Friday, 2 August 2019

Sunday, 30 December 2018

Angouleme bound January 24th-28th

I'll be in Angouleme, France, Jan 24th to 28th for the comics convention, promoting the French translation of my graphic novel, Nil. If you happen to be in south central France, drop by and say high.

It's a beautiful edition.


Saturday, 29 December 2018

Farewell 2018; you won't be missed

This has been one unpleasant year.

For the last ten years, I've always had a creative project on the go, something to feed the soul.

Not this year.

I had a sequel planned for Theo Paxstone, and I wrote an outline for it. That took several months to work out all the details, all the characters and arcs and subplots. It was epic!

But it got very divisive feedback from my readers, which derailed everything.

Why? I felt ambivalent about the outline to begin with, and the dose of negativity and alternate suggestions (including many valid ones) sent me back into The Possibility Zone. The story could go in a thousand different directions.

Usually it takes time for me to settle on one.

After all, the possibilities are all so intriguing, so interesting. Many of them could be fabulous. Look at how prominent franchises explore alternate, mutually incompatible storylines. Writers want to play with possibility and not be restricted by what others have written before. Movie franchises will ignore certain installments, just as comics do.

Once I settle on something, however, it's full speed ahead. Everything clicks into place, like into slots, and is then hard to dislodge. But if there's no grip, if my gut isn't settled, I slide around on memetic ice, trying to find elusive traction.

So I love when I finally feel certain.

Possibility is wonderful, especially in the initial exploration stage, but you can also be paralyzed by choice.

After the Theo Paxstone II outline got blown to possibilities, I decided to shelve it and let my subconscious digest it for a time. Instead, I focused on a steampunk art show, which sucked up far more of my time than I'd originally intended.

I tried to start another book, a screenplay, and then a graphic novel.

All derailed.

So frustrating.

I got slammed in my day job with more work and responsibility, along with blatantly unnecessarily batshit insane deadlines that I am still furious about.

It's a conundrum: day jobs want to suck the life out of you, but you need them to live. They want you thinking about work 24/7 and to never leave. In exchange, you get a life-giving salary; but what is the reason for living, then?

First world problems, I know.

There is so much I should be grateful for.

I am struggling now to find some small avenue for creativity, a tiny piece of intellectual real estate that I can still call my own.

I have a new graphic novel idea. I have the outline, the story, but not the particulars. I'm exploring visual possibilities, the look of it; I know what I want, but I'm not sure I can get there.

The key thing will be to make sure it fits within the time and energy constraints I am now under.

I am very much hoping for a better 2019.

Demons of El Dorado: Part 8

ICACOS POINT

Booming waves drowned out the shouts of men. Luis was wedged between two soldiers, and rowed like mad against powerful cross currents that threatened to dash them into rocks. All pretense of status and rank had been cast aside in the struggle for survival. 

The fleet surged upward atop a bulging swell and began to shift sideways. 

The stern was partly obscured by mist and slashing water, but Luis could still make out Rodrigo and Angel, who held on to the rudder for all they were worth, their teeth grit, faces showing the strain of a three hour long ordeal. 

Luis struggled not to vomit. 

He wasn’t successful.


ORINOCO RIVER DELTA

Luis blinked. Mud brown water. Lush green foliage filled with lurking fauna. 

The armed flotilla glided silently up river in glorious sunlight, carried forward by strong winds. Soldiers had removed their coarse shirts and slumped in their seats, exhausted. 

In this heat, there was little else one could do. 

Over the past few days they had passed rowed through milky white waters, as if doused in flour, fought dangerous currents, sudden storm squalls, and twice met curious Indians, who had come out to the flotilla in canoes bearing gifts of fruit and cassava bread. Luis had been impressed by their generosity, but his father had insisted on paying them. That was no surprise, and Luis knew why: Rodrigo believed that gifts made slaves. Yet the Indians had refused the offered trinkets, wanting nothing in return, which frustrated Rodrigo and made him suspicious. He would not eat the food until Bartome had, and only then the next day. In the evenings dense mist had engulfted them, followed by thunder and lightning and then a great downpour. 

Now there was not a cloud in the sky, just brilliant sun and punishing heat. Luis’ shirt was drenched in sweat and clung to his body. He noticed that even his father had unbuttoned his tunic.

But there were sights to be enjoyed: pink river dolphins leapt playfully alongside the ship, teasing Spanish soldiers who reached out and tried to touch them for good luck. One swept by Luis so close he leaned out and brushed the back of one with an open palm. It felt cold and smooth and wet, like ceramic.

Ahead the river widened. Luis could see flocks of flamingos, the colour of fresh meat, balanced atop shallow sandbars, preening. 

Angel grunted. “This heat. My God. It’s such shit.” 

Rodrigo, beside him, mopped sweat from his brow, and turned to the First Captain. “Take us closer to the shore, in the shade of the trees. Out of the sun.”

After reading the diary, Luis was loathe to go anywhere near the jungle, however inevitable that would ultimately be. “Father, do you think…”

Rodrigo shot him a condescending look, and Luis fell silent.

Orders were given, and the men set back to their oars. The ships veered closer to the greenery. It looked knotted and impassable, but as they came under its shadow, Luis felt a wave of relief. It would have been wonderful if not for the swarming mosquitoes.

An hour later, the river bifurcated. Currents swirled and intertwined, mud into blue-green. 
Rodrigo ordered Abuljar brought forward. Bartome and two monks awkwardly guided the man to the prow.

The monks were named Cristobel and Diego. Diego appeared ill: pasty skin, red eyed, feverish. Rodrigo did not seem to notice; his attention was focused on Abuljar. “Time for our friend here to earn his keep, eh?” He slipped fingers beneath Abuljar’s jaw, and turned his face up. “Do you remember this river fork?” He waited impatiently for an answer. “Well? Which way? To El Dorado.”

Abuljar shivered and turned away, eyes darting this way and that, like a trapped animal. Bartome noticed the man’s distress. “Take your time, Abuljar. Have no fear. You are safe.” He patted the man on the arm. His voice was soothing.

Abuljar looked left with a blank expression, then right, and cringed. “No!” he whimpered. “I will not go back.”

The monks held him fast.

Angel seemed to enjoy the man’s discomfort. “Ha! He does not seem to like that way.”

It was enough to convince Rodrigo. “That way it is.” He smiled down at Abuljar. “There. You see? Not so hard after all.”

Abuljar continued to whimper and squirm.

“Don’t you worry,” said Rodrigo. “They’ll regret what they did to you. We’ll teach them a lesson they’ll not soon forget.”

“No…”

THIP! Diego stiffened and slapped a hand on his neck, as if he’d been bitten by an insect. He gasps in pain and lowers his hand, but there are no insect guts smeared on it. 

Luis leaned in close. “Brother. What is–”

Sunlight glinted off something sticking out of his skin. It was a small sliver of wood, the section closest to the skin coated in a thin film of gleaming reddish goop.

It took a moment for Luis to process the implication. “Darts; poison darts!”

The befuddled Monk touched it with a finger, then collapsed.

All at once the air was filled with whistling death. Darts peppered the Brigantine like wooden rain drops. Men hit on exposed skin fell like rag dolls. 

“Savages!” snarled Rodrigo, pulling a pistol from his belt. To the First Captain, he yelled, “Take us to the centre of the river. Now!” There was a loud crack as the flint struck and then a bang of exploding gunpowder. A puff of smoke drifted back over the boat. He looked accusingly at Angel and Luis. “Well? Fire into the trees!”

Angel scrambled back for his weapons. Luis grabbed the caliver and aimed, but there was nothing he could see to shoot at.

“Turn!” shouted the First Captain to the man at the stern, behind the makeshift altar. “Take us into the centre of the river!” 

Bartome pushed Abuljar down and placed his body protectively over him, turning his back to the bank. Cristobel pulled Diego’s limp body over and huddled behind it.

Luis looked towards the stern. Soldiers on the bank side of the brigantine that had shields grabbed them and set them against the bulwark. The others scrambled for oars or crossbows. There was the sharp twang of bolts being released, then sporadic musket fire. 

But all anyone could see was faceless jungle green. 

The flood of darts thinned.

“Row, fools!” shouted Rodrigo, berating the men. “Leave your weapons until we’re out of range!”

Angel pulled two pistols out from his wool sleeping roll and brandished them menacingly. “Come out! Face us, cowards!”

“Row!” shouted the First Captain. A dart hit him in the cheek. He gasped, staggered, and fell onto the rowers.

“Darts,” breathed Luis, slipping back into a low crouch, only his eyes above the bulwark. He scanned the bank, but still could not find a target. A dart struck the top of the gunwale, sticking in it. He looked at it for a moment, fascinated. “Of course. No penetrating power.”

Luis set down the gun. He pushed his breastplate aside, grabbed his Morion helm and settled it on his head, then and dug under the thwart for the heavy leather tarp wedged beneath. 

“What are you doing?” demanded Rodrigo, kneeling down. Luis gaped. Three darts stuck out of his heavy tunic. “Eh?” Rodrigo grunted, then picked them out and sniffed them, before flicking them into the river. “Stink of Machineel fruit. Damn beach apples, there’s no antidote.”

“An idea,” said Luis. He awkwardly unfolded the tarp, trying to keep low. “Help me,” he asked Cristobel, but the petrified monk just shook his head and refused to move. Bartome, heavy black robe dotted with wood splinters, reached over and flipped over the last fold. Finally Luis was ready. “Lean over!” he ordered, then swept it up over the rowers, covering them. 

They were drawing away from the shore. 

Luis cocked his caliver.

“Shoot, you woman!” admonished Angel.

“I can’t see anything.”

“So? Keep their heads down!”

He fired a shot and started to reload. There were soft plinks in the water. Luis noted the darts were falling short. “Stop. You’re wasting ammunition. It’s futile. We’re out of range.”

Angel turned on Luis and glared, his eyes unblinking, demanding; after a pause, he fired a shot off towards shore, without even looking. 

“You’re an idiot,” said Luis.

“I must have killed a dozen,” replied Angel. “A dozen more than you.” Angel reloaded his pistol as the ships glided onward, upriver.

Friday, 7 December 2018

Demons of El Dorado: Part 7

COAST OF TRINIDAD 

Sails unfurled, the six heavily loaded Brigantines slipped along the lush green coast, towards South America and the Orinoco River. 

Luis sat on the bulwark and watched the soldiers. Their gear was rolled up beneath their seats. They sang martial songs as they rowed. 

They had thirty arquebusiers, thirty crossbowmen, and at least sixty trained pikemen. On top of that were five greyhound war dogs and six horses. Not a significant army by European standards, but then, Cortez had brought down the Aztec Empire with under a thousand men. 

The air, clear and fresh, rushed over them. Beneath the water’s sparkling surface, Luis watched schools of multi-coloured fish darted about like living rainbows. 

He ran his fingers over the leather cover of a book cradled in his lap. It was the diary of a priest, Philip de Riverra, who had accompanied the expedition of Hernan Perez de Quesada into the Orinoco river basin. Professor Martin de Apilcueta Navarro had let Luis purchase it for a few ducats back in Salamanca, from his personal library. Luis thought it might have been of interest to his father, but had forgotten to pass it on. Philip had died of malaria in 1543, and had been demoralized for some time. Much of his writing, according to Navarro, was unreliable, even fantastical, more a product of fever than real events. But it was the best source of first had information Luis currently had access to. Abuljar only spoke to Bartome, and even that he did rarely. 

Luis settled a broad brimmed leather hat on his head, then cracked open the book to a random page. 

He began to read:

“August 5th, 1542: We have been exploring inland, due South from the third major river fork. Always Quesada choses South. He believes there is yet a civilization to be found in this dark, oppressive jungle. It devours us without qualm, as it would any attempt at establishing order and sanity. The jungle is a beast, an entity, a living force, just one with a thousand thousand manifestations, all guided by an ill will. At first, I saw it as a bewildering, chaotic jumble of vines and trees and bugs and slithering reptiles. But it has personality. Will. And it is eating us up, one by one, felling us with sickness and madness. 

Jose died yesterday of a snakebite. He stepped in between a fallen tree and a rock, and it struck him in the ankle. I tried to suck out the poison to no avail. His death was merciful and quick. Those of us who continue on are wracked by dysentery, the more water we consume the more we expel. After three years, I am but a shadow of my former self. We have no mirrors. Only the rippling reflection in the river, and the man I see there is not one I recognize. 

There is no end to the wretched jungle. It lies over the earth like the rotting corpse of a pagan god. I fear eventually finding ourselves facing a solid wall of curling vegetation, vines so thick they throttle the trees and snuff out the light of the sun. 

August 10th, 1542: During the night there was a commotion.

We gathered wood before nightfall to make a camp fire, and to cook some of the small mammals our crossbows had felled for dinner. Overhead great shadows flew over us, one after another, but we could not get a good look at their source. The trees are at least eighty feet, and with the sky already dim, it all merged into a single mass of darkness, only with faint speckles of light seeping through gaps. Soon those too were gone, and we were left with the cluster of campfires. We keep them lit throughout the night now, to keep the beasts back. They fear the fire. But some of the men do not like being crowded in beside it, and lay further away, at the edge of its light. I was awoken by shouts of alarm. It was just as well, for I was having that dreadful nightmare again. What awaited me was little better. 

A great black beast had landed on Martin, one of the few of our number still healthy. We could hear it making wet, slurping sounds and grunting. It was a bat, so large and horrific we at first took it to be a demon in the flickering light of our torches. I cannot describe the feeling of horror that seized me. It was the size of a large dog, with thick, knotted black fur, and a flattened, pig like face, with fangs and great veined ears. Sanchez ran his saber through its back so far he nicked Martin. The beast squealed and thrashed about. Martin is lucky we did not set it alight with the torches. Sanchez hauled it off and jabbed it in the neck with a knife until it stopped moving. 

There was much shouting, but none of that woke Martin, who lay in a blissful slumber so deep we feared he would never awaken. There were bite marks on his throat, where the creature had affixed itself. We splashed water in his face and slapped him, until finally he was roused. He described a dream in which he was atop a great, gold pyramid, looking down at supplicating worshippers below. I did not tell him I have had the same dream. I had the men lay the beast out, stretching out its leathery wings, and stepped along the length. I counted twelve feet. We will make sacks out of the wings, or perhaps patches for our boots; when Sanchez cut it open its belly, black blood jetted out; not its own, but Martins. The body we cooked. The meat was tender and delicious. Better than the bugs we’d been eating: big iridescent green monsters, weighing almost two pounds each. Something unholy about how large and distorted God’s creation is here. I hesitate to imagine what form indigenous man would take, here in this hellish jungle.

August 15th, 1542: The bats left us alone for three days while we crossed a swamp, which was a wretched experience. The leeches concentrated upon my groin, and the filthy brine stank like an open sewer. There were mercifully none of those small predatory fish, and only a few curious crocodiles that our pikes turned easily away. We only lost one porter. I saw the our gold pursuers again, speckles sliding beneath black water, hinting at great hideous shapes. I’d say it was my mind playing tricks, paranoia, but the others saw it too, and fired crossbow bolts. Quesada put a stop to that, as ammunition is in short supply. No one yet has seen what is following us. It could be harmless.

We are but a faint echo of the men who entered this endless green waste. Covered in red welts, our clothes hanging like tents, full of lice, it is a wonder any of us still lives.

Pity the civilization that fears conquerors such as us. 

August 17th, 1542:There were two attacks last night. We are once again beneath the canopy, and here the bats seem to prefer to strike. The men nervous, and understandably so. There is talk that we are nearing the end of the world, perhaps the Gates of Hell. I know that Aguirre reached the coast, through this very jungle, so there must be an end to it. Quesada has given orders for halberds to be set in the ground, pointing up, over us while we sleep, and doubled the night watch. We’re too exhausted to create greater defenses, there’s simply no strength left for it. 

We proceed onward by will alone, the unknown pursuing us, death waiting ahead.

Luis shut the book and listened to the men, who were now chattering, exuberant, eager for the adventure that lay ahead. They joked and laughed in the breezy ocean air. 

He got up and made his way towards Rodrigo and Angel who were at the bow, basking in sea foam. Rodrigo nodded at Luis as he drew near. “Finally got your nose out of a book, eh? As I was saying: we’ll sail through the night.” He put a hand on Angel’s shoulder. “Have shifts set up. de Berrio will send ships after us, if he’s at all like his father.”

Angel grunted agreement. “Once the son of a bitch gets his pants on.”

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Demons of El Dorado: Part 6

I really ought to edit this more, but here goes anyway...

PORT OF SPAIN DOCKS, TRINIDAD 

Luis yanked the reins of his horse and brought his horse to a halt. He deftly dismounted and tied his horse to a post, then ran to catch up to Rodrigo and Angel. They had finer mounts, and were more accustomed to riding than Luis. After hiding the bodies at the church they had rushed Bartome, Abuljar and some monks into a wagon and sent them ahead. 

It would not be long before the bodies were discovered. 

Speed was their only asset left.

A servant he recognized bowed and pushed past him, towards his horse. There was no time to ask him what he was doing. Everything was moving so quickly, and his father was not telling him everything.

The dock was packed with men, mules, and cargo, and it stank of fish, tar, sun cooked wood, and human sweat. They walked past a moored galleon, half unloaded, and weaved between stacked crates and barrels of rum. Surly, sunburnt men glared at them as they passed. Luis imagined they were jealous of his fine clothes, which made them stand out like sore thumbs in a crowd. He hated being looked at, being the centre of attention, but it was not to be helped. There was no time for petty anxieties anymore. 

Soldiers milled about ahead, while shirtless sailors and dock workers, bodies glistening in the sun, loaded supplies aboard a row of six sturdy brigantines. Each ship was sixty feet long, broad, with two banks of oars and a mast, cannon mounted at the prow. Buff-bowed shallops. Ship’s boats, really, if Luis wasn’t mistaken. Much like what Cortez had used at the siege of Tenochtitlan, they would make for decent river craft. 

Luis felt a gust of cool sea breeze on his face, and looked up at the sky. It was clear azure, not a cloud to be seen. A small mercy.

Rodrigo and Angel had stopped just ahead, before a crowd of men. Bartome was there. Two monks flanked Abuljar, holding the poor soul up. Abuljar’s head was downcast, which was fortunate enough. No one who saw the man’s eyes would want to be anywhere near him. Rodrgio was speaking to Sergeant Mendez, who commanded the small contingent of troops who oversaw the de Guerra plantations on the island. He must be coming too. Someone to help control their mercenaries. Luis also recognized the quartermaster, Antonio. 

There must have been over two hundred soldiers on the dock, waiting to board the ships. This was a large expedition for such short notice. It was fortunate the mercenaries had nowhere else to go now that the English had captured their original destination. Luis smiled. They’d be much happier seizing El Dorado, anyway. If the tales were true, they were all going to be very rich!

He listened for a moment to the discussion his father was having. Concerns over the supplies, the amount of food and water, and especially the speed of departure. There was nothing Luis could add, nor would his input be wanted. He went over to examine their newly acquired ships. He ran a hand over the bulwark. The wood was smooth and freshly stained. The ship was new, or relatively so. No barnacles would be on the bottom to slow their progress.

“It isn’t the ships you should be worried about,” said a voice from behind. He recognized it immediately: Esteban. Luis turns and embraces his friend and teacher, then looked down at the open chest beside him, filled with books. 

“My library,” observed Luis.

The Moor nodded. “The servants brought it.” Esteban looked at Luis like he was a fish out of water. “You’re mad. You know that, do you not?”

Luis shrugged. “We’ll likely never return. And if we don’t, if we must live out the rest of our days in some fetid swamp, cut off from civilization, I’d just as soon have my books.”

“Fair enough.”

There were shouts back down the dock. The expedition was getting underway. 

“What’s the great rush with all this?” asked Esteban. “This city you seek, is it going somewhere?”

“No.” Luis could not bear to tell Esteban the truth. It would be too shameful to admit to a Moslem, a captured infidel, the dishonor that had been washing over his formely august family. Especially not after what happened in the church. True, this was The New World. Rules here were looser, lives cheaper, than in Spain. But Luis couldn’t help but think they were all on a path to damnation. 

“Captain! Prepare to set sail!” It was his father, Rodrigo. Soldiers gathered up their gear and clambered aboard the ships, along with a few sailors to steer the ships. The soldiers, however, would be providing the manpower.

Rodrigo and Angel approached, trailed by the quartermaster, who seemed flustered: “But, Don Rodrigo, the supplies are not yet all loaded.”

Rodrigo ignored the man and slapped a sailor on the back, who looked up quizzically. Rodrigo pointed at a mooring line. “Undo that. Hurry. We leave at once.”  It would have been beneath Rodrigo’s station, or that of Angel or even Luis, to do it himself. Hidalgo did not stoop to physical labour. 

Angel saw the chest as he passed and laughed. “Stupid waste of space. Books are shit.” He waved ahead. The prostitutes were further down the dock, surrounded by a group of grinning soldiers. They stepped back as Angel stormed towards them. Luis grunted. It looked like there’d be some of the fairer sex accompanying the expedition. He turned and looked back, over the roofs and up the hill, towards the citadel. 

A cloud of smoke rose over the road. 

Esteban followed his gaze, squinted. “What’s wrong?”

“A… little misunderstanding.”

“What did you do now?” growled the Moor.
“Me?” exclaimed Luis, incredulous. He gave Esteban a sharp look. The mischevious Moor was being insufferably cheeky. “It wasn’t my fault.”

“That’s what you always say.” Indifferent. Judging. 

“That’s totally untrue. I’ve never said that, to the best of my recollection. By any measure, I am the most proper and law abiding of all the de Guerra family.”

The Moor smirked and slapped him on the back. “That’s why you get in so much trouble.”

“Help me with this.” Luis gestured at the chest, and stepped round, and grabbed the handle on one end. Esteban took the other and together they heaved it onto the bulwark and into the waiting grasp of two sailors. 

“Put your back into it, you louts!” Luis could hear Angel’s gruff voice over his shoulder. Angel was prowling along the dock like an angry panther. He grabbed Luis’ arm. “Don’t stoop so low, brother. You’ll bring dishonor on us all.” He let go and stomped on. “Faster, you sons of bitches! Crippled crones would be done by now!” Angel booted a slow sailor in the rear, but did nothing to help himself. 

Sailors rushed loading the remaining supplies. Luis watched his horse, along with Rodrigo’s and Angel’s, being trod past and onto the fourth brigantine, which had a roof of sorts made out of thatch and animal skins. The ships sat dangerously low in the water. If they hit rough seas, Luis imagined they’d all be doomed. He looked for reassurance from his father, but Rodrigo and the First Captain, Luis thought his name was Aragones, something like that, continued to argue. 

Luis stopped and watched.

Aragones was waving a list at Rodrigo. “Don Rodrigo, we’ll need another hour or two, at least. Please! Be reasonable.”

Rodrigo stepped up into the man’s face and glared. “Cast off. Now.”

There were shouts from the road leading toward the docks. Between the buildings a troop of horses was fast approaching. Soldiers.

Luis grabbed hold of his pistol. “Get ready,” he said quietly to Esteban, and they stepped over behind some crates. 

Horsemen rounded the bend and reached the far end of the docks. The lead cavalry man held aloft the banner of Don Philip’s family. Even from this distance Luis recognized the man beside him, dressed in fine armour: Santino Philip, the Don’s eldest son. 

“Father!” shouted Luis. Rodrigo turned and Luis pointed at the approaching soldiers. “It’s Santino, Philip’s son!” 

Rodrigo swore and drew two gold handled pistols. “Get aboard!” he shouted at Luis, and headed back down the dock, shouting orders to the confused mercenaries, who didn’t know what was going on. Sergeant Mendez raced after him, leading a dozen heavily armed men.

Luis stayed behind the barrels, beside Esteban. 

There was a puff of smoke at the far end, two hundred feet away. Then a half-dozen more. A mercenary fell. Shards of wood spat from struck barrels. Men yelled in alarm. Everyone scattered for cover.

The Moor was smiling. “I begin to see why your father was in such a hurry.” He drew his pistol. “It always is interesting with your family. I should tell you some stories of your brother. Stay down.”

“They can’t hit us from here,” said Luis, unsure of his words even as he uttered them. “We should help.” He started to get up. 

“Hold.” Esteban pushed him back down. “It’s a confused mess up there. You’re likely to be shot by your own men. They’re as skittish as chickens.” 

Rodrigo and his men were now engulfed by drifting white smoke. Esteban was right. The scene was one of mayhem. Troops surged forward past them, towards the fighting, but Angel roared at them to stop, and to get in the ships. 

Luis could not stand to be shamed any further. He slipped away from Esteban and began to urge the men into the boats as well, waving his pistol in the air. “Get aboard! Set sail!”

A puff of smoke belched from a second story window overlooking the dock. Buildings lined the length of it. Luis cursed. Philip’s troops were occupying the houses, firing down into Rodrigo’s men from the left flank. “The windows!” he shouted to the soldiers. “Fire on those windows!” There was a loud crack beside him as a sniper’s bullet blew slivers of wood off a crate, causing Luis to cringe involuntarily. In his fine armour he was a prime target, along with Angel. He raised his pistol, sighted, and fired a shot at the smoke. 

Don Rodrigo charged towards them out of the smoke. He cast about for the quartermaster, found him cowering behind a pile of ropes, and hauled him out. “Cast off now!”  He shoved the Quartermaster away, and gestured at the soldiers. “Cast off! Any one who refuses, shoot them!” Sergeant Mendez and two men started herding soldiers and sailors aboard. 

“What’s going on?” demanded one of the mercenaries, a big fellow with a bushy, untrimmed beard. His armour was collected in a rope net he held over his shoulder, and he held his caliver loosely in his right hand. He spat a large black wad of tobacco. “I’ll not fight.” He pointed towards the end of the dock. “Those are men of the city watch, down there.” Chin jutted out, he planted his legs wide apart. “What are you getting us caught up in, eh?”

Rodrigo snapped up a pistol and shot him in the chest. The man staggered and fell between the dock and the brigantine with a loud splosh. Rodrigo furiously rounded on the others. “Do you want to be rich or dead? Get in the ships!” They obeyed. He began to reload his pistol.

The first two brigantines were moving away from the dock. Soldiers were pushing hard against it with oars and halberds.

Luis scanned the building windows and saw a man, not thirty feet away, raise an arquebus and aim it at his father. Acting on instinct Luis fired his second shot and hit the man in the arm. The arquebus roared, but the shot went hopelessly wide. 

Esteban fired and hit the sniper in the forehead. The man toppled out of the window and into stacked bins of spice. 

Don Rodrigo and Angel climbed into the middle Brigantine. The prostitutes were already aboard, sheltering in the makeshift altar that had been set up near the ship’s stern. Abuljar must be there somewhere. He could see Bartome, crouched low against the bulwark and trying to look as small as possible. Luis started to follow. A flurry of bullets struck in front of him. He dropped back in a panic. Philip’s troops had occupied the buildings opposite, and were now pushing their way up the dock from Luis’ right. 

A Sailor untying the last mooring line was hit. The four ounce metal ball blew a chunk out of his tanned chest. He fell dead. 

Angel, crouching behind a supply crate aboard the brigantine, looked in askance at Luis. “Get that! The line! Hurry up, or we’ll leave you behind!” Soldiers beside him hefted oars and began to push against the dock. Angel pulled out a knife and began cutting the line. Rodrigo pulled Mendez aboard. One of his troopers was hit in the back and fell against the bulwark, then slipped away, down into the water.

Luis crouched back as bullets zipped by. Esteban looked over at him from behind a crate nearby. He was pointing at the barrels Luis lay behind, but his words were lost in the cacophony.

“What?” shouted Luis back, perplexed. Everyone was demanding his attention all at once.

Rodrigo, face was red with fury, shouted, “Cut that line or we’re all dead men!” 

“Hurry!” yelled Angel. “Father is watching! Don’t be a coward! I’ll cover you!”

Luis looked back again to Esteban, who cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Gunpowder! You’re behind a barrel of gunpowder!”

Luis’ eyes went wide. Sparks and bullets and shards of wood were everywhere, but this was obviously no place to stay. He slipped up to a crouch, drew his sword, and ran for the brigantine. 

Soldiers focus their fire on Luis. Bullets and crossbow bolts whizzed by as he ran. 

A musket shot singed his shirt.

He stopped short, by the mooring line, planted his legs wide, and swung his sword down with all his might, slicing the line clean through with one blow. A bullet hit him in the back, knocking the wind out of him and causing him to fall forward. He grabbed the bulwark with his left hand and found himself looking down into the dark sloshing water. A body bobbed up and down below him, face up, eyes looking blankly up into his. He swallowed hard. His sword was pulled from his right hand. He raised his head. Angel and Mendez grabbed at his arms. Luis could feel his feet sliding along the dock, closer and closer to the edge as the ship drifted away from the dock. Bullets struck the bulwark, but there was nothing he could do. Suddenly they had him by the torso and he was hauled aboard the brigantine, and awkwardly rolled onto the bottom of the boat, dizzy and disoriented. A moment later he saw Esteban elegantly leap aboard, only to be undone by uneven footing of ropes and pouches, and found himself falling into a group of soldiers, who cursed and pushed him roughly off. 

Luis sat up. The crescendo of battle floods back into his consciousness.

Angel shoved a caliver into his chest. Luis took it up and leaned against the bulwark. Philip’s men now lined the dock, and were firing haphazardly at them, but they were becoming more organized as they consolidated their control along the dock’s length. Luis spotted Philip. He set the caliver against his shoulder, steadied it as best he could, and fired. Philip jerked back, but remained standing. But it had been a hit. A palpable hit! Luis couldn’t help but grin. 

Something struck him as wrong. The ship was angling round, facing towards the dock, rather than away. Soldiers were rowing madly, one side rowing forward, the other back. A moment later he saw why, as Rodrigo set a match to the cannon’s fuse, and it boomed. The shell hit the gunpowder barrels, setting them off. A massive explosion blew apart a section of the dock. 

“That will teach them to challenge the de Guerra,” crowed Rodrigo, a fierce smile on his face. He turned to the soldiers. “Now row, to sea, for all you’re worth!”

Luis looked back at the dock. Fiddled with reloading his pistol while the soldiers rowed madly.

The ship had fully turned and was pulling out to sea before Santino Philip had recovered enough to rally his men, the ones not deaf from the explosion. 

The ship pulled further away from the docks. 

Santino had his men form up into ranks, then theatrically waved his sword in the air. He then sliced it downward. A thunderous volley cracked the air, and the stern of the ship was peppered with shot. Chunks of the altar were blown off, and a sailor’s skull blown open. The man collapsed atop the prostitutes, who, in a fit of horror and revulsion, toppled his corpse over the side. 

The soldiers at the oars bent forward and covered their heads.

“Row!” ordered Rodrigo, storming amongst them. “Row! Distance, that’s your only armor now!” 

Luis, focused on reloading his pistol, wasn’t paying attention. “Almost…”

Esteban grabbed a befuddled Luis by the tail of his shirt, sticking out from below his armored breastplate, and roughly hauled him backward. Luis dropped the ball of shot and swore.

Bullets peppered the hull of the ship, sliced through rigging, and cut holes in the sails. The quartermaster gouted blood from his chest and dropped into the gleaming, cerulean blue, staining it.

Luis shifted himself round, facing Esteban. “What did you do that for?” he demanded, scouring the floor of brigantine for the lost ball.

Esteban grinned back. “You’re welcome.”

As the ships pulled out of range, Angel stood up and planted his hands on hips. He made obscene gestures at those on shore. “I shit on your mothers, you bastards!” he bellowed. 

He laughed as Santino and his men rushed along the dock, back towards the city. 

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Demons of El Dorado: Part 5

CHURCH OF SANTIAGO 

Luis and Angel followed their father into the church. The smell of cool stone and incense washed over him. Sunlight streamed in through the soaring stained glass windows, beams of light split into a cacophony of rich colors. The great height of the nave always filled Luis with a feeling of elation somehow. He could imagine himself closer to God in this place. It was sumptuously furnished, funded by the enormous wealth of the New World. Still, it was nothing compared to Alhambra or the cathedrals of Madrid. Luis had heard the churches in Paris were even more magnificent. One of these days, he intended to visit them. Perhaps he’d even travel to England and see the home of Anglican heresy.

They tromped down the center aisle towards a magnificent marble statue of Saint James, their metal shod boots clanking on the cold stone floor. Rodrigo reached out and rubbed the neck of the statue, then knelt before the altar in prayer. Luis and Angel followed suit.

Rodrigo spoke softly, under his breath. Luis could barely hear him. “Dear Lord God Almighty and Father Everlasting who has safely brought me to the beginning of this day by thy holy power, grant that this day I fall into no sin…”

“Well spoken, Don Rodrigo,” said a voice. Luis looked up. He saw Father Bartome, an older, rather portly man approaching. A kindly smile was etched onto his weathered features, but it did not reach his eyes. Luis felt they had a tinge of envy to them, the way they darted about, analyzing and assessing everything. There was something resentful about the way he looked at Luis and Angel. A yearning for lost youth, perhaps. It had not been there when Luis was younger. Bartome had known Luis’ father for over twenty years. It had been the quest for El Dorado which had brought them closer together over the years. Bartome’s hands were clasped together. He stopped a few feet away. “Welcome, my friends.”

“Father Bartome,” said Rodrigo, rising. “Any improvement?”

Father Bartome shook his head. “None, I’m afraid. This man you brought us… he is most unwell.”

Luis looked at his father. Rodrigo did not take this news well. A scowl crossed his face. “Take us to him.”

Bartome frowned but didn’t move, which incensed Rodrigo. “Did you not hear what I said? Now. I insist,” he demanded forcefully. 

“Don Rodrigo, I do not think this man is… No.” Bartome reconsidered. His eyes flitted over Luis and Angel. He slumped ever so slightly. There was no point in opposing Don Rodrigo when his mind was set. “Very well. It is better to show you.” He led them over to the stairs leading down into the crypt, and took a torch from the wall. 
                                                                                 
****

Luis stooped as they walked along the crypt. The ceiling was low and it was dark and dank. The torch flame danced and murmured as Bartome swept along the passage ahead. Eventually he stopped in front of a heavy oak door and began to fumble with a set of keys that jangled at his belt. Thick fingers slipped over them until they found the one he sought. He paused and looked back at Luis and Angel. “Boys, I warn you, what you see may be… disturbing.” With a clack of gears, the door unlocked, and Bartome swung it wide. 

They crowded around the entrance and looked in. Abuljar lay on a wooden bunk inside the cell, curled up in a ball atop a thin mattress. His arms and legs were shackled, and his eyes were open but black, like those of a shark, without whites. They stared vacantly, as if the man were catatonic. 

“Abuljar, you have guests,” said Bartome. He set the torch in a wall mounted clasp and gently shook Abuljar’s shoulder. There was no response. Bartome sighed and looked back to Don Rodrigo. “He stopped responding early this morning, before dawn. He’s been like this since. The Sisters did what they could. Last night, he howled like a beast. Like nothing I’ve ever heard before, for hours on end. It was so unnerving the nuns moved to the outer seminary. Worse, word of his presence has spread. I could not contain it. There was no way, considering his disturbing behavior.”

Angel grimaced. “By the saints, what’s wrong with his eyes?”

“Yes, strange is it not?” mused Bartome, lowering the torch a little. “All black. At first I thought it might be a disease, some New World plague. Yet he is not blind. But look.” Bartome reached out and pulled out a chunk of hair from Abuljar’s head. It came away easily, in a clump. “His hair is beginning to fall out.”

Luis shuddered. “What happened to him?”

Bartome shrugged. “He was a missionary, an emissary of God at the edge of the world. Who knows what a man might find there. He jabbers of beasts. Evil spirits. It’s hard to make sense of it. It may be the fever, or…”

Luis gave him a questioning look. “Yes?”

Bartome fidgeted. He seemed uncomfortable to say. Finally he blurted, “The man may be possessed.”

Angel let out a guffaw. “Ha! What shit.”

Bartome gave him a cold look. “Do not dismiss it so easily. He claims to have discovered The Gateway to Hell.” He looked down at Abuljar and shuddered. “And I am inclined to believe him.”

Rodrigo shook his head. “No. I know what it is. I’ve seen this before, on the battlefield. Look at him. Curled up like a baby. Traumatized. Tortured. He’s lost his nerve. He was weak. It made him vulnerable, and he became sick.”

Father Bartome straightened up. He seemed dubious. “It is possible. But I have seen men scarred by war. Consoled them. This… this is something different. Something…”

“Useful,” interrupted Rodrigo. “He’s been to El Dorado and lived. And he’s in our hands, Bartome. He’s the key to the future. Any more details?”

Bartome shook his head. “Only what could not possibly be true. It will take time, my friend.”

“That we don’t have,” said Rodrigo. He slapped Abuljar’s legs. “Up!” There was no response, so Rodrigo turned to Bartome: “Get him ready to travel, and down to the docks, along with yourself. Understood?”

Father Bartome became flustered. “Don Rodrigo, I must protest. La Navidad—”

Rodrigo seized Bartome’s arm and pulled him close. He glared into the priest’s eyes, which were set in loose, drooping flesh. “Do not go soft on me now. You want this as much as I. El Dorado, Bartome! Not only wealth beyond imagining, but eternal youth as well. You’ve studied the lore, lived with the Indians. I need your help on this expedition. Someone to look after Abuljar. Make him talk.”

“No.” Bartome shook his head fiercely. “He is in no condition to travel.”

Angel and Luis exchange a surprised look. 

Rodrigo hissed fiercely into Bartome’s ear. “How much have you lent me? Stolen out of church coffers, eh? You want to be found out?”

Father Bartome squirmed, trying to free himself from Rodrigo’s iron grip. “Don Rodrigo, I was trying to help you. Our friendship. Does it mean nothing? You wouldn’t dare—”

“I dare all!” Rodrigo was adamant. “This is my only hope, don’t you see? Otherwise I am finished. My family, finished! Bankrupt. Destitute. Disgraced. If gold does not compel you, remember The Fountain of Youth. What it could do for you.”

Bartome paused. He ran thick fingers absentmindedly down his wrinkled features. “Rejuvenation…” 

“Yes!” Rodrigo’s eyes gleamed in the torchlight. It was if a fever had seized Luis’ father. “And it could be ours! A second chance, Bartome. All of us, rich and immortal. Never aging. I know you want that. I can see the hunger in your eyes as well!”

After a long moment, Bartome nodded.

****

Rodrigo, Angel, and Luis clambered up the steps and re-entered the nave, only to find six overdressed thugs with murder in their eyes waiting for them. 

Out of shafts of coloured light strode Don Philip Marin, clad in the richest finery. His slitted lip was curled in a perpetual sneer, as if it was caught on a fish hook. Luis had always hated the man. “Ah, but what is this? It is my dear friend, Don Rodrigo! You seem in a rush. Going somewhere?”

Rodrigo bristled. “None of your concern, Don Philip.” He looked back at Angel and Luis, then down at their sword hilts. Luis took the hint and started to slide a hand towards the brass handle. In response the thugs gripped their sword hilts tightly and tensed, ready for action. Clearly violence was only a misstep away. Luis froze. He looked to Rodrigo for cues, but his father did not draw his sword. Neither did Angel. Yet.

Don Philip stroked his beard. “Oh? Isn’t it? What is this nonsense going on down at the docks, then, might I ask, hmm?”

Rodrigo jutted out his chin, defiant. “A trip to the interior.”

Don Philip’s eyebrows rose. “Oh? Up the Orinoco? Whatever for? Bird watching? No?” He twirled a handerchief in the air, then snapped it down. “To El Dorado, perhaps? To rescue Don de Silva?” Over shoulder, to his Aides, he added, “Three years too late, I think.”

Rodrigo stepped forward. “I’ve had enough of your juvenile games. Stand aside.”
He tried to move pass Philip, but the man shifted over, and placed a hand on Rodrigo’s chest. Luis knew that would not go over well. His father did not like being touched.

“Now, now. Don’t be like that, Don Rodrigo,” said Don Philip with mock sympathy. “Tsk tsk. Surely you know Governor Vasquez has revoked your charter and given it to … me.” He pulled out a vellum scroll and waved it in Rodrigo's face. “I, too, am a Knight of of the Order of Santiago.”

Rodrigo glowered back, barely able to contain his fury. “You’re a thief. That charter is rightfully mine. De Berrio promised it to me!” With each word, Rodrigo’s fury built. His expression twisted with uncontainable rage. 

A fight was imminent now. Luis knew his father well. He’d been wary of his fathers’ rages since he was four, and his father had beaten him for breaking one of his precious artifacts. It had probably been Roman, and it had fascinated him as a child. Something from the distant past. Rodrigo’s great great grandfather had acquired it during fighting in Granada, where he had distinguished himself as a Knight of Santiago. Rodrigo himself had fought for Spain at Lepanto against the Turkish infidels. He’d worked hard to salvage the de Guerra reputation, which had been ravaged by their reckless, alcoholic grandfather. Luis had only dim memories of the man. But he had been a cruel and bestial, inflicting pain without purpose.

Luis slowly slipped his hand over his ice cold sword hilt while the thugs’ eyes were riveted to Rodrigo. They too could see the bottled rage. 

“Oh?” sniffed Philip. “Then why am I holding it, and not you?”

“How much did you pay?” snarled Rodrigo.

Don Philip shrugged as if the matter were of no significance. “A pittance, really. Without your precious treasure fleet, the upper hand is mine, you see. Go home. You don’t have the cojones for this, old man.” 

“Old?” Rodrigo blustered. “I can still break your back over my knee.”

“Ah! You know what?” said Philip, pacing in front of Rodrigo. He raised a finger up and waggled it. “Perhaps I’ll buy your estate. Yes. I’ve always liked the property. You used to look down your nose at me from it. Highest house in the city. But don’t fret. I may let you stay… in the servant’s quarters.” Don Philip tapped the royal charter on Rodrigo’s nose and sneered triumphantly. This was clearly a moment he had been waiting for. The man had been envious of Luis’ father for decades.

There was a sharp, wet thud. 

Don Philip’s twisted smile fixed in place, then vanished. He looked over Rodrigo’s shoulder at Luis. The man’s eyes bulge grotesquely and blood spurted out his mouth. Don Philip stumbled backward, astonished, and looked down at a gaping knife wound in his sunken chest. Thin rivulets of blood pulsed out, streaming down along the gold trim, splitting and spreading and staining his finely embroidered jacket. He looked at Rodrigo, an expression of utter incredulity on his face. “Animal! So easy to goad…” Philip stopped mid-sentence and slumped to the floor, dead. 

Rodrigo looked blankly at the body, then down at the blood covered knife in his own shaking hand.

“Father?” asked Luis, leaning forward. His father did not seem to be listening. It was if he were in a trance. In another world. 

Or possessed.

Steel sung as Don Philip’s thugs drew their rapiers. “Rodrigo de Guerra,” declared the largest of the set, a burly man with pockmarked cheeks, “you are under arrest for the murder of His Excellency, Don Philip Marin. You’ll hang for this!”

A rat faced man to his left spat on the floor. “I’ll not wait!” And he lunged, slashing with his sword at Rodrigo. 

Luis reacted. He surged forward and blocked the blow with his blade. He then swept it up and over to the side, swinging the attackers sword away. Luis locked eyes with the rat faced man for a moment, then ran him through before the mercenary could recover his fighting posture with a stab to the gut. 

The other thugs charged. Luis, desperate to protect his father, sent one reeling back, but in so doing, opened himself up to counter-attack by another and got a bloody cut across his arm. 

Quickly the tide turns against him. He was unused to fighting multiple opponents. He’d always trained one on one. Steel slashed at him as fast as lightning bolts, but he could not retreat without exposing his father. 

Luis risked looking back. He couldn’t hold out much longer.

His father had unfrozen. The sight his son being injured had jolted Rodrigo out of his trance. The Don drew his weapon and joined the fray. 

At the same time, Angel set upon the mercenaries from the left, easing the pressure on Luis and Rodrigo. A man without grace, Angel charged forward like a bull, slashing as he went, slicing a mercenary across the stomach. Blood gushed from the broad slit in the man’s belly, and he toppled to the floor with a whimper. A wiry mercenary, a man Luis noted moved with the skill of a veteran swordsman turned his attention to Angel and launched a ferocious attack. The burly leader of the group struck at Luis, who parried the sword strike only to be belted in the face by a meaty fist. He stumbled backward against a pew, then rolled to the side as a blade stabbed into it. He kicked with his right foot, hitting the man in the crotch, then followed with a jab at the gut. The man spat blood and collapsed, head cracking on the pew as he fell.

Luis half laughed with relief and looked up. The fight was over. The mercenaries lay scattered about on the floor, not moving. One groaned. Angel stabbed him in the throat and blood spouted up like a fountain, and the man gurgled and fell silent. Blood spread out over the formerly immaculate cold stone floor.

Luis looked at the bodies. The blood. Then the enormity of what they’d done hit him. He looks up and down the church, but there is no one else. 

Angel sheathed his sword. “Pathetic. Whatever Don Philip was paying them, it was too much.” He grabbed two dead Thugs each by a leg and dragged them towards the confessional, their corpses leaving long bloody streaks in their wake. Angel let go of the legs and yanked open the confessional door, then paused to wipe sweat from his brow. “And he fed them too much.” Grunting, he unceremoniously shoved one of the bodies inside. “Luis, help me.” He started back over, and pointed at the body of Don Philip. “Grab his legs.” He said it as if he were discussing preparing a turkey for dinner. There had been very dark rumors about his brother, told in whispers, but enough to have reached Luis. Tales of his behavior in the taverns, towards the serving wenches. Towards any pretty peasant who crossed his path. 

Luis ran a hand through his hair. His stomach was in a knot. A sharp pain throbbed in the back of his neck. “God help us. What have we done?”

Angel put his hands on his hips and looked crossly at Luis. “Don Philip provoked us. You heard him. We were totally justified. He never should have confronted us in a church in the first place.” Angel kicked the corpse in the shoulder. “This is all his fault.”
Luis’ mind raced. “We… we must explain to the governor, to Bartome, we must—”

“No,” said Rodrgio flatly. He reached down with a trembling hand and wrenched the blood smeared charter from Don Philip’s clutched hand. “There is no going back. No explaining. We succeed—or we die!”