Title: Under the Sun (1/1)
Warnings: Animal sacrifice, drug use
Summary: A Spanish conquistador is taken on a mysterious journey by his Inca servant in the jungle of South America.
Disclaimer: Inspired by BBC Merlin and Berend Jager’s Road to Titicaca/The White Condor. (And maybe Tintin.) None of which are mine.
Word Count: 4000+
Genre: AU, Romance, Humour
Spoilers: General Season 1
Come to the dark side, we have coca.
They had been walking for days. Arturo had lost count. One day he was a conquistador of Captain Pizarro’s army in Cuzco, the next he was waking up from a drug-induced stupor, blindfolded and tied to a horse. By his own manservant. No amount of threats and curses would induce Mauricio to release his master. He was in the company of a few other men with whom he spoke in his native language, and Arturo had no idea what they were up to, although he feared the worst. He had obviously been taken in by the dim-witted, ungrateful savage. At last he was taken down from the horse, only to be led up a never-ending flight of stairs, and down again, and up.
Twice they had crossed a ravine on a dangerously swinging rope bridge, a thundering river far down below, but otherwise every day was the same behind the darkness of the blindfold on the road to God-knows-where. Mauricio refused to tell. “Trust me,” he only repeated over and over again, as he led him by the arm along the endless stone steps. He could only guess from the sounds of birds, frogs and monkeys that they were somewhere deep in the rainforest.
Arturo had trouble keeping his balance with his hands tied behind his back, but after a while Mauricio offered to release them under the condition that he would not touch his blindfold. Arturo considered his options: he had no weapon, and the men who silently followed him would overpower him before he had a chance to run. He had no choice but to walk on in darkness.
After climbing up in the scorching heat of the sun for a long time the air grew colder. Arturo shivered in the freezing wind, and Mauricio paused to throw a cloak over his shoulders and share some water. Even though they moved on at a lower pace now Arturo could not get his breathing under control, and a splitting headache was forming in the back of his head. Mauricio offered him some coca leaves to chew on, insisting they would help, but he angrily refused. He thought he had cured his servant of that filthy habit.
When his headache grew progressively worse and he started to feel nauseous and dizzy he finally sank down on the steps and buried his head in his hands. Mauricio offered him some water and pressed him again to try the coca, and this time he reluctantly accepted because he felt so wretched he would have taken any cure.
A bitter taste filled his mouth as he chewed the leaves, and after a while he felt a numbness in his mouth and a pleasant lightness spreading through his body. The headache and fatigue abated, and he could think again. He spit out the coca, disgusted at his own weakness. His mouth felt parched and numb, and he said a quick prayer to ask forgiveness for succumbing to Inca witchcraft.
“We’ve almost reached the pass,” Mauricio said, pulling him up. “Come on.”
He dragged himself up the hill and down the other slope with detached resignation. He was almost past caring about his fate, and he collapsed with exhaustion when they finally entered the little hut where they would stay the night, though Mauricio pressed him to eat some of the tasteless porridge before he fell into a dreamless sleep.
The next day he felt slightly better until they walked down the stone steps for so long his knees started protesting. In the end they felt so weak he would surely have tumbled down the stairs if Mauricio had not caught him. He begged for another break, but his mule-headed servant insisted there was no time. Instead he spoke briefly to the men, who then hoisted him up between them and carried him further down. He blushed to his roots, convinced that his disgrace had reached an all-time low.
The next morning he believed Mauricio woke him up earlier than usual, and when they left the hut the warmth of a torch near his face suggested that is was still dark outside. They walked for a while until they halted and Mauricio spoke to the other men, who left abruptly. Then he reached around Arturo’s head and took off the blindfold. He could just see a torch disappearing around the corner before everything was covered in darkness again. When his eyes got used to the dark he could make out a stone building around them; it seemed some kind of gatehouse with guards.
Mauricio leaned in the doorway chewing coca, and he offered some leaves from a pouch on his belt to a guard. He was relaxed and smiling, his eyes fixed on a point in the distance. Arturo looked out into the darkness, until the sun began to rise and he could see the faint outline of a mountain peak. The rays of the sun touched the top of the mountain and then slid down to reveal it completely. Mists obscured the foot until they parted to uncover a complex of buildings perched on the edge of a sharp ridge. He heard Mauricio inhale a sharp breath as the clouds rolled down the terraced slopes and the sun kissed each part of the strange settlement to life.
Mauricio smiled brightly at him and then hurried down the winding path carved into the side of the mountain, motioning him to follow. Even though he was no longer blindfolded he had some trouble keeping up with the brisk pace. Mauricio was no longer dressed in the cast-offs he had so liberally bestowed upon his servant. Instead wore a short tunic in the Inca style, and his cheek was bulging with a ball of coca. He looked almost as wild as when Arturo had first met him more than two years ago. He began to fear that his desperate attempts to civilise the boy had not made much of an impression.
They descended from the forest and passed lush green terraces before they reached a stone gate in the city wall flanked by two guards. In the narrow doorway stood an old man dressed in colourful garb, with a stoic expression on his face. His shoulders and breast were covered in large golden plates forming a half-circle around his neck, and he wore an elaborate golden headdress in the form of a panther’s head.
Mauricio bowed to him and they exchanged a few words. Then he poked Arturo in the ribs. “Bow!”
Arturo had no intention of following orders from his servant, and he certainly wasn’t going to bow to one of those charlatans, but the guards did look rather menacing and he was still unarmed so in the end he figured he’d better comply. For just this once.
He made a quick half-perfunctory bow and the man spoke to him.
“The High Priest of Inti bids you welcome to Machu Picchu,” Mauricio translated.
Oh God this made it even worse. He had just worshipped a false idol. A golden calf. He crossed himself inconspicuously and murmured a prayer. He was going to burn for this.
The man had disappeared from the doorway and he followed Mauricio through the gate into the town. He had never heard of any place called Machu Picchu, and he realised he must be inside a rebellious Inca stronghold. The children certainly stared at him as if they’d never seen a bearded man before. (He knew that for some reason the Inca men did not have beard growth.) The adults, however, were properly respectful of him, bowing as he passed.
Mauricio turned right into downsloping side street, and as he stopped to speak to a stonemason working on a building Arturo noticed the man paid his servant an unusual amount of deference. He started to suspect that perhaps they weren’t bowing to him after all. He glanced at the smooth-lined structure and traced a mortarless seam with his finger. The stonework here was as fine as any he’d seen in Cuzco; simple but elegant buildings constructed of perfectly aligned blocks of stone, not a knife breath between them.
Mauricio continued down the narrow street, ruffling a few kids’ hair and speaking briefly to a woman weaving a colourful fabric on the way. As they walked further down the stonework became rougher and the houses smaller, until the path turned to stone steps that went down through steep agricultural terraces. Beside the steps ran a small irrigation canal, and Mauricio stopped at a place where the water cascaded down into a basin and held his hands under the stream. He savoured the water as if he had not drunk in years. Arturo was thirsty enough to try some too. It tasted cold and pure like the mountain mists.
They finally stopped in front a small hut leaning against the steep hillside, and a smiling woman appeared in the doorway. She bowed and Mauricio took her face in his hands and kissed her forehead. They started talking animatedly.
“This is my mother,” Mauricio told him. “She says she is very glad you did not take any longer to get ready because she was missing me so much.”
Arturo didn’t know what to reply so he just smiled weakly in return. When Mauricio took the pouch with coca leaves from his belt and gave them to his mother she bowed again to thank him, and then they took their leave.
“Why does your mother bow to you?” Arturo whispered as they walked back, as if he was afraid anyone else would understand Spanish here.
“Because I’m a priest at the Temple of the Sun. It is a great honour to my family.”
“What? You’re a priest of the sun cult?”
“Yes, I serve Inti. That is my purpose.”
“But you’re a Christian now! You were baptised.”
“Baptised or killed.” He turned his back to Arturo and walked back up the stone staircase.
“Yes?” he replied, without stopping or looking back.
Arturo didn’t know what he meant to say. Mauricio was suddenly a stranger to him. If he considered that his name at all. Of course it was only a random name from the Bishop’s list, but it seemed to fit him so well. “What do they call you here?”
“My name is Kuntur. It means condor. But you can call me Mauricio if you want.” He looked up at the sun and doubled his pace, and Arturo did not have any breath to spare for more questions.
They crossed a large open area in the centre, and finally reached a plateau where a group of men appeared to have been waiting for Mauricio. They immediately surrounded him, patted him on the back uttering shouts of glee and practically dragged him along the temple square. He was obviously late for something. Well, nothing new here, Arturo thought.
They lifted a circle of golden plates over his head that covered the upper part of his chest, shoulders and back. While he hurried along Mauricio held up his arms to be fitted with golden vambraces. They threw a colourful mantle over his shoulders and finished with an intricate golden headdress as he rushed between the ornate temple buildings towards another staircase. Arturo was pushed along up the steps by the other men who were carrying large bowls of food. It seemed this was going to be one epic picnic.
They quickly climbed up to the highest point of the city where the High Priest stood next to a large monolith. The old man attempted to frown but he could not hide a smile as Mauricio stumbled to his side. They formed a circle around the large stone with the other priests in simpler attire, and waited. The large golden amulets on their chests glittered in the sunlight, but it was nothing compared to the blinding splendour of the High Priest and Mauricio.
Arturo found a place between some other spectators and averted his eyes from the brilliance to study the large rock. It was carved into the shape of an altar with a large square column in the middle. Apparently it functioned as a sun dial, for as soon as its shadow was aligned with a carved line the High Priest lifted his hands to the sun and began to speak. Then he took a golden bowl filled with coca leaves from one of the other priests and solemnly placed it on the ledge of the rock.
Arturo was fascinated despite himself. He could not take his eyes off Mauricio, resplendent in gold; not a man, almost a god. So clumsy with his musket, so graceful now as he lifted his arms to the sun in supplication. His funny Spanish nothing like the melodious Quechua he chanted at the sun. His bearing was proud, and the admiration of the crowd was palpable as he carried a golden bowl filled with thick cobs of corn and placed it on the stone. Now Arturo understood why he had never been servile.
The other priests took their turn and offered bowls of grain, platters of vegetables, fruits, nuts, potatoes and other roots; the finest of the land. Arturo finally understood: the sun blessed the crops, the crops blessed the people, and the people blessed the sun in return. Everything fell into place, like the last perfectly carved block in an Inca wall. Except that it was all heresy of course.
Lastly, the High Priest took a guinea pig and sliced it open with a large ceremonial dagger. He read the entrails for good or bad omens, and appeared pleased with the results. He concluded the ceremony shortly after, and the crowd dispersed. Arturo waited until Mauricio had finished talking to the High Priest and followed him down the steps. They crossed the square again and walked back in the direction of the city gate. Mauricio entered a house and motioned him to follow. Arturo walked in and looked around. The room was not big, but the stonework was very fine. It had one window and several niches in the walls, in one of which Mauricio placed his headdress. He took off his cloak and hung it on a peg, and then he lifted the golden plates off his shoulders with some difficulty.
“I’d forgotten how heavy it was. My armour,” he joked, and placed it on a wooden stand. He struggled with the vambraces and Arturo walked over to help him take them off. He marveled at the beautiful craftsmanship as he held one up to the light. At one time the sight of so much gold in one room would have filled him with greed, but now he felt nothing except wonder at Mauricio’s transformation. He went from clumsy servant to powerful priest to joking fool again and yet he essentially remained the same.
Mauricio smiled to thank him for his help, and pointed to a niche. “I packed some things I thought you might want.”
Arturo turned around to see a number of his possessions; there was his knife, his money pouch, his hip flask . . . he held up the Rosary and turned to Mauricio questioningly.
“I don’t care.” He shrugged. “I know you’re a good man.”
There was an uncomfortable silence before Mauricio walked past him, grabbing his shoulder. “I’m hungry. Come.”
In front of the house lay a woven blanket of intricate design. Mauricio sat down and patted a place for Arturo next to him. It was remarkably soft and comfortable to sit on. Arturo wondered if Mauricio expected food to just appear. Except that it did. A beautiful girl came around the corner carrying two large cups of chicha, the Inca maize beer, and she was followed by another girl with a big platter of food. The first one kneeled down gracefully in front of them and bowed to offer the beer, first to Mauricio and then to Arturo, with her eyes cast down. Then she rose again and the other girl took her place, holding out a platter of vegetables to Mauricio. He only took a few bites and Arturo followed his example even though he was rather hungry. But as soon as she was gone another girl appeared with different food. And another one. And another one. All of them were very pretty and their hair was long and sleek, held in place only by a thin golden circlet.
The food was all beautifully arranged, it looked wonderful and it tasted delicious, until . . .
“My God, what is that?” Arturo asked, horrified. What looked like big rats with beady eyes stared up at him, their freaky little paws poised for mischief.
“Roasted guinea pig. It’s a real delicacy.” Mauricio picked one up and bit off some flesh.
Although the idea of vermin made him gag, Arturo reluctantly tried one and admitted it wasn’t half bad. He was glad though when the next platter arrived which looked infinitely more appetising.
“Do you always eat like this?” he asked curiously.
Mauricio smiled. “Oh no, they’re just showing off.”
“The food or the girls?”
He chose not to answer. He occasionally spoke a few words to the girls, but only one lifted her eyes up and replied. Her skin was slightly darker than the others, and she had a kind face with big, expressive eyes. She did not seem in awe of Mauricio like everyone else and that was rather refreshing, because Arturo obviously wasn’t either. She appeared quite happy to chat for a while in what must be a rather uncomfortable position. Arturo suspected they were talking about him (but then he always thought that.) Finally Mauricio picked up some fruit from her platter and put it in her mouth. She laughed merrily. Then she cast her eyes down and served Arturo.
When they’d both had enough to eat another girl came with a bowl of water and a soft cloth to wash their hands. Mauricio stood up. “I have to do some things now. You can walk around anywhere you like. Or you can stay here if you prefer. I’ll come and find you when I’m done.”
They said goodbye and Arturo wandered off in a random direction. He soon found that it was rather difficult to get lost here. The central plaza cut through the middle of the town, following the line of the ridge. On either side were buildings, and then steep terraces. Despite the normal bustle of town life it was a peaceful place, tidy and green. Eden-like, he thought as he watched the river deep in the valley below, his view partially obscured by fog shreds dancing in the wind. He returned to the plaza, where Mauricio found him.
“Why did you bring me here?" he finally asked.
“It was foretold by the High Priestess of the Moon that you would come. I was sent to find you, protect you and lead you here when you were ready.”
“Ready for what?”
“Follow me.” Mauricio climbed up the steps to the temple square, and then further up until they reached the altar stone, still adorned with the day’s offerings. “After the destruction of the Sun Temples at Cuzco and Titicaca, this is the last remaining Intihuatana,” he explained, “the place where we tie down the sun.”
“What, with your bare hands?”
Mauricio sent him a death glare and continued, “Machu Picchu is now the centre of Inti worship, and it must remain hidden from the Spaniards at all costs.”
And yet you’ve brought me here, Arturo thought. A cold dread flashed through him as his eyes wandered to the guinea pig entrails. ‘when you are ready’
“Oh god!” he exclaimed in blind panic, “I’m . . . a human sacrifice?”
“No, no! Calm down.” Mauricio put his hands on his shoulders and looked him in the eyes. “You’re not.”
“Look, you’re too old for starters. And your teeth are crooked.”
Arturo took a deep breath. “Uh . . . thanks?”
As his breath steadied again, Mauricio continued, “You were brought here to consider a proposal: stay here and teach us to understand the Spanish ways of war in order to protect the sanctuary of Machu Picchu.”
Arturo felt his anger flare. “You’re asking me to switch sides and betray my captain, my king and my God?
“And if I refuse? You’ll kill me?”
“No. That’s why I had you blindfolded. If you so choose, someone will lead you back the same way.”
Arturo was silent for a moment “Not you,” he stated.
“No.” Mauricio’s tone was hollow, and he avoided his gaze as he turned to walk down the steps. “I belong here.”
Of course it was madness to expect Mauricio to go back to shining his boots when he could bask in adoration all day long here. No matter what he chose, Arturo thought, his life would never be the same again. For some reason he was going to miss his utterly useless servant.
They walked back in silence to their room where a priest came up to talk to Mauricio about some knotted strings or whatever, and Arturo decided to go inside to rummage through his stuff. He picked up his knife and felt a sudden urge to shave. He normally only went about clean-shaven in the hottest months of summer, and he didn’t quite understand why he wanted to now. It felt like more than just a desire not to stand out. He took some oil and went to sit outside on the blanket. The blade was sharp enough but it went far from smooth. He realised it had been quite a while since he’d shaved his own face, and he almost cut himself twice.
“Let me,” Mauricio offered, sitting down next to him. Arturo let him guide his head into his lap and shave him like he had done so many times before on those sweltering summer evenings in Cuzco. For a moment it was as if nothing had changed between them, and Arturo felt oddly comforted by the gesture: as if it was not the second-in-command of the sun cult sitting there, but his own Mauricio again. He tried to imagine the Archbishop of Sevilla as a barber, and started laughing.
“What?” Mauricio held up the knife in alarm.
“I was just thinking of something . . . at home.”
“Do you miss it?”
Arturo thought of the crowded streets of Sevilla, the noise and the dirt, and he recalled the feelings of restlessness that had propelled him to join Pizarro and seek his fortune elsewhere. His father had only been too glad to pack off his bastard son to the New World for the price of a horse and a gun. Then he thought of Cuzco, his disgust at Pizarro’s duplicity and his growing disillusionment with their mission. Most days on patrol he only longed for the peace and quiet of his quarters, where Mauricio waited to distract his mind with his foolish grin and curious ways.
Perhaps his servant had prepared him for this, with his innocent questions and wide-eyed wonder at the ways of the Spanish, until Arturo ran out of reasons to justify plunder, rape and murder in the name of the King and the Lord. To explain how cursing, gambling and drunkenness were hallmarks of a superior culture. He thought of the men he called friends, whom he would miss no more than his horse. “No,” he replied. At that moment he didn’t want to be anywhere else but right here on this magical island in the clouds, and even if Mauricio wished to appease his gods and slice his throat right now he knew he would die happy.
They were silent again as Mauricio steadily worked on, gently stretching his skin and meticulously scraping the blade along his jaw. “When the ships arrived, the people of the coast believed you were gods. Only gods have beards.” He paused to wipe the knife. “Or so they thought.”
Arturo smiled sadly. “Appearances can be deceiving.”
Finally Mauricio put down the knife and softly traced a hand along his chin. “There. As smooth as a cornerstone of the Inti Kancha.”
He made no effort to get up, and Arturo was content to lie still while Mauricio continued to ghost his hand over his skin and stroke his hair. From a distance came the melancholy sound of a reed flute. The sun cast long shadows over the central square before sinking behind the mountain ridge to make way for a multitude of stars dotting the night sky. In the Temple of the Moon the High Priestess and her acolytes began their watch.
Mauricio stared up at the lights of the temple high on the slopes of the Huayna Picchu. “Hair like the sun, she said. I did not believe it until I saw you,” he confessed, smoothing the golden hair over his temple and caressing his skin with reverend hands. Fingers briefly ghosted over his lips.
“Will you stay?” he asked at last, his voice almost a whisper.
Arturo’s breath caught in his throat, and he did not trust himself to speak.
“You will be treated like a prince.”
Arturo cleared his throat. “And what kind of benefits can I expect to enjoy?” he asked with forced levity.
Mauricio’s voice suddenly sounded distant and strained as he recited, “the High Priest offers you a beautiful wife, a fine home, a-”
“I don’t want a wife,” he interrupted. He looked up at the stars crowning Mauricio’s face as it came closer, and he lifted his head to meet his lips. They kissed tentatively, and Arturo found a bitter hint of coca mixed with the sweet and pure taste of his lips. He finally let go for want of air and breathed in deeply. “You are my home.”
Mauricio placed a hand under his neck and stroked his hair. “You are my sun,” he whispered.