The river filled the evening with a drone as of hoarse, worn-down voices that made a pleasing accompaniment to the tune the litter-bearers crooned as they trotted along, their faces toward the setting sun. Following them came the bodyguard, two spare companies of bearers, servants, the litters that carried the stores. It was a great company that the hierarch of Teotihuacan, ambassador of the Otomi Republic, brought with him on his mission to Huitznahuac. Beyond the river, the hills rose at once, steep and forested; but on this side, a broad stretch of travelable land lay between it and the jungle; and along this broad stretch the party journeyed. It was the Road.
The Great Road ran from the north to the south of the universe, which in north and south alike had long since been forgotten, or had become the vaguest of traditions. In the north, science might know where it began; not even superstition had imagination to guess where it ended. Neither north nor south troubled about it; although over most of its great length it was well traveled for short distances; and as little aspect of roadhood as it might now wear, those who dwelt in its vicinity never forgot that it was the Road.
No doubt the Quinames built it in the days of their power, when they were giants in stature and arrogance, and strewed the world with monuments of their glory. It still withstood the encroachment of the forest, to say how mightily they had built — they, who so far as north or south could tell, had vanished from the world before the apotheosis of the Sun.
Many nations of old had sent their merchants and ambassadors to travel it: from the Anahuacs to Huitznahuacan, and farther. At every stage, in those days, a city, or at least an inn or rest-house, had stood, and the traveler had no need to carry food with him at all. But they had vanished time out of mind and left no material trace. Ages since, civilization had receded, the stir of it to the north, the spiritual quiet that redeems it to the south; and now these infinite leagues of hills and forests had but curious tenants humanly: wild tribes, always treacherously at war among themselves, who regarded strangers only as potential food.
But anyone was safe from them on the Road, and herein lay its last remaining dignity. To err from it by as little as ten paces was to plunge into the cooking pots of savagery; to keep to it, on the other hand, was to have the tribes in some sort one's servants and friends. Perhaps the giants who built it put magic into the building, to say, "This is the gods' property forever; let none molest who uses it as the gods intend!" Perhaps the ages that had busily used it had built into it a convention — of a beneficence more lasting than can be quarried from the hills. In any case, there remained in the air that which kept the savages from killing — on the Road. And, of course, in the worst part there was the God on Puma Rock.
So it was that man or tribe might march along it gaily, and no slinking or hiding, day after day through enemy territories, and so far from being killed and eaten, might expect to be fed, and the enemy would do it. This much did remain of the ancient rest-houses and cities: Where they had been, it was an act of piety to leave food for travelers, the one pleasant tenet in the wild men's religion. None knew why it was pious. Piety generally tended in the opposite direction; you felt better as a rule, and the gods loved you more, when you had eaten a man than when you had done him a service, but there was this supreme exception. After all, the gods were mighty and had leave to be inconsistent. Unless the traveler on their Road was fed, they hated you and prepared ugly punishments for you. This was not believed or suspected, but known.
Safe to say that Hierarch Yen Ranho was the first civilized man to enter into relations with these tribal people. It is proof of his greatness that he had not been five days in the forest before the forest knew that he was a very powerful god. It was even thought that the city he came from was an excellent place toward which to face when one prayed. A few judicious miracles had aided this belief, characteristically, the hierarch left it to his subordinates to work them. But you cannot convert a savage even by miracles until your native greatness has so far won him over as to lure him forth from the dark jungle to meet you on the Road.
Three of the wild men's great chieftains were now in Yen Ranho's train; they might have been riding in litters could they have brought themselves to such a peak of trust. He smiled to think by what name they called themselves, as he had come to learn but yesterday: Quinames, if you please. Though they had, apparently, no legend of such high descent, he found it interesting to believe that they were the modern representatives of those half-mythical giants who had ridden through the upper air and all but dethroned the gods themselves. These squalid, murderous forest thieves . . .
The sun rested on the hilltop in front, and his bearers, thrilled by the sacredness of the hour, turned their hearts toward holy Teotihuacan, because the time of prayer drew near. The hierarch felt the hour too; but his religion, naturally, was more advanced than theirs, and free from superstition. A stern realist was Hierarch Yen Ranho. All the facts of life proclaimed to him that the truth he lived for and willed should be universally honored. He looked out on the world with keen, unflinching, joyless eyes and rejected as vicious any ideas and beliefs that did not seem to him proven by the joyless things he saw. Sentimentalism was a lie, and the universe abhorred a lie. The gods abhorred a lie, as he himself did, and they would punish it. Ever eager to plague mankind — as mankind so richly deserved plaguing — they never forgave false opinion. It was a thing that ought not to be forgiven.
He had not invented his religion; it had grown down to him through a long line of predecessors, most of whom had modified it in a certain direction. Its mood had come to be greatly different from that of the antiquity in which it had, supposedly, originated. No hierarch had so rigorously disciplined it as he had — by constant observation of the facts of life. His observations, of course, were filtered through a medium, that of his character; and that they might bear a bias, due to the trend of his lives, he never suspected. Stern, clear-cut of mind, severely logical, he had hewed away error where he had found it; and he hoped that before he died, he would have led mankind willy-nilly some way toward truth. He had done so already. Let him but succeed in what he had undertaken now, and he could afford to die when he might.
Great need there was that someone should lead mankind toward truth! — as he was now reminded. Even these bearers of his, being ignorant peasants, would be feeling beauty in the coming on of evening, and reading in it the kindness of the gods. Thus too the deluded ancients had felt, not having the wit to divine, beneath the shadows and purple solemnity, death stalking through the forest. They had dreamed of beauty and tenderness, where he knew lurked only Omnipotent Bloodlust to be appeased. Our Lord Enemy Yaotzin, the Slayer who rides upon the Night Wind, they had called the Beautiful Youth, and the Soul of the World.
But he had advanced toward regarding things with eyes freed from illusion. All that vastness soon to darken above, and these wastes tree covered; earth and the waters and the caverns; day and night and the winds and stars — which of these things loved mankind, or which ceased for a moment to plot and threaten? Through which of them did not Universal Resentment glare and Detestation direct itself against man because of his sins? Have mercy upon us! O Lord, have mercy!
His thought traveled to the Quinames again — not to the ancient giants, but to their supposed descendants in the forest —and he reflected upon how curiously extremes might meet. Here were these savages, as deeply sunk in wilderness depravity as might be, and yet, in their outlook on the universe, very near to truth in some important respects. They knew the inner worlds to be hideous and hostile; there was no sentimental illusion-worship with them! And they carried their knowledge to its logical end in behavior, for they sought to mitigate their gods' animosity with gifts of human blood, as he had learned from the three chieftains who accompanied him. Wiser than we, wiser than we!
As usual, his camp-makers had gone on before and had made all ready for the party at the bend of the river, where, when his thoughts had run thus far and the daylight had gone, he arrived. His two-roomed tent, luxuriously severe within, befitted his dual dignity of king and priest: comfort that his arduous duties made necessary, with a cast of asceticism superimposed. There were rich, dark hangings, maroon and cinnabar and crimson; heavy carpet and low, cushioned divan throne, all in the same colors; a golden lamp hanging by a golden chain. Such was the outer room, in which they set forth his meal while he bathed and was arrayed within, arrayed in great splendor, for he kept full state of an evening on his journey. As he comes forth from his toilet, one may behold him: a tall, gaunt man, grim-faced; eyes black, fiery and impenetrable; high nose, thin lips and square jaw. It is a face full of power, alert and concentrated, but not particularly beautiful. His garb: a black, sleeveless gown, full length, sewn with jewels; tilmatlies of scarlet featherwork; peaked headdress draped to the ground behind. He comes out to a roomful of slaves and officers, the former prostrate, the latter kneeling. One of these, just entered, gestures for permission to speak.
"A party just come up from the south is pitching its camp some score-score strides from us, southward."
From the south — huh! And none must come from the south but His Holiness must know their business. No, he would not dine yet. A large party? — Between a score and two-score, as the watch reports.— Humph. Let a meal be prepared for two-score men. And they were dismissed; but Secretary Mahetsi he would need, and his Godhead Tata, Commander of the Escort. From the south . . .
The two he had named remained; the rest retired. "Aye," said the hierarch, "it is an occasion. From the south, he said. Come then; we will pay them a call."
Simultaneously the two with him expressed their surprise.
"Pay them a call!" gasped thickset, methodical Priest-Secretary Mahetsi; and "By Yaotzin," exclaimed Tata, "Your Holiness would do less for the Toltec Topiltzin!"
"Yes, pay them a call, we three. Less for the Toltec Topiltzin, certainly; we must consider what is becoming. He does not come up from the south. Come! No! No torch! No torch!"
On the way, they were startled by a ripple of song from the camp they were approaching: a very marvelous child-voice; nor would the hierarch permit himself to be announced till the song was ended. Then Mahetsi was told to announce him, but in an unusual fashion; not as the hierarch of Teotihuacan, but thus: "Yen Ranho of the Anahuacs salutes you and inquires!"
The child who had been singing made answer at once: "Amaquitzin Quetzalcoatl salutes you and invites you!"
The hierarch's party was now free to come forward. Amaqui, his hand on Nauhyo's shoulder, advanced to meet them; the young men, gathering from their tent-pitching and from about the fire, followed.
At sight of them, Yen Ranho decided on his role. It was to be one of kindly and courteous geniality. The lord-priest from the south must be his guest at supper. And not only he, but all the gentlemen of his retinue. He too, the hierarch told them, was a priest: of Tezcatlipoca. And when priest invites priest, god invites god, and it was irreligious to refuse.
Tata and Mahetsi, looking down, hid their amazement. Where was their taciturn hierarch, whose few words were wont to be commands? Who was this kindly, persuasive aristocrat who had taken his place? The end of it was that the Huitznahuatecs were led back to the Otomi camp and seated at supper in the hierarch's tent. But before that, while their feet were being washed elsewhere by slaves, Yen Ranho, without witnesses, conversed with the Quiname chiefs. In sign-language. There was nothing to overhear.
The hierarch — most cordial and engaging of hosts — hoped great results from his pulque at supper, but he was disappointed. It was perhaps the one possible product of their crops of which the Huitznahuatec agave-farmers knew nothing: a liquor that one must learn to like. The smell or first taste of it told all of Yen Ranho's guests that it was not for them, and so their tongues and discretion were unaffected.
The hierarch wanted information. Amaqui, as genial and free of speech as himself, gave him much, but not of the kind he wanted. Nothing about his — Amaqui's — place of origin or why he was traveling north. He was an ambassador, apparently; he wore the title of Quetzalcoatl and was obviously the head of the Quetzalcoatl hierarchy of his country, but what country was that? And if an ambassador, to what king or republic was he accredited? There were no countries between here and the Anahuacs. . . .
But Amaqui, the simple and unsophisticated, yet somehow had his own way with the conversation; or at least, Yen Ranho might not have his. He talked, did Amaqui, of the Road, of the savages, of tradition, of poetry, of mythology: a charming and impersonal discourse. Nor could Yen Ranho be sure — and this distressed him — that his guest was not fencing with him.
As for the young men, they had an instinct for silence, and Nauhyo's shyness was invincible. Something within each of them was trying to make them aware that their hosts were not to be trusted, and was having huge difficulty on account of the newness of the task. In Huitznahuac, one met with nothing alien; trust was a factor basic to all human contacts, no more to be interrupted than the flow of blood in the veins. But here the unthinkable was happening; the Otomis brought disturbing concepts, impossible to be defined. So they kept silence; and Amaqui, effortlessly, enabled them to do so; and again, Yen Ranho could not tell whether he was doing that with conscious intent or not. Surely he must be; and yet —
When they left, the hierarch had learned nothing. Nothing that he wanted to know. It was perhaps unimportant.
They went escorted by his notables; he parted from them at his tent door, all cordiality and kindliest solicitude. Deep in his cogitations, he stood there for a while, watching them depart, watching the setting of the moon. Reentering the tent, he found the three Quinames squatting before his divan. Good! It was evidence of their powers. They were great men among their people, the most Quiname of the Quinames. Competition for a living with the jaguar and the ocelot had made them miraculously keen of senses and lithe of limb; they had given him many such proofs of this since they joined him, and where they desired to excel, he believed them unexcellable.
Their names were Ib, Guaish and Ghuggg; they were gross, thick louts to look at, not greatly reminding one of the human; and if one had to have them in his tent, it was extremely necessary to burn incense. A brazier with live coals stood before the divan; he threw on a handful of copal and raised a sweet protective cloud of smoke between himself and their unwashedness as he took his seat, then condescended to notice them. He made a gesture translatable as an impatient, questioning "Well?" — as if they had come not at his command and in his service, but begging inopportune favors.
Ib crawled forward and handed him, in a curious, unobtrusive manner, a roll of pictoscript, which he received without a glance, as if it were nothing, although he divined that it was the thing he had sent them for. He could have spoken to them in their own Quiname, but he preferred the sign-language, which none can overhear. You can say in it all you can say with speech. Motions of his hands said to them now: "I thought that you Quinames were thieves; I thought that you had skill to search and find."
They had expected praise; having understood what he wanted, they had brought it, but you never could satisfy the gods. A quaint quiver went through them, expressive of deflated spirits. After motionless minutes and covert glances of the other two at Guaish, their best orator, that one began gesticulating eloquently, to the effect that the God the gods worshiped must believe that his slaves had done their utmost. They had examined the boxes of green pebbles, the bundles of clothing, the litters, the tent walls. Unless they had brought what he sent for, surely there was nothing.
And how many of the pebbles had they stolen?
There was a flurry of gesticulation, conveying denial of the charge implied. What were small green stones to his adorers, who could not eat them? Likewise, had he not forbidden honorable theft? The pebbles lay unprofitably in their boxes; though to the simplicity of his slaves, to leave them there seemed unthrifty.
Whereby he knew that they had taken toll of the chalchiuhites, as indeed was the case. But they had polluted the air long enough, and too long, with their cannibal uncleanliness; besides, the document they had stolen for him awaited his attention. So he dismissed them with the warning that their gem-stealing would not be forgiven them unless they were very faithful and obedient; and he admonished them that they must be prepared to come to him again when he should call.
Alone, he proceeded to study the stolen paper, making out its purport easily, like the scholar he was. Of course, an embassy; and here was the ambassador's name, "Amaquitzin Quetzalcoatl," written so ingeniously that he could have read it even had he not known it already. From the king and queen of — Huitznahuac. Ah! From the king and queen of Huitznahuac. And — to the Toltec Topiltzin. That could mean nothing else.
He had guessed the Huitznahuac part from the first, but this was news certainly. They were on their way to Culhuacan, not to Tollan; to Nonohualcatl, not to Huemac; though by Huemac, Yacanetzin was sent. Did they then know more of northern politics than we did of theirs? From their standpoint, Nonohualcatl was undoubtedly the better man to approach. But not from the standpoint of the gods and the hierarch of Teotihuacan.
That was why he had maneuvered with such wonderful and discreet persistence to bring about a reversal of the ordinary procedure, and the sending first of the ambassador not of Culhuacan, the leading city of the League, but of Tollan, the third and last. Huemac of Tollan was so much more religious than his brother, so much less under the most dangerous influence in the Anahuacs — that of their sister, the Princess Civacoatzin. But Amaquitzin was on his way to Culhuacan, to Nonohualcatl Topiltzin. . . .
Yen Ranho struck a gong and bade the slave who came to summon the secretary. When that one entered, he said without looking up, "The divining board, Mahetsi."
It was a low table, curiously marked on its face with squares, circles and triangles, and grooved for the movement of the pieces. These were of many shapes and kinds: pieces to represent the gods, the planets, the cities, and the divisions of time; the kings and the agents of the gods; and the great Opposing Forces that play for world sway and for the souls of men — Yaotzin, the Dark, and the Bright, Tezcatlipoca.
Mahetsi set the board before his master's divan, then seated himself on the other side of it and watched while the hierarch set certain pieces in their grooves. Then the two sat silent, their fingers on the edges of the board, their eyes intent on the pieces. Presently the board quivered, as if life had come into it; then the pieces began to move.
"This is the past; read it and be silent," said Yen Ranho.
As he gazed at the moving pieces, Mahetsi then saw a vision. He saw Yaotzin, the Dark Tezcatlipoca, enthroned in the City of the Gods, Teotihuacan. Yaotzin was enthroned through year-sheaf after year-sheaf, raising up hierarch after hierarch, a long succession, to represent and, to a degree, to embody him in the world. Each hierarch handing on a secret to, and exacting a pledge from, his successor. They point to a year-sheaf that is coming, and to a Ce Acatl, year Reed One, in that year-sheaf, and to the south of the world; aye, to the City of the South, Huitznahuacan, that emerges as the year-sheaves pass.
The hierarchs fear that year Ce Acatl in conjunction with that city; they are pledged — that is what their pledge is — to destroy Huitznahuacan before the Teotleco month of that year Ce Acatl. Hierarch after hierarch, year-sheaf after year-sheaf, the power of the Dark Soul of the World has gone on increasing; but it is threatened in this year-sheaf, they fear; it is threatened from Huitznahuac....
"Past becomes present," murmured Yen Ranho.
Yes, this present Year-sheaf of the Jaguar is the fateful year-sheaf the dark gods fear. The years of it move across the board. Rabbit One: Watch the cities of the Anahuacs; watch the piece that represents the hierarch . . . recognizable now, wearing the form and image of Yen Ranho, greatest of all the hierarchs. What does he do in this year Rabbit One of the Year-sheaf of the Jaguar? He has touched the foreheads of the kings and cities; he has spoken the new word Huitznahuac in the north.
The north begins to be haunted by rumors of another world in the south. Reed Two: Ambitious Brothers on the two thrones of the League go conquering in the north, and their ambition is fanned by their conquests. But, O Ambitious Brothers, it is in the far south that the great conquests are to be made: in Huitznahuac. Flint Three: Huitznahuac, O Ambitious Brothers! They go conquering far and wide, but they have heard as in a dream of the south of the world.
House Four: Eastward they go conquering, but there is no satisfaction for them eastward. Huitznahuac, Huitznahuac, O Ambitious Brothers! Rabbit Five, Reed Six, Flint Seven, House Eight, Rabbit Nine, Reed Ten, Flint Eleven: And now the Anahuacs are dreaming of the City of the South; it becomes the fabulous home of men's desires. Eastward you have conquered, and westward, Ambitious Brothers enthroned! But the east and the west have grown worthless to you. House Twelve: Huitznahuac, Huitznahuac! Awake, kings of the north! What monarch has ever gone conquering southward, beyond the limits of the world? Rabbit Thirteen; and now the business is on foot; the Ambitious Brothers are bound for Huitznahuac; it is there they will go conquering.
What a flame of will in this greatest of the hierarchs that he has set the Anahuacs alight with the will to destroy what is so far from the Anahuacs, and what, but fourteen years ago, they had never heard of! Comes now this greatest of the hierarchs southward, but what meets him here in the middle of the board, which is where one reads the actual, the here and the now? A piece as powerful as he, glowing with as powerful a glow as is the hierarch-piece. It is easy to recognize: It is their guest of this evening, Amaquitzin Quetzalcoatl. . . .
"You are to read this."
Mahetsi looked up from the board, and all movement ceased there. He took the stolen document his master handed to him.
"Then he is from Huitznahuac. But — he goes to the Topiltzin at Culhuacan? Their ambassador. But it is to Huetzin he should have been sent."
"Read the future now," said the hierarch. "See, I take Yen Ranho from the board." He removed the piece that represented himself, that had glowed into his likeness just now. They placed their fingers as before on the board; in a few moments the thrill and the life began there again.
Amaquitzin moved swiftly into the north; the yellow light that shone from him paled the red glow of the northern kings. The red glow has faded from the king at Culhuacan at contact with him, passes from red to orange, and from orange it pales to yellow. The war glow has gone from the north. And look! Here are the kings riding south now, but not in war array; they ride south bearing gifts. Rabbit Thirteen still: month, Tlaxochimaco. They are riding through the forest. Month, Xocotlhuetzi — their heralds arrive at Huitznahuacan. Month, Ochpaniztli — Huitznahuac sets out to meet and welcome them. Reed One now, and the month of Teotleco — the month of the Arrival of the Gods. They are in Huitznahuacan now, guests of the king there . . . and who is this god that has arrived in the world? This god that arrives on the night of Teotleco, when the kings of the north are in Huitznahuacan? Not our Lord Yaotzin; not the Dark Tezcatlipoca. For now, behold, the light from this god streams up into the north; and where are the hierarchs of Teotihuacan now? Where is our Lord Yaotzin himself, whom our hierarchs represent, if not incarnate? Gone down and vanished before this dangerous Teotleco from the south!
"No," said Yen Ranho. "That is not what shall be." He replaced on the board the piece that represented himself and set the Amaquitzin piece back where it had been. "Watch now and read."
The life came back to the board, and the thrill, and the pieces began moving again. They watched, more and more intently. Mahetsi turned cold and shuddered.
"My lord," he gasped, "he is an ambassador!"
"He is an ambassador."
"And — it is the Road!"
"It is the Road."
"My lord, my lord!"
"You are pledged to obedience."
"I am my lord's slave."
"And shall be my successor. Soon. He is an ambassador, and it is the Road. And the gods punish crime and are relentless. But I shall have saved the gods. Bring the savages here."
In Mahetsi's absence, the hierarch busied himself. He fetched from the inner room hardwood daggers — and a little chalchiuhite statue of Camaxtli, which he breathed on, made passes over, laid his hands on, till it glowed ominously with a light of its own. This he set on the divining board, of which the pieces now were laid away. When Mahetsi ushered in the Quinames, the little figure had its due effect on them.
"He has come down from heaven to dwell in the God-house of your village," said the hierarch. "He is Camaxtli, the Invincible, the God of War, who brings his worshipers' foemen into their caldrons. Behold how great a thing I have done for you."
Their eyes glittered as they drew near, anxious to possess their god.
"When you shall have done what he demands of you."
"What shall we do?"
"Take these," said he, pointing to the daggers. "Go to the other camp. Wait till they sleep, and sacrifice them to him."
They grinned happily, took the daggers, and slipped away.
"You understood?" he asked Mahetsi.
The secretary, ghastly visaged, bowed his head. His training had gone far, but not so far that he could take this matter without shock; and he would gladly have been alone now, to accustom himself to the world he must henceforth inhabit. But he was to suffer another shock before he was dismissed.
"Listen, and write this on your memory," said the hierarch. "The Otomi ambassador must be killed by the Huitznahuatecs."
"The Otomi ambassador must be killed by the Huitznahuatecs. And therefore they must have reason given for killing him. Your duty will be to provide it. You will betray me to the Huitznahuatecs. You will reveal to them that I ordered the massacre of their embassy on the Road. No word! You are pledged to obedience; see that you find a way to obey."
Again the miserable Mahetsi bowed his head.
"There must be no Huitznahuatecs left," the hierarch warned. "The League's punishment for the murder of one of its ambassadors is the extermination of the people who murdered him. The Pamxobs killed an ambassador of Tollan, and there are no Pamxobs now. What Mishcoatl Mazatzin did to the Pamxobs, his sons will do to the Huitznahuatecs. It is understood?"
"It is understood, my lord."
"Let it be remembered. You are dismissed."
For a while the hierarch sat alone, pondering over his plans. Yaotzin had been kind to throw these few Huitznahuatecs in his way. Otherwise, how could one have devised the extermination of all of the Huitznahuatecs? Well, one had built up the edifice of one's life, had brought the world nearer to truth, much nearer; and now, in one's death, one would be fulfilling the pledge, the Great Pledge that, of all mankind, had been exacted of, and taken by, only the hierarch reigning in this year Rabbit Thirteen of this Year-sheaf of the Jaguar. How fortunate, how blessed one was, to be able to pay with so small a price —
A motion disturbed his meditation; the Quinames were in the tent again. Their faces betrayed anxiety and disappointment. "Ah? You have done your work? No. What has happened?" "There is no camp. They have gone."
Among the Huitznahuatecs, when their Otomi hosts had escorted them back to their camp and left them, it needed no spoken word to make known the fact that one thought occupied every mind: The place was not suitable for camping. They would find a better site a league or so northward; and anyway, they ought to be making more speed with their journeying. The young men were by no means tired; why, no, the day had been an easy one. What they needed was more exercise. Before moonset they had packed and were well to the north of the Otomi camp and could afford to light torches. When they did encamp an hour later, they arranged watches for the night, for the first time.
In the morning, when sun and river had restored them spiritually and physically, the young men were at a loss to understand their feelings of the night before. Once more the world was natural, full of healing beauty and the presence of the Others; they must have imagined that nightmarish something. The Otomis could not really have been like that; no human beings could be evil . . . only, there was a change in Amaqui that became more and more apparent. Pain had been stamped on his face in the night.
They followed their college custom daily, singing their hymn to the sunrise and then keeping silent for the first three daylight hours. So as they swung up from the riverside into the hills, there was no speech about last night's trouble, which trouble therefore, by contrast, made the morning peace and beauty seem more laden with divinity than ever. It was indeed wonderful country they were passing through; full of fresh springs, the music of streams and bird-song, and rimmed around with the mauve and blue and snow of far mountains. But the inwardness of it was lovelier still. Their first contact with evil had made them more sensitive to the divine.
At mid-morning, when they were ready to halt for their meal, they came into a glade in the midst of ahuacatl trees. On the eastern side of it, about halfway to the top, a man was busy beside a fire. He rose at their approach, advanced to meet them, and invited them to breakfast. On a clean tilmatli spread on the ground, he had tortillas, newly baked, and a pile of the black-purple, egg-shaped fruit from the trees. Although they had often found food provided for them on the roadside, they had never before found the provider present to act as their host. Furthermore, to add to the strangeness of it, this gnarled and sidelong little man had nothing of the savage in him, but was well-dressed, friendly eyed, and spoke the Nahua speech, though strangely.
So soon they were seated, feasting on his fruit and bread, and chatting with him. His name, he said, was Coshcana; his birthplace far in the north, beyond the Anahuacs and the Toltec kingdoms. His master, the Hermit of Puma Rock, had sent him here this morning to prepare food for travelers, as indeed he often did. — Did he know any of the forest people? He knew their ways, which were savage and evil. They worshiped sorcerous, abominable gods, and feared them greatly. They shed blood, even human blood, in their gods' honor. There was no redeeming them, only holding them in check; and it was his master, the hermit, who did it. For, strangely enough, he was the god they feared most of all; none knew why. Because Puma Rock was over yonder — pointing to the northeast — none of the Quinames would so much as venture into the forest on this side of the Road from about three leagues south of here to as far north as the Hill of Derision, which their Godheads would come to this afternoon, beyond the loop of the Road. If when they came there, they would look out across the treetops to the southeast, they would see Puma Rock, where his master lived; and, by the by, they would have a village of the savages within a couple of miles of them on the other side. But they might meet a whole tribe of these people on the Road and there would be nothing to fear from them.
Why? — Well, none knew really. But it had always been so. Very likely because the tribes were afraid of his master, considering that he was the God of the Road, who kept it sacred and had ordained that none should be harmed on it. There had always, they must understand, been a hermit on Puma Rock whom the tribes, he thought, believed to have been the same person from the beginning; but he, Coshcana, had been the servant of three of them before his Godhead Quauhtzin came up from the south —
"Quauhtzin!" cried Nauhyo, greatly excited. "Oh, where did he come from, and when did he come?"
"He came but two months ago, little Godhead, and from a place called —"
"Eagle Hermitage?" cried Nauhyo.
"Aye, he did; and from the mountain that you will know of if your little Godhead is the Nauhyotontzin of whom he speaks. For I noted from the first, your Godheads, that you are all of the same manner of speech as my master, Quauhtzin."
"Yes, I am," said Nauhyo, and he began a flood of questions, while new thought was stirred in Amaqui's mind by Coshcana's words: "from the mountain that you will know of . . . " And then there was this wonder-child; and Quauhtli, King Nopal's friend; aye, and King Nopal himself, who had brought Nauhyo to the Calmecac. . . . . . . . . . . "The mountain you will know of" must be Teotepetl, the Mountain that was God.
Back Amaqui's mind went to his early youth, and to a visit paid then to Rainflower Manor in the days of old Nopaltzin Tecuhtli, the king's grandfather, who had taken him up into a mountain which, since he went there from Rainflower, must have been Teotepetl. The results of that visit had shone through all of his life, but never so insistently as now. There was much that he had forgotten, but not that he had walked beside a lake with an August Being, who had given him that which had ennobled all his days. Not till now had he realized that it was on Teotepetl.
From that day till this, he had never spoken of it, and did not know why he had always thought of the One who had talked with him as the Master. The sacredness of the experience had forbidden speculation about it.
But now Coshcana's phrase brought it all back to him, and more vividly than ever. Especially he remembered something he had long since forgotten about: the Master's parting from him, and his words in answer to a question Amaqui had thought but not spoken. He could hear them now: "No, my child, you will not come here again; but I shall watch over your life, and I shall be with you on the last day of it." Whenever that last day might come, the Master seemed to be with him now. That same divine quickening that he had felt by the lakeside on Teotepetl so long ago was suddenly in the air: an overwhelming sense of a Benign Presence, infusing into forest and sky the secret Fire Divinity. Involuntarily he turned his head to see if —
But it was not the Master he saw. Instead, it was three savages who came running from the south. Coshcana with signs offered them food; they made no reply, nor slackened their speed, but grinned rather inauspiciously. Tribesmen thus traveling were no uncommon sight; there was no reason why the Huitznahuatecs should feel uneasiness.
Just beyond the Glade of the Ahuacatls, the Road makes a great loop, swerving to the west a long way, north a long way, then east and to the south, till at the Hill of Derision, due north from the glade, it takes and keeps its proper northward course again. But let none think to save time by cutting through the woods from glade to hill: a way shorter by leagues than the other, but severely to be eschewed. If there was a path, it was known only to Coshcana and his master. Very few would have considered it a path at all; certainly no litters could have traveled it.
The rock on which those two lived took its name from its appearance as seen from the top of the Hill of Derision, from whence it resembled the form of a puma, lying head to the southeast on an enormous pedestal of rock, part tree-covered and part bare, that rose some four score-score forearms above the forest tops. As Coshcana had told the Huitznahuatecs, it had been for ages the seat of a line of hermits, thought by the tribes to be an ever living god.
This was the heart of Quiname-dom, potentially the most dangerous country the Road traversed. A few weeks farther north or south, one came into milder, or lonelier, territories; but here, whatever thought stirred the inner atmosphere was bloodthirsty and treacherous. Perhaps for this very reason the hermits had been stationed on Puma Rock, with their sacred domain stretching far around them. Under the puma's chin was the cave they had lived in; thence, the tribes felt themselves watched by a power beyond their understanding, an omniscience which to disobey would be too dangerous to be thinkable. Their fathers had heard It singing since before the Apotheosis of the Sun. You peered out anxiously before you ventured from the thicket onto the Road, lest you should see its face and —
Strange acoustics in the sacrosanct region accounted in part for this terror. There were places between the loop and the rock where a word spoken on certain reaches of the Road would be heard perfectly though the speaker were miles away; from some such spots you could make the Road hear, from others you could not. On the Road, you might step out of silence into a snatch of song that seemed to come from near at hand, and at another step or two, you would pass into the forest's common daytime silence again.
In all stages of society there are things within the knowledge not the belief — of everyone; and there are other things to disbelieve, which might prove a man eccentric, or even mad; but you might find men disbelieving in them even so. The more thoughtful of the Quinames believed that the sun would rise tomorrow morning; so far as they knew, it always did. But if a prophet had arisen to deny it, he would have obtained some hearing probably, since it was not a matter on which one could afford to be dogmatic. But if chief or prophet, fool or hero, had denied what we knew would happen to the Quiname who trespassed within the domain of Puma Rock, his career would have ended then and insult of insults! — his corpse been regarded as too poisonous to be disposed of in the natural way.
None ever had denied it, of course; the knowledge was too certain. One step into the forest on that side and out would leap on you a demon like a jaguar, as vast as the mountains, with eyes of penetrating green fire and claws of red-hot obsidian; and thenceforth and forever, you would be diet for him — conscious, inexhaustibly tortured, as endlessly renewed as consumed. It was not clear whether this monster was the god himself or merely his servant and instrument; ordinarily, it was thought, the god wore human, though dread-inspiring, form. And if he could suffuse the forest with his voice, so of course he could with his vision, and he would leave no misdeed undiscovered or unpunished. What were misdeeds? Foremost of all, to invade his domain; after that, almost anything if you did it on the Road. Theft and murder, for example: things praiseworthy enough if done elsewhere.
Though were one of the gods to tell you to do those things on the Road, he would be speaking for all the gods, would he not? And for the God on Puma Rock as well . . .?
Quauhtli, carrying out the Master's orders, had started for Puma Rock on the day of the Master's death. He was to leave Nopal and travel north. At such and such a point on the Road he could expect to meet such and such a man and to go where that one led him and there abide. The point of meeting was the Hill of Derision and the man Coshcana, who, having made obeisance, led Quauhtli to the cave on Puma Rock. Overlooked from that height, the forest was wonderful: the treetops intermitted with winged jewelry, oversprinkled with huge blooms; and Quauhtli was happy there, waiting what should befall. There were patches of land below that he and Coshcana cultivated; while he worked on them, he sang and thus maintained the sacredness of the Road.
Although his own teacher had passed into the unseen, there were others of the same order, and he owed them the same obedience he had given Huehuetzin. In due time, the one who would be his new teacher would come to him, or send for him; the commands of that one might come from without or from within himself, and he lived to obey them when they should arrive.
Quite often he sent Coshcana to Ahuacatl Glade to prepare food for possible travelers and to watch the world for him. For aught he knew, Nopal might, under orders, be passing sometime; or some other might. Knowing the effect sight of him had on the savages, he avoided the Road. The day Coshcana entertained the Huitznahuatecs, the feeling had come on him, not to be dislodged, that some momentous thing impended, some grave danger to someone. He grew more and more anxious, waiting for his servant's return.
Seeing how eager Nauhyo was to see Quauhtli, Amaqui might have sent him with Coshcana to Puma Rock and waited for him in the afternoon on the Hill of Derision, except that Coshcana had described the way as too difficult for a child. In any case, he said, his master would meet them on the hill; Coshcana would make haste back and tell him of Nauhyo's impending visit, and Quauhtzin would be there before them. So with that, Nauhyo had to be content; it did not greatly lessen his delight. The Huitznahuatecs resumed their journey, and Coshcana slipped into the woods.
Nauhyo could never have gone with him. It was a matter, for almost an hour, of letting himself down cliffs, crawling by rabbit-runs through the thicket, wading up streams, climbing granite ridges. He started out in no mood for loitering, but his desire to make speed increased as he went. A certain anxiety overtook him, so that he fell to arguing with himself. "There is plenty of time," he argued, "for me to get home and report to Quauhtzin, and for Quauhtzin to reach the Hill of Derision." Himself however, was not so to be silenced, but kept suggesting that there might be more in it than he knew . . . more, and worse.
Perhaps he owed his mishap to this tension of the mind. It happened while he was climbing the Ridge of Tlaloc's Well, quite near the top. The rock there was steep and slippery, and he had to haul himself up by a loop of outhanging pine root. As he did so, his right foot slipped back along a sharp edge and took a cut as deep as his thumbnail and as long as his middle finger: a painful, laming, hindering wound. He held still for a moment to collect himself and could hear the comfortable converse of waters above. In Tlaloc's well, there was healing for most things. . . .
He managed to get to it, affirmed friendly brotherhood with the presiding Tlaloc, and bathed the wound. The water chilled out the pain, or most of it, and stopped the blood flow. He found the right leaves to apply and bound up the foot against bruising contacts in his tilmatli. It was near noon already and he had lost time; things being as they were, it would be an hour yet before he could reach Puma Rock. Once at the foot of the ridge, the going would be easier. He got there at last, only once hurting the foot severely . . . and did not afford himself time to consider the pain.
Then on by deer tracks and across a stream where hummingbirds glittered, where he soaked his bandaged foot again, relieving it, not before it was time. As he pressed on, aware of pain and blood loss as little as might be, anxiety grew on him and tinged his consciousness — driven from the normal by his wound — with nightmare colorings, till it seemed to him that his delay had been altogether culpable and was to cause enormous disaster and ruin.
So, not in possession of himself, he arrived at last at the foot of Puma Rock and took thought to give a cry that would apprise his master of his presence. He had lost much blood and was losing much now. By the time Quauhtli reached him, he had fainted.
The stairway up to the cave was long and steep, but Quauhtli was not the strongest of the Huitznahuatecs for nothing. Still, it took time to get Coshcana up there. And while he was reviving him with the right distillations, rhythms and rubbings, and dressing the wound — which took time again — he had to keep his mind free from the anxiety that would have made his doctoring useless. And that took strong exercise of the will.
It was mid-afternoon before he heard Coshcana's news. Huitznahuatecs were on the Road, under Amaquitzin; Nauhyo was of the company; Amaqui and Nauhyo would wait for him at the Hill of Derision. That was all; there was nothing to be so anxious about. He knew that even now he could reach the hill almost as soon as they would, if it was safe to leave Coshcana. He did not quite like to do that, but —
Coshcana, as anxious for Quauhtli to go as Quauhtli himself was, feigned sleep to enhance his arguments . . . and Quauhtli went.
Quauhtli made all speed down the stairway and through the forest. A restless apprehension drove him, although heaven knew there could be nothing to fear. On the Road, everyone was safe, as safe as in Huitznahuacan. It might be that Nauhyo was bringing him some message from Nopal, perhaps some last direction of the Master's. He tried to think so and that an instinct or an intuition of its importance accounted for his mental strain . . . and failed.
He was to pass through two of those places where the weird acoustics of the forest made voices on the far-off Road audible. From the first place, he knew, one could also make oneself heard on the Road, but not from the other place. The first was a long, lanelike glade, a few strides across, that had an air, because of its windings, of being endless, or of leading into kingdoms of mystery: a place so still that one would think the work of creation was not proceeding there, or that a god was asleep nearby and infecting all nature with the deep quiescence of his being.
Often enough, Quauhtli or Coshcana, stepping out from the forest dusk into its daylight, had heard suddenly, from the distant Road but as if quite close at hand, the clucking, hawking sibilance of Quiname speech, or even, in the case of Coshcana, the mellow Chiapanec of the Saltmen. The Master had taught Quauhtli the language of the Quinames, and Quauhtli had caught, at one time and another, many fragments of speech that had never been meant for him.
As he broke into this glade now, the air that had been still and somnolent suddenly became alive with music. There was but one flautist who could draw that sweetness from his instrument: Amaquitzin; and but one singer who could so put the mellow-throated zacuan to shame. . . . So that was where they were on the Road. They would reach the hill before him, but they would not have long to wait. He would not call to them lest he break into the song.
In due course, he came to the second place where he might expect to hear them, and he did. The song burst on him suddenly, as if the singer were there under the cliff, not ten paces away. The flute was silent now, and it was another song being sung: one that startled him to hear. It was what, in the Serpent's Hole, they called The Death-Song; the Master had taught it to them. He could picture the scene on the Road: Amaqui and Nauhyo would be litter-borne, and Nauhyo would be making the young men forget that they were bearing burdens. He would be, as Quauhtli had so often seen him, oblivious of every created thing but the star, the god, the topmost blossom of eternal beauty toward which he was singing, drawing up every atom of his hearers' being, body and mind, toward that height. The sound followed Quauhtli down the gorge as he ran, the last line coming very clear and tender.
"The gates of deathless beauty open."
Then a moment's silence; then the young men's voices applauding; then Amaquitzin's: "Child, I know who taught you that!"
A questioning, rather awed "Yes?" came from Nauhyo.
Then Amaquitzin's voice came again: "Yes, and he is with us now. Do you not know that the Holy One is with us now? The gates of death --"
A scream rang out, followed by a confusion of voices, Quiname shouts and groans. In the Quiname tongue, Quauhtli shouted . . . and realized that although he could hear, he would not be heard. He dashed on, his heart straining furiously. . . .
Ib, Guaish, and Ghuggg, mighty chieftains among the Ib Quinames, and sometimes that people's representatives in the train of the hierarch of Teotihuacan, being wholly unencumbered with baggage — but for a little green jade god, Camaxtli by name, who was to do great things for them — were able to make much better speed than the litter-laden Huitznahuatecs; and so they reached the woods west of the Hill of Derision, and therein the hidden village of their tribe, by noon. There a little gentle drumming brought to the council house all who had right of entry and to whom eloquent Guaish explained what great things were to be.
There were as many tribes as trees in the forest, said he, but only to the Quinames, because of their well-known piety, had the gods granted this great good fortune: this chalchiuhite Camaxtli, and instructions on how to earn his protection. There were travelers on the Road: a strange people from the south, unlike other humans, whom the gods desired destroyed. To the Ib Quinames alone in the world, the gods had given the right, and on them imposed the duty, of killing men on the Road. Judge, then, whether ever again Quiname cooking pots would gape in vain for the most delicate kind of meat! Judge! — since every traveler on the Road must pass by the Hill of Derision, where henceforth the Ib Quinames, lying in wait, should be blessed in replenishing their larders.
And now these first fruits came; by mid-afternoon they would reach the hill. Moreover, they were unarmed, and were helpless and foolish. Let the warriors arm themselves and the fires be lit under the caldrons. Those whom the gods desired slain were innumerable; and yet not so innumerable as the Quinames. . . .
This was revolutionary; nor did wisdom fail to find a voice there. It was that of the mother of the three chiefs: ancient, exceptionally hideous, and by nature suspicious of gods and men. She wished to know who had told her sons that men might be killed on the Road.
"The Great Priest of the Gods' Town, who is a god and speaks for all the gods." Ghuggg took up the tale, recounting the miracles he had seen done in the hierarch's name. Guaish and Ib remembered them differently but supposed that it was other miracles they remembered; they related them in their turn as their wonder-besotted imaginations presented them to their memories. The case put forward by the three was convincing, but the hag was stubborn. The hierarch might be a god, she said, and if he had performed these wonders, he must be. But the gods were spiteful creatures, ill things to have truck with; he might have issued his orders merely to get the Ib Quinames under the claws of the Demon Jaguar. And the Road was older than the gods; and the God on Puma Rock was the Road. They had heard and seen him; they knew his power.
She might have carried the day with those savages squatting in the dark, but at that point Camaxtli silenced her with a miracle.
"Look!" cried Ib, "The god himself proclaims his power!" He pointed to the shelf where Camaxtli had been placed, surrounded with the dried heads of ancient enemies of the tribe; and all saw an aura of red light glow from the image.
"Shall we obey him, or shall we not? Shall we feast upon our enemies, or shall we be destroyed?"
"We will obey! We will feast!" cried the Ib Quinames.
Prostrating themselves, they howled a hymn to great Camaxtli thus glowing with anger, while the mother of the chiefs raged inwardly but said no more, knowing her sons in the mood for human sacrifice, and not desiring to be the victim herself. So she added her voice very audibly to the howling of the hymn to this new god, the Lord of War, who was to be their tribal patron henceforth, and who would come stalking forth from the council house into mid-village, visibly huge and grim and irresistible, to lead his people to victory whenever he desired blood to flow. In the wonder of his manifestation, they might forget other gods and attend to this one business he had in hand for them . . . and so they did.
And then, when it was all but done, and the rhythm of blood lust and the pulse of murder beat strong in the heart and brain of each of them — suddenly came catastrophe. Suddenly appeared among them, on the Hill of Derision, that Known God they had determined to forget; and he came in evident anger, and he was the most real of the gods, and the Master of the Demon Jaguar.
There might be others invisible, but he and his wroth were most visible, most potent; and the stone image they had brought with them to their triumph was nothing at all: helpless inanimation in their hands now in the moment of their disaster . . . and what was there to do but to lie down in misery and die?
An arrow a man, all of the Huitznahuatecs were fallen when Quauhtli appeared — except for Nauhyo. Him he saw stand in the midst, pale and bleeding at the shoulder, but utterly calm. Then the savages, dancing and yelling their triumph, rushed into the circle of their victims. One of them, knife uplifted, made for Nauhyo, seizing him. And Quauhtli was in time to hurl that man away, to scatter a few of the brutes on the ground, to make his presence known, and to pick up the fainting child, all before a thought could enter his mind. The Quinames lay prone among the dead Huitznahuatecs, hiding from their eyes the dreadful vision of Recognized Deity. . . .
First he must bandage Nauhyo's shoulder and stop the blood flow. Then — His silence worked upon the savages; expecting the blow to fall, their souls curdled with terror. At the right moment, he spoke: "What moved you, unhappy ones, to this damnation?"
"Mercy, O Lord God!" they moaned. "Have mercy on us!"
Yes, they thought him a god; and there was that about the Mountain-huge Demon Jaguar. It should serve him in his need.
"Mercy is for the merciful, not for ye." There was loud wailing.
Then he took a grave risk. "Am I more a god than these whose bodies ye slew?"
It was an unpolitic, thoughtless thing to say, but he could have said nothing better. Gods bodiless through their misdoing would be much more potent against them than gods or men or demons embodied could be.
He selected the savage nearest him, who happened to be Guaish, the Eloquent, and forced from him the tale. Prompting from without must have set them on, he divined, and the tale Guaish told seemed true. The Great Priest-god from the Gods' City in the north: That would bear thinking out presently. But first he must get Nauhyo safely home and tended, and leave the dead under protection. . . .
He must keep the savages where they were; willy-nilly, they must be the protectors. And he would need them here in the morning, when, somehow, he must reconsecrate the Road. Personal horror or grief had no chance to win him over; the duties imposed were too great. Guaish's tale came to an end.
"Punishment follows on crime. I cannot alter that which you have done. If ye escape from the Mountain-huge Jaguar —"
Oh, how might they escape, how might they escape? Then one of them howled, "He came not upon the Road, nor across the Road, but now he may come where he will."
"Aye," said Quauhtli, "because ye have broken the Law of the Road, the Law of the Road is broken." A plan came into his mind that he thought he might trust in. "There before ye lie the great gods whose bodies they permitted ye to slay that ye might be undone; unless ye are destroyed, they will hate me. Therefore they, and not I, shall command the Mountain-huge Jaguar tonight. Cry aloud to them for mercy. It may be that while ye cry, they shall withhold him."
They obeyed, putting passion into their wailing. "Cry aloud!" he urged them. "If one of ye stirs during the night, or forgets to cry to those gods, he shall feel the obsidian claws!"
He was lying, and he had never lied before. He left them howling for forgiveness, their faces pressed to the earth. It would still be daylight when he came to the cave. At the place from which he had heard the beginning of the massacre, he heard, as he passed, their cries for mercy, and he hoped for the best. The night must be spent in tending Nauhyo and devising a plan; if they could but be relied on to remain there, fear-enchained, till morning, something might be done. They must be driven from these parts entirely; and whither? The answer came to him: into the forest south of Huitznahuac, where no man comes. No memory of their crime must remain here, to be the seed of like crime in the future. Into the forests far to the south of Quinatepetl and Eagle Mountain they must go. . . . And he had Coshcana incapacitated, and Nauhyo maybe dying on his hands, and was quite without aid. . . .
Not quite, however, as he found when he came into that narrow glade from which he had first heard the Huitznahuatecs on the Road. Instantly he was among voices once more, and voices, surely, that he knew. Where had he heard those tones? Why, in the Huitznahuacan marketplace long since, and the language was Chiapanec, that of the Saltmen; and the ones talking were those three best fellows in the world: Philosophers Hax, Been, and Quicab, surely! He stood still to listen and soon became quite certain of it, although he had hardly seen the men since his college days. He broke in upon them.
"Ah, your Chiapanec Godheads!"
A pause, and then a startled, "Huitznahuatec!"
"Yes, I am Huitznahuatec. And you are the Philosophers Been and Quicab and Hax?"
"We are those three, O Huitznahuatec ghost in the air." There was, however concealed, a good deal of fear in the voice that answered him.
"No ghost, but an old friend who sorely needs your help. Where are your men?"
"The camp is some thirty strides behind us, southward."
"Then they will not hear me, and that is well," Quauhtli said.
And so he told them of what had happened and of how he must, at all costs, take Nauhyo home now and yet keep the savages where they were till morning; of how they considered him a god and the Master of the Demon Jaguar; and of what he had told them so as to keep them there.
"A god your Godhead must be, to have a voice and no body," said Quicab. "Where are you?"
"A goodly distance from you, in the forest. But I will come to you at dawn and explain. Meanwhile, can you help me tonight? You can do what you will with your voices, I know."
"This is our business as much as your Godhead's," said the voice of Hax. "Aye, more. You can trust us."
That night, on the Hill of Derision, the Chiapanecs divided the time into three watches, relieving each other, and played their part. The miserable Quinames heard the darkness around them full of voices: the squalling now and then of the Mountain-huge Jaguar, far more terrible than that of the natural beast; voices of angry gods wandering around them, terrible, horror-stricken, vengeful. Then the jaguar squall, eerie and jaguarish, took on human, or rather, Quiname language and implored leave to get to work on the criminals. The voices hushed and curbed it, whispering, "Not yet! Not just yet!" The wild men took no thought to escape; there was nowhere to escape to but into the jaws of the Demon Jaguar. Undoubtedly, they were being punished for their crime.
Meanwhile, in the cave, Quauhtli was tending Nauhyo, largely under Coshcana's direction, for he had much medical knowledge. He said that Nauhyo would live, he thought; but it might be a long illness. The wound was no great matter, since by the mercy of the God-world, the savages had not poisoned their arrows — not that arrow, at any rate. It was the shock, which must have been terrible, that was to be feared.
At dawn, Quauhtli was at the Chiapanec camp, where Hax and Been had risen and were awaiting him, Quicab being on duty at the hill. They breakfasted together. They agreed with him that the Quinames could never have thought of this for themselves. Such savages, said Hax, had no power to originate things but did only what their fathers had done before them. And the like of this had never been done before; for killing begot killing. Once done, it would always be done.
"Whereby the Road will no longer be safe for ourselves unless your Godhead can manage to reconsecrate it."
"Who, then, could have set them on?"
"One with a stronger malevolent will than is to be found here in the forest normally," said Philosopher Been.
"They said that it was the Great Priest of a City of the Gods in the north, who is traveling southward along the Road," said
Quauhtli. "I have heard that there is a city called Teotihuacan in the Anahuacs."
They snorted grimly. "There is, and the savages were telling you the truth, or it will surprise me." This from Hax. "He would go any length in the world, that man."
"He has gone a pretty long length this time," quoth Been. "Curse him!"
They went on to sketch the situation in the north. Much of it Quauhtli had heard from Nopal, but he was glad to have it made clear by a fresh telling, and much was new to him.
"And if it is not Yen Ranho himself who is at the bottom of this push to conquer Huitznahuac, may the savages season my carcass with my own salt, and may it poison them! A man from Tollan was at Huitznahuacan when we were there last; an embassy from Teotihuacan — Otompan would follow him in a month. As matter of fact, we slipped by that embassy's camp before dawn yesterday, and hurried, I can tell you. I say that Yen Ranho is his own ambassador and that the savages told you the truth."
They agreed that an account of it must be sent to Huitznahuacan and offered to provide a messenger. But Quauhtli explained his plan for making the Quinames themselves take the message, and for removing them from these woods entirely that none might remain who knew of the crime. After discussion, they brought him writing materials, and together they concocted a pictograph that there could be no misreading. Then Hax gave orders to his men that the camp should be struck and that the men should follow them almost to the Hill of Derision — keeping out of sight of the hill, however — and there hide in the woods east of the Road.
The morning was still gray, the trees dropping their mistdrops, when Quauhtli and the two Saltmen approached the Quinames and Quicab. Quauhtli picked his way into the midst of the savages where they lay still howling for mercy. The Chiapanecs took their places on the rim of the circle and redoubled their play of jaguar squalls and menacing voices, and the Quinames redoubled their howls.
"Silence!" roared Quauhtli, and he was obeyed on the instant.
"Now," said he, "the gods ye slew are to pronounce judgment on ye. Listen and tremble!"
The Chiapanecs began their eerie ghost-talk — gibberish, with a significant word or two of Quiname thrown in — and Quauhtli interpreted it. First, the savages were to summon to them all who might be left in the village. He did not know whether they would be able to obey, but thought it worth trying, as he was loath to trust any of them to go to the village. His command was followed by silence, whereupon he signed to the Chiapanecs, and the dreadful ghost-voices began again. Then one of the savages lashed out and caught up the signal-drum and began beating out a rhythm on it, his face all the while nuzzled down into the ground.
Who was to know what he was signaling? He might be telling the womenfolk to escape far into the forest. But no such noble thought was likely to enter an Ib Quiname's mind; being in trouble, he desired that his kin and compeers should share it. In a little while, the edge of the wood on that side was peopled with the rest of the tribe, who, when they saw the God from Puma Rock, fell prone too. Then sentence was pronounced on all of them.
The three chiefs were to take the young men of the tribe and make speed along the Road into the south of the world until they should come to the real City of the Gods, whence were the gods they had slain; and they were to take with them the litters and effects of those gods and, above all, this talisman, which alone could protect them from the Mountain-huge Jaguar, who would be in pursuit.
Here Ib was bidden to stretch forth his hand to receive the talisman, and in it was placed the pictoscript Quauhtli had written. This, and the litters, they were to give to the king of the city and then do as he would tell them to do, go where he bade them to go.
And they must pass on the way the company of that false tzitzimitl from the north who had led them into evil; they must watch and pass his camp by night and not be discovered. And the gods they had slain would be with them to protect them if they did not err or stray from their commandments. And the rest of the tribe was to follow and make what speed it could. The Mountain-huge Jaguar would not harm them as long as they were on the Road, their faces turned southward, and they tarried only by night. But the chieftains and the young men must make speed if they desired to escape him.
"And now, let your Salt-dealing Godheads hide in the woods." The Chiapanecs took cover.
"I myself will now vanish from among ye, but think not that I shall not be watching." He picked his way through them and took his stand with the Saltmen. "And now, O Ib and Guaish and Ghuggg, you and your young men and swift runners, and the litters with ye, and the talisman — to your feet, and escape if ye can from the Mountain-huge Jaguar, there is no safety for ye until ye come into the City of the Gods."
In an instant they were on foot and making as good speed south as ever humans might, and the rest were following them before long. Then the Saltmen set their porters to cutting wood for the funeral pyres.
All day long, Ib and his party made speed southward. They had eaten nothing since they left the village the afternoon before; yet not one of them thought of food until, toward sundown, at one of the ancient rest-places, a man hailed them to come and feast with him.
They halted in terror at his call and, having halted, found themselves unable to keep their feet, much less go forward, so famished were they. So there they gorged their fill anxiously, then plunged on again. Sometime in the night they fell and slept where they fell, but not for long. The sun had hardly conquered the gray of dawn before they shivered and awoke, and rose, and quarreled, and went on. They heard the slain gods gibber around them and the squall of the Demon Jaguar behind, and they were least unhappy when they were traveling fastest.
After a few days, however, they were checked, and might travel fast no more. They came in sight of the Otomi party and could not pass them. Day and night, the edges of the woods were filled with cannibals armed and hungry, and the Ib Quinames were unarmed. To slip past along the open Road by daylight was impossible; even to be seen by the people of the tzitzimitl priest would be unthinkable sin. A tzitzimitl, and a particularly noxious one, they counted the hierarch now; but, if anything, a tzitzimitl was more dangerous than a god. And by night, the Otomi camp was surrounded by a blaze of watch fires, a host of sentinels. They could but loiter along, expecting the red-hot obsidian claws.
A little before noon one day, the Quinames lost sight of the Otomis, and before they saw them again, they had come to the end of the world. They reached the top of a hill, and suddenly, in front of them, there were no more trees but a great level plain, without rocks, bushes or rills, surrounded by mountains afar. If the known forest world was terrible, how much more terrible was unknowable this!
They must bide where they were till nightfall; to go out into that awfulness by daylight would be to be seen. And when night came, they must bide where they were till daylight, for where all the world was Road, who could find his way? Looking forth at sunrise, they saw that the plain was clear, that the Otomis had vanished. The Quinames had crossed it by noon and entered the Canyon at the End of Things.
There, the next day, they had soon to go warily again, not being far, by this time, behind the hierarch's party. Far beneath them, on the left, the river roared and foamed among its boulders, threatening them hideously; and the mountains on either side threatened them also, from whence the Jaguar peered down at them. In front, not more than half a mile away, their archenemy, oblivious of their presence, swung leisurely along in his litter. From this and that vantage point during the day, they watched and cursed him, their hatred of him grown to madness.
At mid-afternoon they reached the forking of the canyon, where the Road left the river and ran up through a narrow passage to the right that wound ever deeper into the mountain's heart. They had to go more warily than ever. There were no vantage points now, no watching the Otomis from afar; they must send scouts crawling forward to see that they did not blunder around some winding of the passage and into their enemies' rear. Their chance came that night.
Ghuggg, the scout, came creeping back to say that the Otomis had camped for the night, and he brought other news with him that made them, for the first time since their disaster, remember that they were the famous Ib Quinames, with great gifts of their own. Ghuggg had crawled along a ledge on the canyon wall and seen all that was toward. In the forest, the hierarch, knowing that the Law of the Road had been broken, and so might be broken again, had kept his camp well guarded by night; but here in the canyon, where there was no humanity, the need for such care had passed. There were but two watch fires, one at either end of the camp, and a single sentinel at each. They might, after midnight, pass right through. The tents were set alternately against the right wall and the left; the Devil-priest's tent was midmost; a passage wound between wide enough to get the litters through with skill.
And they trusted that they were the famous Ib Quinames and possessed that skill, enough and to spare.
The first question was what to do about the sentinel, who stood by the fire not twenty strides away but around a bend that kept him unseen. The obvious thing would have been to creep up and kill him quietly, a matter manageable enough. But it had been burned into their consciousness that on the Road one must not kill. They must somehow lure him from his firelight and not kill him, but put him beyond the power to cry out.
They held their council in whispers, squatting in a bunch below the bend of the canyon, where they could see the red flicker of the fire on the rock in front and above. All day long the Road had been climbing; here the ascent was steep. Had the Quinames guessed how sound travels in the canyon, they would not have forgathered so near to the Otomi sentinel, and luck would not have come to them in the fashion it did.
Huhu, the Otomi sentinel, watching by the fire at the rear of the camp, could not make out what had taken the night to make it, just down below there, so full of quaint elemental noises: soft, strange sounds as if the patter of raindrops or the rustle of leaves had half-acquired articulation, or been infected with a desire to be speech-like human, and yet that could not possibly be human. Purr, hiss, ripple — a little less audible than the canyon silence itself — floated on that silence, half submerged. He must be imagining it; it was too subtle even to be some lost wind in these secret depths — some tiny wind questioning the vegetation in the darkness — or the converse of hidden waters. He would not think of it, but instead, of a cabin thatched with palm leaves far away on the road between Teotihuacan and Otompan. How many months now since he was there? Hush! there it was again that curious elemental language! Just down there, beyond the bend. Were one to make the ten steps between this and that to lay the matter to rest, one would have peace to think about one's wife and home.
The Quinames heard his footsteps approaching and made ready. He looked down into the shadows, but with eyes his firelight had spoiled for the seeing required, whereas the ones waiting for him had little to learn in the matter of night vision in a shut-in place like this; it was only daylight on the open plain that could confuse them. Huhu took one step forward and before his foot was on the ground, found himself seized, gagged, bound, and helpless. Then he was tied facedown on a litter and all manner of things were piled on top of him — in reality, the Huitznahuatecs' baggage — and he was on the move toward the camp he ought to have been guarding.
While Huhu was being dealt with thus at one end of the camp, four shadows stole through and dealt with the sentinel at the other end. They served him as they had served Huhu and deposited him in the darkness beyond, then returned to report a safely sleeping camp.
Genius in action is, after its fashion, absolute. It is at one with the universe and utterly beyond the reach of human weakness; even though, in unillumined times, its possessor may be the most timorous of men. Only the day before, the Quinames, fleeing from the wrath of heaven, had been but squalid poltroons, half mad with fear. Now, when they saw work for their hands to do, and that the most congenial imaginable, giving their most prized and cultivated instincts fullest play — it was another thing altogether. The Mountain-huge Jaguar was forgotten, nonexistent; they trusted that they were the famous Ib Quinames again, of whose prowess so much boasting had been done. Ghuggg, one of the four who had secured the second sentinel, came back to his companions with a chain of chalchiuhites they had seen the Devil-priest wearing when they were in his train of old. Now Ghuggg wore it proudly; he had been in Yen Ranho's tent, in the inner room, and had seen him sleeping, and had come away, to begin with, with the Sacred Chain of the Hierarchate.
It fired their imagination. They moved through and left their belongings and their captive where Natzo, the second sentinel, had been deposited. Then they returned and went through the camp like ants through a carcass. It might appear so; for truly, the work they did seems more than human. They carried away the Otomi litters, with all of the Otomi stores loaded on them. They burdened themselves heavily and made their traveling difficult, but they had not the conscience to leave their labors incomplete. They left the Otomis their tents, the beds they lay on, and the clothes they were wearing, and went on their way triumphant. Soon the captive sentinels were unbound and bearing between them the heaviest of the litters.
But presently, what with their burdens and their lack of sleep, the glory of their exploit dimmed for them. Their old mood crept back, and the cold of the dawn became haunted. They dared not pause to feast on the stolen provisions; they were not making the progress they might. And who knew but that there might be something in thievery, done on the Road, that officious Omnipotence might object to? They had killed no one in the camp. At least, each hoped sincerely that no one else had, but who was to know? Man was naturally sinful; very likely some fool, for the fun of killing, had brought down on them all anew the redoubled anger of the Invisible. It was a dejected band that trailed out of the canyon at sunrise and onto the level plain, a band that wished heartily to be rid of its spoils but loath to leave them where the Otomis might find and pick them up.
Some way to their left flowed the river; as soon as they caught sight of it, they knew what to do. They would fling their burdens over the banks and go forward but lightly encumbered. But by the riverside, and high above the chasm down into which the waters roared there, they changed their minds. They needed food and a little rest; a cave they came upon would hide them from the pursuit of gods or tzitzimitls or men. So in they went. They quarreled for a while as to whether it would be safe, so near the Road, to kill and cook their captives, and decided that it would be safer to feast on what they had stolen from the camp. So they bound Huhu and Natzo again and flung them on the ground at the far end of the cave. Then they gorged without restraint and forgot about them.
When their hunger was something more than satisfied, they resumed their journey. Seeing no reason to burden themselves further with their spoils of last night, they left them in the cave. Before nightfall they were brought into Huitznahuacan, and Quauhtli's pictograph had been read in the House of the Kings.
Where, however, it but confirmed the news that the Huitznahuatecs had already heard. The hierarch, on his arrival at the northern end of the canyon, had sent his secretary ahead by litter with swift runners, who left him at the edge of Huitznahuac and returned. Thence Mahetsi had made his way on foot to the city and proclaimed his master's guilt. It did not matter that he did not know whether the massacre had happened or not; all that was important was that the Huitznahuatecs should believe it had. For Mahetsi's part, he hoped it had not.
Huhu and Natzo, with covetous eyes, watched their captors feasting. They lay bound where they had been flung down at the back of the cave, knowing nothing as to their whereabouts or of the Quinames' destination, nor that Huitznahuac was quite near, nor why they had not been killed. They had heard of the cannibalism of these forest people and had guessed that their turn would come when the stolen food was finished: a nauseating thought that quite held Huhu's mind; he could think of nothing else. But better that, Natzo consoled himself, than to fall into the hands of the hierarch again, for he supposed that he had been napping a little when captured; and although the Otomitl, or even Tata, would have given him a clean death for it, he distrusted Yen Ranho. They lay a stride or so apart, their feet toward the feasters, who were some twenty long strides from them and heeding them, apparently, not at all.
A chilled neck and right shoulder slowly made themselves felt by Natzo, the physical sensation creeping through his mental misery till at last it suggested to him an idea. He turned his head and whispered: "Huhu!"
"There is a draft."
"I've been wishing there wasn't."
"There must be an opening behind us somewhere."
Huhu was much too wretched to care. If he was to go to the Quiname cooking pots, he would prefer to go to them without a rheumatic neck.
"We might escape."
"Huh! Tied up in these vile mashtlies?"
"Wriggle this way and we'll see."
They both did some wriggling, Huhu without grasping the importance of it, bruising their naked bodies on the rough rock floor.
"Now lie back to back with me."
They contrived to get into that position. Then Natzo, overcoming huge difficulties, worked his fingers free, worked his thumbs free, groped for the knots in his companion's bindings, fumbled and worked at them until Huhu's arms were unbound. In much less time, Huhu, thus freed, untied Natzo's; then both quickly unbound their legs. The savages were no such skilled binders, after all.
Taking their bonds with them that they might dress decently in them by and by, they crept in the direction of the draft, their hearts beating wildly. But that end of the cave was fairly dark, and the Quinames, not far in from the cave mouth, were busy with their gorging. Soon they were behind a boulder and knew that they were, at least, out of sight.
Before long there was a bend in the cave, which went on diminishing into the dark: a passage that still permitted them, feeling their way, to walk more or less erect.
"There may be snakes, tarantulas and scorpions," whispered Huhu.
"Better all of them than those stinking savages," said the other. "Come on!"
On they went, groping before them with hands and feet. The ground beneath them was surprisingly smooth and level, the draft their guide. They turned another corner, and far in front of them was light.
The light was a long way off, but as they advanced, it grew more distinguishable and reassuring. They hurried on, since the walls and floor were becoming visible. They were losing their fear of the Quinames rapidly; safety seemed in sight.
"But, Natzo, what if we come out into the canyon before the Divine Hierarch has passed? What if —?"
"May jaguars eat the living body of the Divine Hierarch!"
They stopped to dress themselves, in mashtlies only, for their tilmatlies had been torn into binding strips. Then on they went, mashtli-clad, and came to the end of the passage, which they approached with caution at last, for fear of the Divine Hierarch.
There was no need for fear or caution; their outlook was not into the canyon at all, nor onto any part of the Road. Beneath them lay a green valley, to all appearance quite shut in: grassland dotted with groves, a lake at the bottom. Great herds of deer grazed on the hillsides and by the water. There was an air of peace about the place found only where man is unknown. They ran down to the lake, and the birds hardly troubled to rise before them, nor the rabbits to scuttle away. The herds looked up unconcernedly and, without so much as turning aside, went on with their grazing.
They lay flat on the clean sand of the margin and drank and washed themselves free of the night's terrors.
"May vultures feed upon his entrails!"
"On whose entrails?"
"The Divine Hierarch's. May his remains be shamefully defiled!" They both roared with laughter, rolling on the sand.
They found a hiding-place above, and until nightfall watched the mouth of the passage they had come through; but no pursuing Quinames appeared. There they lay through the night, afraid to light a fire, but in that game-rich valley, not hungry. It was too cold for sleep, and they fell to devising plans.
"Not a jaguar has squalled during the night, not a puma nor an ocelot."
"That is true, Natzo. It is a civilized country."
"We could live here in great peace and wealth. We could found a republic and live gloriously."
"We have no weapons, Natzo. To found a republic, one needs weapons."
"The Divine Hierarch's baggage may still be in the cave."
"In the cave, Natzo?"
"Consider! The savages stole it, but it would be of little use to them. It was the theft that pleased them, I should think, and not the spoils. What would they do with all those bales of wealth? I say they will leave them in the cave and go on wealthless about their business. We will go there in the morning and take what we need."
"What if —"
"Oh, we will sneak in quietly enough. Or, if you are afraid, I will. If they are still there, we shall see them against the light of the cave mouth and they won't see us. There'll be royal robes in the bales instead of the tilmatlis they tore up for us."
After a long silence, Huhii sighed. "I shall miss my wife and children," he said.
"Yes, that is a pity. But we may find girls somewhere to marry. We may find gentle savages — the savages here would be gentle — and teach them civilization. The Republic of New Otompan . . .
They waited till daylight before entering the cave. Natzo was willing enough to go alone, but Huhu, though fearful, was unwilling not to accompany him. "There are other passages leading off," said he. "We may lose our way and wander forever in the desolate entrails of the mountain. I wish we had torches."
"If we had, and if the Quinames are still there, the light would be our destruction."
After groping for a while: "Pulque would be good, Natzo."
"There will be plenty in the cave."
The darkness thinned presently, but still all was silent ahead. "There would be noise enough if they were there," said Natzo. "Ah, here is that boulder we slipped behind. Now to peer out cautiously."
The Quinames were not there, but the baggage was. Of the Divine Hierarch's boxes, only three had been opened: two of food and one of garments. About half of the food in each box had been taken. The garments were strewn on the cave floor; to judge by the number left, none of them was missing. The Otomis had on new and gorgeous mashtlies in a moment, and five or six tilmatlies apiece, much above their station.
The cases were marked on the outside with pictograph descriptions of their contents, so plainly that even those illiterates had no difficulty in understanding. Here were skins of pulque; here dried yetl leaves, and pipes in which to smoke them; fire-sticks and tinder; torches. They drank, and smoked, and dreamed of the glories of New Otompan, keeping the while a sort of watch on the plain outside. But they saw no one. When the mood took them, they lit torches and carried them into the dark passage and there set them up as well as might be, thrust into crevices or a few piled up and flaring on the floor. And by their light, they began the transport of their booty into the territories of the new republic.
The passage, at the New Otompan end, opened up into a chamber, wherein they deposited what they brought. Three only of the litters were small enough to get through, but these did good service. They worked hard till nightfall, making journey after journey. Then, having supped delicately, they slept the night on the hierarch's bedding, with five or six quilts of the richest and thickest under each of them, and soft, luxurious fawn-skin blankets above.
A life began for them far more pleasant than soldiering in the Otomitl's army. The memory of their families came to trouble them little; nor did they at first push out and explore, to find those gentle savages who should be their subjects. That one valley, so far as they knew, was a world without ingress or egress but through their cave, and it sufficed them. Fruit was to be had for the picking; what game they needed waited for their shafts. They felled trees and built a cabin by the lakeside and moved their bedding there, and they used the cave, their first home, as a storehouse. There were no dangerous beasts, not even insect pests, to trouble them.
It occurred to Natzo that they must fortify their realm against possible, if improbable, invaders. So they felled more trees, trimmed the logs roughly and hauled them into the cave; there they piled them lengthwise in the opening of the passage till it was blocked. When the heavy rains began, they moved back
A life began for them far more pleasant than soldiering in the Otomid's army. The memory of their families came to trouble them little; nor did they at first push out and explore, to find those gentle savages who should be their subjects. That one valley, so far as they knew, was a world without ingress or egress but through their cave, and it sufficed them. Fruit was to be had for the picking; what game they needed waited for their shafts. They felled trees and built a cabin by the lakeside and moved their bedding there, and they used the cave, their first home, as a storehouse. There were no dangerous beasts, not even insect pests, to trouble them.
It occurred to Natzo that they must fortify their realm against possible, if improbable, invaders. So they felled more trees, trimmed the logs roughly and hauled them into the cave; there they piled them lengthwise in the opening of the passage till it was blocked. When the heavy rains began, they moved back there. They had but to put out pans then, to catch all the water they needed.
The one loving to lead, and the other to be led; the one to patronize, and the other to be patronized — they did not quarrel. Everyone that either of them knew or had known became a reality in the mind of the other. Thus, talking or silent, they spent the weeks of the rain, when the runlets on the hillsides were torrents, and often the falling waters made a curtain before the cave mouth through which some lonely buck passing, at a dozen strides or so away, could but be seen like the faintest of ghosts. They were well stored with food and firewood, and kept their fire burning always.
Huhu was standing by the cave mouth, looking out; Natzo lay on his bedding, watching the smoke from the fire travel up along the roof to its escape, and dreaming great dreams. Thus far, they had been busy with the valley of New Otompan; when the rains ceased, they would look afield. They would explore and extend their empire wonderfully. In this new, sorrowless world, there must be other territories than this. Who knew to what new realms they might come conquering? To what peaceful but gifted tribe, of which Natzo might make himself the hierarch and Huhu the Otomitl, teaching the people the arts and sciences? War, that they had never known, he could trust himself and Huhu — a good soldier, if uninspiring — to acquaint them with. They should grow great, and bless their benefactors, and set up a power to rival the Topiltzin's. And he would teach them to speak Otomi, and invent for them a pictography in which they could keep and hand down the record of his greatness.
"Of what are you thinking, Huhu?"
"Of the rain and the lake, Natzo."
"And what of them?"
"That the one is ceasing and that the other has risen."
Natzo rose and joined him, and they both stood looking out. As they watched, the white opacity of the rain vanished, and the grayness above from which it had come. Soon the sky shone darkly and intensely blue. Everywhere, sunlit jewels sparkled on the wetness of the valley.
"The lake will rise no higher," said Natzo. "Look yonder!"
The surface of the lake shone blue but troubled; beneath the blueness, tumult was to be seen, or divined. The waters had risen, certainly; it was difficult to judge how much. But — where was their cabin?
They scanned the eastern shore but saw no sign of it. Of course not, for look! The water was at the base of a rock that had been a good forty strides east of it, and risen to a man-height higher than the level of its floor. Ah, and look! There the cabin went!
There it went — or the logs that had composed it — carried along toward the other end of the valley on a swift current. They watched till a fiercer force of water tossed the logs up and hurled them out of sight.
"Where we have never been," said Natzo. "A marsh was there formerly; the lake had no outflow. I was right — there are other territories in New Otompan. The Tlalocs have shown us the way; they intend the republic to grow."
They followed the waters to their outflow: a sudden fall into a gorge completely tree-hidden. When the lake had gone down and the outflow was but a trickle, they would descend and explore. They waited some weeks and finally they set off. A winding way, strangely concealed, led them out into a valley larger and more beautiful than their own. But was not this their own too? They proposed to move their stores here and annex it.
So there they built a new cabin, and lived in it till they wearied for fresh scenes. Then Natzo decided that the republic needed a navy, whereupon they cut logs and made a raft of them by the waterside, packed a tent, provisions, and cooking pots on it, and set forth on their adventures.
On the morning after the Quinames passed through the Otomi camp in the canyon, the first of the Otomis to be abroad soon saw that much had happened while they slept, and the camp awoke into an atmosphere of strangeness and apprehension. This turned soon into bewilderment and then into consternation when the store tents were visited and their foodless condition became known. They might starve before they came to this Huitznahuac, and anyway, what would the Divine Hierarch say? He had no reputation for leniency. Those who served him, or the state, were expected to be rigorously faithful and efficient; punishment was more familiar than reward. The two who might be chiefly to blame were, it was discovered, not there to be punished, so punishment might fall on anyone. They loitered about like men of evil conscience; there was no stir of work in the camp, as there would have been of a normal morning. Their stricken thoughts made a heavy and uneasy atmosphere.
Thus Tata, their commanding officer, found them when the unusualness of the morning brought him to the door of his tent. He saw dejected groups discussing in low tones news that did not seem good; none were taking down the tents, lighting fires or cooking. What was the meaning of it?
They did not know what to say.
What! Were they rebellious? You there, Yetsu; why were no fires lit?
Please, his Godhead, there was no firing.
No firing? Where were the cooks' firing gatherers? What did this mean?
It meant that although there had been firing enough last night, and food and everything else, this morning there was nothing at all. The case was too grave to be dealt with except by the hierarch, to whose tent Tata hastened.
He found Yen Ranho risen, and evidence on all sides to confirm his tale. Everything that could be taken had been taken. Ghuggg's prize, the chain of chalchiuhites, had been worn by score — scores of the hierarch's predecessors; and Yen Ranho was furious over the loss, although he showed no sign of it. He heard Tata's tale in silence and made sure that he had it all; then he quietly issued orders. Who the thieves were called for no speculation. It was to be given out that they were within a day of their journey's end and that the men would not go hungry for long. The tents were to be packed and all made ready to go forward, and let the commander's manner be as though nothing unusual had happened.
But, left to himself, he pondered over it. The Huitznahuatecs must have powerful magicians among them, thus to have triumphed over him. Yet the news he had sent on could not have reached them; Mahetsi must have failed, or they should have been killed last night, and not merely robbed. He was puzzled and could not read the thing to his satisfaction.
He was little used to walking, and his men were hungry and dispirited. They did not emerge from the canyon till noon, and it was evening before they had crossed the plain. Where the desert ended and the cultivated land began, some half a dozen men stood waiting for them in front of a row of litters, well loaded, that blocked the way. The leader of these came forward as the hierarch, walking with Tata at the head of the Otomis, approached.
"You are the chief priest of Teotihuacan?" His manner was reserved but touched with a grave compassion.
Tata made answer that the Divine Hierarch came as the ambassador of the Otomi Republic to —
Tzontecoma, lord of the Northern District of Huitznahuac, cut him short. "We understand," said he. "The king and queen have sent you provisions, hearing that you are without them. Also these litters, that you may return to your homes the more easily. They request that you will turn here and not go forward into Huitznahuac." Having said that, he turned and, with his following, left them.
"We camp here," said the hierarch, completely master of himself.
He spent the evening alone. Turn it in his mind as he might, he could make nothing of it. If they had known of the massacre, they would have killed him when they raided the camp last night. So they could not know. And why stock him with provisions after robbing him? Well, they were treating him with extraordinary discourtesy; the League could not but be incensed. But he had worked for something better than this.
In the morning he set out for Huitznahuacan, with only the bearers of his litter. He met none by the way and arrived at a silent city. He knew the way to take, perhaps from Yacanetzin's description of the town. Before the shut door of the House of the Kings stood Mahetsi.
"I have failed, my lord. There will be no murder of the ambassador." The bearers waited below in the arena.
"You did your duty?"
"And was not believed. But the savages came and confirmed my news. It was they who raided the camp."
"Ah! Come then. At least they have insulted the League."
The Royal Council at Huitznahuacan heard Mahetsi's story with courtesy, but also with distrust. There was something about the man intrinsically that all of them distrusted, Nopal foremost. Although meanwhile the Ib Quinames arrived with Quauhtli's letter, most woefully confirming Mahetsi's tale, they scented a plot in his telling of it, and when the time came, they made it easy for him to rejoin his master.
The Ib Quinames were herded into the Upper Market. Most of the men of the town, grimly silent, were put to guarding them while the letter was being discussed in the House of the Kings. Nopal, Chimalman, Acamapichtli, and Acatonal were of one mind, claiming that "we must be cut off utterly from these peoples of the north. This Otomi priesthood is contaminated, and we can not deal with the Toltecs without suffering it."
Nopal understood that the League meant war; he alone of the Huitznahuatecs had some slight idea as to what war was and of the nature of armies. And he alone knew the Canyon at the End of Things. Tradition had always been strong that the canyon was the only door to Huitznahuac from the north. He placed his knowledge before the council, and Acamapitzin seized upon it and conceived the beginnings of a plan.
"We must explore the mountainside," he said. "It is there that we shall find what we need."
So Nopal and he and the queen would go with them. They would set out at once from the north, taking with them the litters and stores that Yen Ranho later had from Tzontecoma. Having given the latter the news and his instructions, they went on, skirting the plain to the west and so avoiding the Otomis, and up onto the mountain. At nightfall they camped high up; and in the morning they found what they wanted: boulder-strewn declivities sloping on either side down toward the cliff tops of the canyon — eight thousand upon eight thousands of boulders, an inexhaustible supply. The biggest of them stood right on the brink. Elsewhere placed, no human power could shift it, but being where it was, it might serve.
"Give me the Ib Quinames," said Acamapitzin, "and we will get to work here."
It would be convenient, anyway, to have the Quinames segregated and busy, well away from the city. When the rest of the tribe arrived, they could be hauled up over the barrier and, all together, packed off into the forests of the far south. Meanwhile, things could be set in order throughout Huitznahuac and the country reorganized to meet critical times, the women to raise the crops, the men to be drafted here, more each week, to work upon this civilization-saving barrier of which, said the king and queen, Acamapitzin should be in charge.
The first big boulder fell soon after the Otomis passed northward. From either side, the dozen bearers who were left with Acamapitzin poked the cliffs edge from beneath it with poles and shoved it from behind. It blocked the passage from side to side when it fell, scarring the cliffs, and stood two good man-heights high.
Soon the Quinames arrived with an escort of twice their number. They were in a kind of daze, their whole reliance placed upon these magnificent visible gods, the Huitznahuatecs, who could and did protect them from the gods unseen. They set to work feverishly, obeying the orders given them in the sign-language; they adored God Acamapitzin, and were but half aware of their surroundings.
And all the time, more and more Huitznahuatecs arrived. They made timber runways down the slopes and slid the boulders to the edge and over. Behind the first great rock, others and others had fallen, graded according to size, with the largest in front, so that the barrier should slope down toward Huitznahuac. Tons of earth were loosened and pushed over. Then men working below raked the soil into a level earth-bed to cover the last rock layer. Discovery was made of what depth of earth, and how loosely settled, would make a bed for what size of boulder dropped, so as to keep it from jumping, and in time, the need for the raking ceased. The gods who loved Huitznahuac had provided for her needs, and the barrier rose and rose.
When the Culhuatec ambassador arrived, a twenty-day month after the Otomis' departure, he found the rise several man-heights high and the work going on lustily. He was Cohuanacotzin, who had rescued Nopal from the priests of Teotihuacan; he was the Topiltzin's closest friend, a great general, and a master of military engineering.
This barrier was something to admire, thought he. If there were no way around, they should be put to it. But Yacanetzin of Tollan, whom he had met on the Road, had been wrong about these peoples' ignorance of war. This work of theirs would puzzle, and might confound, the Topiltzin himself.
All of his trumpets could attract no attention from above; thud, thud, crash, the great rocks kept falling. It was no courteous way to receive an ambassador; Yacanetzin had been wrong there, and the hierarch right. For the latter, whom he had also met, had been bitter about the way the Huitznahuatecs had insulted him. It was a pity. . . .
Cohuanacotzin unloaded the gifts he had brought and left them not too near the foot of the barrier. Then he departed, wondering how the problem would be solved. Not even the Topiltzin's armies could pass while those rocks were falling.