There were two kinds of persons on the earth: the living and the dead. And for a moment I was glad to be among the living: my hand reached slowly to the water, and trails of light sprung from my fingers, fluttering against a dark silk sky. The coolness left my palm soft, salt-sweet. I pulled back before the first mate saw I’d leaned over the side, but he was busy keeping the rowers in time. He was a dim shape on the prow of the long-boat, head turned to the blinking lights of the Spanish shore,
voice drowned by the rhythmic hissing of wood on waves.
The night was calm and airless – for the past month our vessels had languished in the Azores islands without a breeze. But instead of a glaring sun, a vast harvest moon hung above, glinting – like little orange embers – on the sea. I could see much better in the darkness than my comrades: silver moonlit hills cascading down to the island’s rocky shore, Isla Fayal’s dark forts in the distance, and our British ships anchored behind us in the sea.
Sir Walter Raleigh was in the boat beside ours. “Quiet,” he said. “Row, boys – steady. Quiet.”
But if anything, the sloshing of the oars only grew louder. In a matter of minutes, we would find ourselves in range of the Spanish artillery. And despite Raleigh’s mindfulness, they knew we were coming. I could make out guards on shore, saw cannons glinting beside torches. They had built a wall of earth and stone to span the beach. An anxiousness began to trouble me.
“Slow down,” said Raleigh. He unsteadily got to his feet and faced the shore, so the men in the other boats could see. The thirty long-boats edged forward until we were only a stone’s throw from enemy range. Sir Raleigh held up a hand to halt our progress.
We bobbed for minutes that seemed like hours.
There came shouting from the Spanish wall, and the clanging of swords on shields. I heard laughter, “Vamanos!” and some rather deplorable curses.
“What are they saying?” said my captain with a mirthless smile.
“He knows,” came a voice. A hand pointed at me, Jack Donne.
“He told me he speaks Spanish, smart man that he is,” continued the man behind me. He was a another commander of sorts, and I thought his name was Gorges.
The first mate’s eyes swerved to me briefly, with suspicion and disapproval.
Perhaps I might have glared at Gorges – no, I wasn’t stupid.
My ears caught a fizzling, whistling sound, and a boom from the beach.
Beside our boat, an explosion of glowing water was thrown up, spattering me on the face. Steam erupted from the spot, the boat was shaking, and I smelled gunpowder.
“Row,” said Raleigh from the other boat.
The men paddled us forward, off-beat, and the craft moved inch by inch, as if their fear was now a tethered weight that held us back. Before us sprung more flashes from the dark, and booms. Water foamed and twisted in the moonlit sea around us. The larger English ships, half a mile down the beach, pulled close to shore and returned fire.
“Row!” growled Raleigh, and he snatched the oar from the soldier beside him, tore at the water, and shouting pulled us from the frying-pan into the fire. Gunshots ripped through the air with a fiendish crackle and hit the water before us like a patch of vicious rain.
“Row, damn it!” said Raleigh. “They’re reloading! Ah, cowards, cowards – stay behind – thou daring, follow me!”
A few men hooted, already fallen into battle-rage. A slightly greater number were silent, and my nose caught the slight presence of urine in the air. But soon the gun-smoke, drifting over the water toward me, masked out everything else. On we rowed, rising and falling on the dips of roaring waves. The Spanish garrison took aim.
“Duck!” I cried, a moment before the Spanish captain shouted, “Fuego!” and the bullets hissed overhead, kicked up water, or collided. Shots hit our boat and shattered wood. I heard a scream. Although I couldn’t see them fall, some groans from the other boats told me that Raleigh’s boats had suffered their first injuries.
Raleigh was unfazed, still rowing and half-standing at the prow of his vessel. Somehow he hadn’t been hit.
A grating noise from beneath the boat –the tide had drawn us onto the rocky shore.
“Jack!” said my captain. “Steady us!”
I clambered out of the boat and hugged a slick boulder. Steady the boat. Waves pounded my legs and nearly swept me from my foothold and sent foam and salt water stinging in my eyes. My hair was plastered in a dark screen to my face. I ducked as bullets hammered the stones above my head. My fingers reached the side of the boat and I pulled it to me.
A few men jumped out and helped, and, grunting, we held it until everyone had disembarked, and our party dragged it up the jagged surf onto safe ground. Using the boat as a shield, we dropped as yet another volley sent sparks from the rocks.
Raleigh’s and the other boats were making landfall, while the Spanish cannons roared. One of our long-boats went under. Another dashed against the rocks, but luckily most of the crew could swim to shore. Sir Walter Raleigh signaled to the first mate.
“We’re going to charge,” the first mate told us. “We’ve but to wait for the others, now.”
I stuck my head out and looked at the land around us. The Spaniards were firing from the cover of the earthworks, reachable by crossing a narrow hill, tall grass, and a few trenches.
With a glance about, Raleigh shouted, “Swords. Draw arms.”
There was an answering whisper from our sheathes.
Raleigh signed to the other boats. After another round of the garrison’s bullets, he smoothed his collar, coughed like a gentleman, and with a cry for “Mother England” dived into the grass. We followed, and like wolves we pelted through the bracken, keeping our heads low.
The Spanish had the advantage with the high ground and their numbers and the fact that they were far from tired. Our English fleet was faded. My legs smarted with the strain from the past few days of maritime crusading; and I tried to think beyond my soreness. I hadn’t come to the Azores for war, for Raleigh, for the Order, or for Elizabeth – not wholly. I’d come for the treasure. Books! Virgil, Dante, Bruni, Molina! With every port we talked of raiding, I’d hoped for a castle or a monastery with Latin works with gold-edged pages.
Dark blurs moved through the grass before us, like shadows indistinct upon a rustling screen. I drew my pistol and fired. A bang. A shout. Smoke came from my gun like a silver peony. Pistols from the Order could fire more than once – another bang, another cry.
There had better be Virgil. And it had better have gold pages.
We won the shore, and quickly: penetrating the earthworks, dodging spears and swords and Spaniards. After half an hour, the English had routed the garrison with Raleigh’s signature efficiency. They abandoned the cannons and fled, crashing, through the jungle. Some of them left their muskets behind on the wall.
The captain told us not to follow them. “We shall rest here for the night. Never fear; you’ll get your shot at them tomorrow at the forts. Bring the boats up here.”
Staying out of anyone’s way, I claimed a soft patch of grass and leaned myself against a tree. I shut my eyes. The beach took on its wonted sounds again, thrumming with the voices of canaries, the exhalations of the palm fronds, the songs of frogs and insects. Grating noises as the boats were hauled up the rocks, thrashing as men kicked their way through the brush. Campfires crackling, murmured voices.
I didn’t want to talk. There would be questions, given what Gorges had proclaimed on the boat. I heard his voice somewhere by a fire. I hoped he noticed that I slept with my gun… Perhaps tomorrow he’d stammer something about having the wrong Jack Donne and being mistaken. No, it wasn’t me he heard calling out in español to a girl at Flores.
It had been foolery of me. Servants of the Order ought to be invisible, and that was doctrine older than the Roman Coliseum. We ought to blend in like moths on bark, have scrutiny pass us over and move on. Invisibility.
As I pretended sleep with these bothersome thoughts ringing inside me, I heard some lordly steps close by. I opened my eyes and saw Sir Walter Raleigh himself seated on a log some two yards away and looking down at me. Dark eyes, smooth beard, grave. “Thank you, Donne,” he said as I sat up.
“Sir,” I said.
“A keen piece in your hat, that is. Silver?”
“The pin? Yes… sir.” I handed it to him: a long, decorated pin set with jet. He passed it back.
“Arthur Gorges,” he said, “is a fear-monger.”
I said nothing.
“He tells me you speak Spanish.”
“I do speak some,” I said.
“It’s not fit, Donne. For you, especially.”
“I know, sir.”
“With your family, and the Jesuits, and your brother —”
“— Henry,” I said, looking away.
A long time passed, and cicadas filled our silence. Raleigh was a dark shape that reached for his tobacco-pipe. Eventually, I tried to explain. “I know Latin and French and Italian, I cannot help if I understand Spanish,” I said. A lie.
Like a firefly, a flame leapt into the dark and lingered, smoldering red, in his pipe. “You know I trust you, Donne. You’re not seditious, I’m as sure as anything. I trust you, but the rest don’t.”
I looked at the sleeping men around us.
He took a deep breath and exhaled and the smoke followed his hand as he stood. The glowing circle of tobacco bobbed to and fro as he walked away, then was blotted out by darkness.
I slept falteringly until a shaft of sunlight pierced the trees and warmed my face. A few minutes later, Raleigh and his captains were rousing the troops, and a few minutes after that we were in ranks on the rocky surf as he announced we would be marching four miles inland to the town of Fayal and the two forts that protected it.
When we started off, the sun had not ascended far, so instead of starker tropic light a golden glaze was cast upon the island. We left the band of trees by the shore and crossed the little rising hills I had seen last night, bending down often to pick choice fruit from the fields. Fayal was bountiful with melons and potatoes and pasture; the crops we trampled through were thriving in the dark volcanic soil. In the blueness of the distant hills I guessed there was a caldera at the center of the Isla. When we stopped and sat, I put my head to the grassy earth and felt the threads of sound come to my ears: a faint tremor-rumble of the dormant forces deep, deep below the island. The men by me lay back and talked on, oblivious. They couldn’t have heard it had they tried.
The others were always oblivious, which was part of the reason I kept to myself. Being from outside the Order was like being from another world. I might have told them. But since they’d probably not even to terms with Copernicus yet, jumping the gun about much more seemed like risky business and was not permitted anyway.
We walked again: me nestled safe among the living, and they, oblivious to a world like mine.
But if at the trek’s beginning the soldiers were relaxed, by its end they were singed and wary. The islanders who’d so easily abandoned their defense on the shore attacked sometimes. Shots would ring out in front of us, and a few of Raleigh’s men would be wounded. Sir Walter Raleigh, wearing only a neck-plate, still wasn’t hit. With the main army waiting behind, he took forty of us in an advance party.
After a long walk through a wooded stretch of hills, we came to a hilltop where the trees cleared enough for us to get a glimpse of the town. It was built of grey stone and surrounded by a wall, and flanked by a fort. Its name was Villa Dorta (though the men just called it Fayal). I saw a monastery, a church, and a nunnery, and felt a surge of excitement. I could smell the books.
Raleigh stood atop a boulder, talking with his admirals, running a hand through his beard.
“Hark now!” he shouted after awhile.
“Sir!” came the answering call, but it was tired and slow.
“The enemy is guarding the road to Fayal, and waiting on that hill to fire on us should we go around. We must, therefore, find the another way to attack. Anyone to volunteer for reconnaissance?”
The men milling around looked at the cannons on the walls of the fort, at the Spanish on the road, at the soldiers on the other hill waiting among the trees to fire at the slightest hint of an Englishman.
Even by my standards, that was a little much.
Raleigh put his hands on his hips. “Hilarious, boys, but let us begin. Come.”
Some feathered hats, plumes wilting in the humidity, rustled as men shook their heads.
“A brief scouting trip.”
A bullfinch chirruped from the trees.
“For Mother England!”
“Shouldn’t we wait for Lord Essex?” muttered someone.
“We have waited for Essex,” said Raleigh. “We have waited three days, and still he’s not appeared. If we managed to take the shore, we can manage Villa Dorta – certainly.”
Suddenly, the Spanish defenders on the road let loose a barrage of warning shots that struck the ferny woods below our hill. Raleigh watched. “Anyone at all,” he said.
When his men replied with silence, Sir Walter Raleigh did not look unsettled. As always, he was cool and sure, the picture of English assurance. Even his clothes, after all the heat, were unruffled: the feathers on his hat matched his deep red cape, and his collar was a lace frill to be reckoned with. He peeled it off and removed his hat. “Fetch my helm and breastplate.”
A chuckle spread through the ranks.
Raleigh gestured to the servant. “Well, get a move on. My helmet. My breastplate. Since I am the only Englishman here with pride for his Queen, Country, and Himself,” he said, “obviously I ought to set an example for the rest of you. You, you, you —” he pointed to some of his admirals. “Come with me.”
“Me?” stammered Arthur Gorges, who’d been scribbling in his log-book.
Raleigh slid on his breastplate. “Yes, Gorges, hike up your skirts and grab your sword.”
Gorges muttered something.
“Are there no others present who still have the mettle for a brief scouting mission?”
I looked away. Running down a hill with bullets falling from all sides wasn’t my idea of a scouting mission – it fell more under the category of suicide.
“Well, Donne has good eyes. He was the first one to spot the island,” said Gorges.
Raleigh looked at me with an expression to remind me of what he’d said last night. John Donne. Traitor. Spanish-speaking papist. It never stopped, did it? If I didn’t step up, they would suspect me. So I came forward, bowed, and took my place beside Gorges (whom I very much wanted to strangle).
“Anyone else?” spat Raleigh, glaring at his men.
Inspired by my forced act of bravery, a few more soldiers came forward. Raleigh nodded. “If we make it back alive, these men will get triple the spoils.”
Thanks, sir. That makes me feel so much better.
“We’ll circle around that way,” said Raleigh. “Go down that swell, and see about the side of the fort.” We were off then, sneaking through the cover of the bracken. I tuned my ears to the forest, taking in the sound-waves that bounced from tree to tree, that echoed across the slopes and dips of the land. I heard the skitters of rabbits and birds for a while; then they went silent, as if they knew what was about to happen. The murmur from the Spanish on the walls of the fort was the only noise.
“Down there,” said Raleigh.
“There are men down there,” I said.
He peered hard. “I see none.”
But I could hear them, and their muskets rustling against the ferns. Raleigh shrugged, and we walked horizontally on the hillside. I tried to spy the Spanish, but the bracken was so thick even I couldn’t make out anything. There was a twinge in my gut.
“Los ingleses! Fuego!” cried a voice.
I hit the ground as bullets shredded the tree behind me. “Run!” said Raleigh. He sprinted deeper into the woods, and we scrambled after him.
Almost all of us. Gorges was scurrying the other way – from where we’d come.
“Gorges!” I shouted.
He turned just as a bullet struck his leg. With a little sound, he fell.
“We’ll come back for him!” said Raleigh. We dove behind a group of trees. Shots from the fort rang around us. We stayed there, panting, as the bullets kept coming. I felt a jolt whenever something hit the tree at my back. At least we were drawing their fire away from Gorges.
“Should we go back to the men?” said somebody. I felt a glimmer of hope.
“No!” snarled Raleigh. “We’ll get what we came for!”
We groaned. By then, a cloud of gun-smoke hovered in the air. I stuck my head out, cocked my pistol, and fired. There had better be Virgil. It had better have gold pages.
When we came back up the hill, our reconnaissance done, it wasn’t pretty. Two of the volunteers had gotten their heads blown clean off by the cannons. I was holding up a pale, panting Gorges (we had found that it was only a flesh wound, but he was making dramatics of it). Raleigh’s proud red cape was frayed at the end; his breeches had been shot through in a few places, but he’d gotten through unscathed.
The men were in a clamor at once.
Raleigh tore off his armor and sat, calling his servant to get us all water and fruit. Someone took Gorges, and with his groaning weight off me, I sat down on the grass. Someone tossed me grapes and I wolfed them down – happy to be alive, and convinced that Sir Walter Raleigh was totally mad.
“The mission was a success,” he announced after a while.
“Define success,” I muttered.
“We have found a way into the town of Fayal!” All around people cheered huzzah. After a few hours of being shot at, the sudden noise made my ears ring. I shut my eyes and lay back.
Raleigh’s voice told them about how we were to march on Villa Dorta. He hoped that if these were the same men who’d fled the shore, they wouldn’t put up much of a fight. So, as if he hadn’t just been dodging bullets, Raleigh ordered the men to form ranks.
That same night, we came to Villa Dorta to find it was abandoned. Vacated. Cleared of men, foodstuff, and valuables, down to the last alcove. The sun had just set and the moon was rising. Picked again by Raleigh to scout ahead to see if the streets were safe, I was swearing under my breath.
“Get ready for battle, lads!” I muttered. “We’ll give ‘em what for… bloody right…”
My footsteps echoed down the well-paved roads as I jogged. My tired eyes swept from side to side. It was a beautiful trading town, even empty. Wide streets, gardens, fountains, sculptures.
“You’ve got good eyes, Jack – why don’t you go on in? Because I’m not tired at all, sir…”
With every step I took my legs throbbed. I almost longed to be back on that infernal ship, weathering the doldrums. Even a dull day back in London was preferable to this. It had been months since I’d talked to Itzak or Ben, months since I’d looked out at London at midnight from the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Months without a girl. I would have changed these pretty, barren streets for the crowded bustle of the Strand in a heartbeat, the smell of the Thames and the city.
Soon another familiar scent found its way into my keen nose. At first I thought it was another memory springing to life, but while the nice smells faded when I shook my head, the singular odor stayed – it was a strong smell halfway between cologne and dog fur.
It startled me, and I was tempted to ignore it. But if the Order learned that I had….
I kept running, transferred my dirk to my hand, and followed the wafting smell. I’d split up from the other scouts, so that at least was good. By the time I came to the a plaza, the moon was glaring overhead, but clouds were swiftly moving in. Also good.
And then, from nowhere—
The kick struck me on the side and knocked me back. Hitting the ground, I rolled to right myself. A rustle, then silence. The shadowy space was empty, but the smell was pungent, incredibly close.
“Donne,” said a Spanish voice. “Ugh.”
A man was perched on a dark fountain, crouched like a hunting cat, clothed in a silver coat, his dark hair falling loosely about his shoulders. From under ragged brows glared blazing eyes, and a thin layer of stubble coated his jaw. The scent was his; it lingered on him, emanated from him, and with it a cold, prickling feeling that tingled on my neck.
“I know you,” I said, jogging my memory.
“Cadiz, last year.” He held up a hand – its glove had been specially tailored because he was missing his forefinger. “Te acuerdas?”
“Recuerdo, por desgracia,” I groaned. “I don’t have time to deal with you, Montez.”
Teeth glinted in the shadows. “Where’s the Order? Los Cazadores?”
“They’re not here,” I said.
Leaping from the fountain and landing smoothly on the cobblestone, he said, “Good.”
I held out my dirk. And for a few long moments none of us made a sound or took a step, but glared. Montez’s eyes were luminous and bright blue – nearly white – and the whole eye rimmed with black skin, as if he’d drawn out his eyes in ink.
The moon was bright overhead.
“Look,” I said. “I am on a holiday. If a fight is what you want, come up to London sometime in the next few months. I am not here on Order business. Comprendes?”
He laughed. “War is Señor Donne’s idea of a holiday?”
I huffed. “Holiday. Warm weather, cantaloupe, and no Otherkind.”
“I shall start with your finger.” He took a knife from his coat.
But I wasn’t terribly concerned about that yet. I wanted him away from the bright, moonlit road—
He grunted and stabbed at my side. I pulled to the side and crouched to sweep away his legs with a kick. Montez fell, but unfortunately on me. A fist connected with my jaw. My knee found purchase in his gut. I had a hand on his knife arm, he had his own on my dirk arm. I wrestled on top of him. By then he was kicking every inch of me he could reach; my chest, my shoulders – my legs. I groaned as the sore, pulled muscles throbbed. And it only took that faltering of my concentration for him to get a hold of me and fling me off to crash into the fountain’s pool.
As I sat up, dazed and drenched, he rushed into the street, just as a cloud that had clawed at the moon shifted and blotted out the light.
I exhaled a breath a relief.
The cloud moved again.
Montez was a blur, a shadow silhouetted by the blinding glare of the moon. The air was still, bated, as if the shadows held their breath. The creeping chill became a shocking coldness. Montez was a reflection, broken by the ripples of the moonbeams.
The hand that held the knife was dark with hair and its white claws gleamed. Sooty fur was spreading up his neck. Two ears of ragged velvet tucked backwards intently, and hackles rose. A snout opened to reveal a fanged mouth, white teeth against shining black gums. Montez’s voice said, “Well, look.”
I rubbed my leg and stood, taking my pistol and wiping it before water seeped into the powder.
“Silver bullets?” he said.
I rolled my eyes. “I’m not here for the Order.”
“How can you kill me with no bullets and no stake?”
I shook the water from my ears. “I’ve always a way, don’t I?”
He lunged at me, and I darted out of the way as his claws raked the air where my chest had been. Swish – he was striking with a vengeance. I avoided a sweep from his knife, and we struck and dodged in a kind of dance. The tip of my dirk nicked him on the hairy hand, but the dark cut didn’t bleed, and dissolved into a scar.
“Ay,” he cried, withdrawing, shaking. In return for their strength and their resilience, his kind felt pain unlike anything men could imagine.
“This is your last chance,” I said forcefully. “I mean it. Go home. I don’t want blood tonight.”
His silky ears bent backward as he growled. “Why not kill you? You are as unprepared as I was at Cadiz. You do not know – you have never lost a finger.” I looked into the glowing, furious eyes, seeing that I couldn’t negotiate. The lunge would come soon enough in a leap, a mauling, a death blow. Montez would attack and he would die.
A few moments more, and a ripple of fur as the muscles tensed. Blazing eyes.
His body sailed over me as I ducked. He gave off the scent of a hunting wolf, wrathful and ravenous. My hand thudded against his chest.
He tumbled into the shadows and lay there.
With a shudder, Montez transformed into a man once more, and the knife slid from his pale hand. I waited until I could no longer hear the struggling breath moving his chest. Sightless blue eyes watched me bend over his body and pry out the four-inch silver pin that I’d smacked into his heart. A spurt of thick lupine blood, finally free, blotched his coat, just enough to make my head spin. Blood had a way of doing that to me.
Raleigh’s voice echoed from another street: “Jack Donne?”
I cleaned the pin and stuck it back into my hat. I sheathed my dirk.
Montez stared, as in disbelief, as if death was a gross impossibility.
I felt my stomach churn as I took his knife, slid it between his ribs, and put it in his hand.
Raleigh appeared at the far end of the plaza with a troop of other scouts, and they sauntered up, trying to be proud of seizing a town that contained absolutely nothing. Raleigh was looking a thousand types of pissed, and turned a cold eye to the body at my feet, his brows taut like strung bows. “A Spanish suicide?”
“Yes,” I said, between breaths.
“Those boots would fetch something back home,” he said.
I closed Montez’s eyes. A few moments later, the scouts were leaning over the boots and examining them. “Maybe about thirty shillings,” said one.
“No, they‘d get two whole pounds in the right place….”
“Can’t take them off a dead man, though….”
Raleigh looked at me curiously. “Now, Donne,” he said slowly, putting his hands on his hips, “why are you wet?”
With water dripping from my soaked-through clothes, I sputtered, “What?”
“You’re sopping, boy, from head to foot.”
“I – I fell in the fountain. Thither fountain, sir. The body startled me, and I tripped into the water.”
Please, I thought, please don’t reach down and feel that he’s still warm – that he couldn’t have died more than a few minutes ago.
“Take a breath,” Raleigh told me. “Go to the monastery; there’s still some pickings there. We’ll stay in the town tonight and wait for the ever-absent Essex.”
“I think the Earl of Essex will come soon, sir,” I said.
“Was he as inconsiderately late, Donne, when you sailed under him at Cadiz?”
“I – no. Our Earl was very on-schedule.”
“He tries my nerves. Go. Perhaps you could take inventory of the monastery. You’ve shown enough dedication for today.” He directed his party down an alley, and their voices died away into the distance and I was left alone with the body of Montez, stripped of his boots, belt, knife, and five-fingered glove. Before I started for the monastery, I dragged the corpse into a shadowed alley and out of the indecency of the coming army.