Monsters in the Water
“…and the emperor Atahualpa struck the shining shadow with his war club. It fell screaming to the ground. The emperor kicked it back into the sea, and the world was safe again.”
Bachue finished her story and pulled a sheet up over her children. She smiled at them and they smiled back. Days like this made her happy to be alive.
“Are the shining shadows real?” Illapa asked, stifling a yawn.
“Very real,” Bachue replied. “They creep into Tumbez at night to eat little boys who don’t sleep when they’re told to.”
“But it’s the middle of the day,” he protested.
“And you were up all night. Now sleep.”
Voices in the street made Bachue turn her head and look out of her rough stone hut. Cuca stood in the doorway, her red and white tunic dishevelled, her eyes wide with excitement.
“There are strange men at the dock!” she said. “Their chests gleam. It is said that they have come across the sea!”
“Shining shadows!” Illapa said, sitting upright in alarm. To either side, his little sisters stirred and clutched at the sheets.
“Just visitors,” Bachue said, regretting her choice of story. “There are no shining shadows.”
“But you said-”
“I made them up. There were rumours of such men further north and I thought it would make a fun story.”
“But it’s real!” Now all three children were sitting up, wide-eyed and staring. How would she ever get them to sleep?
“What if I go and check?” she asked. “Like when you thought there was a jaguar behind the house. If I see them and they aren’t monsters, then will you settle down and sleep?”
The children nodded.
Bachue turned to Cuca.
“Could you keep an eye on them for a little while?” she asked.
“Of course,” Cuca said. “But come back before the strangers go – I want to see them again.”
The path down to the docks was steep and well worn. Halfway down, Bachue emerged into the town square, a space for trade and for gossip, its packed dirt surrounded by the largest houses with the best thatch.
In the centre of the square, the town guards stood in their padded cotton armour, proudly holding spears tipped with stone or copper. Opposite them stood the strangers.
There must have been two hundred of them. Every one gleamed in the blazing afternoon sunlight. Some had silver chests as hard and smooth as lobster shells, with matching helmets. Others wore shirts of tiny glistening rings. Their clothes were shaped to fit their bodies in a way she had never seen before. Many of them carried sacks.
As one of the strangers talked with Maita, the town’s headman and leader of the guard, Bachue stood, awestruck by the sight.
Suddenly, one of the strangers yelled. They dropped their sacks, drew weapons from their belts, and ran at the guards.
The weapons were so slender that they should have snapped from a single blow. Yet they seemed imbued with some sort of magic. They shone silver as they sliced through the guards. Blood sprayed as the town’s defenders, futilely flailing with their spears, were cut down.
Screams rose from the crowd that had been watching the meeting. As people turned and ran, the strangers pursued, cutting them down.
Bachue ran, but she could hear them coming. As she rounded a corner, she saw a heap of refuse, scales and guts piled up between the houses of fishermen. She flung herself into the disgusting heap, burying herself in glistening entrails.
Her heart hammered. She felt so exposed. This couldn’t possibly be a good enough hiding place.
But the strangers ran past, still cutting people down. She heard the screams of the dead and dying, the grunts of men forcing themselves on women, the weeping of their victims. She was terrified for her children, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t bring herself to leave her hiding place. She was too scared.
At last the sounds of violence died down. The strangers, their sacks bulging, headed down to the shore and away.
Bachue emerged from her hiding place. With trembling steps, she walked up the street back to her home. In her mind, she was already seeing the worst.
Cuca sat in the doorway. Her tunic was torn and dirty. She stared dead-eyed at the ground.
“I kept them busy,” she said, her voice hollow. “They did not touch the children. But they took everything else.”
Bachue rushed to the straw mattress in the corner of the room. She swept her weeping and terrified children up in her arms.
“I’m sorry,” she said, crying with shame at having left them so vulnerable. “I’m sorry.”
“The monsters,” Illapa wailed. “The monsters are real.”
“They are,” Bachue said. She needed something, anything she could say to comfort them. “But so is the emperor. He will protect us. You will see.”
She sang to them and soothed them until they finally fell asleep. Then she went to the doorway and sat down beside Cuca.
“I’m going into the jungle,” Cuca said. “This isn’t a safe place any more.”
“The jungle isn’t safe,” Bachue replied. “At least here we have walls to protect us from the weather. At least here the emperor can bring his army to fight them.”
“You believe that the emperor can save us from this?” Cuca asked with a hollow laugh.
“He has to,” Bachue replied. She looked at her sleeping children. “Someone has to.”
That night, she slept with her husband’s old war club by her side. She had never seen the emperor but she had seen the monsters from the ocean. The world was darker and more uncertain than it had been.
She was a mother and she had a duty. Next time she would not hide. She would keep her children safe.
The Potato Seller
There were strangers at Camajamarca. Everyone had heard about them. Some said that they were guests of the emperor, travelled from far distant lands. Others said that they had defeated the emperor’s army in battle and taken him captive. Pascac found that hard to believe. He had seen the emperor’s army when it passed through two months before. Thousands of warriors with cotton armour and war clubs, flanked by jungle savages with their bows and arrows, the Emperor Atahualpa at the front, riding upon his litter. There was no way that army had been defeated.
What mattered was that there were strangers and royal officials at Cajamarca. People to whom Pascac could sell his potatoes.
He led his llama up the hill towards the town. The creature swayed from side to side as if dragged about by the weight of the baskets of potatoes. It was always making a fuss, that llama. That was why he called it Buggerfluff – because it was fluffy and it was a real bugger.
He was getting close to Cajamarca when he saw the first people on the track. Some were nobles, with fine gold plugs in their ears. The others were strange to look at. Their chests appeared to be clothed in large, shiny shells. Their skin was pale and their legs wrapped in cloth. Two of them were carrying long carved sticks with metal along the top.
Pascac grinned. The local varieties of potatoes were particularly good. He bet these strangers had never tasted their like. Who knew what exotic trinkets they might trade for them?
Suddenly, the rope in his hand stretched taught. He looked over his shoulder to see Buggerfluff standing in the middle of the path, eyes fixed on the strangers. The llama’s nostrils twitched.
“Come on.” Pascac tugged at the lead but Buggerfluff refused to move.
Five minutes of straining later, Pascac had given up on dragging Buggerfluff up the hill. Instead, he tied the llama’s lead to a tree, took one of the baskets, and headed up on his own.
Soon, he was puffing and panting beneath the weight. As he approached, the strangers pointed and laughed. The courtiers just scowled at him.
Fine then. He wouldn’t sell the courtiers any of his good potatoes. He wasn’t in the mood to put up with anyone’s bad temper, however important they were.
Pascac approached the strangers. He put the basket down in front of them, picked out a potato, and held it up.
“Best potatoes this side of Cuzco,” he said. “You want to buy some?”
One of the strangers grabbed the potato and took a bite. He spat it out and made an angry noise. The others laughed at him, pointing to a fire over which they were roasting meat.Pascac couldn’t understand what the strangers were saying, but they seemed to be interested in his potatoes. One of them bent over the basket, peering at its contents.
Pascac couldn’t understand what the strangers were saying, but they seemed to be interested in his potatoes. One of them bent over the basket, peering at its contents.
“They don’t understand you,” one of the courtiers said, his voice dripping with disdain.
“It doesn’t matter,” Pascac said. “They like my potatoes.”
The courtier grinned. It wasn’t a pretty sight. “Yes, they do.”
Two of the strangers picked up the basket and started walking away.
“Hey!” Pascac said. “We have to agree a price first.”
One of the strangers said something Pascac didn’t understand. They all laughed. The ones with the basket kept walking.
“Hey!” Pascac waved his fist. “I’ll get the authorities onto you!”
Now the courtiers laughed too.
“Hey!” Pascac shoved the nearest stranger. “Give me back my potatoes.”
Two of the strangers lifted their oddly shaped sticks. The metal on the backs of the sticks seemed to be shaped into pipes. Pieces of burning string hung from the back. The men looked like children playing some silly game as they peered along the sticks at Pascac.
“Hey,” he said again, though less certainly. There was a menace in the way the men stood, despite the absurdity of their sticks.
One of them drew a blade. It was nearly three feet long, thin as a reed, and bright as silver in the sunlight. He pressed the tip against Pascac’s cheek. Just a little pressure drew blood.
Pascac laughed nervously. Now he understood why the courtiers looked so unhappy. They were used to being in charge, but how could they challenge a man with a weapon like that?
“Never mind, eh?” he said, trying not to shake with fear. “Keep the potatoes. I’ll get out of your way.”
He backed off. The sticks were still pointing at him. One of the stick-wielders spoke and pulled something back on his toy.
After a moment, the man with the blade shook his head.
Whatever that meant, Pascac was glad to get out. He turned and trotted back to Buggerfluff. The llama seemed happy to be leaving.
“Maybe I was wrong,” Pascac said. “Maybe they really have captured the emperor.”
As he headed for home, he tried to work out what that meant, for him and for the rest of the empire.
Hopefully not just more potato thefts.
All the Gold in Cuzco
“…and so, just as the power of the divine Sun shines upon the heart of our emperor, so too does shine upon our hearts from here, the most sacred of temples.”
Titu smiled as he finished his speech. Dozens of children looked up at him, wide-eyed. It was a perfect moment, the sunlight blazing from the gold plates on the great temple of Cuzco, bathing them in that divine glow. The noise of the city seemed to fade away, leaving only Titu, these youngsters, and the ever-present gods.
“Now thank the priest for his time,” said one of the mothers.
“Thank you,” said a chorus of infant voices.
One little boy reached up to grab at Titu’s layered robe.
“When I grow up, I want to be like you,” the boy said.
“So you should,” said Titu. “Service to the divine Sun is a noble thing.”
As the children were led away, the high priest approached. His expression was grim.
“A runner has arrived,” he said. “You’ve heard about these outsiders, these so-called Spaniards who seized the emperor?”
“Of course,” Titu said. “Soon, the gods will punish them for their transgressions.”
“Perhaps,” the high priest said. “But for now, some of them are coming to Cuzco. The emperor has ordered us to let them take the city’s gold.”
Titu frowned. “He is giving them the holy metal?”
“All of it,” the high priest said, looking up sadly at the embossed gold panels of the temple.
“No,” Titu whispered. The gold was a conduit between the people and the divine. To let these outsiders take it would be to cut off the Incas from the creator of all things. “It can’t be.”
Titu’s palm was sweaty. He wiped it on his priestly robes, then took a firm grip around the war club he had borrowed from a neighbour.
He had to stop this.
The Spaniards had arrived. Three of them, each carried on a litter by royal slaves. A vast crowd had gathered to see them and Titu had to push to get near the front.
The strangers had stopped. They were doing something with square white leaves beside a pack llama. This was his chance.
“This has to be stopped,” Titu announced, stepping forward.
He tried to raise the club, but someone had grabbed hold of his arm. He turned to see the high priest beside him. There were others as well. They wrenched the weapon from Titu’s grip and dragged him back through the crowd.
“What are you doing?” he said. “We can’t let this sacrilege continue.”
“If we don’t, then they will kill the emperor,” the high priest said.
“Cut us off from the divine and we are as good as dead!” Titu struggled against the hands holding him. He kicked the high priest in the crotch and the old man doubled over in pain. Titu almost managed to squirm free, but other priests were holding him. Now they had his legs as well.
Desperately, Titu struggled against them. Everything he loved was about to be ruined. The beauty of the temple defiled by these greedy foreigners.
Over the heads of the crowd, he saw the three Spaniards ascend the platform at the foot of the temple. One of them gave a speech in their ugly, unintelligible language. Then they thrust bars behind a gold plate and heaved.
An exquisite sheet of embossed gold fell to the ground with a clang. The crowd gasped. Titu wept and wailed.
As he watched, they tore off another sheet, and another. Slaves arrived to carry the gold away, piling it up in baskets for the strangers.
Nobody tried to stop them. The whole city just watched in stunned horror.
Titu had gone limp, exhausted from crying, too tired to struggle. His fellow priests let him go. None of them looked him in the eye.
A little boy looked up at Titu.
“Does the divine Sun still shine on our hearts?” the boy asked.
Titu shrugged off his layered, priestly robes, the costume of a caste who had abandoned their mission. Dressed in nothing but a loincloth and sandals, he turned to walk away.
“Does it?” the boy asked again, his voice trembling and urgent.
“I don’t know,” Titu said.
With heavy steps and a heavier heart, he walked away through the crowd.
Behind him, the clang of falling metal echoed through the streets.
Embers of the Shining City
As he approached the shining city of Cuzco, Samin slowed his pace. The roads here were better, paved with stone and neatly laid, but he was not eager to reach the end of his journey. The masses of men gathered outside the city spoke to the turmoil he had heard of inside – an army mustering to face traitors and invaders, while great lords argued over the fate of a nation whose emperor had been murdered by strangers from across the sea. Samin was a simple government inspector. He liked order. He didn’t want to be a part of this.
Behind him, a train of peasants and llamas, weighed down by the supplies he had been ordered to bring, also slowed their pace.
On the outskirts of the city he met Poma, one of the great lords. Poma was not as grandly dressed as when in court, only a single gold plug in each of his ears. Around him were men with clubs and cotton armour.
Samin spread his hands and bowed deeply.
“Good, you’re here,” Poma said. “Some of the others went to Manco.”
Samin carefully said nothing. He had not considered joining the Emperor Manco, the man raised up by the outsiders, these infamously vicious Spaniards. But if the old order was being overthrown, perhaps he would be better off joining the new one. And if he brought supplies with him…
“I’ll take these,” Poma said, gesturing to the column of supplies.
Perhaps it was just coincidence. Perhaps he had seen the doubt in Samin’s eyes.
Better not to be here to find out.
“I should go up to the palace,” Samin said. “They may have orders for me.”
“Fine.” Poma dismissed him with the merest of waves, concerned only with his new supplies.
Walking up into Cuzco, Samin faced the unfamiliarity of a place he had been a hundred times. There were clusters of frantic activity, people making weapons or plans. But for the most part, everyone kept off the streets. All the gold had been stripped from the temples. Few of the nobles wore their jewellery. Cuzco had become a desolate place.
If this was the way of things then Samin wanted out. He would take his chances with Manco and his Spaniards.
Just not while anyone was looking.
He waited until dark, visiting a friend at the edge of the city to fill time. Then he slid out into the night.
The plains outside Cuzco were still busy. Men sat in clusters around fires, talking and tending to their weapons. The roads were under guard. He would have to be careful.
A servant of the Incan crown learnt to walk softly, so as not to intrude upon his betters. It was easy for Samin to apply that skill here, sliding from shadow to shadow through the armed encampment. He overheard snatches of conversation, some angry, some bitter, some bewildered. The world had been turned upside down. Men were determined to fight to set it right, but they were far from confident.
All the more reason not to be on this side.
As Samin crept past the dying embers of an abandoned fire, a voice called out to him.
He looked around. A lone figure sat on the ground a few feet from the fire. As he turned his head, there was a brief glint from a gold ear plug.
“Lord Poma.” Samin turned to bow, rigid with tension.
“What are you doing here?” Poma asked. His voice wasn’t loud or demanding, but it was firm.
“I…” Samin struggled for words. He had never been imaginative enough to make a good liar and now his life depended upon it. The fate of a man going to join the traitors could only be terrible.
“Let me guess.” Poma rose, brushing dirt off his white tunic. “You believe that Manco is the rightful heir. You fear the Spaniards. You are just curious and will be back soon. Any of a dozen excuses will do.”
As he spoke, he walked closer to Samin, until there was only a hand’s breadth between their faces.
“I understand,” Poma said softly. “I’m a better man than you and I considered it.”
Samin still trembled with fear, but the slightest of hope was starting to emerge. Maybe he wouldn’t die. Maybe they would just beat him and set him back to work.
“I’m not even going to stop you,” Poma said. “But consider this. You used to work for a great and civilised empire. You used to bring your reports and your tithes to the most magnificent city in the world. These foreigners tore the beauty from our temples and turned civilisation into strife. Is it better to live in fear and let that corruption spread or to take a risk and have somewhere worth living?”
He stepped back and gestured out across the plains.
“Your choice,” he said.
Then he sat back down.
Samin ushered the grain bearers up the slope into the fort above Cuzco. The other administrators had agreed with him, better to hope for victory and plan for defeat.
He looked out across the city, no longer shining as it once had, to the plains beyond. There was movement at the edge of the jungle, perhaps the enemy finally arriving. Outside Cuzco, the army prepared to meet them.
Samin had seldom felt more afraid. But never before had he felt proud.
We Will Need Leaders
Kunak raised his war club above his head and joined in the battle cry. Across the plain, the enemies of the Incan empire were emerging from the jungle. Foreigners from across the ocean. The so-called Emperor Manco, who had accepted the crown from their hands. The men who followed him.
Here, outside the capital of Cuzco, the true Incas would rain death upon them.
Kunak and his comrades were old friends, veterans of the fighting in the north. The stone heads of their war clubs were well polished, their wooden shields scarred by past fights. They stood proudly behind their commander, Quehuar. He had only recently inherited his father’s place, but he had the bearing of a great man.
Drums and flutes sounded the advance.
The warriors began a marching chant, voices raised in unison. As they advanced across the field they sped up, rushing to catch the smaller enemy force while it was still unprepared. Everyone had heard about the strange beasts and magical weapons these Spaniards wielded. They would grant them no other advantage.
They crashed into the first of the enemy, a line of Manco’s men. Kunak smashed a warrior in the head and slammed another with his shield. Already, the enemy were in retreat.
The veterans cheered and advanced again.
Then came a sound like thunder. From the left, monsters tore into the Incan line. They had four legs, wild eyes, and maws that foamed with fury. From their backs, Spaniards lashed out with spears three times a man’s height.
Some men were crushed beneath the feet of the beasts. Others were run through by the spears, their cotton armour no protection against those deadly sharp points. Others turn and fled, only to be hacked down as the Spaniards drew weapons that glittered like silver in the sunlight.
All around Kunak, men ran. The line collapsed. He wavered, caught between duty and terror.
“With me!” Quehuar shouted, placing a hand on Kunak’s shoulder.
The sight of his commander, of the fire in his eyes, that was enough to lend him strength. Kunak gripped his club tighter and followed.
At a signal from Quehuar, men closed in around one of the beasts. Kunak stood directly in front of it. Its feet hammered at his shield and he felt as if his arm might break at any moment, but he stood firm. The circle of shields tightened, trapping the beast.
Quehuar leapt, landing on the creature’s back. He flung its rider to the ground. The man screamed. Warriors closed in, smashing him with their clubs.
The beast leapt, soaring over Kunak’s head, and for a moment he thought it must kill him. But it kept going, galloping away from the fight, a thing of beauty and of horror that vanished into the jungle.
Quehar lifted up the helmet he had taken from the Spaniard, blood dripping from its strap. Their whole warband whooped with the thrill of victory. Kunak’s pulse raced and he grinned with wild excitement.
Then came another thundering sound, different from the one that had come before. The man to Kunak’s left fell to the ground, blood pouring from the ruined side of his face. Another man spun and fell, his arm torn away as if by an invisible hand.
Kunak’s mind went blank with shock. He stared down at friends suddenly slain, struck down by some incomprehensible force. He watched a man’s grip loosen on the handle of his club and the weapon slowly role out of limp, dead fingers.
Chaos swept over him. Screaming. Shouting. Crashing. He saw Manco’s men coming and old instincts kicked in, letting him parry an attack and break his attacker’s leg with a blow from his club, even as the world approached him through a distant haze.
Then his senses snapped back, bringing a terrible clarity. Amid the smells of blood and smoke he wheeled and twisted, lunged and parried, desperately fighting for his life.
Somewhere along the way he found Quehuar, one arm hanging limp by his side. Together they fought their way toward the edge of the plain.
The whole army had collapsed. Clusters of men fought on but more were fleeing as the enemy, these traitors and invaders, pursued them with wild glee. There could be no victory, only survival.
“Run!” he shouted, pushing Quehuar toward the tree line. “I’ll cover your back.”
“What about you?” Quehuar asked, and Kunak knew that he had made the right decision.
“After this, we will need leaders,” Kunak said. “Men like you. Go. Run. Save the empire.”
For a moment, he thought Quehuar might resist. But the fight had been beaten out of him. He turned and ran.
The tree line was three hundred yards away. Quehuar was halfway there when a rumble approached Kunak.
A monster was galloping toward him, the rider carrying one of those terrible spears. Kunak raised his shield, ready to sell himself dearly for his leader’s life.
The beast swerved and ran past him. He lashed out with his club, but it bounced off the armour on the rider’s leg. He watched in horror as it headed straight for Quehuar.
Quehuar turned. With a determined expression, he raised his club.
The spear struck him in the chest, skewering him in a spray of blood.
Kunak’s legs gave way beneath him. He sank to the ground, watching in horror as the Spaniard lowered his spear and let the remains of a bold leader slide to the floor. The sense of loss was overwhelming, a weight that pinned Kunak to the earth.
He had thought that something could be saved from this horror. But all he had left was loss.
At the jungle’s edge, the Spaniard raised his fist and let out a battle cry.
The Spaniards’ Table
Uchu trudged into the square outside the temple. He couldn’t bring himself to look up, to see the bare stones that had once gleamed with intricately crafted gold. His grandfather had made many of those panels. He had repaired and improved upon them, adding his own artistic flourish to an already impressive work. And now…
Now he wasn’t even receiving commissions from noblemen. What use was a goldsmith when any gold would be snatched away? Who needed art when the empire was falling into ruin?
The Spaniards had set up a table in front of the temple stood. A queue of local people trudged past. From what Uchu had heard, anybody who wasn’t a simple peasant was being summoned, so that the conquerors could decide what to do with them. At least he knew that they liked gold. Maybe he wouldn’t just be left to rot.
Ahead of him, a local official reached the front of the queue. As the Spaniards asked him questions, he began raising his voice, indignantly pointing out what a powerful and influential man he was, how smart he was, how helpful he could be if they would just-
The Spaniard’s fist knocked the man from his feet. Before the official could get up, the Spaniard leapt over the table and started kicking him. By the time the Spaniard grew bored and returned to his seat, the man’s face was a bloody ruin, his teeth decorating the flagstones.
Terror knotted Uchu’s insides. He wasn’t tough. He couldn’t take such a beating. What if they didn’t like what he had to say? What if they didn’t want anyone else touching gold? What if he just said something wrong by accident?
He forced himself to look up as he reached the table. Two Spaniards sat there, chests wrapped in gleaming metal. A youth stood beside them, acting as translator.
“They ask who you are,” the translator said.
“I am Uchu the goldsmith,” Uchu said.
He saw the disdain in the Spaniards’ eyes as the youth translated his words.
“Please,” Uchu said, sinking to his knees. “I can be useful. I can make ornaments for you, as I do for our lords and priests. Jewellery, statues, decorations like we had on the temple…”
He gestured toward the bare stones behind them.
One of the Spaniards rose to his feet and strode around the table. He was saying something. He grinned, but it was a fierce smile, not a warm one. There was a spot of blood on his cheek.
“He does not like our statues,” the translator said. “He says he should kill you for making images of false gods.”
The Spaniard drew his sword.
Uchu sank to his knees. A damp patch spread across the front of his tunic. The Spaniard laughed and raised his blade.
“Please,” Uchu said, hands clasped together. “I will make whatever you want. I could make a statue of your god.”
The Spaniard’s expression only worsened.
“Or of your wife,” Uchu said.
The Spaniard’s face creased deeper into bitterness.
“Or of you!” It was a wild idea, a ludicrous idea. Gold was sacred, it was a gift. What sort of man would want it turned into a statue of himself?
Uchu bowed his head, tears streaming from his eyes, and waited for the worst.
The Spaniard said something. His voice had changed.
“He says yes,” the translator said. “He will bring gold and you will do this. But if you take any of his gold-”
“Of course not!” Uchu exclaimed. “Whatever you want!”
Relief turned back to fear as he stared up at the Spaniard. All he had ever wanted was to honour the gods with his art, to capture what was noble in the world. But there was nothing noble here. Nothing divine or uplifting to portray. And if he failed, it could only mean a terrible end.
His breath became swift and shallow. He was sure that the Spaniard could see through his deceit. These men had strange powers. They could kill a man just by pointing a stick. They rode thunderstorms made flesh. They could destroy a man by thinking. Uchu shook as he had never shaken before.
And then he imagined capturing this feeling in gold. The awful sensation of doom that had settled over him and his city. The monstrous angularity of this man’s face. The horrors of defeat and of loss.
He would make something new. Something that reflected what they had been through. Something he could make in gold for the Spaniard but that he could also carve from wood for his people. A reminder of who they were. A remnant of divine art in the darkness.
As Uchu rose, the Spaniard laughed and pointed at the stain on his crotch. He didn’t care. A vision was unfolding in his mind. Shapes it had never occurred to him to make before. Designs out of nightmares, but that filled him with a passion he had thought lost.
Uchu bowed, then turned and walked away, his heart hammering with excitement.
The next man stepped up to the table.
The Sun Still Rises
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.