Preserves–Excerpt from ‘The Hangman’s Valley’
by Eland Robert Mann
Amazingly, Robin’s ribs were healed. He was awake after a sound sleep, lying in bed alone and feeling not a wince of pain. He gently pushed each of his ribs with his fingers, feeling for a tender spot and finding none. He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. He coughed heartily and felt only strength. Robin wondered how such a drink, unheard of and mysterious, had healed him so quickly. Don Alvarado, the old woman and Peter had helped him, and he was grateful. Feeling healthy, he realized he was very awake, and very hungry. He started wondering how long he had been in these underground rooms, and if Sister had been looked after. He thought of the western road, and the sun, golden like the hair of the injured girl, and they called his being. But before he could go, he thought, there was still the question of his connection to someone called the Prince.
The door opened and the hairy brute Don Alvarado called Marcos walked in beside Peter holding a lantern that illuminated their excited faces.
“Birdy, thank God. You look much better. Here, you must eat,” said Peter, smiling pleasantly and in a good mood.
Marcos had a tray in his hands, loaded on top with a plate of bread and cheese, and what looked to be a glass filled with plain fresh milk, mercifully white and not red. Marcos passed the tray to Robin as he sat up quickly, aching to fill his empty belly.
“Thank you, Marcos,” Robin said. Marcos grunted back a response and walked out of the room.
Peter stood over Robin and watched the boy dig into the food. The staleness of the bread went unnoticed by Robin, who smothered it with strawberry preserves that accompanied the cheese, eating until he licked his sticky fingers.
“This is the nourishment you need, little spring Robin. You must finish the food, because Don Alvarado will ask something of you, and there must be strength in your little body, yes? The drink has amplified your hunger.”
Robin nodded in agreement as he drank a mouthful of milk.
“Hah! You already are finished, I think? You eat like me; very good.”
The food and drink worked its way into his belly, stimulating his need for answers.
“Sister?” he asked, swallowing the last of the milk.
“Your horse? She is spoiled princess, now, I think. You were a very naughty boy not to feed and brush her before you started your drinking, but we take good care. Marcos is most stupid, but he love horses, and I think Sister is becomes his favorite. Sister likes him too, maybe because she smells you on us people. Very smart creature, no?”
“Will I be able to see her?” Robin asked.
“Yes, but after meeting with the Don, which is after breakfast, which, if you are done, is now, no?”
Robin wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and brushed off crumbs from his chest. “Ok, I’m done, see? Now can we go?”
Peter smiled at the boy. “Robin is healthy now, and has full belly, and thus he wants to leave the people and be on his way, is that it? You are in great hurry? I am only kidding. Put on your clothes and we’ll walk together.”
Robin did as he was told, putting on a fresh pair of clothes laid for him beside the bed, and followed Peter through the door into a cramped tunnel lined with wooden boards packed into dirt walls, a single corridor amongst the underground miner’s hive of which he was a guest.
“How long have I been recovering?” Robin queried Peter as they kept their heads bowed marching beneath the low ceiling.
“Lost track of time down here, no? I hate this place. Not too long, Robin, just a week.”
“A week? It’s felt like only two days!”
Peter sighed. “The drink, it’s a nasty one. You only had enough of it to take you out for a week. When I drank it, I was in such bad shape I was down here for a year. Now I can’t stand this place. I feel like ugly little rat in damp old cellar, running in circles.”
They proceeded down the tunnels. At one point Robin walked past a wooden board lining the wall that seemed to have sprung loose and, glancing at the exposed earth behind it, he noticed a row of polished white globes packed into the dirt. Puzzled, he was about to stick his hand in and grab one when he noticed that from each base of the globes protruded a ridge of enameled teeth. Human skulls. Robin shuddered, and ran to catch up with Peter.
Arriving at the end of the corridor they came to a large iron door. Robin was surprised something of such weight adorned a miner’s tunnel underground, but he was even more surprised by what he saw beyond the door when it was opened, as Peter pulled a lever and gestured for Robin to step through.
Robin entered a large, rectangular hall, at least five times the size of the room in which he had first met Don Alvarado and constructed in the same manner. The walls were lined with a great many bunk beds and down the middle ran two rows of tables and benches. It looked as if the miners’ barracks and dining halls above ground had been replicated below ground; but, unlike the deserted buildings above, this hollow was bursting with people. Forty plus men and a dozen odd women were bustling about in the middle of the activity of a meal, eating and drinking and arguing. Robin looked at Peter in awe.
“The whole town moved underground?” Robin asked.
Peter looked at him with a grim expression and nodded his head.
“Yes, in a way. The whole town’s underground, but only a few survivors are living here amongst these tunnels. The rest were killed during the Great Purge, their remains preserved within these walls. Come, we go to the Don.”
Peter and Robin walked into the hall and immediately the faces turned to Robin, as sounds of debates and the slurping of food died. Robin felt their looks and lowered his eyes, embarrassed by the attention but secretly happy knowing that, though the creatures of the valley were in hiding, it was not from him. Then, one shouted at him.
“What tidings of Alfonso, young man?” demanded a man with snowy hair seated at a bench. More spoke up, yelling for a scrap of news.
“That’s enough,” said Peter to the room as he brusquely pushed Robin through, “first he’ll speak with the Don.”
“They don’t know?” Robin whispered to Peter, who hushed him instantly.
At the end of the hall was another equally massive iron door. Peter cranked another lever and they were back amongst a low tunnel. When the door shut, Peter grabbed Robin by the shoulders looked at him with extreme seriousness.
“Times are troubled, little Robin, so much news does not get shared. Don Alvarado feed you, and the Madame Olalla nurse you, and I, well, I am your friend, so to us only must you speak of tidings, otherwise unfortunate distresses you make for us all. Ok? Like we don’t tell them you came dressed like Red Rider, or otherwise they would have killed you just now, no?”
Peter let go and continued with the lantern down the hall, Robin running after him and staying close, keeping his eyes away from any loose wall boards. A short way down the corridor they stopped at a small door on the left. Peter knocked. When they heard the booming young voice of the Don telling him to enter, Peter pushed Robin through.
“Only you this time, birdy. Good luck.” Peter said as he shut the door behind him.
Robin looked around a small chamber, eerily similar to his father’s study, with full bookshelves bulging from dirt walls circling an overladen bureau. Don Alvarado stood over a great map and gestured at a chair opposite his desk in front of Robin.
“Sit,” he bellowed. Robin did as commanded. Don Alvarado was distracted, deep in the examination of the map, and after staring at his eyes and his grey whiskers below Robin’s gaze rested on a large onyx vase adorned with, rather than flowers, a heavy matching lid. Robin was distracted by the odd decoration when it occurred to him to remember his manners.
“Sir, might you thank Madame Olalla for me. I feel much recovered,” said Robin.
“My mother was just doing what was required of each of us, think nothing of it,” said the Don.
Robin was taken aback. “Your… mother? But I thought—”
“She is blessed with a youthful complexion, whereas I have aged most wretchedly. We are both cursed, it seems. But she is my mother, and together we continue the fight my father left us.” Don Alvarado looked up from the map, his taut posture belying strength unheard of in a man of his years. “We are the one remaining cluster of free people left in the valley, and for that we are hated with a demonic passion by the Prince, and for that we have gone underground. In my father’s time these hills ran rich with gold, but in my time have become sick with fire and blood.” Robin shifted in his chair with no response but a desire to listen further as Don Alvarado sighed. “I have not encountered one who has no knowledge of the valley for many years, not since Alfonso returned last time with recruits, so please forgive me. The history of the valley is very unique, in that it stretches not over decades but centuries, yet this great length of time has been not a boon to any of us creatures of God. For, rather than burying the horrors of the past, this trick of time has kept them alive, as a burden for all the living. Here, the dead are more than just memories; their curse has lived on to become our curse and the curse of all future generations. Wrath and fear have not changed with the wind. In this valley, the landscape of history has accumulated centuries of pain, until all those left today who see, and hear, and breath are afflicted. You may not be innocent but you are ignorant, which in the valley is the same thing. I refrain from revealing to you too much, because knowledge that horrors such as I have known are truly manifest on this earth would drive you to renounce God and take your own life. The only reason I have not taken my life is because I, appallingly, am honor-bound to see this cause to its end.”
Don Antonio de Alvarado nodded at the object of onyx on his desk, giving Robin permission to lean forward and inspect it.
“Open the urn,” the Don said. Timidly, Robin reached out and removed its top. Looking inside he saw darkness.
“You must hold it up to the light,” the Don said as he reached into the urn and withdrew a handful of ashes. “This is a gift the Prince made of me—my father, Don Felipe de Alvarado. It is a maddening horror, but beautiful, no?”
Don Antonio de Alvarado let the ashes fall from his hand back into the urn and, as they sparkled in the light on their descent, Robin noticed the ashes were flakes of gold.
“Your father? But, how?” Robin sputtered.
“Do I believe that, like King Midas before him, the Prince touched my father and turned him into a corpse of gold, which was melted and chipped into these shavings that fill the urn? Or that he was exploded by some demonic device that spun him into a cloud of golden particles like so many million gilded snowflakes? I do not know what I believe; all I know is that this urn contains my father, was gifted to me by the Prince, and that someday I will return the favor. You see, my father was worth much more than just a pound of gold, but that is what the Prince has done to him, and he sits atop his throne and he laughs at the joke he has made of my family and my people, and the laughter echoes the whole valley. Do you hear it?”
Don Alvarado stopped and listened and Robin pricked up his ears. Robin heard the sound of their breath, of candles flickering in the room, but no laughter. He looked sidelong at the Don and saw the old man had closed his eyes. Robin waited until finally the Don spoke, in a voice thick with dread.
“Now you know true horror, young Robin. I hope I have impressed upon you, in the smallest possible way if God be merciful, the struggle of us common people here in the valley as we seek only our most animal survival. Thus, it is time, now, for me to call upon you for a favor most great. Will you help us?” Robin the boy blinked at the Don’s request.
“Me?” Robin asked. “What could you ask of me?”
“Had Alfonso mustered any support before he died?”
“I don’t think so,” Robin said. “He seemed pretty much a loner; real poor and tired-like, though he wasn’t so battered looking until he was hanged up in the tree. Sir, was he helping you all, too?”
“Yes. When he escaped the Prince’s city years ago he brought with him many men to our side. This was in my father’s time, before we had to go underground. Alfonso was always an inspiring speaker, whose charisma oftentimes rivaled that of the Prince. He was a great friend to us, but I think his separation, his years away from the valley, doomed in the end his chance of success. He lost sight of our cause to free ourselves from the Prince. Once you leave it is hard to return. We expected him last year, but when neither he nor any followers showed up we grew worried. But some still hold out for hope, though, and it would break them to learn that Alfonso will not return. If the outside world is lost to us, then it means only us few in the valley are left to save it. In our current situation, that is a prospect most bleak.”
“If Alfonso was helping you then I will help you,” Robin replied, proud of his brief acquaintance with a man so respected. “It’s the least I can do to repay him.”
“Warm words to hear, Robin, and I thank you for them. If you are to help us, I ask that you never speak a word of Alfonso or your knowledge of anything I say to anyone here underground. Understood?”
“However, your knowledge of Alfonso—and that you possess the gun, as well—invites a very intriguing situation. You may not be aware of this, but did you know that, despite what Peter may have told you, the silver revolver that burned your hand does not actually belong to Alfonso? The gun belongs to the Prince, and he has been missing it very dearly.”
Robin held his tongue, anticipating what Don Alvarado might ask him next.
“The Prince, Alfonso and my father were all very close, at one time, until the Betrayal and the madness of the Great Purge. Which is why news of Alfonso would be of very high importance for the Prince, and may put the messenger in a unique place of esteem; especially if he were to present to him his long lost revolver. Now you see what I must require of you? You, a boy, unknown in the valley, with tidings and a lost relic of the utmost importance. You can have unprecedented access to the Prince, and meanwhile continue Alfonso’s quest in secret. But, gaining knowledge of the Prince, in his lair, is but one half of your destiny.
“And what is my destiny?” Robin asked as his eyes began to glow. Here was a man who spoke to him as Alfonso did.
“First, you must venture through the valley until you reach Aquila, the Eagle, which stands the greatest of the Seven Cities of Cibola. There, you will find a people under suffering much greater than ours, and to them you must spread hope. Tell them we are underground, we are many, and if you swell our ranks one day we will rise up against the monster and the valley will know freedom for the first time. Did you get that? Write it down, if you must, but commit it to memory before you reach Cibola. We must inspire the weak and give them strength of spirit through our words. If you do not believe in our cause now, you will by the time you enter the realm of the Seven Cities. You will learn the truth of what I speak. I cannot venture to those lands myself, for I am known there as the enemy. But in you I am setting the spark, which you will use when you arrive in the west, to ignite a great explosion of revolt. Do you see it? In you, I, we, all of us underground, preserve our faith that things may change, that we may not be trapped in this hell for eternity. You will accomplish what Alfonso could not, and one day you will open up what has been dormant inside you and through its liberation we will, every one of us, be liberated.” Don Alvarado finished, having worked himself into a booming crescendo.
“I will do all you ask of me,” Robin said, cherishing the confidence. “Have faith.”
“Aha! Faith! You make me weep, boy. God speed to you. Be always without fear, even in the presence of the Devil, and know that mother Madame Olalla will be watching you intently, following your progress not from the void in her sockets but through her seeing eye.”
Don Antonio de Alvarado reached across the table and shook Robin by the hand, a gesture of esteem Robin had longed for.
“We shake hands like men, now, and on your return we shake hands like heroes,” said the Don, giving a wink as Robin stood up ready to singlehandedly drive evil from the universe.
“Thank you, Don Alvarado,” said Robin with adolescent solemnity. “Until that day.”
The Don nodded and Robin turned around and walked out the door into the corridor. Overly excited, he struggled to remember the exact words of Don Alvarado, desperate not to forget them. Peter waited for him in the corridor with the lantern, beaming from ear to ear.
“So?” Peter asked. “Are we going?”
“I’m to accompany you through the valley,” Peter said with a grin, “to the Seven Cities, to ensure you actually have big fighting chance of breaking into that rotten bastard’s lair.”
“You?” Robin asked, surprised. “But they’ll recognize you, won’t they?”
Peter grunted. “Sure, as criminal, but they don’t know Peter the Criminal has become Peter the Revolutionary. That would be great surprise to them, no? Hah!”
“Well then,” said Robin, “let’s get the horses and ride on. I’m getting too cramped down here, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Peter said, “too cramped is right. But I’m never in a hurry to venture to the Cities.”
“You’re not scared, are you?” Robin asked, scared himself.
“I was scared only once in lifetime,” Peter responded, “and that was as a prisoner. Not in Old Europe, but in Cibola, at the mercy of the Prince, with nothing but the worms to eat.” Peter shuddered at the memory. “He is a man without human reason,” Peter continued, “and so a man without mercy; and for me in position I was, it was first and only time I am filled with fear. So, if you make haste now to leave this safe place, be forewarned. I say these bad things now because now things are good, and you still have opportunity to tell refuse us and stay here, and we can forget about journey and hope. For, as Don Alvarado say, ‘Nothing can prepare a man to come face to face with the abyss at the end of the universe, and learn there is no God that fills the void.’ No god except ourselves, I say! Us, here, safe, now, is a memory you must keep, a thought to tuck some place nice and warm, and then seal that place shut. Or, when things are at their worst, you’ll look back and remember what a hurry you were in to leave. But, as you say, let us be away…”