COAST OF TRINIDAD
Sails unfurled, the six heavily loaded Brigantines slipped along the lush green coast, towards South America and the Orinoco River.
Luis sat on the bulwark and watched the soldiers. Their gear was rolled up beneath their seats. They sang martial songs as they rowed.
They had thirty arquebusiers, thirty crossbowmen, and at least sixty trained pikemen. On top of that were five greyhound war dogs and six horses. Not a significant army by European standards, but then, Cortez had brought down the Aztec Empire with under a thousand men.
The air, clear and fresh, rushed over them. Beneath the water’s sparkling surface, Luis watched schools of multi-coloured fish darted about like living rainbows.
He ran his fingers over the leather cover of a book cradled in his lap. It was the diary of a priest, Philip de Riverra, who had accompanied the expedition of Hernan Perez de Quesada into the Orinoco river basin. Professor Martin de Apilcueta Navarro had let Luis purchase it for a few ducats back in Salamanca, from his personal library. Luis thought it might have been of interest to his father, but had forgotten to pass it on. Philip had died of malaria in 1543, and had been demoralized for some time. Much of his writing, according to Navarro, was unreliable, even fantastical, more a product of fever than real events. But it was the best source of first had information Luis currently had access to. Abuljar only spoke to Bartome, and even that he did rarely.
Luis settled a broad brimmed leather hat on his head, then cracked open the book to a random page.
He began to read:
“August 5th, 1542: We have been exploring inland, due South from the third major river fork. Always Quesada choses South. He believes there is yet a civilization to be found in this dark, oppressive jungle. It devours us without qualm, as it would any attempt at establishing order and sanity. The jungle is a beast, an entity, a living force, just one with a thousand thousand manifestations, all guided by an ill will. At first, I saw it as a bewildering, chaotic jumble of vines and trees and bugs and slithering reptiles. But it has personality. Will. And it is eating us up, one by one, felling us with sickness and madness.
Jose died yesterday of a snakebite. He stepped in between a fallen tree and a rock, and it struck him in the ankle. I tried to suck out the poison to no avail. His death was merciful and quick. Those of us who continue on are wracked by dysentery, the more water we consume the more we expel. After three years, I am but a shadow of my former self. We have no mirrors. Only the rippling reflection in the river, and the man I see there is not one I recognize.
There is no end to the wretched jungle. It lies over the earth like the rotting corpse of a pagan god. I fear eventually finding ourselves facing a solid wall of curling vegetation, vines so thick they throttle the trees and snuff out the light of the sun.
August 10th, 1542: During the night there was a commotion.
We gathered wood before nightfall to make a camp fire, and to cook some of the small mammals our crossbows had felled for dinner. Overhead great shadows flew over us, one after another, but we could not get a good look at their source. The trees are at least eighty feet, and with the sky already dim, it all merged into a single mass of darkness, only with faint speckles of light seeping through gaps. Soon those too were gone, and we were left with the cluster of campfires. We keep them lit throughout the night now, to keep the beasts back. They fear the fire. But some of the men do not like being crowded in beside it, and lay further away, at the edge of its light. I was awoken by shouts of alarm. It was just as well, for I was having that dreadful nightmare again. What awaited me was little better.
A great black beast had landed on Martin, one of the few of our number still healthy. We could hear it making wet, slurping sounds and grunting. It was a bat, so large and horrific we at first took it to be a demon in the flickering light of our torches. I cannot describe the feeling of horror that seized me. It was the size of a large dog, with thick, knotted black fur, and a flattened, pig like face, with fangs and great veined ears. Sanchez ran his saber through its back so far he nicked Martin. The beast squealed and thrashed about. Martin is lucky we did not set it alight with the torches. Sanchez hauled it off and jabbed it in the neck with a knife until it stopped moving.
There was much shouting, but none of that woke Martin, who lay in a blissful slumber so deep we feared he would never awaken. There were bite marks on his throat, where the creature had affixed itself. We splashed water in his face and slapped him, until finally he was roused. He described a dream in which he was atop a great, gold pyramid, looking down at supplicating worshippers below. I did not tell him I have had the same dream. I had the men lay the beast out, stretching out its leathery wings, and stepped along the length. I counted twelve feet. We will make sacks out of the wings, or perhaps patches for our boots; when Sanchez cut it open its belly, black blood jetted out; not its own, but Martins. The body we cooked. The meat was tender and delicious. Better than the bugs we’d been eating: big iridescent green monsters, weighing almost two pounds each. Something unholy about how large and distorted God’s creation is here. I hesitate to imagine what form indigenous man would take, here in this hellish jungle.
August 15th, 1542: The bats left us alone for three days while we crossed a swamp, which was a wretched experience. The leeches concentrated upon my groin, and the filthy brine stank like an open sewer. There were mercifully none of those small predatory fish, and only a few curious crocodiles that our pikes turned easily away. We only lost one porter. I saw the our gold pursuers again, speckles sliding beneath black water, hinting at great hideous shapes. I’d say it was my mind playing tricks, paranoia, but the others saw it too, and fired crossbow bolts. Quesada put a stop to that, as ammunition is in short supply. No one yet has seen what is following us. It could be harmless.
We are but a faint echo of the men who entered this endless green waste. Covered in red welts, our clothes hanging like tents, full of lice, it is a wonder any of us still lives.
Pity the civilization that fears conquerors such as us.
August 17th, 1542:There were two attacks last night. We are once again beneath the canopy, and here the bats seem to prefer to strike. The men nervous, and understandably so. There is talk that we are nearing the end of the world, perhaps the Gates of Hell. I know that Aguirre reached the coast, through this very jungle, so there must be an end to it. Quesada has given orders for halberds to be set in the ground, pointing up, over us while we sleep, and doubled the night watch. We’re too exhausted to create greater defenses, there’s simply no strength left for it.
We proceed onward by will alone, the unknown pursuing us, death waiting ahead.
Luis shut the book and listened to the men, who were now chattering, exuberant, eager for the adventure that lay ahead. They joked and laughed in the breezy ocean air.
He got up and made his way towards Rodrigo and Angel who were at the bow, basking in sea foam. Rodrigo nodded at Luis as he drew near. “Finally got your nose out of a book, eh? As I was saying: we’ll sail through the night.” He put a hand on Angel’s shoulder. “Have shifts set up. de Berrio will send ships after us, if he’s at all like his father.”
Angel grunted agreement. “Once the son of a bitch gets his pants on.”