Itzli chose his moment well as he waited waist deep in the stream, frozen with spear in hand, like a statue in one of the great cities. He didn’t move until the fish passed just before him, and then he sprung, launching the spear down, slightly beneath its refracted image in the water, perfectly impaling it. It was a big catch, enough for breakfast, and hopefully enough to do away with the troublesome thoughts on his mind. Itzli waded to the bank of the stream, and after depositing the fish with the rest of his catch set off on the quick run home.
Home was a small hut, built into the side of a great tree. Other than the carefully built fire, concealed with a shelf of flat stones, there was nothing to indicate the place was inhabited, let alone the young man’s home for as far as he could remember. But home it was. Itzli checked for the sun as he slowed to a panting walk. There was a time when the journey to the stream would take from morning to midday - now he could get there before even noticing the sun had moved.
As Itzli dropped the fish by the fire his father yawned good morning as he stepped out of the hut. “…I would have preferred a boar,” he said as he began to stretch his limbs.
“Well there are no boars in the stream. Where’s Tenoch?”
“Still asleep, why? More dreams?”
Itzli took out his knife and began gutting the fish.
His father began to slowly swing an invisible sword around him, gradually increasing the pace of the unseen weapons movements as he warmed up, “You should have taken the guts out by the stream. Now we’ll have all sorts digging around here.”
“Then I’ll go back and throw them in the stream,” Itzli snapped. He grabbed a fish from the basket and stabbed it with his dagger. “I have those dreams every night now. I’m in a palace or temple, there are warriors everywhere, trying to attack Tenoch. It’s like no matter how many I cut down they still keep coming, and I can’t protect him. They get him, and then they catch me and I can’t do anything!” Itzli looked to his father, “You think I am weak, don’t you?” Itzli waited for his father to respond as he hollowed out the remaining fish.
“Itzli, you are my son, you are not weak – far from it. I know that no matter what you will always do your best. You have been given mighty gifts from Teotl, but even still you must accept that what happens tomorrow is the business for tomorrow. Be grateful for everyday we spend alive.”
“I am grateful. But what does Tenoch have to be grateful about? Teotl has blessed me with strength, and cursed him with illness. And that’s what I think these dreams are telling me. I have to use my strength to protect him - my strength is his strength. Otherwise what good am I?”
Itzli’s father stopped his exercise, and grinned with his forehead already gleaming with sweat. “Good words, boy. But at my age you realise that whatever Teotl wills, usually comes to pass. Now, how about getting some wood, I’ll need a big piece if you still want me to make that canoe.”
Itzli sighed before getting up and going to retrieve the chopping axe from the hut. Inside he saw his older brother asleep by the wall. The wrappings that usually covered his legs had come loose and the corruption that haunted his body could be seen, as if his flesh had been boiled from underneath and left to wither into rotten meat. His dressing was filthy and Itzli knew the sores underneath would start to corrupt if they weren’t changed soon. Tenoch’s body was no greater than a small child’s, and his limbs too feeble to have ever been used. Itzli wondered how his father lived with the knowledge that his actions brought about this curse on his first born. Grabbing the axe Itzli left, unable to calm the anger he felt inside.
It was not until the sun had passed its highest point before Itzli felt his anger ebbing away, each cut from his axe diminishing in vigour. He had butchered his way into the woods near the hut, making a miserable clearing – enough wood for a fleet of canoes and several nights of fire. He squatted down and rested against the back of a felled tree. This was the forest he had been raised in, and he asked it to calm his mind towards the answer to his dreams. He listened, slowing his breath until the woods became a concert of calling animals and a hall of rustling leaves. Amidst this, he could hear a sound as unfamiliar to the forest as the moon was to the sun. The gentle clamour of jewellery jingled above the hush of the wind, and Itzli instinctively reached for the axe.
From the surrounding foliage crept an old man with a face deeply carved by age. His ears were lengthened with the weight of the magnificent jade he wore and his robes were of fantastic colours, as though he had found his clothes at the very end of the rainbow. “Greetings, no need for arms, boy. No need,” the man stepped forward with his hands raised.
“Who are you?” Itzli poised himself to leap and swing with axe in hand.
“Not used to strangers, eh boy? Well, I am a magician… and I am lost. Can you help me find my way?”
“Not even if I help you?” The magician gestured to the logs. “Even one as strong as you will need to make several journeys to move all of this. If I save you the burden, will you help me then?”
“I don’t believe in your magic,” Itzli said as he walked over to the logs. Tying the axe to his waist, he scooped up two, one under each arm and set off without even once looking back. The logs were each about the length of a man but Itzli carried them with ease. He was raised to never trust strangers, and if the old man was still there when he returned for the other logs, then it wouldn’t be the first lost traveller he would help find a route to Mitclan.
It wasn’t a far walk to the hut, and Itzli set off without looking back at the old magician. He was never to let a stranger see his face more than once. Outside their hut, he could see his father already busying himself with the day’s tasks. He was sorting through a pile of logs as Itzli approached, rolling those for cutting and those for fire to different sides of the hut. “Hey, where did you get those from?” Itzli asked.
His father shrugged, “Didn’t you put them there?”
Itzli dropped the two logs and untied the axe from his waist. He was about to run back to the clearing when the voice of the magician came from behind him. Turning quickly he saw the old man there again, strolling towards them. “Ahh, I see all your wood has arrived. Isn’t that fortunate.”
“Who is this?” Itzli’s father hissed as he seemed to harden into stone.
“He said he’s a magician. I think he moved the wood I cut.”
Itzli’s father called out, “Magician, did you move these logs here?”
“Of course, but I only did so in exchange for some help.”
The magician strolled forward, jingling all the way as his jewellery knocked together. “I heard there is a great city not too far from here. One ruled by the vassal of the empire, a lord Huemac. And with this lord, there is a high priest, Momotzli and the great warrior Necalli. Is that true?”
“Nearly. There is a city near here, and Huemac rules it, with Momotzli as his respected High Priest. But Necalli no longer lives there.”
The magician peered forward, “Then where does Necalli live if not with his brother in the great city?”
“They say Necalli is dead.”
The magician laughed, “Dead? Well, let me tell you what I heard. I heard the once great warrior Necalli lives in exile in the forest, in a hut with his two sons. And I heard, he is cursed,” the magician ended with a penetrating glare.
Itzli’s father, Necalli, clenched his fists, “Let your business be vital. I don’t want to kill you, but I will if I have to.”
The magician clapped his hands, showing off his well worn teeth as he grinned. “Well you have helped me just enough, Necalli. But you have no need to threaten me, your weapons couldn’t hurt me anyway, and besides, you know very well it is a bad omen to have the blood of a magician on your hands. It’s getting late, won’t you invite me in?”
“Why?” Itzli snapped. “I don’t trust him. You can never trust magicians. Let’s see if his curse comes true when he’s dead!”
“Itzli, shut up, I don’t think we have a choice,” Necalli turned to his son, “Tenoch and I have lived with one curse, I do not need you to live with another.” Necalli waved for the magician to follow him into the hut. Itzli felt as though he could have crushed the axe handle in his hands as the old man passed. As his father and the magician went inside Itzli followed - determined to keep a suspicious eye on the man for as long as possible.
Inside, Tenoch lay awake with the fish Itzli had caught in the morning cooked and laid upon leaves on the floor. The magician took seat, followed by Necalli. “Come, Itzli,” the magician said, “no need to be so apprehensive.”
Itzli kept his face stern, wondering how the old man had read his mind to discover his name. Slowly he went to sit, positioning himself by the door and keeping his eyes fixed on the guest.
“Necalli, tell me about your curse,” the magician asked.
Necalli cleared his throat and sat as firm as stone, refusing to move his eyes from the ceiling. “When my wife was pregnant with Tenoch, many years ago now, me, my brother and lord Huemac were in a village. We were warriors then, we did what warriors do – and we all paid the price. It was a curse that has failed to remove itself, no matter how much I ask to be forgiven. And it was the same for my brother and lord Huemac. We are all suffering now, for something done with as little regard as taking a breath. Of course, when Tenoch was born the way he was, Momotzli thought the only way to lift the curse was to sacrifice him. But I couldn’t. I begged to be allowed to leave, so that my curse can stay with me and me alone. They promised that they wouldn’t follow me as long as I had no more children. But, I was weak. My wife died giving birth to Itzli. And I have made sure that no one from the city can ever know. If they did, they will come for Tenoch.”
The magician sighed, nodding in a show of understanding. “And this curse, you are sure of it?”
“My eldest son is proof.”
“And what do you make of this, Tenoch?” The magician peered forward as he asked. “Do you believe you are cursed?”
Tenoch groaned, he always struggled to speak, but he managed to nod, mouthing I am sorry to Necalli.
Itzli despaired to see it, it occurred to him how little he actually watched his brother. And why should he? Every move Tenoch made seemed agonising, every groan in his sleep a desperate cry for help that not Itzli or his father could soothe. Itzli knew all too well that whatever Teotl wills always comes to pass, but the fate delivered to his brother just wasn’t fair.
Itzli held his thoughts as he realized the magician was studying him. “What?” Itzli barked.
“Nothing,” the magician said. “I can’t help but notice how you feel for your older brother. You would do anything to protect him, that’s good. But tell me, has it never crossed your mind to sacrifice him, offer him to Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, and lift the cloak of darkness and solitude this curse has covered you in?”
“Never!” Itzli surged to his feet with the axe ready. “Never. Father told us about what you do in the city and I’ve seen it - sacrificing the innocent, and even your loved ones to jealous gods. We’ll never sacrifice one of our own. I’ll sooner draw a dagger across my own neck before I let anyone even touch a hair on him!”
The magician laughed as Itzli heaved angry breaths above him, “Good, good, you have helped enough for now. Well, it is getting dark, you all should eat, keep yourselves strong. I will remain here for the night and then be on my way in the morning. Come, sit, eat, don’t mind me, I am a quiet guest.”
Tenoch seemed bemused as solemnly Necalli began to eat. Breaking some of the fish apart he fed Tenoch while the magician silently sat against the wall.
“Father,” Itzli raged, “how can you eat with this demon in here? You may be afraid of curses, but I’m not.” Itzli went to draw the axe.
“Itzli!” Necalli growled, freezing his son still. “Raise that axe again and I’ll make you regret you were born. Now eat.”
Itzli had no desire to satisfy anything other than his thirst for the magician’s blood. He stormed outside and dropped himself beside the fire. He couldn’t care any less for curses. If that was what Teotl willed for him then it would be worth it to see the magician’s head hacked from his neck.
Sitting defiantly outside, Itzli kept watch, waiting for the slightest noise or sound of commotion, ready to rush in with an excuse to swing for that smug old git. But nothing came.
As the night wore on, Itzli pensively paced around, still too angered to go inside. He walked back to where he first saw the magician, to the make-shift clearing which now had no felled trees. He then walked back to the hut, scanning as best he could in the darkness for any tracks, any kind of trickery. But there was none. In the end, Itzli returned to his place by the fire where he slowly fell into an uncomfortable and troubled sleep.