Itzli opened his eyes to the dying fire as the ghost of its warmth gently rolled skyward. Sitting up, he looked above, searching for the sun through the canopy. It was a brilliant sun that eventually showed itself, instantly warming his limbs into readiness.
He strolled to the hut, yawning and stretching his arms out, only slowly recalling the magician from the day before. Itzli’s sleep had been as troubled as ever, and his dreams overran his thoughts even now, more so than that odd old man. It was perhaps because of this that he didn’t notice the sound of the arrow, leaping forward like a hissing snake. It only caught Itzli’s ears as it cut through the leaves above. Itzli watched, stunned as the arrow, its head fully alight, sunk from the sky and into the hut. In a moment of miscomprehension Itzli laughed, believing himself still somewhat asleep. But the reality soon took him as the smell of his home on fire filled his nose.
As Itzli rushed forward, so too did the forest. Like living trees men camouflaged with bits of shrubbery leapt from everywhere. Itzli soon had one on his waist dragging him to the floor, another man tried to grab his arms but Itzli managed to stun him with a fist to the nose. He then batted a forearm onto the man holding him, bringing it down until he was sure something had broken. By now the forest was a confusing mist with movements from within the smoke surrounding Itzli and his burning home.
“Father! Tenoch!” Itzli choked as he tried to get closer. From within, Necalli dragged Tenoch out, wrapped in as many layers as possible. Both were choking miserably, Itzli went to help them.
“The magician is gone,” Necalli coughed. “He must have led them here. They’re my brother’s warriors, they’ve come for Tenoch. Whatever happens, do not confront them.”
Itzli scanned the men around him, all were stern of face and well equipped. But he would fight them all if he had to. They pressed slowly closer, forcing Itzli and Necalli to keep their backs to the burning hut. Necalli carried Tenoch close to his chest, causing the men around to point and jeer. The tallest and most strongly built of the warriors came forward and peered down at Necalli.
“Do you recognise me, uncle...?”
Necalli replied as passively as possible, but the thick sweat across his face made his feelings obvious. “Yaotl, the last time I saw you, you were sucking on your mother’s breast. Now look at you, a giant. I would have thought my brother would have come himself, is he not well?”
“My father has raised me well, fed me with the milk of my mother and the fruit of war, and bathed me in the fire of my enemies’ suffering. But he is not too well, uncle. And you know why. Ah, and this little one,” he pointed his sword to Itzli, “Is this another cousin of mine?”
“He is Itzli. My son.”
Yaotl smirked, “Uncle, the agreement for your peaceful exile was that under no circumstance would you sire another child. All this time, we wondered why the curse would not lift, and now we find it is because of you. Your brother and even lord Huemac himself are all suffering because of this boy. That is why we have come, uncle, as I’m sure you know. You must give us Tenoch. He is to be sacrificed to Huitzilopochtli by your brother, my father, the high priest Momotzli. Do you understand?”
Itzli dared not let his father speak. “No. He doesn’t. No one is taking Tenoch, I don’t care who sent you. You may be my cousin, but I will send you back to your old man in pieces if you come closer. And then I will get your sneaking magician.”
“Magician? Uncle, your boy is mad!” Yaotl laughed at Itzli, before inviting the surrounding warriors to laugh with him. With the widest grin Yaotl stepped forward, “And besides, how can you cut me with no sword?”
Itzli answered with his fists as he sprung at the taller man and threw a punch straight for his face. Yaotl stepped to the side, just enough for the strike to miss. Itzli’s momentum tumbled him towards the surrounding warriors, who didn’t remain idle. A nicely placed sweep brought Itzli to the ground, but the young warrior was up before the first laugh could escape. He went for the nearest man, bringing his elbow onto the side of his head, and felling him like a toppled tree. Itzli ducked under a lunge, bringing himself up in perfect timing to fling the attacker over his shoulder. Someone struck him on the back of the head, and then he was punched in the stomach. He managed to keep hold of the hand that hit him and with monstrous ease jerked it like a caught rope, dislocating it from the joint.
It was clear now, he was no weakling. Two warriors untied their swords and began to circle, cutting Itzli off from his father and brother. As the swords came for him Itzli had to duck and twist to avoid a mortal wound. Dropping to one knee he dodged a disembowelling swing in time enough to grab the attacker by the waist and wrestle him to the ground. Itzli rolled clear as the second sword fell in search of his head. He had just made it to his feet when a third sword swung for him. But the swing left the attacker wide, and Itzli rushed his foot into the man’s jaw, breaking it thoroughly.
“Enough!” Yaotl shouted.
Itzli stepped clear of the attackers, and turned to find Tenoch, dusty with smoke, and held in Yaotl’s giant grip. Necalli stood beside them, his arms bound with rope.
Yaotl called to Itzli above the crackling of their burning hut, “You are strong, perhaps as strong as me. The gods have blessed you, but we have what we came for. I was told not to kill you, but you’ve already wounded some of my men. And they wouldn’t be happy if they returned without some blood on their knuckles in return.”
Itzi braced himself as half of the raiding party broke away to follow Yaotl and his captives while the rest surrounded him, backing him towards his burning hut. Itzli couldn’t fight the tears as he saw his brother and father taken away by these strangers. His home was still alight at his back, the warmth of no comfort on such a day. He fought back the desire for tears as the remainder of Yaotl’s warriors pressed closer. He would have to fight his way through.
With a terrible scream Itzli went for the nearest man to him, rage overcoming with a convulsion of the body. He tackled the man down and rained blow after blow on his face until the bones of his skull disrupted his forehead. Itzli was being struck from behind, and he swung wildly at whoever was there, grabbing a leg with both hands and twisting it until someone cried out in agony and the knee cap broke into pieces. Feet continued to kick at the young warrior, knocking him this way and that, making him swear death on every man who would stop him getting his father and brother back. Itzli felt a mighty kick hit his jaw and turn his head into a shaken bowl of water. He was going down, but he made sure he kept punching. He didn’t know whether it was one of Yaotl’s warriors, or a tree or rock but he kept hitting at it until a cloudy dark silence fell over his mind.
Itzli wasn’t aware of when he actually came to, he was just aware that he was watching the blackened ashes of his family’s home flutter to the ground. It was all he, his father and brother owned, and now it was destroyed. Its blackened and hollow frame revealed it for the cheaply built skeleton that it simply was. His oldest memories felt somehow vandalised, brought to fragile dust by the remorseless and distant hand of soft palmed city dwellers. His mind was already set in stone before the thought had even been sculpted.
He had seen the city from afar, but had never truly been within it. At times he would watch them, going about their rituals while he spied from the trees. He despised their ways, but he left them in peace. And if this peace couldn’t be maintained, then he would not stay idle. And he was not afraid of curses. The magician had caused this, of that he was sure.
Picking himself off from the floor he spat out the blood that had congealed in his mouth and stood on what was left of his roof. Moving amongst the ashes, he kicked the burnt pieces aside until he touched something hard. His father had kept a sword under Tenoch’s bed – if anything survived the fire it would have been that. And it brought a smile to Itzli’s face as he raised it from the hot dirt. The sword itself felt like it was on fire, and Itzli hoped it would still have this heat when he cut Yaotl’s head from his shoulders.
Itzli stepped away from the ashes, to find the crunch of the forest beneath his feet met with a familiar jingle, unnatural to the woods. The magician appeared from behind a tree, his smug face alight like a child in full play. “Now, perhaps you will help me after all...?”
Itzli responded by closing the gap between them within a blink. His sword was already poised and came down with the force to fell a tree. The magician failed to move, but the cut didn’t touch him. Itzli stumbled forward in surprised awkwardness as he realised the strike passed completely through the old man’s body. “Your weapon can’t touch me.”
“That won’t stop me from killing you!” The young warrior went in again, feigning a low cut before sweeping the edge of the blade at the magician’s neck. No sooner than Itzli thought he made contact, the old man’s skin burst into a blinding solar light. Itzli staggered back trying to shield his eyes, desperately trying to see where the old man had gone. All that was left was a rainbow streak of gold light curving from where the magician stood and up into the distance. The light cast incredible shadow amongst the trees of the woods the likes of which Itzli had never seen. It was as if the sun had fallen to earth. The light began to fade, but it could have only been leading to one place. Itzli tied his sword to his back and set off towards the city with nothing else but urgency.