Chapter One One-World, 1001 A. D.
I sat on a large rock on a hillside and fought my rope restraints. The task was next to hopeless. My captors had wrenched my elbows up behind my back, shoved a pole between them, then lashed my wrists so tight across my stomach, my elbow joints and wrists screamed in agony. Hobbling my feet, they roped me to a tree.
Nonetheless, I struggled to turn sideways, hoping to use the tree trunk to push the pole out from between my elbows. Free of the pole, I would then cut my binds on a jagged rock.
An angry commotion announced Tenoch's return. The leader of our party, he was notoriously ill-tempered. He hurled a deer to the ground perhaps twenty paces from my feet. Little more than bones and parchment, the shriveled deer wouldn't even satisfy our twenty hunters much less the hundreds of our clan, who camped by a waterhole a day's walk to the north. Kicking and thrashing several hunters with his wrist-whip, he thundered obscenities at them for not flushing a fatter deer or stealing the corn, peppers, and beans he'd wanted.
Then he turned his wrath and his whip on his slave, Desert Flower, and for the ten thousandth time in my life, I swore I would kill that devil.
Young and attractive, Flower was a poor woman whom Tenoch had forced into the expedition to attend to his physical needs, despite the elders' prohibitions. Tenoch had spurned their counsel, insisting that he needed her to dress out his kills, cook his meals, carry his gear—and endure his violently depraved debaucheries. Tenoch's abuse of her hurt me worse than his assaults on me. Born, like myself, during the first year of the Great Drought, we were each going on our sixteenth summer, and we were each Tenoch's property. Both of us suffered under his whip, but she had it infinitely worse. Shy and small of frame, she was compassion incarnate with a virtuousness that infuriated our master. Her large, dark eyes and tiny sensitive mouth expressed her caring nature quickly and unmistakably—her plea sure at sudden acts of kindness and her displeasure at deliberate cruelty. Tenoch despised such displays.
When he saw her so moved, he flogged her like a fiend freed from ictlantecuhtli's hell.
He was still screaming about the scrawny deer and the failure to find produce. Of course, the food shortage was no one's fault. There was little food to be found. The weather had been drier than old bones for more seasons than I could remember. The crops had withered, and the emaciated game was increasingly scarce.
Even worse, our Aztec people now paid for that scarcity in blood. Increasing their annual blood-tithes tenfold, Toltec priests roamed our countryside, abducting anyone they could get their hands on, dragging them back to Tula, where they immolated them en masse after cutting out their hearts. They emptied their victims' blood in scarlet torrents down the temple troughs and hurled their severed heads down the pyramidal steps . . . none of which brought back Tlaloc, our bloodthirsty thunder god, or watered our maize fields.
Our people were starving, and hunger had forced us into Toltec land to poach that deer. Fierce bands of Toltec hunters were everywhere, but Tenoch had reasoned he could offer me to those warriors as recompense for the deer and thus escape their wrath. Content with the gift of a sacrificial prisoner, they'd haul me back to Tula and deliver me to their bloodthirsty priests.
What ever the case, we'd had no choice but to poach on Toltec land. I was also an obvious choice for the sacrificial victim. An orphaned babe, found in a reed basket by a river bank, I was a slave with no rights. So here I was: I would either starve to death trussed to a tree or die on a pyramid under a priest's black blade.
Before I could curse my fate, however, hell exploded. Half of our twenty hunter-warriors collapsed before me, arrows impaling their heads, torsos, and necks. One lay writhing on the ground, clutching at an arrow that skewered his throat, gore gushed from his wound. Another stared sightlessly at a feathered shaft sunk deep between his eyes. Four others were mortally pierced through the chest.
Another near-simultaneous arrow-volley took out six more of our men.
Eight attackers erupted from the tree line, dispatching the survivors with obsidian-bladed axes and black knives. Like ourselves, these loinclothed men were stripped down to their heavily tattooed torsos, and limbs; and, like ourselves, they sported nose, ear, and lip ornaments. The resemblance, however, ended there. Our warriors wore simple, coarse-cloth maxtlatl loincloths made of fibers worked from maguey plants; these soldiers were dressed in bright loincloths, with higher-ranking warriors wearing mantles and headdresses. While this enemy attacked with shocking swiftness, rigorous teamwork, and unerring precision, our few surviving warriors panicked like children, either fleeing or cowering, each man looking out solely for himself.
At their head, three paces in front of his charging men, was their leader. There was no mistaking his high status—even from where I stood I could see that the maxtlatl between his legs was made of costly dyed cotton. The mantle that was tied at his shoulders and draped down his back was covered with images of wild animals, skulls and bones, and demonic gods.
Unlike our skinny soldiers, these were powerfully built killers—men with rocklike biceps, block-like shoulders, massively muscular legs and chests. Nor were their weapons tipped with coarsely chipped flint, as were ours, but ebony-hued, sharply honed obsidian—blades now glistening with the blood of my adopted people.
A severed head lay beside a pair of headless shoulders. Another warrior lay on his side with a javelin protruding from both chest and back. Only one victim still moved, writhing in his death spasms, his limbs convulsing, blood pumping from his neck and stomach. Another, who had tried to scale a tree, was now affixed to that sought-after sanctuary, a lance pinning his chest to the trunk, his feet dangling a handsbreadth above the ground.
Of our entire band, only two others survived: Tenoch, who lay on the ground unconscious—thanks to a towering, muscular warrior who had clubbed him into bloody oblivion—and Desert Flower.
Emerging from the forest, a ninth man walked through the camp—an elderly dignitary who had not participated in the fray.
His clothing confirmed his importance among his people. His loincloth was richly embroidered in vivid shades of red and green and yellow, with sparkling gems delicately weaved into the cloth. Hanging from knots were tiny bells of gold.
His mantle was long, falling from his shoulders almost to the ground. As colorful as his loincloth and as costly, it was lavishly decorated and fringed with gold.
He was at an age in life when most men no longer marched with an army unless their role was planning as opposed to leading warriors into battle.
As he stood over me and stared down, I knew what he was looking at: the star patterns tattooed on my lower belly and painted with black dye on my white loincloth.
"Who put these drawings on you?" he asked.
He spoke Nahuatl, the same language as the Aztecs, though his diction and accent were different from ours.
"I painted the ones on my loincloth."
The question stumped me. I had never though