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.
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!”