. As the Dominican spoke, d’Amarco stepped forward drawing his weapon. He gripped Brother Sebastian by the arm and whispered in Spanish. “Why are we doing this? Why are we helping this pagan priest? How can you think of sacrificing Father de la Vega and Henrico to him? You had not said anything about such a thing.”
“How dare you question me?” If the Inquisition reaches an accommodation with such as Lo-Huitzlapoch to advance its cause, what is it to you? He can have his power over the Ixtec and in return I—we shall have it over the rest of the New World. Our domain shall be pure with no unbelievers, Jews or Jew-lovers in it. As for you, you shall obey.” D’Amarco stared at the Inquisitor, his face set and grim, his eyes cold. Wealth and power beckoned but at what price? How much integrity would he sacrifice? How many friends? How much honor? A memory came to him, unbidden and oft suppressed, a recollection of his childhood, his past and his heritage.
Xlenca had watched the exchange with apprehension. The young swordsman was troubled and upset but had been reprimanded sharply and pushed back. The Black Robe straightened and grabbed a war club from one of the Sun Warriors.
Brother Sebastian gritted his teeth as he grasped the weapon. He would be obeyed. The will of the Inquisition would be done. His face was flushed and red as he raised the weapon to strike. The killing would begin now. The cleansing of this new land would commence and he would be the first to strike. It would be he who delivered the first death blow for the Inquisition. It would be he who claimed and received the first glory and the first power.
* * * *
The sky was splashed red with the coming dawn, a deep red that dripped from the clouds as if it were blood. The Barracks stirred in the chill morning air. Everyone spoke in muffled whispers, wary of raising their voices, not wanting to attract attention. Master Tu-Tuoan stepped from his quarters and stared out into the compound. His forehead was furrowed in worry and a frown creased his aged face. Approaching footsteps prompted him to turn. The foreign warrior priest stepped toward him, a weary smile on his face. The two men born an ocean apart but united in faith had become constant companions. Father Garcilosa glanced into his friend’s eyes and nodded.
“I feel it also. There is something wrong. Something . . . unseen.”
“What do you think it is?” the Beast Master asked.
“I do not know. But I fear it is coming.”
The two men turned and walked toward the council chambers. It was only a day since Xlenca and the others had left to meet Master Quezoema but the two elders felt their absence. They had prayed for the young Ixtec’s safety and had committed to place their trust in God. Tu-Tuoan knew that he was just a babe in this new faith but the fellowship he had with this foreign priest gave him peace. The empire was in turmoil and everything he had ever known was in danger. Yet he did not feel alone.
Father Garcilosa smiled, reading his friend’s mind by watching the play of emotion across his face, “Yes, what you sense is true. God is with us.”
A cry of alarm reached their ears. The guardsmen in the Barrack’s watch towers shouted out a shrill call and pounded out a thumping rhythm on their wooden signal drums. The Beast Master and the Spanish priest hurried towards the front of the compound arriving in time to see Master Hai-Tumma climbing to the top of the parapet. He noted their appearance and motioned for Tu-Tuoan to join him. As the elderly Beast Master was assisted upward by a group of guardsmen, a hoarse chant could be heard coming from outside of the barracks. It was the sound of an army.
The Beast Master watched as ranks of armed men stepped out of the morning mists to stand in martial array before the Barracks walls. Fierce Sun Warriors vied for position with elite soldiers draped in jaguar skins and eagle feather cloaks. Over three hundred of the best warriors that the empire could muster had come to stand at the gates of the Red Sun. It was enough to cow any rebel or malcontent but Hai-Tumma was unfazed.
“Who are you?” he called, “Who are you that come before this place as if for war? Why are you here?”
“We are here to claim what you have denied us,” an angry voice shouted. The sun priest Lo-Huitzlapoch strode from the midst of the soldiery. With him came two of the Stewards of the Empire. One of them lifted his hand and shouted, “Open the gates in the name of the Empire!” The power he represented could not be denied. Tu-Tuoan glanced at his compatriot and slowly shook his head. They must obey. Within moments the inhabitants of the Barracks stood in quiet apprehension as the assembled warriors entered through the now unguarded portal.
Lo-Huitzlapoch scowled at the crowd as he moved into the compound. His eyes flashed with hatred and the sneer on his face intensified as he noted the Spanish clerics standing with the Beast Riders. He snarled at a troop of Sun Warriors and motioned for them to seize the two men. The painted soldiers stepped forward but were stopped by the intervention of Tu-Tuoan.
“Stop,” he said calmly, “What do you want with these men?”
“I will tell you what I want,” Lo-Huitzlapoch snapped, his face flushed and red, “I want these invaders seized. I want our land cleansed of this abomination and our empire restored.” He stood before the elderly Beast Master, his lips flecked with spittle, his breath coming in ragged gasps of anger, “I want their blood.”
* * * *
Brother Sebastian could not restrain the grin that spread over his face as he raised the war club. Soon he would not only rid the world of yet another heathen unbeliever but he would be one step closer to the power and wealth that he so surely deserved. He had served the Inquisition well over the years and had seen many become rich beyond imagination. Now it was his turn. He looked down at the two Beast Masters who were being held at his feet and clenched the war club more tightly. These men deserved to die and he desperately wanted to do the killing. He was poised, ready to strike.
“No,” a voice shouted and he felt a hand on his arm.
“Don’t you dare defy me a-,” the Dominican started to snarl, turning sharply. Suddenly he stopped, the air escaping slowly from his lips. He looked down in amazement to see the blade of d’Amarco’s sword protruding from his torso. Brother Sebastian’s eyes widened and his lips moved to speak but no sound came. D’Amarco leaned forward and whispered into the Inquisitor’s ear.
“I never told you about my grandmother, did I Brother? I hid the truth about her. I was afraid but no more. You see, she was Jewish and I am proud of her memory.” He placed his left hand on the cleric’s chest and pushed hard. The Dominican’s lifeless body swayed for an instant and then began it crumple. Before the corpse struck the ground d’Amarco moved again. His sword swept out quick as a viper and tore out the throat of the Sun Warrior holding Xlenca. He whirled swiftly, ducking under the war club of another warrior and thrusting his blade up between the man’s ribs. The native soldier fell away with a scream, shocking his companions out of their lethargy.
As the first Sun Warrior staggered back clutching at his throat, Xlenca grabbed the war club from Brother Sebastian’s lifeless hands. Still crouching he swung the weapon in an arching backhand that squarely struck the forehead of the Ixtec soldier standing over Quezoema. Leaping to his feet, Xlenca parried a blow that had been aimed at his head and whirled to face an onslaught of angry Sun Warriors. Quezoema groped for a weapon but was forced to roll away from the thrust of a spear. Xlenca and d’Amarco found themselves back to back over the sprawled form of the senior Beast Master. The remaining Sun Warriors began to move in.
Their attack was halted by the trumpeting call of a squadron of mastodons. The other Red Sun Beast Masters and guardsmen had heard the sounds of combat and had responded in force. Xlenca allowed a smile to touch his lips as he watched the advance of the shaggy behemoths. The Sun Warriors were brave and more than willing to give their lives but even they had to recognize the futility of further resistance. They hesitated momentarily and then one by one they laid their weapons down on the ground and surrendered. The fight for the Great Hill Barracks was over.
After helping Master Quezoema to his feet Xlenca moved to kneel beside his fallen Rider. Lotec grimaced but made no sound as the younger Beast Master probed his wound. The spear tip had slashed deeply through the muscles of Lotec’s thigh but had missed the larger blood vessels and had not damaged the bone. Xlenca tore a strip of cloth from his tunic and hastily bound the wound. With a smile to his friend and companion, he motioned for two guardsmen to assist further before turning back toward Quezoema and d’Amarco. The Spaniard stood warily sword still in hand, watching the Ixtec soldiers milling about him. Xlenca smiled again and stepped forward, his hands spread wide with open palms uplifted.
“Friend?” he asked slowly. D’Amarco hesitated a moment but seeing no threat nodded his head. Wiping the blood from his sword on his trousers, he sheathed the blade and stood with hands empty and open before him. For a moment all was still and then the Spanish courtier smiled back to his new companion.
“I think that we have acquired another ally,” Xlenca grinned at Quezoema. The older man frowned slightly but then nodded his assent. “What shall we do with these men?” Xlenca continued pointing at the disarmed Sun Warriors.
“Hmmm,” Quezoema grunted, “Have them questioned. I believe they are not the villains here but rather just badly lead. Those deemed trustworthy can be sent to join the siege on our eastern shore. The rest shall have to be confined. We shall do likewise with the troops from this Barracks. Leave only enough here to maintain the compound.”
“What of Tagazuma?” Xlenca questioned, “And what of this place?” The two men looked over at the squat building. Even now they could still sense the evil of the place.
“Master Tagazuma shall be bound and returned to the Red Sun. There he shall be confined until the Great Council can decide his fate.” Quezoema’s face was blank but his eyes flashed with anger as he recalled the sights they had witnessed within the secret structure. “He is no longer fit to walk the Path of Quetzol. Have our men remove the females and their young from the building. The calves are to be gelded but I am afraid the older bulls will have to be killed.” The Beast Master grimaced and spat in the dirt. “Then have the place burned, burned to the ground.”
* * * *
Henrico winced as the ropes binding his arms behind him were pulled tighter. The Ixtec soldier finished the knot and shoved the young Benedictine forward. The novice stumbled and fell heavily to the ground. . He struggled to his feet but was not quick enough for the native warrior who jabbed him harshly with the butt end of his spear.
“There is no need for that,” Master Tu-Tuoan frowned, stepping between the two and reaching down to help the Spaniard to his feet.
“You will not interfere, old man,” Lo-Huitzlapoch snarled, “The council has given me a free hand in dealing with these invaders. They are our enemies and will be treated as such.”
“These men are no threat to the empire,” Tu-Tuoan replied, “And I consider them my friends.”
“You are an old fool then. Do you not know what these demons have done? They have placed a curse on our people. They have cast a spell that makes our citizens sicken and die.”
“What are you saying?”
“I am saying that there is a sickness spreading through the empire. People become feverish and then develop red spots that fill with pus, and then they die.”
“Dear Lord,” Father Garcilosa whispered as he stood fettered beside his companion, “Its smallpox.”
“These sorcerers from over the Great Eastern Sea have done this thing,” the sun priest continued to rant, “But I will stop them. The gods of the Ixtec will put an end to this thing. We have neglected them too long. We have not given any of them what they need. We have not given the Sun God what he deserves.”
“And what is that?” Tu-Tuoan asked grimly.
“Blood!” Lo-Huitzlapoch screamed, “He wants blood. Much more blood. Their blood!”
“No!” a feminine voice shouted, “You must not harm him.” The two antagonists turned to see Ma-Zena and Cue-Ahmma rushing forward. The younger woman attempted to reach Henrico’s side but was pushed back by his guards.
“Who is this?” Lo-Huitzlapoch sneered, “More fools enamored with the enemies of our people?” Ma-Zena attempted once more to reach Henrico but was shoved roughly to the ground by a Sun Warrior. When she attempted to rise, the warrior leveled his spear at her throat. Cue-Ahmma cried out in alarm and threw herself forward to interpose herself between her friend and the threat.
“Cease,” Tu-Tuoan murmured gently to the infantryman, “There is no need for further violence.” The Sun Warrior slowly moved the tip of his weapon away from the two women but remained wary and ready. Cue-Ahmma helped her younger companion to her feet, both of them glaring at the guard in anger. The sun priest stepped forward to grasp her wrist roughly.
“I know you. You are a servant girl from the Great Hill Barracks. Run away from your duties, did you?”
“Let me go,” she snapped trying to shake her arm free, “I do not belong to you or to your pet monkey Tagazuma. I am betrothed to Xlenca, Beast Master of these Barracks.”
“Xlenca? Oh yes, the little spy who didn’t know his place.” Lo-Huitzlapoch seized the young woman by the throat and held his face close to hers. “You’re wrong, you know? You do belong to me. You belong to the Great Temple, to the Sun God. I am going to remind you of that; all of you.” Releasing his grip, the sun priest stepped back and pointed at the girl. “Seize her.”
“No,” Ma-Zena shrieked as Sun Warriors moved quickly to snatch Cue-Ahmma’s arms. When she flailed against them, she too was seized and held roughly.
“Who is this one?” Lo-Huitzlapoch sneered.
“I am Xlenca’s sister, you pig. You will regret this.”
“Regret it?” the sun priest laughed, “Far from it, little one. The Sun God desires more sacrifice.” He reached out to stroke her cheek. “And he especially desires virgin sacrifice.” The girl flinched as if she had been bitten by a snake and tried to pull away. The sun priest laughed again.
“Lo-Huitzlapoch,” Master Tu-Tuoan interjected softly, “The grand council has given you the authority to arrest these men but surely there is no need to take these women as well? Leave them with me. I will make certain they do not leave these barracks.”
“You really think I would give you this thing just because you ask? Then you are truly a fool, old man. Your kind rejected me when I was a child. I am not a child anymore and now I have the power. The women are mine and they will be taken to the Great Temple.”
“Then I will go with them and with these men.”
“Ha, you still think you will be able to save any of them? Very well, you may accompany us. Then you will see who now holds the power in this land. You will see that your day is over.” The sun priest strode away waving the Sun Warriors to fall in with their prisoners. Tu-Tuoan grasped Hai-Tumma’s arm and whispered urgently in his ear before hurrying to follow. Even as the company of soldiers began to move down the trail towards the capital, another man moved swiftly out of a side gate carrying with him the Beast Master’s desperate message.
* * * *
The flames reached high into the sky, sending forth waves of sparks to compete with the night’s dark canopy of stars. The smoke from the blaze had at first been a thick, oily black that drove the men back from its evil stench. But it had become a cleansing inferno and as it worked its way through the structure, the smoke thinned and became less foul. Now it seemed to be nothing more than just a fire. The prevailing malevolence that had seemed to hover over the building was at last gone, driven away by the determination of the men guarding the flames. Xlenca sighed in relief and rubbing his eyes in fatigue turned away at last.
The quarters they had commandeered were quiet and dark when he entered. He moved silently to stand over his wounded Rider. Lotec’s breathing was deep and undisturbed. Xlenca could see the cloth tightly wrapped around the younger man’s leg and was pleased to observe no evidence of fresh blood on the bandage. The Beast Master was unable to stifle a yawn as he lowered himself to the cot next to Lotec. Perhaps, he thought, matters were at last beginning to sort themselves out. Within moments he too had fallen deep asleep.
The dawn came too early. The morning sun was a fierce red orb that lunged over the top of the trees to stab angry beams of lights at the sleeping Beast Riders. Xlenca stirred from his somnolence reluctantly and pulled himself upright from the cot. Wiping his face with his hands, he gazed out over the compound. Heat waves were already beginning to shimmer across the packed earth of the courtyard. The day promised to be stiflingly hot. Xlenca wondered if the Sun God was striving to re-establish his preeminence. The sound of Lotec stirring prompted the young Beast Master to turn away from the window.
“How are you feeling? How is the leg?”
“It’s sore. And I’m hungry. Do you think there’s any food left in this place?”
“I am sure we can find something. Here, let me help you to the kitchens.” The two men moved slowly out of the room with Lotec leaning heavily on his Master’s shoulder. One of the guardsmen spied their slow progress and hurried forward to assist. Moments later the wounded Beast Rider was resting in the shade of a small tree, a pair of rolled flat breads in one hand and a jug of water in the other. Xlenca took a piece of bread for himself and headed to the animal pens to attend to Moon Dancer. The mastodon ambled over when he called but Xlenca noticed an unusual tenseness about her. He stroked her trunk in an effort to reassure her and moved to place forage and fresh water into her pen.
“Things will be fine, old girl,” he murmured, “We’ll soon be on our way back home.”
“I am afraid that it will not be as quick as we hoped,” a voice called and he turned to see Master Quezoema approaching. The Spaniard d’Amarco followed tentatively behind him as both men moved to stand beside the younger Beast Master. “I have just received a message from the Red Sun Barracks. All is not well.” Xlenca’s face clouded with worry as Quezoema shared the message he had received from Master Hai-Tumma.
“The sun priest has taken the two foreign priests and Master Tu-Tuoan?”
“There is more. Lo-Huitzlapoch has also seized the woman Cue-Ahmma, and your sister Ma-Zena.”
“What?” Xlenca exclaimed, “We must do something.”
“We shall, Master Xlenca,” Quezoema replied, “Is your Rider fit to accompany us?” They had reached the kitchen area and Lotec struggled slowly to his feet to stand beside them. He would not be left behind. Xlenca took one look in his eyes and then replied affirmatively to Quezoema’s query.
“Good,” the Barracks Master continued, “Unfortunately my Rider’s wound is too serious. He will not be fit for some time.” He turned and looked at d’Amarco. “Perhaps our new ‘ally’ would like to take his place. You?” he asked pointing at the Spaniard, “Come? With me? To fight sun priest?”
D’Amarco stared back at the two Beast Masters, struggling to understand all their words. Grim resolve was displayed on their faces and at last their intent was clear. He laid his hand on the hilt of his sword.
“Si, yes, I go.”