The Golden Conquest – Part 17


.           “Thank you for coming, Beast Master,” she whispered, “I needed to speak with you.”  Xlenca stood looking into her eyes and suddenly realized that he still held her hand.  A flush of red heated his cheeks as he released her hand and looked down at the ground.

“What- what did you wish to speak of?”

“There is much to tell you.  When the message about the invasion reached the Barracks, Tagazuma and Lo-Huitzlapoch hid themselves away for hours.  When they came out Tagazuma selected the men who would answer the call.  The ones they picked were the men least loyal to them, the ones most faithful to the old traditions.”

“Why would they do that?”

“I don’t know but they’re planning something.  While the Masters were getting ready, they went into the secret building.  I had to see what they were planning so I hid and watched.  After the troops had left Tagazuma and the sun priest took half the remaining Beasts and headed for the capital.  I knew that I needed to tell you what had happened so I hurried to catch up.”  She paused for a moment to look up at him before continuing, “What do you think it means?”

“I’m not sure.  I don’t trust those two.  I have no doubt that their schemes will bring harm to the Quetzolite Path.  What they have planned I cannot imagine.  Perhaps Master Quezoema will have an idea.”  As he spoke, Xlenca found himself staring into Cue-Ahmma’s dark eyes.  He wished that he still held her hand.  He wished that he had the courage to reach out and touch her.  Her hair glistened in the sunlight and she smiled at him with lips that were soft and full.  He wondered what it would be like to kiss them.

“Master Xlenca?” she asked, breaking his trance, “Are you all right?”

“Uh – yes, yes, I’m fine.  Please, just call me Xlenca.”

“Very well Xlenca, may I ask you something?”  When the young Beast Master nodded, she continued, “I was watching when you left the Great Hill the first time.  Why did you throw away the sun amulet that Lo-Huitzlapoch gave you?”

“It is a long story,” he sighed, “And I do not fully understand it myself.”

“Please,” she said placing a hand on his forearm.  Xlenca was silent and then sighing once more, sat down at the base of a tree and began to speak.  He told her of his little sister, Marta; of her life and of her death.  As he talked, all the feelings he had pushed down inside him welled to the surface; the anger that he against the Sun God and his priests, the sorrow at not being able to save his sister, the doubts and fears that he still felt, and even the love and loyalty he had for his family.  Cue-Ahmma’s eyes were moist when she spoke again, “You are a good man.  I am sorry for the great hurt you have suffered.”

“There is more I need to tell you,” Xlenca said, rising to his feet, “It’s about the way your father died.  When Lotec and I left the Great Hill Barracks, we took the same route he did and passed below the same cliff.  If it had not been for Moon Dancer, we would have been killed . . . by a falling boulder.”


“It was not an accident and neither was your father’s death.”


“Yes, I don’t know how he did it but I know that he was behind it.”

“But why?  Why did he do it?”

“I don’t know yet but I promise you this, I will find out.”  The two of them stood quietly for a moment.  Then Xlenca reached out and took Cue-Ahmma’s hand.

The army continued its march the next day.  Unburdened by the ceremonial accoutrements of their departure the troops made better time.  A crowd of servants and laborers traveled with them carrying the vast myriad of armor, weapons and supplies.  As the host traveled, their spies and scouts brought more reports on the strange invaders.  The Cempoalans had been adept at hiding the news of the enemy’s initial landing.  So much so that they had been undetected for months and were even now completing a strong fortress with a high wooden palisade.  The Ixtec wondered if the pale warriors from over the Great Water would have enough courage and honor to meet them in open combat.  If they would not, they would be starved into submission within their stronghold.  The result would surely be the same.

Xlenca and Lotec often spoke of the upcoming warfare.  Their role in it would be new to both of them.  Xlenca had taken part as a Rider in skirmishes against bandits and in hunts for wild animals.  On one occasion he had observed a clash between the Barracks and a remnant of the Aztec Royal Guard but had not taken part.  The closest Lotec had come to combat was against the rogue bull.  He still felt that he had failed then.  Both were committed to serve their people and above all both remained fully confident in Moon Dancer.

The old mastodon was untroubled by the relentless travel and seemed more at ease than she had been since Master Tu-Tuoan’s injury.  Xlenca felt that part of the animal’s contentment was due to the daily visits from Cue-Ahmma.  The young woman always found time after completing her own duties to bring fruit, fresh ferns or some other treat for the Great Beast.  Xlenca was grateful for the attention she lavished on Moon Dancer and was quick to assist her.  His Rider Lotec simply smiled and wisely kept his thoughts to himself.  He was convinced that the young woman was more interested in visiting the mastodon’s Master than the Beast itself.  How long though would they would be able to continue with this distraction?

News also reached the Beast Rider and Master of developments in the capital.  Xlenca had shared with Master Quezoema the information Cue-Ahmma had gleaned prior to leaving the Great Hill and the Barracks Master had immediately sent a runner to some trusted friends in the great city.  The report which came back revealed some of the sun priest’s plans.  It was unclear how it had happened but Lo-Huitzlapoch had assumed the position of High Priest at the capital’s great Sun Temple.  The fate of the previous High Priest was unknown but the appointment had always been for life.  What else the new High Priest had planned was yet to be seen.

The army persisted in its relentless march to the sea.  As each mile fell behind them the men began to feel the growing tension of impending combat.  Tempers were short and the soldiers irritable but their commanders kept a tight leash and there were few incidents.  Every captain made certain his troops busy after the day’s march.  Weapons and equipment were meticulously maintained and extra training was ordered until the men were weary and sore.  The mood of the camp changed when another group of scouts rushed into their midst.  The invading forces were on the move and were heading inland.

There was a new excitement in the camp the next day.  The warriors dressed themselves carefully in their battle garb.   They had been instructed that the enemy was nearby and remained as yet unaware of their presence.  There remained hours of hard marching but the army commanders expected to contact the invading forces late that afternoon.  The camp followers and servants would not go with them but would stay behind to fortify the camp along with a strong rearguard.  The army shouldered its weapons and strode off, a quiet and determined excitement on their faces.

The mastodons also sensed the renewed urgency.  Moon Dancer moved easily through the underbrush despite her heavy armor and battle apparel.  Xlenca was careful not to exhaust her as the march continued but noted the growing apprehension in both man and beast.  The Ixtec forces paused briefly at the sun’s zenith to take food and drink but quickly moved on, fanning out to present a broad front to the enemy.  Scouts continued to bring in news.  Surprisingly the pale skinned invaders had not sent out an advance guard of their own and seemed as yet unprepared.  Their Cempoalan allies had positioned their forces in the rear, content to let the warriors from over the water bear the brunt of battle.  The Ixtec would soon test their mettle.

Xlenca moved Moon Dancer to the right wing with the Red Sun’s second squadron as Quezoema had directed.  The quintet of armored behemoths strode forward interspersed by companies of elite infantrymen.  The mass of common soldiery was positioned to the rear of the mastodons but also resolutely pushed forward.  The Beast Rider watched stoically as the groups of Sun Warriors began to filter through their ranks and to race ahead.  It was a sure sign that the enemy army had been sighted.  Xlenca glanced back at Lotec who flashed a wry smile.  They both knew that the naked soldiers running past them might claim first contact with the invaders but the outcome of the battle rested fully upon the broad shoulders of the Great Beasts.

They continued forward when suddenly a sound like thunder rolled through the clear blue sky.  Some of the troops hesitated briefly but then pushed on.  Xlenca wondered if this was the enemy power they had been warned of.  Was this the noise that kills?  He raised himself up as a new sound reached his ears.  A dull roar of cheers drifted over the trees toward the army but in a language they had never heard before.  At that moment a clutch of Sun Warriors staggered out of the jungle.  The black and red painted combatants were bloodied and broken, their vaunted courage shattered things which they had never seen before.  A shudder seemed to sift through the entire force and the infantry began to waver.

Master Quezoema shouted a sharp command and each Beast Master responded immediately.  As one man they reached forward with their batons to tap their mounts on the left cheek.  In unison the mastodons raised their trunks and split the air with a fierce trumpet.  Even as the sound echoed through the trees the Great Beast lowered their trunks and charged ahead.  The rumble their heavy feet made was almost drowned out by the roar of the foot soldiers as they followed.  The Ixtec were attacking.

Xlenca ducked under an overhanging branch as Moon Dancer burst from the trees.  He quickly scanned the clearing before him, taking in the dead and dying Sun Warriors lying on the grass before him.  At the opposite side stood the enemy, their cheers and shouts silenced by the appearance of the squadrons of mastodons.  They were of a sickly pale complexion clad in garish clothes with dull silvery headgear and chest plates.  Scattered amongst them were men mounted on the giant deer Quezoema had told them of.  As the mastodons charged forward the giant deer reared and bucked, spilling their riders before bolting into the trees.  The invaders from over the sea had met the Great Beasts.

A few of the enemy raised odd looking sticks that belched smoke and fire.  The thunder sounded again and Xlenca saw a Rider to his left topple from his war box, a red blossom of blood appearing on the man’s chest.  Further to his right a mastodon shuddered and stumbled but regained her footing to push onward.  The thunder was heard once more but with less intensity and then the lines met.  Some of the invading forces had lifted long spears to defend themselves from the onslaught.  Only a few of them proved brave enough to stand their ground and those that did were cast aside by flailing tusks or crushed beneath armored feet.  The rest turned and fled as the battle rapidly deteriorated into a rout.

Xlenca continued to urge Moon Dancer forward.  He saw a thin black clad man struggling to remount a giant deer.  Another man wearing a dull red cloth on his head leapt forward to push the black robed man aside.  The second man had just pulled himself up onto the deer when a javelin struck him full in the chest.  He fell lifeless from the animal as it twisted on its hooves and fled.  Lotec gave a shout of triumph as they swept past.  Xlenca turned to see another of the enemy rush to stand over the first man.  The latecomer held out a strange silver sword to defend his fallen companion, but was quickly surrounded by Ixtec soldiers.  A war club swept out to strike a glancing blow off the turtle man’s helmeted head and he crumpled to the ground.

The squadrons of mastodons pushed on pursuing the fleeing invaders.  A few small pockets of fighting occurred as some of the enemy soldiers were cut off and surrounded, but for the most the Ixtec could only chase the routed enemy.  Xlenca sensed that Moon Dancer was beginning to fatigue as she pushed through another layer of thick underbrush.  As they burst out of the foliage Xlenca observed a young unarmed man stumbling back away from them.  The man’s eyes were wide with fear and shock as he fell back, his head smacking hard against a tree limb.  An infantryman leapt from the bushes, his jaguar skin cloak flying as he raised his spear to strike at the enemy.

Suddenly an older man raced forward.  The grey haired elder blocked the Ixtec soldier’s blow with a staff and then whirled to sweep the warrior of his feet.  He stood over the younger man and raised his wooden stave in a martial pose.  More Ixtec infantry moved to surround the two as the old one feinted back and forth to keep them at bay.  Though outnumbered ten to one the grey haired soldier refused to yield or permit any further injury to his young companion.   In contrast with the rest of the invading army, the old man’s showed admirable courage.  Xlenca prodded Moon Dancer into motion and the wall of infantry parted to allow the Great Beast forward.  As Lotec leveled his great spear the Beast Master held up one hand and pointed down with his rod.

“Cease.  You are my prisoners.”   

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The Golden Conquest – Part 16

.           Her name was Cue-Ahmma and she had been born at the Great Hill Barracks. Her father had come here from a northern Barracks as a Rider. Her mother had followed him and had worked as a servant until they could be married. Her father was a good man, a noble man, who had risen to Beast Master and become one of the leaders of the Barracks. It had widely been expected that he would take over as Barracks Master when the old Master stepped down. But then the sun priest Lo-Huitzlapoch had come to the compound. The sun priest had ingratiated himself with the old man, playing on his weaknesses and indulging his baser instincts. When the elder became too ill to continue, he pushed for the Barracks Council to name Tagazuma as his successor.

Even with the pressure the old Master exerted and with the influence of the sun priest, the decision was far from certain. There was much support for Cue-Ahmma’s father and he still might have been elected to fill the position. But then there had been an accident and her father had been killed. Tagazuma had been selected as Barracks Master and nothing had been the same since. The sun priest’s influence had grown and the community had become more isolated and more secretive. Some of the buildings in the compound had been declared off limits to everyone but a select few. There was even talk of a secret ceremonies and rituals somewhere in the jungle.

Cue-Ahmma did not believe that her father’s death had been an accident but she had no proof. She had stayed at the Barracks for the sake of her family. 

It had been her mother’s only home and she was lost away from the garrison. Then her younger brother had been accepted into the Path of Quetzol, first as an Initiate and now as an Apprentice. She still hoped someday to learn the truth about her father and to expose Tagazuma and Lo-Huitzlapoch for what they were. She knew they had plans that went beyond the walls of the Great Hill and nothing would please her more than to spoil them.

She swallowed her tears and squared her shoulders. Xlenca watched the emotions play across her face—anger, defiance, fear.

“How did your father die?”

“He was out on the trail to the south. It had been raining and a large stone became loosened. It fell and he was killed.” Xlenca and Lotec glanced at each other and then back at the woman. “There is not much more that I can tell you but there is something that you should see.  Will you follow me?”

“Master,” Lotec said in a hoarse whisper, “Can we trust this girl? We know nothing of her. Here we have the strength to control her but out in the compound she could give us away at any moment.” Xlenca looked at his Rider and then back at Cue-Ahmma.

“I trust her. We will follow.”

            Snuffing out her torch, Cue-Ahmma led the two men back into the night and through the darkened compound. Past the silent kitchens and servant quarters they slipped to dart between a row of shadowy storage huts. Crouching in the darkness, she pointed out a round stone structure surrounded by its own low palisade. The building was lit by torches on either side of the large double doors and guards could be seen moving in a circuit around the edifice. The place had a chill sternness about it. A strange sense of dread settled over them as they stared at the cold unyielding stones of the structure’s walls. Xlenca shifted closer to the young woman and whispered into her ear. “What is this place?”

“I only know it is evil. It is always guarded and none of the servants are allowed near it.” She turned her head to look into the young Beast Master’s eyes. “And no one ever enters the building, no one except Tagazuma and Lo-Huitzlapoch. It is dangerous to come even this close. To be seen here is death. Come.” Cue-Ahmma crawled back into the shadows and motioned for the two men to follow her. The trio moved away from the area and back toward the calving barn.  Xlenca pointed toward the side gate. It was time for Lotec and him to leave.

Approaching the entrance Xlenca peered around the corner only to snap his head back out of sight. The drunken guard had awoken and was sitting with his head in his hands. Their escape route was blocked. The two men looked back and forth at each other, unsure what to do or where to hide. Suddenly Cue-Ahmma stepped around them and strode toward the guard.

“You fool.” Her voice was sharp and firm. “You’ve been drinking.” The guard stumbled to his feet and looked about sheepishly. The woman grabbed his arm and spun him around. She continued to scold him as she pushed him away from the gateway. “If one of the Masters saw you in this state you would be thrown out of the Barracks. Let’s get you cleaned up and then back to your post before it’s too late.” She glanced over her shoulder to see Xlenca peering out from around the corner and jerked her head toward the now unattended exit. He nodded back and flashed a quick smile to her before slipping out the gate.

Once outside, the two men darted into the trees. They stood motionless, not even daring to breathe till they were satisfied no one had seen them. They drifted deeper into the foliage.  Only when they were well away did, Lotec break the silence. “What will we do now?”

“I would like to find a way into that secret building. Tagazuma and that sun priest are hiding something there and I fear it may be a threat to the entire Quetzolite Path.”

“The place is very well guarded. How could we get in?”

“I’m not sure. Perhaps Cue-Ahmma will be able to help us.”

“She’s quite a beauty, don’t you think?”

Xlenca stiffened. “I hadn’t noticed. She—she is a brave young woman. No doubt. We need to be careful not to endanger her or us. We need to keep our focus.” He stared back at the barrack compound for a moment before glancing back at the Rider. “Why are you smiling? We need to hurry.” With a determined frown fixed on his face the young Beast Master marched down the trail.

Dawn was still only a faint hint in the eastern sky when they reached the hovel belonging to Master Tu-Tuoan’s friend. Cautiously they approached the door to the home and stood beside it. Only when he was certain that all was quiet did Xlenca give a low whistle—the cry of a night bird common in the south but rare in this area. A moment later the door opened and the old peasant hurried them inside. Lotec collapsed onto a straw mattress and within seconds was breathing with the slow steady rhythm of sleep. Rest evaded Xlenca however as he continued to sift through the myriad events of the past few weeks. One image kept disrupting his thoughts and clouding his reason. It was a vision of Cue-Ahmma’s flashing black eyes and gentle smile that captivated his mind. At last, he ceased to fight against it and his own lips curled into a half smile as he drifted into slumber.

It seemed like only a few moments had passed before the young Master felt his shoulders being shaken. His sleep addled brain failed to fully respond and though his eyes were open, his mind could not hear the voice calling to him. A shaft of sunlight poured through a crack in the hut’s wall over his head. Dust danced in golden swirls above him captivating him in their patterns.  A mastodon strode out of the mist and shimmered into a moss-covered cottage. The house dissolved into a face that edged closer to his consciousness. It was a woman’s face and he struggled to bring the image clearer. He reached out to hold the visage but it fled from him.

“Master,” a voice called hoarsely, “Master Xlenca, wake up.” His eyes focused on the form before him. It was not the woman from his dream but the elderly peasant. The old man shook him again and spoke louder. “Please Beast Master, wake up. You must wake up.” Xlenca rose up onto his elbows and blinked twice to clear the last vestiges of sleep from his mind.

“I’m awake. What is it?”

“A messenger,” the old man said, “A messenger has come for you.” Xlenca arose from his pallet and moved to the hut’s front room. A young warrior was seated on a stool by the hovel’s fire pit.  His hair was in disarray and his clothes disheveled and covered with sweat and dust. When the Beast Master entered the room, the warrior dropped the bowl of gruel he had been eating and struggled to his feet. Xlenca recognized him then as one of the guards from the Red Sun Barracks and a man trusted by Master Quezoema.

“No please, sit. I can see that you have had a difficult journey.”

“Thank you, Master Xlenca,” the warrior said, “But I must give you my message. It is most important and Master Quezoema made it very clear that I find you and tell you right away.” 

“What is the news?”

“Master Quezoema has sent me with a message for the Barracks Master at the Great Hill Barracks but I was to give you the message first. He told me where you would be.”

“Yes, yes, but what is the news, man?  Speak.”

“It’s the empire.” His voice trembled with fatigue and worry. “Our homeland has been invaded.”

Xlenca jerked back in shock. “What? That cannot be.”

“It is true,” the warrior said, “You are ordered back to the Barracks as soon as possible. The army is being gathered. There will be a great battle.”

“Who is it? The Tlaxcalans? A remnant of the Aztec?”

“No, they are from the east, from over the Great Water. That is all I know.”

“I don’t understand. How could an army come over the Great Water? Who could they be?” Xlenca was silent for a moment. “We will learn soon enough. Very well soldier, we will leave as soon as Moon Dancer can be prepared. You should finish your meal and rest a bit. I would like to be well out of this region before you pass on your message to Master Tagazuma.”

The young Beast Master strode from the hut with Lotec in tow. “Our mission here will have to be postponed. It’s not over though. We will still have unfinished business with the Barracks Master and that sun priest once we have dealt with these invaders.  Come, we had best hurry.”

            A mastodon in full battle dress was a terrible and fearsome sight.  An entire squadron could cause the very ground to tremble.  Moon Dancer had stood quiet and serene as her three caregivers swirled around her.  She seemed impervious to their efforts as they draped her in her armor and fineries but Xlenca noted the slight tenseness in her neck muscles and reached up to scratch her ear.

“It’s alright, old girl.  This is just for show.  Any fight will be days or weeks away; if then.”  The Beast Master noted the questioning glances that passed between his Rider and his Apprentice and continued in a louder voice, “It is likely that these so-called invaders from over the Great Water will fade away like the morning mist at the approach of you and your sisters, Moon Dancer.  So do not let your great heart be troubled.”  He smiled at his companions.  Lotec returned the grin and carried on with his work.

The Great Beast was soon dressed in a dazzling array which was both martial and ceremonial.  Thick pieces of boiled leather stitched together with heavy cords covered her flanks and haunches.  Over this was draped a cloak of jaguar skins.  The lower parts of each leg were wrapped with woven stands of leather dyed red and blue.  These would protect her limbs in battle and prevent her from being hamstrung.  A gilded rope hung around her neck and held a broad stiff piece of leather over her chest.  The chest piece was studded with plates of a hard reddish stone and spotted with golden nails.  Her headdress was more ornate yet.

A triangle of heavy leather hung on her broad forehead, the point hanging down between her eyes.  It was decorated with precious stones held in place by strands of thick gold.  Smaller but similarly decorated triangles hung below the first and wrapped around the upper portion of her trunk.  A wide band of gold had been affixed to the top of the headdress and from it rose a wide fan of bright red, green, and white feathers.  The plumage was from the Ixtec’s most sacred birds and no men were ever allowed to wear them.  Around the base of each of Moon Dancer’s great tusks, Lotec carefully wrapped a long wire of the purest gold.  When he was finished, Xlenca carefully polished and sharpened each tusk to finish the mastodon’s battle preparation.

Their tasks completed the two men bathed and began to dress themselves while Xlenca’s Apprentice tended to Moon Dancer.  Xlenca slipped on a short, woven skirt and strapped leather greaves to his lower legs.  His bare chest was covered by a plate of beaten gold, and he slowly wrapped each hand and forearm with supple strips of leather.  He tied a cloak of yellow feathers over his shoulder and then pulled on his plumed headgear.  The helmet was similar in design to the one worn by Moon Dancer but was decorated with eagle feathers.  As he settled it onto his head, Xlenca could hear the blood rushing in his ears and his breath coming in short excited gasps.  He repeated to himself the same advice he had given earlier to his Beast and his Rider.  This was just for show.

Lotec had also finished dressing.  Less ornately clothed than his Master, he was more heavily armored with boiled leather plates on his chest, back and upper arms.  He wore not a plumed headdress but one made from the skin of a jaguar. The cat’s head covered his own with the upper fangs resting on his forehead.  Lotec’s lower legs were uncovered as he would go into battle crouching in the war box strapped to Moon Dancer’s back.  He climbed into the war box and made sure that his weapons were all in place.  Four javelins were set in slots on either side of the box while a long-handled war club sat at the rear.  Lotec held his great spear upright beside him.  A pair of eagle feathers fluttered from its obsidian blade.

Xlenca pulled himself up astride the mastodon’s great neck and then reached down to accept his rod from the young Apprentice.  He nodded to the boy and then tapped Moon Dancer on the shoulder.  The Great Beast slowly backed away and then turned to stride toward the gathering army.  Xlenca noted with pride the assembled forces he had accompanied from the Red Sun.  The Barracks had submitted three complete troops, a total of fifteen animals.  All were strong healthy Beasts with experienced and seasoned Masters and Riders.  As Moon Dancer moved confidently into her place flanking Master Quezoema’s mastodon, Xlenca was pleased to note the satisfaction on the Barracks Master’s stern visage.  All could be proud of the Red Sun.

The other Barracks were less well represented.  The Barracks of the Southern Reaches had suffered much in the wars against the Aztec yet still had responded admirably.  Eight mastodons with a full complement of attendants had made the journey northward.  Quezoema had told Xlenca that this left the Barracks with only two animals which not infirm or with calf.  No one grumbled about the Southern Reaches efforts.  Sadly, this was not the case with the Great Hill Barracks.  Their response to the call to arms was more than disappointing.

The Great Hill had contributed only four mastodons to the army.  Xlenca had seen at least three times that many when he had first journeyed to the Barracks.  The men who had answered the empire’s call seemed almost embarrassed at their Barracks poor commitment.  They explained to anyone who would listen that Tagazuma had assigned most of their animals to the defense of the capital, feeling that this was their duty as the Great Hill was the Barracks closest to the city.  Xlenca actually felt sorry for them when they sheepishly tried to explain why this was needed when the invaders were still far to the east.  Privately, one of the Masters had admitted to Xlenca that the sun priest Lo-Huitzlapoch had played a role in the division of the Barrack’s forces.

Xlenca was certain the sun priest could not be trusted.  The man apparently put himself before the empire.  Yet, the Beast Master could not be totally displeased with the forces that the Great Hill Barracks had sent.  When the small troop had reached the mustering ground the Beast Master had noted a familiar form amongst the servants and attendants.  Cue-Ahmma had made the journey.  When Xlenca had caught her eye, the young woman had flashed him a brief smile before being carried away by her duties.   He had been shocked to find his heart quickening at the brief glance and his palms growing damp at the thought of her being so near.  He had told himself that he was being foolish and had hurried back to his own work.

Even now however, he found himself smiling at the memory and hoping to get another glimpse of the young woman.  The large clearing was rapidly filling with troops.  The squadron from the Southern Reaches was positioned on the right while the small contingent from the Great Hill took their places on the left.  Xlenca had to resist the urge to turn and watch their approach.  Deliberately, he kept his gaze fixed on the raised platform before them.  Rank upon rank of infantry now filed onto the grounds, filling the spaces between and behind the squadrons of mastodons.

The foot soldiers were also organized in groups from various towns and regions.  There was no consistency in their dress or weaponry as each man supplied his own equipment.  Some of the men were naked, their bodies painted black or red or yellow.  These were Sun Warriors and they prized bravery above all.  They were typically armed with short obsidian tipped swords or war clubs so as to enter into close combat with the enemy.  Other soldiers were clothed in jaguar skins or cloaks of eagle feathers.  These men also valued courage but also emphasized fighting prowess and skill at arms.  They were the elite of the army and were armed with a variety of weapons.

The majority of the infantry were poor but sturdy peasants.  They did not wear bright plumes or fierce animal skins but simple drab tunics.  Most were armed with stone spears and wooden clubs though some carried javelins and a few carried bows.  The peasant warriors were as a rule less brave and less skilled than their fellows.  They were willing to defend the empire but most just wanted to get home alive.

By the time the troops had all marched into the clearing, Xlenca estimated that the army numbered almost two thousand.  It was an impressive force though only a fraction of the total men which the empire could field.  Still the greatest burden for success would fall to the squadrons of mastodons.  It had always been so and many great victories had come from the Great Beasts and their Riders.  Xlenca imagined how it must have looked in the old days when one or even two hundred of the massive creatures had marched before the legions of infantry.  It must have been an awe-inspiring sight.

A shrill cry came from the front of the clearing as a tall herald called the army to pay heed to the beginning of the ceremony.  Xlenca squinted into the morning sun and watched as the group of officers climbed up onto the platform.  The last to step up was the elderly Chief Steward of the empire.  The old man moved slowly to the front of the stands as a murmur began to build through the ranks of the men standing to attention.  The deep rumble grew into a cheer that rolled through the clearing and shook the jungle around them.  The Chief Steward raised his hands to quiet the horde and began to speak slowly and clearly.  He did not raise his voice but his words carried to each man.

The Ixtec Empire was threatened, he said.  Not by their traditional enemies but by a new adversary from across the Great Eastern Water.  The invaders were a strange new people not seen before, and though their numbers were few they had powerful weapons.  They had made an alliance with the treacherous Cempoalans.  They had begun to build a city on the coast and seemed unconcerned that they were trespassing on the greatest empire ever known.  But they did not know of the power of the Ixtec.  They could not imagine the awesome might of the Ixtec army and they had never seen anything like the Great Beast.  The chief steward’s voice began to increase in volume as he continued.  The invaders did not know these things but they soon would.  And as they learned this hard lesson they would be swept back into the sea.

The army responded with an exuberant cheer that pounded the surrounding jungle in waves of sound.  Like a swelling surf stirred by the fury of a hurricane, the roar built in the men’s bellies and burst from their throats.  Spear butts were pounded against the ground while others beat open hands against their bare chests.  The sounds continued unabated as the legions of warriors began to march eastward from the clearing.  Without any directions they formed themselves into a column of men that strode down the jungle road.  Only when their throats had become hoarse did their cheering subside until at last the army marched in silence.

The Ixtec continued on only a few miles that day.  Just as Xlenca had said, the grand assembly was for show, a demonstration of the might and determination of the empire.  The invaders’ encampment lay some distance to the east and there would be many days travel before they reached their enemy.  Xlenca was glad to get all of the paraphernalia off of Moon Dancer.  He knew that he would appreciate the protection once they were joined in battle the heavy coverings were not meant for travel.  The short journey had already caused the mastodons to become overheated and their human caregivers quickly stripped them and lead the beasts to a stream to bathe.

Moon Dancer lounged in the cooling waters as Xlenca and his Apprentice carefully inspected her skin for sores and biting insects.  It was a job usually left to the youngsters but Xlenca has always been reluctant to give it up.  He valued the connection it maintained with the mastodon and truly enjoyed caring for her.  The huge creature opened her eyes to look into her Master’s and surreptitiously pulled water into her trunk.  Cocking the great proboscis in the air, she suddenly spewed a jet of cold water onto Xlenca’s back.  The young Master gasped at the shock while his companions laughed at the antics.

“I thought you were tired, old girl,” he chuckled, shaking water from his head and arms, “Maybe I should have Lotec take you for run.”  The Rider stood on the riverbank and vigorously shook his head.  

“No thank you, Master.  Moon Dancer may not be tired but I am.”  

Xlenca laughed in reply and continued to enjoy a few moments of play with Great Beast.  The game seemed to insulate them for a time from the troubles of the past few weeks and he almost felt like when they had grown up together.  He wished could stay in this place but feared that all too soon the world would intrude.  His premonition proved true as a soldier approached to summon him to a meeting with Master Quezoema.  Leaving Lotec to oversee Moon Dancer’s care, Xlenca slipped on a dry tunic and hurried to Quezoema’s campsite.  There he found that all of the Red Sun Beast Masters had gathered.  The Barracks Master motioned them to stand before him and waited solemnly till all were silent.

“Heed my words, Masters of the Great Beast,” he intoned, beginning the ritual call to battle, “You have been summoned to defend your people.  To slay or be slain as the gods determine.  Stand you ready?”

“Yes, Master of the Barracks,” the assembled men cried in unison, “We are ready.”

“It is good,” Quezoema answered, “Be seated.”  The formalities completed he stood with folded arms while his followers settled onto the grass.  When all had reclined, he began again, “I have further news of our enemy to share with you; news brought by our spies and scouts.  Each commander is meeting now with his officers to discuss this information, so listen closely.

The invaders are unlike anyone we have seen before.  They came from across the Great Eastern Water in huge wooden canoes.  Some of the wise men think they came from out of the sea.”

“Why is that, Master Quezoema?” one of the younger men asked.

“Because their skin is pale and white like the flesh of a fish and because some of them wear hard shells about their bodies like a turtle.  But do not be concerned, they are just men.”

“What of their weapons?” an older Master queried.

“They have powerful weapons just as the chief steward said.  They have spears and swords made from a material harder than the hardest stone.  Some ride upon giant deer and others carry rods that send out noise and smoke.  Do not laugh.  I know that you do not fear such things but I tell you this is a noise that kills at a distance.  It is something which we have never faced in battle.  We will lose troops to the power of this enemy.

But hear this; what the Chief Steward said is true.  They have never faced the Great Beasts and our spies tell us they do not even know that they exist.  We will continue our march tomorrow and soon we will face these pale invaders.  These deer riders and turtle men will be defeated and sent back across the water.  Now finish your preparations and get some rest.  You may tell your Riders what you deem fit.”  With this final command, Quezoema turned from the assembly and walked to his tent.  The Masters began to converse amongst themselves and drift back to their own campsites.  Deep in thought, Xlenca also walked away.    

“Master Xlenca,” a voice whispered.  He turned to see a shadowy form beckoning him from the trees.  The young Beast Master glanced over his shoulder.  No one was watching.   He slipped into the jungle as a hand reached out to grip his and pulled him deeper into the underbrush.  In a few seconds the two figures stood beneath a canopy of green leaves and Xlenca turned to face his visitor.  The young woman Cue-Ahmma looked up at him as a slight smile caressed her lips.

“Thank you for coming, Beast Master,” she whispered, “I needed to speak with you.” 

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The Golden Conquest -Part 15

.           Xlenca stood before the Barracks’ council and watched as Master Quezoema finished reading the message rope and passed it on to Tu-Tuoan. The young Beast Master frowned slightly at the strain visible in the older man. His hair had turned fully grey and the lines in his face had deepened. He had become almost gaunt. Despite the physical changes, Xlenca saw that his eyes remained bright and his mind seemed clear. Tu-Tuoan placed the message rope down and shifted himself on his cushions before looking up.

“You have done well, Xlenca. The message from Tagazuma merely restates what you have already told us. I do find his story questionable.”

“It is more than questionable,” Quezoema said, “It is ridiculous. Tagazuma is either a fool or a liar, if not both.”

“I am afraid that I must agree, my friend,” the older Master replied, “Master Xlenca, tell me more about this sun priest who claimed to know me. What did he look like?”

“He was tall and wore his hair long and braided. He had the nose of an eagle and the eyes of a snake. His chest was covered with a tattoo unlike any I have seen before.”

            “Show us.” Quezoema stop and handed the younger man a lump of charcoal and a flat piece of wood. Xlenca quickly sketched the design and passed the board to Quezoema. The frown on the Master’s face deepened as he studied the drawing. Shaking his head, he passed it on to Tu-Tuoan. The elder stared intently at the diagram and then carefully smudged parts of the picture before passing it back to Xlenca.

“Do you recognize the design now, young one?”

Xlenca stared intently at the design.  In the midst of the smudges Tu-Tuoan had created was a recognizable pattern. His rendering had been crude but he could now see an unmistakable design and he unconsciously touched the tattoo on his own chest. Hidden in the complex swirls and curves on the sun priest’s chest was a pair of interlocking tusks, the symbol of an apprentice of the Path of Quetzol. His eyes shifted from the drawing to the elder Beast Master.

“He was one of us, a Quetzolite apprentice?”

“Yes, I think I recall him.  His name at that time was not Lo-Huitzlapoch.  It was Cuanthical and he was a promising candidate. He came from a rich and powerful family. His father was one who felt that advancement did not need to be through merit alone but could just as well be purchased. This opinion angered a number of the Council. The lad might have succeeded despite this—he was intelligent and capable but he came to believe the same as his father. His pride and arrogance ultimately led to him being rejected from the Path and dismissed from his Barracks.”

Xlenca shook his head at the thought. It was rare for an Apprentice to be so totally discarded. Not all of the youngsters were promoted to Rider but a place was almost always found for them. Most unsuitable candidates were sent home earlier and there was no shame in it. The selection of Initiates was a careful process and barely one in a hundred applicants was accepted. Of these, perhaps one in ten or twenty would be promoted to Apprentice. In both circumstances the procedure was awe inspiring and more than a bit frightening. It involved both the senior Masters of the Barracks and the matriarch of the mastodon herd.

Xlenca smiled slightly as he recalled his own selection. He had been questioned and examined by a group of stern and thoughtful elders. They studied his intellect, his physical abilities and his spirit. When they marked him as a potential candidate, he was taken into the courtyard to stand in a line with a number of other small boys. They were required to stand still and quiet as an immense mastodon entered the courtyard. To the young lads, the Great Beast seemed to block out the sky and to make the earth tremble as it approached. Some of the boys were too frightened and ran for cover and one or two embarrassed their parents by losing control of their bladders. Those that remained were eyed and sniffed by the Great Beast, the matriarch of the herd.

The Quetzolite elders had over the centuries learned that only the mastodon itself could determine which boys had that spark, that certain quality which would allow them to bond with a Beast, to control and direct its great strength. They never overruled the matriarch. Those that she rejected were dismissed. The Great Beast rebuffed most of the applicants that day. Some she ignored, some she snorted at derisively and a couple she pushed away forcibly with her trunk. She had accepted Xlenca; her soft brown eyes peering deeply into his while her trunk encircled his torso and ruffled his hair. He had laughed with pleasure at her and felt the first stirrings of love for the creature.

The Great Beast had accepted a trio of new Initiates that day to join the rest of their class of students. Over the years they had grown in stature and knowledge until the next day of testing arrived. Xlenca was thrilled and excited when he was promoted to Apprentice. His joy increased when he learned he had been assigned to help care for the matriarch’s oldest calf. He had been with Moon Dancer ever since. Xlenca suddenly realized that Master Tu-Tuoan was silent and looking at him with intent scrutiny.  He blushed and bowed his head in apology.

“I was asking if anything else happened on your journey.”

Xlenca hesitated. He wanted to tell him about the incident on the trail but was unsure how to proceed. The finding of the amulet on top of the cliff troubled him still. Should he speak and share his doubts and fears about the Sun God or remain silent? At last, he spoke. “No, there is nothing more to tell.” 

“That will be all then, Master Xlenca,” Quezoema said, “The council must discuss your report.  Thank you.”

The sky had darkened to a velvet canopy during the council meeting. Xlenca stepped out into the slight chill of the night and gasped at the sight of the heavens. All thoughts of the previous days were banished from his mind as he gazed up at the constellations. The worries he had felt since his encounter with the sun priest faded before the majesty of the night sky. He did not understand this feeling but he greatly desired to hold on to it. He fingered the ornaments around his neck, thinking of the bonds of family and fellowship they represented and he realized that even his family and the brotherhood of the Quetzolite Path did not provide this same feeling of peace and security. But what did?

“Master Xlenca,” a voice called from the darkness. The young Master turned to see Lotec approaching from the shadows. The Rider bowed his head slightly in greeting and then continued, “Moon Dancer is resting in her pen. Your Apprentice has seen to her needs.”

“Very good. He is a fine lad.”

“What did the council members think about what happened at the cliff?”

“I did not mention it. It was just an unfortunate accident.”

“Accident? What about the amulet that I found?”

“Only a coincidence.”

“But . . .”

“Rider Lotec, it was an accident and I do not want to discuss it further.” Noting the hurt look in Lotec’s eyes, Xlenca softened his voice. “Have you eaten? I could eat a whole javelina, tusks and all. Let’s see if the Barracks kitchen can prepare something for us.”

Many days later, Xlenca stood by the animal pens and glanced at Lotec. The Rider shook his head slowly before speaking, “Is it because of us? Are we the reason for all this misfortune?”

“You are not to blame.”

“But so much has gone wrong. Young Star Shadow falls and loses her calf. The roof on the storage shed is blown off in a storm and all that maize ruined. The servants argue and fight. Everyone is upset and on edge.”

Xlenca stood silent and watched as Moon Dancer as she slowly rubbed her flanks against a post. Lotec stretched out with a handful of fresh greenery and she shambled over. Reaching out with her trunk she carefully inspected the offering before gently taking it from the Rider’s hand.

Lotec’s smile faded as he turned to his Master. “Perhaps we should say something to Master Quezoema.”

“What? What can we say?” Xlenca kept his eyes fixed on Moon Dancer’s bulk. “That the sun priest has put a curse on me for rejecting his amulet?  That the Sun God himself is bringing trouble to our Barracks? That I am the cause?”

“No, Xlenca—I mean Master, you are not to blame for this. How could you be?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know what to think or what to believe.” He looked up at Lotec, a thought forming in his mind. “Maybe that’s the problem. We don’t know enough. We need to learn more.”

“More? About what?”

“About Lo-Huitzlapoch. About Tagazuma. And about that rogue bull. There is a reason behind all of this and we need to find out what it is.”

“But how? The messenger returned last week from the capital. The Council of Wardens has accepted Tagazuma’s explanation. The investigation is closed.”

“I have an idea of how to reopen it. Come, I need to speak with Master Quezoema. I am sure that once he hears my thoughts, he will grant permission. I know that neither he nor Master Tu-Tuoan was satisfied with the story Tagazuma gave us. They will want to know more.”  

            The council was persuaded to allow the plan and the two young men travelled in secret back to the Great Hill Barracks. Arriving at night in a nearby village, they contacted an old friend of Master Tu-Tuoan. The villager provided a hiding place for Moon Dancer while her Master and Rider prepared to continue their mission alone. Changing into the garb of lower-level servants, they waited while their host prepared the way.

“All is ready,” the man said as he entered the shelter that evening, “There is a small doorway around the north side of the compound. My son delivered some of our crops earlier and made sure to leave some fermented maize with the guard. The door will not be locked.” Xlenca glanced at Lotec and smiled. They would be ready.

The two men stood in silence beneath the darkening expanse of jungle that edged the compound. The sounds of the Barracks preparing for nightfall drifted to them over the top of the wall as they maintained their quiet vigil. Slowly activity eased to a halt within the grounds of the Great Hill Barracks. At last, the only sounds that reached their ears were the quiet murmurings of the jungle at night and the hoarse rasp of snores from the doorway. Emerging from the shadows they crept forward to the door. As the old villager had promised it was unlocked.

The hinges of the old door creaked as it swung open. Xlenca paused and stood silent until he was certain there was no reaction to the noise. Peering around the heavy wooden gate, he saw a guard slumped in a heap against the wall. Two empty clay pots lay beside him while a third rested on his stomach. Each sonorous breath that escaped his lips threatened to spill the remaining maize brew over his prostrate form and awaken him. The young Master held his breath and stepped forward.

Positioning himself carefully over the sleeping man, he reached out with both hands. The clay pot rose and fell in time with the man’s snoring. Xlenca waited until the vessel had reached the apogee of its journey and then squeezed his hands over it. The vessel was heavier than he expected and it slipped slightly.  Some of the amber brew splashed over the side and onto the guard’s abdomen. Xlenca froze. The sentry grunted, smacked his lips and rolled onto his side. In a moment he was snoring again.  The Beast Master breathed again and set the clay pot down on the ground.

Motioning to his Rider to follow, Xlenca slipped past the sleeping man into the compound. The Barrack’s square was dark and quiet. He could see two forms standing at the front gate beside a small brazier. The flickering fire gave just enough light to assure him that the sentinels were keeping their gaze fixed outside the gate. He slipped around the edge of the building and darted into the shadows with Lotec behind him. Xlenca motioned them forward towards a large squat building and they stepped through its darkened doorway.

“Where are we?” Lotec whispered as he eased the door shut behind him.

“What does your nose tell you?” The two men took in the mixture of aromas that assailed their senses. The tang of slightly moldy hay was overwhelmed by the pungent scent of manure and urine. Underscoring these were two more subtle perfumes—blood and milk, the scents most closely linked to the passage into new life. They had entered the Barracks calving barn. 

Xlenca pulled a coal from a leather bag at his waist and blew on it till it glowed red. He used it to light a small taper and looked over the holding pens. Two mastodons lay beside their young calves while a third roused herself from her bed to peer at the visitors. He could see that she was in the later stages of her pregnancy. He murmured to her softly in soothing tones until satisfied that he was not a threat she settled back onto her bed of straw.

Xlenca moved to the side wall and knelt beside a heavy beam. He handed the glowing taper to Lotec and drew his knife to dig at the base of the post. The younger man squatted beside him and watched in the dim light as Xlenca brushed straw and dirt away. The base of the post was soon revealed. It was darkened with age and penetrated by worms and insects but still strong and firm.

“What are we looking for, Master?”

“If a bull calf escaped in a fire, it would have been this building that was burnt. It would have had to be rebuilt, but this beam is over a decade old. The bull we killed was a half dozen summers old at the most. It did not escape from a fire in here.”

“Could it have been housed somewhere else?”

“That would against all traditions.”

“So that means Tagazuma was lying.”

“Yes, it means just that. We’ll check some of the other beams to confirm it.” The two men rose to their feet and had begun to move away from the wall when they heard a noise from the doorway. Snuffing the taper out, they stepped back against the wall and crouched in the shadows. A light appeared in the building as the door swung open to reveal a figure carrying a smoking torch. The intruder slipped the torch into a sconce on the wall near the entrance and then turned toward the holding pen. In the flickering firelight, Xlenca recognized the young woman who approached the pregnant mastodon. It was the servant girl who had warned him about the sun priest.

“How are you resting, Star Blossom?” Her voice was soft and musical. The mastodon did not rise but reached out with her trunk. The woman held her hands out and allowed the animal to caress her palms. She smiled as she continued to talk soothingly to the Beast. “Good. The fever has gone. Your baby will be fine, my beauty.” She stood and began to move back to the entryway. She moved with a subtle grace intensified by the sway of the torch light. Her black hair hung long and loose down her back, not braided and tied as was most usual for a servant. A stray thought crept into Xlenca’s mind as he watched from the shadows. Here was a young woman with the same joy and beauty he had once beheld in his now dead sister, Marta.

Sensing movement at his side, Xlenca glanced over to see Lotec trying to stifle a sneeze. He squeezed both hands into a tight grip over his nose while tears welled up in his eyes. He let his breath out in a slow exhale and with a nod to the young Beast Master, eased pressure on his nostril. The woman had just lifted the torch from its bracket when Lotec jerked in a sharp spasm and a small brief snort escaped from his lips. The servant girl whirled and held the torch aloft.

“Who’s there? Show yourself or I’ll call the guard.”

 Xlenca straightened up and stepped forward into the light, spreading his hands to show that he was unarmed. “Do not fear, we mean no harm.”

The woman stared forward as recognition slowly passed over her face. “You. What are you doing here?”

“We had to return to learn the truth. We believe that Master Tagazuma was not truthful.”

“What did that man tell you?” The young woman’s dark eyes flashing with anger. 

“Uh, he claimed that there had been a fire—a fire that killed a mastodon and allowed her bull calf to escape in the confusion.”. The young woman tilted her head and eyed him carefully. Xlenca tried to think of something else to say—to convince her to trust him. At last, he spread his hands and said, “Please, we need your help.”

The woman stared into his eyes for a moment before nodding. “There was never a fire. Tagazuma is a liar.”

“I knew it.” Lotec said, stepping out of the shadows. The servant girl watched him warily but held her ground. Xlenca stepped closer to her and looked into her face.

“What else can you tell me?”

“Tagazuma cannot be trusted. He would steal a moldy ear of maize from his own mother. The man is vermin.”

“Why do you hate the Barracks Master so much?”

“He’s not worthy of that title. He stole it from – from . . .” She stopped, biting her bottom lip while tears welled up in her eyes.  Her chin dropped down to her chest and she was quiet. Xlenca reached out and gently lifted her chin.  

“Tell me.”

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The Golden Conquest – Part 14

.           The great mastodon shook her head and stamped her feet against the packed earth of the trail. Xlenca leaned forward to whisper into Moon Dancer’s ear in an attempt to calm her. She had become increasingly irritable as they neared their destination and the young master had to sooth her nerves repeatedly. He reassured his new Rider that this was unusual and that Moon Dancer was merely upset by the absence of Master Tu-Tuoan. Xlenca could not but wonder if there was something else troubling the animal.

As they climbed to the Great Hill Barracks, the young Beast Master also felt a growing anxiety. There seemed to be a dark cloud over the site. The outer grounds were not as meticulously maintained as at the Red Sun compound and the jungle had encroached closer to the outer walls than was acceptable. The guards in the watch towers seemed bored and moody while the gatekeeper’s attitude bordered on surliness. Lotec had had to pound on the gate with his spear shaft to get the man’s attention and he was still slow to respond.

“Is it customary for the Barracks gate to be closed during the day?” Xlenca asked.

“It is,” the man grunted, “And we like it that way.  What do you want?”

“We wish to speak with the Master of the Great Hill Barracks and have traveled from the Red Sun to do so.”

“What’s your business?”

“Our business.” Lotec’s face grew red and his voice dropped to a low growl. “Our business is with the Master not with a servant.  Now, move aside or . . . “

Xlenca interrupted Lotec with a touch on his shoulder. “What my Rider is meaning to say, is that our mission is confidential and urgent. Please inform the Master that we are here.” As he spoke, he tapped Moon Dancer on the side and she began to slowly advance. The gatekeeper was forced to give way or risk being stepped on and the group entered the compound. The servant scurried off to find someone to deal with Xlenca’s request. Once he was out of sight the two men slid down from the mastodon’s back. For a moment they stood in silence, surveying the courtyard.

            The interior compound was better maintained but the few servants and apprentices about seemed cowed and withdrawn. They scurried along with their eyes downcast, sneaking quick peeks at the two intruders. Xlenca was surprised to notice one young woman standing by a side gate openly watching them. On perceiving his gaze, she stared at him defiantly before turning away to resume her duties. The young Master shifted his attention back to other concerns.

“Lotec, look after Moon Dancer. Please make sure that she is given fresh food and water and try not to cause any trouble—unless absolutely necessary.” The Rider’s grin was fierce and stern as he led the mastodon away. Xlenca strode forward pulling a message rope from his shoulder bag and holding his Master’s rod before him.  As he stepped up to the main building of the Great Hill Barracks the gatekeeper reappeared accompanied by an older Beast Master. The grey-haired Master waved the servant away and stepped forward with open hands.

“Greetings young sir, I apologize for your reception. We were not expecting visitors. What can I do for you?”

“I greet you also, Master. I am Master Xlenca of the Red Sun Barracks. Are you the Master of the Great Hill?”

“Oh no young sir, I am merely one of his followers. Can you tell me why you need to see Master Tagazuma?” Xlenca nodded and held out the message rope. The old man took the knotted strands and quickly scanned its fibers. The message did not reveal all the details of Xlenca’s mission but introduced him and emphasized the urgency of his visit. It also warned that a similar messenger had been dispatched to the capital. The elderly Master frowned deeply at this. Without a word, he motioned Xlenca to follow him and conducted him into the Barracks council chamber.

Two men stood hunched over a table as they entered the shuttered room. The grey-haired Master cleared his throat to announce their presence and the two looked up with a start. The taller man quickly moved to pull a cloth over the table while the second man stepped forward. His necklace of green stones and the tattoo on his left chest identified him as the Barracks Master. This must be Tagazuma. Xlenca bowed his head briefly in greeting and watched as the older master handed Tagazuma the message rope. The Master of the Great Hill took the colored strands and waved the old man away. Without even acknowledging Xlenca he turned back to his companion.  As the taller man stepped forward into the light the young Master was surprised to recognize him as a high priest of the Sun God.

While the priest surveyed the colored knots and fibers of the message Xlenca observed him carefully. Tall and fit, he stood erect with a carefully practiced dignity. His long black hair was woven into four strands, one hanging over each shoulder and two down his back. His face was smooth with high cheek bones framing an aristocratic nose, and his high forehead was covered by a golden headdress inlaid with bright jewels and bearing the image of a flaming sun. The short, feathered cape he wore completed the picture of wealth and power. The priest looked up suddenly and caught Xlenca’s stare. His eyes were as black as obsidian and as hard as flint. Xlenca suppressed a shudder and bowed a second time.

“Master Tagazuma,” the priest said, “You are being a negligent host. This young Master has traveled far and has not yet been greeted properly.”

“Huh?  Yes, all right.” The Barrack Master turned back to his visitor and gave him the briefest of salutes. “So uh, what is your name anyway?”

“I am Xlenca, Master of the Great Beast from the Red Sun Barracks, and I am sent hence by Master Quezoema with the message you hold. I am also instructed to show you this.”  He pulled out of his bag the dried ear of the dead rogue bull mastodon. Despite its worn condition, the notches in the ear remained distinct and identified its origin as the Great Hill. Tagazuma started to reach for the ear but then quickly withdrew his hand and glanced sideways at his companion.

“What is the meaning of this?  Why do you bring me carrion?”

“Do you not recognize this? It is from a rogue bull that terrorized a whole village and then killed a Great Beast and its Master. It also grievously wounded my own Master, Tu-Tuoan.”  Holding the piece of skin up, he struggled to keep his voice even. “Look at it. Can there be any doubt? This creature came from these very Barracks. How could that happen?”

“You dare to speak to me like that?” Tagazuma straightened and puffed out his chest. “I should . . .”

“You should introduce me,” the priest said stepping forward and spreading his hands. When the Barrack Master sputtered and began to redden in the face the tall man continued, “I am called Lo-Huitzlapoch and I am a priest of the Sun God here to visit my good friend. I can understand why you are upset. I have met Master Tu-Tuoan and am saddened to hear of his injury. I am sure Master Tagazuma will do all in his power to solve this mystery.” As the sun priest spoke, his cape parted and Xlenca noted the elaborate tattoo that covered his entire upper chest. It was not uncommon for priests to bear tattoos but these were usually restricted to the arms or cheeks and all were easily recognized as referring to the Sun God. This tattoo was different yet strangely familiar.

The sun priest took his companion’s arm and turned him away from the young Beast Master. Tagazuma maintained his glare at the younger man for a moment before yielding to Lo-Huitzlapoch’s pressure. He looked to the priest and lowered his eyes. Xlenca was sure that he saw a brief tremor go through the man. After a moment, the sun priest released his arm and spoke again. “Master Tagazuma, I seem to recollect a fire some time ago, in the animal pens I believe. Do you remember it?”

“What? A fire? Oh yes, the fire in the pens, I do recall that now.”

“Yes.” The sun priest’s eye fixed upon Xlenca. “The pens were almost destroyed and one or two animals were lost.”

“Animals? Yes, there were some mastodons killed I think.”

“Yes, Master Tagazuma, I recall now that a female was burned and didn’t you believe that her calf also died, a bull calf, I believe.”

The Barrack Master looked puzzled for a moment but then nodded his head vigorously. “Yes, that must be the answer.” 

“So young Master, that answers your question. I’m afraid your wild bull must have been a calf that escaped in the fire. Master Tagazuma would not have reported that the animal had escaped for he thought it was dead. Isn’t that right, my friend?”

“Yes, Lord Lo-Huitzlapoch, that is correct.” The Master’s face twisted into a smirk. “I’m sorry the animal caused so much trouble but as you see, no one was to blame. It was merely an unfortunate set of circumstances.” 

“I see,” Xlenca said.

“Come,” Tagazuma said, putting his arm around his visitor’s shoulder, “You must be weary from your long journey. I will have quarters prepared for you and your Rider.” He directed the young Master toward the entrance of the chamber, glancing back at the sun priest as he did, “I shall have a reply prepared for Master Quezoema. You will be able to take it to him when you leave.”

“Perhaps I could speak to some of your men. Someone might have more knowledge of this fire and might be able to assist further in clarifying matters.”

“I am afraid that will not be possible.” Lo-Huitzlapoch stepped forward. “The apprentice who cared for the lost mastodon and her calf perished in the fire. The other servants are no longer with the Barracks.”

“Surely there is someone.”

“No,” Tagazuma said, his voice stern, “There is not. Now, Lord Lo-Huitzlapoch and I have other business to attend to.” They reached the doorway where the waiting elderly Master led them back into the compound. Servants laden with food and drink followed as he led them to their quarters. One of them was the same young woman Xlenca had noticed earlier. She walked with the other servants but moved with an easy dignity that seemed absent the others. Once they had reached their temporary lodging the elder Master motioned for them to be seated while the simple fare was placed before them. The young woman gave them each a small bowl into which she poured water. In doing so, she leaned close to Xlenca’s ear.

“Beware of the priest,” she whispered, “And watch your back.” The young Beast Master was so startled he almost spilt his water. When he looked back up the girl was gone. He glanced at the older Master and at Lotec but it was apparent they had heard nothing. Perhaps he had misunderstood the young woman’s words, perhaps she was just a mischievous servant girl, but he felt not. There was something about her that pricked his spirit. He would be watchful.

The sun was barely peaking over the horizon when Xlenca and Lotec were roused from their sleep. While quiet almost to the point of sullenness, the apprentices and servants of the Great Hill Barracks remained efficient. Xlenca was pleased to find that Moon Dancer had been well cared for. She had been given fresh food and water and bedded down on a bed of clean straw. Her Master thanked the apprentice for his efforts but received only a grunt in return. The servant who brought them a tray of food was equally careful not to meet his gaze. Xlenca could feel that their welcome to the barracks was drawing to an end.

Master Tagazuma was not to be seen. The older Master was waiting for them with a message rope which had been prepared for them. Xlenca took the colored strands and surveyed them carefully. The message was a retelling of the story he had been told the day before. He was folding the rope and placing it in his satchel when the sun priest Lo-Huitzlapoch appeared. 

“I see you are ready to return to your own barracks. Please pass on my best wishes to Master Tu-Tuoan.” The priest held up a black amulet to the young Master. “I noticed that you had lost your talisman. No one should attempt to walk through this life without the guidance and protection of the Sun God.” His eyes flashed black and cold.  It would be most unwise to do so.”

Xlenca took the amulet in his hand without a word and climbed aboard Moon Dancer. The black stone felt cold and heavy in his hand. He could feel the sun priest’s eyes on him as they moved out through the gate and felt a chill run down his spine. His mouth turned dry and he sensed a pounding rush in his head. He stared down at the black amulet, wondering how much the man had perceived, how much he understood. As the mastodon trotted down the trail and out of the sun priest’s sight the stone seemed to grow hotter and hotter in Xlenca’s hand. A great fear gripped his heart and with a shudder he threw the idol into the underbrush.

As quickly as it had come, the sense of panic passed and a feeling of calm settled over him. A wind whispered through the trees and a heavy rain descended on them out of a sky that only moments before had been bright and cloudless. Xlenca pulled his cape more tightly about his shoulders and reached down to scratch Moon Dancer’s ear. The great beast lifted her head briefly and continued on down the trail. Xlenca glanced over his shoulder to find Lotec watching him intently. The Rider looked from Xlenca down to the black stone talisman which hung around his own neck. Without a word, he slipped it off and tucked it into his satchel. Xlenca nodded to his Rider but remained silent.

The rain had abated by late afternoon as the mastodon maintained her tireless pace along the path. The gentle sway of her gait had allowed each of her passengers to doze in turn but both were now fully awake. Soon they would seek an appropriate campsite to spend the evening before resuming their journey back to the Red Sun. Xlenca pointed down the trail, past the steep cliff that edged this part the forest track. There was a spring of fresh water only a short distance further with a pool fringed with a thick growth of green grasses that would serve well as feed for the mastodon and bedding for them all. His musings came to an abrupt halt when Moon Dancer suddenly stopped in the middle of the trail.

“What is it, girl?” Xlenca said, peering into the deep foliage. Lotec readied his spear and raised himself up on the platform. The jungle was silent and still. Not even a breath of wind stirred the branches. Moments passed but there was no sign of danger. Xlenca attempted to coax the great beast forward but the mastodon only stamped her feet. She refused to advance further.  At last Xlenca slipped down to the ground and began to lead her onward. The stillness of the air was shattered by a sudden deep rumble. The young Beast Master looked up and froze at the sight of a massive rock falling from the cliff face.

Before he could react, the mastodon reared up and spun on her hind legs. Lotec gripped the sides of his platform to keep from being spilled over the side. Xlenca’s hand was locked around Moon Dancer’s bridle and her hurried action jerked him backward like a rag doll. He grunted in pain as the immense stone struck the ground where only seconds before he had stood. A chill silence settled back over the trail.

“Are you alright?” Lotec cried as he threw himself over Moon Dancer’s side and raced to his stricken Master.

“Yes.” Xlenca grimaced as he released his grip on the heavy leather and massaged his aching limb. “Yes, I’m fine.” The great mastodon reached out with her trunk to caress his face. Smiling, he stroked her head and leaned into her massive bulk. “Thank you, Moon Dancer. You saved my life.”

Both men stared up at the edge of the cliff. Neither could detect any movement and nothing seemed out of place. Xlenca watched as Lotec moved further along the trail to a place where the cliff became only a steep hill. Reaching the top, the Rider turned and eased himself along the peak of the escarpment, clambering over rocks and pushing through dense foliage till he came to the spot overlooking Xlenca and Moon Dancer.

“I see where the stone lay.” His voice echoed through the ravine. “I don’t see any sign that anyone’s been here. No, wait.” He dropped out of site for a moment and when he arose, his face was pale and grim. Xlenca watched with fierce intensity and shifted rapidly from foot to foot as his Rider scrambled back down the hill. At last, Lotec stood before him and held out his hand.

There clutched in his fingers was something cold and hard. Xlenca started to reach out to take the small figurine but stopped as a chill tremor inched up his spine. It was an amulet of the Sun God—identical to the one that Lord Lo-Huitzlapoch had given to him, the same as the one he had cast aside. The young Master felt his mouth grow dry and his heart turn cold. He looked at the man and beast beside him and he was afraid.

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The Golden Conquest – Part 13

.           The whole encounter was over within seconds and the remainder of the troop had been unable to intervene. They moved in now, encircling the crazed bull mastodon. The Masters carefully positioned their mounts to ensure that they kept their long, curved tusks pointed at their adversary. Two of the Riders leveled their long spears and jabbed out at the animal while the others prepared their javelins. The bull spun in a circle, trumpeting madly and charged forward.  The Master he faced was prepared for the assault and his mount deftly grappled with the bull in an attempt to lock his tusks in hers. The others in the troop moved in.

            Xlenca steadied himself and readied his spear as they closed in on the bull’s rear. The two flanking teams also edged nearer and the Riders simultaneously launched their javelins.  Both weapons were well aimed and struck the bull high on his neck. Blood flowed down his neck and enraged him even further. The bull was able to shake himself free from the mastodon he had engaged and whirled to face his attackers. The animals stepped back quickly but one stumbled on a fallen tree limb and started to go down. The bull rushed ahead to attack but was blocked as Tu-Tuoan urged Moon Dancer forward.

            The bull lashed out with his trunk and tusks but his blows were blocked by Moon Dancer. Xlenca stabbed out with his spear, wounding the bull again on its neck. The beast screamed in pain and anger and reared up on hind legs. Xlenca thrust out his spear at the bull’s exposed chest, the obsidian blade cutting deeply through muscle and bone. A javelin hit the animal from the other side while the remaining Rider drove his spear into its flank. The bull shuddered and lurched forward. As it fell it struck out with its trunk one last time. The blow glanced off Tu-Tuoan and propelled him through the air.

            The bull staggered to its knees and the troop struck again with javelin and spear. Finally, it rolled onto its side and lay still.  Moon Dancer had remained between her fallen Master and his attacker but now turned toward him. Xlenca dropped his spear and slid down her side and rushed to Tu-Tuoan. The old man lay in a crumpled heap at the base of a tree. The Rider feared for the worst but as he reached the Master, the elder moaned softly. Xlenca carefully rolled him onto his side and was relieved when the old man opened his eyes.

            “Is it done?” Tu-Tuoan said in a hoarse whisper, “Is Moon Dancer uninjured?”

            “No, Master, she is fine, The fight is over. The bull is dead.” He gently laid a hand on the old man’s chest and felt the air moving easily in and out, no sign of any damage to the lungs. He carefully pushed on Tu-Tuoan’s abdomen and looked into his eyes for any sign of pain.

            “It does not hurt, my Rider,” the Master said firmly, “I just need to rest. Please check on the others.” At that moment Xlenca was joined by one of the other Masters, and reluctantly arose to turn away from the old man. He surveyed the carnage about them. The bull lay unmoving where it had fallen, a pool of dark blood collecting by its side. The female which had been wounded weakly flailed its legs in a desperate attempt to regain its feet. Xlenca could see that it was injured too severely and knew that it would not survive. Lotec and the other Riders had managed to free Master Hantuachal from under the wounded beast and had laid his corpse on a small mound of ferns. Lotec knelt by his slain Master, holding the now stilled arms and weeping unashamedly. Xlenca placed a hand on his comrade’s shoulder.

            “I failed him, Xlenca,” the Rider said, his voice shrill and high, “I should have stayed mounted to protect him and River Song. I let them down.”

            “No, you did not,” Xlenca replied, “You could not have changed the outcome. You were doing your duty.” He twisted to stare again at the injured mastodon. “There is another duty that must be done. River Song is badly hurt. She is in great pain and cannot endure. Do you wish for me to see to her?”

            “No,” the young man said tightly, “I will do it.” Lotec laid his Master’s hands carefully on the older man’s chest and arose to stand over his mount. The animal quieted as soon as he placed his hands on her great head. She fixed her eye on his and reached out to touch his arms with her trunk. 

“I am sorry, River Song. You were very brave and very good. You will always be in my heart.” Lotec proceeded to stroke the mastodon’s cheek with one hand while drawing his knife with the other. The great beast continued to watch the man’s face and a sense of peacefulness seemed to come over both of them. The stone blade of his dagger was as sharp as a razor and the animal did not flinch as he slipped the blade between the folds in her neck, severing the carotid artery. The blood flowed quickly from the cut and River Song closed her eyes. A moment later she was gone. Lotec lowered his head and wept anew.

Xlenca left his companion to his grief and strode back to where Tu-Tuoan lay. This had been a truly terrible day. Two mastodons were dead and a master killed while another lay injured. He reached for his amulets to give a quick invocation to the gods but then recalled casting the Sun God’s symbol aside. Was that why these things had happened? Was he being punished for what he had done? But why were others suffering? Why had the Sun God not attacked him but had instead allowed the others to be so grievously harmed? It made no sense.  As he approached the fallen elder, Master Quezoema arose and stepped toward him. The older man stared intently at Xlenca but did not speak.

“How is Master Tu-Tuoan, Wise One,” Xlenca at last said in respectful tones. Quezoema’s stern face looked even harder than usual.

“He is badly injured, Rider. It is his back. He cannot feel nor move his legs.”

“Will he recover?”

“No,” the Beast Master replied almost coldly, “No, he will not.” Without another word he turned away and walked to the edge of the jungle. Xlenca stood in shocked silence. Did he not care? He watched as Master Quezoema stood staring into the foliage clenched fists hanging at his side. Then he noted the odd jerking movements of the older man’s shoulders and realized with a start that he was weeping. Each member of the troop was grieving in their own fashion. Xlenca turned back toward his fallen Master.

The Riders prepared a litter of woven cloaks stretched over spear shafts and placed the injured man on the stretcher with intense care. Xlenca whistled softly to Moon Dancer who responded by stepping forward and settled to her knees. After padding the war box on her back with leaves and moss they cautiously lifted Master Tu-Tuoan into place. The old man smiled through his pain, refusing to show any sign of discomfort. While one of the younger Riders sat behind the box to stabilize the Master, Xlenca settled himself astride Moon Dancer’s neck and motioned her to her feet. The great beast floated upward with so little motion that the men did not even sway.

Xlenca sat twisted atop the mastodon, watching his Master as he lay in his nest of foliage. The old man’s eyes were closed and his breathing regular but there was a tenseness in his shoulders and arms that revealed some of his inner turmoil. Master Quezoema approached astride his beast and passed Xlenca a packet of bright green leaves.

“Rider Xlenca, have your master chew these. They will cause him to sleep.” Xlenca watched Tu-Tuoan’s body relax as the medicating plant juices began to flow into his bloodstream. Moments later Quezoema signaled the troop to begin their journey back to their barracks. As the animals moved into position, Moon Dancer snorted impatiently when Master Quezoema’s beast assumed a position at the head of the troop. It was her usual place, and sensing her discomfort, Xlenca reached down to scratch her ear and reassure her. Glancing back, the Rider realized that she was not the only one feeling lost and out of place. Lotec rode holding the shrouded body of his master. River Song had been left where she had fallen.

The troop moved down the trail in a silent, solemn procession. Even the birds and monkeys remained quiet. They had traveled a mile or two when Master Quezoema allowed his mount to fall back parallel with Moon Dancer. His face remained unyielding when he looked at Xlenca.

“I will have a task for you when we have reached the barracks.”

“Yes, Wise One.”

“I wish for you to go to the Great Hill Barracks.” 

“But . . .” Xlenca cried, catching himself at the Master’s sharp glance, “I am sorry Master Quezoema, but I hoped to be allowed to attend to Master Tu-Tuoan.” The older man’s eyes softened briefly as he glanced at the sleeping form atop the mastodon’s back but quickly hardened once again.

“The task I have for you is on his behalf. Master Tu-Tuoan will be cared for. I need you to investigate this.” Xlenca took the small packet the other man held out. He pealed back the large leaves wrapping about the package to find a bloody piece of the bull mastodon’s ear. The edge showed a series of well healed notches. Such cuts were made when the animal was a calf and were as distinctive as a tattoo.  They were the mark of a Quetzolite Barracks, the Great Hill Barracks. 

As the Rider examined the ragged piece of flesh, he realized such marks meant one thing, the bull had not been wild. Somehow the rogue mastodon had, against all convention and reason, been raised at the Great Hill Barracks and then escaped. There had been no reports of a fugitive breeding bull and the notches were not usually seen on a breeder. Inexplicably, the animal also had not been hamstrung but left whole and fit. It was troubling, and could only mean added danger.

The journey back to their barracks was slow and difficult. Master Tu-Tuoan’s injuries made travel painful and he required frequent rests. Lotec was sent ahead with the body of his slain Master to prepare for the others arrival. The rest of the troop trudged on together, a somber procession that wound its way through the countryside. Xlenca shook his head sadly when they at last passed through the gates of the barracks. It had only been few weeks since he had returned from the Sun Festival but it seemed like a lifetime. He felt that his portion of grief and sadness was too great and he wondered once again if he was being punished for rejecting the Sun God. The great god of the Ixtec could be possessive and pitiless. Had Xlenca brought this tragedy upon them? Was he to blame? Was it his doing?

He slid down from Moon Dancer and stood for a moment surveying the clearing. A warm soft light filtered down on him through the trees and gently touched his brow. He turned at the joyous sound of a birdsong. A cluster of bright flowers caught his eye for a moment and then a vivid butterfly fluttered by. Somehow, in a manner he could not explain or fully comprehend he felt some of the fear and doubt fall away. The tight constriction that had gripped his chest since the day of the battle with the rogue bull began to loosen. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes briefly. Without further thought he led Moon Dancer into the compound. There was much to do. 

He slowly led the mastodon towards Master Tu-Tuoan’s quarters where two of the older apprentices were waiting to assist the injured man. As they entered, Xlenca could see that orders had been sent to prepare for the Master’s comfort. The room’s usual spartan furnishings had been replaced with cushioned chairs and a bed with a soft mattress. The royal physician had been summoned from the capital and was even now preparing potions and ointments. Everything would be done but Xlenca feared their efforts would be in vain.

Reluctantly he left the old man when summons arrived for him to appear before the barracks council. Passing Moon Dancer’s pen, he was grateful to note that his young apprentice had already begun to clean and feed the Great Beast. The lad looked up as the young man passed and Xlenca gave him a small smile. The boy’s cheeks were wet with tears but he continued with his task.

The council chamber was dark and quiet when Xlenca entered. Three of the senior Masters of the barracks sat speaking in low tones in a corner while a fourth stood hunched over a fire pit. He straightened upon hearing the Rider’s footsteps and motioned the young man forward. It was Quezoema, looking even more grim and stone faced than usual. A worried look passed over the younger man’s face. What was wrong now? He had expected the summons to the council knowing that Quezoema planned a mission to the Great Hill Barracks. But why did that require the four most senior Masters? Quezoema remained silent and pointed to a mat in the center of the room.

Xlenca knelt as he had been ordered and watched as the four Masters formed a semicircle before him. The quartet of the elders stared at him solemnly and then in turn each gave a curt nod to their leader. At last Master Quezoema stepped forward and broke the silence, his voice gruff and firm.

“Rider Xlenca, you have served in these barracks for many years, as Initiate, Apprentice and now as Rider. You have sought the Path of Quetzol with diligence and determination. Master Tu-Tuoan has commended you to this council. You have been a most fine Rider of the Great Beast.” Pausing he turned to accept a gilded cup from one of the other elders and an ornately carved rod from another. Looking back to Xlenca, he fixed his eyes on the young man and spread his arms to hold forth the two relics.

“But no longer shall you ride the Great Beast. Those days have departed from you forever. Now the council invites, no, commands that you put down the tools of the Rider and accept the Rod of the Master.”

Xlenca was speechless. Mutely he accepted the ancient black scepter, his fingers closing tight over the worn carvings. The gilded cup was held out to him and he received it with his free hand. Lifting it to his lips, he drank deeply of the hot bitter cocoa mixture. The sacred drink sealed his elevation in rank. He felt a heavy cloak of bright feathers being placed on his shoulders. Other hands lifted him to his feet and directed him to the door of the council chamber.  Stepping back into the bright sunshine he was greeted by a roar of approval. The members of the Red Sun Barracks saluted their newest Master of the Great Beast.

Still confused and surprised, Xlenca greeted each person with a short bow as they passed before him; the Initiates, wide eyed and more than a bit frightened, the Apprentices awed and excited by the ceremony, the Riders pleased and perhaps even jealous of their former comrade and lastly, the Masters, welcoming him into their fellowship. After the procession had ended, servants appeared bearing trays of food and drink. The barracks often dined together but today they would feast to honor Xlenca’s promotion. As the celebration began Quezoema took the younger man’s arm and lead him aside.

“I see this surprised you. That is good. Humility is a valuable asset for a Master.” Xlenca was astonished to note a slight smile cross the elder’s visage as he continued, “It is also sometimes lacking in my—our compatriots. Walk with me.”  he barracks youngest Master followed the older man through the courtyard. The sounds of revelry continued unabated behind them as they approached the mastodon pens. The great animals were seemingly unaffected by the excitement around them. One beast however was restless and crowded against her enclosure as they approached. The sight of the two men brought a loud trumpet from her and Xlenca quickly stepped forward to stroke Moon Dancer’s head and ears.

“This is one of the reasons for your elevation. Master Tu-Tuoan will likely never be fit to lead a Great Beast again. He felt that you and you alone would be fit to assume mastery over Moon Dancer. I agree.”

This was most unusual, Xlenca knew. It was most common that a newly made Master be given a calf to raise and train, thus forging the bonds between man and animal which would allow them to function together. If a Master was killed or became ill, his mount was usually retired or used for breeding purposes. Only rarely did another assume care of the animal and then only if a senior Master was available. Never would such a responsibility be given to one so young or junior. It was even more unexpected as Moon Dancer was the matriarch of their herd.

Xlenca’s thoughts seemed to fly in all directions. Fear, apprehension and doubt swept over him but as the mastodon nuzzled against his shoulder, they were replaced with determination and confidence. 

Master Quezoema spoke again. “The Path needs Moon Dancer still . . . and she needs you. The council is satisfied to follow Master Tu-Tuoan’s leading in this manner. You also must make a decision.  Who would you have as Rider?”

“Lotec,” the young man blurted out, almost without thought. But yes, Lotec was who he would wish to have share in Moon Dancer’s care and direction. “That is if you and the council should agree. I think that Rider Lotec would do.”

“Very well, I have no objection. I will inform the council of your decision. I will leave you now. You may wish to return to the celebration.”

“If it is alright Master Quezoema, I would most like to visit Master Tu-Tuoan.” As the elder gave a nod of approval, Xlenca turned and hurried to his former master’s quarters. He still needed the old man’s help and council. He needed his assurance that the council had made the right decision.

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The Golden Conquest – Part 12

.           The fierce rays of the rising sun touched the cold stones with a golden glow. The young warrior felt a shudder go through his body as the first rivulets of dark red blood began to flow down the side of the temple. The temple guards lifted another sacrifice onto one of the stone altars, holding him firmly in place. Like the rest of the men his arms were bound at his sides and his eyes were glazed from the effects of the drug he had been given. The priest moved quickly, grabbing a handful of hair and forcing the victim’s head back to expose his throat. Dramatically he held the glistening obsidian blade aloft and then slashed downward, severing both carotid arteries in one motion. The blood spurted forth to be caught in an ornately carved stone bowl and funneled into a channel that began its course down the front of the pyramid. The knife flashed again, cutting deeply into the still heaving chest. The priest reached in to rip out the sacrifice’s heart and turned to toss it into the fire blazing at the center of the platform.

            Greasy black smoke curled upward into the azure sky as Xlenca looked away. His gaze traveled down the score of prisoners inching forward towards the altar. Some were Aztec warriors captured in the last war, others were criminals condemned to death, and a few were slaves who had proved unprofitable. The last in the line was different. She was a young girl, just approaching womanhood and she stood erect and proud at the end of the procession. While the others were naked but for a loincloth, she was dressed in an ornately embroidered robe and wore a cloak and headdress of bright multi-colored feathers. While the men’s arms were tied tightly with leather thongs, her hands were free and held a bouquet of flowers. Her eyes too were different. No drug had dulled them and even from this distance, Xlenca could tell they were bright with fear. She was his sister.

            Xlenca knew that he should be proud. It was a great honor to his family that his sister had been selected for sacrifice at the winter’s solstice. It was the most important ceremony of the year and the only one requiring a virgin maiden. The People believed that this was needed to heal the Sun God of his wasting illness and bring him back to full strength. They also believed that this outpouring of blood would keep him satisfied and content for the full year and ensure good fortune for the People. Oh, there were other sacrifices, on the summer solstice and on the Day of Quetzol, but these were much smaller and restricted to prisoners. The People or Ixtec, as the other tribes called them, were pleased that they were not bloodthirsty savages like the Aztec or the Mayan had been. They were civilized.

            Xlenca continued to watch as his young sister moved closer to the knife wielding priest. Why she had been picked he could never know. The whole process was secretive and supposedly random. No family was ever allowed to be honored more than once. The selection brought great prestige to the family and could elevate the household to a higher class. The young man knew his father was pleased, for coupled with his own rank as a Third Degree Quetzolite it virtually ensured the family receiving nobility status. Xlenca did not care and guessing by the muffled sob to his left, neither did his mother. Marta continued to shuffle forward to her doom.

            She was so young and so full of life. She loved to tease and was constantly chiding him for being too serious. The boys of the village were all smitten with her and continually strove for her attention. She would have none of them.  Her big brother was ever her hero and the one she always sought out. He wished he could truly be her hero now and save her. Xlenca saw a slight shudder go through her slim body as she stepped into the firm grasp of the temple guards. Their eyes locked for a moment and he saw her trembling lips shape themselves into a smile, for him. And then the guards turned her about and laid her down onto the altar. Xlenca could not watch but lowered his head. A single tear fell from his eye.

            His duties did not allow him to stay with his family for long and he found no enthusiasm for the feasts and festivities which typically followed the sacrifices of the winter solstice. As soon as they had returned to their home Xlenca bid a hasty farewell to his family, delaying only to weep silently with his mother and remaining sister. All three used the pretense of his parting to grieve but it was not the reason for their sadness. Ma-Zena especially seemed wounded by the morning’s events and told Xlenca she wondered why chance had spared her but taken her younger sibling.

            “Be brave, Little Bird,” Xlenca said in a whisper, “Look after Mother and do not let her heart grow too heavy.”           

            “Do not worry, Big Brother.” Her voice was strong and, though her lip trembled, her dark eyes flashed. “I will watch over her. I will not leave her side.” Despite his sadness, the young man had to smile at the determination in her final statement. Ma-Zena was of an age to be wed, and their father would no doubt try to use their newly elevated status to arrange a favorable marriage. But Xlenca knew that there was great strength in his sister’s slight frame. She would resist any attempt to remove her from the family home. Giving his sister and mother one last embrace, he turned and strode down the path leading away from the house.

            Turning a corner in the trail he was surprised to find his father waiting for him. The old man was still tall and straight. His black hair might be shot through with grey but his eyes remained bright and clear. There was something else in them now however. For the first time he could remember Xlenca noted sadness and regret in his father’s eyes. The old man did not immediately speak but fell in beside his son and walked along with him. They had gone a score of paces when he paused to face the younger man.

            “I will not show disrespect to the memory of my daughter with tears. I know that the ways of our people can be hard but they have served us well and we must trust in them.” When Xlenca remained silent, his father continued, “I loved my Little Flower and I will miss her.” His voice broke momentarily but he gritted his teeth. “Your mother will grieve and that is acceptable. But you and I must keep our heads high. The People have honored us greatly this day. We must accept that honor and move on.”

            “Why?” the younger man said, fighting to control his voice, “Why must we accept it?”

            “Xlenca!  Do not forget yourself.  Do not forget your position amongst the People and what you owe them.”

            “Owe them? The priests took my sister today. They took her and they cut her throat. I think that I’ve paid enough. No father, I owe nothing. Not to the People and not to you.” Without another word he spun about and ran down the trail. He paused at a bend in the trail and glanced back. He saw his father turn with head bowed and shoulders drooping. As the old man trudged back to the house, he seemed to shrink slowly into himself.  Xlenca hesitated and then hurried on.

            The young warrior barely noticed the passage of time as his feet carried him over the trail back to his barracks. A heavy blanket of sadness enveloped him as memories tumbled down through his mind like water over the edge of a cliff. He had been five summers old when his second sister was born to be held aloft to the rising sun by his father. She had tried to toddle down the trail after him two years later when he had left for his initiation ceremony at the barracks. His acceptance as a Quetzolite novice meant that he spent much time away from home, but Marta had always welcomed his visits with joyous shouts and kisses. Her exuberant spirit made her the center of their little abode, but the selfless love she exhibited ensured that there was never a hint of jealousy amongst the siblings.

            Xlenca knew that his mother would especially feel the loss of little Marta. There had been other pregnancies he knew but each had ended in miscarriage or stillbirth. And each time it was Marta who comforted their mother and encompassed her with her love. Now it was Marta who was gone, and the nature of her passing meant that instead of grieving the family must rejoice in the Sun God’s selection of their Little Flower and accept the honor and glory this would bring. The young man could feel no joy, no pride, only regret and sadness.

  Xlenca stopped in the middle of the trail as his hand absent mindedly reached for the talismans hanging about his neck. Three leather thongs held three different stone images. The first and simplest was a dull grey rock bearing the figure of a prancing monkey. It identified his clan and family. The second was a glossy black stone carved in the fierce likeness of the Sun God, the chief god of his people. The third was a strange greenish pebble bearing no image. None was needed as the stone together with the broad tattoo covering his left breast clearly identified him as a Quetzolite, a Rider of the Beast. He stared with unblinking eyes at the three icons. His family was his foundation, something he could never forget. His profession was who he was and all that he knew. With a sharp jerk of his hand he snapped the other of the leather strands. For a moment he held the black idol in his clenched fist. Silently, he dropped the icon by the side of the path and walked on.

            His eyes were dry when Xlenca reached the barracks some days later. He had traveled through night and day almost nonstop and the sun was approaching its zenith as he came into the valley. From the top of a ridge he could overlook the cluster of stone buildings in the center of the broad shallow basin, the Barracks of the Red Sun, Keepers of the Path of Quetzol. He raised both hands to salute the sentries in their watch towers and continued through the open gates. As he passed the thick stone walls, he glanced at the pillars lining the pathway and noted once again the rows of names listed on them—names of generations of Masters and Riders. He stopped for a moment to stare at the spot on which his own name had been carved. Someday perhaps the designation of Master would be added to his name.

            A voice called to him and he turned to see a boy running toward him, bare feet slapping against the packed earth. In spite of himself Xlenca had to smile as the boy skidded to a stop in front of him, almost falling in a tangle of gangly limbs. The lad caught himself and bowed in an attempt to show the proper formalities of greeting.

            “Rider Xlenca,” the youngster said as he tried to slow his breathing, “You are back. Master Tu-Tuoan left word that you should come to him upon your return.”

            “Very well my apprentice, lead on.” Xlenca smiled at the boy. At ten years of age he had just entered the second level of the Path of Quetzol and was now officially apprenticed to Xlenca and Master Tu-Tuoan. Just as had the two older men, the youngster must now put aside childhood things and spend the majority of his time at the barracks far away from home and family. Marta had wept on the day Xlenca had graduated from Initiate to Apprentice but had bravely kissed him goodbye. She knew what it meant to him and accepted it without complaint. The memory now brought a fresh wave of sadness to him.

              The young man paused as they passed the pens and sheds that dominated the center of the compound. Leaning close to the chest high stone fence he gave a low whistle and listened intently. He whistled a second time and heard a rustling sound from within the enclosure’s outbuilding in reply. Xlenca smiled as the doorway of the thatch hut was filled by a familiar shape. The Great Beast let out a snort of recognition and ambled forward to stare into his eyes.  Gently she reached out and wrapped her trunk around the Rider’s shoulders. The Great Beast was a mastodon, a creature from a line stretching back to a pair the founders of the People had captured and tamed many centuries before.

            “Hello, old one.” The young man grinned and reached up to scratch behind a great ear. “I missed you also. It is good to see you again.” The mastodon closed her eyes in pleasure and stamped her feet. Xlenca ran his hands down her jaw line and under her neck, searching for burrs and biting insects. He had been caring for the old mastodon for years and was not yet fully confident in his apprentice’s ability to maintain her health. She turned her head slightly to stare with one great brown eye into his two. As ever before, a subtle message of love and understanding passes between them. She seemed to recognize the grief he was carrying and nuzzled him again with her trunk. For a moment the young man leaned his head against the mastodon’s only to have his reverie broken by an urgent tugging on his arm.

            “Rider,” the boy said, “Please come. The Master is waiting.” Xlenca nodded and followed the lad, glancing one last time at the mastodon. She stood taller than a man at the shoulder, her body covered with thick coarse hair now turning grey from its original reddish brown. Her long, curved tusks, the tips covered with heavy leather caps, were yellowed with age but remained wickedly sharp. She waved her trunk after the departing humans and flapped her smallish ears. She was the oldest mastodon in the herd and was its matriarch. Her name was Moon Dancer.

            Xlenca and the young boy continued to hurry through the compound. They entered the main building to find a grey-haired man seated cross legged on a woven mat. The elder was staring at rope of multi-colored strands interspersed with a complex array of knots and twists. The seemingly random array of knots and colors were actually a clear and readable form of writing. The old man seemed troubled by the message, a deep frown creasing his weathered face. At the sound of their approaching footsteps however, he looked up and smiled. 

            “Welcome back, Xlenca,” he said, “Thank you for bringing him so quickly, young one. Now I believe Moon Dancer needs to be fed. Would you please attend to the Great Beast’s needs?” As the apprentice bowed and scurried off, the old man turned his eyes back to Xlenca. “You did not stay for the feasts or for the solstice festivals?” The Rider only shook his head in reply and stared down at the ground. Tu-Tuoan rose from the mat and stepped forward to place a gnarled hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “I heard that the priests had selected your sister for the ceremony. I share your grief.”

            Xlenca jerked his head up in surprise. He had expected another admonishment to be proud, to accept joyously the honor the temple guardians had granted to his family, not recognition of his sadness. His voice broke as he spoke, “I—I don’t understand. Why do you . . . speak so?”

            “Why?” The old man’s smile was tinged with sadness. “You did not think you were the first to ever lose a loved one to a random drawing of lots by the priests of the Sun God, did you?” He paused and stared into the distance. “Did you not ever wonder why I had never wed? There was a girl once. She was fourteen summers old and I loved her. She too was ‘honored’ just as was your Marta. She too was . . . so young, so beautiful.” He lifted his hand in the sunlight as if trying to catch a beam of light in his palm. “So long ago.” Tu-Tuoan shook himself and straightened his shoulders. “Grieve, weep if you must but do not forget your duty. Look at this.” He handed Xlenca the knotted strands.

            The Rider was not as adept as his master at discerning the encoded message but he nonetheless quickly grasped the older man’s concern. A village to the south had reported that their crops were being ravaged by a rogue mastodon. If the report was true then the situation would have to be dealt with quickly. There were no known wild or missing animals but such occurrences had happened, though rarely, in the past.  The mastodons were never fully domesticated but were rather controlled through their close relationships with the men who served as their riders and masters. It was a relationship forged through years of companionship which began at the time of the animal’s birth and it was only broken by the death of the mastodon or of the Master. 

Only the legendary Quetzol, the founder of the Path, had ever been able to manage more than one mastodon and only he had ever taken a bull mastodon for his animal. Since his day, all others had taken only female animals. Most male calves were culled from the herd and the few bulls reserved for breeding purposes were kept confined in strict isolation. The Great Council of the Quetzolite Path required that all such beasts be hamstrung to reduce the chance of escape. Even so, a bull mastodon was a fierce and dangerous creature easily enraged and inclined to wanton destruction. If such a beast were rampaging through the countryside, their work would be difficult and potentially deadly. Xlenca welcomed the mission. It was a chance to set aside his grief and fix his mind elsewhere. His face was set and grim when he looked again at Master Tu-Tuoan.

“When do we leave?”

The thudding tread of the mastodons echoed through the trees, dispelling even the morning mist. Chattering monkeys fled before their approach while brightly colored birds watched unmoving from the treetops. The troop was rapidly approaching their destination.  Master Tu-Tuoan raised his rod to call the force to a halt and with a spry dexterity surprising for a man his age scrambled to stand atop Moon Dancer’s great head. Holding his hand out to call for quiet the old man closed his eyes in deep concentration. Even the mastodons sensed the need for silence and stood immobile. After a moment the Master settled back astride Moon Dancer’s neck and waved the troop forward.

Xlenca like the other Riders was perched within a box-like structure tied upon the mastodon’s back. None of the men were armored as they would have been for war but all were armed with an array of weapons. Xlenca held a long spear tipped with a keenly sharp blade of obsidian while a woven basket at his side held a clutch of javelins. He tensed now and gripped his spear more tightly as they moved forward. The other masters directed their mounts to flank Tu-Tuoan’s and the five beasts moved onward through the underbrush. Moments later they burst into a large clearing to survey a scene of destruction. The group paused briefly and again advanced in order.

It had been a small village, only a score of huts and pens surrounded by fields of maize and vegetables.  The buildings had been torn asunder and the crops crushed and trampled. It was obvious from the mayhem that the villagers had been fortunate to have escaped unharmed. The message Tu-Tuoan had received had indicated that the inhabitants of the small settlement had heard something large and ferocious approaching through the jungle and had fled. The decision had no doubt saved lives but it also meant that the Beast Riders were advancing against an unknown danger.

The quintet of mastodons moved forward in loose formation, their great heads swinging from side to side and their ears perked up in apprehension. The Masters stroked the creature’s sides and spoke softly to maintain calm control. The Riders gripped their weapons more tightly. Xlenca hoped that it would not be a mastodon that they found. He dreaded the thought of having to kill one. The mastodon herds had never been large and the numbers had been greatly reduced during the People’s wars against the Aztec. Once there had been some ten barracks scattered throughout the territories but now there were only three.

            The troop passed through the clearing and entered the jungle that encroached on the far side of the village. Smashed trees and crushed underbrush gave silent testament to the comings and goings of a large creature. As they approached a small stream one of the Masters, an older man named Hantuachal, called a halt so his Rider Lotec could leap down to inspect some tracks in the muddy soil. Though partially obscured by an overlay of the spoor of smaller animals, there could be no doubt that a mastodon had traveled through the area. Lotec crossed to the opposite side of the creek and pointed out more, fresher prints. One footfall had snapped off a small sapling.  Its broken bark was still green and its heartwood moist. The Beast they followed had passed this way only recently.

            Lotec’s head jerked up suddenly as a crashing came from the jungle next to him. An immense bull mastodon burst through the underbrush and charged forward. The Rider barely had time to roll out of its path before the Beast slammed into Hantuachal’s mastodon. Lotec’s Master desperately tried to turn his mount but reacted too slowly and the bull’s wickedly sharp tusks struck the mastodon’s side. The blow was deflected by the heavy boiled leather armor draped over her flanks but the bull twisted his head and tusks were thrust forward. One dug a deep gouge in the female’s cheek while the second caught her behind the jaw and dug deeply into the soft flesh. 

            Blood poured from the wound and the mastodon bellowed in pain. She turned sharply in an anxious attempt to escape the pain. In doing so, she trapped the bull’s tusk under her jawbone.  The bull shook his head viciously almost pulling the weakening mastodon from her feet. Suddenly the entrapped tusk snapped halfway up its length and the two beasts were flung apart.  The wounded mastodon spun away but stumbled and fell, pinning her master beneath her massive bulk. The enraged bull lunged out again, goring the female’s exposed underbelly and causing her to roll. Master Hantuachal was crushed.

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The Golden Conquest – Part 11

In the weeks that followed the settlement took shape rapidly. Cortes conferred with his captains and made plans with the assistance of his native allies. Father Garcilosa and Henrico continued to be kept busy learning the indigenous languages with the assistance of Cortes’ two interpreters. The sailor from Cuba was soon surpassed by the two clerics and they spent more time being tutored by the native woman. Her name was Malitzin and the three of them were soon able to converse. Her own grasp of Spanish improved daily and she soon could share her own dialect which she told them was called Mayan. Malitzin was able to instruct and assist the two clerics as they studied the Cempoalan tongue, a variant of Mayan. She also brought to them an assistant, an older Cempoalan named Txella. He promised to help her teach them the language of the empire to the west; the language of the Ixtec.

Father Garcilosa and Txella were waiting by a fire on the beach when Henrico carried their evening meal to them. They had grown increasingly skilled at conversing with each other as the days had passed and the elderly native had informed them of the history of the region. The Ixtec were a powerful people who only a few years before had defeated the Cempoalans’ previous masters, the Aztec, in a fierce and bloody war. He told the clerics that his people had always been a subject people and were hoping that the Spaniards would finally help them to cast off their yoke. Txella did not believe that that would happen.

“You should gone,” he spat, picking through his stew, “Ixtec too strong. Swat you like man swat fly.”

“Why do you say that, Txella?” the priest said, “Cortes is strong also. He has his horses and his muskets.”

“Noise-That-Kills strong yes but Ixtec more. Ixtec have the Beasts.”

            “What do you mean? What are the Beasts?”

            “Do not listen to him,” Malitzin said, joining the trio, “He is old and foolish. He tells lies and old stories.” She rattled off a string of Mayan to Txella so rapidly that Henrico and the priest could not follow. Txella scowled at her and spat again.

Malinche! You traitor own people. Txella hope Ixtec catch you. Feed you to Beasts.” 

The woman reached out to strike him but the old warrior easily blocked her arm. Taking his meal with him he rose and left the group, a sly smile on his face. Malitzin shook her fist after him and sunk to the ground beside the two clerics.

            “My people.” Her voice dripped with bitterness. “I have none. Only Hernan cares for me. He is my family, my tribe.” Henrico watched her in fascination. She was not beautiful by European standards but she moved with a catlike grace that attracted attention to her. She had a raw sensuality which she seemed to be able to turn on at will and which captivated the men. She had certainly captivated Hernan Cortes. Henrico felt drawn to her as well, seeing in her a kindred spirit. She too had no family and no home to call her own. But it seemed that she at least had the affection of their commander.

            “What do you know about this Beast of which Txella spoke?” Father Garcilosa said.

            She turned and spat on the ground before replying. “Ha, is old woman’s story to frighten children. Txella is old fool. Do not worry. Hernan is strong and powerful. Cempoalans are right to call him Noise-That-Kills for he will kill all who try to stop him.” With that pronouncement, Malitzin rose and walked away, shaking her long black hair loose as she did. She glanced back over her shoulder and catching him watching her, flashed a saucy smile at the young Benedictine. Henrico felt his face grow red and quickly looked away.

            “Beware of her, my son,” the priest said, “Temptation comes in many guises.” The novice stared at him grimly.

            “You don’t like any of my friends.”

            “I will admit that I am concerned. This young woman, Malitzin, has had a difficult life and she needs to learn of the love of Christ. But a young man should not be the one to attempt to teach her. She has learned to use her body to survive and is willing to set aside any pretense of morality.”

            The novice dropped his chin to his chest and gritted his teeth. “Who has any morals?  Who really cares?”

            “Henrico, my son, what is troubling you?” The priest knelt beside the lad and grasped both shoulders, forcing him to look him in the face. Henrico shook off his grip and rose to his feet.

            “There’s no one, don’t you see, no one I can trust. It’s all been a lie. My so-called brothers, the man I thought was my father, even my mother. Everyone.” He stared up at the sky, a majestic canopy of diamond studded velvet.  “I don’t know who I am anymore. I don’t know who He is anymore.” Without another word he turned and ran into the darkness. As he reached the tree line, he glanced back. The priest had shifted on his knees and bowed his head in prayer.

            The expedition was on the move. Leaving a skeleton crew to maintain and protect the settlement, Cortes led the rest of his men westward. He rode at the front of the vanguard with the other mounted soldiers. Having learned that the natives had never seen a horse before, he felt that such a display of martial prowess would go far to winning any battle. The remaining infantry together with their native allies brought up the rear. Henrico marched for a time beside a group of men laboring to keep an artillery piece moving but soon cast around for other company. He spotted d’Amarco riding a short distance ahead and ran to catch up. 

            The young man’s enthusiasm diminished when he approached the courtier. Riding beside the aristocrat was a stern black robed figure, Brother Sebastian. Henrico had almost forgotten about the Dominican. It was unfortunate that he hadn’t stayed in Cuba. Still, Henrico was excited to see d’Amarco again. The novice was about to step forward when he was dismayed to recognize the other men with the two horsemen. Montoya and his two cohorts.

            How could Ponce d’Amarco, someone whom he had thought was his friend, accept the presence of such villains? Had the Dominican ordered it? But why would d’Amarco acquiesce even then? He had crossed blades with these ruffians and now he rode beside them as if they were old comrades. Henrico tasted the bitterness of disappointment. Silently he dropped back and fell in beside Father Garcilosa. The priest gave him a warm smile and Henrico had to admit that he at least seemed to care. Was he perhaps the only one who did?

            The army marched on through the day. Progress was slow for though there was a trail it was narrow and rough. It was not a true road and the Spanish forces often delayed to clear debris or even widen the trail to allow the artillery to proceed. Henrico noted that the journey seemed especially hard on Father Garcilosa. It appeared that his old leg wound was troubling him and he began to limp more and more as the day drew on. Henrico left him for a moment and commandeered one of the pack animals. By hoisting some of the gear onto his shoulders, he was able to make enough room on the mule to allow the priest a chance to ride and rest his injured limb. The older cleric expressed his gratitude at the thoughtfulness.

            The Spanish force continued on through the heat of the late afternoon.  The men remained in good spirits, laughing and trading stories of the wealth they would soon share. When the Cempoalan allies informed him of a large clearing with fresh pools of water a short distance ahead, Cortes ordered his captains to tell the army that they would make camp in a short time.  With the news, Father Garcilosa announced that his leg felt rested and elected to step down off the mule. The two clerics were walking beside each other when their attention was captured by an uproar at the head of the column. Their curiosity quickly turned to apprehension as they heard the sound of musket fire.

            The troops rushed ahead dropping their packs and pulling out their weapons as they ran. Henrico raced behind the soldiers while Father Garcilosa struggled to keep up. The Spanish infantry were excited at the prospect of combat against another primitive foe. Even as they ran, Henrico heard some call out confident boasts.  Hurry, men called, or the fighting would be over before they reached it. Their headlong rush was suddenly slowed when they encountered troops falling back from the front of the battlefield.  In growing confusion, the soldiers began to hesitate.

            Then a group of riderless horses came plunging down the trail. The animal’s eyes were wide with fear as they bolted through the mass of men. Some of the troops attempted to grab trailing reins but the horses snapped and kicked at them and raced on. More soldiers broke out of the underbrush in full flight. The captain of the company Henrico was with attempted to rally his men but they turned and fled with the others. The army was in full retreat, routed by an as yet unseen opponent. Henrico stood stunned by the turn of events, not knowing what to do. He grabbed the arm of a fleeing soldier to ask what was happening but the man shook off his arm and continued to run.

            The young Benedictine turned to hear a heavy crashing sound coming toward him from the jungle. The ground itself seemed to tremble as the noise came closer. Henrico stepped backwards his mouth falling open as an immense dark shape could be seen approaching through the dense brush. His foot caught on a vine and he fell back striking his head on a fallen log.  Stunned, he attempted to rise but his vision swam and blurred before his eyes. He saw a huge brownish grey form burst from the trees before him and then he lapsed into darkness.

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The Golden Conquest – Part 10

“You!  What on earth are you doing here?”

“Stefano, my brother.” The young man’s grin was wide, his eyes bright. “It is you. Oh, praise God. I didn’t know when I would ever see you again. It’s so wonderful to see you, brother.”  He moved to hug his sibling but Stefano stiffly avoided the embrace.

“I said, what are you doing here? You should be back at the monastery. You weren’t expelled, were you?”

“No. No, I—I mean—uh—I am here with Father de la Vega. We are going with Senor Cortes to the new lands to . . .”

“Don’t be a fool, boy. The western lands are no place for a school boy. Go back to Spain.  Go back to your books and parchments.”

“Why are you saying this, Stefano? We are brothers, family. Aren’t you at all happy to see me?”

The soldier’s eyes narrowed as he lowered his voice. “We were never family. We lived together only because father said so. But he’s dead now and the pretense is over.”

“But our mother . . .”

“Your mother, not mine.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“Listen, brat.” Stefano stepped close, his voice tight and angry. “It’s time you knew the truth. Your mother was his second wife. He kept us from telling you—made us accept you as part of the family, always favored you, but he’s not here now. And neither is Joaquin. Our big brother wouldn’t let us tell you even at the funeral. Well, I’m tired of lies.”

“You mean . . . we’re half-brothers?” Stefan gave a sharp laugh and shook his head.

“I’m not even sure of that. There were rumors. Your mother was quite pretty and, well, Father was away a lot. Who knows whose little bastard you really are?”

Henrico felt as if he had been struck. He stood dazed, staring at his brother’s face without speaking. He felt as if the ground beneath his feet was crumbling away. The smirk on Stefano’s face faded but his eyes remained hard. 

“Go,” he said, “Go back to Spain.” 

The young Benedictine spun away and stumbled out of the hall. His eyes stung and he fought against a sob that spilled from his throat.  A grim tightness constricted his chest till he felt as if he could not breathe. He ran down the hill, not thinking or seeing where he went and wandered the darkened streets in confusion. He looked up suddenly at the sound of a barking dog and realized he did not know where he was. In dejected silence he slumped against a stone wall while his thoughts raced back to his childhood. There had always been a distance between himself and his brothers that he had never understood, a barrier that kept them apart. His father seemed to care for him but was often aloof and sometimes harsh. The love he had known had come from his mother. She had been his rock and now even that seemed threatened. Who could he trust? Who could he turn to? 

A crash of breaking glass shook him from his stupor and he looked up to see three figures approaching out of the shadows. The first finished draining a bottle of wine and following the lead of his comrade threw it against the stone wall. Henrico scrambled to his feet as the men stepped into the light. Montoya. The novice shrunk back and attempted to move aside. Too late. The men recognized him and moved to block his escape.

“I’ve been looking for you, monk.” Montoya’s words were slurred by the wine, his face creased in a cruel sneer.  He stepped forward and pulled a long-bladed knife from his belt. “It’s time for one more dance, boy and this will be the last one.” 

Henrico held out his hands, palms upright and began to back away. “I’m unarmed. Just leave me be.”

“Oh, we’ll leave you alright . . . in the gutter.” Montoya looked past him for a moment and jerked his head. “Felipe, don’t let him past.” 

The novice glanced behind him to see that the seaman had picked up the broken bottle and moved between the wall and the street. Edging back to his right Henrico found that way blocked by Cordoba. The bully grinned as he smacked a cudgel against his hand. The Benedictine was surrounded and trapped.

“There’s three of you,” he said, desperation making his voice shrill, “Are you afraid to face me alone?” 

Montoya laughed and waved his companions back. He stepped ahead, weaving the knife before him. The blade slashed through the air but the monk leapt back out of reach. Montoya circled to his left and lunged forward. Henrico side stepped and struck out his fist. Pain shot through his hand but the stabbing ache was overcome by the satisfying crunch his fist made against the sailor’s face. The sailor staggered back, blood streaming from his broken nose. He wiped the blood with his hand and swore.

“Bastard, you’ll suffer for that.” He stabbed out again with his knife. Henrico darted back but stumbled on a loose stone.  The seaman was on him in an instant, hacking at his throat. The Benedictine threw an arm up to block the blow and screamed as the blade cut into his flesh. Gritting his teeth, he punched Montoya in the face once again and rolled away. The two combatants, each bloodied now, clambered back to their feet and continued to circle each other warily. Henrico looked around, frantic to escape. With Felipe on one side and Cordoba on the other, he could see no way out and nothing he could use as a weapon. Montoya advanced once again.

“Would you gentlemen mind if I joined the festivities,” a voice called from the shadows. Ponce D’Amarco stepped into the light drawing his sword as he did. “Really, Henrico, it seems I am always interrupting your fun.”

“You’re not wanted here, d’Amarco.” Montoya glared at the nobleman and swore. “This is not your affair.”

“Ah, but I’ve decided to make it so.”

“What kind of game do you think you’re playing? You can’t have things both ways.” 

“I suggest.” The young aristocrat’s voice took on a hard edge. “That you and your—ah, friends leave . . . now!” He lifted his sword slowly. Felipe had been moving stealthily closer and suddenly lunged forward with the broken bottle. D’Amarco parried the strike easily with the flat of his blade and pounded the hilt into his attacker’s face. The man crumpled to the ground with a groan. Raising his sword once again, he spoke again. “As I said, it’s time for you to go.”

“You bastard,” Montoya cursed, “You know what the Dom . . .” His words were cut off as the courtier’s blade whipped out, the tip coming to rest against the bully’s neck. D’Amarco’s smile was grim.

“Enough talk. Save your breath while you still can and leave this place.”

Snarling with anger the sailor backed away. Motioning Cordoba to help their fallen comrade, he sheathed his knife, and slunk back into the shadows.

“This isn’t over,” he called as they slipped away, “I swear it’s not.”

D’Amarco stood for a moment till he was sure they were gone and then turned to the injured monk. Returning his sword to its scabbard, he inspected Henrico’s wound. The courtier pulled out a silken cloth from his doublet and skillfully bound the cut. “There, I think you’ll survive.”

Henrico’s face was pale and a sheen of sweat covered his brow. He felt chilled and fevered at the same time. He started to step away but staggered and almost fell. D’Amarco steadied him with one arm and then stooped to pick up the bottle of wine Cordoba had dropped.

“Come, my friend,” his rescuer said with a whisper, “You need to rest. My inn is not far.”  Slipping his arm under the Benedictine’s uninjured one he supported him as they walked down the street. Henrico nodded his assent and glanced at the aristocrat. There was something almost cynical on the man’s face for a moment. A wave of nausea forced his eyes to the ground as the quiet blackness of the night closed in after them.

Father Garcilosa sat on the edge of his bed and prayed in the moonlight. The weeks in Cuba had passed slowly and he had watched Henrico become sullen and withdrawn. The priest knew something had happened the night of the Governor’s fiesta but not all of it. Something was troubling the lad. He did his work diligently but without joy. A spark had gone out of the young monk. The priest was not sure what had happened. It had to be more than the fight with Montoya. He hoped Henrico would open up to him and share his troubles. In the interim, Father Garcilosa would continue to pray.

Other thoughts came to his mind. Captain Quintero was also disheartened. He had been unable to find a cargo to take back to Spain.  The captain had shared with Father Garcilosa his concerns about his crew. He feared not for their safety but with losing them to others. The longer they lingered in port the more stories they heard of the wealth and splendor of the lands to the west. And the more they were tempted to join Cortes on his expedition. The priest shook his head slowly as his reflections and prayers turned to Cortes.

Tensions between the charismatic general and the island’s governor were growing. Cortes had judged it best to increase the distance between them and had moved his base out of Havana. For reasons Garcilosa did not understand, he had taken Brother Sebastian and d’Amarco with him. Once in his own camp the soldier began take on more and more authority, and placed himself in solitary command. Velazquez saw what was happening and his anger and jealousy grew. Everyone was beginning to wonder how the conflict would end. A soft knocking on his door pulled the priest away from his musings. Cautiously he opened the door of his room to find Olmedo waiting for him. 

In hushed tones, the first mate explained his mission. Quintero wanted them aboard ship as soon as they could be there. They should bring all their belongings. The streets were dark and quiet as the clerics hastened to the harbor. The sailors were silent and even the oarlocks of the boat that carried them out to the Gabriella had been muffled with rags. The ship lay in deep shadows, men gliding over the deck and up the rigging like ghosts. The final clicks of the capstan sounded like gunshots as the anchor was secured home. The ship turned slowly to catch the wind and began to move soundlessly out of the harbor. Olmedo motioned the two clerics into Quintero’s cabin.

The air in the small room was stale and warm. Canvas was draped over the already shuttered windows to prevent any stray light from escaping. Only after the door had been firmly closed did Quintero move to uncover a small lantern to dispel a portion of the gloom. Leaning forward, he spoke in a hoarse whisper.

“There’s been a change in plans, my friends. I’m afraid the Governor has decided to remove Cortes as head of the mission.”

“What does Cortes plan to do?”

“Just what you’d expect, Father. Hernan is starting out now, before Velazquez can act. We’ll rendezvous with his flotilla at dawn and then proceed westward.”

“I see. But what of your plans to return to Spain and what of your cargo?”

“I’ve changed my mind. I won’t be going back to Spain because the only cargo I could find to carry was for Cortes. It’s onboard already. Sixteen horses, three pieces of artillery and a couple of tons of powder and shot; all for Cortes’ forces. Of course, they’ll be replaced with something even more valuable once we make landfall.” The sea captain shrugged and spread his hands. “A man has to make a living.” 

When the two clerics came on deck the next morning, they found the Gabriella in the midst of ten other vessels. They had found the rest of the fleet and joined them on their westward journey. Within days, they once more sighted land. The ships skirted the lush green coastline of the place, exploring the bays and inlets of an area Henrico would later learn was called the Yucatan. Cortes did not make camp but continued westward. Only rarely did any of the expedition go ashore and then only to seek information and fresh supplies. On one such occasion, Father Garcilosa and Henrico were allowed to accompany the shore party.

The young Benedictine was fascinated to watch Cortes as he led the men away from their boats and along a jungle path. He seemed so confident, totally unafraid.  A village had been spotted from the ships and Cortes strode boldly into the center of it. At first the village seemed deserted but after a few moments dark eyes could be seen peering from the foliage. Cortes ordered a blanket spread out upon the ground and a variety of trinkets laid upon it. He then sat cross-legged on the blanket. He did not have to wait for long.

An old man came first. When he was able to approach Cortes and even take one of the trinkets from the blanket without any harm occurring to him, he turned and gestured to the trees. Within moments over a hundred natives drifted into the clearing. One of them of them came and sat on the blanket across from Cortes. He carried an ornately carved staff and worn a headdress decorated with bright feathers. Henrico heard a murmur go through the men around him.  The band of the chief’s headdress shone dully in the sunlight. It was made of gold.

Cortes waved one of the sailors forward to stand beside him. The man had joined him in Cuba and could speak some of the coastal dialect. Henrico and Father Garcilosa had been working with him to learn the language and they listened now as he interpreted for the two leaders. The chief spoke slowly, often glancing over his shoulder as he did. No, they had not met white men before. Yes, the visitors were welcome. They were a poor tribe but peaceful.  No, the white men would not be wise to stay here. It was too hard to get enough food and there was no wealth here.

The man seemed to become more evasive when Cortes pressed him about his head band. It had come from the west, a gift the chief said but he did not say from whom. The west was a mystery to him. His clan did not go there. There might be richer tribes there but he did not know.  Perhaps the white men should go there. Perhaps they should go soon. The chief accepted the gifts Cortes had lain out on the blanket and returned a gift of his own. A string of about twenty slaves were led from the jungle and presented to the Spaniards. The slaves would help speed them on their journey.

One of them would prove invaluable. She was a young native woman who spoke not only the language of the coastal tribes but also that on the interior. Cortes’s sailor and the native woman were able to speak together and interpret the rumors and legends that came to them. These legends were what drove Cortes and his men on—tales of a great and powerful empire further to the west. A land of staggering wealth and power—a land that Cortes now vowed to conquer.

Onward the little flotilla sailed, hopping from harbor to harbor along the jungle encrusted coast. The coastline curved to the southwest and then back to the north. The forests remained thick and lush, filled with strange sights and eerie sounds. The specter of the unknown began to eat at their confidence as the sailors began to grumble and complain. They were fearful of anything mysterious and the doubts and questions raised by the land off their bows played upon their superstitions. The familiarity of Spain or even Cuba began to call to them. At last Cortes announced that they had sailed far enough. The fleet would disembark.

Father Garcilosa and Henrico did not accompany the first group to go ashore but they learned the details later. Cortes had led a force of fifty men up through the surf onto a broad sandy beach.  They were confronted by a mass of fierce natives elaborately garbed in feathers and animal skins. Brandishing spears and clubs, the aboriginal warriors advanced on the small band of Spaniards, shouting and chanting in a strange tongue. They were silenced when Cortes stepped forward with his musket men and fired a devastating volley into their midst. A second volley put the entire force to flight, leaving the sandy beach stained with blood.

By the time Cortes had brought up the remainder of his men the natives had returned. But this time they advanced unarmed, their empty hands above their heads as they hesitantly stepped from the jungle. Their chief approached Cortes and threw himself down on the sand before him. It took some time for his words to be translated but soon the Spaniards were able to understand his intent. These were the Cempoalans and they were appalled that they had offended the newcomers. Their old masters would have required it. But now that Cortes was here, they had a new master and a new protector.  The chief would provide all that Cortes would need—food, water, slaves. Henrico had been told that at this, the Spanish commander had lifted the chief up and embraced him as a brother and an ally.

“Well, this will be sure to get old Velazquez stirred up,” Quintero was saying as he entered the tent.  Father Garcilosa and Henrico had been storing the last of their belongings in the temporary shelter when the sea captain had burst in.

“And what is it that you think will so distress the Governor?” the priest asked with a smile.

“Hernan has put the men and our new found allies to work building a city.  He has named it Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz.”

“But how should that be of concern, my friend?”

“It’s of concern because he’s doing just what Velazquez suspected he would. He has repudiated the Governor’s authority over us and declared himself chief officer of the settlement, second only to the King! Oh, he’s a bold one alright,” Quintero said with a wide grin, “He’ll not be content to explore this new land, he means to conquer all of it.”

“You seem almost proud of him.”

“Huh, well I suppose I am a bit. There’ll be a fortune to be made that’s for sure. But sadly, I won’t be here to share it.”

“I thought that you’d be waiting for a cargo before you return to Spain.”

“Oh, I had hoped to. But my dear Cortes is being a bit too sly even for me.” The sailor leaned forward to speak in a hoarse whisper. “I’ve learned by pure chance that he’s determined a way to ensure the continued loyalty of his men. He’s going to burn the ships so they have no choice but to follow him.” Henrico had been standing back, listening with feigned disinterest but now stepped forward.

“What?” he said, “Why would he do—”

“Hush, lad,” Quintero said, “We’ve got to keep this quiet or there could be a riot. I understand why Cortes is doing this. He’s only got five hundred men and if many desert his plans are ruined. Still, I’ll not let him burn my sweet Gabriella. As soon as its dusk, I sail back for Cuba.”

Father Garcilosa leaned forward to place a hand on Quintero’s shoulder. “We understand, my friend. We will stay with the expedition.” Henrico turned away and shuffled back into the shadowed corner of the tent.

“I expected so, Father. But listen, I’ll not forget you. I think Velazquez will have need of ships for a while and that he’ll pay good coin for the work . . . and for the information I can offer.” Quintero stood and grasped the priest with both arms. Glancing over at Henrico, he continued, “I promise you this.  In five months, I will bring the Gabriella back to this spot. I’ll wait for you for a fortnight. If you’re here and want to go, I’ll get you both back to Spain.” The two men embraced. Henrico only stared down at the ground without speaking.

The coming of the dawn confirmed Quintero’s prophesy.  Amid anxious shouts and angry words, the two clerics stepped from their quarters to see the sea ablaze. The entire flotilla was on fire. Some of the sailors attempted to row out to combat the inferno but quickly had to abandon the attempt. A group of irate men turned and marched toward their commander. Cortes had climbed onto one of the horses and raised his hands to quiet the mob. His request was reinforced by the presence of a squad of musket men, their weapons at the ready. The heated shouts and cries were reduced to angry murmurs.

Cortes smiled broadly as he spoke. “Friends, comrades, let us not be disheartened by this terrible event. Yes, you are correct. We have lost our way back to Cuba. But before us lies a great adventure. To the west is an empire of vast wealth ready to be seized.” He spun his horse about and as it reared up drew his sword with a flourish. “We are few in number that is true but as we have already seen the natives of this land are simple and primitive. It will be a simple matter of marching and do you know what will happen? We shall all be rich and powerful men!” 

The fury had gone out of the men. Their rage gave way to excitement and their shouts changed to cheers.

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The Golden Conquest – Part 9

The Gabriella slipped from the bay at Angra and turned its bow back towards the west.  The repairs had finally been completed and they were at last back on their journey to the New World. Henrico stood on the fore castle as the ship flew over the water. He shivered as his mind drifted back to the events in the de Silves’s garden. The time he had spent in the presence of Father Garcilosa had helped but he was glad to be safely back aboard ship.  He glanced aft and smiled. The crew was in high spirits, refreshed from their sojourn at the Azores and excited to be underway. The murmurs and grumbles that this was an unlucky voyage subsided at last. Even the second mate Montoya seemed less tyrannical than usual.

The novice grimaced as he recalled that not all had changed. Brother Sebastian had stood stern and determined by the mainmast as the ship had sailed from Angra. But within minutes of reaching the open ocean he was once more leaning over the rail in wretched misery. He had to be carried to his cabin and laid on his bed. The sailors were careful not to laugh at the Dominican within earshot of their superiors but his ailment made for lively conversation below decks. The crew had a running wager on if and when he would recover or better yet succumb to his sickness. Henrico had declined to take part.

The fine weather and fair winds continued to hold and the Gabriella made rapid progress westward. Henrico had finished his duties and was heading back toward the stern cabins. The Benedictine moved to step around a sailor who was scrubbing the deck when a foot shot out to kick over the man’s bucket of sea water. As the brine splashed over Henrico’s feet and legs, a harsh voice sneered, “Are you still getting in the way, monk?” and Montoya stepped forward into his path.

Henrico attempted to turn aside but found his way blocked by one of Montoya’s cohorts. He quickly glanced about the ship but Captain Quintero was naught to be seen. Father Garcilosa, he knew, was resting in their cabin. Olmedo the first mate was at the helm but when Henrico looked his way he quickly glanced aside. The young man realized there would be no help for him this day and he turned back toward Montoya.

“I have no wish to quarrel,” he said.

“Oh, I knew that. You’re the kind that likes to hide behind someone else’s cloak. Well, there’s no one to hide behind now.” The sailor stepped forward as he spoke and Henrico smelt liquor on his breath. The novice eased back but came up against another of Montoya’s men. The seaman shoved him hard toward the second mate who sidestepped and tripped the young man as he went past. Henrico sprawled onto the deck only to be hauled to his feet by the bullies. He shook them off and turned to face his tormentor.

“I will not fight you,” he said through clenched teeth.

“So, the priest’s little whelp is a coward too. I’m not surprised. Come on, boy. Show us what you’re worth.” Montoya’s face reddened and spittle flew from his lips. His eyes blazed and his visage contorted into a mask of hatred and malice. 

“No,” Henrico said, “I don’t have to prove anything to you. I don’t fear you. You have no power over me.”  Montoya’s jaw went slack for a moment, startled by the Benedictine’s words, but only for a moment.

“I’ll show you my power, boy; I’ll make you suffer for your insolence.” The second mate swung his club at Henrico’s head forcing him to duck away. He felt someone thrust a belaying pin into his hand and he instinctively raised it to parry the next blow.

“So, you’ve got some spine after all, monk. Come on then.” Without warning he swung the club again. Henrico ducked and stepped forward to thrust his shoulder into Montoya’s midsection. The mate gave a sharp grunt and stumbled backwards. Quickly returning to the attack, he feinted to his left and brought the belaying pin down sharply. Henrico dodged but took a glancing blow off his left shoulder.  A burning jolt of pain shot through his arm and he felt his hand go numb. Staggered by the pain, he fell back into the growing crowd of onlookers. Rough hands pushed him upright back toward Montoya.

Henrico regained his balance in time to block the next strike. The two men circled each other warily. Montoya looked surprised at the Benedictine’s skill and resolve and pressed in harder. He lashed out again only to find Henrico twist away. The novice spun around, allowing the sailor to step past him and struck him across the back. Montoya sprawled out on the deck but regained his footing in an instant. He snarled in rage as he threw himself at the monk. Catching Henrico around the midsection he drove him down to the deck. The two combatants rolled over and the first mate ended up astride the monk. Squeezing the young man’s throat with one hand, he struck downward with his club. Henrico tried to shield himself with his arm and cried out as the blow landed.  Montoya raised his weapon once more.

A large hand shot out to grip the sailor’s wrist. He turned to curse the intruder and found himself looking into the scowling face of Captain Quintero. Startled, he did not move as the captain placed his other hand on his chest and shoved him forcibly to the deck. When the second mate attempted to rise Quintero stepped over him and held him down with his foot.

“Don’t move, you bastard. This time you’ve gone too far, way too far.”  Stooping, Quintero grabbed a handful of cloth and hauled the seaman to his feet. “I’ve put up with your bullying and rough ways for too long.  You kept the crew in line and so I let it go but not this time.  This time you’ve done it.” He pushed him against the rail and slapped him hard across the face.  “Attacking a passenger? You’ve gone mad and I won’t have a mad man as my second mate.  From now on I don’t want to see you on the quarterdeck. You’ll stay below decks and out of my sight.”

Quintero threw Montoya aside as if he were throwing away a piece of refuse. As the former second mate stumbled away the other sailors moved aside, avoiding his shame. He slunk away quickly, his face flushed with anger. His fellow bullies hesitantly fell in beside him. A low growl swept through the crew as the trio slipped into the darkness below decks. The sound changed to a cheer as Henrico was helped to his feet. He cradled his injured arm while the crew patted him on the back and brushed off his clothing, murmuring quiet words of encouragement.  he Benedictine felt a firm hand on his shoulder and turned to see Father Garcilosa. He looked away in a mixture of guilt and shame.

“I – I’m sorry, Father,” the youth stammered.

“You should be,” the priest said with a smile, “I taught you better than that. You should have been able to beat that fool easily.” Henrico looked up, his eyes wide with surprise. The older cleric’s voice was soft and gentle. “I saw the whole thing, my son. You had no choice. I probably shouldn’t be, but I am proud of you.” He paused and smiled again. “But I do think you need some more practice before you decide to engage in combat again. First though we need to bind up your arm.”

            Seated on an empty water cask, Montoya rubbed his bruised knuckles. He grimaced as he thought about the past few days. It was different now. Men who had previously accepted his commands without comment now defied him. He had to fight to regain power and he had done so viciously. Montoya knew he had to stay away from Quintero but through a series of threats, accidents and ambushes had succeeded in cowing most of the crew. Some still challenged him. He knew that he would never again wield the power he had once had aboard the Gabriella. The dream of becoming her captain was gone forever. He knew who was to blame. 

            He looked up at the sailor approaching him and grinned. Cordoba nodded in reply; passing on the message Montoya had anticipated. He had been expecting Dominican to call for him. There was dirty work to be done and Diego Montoya was just the man for it. Still, he would have to be careful with how close he got to the Inquisitor. Occasionally even a cobra or a scorpion had its uses but no one would presume to take one as a pet. No, he would be careful.  He didn’t mind sharing a cold dish of vengeance with Brother Sebastian but the largest portion would be his. He arose and followed the sailor aft. The Dominican was waiting.

The sun had just past its zenith when a shout sounded from the lookout.  Land on the horizon. By mid-afternoon the ship entered the harbor that marked Imperial Spain’s foothold in the New World. As soon as the Gabriella slid into the port, small boats and skiffs were rushed out to meet them. The water borne merchants held aloft fruits, flowers, carvings and other small items to sell to the crew. Larger boats, filled with half naked native girls, had other less substantial wares for sale. The sailors crowded against the railing shouting and laughing at the display. The merchants swiftly parted at the approach of a large barge bearing the harbor master and officials from the Governor’s office.

            Father Garcilosa had changed back into his priestly garb and stood with Captain Quintero to greet the bureaucrats and soldiers as they came onboard. After delivering his papers of commission from the Court of King Charles, the captain began to introduce his passengers. He had just started to present Father Garcilosa when Brother Sebastian interrupted. 

“Are you the Master of the Guard?”

The official sniffed and narrowed his eyes. “Yes. And who are you?”

The Dominican puffed up his chest before declaring, “I am Brother Sebastian of the Holy Inquisition. And I demand that you arrest that man!” He spun to thrust a boney finger at Father Garcilosa.

“What? The priest? On what charge?”

“He is a heretic and a Jew lover. He has desecrated the Eucharist vessels with Jewish writings and spells. Look in that chest.” The priest’s baggage had been brought on deck in preparation for departure and all turned to stare at the small pile. The wooden strongbox containing the gifts from the Bishop of Cadiz set on the top. Reluctantly, the port official moved to lift it up.

“With your permission, Father?”

“Certainly,” the priest said. Henrico stood beside him, clutching his hands together and glanced at Father Garcilosa’s face. His smile was calm. The Master of the Guard opened the box and peered at its contents. A perplexed look crossed his visage and he shook his head.

“Everything looks fine to me.”

“What?” Brother Sebastian voice was high and shrill. “There are Jewish symbols painted on the vessels. I know it.” He seized the chest and stared. The chalice and bowl were clean and polished. No markings of any sort marred their surfaces. He sputtered and then thrust the chest back at the official and stalked away.

Henrico leaned and whispered to the priest. “What is happening here?”

“I’m afraid Brother Sebastian was planning mischief. His allies stole the vessels and returned them painted with what they thought were Jewish letters. Fortunately, we have our own friends aboard and Alonzo was informed. I was up most of the night cleaning and polishing, but it was worth it to see the look on the Brother’s face.”

Henrico stood in silence. They had escaped from danger once again but it was not over.  Both of them had enemies now. 

The Havana officials were soon departed and the Gabriella was safely anchored in the harbor. Brother Sebastian threw his belongings into a bag and screamed shrill demands that he and d’Amarco be taken ashore.  Captain Quintero was only too happy to oblige. He looked around the deck and nodded. It was time to clear out the rest of his problems. Striding forward he approached a group of sailors working amidships and clamped a strong hand on the shoulder of his former second mate.

“Montoya.” He grinned wickedly, “I think it’s time for a few rats to leave this ship.” He grabbed the man’s belt with his other hand and with a mighty heave pitched him over the side.  His laughter was harsh and fierce as he waved forward the rest of the crew to take care of the other bullies. Cordoba and his comrade followed their master over the side. The three men cursed and pleaded but to no avail. Quintero leaned over the rail, his smile now calm and benign.

“You three fellows had best start for shore. I’ve heard there are sharks in these waters.” The trio splashed and struggled in desperation. Like most sailors, they did not know how to swim. Their efforts seemed to be faltering when a small skiff swung around the bow of the ship and pulled toward them. The trio sputtered as they grasped the gunwales of the craft. As the vessel pulled toward land, Quintero shouted after them, “I don’t ever want to see you bastards on my ship again. If I ever catch you on her I’ll hoist you up by your bowels!”

As the captain turned away, Father Garcilosa approached with a frown. “While I cannot object to decision to—uh, change the composition of your crew, I am concerned that they might have drowned when you sent them over the side.”

“Ah, not to worry, my friend. I had already arranged for that little fishing boat to be there. I cost me a few coins, but I would have paid three times as much to get rid of those scum.” He laughed again and clapped the priest on the back. “Come, I have some fine wine in my cabin. Let us celebrate.”

            Henrico smiled as he lounged on the foredeck. Life aboard the Gabriella had become so much more peaceful since the departures, forced and otherwise, of those less welcome onboard.  He knew that the ship’s crew had squandered most of their pay in the ramshackle taverns lining the harbor, but noted how efficiently they had unloaded the ship’s cargo. Olmedo, more confident and at ease with Montoya gone, had overseen the duties capably and without violence.  Quintero was busy selling the goods and supplies he had brought from Spain and seeking others to carry back to the homeland. 

            Father Garcilosa waited beside the novice with growing impatience for any official response to their arrival. Despite their mission being made known, days passed before they were finally summoned to the Governor’s residence. Changing into their finest vestments, the two clerics hurried to the building only to be forced to wait further. When they were at last escorted in, they were greeted not by Governor Velasquez but by his lieutenant, Narvaez. The man apologized for keeping them waiting but explained that the Governor had been called away suddenly for an important matter.

            “May we present you with the letters of commission from His Majesty?” Father Garcilosa asked, “We have been entrusted with documents authorizing the expedition to the unknown lands to the west.”

            “Ah, the commission.” Narvaez smile held a hint of distain. “I am afraid, Father, that that will not be necessary. Another ship, the Santa Elena, sailed from Spain shortly after you left.  She carried a duplicate of your letters and as it would appear her captain met with more—ah—favorable winds, she arrived weeks ago. The Governor has already received the confirmation for the mission and preparations are underway. But still, I understand your voyage will not have been in vain. You are, I believe, to accompany Senor Cortes to the new lands?”

            “Yes, Senor Narvaez, that is so.”

            “Excellent. Then you must come back tonight. The Governor will be hosting a gathering upon his return. Cortes and his captains are also invited and you may make their acquaintances.”

            Captain Quintero was miffed to hear that another vessel had bested him in the voyage across the Atlantic and a caravel at that.  At first, he refused to consider attending the festivities but when he heard that Cortes would be there, he changed his mind. As evening fell, he led the three companions through the streets of Havana to the Governor’s Residence.

            The low stuccoed building lacked the grandeur of the palaces of Spain or even of the Azores. Ongoing construction could still be seen and there was an overall feeling of reckless haste to the structure. However, the flickering torchlight, garlands of bright flowers and animated babble of voices covered whatever shortcomings there were with an atmosphere of excited revelry. The number of partygoers precluded any attempt at a formal dinner and instead the wine and laughter flowed freely. 

As the group began to move through the ebb and flow of the gathering, Narvaez intercepted them and led them forward to be introduced to the Governor. Diego Velasquez greeted them solemnly. He wore a stern serious expression yet constantly fussed over his own appearance. A peacock trying to be an eagle, Henrico wondered. The Governor briefly acknowledged Father Garcilosa and did not even deign to glance at Henrico. The Benedictine noticed a flicker of resentment pass over his eyes when Quintero asked about Cortes. He frowned and looked away while Narvaez deftly redirected the conversation and led them aside.

Henrico followed as they pushed through the throng surrounding the adventurer. Cortes was not overly tall or handsome but he seemed to dominate the room. He was finely dressed with beard and mustache trimmed to perfection but it was his eyes that were most striking. They flashed with intelligence and confidence when he spoke. His voice was even and clear and carried easily through the room. He greeted his old comrade Quintero warmly and bowed graciously to the priest as introductions were made. Glancing at the novice, he smiled, “De Medellin, eh?  You shall accompany us on our conquest, I am told.  That is well, I like having even more of my townsmen with me.”

When Cortes spoke to him, Henrico was made to feel as if he were the only other person in the room. The man’s confidence and charisma were powerful and inspiring. Before the Benedictine could consider or comment on the commander’s cryptic remark, he was swept aside by others coming forth to meet the man. Henrico was soon separated from Father Garcilosa and the sea captain and began to wander through the crowded room. He found himself beside a table heavily laden with foodstuffs and delicacies. He was debating on what to sample first when he was startled by a familiar sounding laugh.

Stretching up on his toes, he surveyed the crowd and caught sight of a head topped with thick dark curls. The man turned slightly and Henrico was able to glimpse his face. With mounting excitement, the young man pushed his way through the gathering to grasp the man’s shoulder. The soldier spun about and a look of amazement came over his visage.

“You!  What on earth are you doing here?”

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The Golden Conquest – Parts 7 & 8

My computer has been in the shop being repaired for the past 2 weeks, so I’m behind in my installments of my manuscript. Therefore to make up for this, here’s a double dose.

“Lift your right foot. Just your right. Lift it slowly.”  Without opening his eyes Henrico began to obey the voice. And as he did, he began to feel less afraid. The voice continued, “Now move your left hand up the rigging. There, now lift your left foot. Good. Now reach up with your right hand. Yes, that’s it.”  The novice stretched up his arm and suddenly felt it grasped strongly in a rough and calloused hand. He opened his eyes to stare into the grinning face of a seaman. Within seconds he found himself scrambling up the last few feet of rigging up into the crow’s nest.

“There you go, lad. Naught to fear now,” the sailor smiled, “Never been up here before, have you?”

“No, never,” Henrico gasped as he slid onto the small platform and wrapped an arm around the mast for security.

“So, why’d you want to come up?  Most landsmen like yourself don’t even want to try.”

“The first mate Olmedo asked me to come up to check the weather.”

“What?  Why would he do that?  All he’d have to do is call up to me. Besides, Tomas doesn’t need to know what the sky looks like. He can smell a change. No, he must have had some other reason for sending you aloft.”

“It might have had something to do with Montoya,” Henrico conceded. The sailor frowned and shook his head.

“You’d be best stay away from him. He’s a nasty one.”  He reached up and rubbed a lump of scar tissue behind the corner of his jaw. “He sliced off part of my ear for no good reason. He’s a bastard, that’s for sure.”  The seaman spat on the decking and was quiet for a moment. Then he grinned again and stretched out his hand, “I’m Fernand from Castile. They call me Black Fernand because of my hair, you see. You’re Brother Henrico, right?”

The two men settled down against the side rails of the crow’s nest. The sailor pointed out a low bank of clouds far on the western horizon and explained the significance to the young monk. In tacking down to towards the Azores, the ship was departing from an area in which the prevailing winds were westward to one in which the winds would head back towards Spain. The clouds could herald a change in the weather but were too distant to say for sure. Besides, Black Fernand said, he’d been spying out those clouds for most of his watch and they had not changed. The seaman continued to chatter on, filling the novice’s head with various seafaring lore and tales.

Henrico found himself smiling at the simple sailor’s disjointed stories. He prattled on skipping from subject to subject without finishing any and often without making much sense. The Benedictine found himself wondering if the seaman hadn’t been banished to the crow’s nest to spare the rest of the crew. He did start to grate on one’s ears after a time and Henrico found himself beginning to plot his escape. The sailor was friendly and well meaning, though and the young man did not wish to offend him. However, he must at least try to focus the sailor on one thing.

“How is it that the first mate seems to give way to Montoya?  Is he afraid of him?”

“Ah well, Tomas is a good fellow, don’t you see?  But he’s not a strong man. How would you say it?  He’s not very tough, not hard enough. He’s smart though. One time he was telling me about the stars. Did you know that a bunch of them are grouped into pictures?  He told me about one called . . .”

“But what about Montoya?”

“Oh yes, well nobody knows for sure but I think that that bastard Diego knows a secret about Tomas; something that Olmedo doesn’t want anyone else to know. He’s not brave enough to do anything about it though. Not like another fellow I knew. Juan was his name and one time he took a dagger and . . .”

“I’m sorry Fernand, but about the second mate again, if he has something on Senor Olmedo why doesn’t he replace him?”

“Ha,” the sailor laughed, “Because the black hearted worm is too stupid. He can’t learn how to navigate and so he can’t be first mate. He’s mean and tough alright but he can’t figure numbers any better than I can.”

“I see. Perhaps I’d best report back to Senor Olmedo. He did ask me check on the weather.”

“Oh, I suppose that you ought to. Perhaps we’ll get to talk again some time. Now be careful there, lad. That’s it.”

The novice found the first few steps down the rigging almost as frightening as his journey up it. The ship was still rolling from side to side, but its pitch was less severe. He gained confidence as he climbed downward and by the time, he reached the deck his pulse and breathing were almost back to normal. The second mate Montoya could be heard berating the crew on the foredeck, so Henrico headed towards the stern. The helmsman was standing at the wheel beside Captain Quintero but Olmedo was nowhere to be seen. The Benedictine wondered for a moment if he should give his report to the captain but decided there was really no need.

Entering their cabin, he found Father Garcilosa kneeling in prayer beside the cot. Henrico started to quietly step out of the room, but the priest looked up with a smile.

“No, my son, please stay. I have finished my prayers. I was spending some extra moments speaking to Our Lord about the state of our little ship. The captain will not let me take a turn at the pumps, but I know that prayer is more powerful than machines anyway. How did your shift go?  Come; let me look at you.”  The priest took him by the hand and carefully examined his palms. Most of the blisters were healing and the lad was pleased to see hard calluses forming. One blister however had burst to leave a raw, painful wound. “This needs some care,” the older cleric said as he applied salve to the wound and began to wrap it with clean linen.

The young novice watched as Father Garcilosa finished bandaging his hands and wondered at the things he was feeling. He could feel himself growing and maturing but there was still so much he did not understand. And so much more that troubled and worried him. Could he speak of them? Should he? When he looked up the priest was watching him intently.

  “There we are. That should do for now.”

“Father?” The young man hesitated and looked away, his voice trembling. “Would—would you hear my confession?”

“My son, I would be most honored.”

            It was some days later that an excited shout reached the deck from the crow’s nest. Land had been sighted and they had finally reached the Azores. The sky was washed red with the rays of the setting sun when the Gabriella entered the bay at Angra on the island of Terceira. For once good fortune seemed to be with the crew for the tide was just below the high-water mark and they were able to run the ship up onto the beach. When the tide receded the damaged and leaking timbers would be exposed and the crew would be able to start the needed repairs. A lusty cheer arose as the last shift of men was able to step away from the pumps. It was a job none of them would miss.

            The following morning Captain Quintero went into the town to get the supplies and tools needed to make the ship seaworthy. Before he left, he gave strict orders that no members of the crew were to be allowed ashore. The men’s loud howls of protest were quieted only when Quintero shouted over them that he had also ordered two hogsheads of wine to be brought onboard. The protests changed to cheers when he advised them that the wine barrels would be broached as soon as bracing could be placed about the ship.

            The ship’s carpenter and his mates had been at work since before the tide started to recede. They had prepared stout timbers and footings which were now hauled into place against the sides of the ship. The Gabriella was bracketed by sturdy struts and joists that served to keep it upright as the waters of the bay slowly ebbed away. The ship was allowed to fall slightly to starboard; enough to better exposed the damaged planking but not enough to shift its cargo or to hamper the easy movements of the workmen. By the time the tide had begun to flow back into the bay, the job was completed.

            Diego Montoya was unhappy with his circumstances. He was angry at the thought of allowing the men to slack off from their work to indulge the wine and even more upset at having to remain onboard. Being left in charge to keep some semblance of order did nothing to assuage his temper. Nor did the explanation his captain offered.

            “I know the men,” Quintero had said in overruling his second mate’s objections, “If we try to keep them sober and on board, we’ll lose half of them to the dockside inns and taverns. This way we’re sure to get the bracing done quick and proper before they start into the drink. And by the time I’ve been able to gather the supplies we need they’ll have recovered enough to get back to work.”

 Montoya’s scowl had only deepened at Quintero’s reasoning. If –no—when he was captain, there would be no coddling of the crew. They would work when ordered or they would pay the price.

He stood by the railing to watch Quintero and the first mate along with the Dominican being carried ashore. Brother Sebastian had demanded to be taken to dry land in a voice that was almost desperate. Montoya grinned at the memory before turning to curse some idle men. Since he had to stay with the Gabriella, he would be sure to make the most of it. He had already marked some of the crew for his wrath and wondered for a moment where the Benedictine novice was. Perhaps he would remain onboard as well. Perhaps Montoya’s day would not be a total waste. An evil smirk crossed his face and he slowly twisted his lash in his hands.

Yes, he thought, that would make it all worthwhile.

Aboard the Gabriella, the priest and his young apprentice were preparing to follow the others ashore.  Both clerics had changed their clothes into more traditional garb and waited by the rail for the return of the ship’s boat.  Henrico regretted the change in clothing.  He had enjoyed the light weight of the more common apparel and was already feeling the warmth of his black woolen robes.  The young Benedictine ran a finger around to inside of his collar to let some of the heat out.

“I hope that you haven’t gotten too comfortable in secular clothing, my son,” Father Garcilosa smiled, “I would hate to think that you would wish to forego your calling just for some comfort.”  His eyes had a mischievous gleam to them as he spoke, but the young monk blushed, nonetheless.

“Oh no, Father, I am fine.  I am quite content to be back in my cassock.”

“Well, I for one will be happy when we’re back at sea and can wear less formal attire.  But this is more suitable for our visit into the town.  I have some acquaintances in Angra whom I wish to visit, and they tend to worry about such things.” 

At that moment the ship’s boat bumped up against the Gabriella’s side.  Henrico stepped toward the rail only to be shoved aside by a black cowled figure.

“Out of my way, boy,” the Dominican said as he pushed forward, “I’m getting off this wretched tub now.  Move aside.”

“Brother Sebastian,” the priest said as he laid a hand on Henrico’s arm, “We are more than happy to share the boat with you.”

“I am taking the boat.  And I do not want company.  Especially yours.”


“I’ve watched you.  I’ve listened.  You are a heretic and a danger to the church.  I don’t know how you have evaded the Inquisition so far, but your kind needs to be stopped.  I will stop you.”

“I am sorry you feel that way,” Father Garcilosa replied, “My friend the Archbishop wouldn’t agree.  Perhaps we can speak to him together.  When we get back to Spain.”

The Dominican face went white and then red.  He opened his mouth to speak but only a faint choking sound came out.  At last he turned way and scrambled down into the ship’s boat.  He almost fell and had to be pulled to safety by the sailor holding the mooring line.  Brother Sebastian responded by striking the man about the head and demanding to be taking ashore.  Henrico and Father Garcilosa could only watch as he was rowed away.

A short time later the boat returned and soon Henrico was helping to pull it up onto the beach.  The two clerics stepped through the gentle surf and turned to head into the Portuguese port.  As they reached the street, they were surprised to see a rakish figure waiting for them.  The courtier d’Amarco had been leaning against a wall in the shade and now stepped into the sunlight to greet his fellow passengers.  With a flourish he doffed his hat and smiled at the two clerics.

“Greetings my friends, I’m glad you’ve elected to come ashore.”

“But when did you leave the ship?” Henrico asked, “We thought you were still in your cabin.”

“Ah, I availed myself of an opportunity to leave our floating home shortly after we reached the bay.  Brother Sebastian is I am sure, a credit to his office but he is sadly lacking as roommate.”

“But how?  The captain did not release the ship’s boats until this morning?”

“Oh, my young comrade,” d’Amarco laughed, “There are many other boats in such a port, and one need only know how to call for one.  Am I not right, Father?”

“If you say so, Senor,” the priest said, shaking his head slowly.  Looking intently at the young aristocrat he continued, “Did you have business to attend to?”

“Oh, nothing important.  My departure from the Gabriella was prompted more for the desire for a decent bed and a palatable meal.  Sadly, I was only able to achieve the former.  These Portuguese have no idea on the proper use of garlic and simply no concept on how to make pastry.  But enough of my woes, what do you have planned for this day?”

“It is my intention to visit the local church and speak with its priest.  There used to be some men in this port that I knew, and I hoped to inquire about them.  Henrico is to accompany me.”

“Father de la Vega,” the courtier said, clucking his tongue, “Surely you would not require a young man to spend his first day ashore touring dusty old churches?  He needs to move about and stretch his legs.”

“What exactly are you suggesting?”

“I’ll take Brother Henrico under my wing and show him around.  Oh, not to worry Father, I promise not to corrupt his innocent soul and I’ll even keep him from entering any taverns.  Come, what do you say?”

Father Garcilosa paused for a moment.  He seemed about to speak but then glanced at Henrico.  The young Benedictine had been studiously quiet during the exchange, but his face betrayed his true desires.  Surely the priest would let him go.  Father Garcilosa sighed and clapped Henrico on the shoulder, “I expect you to be on your best behavior and to meet me back here an hour before sunset.”

“Yes, Father.  Thank you, Father,” the novice called as d’Amarco quickly hustled him away.  The courtier whispered something in his ear and then laughed loudly.  The hint of a blush rose onto Henrico’s cheeks before he was propelled around a corner by Senor d’Amarco.  The Benedictine felt a rush of excitement and fear.  What was he getting into?

The day passed as a blur of bright colors and loud sounds for Henrico.  D’Amarco plied him with extravagant tales of court life but also answered his questions on the history of the Azores.  Exacting to his word, the courtier kept them outside of the many cantinas that they passed.  With the warmth of the day and the brilliant sunshine there was no need to go indoors and almost every establishment had set tables and chairs in the open air.  The novice was careful not to over indulge but as d’Amarco put it; while the Portuguese did not know how to cook, they did know how to make a very good Madeira.

Flushed with the excitement of the day and from the effects of the heady wine, Henrico failed to notice as their talk turned from the Old World to the New.  It was his turn to supply answers as the courtier gently probed his knowledge.  He was pleased to have so much attention from the young aristocrat and readily described all the things that Father Garcilosa had shared with him.  The priest had also piqued d’Amarco’s interest and Henrico did not hesitate to respond to his inquiries.  The courtier hung on his every word and continued to lead him through the town. 

The town of Angra made no claim to being cosmopolitan and by late afternoon the two young men had explored most of it.  They found themselves on a small grassy hill rising above the bay and settled down under the shade of a large tree.  D’Amarco carried a skin of wine while Henrico had purchased some overripe melons and a pungent goat cheese.  They ate their lunch in silence, enjoying the cool ocean breeze and listening to the songbirds.  The day was warm for autumn and the wine along with the gentle sunshine soon had its affect.  The two young men began to doze.

Henrico awoke with a start to notice the sun low in the western sky.  He must hurry or he would be late in meeting Father Garcilosa.  He twisted around to awaken his companion but d’Amarco was nowhere to be seen.  The young Benedictine stood in puzzlement for a moment, wondering where the soldier might have gone and then turned to hasten down to the beach.  Within moments he was racing down the hill.  He turned the corner in a flurry of black robes in time to see the priest approaching from the other direction.  He slowed himself to a walk and carefully straightened his cassock as the two clerics neared each other.

“Well, Henrico,” the priest smiled, “Did you enjoy your day?”

“Yes Father, it was most pleasant.  Thank you for letting me go.”

“Where is Senor d’Amarco?  Were you not together?”

“Yes—yes, we were.  But we were resting and when I awoke, he was gone.  I’m not sure where he is.  Do you think he is all right?”

“My son, I am certain that he is quite capable of getting himself out of any trouble he might get himself into. Come, it is time that we got back to the ship.”  They walked to the edge of the water and waved to the Gabriella.  Within a few moments the ship’s boat was launched and being rowed quickly towards them.  At first, they were surprised at the promptness of the response but then a noise behind them alerted them that they would not be the boat’s only passengers.

Captain Quintero and his first mate, Olmedo were striding towards them from the town.  The captain was speaking to a smallish man who scurried beside him, writing rapidly on a sheaf of papers.  As they neared the two clerics could hear that Quintero was dictating a long list of supplies and needs.  At one point the seaman stopped and gestured broadly as he attempted to make a correction on the clerk’s list.  The diminutive fellow startled the onlookers by forcefully shaking his head and refusing the request.  The disagreement went back and forth but sea captain ultimately had to concede defeat.  With a shrug and wave of his hands he acknowledged the fact and turned toward the two ecclesiastics.

“Greetings my friends, I hope that you’ve enjoyed your time ashore.”

“Yes, we did, Alonzo,” Father Garcilosa replied, “Was your day productive?”

“Fairly so, I was able to arrange for most of the supplies and equipment that we’ll need.  Hopefully the weather will stay clear and we can get on with things.”

“How long do you think the repairs will take?” Father Garcilosa asked as they climbed aboard the ship’s boat.”

“Two weeks – maybe three.  It depends on how soon the crew recovers from their day of revelry and how hard they work in return for it.”

“Well, I suppose that you know your crew.  Brother Henrico and I will have more time on our hands then.”

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll find something to do,” the captain laughed, “I’m told that there’s a fine library in the chapel in the hills and you must have some other old friends about.  And speaking of such, we are all invited to dine at the villa of Paulo de Silves the evening after next.  He’s an old acquaintance of mine and one of the richest merchants on these islands.  I told him we’d all attend.”

“Certainly Alonzo, we shall look forward to it.”

It promised to be a fine evening.  The heat of the day was beginning to dissipate before a cooling breeze from the west.  The wind brought a faint hint of salt from the sea, but the scent was overwhelmed by the masses of flowering shrubs surrounding the villa. Paulo de Silves had built his home on a hill overlooking the harbor, positioning it so that he could watch the ships approaching the island and still be seen by the town. Captain Quintero had explained that de Silves was a rich man and a proud one. Quintero had known him for many years and while it was a relationship based more on finance than friendship, they were comrades of a sort.

Father Garcilosa followed the sea captain up the hill towards the mansion. The walls stood pink and warm above them as the group proceeded upward. Henrico walked beside him, his tonsure freshly trimmed and his cassock washed and mended. The two clerics had been surprised by the appearance of Ponce d’Amarco in their midst as they stepped from the ship’s boat.  The courtier had not been seen for two days but he somehow had learned about the planned gathering and was dressed ornately in keeping with the occasion.

The Dominican had also arrived in time to accompany the group. He too had not returned to the ship since their arrival at Angra, though hr had sent a messenger daily to check on the progress of the repairs. Captain Quintero had not wished to inform him of the invitation but Father Garcilosa had recommended that he do so to avoid further discord with the Inquisitor.  The seaman had reluctantly agreed. Thus, it was that there were five who arrived at the merchant’s home.

Paulo de Silves greeted them at his doorway. A heavy gold chain hung around his neck in bright contrast to the rich silk sash that enveloped his ample midsection. Small black eyes danced from the midst of a florid face crowned by wisps of fine white hair that waved and floated in the air like smoke whenever he moved. With an elaborate bow he ushered the quintet into his brightly lit ballroom and began to introduce them to his other guests. He presented each person as his dearest friend and one undoubtedly delighted to have been invited. Senor de Silves was, in his own eyes at least, the preeminent host in the whole archipelago.

When they were seated at the great table for the banquet, Henrico found himself seated between a banker from the town on his right and de Silves’ wife on his left. The moneychanger was a tall thin man, cadaverous in appearance and personality. He barely spoke all evening and never lifted his face from his plate. The Benedictine marveled that anyone so thin could consume so much food. Senora de Silves was the source of his greatest discomfort however.

The lady of the house was much younger than her husband but was still a mature woman.  While the years had smoothed her features to plumpness, she retained a degree of beauty. When she spoke to the person on her left, she shifted so that her leg pressed against Henrico’s. And when she conversed with the young monk, she fluttered her eyelashes coquettishly and turned so that her breasts brushed against his arm. Henrico attempted to slide away from her but was greeted by a grunt and an elbow in the ribs from the banker. He finished his meal as quickly as he could and excused himself from the table.

Escaping to the villa’s backyard Henrico sighed quietly and stepped between the heavily laden fruit trees to stare up at the jeweled night sky. Lowering his head to clasped hands he began to pray, asking God to protect and deliver him. His reverie was broken by a woman’s voice behind him and he turned to see the mistress of the house approaching him.

“Do you like my garden, Brother Henrico?” she purred quietly as she neared him.

“Y-yes, Senora, it is very beautiful.”

“I’m glad you appreciate beauty. Tell me, you are a novice you not?”

“Yes – yes I am.  I am to be a monk,” Henrico stammered, backing away from the woman.

“But you have not taken your vows yet, have you?” she breathed and stepped closer, her perfume drowning out the fragrance of the flowers.

“No, but I . . .” his mind raced frantically, searching for a way out. Suddenly the words of a Psalm came to him. In you, O Lord, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame.

“And I hope you have not taken a vow of chastity as yet.” She moved nearer, and began to reach toward him. Henrico edged backwards and suddenly stumbled and fell onto a garden bench. The senora leaned over him, her lips parting as they reached for his. Free me from the trap that is set before me, for you are my refuge.

“Henrico!” a voice called out from the shadows. Ponce d’Amarco stepped into the flickering torchlight and with a wry smile continued, “I believe that Father Garcilosa is having an ecclesiastic discussion with the other gentlemen. Perhaps you should see if they require any of your—ah—insight.”  Senora de Silves hastily stood upright and pulled her shawl up around her shoulders. Another scripture came to Henrico’s mind from the Epistles of Paul; God is faithful . . . but with the temptation will provide the way of escape, and he acted on it immediately. He gave no thought for decorum or proper manners but raced for the house.

As the black robed figure ran past him, d’Amarco watched him go and turned back to the woman. He genuflected with an air of sophisticated detachment and then plucked a pale-yellow blossom from the shrub beside him. Holding it to his nose, he asked, “Tell me, Senora de Silves, what flower is this?  The fragrance is quite intoxicating.”

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