The Golden Conquest – Part 16

.           Her name was Cue-Ahmma and she had been born at the Great Hill Barracks. Her father had come here from a northern Barracks as a Rider. Her mother had followed him and had worked as a servant until they could be married. Her father was a good man, a noble man, who had risen to Beast Master and become one of the leaders of the Barracks. It had widely been expected that he would take over as Barracks Master when the old Master stepped down. But then the sun priest Lo-Huitzlapoch had come to the compound. The sun priest had ingratiated himself with the old man, playing on his weaknesses and indulging his baser instincts. When the elder became too ill to continue, he pushed for the Barracks Council to name Tagazuma as his successor.

Even with the pressure the old Master exerted and with the influence of the sun priest, the decision was far from certain. There was much support for Cue-Ahmma’s father and he still might have been elected to fill the position. But then there had been an accident and her father had been killed. Tagazuma had been selected as Barracks Master and nothing had been the same since. The sun priest’s influence had grown and the community had become more isolated and more secretive. Some of the buildings in the compound had been declared off limits to everyone but a select few. There was even talk of a secret ceremonies and rituals somewhere in the jungle.

Cue-Ahmma did not believe that her father’s death had been an accident but she had no proof. She had stayed at the Barracks for the sake of her family. 

It had been her mother’s only home and she was lost away from the garrison. Then her younger brother had been accepted into the Path of Quetzol, first as an Initiate and now as an Apprentice. She still hoped someday to learn the truth about her father and to expose Tagazuma and Lo-Huitzlapoch for what they were. She knew they had plans that went beyond the walls of the Great Hill and nothing would please her more than to spoil them.

She swallowed her tears and squared her shoulders. Xlenca watched the emotions play across her face—anger, defiance, fear.

“How did your father die?”

“He was out on the trail to the south. It had been raining and a large stone became loosened. It fell and he was killed.” Xlenca and Lotec glanced at each other and then back at the woman. “There is not much more that I can tell you but there is something that you should see.  Will you follow me?”

“Master,” Lotec said in a hoarse whisper, “Can we trust this girl? We know nothing of her. Here we have the strength to control her but out in the compound she could give us away at any moment.” Xlenca looked at his Rider and then back at Cue-Ahmma.

“I trust her. We will follow.”

            Snuffing out her torch, Cue-Ahmma led the two men back into the night and through the darkened compound. Past the silent kitchens and servant quarters they slipped to dart between a row of shadowy storage huts. Crouching in the darkness, she pointed out a round stone structure surrounded by its own low palisade. The building was lit by torches on either side of the large double doors and guards could be seen moving in a circuit around the edifice. The place had a chill sternness about it. A strange sense of dread settled over them as they stared at the cold unyielding stones of the structure’s walls. Xlenca shifted closer to the young woman and whispered into her ear. “What is this place?”

“I only know it is evil. It is always guarded and none of the servants are allowed near it.” She turned her head to look into the young Beast Master’s eyes. “And no one ever enters the building, no one except Tagazuma and Lo-Huitzlapoch. It is dangerous to come even this close. To be seen here is death. Come.” Cue-Ahmma crawled back into the shadows and motioned for the two men to follow her. The trio moved away from the area and back toward the calving barn.  Xlenca pointed toward the side gate. It was time for Lotec and him to leave.

Approaching the entrance Xlenca peered around the corner only to snap his head back out of sight. The drunken guard had awoken and was sitting with his head in his hands. Their escape route was blocked. The two men looked back and forth at each other, unsure what to do or where to hide. Suddenly Cue-Ahmma stepped around them and strode toward the guard.

“You fool.” Her voice was sharp and firm. “You’ve been drinking.” The guard stumbled to his feet and looked about sheepishly. The woman grabbed his arm and spun him around. She continued to scold him as she pushed him away from the gateway. “If one of the Masters saw you in this state you would be thrown out of the Barracks. Let’s get you cleaned up and then back to your post before it’s too late.” She glanced over her shoulder to see Xlenca peering out from around the corner and jerked her head toward the now unattended exit. He nodded back and flashed a quick smile to her before slipping out the gate.

Once outside, the two men darted into the trees. They stood motionless, not even daring to breathe till they were satisfied no one had seen them. They drifted deeper into the foliage.  Only when they were well away did, Lotec break the silence. “What will we do now?”

“I would like to find a way into that secret building. Tagazuma and that sun priest are hiding something there and I fear it may be a threat to the entire Quetzolite Path.”

“The place is very well guarded. How could we get in?”

“I’m not sure. Perhaps Cue-Ahmma will be able to help us.”

“She’s quite a beauty, don’t you think?”

Xlenca stiffened. “I hadn’t noticed. She—she is a brave young woman. No doubt. We need to be careful not to endanger her or us. We need to keep our focus.” He stared back at the barrack compound for a moment before glancing back at the Rider. “Why are you smiling? We need to hurry.” With a determined frown fixed on his face the young Beast Master marched down the trail.

Dawn was still only a faint hint in the eastern sky when they reached the hovel belonging to Master Tu-Tuoan’s friend. Cautiously they approached the door to the home and stood beside it. Only when he was certain that all was quiet did Xlenca give a low whistle—the cry of a night bird common in the south but rare in this area. A moment later the door opened and the old peasant hurried them inside. Lotec collapsed onto a straw mattress and within seconds was breathing with the slow steady rhythm of sleep. Rest evaded Xlenca however as he continued to sift through the myriad events of the past few weeks. One image kept disrupting his thoughts and clouding his reason. It was a vision of Cue-Ahmma’s flashing black eyes and gentle smile that captivated his mind. At last, he ceased to fight against it and his own lips curled into a half smile as he drifted into slumber.

It seemed like only a few moments had passed before the young Master felt his shoulders being shaken. His sleep addled brain failed to fully respond and though his eyes were open, his mind could not hear the voice calling to him. A shaft of sunlight poured through a crack in the hut’s wall over his head. Dust danced in golden swirls above him captivating him in their patterns.  A mastodon strode out of the mist and shimmered into a moss-covered cottage. The house dissolved into a face that edged closer to his consciousness. It was a woman’s face and he struggled to bring the image clearer. He reached out to hold the visage but it fled from him.

“Master,” a voice called hoarsely, “Master Xlenca, wake up.” His eyes focused on the form before him. It was not the woman from his dream but the elderly peasant. The old man shook him again and spoke louder. “Please Beast Master, wake up. You must wake up.” Xlenca rose up onto his elbows and blinked twice to clear the last vestiges of sleep from his mind.

“I’m awake. What is it?”

“A messenger,” the old man said, “A messenger has come for you.” Xlenca arose from his pallet and moved to the hut’s front room. A young warrior was seated on a stool by the hovel’s fire pit.  His hair was in disarray and his clothes disheveled and covered with sweat and dust. When the Beast Master entered the room, the warrior dropped the bowl of gruel he had been eating and struggled to his feet. Xlenca recognized him then as one of the guards from the Red Sun Barracks and a man trusted by Master Quezoema.

“No please, sit. I can see that you have had a difficult journey.”

“Thank you, Master Xlenca,” the warrior said, “But I must give you my message. It is most important and Master Quezoema made it very clear that I find you and tell you right away.” 

“What is the news?”

“Master Quezoema has sent me with a message for the Barracks Master at the Great Hill Barracks but I was to give you the message first. He told me where you would be.”

“Yes, yes, but what is the news, man?  Speak.”

“It’s the empire.” His voice trembled with fatigue and worry. “Our homeland has been invaded.”

Xlenca jerked back in shock. “What? That cannot be.”

“It is true,” the warrior said, “You are ordered back to the Barracks as soon as possible. The army is being gathered. There will be a great battle.”

“Who is it? The Tlaxcalans? A remnant of the Aztec?”

“No, they are from the east, from over the Great Water. That is all I know.”

“I don’t understand. How could an army come over the Great Water? Who could they be?” Xlenca was silent for a moment. “We will learn soon enough. Very well soldier, we will leave as soon as Moon Dancer can be prepared. You should finish your meal and rest a bit. I would like to be well out of this region before you pass on your message to Master Tagazuma.”

The young Beast Master strode from the hut with Lotec in tow. “Our mission here will have to be postponed. It’s not over though. We will still have unfinished business with the Barracks Master and that sun priest once we have dealt with these invaders.  Come, we had best hurry.”

            A mastodon in full battle dress was a terrible and fearsome sight.  An entire squadron could cause the very ground to tremble.  Moon Dancer had stood quiet and serene as her three caregivers swirled around her.  She seemed impervious to their efforts as they draped her in her armor and fineries but Xlenca noted the slight tenseness in her neck muscles and reached up to scratch her ear.

“It’s alright, old girl.  This is just for show.  Any fight will be days or weeks away; if then.”  The Beast Master noted the questioning glances that passed between his Rider and his Apprentice and continued in a louder voice, “It is likely that these so-called invaders from over the Great Water will fade away like the morning mist at the approach of you and your sisters, Moon Dancer.  So do not let your great heart be troubled.”  He smiled at his companions.  Lotec returned the grin and carried on with his work.

The Great Beast was soon dressed in a dazzling array which was both martial and ceremonial.  Thick pieces of boiled leather stitched together with heavy cords covered her flanks and haunches.  Over this was draped a cloak of jaguar skins.  The lower parts of each leg were wrapped with woven stands of leather dyed red and blue.  These would protect her limbs in battle and prevent her from being hamstrung.  A gilded rope hung around her neck and held a broad stiff piece of leather over her chest.  The chest piece was studded with plates of a hard reddish stone and spotted with golden nails.  Her headdress was more ornate yet.

A triangle of heavy leather hung on her broad forehead, the point hanging down between her eyes.  It was decorated with precious stones held in place by strands of thick gold.  Smaller but similarly decorated triangles hung below the first and wrapped around the upper portion of her trunk.  A wide band of gold had been affixed to the top of the headdress and from it rose a wide fan of bright red, green, and white feathers.  The plumage was from the Ixtec’s most sacred birds and no men were ever allowed to wear them.  Around the base of each of Moon Dancer’s great tusks, Lotec carefully wrapped a long wire of the purest gold.  When he was finished, Xlenca carefully polished and sharpened each tusk to finish the mastodon’s battle preparation.

Their tasks completed the two men bathed and began to dress themselves while Xlenca’s Apprentice tended to Moon Dancer.  Xlenca slipped on a short, woven skirt and strapped leather greaves to his lower legs.  His bare chest was covered by a plate of beaten gold, and he slowly wrapped each hand and forearm with supple strips of leather.  He tied a cloak of yellow feathers over his shoulder and then pulled on his plumed headgear.  The helmet was similar in design to the one worn by Moon Dancer but was decorated with eagle feathers.  As he settled it onto his head, Xlenca could hear the blood rushing in his ears and his breath coming in short excited gasps.  He repeated to himself the same advice he had given earlier to his Beast and his Rider.  This was just for show.

Lotec had also finished dressing.  Less ornately clothed than his Master, he was more heavily armored with boiled leather plates on his chest, back and upper arms.  He wore not a plumed headdress but one made from the skin of a jaguar. The cat’s head covered his own with the upper fangs resting on his forehead.  Lotec’s lower legs were uncovered as he would go into battle crouching in the war box strapped to Moon Dancer’s back.  He climbed into the war box and made sure that his weapons were all in place.  Four javelins were set in slots on either side of the box while a long-handled war club sat at the rear.  Lotec held his great spear upright beside him.  A pair of eagle feathers fluttered from its obsidian blade.

Xlenca pulled himself up astride the mastodon’s great neck and then reached down to accept his rod from the young Apprentice.  He nodded to the boy and then tapped Moon Dancer on the shoulder.  The Great Beast slowly backed away and then turned to stride toward the gathering army.  Xlenca noted with pride the assembled forces he had accompanied from the Red Sun.  The Barracks had submitted three complete troops, a total of fifteen animals.  All were strong healthy Beasts with experienced and seasoned Masters and Riders.  As Moon Dancer moved confidently into her place flanking Master Quezoema’s mastodon, Xlenca was pleased to note the satisfaction on the Barracks Master’s stern visage.  All could be proud of the Red Sun.

The other Barracks were less well represented.  The Barracks of the Southern Reaches had suffered much in the wars against the Aztec yet still had responded admirably.  Eight mastodons with a full complement of attendants had made the journey northward.  Quezoema had told Xlenca that this left the Barracks with only two animals which not infirm or with calf.  No one grumbled about the Southern Reaches efforts.  Sadly, this was not the case with the Great Hill Barracks.  Their response to the call to arms was more than disappointing.

The Great Hill had contributed only four mastodons to the army.  Xlenca had seen at least three times that many when he had first journeyed to the Barracks.  The men who had answered the empire’s call seemed almost embarrassed at their Barracks poor commitment.  They explained to anyone who would listen that Tagazuma had assigned most of their animals to the defense of the capital, feeling that this was their duty as the Great Hill was the Barracks closest to the city.  Xlenca actually felt sorry for them when they sheepishly tried to explain why this was needed when the invaders were still far to the east.  Privately, one of the Masters had admitted to Xlenca that the sun priest Lo-Huitzlapoch had played a role in the division of the Barrack’s forces.

Xlenca was certain the sun priest could not be trusted.  The man apparently put himself before the empire.  Yet, the Beast Master could not be totally displeased with the forces that the Great Hill Barracks had sent.  When the small troop had reached the mustering ground the Beast Master had noted a familiar form amongst the servants and attendants.  Cue-Ahmma had made the journey.  When Xlenca had caught her eye, the young woman had flashed him a brief smile before being carried away by her duties.   He had been shocked to find his heart quickening at the brief glance and his palms growing damp at the thought of her being so near.  He had told himself that he was being foolish and had hurried back to his own work.

Even now however, he found himself smiling at the memory and hoping to get another glimpse of the young woman.  The large clearing was rapidly filling with troops.  The squadron from the Southern Reaches was positioned on the right while the small contingent from the Great Hill took their places on the left.  Xlenca had to resist the urge to turn and watch their approach.  Deliberately, he kept his gaze fixed on the raised platform before them.  Rank upon rank of infantry now filed onto the grounds, filling the spaces between and behind the squadrons of mastodons.

The foot soldiers were also organized in groups from various towns and regions.  There was no consistency in their dress or weaponry as each man supplied his own equipment.  Some of the men were naked, their bodies painted black or red or yellow.  These were Sun Warriors and they prized bravery above all.  They were typically armed with short obsidian tipped swords or war clubs so as to enter into close combat with the enemy.  Other soldiers were clothed in jaguar skins or cloaks of eagle feathers.  These men also valued courage but also emphasized fighting prowess and skill at arms.  They were the elite of the army and were armed with a variety of weapons.

The majority of the infantry were poor but sturdy peasants.  They did not wear bright plumes or fierce animal skins but simple drab tunics.  Most were armed with stone spears and wooden clubs though some carried javelins and a few carried bows.  The peasant warriors were as a rule less brave and less skilled than their fellows.  They were willing to defend the empire but most just wanted to get home alive.

By the time the troops had all marched into the clearing, Xlenca estimated that the army numbered almost two thousand.  It was an impressive force though only a fraction of the total men which the empire could field.  Still the greatest burden for success would fall to the squadrons of mastodons.  It had always been so and many great victories had come from the Great Beasts and their Riders.  Xlenca imagined how it must have looked in the old days when one or even two hundred of the massive creatures had marched before the legions of infantry.  It must have been an awe-inspiring sight.

A shrill cry came from the front of the clearing as a tall herald called the army to pay heed to the beginning of the ceremony.  Xlenca squinted into the morning sun and watched as the group of officers climbed up onto the platform.  The last to step up was the elderly Chief Steward of the empire.  The old man moved slowly to the front of the stands as a murmur began to build through the ranks of the men standing to attention.  The deep rumble grew into a cheer that rolled through the clearing and shook the jungle around them.  The Chief Steward raised his hands to quiet the horde and began to speak slowly and clearly.  He did not raise his voice but his words carried to each man.

The Ixtec Empire was threatened, he said.  Not by their traditional enemies but by a new adversary from across the Great Eastern Water.  The invaders were a strange new people not seen before, and though their numbers were few they had powerful weapons.  They had made an alliance with the treacherous Cempoalans.  They had begun to build a city on the coast and seemed unconcerned that they were trespassing on the greatest empire ever known.  But they did not know of the power of the Ixtec.  They could not imagine the awesome might of the Ixtec army and they had never seen anything like the Great Beast.  The chief steward’s voice began to increase in volume as he continued.  The invaders did not know these things but they soon would.  And as they learned this hard lesson they would be swept back into the sea.

The army responded with an exuberant cheer that pounded the surrounding jungle in waves of sound.  Like a swelling surf stirred by the fury of a hurricane, the roar built in the men’s bellies and burst from their throats.  Spear butts were pounded against the ground while others beat open hands against their bare chests.  The sounds continued unabated as the legions of warriors began to march eastward from the clearing.  Without any directions they formed themselves into a column of men that strode down the jungle road.  Only when their throats had become hoarse did their cheering subside until at last the army marched in silence.

The Ixtec continued on only a few miles that day.  Just as Xlenca had said, the grand assembly was for show, a demonstration of the might and determination of the empire.  The invaders’ encampment lay some distance to the east and there would be many days travel before they reached their enemy.  Xlenca was glad to get all of the paraphernalia off of Moon Dancer.  He knew that he would appreciate the protection once they were joined in battle the heavy coverings were not meant for travel.  The short journey had already caused the mastodons to become overheated and their human caregivers quickly stripped them and lead the beasts to a stream to bathe.

Moon Dancer lounged in the cooling waters as Xlenca and his Apprentice carefully inspected her skin for sores and biting insects.  It was a job usually left to the youngsters but Xlenca has always been reluctant to give it up.  He valued the connection it maintained with the mastodon and truly enjoyed caring for her.  The huge creature opened her eyes to look into her Master’s and surreptitiously pulled water into her trunk.  Cocking the great proboscis in the air, she suddenly spewed a jet of cold water onto Xlenca’s back.  The young Master gasped at the shock while his companions laughed at the antics.

“I thought you were tired, old girl,” he chuckled, shaking water from his head and arms, “Maybe I should have Lotec take you for run.”  The Rider stood on the riverbank and vigorously shook his head.  

“No thank you, Master.  Moon Dancer may not be tired but I am.”  

Xlenca laughed in reply and continued to enjoy a few moments of play with Great Beast.  The game seemed to insulate them for a time from the troubles of the past few weeks and he almost felt like when they had grown up together.  He wished could stay in this place but feared that all too soon the world would intrude.  His premonition proved true as a soldier approached to summon him to a meeting with Master Quezoema.  Leaving Lotec to oversee Moon Dancer’s care, Xlenca slipped on a dry tunic and hurried to Quezoema’s campsite.  There he found that all of the Red Sun Beast Masters had gathered.  The Barracks Master motioned them to stand before him and waited solemnly till all were silent.

“Heed my words, Masters of the Great Beast,” he intoned, beginning the ritual call to battle, “You have been summoned to defend your people.  To slay or be slain as the gods determine.  Stand you ready?”

“Yes, Master of the Barracks,” the assembled men cried in unison, “We are ready.”

“It is good,” Quezoema answered, “Be seated.”  The formalities completed he stood with folded arms while his followers settled onto the grass.  When all had reclined, he began again, “I have further news of our enemy to share with you; news brought by our spies and scouts.  Each commander is meeting now with his officers to discuss this information, so listen closely.

The invaders are unlike anyone we have seen before.  They came from across the Great Eastern Water in huge wooden canoes.  Some of the wise men think they came from out of the sea.”

“Why is that, Master Quezoema?” one of the younger men asked.

“Because their skin is pale and white like the flesh of a fish and because some of them wear hard shells about their bodies like a turtle.  But do not be concerned, they are just men.”

“What of their weapons?” an older Master queried.

“They have powerful weapons just as the chief steward said.  They have spears and swords made from a material harder than the hardest stone.  Some ride upon giant deer and others carry rods that send out noise and smoke.  Do not laugh.  I know that you do not fear such things but I tell you this is a noise that kills at a distance.  It is something which we have never faced in battle.  We will lose troops to the power of this enemy.

But hear this; what the Chief Steward said is true.  They have never faced the Great Beasts and our spies tell us they do not even know that they exist.  We will continue our march tomorrow and soon we will face these pale invaders.  These deer riders and turtle men will be defeated and sent back across the water.  Now finish your preparations and get some rest.  You may tell your Riders what you deem fit.”  With this final command, Quezoema turned from the assembly and walked to his tent.  The Masters began to converse amongst themselves and drift back to their own campsites.  Deep in thought, Xlenca also walked away.    

“Master Xlenca,” a voice whispered.  He turned to see a shadowy form beckoning him from the trees.  The young Beast Master glanced over his shoulder.  No one was watching.   He slipped into the jungle as a hand reached out to grip his and pulled him deeper into the underbrush.  In a few seconds the two figures stood beneath a canopy of green leaves and Xlenca turned to face his visitor.  The young woman Cue-Ahmma looked up at him as a slight smile caressed her lips.

“Thank you for coming, Beast Master,” she whispered, “I needed to speak with you.” 

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