. 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.