At some point in the night Itzli had closed his eyes and succumbed to sleep. He awoke to find the brightness if the day suddenly before him. Zyanya’s visit still lingered on his mind competing with everything else that had happened in the day previous. They were thoughts he could have believed to be lingering dreams if not for the presence of the cage around him and the faintest scent of the princess. He tried to work his mind clear, vigorously stretching his limbs and punching out the weariness.
It wasn’t long before five of Huemac’s men came towards the cell. They brought with them insults and a few scraps of food which they threw at Itzli’s feet. Itzli regarded the slimy slither of meat that lay before him, covered in muck and smelling as though it had come from a latrine.
A soldier stepped forward. “The High Priest sends you the meat.”
Itzli held the man’s gaze, unmoving and unblinking.
The soldier moved closer to the cage, “What’s the matter boy? Shall I get a woman to feed you?”
Itzli smirked, “Why would you need to fetch one when there are five standing in front of me...?”
“You think you’re funny?” The soldiers temper was short. “You won’t be laughing when your old man has his guts thrown across the palace garden, you shit.” He met Itzli’s eyes and held them. “You think I’m scared of you because of what you did to some soft bellied warriors yesterday? They were weaklings, men scared of the true campaigns. We’re Eagles, masters of the battle. I dare you to try your tricks here. Believe me, I will kill you.”
Itzli had no choice but to back down. He seethed, feeling helpless and at the whim of these slaves of Huemac. He retreated to the farthest edge of the cage where the thoughts of gauging the warriors face would remain just an unfulfilled desire. It was a desire made all the more tempting as he knew he could easily break the cage apart, and smash the bodies of each of the men outside. But it was only his restraint that kept his brother and father alive for now.
The warrior threw over a rag for Itzli to use as a loin cloth. “Put it on, it’s time to go.”
Bitterly Itzli used the rag to cover himself before being summoned to the front of the cage where his hands were bound behind his back and a noose tied to his neck with no affection. Yaotl’s Eagles opened the cell and prodded Itzli along with motivation from their spears. Itzli sunk into his own thoughts, wondering how many more insults he had to endure. This level of submission revolting to him, but he couldn’t think of another option that could prolong the life of his family enough for him to think of a plan to save them.
The light of the sun stung his eyes as he was marched up the stairs from the dungeon and outside where he was paraded through the palace garden. The people of the city had come out to stare at the spectacle. They jeered him, throwing clumps of dirt and animal dung. Itzli had never lived in the city, but his father told him how a story told within the city walls would transform a thousand times. As the city dwellers hissed at him, the young warrior could only imagine what horror they thought him to be. And he didn’t want to indulge their fancy, but couldn’t help but snarl and glare towards the crowd as a sharp stone grazed his forehead.
The tips of the spears at his back guided Itzli past the hall in which he had confronted Huemac. They pushed him along a cobbled path that led on to the rest of the city. Children followed the procession, throwing things at him and running back to their mothers. By the time they had reached their destination Itzli had nearly had enough and was close to kicking down the next child that ran before him. It was only the horrid spectacle that emerged before him that stayed his foot.
They had walked across the city and had arrived at the most northerly outpost. It was the edge of the city wall, beyond which pockets of miserable huts clung to what little shelter was left, before being absorbed into a gradually thickening tree line. Sitting on the lip of the cities civilisation stood a lavish platform draped in fabrics of such garish colours – a symbol of the cities wealth. Its vibrancy was made even more distinct by the clear sky above it, as the sun seemed to halt at midday. Atop the platform Itzli could see Huemac sitting with Momotzli on his right and Zyanya on his left. The princess’ radiance only served to make the wretched priest seem even sicklier than normal.
Itzli was pushed to his knees before them supported only by the laughs of the watching city folk behind him. A foot shoved his back, sending him face first into the mud of the floor. Huemac’s joy was all too evident behind his stoic public facing image. Before Itzli could right himself, Huemac raised a hand for silence and then nodded to allow Momotzli to come forward and speak.
The High Priest looked down from the platform at his nephew and showed him a face of ill contempt. Momotzli addressed the on-looking crowd with a voice the air carried like thunder. “Yesterday, a heathen from the woods entered our city. Defiling our land, preaching against Huitzilopochtli, threatening the divine rite of lord Huemac! He killed your brothers, and threatened many more. He, in allegiance with his cursed father and brother have withheld from us what is rightfully ours. For so long we lived in the shadow of our enemies, unable to secure what is ours. Because we were betrayed by those that were once loyal we have been abandoned by the gods. Because of this child and his family, we have been forsaken!”
The crowd fell silent. The storm in Momotzli’s words was more than enough to reduce them to utter fear of retribution from the High Priest, or from Huitzilopochtli himself. “...Yet despite what you may have heard, or seen yesterday, he is here, alive. He has come before us to pledge his servitude to our inspired ruler, and to pledge his life to lord Huemac. And this covenant between them, may it yield the glory that we all deserve...” He stepped back swallowing a much needed breath, his chest throbbed as though it contained a wild beast. The priest’s face was grave and miserable, but the worst of his glances was not for Itzli. Momotzli stared coldly past lord Huemac as he made his way back to his position beside the unmoving ruler’s throne.
With no noise in the air except for the wheezing of the high priest, Huemac raised a hand. At that gesture Itzli was dragged to his feet and thrown face forward to the floor. His head was dragged up from the mud and words roared into his ears on foul breath. “Kneel at lord Huemac’s feet, now!”
Itzli was again shoved forward, coming to rest at the base of the stage. Someone pulled on the noose around his neck jerking him upright. There were shouts coming from all around him as the guards pulled him this way and then that. Eventually he made his way onto the first step leading to the top of the platform. He was stopped by a spear trained on his throat. “Kneel!” the guard shouted. “You are not worthy to stand on the same level as the lord and his wife.” Itzli obeyed, holding his tongue as though he held a snake behind his teeth.
Huemac ordered Momotzli forward once again. The high priest descended the steps slowly, his mouth moving too quickly for him to have been speaking normal words. As he finally reached Itzli, the young warrior could hear him uttering strange words and sounds. The High Priest ordered Itzli to stand before grabbing his head and pressing it to his own. The young warrior expected to here more curses, uttered in some arcane tongue, but the words his uncle whispered in his ears were as clear as any.
“Huemac’s greed may have blinded him, but I am not a fool. Your brother will be sacrificed on the third sunset. I will draw the blade across his throat, and expose his heart to the setting sun myself. Be glad you will not be alive to see it.”
The high priest released Itzli and returned to ascend the steps back to Huemac. At the top of the platform Momotzli seemed to shrink, his chest was caving in and his shoulders shuddering with harsh coughs. He donned a robe and retreated to a silent position behind Huemac.
There was no official order, no ruling gesture to start. A guard cut the bonds that tied Itzli’s hands, and then pulled him away by the noose on his neck. Soldiers barked at him, while a few carelessly slapped him with the backs of their spears. The soldiers moved him further away from the city wall, and with spears at his back guided him to an indiscriminate point where he was told to stop. The noose was released and he was told, “Go!”
The suddenness of things was disorientating. Itzli looked to the sky, there was plenty of time still to go before his first sunset. Focusing to the north, he couldn’t see beyond the thick shrubbery and tall trees, but he knew he had to head there. He had never seen a god, but he had heard enough stories from his father, and overheard more from travellers and city folk. Yet now he had to catch one and bring it back, or else his family would be slain. When will I know I am there? How will I carry a god back in time...? He tried his best to suppress his questions. His task was impossible, but he had to achieve it no matter what.
The spears waited behind him, fully expecting him to turn on them and try to attack the city. But that would achieve nothing. Like a pouncing cat Itzli dashed into a run, his mind focused on nothing but the north.