. It was an immense bull and mounted astride its broad neck was the sun priest Lo-Huitzlapoch. The Followers of the Quetzolite Path were stunned into shocked silence by the sight.
No one in living memory had ever ridden upon a bull mastodon. Only the legendary Quetzol had ever done so. Since that time the Riders of the Great Beast had wisely chosen to mount themselves upon females only. These alone possessed the temperament that allowed man and Beast to forge a union that melded them into a single force. The female mastodons would follow the directions and commands of her Master and Rider while the bull mastodon could simply not be controlled. It would obey no man and could just as easily attack its companions as the enemy before it. It was just too dangerous to be taken as a mount. Or so all had believed.
The Beast which Lo-Huitzlapoch rode was an immense shaggy creature. It possessed four tusks—two, long and spiraled, hung from its upper jaw while smaller straighter ones jutted from the lower jaws. All had their bases wrapped with broad bands of gold and their tips sharpened like spear points. The bull was covered in black leather armor trimmed in red and studded with gold and it wore a gilded head piece topped with high black plumes. Its eyes were small and rimmed in red and as it swung its great trunk from side to side and stamped its huge feet, the Barracks guardsmen fell back in confusion and fear. The creature strained forward, a tremor moving through its haunches, until the Sun Priest spoke harshly to it and struck it over its left ear. Only then did it become still.
Lo-Huitzlapoch scowled at the men standing before him as three score of Sun Warriors filed in to assemble behind the bull mastodon. The Sun Priest held a golden rod tipped and barbed with obsidian. He pointed down at the assembled forces, and screeched venom at them all. “Why have you defied the Sun God? Why have you turned aside from your appointed duty?”
“And who are you to invade this place?” Master Hai-Tumma said, stepping forward into the foremost rank.
“I? I am the High Priest of the Great Temple and I am here by the will and power of the great God of the Sun.”
“You are no Quetzolite. How do you dare to defy our laws and traditions and ride upon this poor creature?”
“You are right, old man, I do not subject myself to a way and a teaching bereft of power and strength. I do not follow old myths but am led by the fearsome might of the Sun God. I answer to him alone. Even the Stewards have acknowledged this.”
“What do you want?” Hai-Tumma’s face remained calm but a red flush of anger rose above the collar of his tunic.
“I have come to take hold of the foreign prisoners which you have failed to deliver to the capital.”
“They are yours to take. We had heard rumors of unrest so turned aside to our Barracks to ensure that they could be delivered safely.”
“There was no unrest,” Lo-Huitzlapoch said with a sneer, “The old ways are passing. The Sun God demands more blood and all who oppose him will be swept aside.”
“Some traditions will not pass away, as you can see,” the Beast Master replied. He lifted his arm and the Barracks guard parted to allow a squadron of mounted mastodons to move into position flanking Hai-Tumma. “The prisoners will be delivered to you immediately.” The bull mastodon shifted nervously and Lo-Huitzlapoch struck it a second time. He glowered down at Hai-Tumma in silence. The uneasy standoff continued until the tightly bound prisoners were led forward. The sun priest watched in satisfaction as they were handed over to his warriors, but then his face clouded when he spotted Father Garcilosa and Henrico standing amongst the Ixtec.
“Those ones. Do you dare to keep them from me? Their blood too is demanded.”
“No,” Master Tu-Tuoan said with a shout, stepping into view. A gasp arose from amongst the guardsmen who had seen him crippled but had not since his healing. “This one is a warrior priest of the God from over the Great Water. His God is powerful and this priest is now under our protection.”
“What?” Lo-Huitzlapoch lurched upright, his face twisted with anger. “You dare?”
Tu-Tuoan only smiled and the squadron of mastodon took a step forward while the guardsmen leveled their spears. The sun priest looked around the compound surveying the standoff. At last he spoke icily while gesturing to Henrico, “That one? Is he a warrior priest also?”
“He is the other’s apprentice, and thus . . .”
“No. No, he is no priest, no warrior. I claim him for the Great Temple.”
“We have judged otherwise,” Master Tu-Tuoan said.
“You have judged? No, it is the Sun God who will judge. This pale skinned apprentice shall be tested. If he passes the test, he is yours to keep. If not, his blood will honor the Sun God.”
“Very well, what do you propose?”
“He must simply stand; stand unmoving while my mount . . . inspects him. If you or he refuses then my men will just take him and his master. And if any man dares to interfere, we will do the same.” The sun priest lifted his rod and his soldiers tensed, ready to attack. Tu-Tuoan and Hai-Tumma spoke briefly to each other and then the senior Beast Master stepped to the two Spanish clerics.
“Are you willing?” he whispered to them, “I would not allow you to be taken easily but I fear many would perish.”
“Henrico,” Father Garcilosa said gripping his young charge’s shoulders, “I am not sure how but I know that God will be with you and through Him you will pass any test. Trust Him and He shall deliver you.” The Benedictine novice looked into the older man’s eyes.
Swallowing hard he nodded his assent.
The opposing forces separated to allow the ordeal to proceed. The Sun Warriors formed up in tight ranks on one side of the splintered gates with the prisoners held behind them. The guardsmen and the squadron of mastodons stepped back to the side walls. Master Tu-Tuoan led Henrico to the center of the compound and backed away. Father Garcilosa slipped to his knees and began to pray. Henrico watched wide eyed as the sun priest prodded the huge bull mastodon to the opposite side of the enclosure. He felt his palms grow wet and his mouth dry as the immense beast turned to stare at him with reddened eyes. The beast pawed the ground and shook its head in anger. One thought was repeated over and over in his mind, ‘Save me, Lord.’
Henrico felt a tremor go through his body and he shifted from foot to foot. He glanced over at Father Garcilosa. The priest looked into his eyes and gave a slight smile. Everything seemed to grow quiet and still for Henrico. An unexplainable peace settled over him and he turned back to face his nemesis. It seemed as if everything was moving in slow motion. He saw the bull mastodon raise it trunk to trumpet its anger but heard nothing. He watched as it lowered its head and charged but still felt no fear.
The young Benedictine could feel the ground shaking beneath his feet as the sun priest’s mount pounded towards him. The surrounding Ixtec soldiers and Spanish prisoners watched the unfolding drama in fearful anticipation. The bull mastodon was headed straight at Henrico, intent on crushing him. The bull pounded closer. Henrico wanted to close his eyes but could not. He knew that he was going to die, pounded into a bloody pulp beneath the bull’s massive feet, yet still a tranquil calm filled his being.
At that moment another form appeared. Charging through a gap in the Barracks guardsmen, a brownish grey blur raced forward. Unattended by any man Moon Dancer was attacking. The female mastodon moved with a speed that seemed impossible for her immense bulk. The bull mastodon, his fierce anger focused on the frail human before him, was unaware of the impending assault until Moon Dancer struck. Her lowered tusks slipped beneath the bull’s leather armor and with a jerk of her head, sliced upward into his unprotected belly and flanks. The sharpened tusks sliced deeply into his flesh and the bull stumbled. Moon Dancer continued her charge, lowering her head to strike her broad forehead against the bull’s side.
Lo-Huitzlapoch’s mount bellowed in pain and twisted away from Moon Dancer. His momentum carried him past the wide-eyed Benedictine and the beast staggered to its knees. The bull struggled to regain its feet, a pool of blood spreading beneath it. It raised its trunk to give a last defiant trumpet. Then a shudder coursed through its body and the bull fell heavily onto its side, throwing the sun priest to the dirt. The bull mastodon was dead.
Sun Warriors raced forward to lift their fallen lord to his feet. Lo-Huitzlapoch was uninjured but his face was livid. Shaking off the hands of his followers, he glared at the gore splattered beasts before him and screamed. “No one was to interfere. I commanded it.”
“No, Lord Huitzlapoch,” Tu-Tuoan said, “You said no man should interfere. As you can see, this mastodon was not led or ridden by any man. The God from over the Great Water has spoken. The pale skinned one has passed your test.” The sun priest stared at the elderly Beast Master, his jaw clenched and his eyes flashing. What would have been a close fight before was now hopeless.
“You have defied the Sun God,” he said, “And you will suffer for it. He is a jealous god and will not tolerate foreign gods. His wrath will descend upon any who do not submit to his will.” Lo-Huitzlapoch waved his hand over the assembled Beast Riders and guardsmen and shouted his curses, “You have been warned.” He turned and stalked from the compound and the Sun Warriors filed out after him leading the Spanish prisoners with them.
Henrico stared after the departing Sun Priest. As he watched, a Sun Warrior approached the priest with one of the prisoners. At first the Ixtec cleric seemed ready to strike both men but then he paused to listen as the black clad foreigner spoke to him. Henrico felt a sudden tremor inch up his spine. When Lo-Huitzlapoch continued away from the Red Sun, it was with the Spanish Inquisitor at his side.
* * * *
Xola yawned and rubbed the back of her neck. Since Cuantolec had returned from the war against the pale skinned invaders she had had no rest. The initial excitement of his safe return had faded when he had become ill. He had a high fever with chills and tremors, and had then developed small red spots on his face and mouth. The spots became pustules and were spreading to the rest of his body. Xola had done the best she could for her ailing husband, washing away the blood and pus from the bursting sores, feeding and comforting him. She tenderly cooled his fevered brow with wet cloths one moment and held him close the next when a chill coursed through his body.*
She did not understand this terrible illness that afflicted Cuantolec. Nor did the village elders. They had never seen anything like it and some wondered if the couple had offended one of the gods. They helped Xola at first but then admitted their failings. She must go to the capital and see the priests at the Great Temple. If she made a large enough sacrifice perhaps the gods would relent and allow Cuantolec to live.
Xola and her mother loaded a hand cart with brightly woven baskets filled with fruit and flowers. They worked hard to prepare the offering and now she would take the gifts to the Temple priests while her parents cared for the ailing Cuantolec and their children. She prayed that her journey would be a success. If it was not, she did not know what she would do. Xola sighed and wiped her forehead. Her head was beginning to ache and she felt warm. For a moment she wondered if she too was becoming ill but cast the thought away. She was just tired.
The mood at the Red Sun Barracks remained tense. Some of the Ixtec were openly hostile to the Spanish clerics and to any claims concerning their God. A smaller group was supportive and even sought to learn more about Him. Most were simply confused and just wished that things could just return to the way they were before. All knew that that would never be the case. The world was different and so were all those in it.
Henrico felt the changes. He had seen the manifest power of God over the past few days and he had felt God’s hand on his own life. Yet there was much that still troubled him. He had had to admit that God loved him. He had seen and felt that truth when he had faced the charging bull mastodon but he still could not fully understand it. The young Benedictine did not feel worthy of God’s love. He had not earned such love. Could he ever? Father Garcilosa had told him that God’s hand was on him, but for what purpose?
The things his half-brother had told him had made his childhood seem like a pointless illusion. His time at the monastery in Salamanca was often unhappy and unfulfilling, but was at least based on a truth that he could understand. Now doubt seemed the only certainty. He wanted to accept God’s leading, to follow His will, but things were becoming more confused and disordered. Was he meant to be a monk or even a priest? Or was he meant for something else? He had not questioned the direction of his life before but did so now.
Part of his confusion was something he had never previously encountered. A shy smile, a fluttering eyelash, the curve of a neck, these were things he had seen before but had never so fascinated and captivated him. But now he had met a young woman who had changed all that. The sound of her voice so like the song of the sweetest birds, caused his heart to skip and his thoughts to swirl in bemused meanderings. When she was nearby, he felt tongue tied and clumsy. Any attempt to speak was thwarted by words that stuttered and stumbled and seemed to fall to the earth before they could pass from his lips. He felt baffled by her presence but lost when she was not around.
Henrico sighed and slumped to the earth. He stared out into the compound and cradled his head in his hands. Was his bewilderment a sign from God? Were the feelings in his heart a gift from the Lord? Why could he not make up his mind? A small brown bird fluttered to the ground at his feet and began to peck at a scattering of seeds. The bird tipped its head quizzically to the side and gazed into his face with its small black eyes. The fledging chirped once, twice and then flew away. Consider the birds of the air . . . your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth more than they? . . . Be anxious for nothing but in everything by prayer and supplication let your requests be known to God. Henrico sighed again. He would pray and he would wait.
“Young one,” a voice called, and Henrico looked up to see the Beast Rider Lotec approaching. He shook off his lethargy and rose to his feet. The native warrior motioned to the Benedictine to follow as Henrico reached his side.
“What is it?”
“The old priest calls for you. He has duties for you to attend to.”
Henrico dipped his head and trudged behind the Beast Rider. There were always duties to attend to. If it was not helping Father Garcilosa with the Ixtec language or instructing s on the basics of the faith, it was manual labor about the Barracks. The young Spaniard enjoyed the work and remained awestruck by the Great Beasts, but had soon realized that there were few things worse than shoveling mastodon dung. And there was always so much of it.
Lotec was not leading the Benedictine novice to the animal pens however. Henrico wondered at his broad smile as he motioned for him to enter one of the barracks. Waiting for them in the room were Cue-Ahmma and Xlenca’s sister, Ma-Zena.
“You are to teach these two more of your God and of your language,” Lotec said, “Master Tu-Tuoan and your master have decided it should be so.”
“And you had nothing to do with it?” Cue-Ahmma said with a laugh.
Ma-Zena smiled shyly as a deep blush that crept up Henrico’s neck. The Benedictine exhaled sharply as the Beast Rider elbowed him in the side. Lotec chuckled softly as he pushed him into the room. “I know you will carry out your duties most . . . diligently. I will leave you now.”
The language lesson went well. The two maidens were quick to learn the Spanish words Henrico shared and proved adept at correcting any errors he made with the Ixtec tongue. The determination they showed insured a success. After spending the morning deep in study, the growing heat of the day forced them to retreat out of doors. Soon after, Cue-Ahmma announced that it was time for a break. She arose and said she would return with some bread and fruit from the kitchens.
Left alone beneath the spreading green canopy of a large tree the two young people sat in quiet serenity, both shy to be the first to speak. A brightly colored bird flew into the branches above them, its raucous cry frightening out a host of smaller birds. Henrico and Ma-Zena leapt to their feet in surprise. The parrot stared down at them, spreading his wings and shaking his head as if to scold their truancy. Laughing brightly Ma-Zena gracefully settled back to the ground, moving a little closer to Henrico as she did.
“I think he’s saying to get back to work. What is he called in your tongue?”
“Ah, he is an ‘ave’,” the young Spaniard said, “A ‘loro’; a parrot.”
“And what do you call this?” Ma-Zena asked pointing to her feet.
“That is your “pie’; your foot.”
“Uh, that is—uh—my ‘brazo’; my arm.” The young maiden withdrew her hand to stroke the long braid which fell over her shoulders.
“And this? What is this called?”
“Your ‘cabello’,” Henrico pulse began to pound in his temples. “Your ‘pelo’; your beautiful hair.”
Ma-Zena moved her hand upward, her fingertips brushing against her lips. “What is your word for these? What do you call them?”
“I—I can’t remember,” he said, a bright flush rising in his cheeks. He reached out to touch her cheek and she leaned her head into his palm. The two young people slowly moved their faces forward, their lips prepared to meet in the gentle caress of a first kiss.
“I hope you’re hungry,” Cue-Ahmma called out loudly as she came around the out-building; “I have enough food for a whole troop.” She smiled gaily and pretended not to notice as the two were quick to shuffle further apart. “Have you been working on the lesson? I’m certain that you made great progress. Why you are all flushed from the exertion. You must have been working too hard. Why don’t we forget the lesson for a time and just enjoy the day?” Unable to hold back any longer, Cue-Ahmma broke out in joyful laughter. Within moments Ma-Zena and Henrico had joined her.