David Bolton

Chapter 1

Southwest from the village of Kuma, a good dozen-day trek, the limestone plain ended, and the jaguar wetlands began. West of this rolling terrain stood a vast rainforest. Within this jungle, unknown to most plain dwellers, there was a village peopled by those who had once been ppentacs, slaves of the Feathered Kingdom. They called their village Ppentaca.

Not far from Ppentaca, on a crest overlooking a white-capped river, a young warrior was scanning heavy grey clouds rolling over the green canopy. A rare moment of silence had fallen over the jungle behind him. The birds, beasts and insects knew what was to come. So did Ixmal. Might this be the final time he would sit upon this white boulder? Fat drops splattered his face, raised toward the heavens. Aware of each drop, he did not stir from his roost till Chac had departed.

Down the slick slope his sandals traced a faint animal trail. The rivulets were music to his ears and coolness washed over him. The warrior descended swiftly, little more than a shadow. Despite a quiver of arrows, he stalked no creature, though his eyes and ears detected quarries among the leafy camouflage. Death came too easily, a mere flick of the bow. There would be plenty of opportunities for killing in the lowlands. Until then, he preferred to eat nuts and fruit.

Ixmal burst into song, one of the many his mother had taught him. Parrots paused in their squawks and parakeets landed on vines, seemingly to hear the lyrics that celebrated Chac’s domain, the flowers and rain, the jaguars prowling and monkeys howling. He passed pepper birds eating the pods of pepper plants. Overhead a small blue bird mimicked the shriek of an ocelot. A smile played on his full lips: The previous night an ocelot had visited him in his dreams.

He reached his destination, an altar dedicated to the god of rain. In its center reclined Chac. Upon his head rested a rattlesnake crown. His face was angled toward the viewer, as if imploring mortals to make the proper sacrifice. His hands cradled a cup on his belly.

Purple feathers flashing between branches caught Ixmal’s eye. Seasons past he had chased similar plumage through the forest. The quetzal led him to this edifice, then choked in vines and sinking into the damp soil. “Free me,” the stones seemed to say. He saw himself as a boy, pulling the vines and growth away from the stones. Until he brought the shrine back to its rightful state, the boy would tell no one of his find. He had been meant to find these stones and share Chac with his people.

How differently did events run. The village prayermaker Hunapu used these sacred stones, this place of power, not as a tribute to the rain god, but as a divine motive for war. Yes, Chac did face East, toward the distant plains of the Feathered Kingdom. Thus did the prayermaker proclaim Chac’s altar a testament to rebellion, a covenant to revive the Land of the Snake, the fallen kingdom to the north, birthplace for many Ppentacans.

So the river flowed. Ixmal pulled his obsidian knife from the leather casing and poked at his palm. He held it over the cup and coaxed from the cut a drop of blood. It slid down the side of the cup. Ixmal stared into Chac’s slit eyes and longed for a response, some sort of guidance, but the god was mute. Ixmal could wield an ax as well as any warrior, but he had a terrible foreboding that this coming aggression was doomed. The Feathered Kingdom was too powerful and the Ppentacan men too few, half a thousand at best.

“Thought I’d find you here. Praying for victory?”

“Chac’s blessing,” Ixmal replied, turning to face his father. On his left forearm Totec wore the sign of slave, a faded tattoo of a rattlesnake wrapped in thorns. Ixmal’s eyes trailed down to the cacique’s hand, missing the middle finger. Then he looked at his father’s weathered face, the jagged scar above a drooping eyelid. So many raids, so many wounds. There were worse fates than dying in a righteous struggle. Ixmal strove live up to the memory of Big Brother, felled by an arrow during a raid seasons past. His ghost cast a long shadow.

“Pray for victory, Ixmal. You’re far closer to the gods than I.”

“Be like asking Azal Voh to change the tides.”

Totec looked up at Ixmal. The beginnings of a blond beard sprouted from his chin. Sunlight danced off blue eyes. “You and your mother… full of riddles. I came to tell you that prayermaker Hunapu has called for a sacrifice.”

“We should purify our yollotls. A few drops in Chac’s bowl will clear the spirit.”

“Hunapu has called for the ultimate sacrifice.”

“The ultimate sacrifice?”

“We must offer our best, a manchild. Chenhau has presented his son for eternal glory. Baby Kan will have a place with the gods this very day.”

Ixmal’s throat constricted. “No… forbid it!”

“You forbid it??…” Totec slammed his son against the shrine. “How dare you talk to your cacique this way.”

“If you allow this slaughter, the cause is doomed.”

Totec released Ixmal’s shoulders. “Is it now?” he said with a knowing grin. “When did you become a  prophet? Leave that to the star gazers. Come first light, I expect you to stand with your brother warriors.”

“If innocence is served.”

“Have I raised a coward?”

“I swore an oath to fight at your side, to die if that be my destiny. Couldn’t think of a better death. But this sacrifice of a babe, Paha…”

A vein throbbed in the center of Totec’s brow. A fist formed, finger by finger. Ixmal stiffened, ready to accept the blow. Disappointment flooded the scarred face; that hurt more than any fist. Since the loss of Big Brother, Ixmal had tried to be the perfect son, the perfect warrior, a worthy successor.

Paha uncurled his fist. “Look around, boy. In the trees, on the ground, in the sky and water, death stalks life. A spider snares a fly in its web. A snake poisons a rabbit. A hawk tears apart a mouse with its talons. Brother Death has blessed all beings with a need to kill. Each has its own way. See that liana, Ixmal, see how it wraps itself around that flowering tree, squeezing life from it. An injustice, you say?” Totec rubbed his good hand over the scant hair on his mottled head. “I ask you… no, I beg you to see the world for what it is. Hunger moves the liana. It does what vines do. Chac must have this sacrifice; not only is he the god of rain, he’s also the god of war. I understand your revulsion, so flee this place, wander the jungle as your wont. Lose yourself in the mysteries… but sunrise, I expect you to march with us. You’re my second in command. I need you.”

“Only if you stop this sacrifice.”

“I can’t go against the prayermaker. It would tear this village apart. I trust what he perceives. Without brother Hunapu, there would be no Ppentaca. I would still be a slave. As would your mother. The prayermaker’s vision made all this possible.”

“If the gods demand the blood of innocents, what’s their purpose?”

Ixmal stood his ground as his father crowded him. “I will not stand here and argue the purpose of the stars. Be at my side when we march tomorrow, or be no longer my son!”