Valley of the Queen

The story begins 1000 years in the past in an area of present-day Vietnam. An ancient Queen is fleeing with her treasure from the Dai-Viet forces that are overtaking her country. As the modern narrative follows we begin in 1969 in the same area during the Vietnam war. We journey with the principle character through Vietnam and then to 1980's Chicago. The storyline returns to 1000 years earlier intermittently because that story is the foundation for the modern one. In the modern story, our hero meets a reporter who becomes obsessed with investigating an Asian despot who has a secret agenda to foment a revolution in Cambodia. Personal relationships develop and the plot leads four Chicago friends back to Vietnam with surprising twists and turns in the narrative that joins the ancient story with the modern one. The story is engaging and partly based on fact. The adventurous narrative is filled with love, conflict, a lot of intrigue and mystery.

This is how it begins...

PROLOGUE

1053 A.D. Panduranga Southeast Asia

(In the area of present day Thap Cham
(Prounounced Top Chom), Vietnam)

During the fall of the Champa (Sh-ampa) Kingdom

Po pushed as hard as she could against the wheel of the old cart.  The worn wooden wheel was bigger than she was but even at the age of ten she was determined to get it beyond the muddy hole that held it captive.  The men pushing with her strained with loud grunts and guttural sounds and, thinking this must help, she tried to do the same. However, her effort came off as a series of mouse-like squeaks causing the others to break into spontaneous laughter.  But with that, the wheel magically worked itself out of the hole and their laughter turned to cries of triumph.  Big Sem picked Po up and swung her around joyfully, “Little flower, what would we do without you?” he said.

There were twelve of them in their small party including two Hindu pundits along with four large and old carts carrying their precious cargo.  After they left the coast the ground had grown unstable with many rocks and deep muddy ruts in the earth amplified by a constant misting rain evident even in the thick jungle.
They were now secretively staying off the main roads and using old trails or making their own paths where there were none. The dense jungle undergrowth blocked their way constantly and forced the small party to take a meandering course toward their destination.  Even as they cleared a way through, the jungle quickly closed again behind them leaving little evidence of their passing.  They were forced to travel this much more arduous route because the well-traveled roads would be very dangerous for them and their precious cargo.  Sem sat Po down again and moved back to his labor pushing the first large cart on its way.  Po wiped the sweat from her brow, took a deep breath, and fell into line again with the two Hindu pundits and the few loyal followers who struggled with the over loaded carts they pushed and pulled together through the jungle from the coast.

Sem, who was very tall and weighing three hundred pounds, was the complete opposite of little Po. Her ‘Uncle Tap’ had assigned him as her personal bodyguard. He glanced back and seeing how tired she looked, stopped for a moment, picked her up, and in one motion put her safely down on the front of the first cart up against one of the chests that rested there. She settled in and looked at the jungle ahead.  From her perch it didn’t look like there was any way to go. But it had been like that since the coast and they had gone on just the same for miles through the thick, dense under growth of this Panduranga jungle.

 They had been fleeing south for four days and Po was hopeful they were near the end of their journey.  They brought with them a few personal items and the remaining wealth of the Champa Kingdom that had once ruled this land for hundreds of miles in every direction but was now beaten down by the conquering Dai Viet army sweeping in from the North.  What remained of ornate palaces and temples was now reduced to four carts of heavy chests.   In contrast to their station and the importance of their mission, they were dressed in rags as peasants and their carts appeared so old it was a wonder they had held up to the rigorous journey thus far.  

Po was the only child amongst them and was included as one of the ‘treasures’ of the old kingdom.  She was the granddaughter and heir to the great throne of the Champa Kingdom and included because her grandfather would not let the dynasty depart into history.  Though still very young, in a few terrible years she had already lived a lifetime bearing the knowledge of her older brothers being slain in battle and her grandfather, father, and mother who would not leave his side, all facing imminent death at the hands of the ruthless Dai Viet conquering army.  It was her spirit that drove this small but determined group of travelers.  Though as tired as the rest of the weary band of determined refugees, she seemed to find happiness in the smallest of things and brought encouragement and vitality to their effort. 
 
Finally, too dark to continue any further that day, Tap, her teacher who she called ‘Uncle Tap’ because he was like family to her, ordered that they stop and set up camp.  He was the nominal head of the group because he had been the king’s trusted advisor, Po’s teacher, and a friend of the family since the king was a child.  He did not need to be asked by the king, but when he was, he consented readily to the assignment.  Saving the heritage of the great Champa Kingdom was a sacred responsibility but for the knowledgeable teacher it was one he would gladly keep for his old friend and liege. Added to the weight of the chests was the news that his scout had brought him the day before that all of the royal family had been slain in Dong Na as it was overrun and sacked by the Dai Viet army.  Little Po was now the only remaining heir and rightful Queen of the Champa people.  There were many for that reason that would want her dead including the ambitious lords and aspirants to the throne of the Champas who had fled south from the Viets leaving the capitol relatively easy prey.

Tap took Po’s hand and led her to a place by the fire.  “Sit down, Po, and talk with me.  I need you to lighten my spirits, little flower.  I am tired from today’s journey.”

He was not an old man but not a young one anymore either, and with time his strength was little of what it once was.   Their escape was successful thus far but he knew it was only a matter of days before the trailing Viet army would overtake them if they did not persist in their forced march.  They had a good but desperate plan to get them safely away but only if they could get to their first destination and then for a time, at least, their heritage would be preserved.  They were very tired from their continued and determined journey.  Perhaps a night’s rest would give them the energy they needed. They had slept little in the four days since they had left Dong Na and little Po welcomed the rest.  She sensed the danger and the importance of their mission but her innocence knew little of the dark cloud that pursued and threatened to destroy them.

Because of Po and in deference to her, when they at last camped and wanted nothing more than to fall onto their mats and sleep, they cheerfully made an orderly camp, set down sleeping areas and cooked rice over a warm fire. The pundits seemed tireless and were helpful but in the end they sat by themselves and went through their nightly prayer ritual.  The other nine talked of many things in good spirits and with their bellies filling they grew more positive in their banter.  Po listened quietly with heavy eyes and finally fell asleep snuggled in the lap of her teacher.  They were woken in the middle of the night by a young scout who had been sent behind by the teacher to keep watch on the advance of the conquering army.  He told them with frantic gestures that the invaders were but a day behind them.  The teacher hurried everyone awake in the early and still-dark morning. They quickly repacked their belongings and started once more making a path through the dense undergrowth.  The jungle was ominous and even scary and Po was greatly relieved when it finally opened to a flat plain of wild grass, cactus and low brush.  She could see far beyond on the horizon that there were foothills leading to high mountains. 

“Are we going there, Uncle Tap?” she asked the teacher.

The teacher put his hand on her shoulder and only smiled. ‘Where is it?’ he thought.  He did not remember the site being this far.  But he had been much younger when he last traveled this way. He was about to seek consul of the two priests who were with them when one of the young men upon seeing the mountains despondently said, “We cannot make it over the mountains, master.  Surely we must abandon the chests if we are to escape.”

But as they watched, and with little hope left, the morning clouds parted and in the distance on a hill overlooking the plain they saw a small Cham temple with three towers lit almost magically like a beacon with rays from the morning sun. 

“It is karma my brothers,” said the teacher joyously.  “The Gods are still with us. Come, we must hurry,” he said as he shuffled down the path with little Po swinging his hand happily.

By early that afternoon they had arrived at the mouth of a nearly invisible cave on the far side of a very rocky hill near the temple. The small temple site was abandoned, as it seemed everyone was fleeing south to escape being subjugated by the Viet army.   The teacher went inside to inspect the cave and to see if it was as he remembered from a visit many years before.  Finding that nothing had changed he came out and signaled for the carts to be brought close to the entrance of the cave.  They lifted down the heavy chests with four men lifting each one and put the chests within the cave. The teacher took out a scroll on which he told of their king, their history, and their mission.  He placed it on the first chest and put a rock on it to hold it in place.  Finally, they placed two golden statues of their gods in front of the chests to protect them.They worked quickly then and closed the cave entrance with many large rocks from the area.  They retrieved ground cover and debris from the adjacent area and covered the entrance to look like the rest of the hill.  When they were through there was no sign that they had been there or buried anything within. 

It was then that the two Hindu pundits came to the teacher and requested that he help them and revealed their secret. They led him to an adjacent hill that was between the cave and the temple and with some effort pulled back a few large rocks to reveal a partial opening.  They told the teacher that there was a chamber below that had once been accessed from the temple.  That access was bricked over and hidden several years before as the Hindu pundits began to abandon the area and move back to their homeland. 
Within this chamber was collected the offerings of loyal Hindu followers for many centuries and from many lands.  This gold within meant nothing to them and they had much more than they could ever use. They had no reason to keep it because it only brought conflict and suffering when they wanted to bring peace and enlightenment to those they taught.  The gold had been secretly deposited here for as long as any of them remembered.

They further explained that the temple pundits thought they had successfully hidden the gold chamber when they bricked up the entrance under the temple.  But there are many caves hidden within these hills adjacent to the temple and many of them are connected.

A farmer’s boy playing in the caves near the area discovered this outer cave access.  The farmer showed one of the pundits who still took care of the temple what his son had found and together they covered up that cave entrance.  But it was not as well hidden as the one they had just disguised and if any word got out of the Champa treasure being hidden in the area, no doubt someone would find the entrance with little difficulty.

 The teacher had been a skilled builder in his time and consented to their request but wanted to make a few additions inside the chamber to insure that no one would ever take the gold from there in the off chance that the chamber was discovered.  After he explained his plan to the pundits they heartily approved and by sunset his new construction and the burying of the chamber’s outer access entrance was done.  In the end the two hills looked like nothing more than ordinary rock and dirt hills matching the area around them perfectly.  

Satisfied with their effort they gathered their remaining belongings and took one last look as the sun was setting. Po smiled for it was a beautiful sight with the sun going down behind the three temple towers looking almost like they were floating in the sky.  She felt Uncle Tap’s hand resting on her shoulder and heard him say softly, “You must return here someday, little Po.  Our heritage is in your hands and the lives and memories of our people are left for you to carry on.”  His hands suddenly felt heavier on her shoulders as she understood the meaning of his words.  She placed one hand over his and said softly, “I will, Uncle Tap. I will.”    

They turned and set off for the mountains and their final destination beyond finally unburdened by the heavy carts.  In that far land time would pass and their hopes and vision would become memories, and memories would become myths… and myths would be judged in kind.