Read Curse of Stigmata (The Judas Reflections) Online
Authors: Aiden James,Michelle Wright
“My good man.” Juan came to me, his arms outstretched. “You’ve arrived safely having battled the winter sea. It’s so good to see you!”
“We’re in one piece, although the journey was not without peril. I take it you’ve arranged a carriage for Isabella?”
He smiled, glancing at her only briefly. She turned her head defiantly. Fortunately, I had written to Juan explaining some of my predicament with Isabella. Now I depended on his good nature to make the best and safest arrangements possible for her return home. Regardless that she deserved worse, I am not a man to abandon a helpless female to an unknown fate.
A dock boy transported my trunks to an inn close by and willingly returned for Isabella’s, who coldly refused to pay him for his trouble. “I have to take care of myself first,” so said the woman whose family had amassed a fortune.
Finally, the moment came when I could help her into the carriage paid for by me, without argument. Juan gave her some food for the journey. There was no gratitude.
“I wish you a safe journey,” I said. “Our time together is over, but I want you to know I’m sorry for what went wrong on my part, I hope you see the problems from your side also.”
“I was a victim of your selfish evil ways. Such evil I have never experienced, I hope you rot in hell because Jesus will reject you in Heaven. Now I must go home to confess my sins and never touch another man. I will become a nun.”
“Farewell Isabella,” I replied, ignoring her dramatic nonsense. “I will send your father the bill of expense for the carriage, and explain how you single handedly managed to bed the entire crew whilst I slept.” Knowing she would scream wildly and bang her fists on the window as the carriage took off, I dismissed her with a slight of my hand. I had no intention of communicating with her father, and only needed to have the last word.
Finally free, I followed Juan to a warm and inviting Inn. It was a good feeling to be back on dry land and not rocking to and fro. As I sat warming myself before the fire, I sent lingering thoughts of Isabella deep into the embers, distracted by the innkeeper who served us two spiced red wines, so hot it burned my tongue. The familiar feeling of tissues regenerating soon followed.
“You are fortunate, Emmanuel,” observed Juan. “If only my weak stomach could respond so graciously.” He laughed. The sorcerer’s spell that could not relieve a host of physical maladies did enable second sight. Juan could sense conditions in others as well as events to come. Eternal life on earth was the prize, to which we commiserated often.
“I will sip it slowly my friend,” I said. “Now tell me everything you know about the shepherd.”
Juan leaned back in his chair, tipping it slightly so it rocked. “As you know, my close confidant, Dario, a man of great knowledge and an intrepid explorer, is certain he’s seen the coins,” he began. “Two of them with his own eyes. The shepherd wanted to know their worth, curious of their age and value. His daughter, a young girl apparently wild like an animal, tried to convince Dario the coins glowed when she stared at them. He disbelieved her, but was sure the pieces were extremely old. He recently made another climbing trip to the Pyrenees where he met with the shepherd again. Dario believes the coins belong to you, he only asks for a small finder’s fee.”
“If your friend is correct, this will be an easy task of recovery. Two coins in one swoop—an attractive reason to take a risk.” I chuckled. “I’m no great mountaineer, but I’m willing to learn, and more than willing to compensate the man.”
“Then we’ll have a wonderful evening of fine food and good wine. Tomorrow morning the carriage will be here to take us across the border to France. Dario will be waiting at an agreed location. He’s a trusted mountain guide.”
It sounded too good to be true, coins falling into my lap. The trick would be either to steal back what is rightfully mine, or barter a price. The idea of a purchase reeked of self-punishment, seeing as it was payment I was given for the ultimate betrayal.
“I will remain optimistic.” I smiled, relishing Isabella’s departure.
The evening was pleasant, indeed. A wonderful shellfish platter, fried sardines, freshly picked tomatoes and olives soon arrived. Juan was delightful company, and I could not think of a better person to accompany me on such an intriguing journey. Somewhere high up in the Pyrenees lay two coins, necessary to redeem my soul. But to retrieve them meant an encounter with a shepherd and his seemingly deranged daughter. I couldn’t wait to meet them.
he following morning, bright and early, I arose to winter sunlight invading the room. My bed was hard and unforgiving on my back, the pillow smelled of mildew, and the bland decor served only to compound the melancholy. I’d awoken thinking of Isabella, for a brief moment wanting the feel of her body beside me. I convinced myself there was to be no women for now, they’d become too much trouble, a dangerous distraction and frustrating. I had bigger fish to fry. Then I remembered. Not since my darling Ines, who I lost a long time ago, have I been enchanted by a woman. She had my heart and soul… despite being an immense pain in the ass.
A gypsy woman served us breakfast downstairs. She, like all gypsies, had been banned from wearing her traditional dress, speaking her own language or exercising customs, by the sheriff. Yet she still maintained a certain flamboyance. Her hips swayed and her dark eyes twinkled. I identified with her nomadic lifestyle. I, too, wandered from place to place with no clear direction, having stolen and been savage when needed. Shunned by many as strange or untrustworthy, I too had adapted a gypsy soul many centuries ago, always moving on when my welcome had worn out.
“We should be going, the carriage is waiting and the journey is long.”
Juan shook me from my thoughts, reminding me of the journey from Santander across the border into France and a town called Araige nestled at the foot of the mountains where Dario would be waiting. The cold morning air shook me awake as I climbed aboard, dismissing rumors of a new breed of robber, the Highwayman, who apparently laid in wait for unsuspecting carriages to pass by. Without fear, he would force a stop by brandishing a musket demanding money and jewels from frightened passengers and drivers alike.
I was in no mood for confrontation. Never did I bow easily to anyone, often resulting in a bitter fight. And if I were unfortunate to lose, it only meant at worse that my soul was transported elsewhere in the world, and my existence as the immortal Judas would begin anew.
Stories abounded in the region of highwayman on our route between Spain and France, and there had been fatalities. I prayed for an easy passage, as despite what I just mentioned, the last thing I wanted was blood on my hands. The road was bumpy in parts, forcing the carriage to shake violently. Conversation was impossible, yet still Juan and I attempted to talk.
“I hope by the next century carriages will be more stable,” I commented.
Juan nodded in agreement, as we swayed madly back and forth, he could do no more than shrug. When we reached an even road, it wasn’t long before the horses calmed, under instruction from their expert handlers. Juan could breathe properly again, and could stretch his legs while the drivers lead the horses to water.
I thought about Isabella again, and thought of a favorite Bible verse of hers: “Lying lips are the abomination of the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight.” Proverbs twelve twenty-two. Yes, she would throw this one at me, from time to time. But although I’m not perfect, neither am I evil I prefer to think I land somewhere in the middle. As each century blends into another and people I love or hate die, I remain with the memories. Isabella is all but assured to be a lasting one, though relatively soon lying cold in her grave.
I will make a point to visit her tombstone. Where I will happily lay a posy of fresh nettles.
“You’re well rid of her, Emmanuel. She’s rotten to the core, we all saw it, and unfortunately, you didn’t. I think you’ve had a lucky escape.” Juan said, picking up on my thoughts. And he was right: The longer I endured her dishonest and venomous nature, the more I would have weakened. Enduring a perilous journey of this nature was not half as grueling as a dalliance with Isabella.
Soon we resumed our journey. Hour after hour, we traveled to the border. The scenery changed from flat and uninspiring to hilly, as we came closer to the base of the infamous mountain range stretching for endless miles. It had become far too dangerous for the mortals with us to travel, as no visibility once night fell. The horses could stumble, taking the carriage with them.
Juan and I were guided to a roadside inn and given small but respectable rooms. On this night, he enjoyed the company more than I did. The emotion of leaving Isabella was more than I expected, and I excused myself. For the first time in weeks in the quietness of a bedchamber, I fell into instant sleep. Used to only sleeping a few hours each night, I awoke at dawn, refreshed enough to admire the outlines of a painting on the wall. By the light of a candle was a depiction of The Madonna. Inspired by the Italian artist Raphael, whose creation in 1534 became his last. This painting, of a Sistine Madonna with arms outstretched to embrace a cherub-faced child at her feet, encouraged me to come closer. I wanted to be the small child, helpless at her feet, ready to be embraced and loved for her purity. I spent the next few hours daydreaming while I waited for sunrise and breakfast.
Juan hadn’t slept at all when I found him wandering the grounds outside. He rarely needed it, so I was not worried. My concern was how worse for drink the drivers were and how capable they would be to control the horses.
“They’ll be fine, you’ll see. We Spaniards are resistant to many things, even immortality. Unlike you, I embrace and enjoy mine.”
It was true we were at opposite poles, Juan often being frivolous and I mostly too serious. Yet we enjoyed time together.
To my surprise, the drivers did have their wits about them, walking a straight line to the carriage, eyes bright.
“I’m ready to journey on, in spite of the terrain,” I remarked. “The sooner we reach our destination the better.”
A weary three days and two inns later, we finally crossed the border to Araige. Eagerly anticipating our arrival and waiting at the rendezvous point was Dario, striking a formidable pose. For a Spaniard to be so tall was unusual. A mortal with a jovial laugh and a strong pat on my back assuring me he was a man who enjoyed the company of other men to drink and be merry with till the small hours. I soon wondered where he found such merriment. The town of Araige was largely uneventful, although I was informed it had become a haven for new artists all painting their vision of the Pyrenees. Dario and Juan spoke French more fluently than I did.
“Have you secured a bed for the night?” I enquired. “Somewhere to have a nice meal, and I’m harboring a desire for a glass or two of good French wine.”
“No cozy inn for you tonight, we’re heading up the mountain.” Dario laughed heartily. “Before nightfall we’ll make base camp and a refuges, until then we keep going.”
Dario was right to keep sight of why I was here. Willingly I gave my compliance. “What are we waiting for?” I said with solid conviction. My creature comforts little more than a luxury. To avoid any wit or sarcasm, I assumed a refuges to be the French term for a mountain hut. If I were wrong, I would soon find out.