Thursday, 27 August 2009

Mist- page 3

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The man standing on the hill looked at the rocky face at the end of the valley below. Frowning, he pondered his options.

‘The marker is gone’, he said. Beside him stood a younger, leaner man. General Diego had promoted him to captain after his remarkable bravery during the defeat of the Akalla tribe. Captain Andrea was very capable, and what he lacked in experience he compensated with courage, but his pride sometimes became stubbornness and that was no way to win wars. Still, Diego trusted him and was very glad to have him as second in command.

‘Do you think the woman was discovered?’ Andrea asked his General.

The General didn't reply. He looked at the valley below. This was a wealthy, beautiful land, with long pastures, extended coast lines of crystalline waters, dense vegetation and blue skies. The most incredible animals roamed the rain forest. Just the other night his men on patrol had seen a small spotted panther watching them from behind a large tree trunk, its eyes shining green discs under the moonlight. It was a magical land, with its abundance in gold, silver, jade and other precious stones the empire had never seen, its brave if rudimentary savage soldiers, and its imposing temples to pagan gods.

Magic, yes, in the sense of the wonders a new world can hold, but a path hidden by magic? A false rock on the foot of the hill, an illusion of a rock?

He had seen it himself, once the collaborator woman had placed the signpost as she had promised. She had arrived to the camp three nights back, and his men had had the sense to bring her to him unharmed. She spoke their language well enough to make herself understood. She was different from the savages he'd encountered so far. She hadn't asked for gold, or for safe conduct for her family. She hadn't been terrified like the other natives who turned on their people to save their own necks. No, what she wanted was power. She had asked for a place by his side. And in return she offered a wealth of information. She promised she would lead them to the elusive Shilapa, and to their renowned treasure. Magic, she had claimed. Spells. A book of chants that was a book of magic. General Diego sighed. He had heard of this book but he had no interest in it. He thought it another quaint pagan book, like the many they had found in the tribes. The conquered Akalla had had a small library in their temple, one that had been burnt after the suggestion of father Antonio. Interesting how father Antonio would have the savage's books destroyed but would insist on keeping the jade figurines and the silver bowls that were used for ceremonial purposes in the temples. General Diego didn't mind. He wasn't particularly interested in the mines either, although he did like bringing golden necklaces, amethyst rings and other ornaments to his wife in the old continent.

He was interested in the significance of the battles in this conquest. He wanted glory and a place in history. The savages were brave and resourceful, they were a proud people. And although they were no match for his army's gunpowder and armour, they knew their land very well and they didn't surrender easily. The Shilapa tribe, the last in the southern region of the peninsula, had hidden extremely well. The other tribes admired them deeply and the stories of their treasures and magical powers were most far fetched. The General had come close to deciding that they were just a legend. His men had canvassed the land, patiently and thoroughly for two months. They had seen no sign of the Shilapa.

And then this woman had come. She had arrived in the dead of night, and had asked to see the leader of the army. She was dressed in silk, with amber and jade adorning her neck. A sign not only that she was important in the hierarchy of her folk, but also that she didn't belong to any of the tribes they had encountered in the region, which were all colourful but simply dressed in their cotton garments with patterned embroidery.

She had shown him a golden dart with bright red and green feathers attached to its end. ‘This will lead you to my people,’ she said. ‘It will open the secret entrance for you and for the inevitable progress you bring to these lands.’ Of course didn't believe her, but had been intrigued all the same and had agreed to her terms out of curiosity. Provided she gave them access to the Shilapa and their secrets, he guaranteed her safety and a place by his side in the campaign, and once it was over, she would remain a counsellor. If it played out this way, she would have to be watched constantly, he thought. She was, after all, a traitor.

Still believing that she was lying, he left the next night, leading a group of ten heavily armed soldiers to the foot of the hill below, looking for the dart she had claimed would be marking the entrance to the ‘magic door’. They found it on the ground, in front of the solid rock wall at the edge of the valley.

He didn't believe anyone could live on the other side of the rock wall, the ships had reported a high cliff top above the canyon on this side of the river, inaccessible and populated only by eagle's nests and gnarled trees.

He ordered his men to approach the bright green red feathers shining under the moon. He then asked them to have their firearms ready and dismounted the horse in silence and walked to the dart. He picked it up under the curious eyes of his men, and looked around him. Nothing but a humid ground covered in lichen, and the rock wall. He took two cautious steps along it and then back, looking up, searching for any other signal. Perhaps a hidden ladder? Or a play of light and shade hiding an entrance? The naked rock stared back at him. He put his hand against the rock wall, thinking of pushing it. His arm touched only air and he almost fell, taken off balance by the unexpected gap in the wall. He squinted, his eyes disoriented in the sudden darkness. This was an entrance. On the other side a narrow path ran inside the rock. He went back to his men and rode back to camp. He would assemble his army and go back in full strength.

Two days had passed since then, and he stood now at the top the hill, looking down on the secret entrance to the Shilapa lands, his army behind him ready for his command.

‘We march,’ he said to Andrea. ‘The hidden tribe might be expecting us but that makes no difference. By this time tomorrow their lands will belong to us’.

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