SHE LED HIM FROM THE BARN, out the back and down a hill, past two corrals, toward the rushing mountain stream surging toward the sea. Half-way down, they heard the bark of one of the shotguns and then screams. Gun fire erupted and they halted for a second, terrified of what was happening to the people in the clearing. She moved first, her sense of self-preservation stronger than his at this point; weeks of illness had weakened his resolve. The dragon skin had helped him, bolstered his health and his sense of being, but even that seemed to be wearing off now. It was her sense of urgency that propelled them on. Of course, she saw him as her means of escape. Alone, she would never have the strength or resolve to escape, but with him, she would be able to do it. She knew she could. They just had to survive the current mayhem. The question running through her mind was whether they should both go now or whether he should hide and she should go back and plan their escape. They needed food and mounts if they were to escape Mexico and travel to her home in the Maya-tan. This was a fact and she knew that only she could make it happen. The Black Robes were here for him: that was clear to her. They would not want her. When they discovered he had escaped they would leave and then she would be able to steal what they needed for the road. It was all very clear in her mind. She was surprised by how she saw things unfolding from here on out. It was if she were experiencing a vision.
The water dropped headlong toward the sea, rushing from the snow-capped mountain. Approximately thirty feet wide, the flow was so strong that a crossing on foot was almost impossible but a rocky shelf about two miles downstream provided a way through that only the people living and working in the clearing knew about. The crossing was marked by a cairn of stone about two feet high, she told him, and he would know it when he saw it. She had to return to the clearing and on her return she would erase their tracks. He would have to go on his own. “When you reach the cairn,” she said, “you must cross the stream and then go north. About five miles into the forest there is an outcropping of stone and a shallow cave. It is a lovers’ trysting place. Wait there for me.” He looked into her eyes and held her hand. He had been alone for so long, separated from his mother’s people, and here was a beautiful woman helping him. His eyes filled with tears and he felt something he had never felt before, a feeling of longing.
She embraced him and kissed him on each cheek and then turned away and grabbed a broken branch from a berry bush that she used to brush away their tracks. He watched her disappear into the thick underbrush and then followed the bank of the stream down the hill toward the ford of stone she had described. As he walked he suddenly began to remember the Argyll words for the plants and stones. Meeting Akna had broken a barrier holding back the memories of his youth. As he walked, he imagined he still felt the warmth of her hand in his, a feeling he found quite comforting.
The sun slipped behind the mountains and the shadows lengthened. He was marching east, along the banks of the river, and soon it would be dark. Akna had said that the cairn was several miles from where they separated. If he didn’t reach it soon, he feared he would pass it in the night. He decided to stop and find a place to pass the night if he didn’t find the cairn soon; he could not afford passing it in the dark and traveling miles down the mountain without finding the ford. And if he missed the ford and didn’t go to the cave, then he would miss Akna. This he could not afford to do.
With night, the temperature dropped and the trail in the dark became treacherous. One misstep and he could fall and break an arm or leg, so he decided he had to wander from the trail and find a place to spend the night. The undergrowth that grew against the clay banks of the stream and under the pine forest on each side was thick and coarse. He had no knife or sword to clear the way so he forced himself through, tearing his uniform, scratching his hands and face until he found an opening under some wild berry bushes. He pushed his way in and curled up on a bed of dead leaves and vines and lay quiet, slowing his heart and lungs, trying to discern if he had been followed. He heard the rushing water, the hoot of an owl hunting in the woods, and then the rattle of a woodpecker beating against some hardwood tree.
His life had been spent in La Ciudad. First, he lived down below the city in the decaying underground in a tiny cubicle with his mother and father and, then, after his mother’s death, in the barracks of the military school. Rarely did the cadets make forays into the countryside; instead, their training was on playing fields behind the school’s stone walls or in the dank dark gymnasium below the barracks. He was never alone during those years but always lonely. Akna’s presence reminded him of his past and he tried to conjure up a memory of his mother. He was five when she died at the hands of a racist madman, who would have killed him but for his rescue by an old woman who just happened to hear his mother’s screams. She beat the man off with her cane until several neighbors came running at her cries of “murder!” He remembered his father’s face when he found him in the woman’s cubicle not far from theirs. His eyes were red from crying; his hair disheveled. His hands shook as he lifted him up and carried him home.
Tears ran down his face. He had not remembered that day in a long, long time. And where was his father now? He disappeared, killed some said by cutthroats near the great wall two years ago. Just lost said the Black Robes. They never found his body.
The sound of the water and the quiet of the night lulled him to sleep even though he was very cold, very sad and very afraid. He pulled his body into the fetal position seeking to maintain his body’s heat, as dreams descended upon him. Once again he was in the pagyn in his mother’s arms; their wagon jostling along through deep jungle, heading north toward Mexico and the papal kingdom’s capital La Ciudad. He opened his eyes and spied stars through the canvas of leaves and on a gnarled limb of an ancient cottonwood lay the supine body of a jaguar, its emerald green eyes watching as the pagyn rumbled beneath it and its long tail flicking rhythmically to some inner syncopation.
The dream shifted, as dreams do, and he imagined he was the jaguar on the limb and he was watching a large flat-bed pagyn covered with Argyll performers fleeing the rape of Maya-tan, the Mayan city of the gods, in the south and hurrying toward the decaying fleshpots of the papal city of the north. He felt a deep rumble in his chest, the deep-throated growl of a jungle cat, and he flared his black nostrils, caught the porcine stench of a wild boar and awoke.
The smell of rot and musk and sour mud filled his nose and he heard the sound of an animal rooting near the base of one of the nearby pine trees. He was downwind of the creature, which he realized was good; otherwise, the wild boar would attack him and rip him from groin to chest. He could barely make the creature out in the dark but he could certainly hear it and smell it. As he watched the creature, he tried to figure out a plan. Movement out of the undergrowth would be a loud and messy business. If the creature stayed upwind it might move on without knowing he was here.
The beast continued to root away, searching, he imagined, for truffles or other indigenous tubers until a noise from the north startled him and the pig. Men’s voices, speaking lingua, emanated from the banks of the stream and then a splash and a loud curse. “Help me,” called one of the men. “I can’t get a hold on this damn bank. It’s as slippery as hell.” Then, another voice called out: “Hang on.”
He knew they were searching for him and he squeezed against the earth, trying to make himself as small as possible. Behind him, he heard the pig snort and then turn and run deeper into the forest. For a moment, he feared the men would hear the boar but they were too occupied with the rushing stream and the possible loss of one of their comrades to hear. He slowly reached out and carefully pulled leaves over his body, hoping to further hide him from the men and the pig.
He lay still for a long time, straining to hear any movement that would indicate the location of the men. At some point, he fell asleep. When he awoke, the sun was overhead and he could hear birds moving through the trees. A sparrow was near his head eating berries from the vines that sheltered him.
He was hungry, too, and he reached out and plucked several berries and popped them into his mouth.
No voices could be heard; only the rushing stream and the birds chirping all around him. A yellow and black snake slithered through the dead leaves and crawled over his booted leg and black ants nibbled at the detritus near his nose. He crawled from beneath the blanket of dead leaves and debris and out from beneath the shadows of the berry vines. He relived himself against a tree and blew his nose by holding first one nostril and then the other.
The morning was frosty and a pale fog covered the ground, as he found the muddy clay trail that ran next to the rushing stream. He soon found the spot where the man had fallen into the water. The bank was scarred with scratches and breaks and boot prints, aimed toward the east. They were ahead of him, he thought, searching for the ford that Akna had told him about yesterday. If she were not involved he would have set off through the woods but now he felt committed to her to meet her in the cave and travel south to the Maya-tan. The thought of returning to his home and his people intrigued him. He felt no loyalty to the Mexicans. The attack two months ago changed him, hardened his heart against them.
His stomach growled and rumbled as he headed east along the bank and the sun climbed from the horizon and burned off the fog and warmed the air. Dragonflies and gnats buzzed along the banks and animals moved in the woods around him, coming to the water to drink.
As the day wore on, he felt the land bend and the descent sharpen; he was leaving the hills at the base of the snow-capped mountains behind him.
The cairn was near a visible change in the land. Two hundred yards beyond it was a fall. He could hear the water rumbling over the edge and thundering to the land below it.
Beneath the surface of the water, he could see a stone shelf that rose from the river bed like a hidden bridge. This was the ford that Akna identified. Around the cairn he could see the tracks of three men and he wondered if two of them were the Black Robes who had attacked the dragoons. Beyond the cairn there were no tracks and he suspected that the men had crossed the stream earlier in the day. ‘Had Akna also passed?” he asked himself. All of the tracks were made by boots. She had been wearing moccasins. He doubted she had crossed yet.
From the tracks, he knew three men had crossed the ford and he suspected that Akna had not. He could cross and try to find the cave but he might run into the men or he could leave the trail and head into the woods and continue east to Veracruz. Akna would never know what happened to him and she might run into the men once she crossed the river heading to the cave to meet him. He could not abandon her.
Another possibility occurred to him. He could go back up-river toward the clearing and the Catina and hope to meet Akna on the way down but that was also dangerous, he quickly realized. The Black Robe could still be there. Finally, he decided to traverse the ford and trek to the cave and hope that Akna would make it there without running into the men stalking him.
The stream rushed downhill at a tremendous speed and he knew it would take all his strength to cross. But willow-like Akna had crossed so he imagined he could do it.
He stepped into the water and found his footing on the smooth stones that made up the submerged bridge. One step and then another and he was in the water that rushed around his waist, no higher. Sliding his feet rather than lifting them he moved doggedly across, keeping the other side in view. And then he heard her calling him and looked over his left shoulder to see her coming down the path next to the stream; a pack was on her back and she carried a large stave. She was calling him and pointing. Something was wrong and then he turned toward where she was pointing. Three men came over a knoll on the opposite shore of the stream, running toward him. He recognized the two Black Robes from the clearing and a third man, not a Black Robe but n Azteca tracker.
The Black Robes were carrying their shotguns, weapons used at short range. But the tracker had a long-barreled carbine, favored by indio hunters, and he had stopped and knelt on one knee and raised the weapon, aiming at Stern, who stood exposed in the middle of the stream. Just as the man shot, Stern shouted to Akna to run and hide and then the round hit him in the right shoulder and he tumbled into the water and was swept away in the boiling rush of the icy swirl. He disappeared beneath the surface and hit his head on a rock and was unconscious as the mountain waters carried him two hundred yards to the fall. He went over without a sound and then fell seventy-five feet into the clear lake at the base of the hill.