Saturday, December 03, 2011

Land to the North - Chapter 12

As had happened so often in this new land, I came awake slowly, not sure of where I was or what was happening around me. My head ached and when I opened my eyes, I found that I was lying in the grass outside. I could hear people talking around me. I sat up, a hand shading my eyes. In front of me was a rank of black clad warriors and behind them was the beginnings of a stadium.

I climbed to me feet, wavered as a curtain of black descended and then stood erect. I saw Eric lying on the grass, a hand to his head. His face was pale, as if he was about to be sick. He groaned and sat up.

“What’s going on?” he moaned.

I touched a hip but the .45 was gone.

There was a burst of cheering as Eric got up. He stood there for a moment and then asked again, the anger creeping into his voice, “What in the hell is going on?”

A sword, thrown by someone to our right stuck in the ground near me feet. A second one joined the first. Neither of us moved, but the crowd went wild.

In Spanish, the high priest, the man who had stood on the ramp and killed the children and who had ordered the attack on us, said, “This is trial by ordeal. Two of our best warriors will be pitted against you. If you win the battle, you will live for another day. If you lose, you will die and your bones will rot in the forest. There is no appeal.”

I reached out and pulled the sword from the ground. I hefted it, swung it right and left and then asked, “Where is my personal weapon?”

“Your thunderstick has been taken as a gift for the emperor. It is now his. You will use the weapon given to you.”

“And if we don’t fight?” asked Eric.

“Then you will die.” He said simply, “And they will die most horribly. They die as infidels and will be deprived of their afterlife.”

I turned and saw that both Christine and Huana were bound to poles. Ropes were drawn tightly around their bodies, holding them upright. Around their feet were stacks of kindling and piles of wood.

“When the battle begins,” said the high priest, “the fire begins. Win quickly and you may save your woman. Lose and they die in the fire. Fight slowly and they die slowly. It is all up to you to finish.”

I glanced at Eric. He didn’t look too good. His hair hung in his face and he was sweating heavily. I didn’t think it was the tropical heat that was bothering him. He was sick with some kind of fever. That was an additional handicap.

To the high priest, I said, “If I dispatch my adversary, am I allowed to help my friend?”

“You my do as you choose, remembering that the women are in mortal peril.”

“Then let’s begin,” I said with more confidence than I felt.

The high priest raised his hands and clapped them once, twice, three times. To the sound of blaring trumpets, a caravan entered through the gate. First, there were naked women scattering flower pedals, their hair adorned with brightly colored feathers. They were followed by naked men, carrying a wheelless carriage on long poles set up on their shoulders. Inside each was a human figure and as the procession approached, I saw mummified bodies inside. I learned later that these were the mortal remains of past rulers, brought out for ceremonies. When the rulers were set down where they could watch the activities, four old women, dressed in pure white danced out and began waving palm leaves as if trying to cool the dead. I suppose it was to keep the flies away.

With the rulers ready and in position to watch, the living emperor descended the marble steps and entered the royal box. He sat on a carved, wooden throne and held a hand high. When he dropped it, four men charged out. Two of them held flaming torches which they tossed into the kindling and wood piled around Christine and Huana. As the flames started to build, the two other men, stripped to the waist attacked Eric and me. I held my sword high, point up, watching the dancing feet of my enemy. He was a big man, well muscled. There was almost no hair on his body. That on his head gleamed in the sun. It was long, black, and tied back in a ponytail. He grinned at me with white, nearly perfect teeth.

He attached immediately, moving in and chopping at my head. He swung his sword with strength, trying to kill me quickly. I parried the blow and then swung my sword. He leaped left and countered. Our blades hit with a ringing of metal against medal. He twisted his hand, trying to flip my weapon from me, but I was prepared for that. I snapped my hand around and drew first blood as I slashed his side. The wound, though superficial, draw a shout from the crowd.

Then, behind me, I became aware of the crackling of the fires. I knew that the wood was beginning to burn and the flames would be spreading quickly. There was no sound from either Christine or from Huana.

My adversary attacked again, swinging his sword like he was clearing vines from a jungle trail. He kicked out with a foot and danced closer. I retreated, parrying. Sweat popped out on him, making his body glisten, but he didn’t seem to be tiring at all. He was as strong as when we began.

I stumbled then and a roar rose from the crowd. My man leaped at me, swinging his sword like he had gotten a fat one on the outside of the plate. I ducked under it and rolled. He chopped down, his sword cleaving the soft earth. I jabbed and caught him on the leg. Blood flowed freely and the crowd roared its pleasure.

Behind me I heard the first cry of fright. The flames had to be getting close to the women but I couldn’t afford to look. As my enemy fell back, I got to me feet and advanced on him. He hobbled, favoring his wounded leg, but I was afraid that he was making it seem worse than it really was.

To the left, I could hear Eric fighting with his man. Their blades rang with blows, each of them grunting with the effort.

Now I attacked, swinging, thrusting and circling. I danced around my man so that I could look beyond him, at the fires. Pillars of white smoke obscured the women. They were dark shapes, hidden behind the flames, and inside the smoke. One of them was whimpering but I didn’t know which.

By checking them, I lost the advantage. The man came at me, roaring his fury, trying to disorient me. I ducked under a blow, fell, and rolled. He thought that he had me then. He leaped at me and swung. Instead of rolling away as I had in the past, I rolled toward him. Caught by surprise, he hesitated. That gave me the opening I needed. I jammed my sword into his side. There was a shriek of surprise and pain, a fountain of blood and then the odor of death. The man fell, wrenching the sword from my hand.

I scrambled to my hands and knees as the man dropped. I grabbed my sword, tugging it free. Eric was holding his own and had blooded his enemy once or twice. I spun and raced toward the fires. At first the flames were to high and hot for me. I ran around the end and saw an opening. I leaped over a pile of wood, stumbled but didn’t fall. Huana was sagging against her bonds, as if she had passed out. I slashed at the rope holding her. I cut several of them but had to be careful. Her hands were tied behind her and the pole. I needed to get closer.

The smoke poured up as the fire roared. It stung my eyes and filled my lungs. I blinked rapidly, the tears streaming down my face. I sawed at the ropes around Huana’s wrists.

Christine saw me then and screamed at me, “Hurry! Please hurry!”

The ropes parted and Huana fell to her knees. I helped her to her feet and pushed her away from the post and the fire. As she tripped and began to crawl out of the smoke, I turned to Christine. I could feel the heat of the flames beginning to bake me. My eyebrows began to curl and sizzle in the heat. I could barely see with the stinging smoke burning my eyes. I coughed. It felt as if my lungs had caught fire.

Christine was beginning to babble, her voice rising in panic. I cut the ropes that held her legs to the pole. She jerked, vainly trying to pull herself free. Her bonds cut into her body, drawing blood on her arms and shoulders.

I used my sword and cut through the majority of the rope. I coughed again as the smoke filled my lungs, making me dizzy. I slipped to my knees and lost sight of the pole.

Christine was shouting now. Screaming, almost incoherently, as the heat grew and the smoke thickened.

I reached up and touched the pole. I slid my hand down it until I came to hers, bound behind her. I couldn’t see now. By touch, I could the ropes and felt the wetness of blood. I knew that I had injured her but she didn’t cry out. Without a word, she leaped from the pole, staggered through the smoke and flame and then ran for safety.

Now it was time for me to get out. On my hands and knees, I crawled over the rough surface of the logs, cutting myself badly in the process. I kept going until I could taste the clean, fresh air. Shakily, I got to my feet. I dropped the sword and scrubbed at my eyes, trying to find Eric. I hoped he had been able to dispatch his man because I was in no condition to fight anyone else. At least not right then.

As I stood there, fighting for air, trying to see, I heard a chant from the crowd. A rhythmic chant that rocked the stadium and shook the ground. I looked toward them and saw they were on their feet, shouting and clapping and stomping. On the grass, in front of the dead rulers, were the bodies of the two men sent to fight us. Eric was standing over one, looking down at the dead man, as if he didn’t believe that he had won.

I stooped to pick up my sword and tossed the weapon at the feet of the high priest. He glanced at the bloody blade and then at the dirty bodies of the women standing behind me, coughing because of the smoke. Sweat was dripping from them and there were smears of dirt and ash on them. He turned up his nose, as if he found their very presence distasteful.

“You have won,” he said.

“Damn right,” I said. “We are now free.”

He grinned evilly. “You are not free. Tomorrow you fight again. Tomorrow will be the same as today. And each day you will fight until you are killed and your bodies thrown into the flames to be destroyed along with those of the women.”

“Or until there are no more warriors to face us,” I said with a confidence that I didn’t feel.

“We are many thousand and you are but two. Without your thunder weapons, you will surely fall.”

“I wouldn’t count on it,” I said.

“Tomorrow will show us how strong and brave you are. Tomorrow will be the true test.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. We had just defeated two of the strongest men I had ever faced. We had done it with the weapons they provided and unless they took away those weapons, I believed that we could hold out indefinitely. I hoped after a couple of days, they would give up.

But that was not to be. The high priest turned and prayed loudly, the crowd following him. When he finished, he spun and said, “Tomorrow you will each fight two warriors and if you win, the next day it will be three each. Laugh now, infidel.”

Land to the North - Chapter 11

I had expected someone to pull a fast one on us. I had thought they were leading us off to either another dungeon or to an arena for execution. Since no one had tried to take my pistol from me, I couldn’t see any reason for causing trouble now.

With Eric and the woman, I followed the officer as he began to climb the steps that lead up into the white building. There were massive pillars holding up the roof, wide doorways that seemed to contain no doors and huge, open windows without glass in them. The front of the building was covered with carvings and designs including swirls, serpents, and sun bursts.

As we reached the top step, two dozen men poured from the building. They were all dressed in black and carried black shields. They had on black boots and held obsidian spears. They formed two ranks, on either side of the door but didn’t try to keep us from entering.

When the officer led us through the great door and we stood in a marble and stone area that had to be a hundred feet in diameter. A staircase wound around the wall, leading to a second and third level. The walls were decorated with woven rugs showing a wide variety of scenes. The one that struck me was a picture of a large battle. Men such as those I had seen lining the plaza fighting with white bearded men who were dressed like Spanish conquistadors.

A man dressed in the finest white robes I had ever seen appeared on the steps. The robe was trimmed with red and yellow and his arms were wrapped in gold. He came down a few steps and stared at us.

The officer lifted his sword in salute and said something I didn’t understand as he bowed. He backed up and disappeared behind us.

The man on the stairs came down and stopped in front of us. He spoke in the strange language and when neither Eric nor I responded, he switched to Spanish. It had a strange accent, but I could understand what he was saying. He rambled for a few moments, talking about Manco Capac and the ruler of the universe that blazed in the sky above us.

When he wound down, I stared at him and asked him, in Spanish, “Why have we been brought here and treated as enemies?”

He seemed taken aback by the question. He blinked rapidly and then said, “It came to me in a vision. White men would come into our realm, as they have come before. Some would be evil men, interested in killing and enslaving. Others would be friendly but we wouldn’t know which was which.”

“That’s all fine,” I said, “but doesn’t answer my question. Why have we been brought here?”

“You are my guests,” said the man. “Regrettably, I had to test you before I allowed you to enter my home.”

I thought about the dead men scattered in the plaza and the prison and wondered about a ruler who allowed his subjects to die in the tests of stranger’s motivations.

He bowed and said, “I am Pachacuti, Ruler of all that you see. Ruler of the world.”

“I am Stone,” I said. “And my friend is Jansen. We are explorers and scientists.”

“Ah, men of learning. Good. We will have much to talk about,” said Pachacuti. “But surely you are tired after your journey.” He clapped his hands once and a tall, slender woman with blond hair appeared. She wore a very short, white skirt, sandals and nothing more.

I looked at Pachacuti and then her. She was on her knees, her head pressed to the marble floor. In Spanish, I asked him about her.

“You may keep her as my gift,” said Pachacuti. “Come. I will show you to your quarters where you may bathe and eat and then rest.”

My head was beginning to spin with the sudden turn of events. One moment we were fighting for our lives in the plaza and the very next we were being offered the finest quarters, food and companionship available.

Pachacuti spun and climbed the steps. We followed. I paused at the top and saw the black garbed guards enter the palace. They halted then and waited. I was sure that Pachacuti was always within easy reach of his guards. He seemed to be taking the big risk by keeping them almost out of our sight, but maybe he was just attempting to gain our trust.

Pachacuti lead us across the floor, to a large, dark wood door. He pushed it open and waved at the giant room. The floor was marble and on the opposite side was a massive balcony that looked out on the plaza. There was little furniture in the room. A couple of chairs, a single table covered with golden trinkets including a decanter and four large goblets, and dozens of pillows spread across the floor. At the far end, in the darkest corner, near a heavy curtain that could be drawn by ropes to the side, were two beds.

“Please, make yourselves comfortable. If you desire anything, please inform Christine. If she fails to supply it, her head is forfeit.”

“Well,” said Eric, spinning slowly so that he could take in the whole of the scene around us. He stopped, facing Christine and said, “You are not of these people.”

She didn’t respond. Her eyes were downcast, staring at the floor.

Without looking up at me, she said, “I am Christine. I am here to serve.”

“Yes,” I said. “But you are not from here. You were born elsewhere.”

“I was born in Neuve Macchu Picuhu.”

“Never heard of it,” I said.

Eric moved to the table and was looking at the treasure spread across it. “If I didn’t know better, I would say the old boy is trying to bribe us with beads and bobbles just as the English tried to buy the Indians.”

I glanced at him and turned my attention back to Christine. “But you are not one of these people.”

“No,” she agreed. “I am not one of the chosen.”

I was fascinated by Christine. She was so out of place here. She looked like she belonged to a Viking village, not among the shorter, squatter people here. I had seen no one, other than her, who was fair and blond.

I realized that I was ignoring the other woman. She was crouched on the floor near the door, her eyes on our feet. I said to her, “Who are you?”

“I am Huana,” she responded. “I am chosen for the capacocha. You have won me for your time here.”

“What’s the capacocha?”

“A sacrifice. I was due for the capachocha this morning, as were you, but your escape has won all of us a reprieve.”

Eric, holding a goblet in one hand and a large pear-like fruit in the other came toward us. He said, “I don’t like the sound of that. A reprieve.”

To Christine and Huana, I said, “You may feed yourselves. Please go to the table.”

As the two women stood and moved away, Eric said, “Which one do you fancy?”

I stared at him for a moment and then walked across the floor until I had reached the balcony. I walked out into the hot sunshine, or what would pass for sunshine on the surface. I leaned my hands on the sun warm railing and looked down, into the now vacant plaza. All this, everything about it was vaguely familiar. It stirred memories of my schooling but I couldn’t put my finger on it. The clues were all there, I was sure, if I could just take the time to figure it out. The natural assumption was that we had somehow found a lost tribe of Aztecs, but that wasn’t quite right either.

Eric joined me on the balcony. “Was it something that I said?”

“No, not at all.”

“Then, if you don’t mind, I’d like to have the small, dark one.”

“Eric, these people are people, not pets. You can’t just have one like you would a dog.”

“Why not?” he asked, unreasonably.

“We just fought a war so that people wouldn’t own people and you come up with that.”

“Our war was fought to end all wars,” he said. “We didn’t fight the Civil War.”

“The principle is the same,” I said.

“All right,” he said, but I didn’t think that he agreed with me. “So, what’s our next move?”

I turned and looked at him. “You’re the leader of this expedition. What do you think?”

“I think that I know everything that I wanted to know. I have learned that my father was right. I think it’s time that we get the hell out of here.”

“I do too, but I don’t think they’re going to let us just walk out.”

Eric grinned. “Then we wait for dark and slip into the jungle.”

“And we’re going to need someone to help us through the jungle. We don’t have any idea of which way to go to reach tghe river.”

I leaned forward and looked down. Directly under us was a garden of some kind. There were several men tending the plants, cutting the leaves and trimming them. Flowers in wild colors bloomed everywhere.

“Before that,” he said, “I think we ought to eat and sleep. There’s not much we can do now.”

When he spoke of sleep, I realized just how tired I was. The little sleep I had gotten on the beach had not been all that restful. And neither of us had eaten in a long time. I turned and entered the palace again. The women were sitting on the floor, a large, golden platter of food between them.

I walked to the table and picked up one of the pear-like things. I bit into it. Juice dribbled down my chin. I found the flavor sweet. I ate it and then poured a goblet of the liquid that had been supplied. It was some kind of dry wine with an unusual aftertaste. I wondered if we had been poisoned, and then wondered why they would have gone to that much trouble. They could have killed us easily a dozen times before showing us to the rooms and they hadn’t done it.

I plucked another of the green pears from the table, poured another goblet of the wine and glanced at Christine. Although I felt tired, there were a dozen, a hundred questions that I wanted to ask her. I moved toward the beds and told her to follow.

When I laid down, she crawled onto the bed to lie right beside me.

“No,” I told her. “You sit there. Over there. I want to talk to you.”

She looked hurt, unhappy, but didn’t say anything. She did as I told her. When we were comfortable, I asked her to tell me about herself.

She had been born far from here, to a mother and father who were like everyone else in their village. Tall, thin, blond. She had thought nothing of it. Then, one day, the shorter, darker people entered the village and took away a number of the children. Both boys and girls. None of the parents protested. They were marched through the jungle until they arrived here. They were given rooms inside the pyramid and began instruction in the languages, history of these people and were told what their ultimate duties would be.

I listened to her, fascinated by the story. I liked the sound of her voice. But I was suddenly so tired that I couldn’t keep my eyes open. There was a disturbance at the far end of the room. A clatter of a goblet to the hard marble floor and then a cry of despair. A feminine cry.

I thought about sitting up to discover what had happened, but found that I didn’t have the energy to do it. The curiosity burned and I pondered the question with half my mind, but it seemed to be too much of an effort. Besides, Christine seemed to be unconcerned about the noise because she continued to talk. And then I could no longer hear her voice either. I slipped down, into the blackness of sleep, unaware fo everything that was happening around me.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Land to the North - Chapter Ten

Of course it wasn’t going to be that easy. I realized that as soon as I said it. For one thing, we were isolated in darkness and I was sure that the guards would have torches with them. When they opened the cell door, they light would momentarily blind us, unless we had prepared for it. Now, that would be simple. When we heard someone coming, we could set a bundle of straw on fire to let our eyes adjust to the light.

I sat on the cold, damp stone and thought about everything that had brought me to this point. The only choice I had made was when Eric had arrived at my room in Kansas City. From that point I had drifted along, taking everything in stride. I had thought nothing through to the end and that was the reason I was now sitting in the cold dark cell. I hadn’t even been inclined to fight our captors until I saw the sacrifice of the children. Just drift along and let things flow in their natural direction.

“Once we’re out,” said Eric, “What’ll we do?”

“What was the purpose of this expedition?” I asked.

“Find a passage through the Earth’s crust and explore the Inner Earth. Prove that my father wasn’t deluded and learn what happened to him.”

“Have we succeeded in that?”

I heard a rustling as if he had moved to the straw bedding. “In a way,” he said, “but we have no proof. The pictures we were going to taken as proof are impossible because the camera is at the bottom of the river.”

“Eric,” I said, “we know where the place is. We know it exists. Hell, until we got here, you have to admit that there was a certain amount of doubt about it. But now that we know, we can come back with a proper expedition.”

“Yes,” he said.

“We know what we need now. Long boats and twenty men. Photographers and journalists. Weapons. We know exactly what we have to do.”

“Financing,” he said.

“Did you look around? There is gold all over the place. One of those ceremonial spears would be worth enough money to finance half a dozen expeditions.”

I had another thought and added, “Even the hint that there is gold for the taking ought to interest some. We can finance it that way.”

“You’re right,” he agreed. “So our first task is to escape from here.”

“And our second is to find a way out of the Inner Earth. With our boat gone, we’ll need to locate one of the land entrances.”

“Or steal another boat,” he said. “Now, what’s your idea about escaping.”

I told him that one of us would have to be awake at all times, listening for the guards. When we heard them, we would have to light a couple of clumps of twisted straw so that our eyes would be ready.

“When the door opens, we shoot everyone we see standing in the way,” I said.

“I don’t know about that,” he said. “Just gun down all of them?”

“Eric, my friend, just what the hell do you think they’re going to do to us? We’re going to be killed just as soon as the party is arranged.”

“How do you do that?”

“Because a number of these primitive civilizations do that. Enemies captured in battle, or on the frontier, are sacrificed to the various gods. Hell, the Aztecs needed so many people for their sacrifices that they made war on the people surrounding them just to supply the victims.”

“You’re not suggesting that we’ve found the Aztecs are you?” His voice was high and tight with disbelief.

“No, not the Aztecs,” I said. I had a feeling about this, but it didn’t lead to the Aztecs.

“So the first thing,” said Eric, “is to prepare for the return of the guards.”

“Right.” I grabbed a clump of straw and twisted it together. I set that aside and prepared another. I had Eric give me a couple of matches and put them in my pocket. Then, using my fingers, I checked my weapon, slowly stripping the rounds from it and then reloading the magazine with seven bullets. That done, I cocked it, chambering a round, released the magazine and added one more round. Now there were eight. Carefully, I lowered the hammer. My .45 would now fire once I pulled back the hammer.

I sat down on my straw bed and waited. I stared upward, into the dark, hoping that morning would come soon. I had a real problem with that. We had come into the prison at high noon, although it would have been about five or six, if the sun ever moved. As we descended and the light of day faded to be replaced by the artificial light of flickering touches, I had the impression of the sun setting. All of it was in my mind. Now, in total darkness, I thought of it as night, although, if we escaped, it would be the middle of the day.

I put those thoughts out of my mind. Instead, I concentrated on the expedition, amazed at the amateurishness of it. We had climbed into our truck, driven north, piled into the boat and ended up here. No great sacrifices, no real hardships. We just blundered our way through it all. I hadn’t even kept an accurate journal of the trip, although, if I had, I probably would have lost it by now.


I turned my head toward the sound of Eric’s voice.

“Dave,” he repeated. “I’m getting sleepy. You want to take the first watch.”

“Sure,” I said. I wasn’t in the least bit sleepy. In fact, my mind was racing. I felt like an idiot because of the way I had been acting. Slipshod. From one thing to the next without bothering to think about it. We had seen a snake that was almost a hundred feet in length and I hadn’t been surprised, or excited. I had wanted to run. We had found spiders that seemed to work together with a rudimentary kind of intelligence, and I had wanted to flee. I hadn’t thought to make notes about it. I hadn’t wanted to learn more about them. Not exactly good science or the things of a great expedition. I resolved to be a better scientist and explorer, when the chance showed itself.

All this was swirling in my head when I heard something at the far end of the dungeon. “Eric,” I hissed. “They’re coming.”

I dug in my pocket for my matches. I scraped one on the rough stone and it blazed. I blinked rapidly and touched it to the straw. As that began to burn, I looked away, rubbed my eyes and turned back, watching the flames.

Eric was up doing the same, his pistol in his hand. He glanced at me and grinned.

As the fire died, I heard voices outside our cell. There were at least three men there. I didn’t worry about that. They would not expect an attack, and if they did, they wouldn’t expect firearms. We would be able to shoot all three before they could react. That was to our advantage, but we had to be ruthless.

As I heard the key in the lock, I hoped that Eric could be as ruthless as me. I had never seen him in battle. I would have to rely on him.

The door was shoved violently, sweeping silently across the floor to bang against the wall. The clang reverberated throughout the dungeon. A torch was thrust into the cell, obviously meant to blind us.

I dropped to one knee, holding my pistol out in front of me, aiming at the door. A guard appeared, holding a short sword in his hand. As he stepped into our cell, I fired, the flame from the barrel stabbing out to touch his chest. He grunted in surprise and pain as crimson began to stain his rough shirt. He dropped to his knees.

A second man appeared and Eric fired. That guard dropped his sword as he twisted to the right.

There was a shout in the corridor. I leaped forward, over the body of the man I’d shot. As I entered the corridor, I caught a flicker in the corner of my eye. Instinctively I ducked. The blade flashed over my head and I felt the wind of the blow in my hair. The sword glanced off the stone wall with a dull, metallic clang. The guard shifted, attacking me. I jerked around and shoved my pistol into his belly. I pulled the trigger, but nothing happened.

The man recovered. He thrust at me and I dodged his blade. I used the side of the pistol and slammed it into his hand. He cried out in pain and staggered back. He tried to stab me again. With my free hand, I grabbed his wrist and jerked him toward me.

There was a shot behind me and the man dropped without a sound. I turned and saw the last guard fleeing along the corridor. The torch he had carried had fallen to the floor and was sputtering on the cold, damp stone.

I turned so that my right side was toward him. Slowly, I lowered my pistol, aiming at the center of the back. I squeezed the trigger until the weapon fired itself. The man was lifted from his feet. He clawed the air and then hit the floor. He bounced once and slid. He tried to get up and finally collapsed.

Behind me were two more shots. I spun and saw another guard leaning against the wall, dying. The yellow of his shirt was nearly obscured by his blood. In one hand, he clutched a sword. In the other was a torch that now lay against the stone.

Eric and I stood nearly back to back, watching the length of the corridor. Two torches lay on the stone floor. Two more were set in racks on either side of our door. One of the guards was groaning in pain.

There was a whimpering and I saw the woman for the first time. She was dressed as the children had been. A white robe that covered her from neck to ankles but that was so shear that I could see through it.

She looked up at me with huge brown eyes opened wide in fright. She put up a hand, as if to ward off a blow and said, “Por favor. Por favor.”

“Eric?” I said.

“I’m fine. You?”

“I’m okay. Let’s get out of here.”

“Which way?”

I reached down and pulled the woman to her feet. She stood rigid, her eyes staring at me, waiting for death. I pulled her to the side and took a torch from the wall. I handed it to her. She took it reluctantly, holding it away from her as if it was a serpent.

Before we moved, I took a dagger from the body of one of the guards. It seemed to have a gold blade and a jewel encrusted hilt. I tucked it into my belt and then began working my way along the corridor.

The woman was behind me, and Eric behind her. We stayed close to the wall. I ran one hand along the rough, wet texture as a guide. I listened intently, waiting for sounds that would indicate that more guards were coming.

From behind us, there was shouting but it didn’t sound like guards. It sounded like prisoners trying to figure out what had just happened. Wondering what the strange noise was.

We came to the end of the corridor. Three stone steps lead to a wooden door reinforced with iron. There were huge hinges with giant bolts. I climbed the steps, sure that the door would fly open. But it didn’t. I took hold of the large, metal ring that was the handle, sure that it wouldn’t open.

It swung toward me freely and quietly. As it came open, I jumped back, down the steps, my pistol raised. Behind the door there was nothing. Just another dark corridor that turned and lead to a stairway that would allow us to escape the dungeon.

We entered it and kept on moving. There were cell doors on both sides of us, but they all seemed to be empty. If there had been prisoners in them, I would have opened them, only for the confusion it would cause.

We came to stairs and hesitated. I listened but heard nothing. It was like no one knew what had happed, or if they did know, didn’t care. I looked back at Eric. His face was pale and the knuckles of his hand were white around the butt of his Mauser.

“You think it’s a trap?” he asked me.

“Don’t know.” I leaned against the wall and sat down. I ejected the magazine of my .45 and reloaded it. As I jammed the new rounds into it, I realized why it had failed to fire. If you push back on the barrel hard enough, it holds the hammer in place so that pulling the trigger does nothing. I had shoved the barrel into the guard’s stomach as hard as I could.

When I had my weapon fully loaded again, I stood up. I glanced at Eric. “Ready?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” he said, grinning. “What about the woman?”

“We’ll kept her with us for a while. If nothing else, she’ll be able to answer a few questions.”

Without another word I was on my feet, moving up the stairs. Stone stairs worn in the middle from the feet of thousands of prisoners and guards.

As I climbed, I became aware of light filtering into the blackness of the dungeon. Bright light reflecting from the dull surfaces of the stone walls and knew that an exit was close at hand. I was worried about that. It seemed to have been too easy to escape from the cell. Everything seemed to be too easy.

Again, at the top of the stairs, I halted. I could see the rectangle because the sides were not parallel. It was a strange thing to notice then. Maybe I was beginning to pick up the scientific detachment that I had lacked earlier. Or maybe my mind was searching for the mundane because I didn’t want to think about what lay beyond the door. My thinking had only taken me to the entrance of the dungeon. I hadn’t thought about what we’d do once we had to leave the prison and try to reach the jungle.

I inched forward, waiting for guards to rush me. I waited for men to swarm in the door. But none of that happened. I could hear nothing from the outside. It seemed that the streets were deserted and I wondered if we had managed to escape into what would be the middle of the night.

I stopped at the entrance and dropped to one knee. To the right was the massive form of the pyramid that we had seen the day before. To the left was the empty plaza where the crowd had stood chanting and cheering. And directly in front of me, nearly a hundred yards away, were the houses of stone and thatch where the inhabitants lived.

There were no sounds coming from anywhere. The air was as dead as that in a graveyard. If it hadn’t been for the sun overhead, I would have sworn it was midnight.

Tentatively, I took a step out. I glanced to the right, at the smooth stone surface of the pyramid. There were a few high clouds behind it. This was a monument to the sun god. I was sure of that.

Without a word, I started across the plaza. Ornate symbols had been cut into the surface of it, hidden the day before by the thousands of people who had stood on it. The symbols were painted in a riot of color. Some of them so large that only someone standing at the apex of the pyramid would be able to appreciate them.

I glanced over my shoulder and found both Eric and the woman following me. We walked rapidly, hoping to reach the safety of the streets. With each step, I waited for the alarm that would signal that we had escaped.

We crossed half the plaza when a single long note sounded behind us. There was a rising shout from thousands of voices and the people flooded into the plaza from every direction. Leading them were warriors, dressed in padded armor, holding colorful shields and carrying a variety of weapons.

As soon as I saw the multitude, I halted. I turned so that I was facing the ramp where the youngsters had been murdered the day before and saw that the high priest, or whatever he was, stood upon it, surrounded by his protectors, watching the show.

Something bumped my back and I realized that Eric was standing behind me, his back against mine so that we could cover one another. The woman had fallen to the ground at our feet and was weeping as if she expected to die with us.

The warriors ran at us and then slid to a halt. They stood ringing us, their shields held chest high. They stared at us over the tops of them as the shouting seemed to reach a peak and then dropped suddenly.

All at once it was quiet in the plaza. There were thousands of people there. Men and women, all wearing knee-length robes in a variety of colors. Reds and oranges and yellows and bright greens and deep blues. Many wore hats of multicolored feathers.

When there was silence, the high priest began a religious ceremony. He would shout something and the crowd would respond. It went on for a few minutes and then there was utter silence. The thousands of people made no noise. Absolutely none.

The man on the ramp spoke quietly and the crowd drew back, away from the warriors that surrounded Eric, the woman and me.

“Looks like this is it,” I said, trying to sound brave. I felt a fluttering in my stomach, not unlike that which I felt as I had gone over the top in the war. I knew that any moment a German bullet would cut me down. Here, I knew that I would die. In only minutes.

On a command from the ramp, the warriors lowered their spears so that the tips were aimed about belly high. I thumbed back the hammer of my .45. Since no one moved, I didn’t fire. I didn’t want to start the bloodshed.

Behind me there was a shot and the sound of a body falling. With that, there was a surge at me. I fired at the man in the yellow shirt and the bullet slammed him to the ground. He rolled to his side, grunting, his blood staining the cut stones of the plaza’s surface.

Then I had no time to watch. The men were coming at me quickly and I fired as fast as I could pull the trigger. One man dropped at my feet but then my weapons was empty and there was no time to reload.

I grabbed the point of a spear thrust at my stomach and jerked it to the side. As the man stumbled close, I smashed his nose with the side of my weapon. He released the spear and grabbed at his face as he fell to the ground.

Behind me there were several shots and the I felt Eric bump against me. He said, “Oh,” quietly, almost under his breath and slipped to his knees.

The warriors all advanced, the spears leveled but stopped with the points only inches from my flesh. I turned and saw that the woman still lived, the hem of her robe stained with blood, none of it her own. Eric was on his knees, his hands raised, blood on the side of his head.

From the ramp I heard the priest speak, first in the language I didn’t know and then in Spanish. He told his warriors to escort us to our new quarters in the palace. We were not to be harmed and the woman would stay with us.

A warrior, dressed in finer clothes than the common soldier, a jeweled dagger at his hip, pushed his way through the crowd. He stopped near the man I had clubbed to the ground. The officer took his jeweled dagger from its golden sheath, flipped it in his hand, and neatly cut the throat of the wounded warrior. The blood splashed down the warrior’s chest as he toppled to his side with only a quiet groan. He must have known what was going to happen, but failed to protest or to try to protect himself. He accepted his fate with stoic silence.

With the wounded dispatched, the officer waved a hand, gesturing to the rear of the plaza. A corridor among the warriors and the citizens opened as magically as Moses parting the Red Sea. The officer then bent to help the woman to her feet and while he did that, I dropped the spent magazine from my pistol. As it clattered to the stone under foot, I slapped a new one in. If there was going to be any funny business, I wanted to be ready for it.

Eric touched my shoulder. I saw a cut above his right eye and asked, “How are you?”

“It’s superficial. Head wounds always bleed like that. It’s minor at best.”

As we began to walk across the plaza, under an escort of warriors, and toward the large building constructed of white stone that resembled marble, the crowd began to applaud and then chant. It seemed to be an approval of us. I didn’t know if it was because of the stand we had made, our escape, or just our bravery in general.

“Now what?” asked Eric.

“As long as they don’t try to take us into that prison again, Let’s see where we’re going and what is going to happen. This could be interesting.”

“More interesting than the dungeon?” he asked.

I knew what he meant by that. I said, “Let’s hope a little more hospitable, anyway.”

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Land to the North - Chapter Nine

I woke with a start, sure that something was wrong. I kept my eyes closed as I listened to the sounds around me. Nothing had changed from the night before, or the hours before. I opened one eye and saw Eric sitting erect on his sleeping bag. He was staring straight ahead, unmoving. I could see rivulets of sweat dripping down the side of his face and I wondered what had happened. My thoughts turned to half remembered stories of rattlesnakes and cobras crawling into sleeping bags so that neither occupant could stir.

I rolled to the right and saw four men standing there. Each held a long spear, the point tipped with hammered gold. The ornate carving on the long, black shaft suggested the weapons were more ornamental than dangerous, but I was sure that one could inflict a fatal wound if the bearer decided to try.

The men were dressed as if for war. They each sported a chest protector of padded armor. They were wrapped in capes of bright colors and held shields that were decorated with many symbols. Each wore a garment that reminded me if a knee length kilt and they wore knee high boots of a material that looked like snake skin. Two of them wore helmets that might be gold and the other two wore plain headbands.

As I sat up, one of them pointed his spear at me. He was a short, stocky man with long black hair, an oval face and oval eyes. His skin was a deep tanned and his nose was board. I shifted slowly and he said, "Manos arriba."

I shot a glance at Eric who shrugged.

"Manos arriba," the man repeated, his voice carrying a note of irritation now.

Slowly, I raised my hands as he had commanded. I couldn’t believe that he had spoken to me in Spanish. As I waited, one of the others began a long speech in a language that I couldn’t begin to understand.

While two of the men watched us, the other two moved so that they could search our packs. They pulled out the equipment, tossing away the things they didn’t recognize and stuffing the rest into sacks. They took the knives and the machetes from us but ignored both our rifles and pistols.

Later I would wonder why they ignored the firearms. They must have seen them before. Others had explored the Inner Earth and they had taken firearms with them. But these men didn’t seem to understand what they were or how important they would be to their civilization.

The two then went to our boat, searched through it, destroying some of our supplies, throwing some into the river, and stealing the rest including the steel headed axes, extra machetes and extra knives. When they finished, they chopped holes in the boat and pushed it into the river to sink.

As the two men approached, the one who spoke Spanish ordered us to our feet. I noticed that Eric was carefully measuring the distances among us, figuring the angles and wondering the same thing that crossed my mind. Could we draw and fire before these men could respond? Would the attack throw them off balance long enough for us to kill them?

Eric’s hand shifted closer to his holster. I noticed that his was unsnapped. Mine was not.

Just as it seemed that he had made up his mind, a dozen men, armed with long blowguns and crossbows appeared at the edge of the jungle. Their clothing, a uniform of some kind, matched that worn by the men who had captured us.

Eric grinned and said, "Wouldn’t have worked after all. Now too many of them."

I knew exactly what he meant.

The man closest to us snapped, "Silencio."

Prodded by the spears, we picked up what we could of our gear, salvaging some of the jerky and a couple of boxes of ammo for the rifles and the pistols. I was surprised they left those with us, after taking our knives, but it was possible they just didn’t recognize them as deadly weapons. They had left our first aid kits and canteens attached to the belts.

Again we crossed the meadow, but this time entered the jungle at the first real break in the foliage, the one that we had passed the day before. Two of the men with crossbows went in first, followed by two with blowguns and then our four guards surrounding us.

Within minutes, the jungle became so dense that it was like dusk. The trees and bushes that bordered the trail were lost in the gloom. They were shadowy shapes barely visible.

And the humidity seemed to climb about one hundred percent. It hung heavy in the air, almost visible. Around some of the trees, near the ground were wisps of white that looked as if the roots were on fire, but was a light fog.

Our captors didn’t waste time. They made good progress, prodding us with their spears when we slowed even slightly. None of them spoke and I was reminded of our patrols in the Army. Noise discipline once we were into the bush. These men hadn’t spoken to one another since we entered the jungle.

Around us, I could still hear the sounds of the animals and the buzz of insects. A huge, muddy looking moth dived out of the trees, flashed by me face and then disappeared again. When I flinched, ducking to the right, the men laughed and then we were again wrapped in silence.

After several hours of hot marching, we stopped and the men ate a quiet, quick meal. Since I could not see the sun, and even if I could, it wouldn’t have given me a clue about the time of day, I assumed it was lunch. Eric and I drank from our canteens and when our captors offered us nothing, we ate some of the jerky we had salvaged.

Before we had a chance to rest, we were up and moving again. Each attempt to ask questions was met with a quiet, quick rebuff. It might be a guard telling us to be silent or it might be a blow with the shaft of a spear. We gave up quickly, assuming that we would find out all we wanted to know before long.

Early on, I began hearing a babbling to the right. Water splashing over rocks. It seemed to come closer and I realized that we were paralleling a stream. It was a clue that might be valuable later.

Sometime in the afternoon, or what I assumed was the afternoon, I became aware of a roar, as if water was falling from great height. The jungle seemed to be lighter as if the sun was breaking through a think cloud bank. Then, suddenly, we were out of the jungle, standing on a high cliff, looking into an open valley several hundred feet below us. To the right, the water cascaded over the edge, dropping straight into a huge pool far below us. The mist rose from it creating a multicolored rainbow to the side of the waterfall.

We turned to the left where there was a rocky path that lead down. As we approached it, I saw the village spread out below us. Hundreds of thatched roofs along narrow streets that lead to a central plaza. It wasn’t exactly a square because only two of the sides were parallel.

The path changed to a stairway cut into the solid rock of the cliff. It was lined on one side with a low, stone wall that looked as if material had been quarried elsewhere and brought to the stairway.

Our captors seemed to be conditioned to using the steep stairway. They got into a rhythmic movement so that they were racing downward and Eric and I were hard pressed to keep up. Besides, there were no railings along the stairs, just the low stone wall on one side. A misstep could send one of us tumbling into space. But the men seemed not to mind the apparent danger and keep pushing at us.

By the time we reached the bottom, I was breathing hard and sweating heavily. When the men stopped, I bent over, my elbows resting on my knees as I gulped air. My legs ached from the strain of running down the steps. I turned my head and saw that Eric was in the same shape as I. Our captors, however, were showing no signs of the strain of the rapid trip and descent on the stairs. It was all a big game to them.

They waited patiently, letting us gain our breaths, and then urged us onward. The path we followed at a gentle slope had been paved with blocks of stone cut from somewhere else. They were polished by the feet of hundreds, thousands of people, and were as smooth as the finest marble. There were ditches along either side that were carpeted in short grass.

We entered the town, following a road that was also paved in stone. The houses on either side were of adobe with yellowing thatch on top giving them a golden color. As we moved deeper into the town, the inhabitants came out to watch us. Some deserted the fields where they tended crops. They lined the streets, at first, just scattered clumps of humanity staring at us. As we neared the center of the city, the number of people increased.

The were all short and stocky, each with dark hair and dark eyes. The men and women were about the same height, and the closer we moved to the plaza, the brighter the colors they sported. It was as if we were moving from the poorer sections of town, into the wealthy. And the more wealth, or the higher their station, the more colors they wore. Many had intricate capes that had been woven from the brightly colored feathers of birds. Many held ornaments of gold or silver.

The cheering began the closer we got to the plaza. As we moved into the center of the city, the people rushed forward, lining the sides of the plaza. At the far end was a tall building, a structure of pyramidal shape with a long ramp leading to a massive door. Men in white cloaks and holding spears of solid gold guarding the ramp, facing each other across it.

We were led to the foot of it. Around us danced children. Boys and girls, thirteen or fourteen years old. They were dressed in diaphanous white cloth. There was something innocent, yet sad about them.

The people now burst into cheering that I didn’t recognize, although, from their tone, I could tell that they were praying. A priest, at first, seemed to be speaking privately with his god, and then he began to shout, as if angry. He looked down at Eric and me, pointed, his finger stabbing down, accusing us of some unknown crime.

Two of the white-clad guards, dropped their spears and came toward us, but then grabbed one of the girls, lifting her to her feet. She wailed in fear as they dragged her toward the man on the ramp.

They left her standing in front of the man. Her posture was rigid. She held her hands behind her back, thrusting her chest out. She seemed to be shaking slightly as she held her head high, her eyes closed.

The man yammered on, lifting a sparkling knife high, the point aimed at the girl.

The crowd now looked up, fascinated by the show going on in front of them. They all seemed to hold their breath, anticipating the final act.

The man stopped speaking, looking at the sky, and then at the girl. He plunged the knife into her chest, just under her breastbone. For a moment she stood as if transfixed. As the crimson stain spread across her white garment, her knees buckled and she fell. As she dropped, her blood pumping from her to pool under her, the crowd began to chant again.

Once more the guards came down the ramp. This time I was sure they would come for me. Their eyes seemed locked on mine. I decided that I was going to sell my life dearly. I wasn’t a docile young girl. I would shoot the guards and then the man on the ramp. The crowd would probably tear me apart, but it was better than standing there quietly.

But they didn’t come for me or Eric. They selected one of the boys and took him up the ramp. He seemed to be oblivious to everything around him as he assumed the same position as had the girl. Arms behind his back and chest thrust outward.

Again there was a prayer and again the man killed the youngster in front of him, to the wild approval of the crowd. As the boy fell next to the girl, the chanting erupted again.

My arms were seized then and I struggled to free myself. I stomped on the foot of one of the men. He was startled enough by the pain of the assault that he loosened his grip. Free of him, I spun on the second, slamming my fist onto his jaw. He dropped to the ground, moaning.

My hand clawed at the snap on my holster, and as I tried to draw my pistol, three men rushed me. One held back as the other two waded in. I forgot about my weapon, punching outward. I hit one man near the eye and felt the fragile bones of his face break. He screamed in surprise and pain, but kept coming.

I twisted to the right and threw a punch at the other man. I missed and staggered forward, off balance. As I did, I felt a blow to the back of my head. There as an explosion of light and I sank to my knees. For a moment the world swirled in front of me and when my sight cleared, one man held a sword to my throat as two more lifted me to my feet.

This is truly it, I thought. I had been through a war, shot at by everything from pistols to howitzers, had fought the Hun hand to hand and I was going to die near the foot of a ramp, the sacrifice to some deity of which I had never heard.

I glanced at Eric and saw that he was held as firmly as I. At his feet lay the body of one man, blood pouring from his mouth. I didn’t know whether Eric had killed him or merely knocked him out.

With the chanting growing in volume, I fully expected to be taken up the ramp to where the bodies of the children lay, their blood staining the stone as it ran down toward the plaza, but that didn’t happen. Instead, we were dragged to the side. The crowd parted, letting us pass. We were taken through a stone doorway, down a hall lighted with flickering torches and bubbling fat lamps until we came to a stairway. We were forced down it until we had reached a stone passage. Our footsteps echoed as we walked along it. I could hear water dripping somewhere.

We stopped in front of an iron door. One man opened it, and stepped. Eric was shoved into the cage. Before he could catch his balance, I was pushed in after him. The door was slammed and locked. The men then turned without a word, vanishing from sight, taking the torches with them. We were left in the darkness.

My first reaction was to feel my along rough stone of our cell. I found a slit in wall that was barely large enough for my hand. I leaned into it and although couldn’t find the end I learned the walls were impossibly thick. I continued on until I came to the iron door.

As I touched it, Eric said, "I don’t understand this. Why throw us in prison?"

I kept my hands roving over the surface of the door. I could feel huge bolts on our side and I found a tiny slot near the floor so that food could be pushed through. At the thought of food, I caught another odor.

Trying to ignore that, I sat down, my back to the door and said, "They obviously think we’re someone else. Someone who has been here before."

"Took our knives away from us but not our guns. How do you figure that?"

I shrugged, knowing full well that Eric couldn’t see the gesture. "They’ve never seen guns before and don’t think of them as weapons."

I didn’t like that explanation because we knew others had explored the region before us. They would have had guns. If not pistols, rifles and should understand them, but they didn’t bother with them.

"I should have drawn when we had the chance at the boat. We let them take us too easily."

"And we would have died when those men with the crossbows opened fire."

"That’s better than letting that one jerk stick a knife into my chest."

I didn’t want to talk about what we should have done any more. There were other things we needed to thing about and do. I patted my pockets and found that I had no matches. I asked Eric if he had any.

"Yeah. I’ve got most of a box."

"Then we can have a little light." I moved to the right, feeling my way along the rough stone floor. It was damp and slimy. I hoped that it was mud that I was feeling. I came to a raised area covered with dirty straw. I twisted a handful together and said, "Use one of you matches on this."

The match flared and Eric touched it to the straw. That burned slowly and gave us the opportunity to examine our cell. It was a stone enclosure that was twenty feet across, twenty feet deep and twenty feet high. A green moss climbed the walls and I hoped that meant it received sunlight sometimes. I pushed my face into the slit and saw that it might be a window to the outside, although there was a stone now blocking it.

I turned back to the interior. There were six raised platforms, each covered with straw. There was a single hole in the floor that was giving off a stench that made me believe it was our toilet. The room could have held more captives. There was no sign that they had held anyone recently.

The stones of the walls were so well cut that there wasn’t the thinnest crack between them. We wouldn’t be able to climb them. The door was made of metal that could easily be iron. There was a lock on it and I thought about trying to pick it, but even if that was successful, I was sure that there was a bar across it on the outside holding it closed.

As the straw burned down close to my hand and I could feel the heat from the fire, I said, "I think getting out of here will be a piece of cake." I dropped the straw and was about to crush out the flames when I decided that wasn’t necessary.

"Getting out of here is easy?" said Eric. "How is it going to be easy?"

"Next time the open the door, we shoot the guards," I said

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Land to the North - Chapter Eight

We left the boat and crossed the beach, and then the grassy field in front of us. I glanced to the left where there was a stone cliff that seemed to climb into the very heavens and I could see no top to it. The cliff rose steadily, straight up until it was wrapped in a mist not at all unlike the one we had spent the morning in. I say morning because the sun looked as if it had just reached its zenith, indicating that it was noon or maybe a few minutes after.

We stopped at the edge of the jungle, some five or six hundred yards from the bank of the river. Looking down the pathway in front of us was nearly impossible. In only a few feet, a blackness wrapped the trail, making it seem like the bewitching hour of the darkest midnight. The sunlight was cut off completely by the dense, thick foliage. There were a few sounds from the dense vegetation. Animal noises like a giant snake slithering along the trail, or the rapid patter of tiny feet, as if an animal was fleeing the snake. There weren’t the calls of wild birds or the screams of monkeys that jungles on the surface would have rocked with.

Eric stood there, staring down the trail, as if he could actually see something, and then turned toward me. "What do you think?"

I scratched my head in thought and then wiped the sweat from my face. I turned, studied the cliff behind us and then looked at the perimeter of the jungle.

"We could either enter here, or work our way farther to the south," I said. I don’t know how I had determined that the direction to the cliff was north and the opposite way was to the south, but it seemed to make sense to me.

"I like the second choice. I don’t want to enter the jungle until we have to."

"The third option," I said, "is to return to the boat and let it take us farther downstream. That would be the easiest way for us to travel."

"Granted," said Eric. "But we wouldn’t have a feeling for the land then. It seems to me that the best idea is to search the land here until later afternoon, penetrate the jungle at some point, and return to the beach toward nightfall, if we haven’t found anything interesting by then."

"Good," I said, not relishing the idea of searching the foliage. I had read too many of the jungle adventure books and was concerned about what might lie in that direction.

We skirted the jungle, stopping occasionally to stare into the depths of the vegetation. Nothing was visible to us that we hadn’t seen before and if we wanted a clue about what was ahead, we would have to enter. We finally found another path that broke the nearly solid wall of green in front of us. We stopped to examine it. A dirt path that was well used. It ran straight for nearly fifty feet before we lost it in the gloom of the jungle.

"What do you think?"

"If we’re ever going to learn anything, we’re going to have to use a path. This one is as good as any."

"Right," said Eric. He unslung the rifle that he had over his shoulder and checked the safety. "Let’s go."

I followed him, holding my own rifle in my hands, my eyes leaping from side to side.

The path looked as if it had been graded through the jungle. The forest around us came together about ten feet over our heads making it look as if we were walking down a long, green tunnel. The dirt under our feet had been compressed by the pressure from a thousand others until it was as hard and as smooth as concrete. Very little light filtered through and that which did had a distinct, green cast to it.

In only a few minutes we were out of sight of the entrance to the jungle path. I turned once, glancing back, but could see nothing except the gloom around us.

And I could smell the jungle. First it stunk of mildew and rotting vegetation. It also was rank with the odor of wet dirt. I say wet dirt instead of mud. And finally there was the taste of humidity around us. Damp air that hung around us, soaking us like wet blankets in a sauna.

Eric’s pace slowed as the heat began to get to him. We had come up from the late winter or early spring of the Midwest, through the colder areas of Canada, to a point far above the arctic circle, and suddenly, we found ourselves in a tropical environment. The heat bothered us greatly.

But we continued on. The path widened in spots, the ground on either side bare, as if these were some kind of rest areas at the side of a long road. No shelters had been erected and there was no evidence of any fires, but then who would build a fire in this sweatbox of a jungle?

Finally we came to a much wider area where the canopy over us broke and the light from the sun filtered through. The grass had grown tall in the clearing. The path wound through the center of it, and there was a portal in the green that looked just like the entrance we had used to enter the jungle several hours earlier. To one side, it seemed that the trees had been draped with gauze that hung from the highest branches and brushed the ground.

Off to the right, there was a rustle in the grass, and I could see the blades rippling as if something was trying to sneak through it. I moved in that direction, wondering what was there. I spotted a large mass, maybe two or three feet across, brightly colored, as it slipped forward. I stopped, fascinated. Then the head poked out, onto the bare, brown earth of the path.

It was a scale covered, triangular head nearly four feet long. A thin tongue flickered from the reptilian lips as the hooded eyes blinked in the bright sun. As I stood transfixed, the massive head turned toward me. The beast stopped moving as the tongue probed the air and the eyes blinked rapidly.

I wondered if the rifle I carried had sufficient power to kill the snake. I had yet to see the whole thing, but it had to be sixty or seventy feet long and the pattern on its scaley back seem to be diamonds. I was afraid that I had found the largest rattlesnake that had ever lived.

Eric, who had frozen as the first sound, began to retreat very slowly, his eyes locked on the snake. He was mumbling, over and over, "Oh God. Oh God."

I heard a quiet click as he snapped off the safety and then the metallic rattle as he chambered a round.

At the sound, the snake drew itself up, as if coiling to strike. I knew the smaller American rattlers could lunge out to nearly one third of their length with ease. That meant we were well within the striking distance of this beast.

"Freeze," I hissed.

Eric followed my command.

The snake watched us, as if waiting for movement, or maybe wondering if we were prey. When neither of us made a threatening move, it began to crawl away, toward the gauze hanging from the trees.

We watched its progress through the grass, amazed at the size of the creature. I knew that the bite of a normal rattlesnake often was not fatal, but the danger here was not from the venom but the fangs. They could have pieced the body.

And I didn’t think about it then, but what kind of creature would a snake of that size attack? What was its prey? It could have swallowed an elephant had one been available for it to eat. It certainly could have swallowed a human.

The snake stopped when it reach the gauze curtain, seemed to inspect it and then turned away from it, and us, entering the jungle to what I thought of as the west. That was the direction we had been heading, but we now had no desire to travel that way or to find that snake again.

Eric slung his rifle after putting on the safety, but left the round chambered. He stepped from the path, into the thigh high grass, walking toward the gauze curtain.

As he approached it, I saw small, black creatures the size of dinner plates suddenly spring from the trees, catching themselves in the gauze. Some of them fled upward, as if escaping an enemy. Others seemed to slide downward, spreading out in a lopsided formation.

I followed Eric, stopping short of him. He was staring upward and then said, amazed, "They’re spiders. Big, ugly spiders."

I moved closer and at the bottom of the web, I could see the bones of the animals that had been caught and eaten. There weren’t just small animals either. Some of the bones were large and I was sure that I could see a human rib cage in the web.

Then Eric pointed and said, "That’s a skull. A human skull."

Almost as if the sound of his voice irritated them, the spiders began to swarm. One of them leaped clear of the web, sailing through the air, trailing a thin strand of silk.

Eric dropped to one knee and grabbed at the butt of his rifle, slipping it from his shoulder.

I aimed at the spider like it was a clay pigeon on a skeet range. I pulled the trigger and felt my weapon kick as it fired. The round caught the spider in the abdomen and it exploded into a red mist and fragments of dark meat.

Eric got to his feet and began to back up, his eyes on the spiders. They were all in motion now and there was a strange warbling sound coming from them. A trilling that rose and fell like the siren on a fire truck. Eric aimed his weapons at one of them still in the web and fired. The creature vanished in a flash of red that stained the gauze crimson.

One of them dropped to the ground near me and reared up on its hind legs, showing me its long fangs. It was waving the front legs in the air, as if to frighten me. I knew that if I turned, the spider would leap onto my back. Instead, I pointed my rifle at its head and fired. The creature flipped over, onto its back.

With that, they fell silent and stopped moving. Eric fired again and again, working the bolt of his rifle and ejecting the spent cartridges. He killed seven of the spiders and then glanced over at me.

"Let’s get out of here."

I didn’t need any encouragement. As soon as he passed me and back into the jungle, I spun and followed, expecting to feel one of those spiders leap at me. The skin on my neck crawled with the tension. Shivers ran up and down my spine. But the spiders didn’t attack. Maybe it was the deaths of their fellows that stopped them. Watching their brothers turned into splashes of blood and meat stayed them, although I couldn’t believe that spiders had any real intelligence. I knew there weren’t that many varieties behind us that worked in harmony, there were a few. Instinct rather than intelligence drove them.

Or maybe it was just that we stayed out of the web and because of that, they let us retreat.

When we were clear of the area, Eric stopped and turned. "My God," he said. "You don’t even have to get entangled in the web. They come out after you."

We’ll just have to be that much more careful," I said, surprised at how calm I sounded. The encounter with the snake and the spiders left me shaking. Spiders and snakes were two of the creatures that inspired the most ridiculous of responses. Nearly everyone feared them instinctively, but because we were so much larger, we could overcome that fear. Except here. Spiders that were over a yard across and seemed to attack their prey and a snake that dwarfed telephone poles.

Eric looked at me, a strange smile on his face. "I just had a thought. What if the spiders that attacked us were scouts and the big ones have yet to show themselves?"

I suddenly felt eyes on my back and I jumped. I spun, leveling my rifle but there was nothing there. Not even a bit of wind.

To Eric I said, "Let’s use the boat until we clear the jungle area. Drift on down the river."

"Well," he said, "I’m not convinced that it’s the best idea because the water could hide things worse than either the giant spiders or snakes."

"Thanks," I said. "Thank you for bringing that up."

"Any way," he said, "I think you’re right about one thing. We should get out of here. We can beat it back to the boat, gather some fire wood and set up camp for the night."

I wasn’t sure that I was keen on that plan either. It seemed that we would be safer in the boat, even if it was anchored only a few feet off shore.

We worked our way through the jungle and burst onto the open plain an hour or so later. I dropped to the ground, the breath rasping in my throat. Sweat was pouring from me and my clothes were drenched. I had already drunk all the water in my canteen and cotton had formed in my mouth. Relief, however, was only a few feet away, on the bank of the river.

I glanced up, at the sun, and saw that it hadn’t moved. I pointed and said, "Eric, the sun is stationary."

He glanced at me, raised a hand to shade his eyes and then looked up at the sun. It seemed as if it was only a few minutes afternoon, just as it had for the last several hours.

"Yeah," he said. "Just as my father described it. He said that on entering, he discovered that the sun didn’t move. The land of perpetual light.

I laughed. It actually took a load off my mind. I hadn’t wanted to spend the night ashore, not knowing what other creatures might be roaming freely. I envisioned giant leeches and giant tigers and massive lions. Now, they wouldn’t be able to sneak up on us in the dark because there would be no dark.

Eric took his watch from his pocket and looked at the time. "We’ve been traveling for several hours since we came ashore. Now we don’t know how long we were in the fog, but we were awake for several hours. I suggest we assume that it is six in the evening and plan from there."

"All right," I agreed. "Then it’s time for supper."

"You get that ready," he said, "and I’ll draw water from the river."


We set up our makeshift camp on the edge of the grassy plain, close to the river and away from the jungle. The nearest trees were fifty or sixty feet away and the main jungle a good half mile away. Nothing could get to us easily, without us spotting it. Any creature would either have to cross the meadow or the mud of the beach.

We ate in silence. I had wanted to fish to add something fresh to our supper, but Eric had said that we could do that in the morning. Now, it was important to get the camp established and that a meal of jerky and coffee wouldn’t be all that bad. It wasn’t as if we hadn’t been eating that for some time now.

The fire was a smokey one because the wood was damp. I didn’t like that because I felt it was advertizing our presence, but I didn’t know to whom. I couldn’t explain the feeling. It had seemed that someone had been watching us from the moment we had come ashore, and yet, I had seen no evidence of that. I finally could stand it no longer and kicked the fire out, pouring water from the river on it to extinguish the last of the embers.

We talked for a while, our eyes drawn to the stationary sun waiting for it to dip to the horizon but it never moved. A few light, wispy clouds drifted toward it. The sky over us had a natural blue tint to it but it didn’t have the depth that the sky outside had. Rather than stretching toward infinity, it seemed that someone in a plane could actually reach the top of it where they wouldn’t be able to travel any higher. I didn’t know if the impression was because I knew that I was inside of the Earth or if it was because I could see something that wasn’t visible on the outside .

Eric finally suggested that we try to get some sleep. He didn’t think it was necessary to stand watch. Other than the beasts we had seen deep in the jungle, the animal and plant life seemed relatively harmless.

I agreed with him and watched as he spread his sleeping bag at the edge of the meadow, using the grass for a mattress. Because of the tropical heat, he laid on top of it. For a moment he was still and then he sat up to unbutton his shirt. He pulled his backpack close to use it as a pillow and then settled down again.

"Relax, Dave," he said, his eyes still closed. "We’re perfectly safe here. Nothing’s going to get at us."

"Sure," I said, and then spread my sleeping bag out near his. But I didn’t like the idea of both of us sleeping at the same time. Maybe it was my military training or maybe it was the strangeness of the land we’d found or maybe it was the few glimpses we’d had of some of the local fauna, but I was uncomfortable. I could still feel those unseen eyes on my. I knew there were dangers out there, even if Eric refused to acknowledge them.

It wasn’t long before I heard a single, ragged snore and knew that Eric had fallen asleep. He had one arm over his eyes to block that ever present sun. I sat there quietly, listening to the sound of the water in the river and the rustling of leaves as a light breeze blew. The last thing I wanted to do was go to sleep now, with Eric out of it.

It was just as Eric said, however. I sat quietly watching, but nothing left the jungle or the water. No beasts tried to creep up on us to devour us. Overhead I saw a bird or two and from the jungle came the occasional cries of animals, but nothing that was frightening.

Slowly, I relaxed, thinking of all the explorers who had set up camps all over the world and who had not bothered with guards or sentries. It wasn’t as if we had unlimited manpower. With five or six people we could have mounted a guard rosters and no one would have been taxed by it, but here, it was impossible. There were only the two of us.

Finally I laid back, my head resting on my pack. I placed my hat over my eyes and found that I didn’t like that. I put my hat on the ground beside me, telling myself that the slightest sound would awaken me, just as they had when I had been fighting they war in Europe. I could sleep through artillery barrages, but the scrape of a foot outside my bunker would bring instantly awake, a weapon in my hand.

For a long time I laid awake, listening to the sounds of this strange new world around me. Quiet, relaxing sounds that dulled the senses and helped bring on the sleep. Then, just like Eric, I was out of it.