. The cords around Henrico’s wrists bit into his flesh as he was shoved down the darkened trail. They had been marching hard through the whole length of the day under the fierce sun pausing only briefly for water and not at all for food. They continued their trek now through the early part of the night, the trail lit by torchlight, their limbs numb with fatigue. He stumbled and almost fell but was jerked roughly to his feet by one of the infantrymen. The young Benedictine glanced back to see the women being pulled along behind them. A Sun Warrior held a rope looped around Ma-Zena’s hands and stepped closer to her. He leered at the young woman and ran his hand down her side. Henrico howled in protest and lunged at the man only to be brought up short by a spear butt in the midsection. He crumpled to the ground struggling for breath and watched helplessly as the Sun Warrior grabbed the spear to strike him again. Before the blow could land the man was brought up short by the cold steel of a dagger blade at his throat.
“Enough,” Lo-Huitzlapoch snarled, wrenching the man’s head back with a fierce tug on his hair, “He needs to be able to walk.” He leaned in closer and whispered savagely in the man’s ear, “The girl is a virgin and she will still be a virgin when we reach the Great Temple or it will be you and yours that lie under my blade. Understand?”
The sun priest did not wait for an answer but shoved the man away and signaled for the march to resume. Looking up, he caught Father Garcilosa eyeing the dagger suspiciously. Grinning slyly he stepped up beside the Spanish cleric, holding the blade up in the flickering torchlight as he did.
“A beautiful thing is it not?” he said smoothly, “You fish-men do make fine weapons. Perhaps you have seen this knife before?”
“I have,” Garcilosa replied.
“Yes, it was a gift; a gift from my new friend. Yes, the Black Robe and I are now allies. We – ah – understand each other and have come to an arrangement.”
“No, no you do not see,” Lo-Huitzlapoch retorted, “Not yet. But you will. Oh yes, you will see.”
* * * *
Xlenca paced by the fire. They had pushed hard through the day stopping only when the mastodons needed to rest. At last with the darkness falling fast upon them, Quezoema had called a halt to their journey. The Great Beasts had simply been too fatigued to continue. Both now lay on their sides beside the trail, their deep snores echoing through the clearing. The Spanish courtier and the two other Beast Riders were undisturbed by the sound as all reclined in slumber beside the campfire. Xlenca stared almost enviously at their peaceful faces. He felt awash in a sea of exhaustion but sleep continued to flee from him.
A ragged vision rose up in his mind, a memory of that fearful dawn so long ago. He saw once more Marta lying stretched out upon the altar while a sun priest hovered above her, the blade of his obsidian knife dripping with blood. But then her face changed, first to that of Ma-Zena and then to Cue-Ahmma. Xlenca grunted in dismay and shook his head fiercely to free his mind of the vision. He could not, would not, allow such a thing to occur. He had already lost one person whom he had loved to a sun priest’s knife. He would not lose another.
But even as he struck his open palm with his fist in grim determination, a chill root of fear curled around his heart. How could he succeed? What could four men, even with a pair of mastodons, do against the hordes of city guardsmen and Sun Warriors who were sure to be arrayed against them? They would not only be facing the sun priest Lo-Huitzlapoch and his minions but also the soldiers of the empire. For reasons he could not understand, the Stewards had chosen to accept the leadership of the sun priest and would likely bar their way. There had to be some way to save their friends. There must, he thought, be something that he could do but what?
Almost absent mindedly he pulled a message belt from his bed roll. It was one of the myriad that Master Tu-Tuoan had prepared in an attempt to record the words of the Spanish priest concerning his God. Xlenca gazed at the twists and knots of colored string and read once more its enigmatic message. God sent Son, he read, to die. So all live forever. What did it mean? Could one sacrifice truly end the need for the continual shedding of blood? Would a God really allow Himself to be killed? Why would He? If He did not have the power to save Himself, could He save others? Would He even want to? Xlenca shook his head forcibly in a futile attempt to rid himself of these thoughts.
He slowly stepped away from the fire. Lifting his face upward he surveyed the darkness overhead. A faint mist swirled through the night sky, dimming the brightness of its stars and constellations. The heavens itself seemed so dismayed that it sought to hide its face from the earth. Xlenca could not help but feel that his gods had deserted him. Who then could he turn to? His old Master Tu-Tuoan had been touched by the God of the foreign priest and his own sister had begun to seek out this Jesus. Was He the answer? Should the young Beast Master completely forsake the old ways and turn to this new God? Then for a moment a gap appeared in the thin veil of clouds. A meteor blazed brightly through the opening and then was gone. Xlenca gasped in wonderment at this sign and felt a peace beginning to settle around his heart. He sat back against a tree and in an instant was fast asleep.
* * * *
The sun priest at last relented and consented to cease the march and allow the prisoners to rest. They collapsed exhausted by the side of the trail and did not even awaken when their guards had dragged them into the clearing. The captives had been lashed to the trunk of a great tree and were now surrounded by the sprawled forms of the slumbering Sun Warriors. Had the prisoners not been exhausted, escape would have been difficult. In their present state it was impossible. Lo-Huitzlapoch silently surveyed the scene and satisfied with the work of his guardsmen, lit a torch from the camp fire and stepped into the darkened forest.
Striding to a large flat rock bathed in moonlight, he thrust the torch into the soft forest floor and pulled a small stone statue from a leather sack. It was a diminutive copy of the idol residing in the secret building back at the Great Hill barracks. Placing the icon reverently on the flat rock Lo-Huitzlapoch reached again into the bag to pull out a tiny straw figure. The size of a child’s toy it was the woven form of a mastodon. The sun priest placed the effigy on the rock before the idol and settled to his knees before it. He began a low rhythmic chanting and rocked back and forth. The speed and intensity of the ritual grew until at last he lit a taper from the torch and thrust it into the straw figurine. An eerie green flame burst from the miniature and for a brief second washed over the man with its strange light. In seconds the figure was consumed by the flame and reduced to ash.
Lo-Huitzlapoch rose slowly to his feet, his lips curling into a slight smile. It was now time to complete the ceremony. He motioned with his arm, summoning his assistants into the clearing. Stepping into the firelight two of his most loyal guardsmen half carried the Sun Warrior who had attempted to molest the captive girl. The man’s head lolled to one side and he moaned softly. The sleeping draught had been most effective. Lo-Huitzlapoch’s grin widened as he waved them forward. All of the gods lusted for blood. The Sun God desired the blood of virgins most of all while the Old One craved that of newborns, or better yet, babes ripped bloody direct from the womb. The native priest had done all in his power to meet that dark need and felt certain that the Nameless One would accept this sacrifice as a substitute. Blood was blood.
The sun priest drew the Spanish dagger from his cloak and held it high in the moonlight. The drugged Sun Warrior shook his head from side to side in an attempt to clear his befuddled brain. The firelight flashing off the steel blade caught his eye and he stared transfixed at its cold beauty. The man’s eyes widened in fear as Lo-Huitzlapoch jerked his head back to expose his throat. The Sun Warrior opened his lips as if to speak but all sound was cut off as the dagger’s razor edge slashed deeply into his neck. Blood poured from the wound to splash over the stone idol and drench the flat rock in crimson gore. The knife flashed again and plunged into the back of the man’s neck sliding between the vertebrae to severe the spinal cord. The man shuddered and went still.
While the two guardsmen dragged the corpse away the sun priest paced around the flat rock, studying the pattern of the blood flow. The augury was promising. The gods were pleased and all the omens indicated certain success. They would be at the capital on the morrow and would soon be joined by his forces from the Great Hill Barracks. He would make the necessary sacrifices at the Great Temple and would gorge the Sun God on virgin blood. The curse the fish-men had placed upon the Ixtec people would be broken and the deathly illness it had caused would be cast aside.
The People would know. They would recognize who had saved them and who had restored their power. Then the time would be ripe, the moment ready for him to make his move. At that instant he the Lord Lo-Huitzlapoch, High Priest of the Great Temple, would appear and ride triumphant down the Avenue of the Empire upon his bull mastodon. None would dare to oppose him. The Council of Stewards would acquiesce to his every demand. They would have no choice. Then the past would be swept aside and he would meet his destiny. He would no longer be the failed Quetzolite apprentice or even just the High Priest of the Sun, he would be more. He would be emperor.
* * * *
D’Amarco remained uncomfortable with the whole arrangement. Riding upon one of these great hairy beasts was nothing like riding a horse and he was not enjoying the experience. The box atop the mastodon was small and cramped and he could not seem to find a comfortable position. His legs were getting numb and his back ached. But every time that he attempted to shift his weight and ease his discomfort, the Beast Master turned to glare at him. The older warrior did not completely trust him. Not that he could blame him, d’Amarco silently acknowledged, he had for too long listened to his greed instead of his conscience; to the intrigues of the court rather than the teachings by which he had been raised.
With a deep sigh the Spaniard looked up to glance across the trail and watch the progress of the other half of their small force. The younger Beast Master, Xlenca, stared stoically ahead, deep in thought but seemingly less anxious and troubled than he had been a day earlier. His Rider, Lotec, was perched easily on the edge of the war box swaying in time to the stride of the Great Beast. D’Amarco was coming to appreciate the younger man who seemed so intent on befriending him and teaching him some rudiments of the Ixtec language. The courtier watched in interest as the Rider stooped forward in deep concentration. He was engaged in a task of some sort. Peering closely the Spaniard could see Lotec’s hands at work, deftly weaving strands of reed into a familiar yet startling shape. He was a making a cross.
D’Amarco stared in amazement as Lotec completed his weaving and threaded the small cross onto a leather cord. Slipping the simple cross over his head the Ixtec warrior looked down at the Christian symbol lying on his chest. A quiet smile touched his face and he lifted two other crosses from his lap. Stringing his earlier works onto strands of leather he held one out to his Beast Master. Xlenca turned to view the younger man’s handiwork and paused, his face creased in thought and inner turmoil. The Spaniard watched in silence wondering what was going through the other man’s mind. Xlenca reached out hesitantly and took the small woven cross. He held it in his hand for a moment and then with a determined nod slipped it over his head.
Lotec smiled and then holding up the final cross, called out to Master Quezoema. The older man stared back a deep frown set upon his countenance and firmly shook his head. Lotec shrugged his shoulders in reply and reached out to offer his creation to d’Amarco. The young courtier was startled by the gesture and for a long quiet moment could only sit transfixed by the gift. It was a simple even crude copy but it represented the holy rood. A great flood of memories washed over his soul and threatened to overwhelm him. He had not told Brother Sebastian the entire truth. His grandmother had been a Jewess but she had turned her back on the faith of her forefathers for the love of his grandfather. Her conversion to Christianity had at first only been because of her passion for him, but as she embraced his grandfather, she also came to embrace his faith.
D’Amarco’s grandmother had shared with him the two great loves of her life. The first was with his grand sire but the greatest was for the One who would become the center of her life; Jesus Christ. As a boy the courtier had witnessed this great love but had always struggled to understand it. He knew how deeply he was loved by the stately grey-haired matriarch. Smelling of lavender and fresh baked bread, she was always ready to enfold him in her arms and he had loved her back. She did not hide from him who she was. He had seen his grandfather’s portrait of her, the fiery raven-haired beauty with eyes of steel and he had listened as she shared the tales and traditions of her own childhood. He also heard of her Messiah, her Jesus, including her assertion that He was the greatest of all Jews.
He could remember when he came to think that such words were dangerous. The Inquisition had started. The Jews were being expelled. Some things were best left concealed and he learned to do just that. It was easier to abandon any search for truth and look to the answers that could be found in wine, women and wealth. He had not worried that he might be selling his soul for he had not considered it a thing of value. The trappings of the world and the flesh were lures he had gladly pursued. And now, just as he was on the verge of achieving wealth and power beyond his wildest dreams, God had intervened. The prayers of his grandmother had been answered after all this time. Ponce d’Amarco, courtier of Spain, reached out and took the cross.
* * * *
The small group of captives stumbled through the darkened city; their minds numb with fatigue. Henrico felt as if he were swimming through a thick soup with lead weights for limbs. In any moment he might falter and sink below the surface to drown in dark oily sea of slumber and despair. The sharp blow of a spear butt between his shoulder blades wrenched him back to full consciousness. The Benedictine resisted the urge to stare back at his tormentor in resentment and instead glanced at his fellow captives. He was not surprised to see that the two women equally exhausted as they too struggled to maintain the brutal pace. He was shocked however to note the appearance of the two older men.
The Beast Master Tu-Tuoan had a grim set to his face as he moved forward with the Spanish priest’s arm slung over his shoulder. Henrico was dismayed to note the mixture of pain and weariness evident on his mentor’s visage as he limped at the side of the Ixtec elder. His concern deepened when he spied the large spreading stain of fresh blood marring the older cleric’s trouser leg. The young Benedictine attempted to move forward to assist with the injured man but Father Garcilosa caught his eye and shook his head. Their guards had become more angry and short tempered as the trek had progressed and he did not wish to risk more brutality. An immense stone structure loomed at them out of the darkness as the group continued its laborious progress down the avenue. Henrico shivered as he stared up at its black pyramidal shape. There was a deep sense of foreboding emanating from the place that caught his breath and made his palms grow clammy with dampness. The sharply sloping walls seemed to dance and waver in the flickering torchlight while the high flat top of the pyramid was caught in the silver gleam of moonlight. As they moved nearer a sickly scent wafted over them, drifting down the stone walls to envelope them in its heavy stench. It was the smell of blood and of death. They had reached the Great Temple of the Sun.