Monday, February 27, 2012

Land to the North - Chapter Thirteen

The old rulers were lifted to the shoulders of the bearers and carried from the arena to the wild cheering of the crowd. A dozen of the black garbed soldiers, each holding a great spear of pure gold, broke from the formation and surrounded us almost like an honor guard. An officer, wearing the black uniform, a scarlet cape and a gold trimmed helmet, approached and asked that we follow. As we departed, the cheering increased, as if the crowd was on our side and not that of the high priest.

We were led through a wide gate, set in a stone wall, and out onto a plateau that overlooked the city. We turned toward a low, open building that had smoke rising from the roof. The grass was neatly trimmed and led to four steps that ran along the front. Every ten or fifteen feet there were doors. Between the doors were wide windows.

We were escorted to the top of the steps and as we reached them, two men and two women came out. The guard fanned to our right and left, as if protecting the structure from assault.

The newcomers didn’t speak. They led us into the interior that smelled of sulfur. We passed though a couple of doors and stood facing a huge pool of steaming water. There was no roof over us that the whole place was open to the sun. Marble steps led into the water and there were benches of marble scattered around the edge of the hot springs.

Without a word, one of the women began to pull at my clothes, trying to remove them. I pushed her hands away and turned to look over my shoulder.

Christine and Nuana were naked. Their bodies were covered with soot and ash from the fire. Their hair was sweat damp and hung straight. Neither seemed to think a thing about the situation. Both moved to the steps that led down into the water and descended until they were neck deep.

“When in Rome,” said Eric, helping his female assistant remove his clothes.

I didn’t like this at all. The two men had moved to the rear and were watching the women. Eric, now nude, entered the water swimming along. He stopped and stood up. “Come on, Dave. Water’s wonderful.”

I shrugged and glanced at the woman who stood near me waiting patently. I unbuttoned my shirt and dropped it to the marble floor. Slowly, I took off the rest of my clothes, and feeling somewhat embarrassed, had to be careful that I didn’t run to the water to cover myself. Once I was in to the waist, I found that I was no longer embarrassed and that no one was really paying any attention to me anyway.

For a few moments, I stood there quietly, the water up to my chest. I felt good. Better than I had since I had awaked in the boat and found that we were drifting in a fog bank. I turned and saw that Christine was studying me. She came closer and touched the scars on my back, as if fascinated by them.

“What happened to you?” she asked in Spanish.

I turned and stared into her eyes, noticing that there were icy blue. I wanted to reach out and brush a stray strand of blond hair from her face, but didn’t. Instead I just said, “It was the war.”

“War?” she said.

I knew why she was confused. In warfare conducted using sword and arrows, the wounds leave scars that look different than the ones on me. Shrapnel from an artillery round tends to shred the human body.

When she reached out again, to touch my chest, I grabbed her hand, holding it away from me. She moved closer to me, looking up into my eyes.

Her unwavering gaze made me uncomfortable. I looked away and saw that Eric and Huana were locked in an embrace, pressing against one another tightly. Christine slid to the side and then was behind me, her hands massaging my shoulders. As her fingers worked, I felt the tension drain from me and I turned.

Ignoring everything around me, the men and women who stood outside the water, watching, the open roof that allowed the sun to stream in, the guards who we could see through the open windows, I pulled Christine close. Our lips met, almost tentatively, as if we were afraid of hurting each other. The kiss held and grew in intensity. All I could think of was her wet body pressed against mine as her tongue probed, searching for mine.

There was a strange quiet around us, as if the whole world had disappeared. Only a low bubbling of the water as it seeped into the pool disturbed the scene.

I lifted Christine and carried her to the side of the pool. I laid her on the sun warm marble and then crawled out of the water. We lay together for a time, exploring each other, learning about each other.

Later, I would wonder about the desertion of my inhibitions and realize that the situation had destroyed them. The high priest had told us that we would be dead in two days, at the most. While I believed that I could take two adversaries at once, I doubted that I could take three and even if I could, Christine and Huana would be dead long before I could dispatch the soldiers and get to them.

But now wasn’t the time to think about any of that. Christine was there, waiting and wanting. I moved closer to her, felt her shift and slid in anticipation and then moan with pleasure.

Eric and Huana never made it from the water. They stayed in there, holding each other.

Christine and I finally joined them again. She and I took turns washing each other, removing the last evidences of the fire and the sweat. We stayed longer than necessary, enjoying the imagined privacy of the bath. We knew, when we left, that the guards would surround us again, taking us to the palace.

Finally, we climbed from the water and rather than toweling dry, we let the sun wash over us, evaporating the water slowly. Then, sleepy from the sun, we searched for our clothes.

Christine’s short, white skirt had been replaced by a clean, fresh one. Huana’s clothes were new too. I found that my clothes had been washed but not pressed. They were wrinkled badly, but they were clean and I relished them as much as any I have ever put on.

Fully clothed, we left the bath hand in hand. As we passed through the doors, the guards formed around us again with their officer leading. He turned toward the palace, crossing the grass of the lawn to reach a marble staircase built into the side of the hill.

When we reached the palace, we were escorted to our room on the second floor. As we entered, the door was closed and I heard a bar slide into place so that we couldn’t get out again.

Eric dropped Huana’s hand and stepped to the table where there was another load of fresh fruit and cold wine. As he poured himself a glass, I asked, “You going to trust that again?”

He shrugged. “What’s the point now? We know what’s going to happen tomorrow. Would they want to deprive us of our last day on Earth? Or maybe I should say, ‘Our last day in Earth.’”

“Who would have thought they would burn the women at the stake while trying to kill us in combat?”

Eric dropped into one of the chairs and hooked a leg over the arm. He drank deeply from the cup and set it on the table. “David, my man,” he said, “it is time to talk of ships and kings and ways to get the hell out of here.”

“Over the railing, through the garden and into the jungle,” I said, looking out into the city.


I shot a glance at Christine. I didn’t want to leave her behind because that meant she would die. Probably burned at the stake without anyone to free her. Besides, we would need a guide who could help us once we were outside the city. A translator who could talk to the natives around the city and who could help us avoid the worst of the jungle.

Eric nodded and said, “I know what you’re thinking and I like it. We can’t just leave the women behind, not after all that has happened. They’ll be killed.”

“But do we say anything to them?”

Eric grabbed an apple and crunched into it. “If we just walk out onto the balcony and drop over the edge, they’re going to see us go.”

Suddenly I wasn’t worried about that. I knew that Christine would go with us. She would like the opportunity to improve her lot in life. But the weapons. They had taken our knives and machetes the first day, our rifles in the prison and finally our pistols as they understood the value of them. I didn’t want to face the jungle with giant snakes and aggressive spiders without our weapons. I said as much to Eric.

“Then ask,” he said.

I turned and said, in Spanish, “Where are our weapons?”

Christina shook her head and said, “I don’t know.”


“They have been given to the Emperor. I do not know where he might have taken them.”

“Doesn’t matter,” said Eric. “We can’t waste time searching for them. Once we’re outside, we’ve got to make tracks.” Then grinning, added, “Or make no tracks. Just get away from here as rapidly as we can.”

I sat down at the table and said, “Before we do that, we’d better have some kind of plan. A goal.”

“I would think that it would be obvious. We get into the jungle and head for the river. In the worst case, we might have to just toss logs into it and drift with the current. At best, we’ll find some kind of boat and can use it to get out.”

“Not much of a plan,” I said. But then, the whole expedition hadn’t been all that well thought out. And it was a plan, no matter how loosely structured it might be.

“There is one thing,” said Eric. “The whole point was to find out what happened to my family.”

That stopped me for a moment and then I said, “They’re not here.”

“How do you know?”

“Because, if they were, we would have learned about it by now. They would have stopped the fight somehow. They would have been there to welcome us or to watch the ceremonies. They would be here now, trying to help us escape.”

Eric was silent for a while. He was staring out, looking at the jungle beyond the city limits. Finally he said, “They’re somewhere in here. In the realm. Maybe not here, but somewhere.”

I didn’t say what I was thinking. If they were here, they probably had gone through the same ordeal that we were facing and they didn’t survive. The search for them in this city was over, but I didn’t mention that. Instead, I said, “Okay. We escape. When do we go?”

“Well,” he said, grinning, “we won’t wait for dark. And I don’t think we should try it now. I think that we should eat a big meal, arrange a way to carry some of this food and the decanter, and see if an opportunity presents itself. If not, we’ll wait until we see little activity in the gardens below us and then we’ll get out.”

“Makes sense,” I said. Except, once again, we weren’t taking control of the situation. We were letting the situation dictate our actions. That was how we had gotten ourselves into the mess in the first place.

“Tell the women,” said Eric. “They’ve the right to know and we’ll have to count on their help.”

Although I didn’t say anything I knew that he was right. Without their assistance we wouldn’t be able to get very far. So, in Spanish, I outlined what we wanted to do. Christine greeted the idea with enthusiasm, but Huana was reluctant to go along. Her status in the society hadn’t been quite as bad as ours. She had been selected with dozens of other youths as a sacrifice to the gods. She was to die gloriously and speed her way into the afterlife. Except that burning at the stake would prevent that. She couldn’t understand her sudden fall from grace, unless it had been her association with us and the belief that she was no longer pure enough for sacrifice. Not that any of that mattered now.

Christine said something to her in their language. I could understand none of it. It wasn’t a romance language or based on Latin. It was as different as anything I’d ever heard. As they spoke, I thought that if I concentrated hard enough I would be able to pick up something. It was tantalizingly familiar, or almost familiar, but I didn’t understand a word.

The argument between them turned momentarily heated and then Huana raised her hands, almost in surrender. Her voice was quiet, subdued and finally she just nodded her head.

Christine turned to me and said, “We are now all set. She has agreed to help.”

I got out of my chair and walked to the sleeping area. Unlike the cots in the cell, the beds were piled with cotton and silk material for comfort. I spent an hour making a backpack and then stuffing it with food.

Then there seemed to be nothing to do. Eric walked to the bed and laid down. Huana followed and laid beside him. Neither of them spoke or moved, the day was still hot and humid, but all the days were hot and humid and never-ending. I began to wonder about that because we had yet to see a rain storm and we were in a tropical environment. Of course, I realized it was a closed system so that a little rain would be all that was needed.

The sound of music drifted to us and I walked out on the balcony. In the distance, in the plaza, I saw several dozen musicians lining the ramp that lead up into the pyramid. Some held brass horns, or maybe they were gold, with long bells that wrapped around the arms to that the end hovered over the head like some kind of halo. There were flutes and drums. And there were people dancing. Women throwing flower pedals and men leaping high in the air in some kind of celebration.

Christine joined me and I pointed to the celebration. She nodded and said, “Day two of the festival of the sun. Started about the time that you were brought in. It winds down slowly and then explodes into the festival of the moon.”

When she said it to me it made good sense. After all, it was mid-afternoon for all intents and purposes and there were a dozen ancient societies that worshiped the moon.

I hadn’t thought about it then, but these people have never seen the moon. They knew nothing about it, except for the knowledge that someone had to have brought to them. They had an eternal sun, but they had no moon and that told me that there was some contact with the outside world. It was knowledge that I thought important, though I didn’t know how I would ever use it.

I watched the dancing for a while. Soon the adults fell away, leaving the center of the plaza open. From all four corners streamed the youngsters, all dressed in the white translucent material. They walked slowly, their heads held high proudly. The four groups met in the middle and began to circle one another until there were four concentric circles dancing around each other.

The high priest, again dressed in his robe of bright colors came down the ramp, followed by several women, probably his high priestesses. As they reached the foot of the ramp, the children stopped dancing and fell to their knees facing the ramp. The priestesses raised their arms skyward and their dark robes opened, revealing their naked bodies. Each clutched a golden dagger in her hand.

“What’s going on?” I asked, not really wanting to know and fearing the worst.

“Sacrifice of the virgins to the god of the sun,” she said in a calm voice, making it sound as if the murder of children was the most natural thing.

I glanced at her, surprised at her indifference and then realized that this was her culture and her society and she had learned about life through them. She was used to seeing people, children, killed for the greater glory of their gods. To me it was repugnant, but then, I considered myself to be enlightened.

And then I thought about the war I had been in and realized that our ritualistic killing was more proficient than theirs and normally only involved the young males. Sometimes they volunteered for the privilege and sometimes others selected them. It was all a great lottery and those of us with some luck survived long enough and then the elders decided that the war would end. Our system could kill a million a day and theirs only a couple of dozen, maybe once a year.

In the plaza, the children had risen and were marching up the ramp until there were two parallel lines of them from the foot of the ramp up to the very apex of the pyramid, each of them facing toward the plaza, their backs to the top of the structure.

The music died then and the musicians moved away from the lines of children. As they did, people began flowing from the streets carrying all sorts of manufactured goods. Bolts of cloth, golden and wooden idols, tools, metal pots, and baskets of food. Fruits gathered from the abundance of the trees, baskets of fish and meat, and roots pulled from the ground.

All was carried to the middle of the plaza and tossed down on wooden platforms until there were heaps of it. As the piles grew higher, logs were laid on top. High priestesses carrying torches descended from the apex of the pyramid, passing between the lines of children. When they reached the ground, they tossed their torches into the offerings and stepped back. Black smoke began to curl upward from half a hundred torches as the offerings caught fire. It was such a waste.

As the smoke began to billow, drifting to the left, the high priest stepped behind the first of the children at the bottom of the ramp. He clasped her around the chest and then cut her throat. As the blood splashed, there was a ragged cheer from the people assembled. Unceremoniously, he dumped her body to the ground and then reached down soaking his hand in her blood which he wiped over his face and the chest of his bright, white robe.

I was sickened by the spectacle. I felt my head spin but when I glanced at Christine, she was watching the grisly show with complete fascination.

When I looked back into the plaza, the whole religious order was on the ramp, killing the children just as the high priest had done. Their throats were cut to the riotous cheering of the assembled multitude. As each body was dropped, the people chanted and kept at it until fifty of the children were dead, their blood soaked bodies littering the ramp from the stone base to the marble top.

I thought there was nothing more horrifying that they could do, but they had one more gruesome trick. When they reached the top, four men wearing loincloths, appeared. Two of the men knelt and two stood behind them. One of the high priestesses shed her robe so that she was completely naked. She turned, facing the plaza and as she did, the kneeling men seized her ankles, holding them so that her legs were slightly spread. The two standing behind her grabbed her arms, holding them out straight. They seemed to be holding her so tightly that she couldn’t move.

The high priest danced in front of her and then his knife flashed. When he turned, there was a gaping hole in her chest. He held her still beating heart over his head and then crowd roared. Her body was dumped from the ramp. It hit the side of the pyramid and slid to the stone floor of the plaza leaving a bright red streak on the rock facing of the pyramid.

I could take no more of the show. I had seen horrible things in the war. I had seen men blown apart by artillery and shot to pieces by machine guns. I had seen things that turned my stomach and made brave men weep, but I had never seen anything like this. The wanton killing of so many children. So many beautiful and healthy children. The destruction of so much that could be used to benefit everyone in that society. And then the ritualistic sacrifice of the woman. It was all so outrageous that I could barely contain myself. I wanted to scream at Christine. I wanted to demand answers from her, but knew that she was no more responsible for the murders of the children than I. Neither of us could have stopped it. Not when so many in the population seemed to approve of it.

I turned and entered my chamber, trying to put perspective on it. I wanted to look on it as a scientist would. See it as part of a culture and not the disgusting and sickening display that I had seen.

On the surface, I knew there were many societies that condoned and practiced human sacrifice. The Thuggee in India, the Aztecs in Mexico and the Incas in South America. But must of those had been abolished as the “civilized” world have rolled over them.

I stepped to the table and poured myself a healthy slug of the wine and downed it in one long pull. It was a hell of a way to keep the population down. If they had sacrifices of this magnitude often then would soon run short of subjects.

Christine tried to explain it to me, saying that a failure to provide a sufficient sacrifice would be to anger the gods. They had been angered once before and the price had been the near destruction of the civilization. That, like some of the other things she said struck a chord in my mind, but I failed to put it all together. The spectacle in the plaza had overwhelmed my sense of reason. All I wanted was to escape, regardless of the consequences.

As I thought of escape, I heard the bar across the door being shifted. I looked at Eric and he was suddenly sitting upright, a finger to his lips. Both Christine and Nuana scmapered across the floor, standing in the open where they could easily be seen by anyone entering.

Without a word, I jumped to the wall. I had my back to it, my head and eyes turned toward the door as it opened.

For a moment, no one entered. Then the officer of the guard appeared holding Eric’s pistol in his hand. Two men followed him. All stopped, facing the women. The officer said something to them that I couldn’t understand.

As they spoke, Eric and I struck. I clubbed the man in front of me with my fist. I hit him in the back of the neck as hard as I could. I heard the bones snap as they shattered and he collapsed, dropping his sword with a clatter. I stooped to pick it up. As my hand touched the hilt, I froze. The officer stood over me, grinning widely, the barrel of Eric’s pistol pointed at my face.

Everything was suspended in time. I heard the grunt of the other soldier as Eric kicked him to the floor. I heard Christine scream and the officer laugh. He jerked his hand, as if wanting to throw the bullet at me, but nothing happened. He was trying to will the weapon to fire. He didn’t know how to pull the trigger.

I exploded into action. I grabbed the hilt of the sword and came up swinging. The officer had the sense to duck, but he tried to shoot me again, unable to fire the strange weapon. As he shook the pistol, I thrust, the blade of the short sword cutting through the cotton padding of his black armor. There was a stench of bowel and a spurt of blood as he died.

Eric ran across the floor and pushed the door shut. He turned and looked at me. I had plucked his Mauser from the floor and discovered that the safety was on. I grinned, made sure a round was chambered and waited.

“Seems like the best opportunity we’ll get.”

I nodded my agreement, handed a sword to Cristine and a dagger to Huana. I shouldered the makeshift backpack and joined Eric at the door. He didn’t ask for his pistol back and I didn’t offer it to him.

He glanced at us and then peeked through a crack in the door. When he saw that the hallway was empty, he opened the door and stepped out. We all followed him, closing the door behind us in the hope of buying a few more minutes for our head start.

We rushed down the stairs, but instead of fleeing through the main door, we turned toward the rear of the palace. Eric stopped at a large window that overlooked the garden. Maybe he was remembering our last escape attempt or maybe he was waiting for the right moment to leap.

As we climbed to the sill, crouching there, all I could remember was the trap we had fled into the last time. I hoped this wasn’t going to be repeat of that because I doubted they would take us alive again after all that had happened.

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