Sunday, March 18, 2012

Land to the North - Chapter 15

After a breakfast of fruit and water stripped from the leaves as Huana had shown us, we began to work our way through the jungle. There wasn’t the sense of urgency that had pressed us the day before. The soldiers had failed to locate our trail and had probably returned to tell the high priest that they had failed to find us.

Travel through the jungle didn’t give us much chance for conversation. On one hand, the travel was difficult, taking most of our strength, and on the other, we didn’t want to make any extra noise that could lead searchers to us, if any were close, or if any were still searching.

After a couple of hours, we came to a wide path that looked as if it was used frequently by humans. There were footprints in the soft mud at the edge of it. I stopped beside it and waited for Eric to catch up to me.

“Well,” I said. “You think it’s safe for us to follow it?”

He shrugged and said, “Ask them.”

I switched to Spanish and asked where the path lead. Christine shook her head and Huana refused to answer me. I stood and stepped closer to her. I asked again.

“To the Husyna,” she said as if that was supposed to mean something to me.

“What are the Husyna?” I asked.

She shook her head, her eyes on the ground between her feet. She refused to look up.

“Are these the baby eating monsters that you told us about?” I asked her.

She nodded slowly. “Very bad. Kill all strangers and then eat the babies.”

I sighed. It sounded like they were ordinary, garden variety cannibals. The last thing I wanted was to be eaten, but I didn’t see that as any more horrible than dying at the hands of three sword-wielding soldiers or having my throat cut in the name of the god of the sun.

“So what do we do?” asked Eric.

“The trail looks like it moves more or less in the direction that we want to go, that is, toward the river. Let’s follow it and play the situation by ear.”

Huana protested again, saying that she would rather return to the town than face the Husyna, but as we began to move along the path, she joined us. She wasn’t happy about it, but she stayed with us, moving as rapidly as we were.

The trail seemed to open up into a long green tunnel with a brown floor. The traffic along the path was heavy at times, as indicated by the lack of overgrowth, but we saw no one along it. We just kept moving, ducking under an occasional low hanging branch or two.

Finally, like the light at the end of a tunnel, we saw the end of the jungle. Huana stopped us again. As we crouched in the wet and dripping vegetation, we could hear the sounds of a civilization. Maybe I should say that we could hear the sounds of people in the distance. Voices, cries, and the screams of animals drifted to us. It sounded like the normal noise from a normal village. Nothing frightening about it.

Huana was badly frightened anyway. Her skin had gone pale, her eyes were wide and when I touched her hand, her palm was clammy. I turned and looked down the trail, but there was nothing visible there, other than the bright sunshine marking the end of the dimness of the thick jungle.

“Come on,” I said. “It can’t be as bad as you claim.”

She didn’t answer me. Instead, she shook her head and pointed to the rear. I turned and saw three human shapes enter the trees. They seemed to be naked. Each carried a long bow that had to be five or six feet in length. They seemed to know we were there because they didn’t stop to point or converse. They came at us, a long arrow notched and pointed in our general direction.

“What do we do?” asked Eric.

I stood up and turned to face them. Slowly, I drew the pistol from what I had tucked it in my belt and thumbed off the safety. The terror that Huana displayed was infecting me. I felt the urge to open fire, figuring I could shoot each of the approaching men before they realized what was happening.

Eric joined me, holding the sword in his right hand, the tip pointing at the ground. His breathing was ragged, as if he had just run a great distance.

I glanced over my shoulder and said, “Can either of you talk to these guys?”

Neither of the women answered. They stayed behind us, crouched at the edge of the trail, looking as if they were about to bolt. Or more probably, about to die.

“Come on,” I hissed. “Can you talk to them?”

Reluctantly Christine stood. She stepped close and looked over my shoulder. In a voice that was tinged with fright, she said, “I think so.”

The men didn’t slow down. They kept coming, walking rapidly. They ignored the jungle around them, their eyes on me and the others with me.

“Shoot them!” demanded Huana, her voice high and strained. “Shoot them!”

“Shut up!” I snapped.

Eric lifted his sword and said, “David?”

I felt the same panic. I didn’t like the way they were coming at us. I didn’t like the arrows or the looks on their faces. I thought about putting a round into the dirt at their feet, but wasn’t sure how they would react. I wasn’t sure they would understand the warning shot.

And just when it seemed that they were going to walk over us, they stopped and fanned out. The man in the center stepped forward a pace or two closer while the men at his sides slipped off the trail, taking up positions in the dense jungle vegetation.

For a moment each group stood staring at one another. These men were dark skinned, well muscled and taller than the people from the city. They were about six feet tall. Two of them wore beards but the leader was clean shaven. Each of them had rope like scars on their faces and more of the same on their chests. They had black curly hair and wore loin clothes.

“Greetings,” I said in Spanish.

The leader looked right and left and then answered me, also in Spanish. “What do you want?”

I stared at him, watching him closely. “We have just come from the city...”

The man suddenly grinned and reached out as if to clap me on the shoulder, though he was still several yards away. “Of course,” he said. “Come with us. Welcome to our humble village.”

The men spun, almost as if a command had been given, and two of them ran up the trail, toward the brightness I had seen there. I lowered the hammer on the pistol and shot a glance at Eric, who shrugged.

“I don’t like this,” Christine breathed into my ear.

Well, I didn’t like it either considering that everyone always seemed friendly until they decided you’d make the perfect sacrifice to their gods.

Huana hadn’t moved since the men had appeared. Eric stepped to her, bent and then lifted her so that she was standing. The fear was still evident on her face, but now there was curiosity too. The men were not the inhuman monsters she had expected. They looked and normal and acted normal.

“Let’s go,” I said.

Huana glanced at Eric and then back to me, as if trying to make up her mind. She allowed herself to be dragged along with us, trying to slow things down while she thought them over. Together, we followed the men.

And in minutes we were at the edge of the jungle. There was an open plain that gently sloped upward in front of us. About fifty or sixty feet away was a bamboo stockade, the bamboo lashed together. An open gate was directly in front of us, and through it, I could see thatched huts, some up on poles, several smokey fires, dogs on leashes, and several people, women and children, all walking or sitting in the village, waiting.

The two men who had gone on in front of us, waited at the gate. They stood on either side of it, like guards. We walked up the slope, along the dirt road that was rutted as if by the wheels of wagons. It was the first evidence I had seen that anyone around there had wheeled vehicles.

We entered the village a moment later and in seconds were surrounded by dozens of people. It wasn’t the dirty, native village I expected, but a neat little hamlet. Everyone was clean, there were paths laid out between the huts that looked like a planned grid and there were pens for the animals. There were no pools of standing water and no evidence of the stench that you’d expect from a native village. If the houses had been made of wood or stone and the paths paved, it would seem that this was a town on the American frontier, rather than a native village.

As we entered, the people swarmed out of their huts, dropped what they were doing, and ran toward us. They were all curious, shouting questions at us in their native tongue or in Spanish. There were gifts and shouts of encouragement. When they could free us from the press of people, we were lead to a long house in the center of the village and told that we could rest inside.

I climbed up the notched log and looked at the interior. It was certainly not as luxurious as the room in the palace, but it was splendid in its own way. The floor was wooden except for a blackened square of stone at the far end where fire wood stood. There were ragged rectangles cut in the thatch that were supposed to be windows. The overhang cut the amount of light that came in and since the sun didn’t move, the interior would never get any brighter.

There were six cots arranged around the room. These were bamboo affairs, lashed together and covered with straw. A pillow rested at the head of each cot. In the center of the rooms was a table with a gourd in the middle of it and fruit surrounding it.

It was obviously the best these people could do and given their village, it was more impressive than that provided for us in the city. And, more importantly, there were no locks on the doors, no bars on the windows, and no guards surrounding us.

I walked to the nearest cot and collapsed on it. I looked at Huana who stood stiffly in the middle of the room. “Well,” I said, “they don’t look like baby eaters to me.”

Eric laid back on a cot. He propped the heel of his left foot on the toes of his right and laced his fingers behind his head. “All in all,” he said, “I think we’re in good shape.”

Huana crossed over to him, leaned close and said, “Let’s get out of here.”

“Why?” he asked. “We can get a good night’s sleep, something that Dave and I haven’t had for quite a while. These people seem friendly enough.”

“But they eat babies,” she said, her voice quiet.

“That’s a load of crap,” he responded. “Propaganda to keep you people from fleeing into the jungle. The priests tell you that so you’ll be too frightened to try to escape.”

She turned and looked at me, as if asking for my help. I shook my head and said, “I’m resting here for a couple of days. Then we can get out. Christine?”

Christine looked apprehensive. She sat on the cot nearest to me, crossed her legs and leaned forward. For an instant it looked as if he was going to speak, but then decided against it.

Eric rolled to his side and patted Huana on the shoulder. “You need to relax. We are safe for the first time in days. These people are not going to kill us. They won’t sneak in here and cut our throats as we sleep.”

I glanced at him and wondered. They seemed to be quite uninterested in us now that we were inside the village. Of course, they could be the most accommodating people we had ever found. Realizing that we were tired after our ordeal in the jungle, they were giving us a chance to relax and rest.

Or, on a more horrible level, maybe because they knew we wouldn’t live long, they didn’t want to get to know us.

I suspected that they were just kind people, but I didn’t know. There were none of the trappings of cannibals around. There were no piles of human skulls and no shrunken heads, though a shrunken head didn’t really mean they were cannibals.

And, although their village was built of thatch, they seemed to have a fairly high level of civilization. They understood the need for cleanliness. Given all that, I was sure that we had little to fear while in the village. I rolled over to go to sleep, never realizing how wrong I was.

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