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War God: Nights of the Witch (Chapter 10)

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This is the second of four extracts from my novel War God: Nights of the Witch that I am offering free-to-read here on Reality Sandwich to mark the publication of War God in the US. If you have a Kindle (or the free Kindle app on your PC, Mac, I-Phone, I-Pad, Blackberry, Android, etc) you can download the complete novel from Amazon.com any time this week for just $2.99. Click here: http://amzn.to/15sPWRj. For War God in the UK, click here; http://goo.gl/VDyKK. For War God in Canada, click here: http://goo.gl/HmXq0

This second extract is Chapter Ten in which I introduce Pedro de Alvarado, the closest friend and ally of the conquistador Hernan Cortés. Alvarado emerges from the pages of history as a fascinating character, handsome, charming, fearless, a great swordsman and, unfortunately, a true psychopath who was to be responsible for many acts of terrible violence during the conquest. Cortés’ astonishing loyalty to him is hard to understand unless Alvarado had at some point done him an immense favour. It is that scenario I am setting up here.

Chapter Ten

Santiago, Cuba, Thursday 18 February 1519

Despite his fifty-five years and his tough reputation, Diego de Velázquez, the conqueror and governor of Cuba, seemed on the verge of tears. A blush suffused his pale pasty skin and his jowls, grown fat and heavy of late, wobbled with every movement of his oversized head.

‘Ah, Pedro,’ he said, ‘my friend.’ He put a menacing edge on the last word and thrust out his double chin with its neatly trimmed spade beard streaked with yellow tobacco stains. ‘Something’s going on.’ He set his lips in a line so mean and thin that they became almost invisible. ‘I have to know where you stand on it.’

Velázquez’s notoriously bad temper was popularly attributed to haemorrhoids the size of grapes. He sat in obvious discomfort on a mahogany throne behind a massive square mahogany writing table in the midst of an echoing, high-ceilinged marble audience chamber. Pedro de Alvarado had met the governor frequently, but never here and never before in the ceremonial robes he wore today. He guessed with annoyance that the events of the last two hours – the herald, the summons, the gallop from the docks to the palace, the insultingly long wait in a sweltering, heavily-guarded corridor, this huge formal room with its imposing furniture and even Velázquez’s robes of office – were all part of an elaborate set-up designed to intimidate him.

Alvarado stood opposite the governor on the other side of the table, with his right hand open, long fingers resting lightly on his sword belt. He was thirty-three years old, broad-shouldered and strong but light on his feet with the easy grace of a practised fencer. His thick blond hair hung to his shoulders and an extravagant blond moustache, elaborately curled and waxed, decorated his upper lip. Fine featured, with a firm chin, a long straight nose, bright blue eyes and a duelling scar that he found rather fetching running from his right temple to the corner of his right eye, he was a man who had broken many women’s hearts. He was also rich in a small way, having prospered in

Cuba these past five years thanks to lands, mines and Indian slaves granted him by Velázquez.

‘My herald told me you were loading heavy hunters on board that carrack of yours,’ the governor said suddenly. ‘The San Jorge?’ His right eye twitched, as though in sympathy with Alvarado’s scar.

‘The San Sebastián,’ Alvarado corrected. What game was Velázquez playing here? Did he really not remember?

‘Oh yes. Of course. The San Sebastián. A fine ship, which my generosity helped you buy. So my question is . . .’ A long, silent pause. That weird twitch again. ‘Since our expedition to the New Lands is purely for trade and reconnaissance, what possible use do you have for cavalry horses?’

The last words came out in a rush, as though Velázquez were embarrassed to raise the matter, and Alvarado launched smoothly into the lie he’d rehearsed with Cortés just that morning – the lie that half the fleet already knew by heart. ‘For self-defence,’ he said. ‘Córdoba’s men took such a beating last year because they didn’t have the advantage of cavalry. We’re not going to be caught out the same way.’

Velázquez sat back in his throne and drummed on its arms with thick, ring-encrusted fingers. ‘I want to believe you, Pedro,’ he said. ‘You came with me from Hispaniola and you’ve been a loyal ally to me all these years in Cuba. But I still don’t understand why you were loading the horses today or why another six were seen going on board the Santa María at the same time. Why load the horses now when you’re not sailing for another week?’

Alvarado spoke in his most honeyed tones, as though reassuring a lover: ‘What your informants saw was a routine training exercise, Don Diego! Nothing more sinister than that. If the horses are to serve us we must be able to get them on and off our ships quickly without broken legs. It’s an exercise we’ll practise daily until we sail next week.’

There was another long silence during which Velázquez visibly relaxed. Finally he made a horrible attempt at a smile. ‘I knew you wouldn’t be involved in anything dishonourable, Pedro,’ he said. ‘That’s why I called you here. I need a man I can trust.’ He rang a little bell and from a curtained doorway a native Taino Indian, clad in a white tunic, appeared carrying a wooden chair. He crossed the audience chamber with a peculiar bobbing motion and the slap of bare feet, placed the chair behind Alvarado and retreated. Alvarado sat down but his flesh crawled at the proximity of the indigene. These creatures were, in his opinion, barely human.

Velázquez reached beneath the table and with a grunt pulled out a bulging silk moneybag, opened its drawstrings and poured the gleaming, jingling contents in a flood onto the table. The river of gold was heavy and bright. Involuntarily Alvarado leaned forward in his chair, his eyes widening as he tried to estimate its value.

‘Five thousand pesos de oro,’ said Velázquez, as though reading his thoughts. ‘It’s yours if you will assist me in a certain matter.’

Five thousand pesos! A small fortune! Alvarado’s love of gold was legendary. He licked his lips: ‘What do you want me to do?’

‘You’re a close friend of Don Hernando Cortés?’

‘Yes, he’s my friend. Since we were boys.’

‘That’s what I hear. But is your friendship with Cortés more important to you than your loyalty to me?’ Velázquez began to sweep the golden pesos back into the bag.

Alvarado’s eyes followed the money. ‘I don’t understand.’

‘He’s planning to betray me,’ stormed the governor, ‘though God knows I’ve loved him as if he were my own son.’ Once again his face had taken on the congested look of a man about to burst into tears. ‘Believe me, Pedro, what I have learnt this past day has been like a thousand daggers through my heart.’

Alvarado feigned shock: ‘Cortés? Betray you? I don’t believe it . . . He’s told me many times he loves you like a father.’

‘Words, mere words. When the fleet reaches the New Lands I have sure intelligence he will no longer act as my viceroy but will declare the expedition his own. Too late by far for anyone to stop him! So I need your help now.’ Velázquez drew the strings of the moneybag closed and rested his hands proprietorially on top of it. ‘But first I must know . . . Can I trust you? Do I have your loyalty? Will you deliver your friend to me if I ask you to do so?’

‘Friends come and go,’ said Alvarado smoothly, ‘but gold is a constant companion. If you don’t trust me, trust gold . . .’

‘If you do exactly what I ask,’ said Velázquez, ‘then all this is yours.’

Alvarado sat back in the chair, his eyes fixed on the bag. ‘Ask me,’ he said.

‘Invite Cortés to join you for dinner on the San Sebastián late this evening. Shall we say around ten p.m.? Make some pretext, something private you want to discuss. Get him intrigued . . .’

‘Why so late?’

‘Fewer people around, less chance for things to go wrong.’

‘What if he’s otherwise engaged?’

‘Then you must move the invitation to tomorrow instead. But do all you can to persuade him to join you tonight. Dine in your stateroom. Serve him wine.’ Velázquez searched in his robes and brought out a little glass phial containing a clear, colourless liquid. ‘Pour this first into the wine you will give him. Within an hour he will be . . . indisposed.’

‘Dead?’

‘No! I want the blackguard alive! The draft will make him puke his guts out, run a high fever, sweat like a lathered horse. You’ll send a man to fetch a doctor – Dr La Peña. You know him, yes?’

Alvarado nodded. La Peña was a turd. He wondered how much Velázquez was paying him for his part in the plot.

‘He’ll come at once,’ the governor continued. ‘Whatever time of night it is. But when he examines Cortés he’ll say he can’t treat him on board ship and he must be brought to his hospital in town . . . The doctor’s own carriage will take him there.’

‘Cortés’s people aren’t going to like that.’

‘They’ll have no choice. Their master will be ill, close to death . . .’

‘Some of them are going to want to ride with him.’

‘No matter. When the carriage is clear of the harbour, a squad of my palace guard will be waiting for it at the roadside. Anyone with Cortés will be killed; he’ll be brought to me here for questioning; and you, my dear Pedro – ’ Velázquez patted the bag – ‘will be an even richer man than you are already.’

‘You have thought of everything, Don Diego.’

Perhaps detecting a little of the scorn buried deep in Alvarado’s tone, Velázquez frowned: ‘It’s underhand but necessary,’ he explained. ‘Cortés has become powerful since I gave him command of the fleet. If I arrest him openly there’s going to be a fight . . .’

Alvarado hastened to agree. ‘He’s recruited more than five hundred men, signed them up with bribes and promises and dreams. Their loyalty is to him before anyone else . . .’

‘That’s exactly why he’s so dangerous! That’s why this poison has to be rooted out now!’

‘But I see one great weakness in your plan.’

Velázquez bristled: ‘Weakness? What weakness?’

‘It only works if I’m the sort of man who would betray Cortés for five thousand pieces of gold.’

Velázquez was hunched forward now, an ugly scowl making him look suddenly monstrous. ‘And are you not such a man?’ he said.

It seemed a good moment for some drama, so Alvarado sprang to his feet, sent his chair crashing back and towered over the table, his right hand resting on his sword belt. ‘Five thousand pesos is a paltry price to betray a friend.’

‘Ten thousand then.’

‘Twenty thousand, not a peso less.’

Velázquez made a strangled sound: ‘It’s a lot of money.’

‘You’ll lose a thousand times more if Cortés does what you fear.’

Alvarado could see the idea of paying out such a huge sum was almost too horrible for the old man to contemplate. For a moment he wondered if he had gone too far, asked too much. But then Velázquez reached under the table again and with great effort pulled out three more large moneybags, setting them down beside the first. ‘Very well,’ he coughed. He seemed to have something caught in his throat, ‘twenty thousand it is. Do we have a deal?’

‘We have a deal,’ said Alvarado. As he spoke he sensed danger and spun round to find the governor’s personal champion, bodyguard and bullyboy, a gigantic warrior named Zemudio, looming silently over him. The man was as big as a barn door, bald as the full moon and stealthy as a cat. He’d been in Cuba for less than a month, joining the governor’s service direct from the Italian wars where he’d won a fearsome reputation. As yet he’d fought no bouts in the islands.

‘My, my,’ said Alvarado, annoyed that he had to crane his neck like a child to see Zemudio’s stubborn, oafish face. ‘Where did you come from?’ Another of those creepy curtained doors, he thought. He looked the champion up and down. The brute wore light body-armour – knee-length breeches and a sleeveless vest, both made of padded cotton with hundreds of small steel plates riveted into the lining. He was armed with an old-fashioned falchion that was exceptionally long and heavy in the blade. Though crude, and unsuited to a gentleman, this cutlass-like weapon wielded by a strong, experienced hand could do terrible damage.

For a moment Alvarado locked stares with the champion, testing his will. Small, brown, patient eyes glared back at him, unblinking, flat as buttons, filled with stupid self-confidence.

As the aura of threat between the two men became palpable, Velázquez spoke: ‘It’s all right, Zemudio. Don Pedro and I have reached an accommodation.’

At once the huge bodyguard stepped back.

Alvarado retrieved his chair and sat down. ‘Why was any of that necessary?’ he asked. His neck and shoulders prickled under Zemudio’s violent stare, but he refused to acknowledge him.

‘I couldn’t be sure you’d deal,’ said the governor. ‘If you didn’t . . .’ He drew his hand meaningfully across his throat.

‘You’d have had me killed?’

‘Of course. But all that is behind us now. You give me Cortés, I give you these twenty thousand gold pesos . . .’

‘Who leads the expedition – when Cortés is gone?’

‘Your question is to the point,’ said the governor. He pulled a sheet of vellum from a thick heap on the table in front of him, dipped a quill in an inkwell and began to write in a small, spidery hand. As the quill grated across the calfskin, Alvarado tried to read the words upside down but couldn’t make them out. Velázquez frowned with concentration, pushing the tip of his tongue out between his lips like a schoolboy in an examination.

When the governor was done, he read through what he had written, blotted the page and placed it in a document wallet. A motion of his finger was sufficient to bring Zemudio surging to his side. ‘Go at once to Narváez. Give the wallet to him. He’ll know what to do.’

As the bodyguard placed the wallet in a leather satchel and strode from the room, Velázquez turned back to Alvarado. ‘I’ve chosen a man I can trust to lead the expedition,’ he said. ‘My cousin Pánfilo de Narváez. Zemudio takes my orders to him now.’

Narváez! A complete ass! Incompetent, vainglorious and foolish! In every way the antipodes of Cortés! But Alvarado kept these thoughts to himself and instead asked slyly, ‘Who will be second in command?’

‘I thought perhaps you, Don Pedro, if you agree.’

Alvarado didn’t hesitate: ‘Of course I agree. It will be an honour and my privilege to serve under a great captain like Narváez.’

Velázquez grasped one of the fat moneybags, rose from his throne and walked round the mahogany table. Alvarado also stood and the governor passed the bag to him. ‘A quarter of your payment in advance,’ he said. ‘You’ll get the rest when you’ve delivered Cortés.’ He awkwardly embraced Alvarado and told him to return at once to his ship.

‘Send your invitation to Cortés. Make ready for tonight.’ He clapped his hands and the great formal doors of the audience chamber were swung open by two iron-masked guardsmen armed with double-headed battle-axes.

***

Alvarado didn’t return to his ship.

When he’d passed the last of the governor’s guards and made certain no one followed him, he led his white stallion Bucephalus out from the palace stables, secured his gold in a saddlebag and rode at full gallop after Zemudio.

The only way to get to Narváez’s estate lay across dry, hilly country, partially overgrown with groves of acacia trees and intercut by a series of shallow ravines. The champion had left a trail a three-year-old could follow, so quite soon Alvarado started to get glimpses of him – that broad back, that bald head, that air, obvious even from afar, of unshakable self-confidence.

Let’s see how confident you really are, thought Alvarado. He touched his spurs gently to Bucephalus’s flanks; the great war horse thundered forward as fast as a bolt from a crossbow, and the distance began to close rapidly.

* * *

The above was the second of four extracts from my novel War God: Nights of the Witch that I am offering free-to-read here on Reality Sandwich to mark the publication of War God in the US. If you have a Kindle (or the free Kindle ap on your PC, Mac, I-Phone, I-Pad, Blackberry, Android, etc) you can download the complete novel from Amazon.com any time this week for just $2.99. Click here: http://amzn.to/15sPWRj. For War God in the UK, click here; http://goo.gl/VDyKK. For War God in Canada, click here: http://goo.gl/HmXq0

 


Image by Keoni Cabral, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing. 

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