Thursday, March 1, 2012

Eden, part II

Musa had prospered. Throughout the homelands, he learned at his father's side the way of the stars, and the paths of the spirits of the sky. He was taught how to find the direction of Mecca no matter of where he may find himself, to pray daily, and one day know the path to follow for his holy journey of Hajj.

Yet these days, he walked little but south and west, further away from the holy city with each step. Musa never lost direction, and always learned the ways of the land... an anthill here, a sinkhole there, a wolves tracks in the forest. These were all the same in the plains, the desert, and even the sea-lands in the far north, but these new silent lands beyond-the-western-sea best resembled those of the south. He had never seen the kingdom of Kongo, but he knew a slave in Elmina from the deep forests of the south were the stars were strange.

It was the stars he feared the most in this land. Each night, he looked for his familiar patterns, and each night throughout the journey in the jungled hills, the pole star sank closer to the northern horizon, while unknown pattens grew in the south. When the north star disappeared, Musa knew that he would at last be lost. Perhaps this is where the world did end.

Until that day came, the Spaniards would not know that Musa was anything less than their tracker, their leader in the forests. Since penetrating the interior, Musa's skill became more evident by the day, and in the last weeks, he rose from a porter to often leading the party in search of... whatever Colon had told them to.

The Admiral's fanaticism had worsened, according to the older sailors (who all long begrudged the mountains), and the crown's placing total control of the Western Islands in the hands of Colon had tied his madness to a dangerous amount of power.

Admiral Colon's first westward voyages brought passports and greetings to the great kings of India and Cathay to cement Spain's power over the Ocean Sea. However, while these remained a titular reason for fortress ports in la Navidad and la Isabella, Colon's mission had taken a religious zeal which frightened all his men. Musa's continued life was the product no more than an oversight of the priests at la Isabella, to whom he had shown enough knowledge of Moses and Jesus to avoid execution upon arrival (indeed, many unfortunate Jews, Mohammedans, and "false Christians" discovered the horrific fates of the Inquisition had followed the fervor across the sea).

Many of the first missions to the interior were disasters-- men were lost, cut down by disease, or simply stole themselves into the forest. Musa's own group had made three successful incursions, mapping rivers, distance to the mountain range, and the places to avoid. But the emissaries to the Great Khan eventually stopped when the Admiral told the men of their divine destiny: to find the land of Eden from which mankind had fallen.

"Through my holy work of finding this land," Colon had told his increasingly wary lieutenants "only then shall the Christ return to make Heaven and Earth whole-- to purge the blasphemers from the land and celebrate the true glory of the Lord."

And so, they set out to find the Garden of Eden.

The forest itself was unnerving in its peacefulness-- too quiet, too safe. The flies and mosquitoes were a perennial irritant, and disease was always a danger, but this land had a curious lack of beasts-- another forest would hold the cackling of monkeys, or a cat stalking the men at night, but the crew had yet to see anything larger than a parrot. In addition to the West, the Empty Lands, and Eden, some had come to calling these the Mountains of Birds, for lack of any other creature present.

The mountains themselves were not difficult-- the Basques boasted of higher peaks in their homeland. Running parallel to the coast-- west, and then veering southwest, the peaks were largely forests plagued by daily rains of the tropics for which the Spaniards had no taste. Musa's path was bringing them generally south, away from their ad hoc port through what appeared to be a pass some thirty leagues from the shore. The forests were thick and unyielding to the mammalian trespassers, demanding that a foreguard of men hack at the branches and vines with swords (the hauberks long ago proved to be useless in close quarters).

While many pushed on through the brush under duty, some of fear, a small number did share the Admiral's fervent enthusiasm for their mission. It was these Believers who were the most insufferable; in adulation of Colon, they were his eyes during the rangings into the wild, making Musa suspicious of each movement at best, and nervous at worst. At times, he wondered as to his purpose in seeking out that which was beyond the mountains, since the Believers incessantly told of the gloried gardens in the high mountain peaks-- beyond these "foothills," the mountains would grow higher, and the air more pleasing.

"Mohammedan, come here!" one of the foreguard barked. While Musa was the effective leader of the expedition, the sailors gave him only a begrudging allegiance of necessity. Pushing through the narrow path cleared by the small party head of him, the sky opened, almost setting him back with the brightness of sunlight  upon exiting the canopied jungle. The forest had given way to a large pond, perhaps half of a league wide.

"Miguel, you've found a lake." Musa said disinterestedly. "It is a pretty one, yes, but we are looking for the mountain pass, not a fishing hole, my friend. Let's find a way around this, providing that you did not also discover a boat."

Miguel spit into the muddy soil. "I'm not your friend, Guinea-man. And we have already circled it while you and the other heathens plotted at our backs. The pass is now behind us."

Musa scanned the southwest horizon over the lake, embarrassed that he did not see that the land had stopped sloping. Behind to the forest, the tree cover gently sunk from an apparent peak which they had must have recently crossed.

"Very well-- this is likely the open lands for which you have been looking. We will make camp here, and if supplies are enough, push forward at the dawn."

"We will do no such thing by your orders," the Believer replied, now being joined by four companions "you may have gained our good Admiral's trust, but we know you for the snake you are. We push forward."

Musa knew the mistake of taking on the uncharted lands while the dusk approached, but for his leadership in the rangings, he was never permitted a blade larger than a small knife. The returning foreguard of zealots each carried at least one sword, and likely an unseen friend hid a crossbow.

The march continued through the night at a cripple's pace. When the evening rains began (a sad feature of the local climate), the small pathways which the team cut the forest turned to muddy rivers, causing every third man to fight to keep their well-worn boots. When they did stop, it was near midnight before a camp was ready, and before many men had time to close eyes, it seemed the time to strike and continue with the rising sun had come.

On the second day, Musa was bound at the wrists again. The Believers had little tolerance for daily prayers.

On the third day, the slope of the land plunged to the south. Now scaling down the opposite side of the mountain range, the supply chain to the now-distant beachhead had grown thin, causing many of the men to grumble that fishing at the pass-lake had not been a bad idea. Following a growing river which tumbled from their pond, more than once, a man had been swept down in the rapids, but for the most part, the southern ridge was simply miserable-- more rain, faster pace, and less-than-competent leaders. The forest silence remained.

Now following at the back of the van with the other porters, news of the discoveries at the front of the path were slow-coming. The last four days when the river turned into a swamp was the slower still. Most of the other slaves had come from lands which Musa had never heard of, let alone seen, and spoke little of the languages which he knew. Signal had seemed to come a few hours before sunset that the greater mass of the party had come to a halt, which to the relief of many sailors and slaves indicated an early rest for today's march. As the rest of the porters hurried to catch up to the body of the men to build camp for the evening, two soilders were running back to meet them.

Without words or struggle, they seized Musa as he dropped his parcels and raised bound wrists. Half-dragging, half-carrying the former guide ahead of the slowing party, men looked at him in confusion and frustration as he passed. The forest was beginning to open once more as the scent of the air abruptly changed. The swamps to his right had begun to open to a larger, clearer body of water when he realized that the great country of Eden would not be waiting. He stumbled and hobbled up a small hill as the men threw Musa over the top. The grasses sloped into open sand for the first time in a month where Miguel and two others waited.

The second Believer spoke first "You led us in a circle, you fool!"

Musa calmly looked up and then down the strand. "This is not the same ocean, friends. When we arrived, the sea was to the north-east, now it is south. Maybe it is your imagined country which is mistaken."

Someone behind him grumbled "I've had enough of this." For a moment, Musa was immediately considererd three questions: who said that? what was that ffft! sound? who punched me in the back?

He stumbled forward to the sea. Miguel and his friend smiled and said something in a language he did not know while he wondered if the blow to the small of his back caused his to release his bladder as he felt a warm liquid trickle down his legs.

The speakers are mumbling now... why are they so quiet? He fell to his knees and then onto his face. This is no lake, it tastes like the sea. Is this the same sea from home? The warm ocean water embraced Musa as he relaxed and rested into the tide.

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