Thursday 22 November 2018

Demons of El Dorado: Part 4


Don Rodrigo’s study was decorated with rich furnishings and the finest baroque tapestries imported from Granada. Sunlight flooded in through ornate glass windows, the nearest of which to Luis was open. He could hear the chirp of birds outside. A light breeze rustled papers on Rodrigo’s dark mahogany desk. Rodrigo walked behind it and gestured for Luis and Angel to sit and cleared his throat. “I arrived late at night, by the ship’s pinnace. I wanted to keep my return quiet as long as possible, although I have no fondness for skulking about like a common criminal. The secrecy has been necessary. No doubt you’ve heard the other news. We’re at war with the English. Again.”

Luis nodded. Everyone was talking about it. “There was word last week, from a French ship. The British looted Cidade Velha.”

“And Santo Domingo and Praia as well, the swine,” growled Angel. He was more than ready for a fight, so long as he held the advantage, thought Luis sourly.

“Indeed.” Don Rodrigo looked at his sons, assessing them. It made Luis feel like a child, as if the glare bore right into his soul. “It has proven poor timing for us, to say the least. They sank or captured the entire fleet.” 

“What?!?” exploded Angel, shifting in the luxuriously upholstered seat. The brothers exchanged a look of shock.

Rodrigo held up a hand for silence. “Everything save the San Cristobel. Half a million pounds of silver, lost. A thousand pounds of gold. It was a disaster for the king. And catastrophic for us. That Genoese blood-sucker Justiniano will offer no leniency on our loans.”

“But how? It was the best-armed fleet in the Caribbean.”

“It doesn’t matter how many guns you have if you cannot bring them to bear. Strong winds favored their ships. Our were too slow, too cumbersome. They cut us apart ship by ship, tacking around, staying out of our gun sights. The San Cristobelonly managed to escape thanks to a summer storm. An act of God. Scattered the English. I can only hope it dragged some to a watery grave.”

Luis felt physically struck. Aside from the greater disaster engulfing his family’s fortunes, this blow meant Luis himself would be stranded in The New World for the foreseeable future. His admittedly selfish hope to return to Spain with the treasure fleet had sunk along with it. Father had brought him back to help manage the cotton plantations, as Angel had been indulging too much in drink and women to pay attention to business. Production had fallen.

But there had been little Luis could do to reign in his hedonistic elder brother, who took no counsel but his own.

“So that’s it.” Angel slumped back in his seat and yanked out his seemingly bottomless flask. “We’re ruined.”

“Not quite,” said Rodrigo. He paused dramatically, then added: “We rescued a man on our way back.”

“Oh? Who?” asked Luis, intrigued.

“A priest.”

Angel grunted. “Is he going to pray for us?”

Rodrigo shook his head: “He’s been to El Dorado.”

Angel’s jaw dropped. “What?”

“He was with an expedition led by Pedro de Silva that disappeared a number of years ago. Apparently they found the legendary City of Gold. What I have been searching for, for over twenty years. It’s just as Diego de Ordaz claimed. Riches beyond our wildest imaginings. More. Built atop The Fountain of Youth. One of them, at any rate. And he’s going to take us there.”

Angel's fleshy lips parted and he grinned. “At last!”

Luis rubbed his chin. El Dorado was a legend he’d known since he was five. In university in Spain, he’d read accounts by explorers who had sought the mythical city. The location was always different, same for the Fountain of Youth. One situated it in Asia, another claimed it was in Africa, and several others claimed various locations in the New World. “Ponce de Leon…”

“Bah! Ignore him,” snapped Rodrigo, brushing the name away with a sharp gesture. “Man’s a fool. Empty headed dreamer who’ll believe any silly rumour he stumbles across. The Fountain of Youth is in the northern jungles of the Amazon, and it is the source of El Dorado’s strength. Think of it: immortal warriors, capable of regrowing whole limbs! Naturally, the city dominates the region, and grew rich. And so will we when we take it!”

Angel nodded. “And we have ready made allies, in the tribes they oppress!”

“Divide and conquer.” Don Rodrigo smiled grimly. 

“What of de Silva?” asked Luis.

“Still there. A prisoner. They seek to turn him to their false gods.”

Luis shivered. His father was a practical man who evaluated everything coldly, like an alchemist. Things were about to change for the inhabitants of El Dorado, and not for the better. If they really existed. Perhaps this priest was delusional, spinning stories out of his head. Hernan Perez de Quesada had sought El Dorado back in 1540, and spent years navigating the Orinoco River Basin. Luis had little interest in trekking into the jungles of South America in pursuit of an imaginary city that would forever be one step ahead of them. What would be the point? Discovering new species of birds? New river forks? Still… the mystery of El Dorado was intriguing. To solve it once and for all would be a coup. “The well at the end of the world. I know you have been pursuing it, father. For many years. People have been seeking it since Herodotus. But can it really be true?”

Rodrigo gave a sharp nod and tapped a finger on the map on his desk. “It is. The priest has seen it with his own eyes. We’ll take the city for both Spain and God.”

Luis’ head spun. What of the endless obstacles they’d face? Disease, heat, animals, natives. All of it standing in the way of him returning to Spain and his studies. His real passion! Yet without filthy lucre, he would have no studies to return to. And he had duties to his family. Obligations he could not, would not, shirk. “What of the rulers? El Rey Dorado? What do we know of them?” 

“We’ll brush them aside with Spanish steel and superior discipline. Only…” Rodrigo paused. Rapped knuckles on the map idly.

Luis leaned forward. His father actually seemed uncertain, which was most unlike him. “What is it, father?”

“The priest, Father Abuljar, he babbled about… some nonsense about beasts. Demons. The man rants like a madman, describing horrors and tortures I cannot… The practices of the inhabitants I will not repeat. They are unspeakable. I have never heard such…” His voice trailed off into a silence that hung in the air, pregnant with menace. Luis felt a tingle at the back of his neck. Then Rodrigo broke the spell. “They must have tortured him. It’s the only explanation for such fanciful ravings.” He straightened up. “Their pagan gods will be torn down and the true faith revealed. They’ll abandon their infidel ways or we’ll put the lot to the sword.”

“Here, here!” exulted Angel.

“You see, my sons? Never give up hope. Salvation arrives at the very brink of defeat. I promised to rebuild this family's fortunes, and I intend to do exactly that. By any means necessary. Do not doubt it. Our devotion shall be rewarded.”

“I’ll let the men know,” said Angel. “There are some mercenaries staying down by the port. They were headed for Santiago. In a few weeks, we should…” 

“We leave today. I’ve already given the orders, hired men. They are assembling we speak at the docks. Time is of the essence.”

Luis was struck dumb. What he was hearing was madness. Sheer, reckless madness. Such a mission should be carefully prepared. And Abuljar sounded far from reliable as a guide. Things must be very bad for father to rush preparations so…

“We’ll buy out expeditions already in port. Strip them for ours.”

Angel wasn’t having any of it. “Impossible,” he spluttered. Angel was king of procrastination. Fortunately, as aristocrats, manual labor was beneath them both. Angel specialized in beating those who did the actual work. That and fighting. “You just got back. Your men will need time to rest. We can’t possibly have everything ready today.”

“We can,” asserted Rodrigo in a tone that wasn’t to be disputed. “And we will. Tomorrow morning at latest. Get your things ready.”

Luis wondered about the legal aspects. One couldn’t just go out conquering lands without the king’s permission. You’d be branded a renegade and executed. Unless, of course, you bought your way back into favour. It was a practical system that rewarded success by any means. Luis found it hard to reconcile with the teachings of Christ. “The charter to conquer El Dorado, do we have that?”

“Yes, yes. It shouldn’t be an issue. Let me worry about de Berrio.”

Angel slapped a thick thigh. “Very well! An eventful afternoon it will be. Adventure await us.” He leaned over to Luis, his breath stinking of alcohol. “Keep the servants in line while we’re gone, baby brother. We don’t want the place in ruin when we get back.”

Luis opens his mouth to speak but Rodrigo cut him off: “He’s coming too.”

Angel gaped. “Him? This bookworm? Why? What good is he in a fight? He knows nothing of the interior. Never even been to Mexico City. Probably shit himself if he saw a native warrior. I’ll have to baby sit him constantly, he’ll be a dead weight, always whining. Let him go back to his monastery, or university, drown in books and legalisms.”

Luis gritted his teeth. Deep down, he knew Angel had a point. While Mexico City itself held appeal, chiefly for the magnificence of its heretical ruins dedicated to false gods and whatever might remain of the great skull towers, he would have preferred the quiet and calm of university. He had no interest in traipsing about after the immortal lords of El Dorado through fetid swamps, half starved, being bitten by bugs as big as his thumbs, getting sick from malaria or typhoid or God knows what else. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t handle it, or that he’d let Angel get away with slandering his abilities, not after all the work he’d put into trying to improve his martial skills. By God, he’d prove Angel wrong if only for the sake of proving Angel wrong. “I’ve been training—”

“He’ll be dead in a week,” asserted Angel, leaning back in his chair. “Two at most.”

Luis kept his voice calm, flat. “That’s not—”

“Enough!” snapped Rodrigo. “I need every loyal man I can count on.” He fixed his cold eyes on Luis. “Even you.”

Luis felt like he’d been slapped in the face and flushed. “What does that…”

Angel sneered. “It means he knows you’re useless, brother.” Angel gulped from the metal flask, then held it out to Rodrigo, who just gave Angel a withering look. “Just as I do.”

“Have the servants pack and send your things down to the docks. Tell them nothing of our destination. Say good-bye to your mother. Then meet me at the front gates. It’s time you met Abuljar.”

Luis peeked into the master bedroom. It was a cavernous, dim chamber. Light poured ineffectually in from narrow windows, illuminating rivers of gently wafting dust. 

Anne de Guerra, pale and dying, lay in a vast bed at the centre of the room. A maid and Luis’ two younger sisters stood at the foot of her bed. 

Luis walked over and knelt down. He took his mother’s frail, parchment like hand in his. “How are you feeling, mother?”

“Better today.” She smiled wanly. “Has your father spoken to you?”

Luis sighed. “I can do nothing right by him, mother. I try, but…”

“He loves you, Luis. Just does not know how to show it. And he’s stubborn. Stubborn as the day I met him. Even bankrupt he won’t accept my brother’s money. After the loss at Nombre de Dios… I know not what the future might hold for us. I pray for all of you.”

Luis squeezed her hand. “We’ve been granted the charter. El Dorado.”

Anne sighed and gazes at the ceiling. “More dreams. Grasping dreams.”

Luis noted her eyes and cheeks were more sunken, her skin almost translucent. “Mother, I won’t leave you. Not like this. I can’t.” She might be dead by the time they returned.

She shook her head. “Luis. My dear Luis. You must go. Don’t let him disgrace the de Guerra name. Promise me.”

The suggestion shocked him. Especially coming from his mother. “I… Father would never—”

“Luis,” she interrupted, fixing him with a steady, penetrating gaze, “he’s desperate. He’s talking madness. Have you listened to him? Magic fountains, lost cities of gold.” She shook her head. “No. He will do anything, risk everything. Even you, my son. For all his stern demeanour, he’s a dreamer. Like that silly Sepulveda. Or Belalcazar. They, too, sought El Dorado. None of them were seen again.”

“There was Orellana. He came back rich too.” 

“He came back mad. They said he was possessed. I saw his execution.” Anne looked up at the ceiling, her voice fell in volume to a whisper. “He looked sick. All his hair had fallen out. He screamed curses at us. They could only be that, whatever language he was speaking none of us could understand. He did not burn at first. Eventually they threw oil on and pierced him with lances, and only then did he bloat and burn.” She shut her eyes at the unpleasant memory and squeezed Luis’ hand back. “It is not a fate I would see for any of you.”

There’s a priest. Abuljar.”

Anne shushed him and pressed rosary beads into his hands. “Mad as the rest, I would wager. Protect your father. From himself most of all. You are the future, Luis.”

Bewildered, Luis nodded. “I will do my best, mother.”

A tear in his eye, Luis rose and delicately kissed his mother on the forehead. He walked to the door, passing his father on the way out. He stopped and watched as Rodrigo marched over to the bed and with surprising tenderness, kissed Anne's lips. 

Luis is too far away to hear their last words to each other.

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