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.”