The Golden Conquest – Part 18

.           Why was the ship so dark? Henrico struggled to orientate himself, his eyes feeling as if lead weights were tied to them. Something is wrong. The ship seemed to be swaying not rolling on the waves as it should be. And why was he onboard anyway? Hadn’t Captain Quintero returned to Cuba? The young Benedictine tried once more to open his eyes and a low groan escaped from his lips. He attempted to lift himself up onto his elbows but was driven back down by a wave of nausea.

“Easy my son,” Father Garcilosa said softly as he leaned over the injured novice, “You received a bad blow to the head. You’ve been unconscious for most of the day.”

“W-where are we?” Henrico’s voice was a dry croaked.

“I’m not sure. We’ve been headed west since the battle. Our captors . . .”

“Captors? What?” The young Spaniard attempted to rise once again but fell back clutching his head. His vision began to clear and he saw that he lay upon a litter being carried by two solemn warriors. Both were sturdy bronzed men with long straight black hair and piercing dark eyes. They were naked from the waist up with animal pelts draped over their shoulders.  Henrico stared at them in wonderment, struggling to recall what had happened. Memories gradually seeped back into his consciousness and with an increasing despair he realized that these simple native soldiers had somehow defeated Cortes and his army.

“How?” he said looking back at Father Garcilosa, “How did it happen?” At that moment a shadow passed over him and he looked up as an immense dark shape towered over him. A great brownish grey creature lumbered along beside his litter, its tree trunk limbs moving easily in time with the men. Its great domed head was draped with a coarse covering of hair and framed by a pair of flap-like ears. Hanging from the beast’s face was a long snaking trunk that swayed back and forth between two wickedly spiraled tusks. The animal looked down at the young man with an eye that was surprisingly soft and gentle. Henrico moved his gaze to take in the tall straight native seated on the creature’s broad neck. The man returned his stare with quiet dignity.

Xlenca was satisfied with his new duties. In the aftermath of the battle, a large force of infantry had been sent on to harry the retreating enemy and drive them back into their walled camp. The Ixtec scouts had warned that the invader’s city was strongly fortified and could not easily be captured. Quezoema and the other commanders had decided the site would need to be encircled and besieged. To meet this end, their forces would have to be divided. The first priority had been to see to the dead and wounded. The Ixtec casualties had been low and mainly amongst the Sun Warriors.  For them death in battle was the ultimate honor. The corpses were carefully wrapped in woven shrouds to be carried back to their home villages.

The Beast Riders had not emerged unscathed from the hostilities. Two Riders had been killed by the weapons of noise and fire and one Master badly wounded. Two of the mastodons had also been injured but not seriously. Master Quezoema took half of the Red Sun squadron along with the beasts from the Great Hill to join the infantry laying siege to the enemy. The Southern Reaches force he ordered back to their Barracks to guard against any intrusion from that direction. The wounded Beasts and men were sent back to the Red Sun to recuperate.  Xlenca was ordered to accompany two other Beasts under the command of Master Hai-Tumma and escort the captured enemy troops back to the capital.

In total there were just over two score of prisoners. Many were wounded and a few would have to be carried but none were left behind. Their arms were bound behind them and their legs tethered together with short pieces of leather cord. This allowed them to walk but made running and thus escape impossible. The Ixtec placed a high value on their prisoners. However, the care with which they tended their injuries and transported them was not motivated by kindness or compassion. The captives would be questioned and interrogated but the ultimately most of them would be sent to the great Sun Temple and a death under the High Priest’s blade.

Xlenca had suggested and been granted one exception to this rule. The grey haired elder who had so bravely defended his fallen comrade had piqued the young Beast Master’s interest. He was the only one of the captives who could speak at all in the Ixtec language.  His accent was poor and he often mixed in Mayan terms but they had been able to communicate. Xlenca recognized the value this man would have to the leaders of the Empire and had been impressed with the humble dignity that the man had displayed. He had spoken with the man for only a short time when he recognized that he was not only a cleric of the alien army’s god.  He was also something more. This pale skinned invader was a warrior priest.

The Ixtec clerics always accompanied the army whenever it marched but they did not fight. Their role was to strengthen the troop’s resolve and inspire them to willingly risk injury and death. They did this through public rituals, sacrifices and private exhortation. They were quite adept at all these tasks. They were however unskilled in the martial arts. This priest from over the Great Water was different. He was more like the ecclesiastics of Ixtec legend, equally skilled in prayer and combat. When he asked permission to tend to the wounded and pledged not to escape, Xlenca believed him. He was able to convince the others and the man was left unbound.

Xlenca had noted from his flanking position that the priest’s young companion had regained consciousness. He had accepted the man’s claim that the lad was his apprentice and was curious to learn more about him now that he had awakened. The Beast Master tapped Moon Dancer’s side and the mastodon edged closer to the prisoners. Xlenca had to suppress a smile at the young man’s startled look as the immense creature moved to cover him with her shadow. He silently stared down at the man and studied his visage.  Xlenca kept his face impassive, displaying neither hostility nor compassion. He was unable however not to be shocked with what happened next.

Moon Dancer gently reached out with her trunk to touch the captive man’s face. She sniffed his neck and ruffled his hair. The young man’s mouth dropped open and his eyes grew wider but he did not flinch or try to ward off the mastodon’s exploration. Moon Dancer lowered her trunk momentarily and then raised it again to wrap it around the prisoner’s shoulders. Xlenca was amazed. The Great Beast had just shown acceptance to this enemy soldier, just as she might have to a new Initiate or Apprentice. The young Master could not understand why she had done this thing or what it meant, but he would find out. He quickly tapped Moon Dancer’s flank and she moved away.

Henrico continued to stare at the huge animal as it hurried toward the front of the column until his head began to swim once again. Lowering himself down, he glanced at Father Garcilosa walking beside the litter. 

“What was that?”

“That my son, was the Great Beast that Txella had warned us about. I believe it may be related to the elephants of Africa and Asia but it is unlike any I have ever seen. Our captors are the Ixtec and they have somehow tamed this magnificent creature. It is the strength of their army and with it they have cast Cortes away like so much chaff.”

“What is it called?”

“The Ixtec call it the Great Beast but its common name is mastodon. The one that approached you is named Moon Dancer and it is her master who captured us. He is called Xlenca in the Ixtec tongue.”

“What are they going to do with us?”

“Thus far they have treated us kindly. They have shown more care for the wounded and injured than most European armies would have. I am unsure what they will do once we reach our destination but this mastodon rider seems like an honorable man. We will have to trust him.”  The two Spaniards fell silent as the line of prisoners marched onward down the trail.

.                                           *                                    *                                 *

Cuantolec was a poor man. He was not a warrior. He had been selected by his village to fulfill its requirement for the army. In return the village had provided him with a flint tipped spear, a wooden war club and a bag of dried maize. They had also promised to care for his wife and children for a full year if he should happen to be killed or maimed. He did not desire to risk either possibility and so had managed to lag behind when his group had been sent into combat.  When the battle became a rout, he had rushed forward in the hope of gathering some plunder from the enemy soldiers. The best booty had already been seized by those braver and more fleet of foot, but he had managed to grab a large piece of cloth dropped by a fleeing invader.

The blanket was dirty and had a number of spots of mingled blood and pus. Other Ixtec infantry might have bypassed the object but to Cuantolec it was a prize. The cloth was softer and of a better weave than anything he had ever owned. He would wash it when he had the chance and he was sure his wife could make one or two fine tunics out of it. He was pleased that he would not return to his village empty handed and knew that the stolen blanket would allow him to exaggerate his own role in the battle. He had been with the Ixtec army when they had crushed the invaders from over the Great Water. He smiled and pulled the blanket closer about his neck. 

.                                         *                                 *                              *

It was dark when the column reached the Ixtec’s fortified camp. Runners had raced ahead and the compound had been prepared with long rows of torches brightening the clearing. Those prisoners who were uninjured had their feet bound more tightly and tied to a stake driven deep into the ground. Their hands were left free while they were given food and water but were then retied behind their backs. Once again, the wounded men were bound less securely and Father Garcilosa was left unfettered to minister to them. Working by torchlight he moved from man to man until he at last came to where Henrico lay. Settling on the grass beside the Benedictine he moaned slightly as he eased himself down.

“Are you all right, Father?” the young man said, “Is it your leg?”

“It is only a trifling, my son. There are so many others suffering much more.” The priest lowered his head briefly and rubbed his eyes. “I’m afraid that more have also died.”

“Are there many prisoners?”

“Yes, including some that we know. Your friend d’Amarco lies near that tree over there.  He has a nasty gash on his forehead but he will be fine.” Garcilosa gave a wry smile as he looked to where the other captives sat under guard. “Brother Sebastian is here also. He is not enjoying the accommodations at all, I’m afraid.”

“What about his lackey, Montoya?” Henrico scowled, the hatred in his voice surprising both of them. “Is he here too?”

“No,” the priest said in a solemn voice, “He is not. Seaman Montoya was killed in the battle. He is now answering to God for his sins, just as we all will someday. I am afraid that his soul was not ready to face Judgment. We should both pray that when our day comes, we will be better prepared.” The two men looked at each other in silence for a moment. A red flush of shame rose onto Henrico’s cheeks and he lowered his head. Father Garcilosa reached out to lay his hand on the young man’s tonsure in a silent benediction. The Benedictine stiffened at first but then yielded to the touch. The priest stood quietly and turned back to his other duties.

The Beast Master Xlenca had been watching the exchange and now stepped forward.  Motioning at the injured novice he spoke slowly, careful to make sure his words were understood, “Who is he? Is he your student?”

“Yes, his name is Henrico and he is—what is word? —my learner.”

“Apprentice?”

“Yes, that is it. He also speaks the words of the People.”

Xlenca studied the young man for a moment and then looked back at the older Spaniard. “Is Ha-Nee-Ko a priest too? Is that why his head is shaven in this manner?” 

“Ah, yes,” the priest said with a nod, “Henrico is learning at one of our—our temples”

“So, do all priests from over the Great Water shave the top of their heads. What about the one over there? The Black Robe?” He pointed with his rod at the other captives and the two Spaniards followed his gaze to see Brother Sebastian sitting bound to a stake.

“Yes, he is like a priest.”

“Good. We will have questions for you all. You Han-Ree-Ko, will teach him our language.”

“Me?” the young Benedictine said, “I can’t . . ..”

Father Garcilosa lifted a hand to silence his apprentice. “We will do what we can. Thank you for your kindness, Master Xlenca.”  

The Beast Master snorted and strode away. These two bothered him. The older man had a quality about him that Xlenca could not help but admire. He was strong and determined yet gentle, serene even. The essence of wisdom and peace that seemed to abide within him reminded Xlenca of his old Master, Tu-Tuoan. The younger man was stubborn with a rebellious streak and seemed to be hiding something. The Beast Master knew intuitively that the foreign priest could be trusted but was less sure of his younger companion. Yet it was the young man that Moon Dancer had reached out to and accepted. Xlenca did not like feeling confused and these two confused him.   

He moved through the camp as the army settled itself for the night.  The prisoners were well guarded and had received food, water and care. The wounded mastodons and Ixtec soldiers had been seen to. Most of these would wait and rest in the fortified camp along with the servants and camp followers until able to return to their homes and Barracks. Xlenca and the others would rest for a few days before beginning the journey to the capital. He hoped the passage would be quick and uneventful. Even now, he wished he could be back at the Red Sun Barracks, and that things were as they were just a year ago. Everything then had seemed so clear and easy.

A loud moan captured his attention and he stopped beside a group of infantrymen. They were clustered around a Sun Warrior who had been wounded in the battle. He had been washed of his red and black body paint and lay on a straw pallet. Xlenca was surprised at how young the man looked, his face pale and tight with pain. A blanket lay over the man’s body and a crimson stain could be seen blossoming in the middle of it. A soldier kneeling beside the wounded man lifted the covering and glanced under it. Looking up he caught Xlenca’s eye and slowly shook his head. The injured man cried out and lifted himself up suddenly. He gasped and then fell back to lay silent and still on the pallet. Another warrior reached out to close the man’s lifeless eyes.

Xlenca felt a shudder go through him and stepped away with his head down. A hand was touched his shoulder and he turned to find Cue-Ahmma looking up at him. She kept her hand on his arm as she looked over at the fallen soldier. His comrades had gathered around the body and knelt in silent vigil. She watched for a moment before speaking.

“It is not like I had expected,” she said in a whisper.

“I feel the same. The tales I have heard of war and battle have always seemed glorious, exciting. The enemy made out to be less than human. The truth is there is death and suffering on both sides, courage and cowardice as well.”

“I saw you speaking to the prisoners earlier. What are they like?”

“They are men just like I am. Indeed, the two I spoke to have goodness in them, though I’m sure not all are like that. I expect most are seeking only wealth and power. That is why they invaded our homeland and why we must drive them out.”

“Will there be more fighting?”

“It is likely. Their fort will be under siege by now but I do not think the pale skinned army will give up easily.”

“I—I was worried about you.” 

Xlenca smiled at her softly and stepped closer. He touched a hand to her cheek. “I will be alright, Cue-Ahmma. I have Lotec and Moon Dancer to look after me.”

“Promise me. Promise me that you will be careful.” She moved into his arms and laid her head on his chest. Xlenca wrapped his arm around her slender form and stroked her hair.

“I promise.”

Henrico’s head still throbbed but he had recovered enough to walk. His gait was slow as he followed the young Ixtec warrior through the compound glancing from side to side as he did. Most of the victorious army ignored him. Those who did not, observed his movement with more curiosity than anger. The young warrior looked back sternly and waved for him to walk faster. Henrico had learned that his name was Lotec and that he was one of the soldiers who rode on the backs of the mastodons. His Beast Master Xlenca had ordered him to be taken to Brother Sebastian to begin teaching the Dominican the Ixtec language.

The black robed cleric frowned at the approach of the Ixtec soldier and then distorted his face into a sneer when he saw Henrico behind the native. The arrogance quickly faded when Lotec stooped over the Dominican and pulled out his knife. Henrico suppressed a smile at the fear that appeared in Brother Sebastian’s eyes as the Ixtec warrior grabbed his hands. The knife flashed quickly and the prisoner’s bonds fell away. The Dominican stared at his hands for a moment and then looked up at Lotec. The warrior stepped back and gestured for Henrico to move forward.

“They want me to teach you their language.”

“What? You think I would submit to being a student to a heretic and a Jew lover? Never.”  He spat on the ground and deliberately turned away. Henrico looked over at Lotec and shrugged his shoulders. The Beast Rider grunted and pointed at Brother Sebastian.

“He says that if you do not learn their language and quickly, they will beat you,” Henrico said, “He says that if I do not teach you then you will have to learn on your own and they will beat you more each day until you do.” The black robed Inquisitor stared at the young man and then at the stone faced Ixtec. At last, he jerked his head in a sharp nod and looked down in defeat. Lotec grunted in satisfaction and stepped back.

The Dominican brother had a sharp mind and with the proper motivation proved to be an excellent student. He was quick to grasp the rudiments of the Ixtec language and was beginning to understand its grammar by the time the army broke camp. The native troops were ready to resume the trek to the Ixtec capital and the prisoners were assembled for the journey. Henrico would walk with the others but was allowed to do so without being bound. Father Garcilosa continued to receive the same privilege but Brother Sebastian had not been deemed trustworthy and still had his hands and feet tied. The Inquisitor glared with hatred at the native soldiers but kept quiet.

Henrico continued his tutelage of Brother Sebastian as they traveled. The pace remained slow as some of the wounded prisoners still needed to be carried. The Ixtec leaders wanted to ensure that they all survived the journey. The day was hot and dry and as the two ecclesiastics plodded along it soon became too difficult to continue the lesson. Henrico left the Dominican with his guards and moved closer to the head of the column to reach Father Garcilosa.

“Have you abandoned your student, my son?” the priest said with a smiled.

“He’s was finding it too difficult to walk and talk at the same time. I don’t think the Brother is used to walking.”

“Yes, I suspect the Inquisition usually provides mounts for its officers. A journey on foot can be more difficult.”

“What of you, Father? Is your wound troubling you?”

“Not presently Henrico, the rest has helped considerably.” The two men walked in silence for a time, the heat and humidity draining away any excess energy they had. They found themselves having to concentrate just to continue to move one foot in front of the other, and Henrico noted that Father Garcilosa had once again began to limp. The sun was nearing its zenith and the heat becoming more oppressive when a halt was finally called. The prisoners crumpled to the side of the trail in exhaustion and were allowed to stay where they fell. Their captors seemed amused by the Spaniards fatigue but did not berate or chide them. Instead, the soldiers began to move amongst them distributing water and flat bread.

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