On the Mountain of the Sun


It had taken nearly thirty days and no fewer bribes to reach the small Peruvian village of Ispiju Intiq on the day of the Summer Solstice. The fercho back in Cuzco had been the worst of them, offering up freely a great wealth of information about the small village and the Incan ruins that stood above it, until they’d reached their hotel. Then he’d held their luggage hostage, muttering to himself about piña and begging for God’s forgiveness, while he blocked them from opening the trunk.

He forgot all about God and bad luck quickly once Havier offered up a crisp US hundred-dollar bill. The last one in their possession, and hopefully, the last they’d need if they found what the newly discovered ruins a short hike from Machu Pichu had alluded to.

If, of course, Franchesco, who’d translated the Incan carvings, could be trusted.

Marlina eyed him as they stood at the outer edge of the village and gazed up at the ruins clinging to the side of the snow-encrusted mountain. They’d arrived early enough that the rising sun created an amazing show of light against the stony surface, surrounding the village in a golden halo that she could only assume came from a large wealth of pyrite. She should have been staring at the incredible phenomena, basking in the wonder of the Mountain of the Sun’s glory. At minimum, as the foremost geologist on the team, she should have been calculating the age of the rock surrounding them and from which the Incan ruins had been built.

Instead, she stood there in her alpaca wool jacket, her breath creating clouds that floated away into the eerie stillness, and stared at Franchesco as if she could read him through the sweat and dust covering his bronzed, unshaved skin. The fercho had called Franchesco a figureti, which he’d laughed off and refused to translate for them. She had later discovered from a housekeeper that it was not exactly a compliment and Franchesco was not exactly a stranger to Peru or apparently to the fine city of Cuzco.

So, what else wasn’t he telling them?

“Madre de Dios, she’s beautiful,” Havier breathed.

“Oui, magnifique,” Marcel agreed.

Franchesco just smiled, which made Marlina’s pinched expression of worry deepen into an outright frown. No one from the village had come to greet them, nor did there seem to be anyone at home to do so. “Are you sure you’ll be able to talk to the villagers about the inscription?”

All three men turned her way, their smiles faltering for a moment. Franchesco looked out over the village and his smile broadened. “Surely. If they don’t speak Peruvian Spanish, then at the very least it’ll be some form of Quechua. Hopefully, similar to that of Cuzco since we’re within the same region.”

She grunted in reply and wrapped her arms tighter around her soft alpaca jacket. If this place was the gateway to the fabled El Dorado, then she was the aforementioned alpaca’s mama.

Franchesco’s blue eyes twinkled, and he arched a salt-and-pepper eyebrow at her. “Perhaps we should find the chief and make sure, eh? Find us a warm fire and boil us a pot of fresh kaphiy before we head up into the ruins.”

Havier rubbed his gloved hands together, “yes. A hot cup of coffee would be excellent.”

“And some real breakfast,” Marcel agreed. “That stuff at the hotel won’t keep me once we start climbing.”

“Especially with all this gear,” Havier said, gesturing to the overladen llamas behind them and Marcel’s bulging backpack, which mirrored his own. “Where is everyone anyway? You’d think the chief would’ve come to greet us by now.”

“Or told us to go away,” added Marcel with a frown.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about all this,” Marlina offered as they started into the village.

“You’ve always got a bad feeling,” Havier laughed.

“Well, maybe you should too. There’s a reason anyone gone searching for El Dorado hasn’t been seen after,” she huffed, then nodded toward the emptiness before them. “Maybe that’s where the villagers have got off to.”

Havier’s dark eyes snapped to hers, then he pushed past and put her off balance.

Franchesco grabbed her pack before she could fall and set her aright with a laugh. “I think more than one of us could do with some liquid courage or at least somewhat to warm the stomach, eh?”

“Seriously, you’re not concerned the village is empty?”

“Surely, it isn’t completely…” But Franchesco had stopped midsentence, staring out over the village, and frowning more deeply by the second. “Is that a corral over there?”

She followed his gaze and her stomach tied itself in a knot of warning. “It looks like one, but there’s nothing in it.”

“No people. No animals,” he murmured. “Curioso.”

“Curious?” She sputtered, but Havier came trotting back up the path just then, leaving Marcel alone at the bottom of what looked like a staircase carved into the mountain and leading up into the ruins.

“We found footprints leading up to that staircase,” Havier said between deep gasps of air. “They’re fresh. Looks like the whole village went up into the ruins. Took the animals too.” Then he was off, running back through the village to Marcel who had already discarded his pack at the base of the stairs and started climbing.

“Cazzo!” Franchesco exclaimed, “where do they think they’re off to? What if they’re hostile?” And yet, he discarded his own pack and took off after, leaving Marlina alone with the llamas.

She turned to the closest one, who stared back unblinking. “What? I’m not going with them. That’d be stupid. Besides, who would watch you and the…,” but turning back, Marcel had already reached the top and appeared to be waving at her. Then Havier came up beside him and pushed him over the summit where the two disappeared with Franchesco right behind them. “Oh, bloody hell. Watch the gear, will you?”

Despite all the warning bells ringing inside her head, she had to stop at the top of the stairs to catch her breath. The ground stretching out before her was torn with the passage of a multitude, footprints of man and animal so overlapped she couldn’t make one from another or tell how many. She gave a deep sigh. At least she could tell where everyone had gone. Straight over a cliff.

Yet as she got closer, she realized the ground sloped down into a natural bowl that created an amphitheater in which the villagers had assembled. Row on row, murmuring low in words she couldn’t understand, but which melded rhythmically with the distressed calls of the animals on the floor below. A chant of some kind?

“Marlina,” Franchesco hissed from somewhere to the right. “Get down before they see you.”

She found him crouched behind a broken wall, peering down over the edge at the wall opposite the villagers. A gigantic cavern opened into the mountain like a mouth waiting to devour all the animals assembled in front of it. “Where’s Havier and Marcel?”

“Havier took him down to the dais. Look, there.”

Sure enough, Marcel and Havier stood at the edge of the amphitheater floor surrounded by llamas, goats, and sheep, and, she then realized, a small group of huddled elders. Gray-haired women and men who tore at their hair and clothes as if in mourning. “What is…” she turned to ask Franchesco what he thought the people were chanting, but his face had gone deathly pale and her words caught in her throat.

“Matar el hambre,” he murmured. “Matar el hambre.”

For that is what the people were chanting. That and something like “kuika qori” and “ufrinda.” “What is it?” she finally asked, her voice cracking as fear rose like bile.

“Kill the hunger. Kuika qori, kill the hunger. Madre di Dio. They were wrong, Marlina. They mistranslated. I mistranslated. It isn’t cuidad dorado, the city of gold.” He turned, back to the wall, clutching his chest. “El Dorado is indeed a myth, as you said. You must run, Marlina. Run and tell them, it is kuika qori and all who seek it will become the ufrinda, the sacrifice. Tell them, it is not El Dorado, but Il Drago d’Oro! It was on the coin all along.”

With that the sun finally broke over the mountain and the light from its rays illuminated the pyrite and filled the amphitheater with a blinding golden light. Franchesco pushed her and she rose, running blindly for the stairs as a deafening roar rose from the mouth of the mountain.

Behind her, she could still hear Franchesco’s words as over and over he repeated, “it was on the coin all along.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *