. Xlenca stood before the Barracks’ council and watched as Master Quezoema finished reading the message rope and passed it on to Tu-Tuoan. The young Beast Master frowned slightly at the strain visible in the older man. His hair had turned fully grey and the lines in his face had deepened. He had become almost gaunt. Despite the physical changes, Xlenca saw that his eyes remained bright and his mind seemed clear. Tu-Tuoan placed the message rope down and shifted himself on his cushions before looking up.
“You have done well, Xlenca. The message from Tagazuma merely restates what you have already told us. I do find his story questionable.”
“It is more than questionable,” Quezoema said, “It is ridiculous. Tagazuma is either a fool or a liar, if not both.”
“I am afraid that I must agree, my friend,” the older Master replied, “Master Xlenca, tell me more about this sun priest who claimed to know me. What did he look like?”
“He was tall and wore his hair long and braided. He had the nose of an eagle and the eyes of a snake. His chest was covered with a tattoo unlike any I have seen before.”
“Show us.” Quezoema stop and handed the younger man a lump of charcoal and a flat piece of wood. Xlenca quickly sketched the design and passed the board to Quezoema. The frown on the Master’s face deepened as he studied the drawing. Shaking his head, he passed it on to Tu-Tuoan. The elder stared intently at the diagram and then carefully smudged parts of the picture before passing it back to Xlenca.
“Do you recognize the design now, young one?”
Xlenca stared intently at the design. In the midst of the smudges Tu-Tuoan had created was a recognizable pattern. His rendering had been crude but he could now see an unmistakable design and he unconsciously touched the tattoo on his own chest. Hidden in the complex swirls and curves on the sun priest’s chest was a pair of interlocking tusks, the symbol of an apprentice of the Path of Quetzol. His eyes shifted from the drawing to the elder Beast Master.
“He was one of us, a Quetzolite apprentice?”
“Yes, I think I recall him. His name at that time was not Lo-Huitzlapoch. It was Cuanthical and he was a promising candidate. He came from a rich and powerful family. His father was one who felt that advancement did not need to be through merit alone but could just as well be purchased. This opinion angered a number of the Council. The lad might have succeeded despite this—he was intelligent and capable but he came to believe the same as his father. His pride and arrogance ultimately led to him being rejected from the Path and dismissed from his Barracks.”
Xlenca shook his head at the thought. It was rare for an Apprentice to be so totally discarded. Not all of the youngsters were promoted to Rider but a place was almost always found for them. Most unsuitable candidates were sent home earlier and there was no shame in it. The selection of Initiates was a careful process and barely one in a hundred applicants was accepted. Of these, perhaps one in ten or twenty would be promoted to Apprentice. In both circumstances the procedure was awe inspiring and more than a bit frightening. It involved both the senior Masters of the Barracks and the matriarch of the mastodon herd.
Xlenca smiled slightly as he recalled his own selection. He had been questioned and examined by a group of stern and thoughtful elders. They studied his intellect, his physical abilities and his spirit. When they marked him as a potential candidate, he was taken into the courtyard to stand in a line with a number of other small boys. They were required to stand still and quiet as an immense mastodon entered the courtyard. To the young lads, the Great Beast seemed to block out the sky and to make the earth tremble as it approached. Some of the boys were too frightened and ran for cover and one or two embarrassed their parents by losing control of their bladders. Those that remained were eyed and sniffed by the Great Beast, the matriarch of the herd.
The Quetzolite elders had over the centuries learned that only the mastodon itself could determine which boys had that spark, that certain quality which would allow them to bond with a Beast, to control and direct its great strength. They never overruled the matriarch. Those that she rejected were dismissed. The Great Beast rebuffed most of the applicants that day. Some she ignored, some she snorted at derisively and a couple she pushed away forcibly with her trunk. She had accepted Xlenca; her soft brown eyes peering deeply into his while her trunk encircled his torso and ruffled his hair. He had laughed with pleasure at her and felt the first stirrings of love for the creature.
The Great Beast had accepted a trio of new Initiates that day to join the rest of their class of students. Over the years they had grown in stature and knowledge until the next day of testing arrived. Xlenca was thrilled and excited when he was promoted to Apprentice. His joy increased when he learned he had been assigned to help care for the matriarch’s oldest calf. He had been with Moon Dancer ever since. Xlenca suddenly realized that Master Tu-Tuoan was silent and looking at him with intent scrutiny. He blushed and bowed his head in apology.
“I was asking if anything else happened on your journey.”
Xlenca hesitated. He wanted to tell him about the incident on the trail but was unsure how to proceed. The finding of the amulet on top of the cliff troubled him still. Should he speak and share his doubts and fears about the Sun God or remain silent? At last, he spoke. “No, there is nothing more to tell.”
“That will be all then, Master Xlenca,” Quezoema said, “The council must discuss your report. Thank you.”
The sky had darkened to a velvet canopy during the council meeting. Xlenca stepped out into the slight chill of the night and gasped at the sight of the heavens. All thoughts of the previous days were banished from his mind as he gazed up at the constellations. The worries he had felt since his encounter with the sun priest faded before the majesty of the night sky. He did not understand this feeling but he greatly desired to hold on to it. He fingered the ornaments around his neck, thinking of the bonds of family and fellowship they represented and he realized that even his family and the brotherhood of the Quetzolite Path did not provide this same feeling of peace and security. But what did?
“Master Xlenca,” a voice called from the darkness. The young Master turned to see Lotec approaching from the shadows. The Rider bowed his head slightly in greeting and then continued, “Moon Dancer is resting in her pen. Your Apprentice has seen to her needs.”
“Very good. He is a fine lad.”
“What did the council members think about what happened at the cliff?”
“I did not mention it. It was just an unfortunate accident.”
“Accident? What about the amulet that I found?”
“Only a coincidence.”
“But . . .”
“Rider Lotec, it was an accident and I do not want to discuss it further.” Noting the hurt look in Lotec’s eyes, Xlenca softened his voice. “Have you eaten? I could eat a whole javelina, tusks and all. Let’s see if the Barracks kitchen can prepare something for us.”
Many days later, Xlenca stood by the animal pens and glanced at Lotec. The Rider shook his head slowly before speaking, “Is it because of us? Are we the reason for all this misfortune?”
“You are not to blame.”
“But so much has gone wrong. Young Star Shadow falls and loses her calf. The roof on the storage shed is blown off in a storm and all that maize ruined. The servants argue and fight. Everyone is upset and on edge.”
Xlenca stood silent and watched as Moon Dancer as she slowly rubbed her flanks against a post. Lotec stretched out with a handful of fresh greenery and she shambled over. Reaching out with her trunk she carefully inspected the offering before gently taking it from the Rider’s hand.
Lotec’s smile faded as he turned to his Master. “Perhaps we should say something to Master Quezoema.”
“What? What can we say?” Xlenca kept his eyes fixed on Moon Dancer’s bulk. “That the sun priest has put a curse on me for rejecting his amulet? That the Sun God himself is bringing trouble to our Barracks? That I am the cause?”
“No, Xlenca—I mean Master, you are not to blame for this. How could you be?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what to think or what to believe.” He looked up at Lotec, a thought forming in his mind. “Maybe that’s the problem. We don’t know enough. We need to learn more.”
“More? About what?”
“About Lo-Huitzlapoch. About Tagazuma. And about that rogue bull. There is a reason behind all of this and we need to find out what it is.”
“But how? The messenger returned last week from the capital. The Council of Wardens has accepted Tagazuma’s explanation. The investigation is closed.”
“I have an idea of how to reopen it. Come, I need to speak with Master Quezoema. I am sure that once he hears my thoughts, he will grant permission. I know that neither he nor Master Tu-Tuoan was satisfied with the story Tagazuma gave us. They will want to know more.”
The council was persuaded to allow the plan and the two young men travelled in secret back to the Great Hill Barracks. Arriving at night in a nearby village, they contacted an old friend of Master Tu-Tuoan. The villager provided a hiding place for Moon Dancer while her Master and Rider prepared to continue their mission alone. Changing into the garb of lower-level servants, they waited while their host prepared the way.
“All is ready,” the man said as he entered the shelter that evening, “There is a small doorway around the north side of the compound. My son delivered some of our crops earlier and made sure to leave some fermented maize with the guard. The door will not be locked.” Xlenca glanced at Lotec and smiled. They would be ready.
The two men stood in silence beneath the darkening expanse of jungle that edged the compound. The sounds of the Barracks preparing for nightfall drifted to them over the top of the wall as they maintained their quiet vigil. Slowly activity eased to a halt within the grounds of the Great Hill Barracks. At last, the only sounds that reached their ears were the quiet murmurings of the jungle at night and the hoarse rasp of snores from the doorway. Emerging from the shadows they crept forward to the door. As the old villager had promised it was unlocked.
The hinges of the old door creaked as it swung open. Xlenca paused and stood silent until he was certain there was no reaction to the noise. Peering around the heavy wooden gate, he saw a guard slumped in a heap against the wall. Two empty clay pots lay beside him while a third rested on his stomach. Each sonorous breath that escaped his lips threatened to spill the remaining maize brew over his prostrate form and awaken him. The young Master held his breath and stepped forward.
Positioning himself carefully over the sleeping man, he reached out with both hands. The clay pot rose and fell in time with the man’s snoring. Xlenca waited until the vessel had reached the apogee of its journey and then squeezed his hands over it. The vessel was heavier than he expected and it slipped slightly. Some of the amber brew splashed over the side and onto the guard’s abdomen. Xlenca froze. The sentry grunted, smacked his lips and rolled onto his side. In a moment he was snoring again. The Beast Master breathed again and set the clay pot down on the ground.
Motioning to his Rider to follow, Xlenca slipped past the sleeping man into the compound. The Barrack’s square was dark and quiet. He could see two forms standing at the front gate beside a small brazier. The flickering fire gave just enough light to assure him that the sentinels were keeping their gaze fixed outside the gate. He slipped around the edge of the building and darted into the shadows with Lotec behind him. Xlenca motioned them forward towards a large squat building and they stepped through its darkened doorway.
“Where are we?” Lotec whispered as he eased the door shut behind him.
“What does your nose tell you?” The two men took in the mixture of aromas that assailed their senses. The tang of slightly moldy hay was overwhelmed by the pungent scent of manure and urine. Underscoring these were two more subtle perfumes—blood and milk, the scents most closely linked to the passage into new life. They had entered the Barracks calving barn.
Xlenca pulled a coal from a leather bag at his waist and blew on it till it glowed red. He used it to light a small taper and looked over the holding pens. Two mastodons lay beside their young calves while a third roused herself from her bed to peer at the visitors. He could see that she was in the later stages of her pregnancy. He murmured to her softly in soothing tones until satisfied that he was not a threat she settled back onto her bed of straw.
Xlenca moved to the side wall and knelt beside a heavy beam. He handed the glowing taper to Lotec and drew his knife to dig at the base of the post. The younger man squatted beside him and watched in the dim light as Xlenca brushed straw and dirt away. The base of the post was soon revealed. It was darkened with age and penetrated by worms and insects but still strong and firm.
“What are we looking for, Master?”
“If a bull calf escaped in a fire, it would have been this building that was burnt. It would have had to be rebuilt, but this beam is over a decade old. The bull we killed was a half dozen summers old at the most. It did not escape from a fire in here.”
“Could it have been housed somewhere else?”
“That would against all traditions.”
“So that means Tagazuma was lying.”
“Yes, it means just that. We’ll check some of the other beams to confirm it.” The two men rose to their feet and had begun to move away from the wall when they heard a noise from the doorway. Snuffing the taper out, they stepped back against the wall and crouched in the shadows. A light appeared in the building as the door swung open to reveal a figure carrying a smoking torch. The intruder slipped the torch into a sconce on the wall near the entrance and then turned toward the holding pen. In the flickering firelight, Xlenca recognized the young woman who approached the pregnant mastodon. It was the servant girl who had warned him about the sun priest.
“How are you resting, Star Blossom?” Her voice was soft and musical. The mastodon did not rise but reached out with her trunk. The woman held her hands out and allowed the animal to caress her palms. She smiled as she continued to talk soothingly to the Beast. “Good. The fever has gone. Your baby will be fine, my beauty.” She stood and began to move back to the entryway. She moved with a subtle grace intensified by the sway of the torch light. Her black hair hung long and loose down her back, not braided and tied as was most usual for a servant. A stray thought crept into Xlenca’s mind as he watched from the shadows. Here was a young woman with the same joy and beauty he had once beheld in his now dead sister, Marta.
Sensing movement at his side, Xlenca glanced over to see Lotec trying to stifle a sneeze. He squeezed both hands into a tight grip over his nose while tears welled up in his eyes. He let his breath out in a slow exhale and with a nod to the young Beast Master, eased pressure on his nostril. The woman had just lifted the torch from its bracket when Lotec jerked in a sharp spasm and a small brief snort escaped from his lips. The servant girl whirled and held the torch aloft.
“Who’s there? Show yourself or I’ll call the guard.”
Xlenca straightened up and stepped forward into the light, spreading his hands to show that he was unarmed. “Do not fear, we mean no harm.”
The woman stared forward as recognition slowly passed over her face. “You. What are you doing here?”
“We had to return to learn the truth. We believe that Master Tagazuma was not truthful.”
“What did that man tell you?” The young woman’s dark eyes flashing with anger.
“Uh, he claimed that there had been a fire—a fire that killed a mastodon and allowed her bull calf to escape in the confusion.”. The young woman tilted her head and eyed him carefully. Xlenca tried to think of something else to say—to convince her to trust him. At last, he spread his hands and said, “Please, we need your help.”
The woman stared into his eyes for a moment before nodding. “There was never a fire. Tagazuma is a liar.”
“I knew it.” Lotec said, stepping out of the shadows. The servant girl watched him warily but held her ground. Xlenca stepped closer to her and looked into her face.
“What else can you tell me?”
“Tagazuma cannot be trusted. He would steal a moldy ear of maize from his own mother. The man is vermin.”
“Why do you hate the Barracks Master so much?”
“He’s not worthy of that title. He stole it from – from . . .” She stopped, biting her bottom lip while tears welled up in her eyes. Her chin dropped down to her chest and she was quiet. Xlenca reached out and gently lifted her chin.