• 05 May 2010
    When Procession of the Dead was first published in 1999 as Ayuamarca, it began with a prologue set in Macchu Picchu. This explained more about the Incas and why they set off in search of the City. While the prologue served an important purpose, I felt in retrospect that it was confusing and off-putting to new readers. I decided this time round to begin with Capac and thrust readers immediately into the action. But for those of you who wish to know more of those mysterious blind priests, here is the original prologue as it appeared in the first printing of the book.


    In 1911 an American archaeologist called Hiram Bingham discovered a lost city amidst the cloudy heights of the Peruvian Andes. It had been built during the fifteenth century and abandoned around the time of the Spanish invasion. It was known as Machu Picchu.

    To this day, Machu Picchu remains an enigma. Nobody knows how the Incas - an illiterate race with no wheels, pulleys or horses - built such an architecturally astounding city high in the mountains, where air is thin and labour an unimaginable pain. How did they carve it out of rock? How did they feed and maintain the huge workforce which must have been required?

    Nor does anyone know why it was built. Was it a holiday retreat for royals living in nearby Cuzco? A sacred place of sacrifice for the Incan priests, known as villacs? Or simply a monument to the sun, which they worshipped?

    The greatest mystery of Machu Picchu, however, is not one of architecture or purpose. What has puzzled inquisitive minds the most down through the centuries is this: having gone to so much troubled effort to create one of the world’s most fantastic cities, why - after a mere fifty years - did its inhabitants abandon their paradise in the clouds? And where did they go?

    * * *

    The Watana gazed down at the glorious expanse of mountain and wondered if he could bring himself to leave. This was such a beautiful part of the Earth, above the world and men and their petty concerns. He believed he might rather throw himself on the distant rocks than walk away from this city which had cost them so much.

    He sighed deeply and began to ascend. These were troubling times, but should not have been. His Incan people had worked hard to make their territory safe. His predecessors - having been provoked - had learned the ways of war and shortly conquered their enemies, claiming vast stretches of land as their own. They had been fair with their subjects and ruled wisely. They had not grown opulent or greedy, or lost sight of the reasons they’d fought. The foundations had been lain for a long and magnificent empire, one which would last indefinitely and leave legacies which would live forever.

    Yet now, in their moment of triumph, a new threat had arisen, one which even the power of the Watana seemed helpless against. New men were coming to their land, men with pale faces and paler souls, with different gods and strange animals and fierce weapons. Men born of darkness. How were the sons of the sun supposed to combat forces of darkness? It was the question none could answer, the reason the Watana was so ill of spirit.

    Around him, the people of Machu Picchu went about their daily chores as though all was well with the world. It was a hard life in the mountains. Water and food had to be hauled up from the valleys far below and not a day went by without some minor crisis or another. Still, they were finished with the primary building. Those damned stones had almost been the death of the Watana and the two before him. The days and nights of sweat, conference, planning, creating …

    Was it to have been for nothing? Were they to be denied their time of contemplation and enjoyment of the city’s splendour after so much effort? It galled him to think it might be so.

    He passed a teacher on his way. The man was old and wizened with time and rough mountain air. His voice barely carried and the children had to huddle close to grasp his words.

    The Watana knew the teacher. He was a sun architect, one who had designed buildings in alignment with the projected rays of the sun’s yearly course. The Watana had sat at his feet many years before, as he had at the feet of many teachers. As the hitching post of the community, it was his place to learn as much of their ways as possible, to be in a position to pass judgment on virtually any matter.

    The teacher had boasted a name once, before coming to Machu Picchu. It was the Watana’s immediate predecessor who had banned names from the holy mountain, who had declared this a place of anonymity. The younger members of the mountain city had been born to namelessness, but those of the preceding generations had had to abandon theirs. The Watana tried remembering the teacher’s discarded name but could not. If he’d had time, he might have pursued the inquiry, but there were more important matters to be dealt with.

    The city was quiet at this time of year. In the warmer months, the leading families of Cuzco would wind their way up the steep mountain paths, to enjoy the fresh summer air, the clear sun, the voice of the gods. They would bring children and servants and names, and for a time the streets of the city would ring to alien sounds. But that was some way off yet. For the moment, it was only the regulars. The Watana, the villacs, their assistants, students and retainers.

    The platform surrounding the inti watana was deserted. Usually, with the gods of the sun about to speak, it would be crowded. But the Watana had ordered it cleared for today’s communication. This was a day of decision-making and he did not want distractions. He had heard his people speak and knew what their minds and hearts said. Now it was time to listen to those of the gods and his own.

    The bodies of the former Watanas encircled the platform, propped up on carefully carved thrones. When he died, he would join their ranks and the circle would tighten one body further. The dimensions of the circle had been carefully calculated by his ancestors, and the platform - first in Cuzco, later up here in Machu Picchu - had been designed accordingly. When the day came that no new bodies could be added, when the Watanas were pressed tightly together, shoulder-to-shoulder: that would be the final day of the empire, the final day of the villacs, when all would unravel.

    The Watana looked around at the vast spaces between his forebears and grunted with some measure of satisfaction. Whatever about Machu Picchu and their immediate future, it would be many years before they had to worry about the ultimate end.

    When he turned back towards the raised stone that was the inti watana, the hitching post of the sun, he saw the blind priest arriving. The man waved his retainers away before entering the circle. He was quite young for a villac, though it was hard to tell his exact age, what with the odd pale skin common to his kind.

    The Watana nodded sombrely. The priest acknowledged his presence with a vague sniff. The Watana could never master the snake-nest of nerves that his stomach became whenever he was around one of the sinister priests. Though he considered himself a member of the villacs, he knew he was only one by default, as every Watana was. The true clan members were the ones with bloodlines stretching back to before the advent of words, the ones with pale skin and blank eyes. Powerful as the Watana was, he was little more than one of their servants, as dependent on their whims as any ordinary Incan.

    “Will the sun speak today?” the Watana asked.

    “The sun will speak,” the priest replied.

    It was a simple, unnecessary ritual, but one they never neglected. Once, legend had it, a Watana tried asserting his will by using words of his own choosing. The twisted form in the throne to the Watana’s immediate left was warning enough of where such actions led.

    The villac moved forward assuredly and stepped up onto the flat stone top of the inti watana. The rock was probably inconsequential. One of the Watana’s teachers - one of the many history teachers of the tribe - had told him of a time when the priests had discoursed with the sun from flat, ordinary ground. The rock was a recent addition to the ceremony, introduced - so the Watana believed - to drive home the fact of the priests’ superiority. Most of them were quite short, but from the rock even the smallest of men was a giant to any others gathered on the platform.

    The villac spread his arms and tilted his head backwards, so his blank unseeing eyes were directed at the glaring sun. The Watana took a step closer, then lowered himself to his knees. He listened as the priest spoke to the sun in words he could not understand. Then he felt the hairs on his neck tingling. Seconds later, the rain fell.

    He never got used to the godly rain, the way it fell in a steady, limited, block-like pattern, always the same width and depth. Sometimes he imagined he could hear the musical voices of the gods in the sound of the drops as they struck stone, but he knew this was wishful thinking, that only the blessed villacs could make sense of the heavenly shower.

    The priest’s pose did not alter for several long moments. When his head finally fell forward again, the Watana could see the dark globes that his eyes had become, their white pits filled with the colour and wisdom of the gods of the sun.

    “In the beginning, we lived in the valleys,” the villac intoned in a dark, throbbing voice. “We worked the land and worshipped the gods and lived in peace. Others saw us and were jealous of our harmonic oneness with nature. They attacked and sought to drive us to extinction. They wished to steal our knowledge and tools and wisdom.

    “To protect our way of life, we learned to make war. Having put an end to the plans of our immediate enemies, we spoke to the gods and saw others in the future. To prevent their attacks, we struck first. Our Watanas formed leaders who took small but powerful armies to the north and south, subjugating all in their path. In time we controlled as much of the land as we wished, enough to ensure our empire’s long and prosperous life. To celebrate our success, we built this city in the sky, to be closer to the gods of the sun, that we might better hear their words and communicate.

    “This has angered the gods.” The Watana shifted uneasily at the accusation, even though he knew the decision to build in the summits had been the villacs’. “They have studied us and found us vain and overly proud. We are their chosen children and should behave with dignity. To punish us for our sins, they are sending the white man to destroy all we have built.”

    “This white man … He can do such a thing?” The Watana normally remained silent while the gods were speaking, but today he could not. There were questions that had to be answered.

    “The white men are to darkness as we are to light,” the villac said. “Where we made war to preserve peace, they made it to stimulate evil. While we stopped with enough, they go on, claiming more, desir-ing all. Had we remained true to our gods, they would have blinded the eyes of the white man: he would never have found his way across the giant sea. But now that he is here, he will never go back.”

    “Can we not fight?” the Watana asked.

    “The white man fights with the forces of darkness,” he was told. “To defeat him, we would have to embrace the dark. He uses weapons made of a hard, grey rock, which can kill from afar. He rides animals that move faster than men. He can sail the seas, moving from one end of the empire to the other in a matter of days.”

    “But if we kill their leaders …” the Watana suggested.

    “It will make no difference,” the blind priest sneered. “The white men do not pass on their knowledge through words. They do not store their wisdom in the heads of teachers. They use strange drawings to record all that they know.”

    “I do not understand,” the Watana confessed.

    “Imagine if you could take the entire learning of Machu Picchu and store it in the stone of the inti watana,” the priest explained. “You could then kill every teacher here, and it would make no difference. Their knowledge would live on, in the stone, ready to be brought back to life by any who wished.

    “The white men are not like us,” the villac said. “They do not store power in themselves. They place it outside their bodies, where it cannot be reached or destroyed. As long as one white man remains alive, their power lives on also. We cannot fight them. We cannot defeat them. We would have to kill every last white man to destroy the tribe, and that is impossible.”

    The Watana nodded sadly. It had never been put this bluntly to him before, but the circulating rumours had hinted at as much. “So what do we do?” he asked.

    “We leave,” the priest told him.

    “Leave Machu Picchu?” the Watana asked, his heart sinking.

    “Machu Picchu, yes,” the villac said. “But also the empire. We must prove to the gods that we are humble and worthy of their blessings. We must leave the beautiful lands and people and build a new city, one which will not drive the white man to murderous jealousy.”

    “What if I refuse to leave?” the Watana asked.

    The villac smiled unpleasantly. “You are the hitching post of the community,” he said. “As this rock draws the voices of the gods, so you draw the trust of the people of Machu Picchu. They follow where you lead. If you choose to stay, they will stay with you. But that way lies death. Death for you, for us, for the empire.”

    The Watana considered the priest’s words, then sighed and stood. “When should we leave?” he asked.

    “If the gods find us here when the sun rises, they will be displeased and shall withdraw their support,” came the answer.

    The rain stopped as quickly as it had started. The priest’s eyes closed and a look of pain crossed his face. When they opened again, they were blank once more. He stepped down from the stone and almost stumbled. The Watana steadied him.

    “What advice did the gods bestow upon you?” the villac asked. They always emerged confused from their conversations with the gods. Later he would remember, but for the time being his mind was as blank as his eyes.

    “They said we must leave,” the Watana replied.

    The villac grunted. “I thought as much. Many denied it, but I knew it must be. Coming up here was a mistake. When do we leave?”

    “Tonight,” the Watana said.

    “So soon?” the priest asked, surprised. “Can we not wait and -”

    “Any found here by the gods tomorrow will be damned and forsaken,” the Watana interrupted. “Your own lips pronounced it so. I leave with the setting of the sun. Follow or stay, as you wish.”

    He left the priest. He should have remained for the closing rite, but he had lost patience with the villacs and their rituals. It was their fault the white men were coming. They were the ones who urged the building of the mountain city, who demanded a special retreat for their unnatural clan. If not for them, all would have been smooth and the empire would have stood as it was.

    The Watana hurried down into the city of Machu Picchu to spread the word. His people would not like it, but they would follow. To disobey the Watana was to disobey the gods themselves, and nobody was that foolish.

    He paused on an overhanging precipice and gazed one last time at the mountains he had come to know as home. He could feel the world pulsing through the soles of his feet, and almost sense every falling pair of footsteps in the world below, every child’s cry, every labouring man’s heaving grunt. They were familiar sounds, but now, as he listened, he heard new noises: hands which made thunder when they clapped, rocks which screamed as they flew through the sky and shattered the world to pieces when they fell; he heard strange voices, the clopping sound of animals who wore shoes; sharp, sparking clashes as grey rock was struck with other grey rock, and then a duller sound as it was violently embedded in flesh.

    The Watana shivered and retreated from the precipice’s edge, tears in his eyes and fear in his heart.

    That night, as he led his people from their delicately balanced city in the sky, to a world lowly and dirty, a future bleak and uncertain, he looked ahead and wept for those Watanas yet to come. Would any know peace and beauty as he had? He feared not. As hard as leaving was, at least he had known the heavens, had moved through the clouds and felt the touch of the gods. What lay ahead for his unfortunate successors, apart from struggle and torment and pain?

    “Sons, I pity you,” he muttered, eyes cast on the city one final time. “What joys can possibly await you in this desolate land? There can be only suffering and death.” He shook his head miserably, then turned from the towering walls of Machu Picchu and led his people north, through the night, across the land, into countries and cities foreign and strange.
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