. “Thank you for coming, Beast Master,” she whispered, “I needed to speak with you.” Xlenca stood looking into her eyes and suddenly realized that he still held her hand. A flush of red heated his cheeks as he released her hand and looked down at the ground.
“What- what did you wish to speak of?”
“There is much to tell you. When the message about the invasion reached the Barracks, Tagazuma and Lo-Huitzlapoch hid themselves away for hours. When they came out Tagazuma selected the men who would answer the call. The ones they picked were the men least loyal to them, the ones most faithful to the old traditions.”
“Why would they do that?”
“I don’t know but they’re planning something. While the Masters were getting ready, they went into the secret building. I had to see what they were planning so I hid and watched. After the troops had left Tagazuma and the sun priest took half the remaining Beasts and headed for the capital. I knew that I needed to tell you what had happened so I hurried to catch up.” She paused for a moment to look up at him before continuing, “What do you think it means?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t trust those two. I have no doubt that their schemes will bring harm to the Quetzolite Path. What they have planned I cannot imagine. Perhaps Master Quezoema will have an idea.” As he spoke, Xlenca found himself staring into Cue-Ahmma’s dark eyes. He wished that he still held her hand. He wished that he had the courage to reach out and touch her. Her hair glistened in the sunlight and she smiled at him with lips that were soft and full. He wondered what it would be like to kiss them.
“Master Xlenca?” she asked, breaking his trance, “Are you all right?”
“Uh – yes, yes, I’m fine. Please, just call me Xlenca.”
“Very well Xlenca, may I ask you something?” When the young Beast Master nodded, she continued, “I was watching when you left the Great Hill the first time. Why did you throw away the sun amulet that Lo-Huitzlapoch gave you?”
“It is a long story,” he sighed, “And I do not fully understand it myself.”
“Please,” she said placing a hand on his forearm. Xlenca was silent and then sighing once more, sat down at the base of a tree and began to speak. He told her of his little sister, Marta; of her life and of her death. As he talked, all the feelings he had pushed down inside him welled to the surface; the anger that he against the Sun God and his priests, the sorrow at not being able to save his sister, the doubts and fears that he still felt, and even the love and loyalty he had for his family. Cue-Ahmma’s eyes were moist when she spoke again, “You are a good man. I am sorry for the great hurt you have suffered.”
“There is more I need to tell you,” Xlenca said, rising to his feet, “It’s about the way your father died. When Lotec and I left the Great Hill Barracks, we took the same route he did and passed below the same cliff. If it had not been for Moon Dancer, we would have been killed . . . by a falling boulder.”
“It was not an accident and neither was your father’s death.”
“Yes, I don’t know how he did it but I know that he was behind it.”
“But why? Why did he do it?”
“I don’t know yet but I promise you this, I will find out.” The two of them stood quietly for a moment. Then Xlenca reached out and took Cue-Ahmma’s hand.
The army continued its march the next day. Unburdened by the ceremonial accoutrements of their departure the troops made better time. A crowd of servants and laborers traveled with them carrying the vast myriad of armor, weapons and supplies. As the host traveled, their spies and scouts brought more reports on the strange invaders. The Cempoalans had been adept at hiding the news of the enemy’s initial landing. So much so that they had been undetected for months and were even now completing a strong fortress with a high wooden palisade. The Ixtec wondered if the pale warriors from over the Great Water would have enough courage and honor to meet them in open combat. If they would not, they would be starved into submission within their stronghold. The result would surely be the same.
Xlenca and Lotec often spoke of the upcoming warfare. Their role in it would be new to both of them. Xlenca had taken part as a Rider in skirmishes against bandits and in hunts for wild animals. On one occasion he had observed a clash between the Barracks and a remnant of the Aztec Royal Guard but had not taken part. The closest Lotec had come to combat was against the rogue bull. He still felt that he had failed then. Both were committed to serve their people and above all both remained fully confident in Moon Dancer.
The old mastodon was untroubled by the relentless travel and seemed more at ease than she had been since Master Tu-Tuoan’s injury. Xlenca felt that part of the animal’s contentment was due to the daily visits from Cue-Ahmma. The young woman always found time after completing her own duties to bring fruit, fresh ferns or some other treat for the Great Beast. Xlenca was grateful for the attention she lavished on Moon Dancer and was quick to assist her. His Rider Lotec simply smiled and wisely kept his thoughts to himself. He was convinced that the young woman was more interested in visiting the mastodon’s Master than the Beast itself. How long though would they would be able to continue with this distraction?
News also reached the Beast Rider and Master of developments in the capital. Xlenca had shared with Master Quezoema the information Cue-Ahmma had gleaned prior to leaving the Great Hill and the Barracks Master had immediately sent a runner to some trusted friends in the great city. The report which came back revealed some of the sun priest’s plans. It was unclear how it had happened but Lo-Huitzlapoch had assumed the position of High Priest at the capital’s great Sun Temple. The fate of the previous High Priest was unknown but the appointment had always been for life. What else the new High Priest had planned was yet to be seen.
The army persisted in its relentless march to the sea. As each mile fell behind them the men began to feel the growing tension of impending combat. Tempers were short and the soldiers irritable but their commanders kept a tight leash and there were few incidents. Every captain made certain his troops busy after the day’s march. Weapons and equipment were meticulously maintained and extra training was ordered until the men were weary and sore. The mood of the camp changed when another group of scouts rushed into their midst. The invading forces were on the move and were heading inland.
There was a new excitement in the camp the next day. The warriors dressed themselves carefully in their battle garb. They had been instructed that the enemy was nearby and remained as yet unaware of their presence. There remained hours of hard marching but the army commanders expected to contact the invading forces late that afternoon. The camp followers and servants would not go with them but would stay behind to fortify the camp along with a strong rearguard. The army shouldered its weapons and strode off, a quiet and determined excitement on their faces.
The mastodons also sensed the renewed urgency. Moon Dancer moved easily through the underbrush despite her heavy armor and battle apparel. Xlenca was careful not to exhaust her as the march continued but noted the growing apprehension in both man and beast. The Ixtec forces paused briefly at the sun’s zenith to take food and drink but quickly moved on, fanning out to present a broad front to the enemy. Scouts continued to bring in news. Surprisingly the pale skinned invaders had not sent out an advance guard of their own and seemed as yet unprepared. Their Cempoalan allies had positioned their forces in the rear, content to let the warriors from over the water bear the brunt of battle. The Ixtec would soon test their mettle.
Xlenca moved Moon Dancer to the right wing with the Red Sun’s second squadron as Quezoema had directed. The quintet of armored behemoths strode forward interspersed by companies of elite infantrymen. The mass of common soldiery was positioned to the rear of the mastodons but also resolutely pushed forward. The Beast Rider watched stoically as the groups of Sun Warriors began to filter through their ranks and to race ahead. It was a sure sign that the enemy army had been sighted. Xlenca glanced back at Lotec who flashed a wry smile. They both knew that the naked soldiers running past them might claim first contact with the invaders but the outcome of the battle rested fully upon the broad shoulders of the Great Beasts.
They continued forward when suddenly a sound like thunder rolled through the clear blue sky. Some of the troops hesitated briefly but then pushed on. Xlenca wondered if this was the enemy power they had been warned of. Was this the noise that kills? He raised himself up as a new sound reached his ears. A dull roar of cheers drifted over the trees toward the army but in a language they had never heard before. At that moment a clutch of Sun Warriors staggered out of the jungle. The black and red painted combatants were bloodied and broken, their vaunted courage shattered things which they had never seen before. A shudder seemed to sift through the entire force and the infantry began to waver.
Master Quezoema shouted a sharp command and each Beast Master responded immediately. As one man they reached forward with their batons to tap their mounts on the left cheek. In unison the mastodons raised their trunks and split the air with a fierce trumpet. Even as the sound echoed through the trees the Great Beast lowered their trunks and charged ahead. The rumble their heavy feet made was almost drowned out by the roar of the foot soldiers as they followed. The Ixtec were attacking.
Xlenca ducked under an overhanging branch as Moon Dancer burst from the trees. He quickly scanned the clearing before him, taking in the dead and dying Sun Warriors lying on the grass before him. At the opposite side stood the enemy, their cheers and shouts silenced by the appearance of the squadrons of mastodons. They were of a sickly pale complexion clad in garish clothes with dull silvery headgear and chest plates. Scattered amongst them were men mounted on the giant deer Quezoema had told them of. As the mastodons charged forward the giant deer reared and bucked, spilling their riders before bolting into the trees. The invaders from over the sea had met the Great Beasts.
A few of the enemy raised odd looking sticks that belched smoke and fire. The thunder sounded again and Xlenca saw a Rider to his left topple from his war box, a red blossom of blood appearing on the man’s chest. Further to his right a mastodon shuddered and stumbled but regained her footing to push onward. The thunder was heard once more but with less intensity and then the lines met. Some of the invading forces had lifted long spears to defend themselves from the onslaught. Only a few of them proved brave enough to stand their ground and those that did were cast aside by flailing tusks or crushed beneath armored feet. The rest turned and fled as the battle rapidly deteriorated into a rout.
Xlenca continued to urge Moon Dancer forward. He saw a thin black clad man struggling to remount a giant deer. Another man wearing a dull red cloth on his head leapt forward to push the black robed man aside. The second man had just pulled himself up onto the deer when a javelin struck him full in the chest. He fell lifeless from the animal as it twisted on its hooves and fled. Lotec gave a shout of triumph as they swept past. Xlenca turned to see another of the enemy rush to stand over the first man. The latecomer held out a strange silver sword to defend his fallen companion, but was quickly surrounded by Ixtec soldiers. A war club swept out to strike a glancing blow off the turtle man’s helmeted head and he crumpled to the ground.
The squadrons of mastodons pushed on pursuing the fleeing invaders. A few small pockets of fighting occurred as some of the enemy soldiers were cut off and surrounded, but for the most the Ixtec could only chase the routed enemy. Xlenca sensed that Moon Dancer was beginning to fatigue as she pushed through another layer of thick underbrush. As they burst out of the foliage Xlenca observed a young unarmed man stumbling back away from them. The man’s eyes were wide with fear and shock as he fell back, his head smacking hard against a tree limb. An infantryman leapt from the bushes, his jaguar skin cloak flying as he raised his spear to strike at the enemy.
Suddenly an older man raced forward. The grey haired elder blocked the Ixtec soldier’s blow with a staff and then whirled to sweep the warrior of his feet. He stood over the younger man and raised his wooden stave in a martial pose. More Ixtec infantry moved to surround the two as the old one feinted back and forth to keep them at bay. Though outnumbered ten to one the grey haired soldier refused to yield or permit any further injury to his young companion. In contrast with the rest of the invading army, the old man’s showed admirable courage. Xlenca prodded Moon Dancer into motion and the wall of infantry parted to allow the Great Beast forward. As Lotec leveled his great spear the Beast Master held up one hand and pointed down with his rod.
“Cease. You are my prisoners.”