They had passed through the forest quickly, carelessly wrecking every branch in their way. Itzli followed the trampled ground, matching the warriors’ strides with hasty steps. Yaotl’s men had fanned out, splitting the tracks into three groups. It stopped the young warrior only for a moment as he followed the trail that had the deepest imprints in the mud – evidence of the extra weight of his brother or father.
The sun was moving rapidly above him, and he couldn’t let darkness over take his search. The threat of nightfall spurred him into a sprint which he sustained until his legs were close to collapsing. The tracks still continued, and he knew he was closing in. Cautiously checking above, he saw the colour of the sky indicate sunset. Catching his breath he went on, untying his sword and readying it for the kill. His heaving lungs caught the smell of smoke, and he licked his lips at the thought of catching his enemies unaware at camp. In the receding light the forest ahead glowed with the heat of a fire. Itzli tightened the grip on his sword, and trying his best to silence his ragged breathing leapt out from the forest ready to kill.
His feet slid to a stop and he cursed viciously. The tracks he had followed led him all the way here, and all the way to the sight of three of Yaotl’s men lying dead on the floor, their bodies perforated with arrow wounds. Itzli scanned the tracks on the floor too late, the realisation he was surrounded came just moments before the hidden warriors emerged from with bows drawn taught and fingers ready to let slip.
The men spread out in front of him in a semi circle of seven deadly tipped arrows. Itzli watched them carefully behind the intimidation of their black arrow heads. Their skin was dark, like none who lived in the forests around the city, and their bodies were barely thicker than their bows. They were a sickly bunch whose skin wrapped their bones closer than it should. Doubting they had the strength to hold back their arrows for long, Itzli called to them, “Was there another man with these men, bound? And a boy, covered in wrappings? They’re heading to the city.”
“No.” The man at the end of the half circle said. “It was only these three - one was being carried on the others back, although he seemed well enough to fight.”
Itzli slowly sucked in the realisation that he had been tricked. The extra weight of carrying a man gave deeper tracks, which Itzli blindly followed. Yaotl would no doubt be approaching the city by now and there would be no way Itzli could catch him. “Then I’ll leave you to your spoils,” Itzli said as he made to turn.
“Wait,” the man at the end of the line said, as he lowered his arm and relaxed the tightly drawn bow. His men continued to hold their steady aim at Itzli. “We have been told the servants of the rain god roam these woods, and that even the god himself, Tlaloc, roams these parts. Is it true? Have you seen either? Answer well – your countrymen did not,” he gestured to the dead bodies on the floor.
“I grew up away from the city; I don’t know anything about their gods – or yours. But if it’s rain you’re after then head east. The weather is always bad there.”
The man looked at Itzli for a moment while his words replayed through his men. He took up his bow and aimed a drawn arrow to Itzli temple. “This is no joke. We have travelled a great distance to find Tlaloc, or a one of his Tlaloque. We have abandoned our people to starvation for over a year in search of these gods. We have no patience for anyone who wastes our time. Now tell me, have you seen the rain god? Have you seen one his attendants?”
Itzli calmly kept steady grip on his sword, calculating how he could kill this man and shield himself before getting struck by one of the arrows trained on him. “I have never seen this Tlaloc. And if I have, then he has never made himself known to me. My brother and father have been taken by the leader of the men you killed. So I too do not have patience for anyone who wastes my time.” Their eyes met each other for a time as the man’s bow quivered from the strain of keeping it drawn. It was becoming clear to Itzli that these were no warriors, there was nothing of the hardness in their eyes. They were desperate and starving village folk, far from home and fearful of being ambushed.
The man’s bow at last retreated as he stepped away from Itzli and ordered his men to stand down. “Why do you search for the god? – it sounds as if you’ve come a long way to make an offering,” Itzli asked.
“We aren’t here to make an offering,” the bowman spat, “We’re here to take one. Our village is small, one not easy to find. For years we have avoided giving our young for flower wars, we never saw the point of risking our childrens lives when we could remain as we were, safe. We ignored the words of our elders, we laughed when they told us we would anger Huitzilopochtli. And then on the eve of the harvest, we awoke to find our crop massacred by decay. Everything was destroyed, our livestock dead overnight. We left our village, creating a new home elsewhere, seeking the protection of another deity and forsaking Huitzilopochtli. But the misery followed us. The sight of our children dying from starvation and thirst was too much. The elders began sacrificing our women, and then the men also, until only a few of us remained. Then we sacrificed what few children were left... we gave them all to the gods. But the curse didn’t leave us. For nearly two years no rain has fallen on our land. But what greater thing is there to offer Huitzilopochtli than our children? The only answer was another god. So it is we are here, far from home and far from hope.”
Itzli looked on the emaciated men in bewilderment, he had never heard of something so outrageous! “Is what you speak of even possible? Can a man do such a thing?”
The bowman replied grimly, “If a man can wear on his back the flayed skin of his son to please a god... then what seek to do is no difficult thing.”
Itzli had nothing to say in reply to the man, who returned to his fellow bowmen. They all were broken men who even collectively couldn’t make a whole. Itzli thought them cowards. They knew that they would not succeed – but at least this way they wouldn’t be around to see the last of their village perish. He couldn’t understand such weakness. Taking it all in, he felt as though he should have berated them for their foolishness, chasing gods while their loved ones died! But they parted ways under the impending night, Itzli returning to his pursuit of Yaotl, while the bowmen quietly faded into the forest.
Lord Huemac observed the amassed prisoners with some satisfaction. From the balcony of his palace they were a thousand little maggots uselessly writing in their captivity. His warriors had scoured everywhere they could and the forests were now virtually empty of human life. Tomorrow another hundred or so should arrive, brought from the mountains far to the south, where the empire didn’t exist – not even as a rumour. And the day after that, another fifty. But the reason he could not fully enjoy the fruits of his military supremacy was evident as the marshals below began to split the captive hoard. Of the thousand held, seven-hundred were to be marched to the Emperor, the Tlatoani.
The thought of giving them away frustrated Huemac like a boil on the skin. He understood his role, and the grace the empire had bestowed on him. But he was suffering. If he could he would keep every captive for himself, to make a glorious sacrifice to Huitzilopochtli. A sacrifice the god of war could never ignore. He would have no choice but to lift the curse put on him and grant Huemac the one thing he desired now above everything – a child.
However as things stood, Huemac was aware of the precariousness of his position. He had already angered the empire by withholding on his last tribute of captives and he was unsure of what the Tlatoani may conjure up. If he had any hope for survival it would be with the people he ruled over in this city. They loved him, they revered him and they were fearful of his power. But all of this would be made more so with the birth of an heir – a son. But that could not happen, not until the curse was removed from him.
However, today his High Priest Momotzli had promised him good news. When he had seen him earlier he had something about him like the old days, before curses and failed ambitions. Momotzli too was suffering with his own curse, and Huemac wondered how they ever convinced themselves to let that fool Necalli leave with his abomination of a child.
With no ceremony, Momotzli quietly arrived and joined Huemac on the balcony. In the outside light the High Priest resembled an unearthed relic, brittle and pale. Huemac didn’t know what ghastly concoctions the man used to preserve his life, but it seemed to do him more harm than the bad blood that flowed through him.
“My lord,” Momotzli began. “I’m confident that we both should have something to celebrate come this evening.”
“I won’t celebrate when I’m sending more than half of that lot down there to the Emperor. And that’s not to mention the man-power. Nearly all my fighting men will be needed to escort them the distance.”
“Let them do the Emperor’s bidding. Come this evening that rabble won’t matter. Not an ounce of their blood would match the sacrifice Yaotl should be bringing to us as we speak.”
Momotzli’s words were enough to make Huemac’s jaw hang open, “How did you find them?”
“It came as a vision in my sleep. I saw him, and the boy Tenoch and one other. He had another son, and by his age it seems he was born not too long after Tenoch. It is why we have been continuing to suffer for all this time. I should have known better than to trust him.”
For someone of title Huemac knew he should be more reserved, but the news was better than he had expected, “Tell me, does Yaotl bring the cursed child and Necalli? I wish to have them both; they both owe me... and you as well.”
“Yaotl will bring them both.”
Huemac sighed with relief, he was out on the balcony in the open, but no one below would see his emotionless mask cracked with smile lines. “As soon as they arrive I want them brought here. In three days I will sacrifice the boy to Huitzilopochtli, and make Necalli watch before I kill him for his disobedience. You have done well, Momotzli. And for Yaotl, I will honour him as the finest warrior amongst us.”
Momotzli nodded in accordance, and Huemac turned from the balcony and made his way down the steps to the courtyard with the High Priest following silently behind. Stepping out under the sun on the open courtyard he stood before the grandly built stone arches built along the length of the courtyard and nodded to himself. He felt a resonance in their firm and solid nature; they were indestructible. And soon there would be a successor to all of this, and his people and the empire would know the true strength of Huemac.
And casually strolling before the amassed captives in the courtyard was the woman that would carry this child. Zyanya was followed by a score of maids as she passively walked along the line of sorry looking captives. Where his previous wives had failed, he hoped Zyanya would prove useful. She was still very young, yet her beauty was unrivalled within his city. She would be the fitting carrier of his new son.
Huemac called her over and she approached with eyes deferred to the floor, “Yes, my lord...?”
“Tell your women to prepare you for a special event this evening. Momotzli has planned a wondrous event for us.”
Zyanya smiled and raised her eyes to meet Huemac, “I am glad to hear it, my lord. But surely, it can’t be more wondrous than the last event the High Priest put on for us? I don’t think I can forget his retelling of your victories in battle, it was simply riveting.”
Huemac could sense Momotzli stirring beside him as soon as Zyanya had spoken. She was treading a thin line. “Woman, do not anger me. You are my wife, but you may still be punished for insulting the High Priest.”
“Yes, my lord. I meant no offence. Of course I will be ready, but may you tell me what for?”
Huemac struggled to restrain his grinning, “Tonight we shall entertain the answer to our problems. My curse will soon be lifted, and you will soon be with child and fulfilling your duties to me as wife.”
“That is wonderful news, my lord. I struggle to think how I will keep myself contained until then,” Zyanya replied.
Momotzli stepped forward, about to speak, but Huemac stayed him. Zyanya was an unruly child – and one he intended to straighten out before soon. Huemac waved Zyanya away and then asked Momotzli to send message when Necalli and his son arrived. With a nod the High Priest silently moved away, leaving Huemac in the courtyard before a thousand shivering and tearful captives. With only a wave of his hand the split groups were marched away, the heavily escorted bulk of them to be sent to as tribute to the empire. The thought of giving up so many captives had been unbearable only moments before, but it was now inconsequential. Huemac could at last feel the hands of the gods playing in his favour.