As he ran through the grey pre-dawn light, Ozcollo was grateful for the civilising influence of the empire. Thanks to the great Inca, there were well-kept roads between the cities, their beaten paths smooth beneath his sandals. It made the life of a messenger far easier, and the roads endured even as the empire fell.
He picked up his pace. Soon, he felt a pain in his side, but he kept going. If he didn’t reach his destination before dawn, the recipients of his message might have moved on. They might never receive the information recorded in the knots of the quipu strings he carried.
As the sun started to peek out from between the hills, he rounded a bend in the road and almost ran straight into two men. Both were Spaniards, with their ugly, tangled beards and their deadly blades. Both drew their swords as they saw him.
“What are you doing here, then?” one of the men asked.
Ozcollo considered just turning and running away. But he had been running for a long time. If these men were healthy then they might well catch him. Even if not, his message would not get through. Too many people depended upon him to let that happen.
“You don’t understand us, do you?” The man came closer, blade raised, and his companion joined him. The leading Spaniard’s faced was wrinkled, his skinned weathered but his eyes still bright. “Ignorant little bastard. Should I just run him through, do you think?”
Ozcollo had only a moment to act. He could run. He could fight. He could cower. Or he could try something smart.
“I understand,” he said. “I learn your words.”
The Spaniards stared at him in surprise.
“Well, fuck me,” the weathered man said. “A smart savage. How do you come to know Spanish?”
“Messenger,” Ozcollo said, pointing at himself and hoping he’d got the right word. “Better messenger if know your words.”
“A messenger, eh?” The Spaniard stepped closer. The tip of his blade rested against Ozcollo’s chest. “Or a spy?”
Ozcollo froze. Had they sensed where his loyalties lay? Or had he just chosen the wrong word, something that had put them on edge?
He thought of the strings in his hand, of the importance of his message. He tried desperately to think of a way out.
“Got to be up to no good,” the Spaniard said. “Why else would you be running through the dark?”
“For cold,” Ozcollo said. “Easier run.”
“Hm.” The Spaniard looked uncertain. He had to know that only important people could give orders to imperial messengers and that if he killed one on official business he would be in trouble. But if he let a rebel go free, that put all the Spaniards at risk. “Reckon we’ll take you back to Cuzco, see what the boss says.”
Ozcollo gripped the quipu strings tight. The sun’s rays burst out between the hills, warming his face. He might be too late already. But if he let these men take him, he would definitely be too late.
“After all,” the Spaniard said, narrowing his eyes, “why would any of you be on our side?”
“My father says thing,” Ozcollo said, painfully aware of how limited his Spanish really was. “He says, ‘when bad happens, sun still rises’.”
The other Spaniard laughed.
“I like that,” he said. “It’s like, whoever’s in charge, life goes on. You keep doing your thing.”
“Yes,” Ozcollo said, nodding and smiling a hollow smile.
The older Spaniard lowered his sword.
“Can’t argue with that,” he said. “How else would we end up working for a bunch of shitbags like the Pizarro brothers?”
All three of them laughed, but there was still a glint in the older Spaniard’s eyes.
“Don’t you go repeating that,” he said, raising his sword again. “Else I’ll gut you after all.”
“I not say,” Ozcollo said, nodding again. “Our secret, yes?”
“That’s right.” The Spaniard lowered his sword. “Go on, then.”
He gestured down the road.
Ozcollo ran. The sun was rising as the Spaniards’ voices faded into the distance.
Half a mile later, Ozcollo headed off the main road. He ran as fast as he could up a track to a hillside village, a place of rough stone huts with reed roofs.
A group of men were just leaving the village. To his relief, Ozcollo saw his father among them, wearing the feathered head dress of an Incan lord. Ozcollo ran up to him, bowed, and handed over the quipu strings.
“Tallies of the troops gathering in the north,” he said. “Men ready to throw off the invaders.”
The Lord Atoc smiled as he took the message from his son.
“See?” he said to the men around him. “Darkness has fallen across our land, but the lord sun is never defeated, and neither is our spirit. The Spaniards may seek to plunge us into darkness, but the sun still rises.”
The men raised axes, clubs, and spears above their heads.
“The sun still rises,” they called out.
As the rebels headed out of the village, Ozcollo sat with his back against one of the houses. He had seen much of the Spaniards. He didn’t know if his father could win. But win or lose, this felt like a victory. They had not simply lain down and given in. They still had their gods, their dreams, their quipu strings. The spirit of the Incas lived on.
Golden light spilled between the hills and warmed his face.
“What are you grinning about?” a woman asked as she emerged from the house.
“The sun still rises,” Ozcollo said.
* * *
That’s it for Shadows of the Golden Sun, my foray into the fall of the Incan Empire. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. If you want to read more from me covering these momentous events, Inca: The Golden Sun is out now from Peachill Publishing. It’s a tale of ambition, greed, envy, and desperation, as two very different worlds collide.
Next week, it’s time for some steampunk.