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Don Alonzo Pérez de Guzmán El Bueno, Duke of Medina Sidonia and Captain General of the High Seas, had finally gotten over being seasick.

Some would say it's about time, he reflected ruefully. After all, he was commander of the greatest war fleet in history—the Armada of a hundred and thirty ships and thirty thousand men assembled by His Most Catholic Majesty Phillip II for the conquest of England and the restoration of the true Catholic faith to that benighted land.

His chronic seasickness was only one of the arguments he had used in his letter to the King, seeking to decline the appointment to replace the Armada's original commander Don Alvaro de Bazán, Marquis of Santa Cruz—who, some whispered, had been hastened into a not altogether unwelcome grave by the King's constant carping. In retrospect, he realized that letter had been a mistake. He should have slept on it, instead of instantly sitting down and penning a spate of self-deprecation. In particular, he should have known better than to plead inability to spend the lavish amounts a fleet commander was expected to contribute to an expedition out of his private purse. Coming from one of the greatest private landholders in Europe, a plea of poverty had been so patently spurious as to weaken the rest of his case, every word of which happened to be true.

Afterwards, realizing all this, he had pulled himself together and written a second letter stating forthrightly his real reason for not wanting the stupendous honor of commanding the Armada: the fact that he had no faith it could succeed.

Neither letter had had the slightest effect, of course. He knew full well the King's reasons for appointing him. First and foremost, he was the senior grandee of all Spain, inhabiting a stratum far above jealousy. None of the proud, touchy aristocrats who commanded the Armada's squadrons could possibly take offense at being called on to serve under him. Furthermore, in his capacity as hereditary Captain General of Andalusia he had directed the defense of Cadiz the previous year when the English pirate Sir Francis Drake had attacked it . . . and subsequently withdrawn, leaving the town unsacked. So the claim could be made that he had repelled el Draque, whose name Spanish nursemaids used to frighten naughty children. Nonsense, of course; Drake had simply sailed away as soon as he had done what he had come to do and set the Armada's schedule back by a year. It sounded good, though. And so his two letters had been wastes of paper and ink. The King had peremptorily ordered him to Lisbon to lead the Armada to what he had been practically certain was its doom.

The King had assured him otherwise. After all, the Armada sailed in God's cause, and therefore could not fail. And besides, one of the Gray Monks of the Order of Saint Antony was to accompany it, with certain equipment which was to be loaded aboard in the strictest secrecy.

The last had not reassured him as he knew it should have.

Partly, as he admitted to himself, his reservations were a matter of his family background. The Guzmáns had a tradition of enmity with the Ponce de Leóns, including old Juan, who had gone to his grave claiming to have discovered the fountain of youth in 1513. Admittedly, that grave had been an extraordinarily postponed one. But toward the end, his behavior had increasingly aroused almost as much comment as his lack of visible signs of aging. And the manner of his death, when it finally came, had occasioned whispered stories that no one wanted to believe. Equally disturbing had been the stories that had begun to filter back from the church he had established on the site. Shortly after its founding in 1540, the Society of Jesus had been directed to investigate the matter. The Jesuits sent to Florida had returned to Spain with a small, heavily cloaked figure, and petitioned the Church to found a new monastic order named after Saint Antony of Padua, the thirteenth century Franciscan known in his lifetime as "the hammer of the heretics." After a private audience, still shrouded in secrecy, the Holy Father had granted the request.

But it was more than just the Ponce De León connection—more than just a family feud. It was the Gray Monks themselves, who were appearing in Europe in increasing numbers . . . 

It was at that moment that the door to a certain cabin creaked open for the first time since they had left Corunna.

Medina Sidonia swung about, startled. The Gray Monk stood outside the door, with a pair of his human acolytes emerging behind him.

No, the Duke told himself sternly, setting himself a penance for the mental qualifier "human." The Gray Monks were human. They must be. Had not the Holy Father said so? After emerging from that private audience about which strange things were still muttered furtively, Pope Paul III had decreed that the man the Jesuits had brought back from Florida had indeed been just that: a man, possessing a soul. And if he looked peculiar . . . well, so did Indians or Africans.

And yet, the Duke could not stop himself from guiltily thinking, it's not the same. Indians and Africans might be ugly, but they were clearly of the moist, sweaty flesh of Adam. The Gray Monks' flesh didn't seem like flesh at all—dry, pale gray, unpleasantly thin-seeming. And the huge eyes were bottomless pools of undifferentiated darkness, utterly unlike those of any breed of men . . . or, for that matter, any beast. And the nose was an almost nonexistent ridge. And the mouth was a tiny lipless slit above the pointed chin. And then there were those disturbing hands . . . 

No, he thought again, setting himself an additional penance. The Holy Father had spoken. For any good Catholic, that settled the matter.

"Father Jerónimo," he said, inclining his head with his customary grave courtesy.

"My son," acknowledged the Gray Monk in the sibilant way they always spoke, unpleasantly reminiscent of the hissing of snakes, as though they were forming human words without human organs of speech. He returned the nod, then looked up to meet the Duke's eyes. He had to look up. Medina Sidonia was not a tall man, but none of the Gray Monks stood much above four and a half feet. "You appear distracted."

"It is nothing you need concern yourself with, Father. Only a problem of navigation, and other such lowly matters."

"Ah, but anything that touches on the success of this Armada is my concern. After all, we sail in the service of God." It was impossible to read expressions on that face, and the unnatural, whispering voice seemed devoid of emotion. But the Duke could have sworn he detected a strangely inappropriate note of amused irony in the last sentence. "Besides," Father Jerónimo continued, "the King has commanded you to keep me informed of all developments."

This, the Duke knew, was true. His orders had included instructions concerning the Gray Monk which were strangely at variance with King Phillip's usual nit-picking passion for detail. In fact, they went beyond the instruction that had commanded him to follow the advice of Don Diego Flores de Valdés on the nautical matters of which he himself freely admitted he had no practical experience. These orders were open-ended, effectively making the Gray Monk the Armada's co-commander. He was to defer to the advice of Father Jerónimo in all matters in which the Gray Monk chose to interest himself. So far, these had proven to be no matters at all, which had enabled the unwelcome orders to recede into the background of the Duke's thoughts. But now the Gray Monk had emerged from seclusion, and the orders could no longer be ignored.

And besides, the Duke thought to himself in a sudden spasm of self-knowledge, he needed to vent his frustration and despair to someone, on this Saturday afternoon, the sixth of August, anno Domini 1588, when for the first time he knew beyond any possibility of self-deception that the Armada was going to fail, and that it had been doomed to failure from the first.

He abruptly turned away and walked across the quarterdeck of the flagship San Martín. Father Jerónimo followed, and bystanders nervously moved aside at the sight of him. He joined the Duke at starboard rail, and the two of them stared ahead at the coast of France, for they were only a few miles from Calais. Astern, the city of hulls and forest of masts that was the Armada blocked their view of the English ships that followed so inescapably.

"You know my mission," the Duke began, speaking as much to himself as to the Gray Monk, "for you were present at the council back in Lisbon where the King's orders were opened. I am to take the Armada up the English Channel and join with the Duke of Parma, clearing the sea of the English fleet so that he can cross over from the Netherlands with his army, reinforced by six thousand of the troops I've brought from Spain." Crammed into every cubic yard of dark airless below-decks space, he thought, many of them seasick or with diarrhea. He could often smell the nauseating, indescribable filth of their quarters up here on the weather decks. And their vomit and excreta seeped further down, through the storage holds containing the food they had to eat, and still further down into the bilges they lived atop. "Well, for the last several days I have known that I cannot accomplish the second part of those orders. The English ships are so much more nimble than ours that they can always keep the weather gauge, as the mariners call it. They can fight or avoid battle at their pleasure, bombarding us with the long-range culverins they have in far greater numbers than we, never allowing us to come alongside and board them as our soldiers wish."

"Still, you have fought your way up the Channel valiantly, suffering relatively small loss."

"Oh, yes. As long as we maintain our defensive formation, they can only nibble at its edges. But that makes us even less maneuverable, for we must keep formation with the worst tubs among the merchant ships the King collected to serve as troop carriers. We can't touch the English!" For a moment the Duke was unable to continue, choked by weariness and frustration. "No. I cannot clear the seas for Parma."

"Of course you can't, my son. Santa Cruz couldn't have. No one could have."

The Duke looked up sharply and met those strange eyes. As always, he could not read them. And he sternly ordered himself not to feel vindication at the Gray Monk's reference to the revered sea-fighter Santa Cruz, whose shoes the King had impossibly ordered him to fill. Anyway, the feeling only lasted an instant before black despair closed in over him again.

"Your words are a comfort, Father. But early this afternoon I learned that I can't fulfill the first part of my orders either. I can't join hands with the Duke of Parma as the King commands!"

"What do you mean, my son?" As before, the Duke distrusted his instincts in interpreting that expressionless voice. But was there a hint of mockery?

A moment passed before the Duke replied. He was running over in his mind the sequence of events that had brought the Armada to its present pass.

Their route from Lisbon had taken them out of sight of land only once, when they had crossed the Bay of Biscay from Corunna to the Lizard. So the voyage had never required deep-sea navigation. Instead, it had all been a matter of coastal pilotage, or "caping"—making one's way from cape to cape with the aid of the books of sailing instructions the French called routiers, a word which the English had bastardized into "rutters" in their usual way of plundering other peoples' languages. And the Armada carried the most advanced pilot's tool of all: the atlas of sea-charts and rutters compiled by the Dutchman Wagenhaer. ("Waggoner," in another typical English bit of linguistic brigandage.) All this the Duke had learned, trying to remedy his inexperience of the sea in preparation for his unwelcome task. But there was one thing he had not learned until this very day. And now he poured it forth to the Gray Monk because in his distress of soul he must pour it forth to someone. Wasn't that what a man of God was for . . . even when he was this sort of man?

"At ten o'clock this morning, we sighted the French coast, after having edged away from the English side of the Channel yesterday." Until then, they had hugged that side, on the express orders of the King. He had expected the sight of the Armada to ignite a rising of the English Catholics against the heretic bastard Elizabeth, for so he had been assured by English exiles who made their living by telling him what he wanted to hear. In fact, the only result had been to force the Armada to fight within sight of ports from which its enemies could be readily resupplied, while its own stocks of powder and shot ran lower and lower. "I have continually sent pinnaces to the Duke of Parma with letters urging him to be ready to meet us when we come within sight of his port of Dunkirk, although I have received no reply. But then, at four o'clock this afternoon, as we were already approaching Calais, the pilots informed me that they can't take us there! As Wagenhaer explains, there is a series of sandbanks running parallel to the Flemish coast, less than three fathoms deep—and extending twelve miles out to sea off Dunkirk. Ocean-going ships like ours can't approach closer than that."

"Only now they tell you this? But surely there must be a way through the banks."

"Only one very narrow channel. Wagenhaer warns that it is death to try to bring deep-draft ships though it without an experienced Flemish pilot. And we have none." The Duke mastered himself and continued. "So we can't fetch Parma's army as planned. The only hope is for him to come out and meet us. When I met with my council of war, most of them were for pressing on to Dunkirk anyway—they simply couldn't believe it!"

"Understandable." The note of irony in the Gray Monk's strange voice was now unmistakable. "But you overruled them?"

"Yes. I've given orders for us to anchor four miles short of Calais. We'll be there soon. Maybe the wind and tide will carry the English on past us before they see what we're doing and can drop anchor, so they'll lose the weather gauge." Even as he said it, he knew he didn't really believe it. And Father Jerónimo didn't even bother to comment. "I'll continue to send messages to Parma. I've already asked him to send us armed fly-boats—the light, handy, flat-bottomed vessels that are the only warships that can maneuver in the Dutch shallows. Now it becomes imperative that he do so, and use the rest of his fly-boats to bring his army out."

Father Jerónimo did something the Duke had never seen him do before. He opened his tiny mouth a little wider than usual—wide enough to reveal his disturbing lack of normal teeth—and emitted a series of high-pitched hissing sounds. Had such a thing not been altogether unthinkable, the Duke would have sworn he was laughing.

"Parma has no fly-boats, my son. His 'fleet' consists of river barges that can only cross the Channel in perfect weather under your protection. If they tried to come out and meet you, the fly-boats of the Dutch rebel Justin of Nassau would sink them in the shallows where your warships cannot go. After which Parma's soldiers would have to swim back to shore in armor."

The Duke stared at him, aghast. "How can you know this, Father?"

"I know many things, often by means you would find mysterious. But there is no mystery here. I know it because I am deep in the King's counsels . . . and he knew it four months ago."

Medina Sidonia found himself without the power of speech.

"Even last year," the Gray Monk continued, "Parma was sending messengers to the King, emphasizing the limitations of his barges. The King insists that all communications be channeled through him, in his office in the Escorial. So naturally Parma informed him rather than you. Finally, in April of this year, Parma sent Luis Cabrera de Córdoba, who spoke to the King as boldly as any man has ever dared, explaining to him that the junction of the Armada with Parma's barges, the crux of the whole plan, is impractical. From which the King should have drawn the conclusion that the entire enterprise was pointless. But he pressed ahead, not bothering to inform you. He always assumes that God will send convenient miracles to dissolve any difficulties. Also, he is a man incapable of admitting a mistake, even—no, especially—to himself."

The Duke didn't even notice the Gray Monk's lèse majesté, which at any other time would have scandalized him. All he could think of was the pointlessness of all they had suffered already, and the even greater suffering that certainly lay in their future.

"Father," he heard himself say, "if you've known this all along, even back in Lisbon before we sailed, then why didn't you tell me?"

"Because from the beginning I have wanted us to come to this point." The dark eyes held absolutely no feeling. If the eyes are the windows of the soul, thought the Duke with a shudder, what sort of soul am I looking into now? "Shortly after the Lord High Admiral of England anchors off Calais, he will undoubtedly be joined by Lord Henry Seymour, who has been patrolling the Strait of Dover in case Parma should come out—even though the Dutch could have told him better. And I want them all together."

"But then we'll be outnumbered as well as outgunned," protested the Duke.

"It is of no moment." All at once, the mocking amusement was back. "You see, the King is quite right: a miracle is going to enable this Armada to succeed in spite of everything. I am going to provide that miracle, using the devices that came aboard with me."

"What are these things? Holy relics?"

"Far from it. They have been brought from Florida over the past year. My acolytes and I will assemble them in a few of your pinnaces, which will then destroy the English fleet. Afterwards they will destroy the Dutch as well, if necessary. Then you will have the leisure to obtain the pilots you need from Parma and proceed down the coast to a point where Parma can join you simply by bringing his barges out of harbor at high water and drifting down on the ebb. And England, defended only by a militia of yokels, will lie open to Europe's best professional army, led by its best general."

"How will these pinnaces do what all my galleons have been unable to do?"

"It is very difficult to explain in your language. The devices send forth a stream of . . . very tiny particles which are the opposite of the particles of which the world is made. But that doesn't mean anything to you, does it? Let us say that their presence in the world is a wrongness; when they meet the stuff of the world, they and it both die, and in their dying they release a . . . fire? No, that's not right. It will be as though bits of the sun have been brought to Earth."

Medina Sidonia chose his words with care. "Father, my conscience compels me to say that I am . . . uncomfortable with this. I cannot but think that what you seem to be describing—destruction of the matter of Creation itself—is an impious tampering with God's works."

"What you think is of no consequence." All at once, the amusement and the discursiveness were gone, replaced by a cold emptiness—the very negation of the soul. "Remember, we are not truly equals. You know the King's command. And remember also what happens to those who defy the Order of Saint Antony. Surely you have heard stories. Be assured that they are true."

The Duke had indeed heard the stories, as the tentacles of fear had gradually spread across Spain and further into Europe. He held his tongue and looked into those enormous unblinking eyes, into bottomless darkness.

But then the moment passed, and Father Jerónimo's mouth opened in that barely perceptible way. This time the amusement held an indulgent note. "Besides, my son, why should you of all people object? Were it not for me, the Armada would fail . . . and you would be the scapegoat for its failure. Indeed, humans being what they are, they might over the course of time convince themselves that you were a fool and a coward, and that the Armada would have succeeded if only someone else had been in command. Utter nonsense, of course, as you and I both know. You are an organizational genius, without whom the Armada would never have set sail within the King's deadline. And your courage is beyond reproach, as you've consistently shown. You have done as well as anyone could have, trying to make a fatally flawed plan work while giving the King wise advice that he was too pigheaded to follow. Well, I will see to it that there is no injustice to your memory. Posterity will remember you, along with Parma, as one of the conquerors of England!"

"I lack all such ambitions, Father." The Duke's gaze strayed astern, toward the England he could no longer see. Family tradition held that the first Guzmáns had come to Spain six hundred years ago from England, of all places—Saxon adventurers who had plunged into the wars against the Moors and won a reputation as reliable and ruthless soldiers, wading through a sea of blood into the ranks of the nobility. He often wondered how that line of grim warriors could have produced himself, the seventh Duke of Medina Sidonia. He had never wanted anything more than to live in the Andalusian sun as the beneficent landlord of his vast estates, amid the orange groves and the vineyards that yielded the wines of Jerez—sherry to the English drinkers who had never allowed such trivialities as war to stop them from buying it. "I am here, not from any lust for glory, but only out of duty to the King."

"Well, then, if you prefer, I will enable you to succeed in doing your duty. And never forget your duty to God, as well. Must the English be consigned to eternal damnation as heretics because of your quibbles and qualms?"

It was a familiar line of argument. And its force could not be denied—at least not publicly. Privately . . . the Duke thought back to the freakish June storm that had scattered the Armada and left him sitting in Corunna, wondering for the first time if it was really the will of God that King Phillip add the crown of England to his collection.

He angrily thrust aside the insidious doubt. He had to believe that the Armada's cause was God's. Now, more than ever, he must believe it.


Of course the English weren't caught by surprise when the Armada's anchor chains came thundering down. They anchored smartly, a culverin-shot astern. Three hours later, Lord Henry Seymour's squadron joined them, and the following morning the Lord High Admiral called a council of war. The captain's cabin of the flagship Ark Royal was barely large enough to accommodate all those who had been summoned, especially now that Sir William Wynter, Seymour's Vice Admiral, had arrived.

At least we don't have to fit Martin Frobisher's big arse in, thought Sir Francis Drake. The boorish Yorkshireman would have been insufferable, having been knighted just two days ago. And there was the little matter of his having sworn to make him, Drake, "spend the best blood in his belly" over Drake's perhaps slightly irregular taking of the galleon Rosario as a prize. All things considered, it was just as well he wasn't present. Indeed, Drake's own presence at the council just might have something to do with his absence.

Drake dismissed Frobisher from his thoughts and focused his attention on Wynter, who was expounding what he thought was an original idea.

"And so, my masters," the grizzled Wynter concluded, "the Dons have anchored all bunched together, to leeward of us in a tidal stream—just the target for an attack by fire."

Charles, Lord Howard of Effingham, nodded solemnly, for all the world as though everyone in the main English fleet hadn't already thought of fireships. Letting Wynter think it was his own idea was a diplomatic gesture toward Lord Henry Seymour, to whom Wynter stood in the same relation as Drake did to the Lord High Admiral, that of well-salted seaman to lubberly aristocratic commander. Seymour's hot blood was near the boiling point after his enforced idleness guarding the Thames against an illusory threat while others won glory in battle, and he needed all the soothing he could get. Howard had grasped that, as he did so many things.

God be thanked the Queen has such a kinsman, thought Drake, not for the first time. Howard wasn't getting any younger, and he might not have much more nautical experience than the seasick Spanish duke who commanded the Armada for the same reason of dazzlingly noble blood. But he did not lack decisiveness or good judgment—including the good judgment to listen to Drake. When Drake thought of some of the other blue bloods they might have gotten for Lord High Admiral, he shuddered.

"Your suggestion has much merit, Master Wynter," Howard said graciously. "It's in my mind that the Spaniards may well be even more than usually panicked by fireships, after their recent experience with the Hellburner of Antwerp." A grim chuckle ran around the table at the mention of the super-fireship that had sent a thousand of Parma's throat-cutters to their reward.

"All the more so," Captain Thomas Fenner put in, "because they know the Italian Giambelli, who built it, is now in England. What they don't know is that all he's doing for us is trying to put a boom across the Thames to keep them from coming upriver. They'll piss in their armor at the thought of fireships!"

"And," Drake added, "they'll cut their cables in their haste to be off, and put out to sea. Then the wind as well as we will be against them if they try to turn back and join with Parma. And once they're in the North Sea, in the season that's coming on, lacking anchors . . . well, my masters, the Duke of Medina Sidonia will wish he were at home among his orange trees—if, indeed, he hasn't been wishing himself there all along!"

There was general predatory laughter. The English had anchored off Calais in a subdued mood after the battles in the Channel. The long-range gunnery of which they'd had such high hopes had proven unable to do significant harm to the galleons' stout timbers, while the tight Spanish formation had prevented them from closing to short range. Now they saw a chance to break up that formation, and the close air of the cabin was thick with their eagerness.

The council broke up, and Howard and Drake saw Wynter off with many expressions of mutual esteem. As Wynter's boat pulled away toward Seymour's flagship Vanguard, Drake turned to Howard with a grin.

"If only he knew we've already begun to prepare fireships!"

"Yes. A pity the ones we sent for can't possibly arrive from Dover in time. But there's been no lack of volunteers to provide ships—like the five you've offered from your own squadron."

"It was the least I could do for God and Her Majesty!" Drake struck a noble pose.

Howard gave him a sour look. Drake was really hopeless at this sort of thing, although like everyone else (except Frobisher) he could never stay annoyed at the irrepressible pirate for long. "And of course the fact that you can claim more than the fair market value of those rotting hulks in compensation had nothing to do with it."

"My Lord! I am deeply hurt!"

"Oh, never mind. It's all one to me, as long as this works. And it should work, even though we shall have to do without Signor Giambelli's infernal machines." Howard's gaze strayed to the dark mass of the anchored Spanish fleet. "Only . . ."

Drake's expression abruptly hardened, and his eyes narrowed as they did when he sighted a threatening sail on the horizon " 'Only,' my Lord?"

Howard did not meet his eyes. "It's said they have a Gray Monk with them."

The August air seemed to get colder.

"Well, what of it?" demanded Drake after a moment, in a voice that clanged with defiance a little too loudly. "He hasn't worked any sorcery so far. Or if he has, it hasn't sunk a single ship of ours. Why should we be afraid of papist mummery from some unnatural spawn of Hell?"

"Of course, of course," Howard muttered. But he didn't sound convinced.

"Well," said Drake after another uncomfortable silence, "I'd best be getting back to Revenge." They made their farewells, and it was almost as it had been before.

But as he was rowed across the water to his ship, Drake could not rid himself of an oppressive feeling of foreboding. It made no sense. Everything he had said to the Lord High Admiral had been true and heartfelt. So whence came this vague sense of horrible and unknowable wrongness, as though something that had no business in the world was about to plunge the affairs of men out of the realm of reason and into that of madness?


By the time Lord Henry Seymour's squadron rendezvoused with the English fleet as Father Jerónimo had foretold, the Duke had already dispatched yet another pinnace with a letter to Parma. The following day he sent two others, each more urgently phrased than the last. Toward the end of the day, a message finally arrived—but it was not the long-awaited reply from Parma. Instead, it was from the Duke's own secretary, whom he had sent ashore to report on Parma's preparations. He now reported that Parma's army would probably not be ready to embark within a fortnight.

Father Jerónimo made light of it. "Parma has understandably lost faith in the plan. He has also grown disillusioned with a King who is niggardly with rewards. He is exerting the least possible effort. But when the news reaches him that the English fleet is destroyed, he will have no choice but to bestir himself. He will probably even regain his enthusiasm."

"But we can't remain much longer in this exposed anchorage. The weather could change at any time. Already our ships have had to drop a second anchor because of the tides. And the English are in a perfect position to let the wind and the tide carry fireships down upon us." The Duke couldn't suppress a shudder at the worst nightmare of naval warfare. Wooden ships were hard to sink, but they burned like torches.

"Of course. I'm sure they have already thought of it, and are preparing the fireships even now. But I have taken this into account. Under the circumstances, it would be natural for you to station pinnaces between the fleets, to grapple any fireships and tow them away."

"Yes, Father," nodded the Duke. "I've already given the order."

"Just so. The English will have no reason to suspect that those pinnaces are anything other than what they seem to be. But in fact they will be my pinnaces. So the surprise will be complete. And their shock, when they are eagerly anticipating putting us to flight, will be all the greater. So the appearance of their fireships—which I would expect late tonight or in the small hours of the morning—will be our signal for the unleashing of the . . . miracle." Again came the tiny, ironic smile. "Would you like to be aboard one of the pinnaces, so you can witness what God has in store for the heretics?"

"My place is here on the flagship, Father." It was perfectly true, as far as it went. But in fact he wanted nothing to do with the engines the Gray Monk's acolytes had been assembling aboard the pinnaces. Engines? They seemed too light and flimsy for such a name, being largely constructed of the strange glass-that-was-not-glass he knew of from hearsay. He could not imagine how they could do anyone any harm.

Each pinnace would carry one acolyte, to operate the device. The small crews were all volunteers, and had been warned to expect supernatural manifestations. Father Jerónimo expected them to be paralyzed by terror anyway, but he had assured the Duke that at that point it would scarcely matter.

"I, too, should remain here," the Gray Monk agreed. "But we can watch from the quarterdeck. I think I can promise you rare entertainment!"


It was midnight when they caught sight of the lights that appeared at the edge of the English fleet, across the moon-shimmering sea. Eight lights, that grew rapidly in brilliance to reveal blazing ships larger than expected, sweeping rapidly down the tide toward the Armada's anchorage.

They watched from San Martín's quarterdeck in horrified fascination. Most of the team the Duke had gathered around him to command the Armada were there: Don Diego Flores de Valdés, the seaman; Don Francisco de Bovadillo, the senior general of the land troops; and Juan Martínez de Recalde, Spain's most respected admiral since the death of Santa Cruz and, at age sixty-two, like a father to the rest of them—especially to the Duke, who at thirty-seven was the youngest of them all.

These were men who stood out for courage even among Spaniards of their era, in whom courage was assumed. But they all shied away from the Gray Monk and made certain surreptitious signs. Father Jerónimo took no notice. He stared fixedly into the night and was the first to notice the oncoming fireships.

Diego Flores de Valdés cleared his throat and addressed the Gray Monk with obvious effort. "Ah . . . Father, as you know, our ships have been ordered to buoy their anchor cables and cut them, and stand out to sea, if any fireships get through the screen of pinnaces. Perhaps, just in case, we should alert them."

"There is no need," said the Gray Monk, never taking his eyes off the approaching fireships and the pinnaces that were converging on them—as they would have been converging on them in any case, in an effort to catch them with grapnels.

Somewhere deep in his soul, the Duke felt a . . . wavering in reality itself. As though a moment had come when the course of the world was unsteady, and was about to be diverted into uncharted waters—waters never included in God's design. He automatically rejected the somehow heretical thought.

"Now," he heard Father Jerónimo's hissing whisper.

Between the pinnaces of the screen and the English fireships, lightning flashed. But it wasn't lightning as God meant lightning to be. It followed a straight line, and it was more blinding than any lightning. And when it touched a fireship, that fireship did not catch fire or even explode. It became a ball of fire, and the secondary eruptions of the combustibles it carried were mere flickers of dull orange flame around the edges of . . . what had Father Jerónimo said? Oh, yes: bits of the sun.

He was still trying to assimilate what his eyes were seeing when the sound reached them—a thunderclap that sent then all staggering backwards, clutching at the taffrail.

"Mother of God!" gasped the hard-bitten soldier Bovadillo. Recalde, whose health had not been good, collapsed to the deck.

Only Father Jerónimo was unfazed. He spoke with the calmness of one who was seeing only what he had expected to see. "The acolytes have been told what to expect, and they have their instructions. These weapons are light, short-ranged ones, you understand—think of the swivel guns your ships mount against boarders. But at any time now the pinnaces should come within extreme range of the English fleet."

At that moment, the unnatural lightnings began to flash across the water to the dark mass of English ships—which immediately ceased to be dark, as night became a ghastly day. Ship after ship, at the touch of what the Gray Monk had tried to describe—"antimatter," the Duke thought, even as the ultimate bringer of evil was to be the "Antichrist"—erupted in that horrible conversion of its own substance into the fires of Hell.

It only lasted a little while. As though from a great distance, the Duke heard Father Jerónimo explaining that the weapons could only put forth their lightnings for a limited time. And it no longer mattered. What was left of the English fleet was dissolving into a chaotic rout as captains, insane with terror, cut their cables. It was the fate they had planned for the Spaniards with their fireships. But often it proved to be too late, as flaming debris from the shattering explosions crashed into ship after ship, setting them afire—natural fire, the Duke thought numbly. Not the sort of fire he had just seen. He had seen Saint Antony's fire.

The Gray Monk turned to face their stares. He showed no emotion whatever as he stood silhouetted against the holocaust that had been the English fleet. "You must now send a pinnace to Parma without delay. The weapons will be . . . renewed in time to dispose of the Dutch, if necessary. So the way to England is now open." He turned to go to his cabin, then paused and gave the Duke his mocking look. "You seem disturbed, my son."

"What are you?" whispered Medina Sidonia.

"Whatever do you mean? The Holy Father has explained—"

"What are you?" the Duke repeated as though he had not heard.

"Does it really matter? And at any rate, it is not your concern. All you need to know is that this Armada is dedicated to the service of God, and that God has sent the miracle on which the King relied." The mocking look was unabated. "And therefore any means—any means whatever—that permitted this miracle to occur are God's means, and not for you to question."

"Including the powers of darkness?"

"Ah, but if they advance the cause of the true Catholic Church, how can they be the powers of darkness? Do not trouble yourself with these matters, my son. Merely do your duty, and spare yourself the torture of doubt. Onward, to purge England with fire and cleanse it with blood!" He turned with a swirl of gray robes, and was gone.

It must be true, thought Medina Sidonia in his agony of soul. God moves in mysterious ways. Who am I to question them?

And besides . . . if it isn't true, what will my life have meant?

Alonzo Pérez de Guzmán, whom men called El Bueno, "The Good," turned to his subordinates and proceeded, as always, to do his duty to his King and his faith.


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