The Golden Conquest – Part 19

.           Xlenca waited at the head of the column until Master Hai-Tumma had finished caring for his mount. When the senior Beast Master had returned Xlenca dismounted and lead Moon Dancer to the small stream that bordered the trail. The mastodon drank deeply from the cool water and turned to munch on some ferns that were growing near the water’s edge. Xlenca and Lotec carefully inspected the animal’s legs and flanks, pulling out burrs and branches that had become entangled in her hair and searching for parasites on her skin. The Great Beast enjoyed the ministrations and reached back to nuzzle her Master with her trunk. Xlenca laughed and stretched up his hand to scratch her behind her ear.

“She likes it when you do that,” a voice called, and the two men turned to see Cue-Ahmma approaching from the trail. “The Great Hill Masters changed their plans and decided to send all the female servants back to the Barracks. They have moved on to the siege and thought it would be too dangerous to have us there.”

“Too dangerous for whom I wonder,” Lotec said with a laugh.  Xlenca frowned at his Rider and the younger man returned to checking Moon Dancer’s skin. The Beast Master took Cue-Ahmma’s hand and they stepped back into the shade of the jungle.

“Master Hai-Tumma told me that you would be traveling with us. I am glad. Once we get closer to the Great Hill, he plans to send a company of soldiers to escort you the rest of the way. You’ll be safe once you’re back at your home Barracks.” The young woman stepped closer and looked into Xlenca’s eyes.

“I don’t want to go back.” Her voice was soft and husky. “I want to stay with you.” Xlenca cupped her face in his hands. Her hair smelled like wild flowers and her eyes glistened in the sunlight that filtered through the forest canopy. She leaned her face into his hand and let her lids fall shut. Xlenca slowly lowered his face to hers, and their lips touched.

The moment was shattered by the loud trumpeting of a mastodon. Xlenca jerked his head up anxiously and looked back toward the column. He recognized the sound as being the call of Master Hai-Tumma’s animal.  He hesitated; his arms still tight around Cue-Ahmma’s waist.

“Go. I know that you must.” She stepped back and watched as he turned and ran back to the stream. Lotec had already led Moon Dancer to the riverbank in response to the signal. The two men mounted the mastodon and Xlenca tapped her side to send her into a swift trot. Seconds later they burst out of the trees to see the other Beast Riders lined up before Master Hai-Tumma.  Xlenca was relieved to see that there was no sign of an attack and noted the weary messenger standing nearby. Hai-Tumma nodded to the late arrivals before speaking.

“I have received a message from the Barracks Master,” he said in his usual ponderous style, “Master Quezoema has obtained news from the capital which is most worrisome. It has been reported that the Sun Temple guards have arrested all the old Masters in the capital and charged them with heresy.” The younger men responded with shouts of dismay and Hai-Tumma was forced to raise his hands to restore silence. Only after all were quiet did he continue. “Master Quezoema has sent a messenger to me with orders that we are to turn away from the capital and proceed back to the Barracks. We will take the prisoners and a small number of infantrymen.  The remaining foot soldiers are to disperse and return to their homes. We will be leaving as soon as possible so please see to your duties.” The Beast Masters hurried away, quiet and troubled by the news.

Cuantolec was pleased at the change in orders. It had been almost two weeks since the battle and the glory of their victory was beginning to wane. Their progress had been so slow due to the injured and the captives that he had been expecting another few weeks of service before he could be discharged. Now if he hurried, he would be able to be back in his own village within a few days, once again resting with his wife and family. He would be glad to return to her care. He had developed a throbbing in his head as the day went on and nothing he did seemed to help it. Now he felt like he might have a fever. He pulled his Spanish blanket tighter about his shoulders and thought of how good it would be to finally be home.

The Spanish captives wondered if they would ever see home again. With fewer guards the prisoners had to be retied to ensure security. Their hands were bound more tightly and ropes were fastened about their waists and to each other so they had to now move in a shuffling line. Brother Sebastian complained bitterly at this treatment especially as the other clerics were not likewise fettered. There had been a brief but heated discussion when some of the Beast Masters urged that all the prisoners be bound. The issue had been decided when Xlenca intervened and simply asked Father Garcilosa and Henrico to give their word not to try to escape. When he then stated his trust in them, the matter was settled with only the Dominican remaining unsatisfied.

Master Hai-Tumma pushed the Ixtec and the Spanish hard. Xlenca watched as the fear and confusion on the captives’ faces was replaced with the dullness of exhaustion. He knew they could not understand what was happening and as they marched back the trail, he was glad that their tight bonds and the continued presence of the mastodons was sure to dispel any thought of escape. Any such risk declined further as their limbs were grew more and more fatigued and the ropes had begun to chaff and burn. Despite the increasing weariness felt by all, the troop continued to push on.

Father Garcilosa’s concern about the Spanish prisoners and especially the wounded increased as time passed. He moved down the line giving comfort where he could and encouragement to all. The priest pulled Henrico away from his language lesson with the disgruntled Dominican to position him alongside Ponce d’Amarco. The injured courtier was gamely trying to keep up but his headache had become more intense and his balance was failing. Henrico slipped an arm under d’Amarco’s shoulder and steadied him while the priest hurried forward. He would find Xlenca and urge that the Beast Master allow a rest for the captive Spaniards.

The late afternoon sun shone warmly down on the viper as it coiled its two-meter body at the base of a large tree. The snake had sensed the approaching column of men but its belly was full and its resting place far enough from the trail that it should not be disturbed. Its olive-green body was covered by reddish brown triangles edged with lighter scales. Behind its nostrils lay the two indentations on its broad flat head that identified it as a member of the pit viper family.

In later years, the Spanish would come to know the snake as the fer-de-lance. The Ixtec called it the Silent Death.

Father Garcilosa hurried down the track and spied Moon Dancer just ahead around a small curve in the road. His way blocked by a hand cart laden with supplies, he slipped off the trail and strode through the underbrush. As he neared a large tree, Father Garcilosa called out, hoping to catch the Beast Master’s attention. At that moment the startled pit viper rose up, its body arched into an “S”. Before the priest could react, the snake flashed out and sank its fangs deep into his leg.

Father Garcilosa jerked in surprise and stumbled back toward the trail. Two of the Ixtec soldiers cried out in alarm and rushed forward. One of them gripped the Spanish priest’s arms to keep him from falling and pulled him back while the second swung his war club at the underbrush. The viper slithered away allowing the warriors to retreat with the stricken priest. As the soldiers eased Father Garcilosa to the ground, he glanced up to see Xlenca approaching. The Beast Master slid down from his mount to stand beside the foreign priest and slowly shook his head.

“I am sorry, priest,” he said, his voice solemn, “I saw what happened. There is nothing we can do.”

“Do not worry, Master Xlenca,” the Spanish cleric said, straightening up, “I will be fine.”

“No, you don’t understand. I saw the snake that bit you. No one lives after such a thing.  All die.” 

The elderly priest only smiled. “I assure you Master Xlenca, I am uninjured. But please, I was coming to ask you if the wounded could be allowed to take a brief rest.”

“What? What are you saying? Are you mad?’ Xlenca lurched back in shock. “We call that snake the Silent Death. None survive its bite.”

“There is no need for concern.” The priest reached down to the hem of his robe and touched his leg. “Please. What about the prisoners?”

It seemed that even the jungle was silent for a moment before the Beast Master answered. “No—no, I am sorry, we cannot stop. I—I shall have the soldiers help the injured men. We will reach our next campsite in a few hours.”

“Very well then. I thank you.” He rose from the ground and walked back down the trail.  He was limping only a little more than usual and when he glanced over his shoulder, he saw the Ixtec standing, watching him with open mouths, waiting for him to fall, to scream in pain as the venom took hold. He continued down the trail.

Xlenca stood, his eyes narrowed and his face grim. He shook his head and waved the soldiers back in line before climbing back about Moon Dancer. The old warrior-priest was strong and courageous, but he would still be dead within the hour. There could be no other outcome. Unless, and with this thought the Beast Master paused, unless there was a power in this foreign priest that he had never witnessed before. He reached for his neck to grasp his talisman, forgetting for a moment his rejection of the Sun God and a cold shiver crept up his spine. He looked back down the trail but the priest had disappeared around the bend. Time would tell.

By the time the column had reached the campsite, the news of the snake bite had spread through the entire Ixtec force. As Father Garcilosa settled down to rest beside a fire pit, he found a steady stream of native soldiers wandering by to catch a glimpse of him. Some lingered nearby as if waiting for the death throes to begin. When the evening progressed and nothing happened the crowd of onlookers began to grow. At last, their commanders were compelled to disperse the men and order them away from the area. Henrico too had heard the story. His initial fear and apprehension were replaced by amazement as time passed. When the camp was finally quiet and the Ixtec soldiers less watchful, he moved closer to the priest.

“How is it possible, Father?” he whispered in Spanish, “How is it that you have not been harmed by the viper’s attack. Is it a miracle?”

“I have no doubt that the hand of God is in this,” the priest said, “Though perhaps not in the way you imagine. You know that I had been wounded in the past. Well, the injury was so grievous that I would have died if not for an excellent surgeon in Cordova. The doctor was a Jew and I know that he saved my life.” The older cleric paused for a moment, lost in thought and memory. Then he slowly lifted his robe and slid up the leg of his trousers. “I thought it most distressing at the time that in the process he could not also save my leg.”

Henrico gasped as the flickering firelight revealed the polished gleam of oak. He started to reach for the false leg but pulled his hand back. Father Garcilosa smiled. “He also made me this fine substitute. The man was a genius and the wooden leg which he gave me functions so well that most never notice it. After Torquemada’s Inquisition led to the Jewish doctor’s expulsion from Spain, I elected not to reveal my wound to any. I often wondered why God allowed this to happen to me. Today I learned that it could also be a blessing. Who knows what other doors may be opened as a result?”

“But the Ixtec will think that there was a miracle.”

“Wasn’t there? Our Lord promised to work all things for our good and hasn’t He done so? The viper could have bitten me on the thigh or on my other leg. But God was in control.”

“What will you tell them?”

“I will always speak the truth. Though I was attacked by a deadly snake, I am uninjured thanks to the grace of God.” Father Garcilosa reached out to place a hand on the young Benedictine’s shoulder. “Make no mistake, my son. Our God could have protected me from the viper’s venom no matter what. His power is real and He does do miracles. I have witnessed them before and I believe I will again, perhaps very soon.”

“Why didn’t He protect us then? Why did He allow Cortes to be so easily defeated and for us to be captured? Where was He then?”

“He has never left us my son, and will never forsake us. Remember, we do not fight against flesh and blood but against powers and principalities. These people are oppressed by evil. They are living in darkness. Perhaps you and I are meant to show them the light.” He kept his eyes locked on Henrico’s for a moment. There seemed to be a deep sadness within him.

Henrico dropped his head, his voice a hoarse whisper. “God would not use me. I have nothing to give.” As the young man stared into the fire, the priest laid a hand on his shoulder and began to pray.

The early morning sun filtered through the foliage to pull the two clerics from their slumber. They sat up with a start when they realized a group of Ixtec soldiers was watching them. The native warriors had spread a brightly woven blanket on the ground and covered it with a mound of flowers and fresh fruit. When the two Spaniards arose the Ixtec bowed slightly and backed away, leaving their offering where it lay. Henrico stepped forward to reach for a piece of fruit but the priest stopped him.

“Henrico,” he said in a quiet voice, “These men may think that we are gods but we must remember that we are only men. I admit it’s tempting but pride has been my downfall before. I know I must guard against it. Help me carry this fruit to the injured. They need it more than we do.”  The young Benedictine hesitated for a moment and then helped to move the blanket with its load of produce to the Spanish prisoners. There was enough for all the wounded men. The two were continuing their work when they were interrupted by the approach of an Ixtec warrior. It was one of those who had witnessed the previous day’s snake attack.

“O lord from the Great Sea,” he said, bowing his head, “Was our offering unworthy?”

“Oh no,” Father Garcilosa replied, “But you did not need to do it.”

“But you have survived the Silent Death. We know that you are one of the gods and we wish to make offering to you. We must do this.  We—we fear your anger.”

“I am no god. But I believe that I have been sent from God. Not from any of the gods you know but from the Lord God, Creator of all things. Walk by me this day and I shall share His message with you.” The Ixtec soldier’s eyes grew wide and he started to back away. He stopped and stared at the Spanish cleric before nodding his head. He would hear the word of this foreign god. 

Xlenca had slept fitfully and he yawned as he tended to Moon Dancer. He knew that Father Garcilosa had survived the night. The fact that the Spaniard had not succumbed to the venom of the pit viper troubled him. He was even more worried about the reaction that the priest’s survival had caused amongst the soldiers. The young Beast Master did not believe that the priest was a god but could see that some power had protected him. Was it the Sun God? Or some rival deity from over the Great Water? Xlenca sighed and leaned his head against the mastodon’s shoulder. Life had seemed so much easier before all these gods had begun to take notice of him. Would things ever be simple again? Moon Dancer reached back with her trunk to ruffle his hair and he found a smile returning to his face.

“I can always count on you, old girl, can’t I?”  He reached up to scratch the great beast behind her ear. “Yes, I can count on you.”

Soon the column was ready to move on. At Master Hai-Tumma’s command Xlenca headed his mount to the head of the line and fell in beside the older Beast Master. Hai-Tumma waved the other mastodons away and ordered the Masters and Riders to fall back with the infantry. The gentle sway of his mastodon could not mask the obvious tension in the older man. At last, when all others were out of earshot he turned and stared at Xlenca.

“This incident with the foreign warrior priest troubles me,” he said, “First, he displays courage in combat. Then he demonstrates priestly ability in caring for the injured. Third, he is granted extra privileges. No, do not protest. I do not begrudge him the freedom he has been given. He has made no attempt to escape and has greatly assisted the wounded. I have no doubt he has saved lives amongst both forces.”  Hai-Tumma rubbed his eyes slowly. “Now he has supposedly survived the attack of a deadly snake.”

“I saw it myself, Master. The Silent Death struck him and yet he lives.”  

“It doesn’t matter.” The old man said through gritted teeth, “Whether he is the Sun God incarnate or just a trickster, he has dazzled the men. They even took him tribute this morning. If word should reach the ears of the priests at the Great Temple, we will all suffer. He must be isolated from the soldiers and this story quashed. I have ordered the two warriors who witnessed the incident forward as an advance guard so they will have no further contact with the foreigner or with the other men. I want you to keep this pale skinned priest and his apprentice away from the column and away from me. There must not be any further incidents.”

“I understand, Master Hai-Tumma. I will see to it.”

“Make sure that you do.”  

The older Beast Master moved forward while Xlenca waited for Lotec to scramble back atop the mastodon’s back. The Rider started to speak but Xlenca shook his head. They both were quiet as Moon Dancer turned and moved down the trail past the column of marching men. Only when they had reached the captive Spaniards, did Xlenca break his silence.

“Lotec, find the warrior priest and his apprentice and bring them here.”

Henrico and Father Garcilosa followed the young Beast Master as he had led them to the end of the column, past even the rear guard of infantry. They remained on the trail but were soon out of sight of the rest of the troops. Through the whole morning none spoke and the tension grew. The two native warriors remained taciturn even when they stopped to rest the mastodon at mid-day. They exchanged glances until at last Xlenca nodded sharply. The column was resuming its march when the Beast Master climbed aboard Moon Dancer and prodded her into motion. As she began to shamble forward, Lotec fell in beside Henrico, and Xlenca heard him speak. 

“Tell me about your God.”

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The Golden Conquest – Part 18

.           Why was the ship so dark? Henrico struggled to orientate himself, his eyes feeling as if lead weights were tied to them. Something is wrong. The ship seemed to be swaying not rolling on the waves as it should be. And why was he onboard anyway? Hadn’t Captain Quintero returned to Cuba? The young Benedictine tried once more to open his eyes and a low groan escaped from his lips. He attempted to lift himself up onto his elbows but was driven back down by a wave of nausea.

“Easy my son,” Father Garcilosa said softly as he leaned over the injured novice, “You received a bad blow to the head. You’ve been unconscious for most of the day.”

“W-where are we?” Henrico’s voice was a dry croaked.

“I’m not sure. We’ve been headed west since the battle. Our captors . . .”

“Captors? What?” The young Spaniard attempted to rise once again but fell back clutching his head. His vision began to clear and he saw that he lay upon a litter being carried by two solemn warriors. Both were sturdy bronzed men with long straight black hair and piercing dark eyes. They were naked from the waist up with animal pelts draped over their shoulders.  Henrico stared at them in wonderment, struggling to recall what had happened. Memories gradually seeped back into his consciousness and with an increasing despair he realized that these simple native soldiers had somehow defeated Cortes and his army.

“How?” he said looking back at Father Garcilosa, “How did it happen?” At that moment a shadow passed over him and he looked up as an immense dark shape towered over him. A great brownish grey creature lumbered along beside his litter, its tree trunk limbs moving easily in time with the men. Its great domed head was draped with a coarse covering of hair and framed by a pair of flap-like ears. Hanging from the beast’s face was a long snaking trunk that swayed back and forth between two wickedly spiraled tusks. The animal looked down at the young man with an eye that was surprisingly soft and gentle. Henrico moved his gaze to take in the tall straight native seated on the creature’s broad neck. The man returned his stare with quiet dignity.

Xlenca was satisfied with his new duties. In the aftermath of the battle, a large force of infantry had been sent on to harry the retreating enemy and drive them back into their walled camp. The Ixtec scouts had warned that the invader’s city was strongly fortified and could not easily be captured. Quezoema and the other commanders had decided the site would need to be encircled and besieged. To meet this end, their forces would have to be divided. The first priority had been to see to the dead and wounded. The Ixtec casualties had been low and mainly amongst the Sun Warriors.  For them death in battle was the ultimate honor. The corpses were carefully wrapped in woven shrouds to be carried back to their home villages.

The Beast Riders had not emerged unscathed from the hostilities. Two Riders had been killed by the weapons of noise and fire and one Master badly wounded. Two of the mastodons had also been injured but not seriously. Master Quezoema took half of the Red Sun squadron along with the beasts from the Great Hill to join the infantry laying siege to the enemy. The Southern Reaches force he ordered back to their Barracks to guard against any intrusion from that direction. The wounded Beasts and men were sent back to the Red Sun to recuperate.  Xlenca was ordered to accompany two other Beasts under the command of Master Hai-Tumma and escort the captured enemy troops back to the capital.

In total there were just over two score of prisoners. Many were wounded and a few would have to be carried but none were left behind. Their arms were bound behind them and their legs tethered together with short pieces of leather cord. This allowed them to walk but made running and thus escape impossible. The Ixtec placed a high value on their prisoners. However, the care with which they tended their injuries and transported them was not motivated by kindness or compassion. The captives would be questioned and interrogated but the ultimately most of them would be sent to the great Sun Temple and a death under the High Priest’s blade.

Xlenca had suggested and been granted one exception to this rule. The grey haired elder who had so bravely defended his fallen comrade had piqued the young Beast Master’s interest. He was the only one of the captives who could speak at all in the Ixtec language.  His accent was poor and he often mixed in Mayan terms but they had been able to communicate. Xlenca recognized the value this man would have to the leaders of the Empire and had been impressed with the humble dignity that the man had displayed. He had spoken with the man for only a short time when he recognized that he was not only a cleric of the alien army’s god.  He was also something more. This pale skinned invader was a warrior priest.

The Ixtec clerics always accompanied the army whenever it marched but they did not fight. Their role was to strengthen the troop’s resolve and inspire them to willingly risk injury and death. They did this through public rituals, sacrifices and private exhortation. They were quite adept at all these tasks. They were however unskilled in the martial arts. This priest from over the Great Water was different. He was more like the ecclesiastics of Ixtec legend, equally skilled in prayer and combat. When he asked permission to tend to the wounded and pledged not to escape, Xlenca believed him. He was able to convince the others and the man was left unbound.

Xlenca had noted from his flanking position that the priest’s young companion had regained consciousness. He had accepted the man’s claim that the lad was his apprentice and was curious to learn more about him now that he had awakened. The Beast Master tapped Moon Dancer’s side and the mastodon edged closer to the prisoners. Xlenca had to suppress a smile at the young man’s startled look as the immense creature moved to cover him with her shadow. He silently stared down at the man and studied his visage.  Xlenca kept his face impassive, displaying neither hostility nor compassion. He was unable however not to be shocked with what happened next.

Moon Dancer gently reached out with her trunk to touch the captive man’s face. She sniffed his neck and ruffled his hair. The young man’s mouth dropped open and his eyes grew wider but he did not flinch or try to ward off the mastodon’s exploration. Moon Dancer lowered her trunk momentarily and then raised it again to wrap it around the prisoner’s shoulders. Xlenca was amazed. The Great Beast had just shown acceptance to this enemy soldier, just as she might have to a new Initiate or Apprentice. The young Master could not understand why she had done this thing or what it meant, but he would find out. He quickly tapped Moon Dancer’s flank and she moved away.

Henrico continued to stare at the huge animal as it hurried toward the front of the column until his head began to swim once again. Lowering himself down, he glanced at Father Garcilosa walking beside the litter. 

“What was that?”

“That my son, was the Great Beast that Txella had warned us about. I believe it may be related to the elephants of Africa and Asia but it is unlike any I have ever seen. Our captors are the Ixtec and they have somehow tamed this magnificent creature. It is the strength of their army and with it they have cast Cortes away like so much chaff.”

“What is it called?”

“The Ixtec call it the Great Beast but its common name is mastodon. The one that approached you is named Moon Dancer and it is her master who captured us. He is called Xlenca in the Ixtec tongue.”

“What are they going to do with us?”

“Thus far they have treated us kindly. They have shown more care for the wounded and injured than most European armies would have. I am unsure what they will do once we reach our destination but this mastodon rider seems like an honorable man. We will have to trust him.”  The two Spaniards fell silent as the line of prisoners marched onward down the trail.

.                                           *                                    *                                 *

Cuantolec was a poor man. He was not a warrior. He had been selected by his village to fulfill its requirement for the army. In return the village had provided him with a flint tipped spear, a wooden war club and a bag of dried maize. They had also promised to care for his wife and children for a full year if he should happen to be killed or maimed. He did not desire to risk either possibility and so had managed to lag behind when his group had been sent into combat.  When the battle became a rout, he had rushed forward in the hope of gathering some plunder from the enemy soldiers. The best booty had already been seized by those braver and more fleet of foot, but he had managed to grab a large piece of cloth dropped by a fleeing invader.

The blanket was dirty and had a number of spots of mingled blood and pus. Other Ixtec infantry might have bypassed the object but to Cuantolec it was a prize. The cloth was softer and of a better weave than anything he had ever owned. He would wash it when he had the chance and he was sure his wife could make one or two fine tunics out of it. He was pleased that he would not return to his village empty handed and knew that the stolen blanket would allow him to exaggerate his own role in the battle. He had been with the Ixtec army when they had crushed the invaders from over the Great Water. He smiled and pulled the blanket closer about his neck. 

.                                         *                                 *                              *

It was dark when the column reached the Ixtec’s fortified camp. Runners had raced ahead and the compound had been prepared with long rows of torches brightening the clearing. Those prisoners who were uninjured had their feet bound more tightly and tied to a stake driven deep into the ground. Their hands were left free while they were given food and water but were then retied behind their backs. Once again, the wounded men were bound less securely and Father Garcilosa was left unfettered to minister to them. Working by torchlight he moved from man to man until he at last came to where Henrico lay. Settling on the grass beside the Benedictine he moaned slightly as he eased himself down.

“Are you all right, Father?” the young man said, “Is it your leg?”

“It is only a trifling, my son. There are so many others suffering much more.” The priest lowered his head briefly and rubbed his eyes. “I’m afraid that more have also died.”

“Are there many prisoners?”

“Yes, including some that we know. Your friend d’Amarco lies near that tree over there.  He has a nasty gash on his forehead but he will be fine.” Garcilosa gave a wry smile as he looked to where the other captives sat under guard. “Brother Sebastian is here also. He is not enjoying the accommodations at all, I’m afraid.”

“What about his lackey, Montoya?” Henrico scowled, the hatred in his voice surprising both of them. “Is he here too?”

“No,” the priest said in a solemn voice, “He is not. Seaman Montoya was killed in the battle. He is now answering to God for his sins, just as we all will someday. I am afraid that his soul was not ready to face Judgment. We should both pray that when our day comes, we will be better prepared.” The two men looked at each other in silence for a moment. A red flush of shame rose onto Henrico’s cheeks and he lowered his head. Father Garcilosa reached out to lay his hand on the young man’s tonsure in a silent benediction. The Benedictine stiffened at first but then yielded to the touch. The priest stood quietly and turned back to his other duties.

The Beast Master Xlenca had been watching the exchange and now stepped forward.  Motioning at the injured novice he spoke slowly, careful to make sure his words were understood, “Who is he? Is he your student?”

“Yes, his name is Henrico and he is—what is word? —my learner.”

“Apprentice?”

“Yes, that is it. He also speaks the words of the People.”

Xlenca studied the young man for a moment and then looked back at the older Spaniard. “Is Ha-Nee-Ko a priest too? Is that why his head is shaven in this manner?” 

“Ah, yes,” the priest said with a nod, “Henrico is learning at one of our—our temples”

“So, do all priests from over the Great Water shave the top of their heads. What about the one over there? The Black Robe?” He pointed with his rod at the other captives and the two Spaniards followed his gaze to see Brother Sebastian sitting bound to a stake.

“Yes, he is like a priest.”

“Good. We will have questions for you all. You Han-Ree-Ko, will teach him our language.”

“Me?” the young Benedictine said, “I can’t . . ..”

Father Garcilosa lifted a hand to silence his apprentice. “We will do what we can. Thank you for your kindness, Master Xlenca.”  

The Beast Master snorted and strode away. These two bothered him. The older man had a quality about him that Xlenca could not help but admire. He was strong and determined yet gentle, serene even. The essence of wisdom and peace that seemed to abide within him reminded Xlenca of his old Master, Tu-Tuoan. The younger man was stubborn with a rebellious streak and seemed to be hiding something. The Beast Master knew intuitively that the foreign priest could be trusted but was less sure of his younger companion. Yet it was the young man that Moon Dancer had reached out to and accepted. Xlenca did not like feeling confused and these two confused him.   

He moved through the camp as the army settled itself for the night.  The prisoners were well guarded and had received food, water and care. The wounded mastodons and Ixtec soldiers had been seen to. Most of these would wait and rest in the fortified camp along with the servants and camp followers until able to return to their homes and Barracks. Xlenca and the others would rest for a few days before beginning the journey to the capital. He hoped the passage would be quick and uneventful. Even now, he wished he could be back at the Red Sun Barracks, and that things were as they were just a year ago. Everything then had seemed so clear and easy.

A loud moan captured his attention and he stopped beside a group of infantrymen. They were clustered around a Sun Warrior who had been wounded in the battle. He had been washed of his red and black body paint and lay on a straw pallet. Xlenca was surprised at how young the man looked, his face pale and tight with pain. A blanket lay over the man’s body and a crimson stain could be seen blossoming in the middle of it. A soldier kneeling beside the wounded man lifted the covering and glanced under it. Looking up he caught Xlenca’s eye and slowly shook his head. The injured man cried out and lifted himself up suddenly. He gasped and then fell back to lay silent and still on the pallet. Another warrior reached out to close the man’s lifeless eyes.

Xlenca felt a shudder go through him and stepped away with his head down. A hand was touched his shoulder and he turned to find Cue-Ahmma looking up at him. She kept her hand on his arm as she looked over at the fallen soldier. His comrades had gathered around the body and knelt in silent vigil. She watched for a moment before speaking.

“It is not like I had expected,” she said in a whisper.

“I feel the same. The tales I have heard of war and battle have always seemed glorious, exciting. The enemy made out to be less than human. The truth is there is death and suffering on both sides, courage and cowardice as well.”

“I saw you speaking to the prisoners earlier. What are they like?”

“They are men just like I am. Indeed, the two I spoke to have goodness in them, though I’m sure not all are like that. I expect most are seeking only wealth and power. That is why they invaded our homeland and why we must drive them out.”

“Will there be more fighting?”

“It is likely. Their fort will be under siege by now but I do not think the pale skinned army will give up easily.”

“I—I was worried about you.” 

Xlenca smiled at her softly and stepped closer. He touched a hand to her cheek. “I will be alright, Cue-Ahmma. I have Lotec and Moon Dancer to look after me.”

“Promise me. Promise me that you will be careful.” She moved into his arms and laid her head on his chest. Xlenca wrapped his arm around her slender form and stroked her hair.

“I promise.”

Henrico’s head still throbbed but he had recovered enough to walk. His gait was slow as he followed the young Ixtec warrior through the compound glancing from side to side as he did. Most of the victorious army ignored him. Those who did not, observed his movement with more curiosity than anger. The young warrior looked back sternly and waved for him to walk faster. Henrico had learned that his name was Lotec and that he was one of the soldiers who rode on the backs of the mastodons. His Beast Master Xlenca had ordered him to be taken to Brother Sebastian to begin teaching the Dominican the Ixtec language.

The black robed cleric frowned at the approach of the Ixtec soldier and then distorted his face into a sneer when he saw Henrico behind the native. The arrogance quickly faded when Lotec stooped over the Dominican and pulled out his knife. Henrico suppressed a smile at the fear that appeared in Brother Sebastian’s eyes as the Ixtec warrior grabbed his hands. The knife flashed quickly and the prisoner’s bonds fell away. The Dominican stared at his hands for a moment and then looked up at Lotec. The warrior stepped back and gestured for Henrico to move forward.

“They want me to teach you their language.”

“What? You think I would submit to being a student to a heretic and a Jew lover? Never.”  He spat on the ground and deliberately turned away. Henrico looked over at Lotec and shrugged his shoulders. The Beast Rider grunted and pointed at Brother Sebastian.

“He says that if you do not learn their language and quickly, they will beat you,” Henrico said, “He says that if I do not teach you then you will have to learn on your own and they will beat you more each day until you do.” The black robed Inquisitor stared at the young man and then at the stone faced Ixtec. At last, he jerked his head in a sharp nod and looked down in defeat. Lotec grunted in satisfaction and stepped back.

The Dominican brother had a sharp mind and with the proper motivation proved to be an excellent student. He was quick to grasp the rudiments of the Ixtec language and was beginning to understand its grammar by the time the army broke camp. The native troops were ready to resume the trek to the Ixtec capital and the prisoners were assembled for the journey. Henrico would walk with the others but was allowed to do so without being bound. Father Garcilosa continued to receive the same privilege but Brother Sebastian had not been deemed trustworthy and still had his hands and feet tied. The Inquisitor glared with hatred at the native soldiers but kept quiet.

Henrico continued his tutelage of Brother Sebastian as they traveled. The pace remained slow as some of the wounded prisoners still needed to be carried. The Ixtec leaders wanted to ensure that they all survived the journey. The day was hot and dry and as the two ecclesiastics plodded along it soon became too difficult to continue the lesson. Henrico left the Dominican with his guards and moved closer to the head of the column to reach Father Garcilosa.

“Have you abandoned your student, my son?” the priest said with a smiled.

“He’s was finding it too difficult to walk and talk at the same time. I don’t think the Brother is used to walking.”

“Yes, I suspect the Inquisition usually provides mounts for its officers. A journey on foot can be more difficult.”

“What of you, Father? Is your wound troubling you?”

“Not presently Henrico, the rest has helped considerably.” The two men walked in silence for a time, the heat and humidity draining away any excess energy they had. They found themselves having to concentrate just to continue to move one foot in front of the other, and Henrico noted that Father Garcilosa had once again began to limp. The sun was nearing its zenith and the heat becoming more oppressive when a halt was finally called. The prisoners crumpled to the side of the trail in exhaustion and were allowed to stay where they fell. Their captors seemed amused by the Spaniards fatigue but did not berate or chide them. Instead, the soldiers began to move amongst them distributing water and flat bread.

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The Golden Conquest – Part 17

 

.           “Thank you for coming, Beast Master,” she whispered, “I needed to speak with you.”  Xlenca stood looking into her eyes and suddenly realized that he still held her hand.  A flush of red heated his cheeks as he released her hand and looked down at the ground.

“What- what did you wish to speak of?”

“There is much to tell you.  When the message about the invasion reached the Barracks, Tagazuma and Lo-Huitzlapoch hid themselves away for hours.  When they came out Tagazuma selected the men who would answer the call.  The ones they picked were the men least loyal to them, the ones most faithful to the old traditions.”

“Why would they do that?”

“I don’t know but they’re planning something.  While the Masters were getting ready, they went into the secret building.  I had to see what they were planning so I hid and watched.  After the troops had left Tagazuma and the sun priest took half the remaining Beasts and headed for the capital.  I knew that I needed to tell you what had happened so I hurried to catch up.”  She paused for a moment to look up at him before continuing, “What do you think it means?”

“I’m not sure.  I don’t trust those two.  I have no doubt that their schemes will bring harm to the Quetzolite Path.  What they have planned I cannot imagine.  Perhaps Master Quezoema will have an idea.”  As he spoke, Xlenca found himself staring into Cue-Ahmma’s dark eyes.  He wished that he still held her hand.  He wished that he had the courage to reach out and touch her.  Her hair glistened in the sunlight and she smiled at him with lips that were soft and full.  He wondered what it would be like to kiss them.

“Master Xlenca?” she asked, breaking his trance, “Are you all right?”

“Uh – yes, yes, I’m fine.  Please, just call me Xlenca.”

“Very well Xlenca, may I ask you something?”  When the young Beast Master nodded, she continued, “I was watching when you left the Great Hill the first time.  Why did you throw away the sun amulet that Lo-Huitzlapoch gave you?”

“It is a long story,” he sighed, “And I do not fully understand it myself.”

“Please,” she said placing a hand on his forearm.  Xlenca was silent and then sighing once more, sat down at the base of a tree and began to speak.  He told her of his little sister, Marta; of her life and of her death.  As he talked, all the feelings he had pushed down inside him welled to the surface; the anger that he against the Sun God and his priests, the sorrow at not being able to save his sister, the doubts and fears that he still felt, and even the love and loyalty he had for his family.  Cue-Ahmma’s eyes were moist when she spoke again, “You are a good man.  I am sorry for the great hurt you have suffered.”

“There is more I need to tell you,” Xlenca said, rising to his feet, “It’s about the way your father died.  When Lotec and I left the Great Hill Barracks, we took the same route he did and passed below the same cliff.  If it had not been for Moon Dancer, we would have been killed . . . by a falling boulder.”

“What?”

“It was not an accident and neither was your father’s death.”

“Lo-Huitzlapoch?”

“Yes, I don’t know how he did it but I know that he was behind it.”

“But why?  Why did he do it?”

“I don’t know yet but I promise you this, I will find out.”  The two of them stood quietly for a moment.  Then Xlenca reached out and took Cue-Ahmma’s hand.

The army continued its march the next day.  Unburdened by the ceremonial accoutrements of their departure the troops made better time.  A crowd of servants and laborers traveled with them carrying the vast myriad of armor, weapons and supplies.  As the host traveled, their spies and scouts brought more reports on the strange invaders.  The Cempoalans had been adept at hiding the news of the enemy’s initial landing.  So much so that they had been undetected for months and were even now completing a strong fortress with a high wooden palisade.  The Ixtec wondered if the pale warriors from over the Great Water would have enough courage and honor to meet them in open combat.  If they would not, they would be starved into submission within their stronghold.  The result would surely be the same.

Xlenca and Lotec often spoke of the upcoming warfare.  Their role in it would be new to both of them.  Xlenca had taken part as a Rider in skirmishes against bandits and in hunts for wild animals.  On one occasion he had observed a clash between the Barracks and a remnant of the Aztec Royal Guard but had not taken part.  The closest Lotec had come to combat was against the rogue bull.  He still felt that he had failed then.  Both were committed to serve their people and above all both remained fully confident in Moon Dancer.

The old mastodon was untroubled by the relentless travel and seemed more at ease than she had been since Master Tu-Tuoan’s injury.  Xlenca felt that part of the animal’s contentment was due to the daily visits from Cue-Ahmma.  The young woman always found time after completing her own duties to bring fruit, fresh ferns or some other treat for the Great Beast.  Xlenca was grateful for the attention she lavished on Moon Dancer and was quick to assist her.  His Rider Lotec simply smiled and wisely kept his thoughts to himself.  He was convinced that the young woman was more interested in visiting the mastodon’s Master than the Beast itself.  How long though would they would be able to continue with this distraction?

News also reached the Beast Rider and Master of developments in the capital.  Xlenca had shared with Master Quezoema the information Cue-Ahmma had gleaned prior to leaving the Great Hill and the Barracks Master had immediately sent a runner to some trusted friends in the great city.  The report which came back revealed some of the sun priest’s plans.  It was unclear how it had happened but Lo-Huitzlapoch had assumed the position of High Priest at the capital’s great Sun Temple.  The fate of the previous High Priest was unknown but the appointment had always been for life.  What else the new High Priest had planned was yet to be seen.

The army persisted in its relentless march to the sea.  As each mile fell behind them the men began to feel the growing tension of impending combat.  Tempers were short and the soldiers irritable but their commanders kept a tight leash and there were few incidents.  Every captain made certain his troops busy after the day’s march.  Weapons and equipment were meticulously maintained and extra training was ordered until the men were weary and sore.  The mood of the camp changed when another group of scouts rushed into their midst.  The invading forces were on the move and were heading inland.

There was a new excitement in the camp the next day.  The warriors dressed themselves carefully in their battle garb.   They had been instructed that the enemy was nearby and remained as yet unaware of their presence.  There remained hours of hard marching but the army commanders expected to contact the invading forces late that afternoon.  The camp followers and servants would not go with them but would stay behind to fortify the camp along with a strong rearguard.  The army shouldered its weapons and strode off, a quiet and determined excitement on their faces.

The mastodons also sensed the renewed urgency.  Moon Dancer moved easily through the underbrush despite her heavy armor and battle apparel.  Xlenca was careful not to exhaust her as the march continued but noted the growing apprehension in both man and beast.  The Ixtec forces paused briefly at the sun’s zenith to take food and drink but quickly moved on, fanning out to present a broad front to the enemy.  Scouts continued to bring in news.  Surprisingly the pale skinned invaders had not sent out an advance guard of their own and seemed as yet unprepared.  Their Cempoalan allies had positioned their forces in the rear, content to let the warriors from over the water bear the brunt of battle.  The Ixtec would soon test their mettle.

Xlenca moved Moon Dancer to the right wing with the Red Sun’s second squadron as Quezoema had directed.  The quintet of armored behemoths strode forward interspersed by companies of elite infantrymen.  The mass of common soldiery was positioned to the rear of the mastodons but also resolutely pushed forward.  The Beast Rider watched stoically as the groups of Sun Warriors began to filter through their ranks and to race ahead.  It was a sure sign that the enemy army had been sighted.  Xlenca glanced back at Lotec who flashed a wry smile.  They both knew that the naked soldiers running past them might claim first contact with the invaders but the outcome of the battle rested fully upon the broad shoulders of the Great Beasts.

They continued forward when suddenly a sound like thunder rolled through the clear blue sky.  Some of the troops hesitated briefly but then pushed on.  Xlenca wondered if this was the enemy power they had been warned of.  Was this the noise that kills?  He raised himself up as a new sound reached his ears.  A dull roar of cheers drifted over the trees toward the army but in a language they had never heard before.  At that moment a clutch of Sun Warriors staggered out of the jungle.  The black and red painted combatants were bloodied and broken, their vaunted courage shattered things which they had never seen before.  A shudder seemed to sift through the entire force and the infantry began to waver.

Master Quezoema shouted a sharp command and each Beast Master responded immediately.  As one man they reached forward with their batons to tap their mounts on the left cheek.  In unison the mastodons raised their trunks and split the air with a fierce trumpet.  Even as the sound echoed through the trees the Great Beast lowered their trunks and charged ahead.  The rumble their heavy feet made was almost drowned out by the roar of the foot soldiers as they followed.  The Ixtec were attacking.

Xlenca ducked under an overhanging branch as Moon Dancer burst from the trees.  He quickly scanned the clearing before him, taking in the dead and dying Sun Warriors lying on the grass before him.  At the opposite side stood the enemy, their cheers and shouts silenced by the appearance of the squadrons of mastodons.  They were of a sickly pale complexion clad in garish clothes with dull silvery headgear and chest plates.  Scattered amongst them were men mounted on the giant deer Quezoema had told them of.  As the mastodons charged forward the giant deer reared and bucked, spilling their riders before bolting into the trees.  The invaders from over the sea had met the Great Beasts.

A few of the enemy raised odd looking sticks that belched smoke and fire.  The thunder sounded again and Xlenca saw a Rider to his left topple from his war box, a red blossom of blood appearing on the man’s chest.  Further to his right a mastodon shuddered and stumbled but regained her footing to push onward.  The thunder was heard once more but with less intensity and then the lines met.  Some of the invading forces had lifted long spears to defend themselves from the onslaught.  Only a few of them proved brave enough to stand their ground and those that did were cast aside by flailing tusks or crushed beneath armored feet.  The rest turned and fled as the battle rapidly deteriorated into a rout.

Xlenca continued to urge Moon Dancer forward.  He saw a thin black clad man struggling to remount a giant deer.  Another man wearing a dull red cloth on his head leapt forward to push the black robed man aside.  The second man had just pulled himself up onto the deer when a javelin struck him full in the chest.  He fell lifeless from the animal as it twisted on its hooves and fled.  Lotec gave a shout of triumph as they swept past.  Xlenca turned to see another of the enemy rush to stand over the first man.  The latecomer held out a strange silver sword to defend his fallen companion, but was quickly surrounded by Ixtec soldiers.  A war club swept out to strike a glancing blow off the turtle man’s helmeted head and he crumpled to the ground.

The squadrons of mastodons pushed on pursuing the fleeing invaders.  A few small pockets of fighting occurred as some of the enemy soldiers were cut off and surrounded, but for the most the Ixtec could only chase the routed enemy.  Xlenca sensed that Moon Dancer was beginning to fatigue as she pushed through another layer of thick underbrush.  As they burst out of the foliage Xlenca observed a young unarmed man stumbling back away from them.  The man’s eyes were wide with fear and shock as he fell back, his head smacking hard against a tree limb.  An infantryman leapt from the bushes, his jaguar skin cloak flying as he raised his spear to strike at the enemy.

Suddenly an older man raced forward.  The grey haired elder blocked the Ixtec soldier’s blow with a staff and then whirled to sweep the warrior of his feet.  He stood over the younger man and raised his wooden stave in a martial pose.  More Ixtec infantry moved to surround the two as the old one feinted back and forth to keep them at bay.  Though outnumbered ten to one the grey haired soldier refused to yield or permit any further injury to his young companion.   In contrast with the rest of the invading army, the old man’s showed admirable courage.  Xlenca prodded Moon Dancer into motion and the wall of infantry parted to allow the Great Beast forward.  As Lotec leveled his great spear the Beast Master held up one hand and pointed down with his rod.

“Cease.  You are my prisoners.”   

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The Golden Conquest – Part 16

.           Her name was Cue-Ahmma and she had been born at the Great Hill Barracks. Her father had come here from a northern Barracks as a Rider. Her mother had followed him and had worked as a servant until they could be married. Her father was a good man, a noble man, who had risen to Beast Master and become one of the leaders of the Barracks. It had widely been expected that he would take over as Barracks Master when the old Master stepped down. But then the sun priest Lo-Huitzlapoch had come to the compound. The sun priest had ingratiated himself with the old man, playing on his weaknesses and indulging his baser instincts. When the elder became too ill to continue, he pushed for the Barracks Council to name Tagazuma as his successor.

Even with the pressure the old Master exerted and with the influence of the sun priest, the decision was far from certain. There was much support for Cue-Ahmma’s father and he still might have been elected to fill the position. But then there had been an accident and her father had been killed. Tagazuma had been selected as Barracks Master and nothing had been the same since. The sun priest’s influence had grown and the community had become more isolated and more secretive. Some of the buildings in the compound had been declared off limits to everyone but a select few. There was even talk of a secret ceremonies and rituals somewhere in the jungle.

Cue-Ahmma did not believe that her father’s death had been an accident but she had no proof. She had stayed at the Barracks for the sake of her family. 

It had been her mother’s only home and she was lost away from the garrison. Then her younger brother had been accepted into the Path of Quetzol, first as an Initiate and now as an Apprentice. She still hoped someday to learn the truth about her father and to expose Tagazuma and Lo-Huitzlapoch for what they were. She knew they had plans that went beyond the walls of the Great Hill and nothing would please her more than to spoil them.

She swallowed her tears and squared her shoulders. Xlenca watched the emotions play across her face—anger, defiance, fear.

“How did your father die?”

“He was out on the trail to the south. It had been raining and a large stone became loosened. It fell and he was killed.” Xlenca and Lotec glanced at each other and then back at the woman. “There is not much more that I can tell you but there is something that you should see.  Will you follow me?”

“Master,” Lotec said in a hoarse whisper, “Can we trust this girl? We know nothing of her. Here we have the strength to control her but out in the compound she could give us away at any moment.” Xlenca looked at his Rider and then back at Cue-Ahmma.

“I trust her. We will follow.”

            Snuffing out her torch, Cue-Ahmma led the two men back into the night and through the darkened compound. Past the silent kitchens and servant quarters they slipped to dart between a row of shadowy storage huts. Crouching in the darkness, she pointed out a round stone structure surrounded by its own low palisade. The building was lit by torches on either side of the large double doors and guards could be seen moving in a circuit around the edifice. The place had a chill sternness about it. A strange sense of dread settled over them as they stared at the cold unyielding stones of the structure’s walls. Xlenca shifted closer to the young woman and whispered into her ear. “What is this place?”

“I only know it is evil. It is always guarded and none of the servants are allowed near it.” She turned her head to look into the young Beast Master’s eyes. “And no one ever enters the building, no one except Tagazuma and Lo-Huitzlapoch. It is dangerous to come even this close. To be seen here is death. Come.” Cue-Ahmma crawled back into the shadows and motioned for the two men to follow her. The trio moved away from the area and back toward the calving barn.  Xlenca pointed toward the side gate. It was time for Lotec and him to leave.

Approaching the entrance Xlenca peered around the corner only to snap his head back out of sight. The drunken guard had awoken and was sitting with his head in his hands. Their escape route was blocked. The two men looked back and forth at each other, unsure what to do or where to hide. Suddenly Cue-Ahmma stepped around them and strode toward the guard.

“You fool.” Her voice was sharp and firm. “You’ve been drinking.” The guard stumbled to his feet and looked about sheepishly. The woman grabbed his arm and spun him around. She continued to scold him as she pushed him away from the gateway. “If one of the Masters saw you in this state you would be thrown out of the Barracks. Let’s get you cleaned up and then back to your post before it’s too late.” She glanced over her shoulder to see Xlenca peering out from around the corner and jerked her head toward the now unattended exit. He nodded back and flashed a quick smile to her before slipping out the gate.

Once outside, the two men darted into the trees. They stood motionless, not even daring to breathe till they were satisfied no one had seen them. They drifted deeper into the foliage.  Only when they were well away did, Lotec break the silence. “What will we do now?”

“I would like to find a way into that secret building. Tagazuma and that sun priest are hiding something there and I fear it may be a threat to the entire Quetzolite Path.”

“The place is very well guarded. How could we get in?”

“I’m not sure. Perhaps Cue-Ahmma will be able to help us.”

“She’s quite a beauty, don’t you think?”

Xlenca stiffened. “I hadn’t noticed. She—she is a brave young woman. No doubt. We need to be careful not to endanger her or us. We need to keep our focus.” He stared back at the barrack compound for a moment before glancing back at the Rider. “Why are you smiling? We need to hurry.” With a determined frown fixed on his face the young Beast Master marched down the trail.

Dawn was still only a faint hint in the eastern sky when they reached the hovel belonging to Master Tu-Tuoan’s friend. Cautiously they approached the door to the home and stood beside it. Only when he was certain that all was quiet did Xlenca give a low whistle—the cry of a night bird common in the south but rare in this area. A moment later the door opened and the old peasant hurried them inside. Lotec collapsed onto a straw mattress and within seconds was breathing with the slow steady rhythm of sleep. Rest evaded Xlenca however as he continued to sift through the myriad events of the past few weeks. One image kept disrupting his thoughts and clouding his reason. It was a vision of Cue-Ahmma’s flashing black eyes and gentle smile that captivated his mind. At last, he ceased to fight against it and his own lips curled into a half smile as he drifted into slumber.

It seemed like only a few moments had passed before the young Master felt his shoulders being shaken. His sleep addled brain failed to fully respond and though his eyes were open, his mind could not hear the voice calling to him. A shaft of sunlight poured through a crack in the hut’s wall over his head. Dust danced in golden swirls above him captivating him in their patterns.  A mastodon strode out of the mist and shimmered into a moss-covered cottage. The house dissolved into a face that edged closer to his consciousness. It was a woman’s face and he struggled to bring the image clearer. He reached out to hold the visage but it fled from him.

“Master,” a voice called hoarsely, “Master Xlenca, wake up.” His eyes focused on the form before him. It was not the woman from his dream but the elderly peasant. The old man shook him again and spoke louder. “Please Beast Master, wake up. You must wake up.” Xlenca rose up onto his elbows and blinked twice to clear the last vestiges of sleep from his mind.

“I’m awake. What is it?”

“A messenger,” the old man said, “A messenger has come for you.” Xlenca arose from his pallet and moved to the hut’s front room. A young warrior was seated on a stool by the hovel’s fire pit.  His hair was in disarray and his clothes disheveled and covered with sweat and dust. When the Beast Master entered the room, the warrior dropped the bowl of gruel he had been eating and struggled to his feet. Xlenca recognized him then as one of the guards from the Red Sun Barracks and a man trusted by Master Quezoema.

“No please, sit. I can see that you have had a difficult journey.”

“Thank you, Master Xlenca,” the warrior said, “But I must give you my message. It is most important and Master Quezoema made it very clear that I find you and tell you right away.” 

“What is the news?”

“Master Quezoema has sent me with a message for the Barracks Master at the Great Hill Barracks but I was to give you the message first. He told me where you would be.”

“Yes, yes, but what is the news, man?  Speak.”

“It’s the empire.” His voice trembled with fatigue and worry. “Our homeland has been invaded.”

Xlenca jerked back in shock. “What? That cannot be.”

“It is true,” the warrior said, “You are ordered back to the Barracks as soon as possible. The army is being gathered. There will be a great battle.”

“Who is it? The Tlaxcalans? A remnant of the Aztec?”

“No, they are from the east, from over the Great Water. That is all I know.”

“I don’t understand. How could an army come over the Great Water? Who could they be?” Xlenca was silent for a moment. “We will learn soon enough. Very well soldier, we will leave as soon as Moon Dancer can be prepared. You should finish your meal and rest a bit. I would like to be well out of this region before you pass on your message to Master Tagazuma.”

The young Beast Master strode from the hut with Lotec in tow. “Our mission here will have to be postponed. It’s not over though. We will still have unfinished business with the Barracks Master and that sun priest once we have dealt with these invaders.  Come, we had best hurry.”

            A mastodon in full battle dress was a terrible and fearsome sight.  An entire squadron could cause the very ground to tremble.  Moon Dancer had stood quiet and serene as her three caregivers swirled around her.  She seemed impervious to their efforts as they draped her in her armor and fineries but Xlenca noted the slight tenseness in her neck muscles and reached up to scratch her ear.

“It’s alright, old girl.  This is just for show.  Any fight will be days or weeks away; if then.”  The Beast Master noted the questioning glances that passed between his Rider and his Apprentice and continued in a louder voice, “It is likely that these so-called invaders from over the Great Water will fade away like the morning mist at the approach of you and your sisters, Moon Dancer.  So do not let your great heart be troubled.”  He smiled at his companions.  Lotec returned the grin and carried on with his work.

The Great Beast was soon dressed in a dazzling array which was both martial and ceremonial.  Thick pieces of boiled leather stitched together with heavy cords covered her flanks and haunches.  Over this was draped a cloak of jaguar skins.  The lower parts of each leg were wrapped with woven stands of leather dyed red and blue.  These would protect her limbs in battle and prevent her from being hamstrung.  A gilded rope hung around her neck and held a broad stiff piece of leather over her chest.  The chest piece was studded with plates of a hard reddish stone and spotted with golden nails.  Her headdress was more ornate yet.

A triangle of heavy leather hung on her broad forehead, the point hanging down between her eyes.  It was decorated with precious stones held in place by strands of thick gold.  Smaller but similarly decorated triangles hung below the first and wrapped around the upper portion of her trunk.  A wide band of gold had been affixed to the top of the headdress and from it rose a wide fan of bright red, green, and white feathers.  The plumage was from the Ixtec’s most sacred birds and no men were ever allowed to wear them.  Around the base of each of Moon Dancer’s great tusks, Lotec carefully wrapped a long wire of the purest gold.  When he was finished, Xlenca carefully polished and sharpened each tusk to finish the mastodon’s battle preparation.

Their tasks completed the two men bathed and began to dress themselves while Xlenca’s Apprentice tended to Moon Dancer.  Xlenca slipped on a short, woven skirt and strapped leather greaves to his lower legs.  His bare chest was covered by a plate of beaten gold, and he slowly wrapped each hand and forearm with supple strips of leather.  He tied a cloak of yellow feathers over his shoulder and then pulled on his plumed headgear.  The helmet was similar in design to the one worn by Moon Dancer but was decorated with eagle feathers.  As he settled it onto his head, Xlenca could hear the blood rushing in his ears and his breath coming in short excited gasps.  He repeated to himself the same advice he had given earlier to his Beast and his Rider.  This was just for show.

Lotec had also finished dressing.  Less ornately clothed than his Master, he was more heavily armored with boiled leather plates on his chest, back and upper arms.  He wore not a plumed headdress but one made from the skin of a jaguar. The cat’s head covered his own with the upper fangs resting on his forehead.  Lotec’s lower legs were uncovered as he would go into battle crouching in the war box strapped to Moon Dancer’s back.  He climbed into the war box and made sure that his weapons were all in place.  Four javelins were set in slots on either side of the box while a long-handled war club sat at the rear.  Lotec held his great spear upright beside him.  A pair of eagle feathers fluttered from its obsidian blade.

Xlenca pulled himself up astride the mastodon’s great neck and then reached down to accept his rod from the young Apprentice.  He nodded to the boy and then tapped Moon Dancer on the shoulder.  The Great Beast slowly backed away and then turned to stride toward the gathering army.  Xlenca noted with pride the assembled forces he had accompanied from the Red Sun.  The Barracks had submitted three complete troops, a total of fifteen animals.  All were strong healthy Beasts with experienced and seasoned Masters and Riders.  As Moon Dancer moved confidently into her place flanking Master Quezoema’s mastodon, Xlenca was pleased to note the satisfaction on the Barracks Master’s stern visage.  All could be proud of the Red Sun.

The other Barracks were less well represented.  The Barracks of the Southern Reaches had suffered much in the wars against the Aztec yet still had responded admirably.  Eight mastodons with a full complement of attendants had made the journey northward.  Quezoema had told Xlenca that this left the Barracks with only two animals which not infirm or with calf.  No one grumbled about the Southern Reaches efforts.  Sadly, this was not the case with the Great Hill Barracks.  Their response to the call to arms was more than disappointing.

The Great Hill had contributed only four mastodons to the army.  Xlenca had seen at least three times that many when he had first journeyed to the Barracks.  The men who had answered the empire’s call seemed almost embarrassed at their Barracks poor commitment.  They explained to anyone who would listen that Tagazuma had assigned most of their animals to the defense of the capital, feeling that this was their duty as the Great Hill was the Barracks closest to the city.  Xlenca actually felt sorry for them when they sheepishly tried to explain why this was needed when the invaders were still far to the east.  Privately, one of the Masters had admitted to Xlenca that the sun priest Lo-Huitzlapoch had played a role in the division of the Barrack’s forces.

Xlenca was certain the sun priest could not be trusted.  The man apparently put himself before the empire.  Yet, the Beast Master could not be totally displeased with the forces that the Great Hill Barracks had sent.  When the small troop had reached the mustering ground the Beast Master had noted a familiar form amongst the servants and attendants.  Cue-Ahmma had made the journey.  When Xlenca had caught her eye, the young woman had flashed him a brief smile before being carried away by her duties.   He had been shocked to find his heart quickening at the brief glance and his palms growing damp at the thought of her being so near.  He had told himself that he was being foolish and had hurried back to his own work.

Even now however, he found himself smiling at the memory and hoping to get another glimpse of the young woman.  The large clearing was rapidly filling with troops.  The squadron from the Southern Reaches was positioned on the right while the small contingent from the Great Hill took their places on the left.  Xlenca had to resist the urge to turn and watch their approach.  Deliberately, he kept his gaze fixed on the raised platform before them.  Rank upon rank of infantry now filed onto the grounds, filling the spaces between and behind the squadrons of mastodons.

The foot soldiers were also organized in groups from various towns and regions.  There was no consistency in their dress or weaponry as each man supplied his own equipment.  Some of the men were naked, their bodies painted black or red or yellow.  These were Sun Warriors and they prized bravery above all.  They were typically armed with short obsidian tipped swords or war clubs so as to enter into close combat with the enemy.  Other soldiers were clothed in jaguar skins or cloaks of eagle feathers.  These men also valued courage but also emphasized fighting prowess and skill at arms.  They were the elite of the army and were armed with a variety of weapons.

The majority of the infantry were poor but sturdy peasants.  They did not wear bright plumes or fierce animal skins but simple drab tunics.  Most were armed with stone spears and wooden clubs though some carried javelins and a few carried bows.  The peasant warriors were as a rule less brave and less skilled than their fellows.  They were willing to defend the empire but most just wanted to get home alive.

By the time the troops had all marched into the clearing, Xlenca estimated that the army numbered almost two thousand.  It was an impressive force though only a fraction of the total men which the empire could field.  Still the greatest burden for success would fall to the squadrons of mastodons.  It had always been so and many great victories had come from the Great Beasts and their Riders.  Xlenca imagined how it must have looked in the old days when one or even two hundred of the massive creatures had marched before the legions of infantry.  It must have been an awe-inspiring sight.

A shrill cry came from the front of the clearing as a tall herald called the army to pay heed to the beginning of the ceremony.  Xlenca squinted into the morning sun and watched as the group of officers climbed up onto the platform.  The last to step up was the elderly Chief Steward of the empire.  The old man moved slowly to the front of the stands as a murmur began to build through the ranks of the men standing to attention.  The deep rumble grew into a cheer that rolled through the clearing and shook the jungle around them.  The Chief Steward raised his hands to quiet the horde and began to speak slowly and clearly.  He did not raise his voice but his words carried to each man.

The Ixtec Empire was threatened, he said.  Not by their traditional enemies but by a new adversary from across the Great Eastern Water.  The invaders were a strange new people not seen before, and though their numbers were few they had powerful weapons.  They had made an alliance with the treacherous Cempoalans.  They had begun to build a city on the coast and seemed unconcerned that they were trespassing on the greatest empire ever known.  But they did not know of the power of the Ixtec.  They could not imagine the awesome might of the Ixtec army and they had never seen anything like the Great Beast.  The chief steward’s voice began to increase in volume as he continued.  The invaders did not know these things but they soon would.  And as they learned this hard lesson they would be swept back into the sea.

The army responded with an exuberant cheer that pounded the surrounding jungle in waves of sound.  Like a swelling surf stirred by the fury of a hurricane, the roar built in the men’s bellies and burst from their throats.  Spear butts were pounded against the ground while others beat open hands against their bare chests.  The sounds continued unabated as the legions of warriors began to march eastward from the clearing.  Without any directions they formed themselves into a column of men that strode down the jungle road.  Only when their throats had become hoarse did their cheering subside until at last the army marched in silence.

The Ixtec continued on only a few miles that day.  Just as Xlenca had said, the grand assembly was for show, a demonstration of the might and determination of the empire.  The invaders’ encampment lay some distance to the east and there would be many days travel before they reached their enemy.  Xlenca was glad to get all of the paraphernalia off of Moon Dancer.  He knew that he would appreciate the protection once they were joined in battle the heavy coverings were not meant for travel.  The short journey had already caused the mastodons to become overheated and their human caregivers quickly stripped them and lead the beasts to a stream to bathe.

Moon Dancer lounged in the cooling waters as Xlenca and his Apprentice carefully inspected her skin for sores and biting insects.  It was a job usually left to the youngsters but Xlenca has always been reluctant to give it up.  He valued the connection it maintained with the mastodon and truly enjoyed caring for her.  The huge creature opened her eyes to look into her Master’s and surreptitiously pulled water into her trunk.  Cocking the great proboscis in the air, she suddenly spewed a jet of cold water onto Xlenca’s back.  The young Master gasped at the shock while his companions laughed at the antics.

“I thought you were tired, old girl,” he chuckled, shaking water from his head and arms, “Maybe I should have Lotec take you for run.”  The Rider stood on the riverbank and vigorously shook his head.  

“No thank you, Master.  Moon Dancer may not be tired but I am.”  

Xlenca laughed in reply and continued to enjoy a few moments of play with Great Beast.  The game seemed to insulate them for a time from the troubles of the past few weeks and he almost felt like when they had grown up together.  He wished could stay in this place but feared that all too soon the world would intrude.  His premonition proved true as a soldier approached to summon him to a meeting with Master Quezoema.  Leaving Lotec to oversee Moon Dancer’s care, Xlenca slipped on a dry tunic and hurried to Quezoema’s campsite.  There he found that all of the Red Sun Beast Masters had gathered.  The Barracks Master motioned them to stand before him and waited solemnly till all were silent.

“Heed my words, Masters of the Great Beast,” he intoned, beginning the ritual call to battle, “You have been summoned to defend your people.  To slay or be slain as the gods determine.  Stand you ready?”

“Yes, Master of the Barracks,” the assembled men cried in unison, “We are ready.”

“It is good,” Quezoema answered, “Be seated.”  The formalities completed he stood with folded arms while his followers settled onto the grass.  When all had reclined, he began again, “I have further news of our enemy to share with you; news brought by our spies and scouts.  Each commander is meeting now with his officers to discuss this information, so listen closely.

The invaders are unlike anyone we have seen before.  They came from across the Great Eastern Water in huge wooden canoes.  Some of the wise men think they came from out of the sea.”

“Why is that, Master Quezoema?” one of the younger men asked.

“Because their skin is pale and white like the flesh of a fish and because some of them wear hard shells about their bodies like a turtle.  But do not be concerned, they are just men.”

“What of their weapons?” an older Master queried.

“They have powerful weapons just as the chief steward said.  They have spears and swords made from a material harder than the hardest stone.  Some ride upon giant deer and others carry rods that send out noise and smoke.  Do not laugh.  I know that you do not fear such things but I tell you this is a noise that kills at a distance.  It is something which we have never faced in battle.  We will lose troops to the power of this enemy.

But hear this; what the Chief Steward said is true.  They have never faced the Great Beasts and our spies tell us they do not even know that they exist.  We will continue our march tomorrow and soon we will face these pale invaders.  These deer riders and turtle men will be defeated and sent back across the water.  Now finish your preparations and get some rest.  You may tell your Riders what you deem fit.”  With this final command, Quezoema turned from the assembly and walked to his tent.  The Masters began to converse amongst themselves and drift back to their own campsites.  Deep in thought, Xlenca also walked away.    

“Master Xlenca,” a voice whispered.  He turned to see a shadowy form beckoning him from the trees.  The young Beast Master glanced over his shoulder.  No one was watching.   He slipped into the jungle as a hand reached out to grip his and pulled him deeper into the underbrush.  In a few seconds the two figures stood beneath a canopy of green leaves and Xlenca turned to face his visitor.  The young woman Cue-Ahmma looked up at him as a slight smile caressed her lips.

“Thank you for coming, Beast Master,” she whispered, “I needed to speak with you.” 

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The Golden Conquest -Part 15

.           Xlenca stood before the Barracks’ council and watched as Master Quezoema finished reading the message rope and passed it on to Tu-Tuoan. The young Beast Master frowned slightly at the strain visible in the older man. His hair had turned fully grey and the lines in his face had deepened. He had become almost gaunt. Despite the physical changes, Xlenca saw that his eyes remained bright and his mind seemed clear. Tu-Tuoan placed the message rope down and shifted himself on his cushions before looking up.

“You have done well, Xlenca. The message from Tagazuma merely restates what you have already told us. I do find his story questionable.”

“It is more than questionable,” Quezoema said, “It is ridiculous. Tagazuma is either a fool or a liar, if not both.”

“I am afraid that I must agree, my friend,” the older Master replied, “Master Xlenca, tell me more about this sun priest who claimed to know me. What did he look like?”

“He was tall and wore his hair long and braided. He had the nose of an eagle and the eyes of a snake. His chest was covered with a tattoo unlike any I have seen before.”

            “Show us.” Quezoema stop and handed the younger man a lump of charcoal and a flat piece of wood. Xlenca quickly sketched the design and passed the board to Quezoema. The frown on the Master’s face deepened as he studied the drawing. Shaking his head, he passed it on to Tu-Tuoan. The elder stared intently at the diagram and then carefully smudged parts of the picture before passing it back to Xlenca.

“Do you recognize the design now, young one?”

Xlenca stared intently at the design.  In the midst of the smudges Tu-Tuoan had created was a recognizable pattern. His rendering had been crude but he could now see an unmistakable design and he unconsciously touched the tattoo on his own chest. Hidden in the complex swirls and curves on the sun priest’s chest was a pair of interlocking tusks, the symbol of an apprentice of the Path of Quetzol. His eyes shifted from the drawing to the elder Beast Master.

“He was one of us, a Quetzolite apprentice?”

“Yes, I think I recall him.  His name at that time was not Lo-Huitzlapoch.  It was Cuanthical and he was a promising candidate. He came from a rich and powerful family. His father was one who felt that advancement did not need to be through merit alone but could just as well be purchased. This opinion angered a number of the Council. The lad might have succeeded despite this—he was intelligent and capable but he came to believe the same as his father. His pride and arrogance ultimately led to him being rejected from the Path and dismissed from his Barracks.”

Xlenca shook his head at the thought. It was rare for an Apprentice to be so totally discarded. Not all of the youngsters were promoted to Rider but a place was almost always found for them. Most unsuitable candidates were sent home earlier and there was no shame in it. The selection of Initiates was a careful process and barely one in a hundred applicants was accepted. Of these, perhaps one in ten or twenty would be promoted to Apprentice. In both circumstances the procedure was awe inspiring and more than a bit frightening. It involved both the senior Masters of the Barracks and the matriarch of the mastodon herd.

Xlenca smiled slightly as he recalled his own selection. He had been questioned and examined by a group of stern and thoughtful elders. They studied his intellect, his physical abilities and his spirit. When they marked him as a potential candidate, he was taken into the courtyard to stand in a line with a number of other small boys. They were required to stand still and quiet as an immense mastodon entered the courtyard. To the young lads, the Great Beast seemed to block out the sky and to make the earth tremble as it approached. Some of the boys were too frightened and ran for cover and one or two embarrassed their parents by losing control of their bladders. Those that remained were eyed and sniffed by the Great Beast, the matriarch of the herd.

The Quetzolite elders had over the centuries learned that only the mastodon itself could determine which boys had that spark, that certain quality which would allow them to bond with a Beast, to control and direct its great strength. They never overruled the matriarch. Those that she rejected were dismissed. The Great Beast rebuffed most of the applicants that day. Some she ignored, some she snorted at derisively and a couple she pushed away forcibly with her trunk. She had accepted Xlenca; her soft brown eyes peering deeply into his while her trunk encircled his torso and ruffled his hair. He had laughed with pleasure at her and felt the first stirrings of love for the creature.

The Great Beast had accepted a trio of new Initiates that day to join the rest of their class of students. Over the years they had grown in stature and knowledge until the next day of testing arrived. Xlenca was thrilled and excited when he was promoted to Apprentice. His joy increased when he learned he had been assigned to help care for the matriarch’s oldest calf. He had been with Moon Dancer ever since. Xlenca suddenly realized that Master Tu-Tuoan was silent and looking at him with intent scrutiny.  He blushed and bowed his head in apology.

“I was asking if anything else happened on your journey.”

Xlenca hesitated. He wanted to tell him about the incident on the trail but was unsure how to proceed. The finding of the amulet on top of the cliff troubled him still. Should he speak and share his doubts and fears about the Sun God or remain silent? At last, he spoke. “No, there is nothing more to tell.” 

“That will be all then, Master Xlenca,” Quezoema said, “The council must discuss your report.  Thank you.”

The sky had darkened to a velvet canopy during the council meeting. Xlenca stepped out into the slight chill of the night and gasped at the sight of the heavens. All thoughts of the previous days were banished from his mind as he gazed up at the constellations. The worries he had felt since his encounter with the sun priest faded before the majesty of the night sky. He did not understand this feeling but he greatly desired to hold on to it. He fingered the ornaments around his neck, thinking of the bonds of family and fellowship they represented and he realized that even his family and the brotherhood of the Quetzolite Path did not provide this same feeling of peace and security. But what did?

“Master Xlenca,” a voice called from the darkness. The young Master turned to see Lotec approaching from the shadows. The Rider bowed his head slightly in greeting and then continued, “Moon Dancer is resting in her pen. Your Apprentice has seen to her needs.”

“Very good. He is a fine lad.”

“What did the council members think about what happened at the cliff?”

“I did not mention it. It was just an unfortunate accident.”

“Accident? What about the amulet that I found?”

“Only a coincidence.”

“But . . .”

“Rider Lotec, it was an accident and I do not want to discuss it further.” Noting the hurt look in Lotec’s eyes, Xlenca softened his voice. “Have you eaten? I could eat a whole javelina, tusks and all. Let’s see if the Barracks kitchen can prepare something for us.”

Many days later, Xlenca stood by the animal pens and glanced at Lotec. The Rider shook his head slowly before speaking, “Is it because of us? Are we the reason for all this misfortune?”

“You are not to blame.”

“But so much has gone wrong. Young Star Shadow falls and loses her calf. The roof on the storage shed is blown off in a storm and all that maize ruined. The servants argue and fight. Everyone is upset and on edge.”

Xlenca stood silent and watched as Moon Dancer as she slowly rubbed her flanks against a post. Lotec stretched out with a handful of fresh greenery and she shambled over. Reaching out with her trunk she carefully inspected the offering before gently taking it from the Rider’s hand.

Lotec’s smile faded as he turned to his Master. “Perhaps we should say something to Master Quezoema.”

“What? What can we say?” Xlenca kept his eyes fixed on Moon Dancer’s bulk. “That the sun priest has put a curse on me for rejecting his amulet?  That the Sun God himself is bringing trouble to our Barracks? That I am the cause?”

“No, Xlenca—I mean Master, you are not to blame for this. How could you be?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know what to think or what to believe.” He looked up at Lotec, a thought forming in his mind. “Maybe that’s the problem. We don’t know enough. We need to learn more.”

“More? About what?”

“About Lo-Huitzlapoch. About Tagazuma. And about that rogue bull. There is a reason behind all of this and we need to find out what it is.”

“But how? The messenger returned last week from the capital. The Council of Wardens has accepted Tagazuma’s explanation. The investigation is closed.”

“I have an idea of how to reopen it. Come, I need to speak with Master Quezoema. I am sure that once he hears my thoughts, he will grant permission. I know that neither he nor Master Tu-Tuoan was satisfied with the story Tagazuma gave us. They will want to know more.”  

            The council was persuaded to allow the plan and the two young men travelled in secret back to the Great Hill Barracks. Arriving at night in a nearby village, they contacted an old friend of Master Tu-Tuoan. The villager provided a hiding place for Moon Dancer while her Master and Rider prepared to continue their mission alone. Changing into the garb of lower-level servants, they waited while their host prepared the way.

“All is ready,” the man said as he entered the shelter that evening, “There is a small doorway around the north side of the compound. My son delivered some of our crops earlier and made sure to leave some fermented maize with the guard. The door will not be locked.” Xlenca glanced at Lotec and smiled. They would be ready.

The two men stood in silence beneath the darkening expanse of jungle that edged the compound. The sounds of the Barracks preparing for nightfall drifted to them over the top of the wall as they maintained their quiet vigil. Slowly activity eased to a halt within the grounds of the Great Hill Barracks. At last, the only sounds that reached their ears were the quiet murmurings of the jungle at night and the hoarse rasp of snores from the doorway. Emerging from the shadows they crept forward to the door. As the old villager had promised it was unlocked.

The hinges of the old door creaked as it swung open. Xlenca paused and stood silent until he was certain there was no reaction to the noise. Peering around the heavy wooden gate, he saw a guard slumped in a heap against the wall. Two empty clay pots lay beside him while a third rested on his stomach. Each sonorous breath that escaped his lips threatened to spill the remaining maize brew over his prostrate form and awaken him. The young Master held his breath and stepped forward.

Positioning himself carefully over the sleeping man, he reached out with both hands. The clay pot rose and fell in time with the man’s snoring. Xlenca waited until the vessel had reached the apogee of its journey and then squeezed his hands over it. The vessel was heavier than he expected and it slipped slightly.  Some of the amber brew splashed over the side and onto the guard’s abdomen. Xlenca froze. The sentry grunted, smacked his lips and rolled onto his side. In a moment he was snoring again.  The Beast Master breathed again and set the clay pot down on the ground.

Motioning to his Rider to follow, Xlenca slipped past the sleeping man into the compound. The Barrack’s square was dark and quiet. He could see two forms standing at the front gate beside a small brazier. The flickering fire gave just enough light to assure him that the sentinels were keeping their gaze fixed outside the gate. He slipped around the edge of the building and darted into the shadows with Lotec behind him. Xlenca motioned them forward towards a large squat building and they stepped through its darkened doorway.

“Where are we?” Lotec whispered as he eased the door shut behind him.

“What does your nose tell you?” The two men took in the mixture of aromas that assailed their senses. The tang of slightly moldy hay was overwhelmed by the pungent scent of manure and urine. Underscoring these were two more subtle perfumes—blood and milk, the scents most closely linked to the passage into new life. They had entered the Barracks calving barn. 

Xlenca pulled a coal from a leather bag at his waist and blew on it till it glowed red. He used it to light a small taper and looked over the holding pens. Two mastodons lay beside their young calves while a third roused herself from her bed to peer at the visitors. He could see that she was in the later stages of her pregnancy. He murmured to her softly in soothing tones until satisfied that he was not a threat she settled back onto her bed of straw.

Xlenca moved to the side wall and knelt beside a heavy beam. He handed the glowing taper to Lotec and drew his knife to dig at the base of the post. The younger man squatted beside him and watched in the dim light as Xlenca brushed straw and dirt away. The base of the post was soon revealed. It was darkened with age and penetrated by worms and insects but still strong and firm.

“What are we looking for, Master?”

“If a bull calf escaped in a fire, it would have been this building that was burnt. It would have had to be rebuilt, but this beam is over a decade old. The bull we killed was a half dozen summers old at the most. It did not escape from a fire in here.”

“Could it have been housed somewhere else?”

“That would against all traditions.”

“So that means Tagazuma was lying.”

“Yes, it means just that. We’ll check some of the other beams to confirm it.” The two men rose to their feet and had begun to move away from the wall when they heard a noise from the doorway. Snuffing the taper out, they stepped back against the wall and crouched in the shadows. A light appeared in the building as the door swung open to reveal a figure carrying a smoking torch. The intruder slipped the torch into a sconce on the wall near the entrance and then turned toward the holding pen. In the flickering firelight, Xlenca recognized the young woman who approached the pregnant mastodon. It was the servant girl who had warned him about the sun priest.

“How are you resting, Star Blossom?” Her voice was soft and musical. The mastodon did not rise but reached out with her trunk. The woman held her hands out and allowed the animal to caress her palms. She smiled as she continued to talk soothingly to the Beast. “Good. The fever has gone. Your baby will be fine, my beauty.” She stood and began to move back to the entryway. She moved with a subtle grace intensified by the sway of the torch light. Her black hair hung long and loose down her back, not braided and tied as was most usual for a servant. A stray thought crept into Xlenca’s mind as he watched from the shadows. Here was a young woman with the same joy and beauty he had once beheld in his now dead sister, Marta.

Sensing movement at his side, Xlenca glanced over to see Lotec trying to stifle a sneeze. He squeezed both hands into a tight grip over his nose while tears welled up in his eyes. He let his breath out in a slow exhale and with a nod to the young Beast Master, eased pressure on his nostril. The woman had just lifted the torch from its bracket when Lotec jerked in a sharp spasm and a small brief snort escaped from his lips. The servant girl whirled and held the torch aloft.

“Who’s there? Show yourself or I’ll call the guard.”

 Xlenca straightened up and stepped forward into the light, spreading his hands to show that he was unarmed. “Do not fear, we mean no harm.”

The woman stared forward as recognition slowly passed over her face. “You. What are you doing here?”

“We had to return to learn the truth. We believe that Master Tagazuma was not truthful.”

“What did that man tell you?” The young woman’s dark eyes flashing with anger. 

“Uh, he claimed that there had been a fire—a fire that killed a mastodon and allowed her bull calf to escape in the confusion.”. The young woman tilted her head and eyed him carefully. Xlenca tried to think of something else to say—to convince her to trust him. At last, he spread his hands and said, “Please, we need your help.”

The woman stared into his eyes for a moment before nodding. “There was never a fire. Tagazuma is a liar.”

“I knew it.” Lotec said, stepping out of the shadows. The servant girl watched him warily but held her ground. Xlenca stepped closer to her and looked into her face.

“What else can you tell me?”

“Tagazuma cannot be trusted. He would steal a moldy ear of maize from his own mother. The man is vermin.”

“Why do you hate the Barracks Master so much?”

“He’s not worthy of that title. He stole it from – from . . .” She stopped, biting her bottom lip while tears welled up in her eyes.  Her chin dropped down to her chest and she was quiet. Xlenca reached out and gently lifted her chin.  

“Tell me.”

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The Golden Conquest – Part 14

.           The great mastodon shook her head and stamped her feet against the packed earth of the trail. Xlenca leaned forward to whisper into Moon Dancer’s ear in an attempt to calm her. She had become increasingly irritable as they neared their destination and the young master had to sooth her nerves repeatedly. He reassured his new Rider that this was unusual and that Moon Dancer was merely upset by the absence of Master Tu-Tuoan. Xlenca could not but wonder if there was something else troubling the animal.

As they climbed to the Great Hill Barracks, the young Beast Master also felt a growing anxiety. There seemed to be a dark cloud over the site. The outer grounds were not as meticulously maintained as at the Red Sun compound and the jungle had encroached closer to the outer walls than was acceptable. The guards in the watch towers seemed bored and moody while the gatekeeper’s attitude bordered on surliness. Lotec had had to pound on the gate with his spear shaft to get the man’s attention and he was still slow to respond.

“Is it customary for the Barracks gate to be closed during the day?” Xlenca asked.

“It is,” the man grunted, “And we like it that way.  What do you want?”

“We wish to speak with the Master of the Great Hill Barracks and have traveled from the Red Sun to do so.”

“What’s your business?”

“Our business.” Lotec’s face grew red and his voice dropped to a low growl. “Our business is with the Master not with a servant.  Now, move aside or . . . “

Xlenca interrupted Lotec with a touch on his shoulder. “What my Rider is meaning to say, is that our mission is confidential and urgent. Please inform the Master that we are here.” As he spoke, he tapped Moon Dancer on the side and she began to slowly advance. The gatekeeper was forced to give way or risk being stepped on and the group entered the compound. The servant scurried off to find someone to deal with Xlenca’s request. Once he was out of sight the two men slid down from the mastodon’s back. For a moment they stood in silence, surveying the courtyard.

            The interior compound was better maintained but the few servants and apprentices about seemed cowed and withdrawn. They scurried along with their eyes downcast, sneaking quick peeks at the two intruders. Xlenca was surprised to notice one young woman standing by a side gate openly watching them. On perceiving his gaze, she stared at him defiantly before turning away to resume her duties. The young Master shifted his attention back to other concerns.

“Lotec, look after Moon Dancer. Please make sure that she is given fresh food and water and try not to cause any trouble—unless absolutely necessary.” The Rider’s grin was fierce and stern as he led the mastodon away. Xlenca strode forward pulling a message rope from his shoulder bag and holding his Master’s rod before him.  As he stepped up to the main building of the Great Hill Barracks the gatekeeper reappeared accompanied by an older Beast Master. The grey-haired Master waved the servant away and stepped forward with open hands.

“Greetings young sir, I apologize for your reception. We were not expecting visitors. What can I do for you?”

“I greet you also, Master. I am Master Xlenca of the Red Sun Barracks. Are you the Master of the Great Hill?”

“Oh no young sir, I am merely one of his followers. Can you tell me why you need to see Master Tagazuma?” Xlenca nodded and held out the message rope. The old man took the knotted strands and quickly scanned its fibers. The message did not reveal all the details of Xlenca’s mission but introduced him and emphasized the urgency of his visit. It also warned that a similar messenger had been dispatched to the capital. The elderly Master frowned deeply at this. Without a word, he motioned Xlenca to follow him and conducted him into the Barracks council chamber.

Two men stood hunched over a table as they entered the shuttered room. The grey-haired Master cleared his throat to announce their presence and the two looked up with a start. The taller man quickly moved to pull a cloth over the table while the second man stepped forward. His necklace of green stones and the tattoo on his left chest identified him as the Barracks Master. This must be Tagazuma. Xlenca bowed his head briefly in greeting and watched as the older master handed Tagazuma the message rope. The Master of the Great Hill took the colored strands and waved the old man away. Without even acknowledging Xlenca he turned back to his companion.  As the taller man stepped forward into the light the young Master was surprised to recognize him as a high priest of the Sun God.

While the priest surveyed the colored knots and fibers of the message Xlenca observed him carefully. Tall and fit, he stood erect with a carefully practiced dignity. His long black hair was woven into four strands, one hanging over each shoulder and two down his back. His face was smooth with high cheek bones framing an aristocratic nose, and his high forehead was covered by a golden headdress inlaid with bright jewels and bearing the image of a flaming sun. The short, feathered cape he wore completed the picture of wealth and power. The priest looked up suddenly and caught Xlenca’s stare. His eyes were as black as obsidian and as hard as flint. Xlenca suppressed a shudder and bowed a second time.

“Master Tagazuma,” the priest said, “You are being a negligent host. This young Master has traveled far and has not yet been greeted properly.”

“Huh?  Yes, all right.” The Barrack Master turned back to his visitor and gave him the briefest of salutes. “So uh, what is your name anyway?”

“I am Xlenca, Master of the Great Beast from the Red Sun Barracks, and I am sent hence by Master Quezoema with the message you hold. I am also instructed to show you this.”  He pulled out of his bag the dried ear of the dead rogue bull mastodon. Despite its worn condition, the notches in the ear remained distinct and identified its origin as the Great Hill. Tagazuma started to reach for the ear but then quickly withdrew his hand and glanced sideways at his companion.

“What is the meaning of this?  Why do you bring me carrion?”

“Do you not recognize this? It is from a rogue bull that terrorized a whole village and then killed a Great Beast and its Master. It also grievously wounded my own Master, Tu-Tuoan.”  Holding the piece of skin up, he struggled to keep his voice even. “Look at it. Can there be any doubt? This creature came from these very Barracks. How could that happen?”

“You dare to speak to me like that?” Tagazuma straightened and puffed out his chest. “I should . . .”

“You should introduce me,” the priest said stepping forward and spreading his hands. When the Barrack Master sputtered and began to redden in the face the tall man continued, “I am called Lo-Huitzlapoch and I am a priest of the Sun God here to visit my good friend. I can understand why you are upset. I have met Master Tu-Tuoan and am saddened to hear of his injury. I am sure Master Tagazuma will do all in his power to solve this mystery.” As the sun priest spoke, his cape parted and Xlenca noted the elaborate tattoo that covered his entire upper chest. It was not uncommon for priests to bear tattoos but these were usually restricted to the arms or cheeks and all were easily recognized as referring to the Sun God. This tattoo was different yet strangely familiar.

The sun priest took his companion’s arm and turned him away from the young Beast Master. Tagazuma maintained his glare at the younger man for a moment before yielding to Lo-Huitzlapoch’s pressure. He looked to the priest and lowered his eyes. Xlenca was sure that he saw a brief tremor go through the man. After a moment, the sun priest released his arm and spoke again. “Master Tagazuma, I seem to recollect a fire some time ago, in the animal pens I believe. Do you remember it?”

“What? A fire? Oh yes, the fire in the pens, I do recall that now.”

“Yes.” The sun priest’s eye fixed upon Xlenca. “The pens were almost destroyed and one or two animals were lost.”

“Animals? Yes, there were some mastodons killed I think.”

“Yes, Master Tagazuma, I recall now that a female was burned and didn’t you believe that her calf also died, a bull calf, I believe.”

The Barrack Master looked puzzled for a moment but then nodded his head vigorously. “Yes, that must be the answer.” 

“So young Master, that answers your question. I’m afraid your wild bull must have been a calf that escaped in the fire. Master Tagazuma would not have reported that the animal had escaped for he thought it was dead. Isn’t that right, my friend?”

“Yes, Lord Lo-Huitzlapoch, that is correct.” The Master’s face twisted into a smirk. “I’m sorry the animal caused so much trouble but as you see, no one was to blame. It was merely an unfortunate set of circumstances.” 

“I see,” Xlenca said.

“Come,” Tagazuma said, putting his arm around his visitor’s shoulder, “You must be weary from your long journey. I will have quarters prepared for you and your Rider.” He directed the young Master toward the entrance of the chamber, glancing back at the sun priest as he did, “I shall have a reply prepared for Master Quezoema. You will be able to take it to him when you leave.”

“Perhaps I could speak to some of your men. Someone might have more knowledge of this fire and might be able to assist further in clarifying matters.”

“I am afraid that will not be possible.” Lo-Huitzlapoch stepped forward. “The apprentice who cared for the lost mastodon and her calf perished in the fire. The other servants are no longer with the Barracks.”

“Surely there is someone.”

“No,” Tagazuma said, his voice stern, “There is not. Now, Lord Lo-Huitzlapoch and I have other business to attend to.” They reached the doorway where the waiting elderly Master led them back into the compound. Servants laden with food and drink followed as he led them to their quarters. One of them was the same young woman Xlenca had noticed earlier. She walked with the other servants but moved with an easy dignity that seemed absent the others. Once they had reached their temporary lodging the elder Master motioned for them to be seated while the simple fare was placed before them. The young woman gave them each a small bowl into which she poured water. In doing so, she leaned close to Xlenca’s ear.

“Beware of the priest,” she whispered, “And watch your back.” The young Beast Master was so startled he almost spilt his water. When he looked back up the girl was gone. He glanced at the older Master and at Lotec but it was apparent they had heard nothing. Perhaps he had misunderstood the young woman’s words, perhaps she was just a mischievous servant girl, but he felt not. There was something about her that pricked his spirit. He would be watchful.

The sun was barely peaking over the horizon when Xlenca and Lotec were roused from their sleep. While quiet almost to the point of sullenness, the apprentices and servants of the Great Hill Barracks remained efficient. Xlenca was pleased to find that Moon Dancer had been well cared for. She had been given fresh food and water and bedded down on a bed of clean straw. Her Master thanked the apprentice for his efforts but received only a grunt in return. The servant who brought them a tray of food was equally careful not to meet his gaze. Xlenca could feel that their welcome to the barracks was drawing to an end.

Master Tagazuma was not to be seen. The older Master was waiting for them with a message rope which had been prepared for them. Xlenca took the colored strands and surveyed them carefully. The message was a retelling of the story he had been told the day before. He was folding the rope and placing it in his satchel when the sun priest Lo-Huitzlapoch appeared. 

“I see you are ready to return to your own barracks. Please pass on my best wishes to Master Tu-Tuoan.” The priest held up a black amulet to the young Master. “I noticed that you had lost your talisman. No one should attempt to walk through this life without the guidance and protection of the Sun God.” His eyes flashed black and cold.  It would be most unwise to do so.”

Xlenca took the amulet in his hand without a word and climbed aboard Moon Dancer. The black stone felt cold and heavy in his hand. He could feel the sun priest’s eyes on him as they moved out through the gate and felt a chill run down his spine. His mouth turned dry and he sensed a pounding rush in his head. He stared down at the black amulet, wondering how much the man had perceived, how much he understood. As the mastodon trotted down the trail and out of the sun priest’s sight the stone seemed to grow hotter and hotter in Xlenca’s hand. A great fear gripped his heart and with a shudder he threw the idol into the underbrush.

As quickly as it had come, the sense of panic passed and a feeling of calm settled over him. A wind whispered through the trees and a heavy rain descended on them out of a sky that only moments before had been bright and cloudless. Xlenca pulled his cape more tightly about his shoulders and reached down to scratch Moon Dancer’s ear. The great beast lifted her head briefly and continued on down the trail. Xlenca glanced over his shoulder to find Lotec watching him intently. The Rider looked from Xlenca down to the black stone talisman which hung around his own neck. Without a word, he slipped it off and tucked it into his satchel. Xlenca nodded to his Rider but remained silent.

The rain had abated by late afternoon as the mastodon maintained her tireless pace along the path. The gentle sway of her gait had allowed each of her passengers to doze in turn but both were now fully awake. Soon they would seek an appropriate campsite to spend the evening before resuming their journey back to the Red Sun. Xlenca pointed down the trail, past the steep cliff that edged this part the forest track. There was a spring of fresh water only a short distance further with a pool fringed with a thick growth of green grasses that would serve well as feed for the mastodon and bedding for them all. His musings came to an abrupt halt when Moon Dancer suddenly stopped in the middle of the trail.

“What is it, girl?” Xlenca said, peering into the deep foliage. Lotec readied his spear and raised himself up on the platform. The jungle was silent and still. Not even a breath of wind stirred the branches. Moments passed but there was no sign of danger. Xlenca attempted to coax the great beast forward but the mastodon only stamped her feet. She refused to advance further.  At last Xlenca slipped down to the ground and began to lead her onward. The stillness of the air was shattered by a sudden deep rumble. The young Beast Master looked up and froze at the sight of a massive rock falling from the cliff face.

Before he could react, the mastodon reared up and spun on her hind legs. Lotec gripped the sides of his platform to keep from being spilled over the side. Xlenca’s hand was locked around Moon Dancer’s bridle and her hurried action jerked him backward like a rag doll. He grunted in pain as the immense stone struck the ground where only seconds before he had stood. A chill silence settled back over the trail.

“Are you alright?” Lotec cried as he threw himself over Moon Dancer’s side and raced to his stricken Master.

“Yes.” Xlenca grimaced as he released his grip on the heavy leather and massaged his aching limb. “Yes, I’m fine.” The great mastodon reached out with her trunk to caress his face. Smiling, he stroked her head and leaned into her massive bulk. “Thank you, Moon Dancer. You saved my life.”

Both men stared up at the edge of the cliff. Neither could detect any movement and nothing seemed out of place. Xlenca watched as Lotec moved further along the trail to a place where the cliff became only a steep hill. Reaching the top, the Rider turned and eased himself along the peak of the escarpment, clambering over rocks and pushing through dense foliage till he came to the spot overlooking Xlenca and Moon Dancer.

“I see where the stone lay.” His voice echoed through the ravine. “I don’t see any sign that anyone’s been here. No, wait.” He dropped out of site for a moment and when he arose, his face was pale and grim. Xlenca watched with fierce intensity and shifted rapidly from foot to foot as his Rider scrambled back down the hill. At last, Lotec stood before him and held out his hand.

There clutched in his fingers was something cold and hard. Xlenca started to reach out to take the small figurine but stopped as a chill tremor inched up his spine. It was an amulet of the Sun God—identical to the one that Lord Lo-Huitzlapoch had given to him, the same as the one he had cast aside. The young Master felt his mouth grow dry and his heart turn cold. He looked at the man and beast beside him and he was afraid.

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The Golden Conquest – Part 13

.           The whole encounter was over within seconds and the remainder of the troop had been unable to intervene. They moved in now, encircling the crazed bull mastodon. The Masters carefully positioned their mounts to ensure that they kept their long, curved tusks pointed at their adversary. Two of the Riders leveled their long spears and jabbed out at the animal while the others prepared their javelins. The bull spun in a circle, trumpeting madly and charged forward.  The Master he faced was prepared for the assault and his mount deftly grappled with the bull in an attempt to lock his tusks in hers. The others in the troop moved in.

            Xlenca steadied himself and readied his spear as they closed in on the bull’s rear. The two flanking teams also edged nearer and the Riders simultaneously launched their javelins.  Both weapons were well aimed and struck the bull high on his neck. Blood flowed down his neck and enraged him even further. The bull was able to shake himself free from the mastodon he had engaged and whirled to face his attackers. The animals stepped back quickly but one stumbled on a fallen tree limb and started to go down. The bull rushed ahead to attack but was blocked as Tu-Tuoan urged Moon Dancer forward.

            The bull lashed out with his trunk and tusks but his blows were blocked by Moon Dancer. Xlenca stabbed out with his spear, wounding the bull again on its neck. The beast screamed in pain and anger and reared up on hind legs. Xlenca thrust out his spear at the bull’s exposed chest, the obsidian blade cutting deeply through muscle and bone. A javelin hit the animal from the other side while the remaining Rider drove his spear into its flank. The bull shuddered and lurched forward. As it fell it struck out with its trunk one last time. The blow glanced off Tu-Tuoan and propelled him through the air.

            The bull staggered to its knees and the troop struck again with javelin and spear. Finally, it rolled onto its side and lay still.  Moon Dancer had remained between her fallen Master and his attacker but now turned toward him. Xlenca dropped his spear and slid down her side and rushed to Tu-Tuoan. The old man lay in a crumpled heap at the base of a tree. The Rider feared for the worst but as he reached the Master, the elder moaned softly. Xlenca carefully rolled him onto his side and was relieved when the old man opened his eyes.

            “Is it done?” Tu-Tuoan said in a hoarse whisper, “Is Moon Dancer uninjured?”

            “No, Master, she is fine, The fight is over. The bull is dead.” He gently laid a hand on the old man’s chest and felt the air moving easily in and out, no sign of any damage to the lungs. He carefully pushed on Tu-Tuoan’s abdomen and looked into his eyes for any sign of pain.

            “It does not hurt, my Rider,” the Master said firmly, “I just need to rest. Please check on the others.” At that moment Xlenca was joined by one of the other Masters, and reluctantly arose to turn away from the old man. He surveyed the carnage about them. The bull lay unmoving where it had fallen, a pool of dark blood collecting by its side. The female which had been wounded weakly flailed its legs in a desperate attempt to regain its feet. Xlenca could see that it was injured too severely and knew that it would not survive. Lotec and the other Riders had managed to free Master Hantuachal from under the wounded beast and had laid his corpse on a small mound of ferns. Lotec knelt by his slain Master, holding the now stilled arms and weeping unashamedly. Xlenca placed a hand on his comrade’s shoulder.

            “I failed him, Xlenca,” the Rider said, his voice shrill and high, “I should have stayed mounted to protect him and River Song. I let them down.”

            “No, you did not,” Xlenca replied, “You could not have changed the outcome. You were doing your duty.” He twisted to stare again at the injured mastodon. “There is another duty that must be done. River Song is badly hurt. She is in great pain and cannot endure. Do you wish for me to see to her?”

            “No,” the young man said tightly, “I will do it.” Lotec laid his Master’s hands carefully on the older man’s chest and arose to stand over his mount. The animal quieted as soon as he placed his hands on her great head. She fixed her eye on his and reached out to touch his arms with her trunk. 

“I am sorry, River Song. You were very brave and very good. You will always be in my heart.” Lotec proceeded to stroke the mastodon’s cheek with one hand while drawing his knife with the other. The great beast continued to watch the man’s face and a sense of peacefulness seemed to come over both of them. The stone blade of his dagger was as sharp as a razor and the animal did not flinch as he slipped the blade between the folds in her neck, severing the carotid artery. The blood flowed quickly from the cut and River Song closed her eyes. A moment later she was gone. Lotec lowered his head and wept anew.

Xlenca left his companion to his grief and strode back to where Tu-Tuoan lay. This had been a truly terrible day. Two mastodons were dead and a master killed while another lay injured. He reached for his amulets to give a quick invocation to the gods but then recalled casting the Sun God’s symbol aside. Was that why these things had happened? Was he being punished for what he had done? But why were others suffering? Why had the Sun God not attacked him but had instead allowed the others to be so grievously harmed? It made no sense.  As he approached the fallen elder, Master Quezoema arose and stepped toward him. The older man stared intently at Xlenca but did not speak.

“How is Master Tu-Tuoan, Wise One,” Xlenca at last said in respectful tones. Quezoema’s stern face looked even harder than usual.

“He is badly injured, Rider. It is his back. He cannot feel nor move his legs.”

“Will he recover?”

“No,” the Beast Master replied almost coldly, “No, he will not.” Without another word he turned away and walked to the edge of the jungle. Xlenca stood in shocked silence. Did he not care? He watched as Master Quezoema stood staring into the foliage clenched fists hanging at his side. Then he noted the odd jerking movements of the older man’s shoulders and realized with a start that he was weeping. Each member of the troop was grieving in their own fashion. Xlenca turned back toward his fallen Master.

The Riders prepared a litter of woven cloaks stretched over spear shafts and placed the injured man on the stretcher with intense care. Xlenca whistled softly to Moon Dancer who responded by stepping forward and settled to her knees. After padding the war box on her back with leaves and moss they cautiously lifted Master Tu-Tuoan into place. The old man smiled through his pain, refusing to show any sign of discomfort. While one of the younger Riders sat behind the box to stabilize the Master, Xlenca settled himself astride Moon Dancer’s neck and motioned her to her feet. The great beast floated upward with so little motion that the men did not even sway.

Xlenca sat twisted atop the mastodon, watching his Master as he lay in his nest of foliage. The old man’s eyes were closed and his breathing regular but there was a tenseness in his shoulders and arms that revealed some of his inner turmoil. Master Quezoema approached astride his beast and passed Xlenca a packet of bright green leaves.

“Rider Xlenca, have your master chew these. They will cause him to sleep.” Xlenca watched Tu-Tuoan’s body relax as the medicating plant juices began to flow into his bloodstream. Moments later Quezoema signaled the troop to begin their journey back to their barracks. As the animals moved into position, Moon Dancer snorted impatiently when Master Quezoema’s beast assumed a position at the head of the troop. It was her usual place, and sensing her discomfort, Xlenca reached down to scratch her ear and reassure her. Glancing back, the Rider realized that she was not the only one feeling lost and out of place. Lotec rode holding the shrouded body of his master. River Song had been left where she had fallen.

The troop moved down the trail in a silent, solemn procession. Even the birds and monkeys remained quiet. They had traveled a mile or two when Master Quezoema allowed his mount to fall back parallel with Moon Dancer. His face remained unyielding when he looked at Xlenca.

“I will have a task for you when we have reached the barracks.”

“Yes, Wise One.”

“I wish for you to go to the Great Hill Barracks.” 

“But . . .” Xlenca cried, catching himself at the Master’s sharp glance, “I am sorry Master Quezoema, but I hoped to be allowed to attend to Master Tu-Tuoan.” The older man’s eyes softened briefly as he glanced at the sleeping form atop the mastodon’s back but quickly hardened once again.

“The task I have for you is on his behalf. Master Tu-Tuoan will be cared for. I need you to investigate this.” Xlenca took the small packet the other man held out. He pealed back the large leaves wrapping about the package to find a bloody piece of the bull mastodon’s ear. The edge showed a series of well healed notches. Such cuts were made when the animal was a calf and were as distinctive as a tattoo.  They were the mark of a Quetzolite Barracks, the Great Hill Barracks. 

As the Rider examined the ragged piece of flesh, he realized such marks meant one thing, the bull had not been wild. Somehow the rogue mastodon had, against all convention and reason, been raised at the Great Hill Barracks and then escaped. There had been no reports of a fugitive breeding bull and the notches were not usually seen on a breeder. Inexplicably, the animal also had not been hamstrung but left whole and fit. It was troubling, and could only mean added danger.

The journey back to their barracks was slow and difficult. Master Tu-Tuoan’s injuries made travel painful and he required frequent rests. Lotec was sent ahead with the body of his slain Master to prepare for the others arrival. The rest of the troop trudged on together, a somber procession that wound its way through the countryside. Xlenca shook his head sadly when they at last passed through the gates of the barracks. It had only been few weeks since he had returned from the Sun Festival but it seemed like a lifetime. He felt that his portion of grief and sadness was too great and he wondered once again if he was being punished for rejecting the Sun God. The great god of the Ixtec could be possessive and pitiless. Had Xlenca brought this tragedy upon them? Was he to blame? Was it his doing?

He slid down from Moon Dancer and stood for a moment surveying the clearing. A warm soft light filtered down on him through the trees and gently touched his brow. He turned at the joyous sound of a birdsong. A cluster of bright flowers caught his eye for a moment and then a vivid butterfly fluttered by. Somehow, in a manner he could not explain or fully comprehend he felt some of the fear and doubt fall away. The tight constriction that had gripped his chest since the day of the battle with the rogue bull began to loosen. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes briefly. Without further thought he led Moon Dancer into the compound. There was much to do. 

He slowly led the mastodon towards Master Tu-Tuoan’s quarters where two of the older apprentices were waiting to assist the injured man. As they entered, Xlenca could see that orders had been sent to prepare for the Master’s comfort. The room’s usual spartan furnishings had been replaced with cushioned chairs and a bed with a soft mattress. The royal physician had been summoned from the capital and was even now preparing potions and ointments. Everything would be done but Xlenca feared their efforts would be in vain.

Reluctantly he left the old man when summons arrived for him to appear before the barracks council. Passing Moon Dancer’s pen, he was grateful to note that his young apprentice had already begun to clean and feed the Great Beast. The lad looked up as the young man passed and Xlenca gave him a small smile. The boy’s cheeks were wet with tears but he continued with his task.

The council chamber was dark and quiet when Xlenca entered. Three of the senior Masters of the barracks sat speaking in low tones in a corner while a fourth stood hunched over a fire pit. He straightened upon hearing the Rider’s footsteps and motioned the young man forward. It was Quezoema, looking even more grim and stone faced than usual. A worried look passed over the younger man’s face. What was wrong now? He had expected the summons to the council knowing that Quezoema planned a mission to the Great Hill Barracks. But why did that require the four most senior Masters? Quezoema remained silent and pointed to a mat in the center of the room.

Xlenca knelt as he had been ordered and watched as the four Masters formed a semicircle before him. The quartet of the elders stared at him solemnly and then in turn each gave a curt nod to their leader. At last Master Quezoema stepped forward and broke the silence, his voice gruff and firm.

“Rider Xlenca, you have served in these barracks for many years, as Initiate, Apprentice and now as Rider. You have sought the Path of Quetzol with diligence and determination. Master Tu-Tuoan has commended you to this council. You have been a most fine Rider of the Great Beast.” Pausing he turned to accept a gilded cup from one of the other elders and an ornately carved rod from another. Looking back to Xlenca, he fixed his eyes on the young man and spread his arms to hold forth the two relics.

“But no longer shall you ride the Great Beast. Those days have departed from you forever. Now the council invites, no, commands that you put down the tools of the Rider and accept the Rod of the Master.”

Xlenca was speechless. Mutely he accepted the ancient black scepter, his fingers closing tight over the worn carvings. The gilded cup was held out to him and he received it with his free hand. Lifting it to his lips, he drank deeply of the hot bitter cocoa mixture. The sacred drink sealed his elevation in rank. He felt a heavy cloak of bright feathers being placed on his shoulders. Other hands lifted him to his feet and directed him to the door of the council chamber.  Stepping back into the bright sunshine he was greeted by a roar of approval. The members of the Red Sun Barracks saluted their newest Master of the Great Beast.

Still confused and surprised, Xlenca greeted each person with a short bow as they passed before him; the Initiates, wide eyed and more than a bit frightened, the Apprentices awed and excited by the ceremony, the Riders pleased and perhaps even jealous of their former comrade and lastly, the Masters, welcoming him into their fellowship. After the procession had ended, servants appeared bearing trays of food and drink. The barracks often dined together but today they would feast to honor Xlenca’s promotion. As the celebration began Quezoema took the younger man’s arm and lead him aside.

“I see this surprised you. That is good. Humility is a valuable asset for a Master.” Xlenca was astonished to note a slight smile cross the elder’s visage as he continued, “It is also sometimes lacking in my—our compatriots. Walk with me.”  he barracks youngest Master followed the older man through the courtyard. The sounds of revelry continued unabated behind them as they approached the mastodon pens. The great animals were seemingly unaffected by the excitement around them. One beast however was restless and crowded against her enclosure as they approached. The sight of the two men brought a loud trumpet from her and Xlenca quickly stepped forward to stroke Moon Dancer’s head and ears.

“This is one of the reasons for your elevation. Master Tu-Tuoan will likely never be fit to lead a Great Beast again. He felt that you and you alone would be fit to assume mastery over Moon Dancer. I agree.”

This was most unusual, Xlenca knew. It was most common that a newly made Master be given a calf to raise and train, thus forging the bonds between man and animal which would allow them to function together. If a Master was killed or became ill, his mount was usually retired or used for breeding purposes. Only rarely did another assume care of the animal and then only if a senior Master was available. Never would such a responsibility be given to one so young or junior. It was even more unexpected as Moon Dancer was the matriarch of their herd.

Xlenca’s thoughts seemed to fly in all directions. Fear, apprehension and doubt swept over him but as the mastodon nuzzled against his shoulder, they were replaced with determination and confidence. 

Master Quezoema spoke again. “The Path needs Moon Dancer still . . . and she needs you. The council is satisfied to follow Master Tu-Tuoan’s leading in this manner. You also must make a decision.  Who would you have as Rider?”

“Lotec,” the young man blurted out, almost without thought. But yes, Lotec was who he would wish to have share in Moon Dancer’s care and direction. “That is if you and the council should agree. I think that Rider Lotec would do.”

“Very well, I have no objection. I will inform the council of your decision. I will leave you now. You may wish to return to the celebration.”

“If it is alright Master Quezoema, I would most like to visit Master Tu-Tuoan.” As the elder gave a nod of approval, Xlenca turned and hurried to his former master’s quarters. He still needed the old man’s help and council. He needed his assurance that the council had made the right decision.

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The Golden Conquest – Part 12

.           The fierce rays of the rising sun touched the cold stones with a golden glow. The young warrior felt a shudder go through his body as the first rivulets of dark red blood began to flow down the side of the temple. The temple guards lifted another sacrifice onto one of the stone altars, holding him firmly in place. Like the rest of the men his arms were bound at his sides and his eyes were glazed from the effects of the drug he had been given. The priest moved quickly, grabbing a handful of hair and forcing the victim’s head back to expose his throat. Dramatically he held the glistening obsidian blade aloft and then slashed downward, severing both carotid arteries in one motion. The blood spurted forth to be caught in an ornately carved stone bowl and funneled into a channel that began its course down the front of the pyramid. The knife flashed again, cutting deeply into the still heaving chest. The priest reached in to rip out the sacrifice’s heart and turned to toss it into the fire blazing at the center of the platform.

            Greasy black smoke curled upward into the azure sky as Xlenca looked away. His gaze traveled down the score of prisoners inching forward towards the altar. Some were Aztec warriors captured in the last war, others were criminals condemned to death, and a few were slaves who had proved unprofitable. The last in the line was different. She was a young girl, just approaching womanhood and she stood erect and proud at the end of the procession. While the others were naked but for a loincloth, she was dressed in an ornately embroidered robe and wore a cloak and headdress of bright multi-colored feathers. While the men’s arms were tied tightly with leather thongs, her hands were free and held a bouquet of flowers. Her eyes too were different. No drug had dulled them and even from this distance, Xlenca could tell they were bright with fear. She was his sister.

            Xlenca knew that he should be proud. It was a great honor to his family that his sister had been selected for sacrifice at the winter’s solstice. It was the most important ceremony of the year and the only one requiring a virgin maiden. The People believed that this was needed to heal the Sun God of his wasting illness and bring him back to full strength. They also believed that this outpouring of blood would keep him satisfied and content for the full year and ensure good fortune for the People. Oh, there were other sacrifices, on the summer solstice and on the Day of Quetzol, but these were much smaller and restricted to prisoners. The People or Ixtec, as the other tribes called them, were pleased that they were not bloodthirsty savages like the Aztec or the Mayan had been. They were civilized.

            Xlenca continued to watch as his young sister moved closer to the knife wielding priest. Why she had been picked he could never know. The whole process was secretive and supposedly random. No family was ever allowed to be honored more than once. The selection brought great prestige to the family and could elevate the household to a higher class. The young man knew his father was pleased, for coupled with his own rank as a Third Degree Quetzolite it virtually ensured the family receiving nobility status. Xlenca did not care and guessing by the muffled sob to his left, neither did his mother. Marta continued to shuffle forward to her doom.

            She was so young and so full of life. She loved to tease and was constantly chiding him for being too serious. The boys of the village were all smitten with her and continually strove for her attention. She would have none of them.  Her big brother was ever her hero and the one she always sought out. He wished he could truly be her hero now and save her. Xlenca saw a slight shudder go through her slim body as she stepped into the firm grasp of the temple guards. Their eyes locked for a moment and he saw her trembling lips shape themselves into a smile, for him. And then the guards turned her about and laid her down onto the altar. Xlenca could not watch but lowered his head. A single tear fell from his eye.

            His duties did not allow him to stay with his family for long and he found no enthusiasm for the feasts and festivities which typically followed the sacrifices of the winter solstice. As soon as they had returned to their home Xlenca bid a hasty farewell to his family, delaying only to weep silently with his mother and remaining sister. All three used the pretense of his parting to grieve but it was not the reason for their sadness. Ma-Zena especially seemed wounded by the morning’s events and told Xlenca she wondered why chance had spared her but taken her younger sibling.

            “Be brave, Little Bird,” Xlenca said in a whisper, “Look after Mother and do not let her heart grow too heavy.”           

            “Do not worry, Big Brother.” Her voice was strong and, though her lip trembled, her dark eyes flashed. “I will watch over her. I will not leave her side.” Despite his sadness, the young man had to smile at the determination in her final statement. Ma-Zena was of an age to be wed, and their father would no doubt try to use their newly elevated status to arrange a favorable marriage. But Xlenca knew that there was great strength in his sister’s slight frame. She would resist any attempt to remove her from the family home. Giving his sister and mother one last embrace, he turned and strode down the path leading away from the house.

            Turning a corner in the trail he was surprised to find his father waiting for him. The old man was still tall and straight. His black hair might be shot through with grey but his eyes remained bright and clear. There was something else in them now however. For the first time he could remember Xlenca noted sadness and regret in his father’s eyes. The old man did not immediately speak but fell in beside his son and walked along with him. They had gone a score of paces when he paused to face the younger man.

            “I will not show disrespect to the memory of my daughter with tears. I know that the ways of our people can be hard but they have served us well and we must trust in them.” When Xlenca remained silent, his father continued, “I loved my Little Flower and I will miss her.” His voice broke momentarily but he gritted his teeth. “Your mother will grieve and that is acceptable. But you and I must keep our heads high. The People have honored us greatly this day. We must accept that honor and move on.”

            “Why?” the younger man said, fighting to control his voice, “Why must we accept it?”

            “Xlenca!  Do not forget yourself.  Do not forget your position amongst the People and what you owe them.”

            “Owe them? The priests took my sister today. They took her and they cut her throat. I think that I’ve paid enough. No father, I owe nothing. Not to the People and not to you.” Without another word he spun about and ran down the trail. He paused at a bend in the trail and glanced back. He saw his father turn with head bowed and shoulders drooping. As the old man trudged back to the house, he seemed to shrink slowly into himself.  Xlenca hesitated and then hurried on.

            The young warrior barely noticed the passage of time as his feet carried him over the trail back to his barracks. A heavy blanket of sadness enveloped him as memories tumbled down through his mind like water over the edge of a cliff. He had been five summers old when his second sister was born to be held aloft to the rising sun by his father. She had tried to toddle down the trail after him two years later when he had left for his initiation ceremony at the barracks. His acceptance as a Quetzolite novice meant that he spent much time away from home, but Marta had always welcomed his visits with joyous shouts and kisses. Her exuberant spirit made her the center of their little abode, but the selfless love she exhibited ensured that there was never a hint of jealousy amongst the siblings.

            Xlenca knew that his mother would especially feel the loss of little Marta. There had been other pregnancies he knew but each had ended in miscarriage or stillbirth. And each time it was Marta who comforted their mother and encompassed her with her love. Now it was Marta who was gone, and the nature of her passing meant that instead of grieving the family must rejoice in the Sun God’s selection of their Little Flower and accept the honor and glory this would bring. The young man could feel no joy, no pride, only regret and sadness.

  Xlenca stopped in the middle of the trail as his hand absent mindedly reached for the talismans hanging about his neck. Three leather thongs held three different stone images. The first and simplest was a dull grey rock bearing the figure of a prancing monkey. It identified his clan and family. The second was a glossy black stone carved in the fierce likeness of the Sun God, the chief god of his people. The third was a strange greenish pebble bearing no image. None was needed as the stone together with the broad tattoo covering his left breast clearly identified him as a Quetzolite, a Rider of the Beast. He stared with unblinking eyes at the three icons. His family was his foundation, something he could never forget. His profession was who he was and all that he knew. With a sharp jerk of his hand he snapped the other of the leather strands. For a moment he held the black idol in his clenched fist. Silently, he dropped the icon by the side of the path and walked on.

            His eyes were dry when Xlenca reached the barracks some days later. He had traveled through night and day almost nonstop and the sun was approaching its zenith as he came into the valley. From the top of a ridge he could overlook the cluster of stone buildings in the center of the broad shallow basin, the Barracks of the Red Sun, Keepers of the Path of Quetzol. He raised both hands to salute the sentries in their watch towers and continued through the open gates. As he passed the thick stone walls, he glanced at the pillars lining the pathway and noted once again the rows of names listed on them—names of generations of Masters and Riders. He stopped for a moment to stare at the spot on which his own name had been carved. Someday perhaps the designation of Master would be added to his name.

            A voice called to him and he turned to see a boy running toward him, bare feet slapping against the packed earth. In spite of himself Xlenca had to smile as the boy skidded to a stop in front of him, almost falling in a tangle of gangly limbs. The lad caught himself and bowed in an attempt to show the proper formalities of greeting.

            “Rider Xlenca,” the youngster said as he tried to slow his breathing, “You are back. Master Tu-Tuoan left word that you should come to him upon your return.”

            “Very well my apprentice, lead on.” Xlenca smiled at the boy. At ten years of age he had just entered the second level of the Path of Quetzol and was now officially apprenticed to Xlenca and Master Tu-Tuoan. Just as had the two older men, the youngster must now put aside childhood things and spend the majority of his time at the barracks far away from home and family. Marta had wept on the day Xlenca had graduated from Initiate to Apprentice but had bravely kissed him goodbye. She knew what it meant to him and accepted it without complaint. The memory now brought a fresh wave of sadness to him.

              The young man paused as they passed the pens and sheds that dominated the center of the compound. Leaning close to the chest high stone fence he gave a low whistle and listened intently. He whistled a second time and heard a rustling sound from within the enclosure’s outbuilding in reply. Xlenca smiled as the doorway of the thatch hut was filled by a familiar shape. The Great Beast let out a snort of recognition and ambled forward to stare into his eyes.  Gently she reached out and wrapped her trunk around the Rider’s shoulders. The Great Beast was a mastodon, a creature from a line stretching back to a pair the founders of the People had captured and tamed many centuries before.

            “Hello, old one.” The young man grinned and reached up to scratch behind a great ear. “I missed you also. It is good to see you again.” The mastodon closed her eyes in pleasure and stamped her feet. Xlenca ran his hands down her jaw line and under her neck, searching for burrs and biting insects. He had been caring for the old mastodon for years and was not yet fully confident in his apprentice’s ability to maintain her health. She turned her head slightly to stare with one great brown eye into his two. As ever before, a subtle message of love and understanding passes between them. She seemed to recognize the grief he was carrying and nuzzled him again with her trunk. For a moment the young man leaned his head against the mastodon’s only to have his reverie broken by an urgent tugging on his arm.

            “Rider,” the boy said, “Please come. The Master is waiting.” Xlenca nodded and followed the lad, glancing one last time at the mastodon. She stood taller than a man at the shoulder, her body covered with thick coarse hair now turning grey from its original reddish brown. Her long, curved tusks, the tips covered with heavy leather caps, were yellowed with age but remained wickedly sharp. She waved her trunk after the departing humans and flapped her smallish ears. She was the oldest mastodon in the herd and was its matriarch. Her name was Moon Dancer.

            Xlenca and the young boy continued to hurry through the compound. They entered the main building to find a grey-haired man seated cross legged on a woven mat. The elder was staring at rope of multi-colored strands interspersed with a complex array of knots and twists. The seemingly random array of knots and colors were actually a clear and readable form of writing. The old man seemed troubled by the message, a deep frown creasing his weathered face. At the sound of their approaching footsteps however, he looked up and smiled. 

            “Welcome back, Xlenca,” he said, “Thank you for bringing him so quickly, young one. Now I believe Moon Dancer needs to be fed. Would you please attend to the Great Beast’s needs?” As the apprentice bowed and scurried off, the old man turned his eyes back to Xlenca. “You did not stay for the feasts or for the solstice festivals?” The Rider only shook his head in reply and stared down at the ground. Tu-Tuoan rose from the mat and stepped forward to place a gnarled hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “I heard that the priests had selected your sister for the ceremony. I share your grief.”

            Xlenca jerked his head up in surprise. He had expected another admonishment to be proud, to accept joyously the honor the temple guardians had granted to his family, not recognition of his sadness. His voice broke as he spoke, “I—I don’t understand. Why do you . . . speak so?”

            “Why?” The old man’s smile was tinged with sadness. “You did not think you were the first to ever lose a loved one to a random drawing of lots by the priests of the Sun God, did you?” He paused and stared into the distance. “Did you not ever wonder why I had never wed? There was a girl once. She was fourteen summers old and I loved her. She too was ‘honored’ just as was your Marta. She too was . . . so young, so beautiful.” He lifted his hand in the sunlight as if trying to catch a beam of light in his palm. “So long ago.” Tu-Tuoan shook himself and straightened his shoulders. “Grieve, weep if you must but do not forget your duty. Look at this.” He handed Xlenca the knotted strands.

            The Rider was not as adept as his master at discerning the encoded message but he nonetheless quickly grasped the older man’s concern. A village to the south had reported that their crops were being ravaged by a rogue mastodon. If the report was true then the situation would have to be dealt with quickly. There were no known wild or missing animals but such occurrences had happened, though rarely, in the past.  The mastodons were never fully domesticated but were rather controlled through their close relationships with the men who served as their riders and masters. It was a relationship forged through years of companionship which began at the time of the animal’s birth and it was only broken by the death of the mastodon or of the Master. 

Only the legendary Quetzol, the founder of the Path, had ever been able to manage more than one mastodon and only he had ever taken a bull mastodon for his animal. Since his day, all others had taken only female animals. Most male calves were culled from the herd and the few bulls reserved for breeding purposes were kept confined in strict isolation. The Great Council of the Quetzolite Path required that all such beasts be hamstrung to reduce the chance of escape. Even so, a bull mastodon was a fierce and dangerous creature easily enraged and inclined to wanton destruction. If such a beast were rampaging through the countryside, their work would be difficult and potentially deadly. Xlenca welcomed the mission. It was a chance to set aside his grief and fix his mind elsewhere. His face was set and grim when he looked again at Master Tu-Tuoan.

“When do we leave?”

The thudding tread of the mastodons echoed through the trees, dispelling even the morning mist. Chattering monkeys fled before their approach while brightly colored birds watched unmoving from the treetops. The troop was rapidly approaching their destination.  Master Tu-Tuoan raised his rod to call the force to a halt and with a spry dexterity surprising for a man his age scrambled to stand atop Moon Dancer’s great head. Holding his hand out to call for quiet the old man closed his eyes in deep concentration. Even the mastodons sensed the need for silence and stood immobile. After a moment the Master settled back astride Moon Dancer’s neck and waved the troop forward.

Xlenca like the other Riders was perched within a box-like structure tied upon the mastodon’s back. None of the men were armored as they would have been for war but all were armed with an array of weapons. Xlenca held a long spear tipped with a keenly sharp blade of obsidian while a woven basket at his side held a clutch of javelins. He tensed now and gripped his spear more tightly as they moved forward. The other masters directed their mounts to flank Tu-Tuoan’s and the five beasts moved onward through the underbrush. Moments later they burst into a large clearing to survey a scene of destruction. The group paused briefly and again advanced in order.

It had been a small village, only a score of huts and pens surrounded by fields of maize and vegetables.  The buildings had been torn asunder and the crops crushed and trampled. It was obvious from the mayhem that the villagers had been fortunate to have escaped unharmed. The message Tu-Tuoan had received had indicated that the inhabitants of the small settlement had heard something large and ferocious approaching through the jungle and had fled. The decision had no doubt saved lives but it also meant that the Beast Riders were advancing against an unknown danger.

The quintet of mastodons moved forward in loose formation, their great heads swinging from side to side and their ears perked up in apprehension. The Masters stroked the creature’s sides and spoke softly to maintain calm control. The Riders gripped their weapons more tightly. Xlenca hoped that it would not be a mastodon that they found. He dreaded the thought of having to kill one. The mastodon herds had never been large and the numbers had been greatly reduced during the People’s wars against the Aztec. Once there had been some ten barracks scattered throughout the territories but now there were only three.

            The troop passed through the clearing and entered the jungle that encroached on the far side of the village. Smashed trees and crushed underbrush gave silent testament to the comings and goings of a large creature. As they approached a small stream one of the Masters, an older man named Hantuachal, called a halt so his Rider Lotec could leap down to inspect some tracks in the muddy soil. Though partially obscured by an overlay of the spoor of smaller animals, there could be no doubt that a mastodon had traveled through the area. Lotec crossed to the opposite side of the creek and pointed out more, fresher prints. One footfall had snapped off a small sapling.  Its broken bark was still green and its heartwood moist. The Beast they followed had passed this way only recently.

            Lotec’s head jerked up suddenly as a crashing came from the jungle next to him. An immense bull mastodon burst through the underbrush and charged forward. The Rider barely had time to roll out of its path before the Beast slammed into Hantuachal’s mastodon. Lotec’s Master desperately tried to turn his mount but reacted too slowly and the bull’s wickedly sharp tusks struck the mastodon’s side. The blow was deflected by the heavy boiled leather armor draped over her flanks but the bull twisted his head and tusks were thrust forward. One dug a deep gouge in the female’s cheek while the second caught her behind the jaw and dug deeply into the soft flesh. 

            Blood poured from the wound and the mastodon bellowed in pain. She turned sharply in an anxious attempt to escape the pain. In doing so, she trapped the bull’s tusk under her jawbone.  The bull shook his head viciously almost pulling the weakening mastodon from her feet. Suddenly the entrapped tusk snapped halfway up its length and the two beasts were flung apart.  The wounded mastodon spun away but stumbled and fell, pinning her master beneath her massive bulk. The enraged bull lunged out again, goring the female’s exposed underbelly and causing her to roll. Master Hantuachal was crushed.

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The Golden Conquest – Part 11

In the weeks that followed the settlement took shape rapidly. Cortes conferred with his captains and made plans with the assistance of his native allies. Father Garcilosa and Henrico continued to be kept busy learning the indigenous languages with the assistance of Cortes’ two interpreters. The sailor from Cuba was soon surpassed by the two clerics and they spent more time being tutored by the native woman. Her name was Malitzin and the three of them were soon able to converse. Her own grasp of Spanish improved daily and she soon could share her own dialect which she told them was called Mayan. Malitzin was able to instruct and assist the two clerics as they studied the Cempoalan tongue, a variant of Mayan. She also brought to them an assistant, an older Cempoalan named Txella. He promised to help her teach them the language of the empire to the west; the language of the Ixtec.

Father Garcilosa and Txella were waiting by a fire on the beach when Henrico carried their evening meal to them. They had grown increasingly skilled at conversing with each other as the days had passed and the elderly native had informed them of the history of the region. The Ixtec were a powerful people who only a few years before had defeated the Cempoalans’ previous masters, the Aztec, in a fierce and bloody war. He told the clerics that his people had always been a subject people and were hoping that the Spaniards would finally help them to cast off their yoke. Txella did not believe that that would happen.

“You should gone,” he spat, picking through his stew, “Ixtec too strong. Swat you like man swat fly.”

“Why do you say that, Txella?” the priest said, “Cortes is strong also. He has his horses and his muskets.”

“Noise-That-Kills strong yes but Ixtec more. Ixtec have the Beasts.”

            “What do you mean? What are the Beasts?”

            “Do not listen to him,” Malitzin said, joining the trio, “He is old and foolish. He tells lies and old stories.” She rattled off a string of Mayan to Txella so rapidly that Henrico and the priest could not follow. Txella scowled at her and spat again.

Malinche! You traitor own people. Txella hope Ixtec catch you. Feed you to Beasts.” 

The woman reached out to strike him but the old warrior easily blocked her arm. Taking his meal with him he rose and left the group, a sly smile on his face. Malitzin shook her fist after him and sunk to the ground beside the two clerics.

            “My people.” Her voice dripped with bitterness. “I have none. Only Hernan cares for me. He is my family, my tribe.” Henrico watched her in fascination. She was not beautiful by European standards but she moved with a catlike grace that attracted attention to her. She had a raw sensuality which she seemed to be able to turn on at will and which captivated the men. She had certainly captivated Hernan Cortes. Henrico felt drawn to her as well, seeing in her a kindred spirit. She too had no family and no home to call her own. But it seemed that she at least had the affection of their commander.

            “What do you know about this Beast of which Txella spoke?” Father Garcilosa said.

            She turned and spat on the ground before replying. “Ha, is old woman’s story to frighten children. Txella is old fool. Do not worry. Hernan is strong and powerful. Cempoalans are right to call him Noise-That-Kills for he will kill all who try to stop him.” With that pronouncement, Malitzin rose and walked away, shaking her long black hair loose as she did. She glanced back over her shoulder and catching him watching her, flashed a saucy smile at the young Benedictine. Henrico felt his face grow red and quickly looked away.

            “Beware of her, my son,” the priest said, “Temptation comes in many guises.” The novice stared at him grimly.

            “You don’t like any of my friends.”

            “I will admit that I am concerned. This young woman, Malitzin, has had a difficult life and she needs to learn of the love of Christ. But a young man should not be the one to attempt to teach her. She has learned to use her body to survive and is willing to set aside any pretense of morality.”

            The novice dropped his chin to his chest and gritted his teeth. “Who has any morals?  Who really cares?”

            “Henrico, my son, what is troubling you?” The priest knelt beside the lad and grasped both shoulders, forcing him to look him in the face. Henrico shook off his grip and rose to his feet.

            “There’s no one, don’t you see, no one I can trust. It’s all been a lie. My so-called brothers, the man I thought was my father, even my mother. Everyone.” He stared up at the sky, a majestic canopy of diamond studded velvet.  “I don’t know who I am anymore. I don’t know who He is anymore.” Without another word he turned and ran into the darkness. As he reached the tree line, he glanced back. The priest had shifted on his knees and bowed his head in prayer.

            The expedition was on the move. Leaving a skeleton crew to maintain and protect the settlement, Cortes led the rest of his men westward. He rode at the front of the vanguard with the other mounted soldiers. Having learned that the natives had never seen a horse before, he felt that such a display of martial prowess would go far to winning any battle. The remaining infantry together with their native allies brought up the rear. Henrico marched for a time beside a group of men laboring to keep an artillery piece moving but soon cast around for other company. He spotted d’Amarco riding a short distance ahead and ran to catch up. 

            The young man’s enthusiasm diminished when he approached the courtier. Riding beside the aristocrat was a stern black robed figure, Brother Sebastian. Henrico had almost forgotten about the Dominican. It was unfortunate that he hadn’t stayed in Cuba. Still, Henrico was excited to see d’Amarco again. The novice was about to step forward when he was dismayed to recognize the other men with the two horsemen. Montoya and his two cohorts.

            How could Ponce d’Amarco, someone whom he had thought was his friend, accept the presence of such villains? Had the Dominican ordered it? But why would d’Amarco acquiesce even then? He had crossed blades with these ruffians and now he rode beside them as if they were old comrades. Henrico tasted the bitterness of disappointment. Silently he dropped back and fell in beside Father Garcilosa. The priest gave him a warm smile and Henrico had to admit that he at least seemed to care. Was he perhaps the only one who did?

            The army marched on through the day. Progress was slow for though there was a trail it was narrow and rough. It was not a true road and the Spanish forces often delayed to clear debris or even widen the trail to allow the artillery to proceed. Henrico noted that the journey seemed especially hard on Father Garcilosa. It appeared that his old leg wound was troubling him and he began to limp more and more as the day drew on. Henrico left him for a moment and commandeered one of the pack animals. By hoisting some of the gear onto his shoulders, he was able to make enough room on the mule to allow the priest a chance to ride and rest his injured limb. The older cleric expressed his gratitude at the thoughtfulness.

            The Spanish force continued on through the heat of the late afternoon.  The men remained in good spirits, laughing and trading stories of the wealth they would soon share. When the Cempoalan allies informed him of a large clearing with fresh pools of water a short distance ahead, Cortes ordered his captains to tell the army that they would make camp in a short time.  With the news, Father Garcilosa announced that his leg felt rested and elected to step down off the mule. The two clerics were walking beside each other when their attention was captured by an uproar at the head of the column. Their curiosity quickly turned to apprehension as they heard the sound of musket fire.

            The troops rushed ahead dropping their packs and pulling out their weapons as they ran. Henrico raced behind the soldiers while Father Garcilosa struggled to keep up. The Spanish infantry were excited at the prospect of combat against another primitive foe. Even as they ran, Henrico heard some call out confident boasts.  Hurry, men called, or the fighting would be over before they reached it. Their headlong rush was suddenly slowed when they encountered troops falling back from the front of the battlefield.  In growing confusion, the soldiers began to hesitate.

            Then a group of riderless horses came plunging down the trail. The animal’s eyes were wide with fear as they bolted through the mass of men. Some of the troops attempted to grab trailing reins but the horses snapped and kicked at them and raced on. More soldiers broke out of the underbrush in full flight. The captain of the company Henrico was with attempted to rally his men but they turned and fled with the others. The army was in full retreat, routed by an as yet unseen opponent. Henrico stood stunned by the turn of events, not knowing what to do. He grabbed the arm of a fleeing soldier to ask what was happening but the man shook off his arm and continued to run.

            The young Benedictine turned to hear a heavy crashing sound coming toward him from the jungle. The ground itself seemed to tremble as the noise came closer. Henrico stepped backwards his mouth falling open as an immense dark shape could be seen approaching through the dense brush. His foot caught on a vine and he fell back striking his head on a fallen log.  Stunned, he attempted to rise but his vision swam and blurred before his eyes. He saw a huge brownish grey form burst from the trees before him and then he lapsed into darkness.

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The Golden Conquest – Part 10

“You!  What on earth are you doing here?”

“Stefano, my brother.” The young man’s grin was wide, his eyes bright. “It is you. Oh, praise God. I didn’t know when I would ever see you again. It’s so wonderful to see you, brother.”  He moved to hug his sibling but Stefano stiffly avoided the embrace.

“I said, what are you doing here? You should be back at the monastery. You weren’t expelled, were you?”

“No. No, I—I mean—uh—I am here with Father de la Vega. We are going with Senor Cortes to the new lands to . . .”

“Don’t be a fool, boy. The western lands are no place for a school boy. Go back to Spain.  Go back to your books and parchments.”

“Why are you saying this, Stefano? We are brothers, family. Aren’t you at all happy to see me?”

The soldier’s eyes narrowed as he lowered his voice. “We were never family. We lived together only because father said so. But he’s dead now and the pretense is over.”

“But our mother . . .”

“Your mother, not mine.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“Listen, brat.” Stefano stepped close, his voice tight and angry. “It’s time you knew the truth. Your mother was his second wife. He kept us from telling you—made us accept you as part of the family, always favored you, but he’s not here now. And neither is Joaquin. Our big brother wouldn’t let us tell you even at the funeral. Well, I’m tired of lies.”

“You mean . . . we’re half-brothers?” Stefan gave a sharp laugh and shook his head.

“I’m not even sure of that. There were rumors. Your mother was quite pretty and, well, Father was away a lot. Who knows whose little bastard you really are?”

Henrico felt as if he had been struck. He stood dazed, staring at his brother’s face without speaking. He felt as if the ground beneath his feet was crumbling away. The smirk on Stefano’s face faded but his eyes remained hard. 

“Go,” he said, “Go back to Spain.” 

The young Benedictine spun away and stumbled out of the hall. His eyes stung and he fought against a sob that spilled from his throat.  A grim tightness constricted his chest till he felt as if he could not breathe. He ran down the hill, not thinking or seeing where he went and wandered the darkened streets in confusion. He looked up suddenly at the sound of a barking dog and realized he did not know where he was. In dejected silence he slumped against a stone wall while his thoughts raced back to his childhood. There had always been a distance between himself and his brothers that he had never understood, a barrier that kept them apart. His father seemed to care for him but was often aloof and sometimes harsh. The love he had known had come from his mother. She had been his rock and now even that seemed threatened. Who could he trust? Who could he turn to? 

A crash of breaking glass shook him from his stupor and he looked up to see three figures approaching out of the shadows. The first finished draining a bottle of wine and following the lead of his comrade threw it against the stone wall. Henrico scrambled to his feet as the men stepped into the light. Montoya. The novice shrunk back and attempted to move aside. Too late. The men recognized him and moved to block his escape.

“I’ve been looking for you, monk.” Montoya’s words were slurred by the wine, his face creased in a cruel sneer.  He stepped forward and pulled a long-bladed knife from his belt. “It’s time for one more dance, boy and this will be the last one.” 

Henrico held out his hands, palms upright and began to back away. “I’m unarmed. Just leave me be.”

“Oh, we’ll leave you alright . . . in the gutter.” Montoya looked past him for a moment and jerked his head. “Felipe, don’t let him past.” 

The novice glanced behind him to see that the seaman had picked up the broken bottle and moved between the wall and the street. Edging back to his right Henrico found that way blocked by Cordoba. The bully grinned as he smacked a cudgel against his hand. The Benedictine was surrounded and trapped.

“There’s three of you,” he said, desperation making his voice shrill, “Are you afraid to face me alone?” 

Montoya laughed and waved his companions back. He stepped ahead, weaving the knife before him. The blade slashed through the air but the monk leapt back out of reach. Montoya circled to his left and lunged forward. Henrico side stepped and struck out his fist. Pain shot through his hand but the stabbing ache was overcome by the satisfying crunch his fist made against the sailor’s face. The sailor staggered back, blood streaming from his broken nose. He wiped the blood with his hand and swore.

“Bastard, you’ll suffer for that.” He stabbed out again with his knife. Henrico darted back but stumbled on a loose stone.  The seaman was on him in an instant, hacking at his throat. The Benedictine threw an arm up to block the blow and screamed as the blade cut into his flesh. Gritting his teeth, he punched Montoya in the face once again and rolled away. The two combatants, each bloodied now, clambered back to their feet and continued to circle each other warily. Henrico looked around, frantic to escape. With Felipe on one side and Cordoba on the other, he could see no way out and nothing he could use as a weapon. Montoya advanced once again.

“Would you gentlemen mind if I joined the festivities,” a voice called from the shadows. Ponce D’Amarco stepped into the light drawing his sword as he did. “Really, Henrico, it seems I am always interrupting your fun.”

“You’re not wanted here, d’Amarco.” Montoya glared at the nobleman and swore. “This is not your affair.”

“Ah, but I’ve decided to make it so.”

“What kind of game do you think you’re playing? You can’t have things both ways.” 

“I suggest.” The young aristocrat’s voice took on a hard edge. “That you and your—ah, friends leave . . . now!” He lifted his sword slowly. Felipe had been moving stealthily closer and suddenly lunged forward with the broken bottle. D’Amarco parried the strike easily with the flat of his blade and pounded the hilt into his attacker’s face. The man crumpled to the ground with a groan. Raising his sword once again, he spoke again. “As I said, it’s time for you to go.”

“You bastard,” Montoya cursed, “You know what the Dom . . .” His words were cut off as the courtier’s blade whipped out, the tip coming to rest against the bully’s neck. D’Amarco’s smile was grim.

“Enough talk. Save your breath while you still can and leave this place.”

Snarling with anger the sailor backed away. Motioning Cordoba to help their fallen comrade, he sheathed his knife, and slunk back into the shadows.

“This isn’t over,” he called as they slipped away, “I swear it’s not.”

D’Amarco stood for a moment till he was sure they were gone and then turned to the injured monk. Returning his sword to its scabbard, he inspected Henrico’s wound. The courtier pulled out a silken cloth from his doublet and skillfully bound the cut. “There, I think you’ll survive.”

Henrico’s face was pale and a sheen of sweat covered his brow. He felt chilled and fevered at the same time. He started to step away but staggered and almost fell. D’Amarco steadied him with one arm and then stooped to pick up the bottle of wine Cordoba had dropped.

“Come, my friend,” his rescuer said with a whisper, “You need to rest. My inn is not far.”  Slipping his arm under the Benedictine’s uninjured one he supported him as they walked down the street. Henrico nodded his assent and glanced at the aristocrat. There was something almost cynical on the man’s face for a moment. A wave of nausea forced his eyes to the ground as the quiet blackness of the night closed in after them.

Father Garcilosa sat on the edge of his bed and prayed in the moonlight. The weeks in Cuba had passed slowly and he had watched Henrico become sullen and withdrawn. The priest knew something had happened the night of the Governor’s fiesta but not all of it. Something was troubling the lad. He did his work diligently but without joy. A spark had gone out of the young monk. The priest was not sure what had happened. It had to be more than the fight with Montoya. He hoped Henrico would open up to him and share his troubles. In the interim, Father Garcilosa would continue to pray.

Other thoughts came to his mind. Captain Quintero was also disheartened. He had been unable to find a cargo to take back to Spain.  The captain had shared with Father Garcilosa his concerns about his crew. He feared not for their safety but with losing them to others. The longer they lingered in port the more stories they heard of the wealth and splendor of the lands to the west. And the more they were tempted to join Cortes on his expedition. The priest shook his head slowly as his reflections and prayers turned to Cortes.

Tensions between the charismatic general and the island’s governor were growing. Cortes had judged it best to increase the distance between them and had moved his base out of Havana. For reasons Garcilosa did not understand, he had taken Brother Sebastian and d’Amarco with him. Once in his own camp the soldier began take on more and more authority, and placed himself in solitary command. Velazquez saw what was happening and his anger and jealousy grew. Everyone was beginning to wonder how the conflict would end. A soft knocking on his door pulled the priest away from his musings. Cautiously he opened the door of his room to find Olmedo waiting for him. 

In hushed tones, the first mate explained his mission. Quintero wanted them aboard ship as soon as they could be there. They should bring all their belongings. The streets were dark and quiet as the clerics hastened to the harbor. The sailors were silent and even the oarlocks of the boat that carried them out to the Gabriella had been muffled with rags. The ship lay in deep shadows, men gliding over the deck and up the rigging like ghosts. The final clicks of the capstan sounded like gunshots as the anchor was secured home. The ship turned slowly to catch the wind and began to move soundlessly out of the harbor. Olmedo motioned the two clerics into Quintero’s cabin.

The air in the small room was stale and warm. Canvas was draped over the already shuttered windows to prevent any stray light from escaping. Only after the door had been firmly closed did Quintero move to uncover a small lantern to dispel a portion of the gloom. Leaning forward, he spoke in a hoarse whisper.

“There’s been a change in plans, my friends. I’m afraid the Governor has decided to remove Cortes as head of the mission.”

“What does Cortes plan to do?”

“Just what you’d expect, Father. Hernan is starting out now, before Velazquez can act. We’ll rendezvous with his flotilla at dawn and then proceed westward.”

“I see. But what of your plans to return to Spain and what of your cargo?”

“I’ve changed my mind. I won’t be going back to Spain because the only cargo I could find to carry was for Cortes. It’s onboard already. Sixteen horses, three pieces of artillery and a couple of tons of powder and shot; all for Cortes’ forces. Of course, they’ll be replaced with something even more valuable once we make landfall.” The sea captain shrugged and spread his hands. “A man has to make a living.” 

When the two clerics came on deck the next morning, they found the Gabriella in the midst of ten other vessels. They had found the rest of the fleet and joined them on their westward journey. Within days, they once more sighted land. The ships skirted the lush green coastline of the place, exploring the bays and inlets of an area Henrico would later learn was called the Yucatan. Cortes did not make camp but continued westward. Only rarely did any of the expedition go ashore and then only to seek information and fresh supplies. On one such occasion, Father Garcilosa and Henrico were allowed to accompany the shore party.

The young Benedictine was fascinated to watch Cortes as he led the men away from their boats and along a jungle path. He seemed so confident, totally unafraid.  A village had been spotted from the ships and Cortes strode boldly into the center of it. At first the village seemed deserted but after a few moments dark eyes could be seen peering from the foliage. Cortes ordered a blanket spread out upon the ground and a variety of trinkets laid upon it. He then sat cross-legged on the blanket. He did not have to wait for long.

An old man came first. When he was able to approach Cortes and even take one of the trinkets from the blanket without any harm occurring to him, he turned and gestured to the trees. Within moments over a hundred natives drifted into the clearing. One of them of them came and sat on the blanket across from Cortes. He carried an ornately carved staff and worn a headdress decorated with bright feathers. Henrico heard a murmur go through the men around him.  The band of the chief’s headdress shone dully in the sunlight. It was made of gold.

Cortes waved one of the sailors forward to stand beside him. The man had joined him in Cuba and could speak some of the coastal dialect. Henrico and Father Garcilosa had been working with him to learn the language and they listened now as he interpreted for the two leaders. The chief spoke slowly, often glancing over his shoulder as he did. No, they had not met white men before. Yes, the visitors were welcome. They were a poor tribe but peaceful.  No, the white men would not be wise to stay here. It was too hard to get enough food and there was no wealth here.

The man seemed to become more evasive when Cortes pressed him about his head band. It had come from the west, a gift the chief said but he did not say from whom. The west was a mystery to him. His clan did not go there. There might be richer tribes there but he did not know.  Perhaps the white men should go there. Perhaps they should go soon. The chief accepted the gifts Cortes had lain out on the blanket and returned a gift of his own. A string of about twenty slaves were led from the jungle and presented to the Spaniards. The slaves would help speed them on their journey.

One of them would prove invaluable. She was a young native woman who spoke not only the language of the coastal tribes but also that on the interior. Cortes’s sailor and the native woman were able to speak together and interpret the rumors and legends that came to them. These legends were what drove Cortes and his men on—tales of a great and powerful empire further to the west. A land of staggering wealth and power—a land that Cortes now vowed to conquer.

Onward the little flotilla sailed, hopping from harbor to harbor along the jungle encrusted coast. The coastline curved to the southwest and then back to the north. The forests remained thick and lush, filled with strange sights and eerie sounds. The specter of the unknown began to eat at their confidence as the sailors began to grumble and complain. They were fearful of anything mysterious and the doubts and questions raised by the land off their bows played upon their superstitions. The familiarity of Spain or even Cuba began to call to them. At last Cortes announced that they had sailed far enough. The fleet would disembark.

Father Garcilosa and Henrico did not accompany the first group to go ashore but they learned the details later. Cortes had led a force of fifty men up through the surf onto a broad sandy beach.  They were confronted by a mass of fierce natives elaborately garbed in feathers and animal skins. Brandishing spears and clubs, the aboriginal warriors advanced on the small band of Spaniards, shouting and chanting in a strange tongue. They were silenced when Cortes stepped forward with his musket men and fired a devastating volley into their midst. A second volley put the entire force to flight, leaving the sandy beach stained with blood.

By the time Cortes had brought up the remainder of his men the natives had returned. But this time they advanced unarmed, their empty hands above their heads as they hesitantly stepped from the jungle. Their chief approached Cortes and threw himself down on the sand before him. It took some time for his words to be translated but soon the Spaniards were able to understand his intent. These were the Cempoalans and they were appalled that they had offended the newcomers. Their old masters would have required it. But now that Cortes was here, they had a new master and a new protector.  The chief would provide all that Cortes would need—food, water, slaves. Henrico had been told that at this, the Spanish commander had lifted the chief up and embraced him as a brother and an ally.

“Well, this will be sure to get old Velazquez stirred up,” Quintero was saying as he entered the tent.  Father Garcilosa and Henrico had been storing the last of their belongings in the temporary shelter when the sea captain had burst in.

“And what is it that you think will so distress the Governor?” the priest asked with a smile.

“Hernan has put the men and our new found allies to work building a city.  He has named it Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz.”

“But how should that be of concern, my friend?”

“It’s of concern because he’s doing just what Velazquez suspected he would. He has repudiated the Governor’s authority over us and declared himself chief officer of the settlement, second only to the King! Oh, he’s a bold one alright,” Quintero said with a wide grin, “He’ll not be content to explore this new land, he means to conquer all of it.”

“You seem almost proud of him.”

“Huh, well I suppose I am a bit. There’ll be a fortune to be made that’s for sure. But sadly, I won’t be here to share it.”

“I thought that you’d be waiting for a cargo before you return to Spain.”

“Oh, I had hoped to. But my dear Cortes is being a bit too sly even for me.” The sailor leaned forward to speak in a hoarse whisper. “I’ve learned by pure chance that he’s determined a way to ensure the continued loyalty of his men. He’s going to burn the ships so they have no choice but to follow him.” Henrico had been standing back, listening with feigned disinterest but now stepped forward.

“What?” he said, “Why would he do—”

“Hush, lad,” Quintero said, “We’ve got to keep this quiet or there could be a riot. I understand why Cortes is doing this. He’s only got five hundred men and if many desert his plans are ruined. Still, I’ll not let him burn my sweet Gabriella. As soon as its dusk, I sail back for Cuba.”

Father Garcilosa leaned forward to place a hand on Quintero’s shoulder. “We understand, my friend. We will stay with the expedition.” Henrico turned away and shuffled back into the shadowed corner of the tent.

“I expected so, Father. But listen, I’ll not forget you. I think Velazquez will have need of ships for a while and that he’ll pay good coin for the work . . . and for the information I can offer.” Quintero stood and grasped the priest with both arms. Glancing over at Henrico, he continued, “I promise you this.  In five months, I will bring the Gabriella back to this spot. I’ll wait for you for a fortnight. If you’re here and want to go, I’ll get you both back to Spain.” The two men embraced. Henrico only stared down at the ground without speaking.

The coming of the dawn confirmed Quintero’s prophesy.  Amid anxious shouts and angry words, the two clerics stepped from their quarters to see the sea ablaze. The entire flotilla was on fire. Some of the sailors attempted to row out to combat the inferno but quickly had to abandon the attempt. A group of irate men turned and marched toward their commander. Cortes had climbed onto one of the horses and raised his hands to quiet the mob. His request was reinforced by the presence of a squad of musket men, their weapons at the ready. The heated shouts and cries were reduced to angry murmurs.

Cortes smiled broadly as he spoke. “Friends, comrades, let us not be disheartened by this terrible event. Yes, you are correct. We have lost our way back to Cuba. But before us lies a great adventure. To the west is an empire of vast wealth ready to be seized.” He spun his horse about and as it reared up drew his sword with a flourish. “We are few in number that is true but as we have already seen the natives of this land are simple and primitive. It will be a simple matter of marching and do you know what will happen? We shall all be rich and powerful men!” 

The fury had gone out of the men. Their rage gave way to excitement and their shouts changed to cheers.

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