The Audience–Excerpt from ‘The Hangman’s Valley’
by Eland Robert Mann
Chapter 16–The Audience
The Riders entered Aquila. They walked down a boulevard flanked by balconies, beneath the golden luster of the city’s tiled roofs that crowned Aquila with greatness. Robin let his eyes soak up the splendor until he blinked, overwhelmed by a richness that spoiled his vision. The city of Aquila upon the upper plateau, the capitol of the Prince of Cibola, dazzling in its gilded immensity, was grander and more profound than any city Robin thought possible. It overflowed with columns and walls, squat palms and cramped alleys. The style of each construction was similar to the mission of Santiago el Mayor or the Old City of Blood; much different from the town where Robin had grown up. The main boulevard was lined by two-storied, brick and stucco houses, with arched windows that peaked at a subtle point. Down certain avenues, Robin was treated to stunning vistas where the land beneath the city suddenly disappeared and the valley was visible for a great distance. Vines seemed to grow everywhere; up the walls of buildings and across the boulevard; tangles of plants and neon flowers of unknown names hanging from second floor verandas and dangling all the way to the cobbled ground in a way that was distinctly tropical. It seemed to Robin, from the smooth, red and gold bricks that paved the streets to the squared layout of the city, that a uniformity of vision governed its design. And rising above all creation, at the northern extremity of the mesa, materialized the pronounced structure whose buttressed foundation Robin had seen from beneath; its dome in the fashion of the east, or rather, the ancient East. Perhaps it was the gilded façade of this structure, its golden surface so pronouncedly fresh, which gave the rest of the dense city its tone of compact perfection.
Some might have seen the golden decoration of the city as a mask or disguise, worn to keep some secret nature hidden under a blinding surface. Robin saw it as he saw himself, as if the gilt surface of the city was his own skin; and he wondered if, like him, beneath the surface, there was some secret nature not hiding but maturing, waiting to reveal itself as equal to its golden shell when ripe.
Leading his horse down the wide central boulevard, draped overhead with creeping emerald and lined by the fronds of massive green palms, Robin began to look for the people that inhabited the gilded city; but the streets of Aquila were empty. Here, as in the valley, animal life was recluse. The Riders marched alone along the abandoned boulevard. Ahead, before the dome, Robin saw a great open space; a ceremonial plaza, also empty, positioned at the center of the mesa. At its heart was erected an ornate yet relatively small fountain made entirely of gold. Robin, ever curious, strained his neck to look into the fountain, but the column of Riders was not quite near enough for a glimpse. Something, however, stirred at the edge of his vision. Robin instantly had the uneasy feeling he was being watched. It was as if many pairs of eyes followed his every step. His eyes flashed to the second floor balcony directly above him. Spotting movement behind a pointed arched window recessed above the veranda, Robin saw, to his wonder, a feminine figure, hooded and veiled, with green eyes exposed toward the column of Riders. The green eyes disappeared behind a latticed screen, used throughout the city in place of glass, but Robin still felt he was being watched. He turned from balcony to balcony, window to window, and discovered with alarm veiled shapes hovered behind every one, silently peering at the Riders; bodily screened from view and left only the vibrancy of their eyes to welcome the return of men.
“Are those…women watching us?” Robin leaned forward to ask Vermouth.
“Girls,” whispered Vermouth, “and though I always love to chat, now would be the most inopportune of times. As they say in Cibola: silence is golden.”
Robin nodded. The silence of the girls gave Robin the impression the golden city was undying; a mask removed from time and the unpredictable oscillations of the universe. The gold burdened the city with an implied permanence; a promise of perpetual occupation, whether by life or dust. Robin tugged at his red duster, as he felt a desire to escape such a place.
In the midst of this feeling the Riders entered the plaza and, passing beside the golden fountain at its center, Robin was given an opportunity to look into its depths. He saw blackness, which at first appeared very smooth, like the surface of a pond at night. This seemed strange to him, as it was only dusk, and the city and sky were yet alive with color. But the contents of the fountain were black, opaque even; impervious to the gold of the fountain and the red ceiling of the domed earth. Robin had a strong urge to reach his hand into the dark pool and see his own skin from within its blackness. He stopped himself when he noticed the even surface of the pool was not permeable and liquid but dense and solid, filled with a billion of grains of black sand.
Turning left, the column of Riders continued away from the fountain and crossed the plaza into another lush boulevard. West, between the end of the boulevard and the limits of the mesa, soaring above the golden haze of roofs framed by twilit clouds, loomed the spired, Romanesque castle; the largest building in Cibola, built of the same rubicund, gold-veined stone as was found throughout the valley. Marching up the boulevard approaching the castle, Robin observed far fewer veiled faces and far more shuttered windows. The golden brightness of the city disappeared as they passed under the realm of the castle’s shadow and the vibrancy of colors was subdued by a dismal gray. The only gleam Robin noticed came from a pale worm, which had somehow wriggled its way underfoot past the tight cobbles of the boulevard.
Arriving at the gate in the walls before the castle, the column of Riders stopped and the Captain, who had remained mounted, turned and addressed them.
“Men! Job well done on another successful sortie. There’s a welcome feast waiting for you in the mess. And as the sortie came off with no hitch whatsoever, each of you will be receiving double in doubloons. Try not to gamble it all away tonight. In a day or two, you’ll likely report to your immediate superiors for your next assignment. I don’t know what the Prince has planned for us next, and neither do our officers, so don’t bother askin’ us about it now. You’ll have to wait like the rest of us. Just enjoy yourselves. Officers, you’ll be riding along with me. Dismissed!”
The Riders saluted animatedly and began to walk south along the walls toward a stable and cluster of buildings housing the Rider Corps in Aquila. Robin saw Vermouth start with them and was turning to follow when the Coyote barked out a final command.
“Greenbeak! Hunchback! Where do you think you all are going? With me!” the Coyote hollered. Robin’s stomach took flight within his body and soared over the edge of the mesa.
“Yes sir,” said Robin in a voice louder than he meant to be. The Coyote frowned his eyebrows.
“We all got us an audience with the Colonel,” said the Coyote, “as there’s a few things that remain for us to talk about.”
At mention of the Colonel the image of the massive colossus on the white horse, gunning down the escaped Red Rider and capturing Carolina, sprang into Robin’s mind. He hoped he had done nothing to inspire the Colonel’s wrath.
Robin walked with Vermouth over to the group of officers and was pleased to see, standing next to the Captain and still in manacles, his friend Peter. Robin wanted to run to him but Peter nodded with a reassuring wink. The plan was still possible, Robin thought, as long as he and Peter stuck together. The group turned at the sound of clanking from the gates and waited for admittance within the castle walls.
Unseen hands opened a large iron portcullis and beyond Robin saw an open courtyard, surrounded on three sides by the castle’s keep and ornamented at its center by a dazzling garden of roses, whose thorny stems seemed made of gold. The hedges were in the shape of the cross or dagger seen on the hilt of Alfonso’s revolver. The head gatekeeper, a sleepy, lumbering Rider who leaned against the wall, straightened up and somberly saluted the Captain as they passed under the portcullis. A strange smile broke out on the man’s face as Robin passed and he turned to look back but the man disappeared into an alcove and the portcullis was shut.
Turning south or left within the courtyard, Robin crossed under a low arch into a small bailey, where several Riders waited to greet the Captain and the dozen men that accompanied him.
“Captain” said one, “the Colonel has been waiting. Your officers may retire to their quarters and you may come with me. Alone.”
“I have four Riders and a prisoner which might interest the Colonel—if I have his leave.”
“Very well,” said the Rider.
Stable hands took charge of their horses and the Captain entered a stout barbican tower connected to the gatehouse followed by Peter, Robin, Vermouth, and the Lieutenant Scout.
“Things don’t look too good for you and your Captain, sneaky-beak,” said the Lieutenant Scout pressing close to Robin, the stench of his necklace invading Robin’s nose. Robin was counting on the revolver having the opposite effect.
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Robin said grimly, shutting up the Lieutenant Scout.
As light died in the outside world, Robin stepped inside the tower and entered a confined common room. A fireplace blazed at one end and in front, eclipsing the flames, stood the colossal Colonel, his face an unreadable slab of unetched stone. Tables and benches had been pushed to the walls, and drawing Robin’s sight across room to the man whose head nearly bumped the wooden beams of the ceiling.
“Salute,” growled the Colonel in a whispered roar, to which everyone obeyed.
“Sir,” said the Coyote as he lowered his salute, “it’s very kind of you to grant us this audience.”
“Well, it wasn’t my goddamn choice now was it?” said the Colonel, taking a seat at the lone chair in front of the fireplace and letting the others stand. The chair creaked at his size and weight.
“Sir—“started the Coyote, but the Colonel cut him off.
“Is that Peter the Pilgrim I see there in chains behind you? I thought that fat ol’ bastard was dead long years ago.”
“It is, sir,” said the Coyote, standing aside and pushing Peter forward.
“Didn’t we kill you?” asked the Colonel, addressing Peter.
“You try, much times, but never with rope around this neck,” said Peter with a quick gesture bringing the manacles toward his throat. The Colonel smiled and folded his monstrous hands in his lap.
“Well, that can be remedied. I’ll bring this to the attention of the Prince. Then we’ll hang you, Pilgrim, and no drink can save you from that. Take him away!” The Colonel shouted the last command and two Riders, previously unseen standing behind Robin and the others, grabbed Peter under each arm and dragged him out of the room through a doorway beside the fireplace. Peter chuckled as he was dragged from the room and attempted to look back at Robin but was poked in his prodigious stomach by a guard’s elbows.
“And make sure to send him deep!” the Colonel said. Robin shuddered to think at the Colonel’s meaning.
As he watched Peter dragged away Robin became aware, unconsciously at first, of a feature within the room that cried for his attention. Staring at the Colonel he had trouble figuring it out, until he finally noticed it at the periphery of his vision. What caught his eye was a splash of color, a bright red that crept into his mind and begged him to look. At last, overcome by curiosity, Robin glanced away from the Colonel and let his eyes be drawn to the red, which turned out to be only a small part of a large oil painting spanning the entire northern wall of the common room. The painting depicted a man, an armored Spanish Conquistador astride a bucking horse, with a lance in his hands, the tip down and near the ground, about to strike the body of an Arab lying prone and defenseless, who was painted wearing a white robe and pleading for mercy. The red was from a cape the Spaniard wore, but after Robin had a moment to stare at the painting he became struck by the whiteness of the Arab’s robes. There was an unearthly loneliness to the solitary man murdering a defenseless heathen against the background of a desert; the landscape idle, a pale sky above listless sand dunes, oblivious to the crimes of mortals. The depicted scene was so vivid Robin had the distinct impression of having seen the painting somewhere once before. He thought of home, for some reason, before wondering whether any of the eyes behind the veils he had spied in the balcony windows had ever seen a painting so beautiful. It so captivated his thoughts he missed the beginning of the Captain’s report on Robin and the revolver.
“…and the boy said he would present it to the Prince as a gift. We all took him for a fool, the Lieutenant here especially,” said the Coyote while the Lieutenant Scout sulked, “that is until I seen the hilt of this silver revolver had a very peculiar design made of red stones, which made me think of the pointed red cross the Prince himself holds so dear.”
“If I may see the revolver,” the Colonel said absently, holding out an open palm. The Coyote procured it from inside his duster and quickly stepped forward, placing it in the Colonel’s hands. As soon as the Colonel turned the revolver over Robin saw he recognized its value.
“Captain,” said the Colonel firmly, suppressing a shudder at the revolver’s touch, “you have done well. This was a very fortuitous sortie, it seems; more so than most. First the criminal Pilgrim; and now this revolver. The Prince will be most pleased. If only your subordinates could be as helpful as mine,” the Colonel glanced at the Lieutenant Scout. “And what of the boy then, and the hunchback?” he said to the Captain.
“Well sir, the boy was the one who had the gun on him in the first place, and he said he brought it with him from the outside, as he rode into the valley only a few weeks ago.”
“Impossible,” said the Colonel quickly, “that is a lie. The valley has been closed this last month since the incident.”
The Captain was about to respond when Robin, without thinking, spoke for himself. He regretted doing so as every eye in the room turned toward him.
“Sir,” Robin began, “it’s true a month ago I wasn’t in the valley, so I must’ve crossed in just before you closed it,” Robin lied. “But the gun was given into my possession with the last breath of an old man, whose dying wish was that I return it to its owner—that who by now I’ve learned is the Prince.”
“Your Lord and Master,” said the Colonel, displeased but interested.
“Yes, my Lord and Master.”
“And who was this dying man?” asked the Colonel.
“Alfonso,” said Robin.
The name meant nothing to everyone in the room except the Colonel, whose face finally formed a crease as his eyes opened in wonder. The Colonel recovered himself quickly and addressed the Captain.
“Very well, Captain. I know the Prince will be quite pleased; quite pleased indeed. These are the best results we’ve had in a while now. I’d bring you to him this moment myself, if I could, but it seems he’s been away these past few days, so your meeting will have to be postponed. However, you and your men should enjoy a few extra hours of celebration, and for you the least we can do right away is guarantee the security of your rank for your next sortie. This boy, however, is another matter entirely. Take him away!” said the Colonel rashly, and another set of guards sprung at Robin, grabbing him by the arms and dragging him from the room. In a last brief second before being forced into the unknown, Robin met the Colonel’s eye, and noticed the slightest twinge of quaking fear before the Colonel cast aside his gaze, shouting in a fit at the guards, “And send him to the bottom…”