COASTAL WATERS, TRINIDAD
Lapping waves and blazing sun.
Macro squinted down at the raft as it bobbed against the galleon’s hull, borne on brilliant turquoise waters. He felt the sharp tang of the sea in his nostrils. Two tanned sailors slipped down a net of ropes and onto the unraveling craft. It had been tied together with vines that were now coming apart. There was a man lying on it. He looked dead. Gaunt and clad in rags. The sailors slipped a loop around the man’s chest and Marco’s comrades hauled him up and onto the deck while he watched. Marco felt his bandaged chest. Still sore, but the wounds had mostly healed. The grapeshot that killed his friend Tomas had only grazed Marco. Even so, he wanted to conserve his strength, in case another catastrophe befell the San Cristobel.
The body of the bedraggled stranger was laid gently down on the hot, dry deck. Marco and the other sailors crowded around, shoving for a good look. Marco leaned in close, his grizzled, sun-weathered features wrinkling with curiosity.
The unconscious man’s belly rose and fell.
“He’s alive,” declared Marco, grinning and jabbing a finger at the stomach. “Send for the doctor.”
“Fat lot of good that butcher will do,” snarled Ricardo, the Catalan, and he spat onto the deck. Amputees were convalescing below. They stank of rum and rotten flesh. “Wager this poor bastard will be dead by nightfall.”
Marco shrugged and knelt down beside the unconscious man, whose hair was an unruly mess streaked with grey and matted with blood and dried mud. There was a gash in his forehead. Could be anywhere from forty to fifty or more. Marco found it hard to tell given the man’s poor condition. But the rags he wore were definitely the remains of priestly robes. A Hound of The Lord, then. The rags were dry and stiff, cooked by the heat of the sun. There were even pockets in the man’s undergarments. Marco eagerly dug into them, fingers roughly probing, seeking valuables.
Nothing. This whole damn voyage was cursed, thought Marco bitterly.
Then he noticed the glint of metal in the man’s clenched fist. It was tightly wrapped around something.
“He’s got something,” said Ricardo, licking his lips. “What’s that, eh? What’s he got?”
Marco cursed. He’d hoped to secret it away before anyone could see. No chance of that now. He reached over and tried to uncurl the gnarled fingers.
The man let out a loud gasp, causing everyone to jump back. His eyes snapped open, revealing all black eyes. Marco leapt up to his feet and made the sign of the cross. “Madre de dios!”
“Stand aside,” said a commanding voice. Don Rodrigo de Guerra pushed his way through the clutch of sailors and looked down at their disheveled guest. Rodrigo wore finely woven garments and had the bearing of a man used to getting his way. Marco knew better than to cross the man, who had a fiery temper and was prone to having minor infractions met with the lash. Their recent defeat had left Senor de Guerra in an even more unpredictable mood than usual. Everyone knew the hidalgo had invested everything in the treasure fleet which now lay either at the bottom of the Caribbean, or in the hands of the English heretics. Some of the mercenaries had grumbled about how they were going to be paid now that Don Rodrigo’s wealth was fifty fathoms below the glittering surface. And their wrath would be nothing compared to that of the king, who was desperate for funds to carry war to the Protestants.
Don Rodrigo adjusted the cross of St. James that hung round his neck, below the frill ringing his throat. His beard was neatly trimmed, as always, his high forehead beaded with sweat.
Marco cleared phlegm from his throat. “Don Rodrigo, his eyes. His eyes are black as the night!”
Don Rodrigo glared at Marco, who immediately cast his eyes downward. The Don then put a hand on his sword hilt and knelt down beside the half-dead priest, who’d shut his eyes and was rolling his head from side to side. He reached out and placed his right hand on the priest’s bony shoulder. “Easy, old man. You are safe now.”
The man swallowed and moistened his cracked lips. “Where… where am I?”
“You are aboard the galleon San Cristobel. What is your name?”
“Abuljar. Friar Jose Martin de Abuljar.”
Don Rodrigo seemed to consider this. “Where do you come from, Friar Abuljar?”
The man shuddered, then leaned his head forward and opened his black, soulless eyes. “El Dorado,” he blurted, voice filled with emotion.
The word sent a chill down Marco’s spine.
Abuljar’s clenched fist relaxed, and a statue of a hideous, bejeweled creature clattered onto the deck.
Before Marco could get a good look at it, Don Rodrigo scooped it up. “Madre…” The hidalgo bit it. “Gold,” he breathed, as a hungry grin spread across his face. His eyes glittered.
“Fool!” snapped Abuljar. “It is the gateway to damnation. They’ll kill you all,” he moaned, his voice rising in volume and strength until it became a shout. “God help us. The Gates of Hell have opened, and the hell spawn are unleashed!”
Rodrigo stepped back, alarmed.
Rodrigo stepped back, alarmed.
Perhaps, thought Marco, it was Don Rodrigo who was cursed. Bad things seemed to follow the man.
Marco decided to slip away the moment they reached shore.