. 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.