The nocturnal insects were rising from their protective hidey-holes, buzzing melodiously as they sought out the shadowed world of the evening in search of freedom and food.
But this natural wonder was quickly overpowered by the thunderous slams of callused hands slapping the tops of animal skin-covered bamboo drums as they pounded out a raucous beat. This was joined by the whistling wail of tribal pipes, in the hands of skilled fighters, not musicians, tempered with the occasional moan to music from the happy and pleasure filled crowds of the tribe.
The trio of Danica, Hayden and Carlos were positioned around a roaring fire, the largest of ten such flaming set ups, with the Chief holding dominion over theirs.
Before dinner, after a quick walkabout of the camp, Hayden had returned and explained the tribe consisted of two hundred and fifty members approximately. The men did the hunting and gathering and the woman and children cared for the camp. The Chief, or Elder as Hayden determined he preferred to be called, was part of a team of four such Elders, each responsible for a portion of the tribes’ political structure. The one who introduced himself to them that afternoon was the oldest and the one having the most authority. When Hayden asked for his age, it was met with amused laughs and heads turning away without answers.
In the centre of their barbeque was a huge spit, suspended over wickedly powerful flames, cooking the council’s dinner.
Female tribe members were decked out in soft draped sheets and feathers, attending to the diners.
Hayden asked Danica if she would feel more comfortable serving them. This was followed by a quick punch to his shoulder with such speed and sharpness it had Hayden holding it tightly for a good ten minutes wishing for Carlos’ healing ability.
Danica looked up at the scorching beast cooking within the blaze as the dancing flickers of fire reached up and licked the animal with tongues of heat, forcing her to grimace. “Please don’t tell me that’s a jaguar.”
Hayden whispered to her. “They’d be very offended if you turned down their food. Trust me when I say it, this is very precious to them. They don’t take a life casually. They either had nothing else to offer or they paid homage to its spirit to thank the animal for its sacrifice.”
Danica shivered with revulsion. “Do they have vegan Gods?”
Carlos chuckled when he overheard. He smiled to Danica. “Try to look past the animal and imagine only the food. It tastes no different than beef.”
Danica sighed. “It better not be offensive to turn down seconds.”
“For a field research biologist, I thought you’d be made of sterner stuff.” Hayden commented.
Danica ignored him, reaching for some corn bread, hoping if they saw her eat enough of it, they would understand her being too full for a fresh slice of jungle cat.
Over the course of the next hour, the tribal women would approach the individual fires, each carrying large clay bowls of ground maize, an Indian corn used in most of their dishes for dipping with cooked tortilla breads. They also served smaller portions of beans, wild rice, sweet potatoes, avocados and surprising to Danica, chocolate.
Danica ravaged many of the individual dishes, finding herself impressed with their combination of wild spices and cooking blends, some with fire, others boiled or the rest pan-fried in peanut oil, creating unique and wonderfully exquisite dishes. She finally choked down a small piece of the jaguar, very thankful Hayden made a gesture to share his plate with her so he could eat most of it knowing her displeasure of having to ingest it. Though it tasted like beef as Carlos suggested, she could not get past it being a feline.
The meal ran for a full two hours, the fire attended to by young teenage men with happy expressions, pleased to be allowed to partake. They all ate, drank and eventually relaxed. Everyone was feeling full and the camaraderie was beginning to build.
The tribal Elder at their fire rose from his log seat. He gestured to a tree trunk, a stool by its cut and design, placed in the ground at his side. He gracefully moved around to come closer to the trio.
Two warriors rose quickly, lifted the stump from its resting place and carried it to where the trio was seated. They placed it firmly before them, allowing for the Elder to take his chair again, regardless of where he moved.
The trio leaned back on their much larger log, shared by them all. It had been brought forward by a series of men before dinner, anticipating this conversation.
Before anyone could speak, the music started low and began to build. Two of the female tribal dancers approached. In seconds, the music gained a feverish pitch as the dancers moved around the large fire, displaying passion and pride in their actions. They came completely around the hot coal pit and took positions to both the left and right of Danica and Hayden. Their bodies were moving in tandem with one another, almost choreographed, waiving their feathers over their heads, lightly tapping each of Danica and Hayden’s shoulders, followed by blowing them both a kiss filled with smoke they had inhaled from handheld pipes passed to them by two other entertainers to the sides. Within seconds, the music ceased and they all vanished into the night from whence they came.
Carlos for the first time since he left London actually felt like a third wheel. “What? No dancing girls for me?”
Hayden turned to him. “Having the whole tribe bow to you was not enough?”
Danica smiled at Hayden’s retort.
Carlos withdrew his complaint with a grin.
Danica turned to Hayden with a look of confusion, coughing into her hand to hide the question. “What’s the dance supposed to mean?”
“Don’t be alarmed.” Hayden held up his hands in surrender. “But I think they observed us sharing our plate and so… they may have just married us.”
Carlos spat up a mouthful of beans he was trying to swallow in his attempt to suppress his laugh.
Danica turned away with annoyance. “You wish.”
“I’m just saying.” Hayden replied. “We’re guests here and we have to respect their traditions. So if consummating the union is a part of their culture, we may have to….”
Danica cut him off with a look. “Praying mantis’s have a tradition too …Want to see if the tribe likes that tradition more?”
Carlos smiled sheepishly knowing the praying mantis was known for killing its mate.
Hayden grinned. “We can talk about it later…. Mrs. Lattimer.”
Danica scowled and then smiled. “Be assured, if I did marry you, it would be you changing your name to Mr. Swift.”
Hayden remembered their discussion back in Carlos’ flat in London during their fight with the Thorne’s twin sons. “So it’s both price and wearing the pants. I can still work with that.”
Carlos laughed aloud, finding himself more entertained than he had been in decades, pleased to have made friends with these two.
The warriors around the fire joined in the hilarity, none having a single idea why they were sounding so joyous.
Danica on the other hand was blushing, moving her face closer to the flames to hide it with the pulsing heat.
The Elder gestured with a slow motion of his right hand. Within seconds the music stopped, as did all the dancing and celebration.
Many of the warriors from the other fire pits had risen and quickly approached, forming a large circle around the sizzling and popping fire pit. All of them stood behind the Elder with them as an audience and him as the circus master.
Hayden raised his hands, gesturing a welcome greeting to them all.
Danica and Carlos followed suit.
The tribe all bowed their heads in acknowledgement, pleased with the respect accorded to them.
The Elder too smiled at the understanding of their ways displayed with such skill, thanks to Hayden.
Danica looked to Hayden before the discussion could begin and whispered. “How can they live like this?” Referring to the tribe and their ancient ways.
Hayden smiled. “Let’s say they’re a proud people and one not easily swayed by the acumen, ’Since everyone else is doing it...” He pointed around. “Plus it’s a hard life maintaining their traditions in a modern world. Personally, I envy them.”
“How so?” Danica asked, genuinely interested, Carlos listening intently.
Hayden was serious for the first time in a while. “They don’t compromise for anyone. They’re their own society and if the world doesn’t like it, they aren’t invited.”
Carlos found it somewhat inspiring himself.
Hayden waved his hand over the entire camp in a symbolic gesture. “There are lots of ancient cultures throughout the world living as they did hundreds of years ago. This group, though small, is not uncommon.”
Danica had traveled the planet, seen many things, but always found the past and its existence in a modern world somewhat perplexing. Interestingly so.
The Elder let them speak amongst themselves, according them equal respect.
Hayden gestured for Carlos and Danica to listen as they were invited guests and their discussions could be had long after the dinner celebration disbanded.
As all activities had ceased, everyone in the tribe was now focused on this fire at this time, wanting to be a part of it.
The Elder rubbed his hands together, crossing his leg over the other. He spoke slowly, knowing Hayden could understand his words, but only if not rushed or in a flurry of their own idioms. He also spoke loudly so all around him could hear.
Hayden looked to the Elder and nodded for him to begin, but explaining he would have to translate his words for his friends who did not share their tongue.
The Elder looked to Danica and Carlos and bowed his head, followed by the words, which Hayden translated. “Too bad they’re so far behind the times.”
Both Danica and Carlos smiled, as did the Elder, both understanding his intro was his idea of a joke.
Everyone around them chuckled lightly, but holding it to a soft minimum with respect for the Elder.
The Elder spoke, slowly at first, but ending quickly.
Hayden turned to Danica and Carlos. “He first wants to thank us for sharing a meal with them. This is a very important tradition to their tribe. I missed a bit, but it’s an old language, like I told you. It’s very much like Mayan, but I can now hear pieces of Olmec and Mixtec in it. In itself, it’s still unique, which I can translate for you, but it may be choppy at points.”
Danica put her hand on Hayden’s shoulder. “As far as I’m concerned, he ordered a pizza, so anything you offer will be brilliant.”
Hayden smiled at Danica, sharing a look. He turned and resumed his conversation with the Elder, returning hand gestures and actions.
The Elder appeared confused at several points, but after a few seconds, he comprehended that Hayden was trying.
Hayden motioned for the Elder to resume.
After the first series, Hayden turned to Carlos. “He wants to welcome you back.”
Carlos looked surprised. “Glad I left a good impression.”
Hayden relayed the response.
The Elder let out a good laugh. “You’re always welcome here. Though it has been a long time, the last time, you were valiant and trustworthy. We take that very seriously and something we do not easily forget.”
“Obviously I do.” Carlos joked. “What happened to me?” It was the only question on his mind.
The Elder frowned. “I’m not surprised you do not remember. You were in poor shape when we saved you from the island. And the….”
Hayden listened for a full second. He gestured for the Elder to repeat it. He took on a quizzical look as it was said again. After a second, he explained to Carlos and Danica. “He advises the island is home to something they call…. the Horror.”
“Great.” Danica’s shoulders sagged.
Hayden turned to her with some confusion. “What’s wrong?”
“I’ve heard the island is inhabited by evil, by darkness and even by monsters. So to now to hear the tribe who guards it calling them the Horror...” Danica sighed. “I don’t know. I was hoping someone, would say the island was inhabited by large cuddle fairies for once.”
“Sorry to burst your bubble.” Hayden responded.
“Hoping and dreaming is still allowed right?” Danica queried nonchalantly.
”Of course.” Carlos answered for Hayden.
Hayden motioned for the Elder to continue, not explaining the side conversation, as the Elder simply presumed it was Danica and Carlos trying to understand what was being said.
The Elder looked to Carlos. “The Horror are many.”
Danica grimaced. “We’re not back on Legion again are we?” Looking to Hayden.
Hayden shook his head. “I doubt they’d understand the concept, but this is what they’re saying.”
“Concept or not, let’s not forget it’s still a single island miles underground in the middle of nowhere.” Danica was a scientific woman and willing to concede some things. “I’m not saying I believe it’s actually Legion, but I will agree what they’re describing could be considered Legion-like.”
Hayden accepted this.
The Elder was still looking at Carlos. “Have you returned for another infusion of the island’s power?”
Carlos turned to Hayden, unsure how to reply.
Hayden reminded Carlos to relax. “Just be honest.”
Carlos nodded. “All I’ve come here for is answers, to discover what happened to me and nothing more.”
The Elder understood. “Having you return is somewhat unexpected. Even some of our bravest warriors will not risk a return to the island, even after only one visit. And many of them only shared a few hours on the island. You were the only man to have ever escaped the island alive after spending the longest time in the Horror’s clutches.”
“The longest time?” Carlos asked with concern. “How long was I… In the Horror’s clutches?”
“Almost eight days.” The Elder stated.
In so much that Carlos was unaware of what the Horror was, eight days did not seem like a lot to have cost him thirty years of his life. “How did I escape?”
“You didn’t.” The Elder replied emphatically. “I dispatched five of our best warriors to the island to find you and bring you out. And luckily for you, they did.”
Danica looked to Carlos, his expression unreadable, while he tried to remember.
The Elder continued. “You were extremely fortunate. It was the time of their great sleep, or otherwise, regardless of our indebtedness to you, you would’ve been lost.”
Carlos took a labored breath. “Indebtedness to me?”
“Yes.” The Elder nodded. “Some of your crew took a fancy to our women, but not a liking to their disinterest. You saved three of our woman by having these men placed in your brig. We do not take such actions lightly. We owed you a great debt for this. And we are a people who repay our debts.”
Carlos was stunned. He was trying to grasp what had happened on the island, but with this, he now understood other memories were lost as well. It was disheartening. “What happened to my crew?”
At this, the Elder’s smile faltered. “Your crew was a remarkable group. Never in our time has anyone been able to capture one of the Horror alive. Your crew did. Even our warriors were shocked.”
“How so?” Carlos asked.
“We presumed none could remove them from the island as the lake is their prison. But your crew not only got it over the lake, but through the caves and as far as your ship.” The Elder sat up straight, almost seeming to solidify into rock. “But our vow is firm. None of the Horror can leave the island, dead or alive. By the time we arrived at your ship, it had already escaped. And as we warned, your ship was totally unprepared for such an enemy. We cornered it on the highest point and dispatched it, taking its remains back to the island.”
“You came aboard and no one interfered?” Carlos seemed baffled.
“Most of your crew was dead at that point.” The Elder stated matter-of-factly. “Any remaining ones were killed shortly thereafter.”
“By the Horror?” Carlos asked.
“No.” The Elder’s face was impassive. “Your Captain was most obsessed with having the miracle of the island for himself. He and the remaining crew were unwilling to leave without one of the Horror. Especially after having lost a third of the crew to the Horror initially, when you first breached the island’s shore.”
Carlos was stunned, as were Hayden and Danica, unprepared for the tribe’s rendition of events. “We lost over a third? That’s almost one hundred and thirty men.”
“Your group was ambitious to steal the prize.” The Elder replied. “And your crew felt no less could secure it. Once they discovered the true danger of the enemy they faced, it was already too late. They were quickly defeated.”
For several long moments, Carlos was taking deep breaths. “But you said most of the crew was dead when you approached the ship. If one third was lost on the island below, what happened to the remaining two hundred and seventy men?”
“It was our duty.” The Elder replied decisively, remaining stoic.
Carlos feared the answer to his next question. “What was your duty?”
The Elder looked to his audience and back to Carlos. “As to the fate of your people, we were forced to kill them all.”
At this, Carlos gasped. He turned to Hayden. “I think I need one of your beers now.”
Hayden reached for his pack.
Danica added, the shock still evident in her eyes. “No kidding. Grab me one while you’re at it.”