Citadel of Fear, by Francis Stevens

Chapter V


ARCHER KENNEDY had two good reasons for failing to accompany Boots on his hare-brained expedition. One was the perfectly rational objection he had advanced that they would be found out and recaptured almost instantly.

The other, though less rational was far more powerful. It dragged him back through the gate before Boots had half accomplished his downward journey.

Kennedy was afraid. He was afraid as he had never been afraid in his life before, though he had experienced a warning thrill of it when Biornson visited their cell and spoke of the gods and Tlapallan.

A mythical city, set in a lake of cold fire, where fantom galleys moved in majestic silence, had no place in his conception of the universe. He had no curiosity about it. He desired no more intimate knowledge. It was simply without a place. He was seized with a desperate desire to escape, not only from Tlapallan, but from the very idea of Tlapallan.

As he plunged back through the valley, even the desert seemed a preferable memory to what he had just seen. Somehow he must make his way back to the ravine. Somehow he must provide himself with food, water, and a means to carry them, reach the gorge and, by no matter how painful a journey, return to a sane and credible world.

Coming to the cell of their recent confinement, he paused only to make sure by faint sounds through the window that the jailer was still a prisoner, then hurried on. In this direction also, he found that the alley terminated in a wall and gate. The latter he opened with some difficulty, to find himself in a covered passage, dark as the pit and coldly dank as a cellar. As it extended in only one direction, at right angles to the alley, he had no trouble in choosing his way.

Presently his foot shuck on what proved to be the first step of a flight of stone stairs. This was encouraging. On that first night he had been led down many stairs.

Very softly he crept up them, for silence could no longer deceive him with the assurance of being alone. He reached the top. It was blocked by a door — a wooden door, that opened easily at a touch.

Beyond it there was a light. Stepping through, he came into a bare, rectangular chamber, paved and walled with stone, empty, and opening through an arch to some place from which light blazed, warm and golden, though from where Kennedy stood he could not see its source.

In his mind he cursed it. Man or beast, your fugitive fears light, as its revealing enemy.

Yet behind him there lay only the cell, with its outraged and doubtless furious occupant - and that lakeward gateway which he longed to forget.

Treading softly, he crossed the flagstones and crept along the wall. Very cautiously he thrust forward till his eyes just cleared the edge of the arch.

Then indeed did he forget the uncomfortable weirdness of Tlapallan. With his soul in his eyes Kennedy gazed and gazed. Here was that which might wipe out a thousand unadjustable memories. Here was that which Kennedy understood and loved with a great and passionate affection.

Here was gold.

Tons of it. Though the worshipped metal was cast and carved in many shapes, it was not the workmanship that appealed to Kennedy. It was the stuff itself — the delightful, yellow-orange surface, the rich look of weight and body, the feeling of warmth behind the eyes that reveled in it.

Transcendent boldness welled up in Kennedy’s heart, and Boot’s himself could have crossed that threshold with no greater a carelessness for danger.

The room was lighted by four lamps, themselves suspended by massive yellow links, and beneath their radiance the place was one of splendor and glory polished metal. The walls themselves were sheeted wit beaten plates of it.

Ranged on a stone shelf; running clear around the chamber, stood dozens of urns, vessels and vases of massive size and crude but effective design. Set about the floor were various larger objects — a thing like a baptismal font, where the basin, as long as the body of a man; was supported on the back of three nearly life-size cougars; a throne-like chair; two or three chests, of various shapes and sizes; some half-dozen five-branched candelabra, each one taller than a man and weighing more than any man could carry.

All of gold. All of the metal itself, pure, divine, beautiful, without alloy, so soft in its purity that Kennedy could mar the stuff with a reverent finger-nail.

There was a curious lack of care in the arrangement of these treasures. They were set about anywhere, anyhow, and the worn stone flags of the floor, the unbarred road he had come by, seemed to show that the chamber which held them was common thoroughfare for any feet that chose to pass.

It was like the lumber-room of some public edifice, into which furnishings not in use are carelessly thrust till required. A lumber-room — for gold!

Kennedy’s eyes glistened. Such cavalier treatment of the world’s desire argued an astounding wealth behind it.

At one end of the room was a second doorway. Before it there hung two curtains, black, straight, made of heavy cotton stuff without ornament, austere in their splendid setting as the cassock of a Trappist monk at the court of a king.

What lay beyond? What manner of building was this that stood on the cliff, high and far from the island palaces of the lake? A store-house, perhaps? It seemed possible — probable. And this was only one room, and an outer room at that.

What wealth — what incredible stores of jewels might the other rooms reveal! More gold, of course — and jewels ——

There was no sound anywhere. The curtains fascinated him.

On venturous tiptoes, Kennedy reached them, parted them, hesitated a moment only — and passed through.

Behind him the curtains fell together and hung straight as before, black and shabbily sinister — austere in their splendid setting as the robe of some inquisitor of old Spain.

The confident security in his borrowed plumage displayed by Boots was more jest than earnest. Before quitting their prison he had washed and rebound two deep gashes which the combat had opened in thigh and shoulder. But since, barring helmet and mantle, the only garment worn by the jailer had been a sort of kilt, made from soft cloth woven of cotton and feather-down, the white bandages, not to mention his other scars, seemed perilously conspicuous. Strings of parrot plumage were an inadequate concealment.

Of course, there might be other wounded heroes mingling with the society of Tlapallan. But Boots had a dark suspicion that gentlemen of his exact complexion and appearance were scarce enough there to arouse dangerous comment.

For these reasons he meant to take a long and careful survey of the scene before attracting attention from any of the boatmen. Beside the larger vessels, a few small craft were visible, canoes of one or more occupants, which darted and dodged here and there across the silver flood. A lone canoe-man, now, should be more easily deceived — or overcome — than a whole bargeload.

As he approached lake-level, however, he met an unexpected hindrance to his purpose. The nearer he drew to that glittering expanse, the more difficult it became for him to see it.

From above the view had been no more dazzling than is any common sheet of still water, just following sunset when the sky seems less bright above than in its mirrored reflection. But standing at the edge, as he presently did, the whole varied scene resolved itself into a molten glow that forced shut his lids and made him realize that the Tlapallans must be possessed of optic organs as unusual as their habitat — unless they wore smoked glasses, a practice he had not noted.

“‘Twould better be dark,” thought Boots disgustedly, “than a sight so bright you can’t see it. Now what am I to do?” -

The stairs had ended at a broad floating stage, made of barked logs fastened together. As he stood on it, hesitating whether to wait till his eyes became more accustomed to the general brilliance, or to give up the adventure as impossible, a slight thudding sound to the right reached his ears.

By squinting desperately he could just make out the shape of a small boat of some kind. Then a low, clear voice murmured a sentence in the bird-like tongue of the Tlapallans.

Boots, taking emergency full face as was his custom, turned and walked boldly toward the voice. Dubious though he knew his position to be, there was no hesitation in either his manner or his stride.

Boldness is often a saving quality, but in this case it was a mistake.

Misled by that first thud, he had taken it for granted that boat and stage were in immediate juxtaposition. They were not. A good four-foot clearance intervened, and heading for the dark blur, which was all he could see, Boots carried his confident bearing straight over the edge and down into the glittering flood beyond.

An unexpected plunge bath is always startling. But a plunge bath in Tlapallan proved to have qualities of shock so far beyond the ordinary that Boots forgot every consideration in the world except an overwhelming desire to climb out again.

The instant his body touched the water, it was as if his skin were being lanced by a million red-hot needles. A dip in boiling oil could hardly have been more painful.

Straight down he went, to rise again so sick with agony that he could only clutch futilely at the air, and if left to himself his debut in Tlapallan would have meant an exit from life.

But the blade of a wooden paddle was thrust into his excited grasp, and he retained just sense enough to hang onto it. Swirled rapidly through the tormenting quid, his chest struck on something hard, and a second later he found his arms drawn up and over a rounded edge. It was the landing stage.

Somehow he dragged himself out upon it. Though dripping wet and so weak that he lay prone for more than a minute, he realized that the pain had eased off at once. Maybe, he thought, once thoroughly boiled, a man’s capacity for suffering ceases.

Then he was gently prodded by a foot.

“Stand — up!” The voice of the invisible speaker lent a musical softness to the harsh English words. Also if was the voice of a woman, and a young woman, too, or Boots had never heard a young girl speak.

Although in doubt if there were a whole square inch of skin left on him, he tried to obey. It proved astonishingly easy. The pain had entirely departed, and now he felt little worse than before the plunge. Some other quality of the water than heat must have caused his torture, and indeed it had been more like a highly electrified bath than anything else.

Except as a formless blur he could make out nothing of his rescuer, and he prayed, though not hopefully, that she could see him no better. The parrot head-dress was lost, and his borrowed feathers clung in bedraggled strings. Twenty is a self-conscious age where the opposite sex is concerned, and Boots felt that he cut a remarkably inglorious figure.

Something was thrust into his hands. It was the lost helmet.

“Cover your head,” said the voice, which seemed to have taken command of him and the situation with the utmost coolness. “Your hair is beautiful, but it is a wrong color. Among us no man’s hair is so — so gay. Only Tlatlanhquetezatlipoca. He is red, like you, but he is a god who has no sons in Tlapallan. Tell me, did you paint your hair so red because you are a son of Tlatanhquetezatlipoca?”

“Me father’s name was O’Hara,” blurted Boots, rather desperate.

“O’Hara?” She pronounced it like two distinct words. “He has no seat in Tlapallan. You shall bring him here, and we will build him a red house, finer than the seat of Tlatlanhquetezatlipoca, who has no children.”

“It’s kindness’ self you are,” protested the bewildered one, “but the poor man’s dead.”

“Then he was not a true god,” asserted the voice disapprovingly. “The true gods never die. You should forget him and serve another. Tlaloc is strong. Let your hair your hair grow black again and become a son of Tlaloc. And why do you shut your eyes? Is it because the eyes of O’Hara are closed in death? Think no more of a dead god, but open your eyes and look at me.”

He grasped at the last arbitrary command as slightly more intelligible than the rest.

“With them open or shut, the beauty of you is equally hid from me. ’Tis the light that’s to blame, not my will. ’Tis too glaring entirely!”

That truthful statement seemed to puzzle his new acquaintance as greatly as her remarks had bewildered him. It was some moments before she could be convinced that superfluity of light was really blinding to this stranger from the outer world.

That she knew him for a stranger had been evident from the first, and her calm acceptance, together with the excellent though slightly accented English she spoke, were as surprising as every other experience he had met in this home of surprises.

“If you really cannot see me,” she said at last, “I will take you where the glory of Tonathiu (the Sun God) is not so great. Tonathiu sits in the roots of Tonathiutl to rest from his day’s journey. His spirit flows out through the waters, and is brightest where it touches the shores of the land he loves. Around Tonathiutl itself the spirit is not so bright as here. I wonder if my lord Svend’s eyes are as weak as yours? I must find out from Astrid. It is very interesting and curious. Come.”

Willingly enough Boots accepted a guiding hand from this mysterious young person, and a few moments later was safely ensconced in the bottom of a fair-sized canoe, made of skins stretched over a bamboo frame. Had her words been a thousand times more incomprehensible, the risks involved incomparably greater, still Boots would have taken his chance and embarked in that canoe.

But though he could make little of what she said, the girl seemed amazingly friendly, and altogether he felt that the adventure was going rather well.

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