The ship passage from New York to Central America had been a long and monotonous voyage. The freighter on which I had traveled carried more cargo than passengers. I had spent the better part of it in my cabin, going over my late father's notes, avoiding the companionship of the others aboard. At the dinner table, the missionary and his inquisitive wife subjected me to many prying questions befitting a young, unescorted woman traveling such a distance alone.
My father, Dr. James Swan, was an archaeologist who had spent his life studying the ancient Mayan Indians in the land I was about to visit for the first time. I felt a sense of excitement as the ship's small crew disembarked upon the Honduran shores of Puerto Lorenzo. The breezy heat of a tropical afternoon filled the air. All around me, I saw the activity of the small, busy port, men loading battered crates filled with hard, green bananas into rusty freighters bound for the States.
I stepped out upon the wharf, searching for the guide who was to meet me. A lone, shady-looking figure in a dilapidated cart watched me with idle curiosity. Something about the stubbled face beneath slouched Panama hat inspired immediate distrust. I looked away, making a silent prayer that he was not my guide.
The missionary and his wife, as well as the rest of the ship's small crew had scattered, leaving me alone upon the wharf. My eyes returned to the cart, which I now noted had been transformed into a carriage. A bench-like seat set in the front over which hung a battered top, protection from burning sun and sudden tropical rains. Two thin, bony horses waited patiently. My heart sank as the burly man in stained shirt and filthy trousers jumped down to claim me. "Swans?" he inquired in a thickly-accented voice, taking in with a look of veiled insolence my pinned hair, dark green travel dress, and lace-trimmed parasol.
"I am Cayo," he introduced with a tip of his hat. The ocean breeze shifted hair, lank and greasy, across his round, sweaty forehead. "Your guide."
He glanced at my single trunk, which waited nearby. "Is this all of your luggage?"
"Yes," I replied, relieved that he spoke fairly good English.
Effortlessly, but with little grace, he tossed my trunk into the dirty carriage. I still clung to the small bag I carried, the one which contained the precious research for my father's book.
"You are a brave Senorita," he said, as he helped me up into the high carriage seat. I could see daylight through the makeshift canvas top. "Not many "Americanos" come to our country these days. Not with all the trouble."
"I thought the fighting had stopped."
"There's always war in Central America," he responded casually. "I was afraid you might not be here." He added with a cryptic look, "The last person I was sent to meet by the ships didn't turn up."
The thought made me uneasy. "Who were you sent for?"
"Don Orlando's son. Don Orlando is a good man, like our Morazon before him. A rich man who gives much money to the poor. The son, he was coming home from his studies in America, but he never arrived."
"What do you think happened to him?"
"He was probably kidnapped by some of Carranza's men as soon as he set foot upon shore." With a careless shrug, he added, "We'll never see him again." He grinned. "But Alan Avery will be happy to see you, yes? Maybe he will give me a big tip."
I did not know much about Central American politics. But I had heard that Justo Barrios, a strong Liberal leader in Guatemala, had been killed in battle last year. Now, in 1885, there was much political unrest in both Guatemala and neighboring Honduras. Carranza must be one of the many would-be dictators anxious to ascend to power. This Don Orlando must have opposed his dictatorship and for his efforts, lost his son.
Alan, so much like my father, would be oblivious to all the political turmoil. He would be too busy studying the Mayan ruins. "How far is the hacienda where Alan is staying?"
"Not far ... but there are mountains to cross. We'll be there by nightfall ... if we don't run into trouble."
"Carranza's men are all over these parts." With a boastful look, he tapped the rusted rifle which lay propped against the seat beside him. "That's why I travel with this."
We left the seaside port behind us, and began riding through lush, tropical lowlands. I felt a sense of excitement despite the exhaustion caused by the long sea voyage and now the stifling, midday heat. For the first time, I was seeing the country my father had spent his life studying. A primitive road had been hacked out of the dense, green jungle. Rich, dank odors of vegetation rose like steam from thick-rooted plants and low trees that threatened to encroach upon our narrow path. The wilderness around us took on a blackish hue, wide leaves blocking out the relentless, yellow sun. I imagined undiscovered ruins lost in that dark jungle, covered with tangled vines, hidden for centuries from human eyes.
My father, sponsored by the Museum of Antiquities in New York, had spent most of his lifetime working on the excavation of Mayan ruins in Copan and the surrounding area. He became intrigued by local legends, and was fascinated by the idea that a Viking ship may have visited Central America in ancient times. He had spent the latter part of his life searching for some proof to back up his theory, sometimes traveling by boat or mule or even on foot to reach distant places where Runic writing or other traces of an early Viking visitation might be discovered.
Father had never allowed me to join him in Central America. He had felt the country far too primitive for a young girl. So, despite my pleadings, he had left me at a private school in the States. Father had died with his research uncompleted, the proof he was searching for never found. Now, Father was gone, and his understudy, Alan Avery, needed my assistance.
For a long time, Cayo and I traveled in silence. The scenery did not change; after a while the expanse of jungle greenness became familiar, even monotonous. My thoughts drifted back to the letter I had received from Alan nearly two months ago ... the letter which had prompted my journey. I drew it from my bag and once more scanned its familiar contents:
"My dearest Marta:
Something incredible has taken place down here. I may be on the verge of discovering an important chain in the Viking-Mayan link! Let me tell you how it came about:
A wealthy Swede who lives down here, Ulrickson by name, invited me to look at some pieces of Mayan art in his private collection. He showed me some splendid items, including some rare Copador vases I tried to purchase for the museum.
We began to talk about the Viking Crown legend. It appears the Indians close to the village in this region have been making replicas of a phantom necklace, an ancient medallion with runic writing and the imprint of a jeweled crown ... perhaps the same jeweled crown of the Viking legend! I am going to start searching for more information about the medallion. Where there are replicas, someone must have seen the original.
But there's more.... I was walking along the sea cliffs on this Ulrickson's property, when I discovered some incredible Mayan ruins, high upon the cliffs. Marta, you must see them! Mayan paintings of bearded men in boats with serpentine bows. But more important still, I came across a huge stone with strange writing upon it nearby, which might very well be a genuine runestone! If the stone is authentic, I may have found the very proof your father spent his life searching for! I was not able to study the stone for a guard made me stop and return to the house.
There are no words to explain my excitement. I believe that this area near Quetzal could be the very spot where the Vikings first arrived by sea. You must come down and see all this for yourself. Let me know when you can arrive and I will send a guide to meet you. I have temporarily taken a hacienda near the village of Quetzal, but the way is quite primitive. While I wait for your arrival, I will begin asking some questions around about the medallion.
Can you believe it has been almost two long years? I can not wait to see you again, my dearest one.
All my love,
I lingered over the endearments at the ending of the letter, imagining Alan's green eyes, lit with excitement over the grand possibilities of this find. Although I had never been down to Central America, I had been trained by my father in the skills of research and archaeology. I had provided the background for the many articles on the Mayans, which, after Father's death, had been published under Alan's name. Widely thought among our friends and acquaintance was the belief that Alan and I would someday marry; perhaps Alan and I had even grown to expect this ourselves, though neither of us had ever spoken of it. At any rate, we had the same goal, finishing Father's work. And we made a productive team; Alan with his ambition, I with the wealth of archaeological background a sonless father had bestowed upon his only daughter. Alan wanted the fame and glory, the prestige that proving my father's theory would bring him; I wanted only the recognition of my father's brilliant work.
Alan and I had corresponded regularly, but it had been two long years since we had seen each other. He must miss me as I missed him. I was anxious to see the Mayan ruins, the mysterious stone Alan had spoken of in the letter. Surely, under the circumstances, Father would have approved of my traveling down here to help carry on his research. There was no one else but Alan and I to carry on his goal. And Alan needed me!
The stifling heat was cooled by a gentle breeze as the carriage began to wind around sloping mountainsides. I could smell a steamy dampness in the air. The narrow road was knife-marked with ruts and gullies from recent washouts that made the carriage bounce and jog. I held on to the wooden seat, concerned that Cayo was driving the horses too fast. In places, the body of the carriage scraped against rocks and high piles of wet earth from a recent rain.
As we climbed higher into the mountains, feathery clouds descended, blocking out the burning sun. Almost without warning, drops began to pound steadily upon the carriage top.
"The rainy season," Cayo explained. "Always rains in the afternoon. It'll soon be over." Water drizzled in through holes in the canvas, dampening my hair and clothing. "I've been meaning to get that top fixed," Cayo said, rain dripping from the brim of his hat. I opened my parasol. He pointed to a nearby clearing. "We're almost there."
By the time we reached the clearing, true to his word, the rain had stopped. A short time later, Cayo slowed the carriage in front of an ugly, sprawling adobe building with pink, faded walls, which rested against the gentle slope of a hill. "The hacienda." I tried not to let the disappointment I felt register in my expression. I had expected the accommodations to be primitive. But something else besides the crudeness of the lodgings made me feel increasingly wary. Then I knew what it was. Not only was there not a soul in sight, but I saw no sign of a horse or carriage. The place seemed totally deserted!
I stepped toward the entrance, noticing with uneasiness that the glassless windows reflected empty rooms. "Alan?" I called, approaching the doorway, though I could tell that no one was inside. A field rodent scuttled across the threshold. It didn't look as if anyone had been living here for a very long time.
I had set out on my journey with such high hopes. How wonderful, the thought of seeing Alan again and being able to examine the evidence he had discovered that would give my Father's life work an ending full of meaning and impact. I had left New York with happy resolve which melted slowly and horribly as I stared at our vacant meeting place.
Why wasn't Alan here? Or if he had to be away, why hadn't he left word with my guide? Visions of disaster for him rose in my mind. I told myself emphatically, to control my shaking, that Alan had simply found a better place to live, no doubt in the nearby village. Of course he had written to me of his move, but with the mail being so slow, I had left before the news reached me. I clung to this hope, but in the back of my mind fears began to form. I thought of the political unrest, of Don Orlando's son who had disappeared, probably kidnapped and murdered, the moment he stepped from his boat. But who would want to harm Alan, an archaeologist?
I turned back to Cayo. "When did you last see Alan?"
He moved his fingers as if counting the days or weeks. "Over a month ago." His gaze roved over the deserted building with narrowed eyes, disappointed, as if missing the anticipated tip.
"You haven't seen him since?"
Cayo shrugged. "I don't come down this way unless I have to." Cayo began to unload my trunk.
"What are you doing?" I demanded.
"You're here." he said simply.
"But Alan's not. The place is deserted. You can't just leave me out here alone like this!"
His look said that he could, but my insistence stopped him. "You must take me to the nearest village." Surely, I would find someone who knew Alan's whereabouts there. "I'll pay you well."
Even this promise did not bring the cheerful agreement I expected. Something, despite the offer of money, was making him hesitate. I saw a trace of fear in his eyes. "I don't like to go this close to the border."
"You know I can't stay alone here." I reached into my bag and drew out some bills, a generous amount of them. I felt a great sense of relief as a greedy smile spread across his rough features.
"I'll take you to the village," he said, settling the matter.
A light sprinkling began once more. We began to travel a path that followed a narrow river, made sluggish and muddy by the rain. The way was pitted with rocks and pot-holes, difficult to see in the waning afternoon light. Cayo began driving faster than ever, urging the poor, tired horses almost beyond their endurance.
The carriage bounced over a rain-washed gully trickling with water. Up ahead loomed a dark, empty expanse ... another wide, deep place where the road had been washed out. "Watch out!" I cried, but my warning came too late. The ditch was too wide for the cart's heavy frame. I heard the frightened whinny of the horses as the carriage lurched into the air, pivoted wildly, and landed, wheels spinning, in a deep ditch to the side of the trail.
Shaken, but not injured, I stepped from the trapped carriage. I inspected the mud-embedded wheels, which at least were not loose or broken. We might be able to push the carriage out of the ditch. I would offer what help I could to get us back on the road.
The rain had stopped, but dampness loosened the neat topknot I had made of my long, blonde hair, making wet strands of it fall around my face. Mud rose to the tops of my new laced-topped shoes.
I looked out at the green, wet expanse of jungle forest that surrounded us. An eerie twilight stained the sky, bathing the low peaks of the distant mountains in a dusky glow. Alan had written of how darkness fell all of a sudden between the mountains.
The air had grown chilly with the rain and increasing altitude. I tried not to think about the possibility of our being stranded out here, only hours away from nightfall.
Cayo was busy working with the two horses, finally freeing them. "We'll go on from here on horseback," he said, still kneeling, studying the mud-embedded wheels with a shake of his head. "I will come back for the carriage."
The uncanny stillness was broken by the snapping of twigs as some animal or human disturbed the underbrush nearby. Cayo heard it, too. He turned, a startled, half-sick look upon his face.
Wet leaves parted just a few steps away from us. The tramping of feet, the sound of voices speaking in Spanish made my heart pound rapidly in my chest. A form emerged from the bushes, then another.
"Who are they? I turned to whisper to Cayo. I saw him bring a finger to his chest, forming the sign of the cross. He rose, stumbling awkwardly, and began to run. I stood watching his grimy shirttail disappear into thick foliage. The startled whinny of a horse, the thunder of hooves running away followed. The rusty rifle that had been propped against the carriage had also disappeared, undeniable proof that my guide had abandoned me.
Before I could hide myself in the underbrush, six men ... soldiers? ... dressed in black boots and ragged bits and pieces of military clothing moved in a rough semi-circle to surround me and the stranded carriage.
A small, wiry man, long brown hair tied back with a leather thong, stepped toward me. An unconcealed gun hung from his belt, and strapped across his chest against his sweat-stained, brown shirt was a round of ammunition. "Papers," the man demanded in English. He waited. His eyes were small and hard like dark beads. The jagged edges of a thin scar marked his forehead, disappearing into the scalp.
My mouth felt dry. Surely, these must be Carranza's men, the men Cayo feared we might encounter.
"You want to see my papers?" I had never felt more fear. I pressed my lips together to stop their trembling.
He nodded. He held his hand outstretched as if to emphasize his demand.
"In here." Dutifully, I handed him my small bag.
"Who are you?" I asked, struggling to keep my voice calm.
I glanced behind him, my eyes scanning the surly, ragged men that encircled me. A huge machete glinted from the belt of the nearest one. Across the shoulder of another, a man with cruel eyes and pock-marked face, dangled a battered rifle. Revolutionaries!
Scenes of rape, torture, death by firing squad flashed through my mind. My only hope was to feign ignorance. "Are you lawmen?"
No answer. I saw him pass my bag without even a glance at its contents, to one of the men behind him. Laughter followed, words in rapid Spanish that I did not understand. I did under--stand that these men were not likely to be interested in my father's research papers. Looks of disappointment registered on many faces as the bag passed from man to man until it reappeared in the hands of the leader.
He returned it to me. The smile on his face revealed a small space between his front teeth, a leering smile that defined some corrupt intention. Instinctively, I backed away.
My only hope was to try to bluff them. Out of the corner of my eye, I searched for some sign of the second horse, which had also run away. "As you can see, our carriage has broken down. My guide has gone for help. He will be back shortly." To stop the shaking in my voice, I paused. "I believe I will go to meet him."
Head held high, I lifted my muddy skirts and began to walk slowly away, praying silently that they would let me go. If I could get some distance away from them, maybe I could find the missing horse and catch up with Cayo, who might still be hiding nearby.
What if they began shooting at me? The muscles in my chest tightened at the thought, making it difficult to breathe. I would have to take that chance. I shuddered to think about my situation, about what being alone at the mercy of six armed men in this isolated place could mean.
Gusts of laughter followed after me as I walked proudly away. I realized what a bedraggled sight I must seem with my loose, tangled hair and muddy skirts.
"Where are you going, pretty Americano?" A rough hand clamped my wrist and forced me to turn to face the leader. "I think the coward guide has deserted you."
I watched the slow broadening of his ugly smile. "He has left you here for us."
The grip of his fingers momentarily paralyzed me. When I did attempt to break loose, he regarded me with the easy confidence of a cat bent upon torturing a helpless mouse, a cat that knows it has all the time in the world to make its kill. The others, grinning, ragged, moved forward, surrounding us, blocking off any avenue of escape.
Trembling, I at last managed to jerk my arm away from him. I clutched my bag against my breast, as if it could somehow offer magic protection against the assault of hands or bullets. I could see my fate in his eyes. He surely intended to rape me, then let one of his men cut my throat! I closed my eyes, steeling myself for the worst.
The sudden rustle of brush close by was followed by angry splashes of hooves into mud and water. Relief rushed over me. Cayo had come back for me. Or Alan!
The tall form I stared up at was neither my guide nor my friend and co-worker. I met the flashing dark eyes of a stranger, aristocratic, proud. He uttered one word as if it were a curse, "Sanchez!"
I saw the small eyes widen and constrict in Sanchez's dark face as the man on horseback reigned between me and my tormentors, forcing the men to scatter.
As Sanchez stepped back, his hand strayed toward the gun at his belt, but a sharp command from the newcomer made him think better of drawing the weapon. Words of terse, angry Spanish flowed between them. I thought I heard the name Ulrickson intermingled with words I could not understand. Ulrickson ... wasn't that the name of the private collector Alan had written about in his letter?
Whoever this Ulrickson was, the name seemed to inspire a sense of obedience, respect, even a flash of fear among Sanchez and his men. No one made a move to stop the stranger as he swept me up beside him on the black horse.
I thought about my trunk lying in the carriage, but I was glad that I still held my bag containing Father's papers, which even now seemed as important to me as my own life. My free hand held tightly to his sturdy frame. As we galloped away, neither Sanchez nor any of his men made a move to follow. But where was he taking me?
I might have been afraid of him if not for the eyes, large, thick-lashed, somehow discerning as glanced back at me, as if to reassure me that everything was all right.
The rough fabric of his brown jacket seemed like some sort of uniform. My gaze fell to the gun strapped to his belt. Not knowing if he could even speak English, I asked, "Does everyone around here carry a gun?"
The hint of a smile that crossed his lips in profile gave him away. "There are times when a gun is quite ... necessary," he replied in perfect, unaccented English.
"Thank you. For rescuing me. Were ... were those Carranza's men?"
"When the money is on his side, so are they." He gave a derisive laugh. "Sanchez and his men are a ragged band of local mercenaries. Sanchez likes to think of himself as a spokesman for the poor. In truth, he is little more than a common thief."
I studied his profile, the dark lashes, the straight noble look of his features. Maybe it was the fact that he had come to my rescue that made me think he was one of the most handsome men I had ever seen. Thick, black hair, not long, but stubborn, unruly, fell across his forehead in dark waves. Once again I noticed that the coarse jacket, casually unbuttoned at the throat, looked like a sort of uniform. "Are you a soldier?"
The shadow of a mustache made his teeth seem even whiter as he turned back to smile at me. "No. I am Ramon Santiago ... a guard. For a man they call the Viking. I will take you to his villa. He will put you up for the night."
"The ... Viking?"
"Thane Ulrickson. But he's called the Viking around here."
The jogging gait caused me to cling more tightly to him. The road twisted upward until a dark, towering castle came into view. As we drew closer, I saw that it was constructed of black, volcanic rock.
Ramon drew to a stop at the thick, wooden gate, which two men immediately swung open. My eyes strayed to the immense wall, also made of lava, to the barbed wire and jagged bits of broken glass along the top. The villa he had spoken of looked much more like a fortress.
A fortress that it was Ramon's job to guard. He looked so very different from the two guards who greeted us, shoddy-looking men, comparable to those who accompanied Sanchez. Ramon spoke to them in Spanish, laughed at something one of them said, and continued on. A servant waiting at the stables took charge of the black stallion.
"I am Marta Swan," I said after we had dismounted and began walking toward the mansion, which rose two stories, with a tower room straight above the front entrance. Balconies framed by twisted iron posts ending in high sharp points made the rooms behind them seem ugly and formidable.
"I am from New York," I told him. "I'm down here looking for a friend, Alan Avery. He was staying at a hacienda near Quetzal, but I found the place deserted this afternoon." Again, worry over Alan, delayed over fears for my own safety, resurfaced. It's been two months since I last heard from him. I was on my way to see if I could locate him in the village when Sanchez and his men appeared and my guide deserted me."
I thought I saw a flash of recognition cross Ramon's face at the mention of Alan's name. "Do you know Alan? He mentioned something in his letter about stopping by to see Mr. Ulrickson about some pieces of Mayan art."
Ramon hesitated. "There are so many people that come and go at the Viking's house. He's a man that must be surrounded by company." With a look of disapproval, he added, "He even entertains Sanchez."
The thought brought fearful memories of Sanchez's leering face, his thin fingers locked on my wrist. As if reading my thoughts, Ramon quickly reassured me, "Sanchez will not bother you with the Viking around. You will be perfectly safe here."
"What's going to happen to my luggage? Everything I value except for my father's work is in that trunk."
"Don't worry," he said with a confident shrug of broad shoulders. "I'll send someone back for it."
"And the horse...."
"Do not worry about the horse. It will find its way back to its owner." His lips curled into a rueful smile. "And if it does not, perhaps it will have a better life. Most local villagers would welcome the sight of a horse to share his burdens." Ramon stopped walking, as if to delay our entrance into the house. I followed his gaze up the sharp slope of a nearby hill. I could make out distant heaps of volcanic rock. I had never seen anything like the barrenness the dark mounds of porous lava created.
"Honduras is volcano land," he said. "Not many use the lava rock for building, but you'll find the Viking is a bit ... eccentric."
"Eccentric?" I felt a little shiver of apprehension. The way Ramon said the word made me wonder if it wasn't just a charitable synonym for "mad."
"Don't worry. He's perfectly harmless, even though some of the natives are afraid of him. He's just a little ... obsessed, caught up with the local legends that the Vikings once visited here, in Central America. That's why the locals call him the Viking. Or some call him Quetzalcoatl."
I felt a little catch of excitement. The Indian god, half-bird, half serpent, was mentioned often in my father's notes. I thought of Alan's letter. The ruins with the unique drawings and the runestone must be somewhere on these very grounds.
"Legends are found in all corners of Latin America about a light-skinned, reddish-bearded man, venerated as a god, who the Indians called Quetzalcoatl," he ventured to explain for my benefit.
"Yes, I've heard of him. The original Quetzalcoatl was said to have brought a new culture to the Indians, ideas for a new way of life."
As surprised by my knowledge of the subject as I was of his, he added with arched brow, "Some of the legends say Quetzalcoatl appeared by sea long before the arrival of the Spaniards, which is where the idea that he may have been a Viking came from. Some of the local natives believe that Ulrickson is a descendant of the original Quetzalcoatl because of his Norse ancestry, his reddish-gold beard. Mr. Ulrickson is pleased by the comparison. The illusion of being a living legend delights him."
Confused by Ramon's royal bearing, by his wide knowledge, I began wondering how he could possibly be only a hired guard for the eccentric man of which he spoke. Curiosity about my host was mingled with apprehension. What if this Thane Ulrickson turned out to be stark-raving mad? Before we reached the door, courage quickly drained from me and I turned to Ramon for reassurance. His eyes were shadowed, his expression unfathomable. "Now you must come in and meet the Viking," he said.