Citadel of Fear, by Francis Stevens

Chapter III

The Guardians of the Hills

BEFORE Boots had grasped his companion’s meaning, or guessed his purpose, Kennedy had crossed the short space between them and the lovely apparition. Like a child that has never been frightened by brutality, she watched his approach in grave, wide-eyed curiosity.

When, however, with one hand he grasped, her shoulder and with, the other snatched at the necklace, she gave a little cry and attempted to draw back. The moths fluttered wildly, dazzling Kennedy with then flashing bodies, beating their iridescent, panic-stricken wings in his very face. He released the necklace to strike at them, brush them aside.

Then at last Boots ran forward, but before he could reach them a sharp report shattered the heavy stillness and a bullet whined by so close to Kennedy’s head that he jumped back and instinctively flung up his hands.

“Keep them there!” commanded a stern voice.

Boots, who had halted at the shot, saw a dim, white figure striding toward them. Before it more moths flickered up, and by their ghostly light the newcomer was revealed as Biornson.

His guests’ informal departure had not, after all, gone undiscovered, and by the still smoking rifle he held at ready, and the brusk determination of his manner, the man intended an immediate resumption of his role as jailer.

At sight of him the moth-girl gave a low, birdlike thrill of pleasure. She began talking in soft, low tones, using a language strange to two of her hearers, but full of liquid, musical sounds.

Biornson answered her in the same tongue, though his accent was harsher and more forced. All the while he kept his rifle and his eyes trained on Kennedy. He finished speaking and the girl answered him briefly. Then Biornson deviated the threatening muzzle toward Boots, who had stood inactive since his coming.

“Stand over here, you! There, by your friend.”

Boots obeyed He understood exactly how the scene had appeared — one man ravishing the girl of her jewels, the other rushing to aid in the contemptible thievery.

“Mr. Biornson,” he began, “I had no wish at all to —— ”

“Silence! You big, red-headed bully, I have eyes and I saw what was going on here. Not that it surprises me. I took your measure when I first saw you in my gates. Now turn around, both of you. Do you see that stable lantern?”

They did. It was one which Biornson had brought to find his way by, and he had left it set on the path beyond the field of grass.

“March very straight and carefully toward that lantern. Remember that if I kill you it will only save me trouble.”

Kennedy was shaking with futile rage, but Boots was less angry than disturbed. He found himself in the position of many another innocent, careless man — condemned by the act of a rascally companion. But argument must wait. Just now there seemed nothing for either of them but obedience.

A little way from the spot where the girl stood looking wonderingly after, Kennedy struck his foot on a hidden stone, stumbled, and dropped to his knees. Seeing him fall, Biornson surmised the cause and waited for him to get up. He did, and in his hand was the stone he had tripped over.

Whirling with the nervous quickness of his anger and temperament, Kennedy flung the stone straight at the armed man behind them. More by good luck than aim it struck Biornson fairly between the eyes, so that he threw out his arms and reeled back and downward into the grass.

With a cry more like a wildcat’s voice than a man’s, Kennedy rushed to the fallen figure, snatched up the rifle and set its muzzle against Biornson’s temple. His finger curled to the trigger.

Another moment would have seen the scattering of Biornson’s brains, had not a hand intervened and snatched the gun aside.

“You — interfering — booby!” gritted Kennedy, as he wrestled for possession of the weapon. “Let me have it — let me have it, I say!”

Stumbling over the victim’s body, Boots lost his grip, and with a triumphant snarl the other sprang back and flung the rifle to his shoulder. But even as he took aim the sky above them ripped open in one jagged crevice of blinding fire.

The bolt shot across the clouds with a rattling, firecracker-like sound, splitting them asunder and releasing the pent-up deluge which all this while had hung above the earth. With the terrific explosion following that rattle and thrust of electricity, the clouds emptied themselves.

Startled and disconcerted, Kennedy had not fired and Boots again leaped in to close with him.

About them trees, meadow, and hills flickered through sheets of rain like scenes in an old-time moving picture.

Drenched, deafened by the incessant roar of rain and thunder, the two swayed stumblingly about. In that hampering turmoil Boots could not at first wrench the rifle from his antagonist, and though he might have easily killed the smaller man, bare-handed, this was far from his desire.

Then came an interruption more sudden and terrible than the storm, in whose tumult any warning noise there may have been was drowned.

Out of the curtaining rain a horde of ghost-white forms hurtled upon them. They were beasts; great snarling, white brutes, with slavering jaws and wolflike fangs.

Swept down by the rush, the human combatants were instantly buried under a piled, writhing heap of animal ferocity.

In the stress of that utterly unexpected attack, Boots did not try to analyze its nature. In the back of his mind there was a dim feeling of wonder that the elfin stillness and beauty of a few moments before should have culminated in such a series of cataclysms. For the rest, he knew that innumerable jaws and claws were tearing at his body, and that he was engaged in a mad, unequal fight to save his own life and Kennedy’s .

In some rare men the protective instinct is ineradicable. Because Archer Kennedy was his mate and weaker than he, in spite of all that had taken place Boots was as ready to give up life for him now as he had ever been.

They had fallen so that his body shielded the other man. That was accident. But the effort which throughout that delirious battle kept their positions the same was no accident, and Boots paid dearly for acting as a shield.

Had he been willing to fight his way to his feet again, he might have had a better chance. Flat down, the best he could do was to throttle any furry throat within reach and keep his own neck free from the tearing, furious fangs.

For a full two minutes the struggle continued.

Boots had one white demon squeezed tight to his chest, the smothering weight of its flank protecting his face. His fingers were buried in the throat of a second But he could not breathe wet fur, and the jaws of a third enemy were worrying at his right arm muscles. From shoulder to heel he felt them tearing and biting.

Taken at a tremendous disadvantage, blind, smothered and over-matched, Boots was in a very fair way to be torn to pieces when, suddenly, another rush of feet came plunging through the rain.

He did not hear them come. The first Boots knew of a change in conditions was that most of his snarling, growling tormentors had inexplicably ceased to either snarl, growl or bite. Then he realized that the weight of them also was off him.

The dirty cowards! They had given up the fight and run!

That left only the pair in his actual grip. With a gasp of fierce joy, Boots tightened his hold, rolled off from Kennedy — who, he greatly feared, was by this time smothered in the mud — and got his knees under him. Incidentally, he clamped the head of one kicking, white monster under the knees. The one whose throat he had been squeezing had ceased to struggle and he dropped it.

With his face free at last of the blinding fur, Boots knelt up straight and looked for the rest of the pack.

Though rain still fell in torrents, the lightning’s illumination was becoming more spasmodic, and Boots was hardly sure that what he saw was real.

Was he actually surrounded by a circle of strange, tall, white men? At each recurrent flash he seemed to see them. Tall men — inhumanly tall — the rain sluiced off bare, gleaming shoulders — the rounded muscles shone wet and white — their faces were stern, pallid, eyes fixed on him — their hands waved — they were pointing at him.

Through his Celtic brain flashed a wild suspicion that there stood the very beasts which had attacked him. Werewolves — creatures neither man nor brute, but able to take the form of either.

Under his knee, the white thing he held there wriggled feebly. He had already strangled one. Here was another whose diabolical tricks he could stop.

Dropping his hands, Boots shifted to find its throat and keeled over quietly in the squelching, trampled grass. His last conscious emotion was self-scorn that he hadn’t finished the “manwolf” before, like any common weakling, he died of his many wounds.

“Cheer up, or I’ll think you hard to content. ’Tis the wonder of wonders, Mr. Kennedy, that they’ve let us live at all, and Biornson’s face fair ruined by the rock you hove at him.”

Swathed in bandages, lying on a grass-stuffed pallet in the cubical, brick-walled chamber which for three days had been their prison, Boots looked kindly reproof at his fellow captive.

Biornson himself had just paid them a brief call, and after his leaving, Kennedy’s sullen countenance appeared more somber than usual. Now he stared at the Irishman with the shadow of some strange dread in his eyes.

“Tlapallan!” he muttered softly. “Tlapallan! Did he really say Tlapallan, or did I dream it?”

“He did that,” the other confirmed. “And why, may I ask, should his saying it fill you with despair? It’s a fine, hard word, I’ll admit, but I’d never get it off my tongue like Biornson did, or you either, but —— ”

“Tlapallan!” Kennedy repeated it as if the other had not spoken. “He called this place Tlapallan — and if that is true — but it can’t be! Quetzalcoatl — Tlapallan — no, no; one can’t believe the impossible — and yet —— ”

His head drooped and his voice lowered to an indistinguishable mutter.

Here was a phase of the older man’s character entirely new to Boots, who eyed him with an amazement bordering on alarm. Their position was puzzling enough in all conscience, but Kennedy’s manner and speech of the last few minutes hinted of some new riddle, some potentiality for harm in a mere word which Boots found vaguely disturbing.

For three days they had been held close prisoners. The cell of their confinement, bare, built of yellow polished bricks, or rather tiles, was in the daytime lighted to a golden gloom by one small, round window, offering a barren view across a brick-paved alley to a wall of highly polished white stone. As for what that alley might lead to, or what might lie beyond the wall, they knew practically nothing.

This place was no part of the hacienda. The experience of Kennedy, who had been in his senses when brought here, told them that. They were, it was almost equally sure, somewhere beyond that pass which Boots had so eagerly desired to explore. Here ended their certainties and began a mystery beside which that of the ravine faded to commonplace insignificance.

After the calling off of the white hounds — in sober sense, and remembering the beast they had seen in the patio, Boots dismissed his thought of “werewolves” as nonsense — Kennedy had staggered to his feet. Though half-strangled from being crushed in the mud, he was otherwise unhurt.

No sooner was he up, however, than his arms were seized, a bandage was whipped over his eyes, and, the grip of those so much stronger than he that struggle was futile, he was dragged helplessly away.

Like a child between two grown folk, he could hear the men who held him murmuring together over his head. “Great lumbering louts!” he said viciously, in describing the affair. “They must have been even larger than you are, Boots, and goodness knows you’re big’ enough. They went muttering along like a couple of silly fools — talked the same gibberish as that girl with the opals. When I tried to ask a question, one of the brutes struck me in the face.”

He had expected to be taken back to the ravine, and when, having walked a considerable distance, mostly down-hill, they came to a place where his feet found hard pavement under them, he at first took it for the courtyard of the hacienda.

As the march continued, however, turning corners, descending interminable flights of stairs, passing through covered ways — he knew them by the echoes and the fact that they were out of the rain — down yet more open stairs, and still onward, he became hopelessly bewildered.

At last, when he had began to believe the downward march would last forever, his arms were released and he was given a push that sent him headlong.

There was the closing of a door, and silence. He tore the bandage from his eyes. Darkness was, all around. Fearing to move, lest he fall into some chain, Kennedy remained crouched for another seemingly endless period, till dawn light replaced his imaginary chasms with the desolate, bare cell they still inhabited.

He was then alone, but later Boots joined him, being carried in on a stretcher, one mass of bandages from head to foot. Had he come from the operating-room of a city hospital, these dressings could have been no more skillfully adjusted, but the stretcher-bearers differed somewhat from the orderlies of such an establishment.

Boots, being then and for several hours afterward unconscious, did not see them, but Kennedy described them after his own characteristic fashion. Savages, he said, plumed, beaded, half-clad, and barbarous. Let their skin be as white as they pleased, they couldn’t fool him. Nothing but buck Indians of a particularly muscular and light-hued type, but Indians and no better.

His tone inferred that an Indian was a kind of subhuman creature, whose pretensions to equality with himself should be firmly suppressed. But, though their physical proportions were not comparable to those of the giants who had called off the hounds, they were sufficiently stalwart, and Kennedy reserved his opinion of them for Boots’ ears.

One who spoke fairly intelligible English instructed him to care for the “big red man,” and informed him that if the patient failed to recover the fault would be his, Kennedy’s, since the “sons of Tlapotlazenan” had done their part. He hinted, moreover, that these same offspring of an alphabetical progenitor would regard losing the patient as a personal affront, and probably take it out of the one responsible in a very painful manner.

The stretcher-bearers then departed, and, with one exception, that cell had received no visible callers since. Food and drink were set inside the door at night by a jailer whom they never saw. Refuse of the previous twenty-four hours was removed in the same manner.

Such conditions might not, one would think, be conducive to the rapid recovery of a man whose flesh had been ripped to shreds in a dozen places. But Boots seemed to be doing rather well. He awoke clear-headed, had developed no fever, and, though practically unable to move, he insisted that this was due more to a superfluity of bandages than the wounds they covered. Kennedy, however, perhaps recalling the stretcher-bearer’s warning, would allow none of them to be displaced, and waited on his companion with a solicitude that astonished the recipient.

Late in the afternoon of the third day they heard a trampling of feet on the bricks outside. The door opened, and from his pallet Boots caught one glimpse of waving plumes and barbarically splendid figures before it closed again. The man who had entered, however, was of far more commonplace appearance, save for his head, which in the matter of bandages matched Boots’ body.

It was not until he spoke that the latter recognized him as Svend Biornson.

Pointedly ignoring Kennedy, he walked over and stood looking down at the swathed figure on the pallet.

“You seem to have had a little more than enough, my man,” he greeted Boots.

Because there was truth in that statement, and because he felt at a great disadvantage, Boots managed a particularly happy smile.

“Ah, now,” protested he, “’twas a very amusing frolic while it lasted! Leave me try it again with me two feet under me and I’ll engage to tame a few of those lap-dogs for you. And how is your face the day, Mr. Biornson?”

“It’s still a face.” The tone was rather grim. “It would have been less than that if your friend had got his way with the rifle, so I shan’t complain.”

“Mr. Kennedy is a bit quick-tempered,” conceded Boots, “but sure, you’re never the sort to hold against a man the deed done in hot blood, more especially when the worst of it was never done at all, but just thought of?”

The other laughed.

“That is an unusual plea. I’ll consider it, and meantime let me thank you for having diverted the rife-muzzle from my head. I learned of your act from the daughter of Quetzalcoatl, whom your friend would have robed — another, deed I suppose you place in the excusable ‘just-thought-of’ class!”

“The daughter of — you can’t mean the lass from fairyland, with the fire-moths in her hair? Don’t tell me she has years enough to be the child of an old, dead heathen god like that!”

Biornson cast a nervous glance toward the closed door.

“Be careful! Never call Quetzalcoatl a dead god in Tlapallan! The Guardians of the Hills are inclined in your favor. They admire strength and courage, and it is seldom indeed that a hound of Nacoc-Yaotl’s has been killed by a man bare-handed. But to speak against Quetzalcoatl is a cardinal crime. Only your life could ever wipe out that insult.”

“Would you believe it now!” Boots’ curiosity was immense, but he held back his questions, thinking Biornson might be more communicative if merely led on to talk. “And there I might have hurt the feelings of them by a slip of the tongue, had you not warned me! Fine, large, handsome men they are, too, with a spirit of fair play that matches your own, Mr. Biornson.”

“It is good of you to say so.” The other’s voice was grave, but between the bandages his eyes were twinkling. “And fair speech matches fair play in Killarney, eh?”

“Kerry,” corrected Boots. “But I meant my words.”

“I believe you did. They are true enough, too, of the Tlapallans. I can’t say exactly what will be done about you and your friend, but Astrid has promised to speak for you, and I’ll do what I can. As for your wounds, the Tlapotlazenan gild are wonderful healers, and I shall expect to see you on your feet in a week or so. You have reason to be thankful that the Guardians of the Hilts called off their hounds when they did. A little more and it would have been scarcely worth while trying to piece you together.”

“Guardians of the Hills,” repeated Boots thoughtfully. “There was more truth than fancy, then, in the tales we heard of white giants, though the ghost-cougars they hunt with are just dogs, and there’s little of the fantom about any of them. ’Tis all a most interesting discovery. An adventure after my own heart, though so far the head and the tail of it are well hid, and the middle past all understanding!”

The patient angler for information paused tentatively, but Biornson shook his head.

“For your own sake,” he said, “it is better that you should not understand. I tell you frankly that there is a truth in these hills which no man has ever been allowed to carry beyond them. When you first came to my house, it happened that none of the folk were in the lower valley. It was the time of the Feast of Tlaloc, and they were all gathered in Tlapallan. As men of my own race, I would have done much to save you, but you know how my efforts resulted.”

“I do not,” Boots retorted. “Betwixt one mystery and the next my head is fair swimming!”

“Better perish of curiosity than meet the fate I am still trying to avert from you.”

He looked pityingly down at the homely, good-humored Irish face, with its danger-careless eyes and smiling mouth.

“I told you there was a secret in these hills. I tell you now that there is also a horror — a — a — thing — a way they have —— ”

In a spasm of inexplicable emotion he broke off, and it was a moment before he could control his voice to continue. “When I say that you are housed now, in the seat of Nacoc-Yaotl it means nothing to you, but to me it means threat of a terror that I never think of when I can avoid it! When I was first here, a prisoner, I, who had never given much thought to religion, used to spend whole nights in prayer, entreating God to make it untrue — or let me forget!

“And yet when I could have escaped I did not go. Though by staying I not only risked my soul, but betrayed a trust, I did not go! I knew by your faces at the house that you had never heard of Svend Biornson. Perhaps conscience exaggerated my fame in the world, and my dropping out of it left hardly a ripple. And yet I know that in some circles that could not have been so. But it was all so many years ago!”

He paused again.

“Very like,” said Colin. “If ’twas so very many years ago I must have been a small, ignorant spalpeen in Kerry when it happened. ’Tis no wonder I never heard of you.”

“I was younger myself,” the other answered reflectively. He might almost have been talking to himself, instead of Colin — arguing that old case that every man argues eternally before the inner tribunal “Young and impetuous. For all the standing I had achieved in the archeological field — I know now how young I was! Very proud, too. Twenty-five, and set at the head of a scientific expedition! I wonder who has since done in Yucatan the things I set out to accomplish?

“And our party! Did any one of them survive to carry back a report? Wiped out by the Yaquis, and poor young Biornson, too! I can see the dear old gray-beards who sent me out shaking their heads and sighing for another young promise lost — and sighing, too, for the work that had not been done. And I, who had been chosen, could have later taken them news whose confirmation would have made the university world-famous — I— fell in love and cast in my lot with Tlapallan! A trust betrayed and youth served! It isn’t the biography that was prophesied for Svend Biornson!”

“If that’s all you have on your conscience,” consoled Boots, “it’s lighter than most men’s! Sure, to carry tales for the world is an interesting occupation, but I cannot see how you were damned in neglecting it. By your manner, I had thought you left a trail of murder and arson behind you!”

Biornson stirred impatiently and seemed ill at ease. “I’m a fool!” he said. “What is science or a scientific reputation to an ignorant boy like you? Of course you can’t understand! But — it isn’t only, that! They are my friends, these folk. Sometimes I think they are the last remnant of a forgotten race, older than Toltec or Mayan, or even the Olmecs, who have left nothing to archeology but a memory.

“And sometimes — I have other thoughts of them, thoughts that I can’t put into words, for there are no words to express them. I know that they speak the Aztec tongue in all its ancient purity, and yet they are surely not of Aztec blood. However it be, they are good, true comrades, and my own wife is one of them, but I sometimes wonder if I have not — have not lost my soul in living here! I am saying too much — you can’t understand and you must not. You shall go back to your own people and your own God —— ”

Stooping unexpectedly Biornson seized the surprised Irishman’s hand and gripped it hard.

“Boy,” and his voice was a harsh whisper, “never bow your head to the gods of a strange race! Never! Not for our nor love, nor wealth, nor friendship! Not for wonders, nor miracles! You speak of mysteries. There is a mystery I could tell you of — but your soul would be sick afterward — sick — you might even desert your Christ — as I did, God help me!”

“I am a good Catholic,” said Boots, gravely and simply.

“Then stay so! You are in a city where mercy and kindness excel, and their roots are set in a monstrous cruelty. Where beauty springs out of horror, and they worship benignant gods with the powers of devils! Don’t seek to know the heart of Tlapallan! Go, if they’ll let you — and once away forget that you ever set foot in the Collados del Demonio!”

With no farewell but a final squeeze of the hand Biornson was gone.

A memory flashed across the mind of Kennedy. Tlapallan! The White People of Tlapallan! Grant that myth to be true, he thought, and anything was possible — anything!

For the rest of the afternoon the materialist sat with his head in his hands, silent and glum, till Boots, who could accept miracles, gave up trying to get at the cause of the other man’s perturbation, and fell peacefully asleep.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00