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.