SIX

The magnificently garbed Teotec warriors were preparing for the journey to the interior. On one of the hills facing the beach and ocean they had assembled their captives and Casca. By signs they made it known that if the captives made no trouble they would be well treated. Using their fingers they indicated that it would take ten to twelve days to reach the city that was their destination. Casca was impressed. The warriors were handsome in their elaborate feathered robes and weird headdresses of jaguars and other strange beasts and birds. Professionally, he evaluated them as a military force. There seemed to be at least one dominant group in the unit escorting them. These men wore the emblem and likeness of a leopardlike animal, but one with which he was unfamiliar. Some of the men seemed to be of higher rank than the others. He presumed these to be officers. They wore the elaborate costumes of feathers and skins. The common soldiers, however, wore plaited suits of some kind of fiber. Their shields were mostly of wicker-work, though some shields were of animal hides stretched over a wooden hoop. None carried weapons of metal. He would have thought they had no knowledge of metalworking at all had not a few worn ornaments of gold. The most common weapons were spears and clubs edged with stone. Nowhere was a bow or anything like it to be seen.

He concluded that a well-trained Roman legion would have made short shrift of the lot but at the moment he did not have access to a Roman legion. The trip began, the captives led by the ropes of woven leather.

Day after day the party made its way deeper into the interior. They passed many villages, and Casca looked curiously at the inhabitants of this strange land. As a rule they were a handsome and ruddy-colored people, with square features and jaws, but with eyes like pieces of obsidian peeking out from beneath black hair cut shoulder length and with bangs.

During the days of their trek, Casca was introduced to many new foods. One was a yellow grain made into large fat cakes, something like those he had known in the East. There was a particularly tasty tuber plant. But the prize of the lot was a hot spice that burned the inside of the mouth like acid. Something the natives called “chile” as near as he could make out the word. This the natives used every time they cooked. Surprisingly enough, though, after a couple of days of eating the “chiles” regularly, he began to develop a taste for them.

On the trail the party was joined for short periods by others carrying market items as Casca decided they do all over the world. There were pelts from the great spotted cat, snakeskins over ten feet long, and birds thousands of brilliantly colored birds. The whole countryside seemed to have a madness for bird feathers.

The trail led up and up. Casca knew they were climbing and he was puzzled by it. Was this strange land that big that the interior should be so high? They left the tropical regions behind and entered a desert landscape where the vegetation was sparse, but cacti of many kinds flourished. Several times he saw the strange snakes with beads on their tails that they would shake at one if excited. Although Casca already knew it, his captors indicated by signs that the bite of the reptiles was poisonous.

He became aware of a certain ceremony, endlessly repeated.

As the war party and its captives approached a village, a deputation consisting of the village leaders would come out and make obeisance to the leader of the Teotecs and offerings of food and drink would be tendered. Before the party continued on its way many of the inhabitants of the village would come to where the prisoners were, bringing their children. They would smile and bob their heads in what was obvious approval. Several of the bolder souls would come close enough to touch a prisoner on the head and then touch their own, grinning all the while, obviously pleased. Casca surprised them the most, held them the most in awe. His paler skin and sun-streaked hair seemed to fascinate them.

There was some kind of meaning to the repeated ceremony, but he could not figure out what it was. The trails they traveled on were well used. Traffic on them was regular, if not heavy. What surprised him was to find that each night, when they stopped on the trail, it would be at already-prepared facilities permanent facilities. Used as he was to the Roman civilization, he was surprised to find in this strange land an equally elaborate organization if not the same, at least along the same lines.

As the party crested a hill on the twelfth day, Casca caught his first look at their destination. Shock and wonder engulfed him. There in the vast bowl of the plateau below them was a city such as might compare in grandeur and size with many Roman and Greek cities he had seen. Yet it was strange also. It resembled what he imagined had been the cities whose ruins he had seen in Mesopotamia. There were straight streets and broad avenues, temples and pyramids. From this distance the pyramids looked like those fellow soldiers in the legion who had served in Egypt had described to him. The walls of the city flashed with color even at this distance. It had the feel of being filled with low, square buildings; it had the look of being clean and of being laid out geometrically. Thousands of the inhabitants were visible. At this distance they looked like ants as they went about their business.

The leader of the Teotec pointed proudly to the scene below.

“Teotah!” he exclaimed, then pointed to the sky and repeated, “Teotah.”

Teotah… Teotec… City of the gods. Good enough. At least I should be able to find out what’s going to happen here, Casca thought. The plain below was shimmering with the heat of midday. Cacti, those long-leafed spiny plants that reached heights of over six feet, were abundant. There were also fields planted with crops of which Casca knew nothing but the fields were obviously well cared for and well tended.

The Jaguar leader sent one of his men ahead as a runner, apparently to announce their arrival. The full party continued at a more leisurely pace. Crowds had already gathered to look at the captives as they entered the city from the south along a broad thoroughfare. Casca was able to get a good look at those looking at him. For the most part, the men he saw wore only a loincloth of white or brown, the women a two-piece dress consisting of a skirt and jacket. Many of these were decorated with geometric patterns. They caught Casca’s eye because they resembled the designs he had seen in Greece. But other of the designs were a random blending of colors, no order at all, just colors mixed for the pleasure of it. It was obvious which were the married women; they wore their hair in a bun. The young girls wore their hair loose or in braids wrapped around their heads like crowns. As on the trail to this city, many of the natives would come out and touch the prisoners, making hand signs and smiling. Casca couldn’t figure what the hell this was all about; it was a repetition of the ritual that had puzzled him on the journey.

Before the party entered the city proper they passed through the outskirts where merchants hawked their wares and vendors sold the crops of the region. Casca noted that workers and farmers were careful to keep their distance from those of the upper classes at least he thought they were the upper classes since their dress was more elaborate and their manner more authoritative. There were some, whom he took to be the nobles of the city for they were carried in sedan chairs not very different from those of Rome.

As they entered the city proper, Casca could see that the walls were painted in a bright, rich coloring the like of which he had never seen elsewhere in his travels, painted with bold murals, but he was hustled along before he could get a really close look at them. The people lined the avenues leading to what was a great square. They were orderly, mannerly. There was none of the hate and vile behavior that he had witnessed in the Roman mob indulging itself when captives were paraded through the streets. These people were quite well mannered, almost docile, and their deference to the Jaguar men was obvious.

But there was something strange about the whole procedure.

Something that did not quite fit.

It was not too long before he found out what it was…

The Jaguar men stood before the great pyramid.

The priests came forth to look at the captives and determine which would have the honor of being the first to carry their prayers and messages to the gods. The native captives obviously knew their fate and were reconciled to it. The eldest priest, in a great feathered rendition of a monstrous serpent in emerald and cobalt blue feathers, selected one of the brown-skinned captives with a quick motion of his wrist. The man began to sob. Casca guessed that something unpleasant was about to happen. Perhaps they had the same thing here as in the Roman arenas where he had fought. The elderly priest spoke quietly and gently to the man and motioned to the top of the pyramid and to the skies. The man gained control of himself and was led away by two guards. The guards’ treatment was firm but full of respect.

A chill ran up Casca’s spine, a feeling of premonition…

The priests went one by one until they had faced and spoken with each prisoner. The prisoners were then taken and lodged in separate huts.

Then it was Casca’s turn.

The old priest, with his escort of lesser holy men, slowly faced this stranger from the sea. Smiling a toothless grin, the old man said in gentle tones, “Xiteohua tiotec, Chmpe xaoca huacn?” Then he pointed to himself and said, “Tezmec.” He thumped his meager chest and repeated, “Tezmec.” Placing his ancient hand over Casca’s heart, he thumped the chest and said, “Chicxa?”

Casca didn’t know what the hell the words themselves meant, but he got the general idea. He nodded as if he understood and said, “I am called Casca.”

The old man backed away from him. There was puzzlement in the ancient eyes. “Chicxa?” he asked, tentatively.

“Casca. I am Casca.”

Disbelief was in the old priest’s eyes. He turned quickly to the Jaguar man who had been in charge of the capturing force and fired a stream of rapid questions at him in a staccato voice. One word was repeated so much that Casca could identify it. It sounded like “quetza.” Shit. That must be my name he’s trying to say. Must be the way they say Casca.

But that was the only word he could make out. While the priest and the leader were talking, Casca took a better look at the pyramid. It was a big thing. A series of stairs led to the top. Whatever was up there was not visible from here, but carved all along the steps was a continuous line of serpent heads, flanking the staircase all the way to the top. Casca looked back at the priest.

The Jaguar leader was now on his knees, drawing a picture in the dust. Obviously he was trying to get across to the high priest how the strangers had come to this land and how they were captured, and either drawing a picture in the dust did the job better than words or maybe there were no words to explain easily in this language what he had seen. He drew what even Casca could tell was a rough sketch of the Viking longships. Then the leader drew a larger sketch of the figureheads on the long-ships. Then the leader drew a larger sketch of the figureheads on the longships, the dragon heads. At this the old priest became extremely agitated. Looking back and forth between Casca and the sketches, he pressed his questioning of the leader. And again and again the word quetza was repeated.

The thing that seemed to excite the old priest the most was the dragon head of the longship. He kept pointing at its rude drawing in the dust.

I don’t know what the hell he’s getting so worked up about over a piece of carving, Casca thought. They certainly have plenty of carvings here. Again he took in the imposing pyramid. In addition to the painted stuccoed facings, much of the structure was heavily decorated with carvings… heads of the great serpent… and the likeness of another ugly bastard that Casca knew nothing about. Further, the body of a great serpent was intertwined in high relief between carvings of sea shells and snails. Casca raised his eyes higher. He saw that there were six levels to the pyramid, each decreasing in size toward the top. At the very top there was what appeared to be a temple constructed of dark wood. He couldn’t see it very well from where he stood, just the upper portion of what appeared to be a temple. If there was anything else up there it was beyond his vision.

Finally the old priest seemed satisfied with the Jaguar leader’s story and came back to Casca. He looked him up and down, chattering in approval at what he saw. The scarred, muscular body of the prisoner seemed to please him particularly. He nodded in approval and patted Casca on the shoulder. Then he took a shining dagger of black obsidian from his belt and cut Casca’s bonds.

What the hell? Casca thought. But the sudden pain in his wrists caused by the blood flowing in and setting the flesh cramping and on fire took his mind off the odd behavior of these religious bastards. The old priest gave rapid orders to the Jaguar men. Two escorted Casca across the great square and into a building set slightly apart from the others. Guards stood at the doors. Their flint-tipped spears and feathered shields were different from those of the Jaguar men and bore a snake emblem.

Casca noticed a slight reluctance when the Jaguar men turned him over to the Serpent warriors guarding the doors.

Oho… a little rivalry between the snakes and the cats. Perhaps to my advantage… As he entered the interior of the building he momentarily lost his vision, coming as he did from the bright glare. As his eyes adjusted to the dark he saw that his new guards were making him welcome with smiles and bobbing heads. They were pointing out the different features of his quarters. There were two rooms and a small latrine. The walls inside were covered with pictographs representing heroes and legends he could not yet decipher but they did serve to brighten up the room. Over in the corner near the window was a raised benchlike affair on which were several reed mats and a couple of woven blankets. Bed, he thought, that’s what I need. His captors showed him how to cover the windows and made signs to show that food would soon be brought to him.

The guards left him to his own devices and returned to their positions outside the door. There was no other exit. Lying on the pallet, Casca tried to take in all that had happened since his capture. There were questions in his mind, too many to be answered. What of his men and his ships? Were they all right? Would they stay where they were or come looking for him? He considered the latter to be unlikely. They were sea rovers, not jungle fighters. No, they would stay close to their ships and wait for him. But for how long?

The evening was drawing to a close, and long shadows were being cast across the great square. People were beginning to gather around the base of the largest pyramid not the one with all the snake heads on it, but the other. Group by group the people came until the plaza was filled. The drab white and sand-colored garb of the commoners was broken here and there by the rich spectacle of the feather-clad warriors and nobility; from this distance they resembled giant butterflies on a field of gray. There was a muted murmuring that swelled and then died as if on command. Then came drums and a distant chanting. The people kneeled all except a line of warriors who appeared out of the mass as if by magic and flanked the broad thoroughfares and sides of the square. Their lance points glittered like gems; their plumed headdresses sparkled with brilliance.

Casca had been around long enough to spot soldiers, and that’s what these were. They were proud ones, too. The Jaguar men and Serpent soldiers were most in evidence and held the positions nearest the pyramid. They faced each other on opposite sides of the square, and a separate line of each ran from the thoroughfare to the steps of the pyramid and up the long flight of steps leading to the temple on top.

Many of the warriors had their faces painted in patterns. The designs apparently had some significance, but it eluded Casca. Most of them used only yellow and red to separate their faces at the nose, the upper half being red and the bottom being yellow, with black outlining around the eyes giving them a weird and terrible look as if they were strange beings from the netherworld or from a nightmare.

The drums began to beat, slowly at first, then building in intensity. From the north Casca could see a procession approaching. Here were the priests. The priests had a look about them that he could spot as easily as he had the look of the warriors. First there were the lesser priests in front, chanting and waving branches. Their faces were painted black. Apparently only the priests used black as a dominant color. The more important priests following, though, seemed to have more liberty in their body painting for they used yellow and red on their faces along with the black.

As the focus of the procession two Jaguar guards held a man by the arms as if helping him along. He was garbed in the most beautiful of feather robes, the colors so brilliant they looked as if the feathers from ten thousand hummingbirds had been taken and woven in a magical manner. On his head he wore a feathered crest set over a helmet that appeared to be the likeness of a serpent. As the procession grew closer, Casca could see that the man was the first of the native prisoners that the old priest had pointed out. The prisoner’s eyes were glazed. Casca had seen that same look many times on the faces of religious fanatics, and also on the faces of men who had accepted death and knew it was coming.

Sacrifice… they are going to sacrifice… The truth hit Casca like old Thor’s hammer. That’s the reason they have been so careful to get us here alive and in good health. They are going to sacrifice all of us to their gods…

Step by step the procession advanced. The solemnity of the ceremony was impressive in spite of the grisly reason. The priests and the ones leading the man to be sacrificed walked in stately dignity. The crowd knelt, bowing their heads to the ground from their kneeling position. Only the brilliantly garbed soldiers remained erect. The scene was strange, bizarre, but the orderliness of the procession and the controlled behavior of the crowd was in sharp contrast to the religious rituals Casca had witnessed in Europe and Asia Minor.

The procession reached the first steps of the pyramid just as the shadows of the ending day began to grow longer. They started up the pyramid. At each level some of the escorting party would drop off and begin a different chanting. The remainder of the procession would advance to the next level, and again some would drop off and remain there chanting. This continued, level by level, until only the old priest, two guards, two lesser priests, and the victim were left to reach the top of the pyramid. At the moment when they attained the apex the setting sun was directly behind them, and its golden rays cast a radiant halo over the proceedings.

Incense burners were sending wisps of aromatic smoke to the skies as the old priest turned and faced the waiting masses below. His voice could be clearly heard. He talked to his people. There was no shrillness in his words, no feeling of the religious fanatic. Even without understanding those words, Casca knew the man was absolutely sincere in whatever be was saying, and the crowd apparently felt the same way. Oddly, considering the circumstances, at many points the old man’s voice became very gentle… as if he were talking to children and reminding them of their duties.

Caught in the hypnotic power of the ritual, Casca gazed transfixed at the scene upon the top of the pyramid. Despite the distance between him and the pyramid top he could make out all but the smaller details, could see clearly what was going on.

Finishing his oration, the old priest made mystic signs to the four points of the heavens. The two lesser priests removed the robe and headdress from the sacrificial messenger. Then gently, almost with affection, they drew him back over the altar stone, his chest bare to the heavens. The old priest held up a knife of clear, gold-colored flint. He faced the victim; the messenger, and began to talk to him. Even without knowing the words, Casca had a flash of insight as to what the old priest had in mind. He’s giving the man the prayers of the people to take to their gods. That’s the meaning of this.

The priest stopped. He touched the man on the forehead with his open palm for a moment. Then swiftly the golden blade flashed in the dying sun. In his imagination, Casca knew what came next: redness… a pause… then a jerking of the blade and the old man held something in his hand, something red and quivering. It’s his heart. He’s cut out the man’s heart! Casca grimaced. A shiver ran over him and he could see in his mind’s eye the messenger’s body trembling, twitching, and then lying still. The priest took the still-beating heart and cast it into the incense fire where it crackled and sizzled. Casca imagined that even at this distance he could catch a whiff of the cooking meat. The crowd stood and cheered… happy… rejoicing… as if it were a holiday. The victim’s body was carried back down the steps and put on an altar at the base of the pyramid. People from the crowd began to file by this altar, dipping pieces of cloth into the open chest from which the heart had been cut. Even children timidly touched the dead man’s extremities and then ran to their parents who would nod in approval at their children’s act of devotion and faith. Damn! Casca thought…

Food was brought to Casca. The bearer was a girl. She carried a platter of those leathery flat pancakes of yellow meal together with spiced meat.

When she entered Casca’s room she had bowed her head in obeisance, not looking up, careful to keep her eyes away from this stranger with the eyes of colored stones and the hair unlike that of any of her people or of any people she had ever heard of… one with light hair that held streaks of gold in it. She moved quietly, with small steps, and laid his food upon his sleeping bench and then knelt, as though waiting for either orders or permission to leave.

Watching the girl closely, Casca tried to make sense of what was going on and what the girl’s functions were. Taking her by the chin, he raised her head in order to get a good look at her.

Pretty. Damned pretty. Her hair was long and gathered in the back to hang almost to the small of her back. Her eyes were wide and slightly oval in shape. Her mouth was full. The rich copper tone of her skin reminded him of some of the dancers he had seen from the lands past the Indus.

“Your name, girl. What’s your name?” Holding her firmly by the chin so she could not look away, he forced her eyes to meet his.

“Name,” he repeated, thumping himself on the chest. “I am Casca.” He touched her gently between the breasts. “You. Your name?” Again he thumped himself in the chest and repeated, “Casca.” What was it the old man said… Chicxa? That’s it. Chicxa. Aloud he said, “Chicxa?”

The gentleness with which he spoke seemed to reassure her. Timidly she touched his chest, but jerked her hand back rapidly as if burned. “Quetza?”

“No,” Casca said, smiling, “Casca. Casca. I am Casca.”

Shyly she nodded. “Casca.” Then she touched her own breast. “Metah. Ih mech Metah.”

“Good, we’ve started to talk.” Taking her hand, Casca led her to the window from which he had watched the sacrifice. He pointed to the pyramid, then up to the altar, and pantomimed the sacrifice, the killing of the native by the old priest. Then he pointed at his own scarred chest and indicated a knife cut. “Me too,” he said.

Metah faced the pyramid, then Casca. She nodded her head up and down and looked into his eyes.

“When, woman? How long until they do me? Tonight? Tomorrow? When?”

She did not understand. Casca pointed to the sinking sun, then made a circle around his head and said, “One day?” He circled his head twice. “Two days?” He pointed back to the sun, then circled his head repeatedly, rapidly. “How many days?”

Metah shook her head and took her own hand and circled above her head many times. Then with an eloquent shrug of her shoulders she made it clear that he was not to be sacrificed soon, but she didn’t know how long he had.

The sun sank behind the wooded rim of the valley, and night closed in on them. The coming darkness brought a chill into the room, for these were the highlands and the nights were cold.

The girl stayed. She sat beside his sleeping bench and watched Casca’s every move, her eyes luminous. Amused, Casca said, “Good enough. If that’s where you want to stay, okay, but I’m going to sleep.” Taking one of the blankets, he lay down facing the door, wondering what the next days would bring. He had forgotten the girl until he caught her slight movement out of the corner of his eye and realized she was shivering in the chill air.

“Oh, crap!” He raised the blanket with his arm and motioned for her to climb in bed with him. “No sense you freezing out there, little girl. I won’t hurt you. I’m too damned tired to do anything other than crap out, so get your ass in here and get warm.”

Metah pulled herself under the blanket, putting her back to this strange man. Her heart beat wildly. What would he do to her? She lay awake for many long hours needlessly, but finally the sound of Casca’s snoring and the warmth of his body lulled her to sleep. Like a child she snuggled close to the source of the warmth. Had she been awake, she might have been awed by such intimacy, for the old priest Tezmec had said that this pale stranger was a gift from the gods, that he bore the name of the god Quetza, that he was Casca the Serpent…

For the next few days Metah was the only visitor that Casca had. During this time he made maximum use of her company to learn as much of the Teotec language as possible. By the end of the week he had picked up enough of the tongue to make himself understood for many basic matters. Using the pictograph paintings on the walls of the room, Metah had tried to explain to him the Teotec culture and religion. For obvious reasons the religion was of interest to him, and, when he was permitted to walk around the great square, accompanied by guards and Metah, he discovered something that made that interest in religion even greater.

When they came to the temple with the snake heads she said, pointing to them, “Quetza. Casca.”

The old priest dropped by from time to time to see how Casca was getting on. He would sit in the sun on a reed mat in front of the doorway, looking like a kindly grandfather, His wizened face smiled, and he nodded his approval when Casca tried to speak the Teotec tongue. In his mind he thought: I was right in sending the woman to the stranger. She will teach him more in the time remaining than anyone else could have. It is good that it is so, for we must talk long with the stranger. There are questions that must be answered before he is sent back to the gods…

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