Friday, February 13, 2009

The Simurgh and the Nightingale (Part 8)

Chapter 13 
Algiers. 15th May 1632

Catherine was walking down the hill towards the road that would take her to the western gate. She was accompanied by one of Bitchnin’s negro harem eunuchs and they were hurrying as the rapidly setting sun would soon mean the night closure of the gates. It never ceased to surprise her how, even when bathed in full daylight, this city of beautiful white-faced houses, could be linked by such a maze of narrow streets which all appeared to descend into an abyss of darkness that only occasional glints of sunlight penetrated. Murat had explained to her on one of her first forays that a city built this way was easier to defend in case of attack. She had been to the pharmacy attached to the hospital in the Grande bano to obtain the supplies she required. Ahead of them a group of short dark men in baggy trousers were also rushing to the gate. She recognised them as being beni m’zab - Berber tribesmen of the separatist Ibadite Islamic sect from Ghardaia on the oued m’zab. Catherine knew that they worked in the slaughterhouse in Algiers but refused to pray in the city’s mosques or stay in the city at night. Their shrouded rushing movements reminded Catherine of the plague-fearing grave diggers of Dublin.

The months of captivity had passed swiftly and between her work in Bitchnin’s bano hospital and visiting the sick in their homes in the city she was always occupied. Although because of Islamic reservations she was not allowed enter the hospitals of the other banos, Ali Bitchnin had recognised her abilities and allowed her full access in his. She also made visits to treat the rich women of the city and increasingly their husbands came to her, secretly, for eye cataract surgery - for which she had gained a fine reputation. Catherine had been given her own quarters in the harem which was situated as an annexe to Bitchnin’s seraglio. He was well paid for the medical services that she provided but always ensured that she received a share. The three-cornered hat that she wore while working in the bano represented a professional acknowledgement and ensured a measure of freedom that most captives could only dream of.

Catherine had only seen Murat a few times as his winter was occupied by supervising repairs to his ship and tending to his own villa and farm which was reached by ascending the narrow mule track that linked the Mustapha heights above the city to the road entering the bab-azoun, the gate at the southern end of the city. She had made the journey once in early Spring and was amazed by the beauty of his villa. The external walls were draped in cascades of ermine bougainvillaea and the house itself appeared to disappear in a forest of orange, palm and cypress trees. Once past the plain entrance arch its cool outer courtyard with marble tiles and spouting fountain provided a backdrop to his indulged children’s games. Inside the reception rooms she was no longer surprised by the Algerian custom of hanging melons from the roof. When viewed from the hill, the evening sunset casting a rose hue on the white walls of Algiers was a truly memorable sight. On this and all other occasions that they met, Murat was always courteous and would take time to explain aspects of Algiers life that she did not understand. Catherine was sad to lose this contact when he had recently returned to sea. Murat had taken three of Bitchnin’s galliots on a mission to Tunis. 
She had written a number of letters to Ireland but could not be sure that they would reach their destination. Most of the other captives from Baltimore had been dispersed though she did see a number of the men hauling rock from the quarries to repair the harbour mole. She had heard that four of the children had been taken to Istanbul - their grieving parents not convinced that little harm would come to them - and that a number of families had been ransomed by their compatriots in Sale. The injured surgeon was back at work and he made a point of taking Catherine to all of the places where native Berber healers plied their trade. She learnt the local botany of herbs and plants and became skilled in their distillation, preparation and use. As time went by she felt more and more at home in the new life that had been forced upon her. 
Catherine’s thoughts were interrupted at the approach of two Janissary officers. Although she thought she recognised the younger man, they did not acknowledge her as she stood aside to let them pass. They were at an intersection of two streets and as it was nearly dark the eunuch said he would rush ahead to warn the gate guards to wait. The peculiar blue hue of the walls of the houses forming the narrow streets heightened the gloom. He had just left when from the shadows three drunken sailors came towards her. She once again stepped aside to let them pass but they moved to block her.
“What have we here, tars?” 
The first sailor, who was about a foot taller than Catherine, spoke in English as he lurched forward to knock away the package she was carrying. As she bent to pick it up he grabbed her from behind in such a vice-grip that it squeezed the air from her lungs. She tried to scream but one of the others put a hand over her mouth and pointed a thin dagger at her eye. The only noise that came was the gasp of her fight for air. Catherine stopped struggling. The sailor who held her now lifted her off her feet at the same time moving his hands to grasp her breasts. 
“What fine jugs you have lass. She will provide some fine sport lads. Quickly, into the house.”
Catherine was bundled roughly through a door in a nearby filthy alleyway to find herself within the narrow right-angled passageway leading to the courtyard of a small house. The door was kicked closed behind them - its solid wood shutting out the world. There was no doorkeeper seated on the mastaba seat, no one to help. Two of the sailors were pulling her by her wrists to an inner courtyard and from there into the mandara or the main reception room of the house. Apart from some tatty carpets on one side the only piece of furniture was a small marble stand in one corner of the room. The lice-ridden sailor with the dagger had stuffed a filthy cloth in her mouth and its pungent stench and the fear she felt sent waves of nausea through her. The bigger man ripped off her cotton shirt and undergarment and spread-eagled her naked, face downwards and bent over an overturned barrel which stank of brine and which he had rolled from an alcove. Some of the small fish it contained spilt across the stone floor.
The big sailor shouted out in glee, “Look at all this white meat lads. Her conncha will make a change from the poxy mulatto whores. Hold her fast!”
Catherine could not see him but felt her hips being pulled up and back as he mounted her from behind. Her head spun with the searing pain as first his penis entered her anus but then guided by his hand her vagina. He began to move faster and faster lifting her off the barrel and slamming her down again with each thrust. She could hardly breathe as he was pulling her neck back by her hair. The other two were looking directly into her eyes, their pleasure heightened by the terror they saw there. They held her wrists in such a way she was forced to hold their erect shafts - her agonised grip causing both to ejaculate over her face. At that moment, in the ecstasy of his release one of the sailors relaxed his hold on her hand Catherine quickly pulled out the gag from her mouth and began to scream loudly. Nearby she could hear the agitated whinnies from the donkey stable. 
Suddenly there was a huge commotion behind her and she could just see the eunuch, accompanied by another man, rushing into the room. The sailor who was on top of her turned to have his skull cracked by the eunuch’s flailing club and he fell heavily to the floor, taking her with him. The others were no match and after a brief struggle retreated to cower in the arched recess of the khazneh nearby. Dropping his club the black eunuch was about to set upon them with his sword, but stopped when Catherine screamed again as she tried to roll away from the unconscious sailor. She was at the point of collapse and barely felt the hands lifting her by the armpits. Her fear made her struggle and she tried to twist away. 
The stranger stopped pulling and letting her slump to the floor again allowed her to recover somewhat. “I am sorry. I should have been more gentle. Let me help you.” He was speaking in Italian, and there was something in the timbre of his voice that drove all further resistance from her body. She began to cry, and uncontrollable waves of anguished moans resounded in the small courtyard. The donkeys joined in. The younger man then lifted Catherine up gently and sat her on the small elevated carpet-covered divan. After dipping a clean piece of her own torn garment in the courtyard fountain, he began washing her face and neck. She was shivering with anger and pain. Their eyes met.
“Thank you,” her voice was hoarse as she struggled to speak. 
He placed a finger on her lips. “Shhhh do not try to talk.” He left her for a moment to enter the living quarters of the house and returned soon after with a towel and a clean, long cotton shirt. He lifted her arms and drew it down over them and her head. Lifting her hair to pull it outside the collar he could already see bruises forming on her lower back and buttocks. He spat at the sailor on the ground.
At this point four of the city’s night-watchmen entered the house having been alerted to Catherine’s non-appearance by the gate-guards. They questioned the eunuch and quickly dragged the two terrified sailors from their bolthole and bound their hands. Once these two were on their feet they were forced to carry the larger sailor - by now showing signs of consciousness - and with some effort all three were herded into the night to be taken to the nearest watchtower.
The stranger and the eunuch gently lifted Catherine and carried her down the hill to the western gate and onwards to Bitchnin’s bano. To Catherine it was all an excruciating haze, but she remembered on reaching her quarters being fully bathed and lain on her bed, a cup of sherbet and opium erasing the present.

The morning came all too quickly and Catherine awoke to find Miriam, Ali Bitchnin’s favourite consort, touching her gently. “Catherine. Come. The men are waiting for you in the courtyard. You need to get washed and dressed and to meet them outside. Are you able?” 
Catherine smiled at the strong West Country accent of Miriam, who in a past life had been Lucy Taunton from Bristol. 
“How are you feeling, would you like some food?” 
Catherine shrugged and then shook her head. Her whole body ached as she tried to sit on the bed’s edge before standing. There was blood on the bed linen and she immediately tried to cover it, embarrassed. Two of the harem slaves then came in and led her to the bath where they washed her gently. Once dry she was dressed and a full veil placed over her head. She then made her way to the courtyard where two men were sitting on a divan. 
Murad Corbasi stood up at her approach and turned to introduce his companion. “This is Djivo, your saviour last night and who has come to check up on you.”
Catherine smiled weakly, the memory searing. 
“We need you to come with us.” Murad was business-like, and Catherine recognised a degree of urgency in his voice.
Just then she felt the strength leaving her legs and she stumbled. The younger man rushed forward to help her. “No.” Catherine pushed him away. “Please get out. Leave me alone.” 
The men retreated slightly and Djivo’s countenance went sullen with the abrupt rejection. It was all Catherine could do to avoid crying out in agony as they watched her regain her balance. “What do you want?” She asked angrily whilst looking at Murad, who seemed agitated at having had to wait.
“Surgeon Cullen. Yanse - Murat Reis I mean, will have explained to you that Islamic justice is swift and forthright. You must come with us to identify your assailants formally.”
It was Catherine’s turn to pull back. “I cannot.” She wanted to run away and hide. 
Murat moved forward and gently took her hand. “You have no choice. Come!” 

The two men escorted her from the inner courtyard and supporting her weight lifted her onto a mulecart that was waiting outside. Her eyes caught the younger man’s but averted quickly lest her anger hurt him again. They left the compound with an accompaniment of marines and soon reached the city wall. Just to the side of the bab-el-oued she saw the three sailors who had attacked her, standing with their hands bound behind them and surrounded by a troop of Janissaries. Also present was Ali Bitchnin accompanied by the eunuch and his personal guard. All eyes diverted to Catherine as she arrived and was helped down from the cart. She winced as her legs took her weight, but was determined not to show any emotion. In any event they would have had difficulty seeing it as her face was nearly fully covered by the black silk yashmak. 
A white haired ulema spoke to Murad before turning to Catherine. “Are these the three men who attacked you?”
Catherine moved forward and looked at each of the sailors directly, lingering in front of the larger man. His head was bandaged but she recognised him from the brief moment in the street before he attacked her. Instead of the sneering scowl that she remembered his face now was rigid with fear. She stood there and looked at him for a long time before slowly nodding. She then turned to walk away but Murad stepped forward and stopped her. The ulema turned to Djivo and the eunuch for confirmation. Both of them also nodded. Standing beside Ali Bitchnin was a cadi, a religious judge, who had been watching the proceedings silently. After a brief discussion with the ulema he suddenly barked an order. Two of the marines of the ta’ifat al ru’sa drew their swords and prodded the big sailor forward. Murad Corbasi detached himself from her side and walked to place himself directly in front of the frightened man whose arms were then pinioned by the marines. He threw a quick glance at Catherine before drawing a jewelled dagger. In an instant of flashing steel he had split the man’s breeches and in a rapid upward slash separated him from his testicles and most of his penis. For a moment there was no sound but then the realisation and pain of what had been done forced an animal’s cry from the sailor’s mouth. Blood began spurting everywhere and Catherine turned away in horror. 
Ali Bitchnin forced her to resume looking. “This form of punishment is something the Turks have learnt to their cost from the beni ‘abbas tribesmen who control some of the mountain passes outside the city and who take great pleasure in performing it on any live Janissary that falls into their hands. You are being honoured as normally we leave castration to Coptic Christians.”
Catherine watched as the sailor was forced to walk at sword point along the narrow causeway leading away from the bab-el oued, the fountain of blood marking his passage into Hades. After about twenty minutes he finally collapsed and was left to bleed to death. Nobody else had moved and the other two sailors both began vomiting with fear. Catherine was suprised when they were dragged back through the bab-el oued. She turned to Murad Corbasi. “Where are they being taken?”
Murad’s gaze was fixed on the city walls. “As we like to say in Algiers, Surgeon Cullen, ‘the gate is hungry’. Look up there. Do you see the hooks in the wall. Those are these men’s fate. You English speakers people call it ganching.”
Catherine looked upward at the walls to the left of the gate’s watchtower. Embedded into the masonry, some twenty feet above ground level, were a series of irregularly-placed large curved iron meat-hooks, barbed at their points like a fishing lure. She had noticed these before on her journeys into the city and had been told previously of their purpose but in all the time she had been in Algiers had never witnessed their use. Presently there was a flurry of activity at the top of the watchtower about fifteen feet above the first series of hooks. The first sailor, his hands and feet bound, was being lifted, screaming loudly, by his ankles and armpits by two soldiers. Holding him as close to the wall as possible they suddenly released him to drop. He impaled on the lowest row of hooks. His agony was mercifully short lived in that the first hook his falling body encountered harpooned him through the chest - he hung there like a squirming worm for a few minutes before death came quickly to his rescue. The second sailor was not so fortunate. He appeared to roll as he was dropped and his descent ended on the first row of hooks where he was pinioned through the pelvis facing skywards. His piercing cry intensified as his upper body arched downwards towards the ground dragged by its own weight. The agonised jerking spasms continued for some time before he finally lost consciousness.
Catherine again turned to Murad. She noticed he was still cleaning his dagger. “What will happen to him?”
“He will drift into and out of hell until he dies and will remain there until his flesh rots and the weight pulls him off the barb. Sometimes in a day or so, if he is still alive, one of his compatriots will get him ‘off the hook’ by shooting him.” Murad guided her back to the mulecart and lifted her up. They then made for the Bitchnin seraglio and once inside the gates were joined by Ali Bitchnin and his retinue.
“Surgeon Cullen,” Bitchnin spoke in Italian “from now on I am delegating young Ahmed here to escort you.” He pulled forward a young man, with intense Arabic features but peculiarly blond hair. “I know of his expertise with a sword and I have his sworn oath to lay down his life, if necessary, while discharging his duty to you. This is an expensive gesture on my part as I had to pay the Aga dearly for his services as a dragoman.”
Catherine thanked Bitchnin and gave the young man a smile. Turning around she saw that Djivo was about to leave. She watched him and for the first time was struck by his handsomness. Their eyes met and she had to look away as she felt he could read her thoughts. She let out an audible sigh of relief when all attention was diverted as Ali Bitchnin barked an order. The eunuch Suleyman Agassi, who had accompanied Catherine the night before, was suddenly taken hold of by three marines and his feet locked into the nearby foot stock. They then set about a severe bastinado until finally halted by Bitchnin who then spoke directly to Catherine. “He deserted you, and thus my trust. The beating will remind him of his duty in future.”
Catherine could not bear to watch the eunuch’s agony and turned to Murad. “That Italian, Djivo. What does he do?”
Murad laughed. “I see you are taken. He is Ragusan actually and was on the galley we captured. He is an architect by training and has been appointed by the Divan as a Master of Water to the city. This is a very important position which will allow him great freedoms but one which means he is unlikely to be ransomed readily. At least its better than being chained to the oar.”
Catherine smiled and watched as Murad began to walk away. He stopped suddenly, shaking his head slightly before turning to come back to her. He looked disturbed. “I have one other bit of information.” Catherine waited for him to continue.“ Yanse’s . . . Murat Reis’s galleys were surprised by a superior fleet of the Knights of Malta led by Brother Francesco Carafa their Captain General. Murat was captured and is incarcerated in Valetta.”
Catherine had come to like the Dutchman and she did not hide her concern. “What will happen to Murat?”
Murad was matter of fact. “He is alive but the Knight’s have placed a price on his freedom. Thankfully the Maltese brethren are pragmatic, unlike the butchers of Saint Stephen who would have dispatched him with great pain.”

Chapter 14 
Seville, Spain. 23rd May 1632

It was a glorious early summer evening as worshipers left the Convent of the Merced Calzada and began spilling out onto the nearby streets. They had been attending a thanksgiving mass for the safe passage of the latest bullion fleet from the Indies and their relieved excitement, like that of many other parishes throughout Seville, was palpable. Indeed the excitement had been mounting since the fast sloop bearing the news of the fleet’s impending arrival had entered the Guadalquivir nearly ten days previously. It was only earlier that day, however, that the treasure ships had finally docked, announcing the fact with multiple salvoes from their cannon. After inspection by the Casa de contratacion the ships had begun unloading their lucrative cargo.
The quayside was a forest of masts and rigging - for in addition to the returning fleet, ships from Hamburg and Lubeck, Ragusa and Genoa, Saint Malo and Amsterdam were waiting to discharge their own wares onto the already stockpiled Arenal wharf for transport on the next flotilla returning to Mexico. The worshipers joined hundreds of others coming from the river banks where they had watched the unloading. Shopkeepers and jewellers, gun smiths and thieves all rushing and chattering. Some would go to the Alcaiceria quarter, others to the street of the Francs or to the gradas of the Orangery, or others still to the newer Hall of Merchants with their estimates of potential profits. Others would make for the taverns of the Court of the Elms where the law-breakers amongst them would boast to comrades of past deeds and of the rich pickings ahead. The women dressed in brightly coloured silks and linens - most adopting the peculiar fashion of exposing just one eye from behind a veil - spent most of their time avoiding the rubbish that littered the streets. The peculiar female Sevillian gait of walking very upright with short prancing steps made these manoeuvres and their efforts to keep up with their menfolk a comic spectacle for any casual observer.
Given all the noise and excitement very few people took notice as a number of cloaked individuals appeared to abruptly leave the thronged street linking the convent with the centro and disappear like shadows through the outer doorway of the Iglesias of San Antonio Abad. Once inside the small off-street atrium these individuals quickly removed their cloaks and swords and entered the church proper by pushing aside the heavy leather aprons that covered the openings in the ornate wooden inner door. They then silently took their places in a small chapel to the right of the doorway on a series of low chairs which surrounded a low table. Two of the men had remained in the atrium in deep discussion for about ten minutes before joining the others.
“My apologies, brothers, about delaying you all.” Dom Rodrigue Lopez de Pacheco, the Clavero or Lieutenant Grand Master of the Calatrava Order, took his place and gradually his vision grew accustomed to the near darkness of the vaulted crypt. Behind him the pyramid-eye - painted in the centre of a carving of the sun that decorated the wall above a small altar on the left of the chapel - suddenly flickered in the candlelight as if awakening to watch their movements. “Thank you for coming at short notice. I arranged for us to meet here in the Templar Chapel rather than our own headquarters as the discussions we have must remain absolutely secret. You brothers, as members of both the Council of the Calatrava Order and of the Holy Sepulchre, are the most trusted.”
A number of heads nodded with the compliment and all leant forward to better hear the quietly spoken words of the Clavero.
“It has come to my attention that our brothers in Sant’Iago may have stumbled upon intelligence of some of the most important relics in Christendom. . .” 
There was no warmth in Dom Rodrigue’s description of their fellow Order of Knights as he went on to recount with great accuracy the history and the efforts, so far, of the Sant’Iago order in trying to retrieve the Scrolls including the role of Djivo Slavujovic. There were audible gasps of astonishment when he had finished.
“From whom did you learn all this?” The aquiline face of Don Pedro de Arce - the Chief Inquisitor of the order - appeared contorted as he tried to suppress the betrayal he felt.
“A recent communiqué from the Count of Monterey in Rome detailed the Count’s accidental encounter with gossip of the Scrolls and his subsequent investigation of its veracity. Monterey arranged for the communiqué to be delivered to me by a certain Captain de Contreras. This was deliberate on his part as he wanted de Contreras, in person, to relate his story about how he had befriended Dom Djivo Slavujovic in Naples and accompanied him to Sicily. It was a casual conversation with de Contreras that gave Monterey the first clue to Sant’Iago’s efforts.”
Don Pedro de Arce was nearly apoplectic at this stage. “Contreras. That sham. I would place no faith in his gossip.”
The Clavero smiled at his comrade. “Dom Pedro, be still. Gasper de Rosales has told me of the animosity between you and Contreras, however, he was only the messenger and Monterey’s intelligence is generally to be believed.”
“Is that the ‘de Contreras’ who relieved the forces at La Mamora?” One of the younger Knights asked.
Dom Rodrigue nodded although a little annoyed at the interruption. “Dom Carlo please let me return to the communiqué. Other confirmation of this intelligence has been provided by one of our most reliable and secret agents. A number of years ago one of the senior council members of Sant’Iago approached me about joining our order. I agreed on condition he would be initiated in secrecy and that he was to continue publicly as a member of their order. The information that he has provided over those years has been of enormous value.” He paused, waiting for the expected reaction.
“What is his name and how can you be sure that they do not have a similar spy in our ranks?” Dom Pedro jumping to his feet, once again interjected - more angry at the fact that he had not been consulted before now.
“I am sorry Dom Pedro. . .” De Pacheco recognised the hurt in his Inquisitor’s manner “. . .because of the sensitivity it had to be a secret decision, and having discussed my proposal with the Grand Prior we determined that his name will not be released. With regard to the second part of your question I cannot be absolutely sure, hence, as you will have noticed, not all members of our own Council have been invited to this meeting. You, my brothers are the most trusted. ” Everyone relaxed. “I have found out that this Dom Djivo Slavujovic is alive and being held captive in Algiers although his engineering skills have ensured a great deal of freedom. I plan to effect a ransom approach on behalf of our King.” The Clavero stopped speaking as he reached into an inside pocket to pull out a folio. Opening it he withdrew the last letter of Djivo’s father to King Philip, and passed it to the others to read. “Once he is in our hands we will extract the information.”
“He appears to be a very cautious individual, even with his own brother Knights,” one of the others spoke as he handed back the letter. 
De Pacheco nodded. “I agree Dom Diego. If the ransom attempt fails then he is to be killed.”
“We could continue the search ourselves, then. It would bring great honour to Calatrava.” Dom Pedro by now was far more eager. 
The Clavero paused for a moment. “Yes that is possible. But if the Scrolls are found, they must be destroyed.”
“But why? ” The voices rose up almost in unison.
Dom Rodrigue held up his hand and then turning it palm upwards indicated for the Grand Prior of the Order, Lord Cardinal Albornoz - the nominee of the Abbot of Morimond in France who still had control over the Spanish Order’s spiritual affairs - to stand. The Cardinal rose from his seat and after bowing his head slightly in the direction of the Clavero - this had been the reason for their discussions in the atrium earlier - began to speak in a grave voice. The words echoed off the chapel walls. “There is strong evidence to suggest that Our Lord Jesus Christ was a learned and holy rabbi of a secret and virulently anti-Roman Jewish sect called the Nasoreans and that he sacrificed his life to protect the military leader of the sect, one Jesus Bar’abbas, so that that individual could continue the war against the Romans. There is a heresy abroad amongst some misguided scholars which suggests that the man called Bar’abbas, which literally means ‘Son of God’, and who was released by Pilate, was in fact James the Apostle. The same heretics also suggest that James was an actual blood relation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our own theologians do agree, however, that the pressure put on Pilate to offer the release of either Bar’abbas or Jesus was orchestrated to ensure the terrorist leader’s freedom. It is likely, however, that by this act of self-sacrifice and the Godly nature of his teachings and works, Jesus provided the focus for the early devotion to his memory and establishment of the Church.” 
The Grand Prior paused for a moment, his attention caught by the flickering eye on the wall behind Dom Rodrigue. “It is also now thought that the Bar’nabas ordered by the early church in Jerusalem to seek out Saint Paul in Antioch and to accompany him was in fact Bar’abbas or James. Evidence pointing to his importance and militant reputation was evident when the people of Lystra saw Bar’nabas as the worldly reincarnation of an avenging Zeus whereas Paul they saw as Hermes his messenger.” He coughed to clear his throat, “Bar’nabas and Paul soon fell out with each other over whether an aggressive or peaceful policy should be adopted by the early Christians and separated. It is now thought that all the information documenting the true relationship of Bar’abbas and Jesus was recorded by Saint Paul in order to defend himself at a later date with the Nasorean elders back in Jerusalem. When Paul set sail to preach in Macedonia he left these diaries in the safekeeping of Caprus in Alexandria Troas. He was later, very anxious to retrieve these as was obvious by his second letter to Timothy.” 
Albornaz paused and looked around the table at the impassive faces. He wondered to himself if any of the Knights could recall their New Testament. He then continued, “Whether Timothy did manage to retrieve them or not is uncertain but they next surfaced at the Council of Nicea in the hands of Arius. When that schismatic lost the crucial vote on the theological direction of the Church the diaries and many other Gnostic documents were destroyed in order to preserve its precarious unity. Some of you brethren are aware of other proofs which have also been suppressed. It is now our understanding that the forma produced by Pilate’s officers gives not only a detailed description of Jesus and James Bar’abbas but like Paul’s diaries also alludes to their true relationship and the respective roles they played in the Nasorean sect. For the sake of the Church, if such a document still exists, it must be found and destroyed.” Albornoz sat down. There was silence for a brief moment before the questions began again in earnest. 
At this point de Pacheco held his hand up. “Brothers. The Church is once again under its greatest threat. The Protestant forces in the Low Countries and Germany are gaining victory after victory. The smallest possibility of even a more major fundamental theological schism occurring as the result of publication of such a parchment would undermine all our efforts. It must be destroyed. I am also concerned that if the Scrolls fall into the sweaty hands of our brothers in Sant’Iago they will use it to further their own ends - at our expense.” He stopped to look at all the Knights - one by one fixing their gaze. “I have taken it upon myself to direct Don Gonzalo Munoz Trevino of Cuidad Real to undertake the mission to Algiers. He understands only that it is of extreme importance to our Order that Slavujovic is either redeemed into our custody or dispatched. Do I have your agreement?”
All at the table nodded their heads. De Pacheco stood up and circling the chapel kissed each of them on both cheeks before retaking his seat. Some of the Knights began discussing the Cardinal’s story amongst themselves and he waited for a lull in the conversation.
“Good. That issue is settled for the present but there is another that is of equal importance to us here in Seville.” The Clavero took out another small folio from his breast pocket. “The city is growing fast and contrary to many rumours the amount of bullion clearing through our port from the New World continues to grow. However, most of the profits are being taken out by foreign merchants and bankers, or by those who claim Spanish citizenship such as the French Comtois or Walloons. Even the Genovese have made an art-form of marrying into Spanish families in order to suck us dry. As a result, although we appear to have the busiest port in all Spain we are seeing very little return. Take for example the mercury from our own mines at Almedan, used for extracting the silver abroad - the Fuggers derive most benefit because we do not want to concern ourselves with the business. This situation . . .”
Dom Rodrigue paused as he leant forward and began unbinding the folio he had taken from his coat pocket. Removing some loose pages he passed one to each Knight. As they looked at them he noted the surprised reactions on most of their faces and watched for a moment as some pursed their lips and exhaled short bursts of air. “. . . this situation cannot be allowed to continue. The pages before you contain a summary of the bullion cargo leaving our city. Although our council’s edict of 1628 precludes tradesmen or their sons from joining the Order it is now proposed that Calatrava consider admitting some merchants of noble blood as well as our military recruits. A distinction could certainly be made between say bankers and mere tradesmen. Using our influence we could then establish them among the ‘Twenty-four’ as leading agents in the city and thus control the profits. I want you to consider this for our next council meeting. Thank you for your attention.”
De Pacheco stood up and turning to the altar genuflected to the pyramid-eye before leaving the chapel. The others followed suit and soon the church was silent again - no shadows moving, no noise.
©R.Derham 2001,2009

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