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

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