa and Txella were waiting by a fire on the beach when Henrico carried their evening meal to them. They had grown increasingly skilled at conversing with each other as the days had passed and the elderly native had informed them of the history of the region. The Ixtec were a powerful people who only a few years before had defeated the Cempoalans’ previous masters, the Aztec, in a fierce and bloody war. He told the clerics that his people had always been a subject people and were hoping that the Spaniards would finally help them to cast off their yoke. Txella did not believe that that would happen.

“You should gone,” he spat, picking through his stew, “Ixtec too strong. Swat you like man swat fly.”

“Why do you say that, Txella?” the priest said, “Cortes is strong also. He has his horses and his muskets.”

“Noise-That-Kills strong yes but Ixtec more. Ixtec have the Beasts.”

            “What do you mean? What are the Beasts?”

            “Do not listen to him,” Malitzin said, joining the trio, “He is old and foolish. He tells lies and old stories.” She rattled off a string of Mayan to Txella so rapidly that Henrico and the priest could not follow. Txella scowled at her and spat again.

Malinche! You traitor own people. Txella hope Ixtec catch you. Feed you to Beasts.” 

The woman reached out to strike him but the old warrior easily blocked her arm. Taking his meal with him he rose and left the group, a sly smile on his face. Malitzin shook her fist after him and sunk to the ground beside the two clerics.

            “My people.” Her voice dripped with bitterness. “I have none. Only Hernan cares for me. He is my family, my tribe.” Henrico watched her in fascination. She was not beautiful by European standards but she moved with a catlike grace that attracted attention to her. She had a raw sensuality which she seemed to be able to turn on at will and which captivated the men. She had certainly captivated Hernan Cortes. Henrico felt drawn to her as well, seeing in her a kindred spirit. She too had no family and no home to call her own. But it seemed that she at least had the affection of their commander.

            “What do you know about this Beast of which Txella spoke?” Father Garcilosa said.

            She turned and spat on the ground before replying. “Ha, is old woman’s story to frighten children. Txella is old fool. Do not worry. Hernan is strong and powerful. Cempoalans are right to call him Noise-That-Kills for he will kill all who try to stop him.” With that pronouncement, Malitzin rose and walked away, shaking her long black hair loose as she did. She glanced back over her shoulder and catching him watching her, flashed a saucy smile at the young Benedictine. Henrico felt his face grow red and quickly looked away.

            “Beware of her, my son,” the priest said, “Temptation comes in many guises.” The novice stared at him grimly.

            “You don’t like any of my friends.”

            “I will admit that I am concerned. This young woman, Malitzin, has had a difficult life and she needs to learn of the love of Christ. But a young man should not be the one to attempt to teach her. She has learned to use her body to survive and is willing to set aside any pretense of morality.”

            The novice dropped his chin to his chest and gritted his teeth. “Who has any morals?  Who really cares?”

            “Henrico, my son, what is troubling you?” The priest knelt beside the lad and grasped both shoulders, forcing him to look him in the face. Henrico shook off his grip and rose to his feet.

            “There’s no one, don’t you see, no one I can trust. It’s all been a lie. My so-called brothers, the man I thought was my father, even my mother. Everyone.” He stared up at the sky, a majestic canopy of diamond studded velvet.  “I don’t know who I am anymore. I don’t know who He is anymore.” Without another word he turned and ran into the darkness. As he reached the tree line, he glanced back. The priest had shifted on his knees and bowed his head in prayer.

            The expedition was on the move. Leaving a skeleton crew to maintain and protect the settlement, Cortes led the rest of his men westward. He rode at the front of the vanguard with the other mounted soldiers. Having learned that the natives had never seen a horse before, he felt that such a display of martial prowess would go far to winning any battle. The remaining infantry together with their native allies brought up the rear. Henrico marched for a time beside a group of men laboring to keep an artillery piece moving but soon cast around for other company. He spotted d’Amarco riding a short distance ahead and ran to catch up. 

            The young man’s enthusiasm diminished when he approached the courtier. Riding beside the aristocrat was a stern black robed figure, Brother Sebastian. Henrico had almost forgotten about the Dominican. It was unfortunate that he hadn’t stayed in Cuba. Still, Henrico was excited to see d’Amarco again. The novice was about to step forward when he was dismayed to recognize the other men with the two horsemen. Montoya and his two cohorts.

            How could Ponce d’Amarco, someone whom he had thought was his friend, accept the presence of such villains? Had the Dominican ordered it? But why would d’Amarco acquiesce even then? He had crossed blades with these ruffians and now he rode beside them as if they were old comrades. Henrico tasted the bitterness of disappointment. Silently he dropped back and fell in beside Father Garcilosa. The priest gave him a warm smile and Henrico had to admit that he at least seemed to care. Was he perhaps the only one who did?

            The army marched on through the day. Progress was slow for though there was a trail it was narrow and rough. It was not a true road and the Spanish forces often delayed to clear debris or even widen the trail to allow the artillery to proceed. Henrico noted that the journey seemed especially hard on Father Garcilosa. It appeared that his old leg wound was troubling him and he began to limp more and more as the day drew on. Henrico left him for a moment and commandeered one of the pack animals. By hoisting some of the gear onto his shoulders, he was able to make enough room on the mule to allow the priest a chance to ride and rest his injured limb. The older cleric expressed his gratitude at the thoughtfulness.

            The Spanish force continued on through the heat of the late afternoon.  The men remained in good spirits, laughing and trading stories of the wealth they would soon share. When the Cempoalan allies informed him of a large clearing with fresh pools of water a short distance ahead, Cortes ordered his captains to tell the army that they would make camp in a short time.  With the news, Father Garcilosa announced that his leg felt rested and elected to step down off the mule. The two clerics were walking beside each other when their attention was captured by an uproar at the head of the column. Their curiosity quickly turned to apprehension as they heard the sound of musket fire.

            The troops rushed ahead dropping their packs and pulling out their weapons as they ran. Henrico raced behind the soldiers while Father Garcilosa struggled to keep up. The Spanish infantry were excited at the prospect of combat against another primitive foe. Even as they ran, Henrico heard some call out confident boasts.  Hurry, men called, or the fighting would be over before they reached it. Their headlong rush was suddenly slowed when they encountered troops falling back from the front of the battlefield.  In growing confusion, the soldiers began to hesitate.

            Then a group of riderless horses came plunging down the trail. The animal’s eyes were wide with fear as they bolted through the mass of men. Some of the troops attempted to grab trailing reins but the horses snapped and kicked at them and raced on. More soldiers broke out of the underbrush in full flight. The captain of the company Henrico was with attempted to rally his men but they turned and fled with the others. The army was in full retreat, routed by an as yet unseen opponent. Henrico stood stunned by the turn of events, not knowing what to do. He grabbed the arm of a fleeing soldier to ask what was happening but the man shook off his arm and continued to run.

            The young Benedictine turned to hear a heavy crashing sound coming toward him from the jungle. The ground itself seemed to tremble as the noise came closer. Henrico stepped backwards his mouth falling open as an immense dark shape could be seen approaching through the dense brush. His foot caught on a vine and he fell back striking his head on a fallen log.  Stunned, he attempted to rise but his vision swam and blurred before his eyes. He saw a huge brownish grey form burst from the trees before him and then he lapsed into darkness.

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The Golden Conquest – Part 10

“You!  What on earth are you doing here?”

“Stefano, my brother.” The young man’s grin was wide, his eyes bright. “It is you. Oh, praise God. I didn’t know when I would ever see you again. It’s so wonderful to see you, brother.”  He moved to hug his sibling but Stefano stiffly avoided the embrace.

“I said, what are you doing here? You should be back at the monastery. You weren’t expelled, were you?”

“No. No, I—I mean—uh—I am here with Father de la Vega. We are going with Senor Cortes to the new lands to . . .”

“Don’t be a fool, boy. The western lands are no place for a school boy. Go back to Spain.  Go back to your books and parchments.”

“Why are you saying this, Stefano? We are brothers, family. Aren’t you at all happy to see me?”

The soldier’s eyes narrowed as he lowered his voice. “We were never family. We lived together only because father said so. But he’s dead now and the pretense is over.”

“But our mother . . .”

“Your mother, not mine.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“Listen, brat.” Stefano stepped close, his voice tight and angry. “It’s time you knew the truth. Your mother was his second wife. He kept us from telling you—made us accept you as part of the family, always favored you, but he’s not here now. And neither is Joaquin. Our big brother wouldn’t let us tell you even at the funeral. Well, I’m tired of lies.”

“You mean . . . we’re half-brothers?” Stefan gave a sharp laugh and shook his head.

“I’m not even sure of that. There were rumors. Your mother was quite pretty and, well, Father was away a lot. Who knows whose little bastard you really are?”

Henrico felt as if he had been struck. He stood dazed, staring at his brother’s face without speaking. He felt as if the ground beneath his feet was crumbling away. The smirk on Stefano’s face faded but his eyes remained hard. 

“Go,” he said, “Go back to Spain.” 

The young Benedictine spun away and stumbled out of the hall. His eyes stung and he fought against a sob that spilled from his throat.  A grim tightness constricted his chest till he felt as if he could not breathe. He ran down the hill, not thinking or seeing where he went and wandered the darkened streets in confusion. He looked up suddenly at the sound of a barking dog and realized he did not know where he was. In dejected silence he slumped against a stone wall while his thoughts raced back to his childhood. There had always been a distance between himself and his brothers that he had never understood, a barrier that kept them apart. His father seemed to care for him but was often aloof and sometimes harsh. The love he had known had come from his mother. She had been his rock and now even that seemed threatened. Who could he trust? Who could he turn to? 

A crash of breaking glass shook him from his stupor and he looked up to see three figures approaching out of the shadows. The first finished draining a bottle of wine and following the lead of his comrade threw it against the stone wall. Henrico scrambled to his feet as the men stepped into the light. Montoya. The novice shrunk back and attempted to move aside. Too late. The men recognized him and moved to block his escape.

“I’ve been looking for you, monk.” Montoya’s words were slurred by the wine, his face creased in a cruel sneer.  He stepped forward and pulled a long-bladed knife from his belt. “It’s time for one more dance, boy and this will be the last one.” 

Henrico held out his hands, palms upright and began to back away. “I’m unarmed. Just leave me be.”

“Oh, we’ll leave you alright . . . in the gutter.” Montoya looked past him for a moment and jerked his head. “Felipe, don’t let him past.” 

The novice glanced behind him to see that the seaman had picked up the broken bottle and moved between the wall and the street. Edging back to his right Henrico found that way blocked by Cordoba. The bully grinned as he smacked a cudgel against his hand. The Benedictine was surrounded and trapped.

“There’s three of you,” he said, desperation making his voice shrill, “Are you afraid to face me alone?” 

Montoya laughed and waved his companions back. He stepped ahead, weaving the knife before him. The blade slashed through the air but the monk leapt back out of reach. Montoya circled to his left and lunged forward. Henrico side stepped and struck out his fist. Pain shot through his hand but the stabbing ache was overcome by the satisfying crunch his fist made against the sailor’s face. The sailor staggered back, blood streaming from his broken nose. He wiped the blood with his hand and swore.

“Bastard, you’ll suffer for that.” He stabbed out again with his knife. Henrico darted back but stumbled on a loose stone.  The seaman was on him in an instant, hacking at his throat. The Benedictine threw an arm up to block the blow and screamed as the blade cut into his flesh. Gritting his teeth, he punched Montoya in the face once again and rolled away. The two combatants, each bloodied now, clambered back to their feet and continued to circle each other warily. Henrico looked around, frantic to escape. With Felipe on one side and Cordoba on the other, he could see no way out and nothing he could use as a weapon. Montoya advanced once again.

“Would you gentlemen mind if I joined the festivities,” a voice called from the shadows. Ponce D’Amarco stepped into the light drawing his sword as he did. “Really, Henrico, it seems I am always interrupting your fun.”

“You’re not wanted here, d’Amarco.” Montoya glared at the nobleman and swore. “This is not your affair.”

“Ah, but I’ve decided to make it so.”

“What kind of game do you think you’re playing? You can’t have things both ways.” 

“I suggest.” The young aristocrat’s voice took on a hard edge. “That you and your—ah, friends leave . . . now!” He lifted his sword slowly. Felipe had been moving stealthily closer and suddenly lunged forward with the broken bottle. D’Amarco parried the strike easily with the flat of his blade and pounded the hilt into his attacker’s face. The man crumpled to the ground with a groan. Raising his sword once again, he spoke again. “As I said, it’s time for you to go.”

“You bastard,” Montoya cursed, “You know what the Dom . . .” His words were cut off as the courtier’s blade whipped out, the tip coming to rest against the bully’s neck. D’Amarco’s smile was grim.

“Enough talk. Save your breath while you still can and leave this place.”

Snarling with anger the sailor backed away. Motioning Cordoba to help their fallen comrade, he sheathed his knife, and slunk back into the shadows.

“This isn’t over,” he called as they slipped away, “I swear it’s not.”

D’Amarco stood for a moment till he was sure they were gone and then turned to the injured monk. Returning his sword to its scabbard, he inspected Henrico’s wound. The courtier pulled out a silken cloth from his doublet and skillfully bound the cut. “There, I think you’ll survive.”

Henrico’s face was pale and a sheen of sweat covered his brow. He felt chilled and fevered at the same time. He started to step away but staggered and almost fell. D’Amarco steadied him with one arm and then stooped to pick up the bottle of wine Cordoba had dropped.

“Come, my friend,” his rescuer said with a whisper, “You need to rest. My inn is not far.”  Slipping his arm under the Benedictine’s uninjured one he supported him as they walked down the street. Henrico nodded his assent and glanced at the aristocrat. There was something almost cynical on the man’s face for a moment. A wave of nausea forced his eyes to the ground as the quiet blackness of the night closed in after them.

Father Garcilosa sat on the edge of his bed and prayed in the moonlight. The weeks in Cuba had passed slowly and he had watched Henrico become sullen and withdrawn. The priest knew something had happened the night of the Governor’s fiesta but not all of it. Something was troubling the lad. He did his work diligently but without joy. A spark had gone out of the young monk. The priest was not sure what had happened. It had to be more than the fight with Montoya. He hoped Henrico would open up to him and share his troubles. In the interim, Father Garcilosa would continue to pray.

Other thoughts came to his mind. Captain Quintero was also disheartened. He had been unable to find a cargo to take back to Spain.  The captain had shared with Father Garcilosa his concerns about his crew. He feared not for their safety but with losing them to others. The longer they lingered in port the more stories they heard of the wealth and splendor of the lands to the west. And the more they were tempted to join Cortes on his expedition. The priest shook his head slowly as his reflections and prayers turned to Cortes.

Tensions between the charismatic general and the island’s governor were growing. Cortes had judged it best to increase the distance between them and had moved his base out of Havana. For reasons Garcilosa did not understand, he had taken Brother Sebastian and d’Amarco with him. Once in his own camp the soldier began take on more and more authority, and placed himself in solitary command. Velazquez saw what was happening and his anger and jealousy grew. Everyone was beginning to wonder how the conflict would end. A soft knocking on his door pulled the priest away from his musings. Cautiously he opened the door of his room to find Olmedo waiting for him. 

In hushed tones, the first mate explained his mission. Quintero wanted them aboard ship as soon as they could be there. They should bring all their belongings. The streets were dark and quiet as the clerics hastened to the harbor. The sailors were silent and even the oarlocks of the boat that carried them out to the Gabriella had been muffled with rags. The ship lay in deep shadows, men gliding over the deck and up the rigging like ghosts. The final clicks of the capstan sounded like gunshots as the anchor was secured home. The ship turned slowly to catch the wind and began to move soundlessly out of the harbor. Olmedo motioned the two clerics into Quintero’s cabin.

The air in the small room was stale and warm. Canvas was draped over the already shuttered windows to prevent any stray light from escaping. Only after the door had been firmly closed did Quintero move to uncover a small lantern to dispel a portion of the gloom. Leaning forward, he spoke in a hoarse whisper.

“There’s been a change in plans, my friends. I’m afraid the Governor has decided to remove Cortes as head of the mission.”

“What does Cortes plan to do?”

“Just what you’d expect, Father. Hernan is starting out now, before Velazquez can act. We’ll rendezvous with his flotilla at dawn and then proceed westward.”

“I see. But what of your plans to return to Spain and what of your cargo?”

“I’ve changed my mind. I won’t be going back to Spain because the only cargo I could find to carry was for Cortes. It’s onboard already. Sixteen horses, three pieces of artillery and a couple of tons of powder and shot; all for Cortes’ forces. Of course, they’ll be replaced with something even more valuable once we make landfall.” The sea captain shrugged and spread his hands. “A man has to make a living.” 

When the two clerics came on deck the next morning, they found the Gabriella in the midst of ten other vessels. They had found the rest of the fleet and joined them on their westward journey. Within days, they once more sighted land. The ships skirted the lush green coastline of the place, exploring the bays and inlets of an area Henrico would later learn was called the Yucatan. Cortes did not make camp but continued westward. Only rarely did any of the expedition go ashore and then only to seek information and fresh supplies. On one such occasion, Father Garcilosa and Henrico were allowed to accompany the shore party.

The young Benedictine was fascinated to watch Cortes as he led the men away from their boats and along a jungle path. He seemed so confident, totally unafraid.  A village had been spotted from the ships and Cortes strode boldly into the center of it. At first the village seemed deserted but after a few moments dark eyes could be seen peering from the foliage. Cortes ordered a blanket spread out upon the ground and a variety of trinkets laid upon it. He then sat cross-legged on the blanket. He did not have to wait for long.

An old man came first. When he was able to approach Cortes and even take one of the trinkets from the blanket without any harm occurring to him, he turned and gestured to the trees. Within moments over a hundred natives drifted into the clearing. One of them of them came and sat on the blanket across from Cortes. He carried an ornately carved staff and worn a headdress decorated with bright feathers. Henrico heard a murmur go through the men around him.  The band of the chief’s headdress shone dully in the sunlight. It was made of gold.

Cortes waved one of the sailors forward to stand beside him. The man had joined him in Cuba and could speak some of the coastal dialect. Henrico and Father Garcilosa had been working with him to learn the language and they listened now as he interpreted for the two leaders. The chief spoke slowly, often glancing over his shoulder as he did. No, they had not met white men before. Yes, the visitors were welcome. They were a poor tribe but peaceful.  No, the white men would not be wise to stay here. It was too hard to get enough food and there was no wealth here.

The man seemed to become more evasive when Cortes pressed him about his head band. It had come from the west, a gift the chief said but he did not say from whom. The west was a mystery to him. His clan did not go there. There might be richer tribes there but he did not know.  Perhaps the white men should go there. Perhaps they should go soon. The chief accepted the gifts Cortes had lain out on the blanket and returned a gift of his own. A string of about twenty slaves were led from the jungle and presented to the Spaniards. The slaves would help speed them on their journey.

One of them would prove invaluable. She was a young native woman who spoke not only the language of the coastal tribes but also that on the interior. Cortes’s sailor and the native woman were able to speak together and interpret the rumors and legends that came to them. These legends were what drove Cortes and his men on—tales of a great and powerful empire further to the west. A land of staggering wealth and power—a land that Cortes now vowed to conquer.

Onward the little flotilla sailed, hopping from harbor to harbor along the jungle encrusted coast. The coastline curved to the southwest and then back to the north. The forests remained thick and lush, filled with strange sights and eerie sounds. The specter of the unknown began to eat at their confidence as the sailors began to grumble and complain. They were fearful of anything mysterious and the doubts and questions raised by the land off their bows played upon their superstitions. The familiarity of Spain or even Cuba began to call to them. At last Cortes announced that they had sailed far enough. The fleet would disembark.

Father Garcilosa and Henrico did not accompany the first group to go ashore but they learned the details later. Cortes had led a force of fifty men up through the surf onto a broad sandy beach.  They were confronted by a mass of fierce natives elaborately garbed in feathers and animal skins. Brandishing spears and clubs, the aboriginal warriors advanced on the small band of Spaniards, shouting and chanting in a strange tongue. They were silenced when Cortes stepped forward with his musket men and fired a devastating volley into their midst. A second volley put the entire force to flight, leaving the sandy beach stained with blood.

By the time Cortes had brought up the remainder of his men the natives had returned. But this time they advanced unarmed, their empty hands above their heads as they hesitantly stepped from the jungle. Their chief approached Cortes and threw himself down on the sand before him. It took some time for his words to be translated but soon the Spaniards were able to understand his intent. These were the Cempoalans and they were appalled that they had offended the newcomers. Their old masters would have required it. But now that Cortes was here, they had a new master and a new protector.  The chief would provide all that Cortes would need—food, water, slaves. Henrico had been told that at this, the Spanish commander had lifted the chief up and embraced him as a brother and an ally.

“Well, this will be sure to get old Velazquez stirred up,” Quintero was saying as he entered the tent.  Father Garcilosa and Henrico had been storing the last of their belongings in the temporary shelter when the sea captain had burst in.

“And what is it that you think will so distress the Governor?” the priest asked with a smile.

“Hernan has put the men and our new found allies to work building a city.  He has named it Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz.”

“But how should that be of concern, my friend?”

“It’s of concern because he’s doing just what Velazquez suspected he would. He has repudiated the Governor’s authority over us and declared himself chief officer of the settlement, second only to the King! Oh, he’s a bold one alright,” Quintero said with a wide grin, “He’ll not be content to explore this new land, he means to conquer all of it.”

“You seem almost proud of him.”

“Huh, well I suppose I am a bit. There’ll be a fortune to be made that’s for sure. But sadly, I won’t be here to share it.”

“I thought that you’d be waiting for a cargo before you return to Spain.”

“Oh, I had hoped to. But my dear Cortes is being a bit too sly even for me.” The sailor leaned forward to speak in a hoarse whisper. “I’ve learned by pure chance that he’s determined a way to ensure the continued loyalty of his men. He’s going to burn the ships so they have no choice but to follow him.” Henrico had been standing back, listening with feigned disinterest but now stepped forward.

“What?” he said, “Why would he do—”

“Hush, lad,” Quintero said, “We’ve got to keep this quiet or there could be a riot. I understand why Cortes is doing this. He’s only got five hundred men and if many desert his plans are ruined. Still, I’ll not let him burn my sweet Gabriella. As soon as its dusk, I sail back for Cuba.”

Father Garcilosa leaned forward to place a hand on Quintero’s shoulder. “We understand, my friend. We will stay with the expedition.” Henrico turned away and shuffled back into the shadowed corner of the tent.

“I expected so, Father. But listen, I’ll not forget you. I think Velazquez will have need of ships for a while and that he’ll pay good coin for the work . . . and for the information I can offer.” Quintero stood and grasped the priest with both arms. Glancing over at Henrico, he continued, “I promise you this.  In five months, I will bring the Gabriella back to this spot. I’ll wait for you for a fortnight. If you’re here and want to go, I’ll get you both back to Spain.” The two men embraced. Henrico only stared down at the ground without speaking.

The coming of the dawn confirmed Quintero’s prophesy.  Amid anxious shouts and angry words, the two clerics stepped from their quarters to see the sea ablaze. The entire flotilla was on fire. Some of the sailors attempted to row out to combat the inferno but quickly had to abandon the attempt. A group of irate men turned and marched toward their commander. Cortes had climbed onto one of the horses and raised his hands to quiet the mob. His request was reinforced by the presence of a squad of musket men, their weapons at the ready. The heated shouts and cries were reduced to angry murmurs.

Cortes smiled broadly as he spoke. “Friends, comrades, let us not be disheartened by this terrible event. Yes, you are correct. We have lost our way back to Cuba. But before us lies a great adventure. To the west is an empire of vast wealth ready to be seized.” He spun his horse about and as it reared up drew his sword with a flourish. “We are few in number that is true but as we have already seen the natives of this land are simple and primitive. It will be a simple matter of marching and do you know what will happen? We shall all be rich and powerful men!” 

The fury had gone out of the men. Their rage gave way to excitement and their shouts changed to cheers.

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The Golden Conquest – Part 9

The Gabriella slipped from the bay at Angra and turned its bow back towards the west.  The repairs had finally been completed and they were at last back on their journey to the New World. Henrico stood on the fore castle as the ship flew over the water. He shivered as his mind drifted back to the events in the de Silves’s garden. The time he had spent in the presence of Father Garcilosa had helped but he was glad to be safely back aboard ship.  He glanced aft and smiled. The crew was in high spirits, refreshed from their sojourn at the Azores and excited to be underway. The murmurs and grumbles that this was an unlucky voyage subsided at last. Even the second mate Montoya seemed less tyrannical than usual.

The novice grimaced as he recalled that not all had changed. Brother Sebastian had stood stern and determined by the mainmast as the ship had sailed from Angra. But within minutes of reaching the open ocean he was once more leaning over the rail in wretched misery. He had to be carried to his cabin and laid on his bed. The sailors were careful not to laugh at the Dominican within earshot of their superiors but his ailment made for lively conversation below decks. The crew had a running wager on if and when he would recover or better yet succumb to his sickness. Henrico had declined to take part.

The fine weather and fair winds continued to hold and the Gabriella made rapid progress westward. Henrico had finished his duties and was heading back toward the stern cabins. The Benedictine moved to step around a sailor who was scrubbing the deck when a foot shot out to kick over the man’s bucket of sea water. As the brine splashed over Henrico’s feet and legs, a harsh voice sneered, “Are you still getting in the way, monk?” and Montoya stepped forward into his path.

Henrico attempted to turn aside but found his way blocked by one of Montoya’s cohorts. He quickly glanced about the ship but Captain Quintero was naught to be seen. Father Garcilosa, he knew, was resting in their cabin. Olmedo the first mate was at the helm but when Henrico looked his way he quickly glanced aside. The young man realized there would be no help for him this day and he turned back toward Montoya.

“I have no wish to quarrel,” he said.

“Oh, I knew that. You’re the kind that likes to hide behind someone else’s cloak. Well, there’s no one to hide behind now.” The sailor stepped forward as he spoke and Henrico smelt liquor on his breath. The novice eased back but came up against another of Montoya’s men. The seaman shoved him hard toward the second mate who sidestepped and tripped the young man as he went past. Henrico sprawled onto the deck only to be hauled to his feet by the bullies. He shook them off and turned to face his tormentor.

“I will not fight you,” he said through clenched teeth.

“So, the priest’s little whelp is a coward too. I’m not surprised. Come on, boy. Show us what you’re worth.” Montoya’s face reddened and spittle flew from his lips. His eyes blazed and his visage contorted into a mask of hatred and malice. 

“No,” Henrico said, “I don’t have to prove anything to you. I don’t fear you. You have no power over me.”  Montoya’s jaw went slack for a moment, startled by the Benedictine’s words, but only for a moment.

“I’ll show you my power, boy; I’ll make you suffer for your insolence.” The second mate swung his club at Henrico’s head forcing him to duck away. He felt someone thrust a belaying pin into his hand and he instinctively raised it to parry the next blow.

“So, you’ve got some spine after all, monk. Come on then.” Without warning he swung the club again. Henrico ducked and stepped forward to thrust his shoulder into Montoya’s midsection. The mate gave a sharp grunt and stumbled backwards. Quickly returning to the attack, he feinted to his left and brought the belaying pin down sharply. Henrico dodged but took a glancing blow off his left shoulder.  A burning jolt of pain shot through his arm and he felt his hand go numb. Staggered by the pain, he fell back into the growing crowd of onlookers. Rough hands pushed him upright back toward Montoya.

Henrico regained his balance in time to block the next strike. The two men circled each other warily. Montoya looked surprised at the Benedictine’s skill and resolve and pressed in harder. He lashed out again only to find Henrico twist away. The novice spun around, allowing the sailor to step past him and struck him across the back. Montoya sprawled out on the deck but regained his footing in an instant. He snarled in rage as he threw himself at the monk. Catching Henrico around the midsection he drove him down to the deck. The two combatants rolled over and the first mate ended up astride the monk. Squeezing the young man’s throat with one hand, he struck downward with his club. Henrico tried to shield himself with his arm and cried out as the blow landed.  Montoya raised his weapon once more.

A large hand shot out to grip the sailor’s wrist. He turned to curse the intruder and found himself looking into the scowling face of Captain Quintero. Startled, he did not move as the captain placed his other hand on his chest and shoved him forcibly to the deck. When the second mate attempted to rise Quintero stepped over him and held him down with his foot.

“Don’t move, you bastard. This time you’ve gone too far, way too far.”  Stooping, Quintero grabbed a handful of cloth and hauled the seaman to his feet. “I’ve put up with your bullying and rough ways for too long.  You kept the crew in line and so I let it go but not this time.  This time you’ve done it.” He pushed him against the rail and slapped him hard across the face.  “Attacking a passenger? You’ve gone mad and I won’t have a mad man as my second mate.  From now on I don’t want to see you on the quarterdeck. You’ll stay below decks and out of my sight.”

Quintero threw Montoya aside as if he were throwing away a piece of refuse. As the former second mate stumbled away the other sailors moved aside, avoiding his shame. He slunk away quickly, his face flushed with anger. His fellow bullies hesitantly fell in beside him. A low growl swept through the crew as the trio slipped into the darkness below decks. The sound changed to a cheer as Henrico was helped to his feet. He cradled his injured arm while the crew patted him on the back and brushed off his clothing, murmuring quiet words of encouragement.  he Benedictine felt a firm hand on his shoulder and turned to see Father Garcilosa. He looked away in a mixture of guilt and shame.

“I – I’m sorry, Father,” the youth stammered.

“You should be,” the priest said with a smile, “I taught you better than that. You should have been able to beat that fool easily.” Henrico looked up, his eyes wide with surprise. The older cleric’s voice was soft and gentle. “I saw the whole thing, my son. You had no choice. I probably shouldn’t be, but I am proud of you.” He paused and smiled again. “But I do think you need some more practice before you decide to engage in combat again. First though we need to bind up your arm.”

            Seated on an empty water cask, Montoya rubbed his bruised knuckles. He grimaced as he thought about the past few days. It was different now. Men who had previously accepted his commands without comment now defied him. He had to fight to regain power and he had done so viciously. Montoya knew he had to stay away from Quintero but through a series of threats, accidents and ambushes had succeeded in cowing most of the crew. Some still challenged him. He knew that he would never again wield the power he had once had aboard the Gabriella. The dream of becoming her captain was gone forever. He knew who was to blame. 

            He looked up at the sailor approaching him and grinned. Cordoba nodded in reply; passing on the message Montoya had anticipated. He had been expecting Dominican to call for him. There was dirty work to be done and Diego Montoya was just the man for it. Still, he would have to be careful with how close he got to the Inquisitor. Occasionally even a cobra or a scorpion had its uses but no one would presume to take one as a pet. No, he would be careful.  He didn’t mind sharing a cold dish of vengeance with Brother Sebastian but the largest portion would be his. He arose and followed the sailor aft. The Dominican was waiting.

The sun had just past its zenith when a shout sounded from the lookout.  Land on the horizon. By mid-afternoon the ship entered the harbor that marked Imperial Spain’s foothold in the New World. As soon as the Gabriella slid into the port, small boats and skiffs were rushed out to meet them. The water borne merchants held aloft fruits, flowers, carvings and other small items to sell to the crew. Larger boats, filled with half naked native girls, had other less substantial wares for sale. The sailors crowded against the railing shouting and laughing at the display. The merchants swiftly parted at the approach of a large barge bearing the harbor master and officials from the Governor’s office.

            Father Garcilosa had changed back into his priestly garb and stood with Captain Quintero to greet the bureaucrats and soldiers as they came onboard. After delivering his papers of commission from the Court of King Charles, the captain began to introduce his passengers. He had just started to present Father Garcilosa when Brother Sebastian interrupted. 

“Are you the Master of the Guard?”

The official sniffed and narrowed his eyes. “Yes. And who are you?”

The Dominican puffed up his chest before declaring, “I am Brother Sebastian of the Holy Inquisition. And I demand that you arrest that man!” He spun to thrust a boney finger at Father Garcilosa.

“What? The priest? On what charge?”

“He is a heretic and a Jew lover. He has desecrated the Eucharist vessels with Jewish writings and spells. Look in that chest.” The priest’s baggage had been brought on deck in preparation for departure and all turned to stare at the small pile. The wooden strongbox containing the gifts from the Bishop of Cadiz set on the top. Reluctantly, the port official moved to lift it up.

“With your permission, Father?”

“Certainly,” the priest said. Henrico stood beside him, clutching his hands together and glanced at Father Garcilosa’s face. His smile was calm. The Master of the Guard opened the box and peered at its contents. A perplexed look crossed his visage and he shook his head.

“Everything looks fine to me.”

“What?” Brother Sebastian voice was high and shrill. “There are Jewish symbols painted on the vessels. I know it.” He seized the chest and stared. The chalice and bowl were clean and polished. No markings of any sort marred their surfaces. He sputtered and then thrust the chest back at the official and stalked away.

Henrico leaned and whispered to the priest. “What is happening here?”

“I’m afraid Brother Sebastian was planning mischief. His allies stole the vessels and returned them painted with what they thought were Jewish letters. Fortunately, we have our own friends aboard and Alonzo was informed. I was up most of the night cleaning and polishing, but it was worth it to see the look on the Brother’s face.”

Henrico stood in silence. They had escaped from danger once again but it was not over.  Both of them had enemies now. 

The Havana officials were soon departed and the Gabriella was safely anchored in the harbor. Brother Sebastian threw his belongings into a bag and screamed shrill demands that he and d’Amarco be taken ashore.  Captain Quintero was only too happy to oblige. He looked around the deck and nodded. It was time to clear out the rest of his problems. Striding forward he approached a group of sailors working amidships and clamped a strong hand on the shoulder of his former second mate.

“Montoya.” He grinned wickedly, “I think it’s time for a few rats to leave this ship.” He grabbed the man’s belt with his other hand and with a mighty heave pitched him over the side.  His laughter was harsh and fierce as he waved forward the rest of the crew to take care of the other bullies. Cordoba and his comrade followed their master over the side. The three men cursed and pleaded but to no avail. Quintero leaned over the rail, his smile now calm and benign.

“You three fellows had best start for shore. I’ve heard there are sharks in these waters.” The trio splashed and struggled in desperation. Like most sailors, they did not know how to swim. Their efforts seemed to be faltering when a small skiff swung around the bow of the ship and pulled toward them. The trio sputtered as they grasped the gunwales of the craft. As the vessel pulled toward land, Quintero shouted after them, “I don’t ever want to see you bastards on my ship again. If I ever catch you on her I’ll hoist you up by your bowels!”

As the captain turned away, Father Garcilosa approached with a frown. “While I cannot object to decision to—uh, change the composition of your crew, I am concerned that they might have drowned when you sent them over the side.”

“Ah, not to worry, my friend. I had already arranged for that little fishing boat to be there. I cost me a few coins, but I would have paid three times as much to get rid of those scum.” He laughed again and clapped the priest on the back. “Come, I have some fine wine in my cabin. Let us celebrate.”

            Henrico smiled as he lounged on the foredeck. Life aboard the Gabriella had become so much more peaceful since the departures, forced and otherwise, of those less welcome onboard.  He knew that the ship’s crew had squandered most of their pay in the ramshackle taverns lining the harbor, but noted how efficiently they had unloaded the ship’s cargo. Olmedo, more confident and at ease with Montoya gone, had overseen the duties capably and without violence.  Quintero was busy selling the goods and supplies he had brought from Spain and seeking others to carry back to the homeland. 

            Father Garcilosa waited beside the novice with growing impatience for any official response to their arrival. Despite their mission being made known, days passed before they were finally summoned to the Governor’s residence. Changing into their finest vestments, the two clerics hurried to the building only to be forced to wait further. When they were at last escorted in, they were greeted not by Governor Velasquez but by his lieutenant, Narvaez. The man apologized for keeping them waiting but explained that the Governor had been called away suddenly for an important matter.

            “May we present you with the letters of commission from His Majesty?” Father Garcilosa asked, “We have been entrusted with documents authorizing the expedition to the unknown lands to the west.”

            “Ah, the commission.” Narvaez smile held a hint of distain. “I am afraid, Father, that that will not be necessary. Another ship, the Santa Elena, sailed from Spain shortly after you left.  She carried a duplicate of your letters and as it would appear her captain met with more—ah—favorable winds, she arrived weeks ago. The Governor has already received the confirmation for the mission and preparations are underway. But still, I understand your voyage will not have been in vain. You are, I believe, to accompany Senor Cortes to the new lands?”

            “Yes, Senor Narvaez, that is so.”

            “Excellent. Then you must come back tonight. The Governor will be hosting a gathering upon his return. Cortes and his captains are also invited and you may make their acquaintances.”

            Captain Quintero was miffed to hear that another vessel had bested him in the voyage across the Atlantic and a caravel at that.  At first, he refused to consider attending the festivities but when he heard that Cortes would be there, he changed his mind. As evening fell, he led the three companions through the streets of Havana to the Governor’s Residence.

            The low stuccoed building lacked the grandeur of the palaces of Spain or even of the Azores. Ongoing construction could still be seen and there was an overall feeling of reckless haste to the structure. However, the flickering torchlight, garlands of bright flowers and animated babble of voices covered whatever shortcomings there were with an atmosphere of excited revelry. The number of partygoers precluded any attempt at a formal dinner and instead the wine and laughter flowed freely. 

As the group began to move through the ebb and flow of the gathering, Narvaez intercepted them and led them forward to be introduced to the Governor. Diego Velasquez greeted them solemnly. He wore a stern serious expression yet constantly fussed over his own appearance. A peacock trying to be an eagle, Henrico wondered. The Governor briefly acknowledged Father Garcilosa and did not even deign to glance at Henrico. The Benedictine noticed a flicker of resentment pass over his eyes when Quintero asked about Cortes. He frowned and looked away while Narvaez deftly redirected the conversation and led them aside.

Henrico followed as they pushed through the throng surrounding the adventurer. Cortes was not overly tall or handsome but he seemed to dominate the room. He was finely dressed with beard and mustache trimmed to perfection but it was his eyes that were most striking. They flashed with intelligence and confidence when he spoke. His voice was even and clear and carried easily through the room. He greeted his old comrade Quintero warmly and bowed graciously to the priest as introductions were made. Glancing at the novice, he smiled, “De Medellin, eh?  You shall accompany us on our conquest, I am told.  That is well, I like having even more of my townsmen with me.”

When Cortes spoke to him, Henrico was made to feel as if he were the only other person in the room. The man’s confidence and charisma were powerful and inspiring. Before the Benedictine could consider or comment on the commander’s cryptic remark, he was swept aside by others coming forth to meet the man. Henrico was soon separated from Father Garcilosa and the sea captain and began to wander through the crowded room. He found himself beside a table heavily laden with foodstuffs and delicacies. He was debating on what to sample first when he was startled by a familiar sounding laugh.

Stretching up on his toes, he surveyed the crowd and caught sight of a head topped with thick dark curls. The man turned slightly and Henrico was able to glimpse his face. With mounting excitement, the young man pushed his way through the gathering to grasp the man’s shoulder. The soldier spun about and a look of amazement came over his visage.

“You!  What on earth are you doing here?”

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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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The Golden Conquest – Part 6

            The Gabriella surged through the waves of an open sea before a following wind. The captain had ordered every inch of canvas to be hoisted aloft and even had the spritsail raised into place on the bowsprit. Henrico stood easily on the forecastle, his body swaying gently to the pitch and roll of the ship. On his lips he could taste the salt spray that had been thrown into the air by the ship’s bow crashing through the breakers. He glanced back to the stern of the ship where Quintero stood beside the helmsman. The captain had clearly stated his intent to make up as much time as possible while this favorable weather would hold. Who could say how long that would be?  Till then, he would coax every bit of speed out of the ship. The young turned his gaze forward. The sun was warm on his face and he tilted his head upwards to catch its rays. He closed his eyes and smiled.

            “You are enjoying the voyage, Brother Henrico?”  The question broke his reverie and he looked about to see Senor d’Amarco approaching. The courtier carefully climbed the stairs to the forecastle, holding tightly to the rail to maintain his balance. The ship twisted on its keel suddenly and d’Amarco stumbled against the foremast. He took a quick breath and swallowed hard. Glancing at the Benedictine he asked, “How is it you are unaffected by this wallowing tub?  Are you an experienced sailor?”

            “Actually no, Senor. I have never been on a ship this size before. I believe that I have received a great blessing from Our Lord. I felt a bit ill for the first day but since then I have been fine. I really don’t know why.”

            “Well, you look more like a sailor now anyway,” d’Amarco chuckled, taking in the novice’s garb. Henrico was simply dressed in a thigh length black tunic and faded tan trousers. His long Benedictine’s cassock had been packed away to await the end of their voyage and he was enjoying being free of its heat and weight.

            “Father Garcilosa felt this would be more practical onboard ship than my monk’s habit,” he said. He stared down at his feet, reluctant to risk any rebuff at the change in his appearance.

            “A wise man is Father de la Vega,” the courtier said with a smile, “I see that he has adopted a similar style for himself.”  The priest had indeed replaced his clerical robes with simpler garb though his ecclesiastic calling remained apparent. The two young men watched from the forecastle as Father Garcilosa moved easily amongst the sailors on the main deck. Henrico observed how the crew treated him, respectful but without fear. They accepted him as one of their own.

            “Yes, he is indeed wise,” d’Amarco continued, “What has he told you about the lands to the west?  Has he spoken of Espanola?”

            “Oh yes, it sounds like a wonderful place, full of riches and wonders. Would you like to know what he said?”

            Across the ship, Father Garcilosa looked up at the two figures on the foredeck. The younger was speaking in an explosion of youthful vigor. The other responded with a friendly laugh and a clap on the shoulder. The priest was not completely certain about what to make of this young aristocrat, but he was glad to see Henrico with a companion closer to his own age. Father Garcilosa knew enough of the young Benedictine’s history to suspect that he had had few friendships. He hoped that the novice monk and the young nobleman would develop such a relationship. He smiled and turned to see Quintero stepping down from the aft castle.

             “Good day. Captain. The ship is fairly flying today.”

“Yes, she’s doing well. We’ve shifted the ballast and should be able to squeeze another knot or two out her.”  He paused and the two men observed the crew for a moment. “I hope that this wind holds. I plan to milk it for all that I can. You there, tighten that rope. And replace that block. It’s starting to crack.”  Quintero moved away, once more occupied with the thousand details required to maintain a ship at sea. Father Garcilosa watched his old friend go back to his duties and with a grin returned to his own.

“So, does the Father think the rumors are true?” d’Amarco was saying, “Is the New World really as overflowing with gold as they say?”

“I’m not sure about that, but he does think there are wealthy and powerful lands and peoples west of the islands. The natives of Espanola and the other isles spoke of them and had even traded with them.”

“Governor Velazquez certainly thinks that such is the case. His reports to the court of King Charles make it sound as if the shores of the western lands are lined with sand that is pure gold; that the rivers run with silver, and the trees bear diamonds for fruit.”

  Henrico laughed into the wind as the image d’Amarco described flashed through his mind. “That sounds a bit imaginative to me,” he said, “Father Garcilosa never mentioned anything that wild.”  The two young men laughed together and watched the waves being cast up from the prow of the ship.

  At the stern of the ship a black clad figure emerged from one of the rear cabins. Brother Sebastian stood clutching the door frame weakly. His eyes were glazed, and his usual pale complexion was tinted with green. The ship gave another slow roll and the Dominican rushed to the railing and began to retch violently. He almost fell to the deck, but strong hands suddenly lifted him up. The second mate had appeared and began to half carry the monk back toward his cabin.

“Thank you, my son,” the Inquisitor groaned, “God will reward your kindness.”

“I certainly hope He will, Brother,” Montoya said, “Perhaps we should talk about just how He might do that.”  The two men moved into the gloom and darkness of the ship’s cabin.

Henrico lay in the darkness of their tiny cabin, grateful once more that they had been granted the luxury of cots, no matter how small, instead of the hammocks the crew used. He could hear the wind humming in the ship’s rigging and imagined them silver in the moonlight. Captain Quintero had continued to press forward with all haste, spreading as much canvas as the ship could carry through day and night. The young novice wondered how the helmsman could keep his heading by starlight alone while the night watch scrambled over and above the deck, keeping the lines taut and the sails trimmed even as their comrades slept.

The squall hit suddenly and without warning. The force of the storm heeled the ship over sharply and sent Henrico rolling off the narrow cot. Desperate shouts for all hands could be heard from above as the novice staggered from his cabin. Captain Quintero was already on deck barking orders to send the crew aloft to haul in the sails. The young Benedictine steadied himself at the door of the cabin to observe the frantic actions of the crew. Father Garcilosa was soon beside him. They were both soaked by the slashing rain and drenched by waves breaking over the railing but could not bring themselves to retreat into the cabin.

With a crack like a musket shot, a line gave way amidships. More ropes separated and a heavy spar broke free from the mast to smash downward. A muffled scream reached the ears of the two clerics. Sliding on the slick decking, they scrambled out into the storm. Tangled rigging hung from the mainmast and hampered their progress. The broken remnants of the heavy oaken beam had struck Old Pedro, tearing into his thigh and twisting his lower leg at an angle. The old sailor was helpless as the raging storm tilted the deck sharply to send him spinning towards the railing. A great wave swept over them sending the spar crashing through the sideboard and threatening to carry the wounded seaman after it into the dark and angry sea.

Henrico lunged forward and grasped Pedro by the arm. His foot slipped on the slick decking and he started to fall when he felt Father Garcilosa grab hold of his belt. Together they struggled to pull the old sailor to safety. He cried out in pain as they yanked him away from the broken railing. Another wave struck from starboard and righted the ship suddenly, allowing the two clerics to move the injured man back toward the security of the stern cabins. Captain Quintero and another seaman appeared by their side.

“I saw what happened,” the captain shouted over the din of the storm, “And I thank you. Move him inside now. Hold him steady.”  The rain continued to drench them and the lightning crashed overhead as the sailor helped the priest and the novice carry Old Pedro inside. Quintero gave a fierce grin and shouted after them, “I’ve got to get back to the helm. This little blow may keep us busy for a time.”

Henrico pushed the door shut against the storm and stood dripping in the dimly lit cabin. He looked at his comrades in bewilderment and stammered, “A little blow?  He calls this gale a little blow?”

“Ah, lad,” the sailor smiled as they laid Old Pedro on the cot, “We’ve been through a lot worse than this. It’s naught but a squall and should blow itself out in a few hours.”  He headed for the door but turned back to say, “Twas brave of you, lad. I thank you for helping my shipmate.”  He gave a quick bow and darted back into the storm.

“Come, Henrico,” Father Garcilosa said, “We must do something for this poor fellow’s leg.”  The priest pulled a knife from a fold in his robe and slit the old sailor’s trouser leg to expose his wounds while Henrico steadied him against the continued pitch and roll of the ship. A deep gash crossed Old Pedro’s outer thigh while below his knee the calf was swollen and deformed. Father Garcilosa gently felt along the limb, taking care to avoid further injury. Even so the seaman groaned in pain and chewed on a knuckle.

“Is it bad?” Henrico asked anxiously.

“It’s a clean break,” the older cleric replied, “But we need to set it. Hand me the leather satchel from my bag. Yes, that’s the one.”  Father Garcilosa opened the case and removed a small pouch of a yellowy powder. Glancing up at the novice he continued, “Now pass me that wineskin and the pewter goblet.”  He carefully sprinkled a measure of the powder into the cup and added the wine. Carefully supporting the elderly sailor’s head, he tipped the mixture into his mouth. The injured man grimaced at the bitter liquid and sank back on the cot. Within moments the pain on his face began to ease.

The priest next reached into his satchel and pulled forth a thick piece of dark leather. As he placed it in the seaman’s mouth Henrico saw that it was scarred with teeth marks from prior use. He glanced in wonderment at the cleric. Soldier, priest, what other professions had he held?  A quick word from Father Garcilosa brought him back to the present and the novice moved to follow the priest’s directions.

Henrico knelt beside the cot and wrapped his arms tightly around Old Pedro’s thigh. Father Garcilosa gripped the injured man’s lower leg firmly and began to slowly pull on the limb. He steadily increased the force of his exertion, working to overcome the spasm of the bruised and torn muscles. Pedro groaned in pain and bit down harder on the strip of leather. Sweat began to trickle down the priest’s face as he redoubled his effort. The old sailor gave a sudden cry of anguish and the broken bones slipped back into place.

Father Garcilosa laid the damaged limb on the cot and sank back on his heels. He sighed heavily and wiping his brow with his sleeve, watched as the elderly seaman closed his eyes and began to breathe more quietly. Soon he would sleep, overcome by exhaustion and the potent drugged wine. Henrico stood slowly and rubbed the circulation back into his arms. Father Garcilosa smiled up at him, “Now my son, while you find us some wooden slats and strips of cloth for a splint, I will dress his other wounds.”

At that moment the door of the cabin flew open and the drenched figure of Captain Quintero strode in. He surveyed the scene and nodded, “Very good, my friends. I thank you again for your help and concern.”  Through the open doorway Henrico noted that while the rain still came down the wind had died significantly and the ship’s roll had become steadier and more even. He moved to close the door as the sea captain pulled off his soaking hat and cloak.

“The storm is passing,” Quintero continued, “It was only a squall, brief but still nasty.”

“How is the ship, Captain?” Father Garcilosa asked, looking up from his task.

“She’s taken some damage, I’m afraid. The mainmast lost a spar but we have spares. No, the worst is below. This blow has sprung her seams and we’re taking on water. Oh, don’t worry; it’s not so much that the pumps won’t handle it. The worst news is that the rudder was also damaged.”  The Captain frowned and shook his head, “I’m afraid my little Gabriella will need some repairs. We’ll have to head for the Azores.”

“I’m sorry, my friend,” the priest said. “Will it delay us much further?”

“It will. We’ll have to cut across the prevailing winds to get there and then claw our way back. So far, this voyage has been nothing but trouble. Any more problems and it may start to eat into my profits.”

 “If I know anything at all, my captain,” Father Garcilosa laughed, “It is that you will always know how to make a profit.”

The battered ship tacked its way slowly toward the archipelago of the Azores. The most obvious damage was repaired within days. The broken railing was replaced and painted to match the rest of the vessel. An extra spar was brought out of the hold and hoisted aloft while the torn rigging was knit back into shape. Even Old Pedro was put back to work. With his splinted leg propped up on a coil of rope, the sailor toiled with a heavy needle to patch the torn sails. The hardest labor however took place below decks.

Deep in the bowels of the ship the pumps were manned round the clock. Teams of four men each sweated in the damp darkness to pull the seeping seawater out of the bilge. Their efforts ensured that the water level never rose above their mid-calves but they could not gain on the steady influx. Even Henrico took a turn at the pump’s handles, working until his hands were blistered and his muscles ached. He was the only one of the passengers who did so. Captain Quintero had refused to allow Father Garcilosa to take part while Brother Sebastian was even more seasick after the storm than he had been before. Ponce d’Amarco had simply laughed at the suggestion.

The young novice trudged wearily back onto deck after completing yet another shift in the bilge. His tunic was stained with sweat and his trousers soaked with foul salty water. He blinked in the bright sunlight and wiped his brow with his sleeve. Stepping to the rail he stared down into the water churning swiftly down the side of the ship. So much had changed for him over the past few months. His face and arms had been burnt to a deep tan and the muscles in his back and shoulders, though sore and stiff, had been hardened by the steady work. He also realized that his old cassock would no longer reach his ankles but would leave a few inches of calf exposed.

The internal growth however had been even greater. Henrico felt a change in his attitude. He was more confident and more self-assured, but he still was not at peace. His talks with Father Garcilosa and his study of the scriptures had brought greater clarity on the nature of God to him, but he still had more questions than answers. There was so much about God and His creation that he still did not understand, and he still struggled to comprehend the depth of and more especially, the reason for God’s love. He sighed wearily and dropped his chin to his chest.

A sharp, sudden blow across his back snapped him from his thoughts and brought his head up with a jerk. A harsh voice snarled behind him, “Get back to work, you lazy cur.” Henrico turned to find himself face to face with the second mate. Montoya smirked at the novice and stood fingering a short length of rope.

“Oh, it’s you,” he sneered, “I didn’t recognize you. You don’t look much like a monk dressed like that and you certainly don’t smell like one.”  The young man stared back into the bully’s eyes. His breath came in short gasps as he felt his face flush red.

“What?  Are you going to cry?  Do you want me to call your priest to take care of you?”  Montoya spread his hands as if inviting the novice to strike him. Suddenly one of the sailors stepped forward as if to intervene.

“Why don’t you leave the lad alone, Diego?” the seaman said. “He’s not doing no harm.”  The second mate reacted swiftly, cuffing the interloper across the face and sending him sprawling backwards with a yelp of pain. Henrico clenched his fists and stepped forward. Montoya continued to glare at the youth and smacked his open palm with his whip.

“Are you going to do something, boy?  Or are you just going to stand there?”  The two antagonists stood tensely for a moment when another figure stepped between them. Tomas Olmedo, the first mate, was a slight sickly man more comfortable with his mariner’s quadrant and cross staves than with the crew. With Quintero below decks he was supposedly in command.

            “Diego, what’s the problem?” he asked. The bully scowled at his superior officer and moved to step around him.

            “It’s none of your business, Olmedo. I was talking to this little whelp.”

            “Brother Henrico,” the first mate said while moving to stay between the two figures, “Would you be so kind as to go aloft to the crow’s nest for me?  I need to know if there is any sign of a change in the weather.”  The young Benedictine swallowed hard before nodding. He walked quickly to the mainmast and began to climb the rigging. Glancing back, he saw Montoya clamp a hand on the first mate’s shoulder and whisper sharply in his ear. Olmedo paled suddenly and hurried to march back toward the stern. Henrico could feel angry eyes boring into his spine as he climbed but he was determined not to look back; not to give Montoya the satisfaction; not to let him see the anger, or the fear in his eyes

He continued to climb the rigging as he replayed the scene over in his mind. He could not understand why the second mate had chosen to hate him so and he was unsure how to deal with it. Should he turn the other cheek and endure his martyrdom?  Was his faith strong enough to do so?  Or should he fight back?  He had acquired enough skill with a staff from his lessons with Father Garcilosa that he believed he could hold his own. But was it right to do so?

He knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to strike back at Montoya. He desired to fight him and make him suffer for all his cruelties and all of his bullying. Henrico wanted to lash out for all of the times he had ever been harassed or tormented; for all of the times he had ever been afraid. He paused in his climb to stare out at the horizon as it rose and fell before him. He had always struggled with feelings of insecurity. Others around him always seemed so confident and strong. He did not know how to achieve such peace and self-assurance but he strongly desired to.

He had been climbing without thinking but now paused to glance down at the deck. He was shocked to see how high he had climbed and even more so to realize that the roll of the ship had him suspended not over the deck but the open sea. If his grip slipped now, he might not be killed by the fall, but he would surely drown. The young man pulled himself tightly to the rigging, his hands gripped fiercely to the hempen ropes. He screwed his eyes shut and fought to control his breathing. A cold sweat began to trickle down his forehead and he began to fear that he would not be able maintain his hold on the cables. Then a calm clear voice came from above him.

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The Golden Conquest – Part 5

Father Garcilosa turned to speak to Henrico but the young man had already hurried into the inn. The priest frowned and shook his head. There was a sadness about the lad, a deep pain from some yet unknown source. The Lord knew, however. The priest would just have to wait.

            As they packed their belongings into burlap sacks, the novice pointed to a wooden chest bound with iron straps. “This also, Father?”

“Yes, a gift from the Bishop of Cadiz. A new set of priestly vestments and a set of silver Eucharist vessels.”

“What a fine gift. You must be pleased?”

            “Pleased? I suppose, though the gift is actually too—ah—ostentatious for me. A wooden mug or clay cup would do just as well. Oh, I know that many need these symbols to reach out to God and I am willing to accommodate them. But such things could also be a barrier if men chose to concentrate solely on the symbol and miss the reality behind them.”

“I not sure I understand, Father.”

“True communion with God is spiritual, not a physical. In the heart, not the mind. But come, there is a boat waiting to take us out to Quintero’s ship. We will talk again later.”

            The skiff was waiting for them at the quay and carried them out to the Gabriella. With the sailors help them clambered aboard the ship and moved toward the stern where a small group of men had gathered around Captain Quintero.

            “This is absolutely unacceptable,” the pair overheard as they came nearer. The speaker was a tall pale man, almost gaunt in stature and dressed in the stark black robes of a Dominican friar. While Henrico and the other monk both were dressed in black, the novice’s cassock, like the priest’s was made of coarse wool; the Dominican’s of fine linen edged with silk. A heavy gold crucifix hung around a neck seemingly too thin to support the large head perched on it. Sparse white hair fringed a skull covered by sallow parchment-like skin while dark eyes glared out from either side of a hawkish nose. He seemed less of a man of God and more of a malevolent black stork. The Dominican spoke again, “You must correct this problem immediately. Do you not know who I am?”

            “Yes,” Captain Quintero said with a sigh, “I know. But this ship simply does not have the space to give you your own cabin.”

            “Is there a problem, Senor Captain?” Father Garcilosa interjected in respectful tones, “Perhaps I can be of assistance.”

“Ah, Father,” Quintero said, relief flooding his features, “We have some difficulty with the sleeping arrangements. I had planned to put you in my cabin while your colleague stayed with the mates. But now we have our extra—ah—guests.”

The Dominican cast a baleful eye on the priest and scowled. “So, you are here, de la Vega. We have not met but I have been told . . . about you.”

“And I also am aware of you, Brother. This young man is Brother Henrico, a Benedictine novice who is my assistant and is to accompany us. Henrico, this worthy is Brother Sebastian of the Office of the Inquisition.” Father Garcilosa gave a quick shake of his head at the novice’s sudden look of anxiety and Henrico glanced away. The frown on Brother Sebastian’s face darkened as he glared at the novice with obvious distain. At that moment another man stepped forward from beside the Inquisitor and gave an elaborate bow.

“If I may be so bold, Father,” the young man declared, “I am Ponce d’Amarco, late of the Royal Guard and now assigned to accompany Brother Sebastian. I am most pleased to make your acquaintance.” He added an almost impertinent emphasis to the ‘I’ in his statement and winked at two companions. His lips were curled in an amused smile as he glanced back and forth between them.

The newcomer was elaborately dressed in the latest style in a doublet of black silk with a fine gold brocade. A short black cloak was draped over his shoulder, its rich scarlet lining flashing through whenever he moved. His hose was also of black silk while the short Italian trousers he wore were parti-colored gold and black. A dark beret with an extravagant ostrich plume was perched rakishly on his head. His left hand rested on the gold and jewel encrusted hilt of his sword while his other held a silken ivory handkerchief which he now held before his mouth as if to stifle a laugh.

“Captain Quintero,” the Dominican continued, ignoring his companion though a faint line of crimson could be noted growing above his neckline, “I must again demand proper accommodations.”

“Demand?” Quintero sputtered, “Who do you think . . .” Father Garcilosa again intervened, placing a restraining hand on the captain’s arm. Smiling, he spoke softly, “Perhaps I can offer a solution. If you are agreeable, Brother Henrico and I could both share your cabin. A small corner or piece of decking would suffice for us. Then Brother Sebastian and Senor d’Amarco could have the mate’s cabin. Would that be acceptable?”

“That would be most acceptable to me,” d’Amarco laughed, “My Lord Inquisitor and I should be most content as cabin-mates, would we not?” Brother Sebastian continued to scowl fiercely but gave a short nod of agreement. Without a word, he turned sharply away. A nearby sailor quickly responded to his captain’s gesture and led the monk towards the stern cabins while another followed with his baggage. The courtier smiled and with a second elaborate bow followed the Dominican.

Father Garcilosa watched in silence as the two men departed. A worried look crossed his face before he turned to the Captain and Henrico. Shaking his head, he sighed. “I’m sorry you’ve been troubled, Alonzo. And I fear that this will not be the last complaint that you may hear from Brother Sebastian. He has a reputation for being—ah—difficult.” 

“Well my friend, once we’re at sea he’ll learn very fast who the captain of this ship is. If he doesn’t then he had better learn how to swim!” Quintero gave a wicked grin to the priest and excused himself to attend to his duties. The two clerics carried their baggage to the captain’s cabin and only when they were behind closed doors did Henrico break the silence.

“Why is the Church sending an Inquisitor on the expedition? There aren’t any Muslims or Jews in the New World, are there?”

“Not so loud, my son,” the priest said in a sharp whisper, “These walls are quite thin, and all ships are infested by a wide variety of vermin.” He leaned closer to the novice. “The Office of the Inquisition has broad powers and is always seeking to expand them. Some are genuinely concerned that various heresies and false doctrines may take root amongst the new converts across the oceans. Sadly, others are more concerned with wealth and power. They care more for temporal gold than for the spiritual variety. I fear that Brother Sebastian may belong to the latter.”

At that moment the ship gave a slight lurch and slowly but perceptively, began to move. They were underway and the seaboard portion of their journey had begun. The priest gave a smile warm enough to dispel all gloom and clapped the novice on the back. Gesturing to the door he continued, “Go my son, you’ll not want to miss seeing the Gabriella move out into the Atlantic.”

“And you Father? Will you come?”

“No, my son, I need to unpack some things. And I need to pray. Now go.”

Henrico stepped from the cabin into the bright sunlight to observe the organized chaos of a ship being set to sail. Harried figures swarmed over the deck and up into the riggings amidst the cries and curses of the ship’s officers. The clank of the capstan as the anchor was secured was quickly drowned out by the snap of canvas as the sails more fully caught the wind. The foresail and the main had been set and Quintero now ordered the topsails trimmed. Other sailors strained to haul the lateen mizzen into place. The wind was favorable and after their long delay in port the captain wished to make as much haste as possible.

The Benedictine novice was fascinated by the quick movements of the sailors as they scampered high into the rigging. He watched as they raced out onto the yardarms seemingly oblivious to the heights and as surefooted as a pack of monkeys. As more canvas filled with the wind the Gabriella surged forward with increasing speed. Captain Quintero had been forthright in his description of the ship. She had the appearance of a stout draft horse but she moved with the fluid swiftness of an Arabian stallion. Henrico leaned over the rail to stare at the sea foam being thrown up as the ship’s bow pierced the waves.

A sharp command from Captain Quintero caused the helmsman to swiftly spin the wheel. The ship sharply tacked to round the rapidly approaching headland. Momentarily thrown off balance by the sudden change in direction Henrico staggered away from the railing. Catching his foot on some coiled rope he attempted to regain his balance but became more entangled in his long woolen cassock and fell roughly to the deck. In the process, he toppled over a bucket of seawater bringing further embarrassment and discomfort upon himself.

“Easy lad,” a grizzled old sailor grinned as he grabbed his arm, “You’d best be staying in your cabin till we’re clear of the bay.”

“Get back to work, old man,” a harsh voice snarled. The Gabriella’s second mate stepped forward to roughly pull Henrico to his feet. “You’re needed aloft Pedro, so move it!”  His lips curled into an ugly sneer. “The men don’t have time to spend wiping the snotty noses of fools or brats. So, stay out of the way or I’ll have to teach you another lesson.”  Henrico tried to shake the seaman’s hand off but the bully only tightened his grip. Glancing over his shoulder Montoya noticed the captain watching them and his demeanor quickly changed.

“Careful now, lad,” he said, raising his voice so Quintero would hear, “We can’t have our passengers getting injured before we even leave Spain, can we? Here, let me help you aft where it’ll be safer.”  The Benedictine was at last able to slip from the mate’s grasp. Henrico stood for a moment, fists clenched and breath coming in ragged gasps before turning away. In his haste he stumbled again on the ropes and almost fell a second time. Heat rose once again into his face as he heard a jeering snicker escape from the second mate’s lips. Forgoing any attempt at maintaining a shred of dignity he sprinted to the stern cabin and slammed the door behind him.

            Henrico slumped against the doorframe, his eyes screwed shut while he tried to calm his breathing. Memories of older boys at Medellin came to him; memories of taunts and blows that would send him running to the comfort of his mother’s arms; and memories also of his father’s displeasure and his brothers’ scorn at his failure to stand up to the bullies. He could not turn to any of them now. There was no more sympathy or instruction that they could give him. For a moment he felt very alone.

            Then a strong gentle hand was laid upon his shoulder and he opened his eyes to gaze into the face of Father Garcilosa. Seeing the quiet compassion cast upon the priest’s visage, Henrico found himself swallowing hard to fight back tears. Father Garcilosa led the novice to a bench and motioned for him to sit. He stood in mute prayer for a moment before saying, “I saw what happened on the deck, my son.”

            “I’m sorry, Father. I didn’t mean to shame you.”

            “There is no shame on your part. But I think I now understand why you had asked for instruction on the use of a staff.”  Henrico looked away, fearful that the priest would be angry.

            “My son, there is a path set before you. Soon you will have to choose which way you will take. You will have to decide what will rule in your heart. Will it be fear, anguish and doubt? Will it be anger, violence and revenge? Or will it be another way?”

            “But Father, you are a warrior. You have fought.”

            “Yes. Yes, I have. Sometimes rightly but also sometimes out of sin. To battle evil, to fight to protect widows and orphans, to uphold the truth; this is just. But to resort to violence for our own ends, for vengeance or out of pride; this is not the way of the Lord.”

            “I—I don’t know.”

            “I understand, Henrico. Just remember the Scriptures. Remember that Our Lord told us that we would be known by our love. Remember that we battle not against flesh and blood but against powers and principalities. Remember to pray.”

            “I will try, Father.”

            “That is all that I would ask, my son.”  The priest stood for a moment lost in thought, and then clapped the novice heartily on the back. “Come now, I think we should look into changing your garments to something more suitable for being at sea. Perhaps that will help you to avoid more—ah—incidents.”  The priest stooped to pull his baggage from under the bench. Opening the satchel, he produced trousers and a tunic, a new set of clothes for the novice, and held them aloft with a flourish. Henrico looked at the gift and smiled.

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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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