A City Above The Clouds

Ciudad Perdida Sierra Nevada

Chengu shifted his weight silently. His naked feet grasped the undergrowth as he slipped to his haunches and waited, patiently. Insects crawled across his sweat stained back, he ignored them. He was used to the insects, they were a part of the forest, just one more part of his life he had grown to accept. The sun slanted low through the tangled foliage, twisted vines and moss-covered boulders guarding the forest’s secrets. Only a mad man would try to penetrate this jungle without a guide. In one hundred years there was one thing the Tayrona tribes had come to accept, The Spaniards were mad. Mad for gold, more gold than they could possibly carry, more gold than even a God could have use for.

It had started when Chengu’s grandfather was still a boy. The Spaniards had come in their tall ships, landed upon the coast and began to build a camp, they had no intention of leaving. The Spaniards had asked much of the tribes on the coast, they had taken food, supplies, gold jewellery and, eventually, the women. The tribes organised and sent a war-party into the Spanish encampment, they meant to drive the Spaniards into the sea. The warriors had lined up, whooping loudly, calling upon the gods for help and, as a mass of flesh and bone, charged towards the Spanish lines. What followed had taken less than an hour. The Spaniards held their camp, the warriors died by the thousands, trampled by four-legged monsters and blown asunder by lightning.

Sporadic resistance had continued for years but always it was the same, the Spaniards were invincible. Disease had racked Chengu’s people, tens of thousands had died. Those remaining on the coast had become servants, slaves and traitors, to be forever despised. The few tribes who continued to resist had fled deeper into the jungle, to a city of stone hidden high up in the mountains. The city had become the stuff of legend, the Spaniards referred it simply as ‘El Dorado’ and believed it to be filled with riches, they had been merciless in their attempts to learn of it’s location. Entire villages had been raised, the inhabitants roasted alive, crucified or put to the sword. Chengu knew that if the Spaniards made it to the city, the Tayrona way of life would be no more. He fingered his stone club, it was nearly time.

Through the trees, he could see them. Eight big men in shining armour, two atop horses, six struggling through the mud. Thirty slaves from the coast were with them, traitors, so afraid of the Spaniards that they would rather fight for them than fight against them. Chengu could make out the others in the trees, solitary warriors, all of whom he trusted with his life, ready to pounce, eager to fight. The tribes had learnt the hard-way that if they were to have any chance of overwhelming their foes, they had to come from all directions at once. Chengu had less than a minute left to act, if he gave the command he knew his men would fight but he suspected it would be in vain. If however he allowed the Spaniards to continue on this path then, very soon, they would stumble across the steps leading to the hidden city, the city which he was sworn to protect.

Chengu alerted his men using the call of the Aracari bird, he had made up his mind. He looked to his left, his brother, a thick golden pendant around his neck, met his gaze across the thick of the jungle, his eyes blazed. A single mosquito buzzed lazily in front of him, unaware that a river of blood would soon be available. The Spaniards were arguing, the two on horses seemed unsure of how to move their beasts further through the jungle, it was as good a chance as he would ever get. Chengu breathed deeply, coiling his muscles and preparing. leaping over a rotting log, he whooped out loud and charged towards the Spaniards. Twenty metres. The Spaniards looked up quickly, cursing, pulling at their swords. Fifteen metres. Chengu saw a rush of bodies moving through the jungle, a wave converging from all sides, ready to crash down upon the Spaniards. Ten metres. A huge Spaniard, mounted atop an enormous black war horse, pulled something from his  side. Five metres, nearly upon them now, Chengu heard, too late, the crack of thunder, followed by another, and another. His warriors began to fall, not yet within reach of the Spaniards.

And suddenly, without warning, he was in front of one. The closest he had ever been. He could smell the sweat, the stale wine, the reek of unwashed flesh upon the man. He was close enough to touch. Chengu swung his club down, down, down upon the monster, aiming to break his skull. A crack and a pain unlike any he had ever known coursed up Chengu’s arm, his club had broken upon the man’s helmet, smashed asunder. He cursed and pulled at his knife with his good arm. The Spaniard reeled towards him, drunk and stunned, swinging wildly with his razor sharp blade. They danced together, the cries of the dying already on the wind. A warrior with jet-black hair and a fine Jade necklace pulled at Chengu’s arm, saving him from another wild swing. Whooping loudly, the warrior stepped in front of Chengu, stabbing at the Spaniard with a lance of hardened palm wood. The lance splintered loudly upon the Spaniards chest, almost instantly Chengu’s saviour was cut from his collar-bone to his groin, he died instantly. The Spanish were regrouping, the slaves forming the perfect barrier whilst they reloaded their weapons. Another crack of thunder, this time coordinated, and a dozen more warriors fell. Chengu turned, giving the call to retreat, warriors peeled off in ones and twos, racing in all directions through the jungle as a hail of darts and spears, almost useless against the Spaniards armour, covered their retreat. Chengu grabbed his brother by the arm and ran, nearly at the log now, nearly safe. He heard a final volley of thunder and felt a burning pain in his neck. The ground rushed up to meet him as he stumbled, falling hard. He lay upon his side, blood seeping into the ground, watching a brightly coloured Toucan fly from the battle. His spirit soared as he left the world.

Cut-Rock saw his brother fall, saw a river of blood spurt from his neck. He raced on, this was no time for helping the wounded. The shamans must be told, the chieftains warned. He raced through the jungle for half a day until he arrived at the steps leading to the city, the city above the clouds. Tired, caked in blood and sweat, he pounded up the steps, wasting no time. The council was waiting, already assembled. “Chengu”, it was a question, Cut-Rock shook his head, the grief welling up within him but not yet ready to be shown. “They will find the city” he heard himself say. Arguing, shouting, the crying of babies, the news seeped into the crowd like a bad smell, overwhelming them with disgust. They argued, they talked, ideas were proposed, battle plans drawn up and dismissed. The shamans chanted loudly, soaring in the spirit world, consulting with the Gods. Cut-Rock watched them as they danced and weaved, flapped their arms and stared into space, forever chanting, their bright feathers and golden decorations gleaming in the sun.

Finally, a decision was reached. The tribes were to split up, to head higher into the mountains, to even more remote, even more secretive cities. The Spaniards had won, the city could only remain safe if the tribes were to abandon it. Families began to drift off, the Tayrona way of life was done, the mountains empty. The tribes melted deeper into the mountains, up steep cliffs and through thundering valleys, never again to be seen by the Spaniards. The city gathered moss, the steps grew slick as the forest reclaimed the high places, the holy alters, the burial chambers filled with gold. Soon, not even the Tayrona tribes knew of it’s location. The city, forever hidden by the clouds, the rivers, the jungle itself, faded into myth… It would remain hidden for hundreds of years.

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