The Pauper–Excerpt from ‘The Hangman’s Valley’
by Eland Robert Mann
Chapter 15–The Pauper
At sunup the line passed beneath the unsound fort. They left behind the dead in the corral as the dried blood turned brown, its redness sapped into the earth. The twin buttes of the Old City idly watched the line depart. Robin nodded to Vermouth as they set out. No longer made to limp, he rode upright in the saddle, one more slave crossed over to the ranks of the Riders. Beyond the Old City, the land sloped gradually downward, accelerating all matter toward a distant vortex somewhere west, as if to fill an unknown, insatiable void.
On the other side of the buttes Robin saw the Golden Road, running along the horizon and disappearing behind a distant mesa to the west. Between Robin and the mesa, the sloping land was incredibly lush. A small river coursed down from the southern mountains, spawning fields of verdant grass and oaken grain. It was as if he stood at the shore of some new, infinite ocean, which God, having practiced before with blue and grown bored, here attained similar perfection with green. Robin leaned over his saddle to get a closer look at the beauty beneath him and dodged a moist clod of brown dirt splashed up by his horse. No longer did they ride a sunbaked, dust-packed road; here the road, like the land, was made of a muddy, rich soil, deep and fertile, owing its bounty to the river.
“Cibola,” croaked a voice beside the road. Robin looked from his ward to a cluster of bushes ripe with berries.
“Who’s there?” Robin asked, raising his whip.
From the bush stepped a figure in a dark cloak. His face was obscured by a hood, and Robin recoiled from the sight of the figure as the memory of the masked hangman surfaced.
“The inner valley, ringed by six of the Seven Cities.” The hood figure raised a cloaked arm west.
“It’s beautiful,” Robin said, staring at creation.
“Beauty,” the figure said, “can be deceiving.”
Robin looked for the Prince’s capitol around the mesa, indistinguishable at times from the ashen clouds. “And Aquila?” he asked.
“Aquila is at its center.”
“I don’t see it,” he bemoaned.
“None possess the eye to see the true city,” croaked the anonymous figure in a raspy, weathered voice. “The true city may only be observed from above by the eye of an eagle, or of God; or from below by those of a worm, or of Satan. All mortal eyes fail to behold the true city, blinded by gold as they are. The eagle sees no gold; nor does worm, nor God, nor even Satan. They all have in common what they see, and what they see is the edifice of a permanent universe, and transient souls.”
The hooded figure knelt down beside the road and stretched out his hands with upturned palms. He rocked on his knees, and Robin heard the strange sound of sniffing coming from beneath his hood. Robin felt a growing uneasiness at the man beneath the hood. He shook off thoughts of the hangman, focusing on any information the stranger had of the city.
“Sir, you were talking about the Eagle City. Please go on—I’ve never been there myself and I’m very interested in its true qualities, having so far heard only heard rumors.”
“Rumors are falsehoods,” spoke the stranger and his sniffing stopped. The voice was different, suddenly strong and smooth, overflowing Robin’s ears with robust tenderness. “The truth is the truth. There is only the golden lie and the red truth, both which you will find in great quantity in Aquila. One rumor you speak of is the city referred to as the Eagle City, as you say; but today no eagle sets his eyes on the city, nor God; so like all the others this rumor is false. Aquila is the Worm City; as Worms are the creatures of Satan, their whole existence spent underground, wriggling ever away in his inferno, their slimy ringed bodies armored against the combustion of demonic fire. And we exist in Gehenna. This is the truth. Aquila is a city today only seen by the Devil. Verily, this truth is so great; I must receive proper compensation before I continue.”
“But,” said Robin earnestly, “I have nothing to give.”
“That is your rumor and that is a lie. I can smell it on you;” soothed the stranger, “I’ve smelled it since you came up the hill. I smell it over the ripeness of the berries and the wretchedness of your person and the foulness of your horse’s hide. You have gold. And not much methinks; otherwise I’d have heard it, too.”
Robin stared down at the hooded man, but saw neither his eyes nor any characteristics of his face; he was allowed only the opportunity to read the expression of his voice, which, to Robin, seemed pure and sound, as if simultaneously possessing the elegance of youth and the gravity of old age.
“You are right, sir,” said Robin. “I do have a gold piece. I didn’t know it was possible for people to smell it, but I won’t pretend to hide it from you.” Robin took the piece from his pocket and held it in front of his face in hopes to get the stranger to glance at it. But the man remained unmoved.
“I see the gold well enough,” said the stranger, “and for that much I can reveal to you a great truth.”
Robin, uncomfortable in the knowledge that the gold was smelled on him, tossed the coin down to the stranger with little regret. The stranger snatched the coin out of the air with pale fingers and brought it to his face, inhaling its scent with a deep longing.
“The truth is,” said the stranger after a few moments, “gold can only buy rumors. From my parted lips you will only get lies. Real truth is an arterial shower or a fiery sunset, dear Robin. For—if it’s the truth you want—it can only be bought with blood. That is how God created his truth. That is how it is revealed to us. That is how the history of man has spread throughout time. So, if you are presented with such an opportunity again, save your gold for lies and your blood for the truth; for only then will eternity be kind to you. This golden piece, though, I will be taking.”
The poor stranger stood up and, adjusting his hood and cloak, stepped back from the road. Robin did catch a single glimpse of sickly, yellowing eyes, and a golden ring with a red ruby on his fingers as the stranger raised his hand to the cloth to keep his face covered.
“Wait,” Robin said when he saw the ruby, but a bright light flashed on the horizon and he was forced to shield his eyes.
At that moment, as the sun began the fiercest part of its ascent, the mists on the horizon evaporated and the mesa burst with a brilliant reflection of light. The sun exposed a blood red and shimmering mound, composed of the same rock he had seen first in the canyon. When he looked back at the bush the figure was gone. He continued forward.
As the heat of the late morning sun confronted the wet green expanse, the broiled air bound into a watery film, capturing and replicating its surroundings. Curiously, Robin saw the image of the slave line reflected back to him, albeit in blurred detail. He squinted, confused at seeing a copy of his line in reverse. The closer Robin approached, however, the more he was sure the reflection had abandoned its two-dimensional plane and was coming alive. It advanced toward him deliberately, a silver line of a thousand manacled slaves flanked by another hundred Red Riders. Blinking several times at the mirage, Robin was in the midst of straining his eyes till they ached when the Captain rode up alone to his position and harangued Robin.
“Greenbeak!” he shouted. Robin turned around, startled. “Your ward looks just fine,” said the Coyote, “why don’t you ride up front with me for a ways?”
“Yes sir.” Robin replied, anxiously puzzled.
Robin noticed the other two guards who usually rode with the Captain, two who had backed losing pairs in the sacrifice, were currently missing from the Captain’s side.
“We got the Second Legion riding up, if you can believe it. It always seems like some’n or another is on their sortie,” the Coyote said, nodding to the reflection in the distance.
“Sir,” Robin said, “that’s another line out there?”
“I thought you was a clever boy, Greenbeak. Don’t prove me wrong.”
Robin left his place beside his ward and cantered up the line alongside the Captain, past dozens of other Riders who shot him jealous and resentful looks. Robin, an outsider within the ranks up until this point, was unfamiliar with the favoritism and covetousness that defined much of the hierarchical life under the Prince. He saw in those menacing glances simply the fear he also felt.
Nearing the front of the line, Robin followed the Coyote up a slight hill turned muddy underneath shod hooves and bare feet. At the top awaited the advance scouting parties for the two converging Legions. The Lieutenant Scout was amongst the party, stringing onto his necklace a fresh scalp he had horrifyingly collected somehow that morning. Robin won the bet fair and square, he told himself, as he reached into his duster pocket and reassuringly rubbed the warm revolver of the Prince. The two scouting parties, conversing animatedly over some point of order, deferred at once to the Captain when he arrived.
“Lieutenant, what’s the word?” asked the Captain.
The Lieutenant shifted in his saddle, disturbing the scalps hanging across his chest. “As we got two Legions on either side of the river, we’re havin’ a friendly debate on who should cross it first. And I think we just won,” he said, casting a side-long glance toward his scouting colleagues from the Second Legion.
“You know the rules, Lieutenant;” responded the Captain, “we’ll let them cross first, then it’ll be our turn. We’ll still be in to Aquila before sundown.”
“That’s what we were tryin’ to tell the Lieutenant,” said one of the Riders opposite them.
The Captain refrained from acknowledging his subordinate’s indiscretion. “That’s enough,” he said. “Return to your line and make your crossing fast, before I change my mind.”
The opposing Riders turned their horses and descended the other side of the small hill. The road continued to a bend in the river, where the Riders crossed to the opposite bank on a wide stone causeway. The Lieutenant Scout remained behind.
“How is it this one’s along with us, Cap’n?” asked the Lieutenant.
“You know how, Lieutenant. Is there a problem with my judgement?”
“No problem, sir,” said the Lieutenant, “just sayin’ this kid here is a right sneaky one, who I’ve been keepin’ my eye on.”
The Coyote turned to Robin. “Now why’d the Lieutenant say something like that?”
“I don’t know, sir,” said Robin, lowering his eyes.
“I got an idea as to why,” the Lieutenant said, chortling as he suppressed his giddiness. “Even before that hunchback walked into the corral, this boy bets me my revolver for him to win. I thought it was the most foolish business I’d ever seen; but once I seen that hunchback get his duster, I wasn’t so sure. He’s a sneaky customer, this one. And now he’s got my revolver.”
“I get your frustration, Lieutenant, but it also seems like an occasion of odd luck. My question is,” the Coyote said, turning to Robin, “what’d you want that revolver for, boy?”
Robin did not expect to be questioned about the revolver by anyone except the Prince. Put on the spot, without a lie rehearsed, he had no response but the truth.
“I was gonna give it to the Prince as a gift,” Robin said, “as a way of sayin’ thanks.” He hurriedly made up the last part of his answer.
The Captain stared at Robin and began to chuckle. The Lieutenant Scout joined in but a look from the Coyote cut him off.
“Greenbeak, you are a misguided creature,” the Captain said, shaking his head. “The Prince doesn’t want no gun—he doesn’t have any need! Even if you did give it to him he’s more liable to shoot you with it than appreciate it!”
The Lieutenant Scout snickered. “It is a real nice gun, boy,” he said, suppressing his laugh as the necklace bounced on his thin chest, “but you are a damn fool.”
Some hint of value in the Lieutenant’s comment made the Captain take pause. “A real nice gun, huh? Lemme see this thing, Greenbeak.”
Nearly shaking with trepidation, feeling like his ambitions for rebellion were about to be discovered, Robin found calm enough to reach into his duster and hand the silver revolver to the Coyote. The Captain, going silent when he saw it, turned the revolver over casually in his hands, inspecting the silver and rubies before stuffing it in his own duster.
“Damn fool is right, Lieutenant.” The Captain said with derision. “You know, Greenbeak, I better hang on to this thing—and no protests, alright? That’s just how things work out in the Corps sometimes.”
Robin considered himself fortunate to be the only one to know the truth behind the revolver and its relationship to the Prince. Nevertheless, how he might get ahold of the revolver now, once again, was a consideration that perplexed him deeply.
The Second Legion approached and the Lieutenant scowled a salute, returning to rally his scouts. Robin followed the Captain as they rode down the line, informing the Riders to halt their wards and stand aside to let the Second Legion pass. When the entire line was stopped, Robin returned with the Captain to the hilltop.
As the Second Legion marched past on the muddy road, Robin kept his eyes closed and his head turned boldly away. The mirage of the mirrored lines upset the balance of hope he had preserved inside him. Robin could not bear to think in the other line there existed a copy of him, also clad in red with a whip tucked in his belt, but headed East, away from his destiny. To see the other line, with the other Robin, would have disturbed him deeply; a feeling equal to looking into a mirror and seeing his past self, or his unknown future. He opened his eyes as the final clanking of chains died away to the east.
The absence of the Second Legion exposed the verdant valley in repose. He rode with the Captain down the hill and approached the river. Looking into the water Robin encountered his first animal life since the vultures of the Hangman’s Rock. Beneath the surface of the water, grey schools of pale fish, thought by Robin to be of relation to trout, drifted slowly with the current downstream. Patches of red sunlight reflected off the glassy water, occasionally vanishing when absorbed by the muted, sickly scales of the fish as they surfaced.
The causeway, a work of no small beauty, displayed little in ornamentation; but the craftsmanship of the stonework and the engineering of its construction told Robin of a genius behind its architecture, even to his amateur eyes. A jigsaw puzzle of massive slabs, stacked without seams, shaped from the chaos a uniformity of arches, spanning the river at varying heights to give the causeway a singularly even curvature. Like the river at its bend, the causeway was but one hundred yards wide; also like the river, at this time of day, its color was a burning orange, as if its stones were carved from sunset clouds. The size of the stones gradually decreased as they were arranged further above the foundation, interwoven with smaller rocks until a mosaic of cobbles burst on the causeway’s surface. Though its craftsmanship was subtle, Robin did notice one traditional adornment at each end of the bridge; a pointed red cross had been set into each cornerstone slab, a cross in the same style as he had seen on the destroyed keystone of the canyon. After wading all day through sloppy mud Robin’s horse bounced sprightly onto the cobbles and pranced across the bridge in relief.
A brisk breeze passed Robin at the peak of the arching causeway. He watched waves of grass on the opposite bank bend away like an expanding line of converted worshippers kneeling as one. The bowed grass drew his gaze to the horizon, where again he saw the isolated red mesa. In the late afternoon, the mesa appeared to Robin as a volcano. The bloodshot sun floated above its cratered surface, a concentrated ball of fiery lava. As the sun set into the rock, Robin saw the mesa summit erupt again with a burst of golden light. Aquila emerged from the blinding brightness.
He had expected the city to exist beside a river or beneath a butte as had the Old City of Blood. But the setting sun, while casting the land beneath the cliffs in shadow, showered the mesa surface with fiery cinders. Robin, with squinted eyes, saw the mesa as if crowned by a halo. With great astonishment, Robin understood this halo to be the city of Aquila, built not at the base but on the surface of the mesa; a vast, glimmering city of red brick and veined stone, of orange rock and golden tiled roofs. A massive stone castle loomed at its center. An equally large, domed structure, supported underneath by buttresses, overhung the north side of the mesa; as if there had not been room enough on the plateau surface for so much city, and it had finally succumbed from an over-crowding to this malignant outgrowth.
The Captain sighed, frowning at the city ahead. “I’m worried,” he said, looking away.
Robin arched his eyebrows in surprise but held his tongue.
“I’m worried,” continued the Captain, “why the Second Legion was sent out, on an unscheduled sortie. Things like that don’t happen without some reason, fortuitous or dire. My worry is compounded by the solstice being not far off. All of us have no idea what the Prince has planned. The creature is superstitious to no end, and his actions defy all normal, human reason. You’ll see. I just hope his plans don’t involve us, but seeing as how the Second Legion’s out and we’re the ones back, now I’m not so sure.”
Robin saw the Captain’s body spasm uncontrollably several times, as if some painful memory resurfaced. He had never seen the Coyote so uncertain. Robin hoped his silence reassured the Captain. A short distance up the road, where the Lieutenant Scout rode with his advance party, Robin heard a vulgar laugh rumble down in their direction. The Coyote heard the laugh, too, but kept his face still as the dead. After a minute he straightened up in the saddle. His beady eyes stayed trained on the distant Lieutenant.
“Greenbeak,” the Captain said in a low voice.
“I know you ain’t the brightest boy, but you are the damned quietest. I’ve seen you when we set up camp at night, and I know you stick to your own and say not but two words to anybody else. That tells me you do have at least some type of dumb sense about you. That and the fact that when we picked you up you was just a slave runt, and now here you are, my aide-de-camp and confidant. Well, it’s like this—I feel I can maybe trust you half-aways, so I was hoping you could help me to relieve some of the qualms and suspicions that have got my mind all wrapped up and turned around.”
For the first time Robin met the Coyote in the eyes. He saw a man weakened and tired, itching his legs unconsciously out of a childish nervousness. He looked like a spooked animal about to get put down.
“What’s troubling you, Captain,” Robin asked slowly.
A quiet minute passed before the Captain finally let it out.
“If you think the slaves don’t last long on the line,” began the Coyote, “the Riders don’t last much longer. You know that yourself, having killed your own warden and taken his place. It’s a dirty business. There’s always someone out there waiting to take your place.” The Captain held his gaze on the Lieutenant Scout. “If the Prince is not satisfied with my service, then I will not be long for this world, and that’s it—my great fear.”
Robin thought it over for a moment. “You’re looking below you and worried,” Robin said, “when you might do better good to set your sights above.”
“No,” Robin said, “to your superior. Keep moving up; take his place.”
“Hah!” the Coyote cackled desperately. “You are the sneaky one, playin’ the fool with us low lifes. Well, Greenbeak, the problem is I eliminated every one of my superiors already; it’s how I got the job in the first place. The only one left is the Colonel.”
At mention of the Colonel Robin went as silent and pale as the trout, which the Coyote did not fail to notice.
“Aha, so you’ve heard of the Colonel? Or seen him, too, perhaps? Not many outsiders have and lived to tell of it. Well, he’s what stands in my way, is all. Might as well be the Prince himself. I’m between a rock and a hard place, as they say. No, I only got but one hope.”
“And what’s that?” asked Robin.
“Your friend, Peter,” said the Coyote with tired pity, looking away. “Peter the Pilgrim, though of meager renown, may be enough of a prize to save my gizzards. If not, the vain man covered in human jewelry yonder is in line to take my place on the next sortie.”
“Isn’t there anything else you can do?” asked Robin, fearing for Peter’s use as a pawn.
“Like kill the man?”
“Or leave?” Robin countered.
“Both would be worse,” said the Coyote, “and the surest way to get myself hanged. The only sanctioned conspiracies are those determined by the Prince. Well, at least things will be over for us soon enough.”
Robin was about to ask the Captain to elaborate but the wards were not crossing the causeway fast enough. They rode down the line shouting at the Riders to break out their whips and make damn sure to double-time it. If they weren’t in Aquila by sundown, the Coyote said, they all knew what was going to happen.
The double-time worked, and as the sun vanished beneath the mesa city the line was found at the red rock’s base. Carved into the rock along the entire length of the eastern face of the mesa was a ramp, whereby travelling diagonally from the base at one end up to the plateau summit at the other one arrived at the city’s entrance. As the mesa itself served as a great wall, or natural fortification, there was no wall built around the city, or need for any gates. The ramp to the top was wide enough for the ascending line and an adjacent single file of Riders. Robin joined the file of Riders directly behind Vermouth, who had yet to get used to holding the whip.
“How’s it feel to be giving the lashes, Vermouth?” Robin prodded.
“I can see how one might get carried away—the freedom of power is so tempting, especially when we are encouraged to double-time. Needless to say, my whip is sadly dry; not once did I have occasion to draw blood. Perhaps I’ll make a poor Rider, alas. There truly is no occupation for a hunchback.”
At this low point of the ramp, the sandy cliff face towered like a pillar supporting the entirety of the domed sky at dusk. He felt like a worm, looking up at a world constructed around the dimensions of a much larger species.
“Vermouth,” Robin asked in a hoarse whisper above the noise of the ascending line, “I’m afraid of meeting the Prince. For myself and for my friend Peter. I think by what I’ve learned about customs here, Peter’s sure to be hanged.”
“The one thing you must know about the customs of the capitol is—if you ever feel sure about something—you can always be sure of being wrong. Nothing is predictable here save the daily rising and setting of the sun.”
“So Peter has hope?” Robin asked excitedly.
Vermouth paused before he turned and looked at Robin grimly.
“He has a chance,” Vermouth said sadly, “which is much different from hope.”
“I guess that can be enough,” Robin said.
“Don’t be too sure,” said Vermouth, “but let’s talk it over tonight, after our return.”
“One more thing,” Robin asked, “have you ever heard the city referred to by anyone as the Worm City?”
Vermouth paused thoughtfully for a moment. “No. That doesn’t ring a bell. It has several names, but any names of an animal nature are always in reference to the eagle, as the Prince has always called it. It is said, the rumor is, that the mesa, when viewed from a great height, has the shape of a perched eagle with its wing outspread. What rumor did you hear of this being the Worm City?”
“Well, now I’m not so sure. I’ll let you know if I hear it again,” Robin said.
At the top of the ramp the cliff face shortened to nothing. The surface of the mesa revealed a division into two parts; the smaller, lower plateau where Robin stood on the eastern side; and the larger, upper plateau, ahead to the west, which appeared to hold the greater part of the city. To reach the upper plateau, the line had to proceed across the southern point of the lower plateau and traverse a deep chasm separating the two. Though joined at the base by the same bedrock, nowhere on the surface was the upper plateau accessible to the lower plateau. A short stone bridge spanned the gulf, connecting the divided plateaus at their southernmost extremities. Before approaching the bridge, the Riders were relieved of their wards.
Men in red dusters, different men whom Robin had not seen on the sortie with the other Riders, took charge of the arriving slaves. These new Riders stood on the near side of a high fence of wooden pylons that spanned the width of the lower plateau. Behind the fence the lower plateau opened up into a plain with many barrack-like structures and larger, taller blockhouses, uninspired and foreboding. Robin was unimpressed by the city, thinking its gilded buildings had been a mirage, until he realized only the slaves were passing through the gates of the fence; his Rider companions remained in place, waiting impatiently. It was a prison for the Prince’s slaves, surrounded on three sides by the sheer cliffs of the lower plateau.