Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Demons of El Dorado: Part 11


CHIBA VILLAGE

Luis coughed. The smoke filled air was aggravating his lungs. His watery eyes focused on the glowing fire. He held his breath, hoping the irritation in his throat would ease, lest he draw his father’s scathing glare again. They were in the middle of an important meeting, and any affront could be seen as grounds for violence. Luis glanced around the thatched hut. The chief sat opposite Rodrigo on a small wooden stool. To Rodrigo’s right sat Friar Bartome; to his left was Angel, then Luis. To Luis’ left was a thick limbed warrior, a short, stocky man with a flat forehead, no doubt distorted by the plate the natives tied there when young. Children outside were wearing them. His arms bore tattoos in elaborate patterns. Other than his fierce expression, he was completely naked.  A native elder, wizened and hunched, sat to the left of the chief, and his wife or concubine on the right. 

The chief, whose name was Nocabo, wore little. There was a gold crown set atop his head, and his male member was sheathed in a gold leaf tube, instead of the usual snail shell. He wore an elaborate necklace of guanin and shells, and a cloak was draped over his broad shoulders. Tattoos covered almost his entire body, save for the palms of his hands, which were as white as Luis’ own. The man’s voice was rough and gravelly. He gestured as he spoke, looking up frequently, as if addressing the sky itself. 

Bartome mouthed the cacique’s words silently. Finally the chief stopped speaking.

Rodrigo leaned over to him. He was clearly impatient. “Well? Will they help us, or not?”

“Yes,” said Bartome, “but only if we help them.”

Rodrigo considered this. “Do what?”

“Destroy their enemy. The Totenac.”

“And who are they, these ‘Totenac’? Another tribe of savages? Come on, man. We have little time.”

Father Bartome pulled a crumpled, folded piece of vellum out of his bag and laid it out on the ground. It drew curious looks from the natives. The shore was detailed, and their own route carefully drawn, presumably by Bartome. Luis noted the interior of the continent was vague. Bartome gestured with his hand. “Yes. Upriver. Enemies of the Chiba. They,” and Bartome nodded at the cacique, “thirst for revenge.”

“How many are there? Fighting men.”

Bartome exchanged words with Nocabo. “They have many warriors. But he says our weapons will be more than a match for them.”

“That did not answer my question.” 

More back and forth with the chief. “Less than a thousand men. Perhaps three thousand in the city. It is not what it once was.” 

“How many troops can he field to assist us in this task?”

“Four hundred.” 

“Done. Tell him I agree, so long as he assists us in our fight against El Dorado.”

“Abuljar mentioned them. Our goals may be intertwined—”

The chief raised his arms in a dramatic flourish, and the fire leapt up in tandem. Silence fell, save for the soft flutter of dancing flame.

“Totenac came. Long ago. From land of great pyramids, far away,” said Nocabo solemnly. “Enslave us. Take our crops. Women. Children. Sacrifice them.” He motioned for the map to be brought over. They got up and clustered around the chief, his son moving to allow Bartome to flatten the parchment out over the ground. Bartome explained it to Nocabo, who grunted and brushed the priest aside. He thrust out an arm and pressed a finger on the map, over a lake upriver, one only partially outlined. Nocabo looked up at Rodrigo. “To Toloc.”

Bartome gasped.

Rodrigo seized upon the reaction. “What is it?”

“Toloc,” said Bartome. “Abuljar has said the name many times. He is a water god. The water god of El Dorado. I believe it has been mentioned before, by Orellana.”

Rodrigo raised an eyebrow. “They’ve been here? Ask him. Ask him if others like us have come by.”

Cacique Nocabo shook his gnarled head and mumbled.

“None that stopped. Some great ships passed in the night,  lit at bow and stern. Likely lanterns. But they did not stop. Some warriors followed them, but did not return.”

Suddenly the chief became quite animated and spoke passionately in his native tongue. Flecks of spittle flew from his mouth. 

Father Bartome nodded in understanding. “He wants to avenge his first wives. They were taken by the Totenac, many years ago.”

Rodrigo grunted. “Noble enough. What does he know about El Dorado. How many of them are there. Their army. Tactics. Anything that might be useful to us.”

Bartome spoke the native language quickly, which was filled with odd popping noises that stood out to Luis, to Nocabo. He accompanied his speech with sharp, expressive hand gestures. After listening to Nocabo’s response, Bartome seemed to deflate. “They are legion. He says their armies blanket the earth.”

Rodrigo’s mouth snapped into a smirk. “Exaggeration. And the gold?”

The Chief noded eagerly. “Myna. Yes. Much guanin. Take for Toloc. For Akator.”

“Akator,” repeated Bartome. He caught Rodrigo’s inquisitive look. “Their name for El Dorado.”

“Destroy Totenac, we take Akator. Burn. Take gold.” Nocabo slapped his hands together. “Done!”

“He’s a quick study,” said Rodrigo, eyeing the chief closely. The man seemed to notice every movement, no matter how slight. “Perhaps too quick. And their weapons?”

Without waiting for Bartome, Nocabo gestured at Rodrigo’s metal sword and armour, then spread his hands and smiled, as if that explained everything. The man had obviously seen Spanish weapons in action before. Luis could only wonder when. He was not being as forthright as he could be, of that there could be no doubt.

Rodrigo yanked out the blood stained charter and showed it to the Chief. “Do you see this? Eh?” He waved it at Bartome and the chief. “This document grants me the authority to conquer and subjugate all domains on the Orinoco River.”

Bartome rapidly translated into Chiba.

Rodrigo continued: “Give me your warriors. I promise to destroy these Totenac infidels. Your people will be placed under the protection of God and the King of Spain. In exchange, you will convert to the true faith, and help us conquer El Dorado.”

The cacique insisted upon smoking a pipe before issuing his decision. He’d likely snort that powder the natives were so fond of, seeking a transcendent state from which to draw wisdom. Luis wished he could partake, for he felt in dire need for wise counsel. Perhaps his father could do with it as well.

They were led out of the tent by Chiba warriors, and the tent flap shut behind them. Luis noted his father’s bottled mood and was immediately wary. The family patriarch had either decided these were worthy new allies, or was preparing to mercilessly raze and loot the village. Luis could not tell, and had no role in the decision, whatever it might be. He felt pulled along into this nightmare by family obligation, purely an observer, as if in a dream, helpless to alter the course of events yet complicit in them nonetheless. The heat flooded his mind with such delirious, unhelpful thoughts and nausea. He tried to shrug them off. 

Rodrigo stopped in front of Luis and Angel and spoke under his breath, without looking directly at them. “The Totenac may prove even more useful than these savages. The natives follow the strongest. Their loyalty is to survival. If we convince them we are more powerful than El Dorado, they too will ally with us. We must be prepared to act quickly. To switch alliances, if it seems advisable.”

Angel snorted and mopped sweat from his brow. His eyes devoured native women who walked past. Near naked women were gathering in the center of the village. “We don’t need these shits.”

Rodrigo raised an eyebrow. “No? We’ve already lost nearly a third of our men. Half are sick. Do you think we can take and hold a city with a few dozen half-starved mercenaries?”

“Cortez did. Their weapons are mere toys.”

“And he was far more clever than you,” observed Rodrigo cuttingly. “If you want to ever lead this family, you have learn to us your brain, not your gut.” And with that he walked off to speak to the sergeant. 

“I’d show these animals,” said Angel to Luis. “They need to be managed with an iron fist. Mercy is alien to infidels. They’d see it as weakness.” His eyes gleamed. Luis thought his brother seemed feverish. “He won’t be around for ever, and then I will be in charge and all of this coddling will stop. Mark my words.” And he pulled out his flask and took a swig, before turning to the nudity on display.

Luis said nothing. He knew what Spanish rule in Hispaniola had wrought: of a population over one hundred thousand in 1492, there were now less than five hundred. They’d committed mass suicide in response to the onerous, impossible demands for gold imposed by Spanish overlords. That and plague had destroyed their people. Fortunately, the natives here, the Chiba, knew nothing of such matters, or the Spaniards would have been received with arrows rather than open arms. 

Receiving the Word of God seemed poor compensation for extermination.

While they waited, the Chiba women performed a ritual dance, the small shells tied to their wrists, ankles, and waists chattering in tandem with their hypnotic movements. They were short but well formed, with full breasts and richly coloured skin. Luis watched them as if in a daze, entranced by their brazen nudity. He asked Bartome if this sort of display was common. 

Bartome considered the question. “They are less inhibited than we, more in touch with their inner nature,” he said. “They do not have possessions or property, nor do they lust for gold as we do. They live as Adam and Eve.”

Luis looked down towards the brigantines at the bottom of the hill, where the majority of the mercenaries waited. A few had left the ships and were straining to get a better view of the dancing native women. Rodrigo had forbidden them from leaving the ships, fearing an unnecessary confrontation over the females. Twenty of Rodrigo’s most trusted men, former soldiers who worked as overseers in Trinidad on the family’s estate, had accompanied them into the village. They were heavily armed, in case of trouble. These were fierce men, used to sating their desires on the native workers, brutes who killed without qualm. They stood between the village and the ships, weapons at the ready. Luis saw their cold, eager eyes and imagined they were hoping for an excuse to unleash havoc. If the natives had seized them as hostages, they were to burn the entire village down and slaughter the inhabitants to the last man, woman, and child, whatever the cost in ammunition. 

“Yet not one over fifty,” observed Luis of the natives. 

An hour later, Nocabo issued his decision, and the war drums sounded. Thoom! Thoom! THOOM!

Two hundred fierce, tattooed Chiba warriors clambered into their sleek war canoes and set off into the river, cheered on by their ululating women. Luis marveled at the natives’ ability to drop everything and set off on a moment’s notice. They were every bit as reckless and opportunistic as the Spanish. But the natives were eager and enthusiastic, fired not by greed but by rage and thirst for bloody revenge, as all had suffered at the hands of Totenac oppression and lost family members to them. It was all the Spanish could do to keep up in their less maneuverable brigantines. 


The fleet spilled threw a wall of smoke blowing off fields along the winding river, vegetation burnt by old, stone faced natives who watched them pass without remark. Whether they were envious of the adventure the young men were embarking on, appalled by the foolishness displayed, or felt nothing at all, it was impossible to tell.

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Demons of El Dorado: Part 10

The next morning Luis watched as bodies were wrapped in thick blankets. The faces of the dead men were purplish. Their eyes were closed, but Luis had caught sight of them beforehand, and they were puffed and bloodshot. Bartome pressed a cup into hand of one, then withdrew to Rodrigo, who was standing in front of Luis. 

Bartome rubbed his hands together. “Succumbed to the poison over night. Ojeda had a fever, as well. Nothing I could do, I’m afraid.” 

Rodrigo swatted a mosquito on his neck. “That’s twenty men. Soon I’ll have no army left.” He turned and looks accusingly at Luis and Angel. 

Luis just looked down at a thwart and said nothing. The expedition was enduring the same privations and trials as had friar de Riverra. At least they were in boats, rather than on shore, where it could only be worse. Luis waved a hand in front of his face to clear the insects away, but the effect was only temporary. They were thick and numerous enough to be mistaken for living smoke, and they never seemed to tire. 

While friar Bartome gave the men last rites, Luis settled down by his chest of books and belongings. He unlatched the top and flipped open the lid. Gently he lifted out a Bible. He could not bear reading more of Riverra at the moment, and instead took heart in reading the holy word.

****

Water thundered over gashes of black rock, drowning out the incessant sound of the jungle. Luis watched Rodrigo clamber up over water slicked rocks and stand beside his men: two dozen Spanish soldiers who lined the shore, gripping thick ropes which stretched out to the Brigantine Luis stood upon. Rodrigo was issuing orders, but Luis couldn’t hear him above the rush of the angry waters. The soldiers however, began to pull, and slowly trudge their way up the rocks to the top of the rapids. Luis, Angel and a half dozen sailors desperately used poles to guide the ship between teeth like rocks. The spray of water was a welcome relief to the miasma of insects, but there was little time to think of it, so challenging was the turbulent river. 

Twice Luis nearly stumbled and fell headlong into the maelstrom, to a watery death. Only at the last moment was he able to recover his balance by placing his oar ahead of himself. If the water had been any deeper, his journey would have ended.

“Heave!” came Rodrigo’s faint voice through the white noise and foam. “Come on, you bastards. Put your backs into it.”

With tremendous effort, the Brigantine cleared the last rocks and bobbed into swirling waters above. Wood and ropes creaked ominously, but the ship held together, and Luis breathed a deep sigh of relief as they were drawn towards shore. 
.
Supplies had been stacked on the riverbank, transported up the side of the rapids by foot, to make the ships lighter. The remaining Brigantines were anchored a few yards upstream.

Men laughed with relief and exhaustion as the last brigantine drew near. Luis leaned over the side and planet his oar, Angel doing the same on the opposite side, and they thrust in unison. The soldiers let the rope go slack as the boat slid against the shore with the soft crackle of pebbles grinding against the hull. 

“Good work!” Rodrigo slapped a burly soldier’s bare, sweaty back. The man grinned in return, displaying rotten teeth. “Double ration of rum for the men.”

An ill soldier’s legs gave way, and he collapses. Two disheveled comrades rush to help.

“Filthy jungle,” cursed Rodrigo. He strode into the water and grabbed hold of the gunwale beside Luis and Angel. “Right you two. Let’s get the boats loaded, eh? Tonight we’ll sleep ashore. Get a fresh start in the morning. Don’t worry. We’ll beat this jungle yet.”

****

A bright scarlet flock of birds spun, dived, then soared over the flotilla and away over jungle green. Luis watched them until they were out of sight, marveling not only at their beauty, but how easily they could escape the mud, insects, and filth of the jungle.

He wished he was a bird and rubbed his eyes. They were still swollen and sore, his face puffy from having accidentally slept beneath a Machineel tree the night before.  

There was a series of soft sploshes. Luis looked back as more blanket wrapped bodies, weighted with stones, slipped over the side of two trailing Brigantines. 

Luis looked at them blankly. They swiftly sank, wreathed in sunbeams and floating bits of plant detritus. There was no time to bury them, and no one was interested in going ashore unless absolutely necessary. 

Crocodiles glided out from the shade of the riverbank to investigate.

The dead men would not rest in peace for long.

****

Luis and Estaban stood on a sandy beach, facing each other with leveled swords. The brigantines were lined up behind them, the men encamped at the edge of the jungle. Several men were dug wells in the beach, hoping to refill water kegs that had burst in the heat. Small fires had already been lit, and a dinner of salted fish, candied citron and wine was being prepared. Luis’ mouth watered at the very thought of a good meal. Best of all, t  he air was sweet and fresh and clean, and the strong breeze kept the bugs and humidity at bay. 

Angel lounged nearby on a tarp and watched, his harem clustered behind him. A metal flask was passed between them, along with sweets and preserved fruits.

He brought his mind back and focused on Esteban, who could detect it if his thoughts wandered, damn the man. Their swords rattled against each other as they sought advantage. Luis stepped forward, making a play to the right, but was blocked. With Esteban, Luis could make no grandiose assaults or colourful, theatrical gestures: any such maneuver would leave him exposed to counter-attack, and he’d lose the match. Between expert swordsmen, it was a deadly chess game, one of careful maneuver punctuated by calculated attack. Victory frequently built not on brilliance but opponent error. 

There was a sharp blur as Esteban tested Luis’ defense; Luis gave way, stepping back, giving ground to maintain distance and keep Esteban from gaining advantage. Then just as suddenly Luis was on the attack, sword probing, jostling, until, sensing victory, Luis overextended with a jab that left him exposed. 

Esteban tapped him on the flank. “Voila, you are dead,” laughed Esteban, and he straightened up. “You have to stop falling for that. I was leading you into your doom.”

“Damnit, I thought I had you,” said Luis as he planted his hands on his knees and caught his breath.

“Don’t make such grandiose attacks. They leave you open.”

Angel laughed. “Give it up, Moor! You’d have better luck training a dog to fence. Or a priest. Haw!”

“He’s right you know.” Luis sat down amidst the supplies and kegs and loosened his shirt.

Esteban paused for a moment, then sat beside him. “You might have given up on you, but I haven’t. More training tomorrow. We keep practicing until you’re the best swordsman in the jungle.”

Luis wiped sweat from his brow. He looked over at his older brother, who was now catching almonds in his mouth, tossed by Hermenia. “I’ll never be as good a swordsman as Angel is.”

“Angel’s good. He’s very good, and he knows it,” said Esteban quietly. “But he rarely practices. That will be his downfall.”

****

Morning mist drifted over the glistening, still river. As the flotilla rounded a lazy river bend, thatched huts came into view. 

“Look!” shouted a soldier. “Women. Naked women!”

“God be praised!” said a second, and he pointed ahead with a shaking hand. 
Luis stepped up to the prow to see for himself. A half dozen native women bathed at river’s edge, before the huts, their magnificent, round breasts bare. 

Then they noticed the ships. They looked up, stared. One ran towards the huts on the hillside. The others remained where they were and smiled. 

“They seem friendly,” said Luis as Angel stepped up beside him.

“Friendly enough. Nice tits, eh? We can have some fun here. Eh, lads?”


Monday, 17 February 2020

Demons of El Dorado: Part 9

And now back to Demons of El Dorado...

ICACOS POINT

Booming waves drowned out the shouts of men. Luis was wedged between two soldiers, and rowed like mad against powerful cross currents that threatened to dash them into rocks. All pretense of status and rank had been cast aside in the struggle for survival. 

The fleet surged upward atop a bulging swell and began to shift sideways. 

The stern was partly obscured by mist and slashing water, but Luis could still make out Rodrigo and Angel, who held on to the rudder for all they were worth, their teeth grit, faces showing the strain of a three hour long ordeal. 

Luis struggled not to vomit. 

He wasn’t successful.


ORINOCO RIVER DELTA

Luis blinked. Mud brown water. Lush green foliage filled with lurking fauna. 

The armed flotilla glided silently up river in glorious sunlight, carried forward by strong winds. Soldiers had removed their coarse shirts and slumped in their seats, exhausted. 

In this heat, there was little else one could do. 

Over the past few days they had passed rowed through milky white waters, as if doused in flour, fought dangerous currents, sudden storm squalls, and twice met curious Indians, who had come out to the flotilla in canoes bearing gifts of fruit and cassava bread. Luis had been impressed by their generosity, but his father had insisted on paying them. That was no surprise, and Luis knew why: Rodrigo believed that gifts made slaves. Yet the Indians had refused the offered trinkets, wanting nothing in return, which frustrated Rodrigo and made him suspicious. He would not eat the food until Bartome had, and only then the next day. In the evenings dense mist had engulfted them, followed by thunder and lightning and then a great downpour. 

Now there was not a cloud in the sky, just brilliant sun and punishing heat. Luis’ shirt was drenched in sweat and clung to his body. He noticed that even his father had unbuttoned his tunic.

But there were sights to be enjoyed: pink river dolphins leapt playfully alongside the ship, teasing Spanish soldiers who reached out and tried to touch them for good luck. One swept by Luis so close he leaned out and brushed the back of one with an open palm. It felt cold and smooth and wet, like ceramic.

Ahead the river widened. Luis could see flocks of flamingos, the colour of fresh meat, balanced atop shallow sandbars, preening. 

Angel grunted. “This heat. My God. It’s such shit.” 

Rodrigo, beside him, mopped sweat from his brow, and turned to the First Captain. “Take us closer to the shore, in the shade of the trees. Out of the sun.”

After reading the diary, Luis was loathe to go anywhere near the jungle, however inevitable that would ultimately be. “Father, do you think…”

Rodrigo shot him a condescending look, and Luis fell silent.

Orders were given, and the men set back to their oars. The ships veered closer to the greenery. It looked knotted and impassable, but as they came under its shadow, Luis felt a wave of relief. It would have been wonderful if not for the swarming mosquitoes.

An hour later, the river bifurcated. Currents swirled and intertwined, mud into blue-green. 
Rodrigo ordered Abuljar brought forward. Bartome and two monks awkwardly guided the man to the prow.

The monks were named Cristobel and Diego. Diego appeared ill: pasty skin, red eyed, feverish. Rodrigo did not seem to notice; his attention was focused on Abuljar. “Time for our friend here to earn his keep, eh?” He slipped fingers beneath Abuljar’s jaw, and turned his face up. “Do you remember this river fork?” He waited impatiently for an answer. “Well? Which way? To El Dorado.”

Abuljar shivered and turned away, eyes darting this way and that, like a trapped animal. Bartome noticed the man’s distress. “Take your time, Abuljar. Have no fear. You are safe.” He patted the man on the arm. His voice was soothing.

Abuljar looked left with a blank expression, then right, and cringed. “No!” he whimpered. “I will not go back.”

The monks held him fast.

Angel seemed to enjoy the man’s discomfort. “Ha! He does not seem to like that way.”

It was enough to convince Rodrigo. “That way it is.” He smiled down at Abuljar. “There. You see? Not so hard after all.”

Abuljar continued to whimper and squirm.

“Don’t you worry,” said Rodrigo. “They’ll regret what they did to you. We’ll teach them a lesson they’ll not soon forget.”

“No…”

THIP! Diego stiffened and slapped a hand on his neck, as if he’d been bitten by an insect. He gasps in pain and lowers his hand, but there are no insect guts smeared on it. 

Luis leaned in close. “Brother. What is–”

Sunlight glinted off something sticking out of his skin. It was a small sliver of wood, the section closest to the skin coated in a thin film of gleaming reddish goop.

It took a moment for Luis to process the implication. “Darts; poison darts!”

The befuddled Monk touched it with a finger, then collapsed. 

All at once the air was filled with whistling death. Darts peppered the Brigantine like wooden rain drops. Men hit on exposed skin fell like rag dolls. 

“Savages!” snarled Rodrigo, pulling a pistol from his belt. To the First Captain, he yelled, “Take us to the centre of the river. Now!” There was a loud crack as the flint struck and then a bang of exploding gunpowder. A puff of smoke drifted back over the boat. He looked accusingly at Angel and Luis. “Well? Fire into the trees!”

Angel scrambled back for his weapons. Luis grabbed the caliver and aimed, but there was nothing he could see to shoot at.

“Turn!” shouted the First Captain to the man at the stern, behind the makeshift altar. “Take us into the centre of the river!” 

Bartome pushed Abuljar down and placed his body protectively over him, turning his back to the bank. Cristobel pulled Diego’s limp body over and huddled behind it.

Luis looked towards the stern. Soldiers on the bank side of the brigantine that had shields grabbed them and set them against the bulwark. The others scrambled for oars or crossbows. There was the sharp twang of bolts being released, then sporadic musket fire. 

But all anyone could see was faceless jungle green. 

The flood of darts thinned.

“Row, fools!” shouted Rodrigo, berating the men. “Leave your weapons until we’re out of range!”

Angel pulled two pistols out from his wool sleeping roll and brandished them menacingly. “Come out! Face us, cowards!”

“Row!” shouted the First Captain. A dart hit him in the cheek. He gasped, staggered, and fell onto the rowers.

“Darts,” breathed Luis, slipping back into a low crouch, only his eyes above the bulwark. He scanned the bank, but still could not find a target. A dart struck the top of the gunwale, sticking in it. He looked at it for a moment, fascinated. “Of course. No penetrating power.”

Luis set down the gun. He pushed his breastplate aside, grabbed his Morion helm and setteled on his head, then and dug under the thwart for the heavy leather tarp wedged beneath. 

“What are you doing?” demanded Rodrigo, kneeling down. Luis gaped. Three darts stuck out of his heavy tunic. “Eh?” Rodrigo grunted, then picked them out and sniffed them, before flicking them into the river. “Stink of Machineel fruit. Damn beach apples, there’s no antidote.”

“An idea,” said Luis. He awkwardly unfolded the tarp, trying to keep low. “Help me,” he asked Cristobel, but the petrified monk just shook his head and refused to move. Bartome, heavy black robe dotted with wood splinters, reached over and flipped over the last fold. Finally Luis was ready, and cleared his throat. “Lean down!” he ordered, then swept it up over the rowers, covering them. 

They were drawing away from the shore. 

Luis cocked his caliver.

“Shoot, you woman!” admonished Angel.

“I can’t see anything.”

“So? Keep their heads down!”

He fired a shot and started to reload. There were soft plinks in the water. Luis noted the darts were falling short. “Stop. You’re wasting ammunition. It’s futile. We’re out of range.”

Angel turned on Luis and glared, his eyes unblinking, demanding; after a pause, he fired a shot off towards shore, without even looking. 

“You’re an idiot,” said Luis.

“I must have killed a dozen,” replied Angel. “A dozen more than you.” Angel reloaded his pistol as the ships glided onward, upriver.