Two Sign climbed the last flight of decaying stairs that led to Tlacaelel’s apartments, his stomach grumbling at the lack of food. The commander of the Eagle Knights was used to pre-dawn starts but hadn’t had time to find something to eat. He wondered if Tlacaelel would think to provide some breakfast but did not hold out much hope. The general didn’t eat much. Two Sign looked at the once beautiful frescos that lined the stairwell, depicting a menagerie of animals in various poses. Fish leapt, snakes reared and deer pranced. All were cracked and faded, and the ancient limestone plaster they were painted on was dropping off in chunks. The stone steps themselves were kept clean, but they were worn and in desperate need of repair.
The big warrior shook his head. Tlacaelel could have the most fabulous living quarters in Tenochtitlan. Instead, Moctezuma’s brother and right-hand man had chosen an old disused section of the royal palace to make his home, steadfastly refusing any offers to have the place refurbished.
The guard at the entrance recognised Two Sign and stood smartly to attention. Not many people in Tenochtitlan did not know or recognise the famous warrior Two Sign. He was dark and tall with a muscular torso and broad shoulders. He wore his hair long and tied back but with shorn sides in the traditional manner of the warriors. His nose had a squashed and tortured appearance as the result of being broken two or three times in battle. Two Sign raised a half-hand in friendly recognition of the guard. The two smallest fingers on his right hand were missing, cloven from his fist by a blow from a battle-mace years ago in combat deep inside Oaxaca.
Two Sign gave the guard a brief nod in acknowledgement and stepped into the Tlacaelel’s private apartments. Two Sign knew the layout well. He was standing in the largest of eight rooms that had once been home to one of Chimalpopoca’s concubines. Tlacaelel used this room as a reception area and meeting room. His servants and four personal bodyguards used the five rooms leading off it to the right, while the first room on the left was used by Tlacaelel as an office; beyond that was his bedchamber. By Tenochtitlan’s standards, the arrangement was extremely frugal, and the stark, utilitarian nature of the furnishings served to illustrate Tlacaelel’s contempt for frippery. The only items in the room were a map of the lake and its surroundings pinned to the far wall and four low stools arranged neatly in the centre of the tiled floor. The map was the only one of its kind that Two Sign had ever seen. It was the height of two men and almost as wide. Made of grey cotton – by design or as a result of ageing Two Sign could not tell – the contours of the lake were painted on in a brown dye. A swathe of forest was stippled in green, stretching in a crescent from the north of the lake, through Teotihuacan to the east and on until it encircled Chalco to the south and beyond the forest, in the south east corner smoked the mighty, brooding volcano Popocatepetl.
‘Two Sign,’ called Tlacaelel from the doorway on the left. ‘Through here, I need your advice.’
Two Sign had to duck to walk through the opening. Tlacaelel’s office was well lit. It was on a corner of the building and had two windows that Tlacaelel had had enlarged so that the soft, early morning light streamed in. One looked out across the northern edge of the Moyotlan quarter and a portion of the temple precinct could just be seen through the other. Tlacaelel was sitting cross-legged on the floor examining a sheaf of parchments that lay spread out before him. Tlacaelel could read and write better than anyone Two Sign knew, and the general kept enormous quantities of notes. He kept details on every military campaign that he was involved in, claiming that the official records from The House of Ordered Progression were too sparse and consisted of nothing more than naked triumphalism. Apparently he also spent many hours each night recording things that he had seen or had heard during the day. The papers arranged on the floor meant little to Two Sign, but Tlacaelel was studying them with a fierce intensity. Above his bushy eyebrows his forehead was furrowed with lines of concentration, and he stroked the bridge of his nose thoughtfully. The downturn of his mouth was more pronounced than usual giving his gaunt features a sombre expression. Tlacaelel’s head was shaven in the same style as Two Sign’s and the hair on the top was grown out very long and tied in a queue that reached halfway down his back. Two Sign noticed that the general, normally deeply tanned because of the time he spent with his troops, looked pale and tired. Spare me from planning and politics thought Two Sign.
‘General. How may I help?’ he asked.
Tlacaelel bade him sit down. “The scouting parties have left?”
Two Sign nodded.
“Excellent,” exclaimed Tlacaelel with a twinkle in his eye. ‘I want to change the plans we’ve made for the battle after the New Fire and I need you to check I haven’t made any mistakes.’
‘I thought we already agreed these plans with the Tlatocan.’ said Two Sign.
‘We did,’ agreed Tlacaelel, looking up from his notes. ‘I wasn’t particularly happy then but I’ve been over several times and now I’m sure they’re wrong.’
‘What about Last Medicine My Lord? Shouldn’t he be part of this discussion?’ Two Sign wondered why the commander of the Jaguar Knights wasn’t present.
‘Ideally yes, but he’s too busy organising security for the Binding of the Years. I’ll find time to advise of any changes. I think he’ll trust your judgement.’
Tlacaelel was a brilliant strategist. Two Sign had learned much as his second-in-command and had no wish to disappoint his mentor so tried to recall the details. Tlacaelel found a parchment amongst the others at his feet. It was another map, made from the bark of the fig tree. Tenochtitlan and Lake Texcoco occupied the top left-hand corner and Chalco the bottom right-hand corner.
‘This is the area we’re talking about.’ Tlacaelel indicated an area the other side of Colhuacan roughly halfway between the two cities. ‘We all know this area well.’
Two Sign looked at the map. It was another work of art. Tlacaelel certainly liked his maps. ‘It’s a lightly wooded area with lots of cover. On one side we’d have the marshes on the northern edge of Lake Chalco.’ Two Sign’s attention drifted from the map and he turned his eyes to the ceiling as he recalled the area he knew so well. ‘We’d have an advantage as the land runs slightly downhill, away from Colhuacan. As I recall, that, and the cover afforded were the reasons why the council approved.’
‘Indeed,’ Tlacaelel acknowledged. He pulled gently at his lower lip. ‘And you agree with this?’
‘I would do,’ laughed Two Sign, ‘except that your gloomy expression and the tone of your voice suggest I do otherwise!’ He watched the general carefully for a moment before considering the map again. After a few minutes, Two Sign shrugged. ‘I give up. I see nothing unusual or worrying about this choice of site for the battle. We have fought the Chalca here before.’
‘That’s exactly what’s wrong with it,’ sighed Tlacaelel. ‘Tradition is going to be the death of us. More importantly, our line of retreat consists of just one causeway,’ he added. ‘If the Chalca every gain the upper hand, they might be able to turn a minor defeat into a catastrophic rout.’
‘That’s never happened though.’
‘Not yet,’ said Tlacaelel. He moved to the window where he stood for a while in stark silhouette against the morning light. The disc of the sun was incandescent above Mount Tlaloc.
‘Do you believe the gods protect us Two Sign?’
‘Yes My Lord.’
‘Do you believe the gods enjoy looking after those who make stupid mistakes?’
‘Ah, no My Lord.’ Two Sign could see the logic in that.
‘We need to be more careful Two Sign, and less arrogant. As the empire grows, we will be fighting further from home on territory which is less familiar to us. We must take more care to examine all the factors. Even small mistakes or flaws in our plans could have disastrous consequences. I do not think Huitzilopochtli has any interest in details like this do you?’
‘I understand Tlacaelel My Lord.’
‘How many of the warriors who trained alongside you are still alive Two Sign?’
‘I’m sorry, what was that?’
‘You heard me,’ growled Tlacaelel. ‘How many of your friends from, what is it? ten, twelve years ago are left alive?’
Two Sign knew the answer but he’d locked it away deep inside him. These were memories that usually only surfaced in the small hours of the morning when his defences were down; memories of fights and battles, some triumphant and some less so. So many of the memories carried losses with them; another face that would never smile again, another friend who would never tell another joke.
‘Three,’ whispered Two Sign. ‘There were six of us I would have called good friends and five more who we knew well. Only three of us remain.’
Tlacaelel said nothing, simply staring out of the window for a long time.
‘What a waste!’ Tlacaelel said at last. The words caught in his throat. ‘We can’t keep throwing our good men away.’
‘But we have made extraordinary gains My Lord!’ Two Sign countered.
Tlacaelel gritted his teeth. ‘But not when we fight the Chalca! We must put a stop to this futile war.’
‘Huitzilopochtli demands more sacrifice,’ pointed out Two Sign. ‘The priests are adamant that we must increase our offering in order to end the famine.’
Tlacaelel turned on him, angry now. ‘Do you believe that? This time last year, they sacrificed eight-hundred brave warriors from Chalco, and to what effect?‘ Tlacaelel paced round the room and waved in frustration at nothing in particular. ‘Meanwhile, in Chalco, three-hundred of our own men were put to death along with one-hundred and fifty from Texcoco, and still the drought continues, if anything worse than ever.’
Tlacaelel suddenly swept the map from the floor and spread it out on a stone table and beckoned to Two Sign. ‘Look here!’ He jabbed at an area of the map roughly eight miles directly north of Chalco. ‘I went to look at this plain yesterday. It’s flat and mostly covered with grasses. No scrub or wooded areas; no surprises.’ Tlacaelel turned to Two Sign. ‘With our superior numbers and training, how well do you think we will fare against Chalco in these conditions?’
The big warrior nodded, beginning to see what Tlacaelel was after.
‘The Chalca will have nowhere to hide if we fight in this location,’ continued Tlacaelel, ‘but it will be harder to take captives.’
Two Sign’s stomach loudly protested its emptiness again. He rushed into his reasoning, hoping to cover the noise. ‘I think you’re right. This open ground will suit us better but the entire army will have to somehow coordinate the moment when the fighting is done and it’s time to take prisoners. Are you certain we don’t need captives?’
‘Of course we need to pay our respects to the gods, but how will we honour Huitzilopochtli if we become so weakened by the loss of our warriors that our empire crumbles?’ Tlacaelel picked the rest of his papers off the floor. ‘Anyway, I’m not suggesting we stop taking captives. I’m just determined that we crush Chalco first, that way we’ll have less trouble from them later.’
‘Will the tlatoani approve the change of plans?’ asked the big warrior.
Clutching his precious papers to his chest, the general approached Two Sign and poked him in the chest with one finger. ‘Moctezuma will love it!’ he exclaimed. ‘It’s a chance for him to put one over Tochancalqui, and if it all goes to plan, we should still be able to take plenty of captives which should keep that scheming madman Cloud Face and his cronies quiet!’
Two Sign didn’t share Tlacaelel’s dislike of the priests. His parents had instilled in him a deep respect for the gods and their servants. As with most people, Two Sign’s parents had consulted the priests regularly for guidance, especially when their son had been born exactly between the days Serpent and Death’s Head, neither of which was deemed sufficiently auspicious. Their family priest, Fire of the Earth, had proscribed the name Two Sign and bound the child to both days, thus avoiding any firm association with either.
‘What scheming do you suspect the high priest of?’ inquired Two Sign.
Tlacaelel gave the Eagle Knight a sorrowful look. ‘Come over here my friend.’ He drew the big man over to the window where their voices would not echo and lowered his voice. ‘The priests detest me. They believe I hold this post because my brother is the tlatoani. You know this much.’
Two Sign opened his mouth to speak but the general cut him short.
‘You know, of course, that we have a number of informants. You’re responsible for one or two of them yourself.’
‘Of course. “Information is everything,”’ said Two Sign, repeating one of Tlacaelel’s favourite saying. ‘”The rest is preparation.”’
Tlacaelel lowered his voice again. ‘Most of them are useless, a drain on our time and my brother’s purse, but there is one in particular who is close to Mixayacatl.’
‘Do you have any details?’ Two Sign frowned.
‘No. Just vague ideas at the moment, but I’m hoping to speak to him again soon.’
‘Have you discussed this with the tlatoani?’
Tlacaelel snorted. ‘I wouldn’t trouble him with this even I had more information. No, this is a personal matter, and running to my brother for help would only fuel the priests’ dislike of me.’
‘How is your son getting on anyway?’ asked Tlacaelel, suddenly changing the subject. I hear he looks set to make you very proud.’
‘Crocodile is doing very well My Lord, it’s very kind of you to ask. As you well know he is adopted so it has very little to do with me!’
Tlacaelel laughed warmly and reached up to pat Two Sign on the shoulder. ‘Typically modest my friend. We both know you work very hard to make up for the loss of his parents.’ With an entirely innocent look he added, ‘Have you eaten this morning?’
Two Sign said that he had not.
‘Very well then,’ Tlacaelel proposed, ‘let’s go and see if Moctezuma’s palace kitchens have opened for breakfast.’ The general deposited his documents on a table and headed for the door.
‘By the Skin of Xipe, slow down!’ called Crocodile, ducking to avoid an overhanging branch as he followed in Jaguar’s footsteps.
Jaguar could hear his friend’s breathing coming in ragged gasps. With his light and easy gait, Jaguar was having no trouble keeping pace with the pack ahead. Jaguar was lean and well toned because of the constant practice at the ball game. He reflected that this might be the only part of war in which he would ever excel over Crocodile. Jaguar decided that his friend was just one of those people with a solid build, no matter what they ate or what exercise they did. His frame was too solid and muscular to fall into the graceful rhythm of the chase, especially over the rough terrain and thick vegetation they found themselves in now. Crocodile was a fighter, not a runner. Last summer, when Jaguar had captured his first enemy in a battle against the Tlaxcala, he had turned, triumphant, only to discover that Crocodile had increased his own tally by two.
Jaguar and Crocodile were at the rear of a twelve man scouting party sent to secure captives for the ceremony of the New Fire, and to stir up trouble with the Chalca. All of this was traditional in the run-up to a major battle, but this year the tensions were running especially high as the great cycle of the years was at an end.
The sun was already high in the sky as the scouting party made its way quickly up a valley to the east of Teotihuacan. In the distance rose the ghostly outline of Mount Tlaloc, a few wispy clouds clung to its peak, like fledgling birds uneasy at the thought of independent flight. Jaguar was glad he hadn’t brought his cloak. The loin cloth and light battle tunic he was wearing were already drenched with sweat from the exertion of the run. The spring weather was hot for the fourth year in a row. For months on end there seemed to have been only sporadic, light showers that barely seemed to touch the ground before they stopped again.
Jaguar listened to the noise of the pursuit. Behind him, Crocodile was puffing and blowing, ahead, the rest of the pack were quieter so that Jaguar could hear the crackling of dry twigs and rustling of the long grasses as the warriors wove their way through the desiccated landscape.
The shallow valley narrowed and began to slope upwards to a saddle between two low peaks, leading Jaguar to conclude that their objective must be close. A short while ago, Magic River had spotted what looked like a platoon of Chalca in an adjacent valley, and was now leading his own men on an intercept course.
Up ahead, a mother quail and her mottled brown chicks scattered, squeaking through the clumps of bunchgrass. Their black and white faces made the chicks looked crestfallen as they fell over each other in their haste to escape the line of running warriors. The bunchgrass was thick here in the light shade of the valley, but the large tufts looked dry and brown, as though it was still mid-summer.
The valley floor climbed more steeply now. The oak that thrived in the valley basin gradually gave way to a mixture of pine and gnarled juniper trees. Large gaps in the canopy appeared, revealing a brilliant azure sky, set high above with stretched-thin clouds that crept quietly in the direction of Huexotzingo.
Magic River stopped his warriors before they reached the top of the rise and sent Archer Eagle ahead to reconnoitre. The others gathered round for some last minute instructions. Magic River’s stocky frame was not ideally suited to running long distances. His face was puce and the sweat poured from his scarred face and body. In spite of his discomfort, he stood bolt upright with his arms folded, his chest rising and falling quickly.
‘You wanted a fight,’ he growled, ‘and now you’ve got one! Any of you one changed your minds and wants to go home?’ He scanned the faces in front of him. The men stood, frozen into immobility, for fear that any movement, no matter how small would be interpreted as a sign of weakness.
‘Good!’ said Magic River. ‘We are Mexica!’ He made a fist and thumped his chest, sneering as he did. ‘Mexica do not turn from battle!’ He wiped the perspiration that beaded on his forehead.
‘Storm Light,’ Magic River called to the youngest warrior. ‘What is the most important weapon you have?’
Storm Light’s wiry frame, sallow complexion and the wispy hair reminded Jaguar of a wind damaged maize cob and he had to suppress the urge to laugh. He did not look like the warrior type, Jaguar decided.
‘You find this funny Jaguar?’
‘No My Lord!’
‘Let me ask you something,’ said Magic River with a stern expression. ‘Is it because your father is one of the Council of Twelve that you think you’re above all this?’
Jaguar hung his head. ‘No My Lord.’
‘Well then, perhaps you can answer for our friend Storm Light…’
‘My hands,’ Jaguar muttered.
‘I didn’t hear that! Again please.’
‘My hands, My Lord!’
‘And why is that?’ asked Magic River in a voice that echoed his severe looking scar.
‘Hands make gifts for gods,’ Jaguar replied, somewhat louder.
‘Good.’ Magic River nodded thoughtfully and addressed the rest of the party. ‘We must take as many captives as we can. Tlacaelel has put out a general call asking for more intelligence on what the Chalca are up to and as you all know, the New Fire approaches and the gods must have their tribute.’ He turned his face towards the sun, signalling a prayer.
‘Sturdy souls, once more we raise our arms in battle.’ He began in a solemn tone. ‘Huitzilopochtli, we call on you for courage O Lord! Send us the power of your rage and fire our souls with vengeance so that we may purge the world of our enemies!’ Magic River turned back to the warriors and addressed the younger members of the party. ‘Remember this as you pursue our enemies. Though we Mexica are the chosen people, protected by our gods, so must we honour them and return to them their portion. Therefore, secure your enemies and bring them forth, so that we may appease the guardians of Motion.’
A brief silence was interrupted by a clatter of stones as Archer Eagle returned.
‘Magic River,’ he puffed, drawing level with the group. ‘The men we saw are Chalca.’ Beads of sweat traced lines over the man’s dusty pectoral muscles as he described what he had seen. ‘Perhaps twenty warriors escorting two dignitaries, approaching from the West. I think they will pass beneath our position in a few minutes.’
‘No doubt seeking military assistance from Tlaxcala,’ Magic River spat through his cleft lip.
Several of the warriors shook their heads sadly at this cowardly behaviour.
‘Is there a route down the other side?’ Magic River asked, nodding at the crest.
‘The path is steep,’ Archer Eagle replied, ‘but there is a ravine which will provide us cover on the descent.’
‘Very well, we must be quick!’ Magic River motioned the troops forward and then held his right hand in the shape the closed beak of a bird, requesting silence.
Jaguar crested the hill. The forest fell away sharply on this side, but was gouged by a sharp, V-shape, that cut precipitously down the slope. The trees on the edges leant in towards the middle of the ravine where their fanning branches met giving the appearance of a tunnel below.
The war party descended cautiously to avoid dislodging any scree. The few trees that grew in the shade of the fissure were thin and contorted. Their exposed roots writhed and twisted against the rocks that held them captive. Rivulets of clear water emerged from many places, pushed up from aquifers deep in the volcanic rock. Jaguar couldn’t resist the temptation to brush one of the soft, furry clumps of bright green moss that thrived in the damp conditions but it did little to sooth his churning stomach. Clusters of drooping ferns trembled as the warriors pushed on downwards.
They all reached the bottom of the ravine with Crocodile and Jaguar still bringing up the rear as they had been ordered to. Magic River was listening for sounds of the approaching enemy. When he was sure they weren’t close, he stepped out to survey the situation in more detail. The ravine ended on the floor of a narrow defile that was one of the less well known routes east towards the mountains. Aside from the route they had just come down, the only way in and out was along the sandy path. Elsewhere the walls were far too steep.
Magic River completed his assessment and picked out two warriors.
‘You two come with me,’ his voice was a harsh whisper. ‘The rest of you stay here with Archer Eagle and try and stay out of sight.’ He patted Archer Eagle on the shoulder. ‘Wait until they draw level with you. We will block their escape route.’ With that the stocky warrior strode off towards the approaching foe to look for a suitable hiding place.
Jaguar watched him go.
‘By the sacred skin!’ said a voice at his side. Storm Light was watching the three warriors depart. ‘He’s mad!’ the boy whispered, glancing at Jaguar. He stared, wide-eyed, looking paler than usual. ‘Three of them… against twenty Chalca!’
‘Nine of us attacking from this end,’ Jaguar pointed out.
‘What if they try to break out that way?’ Storm Light pointed at the three warriors as they disappeared from view round a jagged, rocky outcrop.
‘You haven’t seen Magic River in action yet have you?’
Storm Light shook his head.
Crocodile overheard the conversation and cut in. ‘He was a knight for ten years you know!’ Crocodile grinned, knowing the trouble that was in store for the Chalca.
‘What happened?’ asked the younger warrior.
‘He took that injury to his face’ said Crocodile in a whisper. ‘When he recovered, he quit the knights and went back to his family.’
‘So now he only fights with his clan?’
‘That’s right,’ replied Crocodile. ‘He says he’s done his bit for the tlatoani.’
Archer Eagle hissed at them to be quiet and waved everyone back into the shadows to wait. Several of the warriors used the opportunity to empty their bladders.
Jaguar felt nervous again. He always did. His hands were cold and they looked pale. He looked at Crocodile and was annoyed to see him looking relaxed. The threat of imminent violence didn’t seem to bother him. He gave off an air of indestructibility, as though his powerful frame was too big to suffer any serious damage. Jaguar thought there was some strange magic at work for Two Sign to have adopted Crocodile; they were so alike in looks and build.
When he was ten years old, Crocodile’s village had been wiped out by a retaliation strike by the people of Oaxaca. A dozen outlying Mexica villages were torched by the raiders and their people put to death or hauled away as slaves or sacrificial offerings in the great city of Oaxaca. When the news got back to Tenochtitlan, every unit of Eagle Knights and Jaguar Knights was dispatched to re-secure the area and search for survivors. Two Sign had been with the platoon that found the last village and came upon the butchered and charred remains of the oldest and the youngest in the village, piled up on the communal fire. Two Sign had found the boy huddled in the burnt out remains of a hut, gently rocking, his knees pulled up under his chin. He had been out collecting firewood and returned to find his grandparents dead and parents missing. Two Sign took him back to Tenochtitlan and the frightened boy had refused to leave the big warrior’s side. Seven years later and now a man himself, Crocodile had the same square jaw, thin lips and the same flat nose as Two Sign. It was in his eyes that Crocodile differed from the man who had taken him under his wing. Crocodile’s large, friendly eyes rolled cheerfully beneath sparse eyebrows. The overall effect was to give Crocodile a benign look that had fooled many an adversary.
Jaguar watched his friend examine his sword, checking each of the blades in turn to make sure they were tight. He felt queasy and decided to check his own weapon in the hope that it would calm his nerves. He slung a bag from his shoulder and took out the shield and his own sword. Jaguar’s was the traditional style, with none of the garish embellishments that most warriors favoured. Some carved the wooden hafts and tied colourful feathers to the head, but Jaguar’s father had shown him that clean lines and unfussy design allowed a warrior to check the weapon for faults more easily. He turned it over in his hands a few times, feeling the balance. It was a beautiful piece of work by Achcauhtli, the clan’s armourer. Six razor-sharp shards of polished obsidian gleamed even in the gloom of the ravine. The cutting stones were mounted in two rows of three, set on opposite sides to give a clean slicing action and to allow the weapon to be carried safely.
Jaguar cursed himself, irritated because of the fear that crawled over his skin.
Suddenly, Archer Eagle pulled back from the rift opening. He made a flattening motion with his hand and the warriors shrank back further into their hiding places. The enemy were close.
Jaguar unslung his wooden shield from his back and retreated behind a mossy branch. His stomach improvised new contortions and his throat felt dry.
All the warriors readied themselves, each offering up a silent prayer to Huitzilopochtli. The passing seconds slowed down until they dripped like the amber sap from a wounded pine tree. Now the sound of approaching feet could clearly be heard.
All of a sudden, the enemy came through the narrow gap and into the defile where the warriors lay in wait. Two abreast, the Chalca knights strode along the dusty track, their feathered headgear waving as they came. Jaguar held his breath as the first twelve emerged, the last of whom were noblemen, dressed in long cloaks of richly woven fabric. One of the noblemen held a long spear, upon which a human skull was mounted. The snow-white cranial dome was decorated with gold studs and framed with Quetzal feathers.
Just as the noblemen cleared the gap in the defile, Archer Eagle leapt at the two men in front, a blood-curdling scream in his throat. He crashed into them and three people fell in a thrash of legs and arms and those behind them were forced to stop abruptly. As the Chalca came to a halt, Jaguar, Crocodile, Storm Light and the other Mexica warriors rose slowly to their feet.
The tableaux held for a fraction of a second and then the Chalca reached for their weapons. Action finally dispelled Jaguar’s attack of nerves. Now that the trap was sprung, and he faced the enemy, it seemed as though raw fire coursed through his veins. He saw Crocodile throw himself over the struggling form of Archer Eagle at the next two Chalca and in the shatter-stop time of battle, Jaguar found himself beside his friend, sword raised high and yelling like the demons of the dead.
A yell from beyond the gap signalled that Magic River and his two warriors were engaging the enemy. From the corner of his eye, Jaguar saw Crocodile swing his sword and the nearest warrior raised his shield to parry the shot, suffering a jarring shock to his wrist in the process. Immediately, Crocodile began a reverse rotation of his right arm that should have disembowelled his foe.
Jaguar didn’t see the outcome because he was forced to block a sweeping blow from his own opponent. The world slowed down and fragmented into a handful of scenes, frozen as though they were carved in stone like some legendary deed of old. Rather than stop the shot directly, Jaguar instinctively ducked and stepped in under the man’s sword arm and hacked his own weapon across the man’s bare stomach, peeling it to ribbons of flesh. The warrior sank to his knees with a groan as his entrails spilled out. Jaguar stepped over him to draw level with Crocodile, to prevent his friend’s left flank from becoming exposed.
The next man confronting Jaguar was twice his age, muscular, and had the look of a seasoned warrior. They exchanged a quick succession of blows, sword on shield, sword to sword then shield against body, each successfully defending against the other’s attack. Jaguar’s right arm began to tire so he stepped back to buy himself more time and slow the pace a little. As he stepped back, Jaguar tripped over the body of the first man he had dispatched. Unwilling to let go of his shield or sword, Jaguar fell heavily on his backside. He cried out in pain and, sensing victory, the Chalca warrior rushed forward with his club raised on high.
Jaguar could only look up at his opponent, silhouetted against brilliant green canopy of overhanging trees, sword poised to deliver the final blow. Scintillating motes of dust swirled above, caught in the shafts of sunlight that pierced the foliage. Through the sounds of battle, Jaguar thought he heard Crocodile shouting as though in the far distance. Jaguar tried to raise his shield to defend himself but a searing bolt of pain in his left shoulder prevented him from moving. Suddenly, a huge weight fell across him. As he struggled out from underneath it, he saw it was the body of his opponent. Blood poured in shockingly crimson gouts from the warrior’s skull, mixed with slivers of white bone. In his haste to kill Jaguar, the man had forgotten the other six Mexica who stood waiting behind the battle line to get into the action.
Jaguar stood up, expecting to rejoin the fray, but another warrior had taken his position and there was no room in the confines of the rift for Jaguar to get to the front. He took advantage of the enforced rest, breathing deeply as the world slewed back into normal focus.
‘Are you all right?’ asked Storm Light.
‘Yes.’ Jaguar rubbed his shoulder. ‘Who took that big man down?’ He noticed Storm Light was trembling and a thought occurred to him. ‘Was it you?’
Strom Light nodded and managed a rueful smile.
‘Wow! Thanks,’ said Jaguar, eyeing the lad with new respect.
‘What’s it like in there?’ Storm Light agitated. His eyes kept flicking from Jaguar to the fight, perhaps worried that the enemy might break through.
‘Tight,’ was all Jaguar managed.
‘Did you see Magic River?’
Jaguar replied that he hadn’t.
Suddenly, a high-pitched scream rose above the general clangour. Jaguar tried to identify the source of the noise, but the scene was too chaotic. It looked as though another Mexica warrior had advanced to fill a gap up front. The fighting had retreated a small way down the gully, but it was impossible to tell whether it was due to Magic River retreating or whether it was caused by a contraction of the Chalca ranks. Jaguar thought he could just make out Crocodile’s sword, rising and falling amidst the flailing arms and weapons.
Storm Light and Jaguar moved closer to the rear of the action, ready in case the enemy should try and break through.
Just then a sharp command cut through the noise. The fighting stopped abruptly. Warily, the Mexica warriors lowered their weapons. Five Mexica stood alongside Crocodile. It wasn’t easy for Jaguar to get a clear view from the back, but he thought he could see Archer Eagle lying sprawled, face up amongst the ferns to the right of the path. Another Mexica lay close by, slumped over a large boulder with a vicious looking war club embedded in his skull by its glistening blades. It was the boat builder’s son.
Trapped in the narrow pass, seven Chalca warriors stood in a protective huddle around the two dignitaries. They were all liberally splashed with blood and they clutched their weapons and shields with fierce desperation.
Magic River stood beyond the huddle of Chalca, blocking the defile with his solid frame. His face and arms were splashed with gore and the front of his once-white tunic was now almost entirely red. In spite of this, he appeared to be unhurt. One of the warriors he had chosen to fight alongside him was still alive, his eyes blazing with savage intensity. A dozen corpses lay about them on the ground.
‘What’s happening?’ Storm Light whispered to Jaguar.
Jaguar ignored him, annoyed at the interruption and intent upon the detail of the stand-off. The walls of the narrow pass made it impossible for the Chalca to escape, so unless they surrendered they would have to fight their way out, but Magic River had taken a huge gamble by calling a halt to the fighting so soon. With only two warriors standing between them and the way they had come, they might yet decide to try and break free.
Moctezuma’s instructions were to take captives, so Island Home North’s experienced captain intended to deliver. Jaguar checked the numbers. Ten of the Chalca lay dead, for a loss of three Mexica, leaving the two sides more evenly matched. If Magic River’s timing was right and the enemy capitulated, the rewards would be extraordinary.
The pause continued as the Chalca weighed the situation up. Jaguar could see them trying to work out which route would offer the least resistance.
‘Come on,’ Jaguar urged Storm Light forward so the two of them could take up position between the others to block up the gaps. The other way out certainly looked easier at first glance, but there was something about Magic River’s solid, implacable presence and his calm demeanour that whispered death. Looking at him and tangle of bodies that lay about the captain, even Jaguar had to suppress a shudder.
A ghastly moan broke the silence. Everyone turned and stared at Archer Eagle who was still alive. He had dragged himself out of the ferns and was trying to haul himself into a sitting position against a rocky outcrop. Dark, treacle-like blood lay in a sheen over his mangled shoulder while black dirt and leaf litter mingled with the pink froth that bubbled from a wound in his chest. The warrior’s once-tanned skin looked a deathly shade of grey and he struggled to draw breath. The standoff was momentarily forgotten as every warrior watched, transfixed by the dying man.
The broken warrior slowly raised one finger and pointed at the Chalca. ‘Do… not… choose… this,’ he breathed, barely audible. The smallest of smiles tugged briefly at the corners of his mouth. He dragged another shallow breath. ‘Choose surrender…’ Here Archer Eagle coughed weakly, drooling blood. His outstretched arm dropped to his lap and his eyes glazed over before refocusing again briefly.
‘Choose… immortality.’ Archer Eagle slowly looked to one and then the other, as though looking for something. Finally his head dropped to his chest and his bubbling wound fell still.
A shocked silence ensued but Magic River knew the moment had come to appeal to the enemy. ‘Worthy sons of Chalco,’ he said. ‘You heard our noble friend, Archer Eagle. There is no escape for you. Fight on and die here in agony or,’ he paused for effect. ‘Give yourselves up and live another day, fêted as the gods’ chosen ones.’
The two dignitaries stirred as though from a trance and they bent their feathered heads in conference. They whispered in short, staccato, as the one with the spear started jabbing at the others chest. His shorter colleague nodded frequently at first and then began shaking his head. Gradually, his voice got louder and then raised an octave. The one with the spear gesticulated at his colleague a couple of times and then slapped his face hard to shut him up. He waited a moment to see if he had made his point. When there was no response, he turned gracefully to face Magic River and bowed low.
‘Brave children of the Sun,’ began the dignitary, opening with a traditional compliment. ‘We have fought valiantly. We have hurled ourselves upon the might of our enemy with terrible ferocity and yet we have been repelled.’
Magic River nodded once, looking sternly through the blackening flecks of blood across his face.
‘You have fought valiantly,’ he replied, according them the respect they sought. ‘In truth, we were in fear of our lives, but now you are outnumbered.’ Magic River twisted the truth, allowing the Chalca to save face.
The Chalca representative gratefully acknowledged Magic River’s comments and formally surrendered.
‘We honourably lay down our weapons and place ourselves in the care of our fathers.’ So saying, the dignitary instructed his warriors to place their weapons on the ground. When they had done so, he addressed them again.
‘You have acquitted yourselves well in the name of your fathers and in the true spirit of your ancestors.’ He bowed to his warriors who now stood at ease, and passed between them. He presented himself before Magic River and knelt in front of him, submitting himself in the traditional manner. The proud noblemen prostrated himself upon the ground and placed three fingers to the ground at Magic River’s feet. He wiped his fingers in the dust and touched them to his lips.
‘Honourable father I am your son. Guide me until the will of the gods is known.’
His colleague followed suit, eating dirt at Crocodile’s feet. With Archer Eagle dead and Crocodile occupying a central position, the emissary from Chalco naturally assumed he was next in command. The Chalca each picked an opponent from amongst the Mexica and submitted one-by-one. The last two stepped up to Jaguar and Storm Light and knelt in the leaf litter.
‘Father, I am yours to guide’ they intoned.
‘Son of mine, henceforth you are also son of the Sun,’ recited their captors in time.
‘What is your name?’ Jaguar asked the man at his feet.
‘Sunshine of the Seven Hills,’ the man replied, his gazed fixed firmly on the dirt. Jaguar bade him stand and looked him up and down. He was a wiry individual, old enough to be Jaguar’s father. His face was nearly flat and he had high cheekbones that suggested Tarascan lineage, but he had the narrow slit eyes and dark skin of the lake dwellers. ‘You should call me Sunshine,’ he added. He scratched nervously at his thinning black hair and gave a watery smile.
‘Very well Sunshine,’ agreed Jaguar. ‘Are you injured?’ Jaguar looked at his captive’s leg which was bleeding from a wound in his thigh.
‘It’s not as bad as it looks,’ replied Sunshine, dabbing at the cut with the free end of his loin cloth. Although it didn’t look life threatening, the cut was deep enough to have sliced through muscle and the wound steadfastly refused to be staunched.
Just then, Crocodile came over. ‘You need to close that.’ He pulled a small fabric pouch from his waist and handed it to Jaguar. ‘Needle and thread.’
‘Right,’ said Jaguar as he extracted the contents delicately. He’d seen a wound sutured closed on the battlefield once before but his only real experience of stitching was the time his mother had been unwell and he’d helped out by repairing one of his father’s tunics that had been torn in battle, that and one lesson in the military school.
‘Sit down,’ he instructed Sunshine of the Seven Hills, pointing at the fallen tree trunk behind him. The Chalca did as he was told and Jaguar set to work as quickly as he could, talking all the while to allay his nerves. He took a bone needle and some thread made from the fibres of the agave plant out of the small pouch. He spat on the needle, wiped it clean on the fabric of the pouch and ran a thread through the eye. Jaguar tried to look confident as he pushed the needle through Sunshine’s skin, as though he’d done it many times.
‘You are my second captive,’ said Jaguar. ‘Two veterans helped me take my first captive.’ He tugged the thread and made a knot before beginning again. ‘That day we fought the Tlaxcalan army. They fought hard but in the end they turned in rout.’ Jaguar frowned as he concentrated on pulling a knot tight. ‘I managed to grab one of the warriors, but he was sweaty. He nearly wriggled out of my grasp but then one of the clan elders grabbed the man’s other arm.’
Sunshine listened politely, wincing as the rough needle pierced his skin.
Jaguar remembered the thrill of taking his first captive. Another veteran had caught hold of the Tlaxcalan’s queue and wrenched him to the ground, whereupon the Tlaxcalan had submitted.
Jaguar finished the last stitch in silence and for the first time, he noticed the quiet after the battle, a ghostly silence that hung over the forest. He stood up and surveyed his handiwork. Half a dozen coarse knots crossed the gouge in the captive’s thigh. It looked ugly, but the blood seemed to have stopped. With luck it would hold during the long walk back to Tenochtitlan.
‘Mictlan’s bones,’ grinned Crocodile who had been watching. ‘I thought you were trying to save him, not finish him off!’
Jaguar gave a sour look. He was still trembling from the nerves and the effort of concentration as was in no mood for jocularity.
The solemn ritual of surrender was over so while Jaguar had been tending to his captive, Magic River had directed one of his men to collect the Chalca’s weapons into a pile against the wall of the defile and line the fallen warriors up neatly along the edge of the path, ready for carrying away. With this job completed Magic River addressed those present.
‘I know this path. There’s a cave to the west, not far away. We will take the dead there and give them a proper burial.’ Magic River made it clear that the Chalca would have to help. Even the captured dignitaries were pressed into service. ‘It’s going to take two trips to get everyone down there, so we’d better get going.’
‘Come on,’ Jaguar indicated the nearest body to Sunshine who stood up gingerly, testing his damaged leg. It oozed slightly but seemed to hold. They bent down to collect up the limbs of their chosen corpse and gathered it up awkwardly. Sunshine gripped under the dead man’s armpits and Jaguar hooked his elbows under the limp knee joints. Sunshine nodded his head in the direction they were supposed to be going. Jaguar was puzzled until Sunshine managed to free a hand and made circular motions with his index finger. Suddenly Jaguar caught on. Sheepishly, he manhandled his end of the load until he was facing the other way, realising that his captive had spared him from ridicule.
Jaguar and his captive fell in with the others, who were already making off down the defile with their loads. The procession moved in an ungainly fashion along the path in the direction that the Chalca had been going, leaving two bodies behind to be collected later.
The volcanic landscape in the area was pockmarked with numerous caves, especially in the high country. Over time, lava outpourings from ancient eruptions had become eroded into complex and sometimes grotesque shapes or fractured by earthquakes. In some places, ash and pumice deposits, sandwiched between layers of solidified rock, had become exposed to the elements and washed away, revealing flat roofed caves. Extensive systems of caverns formed where underground water courses cut through the softer volcanic residue. Through such caves the dead attained the afterlife. The spirits left their earthly flesh behind and wandered down the dripping sink holes, where they would eventually reunite with Mictlantecuhtli, the god of the underworld.
Sunshine’s composure was commendable, thought Jaguar. The little man had a strong hold on the body and was as committed to the task as any of the Mexica. Jaguar hoped that he would bring honour to his people if he was ever taken captive. In a recurring dream of his, he was taken by the Chalca or the Tlaxcalans – he couldn’t be sure which – who prepared him for sacrifice. Priests dressed Jaguar in the ceremonial costume, presenting him as the living image of Tezcatlipoca, the god of drought, famine and of plagues. His memories of the dream were mostly hazy, but many details remained etched in Jaguar’s mind. First the priests painted his body black and placed a crown of quail feathers upon his head. Next came the red mantle, decorated with a skull and crossed bones. In his left hand they placed a white shield and four, pure-white arrows. In his right hand they placed the atlatl, the throwing spear. Jaguar could recall no sound from the dream, but the wide-open mouths of the priests and the crowd rang in his head like a condemnation. He knew he must be brave and turn to face the altar, but each time he had tried, the dream ended and Jaguar awoke to find himself awash with sweat.
Jaguar shuddered and tried to concentrate on the task in hand, shifting the weight of the dead man to relieve his aching shoulders. Up ahead, others were having trouble with their loads too. The pair in front stopped to adjust their grip allowing Jaguar and Sunshine to slip past and catch up with Crocodile. Crocodile had been in the thick of the fray for the whole battle. He must have been exhausted, but Jaguar could only detect the faintest signs that he was struggling. He was bringing up the rear of his team so Jaguar got close enough to land a kick on his backside.
‘Hey worm! You’re too slow!’ cried Jaguar. ‘Hurry up or we’ll be forced to tread on you!’
Crocodile turned his head and caught sight of the mischievous grin on his friend’s face.
‘At least I didn’t shirk the fight by playing dead!’ he retorted.
‘Pah! Mictlan take you!’ laughed Jaguar. He kicked Crocodile again for good measure, glad that his friend chose to fight alongside Island Home North. Technically, because Crocodile had been adopted by Two Sign, his clan was They Who Hold Back the Water, but since Two Sign wasn’t married, he’d spent very little time with the warrior’s family so he’d been given leave to fight with Jaguar’s clan instead.
The two had met at Telpochcalli, when Jaguar became old enough to attend the military school. Not long after Jaguar joined, he was accosted by Crocodile who, in the short time he had been there, had developed a reputation as something of a bully. An argument had broken out over the ownership of an unfortunate toad which had been waddling dejectedly around the recreational area. Jaguar had taken pity on the creature, and was about to release it in the street outside the compound, from where it would be able to make its way to the canal. At that moment, Crocodile made an accusation of theft and within a matter of seconds was pushing Jaguar repeatedly on the chest. Crocodile’s regular victims winced, recognising Jaguar’s mounting frustration, but were secretly pleased that Crocodile had found someone new to pick on. Everyone who witnessed the event was convinced the Jaguar would flee or cower in humiliation, probably bawling his eyes out. At that fourteen, Crocodile was already larger than his contemporaries and he certainly had a weight advantage over the Jaguar.
Jaguar staggered back from another shove. He looked up from the toad in a detached way. Crocodile narrowly missed treading on the creature several times. Jaguar imagined the split skin and squashed entrails that would result. Crocodile’s sneering face swan into view, and his fatuous expression angered Jaguar. Suddenly he snapped. Spinning with lightning speed, Jaguar smashed the heel of his open palm directly into Crocodile’s nose. The astonished antagonist fell backwards and sat down heavily. Black drops formed curious sooty pellets in the dust, and Jaguar tried to work out where they had come from, until he saw Crocodile’s broken nose, gushing blood into his cupped hands.
From that day on Jaguar had Crocodile’s respect and it wasn’t long before the two became firm friends. They could often be seen together, out in search of trouble. With a co-conspirator in the high jinks of adolescence, Crocodile’s exploitation of his fellow schoolmates stopped, as Jaguar found more creative means of entertainment. On one occasion they stole a fisherman’s canoe, intent on paddling it clear across to Texcoco, until they accidentally overturned it in the middle of the lake, forcing them to swim for almost half an hour to regain the shore.
‘There it is,’ called a voice from ahead, bringing Jaguar’s attention back to the present. The convoy had at last reached the cave. Jaguar and Sunshine lowered the dead warrior to the ground and arched their backs, trying to ease the cramp. At this point in the defile, the path began to slope back downhill quite steeply, and the dirt path disappeared among haphazard steps of broken rock. A massive slab of Tezontle jutted out from the right-hand cliff-face, similar to the black basalt used for the sacrificial altar of the Great Temple. The slab lay at an angle, its far end lay on a level with the path, but the nearer end was propped up on a large boulder, forming a gaping horizontal crack. Yellow-green creepers festooned the sides of the dark slab, and a gnarled juniper tree grew out from above it. The tree’s branches pointed up the rift, combed by the channelled winter winds into a rough and threadbare alignment.
The gap beneath the slab was wide enough for two people to lie across it, but it was very low.
‘The entrance isn’t big enough!’ exclaimed Crocodile.
‘Perhaps not for a fat pig like you,’ scoffed Jaguar. ‘I could easily get in there.’
Just then Magic River made his way to the head of the convoy and overheard the exchange.
‘Right you two,’ he said, beckoning to Jaguar and Crocodile. He wiped at the sweat and blood that caked his forehead with a corner of his tunic. ‘You seem keen to try out the cave. Get in there and check it out?’
‘What, get inside?’ asked Crocodile.
‘Crocodile, I’ve got no time for your idiocies,’ said Magic River, a note of exasperation creeping into his voice. ‘There are two more bodies to bring down here and we’re a long way from home, so get in there and make sure it’s a worthy burial place for these men.’
‘What are we looking for?’ Jaguar asked sincerely.
‘Just…’ Magic River waved them away. ‘You’ll know when you get in there!’ With that he began arranging for collection of the remaining corpses.
Jaguar and Crocodile bent down beneath the overhanging slab to inspect the entrance to the cave. Beyond the mouth itself, the darkness was profound. Jaguar could just make out a drop down to the floor.
‘Move aside blubber boy.’ Jaguar prodded Crocodile’s muscled torso and backed towards the ledge. He lowered himself into the opening, gingerly extending his right leg until he felt it touch solid ground. Very little light penetrated the wedge shaped aperture. While Jaguar waited for his eyes to adjust, Crocodile wriggled through the gap and eased himself down to the floor of the cave. The basalt roof of the cave continued unbroken into the depths for two or three paces until it vanished into the inky blackness.
‘How far in do you think it goes?’ said Crocodile.
‘Let’s find out,’ he suggested and crept further into the cave. He strained his eyes into the darkness, trying to see the ground, the walls, ceiling or any discernible feature. People disappeared in caves like this and Jaguar didn’t want to add his name to the list. Jaguar became nervous. There was a fracture in the stone roof that seemed to run across the width of the cave, but Jaguar could see nothing of the floor. It had a curious velvety quality of black that he didn’t like at all and the air had a pungent, earthy smell. As Crocodile drew level with him, Jaguar put out a hand to stop his friend going any further.
‘Wait Crocodile, I think there’s a hole.’
Jaguar stooped and reached down to touch the floor. He stretched out a little further and the floor disappeared. Jaguar groped about until he found a stone and lobbed it into the inky darkness so that it would land a few paces in front of where they stood.
For a second, Jaguar doubted that he’d thrown the stone at all. The almost total sensory deprivation in the cave made it hard to trust the little information coming in from his surroundings. A moment later there was a distant, muffled clank of stone bouncing off stone, a brief clatter and then silence.
‘By the shredded Skin of Xipe! You were right,’ exclaimed Crocodile. ‘I wonder how close we are to the edge? It must go down all the way to the Land of the Dead.’
‘No,’ said Jaguar, unsure. ‘I heard it hit the bottom.’
‘That wasn’t the bottom. It just bounced off a wall and then carried on down. We’d better get out of here in case it lands on Mictlantecuhtli’s head. He won’t be very pleased.’
Jaguar knew Crocodile was joking, but he still didn’t like it. The Lord of the Underworld presided over a grim realm, where the mayeque, the peasants went when they died. Also, those unfortunate enough not to die in combat or upon the sacrificial altar, made the arduous journey through nine levels of infernal torture until they reached the Land of the Dead. The thought of Mictlantecuhtli’s skeletal features rising from the depths to see who had disturbed him made Jaguar apprehensive.
A sudden draught of damp air blew up from the abyss, like the foetid exhalation of a dying man. Jaguar’s skin went cold and the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. His flesh crawled and he stood rooted to the spot.
‘Let’s get out of here!’ cried Crocodile and turned on his heel.
Jaguar whirled, stumbled to the entrance, and leapt through the narrow opening, out into the dazzling sunlight. Crocodile was right behind him.
‘What’s wrong with you two?’ asked Storm Light. He looked down at the boys who lay gasping on the warm earthen path. ‘You’re both as white as axolotl.’
‘Did you see a snake in there?’ Sunshine asked politely.
‘More likely they just met the spirits of their ancestors,’ laughed a Mexica.
In the warmth of the defile, Jaguar quickly regained his composure.
‘No! But we did nearly fall down a huge hole,’ he replied. ‘It’s the perfect place to put these warriors, but we’ll have to stay away from the back of the cave. It’s too dangerous.’
While they waited for Magic River to return with the last of the bodies, Jaguar and Crocodile described the cave to the others. When all of the bodies had been ferried to the mouth of the cave, Magic River instructed Jaguar and Crocodile to get back inside so there would be someone to pass the corpses to.
‘Any of you Chalca know the burial rights?’ asked Magic River, unwilling to send more of his own men into the cave.
‘I spent two years studying to become a priest,’ he explained as he followed Jaguar under the stone slab.
Those still outside placed the bodies on the lip of the drop into the cave. From there, Jaguar, Crocodile and Sunshine could drag them in and set them against the left-hand wall. Jaguar recognised Archer Eagle’s body as it was handed down, but just as he and Crocodile caught hold of the warrior’s legs, his damaged shoulder tore free. Magic River lowered their comrade down by his other arm then passed the other limb to Jaguar. Somehow the severed arm was more gruesome than its lifeless owner. Ragged strips of flesh hung about the remains of the joint and although the weight of the thing surprised Jaguar, the realisation that it was still warm was even more unsettling. He was glad to dispose of it alongside Archer Eagle’s body.
Soon they were finished, and thirteen warriors lay in a row, barely visible in the gloom. Sunshine said a short prayer to Huitzilopochtli, commending the souls of the dead to him and earnestly requesting that they be spared from an eternity in Mictlan’s realms.
Jaguar and Crocodile helped Sunshine out of the cave. The sun had passed its zenith, casting the floor of the rift into shadow. A solemn silence descended over the scouting party and its captives as they set out for Tenochtitlan.