. Xlenca waited at the head of the column until Master Hai-Tumma had finished caring for his mount. When the senior Beast Master had returned Xlenca dismounted and lead Moon Dancer to the small stream that bordered the trail. The mastodon drank deeply from the cool water and turned to munch on some ferns that were growing near the water’s edge. Xlenca and Lotec carefully inspected the animal’s legs and flanks, pulling out burrs and branches that had become entangled in her hair and searching for parasites on her skin. The Great Beast enjoyed the ministrations and reached back to nuzzle her Master with her trunk. Xlenca laughed and stretched up his hand to scratch her behind her ear.
“She likes it when you do that,” a voice called, and the two men turned to see Cue-Ahmma approaching from the trail. “The Great Hill Masters changed their plans and decided to send all the female servants back to the Barracks. They have moved on to the siege and thought it would be too dangerous to have us there.”
“Too dangerous for whom I wonder,” Lotec said with a laugh. Xlenca frowned at his Rider and the younger man returned to checking Moon Dancer’s skin. The Beast Master took Cue-Ahmma’s hand and they stepped back into the shade of the jungle.
“Master Hai-Tumma told me that you would be traveling with us. I am glad. Once we get closer to the Great Hill, he plans to send a company of soldiers to escort you the rest of the way. You’ll be safe once you’re back at your home Barracks.” The young woman stepped closer and looked into Xlenca’s eyes.
“I don’t want to go back.” Her voice was soft and husky. “I want to stay with you.” Xlenca cupped her face in his hands. Her hair smelled like wild flowers and her eyes glistened in the sunlight that filtered through the forest canopy. She leaned her face into his hand and let her lids fall shut. Xlenca slowly lowered his face to hers, and their lips touched.
The moment was shattered by the loud trumpeting of a mastodon. Xlenca jerked his head up anxiously and looked back toward the column. He recognized the sound as being the call of Master Hai-Tumma’s animal. He hesitated; his arms still tight around Cue-Ahmma’s waist.
“Go. I know that you must.” She stepped back and watched as he turned and ran back to the stream. Lotec had already led Moon Dancer to the riverbank in response to the signal. The two men mounted the mastodon and Xlenca tapped her side to send her into a swift trot. Seconds later they burst out of the trees to see the other Beast Riders lined up before Master Hai-Tumma. Xlenca was relieved to see that there was no sign of an attack and noted the weary messenger standing nearby. Hai-Tumma nodded to the late arrivals before speaking.
“I have received a message from the Barracks Master,” he said in his usual ponderous style, “Master Quezoema has obtained news from the capital which is most worrisome. It has been reported that the Sun Temple guards have arrested all the old Masters in the capital and charged them with heresy.” The younger men responded with shouts of dismay and Hai-Tumma was forced to raise his hands to restore silence. Only after all were quiet did he continue. “Master Quezoema has sent a messenger to me with orders that we are to turn away from the capital and proceed back to the Barracks. We will take the prisoners and a small number of infantrymen. The remaining foot soldiers are to disperse and return to their homes. We will be leaving as soon as possible so please see to your duties.” The Beast Masters hurried away, quiet and troubled by the news.
Cuantolec was pleased at the change in orders. It had been almost two weeks since the battle and the glory of their victory was beginning to wane. Their progress had been so slow due to the injured and the captives that he had been expecting another few weeks of service before he could be discharged. Now if he hurried, he would be able to be back in his own village within a few days, once again resting with his wife and family. He would be glad to return to her care. He had developed a throbbing in his head as the day went on and nothing he did seemed to help it. Now he felt like he might have a fever. He pulled his Spanish blanket tighter about his shoulders and thought of how good it would be to finally be home.
The Spanish captives wondered if they would ever see home again. With fewer guards the prisoners had to be retied to ensure security. Their hands were bound more tightly and ropes were fastened about their waists and to each other so they had to now move in a shuffling line. Brother Sebastian complained bitterly at this treatment especially as the other clerics were not likewise fettered. There had been a brief but heated discussion when some of the Beast Masters urged that all the prisoners be bound. The issue had been decided when Xlenca intervened and simply asked Father Garcilosa and Henrico to give their word not to try to escape. When he then stated his trust in them, the matter was settled with only the Dominican remaining unsatisfied.
Master Hai-Tumma pushed the Ixtec and the Spanish hard. Xlenca watched as the fear and confusion on the captives’ faces was replaced with the dullness of exhaustion. He knew they could not understand what was happening and as they marched back the trail, he was glad that their tight bonds and the continued presence of the mastodons was sure to dispel any thought of escape. Any such risk declined further as their limbs were grew more and more fatigued and the ropes had begun to chaff and burn. Despite the increasing weariness felt by all, the troop continued to push on.
Father Garcilosa’s concern about the Spanish prisoners and especially the wounded increased as time passed. He moved down the line giving comfort where he could and encouragement to all. The priest pulled Henrico away from his language lesson with the disgruntled Dominican to position him alongside Ponce d’Amarco. The injured courtier was gamely trying to keep up but his headache had become more intense and his balance was failing. Henrico slipped an arm under d’Amarco’s shoulder and steadied him while the priest hurried forward. He would find Xlenca and urge that the Beast Master allow a rest for the captive Spaniards.
The late afternoon sun shone warmly down on the viper as it coiled its two-meter body at the base of a large tree. The snake had sensed the approaching column of men but its belly was full and its resting place far enough from the trail that it should not be disturbed. Its olive-green body was covered by reddish brown triangles edged with lighter scales. Behind its nostrils lay the two indentations on its broad flat head that identified it as a member of the pit viper family.
In later years, the Spanish would come to know the snake as the fer-de-lance. The Ixtec called it the Silent Death.
Father Garcilosa hurried down the track and spied Moon Dancer just ahead around a small curve in the road. His way blocked by a hand cart laden with supplies, he slipped off the trail and strode through the underbrush. As he neared a large tree, Father Garcilosa called out, hoping to catch the Beast Master’s attention. At that moment the startled pit viper rose up, its body arched into an “S”. Before the priest could react, the snake flashed out and sank its fangs deep into his leg.
Father Garcilosa jerked in surprise and stumbled back toward the trail. Two of the Ixtec soldiers cried out in alarm and rushed forward. One of them gripped the Spanish priest’s arms to keep him from falling and pulled him back while the second swung his war club at the underbrush. The viper slithered away allowing the warriors to retreat with the stricken priest. As the soldiers eased Father Garcilosa to the ground, he glanced up to see Xlenca approaching. The Beast Master slid down from his mount to stand beside the foreign priest and slowly shook his head.
“I am sorry, priest,” he said, his voice solemn, “I saw what happened. There is nothing we can do.”
“Do not worry, Master Xlenca,” the Spanish cleric said, straightening up, “I will be fine.”
“No, you don’t understand. I saw the snake that bit you. No one lives after such a thing. All die.”
The elderly priest only smiled. “I assure you Master Xlenca, I am uninjured. But please, I was coming to ask you if the wounded could be allowed to take a brief rest.”
“What? What are you saying? Are you mad?’ Xlenca lurched back in shock. “We call that snake the Silent Death. None survive its bite.”
“There is no need for concern.” The priest reached down to the hem of his robe and touched his leg. “Please. What about the prisoners?”
It seemed that even the jungle was silent for a moment before the Beast Master answered. “No—no, I am sorry, we cannot stop. I—I shall have the soldiers help the injured men. We will reach our next campsite in a few hours.”
“Very well then. I thank you.” He rose from the ground and walked back down the trail. He was limping only a little more than usual and when he glanced over his shoulder, he saw the Ixtec standing, watching him with open mouths, waiting for him to fall, to scream in pain as the venom took hold. He continued down the trail.
Xlenca stood, his eyes narrowed and his face grim. He shook his head and waved the soldiers back in line before climbing back about Moon Dancer. The old warrior-priest was strong and courageous, but he would still be dead within the hour. There could be no other outcome. Unless, and with this thought the Beast Master paused, unless there was a power in this foreign priest that he had never witnessed before. He reached for his neck to grasp his talisman, forgetting for a moment his rejection of the Sun God and a cold shiver crept up his spine. He looked back down the trail but the priest had disappeared around the bend. Time would tell.
By the time the column had reached the campsite, the news of the snake bite had spread through the entire Ixtec force. As Father Garcilosa settled down to rest beside a fire pit, he found a steady stream of native soldiers wandering by to catch a glimpse of him. Some lingered nearby as if waiting for the death throes to begin. When the evening progressed and nothing happened the crowd of onlookers began to grow. At last, their commanders were compelled to disperse the men and order them away from the area. Henrico too had heard the story. His initial fear and apprehension were replaced by amazement as time passed. When the camp was finally quiet and the Ixtec soldiers less watchful, he moved closer to the priest.
“How is it possible, Father?” he whispered in Spanish, “How is it that you have not been harmed by the viper’s attack. Is it a miracle?”
“I have no doubt that the hand of God is in this,” the priest said, “Though perhaps not in the way you imagine. You know that I had been wounded in the past. Well, the injury was so grievous that I would have died if not for an excellent surgeon in Cordova. The doctor was a Jew and I know that he saved my life.” The older cleric paused for a moment, lost in thought and memory. Then he slowly lifted his robe and slid up the leg of his trousers. “I thought it most distressing at the time that in the process he could not also save my leg.”
Henrico gasped as the flickering firelight revealed the polished gleam of oak. He started to reach for the false leg but pulled his hand back. Father Garcilosa smiled. “He also made me this fine substitute. The man was a genius and the wooden leg which he gave me functions so well that most never notice it. After Torquemada’s Inquisition led to the Jewish doctor’s expulsion from Spain, I elected not to reveal my wound to any. I often wondered why God allowed this to happen to me. Today I learned that it could also be a blessing. Who knows what other doors may be opened as a result?”
“But the Ixtec will think that there was a miracle.”
“Wasn’t there? Our Lord promised to work all things for our good and hasn’t He done so? The viper could have bitten me on the thigh or on my other leg. But God was in control.”
“What will you tell them?”
“I will always speak the truth. Though I was attacked by a deadly snake, I am uninjured thanks to the grace of God.” Father Garcilosa reached out to place a hand on the young Benedictine’s shoulder. “Make no mistake, my son. Our God could have protected me from the viper’s venom no matter what. His power is real and He does do miracles. I have witnessed them before and I believe I will again, perhaps very soon.”
“Why didn’t He protect us then? Why did He allow Cortes to be so easily defeated and for us to be captured? Where was He then?”
“He has never left us my son, and will never forsake us. Remember, we do not fight against flesh and blood but against powers and principalities. These people are oppressed by evil. They are living in darkness. Perhaps you and I are meant to show them the light.” He kept his eyes locked on Henrico’s for a moment. There seemed to be a deep sadness within him.
Henrico dropped his head, his voice a hoarse whisper. “God would not use me. I have nothing to give.” As the young man stared into the fire, the priest laid a hand on his shoulder and began to pray.
The early morning sun filtered through the foliage to pull the two clerics from their slumber. They sat up with a start when they realized a group of Ixtec soldiers was watching them. The native warriors had spread a brightly woven blanket on the ground and covered it with a mound of flowers and fresh fruit. When the two Spaniards arose the Ixtec bowed slightly and backed away, leaving their offering where it lay. Henrico stepped forward to reach for a piece of fruit but the priest stopped him.
“Henrico,” he said in a quiet voice, “These men may think that we are gods but we must remember that we are only men. I admit it’s tempting but pride has been my downfall before. I know I must guard against it. Help me carry this fruit to the injured. They need it more than we do.” The young Benedictine hesitated for a moment and then helped to move the blanket with its load of produce to the Spanish prisoners. There was enough for all the wounded men. The two were continuing their work when they were interrupted by the approach of an Ixtec warrior. It was one of those who had witnessed the previous day’s snake attack.
“O lord from the Great Sea,” he said, bowing his head, “Was our offering unworthy?”
“Oh no,” Father Garcilosa replied, “But you did not need to do it.”
“But you have survived the Silent Death. We know that you are one of the gods and we wish to make offering to you. We must do this. We—we fear your anger.”
“I am no god. But I believe that I have been sent from God. Not from any of the gods you know but from the Lord God, Creator of all things. Walk by me this day and I shall share His message with you.” The Ixtec soldier’s eyes grew wide and he started to back away. He stopped and stared at the Spanish cleric before nodding his head. He would hear the word of this foreign god.
Xlenca had slept fitfully and he yawned as he tended to Moon Dancer. He knew that Father Garcilosa had survived the night. The fact that the Spaniard had not succumbed to the venom of the pit viper troubled him. He was even more worried about the reaction that the priest’s survival had caused amongst the soldiers. The young Beast Master did not believe that the priest was a god but could see that some power had protected him. Was it the Sun God? Or some rival deity from over the Great Water? Xlenca sighed and leaned his head against the mastodon’s shoulder. Life had seemed so much easier before all these gods had begun to take notice of him. Would things ever be simple again? Moon Dancer reached back with her trunk to ruffle his hair and he found a smile returning to his face.
“I can always count on you, old girl, can’t I?” He reached up to scratch the great beast behind her ear. “Yes, I can count on you.”
Soon the column was ready to move on. At Master Hai-Tumma’s command Xlenca headed his mount to the head of the line and fell in beside the older Beast Master. Hai-Tumma waved the other mastodons away and ordered the Masters and Riders to fall back with the infantry. The gentle sway of his mastodon could not mask the obvious tension in the older man. At last, when all others were out of earshot he turned and stared at Xlenca.
“This incident with the foreign warrior priest troubles me,” he said, “First, he displays courage in combat. Then he demonstrates priestly ability in caring for the injured. Third, he is granted extra privileges. No, do not protest. I do not begrudge him the freedom he has been given. He has made no attempt to escape and has greatly assisted the wounded. I have no doubt he has saved lives amongst both forces.” Hai-Tumma rubbed his eyes slowly. “Now he has supposedly survived the attack of a deadly snake.”
“I saw it myself, Master. The Silent Death struck him and yet he lives.”
“It doesn’t matter.” The old man said through gritted teeth, “Whether he is the Sun God incarnate or just a trickster, he has dazzled the men. They even took him tribute this morning. If word should reach the ears of the priests at the Great Temple, we will all suffer. He must be isolated from the soldiers and this story quashed. I have ordered the two warriors who witnessed the incident forward as an advance guard so they will have no further contact with the foreigner or with the other men. I want you to keep this pale skinned priest and his apprentice away from the column and away from me. There must not be any further incidents.”
“I understand, Master Hai-Tumma. I will see to it.”
“Make sure that you do.”
The older Beast Master moved forward while Xlenca waited for Lotec to scramble back atop the mastodon’s back. The Rider started to speak but Xlenca shook his head. They both were quiet as Moon Dancer turned and moved down the trail past the column of marching men. Only when they had reached the captive Spaniards, did Xlenca break his silence.
“Lotec, find the warrior priest and his apprentice and bring them here.”
Henrico and Father Garcilosa followed the young Beast Master as he had led them to the end of the column, past even the rear guard of infantry. They remained on the trail but were soon out of sight of the rest of the troops. Through the whole morning none spoke and the tension grew. The two native warriors remained taciturn even when they stopped to rest the mastodon at mid-day. They exchanged glances until at last Xlenca nodded sharply. The column was resuming its march when the Beast Master climbed aboard Moon Dancer and prodded her into motion. As she began to shamble forward, Lotec fell in beside Henrico, and Xlenca heard him speak.
“Tell me about your God.”