In 2008, my first novel won The Word Guild of Canada’s award for the best new Canadian Christian author. There had been plans for the novel to be published but the market crash of that year intervened. The publishing company almost went other and did not publish any books that year. By the time things stabilized, my story had been forgotten and we all moved on. Since then, I’ve had some short stories published and my mystery novel Scars was named Best Suspense/Intrigue Novel of 2019.
I have now decided to release my first novel The Golden Conquest in installments on my blog site. If you like it let me know. Let your friends and family know. I’m hoping there is enough interest to continue through to the end of the story, and I hope you enjoy reading it.
Mesoamerica, circa 9,000 BC
The wind was bitter against her hide. She shifted in an attempt to protect the young ones from its stinging blast as they huddled closely against her. They trembled more from cold than from fear but they also sensed the tension in her. Her eyes were reddened and narrowed against the ice crystals in the air as she scanned the distant bluffs.
The trees beckoned with the promise of more shelter than this hollow in the side of a low hill could ever provide. She knew her position was perilous but also recognized that the children were too fatigued to go further. She reached back and caressed them gently with her trunk.
The mastodon was the last of her herd. Not as large or as powerful as her cousins the mammoths, the mastodons had still roamed much of the land. The huge herbivores wandered through the forests and swamps, dining on the choice vegetation. Staying in extended family groups they had little to fear and few enemies. Their size and strength were enough to give them sway over the other grazers, while the two or sometimes four enormous tusks gave any hunter pause. Only three predators had ever threatened them, the great cats, the dire wolves and man.
But the herds were gone now. The retreating ice sheets were followed by massive climatic shifts that cost the huge pachyderms their advantage. Pressed on one side by the growing throngs of hoofed mammals and assaulted on the other by predators, they were unable to withstand the final attack—disease.
She had watched her mate wither and die before her eyes. Others of the herd had weakened to the point that even smaller predators like wolves and puma were able to pull them down. Somehow, she had survived. She was the last adult of the herd. Only the two infants beside her remained. Her own male calf continued to thrive despite having to be weaned early while the young female had lived even while her parents had not. The mastodon knew that she must now lead and protect the young ones at all cost. She knew that they were the last hope of her kind.
A wave of tension came to her shoulders as the shifting wind brought a subtle hint of some unseen danger. Her ears pricked forward as she raised her trunk into the air. Slowly she wove it through the chilling wind seeking any indication of peril. Instinctively she sensed that something was wrong and her growing apprehension was quickly transmitted to the young huddled against her. The she-calf gave a plaintive cry and retreated further under her legs. The male, trying hard to make a show of courage, turned outward to face the storm and raised his own trunk in defiance.
Hints of spruce and dying field grasses came to her as the mastodon cautiously studied the air currents with her trunk. Whatever threat she had sensed before no longer seemed to be there. She lowered her trunk and gazed out of the drifting snow. Soon the calves would have regained enough strength to push on to the trees. There they could all rest, safe among the boughs and sheltering branches of the forest. Dim memories came to her, memories of the herd pushing through underbrush, crushing trees under their feet to feast upon the tender upper branches and leaves. They were memories that were without fear.
A glimmer on the snow brought her head up sharply. Something had moved. She quickly looked to both sides. The drifts of snow seemed larger and closer, then they had before. She shifted nervously and moved deeper into the hollow in the side of the hill. A snort to the male calf pulled him scampering behind her. If there was a threat, she would face it with all her fury and wrath. Tense moments passed but neither scent nor sight came to her. Perhaps fatigue and cold had misled her. She turned to look at the yearlings to see if they had rested enough. At that moment the attack came.
Teo-Te-Huk was not happy with the hunt. The herds of bison and elk were smaller and more scattered than he had seen before. The green fertile valleys that were the center of the tribe’s hunting territory were now almost devoid of game. Watering holes and salt licks that usually teemed with prey had instead been fouled by rotting carcasses and bleached bones. Even the scavengers and carrion eaters avoided the putrid flesh. The odour had driven the birds from the sky and Teo-Te-Huk did not need to hold back his hunters. None wanted to enter into the valley.
Only Quetzol had stepped forward. Squat and ugly, the old man was not usually a member of the hunting party. He had never had any ability with a spear or club, and age had not changed that fact. Teo-Te-Huk had been surprised that Quetzol had wanted to accompany the hunt but he respected the old man too much to refuse. The hunt chief had recognized that Quetzol’s wisdom would be vital to the tribe’s success.
He watched as Quetzol tilted his head back and sniffed the air. Shuffling forward, the old man crouched and laid his hand on the cold damp earth. Scooping up a handful he brought it cautiously to his face and inhaled tentatively. He tipped his head to the side, deep in thought. Quetzol threw the clod of dirt aside and stepped forward to a pile of deer droppings. Taking great care not to touch the refuse, he leaned forward to peer at it intently. A shudder went through his body and he quickly rose to back away from the scene of death and decay. He looked at Teo-Te-Huk and shook his head. The hunting party would have to find prey elsewhere.
As he limped painfully away from the watering hole, Quetzol frowned in thought at what he had seen. Whatever this sickness was it was destroying the great herds. Some animals were gone completely. The giant camels and great ground sloths had disappeared and the woolly rhinoceros and mammoths were only a memory. As he looked around the tribe, he realized that most of the hunters had not ever seen any of these great beasts and that it was unlikely they ever would.
As they walked, he spoke to the hunt chief. Teo-Te-Huk nodded respectfully as Quetzol shared what he had discerned. The old one used the understanding gleaned from a lifetime of observing the wilds to read the signs around them. As he did, he recalled his past. He had been always seemed gifted in his ability to relate to animals. Unlike all the others, he had kept animals as pets and even now carried a small ferret curled up in his shoulder bag. He had been seen to stand motionless in a clearing while birds landed on his outstretched arms and squirrels scurried near his feet. They seemed to sense that he was no threat to them.
Quetzol had been born weak and lame and had always been left behind when the older hunters would take the boys out to learn the club and the spear. But he had not become angry. Instead he had found a different strength, even learning a skill that eluded most of his clansmen; that of quiet. He would sit or stand for hours at the edge of a clearing, watching the birds and mammals. As he watched his knowledge grew and he began to use it to help and instruct the hunters of his tribe. Many had resisted his advice at first but that changed with the growing success of those who took his lessons to heart. The health of the tribe improved, and their numbers grew. Quetzol became a valuable and respected member of the clan and took a place of prominence at the fire. It was this position that allowed him to claim a place with hunting party.
Quetzol continued to share what he had discerned. Something was destroying the herds. None could know how many had been lost or even if the people were safe from this terror. They would have to go elsewhere to find prey or the people would not perish. Small game was still plentiful, and the women were always able to gather wild grains and fruit, but the meat that the hunt provided would make the difference between survival and slow decline. They had no choice.
Over the next few weeks, the tribe trekked northward. Signs of life returned and they began to see larger game. The hunt achieved some success and Teo-Te-Huk sent most of the women and younger hunters back to their home fires laden with dried meat, hides and antlers. They would work steadily at replacing and refilling the larders of the tribe while the remaining hunters continued their journey. One more big kill Teo-Te-Huk reasoned, and their stocks would be sufficient to see them through the coming winter. One more good day and they could all go home.
It was the next morning that brought news. The lead scout excitedly called them forward. He had come upon the signs of a creature which he had never seen before. Teo-Te-Huk studied the ground carefully but was unsure of what he saw. There were three sets of tracks, intermingled and obviously traveling together. The hunting chief discerned an adult and two youngsters but did not recognize the animal. He motioned Quetzol forward and the old man shuffled forward to crouch beside the trail. For a moment he was silent, and then he spoke. They were the tracks of a mastodon and two calves.
An unseasonable chill had greeted them that morning. As the day progressed, the leaden skies broke open to release an unusually early snowstorm. Teo-Te-Huk was concerned that the snow would hamper their attack on the mastodon but Quetzol reassured him that it would actually be beneficial. The day progressed and the tracks freshened as they closed in on their quarry. They could tell by the trail that the calves were growing weary and struggling in the snow. The hunt chief realized that the beasts were heading to the forest he noted to the west. The shelter of the trees would give the mastodons an advantage as the calves would be able to hide in the underbrush. He urged the men forward at a faster pace. Coming to a small rise, he dropped to the ground overlooking a shallow valley. Their quarry was in sight.
The three mastodons were in a small depression in the side of a hill. Seeking protection from the chilling wind, the adult attempted to comfort the two calves. Crouching low the hunters scattered to approach the animals from downwind. Three of the men draped whitened hides over themselves and began to crawl forward. Their movements were cautious and slow. The swirling snow hid their movements and camouflaged them as they approached the mastodons. Teo-Te-Huk led the other hunters around the side of the hill, their footsteps quiet and stealthy. Hand signals flashed between the men as they prepared for the assault. Suddenly they froze as the adult tensed in an aggressive stance. Taut moments passed, till she relaxed and turned back to the calves. Teo-Te-Huk signaled the attack.
The three hidden warriors suddenly threw off the frosted hides and leapt to their feet. Shouting loudly, they waved their spears in the air to startle the mastodon and capture its attention. Teo-Te-Huk and the others crept over the edge of the hill and launched themselves at their prey. The hunt chief raced forward, a razor-sharp obsidian blade in his hand. If he could slash the mastodon’s heel tendon, he would hamstring the animal and it would be helpless. He reached the rear of the beast and brought his hand up to make the cut. With an agility and swiftness that belied its size the mastodon twirled about, its head low. A powerful jerk of its head brought the cruelly spiraled tusks upward.
The tusk thrust upward through Teo-Te-Huk’s abdomen into his chest and out his spine. He gasped more in shock than in pain and the knife fell from his lifeless fingers. The remaining hunters pressed the attack forward. The great beast tried to turn to meet the new threat but the corpse of the warrior was lodged on her tusk and hampered her movement. She trumpeted in pain as another hunter succeeded where Teo-Te-Huk had failed. Her ankle tendon severed she stumbled and fell forward. Spears were thrust into her exposed sides. She shook her head fiercely to dislodge the body. In doing so she uncovered her neck. The scout leapt forward and thrust his spear into the mastodon’s throat. Hot red blood stained the snow. She swept her trunk forward to ward off her attacker but he rolled safely away.
Calling upon her last reserves of strength, she pulled herself to her feet and trumpeted her defiance. The hunting party fell back briefly but then charged back into the fight. The spears flashed forward again. The mastodon staggered and fell. Within moments she was dead.
The men paused, their spears poised to attack once more if needed but the beast did not move. Two of the hunters turned to the calves and stepped toward them. They also would die. But suddenly a figure rushed between them and the young mastodons and Quetzol harshly ordered the men back. They hesitated before reluctantly obeying the old man.
Quetzol turned and crouched before the terrified calves. A soft low croon came from his lips as he slowly crept forward. His voice took on a sing-song quality and he slowly reached out a hand. The young animals were frightened and confused. The scent of blood was heavy in the air mingled with the strange smell of the hunters. Part of them wanted to run while another part desired to huddle against the still form of the adult. The old man crouching before them confused them more. His motions were not threatening and his voice was strangely comforting.
Quetzol continued to quietly call to the calves and slowly move forward. He had not planned this intervention but knew he could not stand by and allow the young animals to die. He knew he could and must save them. He gazed intently into their soft brown eyes. The male stared back and shuddered slightly. He was too weary to run and too scared to move forward. The young female also watched the old man’s face. As she listened to his voice, she cautiously reached out her trunk. The young mastodon touched the old tribesman’s hand, and the world was changed.