gamma - ⚔️ The #battle on the #Island
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June 20 — It’s been some time since my last entry in here. Meanwhile, I became a prisoner of this world and the paradise that initially welcomed us on this shore became hell. I shall put now on paper the recent events while they are still fresh in my memory.
That night of June 13, the dinner at the palace looked like a gift from Heaven. The captain, sitting next to the king, began talking about trade. We were going to be rich, so rich that none of us would ever have to work again. All the officers and sailors were happy and relaxed. Despite the widespread skepticism about the existence of this place, despite the lack of contemporary proofs for any recent trip to this El Dorado, we had actually found the Island!
After a while, with my stomach almost full of delicious food, I was curious to explore the city and requested permission to do so from both the king and our captain. They kindly allowed me to wander around on my own, but I was asked not to take any weapons with me. I left my sword and gun in the hands of an armourer and strode out from the dinner terrace while the rest of the crew continued to enjoy the feast. I always like to discover a new place on my own, so I declined to take a local with me as a guide.
Soon I was walking uphill onto a large boulevard paved with granite stones, lit on both sides by the same strange yellow globes. Most buildings here were made of white marble. They were massive and rectangular, with Doric columns marking their edges and ivy tendrils spread over their walls. The windows and doors were constructed from an unknown species of red wood while the roofs, most of them double-sloping, were all covered with gold tiles. Some houses had only one storey, while the tallest displayed up to five.
Gardens with exotic flowers and trees would sometimes separate the edifices, every fifty meters or so (I like the simplicity and clarity of the units designed four years ago and made official two years later by the French Academy; for this reason I decided to use the meter, with its multiples and sub-multiples, everywhere in my log when referring to size or distance; same goes with kilograms for weight). Far away, near the outer edge of the city, I could glimpse once in a while one of the white towers, like a huge finger aiming towards the dark sky. And so I continued my stroll, getting all my senses filled up with the city and its atmosphere. This had always been my way of getting acquainted with a new place: its detailed exploration on foot.
Here and there, people would pass by, dressed in long silk robes, most of them colored in green. Some of them would observe me discreetly, as I obviously looked like a stranger, especially due to the garments I was wearing. The men were tall, athletic, and handsome. The women usually wore their hair long, spread behind the shoulders, and appeared to be very beautiful.
Everybody’s hair was dark, their skin pale, and overall they looked similar to our own people. As I was moving across the city I found curious that not a single old person could be seen on the streets. Maybe the late hour was to blame? Perhaps the senior citizens preferred to spend most of their time indoors? Who could tell what other strange local habits existed in this place?
Walking leisurely towards the city center, the slope decreased gradually, as if I was climbing onto the rugged surface of an enormous sphere. I found myself soon in a wide plaza, at the edge of a plateau that was connecting the shore with the Island’s inner, higher lands.
The scenery was dominated in the midpoint by a giant statue of a man standing in a heroic pose, holding in his outstretched hand a broad, curved sword. Of course, even this statue was made of gold. There was an inscription in front of the sculpture, but it was written in an alphabet with rounded shapes unknown to me, so I could not find out who was the person described in it.
I crossed the rather empty square and let the feet carry me farther, towards a park with narrow alleys paved with shiny black stones and shadowed by trees similar to birches but with larger leaves. Here, I laid down on the grass for a moment and looked at the sky. I gazed at the stars in astonishment and could not understand what was going on.
All the heavenly bodies and constellations so familiar to me were now completely changed, unrecognizable even to my eyes, who were well-trained in celestial navigation. The legends about the Island mentioned this phenomenon, but I thought of it as being only a metaphor. Now I was confronted with its stern reality. I could still see the luminous band of the Milky Way dividing the sky, but even this feature looked too wide, too bright. Everything that was visible high up appeared strange, foreign, and unsettling. Soon after that, the Moon rose above horizon.
It was an unbelievably huge moon. With a small coin in my extended hand, I checked its approximate diameter. It was more than twice the size of the Moon I knew. Its disk had a bluish tint, and its surface features, clearly visible to the naked eye, appeared totally different. Then I realized we were not on Earth anymore.
With my heart pounding, I decided to continue my exploration a little longer, going farther inland. The alleys faded away and the park turned gradually into a real forest. I was stepping now onto soft, elastic grass, under trees with crowns enveloped by a blue, eerie halo of light. I could glimpse here and there, deeper inside the woods, unusual white elongated objects lying motionless on the ground. They were shaped like huge cocoons, and their size seemed slightly bigger than a human body, as if they were coffins.
I didn’t like this analogy pulled on by the subconscious side of my mind, so I decided to come closer and investigate the strange shapes. As my steps were carrying me towards them, I could see more and more such white shrouds filling the forest. They were just big enough to fully envelop a human being…
Then I saw a cocoon nearby, with fewer threads around it, not fully horizontal but folded in the middle and with the upper half lying against the thick trunk of a tree. An old man was inside it, dressed in a gray robe. His body was partly enveloped in this unusual, shiny material.
I moved towards him and stopped within an arm length of the shroud. The eyes of the old man were shut. He seemed dead. At a careful look I could spot in the pale moonlight white threads that were being spun in the air by an invisible hand. As I bent down to take a better look at them, the old man opened his eyes and looked straight at me. This was more than I could stand. The uneasy atmosphere of this strange place blew up with full force into my face. I turned quickly and began running back towards the palace.
I wanted to be back among my own people as soon as possible, I had to tell the captain about my new discoveries and my worries. My pocket watch showed it was already past 10 p.m. The streets were almost empty now. In the silence of the night I could hear the rhythmic echoes generated by my footsteps reverberating on the gray pavement. As I was rushing downhill I saw a white, huge shape, looking like a snake, coming through the air from the king’s palace, flying high above my head and disappearing into the night.
I was near the palace now, tired and breathing heavily from my long run, with drops of perspiration covering my forehead, yet something seemed wrong and unsettling here, too. In the eery silence of the night, the atmosphere felt tense and threatening. A few moments later, the silence was broken by gunshots and I saw many local soldiers in red uniforms, with halberds and spears in their hands, pouring from the nearby buildings onto the street. It seemed that a fight had broken out between our men and the natives. Unnoticed, I came a bit closer and waited for a short while on the other side of the alley.
Through the open door of the palace, the captain burst out with a pistol in his left hand and a sword in the right, followed by officers and sailors. The guards waiting in front of the king’s residence were knocked down one moment later and my crew mates began running towards the quay, pursued by a group of locals armed with halberds. I rushed after them, coming from behind as fast as I could, trying to shorten the distance that still kept me apart from my people.
However, a group of about fifty soldiers appeared unexpectedly from a side street and blocked my path before I had a chance to go any farther. I was unarmed, so I slowed down, pretending to be a local and trying to pass the troops by the road side.
I had no luck. One of the officers turned his head in my direction, recognized my foreign attire and shouted something. Two men began running immediately in my direction, with their halberds glittering in the moonlight, ready to kill. Their weapons were made of sharp steel, fully capable to cut in half with a single strike any unarmed individual. I had no choice but to run back as fast as my legs could carry me.
A few tens of steps farther, I saw my path blocked again by another soldier, who was agitating a long spear in his hands. I ran directly towards him. Then, when I was just one step away from his reach, exactly at the moment when he was preparing to strike my chest, I crouched and rolled head down onto the pavement, bending my knees and turning quickly along the ground on my left shoulder and right hip. His weapon hit too high, missing me by about twenty centimeters while my feet, ending the rotation, touched the ground again a fraction of a second later.
From my low position I sprang immediately up in the air, too close for him to make use of his weapon now, and grabbed his head with my both hands. My left knee hit the man painfully in the stomach, throwing him to the ground, where he fell like a bag full of flour and remained motionless. The thought of taking his weapon and fighting my pursuers crossed my mind for a moment, but there were too many of them coming from the shore. Putting as much distance as possible between me and my hunters was the only realistic option to stay alive, so I continued to run. The spear was too heavy to carry, anyway.
I could glimpse behind me more and more soldiers filling the road and moving towards the quay. Gunshots could be heard once in a while. The night was filled by sounds of steel hitting steel, laden with cries of anger and pain.
I turned a corner, hoping to lose my attackers and planning to get back to my ship by making a large detour through the less circulated streets uphill, avoiding any direct path that was at risk of crossing the battle area. It was going to take longer, but I still hoped to arrive soon and in relative safety at the shore. Right at that time, the canons from Excelsior began to shoot, with their thundering noise shaking the darkness and the windows of the buildings near the pier. Before leaving the main street, I noticed several bodies lying on the ground. They belonged to the islanders.
Threatening shouts and footsteps were still audible from my rear and I had to keep moving, turning right or left at every crossroad while the sound of the waves hitting the shore got louder and louder. Gradually, the streets seemed to become narrower and soon I found my escaping path blocked by a dead end. Stopping here was not an option. I was totally clueless about what had caused the conflict and felt no desire to be captured, perhaps even killed on the spot. Being unarmed didn’t give me any realistic chance of defending myself, anyway. My mind was searching desperately for a way out.
A balcony hung above on a wall, within my reach. Fear gave me wings. I jumped high in the air and grabbed its lower end. When my chasers arrived at the scene I was already on the house top, running along the long, narrow crest of a roof covered with thin gold tiles. The roof slopes were at a low angle and the tiles didn’t feel slippery under my soles, so I could go on with my running almost as fast as on the streets below.
I continued my race high above the ground towards the harbor, leaping from a house top to another when I couldn’t find a continuous path under my feet. Luck was on my side this time: all the buildings in this part of the city were two stories high and close to each other. I had a usable route to reach the shore.
In the bright moonlight I could see now the battle on the pier. Some of my people were lying down there, too, while the survivors had already crossed the light mobile bridges that connected our vessel to the shore and were back on Excelsior’s deck. Our ship’s cannons continued to bombard the city’s exposed streets from the higher slopes, inflicting a lot of damage to the enemy fighters. Her hull and masts were wrapped now in a thin cloud of white smoke. The locals were trying to shot at Excelsior with burning arrows, but they were too far away to cause any harm. For some unknown reason, their archers were still not using the tall, white towers. Maybe they hadn’t had time to climb on their tops and hoped to catch us from close distance, while our ship was still near the quay.
Thousands of armed natives were approaching the pier, preparing to fight our crew with swords, spears and arrows. Even though our weapons were superior, it was impossible to win a battle against so many enemies. The mobile bridges were lifted, leaving immediately a several meter gap between the wharf and our ship’s hull. I glimpsed a few archers aiming in my direction as I was running along the high roofs, but they were too far away to put me in any real danger.
I realized now that it was too late to go back to the ship directly. The whole area near the harbor was already filling with enemy troops. While running as fast as I could towards the city’s edge, I had to think quickly about a new way out. As seen from the tops of the buildings’ vantage points in the pale, blue moonlight, the whole city, with its long streets intersecting at right angles, looked like a giant board of go. A giant board where I was an isolated stone, trying desperately to find allied connections that would bring me out from the enemy’s deadly encircling trap.
I decided to take an even longer detour, run all the way to the city’s outskirts and arrive at the shore there. Then, I would either steal a boat or jump in the sea and swim towards our vessel until I could reach her safely, far away from the threatening locals occupying the pier. If I wanted to succeed, I needed to move even faster, because more and more shouts and footsteps were audible on the streets below, running parallel with my escape path. I could also glimpse now four or five soldiers trotting on the roof behind me and my only option was to keep racing, no matter how tired I was.
Heavy drops of perspiration were pouring along my face while I was breathing hard from the continuous strain. I had to be thankful for our past military drills, they had built up my stamina to a level where I could cope with such a situation. My strength and endurance gave me hope.
I kept running and leaping from one roof to another, managing to prevent my pursuers from getting too close to me. When I finally arrived at the city outskirts and was ready to jump on the ground and dash towards the sea, I saw in the bright moonlight that Excelsior was already moving away at full speed.
I was still hoping to get a boat, or just swim towards my ship, but the locals had probably anticipated my intention. Several squadrons of soldiers were patrolling now the coast line all the way to the farthest suburbs of the city, and that included the street where I was at that moment.
The tall towers flanking the pier were now full of archers who were shooting burning arrows at Excelsior. However, our vessel was already out of their range, taking opportunity of a light breeze that was blowing from the land. There was no way I could reach the shore undetected. My escape plan had failed and I was too exposed to the islanders’ arrows here, on the rooftop.
For a few moments I considered surrendering to the natives and asking for their mercy but, on second thought, I still did not know what had caused all the trouble. Based on the violence of the battle, they would have most likely killed me if I gave them the opportunity. Probably my people on board Excelsior thought I was already dead. I couldn’t count on their return to save me and, with my pursuers behind, had to improvise quickly a way to survive alone on the Island for a while.
The best option was to move away from the city and try to learn what had happened during my absence from the palace while also staying free in the process. I needed to act fast and make the enemy lose my tracks before it was too late.
I jumped off the last house eaves into a tree, then on the ground, and entered the forest that covered the Island’s slopes. At least here, in the woods, I didn’t have to fear the archers anymore.
A few burning arrows shot from the nearest tower hit the upper branches of the trees above while I was landing, signaling me that the locals knew well my location. I had to make them lose my trail, and I had to do it rapidly. I decided to change my direction of movement towards the inner area of the Island, where I expected to have a better chance to fade away from their sight.
Running through a forest at night, even with such a bright moon shining up in the sky, can be a nightmare. More often than not, invisible branches hit your face painfully and your feet stumble on rocks and roots you can’t see clearly. Yet, I had no choice, I was forced to keep going, gasping for air with my mouth wide open and my clothes drenched in sweat. My heart was hurting inside my chest, its beats felt like a hammer hitting in high cadence the anvil from a blacksmith’s workshop, but I pushed myself to keep running.
Soon I found a narrow alley and my speed increased a little. As I was moving inland, I expected to see myself climbing a gentle slope, but, surprisingly, the road here was descending. A few minutes later, my common sense estimated that I was already below the sea level. My lungs were burning and I felt thousands of needles piercing through the exhausted muscles of my ankles and thighs. Unfortunately, footsteps and voices of several soldiers were still audible behind me, albeit a bit farther away. I was really grateful the locals didn’t have horses. A group of riders would have surrounded me easily, giving me no chance to break away.
I couldn’t allow myself to stop if I wanted to see the Sun rise again the next day. After about half an hour of agonizing run, when the distance from my pursuers had increased by quite a bit, the forest ended abruptly and a large swamp blocked any further advance. I could hear crickets in the tall grass and frog calls coming from inside the water. Far behind the wetland, a rocky mountain ridge reflected the moonlight. I took my chances, plunged inside the march and began crawling towards the thick cane bushes that covered large parts of it. Up to the neck into the muddy water, I prayed that my enemies won’t find me.
I’ve spent the next two days deep inside the march, hidden by the thick canebrakes who were spread all over the place. During this time, I was forced to play against the locals a cruel game of hide-and-seek, with my freedom and survival at stake.
As soon as I got inside the water, I moved away from the bank and concealed myself among the aquatic plants the best I could. The soldiers arrived at the scenes a couple of minutes later, but didn’t follow me through the swamp. The canes and reed looked green and wet, so there was no risk to see them burned down by my pursuers in their attempt to reveal my location.
Apparently, there were some thermal springs here who were pouring their streams into the wetland. The tepid liquid in which I was almost fully immersed helped me keep my body temperature warm enough for the next hours, preventing the onset of hypothermia. There weren’t so many mosquitoes here to torment me and I thanked God for that. Still, to defend myself against their bites, I used mud to cover all my exposed skin from neck, face, and hands, letting it dry and transform into a protective crust. Suffering of thirst, I had to take my chances now and then and swallow in small sips some muddy swamp water. It had a mildly salty taste, but was potable.
Voices were audible from all directions, which meant I was surrounded. On the other hand, it seemed the islanders had no plans to drag me out of the wetland but were waiting for me to come out by myself. I resolved to wait until morning before deciding where to go from here. I found a few roots that could support my upper body above the water and began dozing for a few minutes at a time.
At dawn, I realized the swamp was actually at the edge of a river, a body of water perhaps three hundred meters wide. A huge river below the sea level? Where could such a river flow to? Groups of archers were guarding the outer edge of the march, ready to transform me into a hedgehog if I was foolish enough to try swimming away through there. I could have bet they’d been watching that escape route all night. Staying put had proven to be a wise choice.
After sunrise, the river bank was already full of soldiers. They even brought three light boats and began patrolling the fuzzy boundary between the wetland and the area with free-flowing water. I was appalled by their determination to catch me. Once in a while the men would approach the swamp, rowing back and forth through the narrow canals fenced by cane and reed. However, none of them passed really close to the place where I was currently hiding.
During the day, the march was rather silent, except for the shouts of the soldiers and some frog calls that were audible once in a while. The insects were also rather scarce. I could only see now and then dragonflies with big bluish wings crossing the sky above me. Fish of various shapes and sizes, and occasionally small snakes, were moving back and forth underwater, but all these creatures left me alone. I was either swimming or crawling slowly from one spot to another every time I had a chance to move without being noticed by my hunters. When I wasn’t moving, I tried to conceal myself the best I could inside the canebrake.
The only escape path left for me was towards the other side of the stream. I couldn’t possibly use that route now, but I counted on the archers getting tired of waiting for me there at some point. I continued to change my position every hour or so, staying as close as possible to the middle of the swamp. Fortunately, the mud was not thick and I also found a small wooden log to keep myself afloat from time to time. That allowed me to dry and warm somewhat my upper body.
The boats continued to patrol around and through the wetland for the whole day and I had to conceal myself even deeper inside the cane bushes to avoid being captured. I spent the second night and the following morning in the water, shivering from cold and encircled by my enemies, falling asleep for a few minutes at a time when they were not too close to me.
In the afternoon the sky became cloudy and my shivers worsened. I had to use all my willpower to prevent myself from going out of the water and surrendering to the enemy. Then, after sunset, a heavy rain began. Most of the men chasing me retreated to the bank. I realized immediately that this was my opportunity to escape. Swimming slowly and under the cover of darkness I crossed the river at the beginning of the third night.
The flow had an almost uniform speed and I didn’t encounter any powerful currents. None of the soldiers saw me leaving and none ventured after me, yet, as soon as I was out of the water, I kept walking downstream for another hour before I finally felt safe. Suffering from hypothermia and exhausted from hunger and strain, I fell to the ground and lost consciousness.
Excerpt from "Butterfly's Dream", a novel by Marian C. Ghilea;
photo by Marian C. Ghilea: #Sunset #sky in #Goleta, #California
(c) Marian C. Ghilea, all rights reserved
12 sample chapters (pre-final draft) are available here: http://nivitx.blogspot.com/2017/08/final-proof-reading-novel-almost-done.html
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