Even from the depths of my delirium the thunder drummed into me as if the earth was threatening to tear itself apart. It called out to me like a returning nightmare, a memory forever etched into my soul. It was Illap the God of Thunder raging againt the ancient, everstanding Apu, the Mountain God. I heard it long before I felt it pounding in my heart and in my bones. It seemed to echo throughout my body. The sound should have terrified me for I recognized it as the Urabamba River.
Instead I found a strange comfort in it.
Letting my mind take me where it would, I slipped back, back many years before, remembering, my slide into the past accompanied by the swaying of the litter that I was carried in by six of the mountain Inca.
Having lost all that my father had for holdings and land, worse still, his honor and name many, many years ago, having offered my young soul for all that he once had, for the one chance that he would again be absolved, I had come up the fool time and again. Yet I knew that my father had sent me away when I was younger for my education and training. I had felt abandoned, not wanted. It was only now that I realized that it was not because he did not love me, but perhaps because he loved me too much that he had me live with my uncle, to be raised and schooled until my time for the University came.
Thinking of my father I knew that being left to his own devices to train, educate and properly raise me that he would have failed. He was away so much with the wars in Italy when I was very young and when he was at home he doted on me, spoiling me, babying me to make up for his absences. No, I am sure he did the right thing by sending me away. Otherwise I would have been raised a spoiled, pampered son who craved the soft life and the riches that came with his station.
Instead I was sent to my uncle’s vast holdings in Niza. My life, as I knew it, was gone. Of course my quarters were in my uncle’s sumptuous estate overlooking the Mediterranean, a view fit for a king and we did take our late evening meal in great state, all bathed and dressed in our finery, servants clucking around us served fine foods and wine before we all turned in. One would think I was a prince. That was my life after dark when my uncle welcomed traders and merchantmen from nearby Savoy, Sardinia and Corsica, from Italy and from far away Greece, Egypt and Constantinople.
They flocked to his sumptuous tables, groaning with food, his hall filled with laughter and music, the wine flowing freely in the warm, soft air off the ocean. When the meal was done they would retire to his library or more often to the gardens. It was there, it was whispered by the household staff, that fortunes were made and lost, contracts drawn up and partnerships formed. More often than not they burned the night candles down to nothing as trades and deals were formed by some of the most powerful men in Europe.
That was my life at night. When I awoke on the first day, all those privileges that I took for granted and believed to be my birthright, vanished as if no more than a fanciful dream.
Dawn was when the real day started on my uncle’s estate. I worked the fields in the early morning like a common farmhand, took my turn at the butts with my young cousins in the late morning, swinging the heavy, blunted clumsy swords at the solid oak butts until our arms felt like lead. When my cousins quit, I kept at it, willing myself, as the smallest among them, to become the best. My fingers bled, blistered and bled again, then became calloused. My shoulders and arm strength grew with every swing and I learned, on my own, to use my hips to put the full force of my young strength into the blade.
My cousins, like myself, ate with the peasants at the morning and noon meal, then there was the afternoon hours closeted in study with several tutors and priests who taught us our letters, mathematics, Greek and Latin, the sciences, Astronomy and Astrology and opened up my world to great literature. This time became my sanctuary, my haven in my new world and I embraced it as I would my own mother should she ever come to fetch me home.
As I devoured the learning offered me by the dour tutors and priests, I was befriended by one of them, a powerfully built man with one eye from Constantinople, that domain of the great Byzantine Greek Empire. It was whispered that he had been an Emir in his own land, was kidnapped, became a galley slave, only to gain his freedom and join the famous pirate Barbarossa himself. For years he was his navigator and was beside him for many of his infamous battles, or so the household gossip went.
I dared to ask him about it and slowly he began to reveal the past.
When he spoke of this time in his life to me he called Barbarossa by his given name, Khair-ed-Din. Barbarossa was the name given him by the merchantmen and sailors of the Mediterranean, he explained to me. It meant simply, Red Beard, though the name Barbarossa invoked images of a giant barbarian, wreaking havoc on the shipping and trade in the Mediterranean for years.
My tutor was a warrior as well as an intellectual. To me it seemed the right balance. He had been schooled first in Germany and then in Egypt and Carthage, in Greece and Rome. During the day he taught me the wonders of the world, the wonders of literature and the doors it could open for me; at night, while my uncle brokered his deals in his gardens, he taught me to use the sword, to defend myself, to become a warrior.
I didn’t know it then, but he was my first fencing instructor. He would be the first of many and I was then just ten years of age. He believed the sword was an extension of one’s self, that it became a part of you and that was how he trained me. Instead of using the sword as a battering ram to break down an opponent’s guard, to hack at his shield and back him up, he taught to use it as it was intended, as he had been schooled by the German and Italian masters.
In the beginning, I was clumsy and slow, I was so weak that I could not take up a broadsword, even to train, and so we used rapiers. They were thin, whip like swords that were later called the epee and they stung when I botched a parry and hurt like Hell when he landed a full blow on my arms, legs or torso.
His school of fencing and the art of defense was based on the German, Ergriindung der ritterlicher Kunst der FechtereiI, which would later translate into the finer Italian art of fencing and of course from there to the French. He barked commands and attacks, parries and thrusts in German as he taught me the finest skills of swordplay, and then later began speaking in Italian, his voice now soft and indolent as he used more of his wrist than his arm and shoulder. I learned what the movements were though I knew little of either language. I memorized the fencing terms, and was an apt pupil learning easily how to defend myself and how to kill, quickly, with one or two strokes.
Oh yes, I learned that all too well.
Looking back, I believe his greatest gift was opening my mind to the art of cartography and the infamous map makers that had come before me. I remember when he unrolled his first scrolled map on his desk before me. My eyes couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was a full color map of the then known world by Claudius Ptolemy, circa 1482.
“Alas my son,” Malik said, as his fingers caressed the edges of the map almost reverently. “It is not the original, but there are few copies in the world. I am blessed by the true God to have one of them.”
For me it was a revelation. In an instant I was transformed, my eyes devouring the edges of oceans and countries, the borders of lands I had never seen. The map took me with it, along its journey across seas and mountains, my fingers tracing the outlines as my mind filled with wonderous images of gypsies in colorful caravans, black natives deep in jungles, swarthy pirates darting out from hidden isolated retreats, long caravans crossing desert sands with camels and turbaned, bearded pirates of the desert, almond shaped eyed people from the Orient and the northern giants with their huge axes and wild hair above the lands of England.
All of this I saw, one vibrant image after another flashing in my mind as my fingers ran along the known world.
“You have the gift,” he said softly. “You can picture the places on the map where other men see only lines and bodies of water.”
He showed me many of his treasures after that, maps by the greatest cartographers of our time. Ptolemy’s Map of the Inhabited World, Fra Mauro’s “Mappamundo” from 1459 and other treasures. These were not just maps or sea charts, I knew that as soon as I laid eyes on them, they were works of art.
From that moment on, I drew maps and routes of my surroundings, my known world and all the imagined coastline and borders. I loved to draw the maps, never as art, but as a true cartographer, I drew maps to show others the way.
Along with his classic scrolls of maps and ancient writings, he taught me literature and learning, he taught me about life and belief and the sword. He taught me how to kill with the blade. For five years he was my tutor and fencing instructor, my philosopher, priest and my friend. All that changed when I turned sixteen and was sent to the center of learning in Seville. I never saw him again, but I never forgot him.
His name was Malik Sala a-Din. He was no Christian but it was from him that I learned about God, years before the Franciscans taught me. His God was one you could talk to.
He told me that his God listened, and so I spoke to him as a young man and awaited his answer.