. Xlenca was forced to slow his pace. His lungs burned and throat was raw. Lotec reached his side and the two men strove onward, their breath coming in desperate gasps. The young Beast Master glanced downward. The Spaniard was following closely while Master Quezoema struggled further behind. He saw that he was halfway up the staircase. There was still so far to go. Stealing a glimpse at the top of the Great Temple, he was horrified to see the stones taking on the color of the dawn. Something bright flashed in the darkness, reflecting the first light of sunrise. He was too late.
* * * *
A scream shattered the stillness of the morning. A woman’s voice sounded shrill and loud for a moment, and then was stilled.
* * * *
With his heart beating so hard it threatened to tear itself from his breast, Xlenca pounded upwards. His knuckles were white as he gripped his rod with fierce determination. He pulled an obsidian bladed knife from his belt without slacking his pace and pressed onward closer and closer to the top of the pyramid. His visage, already grim and savage, paled with an unquenchable anger as he caught sight of the channel cut down the midst of the stairway. Even in the dim light he could see that which he had dreaded to see. The channel flowed with fresh blood, the blood of a sacrifice to the God of the Sun. A hard lump of despair rose in his throat and tears welled in his eyes but he shook them off. He must still try.
His eyes were dry and hard when he reached the summit of the stairs. He screamed with anger as he surged forward. A Sun Warrior turned to block his path swinging a war club as he did. Xlenca parried the blow with his rod and thrust out with his knife. The razor sharp tip of the obsidian dagger bit deeply into the man’s thigh. With a grunt of surprise, the Sun Warrior tumbled to the floor, twisting on his uninjured leg as he fell. The stone blade snapped in two as the man buckled beneath its impact and Xlenca was forced to drop the now useless weapon as another of the temple guardsmen charged at him. The second Sun Warrior fell with a scream as the first of Lotec’s javelins pierced his shoulder.
The soldiers of the sun priest surged forward. The two Ixtec, Beast Master and Rider, were quickly joined by the Spanish courtier d’Amarco but the three allies remained severely outnumbered. If they had been better armed, if they had not been so weary from their long trek to the city and so exhausted by their race up the side of the temple, the outcome might have been different. A half dozen of the Sun Warriors fell before the fury of their onslaught but it was not enough to insure victory. Instead, the trio of combatants was overwhelmed by the forces arrayed against them. Bruised and battered they succumbed to the sheer number of guardsmen. Within moments Xlenca was weaponless, his arms pinioned by a pair of warriors. A third raised his spear for the final blow.
Once more, the morning air was broken by a woman’s scream.
The instant was frozen in eternity. His adversaries shocked into seeming stillness Xlenca slowly turned his head towards the sound. The blood red fury faded from his vision as his eyes focused on the small knot of prisoners jostling with their jailers. His mouth dropped open in surprise as one of them broke through, reaching towards him with bound hands. Roughly she was grabbed and thrust back into the midst of her fellow captives but the sight of her was enough. The sight of all of them was enough. It was Cue-Ahmma, with Ma-Zena and Henrico beside her. She was alive. They were all three alive.
“Cease.” At Lo-Huitzlapoch command the Sun Warriors lowered their weapons. “Do not kill them. They are trespassers here but we will let them see our triumph.” Master Quezoema staggered to the top of the stair at that moment, his breath gone from the climb and his heart pounding. The older Beast Master was seized and placed under guard. The group’s rescue attempt had failed and they too were now prisoners.
Xlenca jerked his head suddenly toward the stone alters. If Cue-Ahmma and Ma-Zena still lived, then whose blood had been spilled? Whose life had been relinquished to the dawn? A sob caught in his throat as his eyes fell upon the still forms stretched out upon the blood drenched altars. Their chests were mangled and torn. Their throats dripped with gore. But their faces were strangely serene and peaceful. There, atop the unyielding stone, their skin reddened both the rays of the rising sun and by their own spilt blood lay the bodies of Father Garcilosa de la Vega and Master Tu-Tuoan of the Red Sun.
* * * *
Henrico followed Xlenca’s gaze. He still could not believe that his friend and mentor was dead. He could not understand how a man so filled with faith, so strong in battle, so courageous in life, could have allowed himself to be put beneath the blade of a pagan despot. And why had the old Ixtec gone so willingly with him? Tu-Tuoan had been touched by the hand of God, healed of his infirmity and made to walk again. Yet he too had had the precious gift of life ripped from his chest. The young Benedictine stared at their remains, his eyes awash in tears. God had brought these two men together from opposite ends of the earth. He had woven their lives together with faith and with power, and now, together He welcomed them into paradise.
Henrico remembered the words they had spoken. The Sun Warriors had stepped forward to seize the two Ixtec women for their master Lo-Huitzlapoch. They were to be the first to die, virgins given in sacrifice to the rising sun. Henrico was to follow. But the Spanish priest and the Ixtec Beast Rider had other plans.
“There is another way,” Master Tu-Tuoan had said, “Let the young people go and you can have an even more valuable sacrifice.”
“What do you mean, old man?” Lo-Huitzlapoch said, his tone mocking.
“What he is saying,” the Spanish priest said, “Is that if you let Henrico and the two young women go free, we will submit to your ceremony. We will be the sacrifices.”
The silence that followed was broken by the cruel laughter of the sun priest. Lo-Huitzlapoch had slowly shaken his head in amusement. “You’ll submit? Why should I care if you submit or not? You are already in my hands. I have all the power here and can put you under my knife should I choose.”
“No, you cannot,” Master Tu-Tuoan had said, “I am not your prisoner. I am a Master of the Great Beast, Elder Councilor of the Red Sun Barracks, a member of the Grand Council of the Path of Quetzol and Advisor to the Council of Stewards. You cannot and dare not harm me in any way. You know that this is so.”
“So,” the sun priest had spat back, “I have these four. That is enough.”
“But you do not have them,” the Beast Master had said, “You know the law. The edicts of the Sun God do not allow you to demand the sacrifice of a warrior priest and that is just what Garcilosa is. You know this. All know this. Even you must obey the rules of your god.”
“You fool,” the sun priest had said with a sneer, “Why should I worry of rules? Soon you will all be dead.”
“True, but they will know.” Tu-Tuoan had gestured toward the temple priests. “They will know if you do not follow the ways of your god. And in knowing they will cease to obey you. If you want our blood then you must agree to our demands.”
Lo-Huitzlapoch had reddened with anger, his fists slowly clenching and releasing. He had glanced over at the other clerics. They had heard all that had been said and had begun to murmur amongst themselves in hushed and uneasy tones. There was truth in the old fool’s words. The power and prestige represented in the Beast Master and the warrior priest were more valuable than a dozen virgins. At last, the High Priest had nodded his head sharply and hissed through gritted teeth. “Very well. The women and the boy will be freed. But you, both of you will be under my knife.”
“Let it be so,” Father Garcilosa had said.
Henrico had stood in shocked silence, wanting to cry out in protest but unable to find the words. It could not be, he had thought, there must be another way. He had tried to break free, to reach the priest who had come to mean so much to him but the Sun Warriors had restrained him roughly. Father Garcilosa had turned, raising his bound hands toward his apprentice in silent benediction. Slowly, a sad tender smile had appeared on his face. He had then begun to speak, his gentle words seeming to force all of the surroundings into deathly stillness.
“It is God’s will, my son. He has called me to this place and this time. I am ready to behold Him at last, face to face. I am at peace.”
With a snarl Lo-Huitzlapoch had ordered the two older men seized and laid out upon the altars. He had hurried to stand over their prostate forms and held his dagger high into the morning air. As he had done so Father Garcilosa had turned once more and spoken clearly and firmly to Henrico, “Ergo sum pastor bonus, bonus pastor animan suam dat pro ovibus.”
The sun priest had blanched pale at the Spaniard’s words. An unworldly light glowed in his eyes as the strange words pierced his spirit. His face had twisted into a cruel mask of hate and, forgetting every ritual and practice, he had assaulted the foreign priest in a fury of mindless blood lust. As his dagger plunged into the bodies of the Spanish cleric and the Ixtec Master, Ma-Zena had at last given way to her fear and terror. She had screamed a shrill and desperate cry that had shattered the dawn’s illusion of peace until it had been stifled by the rough hands of a Sun Warrior.
* * * *
Xlenca shook himself and looked again at the torn and brutalized bodies lying on the stone altars. Master Tu-Tuoan and Father Garcilosa were dead, apparently sacrificed to the Sun God at the hands of his High Priest. A host of emotions tore through his chest. Grief and sadness competed with anger and a cry for vengeance. All must need be suppressed. He could not save the Spanish priest or his former Master but perhaps there was still a chance to save the others.
“Lo-Huitzlapoch,” he called out, “Surely there has been enough bloodshed. Surely the Sun God will be satisfied.”
“He might have been,” the pagan cleric said, gesturing at the savaged corpse of Father Garcilosa, “But not now. This unclean creature cursed us with his last breath. He did not submit to his death but sought to escape it through foul sorcery.”
“No,” Henrico said, “That is not so.”
“Hah, the magician’s apprentice speaks. What then did he say, fool? He cursed us with the tongues of demons. Are you attempting to do the same?”
“No, that is not true. Father Garcilosa spoke Latin, a language from our homeland, the language of our priests.”
“What did he say?” Xlenca asked.
“He quoted from our Holy Books. He used the words of Jesus. He said that he was a good shepherd, just like our Lord and just like Jesus he was willing to die for his sheep, for us. He wasn’t trying to escape death. He was yielding to it.” Henrico spoke softly as he continued to stare at the face of the deceased priest. Tears flowed freely down his cheeks but his eyes glowed with the recognition of what his mentor had done. Ma-Zena sobbed quietly beside him and turned to bury her face in his chest. The young Spaniard’s arms were tied with cords but he was still able to slip them over her shoulders. He looked with defiance at the sun priest.
“You must let us go now. You gave your word that when Master Tu-Tuoan and Father Garcilosa sacrificed themselves you would free us. You must do so.”
“I must? Do not dare try to dictate to me. I still hold the power, all of the power.” He began to laugh, a harsh cruel sound that sent shivers through all who heard it. He waved his dagger in the air and continued to rave wildly. “Who do you think can stop me? Your pathetic friends? They are prisoners just as you are.” Sweeping the dagger tip past Xlenca and his companions, he thrust it next towards the clutch of temple priests. The clerics fell back in disarray before his fury. “Do you think they can stop me? That I care about their rules or their opinions anymore?” He began to move closer to Henrico and the two women. The captives attempted to shrink away but were harshly grasped once more by the Sun Warriors and pushed forward. Lo-Huitzlapoch waved the dagger fiercely through the air, the highly polished steel flashing bright in the morning sun.
* * * *
Some later said that the High Priest had offended the Sun God. That when Lord Lo-Huitzlapoch had refused to honor his pact with the dead Beast Master and the Spanish priest, his own god had turned on him. Others said that the noise and the smell of fresh blood caused confusion atop the Great Temple, and that the flash of sunlight reflected from the high priest’s blade had precipitated the events which followed. Some wondered about the power of the foreign God, of what role He played in these events. Most only shrugged and said that they were just glad that it was over, that the new High Priest had been too ambitious, too scornful of tradition and simply too dangerous. Henrico knew the truth.
Even as the sun priest had begun his mad ravings and had begun to stalk toward them, a voice had spoken in his head. He kept him . . . as an eagle . . . hovers over its young, spreading out its wings, taking them up. Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles. A great peace settled over him and he watched in detached interest as the sun priest raised his dagger to strike. Henrico turned his head slowly to gaze at the great eagle as it sat perched upon the torch stand. The predatory bird had not moved during all the battle and commotion but had continued to watch the unfolding drama in quiet stillness. Then suddenly it took wing. Sunlight blazed from the blade held by the sun priest but Henrico saw the raptor take flight even before the bright beams of light struck its perch.
The shrill scream of the war bird sounded through the air. The great eagle, its plumage painted red and gold by the dawn, swept toward the sun priest with its talons extended. Lo-Huitzlapoch staggered back with hands raised to protect his face. The eagle beat against him with its wings and slashed out with beak and claw. The Sun God’s High Priest shrieked in fear and anguish and desperately attempted to escape from the bird’s fierce onslaught. His foot slipped in a pool of fresh blood and he stumbled. Before he could regain his balance, the eagle flew at him again. Lo-Huitzlapoch could not withstand the assault. He stepped off the edge of the Great Temple and tumbled down its steep staircase.
The eagle seemed to hover in midair for a moment, watching the deadly course the sun priest’s body took down the side of the stone pyramid. Its golden eye flashed at Henrico once again and then it spiraled into the sky. In shocked silence the guardsmen and temple priest rushed to the edge of the platform. The captives followed. The once bright headdress was broken and sullied. The regal cloak of plumage had been torn and shredded. Feathers of every hue floated like falling leaves. Lo-Huitzlapoch lay at the foot of the staircase, his body twisted and shattered. His neck was bent at an impossible angle and his eyes were locked in a lifeless stare into eternity. The High Priest of the Great Temple of the Sun was dead.
Master Quezoema was quick to assert his authority. Shaking off his shocked captors he ordered the other Sun Warriors to release the prisoners. He moved to rearm his companions and then confronted the temple priests. Confused and frightened, the accolades were easily cowed by the Beast Master. They had departed the ways of their ancestors, and followed a mad man who defied tradition and corrupted the Empire. To be redeemed they must forsake the ways of Lo-Huitzlapoch and resume their proper role. Priests, advisors, and most of all supporters of the Path of Quetzol. The temple clerics whispered amongst themselves and then in unison, bowed in acceptance of Master Quezoema’s words.
The Sun Warriors also submitted. Upon Quezoema’s command, the company of Sun Warriors marched down the staircase to lift up the twisted remains of the High Priest. Without a sound they strode away from the temple and away from the city. If any saw their passing, they did not speak of it. Lo-Huitzlapoch was gone and his name was best forgotten.
In the following weeks the plague began to burn itself out. Thousands had died from its ravages. Common peasants and simple soldiers were joined in death with rich merchants, educated priests and exalted Stewards. Even so, things could have been much worse. Through the intercession of Master Quezoema, Henrico was allowed to appear before the Council of Stewards. The young Benedictine was able to pass on Father Garcilosa’s knowledge on how best to contain the disease. Those infected must be isolated he told them, their possessions and houses burned and only others who had survived the illness allowed to care for the sick and dying.
The Council was grateful and agreed to all. The Spanish prisoners were released and allowed to return to their countrymen, including those found imprisoned in the Great Temple. The priests had at first protested that these captives had already been dedicated to the Sun God but they were overruled. All actions of the disgraced High Priest Lo-Huitzlapoch had been illegal and thus void. The decision became more acceptable with the news from the siege of the Spanish.
The Ixtec army surrounding the foreigners had thus far been spared from the plague but the news of its destruction had caused fear and tribulation. Discipline was more difficult to maintain and men were deserting out of concern for their families. The generals had at last admitted that there was little chance of success. The Spaniards’ weapons, especially those which killed with smoke and thunder, were just too potent to overcome. The invaders from over the Great Eastern Sea could not break out of their compound but neither could the Ixtec triumph over their defenses. They had reached a stalemate and so negotiations began.
In the end it was decided that the invading army would be allowed to leave. Resources would be passed through the fort’s gates so that the foreigners could rebuild their great canoes. As long as the invaders left and pledged not to return, the Empire would be satisfied. They had defeated the enemy in open combat and held them immobile for months. Honor had been served and now the Ixtec were content to simply recover from the war and from the plague.
As Henrico was escorted from his meeting with the Council of Stewards, he was pleased to find his companions waiting for him. Xlenca stepped forward with his arm around his betrothed Cue-Ahmma while Lotec and d’Amarco followed behind. Ma-Zena broke away from the others and rushed ahead to wrap her arms around the young Spaniard. Henrico blushed but a shy smile touched his lips. Hesitantly at first and then with growing enthusiasm, he returned the embrace.
“Sister, let the young man breathe,” Xlenca said as he approached the couple. It was Ma-Zena’s turn to flush with embarrassment as the others gathered around. She pulled back but continued to hold the young man’s arm and turned to look into his eyes. Apprehension briefly clouded her face as she asked, “Did the Council agree to Master Quezoema’s advice? Are you freed?”
“Yes, he is, young woman,” Master Quezoema said, “Both he and the swordsman are to be released. They are to be allowed to return to their countrymen.” The Beast Master handed a knotted message belt to d’Amarco. “This will ensure your safety and allow you to pass through our forces.”
“Master Quezoema has also given his permission for Lotec and me to act as your guides,” Xlenca said, “You will still get your chance to ride atop Moon Dancer.”
Henrico could see the joy in the young Beast Master’s eyes. He had been able to share with the warrior and to assure him that Tu-Tuoan and Father Garcilosa were safe in the arms of Jesus. He knew that Xlenca’s acceptance of this new belief was complete and real. The Beast Master had opened his heart to God and he had been changed and renewed.
Henrico looked around at those who had become his friends and companions. It was only a short time ago that he had feared and mistrusted them but now they had become closer than family. The Ixtec warriors had proven to be honorable and caring while the courtier Ponce d’Amarco had shown his true nature at last and become the comrade Henrico always hoped he would be. God had worked in their lives. His conquest over the darkness had filled their souls with a golden light, and shown them the power of His love and His grace. Cortes’ attempt to invade the New World had met failure and defeat but there had been a victory of much greater importance. That victory had occurred in the souls of men.
The young Spaniard knew that his own heart had been touched in ways that he could never have imagined. The Ixtec maiden beside him had broken through his wariness to melt the ice that had gripped his chest. But Henrico also knew that even her gentle warmth could not affect a heart of stone. Someone else had done that. Another of infinite power and love had achieved that miracle. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes. Henrico closed his eyes and lifted his face skyward.
He smiled as he felt the sun’s warmth caress his countenance. A flickering shadow crossed his visage and he opened his eyes. High above, a dark shape soared through the azure sky. It was an eagle, golden and majestic, its wings spread wide in the firmament. The eagle’s cry sounded through the air, calling to each member of the small group. Henrico’s smile broadened and he raised his hand in salute.
The great brown grey form of the mastodon crested the top of the hill. She raised her trunk to sniff the wind and felt the sharp tang of salt in the air. Moon Dancer trumpeted a challenge and a greeting. Henrico stepped around the Great Beast’s flank and shading his eyes with his hand stared out at the distant horizon. The bright blue shimmer of the sea drew his vision to its promise. Somewhere beyond his sight, a ship was sailing into a quiet bay to await his coming. It would be there to receive him and carry him away from this land. He did not know for certain where it would take him. Perhaps back to Spain. Perhaps to Salamanca and the monastery. Or perhaps, he would be led elsewhere.
He did not know what life held in store for him but he was no longer afraid. Henrico knew with a certainty that forced all doubt to flee that his life was in God’s hands, that the Lord was in control. Ma-Zena stepped forward and took his arm. This too, he knew, depended on God’s will. But he was not troubled.
At last, after so much time, he was at peace.