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.