. 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The interior compound was better maintained but the few servants and apprentices about seemed cowed and withdrawn.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.