. Henrico stared at the warrior. “What? Me? You—you should ask Padre Garcilosa.”
“No, you tell me. I do not trust priests. You are not a priest. You are just a man like me. You tell me.”
“Uh, well, that is—ah, very well,” the young novice said, “I will try.” But where to beginhe thought, Adam and Eve? Moses? Daniel and the Israelites? And then a scripture came into his mind, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” His fear seemed to lessen. It would be difficult and slow but he would try. He looked at the Ixtec warrior and began to speak.
The rest of the day passed quickly. Lotec and Henrico remained deep in conversation but never lagged behind. As evening fell, they moved nearer to the column. They settled enough to the other troops to be within the force’s protective perimeter, but not so close as to encourage any interaction. When a young woman approached with food for their evening meal Xlenca left the fire to meet her. They spoke in low tones before the Beast Master returned with the provisions. The small group ate in silence, each man seemingly deep in thought and then settled down to rest. The two Ixtec warriors quickly drifted off to sleep and Father Garcilosa was soon quiet.
Henrico was unable to sleep. He had answered the Beast Rider’s questions about God firstly out of fear of angering the fierce warrior and then out of sense of duty. Still, as he had spoken with Lotec, more and more scripture verses came into his mind. He found his own heart responding to the words he shared. He shifted restlessly beneath his blanket and sat up to gaze about the darkened clearing. The scattering of small campfires could not compete with the vivid canopy of stars over his head. He stared upward for a moment and then slipped away from the other men. Moving a short distance away, he sat down and once again looked heavenward.
Doubts raced through his mind. What to believe? Should he follow his mind and his emotions? They told him that he was alone, that his father and brothers had rejected him and that even his mother had failed him. He was not loved because he was not lovable. He was not worthy. But his heart, his spirit, said otherwise. It stirred in his breast as if responding to music that his ears could not hear. When I consider Thy heavens, the works of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars which Thou hast ordained; what is man that Thou dost consider him? And the son of man, that Thou dost care for him? Henrico lowered his eyes as then the rest of the verse came to him. Yet Thou hast made him a little lower than God, and dost crown him with glory and majesty!
But why did he feel alone? I will never leave you nor forsake you. Henrico knew that he had turned away from God. Wouldn’t God reject him? A bruised reed He will not break, and a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish. There was a wall around his heart, a wall that Henrico had made himself. How could anyone, even God get through? Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus.
Could he really return to God? Allow the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it at all. Like a child? He had never felt the love of his father and the death of his mother had shattered his childhood. A father to the fatherless . . . is God in His holy dwelling. For the first time in his life, Henrico could feel a father’s arms wrapping themselves around him as a warmth flooded through his soul. Tears began to trickle down his cheeks and he raised his arms to receive God’s love. Abide in Me, and I in you. Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love.
The stars shone brighter than ever before.
By mid-afternoon they had reached the Red Sun Barracks. Xlenca watched as the column dispersed, the infantrymen to their homes and the Spanish prisoners into an empty calving barn. As he slid down off of Moon Dancer’s broad back, he was startled by an excited cry from behind him. He turned just in time to open his arms before a young woman leapt into them. Xlenca was shocked speechless for a moment as the raven-haired beauty held him tightly. He broke the embrace with care and held her gently by the shoulders, his questioning gaze searching her face. She only smiled back at him and embraced him once more.
“Ma-Zena, why are you here?”
“Our parents sent me,” she said, still holding tight to his arm, “There is trouble in the capital. Many of the old Beast Masters have been arrested by the guards of the Great Temple, some with their entire families. Father thought it might be safer for me here.”
“But where are they?”
“Father refused to leave his home—stubborn as usual—and Mother would not leave without him. But Father said it was likely nothing. The capital is alive with rumors and gossip. Accusations have been made by the new High Priest and claims that the Empire has been invaded because we have neglected the Sun God. Father is sure that once the foreigners have been driven away everything will return to normal.”
“I hope he is right Little Bird, but I am not so sure.” The two siblings turned as they heard others approaching. Lotec stepped closer, a mischievous grin on his face. He held onto Cue-Ahmma’s arm and pulled the reluctant woman forward. Their two Spanish prisoners stood watching a pace behind.
“Master Xlenca,” the Rider said, “I think you might wish to introduce this young woman to our company.”
Cue-Ahmma frowned and shook her arm free. “Perhaps they want to be alone.”
Xlenca let his head fall back and a hearty laugh broke forth from his throat. Looking back at Cue-Ahmma he took her hand and smiled. “Cue-Ahmma, this is my sister Ma-Zena. Ma-Zena, this is Cue-Ahmma my soul-friend.” The two young women looked shyly at each other, embarrassed and surprised at Xlenca’s words. They smiled at each other and stepped forward to hug each other. Xlenca grinned at them and waved his hand toward the other men.
“And this is Lotec my Rider and my friend, and these are our two—uh—guests from over the Great Water. They are named Padre Garcilosa and Henrico.” The Spanish priest bowed courteously to the young woman but Henrico stood with his mouth gaping wide. Father Garcilosa nudged his young novice in the ribs to break the spell. The Benedictine novice blushed and dropped his eyes.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, senorita,” the older cleric said, “Your brother has been a kind host.”
“You speak our language very well,” Ma-Zena said, “Are you not prisoners?”
“The Padre is a warrior-priest,” Xlenca said, “And has given his pledge of good conduct. He is favored by his God and it was deemed best to grant him more freedom.” He watched as the Ixtec maiden studied the two foreigners. Henrico glanced up and their gazes met. Her smile returned to her face as the young Spaniard blushed once more looked away. She took Cue-Ahmma by the arm and turned to go.
“I know that you will want to see to Moon Dancer, my Brother,” she said, “Cue-Ahmma and I will prepare a meal. It will give us a chance to speak. We will need to learn of each other . . . if we are to be sisters.”
The four men, native and foreign, stood watching the young women as they strolled away deep in animated conversation. Their heads were close together and the sound of their laughter could be heard above the tumult of the busy courtyard. They paused to glance back toward the men and laughed again. Xlenca shook his head in wonderment. He looked at Lotec with a grin and passed him Moon Dancer’s bridle. The old mastodon was much easier to understand than women were.
Xlenca wished that he could go with him but he needed to deal the foreign clerics. It would no longer be easy to keep them isolated. Other arrangements were needed and he must seek direction from his elders. After ordering Lotec to put Moon Dancer in her pen under the care of their apprentice, he led the two Spaniards toward the Barrack’s council chambers where Master Tu-Tuoan and Master Hai-Tumma would be waiting.
Xlenca was shocked at the sight of his previous Master. The older Beast Master had aged over the past few months. His braided hair had been black shot through with streaks of grey but was now pure white. His once sturdy frame was now gaunt and shrunken. He was lying on a straw pallet near the back of the room with his wasted lower limbs twisted and bent beneath him. When Tu-Tuoan spotted the younger man, he cried out in joy. His face at least had not changed. His features were lined and weathered but still strong and his eyes flashed with delight. Xlenca felt a lump in his throat and bowed to cover up the emotions that threatened to overwhelm him.
“It is most pleasing to witness your return, Master Xlenca,” Tu-Tuoan said, “The sight gives me joy. It has been reported that you have performed your duties well including dealing with the unexpected happenings with the foreign warrior-priests. Are these the men?”
“Yes, Master Tu-Tuoan, this is Padre Garcilosa and this is his apprentice, Henrico.”
“It means Father in my language,” the Spanish cleric said, “It is the title my people give to their priests.”
Tu-Tuoan looked up at the foreigner for a moment before asking, “Do the children of your homeland fear their fathers? No? Then why would you give this name to a priest?”
“Our priests are to love and care for his people as a father loves his children. Our God called us to come to Him with the faith of a child.”
“This is a strange thing. I have not heard of such a god before.”
“There is much more you should hear, Wise One,” Lotec said as he entered the council chamber, “These men’s God is different. He controls the sun, the wind and the rain.”
“So does the Sun God,” Hai-Tumma said with a grunt of distain.
“But He also walked among them in the form of a man,” Lotec said, pointing at Henrico, “This one told me. He healed the sick. He made the blind to see.”
“I have not heard of the Sun God do such things,” Tu-Tuoan admitted.
“This man’s God protected him from the bite of the Silent Death,” Lotec said, “Ask Master Xlenca. He saw it happen.”
“This is so,” Xlenca said.
“There is more Master,” Lotec said, “Their God raised men from the dead. He healed those who could not walk.” Lotec fell to his knees beside the injured Beast Master and grasped the old man’s hand. “If you ask Him, He may heal you as well.” Xlenca watched as Tu-Tuoan stared in amazement at the young Rider. Lotec’s eyes were bright with excitement and anticipation.
“Why?” Tu-Tuoan said, “Why would these men’s God do such a thing? Why would he care about me? I am not of their tribe or their nation. Our gods care only for their own and then only when they see fit to do so. Why should their God be different?”
“He is different,” Lotec said, “He loves all people. Isn’t that so, Priest? Tell him.”
“Yes,” Father Garcilosa said with a gentle smile, “Our Lord Jesus said that He came so that no man should perish but that all could have the gift of life. It is a gift freely given without cost for He desires no sacrifice, no shedding of blood. All He asks is that you believe and accept.”
“Can that be?” Tu-Tuoan struggled to straighten himself on his pallet. “A God who does not demand death and blood to pay for His favor? Can such a thing be so?” He turned and looked up at Xlenca, his eyes seeking assurance from his former Rider. Was their small faith enough? The younger man’s face was awash with confusion blended with a desperate unexpected hope. He turned to Father Garcilosa and raised his hands in a silent petition.
The Spanish priest stepped forward. A gentle smile appeared on his face as a quiet aura of peacefulness descended upon the scene. He took the crippled Beast Masters hands in his own and whispered, “I do not have wealth but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.” For a moment no one spoke and no one moved. Tu-Tuoan gazed deeply into Father Garcilosa’s eyes. The priest whispered to him. “Only believe.” Tu-Tuoan gritted his teeth and started to pull himself up against the priest’s hands. He gasped as if in pain and was suddenly propelled upward. The others cried out in surprise. Master Tu-Tuoan was standing.
The broad swatch of stars that was the night sky fled before the expanding hues of the approaching dawn. The air was clear and fresh but the scarlet clouds overhanging the eastern horizon warned of upheaval in the heavenlies. The foreboding of the crimson tinted sunrise was matched by the Beast Master’s dark mood as Xlenca stared silently into the chilled remnants of his fire. He had not slept that night but had sat wrestling with the things he had seen and learned. He had rejected the Sun God of his people as cruel and capricious but could he accept this new god? The foreign priest spoke of a God who loved His people and demonstrated it with a power that he had never imagined.
But, Xlenca wondered, could this foreign god truly accept the Ixtec people? The Sun God accepted subjugated peoples only as slaves and human sacrifices. He did not hear their prayers or pleas. They fed his insatiable appetite for blood but would never receive his blessing. Xlenca knew that even the Ixtec people did not love and were not loved by their god. They feared him and met his demands for blood lest he withhold the sun and rain they needed and destroy them. How would the Sun God respond to the intrusion of a foreign god into his realm? The reactions of the Ixtec who had witnessed the miracle had varied in the extreme. How could any predict what their old god would do?
Lotec had been overjoyed and leapt into the air with excitement. Hai-Tumma had become angry and ordered Xlenca’s Rider to be still. He further demanded that no one speak of this thing and then had stormed from the council chamber. Xlenca had been stunned into silent amazement. He was surprised when he priest’s apprentice Henrico had displayed the same reaction. Only the warrior priest Garcilosa and the old Beast Master Tu-Tuoan seemed unperturbed. The two men had stood in silence, a mantle of peacefulness settling about them. At last Tu-Tuoan had motioned toward the pallet from which he had arisen.
“Sit,” he had said, “And tell me of your God.”
Xlenca stood and stretched in the cool morning air. Soon he knew the Barracks would awaken with the buzz of activity just as on every other day. But this day was unlike any other. The young Beast Master struggled to understand all that had happened. He had stayed nearby his old Master and had listened to the foreign cleric as he told of his God. And he had not been alone. He was surprised when the priest from over the Great Water had asked that the guards who had witnessed the viper attack be allowed to attend. He had made a promise to one of them he explained, and had been unable to keep it. Xlenca was even more shocked when Tu-Tuoan had agreed.
The young Beast Master sighed and rubbed his eyes. Only one of the guards had responded to the invitation. The other refused and instead went to be with Master Hai-Tumma. The Ixtec warrior who came did so as shyly and hesitantly as a newborn colt approaching the herd for the first time. The stout-hearted soldier seemed overwhelmed by both the invitation and the sight of the healed Beast Master. He had listened in rapt silence as the foreign priest spoke of his great God of Love. Xlenca felt the words wash over and through him. He felt a stirring in his heart but hesitated to yield to its call, still too confused, too troubled.
Master Tu-Tuoan had displayed no such doubt. How could he? He had felt the power of this God course through his body, healing his injured back and restoring the strength and sensation to his dead and useless limbs. This God of Love was a God of Power. The old Beast Master commanded that every scribe in the Barracks attend him and put them to work recording the Word of God with the complex system of knotted and colored strands the Ixtec used to send and receive messages. The system could not capture every nuance and phrase but he hoped it would serve to clarify and sustain his memory of the warrior-priest’s words.
The pile of twisted and knotted string had grown throughout the long day. The scribes’ hands had cramped and stiffened until they begged to be released from their task and Master Tu-Tuoan had at last relented. The old man had assumed their duties, his nimble fingers flying as he recorded more and more of the words of this Jesus. Only when the Barrack’s entire supply of colored string and rope had been exhausted did he relent and allow his hands to rest. But he himself did not. The stamina of both the healed Ixtec elder and the foreign warrior priest had astounded all who witnessed it. To Xlenca it had only added to the mystery.
He strolled through the compound listening to the sounds of the morning. The smell of freshly baked flatbread came to him as he passed by the Barracks kitchen but no hunger stirred in his belly. A servant drew forth a bucket from the well and poured the cold clear liquid into a pitcher but, though the laughing sound of the flowing water tickled his ears, he felt no thirst. At last Xlenca reached the animal pens and stood in silent vigil watching the slumbering forms of the Great Beasts. As if sensing his presence Moon Dancer stirred and ponderously rose to her feet. The mastodon shook its immense head to push away the last vestiges of sleep and then turned to amble toward her Master.
“Good morning old girl, I see that you at least slept well.” The Great Beast gently reached out with her trunk to ruffle her Master’s hair and stroke his face. The young man stepped closer to lean his head against the coarse hair of her cheek and spoke into her ear. “What will today bring? Can you tell me? Does your great heart know?” Xlenca pulled away at the sound of approaching footsteps and turned to see Lotec and their Apprentice.
“Greetings Master, I thought you might be here. Come, I have brought fruit and bread for I fear you have neglected to break your fast. The lad will see to caring for Moon Dancer.”
“Very well,” Xlenca said, following his Rider to the base of a broad tree. The food Lotec had brought was plentiful and this was well as each bite seemed to enliven and enlarge his hunger. The Beast Master recalled how the foreign priest had shared that their God was sometimes called the Bread of Life. He wondered if hearing about this God would have a similar effect. Would he become hungry to hear more? What would it take to satisfy his soul and sate this hunger? A sudden outcry from the Barracks gate pulled Xlenca away from his thoughts and to his feet.
With Lotec at his heels Xlenca hurried to the Barracks’ courtyard in time to see a clutch of guards struggling to keep the front gate closed. The sound of splintering wood announced their failure and the soldiers were forced back in disarray. A second troop armed with spears raced to the entrance only to be shocked into immobility as the gates fell to the ground. The assaulting forces were revealed as a huge mastodon pushed its way into the Barracks. It was an immense bull and mounted astride its broad neck was the sun priest Lo-Huitzlapoch.