“It is time.”
The half-naked man sitting on the floor nods and gets to his feet. Months of imprisonment have given him a paunch, and the once so slim and erect body is slightly hunched. No wonder…
I don’t say anything as I help him dress. His hands are trembling and there’s a glazed look to his eyes . According to Pizarro’s instructions, the Inca is to die in simple clothes – and of Spanish cut to properly underline that this man is a subject of the Spanish King, a baptized catholic who is to be punished for rebelling against his rightful lord.
“How can I be in rebellion against a man who has stolen my land?” Atahualpa asks, making me jump. Dark eyes bore into mine, and the finely shaped jaw is taut with tension. Something resembling anger flashes through his eyes. “I should have killed them.” He knots his hand. “Like that. I could have killed them all, even with their horses and their firesticks.” A shudder ripples through him. The Inca is afraid of fire. Much more afraid of fire than of death, and today’s event could have been much, much worse. Or maybe not. I slide him a look, catching an expression of anguish that I decide to ignore – this is a proud man who prefers to keep his emotions to himself.
“Why didn’t you?” I say.
“Huh?” He looks confused.
“Kill them. Wipe them off the earth…” Less than two hundred Spaniards against the thousands upon thousands of Inca soldiers – it should have been like stealing candy from kids.
“You don’t think I’ve asked myself that same question?” he snarls, kicking at the stool that is the single item of furnishing in the little room. His shoulders dip, his spine curves. “They were so few,” he says. “How could they be a threat to the mighty Inca? And now …” A hand dashes over his eyes, the voice breaks for a moment. “… my people. I have failed them. I invited in the puma among the vicuñas, and now my people and their way of life will be eradicated, crushed under the booted heel of these uncouth, barbaric invaders.” He throws me a look. “They will, no?”
There’s no point in lying to him, so I just nod. As we speak the Spanish conquistadores are claiming huge tracts of land, they’re taking the prettiest Inca women as wives or concubines, and systematically they will wipe out every remnant of opposition. Quechua will become the language of the oppressed, the religious beliefs of the people forced underground by a powerful and jealous Catholic church.
“In the fullness of time …” he whispers. “Some day the tables will be turned.”
Hmm. Not anytime soon, I could tell him, but what would be the point?
There’s a loud banging to the door. “You ready yet?”
Atahualpa starts. “Yes,” he manages to say.
I hold out the breviary Father Vicente has given him. “Do you…”
“No.” He spits on the book. “Keep it. A God that is served by savages is no God.”
The door swings open and two burly men enter the small room.
“Come on,” the elder of them says, “you can’t be late for your on execution, hey?” His companion laughs, Atahualpa quails and I feel disgusted.
I trail them as they drag Atahualpa along.
“He can walk on his own!” I yell, and the fat one turns towards me. “Let go of him,” I say, “give him that at least.”
Atahualpa bows in my direction and straightens up. He sets his shoulders and walks the last hundred metres or so alone. The Pizarro brothers are saying something to each other but Hernando waves Fransisco silent when Atahualpa enters the room, and in total silence Atahualpa strides towards the waiting priest and the garrotter. His choice, to die like this. A choice given to him when he accepted the baptism into the Catholic church – otherwise they’d have burnt him alive.
I hold his eyes as he dies. Two fountains of darkness that cloud and dim, and the last of the Incas is dead.
“Some day,” I whisper to his body as I turn away. Yes, some day.