‘The Guardians’ tells the story of Rick Gibson who discovers an ancient manuscript leading to the fabled treasure of El Dorado. The Prologue explains how that manuscript came into being…
The blood-red sun was low in the sky. Dawn. His last dawn. As he stood in the doorway of the hut the young Spaniard shivered. Was there any significance, he wondered, in the sun’s rising above the temple? Was it bathing the time-worn stones in its eerie light as a presage of things to come? With a resigned shrug of his shoulders he turned away from the lightening sky and re-entered the dim interior of the hut. The manuscript which he had worked on for most of the night lay on the table in front him. His final report to his superior officer. All that remained to be done now was to conceal the paper and hope that, one day, someone would discover it, and the secret it contained.
He had found a sandstone statue on a shelf which was ideal for his purpose. For the last hour he had carefully scraped at the soft stone to create a hollow in the base, just large enough to take the folded paper that was, to all intents and purposes, his last will and testament. Carefully folding the paper he slipped it inside the statue. With a delicate touch he replaced the base and cemented it into position with some of the scrapings of stone mixed with a little moist clay. When he had finished he stood the carving in the centre of the table, then stepped back to examine it with a critical gaze.
The carved idol, a coiled serpent, stood about twelve inches high. It seemed strange to his European eyes. The snake was not covered in scales as he would have expected, but in feathers of stone, each filament adding to the complexity of the design. The eyes seemed to glare at him maliciously and he almost felt, for one brief moment, that the idol possessed a life of its own. He shivered, then shrugged his shoulders as though to relieve himself of a heavy weight. It could not be alive; it was nothing more than a piece of stone. It was simply his fear of the ordeal that lay ahead of him playing tricks on his mind.
As the sun rose higher into a cloudless blue sky the Spaniard heard the beating of drums in the distance, a muffled sound like summer thunder presaging a coming storm. He knew what the storm would be, and its time of arrival, just as he knew that he could not escape it. He had lived on borrowed time ever since the day of his capture, but now his time was almost over, his life measured in hours rather than days. Falling to his knees on the hard-packed earthen floor of the hut the young man genuflected. His hand shook as he made the sign of the cross from his forehead to his chest, shoulder to shoulder; taking comfort from the familiar ritual.
‘Almighty and most merciful God’ he prayed, his voice sounding lost and forlorn to his ears, ‘give me the courage to face that which lies ahead with the dignity becoming a Spaniard. Forgive me for my past misdeeds and accept me into your eternal home. Amen.’
He crossed himself again and was slowly rising to his feet when the door of the hut was flung open. The hut faced east and the light of the risen sun blinded him momentarily; as his eyes adjusted he was able to make out the silhouettes of two young warriors who stood in the doorway. The first to enter wore a huge headdress made from the skull and cured skin of a jaguar head, mouth agape and with cruel lips drawn back from the razor sharp teeth. He fought down an involuntary shudder as he looked at the mask of the hunting cat which was a symbol of immense power, and of death, to his captors. The warrior’s shoulders were draped with the pelt of a jaguar that moulded itself to his body with every movement. Endless hours of hard work, love and devotion had gone into its preparation. The god whom the warrior served deserved to be clothed in the softest and most supple material that the people could provide. The second warrior was robed like an eagle. A huge feathered cloak flowed around him, its iridescent feathers reflecting the bright glory of the morning sun that streamed in through the open door. The cruel curve of an eagle’s beak protruded from the mask covering his broad native features so that the Spaniard could not see the expression of either intruder. He imagined the faces behind the masks to be cold, hard, impassive. He found to his surprise that he wanted to see them, that perhaps he would find it easier to face what lay ahead if he could see their humanity. Yet, at the same time, he was glad that he could not see the hard glint of cruelty that he imagined to be shining in their eyes.
The warriors silently motioned for the Spaniard to remove his shirt, once fresh and white as befitted one of his station but now stained and torn. The condition of his clothing was evidence, if any were needed, of the ordeals he had faced since that terrible day when he had found himself alone, separated from his companions, facing certain death in the form of an ever closing circle of Aztec warriors. Pushing all thoughts of that day, the last time he had seen one of his own kind, from his mind, he resignedly removed his shirt. There was nothing else he could do. All choices had been taken from him when the Aztec warriors had taken him prisoner, binding his hands and feet as unnecessary proof that he was no longer free, and never would be again. Standing tall and proud in his torn black breeches, ripped socks and worn leather shoes, the captive met the arrogant gaze of the two warriors. His eyes held a firm assurance, defiant to the last.
‘Well, if this is my time, then let us go.’
Neither understanding, nor caring, what he said, the two warriors took the Spaniard’s arms in a grip of iron, one on either side as though to prevent the possibility of escape. Holding firmly to their captive they led him out into the early morning sunlight to face his last day on earth.
The square in front of the temple, which had been deserted as he watched his last sunrise, was now thronged with people. Most of those who had come to see the spectacle were warriors, their semi- naked bodies glistening with oil. Years of training and battle had honed them to physical perfection so that each muscle and sinew showed clearly defined. A few women and children stood silently in the background, far outnumbered by the men. This was not a peaceful village; this was the military base of a people at war, their final stronghold in the defence of their homeland.
The young Spaniard’s eyes were drawn to the temple pyramid on the far side of the square. It was much smaller than the great pyramid that he had seen in the city of Tenochtitlan, but equally imposing. The structure was carved from the living rock of the hillside, with a small thatched shrine at its summit. A flight of steps led from the dusty earth to the abode of the gods above. At the summit was a huge stone block beside which a small fire burned. Three priests stood solemnly beside the altar stone, their arms held out in silent blessing above the crowd. Long feathered cloaks cascaded down their backs in obscene parody of a giant bird whose wing-tips brushed the earth. The priests were naked save for their cloaks and short skirts made from brilliantly coloured feathers which hung from their waists, flashing their iridescent colours with every movement, like a flock of birds in the forest. Each head was crowned with a tall, feathered headdress. Each headdress was decorated with tiny golden ornaments that glittered and flashed brightly in the strengthening sun.
A palpable wall of silence greeted the Spaniard. There was an unbelievable stillness to the scene, so many people, yet no movement at all. The tension in the air was electrifying, engulfing the young man with a feeling of such sheer terror that his heart beat wildly; his mouth was dry, his palms wet with sweat. This was fear made manifest and he fought hard against the almost uncontrollable urge to run, for he knew that there was nowhere to go. He would not get more than a couple of paces before hands reached out to hold him again. He would not give them that satisfaction of seeing his fear and believing that his cowardice was representative of his people. Before leaving Spain for the promised New World he would not have known the significance of what he was now witnessing, but his experiences since landing on these shores meant that he could no longer hide in his former ignorance. He had seen sacrifices like this before, as an observer with his compatriots so many months, and so many miles away, when he had watched in revulsion as the Aztecs made their horrific gifts to their gods. Now he knew what awaited him and he prayed fervently that he would be the first to go. The thought of watching others die the death that was ordained for him made his knees weak and bile rise in his throat.
‘Please God…Let it be me…Be merciful God…Let it be over…Sweet Jesus…Please let it be me.’ His whispered incantation was the only sound in the crowded square as he struggled to prepare for the horror that lay ahead. But his prayers, like so many prayers over the last few months, went unanswered.
Suddenly a deafening cheer shattered the silence of the still morning air as a procession of warriors came into view. Their heads held high, there was an eager light of martyrdom in their eyes as they marched in proud solemnity towards the pyramid. They slowly mounted the steps in front of the temple until the first of the warriors stood before the priests, his bearing proud, almost regal. The Spaniard could not tear his eyes away and watched in horrified fascination as the young man laid himself proudly on the stone block, stretching out his arms and legs. Two of the priests stepped forward to hold him, pulling his spread-eagled body taut in anticipation of the coming sacrifice. The third priest held a black obsidian dagger high above his head so that the sun was reflected from its blade, standing for a moment in silent supplication to the gods. Then the blade flashed brightly as he plunged it down into the exposed breast of the warrior. Tearing apart the living flesh and bones with his bare hands the priest ripped the still beating heart from the body and held it aloft in offering to the deities that protected and guided his people. With blood running down his forearms, he turned and dropped the heart onto the smoking coals of the brazier beside the altar stone.
The Spaniard felt the bile rise in his throat as the body of the warrior was lifted unceremoniously to one side. His purpose had been fulfilled and the stone was now needed for a second man who willingly spread-eagled himself upon it. The smell of burning flesh reached the prisoner on the far side of the square as the second heart was thrown into the leaping flames. He felt a cold sweat break out on his body as he looked wildly around, desperately seeking for some means of escape. But there was none.
So he stood for almost three hours as, one by one, fifty-one warriors willingly lay upon the stone altar to offer their lives to the gods. At first he had thought that he would not be able to make it; that he would be sick, or faint, or disgrace himself in some other way. Yet as he watched he felt himself becoming numb; his mind retreated from the scene of horror that he was witnessing, blanking out the sights and sounds so that even though his eyes were fixed on the obscenities being carried out on the summit of the pyramid, they did not register. Sight and sound and sense of smell left him. He was not alone amidst a heathen enemy in a God-forsaken land; in his mind he walked the cool fields of his father’s farm, his wife by his side and his son riding his shoulders. He held tightly to the picture, the remembered sensations, the emotions, the love, so that there was no room in his mind for anything else. His mind told him that he was home, and he believed it. He had to. To believe that where he stood and what he saw were reality would drive him, finally and irrevocably, beyond the bounds of sanity.
The Spaniard felt a touch on his arm and looked down to see where his wife held him. But she held him too tightly. And why was her hand so brown and so strong? Slowly he returned to reality. The second warrior took his other arm and he was back. The smell of burning flesh assailed his nostrils once more, once more his eyes focused on the pile of corpses and he swayed, almost overcome by exhaustion and fear. But there was no way out. With a warrior on either side he was led forward and up the stone steps to the shrine. His feet slipped and slid in the river of blood that poured down the stone steps like a miniature waterfall. The acrid stench of burning flesh filled his nostrils as he stumbled upwards, guarded and guided by the hands on his arms.
It seemed an eternity yet no time at all before he found himself on the top step, gazing in horror at the priests, their faces grim and impassive, their bodies drenched in sacrificial blood. At the sight something in his mind snapped and he finally rebelled.
‘No! No! You cannot do this to me!’
His screams echoed around the temple as he tried to tear himself away from his two guards, but they held him firmly as two of the priests silently came to their assistance. No matter how hard he kicked and fought and screamed and swore, the captive was dragged closer and closer to the altar stone, then stretched across it. High above him he saw the obsidian dagger as it glittered in the sunlight, ready to strike.
‘May God curse you all and damn your filthy souls to an eternity in hell!’
His cry was drowned out by the delighted screams of the crowd as the knife plunged downwards, and his still beating heart was torn from his body.